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The Dark Horse: Joan of Arc, Elliot Smith and Me

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My friend Andy and I are eating Grasshoppers on the tour bus talking about our favorite 15th century heroine, one of the darkest horses in all of history: Joan of Arc. It's much less exotic than it sounds. Apparently Grasshoppers are now trademarked by Nabisco; they taste and look and taste a lot like Thin Mints. And to tell you the truth, we don't really know that much about Joan of Arc other than her famous role as "Miss of Arc" in the not-so-critically acclaimed "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure." So like anyone who wants to know the truth, we look to the inter-web. In fact, we go straight to the source of all that is reputable and undeniably true: Wikipedia.

Pretty amazing story, actually. Joan of Arc was a peasant girl who claimed to have had visions from God. She began to hear voices at the age of 12 -- the voices of Saints Michael, Catherine and Margaret -- telling her to drive the English forces out of France. At this point in time, most of northern France was under foreign control. Her village had already been burned down once and the region around hers was surrounded by Burgundy territory.

At the age of 16, Joan snuck through hostile territory disguised as a man. She asked King Charles VII for permission travel alongside the army equipped as a knight. This is all at the age of 16.

A teenage girl leading men into battle is unusual in any time period; for the medieval battlefield, it was scandalous. Nonetheless, France had few options. Charles VII decided to rest his hopes on an illiterate farm girl, who claimed to hear the voice of God. Joan of Arc took her donated sword, armor, horse, banner and entourage to the head of the army. In various battles, she survived a cannonball blast to the helmet, a crossbow wound to the leg and the general disregard of the older commanders, leading the French army to many important victories.

Joan of Arc's story has inspired many throughout the years. Shakespeare, Tchaikovsky and Voltaire all created works about her. Even the skeptical Mark Twain was fascinated by Joan of Arc. He went on to research Joan of Arc's story and write a biography that he thought was one of his best and most important works.

Back in 2010, I'm still on the tour bus knocking off the Thin Mint knock offs. Fifteenth century France feels very far away from our modern pace. The only portrait that Joan of Arc sat for didn't survive, so it's hard to imagine what she looked like. I'm trying to picture a 16-year-old girl talking President Obama into this sort of thing...fairly unlikely.

The story of "Miss of Arc" feels so large in my mind because the obstacles in her path seem so insurmountable. It takes incredible courage and belief to even begin a journey like hers. Her story sounds absurd, fabricated by latte drinking dreamers who have no understanding of the way the real world works. It seems too good to be true. But it is true.

Perhaps her heroism is directly proportionate to the difficulty of her situation. If she were a tall, strong, highly educated nobleman, her story would lose its flavor. If her land had not been overrun by foreign rule, there would be no need for bravery. But her story rests on adversity. She represents the downtrodden victims of the world. The underdogs. The dark horses.

You can't be a hero without adversity. Every knight has his dragon to slay, every Joan of Arc has her Hundred Year War. This is to say, only when something goes against you, are you afforded the opportunity to be a hero. Failure and opposition award us opportunities that success and support cannot. The bigger the obstacle, the bigger the chance to be a hero.

For example, picture Michael Jordan and I playing a pickup game of basketball. The premise is almost as unthinkable as his Disney career:

Michael Jordan: arguably the greatest basketball player of all time
VS.
Me: a scrawny surfer who consistently misses his lay-ups

It's comedy! He has nothing to gain from the encounter. If he wins, it's nothing remarkable. But if I win, this is big news: David has defeated Goliath. The underdog has become the champion. The last place loser is calling the shots.

Yes, this is the comedy you've seen a thousand times, the comedic arc that has inspired Shakespeare, Homer and Napoleon Dynamite. Why? Because we can relate to the loser and we want to see the little guy win. Aristotle agrees. He defined comedy as the actions of "characters of a lower type, not, however, in the full sense of the word bad, the ludicrous being merely a subdivision of the ugly. It consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive."

So we're dealing with ridiculous folks here, not villains, but clowns -- these losers who somehow win. According to Aristotle a good comedy ends when the pauper is king and the king is pauper. When the up is down and the down is up. When the clumsy, flimsy knight has defeated the merciless dragon.

I'm trying to picture what our post-modern dragons look like. Who is the enemy of our joy, peace and freedom? Who is the dragon lurking outside of the village gate? Most days, my adversary is the feeling that nothing will change. That helpless feeling that humanity is spinning out of control. I fight the notion that nothing I do will ever make any difference, that love will never be able to make a dent against the horrors of hate, that my life is insignificant, that faith, peace and love have no chance against the forces of violence, hatred and brutality among us.

This dragon of despair burns down all that I hold dear. I begin to sink deeper and deeper into depression and apathy. Why bother? It's a serious question. Why get up? Why make the bed? Why fight for anything at all? Because there is still hope yet! Because the dragon just might have a weakness. Because your heroes are uninformed enough to think they might have a chance. The fat lady hasn't sung. The concrete has not set yet. There is still time. Yes, this planet is wrought with horrors and pain and heartache, but there is beauty still. The dark horses are still running.

I often find beauty in dark places -- even in the dirty, sweaty rock clubs that smell like the past ten years without a mop. You might think that folks who play loud music for a living will look for peace and quiet for their day off, someplace far away from "the office" of rock and roll. But my addiction to music runs deep. A few years back I had the night off in the same town as an Elliot Smith show, so I headed out in the summertime rain to find my way over to the club.

I will never forget that night. Elliot Smith's music will always hold an unforgettable place in my heart and yet, this night of music was special for many other reasons. Right before he was set to hit the stage, the thunderstorm must have hit a power-line somewhere nearby. The lights went out, the PA went down and the crowd was left in the black with only only the sound of the rain above. The promoter come out on stage with a bull horn telling everyone to remain calm and wait for the power to return.

Then the unthinkable happened: Elliot Smith (our story's knight in shining armor) came up on stage armed with only an acoustic guitar and a couple candles. No mic, no lights, no amps. The crowd and I yelled out our approval. He motioned for silence and proceeded to play truly acoustic music: guitar and vocal without the aid of any amplification.

After a few songs, he was informed that they had rigged a few things to run off of the emergency power backstage. So, his songs became a little louder. This process continued for a while, growing slowly until suddenly the city power kicked back on: the lights went on, the audience went crazy and he finished his set with full steam.

I think about that night a lot. It was incredible: our hero boldly slaying the dragon of silence and darkness with only six strings and a candle. But the only reason why any of it happened is because something went wrong first. Misfortune created the chance for a moment far more beautiful than a trouble free evening. Opposition created opportunity.

I want Elliot Smith to be a hero; I want Joan of Arc to win; I'm a man who wants to believe. But it's a struggle to find anything to believe in these days. I remember exactly where I was when I heard that Elliot Smith was found dead. I've seen hopes dashed and dreams shot. I've seen good men die young and bad men grow old, fat and rich. Worse yet, I know my own heart and the dark thoughts that live there. The dragons of cancer or poverty seem small next to the demons of despair and hatred, of pride and fear. It paralyzes me if I think about it too long.

Our fears come from real places of pain. Opposition can create opportunity, true. But the opposition can also demolish us. Sometimes the happily ever after does not come for us in this life. Our heroine Joan, was captured and burned at the stake at the age of 19. Such a horrible, unnecessary ending. Charles VII could have offered a ransom. He owed her so much and yet, her king, that she helped to crown, sat idly by while Joan of Arc was captured and tried. It's a brutal end to a story that was going along so well, certainly not what Disney or Michael Jordan are looking for.

And yet, even in her death, Joan of Arc remained true to what she believed. She didn't try simply because she knew she would win, she tried because she knew that what was right: because it's the noble, moral, authentic thing to do.

"If anything could have discouraged her, the state of France in 1429 should have." says historian Kelly DeVries. She had no reason to believe that she could accomplish anything, let alone turn the tide for France and be martyred for her honorable actions. Joan of Arc is a symbol of audacious hope in the face of difficult times.

Yes, I have my dragons to fight. Yes, I have my fears. But I still have breath in my lungs, I still have blood in my veins. I cannot sit idly by. I refuse to just let the village burn. I'd rather side with the illiterate farm girl who hears things than the cynics who hear nothing. I want to see beauty come from the ashes around me. Even if I fail, I will burn at the stake knowing that my fumes supported a good cause. Far better to fail at building a magnificent world than to succeed in monochromatic survival.

So when the voices tell me to quit, to give in, to give up -- I stand my ground. I refuse to be the cynic. It takes one to know one, you see, and I know cynicism far too well. So I raise my voice above the snickering sarcasm within and without and dare to hope.

I'm tired of the Chicken Little curmudgeons smearing the mud of monochrome on all that is radiant. All the star-bellied Sneetches on the beaches. All the crusty-eyed Muppets sitting in the balconies of life, yelling their diversionary insults down. I'm tired of the of the half-empty-glassers ruining what's left of the water. Yes, the glass may be half empty! The water could draining out as we speak! But this is not the time to give up and give in. In fact, all the more reason to try: we have so little water left!

All thee cooler than thou, all you rock-throwing pessimists -- know this: bitterness does not make you bullet-proof. It just poisons what's left. Yes, we have problems. But problems are not the end of the story. In the words of Gary Oliver, "Cadavers don't have problems." With every God-given breath let us remember: those beneath the gravestones would dream to have problems like ours.

Cynicism cannot save us. I know this first hand. Yes, it might offer us a temporary insulation from the pain of being alive. But the world that disenchantment offers us is closer to the grave than we might have thought. Dull and gray and tasteless -- the tomb of the cynic is built while he is still alive.

I raise my voice to the dark horses -- cry enormous tears, my friends! Suffer enormous defeats! Challenge Michael Jordan to a game. Give him a wink and throw him off guard. Yes, you are the underdog. But your fate does not rest in your circumstance but rather in your shameless expectancy, your cocky conviction, your unblushing expectancy.

My friends, be audacious with your hope. Never believe that the world can't change. Never believe that you can't change. Picture our hero, Joan of Arc, the patron saint of the dark horse -- the 16-year-old, illiterate, cross-dressing, clairvoyant farm girl leading men into battle. Listen to her adolescent voice calling out, "I am not afraid... I was born to do this."