Do people still have heroes? Are there heroes to be had? I don't know, I was young and impressionable in the mid to late 1960s and it was still a fairly unjaded, hagiographic time period. If Horatio Alger was out, there was still Boy's Life magazine and the "Goofus and Gallant" features in Highlights for Children to set you straight. I was born on Lincoln's birthday and read all the myth-making biographies for young readers; because of the connection, I was always drawn to non-fiction books and biographies, and throughout my life I have been open to being inspired and influenced by other people's lives and actions. My wife will tell you (should she start her own blog) that she can often tell who I am speaking with on the phone, because I take on their verbal mannerisms. Which is not to say that I am easily led and that anyone I like automatically becomes a hero. But I do have heroes and I do find it meaningful to have heroes, if not specifically to emulate then at least to take inspiration from their words, lives, and actions.
More recently, with the advent of the term "man crush," I have acknowledged having some of them, too, and I also think a man crush is something worth having - assuming you're confident enough in your masculinity. Here, then, are my heroes and man-crushes, explained.
Abraham Lincoln. I've already mentioned I was born on his birthday. His 154th to be precise. From a young, pre-literate age, my family had always made a big deal out of this, as if it were some kind of omen. I was often given pennies. As I grew older and began to learn about Lincoln, an uncle who was an educator would quiz me on the Gettysburg Address. He would recite it and make intentional mistakes (such as "far above our poor power to add or subtract") that I would have to correct. As I grew older still, I read more sophisticated books about him, eventually studying in college with one of his premier biographers, Stephen B. Oates (see below). The more I learned about the true Lincoln - his fears and uncertainties, his depressions and his fatalism - the more I admired him. As his flaws became exposed, he became more life-size, more approachable, more real. He and I were more alike than I ever could have thought. His writing ability and his boundless compassion are beyond my reach, but they are standards to strive for. He is my oldest, deepest hero.
Brian Wilson. It was 1975 or 1976, so I was either 12 or 13. I came upon Endless Summer, a 2-LP collection of Beach Boys hits. Twenty songs, each one indispensable. I had never heard 20 brilliant songs in a row before. How could it be that one man could create such a body of work? One song, though, stood out. "In My Room." The lyrics and music touched me deeply. "There's a world where/I can go and/Tell my secrets to/In my room." My own room was such a place. I knew he knew the same feelings I had felt. That artistic and spiritual kinship was very powerful to me. The more of his music I heard, the more of his life that I learned, the more knocked out I was by his genius, his endurance, and his incredible childlike wonder and innocence. He has no business being alive at age 66 in 2008, but he is and he's still creating wonderful works. He is a very special hero to me.
Bob Dylan. As a writer, my ideal is to be able to express a big truth in as few words as possible. No one does this better than Bob Dylan. My favorite line of his is "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows" ("Subterranean Homesick Blues"). I also dig "When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose" ("Like a Rolling Stone"). I once saw an exhibit of photographs of Elvis, Dylan, and the Beatles. In one room was a giant portrait of Dylan, the one from the cover fo the Biograph boxed set. I said to my wife, "If we had that on a wall in our house, I would bow and pray to it every day."
Mike Scott. Mike Scott is the leader, singer, guitarist, and songwriter for the Waterboys. He qualifies as a man crush. I'm not specifically attracted to him, but he has such rock star looks that he is sort of physically irresistible. But it's music that really makes me such a big fan of his. He's very literate and very spiritual, and both influences come out very overtly in his writing, singing, and playing. In fact, I almost called this blog "Light in My Head," a phrase from "Fisherman's Blues," but it was already taken. These days I'm pushing the Waterboys on everyone I meet, so I clearly have a crush, but I wouldn't be surprised if one day he became a hero.
Michael Nesmith. Not just the most talented Monkee, but an exceptionally unique songwriter with a voice that kills me. He's also a successful entrepreneur and a deep thinker. More a crush than a hero, but I do admire him a lot.
Carl Yastrzemksi. My all-time favorite Red Sox player. Part of what I love about him is the fact that he never won the World Series. He's a tragic hero. But that classic stance, that potato farmer work ethic, and that Impossible Dream season make him the most emotionally laden of all my heroes to me.
Tom Brady. Pure man crush. What can I say, he's just a winner, pure and simple.
Stephen B. Oates. OK, I've dealt with a president, then the musicians, a couple of athletes, time for a couple of literary folks. As I mentioned above, I studied with Oates at UMass Amherst. Yet while still in high school, I had read his Lincoln biography, With Malice Towards None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln. I took his "Civil War Era" class and read it again. In the 23 years since I graduated, I've read it three or four more times (not only because I love it, but because for a while he would send me every new edition of it, signed). What I love about Oates (and he's a crush who became a hero) is his brilliant writing style, but also his extraordinary lecture skills. I took two classes with him and every minute was riveting. He brought the characters on stage to tell their own stories. The class in which Lincoln was assassinated was one of the most moving moments of my life. At the end of the class, I literally could not move. I felt as though I had witnessed the horrific act in person, as if a member of my own family had just died. Oates brought me closer to Lincoln than anyone ever could or ever will. I'm no longer in touch with him, but he's a highly intelligent and dignified man who taught me more than he intended.
James Thurber. I don't know, maybe he's neither a hero nor a crush of mine, but there's something about his clear, witty writing and deceptively simple drawings that has stayed with me for decades. Because of him, I created for myself the distinction between a comedian and a humorist: a comedian makes you laugh, a humorist makes you smile. Ultimately, it really feels good to smile.
Max Rubin. I'll post more about my great-grandfather later. Suffice to say, more than a century ago he fled persecution in Russia to build a new life for himself in America. He left behind two children and a pregnant wife. Max stayed with his brother in New York until the Great Chelsea (Mass.) Fire of 1908. A carpenter by trade, he figured there would be a lot of work for him there. So he moved to Chelsea and in so doing ensured that his progeny would be Red Sox fans instead of being Yankees fans. Eventually Max was able to send for his family, and he fathered 11 children in all. I found out only a couple of years ago that he and my great-grandmother Rose are buried a five-minute drive from my house. Now I visit often.