Our family’s first rodeo was filled with paradoxes and writing prompts. Not having been to such an event since I was a kid myself, I’m not sure that I ever appreciated the events and the Americana until tonight. There’s the not-so-nuanced contrast between the violence and the elegance; a writhing calf is roped with the skillful movements of the wrist from atop a galloping horse; and a cowboy is scored on his grace even as a bull seems intent on killing him. But then there’s the humans and all that they do on their own, too.
For me, the greatest paradoxes and hypocrisies were embedded in the announcer’s (a 25-year veteran of this career, traveling all around the country to narrate these competitions with his southern drawl and redneck wit) narration as well as the events that surrounded the competitions. He honored a female combat veteran before the competition as the audience applauded; he later made “jokes” with the rodeo clown about the ugliness of their wives/sisters/mothers as the audience laughed. We watched bison get chased by a one-armed guy on a mule, followed by their final herding by two men on motorcycles; right after we lamented the glory of their former population* on the plains. We cheered about our patriotism for our country, and they made sure that the flag trailing from the skydiver didn’t (or almost didn’t) touch the ground as he came in for a landing; but a great number of these people of this state harbor bitterness about federal oversight of anything (land, regulations, etc.), and they shot fireworks from the staff of another American flag as it was carried on horseback around the arena. And they played Born in the USA** as a punctuation mark to their bursts of patriotism. “Patriotism” was in the form of remarks about the great freedoms we enjoy, such as the hundreds of houses of worship we can choose from, followed by admonition to bow our heads in prayer to “our heavenly father.” When a cowboy pulled out one of the bulls with an 11-year-old girl atop (it looked every bit as much of a bad idea as it sounds) to sing the national anthem (even worse),*** I wondered if this could have been any more satirically staged. The bull answered me by urinating in the dirt as we rose into “the rockets’ red glare.” Like Springsteen, the bovine’s poetry of protest was under appreciated.
I had a good time at the rodeo for the most part, but all of this imagery was brewing within as we drove home. The main controversies and discussions of our car ride were about that contrast of the impressive skills and the treatment of the animals. Roping the calves in holy shit 7.3 seconds was both beautiful and violent. The girls said they didn’t like it.
“But then the calves just got up and trotted away, like nothing had happened,” I told them with my fatherly wisdom, as well as the remnant taste of hypocrisy that existed in so much else. I was just looking for trouble. I knew what Grace’s expression looked like in the dark of the backseat as she defended the calves — who will speak for the cows? — that the sudden yank of the neck, throwing them down, tying them up, and leaving them for the predetermined amount of time to verify that they were properly tied, that it was all still so mean. Still punchy from the hypocrisy of all of it, I blurted out, “And what did you have for dinner tonight?” referring of course to the hamburgers we’d enjoyed before the rest of our American evening.
The inaudible gasp from the backseat was followed by sobs and accompanying tears. Grace’s asshole father had, once again, stepped too far, and she is just wise enough to understand both this as well as the paradox. I’d been gearing up to battle the seasoned rodeo announcer from Georgia, and instead I aimed at my 10-year-old with a soft spot for all living things. And even many non-living things.
I told her I was sorry, that it’s all very confusing and when I’m confused I say things like that. That’s the truth. She announced that she wants to be a vegetarian. We’ll see how that’s going in the morning. I’m guessing, though, that this kid who is much less of a hypocrite than myself just might stick to her principles. At least she, unlike many rodeo patrons, is aware of what they are.
*The bison, not one-armed mule riders.
Born down in a dead man town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up
*** I just have to interject at this point that this really is all true. I can’t make these things up.