Sunday, August 31, 2003

Lessons from the Rodeo

This was my second Ellensburg Labor Day Week-End Rodeo. I love this thing; it’s pure American Heartland. The organizers and attendees do this for themselves, by themselves. They are keeping a culture alive without any PC baggage. Every Rodeo starts with the Yakima tribe coming down the hill into the arena on horseback. It could only have been embarrassing to someone from the Left side of the Cascades like me; the fact is, Ellensburg is located where the tribes in the region gathered every year since time immemorial to trade and have a good time, and the Yakima have been part of the Rodeo since its inception.

The Rodeo is part of the Kittitas County Fair. Half the fair-ground is taken up with the usual carousels, rides, and amusement arcades. The other half is the soul of the event: the 4-H livestock show where farm kids show the animals they’ve raised.

We wandered into a hall where cattle were being judged. A dozen children aged five to twelve stood in the show ring, each holding a steer many times larger than themselves. The judge – a serious young farmer, probably with kids exactly that age – was slowly working his way around the circle, studying the cattle, quietly talking with each exhibitor in turn. We came in near the end, I gathered from an overheard conversation, and stood watching for ten minutes. There were perhaps a hundred onlookers leaning on the fence, and sitting in the bleachers. Little was said; everyone was studying the livestock. At last the judge picked five contestants to move to the next round. He complimented everyone, encouraged the losers to work on the small points they were weak on, everyone got their awards, and the losers filed out of the ring. When we left, the winners from the previous elimination were filing into the ring.

Judging is an important part of this life. There are competitions for swine, poultry, rabbits, horses, roping, bronco riding, and beauty queen. These competitions seemed somehow more substantive than the ethereal concerns of white collar suburbia. These were real livestock, and the kids had to brush off their hindquarters from time to time; there were notices in every stall indicating who had bought the animal. The skills tested in the rodeo were clearly important to running a farm; and though they were pretty, the Royal Court (the queen of the fair and her princess) could ride a horse full tilt with the best of them.

White collar life is too complicated to distill its essential skills into spectator sport. It’s too specialized. And I’d rather observe beautiful young people perform athletic feats than watch a debating society or chess game. (The relative ratings of ESPN and C-SPAN suggest that I’m not the only one.)

The Rodeo is morality play about hard work and bad breaks. Everything turns on staying on a bull for eight seconds, once every day over three days; and if you stay on, it then depends on the quality of the bull and the whims of the judges. If you get a docile bull, you can’t get a good score. It’s about luck – but nobody uses that term. It may be to avert a jinx, but it may be deeper.

So many American sports are built on lightning fast contingency. A baseball batter sits around for ages, and then gets a few swings – then it’s back to sitting around. They fail more often than not; getting a hit on one out of every three outings is something few achieve. American football consists of bursts of activity interspersed with long periods of boredom. One shot at glory, then sit around and wait again. (Not a bad training for war.)

This unspoken obverse is a necessary anti-dote to the optimistic determinism that pervades American culture: “Anyone can succeed if they just try hard enough.” The world’s not like that, of course. Jaded Europeans know this too well; they pay the price of not even trying when they might have succeeded. American culture is built on the assumption that everything will work out fine in the end, whether one is losing weight, climbing the career ladder, or spreading American values around the world. The shadow of bad luck in rodeo, football and baseball is the hidden entry required to make the books of reality balance.

This Dark Twin can be found everywhere in all cultures. Americans’ openness and friendliness is the flip side of a fear of strangers – be nice to everybody, you never know who’s going to pull a gun on you. The pervasive Christian spirituality in America is belied by the profound secularism and lack of religiosity in every day life. Almost everybody goes to church, but one has to look very hard for religious symbolism in everyday life and language.

Sometimes the Hidden Twin is the bright side. Jaded Europeans constantly remind each other that the world is a vale of tears, and that all efforts are doomed in the long run. Of course – but then one pays the price of not even trying when they might have succeeded. The hidden side is optimism – not much spoken of, but the foundation of the inventiveness that has been most visible, commercially, in the Nordic countries in recent years.

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