April 1, 1999
My Mental Celebrity Database
Sandra Bullock, get out of my head.
Look, it's nothing personal. I'm sure you're a really nice person, and it's not like you're untalented. And despite the fact that I'm not particularly a fan of yours, I seem to know everything about you. The other day, your name came up by the proverbial "water cooler," and I realized, to my horror, that I know more about you, a person I've never met, than I do about many of my own relatives.
I know you live in Texas, I know what movies you've made, and I even know that you starred in an awful sitcom version of the movie "Working Girl." I can chronicle your dating history over the past few years, and, after listening to you on Howard Stern the other morning in my car, I even know your sister broke your nose when you were a kid. That is not a nose job, Sandra. I know that now.
I know way, way too much about you.
And it's not just you, Sandra. Sure, the "Bullock" file in my mental celebrity database is pretty full right now, but there are others. In fact, when I think about the sheer volume of biographical information I have about celebrities, it's astounding. Listen to the radio, flip through a magazine in a waiting room somewhere, catch a little VH-1 "Behind the Music" some Sunday night, and, next thing you know, you can list what body parts Sandra Bullock least likes about herself and what kind of pizza toppings she prefers.
What concerns me is that some little factoid, Sandra's favorite moisturizer, for example, will push out more important information stored in my memory. Here's a frightening thought: Sandra's shoe size, in; the smell of my grandmother's cookies baking, out.
Living in Los Angeles, it's not surprising that we're all saturated with information about famous people. Many of us know them, work with them, serve them, want to be like them, or at least stand behind them in line at Rite Aid. Still, I had to make sure it wasn't just me.
I called my friend Stan to administer the McConaughey/Hemingway test.
"What do I know about Matthew McConaughey?" Stan paused. "Well, he was discovered by a casting agent in a bar in Austin, he appeared in the movie "Contact" with Jodie Foster, and he recently cut his hair off for some war movie. I could go on," he said.
"No, please don't," I answered. "What about Ernest Hemingway; what would you know about him?"
"He's a writer," Stan said. "But I don't think I could tell you what he's written exactly."
I went to a coffee shop to try the Danes/Dickinson test on a couple of young women who were conversing over scones on their lunch break. Their knowledge of Claire Danes was encyclopedic. They knew she had starred in an episode of "Law and Order" before appearing on "My So-Called Life." They could list every movie she had made and even her curriculum at Yale University. My Sandra knowledge paled in comparison.
"Do you know who Emily Dickinson is?" I asked.
"Didn't she kill herself?"
I explain they were probably thinking of Sylvia Plath, but close enough.
I went up to order a latte, and, while trying to figure out what was going on with the coffee guy's facial hair, I realized I had to come up with a more obscure celebrity. Someone not on magazine covers or Howard Stern.
"Excuse me, would you happen to know anything about John Cryer?"
Coffee guy stopped mid-foam. "Sure. He was Duckie in 'Pretty in Pink,' starred in some movie with John Cusack, and wasn't he on that Channel 11 sitcom with Vivica Fox?"
"That's impressive," I said, shocked. "Would you know anything about a guy named Alan Greenspan?"
"No. It does sound kind of familiar. Is he in the government?"
I really couldn't be too smug. Frankly, I know a lot more about Dennis Rodman's relationship with his father and Shania Twain's Nashville years than I do about Mr. Greenspan. And that just can't be good.
I suppose the only way to neutralize the effect of all this trivia is to counter it with meatier mental pursuits. With that in mind, I sat on a bench and attempted to power through my dense book-group novel, a Pulitzer Prize-winner called "Shipping News," about a widower in a Newfoundland fishing outpost.
For two hours, I navigated a complicated world of knots and sailors and sophisticated prose. Sure, the newsstand beckoned, calling me with splashy covers and seducing me with Marilu Henner's manicure tips, but I stayed on the craggy shores of Newfoundland. Sipping my latte and struggling through the small print, I was momentarily footloose and Sandra free.
Teresa Strasser is a twentysomething contributing writer for The Jewish Journal.