Jewish World Review July 30, 2002 / 21 Menachem-Av, 5762
Leonard Pitts, Jr.
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | "Pa, I want to be famous."
Eric announced this out of the clear blue the other night. Not that I was taken totally by surprise. My grandson, who is 6, has long had the habit of saying things that give you whiplash. For instance, he told us recently that he listens to classical music because "wap" has "too many bad words." And he flirts quite openly with his uncle's 17-year-old girlfriend. Last week, his uncle left the room to attend to some errand and Eric sang out, "Don't worry about Stefanie. I'll keep an eye on her."
Mack Daddy in a Power Rangers T-shirt.
So it's no longer a surprise when Eric says the proverbial things that make you go, "Hmmmm." Still, the boy's declaration of his desire for celebrity was a new wrinkle. I replied as I think most of us would have: "HUH?!"
But immediately after saying, "Huh?!" I asked the obvious question.
Eric had a ready answer. "When you're famous," he explained, "you can do anything you want to do."
I believe the word for that is "precocious." I mean, here he is, 6 years old, still playing Pokemon, but already he understands the dearest aspiration of a full-grown man. Namely, to lie around the house all day long, answerable only to nature's call.
Eric, I think, is emblematic of the American Dream. The New American Dream, that is. The old one had to do with home ownership, liberty and justice for all. The new one involves getting famous. Fame, many seem to feel, is its own reward.
Nor are they particularly particular in the way they go about it.
If you doubt me, put on your hip boots, hold your nose and turn on the television. Enter this sewer of talk shows and "reality" games where everyday people put the worst of themselves and their lives on display for our inspection, where they date, cohabit, mate, marry, mourn, weep, cheat, backstab, divorce and claw at one another's eyes, shred privacy and dignity like Enron documents, all for the chance to be on television. As if being on television somehow validates an otherwise mundane existence. As if, having been seen by the unblinking eye, they can now die, fulfilled.
I have nothing against fame. You think I wouldn't like to write a book that makes Oprah fall at my feet and Katie Couric put me on the speed dial? Fame has its appeal. But there are limits to what I'd do to achieve it. America, I love you and all, but I'm not about to marry a stranger or eat fried maggots for your entertainment.
Because life is not a game show stunt. And because fame, as an end unto itself, is dross. It's fool's gold. Heck, Charles Manson is famous.
The point being that notoriety is not a character reference. It's fascinating how frequently we seem to forget that. How often we behave as if being known, as if having the big house, the entourage and the other perks and accouterments that sometimes accompany being known, make a person somehow ... larger.
Or paradoxically, lesser. Because we enjoy seeing the mighty fall as much as, or more than, we do watching them ascend.
Yet even knowing this truth of human nature, people still aspire to be the mighty. We seem to feel that if others know our faces, if we can somehow manage to lift ourselves from our own anonymity, everything else in life will fall into place.
But it ain't necessarily so.
As I told Eric, being famous doesn't always mean you can do anything you want. He gave me a look of pure "Wha'chu talkin' 'bout, Willis?"
"Well," he demanded, "what do you do when you're famous?"
"When you're famous, you have to work," I said. I was fudging a little, yes. I suppose I was thinking of that era when, Zsa Zsa Gabor excepted, most people who became celebrities had actually done something.
Eric made a cough-medicine face. "Work?" he said. "I don't EVER want to have to work."
Like I said, precocious.
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