Riding for the brand

In some states, a brand is still a legally enforceable sign of ownership of livestock and a good deterrent to theft. South Dakota is one of those states. Around this time of year, ranchers are “calving”, and pastures become filled with playful babies and fiercely protective mommas. (If you don’t believe me, stand between a cow and her calf when the calf starts bawling. You’ll learn exactly how fast you can run when a 1500 pound animal charges you.) A few months from now, all the ranchers in the community will start planning their brandings. From sunup to midafternoon, an entire community shows up to help, and then they’re fed and boozed and sincerely thanked. All the ranchers take turns, until every calf in the county is branded.

Branding day

A branding is, in my opinion, a lost form of community that was once a necessity. Now there are very few reasons for people to rely on each other the way a rural community does when a huge task needs to be accomplished. And believe me when I say that rounding up an entire herd of cattle, separating the calves from the cows, vaccinating all the cows, and branding all the calves is a huge task. It would take a family a week to get it done. But it takes a community half a day. People are always glad to help because they’re appreciative of the help they receive when it’s their turn. And while it’s hard work that sometimes leaves you bruised and sore, it’s also a lot of fun. Good conversations are had on horseback, kids learn to rope and have a rare chance to play with the neighbor kids outside of school, and the men take every opportunity to make each other the butt of a joke. Someone inevitably falls in fresh manure or gets tripped by a rope that the horse is pulling a calf with. And if you’ve never been in a rocky mountain oyster fight, you haven’t lived! (Gross!)

Dad's and Grandpa's brands

Livestock branding dates back to several thousand years B.C. In the 1500’s, branding made its way to the Americas by way of the Spaniards. In the time of the Old West, the phrase “ride for the brand” was coined. Brands are legally registered and available for purchase. Both the symbol itself and its location on the animal are part of the brand. The best ones are simple, easy to read, and easy to apply. Good brands are often handed down through generations and can be sold with a ranch. My grandfather’s brand was “lazy B U on the left hip”. Dad uses it now, but his used to be 7NL, which looks the same upside down, so it was easy to apply. My brothers and I all had a brand for the handful of cattle our dad and grandpa gave us. Mostly it was to make us feel special. Mine was “rafter SS”, which looks like two S’s with a roof over them.

A brand is a ranch’s (or rancher’s) trademark and it represents pride and duty. Ranch hands (or cattle hands) in days of old were expected to “ride for the brand”. That meant that they were expected to hold themselves to the standards of the ranch. It meant they could be trusted to treat the ranch as their own; to care for every bull, cow, and calf and make sure they were all accounted for; and to put the welfare of the group above their own personal gain. In return, the rancher treated them like family. There was a fierce sense of loyalty, but at the same time, no contracts were ever signed. The ranch hand was there by choice… he chose to ride for the brand… and could count on being rewarded fairly. In the words of Louis L’Amour, riding for the brand was “an expression of loyalty to a man’s employer or the particular outfit he rode for. It was considered a compliment of the highest order in an almost feudal society. If a man did not like a ranch or the way they conducted their affairs he was free to quit, and many did, but if he stayed on, he gave loyalty and expected it.”

But those days are over, and sadly, some of the virtues of the times have gone with them. The Code of the West was a good one though, and even though its origin is foreign to most of us now, I see no reason why young generations shouldn’t strive to uphold it. Shouldn’t we still “ride for the brand” for the company we work for? Like the ranch hands of that time, we are free to leave a company whose mission we don’t believe in or culture we don’t like. If we choose to stay, though, don’t we owe our loyalty to a company that treats us fairly and respectfully?

In relationships as well, shouldn’t we “ride for the brand”? How many times have you heard someone complaining about their significant other? Why? We’re free to go aren’t we? But if we’ve chosen to be involved with someone… especially if we’ve chosen to marry the person and start a family… don’t we owe our loyalty to them? And that includes the times when they aren’t watching or within earshot. The only person you’re hurting is yourself if you choose to live a double life—to be involved in something that you don’t believe in.

No one is perfect, and every day is a new struggle to live a life of integrity… to like the person we see in the mirror every morning. But today I challenge everyone to “ride for the brand”… whatever your brand might be.


When communicating with the Universe, is it appropriate to use sticky notes?

I have bought into the Law of Attraction. Your thoughts will manifest your destiny. You will bring about the exact outcome that you expect to receive. If you have a pessimistic attitude, problems and obstacles will find their way to you. If you see your glass as half full—or as I like to think of it, always full enough—then the moons and stars will align in your favor.

I can honestly say that I am happy the vast majority of the time. There are people in my life who have told me they have sympathy for me… because I’m not married. My reaction is to look at them like they have two heads. Why on earth would you be sad for me?? I’m happy every day. And I’ve managed not to marry the wrong man while I wait for the man who’s perfect for me. Meanwhile, countless others are brushing their misery under the rug because they can’t relate to, communicate with, understand, or even make themselves like their spouse. My goodness. I’d so much rather be standing in my shoes. The man I marry will be fantastic and so worth the wait, so I don’t mind a bit.

In the meantime, I’ll continue communicating with the Universe, which is an art that I’m still trying to master. Without knowing it, I began doing it as a child. My vivid imagination pictured scenarios that would ultimately play out. I imagined myself throwing strikes in my little league games. I visualized good report cards. I pictured myself delivering a flawless performance in piano recitals and in high school, flawless speeches in debate tournaments. (You didn’t know I was so nerdy, did you?) I imagined myself going away to college… and being accepted into grad school. I imagined myself as a woman who walked into a high-rise office in heels every day, although I had no idea what people did once inside those buildings. I just knew I wanted to be there. And so it came to be.

Now that I recognize the power we all hold to determine our own futures, I am starting to play with it a little. Starting to be more specific. A couple years ago, a cousin of mine told me that she wrote down a dollar figure on a piece of paper once—the salary she wanted to make the following year. It was far-fetched given what she currently made, but she had faith. And lo and behold, the following year she filed taxes for slightly more than the amount on her piece of paper.

This morning I decided that I wanted to ask the Universe for a few specific things. One involves my career and a certain type of opportunity that I would like to be given this coming year. The other involves personal growth. I grow every time I travel and there are certain parts of the world that I haven’t seen yet. Certain traits of certain cultures that I would like to understand and adopt. And so I decided to write them down and carry them with me—both the career opportunity and the travel destination—so that I would not forget my goals and the Universe would not misinterpret them.

I pulled out the nearest small piece of paper I could write on, out of habit. And then I stopped and stared at it. It was a pink sticky note. Hmm. I wonder…

When communicating with the Universe, is it appropriate to use sticky notes?

You’re gonna have to kill me first

It was a Wednesday morning like every other Wednesday morning that fall. I faced a long day of classes and research ahead, beginning at 8 am and ending at 9 pm. I couldn’t go to the gym on those days, so I always got up at 5:45 and left my house by 6:00 to go for a run. There was a three mile loop that began just a few blocks from my house. I lived in The Woodlands, the northern-most suburb of Houston. It was called The Woodlands because it was a community built into woods so thick you barely knew you were in the middle of an urban area. There were numerous trails to run and bike on, all of which ran parallel to a quiet residential street but were separated from the street by a shallow ditch about 15 feet wide. The trail couldn’t be seen from the road because the ditch was comprised of untouched woods, thick with trees and brush and vines. The trails were great for people like me, who liked some solitude during their run. But I didn’t realize until that Wednesday morning that they were dangerous for that same reason.

I always walked the three blocks to the start of the trail to warm my legs up and get my blood pumping before beginning my run. The streets were always empty, except for this morning. As soon as I left my house I noticed a young man, riding a bike in circles in the middle of the first intersection near my house. It was one of those small bikes you can do tricks on. The young man was wearing tennis shoes, jeans, and a gray hooded sweatshirt. The hood was pulled up over his head. It wasn’t cold outside… I was in shorts and a tank top. Curious, I thought to myself. I wonder what someone like that is doing out at this hour?

When he saw me walking toward him, he took a quick look in my direction and then broke out of his circle to ride off in the same direction I was going. I didn’t think much of it.

I reached that intersection, took a right, walked a block, took a left, walked another block, and that brought me to the street where the trail started. Here is where I usually started running.

But a quiet siren was going off in my head as I started down the trail that began my three-mile loop. Where had that guy on the bike gone? Instead of running when I entered the trail, I walked. And I began walking slower, looking around me, looking for him. I took my head phones off while at the same time, wondered why I was pausing. For some reason, my senses were heightened.

And then I saw him. I stopped in my tracks. He had stashed his bike in the trees and was crouching down in the bushes about 50 feet ahead of me. He was waiting for me.

You mother fucker, I thought to myself.

He didn’t see me yet.

I felt the temperature of my blood rise and rush into every one of my limbs, preparing me for action. I felt my face flush. I felt the adrenaline. I could have jumped over a building at that moment. But I just stood and stared at him. Then he turned his head toward me and saw me. He startled and stood up. Flustered, he began fidgeting; reaching into his pockets, acting as if he’d had a purpose for crouching in the bushes. Then he grabbed his bike and set it back on the trail, facing away from me, and he started walking it away from me. But after a few steps he realized he wasn’t fooling anyone, and he threw the bike down and spun around. He started running toward me.


In a split second, I reacted, fueled by the adrenaline that had pumped into my system. But in that split second, time froze. He froze. I froze. And this was my thought process:

You’re gonna have to kill me first, mother fucker. But in order to do that, you’re gonna have to catch me.

So… if I turn around and run back to the trail entrance, I’ll probably make it to the street but he WILL catch me. I’ll never make it the three blocks home, and I doubt anyone will see me before he has time to pull me back out of sight. The nearest public place is a gas station about a block away, down the street that runs parallel to the trail. There’s a ditch full of brush and shit between me and that street, but there’s a better chance that a car might come by on that street than on the one back to my house. That possibility alone might deter him. Ok….

Now RUN.

A gun went off in my head and bolted me into action. I dove into the ditch and felt vines and branches snapping, trying to catch my feet with every step forward. I was probably getting cut up but I couldn’t feel it. I ran up the other side of the ditch and out into the middle of the street and began sprinting down it toward the gas station. I could hear him behind me, pushing through the brush. I heard his steps on the pavement. And then the noise was drowned out by the sound of my heart beating in my ears. I couldn’t feel my legs. I just ran. And at some point, he gave up the chase and turned around. He had weighed the odds and decided against it.

I all but tore the door to the gas station off its hinges and ran inside, yelling for a phone. First I called my brother. Then I called the police. Dan beat the police there… God bless him. And he brought his gun with him.

I didn’t start crying until I climbed into Dan’s pickup, where I felt safe. And then I let myself think about what could have happened. When the police arrived, Dan helped me file an official report, but I didn’t have much information to give them. I never saw the guy’s face—it was hidden behind the hood of his gray sweatshirt. I didn’t know how tall he was—I never had perspective to gauge it. I knew he was probably in his early 20’s and on a bike. That’s all I knew. The cops drove around the neighborhood for a while but there wasn’t much they could do. Dan drove around the neighborhood for a while longer. Then he took me home and I went on with my day… shaken.

Someone had been watching me long enough to learn my routine and I was completely oblivious to it. That Wednesday morning, he learned which house was mine, because he saw me coming out of it. I would end up calling the police on the guy twice more after that. About a week later, he was hiding in the bushes across the street when I went out to my car. Again he started coming toward me. I made it back inside the house and tore through it, locking all the doors and windows, calling 911, and wishing I wasn’t there alone. I waited in an upstairs bedroom for I-didn’t-know-what… shaking. He didn’t break into the house. The police came and took another report. They told me that even if they caught him, there was nothing they could do because he hadn’t hurt me and we could only guess at the guy’s intentions.

I’m fairly certain that he wasn’t hoping for the opportunity to ask me out.

I saw him once more, about a block from my house. This time I was in my car, and rather than going home, I kept driving and called the police. Once again, he disappeared before they got there. They never did question him, and I moved shortly thereafter. But his memory re-emerges every time I think about going for a run outside or when I catch myself developing a pattern that someone might be able to learn. The memory of that day has caused my blood temperature to rise and my adrenaline to kick in again when walking through dark parking garages and being in office buildings alone at night. I’m thankful that my intuition served me that day and I pay close to attention to it now.

Ironically, the reason I was living in Texas was for a Clinical Forensic Psychology PhD program. I was studying sex offenders and psychopaths; doing research in the prisons where they were held. The work I did was in risk prediction, with the goal being to better identify sex offenders who were likely to commit future offenses if released from prison. The “civil commitment” law allows for the indefinite incarceration of federal inmates considered mentally ill and sexually dangerous, even after they have served their time in full for criminal charges. Megan’s Law requires law enforcement authorities to make information available to the public about sex offenders who are released. And Texas doesn’t play around.

This story has a happy ending but many aren’t so lucky. One in four women report surviving rape or attempted rape during their college years. One in five women will be raped at some point during her lifetime and the vast majority knows her attacker. Fifty-five percent tell no one about the incident, so the perpetrator suffers no consequences and is free to do it again. More than half of all rape and sexual assault incidents occur within one mile of the survivor’s home or in her home.

Do your daughters a favor and talk to them about the dangers they face. Make them learn self-defense. Teach them what can happen when their judgment and response time are impaired by alcohol. There are no guarantees, but knowledge is power.

And if you ever sit on a jury for a sex offense trial, keep this in mind… Research shows that most convicted sex offenders have committed many, many assaults before they are caught.

Deuteronomy 19:21 Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.


To a Strong Woman… and Back Again

I mastered it. The art of being a strong, independent woman. Somewhere in my early 20’s, I figured out how to not need anything from anyone. I didn’t need to waste my time on a relationship. I was busy getting my education. I had a goal in mind… a successful career that would require a graduate degree, publications, long hours in a high rise office.

I would make money, I decided. I would be able to provide a good life for myself and if the time ever came, I’d be able to send my kids to Ivy League schools if they chose to go to one. The idea of a husband didn’t really come into the picture, although I knew it was a necessary detail. I would do it. That’s all that mattered.

Why would I do it? Because I had something to prove. A sheltered childhood left me ill-equipped for the world that would greet me when I struck off on my own, as a barely-18 year-old girl who weighed 100 pounds soaking wet. I learned the hard way that not everyone has good intentions. I learned that your first love might cheat on you with a woman of questionable morals. That you might get your heart broken because someone’s addiction is stronger than their love for you. I learned that you can’t keep a routine, because someone might study it. I learned that it’s not safe to go places alone at night. That you have to worry about parking garages and dark stairwells and telling people where you live. I learned that a lot of men aren’t like my dad. I’d been hurt. I’d been scarred. And for a while, I’d been beaten by life.

But you can only live that way… feeling beaten… for so long. Then you decide that you aren’t going to let the trials of life win. You pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and decide that you’re stronger than that. I began a journey to build a fortress around myself. I became smarter. I became tougher. Harder. Stronger. I faced my fears head-on. And before I knew it, there I was… a strong, independent woman. I had my career. I owned my home. I learned that with perseverance, I can overcome anything that might stand in my way.

I did it on my own. And as a result, I was alone.

Men, you’ve all met a woman like I described above. There’s not much you can say or do to convince her to let her guard down. Most men walk away from a woman like that. Or they latch onto her because her confidence makes up for the confidence they’re lacking, and eventually, she walks away from them. Men have told me I’m intimidating. Men have told me they feel they have nothing to offer me. How wrong they were. But still, it kept me alone.

But the pendulum always swings back in the other direction. My defenses served me well, as they do all women who are trying to protect themselves. But my perspective has changed again. I’m in a different place in life and the tint on the lense has changed once more. I’ve healed. And now I realize… I don’t want to be so strong.

Men, take note. When you meet a woman, regardless of how tough her façade is, treat her as if she’s delicate. Because she is. Recognize that even if she’s the CEO of some big corporation, she still worries about what you think of her. She still feels insecurities and is thrown out of her element by hormones from time to time. When she questions you, open your eyes to the reason behind her questions. Even if she’s a beautiful, intelligent, seemingly confident woman, she still wants/needs that one man to show her kindness and affection. She needs his reassurance. If she walks away angry, she wants him to follow. She’ll show her insecurity with defensiveness. Ignore her walls. Let her know that you see through them and that you’ll walk through them and that you’ll be there to catch her when she needs you.

Even the strongest woman needs a man who lets her be soft and sensitive. We want to be the weaker sex. When a man recognizes this and treats us accordingly, it’s like a sigh of relief. A burden taken off of us that we’ve been carrying since the first time we caught a glimpse of how cruel the world can be. When you see what’s underneath our tough outer shell, you give us permission to be the person we really are… be the thing that comes natural to us. Feminine. And it elevates that man in our minds to be the only one who ‘gets it’. The one who makes us feel safe. He is the man; she is the woman.

His woman.

Rise Like the Phoenix

You never know when you’re going to stumble across a piece of wisdom that will swirl around in your head for a period of time until it forever changes the pathways of your brain. I stumbled across some of that wisdom recently, in a conversation with a woman who’s become a good friend of mine in a very short time. One chance meeting led to breakfast, and one long breakfast sealed the friendship. As it turns out, we have a lot in common, including a long and less-than-perfect dating history.

She and I sat together in my living room, eating take-out and watching The Bachelorette several Monday nights ago. We listened to the show only when we weren’t busy commenting on the attractiveness and personalities of the men… and the glaringly obvious lack of “asshole radar” of the bachelorette. But our night didn’t end with the show. We sat and talked for another two hours afterwards, about our own personal lives. She is now happily married, as of last summer, to a man who exceeds every wish she had for a husband. And I had a completely empty plate when it came to prospects. My plate had emptied only recently, and I needed to talk about it.

I told my friend that I was frustrated. I had once believed with every ounce of my being that I had found my soul mate. When I was only 23 years old, a man walked into my life who pulled my head out of the books it was buried in and taught me what love was. We taught each other. I had never laughed so hard, cared so much, invested so heavily, and had so much to lose. Within a few short weeks of knowing him, I didn’t know how to live without him. And three years later, we were engaged. But it was not an easy three years. It was a roller coaster. And our engagement seemed to intensify… everything. We couldn’t hold on. He couldn’t hold on – to his sobriety or to his stability – and I walked away, leaving my heart behind me in pieces. I loved him but I knew I needed more than he could give me, and he knew it too.

I have gone through some tough things in my life (haven’t we all?), but I can honestly say that the decision to break my own heart and walk away from him left me in the worst state I’ve ever been. Five years later I still hadn’t managed to collect the pieces of my heart and put them back together well enough to love again. He still held on to a few of the pieces, and I see now that he held them because I wanted him to hold them. I wasn’t willing to take them back. And so after five years apart and a handful of failed relationships that never seemed to fill the void left by him, I started contacting him again. I emailed him and told him what I was feeling. He told me that he too hadn’t moved on. There was still love there… or at least a memory of it, as if we’d been walking through a room where the other person’s scent still lingered. With every new person I tried to date, his memory was there, insisting that he not be forgotten. He said the same was true for him. And so after five years apart, I got on a plane and flew to his new city. I hugged him. I smelled his cologne again. And the very first time we sat down together again ended with my head resting on his shoulder and our hands entwined. I felt his lips on mine again and confirmed what I had thought… that he was made for me. I was home.

My fairy tale lasted about two months. I visited him twice and he came to see me once. On our last visit, he told me that he had been lost without me, and he is finally ready for marriage and a family. It had to be me. It was always me. He got back on the plane to go home, with a plan for bringing our lives back together, but less than a week later he had faded away again. I can’t really explain it. He just wasn’t motivated enough to make it a reality, so it was easier for him to let it all go. I was hurt, but not broken this time. After a few difficult days, it occurred to me that what had transpired is exactly what needed to happen. I had been stuck in limbo, and now I was free. I had my answer. I took back the remaining pieces of my heart, took firm hold of the reality that what I had believed was wrong, and took a step forward. For the first time in eight years, I was free to move without restraint. There was nothing holding me in place any longer.

That Monday night, as my friend and I sat on my couch and I told her my story, she shared with me her story. It was very similar to mine and equally difficult. She told me that a couple years ago, she purposely reduced her life to ashes… killed every bit of it that was holding her in place. She left a bad relationship that had paralyzed her for years, moved back to her home city, left her career and started fresh. She even left most of her friends behind, realizing that many of them weren’t really friends. She spent the better part of a year very much alone with a plate that was very, very empty. She did it on purpose. She told me the story of ‘the phoenix’.

The phoenix is a mythological symbol, usually characterized as a bird with brightly colored plumage. After a long life, it dies in a fire of its own making, only to rise again from the ashes, spreading its wings to begin a new life. But the new life can’t be born until the old one is dead… gone completely.

My friend set her old life on fire and cleared out a path for a new one. She wrote a list of things she wanted, both in life and in a man, as if stating her desires to the universe. We’ve all heard of the Law of Attraction. Call it what you will. She visualized her life. She visualized the man. And one year later, she found her husband, and the life that they’ve built together has made it possible for all her aspirations to come to fruition.

That night, despite the late hour, I went to bed with a notebook and a pen. I wrote a list of things I want, both in life and in a man. I spared no detail. I can visualize it now. I can see both him and my life, and I know that it’s only a matter of time.

Everyone will go through a death and rebirth at some point in their lives. Things never go according to plan. But I see now that if we should ever find ourselves standing in ashes, with an empty plate and no path to follow, we should rejoice in it. Think of the possibilities that lie ahead. Define yourself again. Find a new path. Spread your wings and see where life takes you.

Rise like the phoenix.

Those Damn Double Doors

At about 6:00 this morning, I was walking into the gym to do some morning cardio—my typical Monday morning routine. When I was a few feet from the front door a man’s voice yelled from behind me, “I’ll get the door!” I turned around to see a young man, maybe early 20’s, jogging across the parking lot toward me. I stopped and waited, pleasantly surprised, and thanked him when he opened the door for me. In a Southern accent, he said “you’re welcome.” Then I walked through the doors and dammit if I wasn’t stumped once again by the double door. I never know what to do! In this instance, he had put so much effort into getting the first door for me that I stopped and waited, allowing him to get the second door too. If I had gotten the second door for myself, I ran the risk of being unappreciative of his chivalry. But if I don’t, I might look lazy or seem to have a sense of entitlement. I have always just relied on a genuine ‘thank you’ with eye contact and a smile to redeem myself for any mistakes I might be making.

But it gets even more complicated than that. Does the polite thing to do change depending on if it’s a stranger or your date? What if it’s a first date versus a date with your long-time significant other? What if the gentleman holding the door is older, from a previous generation where chivalry was the norm? Do you respond differently then?

I realize that there are a lot more rules for men to know than women… assuming the man wants to be chivalrous. He needs to worry about the rules surrounding opening car doors, which side of her he should be on when walking down the sidewalk, whether to be in front of her or behind her on the stairs, whether to let her go first through a revolving door or to go ahead of her and do the work for her. He needs to walk the delicate balance between offering to pick her up for a date versus respecting the fact that she may not want to divulge her address. He needs to know when to put his jacket around her shoulders and when to refrain because she isn’t cold enough yet to cover up her cute outfit. He has to worry about offending her by treating her as if she’s incapable. (If only we all wore signs, announcing where we fall on the feminist rating scale.) Lastly, but certainly not least, is the issue of picking up the check. This one stumps women, too, btw.

I’ll shed some light, from one woman’s perspective, on what is appreciated. It can be summed up quite simply:

I like it all! There’s no such thing as too chivalrous in my book, as long as you’re not making a show of it. I love having doors held for me. I love it when a guy offers to pick me up for a date, opens the car door (all the time, not just on a date), pulls out my chair at dinner, puts his jacket around me when I’m cold. I like it when he walks me to my door after a date, or at least checks to see that I made it home safely. I love it when I feel a hand on my lower back to guide me, even though I’m perfectly capable of finding my own way through a door. I like it when a man pulls me to the other side of him to make sure he’s closer to the street when we’re walking down a sidewalk. None of it goes unnoticed, and none of it goes unappreciated. It reminds me that I am a woman, and more importantly, that he is a man.

So now that you have the female perspective, I’d love to hear the man’s perspective. At what point do you feel that a woman is being presumptuous? If you hold the first door of a set of two, what do you expect her to do for the second door? When the check comes, do you want her to offer to pay or not? Does it make a difference whether it’s a first date, or who asked who to dinner? If you pay for dinner, do you want her to offer to pay for the dessert/drink/movie that follows, or is she taking something away from you by doing that?

Let’s help each other out here. Chivalry is not dead. It’s just muddled. I, for one, would like to know how to leave a good impression.


Modern woman with an old soul