December 5, 2008

Cultural Schlock and Real Life

Category: News — Ira @ 5:41 pm


“The wealthy curled darlings of our nation.”
—William Shakespeare

I hadn’t planned on going last Saturday. Full day scheduled, I thought. But at mid-afternoon, a couple of hours shook free unexpectedly. So I decided to risk the crowds and grab a cup of coffee. Besides, I had an item to return.

I arrived at the mall around 3:30. The parking lot was completely full. I found a few spots out in the overflow lot and backed Big Blue into a space. Walked in. Boscov’s was jammed, like it gets around the holidays. I waded through, managed to avoid the aggressive beautiful sirens at the Dead Sea Natural kiosk, and reached the center. Waited in line and ordered my cup of Seattle’s Best.

Nursing my coffee, I scanned for a seat. All the tables were full. I settled on a bench on the perimeter. Sat back and watched the crowds. Less than a minute later, a cheery lady pushing a wheelchair stopped in front of me. An elderly gentleman sat scrunched on the chair.

“Mind if I park him beside you here?” the cheery lady asked in a loud clear voice. Park him? What was he, an unresponsive lunk?

“Not at all,” I answered, as cheerfully. She backed the chair in beside me. It was a strange little wheelchair. All the wheels were the same size. Small.

“I getting a cup of coffee,” she announced, and left us. The scrunched up little man stirred on his chair. He was awake and aware after all. He glanced over at me.

“I’m ninety-five years old,” he stated solemnly, in a surprisingly firm voice. “And that’s my wife. She’s eighteen years younger than me.”

“Oh, yeah?” I said. “Lived in the area all your life?” He leaned in. Hard of hearing. I repeated the question twice, louder each time.

He was sharp, alert and hungry to talk. Born in the area, he had lived in the Midwest, Chicago, worked in a factory for almost thirty years. Farmed. He had not fought in World War II. Somehow the draft had missed him. He was happy about that.

His cheery wife returned with an iced coffee, sat on the other side of me on the bench, and proceeded forthwith, with no prompting whatsoever from me, to regale me with all the details of their lives. She was a retired professor. Had taught nursing students. He still puttered in his little wood shop and made rocking horses, the very best quality, which they painted and sold at craft fairs. They came to the mall about every two weeks, because he liked to watch the people.

All I had to do was nod and smile. But I figured a ninety-five year old man and his wife had earned the right to bend my ear for as long as they wanted. Or at least until my coffee cup was empty. After about twenty minutes, it was. I stirred and made noises to get about my business.

“Oh,” the cheery lady asked, “are you going to the Bon Ton to see Paris Hilton?”

“I am,” I said. “If I can get close enough to see her.” I got up and thanked the nice old couple and left them. Maybe I’ll see them at the mall again sometime.

At that moment, Paris Hilton was at the Park City Mall in Lancaster, PA. The scion of the wealthy Hiltons who founded the hotel chain. Paris Hilton. International jet setter. Famous for being famous. Pampered. Unproductive. Moneyed. Heir to more wealth than most of us can even imagine. Worth more than a billion dollars. Probably several billions.

She was in town to launch her new perfume line, Fairy Dust. Why her company chose Park City Mall in the sticks, the hick town of Lancaster, remains a mystery. By lottery, for all I know. The mall is nice, but not particularly distinctive in any way. Big, but there are many much bigger. Like Valley Forge, less than an hour away.

I saw the ads in the newspapers for weeks that she was coming. I usually hit the mall about every other week. I figured if she bothered to show up, I might as well stop by and see if I could get a glimpse of her. Doubted it, though. Only 300 people would actually get to meet her, and they had to pre-purchase one of her new Fairy Dust packages. Around $150.00 to $200.00 a pop.

I wandered down toward the Bon Ton. Crowds milled about as I got closer, but I squeezed through the entrance. Loud rock music blared through the store. To the right a gaudy stage had been set up. A long rope line, with 300 people squashed together, lurched back and forth slowly like a giant lifeless slug. Others, hangers on like myself, milled about. I pushed my way around to a better spot. Peered in the direction every-one was looking.

And there she was. About forty feet away. Set up behind a glossy table, flanked by two burly bodyguards, one on each side. Blond, painfully thin, smiling her plastic smile. A fragile porcelain doll. Looked exactly like she does in all the pictures. Exactly.

The burly bodyguards were impeccably dressed in suits and ties. Fully armed. Each had a curly white wire protruding from one ear, like you see in the movies. The people line snaked slowly forward. Ninety-nine percent women. A few guys. As each person in the rope line approached the stage, one bodyguard motioned her in. Each one walked worshipfully to the table, practically genuflecting. Paris smiled graciously and extended her hand. Each person then posed with her for a quick picture, snapped by a photo-grapher with a large camera. Each encounter lasted less than ten or fifteen seconds.

Local security lurked about, so I couldn’t get close enough to snap a picture with my cell phone. The whole scene was really quite mad.

Most of us are fascinated by the super-wealthy. They’re not like us. We try to imagine what it would be like to have all that wealth. We can’t. It’s impossible.

They’re not like us. Except ultimately they are. They’re human. And death comes for them, as it does for us.

Like many, I for years viewed Paris Hilton as a worthless leech of a celebrity, a bored little rich girl who could have anything she wanted, anytime she wanted it. She had servants, jets, vacations homes, fame and more money than she could ever spend.

My perception of her began to change last year, when she was jailed for driving without a license, in California. The press had a field day, as usual. Stalked her. Plastered her fear and horror before the world, on TV (I saw it at the gym.), the web, on front pages of newspapers and magazines. The common person somehow felt smug. She deserved all she was getting. Now she could see how ordinary everyday people paid for their crimes. She would share a jail cell with one. Mommy and Daddy couldn’t get her out of this mess. Not this time.

About the time she pretty much had a nervous breakdown in jail, the first tiny strains of sympathy stirred within me. A normal person would not have been jailed for thirty days for driving without a license. Why should she be? Yes, she was spoiled rotten, wealthy beyond all imagination, protected from the slings and arrows most of us face in life. But that wasn’t her fault. Why was the whole world feasting on her terror, drinking in her fear? For one reason only. Because she was who she was. Spoiled, filthy rich. And we all envied her. Longed to see her fall, brought down low. Even though we gained absolutely nothing tangible, nothing positive, from her misfortunes. Nada.

We, the masses, have to have our punching bags. Leona Helmsley, the Queen of Mean, provided one for years, back in the early nineties. She probably was not a nice person, but everyone should have the right not to be nice. We commoners sure do. Whether or not you’re rich should have nothing to do with it. I’m convinced most of the tales we heard about Ms. Helmsley were vastly overblown by the media. She died a lonely death a few years back, and we were all served up one last juicy rehash of all her misdeeds. Even in death, we couldn’t allow her to rest in peace.

I’ve watched Paris Hilton since her release from prison last year, and she is far from the dumb blond she likes to portray. I’ve grudgingly come to respect her. She is actually highly intelligent, and an extremely savvy business person. She works hard. Who would even want to meet and pose with 300 strangers? She did it, smiling as if she really meant it. For hours.

Her name is her brand. She flits about the world, opening a night club here, adding her name to some project there. All for millions.

There is no question she has made some unfortunate personal choices in her life. Some extremely unfortunate choices. But who among us hasn’t? Well, maybe not on her scale of bad, but bad enough. But when we make wrong choices, nobody knows or cares. Comparatively speaking. When she does, it’s broadcast to the world. Splashed across the glossy covers of every gossip rag.

She may be a sad commentary on our culture, as many like to shake their heads and cluck. Shallow. Glitzy. Plastic. But that’s neither here nor there. She is a product of her class and upbringing. I doubt many of us would do much better, were we in her place. Besides, if she weren’t there, someone else would be. The market would not exist unless the masses embraced someone like her to admire and hate.

I do wonder sometimes who she really is. And whether she herself knows who she really is. Can she ever relax, unwind, say silly unguarded things, like we all do to our friends? I doubt it. Who can she really trust, except her parents, and maybe her sister? To all others, she is an icon to be exploited, for the publicity generated by the sheer power of her name alone.

She has to feel alone. Surrounded by thousands, known to hundreds of millions, yet more lonely than most of us could bear to be. Strange. But true, I think. I sure don’t envy her. Not her wealth. Or her lifestyle. And no, I wouldn’t particularly care to meet her, publicly or privately. We’d have about as much in common as I would have with someone from an African bush tribe. Which is nothing, besides our common humanity and the fact that we both inhabit the earth.

I don’t envy her. Don’t pity her either. Admire her somewhat. Mostly though, I simply respect her right as a person to be just that. A person. Nothing more. Nothing less.


“There is no wealth but life.”
—John Ruskin

Now some stuff that really matters. Some real life. Stuck here at the end, because it all just came down, like real life does.

It’s Christmas time again. I had a vague, foreboding premonition this was coming. Almost exactly one year ago, I wrote about my close friends, Paul and Anne Marie Zook. About Anne Marie’s malignant brain tumor. And how they faced and dealt with it as a family, with their friends.

Throughout the year, I’ve written a few brief updates from time to time. How, after the operation, Anne Marie went on a natural healing program, and how she was doing. It seemed to be going quite well. For a full year, she lived a normal life, even though her doctors had predicted the tumor would return within three months, with conventional treatment. She chose the natural route. No radiation. No chemo. No loss of hair. Or other associated side effects.

I couldn’t help but marvel. She was always active. Boundless energy. Working outside in the garden with her children. Savoring every minute of each day. She always looked fit and healthy. Glowing with life.

But inside, not so much.

On Tuesday, exactly one year after her initial diagnosis, Anne Marie returned to the hospital for a scheduled brain scan. The results were devastating.

The tumor has grown back, larger than before. The same spot. The first time, there was some faint hope before sugery it would not be malignant. This time, there is no such hope. The doctors want to operate as soon as possible. As of now, surgery is tentatively scheduled at 2:30 PM this coming Monday, Dec. 8th. Tentatively because they are in the process of seeking a second opinion. Possibly at Johns Hopkins, where Ellen still has some contacts from her employment there years ago.

I have no words of wisdom, as such words would seem trite. I, along with their other friends, will simply be there for them. Through whatever may be their lot to bear, as they face and walk into these bitter winds. Until we know what is not now known. And beyond.

They are my friends. And I hurt for them.

I’ve done this only once before. Asked something of my readers. And that was for Anne Marie last year at this time. I’m asking again.

Send them a card or letter. Write as much or little as you wish. No matter who you are. If you’re reading this, you qualify. For those who can, include a little Christmas cheer, gift cards and such, for Cody and Adrianna. Cody is nine, Adrianna seven. Give as you are led to share, including funds for their day to day expenses.

Most of you don’t know them, except through this site. That doesn’t matter. Share with them anyway, whether it’s a card, letter or something more.

Cast some bread upon the waters. It will return multiplied.


Paul and Anne Marie Zook
588 Meetinghouse Road
Gap, PA 17527



(No Comments) »

  1. Yep, I found your site through Amish America, but love your writing and your “view” on things. Completely agree with you about Paris Hilton – why blame her? I’d love people to wait on me hand and foot, but I think if I asked anyone, they’d tell me to move out from in front of the TV or something.

    On another note, I love what you’re asking for your friends – you have a way to reach people and you’re doing it. They’re in my prayers, and I’ll do what I can to help out. Thanks for being a great friend to them.

    Comment by Beth — December 5, 2008 @ 7:30 pm

  2. And prayers. (Thanks for keeping us updated on our friends from home.)

    Comment by LeRoy Whitman — December 6, 2008 @ 3:03 pm

  3. Good take on Paris. It’s a sad commentary on mankind that we’re so hard up for idols that we go after someone just because she’s rich and beautiful, but at the same time we’re so jealous we absolutely love when someone with wealth and status fails so we have our proverbial punching bag. It even happens on a local level. Go figure, we want it both ways.

    Comment by Clayton — December 7, 2008 @ 5:44 pm

  4. Hey I saw you drive down Quarry Rd. last week with a grim look in your eye. I thought you’re probably headed in to Park City to see Paris.

    BTW, did you happen to see the Eagles game today? And on a related subject, what’s your take on Plaxico?

    Comment by ira lee wagler — December 7, 2008 @ 10:21 pm

  5. This is what struck me when reading your essay…

    Most of us are fascinated by the [Amish]. They’re not like us. We try to imagine what it would be like to [be like them]. We can’t. It’s impossible.

    They’re not like us. Except ultimately they are. They’re human. And death comes for them, as it does for us.

    We all are. We all love and hate, live and die. It is good to always keep that in mind. Might help us (me) be a better, more understanding and loving, human.

    Comment by pilgrimhen — December 8, 2008 @ 8:31 am

  6. Thanks for what you wrote for Paul & Anne Marie, it made me bawl.

    Comment by Anonymous — December 8, 2008 @ 9:35 am

  7. I read recently that Paris Hilton won’t inherit any of the hotel wealth and I forget what the reason was. So like you said she might be much smarter than we give her credit and is making millions on her own!

    Comment by Matt Yutzy — December 8, 2008 @ 11:02 am

  8. Any update on Anne Marie?

    Ira’s response: They are in Pittsburgh today, checking out noninvasive operation options.

    Comment by Dorothy — December 9, 2008 @ 2:48 pm

  9. Anne Marie will be admitted to the Lancaster General Hospital at 9 AM on Friday, Dec. 12. Surgery is scheduled for 11 that morning.

    Comment by A friend — December 10, 2008 @ 7:36 pm


    The past few days Anne Marie enjoyed all the fresh air she could, becoming nostalgic for home back on Vancouver Island as the winter months there are a lot like this weather. Feeling a bit down with all the pre surgery medicine she needed to take, she longed to go biking for an hour but Paul thought better of that. :)

    She rejoices to have her brother here and has also been blessed by long hugs and time with friends over again last eve.

    Her medicine caused her to sleep feeling awful last night. She had some things she wanted to do (including baking a carrot cake! :)

    Cody and AJ seem to be sizing up the situation well for their ages. Cody says he wants to go out west and settle on VanCouver Island. And Anne Marie shared in tears that AJ told her that if she dies, she will love her grandma just as much. Pray for Anne Marie. Most of us see her strong cheerful spirit but she doesn’t refuse to face reality and this isn’t as easy on her as it sometimes appears to be.

    And of course pray for God to guide the surgeon’s hands this day as he removes the brain tumor. And for Paul as he waits. Also, Anne Marie’s parents will be finishing the last leg of their long journey in tonight.

    Comment by admin — December 12, 2008 @ 7:37 am

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