In the preface to The Philosophy of Right, Hegel wrote that “the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk”, which in my particular case means that it’s a hell of a lot easier to write about middle-school amazement at brass-busted barbarians on polar bears than it is to write about how being a grownup actually turned out, given that I’m busy, you know… doing it right now. But I’ll try:
So I’ve been reading Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian books, actually for the first time since my childhood reading ran more in the “plucky British youths rallying round the standard” vein. But all the hallmarks of escapist adventure fiction are there: physical prowess of hero, check. Cheerful, sunny disposition of hero, check. Mighty thews and admiration by barbarian princesses, very much check. And, since Howard is the father of modern “sword and sorcery” fiction, sentient lizards and freaky, cackling wizards shooting lightning bolts and whatever, check. Whether you’re reading Henty, Howard, or James Fennimore Cooper, the idea is that you’re following around a Mighty Adventurer, living vicariously through their exploits. This is not limited to one genre, either: as Haim Saban knows well, the most popular themes of children’s television shows are martial arts, transformation, and dinosaurs.
So I grew up a little bit after seeing the chick with the sword on the polar bear, and quickly discovered that crude jokes on big ol’ belt buckles do not, in fact, attract the ladies. At least, not the kind of ladies you meet at Quaker school. And if it did, those buckles certainly were not going to attract them to me (this was pre-omnipresent irony). A couple years more, and I discovered that situations where you flex your mighty thews, grip your two-handed sword, and wade into battle with fifty shambling, hairy Pelishti temple guards are very few and far between, whether literally or figuratively. I mean, I tried it literally: I went to bartending school, learned to ballroom dance, took lots of martial arts and ran a karate studio, and traveled around the country as an evangelist (and learned to juggle and play the banjo, though you’ll notice I didn’t mention those first), and I discovered that first of all, moments where you’re doing something well are rare. And second, even if you’re doing something well, that doesn’t make you a hero. The most you can do in that direction is play the hero for someone else, and if you’re very very lucky and you have strong, supportive adults in your life you won’t spend more than a year or two as a needy, self-centered jerk before you realize that playing a fictional character in real life is really no closer to being a hero than reading about one in a book. (And then, ten years later you’ll have the embarrasing realization that you weren’t fooling that many people anyhow, which is humbling)
Is this the point where I say that being a hero is about changing diapers? No. That’s part of being a dad, which is a different thing than being a hero. Being a husband is also a very different thing than being a hero: my own barbarian princess has never seen me heave an evil wizard off a cliff. In any case, our wedding certificate says “loving and faithful husband” not “lizard-head-lopper.” My point, I guess, is not that I’ve discovered how to be a hero in everyday life. Plus, you know, ick — that would be hugely self-congratulatory. My point is that everyday life did turn out to be very, very different than I imagined it would be as a kid. The problems are different, the challenges are frankly harder, and the rewards are utterly and completely different.
There’s more on this, but as I’m busy living it right now, I’m kind of unable to say anything that sounds like a summary. I can say this: real life is better. Because it’s, you know, real. Also, there are Frazetta moments in real life, it’s just that they’re fewer and farther between than you imagined they were going to be, but also they’re kind of awesome when those Frazetta moments do happen*. It’s just that also you occasionally have Vermeer moments, and Picasso moments, and Van Gogh moments, and now I’m just being facile: but who cares, this is already a double-header blog post about my fascination with a ridiculous liquor ad in summer camp and I find myself totally, oddly, at peace with that.
* I’m not talking about sex, here. Or at least, I’m not talking only about sex. Right now, I’m talking about the Frazetta myth of Big Man Triumphant, where some guy’s got his glower on and you know that he’s about to go Get It Done, whatever it is. That does happen occasionally — though usually it ends up as Big Man Engineering a Compromise to Move the Project Forward. Followed by Big Man Going Home To Wife And Daughter, which delivers the magic in a consistent and amazing way that Big Man Triumphant rarely does. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go listen to some heavy metal and crank out some powerpoint decks!