He’s gotta be sure, and it’s gotta be soon, and he’s gotta be larger than life.”
- Jim Steinman and Dean Pitchford recorded by Bonnie Tyler
O.K., I’ll admit it. When I got the vinyl record of Footloose as soon as it was released in 1984, few things were more blood-pumping than to pop my home-recorded cassette copy of the album into the stereo of my fire engine red Plymouth Arrow (complete with a dragon hood ornament) and fly around the back roads of Lancaster County Pennsylvania. Windows down, I’d cruise past my horse-and-buggy driving Mennonite neighbors blasting this tune in hopes of letting someone know (even if was just the horse) that I was not going to be a conformist playing by anybody’s rules. By the way – same tape – Gloria (Laura Branigan, 1983) and Total Eclipse of the Heart (another Bonnie Tyler hit from 1982)! And in case you’re wondering – ABBA had its own tape!
As I waited for my flight in the US Airways Club in LaGuardia, I heard Anderson Cooper’s promotion of CNN Heroes awards. There was a great little piece on a young man – last year’s recipient – from the Philippines who created push cart classrooms to educate children throughout the country. “Send in your nominations,” was the admonition, “and then get ready to vote for your hero.”
I had come to New York on this trip for a number of reasons. I spent my morning meeting with a few folks who are looking a trying to deal with massive water contamination issues in the Rocky Mountain states where the oil and natural gas industries are dumping unimaginable quantities of water onto public lands. In the afternoon, I met with an exceptional couple who have grown a business from its humble start to a massive enterprise in seven years of hard work and tireless commitment. And then, in the evening I joined a few hundred fortunate souls in celebrating the opening of Ran Ortner’s Deep Water exhibition in Williamsburg – just across the bridge from the financial center of the expiring global empire.
Odysseus, Orpheus, Abraham, Jesus of Nazareth, Siddhartha, Achilles, Alexander the Great (did you ever wonder what happened to Alex the Mediocre or Al the Mundane?), Mother Theresa, Ronald Reagan, Osama bin Laden, Sarah Palin – pick your religion, culture, time, or insanity as the case may be and for some reason, we tell ourselves that we “need a hero.” Let “our” world collapse under our own greed and stupidity – as it has – and see a country like China actually see its fortune rising and suddenly, our spandex-caped superheroes like Tim Geithner, Chuck Schumer, and the horde of dysfunctional Congressional sycophant minions race to grab the mantle of bully-in-chief. What is it about our social value system which leads us to the pathologic addiction to seek heroes? Why is it that we seem to have a systemic incapacity to realize that what is needed is collective accountability and behavior adjustment? When will we have the courage to engage in anonymous change for a better manifestation of humanity?
I am reminded of a conversation I recently had with a dear friend regarding past lives. We were musing over the fact that most “past lives” aspirations seem to disproportionately claim ties to known figures. Few people recall being the village misfit. I’ve yet to meet the person who actually celebrates their past existence as an under-achieving, slothful dude at a pub who just drank his liver into oblivion. That’s it. Didn’t do a thing. Just coasted through a nameless existence and then, poof, died. Nothing. No, it’s far more interesting to be the person who stood in the rain with Joan of Arc, sword in hand, ready to do whatever was being done in the appropriately dramatically lit moment. It’s far more enchanting to have been Merlin’s alchemist. If we have sufficient humility, we realize that it’s pretentious to claim to BE Joan of Arc or Merlin but we certainly know that we were their right hand man or woman. Even better, we were their inspiration or muse! What’s even better is that many actually claim to have been mythical characters. I can’t wait to hear someone claim to be comedian Demetri Martin’s Paradoxataur – a mythical creature that exists only when you don’t believe it exists.
In St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City there’s a curiosity. If you go to the front of the church behind the altar, you see some of the most ornate wood carving in the place. In the Library of Congress, there’s a book cabinet with recessed hinges that are magnificent. In the Ming tombs near Badaling, five stories underground there’s a 10 ton stone door which swings effortlessly on a ball and socket pivot. At the Ha’amanga in the Kingdom of Tonga, three large stones are precisely placed to signify something very important that justified immense effort but has long been lost to time. And, in each one of these instances, the thing that stands out is that this unimaginable effort and mastery stands as evidence of greatness – anonymously.
As I watched Ran Ortner deftly glide around the gallery at the opening, I reflected on a conversation he, Adam, Colleen, and I shared previously. To understand how to paint his exquisite works, he took the time to understand HOW the masters painted. He wanted to know the chemistry of their oils and palettes. He wanted to know how restoration artists could reproduce centuries lost techniques. And then, through tireless experimentation, miles of canvas and gallons of nut, wood, and organic oils, he found HIS expression which now graces
the aesthetic of humanity alongside masterpieces of times before. Ran is not a hero. Rather, he’s an amazing role model of human discipline which confronts life with the humility of knowing that wisdom has come before and that the race against mortality is most delicious when lasting communications of wisdom can be shared.
Heroes are part and parcel of our reflex to see the world through the dramatic lens of crisis. We are not in an environmental or financial crisis. We are harvesting fruit long planted and entirely predictable. The fact that we’re the harvesting generation is not dramatic – it’s just the way things are. And we don’t need heroes. What we all are invited to do is realize that transformation happens not through Herculean bursts of strength. After all, the half-life of a reflex is only one quarter the time required to actually engage in cognitive response. Don’t believe me? Watch the squirrel on the road next time and see yourself in the mirror. Lasting transformation happens in the community accountability that recognizes that persistent performance – not panic – are animator, motivator and reward.
Bonnie, Laura, ABBA – I still groove to those tunes in the moments when the radio plays the flashbacks to the 80s. But like my cassette tapes and my Plymouth Arrow, we’ve outgrown this impulse addiction. But Kevin Bacon dancing alone in a barn doesn’t change a town. No, it takes everybody on the dance floor rockin’ a different tune. Let’s dance.
P.S. Thank you to the two contributors who actually shared information with InvertedAlchemists responding to last week’s challenge. See, there’s more than just a glimmer of hope for us all!