Thursday, December 15, 2011

My Personal Heroes

The Online Oxford Dictionaries define a hero as "the chief male character in a book, play, or film, who is typically identified with good qualities, and with whom the reader is expected to sympathize" and "(in mythology and folklore) a person of superhuman qualities and often semi-divine origin, in particular one whose exploits were the subject of ancient Greek myths." 

I mean neither of these. Nor do I refer to the sandwich, also known as a hoagie (who knew?). Instead, my definition is closer to the third option offered by Oxford: "a person, typically a man, who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities," without the "typically a man" bit, of course.

The people listed below have either had a profound positive impact on some aspect of my life, creative, personal, or otherwise, or they present qualities that I admire and sometimes envy (because I'm immature like that).

Without further ado, here is my list of personal heroes (in some sort of rough chronological order):

  • Reggie Baskin: Reggie was the first person I ever interviewed. I must've been eleven or twelve years old at the time, and I had an assignment for my English class to conduct an interview. I chose Reggie because I knew he had been to Vietnam as a soldier during the war, and also that he was a Baha'i and therefore fighting and violence had to have been against his conscience. The interview went well and he told me some fascinating stories that I still remember. One in particular sticks in my mind: he got separated from his group and met up with a group of about twenty Viet Cong soldiers. He figured he was about to be killed, but the CO of that group recognized the symbol on his Baha'i necklace. This man was also Baha'i, greeted him with "Allah-u-abha" (the universal Baha'i greeting), and took his men on their merry (or not) way. Who says religion always causes conflict? In this case, it saved a man's life.
    He also told me how he was struggling with alcoholism post-Vietnam and how the war and other issues affected his life. I believe this interview was the beginning of two things for me, a fascination with soldiers and the psychological burdens they bear, and the realization that interviews are pretty easy.
    Afterwards, he told my mother (who was also my English teacher at that time) that he had told me things he didn't normally talk about to people, because I was a good interviewer. I don't know how true this statement is, but at the time, it had the effect of boosting my confidence as a listener, which led to my interest in journalism and probably anthropology.
    Years later, I heard that he'd had a heart attack. I understand that he pulled through, but I could be wrong. I have no idea where in the world he is today. 

  • Hugh Featherstone Blyth: Where to begin. Hugh is one of the wittiest and most pragmatic people I know. I respect that a lot. As a pre-teen in Belgium, the dance theater group that he helped run was the core of my social life. School was hell, but I found some form of friendship in the dance group. However, he didn't run it alone, and as grateful as I am for the other adults in charge, Hugh made a particular difference to me.
    It could be said that he acted as a sort of father figure. He offered advice, he took time out to see how I was doing or just to chat, he shared some of his weirdest wit, and gave me the best writing advice I've ever gotten ("Cut it down to the bone, both in terms of what you take out and in terms of what you leave in"). He never said things that I produced were good unless he meant it. I could trust him to tell me the truth about myself.
    He also taught me the first thing I ever learned on guitar, the opening to Dust in the Wind, by Kansas. Without that informal one-hour lesson, I may never have started playing. I used to love listening to him play and sing, and he taught me that a musician wants to be heard, not be part of the wallpaper as background music.
    Hugh also made me feel safe. I have felt generally secure physically and intellectually throughout my life, but I learned early on that the world is full of emotional traps and pitfalls.

  •  Madame Brebois: I forget her first name, but she was my "Morale" (loosely translated as ethics) teacher in junior high in Belgium. She is definitely one of my intellectual heroes, but I have some reservations about putting her into the hero category on a personal level.
    Regardless. She taught me to be skeptical about the media, about politics, and about discourse. She was really my first anthropology instructor, even though she probably doesn't know exactly what that discipline is, like most people.
    We watched the original footage from the concentration camps, met Holocaust survivors, experienced and discussed the impact of discrimination based on eye colour (just as arbitrary as race, sex, age, or anything else), and when 9/11 happened, she taught us about terrorism and the many applications of the term, as well as the history of the tactic. She helped us compare French right-wing presidential candidate Le Pen to Hitler, and showed us how to come to our own conclusions in a world where everything is more complicated than it may first appear. We studied Milgram's Study, and read books about pyschology and sociology.
    From her, I learned never to accept things at face-value, but instead, to always try to get inside the question and discover the substance of life's pieces.

  •  Frau Gawrilow: I don't think I ever knew my high school German teacher's first name, but if I did, I have since forgotten it. We locked horns so many times throughout the two years she taught me, but in the end, I believe that we acquired mutual respect. This respect was based on a recognition of intellectual equality. We made great sparring partners.
    The reasons I respect her are more difficult to express than the three people I've already mentioned. She made me cry once (not in class) and consistently pressured me to speak up more in class. The class was in a foreign language that I wasn't completely comfortable in and the discussions were more or less staged, as we talked about things that most of us really didn't care about. I could see that as a teenager already and since I'm stubborn, I engaged in passive resistance. She even told me I couldn't get an A if I didn't speak at least three times each class. That didn't work either.
    Towards the end of grade twelve, she had us prepare speeches as if we were the German equivalent of valedictorian for our class at graduation. When I presented mine, everyone applauded, including her. Then she announced that she had come to the realization that some people should just be left alone to learn in their own way, and that they will flourish just as well or better that way.
    So I won that war, which is one reason I remember her so well, but the victory wasn't the point. The point was that she recognized me as a human being, and I have since come to recognize her as one too. And it turns out we are pretty similar, even though I was in the math stream at that point. If I ever see her again, I will thank her for helping me learn to be strong and independent, as well as for teaching me to stand up under pressure.
    And for being inspiring. I know this is vague, but it's the best I can do.

  •  Steffen Bau: Steffen is a doctor now. The last I heard, he was living in Namibia with his wife. He didn't have any specific impact on me, but I shared a lot of special moments with him. One of my most memorable memories (yes, I just said that) was at the Sommerfest when we stayed up two nights in a row as a night watch, to make sure nothing got stolen. I was so tired I hallucinated. It was fun.
    He was always dedicated to what he believed in, even to the point of having to say goodbye to some of the people in his life. I respect that, even if I don't necessarily see eye-to-eye with him on everything.
    He brought a lot of music to our youth gatherings, and we spent some good times playing guitar and singing. His solo part in the national choir was beautiful. I learned how to love the little things in life from him; he also made me watch The Matrix for the first time.
    And I learned how to massage. (Begone, ye dirty thoughts. It was nothing like that. We were always friends.) I was able to learn from him because he was both truthful and tactful. That's not a common combination, for the most part.

  • Ginny Ryan: Ginny is my boss at the Writing Centre, and she exudes "noble qualities". First of all, she hates being called "boss", partly, I think, due to her natural humility, and partly due to her strong sense of justice and human equality.
    Ginny is another one who stays strong under ridiculous amounts of pressure, and not just deadlines and budgets. I've seen her struggle with important ethical questions and although she is flexible and open-minded, she never bends on the crucial issues that make us human.
    Her door is always open to others and her ear is always ready. At the same time, she shares of herself, but wisely, and only with those who are interested. I've known her for five years now, and in that time, I have come to appreciate how rare her managing philosophy is in an increasingly corporate world where employees are only kept happy because they are more efficient and profitable that way.
    When she hired me, she took a chance on me, and I'm glad she did. I will always be grateful for the skills I've developed, the friendships I've experienced, and the ability to have a home base on campus.
    Another thing about Ginny that I admire (and envy a little) is the vault of amazing experiences she has had. Since she's so humble, she usually only hints at them, but once in a while, you get to learn about where her life has taken her so far. She has never been afraid to try new things, and remains so today. That's why she had the confidence to bring out her first album at this stage in her life, in the face of great difficulties.

  • Justin Brake: I first heard of Justin through an anthropology department email announcing a fundraiser for his trip to Sudan. I was aware of STAND at that time, Students Taking Action Now - Darfur, a campus group that he helped initiate, if I'm not mistaken. I was impressed by his email then, and the reason for his journalistic travels to that genocide-ridden region. He explained that he didn't want his kids to ask him in fifteen years, "What did you do about the genocide?" and his answer to be, "Nothing." Something to that effect.
    Since then, I have gotten to know him better and even had the opportunity to take a course on Engaged Anthropology with him. He is one of the most humble, passionate, and loving people I have ever met. His eloquence in both speech and writing never cease to amaze me. From a friendly distance, I've watched him struggle with the darkest parts of humanity that he witnessed first-hand in Darfur and Haiti, I was overjoyed last night to hear that he had made peace with himself and with the world.
    His focus and dedication to his work (making the world a better place), as well as his realistic approach to this work, stem from sincere empathy and an innate affection and love for everyone who crosses his path. It's impossible to be in his presence without feeling improved by it. Or at least the desire to improve.
    Justin remembers everybody, even after the most insignificant interactions. He has respect for those whose opinions contradict his, and can readily admit that he still has much to learn. If only we could all be this self-aware.

  • Rebecca Champion: Rebecca and I share a lot of the same opinions about people and the world. We hit it off right away.
    Rebecca takes care of everyone in her life, including people she just met (unless they're harassing her or her daughter, in which case the shotgun might come out). She gives so much of herself and her time that some people might take it for granted. At the same time, she is pursuing what she really wants to do for herself, which is photography and writing. She even managed to go back to school, in spite of opposition, to finish up her English degree.
    She is the surrogate mother to a gaggle of children her daughter's age, now grown. Her house is like a commune where friends of friends can wander freely about, sleep on the couch, or eat the food, as long as you're willing to reciprocate and respect her boundaries.
    The same goes for any animals that might wander through. If they are injured or suffering in some way, she will make sure they get better.
    I believe that this woman is highly undervalued by many of her peers, but those who've seen her golden heart will never forget her. "Touch lightly for you never know the impact you may have." This is one of her favorite sayings, or some version of this. She is a very wise woman who lets people learn and decide things for themselves, but is always there for guidance when asked.

  •  Robin Whitaker: What can I say about Robin? She's one of my academic heroes for sure, and she's pretty cool as a person too, although I mostly know her from the ivory tower. (Just for the record, she's not an ivory tower type at all - one of the great things about her.)
    She is my Honours thesis supervisor, which I'm grateful for, because she's both organized and insightful. We have a similar sense of humour too, which helps in communication. I've taken a number of courses from her because I know she will always draw out more and more from my mind, and help me discover new ways of thinking. If I have a hard time living in the world, it's partly thanks to Robin. But that's a good thing. It's very liberating to see human society as an artificial construct.
    Beyond academics. Robin has done some amazing things in her life, most of which she probably keeps to herself. She's not one to brag, at all, or badmouth others. She maintains professionalism but you can tell that she has a lot of passion for her research and her students. And she knows how to have fun as well. Well-rounded, I suppose.
    She was involved in the Peace Accord negotiations in Northern Ireland in the 1990s. Seriously. She's realistic in her approach to anthropology and to life, which allows her to be involved in the world around her without becoming entangled in it. I should be so lucky.

  • August Carbonella: Oh, August. August was going to be my supervisor, but then he went away on sabbatical (the nerve). It worked out well though, because I got to be all excited when he came back. It also enabled me to take more courses from him because if he had been around, I might have graduated already.
    August is a Vietnam war vet like Reggie (remember Reggie?). He became a war resister while deployed in Vietnam, and even without all the other cool stuff about him, this single action commands my unending respect and admiration. The courage it takes to stick to what you believe in the face of the prospect of losing everything is a rare thing indeed.
    In spite of this courage, and the other actions he took because of it, he remains extremely humble, and sometimes even silly. He implicitly presents himself as a student of life, a little out of his league, but doing his best to stay afloat. (How's that for a mixed metaphor?*)
    In the 1990s, he engaged in counter-recruitment activities in high schools, where he and other ex-soldiers would visit classes and tell them what being in the military and at war is really like, as opposed to the glory the recruiters liked to conjure.
    He can talk about his own experiences with honesty and compassion, and he'll let you know how he really feels about something without forcing that view on you. He has taught me to never stop questioning and never stop striving for positive change. If he can persevere this long, who am I to give up?

  • Bruce Lilly: Bruce is one of my best friends in Newfoundland. He is a fellow writer, and probably the person who gives me the truest encouragement in my own writing. He also makes me frustrated by being so goshdarn good at writing himself. It makes me green. It also makes me strive to be better. Not to imitate, but to develop my own writing to the point where I can express things as well as him, albeit differently. And make interesting stories.
    But my friendship with Bruce is not just an attempt at improving my skill by osmosis (or diffusion, if you want to be technical about it). Bruce cares a lot about the people around him, and he shows it through giant bear hugs and snide remarks. Wit and crushed bones are the best way to show affection, in my opinion.
    All kidding aside, though, Bruce really has a warm heart. He wants his peeps to be happy and have a good time. He wants the world to be great, but since it isn't he's developed coping mechanisms that are more or less effective, and mostly non-destructive. Like Hugh, he also makes me feel safe, partly because I know that he is just as cynical as me. He also understands the concept of speaking with no filter (which he may or may not have introduced me to) and how when the filter is off, nothing you say should be construed as absolute.
    He also understands when I use words like "construe" and "absolute".
    Bruce is inspiring because he's doing his best. He's trying his hardest to do his best with what he has and what the world has allowed him. That says a lot. He hasn't given up yet, even though the ridiculousness of life can be a bit of a downer when you're super intelligent and see through all the veils.

So that's my main list of heroes. One obvious person who is not on here is my mom, Blanche Moyaert. She
has taught me more than fits into a short (or long) blog post. She has taken care of me and always put her children first. Her sacrifices have brought me to where I am, her audacity has taught me not to back down on the important things but also how to pick my battles, and her tenacity and organizational skills have shown me that you can never give up. Most importantly, she let me know that the world is what we make it, and she was never afraid to teach us the skills and information we needed to understand, no matter how young we may have seemed to others. I could go on and on, but your eyes may already be burning from staring at the screen.

There are many other people in my life who I admire and respect, but not everyone can make this list. The list may change over time. People who I haven't known long enough for me to understand their impact didn't make it on here, even if I considered you.  So now it's your turn: who are your heroes?
 *I looked up the expression "out of one's league" and it turns out my metaphor may not be mixed after all. If it refers to sports, as some argue, then my remark on mixage was correct; if, however, the origin is maritime, which is the other suggestion, then it makes perfect sense.

1 comment:

  1. Ginny! Everything you said about her is so true!

    You're a pretty amazing person yourself, Marion, and, were I to do a list of heroes (maybe I will?) you might be on it. MIGHT. Don't get all excited now.