Thursday, August 26, 2010

Stuck In The Mud

When one guest asked me who was the most fascinating author attending that night’s dinner, I didn’t need to think for a second. I had idolized him since high school, referencing him like other teenagers did Brad Pitt or Leonardo Dicaprio. One of his books had fallen into my hands courtesy of a friend, but despite all of our talk about the author, I couldn’t remember the name of the book. Stuck In The Mud, a far cry from the actual title, Lost In Place, was my fabricated name. Since devouring the first book, and finally remembering the correct title, I swept through all of his titles, taking up each book like my next adventure—with eagerness and an open mind. He spoke with a humor and frank honesty about his awkward childhood that I related to. If he had been quirky enough to spend hours on end in a home-made cardboard spaceship, training himself for the real hardship of outer space exploration, then surely singing infomercial theme songs in the pantry with my sister was mere folly, to be outgrown at a later age. Maybe Stuck In The Mud, was more of a reflection of my childhood spent in rural Idaho than it was for his in suburbia, but I connected to his stories more than I had with any other author.

When I left for Peace Corps I decided to take one book with me—Iron & Silk, an account of his two years spent teaching in rural China in the 1980s. Not knowing what to expect in Turkmenistan, and not knowing how I was going to react to my new surroundings, I did know one thing; I needed a book that would be able to make me laugh. At that point, even looking at the book made me feel happier because I had read it enough times to remember each individual story inside the book. My memory conjured up images of him on the bank of the river, appearing like a ghost misted in the morning fog when the fishermen pulling up their nets spotted him and froze from fear and surprise. To free the fishermen from their fear, he smiled wide and offered a morning greeting, which created more disbelief because the white man spoke their language. Other than laughter, I knew that I would need a reminder—a push to get me out the door to meet people when I was sitting by myself at home. All of his great adventures in China happened when he put himself out there, and opened up to the locals. I had to remind myself that when I felt removed from the community, it was probably my fault for lack of trying. I did not re-read Iron & Silk while I was in the Peace Corps, but just knowing that it was always there if I needed an old friend helped me through some lonely moments.

After idolizing someone for so long, when you get the chance to meet them you hope they do not turn out to be egotistical and disinterested in you, their biggest fan. My chance to meet my favorite author coupled with my employment for the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference. In its 15th year, the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference attracted some high profile authors and political figures, all vying to be invited to speak. Henry Paulson, Justice Breyer, Ethan Canin, Ishmael Beah, David Kennedy and Niall Ferguson were some of the lucky chosen to attend the conference. My favorite referred to himself as, not one of the warriors, but as the “conscience” of the conference. He was responsible for blowing on the little fire that kept things alight and awash in flames. Mark Salzman was not one of the heavy hitters, but presented one of the best sessions at the conference, definitely a crowd favorite by all means, keeping everyone laughing by mostly poking fun at himself. His talent for crafting entertaining stories out of seemingly banal everyday occurrences from his life back in suburbia might only be compared to that of David Sedaris. When this guest asked me who was the most fascinating author in the room, I don’t think he was prepared for the 90 second rundown of all Mark Salzman’s books accompanied by my personal opinion on each. My goal for the conference was to befriend Mark Salzman without him issuing a restraining order against me. He was shorter than I had imagined, but I was the one wearing three inch heels. His hair was parted on the left side and a few of his teeth were crooked, a detail only noticeable by looking at his profile. He shook my hand with an approving bob of his head and a firm grip. I jumped into my story about only taking his book with me to Peace Corps, all the while feeling my face heat up with embarrassment. He seemed genuinely flattered, but I immediately started to feel the stalker obsession come on. I had never understood those teenage girls waving handwritten signs and crying at the sight of their pop idol, but now, with Mark Salzman in front of me I had to stop myself from dishing all of my personal secrets (like he cared) or stealthily cutting off a lock of his hair (too creepy). In the end I decided that asking him to sign the very book I took to Peace Corps would be the most socially acceptable thing to do. While flipping through to find a blank page, he came across my friend’s note scribbled next to a young Mark Salzman photo, “can you believe he’s as old as he is? He’s so cute!” Mark slapped his legs with nervous laughter, and once again I felt myself turn into the color of a ripe tomato. Me opting for the easy route of book signing left me sweating, red in the face and wondering why I had not just snipped a lock of his silky brown hair and run far, far away.

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