The too-long goodbye

They say famous people die in threes. I hope whomever "they" are say the same thing about famous people leaving their jobs.

May was the season of retirement for people prominent in broadcast media, and Hallmark has yet to capture the sentiment of the too-long goodbye. Last month, Katie Couric left the CBS News anchor chair, the Oprah Winfrey TV studio went dark and Liane Hansen gave up the NPR microphone on Sunday mornings. None of them simply thanked the academy and graciously exited stage right, leaving us wanting more. Couric, who's supposed to report the news, not be the news, went on a guess-my-fate talk show walkabout. But her extended exit interview was mostly a product of media obsession as they pontificated about the state of television network news--Nixon's victory pose by the helicopter didn't get as much coverage. Winfrey's 18-month farewell tour was a disharmonic convergence of audience adoration, media perseveration and all-about-me-ness--Woodstock didn't display this much communal love. Hansen's final broadcast Sunday was classy and pitch-perfect, but she announced the date of her departure a year in advance, and over that period listener adulation was a regular feature of the program, her peers repeatedly intoning that the end was nigh--Walter Cronkite is turning over in his grave that this is the way it was.

These people are all smart and accomplished professionals who will be missed; they are good listeners and genuinely compassionate folks. In their positions, they should be. Although Couric's public chin-stroking was performed primarily by external forces, neither Hansen nor, more famously, Winfrey, seems to have her finger on the switch between the professional and the personal, and what to them seems contemplative retrospection to others seems a reluctant surrender of attention. The day after her last show, Winfrey tweeted: "Staying in pj's all day. Getting hair braided for summer vaca. Reading all ur emails. Watched Gayle K. Show with Stedman. On at 4-6 on OWN."

My discomfort with these protracted public retirement parties is partly about the narcissism, partly about loss of boundaries and partly about the harsh comparison of circumstances.

Of course the market for personal show and tell is huge, or "The Biggest Loser" wouldn't draw such hefty ratings, and Dr. Laura wouldn't even have landed on a satellite orbiting Pandora after her terrestrial meltdown with the N word. People who believe that this sort of dish should be reserved for spouses, bffs or shrinks may decline to listen, but this month it has been all but impossible not to be forced to eavesdrop on the retirement navel-gazing, and much of it rings disingenuous. We don't want to hear someone crediting her bazillion-dollar empire to empowering the little people, we don't want to hear a culture-shaper who said that she always knew she "was born for greatness in my life" pretending to be just like us. That's just too Linda Tripp. Some people don't want to hear even the most likable radio personality musing yet again about finally getting to live at the shore after spending 20-plus years doing what seems like the greatest gig in the world.

Amid our epidemic of social media, in a time when techie gurus exhort us to "get over it--there is no privacy," some of us still embrace the quaint notion that everybody can have some, and should protect it. Interactive communications have infested every aspect of social intercourse, promoting the infantile sensibility that anything that happens to you, any thought that crosses your mind, should be widely shared. Posting family news on Facebook is routine and appropriate, but isn't polling your friends via smartphone in order to snag store coupons as you contemplate a lipstick purchase at the cosmetics counter just crass and intrusive? There's sharing, and there's inflicting. You can choose not to join the Twittering masses pondering their chalupa orders at Taco Bell, but to escape media "analysts" speculating about the size of a retiring anchor's next contract requires relocating to another hemisphere.

Only a fool would resent the notable careers of these deserving communicators. But even their fans can be offended if someone whose success has enabled her to enjoy retirement at her beach house can't stop talking about it when they can't stop worrying about finding a job, paying the rent, educating the kids. Retirement for a lot of fans is a pipe dream whose elusiveness is made more painful by incessant sessions of contrast and compare. If your retirement party lasts longer than your first love, it's just good manners to require an RSVP.

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