Reggie Bush (or should I say, Barry Sanders) or Gale Sayers? Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan? Brett Favre or Fran Tarkenton? Sophia Loren or Halle Berry?
Today's heroes, idols, and lowlifes are viewed in a oxymoronic way: both great because of their recent entries into our consciousness, and flawed because of this same recent entry. Kobe, for example, is great precisely because he is playing now, and our attention deficit disordered-society heaps immediate praise on the here, the now, the latest, the freshest.
This immediacy, however, and the flavor-of-the-month culture that it imbues and that flavors our daily lives paradoxically forces us to demand a higher and sustained level of greatness from today's heroes. It is precisely this idea that raises the level of greatness of Jim Brown, the football great, in our minds. He is both immediate--still alive, lively, and philanthropic--and an object of nostalgia--he retired at the "top of his game" at age 29, fresh off a season in which he tied a career high in touchdowns and gained the second most yards of his career.
Just don't judge his greatness based on "Original Gangsters."
When I was four years old, I saw a picture of my preschool class. We'd posed at lunch on a sunny day, on the playground where a youngster feels so contented. I pointed out to my mom that I was squinting, my right eye closed against the oppressive sunlight.
"It's called a 'stigmatism,' she said soothingly, "Doctor Pharrell told me that you have this. It's not bad, though, Honey. It's what makes you special."
So "special," in fact that it made me like the saints, or so I thought. A book sitting on my grandpa's toilet about Saint Veronica Giuliani, a famous stigmatic, and pilfered pieces of a conversation at church told me that it was just a matter of time before I would bear the telltale marks of Jesus' crucifixion on my hands.
When I was young, my parents were not Old. They were old, but they weren't Old. Subjectivity and objectivity can often be one and the same when we are young, and it was indeed their arbitrary birth year of 1950 that served as the acid test, the border between old and Old. My dad's older sister, a year older than he, had the great misfortune to be born slighly south of 1950. She was therefore marked as "Old" in the young boy's encyclopedia.
The simplicity and delineations in our minds as youngsters made things so easy. Sixty years old was clearly "Old"--though Mona Robinson of "Who's the Boss" reruns threw a confusing wrench into my categories--eighty years old was "ancient," and twenty was "cool old."
As I approach my dreaded twenty-ninth birthday, it helps to know that somewhere out there, somebody considers me both "cool old" and light years from "Old."