Archive for April, 2009

April 23, 2009

WTF; or, A Word's Worth of History

by cowboylands

Language is a dynamic tool–it shapes us as much as we shape it. I will weep if I go into the whole “torture” vs. “harsh interrogation tactic” brouhaha (just call a spade a spade–we did torture, and we shouldn’t) so I will instead shine my small but powerful flashlight on words we no longer choose to use.  

Mystery Ranch, by Max Brand

cover illus. Stanley Borack

Pocket Books, 1952

from the collection of ES

We’ve moved beyond a primarily agricultural mode of existence, yet all too often modern city people are faced with a linguistic puzzle that wreaks havoc in time-sensitive situations, such as the computer-centric workplace. I’m talking about when people use heretofore time-honored cliches that are rooted (cliché) in a past that no longer has much bearing on who we are now and apparently desire to be. 

Case in point: How many of you have had a similar conversation? 

(and thanks, Scott, who is otherwise a linguist extraordinaire)

Scott’s Friend: Yeah, that was a tough row to hoe.

Scott: What?

Friend: A tough row to hoe.

Scott: What the fuck’s a rodaho?

Friend: A. Row. To. Hoe.

Scott: A rodaho?

Friend: A row, like a row of crops. And hoe, like the tool.

Scott: Oh. Ohhhhhh . . . That’s an expression?

I have used “tough row to hoe” before, and in doing so have realized that I have never hoed an entire row of anything. Why wouldn’t I use an expression rooted in my everyday existence, like “it’s a tough avenue to cross during rush hour,” or “it’s a tough eight-story walk-up to climb”? 

One of the reasons I am driven to tap out the words in this blog is the dreadful mistakes people make when they talk about cowboys (see Cowboys Gone Wrong here). Most people don’t know what they talk so much about, and some of the worst mixed metaphors come from people who clearly have never laid a foundation, reeled ’em in as a fisherman, bit the dust as a bronco buster, roped a calf and tried to catch as catch can, had to hunt a human being down to bring him in dead or alive, mined and hit pay dirt, or had to figure out who the hell owned that maverick calf. 

Instead we have the dubious distinction of asking for feedback (isn’t that the sound that hurts your ears?), of being hardwired for certain predilections, or being a blip on someone’s radar

Clearly Americans are in a crisis of identity–we’re part cowboy, fisherman, construction worker, computer technician. Perhaps we’ll always have a soft spot for the ancestral farmer, hunter, and cowboy. Perhaps we’ll always be a mishmash of this and that, and speak like it too. 

And–this may really be a tough row to hoe–we may one day stop using euphemisms for the word torture.

Here’s a good site for the linguistically impaired: “Do You Speak American?” by

The End of the Trail, by Peter Field

cover illus. Earl Bergey

Pocket Book, 1945

from the collection of ES


April 18, 2009

Gal's Got Balls; or Pioneer Woman Wins

by cowboylands

Pioneer Woman is the reason I can’t lie when people ask if I am a real cowboy. I say no. There’s no getting around it.

  • I don’t live in the middle of nowhere (although there actually is plenty of alone time in NYC).
  • I can’t cut off calf nuts.
  • I don’t even eat calf nuts.
  • I don’t ride a horse anymore, not since a certain moment when my life flashed before my eyes and I hit the ground with the thought “I DO NOT HAVE TO RIDE WHAT PEOPLE TELL ME TO RIDE.”

I am a sorry-ass cowboy, but that’s okay, because the West is a big place, and there is plenty of room for fauxcowpokes like me. (Um, right, Ms. PW ma’am?)

On one LOL post, Pioneer Woman shows the sweetest-looking calf ever, as white as virgin snow. She has to show the awesomely gorgeous face of this animal, because just a click away are photos of a poor cow’s prolapsed uterus, as red as…well, blood.

It’s grisly, but, hey, that’s what happens when you have a herd of cattle. You do what you have to do, even if it entails stuffing a bovine’s reproductive organ back into place (a procedure that appeared to be successful). Kinda sorta wish I had the reproductive organs to be that good of a field vet.

It’s the beauty and the balls of the American West that I makes me visit every year, half eager to test my mettle, half scared to death I’ll never measure up. Of course, we never really measure up to such an awe-inspiring place, but Pioneer Woman and her family come close. Check out their shenanigans here.

April 15, 2009

Recession Love; or, Bad Times Good for Romances

by cowboylands

In a flurry of pink prose, headlines across the virtual Web are proclaiming the primacy of love: despite the sinking economy, people are still ponying up a few bucks to read the latest in love in lust: 

Along with chocolate and Big Macs, romance novels are showing a brisk level of sales. Here’s a fact that makes my pulse pound: Every four seconds, someone buys a Harlequin (and well they should, as I copyedit for Harlequin, so purchasing a bodice-ripper helps me, too!). Check out a witty capsulation of the trend from the LA Times here.

In honor of recession romances, I offer the following cover and priceless back copy of a Popular Library Western from 1932. Unlike the menacing gunslingers from the 1940s and 1950s, this is the kindler, gentler version of the West, when the word frontier meant good sex, not just a bullet in the back. Perhaps I can take this as a sign that America, too, is able to approach the world differently. That although the U. S. “wears the killer brand” it also can find love on a global level (only without the “throb of guns,” although that is clearly a euphemism for sexual organs). 

The Deputy at Snow Mountain, by Edison Marshall

illustrator unknown

Popular Library, 1932

The Deputy at Snow Mountain, by Edison Marshall (back cover)


This just in–Western lust isn’t only for women anymore!

The movies made Westerns into testosterone-fests. But popular Western novels, on the other hand, are seeped in estrogen. Go into any K-Mart, and you’ll see the fringe-jacket-and-bodice-rippers right alongside the lean-handsome-and-mean-tortured-loner stories. The first are in shades of pink, the second in browns and blues–they might as well put signs for Ladies and Gents on them. But I would argue that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. And what’s good for the flock is good for the economy. Buy a romance today, buckos! Keep the economy, and my budget, from tanking. 




April 13, 2009

Hostage-taking and Love-making; or, The Dreary Truth about Cowboys

by cowboylands

Another appropriation of the Cowboy myth struck this past week. It was buckshot heard around the world, from the coastal waters of Somalia to a pop star’s son’s yearnings.

A showdown always brings out the best and worst, as is the case of the Somali pirate/ U.S. warship standoff that happily ended with the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips, and unfortunately, with the deaths of three of the pirates.

(Yes, I live my life preferring negotiation over death. Just don’t try to break into my house. I’ll toss you out the window.) 

It was a test for President Obama, who was elected because he didn’t have the kind of shoot-from-the-hip mentality that Bush brought to the table for eight years. A test he either failed, or won, depending on whether one loves Obama/America or hates Obama/America. That’s all Global Politics As Usual, but for the fact that both sides drew in Exhibit A: The Cowboy as a sterling example of what to do or what not to do. 

From Australian news site

Spin-doctors are on it with high revs and on both sides of the Atlantic – in France (Le Grand Bastion or still La Grande Nation ?) as well as in the apparently Re-United States of America under Obama. While the cowboy spin-doctors have to cover up and prepare for more evolving “Lt Col. Custer”-like operations, they wrongfully reported through their media-outlets that the mediation efforts of Somali elders and respected leaders to save all the lives and free Captain Phillips unharmed had broken down. 

It’s clear that to our Aussie jackaroo friend, Obama is one more warmongering American, and he uses as an example a truly reckless soldier, George Armstrong Custer, who was all about being too cowboy for his own good (check out his story at  

Then there is the other side of the cowboy coin. Obama succeeded because he did not act like a gunslinger. Within Runnin’ Scared: Exploring the Right-Wing Blogosphere, a scathing round-up of far-right-wing blogs, there lies an underlying scorn for the “cowboy-Bush,” whom right-wing bloggers have held up as the paradigm of protector of the American Way. 

Then just as Cowboy-bashing reached a fevered pitch, chimes in Don Osmond, a gentle Mormon and son of the inestimable Donny, to speak about all things good with the cowboy, namely, it’s a great way to score with girls. In his lament for Mormon Times, “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” he says:

Call me old-fashioned, but what woman doesn’t want to be swept off her feet, riding off into the sunset with her cowboy?… I guess the point I’m trying to get across is this: Can we all try a little harder to be more chivalrous, or gracious to accept chivalry? Guys, this is probably more of a call for us to step it up. It’s about time we dust off the boots of chivalry, tip the hat of courtesy and cowboy up.

I was getting overwrought with the idea that my cowboy heroes are bloodthirsty thugs, and now I can rest assured that under that blood lies very nice gentlemen. 

If only his golden vision were true. The real rough-and-tumble frontiersmen and ranch hands of the 1800s were as chivalrous as anyone would be while believing a woman’s place is in the kitchen and on her back in bed.

But the Far-Right’s appropriation is just as much in soft-focus. The real cowboy of the 1800s tended to use brute force to acquire and to protect because often there was no other recourse, not because of some knightly urge to spread the virtues of civilization. They didn’t have the luxury of engaging in gunslinger jousts: They ganged up and shot people in the back, and more. 

Those were  are our heroes, buckos. It’s best to know what you are talking about, don’t you think? But honestly, God bless you, Don…

[post corrected for accuracy 4/13 thanks to eagle-eyed commentator, Jeni. Don Osmond, son of Donny Osmond, was the writer of the article that I referenced. Shows me the limitations of too much cowboy coffee and not enough sleep.]


April 6, 2009

Stimulate the Economy; or, Using the Wild Western Web Wisely

by cowboylands

The taxman/woman brings oppressive reality. No, not all of my money is my own. My sweat is not my own. Then I tell myself to drop kick that checkbook and cowboy up–time to see what is going on in the Wild Western Web. 

One phenomena that never fails to cheer me up is the strange world of western fetish voyeurs. Thank the big Rider in the Sky for allowing YouTube to be a safe place for people to watch guys shift around uneasily in western duds. 

Man having a smoke in a fancy cowboy shirt

This man is focused and thorough–by God, when he says what he’s having a smoke in a fancy cowboy shirt he’s not fooling. For those who don’t like smoking, you might not want to see this, but for those who can take that vice, here it is. Note the excellent saw in the corner. This guy isn’t some dime-store dilettante–he probably builds corrals for a living, or at least small plaques that read “Dude Ranch.” And for those who think I’m just making fun–come on! He’s got a following who thinks he’s hot! I share with respect. 

Ukelele Yodel

And for those who prefer aural stimulation, one of my personal faves: Ennio Morricone, channeled with ukuleles.


Happy virtual trails!


April 3, 2009

'Into The Sunset'; or, MoMA's Mything of the West

by cowboylands

“The West is an idea that became a place.”

–historian Clyde A. Milner, Oxford History of the United States

 From Into the Sunset: Stephen Shore. U.S. 97, South of Klamath Falls, Oregon

What was so compelling about the West as idea that it uprooted people from around the world, made the U. S. government break treaties with sovereign nations, and grew into a pop culture symbol so luminous that the Museum of Modern Art created a show about its image? Into the Sunset: Photography’s Image of the American West gives its answer: Limitlessness. Unbounded possibility. Infinite resources (and therefore moolah). What happens when the limit is reached? (Hello? Pacific Ocean, anyone?) The idea is punctured, or dies a slow death of asphyxiation in the stale air of reality. 

Possibilities are mirages. Riches belong to everyone but you. Or you could pillage, lie, steal, kill, and otherwise sell your soul to get them. 

Thanks, MoMA. I’m totally depressed now.

But that’s the curator’s version of the image of the West, a vision that is as much a mythology as the kind Marlboro sells with each pack of cigarettes. What Americans and Europeans bought with every Buffalo Bill’s Wild West ticket, and what people purchase around the world with every pack of American cigarettes is a little bit of ourselves as we want to be–alluring, daring, legendary. With every MoMA “Into The Sunset” ticket it appears we also want to be alienated and disillusioned.  

The exhibition is at the end of a sunny corridor but you emerge from the show feeling as if you need to take a shower. That, buckos, is as much the result of manipulation as the compulsion to Go West, Young Man was in the 1800s. There are beautiful images in the exhibition but the whole thing seems to be another example of Coastal Elitism. Coastal Elitism sees man versus nature as having a story arc that inevitably ends with nature being ruined and humans in despair or deluded. The exhibition portrays that story arc quite dramatically (nicely collected in thematic clusters on the walls). What that story arc doesn’t include is the type of person who has found a balance of sorts on or with the western land, or who has found living up to the myth invigorating and profoundly gratifying. (Oh yeah, the photographers that take those images are genre hacks, so their story is less artistic, less true, than fashion photogs taking pics of really handsome Hell’s Angels.) While I am sympathetic to the idea that a writer, editor, or a curator has to pare down a story, we Coastal Elitists must recall that the myth of this exhibition is not only an archetype but a stereotype–and our idea in the first place.

Three and a half out of five Western stars for Into the Sunset: Photography’s Image of the American West. Breathtaking images and a panoramic sweep of land and people. But beware the underlying hype: There’s more than meets the imagination in the real West. 

[see How to Match Up to MoMA’s Mythic West Checklist below]

 From Into the Sunset: Dorothea Lange. The Road West, New Mexico. 

How to Match Up to MoMA’s Mythic West Checklist 

  • Embody limitless possibilities, or just act like you do. In the exhibition a long photograph of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show stretches along one wall; in it are the characters of the penny-dreadfuls of the day, being overseen by the master of ceremonies in white (alongside Bedouins and Native Americans, making a buck from this foolish white man). Truth is, Buffalo Bill had a few problems paying his troupe; he usually got his performers to wait a little longer or backers to give him more because he was so darn pleasant and beautiful.
  • Acquire the accouterments. Take as example the nineteenth-century daguerreotypes portray posturing men wearing western garb as self-consciously as the families in those vacation photos taken in faux olde-timey tourist traps (you, or someone you know, has one of those on a living room wall).
  • Exude a bit of the Tragic. Exoticized Native Americans stare past past the camera in many of the exhibition’s turn-of-the-century photos. The first viewers of the photographs, contemporaries of the Hopi women and Sioux warriors, ate up these images, nostalgic for a people (and place) they had just finished shutting into reservations.
  • Embrace the absurdity of the West, which is represented on every wall: images of tract housing from above, reminiscent of the scars of pattern bombing; pleased parents feeding a baby, with industrial power lines and towers looming right outside their window. 
  • Be stoic or deluded about your chances of maintaining your integrity. Photographers were especially skillful at catching the people who go West to search for better things, only to find less than what they had left behind. The images of hustlers, Avedon’s out-of-work black-jack dealer, the porn starlet, and an overwhelming number of images of people-with-ravaged-tragic-faces describe a truth that artists like Annie Proulx get: The West doesn’t really give a shit about your hopes and dreams. 

Note: The idea of a quick fix ends when something real slips into an image, such as the photograph of Chief Joseph and his nephew. Chief Joseph wears his ritual regalia as elegantly as Gary Cooper wore a tux, and his nephew wears a buttoned-up peacoat and western-style shirt. You can read many stories into this photo–like the one described in history textbooks about the passing of the West, blah, blah, blah–but its main story transcends myth, evoking the real and universal conflict between a traditional elder and a forward-thinking youngster.