About ten years ago, when I was still living in Los Angeles, I was invited to the most specialized seminar I ever attended.
I was bidding to ghostwrite a book for a man who worked as an MC, a TV host, a sort of Tom Bergeron manqué. To see if we were simpatico, he asked me to come to a workshop he was running. A workshop on hosting.
I got there expecting to hear about the mysteries of three-camera placement, good lighting, and what to do when your guest freezes up. Instead, he had invited three fairly well-known actors to be his guests, and he chatted with them.
It was disorienting. If you had asked me back in college what I expected to be doing in the next century, attending an MC workshop in the San Fernando Valley wouldn't have made my top 100. Then it got weirder. Tom (let's call him Tom) had three guests: Steven Railsback, Tippi Hedren, and Robert Clary. Railsback starred with Peter O'Toole in one of my favorite movies from the '80s, The Stuntman. Tippi Hedren, of course, is famous for The Birds. And Robert Clary played LeBeau on Hogan's Heroes.
Tom asked all of them to talk about their current projects. Those of you who know something about Robert Clary may see where this is going.
As he sat in his director's chair, Clary looked barely older than he had on Hogan's Heroes, even though by that time he must have been in his 70s. He was a small man, in irrepressibly good spirits, flirting with Tippi, smiling, cracking jokes, his French accent much softer than it had been on TV. And he said that one of the things he did was tour Los Angeles high schools with the Wiesenthal Center and give lectures to students on the Holocaust.
Not because of his TV role as a German POW.
Because he was a survivor of Buchenwald, and had lost his father and eleven other family members in the camps.
I felt a sense of vertigo. I was sitting in a basement auditorium on Ventura Boulevard, with Relax the Back stores and California Pizza Kitchens and high-end strip malls all around, and I was twenty feet away from a man who had lived through the closest thing to Hell on Earth that humanity has ever created.
He talked about having been the baby in his family, and having a cheerful attitude because of it; about how remaining optimistic had helped him survive; about the railroad cars and the stench and the barracks. And then Tom turned to Tippi Hedren, and with exactly the same tone he'd used with Robert, asked her what she was working on.
To her credit, Tippi stumbled a little and looked abashed as she talked about Shambala, her preserve for lions, tigers and other exotic cats. She knew there was something wrong about following Robert that way. For his part, Robert seemed as unfazed as Tom.
Like a lot of people, I have used the word "shallow" as a synonym for "stupid," "ignorant," "trivial." But after that night, I understood that shallow is none of those things. Instead, to be shallow is to assign equal value to everything. Tiger preserves are as important as concentration camps; shooting sprees and panda babies and affordable health care all deserve the same time and attention.
Local news is shallow. So are magazines that place the same emphasis on musicians and investigative journalism (hello, Rolling Stone). Justin Bieber is shallow, because he believes that being a "Belieber" is as important as the story of Anne Frank. (It's okay for the Bieb to be shallow, by the way - he's 19 years old.)
But Tim Gunn is not shallow. I might not value the things that he does - fashion and design - but I can't doubt for a second that he has put considerable thought into what he values.. He doesn't believe fashion is as important as anything else; he believes that it is MORE important than a lot of things, and he knows why he believes it. I may not agree with that position, but I can respect it, because we live in a vast, warm sea of shallow, where Michael Jackson's doctor, Sandy Hook and Danth's Law all float on the surface, jostled by tiny waves. In that sea, people who make distinctions, who say "This is important and that is not" - and can back it up honestly and in good faith - those people are precious indeed.