My Heroes Have Always Been Screw-Ups

Pete Rose at bat in a game at Dodger Stadium d...
Pete Rose at bat in a game at Dodger Stadium during the 1970s (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“The true hero is flawed. The true test of a champion is not whether he can triumph, but whether he can overcome obstacles – preferably of his own making – in order to triumph.”
― Garth Stein, The Art of Racing in the Rain

I just learned last week that Abraham Lincoln was a vampire hunter. I was not upset.  Personally, when I saw Honest Abe wield his silver forged axe in Tim Burton’s revisionist film, I was impressed.  Sadly, critics and historical experts derided Sir Tim’s turn of the screw treatment of our thirteenth president, questioning how a great American hero could have found the time to rid the South of slavery and defeat the undead at the same time. I kept an open mind.  I’m used to finding out new and disturbing things about those I admire.

We live in a fiber optic era where it has become in vogue to demythologize everything.  We worship perfection producing dysfunction-free digital vacation photographs, buy genetically modified pets and cosmetically alter ourselves seeking to avoid the indignity of imperfection.  Despite our lust for perfection, we love to tear down the pedestals that elevate others.  We secretly long for someone worthy to follow but now are able to get so close to one another that we resent the blemishes and imperfections that we inevitably find. We are in search of the perfect hero but cannot find them.

The age of ten is innocence’s high water mark for any adolescent boy.  When you are emerging from the chrysalis of childhood into the world of men, you are tribal and look to attach yourself to things – movements, ideas, teams and if you are really lucky, a thirteen year old girl.  In the early 70’s, my wellspring of passion was overflowing with the need to define myself beyond my white picket world.  I followed professional sports teams and players – flashing statistics and personal insights like a switchblade.  Like Thurber’s Walter Mitty, I daydreamed  about meeting one of my sport’s heroes, perhaps even rescuing them from a burning car wreck or insane fans.

“Hey, Wilt, quick! Get on the back of my bike.” I would begin to pedal furiously as the seven foot Laker star grabbed my waist. Soon the throng of adoring women would be a distant memory.  (Years later, I would learn that Wilt had actually been running towards the women, not away from them. But, hey, this is a family newspaper.)

My idols in the summer of 1972 overflowed from a generous cup of amateur and professional athletes and beloved public figures.  I cheered for gold medalist swimmer Mark Spitz, and yelled for the underdog USA boxers who were taking on the dreaded Communist elite from Eastern Europe and Cuba in the Munich.  That baseball season, I followed the every move of Pete Rose, the hyperactive Cincinnati Red known as Charlie Hustle.

Weeks later, I declared to my father that I would be an astronaut  but was secretly uncertain whether I could hold my bladder to the moon and back — as the idea of peeing in my spacesuit was too gross to consider.  Years later, Tom Wolfe would infer that at least some of these astronauts indeed had zippers. I switched gears and decided to become a cop. I shivered with delight at the notion of carrying a 44 magnum like Dirty Harry, resolving society’s problems and ridding my community of the social weeds that grew between the cracks of our fractured moral foundations.  I admired my father for his strength and creative profanity and for a brief period decided advertising would be fun –especially if they let you curse at work.

Years later, I would be subjected to kiss and tell biographies and that would deconstruct my idols into troubled souls and demagogues..  While they accomplished great things, life often proved to be a zero sum game where public accomplishment masked personal failure.  When we learned that our Gods were merely mortals flying to close to the sun, we became despondent and cynical. We were obsessed with learning the truth and felt cheated for having held a mere human in such high esteem.  We watched with Schadenfreude fascination the painful character autopsies of our icons.  Camelot was indeed polluted and Eden was, in fact, corrupted by man and his appetites.  We were all mortal, put our pants on the same way, and in a few cases, took them off in public.

Personally, I refuse to live in a godless, dystopic society.  I appreciate heroes because they are flawed.  They are human.  They rise above others simply by getting up and dusting themselves off.  My heroes are measured not by where they have ended up but by how far they have come.  I have come to appreciate that how winners achieve their success is as important as how much they actually achieve.   Those I admire take risks and are unwilling to allow someone else’s opinion of them to define them. They are mothers and fathers.  They are cops, soldiers, teachers and executives. They are divorced. They are single.  They look for opportunities to be of service and defend those who cannot protect themselves. They suffer from bouts of self-pity and vanity and like all of us, vacillate between self-loathing and self-worship. In the end, they come to recognize that they have a higher purpose and their acts of humanity shine brighter than their own self serving shadow.

My heroes are Republicans, Democrats, hail from every ethnicity, race, sexual orientation and creed. They include Mohamed Yunis who won the Nobel Prize for Economics for his concepts promoting micro-finance and community banking and was also accused of being a loan shark and political opportunist.  They were peace makers and diplomats like Gandhi and James Baker who were accused of everything from megalomania to closet imperialism.  Some are politicians.  Lincoln and John Adams were both maligned in their time and paid heavy prices for their convictions in their personal lives.  They are ex-boozers like Bill Wilson who started Alcoholics Anonymous and saved a million lives and Lt Mike Murphy, medal of Honor winner who died while serving our country in the Kandar Province of Afghanistan.

If you dig deep enough, you find heroes everywhere.   They are all around us. And, they have big noses, flawed resumes, scars and can’t fit into size 38″ trousers. We are preprogrammed to lie, covet, gossip, err and lose our way. Yet, heroes overcome their poor choices and circumstances to achieve greatness across a range of professions.  They are mirror reflections of what is best and worst within each one of us, reminding everyone of our incredible capacity for good and our potential to be change agents in a society that desperately needs role models.  My heroes never left.   I left them.  Sinners, some say, make the best saints.

And yes, even after learning that Lincoln lied about moonlighting as a vampire killer, I still admire the guy.

The Return of Francois Egalite

The Return of Francois Egalite

As a kid, I had an overactive imagination and a short attention span. I was chastised as a ” daisy gazer” by baseball coaches and as “lacking social responsibility ” by my spinster teacher Miss Austin whose last boyfriend was in the Polk administration which in my opinion, was about as socially irresponsible as a person could get. With regularity, I was marched off to see the principal, Miss Pratt, for infractions ranging from insubordination and inattentiveness to telling whopping half-truths such as my father was an operative for the CIA. He was, after all, in advertising which involved propaganda and the subliminal manipulation of the masses. I was certain he was writing pro bono vignettes for Radio Free America on the side.

I was a junior version of James Thurber’s Walter Mitty. fantasizing and daydreaming my day away. I was the short man dreaming of slam-dunking a basketball – the flat footed Clydesdale gazing into the mud puddle wishing he were Man O War. I invented alter egos and super heroes.  I lived their lives vicariously until my mind and body stretched to afford me my own adventures.  However, I never stopped filling in the empty cracks and dimly lit spaces of my prosaic routine with dashing figures and adventurers.  Over time, life slowly carved its hard lines on my face. My idealistic penchant for undisputed resolution and redemption slowly rusted under the constant corrosive exposure to society’s moral ambiguity and materialism.  My imagination faltered and my adolescent propensity to dream was lost like an old blanket or stuffed toy.

Years later, I find myself once again seeking to escape from a slate gray world where people play by different sets of rules, bad deeds go unpunished and the guy with the most expensive attorney gets off. I long for a black and white corner of the universe where there are distinguishable good and bad guys who wear different color uniforms and work for agencies with names like “Control” and “Chaos”.  We need a hero riding a white horse who is just a second faster on the draw and a system where bad guys always get nailed just before they are boarding their United flight to Buenos Aires with the employee pension funds.

I find myself once again conjuring up an imaginary protagonist – Francois Egalite, a master businessman and international man of intrigue. He is Louis Jourdain, Hercules Poirot and James Bond rolled into one. The French have flair and Egalite is no exception. He races cars in Monaco, seduces starlets like Audrey Tautou and Sophie Marceau, and wears a signature silk cravat.

Egalitie is the perfect cover name for a hero who saves governments, captures evil industrialists and is able to actually spell “vichyssoise.” Egalite has contempt for inequity as it is at its core – the antithesis of his surname. He is a champion of the exploited, the under-represented and the sartorially challenged. He is the ultimate good guy.  After saving yet another magnificent buxom heiress from the harem of a petro-authoritarian sheik or protecting a French farmer with twelve children from losing his land to a corrupt agricultural monopoly, Egalite always melts into the cool shadows simply leaving a calling card with his trademark fleur d’ lis insignia and the rearranged French national motto of – “Liberté, Fraternité and…Egalité!” We need Francois Egalite to come out of retirement from his hillside chateau in Biarritz, where he paints plein air ocean scenes and lives with his Serbian scientist girlfriend Chloe and his Samoyed husky, Ca Va.

In the world of Egalite, guys who bilk investors of $ 50B don’t sit at home under house arrest watching Rachel Ray make Mexican flan, they are kidnapped under the nose of the Feds, fitted with cement tennis shoes and asked where all the loot is stashed.  Once the information is extracted, the evil Ponzi schemer is asked by Egalite to recover a euro that he has just tossed into the East River. (Splash!)  Egalite is last seen leaning over the bridge, yelling at a dissolving swirl of bubbles with his hand to his ear,  “Pardon, Bernard? What is it you say? You cannot swing? Swine?”

I conjure up Egalite as I read another depressing headline. The Metro North jolts noisily across the Harlem River into a restless city of insomniacs and shattered financiers.  New York seems a giant restless leg – twitching and tapping its anxious limb while furtively looking for signs and signals as to what clouds might be next on the horizon line.  I walk up Park Avenue, another cardboard cut out in a London Fog overcoat lugging an ancient, scuffed Tumi handbag.  Steam rises out of grates as workmen wrapped in odd mummy-like mufflers, bark at one another with great plumes of frozen air.

My mind drifts. And I am Francois Egalite, corporate whistle blower and a member of the Free Market League of. Consumer Advocates.  Like Kwai Chang Caine, from the old TV show “Kung Fu”, I am a restless wanderer, moving from company to company, trying to escape my past but inevitably drawn into a web of corruption and malfeasance. With each new position, I think this time it will be different, only to have the dog dirt hit the fan. One week, I discover the nice HR manager with whom I share a lunch bench each day is secretly skimming cash by using child laborers in Romania. Next month, it is a megalomaniacal CEO who is timing his stock options.  Next month, it could be a CFO whose cooked books rival The Barefoot Contessa.

The revelations usually come to me from a frightened middle manager as we graze on left-over C Suite sandwiches abandoned like soup kitchen handouts in our microscopic lunchroom.    My new friend is from accounting and confides her concern over the strike price of the CEOs options.  I get that old sinking feeling that a Pandora’s box is about to be opened. It is my curse and my raison d’être – to root out corruption. I smile as I think about the time Egalite tied the hands of a corrupt inside trading Controller with his own Hermes tie.  How ironic!

In the end, Egalite protects the little guy but always has to move on – a tragic corporate drifter – like Richard Kimball in “The Fugitive” or Dr. David Banner in “The Incredible Hulk”.  In his case, he is not so much running from anything but instead just trying to clean up American business so he might return home to Chloe and Ca Va.  It is now time for Egalite to return.  For now there are white-collar criminals to catch, forensic accounting to find hidden Swiss bank accounts and jobs to save.

A taxi honks at me and I jolt to reality as I loiter in the street.  I look up to realize I have walked past my office by 12 blocks.  I am standing in front of a Hermes store.

Mon Dieu, this must be a sign.