Searching to fill the void in our lives

September 05, 1997

Not since the O.J. Simpson verdict has an issue broken so clearly along demographic lines. Men with artistic/humanitarian leanings and women of all ages, save for younger professionals, connect.

College-educated woman under, say, 35, and most men, do not.

To some women Diana represented romance, the tingly dream of being swept away by a prince - they or their moms are mainly from the pre-working woman generations when it was OK to talk of princely men, and romance had yet to be conquered by the need to bring home two incomes.

To others she represented hope. For some younger, workaday women, their handsome prince might come in the form of a winning lottery ticket, but the attraction is still that thread of hope that one's life can turn about in a heartbeat.


Diana's life took so many wild turns that at one point or another it struck a sympathetic chord with huge blocks of people. Think of all the single moms. Of all the rejected, or ignored, lovers. Of all the people with causes. Of all the people who have divorced.

It was like Joe Garagiola once said about rubber-necked Boston Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant: No matter where you were sitting in the stadium, at some point Tiant was bound to look you straight in the eye.

Symbolically, Diana's life looked millions of people straight in the eye. No wonder so many connected.

Neither is there is any great mystery in her death. She was killed by a falling-down drunken driver, nothing more, nothing less.

She was not killed by the photographers, although their behavior after the accident was despicable. She was not killed by the tabloids or their editors and neither was she somehow killed by the tabloid-buying public or society as a whole, as the hand-wringing, junk psychologists would have us believe.

But when we lose an icon, a simple answer isn't enough. Our fury is too broad for the shoulders of just one man. We want a broader field upon which to spread our wrath, even if it means being indignant with everyone who's ever picked up a Globe.

Just as we have trouble grasping the simplicity of an automobile accident caused by a drunk, we have trouble grasping the simple concept that life has risks.

The jetset, celebrity-for-a-living lifestyle has risks, just as does the life of a steelworker or a trapeze artist. It's a lifestyle that John Belushi didn't survive. Nor Marilyn Monroe, nor Tupac Shakur nor, now, Princess Di.

The fast life to be sure offers many rewards. Diana obviously enjoyed those pleasures and after an early life filled with so much sadness it's hard to argue she didn't deserve a few. How much better, really, that she died this way - apparently satisfied in life - than to succeed in one of her multiple suicide attempts as a miserable wife of a cold, inattentive prince.

More sickening than the circumstances surrounding the crash, though, is that this tragic woman's death has become a pulpit for a passel of dim-witted celebrities who gruesomely want to use the accident to make their own fat lives even more comfortable.

Weep for Diana. Do not weep for the self-centered Tom Cruises and Liz Taylors of the world who whimper that their comfort-laden lives are made a tad less pleasurable by the presence of aggressive photographers.

These celluloid goofs trade in publicity. It is the people, you and me, who pay them their millions by viewing their, in many cases, incredibly unwatchable films. Without photographers there to take the pictures (and without us to look at the pictures) they wouldn't be saying "Show me the money." They'd be saying "Welcome to the Gas and Plenty, pump three is on."

Many good actors, athletes and pop icons know they are part of the publicity trade and deal gracefully with its consequences - most notably, Cal Ripken during The Streak. Hype, they know, is part of the game. Others, like Meryl Streep, decide on a private life and find it by staying out of New York's trendiest discos and, yes, Paris' highest-profile restaurants.

Tabloids are repugnant when they feed off a private person's tragedy. But Hollywood types are not private people. They deserve no more sympathy for the intrusive cameras that help pay for the Rolls Royces in their garages than do million-dollar athletes who complain about signing a child's autograph or having to answer questions from the press about why they struck out four times in a game.

Neither should we think, as MSNBC (and a host of others) suggested, that we are "a nation of paparazzi" We are not. We are a nation of human beings. Bored human beings perhaps, but human beings nonetheless, with natural human emotion and human curiosity.

If we can take anything from this drunk-driving tragedy, perhaps it could be that we resolve to live a little more on our own and a little less through others. So many people seem willing to live through the parties, romances, addictions, vacations and foibles of the stars.

Frantic celebrity interest is not a crime, nor - as it was called in the New York Times - a "mass psychosis." But neither is it particularly healthy.

There's so much to do in this world. If we would go rafting, read a book, visit someone in a nursing home, climb a mountain, point a telescope at the stars, talk with our families, ride a bike, go camping, or send flowers to someone who makes us happy, would we really care quite so much who the boorish Steven Seagals of the world are having lunch with?

It is fine and proper to grieve for Diana and her children. But with our sorrow should come the realization that we, as a nation, really should get out more.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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