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December 12, 2005

Sucking Up

By Harley

The other day, I was on the phone to someone rich and famous. It was business, not personal, and I wasn’t asking for any favors. Still, sixty seconds into the conversation, I wrote a big note to myself on the legal pad in front of me. “Stop sucking up.”

Because there I was, tied up in knots of charmless chit-chat, a little tense, in a high-pitched voice, with a cartoon smile stuck on my face.

Man, if there’s one thing I would delete about myself, it wouldn’t be ten years of age or recurring back pain, it would be my Inner Sycophant. It’s a character disorder right up there with kleptomania or pathological lying.

It can get activated anywhere. On a set with Stephen Spielberg, on the phone with the plumber, in the elevator with my husband’s law partner. The headmaster of my daughter’s school, the maitre-d’ of a restaurant, that one particular Fed Ex guy. Same suck-up factor. Same deer-caught-in-the-headlights reaction, on my part. Uh-oh. Must be brilliant. Must appear witty/profound/talented/breezy/hip/intelligent/engaging/serious/knowing/ respectful/sexy/ confident/humble/experienced/thin/tasteful/successful/law-abiding/daring/parental/ risqué/adult/young/impulsive/responsible/absolutely fabulous in some particular way.

I don’t even have to like or respect the person in question. I might think he’s a hack and she’s a quack. Doesn’t matter. This is what kills me about me, what distinguishes me from fictional heroines, even my own. I may have strong opinions, I may vote my conscience, I may put my money where my mouth is, but put me face to face with some renowned/powerful/sexy/talented/important whomever and I can’t even put my mouth where my mouth is.

Sucking up is a close relative of star struck, and I’m easily star struck. It doesn’t have to be a movie star, either, or a famous author. Uniforms do it for me. A scrub suit, a cop suit, a Pope suit. Martial artists. Buddhist monks. SWAT teams, jockies, firemen, baseball players. But not every cop, Pope, or baseball player. So: why this one and not that one?

Beats me.

Then there’s the Reverse Suck Up, whereby you find yourself in a sushi bar sitting next to Courtney Love and resolutely do not look at/acknowledge her, even if you accidentally hurl soy sauce on her, because you do not want to appear to be sucking up to her.

Yes, it’s a lot like 8th grade.

Since I’m occasionally on the other end of this, I know how sucking up sucks, how it puts up a barrier between the suck-upper and the suck-up-ee, preempting real conversation and potential friendship, that it’s unnecessary and annoying and exhausting. But I’d never suck up to me, and Here’s why: I only do it to people who don’t, in my imagination, do it to other people. See someone you admire struck stupid by someone they admire renders them a little less … admirable.

There are other antidotes. Going through a natural disaster together does wonders. Less drastic measures help too, although it’s not always practical to do shots of tequila, drop acid, or have sex with He Who Intimidates. She Who Renders One Witless.

So I trudge on, into the holiday season, where social trauma lurks around every corner. Do I tip my mailperson, and if so, how much? Do I shake hands with the night word processing guy at the Christmas party, or kiss him on the cheek? Do I unwrap and then pretend to love the argyle sweater that makes me look like a demented golfer? Will I have any credibility left by 2006? Have I any moral fiber at all?


Happy Monday!



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Funny you should mention this...because when I first met you at Malice (the bad Malice, signings in the basement; Louis Farrakhan's body guards in the lobby) I was all a titter because I'd just finished Dating Dead Men (at Nancy Martin's suggestion) and I was in awe. So I gushed and quickly had the "uh-oh" feeling that maybe you thought that I was sucking up because... Well, like you said. Eighth grade.
And there is a difference when you truly are impressed with someone's talent and you're so happy to meet them, as opposed to just sucking up because, gosh, they're famous. It was also a thrill for me to meet Sue Grafton. I mean, I started crying. Sue Grafton?? Or Margaret Atwood.
This is often a problem when you're a reporter and you'r supposed to be objective. Ahem.
Okay, whew. Glad that's off my chest. Now for the big question - who was the big important person you were talking to on the phone?

"...on a set with Steven Spielberg..."

Nice throwaway line.

It wouldn't work the same as, say, "on a set with Roger Corman."

My weakness is for appliance delivery people, because I did that for a year and want them to think I am cool--as if they care (I know that I didn't when I was doing it).

Waitstaff. I suck up to waiters & waitresses. Usually because everyone else at my table is (in my view) rude, but possibly because my companions are just comfortable giving orders, I'm not sure. I met Meg Ryan once and am still embarrassed about my sucking up performance---so much that it prevents me from enjoying her movies. Go figure. But in New York I've had dinner next to Kevin Bacon & Ernest Borgnine, among others and not at the same time, thank you very much, and the steadfast New Yorker ignoring of celebrities is in itself a kind of sucking up. "I know you're too cool to appreciate being noticed, so I'm going to ignore you like you've never been ignored before." Funny, though, huh?

Still, the Spielberg line makes us sit up and take notice, Harley. You're in a different world. And we love you for being so...lovable anyway.

Nancy, if it makes you feel any better I'm pretty sure Meg Ryan is bald.

I don't think this counts as sucking up but I call it the "Action" factor. From being on a dance show and growing up in and around the entertainment type folkies - whenever I am introduced to someone, a camera is rolling, a video is on - I immediately smile. Not a Cheshire Cat smile, but the kind of smile that I was trained to do whenever I heard the click of a photographer's camera or saw the green light of a video camera. Although this has helped me get through seeing people I couldn't stand (which prevented me from using the classic, "Lisa? Who's Lisa? I don't know anyone by the name of Lisa" and running away), at times I find it aggravating because the one comment I get the most is, "You are always so cheerful and nice." Then I think of all the times that I am tired, cranky, and down-right mean, and I wonder if the personae I have is that far removed from how I feel.

Enough for the deep thoughts! I usually revert to the anti-kiss up factor when I meet a famous person (you know the, "I'm too cool to acknowledge that you're famous and your face is plastered all over the TV") but sometimes I do find myself dumb-struck (unable to speak an intelligible word, including my name, rank, and serial number). But the dumb-struck factor occurred more often when I was a teen and met hot men. Wooo WEE!

I was so tongue-tied and afraid of sucking up to Dennis Lehane at Bouchercon that when standing next to him while waiting to check out of the hotel all I could spit out was "I really like your work." I could see it in his eyes: he thought I was a moron. That was almost worse than sucking up.

Josh, I think I'd be just as thrilled to be on the set with Roger Corman as with Spielberg. Maybe more.

Karen - Hey, Dennis Lehane did the same thing to me so maybe it's not us but...

Oh, Josh, I'd suck up to Roger Corman. Of course I would.
Sarah, who knew? I had no idea you were gushing when we met. I thought I was gushing. Mutual gush, and look where it leads . . . and being Intensely Stupid in front of Sue Grafton destroyed me for weeks.

I am such a bad sucker-upper. I just don't get that impressed by people, except I did get tongue-tied the first time I met one of the Dallas County medical examiners. I think my opening line was, "So how d'you feel about maggots?" But that seemed to loosen him up, and I was fine thereafter.

I honestly believe there are people missing the Suck Up gene. Susan, you might be one. They don't look at people and see some social hierarchy, they just see folks. I aspire to that. I think with ten years of meditating in an ashram, I might get there.

Sarah and Harley, you are killing me here. I’m going to see Sue Grafton tonight, of all the authors out there, you had to pick this one. Am I supposed to keep with tradition and gush like a complete goober, or just smile like an idiot? Either scenario is bound to happen, so any helpful suggestions are welcomed.

I don’t think Susan’s opening line regarding maggots will work in this case.

C'mon now, Nancie, try it. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by Sue's reaction. ;-)

Harley, I think we must share the same genes -- any chance we're related? I've gone all tongue-tied around all kinds of folks (my first and most memorable being Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary fame), including college professors, famous scientists, and yes, martial artists, and gushed over more. Oddly, when I attended my one and only sci-fi con, I managed to be as nearly normal as I could have hoped for in conversation with some of my favorite stars.

Of course, after that part, my girlfriend and I went outside and squealed like, well, 8th-graders . . .

I think my suck-up gene has mutated.

Like Nancy, I appreciate wait staff - in fact, I generally like them more than the patrons/members.

I feel the same about most people - I prefer the people who actually do the work rather than the people who own the joint - unless, of course, those people are one in the same.

I think it might have to do with background - like someone else mentioned - if you've done the job, you really appreciate it. I feel that way about people who move/deliver furniture. I did that for awhile, and that is some of the toughest and least appreciated work out there.

On the other end of the spectrum, I have an overly-developed 'screw you' gene - for people who think they are something special, but who are really jackasses. That might be the opposite of the suck-up gene - the screw-you gene. I can think of about a dozen other ways to express that, none of which are appropriate for prime time...

Susan, is this a dare? I'll bet no one has ever dropped that on her for an opening line, could work.

Maggots. I will have to remember that one!

I think usually when I meet someone I'm awed by, I get so terrified that all energy drains from my face and I just look like a raving bitch. Or Queen Victoria. When in fact I'm just suffused with the conviction of my own unworthiness.

When I used to have to catch the early school bus for band practice in middle school, I was always scared because it was the bus all the Big Sur kids rode and there were never seats, so I'd have to ask some really cool high school kid to move over and then I'd sit there spilling into the aisle with my flute case and books and lunchbag on my lap, feeling like a huge geek. I always figured they were all staring at me *thinking* what a huge geek I was.

Years later, one of the Big Sur "kids" told me at a party, "my GOD, we were all quaking in our boots whenever you got on that bus. You were so fierce looking we called you 'The Lion of Wildcat Creek.' Then you'd never talk to whoever you sat next to."

Now I try to smile whenever I'm writhing with terror at the prospect of meeting people who are intimidating, for whatever reason. I have a feeling that me smiling while terrified looks like Queen Victoria with REALLY bad PMS, but I still try.

Ahhh the suck up factor! Now this one brings back a lot of memories. I lived in Aspen Colorado off and on for about 9 years, where the (cough cough) rich and famous come to play. I learned very quickly that if my body met anyone like that I would immediatly do something stupid.It all started at a very early age,14, where when seeing a very famous skier I hit a spot of ice and landed on my backside. Now there is no sauve way to ask a person like that a serious " I just adore you can I have your autograph" while laying prone frowning in pain. Then one morning in the 60's, at 6am, while working at the Glenrose drug store, the one person I had adored all my life walked in the door. Now, I was carrying a bottle of ketchup, a glass of water, and sugar. When seeing this man, whom my mother everytime she saw him on tv would tell me "Susan, that is going to be your next father" I did the only thing I could! I dropped the ketchup, the glass of water, and the sugar on the floor where it soaked his pants and boots. When you do something like that to a God you do the only thing you can, you cry like a baby! Now here is a blubbering female who had just ruined his pants and boots and he doesnt get mad!!! He takes my hand , sits me down in a booth, and procedes to comfort me! All I can do is sniffel " Mr. Waaaa I am soooo sorry, your to be my next faaaaa, boohoo, sniff, sniff. He thinks I am nuts of course but MY HAND IS BEING HELD BY MR. JOHN WAYNE!!!! I am in heaven! I could have dropped dead right then and my life would have been complete. So yep I sucked up!!! But do you blame me? I think there is an art to sucking up. Dont worry about sucking up to the famous, if they are truly famous. There are some that deserve it.And this man did deserve every bit of sucking up he ever got. There are many stories in the being foolish in front of the rich and famous for SusanCo, but that will be for another time. This one took the cake. Safe day all.

The suck-up gene is universal. We're hardwired to be social animals, and those of us who aren't alpha males can "feel" when we're putting our non-existant tails down when we're near the alphas.

My favorite star story doesn't concern me, but an extra I talked to on a Mel Gibson movie. They were filming battle scenes (it was for the Patriot) and a sudden storm forced everyone into the tents, and this guy found himself f2f with Mel.

They got along pretty good. He was a local farmer, and they got to talking about cattle raising.

SusanCo - That story is fab! I totally love it. Give up some more dirt. :)

I have a feeling that I probably would be someone who sucks up to people, but I am so bad at faces that I never recognize them*. This can actually be a problem, because I definitely am someone who says random and sometimes bizarre things to strangers (example: "It's only a matter of time until the squirrels make their move.") and our CEO works in my building. This may, at some point, present a problem.

*Although I did see Danny Glover in a bookstore once (my cousin pointed him out) and I made faces at the small child he had with him. Which is a lot like sucking up.

Daisy, I am always compelled to make faces at small children. But I don't think it's sucking up (even if they're the kids of someone famous). It's just one of those impulses that says to the world, "I'm a grown-up on the outside, and really silly on the inside." Kinda of like an Almond Joy: a little nutty but good.

P.S. Can anyone tell me what kind of comments automated robots make? Do they say things like, "I often feel like sucking up when I see a can of WD-40. I mean, literally." Just curious.

Ahem. Sucking up, as Harley's describing it, is a survival mechanism. ESPEcially when we're using it on the plumber, the waitress. It's how to make sure you stand out in a POSITIVE way and how to make sure they'll really fix the thing you called customer serivce about. It's making yourself stand out as "that one NICE person I met today" after lousy tippers, butt pinchers, screamers, whiners or whatever they encounter. I find myself trying to CHARM just about everybody. Is it so they'll like me? I'll proably never see/talk to 99.999999 percent of them again. It's so they'll REALLY spell my name right on my check order, or so they'll really bring my food back to the kitchen and heat it up and I won't wreck their evening. Or something.
I suck up to wait staff because I think it's got to be one of the hardest jobs there is. I've never done it and I never will but I've been in jobs with folks who treat me as badly as i've seen waitresses treated and I think I'm trying to make up for ALL of those rude slobs. But I so overdo it; at a meeting last week, I was REALLY hurting but I'm sure no one believed me because I so babbled to be sure the people would LIKE me. And OH, do I get "you're always so upbeat."
Babbling at authors? If Dennis gave you that look after you said the world's nicest thing to him, maybe he's just a JERK. Hands up, authors? How many of you would give that look to some stranger who came up to you and gushed "I really like your work." Uh-huh. Thought so.
(Er, ask Harley about the first email she ever got from me. Before I'd read her book.)
I've been in stores where important people were shopping and left them alone (important to ME, but then MOST people wouldn't be ga-ga seeing Ronnie Gilbert shopping for sheets). At a restaurant once, the Bouchercon committee coolly left a local tv actor alone, as did hte entire restaurant - but I swear, you could hear this undercurrent of whispers. We were all showing how cool we were. But it wasn't Tom Skerritt. If it had been Tom Skerritt I would have interrupted his lunch and gone ga-ga all OVER the place.
But I did sidle over to Joan Baez once; I was on my way to a signing she was doing, she sat down next to me at the cafe and I was wearing my rare, wonderful Baez in Europe tee- shirt (with the little stick figure saying "Europe? Oh goody! What'll I wear?"
I give good sidle.

I have a habit of sucking up when I first meet an author I really admire. But after hanging out with them at a book signing or two, ok, I probably still suck up.


In my office, because of what we do, my boss has regular interaction with the Governor's office/staff and a committee of the legislature. The boss, who is one of the most down-to-earth people I've ever met, seems not to be impressed with any of this. He told me the one of the best non-suck-up stories I've heard to date.

A past Governor had been elected and had gone back to his home town feeling pretty full of himself. On the street he passed an old farmer that he knew and asked the old guy what he thought about his being Governor now. The old farmer replied, "Well NedRay (yes Southern can you tell?), just remember, the number of people at your funeral . . . is largely dependent on the weather."

I try to remember - everyone puts pant on one leg at the time.

Pants? They wear pants? they put them on themselves????

I'm in a special sort of position to tell folks at least about writers that MOST of them are exactly the kind of folks you want to hang out with. Since I've been working on Trek (classic only, but i worked several conventions with almost all the *stars*) s.f. and mystery conventions for over 20 years, I've met them ALL. Ok, not all. But whoo boy, the good ones so outnumber the bad ones. And the big deals seem intuitively to know how to ensure you don't do something awkward. I don't know HOW but they do.

Another flute geek, but I never had to ride a school bus with the Big Kids,

Wow - John Wayne ? Just the thought is accompanied by a chorus of angels singing in my head.
I blew my biggest suck-up opportunity, because I didn't realize (till it was too late) who I was talking to. But really, who would've expected to be sharing a women's latrine on a tank base near the East German border with - are you ready for this - ta daa... Shirley Temple Black (!) I just thought that she was a nice civilian, with no idea why she was there. Oh well, it's kind of hard to suck up anyway when you're wearing fatigues, covered with Graffenwehr dust,and haven't had a shower for three or four days. I found out later who that nice lady was, & spent the rest of the day singing 'Animal Crackers'.

I once rode an elevator with a VERY famous singer who, it seemed, was just DYING for me to recognize her. Kept giving me side glances, posing, etc. -- Notice me, damn it! (I was wearing sunglasses.)

Being the bastard I am, I feigned ignorance.

Cornelia, I wish I'd been a flute geek. A flute is chic. Lugging around a cello -- now THAT is full-blown geek fodder, for a 13-year old. But there is no social hierarchy more complex and unforgiving than schoolbus hierarchy. And there's no sidling, either. You get on, you face the ocean of faces. Hell on earth.
So, how WAS John Wayne as a stepfather, SusanCo?

OK Rob. Give it up. Who was the singer?


Yes, Rob.
Maybe she was looking at you, thinking, "that is going to be the next father of my children."
We could all now be sucking up to you.

Ah Harley I would like to say that the wonderful man became my step-father but alas it was not to be. Although my adventures in doing stupid things in front of famous people continues. Aspen is the place for seeing and meeting these people, although Aspenites, DO NOT , speak to or try and talk to these people. It is something that is silently agreed on cause to do that might cause them to go to Gstaad instead. Dont ya know. I worked at an Inn as the head housekeeper for a year, and being that, I was the only person allowed to clean the room of any so called famous personage. Arent I special? Now famous people can do things that others dont, like there being two couples in a room instead of two.I had to redo the beds at least four times a day. After a week I start short sheeting the little buggers. Opps.Bad Susan. Now this one famous in the room had a tan. Oh how special it was, except for the fact they put it on her every morning! Got it all over everywhere!!! Toilet, ceiling, tub, you name it. The worse part was having to see this person without makeup. OMG please put on the makeup I beg you!!!! Another time I was watching people ski down the mountain, beautiful, except this one woman, she crashed and burned. I was laughing my head off as they brought her down with a broken leg. While passing me as I laughed I realized it was Lucille Ball.Opps sorry Ms. Ball No I wasnt laughing at you. Ahhh I was hysterical about.... ahh... a joke my boy friend just told me. Where is he? Ahhh ...he had to run. Yes thats it. Now this was not the only time I pissed off dear Lucy. At the same Glenrose Drug store, I worked sometimes in the pharmacy. Someone would call and being a Texan I would use my best manners. Yes Sir, No Sir. Next thing I know I would being cussed out like I was talking to a sailor. (No offense to sailors) That woman could cuss. Now is it my fault at the time her voice had gotten so low that she sounded like a man? No! But I should have done better the third and fourth times she called. OPPS Then there is the time I almost ruined the singing voice of the Rocky Mountains favorite boy, but thats another story. Stay Safe all SusanCo

Rob's story reminds me of that WONderful scene in "Soapdish" - anyone else like this movie as much as I do? Where the Sally Field "America's SWEETheart" character is just all bummed out and in need of a fix...so she and her buddy head over to, what, like a mall in Jersey, and she "pretends" to be incognito, drak glasses and all, until her friend pretends to realize who she is and oh. my. god. it's it's oh my god it's whatseraname from that tv show oh my god and suddenly she's surrounded by gushing admiring thrilled fans.

Okay and NOW for today's Werid moment - I went to "IMDB" to double check something about the film and on the page about "Soapdish" it says at the bottom "if you like this title we also recommend" and they recommend, ready?

Fahrenheit 451, the incredibly eerie, brilliant 1966 film from the Bradbury story. HUH? I mean like HUH?

I LOVE your posts, Harley!

I always thought that SOAPDISH was a remake of FAREHEIT 451, Andi. You mean . . . it isn't?

ACK! Where's that aspirin!? Oh my achin head! Mom!!! Harley made me snort. Again.

I'm very upset now, Harley, because I can't figure this out: Have I been sucking up to you, or have you been sucking up to me?

Lauren, they're not mutually exclusive.

"I am such a bad sucker-upper. I just don't get that impressed by people, except I did get tongue-tied the first time I met one of the Dallas County medical examiners. I think my opening line was, "So how d'you feel about maggots?" You are a hoot, Friend.
My first time: The medical examiner was wearing a three-piece suit. He stood at the door, waved me in, and said "Welcome to the world of the dead."

Does it count as sucking up if I mention that I ended up at this site because "The Favor" is on TV right now here in Central Ohio...and while I had heard Harley's name a few times over the years, I didn't know much about her...and Google'd her to find out more? ("Googling" sounds so dirty in some contexts! ;-)


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