Book Tour Baby
I originally wrote this piece as an essay — and it has sat on my computer for months now– since “Perfectly Imperfect– A Life in Progress” first came out. So on the eve of heading out to tour and speak for the paperback–I’m going to share the essay in installments. If you’ve ever been on the road for a period of time or wondered what it’s like to promote a book or movie (bigger budgets, better hotels and hotter girls, probably)– you might get a chuckle out of this piece. I’ll post it in three segments– or more. And it’s fitting that I am headed to Kansas City on Sunday. So here goes. Think of me for the next three weeks– ok?:
One eye opens. I’m in a hotel room but I can’t remember exactly where. It’s dark outside and l can see a long bright strip of light from the line where the curtains don’t quite close. The phone rings. It’s electronically, vaguely human. “This is your wake up call…”
“Thank you,” I mumble and fumble the receiver back on the cradle. It dawns on me that I am talking to a machine.
Kansas City. It comes back to me. I’m on a book tour; a weekly Batton death march of self-promotion, morning shows and phone interviews, of driving between TV stations and rising before dawn, of room service, bad coffee and airport security. But there is a part of me that loves this because I want to sell books.
I’m living on my blackberry and wearing sensible shoes in between gigs. I’ve finally become a published author at a time when no one in America reads anymore. Unless its online or about vampires. We’ve all gone to the dark side of 24-hour cable TV and solitaire on the computer, twitter, Gameboy and Grand Theft Auto. The naked, sameness of the Doubletree Hotel with the plastic cellophaned cups in the bathroom is the glamorous, seamy underside of a book tour. And I’ve asked for this. I’ve said “bring it on.” I’ll do whatever it takes to sell my book. Well, almost.
If writing is a solitary experience, the act of sitting in front of a computer screen and creating, then marketing the results in today’s media-fractured world is the exact opposite; a hooker selling her wares in the windows of Amsterdam’s red light district. Even on a good night, it feels a little bit like walking into a PTO board meeting buck-naked.
It’s day two of Kansas City, the first stop on my tour. I feel comfortable and welcomed here. All of the latent mid-western parts of me wake up in this town. I was born on the East Coast, but I was surely mid-western in another life. I have a romance about the plains and the prairies and the open part of it all. The sky takes on its own characteristics in between the two coasts. Kansas City’s wide, easy roads, the old shopping district, the fountains and the affability relax me.
I also like the way you toggle back and forth between Kansas and Missouri in this town, like a game, hop-scotching between states without really knowing it. We are headed to the next appointment of the day, a large fundraising luncheon for a local hospital where I will be the keynote speaker. I have just signed 1,000 copies of my book in one sitting at the store and I’m feeling pretty accomplished. I’m feeling like a real author. Riding in the car with my hosts from Rainy Day Books, Vivienne and Roger, I’m like an annoying kid in the backseat, trying to guess which state we are in.
“This must be Kansas now, right?” I ask.
“No, actually, we are still in Missouri,” says Roger politely in his calm, even voice. “Kansas is right over there,” he points to the other side of the road.
He and Vivienne run one of the most influential independent bookstores in the country and they deal with all kinds of folks, from celebs with entourages to lunatics, to I imagine boisterous drunks and captains of industry. Think about the kinds of folks who write memoirs alone. There are some pretty messed up lives out there. I’m white bread compared to some. Sitting in the car in my little suit and heels, guessing which state we are in at any given time, I feel more like a white-gloved child headed to Sunday School. I am a modern, clean-cut version of Melissa Gilbert in Little House on the Prairie.
We pull up to the side of the beautiful, contemporary art museum, and I notice a big sticker on the glass door, the kind you apply so that birds don’t commit suicide. There is a graphic of a handgun with a big red line through it. I will continue to see this at municipal buildings, radio stations, and the University’s NPR station during my visit here.
I knew Kansas City had once been a scrappy frontier town, but did people still tote weapons to places like the grocery store or breast cancer fundraisers? Maybe this was a much more interesting city than I had originally imagined. Was it possible that at any time, even in an art museum, you might get caught in a gunfight?
Columns of stylishly beautiful blonde ladies with perfect manicures and enviable suits were filing into the museum. How many of them, I wondered, packed some kind of heat in their Coach bags? The makings of a little thrill ran up my spine. Kansas City was shaping up to be what I call a Donny and Marie Osmond kind of town– a little bit country and a little bit Rock n Roll.
By the time I have signed books, met some of the hospital staff and society volunteers, eaten my chicken breast dressed up with wilting lettuce and sipped my iced tea, it is time for me to speak. I am freezing in the over-air conditioned ballroom. Why don’t I ever learn to wear pants? Shivering, I rise to wobble on my heels up the raised platform steps. I realize that I have been so engaged in conversation I have broken the cardinal rule of a woman who has gone through childbirth. Always go to the bathroom before you speak. For the next 40 minutes I will cross and uncross my legs daintily as I talk, wondering, for the sake of future appearances, if Depends would create visible panty lines under my tight fitting skirt.
Just getting to this point, the ability to leave your family and life for three or four weeks, is something of a small miracle with four kids, two of them still in elementary school.
It would be one thing if I were sleeping in and getting hotel massages, but a book tour is highly scheduled. Morning shows have you up before dawn and slashed TV budgets mean no professional makeup artists to do your face. This is how, on the rare times I do get up enough nerve to watch my own media appearances, I end up looking like a cross between Tammy Faye Baker and a grizzled Casper the Ghost next to the Starbucks-addicted hosts who have been professionally applying pancake makeup for years.
But there is also a part of me, perhaps of every parent, that can’t wait to go away, even for a night, to dodge the calls of “Mooooom,” the lunch-making and homework answering routine, the very mind-numbing sameness of unloading the dishwasher for the trillionth time. Even if I rise before dawn, frankly I only have ME to worry about. And before I even leave for Kansas City, this is the part I look forward to.
That is until I am confronted with the prison guard tactics and loud instructive screams of our nation’s airport security screeners.
Airline travel was bad enough before September 11th but now it has reduced us all to participants in a reality show obstacle course. The only thing missing is a colo-rectal exam. Just walking in the terminal raises my pulse a few beats in the wrong direction. There are constant alerts blaring over the loudspeaker system about the security threat level being at orange, which connotes ambivalence to me. It’s a safe thermal halfway point between red and yellow. The fact that the needle seems always st
uck on orange affirms my belief that we have absolutely no idea what is going on beyond out own borders. This makes me feel less safe.
Over and over we are warned not to accept suspicious packages from anyone, to the point where I feel sheepish asking the guy next to me to watch my bag so that I don’t have to drag it into the bathroom. I smile wider than is comfortable in an effort to show fellow travelers that with my relaxed face and Easy Spirit shoes I am NOT a terrorist.
Bathrooms figure largely in my life on the road, me of the tiny bladder. Before I even dare brave the security line, I head for the women’s toilet. I spend a lot of time in these bathrooms since I hate to travel wearing anything restrictive or crotch-cutting. I routinely find myself after a day of book-talking, rolling my suitcase into the stall and then changing in to some form of a sweatpant, with an expandable waistband that will allow me to let out my stomach when eating the packages of Twizzlers and pretzels that will constitute dinner.
Once again I brace myself to play toilet roulette as I face the challenge of the automatic flush toilet. You know these toilets. They are in movie theaters, stadiums and public bathrooms across America. Just getting a body part near the toilet sensor sets it off with a frothing fury that might suck a backpack or even a small child into the void. Off the seat I go, whoosh, it flushes violently. I move carefully over to the suitcase to unzip it. Silence. I have fooled it and then, no, a slip up, too fast, my back side skitters near the sensor—whoosh. An arm flails out as I pull the sweater over my head – vavoooom-whoooosh…. the toilet is possessed.
Weren’t these kinds of toilets designed to save water and eliminate over flushing? I begin to move like a cat burglar, trying to see if I can maneuver around the tiny stall with my pants down and carefully pull out my change of clothes, but the toilet goes off again. I am certain that the growing line of airport travelers outside the stall who hear these repeated flushes will assume that I have, in the words of my son – “laid some pipe” so mammoth in girth that even these industrial strength toilets cannot suck it down. I am sweating but determined.
It dawns on me that I have been talking to the toilet under my breath, getting increasingly louder. “Holy crap” I say as it flushes again and realize perhaps that was not the most appropriate noun to have used. I become increasingly nervous, picturing people in the line shaking their heads in disgust as they imagine me wrestling with my own excrement.
A conga line of ankles and shoes is forming below the stall and I hop on one foot to get the last pant leg in. The toilet, miraculously, remains quiet but then, unexpectedly, as I open the door, it goes off in a delayed thundering geyser blast that somehow splashes on my wrist.
With no less than seven flushes I am out the stall, eyes averted, head down, rolling my bag toward the next obstacle course challenge, the automatic sink faucet.
For some reason, the sink presents the opposite problem from the toilets. I can never seem to get the water to run. I gently wave my hand by the sensor. At least I think it’s where the sensor is. Some of these are disguised like closed circuit camera. Nothing. I wave faster. Not a drop. I begin to move to the next faucet, putting my whole body into it now. The folks in the bathroom think I’m experiencing some sort of limb spasm. Still no water. An older, barrel-chested woman with giant rhinestone studded glasses takes pity on me. “Here, let me try that,” she says and with one wave the water begins to stream out.
“Thanks,” I mutter sheepishly. “These faucets don’t like me.” I realize she has probably seen me in the stall, heard the flushes, figures it was a big job, e-coli related, that definitely requires soap and water. I’m already two parts fatigued and one part humiliated and I have not even gotten to the gate.
Halfway to security, a younger business woman dressed impeccably in a pale gray suit puts a gentle hand on my shoulder and points down at my feet.
“Just wanted to let you know you have toilet paper stuck to your shoe.”
I smile weakly and glance down. Sure enough, I’ve been trailing a little mini-streamer.