Trolls, Moana, and Joseph Campbell: A Post About Why I Don’t Rope Anymore, and How I Will Again

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August 13, 2017 by bhjames78

Month before last, I read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

 

I even posted on this blog, with vague intent, a quotation from early in the book.

 

I read Hero in preparation for reading John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy (which is a re-telling of the hero cycle that takes place at a university, the university allegorically representing the entire universe [I am four books into a {project? journey? quest? errand?} of reading {or in some cases re-reading, or re-re-reading} Barth’s entire bibliography, a {p? j? q? e?} that is taking much longer than it should in part due to the fact that I tend to—as I did with H.w.a.T.F and G.G-b.—read other books in preparation for the next book {Barth book after next—Chimera—for example, will be preceded by The Thousand and One Nights <at least some of them> and The Decameron}, making the process, as stated, a slow one]). But that’s another story.

 

After reading Hero, I started to see the hero cycle, as Campbell describes it, everywhere—first, perhaps, in the movies I have the pleasure of watching over and over and over with my kids.

 

Trolls, for instance: a call to action, a refusal of the call, a helper, crossing the threshold, a herald at the threshold, trials, descent into the underworld (also described by Campbell, in an allusion to Jonah, as descent into the belly of the whale, and, in the case of Trolls, symbolized literally by being swallowed, or the threat thereof), emergence from the underworld (into, in Trolls, a tree at world’s center much like Campbell’s World Navel), and crossing back over the threshold with the elixir (in this case, love…or dancing…or something) that will save the world or the village or the family or the whatever.

 

Or, Moana: see list above, minus the parentheticals.

 

But Campbell’s purpose was not to help us see the similarities between heroes or between animated films. The purpose of Hero is to help us better understand ourselves.

 

Hero myths sprouted up in ancient civilizations all over the planet, many featuring the same characteristics, just as hero-driven films and TV shows continue to sprout up with many of the same characteristics. It’s not a coincidence. Or collusion. It’s simply that those characteristics are part of the human subconscious.

 

The story of Odysseus’s return to Ithaca, or Siddhartha’s path to enlightenment, is the story of every one of us—the subconscious journey of our psyche.

 

So the universal story mirrors the individual story.

 

In 1993, at fifteen years old, I started team roping. I high school rodeoed, but I wasn’t very good.

 

I had a good foundation, though. I’d learned to rope horns from a header who’d been to the National Finals the year before, and because of this foundation (reinforced by roping the dummy on average a hundred times a day for the next ten years), I kept getting better.

 

So from 15 years old to 30 years old I did almost nothing else other than roping (and cared about little else, too).

 

I went from high school rodeo to college rodeo. In college, I still wasn’t good enough, but I was getting better. During college, I found a sort of mentor who straightened out my roping quite a bit.

 

At around 25 years old, after lots and lots and lots of at-bats, I got to a point where I could win pretty consistently at the amateur rodeos and win a little bit at the pro rodeos in California.

 

Team roping was my life, and year-by-year life was getting better.

 

But life life—the part of life that I knew was real life but about which I couldn’t’ve cared less—life life was getting worse and worse.

 

Throughout my twenties, I had no steady job, and therefore no steady income—in fact, what jobs I had were primarily for the purpose of generating funds for future entry fees (or for paying past due entry fees [and fines]).

 

Every possession of consequence—truck, trailer, horses, etc.—was borrowed, or had been handed over. I survived thanks to family and close friends and their repeated charitable donations to what was ultimately an unworthy cause. To what, actually, was not a cause at all.

 

This, of course, was unsustainable.

 

And the life I was living was unfulfilling. I was not happy.

 

[Note: This is not in any way to say that a life of roping cannot be fulfilling; it is only to say that the life of roping that I was choosing to live was unfulfilling.]

Here’s an anecdote, to demonstrate: In 2001, I went to a college rodeo in Ogden, UT. I traveled with a friend and another friend. The rodeo performances were at night, and during the day, they had ropings. I spent all my money at the ropings. Every penny. On the way home, we stopped to eat at Boomtown. I either ordered something cheap, or I ate off of my friends’ plates. I don’t remember, but as we left, I was still hungry. On a vacated table we walked by was the uneaten half of a pastrami sandwich. I picked it up and ate it, right there on the spot. As my friends were paying, a man and woman came up to the counter. The woman asked where her husband’s sandwich was. They wanted to take it with them. The host had seen me eat it. He told on me. I went and hid behind a slot machine. The woman was angry. The husband calmed her down. He said to her: “Honey, a man’s gotta eat.”

Life was like that. Every day.

 

The changes began when I got a job. A real job. A career. I was 27. I started teaching high school English full time.

 

I had always thought I would be an English teacher, but I had always thought of it as the thing I would do after roping. But, financial necessity sped things up.

 

They were going to pay me just under $40,000 a year to teach English. The figure was mind-boggling. At the time, roping was still my life, so I of course viewed this new career through that lens: seemingly unlimited entry fee and fuel money, and lots of time off to rope (afternoons, weekends, spring break, summer break).

 

During my first year as a teacher, I still practiced three of four nights a week, and I still went to a roping (or two) every weekend. In the spring and summer, I went to two or three or four rodeos every weekend.

 

And I was still broke. And I still had nothing.

 

And I was a terrible teacher, as most first-year teachers are.

 

And then it happened: I fell in love.

 

I found my light, my love, my partner, and (in Campbellian terms) my helper.

 

I had found my life, and it was a life overflowing with joy and adventure. I was fulfilled, and I was happy.

 

Over the next eight years, that life grew and grew. There are now four of us, and it is a life of warmth and smiles and laughs and hugs.

 

Naturally, as this new life grew, that other life—roping life—diminished. I didn’t love roping any less, I just loved someone else so much more.

 

To my closest friends in that other life, the fact that I no longer rope (at all) is probably irreconcilable with the (often monomaniacal) person that they knew. They may chalk it up to: married a city girl, moved to town, quit roping. But that is not the story.

 

My crossing the threshold moment came when our first son was around one-year-old: I sold my horse.

 

More accurately, I sold my most recent horse (having, from the ages of 15 to 36, been in possession of dozens and dozens of rope horses [often two or three or four at a time], all loaned out [or, more accurately, handed over] by the aforementioned charitable parties [mostly parents and/or step-parents], including the just-mentioned most-recent).

 

At that point—though I was roping much much less then than I had been before—I became, for the first time in just over twenty years, a non-roper.

 

The hero cycle is about change. It can be represented graphically as a circle with a horizontal line running through it. Crossing the threshold of the first line, followed by descending down into the belly of the whale—the bottom of the circle—and then emerging to ascend up the circle’s other side. For the hero, this represents a rebirth, literal or figurative, and for the individual subconscious, it represents the figurative death of a former self and rebirth of a new self.

 

I sold my horse because he was twenty-years old, and I wasn’t roping enough to keep him in good shape. I was also at a crossroads, so to speak. I had one very young child, and one on the way. I could keep my horse, and/or get a new horse, and keep roping, even only occasionally. Which would’ve meant, occasionally, that A) I spent entire days away from my (pregnant) wife and very young child(ren), or B) I would drag them all along with me, and instead of spending a Saturday doing something together, like going to the zoo, they would be present while I did something. What seemed better was option C) Wait until my boys were older.

 

Added to that was the fact that my wife had decided to take leave from work and stay home to raise our kids, which she has done for the past two years. So we went from two teacher incomes (each now approaching double that mind-boggling figure dropped on me at 27) to one. So selling my horse and thereby eliminating at least significant (and recurring) source of expense seemed an appropriate sacrifice given Liz’s—Liz being a fantastic teacher and a program specialist and a published author—even greater sacrifice of her career.

 

Once reborn, the hero, or subconscious, is then equipped to discover the elixir that will lead to (resolution? victory? enlightenment? bliss?)

 

I had found my elixir. It was my (growing) family.

 

And that elixir had provided me a new life.

 

But there is an additional leap that must be made in Campbell’s cycle. Once the elixir is discovered, and the new life is being lived, the hero—or individual—must be willing to cross the second threshold—that other end of the line on the other side of the circle, beyond which is the original point of departure.

 

The hero—elixir in hand—returns to that original point of departure, but now approaches as a new, reborn person.

 

In Trolls, the only thing that will make the bad guys and the bad-guy-king happy was eating a troll. That changes thanks to the elixir (again: in this case love…or dancing), and afterwards the bad guys and their king don’t need to eat a troll to be happy. They have love. And dancing.

 

For a long time about the only thing that made me happy was winning. A distant second was spinning one off pretty fast but having my heeler miss, or rope a leg. But, for the most part, happiness came from winning.

 

Though I’m now a non-roper, the plan has never been to remain a non-roper. Two weeks ago, we officially became a two-income family again. The boys are getting older. But when I cross that second threshold and return to roping, it will be as a new man. I look forward to re-approaching my former life from a position at which my life and my happiness is not affirmed by the outcome of a roping. We’ll see.

 

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