I have been, at times, both fascinated and disgusted by of this week's brouhaha over the new and feminized version of Bruce Jenner, who, by the way, was a childhood idol of mine. His decathlon victory during the '76 Olympics in Montreal happened at the height of my own fascination with athleticism. I had, as a kid, a sense of pride in our country that was derived, at least in part, by the accomplishments of the day's well-known athletes: Pete Rose, Thurmon Munson, Roger Staubach. Seriously, how cute was Dorothy Hamill? Bruce Jenner did what most sports superstars do once their athletic career is over: he cashed-in on his success. Only, in his case, it seems to have been never-ending, going from pretty cool (Wheaties box covers) to truly awful. What little I've seen of reality tv shows has led me to believe that they're basically a bunch of distracting crap: watch other peoples' lives fall apart so you can forget, for an hour, how weird your own life is. It was, for me, embarrassing and disappointing when I realized that Jenner was part of all that Kardashian nonsense. The sports hero of my youth had fallen far in his unwillingness, ever, to step out of the limelight.
I think it's just fine that Bruce Jenner decided to allow the woman in him to prevail. How lucky for him that he had the time and the money to do all the things one must do to change from a man into a woman so that he could, hopefully, like himself more. I would have actual respect for him, however, if he had chosen to do it in a humble and quiet way. Two million Twitter followers and a Vanity Fair cover tell one story: I am a person in relentless pursuit of attention. There is nothing exemplary in that mentality. It is times like this that I wish I were my 11-year-old self again. I wish there existed one goddamned public figure whom I could actually admire.
What I have learned, over the years, is that actual heroes are not on the covers of magazines, not on television shows, and they are certainly not Tweeting. That's because they're busy doing the things that make them worthy of respect.They don't have time for a photo shoot; they know perfectly well that Tweeting one's daily minutiae is, for lack of a better word, bullshit. I have found these people right here, right in my very own world: It was the guy who pulled Deanna's dog out of her apartment when it caught fire on Saturday; it's the person I met at the bookstore on Tuesday who founded a non-profit dedicated to helping communities rebuild, post-war. It is the chaplain at the hospital who goes, every single day, to the bedside of people who are suffering, scared and usually very alone.
Look around you. They're everywhere.
On Wednesday night, I realized I may have actually given birth to one of them.
Wednesday evening was Underclassman Award Night for the kids in my son, Nate's, house at his high school. The school is divided into four houses, grouping kids to make the bigness of it feel less overwhelming, among other reasons. Nate is about to finish his Junior year, and on Wednesday night academic awards were given for students in two of the houses. I fully expected that Nate would be recognized for his work in math or science, his two great loves, and so we were all delighted and amazed when he was called forward to receive an award from the English Department. "It's a rare treat when a male student demonstrates great skills with literature," his teacher had written of Nathaniel Swift McChesney, "Nate was my strongest male underclassman this year. He used his intellect to burrow deeply into the author's intended themes and conflicts and he showed courage by respectfully sharing his interpretations and connections with his peers...I'll take 25 Nates in every class I teach. Thank you, Nate."
Obviously winning an academic achievement award does not raise one to hero status, but that's only part of the story of this young man. When he graduated from 8th grade a few years ago, Nate received the Humanitarian Award from the faculty at his school. Nate spent his recent spring break in North Carolina, building and repairing homes with Habitat for Humanity. When he got back and I asked him how it was, he replied, "It was so great. I didn't want to leave." These days Nate's head is filled with thoughts of his future. He wants to study engineering; he seems intent on solving transportation problems, on creating a better future by imagining smarter ways to move humans around. Recently we were talking about kids we know who are taking a year off before they head to college. "Maybe you should do that, Nate -- travel for a while, then head to school, " I suggested. "No," he replied, "I know exactly what I want to do, and I can't wait to get started."
Nate is otherworldly. Nate is the kind of person who creates a sense of peace around himself. He is never stressed, he is never unkind, he is always willing to help. He doesn't care what he wears and he doesn't care what kind of car he drives. I asked him once if he ever has a beer when he's with friends. "I don't really like the taste of it," he replied, "I know I will someday, but I don't now." Nate is wise and patient. I have no idea who he is or where he came from and I can't wait to see what he does next, when he busts out of Vermont and heads to Bozeman or Boston or wherever the heck it is he's going.
Is there a person among us who, after seeing the new version of Bruce Jenner, stylized to within an inch of her life by an entire team of pretty-makers and photographed by Annie Leibovitz, thought to him or herself, "Man, I'll take 25 Caitlyn Jenners any day!"
I doubt it.
Thank God for people like Nate: the quiet, the unadorned, those who are using their lives to transform the world and don't need a single person watching them while they do it. Look carefully wherever you go today; these beautiful people who are actually worthy of our attention are here among us all the time.