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A Note on Rodeos, Small Towns, and Inculcating Curiosity
Fifty years ago this summer, my mother moved to Carmel by-the-Sea. She was thirty-six; her sons, six and three. She was newly divorced, had just finished her PhD, and had no steady job prospects. Mama rented a cottage on Camino Real Avenue; one year later, she put in an offer on the house across the street. I am writing this from the dining room of that house she bought in 1974.
Thanks to my mother, I grew up in a small town. The 2020 census reports Carmel has 3,220 who call this place home. (It was closer to 5,000 in my youth. The drop is not due to any decline in our desirability, but to the proliferation of second homes. Many who own property here have their primary domiciles in Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, or places much further away.)
I call myself, jokingly, a small-town boy. I say it in jest not because Carmel isn’t small — any city with fewer than 5,000 people gets to call itself such — but because I know full well a beautiful California beach resort is not what most people mean when they think of an American small town. They mean somewhere inland, somewhere less wealthy, somewhere less famous, somewhere — and here flares the bigotry — somewhere “less sophisticated.”
I point out that the Carmel of forty years ago was different. My high school was evenly divided between kids who lived in town (as I did) and the kids who lived in the Carmel Valley. That Valley is now also famous for luxury resorts and vineyards, but in my youth, was better known for farming and ranching. We called the Valley kids “cowboys” (though not all were); the Valley kids called the townies, “surfers” (again, something of a misnomer). The cowboys wore Wranglers and coveted Chevys and Fords; the surfers wore Ocean Pacific and drove (or longed-for) Cabriolets and BMWs. The cowboys listened to metal and country (and sometimes, had Confederate flags on their trucks.) The surfers listened to New Wave synth-pop, reggae, and ska.
We navigated these sociological tensions with more affection than hostility. There was plenty of teasing and trash-talking, but there was no sense that the “other” inhabited a morally bankrupt horror. The cowboys knew how to navigate a wave. The surfers had best friends in Future Farmers of America.
You’ve probably heard of the kerfuffle over a certain Jason Aldean song. (Google. I can’t link to anything that isn’t polemical and one-sided.) The old familiar battle lines are drawn, the old arguments ensue, except that there’s less good-natured teasing and much more contempt. Small towns are hotbeds of hate! Cities are crime-ridden cesspools! To type those words is to chuckle, because as any human being who has traveled widely knows, these are absurd and dishonest caricatures — except that in 2023, a sizable percentage of our fellow Americans actually believe these silly (and false) slogans.
I took my children yesterday to the Salinas Rodeo. Technically, it’s the California Rodeo in Salinas — it is the Golden State’s oldest rodeo, and it is one of the few West Coast stops on the professional cowboy tour. My very urban children are accustomed to their father’s sentimental passions for Western sports. They enjoyed the patriotic displays before the event began; they delighted in the roping and riding and the antics of those we no longer call rodeo clowns. (They are bullfighters, thank you, or cowboy protectors.) My daughter winced when one cowboy threw his lasso wrong — and snapped the neck of the calf he was attempting to rope. The animal clearly died instantly on the dirt; the body swiftly shrouded from view by a dozen young men and and women in Resistols and Stetsons.
These are things children don’t see in West Los Angeles, and I want them to see them. I want them to be at home with people who pray to Jesus enthusiastically, who care deeply about the competition for Miss Salinas Rodeo, who know how to count eight very long seconds without glancing at a clock. I want them to be at home in South L.A. at a King Day march; I want them to be at home in a shul, praying Shacharit. I want them to be comfortable with Pentecostals getting slain in the spirit, and yes, cheering at a Pride march. I want them to know which fork to use, how to welcome the shy guest, how to ask the right questions when in a new place.
Both the Salinas Rodeo and Rodeo Drive should, I hope, feel like places they belong, filled with good people trying very hard to lead good lives.
I know many fathers who worry about their children. I am no different. My greatest fear isn’t climate change, as it is for my left-wing papa friends. My greatest fear isn’t pervasive moral decline, as it is for many fathers I know to my right. My greatest fear is that my children will grow up suspicious, provincial, and contemptuous of the unfamiliar. I want my children to be happy and kind, and more than that, I want them to be diplomats who can speak to all sides. That does not mean that there aren’t lovely people who have strong views and have chosen one side in our ongoing fight. I just have this little hope that my bunnies will have the curiosity and social dexterity to be able to move easily between both camps — and perhaps, play a small part in healing the divide.
Show me a man who dreams too specific a dream for his child, and I will show you a man destined for disappointment! They are not mini-mes. They are their own people, and they will surprise me in a host of ways, as I most certainly surprised (and alas, horrified) my parents. But I will pull out every stop, and take them to every strange place I can, in the hope that whatever they become, they are kind, accepting, generous, and as much as possible, unafraid.
There is more than one path to the summit. My job is to show them every last trailhead I can, and then, once they choose their path, to cheer them on.