Five years ago Paula Poundstone came to town and Carra and I went to see her at the Barrymore Theater. She was hilarious. I have been a huge fan of hers since back in the 80s when I would see her frequently on the David Letterman show. Lately she’s been a panelist on the public radio show Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me and has also been on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion as a guest many times. Not only did her humor make me laugh way back in the 80s when I saw her on TV, but seeing her perform just made me happy, and when she was on, it would be the highlight of my week. I always felt there was a connection between us and I’m pretty sure the connection is the fact that we both have an A, E, L, P, N and two U’s in our name.
At the end of her show she said she would be having a meet-and-greet and she would be happy to sign copies of her book in the lobby. Here was a golden opportunity for me to meet someone I had long admired and get her autograph. Did I? Of course not, because that would have been illogical. “Why would I want someone’s signature?” I wondered. That makes no sense at all. “We’re all people. Why should someone’s signature be of more value than mine? We had a wonderful time at the show, and Paula was great, but this autograph business is unsupportable.”
And I felt good about this decision as I was leaving the theater, but the closer we got to the car the more I questioned it. When I got in the car and started the engine, a little fairy person appeared on my shoulder and said, “Boy, did you screw up. What the hell is the matter with you anyway?”
“I am logical,” I responded to the fairy.
“You’re a dumbass, if you ask me.”
“Giving worth to someone’s signature so that you may feel worth by simply possessing it denigrates one’s integrity, and actually one’s self-worth, which is the thing you’re trying to pump up. The only thing that would induce me to ask someone for their autograph is if I knew beforehand that they would give me their pen too.”
“Then why are you brooding?”
The fairy was right. I was brooding. And I didn’t know why.
My brooding continued for the following months. And then the months turned into years. Five years. I didn’t brood all the time, of course, only when I was watching television and I would see someone whose autograph I also didn’t have, which was every time I saw someone on television. These moments were painful reminders. One night I was overwhelmed by my inability to resolve this psychological conflict, and called out despairingly, “What am I supposed to do!”
It was then that the fairy appeared again. And the fairy asked me a profound question. And the question was, “What would Anthony Perkins do?”
Though not entirely certain where this was eventually to lead, the fairy had gotten my attention. Let me explain.
Several years ago I was watching a movie starring Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld. It was called Pretty Poison. I don’t remember what all happens, but that’s okay as the plot is completely irrelevant here. In the only scene I actually remember, which is why I remember the movie, Anthony Perkins comes into the kitchen of his modest apartment and stands by the counter. He looks off at nothing in particular. He’s thinking hard. He seems concerned, and he appears to be drawing a correlation between Tuesday Weld and the title of the movie he’s in. Then, ever so nonchalantly, still looking forward, he reaches into a large-sized open bag of potato chips that is sitting on the counter, removes one, and eats it.
“Are you kidding me!” I thought. “You can buy a whole big bag of potato chips and just eat them by yourself?!” This was amazing. This never would have occurred to me–because this is not how I was raised. When I was a child, if you wanted potato chips you had to wait for your parents to have a big party, and then your mother had to buy sour cream to make French’s onion dip, and the entire bag of chips had to be specially bought and ladled out by individual chips into a lead crystal bowl and remain perfectly undisturbed until the guests arrived, and then–and only then–could you have one. This new concept just boggled my mind. The idea that you could buy an entire bag of potato chips just for the hell of it was–up to that point–the most illuminating moment of my life. It was like I’d suddenly developed the Third Eye and could talk to dead Tibetans.
From that moment on I have always referred to this as the Perkins Pretty Poison Potato Chip Epiphany (a.k.a. 4PCE). But I was still puzzled as to why this part of my past was being brought up now. “What are you proposing?” I asked.
“Perhaps the depression perpetrated by the Paula Poundstone Predicament could be appeased by the employment of the Perkins Pretty Poison Potato Chip Epiphany, and thus provide peace.”
“So, you’re saying that I can…”
“Want to do if…”
“Feel like it’s appropriate.”
“Feel like it’s a sound choice.”
“Feel like it would benefit mankind.”
“Feel like toast.”
“Feel like it! Feel like it! You can do whatever you want because you feel like it! Routines don’t matter! How you were raised doesn’t matter! What is logical doesn’t matter! Just do what you think would make you happy! Good Lord.”
“Like buy potato chips.”
“Screw the potato chips! Get the big picture!”
I pondered the pixie’s point. Up until now all I had used 4PCE for was to make sure I had an ample supply of potato chips in the house. I now understood there were more expansive applications.
I felt good. I couldn’t rewrite the past, but at least I had psychological resolve. And to put a stamp on it, I said to Carra, “I know this is unlikely to ever happen, but if Paula Poundstone ever comes back to Madison, should by some stroke of fortune that should ever occur, I want to go see her, meet her, and get her autograph.”
“She was just here last October.”
“I thought you knew that.”
“I would have mentioned it otherwise.”
“Ahhhhhh! I’m in hell again!
“Come on back to me. You can do it.”
“Ohhhhh the humanity! The horror….the horror.”
But then I found out that she was coming back to Madison in February, so everything was fine. (You know, you’d think somebody who tours the country for a living would schedule Arizona for the February part of her tour and not Wisconsin, but who am I to judge. Just saying).
Filled with my new-found sense of whimsy, I decided to take it one step further and send Paula a fan letter. Of course, I needed a logical reason for doing such a thing (I’m less rigid, not Boxcar Willie) so I made sure to ask if she would be having a similar meet-and-greet after her upcoming show. I mentioned in my letter that we had been to her show a few years back but unfortunately circumstances had prevented us from attending the meet-and-greet at the time (I omitted saying that the particular circumstance that prevented us from attending was the fact that I’m nuts).
In the emailed letter I said, “I imagine and hope you have better things to do than respond to this email, but perhaps you have a secretary, assistant, or significant helper who could respond in a terse though sufficient manner and just let me know if you plan to have a meet-and-greet after your show.” I then went on to relate an anecdote which coincidentally happened to be about her, and which is absolutely true (everything I write is true, so I suppose there is no need to include that statement. But this is really, really true):
“Back around 1996 I worked in a call center. The cracker jack support staff decided that it would be a great team-building exercise to have everyone in the company submit their favorite joke. These would be posted on a bulletin board. I selected your joke which went like this:
“Everybody in my family has a name that starts with a “P”. There’s me Paula, my father Patrick, my mother Penelope, and my little sister Piñata, who was beaten to death by a gang of festive Mexicans.
“I loved this joke.
“This joke was then typed up by the cracker jack support staff and posted like so:
“Everybody in my family has a name that starts with a “P”. There’s me Paula, my father Patrick, my mother Penelope, and my little sister who was beaten to death by a gang of Mexicans.”
Ho ho! What a knee slapper! So much better when you edit out the chaff. My coworkers used to look at me very oddly after that. I don’t know what they thought about Paula Poundstone.
But the mailroom minions (as they called themselves) for PP (as they called her) responded the very next day, which was very nice. They said she would be doing a meet-and-greet and there would also be the opportunity to get a photograph with her. They also said they enjoyed my story very much and would pass it onto PP.
I was happy to hear that there would be a meet-and-greet after her show again. Over the last two months, prior to the show, I had wondered at times what it was going to be like. Of course, I assumed it would be held in the Barrymore Theater’s salon, but also wondered if they would be serving finger sandwiches and Vienna sausages with toothpicks (or those little plastic swords, which would be way better) or if it would be a nicely catered affair. Would I be able to get a beer, or would they just have wine? Would the photographer be Paula’s personal photographer, or would it be someone from a local studio? And then, what would I say to her when she approached me and said, “Why, you’re the man who sent me that charming email. I was so anxious to come to Madison, hoping you’d be here and I could meet you.” I practiced many varied responses for this, some witty, some gracious and sincere.
The show ended. It was time for the meet-and-greet. We were encouraged by the security staff to form an organized heap by a couch in the lobby that I’m pretty sure was donated by one of the fraternities on Langdon street. I was to be person number two. I ran over my witty and gracious and sincere responses one last time, waiting for her to come out. And then, she came out. This is actually rather surreal seeing a person you’ve only seen on television actually standing there in front of you. Even if you see them live on stage, it’s not the same thing; that’s still their world. When they’re standing in the same lobby and on the same beer-stained carpet that you are, they’re now in your world. While many people would get excited and rush up to them and say, “I think you’re fabulous!” I would be inclined to say, “What are you doing here?”
The first thing that I took note of as Paula grabbed a pen from the cardboard table in the lobby where her audio books were, preparing herself for the session, was that she remained standing. Standing is the international body language signal for “FYI, I’m ready to leave now.” I knew things were going to move more quickly than I anticipated. It was also at this time that I realized the Barrymore Theater didn’t have a salon. And there would be no Vienna wieners.
Person number one advanced from the heap and moved to where Paula was. The two of them shook hands. Immediately I recognized a problem. I don’t like shaking hands. Was this hand shaking ceremony something that would be expected? Because I don’t like shaking hands. Let me back up a moment: I don’t like shaking hands. In my coat pocket I carry a little packet of dry soap sheets that can be reconstituted with water. I carry this solely for unavoidable hand shaking incidents. I would much prefer we as a planet adopt saluting in place of hand shaking. I would be even more agreeable to the Vulcan greeting that Leonard Nimoy used to do on Star Trek except that I’m really bad at it, which is why I’m in the saluting camp.
Person one departed and I was beckoned forward. She didn’t extend her hand and neither did I. So far so good. I handed her my book to autograph. She asked me my name. I had planned on answering this with, “Would you mind making it out to U. Allen Plum”, but at that moment I had a feeling that if I did the response would be, “I’m tired–don’t screw with me.” I was going to go with just “U” but then I anticipated her responding with, “Me?” and me saying, “No, U,” followed by her “What?” followed by the security people coming in closer. So what I ended up saying was something like “…murrrbb.”
Then she said, “I was supposed to go to New York but they’re snowed in so they cancelled my flight.”
I had absolutely no idea how I was supposed to respond to this. It completely confused me. I would have understood, “Hi, how are you doing? Not that I actually care,” to which I would have said, “Fine, thank you for asking,” because that’s what people are supposed to do. I felt this was clearly a breach of standard etiquette, thus my confusion, since I would have expected her to know better. I related this to Carra later and she told me that Paula was trying to make me feel comfortable by casually referencing something about a recent experience of hers for the purpose of conveying the idea that the two of us were equals. This is a completely alien concept to me. I mean, what’s the point of being famous if you’re going to treat everybody like they’re an equal? I wouldn’t. Would you? It was like I was sitting on Santa Claus’s lap and rather than him asking what I wanted for Christmas, instead said, “I had a dentist appointment on Thursday and it went pretty well.”
What is expected here in response?
Then again, maybe it was just a routine–an entire paragraph divvied up between fans. I’m thinking the first guy probably got, “I’m scheduled to play the Town Hall in New York,” then I got, “They cancelled my flight to New York due to snow,” and then the girl behind me got, “So, I’m going to go visit my relatives in Oak Park.” Naturally third girl would ask, “Why?” to which Paula would respond, “I’m sorry, your time’s up. Go ask the two guys that were just here.”
This I would understand.
But the ball was presently in my court following the cancelled flight statement. I tried to compose myself in order to keep the conversation going in an organic manner. And so after much previous rehearsing for the purpose of displaying intelligence and savoir faire, following her statement that the airport in New York had been shut down because of snow, my response to the greatest wit since Groucho Marx was, “Snow is bad.”
It was at this time that I realized that all the time I spent practicing how to be suave, witty, and charming would have been put to better use by just practicing how not to be an idiot.
She handed me back the book. I read the inscription. It said, “To Murb, Thanks, Love–Poml Pamdifh.” The first thing that occurred to me was that I should have perhaps asked her to print. Or maybe just asked for a business card, because I’m afraid in the future when I try to brag to guests that I have Paula Poundstone’s autograph, and I pull out the book, they’re going to stare at the page and say, “Where?” I’m thinking if nobody’s going to be able to tell whose name it actually is I might as well just go all the way with the fame thing and say it was signed by Pontius Pilate. (“See the two P’s? Yeah, right there.”)
The other thing that struck me about the inscription was her inclusion of the word “Love.” This I found alarming and I wondered if I had said or done something to lead her on. Did she misinterpret my remark about snow being bad? I couldn’t tell, but as noted previously, everything was moving much too quickly.
I did not forget the photo opportunity. And so I asked Paula if we could get a picture, and she was most agreeable. At this moment, after having agreed to the photo, I noticed she then had her right arm raised and slightly crooked. Observing this for a moment, I assumed she either was working out a cramp or she was pointing to something on the floor in an oddly theatrical manner. Upon further review, I now believe this was the signal for “Stand here and I’ll put my arm around your shoulder like in a normal two-person shot so the security guy with the spider web tattoo on his neck can take a picture of us.” This didn’t occur to me at the time because it wouldn’t occur to me in a gazillion years to put my arm around a complete stranger even if I was on the Olympic wrestling team (see hand shaking reference above). For some reason I thought she was of the same mindset. So I came around to her left. And we got a very nice picture, assuming you think “American Gothic” is a very nice picture. Some people do.
It was time to go and time for the next person to say hello to Paula. But I felt something remained missing. Then the fairy appeared on my shoulder again:
“Shake her hand.”
“It’s not my natural inclination and there’s no logical reason for doing it,” I said. “But something is missing. I don’ t know what to do.”
“What would Anthony Perkins do?” said the really annoying fairy.
“Not shake her hand and then spend the next five years wondering if that was the right choice?”
And then the fairy disappeared. There was no answer, no advice. I was on my own.
I extended my hand. Paula grasped it. Going back over thirty years, this person who had only been an image on a TV screen had always made me happy. I don’t entirely know why. But now I was holding her hand. And suddenly, I became unruffled me again. And I said to her something that was not only coherent, but something that I take pride in having said, because it was absolutely sincere, and it was perhaps all I ever wanted to, or needed to, say to her. I said, “Thank you. Take care.”
Carra and I walked into the night. I felt good. As we got back in the car I told her about how awkward some of the exchange with Paula had gone, likely due to me. Carra calmed my concerns by gently saying, “Don’t worry about it. I’m sure she’s used to dealing with weirdos all the time.”
It was the perfect thing to say. And it closed a perfect evening. After five years, my mission had been accomplished. But beyond just telling you that, I’m relating this story to you now in the hope that you can take a lesson from what I’ve learned so it might benefit you in the future. Because whenever you’re faced with a crossroads in life, whenever the direction you should take is unclear, always think to yourself, “What would Anthony Perkins do?” It worked for me. It can work for you.