In honor of The Sun’s fiftieth year in print, we’re revisiting topics that have appeared in past issues and reprinting some of the original responses. “Idols” first ran in our June 1990 issue.
No actors or pop stars left an impression on me until I saw Cicely Tyson portray Harriet Tubman in the 1978 miniseries A Woman Called Moses. Tyson became my favorite actress and Tubman my idol. I even created an imaginary friend who was a composite of the two women and acted as a sort of therapist, boosting my confidence.
Several years later I was in need of all the confidence I could muster as I arrived at the Santa Monica Courthouse for a child-support hearing. I’d arrived early, and I stepped into an adjacent courtroom and took a chair in the empty gallery to watch the proceedings. I was shocked to see Cicely Tyson on the witness stand. She and jazz musician Miles Davis were ending their marriage. Here was my hero in a relatable situation: a domestic dispute with an ex. Tyson was smartly dressed, but instead of projecting Tubman’s heroism, she revealed something I hadn’t noticed in her before: vulnerability, the very trait I was hoping to hide in myself. Suddenly my hero worship was replaced by a sense of sisterhood.
You don’t always have to be the hero. Sometimes just showing up and being yourself is enough.
I met Bill at an ecological summer-school program where he was an instructor. I had read his books and admired him from afar. After one of his sessions a small group of us went to cool off in a swimming hole, which sparked a conversation about restoring salmon in freshwater tributaries. When he learned I was a student at his university, we talked about projects that I could assist him with back home. Then he looked me in the eye and said, “You have much to offer our movement.”
In the fall he enlisted me to write articles for a local journal and invited me to parties where I met other esteemed ecologists. He often took me out for breakfast, chuckling at whimsical tales of my dating mishaps while also reminding me of my value. He was like a god to me.
At the time I was scraping by financially and living above a garage with my friend George, a single father of two who worked at a local lumber company. To give him a parenting break, I sometimes took his young boys to the park to catch frogs or shoot hoops, or we’d watch a movie together. While George was at work one day, I noticed a videotape on the table. His company had sent all its employees a program that outlined the benefits of clear-cutting. As a botany student I was appalled at this industry propaganda, and I asked George if I could show it to my eco-minded friends.
Bill was grateful for the inside scoop and hungry for more. He asked me to steal George’s work key, enter his office in the dead of night, and procure other files and documents revealing the company’s nefarious plans. The request gave me chills. As much as I loved the forests and wanted to dedicate my life to protecting them, I was loath to betray George’s trust. On the other hand, I desperately craved Bill’s blessing and felt a call to complete his mission.
After a few sleepless nights I realized I couldn’t go through with it. When I told Bill, he scolded me and said I was akin to a “good German.” He lectured me on how I embodied the “banality of evil.” We never spoke again, and he gave me an F in my independent-project course.
That was thirty years ago. Bill has passed, and I’ve lost touch with George. Sometimes I wonder where my life would have led had I continued working with Bill. But mostly I have compassion for the young man who wasn’t willing to sacrifice a friendship and who learned what it was like to lose faith in his idol.
The large, tablet-shaped stone my ranch hand had found was covered with strange etchings. On closer inspection I could see it was a rock carving of a man with a drawn bow. It had the classic deeply carved X, which is indicative of many primitive petroglyphs; the head, hands, and feet; even an arrow if I looked close enough!
Although no rock art had been found in this region of Kansas, I knew there once must have been some on the limestone ledge above the spring. Probably an old homesteader had gathered the stone, with many others which had fallen from the ledge, and added it to the foundation of his house nearby.
The stone warrior was installed in our sunroom on top of a small Tibetan rug, where it became a shrine of sorts. We put some corn, a crystal, and feathers on top of it. At its base we often burned incense. We showed the stone to friends who came to visit and shared the story of its discovery. How lucky, they would say, to have such a personal kind of idol.
A few years later I made the acquaintance of an amateur archaeologist. Familiar with regional artifacts and Indian camps, he wanted to take a look at our find. I set it proudly on the floor in front of him and he carefully examined it. Sincerely apologetic, he told us the lines were made by the disc of a tractor working the field. He pointed out other “eyeholes” in the rock that I had overlooked, and the “bow and arrow” — well, there were other lines that were equally evident. The scratches where I surmised the craftsman had sharpened his etching tool were just skid marks from a farmer’s disc. We went out to the old foundation and sure enough, there were other rocks with similar lines, though none suggested any kind of human design.
The stone warrior stayed in place for a while until he was replaced by a fern and moved behind the ladder to the loft. We’re attached to him in a different way now, and when we tell the story it always brings a good laugh. We never really were much for idolatry, and yet I often regret bringing in the archaeologist. I’d always believed that truth was somehow greater than fact, and the truth was there was a man with a bow on the rock; never mind how it was created.
As I went from middle school to high school, my friends morphed into star-crazed teens who mooned over Elvis, Troy Donahue, and the Everly Brothers. They followed their idols in the Hollywood glossies and requested autographed photos from their fan clubs. I found Elvis, with his pompadour and bedroom eyes, unappealing and his saccharine voice irritating. When my friend Susan pasted a signed photo of him to her vanity-table mirror, I scrutinized the autograph. It didn’t look authentic to me; there wasn’t even a hint of black-ink smudge near the scrawl.
Instead I idolized Robert Goulet. My parents had taken me to see him perform as Sir Lancelot in Camelot on Broadway, and I was spellbound by the way he sang to Julie Andrews, as his beloved Queen Guinevere. I left the theater with my heart aflutter.
My father, a physician, had an eclectic roster of patients. One of them, a nightclub owner, learned from him that I was mad for Goulet and invited my parents and me to one of his performances.
I dressed carefully for the occasion in my Easter dress and patent-leather shoes. It was dark inside the club, despite the small lamps on each table. We were ushered to seats in front of the stage. When the room went dark, Goulet strode out and began to sing “If Ever I Would Leave You,” my favorite song from Camelot. Then, almost as if I were imagining it, he stepped off the stage, took my hand, and sang the remainder of the song while gazing at me. I was gobsmacked.
After the performance ended, my parents and I were invited backstage to meet Goulet, who handed me an autographed photo, signed with blue ink and personalized with my name. When I got home, I pasted the photo to my mirror as Susan had done with her Elvis portrait. I was excited to tell my friends about meeting Goulet. I wanted their attention and envy, but when I told them about the song he had sung to me, the backstage visit, and the autographed photo, their interest was fleeting. They didn’t even ask to see the photograph. It would be years before I shared the story again.
Camelot is soon to be reprised in New York City, but I’m not buying a ticket. It won’t be the same without Goulet playing the knight who stole my heart.
New York, New York
As a child I wanted to be near my mom at all times and longed to make her happy. I drew pictures for her and wrote her love notes. When she was stressed by housework, I would get up early to do laundry before school. I tried hard to be good, but my attempts were usually received with indifference or a suggestion for how I could do better.
By the time I was a teenager, pleasing my mother had become a complicated game. Her moods were unpredictable, her expectations always changing. I lived in fear of taking a wrong step and setting off a screaming, belittling rant. I tried to turn myself into someone she would find acceptable, but I always fell short.
Now a mother myself, I find healing in loving my children through their mistakes and seeking their forgiveness when I make mistakes of my own. I am slowly learning that no one needs to be perfect to deserve love: not my children, not me, not even my mother.
From the start of the COVID lockdown our children attended online school, and my wife and I participated in virtual work meetings. We streamed and chatted and FaceTimed. Soon, though, our Internet started to cut out. The Wi-Fi router seemed to be the problem. A technician came to our house, and we crouched together before the router, shutting it down and restarting it, as if genuflecting before an electric idol.
When our Internet troubles continued, the technician tried to placate our idol by moving it to a more centrally located altar. This temporarily appeased the Wi-Fi gods, but eventually the idol was unhappy with us again, and it interrupted our days as punishment. When I called the prayer line to get a remote blessing, they just told me to genuflect some more. And still the displeased idol would not let us go about our online business.
Just when my faith was nearly lost, one of the higher-order ministers figured out the problem: some connections in our basement from a previous idol hadn’t been properly removed and were likely offending the new god. He cast them out, and we’ve been blessed with peace ever since.
How could my parents uproot the family to move to Detroit? That’s where the Tigers played. Had my dad forgotten that they were the enemy? They were in the same league as the Yankees, my Yankees, the team that Mickey Mantle played for. Nothing — not a trip to Howard Johnson’s, not a sandlot ball game, not three sisters torturing their ticklish little brother — could pull me away from the television when Mickey Mantle was playing. All that mattered was the sight of my hero readying himself in the batter’s box.
It was the summer of 1964, and the Yankees were hammering their way into the World Series. I just knew that I would never make it to one of Mickey Mantle’s games, but my dad worked for the Detroit Free Press, and toward the end of July he announced that he had tickets to see the Yankees play the Tigers at Tiger Stadium. I couldn’t believe it.
When we gave our names at the gate, the man stretched out his hand and said, “This is for you, kid.” It was a baseball, but not just any ball: written on it I saw “To Mike, my best wishes, Mickey Mantle.”
An usher escorted us to our seats, asked my name, and told me to follow him to the Yankee dugout. Mickey Mantle shook my hand! I have long forgotten what he said and the score of the game. That night I clutched the autographed baseball as I fell asleep. When I woke the next morning, it was nowhere to be found, and I yelled for my other hero, my dad, who calmly assessed the situation and pulled the ball from under my pillow.
J. Michael Head
Delray Beach, Florida
Growing up I was bullied and abused, so I turned to reading and writing as an escape. I fell in love with authors like J.R.R. Tolkien, John Steinbeck, and Jack London, and I imagined that one day I could be like them: famous and loved.
When the abuse at home intensified, I became suicidal and started drinking and doing drugs. I began reading Sylvia Plath, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Edgar Allan Poe, and Emily Dickinson — authors whose work felt rooted in a darkness I could relate to. I believed I had to be depressed to become a great writer like them.
After high school I lived on the streets for a while and fell further from sanity and sobriety. I sought new literary heroes: Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski, and Ken Kesey — countercultural icons who drank and took drugs. If they had achieved greatness by hanging out in bars, staying up for days, and ingesting every pharmaceutical they could find, then so could I.
That was twenty years ago. Today I sit in a prison cell with a trail of wreckage behind me. I still read and write, but I choose my heroes more carefully. I wish I had realized sooner that it’s more important to be a decent person than to achieve greatness.
Walla Walla, Washington
In the summer of 1976, when I was eight years old, I watched Nadia Comăneci score 10 after 10 after 10 at the Montreal Olympics. She was strong. She was perfect.
I started gymnastics right away. The coach said I lacked poise and grace, but I could learn if I took ballet lessons. I didn’t want to do ballet; I wanted to do flips and handsprings. My coach also thought I weighed too much. He chatted with my parents, and all the candy bars, cookies, and chips disappeared from our pantry. I still saw my brothers eating them, though. I hunted until I found a grocery bag full of treasures tucked in a corner. When I’d finished bingeing, I re-hid the bag. Later I heard my brother announce that their hiding place had been discovered.
Some things couldn’t be hidden — like ice cream, which I sneaked to avoid the disappointed looks and questions like “Do you really need that?” My dad warned that I’d break the uneven bars if I didn’t lose weight. Suddenly my favorite event became my most dreaded: I couldn’t help picturing the wood and fiberglass splintering into thousands of pieces.
I watched Comăneci on TV every chance I got. By 1980 she had short hair and a curvier body. I thought she was beautiful, but my dad and the TV announcers talked negatively about her development. At my gymnastics club my coach told another girl to tell me I needed to start wearing a bra. Mortified and disgusted with myself, I hit my breasts with my wooden hairbrush, wishing they would go away.
In seventh grade my middle-school classmate Madeleine and I were invited to train with the high-school gymnastics team. I was overjoyed. Gone were the mandatory ballet classes and the instructor who held me back from learning the tumbling and flips I craved. But my new coach also thought I needed to lose weight. He’d pull me aside at practice to watch Madeleine perform on the balance beam. “See Madeleine?” he’d say. “She has a lot of boyfriends. Lose some weight, and it won’t just help with gymnastics.”
Practice after practice he would ask me, “What did you have for lunch?”
“A sandwich,” I might reply.
“One or two?”
One day I was chewing on ice. Not knowing what it was, he asked, “Is that on your diet?” I wanted to spit the ice at him, but I swallowed it. “Even gum has calories,” he reminded me.
When I got to high school, my coach spoke to my guidance counselor, and soon he, too, was “helping” me lose weight.
One day my coach reminded me that the judges want to see straight lines, like Madeleine’s. She was flat chested and slim. I had the curves of a developing fourteen-year-old. My lines would never be straight. During meets we wore skimpy leotards, and we lost points if our bra or underwear was showing. There was a girl on a rival team who had large breasts. When we competed against them, Madeleine giggled and called her “Chester,” saying she hoped her leotard would hold all of her in. After that I had a deep fear that my breasts would pop out during a tumbling pass. I pulled my leotard up constantly, which probably only stretched it out and made it worse. I was embarrassed that I didn’t have the prepubescent form idealized in gymnastics. I hated my body.
Now, when I look back at pictures of myself, I am shocked to see a healthy, fit young woman.
I’ve been playing around with the word idol. It keeps coming up as “I-doll,” something I create and to which I attribute certain qualities. Before I know it, this I-created doll has power over me.
I have had many idols in my life — teachers, writers, painters, lovers, and public figures. I invested them all with qualities far beyond my own attainment. I eventually found, to my grief, that they couldn’t live up to the standards I had projected upon them.
Then I met Reirin Yamada Roshi, a Zen master who could easily have become my idol. He would, however, not allow this to happen. His teaching put me firmly back into myself. The first time I sat on a cushion in his big, barnlike Zendo, I cried uncontrollably. I think I sensed that I was at least at home, not in someone else, but in myself. I felt safe.
He laughed a lot. He was at peace no matter what the interruption. The temple was near a firehouse, and many times during the evening meditations, the fire truck would blast screaming out of the fire station and howl away down the street. Never a flicker passed over the face of Yamada Roshi (I peeked). He seemed enveloped in light and laughter. He judged no one. Once I admitted that I had gone to sleep during a meditation. He grinned and said, “What’s wrong with sleeping?” He told brief parables after the meditation and green tea: “If you have a cup in one hand and a pencil in the other, you have to put one thing down to pick up something else.” I shook my head as I drove home after this meditation, asking myself why I had driven twenty miles to hear something so mundane. Two weeks later that simple statement finally sank in.
He was the first person from whom I learned nonattachment. His was like the love of the sun for a flower garden. We could bathe in his love but not grasp it. When he left for Japan, I cried at the airport, embarrassed because no one else did. Later, in an interview with a Tokyo newspaper, he lovingly described our little group and mentioned that “Mrs. Ann cried” when he left. I felt this was his way of honoring my grief.
The one man who could have been my idol lovingly and laughingly refused the honor and moved on, leaving me to search out in myself the qualities I so much admired in him. It has been twenty-five years since he left, but he is as vivid to me today as the Taos mountain beneath which I write. Come to think of it, the mountain and Yamada Roshi have much in common: they inspire me to come from my own center, and not from some I-doll I create outside myself.
Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico
After college I wanted to be a writer, but it proved to be a difficult career choice. I took various jobs to pay the bills: gemologist, mail clerk, Renaissance-faire worker, receptionist, and nanny. Finally I landed a job as an editor for a small publishing and advertising company.
A few years in I was mentored by the company’s CEO, who educated me in the art of direct-response advertising. He was a difficult man to work for: arrogant, fickle, and highly opinionated. I learned to emulate his polished writing, but even that didn’t please him sometimes.
I also came to know his right-hand woman, Elaine. She was small in stature but had a seven-foot presence. I admired how she stood up to our boss and told him when he was being a jackass. Things he said that would have crushed me, she just shrugged off. After he delivered a particularly hostile critique of a piece of copywriting she’d produced, she just blew a raspberry and said, “Back to the drawing board.” She ignored the office gossip purporting that she had become company vice president by sleeping with the CEO. I knew the rumor was untrue. Elaine was VP because she was strong, ambitious, talented, and tough, but not in a way that made you hate her. I wanted to be her.
We worked together for twelve years. Then Elaine did something unexpected: she got pregnant and almost immediately submitted her resignation. Though our boss never said it, everyone could tell he was devastated. After Elaine left, things fell apart. The CEO visited Thailand, fell in love with the country and the women, and moved to Bangkok. Without Elaine to control his erratic decisions, the company started to lose money. He put another woman in the VP position, but she didn’t have the finesse and cunning Elaine did, and the staff hated her. The company soon folded.
More than a decade later I see Elaine’s posts on Facebook sometimes. She seems happy and still faces her challenges head-on, advocating for the rights of her transgender child with grace and conviction. Everyone deserves a parent like her. I still find myself approaching particularly tough situations by asking, What would Elaine do?
El Sobrante, California
Ringo was my favorite Beatle. I liked to imagine myself behind a sparkling drum set like his, my long hair flying as I hammered out a solo. But I didn’t know how to play the drums. Over the summer I joined a female drum-and-bugle corps and quickly learned basic strokes and how to march. That fall I asked the high-school band director to admit me to the all-male drum section. His eyebrows rose. “There are no girls in the drum section,” he said. “Girls play clarinet or flute.” After I told him that I’d spent two months learning to march with a tenor drum, he agreed to let me join.
During grueling rehearsals for football halftime shows, the drum smacked against my right knee, and I struggled to keep step while maintaining rhythm. I counted steps, beats, and turns, nervous I would pivot left instead of right. After we successfully executed our first halftime show, a boy noticed me and said in a mocking voice, “Look, it’s a girl playing the drums!” Seeing my long bangs and deep-set eyes, another said, “She even looks like Ringo!” Several boys chanted, “Rin-GO, Rin-GO, Rin-GO.” The chants continued at each game we played. I looked straight ahead to give an illusion of confidence, but my stomach clenched with embarrassment.
By midseason, however, something had changed. The tone of the chants had shifted from derision to approval. Our head drummer was annoyed by my popularity. When we marched in formation, I would feel the sting of his drumstick hitting the back of my thigh as he taunted, “Hurry up, Ringo.” I stayed silent, not wanting to satisfy him with a reaction. When I undressed for bed later, I saw the bruises.
At one of our last rehearsals I’d had enough. I stopped marching, swung around, and said angrily, “Just stop it.”
“Yeah, give her a break,” another drummer added. I knew then I should have protested sooner.
Though I didn’t get to play a drum solo that year, my goal to be like Ringo had been achieved.
Fair Haven, New Jersey
In the early nineties troll dolls — plastic toys with garish smiles, beady eyes, and flaming-bright hair — were all the rage. Throughout elementary school I collected more than eighty trolls that lived in a cardboard village I’d made called “Trollville.” I took my trolls to the swimming pool, to sleepovers, and to school for show-and-tell.
The summer before fifth grade I went to sleepaway camp through my cousin’s church. The progressive Christian church my family attended taught that to know love is to know God. The minister at the camp, however, preached that homosexuality is a sin, that devoted Christians should pray in tongues, and that anyone who does not accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior would burn in hell. I wanted to be a good Christian, so I answered an altar call where, at ten years old, I signed a covenant against premarital sex and renounced all idols.
On the last day of camp my cousin cornered me and said the Lord told him I should get rid of my troll dolls. I should burn them all, he said, just like God told the Israelites to burn the pagans’ idols in the Old Testament. Shocked, I fretted and prayed about his message during the ride home. Camp had lit a fire in my heart for God, and I wanted nothing to dampen it. At home the next day I glumly dismantled Trollville, including the aerial tram, and placed all its residents in a black garbage bag. I was dragging it to the trash when my mom stopped me. Crying, I told her everything.
“Oh, honey,” she said. “Your trolls aren’t idols. They’re just your favorite toys. I know you love God and Jesus, and God knows that, too.” Her words helped, but that camp and my cousin’s searing message had left a deep wound. I stopped playing with the trolls and eventually got rid of them, all except for one: a large, purple-haired, stuffed troll named Softy.
These days I practice Buddhist meditation, and Softy sits in a stuffed-animal hammock above my meditation altar. Sometimes I look up from my cushion and notice him, the last surviving resident of Trollville, smiling down at me.
I was in fifth grade when the famous author visited our school. Teachers and students gathered in the cafeteria to listen to his presentation. There was a sense of excitement, even from the crusty old teachers. This was an event! I was a voracious reader, and the famous author had written my all-time favorite book. I couldn’t believe my luck.
After the presentation the famous author sat behind a table with a pen. He was going to give us all autographs. The entire school lined up, and I made sure to be first. I hadn’t just read his book; I practically slept with it.
Though we had all been instructed to bring our copy of the book to school that day, I had somehow forgotten mine. Thinking quickly, I had snatched a piece of paper from the classroom. The author could sign that, and I would slip it in my book later. Or get it framed.
As I approached the table, the famous author looked me in the eye and said, “I’m signing books first. If you want me to sign that, you’ll need to wait at the end of the line.”
It hadn’t occurred to me that there might be anything wrong with asking him to sign a piece of paper. He’d made it sound like I was holding a handful of shit. Still, I went to the end of the line to wait. By the time I reached the famous author, I’d missed recess. He signed my paper with a flick of the wrist and no acknowledgment that I was the same boy who had been first. How could he have missed my love?
Though I was only eleven, I realized then that this man had not come to our school to meet his readers. He had come to sell books. For years I was angry with myself for standing in that line. I never read a single one of that author’s books again.
People were standing in line for forty minutes to view the Mona Lisa from a meter away. A part of me wanted to wait in that line, just so I could say that, for a brief moment, I had stared into her eyes. Instead, my friends and I stood to the side and marveled at Mona being marveled at. My favorite moment was when an older woman reached the front of the line and, after taking a photo, just stood for a moment and smiled at the painting.
Sydney, New South Wales
In 1968 my second-grade classmates and I were given the assignment to dress up as one of our heroes. I knew immediately that I wanted to go as Gale Sayers, a football player for the Chicago Bears. My dad was a long-distance trucker who was gone most days, but on Sunday afternoons we would watch Bears games together. The highlight of my week was seeing my dad’s excitement whenever Sayers ran with the ball.
Since my parents did not have the means to buy me a football jersey, my mom found an old sweatshirt, stitched the number 40 on the back, and padded the shoulders. A borrowed helmet completed the outfit. I was thrilled, even if the colors did not match the Bears’ uniforms.
When my dad came home the following weekend, I excitedly told him about dressing up for school, and I showed him the jersey that my mom had made. An ugly sneer appeared on his face. “Who wears number 40?” he asked.
“Gale Sayers, of course,” I replied.
“Gale Sayers is a black,” he said. He told me I should have had my mom sew a number 15 on the sweatshirt, for Bart Starr, a white man. I had embarrassed him.
I was stupefied. I had never heard my dad cheer for Bart Starr. He wasn’t even a Bears player. I didn’t enjoy watching football with my dad as much after that.
Grand Rapids, Michigan
First it was The Bell Jar, then the complete works of Simone de Beauvoir, The Feminine Mystique, and Shakespeare’s sonnets. I burned a CD with Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” and listened to it on the way to school. I wore wide-leg gabardine pants in green with thrifted tube tops and considered every school dance an “antiquated mating ritual.” I had patterned my adolescence after Kat Stratford, the main character of the 1999 teen movie 10 Things I Hate about You. I wanted to be just like her.
A few years ago I fell in love with one of my best friends, despite already having a husband and children. In the aftermath of the realization that I was gay, the females I idolized in my youth took on a different meaning. I didn’t want to be like Kat Stratford; I wanted to be with her. All those idols I had were actually crushes. I just didn’t have the words for it then. I wonder how my life might have unfolded if someone had helped me sort through those feelings and recognize my “admiration” for what it really was: desire.
Fair Oaks, California
When I was nine years old, my younger brother followed me everywhere. Once, I lit a match right in front of his nose, and his eyes flew open in wonder. Not only did his sister run fast, read well, and know everything — she held fire! He wanted to try it, but I told him he was too young.
Around this same time, I persuaded him that I exchanged letters with Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny, and I could assure (or jeopardize) his standing with any of these dignitaries. As proof I showed him a handwritten letter from the Easter Bunny to me.
My brother is now a career man with two children in college. I’m semi-employed and haven’t had a long-term relationship in many years. You might say I have trouble living in the “real world.” My brother would no longer dream of following me everywhere — or perhaps anywhere. I miss being his hero.
San Jose, California
I grew up the fourth of six kids in the mountainous jungles of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. My parents were 1950s missionaries, preaching the gospel of Christ to the African people. My father’s mission often took him deep into the jungle to visit chiefs and teach them that they and their people were going to hell unless they accepted Jesus as their savior. This was the same gospel we kids had been taught since birth.
The tribal leaders perceived my father to be a chief like them. As was tradition with visiting chiefs, they bestowed gifts on him and expected a gift in return. My father, though, never grasped the “in return” part. Looking back, I’m surprised the chiefs did not take back what they had given.
By the time he retired, my father owned a large collection of tribal artworks, including many items used by so-called witch doctors in their healing rituals, and hand-carved masks worn in rituals or on the back of the head in the jungle to ward off leopards and other predators. My father thought of these objects as “idols.” When he and my mother returned to the U.S., they stored them in a shed next to their house in Georgia.
After my father’s death two of my brothers, believing these artifacts venerated the devil, decided to burn them all. I was unaware of their decision until it was too late. I cringe when I remember the callous destruction of those relics.
On a muggy summer night in 1969, I went to see the D.A. Pennebaker film Don’t Look Back. The movie is a cinema verité documentary of Bob Dylan’s 1965 England tour and it was, for me, a revelation.
Dylan already possessed powerful idol qualifications. He was solo. He didn’t hide in a band, but faced a world of phoniness and injustice with only a guitar and harmonica. He was poetic to the point of being obtuse. He was cynical, world-weary, sardonically humorous. He was small. I mean, physically, he was a little guy. To a little guy like myself, this made a difference.
Don’t Look Back also shows plainly that Bob had a mean streak — vicious, sarcastic, sneering — not just with the Establishment, but with reporters and hangers-on as well. The best anyone got out of Bob Dylan, from bellhops to promoters, was smirking condescension. Before Don’t Look Back, I admired Bob Dylan. This movie transformed admiration to full-fledged idol worship.
I had spent my early teenage years groveling for acceptance. I wanted to be disturbing and threatening like Bob; a vicious little guy whose vision and expression could break your heart or drive you into a rage. He defied you to like him. In the jingle jangle morning I had to go following him.
I set about the task with a vengeance. I got a Bob Dylan haircut and a Bob Dylan jacket. I got a Bob Dylan girlfriend, from the North Country of course, and I wrote Bob Dylan poetry. My North Country girl and I learned his lyrics by heart and used them as a kind of conversational shorthand.
It was probably the greatest time of my life, but it had to change. The North Country girl moved to Paris. Bob Dylan became a Christian. In my twenties, I had to let go.
Idol worship is addictive, though, and I found myself bouncing from vicious little guy to vicious little guy — looking for Mr. Badbar. I tried Billy Martin for a while, but he was too self-destructive. I became infatuated with an early-sixties, Rat Pack vision of Frank Sinatra that might have held up if only I could have avoided his Chrysler commercials. I spent a long weekend thinking about Danny DeVito but that was the act of a desperate man.
It’s the nineties now. I’m running out of possibilities, and, at thirty-seven, the rewards of idol worship have gotten thinner. I saw Don’t Look Back recently on public television. They offered a VCR cassette of the film for an eighty-dollar pledge. I found myself wanting it all back, thinking maybe the eighty dollars could buy it back, buy him back, maybe even buy back the North Country girl. I suppose you can buy nostalgia, but heroes are not for sale. They ride in out of nowhere and sweep you away. You have to be young for that, before the weight of years makes you too substantial for sweeping.
In the spring of 2003 my sister, Jay, and I took a trip to New York City to have lunch with Ashrita Furman, a man neither of us had ever met. Jay had discovered Furman in Guinness World Records, which noted his records for such strange feats as “joggling” (juggling while jogging), somersaulting the longest continuous distance (twelve miles), and balancing empty pint glasses on his chin (fifty-one). In fact he holds the record for setting the most Guinness world records — more than seven hundred to date. Jay and I were curious to find out more about him.
I flew out from California and met Jay at her college in Rhode Island. Then we hopped in a rental car and drove the three hours to New York, where Furman managed a health-food store.
“What made you realize you had an amazing capacity for endurance?” I asked as we ate.
Furman laughed. “I wouldn’t call it ‘amazing,’ ” he said. “Tenacity is within all of us. Look what you two have accomplished through tenacity: the three of us sitting here together.”
Until that moment arranging to meet Furman had been just a stunt. There hadn’t been any deeper meaning to it. But, with a brief reflection, I realized it was a big trip. Furman went on to explain that the reason he’d set all his records was because his spiritual teacher, Sri Chinmoy, had taught that the limits of the self can be overcome with meditation and hard work.
“Let’s be honest,” I replied, “a lot of your accomplishments are pretty silly.”
Furman smiled. “My goal is to inhabit the absurd. Pouring your effort into a meaningless act is a form of meditation. It yields its own epiphanies.”
After three hours Jay and I shook his hand and took a blurry photo with him.
Furman’s words that day helped me understand myself. Since then I’ve developed a habit of tackling seemingly meaningless challenges: I’ve ridden my bicycle across America, read every Newbery Medal–winning book, and driven around the U.S. asking hundreds of people the same question. Whenever someone wonders about my intentions, I smile and think of the man who has mastered a life of meaningful absurdity and challenged me to do the same.