Love Thy Neighborhood

Hello, hello/I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello.

— the Beatles, “Hello, Goodbye”

Yesterday Jodi spoke with our neighbors across the street, a friendly couple a bit younger than us, with two small children and a dog, and personalities that draw you in and make you want to smile and visit.

They are moving to Alexandria.

As they talked, the husband and father said something telling: “I’ve talked more to my neighbors since we sold our house than in the previous X years.”

This was not a reflection solely on the rest of us: several homes are for sale or have sold in recent years, and he admitted that he, too, spoke more to the outgoing neighbors than those who appeared to be staying. Continue reading

Brandings

Blogger’s Note: Another past writing, from 2001. This is one of my favorite pieces of non-fiction I ever wrote, and came back to my mind following this recent post from Prairie Father. In case you are wondering, Fr. Tyler is, in fact, the Tyler mentioned below. Finally, I’m no cowboy. If my terminology is imprecise or inaccurate, forgive me. If it is offensive to cowboys, correct me in the comments!
I

The city girl behind the counter called it a marking. She wore Doc Marten sandals and just last week mistook a bird’s call for approaching cattle. Drugstore cowgirl, with her chopped blonde hair tucked beneath a curled straw hat, more Junior Brown than Tom Mix. She wants a stampede string to keep it in place should she need to chase cattle at the “marking,” and I’m smiling at the thought of her sprinting in her sandals through knee-high grass behind some rangy Angus cow, her hat tied tight beneath her chin.

II

We rose to cinnamon rolls and coffee—six a.m., and Bob’s pulling his tall, red-topped boots over his jeans; a bright silk scarf about his neck; white shirtsleeves shining softly in the morning sunlight. Bob drinks tea, not coffee; sweeps the crumbs from his long moustache, takes from the wall a straw hat with the same crease, crown and brim as his felts, and heads out, spurs jingling, to catch his pony.

The hands arrive in twos and threes, and their rigs line both sides of the driveway—crew-cab pick-ups and long stock trailers with cow-horses saddled and tied short alongside. The men gather around the plank table in the kitchen, exchanging greetings and jabs, sipping coffee and complimenting Cindy on the rolls. All wear boots and hats; many have chinks, and most wear spurs. They range in age from 15 to about 60. Chance, Bob’s youngest, wears his boots outside his pants, same as his dad; a rosy plaid western shirt, battered chinks and a black felt hat set back on his head. He’s rough and ready, a chaw in his cheek and blue eyes sparking, happily cussing the dogs.

Chance has two friends with him today—John’s dark haired and dark skinned, with baggy carpenter’s jeans and Docs on his feet. He’s clearly not cowboy, and his T-shirt reads the same as yesterday: “I’m just one big f—ing ray of sunshine, aren’t I?” (Hyphens mine, not his.) His sister, Rachel, watches Chance with dark eyes and prepares to ride—purple chinks with heart-shaped conchos; a long denim shirt opening on a white tanktop.

Straws are the hats of choice in summer; still, a few felts make an appearance. “Real cowboy hats can be any color, so long as it’s black or silverbelly,” Bob says. Rick Smiley wears a dark gray hat, for what that’s worth, and sky-blue plaid. Frank Timmons wears battered silverbelly, with a sweaty ring at the base of the crown. It sits low on his brow, so that the curled ends of his moustache are often all that escapes its shadow.

Where I come from is not far from the girl at the drugstore. I shake hands with the men around me, conspicuous in a green Filson cap that suggests I’d rather be fishing. I remember selling western boots in that same drugstore, when my own boots and the pearl-white snaps of my uniform shirt branded me a cowboy in the eyes of little boys from New Jersey—this day even my father, in his broad black hat and leather vest with antler buttons, may have dressed too plainly to be called “cowboy.”

III

A couple days later we’re eating chili around that same plank table. Bob took a call a few moments earlier from a Manhattan-based research firm conducting a survey on environmental policy and public opinion. He spends a good ten minutes on the phone with the caller, and by the time he hangs up, he has identified himself as a heterosexual white male, a conservative, a Catholic, and a staunch Republican.

“You realize,” I tell him, “that you are the enemy.”

He’s cutting cheddar with the same pocket knife he cut calves with two days ago. He’s got a saddle shop in his kitchen. He doesn’t care.

IV

The riders mount and spread across a broad expanse of grass to round up the cows and calves. We’re watching from a windy hilltop overlooking the pasture, the pond, an old windmill and a few crooked trees, with the house, pens and buildings beyond.

Bob’s oldest boy, Tyler, is leaning against Sorley, a stripped down Suzuki Samurai with a homemade plywood roof and four-wheel drive—the name comes from the little rig’s sorrel color. He’s only recently back from Winona, where he’s studying for the priesthood; he’s dressed in a plain t-shirt and sweats, untied duck boots and an old fedora. His little brother’s riding with the men below.

Tyler stands in front of the little 4×4, watching the cowboys work. He’s not like these others—he’s a big kid and prone to discussing philosophy, praying aloud in Latin or singing in Spanish—but he looks at home here and I snap a picture of him, God’s country in his eyes.

V

The cows are vaccinated, and the fire’s lit. Bob moves between groups of cowboys enjoying cookies and iced tea and assigns them to work as ropers, wrestlers, branders and cutters. Dad and John man the gate, shooing the bravest calves back into the pen. An odd pairing, to be sure—my father will lock up the brakes on the pickup at the sight of a middle finger, and this kid’s wearing as bad as that across his chest.

The ropers ride into a sea of bawling black and throw their loops. They drag the calves out by their hind feet, and the wrestlers topple them to their right sides and pounce on them, one on the head and topside foreleg, the other on the hind feet. The horses keep the rope tight, looking only slightly interested, and the riders watch. Two needles to the neck; blue smoke, the stink of burning hair and the sizzle of flesh. If it’s a bull calf, a few deft strokes with a pocket knife and a squirt of disinfectant. It’s brutal, quick and effective—strangely, the calves bawl loudest when first roped and dragged, and scarcely limp upon release.

Bob is cutting calves, and in just half an hour, his white sleeves are punctuated in red. He keeps his pocket knife in hand, wiping the blade occasionally on his chinks. It’s coarse surgery, without anesthesia or stitches, and I tell him so.

“You’re right,” he says, looking to the next calf. “It’s pretty rough, what we do to these critters.”

The smoke rolls.

VI

The latest issue of The Atlantic ran an ad for the American Indian College Fund, with the tagline, “Have you ever seen a real Indian?” The picture is of a young woman of no obvious ethnicity, with long dark hair, standing near a wooden cabinet full of microscopes. “Carly Kipp, Blackfeet,” the ad reads. “Biology major, tutor, mom, pursuing a doctorate in veterinary medicine, specializing in large-animal surgery.”

VII

The work’s nearly done, and Chance and Rachel are leaning against a gate, saying little. He dates her cousin, and he, Rachel and John spent last night beneath the stars on a hide-a-bed couch in the back of a pickup.

When the branding’s finished, it’s dinner—roast beef and beans; mashed potatoes and gravy; bread and salad and beer. Some of the men head home—the rest take up spots on the porch or the lawn. After a bit, two guitars come out, and Bob and Paul (a rancher out of Montana who owns the cattle we branded today) take turns picking—old country songs, rock older still—and discussing how music and cowboying has changed over the years.

“My wife tells me,” says Paul, “that if I want to get back to cowboying, the first thing I gotta do is get rid of about 1,500 head.”

I’m riding a sawhorse next to Chance. He takes his dad’s guitar and begins to play—bits and pieces of more recent rock songs. He finally settles into “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”—bending strings to coax all the heartbreak he can out of them, the lyrics audible only in fits and starts above his playing.

Three-year-old Brendan’s on the porch with Rachel—they’ve been splashing each other with water from a five-gallon pail, and Brendan is soaked. Rachel’s hair is dripping, and Brendan’s new “pet” clothespin is clipped to the back of his shirt—he’s been looking for it for the past twenty minutes. She’s swiped a beer from the ice-filled tub in the grass, and Brendan wants what she’s having. They play together for an hour or more, when nobody asked her to—she’ll make a mother someday. Or someone’s favorite aunt, at least.

Bob says her older sister’s a beautiful girl—could’ve been a model.

“She’s got just enough Indian—they’d take her to Elko, to the Artists’ Ride, and dress her in skins …”

Rachel’s a beauty in her own right—her mixed ancestry shows in her complexion, her dark curls and brown eyes. She’s been arguing with Bob about whether her Adidas visor qualifies as a hat.

It takes a special girl, I think, to make a visor and chinks look good.

VIII

I’m driving to work and NPR is talking to songwriter who’s latest recording is called Scar. The title cut, he said, is based loosely on his relationship with his wife—it’s about how our relationships and experiences, for better and worse, mark us for life.

Brutal, quick and effective.

J. Thorp
May 2001

LIFT Links: Holy Week and Easter Traditions

Icons of Holy Week: Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter

I’ve been a little lax on LIFT Links lately (that’s a lot of Ls) — and now, as we’re headed into Holy Week and the Easter Season, I need to make up for lost time.

First, the basics. Until I met and married Jodi, I was vaguely aware that Palm Sunday was the Sunday before Easter, the Good Friday was the Friday before, and Easter was a pretty big deal–right up there with Christmas. At some point early in our relationship, my bride informed me that her family attended Mass at least three (and sometimes four or more) times during Holy Week, the week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. As I’ve said more than once, they went to church on days I didn’t know church was open!

St. Liborius Catholic Church, Polo, SD

Jodi’s family, and many of the other parishioners at St. Liborius Catholic Church in Polo, SD, went to church at every opportunity during the Holy Triduum: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday, and morning Mass on Easter Sunday. Today, our family goes on Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and either Holy Saturday or Easter Sunday. It’s a beautiful way to enter into that period of uncertainty and darkness, then light and joy, that Jesus’s disciples experienced between the Last Supper and Christ’s Resurrection.

One more thing before I share some links: attending Mass on every Sunday and all Holy Days of Obligation is one of the five Precepts of the Catholic Church — the minimum requirements to be a practicing Catholic. Receiving Holy Communion is not required every Sunday, however, receiving Holy Communion at least once during the Easter season (which is Easter Sunday through Pentecost Sunday) is required. Receiving the sacrament of Reconciliation once a year is also one of the precepts — and since being cleansed of all serious sins is required to receive Our Lord worthily, Lent is a great time of year to get to Confession so you can receive Holy Communion at Easter.

Now, some links:

Have a blessed Holy Week and Easter, friends!

Who Is the Public?

I have just finished another book I would not have read if not for my job, Barry Bozeman’s Public Values and Public Interest: Counterbalancing Economic Individualism. First, permit me to confess that, left to my own devices, I would read fiction, poetry, and an occasional history — so I am being forced to broaden my horizons and get educated, which is never a bad thing. Second, let me say that, as a wannabe writer, I have many, many thoughts about this book, mostly concerning its readability. I would not say that I enjoyed it, but it did provoke thought. The primary thought it provoked may be worth sharing. I say “may be” because I am not an economist, a philosopher, a political scientist, or a public interest or public management theorist, so it’s possible that I simply didn’t get it.

My primary thought about the book is that it spends a great deal of time on the topics of whether and how it is possible to identify public values and the public interest, and contrasting those with private or individual economic values and interests (which are often not the same), but it spends remarkably little time on the question of “Who is the Public?” The author is very conscious (almost too conscious) of the limits — the squishiness — of terms like “the public interest” and “public values,” but while his book tackles “interest” and “values” at length, it gives short shrift to “public.”

Especially in the U.S., a vast nation with remarkably diverse cultures, religions, lifestyles, and economies depending on where in the country you reside, it seems to me that the more immediate the “public,” the more practical and realistic it is to identify shared public values and pursue the public interest. At the state level, this becomes less realistic: every state in which I’ve ever lived has had marked, or even deep, social, economic, political, and cultural divisions (“Outstate” or greater Minnesota versus the Twin Cities metro. East River versus West River. Downstate versus the U.P.) and different lifestyles worth protecting. At the national level, then, it seems unlikely that we could identify public values and a cohesive public interest, aside from the broad priorities of securing the nation and preserving our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The difficulty of pursuing public values and the public interest is not identifying values and interests — these are abundant, diverse, and obvious — but identifying who shares them, which helps to decide at what level of society they should be implemented.

The critique of economic individualism (which, says Bozeman, is increasingly driving our public policy agenda) in the book insists that individuals in this model are concerned primarily with their own economic interests, and perhaps those of a few close others (immediate family and the like). That may be the proper definition of economic individualism, but I don’t know anyone who lives this way. As a friend in Western South Dakota has explained, in his part of the prairie, neighbors take care of each other — and if someone doesn’t contribute to the good of the community, over time they are made unwelcome. They simply don’t last. Those who remain recognize that it is in their personal interest to take public interest: to be engaged in the community and preserve their shared values and lifestyle.

I enjoy a similar experience in “The Bubble” — the devout, small-town Catholic communities in Albertville and St. Michael. My circle of public interest begins at home, with my family; then expands to encompass my parish and the people with whom I share a fundamental belief system and way of life; then to my town(s), which provide the education my children receive and the goods and services we need to live and thrive; then to my state and nation, which should be responsible for ensuring my towns, parish, and family have the opportunity and freedom to thrive. I invest what time, talent, and treasure that I am still free to spend as I wish in the circles closest to me — which makes sense, since the more distant circles I am already obligated by law to support.

It seems to me that Bozeman’s approach to identifying public values, public interest, and ultimately, instances of failure of public policy to deliver in the public interest, is useful in inverse proportion to the size and distance of the “public” considered. At the local level, the public interest is much easier to identify — because although our population is increasingly diverse, we tend to cluster together with likeminded folks who share similar values. But as long as the majority of public resources are allocated at the state and national level, we will struggle with coming up with one-size-fits-all solutions to generic political issues that approximate real-world challenges, but do not reflect the actual problems of real people living in genuine community with each other.

The Second Third, Week 15 (Belated): Boot Love

Blogger’s Note: The whole idea behind these “Second Third” posts can be found here.

Most regular readers (like, two out of the three) know that I met my bride while selling western boots one summer at Wall Drug. You might not know that I actually worked three summers at Wall Drug in an effort to be near my bride, and that each summer, I bought a new pair of boots.

Up until a few moments ago I was convinced that I had written at length on this site about my once-and-future obsession with boots. Apparently not. I know I wrote about it in a newspaper column at one time; I’ll try to round that up and post it shortly. In the meantime, suffice it to say there was a time when I knew more than was healthy for a boy my age about boots and boot makers, leathers and stitching, fit and finish. I could convey that knowledge to cowboys, bikers, and foreign tourists, using only my hands if I had to, and I lived in boots, at least in the summer months.

My three pairs of boots are pictured below. In my Second Third, I intend to wear the soles off them again and again. Why? Pfft. Just look at them!

My first pair (also pictured at the top of this post). Summer 1994. Nocona size 12 1/2D (the perfect fit from day one). Chocolate oiled bull shoulder with black tops. Soft as moccasins; tough as nails. I’m on my third set of soles and heels.

My second pair. Summer 1995. Blucher Boot Company, custom-made for someone else, but didn’t fit them; fit me like a second skin. Black French calf tops and bottoms. Soft and smooth and takes a nice polish. Great for dancin’ if they didn’t look so wicked. And if I danced. Still on the first set of soles and heels.

My third pair. Summer 1996. Nocona size 12 1/2D. I special-ordered these for rougher use: oiled cowhide foot; high green goatskin tops, and a bit higher and more underslung heel, just for kicks. I also put a black rubber half-sole on them for extra durability in the wet or on pavement. Scratched, gouged, salted, and paint-spattered. Second set of soles and heels.