Archive for July, 2010

Why Don’t Intellectuals Go To The Rodeo?

EDIT: I’ve been getting quite the response to this post (which is great!) but I wanted to insert one note before I continue to moderate comments. If you’re visiting my blog for the first time, do please take a look at my information page first. My own background is from the rural South, and I started this blog for rural culture and rural rights, especially Appalachian and Southern economic/ environmental oppression. I am an intellectual (if by that you mean kinda dorky and quiet), but even my college thesis was about rural-urban interactions and power dynamics.

So please, don’t mis-read this post as an attack on the rodeo. I had a great time! And I met some great people (and yes, I did talk to the “locals” –although the majority of the crowd was certainly not from Cheyenne, so I’d say we were all visitors in one way or another).

This is meant to be a sensitive, but also fair, exploration of the question that was in my head all weekend: why don’t I see more people with tattoos and shaved heads at the rodeo? I’m also trying to imply that urbanites and intellectuals go to the rodeo– because as far as I’m concerned, the more diversity in a crowd, the better the communal dehydration.


So I’ve been trying to re-hydrate all week after drinking nothing but beer this past weekend. I don’t mean that I chose to drink beer all weekend; I mean there was no available beverages except beer (and soda, which I don’t drink). At one point, I tried sipping water from the campground bathrooms. (Not recommended, for the record.)

Where did I experience this marathon dehydration, you ask?

…That would be the Frontier Days Rodeo, in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Which I guess means that I’m really west of the Mississippi now.

Still, my colleagues and I definitely stood out of the crowd: one of us with tattoos down her arms, and another one with a shaved head… The two men in our group, on the other hand, tried to embrace the weekend with plaid shirts and cowboy hats (with only moderate success). You can distinguish the urban and East Coast men from the cowboys and ranchers because their buzz-cuts are neatly shaped at the back of the neck. (I noticed this sitting at the back of the bus ride from the camp ground). When it comes to “reading” other people’s appearances, little things like that are just as significant as tattoos and shaved heads.

Stamped For Entry

The general atmosphere of Frontier Days is basically that of a state fair (same grease-soaked food, same vomit-inducing rides) but it all revolves around the rodeo stadium– and of course the evening country concerts. The majority of the day-crowd is definitely nuclear families, who have all somehow managed to produce exactly one son and one daughter.

The night crowd is… well, let’s just say that one of my colleagues had his foot peed on.

You can identify the real cowboys because their shirts are tucked in. Their jeans are stiff and pressed, and they have this kind of awkward silence about them, like they’d rather not be in a crowd. Everybody is sunburnt, but the cowboys have this terra cotta skin that looks like decades of layered sunburns. Also, their belt buckles are big.

One of my colleagues informed me that “buckle bunnies” are the cowboy-version of groupies. I’m not sure whether he was lying or not.

Anyways. I spent the weekend wondering why urban-liberal-intellectuals (ULI’s) never appreciate events like this. It’s more than pretension or animal-rights politics; I think there’s a genuine discomfort with some basic cultural element of state fairs, rodeos, and theme parks. David Foster Wallace wrote an essay called “Getting Away From Already Pretty Much Being Away From It All,” where he basically stumbles around the Illinois State Fair in a totally overwhelmed haze.

Here’s my tentative hypothesis

I think urban liberals don’t like these events because they function as a perfect metaphor for all of the large-scale violence that we experience on a national and cultural level. A little too perfect a metaphor, maybe.

Because in fact, going to the rodeo is basically a stadium of people getting off on violence. This is true of most spectator sports, but at the rodeo there is a more obvious gladiatorial element: the entertainment relies quite literally on watching one living being dominating another. And if you don’t think that this mirrors larger forms of violence, just wait till you walk outside the stadium and see the family leading a group of boys, each carrying a full-size, blow-up AK-47. Ah, the innocence of childhood. What is most warfare, really, except one nation roping another into submission?

There are a few events where cowboys team up to rope a calf or a colt or something. They’re kind of like allied forces in domination! Familiar? I like the actual bull riding the best, because it seems the most evenly-matched. Check out this guy getting trampled. High entertainment, for sure!

Perhaps the presence of t-shirts that say something like “Welcome to America. Now Speak English” are a better example of the way that these events revolve around an “us versus them” mentality. Which is ironic, because these events are supposed to be communal events. Foster Wallace talks about this too, in the aforementioned essay about the Illinois State Fair: “The state fair is rural Illinois’ moment of maximum community, but even at a Fair whose whole raison is ‘For-Us’, Us‘s entail Thems, apparently.” In that essay, he’s talking about the tension between agricultural folk and the family crowd, and ag-folk’s outright distain for the carnies. At the Frontier Days rodeo, patriotism was the thread that linked all these metaphors together: whether it was the American flag-patterned prizes, or the cowboy who received the biggest applause for serving in Iraq.

Anyways, it seemed pretty clear that these elements worked together towards a common cultural theme: violence against thems. And this includes the way that many ULI’s stereotype obese Midwesterners (the primary fault in DFW’s otherwise-brilliant essay), or blame conservative ranchers for miscellaneous political ailments. Because, despite the uncomfortable and unhealthy culture of Frontier Days, I think cowboys themselves have a hell of a healthier relationship to animals than suburban PETA activists who refuse to acknowledge the complexity of the human-animal relationship. They do respect those bulls, for sure.

(…Not that I think cowboys are living great lives– check out this crazy fucking horse!)

A Beautiful Wyoming Sunset


I’m working on a long essay about Frontier Days for print publication, so this post is a preliminary and abbreviated version of that. Mostly it’s just a summary of my thesis.


The Tools of Our Culture

One of my first posts on this blog was a book review of Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves To Death,” one of my top ten most influential books. The context for the review was “rurality” –a way of thinking derived from rural culture, which questions our relationship to technology and to the earth. I’ve also recently discovered Nicholas Carr, who thoughtfully critiques the internet just as Postman examined and critiqued the television. (Both highly recommended)

All of this is to say, just published an article by Trevor Butterworth that mentions both of these writers in the first paragraph (brownie points!). The topic of the article turns out to be–surprise!–fountain pens. Click on the link to read the original article (and credit to Amateur Economist for the heads-up on this article).

It’s fascinating to me how this tiny writing instrument has offered a way for people to contemplate technology and digital culture on a larger level. Writing with a fountain pen has become a metaphor for our larger fears about losing contact with the Real, Breathing World– and it offers a tangible way of reconnecting.

Updating the Ol’ Watercolor Palette

I welcomed some Daniel Smith watercolors into my palette this week: Imperial Purple, Manganese Violet, Cobalt Blue, Pthalo Yellow Green, Quinacridone Burnt Orange, and Chinese White. For watercolor purists, including white in one’s palette is a big no-no, but I find that it’s helpful when I’m painting in a more graphic style; the white adds an opacity that works for a contemporary look.

(Using black in one’s palette is also supposed to be a no-no, but Gentian has already defended it quite articulately in her post this week.)

I’ve been using the same Schmincke 24 half-pan palette since high school with a mixture of Schmincke and Winsor Newton pans; some of the pans had dried up to unusability, and several of them had lost their labels and I no longer remembered what they were. Then, last week, I realized I had no dark colors in my palette whatsoever. Emergency! And more importantly, an excuse to try Daniel Smith!

The new lineup includes: Schmincke Ivory Black; W&N Davy’s Gray; Daniel Smith Chinese White; Schmincke Sepia Brown (not pictured above); Schmincke Burnt Umber (not pictured above); W&N Cotman Cadmium Yellow; Schmincke Yellow Ochre; W&N Burnt Sienna; Daniel Smith Quin. Burnt Orange; W&N Cadmium Red; unidentified Schmincke; Schmincke Permanent Carmine; unidentified W&N; Daniel Smith Manganese Violet; W&N Cotman Cobalt Violet; Daniel Smith Imperial Purple; Daniel Smith Cobalt Blue; Schmincke Mountain Blue; W&N Indigo; Schmincke Prussian Blue; Schmincke Cobalt Cerulean; Schmincke Cobalt Green Turquoise; W&N Viridian; unidentified Schmincke (Permanent Sap Green? Olive Green?); Schmincke Green Earth; Daniel Smith Pthalo Yellow Green; Schmincke Cadmium Yellow Lemon (I think).


Technically, I don’t need many of these colors. I could be mixing my purples and greens from my primary colors. But many botanical or wildlife watercolorists do have a wider color range in their palette, especially greens. The Pthalo Yellow Green, pictured above, is kind of an obnoxious neon color to have in a palette– but I find that a little bit of that neon added to a green or blue mix makes the color “pop” visually.

Too many turquoises :(. My biggest regret was ordering a full pan of Schmincke Mountain Blue, thinking that it was closer to Cobalt Blue. Instead, it barely distinguishable from some other blues in my palette.

My other big annoyance? The two W&N Cotman (student-grade) colors in my palette: Cadmium Yellow and Cobalt Violet. Still, I’m sure they’ll serve a purpose. The Cadmium Yellow is so opaque, it’s almost like gouache. I’ll probably use it for a poster sometime.

If anyone can identify that Schmincke red towards the bottom (not the one that’s half-cut off), I’d be greatly appreciative. It’s semi-transparent (leaning towards opaque), medium to low-staining, with fair granulation. Deep Madder Red? Ruby Red? Aliz. Crimson?

In any case, look for some posts this week of paintings using my new palette.

A Spoonful of Skepticism

…helps keep the toxins away? I’m having a grand time working in the organic foods sector– Our firm is involved in Michelle Obama’s [healthy] school lunch program, my boss is pretty tight with Kim Severson, and we get free samples. Constantly. (Yum.) But being immersed in the environmental news world is also sometimes overwhelming, especially when every single day I find out that yet another common product has been linked with brain damage, cancer, sterility, etc.

Some people dismiss these reports– partly because they are overwhelming –but slowly, people are beginning to confront the facts. The President’s Cancer Panel just released a Big Important Report (like, really important). The short summary? 41% of Americans are diagnosed with cancer within their lifetime, and 21% die of it. The cause? No, it’s not all hereditary. These rates are directly connected to all the chemicals we put into our air, food, and water.

It’s scary, and yet I think it confirms an instinct that many Americans have already: that when our cleaning products give us a headache, or a certain medication gives us a severe side effect… they’re not okay. And this too makes sense: most of these products or substances haven’t been around for more than 50 years. We haven’t had time to know their long-term effects.

All the scientific innovation during World War II, combined with leftover “materials” (read: chemicals) after the War’s end led to an industry boom during the 50’s and 60’s.  Only now are we discovering that… yikes, maybe we rushed a little too confidently into our own marketing skills.

Here’s a brief overview of some of the specific links that have turned up recently:

My conclusion?

It’s sensible to be skeptical. Which means that I raise an eyebrow at something like, oh, say, a digital food printer, instead of embracing its sexy techno-seduction without questioning. Not to mention any product that gives you a headache, or smells funny, or has been on the market for less than a generation (I’m looking at you, ADHD drugs).

But I’m not against innovation: urban farming, for example, is new, innovative, and also fucking badass. But it utilizes traditional, tried-and-true methods in order to create healthier communities in the present. No skepticism about that.

UPDATE: You know what’s ironic? When I search for “cancer health” in a stock image search engine, 99% of the images are of cigarettes (one was of a virus?). Funny how we don’t want to acknowledge that the pesticides in our food might be just as dangerous.

From Pictographs to Pixels

Photo by Bryan Rierson Photography and Brian Allen

Finally, my two primary interests united! Artsy inky stuff + cultural studies = my dreamy future. And last night I got a good dose of both when I attended a talk by Brian Allen called “From Homer to BFF: about how we express ourselves.” The event is part of a series hosted by hosted by CU Libraries Scriptalab and the Colorado Book Arts League, which resulted in a diverse audience: from hip graphic design students and aging papermakers and letterpress printers.

I was familiar with most of the cultural aspects of the presentation (Socrates’ anxieties about changing from an oral culture to a print culture, for example), but I really enjoyed Allen’s take on it. He talked about letterpress printing as a profession where men are allowed to be creative and artistic in a socially acceptable way. (Gender commentary gets you brownie points in my book.)

And he focused on the ways that printers and calligraphers have responded to a digital age– which is just a smaller version of how every oppressed group (whether racial, cultural, or professional) has developed strategies and adaptations for survival. See Gloria Anzaldua for further reading.

I also appreciated that Brian wasn’t totally against digital technology, given that so many craftsmen and women are. What is important, he concluded, is that we help digital technology to make good choices. And that we engage our own hands in the 3D world at the same time.

Still, while I was musing how to incorporate this into my professional future, I had to concede that is harder for women to get into this profession. Women are more commonly book artists and calligraphers, but printing is still a boy’s game. Ah, well. Yet another thing to add to my Badass Professions for Women list (which, so far, includes glassblowing, pen turning, and being a pilot).

Four Things I’m Digging

1. Multi Pens

Okay, so maybe I’m not as ecstatic about multi pens as The Pen Addict, but they’re damn convenient for my new job. I owned the Style Fit a while ago and really enjoyed it, but apparently not enough to prevent losing it sometime during the move across the country.

I ordered the Uni Signo MF3 and the Uni Jetstream 4+1 from Jetpens. The Jetstream was an attempt to branch out from gel ink, but after having played around with it a bit, it’s just not living up to my expectations. Plus, the barrel is enormous.

I was so tempted to buy a Zebra Sharbo X, but I have yet to invent a good justification for spending that much money…

2. Glazing With Acrylics

Acrylics, you say? As in, those mediocre craft-quality paints from high school art class? Oil paints for a poor artist?

…Yes, I mean those. And I am a poor artist, so I decided to paint in acrylic when I needed to fill a lonely blank spot on our apartment wall.

It turned out to be a totally pleasurable experiment. Maybe because acrylics aren’t as “serious” as oils, I was able to have a little more fun with them. I had painted with oils for my AP art portfolio in high school (and damaged my health in the process by turning my bedroom into a turpentine-fume bubble… but that’s another story).

The idea when glazing with acrylics is basically the same as glazing with oils, but it dries in a fraction of the time. Click on the image to the left to view a close-up detail section.

I finished this piece in one day, and I’m moderately happy with it. It’s no masterpiece, but I was able to experiment with a lot of different methods which I want to explore more in the future. The green stripe across the top was a last-minute addition, and I think it really completed the piece.

3. How Pretty Art Supplies Are

Yeah, you heard me: I’m digging my own art supplies. This is such a failing of mine– to see my art supplies as works of art in themselves, rather than as tools for making art. Although both views have their merits, there is also a crucial distinction between them: seeing art supplies as just beautiful turns you into a consumer, while seeing art supplies as tools for making art turns you into a producer. And I don’t want to be a consumer! I wanna produce. Produce beautiful things, that is.

I was reading about DIY watercolor palettes last night, and several different articles warned that you might spend more time creating your palette than actually using it. Oh, sigh, alright.

So, despite how much I enjoy the sunlight glinting through the bristles of my Robert Simmons Sapphire brushes, my goal for next week is to create a piece of art outside of the apartment every day.

4. Cherry Season

I especially love cherry season when they are free from my friend’s back yard. These sour cherries are better for baking than munching, so I’ve been experimenting with cherry tarts and crisps, all with great success. My friend’s family, though, is making cherry vodka –which also happens to be reason #11 that local foods are badass.

The Second Thing About Boulder Is

Everybody is distressingly attractive. I mean, attractive according to mainstream beauty standards (but which I will hereafter refer to as just “attractive”).

The writerly side of me has been a little bit fascinated, and the adolescent side of me has been pretty self-conscious for a month and a half. Meanwhile, the sociological side of me has been pondering: how exactly does this happen to a city? Do communities of attractive people tend to gravitate towards each other, unconsciously excluding less-beautiful people? Or does the population here simply live a certain type of lifestyle (outdoorsy, physically active) that creates a fitter, tanner populace?

Chautauqua Park - Image via Wikipedia

I was keeping this observation under wraps, not wanting to seem judgmental, until I browsed through the Boulder Craigslist job listings the other day and found that 75% of the “gigs” are in fact “modeling gigs.” Coincidence? I think not.

Then, I was at the farmers market buying some delicious Noosa yogurt, when I overheard the woman next to me asking whether it was low-fat.  (….No, lady, it’s um, actually yogurt. You’re not shoppin’ at Whole Foods here)

A friend of mine who was born and raised here talks about her parents generation having all moved out here in the 70’s and 80’s, looking for a healthier life and healthier community. Fair enough– that explains the homogeneity of the populace. It also explains why there are no old people here…

In Which She Gets A Bit Critical

But the crucial thing to realize about a population of attractive people is that it is directly related to how wealthy that population is. Where I’m from (the area somewhere between the South and Appalachia), people are not mainstream attractive, because they can’t afford to be. They don’t have access to healthy diets, so obesity is rampant; the unavailability of health care means that it’s not unusual to see people with missing teeth, bad teeth, deformities and skin cancer… the list goes on.

In academic discussions, we refer to this as “marking” bodies with poverty: it’s the way that a person’s economic status becomes literally visible in his or her appearance. Structures in our society, like health care or welfare, contribute to this visible distinction between poor and rich by preventing poor people from achieving standards of beauty (which, from healthy food to well-tailored clothing to teeth whitening, require money).

Don’t get me wrong– I’m not saying that any person or institution is doing this on purpose. But keeping these economic distinctions visible does benefit those in power, because it discourages interaction between different economic classes. Think about it– when was the last time that you had small talk with a person that clearly looked below your economic status? And as a result, there is a serious lack of empathy (and activism) in general for the experience of poverty… and therefore little change.

Two years ago, I almost titled this blog “Blogging for Dialogue” because I wanted to write about the importance of healthy dialogue across differences– especially in the hearing, and the telling, of stories. Clearly I went for a vaguer theme (um, fruit), but this sort of thing is still on my mind.

Art adventures, literary hangovers, rural politics and other songs worth sharing.

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