How I Misspent My Summer Vacation, 2011 Edition: Day 2

Friday, Aug. 12: Dead Men & Funnybooks

After a ridiculously wondrous night’s sleep at the Davenport, I had to get to work.

Shannon, one of my work-pals, was picked me up to take me to her office, so I could interview John B., another one of the guys. (Thus turning this leg of the vacation into a business expense for me.) We went with a 9 a.m. start, so I could get work out of the way and Amy & I could spend the rest of the day in the city before the evening’s Royal Wedding.

About the wedding: my pal Dave was marrying a co-worker (not in his department; I’d never met her before the previous night’s dinner). He’d gotten divorced around 2 years ago (so did she), and I gave him a sympathetic ear while he went through that process. He’s a great guy, and has been the primary parent for his 2 daughters since the split. Dave’s also half-black, half-Japanese, and was the only non-white person I saw in my 2002 trip to Spokane. When we got together in NYC last March, he showed me an iPhone picture of him with chef Morimoto at Nobu. I asked him which one was Morimoto. (What did I tell you yesterday about taking the piss?)

But the wedding was a few hours off. At the moment, I sat down with John in his office to shoot the breeze a while. We’d planned to record a little Q&A about managing customer expectations during facility expansions for a writeup in my October issue (I live life of excitement, I know), but I had a secret motive for this meeting. I was going to interview John about what it’s like to die.

John didn’t attend that NYC trade show in March; companies frequently pick and choose / revolve staff for these events. On the second morning of the show, I stopped by the company’s booth to say hello. My pal Peggy said to me, “Something terrible happened to John. He’s going to be fine, but his heart stopped last night.”

John, who’s an athletic, fit guy in his early 40’s, was playing soccer with his team that evening, felt light-headed, and sat down. And promptly died.

That is, his heart had stopped for 15 minutes. Lucky for him, several doctors are on his soccer team, and they were able to keep him pumping blood till the EMTs arrived and he got zotzed back to life. But he was, as he’s the first to say, dead.

At our dinner the night before, he told us, “I found out recently from my cardiologist that when he got the call that I’d died, his wife, also a doctor, asked what was up. He said, ‘One of my patients just died,’ and she asked, ‘Well, is he still dead?’ Only a cardiologist would ask that . . .” He was laughing when he told this story. If I were in his position, of course, I’d be looking off into the distance, pausing dramatically.

Which is why I wanted to talk to him about it. He was a cheerful guy before this episode, and didn’t seem any different the two times I’d seen him since, so I was hoping that a more in-depth conversation might reveal whether he’s looking at things differently now. My plan was to bust out the audio-recorder for our pharma-interview, but also conduct another conversation with John about his death, and how he’s lived since.

(He said the doctors have no idea why his heart stopped, so they’ve installed a defibrillator in his chest to zap him if it happens again. The day after his death, he told Peggy that he was planning to come to the office the following Monday. She threatened to fire him if he did, but he managed to make it in for a few hours anyway, broken ribs/sternum and all.)

But a funny thing happened on the way to the undiscovered country: we started talking about comic books.

During our pharma-conversation, I mentioned a comics-related anecdote about John’s CEO, prompting John to ask what sort of comics I read. Now, this conversation can be pretty fraught. My comics are, um, “non-mainstream,” which is to say, “not superheroes,” but many people tend to equate comics solely with costumed crusaders. So I offered up an early gambit by saying, “I like more indy, art-fare, like Clowes, Bagge and the Hernandez brothers.” This used to be the holy trinity of art-comic surnames to cite; a little out of date now, but I didn’t want to go hardcore geek, in case John was a big reader of, say, Spider-Man.

I was gratified to discover that he actually knew what I was talking about, and that we could have an intelligent conversation about funnybooks, art, and storytelling. He even tossed a Cerebus reference into the conversation (!). Stupidly, I didn’t turn on the recorder for THAT segment, because it would’ve been pretty entertaining. At one point, he mentioned seeing an episode of True Blood (which I haven’t watched), and said, “I don’t know who the writers are, but they owe a huge debt to the southern gothic vibe that Alan Moore had in his run on Swamp Thing.”

To which I (internally) replied, “Daaaaaamn!” and decided to break out my story of the time I met Frank Miller at a party but didn’t realize it was him for half an hour or so.

So, rather than have a mopey conversation about death (which I’m not sure John’s capable of, since he’s so damned upbeat), we talked comics for at least an hour. He had an 11:00 a.m. appt., we took care of our pharma-interview, and I made a note that I have to bring him one of my favorite art comics when he comes to NJ for our conference in September.

(The last time I mentioned my comics interests in a work context was at a trade show in June. That advertiser-exec took it as an opportunity to ask me what I thought of the Green Lantern movie. I haven’t seen it and don’t plan to, but do have strong opinions about it.)

After we wrapped up, Shannon took me back to the Davenport. I unloaded some of my work-stuff, like the big-ol’ Zoom H4 audio recorder that I brought from the office, and headed out to find Amy.

She was back in Riverfront Park, outside the brazenly named Sugar Shack, shooting pictures. The island was a run-down railyard something in the old days, but had been given a make-over in 1974 as part of the World’s Fair. Which was held in Spokane, WA. No, really. The new park has some nice walkways and rides and fountains for kids, as well as a shit-ton of concession stands dedicated to furthering childhood obesity and diabetes.

Amy & I meandered around the park and downtown, stopping in at Auntie’s, a nice, multi-level indy bookstore that Shannon had mentioned. I had to tell myself, “I have more than 1,400 books at home, along with a Kindle; I’m not buying any books here.” But it was nice to see that sort of store seemingly flourishing. I looked for a copy of The Leopard, so I could give it to Shannon, but they didn’t have it in stock.

After the bookstore, we had a wonderful lunch next door at Sante, where I had a burger that made up for the awful one in the SeaTac airport. Because I keep score.

I liked the vibe in downtown Spokane (which I realize I haven’t discussed). It felt very mid-century to me, with lots of brick buildings, and there were plenty of local shops alongside the inevitable global brands. There was a bit of a college-town vibe, which I miss. The baristas in the coffeeshop around the corner from the Davenport were unreasonably cheery, but I could overlook that.

During our drive to the company’s site that morning, Shannon mentioned that European trade shows the last two years gave her her first opportunities to travel outside America. I told her my theory that Bush II wanted a weak dollar during his presidency to make it more expensive for Americans to travel abroad. That way, we wouldn’t have anything to compare our lives to.

Shannon said she was amazed by the sheer history in these foreign cities, coming from an area that was so recently settled. I told her I felt the same way, even though my town was founded in 1742 and had a ton of Revolutionary War history. We’re both going to a big trade show in Frankfurt in October, but she and her husband are making a side-trip to Prague after. I told her that Amy will kill me if I go to Prague without her. She told me that she likes to read novels about the places she’s visiting. I told her not to read Prague.

Anyway, after our meander around downtown, we headed back to the Davenport, read for a bit (who watches TV?) and got ready for the wedding. Rather than get a ride from Shannon, we decided to walk. However, since our wedding shoes weren’t too comfortable (I brought a pair of black Johnston & Murphy brogue wingtips for the occasion), we packed them in my tote bag (freebie from Monocle) and wore comfier kicks to walk to the wedding venue. In my case, that meant pairing my navy suit (Rubenstein’s) and yellow striped shirt (Brooks) with a pair of white SeaVees. With a seersucker Alexander Olch tie and a white silk pocket square tucked in presidential-style, I felt invulnerable to criticism.

The route we chose put us smack dab in the “club district,” such as it was. It went on for a block and the activity at that hour (6 p.m.) consisted of band-members hauling their equipment out of vans and hangers on hanging on. We drew some looks, but no one made any comments. Even though we deserved them. I credit the tie and pocket square. (This is the closest you get to any Mean Streets of Spokane reference. That pic I posted yesterday was from two blocks away from our hotel, when I was out for coffee. It looked like someone had it in for a car window, the night before.)

At the wedding, we got to meet all my pals’ spouses and kids. It’s funny how much more real that makes people. I mean, it was one thing to see John B. as “the guy who died” and build a little theoretical framework about how that experience might have affected him. It was another to meet his wife and 2 teenaged daughters and to think about how close they were to losing a father last March. The pictures keep getting more detail.

The wedding ceremony was lovely, and included this colored sand rite, in which Dave participated with his new bride and his two daughters. It was meant to illustrate how their lives would blend together. Since Dave’s company performs lyophilization of injectable drugs, I thought he could’ve come up with something that involved freeze-dried particles in suspension, but I guess that’s a little too “inside pharma.”

I don’t have any great anecdotes from the wedding. The food was good, the conversation was fun, and the view of the river from our venue (the rooftop of the Spokane Convention Center) was gorgeous.

It struck me that second weddings should feel different than firsts, but I’ve only been to two or three so I haven’t been able to characterize them “‘Til death do us part,” seems kinda silly to keep in the vows, but what do I know? I only got hitched at 35.

During a conga line, we put on our comfy shoes and walked back to the Davenport and its comfy bed. I wanted to thank Dave for inviting me and wish him bliss & love, but he was already there. Plus, I was afraid of getting sucked into that conga line.

Thus endedth day 2!

Coming up in Day 3: Discovery Park and the Cosmic Cube!

Tongue-tied and painful

© 1990, Dan Clowes
© 1990, Dan Clowes

This month marks the 13th anniversary of one of the dumbest thoughts ever to cross my mind.

I was covering the annual Toy Fair for a trade magazine. Held in February in two buildings on the west side of Madison Square Park in NYC (it’s moved to the Javits Center now, I think), the fair brought together makers of toys, gifts, games and children’s products with distributors and retailers, to hash out orders for the next year. For some exhibitors, it was a big media event, with trade and consumer press conferences for product launches.

On my first day, I rode a cramped elevator to visit a crib-maker whom I needed to interview. Or maybe it was a breast-pump maker. That’s not important now.

What is important is what happened when the elevator reached my floor and the door opened. There was a man in front of me. I would say we were face to face, but he was at least six inches shorter than me. Still, his face was instantly recognizable.

And as we stepped aside to get past each other, I had the dumbest thought ever: “Wow! One of the toy companies actually hired a Gilbert Gottfried impersonator for the event!”

A moment or so later, of course, I thought, “You idiot! No one could make a living as a Gilbert Gottfried impersonator! You just missed your chance to –”

— to what? As I headed to my appointment, I wondered what I would actually have said to Gilbert Gottfried: “Love you on Howard Stern!” “You should’ve got more screen time in Ford Fairlane!” “Can you do that Arthur Godfrey impression for me? Or the senile Groucho Marx?”

I have to admit, I’d have been tongue-tied. Of course, he would’ve been incredibly uncomfortable, too, but that’s little consolation.

* * *

A few months later, at the annual Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association annual show in Dallas, I found myself sitting beside Jean Kasem in an overstuffed food court. She was at the show to promote her line of boutique cribs.

I’d wised up since that February and realized that this was actually Jean Kasem and not an impersonator or robot duplicate. Still, I found myself unable to acknowledge her, although I did have a joke that I simply didn’t have the balls to deliver:

I would have gone into Italian teamster voice and said to this towering, lovely, blonde woman, “I know you! I know who you are! You were on Cheers! Goddamn: Rhea Perlman! Right here at JPMA! Man! That is AWESOME!”

* * *

A year or so earlier, I went to see Bob Mould play at a 400-seat hall at Georgetown. The hall was inside a campus building and there was a long line snaking up the stairs to get to the door. Mould, on the way up the stairs, had to wait beside me on the landing for a few moments, waiting for people to move aside so he could head backstage.

Standing beside him, I thought, “I have no idea what to say right now.” It’s not that I was totally in awe of him, but the first few things I thought to say were inappropriate:

  1. “I really love your music.” – Well, yeah, you’ve paid to see me perform, so I got the idea that you like my stuff.
  2. “Put on a great show tonight!” – Should I? I thought I’d just half-ass it and cheat my paying audience.
  3. “Good luck!” – Why don’t I kick you square in the nuts?

So I just said, “Hey,” and he did the same, and then he went up the stairs.

* * *

I’ve gotten a lot better with this stuff over the years, as I’ve met or bumped into more “famous” people. Part of it stems from realizing that they’re still people. Sometimes, ignorance helps too, like the time I met Frank Miller at a friend’s birthday party. In this case, it helped that we’d been talking for almost half an hour before I realized that he was Frank Miller. A friend of mine admitted that he would have genuflected before Miller all night if he’d been at the party.

But I admit, having adored Miller’s work throughout my teens, that if someone had pointed him out to me beforehand, I probably would’ve either avoided talking to him, or come up with some incredibly elaborate opening comment that would have made him really uncomfortable.

Which brings me to my big question:

What living celebrity (artist, actor, athlete, etc.) would cause you to have an absolute fawning meltdown, and why?

(I don’t mean like my Bob Mould story, where I couldn’t think of anything good. I’m talking Chris Farley meets Paul McCartney level of tonguetied-ness.)

There’s nothing wrong with you that I can’t fix. With my stats.

Possibly the greatest basketball-to-comics non sequitur ever, courtesy of ESPN’s NBA preview article on Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey:

Morey grew up reading Bill James’ Baseball Abstract and later worked for the stats guru, but his geekier tendencies might actually have more to do with his boyhood love of comic book anti-heroes who cut against the grain, figures like Frank Miller’s Dark Knight. “In a league in which 30 teams are competing for one prize, you have to differentiate yourself somehow,” Morey says. “We chose analytics.”

What’s great is that this article is all about using calm, cool reasoning and “analytics” to explain the decision to trade for Ron Artest!

Bonus: Did I mention that the annual Virtual Memories NBA Preview will be posted on Tuesday morning, just in time for the debut of the 2008-2009 season? I just did!