Writers and the Mental Health Connection

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The average American cannot reach adulthood without hearing about the tragic lives of several writers. John Berryman, Emily Dickinson, Hart Crane, and Allan Ginsberg are favorites of the education system. Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, and Edgar Allan Poe have a large media influence. For every famous writer who appears to have a Utopian existence there seems to be an equally talented writer who struggles with mental illness, cannot cope with life’s challenges, and meets a tragic end: often self-inflicted. The field of psychology is singularly interested in the connection between writers and mental health. A quick check at PsycINFO for academic papers related to “creative writing” or “creative writers” registered over 1100 hits: nearly half of those since 2000. The nature of many of those research papers was rather surprising. Instead of delving into areas such as childhood, alcoholism, and drugs they attempted to find a connection between the act of writing or creativity and mental health. This paper deals with the three primary connections between writers and mental health as viewed through the psychological studies: creativity and madness, mental health evaluation through a writer’s words, and the “writing cure” controversy. Continue reading

War touches all

The following is a term paper based on several books written about the Vietnam War; but it is just as relevant for any war… and for any time.

[Take your ego and preconceived notions out of the equation and it’s never too late to learn.]

Fly the friendly skies0001

War touches all

War is greedy. A little thing can release it, but after it is let loose it cannot easily be tamed. It has no loyalty, not even to those who cast it forth. It seeks to ravage anything and anyone it touches, and it touches everyone. And anyone touched by war will never be the same. But individuals who experience war firsthand will, inevitably, bear a bigger cross: a burden uniquely forged by their experience and perspective. Continue reading

Religious Freedom in Post-Modern Fiction

One of the main characteristics of post-modernism; especially in fiction, is its portrayal of the complex absurdity of contemporary life, such as, moral and philosophical relativism, alienation, and the loss of faith in moral and political authority. The advocates of post-modernism proclaim a desire to find happiness in the here and now, to transcend, be enlightened, and find a spiritual connection in both high and low status, the elevated and the mundane. Unfortunately, for society as a whole, the proclamations of religious freedom have proven to be as biased as preceding ideologies; and that prejudice has made its way into the fiction of the era.

Like society, in general, post-modern authors grew-up in an education system favoring science over spirituality, and individual transcendence over organized faith-based beliefs. Theology cut its faith foundation and became, predominantly, another philosophical pursuit, with names like Hegel, Descartes, and Nietzsche gaining prominent topic status, with atheism and agnosticism the predominant result. The Gay Science, by Friedrich Nietzsche, is considered “the fountainhead of post-modernism” (McConnell, 163). The lunatic who runs to the marketplace and proclaims Nietzsche’s belief in fictional exuberance “God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him!” (163) was the fuel to spark the last century-and-a-half of theological and philosophical upheaval. And when you view a slew of peer-reviewed fare, such as, “God is Dead and We Have Killed Him: Freedom of Religion in the Post-Modern Age” (McConnell), “God Himself is Dead: Luther, Hegel, and the Death of God” (Depoortere), and “How to Vanquish the Lingering Shadow of the Long-Dead God” (Taylor), it is obvious that the controversy is alive and well and making a mockery out of the religious freedom proclamations relating to post-modernism. McConnell writes the following:

Why is it that most of the post-modernist movements that we see

in law – critical law studies, feminism, critical race theory and so

forth – seem by and large in their actual political activity to be

hostile and detrimental to religious freedom? (174)

And the religious caricatures and personas within the majority of fiction published by mainstream post-modern authors’ exhibit similar hostility, as well as apathy, for religious freedom.

In Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, we read metaphors pertaining to the aforementioned philosophy: “When he was gone Dean pointed to the empty seat. ‘God’s empty chair,’ he said… God is gone; it was the silence of his departure” (128). And yet, while clearly a non-believer in God, Kerouac’s character, Sal Paradise, blames that which he disbelieves for the negatives in life: “We lay on our backs, looking at the ceiling and wondering what God had wrought when he made life so sad” (58).

In Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, we are given various other pathetic representations of faith-based characters. One is a campy B-movie scene with a father, Baby Igor, and the pet dog dying in a submarine. The father’s dying declaration is, “Your little eyes have seen your daddy for the last time. You are for salvation; I am for the pit” (30). And another example is when a character named Fallopian says, “Who cares?… We don’t try to make scripture out of it. Naturally that’s cost us a lot of support in the Bible Belt” (36).

In Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye the mother of the two girls is the standard hypocritical Christian, a persona writers’ in the post-modern age seem addicted to, as seen in the following: “My mother’s fussing soliloquies always irritated and depressed us. They were interminable, insulting, and although indirect… extremely painful in their thrust” (24). And the sociopathic character with the “keen sexual cravings” (166) is named Soaphead Church, with its obvious connotations, and the narrating character states, “No one knew where the ‘Church” part came from – perhaps somebody’s recollection of his days as a guest preacher…” (167).

In Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima, the curundera is portrayed with common sense, wisdom, and spiritual power. But Antonio’s mother and the priest are portrayed with fanaticism and intolerance: “My mother was a devout Catholic, and so she saw the salvation of the soul rooted in the Holy Mother Church, and she said the world would be saved if people turned to the earth” (31); and “Once the priest had preached in Spanish against the women in Rosie’s house and so I knew that her place was bad. Also, my mother admonished us to bow our heads when we passed in front of the house” (37).

In Don Delillo’s White Noise, we see another obviously related metaphor. The main family does not believe in God, yet Babette is teaching adults in the basement of the Congregational Church “how to stand, sit, and walk” (27). And, later, she considers teaching them how to eat and drink, which is even more disrespectful with regard to their biblical connotations: the Bible refers to the Bread of Life and the Living Water. And when taking communion the bread depicts the body of Christ, and the drink depicts His blood.

The post-modernists equally show many examples of what society – which believes God is dead and only pretends to care about religious freedom for all – attempts to fill the void left by their loss of faith: atheism, agnosticism, humanism, hedonism, narcissism, commercialism, materialism, and an infinite number of other isms. But I’ll only touch on a few.

Anne Chambers, who wrote the introduction for On the Road, states the following:

As Ginsberg wrote in his journal, they experimented with drugs

to facilitate their discovery of a new way of life that would enable

them to become great writers. “The poet becomes a seer through

a long, immense, and reasoned derangement of all senses. All

shapes of love, suffering, madness. He searches himself, he

exhausts all poisons in himself, to keep only the quintessences…”  (xi)

And that real life example is not much different than the lengths the fictional characters will go.

Look at the length Babette was willing to go, in White Noise, to get her hands on Dylar. Months of lies, deceit, and adultery, for the proverbial “magic pill” to cure her fear of death. It is a fear that many fictional characters portray. And such behavior is well-known to psychologists. You read about similar fears in relation to Terror Management Theory and Mortality Salience. But what did society think would happen when they chose the path of Nietzsche and the others? And yet, isn’t it ironic that there has not been a sequel proclaiming the devil dead? If the Kerouacs and Ginsbergs are examples, society needs Hell’s madness to fulfill their quest to “greatness.” And if the most recent numbers of mental health cases is any example, a sign of things to come, than post-modernists must be hopeful that the populace is collectively getting closer to madness on their way to greatness.

Works Cited

Anaya, Rudolfo. Bless Me, Ultima. Grand Central Publishing, Hatchette Book Group. N.Y.1972, 1999.

Delillo, Don. White Noise. Viking Critical Library Ed., Penguin Books. New York. 1985, 1998.

Depoortere, Frederiek. “God Himself is Dead: Luther, Hegel, and the Death of God.” Philosophy & Theology. Vol. 19, 171-195

Kerouac, Jack. Introduction by Anne Chambers. On the Road. Penguin Classics Ed. New York. 1991.

McConnell, Michael A. “God is Dead and We Have Killed Him: Freedom of Religion in the Post-Modern Age.” Brigham Young University Law Review. Vol. 1, 163, 1993.

Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. Vintage Books, Random House. New York 1970, 2007.

Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. Harper Collins Perennial Modern Classics Ed. 2006

Taylor, Kenneth. “How to Vanquish the Lingering Shadow of the Long-Dead God.” Midwest Studies in Philosophy. Vol. 37, Issue 1, 68-86, 2013.

 

 

© JW Thomas

Lure of the West: America’s nostalgic malady

Have you ever awakened one morning to realize you were born hundred-plus years too late? Personally, it’s an everyday occurrence. However, most Americans seem to feel a twinge of nostalgia from time-to-time, but they cannot express why, and they rarely take the time to dwell on the matter. Today’s living standard is too fast paced. So when they feel a sense of emptiness and loss without an easily recognizable cause they often pass it off and fail to decipher the source. And yet, the overwhelming evidence of their nostalgic malady bombards them a million times a day, from every angle, and from nearly every conceivable source. Media, publications, entertainment, and all forms of marketing and advertising, to name a few primary sources, inundate society with their efforts to ignite nostalgia and solicit customer response. Why? Because they pander to America’s sense of longing for what was; the West and Wilderness, and what it stands for – the hope of dreams and freedom. Thus, America’s epidemic of nostalgia, or nostalgic malady, is the lure of the West.

Most people who read Jack Schaefer’s “Shane” probably get caught-up in the nostalgic reminder of the wild and woolly west. They may relate to one of the characters more than others, or root for one over the others. And they will probably feel a rhapsodic elation when good conquers evil, only to feel a twinge of sorrow soon after at the departure of the lone hero. The old ways are dying out. Civilization of the once wild territory is another step closer to suffocating completion.

Edward Abbey’s “The Brave Cowboy” shows the civilized suffocation of the west nearing its death throes. The hero is now, at best, an anti-hero. Burns may have the same commitment to his beliefs as Shane but there are far fewer open spaces to carry on such a lifestyle and far less societal tolerance for those who do. And yet, it is still a nostalgic reminder at what America has lost, and what it needs to retain for any semblance of freedom in the “Land of the Free and Home of the Brave.”

When reading Abbey’s essay “The Great American Desert” I find no revulsion in his elongated lists of animate and inanimate obstacles. His mention of a half-dozen rattlesnake species reminds me of some excellent meaty meals eaten beside a jabbering camp fire keeping me company with its heated and impassioned speech. And his talk of bugs brought the pungent reminder of protein rich insect stew that had me using my tongue and toothpick (splinter) in an improvised strategic attack to round-up, spear, and eject the hard shells of certain species that are as bothersome as the kernel skins when eating popcorn. In fact, there were only two reminders in that essay I could have done without: how the wilderness/freedom is disappearing, and the grimacing and torturous recollection of kidney stones.

In Abbey’s “Freedom and Wilderness, Wilderness and Freedom” essay the perspective of wilderness in the eyes of a child, found among the discarded landmarks of civilization was just as nostalgic as the desert piece. Where he saw wilderness in the waterfront “with its decaying piers and abandoned warehouses… the houseboats, the old ferry slips, the mildew-green cathedral of the Erie-Lackawanna Railway terminal,” I found it in the massive landfills, the equally odoriferous refineries that seemed to perpetually be run with skeleton crews who never seemed to cross our path (no matter how many times we scaled the fences), the over-grown fields that somehow escaped the various building booms, and eventually, come summer, on the reservation when I visited my mother’s family. And, ironically, my sixth-grade class was the last class the school sent to camp for a week. So, unlike every class thereafter, I was introduced to hootenannies, Snipe hunting, sloppy smores, ghost tales around the camp fire, and panty raids that most citified kids no longer had a chance to enjoy: unless their families took them.

In John Steinbeck’s “The Leader of the People,” nostalgia permeated the piece. The grandfather’s need to recall the past was the conflict that drove the story. And, like the fore mentioned writings, the piece resonated with me, sparking my own nostalgic reverie. I easily related to the grandfather theme. My maternal grandfather, a Native American, learned the White man’s ways in order to build-up his own ranch. My paternal grandfather, with only a fifth-grade education, came from Wales to New York after WW1, and then slowly worked his way across the country to Utah. Upon arrival, he worked hard until he could afford a farm, kept it going, and equally bought and operated a successful restaurant. Although the grandfather in Steinbeck’s story makes a statement a couple of times that I don’t fully agree with.

Jody tells his grandfather that he wants to hear his stories and his grandfather replies, “Of course you do, but you’re a little boy. It was a job for men, but only little boys like to hear about it.”

It is obvious that the nostalgic pull of the West draws more than little boys; though I must admit my love for the West and the wilderness did begin at a young age. But each of the aforementioned stories and essays were written by adults with an interest in the West and for readers with similar interests. That’s the point, many Americans have a nostalgic need to find a substitute to enrich their lives and validate their striving like the pioneers of old.

Nearly every child learns about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Christopher Columbus, Johnny Appleseed, Daniel Boone, Davey Crockett, and dozens of other real or imagined characters during their time in American schools. Over half of all television shows and movies directly or indirectly employ the many traits attributed to the Westward Spirit of America’s pioneer movement: the lure of adventure, seeking new land, conquering hostile territory. And stories would be rather dull without standard characters like the mysterious lone hero, the gambler, prospector, outlaw, banker, ranchers and homesteaders, lawman, town drunk, sexy ingénue’, corrupt politician, and various others that grace the pages of Old West history. Even the fascination with all things Native American is in direct response to how they were treated, survived, and now thrives.

Unfortunately, the west is now populated. There is only a small portion of wilderness remaining, compared to what was. And the desires to seek adventure, treasure-seek, or find an open space to explore and settle must be pacified, by most Americans, through inadequate substitutes. Although a select few have found it in ocean exploration, inventive exploration, or the “final frontier” – space exploration. But the majority of Americans are relegated to the temporary fix: books, movies, or interesting getaways like Knott’s Berry Farm, the Grand Canyon, Wild West Stunt Shows, and Dude Ranch cattle drives.

Personally, I think Americans who remain ignorant to the cause of their nostalgic malady might be the lucky ones. Those of us who understand the nostalgic malady, and who may not be in a position to continually pacify the urge with a healthy fix, most likely suffer more over the acknowledged loss; even if we may have called it something different over the years. And yet, there is a satisfaction in the knowledge, for it drives us to enjoy those wonderful wilderness moments when we can, and to take pride in personal traits that reflect those of our adventurous forefathers and westward heroes.

 

 

© JW Thomas

Cowboy Poetry

An Oral-Tradition Recounting the Old and New West

 

When discussing the West, old or new, and the topic of an oral-tradition arises, most people automatically think of the Native Americans. It was the preferred method for tribes to pass down their history and beliefs, predominantly in the form of stories. Thus, many folks are surprised, even today, to learn that the common hardworking cowboy – the ones who rarely rated representation in dime novels – likewise recorded their history, traditions, and lifestyle (though not exclusively) through the oral-tradition of cowboy poetry and repeated retellings around campfires, the bunkhouse, rodeos, fairs, and any other location cowboys congregate.

For nearly two-centuries cowboy poetry has survived almost exclusively in and around ranching communities. Cowboy poetry is often presented in the standard four-line ballad format with rhymed couplets, similar to that utilized by other nineteenth-century poets like Rudyard Kipling. And the poetry is infused with a unique language inherent to cowboys, and never done justice by wannabes. And, though cowboy poetry is found in written form, the medium is rooted in the oral-tradition of performance in both the old and new west. And, more often than not, that performance took place not on a stage, but in a bunkhouse, around a campfire, or on horseback. In Cowboy Poetry: A Gathering, Hal Cannon claims cowboy poetry allows “the cowboys to speak for themselves, as they celebrate the huge sky, the rodeo, busting broncos, the cattle drive that still goes on, the land, and the life and the times of people who continue, spiritedly, to live that cowboy life” (Cannon). Cowboy poetry, the best of it anyway, gives you the same sensory input attributed to the Westward Ideal. The language, as Cannon states, “reflects light and smell and open places, hard times and soft evenings, a language coded with insider’s words, special phrases and meanings, and shared values” (Cannon).

You cannot remove the Westward Ideal from cowboy poetry. The unknown and unsung founders of the art form were men and women who came west. They lived the adventure. They pioneered. They homesteaded. They toiled and struggled, fought and died, to not only cut-out a place for themselves, but a way of life. And it became a way of life that is cherished and feared, praised and chastised, ridiculed and romanticized, depending upon a person’s perspective.

Cowboy poetry had traversed the West for nearly a century before pioneer folklorists John Lomax and Howard “Jack” Thorp compiled collections of poetry and songs straight from the horse’s mouth, so-to-speak (Cannon). Songs of the Cowboys, by Thorp, came out in 1908, and Lomax’s Cowboy Songs and other Frontier Ballads was published two years later. And it would be another nine years before the next edition was published: Songs of the Cattle Trail and Cowboy Camps, again by Lomax. There would then be over two-decades without a serious attempt to compile collections representing the cowboy poet. Why the delay? Perhaps it had something to do with the honest look at cowboy life conflicting with the Hollywood image spewed forth through mass-marketing, like the Saturday serials at matinees. Cowboy poetry, though often humorous, is predominantly introspective; a far cry from the train-robbing, cattle rustling, town shoot ‘um up adventures in the William Hart and William Boyd (Hopalong Cassidy) style westerns. However, the likes of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, both singing cowboys, seemed to inspire new interest in cowboy fare. The new interest, spearheaded by folklorists Austin and Alta Fife would span the 1940s thru 1960s. From then until the present several individuals have taken the reigns to insure that both the oral-tradition and written collections of cowboy-inspired and cowboy-created poetry are published and performed in various venues. No doubt, the ranching communities will continue to pass on the tradition from generation-to-generation; but it is good to know others have taken up the reigns as well. And, while the tradition continues unabated, it does not mean that cowboy poetry has never changed.

The nineteenth-century cowboys, accustomed to half the year spent on cattle drives, created poetry that reflected the loneliness in relation to the beauty of the vast natural lands crossed and re-crossed. Whereas, contemporary cowboy poetry is more likely to reflect or yearn for the Old West while lamenting the loss of the open spaces in the New West. Although, a fair amount of both the old and new cowboy poetry is injected with blistered humor, cactus comedy, or saddle-sore wit. The cowboy life is a hard life at best, but without humor it would be downright unbearable. Allen McCanless had his poem “The Cowboy’s Soliloquy” first published in 1885, and it is an excellent example of low-key humor blended with the love of the cowboy life and the West, as you can see in the first few stanzas:

All day o’er the prairie alone I ride,

Not even a dog to run by my side;

My fire I kindle with chips gathered round,

And boil my coffee without bein’ ground.

Bread lacking leaven’ I bake in a pot,

And sleep on the ground for want of a cot;

I wash in a puddle, and wipe on a sack,

And carry my wardrobe all on my back.

 

My ceilings the sky, my carpet the grass,

My music the lowing of herds as they pass;

My books are the brooks, my sermons the stones,

My parson’s a wolf on a pulpit of bones.

And the following few stanzas from “The Dude Wrangler” by Gail Gardner shows, in a humorous way, the contempt old-style cowboys feel toward the New West invention of the Dude Ranch:

Sez he, “I’m afraid that there ain’t nothin’

That you can do to save my hide,

I’m wranglin’ dudes instead of cattle,

I’m what they call a first-class guide.

“Oh I saddles up their pump-tail ponies,

I fix their stirrups for them, too.

I boost them up into their saddles, and

They give me tips when I’m through.

“It’s just like horses eatin’ loco,

You can not quit it if you try.

I’ll go on wranglin’ dudes forever,

Until the day that I shall die.

So I drawed my gun and throwed it on him,

I had to turn my face away.

I shot him squarely through the middle,

And where he fell I left him lay.

I shorely hated for to do it,

For things that’s done you cain’t recall,

But when a cowboy turns dude wrangler,

He ain’t no good no more at all.

 

And the sentiment portrayed regarding dude ranches and dude wrangling still hold true today among traditional cowboys. Traditional cowboys on legitimate ranches may have switched from trail-driving cattle across neighboring states to shoehorning them into cattle cars, but any “cowboy” who wrangles dudes and two-legged fillies instead of legitimate stock are looked upon as if they have a contagious terminal disease.

The drastic change from Old West to New West was felt more acutely by cowboys than almost any other profession. Although a small percentage have diligently strove to maintain the traditional ranch and cowboy life, most cowboys, from the beginning of the twentieth-century onward, have had to alter their lifestyle. Individuals like Curly Fletcher, one of the earliest rodeo promoters, believed he could celebrate the cowboy life through public events: which included cowboy poetry recitals (Fletcher). Other individuals, like Bruce Kiskaddon, overwhelmed by the frustrating changes to his beloved cowboy lifestyle, “quit the ranch in 1925 and spent the rest of his life reminiscing through poetry the life loved and gone” (Cannon 2).

Unfortunately, for the traditionalists, a slew of outsiders who never roped a doggy, notched an ear, or smelled the scorched fur while branding a calf; saw the potential for financial gain. And it did not take long for reality to succumb to the New West romance for Old West legendary lore in mythical proportions. The ideal overtook the truth. Traditional cowboying became immersed in all facets of western lore. Billy the Kid and the Cowboys, a faction associated with the Lincoln County War, took precedent over the solitary life on the open range. The quick-draw artist gained favor over the traditional cowpoke, which normally carried a gun for protection against snakes and wolves, or to ward off cattle rustlers. In fact, the traditional cowboy was relegated to bit parts and extra work in most film, stage, or media representations. Unless, of course, it was a cowboy elevated to mythical hero or legendary villain. And, on occasion, the traditional cowboy was slotted for comic relief; most often in the role of hapless sidekick: Gabby Hayes to William Boyd’s Hopalong Cassidy, and Pat Buttram and Andy Devine to Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. And the wit and wisdom of the traditional cowboy was often dispensed in a humorous fashion, such as the following tidbits from Don’t Squat With Yer Spurs On by Texas Bix Bender:

 Never take to sawin’ on the branch that’s supportin’ you, unless

you’re bein’ hung from it.

Never kick a fresh turd on a hot day.

Never miss a good chance to shut up.

 

A smart ass just don’t fit in the saddle.

 

And from Don’t Squat With Yer Spurs On II:

 

The best way to set a record is to be a good ways off from any tape

measures, scales, or witnesses.

You can’t weigh the facts if you’ve got the scales loaded down with

your opinions.

 

If you want to liven up a conversation just say the right thing the

wrong way.

 

If you ain’t pullin’ your weight you’re pushin’ your luck.

 

And the cowboy humor is often served with a deadpan expression; as if to say, “I’ve survived grizzlies, wolves, and rattlers, why would a gag make me giggle?”

Yep, the traditional cowboy is a peculiar sort, and they are happy just as they are. So don’t ask them to willingly change, because if they do they pay a price. They pay a price that mirrors the loss of the Old West, the loss of a lifestyle, a loss they lament. Baxter Black describes one version of the lost lifestyle in the following poem:

A Time to Stay, A Time to Go

Ya know, I got this ranch from my daddy,

He came here in seventeen.

He carved this place outta muscle and blood;

His own and his ol’ perchion team.

I took over in fifty

And married my darlin’ in May.

Together we weathered whatever came up.

She had what it took to stay.

Last winter we finally decided

We’d pack up and leave in the spring.

The kids are all grown and city-folk now;

We never raised them to cling.

 

Oh sure, I wished they’d have wanted

To ranch and carry it on,

But they did their part, I thank ‘em for that,

And they chose. Now all of ‘ems gone.

The last thirty odd years we’ve collected

An amazing number of things!

Bonnets and bottles, clippings and letters,

And Dad’s ol’ surcingle rings.

We’ve spent the winter months sorting,

Our hearts would ache or would jump

As we looked at our lives in trinkets we’d saved,

Then boxed up or took to the dump.

We cried sometimes in the attic,

I’m not ashamed of the truth.

I love this ol’ ranch that we’re leavin’.

We gave it the strength of our youth.

I love this ol’ woman beside me,

She held me and stayed by my side.

When I told ‘er I’s thinkin’ ‘bout sellin’,

She said, “Honey, I’m here for the ride.”

The new fellers movin’ in Monday

Are nice and I wish ‘em good luck.

But I’d rather be gone, so Ma, get yer stuff,

I’ve already gassed up the truck.

Lookin’ back over my shoulder

At the mailbox, I guess that I know

There’s a time to be stayin’, a time to be goin’,

And I reckon it’s time that we go.

 

And in the following poem by Ernie Fanning, we see another version of loss; not just a homestead, but a vast amount of range:

The Vanishing Valley

Out on a Nevada mountain

While lookin’ for his stock,

A cowboy stopped to rest his horse

A-top a big rimrock.

And as he sat and looked

At the valley floor below,

He asked himself this question:

Where the hell did the valley go?

Whatever happened to the fields of spuds

And the onions that the old degos use to raise,

And where have gone the lush green meadows

Where the fat cattle use to graze?

For as he sat and looked down

Through the smog in the shimmering summer’s heat,

What filled his vision most

Were mounds of steel and gray concrete.

And he knew there was no way to slow,

Much less halt,

The spreading of the buildings

And the ribbons of asphalt.

He could still remember when every man

In the valley helped pull his neighbor’s load,

When Kietzke Lane was nothing more

Than a gravel country road.

When they drove fat cattle from the Humphrey lots

to the shippin’ pens at Stanford Way.

Oh yeah, Cowboy,

But that was yesterday.

Well the cowboy stepped across his horse

And he started to the valley floor below,

And once more he asked himself a question:

Why the hell did this valley have to go?

 

Summary:

 

The words of the cowboy poets, most of them traditional cowboys, reflect the golden years on the open-range, the frustrated jeers during the old-to-new west transition, and the lamenting tears for a substantial loss of a cherished lifestyle. It is an art form steeped in oral-tradition and, for the most part, unspotlighted performance that has successfully been passed from one generation to the next within the ranching communities. And even though the art form has seen some mainstream success in the last few decades the majority of traditional cowboy poetry continues to ride the range in rural communities. And the art form, with few exceptions, continues to perpetuate the lifestyle of the traditional cowboy.

In parting, enjoy one last look at the spirit of the traditional cowboy.

A Cowboy’s Prayer

By Badger Clark

Oh Lord, I’ve never lived where churches grow.

I love creation better as it stood

That day you finished it so long ago

And looked upon Your work and called it good.

I know that others find You in the light

That’s sifted down through tinted window panes,

And yet I seem to feel You near tonight

In this dim, quiet starlight on the plains.

 

I thank you, Lord, that I am placed so well,

That you have made my freedom so complete;

That I’m no slave of whistle, clock or bell,

Nor weak-eyed prisoner of wall and street.

Just let me live my life as I’ve begun

And give me work that’s open to the sky;

And make me a pardner of the wind and sun,

And I won’t ask a life that’s soft or high.

 

Let me be easy on the man that’s down;

Let me be square and generous with all.

I’m careless sometimes, Lord, when I’m in town,

But never let ‘em say I’m mean or small!

Make me as big and open as the plains,

As honest as the hoss between my knees,

Clean as the wind that blows behind the rains,

Free as the hawk that circles down the breeze!

 

Forgive me, Lord, if sometimes I forget.

You know about the reasons that are hid.

You understand the things that gall and fret;

You know me better than my mother did.

Just keep an eye on all that’s done and said,

And right me, sometimes, when I turn aside,

And guide me on the long, dim, trail ahead

That stretches upward toward the Great Divide.

 

Works Cited

 

Bender, Texas Bix. Don’t Squat With Yer Spurs On! Salt Lake City. Peregrine Smith Books. 1992 Print.

Bender, Texas Bix. Don’t Squat With Yer Spurs On! II Salt Lake City. Peregrine Smith Books. 1997 Print.

Black, Baxter. “A Time to Stay, A Time to Go.” On the Edge of Common Sense. Denver. Coyote Cowboy Co. 1983. Print.

Cannon, Hal. Cowboy Poetry: A Gathering. Salt Lake City. Peregrine Smith Books. 1985. Print.

Cannon, Hal. New Cowboy Poetry: A Contemporary Gathering. Layton. Peregrine Smith Books. 1990 Print.

Clark, Badger. “A Cowboy’s Prayer.” Sun and Saddle Leather. Boston. Chapman & Grimes. 1942 Print.

Fanning, Ernie. “The Vanishing Valley.” Cowboy Poetry. Salt Lake City. Peregrine Smith Books. 1985. Print.

Fletcher, Curly. Songs of the Sage. Los Angeles. Frontier Publishing. 1931. Print.

Gardner, Gail. “The Dude Wrangler.” Orejana Bull. Prescott. Prescott Printing. 1980. Print.

McCanless, Allen. “A Cowboy’s Soliloquy.” Cowboy Poetry. Salt Lake City. Peregrine Smith Books. 1985. Print.

Miracles:a matter of perspective Pt.2

Let us look at the probabilities of battlefield miracles, such as the previously mentioned mortally wounded soldier (from Pt.1) that was miraculously healed before an experienced war correspondent. It was reported by a professional observer who makes his living reporting nothing but the facts: though reports of battlefield miracles are nothing new. There have been reports of unusual or unexplainable events in every war that’s been recorded throughout history. For instance, reports of instant behavioral changes in the midst of war, when adrenaline-filled battle-hard troops engaged in firefights, and even hand-to-hand combat, cease all violent actions and befriend the enemy. And these seemingly miraculous conversions have occurred in small two-man encounters all the way up to entire battlefields of men. Probably the most famous non-biblical example of mass behavioral change on the battlefield took place in 1914, on the dreaded western front, during World War I. It is known as the Christmas Miracle of Flanders, or the Christmas Truce (Rees). There were Germans on one side, the French and British on the other, and “no man’s land” in-between. Trench warfare: they lived, fought, and died in horrific conditions. Their home was water-logged, muck, and blood-filled trenches in the dead of winter. And to make matters worse, they often lived and slept beside the corpses of their fallen comrades. But on the 24th, Christmas Eve, a few German soldiers had a change of heart, and they began communicating with the enemy. The leaders on both sides did not know what to do when their troops stopped fighting. The officers urged, cajoled, and threatened to no avail. So they finally agreed to a cease-fire over Christmas; a Christmas truce that quickly escalated with soldiers from both sides meeting in no man’s land to exchange gifts, frolic, and compete in sporting events. Of course, skeptics are quick to point out that the cease-fire ended, and the war continued for a few more years.

Yes, the war continued, but there are individuals, like myself, who believe that how we respond to miracles has something to do with their success and longevity. As individuals with free will, it is up to us whether we will accept the positive aspects of an apparent miraculous event or not. For instance, at Flanders, the cease-fire was ended by high ranking officers who were not even present on the battlefield. And those officers used whatever intimidating methods necessary to have their subordinate officers force their men to re-enter the war. And yet, many men on the front line continued their own personal cease-fire well into the new year. And many of the men who took up arms again fired them into the air, or into the ground (Weintraub). In other words, if the leaders would have followed the example set forth with the miraculous behavioral change of their men on the front line, the cease-fire presented a perfect opportunity to negotiate an early end to the war: especially since the event had already hit the news, and sparked conversations about extending the truce indefinitely. Therefore, you could say that free will and unbelief slammed the brakes on that miraculous event. Instead of accepting it as a positive, the naysayers refused to heed the alleged divine intervention, and in so doing, they paved the way for the continuation of what became the bloodiest war in history. It is far too easy for skeptics, who did not observe or participate in the event, to denounce it for their personal beliefs and agenda.

Unsurprisingly, skeptics, or non-believers who are present during unexplainable events act a bit differently. In fact, records show they predominantly corroborate the event at the risk of sounding bizarre. For instance, during the 1973 Yom Kippur war, an Israeli soldier single-handedly captured an Egyptian column, and when the Egyptian commander was asked why they surrendered to a lone soldier, he insisted that there had been “thousands of them” (Rabuka), but they began to vanish without a trace as they reached the Israeli lines. And yet, the Israeli soldier, who was never aware of this alleged divine assistance, swears he was alone when the Egyptians surrendered. Another situation, during the six-day war in 1967, involved Gershon Saloman, who was wounded and about to be finished off by a group of Syrian soldiers (Rabuka). The soldiers were systematically terminating the wounded, but when they approached Saloman they surprisingly dropped their weapons and fled. And, instead of remaining quiet, a report was made to UN officers by the Syrian soldiers claiming they ran away after seeing “thousands of angels” protecting the wounded soldier (Rabuka). In both incidents a superior force out-numbered a solitary soldier who was unaware of any divine assistance, yet the assistance was visible enough to scare the hell out of armed soldiers. And both groups of soldiers, knowing how ridiculous it would sound to anyone not present at the event, still reported the apparent sightings of angelic beings. It would appear that individual perspective, where a person is during the event, truly does play a role in how the person will respond to the miraculous nature of the occurrence: theists, atheists, and agnostics alike.

[*I will deal with how perspective plays a central role in accepting miraculous healings in Part 3.]

Miracles: a matter of perspective

Today begins a five-part series on miracles.

 

While reporting from the front lines of the 1967 six-day war between Israel and the Arab states, an experienced war correspondent witnessed a wounded Israeli soldier rush into his observation post. The soldier’s guts were torn apart and hanging out, and the journalist had seen enough wounds to ascertain the young man did not have long to live. So he decided to make the soldier as comfortable as possible. Suddenly, the soldier cried out to God for healing; the last ditch effort of many mortally wounded, as the journalist knew, and why he stood awestruck as he watched the soldier get instantly healed, jump up, and leave (Battlefield Miracles). Yet for all who read the above account, and were not there, are we to believe it was a miracle, myth, or mirage? Sure, it sounds fantastic, and it is something we all wish could be true, but isn’t it more likely to be a fatigue and stressed induced delusion in a chaotic time of war? After all, that’s what many will claim.

The controversy over the existence of miracles has raged for thousands of years. Do we then have the right to condemn their belief? And why should it matter?  Obviously, it should matter because the subject of miracles is too important to leave alone. The issue needs to be resolved in the minds of us all in order to validate our personal beliefs. In fact, the subject of miracles is strongly influenced by personal beliefs and individual perspective. Consequently, when a person’s perspective is based on experience their personal beliefs are usually altered to include the supernatural source that they believe can manipulate natural laws. In other words, people who have witnessed or experienced a miracle are more likely to believe in God, gods, or some other form of the supernatural than people who have not.

The concept of miracles appears to have changed since the days of Noah’s flood, Moses parting the Red Sea, or the walls of Jericho tumbling down, but many in society still choose to believe in them. In a Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life poll in 2008, 36,000 adults were interviewed about their beliefs. Approximately 80-percent claimed to believe in miracles (Salmon), which closely mirrored various other polls on the subject. A 2000 Newsweek poll showed 84-percent claimed to believe in miracles (Americans Believe). With an average of four out of every five individuals confessing a belief in miracles, it is a wonder that the controversy continues to rage. Undoubtedly, no war would continue to rage without the participation of opposing factions. Yet, there are three primary contending factions within the miracle controversy: atheists, theists, and agnostics. Atheists reject any notion of a divine being or beings, thus refuse to believe in any form of divine intervention. Theists accept the concept of either a solitary divine creator (monotheism), or multiple divine beings or gods (polytheism). And agnostics believe that the existence of the creation origin or original cause, whether God, gods, or the essential nature of things, are unknown, unknowable, and will remain so.

Likewise, each of the aforementioned contending factions has distinct groups within their ranks. Most of these distinct groups equally argue amongst themselves, adding fuel to the proverbial fire. For instance, some base their beliefs on natural laws and the hard sciences, while others claim to believe based on philosophy, psychology, theology, and various other reasons. And this variance can be observed among all the groups. For example, atheists, many of whom reject anything that contradicts natural laws, still have a contingent amongst them who view miracles as something extraterrestrials might institute during their interaction with the human race. Similarly, other atheists, while resisting any godly belief, entertain a pseudo-scientific leaning toward the paranormal, and believe what society calls miracles may arise from these paranormal forces. And then there are the theists, with thousands of different denominations, equally differing in their accepted beliefs and interpretations of miracles. There are theistic factions who doubt a divine creator would stoop to intervene in the trivial affairs of humans. After all, as science student Jeff Johnson contends, “Why would the potter talk to his pots?” (Johnson). Yet other theists believe the Creator designated a time for miracles to establish specific points, but that designated time, the age of miracles, is now over (Jackson). However, the majority of theists, in fact the majority of people, as the polls continually show, believe miracles are still part of our everyday existence. And rounding off the contrary factions, agnostics, who feel miracles can never be proven one way or the other, still come to the topic with differing beliefs. These differing beliefs range from “it’s possible” (Beno), to “not a chance,” and “who cares, we’ll never know anyway” (Johnson). Consequently, all the contentions make it tougher to refute or validate miracles to everyone’s satisfaction. And in today’s society it is even time consuming to wade through all the definitions of miracle.

Defining miracle in a society that overuses and abuses the word for the sake of marketing is an ever-increasing challenge. We have all grown skeptical at marketing and media claims promoting the newest, latest, and greatest. The newest miracle bra defies gravity. The latest miracle cream grows hair where you want it, and removes it from where you don’t. And let’s not forget the greatest miracle of medical mastery, an instant cure-all to whatever ails you, and all within a tiny pill. Unless, of course, you want the elixir: but that costs extra. All of which does little for the definition of miracle. So I asked a friend if he had ever seen a miracle, and he said, “No.” So I asked what his definition of a miracle would be, and he said, “Getting along with my wife.” Obviously, he has a worthwhile desire, but a rather weak standard to base any hypothesis on. However, there is always the simplistic standby, the dictionary. Oxford English Dictionary gives the following definition:

Miracle, n. A marvelous event not ascribable to human power or the operation of any natural force and therefore attributed to supernatural, esp. divine, agency; esp. an act (e.g. of healing) demonstrating control over nature and serving as evidence that the agent is either divine or divinely favored.

 

Most non-theistic definitions are similar to the above definition. The majority of theistic interpretations place a greater emphasis on God in the definition. Herbert Lockyer, in his book All the Miracles of the Bible, claims a miracle is “some extraordinary work of deity transcending the ordinary powers of nature and wrought in connection with the ends of revelation” (qtd. in Wade). And Professor Rick Wade, theologist and philosopher, clarifies three key elements, “miracles are supernatural, or the work of deity; they transcend or override natural law; and they are part of God’s means of revealing His nature and purpose to us” (Wade). In other words, on any given day our definition on what should or should not be considered a miracle is filtered through our beliefs, interpretation of the alleged facts, and our perspective.

Individual perspectives of miracles are predominantly the easiest to comprehend. For instance, three World War II airmen, Lt. I.M. Chisov, Sgt. Alan Magee, and Sgt. Nicholas Alkemade, a Russian, an American, and a Brit, all survived freefalls of 18,000 feet or above without parachutes (Hamilton). Yet skydiving experts and doctors concur that any freefall over a hundred feet is a guaranteed death-drop. So were all three airmen recipients of miracles? Well, skeptics like to point out that Chisov was seriously injured, Magee sustained a bad arm injury, and even Alkemade, though it was minor, twisted a knee. The obvious implication being that if they were miracles why were the men injured at all? However, from both a medical and natural law perspective, each airman survived a guaranteed death-drop. And yet, skeptics will then contend that, since it has occurred before, it falls into the realm of probability. And if it is in the realm of probability it cannot be considered a miracle. Similarly, such a contention presupposes that even a miraculous event like the parting of the Red Sea would not qualify as a miracle, because there are similar events in the Bible where water is parted. However, the claim falls short since it is a mistaken attempt at logic that utilizes no pertinent evidence to back it up.

Other skeptics attempt to discard freefall survivals through physics, using aerodynamic jargon, such as “surface area molecules hitting a bunch of atmospheric molecules” (Carkeet), and creating a reduced rate of acceleration. Although, they conveniently forget to mention it reduces the fall rate from approximately 150-mph to 120-mph, which is still considered “terminal velocity,” when atmospheric drag resists gravity’s acceleration” (Carkeet). In other words, it is still a guaranteed death-drop. Thus, it brings up a curious question, how would each of the skeptics feel about it if it had been them falling thousands of feet without a chute? When you consider the adage, “there are no atheists in foxholes,” it could easily be applied to chute-less freefalls over 18,000 feet as well. After all, it is highly unlikely that such a personal perspective would still find the skeptics, as they are plummeting to Earth, considering the probabilities.

[*In part 2 I will begin with the probabilities of battlefield miracles like the previously mentioned mortally wounded soldier that was miraculously healed.]