Wednesday, February 27, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: How Civilization is Made by Lin Jensen

How Civilization is Made
Lin Jensen
PHOTO: Jim Epler

Originally Published in the August 2012 Issue of Empirical

Hiroshima today
PHOTO: Fernando Nunes
It was 1946 and I was fourteen when I opened a thin little book that began with the following description of a moment in the life of a young Japanese woman:

At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning of August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.


John Hersey’s Hiroshima altered for good the direction of my life. Toshiko Sasaki was just about to say something to the girl at the next desk, perhaps a simple morning greeting or a comment on the pretty dress she was wearing or a curiosity about a date she’d gone on the night before–but whatever it was she meant to say, it was never said because before she could speak, the world in which such things might be said was incinerated in a flash of immense heat and blinding light. I became an advocate for peace and for the abolition of war because I was never able to put out of mind all the little ordinary things people were doing in Hiroshima the instant the bomb ended a hundred thousand lives. 

PHOTO: Hiroshima Museum, provided by Fernando Nunes

I’d known about the bomb for over a year at the time, ever since it had been dropped. And I knew that something terrible had taken place, but it wasn’t until I read John Hersey’s book that I understood that the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was something that should never have happened to anyone, anywhere on the earth. I also somehow knew that the Toshiko Sasaki’s of Hiroshima, the clerks and factory workers, housewives and schoolteachers, the nameless “inconsequential” inhabitants of that doomed city, lived lives that counted for everything that constitutes the best of what builds and sustains a genuine, human civilization.

The conventional view of history postulates a civilization that advances on a colossal scale with grand events: the coming to power of great leaders, wars won and lost, the framing of constitutions, the ratification of treaties, the overthrow of governments, the rise and fall of sovereign nations. It’s mostly a history of the accumulation of power and the use of force, a chronicle of things built up only to be torn down again, things joined only to be divided once more. There’s no question but that these broad historical events exert great influence on human matters. They are the forces that wrench, twist, and dislocate the lives of humans everywhere, but they are not the factors that shape genuine civilization.

Civilization is made by households, its economy carried out on the scale of family and friend, its currency an exchange on the level of person to person. It’s a quality of kindness in human affairs that sustains what little civilization we can manage. I believe the factors that actually shape civilization are acts so random and ordinary that their significance goes unmarked.

PHOTO: Corey Leopold

In the Southern California farm country where I was raised the women put up food for the winter months in the manner they’d learned from their mothers and grandmothers. In my family of five—my mother and father, my brother Rowland, my sister Evelyn, and me—we began the process of canning and storing away food from the moment the garden began to yield in spring until we’d exhausted the last remnants of it in the late fall. All the farm families had a garden and orchard, and not much cash. They either planted and harvested and preserved or they couldn’t expect to eat very well when the days shortened and darkened toward winter.

The mornings my mother took the canning pot with its bottle rack from a pantry shelf and hauled it into the kitchen, she would never have thought she was doing anything for anybody but herself and her family. And when she scrubbed the pot clean and filled it with water to boil and went to the garden to pick a basket of string beans, she didn’t know such common actions joined with others to sustain whatever sense and decency the world is capable of. She would never have presumed that the rows of jars, neatly labeled and dated, lining the pantry shelves of a winter afternoon, were the orderly makings of a civilization. Yet it is these numberless little acts, this uncalculated responsiveness to the needs of the moment, more than all the dictates of empires and presidencies, that draws us into common community.

We do it best when we don’t know we’re doing it at all. Wiping a kid’s runny nose or sticking a thermometer under a sick child’s tongue are actions taken without self-consciousness of any sort. When I see my townspeople hanging out the wash or raking fall leaves or setting the table for the evening meal or jogging behind a child snuggled up in an infant carrier in the town park, I know that I am witnessing exactly those forces that counteract the divisive ambitions of military and corporate aims.

Civilization only asks of us that we live kindly and now. We are wise beyond our knowing when we do so. It’s not policy or ideology that makes us neighbors; it’s not the defense of state sovereignty or “national interest” that sustains communities. It’s much more a kitchen and yard thing, an elementary school and town park thing, in which we are watchful of one another.


When the Jensen family had need of more farm acreage and leased a farm further out of town, the contents of the kitchen pantry with all its canned goods moved with us. But in the moving, we inadvertently loosened the seal on a jar of string beans. And when Mother, failing to notice this, served them for Sunday afternoon dinner, we were made desperately sick as a consequence. We we’re all of us so dazed and debilitated by the sudden effects of food poisoning that we were unable to help each other—except my baby sister, Evelyn, who was only a year old at the time and hadn’t eaten any of the beans. Neither Mother nor Father could even make it to the phone to call for help. We crawled into the bathroom and lay on the floor with the ceiling and walls swimming about us, and when one of us had to retch we dragged ourselves onto the rim of the toilet to throw up, and mother, lying where she was, could just reach the toilet chain to flush.

Gradually night came on and the house grew dark. I think it was Mother who took my hand in hers first. I was able to reach my brother with the free hand, and he took Father’s, and Father reached back to Mother. And Evelyn crawled around and over us, supposing, I guess, that it was some sort of game. My mind hovers now above that old farmhouse where it lay surrounded by dusty fields. I see the four of us there on the bathroom floor, a sprawl of stricken flesh, legs and arms askew, joined hand to hand, on a background of faded linoleum.

Struggles of ambition and fear characterize the grand enterprises that populate the pages of what passes for the history of civilization. They are the forces that threaten to strike down everything that is good about us. They may kill us some day. But a single family that remembers to join hands will by small effects sustain kindness and generosity until the very end.

Eventually Mother recovered enough to reach the phone and call Dr. Robbins from his bed to come to our aid. He came, yawning, in the middle of the night, bearing the instruments of diagnosis and treatment he’d been given by his predecessor. He managed to get each of us into bed, and he found something in the kitchen to feed Evelyn and left her asleep in her crib. He said with a twinkle that he could positively assure us we wouldn’t die but that we’d be a few days recovering, and would Mother like him to call our neighbor, Mrs. Reeder, to come by in the morning and give a hand.

Later Mother cried at having to dispose of the jars of string beans she’d worked so hard to put away for the winter, her heart responding to a small error that might have cost her children and husband their lives. She would have cried equally for any family whose economy and lives were threatened by such a mistake. We were in the midst of World War II and Mother would sometimes cry over the radio news. She was never an activist, nor was she one with a conscious mission of any sort. She was too busy making life happen to notice that civilization was flowering in her own kitchen. I followed her one morning to the garden, which lay fallow now, and watched her unscrew the lids of the bean jars and dump the contents onto the compost heap. And when she saw me there, she mopped her eyes dry on her apron and put me to work helping her.


PHOTO: takomabibelot
Mr. Mujaku and his wife had an agreement to meet at a certain fountain in a square in Hiroshima in the event that their house was destroyed in an air raid. Mr. Mujaku was at work on the outskirts of Hiroshima when the bomb exploded and Mrs. Mujaku was at home. They both survived the initial blast, but their house was left leaning precariously and the whole neighborhood was being consumed in sudden flames. Mr. Mujaku, realizing how extensive the destruction of the city had been, left work in search of his wife. Finding their house and neighborhood in flames and not knowing if his wife was even alive, he went to the fountain where they’d agreed to meet. He found her waiting for him there.

She’d rescued a few biscuits and some tea from the house before it caught fire. And while Hiroshima lay in waste about them and their very bodies hummed with the lethal radiation that would one day take their lives from them, Mr. and Mrs. Mujaku, in a saving gesture beyond the power of any bomb, sat on a bench by the fountain and drank their tea and ate their biscuits as they’d always done.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Resurgence of Purpose

Resurgence of Purpose
John B. Cobb Jr.

PHOTO: Charlie Nguyen

Originally Published in the August 2012 Issue of Empirical


Voting is a nuisance. It is no fun. We are not paid.

Why bother?

You might answer that it is our civic duty, that democracy won’t work if people don’t exercise their right to vote, or that there are important issues at stake. But what if I don’t care about civic duty or democracy and the issues at stake don’t affect me personally? Will you tell me that I should care? Isn’t that just your bias or arbitrary value? Is there any reason to think your values are any better than mine? If I aim to maximize my personal convenience, pleasure, and comfort, are you in a position to tell me that there are “higher” purposes? Why regard some goals, aims, or purposes as better than others?

Today the more highly educated we are, the less likely we are to believe that some purposes are higher or better than others in any neutral or objective sense. This is not an accident. Whereas for many centuries a major function of education, both in the East and in the West, was to clarify our place in a meaningful world, we are now taught that the world in itself has no purpose or meaning. Our teachers emphasize that values differ from culture to culture. They tell us we are free to attribute any value we want to nature, but only if we recognize that this attribution is arbitrary. In itself, the world is without value.

According to this now intellectually dominant understanding, we can have any purposes we choose. We are, in this way, wonderfully free. If we choose to sacrifice our lives for our nation, that’s fine. But if we choose to seek wealth at the expense of our nation, that is fine, too, as long as we get away with it. There is no “higher” point of view from which to say that one goal is better than another.

In this view, educators should not try to impose any particular values or purposes, and research should not be influenced by the values of the researcher. All this should be value-free. Those who are socialized by value-free education are not likely to take values seriously. Only facts are important.

Of course, all agree that the occurrence of purposes is one of the facts to be considered. When we are hungry we are likely to form a purpose to get food. No one denies that people have purposes of this sort. And, indeed, when education avoids favoring some values over others, it is values of this sort that become primary. Value-free education encourages us to give priority to the values that are treated most seriously by economists. Insofar as life has a purpose, it seems, this is to satisfy one’s desires, whatever they may be.

Meanwhile, what research is done is determined by what someone will pay for. The university as such takes no position on what should be studied. Individuals may have other purposes in mind, but the default reason to study is that a college degree is likely to improve one’s income. When no “higher” values are taught, money reigns.

The earlier liberal arts model functioned differently, and it still plays a role. The liberal arts were designed to raise consciousness about one’s purposes and to enrich one’s values. Often colleges promoted service to the community, along with cultivated tastes.

However, today, even in those institutions that call themselves “liberal arts colleges,” confidence that some goals and purposes are really better than others has declined. The ethos generated by the research universities has affected them. They tend to present themselves as offering excellent pre-professional education. Students select them because their graduates are well paid.

There are other institutions that have not backed away from instilling purposes they regard as higher than private economic gain. These other values are central in the instruction of religious communities. At one time these communities adapted the purposes they taught to those that seemed grounded in universal experience and insight, but now they are told that there is no objective basis for evaluation. They are thrown back entirely upon their own authorities. As a consequence society is increasingly polarized between ethical nihilism and sectarian authoritarianism. The appeal to reason has lost out both in secular universities and in sectarian communities.

How did this come about? Why has “progress” led, on the one hand, to meaninglessness and ethical nihilism and, on the other hand, to arbitrary confessionalism?

Are the reasons for this change such that honest people must accept the consequences? Or have we made wrong turns that need now to be corrected?
PHOTO: Richard Smith


We can begin the story of the role of purpose in our intellectual and cultural history with Aristotle. He showed that there are four kinds of questions that we can ask about anything. He called them the four “causes.” Since today “cause” almost always means what Aristotle called the “efficient cause,” we will do better to speak of four types of explanation, of which only one has to do with what makes something be what it is, that is, with its efficient cause.

In addition to asking what makes something happen or have the character it has, we commonly also ask: of what does something consist? For example, in addition to asking how a particular lamp stand was manufactured, we may want to know whether it is made of pottery or metal or wood. Aristotle called this the “material cause.”

One can further ask about pottery, metal, or wood, of what are they composed? When we push the question far enough we come to what later Aristotelians called “prime matter,” which has no form. Thomas Aquinas taught us to think in terms of “Being Itself ” or “Being as Such.” Today, many people think “energy” is the best answer to the question of what do pottery, metal, and wood, and everything else, ultimately consist. Scientists do not press the question that far, but they are certainly interested in the analysis into molecules, atoms, and subatomic entities. Aristotle’s “material cause” remains important.

The matter or energy, of course, always comes in some “form.” Otherwise it is simply potential. Only formed “matter” is actual. The lamp stand may be made of wood, but it is not a lamp stand until the wood is given a form. An electron and a proton are both units of energy, but neither can exist until the energy has the form that distinguishes it as an electron or proton. Modern science devotes much of its attention to the mathematical formulae which are actualized in the form and behavior of scientific objects. Aristotle’s “formal cause” is central to the scientific enterprise.

Aristotle’s fourth “cause” is the “final cause.” Why, to what end, does something occur? This is the quest for a reason in the sense of a purpose, something that makes sense of the entity or occurrence. One goes to the grocery store in order to buy food. A house is built in order to provide a home. For Aristotle it was evident that purpose plays a large role in explaining what happens and what has come into being.

For him, this is not the case just with human actions and artifacts. It is true also of natural objects. A heart exists in order to pump blood through the body. If we ask again–“why?”–the answer is that this keeps us alive. The function of a bodily organ satisfactorily explains it.

At a popular level we continue to ask all four types of questions. Three of them remain important for science and the intellectual elite. But the “final cause,” the “why” question, is no longer part of science or scholarly thought generally. How did this change come about?

PHOTO: Hermes


Aristotle’s work shaped the science of the medieval period. This employed all four of Aristotle’s “causes.” However, it often focused on final causes, seeking the reason of things in terms of their function in the complex workings of nature and history. This focus on the purpose of things inhibited sustained and systematic attention to the other three “causes,” especially efficient causes.

Even today this overuse of final cause occurs in popular culture. When there is a calamity, a victim often asks, “Why did this happen to me?” The answer may be in terms of karma or of punishment for past misdeeds. For example, if a middle-aged man is diagnosed with cancer, he often asks “Why?” Of course, if he has persisted in smoking after frequent warnings, the answer that he is suffering the consequences of his actions is not pointless. But scientists rightly note that the quest for an answer of this kind is often irrelevant and distracts from serious investigation of efficient causes.

Modern science arose in reaction to this excessive interest in final causes. It held that the study of nature must leave out altogether any explanation in terms of purpose. Ordinary thinking usually considers three sorts of “reasons” for occurrences: necessity, chance, and purpose. Modern science allowed only two reasons: necessity and chance. Excluding purpose contributed to its rapid advance.

The world studied by science in the early modern period was the world of nature. The exclusion of purpose from that world did not extend to human beings and their artifacts. Scientists did not question that they were acting purposefully when they studied nature more deeply. They talked about their purposes. Some of them made great personal sacrifices to pursue the truth to which science led them.

Rene Descartes systematized the emerging understanding of reality. There were two worlds: the world of nature and the profoundly different world of the human mind. The world of nature was best understood as matter in motion. Even the motions of animals were obedient to the laws of mechanics. On the other hand, the human mind was guided, at least ideally, by the very different laws of logic. Human purposes played a large role there. That there were no values inherent in nature in no way implied that right and wrong, better and worse, were arbitrary judgments with respect to human actions.

This worldview freed the nature studied by science from political and religious concerns. It liberated scientists to pursue the evidence and develop revolutionary theories. Nevertheless, from the beginning, it was conceptually unsatisfactory.

If the world consists of two radically different kinds of things, matter and mind, how do they relate? Physicists assumed that the material objects of which nature is composed are pushed and pulled by other material objects. This mechanical model worked well for many purposes. But the human body, which was understood to be part of this nature, appears to be responsive to human purposes. I decide to type a sentence, and my fingers respond to that decision. How can this be? Can I really believe that my purposes have no effect on my body?

PHOTO: John Abella

There is another puzzle. The natural world is said to consist entirely of matter in motion and we gain knowledge about it only by sense experience. But when philosophers examined rigorously the information we receive in this way, they found that we do not see stars and stones, only lights and colors. David Hume pointed out also that, we do not see efficient causes, only successive patches of color. The world of objects, supposedly studied by science, is not known through the only means that the worldview associated with science allows.

What is truly astonishing is that, despite these quite serious problems, this worldview has survived so long and still has so deep a hold on our universities and cultural leaders generally. We owe this survival and continuing advance of the worldview, first and foremost, to the even more astonishing success of the science associated it. We owe it, secondarily, to the work of the most important philosopher of the modern world–Immanuel Kant.

Kant saw that Hume was correct that our senses do not lead us to an objective world in which efficient causes reign. Since the truth of science could not be doubted, and this truth could not be supported by experience, Kant’s task was to find another foundation. He did this by one of the most astonishing moves in intellectual history. He attributed the creation of the world we know as “nature” to the human mind.

Kant posited that the human mind by its very nature inescapably organizes the sense data in just the way that the worldview associated with it understood them. This worldview is, then, not one among others, but the one inescapable worldview. For example, the efficient causation that Hume could not find in sense experience exists inescapably in the world the mind constructs.

Strange as Kant’s proposals were, they were widely accepted. They allowed science to proceed without changing its worldview. For all practical purposes, the natural world remained matter in motion.

Kant’s dualism was somewhat different from that of Descartes. There is now the creative human mind, on one side, and the world of nature that it constructs, on the other. But it continues the exclusion of value and purpose from nature.

Kant thus reinforced the dualism of Descartes that had cleared the way for modern science. But he intensified also the importance of the moral sphere in which motivation and purpose played a central role. Whereas Hume, in principle, left no place for purpose anywhere, Kant defanged that threat. In the new philosophy that built on his work, nature remained wholly purposeless, but ethical issues brought purpose to the fore in human affairs.

Darwin administered to purpose the coup de grace. He did not intend this or know that he had taken this step. But, in principle, his demonstration that human beings are part of nature undercut both the Cartesian and the Kantian dualisms. Now human beings were seen as part of the natural world that is devoid of value or purpose.

There were occasional efforts by evolutionists to avoid the total exclusion of purpose by arguing that, when human beings are absorbed into nature, it should be acknowledged that nature has properties that had previously been denied it. Typically this move led to the teaching that purpose plays a role not only among humans but also among the other higher animals. However, there was little disposition among scientists in general to make changes in their basic principles. These continued to exclude purpose from nature. Science implicitly, and often explicitly, took on the project of showing that human purpose like everything else is explained by the motions of matter.


My broad claim is that this modern worldview is crumbling. Its exclusion of human purpose from any role in what happens in the world is, strictly speaking, unbelievable. When a scientist or philosopher denies any role to purpose, hearers will pay no attention unless they think the speaker is speaking purposefully. But the purposeful denial that purposes have any role to play is unconvincing. More broadly, human beings cannot live as if their purposes had no effect on their thoughts and actions.

This common sense objection is supported by developments within science. Despite their reluctance to acknowledge a fundamental break with the past, leading biologists are increasingly using language that is far removed from matter in motion. The most prominent instance is “information.” This term retains connotations of mental activity open to purpose. It is very difficult to think of information as just another expression of matter in motion.

A major battleground, both for advocating the modern worldview and for critiquing it, is evolutionary theory. Darwin’s great contribution is “natural selection,” and this cut decisively in favor of the modern purposeless world. His insight has become a permanent contribution that is not in question.

The members of a species are not all identical. Some succeed better than others in coping with the environment: in getting food, keeping safe from predators, securing mates, and so forth. These have more offspring; so their distinctive characteristics become more common in the population. Darwin showed that it is this “natural selection,” rather than any overarching purpose, that determines the direction of evolution.

Darwin left open the causes of the variability from which the selection is made. He thought sexual selection played a role, and he was open to the Larmarckian idea that physical changes brought about by animal behavior can be passed on to the next generation.

But this openness to a role for animal behavior was problematic for hardnosed scientists. Animal behavior appears to be purposeful. Evolutionists committed to a purposeless nature have favored explanations that do not attribute any distinct role to the actions of animals. The discovery of the determination of animal forms and behavior by genes gave them a great opportunity, and for some years they advanced the cause of removing purpose from the world.

The dominant “scientific” theory is based on random mutation of genes. “Random” does not mean that in the wider scheme of things efficient causes cannot be found. For example, cosmic radiation may cause genetic change. The point is that the genetic changes do not occur for the sake of changing the organism. No purpose is involved.

Most random changes work against the flourishing of the organism. Accordingly, those genes are not widely reproduced. But occasionally the change improves the ability of the organism to survive and reproduce. In that case, the new genetic pattern becomes established. Generally this is a change within a species. Occasionally changes of this kind lead to the emergence of a new species.


This theory of natural selection from random mutations undoubtedly describes a way in which evolutionary change can take place. But it has not been demonstrated that in fact all changes have taken place in this way. Indeed, biologists know that they have not. No step in evolution is more important than the emergence of the nucleated cell. This kind of cell, which is the basis of all the more complex forms of life, did not arise by genetic mutation.

Lynn Margulis showed that the ancestors of the nuclei and other elements in the nucleated cell were free-standing bacteria. The nucleated cell is the result of one bacterium absorbing others but not digesting them. This process is an example of what Margulis calls symbiogenesis. Although initially her idea was rejected by a community of scientists, who found it troubling, it is now part of mainstream biology.

Margulis’ research was primarily on bacteria, and she provided evidence for other evolutionary developments taking place as a result of symbiotic relations of bacteria with other organisms. There are indications of symbiogenesis among more complex organisms as well. Despite this evidence, the dominant community resists any further compromise of its theory. To allow the activities of organisms to play a role in evolution opens the door to a role for purpose–a door orthodox evolutionists want to keep shut.

The role of animal behavior in evolutionary change is evident in other ways as well. For example, if the supply of the food on which a species has subsisted in some locale gives out, some member of the species may discover another way of obtaining food. Other members, observing this success, imitate. The change of eating habits is likely to favor some mutations for which the environment would not otherwise select. That genetic change takes place in this sequence is hard to deny.

The exclusion of purposeful action from a role in evolution becomes even harder to justify once human action is regarded as fully part of the nature that is studied. For thousands of years humans have been part of the environment that selects which organisms will reproduce. The development of new species of domestic plants and animals cannot be explained apart from purposeful human activity.


That animal purposes play a role in evolution does not mean that animals other than humans change behavior for the purpose of influencing the evolutionary process. An animal’s purpose is typically to find food or escape a predator. Living things aim to preserve their lives and their offspring. To live and to live well may not be conscious as an overall aim, but it pervades the biosphere.

The scientific program of explaining everything in terms of chance and necessity requires that what we ordinarily regard as purposeful action be fully explained by chance and necessity. The apparently purposeful action of animals must be treated as entirely “instinctive,” with the assumption that the instincts are determined by the genes.

Success in reducing all animal behavior to genetically determined instinct is far from complete, but its difficulty pales by comparison with the project of showing that all human behavior can be explained by chance and necessity. Yet this goal shapes much of the study of the human brain and its relation to subjective experience. The older physiological psychology was directed to this end, and it influences contemporary neuroscience as well.

An important sign that, in principle, this program is collapsing is that neuroscientists are less inhibited than the earlier physiological psychologists about recognizing an interaction between subjective states and brain states. There is no doubt that brain states affect subjective experience including purposes. Scientific investigation has demonstrated this again and again. But there is also a great deal of evidence that subjective experience including purposes affect brain states. For example, careful and extensive studies have shown how disciplined meditation, certainly a purposive process, affects brain states. Reluctance to acknowledge the equal value of this evidence reflects the continuing power of the modern worldview to which science allied itself. The increasing openness to study this evidence open-mindedly is a sign that, despite its enormous continuing influence, in principle, the materialist worldview has collapsed.

Meanwhile the global ecological crisis has brought forth intensified feeling for the nonhuman world. Tens of millions of sensitive people are convinced that human beings are part of a nature that existed long before human beings appeared on the scene. Their purpose to protect and serve it is not experienced as arbitrary. It is felt to be conformal to reality.

A corner has been turned. Those who would retain the exclusion of purpose and value from the world are increasingly on the defensive. The role of final causes throughout the world of living things can again be recognized as good science. The sensibility of an important, creative avant garde of society strongly affirms this kind of thinking. It demands a hearing even in the hallowed halls of the value-free university.

Perhaps the resurgence of purpose will open universities to reflection on their purpose. Perhaps it can restore concern for right purposes to the center of education. A civilization heading toward collapse cannot afford either confessional authoritarianism or ethical nihilism. We need to learn again to align our purposes with the wider purposes of both the human community and the natural world.

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Monday, February 25, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Things Look Nice by William Cass

Things Look Nice
William Cass
PHOTO: Jonas Lowgren

Originally Published in the August 2012 Issue of Empirical

Esther had picked the oleander from a bush that grew behind her back fence. It actually belonged to her neighbor. She dried a bunch of it in the sun on her kitchen windowsill until it was brittle enough to crush easily into bits between sheets of paper towel. It reminded her of oregano.

Several weeks passed before that amount of oleander had dried completely, which was almost a month after she was supposed to bring her old Sheltie, Gus, in to be put to sleep. She didn’t call to cancel the appointment, and no one from the vet’s office bothered to call her. The new vet was a tall, aloof man with horn-rimmed glasses whose office walls were covered with photographs of his windsurfing adventures around the world. New age music mixed with sounds from nature was always playing. He never remembered her name.

Esther had known their old vet since they’d gotten Gus as a puppy fourteen years earlier. The old vet had become a friend, but he’d passed away a few months after Ernie had a couple of years ago. So when the time came, and with the old vet and Ernie both gone, she couldn’t bring herself to take Gus to the new doctor and his photographs and his music. She just couldn’t. She decided to take care of things herself.

Gus stunk. He’d lost almost as much hair as he had left, was completely blind in one eye and nearly so in the other. He bumped into things. His eyeballs pointed off in odd directions and looked as if they were swimming in petroleum jelly. He’d been hit by a car within the last year and had lost the use of one of his hind legs. He suffered from acute constipation and arthritis, and spent most of his time sleeping and waiting to have his head scratched.

Still, he was her only companion and it took until after she rescued him from nearly drowning in the toilet bowl early one morning that she made up her mind. She’d bathed him in warm water with some of her own oils, sang to him as she toweled him off, let him eat his favorite biscuit from her palm, fought back the ache in her heart, then went out and picked the oleander.


Across the street, Steve was laying big bottles of pre-mixed cocktails into the freezer. They represented different varieties of a new product his company had recently introduced; each bore exotic or sexually suggestive names. His wife, Becca, stood with her back to him cutting zucchinis for the grill. She’d already put out the chips and salsa, marinated the chicken, set the table on the deck, chosen an eclectic assortment of CDs, and dressed. She’d finally had to shout at Steve for help in a voice that made their young daughter pause at the computer game she was playing in her bedroom. Becca now cut swiftly and with exaggerated punctuation.

Steve tossed the empty beverage carton out the back door. Becca stopped cutting abruptly, but did not turn around. She said, “You might take the trash out.”

Steve looked at the back of her and considered her girth. He decided with satisfaction that although they’d both gained some weight, he’d managed considerably better than she had. He shrugged. “I might,” he said. “Then again, I might not.”

But he went out the door and pulled the cans and recycling bins out through the side gate to the curb. Then he re-entered the house through the French doors off the dining room and lay back down on the couch next to the bottle of beer he’d been nursing. He returned his attention to the football game on the TV and tried not to think about the new receptionist at work with the long auburn hair who had suggested they have lunch soon.

Up the block and around the corner, Joe stood in his backyard watering the last of his many potted plants. He enjoyed the smell of the wet earth and the way the falling light filtered through the branches of the birch tree. The birch’s gold and curling leaves, spinning now in the faint breeze, looked as if they were holding on for dear life.

PHOTO: Pietro Zanarini
His wife, Michelle, stepped out on the patio and said, “Things look nice.”

He nodded and watched her survey the backyard. Like him, her features were serious and defined. They’d met as volunteers at a blood bank while they were both finishing college eight years before. Now her green eyes traveled over the neatly trimmed grass and plants and stopped at him. She asked, “You going to shower? The sitter will be here soon.”

“You go ahead,” he told her. “Last pot.”

He watched her dab at her damp bangs with the towel she wore across her shoulders. She’d just come home from her spin class. There were wet stains across the middle of her leotard. Through the screen door behind her, he could see their two children lying on the family room rug, coloring.

“I’m going to jump in then,” his wife said.

Joe nodded again and turned back to his watering.


Esther waited until the sun had set, then browned chunks of sirloin steak in beef bullion broth on the stove. She let the meal cool in Gus’s bowl on the counter while she sat on the kitchen floor and played tug-ofwar with him with his old knotted gray towel. He stayed interested for a few minutes, his purple gums bared in a strained, happy snarl. Then he groaned, farted, and went back to sleep with his head against her leg, a string of drool dangling from his jowls.

She thought of Ernie coming in with him from the back field where their little farm had met the river, the small dog diligently herding the lumbering cows. That was years ago before Ernie had begun building dollhouses in the barn, which had just been a hobby then. Eventually, he began selling them out of the toy store in town and they became quite popular.

When the store’s owner went into the rest home, Ernie finally gave up driving truck and trying to raise cattle and took over the store from him. Not long afterward, they moved into town, too. But almost every evening for many years before that, she’d watched the two silhouettes of Ernie and Gus approaching from the distance among the cows, the dark green stand of trees along the river’s edge behind them.

Esther held the crushed oleander for a long moment over Gus’s bowl, then swallowed and sprinkled it in with the meat. She washed her hands and stared out the window at nothing. She pushed a stray strand of hair behind her ear and blew out a breath. Then she brought the bowl out to Gus’s basket next to her tulip-backed chair on the brick patio. Quickly, she went back inside, lifted Gus into her arms, and carried him outside. She set him in the basket in front of the bowl, which he sometimes ignored. But this time, he sniffed once and began to eat immediately and voraciously.

PHOTO: da Binsi
Esther lowered herself slowly into her chair next to him. She looked away from Gus over the garden. The light had a liquid quality. The birdbath sat empty and dry among Ernie’s sweet-smelling roses. A spray of bougainvillea over the arbor had passed bloom. The sky’s blue was already deepening toward dusk. She bit her lip. 

The evening train’s whistle blew. It clacked by the town’s central intersection a short distance away. It was a long train heading east toward the Cascades. Esther breathed slowly and listened to it pass.


The sitter they shared first came by Steve and Becca’s house pulling a wagon. Their daughter was already waiting on the front step in her pajamas and slippers holding a stuffed elephant. Becca wrapped her in a blanket, set her in the wagon, and watched them head down the street.

She clicked off the television and looked at Steve lying on the couch. They were quiet for a long moment staring at each other. Becca nodded her head, looked at the clock on the mantel, “Well, the sitter’s come and gone. If our guests are lucky, they’ll get to see you in your sweatpants and your special orange T-shirt with the holes.”

Steve thought of their first kiss on the swings down by the lake after the Fourth of July fireworks. He stood up, stretched, picked up his beer bottle by the neck, and sauntered by her to their bedroom.


It didn’t take Gus long to finish the bowl of food. Before he could lower his head again, Esther scooped him up and held him on her lap. Except for the dwindling sound of the train, the evening was almost silent. Esther sat very still and scratched Gus lightly behind the ears as she had thousands of times before. He sighed, as always, and settled his head on top of her knee.


“Here comes the sitter with Hillary,” Michelle called.

Their son and daughter, three and four, ran to the front door and down the steps to greet the wagon. A short while later, Michelle and Joe were walking up the street to Steve and Becca’s.

Joe asked her, “Is this Game Night 3 or 4?”

“Don’t know.”

“What started these things, you remember?”

Michelle shrugged. “Oh, I think Becca thought it would be a return to simpler times, the child in all of us, something like that.”

Joe thought about how Steve and Becca had helped them find the house and get settled when Michelle’s company had suddenly given her the raise and transferred her up to Seattle from Portland. They’d left the life they’d enjoyed there reluctantly, but things had worked out all right. Steve had put in a good word with someone he knew at the school where Joe had eventually found the teaching position. At the time, they were only acquainted with one another vaguely through Steve’s brother who’d been a college friend of Joe’s. So, it was true that Steve and Becca had been unusually welcoming. Joe really wasn’t sure how much they had in common, but they’d settled into a pattern of getting together once or twice a month.

“It’s a pretty evening,” Joe said.

His wife nodded and said, “There’s Steve.”

They waved to the big man who stood on his front porch. He raised two bottles to them and called, “Green hangover or brown?”


Gus had twitched a few times at first; then his breathing grew shallower and shallower until it gradually stopped altogether. Esther kept scratching his head and looking at Ernie’s flowers, lit now in the first blush of new moonlight. She cried quietly in small gasps, almost like tiny coughs.

She tried to think of Ernie and how proud he’d been of that first row or roses: yellow and peach hybrids he’d worked on for years. He’d taken a runner-up ribbon for them at his last flower show. Between those roses and the birdbath, Esther had dug a little grave earlier in the day. She planned to put Gus’s old basket right down in the hole with his blanket and a few of his other favorite things.

But she was in no hurry. Except for the movement of her fingertips on his head and the occasional reach she made for Kleenex in the pocket of her cardigan, she sat perfectly still.


PHOTO: Deborah Austin
Steve and Joe leaned against the railing on the deck; they were already on their second drink. Ostensibly, they were in charge of the bar-b-que.

“So what do you hear from your brother?” Joe asked.

Steve snorted a laugh. “Almost nothing.”

“Work going okay for you?”

“Won this patio furniture last month.”

Steve raised the lid on the bar-b-que, let out a cloud of smoke, and pushed the spitting chicken around with a pair of tongs. “Won dartboards, luggage, golf shirts up the ying-yang. I can’t complain.”

Inside, Becca and Michelle were slicing sun dried tomatoes and Kalamata olives for the salad.

Michelle said, “That’s a neat necklace.”

“Thanks. Steve likes it when I wear jewelry. Why don’t you throw out that foo-foo drink and have a nice glass of white wine?”

“All right,” Michelle said. “If you think Steve won’t be offended.”

Becca took a wine glass out of the cupboard, poured wine, and set the glass in front of Michelle with a satisfied smirk.

During dinner, Steve and Joe switched to beer, but their wives shared the same bottle of wine. As usual, Joe fell well behind in the drinking department. The conversation meandered over a variety of topics until Michelle said, “We had an interesting question posed to us at a sales meeting this week. What livelihood would you pursue if you could be bankrolled for whatever amount you needed for as long as you liked?”

They all looked at one another smiling.

Becca asked her, “What did you say?”

Michelle frowned. “That’s just it. I honestly didn’t know.”

“I’d start a big three-part nightclub,” Steve said, gesturing with his beer bottle. “On one side, a strip joint for guys; on the other end, the same deal for ladies, a Chippendale- type thing. In between, you put a plush dance place for both with all the bells and whistles; a couple of floors, Kamikaze’s a buck apiece anytime. Waiters and waitresses run around in skimpy little jungle outfits; call it, ‘Adam and Eve.’” He raised his eyebrows, took a long swallow of beer, then said, “Would that idea go, or what? A place like that couldn’t miss.”

“Very clever,” Becca said.

Steve looked at her and asked, “What would you do, honey?”

She returned his stare evenly. “End hunger. World peace.” She shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe find a way people like us could choose our kid’s college now and have it paid for when they grow up. Maybe invent a safe, effective diet pill.”

Steve nodded seriously and said, “I see.”

He picked up her hand and kissed the back of it. Becca let him, but looked at Joe and said, “Well?”

Joe sighed. “I think I’d start a nursery. The plant kind.”

“I can believe that,” Michelle said. She smiled. “Have you seen our backyard lately?”


The moon had risen high enough to spill its blanket of soft light. The night had grown cooler; a little fog had drifted in from the west. Esther smoothed the last of the rich, black earth over the grave and patted it down gently with the back of the shovel. Then she lifted a softball-sized, green-gray rock, smooth and speckled like a trout, and set it down on the grave’s depression. She’d gotten it from the river at the back of their old farm. Since she no longer drove, it had taken several hours of bus connections and that long walk up and down the county road to get it.

She stood still and listened to herself breathe. She was no longer crying; she was all cried out.


Joe and Michelle did the dishes while Steve poured brandy into big snifters. His company’s logo was etched cloudily into the sides of the glasses. Becca came into the kitchen wearing a big smile and carrying a game of “Twister.” The box was ripped at three corners. She presented it to them like it was an award and said, “Ta da!”


Esther went back inside and heated up a can of minestrone soup. She poured it into a bowl and brought it into the living room. It sat untouched on the little table next to Ernie’s old red recliner in the living room where she sat. She pulled some old photograph albums from the bookshelf next to it and flipped slowly through the pages under the creamy light from the brown shaded stand-up lamp behind her. She began with a tattered album of black construction paper pages full of snapshots mounted with faded white L-shaped anchors, then made her way up through the albums that had gold spiral rings, then through those that were like three-ringed binders with pages sticky as flypaper, and finally the plain albums with eight plastic pocket pages just the size of the photographs. The pictures for particular time periods had decreased in volume over the years. Most of the photos were of Ernie or Gus or the two of them around the farm or the house. They’d never traveled much; they had no other family.


Steve and Joe had moved some furniture out of the way and they’d set the Twister mat up on the family room carpet. The teams were Becca and Joe versus Steve and Michelle. They laughed a lot and fell on each other. When it was Steve’s turn to spin, he stopped the pointer wherever he liked: usually in a spot that would demand the most contortions. Once, he bumped against an end table and a framed photograph fell off it onto his lap. It was of his wife’s nephew in his high school graduation gown. Steve turned the photograph around to the rest of them and asked, “Why do band geeks always look like band geeks?”

They laughed some more. Becca had put on an old Rolling Stones’ CD that added to the levity, and they grunted into positions until condensation formed on the edges of the windows. Finally, they all collapsed on the sofa. Michelle glanced at her watch and exclaimed, “Oh, my God, we have to go!”


Esther put the photograph albums back neatly, fingering them tenderly. She tried to concentrate on what lay ahead the rest of the week: morning rosaries, a rug she was hooking, the flowers to tend, some tomatoes and beets to can, walks without Gus, a volunteer shift at the church thrift shop, letters to write, a new book to read, a bath or two, meals.

She remembered suddenly that it was trash night, and she walked into the dark kitchen and out the back door. The fog had thinned and drifted low to the ground. A few stars blinked through the sparse high clouds and the moon was brighter still. Esther pulled her cardigan tighter around her and began to drag the old silver trashcan down the driveway.

Steve and Michelle carried the empty brandy snuffers back to the kitchen while Becca went for their jackets. Joe carried the sack of empty bottles out the gate to the recycling bin at the curb. He set the bottles in the bin, then stood and watched Esther struggle with the trashcan across the street.
He trotted across to her.

“Here,” he said to her, “let me give you a hand with that.”

“Thank you kindly,” Esther said and gave him a small smile. She followed him to the end of the driveway. “Just there is fine, on the edge of the grass.”

PHOTO: Richard HB
Joe steadied the can, pushed down the lid, then brushed his hands together. He looked at the small woman in the gray cardigan in front of him, plain and stooped. The breeze lifted and on it came the scent of lilac. He looked over her at the bushes of late bloom against the corner of her garage, their purple shades dim-white in the moonlight.

“Those can’t be lilacs,” Joe said. “Not at this time of year.”

Esther nodded. “My husband planted them.”

“Do you cut them back in summer?”

“Earlier,” Esther said. “Just after they’ve passed the first time.”

“Then you get a second bloom.”

“If it’s a mild fall, yes.”

“Well, they’re lovely. My wife carried them at our wedding.”

Esther smiled and walked over to the low bushes. With her old, strong fingers she pinched off a few stems that held full foliage and carried them back. She handed them to Joe and said, “Give these to her.”

Joe let his breath out slowly. The flowers’ fragrance wafted between them. He nodded.

“And give her a hug,” Esther said. “You mustn’t forget that.”

Joe said, “I will. Thanks.”

He watched her shuffle up the drive, enter the house, and close the door behind her. It was so still that he could hear the tiny burp-burp-burp of a helicopter landing at the air station several miles away. He went back across the street.

Michelle was waiting for him on the curb. “I told them goodnight for us,” she said. She was wearing his big sports coat over her own thin jacket. She pulled her hair free from under the collar and looked over his shoulder. She asked, “Make a friend?”

Joe handed her the lilacs. “These are for you.”

Michelle took the flowers, dipped her face into them, and smiled. She said, “They smell like love.”

Joe nodded, held her close, then took her free hand. He squeezed it. They started up the street.


Esther saw them go from her darkened front window. The house was warm. Faint, familiar smells were there. So was the ticking of the grandfather’s clock. Watching the young couple pass under the streetlamp, she couldn’t really have imagined a better ending to the day. In fact, had there been any other, she doubted she could have bared the grief.

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Friday, February 22, 2013

Picktures and Pieces 10: Like a Horse and Carriage

 Picktures and Pieces 10: Like a Horse and Carriage
By Randall Auxier

I was shuffling through the available radio stations on a long trip when the seek function paused on a preacher. I usually pass over such offerings, but he was launching into a sermon, promising to reveal the secret of successful marriage. “Well,” I thought, “this might be interesting.” I expended a couple of calories commanding the radio to desist seeking and decided to commit a few seconds to considering someone else’s opinion on this important topic, someone unlikely to see the world my way. I agree with many preachers about many matters, but the likelihood of agreement is inversely proportional to the odds of hearing those preachers on the radio. And this one had a southern accent.

Don’t get me wrong. I have a southern accent too. But what I mean is that this guy was obviously a southern Baptist, shepherding a large metropolitan congregation of what were surely all white, all Republican, all fundamentalist, all privileged, all well-fed, all straight, hide-bound and heaven-bound suburbanites. But I know that nearly all are well-meaning, morally decent, sincere people whose experience must be taken seriously, and to fail in empathizing with them, however benighted they may be, will serve no one, least of all me. So I listened to the preacher.

He was a kindly man, funny, articulate, caring, sincere, fatherly, intelligent, dare I say wise in a certain Baptistly idiom. I could easily imagine how he finagled a “call” to such a well-heeled congregation as he had. (I remember who it was, but I won’t say the name here; suffice to say it was a very large church in a large southern city.) His idea of marriage was pretty much what is diagrammed above. He was adamant that he wasn’t speaking of changeable emotion, but trying to guide our thinking about how to bring our minds into conformity with some realities of our experience.

The preacher peppered his sermon with Scripture, but the principal reading was 1 Corinthians 13, as one might imagine. They are among the best words ever written about love by anyone in history, but of course, they are not about marriage, even though Christians generally have them recited at weddings. Paul wasn’t too keen on marriage, after all. But this sermon was not mainly about making Christ the head of the household, it was practical, divided into two halves: advice to wives, advice to husbands.

Shockingly, the preacher simply came out and said what we all sort of know and won’t admit. Men respond first and foremost to the way women look. Therefore, ladies, watch your weight, get your hair done, be dressed in becoming ways for him, and don’t let any other woman catch his eye. Yes, from the pulpit, the man said this is the secret to marriage from the woman’s side, which is about keeping your husband from straying. The female half of the congregation was reminded never to nag him, and most importantly, don’t do anything to undermine his self-confidence and do everything necessary to build it up. I thought about all this. It is basically true –given our time and place. Not many “wives,” in the relevant sense, would lose their “husbands,” in the relevant sense, if they followed this formula. Who wouldn't want an attractive partner in whose eyes one is a demi-god?

It’s all in the diagram, given the misleading name of “respect,” which I admit angers me. Respect is far too important an idea to be trivialized. But the diagram isn’t trivial. It’s about commitment, in a certain interpersonal context, and it well describes the amalgamated customs, however misguided, of our time and place –not just old fashioned people, but many, many secular folks who have moved beyond their proximal upbringings and into a wider world of vague expectations. What if this diagram is what I want? Does that make me a reactionary barbarian? A sexist pig? This diagram describes what Martin Luther King, Jr., wanted, I’ll bet. Many good and decent men want this. Of course they do –look at what they get in the deal!

Emma Goldman seethed and boiled when she mulled over the deal that men got for themselves by dominating the religious, economic/political, and legal arrangements surrounding marriage. No self-respecting person, woman or man, would consent to such an arrangement, she thought. It is inherently unequal, oppressive to women, and because of that, also dehumanizing to men. She believed we could rise above our customs and their inequalities and recognize that, as she says, love and marriage have nothing to do with each other.

Goldman allows that, in rare cases, people who are married do make it from the altar to the grave and remain in love the whole way, but they have beaten the odds. More common is the way that marriage destroys love, she says. We all know the story, but here is an interesting tidbit. Goldman cites the rising divorce rate. Did you know that between 1870 and 1910 the number of divorced persons in every 100,000 people went from 28 to 73? Clearly marriage is failing us as an institution. One wonders what Emma would say now, when 10,000 in every 100,000 people is divorced (remember that over 15,000 in every 100,000 are too young to marry, and 24,000 will never marry, etc.). The change is that women really don’t have to marry now, so many don’t, and it is easier to get out, so many do. But Goldman wouldn’t be satisfied even with marriage from inclination because of love. Love doesn’t cause marriage, she says. They are at odds.

Surely you’d like to know what that preacher said to the men. Can you guess? He said that women must feel secure, first and foremost, and that means never being taken for granted. The man must remind the woman every day that she is the only one for him –flowers, opening doors, treating her like a lady, yes, yes, all of that. But more is required. The man must actually listen to what she says, even when he isn’t interested. He must be a good bread-winner but trust her judgment about the household economics. And never let the sun go down on an argument, and even when she’s wrong, you are the man and you must apologize.

It’s hard to know what to say about all this. I want to make it harder. Meet Chang and Eng Bunker. They had an interesting life, including being married. They were also southern Baptists, of the North Carolina type –and there is no more serious type of Baptist, in my experience. They had ten and eleven children respectively. They owned slaves and ran a plantation. I wonder what that preacher would have said to them. And what would Emma say? Was it worse that they married or owned slaves, or would it be the same? It strains the limits of propriety to wonder about it, but I am going to do so in my next post.

From the Empirical Archives: To Perform by Maude Larke

To Perform
Maude Larke

PHOTO: John Abella

Originally Published in the August 2012 Issue of Empirical

you see the staples and nails
paint and glue
the grave decision
of which color to buy

you see the smeared make-up
and the smeared make-believe
you know she isn’t a swan
you know his face isn’t white

you see the sweat
feel pain and panting
you know how hard-used
the floor has been
rosin ground into the wood
by spinning toes
attached to aching legs

but on the other side of the threshold
of a flimsy cardboard arch
lie color and sound and light
and a dream that is waiting
for its princes and dragons to arrive

you leave the smudgy realities behind
and enter through the doorway
you join the color
give the light
and you become the sound

and for a short while
you are an animal
a toy
a feeling
for a while
you are

you are
as the dream
engulfs the stage
the way a cloud will dwarf a mountain

and everyone becomes
a dream
with you

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Thursday, February 21, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Charred Cat Ears by Melissa Darcey

Charred Cat Ears 
Melissa Darcey

ILLUSTRATION: Isaac David Smith

Originally Published in the August 2012 Issue of Empirical

Tucker Mulvanas was on the hunt for a new nickname.

His father told him he couldn’t give himself a nickname because that “wasn’t the point” of having one. “It has to be earned,” he’d say in a husky drawl, dragging out each syllable as if saying it slower made it sage advice. This time he had said it in the open garage while sweating profusely over a broken washing machine he was struggling to fix.

“But why?” Tucker moaned.

It was the answer he knew would come from his father’s mouth but when it actually came he felt powerless that a few words strung together shattered his need to find a loophole through the bizarre rule of nicknames. As he pondered this, his hands fidgeted in his pockets, toying with lint balls. They always seemed to be there, the lint balls, taking permanent residence in the deep crevices of his two-sizes-too-big Levi jeans’ pockets. The jeans were worn down and had been re-sewn a few times; there was an oblong hole (the edges singed away) that had only recently arrived at the baggy knee area of the pants. His mother had fortunately not noticed this yet.

These jeans had been his brother Joe’s jeans a few years ago. Tucker wore them now because Joe had left the house; that made Tucker the oldest kid of the house (after his sister Jodi) and in charge of the family cat, Mangy. Mangy was a white cat that followed Tucker around wherever he went, until recently. He had distinctly large ears and they contained the only color other than white on his entire body–a smoky-black the color of char. Neighborhood kids made fun of Mangy; everyone thought he was funny looking, the cat with charred ears. Only Tucker didn’t find him odd looking; he thought it gave him character.

“Charred cat ears,” his father would say with a wide grin, baring his yellowing teeth. “That’s what makes this cat special.”

Tucker typically would smile at such a comment unless it was a day like today. He felt pained hearing about Mangy and his correlation with Tucker’s recent nickname.

“What’s so wrong with the nickname you have anyway? Your friends give you one that you don’t like?”

“Yes!” Tucker spurted out, even though he hadn’t meant to. He meant to say ‘no’ to avoid what his father would, and did, ask in response.

“What name did they give you and what did you do to get it?” he chuckled, maybe imagining embarrassing nicknames Tucker could have been called. He had emphasized ‘what did you do’ in a playful manner; he knew Tucker’s propensity for getting into harmless trouble.

“Can’t . . . tell you!” Tucker had stumbled over the first word but finished the last two with a definitive punch. A tear seemed to arbitrarily form in his left eye, the gray one (his right eye had a tinge of brown to it a deformity that his mother told him made him special). He wiped it away with haste before his father could catch sight of it.

“Did something happen?”

He had noticed the tear.

“I’m a big kid now, Daddy, and I didn’t do anything! I can handle Mangy just fine!”

Why had he mentioned Mangy?

His father had noticed the peculiar mentioning of Mangy but wasn’t certain if he should tread on what seemed to be thin ice. Tucker made his decision for him, storming off out into the yard and out of his view. Tucker was frustrated; his face was flushed and he was muttering foul words under his breath, damning his friends to hell for the nickname they’d coined for him. As he walked, he kicked every rock that lay before him on his path through the dirt.

Sucker Tucker, Sucker Tucker.

He couldn’t get it out of his mind; he kept hearing it. It was easily the most horrible nickname one could acquire in the sixth grade. He could see the incident in his mind all over again. It replayed like an old sitcom or an embarrassing home video, reminding him of the birth of Sucker Tucker.

It had been a particularly sticky Sunday even though it had only been a week and a half ago. The air was still and barely a leaf stirred on the oversized oak trees. It was a generally-known fact that Trevor and Jonas, two seventh graders, hung out behind the old, vacant gas station on Carson St. on Sundays and anyone who was anyone hung out with them, having spitting contests and learning to smoke cigarettes. Tucker and his friends, Max and Jimmy, made regular appearances at the gas station along with many other neighborhood boys. Trevor and Jonas would start up arm wrestling contests, mini football games, and other testosterone-filled activities that caused either a boost in pride or a stab of humiliation. Oftentimes Mangy showed up, perhaps for his own dose of manhood. He would sit proudly next to Tucker like a dutiful servant, regardless of the jokes kids made about his charred-looking ears.

That Sunday was supposed to be the day Tucker got his boost in pride. On that day, Trevor and Jonas were accompanied by a small supply of cigars, something Tucker had only heard about. He’d seen cigarettes, yes, even held one of his father’s before, but never had he seen such a terrifyingly masculine object.

“They’re imported from Cuba. That’s in the deep Amazon of South America,” Jonas explained, his impressive statement flowing as smoothly as the cloud of smoke from his exhales. No one knew how he had laid his hands on such a precious entity, but no one asked. The vivid imagination of a young boy was much more satisfying. Tucker stood there in awe. A few times Trevor and Jonas would cough uncontrollably, their faces writhing as if they’d just eaten a lemon. Eventually they’d regain control over their lungs and normalcy resumed.

“Anyone man enough to give it a try?” Trevor asked in a dry, frail voice–he’d just had one of his coughing fits and seemed to be without any saliva.

No one knows what exactly happened in the next moment but Tucker suddenly found himself reaching his hand out for a cigar, Mangy by his side for support. He couldn’t have pulled back his hand even if he wanted to; he was mesmerized. He didn’t regain consciousness of his actions until he looked down and saw a cigar in hand.

“You better do something with it,” a kid said, breaking the silence.

A few moments passed but Tucker didn’t move.

“Look kid, you gotta smoke it or pass it back or something. Ash is building up on the end and you’re gonna waste the cigar,” Jonas explained.

Tucker finally lifted the cigar–he hadn’t even blinked yet–and softly pressed it to his lips.

“You gotta open your mouth to smoke it,” Trevor coldly ushered.

Tucker’s lips parted and the cigar slid in. He didn’t know exactly what to do but he couldn’t ask in front of everyone. Mangy looked up at him mercifully; he was the only one who understood Tucker’s painful position between boy and man and Tucker loved him for this.

Tucker finally inhaled and the smoke tickled, and then viciously burned, his throat. He began choking fiercely.

“Watch out! Don’t fling that! There’s too much ash at the butt!” Jonas loudly warned.

But the warning came too late. Hot ash flew from the butt of the cigar; as if it were in slow motion, Tucker saw the unfortunate path it was taking. The victim was Mangy. The ash fell like scattered pellets, hitting both of Mangy’s charred-colored ears. The cat screamed in pain as the kids, and especially Tucker, heard the ash singe the ears.

The outcome was horrific. Mangy’s ears had visibly singed off edges and a large part of both ears were severely charred. The cat jumped and ran faster than ever in a direction opposite from home.

Everyone was silent; it wasn’t broken until someone yelled out, “Ha! Ol’ Charred Cat Ears actually has charred ears now!” To Tucker’s horror, the other kids began laughing, chanting, “Run away you charred-eared cat!”

Tucker couldn’t hold back his emotions. An army of tears broke through the gates he had been trying to keep closed. He began crying and then he began bawling. He was so devastated about Mangy that he hadn’t even noticed a stray piece of ash had landed on the knee of his Levi’s. When he noticed it had burned a hole through the jeans he cried harder, knowing the ash had done worse to Mangy.

Tucker’s crying caused the kids to draw their attention away from Charred Cat Ears and onto Tucker. “What a baby! It’s just a stupid ol’ cat! Why don’t you just go run home to your mommy and suck your thumb!”

And then it happened. Tucker heard Max’s voice, but instead of words of rescue, it was the big moment of horror:

“It’s Sucker Tucker!”

The nickname caught on instantaneously. Sucker Tucker, Sucker Tucker.

Sucker Tucker was in the same boat as Charred Cat Ears and he followed suit by sprinting home as fast as he could. When he got home Mangy was nowhere to be found and Tucker was sure he’d never be back. He was Charred Cat Ears now and for such a cruelty, Tucker was losing his self as well to a name as punishment. Sucker Tucker felt the weight of doomed nicknames on his shoulders and slumped onto his bed as he imagined Charred Cat Ears still running, probably to the next town in desperation of escaping his fated and all-too literal name.

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