A human being should be able to
change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a
ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort
the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an
equation, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a
tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
- Robert A. Heinlein
I conducted an informal poll to ask the people around me who their heroes were. It turned out to be a surprisingly difficult question. Hollywood’s confused it with its legion of ‘heroes’ who lock and load on their way to a revenge-driven bloodbath. The news media muddle it with a parade of public authority figures who fib to the populace and make policies most of us don’t want. I think that even little things like hearing popular songs from our childhood used to sell cars slowly erodes our ability to give credence to the impulse to hold someone up as an ideal, as signifying something that has personal meaning for us, or as being beyond the ‘us good, they bad, trust me, buy more stuff’ message that permeates everything.
Hugh’s heroes are easy. He admires Jack Horner, the paleontologist who’s found more T. Rexes than anyone else and remains unshaken by the enormous negativity which greets his findings that Tyrannosaurus was likelier to scavenge carcasses like a vulture than to attempt any chasing and slaughtering of his own. Good old Jack’s taking a bit of a back seat to Bill Nye lately, though, as Hugh’s science interests diversify. Bill knows about a whole lot of different things, speaks on a level Hugh understands, and knows how to make him laugh. So sometimes the hero is the wise man, the teacher who shares his knowledge. Luke Skywalker might be Princess Leia’s hero when he terminates the Death Star, but Luke’s hero is Obi Wan, who believed in him and opened the door to his potential.
When the boys' Uncle Matthew adds Stephen Hawking to our hero list, it adds another dimension to our genius heroes: Mr. Hawking has faced an unimaginable level of personal adversity in his ongoing struggle with ALS. Almost totally immobilized and communicating only through a machine, he's persisted with dignity and determination to become numbered among the planet's most eminent minds. Effectively, you could say he didn't let the loss of HIS WHOLE BODY stop him. Now that's damned heroic.
Matthew also numbers Jim Henson among his heroes. Jim made us laugh and created an entertainment that brought a generation of families closer together.
For real-world heroes, Keefe finally selected Jim Carey and Weird Al Yankovic. We can always use more people to help us find the humor in things.
Keefe and I are both inspired by Ashitaka, the hero in the animated Miyazaki film “Princess Mononoke.” When a hideous monster resembling a long-limbed ferocious pile of maggots with glowing red eyes bursts from the treeline and races towards his village, he doesn’t try carving it up right away. He races just in front of it on his steed and speaks to it respectfully instead. “We mean you no harm! Please, leave our village in peace!” I’ve never seen the Governor of California do that. I like to think of myself as a highly reasonable man, but confronted with such a monstrosity I’d fill my pants, hit it with everything I’ve got and run for the hills with the boys over my shoulders. Well, okay, with the boys on my shoulders I wouldn’t get far uphill, but you get the gist. Heroes are somehow beyond that, or ought to be. The real world examples that match here include Gandhi, who brought the British empire’s interests in India to their knees with a campaign of non-violent protest, and the samurai whose name sadly escapes me who sheathed his sword forever and went around the countryside overcoming brigands with a stick because he was sick of killing.
My biggest hero right now is Michael Moore, who asks tough questions incisively but also with humor. He gaily lampoons the pretentious, callous and self-serving, while displaying plainly heartfelt compassion for people in pain. Mostly, I'm impressed not that he fearlessly makes himself a target for any right-wing wacko, nor that he'll single-handedly take on the most powerful men in the world, but because when he gets K Mart to stop selling handgun ammunition he's clearly making a positive difference in the world. This guy saves lives. He acts from a deep moral sense even when it isn't easy, and is trying to live an authentic life. Now if, as my wife suggests, he could arrange for the "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" cast to give him a makeover, we'd give him even odds for the presidency because there's a huge segment of Americans that will never take him seriously based on his appearance.
Janice's heroes include Katherine Hepburn, as a great role model of feisty, athletic, intelligent independence; Rosa Parks, whose courage and quiet dignity changed a nation; Dr. Helen Caldicott, the anti-nuclear activist, who proposed flooding congress with babies to protest the Star Wars program; Gurinder Chadha, the filmmaker/screenwriter, for her poignant eye, keen sense of human nature and accessible and familiar humor; Donna Reed, who not only made profound films for women during her career with Canada’s National Film Board but also simultaneously raised seven children; and Ruth Wakefield, who invented the chocolate chip cookie. Jan makes special mention of Ralph Waldo Emerson as well, attributed for defining success as:
To laugh often and much
Which is a truly delightful sentiment, even if the website where I first managed to find it claims Emerson didn’t pen it. Apparently, it seems a 1905 collection of quotations on success included a poem by Bessie Stanley on the facing page from a quotation from Emerson and it was later mistakenly attributed. I’m not sure if this somehow demotes Emerson from hero status (he is fondly remembered for a great many other eloquent writings, after all) or if this means Jan’s hero is REALLY Bessie Stanley, whom she’s never heard of before, or what. This whole hero thing gets complicated. I guess that’s part of why we have so few heroes. Once you get off the four color comic book page, the world’s all shades of grey. It’s all ambiguities and compromises, and knowing who the hero is isn’t easy. We’re surrounded by unknown quantities and it’s hard to know who to trust. So we yearn for the simplicities of childhood.
My dad was my hero. Blessed with a photographic memory, his hungry
mind encompassed much, and he helped me learn how to think for
myself. When he died, I was young enough that most of my memories of
him are as an occasionally-stern-but-mainly-joyful giant, who passed on
his wonder at learning about the world and clearly loved my mother and
sisters and I very much. He wasn’t here for me to fight with as a
teenager, to berate me when I made stupid choices or to see me finally
grow up. I know he would have loved Janice and the boys. He worked
hard and died too soon, but I remember feeling, even as we put him in
the ground, that he had pointed my way down the first steps to being a
self-defined man. That’s a heroism we sorely need more of in the
world. If I can do that for my sons, it will be enough. Heck, it’ll
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