What a celebrity! Best-selling author. Pal of politicians and princes. Big on laughs, lovers, diets and health kicks, some involving nudity. Fantastic swimmer. Fantastic thinker. In France, they put his picture on bracelets.
Are we talking Lance Armstrong? Donald Trump? Bill Clinton, maybe? Try Ben Franklin, the frisky Founding Father who turned 300 last week.
Most of us learned about Ben Franklin the same time we learned about Betsy Ross: first grade. She sewed a flag, he flew a kite. Good for them.
But with Ben's birthday upon us, it's time to go a little further and allow our jaws to drop. This guy - the oldest man to sign the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution - wasn't just a father of our country (and of at least one illegitimate son, whom he raised). He was a genius like Leonardo, but wackier.
After all, Franklin didn't just give us the first lending library, the first fire department and bifocals. (Annoyed that he had to keep switching glasses, he cut two pairs in half and glued half of each lens into a single frame.) He's also the dude who brought tofu to America. He spent a half hour every morning in an air bath - i.e., sitting around naked. For a while, he went vegetarian.
As a young man, Ben was even a female impersonator, sort of. His brother James wouldn't let young Ben write for his newspaper, so Ben started penning articles under the name "Silence Dogood" and slipping them under the print-shop door. Mrs. Dogood was funny and gossipy, and she complained about the way women were treated - a Colonial Oprah. Ben used her popularity to promote his budding ideas, insisting, for instance, that any decent society should guarantee freedom of speech. He was 16 at the time. The Constitution was still 59 years away.
So, okay: He was ahead of his time. He stayed that way. At 17, he started his own printing house and soon published "Poor Richard's Almanack." This perennial best seller taught Americans how to work hard ("Early to bed . . .") and face facts ("After three days men grow weary of a wench, a guest and rainy weather.")
He must have risen really early - and kicked out the wenches - because he still found time to invent the eco-friendly stove that bears his name and, oddly, the odometer. Plus there was that key on the kite that caught a bolt of lightning, proving (I'm still not exactly sure how) that lightning is electricity. Did I mention he got France to finance the Revolutionary War against Britain?
Don't hate Ben because the French loved him. Love him for the same reasons so many back then did (except, perhaps, his wife, when he moved to England for 19 years). Love the fact that he left money in his will for micro-loans to young businessmen. Love the fact that he refused to patent his inventions so he could leave them to the world. Love the fact that one of the last things he wrote was a plea to free the slaves.
It's so easy to love Franklin once you get to know him that it's hard to understand why most of us lump him in with Betsy Ross. Now that he's 300, let's give him his due. Not celebrity status. Just a little more time devoted each day to improving the mind, the body and - what the heck - the country he helped found.