It’s not often that you unexpectedly meet someone you really admire. It’s even less often that you meet unexpectedly someone whom you really admire and are also really jealous of. And of course, it’s really aggravating when they turn out to be a nice person. Or at least, really good at playing one when you meet them in person.
I was attending the biennial Friends of the Stanford Daily banquet last Friday night, something I would have done anyway since it puts me in touch with and encourages an endangered species – students who still want to be journalists.
Who should show up as the unbilled keynote speaker but Joel Stein, class of ’93. He’s a Daily alum who currently – like me, as he so gaily noted – is a freelancer, except his clients are much cooler than mine: Time. Entertainment Weekly. Los Angeles Times. The New Yorker. And he’s much funnier than I am. When I was at the Daily, the funniest thing I wrote was a review of Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love, which was like shooting Cybill Shepherd in a barrel. The funniest thing Stein wrote at the Daily chronicled going to a Palo Alto sperm bank whose female customers who wanted sperm from really smart men. If CBS were going to replace Andy Rooney, their first choice would be Joel and I wouldn’t even be on the list.
He’s probably most famous for his Time profile of George Clooney, during which, instead of Joel going to Clooney’s house, Clooney went to Joel’s house for dinner. The evening started with a tour of the house and ended after midnight with Clooney diagnosing problems with Joel’s carbon monoxide detector. He made Clooney sound like a regular guy, which is highly appropriate, because that’s just how Joel came across when I met him.
As the Daily dinner broke up, I went over to tell him how much I admired his work. Actually, what I really said was that I really envied him. He asked where I lived, and when I told him Silicon Valley, he said he envied me. Actually, he should. Earlier this month, he mentioned that his wife didn’t even read his column anymore. At least my wife still reads my column every week – as long as I print it out and put it on top of her catalogs.
But he was very engaging, very self-deprecating, and utterly charming – the kind of Stanford grad that makes other Stanford grads feel like they can do anything they put their mind to. Hey, I went to school with the chairwoman of the Food and Drug Administration, so I’m really one degree of separation from President Obama. I can hold my own in a conversation with Joel Stein, for crying out loud.
Naturally, I managed to shoehorn a mention of Middle Age Cranky into the conversation, and he claimed to love the name, even repeating it a couple of times and promising to check it out.
So as I walked through the drizzly night back to the parking lot, I was all aglow with the thought that Joel Stein was going to read Middle Age Cranky. I suddenly worried whether last week’s was one of the funny ones or one of the cranky ones, and then I remembered that it was one of the funny ones (as funny as they get anyway) and sighed with relief. And then I went into a whole riff of wouldn’t it be cool if Joel and I first became Facebook friends and then started being snarky together, me being a cranky baby boomer and he being a cranky Generation Xer. That eventually scared the hell out of me because it started sounding like Martin Short doing Ed Grimley on Saturday Night Live and fantasizing about how cool it would be if he and Pat Sajak started hanging out together.
By the time I had gotten to the car, I had reconfirmed my status in the universe, which was nowhere near Joel’s, and reminded myself that just because we started at the same newspaper, he was still younger, funnier, thinner and richer than I am.
But at least my wife still reads my column.