Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The five people you meet somewhere, maybe in heaven

I don't care if you're Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Shintoist, Deist or you worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster. No matter what you are or what you think happens after we shuffle off this mortal coil, you've probably experienced that feeling of sadness when you discovered someone you admired passed away.

It wasn't until I was around seven or eight that I realized only three of the four Beatles were alive. My dad and I were watching some awards show and I believe George Harrison made an appearance (he was still alive at the time, though he would die shortly thereafter). For the first time I connected the music my dad played in the car to the men on the screen and my first question was, "So why aren't you friends with them?"

For a few weeks, or at least a few days, I think I was convinced that there was some way for me to organize that my dad could be best friends with Paul, George and Ringo. But what about that other member...what's his name? At the time I didn't know. It was when I found out that John was no longer alive that I connected the dots not only about life and death, but about the fact that most of us will never be friends with all those unreachable people we like to call "celebrities" whom we admire.

My dad could never be friends with John (and now George), and even if he wants to - he will probably never be friends with Paul or Ringo. And though I had a hard time coming to grips with this reality as a little one, having the sense knocked into me has made me hyper-aware of the fact that I have never and will never meet some of the people whom I most admire either.

1. John Keats

It's no surprise to anyone, I'm sure, that the person who tops my list of the deceased individuals I'd like to meet is John Keats. Keats was an insightful romantic poet from England whose life ended tragically before he ever had the chance to marry the love of his life, let his pen "glean his teaming brain" or accomplish much of anything - except creating one of the most wonderful collections of poems by any writer.

The catch: Who knows if my romantic notion of this man is true to his real life identity? If I were to meet him, especially in the world that exists today, would his nature-obsessed, self-reflective personality coalesce with mine?

2. Howard Ashman

Everyone knows his lyrics, but not everyone knows his name. "We got no troubles, life is de bubbles..." Ashman may not be known outside of the overly enthusiastic Disney Animation fanatic community, yet his trace remains in some of the greatest movies of all time, especially The Little Mermaid which he produced and wrote the song lyrics for. He was also instrumental in the creation of the cult classic musical Little Shop of Horrors, which he graced with his skill for wordplay and kitsch.

The catch: Ashman was known to be very theatrical and to have a strong presence - it makes sense since a lot of the one-liners for characters in The Little Mermaid were first uttered and shaped by Ashman as he helped actors in the recording studio. Would I have been intimidated by his presence?

3. Jane Austen

I've written letters to Jane on my blog. I've sat and cried by her grave site. She is one of the most valuable female writers of all time, carving a place out for herself among the most well-known authors of her era, of centuries before her and of contemporary authors - even though when she first published Sense & Sensibility, the only mention of an author was with the vague phrase "By a Lady." She is admirable in her style and her insightful perspectives into the human mind and character. Even more than 200 years after she was born, her works are still relevant.

The catch: Since Jane was so very perceptive, would she have even liked me? She had a select group of individuals whom she was very close to - her sister Cassandra in particular - and of others I imagine she collected a lot of negative commentary which perhaps inspired her novels. I can only hope I wouldn't be an object of her distaste.

4. Walt Disney

If there is anything that has shaped my life from infancy on, it's the Disney franchise. The namesake of the company was, as everyone in the entire world knows, Walt Disney. Disney was a successful animator, businessman, entrepreneur and a sort of father figure to all who watched his shows or visited his parks. He was known as "Uncle Walt" and he still stands tall, watching over us as we run around Disneyland's Main Street U.S.A., reminding us that we're at the happiest place on earth.

The catch: Of course most of the literature on Disney that refers to him as a fascist or an anti-Semite is speculative, so we can't fully know what his real life opinions were now that he has passed on. Yet it is still a nerve-wracking prospect to meet someone you label as an "uncle" only to find out they are a paranoid xenophobe.

5. Judy Garland

The walls of my childhood room used to be decorated with images of The Wizard of Oz. I'm not sure if those are still hanging around somewhere in my house, but either way Judy Garland has made a significant impact on my life through her voice, her lyrical storytelling and her powerful acting (those droopy sparkling eyes were killer).

The catch: Judy, in her later years at least, was known to be an unstable drug user - she died of an overdose of depressants. Unlike Jane Austen, she was not an incredibly strong character. Even if her on-screen personas had drive and conviction (like Dorothy trying to find her way home), Garland might not be the role model to me that she is now were I to actually know her.

Honorable Mentions: Jonathan Larson, Kurt Vonnegut, Katharine Hepburn, Edith Piaf, John Lennon, George Harrison

Maybe it's better that these people stay as amorphous, intangible objects of my admiration. If I never know them in real life, I'll never know their faults. I may read things in literature about them. I may hear rumblings when I watch television programs on the History Channel. I may encounter misrepresentations in biographical dramas. But it will never be a reality because there's no way to actually meet them - save for an afterlife, perhaps, but if I'm considering that most of the people I admire were atheists, then who knows how that's going to play out?

A couple of years ago I read a short biography on Keats. In the biography, the author talked about how historians were unable to determine whether or not Keats died a virgin. On a personal level, this shouldn't matter to me. But it did. So I kept reading on, intrigued.

The author continued that though it has been pretty well established that Keats never had relations with his intended, Fanny Brawne, he was likely to have visited brothels during his early adulthood. As a result, it is possible that he could have contracted sexually transmitted diseases in his experiences, evidenced by some of his letter writing to friends describing symptoms.

Being unsure of whether this description of Keats is fact or fiction, I'm left to decide whether or not I believe that he could have been pure (as he is in my mind) or less than so.

As with many of the five people I'd like to meet somewhere, I have no problem holding them on a pedestal. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. If anything, it's treasuring their memories for the right reasons instead of the petty. That's what I want to do anyway.

And maybe I will meet them somewhere, heaven or elsewhere. But for now I'm happy knowing them in theory.

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