Straw Boss

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The other day I had to admit an ugly truth to a job applicant: I’m not in charge of this outfit. I just act like I am.

Heck, I’m not even on the payroll here at the PV. I’m just an overgrown tagalong.

I think it started out innocent enough. I think I was the cute little girl who followed her dad around pretending she was in charge. And then I grew up, but I’m still pretending I’m in charge. It’s just not quite as cute as it used to be.

My dad’s worked for this corporate ranch for about 50 years, climbing up the ranks of leadership along the way. He took me with him in his work from the time I was little, and I absorbed much of what I heard and saw… probably more than he and Mom guessed (kids are like that). They treated the ranch like it was their own, out of loyalty to their employee, and I did too… but in a slightly different (and less stable) way.

See, I wanted to be my folks’ top hand, recognized for my astounding knowledge of ranch business. But what I wanted even more was to be in charge. The trouble with my personality is this:  I can’t be involved without wanting to take over. You name it, I always assume I know the best way to proceed.

At an early age I starting overflowing with Ideas for running the ranch. Following on the heels of my Ideas came my Opinions. Oh, it was probably endearing at first. Look at that little freckle-faced girl! She thinks she’s in charge!  But now that I’m older, it’s clear I’ve always been standing on a cloud at the top of a hollow mountain because I
a) don’t officially work here and
b) don’t have a firm grasp on reality.

Embarrassingly, I think I always halfway believed I’d buy, inherit, or otherwise obtain this ranch of my upbringing someday — have ‘er all to myself, with absolute decision-making power.  (Last time it sold, it went for 34 million, and that was before land prices skyrocketed. So realistically, seeing as how I make bloggers’ wages and all, my purchase is probably not an attainable financial goal.)  Why the desire to own? Because I’ve always really wanted to be the one making decisions. If I was in charge, with no one to answer to, I’d be able to implement all my Ideas and Improvements. As a little girl I couldn’t wait to see my daydreams become reality.

What I’ve discovered here in adulthood, of course, is that a commoner like myself has little to no chance of buying a ranch these days — especially not a sizable one like the PV.  Furthermore, Ideas and Improvements are huge expenses… which stand in the way of Profit. And another important note: even as the real ranch manager around here, working for a distant corporate office and a wealthy owner we seldom see, Dad’s decision-making ability is limited; he constantly checks and balances against a corporate manager in the fight for Improvements v. Profit around here.

 

On Loving What Isn’t My Own
Oh how I love this land we live on. Its hardpan and gumbo, its sandrocks and pine coulees.  Its dirt roads and landmarks. Its cottonwood meadows and crumbling homesteads. Its cedar posts and special secret places. Its creeks, like: Alkali, Muggins, Froze-to-Death, East Buffalo, Weed, Willow, and Porcupine.  Its pastures, some of them named for the people who came before us: Kinsey, the Creek Place and Fort Pease, Schueth and Roskosky, the Hayes Place, the White Place, Sidehill and Ridge.

I have loved this land so dearly that it has been a constant struggle for me to keep that love on the healthy side of the coin.

If I love the darn place so much, why didn’t I just go to work here a long time ago? The short answer is this: my experience and knowledge overqualified me for the position of a common ranch hand when I was about eight years old.

The long answer is this: as with all people, a series of paths and turns led me to where I am today, intentional or otherwise.

Oh, I’ve done a lot of of daywork for the PV over the years. But when I finished high school, as so many kids do, I just automatically went to college with no real life plan in mind (besides owning the ranch). I never considered going straight to work at the PV or, even better, at another ranch. But I did come home from college every weekend to help at the PV.

Soon a new kind of love came down the road for me: Beau and I married before I was done with college. He originally planned to return to school, too, but then a cow camp opened up, and we jumped at the opportunity. I finished college quickly then worked as a freelance writer. Thanks to my husband’s employment at the PV, I could still ride and still pretend to be in charge. (Doesn’t that make him an enabler?)

Sure, it was always his job. I went along with him to give direction often, but I also kept my finger in other pies: I had school to finish, then writing projects to work on, and eventually babies to rock in the house.

When we started out, I knew more about Montana ranching and cowboying than Beau did. And he was my good student for a lot of years. Then came the day we both realized the student was actually the master. It was no longer okay for me to call the shots from my chair in the house. It was time for me to recognize that he, not I, had been outside… actually working on the ranch… every day in the dirt and weather.

Yet I have remained reluctant to relinquish my imagined power here at the PV.  I know I should give it up, but knowing and doing are two different things, and it wears on me. My desire to be in charge — and frustration because I’m not — is a sin that reaches up from inside my belly and squeezes tight around my neck, some days worse than others.

When Beau finally started calling me out on this issue of mine, I realized that I never did plan to be the one riding every day in the cold, or pulling gooey calves, or changing tires in the mud, or stacking salt sacks like my dad and husband have always done.  I’ve just simply wanted to be the one calling the shots — from my saddle, then later from my desk chair, and eventually from the glider where I rock our babies.  I’ve continued to pretend I can have my fingers in all the pies.  Because by golly I know how to run this place!

But of course it’s been an immature assumption I’ve made all these years… thinking I was in charge though I hadn’t actually put in the labor to rise through the ranks.  What everyone but me always knew was this: Dad manages the PV as a worker-leader. He’s the hardest worker on the outfit. He does not bark orders from a desk or pickup; he gets in the middle of whatever’s going on. And for whatever recognition of his hard work that Beau has received, he has fought hard for 13 years now.  It took a long time for me to truly recognize that Beau is more than just my own personal top hand, that something even bigger is going on above me between my dad and Beau.  Eventually Beau had to tell me that he didn’t appreciate feeling like he was working for two bosses: 1) my dad, and 2) me.

Turns out my imaginary position has been eliminated by default.

 

Oh, Lord, When Did I Become One of Those Women?
My dad’s and husband’s employment at this ranch I run in my imagination have enabled me to pretend I’m in charge for a long time now. You can bet I know the place pretty well, even though I don’t officially work here.  So it’s been nigh to impossible for me to lay off and pretend I don’t care about what’s going on around here. I continue to voice my opinions, operate projects from behind the scenes, and, well, generally run my mouth at any opportunity.

Oh, Lord, how did I become one of those women who has so many feisty opinions that no one listens to her anymore? How did I turn into that woman constantly straining for more power and more control? Sometimes I look in the mirror and try to discern what’s really going on here. Am I a threat to ranch security or just a troubled soul? Depends on who you ask. I usually see just ol’ Tami Jo, just riding on the shirttails of someone else’s outfit. Pat her on the head and send her on.

Turns out a man doesn’t know what to do with a woman who pretends his job is really her own. Dad hasn’t known what to do with me for years.

Now even Beau has suggested that it truly is time for me to stop pretending I’m in charge.  He points out that I’ve got a full-time job as it is… and that’s raising our three kids.

 

On Being Female
You know, for all of our old-fashioned values around here, I don’t think the issue has ever been my gender. Though I don’t expect the day to come soon when a woman will head up an outfit as big and traditional as the PV, I was certainly never kept from ranch work because I’m a girl.  (That’s me wrestling calves with my buddy, Jake, at the top of this post; I’m probably 7 or 8.  As a side note, Dad did refuse to let my sister castrate calves for years and years; that’s simply not appropriate work for a lady in his mind. She had been a doctor for about 10 years before he ran out of options one day and let her cut.)

I think the real issue has been that I’ve always had my finger in too many pies. I never truly narrowed my interests on ranching. I’ve been a ranch aficionado on the side, yes, but I’ve also invested time into the following pursuits: basketball (in high school), college, my writing career, and now motherhood. And I wouldn’t give any of those experiences up; I like tasting all the pies.

But while I’ve been busy pursuing all these other various careers, I have actually remained at the ranch only through the kindness of the men who let me live with them. Not because I own the place. Not because I work here. Not because anyone in the world other than me thinks I deserve to be here.

Can you imagine the daughter of a factory-employed city dweller becoming so emotionally invested in the factory of her father’s employ that she would pretend the factory was her own? That she would talk her husband into working there forever, too? That she would invest untold, unpaid behind-the-scenes hours into being involved in factory business?

What kind of sickness is this? Perhaps it’s the land, and my love for it, that complicates everything.

And anyhow, aren’t there other women out there who have kids and run ranches both?

Beau thinks, obviously, that there’s more to the question than that, beginning with the problem of me not even being employed by the ranch. He also thinks that maybe I will be more efficient in life if I stop trying to have my fingers in multiple pies. Mostly, he thinks that anything with two heads is a monster and that we have enough chiefs around here as it is.

The time comes to leave childish thinking behind. To realize that there’s a difference between the dreams of childhood and the reality of adulthood. To come to terms with what is real and what is now. The reality, then, is this: I’ll probably never own this or any ranch.  And realistically I couldn’t work here, doing the jobs that my dad and Beau do, working for somebody else and trying to balance everyone’s interests. I’d probably throw a big fit and quit within a couple weeks!

Maybe someday I’ll submit a bill for a lifetime of ranch consulting and promotional services that no one asked me to do and which some probably wished I hadn’t done. Or maybe I’ll just take as payment the fact that they let me stick around this outfit, living for sunrises and clean air and another branding season… still pretending I’m in charge.

 

What’re We Gonna Do About Me?
“Life” and “The Ranch” have always been synonymous for me. I guess that’s why I never left to get my own gig: anything else seemed insignificant in comparison to the PV.

So I guess the first thing I can do is be thankful for the men in my life who make it possible for me to be here, where life is so abundant and meaningful.

But because it’s looking like my life will unfold here on the ranch where I will constantly need to restrain my, um, leadership qualities, the question will regularly present itself:  what, exactly, is my position here? All my life I have witnessed other capable, knowledgable ranch women struggling with the same: what is my title? Are my contributions worth compensation? How do I keep my mouth shut when the men are floundering through an issue and I obviously know the answer?  Even my own mom, who accepts the role of “helper” much more readily than I, has wondered at her position on this ranch.

It’s all part of that age-old struggle between a woman’s desire to control and a man’s reluctance to tell her to sit down and shut up. We Blakes are no different than any other humans. And so our life here at the PV Ranch will be a constant balance… but isn’t everyone’s?

I know I need to control my desire for power just simply for the health of everyone around me.  But how exactly does one stop acting like she’s in charge? I’ve been pretending to be in charge for so long that it’s part of my identity. And now here I am, an overgrown kid who is authentically interested in the goings-on, with an incalculable emotional investment into the place, who obviously needs to re-train herself in her approach to life.

Self-control is going to be the name of the game. I will have to learn to be thankful that, because of my husband and my dad, I can still have a piece of the pie. Not the whole pie, of course, but a piece. Can’t a gal learn to be happy with one single piece of pie?

I have to be happy with one piece, because more than anything I want to be a trustworthy partner to my husband as he journeys through his own career. I can’t be constantly fighting him, making his life more difficult when he’s already dealing with a multitude of outside forces. So I need to be his support crew.

I need to be happy to share an idea if I’m asked and to zip it if I’m not.

I need to be happy to — not to ride point — but instead to walk along at the drag of the herd with one kid in my saddle and the halter of another kid’s horse in my hand. And I can do that. That’s not a bad job.

And what about our kids? Growing up on this ranch, will they struggle with the same possession issues as I have?

And herein lies my real job. Our sweet, sweet kids and the future before them… they open my eyes to the reality that the people on this ranch are the most important part of the equation.  Just as I won’t be able to practice control over my conquistador personality without the help of Jesus, I can also gain hope for the big picture from the truth of the Bible.

That big picture is this: this ranch is temporary. It’s part of a world that won’t stand much longer. These eternal souls around me, though, are the ones that really matter. From our coworkers to our bosses to these little kids of ours… it’s loving the people here (even the ones I don’t like) that I can, and must, do.

I’m not at the top of the ladder here; these men in my life belong up there. I really can’t even be beside my husband in this situation; everyone knows there isn’t room for two people on the same rung. And I can’t be at the bottom — my experience overqualified me for that position long ago. The day will come when I will daywork here again, when the kids and I will trot out with the crew. Until then, I’ll always be paid for cooking for hungry workers. And I will continue to fight for fair compensation of those important little tasks a woman does that don’t get compensated on a ranch:  mowing the weeds, cleaning the bunkhouse, ad infinitum.

So what is my place here? What is my role? As Beau keeps reminding me, none of us know from day to day. We’re just trying to survive 24 hours at a time, doing the next right thing… and if tomorrow comes, we’ll do our best then too.

I think Beau is right that, in my particular situation at least, I can’t be in charge of both the ranch and the kids. And I choose my kids. Over and over, I choose them. I choose to spend my days pouring into them, investing in them… and providing for them a healthy, heaven’s-eye view of what’s really going on… down here at the ranch.

© Tami Blake

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5 thoughts on “Straw Boss

  1. Ahh the conviction. Relinquishing control and trusting (both God and our husbands) is a daily challenge. Your honesty is beautiful and refreshing.

    P.S. Love seeing that pic of you and Jake. Wasn’t it just the other day Josh Fox and I were the little tag-a-longs following you two around?! Boy I sure do miss those days, that place, and you folks!

    Like

    1. Thank you for reading, Emily! So often I tell my kids a story that starts like this: “When I was a little girl there were kids living at Butte Camp, and their names were Jake and Emily…” We did a lot together back then! These days we see Joe and Steph pretty often, but not even Josh for a long while now. If you’re ever up in this country, come visit! Would love to meet your little ones. Hope Jake is doing well too.

      Like

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