Welcome to my blog, brought to you by The Gentle Diva.
I’d like to use this space to expound, to exhort, to implore, to scold, to have a little fun, but not at anyone’s expense and hopefully, without too much verbal incontinence. I’m getting to the age where incontinence of any sort is going to be an issue, so tell me to shut up if I digress too often! Before I tell you The Gentle Diva’s thoughts for this blog, let me explain the provenance of this extraordinarily self-serving and slightly egomaniacal title:
Today, an editor blew me off for lunch, always my favorite spontaneous act of charity. I was imagining a quick nip into Marimekko to purchase some overpriced but will-last-a-lifetime stripped towels. No such luck, thank you WORK for saving me from such an unnecessary purchase! Before I knew it, it was 1:30 and the Fage Youghurt I’d consumed at 7:30 AM was suddenly yearning noisily for some alimentary company. My assistant, Molly Schulman, asked me what I wanted to eat.
Another digression: does anyone remember Margaret Wise Brown’s kids’ book called THE IMPORTANT BOOK? You all know THE RUNAWAY BUNNY and of course, GOODNIGHT, MOON; you’d have to be in a parental coma to not have encountered one of those classics. Okay, so THE IMPORTANT BOOK is a little obscure, not to brag and say “recherché”. But it basically goes like this, “Snow is wet. Snow is cold. But the IMPORTANT thing about snow is that it is WHITE. To paraphrase a bit, I’d say “Molly Schulman is adorable. Molly Schulman is smart. But the IMPORTANT thing about Molly Schulman is that she is UNFLAPPABLE.” And since I rarely censor myself, this is, as they say, “meaningful”.
Back to the anecdote: Molly S. asks me what to order for lunch.
“Shall I order the usual? Two hard-boiled eggs and a fresh fruit salad?”
“NO!” I bark, from the bowels of my office. “The so-called “fresh fruit” just isn’t fresh, let’s be honest here. The last time I ate it, the blueberries were frozen and clearly shocked into importation from someplace like Uruguay. Even the kiwi was woody and fibrous and unpleasant! Get me the eggs, yes please, but just buy a banana. An honest banana not bruised. If it’s bruised and nasty-looking, find me an orange. A thick-rinded Sunkist orange, not one of those thin-skinned, ancient ones lying at the bottom of a deli barrel, waiting for a sucker customer.”
There was a pause, and then I heard Molly S. whisper—a whisper that carried all the way to my office, okay, like ten feet, “The Gentle Diva has spoken.” What??? I mean, how great is that? First, I’m a Leo, so I get along with diva personalities. Second, I’m numerologically a One. Chinese Astrology tells me that I was born during the Year of the Dragon, yeah yeah, you guessed it, I’m 59, born in 1952, I’ve just done the math for you. Meanwhile, I’m reading Michael Shelden’s new biography, on young Winston Churchill’s Edwardian years and he quotes Churchill, “I believe in personality” and I think, “Wow, Churchill, C’est MOI!” I DO have a large personality and I DO feel strongly about things, about principles, about manners—not whether to wear white buckskin shoes after Memorial Day, I could care less!–who even WEARS buckskin shoes anymore, anyway?– but about how to behave in a fast-moving world where behavior might just get lost in translation. That, my friends, is what The Gentle Diva will be about.
No more digression. It’s time for the first Gentle Diva lesson: the language of TELEPHONE ETIQUETTE.
I grew up surrounded by rotary phones, long after the touch-tone version had claimed nearly every American household. Phones were where you briefly conducted business, distinctly NOT for chatting. My father, Otto Friedrich, was a writer and he instilled in me, a slight terror of the telephone. I represented him and I loved him, not in that order, but the phone was his worst form of communication. I would call him up, as an adult daughter, just to say, “hi” and the first thing he’d ask, always, was, “What do you have to say for yourself?” Talk about a conversation killer! The phone was used so rarely at home that the moronic beagle,Jenny, would levitate from her resting place when it occasionally rang. When I was incredibly unhappy at Skidmore College, before I transferred to Barnard, where I was only slightly less unhappy, you could take a single course for one month. I wrote to my parents to tell them of my decision to study astronomy. I had visions, like any flighty nineteen-year-old, of studying the stars, so romantic; I still look UP every day when I pass through that magical central dome of Grand Central Station. The next thing I know, I’ve received a telegram—the entire dormitory is ringing with that false, hushed urgency which still, back then, accompanied the arrival of a telegram.
My father’s message: No Astronomy. Stop. Disaster ahead. Stop. Slightly retarded in math. Stop. Papa.
Wow, okay, then back to Greek mythology! But so allergic to the telephone, that this man would send a telegram, which usually, let’s face it, bespeaks death and disaster of a REAL sort?
When I became an agent, I had to overcome the telephone, that instrument that I’d been told all my adolescent life, to please GET OFF! I learned to sound calm on the phone, when the rest of my body was vibrating with the thrill of the publishing offer. To sound rushed when I just needed to NOT hear another word about a writer or editor’s ovulation/marital/sibling rivalry crises, enough, already. I got good at the phone, it became a sort of higher art—when to blow smoke with an editor, when to have an assistant “channel” a long-distance call from Seoul, when to stretch the conversation to actually LEARN something about this insane and insanely wonderful business.
But there’s something about the NY/LA axis that is always weird and weirdly competitive. I’ve got loads of business buddies there, I check in frequently—by phone—hoping to divine something about how that side of the business actually works. Because I never watch TV or see movies (okay, three a year, tops. I only saw “The Artist” and “Hugo” this year, in an actual theatre; do I pick them or WHAT?). I’m stunningly, no breathtakingly out of it. My daughter, Lucy Carson, who is stunningly, no breathtakingly IN it, lovingly teases me about this numbing ignorance on my part. But she’s another story, another blog for The Gentle Diva.
So I receive a phone call from a well-known book agent in L. A., but I’m not there. And so the phone tag begins, back and forth. I reach Nate’s office and Nate’s not there:
“I don’t have him. Can he return?”
Wow.Just. Wow. Is this assistant kidding? So when I finally connect with Nate, I say,
“Look, before we get to an actual conversation, can I please talk to you about phone etiquette?”
“Uh, yeah, Okay, Molly. What’s the problem?”
“Well, it’s just that, this is why New Yorkers are always making fun of Hollywood, this is so awful and hopeless and short-circuited and pretentious, can you just please correct this, ‘I don’t have him/ Can he return’ business? And don’t do it within the next two weeks, I don’t want to be slammed by your assistant, but this language HAS to stop, it’s just AWFUL!”
I was on a Delta flight returning home recently and the flight attendant was clearly literate. She had a rigidly straight backbone, she enunciated her words. She also had that fine fuzz of new hair that so often, alas, signals recovery from a serious bout of Chemo. I admired her, as she said, “As you disembark from this plane, please be sure…etc.” As I left the plane, luggage and kids intact, I said, “Thank you for NOT saying ‘deplane’. She was so thrilled! Elated, even! Someone had noticed her teeny-tiny effort to not abuse our sturdy English language!
I just adore Bill Bryson. I call him “Bill” even though we’ve never met but his books exude that come-hither air of familiarity. In his marvelous book about the English language, MOTHER TONGUE, he talks about the richness, the diversity and the nuance of English. According to “Bill”, we’ve got between 400,000 and 600,000 words, depending upon the source. German runs thin at about 180,000 words and the French language is positively anorexic at 100,000 words.
So let’s please NOT “have” someone or not. And let’s also not “return”. Let’s. Just. Not. It’s lazy.
The Gentle Diva has spoken. Enough!