February 2003


Thoughts about celebrity, death and what we want to be remembered for.

I was strolling through the checkout the other day and spent a little while leafing through a retrospective on 2002. I don't generally waste a lot of my time on supermarket literature, but I got stuck, as I always do, in the obits. Prominently featured were people like the Queen Mother, Peggy Lee and Johnny Unitas. It is an odd measure of celebrity to note how many people regret a celebrity's passing. Some people travel thousands of miles to gape at the graveside of someone they never met alive. I'm sorry that they're dead and I hope they had fun while they were alive, but why one would go to visit the grave of a total stranger escapes me.

I speculate about the many people who were missed more in retrospect than they were appreciated when alive. It is a cliche of celebrity that their fans grieve for their idol while the celebrity's own family and friends are not unhappy that the celebrity is dead. Probably a case of familiarity breeding contempt.

In 2002, my uncle died. He wasn't a celebrity. He was a retired minister. As such, he touched a lot of lives. I will always remember him as the fellow who knew, twenty minutes after arriving, the names, origins and interesting statistics about everybody else in the trailer park. He had a wonderfully welcoming smile. He was also a great diffuser of tense situations; nobody could stay angry with him very long. He knew an awful lot of people in his long life, and most of them are dead before him. I'm in a small, lingering minority of the living who carry his memory about with me. Those recollections have served me well and I hope they will keep on serving me for some time yet.

I have met my share of celebrities and quite a few of them are now dead, but my meetings with most were so brief that I remember them for the fact of their having happened, rather than for anything good or useful that occurred. It is amazing how many people go through life as if they are collecting boxtops. They are always waiting to cross something else off their list. There were a pair of little old ladies who lived in another apartment in our building when I was a kid. Their ambition was to go to Rome and see the Pope before they died. They refrained from doing a lot of other things in order to save up for their Rome trip. My mother always thought they'd have done better to do interesting things so that they would be more interesting for the Pope to meet, if ever their paths crossed. I wondered what they expected from a meeting with the Pope, but I wager I understood their motivation better than folks who felt the same about seeing Elvis, when he was alive.

We all have a lot of ghosts who travel along with us through life. Most of mine are entertainers of one kind or another: Jimmy Stewart, Gracie Allen, Spencer Tracy, and so on. Shuffled into this collection are a few co-workers, acquaintances, friends and relatives. I wonder what it would have been like to only know the few people you personally met? I have seen so many movies, read so many books, and watched quite a lot of TV, and I take all those characters and their actors and authors with me wherever I go. I wonder what some wandering curious alien would make of my psyche and how they would discriminate between my memories of concerts, books, film characters, real people and dreams. Who's the real boy, Mark my best friend when I was seven or Bart Simpson? My life is so full of fiction. It is easy to see how people sometimes get confused about what was real and what was imaginary in their lives.

What happens to all those ghosts, when we become ghosts ourselves? I can picture those two old ladies bragging in heaven about the Pope they saw. I can imagine the architect of the Coliseum and the architect of the World Trade Center there comparing their buildings and discussing what happened to them. It would be a very interesting universe if our collective expectations for things affected what really happened to them. Life is so short. We're all bit players.

In my life, I've had a lot of different aspirations. They come and go. Thinking about them all now, I think I could settle for just one. I'd like to be remembered fondly by people who missed me. Everything else is just some kind of story we tell ourselves to help us get something we want.

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.