Friday, December 31, 2004

new year's heroes

... if just for one night

Light posting this week, what with the holidays an' all. And now it's New Year's Eve... first footin' time! The tradition of "first footing" got me thinking about heroes, which got me thinking about our fascination with martyrs, which got me thinking about a new model of distributed- processing heroism for the Internet age. With a side trip through Psalms, the MC5, and a salute to that hero of the blues, the Iceman. Gotta watch where a train of thought can take you. I even made - and broke - a New Year's resolution before it was through. Note to self: cut down on the caffeine in '05.

"First footing" came from the British Isles, and was popular in parts of the Midwest. (But then, so is calling convenience stores "party stores" and soda "pop".) Supposedly the first person who sets foot in your house after the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve creates the fortunes of the home for the year, good or bad. For "first footing" you find the person who will set the right tone, luck-wise, and ask them to step across your threshold. So I started thinking, who would I ask? Well, I'd want to go for the best and ask someone I thought of as a hero, and there just aren't that many living people I can put in that category. I wish Paul Wellstone was around, or Myles Horton. But I couldn't think of anyone that's alive. And first footing takes on macabre overtones if you don't choose from among the living ...

Could it be that the martyrdom tradition is so strong in our culture that it's hard to make heroes out of living people? After all, worship of the idealized dead runs from the crucifixion, through medieval hagiographies, the Romantic poets, up through all those books of bad Jim Morrison poetry, on past all those lamentations on the lost genius of Kurt Cobain (accurate, as far as I'm concerned), the Latina singer Selena, John Ritter, on and on ... Interestingly, liberals and Democrats seem more bound to this "doomed hero" tradition than right-wingers. I saw action figures of George W. in his flight suit for sale (and not as a joke) in the toy stores this Christmas season. Can you picture Democrats buying Kerry action figures? Probably not, even though he actually saw action. No, Democrats stick to their martyrs - the Kennedys, King, etc. Must be all those lit. majors reliving their love affairs with those beautiful and doomed young English poets.

Another old New Year's tradition was to open the Bible and pick a passage at random, which would set the tone for the year. Here are some passages from Psalms that could do nicely:

141:2 Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.

141:3 Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips.

141:4 Incline not my heart to any evil thing, to practise wicked works with men that work iniquity; and let me not eat of their dainties.

141:6 When their judges are overthrown in stony places, they shall hear my words: for they are sweet.

Some good resolutions for myself for the New Year (plus some wish-fulfillment about "their judges" and that part about "their dainties" -- Ho-Ho's, perhaps? Pop-Tarts?) Speaking of food, here's a small but good suggestion from my friend Wayne Cotter: Every time you eat Thai or Indian food go online and contribute to a disaster relief fund for the Asian tsunami. Easy to do, and badly needed.

Sometimes heroism comes in micro-units. Rather than ghetto-izing it behind portraits and biographies, maybe we can titrate our own heroic impulse and keep it flowing in manageable units. A million small good deeds beats one martyr hands down. Called it "distributed processing" heroism, or "thin client" sainthood. We have some of the technology now - Internet, credit cards, etc. - and should create more soon. The SETI@Home project distributes the computational work needed to search for life in other galaxies onto hundreds of thousands of PCs in private homes.

Maybe we can do the same for noble behavior, moving away from the centralized full-time heroes of the past toward a new model - the hero as network, who performs countless small acts of valor in many lives rather than a few great acts in one. "Future now," said the MC5. "Freedom's yours right now, if you rule your own destiny."

Wanna be a hero, if just for one day? American Express, Visa, Discover, all accepted here. "Mastercharge! Oh, let's charge it!" sang the great Albert Collins. Do it in the name of the late great Telecaster Master of the Blues, the Iceman himself. Play his "Angel of Mercy" while you do. There's no way you can lose.

Listen to me lecturing! What happened to "set a watch on my mouth"? Well, that's a resolution for ya. Draw your brakes, as DJ Scotty sang down in Kingston. Stop that train of thought, I want to get off. I still don't know who to pick for first footing, and I've only got a few hours left. Were U2 correct when they sang that "nothing changes on New Year's Day"? Hope not. Happy New Year.