“I wear, you see, the protective coloring of man.
It is the ruse of the fox.
I learned it long ago.”
While it is not surprising, it is still kind of interesting that we see the world from a particular perspective.
I perceive the world as a human. It is the skin I happen to wear. It is the lens through which I see all that is around me. I view the kingdom I inhabit from the perspective of those like me. I have heard for years that man is actually at the top of the food chain. That feels pretty good. Pretty cool, in fact. Wow, right at the top!
Although…sometimes I wonder…
As a child I had my strange little list of wannabes. Sophomoric as it may sound, when I was an adolescent, I wanted to be both Peter Marshall and Amelia Earhart. Amelia Earhart? Ouch. No thanks. And I certainly didn’t have the faith or oratorical skills to be Peter Marshall. (I actually memorized several of his sermons but, in high school, I was elected…as a joke, it turned out…to be the chaplain of my high school sorority, and the sermons and the insights of Peter Marshall were buried away inside of me forever. Christianity became, as I advanced into my collegiate years, the opiate of the masses. Certainly not an aspiration for intellectuals, of whose ilk I had hopes of attaining.
So much for that.
There have been so many dreams in my life, so many roads I thought to take but did not. At one point, I remember wanting to walk in the footsteps (or more accurately ride in the pickup truck) of John Steinbeck when he wrote Travels With Charley. Later, I thought to journey along Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways.
I remember after my first year of college traveling with my parents in their Winnebago to Monument Valley in Utah. There was a young woman camping near us. She had a Volkswagen van. And a dog. And a typewriter. I wanted to be that woman. That was 1970. I was nineteen years old, and I wanted more than anything to be Her. Could I be? No. It was the wrong time. I was the wrong person. But, oh how I longed…
I have had heroes in my life. Lots of them. If you ask me today, I will give you a list. if you ask me tomorrow, that list may be different. But today my answer is this:
Three of my big heroes (as I recall today) have been Jane Goodall, Charles Kuralt, and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. All for different reasons. They have all had different beginnings, different middles, and different endings. They have all had public successes and personal failures. They have had redemptive qualities and, at the same time, they have pointed us to their own personal or cultural flaws. Sometimes, the flaws were not so much in themselves as to who or what they attached themselves.
Charles Kuralt, the journalist who penned the On The Road series and entertained us for years on CBS television with his visits to those smaller, simpler places in America, was my hero exemplar, the person I most wanted to be.
He gave us stories of Arkansas whittlers, Maine boat builders, Mississippi River beer swillers, and Nevada shoe sellers. He was the one who made us believe in the American Dream. He chose to show us the good in Us, and yet he lived life through the fallibility of Us.
I have to admit, I was crushed when I learned that he had lived a secret life as an adulterer and bigamist. I’ve always tended to put my role models on pedestals, crowning them with capabilities that I cannot attain—expecting perfection.
Some drink too much, some live out loud too much, and some love too much. Charles Kuralt loved too much. As one of his fellow journalists put it, “The very quality that drew us to Kuralt—his capacity to become smitten with people—had now become the thing that threatened to repel us.”
I was sad to lose the hero I had placed higher than any man should be, but I still admire the fully human man who made me fall in love with words, and with stories, and with the seemingly mundane. Through him, I fell in love with the common man.
Through him (and Alexander Pope), I must remember that—
“To err is human; to forgive, divine.”
Of course, once I realized that I would actually have to study biology, anthropology, zoology, and have to spend months and years alone in some hot, steamy, miserable jungle, I decided I’d rather curl up with books on a comfy couch in front of a fireplace and go for a degree in that—book reading—instead. Not that there’s any money in that; but then, there probably isn’t a whole lot of money in sitting around hot, steamy, miserable jungles, either…unless, of course, you’re Jane Goodall.
The problem with Jane is not that she doesn’t seem to have major character flaws (of course, she did have a son named Grub, so…hmm). The problem stems from flaws in the subject she has spent a lifetime studying.
I used to believe—I truly believed that the engaging descriptions of chimpanzee society informed our world about what it meant to be human. Only the best of what it means to be human. I grew up watching these adorable chimps on The Dave Garraway Show with J. Fred Muggs or Zippy the Chimp on Ed Sullivan. Those primates were cute. They were like us. Only better. We all wanted to adopt one. In a heartbeat, I would have traded in my brothers for one of those. They were fun.
Turns out, chimpanzees are just as screwed up as we are.
Flash forward to 2009 when a suburban pet chimpanzee goes on a tirade, attacks a neighbor woman, rips off her hands and her face and has to be shot by the police. I’d like to hear what Dave and Ed have to say about that. I’d like to hear what Jane would have to say, as well. Although, I think I know that what she would say is that chimpanzees are not cute little party clowns. They are wild animals that belong in the wild. Yes, they can mimic many characteristics of humans; we share many of the same genes. But I truly believed for many years that we were cousins, simpatico, that we could interact mano y mano, that we could live peacefully and peaceably in the same households.
Thanks, Jane, but my hero worship just took another nose dive. Of course, what my heroine Jane Goodall did give me is an appreciation for conviction to a cause and for conversation and study with all creatures great and small. We are a planet of many. We must learn to be custodians.
“In wildness is the preservation of the world.”
Henry David Thoreau
And then there is Anne. Anne Morrow Lindbergh, my sweet, shy Bring Me A Unicorn waif who made me believe in fairytales. The most famous aviator of all time, Charles Lindbergh, came to her ambassador father’s house in Mexico with the family’s intention of introducing him to Anne’s older sister. And yet, Charles was smitten with the younger sister Anne. And Anne was smitten with him.
The rest of their life together—including the infamous and heart-wrenching kidnapping of their infant son and Charles’ controversial stance on WWII and eugenics—has become history. Anne, alongside her husband, became an accomplished aviatrix, explored and charted air routes between continents, crossing polar routes to map the air course for Pan Am Airways. A sensitive writer who gave us Gift from the Sea, Anne taught me what it means to be a writer-mother-woman-wife…all at the same time. I wanted to be Her.
As it turns out, the world learned after her death in 2001 that Charles had lived a polygamous life in Europe. As a German sympathizer, he had met German and Swiss women with whom he had fathered multiple children without Anne or the rest of the venerating world’s knowledge. Our hero. Our national hero. Anne’s beloved husband.
And yet, perhaps somewhere deep inside, she did know…
“For relationships, too, must be like islands.
One must accept them for what they are here and now,
within their limits—
islands, surrounded and abandoned by the tides.”
Anne Morrow Lindbergh
How can Man be so human an animal?
I have to look at those people I have idolized in life. I have been enamored of human giants, human idols, human gods, and yet I have tweeked them to fit my preconceived notions and views of how life should be.
But, on the flip side…
Are they truly at the top of the food chain, or do they fall somewhere in that space between mollusks and Stephen Hawking? Somewhere between single-celled amoebas and genius?
My heroes have all been broken, fallible, human. Do I give up on heroes? Do I stop looking for the best in humanity? Do I continue to project my personal philosophies upon the world—the wants, the beauty, the hopes, the dreams, the optimism? Or do I accept that we are a flawed humanity. A product of a fallen world. I continue to act as if I am without blemish, without flaw—that I am at the top of the food chain. Because, after all…
“I wear, you see, the protective coloring of man.
It is the ruse of the fox. I learned it long ago.”