Musings + Essays

Ghost Riders in the Sky.

By: Jen Shoop

One of the odder entries in my father’s lullaby canon was Johnny Cash’s version of “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”  It’s a rousing, poetic country song about a weathered lone ranger who is warned by a damned cowboy to change his errant ways, or be doomed to an endless hunt to “catch the Devil’s herd across these endless skies.”

I didn’t know what the song meant as a wide-eyed child, but I found the imagery vivid, stirring — the profile of a griseled, weather-beaten cowboy pausing for a rest on a ridge, the herd of steel-hooved cattle pounding toward him, the gaunt faces of those phantom riders.  Not exactly soothing bedtime material, but it told a story and it became — for reasons unknowable when I think about the broad range of books and music to which we were exposed as children — a cultural touchstone for me.

*The oil painting above is by Frederic Remington, a great painter of the American West — and one of my father’s favorite artists.  As I was writing this post, I knew I had to accompany it with one of his works.

When I was a little older, teetering on puberty, spinning girlhood crushes on movie stars and literary heroes, I used to daydream about marrying a cowboy.  There was something dashing about his persona: I was drawn to his ruggedness, his adventurousness, his terse unknowability — characteristics I’d extrapolated from my childhood lullaby and other country albums, the handful of Western movies we watched as kids, and the real-life cowboys and horse handlers we’d crossed paths with out in Colorado, where we spent many of my summers growing up.  I imagined falling for a handsome cowboy of my own, softening his tough guy exterior with my charm, my kindness, my nurture.

In my late 20s, after I had married Mr. Magpie, I had a conversation with my sister-in-law about The Godfather, a film we both loved, and I told her that I adored the character of Sonny Corleone (played by James Caan).

“Of course you do,” she laughed.  “He’s got that whole hotheaded, lone ranger, masculine energy.”

The commentary had rolled off her tongue so easily, and I reflected on her observation for some time, pondering both my attraction to “that whole hotheaded, lone ranger energy” (and her decided self-distancing from it) and the dissonance between that vision of masculinity and the one that had stood by me at the altar, who slept beside me every night, who made my coffee and also, frequently, my bed.

You see, Mr. Magpie is many powerful things, but hotheaded is not one of them.  In fact, he’s more Michael Corleone than Sonny — measured, level-headed, strategic — and many of his tenderest acts of love are domestic ones.  But he is also tough, just like his dad: strong, independent, even willful; loathe to shed a tear; predisposed to hold his emotions privately, close to the chest.

Where am I going with this?

A few weeks ago, I was listening to a podcast in which Roxane Gay was commenting on The Real Housewives, and at one point (paraphrasing) she explains that The Real Housewives franchises are fascinating because the women in them “perform their gender” in ways both problematic and illustrative.  A couple of days later, I tuned into a Goop podcast (I know, I know — I still occasionally listen, despite my criticisms of the company) in which a therapist explained that little boys learn that they should not be expressive — that they should “suck it up” and “be tough” — by the age of three or four years old, and that this cultural norm blocks emotional intimacy, a heavily prevalent issue in the relationships of many of the couples with whom he works.

This tumbleweed of loosely related observations and thoughts opened my eyes, because in them, I see an interesting narrative about the construct of masculinity.  I see the power of cultural transmission at work in even the most innocuous of forms — a childhood lullaby! — and the way in which those idylls (the cowboys, the Sonny Corleones) — are often at odds with the more complex and nuanced realities (the Mr. Magpies) of the world.  And I see, too, that though we spend a lot of time talking about gender norms as a “woman’s issue,” they are also very much at play in how we understand men.

Perhaps the seeds for this rumination were laid in one of your comments on The Selection: Liz wrote that she agreed with my “issues with the depiction of femininity in The Selection,” observing further that the author “puts masculinity in the same restricted box, and falls victim to the Twilight trope of characters who are forced to be two-dimensional to adhere to a very limited construct of what constitutes the right romantic roles.”

Just so.

One of the aspirations of this blog is to “make space” — an expanse in which we can think, reflect, feel; a latitude in which we can connect with one another on topics frivolous and freighted; and, I hope, a headspace that is a bit more open and charitable than it might otherwise be.

This week, chasing the specter of those ghost riders, listening to those podcasts, thinking about Mr. Magpie, re-reading Liz’s well-timed comment, I carved out some new space in my thinking about the portraits of manhood to which I have long, unthinkingly clung.


I have been wearing this basket bag everywhere.  It’s the perfect size, and that brown leather matches my Hermes Oran sandals perfectly.

This would make for a sweet and chic hostess gift — a little more interesting than a dish towel or candle and perfect for a summer ice cream sundae.

I want this cookbook purely for aesthetic reasons.

In love with this everyday dress — the stripes! the embroidery! the sleeves!

This book is now on my list after Reese Witherspoon endorsed it on Instastory last week.  (She tends to have a knack for identifying zeitgeist books, like Big Little Lies!)

A chic trinket tray for a bibliophile.

A precious smocked dress for a little one.  (Luli & Me is one of my favorite brands — mini owns a bunch of their dresses and bubbles.)

So in love with this denim shirt with its chic tie!

P.S.  The skincare regimen that completely transformed my skin.

P.P.S.  Mother’s Day gifts, in case you’ve procrastinated



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3 thoughts on “Ghost Riders in the Sky.

  1. So much food for thought here! I love the posts in which you air out your ruminations.

    I’ve heard great things about the new Sittenfeld — have you read any of her other books? I think you’d like American Wife. I enjoyed Eligible as well (now I’m feeling like maybe we discussed that back when it was published?) and Prep, though I read it back when it was published in 2005 (I was in college then!) and my memory of it is a bit fuzzy.

    1. I need to read American Wife — someone (maybe you?) recommended that one while I was reading the Bush twins’ memoir. Her writing is a bit more sturdy, more mindful than your average beach read type.


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