A few nights back, Liz and I watched a documentary called Sam Peckinpah’s West: Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade. At one point in the film, the actor Michael Madsen discussed a favorite line of his from Ride the High Country, in which a character expresses his aspiration to “enter [his] house justified.”
Now, a few nights back was not the first time I had seen this particular documentary, having for many years now been quite a fan of Peckinpah’s, particularly of the films Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and Junior Bonner, and while I have never seen Ride the High Country, this concept of entering one’s house “justified” is one that has always, as it did with Madsen, resonated with me.
However, I think the line, and my own view or definition of such justification, has changed since I first saw the documentary about nine years ago.
Nine years ago, at 25 years old, I only really cared about one thing (and for that matter, had only cared about that one thing for nearly ten years prior and would only care about that one thing for another five years after), that one thing being team roping. At around fifteen years old, as a freshman, I started team roping, first competing in high school rodeos, then later college, amateur, and professional rodeo. I was obsessed with it. I watched hours and hours and hours of video. I read team roping magazines (yes, they exist) cover to cover and over and over. I roped the “dummy” (fake steer) tirelessly. In college, there were many days when I skipped all of my classes and stayed at the rodeo grounds roping the dummy. All day.
And then there was the actual roping. The live roping, with horses and cattle and an arena and so forth. From the ages of fifteen to twenty-five I was at a roping or rodeo very nearly every weekend (I say nearly, though I can’t specifically remember a weekend that I was not), and more often than not two or three or four. And if I didn’t practice every weekday of every week during those years, I at least practiced two or three times a week. In fact, no day felt quite complete if I didn’t rope. Somewhere. Not roping depressed me. If there was nowhere to rope, I found a place. My first year of college, I drove fortyish miles from San Luis Obispo to San Miguel and back every afternoon to practice. They offered practice at the college, where I kept my horses, but that was only on Mondays and Wednesdays, which didn’t work for me. Later in my college career, during a period when—for various reasons, all valid—the powers that be saw it fit to suspend my driver’s license for six months, I turned to Amtrak. One weekend, I rode Amtrak from San Luis Obispo to Klamath Falls, OR (and back) for a roping. That same year, I won second at the amateur rodeo in Chico, and I’m pretty sure I was the only contestant who’d arrived by train.
But roping itself—the physical act of roping—was not my only obsession. Its sister obsession—winning (specifically, winning at roping)—was just as strong, and each obsession fueled the other. Which brings me back to Peckinpah. When I first heard that expressed desire to “enter [one’s] house justified”, I saw the means to such justification in winning. For many years, I allowed my own to self-worth to be defined by and my self-esteem driven by whether or not I was a winner or a loser. In fiction—Peckinpah’s films included—the truly and deliciously compelling characters tend to be—for me, anyway—the losers, but actually losing (in real life) can be devastating, particularly when you need to win (for aforementioned purposes of defining self-worth and so forth). Losing, in my past, seemed to cast a pall over everything. Having lost, it was difficult to feel comfortable in my own skin, a feeling that could only be assuaged by more practice, in the pursuit of avoiding such loss, or, of course, winning.
This, thankfully, has all changed. I am now knee deep in what I used to apathetically observe in other ropers: the transition to family life, which then seemed like merely a distraction. Or perhaps an obstacle.
But now, with a wife and ten-month-old, whose securities and happinesses are my new obsessions, what gets me through that door feeling justified is doing right by them. Loving and being loved. Being present, because the present—the thirty inch and thirty pound and counting little dragon monster squirming around our living room floor—is pretty darn good.