Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Legendary? Really? Nope!

In my little corner of the world (severe storms meteorology), I've managed to make some contributions to the science and to the hobby of storm chasing, and am known for being outspoken.  For this, I'm constantly being told I'm a "legend" in the field.  Some people actually seek my autograph, and want to be photographed with me, as if I'm some sort of pop star!  I suppose I should be flattered by this, and it does perhaps reflect that I've managed to become successful at what I set out many, many years ago to accomplish.  That's really nice, but ...

Frankly, I find "legend" status to be inappropriate and pretty silly, actually.  How famous can a meteorologist ever hope to be?  When I go into the grocery store, they still ask for money when I want to take food home.  I don't get police escorts to and from the airport.  I can go out in public without being mobbed by fans.  No paparazzi are following me around.  My portion of "legendary" status is a pretty small one.  And that's just fine with me.  I still consider myself to be a student of meteorology, still hoping to understand more of the natural world's mysteries.

I've never sought to be a legend, and I don't believe I deserve such a label.  And I definitely don't want it!  For me, this sort of putting a person on a pedestal is simply an invitation to be knocked down by folks who may dislike you for reasons of their own.  It also invites the creation of legends - stories that often grow with successive tellings - that create a drastically oversimplified version of the person being afforded legendary status.  A flat, "cardboard cutout" version of the real person being "honored" as a legend results.  The real person who farts, belches, curses, makes all sorts of mistakes, and even does stupid things is lost somewhere behind the false front of the legend.

The recent fall of Joe Paterno is a good example - there were rumors of his being less than perfect (arrogant, hard to work with, abusive to his subordinates, etc.) during his coaching tenure, but these were buried in the background, little more than whispered rumors outside of the football program.  That is, until events at Penn State called his legacy into question.  Then, wolves were howling for his skin well before all the facts were known.  Outside of Penn State and its alumni, many people now think of Joe Paterno only in terms of his fall from grace.  He didn't deserve "legend" status in his prime, and now he doesn't deserve all the negatives heaped on him as a result of his downfall.

When I read posthumous tributes, I'm often struck by the almost uniformly adoring tone of them, even when the real person was not very admirable.  This reflects some sort of unspoken conspiracy to not speak ill of the dead, unless they were "legendarily" bad.  No one minds it when you bash Hitler, or Stalin, or Pol Pot, or any other notorious figure.  But when a widely popular figure dies, many people seem inclined to wallow in a competition to say the most positive things about the recently dead person.  If someone else brings up something about the recently deceased that is less than laudable, they often are vilified, even when speaking the truth.  The real person is hidden somewhere behind the cardboard cutout legend.

From dictionary.com:           Legend - noun

          1. a nonhistorical or unverifiable story handed down by tradition from earlier times and popularly accepted as historical.
          2. the body of stories of this kind, especially as they relate to a particular people, group, or clan: the winning of the West in American legend.

The key point here is that legends are not historical, nor are they verifiable.  They're stories that spring up in connection with people.  I have no wish to be characterized in legendary terms.  If you're going to tell stories about me, make sure they're true, not exaggerated, and not inherited second- or third-hand. 

If you choose to call attention to yourself, rather than to your accomplishment, then you may well be seeking legendary status, perhaps to address some deep-seated insecurity.  As an example, some storm chasers are after fame and fortune, marketing themselves or allowing others to market them as legends - it's not about the storms, it's about them!  I'd be deeply ashamed to do many of the things I see some chasers doing.  And when I die, I'd rather any obituaries focus on the reality of who I am, not some imaginary legend.