Religion, Spotlight

Beta Testing a Course on Spiritual Naturalism

BT Newberg

What does the future of religion look like? I’m convinced it’s not going to look anything like what we know as religion today—that in the course of this century we will see a decline of faith-based communities as we know them, and a rise of something else. That doesn’t mean religion will be banished, or that secularism will completely replace it. It means that we’re poised to create a better kind of religious structure. A structure focused not on doctrine, but on creating tangible positive outcomes for individuals.

That’s why I was pleased to receive an invitation from BT Newberg, the Education Director for the fledgling Spiritual Naturalist Society. You may know BT from his work as the founder and editor of Humanistic Paganism, but his current project is aimed at a much broader audience. He’s assembled the first formal training course for Spiritual Naturalism, a sort of self-guided catechism for those who are spiritual and skeptical at the same time. BT needed beta students to try out the course before it’s opened to the public, and I was happy to volunteer.

Spiritual Naturalism, as the Society defines it, is a philosophy for those who believe spiritual practice is valuable but refuse to accept any supernatural or irrational claims. These are people who may meditate, conduct ritual or pray but do not believe there are spirits or objectively real deities of any kind.

Longtime readers can see why this would appeal to me. I’m different from most people involved in Spiritual Naturalism: unlike them, I’m not firmly convinced that gods and spirits don’t exist. I question their existence, but remain undecided. But I continue my work as a priest despite this indecision, carrying on a long tradition of skeptic priests reaching back to ancient polytheism. In other words I find religion valuable whether there are gods or not, and I feel very comfortable with the way BT talks about spirituality.

I’ve only just dived into the course, but I have some initial impressions. The focus appears to be working with emotions and reason to make the two work together, and to achieve a sense of compassion and the ability to be happier in one’s own life. If that sounds like well-trodden territory for spiritual self-help paths, it is; but the signposts along the way are quite different. Rather than appealing to concepts of karma, energy, or transcendence the course draws firmly on psychological research. The idea is to use practices that have been shown to produce positive changes in one’s attitude and life. It’s presented largely without mythic imagery, which makes it surprisingly easy to follow (and buy into). This early in the course I can’t say for sure, but I’m hoping it will end up being the personal happiness equivalent of “eat more greens, have a healthier heart.”

Obviously, the lack of mythopoetic language and transcendent concepts will put off some people. A path of spiritual self-perfection has a lot less hooks when it’s just simple, practical advice with no grand narrative. But I believe that’s by design. The Spiritual Naturalist Society isn’t in the business of trying to convert hardcore believers, but provides a much-needed resource for those who want the best of both worlds (and are willing to give up the not-always-best of the world of myth). And the course doesn’t deride unprovable religious beliefs, it simply puts them aside. To quote BT, “We just say ‘we don’t know,’ and we’re fine with that.”

This course, Spiritual Naturalism 101, is just the first of what BT hopes will be more classes teaching an effective reason-based spirituality. It lasts one month and is conducted entirely online. I’m told to expect about 3 hours of time commitment per week, although it may be more since I’m also helping test the course. Assuming all goes as planned, BT intends to make it available to the public later in 2015.

You can learn more about the Spiritual Naturalist Society here.

Let me know if you have any specific questions about the Spiritual Naturalism course or the ideas behind it. I can’t answer on behalf of BT or the SNS but I’m happy to provide my own take or relay questions to him. Once I’ve finished the course I’ll do a more complete writeup. Meanwhile, what do you think? What kind of appeal will a course like this have? Is it something you’d want to take?

Bicycling, Mexico, Spotlight, Travel

Thank You Bici Burro

Me at Bici Burro. Viva la bicicleta!

Me at Bici Burro. Viva la bicicleta!

Last time I covered my week in San Miguel de Allende: beautiful buildings, an incredible homestay family, and the most formal Spanish training I’ve ever had. But before I move on to the next leg of the journey, I wanted to take a moment to call out a particularly amazing act of kindness.

As ongoing readers know, my bicycle had suffered some unfortunate problems earlier in the Adventure. I’d fixed some of them, but the back wheel still wasn’t true and had a dangerous wobble. I wasn’t going to leave San Miguel without fixing it.

Enter Alberto Martínez, aka Beto. Beto is the owner of Bici Burro, a combination bicycle repair shop/tour company. Bici Burro literally means “Bike Mule” which sounds a lot better in Spanish. I’ve met several people who’ve taken his tours, tough but breathtaking jaunts on mountain bikes into the surrounding villages, often on cobblestone streets.

One of these, a traveler friend, had recommended I meet Beto when I reach San Miguel. Naturally, he came to mind after my near-breakdown in the desert. I found Beto’s his website and emailed him in Spanish; he replied in English. I was hoping he might have a replacement tire for me—I still wasn’t sure if the damaged one was any good—and sadly he did not. But he offered suggestions and put up with my repeated questions, and I could tell he was a real professional.

So once I reached San Miguel I made it a point to visit the Burro and ask him for a tune up. I figured he could true the wheel, diagnose any deeper causes of the wobble, and make the needed repairs.

I showed up one afternoon during comida, the late-afternoon meal break. Some shops close during this period and I was dismayed to see the door of Bici Burro shut tight. Timidly, I knocked on its ancient timbers.

I didn’t realize at first that the man who opened the door was Beto, nor did he realize I was the guy who’d emailed him about 28 times. But he looked over the bike while I struggled to figure out a phrase that might mean “tune-up”. He got the idea and offered the word revista (“a review”). He was happy to help. He told me to come back the next day—just not during comida.

I respected the horario and returned during non-meal hours. Sure enough, less than 24 hours later, the Giant was ready. Beto and his gigantic but sweet-tempered dog walked me around to the shop entrance.

With the Giant up on the cradle, Beto spun the wheel to show me how true it was and adjusted the brakes to my liking. What a relief.

I asked him how much I owed him. He hadn’t committed to a firm price beforehand because it depended on what the problem was. I hadn’t pushed, and frankly I expected to overpay. This guy had the skills I needed, making him one in a thousand in the refaccionerías of Mexico. I didn’t have any other options for bringing my bike back up to professional standards.

But asked the price, Beto demurred a moment longer. Then, in Spanish:

“This is something I want to do for you as a gift.”

I blinked, and made sure I’d heard him correctly.

“Yes, it’s a gift,” he repeated, then switched to English. “Because you are following a dream.”

I was humbled. I thanked Beto, who downplayed it (“For me, this is what I enjoy doing. It’s like playing around.”) I tried to think of something I could do in return, but there was nothing. It was an act of generosity and solidarity. Thank you, Beto.

In the moment, I totally forgot to ask if I could snap his picture, so I hope he won’t mind if I borrow one from his site:

Bici Burro.

If you ever find yourself in San Miguel de Allende, consider renting a bike from Beto. All of his machines are in the best of shape and I believe he’ll take good care of you. And if you do meet him, tell him the dream is still alive.

Heroism, Spotlight, The Heroic Life

The Birth of a New Heroism

Note: this is an initial draft and represents an idea that I’m still working out. I’m asking for your feedback and your help making it better. 

For a long time I’ve used a simple definition of heroism:

A hero is someone who takes extraordinary personal risk to help others, with no personal stake.

I arrived at this definition on my own but it’s essentially the same one used by most scholars of heroism. Almost all of the formal discussion of heroism is based on the idea of taking selfless risk. But over time I’ve come to believe this definition of heroism is a problem. It’s inaccurate, failing to cover all the behavior that we consider heroic; and it’s become a wedge that drives hero scholarship away from creating real heroism.

Art by Hypnothalamus.

Why the Change?

Anyone who’s read my past work on heroism knows that this is a big turnaround for me, and it’s not a realization I’ve come to lightly. I intend to go into detail as to what exactly is wrong with this definition of heroism, why it’s not expansive enough, and what kind of a definition we should use instead. But before I do that I want to look at why defining heroism is so important—why it matters and what the consequences are of using a bad definition.

Our current definition of heroes, as people who take risk to help others, is relatively recent. It has its roots in work on the psychology of heroism by Phil Zimbardo and Zeno Franco. They wanted to know why some people will act in extraordinarily altruistic ways in bad circumstances, while most of us will keep our heads down and do nothing, or even follow unethical orders. Thus, the original scholarly discussion of heroism was already rooted in clear-cut situations where both risk and altruism were present.

But as this definition coalesced it came to be used for another purpose as well: to draw a hard line between who is and is not a hero. Zimbardo and Franco never said that the heroes they studied were the only kind of hero; they were just interested in the psychology of extreme selflessness. Nonetheless, the definition that grew out of their work has become a dividing line.

For a long time I thought this was a good thing. I have a deep respect for the extremes of human self-sacrifice, something I believe all hero researchers share. Accordingly, we get uncomfortable when the word “hero” is bandied about too lightly, when people who didn’t make much sacrifice are casually called heroes. Having an official definition to fall back on, one that sets the bar high, is extremely convenient.

But sometimes a high bar doesn’t do its job. I witnessed this firsthand at the 2013 Hero Round Table. I was one of about two dozen speakers; a few of us were dedicated hero researchers, but many were not. They were drawn from many different fields and disciplines to offer their views on how to create heroism.

Obviously, most of these speakers were not familiar with the formal literature on heroism and many had never heard of the “taking risk for others” gold standard. The talks strayed about as far from this message as possible. Everything from giving $5 to the homeless to working as a public school teacher was christened as heroic.

Sitting in the audience, the other “heroism hardliners” and myself looked at each other anxiously. Here was a conference dedicated to heroism, and the speakers were using the wrong definitions. They weren’t setting the bar high at all!

But then the most amazing thing happened. The audience came alive. While the talks meandered farther and farther from the official definition, the message seemed to land with more and more people. By the second day there was a buzz in the air, a shared hum of creativity and desire to create change. People were truly asking themselves: what can I do to create heroism in the world?

I had written about heroism for years and never seen this. I had always been so careful to focus on “real” heroism, the loftiest form of heroism, the power of selfless risk. But that wasn’t what got people ready to act like heroes. It was the power of inspiration.

That’s when I first began to wonder if there was something more to heroism.

The Odyssey. Art by InfernalFinn.

More than Risk

Let’s talk about how good our existing definition is. For clarity, here it is again:

A hero is someone who takes extraordinary personal risk to help others, with no personal stake.

Most people can agree that this definition represents heroism. If you take a major personal risk to help someone, or to advance a just cause, and you don’t get anything out of it, that makes you more than just a good person. You’re a hero.

But to most people other things also fit into the idea of heroism. We may all agree that these selfless risk-takers are heroes, but our vision of heroism is much wider than that. Focusing in on one narrow type of heroism and using it as the metric for all heroes is, I believe, misleading.

To explain why I’m going to offer an example, and that example is my friend Ari Kohen. Ari is a brilliant hero researcher and an advocate for promoting real-life heroism. He’s also someone I admire deeply because of his strong moral compass. If there’s anyone in the world likely to act heroically if needed, I imagine it’s Ari Kohen.

Ari’s work also provides a clear example of how the conversation around heroism has narrowed down. By rights, Ari should be the loudest voice clamoring for a wider theory of heroism. In his excellent book Untangling Heroism, he looks at the history of hero archetypes and argues that there are three distinct types of heroes. Only one of those, he suggests, is the one who takes selfless risks. Clearly, then, our official definition is lacking.

Yet in all of Ari’s other work two of these three types of hero disappear. He sticks close to the definition of heroism as risk-taking, so much so that he’s willing to chide people who use the word differently (here are five good examples). He’s definitely not the only hero scholar who does this, but he may be the most public about it.

Thus, the case for expanding our definition of heroism starts with the work of one of its staunchest defenders—the three Greek celebrities that Ari Kohen calls out as heroes.

Socrates. Art by Yuujin.

Two and a Half Classical Heroes

In Untangling Heroism Ari provides us with several definitions of heroism: one based on Achilles, one based on Odysseus, and one based on Socrates. Let’s look at each of these definitions and see how they stack up against the risk-based one.


Achilles is in many ways the template for the risk-based hero. At the Trojan War, he chose to fight to avenge a friend even though he knew it would cost him his life. He was by far the greatest warrior of the Greeks at the time, and yet he had a fatal weakness which would cost him his life the moment he fulfilled his mission. In other words, he took the ultimate risk for the sake of another.

Or at least, that’s my take. Ari argues that Achilles did not do this selflessly, and to a degree he’s right; Achilles was after the eternal fame that comes with being a great warrior. But there are two things worth remembering about that fame:

  • In the ancient Greek worldview, fame was earned through excellence, and excellence was one of the moral virtues. Achilles wasn’t just after some selfish vision of glory, he was fulfilling his duty and mastering his art as a warrior, to a degree that most warriors cannot match. In other words, he performed extraordinarily and was admired for it.
  • Although Achilles craved the fame in question, that alone wasn’t enough to get him to sacrifice his life. When glory is all that’s at stake we see him withdrawing from battle and struggling with whether to go to the final encounter. He considers just leaving. Only after his friend Patroclus is killed and needs to be avenged does he commit to his famous death.

Thus, Achilles presents a prototype of the risk-taking hero, but one who is hard to relate to today. Our Judeo-Christian ethics emphasize humility, not fame or glory, and the idea that pursuing excellence and fame is a moral good is hard for us to accept. But, viewed in a Classical Greek context, Achilles was not only the warrior par excellence, he was a moral exemplar, a symbol of the kind of fateful courage that everyone should aspire to. He was the original hero.


Like Achilles, Odysseus was a Greek warrior in the Trojan War, but one with a very different attitude. With Troy conquered, Odysseus set off for home with his ship and his men, eager to see his wife and family, but was blown far off course. Navigating unknown waters, he faced a seemingly endless string of deadly challenges.

Unlike Achilles, Odysseus does not give his life to accomplish his mission. In fact, since his mission is to reunite with his family, he has to struggle to live—often against terrific odds. And unlike Achilles, who takes every opponent head on and gloriously, Odysseus is willing to cheat, lie, trick and outmaneuver. He doesn’t want to go down fighting, but to drag himself through the mud and escape. Ultimately, he dresses himself in a humiliating disguise to get close enough to kill his wife’s new suitor and take his rightful place at her side.

Throughout his ordeals, Odysseus never takes a risk for someone else’s sake—certainly not without a stake in doing so. His goal is profoundly self-oriented: to reunite with his wife and kids. This is a very noble goal, but it is fundamentally different than righting a wrong or avenging a comrade or confronting someone who commits an injustice. Odysseus does not go on his long journey to help anyone but himself and his own family. Indeed, his loyal friends and companions die one by one in horrible ways as he pushes stubbornly onward. And yet he’s considered a hero.

So what’s heroic about his actions? We can admire Odysseus for many reasons, his cunning trickery among them. But mostly Odysseus is a hero because he was so thoroughly determined to make it home. He suffered challenges that would break most people, but survived them and kept going. His is the heroism of endurance, of suffering; we think of Odysseus as a hero for the same reason we think of POWs as heroes. They have endured something most of us cannot imagine, and their ultimate victory over their suffering is as inspiring as Achilles’ victory over his enemies.


Ari presents Socrates the philosopher as a third sort of hero. Socrates, like Achilles, willingly sacrificed his own life. But Ari suggests that Socrates has superseded Achilles, that “battlefield” heroes like Achilles are increasingly irrelevant to our lives today and that civic heroes like Socrates are closer to home. More than that, Ari suggests the two have a different function: that Achilles gave his life for selfish reasons (glory) while Socrates gave his for selfless ones (justice). Thus, he defines Socrates as a new type of hero altogether.

I disagree with that analysis. Both Socrates and Achilles are characters who take risks (indeed, the ultimate risk) for the sake of doing what they feel is right. The fact that they come from different backgrounds  and value different things is not, in my opinion, particularly relevant; risk comes in many forms. These days we encourage people to prepare to act heroically whether that means blowing the whistle in the workplace or rescuing someone from a burning car wreck, both under the risk-taking definition of heroism; in the same way we can allow for battlefield and non-battlefield variants on selfless heroism in the ancient world.

In Achilles’ case, the good that he was after was both justice (avenging his friend) and the virtue of excellence, which leads to eternal renown. Seeking renown requires becoming greatly skilled, which benefits not just yourself but those around you; and it requires living up to a whole set of warrior virtues that are markers of a good person. Thus, fame may be selfish in and of itself but the quest for fame was something considered worthy and admirable in ancient Greek culture.

Socrates, on the other hand, risked his life for something more alien to his society’s mores: his conception of a selfless good. He is convicted on trumped up charges and sentenced to death, mostly because he was a nuisance to people in power; but when his friends try to break him out of jail he refuses, insisting that it would be unjust to break laws just because it suited him. He refuses to set a double standard by breaking the laws of Athens when they’re against him, after benefiting from Athenian citizenship for so many years. He goes to his death with his principles intact.

In a sense, Socrates’ values are closer to our Judeo-Christian values based on fairness and humility rather than courage and the pursuit of excellence. So Ari argues that Socrates is more relevant to contemporary culture and represents a new kind of hero, the “other-regarding” or selfless hero.

But both characters essentially risked their lives for something they believed in. And Socrates’ actions, to most people, seem as baffling and alien as Achilles’. If you were wrongly sentenced to death on false charges, and given a sham trial, wouldn’t you accept your friends’ help when they came to set you free? Why would you go to your death for a crime you didn’t really commit? Most of us, if given Socrates’ choice, wouldn’t just think it an easy decision—we would think that breaking out is the right thing to do. In this way, Socrates’ values are as strange to us as bloodthirsty Achilles’.

Most importantly, whether we can relate to Socrates, Achilles, or neither of them, both acted based on either their own ethics or the dominant ethics of their time. Thus, however alien either set of ethics may seem, both made essentially the same choice: to give their lives in order to do what seemed right.

Thus, with respect to Ari, I’m going to combine Socrates and Achilles into a single kind of hero: the selfless risk-taking hero. Both gave their lives to live up to their values and we admire both for strikingly similar reasons.

To Risk and to Suffer

So that leaves us with two different archetypes deeply rooted in Western myth: the hero who takes selfless risks and the hero who endures great challenges or suffering. Even today we think of both of these types of people as heroic.

So it seems like there’s more to heroism than taking risk. we have two kinds of well-established heroes, not just one. Already it seems odd for any hero scholar to use just one of those types as the entire definition of heroism. But we aren’t done yet; while Ari gives us only two types to consider, there are other definitions of heroism that have just as much historical momentum behind them.

Art by Heydi.

A Heroism of Honor

So far we’ve looked at individuals who take extraordinary actions that could be universally considered heroic. But that’s not the only way we talk about heroism, nor the only way it was defined historically. In the ancient world there was a sort of cultural heroism: the idea that anyone who does an exceptional job of living up to certain values is hailed as heroic, whether or not they helped anyone.

This concept of heroism is known as a heroic ethics. It is largely absent from Ari’s work, but has been covered in detail in Brendan Myers’ book The Other Side of Virtue. Instead of commandments or rules, a system of heroic ethics offers only a set of virtues or ideals for each individual to aspire to. This was the kind of ethical system used across ancient Europe—by the early Greeks and Celts and Germanic tribes. The virtues were traits were considered admirable, traits like being courageous or truthful or ferocious to one’s enemies. Everyone was expected to live up to the virtues as best they could, but a rare few individuals would pursue them to perfection, becoming heroes. Thus, the line between being a moral person, being a talented person and being a good warrior was blurred; a hero embodied all of these notions. And more importantly, in a culture that lives by a heroic ethics, everyone is in the process of becoming a hero; every citizen is a potential hero who could emerge at any time.

Yet a hero was still an extraordinary individual in those cultures. Everyone will find, at some point or another, that following our ideals (the virtues) conflicts with everyday life. It’s not so simple as being tempted to lie or cheat or steal; it’s much more complex than that. For example, what if you made a promise to a friend, but they’ve since proven to be a pretty poor friend? Should you live up to your word, even though they wouldn’t do the same for you, or will you leave them hanging? These are the moral quandaries of an ethics that promotes positive virtues (“always be honorable”; “always be brave”) rather than rules against negative infractions. It takes a rare individual to continue living by these virtues even when they become inconvenient, or onerous, or contrary to one’s own benefit. After all, being a little less virtuous doesn’t necessarily hurt anyone else—it’s not like murdering or robbing. It only reflects on your own character, something that most of us are willing to compromise. And so the great hero tales of the Celts or the Vikings or the early Greeks focus on individuals who are almost inhumanly stubborn, who continue to live by the virtues when it’s insane to do so.

As an example I’ll choose the Irish warrior Naoise. Most of us don’t know the Irish tales the way we know the Classical ones, so a brief retelling is in order. Naoise had the misfortune of becoming the apple of the eye of Deirdre, a young woman kept imprisoned by King Conchobhar. Conchobhar planned to marry her, owing to her exceptional beauty, but she wasn’t interested. When she caught a glimpse of Naoise, however, she saw a man she could love.

Initially Naoise turned her down. Deirdre had to shame him into breaking her free and eloping with her, and after he reluctantly did so he found himself falling in love. The two of them fled to Scotland where they lived in exile for many years, happy together.

At first King Conchobhar sent warriors to kill Naoise and bring Deirdre back, but they were unsuccessful. As time passed Conchobhar quieted down. Eventually he sent a messenger to say that all was forgiven and that the couple could return safely to Ireland. The offer may seem dubious, but Conchobar sent a very well respected warrior along, who gave his word they would not be harmed. (This warrior had been misled, and did not know the offer was a trap.) Eager to see their families after so much time, the young couple agreed to go back.

At this point Naoise did something that none of us would consider doing today: he took an oath. An unnecessary oath. He was so excited to return home that he swore he wouldn’t eat until he was back in Ulster (northern Ireland). While this is bizarre to today’s audience, it was a very powerful cultural expression in ancient Ireland, a formal statement of his exuberance about returning home. In other words, it was not considered odd.

Sadly, it would also be Naoise and Deidre’s joint undoing. As they got closer to home, it became obvious that no warm welcome awaited them. They found out that Conchobhar was waiting with a large contingent of warriors to kill Naoise and take Deirdre. This is the point at which they should have turned around and gone back into exile.

But they couldn’t. Naoise couldn’t eat until he returned home—that was the oath. The only fate that awaited him, if he ran away, was not another idyllic romp through Scotland with his sweetheart but a slow death by starvation. Naoise never seems to seriously consider discarding the oath. When Deirdre begs him to turn around he refuses, and his companions seem to understand. (So would a medieval or ancient Irish audience.)

The inevitable happens. Naoise, Deirdre and their companions meet Conchobhar’s forces. They put up a valiant fight but Naoise is run through with a spear. Deirdre, recaptured by Conchobhar, is carried off in his chariot but refuses to submit. She kills herself by dashing her head against a jagged rock as the chariot speeds past.

Like most Irish stories, it is an utter tragedy.

But it also inspires awe. In ancient Ireland, a warrior’s word and honor were the basis of his reputation and his value in the community. Even so, most individuals would not have kept their hunger oath—nor gone to their deaths. There is possibly no single circumstance in all of Irish lore where it would be more acceptable to break an oath than the one that Naoise finds himself in. Anyone hearing the story must think to themselves no way would I do that.

But to Naoise, the heroic virtues of truth, loyalty and honor were not up for bargaining. He chose to go to his death rather than controvert the virtues he was raised with. Thus, he was the epitome of his culture’s ethics, and is considered an Irish hero.

At this point it’s tempting to say that Naoise is just another variant on the Achilles and Socrates type, but I’m not sure that’s the case. True, he gave his life for what he believed was right, but it’s more than that. Achilles and Socrates ultimately achieved their goals—Achilles avenged his friend before dying, and Socrates made his point about selfless morality, effectively founding the tradition of Western philosophy. Naoise on the other hand failed in his goal. Whatever it was he wanted—to defeat Conchobhar, to see his parents, to live happily with Deirdre—he didn’t get it. He didn’t even save his lover’s life. But he lived up to his culture’s highest ideals.

This may seem like a very alien idea of heroism, one that’s long since dead in the 21st century. It’s true that contemporary Western societies do not live by a heroic ethics. But the idea of this kind of hero is still resonant with us, and appears often in our heroic fiction. How often does a movie hero grimly choose to march to the final confrontation thinking it will be their death? It’s become a trope: a true hero makes a stand even when theres no chance of winning. Naoise’s story is the story of Helm’s Deep, of assaulting the Death Star, of facing off with Voldemort. These days we prefer a happy ending, of course, and so an ally appears at a crucial moment, new powers are discovered, or the hero finally figures out the villain’s weakness. This drains the tension out of a scene that should, by rights, be hopeless; but there is no doubt that that moment of grim determination still awes us.

The concept of a heroic ethics, then, establishes something very different than those who take a risk for others, or those who endure terrible suffering. It establishes a heroism of honor—it says that anyone who lives by the heroic ethics, who exemplifies them, is de facto a hero, whether or not they actually have a chance to do something heroic.

Gaga. Art by LLondon.

Inspiration Today

Now we have three kinds of historic heroes, but none of them quite dominate our view of heroism today. Instead, a fourth and final vision of heroism has taken over. As I experienced at the Hero Round Table, most people use the word hero to mean “someone who inspires.” Often there is no clear moral component to these heroes at all, and sometimes no component of risk. All they have to do is impress us.

That’s why we canonize our mothers as heroes, or our favorite singers, our athletes or our first black president. And this has become a point of extreme frustration to hero scholars—as it has been to me at times. When I picture a hero I see someone who saves lives, who makes great sacrifices to create change. Not just someone who seems admirable. But I’ve learned to check this grandiosity, this elitism in my vision of heroism.

Lady Gaga does not meet the mold of an Achilles or Socrates, an Odysseus or a Naoise. But when people name her as their hero, it’s not without reason—and it’s worth asking them why. Some might say because she is so talented (the pursuit of excellence, like Achilles). Some might say it’s because she insists on determining her own creative direction, maintaining control over music, lyrics and costuming and refusing to lip sync (echoes of Naoise). And still others might say it’s because she’s endured and overcome so much as a female performer (a sort of pop culture Odysseus). In other words, the qualities that make Lady Gaga a hero to some of her fans are the same essential qualities of the great heroes, scaled down. Even when we name our mothers as heroes we aren’t just offering them the title because we love them; we’re thinking of all the sacrifices they made for us (Socrates, Achilles) and all the difficulties they endured (Odysseus). This is key to understanding these seemingly-minor heroes: they represent a more relatable, more attainable version of the same qualities that make the great heroes so great. There is a distant unity between pop culture idols and savers of hundreds of lives.

And these idols, above all else, inspire us to make improvements in our own lives. From sports heroes and celebrities to firemen and charity volunteers, when we say that they’re heroes we mean these people had a positive influence on me. To the extent that we want heroism to create a better world, these “inspiration heroes” are a hundred times more effective than Socrates or Achilles—simply because more real people relate to them.

Of course, who’s an inspiration and who’s not is highly subjective. Does that mean that anyone is a hero, as long as someone else calls them one? I don’t think we need to go that far. But I do think we need to acknowledge that the way the word hero is used reflects, far more than risk or selflessness, the act of inspiration. People who inspire us become our heroes, especially if they inspire us to strive to be better people. That doesn’t just mean striving to be more selfless; it could mean striving to believe in ourselves (Lady Gaga) or pursue great dreams (Barack Obama) or to train hard at something we love (famous athletes).

We don’t have to treat all heroes as equal, and we don’t have to pretend that Lady Gaga is on a level with Gandhi. But it’s time to admit that inspiring others is a form of heroism—a fourth, separately valid kind of hero, the inspirer of the masses.

Muses. Art by Vaahlkult.

The Case for the Fourth Hero

The fourth kind of hero, the inspiration, is usually seen as a problem by hero scholars. It’s not that any of us are against inspirational individuals or role models. It’s that these figures don’t seem to meet the moral test that we want all of our heroes to pass—they aren’t making huge selfless sacrifices for others. So when people call them heroes, it seems like the whole idea of heroism is getting watered down.

But I think we need to warmly embrace this hero type and adjust our definition to include it. There are two reasons for this: one has to do with the accuracy of the term and the other has to do with its importance to heroism research writ large.


First of all, this isn’t the first time the meaning of heroism has shifted. A hero was originally a great warrior, and that was pretty much the entirety of what it meant. It was only later that moral courage in a civic setting was given the same laurels as bravery on the battlefield. The fact that we count philosophers and whistle-blowers as heroes testifies that we don’t need to be puritans about what heroism means.

Occasionally I still run into someone who thinks that only tough, brave warrior types are heroes. To them, Gandhi is no hero because he was too meek; a real hero would’ve faced the British head on. This kind of attitude is so out of touch with reality that it almost seems deluded. We risk being just as reactionary in disregarding the most common usage of hero today. If seeing pop stars called heroes offends our sensibilities, it’s because our sensibilities are out of date.

Ultimately, what defines a word is how it’s actually used. Language doesn’t work well if we pretend that only the older, narrower meaning of a word is accurate. Aside from creating communication barriers, ignoring real usage harms our ability to study heroism in the first place. Our job as hero scholars should not be to declare a definition and enforce it, but to investigate and discover what’s recognized as heroism already—then use that data set as a starting point for understanding the phenomenon behind it.

There’s nothing wrong with directing people’s attention toward a small subset of heroes who took great risks, but if we pretend that these are the only real heroes we confuse the conversation. Our definition must be guided by real usage. A theory of heroism simply isn’t accurate if it disregards the single most common type of heroism that people recognize.


The other reason to embrace inspiration-as-heroism is much more important, because it has to do with the impact we want hero research to have. Every hero scholar I’ve met has shared a single hope: that we can create more real heroism in the world. And that’s going to take every tool we’ve got.

Whenever we talk about heroism our audience brings with them their own sources of inspiration. We should tap into those sources, tease them out, delve into what makes them heroic. Many of these inspiring figures won’t have made the kind of sacrifices that Harriet Tubman or Spartacus made. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t made sacrifices. Spending 20 hours a week building up a charity on top of a full time job may not involve risking life and limb, but it’s a sacrifice most people don’t think they could make. The same goes for training for long brutal hours at the football field every day for ten years, or dedicating one’s life to an unlikely career as a singer/dancer or an artist or an author. These are relatively small, relatively self-focused sacrifices; but they are the ones that have the widest motivational value.

When people get interested in heroism, whether it’s opening a book, reading a blog or attending a conference, one of the worst things we can do is refute their heroes. Refuting heroes immediately changes the conversation from a cultivation of heroic qualities to a deeply personal confrontation.

That doesn’t mean we have to put Lady Gaga on a pedestal, nor set aside the more impressive heroes who save lives. We certainly don’t have to declare that heroism is subjective. But we should affirm these heroes and work with them as examples to tease out what exactly real heroism means. There are several ways to do this:

  • We can focus on the similarities between what’s inspiring about these heroes and what’s inspiring about great, selfless risk-taking heroes.
  • We can ask people what it is about these individuals that makes them heroic, and let their answers move the conversation closer to the heart of great heroism.
  • We can compare these heroes to the great heroes and let the audience draw their own conclusions about the differences.

Celebrities and role models don’t have to be the center of any theory of heroism. But they provide a gateway, a stepping stone by which we can start conversations that drive at heroism as a world-changing force. To help people cultivate heroism, we should work with the momentum of the figures who already inspire them in that direction.

One of the only things we know for sure increases heroism is kindling a heroic imagination. It’s much easier for people to imagine starting a charity or doing small good deeds than it is to imagine plunging into a burning building or risking your career to rat out a crooked boss. And small good deeds are, in themselves, another of the things we know increases heroism. So all the inspirational stories, the acts of altruism, the “small” gestures that seem so heroic to those they touch, are truly part and parcel of a heroic life. They should absolutely be our focus.

An effective theory of heroism should affirm the enthusiasm people already have for the subject, the tiny spark of heroic imagination that can grow into a great fire. As their interest in heroism grows, as they embark on a quest to understand heroism themselves, they’ll naturally come to more lofty aspirations on their own. In other words, if people already canonize Michael Jordan as a hero, then start with Michael Jordan. Harriet Tubman can come later.

A New Definition

We now have four types of hero to include in our definition:

  1. Someone who takes extraordinary risk to help others
  2. Someone who endures extraordinary challenges
  3. Someone who puts their ideals above all else
  4. Someone who inspires others to become better people

Is there anything that unifies all four of these hero types? Can they even be summed up in a single definition, or are they so disparate that they shouldn’t even be listed together?

I believe there is a unifying factor across all four, and it’s one that turns our old definition completely on its head. Instead of defining heroism by selfless risk, and excluding inspirational role models altogether, I believe we should define heroism by the power to inspire, and admit that selfless risk is just one of the things that inspires us.

Risk is clearly not the unifying factor of heroism through the ages; neither is selflessness. The only thing that has been consistent from Gilgamesh to David Bowie is a hero’s power to inspire. This is the emotive force that heroism has over us and it’s the one constant at all in how we define heroes.

I tentatively suggest a new definition for heroism:

A hero is someone who does something so extraordinary it inspires others to strive to be better people.

And there are four ways to do that, by taking selfless risks, enduring great suffering, living strictly by your values or ideals, or becoming a role model for others.

Call for Comments

This is just an initial draft. What do you think? I’d like to refine this post into a paper and publish it more widely, but I need to make it as strong as possible. Please leave a comment and tell me how I can improve it. What parts do you agree with? What parts are unconvincing? Do I lose you anywhere?

My sincere thanks to all who comment.

Religion, Spotlight

Polytheism Ebook Fail

Michel Hill's Hill Evidencism Polytheism Book

So, I recently received an (unsolicited) free copy of an ebook on polytheism. The email was signed by author Michael Hill, but the email address looked a lot like spam. So instead of clicking the attachment I decided to do some googling.

I found out that there really is a polytheism treatise by Michael Hill, and it looks like a real hoot. According to the abstract:

“Numerous and unrelated pieces of physical evidence currently exist that proves the existence of the Gods.”


“A few examples of physical evidence, historical events like the Black Death, and some thoroughly-explained logic were combined to tell a complete story that reveals the answers to most religious questions.”

In case I was still on the fence, this pretty much confirmed that the book is not worth reading. Helpfully, the rest of the abstract brags that it’s a short, easy read. In fact, it says that of the 44 pages in the book (so… paper?), more than half is bibliography. In other words, Michael Hill believes he has polished off 6,000 years of theological debate in a handy 20 pages.

The best part is that Hill seems to be trying to found a whole new religion, “Hill Evidencism.” I finally gave in to curiosity and downloaded the complimentary pdf. Here’s a an actual quote:

“The main reason why lightning is physical divine evidence is because lightning frequently introduces humans to fire… After being introduced to fire, humans learned how to use fire.”

It’s hard to argue with reasoning like that… but not for the reasons Hill would like to think.

All of this reminds me that, although polytheism is a beautiful concept, there’s not a whole lot of respectable work being written about it these days.

I wonder if I should take the time to write a polytheism book of my own?

Adventure, Bicycling, Mexico, Photographs, Spotlight, The Great Adventure, Travel

Photo Friday: Narcolandia

Since I’m now back on the road, I thought it would be a good idea to resume my semi-regular Photo of the Week practice every Friday. This week’s photo, which you can find below, is actually taken by my friend the Fly Brother, and shows Pixi and me—the first two cyclists of the Fellowship of the Wheel–as we set off on a ride across northern Mexico under our own power.

Photo by Ernest White II

The Fly Brother also wrote a riveting account of that first day, from his perspective as the driver of our support vehicle across what he refers to as Narcolandia. It was thanks to Fly’s cheerful bravery, and the help of numerous contributors, that we didn’t have to go it alone. Read his full account (with more photos) here.

And since I’m long overdue for an update of my own, here are some essentials:

  • We made it safely to our first rest stop in Saltillo, Coahuilas. That’s where I am as I write this. The roads seemed all in all safe, and we put as much distance between us and the border as we could in our first three days.
  • For those who contributed to the Fellowship of the Wheel crowdfunding campaign, I’m just editing the first video logs. They should be in your email before Monday. For everyone else, I’m hoping to create a way to become a supporter even though the campaign is over, allowing you to get access if you missed out.
  • I’m staying 100% on top of my road logs this time, so unlike the ride down the Mississippi there won’t be any year-or-more lags before my journals are up. However, I’m also determined to get the last few overdue road logs up from Texas, so expect those in the next couple days. Mexico logs will start after that.

Again, thank you to everyone who provided support in any form. Gracias and viva la Fellowship!

Adventure, Mexico, Spotlight, Travel

The Plane Ride Was Too Short

Since we’re getting ready for a group bicycle ride across Mexico, I thought I would share the story of another journey in that land: the tale of a young girl’s first trip out of her own country with her grandfather. This true story was sent to me as a present by one of my readers, who goes by Calluna, and I’m delighted to share it with you here.

The Baja. Photo by Charles Chandler.

THE PLANE RIDE TO LOS ANGELES was too short. I say that because I still had pages left to read in my book. I had come fully equipped with Bunnicula, two volumes of the Babysitters Club, and an edition of Horse Illustrated. I hadn’t even gotten through my first Babysitters Club—Claudia, who was my favorite character because I imagined she was pretty and because she was a painter, was still trying to figure out how to resolve the plot. If all the plane had done was launch into the sky, flown aimlessly until I had finished reading everything in my luggage, and then turned around and landed back at home, I would have been perfectly content. In fact, I would have considered it all to be a grand adventure because I could look out the window at the hidden side of the clouds, and glimpse tiny trees and rivers beneath.

Because I was eleven years old and flying alone, I had been instructed to wait for the flight attendants. I watched everyone file past my seat, feeling very grown up because I did not need a mommy or daddy to tell me what to do. The flight attendant greeted me when everyone had gone and escorted me off the plane.  This was back before 9-11, before shoe bombs and x-ray scanners. Back when your loved ones could greet you at the gate, holding signs and balloons. I was mildly concerned that Grandpa Johnson would be late, and the flight attendant would have to take me back into some kiddie playroom until he arrived.

Grandpa Johnson was a military man. He was not late. He did not bring balloons for me and he was not holding a sign with my name on it, but I found him anyway. Grandpa Johnson (who preferred I call him “Granddad” because “Grandpas,” he said, were old people) and I did not know each other very well. I had visited with him only a handful of times, when he would fly into Oklahoma City or we would fly to LA. I liked him because he looked like my mom, had a great smile and pretty silver hair, and once brought me a Mickey Mouse watch from Disneyland for Christmas. I was wearing the watch he gave me on the plane. He had a girlfriend named Judy, and she was nice and smiled a lot, too. This was my first trip to LA alone, but it was not my first trip to LA. I had also visited a few times when I was very small, and had vague memories of a giant snapping turtle that used to live in his backyard. Even now, looking back as an adult, I wonder about the accuracy of these memories, because having a pet snapping turtle is not only crazy for anyone, it is extra crazy for my Granddad, and extra extra crazy for an LA backyard. But I could swear I have seen photographs of this turtle in a family picture album.

We greeted each other and made it onto the LA highways without much fanfare. I had a day or two in LA before the main leg of the adventure, and he seemed to enjoy having me in the car. I fed him an endless stream of questions, beginning with, “Why is everyone honking?”

“Because we’re in a traffic jam.”

“But what do they think the honking will help? Do they think it will make traffic move if they honk enough?”

“No. I think they’re just angry and want something to do.”

“That’s stupid.”

“Yes, it is.”

Granddad lived in Oxnard, outside of LA proper, so we had a lot of time to listen to honking. He also explained HOV lanes and told stories about people putting dummies in the passenger seats to ride in them. He was extra happy to have me in the car so we could ride in the HOV lane. He proudly announced when we were on Ventura Boulevard because “there are songs about it!” Granddad’s house was concrete (I thought at the time—it was actually stucco), which seemed appropriate for his big city life. He had two dogs to make me feel at home, and ironically, the constant traffic noise outside his window was also a familiar sound. My bedroom in Oklahoma was also off of a busy street. In my experience, sleeping near a busy street sounds just about the same no matter where you live. Some of them may also have trains, and some of them have drunkards, some of them (like in LA) have people who are more prone to honking, but always there is the droning white noise of vehicles to lull me to sleep; that ubiquitous cityscape lullaby; coming and going in waves not unlike the ocean.

The next day we packed up his big white pick-up and headed towards Mexico. I left my books in the back of the truck because I do not like to miss a single thing on road trips. I have to see everything we pass, read every sign, see every tree, every second of the trip. What is the point of travelling if I don’t pay attention? And how awkward, if I look down to read, or close my eyes to sleep, and the next time I look out the window, I am miles away? I feel like Scotty beamed me on down the road…

Before we made it out of the country there were yet more lessons. Granddad pointed out Silicon Valley, a nest of civilization surrounded by green mountains off to the side of the freeway. I told him I had never heard of it, so he asked me if I had heard of Valley girls. I said I wasn’t sure, so he asked me if I had heard Dumb Blonde jokes. (The 80s had recently ended… and if you don’t remember Dumb Blonde jokes, you were not in America in the 80s! My favorite used to go something like this: How do you kill a blonde? Put nails in her shoulder pads.) He said the Dumb Blondes were Valley girls, and Valley girls came from Silicon Valley. I was mystified as to why Dumb Blondes would come from a single small area of the country, so I scrutinized the scenery and shared some of my observations.

“It sure is foggy here.” And it was. The morning sun scattered every which way and little puffs of whitish haze drifted in and out of the mountain peaks. “I like fog.” Fog is faerie weather. Magic happens in the fog.

“Heather…” his tone of voice was one of those that people use when they are about to say something really obvious, “that’s not fog.” I frowned. He did not sound happy.

“What is it?” I considered that he might be pulling my leg. It looked like fog.

“It’s smog.”

“What’s smog?”

“Air pollution. From the cars, and from the Valley.” Now air pollution was something I HAD heard of. I wrinkled my nose.

“Ew. Yuck.”

“Yes, yuck.” Here, there were two things unbeknownst to me. The first is that I would grow up to be an air pollution specialist (for reasons unrelated to early visits with Granddad), and that this seemingly minor incident would stick out in my mind forever as my introduction to heavy air pollution. The second is that during this particular visit, the air of the LA metropolis was the most polluted and unhealthiest air in the entire country. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) and California politicians would soon launch a massive series of experimental and seemingly extreme efforts to curtail and reverse the ambient air pollution, and they would succeed. It would become a case study in my own college courses many years later. Before I graduate, their air will have improved and their smoggy crown will be stolen by Houston (which I will also come to visit at its smoggiest). CARB will become the most progressive and cutting-edge air regulatory body in the country, and all the other states and even the federal government will wait for the results of policies attempted in California before making decisions in the rest of the country. But for this trip, Granddad and I agreed that it was Yuck, and I unfairly still equate LA to Yuck in my own mind.

“I casually acknowledged that my young life was in danger, and I wondered if my mother knew. I was pretty certain that she did not, because if she did, I probably would not be having such a lovely adventure.”

Granddad was bent on making good time as we had many days of driving ahead, but he was kind enough to stop and take me to the San Diego Zoo. It was supposed to be the best zoo in the country. I was moderately impressed, but I didn’t see a huge difference between the SD Zoo and my hometown zoo. Another lesson to be learned later, after I acquired a summertime job at the OKC Zoo: I was not as impressed as I might have been because the OKC Zoo is also a top ten zoo. In 1990 Oklahoma City began supporting the zoo with sales tax, and ever since then it has been pumping tax money into a never-ending stream of improvements, some of which had already begun to materialize before I came to San Diego. But the San Diego zoo was lush and green, and it was the first true outing my Granddad and I had together, and a welcome side trip on a very long car ride.

25 miles later we approached the US/Mexico border at Tijuana. I recall something that resembled gates on a toll road, only taller, and manned by Mexicans. I didn’t need a passport; I had a birth certificate, and Granddad explained that I was his granddaughter, and that was good enough. They wanted to know what produce we had and they were particularly concerned about bananas. They looked quickly through some of our luggage, presumably for fruit, and then waved us through. Granddad locked the doors and told me to keep the windows rolled up. “Tijuana is nasty,” he said. “It’s a nasty city. It’s dirty and there are lots of drugs and lots of druggies. It’s the worst city in the world.” Granddad had been in the Air Force for a long time because he loved to travel—he had shipped my grandmother furniture from Japan; he had sent me money from Korea. So when he said Tijuana was a bad city, I believed his expertise and I kept my windows up. He said that he had military buddies who liked to go to Tijuana to party, and said he’d gone with them a few times, and found it unpleasant. He added that he wished he could drive around it. I stared out the window, mystified that a city could be so dangerous and disgusting that you’d want to drive around it instead of through it. I wondered what he expected people to do if I had my window down. The city did in fact look dirty and slummy—a poor city with sad poor people. I saw a lot of people out on the streets and most of them did not look happy. Most of them looked hot in the sun, bored, and maybe a little bit angry. But they didn’t look particularly dangerous and none of them tried to get in our truck.

We were taking Highway 1 all the way down the California Baja to Loreto, Mexico, over 800 miles from Los Angeles. Highway 1 travels along the western coast of the baja for many miles, snakes back and forth across the middle of the peninsula, and then jumps over to the eastern coast and eventually passes through Loreto. We didn’t pass many towns, although there were a few sprinklings of civilization along the way. Most of it was mile after mile of narrow, winding mountain highway with little or no guard rails, the shoulders just as sparse, dropping off into very steep mountainside that could send you tumbling into the sea if only you had enough momentum. Granddad took this drive every year, and did not seem bothered by the highway at all. The highway was so narrow that there was not enough room for two cars to pass one another if one of them was a large vehicle. We could squeeze past small sedans, but occasionally a larger truck or van would appear around the curve of the mountain. The vehicle nearest the slope would gingerly move over and park with one side of its wheels off the edge of the roadwhile the vehicle nearest the mountain face would continue past. Then the other vehicle could ease back onto the road and continue. This happened infrequently—Highway 1 was not a busy road.

I was aware, logically, that this was a dangerous highway. I was aware that it was entirely possible for a vehicle to come around a mountain curve a little too fast, popping into view, and surprise us over the edge before we could gingerly move aside. I was equally aware that were we to tumble, and were the tumble to end a few feet down the embankment rather than in the ocean, that Mexican doctors and ambulance and Mexican 911 (if there was even such a thing) would be far away and we would be in a bad state. This being the pre-cell phone era, we could have been there all day even if a witness reported our accident immediately. In short—I casually acknowledged that my young life was in a mild sort of danger, and I wondered if my mother knew. I was pretty certain that she did not, because if she did, I probably would not be having such a lovely adventure. She would want to keep me safe. That is a mother’s job, after all, but my Granddad’s job was to adventure. A vagabond at heart, he could not keep family ties, and after he retired even his chosen family could hardly keep track of him. I think that when he finally passed away he lived in Alaska, but even of that, I’m uncertain.

I was also aware that being in danger was not something that I should love as completely as I did, and not something that I should approach fearlessly, but I could not help myself. In fact, this may be the first time I remember being in any sort of danger. I loved staring up and down the mountain on both sides. It was both breathtakingly lovely and exciting to look straight down onto jagged rocks and crashing waves when the mountain fell away suddenly to my right. The few guard rails were scratched up, scuffed up, and mangled, and I imagined the vehicle-guardrail collision each time I examined them. Most of all, I was morbidly fascinated by the seemingly enormous quantity of dead vehicles littering the mountain side. Some of them had trees or shrubs growing through them, as though they were part of the native flora. Many of them were rusty, soon to foster their own gardens inside. Some were new and shiny. Most of them were tiny sedans with Mexican license plates. Sometimes it looked like perfectly-A-OK passengers probably had a challenging climb back to the road and long walk to the nearest town while other vehicles looked so mangled and precarious that I wondered if the unfortunate skeletons of their riders were still inside.I kept an eye out for the most antique vehicle I could find (a pick-up truck and a few cars from the 1940s). I tried counting the vehicle husks, but there were too many, and I gave up. I tried guessing how long the cars had been there and when the accidents that sent them over the edge had occurred, but there was no way for me to know. A few years later my Mom took the same trip with my Granddad, and she said she was terrified throughout the entire drive. I thought that was a shame—even without the forensic intrigue, the mountains and coast were incredibly beautiful, and my Granddad handled that twisty-twining deadly passage like a pro. The awkward and lovely highway turned out to be one of my favorite parts of our trip.

The ride to Loreto took three days. We learned to communicate with one another over those days… at least, I thought at the time that was what was happening. In retrospect, I realize that he came from my own home town and so, more likely than not, he knew exactly what I was saying and was trying to teach me better diction. Back then, being from Oklahoma was still stigmatized and an Okie accent was actively discouraged. (Today, on the other hand, my husband amps up his Okie accent on purpose because he says it makes him sound “friendly.”) Whatever the reason, we had several conversations that went something like this:

“Hey! We just passed a skole on the side of the road!”

“A what?”

“A skole! A cow skole!”

“A skole?”

“Yes!” At this point my enthusiasm on the imagined grisly death of cattle in the desert is waning, because we have both cows and cow skoles back at home, where people know about skoles.

“What’s a skole?”

“A cow skole. You know, a skole. From a cow.”

“No. I don’t know. What is that?”

At this point I’m skeptical that he’s never heard of cow skoles, but I keep trying, and grab my head with both hands as an example. “Um. It was the cow’s HEAD, and the cow dies, and skin and flesh rot away, and then it’s a skole.”

“Ohhhhhhhhh,” he responds, as though he finally understands the gibberish I’ve been spouting. “I call those SKULLS. That’s the correct way to say it.” This happened a handful of times afterwards, as though we were speaking a different language. I remember significant issues during a conversation about mirages, as well… It took some time to explain what a “mere” was and to get a lesson on how to pronounce “mirror.”

I fancied myself to be a horse expert, because I had ridden horses twice, had exactly one riding lesson, and read Horse Illustrated. I had taught myself the breeds and watched the Kentucky Derby on TV.  There were lots of horses in the Baja, and I ooh’ed over them and even mentioned what fine looking horses they were—all of them lithe, dark and muscular. Granddad told me that they were indeed very proud of their horses and the quality of their breeding in the Baja. I felt proud for having noticed, and took that as proof of my expertise.

One day we encountered some road construction. The entire road was new, fresh black asphalt—both lanes. Right into the wet road we went, driving slowly, flinging sticky tar and asphalt everywhere. I was stunned that they had not left even one lane dry, but the construction workers calmly stepped aside while we splashed through their work, like they were expecting it to get disturbed. Hours later, we stopped for gas. I hopped out of the truck to get some “jugo de naranja” and immediately planted both of my bare feet onto sticky globs of tar that were baking on the truck’s step—I had forgotten about our encounter with the road workers. I immediately sat back in my seat. Granddad handed me a rag with some water poured on it, and it took a lot of elbow grease to get that stuff off. Have you ever wondered how difficult it is to get tar off of your feet? Now, I can tell you: Pretty darn difficult.

My Granddad and I La Quinta’d our way up and down the peninsula. I don’t know what was special about the La Quinta Inn and I didn’t even know they had La Quintas in Mexico before this trip, but at the La Quinta we got free Spanish TV and free eggs and toast for breakfast. The La Quintas usually appeared to be in the middle of nowhere, a lonely Hotel California-like rest stop on a lonely highway, and we didn’t venture far from them. We stayed in, watched the Three Stooges or Clint Eastwood dubbed over in Spanish, and ate eggs. The irony that I left the country just to watch American TV programs in another language was not lost on me, but there didn’t seem to be much else on the TV. I would read some more chapters out of my Babysitters Club books (I will have finished them all before we return to California) and then we were back in the truck.

One evening we went out to eat in a restaurant. I ordered a hamburger and I could actually see cows grazing through the windows. He watched me eat as though he expected me to do something. Finally he asked me how I liked my burger.

“It’s fine.” I kept chewing.

“It’s different.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Cows taste different here.”

“Oh yeah?” I chewed more slowly, trying to figure out what he meant. The height of my burger-tasting skills were learned at McDonalds.

“The cows here are fed different. They aren’t as fat. The meat is drier; less juicy.”

“Hmm.” I kept chewing, looking at the cows. I tried to remember how fat the cows at home were. I supposed that he was right about their weight. “Can I have desert?”

The only desert on the menu said “ICE CREAM.” At home, “ICE CREAM” always meant vanilla, which I thought was a little disappointing, but better than no desert, so I ordered it. It came out. It looked like vanilla. I tasted it. And it was coconut, and it was divine. It was very soft and very flavorful, so good that I guessed it was made on site. I was immediately aware that I might never taste ice cream exactly like that again. (So far, I have not.) I “made a big deal” over it, as my Mom would say, but my Granddad was just as impressed with my ice cream as I was with his insight on Mexican hamburger meat.

Eventually we made it all the way down the Baja to Loreto.

Professor Google tells me that Loreto, Mexico was founded in 1677 (which would have astounded me, had I known it at the time—I wish I had), and that the year I visited (1993) was the first year the city elected its own mayor. Professor Google goes on to tell me that Loreto is now a popular tourist destination. Photos on the internet show me large resort hotels with big blue swimming pools and all of the usual brochure-like images of scuba divers, kayakers, and bikini-clad women sunning on the beach. This is not the Loreto I remember.

I remember a small-town Loreto, with long stretches of (largely empty) sandy beaches frequented primarily by fishermen. I don’t recall any fancy resort hotels, and did not see any of the rental infrastructure that comes with a beach tourism industry. There were no bikini babes, no swimming pools or scuba divers, and few structures at all on the beaches we visited. The only beach building that I recall was little more than a large, do-it-yourself-looking covered patio where you could get burgers and sodas. Granddad knew these fellows; every few days we’d visit. They would talk together in Spanish and I had no idea what they were saying. My Spanish was then and is now very rudimentary, but Granddad was fluent. The owner of—I’ll call it “The Shack”—had two boys that fished the bay, and they would drag their boat up and down the sand in front of the shack. I watched them with interest, and they were introduced to me. I liked looking in the boat to see how much fish they’d caught. They did not seem hard at work—they seemed hard at play. As though they thought it might be fun to go out and fish for a little while, so they’d go out for only a few hours, catch a few fish, and come back in, but they did it every day and so I guessed it was their job.

I recall a Loreto entrenched in place; look away from the ocean and still you see ocean everywhere. People decorated, both in and out, with things that had been pulled out of the sea or things that had washed up on the beach; driftwood, dried fish (especially pufferfish—lots of those! Hung all over everything like spiked and bleached Christmas ornaments—they fascinated me—to this day, I’d like to have one), seashells, sea glass; they set them out in the sun, hung them from the eaves of their buildings, or made all varieties of crafts with them. It was just to my taste. I was always hauling in outdoor finds, anyway, so I thought it was perfect. When my mother visited Loreto the following year she admired their seashell wind chimes so much that she learned to make her own; she carried home jars and jars of shells, and had my father carefully drill tiny holes into each one so she could string them into long tinkling chains and arrange them onto loops. The hardy Loreto wind chimes survived many years on a gusty Oklahoma porch, and that is saying a lot.

“I hadn’t considered walking as a ‘hang-out’ activity before and imagined there was nothing else to do, or perhaps it was a cultural thing and they really loved sidewalks.”

Granddad Johnson owned an RV in a small RV park outside of town. I could walk from one end of the park to the other in very short order, with tropical flora reaching for me from the fences and humming birds zipping all around my head. In the center of the park was a building that held a tiny Laundromat, convenience store, memento store, and post office all in one. This was my home base for buying popsicles in a variety of tropical flavors and sending postcards home. I always delighted in sorting out my pesos and separating the old style from the new style; they had recently had a currency change.

Granddad visited Loreto once or twice a year and stayed for a few weeks each time, but the couple in the RV next to ours (also Americans—expats, I guess) were permanent residents. They were friends. We had dinner and card games with them on most evenings. We grilled burgers. They drank beer, I drank Coke. Because my parents did not allow me to drink soda, I would drink way, way too much Coke and bounced myself back and forth across the RV until I was told to quit shaking the house.

On our first or second evening in Loreto, Granddad drove us from the RV to the town. We did some grocery shopping and then he took me to the promenade. It was a wide gray sidewalk made with irregular stones. You could see the ocean from it (you could see the ocean from almost everywhere) and there were, here and there, portions that would jut out into platforms or docks. “This is the promenade!” he told me. He seemed excited. I was not impressed. It just looked like a sidewalk. I had never heard the word “promenade.”

“What is it for?” Because I am nothing if not inquisitive. When he offered to spend time with me that summer, he probably had not counted on also becoming a school teacher.

“It’s for walking.”

“Why? It’s not for the view. You can also see the ocean over there.” I pick a random place and point.

“I don’t know. It’s what people do out here. For fun. They go on dates here, and bring their friends.”

“Hmmm,” I nodded, examining the other people on the promenade. I hadn’t considered walking as a “hang-out” activity before and imagined there was nothing else to do, or perhaps it was a cultural thing and they really loved sidewalks. I indeed identified an opposite-sex pair strolling the cobblestones, and decided that meant that Granddad was right, and those two were lovebirds on a walk, watching the ocean. “Well, let’s do it. Let’s walk.” I don’t remember very much about our stroll along the promenade other than that it seemed uneventful and smelled like fish. I spent some time watching sea gulls and when we meandered back to the truck Granddad pulled out a cigarette and leaned against the car. I went down to the dock and looked into the water. I could see mud, seaweed, and fish. Some of the fish were very tiny, the size of a fingernail. I wondered if they were young or if they were naturally small. I stuck my hand in the water and they didn’t seem frightened.

I love all the Earth’s creatures, and at that time, I especially loved catching them and taking them inside. My family had bought me a variety “bug zoos” and ant farms to combat my tendency to catch and release indoors (so we could cohabitate with butterflies, right? Cool idea?). I had boxes of frogs and tortoises and grass snakes. I even caught a duckling one day, to the disbelief of my parents, who immediately ordered me to return the duckling to its mother. I was always trying (unsuccessfully) to catch squirrels and bluejays in my butterfly net. One year I brought a mouse inside and it escaped from its box to cause an infestation (which I never fessed up to). So you can guess what happened next.

I walked back to the truck and asked for something to use to catch fish. Granddad took it in stride—he had me describe the fish I wanted to catch and then told me the only thing he had in the car that might catch a fish was his coffee mug. I was told to hold onto it very tight and then I was back at the dock, mug in hand. Ever so slowly, I lowered the mug into the water. I held it motionless as the fish got used to it. They got brave, coming closer and closer. Then, a quick swish-swish and I had a tiny fish in the mug! Relieved that I hadn’t lost his mug to the sea, I carefully walked back to the truck with my new friend. “I got one! Can I take it back with us?”

“Sure. Let’s go now.” He stomped out his cigarette and opened the door for me; I gingerly climbed in, staring at the tiny fish. It was swimming circles. It was stressful preventing the splashing from upsetting the fish (or worse, splashing it out into the car) on the road. Granddad showed me how to “use your elbows as shock absorbers” and that helped somewhat. As we drove, the water in the mug started to change. First it got cloudy, and then tiny clumps started to appear, and I finally had the thought I should have had at the dock.

“Can the fish live in this cup?”

“I don’t know.” I felt my heart skip a beat. I didn’t want to kill it. I just wanted to have it close to me!

“There’s something wrong with the water. It’s cloudy.”

“Maybe it’s the salt.”

“It wasn’t like that before.” We are nearing the RV at this point, and I am growing increasingly concerned. The water is getting worse. The fish is swimming slower. I wonder if it’s the agitation from the ride. When we get back to the RV I set it on the counter and stare intensely while Granddad puts away groceries. The water keeps getting chalkier and the bits of debris keep coagulating and getting bigger. The fish quits swimming and just sort of hovers; it doesn’t float to the top… in fact, it sinks a little bit. “What is wrong with it?”

Granddad looks into the cup. “I don’t know; maybe it doesn’t have enough oxygen.”

“What should I do?!”

“Well, you could keep it and see how it goes. I don’t have a fish tank.”

I don’t remember which of us suggests that the fish could be returned to the ocean, but Granddad said it would take a while to get there and we’d have to leave right away. I decide I’d rather be safe than sorry and we get back in the truck to drive all the way back to the dock. I fret over my little fish the entire time, certain that the fish is moments from death and I’m about to become a fish killer, when all I wanted to do was watch it swim in the RV. He is very kind and understanding, but I am certain he has no concern for the fish or the dark stain that would appear on my youthful conscience if it died. Yet he humors me, acting equally concerned, not letting on how inconvenient I was making his evening, and I return the fish to the exact same spot I’d caught it from. The fish sinks out of sight and other tiny fish swim into view on top of it. I don’t know if the fish lived or not (I like to imagine it did), but I learned an important lesson about being more thoughtful before I take responsibility for living things and remove them from their environment, and I also learned a good deal about my Granddad’s capacity for patience. Even at the time I knew the type of gentle patience it must have taken for him to allow me to catch the fish, carry it home, and immediately return it—all without any real adult guidance or words of judgment or irritation, just quietly going along with whatever I wanted.

I now have to add to this story that we were on a fishing trip, so I am 100% sure that he was not as concerned about the Coffee Mug Fish as I was. Granddad paid for the RV in the Baja just so he could always have a nice home base from whence to fish. His favorite prey were marlin, although we were also after edibles, which at that time of year was mostly dorado. Dorado is the Spanish name for the dolphinfish and so that is how I was introduced to it in the baja, but I later learn it is more frequently called mahi-mahi or dolphinfish by Americans.

Granddad paid for the services of a fishing guide and his small motorized fishing boat, which was probably no more than ten or twelve feet long and four feet wide. Every morning, we would get up before dawn, pack some sandwiches, put on sunscreen lotion, and go down to the beach to load up the boat. The men—usually our guide—would catch tiny bait fish with a net in the bay, and when we had a few buckets full of live bait our guide would drive the boat out into the Gulf of California. This was my favorite part of the trip. The sky was only dimly blue and the air was cool and breezy; the water in the bay was smooth and dark and the land wrapped around it was the shadow of a giant’s arms. They’d speed the boat to get it through the bay—so fast that we had to tie our hats on – and I’d perch as far towards the bow as they’d let me go so that I could really fly when the nose would dip up and down.  The water would get choppy as we went through the pass; we’d always hit at least one or two big waves that would jolt me to my spine, and at this point we could finally see what type of waters we faced on the ocean. The men always seemed discouraged by whitecaps, but we never turned around.

Before this trip, I had been under the impression that only big boats were ocean faring. Little motorboats like ours surely stayed in lakes and rivers—at least, that is what the television had taught me. But the three of us rode that boat all day long, often going so far into the Gulf that land was nowhere to be seen.

Our guide watched the seabirds, and followed them to find floating mats of kelp. The kelp attracted small fish, and the small fish attracted the dorado (and birds, and many other things), which my Granddad wanted for the table.  We took several dorado everyday; they were plentiful; if there were fishing limits, we must have met them. We filled the iceboxes with them. I’d never seen anything like them. I was certain that if a rainbow could fall to the sea and become a fish, it would become a dorado, blunt nose and all. We would usually fish dorado in the morning, then go farther into the Gulf, past the kelp, past the birds, to fish for marlin.

Granddad Johnson loved the marlin. The marlin were what drew him into the Baja; the dorado were only secondary. He thought marlin were magnificent creatures, and they were: some of the ones we saw were as big as our boat, all powerful and gleaming blue and white, the tall sword-like tip of their dorsal fin slicing the water and visible for long distances. He never killed one, although we caught several; usually one or two a day. He said they were too beautiful to kill, and that he had too much respect for them to kill them. He just loved the hunt.

We would see the fin from far off and watch it for a while. We had to wait and watch because it was easy to mistake sailfish for marlin if their sails weren’t at extension. Sometimes we’d see the fish swim at a different angle or see the fin flex, identify it as a sailfish, and carry on. Other times we confirmed it as a marlin, and our guide would slowly work the boat close enough for Granddad to cast. Sometimes it felt like forever to get near if the fish was moving away from us, and we often couldn’t head straight towards the marlin. This far into the gulf, the waves were large. The boat had to angle over them. We’d have to head the fish off. It seemed we were always moving at angles for one reason or another. Finally, Granddad would cast his line out as far as he could. Sometimes it wasn’t far enough, but eventually, he’d catch the marlin’s attention. He’d make the bait dance. The marlin would catch the bait, and the two of them would duel with much back and forth. He’d work the fish in, and let the line out. Reel it in, and let it out. Over and over. Sometimes his adversary escaped the hook and disappeared into the deep. Other times, the glorious thing was at last fatigued and at rest alongside our boat. We would admire it for a few short moments, Granddad would either remove the hook or cut it loose (if the hook had been swallowed), and fish and fisherman would part ways. If the sun was low, we’d turn around and head back past the kelp and into the bay. We’d return with an hour or two of daylight to spare.

They removed the hook, clubbed its head, and put it in the tank. They told me it was a red snapper. They declared it was a Good Fish

I was raised in a landlocked state. A state with plenty of lake and river coastline, to be sure, but a state with no ocean and peopled with farmers and other landlubbers. Big water was not an integral part of our lives; lakes and rivers were places you might visit in the summers or on weekends. I had been on boats before that summer on the Gulf of California. I had been in canoes at home, and I had been on a dinner cruise on a big steady tourist ship in Florida. But it was nothing like this. Nothing like water as far as the eye can see, a tiny boat, alone, in a great big world. Nothing like waves that tossed me up and down like an amusement park ride, nothing like moving across the water at speeds that created a breeze in my face as strong as a stormy wind. On this trip I fell in love with the ocean and even more so—I fell in love with riding in boats. Specifically, I fell in love with riding in small, agile fishing boats. I fell in love with the feel of the waves rocking my body.

I was only seasick once. I spent the first day dreading the possibility that I might get seasick, and look weak in front of the men. So I moved to the back of the boat, were the rocking was less intense. I sat there quietly. I did my best not to let on that my body was fighting the ocean. I watched the men, hoping they wouldn’t notice. They were at the front of the boat, talking and fishing. After what felt like a very long time, I leaned over the side, vomited very quickly and neatly, then sat back up and wiped my mouth with my shirt. They were still at the front of the boat talking and fishing. To my immense relief, they had not noticed. After that, I was a child of the sea.

But I was not a fisher. There is a reason why I have spoken only of the adults catching fish, and it is this. I had never been fishing and I had never held a fishing rod. On our first day out, they brought a rod for me and showed me how to bait and cast. I fished with them, happy as a clam, until the first time I saw my bobber dip. They told me that I had a fish, and I ought to reel it in. I did so without trouble, and I could feel the fish fighting under water. When it emerged from the water I saw a stout red fish, a little over twelve inches long, flailing at the end of the line. I had no idea what to do with it. I laid it down in the boat, hook in, still flopping. I thought it was lovely. I recognized I had caused it distress. Granddad and the guide were both excited about my fish. They removed the hook, clubbed its head, and put it in the tank. They told me it was a red snapper. It turned out to be the only snapper we saw during the entire trip. They declared it was a Good Fish, and Granddad went on to tell me how excellent a meal red snapper was, how delicious, how pleased he was that I’d caught it, told me I’d been lucky. I spent that time trying not to cry in front of the men—because I had killed a fish. A live fish. Dead. Thanks to me. Knowing that it was going towards dinner did very little to soothe my aching conscience and tender heart. After my first and only fishing experience, I told them that I would rather watch.

For two entire weeks, I watched. I watched the men joke in English and Spanish. I watched them fish with nets and reels. I liked watching them reel in a catch, because you almost never knew what it was until it broke the water next to the boat. Often it was food, like dorado or my snapper, but equally often it was something that had to be thrown back, like an eel. Eels were always a total loss for the hook. By the time they reached the boat, they were a writhing Gordian knot of a creature, and all you could do was cut them loose, throw them back, and hope they came untangled on their own.

I dangled my fingers in the water and watched shadows move beneath our fishing boat—I could see just well enough to tell when fish were swimming underneath or when the water was getting shallow. Sometimes I could make out the rocks. The ghosts I saw in the underworld were fascinating. To me, the best shadows of all were sea turtles and rays. Rays were very common and I saw a handful each day—some of them quite large; I only saw two or three turtles the entire trip, so each time I’d call it out and point so my companions could look. I’m not sure if the men could see the turtles or not, but they took me at my word, and that was good enough.

I watched the sea gulls and the seaweed. I watched the motion of the kelp. I watched the dolphin—of which we saw many (much to my delight). We saw so many that they almost seemed common by the time I flew home. The dolphin were often near the same kelp islands that drew the dorado and seagulls. We could usually see their fins breaking the waves or the quick blow of a spout. I learned that they were easy to spot from far away because they looked like waves moving out of unison with the rest of the ocean. Sometimes they would follow our boat, and I was reminded of stories of dolphins saving people from sharks.

I saw sharks, too. I could see larger nurse sharks beneath the boat (especially when we were in shallow water) and I was told they were docile. Granddad would catch smaller sharks on his line, and those were some of the fish he had to throw back.

I saw many pufferfish: bleached-white spikey balls bobbing up and down on the top of the waves like miniature buoys. They were all dead. I guessed the puffers faced foes who were fearsome enough to cause fatal wounds but not fearsome enough to eat an inflated pufferfish. And so the fish stayed inflated, died, and floated up to meet the sun. This is where all the locals got their porch decorations—all you had to do was take a boat out and scoop them up.

While watching the ocean, I came face to face with a mythological animal: the flying fish. At least, my mind had convinced me, while going about daily life atop red Oklahoma clay, that flying fish were mythological. I had seen them on cartoons and heard about them in discussion, but they seemed obviously fake. Like mermaids. The Little Mermaid should have had one for a pet. She was half mammal and half fish, and flying fish were half fish and half bird, so they should have gotten along, right? They could swim to shore and chat with their buddies, the centaur and the basilisk. Imagine my surprise when I saw hundreds of tiny airplane-shaped blue fish leaping joyfully from wave to wave. I beheld them with awe and humility. If there are platypi in Australia, why not flying fish in the ocean? We saw them every day; the creature I had arrogantly assumed to be impossible.

After two weeks of floating in this magical new place where fish could fly, we repeated the long and breathtaking drive back Highway 1 to Los Angeles. I spent another couple of days in LA, where Granddad and Judy treated me as though I was older than I was. They took me out to see a scary movie (Jurassic Park), and they left me alone all day while Granddad was at work. With his permission I pulled a book off of his shelf (Clan of the Cave Bear, with plenty of graphic content) and read the entire thing. And then I went back to Oklahoma, back to school, and bragged about my summer vacation. I told my parents that I had enjoyed both Jurassic Park (“You were ok with it being scary?”) and Clan of the Cave Bear (“You liked that? But there’s no talking… I thought it was boring”), and they started buying me edgier books and letting me watch scary movies.

I saw Granddad Johnson less than a handful of times after that (the vagabond soul was soon to retire, bid Judy goodbye, and spend the rest of his days travelling in his RV, far out of my reach). I halfway hoped that he would invite me back to the Baja, but he never did. In later years I learned from my mother that he thought I did not enjoy the trip. He thought that I was bored out of my mind, but since I did not ask to go anywhere or do anything, he didn’t know what to do with me. So instead of taking me out to “do things” he let me watch his TV, ride in his boat, and play his card games.

It is true that I was a quiet kid, but I didn’t ask him for anything during those weeks because I was not only content, I was delighted. I loved riding with him in the boat and watching the ocean. I loved following him up and down the beach. I loved watching Mexico pass by my truck window and playing cards with the neighbors at the RV park. I liked listening to Granddad and Clint Eastwood speak Spanish. I liked the burgers, coconut ice cream, and pineapple popsicles. I even liked watching the Mexican mechanics work on his truck, because I got to go into town, try my hand at translating signs, and imagine what it was like to live there. I knew nothing about Mexico, the sea or the Baja. I did not know there was anything more that I should have been requesting. I was only eleven years old, and for all I knew, the entirety of the Baja was what I saw.

I was well-taught enough to thank him for the trip, but I had not yet learned how to express gratitude in a way that he could understand. I still had not learned that a deeply sincere thank-you is different from a simple thank-you. I thought he knew that I was enjoying myself, like he thought I knew that I should be asking to go for outings.  It is too late to tell him now. At 11 years old I had no sense of perspective, but now I can say that the Baja was an important place for me. It was my first time away from my parents; my first solo plane trip; my first time out of the country; my first time on the ocean; my first time fishing; my first time for a lot of things.  From an adult perspective, it was a simple fishing trip with little cultural enrichment. But I was not an adult. I was eleven. And that summer in Mexico, my world suddenly became much bigger.

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Adventure, Fellowship of the Wheel, Spotlight

In a World of Cynics and Fiends

Photo by S. Tarr

Photo by S. Tarr

“I know it’s not easy to follow our dreams in this world of cynics and fiends, forgotten hopes and purpose left unanswered, left unredeemed, but we must strive for it still, and on the way we will find others who travel alongside us as they too reach out towards their own hopes and dreams.”

This splendid little note was sent to me by adventurer S. Tarr after he contributed to Fellowship of the Wheel crowdfunding campaign.

Perhaps you’d like to contribute, too?