Last September, I was scheduled to appear on National Public Radio (NPR) to promote my new memoir, I Sleep At Red Lights: A True Story of Life After Triplets, in a back-to-school-themed show. But minutes before airtime, the NPR producer told me that country music legend Johnny Cash had died and my segment had been bumped for an obituary.
Unlike Hillary Clinton or J.K. Rowling, I didn't have marketing or PR machines to launch me into the media matrix. This was to be my big break the equivalent of an obscure comic landing on The Tonight Show and in a final act of one-upsmanship, Johnny Cash stole my microphone.
Cash's swan song forced me to e-mail more than 200 people the embarrassing update of my un-appearance. My Amazon sales ranking marooned itself at 10,023, moving neither up nor down, a perfect symbol of my public-relations purgatory.
This spell of self-pity lasted for a month, until Willie Shoemaker, the famous jockey, died. I realized that somewhere, in a cramped and airless radio studio, another first-time author was getting booted to make time for a treacly homage by Bob Costas or some other yellow-jacketed pontificator.
Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings. And every time a celebrity dies, a struggling author gets kicked back down into the shallow grave of obscurity. To see my life's work pre-empted by the inconveniently timed deaths of the media-friendly had a terrible side effect: I stopped enjoying the obituaries.
In my 40s, I began to read the obituaries before the movie reviews the obits were more dramatic, revealing and instructive and now this simple pleasure had been ruined. When John Ritter died, instead of lingering over my teen memories of Three's Company, I imagined hundreds of pasty-faced authors returning to their jobs at engineering magazines and Blockbuster stores, endless years of labor washed away so Rex Reed could prattle through six commercial breaks on Larry King.
Fall turned to winter and many fascinating people exited the world, stage left. I skimmed their obituaries with mounting irritation. By some small miracle (perhaps Willie Shoemaker rode to my rescue?), I was rebooked on NPR in early November. I prayed that any washed-up tennis pro or self-exiled Broadway composer who felt the need to shuffle off this mortal coil would exercise the common decency to yield until I was on the air. Frankly, though, I remained anxious. Celebrities dedicated their lives to hogging the spotlight. Why should they be any more charitable in death?As it turned out, terrorists bombed a Saudi Arabian compound the night before my appearance, bumping me again. The NPR producer rebooked me for Monday, one week before Thanksgiving. "Providing Saddam Hussein isn't killed," I joked. The producer laughed uncomfortably at my bizarre bad luck.
I spent 20 years as a reporter and knew that the news was inherently unpredictable. As a self-absorbed writer, I also wondered if I was having some cosmological influence. What if my potential celebrity was like a pebble dropped into the pond of Fate, and I was seeing the ripples of my existential impact? Even as an example of negative megalomania, the possibility that God might rearrange world events to crush my success was a powerfully seductive idea. Maybe I could hire myself out to Fox News or CNN to create crises during slow news cycles. The book-writing was not paying my bills.
That weekend, I scanned the news hourly. I could literally feel the gravity of my bad karma pushing and pulling the news two helicopters downed in Iraq, bombings in Istanbul, anti-Bush protests in England. And then billionaire Larry Tisch died. His empire was built on real estate and media -an irresistible portfolio for media tastemakers. I was toast. And yet, on Monday, the NPR producer said Tisch's death would only carve 10 minutes out of my 60-minute spot. Unless Saddam Hussein was killed in the next few hours, I was green-lighted. I rode the train into New York City and walked to the NPR studio in total silence, hoping that no news was, finally, good news. Bruce Stockler is a humorist and the author of I Sleep At Red Lights: A True Story of Life After Triplets.