Have I mentioned that I once met Pete Seeger?
Three times in the last week I’ve noticed myself dropping into casual conversations the names of famous people that I (or, in some cases, my parents) encountered. It’s a bad habit. It’s an ego thing. But underlying the ego boost is, I think, a layer of existential fear — the fear of anonymity, the fear that one’s life is, after all, meaningless. The fear of not existing.
Have I told you about the time Glenn Gould phoned me to read me something he had written?
The habit runs in my family. Could be a genetic twitch, could be a learned habit on my part. My father once played golf with Bob Hope. (This would have been in about 1930. Hope was not yet famous; he was a young comedian working the vaudeville circuit. My father painted posters in the local theatre.) In his later years, I remember my father wondering aloud, somewhat wistfully, whether Hope would remember the occasion.
Right now I’m reading a very good fantasy novel called The Golden Key. It’s a collaboration by Melanie Rawn, Jennifer Roberson, and Kate Elliott, all of whom have written strings of fat fantasy novels. Kate Elliott’s real name is Alis Rasmussen, and Alis used to work at the same magazine where I worked. I remember her sitting with her head down on her desk, most likely because she was bored. I was at her wedding. John Lescroart also worked there, down the hall at Guitar Player. Neither of them was a published novelist at the time.
You may never have heard of Elmer Bischoff, but he was quite important as a West Coast painter in the ’60s and ’70s. Elmer and my father became friends in Sacramento in the 1930s. When I was growing up, Elmer and his wife and brother used to come over to our house for dinner at least once a year. So about seven years ago, my mom wanted to go over to Stanford to visit the art museum on campus. I drove her over. As we entered the museum and started down the long hall toward the modern art rooms, there was a huge canvas hanging in the place of honor at the end of the hall, where you could see it as you approached. We both saw immediately that it was one of Elmer’s. The style was unmistakable.
Okay, that last story isn’t strictly name-dropping. It’s about the private thrill of seeing a painting by a guy you used to know hanging in an important place in a museum. But it has the same emotional importance, I think. It’s about feeling connected to the wider world.
After my father died, my mother started doing pastels. She would travel around and take four-day pastel workshops. Once she was at Asilomar, and wandered out to the beach to take photos that might make good pastels. On a pier, she saw a guy squatting over a box of fishing tackle, so she snapped a picture. The guy saw her. He stood up and said, “Are you with the press?”
Mom said, “No, I’m with the pastel workshop.”
The guy said, “It’s all right, then. You can take pictures. Do you know who I am?” Mom said no, she didn’t.
The guy was Leon Panetta. At the time, he was Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff. At present he’s the director of the CIA, and he’s confirmed to become Secretary of Defense in a few months.
I have a pastel of Leon Panetta squatting over a tackle box. I also have a small still life, oil on wood, on the back of which, in red brush strokes, are painted the words “Merry Christmas to Ben from Elmer, 1940.”
I really ought to find a place in the house to hang it.