Tuesday, February 27, 2007

On My Love For Cowboys

For a geeky New Yorker with a tech job who loves Hillary Clinton and vodka gimlets and video games I know a lot about cowboys. I know some of you are now giggling to yourself and thinking “Silly Brianna, cowboys aren’t real!” (Hi Amy!) but I grew up in cowboy country and have a number of good stories about rocky mountain oysters, horse shoeing contests and artificially inseminating cows to prove their existence. I like to bring up cowboy factoids on first dates and at parties – it keeps people entertained and it makes me seem unique but for all of my comic bravado I mostly feel sentimental about the cowboys I have known (that's cowboy, musician and friend of the family Fiddlin Pete on the left). Trying to explain love is probably almost always a futile effort but as a good little slave to the left side of my brain I’ve long been searching for the source of my love for cowboys. I cannot honestly site any of the idealistic cowboy myths that permeate urban culture. In my experience cowboys are rarely strong and silent. They do not typically bust out deep thoughts like the guys in the movies. Most of them don’t even have cute butts.

Of course cowboy stereotypes aren’t all favorable. Earlier this year I attended Pro Bull Riding at Madison Square Garden where the opening ceremony made a very compelling argument for cowboys being ignorant, culturally unaware and easily fooled into voting for anyone willing to don a pair of boots. The arena at the garden was covered in dirt and a huge “USA” had been carved into the floor, a guy wearing a cowboy hat fashioned out of the box for a Coors Light 24 pack was sitting 20 feet to my left and inexplicably an army tank was parked on the right edge of the stadium. New York City was ready for some bull riding. As the event began (following an awful preshow involving people dressed up as janitors and lip singing songs from 1967) the lights were dimmed and a huge screen was lowered down from the ceiling. What followed was a series of shots of each bull rider before a backdrop of his home state. Each chaps-clad stereotype recited a couplet from a poem about loving America and horses and chewing tobacco. Interspersed between the poetry styling’s of the manliest men in New York City were shots of air force jets and soldiers in Iraq. As the camera pulled out as the last of the bull riders delivered his final line (a guy from Brazil who I’m sure loves freedom slightly less than all the American boys) the USA on the floor BURST INTO FLAMES! This was followed by a brief fireworks show and then the night’s honorary guest was introduced. If anyone out there has any doubts about how badly Rudy Guliani wants to be president let me lay them to rest. A New Yorker does not put on boots, a fringed suede jacket and a bolo tie unless he is serious about getting him some southern votes. And the cowboys are more than ready to vote for Rudy – he saved America after 9/11, he’s a “true American hero.” (like GI Joe only sleazier and less homoerotic).

Despite the ridiculousness of Bull Riding does NYC I still felt a bit mushy while watching those guys get tossed around. Cowboys almost always tug at my heart strings and I have never been able to fully explain why. I usually just blame it all on nostalgia. Fiddles and songs about the rodeo make me happy because they remind me of home. I’m sure this is at least partially true… except… I didn’t listen to a lot of country music when I actually lived in the country (In fact it took a class at a liberal east coast college to teach me to love Loretta). I also didn’t willingly go to very many rodeos and I mostly gave up horseback riding around age 12. As an adolescent I used to pride myself on not being country.

Every August friends of my parents host an annual weekend party at their remote (no phone, no light, no motor cars without four wheel drive) cabin in the Sierra Nevada mountains. It’s typically 3 days of horseback riding, potlucks, hiking and drinking with good old boys. For years I was all but outcast by the other kids my age (junior rodeo stars all) because I insisted on spending my afternoons with my nose literally in a book but figuratively in the air. I was way too good for cowboys. If it weren’t for my parent’s good standing I’m sure I’d have been told to go back to the mall. Most of the families at this party have deep roots in the Owens Valley ranching community; their grandparents drove cattle in the Sierras and they all seem to be living an extension of their ancestor’s lives. Not so the Klemms. Dad was born in Germany, mom in Wisconsin. My grandparents on both sides all but hated horses. No matter, somehow my parents and younger brother manage to fit right in, but I have never been able to walk the line between book smart and horse smarts. I am having a hard time articulating the divide between myself and the rest of the party guests without sounding like a huge snob but I could not join in on late night drinking games or afternoons of four wheeling because I couldn’t speak the language. Conversely I assume that everyone else could only roll their eyes as I sat on the porch for hours reading “The Beauty Myth.” or in the cab of my dad’s truck listening to Liz Phair on repeat. And yet…I have rarely felt as at home as I do at that party. There is an acute sense of belonging that somehow seems to transcend the fact that I am so obviously out of place.

Despite my embodying almost everything they hate there are a lot of real cowboys out there who I know would never hesitate to let me sleep on their floor, ride their horses, eat from their menudo pot or pat their ass (though some of the women might look at me askance). Unconditional love is always pretty awesome but it is even more astonishing when it comes freely from people so different from me. My heroes are writers, musicians and scientists but my family will always be cowboys.


Anonymous said...

As I say every karakoe night:

Brianna likes both kinds of music - country *and* western!

themikestand said...

I, too, can verify the existence of the cowboy. Also, that sure is a big fiddle that Pete's got there!