Saturday, October 29, 2011

Riffin' on the Rinty of Sue Orlean

If you are familiar with the Arlo Guthrie rendition of the song, then the title is absolutely the best part of this post. You can stop reading now. Go on, shoo.

For the rest of you...

Tonight I got to meet Susan Orlean, a 2D Facebook friend and now an honest-to-gosh 3D acquaintance. Susan (may I call you Susan?) first came to my attention because of the mind-bending movie Adaptation. If you haven't seen it, just see it. Don't read about it, don't read the blurb on the DVD case, just see it.

Adaptation is a movie about adapting a book into a movie. After seeing it, the obvious question is: who the hell writes a book like this? It turns out the answer to that is Susan Orlean. Sort of. The movie is based on her book The Orchid Thief. I read it. It's not the movie. I don't mean the movie takes poetic license like in, say, To Kill a Mockingbird or Breakfast at Tiffany's, I mean it runs the book through the shredder, throws the confetti out the window, then runs outside, grabs a single handful of paper off the lawn and glues it back together like a ransom note. The book is wonderful. The movie is bizarre.

However, if for nothing but providing the inspiration for that movie, Susan Orlean will always hold a special place in my heart.

But after I'd seen the movie and read the book, Susan sort of drifted out of my mind. Life is busy and that's the way things go.

A chicken
A different chicken
A couple of years ago when I first started making entries in this blog I was going to write a story about chickens. Suburban chicken farming was quite the rage, and I have several friends who still keep chickens. I even went so far as to take pictures of them. The chickens mainly, though I do have a picture or two of the neighbors as well.

I was almost ready to write a couple of thousand words when this article by Susan was published in The New Yorker. I mean it was published between the day I took the pictures and the day I sat down to write my post. Now, if you take the time to read her article and compare it to any of my posts it is quickly - and to me, painfully - obvious that she is a writer and I am a programmer who likes to write. I'm not in her league at all. I would always have compared my post to her article and found mine wanting, so I never wrote my post, though I do have a trove of chicken pictures.

I had forgotten about the chickens until tonight. Susan is currently on tour promoting her new book on Rin Tin Tin. Here in Seattle, at least, this included a talk by Susan, an autograph session, and sandwiched in between a showing of a recently recovered 1925 Rin Tin Tin film, Clash of the Wolves down at the newly reopened SIFF Uptown theater. The silent film has had a soundtrack added, though, sadly it was a bland piano accompaniment (I had hoped for a honky-tonk rendition, or maybe a pipe organ). Nominally a dramatic film, it had intentional moments of humor (buffonish sidekick falling into a barrel of flour), along with certain once-dramatic scenes that are now humorous because they recall Farrelly brothers movie scenes (an obviously stuffed dog hurled across the room). I don't think I've ever watched a feature-length silent movie before. It is an accidental time capsule of a long-gone age. I rather enjoyed it.

During her talk before the film she read a couple of excerpts from her Rin Tin Tin book. And that's when I remembered the chicken story. You see, I've watched people draw things. I can't draw a straight line, or a curved one, for that matter. I certainly can't take a bunch of lines and turn them into a recognizable picture of anything. Don't even talk to me about color. Because of my complete lack of competence I stand in absolute awe of those who can draw or paint or sculpt. And when I listened to Susan read her excerpts I was in similar awe. Her descriptions are lucid, personal, and genuine. Words flow through her keyboard to the page the way an image flows through a painter's brush to the canvas. A joy to listen to.

After the movie I lined up with most of the audience and got to meet Susan and get my copy of her book signed. I kinda met her - could have talked with her - before the talk, actually. I was walking through the lobby into the theater, my mind elsewhere because it took an hour and forty-five minutes to drive into Seattle and park, about twice as long as I had anticipated, and I was relieved that I wasn't late. Susan was walking the other direction across the lobby and even said hi to me - which threw me so much that all I could do was smile in return. A shame, really, because a longer conversation would have been nice.

I don't have a lot of experiences at book signings. Really haven't been to one since my John Irving/Hulk Hogan experience a couple of years ago. So, not having too many authors to compare her to, I will compare her to those two men in this way: she speaks as well as John Irving and is as personable as Hulk Hogan. She is genuinely interested in the people she talks to (even vaguely recognized me from Facebook, which surprised me). She likes animals, has a nice sense of humor, and she runs (though not barefoot, at least not yet).

You know how sometimes you just like somebody? That's the way I felt when I met her. I'm not sure I can pay her any higher compliment than that. It was a very nice way to end my week.

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