I don’t have many heroes. Life is just simpler that way. It’s hard work balancing fellow human beings on pedestals, after all. And when they fall, as humans are wont to do, it always feels as though everything else in the world has been thrown out of balance.
But I like balance. I thrive in its embrace. So the people I look up to — the people I really, really look up to — have always been few and far between.
This week I learned that I had lost two of them. Not because they fell, but because they passed. And while this is the way heroes should go, everything feels out of balance for me right now.
Let me tell you first about Jack Pearson. I was your age, or perhaps just a little bit younger, when we met at Mt. Hermon, the camp in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains that my family attended during the summers.
Jack was a singer and a songwriter and a storyteller, and he was brilliant at all of those things but especially the latter. He was tall and skinny and he wore sort of funny clothes and sang really funny songs. He told stories around the campfire and strummed a guitar and forced us to sing along.
And yes, when I say “forced us” I really do mean “forced us,” because as much as my memory tells me there was no gun to my head, it also tells me that I really didn’t want to sing, for summer camp is a time in which you get to pretend that you are a very cool kid among other kids who only know you for a week and thus might not realize it is not humanly possibly that you are, in fact, a very cool kid.
And singing? When you’re 10 or 11 or 12? Not really cool.
Yet sing I did. Loudly and elatedly, much as I did not want to. For when Jack began to sing of Eeekebee, the mighty mouse, and Old Blue, the loyal dog, I could not help myself.
It has been two decades since I last hiked the Santa Cruz Mountains, and longer than that since I last saw Jack, but I cannot think of family camp without thinking of him, and his songs and stories have stayed with me in all the years that have passed. That’s what stories do, after all.
About a year and a half ago, a song entered my head and would not leave. It was a song Jack had sung, long ago, about Velcro (yes, Velcro) and I could remember almost all of the words — but not all of them. That’s what happens when you get older, I suppose.
But we live in a magical time, so it was just a matter of moments before I’d found Jack’s website and ordered the album online. A few moments later, I found Jack’s email address, and shot him a note to let him know how excited I was to be able to share his songs with you. Jack wrote back the next day, thanking me for the order and offering his assurances that the CD would arrive shortly.
“Interesting to see that your path has led you into journalism,” he wrote, apparently having taken notice of the signature line in my email. “We’ll never be done telling stories, so I think you're safe there.”
This is not what people usually say when they learn I am a journalist. In fact, I can remember only one other person who had ever equated this career with anything resembling job security.
That was Alex Tizon.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist’s work for The Seattle Times, and later for The Los Angeles Times, inspired me to think about the possibilities inherent — in everything. Alex’s view, which became my view, was that there is no event, no issue, and no moment in the human experience that could not become a compelling story if only we studied it closely, honed our focus deeply, and then committed to making it so.
Alex and I made the move to teaching in the same year — him at the University of Oregon and me at Utah State University. We met up in Eugene in 2012, when I inexplicably was a recipient of an award for ethics in reporting that is sponsored by his school.
“You know what I’ve already come to hate?” I said as we discussed the challenges of our career transitions. “I really dislike how many people question the ethics of encouraging younger people to go into journalism.”
“Yeah,” Alex sadly agreed. “People act like we’re telling them to flush their futures away.”
Indeed, I’d heard those sorts of comments enough that I was beginning to wonder if I was simply ignoring a reality that everyone else in the world could see.
“But… we’re not… right?”
“Our species, you know — we’ve always been storytellers,” he told me. “And we always will be.”
Jack’s memorial will be in California in May. Alex’s will be this Saturday in Washington. In both instances, I will be off telling stories.
I reckon that’s a good way to honor my heroes. And I reckon that’s where I’ll find balance again.