Friday, March 29, 2013

Picktures and Pieces 19: Indian Givers

Indian Givers
by Randall Auxier

When I was a kid, my schoolmates used the phrase "indian giver" as a slur against anyone who gave something away but then wanted it back. I probably said it myself. None of us knew any Indians and I don't know where we got this phrase --probably from television. The stupidity, racism and injustice of this verbal tick needs no further analysis. But the context that creates such slurs is worth pondering. Every image is reversed when you see it in a mirror, and TV of that time reflected the dominant culture back to itself in two dimensions. When the white-dominated culture tried to grasp the customs of native peoples, and when the values expressed in those customs were strange, the white people overlaid their own values and fears on what they saw. Distortions abounded and spread.

From the Empirical Archives: Discontinuity by Mike Berger

PHOTO: Boris Lechaftois
Mike Berger
Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Empirical

Linear models simply don’t apply.
The variables are too many and the
processes too complex. The function
has a serious discontinuity. As it
is ramping up, at a critical point,
it bifurcates. This jump renders the
function discrete.

In the laboratory this jump to a
discontinuous function occurs when
the medium changes states. The
search for a strange attractor was
in vain. To make things worse, the
function was dampened by the
addition of an organic compound.

At this point solving the equation
became intractable. Further iterations
would become nondescript.

When the esoteric math fails, we
must use the backup plan; the Italian
method. Throw one against the wall,
if it sticks, the noodles are done.

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Thursday, March 28, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Crowned by Dan O'Brien

LeBron "King" James
Dan O'Brien
Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Empirical

"LeBrown James with Halo"
PHOTO: Craig Hatfield

I have always loved basketball.

When I was much younger I would sit by the TV with a pen and pad and write down the order of the NBA draft as it was announced. I remember quite clearly talking about the free throw percentage of particular players during the playoffs as an indicator of their eventual success. As I grew up, the game changed. Michael Jordan and Larry Bird were replaced with players who no longer seemed bigger than the game, but demanded to be. My brother and I pretending to be Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen as we played on cracked asphalt, shooting a basketball through chain nets, was a thing of the past.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Picktures and Pieces 18: The Heart in the Dark

The Heart in the Dark
by Randall Auxier

A bleeding heart liberal. That's what Richard Henry Pratt was. At this late date it doesn't matter whether believed "white civilization" was superior to other ways of life, or whether he just saw the inevitability of its march. Either way he stood on the advancing edge of a world that would have no place for these children unless somebody did something. The problem of the good heart in the dark isn't what it foresees, or why, but what it believes must be done. Pratt believed that the ancient connections these children carried around within themselves had to be severed, for their own good, of course.

From the Empirical Archives: Swamplandia!

Swamplandia! A review of Karen Russell’s new novel Swamplandia! (Knopf, 2011)
Carrie Wasinger

PHOTO: Daniel Oines

The economy must be improving. The kiosks near the registers of my local Barnes and Noble are once again resplendent with useless do-dads designed to sit on a desk and look pretty. During a recent visit, I lost twenty valuable minutes to those dastardly kiosks, mesmerized by a small set of scented candles, lined up in a row, each a different color, each author-themed.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Oakland Renaissance by Vernon Andrews

Oakland Renaissance: The Art Murmur as Part of an Urban Renewal
Vernon L. Andrews

PHOTO: Vernon L. Andrews

Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Empirical

When any conversation I’m in causes me to mention that I am from Oakland, people bristle. Oakland has a bad reputation. Tough city. A “second city.” The same way foreigners view Canada as compared to the USA, or New Zealand as compared to big brother Australia. Oakland is considered half-breed to San Francisco’s high-pedigree.

Monday, March 25, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Scratch Apple by Christopher Bacavis

Scratch Apple
Christopher Bacavis
Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Empirical

New York City materials
Scraps of street have been
hanging up there in my room.
I’ve had no gambling problem,
but I have collected nearly 3,000 lottos
from the trash outside of delis.

Some had bad luck,
most had no luck.
Others won and threw them out
in scratched-up desperation,
an ordinary crushing tragedy,
massive quantity with an abject feeling that they
had their chance and lost
the game called
for Life.

And I hold one in my hands,
and I feel the one behind it
who played with hope
while sitting on the nine train
underneath the World Trade Center
twenty minutes before the first plane hit.
And I feel the earth quake,
feel so many people
jumping out
of that building.

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Picktures and Pieces 17: Isn't It Rich?

Isn't It Rich?
by Randall Auxier

This fellow stands out in a crowd. I'll bet he wants it that way. Most of us would be unable to connect with him. Say, you and me are having coffee and he wanders into the Starbucks. Are we allowed to stare? Surely the answer is "yes, you may even gawk." A person who is made uncomfortable by a few stares does not work this hard to attract them. Our question to him and to ourselves is: "Dude?"

Saturday, March 23, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: A Moment With Paula Beehner

A Moment with Paula Beehner
Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Empirical

Empirical recently discovered a gifted artist in our own backyard. Here, we got the chance to chat with Paula, and gain some insight into her world of photography.

Friday, March 22, 2013

This Day in History: Equal Rights Amendment Passed

From the Empirical Archives: The Resurrection of God

The Resurrection of God
John B. Cobb, Jr. 
Basel, Germany, where Friedrich Nietzsche had taught just prior to writing that God had “died.”
PHOTO: Patrik Tschudin

Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Empirical


If you are literal-minded, the title of this essay won’t make any sense. Anything that could literally “die” would not be God. And what has not died cannot be “resurrected.” But Nietzsche taught us to speak of “the death of God” meaningfully by transposing this “death” onto the field of human imagination and sensibility. Among intellectuals in the late modern world the idea of “God” was losing all credibility.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: A Moment With Neil J. Spicer

A Moment With Neil J. Spicer
PHOTOS: Neil J. Spicer,

Originally Published in the August 2012 Issue of Empirical

This month, Empirical catches up with frequent traveler Neil J. Spicer, Ph.D., an international health researcher with a unique photographic perspective on our world.

From the Empirical Archives: I Hate Poetry by Benedict C. Schurwanz

I Hate Poetry
Benedict C. Schurwanz

PHOTO: E. Sabrina Lee

Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Empirical

I don’t write poems.
I haven’t written any in so many years.
I stopped because I got
With what I don’t have better words for than
“Beat Poetry,”
“Slam Poetry,”
Ridiculous lines that
Off the edge
Of a person’s mouth,
Words that are careful to
Hold on
To the tone on the edge of a
Hesitating to jump
From the edge of a pair of lips
For fear of falling
So far to the ground.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

This Day in History: Alabama National Guard Called in to Guarantee Marchers

From the Empirical Archives: Let Her Be A Flower

Let Her Be A Flower
Lara Gularte
PHOTO: Joel Olives

Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Empirical

While humanity excavates its destiny,
find a quiet place for her heart to live.
Let her musk bouquet rise,
and the bee crawl into her helix,
all honeyed and pleasure.

Fill her with longing,
and sweet clover dreams.
Give her the appetite of a queen.

Let her colors show,
till night lies down in the meadow.

In August when she burns
let her blood and seed
leach into the dark soil.

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Happy Birthday: Olav

Empirical Philosophy: Faith in Reason

Picktures and Pieces 16: Belly Up Boys!

Belly Up Boys!

by Gary L. Herstein, Guest Blogger 

Let me tell you a story.
Well, first, let me explain why I want to tell you a story.

Science (for example) can give us a pretty compelling account about what and how things are, employing the tools of logical coherence and empirical adequacy. However, once we've gained some sense of what and how things are, we've yet to determine what we should do about them or why we should care. For that we need a different kind of understanding, not just logic and facts. We need a convincing story. So let me tell you a story about why I want to tell you a story. I hope you’re convinced.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

This Day in History: Charles Marion Russell was Born

This Day in History: Operation Iraqi Freedom

From the Empirical Archives: The Farm by Sabah Muhammad

The Farm
Sabah Muhammad

PHOTO: Ian Carroll

Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Empirical

Saturdays held the illusion of a family vacation; several trips across a lightly-dewed lawn, our breath visible in the sun-kissed morning, loading the car with bags, snacks, and pillows. My mother would line the three of us up at the front door, her arms full with damp towels, combs, and brushes. She thought being well-groomed could stave off the initial judgments and discrimination of upturned southern noses. Once our faces were shiny, ears free of wax, and even our eyebrows lying flat, she would force us to use the bathroom once more whether we had to go or not. Then we would push each other into the car, sleepy but excited, anticipating the ride ahead. I was the youngest and was forced to ride Bitch between my sisters. I always threw a fit, but secretly I was glad to have the comfort of miniature mothers on both sides. I was Baby Jacob. Erica made sure I was buckled, including the chest strap. Cassandra never had a problem with me resting my head on her shoulder and pinching the fleshy back part of her upper arm. This became a habit I developed, one that lulled me to sleep on the way to the farm.

Erica and Cassandra rarely let a moment go by in silence, they’d create a game before we made it to the highway. I happily awaited my assigned role. Even when I was losing, or incessantly It, I yearned to be part of their big-kid freedom. Their favorite car game was humming tunes from TV shows so we could guess the lyrics. For the first hour of the trip, before Erica went to sleep–she was always first to go to sleep, mouth opened, head against the door panel–my mother would sing and play games with us between sips of steaming gas station coffee. She would take each one of our names and improvise a rap to LL Cool J’s “I Need Love” as she drove. She had a beautiful singing voice, which she rarely used. My mother was not the kind for too much chatter, she believed in giving information on a need-to-know basis. When we became much older Erica claimed it was really her way of lying by omission.

But then we were children singing songs at the top of our lungs at six in the morning, only to be interrupted by the appearance of cows. Those giant animals–staring, eating, and stinking– announced our arrival into the country. Every weekend, as if we’d never seen them before, we would stop what we were doing, giraffe our necks, and press our noses firmly against the chilly window to look at the animals. We watched them until someone choked on the stench of manure, wrinkled their nose and said “Ewww, who did it!” Our mother would laugh, and with the game or song forgotten she would ask, “What would y’all do if we lived on a farm?” Cassandra would always lay down her pad and pencil to answer first.

“I would be a farmer and grow food for our family and for all the homeless people on the planet.” She was only twelve, but thought of such things as if all Barbie-wielding twelve-year-olds could possibly save the world.

“I would wear pretty farm dresses and grow flowers,” said Erica.

“Oh, really?” said Mom encouragingly.

“Yes, and I would ride horses all day and feed them hay and apples.”

“And what else?”

“And I would put braids in their tails with pink and gold ribbons on the end. And my horses would always be clean and they would never stink. And I would teach them to talk and wear horse dresses that matched mine.”

Cassandra always carried a pencil and paper to draw but Erica was the story teller, the longer she spoke the more elaborate her stories became. It was a tactic of my mother’s to let Erica talk everyone in the car to sleep. Then my mother would ask me.

“So, Baby Jacob, what would you do if we lived on a farm?” Normally I said I would play with the animals, run with the chickens and pigs. This pleased my mother and sisters and they would squeal and say, “Gross, you want to eat slop,” or call me little piggy until they forgot it was funny. But this particular morning I answered more like Cassandra. I thought of the simplest answer that would make it all better. With a Kool-Aid smile, expecting to be encouraged like Erica had been, I said, “I want to live on the farm to be with Daddy.”

Everyone became silent, pushing hasty reactions to the roof of their mouths. Erica began to cry. Cassandra hated weakness and jabbed across me to punch her on the shoulder. Stop it, Stupid. In a second my mother’s calm was gone and she was threatening spankings if Cassandra didn’t apologize. Being a woman of few words, my mother always followed through on her promises of a spanking. She was also notorious for a pinch and twist to our arm at the first sign of public misbehavior. Erica stifled the sobs but continued to force silent tears down her cheeks. Cassandra offered a cold apology and opened her notebook to write. What I did, I’m not sure.

PHOTO: Clinton Steeds
I stuck my finger in my mouth and poked Cassandra’s cheek. Instead of grabbing my head with both hands and trying to lick my squirming face like she always did, she firmly balled my fingers and shook her head. I understood it was time for all of us to be quiet. I kept my feelings on the surface–back to searching for cows, or playing with my handful of Legos.

In the car on that morning, as I watched the farms turn to forests, on the way to the farthest reaches of Georgia, I took out my seven small multi-colored blocks. I built and rebuilt a nameless structure while Erica cried herself to sleep, Cassandra mused, and my mother calculated her life’s mistakes in the seventy-fivce miles that remained until we reached the shotgun town of Waycross.

PHOTO: Steve Snodgrass
By the time I woke up we were at the farm and Erica was jumping up and down holding her hands between her legs while my mother removed necessary items from her purse–gum, hand mirrors, pens, even tic tacs would have to stay locked in the trunk. Between fishing out her driver’s license and dollar bills for change, my mother snapped at Erica to hold it. Cassandra was in charge of me. It was easy for her to slip into motherly duties, fluffing out the nap dent in my hair with a small yellow pick comb, or wiping the curdled signs of sleep from the corner of my eyes with a baby wipe. There was nothing to be done about the lines indented across my cheek from the folds of Cassandra’s shirt that I’d slept so comfortably against. Cassandra just laughed at me and said she could follow the map on my face all the way to the moon. When my mother got everything together in a clear make-up bag, we crossed the gravel parking lot creating a rhythmic march over the loose pebbles and rocks.

PHOTO: Sonny Abesamis
This farm was large and there was not one animal in sight on the massive green lawns. It did have a gate that stretched forever in all directions and a stark blue sky that created solid lines between grass, gate, and heaven. Behind the gate was a brick, box-shaped building with very few windows. About twenty feet above us, just under the snake coils of barbed wire, there was a silver intercom. Shielding her eyes from the sun, my mother titled her head back and stared at it, my eyes followed hers. Feedback pierced the air followed by a loud buzzing and a slow-moving gate; once it was opened we could go inside. It was at that moment that a stream of yellow emerged from the cuff of Erica’s pant leg and crept across her white sock. Immediately Cassandra began to laugh and Erica dropped her chin to her chest to hide her tears from view. Without speaking my mother turned on her heel and made quick strides toward the car. Doubled over with giggles and walking fast to keep up, Cassandra pulled me across the parking lot while Erica penguin-stepped to the car, sobbing snot down her shirt along the way. Her only changes of clothes were flowery pink and green shorts and an oil-stained men’s t-shirt which had probably been used to wash the car. With one cold, tight-eyed look from my mother Cassandra stopped laughing and helped to put Erica’s pissy clothes in a plastic grocery bag. I opened my jacket to hide Erica from view while my mother tried to calm her down enough to dress her in the strange new outfit.

PHOTO: Corrie Barklimore

PHOTO: Kate Ter Haar
When we made it to the gate for the second time, there was another family waiting with us in silence. There was an older egg-shaped woman with a fanny pack and men’s haircut, and a tall man with tangled, fuzzy blond locks that hung from a trucker hat. And there was a younger woman, even smaller than my mother, with a brand new baby in her arms, and a boy about my age clinging to her leg. I waved my Legos at him and he buried his face into the younger woman’s acid-washed, denim-covered thigh. I thought he was afraid of me. I took no consideration of what the farm might look like to him. From what I had been told, I met my father at the farm. My mother began making this trip across the state and open country when she was five months knocked up with me in her stomach. The gates that loomed above my head toward eternity and the barbed wire that welcomed visitors was never a threat to me, it was where Father lived. The new family stood with us at the gate waiting for the buzzing, and then we were free to walk ten yards over more crunchy gravel to a set of sliding doors that led inside the brick building where we would meet the guards that managed the farm.

PHOTO: Rennett Stowe
I understood the family that came in with us was new because they didn’t know the rules and did everything wrong. The guards had to keep giving instructions. The new family tried to bring food with them, and diapers in a big baby bag instead of clear plastic bags. They kept beeping when they went through the metal detectors and between the three adults and two children they had to rent a locker for the things they could not bring. Then the man in the group started cursing. When guards all moved their hands toward their hip, he changed his voice to a whimper and apologized. He was told his ID was no good and his only choice was to wait in the car until visiting was over.

When Erica and Cassandra walked through inspection, they were like queens, setting an example for the new family, heads held high as if the metal detector was an “archway of coronation.” We didn’t beep, and our money was already in quarters and sealed in a plastic bag. After inspection, guards herded us into a claustrophobic waiting room with more sliding doors. I usually ended up staring directly into the crotch of a female guard with an iron curtain bosom that practically rested on my head. This guard was in charge of opening the two massive security doors that would eventually lead us to the Farmers. She used a special key, like a metal blow-pop stick, to unlock the doors. Then slowly with earth-splitting noises that vibrated the bottoms of my feet, the doors slid open. My mother’s joke was to ask if it was my stomach rumbling that made our feet shake–not today. Everyone seemed to know that today was different.

PHOTO: Derek Key

We followed the guard down a long white hallway where she used her special key once more to call an elevator that would take us downstairs to the visiting room. Sometimes we would see our father right away. When the doors opened he would be there with a smile on his face, relieved to see us. Other times, we would wait for him. While we waited, our mother would send Cassandra to the vending machine for Lorna Doone shortbread cookies and Fritos. These were my father’s favorites and she liked to have them on the table when he arrived. Today was one of those waiting days.

My mother paced behind her chair and we all sat looking in the direction where the Farmers entered. When their door slid open they were greeted like celebrities, heads turned and people stood up to meet them. The young woman in the new family was already crying and the visit was just starting. When the door opened my mother would stop pacing and grip the back of a chair, when she finally saw him her shoulders would relax and a smile would slowly creep across her face. We had to wait for him to come to us. Then my mother would cup my father’s smooth face with her left hand and he would press his cheek into her fingers with his eyes closed. Then my parents would kiss. The Farmers were only allowed two kisses, one at the beginning and one at the end of the visit. I always looked away during the kiss, especially the goodbye kiss. Almost at once all the Farmers would grab their wives and embrace with savage desperation. What followed was the type of inappropriate kiss, with sounds and visible tongues that would rarely be seen in public or followed by the addressing of children with pecks on the forehead.

PHOTO: Derek Key
The initial conversation, after the “You look good” and the “I miss you” was always about lawyers and money. Then they would talk about Daddy’s brothers and friends who owed him debts. When he brought this up, my mother became annoyed and refused to continue talking. During these annoyed periods to keep the visit flowing, my father would grab me in his arms and call me his Boy. I would talk about Legos and school and tell him he needed to come to our house so he could see my racetrack. We would talk like this for a while as I sat in the rarely-felt safety of his lap. He smelled of fresh starch and detergent, a smell I loved but also associated with an empty stomach. He was tall and slim with accusing slits for eyes–eyes that I also saw when I looked in the mirror. His nose flared involuntarily when he spoke. He rarely used his hands when speaking, and when he addressed us it was with an intimidating kind of attention that forced us to look away.

The visiting room was always full. Every chair had a body and each table was covered with candy bar wrappers, chips, and soda cans. There were other children visiting Farmers but we were not allowed to play with them. We were told the guards would shoot us if we did. That was enough. We were the best-behaved children at the farm. We were only allowed to get up for three destinations–vending machine, picture booth, or bathroom. When our parents argued or needed to speak privately, Cassandra would be in charge of taking us to the vending area. She became a pro at taking her time to make a decision among the plexi-glass protected snacks. It became a game:

“Jacob’s favorite is 100 Grand, so what color is the wrapper?”

“Blue and yellow.”

“Jacob, that’s red and yellow.”

“And Erica how do you spell red?”


“What about yellow?”

“That’s too hard.”

“Oh well, you can only eat what you can spell.”

And on it went until Erica began to cry and Cassandra eventually gave up her self-indulgent harassment. Today, we were sent to the vending machine. Our parents argued because our mother was going to college, and Daddy wanted to know how she could possibly afford school and what made her think she was the college type.

We learned to stay away until our mother’s face released its tight-lipped tension. Arguing wasn’t allowed by anyone on the farm, but with so much noise from each sitting area it was difficult to notice my mother’s usual frustration at being accused of cheating on Daddy with his friends, forgetting him at this time when he really needed her, and now daring to gain an education. Work was usually a “vending machine issue” for my parents. They would send us away to replenish the chocolate and sugar supply on the table every time conversations went in that direction, as if more artificial sweeteners and salt would create a solution. Earlier in the year, we stopped receiving welfare because Daddy’s lawyer, Richard Adams, offered our mother a job as a receptionist. My father was angry because he heard about my mother’s new job from our grandmother. Daddy’s family didn’t like my mother very much; she was too private for them, and too good at getting things done without help.
PHOTO: Derek Key

When we finally returned with a new stock of Cheetos, peppermint patties, and Sprites, my father was talking about the new family. The young man with the crying wife was new to the farm. He wasn’t Daddy’s friend because of a tattoo. Many of the Farmers had tattoos, but it wouldn’t be until my tenth grade social studies class that I discovered Hitler and swastikas, and learned why Daddy and the new Farmer with the big black spider shaped tattoo across the back of his neck couldn’t be friends. My entire emotional understanding of the Holocaust would amount to me thinking of my father every time I saw a Nazi flag.

From what our father told us, he was friends with a lot of the Farmers in the visiting area but wasn’t allowed to speak to them or sit next to them until they got back to their own rooms. If he did, the farm guards who slowly patrolled around the room would make him sit in a hole. So I only got to know his friends when he pointed to them and said their names, immediately followed by why they had to live on the farm. Carmichael; grand theft auto. Nelson; fraud. Davis; manslaughter. Daddy said that he was guilty of being a part of the White Man’s system. Every time he said this, Cassandra huffed and rolled her eyes. If Daddy heard her he pretended not to.

It was Cassandra who began the trend toward deserting our father. She began spending weekends on the phone, at middle school basketball games, and at the food court in the mall. When Erica turned eleven, she was next. She discovered how to man-up and filled her weekends with sports; it became easy for her to take a hit without crying. Practice and competition for soccer, track, and softball were a part of Erica’s life without Daddy. My mother and I became his only visitors. We would have rambling conversations about Cassandra and Erica to take the focus away from me and all of my issues. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him about being cut from football try-outs, my changing voice–that only seemed to squeak when I was talking to Deanna Brown, the only girl I knew with cleavage–my sprouting body hair that grew in unevenly and curled oddly in several different directions, or my wet dreams and need to masturbate three times a day.

It felt weird to confide in my father–he was a stranger–and through this I realized I was sad for him. Not because I couldn’t ask him about beating the wood or that, sadly, beating the wood was my biggest concern, but because I was embarrassed of him. How could he have the answers to my confusion when he never left the farm? He only knew life from what he saw on the television or the exaggerated stories the guards told him. He was becoming more and more real to me as I was coming to understand that he was not coming home, even though I always found him to be innocent. He was my father, and my father wasn’t capable of doing wrong.

As I rebuilt my Legos I was aware of a change. The sound of the visiting room, which I usually heard as a whir of indistinct noise, had become many small conversations about bills, release times, births, and deaths. My father’s eyes looked away from us and into his open hands more often. My mother chose to put a chair between her and my father after she stood for a brief moment to stretch her legs. With every visit before, I hoped that my father would come home or he would say I could stay. I always planned to ask, but the moment never seemed right. Instead, I would fall asleep in his lap and wake up when visiting time was nearly over. The change was the first time that asking seemed like the wrong thing to do, so it was inevitable that I would ask.

My opportunity came in the form of a father to son talk. My mother and sisters slid their chairs about a foot away while my father, in a low voice, told me I had to be the man of the house. He told me to take care of my sisters and help my mom. This posed an immediate challenge, something I would struggle to live up to for the remainder of my adolescence. As soon as we were back in the car, Cassandra and Erica would prove who the real bosses were. He looked me in the eyes, blinking rapidly, holding my chin with his wide hands when he used the word, man. That word, that burden of identity. He knew its power, he had to communicate something to me.

“So what does the man of the house do?”

“I don’t remember.”

“What do you think?”

“He washes the cars, and makes sure there is juice in the refrigerator and he has big muscles so he can beat people up if they try to mess with him. And he can drive a motorcycle.” 

Then in his effort to remain relevant he gave me the job he could not accomplish. “What’s the most important thing of all?” he asked, and with some hesitation I answered.

“The man of the house takes care of mommy and his sisters?”

“That’s what you have to do, and I’m going to call and make sure you’re being a man.” He gave me a squeeze, maybe to reassure me that I was capable of the job, or maybe to ease himself of the guilt he felt for trying to pass on his responsibility. With thirty minutes left in our visit my father finished our talk and asked Erica about her strange outfit.

As Erica tried to keep the tears at bay while she told her parking lot story, I let my mind drift over to the new family. The little boy who was about my age spent the entire time sleeping in his grandmother’s lap. The crying young woman rocked softly from side to side and moved her red, tear-exhausted eyes from the door, to the clock, to her husband, and back, in an unchanging nervous rhythm. She stopped for a moment, and I followed her gaze to the families taking last-minute photos. For a moment the crying young woman turned her head and caught eyes with mine. She attempted a smile, tried to fix her face as my mother used to say, but failed and looked back down to her baby as fresh tears appeared and dotted the single blanket she was allowed to bring inside. The new Farmer turned to her, cutting his mother off in mid-conversation. He took the baby from her arms and held it close, then put his free arm around the crying young woman and hugged her. Ten years later, he would meet his son at home after being released for good behavior with a charge of manslaughter. My father would meet his grandchildren and in-laws at the farm.

Cassandra tugged at my shirt and stopped me from staring at the new family. Our last fifteen minutes of visiting were always strangely silent. During this time of leaving and not leaving nothing was ever resolved. We would teach Daddy the games we knew and sometimes he would play with us. Today, he asked my mother what she planned to study in college. When she told him law, he pulled a long breath from the entire room and wiped feverishly at his forehead with the palm of his hand. 

He wanted to know who came up with the idea, but he didn’t ask out loud. His silence was envisioning our mother’s future. The silence was an attempt to piece everything together; her new career, her new education, and her new life–his lawyer. By the end of his deep breath, ten of our fifteen minutes were up and he understood.

He squatted low to hug me, to say goodbye and I asked, already knowing the answer, if I could stay. He stared at me, opening his eyes as wide as his slits would allow. To this day, I am sure he was afraid of me. His head dropped and he picked me up without answering. For a moment he held me in his arms rocking me silently, my face in his neck inhaling the detergent smell, and then he squatted to put me steadily on the floor again. He looked around at his family, rascals who looked just like him–Cassandra arms folded in forced indifference, Erica fighting tears and leaning over to give him a goodbye kiss, me wide-eyed and anticipating his answer. He saw that we would live our lives unaffected by his simple dreams; of waking sleeping children for school in the morning, watching us through peeks in the rear view mirror while driving, or hearing Daddy on a daily basis.

As my mother drew nearer I lowered my head to avoid seeing the ceremonial kiss goodbye, and busied myself with the buttons of my shirt. I saw Erica’s blue shoes move away from my side, and all around me the room filled with reluctant shuffling, Farmers in one direction, families in the other. When I looked up my mother was wiping tears from my father’s expressionless face. And even though I cried every time we left the farm, it was with the raw new understanding of loss, stretching out and unfolding in my stomach that I cried for my father.

PHOTO: Simon Brass

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Monday, March 18, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Joining the Thousand by Maude Larke

Joining the Thousand
Maude Larke

PHOTO: denizen24

Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Empirical

during the last month
I would do my yoga
as well as I could
in the slant-ceilinged bedroom

trying to do downward dog
without sliding on the carpet
and revolving lateral angle
against the foot of the bed

so that the cat
could stay up there
not alone

between the heart condition
and the water on the lungs
she needed to keep still

she could still hop onto the bed
and would still walk by
while I did the poses
rubbing where she could rub
while I held them

by the end she was down
to four kilos
and felt like a cheap toy
when I picked her up

during the last month
she insisted at night

after the yoga
the teeth brushed
the medicine forced down her throat

on sleeping on me
not beside
so turning over became a negotiation

on my side I became
a ridge to hold up
her sparse pine forest

but during the fits
of suffocation
she refused the bed

once she was done
flopping over
she would stay

stretched out
more than full length
on her side
behind the litter box
tongue thick
saliva thick clinging
and staring-eyed
or curled on the ledge

over the staircase

then I would go back to bed
hoping my warmth would invite

at those times
I thought of my scarred lung
and began to be happy
that I did not have to worry
about what to do
if she survived me

at the others
I worried about
turning over slowly enough

after a month
the scars that she had made
as I repeatedly
pushed her into her cage
pushed her pills down her throat
had disappeared

but I could mistake
a drying backpack
left on the roof
outside the window
for her

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Saturday, March 16, 2013

Picktures and Pieces 15: The Land of the Free

Picktures and Piece 15: The Land of the Free
by Randall Auxier

The stray apostrophe on this sign doesn’t surprise me. No one likes a grammar snob, but I don’t like this sign. It comes from “Goldwater country,” now world famous for its inhospitality. The meaning of “white” is a moving target. With so many Italians arriving a hundred years ago, they somehow ceased being “white,” as did the Irish in the 19th century. Both groups are "white" again, now, it appears. In the great Southwest, evidently “white” includes people who are ethnically Jewish, like Barry Goldwater, but not people from Spain or Mexicans, even Mexicans of German parentage, I suppose.

Goldwater said: “The Mexican is industrious, kind and a very warm family man whose hogar (hearth) is his citadel, his castle and his life. A Mexican is particularly devoted to his country and will defend it against any slur or attack. Mexicans are loyal and true friends whose word becomes their bond. One doesn’t find all of these attributes reflected in any one face, but often a reflection of the dignity born of them comes through.” He had many Mexican friends, and many Native American friends, and his friends saw in him an old-fashioned kind of integrity they could recognize, even when they differed with his opinions. His word was his bond and his hospitality was not extended for personal gain.

The Goldwater version of the Republican Party was supposed to shun racism and bigotry of all kinds, and it would not cozy up to religious fundamentalists. His party would actually cut government programs to prevent the encroaching menace of executive power. It would stay out of education because the Constitution does not authorize such intervention. (This is true. It really doesn’t.) And Goldwater’s Republican Party would pass laws in accordance with a strict interpretation of that document.

Barry’s pipe dream. He was repeating what James Madison said in Federalist 10 and 44. Each branch of government to tries to expand its own power at the expense of the others. There is excellent evidence for this observation, and not just among governmental entities. Look at corporations, universities and schools, and pretty much any complex social structure. To prevent the problem, Goldwater wanted a civil right defined as a right already protected by law, as distinct from natural rights or human rights. He was willing to defend whatever rights the legislature specified, if they were in keeping with the Constitution. Many Libertarians take this view, but Republicans and Democrats are both heavily disposed to exercise executive power broadly and to legislate without explicit reference to the Constitution.

Not many people know that Goldwater was a daring pilot, one of the few to fly the U2 spy plane. He was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1982, three years after Neil Armstrong (ironically, Lyndon Johnson signed the law creating that institution). Goldwater eventually retired as a major general from the Air Force Reserves. But when he became chief of staff of the Arizona Air National Guard, in 1947, one of his first acts was to desegregate the unit. He insisted on it. His crews came in all shades. But that was the military, not a private business. You can’t make private citizens nonracist through government intervention, he believed.

Goldwater was soundly defeated in 1964, carrying only his home state of Arizona and the five most reactionary, segregationist states in the deep South. He won the latter because he voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. I doubt the white citizens of those Southern states (and they were the ones voting, make no mistake–the Voting Rights Act passed the next year) understood Goldwater’s position on the bill. I wonder whether Goldwater would have actually voted for the Voting Rights Act. He was not a member of the Senate when it came up.

The stated reason for Goldwater’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act had nothing to do with his views about desegregation. He had some integrationist credentials in his past, after all. But he wouldn’t pass a law, federal, state or local, to make this benighted fool remove that sign from his window or change his business practices. Goldwater’s solution to that problem? Don’t eat there, or anywhere that bigotry reigns. He served everyone at his family's department store. That is the solution, for “a free people,” as he understood that concept. Any government that can force this business owner to do things differently cannot be trusted to refrain from deeper incursions into the freedoms of its citizens.

I struggle with this. I admire the Civil Rights Movement, about as much as I admire anything. I don’t believe things would have changed without the law. Things needed to change. I am also aware that many of the negative effects of integration Malcolm X predicted have come true. Like anything human, desegregation involved trade-offs. And there has been creeping executive authority: Cheney’s “unitary executive,” and so on. We all want the government to act when it is doing what we think ought to be done, but then we cry foul when government uses the same kind of authority to do what we don’t favor. Each side argues that freedom is being taken away. Do we or don’t we agree on what freedom is?

I think we don’t. Just as there is an old fashioned and a new fangled version of integrity, there is an old version of freedom that says people are free when they are left alone, and a younger version that says unless all are free, no one truly is. These are individualists arguing with communitarians. Communitarian freedom favors using governmental power to secure a level playing field, while the individualists say that if you use governmental power in that way, pretty soon no one will be free.

There are good citizens on both sides, but the old fashioned integrity is what makes them so. The new integrity, like everything that has fear as its seed, puts down no deep roots in history or experience. It isn’t a perennial. You have to plant fear over and over. It grows mainly in the shade and isn’t indigenous to human nature. Goldwater may have lost an election because of it, because people thought he would blow up the world, or because they feared he was a racist, or because they were afraid of having three presidents in just over a year.

Goldwater grumpily put up with being feared, but he didn’t think anyone needed to be afraid of that sign in the window. He said the biggest mistake he ever made wasn’t his vote on the Civil Rights Act, or his acceptance speech, it was his decision not to buy this bar in Phoenix. We will pick up next time with that, in the final entry on Goldwater.

From the Empirical Archives: Coyote Dreams by Louise Young

Coyote Dreams
Louise Young
PHOTO: Larry Lamsa

Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Empirical

Her memory of that night was in the language that she’d learned from the man who was not her father: slurred syllables punctuated by glottal stops as if words were silver-bodied fish that muscled into the current of her breath. Anna had no idea of what language it was. In her twenty-seven years, she’d crossed the continent maybe a dozen times but she’d never met anyone who spoke with the words that she’d learned from Ambrosio. In Texas once she’d recognized a phrase–or maybe it was an entire sentence–in the wind stuttered chatter of flocking robins, and farther north the bare white branches of sycamore trees sometimes muttered a few familiar, shushing words as she hurried past. When she’d hear these voices, Anna wondered if what she recalled was an actual event, or an in-drawn breath that held meaning only in her mind.

On the remembered night, she’d woken slick with fever or maybe it was the wind: it blew through the tent from the south, inflating the thin canvas walls and then contracting them like a lung. The breath was as warm as a living thing, and inside of the tent she smelled life: the restless shudder of her mother, the heavy sigh of the man who was not her father. The muskiness of their breath, the rumbles of their sleep, were familiar but on this night without comfort.

Beyond the walls of the tent, she could hear the harlequin leaves laughing at the wind, the soft slurp of the river as it swept between trees like an endless gray ghost. The child-Anna knew this spot: the family often camped here on their way to someplace else. In the spring, the river ran milky and cold, in the fall the air was so clear that it gave color to the night. She knew that the laughing leaves outside were yellow, the ashy bark of the trees furrowed like ripples on the river. Other things–known and unknown–lurked outside the tent: deer with their sharp-pointed hearts of tracks, the swift scent of sage, unblinking owls that questioned the darkness. In her memory, Anna could be certain of only this one night, her wakefulness a passport to the unexplored world of the future.

Fingers of wind played at the door of the tent, offering tantalizing glimpses of a moon-bright landscape. One of the adults farted softly in sleep. Not daring to risk the commotion of dressing the child crawled under the flap of the tent, and escaped into the night.

The first thing that demanded her attention was the moon. Directly overhead and oblong like the face of an old person, it tripped through the leaves and branches overhead, reining a stream of broken silver light onto the uneven duff at her feet. The moonlight rendered every sound, every detail, every inhale as clear as day clearer actually because the confusion of noises and color and movement was now breath-solemn and hushed. It was as if the world had been stripped of everything nonessential: a world more real than reality.

Anna looked down at her body, aglow in the naked moonlight. She’d hoped that this enchanted night might have made her beautiful, like the yellow leaves that applauded overhead or the sinewy fish that twisted and flowed, invisible, through the silty gray river. Ambrosio often told her that she was beautiful, that inside of her child’s body was a soul stronger than the Virgin or any of the saints. He had a word for it–something with a harsh, throaty rasp that Anna couldn’t imitate–but when she’d ask him what that word meant he’d tell her that she wouldn’t understand it, that she wasn’t old enough. And if she argued that she wasn’t young at all, Ambrosio would agree in the language that only they shared:

“Of course you’re not young–you’ve been in this world forever, just like the clouds and the river have always been here. But the water that’s flowing in the river now is different from the water that went past yesterday–it’s new, just like now your soul is new. You’re not like other people. Every day you are born again, like the river and the clouds are. And because you share so much with the river and the clouds and all of the world that surrounds you, you’ll never have an age, just like a cloud is never young or old.”

PHOTO: Larry Lamsa

Anna wasn’t sure that she wanted to remain like she was now for the rest of her life: she longed to be tall and graceful and fluid like her mother. But in her heart she knew that Ambrosio was right: she was different from other children. Those others couldn’t hear the sighing of the northern lights or recognize weather in the wind.

This wind, warm as a cow’s tongue, would bring rain in a few hours, probably around dawn. Right at the moment when the grown-ups would be trying to take down the tent and pack, to move forward, onward, through. They were always heading toward something but the child couldn’t figure out what that thing was. All that Anna wanted to do was stay in one place long enough to understand the language of those who lived there. Every place had its own words, too often muffled by a rumble of traffic or the swoop of busyness. In the stillness and darkness of night, the voices became especially compelling. She’d wake to a cacophony of mumbles and mutters that the wind would snatch away before she could isolate a single thought. She wondered where the wind carried those conversations, if it stored them somewhere far to the east, in the rumbling caves of the ocean or the brightness of the rising sun. 

That same wind now guided her, pushing at her back with the steadiness of a hand. Her footsteps rumpled through leaves already shed from branches overhead. The dripping silver darkness was alive with voices: the fecund river full of fish and clams and slime, the earth with its roots and worms, the trees, the wind veining words from somewhere far away–maybe as far as the western sea–to mingle with sighs of camphor and fir. Beneath all of those vague, half-heard voices, the child thought that she could sense the presence of another listener, its restrained energy and youth somewhere very near her own.

Anna breathed through her mouth, hoping that the taste of the night air might clue the identity of her companion. For every one of her footsteps, a handful of others whispered around her. Feet smaller than hers–paws maybe–stepped as lightly as rain. Anna willed her body to be still: the wan footsteps also paused. The child twisted her head to the left and to the right but in the broken shadows under the trees she saw nothing except silver slivers of refracted moonlight.

The wind continued to tug at her, impatient for movement, and when her steps resumed so did those of the unseen creature beside her. Anna panicked and ran, breaking away from the trees and into the full moonlight of the bank along the river. In the open, she realized that she had been followed not by a single shadow but by four or five, pouncing and prancing and tumbling at her feet. Dun-colored forms in the moonlight, pointed ears, pointed snouts, and tails streaming behind their flanks like the current off a rudder: puppies. Coyotes? She’d never seen a coyote up close before, only heard their keening, yapping, effusive song that sometimes gave dreams to her sleep.

The pack of pups at her feet was never still: their tightly-wound bodies twisted, feigned, and attacked. But no matter how closely they braided around her legs, the puppies never touched her: it was as if an invisible field held their lives apart. The child imagined the soft slide of their fur against her bare calf, young muscles sprung with tension and alive with motion. After their ghostly escort through the woods, the pups now seemed completely oblivious to her presence. They tumbled and played in the grasses and yellowing ferns, breath chuffing and chuckles or growls rumbling inside of their shivering chests.

At the child’s feet: a spring, a snap, and a grunt were followed by an instant of stillness as one of the puppies chewed and then swallowed. A breath away, another pup leaped vertically like a trout but in vain: the intended prey–a scrap of fluttering moonlight–escaped the snapping jaws to hover above the coyote’s head, just beyond the reach of those straining, leaping lips.

Eye level to the child, though. In a flash, Anna pinched her fingers together until she held the moth imprisoned in her hand. Cool, silky wings fluttered helplessly against her palm. The thick stub of a body crushed easily. She offered the disabled moth to the upraised snout of the frustrated pup. A pink tongue darted out, first to accept the morsel, then to lap at the child’s hand.

As the night advanced, the children–human and coyote–hunted. The wind stilled. When the rain began, the drops fell so lightly that none of them noticed: the child assumed that the barely audible hiss at her feet was a chorus of earth-bound insects, scolding her for aiding the coyote pups in the slaughter of their sisters.

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Friday, March 15, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: My Thoughts Exactly

My Thoughts Exactly
Jennifer Hanno

Adirondack's Rainbow Falls, Au Sable, NY PHOTO: Florin Chelaru

Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Empirical

Twelve. That was my year of living sarcastically. I had had my suspicions all along, but recent events had just proven beyond a doubt that it was not just wealth that had been distributed unevenly in this world. What follows is a list of the top ten reasons why being twelve was a less than fulfilling experience:
  1. I was turning out to be nothing like my sister. Beautiful and fun, she resembled a dark-haired Marcia Brady.
  2. I was one of those girls who “developed early.” Let’s just say my cup runneth over. I believe I may have passed right by the A and B cup stage and became the only C cup in the 7th grade. I remember sobbing to my mother, insisting that “boys don’t like girls with big breasts.” I was not comforted by her suggestion that I just wait and see about that.
  3. Beth Conandario loomed always before me, a stark reminder of all that I was not. Apparently, Beth never got the memo that stated no one should look good in 7th grade. Her perfect hair and athletic build mocked me daily. I was still harboring bitter resentment over the fact that she got the role of the Virgin Mary in our 3rd grade Christmas Pageant. I was a sheep with a bad attitude who sat there hating her. Yes, I hated the Virgin Mary.
  4. My baby sister, once so cute and angelic, was developing into quite a handful. Unfortunately, any trouble Maura got herself into was somehow blamed on what was considered my inadequate supervision. Remember those inflatable balls with a handle, designed for kids to bounce on? Well, she thought it would be a fine idea to ride it down the stairs. In her mind, I am sure it was going to happen very differently than it did. She was a testament to the belief that it was better to be cute than clever.
  5. My father was laid off again. His daytime presence did not concern me, although we could hear the tense arguments that took place behind their closed bedroom door. I was more concerned with lunch. School lunches cost only fifty cents, but my frugal mother packed our lunches every day. I stared with envy at my friends who bought the school lunch or brought lunches filled with processed food we could not afford. Grumbling, I would take out the sandwich and cookies homemade by my mother with loving care and yearn bitterly for a Ho Ho. 
  6. Humiliation awaited me around every corner. When a well-meaning neighbor brought over some hand-me down clothes, I discovered a pair of purple, wide wale corduroy bell-bottom hipsters. I don’t want to brag, but I looked pretty good in them. I swiveled around the house, then decided to go for a spin on my bike … you know, the banana seat bike with the high handlebars and flower-laden basket? … Unfortunately, bell bottoms and bikes are not a good combination. My pant leg got sucked so far into the bike chain that I had to limp home, the bike still attached to my leg, both my beloved pants and my dignity in shreds.
  7. I had recently realized that the man I loved was married. A few years before, my best friend and I had developed a pact. She would marry Starsky and I would marry Hutch in a double wedding ceremony to which we would invite Beth Conandario. Of course, Starsky was the more overtly sexy one of the crime fighting duo, but I seemed to sense even at that age the merits of the number two slot. I like to think I was drawn to his sensitivity; I was one of only about twenty people who bought his album, featuring his poignant song, “Don’t Give Up on Us.” I thought he was sending me a secret message. But alas, the twotimer was married. This was a pattern to repeat itself with others: Sean Cassidy, Bo Duke from the Dukes of Hazard … a bunch of users, all of them. 
  8. I decided to try sports. I am still convinced it might have been a success had it not been for Aunt Roberta. She was the embarrassing family member assigned to take me to my games. An over-protective woman, her fear of being mugged was exceeded only by her fear of melanoma. The temperature was 85 degrees, and she would arrive dressed head to toe in a white, long sleeve shirt buttoned to the cuffs and secured tightly around her neck. Then she would open up her trunk which was filled with sun hats, select the most obnoxious one for herself, and then insist that I, too, should choose a sombrero. Though she did concede that I could not wear one on the soccer field, she felt it was perfectly appropriate to wear one while I was waiting on the bench.
  9. I seemed to be on the verge of pretty, but could never quite get there. My features were coming into their own, but my hair was determined to overpower them. Even in an age when big hair was in, mine was too big. Contact lenses and anti-frizz serum and better bras were in my future, but I did not know that then. And finally, the last reason….
  10. We were moving. My father had been contacted by an old friend and was offered a job. As a result, our family was heading to a small town in the Adirondacks. I would leave behind my best friend, Kelly, the home where I had spent my childhood, my grandparents, and even sombrero-loving Aunt Roberta. It filled me with anxiety, but also, a little bit of excitement. I was excited for a new start. Because, you see, where we were going … no one knew of that embarrassing bike/bellbottom incident.

So, there was hope.
PHOTO: Allen MacGregor


You know hope can lead you down some pretty strange roads. Our journey to our new home in Northern New York occurred during the famous Blizzard of ’77. We crawled through winding roads, blinded by white, our fates in the hands of a pissed-off Mother Nature. My younger sister traveled with my mother and father while my older sister and I followed behind in our other car. I imagined my mother in the car ahead glancing nervously in the rearview mirror, searching through the whiteness for our headlights while my little sister continued a never ending chorus of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”

Chrissy seemed oblivious to the lack of visibility. Relaxed and beautiful as ever in her torn jeans, she kept one hand on the wheel while she switched through endless radio stations. Now, I am a planner, and since this was a new start for me, I felt it important to begin on the right step, so to speak. More than anything, I wanted to be popular. Boys were a mystery to me, but I wanted one. Or maybe I just wanted to be wanted by one. Of course, boys were always falling all over Chrissy, though she returned their attention with cool indifference. She was indifferent to me as well, but we were trapped in a car together and she was a captive audience. I really needed her advice.

“Can I ask you something?”

“Yeah, shoot.”

Now that she had agreed to enter into a conversation with me, I felt a little panic. I cleared my throat.

“Well, I was wondering how to get a boy to notice me.”

She blinked in surprise. “You’re only twelve.”

I huffed at the implication that twelve-year olds were only children. I wear a bigger bra size than you, I thought, and turned to stare angrily out the window.

“Look, Bobbi, I am just not sure I can be that much help. When you get a little older, I am sure the boys will be all over you.”

“I am almost a teenager!” I protested.

“Don’t worry about it!”

“Easy for you to say … Boys always like you.”

We rode in silence for a few miles, then I ventured into dangerous territory.

“Why didn’t you want to go out with Tommy Clark?” Tommy was the most popular boy at Lime Rock High and he was crazy about her. One time, he brought her flowers to school and she hid them in the trunk of her car.

She laughed a little and just said, “Not my type.”

I couldn’t understand her. If I looked like her, I’d be keeping a list of potential guys and just work my way through the alphabet.

“I wonder if things will be different there….” I wondered out loud.

“I hope so,” she whispered as we followed our parents’ headlights and our destiny into the unknowable sea of white.


Well, things were different in some ways, but the same in others. My enrollment into Lowville’s Junior High caused an initial stir in the social scene, but I was neither besieged by attention nor offers of friendship. Chrissy, on the other hand, was admired by the girls and sought after by the boys. No change there.

My dad was in a better mood now that he was back at work and was determined that our family should be friends with the family of the man who had saved us, Tony Mancuso. By spring, he had made some headway. They had three children, as well, and they were the same ages as us. They had a five-year-old little girl for Maura and a sixteen-year-old girl for Chrissy. Unfortunately, my counterpart was a skinny, bespectacled redhead named Andy. He quickly became someone I tried to avoid.

“Hey, baby,” he said one evening as we were getting ready for a barbeque.

“I’m not your baby,” I said.

“Not yet. But you will be.”

He gave me a wink that made me shudder.

PHOTO: Gillaume Paumier
When we sat down to eat, I tried to wedge myself between Chrissy and her new friend Lisa, but Chrissy would have none of it. Andy quickly filled the empty spot on my left and I feigned intense fascination with my potato salad.

“That’s just the problem,” Mr. Mancuso was saying. “I’m telling you, it’s unnatural.”

“I totally agree,” my dad said with more enthusiasm than I was used to seeing from him. “There is a reason why it takes a male and a female to reproduce.”

That got my attention and I tried to follow the conversation. Beside me, Chrissy’s face was red with embarrassment and I assumed our parents were humiliating her again. Not wanting to reveal my ignorance, I did not ask any questions, but tried to follow the conversation.

Mr. Mancuso sneered in disgust. “Right here in our very school. And a teacher, no less. Don’t they screen these teachers these days? Who knows what kind of things he might have taught our kids? I tell you, if one of my kids turns gay, I am suing that school….”

Gay? I was not familiar with that term, and I glanced with confusion at Chrissy, then at Alex. My mother was yelling at my dad with her eyes, telling him to be careful what he said in front of the children. This only fed the flame of my curiosity more.

“What’s gay?” I whispered to Chrissy, but she shook her head tensely.

I turned to Alex. “Do you know what they are talking about?”

“Homos,” he said as he shoved almost an entire hamburger into his mouth.

“What’s that?”

He grinned the grin of a boy who knows more than a girl. His chest puffed out with the beginnings of testosterone. “It’s when a man and a man … you know.”

I didn’t. I sat there looking stupidly at him.

“Instead of a man and a woman … it’s a man and a man.”

My eyes grew wide in shock. We had only recently seen “the movie” and had the sex talk in 6th grade. They had not mentioned this little piece of news. I was still puzzling over the anatomy of conventional mating and now this.

“There was a teacher in the high school that was gay, but they found out about it and got rid of him,” Andy continued in explanation.

The mothers had succeeded in turning the conversation into a different direction, but I was lost in the knowledge that this type of thing existed. My fascination with this was temporary, though. It didn’t affect me; as far as I could tell, these people existed far from my world. I gathered I should avoid them, and I added them to the list. Right after Andy.

Later that night, Chrissy and I crossed paths in the bathroom. She was taking a bath and I had to brush my teeth, so she conceded I could enter. She had the curtain drawn and I could only see her tanned, slender leg hanging over the side, her perfect toe nails made even more perfect by baby pink nail polish.

“So, it looks like you have quite a fan in Andy,” she teased.

I groaned. “I can’t stand him.”

“Well, you said you wanted a boy to like you….”

“Not a boy like him.” No, I had my heart set on Jeremy Weaver, who sat next to me in math class. He reminded me of a young Bay City Roller and I would know, since I followed the progress of my favorite band through my faithful subscription to Tiger Beat magazine. Jeremy had long, sandy hair and doodled guitars on his unfinished math homework. Clearly, he was a musician, an artist who had no use for the trappings of the public school system. We’d never really spoken, but I felt a connection and I had a plan. By giving him all the answers, I could establish a relationship with him. Hey, it was a start. I just had to get up the nerve to say something to him. Until then, I spoke to him with my eyes.

“Well, Andy sure likes you.”

Chrissy had climbed out of the tub and emerged from behind the curtain with a towel wrapped around her. She was so perfectly beautiful, it made me sad. I would never be like that. I was pretty sure I could do better than Andy, though, and I told her this.

“Don’t be too hard on him, Bobbie. Sometimes you can’t help who you like.” She sat on the edge of the tub and inspected her fingernails. Something in the way she said it made me take notice.

“Do you like someone?” I asked her.

She gave me a shy smile and I knew she did.

Excited, I sat next to her.

“Who is it? Tell me!” I begged.

“Shhh,” she hissed, then she looked friendly again. “I don’t want anyone to know because it is no one mom and dad would approve of.”

Maybe he was a bad boy? A rebel without a cause? Of course he was. He probably smoked and wore a leather jacket. My jealousy of her surged, and I was desperate to learn more.

But though she seemed willing to talk about her feelings, she would not tell me a name. Regardless, I was encouraged by her confidence in me and went to bed dreaming of romantic entanglements and star-crossed lovers.

It was the first of many conversations we would have as we became less like strangers and more like friends. She was so happy; it made me yearn for what she had. But as she seemed to blossom with even more natural beauty, I was going the other way. Dominating my days was a desperate battle with acne, and I was not winning.

PHOTO: Wonderlane
Things were so much more complicated now that I was no longer a kid. I ruminated over the comforting simplicity of childhood as I watched Maura awkwardly climb the cherry tree in our backyard, encumbered by a large box. It took me a few minutes to understand what she was up to. When the neighborhood chihuahua sniffed his way to a spot underneath the tree, I saw her plan. Maura had set up a trap for him. Once he was in position, she deftly dropped the box on the poor dog and swung gleefully down from the tree.

I strolled over.

“I caught him!” she shouted with joy.

We lay down on the grass on our bellies and lifted the edge of the box slightly to examine her quarry. It took our eyes a few seconds to adjust to the dark interior of the box, but soon we were able to make out his trembling form. There he was, his huge chihuahua eyes wide with terror and all eight pounds of him shaking like Aunt Roberta when she was off her “medication.” My heart sunk; I had thought it would be funny.

“He looks scared,” Maura said softly.

“What did you expect?” I asked. “He was walking along and a box dropped on his head. You’re lucky he didn’t have a heart attack.”

Maura looked remorseful as she raised the box further and we watched the dog streak across our lawn. It should have been a lesson for me about my own attempts at entrapment, but I could see no connection at the time. I would have dropped a box on Jeremy if I could have found one big enough.

Sometimes, Chrissy would help me tame my wild hair or pick out outfits for me, but I made no progress in my quest to get him to like me. After a few weeks, Chrissy gently suggested that maybe he wasn’t the one for me.

Oh, no, he was the one for me, alright. I redoubled my efforts.

The days ran into one another until summer vacation glimmered just around the corner. While I tried to explain to Maura why you do not put kittens in the Easy Bake oven, my mother was waging a campaign to get Chrissy to go to the prom, and was bitterly disappointed in her steadfast refusal. On prom night, I was on the verge of sleep when I sensed Chrissy moving around. She was getting dressed.

“Where are you going?” I murmured.

“Shh. Go back to sleep. I have to meet somebody.” She had arranged her bedding to look like she was buried under her covers. Through sleepy eyes, I watched her sneak stealthily out the door and cursed my dull existence. I fell asleep wondering if my life would ever start.

It seemed only moments later when I awoke to the sounds of my father’s anger. I sat upright and feared the worst. Chrissy had been discovered, her hidden love exposed. I was more excited than concerned. After all, books and movies had reinforced to me that star-crossed lovers always face opposition from the parents, but you can’t stop love.

PHOTO: Mike Baird,

Dad’s anger was excessive though. Words we were never supposed to hear were being tossed around without regard to my tender ears. Eventually, Chrissy came into our bedroom, sobs wracking her slender frame.


“Go back to sleep, Bobbie,” she whispered.

“I can’t. Did he find out?” She didn’t answer, so I continued. “It’s ok. He’ll understand, eventually. Remember, he told us that Grandpa didn’t like him for a long time….”

Chrissy let out a half sob, half laugh and sat down beside me on the bed.

“You don’t understand,” she told me.

“Well, then tell me. It can’t be that bad. If you love him, you will be together. He’s probably just some boy that…”

“Bobbie,” she interrupted.

I waited.

“It’s not a boy.”

I blinked in confusion, wondering if I was still asleep. What did she mean? All this time, she had been telling me she was in love and … I froze and looked at her.

“It’s Lisa.”

I felt my body tense in fear. This was not possible. Andy hadn’t said it happened with girls, too. And my sister? She was so beautiful, she could have any boy she wanted. No, it couldn’t be that.

“I love her,” Chrissy wiped more tears from her eyes. “How could you ever understand? It’s just … you can’t control where your heart goes.”

I thought of Jeremy and Andy. My twelve-year-old heart wanted Jeremy and Andy’s wanted me. There was no controlling that, and suddenly, I felt very sad about love.

“Does she love you back?” I asked.

“Yes,” Chrissy whispered. “She makes me feel like I belong.”

I knew then that our family would never be the same, that this fight would be the first of many, that it would eventually drive Chrissy from us. She had that haunting, terrified look of a chihuahua who had just found what he wanted when a dark trap descended on him. I felt tears forming in my eyes.

“Then that’s the important thing,” I told her.

She looked at me with such gratitude that I was glad I’d said it, even though the thought of it all frightened me, even repelled me. I didn’t know if I would ever understand. But this was Chrissy. She was my sister. And nothing could change that.

“You’ll find someone someday and you will understand,” she told me.

I doubted it. I was in way over my head in this world of romance. What other things existed that I didn’t even know about? One thing seemed certain–Jeremy would never love me. I was beginning to understand the way things worked. Why? Why did it have to be this way? Why couldn’t the ones we love just love us back?

Suddenly, I had a thought.

“Chrissy,” I said, sitting up in excitement. “Do you think Jeremy is gay?”

Chrissy’s eyes widened and her lips twitched. I could see her eyes twinkle beneath the tears. “You know,” she said slowly. “That would explain a lot.”

My thoughts exactly.

She lay down beside me and I felt the warmth of her grief begin to dissipate. We laid there for a long time, pretending we were asleep. Before me, the night stretched out with the same uncertainty I had come to associate with growing up. It was more than I had bargained for. I was going to need a better plan.

So, I started a list.

Adirondacks, NY
PHOTO: George Foster

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