Years ago, I knew a pianist. She was a wonderful pianist who gave brief, beautiful concerts. She wasn’t a large woman, though she seemed to become one with her powerful concert piano as she played. Together they were like one magnificent, magical instrument. I met her sometimes socially, and being a rather lame but hopeful pianist myself, I felt a little intimidated by her. At one cocktail party, I screwed up my courage with the help of a glass of chardonnay or two and told her how much I enjoyed her playing. She seemed receptive so I forged ahead: “My four year-old daughter loves to pick out her own little melodies on the piano. She just plays and plays.” God only knows I was just making conversation, trying to seem as though I had something in common with her. But she just cut me dead with a snide smile, and the words, “I’m sure she’s very talented.” Then she turned and walked away. Seriously. What a bitch. Now it’s one of our family stories, but it was hurtful at the time.
In my everyday life, I am a fan girl of lots of writers, actors, artists, musicians, and philosophers. When I hear their names or see/read their work, I grin and flap my hands excitedly like a ten year-old. Really, I do. It used to be that the thought of meeting them got me even more excited. I’ve never had an autograph book. Back in the day (6th grade to be exact), I had friends who had autograph books, or those big, cotton-covered dachshund stuffed toys that they carted around, hoping to run into the t.v. weatherman or a Cincinnati Bengal or Queenie Bee, the Burger Queen Bee, or the guy who did the crazy mattress commercials on television. Now, I guess, yesterday’s autograph hound is more likely to be a selfie-hound (I just invented that), keeping their camera phone at the ready.
Many celebrities are very generous, understanding that a fan’s request for an autograph or a photo is truly a compliment. Even when they’re feeling cranky, they’re at least polite. But here’s the interesting thing: It’s usually that person’s work that we are crazy about in the first place, and often that work is very, very different from the person who creates it. Their work brings up feelings for us–sometimes it encourages us, or heartens us, or enlightens us. Sometimes it angers us.
What if you approach that person, and she turns out to be cruel or hurtful? What if your favorite actor breaks the law and steals a diamond necklace and gets caught? She’s still the same amazing actor. And what if you find out the cycling superstar who inspired you to do your first race has been doing steroids all along, and you have been downing the energy drinks he’s been hawking, thinking that they’ll get you through the next 10 miles? When you won that race or completed it for the first time, was your experience retroactively cheapened by his perfidy? How appalling is it to know that the football player who knocked a woman out cold in an elevator still thrilled stadium and tv audiences in subsequent games? Their performances all went on–and were excellent, even though we were fooled the whole time. In their non-professional lives, they did not act like people of good character. They were no better than our unethical next door neighbor or sister or pastor. I know I felt like an idiot when that pianist was snotty to me. But I also felt that I had been fooled. In the end, she was a brilliant pianist, but a poor excuse for a human being.
Here’s another interesting thing: To be extraordinary, you must do extraordinary things. Or be very, very good at one single thing. Like sitting in a room in front of a keyboard for hours, days, months with voices in your head. That’s not normal. Let me repeat: That’s not normal behavior. When I fall in love with a writer’s voice or stories, I haven’t fallen in love with the writer. I’ve fallen in love with what the writer has made me feel or think. A lot of writers are jerks. The people in their heads rarely talk back to them, and so they expect to get their own way a lot of the time. Sometimes they don’t bathe regularly, and they forget to make their kids dinner (totally guilty). Sometimes they drink too much because they’re jealous of more successful writers or to quell the voices in their heads. You really don’t want to spend the evening with them–trust me. But still their work shines. How is that possible? I don’t have the answer to that. It just is.
In the past few weeks I’ve seen a lot of extraordinarily accomplished people expose themselves as crappy human beings. There is no excuse for being a crappy human being. Again, I repeat: There is no excuse for being a crappy human being. For myself, it’s been an excellent reminder of the complexity of human beings, and the complexity of our expectations–as well as our willingness to occasionally wear blinders when it comes to the things that delight and move us. We imagine that the things that please us are unencumbered by too much human frailty or weakness. Of course, it is completely unrealistic to expect perfection. BUT: We should expect our professionals to act professionally.
A true professional makes an extraordinary effort in his or her work, but is polite even when they feel like they want to be a crappy human being. A true professional keeps the stage violence on the football field and acquits himself in his personal life within the bounds of reason, lawfulness, and propriety.
The world is actually full of professionals who deserve our respect. The rest? Don’t waste your time.