Heroes from my former life

I'm preparing a speech for our local Toastmasters meeting tomorrow. I'm going to tell the group about my heroes. As I'm organizing my thoughts for the presentation, I thought I'd share a little bit of it.

I haven't thought about who my heroes are since I don't know when -- certainly not since I was a space cadet a few years back, although I never did pick up their habit of assigning hero status to astronauts. I think Neil Armstrong is a hell of a great guy. And I like Steve Nagel, but mostly because he's from statistically unlikely Fulton County, Illinois, where I'm from. And I've met Buzz Aldrin three times, but twice he was a jerk and the third time he was nearly incoherent.

When I think about it, there are three people, family not included, that I admire. There are a host of others on the second tier, but there are three at the very top for me.

Michael Johnson is my hero because he demolished records, but maintained a sense of humility and dignity. (See also: Jerry Rice.) I like that he was the favorite in the 200 meter dash in the 1992 Olympics, failed to qualify for the finals (food poisoning), then came back in the 1996 Olympics and won two gold medals. What I really like is that he has his own running style. It is preposterous. It is his alone. I remember reading ages ago about coaches who wondered how fast he could be if they could just fix his running style. No. Sorry. Michael Johnson won by running like Michael Johnson.

I like the guys that do things their own way. I like the guys that act like humans even when their achievements are superhuman.

Hicham El Guerrouj is my hero not just because he was the best 1500 meter runner for almost a decade. It was because he failed to win a gold medal twice -- he fell in the 1996 Olympics and didn't place, then he was passed in the final meters in the 2000 Olympics and won a silver medal. In Athens in 2004, he finally won the 1500 meter run (and the 5000 meter run). I wonder what was more difficult: beating Bernard Legat or beating the demons of past failures?

I like the guys that fall down but don't stay down.

My final hero is Kurt Vonnegut. I won't say much about Vonnegut. I could talk all day about him. I will say this: the first time I read Cat's Cradle, I didn't know I had finished it. I turned the last page, found a blank page, flipped the page back over, turned the page, and so on, a few times. I couldn't believe it had ended the way it did. I was convinced that the last pages had been ripped out.

That's how I came to be a fan of his work. There are two reasons I consider him my hero. First, his prose is short, direct, and gets to the point. No time is wasted in the windup. He just hits you with it. It sounds easy, but it takes an immense amount of editing to get there. Second, I think that at the core of many of his works is the idea that people are beautiful, hopeful creatures that never fail to do ugly, destructive things. He is at once hopeful but fatalistic.

Ah, see? I started rambling about Vonnegut. I'll stop here, for now.

Love is where you find it. I think it is foolish to go looking for it, and I think it can often be poisonous.

I wish that people who are conventionally supposed to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, "Please--a little less love, and a little more common decency."

--Kurt Vonnegut, "Prologue," Slapstick (1976)

Besides reacquainting myself with the pertinent details of Michael Johnson, Hicham El Guerrouj, and Kurt Vonnegut so that I could talk about them for a few minutes, I learned one thing: I need new heroes. These guys are great -- the best -- but I also realized that my heroes are stuck in a different era of my life. I learned about each of them in high school.

As much as I like them, I'd rather write about the heroes of my current life, whoever they are.

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