Sunday, March 16, 2008

Not What You See

I'll bet you think that what you're looking at is all that we are...

No one is what they look like
Everyone's so much more
No one is what they look like
And we're not what you see, that's for sure


I spotted this quote of Barry's in one of Scooter's many articles and it reminded me of a similar situation years ago.

[snip]I get invited to these Hollywood parties all the time, and the few times I've gone, I stand there like a dope. I feel out of water. I don't know what to say to these people. I never have a decent conversation, I just stammer and I can't wait to leave. [/snip]

Years before my family moved to Georgia, I worked in a major hospital with an intensive research program. One of my jobs was public education, so I interacted with patient advocacy groups and the like. I was the liason between the medical staff, administration, and the public in its various forms. Some groups put on fundraisers and little awareness-raising events and someone from our group would attend to give a "professional" perspective on the disease du jour.

A few months after Pete and I were married, I learn of one advocacy group's fundraiser in California. It's a grassroots community-meets-Hollywood type affair. Cute, I think. I'll talk one of the docs and one of the prettier nurses into showing up. It'll be a nice weekend off for them and we'll have something new to talk about when they get back.

Didn't happen. The Boss calls me into his office and tells me that because the gala is on a Sunday night, and the clinic was completely booked first thing Monday morning, he can't afford to let any medical staff come home sleepy. But I'm expendable, since I'm not required for patient care. Besides, I know these people and this group better than anyone else in the department. So "you go talk to the Hollywood crowd."

I was looking around for Ashton Kutcher and the Punk'd crew to jump out of a closet at me. This had to be a joke! How many times did I have to be "spoken to" for my blunt, point-blank talking style? And you want to send me into a crowd of people where appearances are everything and with whom I have nothing in common? Someone's been spending too much time in the controlled substances locker.

Turns out Dr. Boss wasn't sending me because I was the best woman for the job - it's just that no one else wanted to deal with it. He didn't think that this particular venture was all that important. I thought this advocacy group had a lot of potential and knew how to get the word broadcast far and wide very quickly. They would be good allies to have. Turns out that I was the only person who thought so.

So now for this special assignment these are the hurdles that have to be jumped:

  • Look like I belong in Hollywood - that means shopping for something that's glitzy but doesn't make me look like a bimbo. I'm there to show off my brains, not my tits. But if the tits aren't shown off, then the brains won't get a foot in the door.
  • Convince people that even though I look the part, I am a legitimate scientist with information worth listening to. That means getting people to look at my eyes, not the anatomy 12 inches down.
  • Figure out how to talk to these celeb-types. "But what's the problem," you ask. "They're real people like anyone else!" The problem was that Hollywood celebs are notorious for lamenting how they are not treated like "real people", then throw a galaxy-class hissy fit when someone DOES treat them like "real people". You can't win. I didn't think I had a chance here. Remember, I'm Miss Straight Shooter at work and it often didn't fly.
  • Convey the importance of public awareness of this disease. The people I'll be mingling with make their living in the World of Make-Believe. I live in a world that is all too real for the patients and staff. Mutually exclusive priorities and value systems.

So the plan is to pour me into a used beauty pageant gown, dye my old prom shoes, pack my evening bag with business cards, and get someone to do my hair and makeup at the hotel. Then someone gives me a shove to the ballroom.

"Be cool."
"They can smell fear. No fear."
"Just act like you know what you're doing."
"It's just a hotel. You've stayed in them before. It's no big deal."

These were my thoughts as the car pulled up to the hotel: Merv Griffin's Beverly Hilton on Wilshire. The real 90210. The same place you see decked out in red carpet at Golden Globe time. The gala was in that same ballroom you see on TV.

The red carpets weren't set up yet when we checked in. I'll say this, the service was first-rate. They seemed to be very careful to treat everyone very well - just because you don't recognize a face, or someone isn't in a $5000 suit doesn't mean they aren't somebody important. Good rule of thumb. In fact, the tension born of self-consciousness or fear of sounding foolish was fading. It's no different than any other event I've attended or any hotel I've stayed in. Maybe I can handle this and maybe the other guests aren't evil droids out to annhialate any "little people" who contaminate their domain.

Dinner was at Trader Vic's with some event organizers. The maitre'd escorted us past Billy Graham to our group table. Tension level went right back up. I was meeting casually with some other hospital reps - real doctors and nurses, who did give a damn about the "Hollywood crowd" - but I can't remember a thing that was said. So now, not only am I concerned about fitting in with the gliteratti, I now have to hold my own with some pretty illustrious medical researchers. Dr. Boss was going to get a fat lip when I got home.

Sleep came easily - after a handful of cocktails.

Next day is Hollywood Makeup Time and Game Planning.

An event organizer was getting her hair done at the same time I was and she gave me some pointers. First thing was to not panic about the celebrity guest list. We're not talking A-list here, but if you watch TV or movies at all, you'll see some familiar faces. Turns out one of her buddies was a talent agent and he convinced most of his clientele to attend.

"Wait - so they're raising awareness for a disease they're not really interested in?"

"Well, some are. Some are supporting their friends and colleagues. Others well - we'll just make them aware ourselves."

"So this is a "conspicuous compassion" thing?? Just for their own publicity?"

"Will you calm down about that? You want information out, right? You want the public to listen, right? Does it really matter how that happens?"

It did matter to me. I saw patients and families frightened and lives lost on a weekly basis. The thought of someone scripting a fake compassion for that misfortune in order to boost an acting career made me physically ill. But I was here now and I had to make a choice: get practical information out to the public via media figures, or waste the trip. Rock, meet hard place.

I was going ahead with it. So my friend and I mapped out a plan to navigate the party. Organizing practical steps in my head was cathartic and kept me from mentally drifting into the panic of me actually being in this surreal parallel universe.

"First is positioning. The papparazzi will be behind a velvet rope just inside the door. They can't..."

"There's going to be papparazzi???"

"Oh, grow up! Yes, and we all want them there, as long as they stay in their pen. They can't wander into the party so they'll get their money shots and then the guests will be all yours if you stand a few feet further in. So what's your opening line?"

"I need a line?"

"Well, you want to talk to everyone, don't you? How will you strike up a conversation?"

"At home I just....I mean, I think....ummm...... I dunno." I felt like a 5 year old busted for stealing a cookie and lying about it.

She sighed, hopelessly. "You can't just wing this. If you want to talk to the people here, it will help you to think of something you want to say, rehearse it in your head a few times, then go for it. Just pick out someone you recognize from a show or a movie, introduce yourself and give them your line. You have the brains and insights, but it has to come across polished. There's nothing wrong with that - in fact it's what everyone does at a major networking party."

Her hair was done and mine was in the home stretch. She left me alone to ponder my "line". For God's sake what had I gotten into? A steaming pile of deep shit, that's what I was into.

The manicurist was weed-whacking my pitiful cuticles and I was still building my "line". One of the doctors (the only female physician) had the table next to mine. She must have been able to see or smell that I was in over my head and took me under her wing.

"Everyone has a first time at one of these things," she whispered. "Want to know how I did it?"

I wasn't exactly picky about what advice I took.

"You're on the job. You're in your own facility. All of your HR policies are in force. Civilians walking through the door see your white coat and name tag and look to you for help. You see someone looking lost, and you go to assist them, just ike in your job description. Picture that and the rest will fall into place."

The hospital was my second home. I had to remember to not kick my shoes off at times. The point about HR policies gave me a framework to work with. The first policy I remembered was patient and visitor care: never ask a patient or visitor for a favor, and that includes photo ops and autographs. OK, one potentially awkward moment is eliminated. I'm the one with the info, I'm one of the people in charge, just like at work. I clipped my ID tag onto my evening bag as a reminder. Then my opening line started to take shape. Thank them for their help - because as much as we are banging our heads on the wall to get health information out, we can't do it without people in the public eye. Hey, that sounds pretty good! I would go for it myself.

Showtime. Literally.

The red carpets are out, just like on TV. There's the velvet rope to the right, and a dozen slobs with every camera accessory in the world in a bag slung over their bodies. In retrospect, one of them looked alarmingly like the schizophrenic in Dirt.

Trickles of people in tuxedos and gowns, who took as much time with their makeup as I did are walking around. Every once in a while there would be a flurry of flashbulbs and a Hollywood Chickieboo would pose her good side to the pen of slobs.

I noticed a good spot past the papparazzi where the inbound foot traffic was passing. I'm looking around at the actors and other celebrities and all I could see was hair, makeup, and cosmetic surgery. Yeah, real compassionate, dedicated, committed to the less fortunate crowd here. I stopped myself from rolling my eyes and painted on a smile that felt as plastic as my credit cards.

Many of these girls were young soap stars. I hate soaps. I didn't know any of them from Eve. Then I got lucky - a lady I recognized from an old sitcom had arrived. I couldn't pronounce her last name, so I just called her by her first name. She turned and said hello like anyone would in my own neighborhood. I introduced myself and the hospital I was from and thanked her for her support of the fundraiser. This was easy! We introduced our spouses and talked about the gala and our home towns for a moment. I forgot to be concerned about any potential hissy fit - she was....nice! The same encounter repeated several times with actors that I recognized from one show or another. Some were more receptive than others, but none were snobs, none were nasty, and none were blatantly disintrested in the cause for the gala. (That could have been good acting, but to be fair, at least they put out some kind of effort.)

Right before dinner was served I spotted someone I really wanted to talk to. I'll call him "Bobby". Bobby starred in a couple of my favorite comedy movies from the early 1980s. He was a physical comedian with Jack-Benny-like timing and he seemed very relaxed in this starched collar and bow tie setting. I did the usual opening line routine that I had quickly gotten accustomed to. As he and his lady friend shook my hand he cocked his head exactly 90 degrees to his body to size me up.

He straightened up, but was still shorter than he appeared in his movies. (Why is that always the case?) "I'm so glad to meet you," he breathed. "My father has cancer and it doesn't look good for him."

All of a sudden, Bobby was no longer the actor I had seen in his movies in the theatre. He wasn't a B-lister looking to revive his career either. He was a son concerned for his father and inspired to learn all he could about his dad's illness and help others suffering the same fate. My opening line went out the window. I'm in my element. I started asking the questions typical in my profession: "Where is he being treated?" "What is the stage?" "Is he having such-and-such a symptom?" We had a conversation about his dad's case, and I was able to point Bobby to some new symptom control measures that his doctor hadn't considered. He turns to his lady friend; "Are you getting all this?" There was so much to tell him and he was eager to learn. I dug out a handful of my business cards and motioned for him to turn around. I leaned on Bobby's shoulder while I wrote down notes of what I described on my cards and handed him the stack.

By this time a circle had formed around us. Other actors and guests were listening in. Some were throwing in their own questions and the small conversation became a roundtable Q&A. The "real" doctors stood on the outside just watching. They were licensed to treat patients, but the guests - the actors and "gliteratti" that I was afraid of a day before - wanted to talk to the girl answering all the questions, even drawing pictures on cocktail napkins to illustrate a point. The cameras started pointing toward the crowd, and to me. (Oh, crap, is my profile going to look bad in this light?)

The rest of the night continued like any other dinner party. My fears of being looked down upon by gliteratti (what did that word mean, again?) seemed damned ridiculous. The resentment I imagined I would have against the callous career builders never materialized. I learned a lesson:

None of these people are what you see on the surface. I had more in common with them than I thought. It was just a matter of being sure of my purpose there and sharing what I had. And then these "glitterati Hollywood types" did the same thing right back, because they knew the coast was clear. I even made some friends, even if it was just for a night.

Ever since then it's been easier to meet people of all stations and professions. I just had to see for myself that people are more alike than different. Even if they are a big star (or just think they are!) it isn't hard to find common ground if you're willing to be patient. You never know when lil' ole you will be just the thing that another person needs - no matter how famous, infamous, or anonymous they are.

Epilogue: Bobby's father did pass away, but he wasn't in pain and he got much more quality time with my suggestions than he would have otherwise. Many of the actors that I spoke to have spread awareness information on cancer and have been more dedicated to fundraising for research. I still got "spoken to" for being a little too straightforward at work, but no one could deny the value of the job I did. But all chapters in life have an end and I left the hospital when it came time to move to Georgia. The lessons learned came in handy - because I've been able to bond with "traditional Southern" friends, even though I was born and raised in the Metro New York area. After all, we are more alike than different.


  1. I really enjoyed this story. Thanks for sharing.It's easy to forget that celebrities are just people with families and problems, just like us.


  2. Glad you enjoyed it. It was a real wakeup call for me when it happened, too!

  3. That was great...and you're right, sometimes we pre-judge people without giving them the benefit of the doubt. Many times what we see is just what people want us to see. If you take the time to get to know them you usually find a completely different person underneath.

  4. This story has been going around and around in my head for a week. Finally, after listening to Mayflower and that song for the billionth time, I had to just get it out or it would drive me crazy. It took from midnight to 6 AM to get it in the form you see but it felt good to tell it.

    NO ONE could have convinced me when I took that job that this kind of public ed was on the menu. I didn't think I could handle it. But when you get taken out of your element, and you have a motivation to make it work, you learn a lot about people, and maybe even have a good impact on them. Always a good thing. ;-)

    Thanx for visiting!