In my life, I have had the opportunity to meet a personal hero. Twice.
Worried that your heroes may have feet of clay? Not me. At least- two out of two have not failed me. Maybe I’ve led a charmed life. Maybe I just have excellent taste in the people that inspire me. Doesn’t matter- I won’t question my good fortune. 🙂
In my junior year of high school, I served in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Page. It was a wonderful, world-expanding experience. During the six months that I lived, worked, and studied on Capitol Hill, I had an opportunity to meet the living hero of my 16 year old self: John Glenn.
The iconic figure was a Senator from the great state of Ohio at the time. (This was shortly before the “Keating Five” scandal would cast a cloud over Senator Glenn’s reputation and integrity. I would point out, though, that Senator Glenn was one of the two Senators exonerated in that entire event.) That meeting with a boyhood hero did not disappoint by any measure. I wrote about the experience in the college essay that helped get me accepted to my dream school- Cornell University. (The essay served as excellent vehicle for admission to that venerable institution. Sadly, it did not bring funds to cover tuition at said venerable- and expensive- place so Ithaca was not a stop in my journey.)
Last week, lightning struck twice for me. If you’ve read some of my other posts, you know about my late-in-life pursuit of a lifelong dream of writing. (Is that news to you? Check out this.) Tuesday evening I met my favorite living author: Neil Gaiman.
He was speaking in SYR as part of the Rosamond Gifford Lecture Series. In a bit of happenstance, I had a seat next to the elementary school librarian of the Noodle and the Goon. (My seven- and five-year-old boys, respectively.) Fitting, as Neil’s event was to support the Friends of the Central Library.
Neil delivered an immensely entertaining lecture over the course of almost two hours. I’ve got five pages of furiously-scribbled notes that I won’t recap here other than as represented by this statement that I present to you as fact:
Neil Gaiman is a master storyteller.
Sitting in the theater, captivated by his tales, I was reminded why I started this blog: I want to tell stories like that. It’s that simple. I want to be that voice over the campfire, holding my audience’s focus with every word.
At the end of the program I stood up, made my way to the end of the row, and leaned against the wall of the theater. Part of me was simply enjoying the last few moments of a wonderful evening. The rest of me watched people stream past and wondered if they were as enchanted as I was.
As the crowd shuffled slowly towards the exits, I overheard a gentleman asking a younger couple if they’d like to go downstairs to a reception and meet Mr. Gaiman. I heard the ambivalence in the response as one of them half-heartedly mumbled the need to get up early the next morning.
I could not believe it! Half-joking, I turned to the gentleman and said, “I would totally have accepted that invitation!” I laughed in disbelief at the couple’s response.
What was already a wonderful evening became an amazing one at that moment. The gentleman looked at me and said, “Would you like to meet him?” His offer was only just out his mouth as I immediately accepted.
We joined the rest of the remaining audience leaving the theater. We chatted along the way. I explained how inspired I am by Neil’s work and how, although I work in the very mundane insurance industry, I dream of writing and am working hard towards that. I confided that most of my work (like this) tends towards essays- either serious-minded or humorous at heart. He explained his connection to one of the groups responsible for the evening which enabled him to attend the post-lecture reception and bring a guest.
I thanked him a few times (I think) as we followed the crowd moving to the ground floor. We broke away from the pack and went down one more floor to an open area set up for a casual reception. My benefactor pointed to a slowly growing queue and said that I could get in line right there to meet the man himself.
Writing this now, I honestly can’t remember for certain if I truly did thank him. I hope that I did. I certainly felt immense gratitude for his random kind act. But I was already mentally writing and rewriting what I would say to someone that inspired me, considering and rejecting potential opening lines. My escort wished me well and moved away into the reception.
I checked my backpack, my notebook, my phone, and my well-worn copy of American Gods that I had brought with me that evening. Should I reference something that he said this evening? I scanned my notes again. Checked my cell phone again to ensure that the camera app was opening, that I had battery life. Did I have a good pen to ask him to sign the book? I saw my high school drama teacher- also a member of the group responsible for Neil’s presence that evening. I’m betting that my excitement/anxiety was plain on my face. We chatted for a moment and I shared my recent pursuit of writing. I pointed out that I had really been moved by a play my teacher wrote that I’d seen performed just a few years ago. As we spoke, I kept glancing nervously toward the front of the line. Thankfully, before I could progress to full-blown panic attack, Neil came out, plastic cup of wine in hand, and took a seat at the white-draped table at the head of the queue. He looked up at the people lined up in front of him and smiled serenely.
I appreciate Neil meeting with his fans that evening. Frankly, he’d just connected with hundreds of people- using humor, poignancy, and a real rapport with everyone who appreciated the art of the story. I don’t think anyone would have faulted him if he’d declined the reception or the meet and greet. But I watched him speak with everyone in line ahead of me. He seemly genuinely focused on each person- even for just a few moments- as they shared what I assume would be tales similar to my own, people just wanting a moment to connect their own happy memories of the stories they love with the man who wrote them.
To quote my own slightly intoxicated, extremely exuberant Tweet from that evening: Neil Gaiman is as much a gentleman and gracious as he is talented. I made my way to the front of the line and shared my quick story. I thanked him for the stories and told him of my work to become a writer myself. He seemed to take interest in that and signed my book. He was kind enough to overlook my almost knocking his wine off the table as he agreed to a picture. I dropped my bag on the edge of the table and asked the next person to take a quick pic. (To be fair, it would really have been my backpack’s fault if the wine had been taken out. The backpack was rather unruly that evening.)
In my application for Cornell, I wrote about a question inspired by my meeting of an astronaut- the living hero for my teenaged self. Heroes- as ideals- are infallible. They are symbols to us and mean exactly what we intend them to. As an ideal, they can never disappoint, never fall short. But people- the flesh and blood beings that inspire our spiritual totems- they are human in all of the aspects of that word. They live, breathe, succeed, and fail. They can live up to our hopes- or be as imperfectly complex as the rest of us. That was the question I asked myself in that essay almost 30 years ago.
Are we better off never meeting the people that inspire us and, thereby, preserve the ideal that we have made them to be? Should we keep our heroes as concepts, not people?
For me- as a teenager and a grown man- the answer has never changed. My answer is “No”. I would rather meet my heroes as living beings. I don’t think that Neil Gaiman is a god or anything more- or less- than a man. But as I spoke to him for a few moments that night, I connected with a human being, imperfect as I am, who makes the very same magic that I aspire to. And there is so much more inspiration in that for me.
So I will continue writing and striving to fulfill the dream in my heart. I will follow the advice that Neil Gaiman very graciously delivered to a sincere fan on a rainy night in Syracuse, NY, captured in a book read more times than can be counted.
Thank you, Neil Gaiman, for the stories and the inspiration!