What's in a Hero

I have a friend here in Hartford whose favorite label to put on people is "hero." I am always happy when this exclamation is tossed in my direction, usually in hashtag form, when I have done something as noteworthy as finding the missing Season 4 Wire DVDs. It's a very flattering thing to have said about you, and I'm glad that she uses the phrase so often, because it makes a lot of people feel great. We should all call people heroes more often, in my opinion.

But I rarely use the term myself. I don't think of many people as heroes-- even people I adore or respect. If I were to be asked in an interview who my personal heroes were, I would have no answer. Part of my job at the Mark Twain House is to brainstorm celebrities to entice to visit our site, and I'm actually not very good at it. I had in-depth conversations with both Jodi Picoult and John Grisham this year, and I was much more delighted to find out that they were funny normal people rather than superhuman artistic entertainers. (Side note here... isn't it terribly cruel that we want writers, people who have chosen a life of solitude and thinking quietly to themselves, to also be awesome public speakers?)

This is the cultural era of the Superhero-- the Spiderman, Batman, Hulk, Fantastic Four era. The era of wizards and elves. The era of wanting our politicians to be able to solve all of our problems in one term (that might not be limited to the current day.) Even the show Heroes really was about Superheroes. I love superheros, and I love magic and fantasy and science fiction, but maybe the ever-presence of these things has made me forget that regular heroes actually exist.

As I continue to work hard at being a "real" writer, without quotation marks-- that means writing and getting paid for work that I hold to the highest artistic standards-- I think I should also work at identifying my heroes. I have a couple in mind already, but I'm going to save a full list for a later post, when I've given this important subject due consideration.

I'm thinking about this tonight because a friend directed me to the Stephen Colbert interview with Maurice Sendak. I thought, for the first time in a long time, "This man is my hero." Then I read his 2008 New York Times interview and learned that he loves many of the same things I love-- Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Mozart. Sure, lots of people love these things, but that doesn't diminish their greatness. This heroic author and illustrator is going to guide me on this little quest.

I'm hoping that if I can identify some personal heroes, it will help me clarify the person I want to be. What do you think? Who are your personal heroes, and why? I sincerely want to know. Let's find heroes together.