Adventure, Bicycling, Mexico, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

A Tornado in the Desert

When last we left off, I had been through a harrowing ride through a desert on a nearly-broken bicycle, on the verge of being stranded out in the cold. I’d managed to reach a town, repair my bicycle by working through the night, and wobble exhausted to the dead little burg of Moctezuma, SLP. After a day of rest there, I was ready to depart the “Corridor of Oases” and strike off into desert once more…

Photo by Kevin Schraer

Wednesday, November 26 (Day 873 of the Great Adventure)—The  Road Least Traveled

Mexico’s waiters are not fleet of foot. A few very high end places defy the rule and recruit almost obsessive servers. They accost you for your convenience between each mouthful, so eager to clear your dishes that they snatch them away half full. Most places, however, from casual streetside taco stands to mainline restaurants, sit at the other end of the spectrum. The cultural expectation is not that they will come check on you in case you need something. The expectation is that they will visit you only when they must drop off your order, and otherwise stay far away. If you need your waiter, it is acceptable to call loudly from across the room.

The breakfast I had my last morning in Moctezuma pushed this standard to new lows. A server may do many things while pointedly not looking in your direction: they may chat with friends, check their phone or mop. My server opted for the latter approach—but not in the restaurant. Instead she left and swept an alley behind it, as if she had a grave duty to avoid the actual dining area where I sat, menu in hand, wanting food.

And the alley required a lot of attention. It wasn’t just the sweeping, it was caring for the flower pots and sprinkling water to hold down the dust. I assume a boyfriend was meeting her back there, and I accept that her teenage loins take precedence over my chilaquiles.

I don’t know what a Mexican customer would have done. Maybe they would’ve gone in the alley and placed their order, or yelled so loud that she could hear them from outside. There were no other customers to learn from. In any case I’m from the U.S.; I don’t chase down waiters. I sit quietly at my table hoping to catch someone’s eye, and I get annoyed.

Eventually, I heard shuffling in the kitchen. Sensing a doña, I strolled over to the order-up window.

“Hi there,” I said. “Could I order some red chilaquiles with fried eggs?”

“Sure,” she said.

Then she went outside, got the waitress (presumably in flagrante delicto) and sent her over to my table. I then gave my order a second time.

This is how the entire meal went: if I wanted something I got the doña’s attention, but instead of handing me whatever it was she summoned the waitress. At one point, the doña fetched the waitress so I could ask for more coffee; the waitress repeated this to the doña, who poured it herself. By the end of the meal I wasn’t sure if I should short the tip or double it.

Eventually I got on the bike. I headed back across the bridge to the outskirts, smashing over a hidden tope (speed bump) on the way and destroying my plastic toolbox. I picked its contents off the road and shoved them into a bag. I wondered what else Fortuna could have in store for me on such a lovely day.

My route turned off the Corridor of Oases. Where I had been heading south, I now swung east. The plan was to go completely around the city of San Luis Potosí, the state capital. There were a few reasons for this:

  • Biking through big cities is terrible.
  • I’ve already seen this city, and actually lived there for 6 weeks or so (pictures, stories).
  • I was too late to meet up with my friend who lives there, who had just left on a business trip for several weeks.

Instead, I planned to strike out for the town of Villa de Arista, then turn south and cut across some desert north of the city, turning away at the last minute on one of the highways that runs around it. I’d seek out a roadside hotel or lodging in a small outlying town. Alberto, a gentleman I’d spoken with while hitting a laundry in Moctezuma, was confident I’d find hotels in those towns. It was a medium-long bike ride for one day, but far from my longest.

There was one downside to skipping San Luis Potosí: bike shops. As a major metropolis it presumably had good ones, and there was a chance I replace my damaged tire—or even fix my wheel wobble. But the tire seemed to be doing fine and I was already in contact with a bike mechanic farther up ahead.

So I put my back to the wind and pedaled on.

The first part of the trip went well. I made a quick stop in Villa de Arista for a snack and Gatorade. One of the locals, another Alberto, saw the bike and made small talk. I learned the word for “scarf” from him (bufanda). I also asked him about the road ahead. He assumed I meant a freeway many miles east of the town, a major route toward San Luis Potosí. That wasn’t the highway I meant at all. I planned to turn south right here in Villa. I’d eventually cut over to the same highway he meant, but save many miles by taking a country road.

Alberto shook his head and told me something I couldn’t translate, which may or may not have been a warning. I politely thanked him and went on my way, sticking to my plan. After all, I had Google.

Heading south meant no more tailwind. The terrain also quickly went from green cropland back to desert. The sun grew hot. I noticed that some of the roads I passed, marked as major ones on the map, were just gravel trails. For some reason that didn’t give me pause.

Finally I reached a tiny village known as Rincon de Leijas (if anyone can tell me what Leijas means you win a bicycle shaped cookie). This was where I needed to hang a right onto a new road. But as I cruised into town, the only right-hand turn was an old gravel mule track. “That’s weird,” I thought, and figured it was a bit farther up ahead. But all I found was a residential street and a dead end.

The mule track was my right-hand turn.

I harrumphed. Going back to Villa meant nearly two hours wasted, plus having to take the longer route Alberto recommended. On the other hand, this mule track was a very short segment on the map. It just jogged over to another more major highway. With no cell signal in the desert I couldn’t get a fix on the exact distance, but I eyeballed it as maybe 2 miles. That’s less than an hour of walking.

Gallantly, I wheeled my bike toward the trail and strode off the paved highway into the desert. Farm families watched me in silence as I departed their fair burg, and I kept my head up as if this was exactly what I’d intended to do. Who doesn’t want a quick constitutional in the wasteland?

Two vehicles passed me as I left Rincon de Leijas: one mule (with a rider) and one tractor (with a rider with a parasol). Both returned my head nod and neither asked any potentially embarrassing questions.

The mule track went over a rocky ridge, so I couldn’t actually see my destination up ahead. But I was confident that the hour wasted walking the bike would still be shorter than backtracking.

The hour passed. Atop the ridge I surveyed the land before me. I couldn’t clearly see the other highway I was supposed to meet. Then again, in a rocky rolling scrubland that wasn’t surprising. My mule trail curved left up ahead, which was exactly what it was supposed to do before merging. Perfect.

It took me a long time to admit that the highway didn’t exist. Not just that it too was unpaved: I never saw any other track at all.

I considered my options. The mule trail continued in the correct direction, the direction the “highway” was supposed to run. It pointed south, where sooner or later there would be towns and San Luis Potosí. I’d get there eventually. On the other hand, the cost of backtracking had grown by another hour and a half. And what’s the worst thing that could happen wandering alone in a desert?

So, fuck it. I kept walking the bike.

I was also highly conscious of my supplies. I had the camping gear to survive a night in the desert, cold as it would be. As for food, surviving on Cliff Bars is far from haute cuisine but it’ll do the job. Water was the real issue. Expecting to be able to stop at roadside stores, I had only a liter and a half on me. I could ration half of it for today/tonight and save half for tomorrow. That ought to get me to civilization.

So I walked through the desert. Once, a truck passed me; I didn’t think about flagging him down and he didn’t think about stopping. You might think of a truck as a reassuring sign, a symbol that I really was headed toward civilization, but he could have been a rancher. There was every possibility that the mule trail would just dead end.

The afternoon wore on. I felt oddly calm. My main problem was the stones that kept getting in my shoes. I stopped bothering to empty them out. The surroundings were beautiful, and I felt at home there.

At one point the trail dipped down to cross a dry stream bed. I entered the low area, and my view of the countryside ahead was cut off just for a moment.

Then I started up the far bank, looking up. And I froze.

Towering over me, straight ahead, was a tornado.

I’ve never seen a tornado except in movies  and news footage. But there was no mistaking it. And this sucker was huge. It was a giant vertical column ripping up the beige dust around me. It moved directly over the trail. And it was close.

My mouth dropped open. Parts of me were already spinning, spooling up, plotting my survival. I had to do something other than stand there and take it.

And then it was gone. As quick as it had appeared, the tornado fell to pieces and swirled itself out into nothing. Mouth still open I started laughing, loud, hard.

It wasn’t a tornado. It was a dust devil.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a giant fucking dust devil. This isn’t one of those swirls of leaves you see in autumn. This bad boy reached to the heavens. But it was nothing to be afraid of, just a bit of dirt caught in a swirl of the wind. Even if it had run right over me, the worst I would’ve suffered was a mouthful of grit.

Still, it had my hackles up. The tornado itself wasn’t even what got me. It was the way it appeared out of nowhere, with no warning. And then seeing it disappear just as quick. “Devil” seemed right: it was conjured and banished as quickly as a sorcerer’s pet.

Still smiling, I pushed on. I walked right through the spot where it had been and everything was at peace.

Much later, a huge truck passed me. This one stopped up ahead. I squinted as various people got off. The truck drove on, leaving them there, and they stayed by the side of the road. Were they waiting for me? What did they want?

As I got closer, I realized they had tools and were digging. And then I realized something much more important, but much harder to see: the road next to them was paved.

A mere three or four hours after nodding my head to a cowboy with a parasol, I had reached the fabled paved road. It was bikable.

As soon as I touched pavement I mounted up. I surveyed the workers, head again held high. They all stopped working and stared at me like I was insane.

I’m pretty used to that look.

“Buenas tardes,” I said, nodded, and pedaled down the road.

 —

The road soon led to a village (called Nuevo Tanque, “New Tank,” which I imagine has a corporate story behind it). It had an abarrotes shop and I went in for water. From the look on the doña’s face they didn’t get a lot of gueros in these parts, and even less crawling out of the desert. A gentleman there wanted to get chatty but, now four hours behind schedule, I had to keep going.

The rest of the afternoon was increasingly green land and occasional villages, all uphill. I had a difficult choice to make. There was absolutely no question that I’d be bicycling after dark, so should I stick to the original plan, or divert and head into the city? One option meant blindly searching for lodging after sunset, and the other was a shit show of bad biking conditions.

It was tough. I really, really didn’t want to go into the city. But searching hotels on Google showed them clustered in the metro, and nothing on the freeway. That didn’t mean there weren’t any highway hotels, but holding out hope in the freezing dark on a 6-lane freeway is a rough way to spend an evening.

At the final fork in the road, right before sunset, I made the call: we’re going to SLP.

There were two more towns before hitting the big city, and I held onto at least a small hope that one of them would have an inn. Neither did, and it was at this time that my back wheel chose to resume scuffing the against the frame. I stopped twice, once in each town, and threw my saddlebags roadside to turn the Giant upside down and adjust his back wheel. The second time, I cranked those lugnuts hard. And as quick as I had stopped, I pushed on.

Outside San Luis Potosí, the boundary between country and city is so precise it looks like a video game. An overpass formed a simple border: on one side was pristine green-gold farmland, on the other was smog-stained industrial slum. Straddling the divide was a giant gas station. It had a sign for showers but none for a hotel. Shrugging, I crossed the line.

That was about the same moment the sun fell behind the mountains, and the effect was pronounced. I remember my friend the Wandering Dragon, my host when I lived in SLP, warning me there were certain parts of town you just don’t go into. The road I was on went all the way across one.

The first problem was pavement. It was such a crater field I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear artillery shells. I urged the Giant to be strong, but it wasn’t just his life that was in danger.

The neighborhood itself was a mix of slummy residential structures with metal shops, warehouses and the odd taco stand. At first it was mostly deserted, and the few faces I saw tracked me with interest. Then it got darker. They couldn’t see that I had professional saddle bags rather than a crate of produce.

Additionally, it became denser and more residential. Trash fires lined the streets. People milled about, traffic increased, other bicycles passed me. I kept my head down, hoping to blend in, and I made a point to never speak. In the dark, I wasn’t a guero unless I opened my mouth.

The ride was nerve wracking, but no worse than the bad neighborhoods I’d gone through in south Memphis or Saint Louis—and marginally better than the street party in Baton Rouge. Early on, I made an agreement with myself that if things got any worse I would just turn it around and go back to the freeway, and figure out a backup plan. I never thought of that option again. (Which may indicate how skewed my judgment is, because not much later I went past a large-scale police bust in progress.)

By the time I reached a part of town that might be considered halfway respectable, I had also reached intense traffic conditions. The road turned from asphalt to large rectangular paving stones, a pain to ride on. I remember the Dragon complaining about these and me saying they’re pretty. Eff you, past André.

To make things more interesting, it became one-way and I faced a wall of traffic. I refused to reroute to the correct-way street, but did take to the sidewalk for several blocks.

Finally, the street spat me out somewhere I recognized. I had reached a park in the Central Historic district, a perfectly safe and peaceful place to stop. These transitions don’t even feel weird anymore: guarding my life one minute, sitting on a park bench perusing my iPhone the next. I identified several hotels within blocks and set out for one that, based on the reviews, sounded affordable but nice.

A few minutes later I rolled the bike up to the Hotel Maria Cristina. Its grand staircase looked both elegant, and difficult to haul a bike up. Most of all it looked expensive. I leaned against the wall, checking my phone for the other hotels in the area.

At that point some random guy walked up to me. “Mande,” he said.

Now I know that mande means “excuse me.” At the time I didn’t know that word. So I looked up and said, essentially, “What?”

The man hesitated. He had thought I was Mexican until I spoke. (I find this happens not infrequently: remember, Latinos don’t actually come in any one skin or hair color, and have their fair share of blondies.) While he stuttered to reorient himself, I lost my patience. I had spent the last hour trying to repel potential troublemakers, and strangers usually only approach you in big cities to ask for money. Basically, my defenses were up.

“Que quiere?” I snapped, which translates as a fairly brisk whaddya want.

He hesitated but went on. “I just think your bike is beautiful,” he said in English.

Immediately my heart softened, and so did my demeanor. He could still be hustling me for all I knew, but he sure had a creative way of doing it.

We started talking about bikes and my trip. He loves old road bikes and wanted to know what kind the Giant is (a Miyata, for those interested). He owns a Raleigh not unlike the one I’d just helped a friend in New Orleans sell. He desperately wants to do long distance biking, but hasn’t had a chance yet.

“Where do you want to bike?” I asked.

“Everywhere,” he said. We laughed.

Finally I asked him if he could do me a favor. “I need to run in and see how much this hotel costs,” I said. “Will you watch my bike?”

He hesitated. “How long?” he asked. [Andre’s note: if you want to steal someone’s bike, this is a great tactic. As soon as he was reluctant I was 100% sure I’d found a trustworthy person to watch it.]

I assured him it would just be a minute and he agreed. The hotel turned out to be something like 500 pesos, more than I usually spend but not so much more that I was going to keep wandering the streets looking for a bargain. I came outside and told my new friend the good news.

I also asked if he lived in San Luis Potosí, thinking maybe we’d get dinner together or something. He actually doesn’t, but he’s there often for work. He told me he lives in Rioverde. Now it was my turn to light up: Rioverde is one of the area’s more pristine tourist destinations, famous for a crescent moon shaped lake. He confirmed that the lake is divinely beautiful and asked if my trip would take me that way.

“I don’t know,” I said. As I recalled, it was east of the city and well off my route.

“Well if you do, you have a place to stay,” he told me. He introduced himself by his full name—four names long—and told me that anyone in town would know him and point out his house to me. I committed all four names to memory and promised my friend I would stop by if I went that way. (Unfortunately I was right; it’s pretty far off my route.)

After that the night was a wind-down. The hotel actually had a parking garage, and encouraged me to just roll the bike in there. I chained him up and U-locked him to a railing near the motorcycle parking. The attendant nodded approvingly. “Very smart,” he said in Spanish. Bike locks don’t seem real common in Mexico.

A bellboy (bellman?) brought the rest of my stuff upstairs. The place came with free water, more nonfunctional wi-fi, and not a single outlet to be found in my room. Seeking to avoid the high prices of a hotel restaurant, I went to a cafe around the block. They handed me what could have been a carbon copy of the hotel menu. Same dishes, same prices.

My waiter, at least, was a source of familiar comfort. He may not have had an alley to retreat to, but he subscribed to the exact school of service as the girl who brought me breakfast. 59.6 miles.

Map 1. 26.3 miles

Map 2. 5.5 miles walking

Map 3. 27.8 miles.

Total traveled this leg: 59.6 miles.

Total traveled since Day 1: 3540.3 miles.

Next time the biking gets easier and the hotels get a whole lot worse. Until then, here are all my road logs.

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Heroism, The Heroic Life

Why I’m Changing My View of Heroism

Art by Delawer-Omar

Over the past few weeks I’ve written extensively about expanding the definition of heroism. Today I’m going to wrap that up with my conclusions and what this means for my pursuit of the heroic life.

First, a recap. Among hero scholars it’s common to use a very strict definition of heroism: only those who take real personal risk (physical or non-physical) for the sake of others are heroes. But most people use “hero” more broadly. They use it to refer to individuals who go above and beyond in a variety of ways, even if there’s no risk involved. Generally, if someone accomplishes something extraordinary in the pursuit of something we value, we call them a hero.

My point has been that there may be a very good reason we call these people heroes—that their actions really are heroic on some level. For me this is an uncomfortable position. Most of the examples I gave, from artists to pop stars to athletes, don’t seem particularly heroic to me. For years I was in the camp that believes it’s wrong to call these people heroes, that it’s watering down the whole concept of heroism.

What caused me to rethink this was witnessing firsthand the effect that these heroes have. The speakers at the first Hero Round Table concentrated overwhelmingly on deeds that wouldn’t pass my “hero” litmus test, and yet these deeds hit home in a way that I’ve never seen from heroism discussion before. And this seemed to create momentum for many of the people present to want to follow in their footsteps.

And so I set off on the search for another way to define heroism, one that isn’t based just on risk. Instead, I suggested that heroism might be based on taking actions that inspire. There’s no doubt that all of our selfless risk-taking heroes inspire us, but so do lots of other folks. That might explain why we call such a large and diverse group of people heroes.

But just inspirational on its own isn’t good enough (just like not all risky things are heroic). If the old equation was risk + doing good = heroism, then my proposed replacement was heroism = inspiring others + doing good. Specifically you have to inspire others to strive to improve themselves in some way. If an action has that effect, we can call that action heroic.

Responses and Developments

Unsurprisingly, a lot of people seem to like this definition. What was more surprising is that a lot of other people seem to hate it. I always got the impression that being a heroism hardliner, back when I was one, is pretty unpopular; that most people wanted to call quarterbacks heroes and I was the odd one out. But it turns out that a whole lot of people think heroism is a word that should be used very, very selectively and that anything else just waters it down.

The responses from many of these individuals were instructive. They were essentially saying: rock stars don’t seem heroic to me, ergo, there is nothing they do that anyone can rightly call heroic. To put it another way, some people are inspired only by the most extreme acts while others are inspired more easily. This may be why there’s a debate over the meaning of heroism in the first place.

I also got a lot of insight into the other group, the people who like this definition. Their comments show a heavy emphasis on relatability. I don’t think any of them would deny that Martin Luther King, Jr. is a greater hero than, say, their lovable grandfather. Yet both individuals inspire them to strive to be a better person, and the role that their grandfather played in their life is undeniably more intimate. This, to them, makes their grandfather a greater influence on their own ability to act heroically, even if his deeds were far humbler than leading the civil rights movement.

Both of these responses were invaluable. They helped me get a better look at what’s happening when people sling around the h-word, or when they refuse to. But I’ve also begun to second guess whether inspiration is the heart of it at all. I began to wonder if feeling inspired isn’t more a symptom of what’s going on. After all, if heroism is anything that inspires us to strive to be better, what sorts of things inspire us to strive to be better?

Starting Over

If I had to start this whole series over tomorrow, I’d likely focus on values. Each of us has a set of values, some that we all agree on—like justice or selflessness—and others that are more personal, like living healthy or being a good parent. I suspect that the people who inspire us most are the ones who take extraordinary steps in living up to our values. That’s what motivates us to be better people, because such individuals are living proof that being better is possible. It’s where inspiration comes from.

If that’s the case it explains why we all agree on some heroes, like Dr. King, because they represent values we all share. And it also explains why Lady Gaga looks like a hero to some people, while to others she’s stinking up the whole notion of heroism.

Perhaps most importantly, this theory of heroism would suggest that there’s an objective mechanism behind what we call heroism, even though we each choose different people to call heroes.

Recidivism

I don’t think I’ve got heroism all tied up in a nice neat package. The theory I just gave would seem to explain all of the different phenomena we call heroism and what they have in common. But the truth is… I don’t feel it.

The whole reason I chase heroism is because of stories of great sacrifice. In Irish legend, when the hero Cú Chulainn is fighting alone against an entire army, 150 little boys decide they’re going to go help him. Their fathers are sick from a curse, so they take up their hurling sticks and march off to war against men armed with chariots, swords and spears. All the boys die. And the enemy’s advance is halted.

That is the spirit of heroism. From the smallest social risk to risking life itself, heroes traffic in sacrifice. They think less of their own wellbeing than of what they value. That is heroic, at least to me.

But then I have to question myself. I’m not wired any differently than the rest of humanity, and I’m doing the same thing we all do. I’m looking at what inspires me, what lives up to my values, and saying “that there is heroism.” And when you call David Bowie a hero, I don’t feel right about that. But so what? Why should heroism be based on my values, and not yours?

That’s not necessarily an argument to open heroism up. It might simply mean that basing heroism on values isn’t a productive way to go. By far the best objection to my idea came from my friend Ari Kohen, who said this:

…if Lady Gaga is your hero and if the situation ever arises where a stranger’s trapped in a burning car or someone’s fallen onto the subway tracks, you’re more likely to be a bystander than someone who steps up and does the risky thing.

This resonates with me. To me, creating heroism is about creating people who won’t be afraid to speak up. (Or who will be afraid, and speak up anyway.) People who won’t be bystanders. People who will act when no one else will.

I’m not as confident as Ari that Lady Gaga’s example can’t help you with that. Or the example of a charity founder, or your grandpa. The truth is we don’t have a lot of data on what sorts of things prime somebody to be the one who steps forward. But we know a few things that definitely do help prime you, and they all have to do with being aware of others and being able to envision yourself taking action. It’s not clear what role, if any, a celebrity hero can play in that.

So the end result of all these posts is I don’t know. I don’t know if a broader definition of heroism is a good thing because I can’t tell if it helps us make more heroes or not. And I have an inner struggle over whether the definition of heroism I really believe in—the strict, sacrifice-based one—is truly better or if it’s just me pushing my values on people. I’m deeply uncomfortable with that possibility.

For now the quest continues. I’m not going to stand firmly by the new definition I’ve proposed (with apologies to those of you who loved it). Nor can I return firmly to the narrow risk-based definition, at least not without further thought. That there has to be a way to understand this phenomenon we call heroism, and I don’t think we’re nearly there yet. I do suspect it’s connected to extraordinary acts in service of our values, and yet I feel that sacrifice is an important component. Making the two work together is likely my next step.

What does this mean for the heroic life? I don’t think  it changes much. I may not know, on paper, what makes a hero but I know, in my heart, exactly what I must do with my life. I have wandered and my journey has taught me my life purpose. Deeper, I know too what I stand for and what I must do if faced with a bad situation. I must put my ideals before everything else, hold them like a sword, and trust in them. They are the one part of me that can never be destroyed.

Here’s an index of all the posts on inspiration as a force of heroism:

Next time I’ll get back to road logs from my journey.

 

 

 

 

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Adventure, Mexico, Photographs, The Great Adventure, Travel

Photo Friday: Weird Moments and a Boat

It’s been a while since we did a Photo Friday so I’ve got a few pictures for you this time. I honestly don’t remember which pictures I promised to post in my video logs for supporters, so if you’re a supporter and one is missing just email me and I’ll include it next week. (If you’re not yet a supporter but you’d like to get these video logs, you can grab them here. They show a lot of the coolest places I’ve discovered… although some of them are just me talking to the camera about what’s going on in my life on this adventure. Full disclosure.)

First off, here’s a shot of the Gulf when I finally reached the beach after more than a thousand miles of desert:

Photo by André

Photo by André

The next few are not high photography but show some of the weirder moments along my trip. This one is the world’s worst design for a wheelchair accessibility ramp:

Photo by André

Photo by André

Good luck, wheelchairs!

This next one caught my eye as I cruised through a small village on the coast. It’s the sign on a snow cone shop:

Photo by André

Photo by André

That banner reads, effectively,

Blonde guy! Blonde girl! Come on inside!

The only authentic one with the registered trademark

I’m not really sure why they’re marketing themselves to blonde people. It definitely wasn’t the kind of tourist town that gets a lot of foreigners. Despite fitting the description, I declined to go inside.

This one is just cruel:

Photo by André

Photo by André

At first I thought it was one of those want-a-book-take-a-book libraries that some cities have. That got me super excited, both on a general “knowledge is good” level and on a personal “I’d like a new book to read in Spanish” level. But that’s not what this thing is at all.

Instead, it’s just a display of books. It’s completely sealed, with no way to open it and no way to get one of the books. This clear side faces a major plaza and the reverse side is a locked steel door. I guess it’s supposed to be an ad for some place where you can get books, but to me it’s like putting a chocolate cake in a jail cell and giving no one the key. Also it’s kind of a waste of readable books, right?

Photo by André

Photo by André

This is the menu at The Monkeys Cafeteria in Alvarado, Veracruz. Apparently their mascot is a monkey with a beer belly wearing a shirt that says YES… and giving the thumbs up. (They had a Santa version of him for their Christmas display as well.) The best part is where the menu reads, as if it’s a bragging point, “100% Mono Gil” or 100%% Gil Monkey. I guess that refers to the ingredients? If so this place is macabre as hell.

Last photo! This one is more “photo of the week” material. This is a boat in the town of Catemaco. It sits on the beach of the magical lake, renowned for its mystical powers and the source of the local tradition of sorcery. It looked so lonely and perfect sitting there:

Photo by André

Photo by André

Oh Mexico, te quiero mucho. Thanks for following along everybody. I have one more piece to finish up the series on inspiration as heroism, and then next week I’ll start posting road logs again.

Adventure on…

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Heroism

Response to a Critique

Photo by Chloe

I’ve written a lot about the idea of inspiring others as a form of heroism. Specifically, that heroism includes not just taking big risks for others, but doing anything so impressive it inspires others to be better people.

That’s because inspiring others to change for the better is something all heroes do, from those who save thousands of lives to those who simply stand up to a bully. There are many ways to be a hero, but the one thing they all have in common is provoking a feeling of awe in the rest of us.

Not everyone agrees with this view of heroism. My friend Ari Kohen recently published a piece pushing back strongly against it. It’s worth reading in full, but I’m going to focus on a few key points.

What stands out is the way Ari portrays people who use the word “hero” to refer to those who inspire them:

I’m tired of everyone getting a trophy. Tired of the whole concept and all the ways it plays out in our society. I’m tired of ribbons that say “participant” on them. I’m tired of students telling me they deserve an “A” because they tried hard. I’m tired of the insistence that everyone should feel good about exerting the smallest possible effort.

I agree. But to me this doesn’t hit home as a critique of calling our role models heroes. When I ask people who their heroes are, they name just a select few. They never list every good person they know, and they rarely have long lists at all. People just don’t hand out hero lightly.

There’s no doubt that the kind of people we call heroes is a mixed bag. Often, people tell me their grandma or grandpa is their hero. Sometimes an artist or a writer or an athlete. We can argue about the merits of any one of these choices, but here’s the catch: people are naming only the most impressive individuals in their lives. It’s the exact opposite of a participation ribbon.

Similarly, Ari writes:

Many people, it seems, just want to hear good news. They want to be told that if they make someone’s day or inspire someone, they’re heroic.

I don’t think that many people are hoping to be called heroic. Most have the opposite instinct. Try telling someone you know that one of their accomplishments makes them a hero. They will get very uncomfortable and they’ll probably deny it.

If someone doesn’t agree that inspirational figures count as heroes, that’s fine by me. But I think it’s important to understand the motivation behind calling them heroes. It isn’t that people have low standards, are lazy, or can’t tell the difference between a small deed and a big one. If you ask what a hero looks like, everyone knows Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. is a good answer. But what they’re really interested in is the people in their own life experience—friends, family members, mentors, role models—who provoke a glimmer of that same sense of awe. Those people feel more real. And that means they have a much bigger impact on our heroic imagination, the trait that helps us become heroic ourselves.

And that comes to Ari’s main point. He doesn’t think inspirational figures help prepare us for heroism at all. He offers the example of someone whose hero is a pop star. Will this person be ready to pull survivors from a burning building? Will they jump onto the train tracks and rescue a child from a speeding subway? How would looking up to Lady Gaga possibly prepare them for that?

This is, I think, Ari’s strongest point. I don’t really know whether having an artist-hero prepares you for rescue heroism, or if a thinker-hero prepares you for taking action. I suppose it depends on whether inspiration works on a one-to-one basis (we copy the action we admire), or whether it provokes an internal process of self-reflection that makes us strive to be better more broadly. I suppose it also depends on what it is we admire about a particular hero; to me, Lady Gaga’s willingness to sacrifice for her art and endure years of ridicule is far more inspirational than her singing talent.

And the same question works in reverse. If your hero is someone who rescued people from a burning building, how prepared are you to stay true to your art in the face of tremendous hostility? It’s possible that people simply need different kinds of heroes, because there are different kinds of good to strive for.

The individuals who have gone above and beyond those around them, in the pursuit of any admirable quality, are what we end up calling heroes—not just those who stick their necks out for others. You can disagree with that, but it shouldn’t be dismissed as intellectual laziness. We’re complex creatures, with a multiplicity of values. That makes it pretty much inevitable that we’ll have a multiplicity of heroes as well.

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Heroism

Why Do We Have Inspiration Heroes?

Harriet Tubman photo via Wikimedia.

In my continuing series on inspiration as a form of heroism, I want to talk about why we need inspiration heroes. The greatest heroes are those who sacrifice themselves for others; why then do we have these lesser inspiration heroes at all?

Heroes That Reflect Human Needs

I think there are several reasons. The first one has been covered in detail by my readers and commenters: it’s because they’re relatable. Being willing to risk your own wellbeing for the sake of a greater good is a lofty goal, and the heroes who we recognize for doing this—I’ll continue to use Martin Luther King, Jr. as an example—can seem impossible to measure up to. Our other heroes inspire us in what seem to be more “doable” ways, striving to improve ourselves in a personal development sense whether that be better morally, more true to ourselves, or more talented. These heroes help us make real changes for the better when the great heroes seem far away.

These inspiration heroes also reflect the fact that we have many values, many forms of good to seek. The hero who makes a selfless sacrifice reflects one virtue we should strive for—but not the only one. What about pursuing excellence in one’s art or profession? What about being calm and kind and mature? What about seeking knowledge, or a sense of inner rectitude? These are all virtues that most of us aspire to, to some degree or another. Heroes are people who have made impressive strides toward any of these goals, strides so great that we think of them as remarkably impressive. It makes sense that we seek heroes who represent all of our aspirations, not just one.

So inspiration heroism gives us exemplars who meet two important needs. We need heroes who represent a variety of values, and we need them to seem relatable. That paints a fairly positive picture of inspiration as heroism. But there’s a third reason we have inspiration heroes and it’s not quite as attractive.

Leading Without Example

I think a major reason why people refer to inspirational figures as heroes is that most of us don’t know about many of the great, self-sacrificing heroes.

We can all name a few of them. Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, the aforementioned MLK. But unless studying heroism is your hobby, you might run out of names before you run out of fingers to count them on. Most people don’t know about Janusz Korczak or Chiune Sugihara or Rick Rescorla. Pretty soon we start to think of fictional characters, or….

….or the people who inspire us in smaller ways.

If you describe the life of someone who was heroic in the grand, selfless sense, no one fails to recognize it. But that doesn’t mean we’re awash in examples. It’s not just that it’s rare, it’s that it’s not a subject most of us are acquainted with.

For me, Harriet Tubman is a good example. She may be the most heroic individual I’ve ever heard of. I worship Harriet Tubman.

This is a woman who was beaten so hard by slave owners that she suffered a lifelong brain injury, living constantly with headaches, dizziness and seizures. Yet she escaped and made it hundreds of miles to freedom in Pennsylvania. She later described that moment:

“When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”

Yet Harriet Tubman was willing to give up that glory. She decided she had to go back and help other slaves reach freedom as well. She forayed into the South no less than thirteen times over eight years, saving seventy slaves—despite the constant threat of death and a growing bounty on her head. She displayed ruthless leadership on the Underground Railroad and as a result she never lost anyone under her care.

She went on to work as a Union spy in the Civil War.

(Notably, Harriet’s heroism is attributable in part to the influence of her mother, who undertook the much smaller act of hiding her son when her owner tried to sell him. In other words, this is a case where inspiration heroism led to great self-sacrificing heroism.)

This is such a clear example of heroic behavior that I can’t help but feel a sense of awe. When I see Tubman’s picture I put my hand over my heart in salute. Hers is a moral courage that looms large over all of us.

But growing up I knew nothing about her. I saw her face and name every year during Black History Month, but we never spent much time on her. History classes just don’t focus in that much on individual heroes. And yet Tubman is just one of thousands of historic heroes who displayed this kind of selfless bravery.

My ignorance about Harriet Tubman may be unusual. Other people might have grown up knowing her story inside and out. But I don’t think it’s unusual at all to be under-educated about historic heroes. It’s not part of our pop culture and it’s not part of our school curriculum. Most of us can only name a few.

And that, I think, is why so many people focus on the celebrities and athletes or mentors and grandparents who inspire them. These are people whose stories we know. If your grandfather inspired you to be a better person, you know exactly how and why. That’s not necessarily the case with Korczak.

In other words, if we want to increase the amount of selfless heroism in the world, which we all should, the answer is not to knock down people’s celebrity inspirational figures; those heroes are doing a valuable job. The answer is to teach, over and over, the stories of the even greater heroes to whom we should all aspire.

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Heroism

Can Two Different Theories of Heroism Work Together?

Image by MixedMediaDC

 

I’ve spent a lot of time recently talking about inspiration as a form of heroism. Everyone has someone who inspires them, and it’s okay to call that person your hero—even if it’s someone we wouldn’t normally think of as capital-H Heroic.

But I’ve also contrasted this definition of heroism with a stricter one: the idea that a hero is someone who takes risks for the sake of others, or who takes risks for what is right. This definition makes selfless risks the litmus test of heroism; no risk, no hero.

So how do these two concepts fit together?

Hand in Hand

I don’t think they’re as much at odds with each other as they first appear. For starters, it should be obvious that heroes who take risks for other people are incredibly inspiring. We can disagree all day on whether quarterback Drew Brees can really be called someone’s “hero,” but we all agree that MLK is a hero. You could view the difference between Brees and MLK in terms of risk: MLK risked (and ultimately lost) his life for the sake of his people, while Brees hasn’t done anything like that. But you could also view the difference in terms of how their examples affect us. Brees has achieved something impressive enough to inspire some people—athletes and football fans—but not impressive enough to inspire everybody. MLK, on the other hand, is an inspiration to virtually everyone who hears his story.

In other words, risk-taking heroes fit very comfortably into an inspiration theory of heroism. Taking selfless risks is one of the most inspiring things you can do.

Not All Heroes Are Equal

I think it’s also important to acknowledge that not all forms of heroism are equal. I’ve argued quite passionately that it’s not wrong to call rock stars heroes, or to call your grandma a hero. If they inspired you to strive to improve yourself in some way, then they fit the bill. But I absolutely do not believe that that kind of heroism is as heroic, or as important, as being prepared to take risks for what is right.

Even the most minor examples of selfless risk-taking heroism take tremendous moral steadfastness. A child standing up to a bully for his friend is taking a huge risk, and he’s doing something most of us would be afraid to do. We would keep our heads down and rationalize our passiveness after the fact. That brave child may not save hundreds of lives like the great heroes, or inspire millions like a pop star, but they tower above us morally. That is selfless, risk-taking heroism, and it’s powerful.

That kind of willingness to sacrifice is a trait that we need throughout life: to stand up to authority figures, to take action in a crisis, to be the first one to speak up when something isn’t right. The most important kind of hero is the kind who is willing to make those sacrifices every day.

So after you have your Gandhi’s and your MLK’s, after you have your lifesavers and your whistleblowers, somewhere farther down on the hero list you have your Lady Gagas, your Freddie Mercuries and your Drew Breeses. These people are heroes to the degree that they inspire someone, somewhere to strive to improve themselves. But they are lesser heroes, because the things that they inspire us to do—pursue our art or sport, work hard, be generous, be true to ourselves—do not involve making painful personal sacrifice for the people around us.

I’m not afraid to say that some heroes are more heroic than others. Nor do all inspiration heroes seem particularly heroic to me. But I understand that what inspires me may be very different from what inspires someone else; I understand that I can never know what effect a pop star, or an artist, or a coworker had on someone else. If that person’s example made you question yourself and try to live to a higher standard, then I accept that they’re your hero and I salute them.

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Heroism

Does Inspiration Make Heroism Subjective?

Image by Jim Linwood

Today I’m moving on to another question about inspiration as heroism. Inspiring others to strive to be better people is, on some level, heroic. But inspiration is a personal matter—different people are inspired by different things. So does that make heroism subjective?

I don’t think it does. There’s no doubt that it introduces a subjective element to the discussion of heroism. For example, I’m inspired mostly by great artists, while I have friends who are inspired mostly by great athletes. But just because our definition offers us a platter of different heroism flavors to choose from doesn’t mean it’s completely in the eye of the beholder.

That’s because, first of all, the basic mechanism of what’s happening is the same no matter who inspires you. A person achieves something or comports themselves in a way that goes above and beyond what you’re used to; you feel a sort of awe by their example; you wonder to yourself how you could live up to it, if you yourself are capable of achieving the sort of thing they did. And you then take motivation from their example and challenge yourself to grow or improve in some way.

The fact that this process can start with different kinds of exemplars isn’t surprising, any more than the fact that PTSD can start with different kinds of trauma. “Trauma” is very subjective: two patients may have developed PTSD from vastly different experiences. That doesn’t stop us from understanding that it’s the same condition, that their brains are reacting to protect them in the same way. It doesn’t make the definition of PTSD “subjective.” Neither is heroism.

But it is true that each individual gets to decide for themselves who and what inspires them. That means that we can’t just decide who’s a hero and who isn’t (this is a good thing). Instead we have to allow that people can have “heroes” of their own and that it isn’t our place to tell them they’re right or wrong.

And it doesn’t have to be wholesale. As I outlined yesterday, heroism still has to be a force of good. The inspiration at play must be a positive force, inspiring an individual to strive to be a better person. That’s still a relatively high bar, and that’s the reason that we don’t call everyone who inspires us “my hero.”

But accepting this definition does require us to open the door a bit. It means that you can call someone a hero even if don’t find them particularly impressive; even if I find them droll. This is a very uncomfortable position for many people. Often, we want a straight yardstick so we can glance once and say: “Nope, that’s not heroic.” Instead, I’m saying we all have the same mental wiring about heroism but some of us will have very different heroes than others.

I think this position is a good one even though it’s not easy for everyone—because it allows us to understand why people see heroism so differently. We’re all busy focusing on the particular examples who inspire us, whether that’s artists or philosophers or people who save hundreds of lives. Instead we can focus on the unifying force that underlies all of our hero choices.

In other words, inspiration as heroism doesn’t mean that one person’s villain is another person’s hero. But it does mean that one person’s hero can be another person’s meh.

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