March 31, 2005,
I never know what to say when I meet celebrities. I don't know why I get so flummoxed, but sometimes awful things come out. In college I met Kevin Rowland, then the lead singer of Dexy's Midnight Runners, a band for whom I had altogether too much affection. (Still do.) I told Mr. Rowland I found it inspiring that he had the courage to become a singer with such a bad voice. Never has a stare been colder.
More recently I met Jackson Browne. (I have met some people without hit records, also.) I told him that we had named our elder son after him. My wife gave me a look that I can loosely translate as, "You ridiculous buffoon, you're lying to Jackson Browne." Our Jackson wasn't named after anybody, least of all someone who hasn't changed his haircut since 1976. I should have said that to him.
I have met President Bush twice. I have no powerful political connections both times were the result of sizable checks written by me to support his campaign. Both times I was one of several hundred, if not thousand, people he met that day. Both times he said the same thing to me: "I'm honored." (I think I had just said something like "Blefargen doygen." He's the president!)
Two words "I'm honored" but they're stunners. The world's most powerful man was honored to meet me. Actually, just about everything you need to know about George W. Bush is there in that sentence humble, economical, old-fashioned, and simple in a way that irritates those who are irritated by things that are old-fashioned and simple. Why didn't I just say "I'm honored" when I met Kevin Rowland? We'd have become best friends!
My friend the president probably says "I'm honored" to just about everybody he meets, even people like Janeane Garofalo. (What happened there, by the way?) And the thing is, he really means it. He is honored to be our president, and he is honored that we want to meet him and shake his hand. Doubtless one of the things that makes him a great president is his ability to say "I'm honored" 800 times a day, and invest it with real emotion every time.
We carelessly throw away so many words during the course of our busy lives, especially in those dreadful situations celebrity-induced and otherwise where we don't know what to say, but dammit, we have to say something. (I once walked down the hallway of my apartment building carrying a pizza. A nodding-acquaintance neighbor passed and offered up as a zippy invitation to conversation, "Pizza, huh?" I shot back, quick as a whip, "Gotta eat sometime." Can you imagine if the aliens had just arrived to assess our earthling intelligence, and that was the first bit of dialogue they caught? Alien #1 to Alien #2, with a smirk: "This won't take long.") We've lost the ability to say the short, simple things that actually mean something, so we use what sitcom writers call "chuffa," the Styrofoam peanuts of dialogue. "How are you?" "Have a nice day." "Gotta eat sometime." Why not take a cue from W and say something that's just as short, but carries some emotional weight?
To that end, I propose a few handy phrases, small enough to carry around in your pocket, that might just add a little meaning to our words, and maybe our lives as well:
"I'm touched." I think we are over-thanked in our society, and in turn we over-thank the thankful. ("Thank you." "No, thank you.") As a consequence, "thank you" has been devalued, and is now worth a good deal less than it used to be, though still not less than "mahalo," easily the worst thing about visiting our 50th state. Many gestures and gifts deserve something more meaningful than "thank you," so on those occasions when I really am touched, I've decided to take a wild flyer on saying so. Also, if I find myself saying, "Wow, I don't know what to say," I know I can safely go straight to "I'm touched" without fear of contradiction.
"It's good to see you." This would replace the pitifully ubiquitous "How are you?" Are there any three more overused and meaning-free words in our society today? For one thing, let's stop pretending we care, because we don't. With the exception of two or three very close friends and the small group of people who share my home and my credit-card account, I don't really want to know about your most recent attack of ulcerative colitis. I know it's bad, seriously, I do, and I hope you feel better now, but I don't want to hear about it. I just said "how are you?" because you're standing near the coffee machine, and I didn't manage to look away in time. But honestly, it's good to see you, and I really do mean that. (Also, in this age of voicemail, e-mail, and text messaging, much of the time it is good to see anyone.)
"I'm sorry for you." Is there anything harder than talking to people at funerals or hospitals, especially the families of the departed or sick? (Imagine if a celebrity were there!) We're there because we want them to know we care. This says it, without unnecessary embroidery. By the way, the accursed "How are you?" should be banned, like cell phones, from any situation that might possibly involve sadness or pain. No one wants to put on a brave face and sputter, "Pretty good, you?" outside a loved one's memorial service.
"I enjoyed myself." For those awkward moments as you leave a dinner party, or after sex. We are today a nation of critics, invited by Yahoo and Amazon to post our reviews, offering them unsolicited around the coffee machine at work, and generally assuming that all opinions should include a passel of negativity. (Except for my kids, who seem to love everything. That's why I recently ordered a DVD of Baby Geniuses 2 online, which I am sure puts me on some sort of watch list.) "I enjoyed myself" is blissfully positive, and I might suggest that you try it out on me after you read this piece.
On a final note, if Kevin Rowland should somehow come across this, I apologize. (Another nice two-worder for you.) I was a Dexy's fan well before "Come On, Eileen" and wore out the grooves of your brilliant debut album Searching for the Young Soul Rebels.
Warren Bell is a 15-year veteran of the sitcom business and a not-so-secret conservative. He lives just outside Los Angeles with his wife, two sons, and their new dog Maggie, who also answers to Magdoleeza Rice, Magazina, and Dog of Magnesia.