The Kenwood Press
News: 08/15/2015

The dangers of fame

Jim Shere

For just about as long as I've been in private practice - some 40 years now - there's been a sign on the wall of my office that reads "change is just the way things are." And although the sign itself has faded, the words themselves have never changed while just about everything else has - including myself and this world in which I live. Just as with good wine, age develops a satisfyingly mature, complex character over time; and so we don't resist change, we welcome it - as long as it contributes to a life lived fully, and well. But there is reason for concern about the changes now coming to our valley.

One thing that has not changed is our celebrity - the Valley of the Moon has always been famous. For thousands of years Native Americans came here from anywhere else throughout the continent, and the charm stones they left behind added to the growing evidence that this has always been a favored place.

The first Europeans to arrive - the mission fathers - praised this Edenic paradise for its natural beauty and bountiful resources. Taking charge with the belief that to recognize its potential is to possess it, they arrived as a foreshadowing of the American ideal of Manifest Destiny that was to follow a half century later. Then, in 1833, Comandante General Vallejo oversaw the secularization of the missions, and began redistributing their lands to certain favored people - some of whom quickly set about establishing a thriving hospitality industry. The natural resources found here were seen, by them, as a commodity with mercantile value.

Andres Hoeppener - to whom Vallejo gave the entire Agua Caliente Land Grant in 1846, in exchange for piano lessons - immediately advertised the natural hot springs there as the "warm springs of Annenthal." Some 10 years later a San Francisco physician named Thaddeus Leavenworth constructed a bathhouse and holding tank there and, with the help of two competing railroads, the hospitality industry began to grow. While Captain Henry Boyes developed the springs further during the 1880s - renaming it Agua Rica Mineral Springs, though it eventually became known as Boyes Hot Springs - other entrepreneurs began establishing similar resorts and spas throughout the valley, and thousands came to stay in growing numbers of hotels, boardinghouses, and campgrounds.

In his article in the last issue of The Kenwood Press, Arthur Dawson detailed the problems that came with the explosion of local tourism in the late 19th century. By 1901 increasing rowdyism finally forced the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to define the township of Glen Ellen, reaching from the town of Sonoma toward the town of Santa Rosa, to establish a constabulary for policing the crowds - which worked, some. However, a more subtle problem remained: how the valley itself had been changed by all these changes.

Making a commodity of the good life that we live here endangers the very principle of living life well - objectifying and reducing it to an iconic caricature for the purpose of merchandising. A fear of killing the goose that lays the golden egg may seem hyperbolic, but there is reasonable concern for compromising our values if we play only to our fans. Turning a place to "get away from it all" into a place that's simply entertaining may not provide our guests with something truly nourishing. Therein lies the danger of fame.

Rock stars start out unknown in neighborhood garage bands, as youngsters who get together to listen to music and emulate the sounds they like to hear. It takes some time for them to develop their own chops - and as they do, neighbors stop complaining about the noise and start enjoying their music. We've done this sort of thing in the past, learning from those before us while developing our own skills, and building a following. The evolution of our wine industry from its European roots to the international reputation it enjoys today, is an excellent example of this.

But - with discovery by the public, new problems arise: fans, and fame. The sustainability of a musician's career - and the jobs of others who depend upon it - requires keeping the public in mind, and marketability. Compromises can begin to creep in, subtly. The quality of music can become distorted by its amplification and merchandising. I think of Neil Young's recent decision to stop the streaming of his music: "I don't need my music to be devalued by the worst quality in the history of broadcasting or any other form of distribution. I don't feel right allowing this to be sold to my fans. It's bad for my music."

Horace Greeley - who in 1865 encouraged our national obsession with expansion at all costs by saying "go west, young man" - also said, less famously, "Fame is a vapor, popularity an accident, and riches take wings. Only one thing endures and that is character." Our character is a measure of the quality of ourselves, not the quantity of our success - which is measured these days instead in byte-sized likes and yelps.

We live life well when we are known and loved for who we simply are, not for the effort we put into pleasing others. That - like the sign on my wall - can never change. And though the words may seem to fade, as the sign itself ages, what they have to say must remain clear in our minds.

Jim Shere is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Glen Ellen, a writer, poet, and the executive director of the Glen Ellen Historical Society. You can email him at