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Socrates and the urban cowboy

I stayed overnight recently at a friend's house on my way home from a business trip. He's a young lawyer in a big law firm in Pittsburgh, but the case he's on keeps him in Dallas during the week, and he has a lady friend in Chicago. He's received two of those ``frequent flier'' tickets already this year, and he almost has enough miles for a trip to Hawaii. He drives a white sports car - the kind that has only two seats and not much luggage room, but it has a great sound system. He lives with two other young professionals like him; their house is almost bare of furniture, there are no curtains or pictures on the walls, and there are only enough dishes to set a place for two. But that's OK - the weekend I was there he was in Chicago, one roommate was in Fort Lauderdale, and the third popped in briefly to check for mail. My friend's room was a miniature of the house - bare walls, a mattress, and a stereo on the floor, and two large piles (one for dirty clothes, the other for clean clothes - some still in their wrappings from the store).

I am different from him. I was married before I left college. Even through the poverty years of graduate school, we developed a collection of books, art, and antique furniture (which we bought from the Salvation Army). I have a modest wardrobe - one suit, a few jackets, some Levi's. I wear everything until it rots through at the knees or elbows. I could afford to spend more on fashion, but I like things that are broken in. Throughout the gypsy life of graduate school, I wanted to settle someplace, plant a tree, and watch it grow. We've lived in the same house for eight years now; we have three children and an orchard of fruit and nut trees.

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The difference between my friend and me is an old one in American life - it's the cowboys vs. the farmers. Throughout my childhood, the cowboys were always riding into town, solving problems in a two-fisted sort of a way, and riding off into the sunset. The farmers, usually an object of scorn, were recognized in some of the better movies (like ``Shane'' and ``The Magnificent Seven'') as the ones who stick it out for the long haul. Cowboys were just short-timers. When I was older, I discovered the modern cowboy in Jack Kerouac and Robert Pirsig. I learned in school that ``the road'' was a symbol for the journey of life, like the Holy Grail quest in Arthurian romance. Everyone, even Walter Mitty, vibrates somewhere in his being to the hum of rubber on asphalt. I learned that the conflict between the farmer and the cowboy is an expression of a basic conflict we all share.

But now I wonder if my teachers weren't wrong. Maybe the farmer and the cowhand (after all, there are female cowboys, too - Annie Oakley and the aviator Amelia Earhart come to mind) are more than different expressions of a common human experience. Maybe they are different people. I couldn't live like my friend, rootless and unattached. ``The road'' isn't a symbol of life for him - it is his life. The road is alluring to me, too, but I have to have a home to come back to - a home, a place that ties me to my past and the future, not a house. I suspect my friend would find my life equally difficult - too constraining, too slow-paced. You sell a house when it's time to move on; you mourn the loss of a home.

When I left my friend's house the other day, looking back at the bare walls of the empty room, a line from Socrates' Apology came to mind - ``The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways.... Which is the better God only knows.''

Tony Filipovitch is a university professor among the farmers in Mankato, Minn.

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