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

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 a chapter or two of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology}, 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.

 

I did not vote for Trump. Many of my friends will stop reading there. But I hope they don’t.

I did not vote for Donald Trump. Many of my friends will stop reading there. They will stop reading and possibly unfriend me and/or possibly compose a comment in response to that single sentence, all of which they have every right to do.

 

But I hope they don’t. I hope they continue to read.

 

I am a white male. I grew up in a rural area of Northern California. I was raised Catholic and went to private Catholic schools from kindergarten through twelfth grade.

 

I grew up in and around the horse industry. My maternal grandfather was a rancher and National Reined Cowhorse Association Hall of Famer. My father is a horse trainer and breeder. He bred and raised AQHA’s current all-time leading sire.

 

My stepfather is a team roper, and around the age of fourteen I also became a team roper. I signed up for high school rodeo, and my family began to supply me, as they would continue to do for the decade-and-a-half that followed, with horses and trailers and trucks and tack and all the other accoutrements necessary for a team roper.

 

I competed in high school rodeo for four years, college rodeo for four years, amateur rodeo for fourteen years, and professional rodeo for twelve years (the latter three overlapping).

 

The rodeo world is predominately Republican. I am a Democrat. I have “felt” like a Democrat since I was about twelve years old. I didn’t get it from my parents or from Catholic school or from anyone around me. For whatever reasons, I developed a worldview that more closely aligned with the Democratic Party than the Republican Party. This worldview developed with positive intent: it is based upon things that I believe in, not things that I hate.

 

For most of my life, I didn’t know many fellow Democrats. But that was never much of a problem. I got into spirited debates from time to time with some of my friends. These debates were always about issues. They were often fun.

 

More recently, it feels different.

 

On Tuesday, a close friend posted on Facebook about having voted for Hillary Clinton. She received multiple comments, one from a mutual acquaintance of ours from college who replied with, “Nice knowing you. I love my country.” Perhaps I’ll receive similar comments.

 

I suspect that my declaration that I did not vote for Donald Trump will lead some to the conclusion that I am therefore less American. That I love my country less. That I am less concerned about the threat of terrorism and about the lives of our military. That I am disqualified from descriptors such as patriot and family man and hard worker.

 

To this I take great offense. In fact, I will not tolerate it. I am American. I do love my country, I do care deeply about its safety and the safety and well-being of those who defend it, and I am a patriot and a family man and a hard worker, despite the fact that I exercised my right to vote for a different candidate than those who might claim otherwise.

 

Many of my friends may also view my vote as a sign of deficiency in my character. I admit it: I am deficient in character. As are we all. And I hope, as I assume we all do, that as each year passes those deficiencies decrease in number. But, in the end, we are all flawed characters, and some of us, who were friends before Facebook hijacked the word, know one another’s flaws all too well, and hopefully rejoice for one another as we shuffle them off.

 

Speaking of Facebook, the past two days of scrolling seems to be revealing a troubling trend in which, at the end of an election in which issues were less and less the issue and more and more the issue became the extent to which the other candidate was criminal/evil/treasonous/demonic, what is spilling out, there now being no candidates left to demonize, is the demonization of the supporters of each candidate by the supporters of the other.

 

At this point, I was going to write, “Both sides need to listen to one another.” But a major part of the problem is that we are being placed ever more permanently on sides.

 

We all need to listen to one another.

 

We also need to remember that information in service of a single point of view is propaganda, and it is in the best interests of each of our respective parties (or at least of elements of those parties) that we be divided.

 

Said parties seem to have been remarkably successful at said division, and certain particulars of our contemporary society—the multiple 24/7 news options, the echo chamber of the individualized social media feed, and the handheld devices that keep us constantly fed—have made the delivery of divisive propaganda more convenient and more effective than in previous generations.

 

We all need to listen to one another.

 

Said listening requires what F. Scott Fitzgerald sort-of-famously prescribed: “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

 

We need to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time. It’s actually not that hard, and I don’t even have a first-rate intelligence. I do it every time I order three cheeseburgers on the way home from work while making plans for getting into shape.

 

We need to listen to one another, and we need to do this because our individual experiences are not all the same.

 

On Wednesday, after the election, at work, I sat in a meeting (or, more accurately, sat waiting for a meeting to begin) with two other white teachers. The population at our school is around 80% Hispanic. The two other white teachers mocked the fact that some of their students were demonstrably in a state of grief over the election of Donald Trump, mocking in particular a girl who had cried.

 

We must not dismiss or discredit the American experience of others because it is not our own American experience.

 

We can hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and continue to function. If you are opposed to President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) as a policy, you can hold that thought in mind while also recognizing that the tears of a seventeen year old girl who is months from graduation but who may lose her DACA status are legitimate and understandable and deserving of our sympathy, not our mockery.

 

It is also possible to hold in mind the two opposing thoughts that while her parents have committed a crime, they are not criminals, a paradox that is proven true by the fact that we unevenly extend (or withhold) it when that extension (or withholding) is convenient to our social, political, or religious points of view (see above definition of propaganda).

 

We all must listen to one another. We must listen with sympathy to the American experience of displaced factory workers or coal miners. You can hold that sympathy, and the desire that each and every one of their jobs comes back to them, in mind alongside the logic that because of automation and the simple fact that we now burn less coal, each and every job won’t be able to come back, and that a promise that each and every job will come back, though we may root for it, sounds like propaganda.

 

We must not dismiss or discredit the American experience of others because it is not our own American experience.

 

We must listen to the American experience of factory workers and coal miners and farmers and small business owners with as much sympathy as we listen to the American experience of those who feel threatened and unjustly treated by law enforcement or our justice system.

 

In the past year, several of my friends shared a meme (it might be a meme—I’m not entirely confident that I know what exactly makes a meme a meme, but it had a picture and words) that told the story of an African American man who was carrying a firearm when he was pulled over by the police. As a result of his courtesy and obedience, the man experienced no issues with the officer.

 

It’s an interesting story, though statistically insignificant (just as this man’s experience multiplied by a thousand would be statistically insignificant), and it does not dismiss or discredit those whose experiences are counter to it.

 

We can hold in our head respect and regard for the job that police officers perform alongside sympathy and concern for African Americans, for whom the American experience is filtered through government policies—slavery, Jim Crow, the Federal Housing Administration—that have discriminated against them (and empowered terrorism against them) since the country’s inception.

 

We must not dismiss the American experience of African-Americans or other people of color because it differs from our own.

 

We must not dismiss the American experience of the white working class because it differs from our own.

 

We must not dismiss the American experience of women because it differs from our own.

 

We must not dismiss the American experience of Muslim Americans because it differs from our own.

 

We must not dismiss the American experience of the LGBTQ community because it differs from our own.

 

We all must listen to one another.

 

What we do not need to listen to—in any way, shape, or form—and what we must instead fight against in any way we can, is speech that categorically limits or dismisses the views, concerns, rights, or humanity of our fellow Americans—according to race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or any other category.

 

We can hold in our mind hope for the economic renewal of our nation and the safety of our nation in a Trump presidency alongside an outright rejection of bigotry, racism, sexism, and xenophobia that may be emboldened by his election. In fact, it is our duty as Americans to reject, if not combat, those elements.

 

You can hold in your mind that you voted for Donald Trump out of a belief that he was the best choice for your country and your family. You can hold that thought right alongside the recognition that in his words and in his actions Donald Trump is not the embodiment of your moral, family, and Christian values. He is not the man you want your children to become.

 

During the campaign, the argument at this point would turn to “Well, she’s not any better.” But Hillary Clinton has been rejected, and is no longer a factor in this conversation.

 

Donald Trump no longer benefits from the comparison. He is now accountable to all of us. She is not.