childhood, texas

on growing up to be a cowboy (of sorts)

Tonight I was listening to iTunes on shuffle and “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” came on. It’s been a while since I’ve listened to the lyrics—I only have the song because I’d downloaded it years ago, when teaching an English comp class in which the textbook mentioned it, and not one of my students had even heard of it (much less Willie Nelson, much less Waylon Jennings). For their own cultural edification, the song was purchased, downloaded, and shared. Thirty-two Chicago college students got a taste of Texas that day, and for a moment I was reminded of my childhood.

But tonight I actually listened to the lyrics, on my way to therapy (of all places), and they planted a seed that continued to germinate during my session. What if my mama actually did let me grow up to be a cowboy, despite the oft-heard musical warning? I wondered as I made my way into the elevator and up to the fourth floor. Surely that’s nonsense. I haven’t even been on a horse since 4-H camp. But by the end of my session I wasn’t so sure. In fact, I think I might actually be half-cowboy. Though, of course, I’m preemptively stating that the half I’m claiming are all the best pieces.

From the lyrics, Willie & Waylon say cowboys:

  • ain’t easy to love & are harder to hold
  • would rather give you a song than diamonds and gold
  • wear Lone Star belt buckles and old faded Levi’s
  • believe each night begins a new day
  • will probably just ride away if you don’t understand him (and he doesn’t die)
  • love smoky old pool rooms and clear mountain mornings
  • and little warm puppies and children and girls of the night


  • them that don’t know him won’t like him
  • them that do sometimes won’t know how to take him
  • He ain’t wrong, just different, but…
  • his pride won’t let him do things to make you think he’s right
  • they’ll never stay home and they’re always alone, even with someone they love

After therapy, in which we mainly discussed the ways in which the lessons I learned growing up have turned me into the strong, capable woman I am today, it occurred to me that there are more than a few “cowboy” qualities I possess. It’s actually an interesting amalgam of the sort of person I’ve become as an adult:

  • I’m not easy to love (though I do believe the rewards outweigh the challenges), mostly because I don’t believe in traditional (meaning: outdated) notions about the roles men and women are supposed to play.
  • I’m hard to hold, not physically but in the sense that I’m difficult to pin down; I like my space and freedom, and I am not shy about making that known
  • (I shy away from belt buckles of all sorts, though I do appreciate a comfortable pair of Levis from time to time, if the situation is right)
  • Each night does begin a new day; the night time is when the best things happen, when the magic begins, when all of the most creative ideas (and the craziest ones, too) come to light.
  • I will never forget the taste and smell and feel of Gruene Hall and its smoky pool rooms, well before the venue made its name on the map as one of Texas’s best places to see live music. As for clear mountain mornings, I’ll take them in small proportion and appreciate them for the medicine that they can be.
  • Who doesn’t love warm puppies and children? (Girls of the night, though, just aren’t for me.)

And on to other things…

Certainly it’s the case that people who don’t know me tend not to like me, or at least don’t know how to approach me. And I’ve been told that the people who do know me don’t know what to do with me. (And I don’t quite know how to take this or what to do with it, other than just shrug my shoulders and keep being who I am.) It’s also definitely true that I’m “just different” (what an understatement) as well as that I have a streak of pride that sometimes won’t let me do things to put things right. More to the point: not so much these days, but definitely in the past, I rarely stayed home, and I was always alone, especially with everyone I loved.

Mostly, though, the person I am today is a product of growing up in frontier-like circumstances—in the country, with limited resources, living in what amounted to Little House on the Prairie-style conditions (more 1890s than 1980s, in many respects), with high expectations placed on me in terms of work ethic, productivity, behavior, personal standards, etiquette, and general interactions with the world.

The result is that I’m a capable, productive (perhaps overly so) woman who doubts herself even when she exerts 110% of capacity instead of the 100% expected of her, someone who sees herself through the lens of what more should have been done instead of acknowledging that what needed to be done was accomplished, and done well, at that. And so I don’t think the warning about becoming a cowboy is so much about the affect it may have on other people—though of course that is a consideration—as much as it is on the impact is has on oneself.

It’s a difficult place to be, being so hard on yourself, having learned to be so self-sufficient and developed such a strong work ethic that the idea of letting anyone else in, or letting anyone else help is anathema to one’s sense of life and purpose. What’s even more strange is not even being able to see that having a strong work ethic is something admirable—when it’s all you’ve ever had, it just is, kind of like having brown hair or a button nose.

There’s a lot of unpacking to do when you’re a cowboy, or even just a sort-of cowboy. Perhaps Waylon & Willie didn’t want babies to grow up to be cowboys because they knew that the therapy bills would be through the roof. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit.