I couldn’t help but notice the teaser on the AOL homepage as I logged on to check my email: “What happened to Lindsay Lohan?” To top it off, they included this picture from her Parent Trap days. For those of you not keeping score at home, 20 year old Lohan was arrested for being high or drunk or both. I read the question twice. At best, it’s satirically rhetorical; at worst, it’s cynically stupid. My hunch is the latter. (Why is no one busting the club owners for serving an underage person?)
Some time during my late night TV viewing, I came across a BBC documentary called The Human Face starring John Cleese. The segment I saw was called “Famous Faces” and had to do with fame, which, as far as Cleese was concerned, is overrated in our modern culture. He ended the episode standing in a newsstand surrounded by magazines covered with pictures of movie stars and models. “All of these people are famous and they don’t have an idea between them that will be of any help to you.” As he walked out of the shot, the camera panned back to show a whole row of magazines with his face on the cover.
When I looked in Roget’s Thesaurus, it made a distinction between “widely known and esteemed” and “widely known and discussed.” What I heard in Cleese’s commentary was what appears to matter most in our culture is simply to be widely known; being esteemed carries very little currency these days. Being famous has been reduced to the lowest common denominator of the tabloids and, worse still, has turned us into cultural cannibals with voracious appetites for the salacious and the stupid. That’s what happened to Lindsay Lohan: we chewed her up and spit out nothing but bones.
In 1999, Ron Howard made EdTV about the ridiculous concept of someone putting his life on camera 24/7. Eight years later, in our reality show world, EdTV seems sentimental and naïve by comparison. Our twisted sense of reality means more people in our country know about Sanjaya than the Sudan.
I’m stating the obvious.
Since I saw Cleese’s piece, I’ve been thinking about my favorite Naomi Shihab Nye poem. I know I quoted it in the early days of the blog, but it feels essential word right now in reminding us what the word means:
The river is famous to the fish.
The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.
The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.
The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.
The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.
The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.
The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.
I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.
The other day when I was downtown waiting in line to get my sandwich, a homeless man stumbled my way. He wasn’t wearing a shirt and was clearly drunk, even though it was just after noon. He started staring at me from several yards off and began veering my way as he stumbled along. As he got close, he said, “You’re bald,” and then he grinned. I smiled back, wondering what was going to happen next. His grin got bigger and he said, “And you’re AWESOME.” Then he went on his way.
Thanks to my crystal ball of a scalp reflecting the sun on an early summer day, I was fleetingly famous to a guy on the street. I smiled back and thanked him, but my fame was neither substantive or sustainable. I met a woman this week who is a social worker in Framingham working mostly with homeless teenagers. She talked about making an extra sandwich when she makes her lunch everyday and making sure she always has an extra pair of socks in her bag when she goes out to find the kids. They are always hungry and they need the socks because they don’t have any kind of access to do laundry. She may never get a movie deal or snort coke in the back of a fancy limousine, but she’s famous, I tell you.
As a buttonhole.