8 Things I Learned At Bull Riding School

Bull Ride 2

This past summer I attended the Let R Buck Bull Riding School located in Victoria, VA. It was a two-day intensive course that teaches students the mechanics and skills of bull riding using both live animals and a stationary barrel. On paper we were charged with learning how to successfully ride a bucking bull for eight seconds. But I learned much more than that. Here are eight things I took away from the experience. A lesson for each second.

  1. I can be capable of great courage. I have not always acted courageously in my life. I’ve backed down from fights by apologizing, passed up on job and travel opportunities and shied away from educational opportunities, like the time I avoided taking AP English in high school, or the time I chickened out on studying journalism in Prague. Who knows what butterfly effect? But on this particular weekend in July I climbed onto a 1500-pound bull that wants only to get you off his back and I rode him. Not successfully, of course, but in the world of bull riding, I also learned:
  2. Success can be measured merely by the fact that you strapped onto the bull in the first place. The slang term for lasting the required eight seconds on a bull ride is “covered.” Of the approximately 25 rides we all took collectively, only one student covered.
  3. Despite feeling impotent and small on something so powerful, you can feel incredibly large. The universe shrinks to a single spot on the bull’s withers, the ridge located just between his shoMatthew1ulder blades. The most successful riders are the ones who stare at that spot and never pick up their head. At one point, the teacher at our school JW, a man who commanded such respect we weren’t allowed to mount our bull until he was there to oversee it, coughed up a wad of spit and let it drop on the bull’s withers. ‘Stare at that the whole time,’ he said in his thick country Virginia accent. When you do…when you listen to him, your chances of staying on the full eight seconds dramatically increases. When you don’t listen, you pay the price almost instantly.
  4. Once you’re on the bull you immediately forget every element of your training. Don’t look up. Keep your chest puffed out. Keep your chin tucked. Move your free hand forward when he rears up and pull the hand back when he drops his head. Keep your heels tucked under his ribs and your toes pointed downward ballet style. Sit on your crotch. Squeeze with your thighs; don’t put your butt down on his back. Use your free arm to correct yourself if you feel like you’re sliding off to one side. Land on your feet! Translation: Chute gate opens. Bull bucks. ‘Oh shit, what do I do, what do I do, what do I do’ Boom! You’re on your back looking up at the sky. The only part of the training you remember is to get up as fast as possible and run (or roll) like hell outMatthew5 of the arena before he comes back round to step on you. What is it about that gap between our preparation and our execution? Why is there such a chasm between what our brain imagines we will do in a situation and what we actually do once the situation arrives? Is it possible our brains are designed to protect us from the matter we encounter? If you’ve ever tried to look at an object through water, you would see how the image (the reality behind the water) is slightly distorted. I wonder if our brains create a plasma barrier between our created conscious and reality. Maybe it’s a necessary function of our brain, lest we never take the chances we have taken as a species. Age and constant training erodes this barrier. Muscle memory drives it into our reflexes. We sometimes call it instinct, but it’s misnamed. The barrier is present when you try something incredibly dangerous for the first time. The consequences reveal the necessity of training and patience.
  5. Bull riding is a young man’s game, but not for the reasons you think. It seems logical with any contact sport, like football or MMA, that young people thrive in it because they have young muscles. Fresh strength. Shorter recovery time. Greater flexibility. Stronger bone density. Quicker reflexes. More energy. All of this is true, of course. But when it comes to bull riding, the greatest advantage a younger person has over an older person is 100% mental. I’m 42. I was the oldest by far in this weekend’s class. There was Allesio, 16, from southern Maryland. His mother, an Italian émigré, clung to the arena fences and held her breath every time her son climbed down into the chute. Allesio was curious to know if he has any raw potential. Then there was Hunter, 15, from Virginia. It was his first time on livestock of any kind, including horses. Joe (nicknamed “Tang) 22, finished his tour in the Army and is chasing a shot at the pros. Colton, 19, told me he “wanted to be a cowboy his whole life.” He was first to arrive at the arena, and lent his hand to feeding the livestock around the ranch in the morning before school started. Levi, 21, was the only rider who covered. Then there was Justin, 23, from Virginia. He’s only been riding for a few months and has already busted his collarbone. When he mounted Jammer (one of the school’s meanest bulls) in the 90-degree afternoon on Saturday, it was his first bull ride since he was injured. He vomited his lunch. He paced around the arena. He buried his face into his hat and cried. His father followed after him and talked him off the ledge of quitting. Then he climbed down into the chute and nearly covered Jammer. He got bucked around seven seconds into the ride. He has already won n amateur purse and assuming he stays healthy, will try to break the pros in the next year or so. Toward the end of the day on Sunday, Colton tied on to the school’s nastiest bull, a white monster named Charlie. About four seconds into the ride, Charlie reared up as Colton lost his posture and fell forward. Charlie’s ight horn clacked against Colton’s helmet. He was bucked off a moment later. Without the helmet, Colton would have likely been knocked unconscious from the horn strike, if not more severely injured. As we opened the gate for him to escape the arena, a fellow rider said ‘that’s why we wear the helmet. Charlie would’ve killed you there.’ Colton’s response: ‘If today was my time to die, so be it.’ Only a 19-year-old would say that with any degree of honesty. Death, for most of my fellow riders, is an abstraction. It can’t happen. It happens to other people. This is why car insurance companies charge higher premiums for teenage drivers. They think they are invincible. But that sense of invincibility, that foregone conclusion in their minds that they’re going to live forever, serves them well in the bull riding arena. Each time I mounted my bull for a ride, I was a bundle of raw fear. I thought about my kids who were watching me. I thought about my infant daughter back in New York, who would never remember me. I thought about how much I still had to accomplish. Mortality for me is real. That band of the plasma protection has worn down. Not with the other riders. I got on my bulls thinking of deBull Ride 3ath. Allesio got on his thinking of fun, thinking of making his ride more successful than his last. Death, or severe injury did not enter the equation in his calculations while he sat in the chute with his left hand raised and nodded for the gate to open. It pervaded my thoughts constantly. It rode with me. Little wonder I was the only rider who got hurt pretty much every time I got bucked off: I could only think of NOT getting hurt. It’s not about strength. It’s a mental sport as much as it is physical. Fear is the enemy of the bull rider. Fear is the enemy of many things, I now realize.
  6. A family emerges quickly in the presence of a common enemy. All of us were different ages and from different parts of the country, with different goals in mind. Yet within hours all of us were like brothers, working the chutes, helping one another get our gloves on, spot checking to make sure our gear was fixed properly, and cheering one another during and after the rides. On my debut ride, the bull, Poker Face, came out of the chute like he was on fire and I cracked my kneecap on the metal side of the chute. Seconds later I was tossed in the air and landed square on my back. I couldn’t get a single gasp of air in my lungs. I could see Poker Face still kicking around me, so I did the only Bull Ride 1 hing I could do: I rolled across the arena until I slipped under the fence to safety. JW was standing over me in seconds, helping me get my gear off. Eventually I caught my breath and they stood me up. When I got to my feet, all the riders had circled me and started to clap. One of JW’s trusted hands at the school, a middle-aged man they called “Geritol,” told me something interesting about this. He said, ‘even in competition, we may be against each other and you may get the better score and the better ride, but at the end of the day, we’re on the same team because these bulls don’t give a shit if you’re hurt, dead or otherwise. These bulls will break your wrist, break your ribs, tear your muscles, knock out your teeth, trample you while you’re unconscious on the ground, and not a single one of these bulls will ever come up to you and apologize for doing it. We root for each other because at the end of the day, all we have is each other.’ If we could somehow harness thatsensation. If we could only decide that, perhaps, our common enemy is unhappiness and unhappiness is a 1500-pound animal seeking to break our teeth and mash our guts. If we could get together as a people and understand that unhappiness, that misery, doesn’t apologize for wrecking our lives and leaving us breathless in the dirt, then perhaps we can be a human family that applauds one another.
  7. I am no longer afraid of anything but unhappiness.
  8. Not knowing the outcome of your decisions electrifies every nerve in your body. Each time I got on that bull I had no idea if I would lift my hands in the air, or be airlifted to the nearest hospital. In the moment it is an awful feeling. In hindsight, it’s one of the purest ways to live. Do things that have unknown outcomes. It pokes holes in the blackness of our unilluminated future.

Bull Ride 2


5 Stupid Things We Say About Colin Kaepernick


Colin Kaepernick takes a knee during the National Anthem. In the foreground, heartbroken members of the U.S. military stand there, not giving a shit.

This is not a sports article. I’m not about to delve into QB Colin Kaepernick’s stats. I don’t even know Colin Kaepernick’s stats. I know he led the San Francisco 49ers to a Super Bowl and almost won it. That’s about the extent of my Colin Kaepernick knowledge.

I also know that last year he created a storm of controversy when he decided that he would take a knee during the national anthem while he was on the sidelines during 49ers games. His protest of the anthem is inspired by what he perceives as the unjust treatment of blacks at the hands of police, and the subsequent lack of consequences for those officers who cross the line and abuse their power.

Not satisfied with just the standard knee-jerk, faux patriotism of the “love it or leave it” variety, many people have weighed in on social media with the following philosophical nuggets. I would have put them in some sort of Top 5 order, but they’re all equally dumb.

  1. Playing In The NFL Is A Privilege, Not A Right

The Idea: This sentiment is an answer to the argument that Colin Kaepernick, like every American citizen, has the right to freedom of speech and should not be punished for exercising that right.

Why it’s dumb: Working ANYWHERE is a privilege. (Especially in this economy!) The NFL is not some sacred oasis of occupational bliss, where all the employees walk around on some sort of sweet air, smiling away as they toil. Yes, Colin Kaepernick makes a lot of money. Yes, the NFL is a pretty cool place to land a gig. Yes, playing in the NFL is pretty rarefied air. But so what? This means that players have to put their social opinions in their locker before they trot out onto the field to entertain us slobs? That’s not fair. 

  1. Private Companies Have A Right To Hire or Fire Whomever They Want

The Idea: Rational people think that companies shouldn’t be allowed to fire somebody because they don’t like their opinions on some particular subject. In the public sector, such as education, there is a thing called tenure, that gives teachers a fair shot at defending themselves if something they say either in the classroom or on social media gets them into hot water. It doesn’t always work, but there you have it. In the private sector, however, no such protections exist, and the NFL is no exception. For the most part they can give you the boot without due process. People who tout this little nugget on social media use it to support his firing and criticize the 49ers organization for not drumming him out of the building as part of the halftime show.

Why it’s dumb: While technically true, it’s dumb because it doesn’t end with the NFL. Living in an America where a boss can give you the axe because of your opinions is the democratic-capitalist version of totalitarian regimes (we purportedly hate) who “disappear” people in the middle of the night for the same reason. I’m not suggesting that we are heading in that direction, but just so you’re informed, there are very little (if any) free speech protections on the books aimed at private companies. The Founding Fathers, when they drafted the First Amendment, were primarily concerned with government’s abuse of power, not corporations. Most of the colonists were business owners and tradesmen themselves, not employees of a company. Fast forward 230 years and some corporations in America (like our beloved Vatican City NFL) have power, capital and revenue streams as large as some small countries in the world. Maybe it’s time we start protecting employees who want to write on their socks. No? Then that’s why this is dumb.

  1. Nobody’s Curbing His Freedom of Speech

The idea: He can say whatever he wants, but he doesn’t have to work for the NFL.

Why it’s dumb: While this is also technically true, it’s also dumb because it basically says that we have two choices: shut up and earn a living, or speak out and starve. It’s important to keep in mind that the NFL hasn’t done anything to Kaepernick–they haven’t fined him, they haven’t fired him, they haven’t slapped him with an injunction. They don’t have to. We are doing it for them and we’re enjoying it! Saying you have freedom to do something and then placing such harsh consequences for doing so is like when our parents would tell us: “Go ahead. See what happens to you.” It’s not freedom; it’s a false choice. We absolutely ARE curbing his freedom of speech. Pointing out that he hasn’t been arrested for taking a knee is a pretty low bar to set on such an important freedom, don’t you think?

  1. He Should Take His Message Elsewhere, Not On The Field

The idea: If Kaepernick thinks the cops are pigs and that America is a racist nation, that’s fine. He should just take his protest out on the street, or take part in a march. So long as he is out of his NFL uniform and not doing it an an NFL stadium.

Why it’s dumb: Name one living black activist besides Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton. Go ahead, I’ll wait. The sad fact of the matter is that if Kaepernick doesn’t use his sideline position at NFL games as his platform to express his views, he won’t have a platform. His knee is a message to white America. White America has a sort of spotty record when it comes to listening to black people when they don’t have a ball in their hand or throwing punches in a ring. It’s also dumb because it basically says that NFL stadiums are special, accepted-speech only zones, and the NFL uniform is like the military uniform: everybody should stand in line and keep their mouths shut. In the military it works because it prepares them for warfare. In the NFL it works because? Well, because it allows us the comfort of watching a football game without those icky reminders of the improvements that need to be made in our society.

  1. It’s Great That He’s Trying to Weasel His Way Back Into The NFL

The idea: Ha-ha, nanna-nanna-poo-poo, you’re back-pedaling! This year Kaepernick is on the bubble of the NFL, looking in to see if he can land a job at some other team. In his interviews, he’s been a bit softer in his approach to the million-dollar question: will he take a knee during the anthem this coming year? Or has he learned his little lesson.

Why it’s dumb: Kaepernick’s waffling will soon be our waffling. Our take away from the fact that Kaepernick is being a bit more obtuse when he talks to the press is not supposed to be: ‘what a coward, phony and a hypocrite he is, now that his job is on the line.’ Our take away is supposed to be: ‘what a sad commentary it is on our culture that someone has to hide their social opinions from plain view in order to earn a living.’ This is sort of like laughing with our backs turned to the ocean after a swimmer gets wiped out by a massive wave. A lot of the joy I’m reading about his situation is coming from conservatives. My question to them is: how will you react when your liberal boss threatens to fire you for wearing a Make America Great Again t-shirt? You’ll take off the shirt and never wear it to work again? Fine. But maybe you should be the one not standing during the national anthem, because clearly you don’t embrace the sentiment behind it. The fact is that scores of police officers have committed abuses of their power by using either deadly force or some other means of violence and intimidation since Colin Kaepernick started taking a knee. Most of those officers have not had their livelihood taken away from them. You know who has? Colin Kaepernick. If we continue to revel in an employee being forced to get up off his knee, it will only be a matter of time before we find ourselves on both of ours.

Lebron James Cursed on TV: Can America Recover?


Lebron James willed his Cleveland Cavaliers down 3 games to 1 in the NBA Finals to come all the way back and be the first team in NBA history to win a championship by that margin. He also gave Cleveland its first professional sports championship in more than half a century. He was resilient. He was magical. He made the angels in heaven cheer.

Then he cursed at the celebration parade in Cleveland. And he made the angels cry. Allegedly. The news media’s sources are a bit unconfirmed when it comes to what God actually cares about.

In researching for this blog post, I developed both the happies and the sads. I was glad to see that there wasn’t a swarm of media outrage over Lebron’s cursing. Scouring the local and national media only bounced back a couple op-ed pieces about it. Sure everybody mentioned the curses, but few condemned him for it. Here in New York the most vocal critic of the 16-minute speech in question was WFAN’s Mike Francesa, who brought it up a number of times over the course of a number of days. (An unhealthy amount of times, basically). His take on it was the most extreme. He said Lebron used the worst curses in the book (he didn’t) and that if the Cavaliers ever wanted to make a DVD retrospective of this past championship run, they’d have to cut the entire speech (they won’t). He called the curses “room clearers,” suggesting that average people would be so put off if they’d heard someone in a room speaking this way that they’d leave. The smallest and most precious victims of all this potty-mouth was…you guessed it…the children. Sniff sniff. There were children in the crowd. Even the elderly! Gasp.

When are we going to get over our obsession with curses and what they actually do and what they actually say, and how insignificant they are on the scale of human depravity? As a general rule I don’t use profanity in my everyday life, and I probably wouldn’t have used it during a nationally televised speech, but then again, I never have (and safe to presume never will) come  back from a 3-1 deficit to win an NBA championship.

Francesa’s reaction reminds me of another time on national television some years ago involving a college football quarterback who pulled off an unbelievable last-second play to upset a heavy favorite in the regular season. The win had cemented a Bowl Game appearance for his team and when he was interviewed by NBC immediately after the game, he exclaimed something along the lines of “I can’t believe we fuckin won!” As if he’d just confessed to a triple homicide, the on-field reporter frantically tossed back to the anchor desk. The male anchor wrapped up the story with the closing line: “A dramatic and incredible victory…marred by that young man’s outburst.”

Marred? Really? How was it marred? If anything the anchor’s commentary marred the moment. And Francesa’s take on Lebron’s sassiness made it seem as though the whole championship might as well have never taken place. Marred by the outburst. Why don’t we literally put our money where our mouth is? If it’s so important to us, how about this: every time someone curses on live television we take $1 million away from the military’s budget. It would be a win-win: athletes would be a lot more hesitant to say these innocence-mauling, children-scarring collection of letters, and it would be an actual mandate on how strongly we care about cursing. But we’d never do that. Because at the end of the day, no one really cares. So can all you program directors and executive producers and news directors and advertising VPs stop making these anchors and commentators clutch their pearls and apologize on behalf of the human race? Pssst! we know it’s not an FCC violation. Your motivation is embarrassingly transparent.  

Aside from the hypocrisy and lip-service, this whole cursing fixation is just weird. I remember listening to Joe Buck talk about how then-Colts coach Tony Dungy never cursed, either on the sideline, or in his private life. Buck told us mooks sitting on our couches a story about the one and only time Dungy cursed: when he was citing the title of a song and said “ass.” Someone immediately remarked to him that he’d just said a curse word and he responded. “Yeah, but you’ll never get me to do that again.”

If the story is made up, it’s corny and insulting to anyone who lives in the real world and has hit their thumb with a hammer. It appeals to no one except a minority Christian extremist element that prefers to believe these Captain America, boy-scout fairy tales. If the story is true, then Tony Dungy is a creep and I wouldn’t want him near my kids. Anyone who is that staunch, that repressed, that publicly disciplined is bound to have a huge back door of vice swinging wide open in their private lives.

As a nation we have been able to fight off a dominant superpower to win the Revolutionary War. We survived another invasion from that same superpower in 1812. We were able to hold it together despite killing one another over the right to own other human beings. We joined and survived two world wars. We learned the word genocide. We managed to come out of a Great Depression. We rebuilt a gorgeous tower after a horrific terrorist attack altered the landscape of New York City. We said goodbye to NBC’s Friends with minimal violence from white people.

But I’m not sure we can weather the excited expletives of a basketball player who will be retiring in about 10 years. It’s a shame too, to see such a great nation brought to its knees because we couldn’t do as good a job as previous generations keeping children completely ignorant of curse words. It’s enough to make me want to curse. But I wouldn’t dare.