Meeting Chuck

chuckIt’s weird meeting your heroes.

No matter what the situation or how well it goes, it’s almost a lock to be a disappointment on some level. We take these public figures with whom we have no personal relationship – and we really don’t even know that much about – and we build them up in our minds until they become heroic. We lionize them, slowly and over time, amplifying their greatest perceived characteristics and ignoring (or being shielded from) their negative ones, until our minds hold a borderline fictional character with expectations that in no way can be met by any mere human being. We create someone to love and then we love them, knowing on a basic level they don’t love us back (despite what their publicist might occasionally say). They can’t; they don’t even know who we are.

(In this scenario, I’m of course only referring to heroes who happen to be both strangers and celebrities. If you’re one of those people that lists your dad as your hero, the meeting probably went pretty smoothly, and chances are you don’t even remember it that well.)

This is why, if and when we actually get a chance to come in contact with said hero, it’s inevitably a letdown. When we meet one of these people, they suddenly become real. Gone is the face on TV or voice on the stereo or persona in our mind, and in it’s place stands a normal person. A person, most of us come to realize, that’s just like us, complete with flaws and quirks and probably some antisocial tendencies. That person just happens to be really good at playing guitar or acting or Greco-Roman wrestling. And chances are, they aren’t as engaging or funny or cool as we made them out to be in our minds. The mystique is gone (or is at least drastically reduced); the hero is reduced to a mere mortal.

I got a chance a few weeks ago to “meet” one of the few “celebrity” heroes I have. (I put “meet” in quotes because it really stretches the definition of the word; it was 60 seconds of actual interpersonal interaction, tops. And I put “celebrity” in quotes because the man is an author, so he’s only as big a celebrity as an author that doesn’t write about vampires or bondage or legal proceedings can be.) Mindlessly perusing Twitter on a slow Monday, I saw that Chuck Klosterman was scheduled to do a book signing at the Boulder Book Store that very night. I was instantly intrigued. Chuck (author of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, among other books) is one of my favorite authors of all time – perhaps even my favorite – and his work was as instrumental as anything else in my decision to make writing a serious endeavor. He’s the man. So when I saw the tweet suggesting he’d be in my fair city that evening, inviting rubes like me to come and hang out with him, it also dawned on me that his most recent book was due to arrive in the mail that very day as well. It seemed meant to be.

I briefly pondered not going, mainly because I had no one to go with. But I wasn’t sure if showing up to a book signing by oneself was weird or not, so eventually I just stopped thinking about it. I would go, I decided, because if I stayed home I’d probably regret it sometime in the future.

I mentioned it to a few people during the day, including my girlfriend (who was in Chicago for work). She was fairly adamant I should bring a copy of my book. That’s all she said. “Are you going to bring a copy of your book?” She strongly suggested it, presumably so I could either give him a copy or interrupt his Q&A with a guerilla reading of my own work. While I considered this, I had no real intention of bringing my book. The potential upside was limited, and three things would almost certainly happen:

1. He would not read it.

2. The interaction would be awkward and disjointed.

3. I would be “that guy.”

So I didn’t. I did however bring Chuck’s new book, I Wear the Black Hat, which had indeed arrived in the mail. I drove down to the bookstore and walked up the stairs to a medium-sized, crowded room. At least a hundred people were packed in there, so I found a spot leaning on a bookshelf where I could see the table they had set up. Standing room only. People socialized and waited for the event to start.

Now here’s the thing: because of what I wrote in the first few paragraphs of this blog, I was completely expecting to be disappointed. I knew he couldn’t live up to the expectations I’d set, which I suppose actually lowered my expectations in a way. I was setting myself up for a letdown, and I was okay with it.

After 10 minutes of waiting, the moderator led Chuck through the crowd and up to the stage, the path passing right behind me. I didn’t notice until they were almost past, but I turned in time to get an up-close look at him; sure enough, normal dude. Average height with a slightly plodding gait, wearing a ringer tee and a large red beard. He sat down up front and was introduced.

Over the next 45 minutes or so, something weird happened. I was not disappointed at all. Perhaps it was because I’d lowered my expectations beforehand, but even then it seemed unlikely – they were pretty damn high to begin with. Almost everything that came out of Chuck Klosterman’s mouth – and the way it came out, too – completely met my expectations. This, to me, was far more surprising than if it’d fallen below my expectations OR if it had exceeded them. Everything about him was pretty much the way I’d assumed it would be. I essentially knew who this guy was (or how he seemed to be in a room full of a hundred people, anyway) before I ever even saw him in person. I was baffled.

The point I’m trying to make isn’t that Chuck Klosterman is the coolest guy in the world (though get a few beers in me and I’ll probably start forming an argument). I think it has more to do with how the media shape our opinions of people. Chuck doesn’t do a lot of TV – I’ve only seen him in a few interviews on YouTube – and most of how he’s exposed to the public is through his writing; for magazines, websites, and books. In this way, he gets to shape his own message far more than an actor, musician, or pro athlete does. What we’re getting is essentially what he said, in the context he said it. He’s speaking directly to us. For those other three categories of celebrity, they primarily communicate with us through their specific medium – or in the case of pro athletes, through many, many interviews with reporters. Along the way, those messages can get interpreted in many different ways, until we expect the person to be what they portray on the stage or screen or football field. And usually, they’re not.

I don’t think this dawned on me while I was at that bookstore. I was pretty focused on the presentation. It really was the bomb; Chuck was thoughtful, funny, a little erratic, and self-deprecating, just like he is in his books. He did a short reading from I Wear the Black Hat and then took a ton of questions, which spanned the gamut. Afterward, everyone applauded and lined up to get their books signed.

This is where I got nervous.

I knew it made no sense, because as I already pointed out, he’s “just a normal dude.” But I guess I wanted to make a positive impression or something, despite the fact that he had no idea who I was and would immediately forget about the interaction when it was over. My palms got sweaty as the line moved forward. What was I going to say? I had nothing to say, yet I had a lot that I wanted to say. I’m a writer too, I have a deep appreciation for your work, You’re the main reason I started writing seriously. All stuff that’s totally true, but would also probably make me come off like a nut job if said aloud. This was not what I wanted. I tried to find less psycho ways of conveying these thoughts – and do it in the 35 seconds it took to exchange pleasantries and scribble his signature, mind you – and failed to come up with one. The line kept getting shorter. I needed to come up with the perfect statement, one that would get across how much I loved his work and what a pleasure it was to be there that evening, all in a efficient, succinct way.

I was next. I had nothing. I would have to wing it.

I approached the table, and we both said hello.

“Thanks for coming to Boulder,” I said. It was all I had.

“Well, you bought the book and came out tonight,” he said, eyes on the page as he wrote his signature. “So I should be thanking you.”

“It was totally worth it,” I said. He handed the book back to me and I left.

It was totally worth it? I’m pondered that statement as I walked down the stairs and out into the night. I’m still not sure what it meant. Buying the book was worth it? Coming to the book store? Waiting in line?

There was no answer. My eloquent, moving soliloquy about his importance in my development as a writer essentially turned into “thanks, it was worth it.” I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t that. It didn’t make me feel good. And there, after all the positive things that had happened that night, is where I found my disappointment.

 

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Sam Neumann | sam@samneumann.com | Boulder, CO