If there is one principle I am steadfast about, it’s that a man’s waist size should always be smaller than his inseam. If your inseam is 36, and you wake up to find your waist is a 38, you have crossed the bridge into a contrary life.
My saddle partner, Jim Cornelius, met me for breakfast at The Gallery last week. Sisters town, nine o’clock, a good crowd at the counter, and some tourists ensconced in their booths enthralled to see cowboy hats. There was a retired FBI agent among the Old Counter Guys who are there each morning. He came over to visit because Jim knows everybody. The FBI guy investigated Rajneesh Puram and the Baghwan Shree Rajhneesh out at Antelope, Oregon, a few years back. You may recall the freaks in purple robes and the Baghwan’s excellent collection of Mercedes Benzs, which he bought with money siphoned from the faithful — existential titheads from Van Nuys and Portland and Newark looking for transcendental salvation in the ramblings of a determined pothead. They gave their money for enlightenment and he turned their daydreams into fine German engineering and a brace of Ak-47s. Anyway, the Baghwan was this guy’s collar. The whole caper probably landed on his desk like a radioactive Mosler Safe.
I was a detective once: you don’t really want that sort of case, but it’s hard to ignore when it lands in your cubicle.
Turns out, the G‑man was among the Old Counter Guys I’d written a column about some months ago. I was having eggs-over-medium in a booth and eavesdropping on their conversation about the weather and George Carlin. I wrote about it because it was funny and because I love to write in diners, a place where jury instructions across the country are clear there is ZERO expectation of privacy. The FBI guy called it spying. Surveillance is a better term, but every G‑man I’ve ever known — and I’ve known lots of them — lets off a little flame from time to time, like a solar flare, or a gas-oil platform.
Jim and I talked about principles. We wondered if they are fluid or if there are some that just can’t be compromised. Jim thought they were ironclad. I thought the law is gray. We settled on consistency. If principles were bound together with red Lok-Tite no one could ever sell a used car. Or a horse. Or storm the shores of Iwo Jima. Or get married. Or peddle a book on the internet.
That said, I’m up from a 34 and fitting better in a 35 these days. George Strait Collection. Cowboy Cut. I’ve got one inch of principled inseam wiggle room left, which means I’d better leave the booze alone. That’s harder to do all the time because life is almost always lived on an 0–2 count, and it’s harder than hell to lay off a good slider in the late innings when your team is down by a run. And the local beer culture doesn’t help. Drinking a “micro-brew” IPA is like eating an entire loaf of grandma’s sourdough. And, of course, alcohol metabolizes as sugar, which, in dessert terms, is a thick layer of icing on the cake of the human body.
We are still waiting on spring. Spring in central Oregon is a lot like the ubiquitous Ladyboys of Thailand, which means a tantalizing tease. From a distance it’s easy to see a Ladyboy and think: that’s the hottest woman I have ever seen in my life. This is just undeniably true, and I’m not really interested in what generation of Raytheon Gaydar you’re running. When a well-done Ladyboy leans over a balcony off the quay it is possible to be seized by Shakespearean passions. Even up close it can be hard to know, which PFC Reineman, USMC Retired, discovered one evening in Phuket — much too late. But the Ladyboys are dudes. There is a wrench under the dress. It’s important in these moments to think clearly and to keep walking inland, because there is a beautiful woman somewhere away from the water who awaits. An actual woman who will do your laundry, cook your food, haul your ashes, and fulfill the kind of dreams adventurous men have been having since men first began adventuring.
Yesterday I worked up a sketch about the Basques. And then, because the story seemed to demand it, I drank an entire bottle of Cabernet and went outside to fire up the tractor. They advise against this in every manual involving machinery but smooth is fast, and running the bucket on a John Deere is an exercise in pure hydraulic ecstasy. I threw some dirt around, cursing this vile spring, imagining scenarios where a million American men with small tractors converged on the capitol to protest something. Anything. They do this in France because they haven’t forgotten the first major lesson of citizenship: never trust the goddamn government. A million French farmers will clog every road in sight and bring the EU to its knees at the slightest provocation. Americans, on the other hand, are routinely punched on the button by our retail government and its minions, and retaliate by getting tattoos, vaping, or binge-watching television programs about grown men who think they are lizards, and women who pee in their own closets.
Our tractors are almost never put to their highest use.
When I was done playing in the dirt I saddled the colt. Because of the shit weather the horses have been parked for months. This is bad for them and bad for me because I need to ride the way some people need to breathe.
I bought myself a new bosal for Christmas. This is a ½ inch 8 plait — down from a 5/8, which means the colt is progressing and by the end of summer we’ll be down to a bosalita. That’s provided I don’t succumb to chilblains, or kidney stones, or get run over by a housewife loaded up on ambien, down to the rims from running over spike strips in her Dodge Caravan, and fleeing from a shoplifting beef at Target. I try not to worry but Notre Dame is burning to the ground and its hard to avoid that visual as a distinctly poignant metaphor. Joan of Arc was beatified in there. GI’s and Ernest Hemingway popped champagne corks in the transept when they liberated Paris from the Nazi’s.
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
I bought this fine new bosal on-line from Capriola’s in Elko, Nevada, because J.M. Capriola Company still sells actual tack made by actual Americans that actually works and won’t fall apart. The factory kids in Shanghai have never made a headstall with Chicago screws that won’t back out. And anyway, fuck them, they haven’t been a horse culture since the Great Khan rolled into town and took a giant shit on the emperor’s chest. Fact.
In the old days I would order gear from Capriola’s through the US Mail. Out on the Fish Creek Ranch in Eureka, Nevada, I bought a Stormy Kromer and a pair of insulated gloves because the horseback winters on that desert were kicking my ass handily. I never went to town because the only thing in Eureka is an old opera house. So I tore off a page from the tattered catalog, circled what I wanted, and stuffed cash into the envelope. I was cold all the time at Fish Creek. I’d use an entire can of starting fluid to get the flatbed running in the morning, until the intake looked like the mustache of a besotted pistolero on a pants-down bender in Boquillas. That was a cranky old bastard of a truck but it could carry an enormous load of hay out to the cows. The hoarfrost on the barbed wire was so heavy it wrecked miles of fencing.
So I threw the kid up in his fancy new outfit, complete with a to-die-for salt and pepper mecate, and we went merrily trotting around the arena for an hour. I was proud of him. My spurs made jangly sounds. He wanted to be ridden as badly as I wanted to ride and in the long layoff he’d forgotten exactly nothing. Supple in his poll. Soft in his turns. Moving perfectly off my legs with just a hint of pressure. Determined as a hornet. That’s the kind of horse a guy thinks about when he’s idle under four feet of snow for months. Exactly that kind of horse.
Incidentally, the world hasn’t seen any decent submariner action since the Royal Navy sank the General Belgrano back in ‘82. 323 souls gone down to Davey Jones from a three torpedo spread. I’m tempted to ask: “For what?”, but then I think about 43 Commando yomping around in their rucks in Falklands weather, dodging badly aimed mortars, and the question answers itself. Queen and Country. And if it wasn’t just a simple principle it would be something else. It’s what men do.
I’m working on the prison piece but there are snags. What does it mean when prisons become a means to economic salvation? Why do we keep producing so many felons? Those are old questions endlessly recycled. From the Egyptians onward these same questions have been batted back and forth like a shuttlecock. The worst jails were probably Greek and could be smelled from miles away. Today we call “The Hole” Administrative Segregation. But it’s still a hole in the ground where we put human beings who won’t program. My step-father worked in Ad-Seg for years and those stories blow the lid off of safe-spaces and crayon rooms, which is apparently the state of above-ground American higher education.
I’m in negotiations with the Public Information Officer of High Desert State Prison to get an interview with the warden. The warden is terrified of journalists. I’m not really that, precisely, but he’s obviously unnerved because we are two weeks into this kabuki. The warden answers hard questions every day and I’m no threat, but he is also the dictator of his own city full of violent and predacious assholes, a desert eyesore made from 20,000 tons of concrete, 378 miles of electrical wire, and 7 miles of chain link fencing. At night the prison can be seen from space. A single dot of light in the desert darkness. The warden can do what he wants. 4,000 inmates go to sleep every night on his watch. And some of them would shoot you in the face and take your wallet for a smile.
The sun is shining right now but it shines in Antarctica too. Paris is winking into the evening with the ash of 800 years of important history raining down on the Île de la Cité. The timbers that framed the cathedral were thought to be some of the last remnants of the ancient European forests. “Nothing will remain,” we are told.
The forecast here is for rain this afternoon. Of course it is, but more importantly, I’m late to feed the horses and they are letting me know it. Their whinnies bang off the side of the barn and carry through the trees. The colt is kicking his water trough. They are right. Whatever it is they are thinking, they are 100% correct. But I’m not alone. The neighbor hasn’t fed his donkeys. When the donkeys get pissed off it sounds like a family of sasquatches arguing somewhere in the woods.
Over the weekend a Cassowary killed some hapless fellow down in Florida. A Cassowary is a hard-eyed dinosaur walking the earth with beautiful plumage. They sport a five inch claw in the center of each foot. They go for the soft tissue. A Cassowary is a straight-line leading us back into the unequivocal nature of survival instinct. There is no negotiation in their eyes.
I’ve got to go feed the horses. I will get to my feet slowly. I’ll find my balance that way and stand absolutely still for as long as it takes to level out. Because, for one thing, I still refuse to accept the unbearable fact that Notre Dame is burning, and for another, I still can’t believe Sam Shepard is dead.