Wow, I’m famous.
Sarah Weinman, a book reviewer I’ve long admired, has finally blogged about me:
Last Saturday night, after the (Left Coast Crime Conference in Portland, OR) banquet meal but before the awards were given out, Toastmaster Gar Anthony Haywood conducted an auction on behalf of authors who were giving out prized “name a character” slots. Guest of honor Timothy Hallinan auctioned off a name for $800; no comments of import ensued. Guest of honor Chelsea Cain also auctioned off a name for $800, and once the winning bid was announced, Haywood quipped, “She’ll take off her dress and give you her hotel room key.” Uncalled for enough on its own, but Cain’s 10-year-old daughter was in the audience, too.
I’d say maybe half the room heard the comment; there was a fair bit of noise in the ballroom. Those who did groaned or muttered. Or thought something along the lines of, “did I just hear what I thought I heard?” Cain voiced understandable displeasure and she and her daughter left the ballroom not long afterwards. Haywood didn’t apologize publicly.
This is the second time I’ve been at an awards banquet where the host or toastmaster made, to understate, an exceedingly ill-advised comment. One was racist, and well-publicized; this was sexist, and not heavily publicized except for this and on the night itself, Cain’s tweet callout. We don’t need crap like that but at the same time, I can understand — never excuse – how this sort of thing happened, and why the audience might not have reacted with Internet-ready pitchforks.
Haywood, like Daniel Handler, was asked to entertain the audience. Sometimes the jokes landed. Sometimes they did not. And sometimes you think something works in your head and it’s only in mid-sentence, or some general point when it’s too late to take it back, when you realize it not only doesn’t work but is just about the opposite of what you intended. It’s not just foot in mouth, it’s the speech version of BSE. And being in the audience, trying to absorb that, there’s this dissociation that happens from a bunch of competing stimuli that, watching on a computer screen or seeing live tweets, does not entail. Which is why outrage, right and wrong, is more likely to erupt online. It’s why there was that overnight delay on Handler’s remarks about Jacqueline Woodson. And likely why there’s been this weird quiet about what happened last Saturday night.
Ultimately, no community is immune from sexist and racist crap, comments and actions. We have to do better every damn day, even a little bit at a time. So here I am, saying it is completely, utterly, uncool to sexualize a female guest of honor, or any female writer, or any female. They deserve respect and dignity. We deserve respect and dignity.
Hmm. Not exactly the rave review I’d been hoping for. But there’s one good thing I can take away from this public shaming, at least:
Sarah’s right. On the night in question, I said a stupid and sexist thing about Chelsea Cain, and nothing that follows here – nothing – is going to change, nor excuse, that simple fact.
Every story comes with context, and there’s quite a bit of context missing from Ms. Weinman’s account of the incident. So, in the hopes of being forgiven sooner rather than later, and in the interests of setting a slightly bent record straight, I’d like to fill in the blanks a little, for those of you who weren’t in Portland to see and hear my faux pas for yourselves.
As Sarah so accurately points out, the job of convention toastmaster for an amateur like me is a thankless one, and the part I found most challenging by far was the auction. People were bidding on the right to have their names used in a book by Guests of Honor Timothy Hallinan and Philip Margolin, respectively, and I was muddling through the assignment of playing auctioneer when disaster struck. Ms. Cain went Kanye on me and stormed the stage to make the same offer to the crowd as Misters Hallinan and Margolin, because why should they have all the fun? Suddenly, the toastmaster had become but a conduit to the Chelsea Cain Show, and if I wasn’t a flustered boob before, I certainly was now. Chelsea relieved me of the microphone not once, not twice, but three times in order to up the ante of the bloody mess she would make of the winning bidder (”I’ll flay the skin from your bones!” or words to that effect), and it was at this point that I said, “I think she’s going to take her dress off next!”, meaning to suggest not that she was hot for teacher, but that her dress was likely to be the next thing tossed into the winner’s prize pool at the rate she was going. (My apologies to anyone there that night who, like Ms. Weinman, completely missed this rather important distinction.)
Moments later – and not in the very next breath following my comment about Chelsea’s dress, as Sarah mistakenly recalls – Chelsea sweetened the pot yet again with a handcuff key, and that’s when I uttered the words that ultimately, and justifiably, sealed my doom: “I thought it was your hotel room key that you always give away.”
Yuchh. What an asinine, insulting, and painfully unfunny thing to say. The crowd did moan, and internally, so did I.
As for the charge that Ms. Cain’s ten-year-old daughter was in the room, a fact I was completely unaware of – nothing about this incident brings me any greater shame. I’m a father of four children myself, and I guard them with my life, so the idea that the child came away from the dinner thinking I felt “that way” about her mother is deeply troubling to me.
(Of course, the girl also heard her mother gleefully refer to the act of peeling the skin off another human being, but I’m sure there was some wringing of hands about that, too, somewhere. Wasn’t there?)
In any case, the rest of the evening went swimmingly, and no one had an unkind word to say about my performance. Still, I knew I’d fucked up and that an apology to Chelsea was in order. I went looking for her but didn’t find her until she was in the bar, surrounded by other people. I should have manned-up and apologized to her right then and there, but coward that I am, I held off until I could catch her alone.
The next morning, I learned that the proverbial shit had hit the Twitter fan and that Chelsea was gone, taking with her any chance I had of apologizing to her, face-to-face.
Let the record show that I emailed Chelsea to personally apologize immediately upon returning home from the conference on Monday, and before I’d read a single Tweet (I still haven’t seen any). And that would have been the end of it, as far as I was concerned, until I learned that Sarah Weinman had fired up the internet to take me to the woodshed, to all extents and purposes lumping me in with all those other sexist, male buffoons in the literary universe who expose their shallow opinion of women every time they open their mouths.
Uh, no. That’s not who I am. Not even close.
In fact, I would suggest this is why there’s been that “weird quiet about what happened last Saturday night” to which Ms. Weinman alludes near the end of her blog. I’m not that guy, and anybody who’s ever spent more than five minutes with me in a conference hotel bar – anybody – will tell you that. If leading the rush to judgment in this case has proven to be an oddly lonely business for Sarah, perhaps the reputation I’ve cultivated over twenty years in the business as a man who treats women the exact same way he treats men – with all the “respect and dignity they deserve” – has more than a little to do with it.
Sometimes, a boneheaded, sexually-offensive joke is not a window into a man’s soul at all, but just his sad and pathetic attempt, in a moment of distress, to find a punchline where there is none.
Which finally brings me full circle to the way I started this post: Sarah’s right. On the night in question, I said a stupid and sexist thing about Chelsea Cain.
And for that, I am genuinely sorry.