Wednesday, September 14, 2005

A Gallery of Heroes, Part Two: A Couple of Writers, a Priest - and Us

 In the first part of my Round Robin Photo Challenge entry, I listed four heroes of mine, in addition to Walt Disney:

    1. One of them I met only once twenty years ago, and didn't take a picture when I had the chance;
    2. One of them I own several photos of, but someone else snapped the photos;
    3. One of them wasn't around when I went looking for him (and I didn't want to tell him what the photo was for, anyway); and
    4. One of them - actually lots of them - could easily have YOUR face!

      It's time to put names to those descriptions.

      1. Madeleine L'Engle

      L'Engle and her most famous book - and some of her other books, too.As I've mentioned here from time to time, I maintain "The Tesseract," an online bibliography to the the work of Madeleine L'Engle.  Actually, I have never gotten the non-fiction and short fiction catalogued properly, and I don't update the site often enough; but what is there seems to be helpful to most of the people who have found their way to the site.

      Madeleine L'Engle is one of my favorite writers, perhaps my very favorite.  At last count, I had something like 70 volumes in my L'Engle collection, including multiple editions of her most celebrated book, A Wrinkle in Time.  I love her intelligent, loving, insecure, flawed characters, her ability to mix fantasy, science fiction, suspense, mystery, and even religion and philosophy into contemporary young adult (and adult) novels; and her interweaving of backstory between characters, books, and even series.  Yes, she pushes all my buttons as a reader.  I admire the writer herself for her kindness, her spirituality, her intelligence, her huge output of published work, and her perseverence through personal tragedy (she lost her father early in life, her husband died of cancer a few decades ago, and she has even outlived her son). It also heartens me to know that A Wrinkle in Time was rejected by lots of publishers before finding success.

      But about a year and a half ago, a profile of her in The New Yorker greatly tarnished her image with me. Some of her relatives alleged that she fictionalized her non-fiction, making things much rosier in her life and family than they really were.  Those same relatives also apparently resented that some of her fiction was too real, in that certain characters and incidents were taken from life.  The first charge made L'Engle look a little dishonest, or at least out of touch.  The second seemed to imply that she didn't care how her family felt about what she put in her books, but I was left with the impression that the relatives who complained to the press were selfish whiners who didn't really understand L'Engle or the writing process.  Either way, the article saddened me.  I'd rather not see the flaws in L'Engle or her relatives, even though much of her writing is about the fact that people are not perfect, and the importance of loving each other anyway.

      2. Harlan Ellison

      a package from Harlan.Madeleine L'Engle and Harlan Ellison are worlds apart in the style, tone, and even length of their writings.  L'Engle has written mostly novels, book-length journals and religious books.  Harlan has written mostly short stories and essays.  L'Engle is a Christian and a mystic; Harlan is an atheist.  But they're both intelligent and funny, cover a broad range of subjects and genres, and have written lots and lots of books. 

      Harlan was absolutely my favorite writer when I was in high school and college, and definitely my hero.  I admired his wit and his honesty, and his willingness to do battle for what he thought was right. This mostly involved fighting tv producers and networks in an attempt to keep his screenplays from being ruined by others.  I agreed with him at the time, but as I grew older I realized that the truth is more complex than that.  Sure, some of the quality of his work was lost when it was rewritten by others, and yes, there have been times when the end result was pretty terrible. (Remember Starlost?) But on the other hand, sometimes such changes were necessary.  For example, you really shouldn't have drug dealers and their clients among the crew of James T. Kirk's starship.  And writers for television  really do need to be flexible enough to either write to fit the format, or else allow the show's producers to make the script suitable for their particular show.

      Harlan is a highly controversial figure.  He's often charming, even courtly, but he not always kind or gentle.  He can out-banter pretty much anyone, which makes him a little bewildering and exhausting to talk to. Recently, he called me up, as he does occasionally, about once a decade.  I should have been expecting the call, but I wasn't, so I was unprepared when a voice I didn't quite recognize started playfully mispronouncing my name.  (This was just as I was arriving home to meet with the mold inspector!)  Harlan didn't identify himself during the one-minute conversation. It wasn't until after we hung up that I figured out who had called, and called him back.

      My only photos of Harlan were taken by someone at Clarion in 1977.  Here's a picture of the note and the envelope I received from him a few weeks ago, when he returned those same photos after borrowing them. This is what the phone calls were about.  Well, the second one was about that, anyway.

      3. Father John R. Smith

      The Reverend John R. Smith 
      I did run into Father John today, but I didn't take a picture of him.  He was making a brief stop at church on his way to an appointment elsewhere, and I didn't want to bug him for the purpose of illustrating a photo challenge.  But we did chat for a minute or two.  He told me that a special reading for Sunday's Mass (Isaiah 40:27-31) had been emailed to me, to go with Father Douglas's planned sermon.  He also shared his plans for some adult education classes coming up at St. Michael's in 2005 and 2006, including a course in Hebrew he'll be teaching.  He teased me that he would be calling up my boss about getting off work during the afternoon so I could attend his class.

      The main reason I didn't ask Father Smith if I could take his picture for a blog entry about heroes is that I'm certain he would not be pleased to be promoted online as some sort of paragon or role model - in short, a hero.  Although I dare say he has a strong will and a healthy ego, Father Smith is not at all about self-promotion or self-aggrandizement.  His concern is to follow in the path of his own hero, Jesus Christ, and to help others to do the same.

      Father John writes very good sermons and delivers them well, and I usually agee with what he says.  His attitude is pretty much exactly what you see and hear in the prayer of St. Francis:  "Where there is hatred, let me sow love...where there is injury, pardon."  He greets everyone by name, and means it.  He visits a prisoner on death row, and parishioners in hospitals.  And he's always looking for ways to improve the parish, enlisting the talents of the people around him.  He sometimes takes on more than he can do, but since I have that same fault I'm not inclined to dock him for that.  It's better than not trying to accomplish enough.

      Two quick examples will give you an idea why I admire this guy.  A few weeks ago,  you may recall, I was in a tizzy because someone left a nasty comment on one of the church's blogs, claiming that I'd betrayed God.  The comment also attacked Father Smith's sermons.  But when I emailed Father Smith about this, and later spoke with him in person, there was no anger, depression or condemnation in his reaction.  "I guess this person has a problem with my sermons on political grounds," was all he said, along with a gentle explanation why my use of a wiccan symbol in the entry was probably not a good idea.

      The other example: last Sunday, Father Smith had this year's Sunday School kids come up during Mass to participate in his interactive sermon about having a heart of flesh instead of a heart of stone.  The kids were extremely cute as they passed around the heart-sized rock and the heart-shaped sponge - but I'd left my camera home.  (I've got to stop doing that!)  When I mentioned the missed photo op afterward, Father Smith agreed that this was unfortunate, and suggested that I could use the parish's digital camera in future photographic emergencies.  Today he added that I should take pictures of theSunday School kids for the web site.  It didn't matter that he wouldn't be in my pictures of the kids.  The children - and the Sunday School ministry - were what mattered.

      4. We Can Be Heroes

      the view from the chair as I gave blood, 3-11-05.For many years now, I've had in my head an auditory impression of how it would sound if Johnny Cash recorded David Bowie's song Heroes, particularly the last part of this lyric:

      Though nothing will
      Drive them away
      We can beat them
      Just for one day
      We can be Heroes
      Just for one day

      Cash did record a song called Heroes shortly after I had my daft idea, but it wasn't the Bowie song.  Just as well, really - the rest of the lyric isn't nearly as uplifting.

      Nevertheless, we can be heroes, just for one day - or every day, or even intermittently.

      Be nice!  Give!I've written before about giving blood to the Red Cross.  Not everyone is eligible to do this, but many can, and it's a sure-fire way to save lives.  Nowadays, of course, the Red Cross is providing - and asking for as donations - a lot more than just blood.  My employer is currently matching donations to the Red Cross for disaster relief, and I'm glad to say I was able to throw a little money into that pot.  Again, it's an easy way to make a difference, to really help someone: to be a hero. 

      And of course, there are lots and lots of other ways - volunteering, mentoring, teaching, helping, inspiring.  Yes, we can be heroes, and we don't even have to wear a special hat.

      Today after work, I had just crossed the street when some older car flashed by behind me, its windows open.  Someone in it called out, "Make a difference in the world!"

      "Working on it!" I shouted back.


      See my prevous entry (below) for links to other Round Robin entries.


      alphawoman1 said...

      Its great you had so many positive infulences in your life.

      ryanagi said...

      :-)  (and I'm totally tickled that you get mail and phone calls from Harlan!)