Op-ed column: Being a nobody is more restful than knowing famous people

A young man asked me recently to name some people I knew, “famous or infamous.” He thought that beca

I’m a nobody! Who are you?

Are you a nobody, too?

Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell!

They’d banish us, you know.

How dreary to be a somebody!

How public, like a frog

To tell your name the livelong day

To an admiring bog.

— Emily Dickinson


A young man asked me recently to name some people I knew, “famous or infamous.” He thought that because I write occasional pieces for The Sunday Gazette, I must know lots of famous people.

“You’ve got the wrong person,” I said. I wanted to quote the poem above. I could name a few people with whom I’d shaken hands who might have a certain amount of name recognition, but they certainly didn’t know me.

He tried to prime the pump by naming a few people — all moneyed, all male — who had passed through our region and while I’d heard of some of them, I never even shook their hands. I did shake Hillary Clinton’s hand once when she appeared at the Schenectady Museum, and while spending the summer in Oswego in the 1960s, I attended a campaign stop Nelson Rockefeller made there. But I don’t think I got close enough to shake his hand. I do remember he wore brown shoes with a blue suit. I also had the privilege as a child, of waving at Tom Dewey and FDR as they traveled in open cars along Route 9W near my home on their way from New York to Hyde Park or Albany.

I’ve never even been in the same room with Joe Bruno, although he may have been at the track betting on a horse one of the two times I’d gone to Saratoga. Oh, yes, decades ago I heard Lillian Hellman speak in Albany, and Mary Catherine Bateson, Margaret Mead’s daughter, when she was speaking at Union College. It’s a sorry record.

I did manage to dredge up one extended encounter I’d had with a “famous?” person, although my interviewer didn’t recognize the name. A few years back, I read in the paper that Jill Ker Conway would be the featured speaker at the annual luncheon of Girls Inc. They also promised a press conference for area reporters and journalists. Although I felt modest about characterizing myself in those terms, I did dredge up $75 of my own money to attend. I was retired by then and couldn’t charge anyone else for my little excursion into hero worship.

For others who may not recognize the name, Conway has written many books, including “The Road from Coorain,” “True North,” “Merchants and Merinos,” “The Female Experience in the 18th and 19th Century America” and “When Memory Speaks, Reflections on Autobiography.”

She edited, among other books, “Written By Herself: Women’s Memoirs from Britain, Africa, Asia, and the United States.” She received her Ph.D. From Harvard in 1969 and she became the first female president of Smith College in 1975, serving there for 10 years. She sits on a number of corporate boards.

Back to my posturing as a “reporter.” When the scheduled time arrived for the press conference, we were directed to a quiet room at the Glen Sanders Mansion. I was the only “press” person to show up and had uninterrupted access to Conway for about 30 minutes! I did write a piece for this paper, mainly about the Girls Inc. of Schenectady and their fine aim for girls to grow up “Strong, Smart and Bold.”

Jill Ker Conway, who’d grown up on a remote Australian sheep farm and had to pitch in as a young child doing all sorts of jobs, learned before the age of 10 that her labor and her problem-solving abilities were important. She told me about her childhood heroes; gave me a good reading list of “heroic” books for girls, and discussed how young women, married or single, can be responsible for their own success. She even told me about how she exercises in hotel rooms while she is traveling.

I learned a lot from thinking about the famous and infamous people I knew. I recommend the exercise. It puts many things in perspective and has a liberating effect.

In a recent New Yorker article about Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist and his wife, we learn that he isn’t much interested in the social circuit. He remembers being impressed by an invitation to have dinner with Paul Newman and his wife, but in the end he and his wife declined. Too much effort was involved. He knew they were forfeiting the privilege of forever after saying, “when we had dinner with the Newmans,” but it didn’t much bother him.

Based on my requirement that a famous person I know also knows me, I couldn’t name a single person. Like Emily Dickinson, I and all of my friends are “nobodies.”

It’s comforting to know that and I’ve resolved not to behave like a frog in a bog.

Ruth Peterson lives in Niskayuna. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

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