I heard Sherman Alexie speak last week. I typed up my experience, and then my computer ate it. I can’t even get to it in document recovery.
So here’s what I remember, with the embarrassing disclosure: I babbled at him. I am 50 years old, educated. Poised. Except when meeting authors. I go all fangirl. I want to be like THEM. I’m not. So I want their greatness to rub off on me. So far, no.
When I was little, a Vanderbilt family member named Marylou Whitney (married to Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney) had a bash every year—about a half hour from where I lived, and still live. I remember reading about it in the paper, and telling my mother that someday I want to be invited to that party.
My mother, who came from Money (although I now have little—long story) was horrified. She said, “No. NO. SOMEday, SHE may be good enough to be invited to YOUR party.” So far neither of us is on the other’s guest list.
Sherman Alexie wrote, among other things, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. He is a Native American raised on a reservation, and his most famous work is a lightly fictionalized account of his growing up.
If you are looking for empathy, it’s there. If you’ve struggled with it, he has, or at least with these: family alcoholism, depression, physical disability, his own alcoholism, mental illness, being raised in America but not in American culture, sibling problems, his own poverty, generational poverty, death of sibling. Just in case that list doesn’t have anything you can relate to, there’s a touching sports story.
I will never be like him as a writer, but as a speaker, I want to be like him SO MUCH.
The occasion that I got to hear Alexie speak was an author lunch at a conference. This means that after you already pay 500 bucks for the conference, you pay 50 more to have lunch with the author, except you don’t have lunch WITH the author, there are 400 people in the room, 8 to a table.
Before the event officially started, Alexie roamed from table to table, making gentle small talk and offering to sign your books. I say “gentle” small talk because dammit! How does he DO this? He talked as if he really was interested in what I did for a living, and when I babbled that as a Teen Librarian, my patrons were his biggest fans, he quietly expressed thanks.
Holy *U(&^. We all paid $550 to be in the room with him. We’re ALL his biggest fans, and he’s heard it 549 times before I said it. He acted as though he’d never heard it before.
I read that Marilyn Monroe, having heard how beautiful she was rather frequently, learned to smile and murmur, “What a nice thing to say.” Which is kind of what Alexie did, only I swear he meant it.
He officially talked about vulnerability, using his recent brain surgery as a springboard. He covered a lot of topics by starting with vulnerability, yet never seemed to flit around. Everything flowed from one to the next, even though he said such varied things as “FUCK TRUMP” and “I love librarian conferences. Nearsighted women want to hug me….oh, look, there’s three men . . . “
Alexie said that during his brain surgery he had a dream wherein his parents (both dead) beckoned to him . With the other hand, they were holding hands.
At that, he knew something was fishy, because his parents NEVER held hands. So, he took control of the dream. He said, “When you’ve undergone a lot of trauma, you can kind of steer your dreams. So in my dream, I did this—“ and he flipped a double bird.
(Crowd laughs louder)
“Besides, I knew I wasn’t really having a near death experience, because I am an atheist.”
(Crowd kinda chuckles)
SO, even though I’d already spoken to him, I got in line with another book for him to sign. I wanted to say something, even though, in a line, that meant I’d be moved right along.
I said, “Thank you for being an ‘out’ atheist.”
I think he really didn’t get that response a lot, because he stopped signing to actually answer.
He said, and I have to paraphrase because I lost my notes, “I’m out because there are a lot of Christians that give them a bad name. I’m as nice as I can be while I’m ‘out’ so I don’t give atheists a bad name. Don’t let your atheism be a religion.”
(I believe I am agnostic, which means doubting god rather than atheist, sure of no god, but whatever, I’m still glad he brought it up.)
After meeting Sherman Alexie, I want him and his wife and two kids to come to my house for a barbecue.
At this same conference, I got the chance to hear Anderson Cooper speak. I didn’t get in his line even once, because a) There were 7000 people at his talk, and b)I don’t want him to come to my house for a barbecue, I want him to tell me he’s changed his mind on the whole gay thing and really wants to get to know me better.
Sherman Alexie coming to my house = fiction, but realistic fiction. I can get in his line and only make a small fool of myself. Anderson Cooper . . .? That falls into fantasy. Better avoid the embarrassment of failing to make myself coherent.