Friday, May 31, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: The World of Actress and Director Tara Browne

The World of Actress and Director Tara Browne
Richard Jones
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Empirical

To the ears of Canadian filmmaker Tara Browne, “diversity” signifies considerably more than a feel-good word. It sums up every facet of her life, both the good days as well as the downright ugly ones. With seven ethnic streams jockeying for position in her DNA–Austrian, British, Scottish, Hawaiian, Philippine, Spanish, Chinese–she could hardly avoid the mantle of diversity.

Browne grew up in a charming middle class neighborhood in Vancouver, British Columbia. The neighbors all looked nice. However, a person’s façade of gentility does not necessarily guarantee an inner core of civility.

“I stood out–which I hated,” Browne recalls. A little blonde, blue-eyed girl once said to her, “Your hair is brown, your name is Browne and your skin’s brown too.” Another time, neighborhood punks in a car chased Browne and her brother and sister. “They tried to scare us–and they certainly did,” she admits.

Browne’s parents were not spared from violence. When the family went camping, people threw rocks at her parents’ tent. Ethnic hostility did not cease with rocks. “When I was a little girl, about seven, I witnessed a neighbor shout out racist remarks to my father,” she recalls. “He thought my father was the gardener.” After some more angry words, the neighbor and her father began throwing punches at each other.

Later in her life, Browne’s varied background became a negative factor when she auditioned for a role. “I have a difficult time fitting into the mold of casting,” she says. “I’m not Asian enough, not white enough, not Spanish enough. A casting director even told me that to my face. He is a friend and he told me [that’s] the way the business is.” All these elements began shaping her concept of diversity.

Perhaps that is why she refuses to be bundled into someone’s little box of ethnic clichés.

“I am many things,” says Browne with formidable justification. “I don’t like to be put in one category.” Consider her degree in criminology which preceded her studies in the performing arts. Browne’s father told her the only way she would gain respect was to get an education or make a lot of money by ascending a corporate ladder or becoming a lawyer or a doctor. Browne says, “I kind of bypassed all that and became an artist. I took the harder route. What can I say? I like challenges!”

But first, she spent four years in Simon Fraser’s criminology program, where she sought to understand “how social and political life is shaped through power.” If one considers criminology and art unrelated, one would do well to dust off Alexander Pope’s pithiest aphorism: “The proper study of Mankind is Man.” That includes not only saints and sinners, but also the bulk of humankind harboring both personas within their crania.

On the path of the digital film

In 2005 she began studying method acting at Methodica Acting Studio in Vancouver, receiving a diploma in 2007. From there, she found a platform at Vancouver’s Pocket Stage that specialized in cutting-edge playwrights. Canada’s film world began taking notice of the versatile young woman on Vancouver’s stages, offering Browne a role in The Ovum Factor by Marvin L. Zimmerman. Some have called this venture to the Amazon an “eco thriller” crossed with indigenous respect for protecting wildlife systems.

Then Europe called. Browne headed across the Atlantic to star as the “Asian Girl” in a NIVEA beauty commercial that aired across Europe. While in Hamburg she directed an all-German crew and starred in The Audition, a short film inspired by Jane Martin’s play. She managed this neat trick although she does not speak German.

Back in Canada, she set up residence in Toronto in 2010. After careful thought, Browne decided that a film career offered the most efficacious vehicle to support her vision. Thus she launched her own “independent platform of artistic vision.” Named Diversity Face Films, it was in no way modeled on any Hollywood studio steeped in tent-pole mentality. She defined her goal as one “to create human stories of diversity that help generate greater integration, inclusiveness and understanding. We seek to break down differences and to help build greater social harmony.”

To ensure that the world would take her seriously, Browne has emphasized state-of-the-art quality. She described her goal as becoming “a new independent film platform that produces high-quality, visually beautiful, thought-provoking films dedicated to diversity. That includes [diversity in] actors, stories, and crews. We are here to promote diverse faces, diverse stories and diverse film crews from around the world.”

Ethnic equity remains a far off goal in the film industry. “When you go into a video store, look at all the covers on the DVDs and movie posters,” she suggests. “Then count how many ethnic [minorities] are playing the leads. . . . Then go outside the store and walk around your neighborhood [and] see if this is equal representation.”

“North America is largely made up of immigrants and yet when you turn on a TV it seems that the actors are mainly white with a [few] African Americans [to] make up for all other races. . . . I’m not saying all of Hollywood is racist. I think there are several factors involved. There is just not a lot of encouragement for ethnic people in the arts from their families. . . . That’s why it’s important to focus on your inner self . . .your unique self. Stop trying to fit in.”

Browne encourages minorities to stay true to themselves. “In the end, we should all focus inwards. That’s where the power is.. . .” Who else can create an authentic minority viewpoint? “Ethnic people have a tremendous opportunity to tell their story. It’s just that being an artist is not promoted very much amongst immigrant families.”

Diversity implies that there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of ways that an individual might approach any problem. To take advantage of diversity, her crew on every project includes members from a wide number of backgrounds. This not only offers many alternatives to consider, but more creative solutions. On a broader palette, this could serve as a model to bring better understanding and broader paths to a more just world.

Following the Picasso dictum “Art is a lie that tells the truth,” Browne produced The Poacher, a western unlike any other. The theme demonstrates that women can take on challenges as well as men. The script casts the mother as Native American and the father as white. “I purposely wanted to have a mixed-race family. I wanted to show that such families did in fact occur during these times in the Wild West,” she says. Browne called for a number of rarely encountered techniques. Set in the backwoods of Langley, British Columbia, the film uses several devices to create an 1890s flavor, including sets with elaborate period pieces.

The black and white photography and the silent film opening add an antique patina– until the first gunshot knocks us out of our seats. By then we are primed to accept Browne as a hard-riding, sharp-shooting woman. Not surprisingly, in real life Browne is both.

In addition to creating a different story, Browne put special importance on achieving “high production value.” To this end, she worked with a 60 man crew. The experienced professional team included photographer Pieter Stathis (some 40 movies on his credits) and Italian set designer Luca Carati, who has worked his magic in Europe, Asia, and North America. “I had a beautiful art director and a wonderful crew,” Browne says. “The film had an estimated value of $178,000, but I did it on a shoestring budget of $2,000 because I pulled favors. Period.”

In Elinor Svoboda’s recent gender bending fiction film, It Remains Unsaid, Browne starred as the principal antagonist. Composed by twin musicians Tegan and Sara, this Toronto production featured Browne as a torn and confused lesbian “coming out” in early adulthood. 

Currently Browne has accepted the lead role in Delerium, a Gothic horror film by Allen Legacy. Unlike most groan-and-gore epics, this one has a strong point of view. It will address breaking a cycle of domestic abuse, certainly an all-too-common practice in the world.

In the film, she says, “I had to do a fight stunt scene. [In that scene] I felt the pain of a woman in an abusive relationship. It was so painful. I thought, this is what I have to do, for those women stuck in a violent domestic relationship. For some reason I feel like I have a responsibility for this world and it’s just the beginning I think. I just wish I could do more.”

Meanwhile, Browne wrote a “semi-autobiographical” script inspired by the life of Buffy Sainte-Marie. The Grammy-winning Native American folk singer gained fame for her war protest song “Universal Soldier.” Browne calls Sainte-Marie “a truly remarkable woman who continues to make positive changes in the world through her music.”

Four decades later, Browne aims to “bring forth a message of peace and activism . . . for everyone to see. We plan to produce an award winning short which brings forth Buffy’s message of peace.” Browne is just the right person for the project. “I have been researching her life since 2008,” she says. Here, Browne’s ten years of training as a classical pianist and a knack for vocals came into play. This film marks a new level for Browne. “We are being backed by a well-known production company in Toronto,” she says. “This is my first well-financed production.” She plans to use this as a base for a future project. “From this film we are spawning the feature film.”

Here and there, after college, Browne absorbed uncountable examples of abuse by megalomaniac power mongers from classic literature through tomorrow morning’s newspaper. Even more inflammatory were first hand accounts related to her by the victims of persecution who had fled to Canada to avoid death or torture. The melding of Browne’s skills–and an encounter with a refugee from Burma (now Myanmar)–led her to write, produce, and direct I Met a Man from Burma in 2011. The award-winning film highlights the experiences of freedom fighter Ler Wah Lo Bo. This character-driven documentary short explores the oldest on-going conflict in the world. The narrative is expressed through the eyes of Ler Wah Lo Bo, a Burmese refugee. As a former revolutionary fighter for the Karen National Liberation he turned activist. The film touches on the current state of Burma with a focus on the use of child soldiers.

A number of festivals have accepted this documentary, including the Berlin International Film Festival, Berlinale Film Cloud, where it was chosen out of a thousand entries. It also appeared at the Vancouver International Film Reel Causes program, Toronto’s Hot Docs. Most recently, The Female Eye Film Festival in Toronto added I Met a Man from Burma to its screenings.

The film caught the attention of SHAW TV. An interview with Browne soon followed, reaching an estimated three million viewers. Soon, local newspapers and magazines contacted her, requesting interviews. Browne sent the Canadian immigration minister a copy of the film. About two months later, the minister called Ler Wah on May 6, 2012, to say that an upgrade from refugee status to full citizenship would soon take place. A film can generate more virtues than simply “putting butts in the buckets.” The proud filmmaker smiles the smile of satisfaction with this humanitarian act.

“I feel this is my biggest accomplishment so far in my life,” she says.

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Thursday, May 30, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Molar by Carol V. Davis

Carol V. Davis
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Empirical

In the end, the sky did not fall,
nor the earth move, for that matter.
Only the squat tooth rumbled
in its cage, saying:
Enough confinement, set me free!

Worried it would incite its neighbors,
urge the other molars to take up the chant,
loosen from their moorings, I pleaded
with the dentist to see me on his day off.

When he turned off the spot light and
lowered the chair, he warned of a
year-long relationship.

I regretted that call, sure this
half-hour encounter would cause
an earthquake in the bank account.

Why is every small decline of the body
a betrayal, as if a treaty had been broken
or a faithful ally switched sides without warning?

I stepped out of the medical building,
the sky darkening under the threat of rain.
Circling crows landed in pairs on the broken sidewalk,
one to distract the woman, the other to snatch her purse.
Or maybe they knew what went on behind closed doors.
Were going to make a run for it, gathering those gold
and silver nuggets the dentist surely hoards.

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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Steal This Religion by Ian Dees

Steal This Religion
Ian Dees
Originally published in the November 2012 issue Empirical

Last Christmas, a new church was born. In December 2011, the Swedish Ministry of Finance officially recognized the Missionary Church of Kopimism, a religion whose core value is the free exchange of information–in other words, copying.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Roots of Ages by Scott Bontz

Roots of Ages
Scott Bontz
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Empirical

In the beginning, there was no soil. But there was rock.

And weathering and gravity made the rock into particles, and bacteria, plants, worms, and legged things pitched in to make soil. And it was good enough to farm. But, lo, the crops that raised civilizations were annuals.

Soil-building vegetation was mostly perennials. And after harvest of annuals the soil was naked, and it blew and washed away. And what was left was not so good to farm. Farmers brought the soil gifts of legumes and manure, and eventually of anhydrous ammonia. This fed the grains that fed civilized humanity. The new fertilizer fed it so well that humanity owed near half of its life to a product of burning fuels that took even longer to form than soil. But the grains remained annuals.

And the soil still blew and washed away, and farmers moved to lesser and even more vulnerable land. Some in science saw humanity headed downstream with the soil. And a few finally asked, “Can’t farming work more like the natural vegetation that forms soil, but still feed us?” And they studied and decided it could.

And they began breeding plants to achieve perennial grains, and testing how these might grow in species mixtures, like prairie. They knew this would take much longer than six days or even six years. But after much fundraising and educating and painstaking field and lab work, they coaxed more and bigger seed from perennial plants once wild, and they bred tame annual plants to behave more like perennials. And they saw this could be really good.


There is the first chapter in what could be called a genesis of natural systems agriculture. Or, of synthesizing  evolutionary biology, ecology, modern genetics, and farming. The work that I have tried to sketch in a fun way has become a serious endeavor, if still marginally funded, at several organizations around the world, including in Australia, China, Canada, and the United States.

The oldest current player–though the Soviets tried first, only without modern genetic know-how–and the central player is The Land Institute, near Salina, Kansas, which has six PhD-level researchers plus technicians developing perennial wheat, sorghum, and sunflower, and domesticating the perennial intermediate wheatgrass and a protein-rich, nitrogen-fixing prairie legume called Illinois bundleflower. Wheatgrass, for which the institute has a trade name, Kernza, might be a commercially viable grain in another decade.

The nonprofit has through the recession continued to increase its budget, to $2.3 million, and collaborates with the researchers elsewhere. Its wheatgrass and other crops will essentially be public domain. These plants won’t require farmers to buy and plant seed every year. With less tillage, they will take less money for fuel and machinery.

And in working more like a natural system, mixtures of perennials should need less of the other high farm expenses, fertilizer and pesticide. About half of The Land Institute’s funding comes from foundations, half from individuals, and a sliver from the USDA. These crops do not yet interest agriculture corporations.

Wes Jackson, who grew up on a farm near Topeka, Kansas, and earned a doctorate in genetics before he quit a tenured university position and founded the institute in 1976 at age 40, recently has pushed for investment much bigger and broader.

He examines the danger of population growing while farmland degrades and the crutch of fossil fuel declines. He studies the advances over the past decade by his researchers and others toward a solution in perennial grains. And he sees convergence for a decisive, historic moment. Two years ago he, along with farmer/writers Fred Kirschenmann and Wendell Berry, proposed a 50-year federal farm bill, to look far beyond the traditional five-year bills and solidly support work that will take decades.

Now the institute proposes a 30-year effort enlisting more than 160 scientists on five continents. The $1.64 billion cost divided over the years would be 24 times the institute’s own current spending. But in total it would cover four months of the old federal ethanol subsidies.

Another comparison: the three-decade proposal is less than one tenth of the $18.7 billion annual budget for NASA. Jackson has said we are of a culture that keeps looking to the stars, thinking it beneath us to look at the soil. We don’t appreciate the material that supports all of our dreams, and the biological creativity without which we cannot be, let alone be scientists and artists. Jack Eddy wrote in an essay called “A Fragile Seam of Dark Blue Light,” Earth is where “a thin blanket of air, a thinner film of water, and the thinnest veneer of soil combine to support a web of life of wondrous diversity in continuous change.”

Change to that thinnest veneer since humans became farmers 10,000 years ago, and a change accelerating with increase of population and machinery, includes growing even thinner. In “Earth,” geologists Edward Tarbuck and Frederick Lutgens say erosion is a fate of almost all soils. But pre-human flow of sediment to the sea is estimated at just over nine billion metric tons per year, they say, and now the loss is about 24 billion. Gauging wind erosion is harder. But in the 1930s Dust Bowl, a perfect bomb of drought and farming, the Plains’ rich soil palled Washington’s sky en route to Atlantic grave. To build an inch of soil takes from half a decade to more than a millennium. Global averages have been calculated at 150 to 450 years. 

Meanwhile, Australian scientist Joe A. Friend writes in an essay called “Achieving Soil Sustainability,” in many parts of the world an inch of soil disappears every one to 10 years. He says that a majority of world soils are being mined faster than they can be regenerated.

Tarbuck and Lutgens see this net loss on more than a third of world croplands. Friend says of soils, “They are intrinsically nonrenewable and may become completely unusable within a few generations.”

Agricultural civilization’s band of instigators 400 generations ago didn’t foresee this. And when they perceived an advantage to planting seeds, they favored those of annuals. As Land Institute scientists and John P. Reganold of Washington-State University detail in Scientific American, the earliest domesticates, emmer-wheat and barley, caught the Neolithic eye with large seeds. Further favor came to individual plants with traits such as high yield and easy threshing–it was their seed that people replanted. Replanting with annuals comes every year. So the first farmers unwittingly applied evolutionary selective pressure to quickly domesticate these choice annuals. Some perennial plants might also have big seeds. But they did not need to be replanted. Through no real fault of their own, they did not benefit from the same selection and fast improvement.

Now most of our food comes directly or indirectly, as animal feed, from cereal grains, legumes, and oilseed crops, all of them annuals. Wheat, rice, corn, soybean, and sunflower seed transport and store easily, and pack protein and calories. They occupy about 80 percent of agricultural land.

But annuals have relatively shallow roots, most of them in the top foot of soil, and live only until harvest. Perennial roots commonly tunnel down more than six feet. Unlike annuals, perennials must invest in building enough underground tissue to survive the winter. But that tissue can improve the ability of annual seed to spring into above-ground growth by weeks. Photosynthesis earlier and after harvest lets perennials build both seed and resilient infrastructure.

In a century-long study of soil erosion, timothy grass, a perennial hay crop, proved more than 50 times more effective in maintaining topsoil than did annual crops. Scientists have documented a five-fold reduction in water loss and a 35-fold reduction in nitrate loss from soil planted with alfalfa and mixed perennial grasses as compared with soil under corn and soybeans. Perennials sequester carbon, the main ingredient of soil organic matter, by 50 percent or more than do annually cropped fields.

Jackson saw that Kansas’s tall-grass prairies were highly productive year after year even while they built and maintained rich soils, with no fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides, and with what rain they relinquished running clear instead of muddy.

He foresaw agriculture working this way, with both conservation of the system and production for our food.

This change is radical–going to the root–and trying to achieve perennial grains has had critics. They say that to match the seed yield of annual grains, perennials would have to give up the carbon that makes winter-hardy underground tissue. That assumes that the amount of carbon available to a plant is fixed, so what goes to making seeds comes at the expense of structures like roots. But plants are flexible. They can change both the total size of their carbon “pies” and how the pie slices are allocated. A wild perennial in its highly competitive prairie or forest might make only small amounts of seed. But farming’s law and order relieves plants from competition.

The same seed can become a bigger plant. And over years breeders can select for plants that produce less of something like competitive stem height, and redirect the carbon to make more seed. Thus Green Revolution scientists dwarfed plants and doubled grain yields. (They also used more fertilizer.) Perennials have a longer growing season than annuals and already can make more above-ground growth. In a University of Illinois side-by-side study, unfertilized, perennial Miscanthus outproduced fertilized corn by half again, with one-fourth the energy input. Land Institute researcher Lee DeHaan has doubled wheatgrass seed size and yield and not made winter weaklings.

Achieving perennial grains demands much human work and will take decades. But perennials have shown their potential. Like other agricultural scientists, the developers of perennial crops both directly domesticate wild plants, selecting the best from within one species, and breed annual crop plants with wild relatives. In direct domestication researchers get straight to increasing the frequency of genes for desirable traits, such as easy separation of seed from husk, seed that doesn’t fall before harvest, large seed, taste, strong stems, and high seed yield. In this way, Native Americans turned wild sunflowers with small heads and seeds into the familiar large-headed and large-seeded sunflower.

Land Institute scientists are domesticating intermediate wheatgrass, Maximilian sunflower, and Illinois bundleflower. Recently joining in the work with wheatgrass is the University of Minnesota. On the hybridization track, The Land Institute breeds annual crop wheat, sunflower, and sorghum to wild relatives, aiming to combine good crop traits with perenniality, along with perennials’ resistance to pests and disease. Washington State also works on perennial wheat, and researchers at three other US institutions are interested in making corn perennial. Food Crops Research Institute in Kunming, China, is developing perennial upland rice hybrids.

Of the 13 most widely grown grain and oilseed crops, 10 are capable of hybridization with perennial relatives, Land Institute researcher Stan Cox said. This all has come through traditional plant breeding, without insertion of foreign DNA. No solitary gene can switch a plant to perennial.

Cross-fertilizing plants of different species, often of different genus, is tricky genetic business, with many sterile failures. But through lab work and crossing back to fertile parents comes success. Triticale, a hybrid of wheat and rye, was born this way a few decades ago. Cox now has hundreds of perennial sorghum plants.


So here is a possible second chapter to the story of nature and agriculture.

Just as they learned to save eagles and redwoods, people came to champion soil, so lowly for so long, but so vast, rich, and mysterious, and often so fragile, its loss the loss of Greece, Carthage, and Rome, its continued endangerment also endangerment of those eagles, redwoods, and people.

They learned to see how in the natural economy perennials build principal. They saw how other life made do, wildly, on interest, and how the great plow-up that was farming spent down the principal. They saw this through art and science bought with those riches. And through that science and art, they saw a way to preservation. And in the end, there was soil.

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Monday, May 27, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Good Idols and Bad by John Cobb, Jr.

Good Idols and Bad
John Cobb, Jr.
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Empirical

The word “idol” is rarely used in a positive sense. But if we define “idols” very carefully, in the way theologians typically do, then, I believe, we can hardly do without them. So, despite the risks, we may need good idols in our struggle against the bad.

The term commonly refers to a statue that is treated as if it were itself divine. In the Hebrew tradition and its offspring, there has been great fear that making physical objects around which prayer and worship are centered leads to worship of the object itself. On the other hand, many in these traditions find help in having something to look at that leads them to think of the spiritual reality it represents. This is an interesting issue, but not the meaning of “idol” in my title.

One way of defining “god” is as some person-like entity that, unlike us, is immortal. A god is supposed to have powers far greater than ours. If a number of such beings are held to exist, one speaks of “polytheism.” If one supposes that just one such being exists, we capitalize “god” and speak of “monotheism.” Those who deny that there are any entities of this kind are called “atheists.”

Another way of defining “god” is as that to which one is most committed, what actually gives shape to one’s life, or, in the extreme instance, what one will die for. If we approach matters in this way, atheists are rare, but we may still distinguish polytheists from monotheists. Many people organize their lives around more than one such god. They may at times subordinate everything to attain the sexual partner of their choice, at other times they may be chiefly concerned with their honor, and then, at still other times, they may be ready to give their lives to the defense of their nation. Some may experience deep conflict as a result of these diverse commitments. Others may clearly subordinate everything to one goal, such as honor or wealth.

If one organizes life around a unifying goal, it makes a large difference what this goal is. Through most of human habitation of the Earth, the most common “god” has been the tribe. In more recent centuries, the tribe has morphed into the “nation” and then the “nation-state.” In the modern world, the dominant religion has been nationalism. Tribalism and nationalism have played a large role even within the monotheistic religions that trace their origin to Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But these have also been critical of giving supreme loyalty to a single tribe or nation. They have given us the idea of “idolatry” as treating some inferior reality, usually some real but limited good, as if it were the highest one, or treating a part as if it were the whole.

Note that tribalism and nationalism are, at one level, great goods. The human species would not have survived if each individual had sought only his or her individual good. Devotion to the well-being of the larger group develops self-sacrifice and heroism as well as ordinary virtues essential to the ongoing life of the community. Most of the time, idolizing the tribe or the nation works for the good. Still, they are not the “good idols” we seek.

The obvious problem with nationalism is that the interests of diverse nations can easily come into conflict. It is then the most committed nationalists of another nation who become the greatest threat to one’s own. They are the ones most willing to risk their lives to get for their own people what your nation also needs or desires. This kind of idolatry is encouraged in almost all nations, and those who reject it are typically called “unpatriotic” and often condemned and persecuted. Nevertheless, making a god of one’s nation leads to enormous death and destruction.

If devoting oneself to one part of the whole over against other parts of the whole leads to horribly destructive conflicts, then the answer seems to be to devote oneself to the whole. Sometimes that is called “pantheism.” Sometimes pantheists attribute to the whole a unity that is not apparent to others.

The problem with simply devoting ourselves to the whole is that the vast majority of the whole seems so utterly unaffected by us and indifferent to us. On the other hand, if we attribute to it a unity, especially a unified experience, it becomes possible to interact meaningfully with it. We may, for example, attribute to it a direction or goal that we can share. Nevertheless, most of what we know about stars and galaxies seems quite disconnected to us in any way that inspires devotion comparable in strength to the devotion inspired by nation states. This kind of pantheism avoids idolatry, and that is very much to its credit, but because the whole is so remote and unknowable and seems so indifferent to what we do, pantheists easily fall into polytheism.

That is, for practical purposes they are likely to order their lives around particular goods.

This is where the quest for good idols comes to the fore. Can we find something in the universe that inspires our devotion in such a way that serving it serves the whole? Can something so represent for us the whole, or the inclusive good of the whole, that singling it out as the object of our devotion or the organizing principle of our lives works for the inclusive well-being of all? This would be idolatry, but it would be good idolatry.

Something of this sort takes place in many forms of Buddhism. Buddhists know, of course, that the totality of things is very complex indeed. But they believe that in its ultimate depth all things have Buddhanature. Fully to realize this cuts against our ordinary perception and conceptuality. But they believe that this liberates from illusion and evil. The knowledge that others have achieved this liberation encourages and guides the quest. For most Buddhists, Gotama is the supreme embodiment of this enlightenment. Often a physical representation of Gotama or of one of the other enlightened ones helps to focus the mind.

The Buddha images can, of course, become idols in the common sense of having divine nature or power falsely associated with them. More often they lead the mind of the devotee to the one that they represent. In official Buddhist teaching the Enlightened Ones, the Buddhas, remain human beings. But in the popular imagination, and even in highly regarded Sutras, they often take on superhuman characteristics.

They function as gods. And this can lead to superstition and cultic behavior and other marks of bad idolatry.

Nevertheless, on the whole, deep reverence and emulation directed toward an enlightened one is what I am calling “good idolatry.” The limited object of devotion is transparent to the deepest reality of all things. Such devotion aids in freeing one from the bad idolatries to which we are so likely to succumb.

I am not saying that all Buddhists are free from bad idolatry or that Gotama cannot function as a bad idol. I am saying that Buddhism has found a way of checking these bad idolatrous tendencies. Much of its teaching attends to individual Buddhas and their wondrous attainments in such a way as to draw others into the quest for existential realization of what is truly real universally and detachment from the bad idols that lead to so much destruction.

Buddhism shows us that deep feelings, even idolatrous feelings, toward concrete particulars can, in carefully formed instances, play a positive, rather than a negative, role in human life and history. There are good idols.

We could examine each of the great religious traditions to see that all have in fact offered us idols that can function in beneficial ways. Many judge that Buddhism has been the most successful. The remainder of this essay will examine the Christian case.

For mainstream Christianity, the deepest truth about the world is that its existence is given originally and continuously by God. This God is immediately present to every creature, and the aims and purposes of each creature are derived from God. In the human case, the creature is challenged to conform its purposes to God but is also capable of serious distortion, even rebellion.

Past rebellion has distorted the situation for all. God forgives and loves and seeks to renew the human capacity for forgiveness and love. God affirms and loves every creature. We are called to receive that love and, in turn, to love others. Thus the reality works against affirming any part over against other parts. It opposes idolatry.

Nevertheless, Christians attribute to Jesus a unique place in this reality. The word “revelation” is central for many Christians: Jesus “reveals” God. In itself that affirmation does not make an idol of Jesus. But it can easily lead to heaping on Jesus characteristics that belong only to the God Jesus reveals and calling for directing toward Jesus the feelings and attitudes that Jesus showed to be appropriate toward God.

There is no doubt that Jesus functions for many Christians as an idol. And even a cursory reading of history shows that this has often led to a very destructive idolatry. People have been tortured and slaughtered in the service of this idolatry. All too often, instead of evoking devotion to the one who loves everyone and everything, devotion to Jesus has often led to enmity to those who do not share this devotion. This has been a much more serious problem with Jesus than with Gotama or other Buddhas.

Nevertheless, there is much in Christian teaching that checks the bad idolatry that is so near at hand. This begins with Jesus’ own teaching. Many students of Christian history hold that Christian teaching quickly shifted from the teaching of Jesus to teaching about Jesus, and its glorification of Jesus led directly to bad idolatry.

Paul is often singled out as responsible for this shift. But in fact Paul’s teaching is not really, or at least not necessarily, idolatrous. Paul calls for people to participate in Jesus’ faithfulness to God, a faithfulness that led Jesus to the cross, dying for the sake even of sinners and enemies. The God to whom believers are then faithful is the God who loves everyone and everything. This centering on Jesus and his faithfulness may be idolatrous, but it is, or can be, a good idolatry.

Bad Christian idolatry has been closely related to the idea of “incarnation.” The idea is that God revealed Godself in Jesus by actually being in him. God is said to be enfleshed in Jesus. Many Christians have come to believe that the heart of their faith is expressed as “Jesus is God.” Their God then becomes this particular being. They often suppose that what is required for salvation is to acknowledge the deity of Jesus. Too often, the affirmation that Jesus is God leads to attributing to Jesus preexisting ideas of God. 

Instead of clarifying and revising the understanding of God by the life and teaching of Jesus, the understanding of Jesus is reshaped by ideas of God that have developed in other contexts. An important example is the understanding of divine power. If we understand God in light of Jesus, we will understand that God’s power is persuasive, healing, and enlivening. Divine power works in the service of love. If, on the other hand, we bring to our understanding of Jesus, notions of God’s power developed in other contexts, we will suppose that Jesus was in fact always in control of whatever happened. The appearance that he was the victim of the religious and political powers of the time is only that–an appearance.

Issues of this sort have been central to the development of Christian theology. Christians agreed that they found God in Jesus. For some this meant that Jesus was God in human form. He was not really a human being like the rest of us. For others the incarnation meant that Jesus was a real and full human being in whom God dwelt in a unique fullness. For them Jesus showed that God is present in creation and in us all.

Given the piety of the time, it is somewhat surprising that in council after council, Jesus’ full humanity was reaffirmed. This is a profound check on the forms of idolatry that emerge so easily from Christian teaching. All agreed, of course, that God was present in Jesus. But if the presence of God in Jesus enhanced rather than diminished his humanity, then Christians can affirm that God is in all people and indeed in all things without displacing their creaturely integrity. The understanding of God can be enriched in this way without the destructive effects of bad idolatry. Jesus functions as an idol, but he can function as a good idol that breaks the hold of bad idols in those who focus their devotion on him. Many people today suppose that they have outgrown the need for idols of any form. Perhaps some have. But idolatry has never before had so thorough a control over the Earth. And never before has the enormously destructive effect of a victorious idolatry been so manifest. The habitability of the planet Earth is now at stake.

The principle idol is what the King James translators of the Bible called “Mammon.” Jesus is quoted there as saying that we cannot serve both God and Mammon. Recent translators have replaced “Mammon” with “wealth.” This makes clear the real, and immensely urgent, issue of our time. Should we continue to organize our national life and the global system as a whole in the service of wealth? Or should our “god” be more inclusive? Serious Buddhists and serious Christians (as well as serious humanists and those who make the Earth itself their idol) necessarily call for a more inclusive object of devotion. For some, that may be the universe as a whole, Buddha-nature, or God as such. But for most, this shift away from the god, wealth, will be aided by such good idols as Buddha (Gotama) and Christ ( Jesus).

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Friday, May 24, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: What I'd Ban by Carol V. Davis

What I'd Ban
Carol V. Davis
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Empirical

If I were queen of the world,
Dictator, Minister of Culture, I’d ban the phrase
At the end of the day, especially this election season
with the endless whine of interviews.
My husband vows to prohibit golf, but what’s
so bad about it, other than the dumb outfits?
Middle-aged men should stay away from shorts
that turn knees into the knobs of walking sticks.
I despise purposeful misspellings.
Do you really gain anything by dropping a letter?
Light to lite or night to nite?
I’m starting to sound like Andy Rooney now, but thick
as my hair is, I’ll never match those eyebrows.
When Rooney’d get really annoyed, they’d start to twitch ,
twin propellers warming up on a prop plane.
Or a pair of moths about to swoop in tandem
to attack a tree dripping with ripe peaches.

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Thursday, May 23, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: In My Father's Silence by Finn Kraemer

In My Father's Silence
Finn Kraemer
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Empirical

Joey needed to open the note. Not Mae. She was too delicate to be dealing with such a thing. But Joey could take it. I’d seen it in him. And he’d just have to.

I stood at the workbench in the garage and wrote the note. Beside me, my old welding toolbox stood open, the lid hanging. The pencil felt awkward in my hands, and the paper too smooth and clean under my fingers where I held it still against the bench. I didn’t write often. My fingers’d not been made for such things. Joey was a hand with writing. He must’ve got that from Mae. I never knew what to say.

I looked over at my old Jeep, the tail doors ajar, showing the duffels and gear I’d packed in tight, leaving just enough space for Joey’s bag and my toolbox. The dogs could lay on top it all. It was well done, well packed.

I looked back at the paper and shifted my grip on the pencil. It was just another tool. I was good with tools.

I wrote again. The pencil caught sometimes on the gouges in the old wood of the workbench, the letters shifting on the paper, ending not where I’d meant them to be. But no matter. Joey could read it. And it said all it needed to say.

All he needed to know.

I set the pencil down and it rolled a little away from me on the workbench. I looked at the note for a moment, then pressed folds into it, and slid it into the envelope. It looked like a proper letter, from the outside, though I’d not signed it, nor put Joey’s name on the envelope. But when the time came, Joey’d know it was for him.

I set the envelope in the toolbox, on top of the pistols, closed the lid, locked it, and slid it into its space in the back of the Jeep. It fit nicely and I shut the doors.

Good. No more words. No more talking. Or writing. Just the doing of it.


It rained the day I opened my father’s gun safe. It wasn’t a real safe. More like a toolbox with a lock on it, a beat-up old red thing with his name painted in yellow block letters on the lid, a leftover from his days working as a welder. He liked to keep old junk around, just in case it might turn out to be useful. It did; he kept the pistols and the gun-cleaning gear in that toolbox on trips to our cabin in the hills.

Quail season had started and we’d left town Friday evening, wanting to have a full day in the hills Saturday. We drove the old four-wheel drive Jeep my father had kept from his college days for these trips, the dogs riding in the back on top of the gear, leaning forward over our shoulders, panting in our ears. We made the trip in four hours, four long, quiet hours, punctuated only by the slam and clank of the Jeep as my father threw it at the rock-strewn and potholed ranch road.

“Take it easy, would ya?” I’d said, after a particularly nasty wrench threw me against the sidepost. “You’re gonna break something.”

My father’s face tightened a little and he stared forward over the wheel. “I know my own rig,” was all he’d said.

Sometimes, I tried, said things just to fill the silence, to pretend. But we didn’t talk much. Not even when we were hunting. He knew where I was, I knew where he was, and the dogs ran between us as we paced through the hills with the sounds of pebbles sliding downslope and the rubbing of the manzanita brush and dry grass against our jeans. We only spoke commands to the dogs and occasionally one of us called out to claim a shot on a lone bird rising.

But it rained that day I opened his toolbox, the light resting dim and grey on the hills and the thunder rumbling faint and steady in the distance and the constant flux of sheet lightning flaring deep in the clouds. It had rained all morning, with no sign of quitting. The quail would be hunkered down hard in the brush, leaving no scent for the dogs to find. And walking the brushy foothills in the rain was miserable enough without having anything to show for it. The rain dripped in erratic staccato rhythm in the puddles off the porch and I stood in the cabin doorway and leaned against the jamb, looking down the slow slope of the hills to the vague distance of the valley. My father sat under the overhang out on the bare deck of the porch, smoking a cigarette, his back to the splintered boards of the cabin wall.

“Well, this sucks,” I said.

“Hmh,” my father said. One of the dogs got up from the hearthrugs inside and came and stood in the doorway next to me, leaning against my knee and whining.

“Not today, girl,” I said. “Not today.”

My father lit another cigarette and we just waited, listening to the rain and watching the distance.

“Well, shit. I gotta do something,” I said.

The dog wandered out onto the porch and I turned back into the cabin.

The cabin held an old quietness, three makeshift rooms pieced together with rusty nails, rawhide, and dirt, adorned only with some castoff wooden chairs, a table, and a stone fireplace. The wind came in cold whistles through the gaps in the walls and the floorboards creaked as if tortured as I walked to the table and picked up my father’s keys. I looked around the front room and the other dog eyed me from her place on a rug, her tail thumping slowly.

The dog, the ice chest, our bags and kitchen gear; it all looked out of place, the colors speaking of brevity in their brightness, set strongly against the faded patient hues of the old cabin. I walked into the bedroom, and even the old red of the gun-safe seemed too bright, sitting there at the foot of my father’s cot.

His cot was neatly made, the rough green of the army surplus blanket stretched tight over the thin mattress. 

My cot was a mess.

“I’ll do it later,” I’d said earlier that morning.

“Don’t do anything later you can do now,” he’d said, not looking at me as he bent over his cot. 

I’d made some rude noise and walked out of the room.

I sighed and ignored my cot and sat on the floor in front of the old toolbox and dragged it toward me. It slid across the gritty un-swept floor with a hollow scraping sound.

“What are you doing?” my father said, his voice abrupt, suspicious. He was still on the porch, just on the other side of the thin boards of the cabin wall. The wall flexed inward and the boards of the porch creaked as he got up. “Joey?”

“I’m gonna clean the pistols,” I said.

“No,” he said. “No, wait. I’ll do it.” I had the key in the toolbox’s lock, already turning. His boots scraped into the front room and the floorboards squealed.

“I got it,” I said. “I’ll just give ‘em a once over. I’m bored anyway.” I heard the dogs scrambling to their feet and following him. I unhooked the lock.

“No, lemme just. . . . Wait,” he said again, his voice louder, too loud. One of the dogs barked, as if something was wrong. I hesitated for a second. What was with him? Why would he care if I cleaned the pistols? I undid the latch, and started to open the lid. By then he was in the room and his boot hit the lid of the box and slammed it shut. I yanked my hands back.

“What the hell!” I said. I looked up at him. “You coulda cut my fingers off!” I said. “What the hell.”

“I said wait!” he said. He stared down at me, breathing too fast, his face pinching, all the wrinkles pointing to the hard anger in his eyes. “I said I’ll do it,” he said.

He didn’t apologize. Just stayed looking at me, as the dogs came after him into the room and pushed in between us, breathing with their tongues hanging out and pushing their wet muzzles against my face. Then my father’s eyes softened a little and he looked away from me. “I’ll do it,” he said.

“Fine,” I said. I didn’t ask why; I just got up and walked out of the room. My coat was hanging from the pegs by the door. I grabbed it and shrugged into it. “Come on, dogs,” I called out.

“Where you going?” my father said from the other room.

“Wherever. Walkin’. Come on, dogs,” I said again. I kicked the door shut behind them and pulled up my hood as I stepped off the porch into the rain.


The road was rougher than last trip, and in the dark the rocks and potholes appeared out of nowhere. The Jeep slammed through them hard, clanking and groaning, but she was a tough rig. She could take it. I didn’t slow down. Joey grumbled in the passenger seat. The dogs stood on widespread feet atop the gear in the back and finally decided it was better to lie down.

The drive stretched long. Every now and again Joey would say something from the passenger seat, but in between there was just the dark of the road, the quiet, and too much thinking. I focused on the road. I didn’t want to remember anymore. But the goddamn thing still stayed, a knot inside me, the turns of it layered with their faces.

Most of such things came out with time, and doing. But not this one. I didn’t even want to try to figure out how many years it’d been with me.

I’d tried. I’d tried to say something. As if that would help. But words were never my thing. I was better at doing. And talking never did any good anyhow.

I tried to watch the road, think about something else: I remembered when I lost my welding job. I started welding out of the service; a man I knew out in ‘Nam hooked me up and I got certified right away. Then that catwalk broke. Nobody died, but they as might as well of. Nobody’d hire me. My welds were the reason it broke, they said. Money was already tight back then, with Joey in that private school and Mae not wanting to work anymore.

“I don’t know what to do,” I’d told her. Mae closed her eyes and put her head in her hands.

“Don’t tell me this,” she’d said. “I can’t worry about this too.”

Mae always was a delicate thing.

I looked over at Joey in the passenger seat of the Jeep, holding himself steady with the oh-shit handle. I thought about him reading my note and I wondered how much he could really take. I wondered if he could handle their faces always looking at him.

Maybe I should’ve told him about them.

The Jeep bucked through a pothole.

“Take it easy, would you?” Joey said. “You’re gonna break something.”

No. Joey didn’t know anything about the kinds of things I’d done. He wouldn’t understand. Besides, he shouldn’t have to carry such a thing as that. I let it alone and looked forward to the road again. “I know my own rig,” I said.


I walked straight west from the cabin, down into the valley. The rain wasn’t letting up and the dogs didn’t like it. They squinted against the spit of the rain on the wind and hung behind me, looking back toward the cabin where I’d left my father, torn between loyalty and comfort.


I ignored the dogs and kept walking, across the ground trod rough by cattle, through short dead brown grass hiding scattered chunks of old mudflow rock. Ankle- breaking country. I didn’t stop and the dogs eventually followed.

Always gotta be his way.

The ground made for slow going, and I just walked, trying to not think, keeping only the steps before me in my mind. The rain slowly soaked through my jacket and my hands started to stiffen with the cold.


I stopped for a moment and dropped my head, then kept walking. I’d run away again. I hadn’t said anything to him. Again. I was still afraid of my father. He seemed steady, but a background, like pavement under the tires at night, present, involved, but unnoticed. But then the pavement just abruptly ended, dropped to sliding gravel, potholes yawning open. No warning, just an unwarranted reaction, the sudden fierce exercise of his forgotten authority. He scared me. I could never get to know the man. I never knew what was inside him–where that came from.

He didn’t talk. I wandered around with him, hunting, fixing things, and he said nothing and I waited to see what he’d do. It was as if he wasn’t even really there, until he lunged out of the dark.

He’d never hit me. But fear always rose in me. Not the cramped anxious dread in my chest, but hot present fear reaching up from my belly, my heart turning to a juddering, pulsing bag of warm fluid. I hated the feeling in myself. I didn’t even know the reason for it.

I just wanted to clean the pistols. I’d done it before. Shit, half of them were mine, though he’d kept them for me since I moved out.

I tripped on the rough ground, my ankle twisting out sideways off the edge of a rock. I went down on one knee, my hand reaching toward the ground, a jagged stone’s edge stabbing into my palm, mud squishing up through my fingers.

“Son of a bitch.” The two dogs gathered in front of me, standing with their backs to the wind, watching me, waiting. I looked at my hand and red ran through the dark brown of the mud.

“Son of a bitch,” I said. The dogs whined. 

“All right, all right,” I said. “C’mere.” 

I wiped my hand free of mud on one of the dog’s backs. I pulled the edges of the gash open, letting it bleed. The cut was small, but flecked with dirt. I picked at it through the blood. 

I should head back and clean it out. I stood up and looked at the hills behind me. The storm was settling in, the wind picking up, the clouds dropping lower, grey shapes dragging across the hills. The small dark box of the cabin huddled singly on the pale slope of the hill, just below the scrubline, between the wide-spaced oaks. I took a few steps back toward the cabin and a low concussion sounded, far off. I hesitated, not sure if I’d heard it. It might have been thunder. But the dogs perked up and started forward a little with plaintive whines.

I looked at them and waited another moment, listening, but heard only the gusting of the wind by my ears and the wet patter of raindrops against my jacket. It couldn’t have been my father. He wouldn’t go hunting in the rain, and certainly not without the dogs. But I couldn’t think who else it would be. Not out here. Not in the rain.

The dogs looked at me expectantly.

“Let’s go,” I said. They barked and ran on ahead.


I sat on the porch of the old cabin and smoked a cigarette. Joey stood in the doorway, shifting and sighing and saying small things. He’d never learned very well to just be still. To wait. Being a soldier’d taught me that much.

It rained. There wasn’t going to be any hunting. I didn’t care for it either, but I didn’t say anything.

I dragged on my cigarette. The cherry flared and slid toward me. There was a brown stain on my fingers from the nicotine. Mae didn’t like that. Said it looked like white trash. I exhaled and looked at the rain falling grey across the valley.

I could see their faces. So many of them, watching me.

Joey’d only ever killed birds. Animals.

It wasn’t the same. They’re meat, made for eating. People ain’t the same.

Bullets open places in a body a man’s not supposed to see. And then they lay in the mud, thrown anyhow, just bloody pieces of people held together. Their arms and legs tangled together in the graves and their faces looked up at me.

I’d started seeing them again, nights.

Their faces. Their skinny eyes. And the jungle, that nightmare green.

When the Army sent me back stateside and I started with the welding, I didn’t see their faces. All that was over there. It was different place, far away. Done, buried, and Army-whitewashed. There weren’t any faces no more. Just memories, which I thought were nothing at all anyhow. I had Mae at home waiting for me, and Joey born while I was gone. It was good. I’d slept deep back then.

Joey shifted again in the cabin doorway and sighed.

“This sucks,” he said. I grunted at him.

Joey must’ve got all the talking from his mother. She was always jabbering on about something. Sometimes Joey knew when to be quiet. Out when we walked the hills for quail. Down at the river after a long day, tying the boats down. We tossed the ropes to each other over the truck with the sunset light lapping across us off the water. Talking didn’t belong. No need. There were plenty enough better things.

The rain dripped in puddles off the eaves of the porch. It was wet, hanging-on, jungle rain. Joey said something and went inside. I saw their faces all the time now. First it was just some dreams, waking up too hot and the sheet slick with sweat, Mae’s hand on me asking what’s the matter. Now I didn’t even have to sleep to see them.

Lining up the sights on a quail rising, the kick of the gun against my shoulder, and I saw their slitty eyes going wide at the bullets. Then they were just half-open, looking up at me as we threw them in the pit. Their mouths hanging wide like they wanted to say something to me. But of course they couldn’t anymore. But damn it if they didn’t keep trying.

One of the dogs came out on the porch and lay next to me and I put a hand on it. I heard Joey in the room behind me, and some sound, the grinding slide of metal and dirt.

“Joey? What are you doing?” I said, but I was already moving. That sounded like the toolbox, and I’d left the keys on the table.

Joey said something about the guns. “I got it.” I said. “Wait.” Goddamn it. Wait.

He’d find the note and mess it all up. Then there’d be no end of talking.

Joey was opening the lid when I got in the room and I could see the white of the envelope there on top of the guns. I stepped on the box and the lid slammed shut and for a moment I thought I’d hurt him, the way he jerked his hands back. The dogs scrabbled into the room behind me, barking.

“I said wait.”

Joey looked up at me. He looked angry. I wondered if he’d remember my face like I remembered theirs.

“I’ll get it,” I said.

I stood there with my foot on the toolbox as Joey said something and walked out. The door slammed behind him and the old cabin shook a little.


Back at the cabin, I scraped the mud off my boots at the edge of the porch. The dogs shook, water flying every which way, and pushed up against the front door, scratching at the wood.

“Hold your horses. I’m coming,” I said. I stood a minute and let the water off the shingles run into the cut on my hand. When the dirt was gone I opened the door and the dogs rushed in to bicker over their places on the rugs. The cabin was dry and empty and cold, the table bare but for the open toolbox. He hadn’t cleaned the pistols either.

“Where you at?” I said. No answer. I stripped off my wet coat and hung it on the peg by the door. I was hungry and hoping that my father had heated something up for lunch.

“Are you here?” No answer. He must have gone for a walk too. Maybe he had decided to try hunting alone in the rain. Yeah right. Maybe he regretted yelling at me for no reason. Just as likely.

Whatever. I toweled the dogs off with some rags and wrapped a clean strap of one around my hand. I knelt at the hearth to start a fire. The dogs approved, curling nose to tail as near as they could get. I sat with them, feeding split oak to the flames, my hands on their backs as the fire grew, the heat swelling out into the cold of the room, steam rising from the wet front of my shirt.

My hands were cold, my fingers still slow and clenched. I wanted chili, a hot can of chili, with some toasted tortillas. That would go over nice. I got up and walked to the box of foodstuffs next to the table. The toolbox caught my eye. Open. No guns on the table. No gear. Like he was interrupted. Or never started. I walked to the table and put my hand on the rim of the box, the metal a cold hard line against my palm.

In the toolbox, the envelope cut white sharp edges against the dark hues of the gun’s blued metal and the deep gloss of the worn brown leather holsters. I picked up the envelope, the damp of my hands tacky on the dry paper.

Beneath the envelope, the holster for the .44 was empty. It was a big gun, with a hefty rise when we shot full loads, which we almost always did. But we target shot on Sundays. Always. Not Saturdays. And not in the rain. We punched holes in chili cans set on rocks down the hill, and sighted in the rifles on targets drawn on cardboard boxes we’d brought along. There was no reason for him to have taken the .44 with him. Unless something was wrong.

I turned the envelope over in my hands and remembered his voice, his boot slamming down on the top of the box, the lines of anger on his face, the way his eyes changed for a moment.

I said wait.

There was no name on the envelope. I didn’t want to open it. I laid it on the table and sat down slowly on one of the chairs. It creaked at my weight and the dogs eyed me.

“Jenga,” I said. “Mandy. C’mere.” I stared at the envelope and the dogs came to me. They were good dogs. Pointers. I’d helped my father train them. I’d grown up with them, chose them from the litter. They were my dogs as much as they were his, though he had kept them after I left home, just like the guns.

“Down,” I said, and they sat with me and I roughed their ears and talked to them. I petted them, their hair wiry under my hands. I told them how good they were, how I loved them. They panted smiles at me and I could smell their wet breath as they nosed at me.

“Yeah, Jenga,” I said. “Good dogs. Yeah, Mandy. Good girls.”

On the table, the envelope waited.


Joey’s small shape moved in the distance, walking down into the spread of the valley, the dogs trailing behind him. I leaned against one of the posts on the cabin porch and watched him. The rain splattered on the toes of my boots and the wind blew wet and cold.

I taught Joey to shoot at seven years old, down in the river bottom. We started with a .22 but I remember when he shot the .38. I put muffs on his ears and knelt down with him on the gravel bar behind an old cottonwood log. His hands were little and fat and white on the grip of the old pistol.

“Just hold onto it,” I’d said. “And squeeze.” They were light loads, but the crack and jump of it scared him. He missed the can by a mile and dirt cascaded down from high up the bank behind. He turned to me with his face pale and looking like he was going to cry.

“You missed,” I said. “Try it again.”

He never even hit the can, but he kept shooting, and walking back to the truck through the willows you would’ve thought he won a medal or something, the way he carried on. I just listened. Maybe I should’ve said something. But it was done now.

I walked back into the cabin and carried the toolbox out into the front room and set it on the table. I opened the lid. The envelope was very white against the guns. I thought about putting the note on his bed or some such, but that seemed like too much of a fuss. Joey’d see it here. He’d find it.

I took out the .44.


I found my father upslope of the cabin, lying on his back in the grass past a clump of oaks. The dogs ran up to him, nosed against his head. It lolled away from them, red showing through the brown grass.

“Get out! Get out!” I shouted. I went down on my knees, hitting at the dogs. 

They scrabbled away with little yelps.

Small dark circle up under his chin, at the top of his throat, next to my probing fingers. The gun in his open hand beside him, rain beading and running cross the oily dark metal. The rain had washed the blood away. Just pale clammy bluish skin, rain drops in his beard, dark circles under his eyes, open to the patter of the rain, looking at me. I tried to close them with my fingers but they wouldn’t stay shut. I wanted to vomit, the saliva thick and ropy in my mouth.

People leave notes, so here it is. But this ain’t an explanation. Just so you know, I did it on purpose.

He’d done it right, he was too much of a hunter not to, the shot angled up to the brainstem. I didn’t want to turn him over to see. The dogs circled at a distance, sniffing downslope at the ground where the blood had run. I picked up the gun and rotated the cylinder open. Only one spent cartridge, the other cylinders empty. 

“What are you doing?” I said. “What is this?”

You’re the one that might understand. I’ve seen you’re strong enough. That’s why I did it here. Your mother couldn’t take it.

“Understand what? I don’t even know you! How could I understand?” I stared at him, but there was nothing else to see. My knees hurt, the cold and wet soaking through my jeans. “Oh my God,” I said. 

The reason doesn’t matter much. So don’t make any big fuss thinking about it. It’s my deal. Nobody else’s. So just get on with things. Tell your mother that.

I stood and looked down at him and the dogs came to me. The wind was rising and they leaned against my legs like they always did. Jenga licked at the rag on my hand. The air moaned a little in the short oaks, the leaves rustling and scratching against each other with the drip of the rain.

You should keep the guns and the Jeep and the dogs. They always liked you better anyways. That’s it.

That was it. I just stood on the hillside over him and waited. I don’t know what for. The dogs whined and the rain kept falling and my mind tried to go ten different ways and went nowhere at all. He just lay there.


I stopped up near the oaks and looked out to the valley, the way Joey’d went. It was darker now. The clouds were dropping in and I couldn’t see him anymore. Goddamn rain. A last day hunting would’ve been nice. The rain trickled down my face and the back of my neck. I remembered Joey looking at me, angry.

I took the .44 out from under my coat. It hung from my hand, the rain slicking off it. It felt comfortable to me, something I still knew.

I could see their faces. Watching, waiting for me to join them.

Maybe I could talk to them. Or maybe we’d all just be quiet together.

I looked out to the valley again.

“You’ll be alright,” I said.


I remember the first time I caught a fish with my father. I was just a kid and I caught a largemouth bass, my heart running, the pole shaking in my hands as the fish surged under the murky golden glaze of the warm slough water, the line cutting close past the hull of the canoe.

The bass flopped in the bottom of boat, beating heavy and wet in hollow thumps against the aluminum of the deck. My father picked it up by the jaw and hit it over the head with his billy club and it shivered into hanging stillness. He scaled it quickly and held it and the knife out to me.

“Gut it,” he said. I hesitated. I’d only seen him do it before.

“Your fish,” he said. “Your deal.”

The tang of the knife slick with fish slime in my hands, the blade sliding sharp through the white underbelly, catching on stray scales. The guts and yellow eggs all warm with body heat through my fingers.

I coughed and turned aside for a moment.

“Gut it,” he said. I did. And when I was done he said nothing more, only took the carcass from me, rinsing it in the water, and laying it in the cooler on the crushed ice.

I sat in the bow seat as we headed home, with the presence of my father behind me, silent as we moved over the water. The trolling motor hummed low, and the water slapped lightly against the hull. We crossed into the main channel, the cold of the river water running in a line across the deck beneath my bare feet. My father shipped the motor and we paddled downstream together in slow rhythm, each stroke gurgling in slow fading vortexes on the water, the hull hissing with each forward surge, the water dripping in light speckles from the rising paddle blades. Behind me my father didn’t speak, but I knew he was there.


I left him lying in the rain and walked down the hill to the cabin. My hands shook from the cold as I built up the fire and the heat flushed my face and my shirt clung hot and wet to my chest. I lay down on the hearthstones and put my head on the floor and hugged my knees against me and let the heat wash over me and stared at the splinters in the cabin wall.

The dogs settled in around me and Mandy laid her chin out across my neck, her whiskers moving against my skin every time she breathed. I lay there and the fire burned down and then I thought about driving home, about telling the police, and what my mom would say, about how I had to work on Monday, about everything. I thought about my father lying on that hill, open-eyed in the rain, with his secrets still inside him.

The rain had started to ease off when I finally got up and walked back outside. My father always laid out an old blue tarp plastic under the supplies in the back of the Jeep. I stripped the tarp off the flooring and trudged up the hill to where he lay.

I wrapped my father in that old blue tarp and carried him down to the Jeep and put him in the front passenger seat. I went back in the cabin. I threw water on the coals in the fireplace. I gathered all our things, packed up the Jeep and called the dogs to me.

“Load up,” I said, and they scrabbled in atop the gear in the back. I slammed the doors behind them.

I drove slow, easing the old Jeep over the rocks and potholes while the dogs tried to sleep, occasionally rising and turning, snarling low at each other in the small space and bumping against the back of my seat as they lay down again.

It was dusk. Quiet, late. Lonely.

You’re the one that might understand.

“I don’t,” I said. “I don’t understand.”

In the seat beside me, my father was silent.

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