Mutton Busting

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Mutton Busting

If you have never witnessed the event of mutton busting, you have missed out on one of life’s great oddities. The announcer at the rodeo put it something like this: “Do you ever notice, when you give your child a little swat at the supermarket, everyone stares at you like you belong behind bars? But let your kid get trampled by a wild farm animal, and everyone just claps and claps.”

This rodeo—the only one I’ve ever been to—was otherwise uneventful. None of the bull riders stayed on the bucking beasts for anything close to the coveted eight seconds that qualifies a ride. Most of them were on the ground and limping within two seconds of mounting the bull. And under normal circumstances, the whole affair would have been unbearable for me to watch. I can hardly stand the Nature Channel, which is more or less a horror movie set in the animal kingdom. But in this rodeo, comeuppance on the part of the animal so far exceeded the triumph of the rider that it all just seemed like an embarrassing performance for human and animal alike.

That is, until the event of mutton busting.

How to describe the experience of watching one child after the next get thrown from the backs of bucking sheep? Some combination of shock and hilarity would maybe come close. Basically, the event goes like this: the announcer invites all the small (and I mean, small!) children into the arena. Everyone lines up, tiny limbs and all. Each waits his—and sometimes her—turn. Then, when it comes time, the rodeo hand simply throws a helmet on the little one, loads him up on the back of a wild sheep, holds the animal steady until the child gets his meager little grip, releases and lets the chaos begin. Usually it takes only about one second for the child—whose arms are draped in an awkward embrace around the sheep’s neck—to slip to one side of the leaping animal. Within three seconds, he is tossed on the ground and trampled underfoot. Of course, the rodeo hands have the child back up on his feet in no time, but still, from the stands, it looks like one small trauma after the next.

Now, here’s the strange part: I was watching all this with some degree of horror—the kind of horror that makes you laugh and secretly hope for more, rather than avert your eyes—when I started feeling envy. It wasn’t so much that I envied them the immediate experience of being trampled by a sheep, but something larger. I envied them their toughness, their peril, and their daring, which I imagined to be the upshot of all this hazard and risk. If only my parents had thrown me on the back of a wild animal with no saddle, how far I might have gone!

And then, as is the case with almost everything, these thoughts brought me back to writing, to one central tension that I can never seem to shake: whether writing demands of you an adventuresome life, events worthy of artful language, or whether writing, instead, makes just such a life unnecessary. I guess another way to put it would be to ask whether meaning comes from life or whether it comes from language. If this feels like a bizarre or overly-schematic division, then maybe you have never felt the strange emptiness that sometimes accompanies those major life events, which, for all intents and purposes, should have left a deeper impression, but somehow didn’t. It is the idea that meaning is created, meaning is written, rather than found. It is the idea that writing gives measure and weight where life sometimes lacks it. And, as I drag myself all over this globe, accumulating adventures, making up for the fact that my childhood was, lamentably, mutton-free, I wonder whether it wouldn’t be just as meaningful (or meaningless) if I holed myself up and secluded myself with words. And however I try to reason it one way or another, whatever theories I’ve been taught and have, in turn, taught to my students, in the end, this strikes me as an irresolvable tension that belongs to the art of writing itself.

-Jacqueline Abrams

1 Comment On This Topic
  1. Becky posted
    October 17, 2012 at 1:56 pm

    It seems to me that writing can give you the freedom to explore both these option. You real life experiences can certainly serve as fodder for creation, or you can allow your mind to create adventures that can only be imagined. More importantly, I think everyone involved in the rodeo, including the little assh*les riding the sheep (and their parents), should be rounded up and publicly whipped. And probably garbage should be thrown at them, too…


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