As I've written before, I don't pester celebrities. There aren't enough days in a life for everyone to be a friend to everyone else, and as much as I'd like to hang out with people like Niklaus Wirth or Garry Wills, it isn't gonna happen. On the other hand, if I had my druthers (and perhaps, if all that my Catholic School education taught me turns out to be true, I will have my druthers) who among the Genuinely Famous would I want to come over for a glass of wine and good conversation? It's a short list but a good one. Here's the countdown of Jeff's Heroes Short List:
#5: Hugo Gernsback. Nerds can smell their own, and boy, Hugo just has that whiff about him. Although I often think it would have been exciting to live in the 1920s, when so many absolutely fundamental things were happening in science and technology, Hugo would have responded that inventing radios had nothing on computers and interplanetary robotic probes. Maybe he's right, but the trading of stories would be like nothing else, ever. To The Man Who Saw the Future, I would be The Man Who Lived the Future. He published magazines. He wrote SF. He built radios with tubes. I think we'd get along.
#4: Edwin Armstrong. Radio has always been a little bit special to me, and although Marconi (and a few others) get the credit for having invented radio, Edwin Armstrong took radio and made it sing. He invented the regenerative, superregenerative, and superheterodyne receivers, and tossed off FM almost as an afterthought. He was definitely nerdy, a little bit goofy (see The Empire of the Air for the photo of him standing on top of the RCA broadcasting tower high above NYC) and tragically tormented to suicide by David Sarnoff, the nasty little man who ran RCA and (in my opinion) should spend eternity shining Armstrong's shoes. He was of that rare breed that can look at an infant technology and recognize its implications, and was also a genuinely kind and considerate man. I'd like to ask him what he thought might come of nanotechnology. Once he understood what it was, I suspect I'd get an earful.
#3: Benjamin Franklin. Happy 300th Birthday! (Ben was born January 17, 1706.) Kites, electricity, bifocals, gentle religion, and a wry sense of humor make him stand out among the Founders as the one (perhaps the only one) I could comfortably hang with. Ben was not a politician but a statesman, more radical than most understand, who was keenly aware of the dangers of offering his scruffy disaffected ex-British brethren "a Republicif you can keep it." He was a writer and a publisher, and would understand the value of blogs instantly. When I get old enough someday to look the part (we only picture him as elderly for some reason) I will dress up as Ben and teach little kids to make and fly their own kites, as I had once (very long ago) daydreamed of making and flying kites alongside him.
#2: C. S. Lewis. Half of the reason I remain a Catholic can be found in the short shelf of books that I have by Clive Staples Lewis. He thought and wrote clearly and entertainingly, not only about God but about friendship as well. He spun yarns about good and evil, which spoke to me in different ways as I read them at different stages of my life. We did not always agree: I spotted the logic flaw in the Trilemma immediately, marveling that he could support it, and I am increasingly at odds with Lewis' Arminian view of God. (More on this eventually.) But sheesh and amen, he got me to read theologyand keep on reading it. For a boy born more to make sparks and metal shavings, that was quite a feat. Don't misunderstand: We agree more than we disagree, and I grant that he knew the material far better than I do. Nonetheless, I would enjoy sitting by the fire with him, sparring over the Trilemma. I expect I would lose the argument, but I also expect that I would learn much in return, and that's ultimately what heroes (and friends) are for.
#1: Lady Julian of Norwich. Hell is the showstopper for me in all views of religion; if Hell has the last word, then God is either malevolent or impotent. (Again, more on this eventually.) At a time when women were treated by men as little better than household slavesand by the Church as close to devils incarnateLady Julian retained her perspective of God as infinitely loving and forgiving. On the Last Day, she saw in a vision, God would redeem everyoneeven the devils in the depths of Hellbecause anything else would be less than loving, and a defeat. She even protested that such a thing was impossible, but God replied (in her vision) "Impossible for you. Not impossible for me." (Or as I like to think of Him saying: "Hey, I'm God. I can pull it off. Trust me.") In contrast to the other people on this list, she seems a little greater than human to me, and I'm not sure what I would say to her, except, perhaps, to ask her real name, which has been lost to history. I'd also like to speak with her of hope, not just little-h hope but Radical Hope, of which she is clearly the patron saint. Without her brand of Radical Hope, I would have given up religion years ago, and would not be nearly as happy a man as I am. What else could one even say to a hero of such power?
It's good to have heroes, even if (alas) they're all dead. Someday, when Lady Julian's vision is finally realized, the real party begins, and everybodyeverybodywill be there.