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I’ve always wanted to be too cool to care about being in the presence of celebs, if and when I ever should find myself in that situation. Reason dictates that it’s both absurd and unbecoming to go ga-ga over people just because everyone knows who they are. But I’m too honest not to admit that I’m not completely immune to the hold fame has over us, that I casually covet my few direct and indirect brushes with those who occupy the stratosphere of social renown, and even a few who hover only slightly above the rest of us.

Here are the brushes (both direct and indirect) I remember: One of my brothers dated for a while (or was just good friends with, I’m never quite sure) Stephanie Zimbalist, who co-starred with the still-famous Pierce Brosnan in the television show Remington Steele a few decades ago; another brother was center screen for an incredibly long time as an extra on “Ali,” playing a reporter taking notes while Will Smith tried to look a hundred pounds heavier than he was; I chatted with Timothy Busfield (of  30-Something, Field of Dreams, and West Wing fame) in line to board a plane from Newark to New Orleans; I met Sam Elliot by the keg at the post-production party for High-Low Country in Santa Fe that I more or less crashed (by invitation from a friend of the host), not knowing anything about the film whose completion I was supposedly celebrating (so when Sam hung out with me, and asked me my name, I thought it only reasonable to ask him his as well, not recognizing him at all until later, retroactively; he seemed a little taken aback that someone presumably on the crew of the movie he had just completed not only wasn’t honored by his gift of a little attention, but had even failed to recognize him!); I had a brief encounter with Condoleezza Rice when she was either Secretary of State or National Security Advisor and living in the Watergate complex, when I was staying across the street and having my morning coffee in a little courtyard in the complex; I just saw Time Magazine icon and Chris Matthews Show panelist Joe Klein walk quietly into a candidate forum in Denver a couple of weeks ago, and kicked myself afterward for not slipping him my card with this URL on it…, and so on. I know there are at least a few other similar encounters that I can’t think of now, but you get the idea. Fame is all around.

I myself have managed to get my mug on local TV, and my mugless voice on radio, a few times over the years, most recently on Denver Channel 12 and some radio station or other on Mike Zinna’s TV and radio shows. The occasional op-ed. Little itsy-bitsy droplets of public recognition.

As a marginal state house candidate, or even just as a social activist, I’ve learned how easy it is to become familiar with political big-shots. I can’t help but play a little game with myself, gauging how well this U.S. Senator or that Congressman remembers me; and they play it as well, demonstrating that they recall my name (when they do), because they know that it’s appreciated. (One found a pretext to shout my name across a parking lot as I was leaving a function, because he clearly hadn’t remembered it the last time we had met).

But why? The last example is the easiest to use to demonstrate the answer: Because fame is social capital. I’m trying to make a career in public policy analysis and advocacy, and getting to know people who are hubs, and hopefully bigger hubs, in the hub-and-spoke social networks in which I want to work is good for my career ambitions. “Social networking” is a valuable skill, because social networks are valuable assets.

It’s primal, and it’s wired into us early in life. When we lived in bands of primates foraging on the savanna, you wanted the strongest to be your friend, and so the strongest was very popular. He had as many allies as he could handle, which made him just that much more formidable. His reputation soared, and the desire to be in his inner-circle soared with it. Life was just better if you could manage to be among the chosen, and you often could, because it served his interests as well as yours. Fame, charisma, the human rallying point of social organization, it’s all tangled together, though not always coextensive (there are famous people with no charisma, for instance).

As a child, if you’re not one of the cool kids, you sure want one of them to take you under his or her wing, because that’s a form of protection. Their local fame provides a penumbra under which you can shelter, and “bask in their reflected glory”. If you can’t be cool, you can at least be a mascot.

People who droolingly seek an autograph from a celebrity secretly dream that they’ll be noticed, have a chance to show how lovable or talented they are, and maybe actually become a friend of the celeb. That desire isn’t irrational (though the belief that it might be fulfilled may be): Elvis’s friends made a darn good living being Elvis’s friends, and becoming a member of a celebrity entourage has long been seen as an awfully good gig if you can get it. The fantasy that contact can lead to connection, like buying a lottery ticket, drives the desire to touch, to encounter, to have one moment to have a shot at striking it big.

But reason sometimes intervenes: I always had a stronger desire to meet and talk with people whose fame was based on accomplishments that impressed me than on non-accomplishments that didn’t. I sincerely have no desire whatsoever to meet the vast majority of today’s crop of celebrities, and even the one’s I respect I don’t care that much about meeting. I treasure my conversations with famous scholars far more than I treasure my chat about the New Orleans weather with Timothy Busfield, or my comical encounter with Sam Elliot.

And I treasure encounters with people whose fame is very minor indeed (or even non-existent), but have some admirable talent or achievements or social network location that make them more famous to me. When (Denver Channel 9 political reporter and talk show host) Adam Schrager emailed me to compliment a fund-raising poem I had written (the same one, with a different last stanza, now gracing the home page of this blog), and stopped by my table at a candidate forum to chat with me for a few minutes; or when (hopefully soon to be Colorado Speaker of the House) Rep. Andy Kerr, with whom I did a legal internship during the 2009 legislative session, treats me like the casual friend that I am; or when State Senator Moe Keller warmly greeted me at a “legislative breakfast” hosted by Mental Health America yesterday, and later emailed me that she “loved” my blog, I was as delighted as I could be, because the accessibility of local luminaries is more valuable, and more pleasant, than the “immensity” of national and international ones.

Andy and Moe and Adam will probably feel, on reading themselves referred to as “local luminaries,” and discussed in the context of the attraction to famous people, pretty much the same way I felt a couple of weeks ago at Summerset Festival in South Jeffco, where I spent the weekend at the Jeffco Dems booth, when a young fellow, probably in his late teens, upon learning that I was a state house candidate, took on the demeanor of someone talking to an important person, with a little bit of a tremor in his voice, not realizing how astoundingly unimportant I really am!

But that’s just it. Importance or unimportance is situational, and subjectively perceived. In this brave new world of ours, we don’t have to wait for gatekeepers to allow us to show our stuff; we can type it on our laptops and send it out there, for others to admire or disdain, letting our own qualities distill from the social continuum a little dew drop of fame, evaporating with the rising sun. The person who posts something witty, or insightful, or inspirational, is admired by all who read it, and admired in a more meaningful and substantial way than a Paris Hilton by a gushing fan. We all have gifts to give one another, a song, an insight, a gesture of goodwill, that we can share as broadly as we choose, and by doing so, generate something of lasting importance, flashing through our social networks, rapidly evolving as it goes. We can earn fame in small doses, for moments at a time, and let others earn it as well. And we can retract it from those who have only attracted attention, reserving it for those who have done something of merit.

Just like other forms of capital, fame can be earned, inherited, acquired by deception or chance, horded, spent, or invested. Celebrities who use their celebrity to promote causes and to raise money for charities are spending their fame. When they open a restaurant in their name, they are investing it. When the promote someone else (such as Oprah regularly did with her book club), they are giving some of it to others, though their own supply is not diminished by doing so.

Fame has become more diffuse, too often trivial, a circus of balloon boys and party goers, but also occasionally well deserved, such as the little girl whose brilliant operatic voice on U-Tube landed her on American Idol. We are no longer apes on the savanna, no longer needing to focus on centralized individuals toward which to gravitate and around which to form hierarchies. We are now a decentralized network of interconnected minds, the juice of fame coursing among us all, lighting up momentarily here or there, and moving on.

Like other forms of capital, it is increased by being dispersed, it flows rather than resides, and it should be invested rather than horded. Recognition from the recognized has value, and increases the quantity and quality of recognition to be bestowed.

Let’s be one another’s entourage, sharing a fame that belongs to no one in particular, bestowing on one another the respect that we can all strive to deserve, and creating together the penumbra under which to shelter ourselves. Let’s bask in each other’s reflected glory, in our collective glory, without burdening any one of us with its exclusive possession, or denying the rest of us its occasional delight.

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  • In other words, fame is a kind of capital, that can be concentrated in fewer hands, or distributed in many, and can be earned or rewarded arbitrarily. It seems counterintuitive, because it’s not quite the same thing as we think of as “fame” when it’s distributed, but it’s essentially the same form of capital in a more distributed incarnation.

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