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?
Welcome to World Cup 2022, the most absurd thing that the routinely absurd world of sports has ever produced.
Those extreme descriptions were what virtually the entire world, save for those who had walked off with bags of cash from Qatar, called the awarding of soccer’s greatest event to the incredibly tiny, incredibly wealthy country back in 2010.
Twelve years ago, many were convinced this event couldn’t possibly happen: staging the world’s biggest sporting event in a country the size of Connecticut, one with zero soccer culture and even less soccer infrastructure? The tournament couldn’t possibly take place in 120-degree heat, and FIFA, the governing body of soccer, most certainly wouldn’t upend football leagues around the world to change the traditional summer schedule, could it?
And, for God’s sake, what about the beer?
Those were just the logistical concerns. The moral concerns are far more distressing. FIFA, so busy paying lip service to equality, couldn’t possibly expect the world to embrace a country where you could go to prison for being gay, where women’s rights are severely curtailed and female victims of sexual assault could go to prison, charged with engaging in extramarital sex. And all those questions came before the global realization that the World Cup was being built on the backs of migrant labor: modern-day slaves held in Qatar with virtually no rights, low wages and no ability to leave. Migrants make up 90% of Qatar’s stated population of 3 million. The country’s native-born equal about 300,000, or roughly the size of Anaheim.
---Ann Killion, columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle.