Sunday, June 15, 2008

"Reflections on Fathers' Day"

Today is Fathers’ Day and an important day for a lot of kids, both young and old, who remember the patriarch of the family with a great deal of love and respect. As for me, I have never coped with holidays very well. Most were tinged with sadness brought on by a variety of circumstances.

I grew up poor and, for me, so many of the wonderful fantasies associated with Christmas, Easter, etc., that are a part of every person’s life, just weren’t a part of my childhood. I can never forget how many times I searched my very soul for an answer as to why Santa Claus left us so little, all of which was practical, when I tried so hard to be a good kid. For reasons I could never explain, I just didn’t measure up to most other kids who were blessed by that charming old elf.

I will never forget the time the Easter Bunny didn’t bother to stop at our house. I was seven years old for that one. My brother, sister and I searched the house from top to bottom while my Mother quietly sobbed, sitting at the kitchen table. Finally, she said “Kids I hate to tell you this but the Easter Bunny didn’t come this year.” In that instant, Easter became a holiday that, to this day, I simply cannot enjoy. The old rabbit let me down and I was never quite able to forgive him for it.

When I was a very young boy just beginning to file memories away for later recall, I absolutely worshipped the ground my Dad walked on. He was gone from home a lot, away shearing sheep, working on various ranches, etc., so he could come home with enough money to sustain us for a few more months. I would so look forward to the day he would return and, as he came through the door, he would sweep me up in his arms and give me a big hug. I never felt so secure and happy than I did on those occasions. They were times that nourished my very soul. I can’t quite recall just how old I was at the time, but on one of his glorious returns, when I ran to him, he said, “Son, I think it is time we started shaking hands like real men.” I have never felt so rejected or as deeply hurt as I did at that moment. My world of safety, security and profound love for my Dad evaporated right before my eyes. To this day, some 60 plus years later, the pain of that initiation into the world of what he thought was that of “real men” has never left me and I never gave my Dad a pass for what he did. I loved him so much.

My Dad grew up even poorer than I and I am sure he had more than his share of disappointments, as well, but which he rarely talked about to anyone. He kept them to himself, but whatever the pain of those experiences was, caused him to despise his own Father. It led him to engage in a variety of hopes, dreams and fantasies that never materialized, but which he held to tenaciously for his entire life. He loved horses and so regretted that he wasn’t born a hundred years earlier so he could have lived the life of a “real” cowboy. The only time I saw tears in his eyes was when he recounted that wish to me. I wanted to cry with him, but I didn’t.

My Dad was a good horseman and was never happier than when he was on a horse. He had an eye for good horse flesh and trained them all extremely well. He gave his all to rodeo competition in calf roping and cow cutting, knowing all the time that one day soon he would be the World’s Champion Calf Roper or Cow Cutter. The dream eluded him and he never made the first string. Oh, there are still a few of his trophies around but they were more consolation prizes than that of a winner, and he knew it. Hey, something was better than nothing but I always knew the pain of disappointment was there deep within him. He had a good singing voice and he gave it his all. He knew that one day someone would come along who would recognize his talent. He was certain that he would shoot to the top of the game, with all the attendant fame and fortune it would bring. Like so many of his dreams, that one died a quiet death, as well.

He was a stern disciplinarian, the sting of which I felt once in a while. But he was absolutely brutal to my older brother. As I grew older I became aware of the disparity with his affections and came to bitterly resent him for it. He tried to vicariously relive his life as a rodeo cowboy through me. I humored him by going through the motions, but that was not my bag. He was devastated when I told him that I wanted to go to college and be a professional man. Our relationship was never quite the same after that.

He felt that so much of that to which he was rightfully entitled had been denied him. Behaviorally, that notion manifested itself in selfishness at the expense of his family. A good Stetson hat and a pair of custom made boots where his right. We three kids were going to school with holes in the soles of our shoes. He would let us know that he was poor as a kid and now it was our turn to sacrifice so he could have what he had missed. All it did was to reinforce a seething anger that was growing within me.

He was a rounder of the first order. It seemed as if there was always another woman in his life. We all suffered that indulgence, but none more than my Mother. She remained silent and, I am sure, felt very much alone in the face of that assault on her rightful role as wife and partner. It was a part of him that was manifest most of his adult life and it took a terrible toll on our family. My anger towards him only intensified.

The estrangement from my Dad followed in the wake of one of these numerous dalliances. I just couldn’t take any more, so I cut off all contact with him for over four years. I had long ago ceased to care what he was feeling. As the ice gradually melted we, too, mellowed but things were never quite the same.

So, what lessons did I take from these formative years in my young life? I learned not to trust at a very early age. I played it close to the hip and never let my guard down. I learned that love was the stuff of movies but was rarely a part of real life. I learned that being vulnerable was a sure sign of weakness and of a fundamentally flawed character. The skeletons of the past were better left in the closet. I cannot recall my Dad ever manifesting vulnerability or real love. He could be charming, witty and affable, but I doubt that few, if any, ever really saw the authentic and genuine Bill. And, most of all, I learned that success in life meant you pursued a goal that would net you the most money in the shortest period of time so the specter of poverty would never again darken your door. That was the course I set for myself and I never wavered. In the end, it only brought me an ocean of disappointment in what I was versus what I could have and should have been. A career in broadcast journalism would have made me as happy as a clam, but the risks associated with real success were too frightening for me. Instead, I chose a career that I hated every waking moment of my working life and made me one of the best professional whores in the business. Fear of failure became my nemesis and I always played it safe. As a result, I never gave it my best, my employer never got full measure and I never had an ounce of satisfaction in what I did.

As the years have passed, I no longer subscribe to the notion that being a real man is necessarily synonymous with being macho. Being a real man takes a lot of character. Being macho is nothing more than posturing and bluster. Real men are not afraid to be open and vulnerable to those near and dear to their hearts. Real men don’t withhold their hugs, an arm around the shoulders or a pat on the back and don’t try to substitute a hand shake for the real deal. Real men know that love is so much more than what is tied to their sexual virility. Real men accept the fact that maturity and age are an unavoidable part of the life process. They don’t try to substitute erection enhancing drugs for the wisdom and character that only comes from a life honestly and well lived. They know that love quickly morphs from hormone overload into endearing affection for those they care so deeply about.

I find it rather curious that all of the qualities Our Dear Lord mandated that we should be are, more often than not, the very qualities looked upon with the greatest disdain by those who subscribe to the masculine myth.

My Dad and I never had the opportunity to mend the fences between us because of distance and separate lives. Only once did we have the chance to sit at a bar and tip a few together. I recall looking him right in the eye and asking him how many women he had “known” in his life. Without a second of hesitation he answered, 97. I was stunned and I asked what made him do it. He looked at me with eyes like those of a cherished pet who has been severely scolded and replied, “Bob, don’t ask me because I can’t tell you.” I knew I was probing into a part of his life where I had no business going. But I did realize that there was something there that was so much more difficult than I could ever imagine and I really didn’t want to pursue it any further. I have speculated on all sorts of reasons that could explain his behavior, but for the sake of his memory and my own peace of mine I, too, know that it is best left at its place in time.

I never got to his funeral because of s snowstorm in Southern Wyoming. As a consequence, we never really had the chance to make peace with each other. But, as the years have passed, I see him in a different light. His life and his failures are his for all time to come. It is best left there. However, I have come to realize that he probably was gripped by many of the same fears in his life that have been with me in mine. Intimacy was impossible for him; it has been difficult for me. He probably knew many times in his life when he ached to bare his soul and reveal his demons to someone close to him, just to ease the pain of the burdens he carried, but there was never anyone he could trust enough. As I write these words I realize that they aren’t necessarily pearls of wisdom coming from my intellect but, rather, are visceral insights into my own life.

I have forgiven my Dad. Now, in the twilight years of my own life, I pray every night that my Creator will help me to internalize and manifest what I regard as the four greatest attributes of the human condition:

1. Unconditional love
2. Unconditional acceptance
3. Unconditional understanding
4. Unconditional forgiveness

Those are, in my humble opinion. the four cornerstones of a well-adjusted human being. Without question, the most noble is forgiveness.

Fear, in all of its manifestations, is surely our greatest enemy.

As I reflect on this Father’s Day I cannot help but wonder how much of my better side has been denied my two children because of the way I am wired. The old adage to the effect that “The apple does not fall far from the tree,” scares me. Perhaps the time has come for me to ask them before it is too late.

Happy Father’s Day.

Cowboy Bob
June 15, 2008

Friday, June 6, 2008

"The End of Act I"

I am reasonably certain that the nation has given a collective sigh of relief that the circus of the Democratic National Primaries is finally coming to a close.

When it all began, about one and one-half years ago, I was enthused and excited at the prospects of what might eventually come out of it all. I have been glued to the television set, cheering one moment and cursing the next. When all but Obama and Clinton were left standing, I looked forward to a serious contest to the finish line. But I have to admit, it lasted far too long for me. The Iraq war rages on, the mortgage meltdown has intensified, the cost of gasoline has gone through the stratosphere and unemployment is growing by the day. At this point, I just want to see it all come to an end and finally see just what can be salvaged from our national disaster, so we can all get on with our lives.

At the outset I was very taken with Barack Obama. I still think he is sincere, bright and articulate. I think he will make a good president, but I am a little more cautious with my optimism. I think he could have conducted a better run in parts of the country that are hardest hit by globalization and free trade, and those whose issues are, for the most part, bread and butter. I don’t necessarily believe he is an elitist nor do I believe he should feign being “one of the boys” by engaging in behavior that is out of character for him. Obviously, he is not an accomplished bowler nor does he seem to be the type who would throw down shots of whiskey and chase them down with a mug of beer. However, much could be said for him if he simply and overtly acknowledged his differences in style with his audience. Pledging to understand their plight and vowing to work his heart out for them would have done wonders for him. That, I believe, would have gotten him a few more miles down the road in terms of his own credibility. As for his religion and his past history in that regard, it is none of our business and the news media would have been well advised to drop the issue and focus on what this next election is really all about. But, that doesn’t run up the ratings, does it?

As for Hillary Clinton, the literature is replete with the details of the blind ambition and sleaze by both her and Bill. They are not the paragons of integrity they would have us believe. When it comes to their political and personal ambitions, they have demonstrated they don’t take prisoners. She certainly revealed that side of her nature in the instances where she fawned all over Obama on stage, only to repeatedly kick him in the gonads, over and over again, after the fact. It is no secret that lying and deception are legitimate parts of their arsenal in the war to win at all costs. There is enough in print about both of them for any reasonably literate junior high school student to easily write a comprehensive doctoral dissertation. But, for all the volumes written about them, the news media and the Washington establishment have chosen to ignore that reality. After all she has given of herself through public service, she deserves our respect, not our condemnation. Bull puckey!

Bill Clinton should have been thrown out of office when he demonstrated his total lack of respect for the ultimate symbol of the Office of the President and the American people by his antics with Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office. Hillary should have gotten an Oscar for her performance as the hapless victim on one hand and her steadfast defense of Billy Boy on the other. Give me a break. They just don’t have what it takes to be listed very high up in the social register. Given the fortune they have amassed in just seven short years, they will never have to work for a living again. It is time they went back to Arkansas and settle down in a nice double-wide. Hillary could take up the art of baking cookies and Bill could teach sex education at a local junior college, including live demonstrations. The nation has had enough of both of them.

I love the posturing of Hillary in the wake of her defeat in the primaries, and the unrelenting and belligerent person she has shown herself to be. I am tired of all the crap about giving her some time and space for all this to settle in and for the sake of her feelings. Now I ask you, if Hillary was a man do you honestly believe there would be the slightest concern about her feelings? Get real. She is playing the gender card. If women want equality, then using their feminity to their advantage is off limits. If Hillary’s tears were genuine in New Hampshire, then they should have been ignored. A box if tissues should have been handed to her, and she should have been told to buck up. Gender equality is not situational. You can’t have it both ways. After all, look what happened to Edmund Muskie when he lost his emotional composure during his run for the presidency. The harpoons were quick to follow and he lost the race.

The reporters and pundits in the news media are a source of entertainment in and of themselves. They are asked what they think so-and-so is going to do, what he/she is thinking at the moment, how they are feeling about an issue at any given moment, etc. Hell, they would all have to be a bunch of clairvoyants as a basic prerequisite for doing their job. What a bunch of poppycock. They are there to report the news.

As for Barack Obama, I do share the view that his choice of a running mate as the Vice-President is of paramount importance. I don’t think it is appropriate to be used to pay back political debts or other obligations. The selection of a VP should be based on the need for complimentary skills and experience to those held by the President. If Obama is serious about demonstrating “bi-partisanship” and “reaching across the isle,” then someone from the other party or an independent should not be excluded from the running. Frankly, I think Senator Chuck Hagel would be a damned good fit. He is a Vietnam Veteran, he has served with distinction in the U.S. Senate, he has been steadfastly opposed to the Iraq War and has been a successful businessman. He is strong and a man of tremendous integrity. I have no doubts that he would be instrumental in Obama garnering a lot of votes from Independents and Liberal Republicans in the forthcoming General Election. I, also, think there should be room in Obama’s Cabinet for Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, Bill Richardson, John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich.

As for Hillary and former Senator Grassley? Naw, I don’t think so. We have had enough. The final curtain has come down on Act I. Time to move from the Theater of the Absurd to reality. The country and, indeed, the world cannot wait any longer.

Cowboy Bob
June 6, 2008

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

"The Prey"

Some years ago I wrote this short story about my encounter with one of nature's most endearing creatures, a small bunny. I recounted this incident to my friend, Carolyn Rose, who encouraged me to venture out into the world of writing. Her talent and guidance are largely responsible for this piece. My niece encouraged me to reprint it for distribution on this blog. I hope you enjoy it.

It was one of those hot, dry days that summer spawns on the western slope of the Cascade Range after the spring rains subside. The relentless wind sucks the life blood out of the lush, green landscape, leaving it brown and rough like the hands of a lumberjack. The soft carpet of grass has turned into a lifeless mass. My footsteps raise minor dust clouds around my feet. As I walk over it, it sounds like crumpling tissue paper at a child’s birthday party.

I had just finished mowing the lawn and I was covered with dust, grass clippings and evergreen needles. As I walked to the backdoor of the house I could feel the grit in my eyes. My sinuses burned. My parched mouth was like parchment. A growing sunburn on the back of my neck was beginning to radiate heat.

I poured a big tumbler full of iced tea and relaxed in a big chair to watch the national news of the day. The tea had a clean, crisp taste. The resonate voice and metered words of Dan Rather intoned a litany of major domestic and world events, little of which was the least bit uplifting. It sounded as if the whole world was on one gigantic killing spree. Will it ever stop?

A sudden movement disturbed my peripheral vision. I turned to look out the glass door. There was one of the family cats, waiting anxiously to show me her prize catch of the day – a baby rabbit about six inches long. I hastily jumped to my feet, opened the door and shouted at the cat. My reaction startled her. She dropped the little, furry bit of life. He struggled to drag his limp hind legs behind a bucket of water placed there for the dog. I was sure he was paralyzed. I was overcome by an overwhelming sense of sadness as I watched his valiant struggle to survive the ordeal.

I couldn’t fault the cat. She was only doing what nature had programmed her for – to be a consummate predator. She was bringing her catch to proudly show her master; a gift for one higher up in the predatory chain.

As I carefully picked up the bunny and took it with me to the overstuffed chair where I had been sitting, I thought how fragile all life seems to be, particularly in today’s world. I checked him over but I could find no puncture wounds. His heart was racing, he eyes were dilated and he struggled to free himself from my grasp. I sat down and cradled him in my arm close to my body. He snuggled in and I could feel his heart rate returning to normal. Within a few minutes his eyes were back to a soft brown and he ceased to resist my attempts at holding him. I gently stroked his ears. His coat was soft as down. I knew our time together would be limited, but I was enjoying the moment.

The predator – prey relationship is one that has always mystified me. Domestic cats typify the predator. They hunt whether they are hungry or not. The thrill and the excitement of the chase and the kill seem to be the essence of their nature. Now, mind you, I like cats but I don’t understand why they have to be so cunning and stealthy. “How is that tiny rabbit anything but prey?” I asked myself, when all he covets is, perhaps, a meadow filled with sweet clover or stolen bounty from a carrot patch? Why must his lot in life be the fear of discovery, the panic of the chase and the sting of death? Why is it all so one sided and seemingly unfair?

There is a wonderful bond that develops between a wild animal and a man when fate brings them together, no matter what the circumstances may be. Perhaps it is special because it is so rare, so fleeting but so profound. It is like the doe that lingers with her new fawn for just a bit longer than expected as if to say to us, “Isn’t he just the grandest thing you’ve every seen?” Or the bond we feel with a coyote that pauses for one last attenuated stare before retreating into the safety of the tall grass. No matter how it happens, there is an overwhelming sense at having been a part of something extraordinary.

A person has to be unusually calloused not to be touched by the baby of any fur-bearing animal. Maybe they reminds us of a favorite stuffed toy from our childhood or of our own vulnerability when we were children. No matter the reason, we almost always seem to instinctively want to cuddle and protect them. I thought about the softer side of our human nature. I am convinced that is the essence of the Divine Master within us.

As I looked down at that tiny life snuggled so close to my body, I knew I had to face the reality of the situation. I could have kept him forever, but that is not where he belonged. I felt a slight lump in my throat as I wondered if he would be able to hop to safety. If he could not, I knew I would have to show him mercy by putting him out of his misery. It occurred to me that an act of mercy can often be infinitely more painful than an act of violence.

Religions preach that God lives within each of us. The quintessential struggle we all carry through life, that between good and evil, reminds us of that perhaps more often than we would like. Mercy carries the sword of compassion; vengeance carries the sword of destruction. Our Creator demands the former and the strength to overcome the latter. “Not a bad reminder brought on by a small rabbit,” I thought.

As much as I hated to shatter the spell of that very special encounter, I knew I had to take him outside and give him a chance to go free. I slowly stood. He didn’t struggle to break free. I went outside, knelt down and gently paced him in the grass. He made no attempt to move. My heart raced at the thought of having to administer the coup de grace because of his inability to take the leap to freedom. I lingered longer than I should, gently stroking his ears and back, but he remained motionless. Finally, as I got up to go inside and get the gun, he suddenly stood erect and hopped off at great speed into the woods. A broad smile crossed my face.

The last I saw of that little rabbit was his small, white cotton tail fading into the rich greenery of the forest. I couldn’t help but wonder if he would live today only to become the prey of tomorrow. I didn’t really want to think about that, but the predator lost this round and I was glad.

I have never quite come to terms as to why God’s Plan requires that the life of a gentle creature must be sacrificed in order that the aggressor might survive. That seems to be the destiny of the rabbit, the gazelle and the lamb – all for the sake of the cat, the lion and the man.

Cowboy Bob
July 2001