Monday, May 30, 2011

Odysseus in a Comfy Chair

My grandfather has been dead for two years and, in the spirit of Memorial Day (he was a veteran of World War II), I wanted to relay my thoughts of his life and his death that I wrote on the day of his funeral.

The modern idea of a hero is very specific and comes in two types: there is the one who wears a cape and his underwear on the outside––somehow this makes him super––and the other is the protector, someone who rises from the ranks of ordinary man and, in an act of selfless courage, helps a society under duress. In the hall of human history these heroic ideals became popular relatively late, in ages and stages of time when a society needed a hero to save them from some sort of oppression be it literal or figurative.

In ancient and classical Greece, a hero was something completely different. To be a hero was to be a member of an exclusive race––in myth, these were the half-breed children of gods: Achilles, Odysseus, Hercules, Perseus, or the later old man-carrying, Carthage-queen heart-breaking Roman hero, Aeneas. The interest for these heroes was not the common man, but themselves. They were icons to be looked upon and loved and feared. They were near perfection, often with lives ending in a tragic fashion. They lived for a single moment to prove their status, an instant where they stood out from the rest. The word for this moment, in Greek, is arete, translated roughly into English as “human excellence.” It was this moment, the achievement of human excellence, that the common man revered, what they could strive for but never achieve because they were, unlike their heroes, merely human.

As a successful lawyer, "sacrifice" was a word seldom used from my grandfather's vocabulary. My mother said it best that he worked hard to make every solution win-win for all parties involved, though I doubt he’d deny that he wanted his “win” to be the biggest. As a child I was like most of my generation: too involved in video games, cartoons and comic books––all of which preached the ideals of the modern hero––to care about the details of the stories my grandfather told me, and I think he was fine with that. The gist of what I remember was that he was a brilliant lawyer and a well-traveled military man who met and knew many important people. Just as his memory started to wane––when you only had the same conversation twice in a visit instead of four or five times––and his mind was still full of stories to tell, I asked him about his childhood growing up in Alabama. I was in my early twenties and in the midst of my bachelor’s progress, a mind filled with a liberal arts education that introduced me to the heroes of old and the stories written about them. From being a child only interested in the newest and brightest things, I became a man fully intrigued by the past; I wanted to know everything about life before mine. My grandfather scowled at my question, waving his hand as if sending off an unwanted guest (though he never had any of those, I’m sure). This almost violent dismissal of his youth made me more curious. What could have happened? What could have been so horrible that he wouldn’t dignify an answer with words? I didn’t pursue it because of this and also the fact that I am the most non-confrontational person I can be. Instead, I merely said, “English” when asked my major and “Maybe” when asked if I wanted to teach.

Later, when my grandfather had already faded and I had graduated and swore never to go to school again, I realized that nothing happened in that southern state eighty years ago that was tragic or psychologically scarring. It was more simple than that. My grandfather was just an ordinary man back then, having yet to become Robert C. Carlson, the Son of the God of Amazingness and a Mortal Woman. I know now that he only wanted to convey his successes to me, to ignore any faltering that may have happened during his life’s tenure. He wanted me to love not him but that which made him great, the achievement of human excellence that was his adult life, a badge worn as a smile.

I only knew my grandfather in his retirement. I was alive for the tail-end of his career, but I don’t remember it like I remember the camera-toting globe-trotter with the big belly and skinny legs who was his own biggest fan. "Look what I’ve done and look what I’m able to do because of it" everything about him said: his wife, his television, his smell, his pictures, his cars, his houses, his laugh, his handshake, his southern California sun, his golf swing. As inspiring as it was supposed to be, I instead only recognized that he was able to do what most mortals cannot, a group that definitely included me. He may have been my grandfather and I his grandson but we were not cut from the same cloth. He was inimitable, untouchable by current standards because he lived by ones forged in a different age. He was not a hero in a cape, or even an ordinary man who stepped forward in a moment of need. No, I remember him as an Odysseus sitting in that high-backed recliner, a hero from a different time sitting with his feet up and telling me stories I half-heartedly wanted to hear. It’s the broad strokes that make these heroes great, though, and all the images of my grandfather are painted with broad strokes, with brushes heavy with paint on a canvas as tall as the sky––the way he’d want to be remembered: a testament to humankind rather than a mere member of it.