Cowboys used to be part of our daily mythology. I’m old enough to remember when television came along, cowboys galloping across our screen, Hopalong Cassidy, Matt Dillon, Gene Autry, some of them singing, most of them shooting and slinging a lariat and speaking terse truisms about right and wrong, what defines a cowboy.
The leading presenter of modern cowboys is Thomas McGuane, whose books and films keep up with the times. Imagine my delight at opening the current New Yorker and finding a lush short story by McGuane, about two childhood friends who sign on for summer work crews.
Rufus and Grant, he with some credits from community college, both try to define their “occupation.” Their summer employer describes the folkways of former frontier – “the old grazing law, ‘Take half, leave half, and leave the big half.’”
The preoccupation with how things are done seems charmingly old-fashioned these days, when nothing quite seems moral.
As they talk on the phone before meeting for their summer job on the range, Rufus says: “Cowboys fix fence, Grant. They don’t build fence. No no no no no. If some rancher tells you he’s got a little fence to build, you just ease on.”
Who thinks about rules and morals these days? People who would have been cowboys in an earlier century now sport automatic weapons and make up new rules.
But somehow cowboy truths survive. I think that’s why I love old-fashioned cowboy songs, dressed up in modern examples, in one of my favorite CDs tucked into my iPod – “Cowboy Songs,” circa 1990, with Michael Martin Murphey singing old favorites with gruff male talent singing and playing, and Tammy Wynette providing darling backup.
In Murphey's CD, some of the cowboy truisms seem smoothed over by modern niceties – “them was the days” when cowboys got drunk on payday, or a cowboy gets into “a foolish” gambling fight. In a new version of “Home on the Range,” Murphey laments how Indigenous Americans have been forced to move on, but in another song, 16 Texas Rangers are buried with arrows in their chests.
As I read McGuane’s short story in the New Yorker, I can hear Murphey singing the catechism of the old West: In “Cowboy Logic,” an old cowhand quizzes a young recruit about how to spot the real cowboy among three guys squeezed into the front of a pickup.
Then there is Ian Tyson’s song, “Cowboy Pride:”
Cowboy pride will always get a man through
Cowboy pride will make a fool of you
In his short story, McGuane points out the dangers but also the thrills of cowboy life apparently a decade or two before this belligerent time. The rough-hewn Rufus tells his pal about a romance that has just broken up:
“I met her when I was delivering oxygen. I stopped by to pick up the equipment after her dad died. She was so beautiful I told her how much I wanted her. She pointed to the couch and said, ‘Over there O.K.?’”
McGuane’s shop talk of the Montana range is sometimes blunt, sometimes complicated, with the feel of a master composer laying out the chords and themes that sound like, feel like, danger. This is the old west, right?
I was reminded of another Michael Martin Murphey rendition of the traditional song, “When the Work’s All Done This Fall” – about a cowboy who can’t wait to see his mother, back East, as soon as the herd is delivered and so is the pay.
Rufus and Grant, long-time friends, one defined by scruffy old shirts, one by rock-band t-shirts, find themselves goading their horses up a steep hill
In the work of a frontier master, there is no foreboding of buffoon reality TV hosts and deluded gun-carrying thugs with no moral compass.
McGuane makes the young cowboys so appealing, as they try to define their calling, so quaint, so noble, so dangerous.
The Oct. 10 issue of the New Yorker can sometimes be read in its entirety, unless you’ve gone beyond the monthly ration. Wait: you don’t subscribe to this great magazine?
Measuring Covid Deaths, by David Leonhardt. July 17, 2023. NYT online.
The United States has reached a milestone in the long struggle against Covid: The total number of Americans dying each day — from any cause — is no longer historically abnormal….
After three horrific years, in which Covid has killed more than one million Americans and transformed parts of daily life, the virus has turned into an ordinary illness.
The progress stems mostly from three factors:
First, about three-quarters of U.S. adults have received at least one vaccine shot.
Second, more than three-quarters of Americans have been infected with Covid, providing natural immunity from future symptoms. (About 97 percent of adults fall into at least one of those first two categories.)
Third, post-infection treatments like Paxlovid, which can reduce the severity of symptoms, became widely available last year.
“Nearly every death is preventable,” Dr. Ashish Jha, who was until recently President Biden’s top Covid adviser, told me. “We are at a point where almost everybody who’s up to date on their vaccines and gets treated if they have Covid, they rarely end up in the hospital, they almost never die.”
That is also true for most high-risk people, Jha pointed out, including older adults — like his parents, who are in their 80s — and people whose immune systems are compromised. “Even for most — not all but most —immuno-compromised people, vaccines are actually still quite effective at preventing against serious illness,” he said. “There has been a lot of bad information out there that somehow if you’re immuno-compromised that vaccines don’t work.”
That excess deaths have fallen close to zero helps make this point: If Covid were still a dire threat to large numbers of people, that would show up in the data.
One point of confusion, I think, has been the way that many Americans — including we in the media — have talked about the immuno-compromised. They are a more diverse group than casual discussion often imagines.
Most immuno-compromised people are at little additional risk from Covid — even people with serious conditions, such as multiple sclerosis or a history of many cancers. A much smaller group, such as people who have received kidney transplants or are undergoing active chemotherapy, face higher risks.
Covid’s toll, to be clear, has not fallen to zero. The C.D.C.’s main Covid webpage estimates that about 80 people per day have been dying from the virus in recent weeks, which is equal to about 1 percent of overall daily deaths.
The official number is probably an exaggeration because it includes some people who had virus when they died even though it was not the underlying cause of death. Other C.D.C. data suggests that almost one-third of official recent Covid deaths have fallen into this category. A study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases came to similar conclusions.
Dr. Shira Doron, the chief infection control officer at Tufts Medicine in Massachusetts, told me that “age is clearly the most substantial risk factor.” Covid’s victims are both older and disproportionately unvaccinated. Given the politics of vaccination, the recent victims are also disproportionately
Republican and white.
Each of these deaths is a tragedy. The deaths that were preventable — because somebody had not received available vaccines and treatments — seem particularly tragic. (Here’s a Times guide to help you think about when to get your next booster shot.)
From the great Maureen Dowd:
As I write this, I’m in a deserted newsroom in The Times’s D.C. office. After working at home for two years during Covid, I was elated to get back, so I could wander around and pick up the latest scoop.
But in the last year, there has been only a smattering of people whenever I’m here, with row upon row of empty desks. Sometimes a larger group gets lured in for a meeting with a platter of bagels."
--- Dowd writes about the lost world of journalists clustered in newsrooms at all hours, smoking, drinking, gossipping, making phone calls, typing, editing.
"Putting out the paper," we called it.
Much more than nostalgia.