Monday, November 27, 2017

Becoming Grizzly in Middle-Age

I just have to remember not to tell Barbra Streisand what I think she needs to hear. 
by Denis Ferrara

“IF YOU’RE gonna be a bear, be a grizzly!”

This quote has been attributed to people as varied as pacifist and perpetual dieter, Mahatma Gandhi and one-time First Daughter Lynda Bird Johnson. Also a writer named George Hyde Preston, who was advising about how to handle the stock market in 1908 — in Cosmopolitan magazine. (This was before Cosmo got all into its monthly exploration of the female orgasm.)  And, of course, we can  never leave out dear old Anonymous.

However, I associate this little saying to my boss, Liz Smith.  She said it often.  Or at least she said it a lot in the first years of our collaborating.  From her lips to my ears it meant, don’t be such a wuss, have some confidence, be daring, follow your dream. 

This was proper advice.  Liz was, or acted like, a grizzly — a charming grizzly — in her life efforts.  She claimed to be insecure, but she never let ‘em see her sweat.  And she succeeded in life.  In me she had ... not a grizzly.  I was openly insecure. They saw me sweat.  I had yet to succeed in life.  Not in ways that I will talk of now, anyway.  I was, I am, an anxious, worried type.  Although nothing turns out quite as badly as I project it will.  Usually.

So this column, my column, is a real grizzly moment in my life.  It makes me very nervous. Everybody who knows me says I shouldn’t be.  Lots of people who don’t know me have said so too, sending messages of support that I should forge ahead.  This has been wonderful.  And it has led me to feel that — nobody knows me at all, and everybody’s crazy!  You see, most of the time my big attempts to be a grizzly have turned out, well — grisly! 

For example, it’s not really a good thing to find yourself in a vulgar public slanging match with Barbra Streisand, at a pre-Oscar party (back in the year 2000); an encounter I should have known better to get into. (Miss Streisand was not pleased with something we’d written.  I knew that and approached her merrily anyway.)  It was a stand-our-ground, back-and-forth that only ended when Tina Brown intervened. “This is not getting anybody anywhere” said Tina, in soothing British-accented cadence, taking my arm and leading me away.

I thought this was highly amusing and faxed Liz the event in detail that night.  She was not amused.  When I returned to New York, she expressed her displeasure.  “Tina Brown thought it was fabulous!” I said in my defense.  Liz replied, “You don’t work for Tina Brown, you work for me.  And if you did work for Tina, I doubt very much she’d think it was so fabulous, Denis!”  Point taken.  What I thought to be grizzly was really hubris, an ill-advised offense (Barbra didn’t mince words and my hackles went up), and some white wine.

So what is happening now — this column — is a big grizzly moment for me.  I have to do it right. Not so much for me — although I’d rather not be beaten up too badly — but for Liz. 

People have said, “Oh, now you’ll have your own voice.”  Well, see, after 36 years, I was she, and she was me, certainly in terms of the content and form of the column.  I liked the content and form, and so did Liz.  We argued and disagreed right to the end, but always came to a compromise.

So, there will not be, I don’t think, any great alteration in what appears here.  A few have chimed in, “I hope it won’t get into politics anymore.”  You. Hope. In. Vain.  If I have something to say, I’ll say it.  But not relentlessly. (I heard David Patrick Columbia’s sigh of relief all the way here in Hoboken.)

Maybe it’ll be a bit sexier. (I envision DPC going a bit pale and clutching metaphorical pearls at that.)  At the age of 65 — any second — there is no hot, new rebellious, vastly different voice or personality waiting to spring from my head, fully formed, like Athena.  I am certainly no Zeus!  

The difference is, although I am no stranger to writing a column, I am mostly a stranger to taking total responsibility for one. Back in the old Daily News, Newsday and New York Post days, my name would appear on the bottom of the column, in tiny letters, when Liz was off on vacation.  People rarely noticed, actually.  And even if they did, Liz’s name was up top, the powerful name, the famous byline and everything that it represented. 

Now I’m responsible for everything.  And responsibility, motivation and confidence are qualities not natural to me and hard won, still shaky. (Leave home at 15 and your personality goes one way or another.  Mine went another!)

I mean, even at this point, I have not decided on a name for the column.  Should it be my full name or just my first?  (I have personal reasons for disliking my last name — even though it is well known in the history of the Borgias, not to mention famous baked goods.  I’ll tell that story another time.)

Most of all, I dread letting down everyone who has been so kind and supportive, especially Liz, who I still can’t bear to refer to in the past tense. 

But so what if I do fail?  I’m healthy, I’m 41 years into now-married relationship, the cats are fond of me, and with Netflix, Amazon, On Demand and a well-used library card, I am rarely bored. 

Sink or swim, I’ve got to be a proper grizzly. I just have to remember not to tell Barbra Streisand what I think she needs to hear.  She so doesn’t. 
JUST a bit of catch-up here (and more on Wednesday).  In the November 16th issue of Rolling Stone, and the November 13th issue of New York magazine, I was confronted by somebody named Cardi B on the covers of both publications.

Rolling Stone declared “The Hot Issue, Starring Cardi B.”  New York trumpeted “Cardi B Was Made to Be This Famous.”  My first thought was, how famous could she be, I have never heard of her?

But in the demands of this odd profession, I compelled myself to read both profiles.  The writers, Britanny Spanos (Rolling Stone) and Alison P. Davis (New York) told me everything I needed, if not wanted, to know.  Cardi B was a stripper, a reality star and now is a “rap phenom.” She pushed Taylor Swift off the top of the charts.  (I’m sure Swift is busy writing a song about this affront.)   I know the name of Cardi’s album, I know some of the things she’s uttered on TV’s “Love & Hip Hop,” and a few lyrics to certain songs.  These remarks or lyrics are not likely to begin or end this column as quotes.  Although, with enough tequila and a bad mood, I might use “If a girl gonna have a beef with me, she gonna have a beef with me ... forevah!”  

The meat of these issues was not, for me, Cardi B. (Now that I know who she is, I can either write about her with some assurance, or choose never to mention her again.)   I recommend Rolling Stone’s vastly informative and depressing “The Great Student Loan Swindle” by Matt Taibbi.  It makes me very glad I grew up poor and left school in seventh grade. 

In New York magazine, there is Rebecca Traister’s “We Are All Implicated.”  This is also vastly informative and depressing; a recounting of the post-Harvey Weinstein cavalcade of sexual harassment allegations, ruinations and reckonings.  I don’t know where it will all eventually lead us.  (By the time this column appears in print, I am sure at least three more men will be accused, quit or resign their jobs, or — like Jeremy Piven — feel compelled to take lie detector tests.)  It’s a cultural watershed that may or may not result in a positive difference for harassed and humiliated women. Will it serve as a “teachable” moment for men who must learn to behave more appropriately, so that vulgar, stupid behavior is not automatically lumped in with the genuine rapists and predators who need to be called out? 

Time will tell, but right now men and women — on every financial level, in every profession, in every office, at every party, in every casual encounter (or is it?) are living in uncertain, suspicious and desperate noir times.  

I can’t wait to see how the coming awards shows handle it.  But if they don’t know how, I’ll tell them.
Contact Liz here.