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Sometimes I am foolishly pleased with myself when I see the name or the picture of someone in the newspaper who is obviously famous that I don't know. It makes me feel superior.

All of us are less apt to know a famous person these days, because there are a lot more of them than there used to be. Those of us in one age group don't recognize the people who are famous to those in another age group. Everyone, young and old, knew Bing Crosby when I was growing up, but not everyone knows Eminem now.

When I see the picture of a famous person like Britney Spears in the newspaper, I realize the reason I don't know her is because what she did to get famous doesn't interest me. It isn't simply that Britney Spears is young, either. There's a picture of Bette Midler, no longer young, 20 feet high on the side of the CBS building I work in, and while I know Bette is very famous, I couldn't tell you what she does. If she's a singer, I've never heard her sing, and I suspect she couldn't describe what I do, either.

I'm unclear about the difference between Oprah Winfrey and Rosie O'Donnell, because I've never watched either of them. I know they're very popular and must be good at what they do, but I don't know what they do.

There are other famous people whose fame is a mystery to me: Michael Jackson is very famous, I know, but for what I couldn't tell you. Puffy Combs' name and face is in the newspaper these days for his involvement in a shooting, but I have never seen him perform. Andy Rooney would almost certainly be unknown to Puffy Combs.

People in this country are compartmentalized by age, financial status, upbringing, geography, education and social grouping. Puffy and I are not in the same compartment. I do like writing his name.

Fame seldom outlasts a generation. Some famous people hang onto their fame long after they die or even permanently, but most lose it quickly. Shakespeare said, "There's hope a great man's memory may outlive his life half a year." Movie stars from my childhood like Tom Mix, Clara Bow and Carole Lombard are unknown to even middle-aged people now. The memories of Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, on the other hand, have outlived them.

The word "fan" is an abbreviation of the word "fanatic," although it has acquired a whole new meaning of its own. The first time I noticed the foolishness of fame and fans was in high school, when I saw pictures and read the stories about young girls - "Bobby Soxers" they were called - mobbing Frank Sinatra. It diminished the importance I assigned to the word "fan" for all time. When anyone says, "I'm a big fan of . . . " I don't care what or who the person is a fan of, I tune out.

A lot of it is idiocy, and it's not clear whether the adulation large numbers of people heap on someone is the fault of the people who are fans or the person being admired beyond reason and for virtues he or she doesn't have. Sometimes it's the fault of the person being admired because he or she set out to be famous.

Most famous people who have attracted the attention of what are known as fans are not what their fans think they are. They don't possess the characteristics for which their fans admire them.

We would all like to have the memory of us live long after our death, and achieving fame during a lifetime strikes a lot of people as the way to do that. That's why fame has always been considered so desirable an achievement.

"Were not this desire of fame very strong, the difficulty of obtaining it and the danger of losing it when obtained, would be sufficient to deter anyone from so vain a pursuit," Joseph Addison wrote in about 1690.

Tribune Media Services

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