Gorby

1

Lunch with editor Liz was fun and lovely and went by quickly; not a lot of shoptalk. She mentioned that she had read the mostly-untitled Bloodangel 2 and said it’s “very good” — a relief to someone who likes to torment herself with worst-case scenarios* — and we both agreed that Elizabeth Bear, whom she also edits, is very smart. I’m really looking forward to Bear’s STRATFORD MAN, in which, apparently, Will Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe have a David Bowie and Mick Jagger kind of moment. Moments. Heh.

2

I met Mikhail Gorbachev with a grape stuck in my throat.

Global Green is an environmental organization, and Gorbachev is its founder and chairman. Monday night, my husband E and another hyperbright man named Martin were being recognized for their work on the Tesla Roadster, world’s first high-performance (and awesome-looking) electric car. We arrived at the hotel early, and were met by a smiling young blonde woman who said something about ‘security’ and ‘Gorbachev’ and snapped green paper bands around our wrists. “I feel like I’m going to a club,” I muttered, and she laughed.

We were led to a little room with a bar at one end and a table of fruit and crackers and cheese. The other award winners were there, and the president of Global Green, and people involved with the awards presentation. I milled around, participating in some conversations and listening in on others and, whenever I got bored, admiring my new metallic clutch purse with the little gold tusk clasp. I ate some cheese. I ate some grapes.

And felt one of the suckers lodge in my throat. It wasn’t a big deal, but it was uncomfortable, and because of a choking incident I had when I was 24 and eating in a near-empty Korean restaurant in Japan with a New Zealand guy who clearly didn’t know the Heimlech maneuver and only frowned at me and said, “What are you doing?” as I frantically gestured that I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t talk, couldn’t cough, couldn’t suck in any air at all because a piece of meat had completely cut off my ability to draw oxygen — ever since that, I’ve been very sensitive to the sense of anything in my throat.

So I went over to the bar and was about to ask for a glass of water when I heard E call, “J!” and I looked over as flashbulbs popped and a little group entered the room. This was, of course, Gorby and his posse. Introductions were already being made — Gorbachev’s interpreter speaking English to us and then Russian to Gorbachev, and I was caught by the sound and flow of the Russian language, kind of fascinated by it, and still focused on the grape on my throat, and openly staring at this man who had helped dismantle the Cold War, so that the phrase ‘The Day After’ evokes the images of mushroom clouds in the minds of one generation while signifying nothing more sinister than a birth control pill in the minds of the next.

And then I realized he was turning towards my husband and me, and I was supposed to shake his hand. Which was easy enough to do — he is shorter than me, and neatly plainly dressed, and he has a warm dry handshake, and the striking ziggly birthmark on the top of his scalp — but for the first time in how long I can’t remember I was utterly speechless and flustered. Because even though it was quiet (for a moment) in my mind I was still hearing the Russian and thinking, I don’t speak Russian, even though obviously I am familiar with the concept of interpreters and knew all I had to do was speak very simple English. Seconds ticked by and the grape was still stuck in my throat and there was good-natured laughter and the interpreter said, “She needs a lesson,” and then I recovered and shook hands with Gorbachev and felt like an idiot (and would continue to do so for the next several hours) and we all moved on to another little room where E and the other award winners had their pictures taken by the press.

The evening’s events were being hosted by an actor named Josh Lucas, a goodlooking thirtysomething guy who seemed familiar but I couldn’t place him; kept thinking of him as a kind of poor man’s Matthew McConaughy. Then I realized I’ve seen him in two movies, Glory Road (which wasn’t bad) and the remake of The Poseidon Adventure (which was). “He’s eye candy,” observed Maye, my mother-in-law. “He’s a bit short,” I sniffed. “He’s an actor**,” she said, “what do you expect?”

At the end of the evening, Gorbachev was briefly interviewed onstage. ‘Interview’ is a strong word — rather, he was lobbed a couple of open-ended questions and given the opportunity to talk for a bit. He never paused for the interpreter, so there were two overlapping streams of dialogue going on, the Russian and the Russian-accented English running right behind it, trying to catch it. Gorbachev talked about the need for international cooperation and trust-building and a positive outlook; he warned the Cold War victory had made America arrogant and America can’t afford to dick around in the world (he did not use this phrase, but close enough) but needs to set an example, etc. When he made his comment about how America had “gone into a war no one wanted, not even your own people” he drew applause from the black-clad audience.

Then it was over, and E and I were in a cab ride home with friends Adeo and Cindy. E observed how Gorbachev had won the Nobel peace prize for “basically knowing when to throw in the towel.” In the lobby of our hotel, as we joined up with Jason, who had also been there, and ordered drinks, Jason made the same point: “The guy was rewarded for giving in graciously.”

“That’s what I said,” E said. “He knew when to throw in the towel.”

“Graciously, though–”

“Graciously. Exactly.”

“–which can be a big thing in itself. It’s like in chess, when you tip over your king. You’re saying to your opponent, I realize I’ve lost, and I’m going to save us both the time and effort required to play out this endgame so we can move on in good faith. It’s an elegant thing to do.”

3

Talk turned from Gorbachev to something called The List. Seems there’s always a List of one kind or another. In this case The List is a listserv of guys who play poker together; the original group started in New York and now has a “splinter faction” in LA. Since a lot of these guys get solicited for money on a daily or almost-daily basis, whether it be from charities or nonprofits or alumni organizations or new businesses or friends and family members, one of the rules of The List is that, during poker time, no such solicitation is to take place. “Being asked for money doesn’t bother me,” someone said, “what bothers me is how pissed off and angry a lot of people get when I say no. Like the money already belonged to them and by saying no I’ve gone and robbed them of it.”

When Adeo, several scotches into the night, got the impression that someone on the List had violated this sacred rule, he became indignant. “He’s gone!” he proclaimed, his very long lanky body half-rising from the chair. “I am the List Master and I am deleting him from the list this very moment! He’s gone, I say!” He brandished his cell phone.

His wife, Cindy, became all soothing, which I suspect she does with him a lot. “Honey, no drunk-emailing.”

“I am deleting him! He shall be deleted!”

“No drunk list-deleting.”

“This is very serious!”

“And you should deal with it when you’re sober.”

As far as I know, the List survived the night intact. But it was close.

* I should really stop doing this. Really. It serves no purpose, except some stupid childish magical-thinking thing: as if by conjuring up the worst case scenario, somehow I immunize myself against it.

** I once talked to a charismatic young actor who said his height was actually a disadvantage when it came to getting movie roles — movie stars are average height, he said, but they want to seem tall to the audience, so they refuse to be surrounded by actors who are taller than they are.

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