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.
I’ve been thinking a lot about recognition, fame, notoriety and our obsession with it. The poem (I’ve never read any of her works and must check her out) is absolutely wonderful.
Milton, this really hits the mark in our fame-obsessed society. I love the poem and your ‘awesomely bald’ story. What a wonderful definition of being famous.
We have just started another series of the Big Brother reality TV show in the UK, and it is impossible to escape from headlines about it. Millions of people watching.
I attract a certain amount of teasing because I refuse to watch BB and I refuse to read tabloid newspapers. I’m sure people think I am ‘holier than thou’ and that I read them on the quiet. But I really don’t. I think they’re intrinsically harmful, and they detract from important issues.
And before I climb down off my soapbox, I also agree with your question about why is no-one busting the club owners.
In the UK we have a really serious problem with binge drinking, costing hundreds of thousands in damages, police time, hospital time etc., not to mention the damage to the lives of the individuals. And yet it always used to be the case that if a pub landlord realised someone had had too much to drink, they would stop serving them. I’m not saying that the responsibility doesn’t also lie with the drinkers themselves, but surely the bartenders must share in it.
Oh well, off to be famous to my lunch.
Yep, definitely awesome.
Great story about the homeless guy and your awesomeness. And Naomi Shihab Nye is famous at my house any day.
Milton – in my book, people are famous when they MATTER. I tell my kids all the time that I am famous, that they are famous, that what matters is that you MATTER and that you make a differnce.
So, guess what? YOU are famous! REALLY famous! Awesomely famous – and awesomely bald! Could life possibly get any better?
I think that’s why Lohan’s not so unique story is so sad to me. She seems to think she has to live outrageously (or spend $49,000 a month on rehab) to prove she’s famous. She doesn’t know that she, like all of us, matter because we’re breathing.
I find it a curious counterpoint that those of us in real life who are truly famous for things of our inherent goodness find longer lasting appreciation than those who crash and burn in headlines, becoming a common kind of famous for behavior that is neither good nor unique. Society seems to reward with the material those who go for the common behaviors.
Tends to underline the old quote that you can tell what God thinks of money by looking at those who have it.
And I understand that the underaged “icons” are more than welcome in night time establishments because they bring in the crowds. They get around the ‘illegal serving of a minor’, by turning a blind eye when said underaged star’s of age hired hand orders the drinks and then hands them over.
Love this post.
I ran into John Lewis at Costco today and a part of me wanted to 1) go up to him and say “Thank You” for devoting his life to good things or 2) check out what was in his cart. (Lots of bottled water.)
Anyway, I let him shop in peace. But he is also as famous as a buttonhole.
We’ve been on holiday for two weeks, and while we were gone I purposely checked out of most media – no CNN, daily paper, etc. Now we’re home, and though I’m anxious to catch up with what’s happening in Iraq, Washington, etc., I find I haven’t missed the latest gossip at all. Sadly, much of what passes for news right now is gossip, and none of it helps. Luther once said that the commandment against false witness wasn’t only about lying; he said “we should fear and love God, so that we do not lie about, slander or deceive our neighbor, but defend him, speak well of him, and interpret everything he says in the best possible way” (sic). I’d like to see more of this in our media.
By the way, I’m KICKING myself this morning – we were in Boston and I never emailed you to see if we could meet! Grrrr.