Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Cowboy Way

by Laura Crum

How do we choose the background/setting of our novels? I was asked that question the other day, in the course of a class I’m teaching at the local community college about “How to Write and Publish a Mystery.” Of course, I can’t answer how other authors make their choice. But for me, it was easy. I wanted to write about horses, specifically western horses, because horses have been my life. Horses and the cowboy way.

I was raised (in the horse biz, anyway) by a bunch of team roping cowboys, and their particular mindset really shaped me. I notice this quite a bit when I interact with folks that don’t come from that world. There often seems to be a sort of disconnect between us. I was thinking about this the other day and wondering why, and I had a light bulb moment. Its all about the cowboy way.

The cowboy way isn’t something you can learn from a book. Its something you have to live. Its easy to say that its about horses and cattle, and that’s true, as far as it goes. But it really amounts to a lot more than that.

Defining the cowboy way isn’t easy, but I’ll try. It has to do with being willing to get the job done, not whining about cold fingers or mud or dust or heat (or all the rest of the weather that Mother Nature can throw at you). It has to do with a sort of matter of fact physical courage and team spirit as well as an ability to read livestock accurately. Cowboys aren’t usually too chatty (until they’ve had a drink) and they are often pretty blunt. They have both a sense of pride and a sense of respect. They stand out when you put them somewhere in the modern world. They draw the eye. They don’t look much like suburban office workers, even if they choose to wear chinos and T-shirts and sneakers. There is an air of dignity about them.

In truth, a description like this doesn’t make much sense, which is why I spent a good deal of time in my first five novels trying to portray the cowboy way. The old “show not tell” approach. My desire to paint a portrait of the cowboy life as I have known it is a lot of what motivated me to write my mystery novels in the first place.

You might wonder what mysteries have to do with cowboys, and other than the fact that mysteries can be set in pretty much any venue, the answer is quite simple. My favorite mystery author was Dick Francis—not least because of the authentic horse lore that was so often woven into his stories. His jump jockies resembled, in many ways, the cowboys I grew up with and worked with and for-- practical, tough, understated guys who could both take a hit and loved working with horses. When I was thirty years old, I decided to try to write a mystery novel based on my background in the horse biz, in flagrant imitation of Dick Francis (who by the way corresponded with me for years—I sent him my books and he never failed to write back with both praise and helpful suggestions).

Having grown up with the cowboy way, I tend to admire folks like this. I’m also disconcerted by those who wear pristine white sneakers that are several years old. Sneakers that have never stepped on anything dirtier than a sidewalk. These folks are dismayed at the thought of walking through horse poop, or God forbid, cow poop, and the notion of wading through such muck to toss some alfalfa hay at the livestock gives them palpitations. Let alone the idea of climbing aboard a horse that might want to buck you off. They can’t imagine why anybody would want to do that.

Since all of my shoes probably have a little dried dung of some sort adhering to them somewhere, and I wade through the dust and/or mud every single day to feed my horses (not to mention I’ve been bucked off more than once in my life), I am in a pretty different space, and my conversations with these folks tend to veer off into mild incomprehension. (I think all you fellow horse people, cowboy oriented or not, will understand this.) As in sitting in a room that is perhaps mildly cool, the well dressed lady to the left of me fusses endlessly about the need to turn the heater up, and bundles herself up in her fancy coat and scarf. She looks at me, wearing a light (and very unfancy) sweater and asks, “Aren’t you cold?”

I think about it. I just can’t get my mind around the idea that she thinks this ever so slightly cool room is something to bother about. “Not really,” I say, “it was a lot colder when I was feeding the horses this morning in the rain and wind.” And the thought that goes through my mind is that she needs to try gathering cattle on a blustery day if she wants to know what uncomfortably cold feels like.

I realize that the well dressed ladies of the world probably think I look quite rough and uncouth and they no doubt imagine that I am envious of them, with their high heels, manicured finger nails, shiny little sports cars…etc. But nothing could be farther than the truth. That tidy suburban world holds no allure for me. I like my rough and messy life, full of animals and plants.

As a homeschooling mom, I’ve made many choices concerning what I want my son to learn. I want him to learn to read and write and do math, of course. I want him to learn how the world works. I want him to be able to get along with people…and understand the natural world. I want him to be kind. And I’ve thought a lot about how best to teach him these things.

Currently my son and I go twice a week to a practice roping at my uncle’s small ranch. Here we help gather the cattle out of the pasture and drive them through the chutes. We haze and chase cattle and help the ropers—a group of men ranging from 30 years old to 82. I’ve known these men all my life and used to rope with them, until I gave it up when I got pregnant in my 40’s. But they still treat me like part of the gang.

I don’t agree with them about everything—in fact I disagree with them about lots of things—I would not even bother to discuss politics with them, as we have rather opposite points of view. But I want my son to learn something these men can teach, and most kids don’t get a chance to learn it. To put it simply, I don’t want my son to learn pushy, unkind kid manners from the local suburban soccer team as they play on artificial turf; I want him to learn to be a man among other men. Men who know how to handle horses and cattle, who are in touch with the natural world.

I watch as my boy meets the 82 year old cowboy’s eyes and greets him politely and confidently, “Hey, Burt, how are you?” (And you should see trim, still athletic Burt rope a steer—at 82.) I watch as my child gathers the cattle as part of the team of adults, riding across the big meadow in the sunshine. I watch as he answers promptly, “Yep, I’m ready,” when asked if he’d chase a steer down to the pen for the men. And then he gets the job done. I watch him ride his horse effectively and get a friendly word of praise from 30 year old Mark, who is a handy horse trainer. I watch my kid smile quietly and say “thank you.” My son is learning the cowboy way.

And I believe I am giving him a gift.

Below you see us headed out to gather the cattle. My son, on his horse, Henry, is following 79 year old Wally, riding Twister.

And here is my kid bringing the cattle up the alley on Henry. Next to him on the black horse is our friend Mark, riding Coal. Sorry the photos are blurry. I have a hard time taking good photos from my horse’s back.

PS--My "new" computer has failed a couple of times lately, so if I don't respond to comments or email, or fail to post on my regular Weds schedule, that's why.


Mrs. Mom said...

Rock on Laura, rock on. You said what I've often thought- but you said it much nicer than I ever could or would ;)

Thank you for raising your son to BE a Man. May many more follow suit.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks Mrs Mom--I really love your way of saying things. I think you could do a great job "saying" on this particular subject.

Anonymous said...

Your son is one lucky kid to have the chance to interact with adults as part of a responsible team, getting real work done. We home schooled too, for some of the reasons you say - no cowboys to speak of around unfortunately - I hate the age segregation of regular schools - how are the kids supposed to learn anything from that? My kids had responsible horse and barn work to do, and interacted with numerous responsible adults in the real world regularly and it made a real difference to their confidence and ability to grow up (in a good way).

I've met a few real cowboys though, and Pie's former owner, a gentleman (in the real sense of the word) in his 70s, is one of them - he's one of the reasons I have Pie.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks Kate. Talking to homeschooling moms whose grown kids are doing well is very inspiring. And I'm so glad to hear Pie is doing well. (And Drift, too.)

Laura Crum said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
horsegenes said...

I agree that "livestock" people in general just are more geniune than most. I don't think it is just cowboys, but people that grow up ranching, raising cattle, horses, pigs, sheep, or farming hay or orchards. It is a way of life that instills manners, respect for life, and your elders, etc.
There is something about watching a youth interact with his elders with respect and admiration. The shake of a hand, the eye to eye conversation where they are tuned in and listening. As a parent it confirms that you are on the right path and you should be proud.

Mrs. Mom said...

LOL I dont know about that way of "saying" things might just get me in a cauldron full of hot water ;)

But I appreciate your confidence!

Laura Crum said...

I agree with everything you say, kel. Thanks for an insightful comment.

Come on Mrs Mom--I'd love to hear your take on it.

Linda Benson said...

This is a beautiful post, Laura. It's hard to talk about how we "raise" our children, and the things we want them to learn. Some of them are subtle and hard to teach - like respect for the older generation, and kindness to others. But I think you're doing a great job, and you've described it eloquently. Nice post.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks, Linda. Rereading it, it seems like kind of a scattered post--I was just thinking about all the aspects of my life that have been affected by "the cowboy way", from my writing, to the way I view the world, to the way I raise my child. But I'm really glad you enjoyed it.

Alison said...

I'm jealous of you and your son for being able to participate in 'work' that involves horses. Keep sharing!

Laura Crum said...

Alison--It is insightful that you mention "work"--that is exactly what I like so much about what roping practice--we're doing useful chores to help the ropers. Its very purposeful. I think the horses like this aspect of what we do and I know its good for my son. Sadly, roping practice is done for the year. The cattle have been hauled away--except the two I bought, who will go to my pasture. Practice starts back up when things dry out in the spring--usually about the end of March.

AareneX said...

I applaud you for teaching your son to WORK at useful stuff. My kids go to public schools because they are English Language Learners. Their mom sent them to live with their dad and me when they turned 16 years old...before that they lived in Seoul, Korea. Talk about big changes! When they move to our farm, they couldn't believe the amount of WORK that they (and we) needed to do every day--from feeding the animals to chopping and stacking firewood, fixing fences, and all the other endless tasks of farm life. Many of their peers (who live in the city where the kids attend school) have a few assigned "chores", but nothing like the list of stuff my kids do. And...the peers are often jealous.

My kids feel confident in new situations because they have skills. I'll bet your son feels the same way.

Laura Crum said...

Aarene--My kid is comfortable with new situations and people, and can talk to adults with the same ease that he talks to kids. I credit some of this to homeschooling, partly because I know a lot of homeschooled kids and they are often this way. But that is not to say that kids that go to "regular" school can't be great, confident kids, cause I've sure seen that, too. I agree with you that having chores to do helps kids grow up in a good way--today my son helped my husband and me load two steers in the pouring rain so we could haul them to the pasture--we all got wet and muddy--the cowboy way in action. I think this sort of thing is good for kids.