Sometimes simplicity is the most difficult lesson to learn.
In ethics, the view that human actions are entirely controlled by previous conditions, operating under laws of nature. Determinism is often understood as ruling out free will. Dictionary dot com
"The first [variety of Incompatibilism] says that if determinism is true, there is no free will. Free will is an illusion. These philosophers are variously known as 'hard' determinists, hard incompatibilists, free will skeptics, illusionists, or impossibilists." Small selection from Wikipedia
Coal was an exercise in hard determinism from day one until he died.
Train him; don’t break him.
Socialize him; don’t over-stimulate him.
Crate him; don’t cage him.
Be dominant; don’t mistreat him.
Love him; don’t spoil him.
Put him down; don’t blame him.
He was my brother’s dog, not mine – a pitbull, beautiful, terrible. My brother – an exercise in many things: patience, tolerance, insanity at times – often defied both reason and means. Laid off that winter, he invited me to move in – asked only for my company.
Coal was awkward as a baby bird with his overbite, and those four paws that somehow seemed just one too many to control. I stared with soft eyes as he gallivanted through his tiny dreams; he barked, shrill as whistles, in his sleep.
We called him "Boops" when he was little - often sang Boops-a-Roo! when it was time for supper. People pondered at such an odd name for a pitbull. So we'd have them watch him, waiting for a moment when he felt unobserved...when the pitbull machismo faded and the playful spirit engaged. When his flappity ears would perk, his gait would regain some of its grace. "Wait-shh-look, he's boopsing," we'd whisper and point.
Two years ago, when my dog Etta was a dead ringer for Coal in the early morning or the twilight, I'd catch her boopsing through my living room. I would watch for as long as I could stay silent, then would cradle her against me as she licked the tears off my cheeks.
Coal was such a study in persistence, dead-set to scale the sofa, with his front paws hardly cresting cushions as he stared over his shoulder, intent upon his back feet.
We met his frustrations with patience, trained ourselves to wait – watch him; don’t look – while he trained the back half of his body to listen. In him, in the consistency of his failed efforts, we both saw our own struggles - ours waged with the world, Coal's waged against a colossus of comfort too tall to obtain in a cavernous living room of wonders, great and small.
During one winter afternoon nap, he scooched his tiny body too close to the radiator and burned his whiskers off.
“See?” I asked, bending to gather him whimpering to me. “Having is not so pleasing a thing as…”
“Yeah,” my brother finished. “That shit hurts, don’t it?”
My brother, ever the ineloquent sage...for what would a puppy know about having or wanting, anyway? He had wanted to be warm, we laughed. Coal was only two months old at that time. I wish I could look back and say that he had a chance, but I can't. Sometimes I wish I couldn't look back at all.
What have I done? I ask, over and again into a moonlit shimmer of air above me. I sit shivering, crying while a cigarette wastes away between two fingers. It’s freezing, must’ve rained while I slept, feels and smells more like March than August. My head rests wet against a deck railing; knees against my chest, I nod off...
Upon waking I have no clue where the cigarette went, curse, place my bare feet carefully on the way inside. Hours pass in bed, curled in the corner, watching as the moon sets at last into darkness. Until dawn breaks the high horizons, the same simple question returns again relentless.
What have I done?
Eighteen inches into the ground beneath the apple trees the shovel breaks. I reach for Zen with both arms, end up only screaming until my legs buckle. Even today, in my mind I still envision a broken handle, partially covered by leaves and rot, settling deeper into the soft earth until the kudzu finally comes to claim it for the rest of time.
You threw me out, I think as my brother leaves the arms that his girlfriend has kept ready for him since she left work early - I'm still the enigma...friendly, funny, smart, good-looking and still queer for some reason. She only watches me with appreciative eyes as I go to fetch the other shovel; I already have enough blisters to take me off drums for a week, let's make it two. Maybe I'll tear a muscle and bury my career, while we're at it. I'd consider it an even trade for finally laying to rest my brother's latest catastrophe.
You threw me out, called me an embarrassment in front of your friends, and I convince the vets to kill him.
Coal was healthy, and his only infractions were aggression against a neighbor and a utility worker on my brother's property. But I grasp the reality that, culturally, perceived agression is just as threatening - even more so - and those of us in the family that actually acknowledged the "Social Contract" among communities had reached our verdict...they just needed a hotshot with words to outmaneuver the vet.
Enter the embarrassment, prosecuting the case: People of Nowhere, NC vs. Razor-toothed Time-Bomb. I argued necessary preemption to an intelligent man in a veterinary parking lot just four months after a tirade fanatically debunking Shock and Awe earned me a perfect score in a Comparative Politics course.
You'll blame me for this, I think. The new shovel is heavier, the blade sharper. You'll blame me because you bought a pit bull from a friend who couldn't name the father, because you never trained him, because you never had him fixed, because you caged him, ignored him, resented him, and when you found a girlfriend you all but abandoned him. You'll blame me for this, and I'll hate you for it. Cause, and effect...
My brother sits beside the cardboard coffin that holds our dead dog and cries.
"Found the good shovel in the barn," I say, too tired and overwhelmed to add anything...just get back to digging again, cutting through the chaos of woven roots and packed red clay. At some point he thanks me. I stop and stare into what is more and more inarguably becoming a grave. My vision tunnels for a moment; two deep breaths and Zen graciously steps in at last.
The good shovel never sits wrapped in plastic labeled "Evidence" against me in my fratricide trial.
"He's my dog too," I mumble, wiping a muddy smear from my face and forehead with my elbow. The idea is apparently so alien to him that he doesn't thank me again, that day or ever.
There's a rectangular grid of hand-picked stones, not far down the bank from my grandparents' place. The apple trees are gone now - nothing but stumps - cut down by the power company last winter during the blizzard. I don't sit with Coal anymore. When I first got Etta I used to take her down to the apple trees, letting her snuffle around the stones, playfully praising her for biting at the grass that'd grown up between them. I don't know exactly what I had hoped in bringing Etta to Coal's little grave. Whatever drew me there at first is gone now, slipped off into the breeze that no longer teases the leaves of my grandfather's heirloom apple trees.
We buried him with a 2-liter Mountain Dew bottle. He used to wrestle with them when he was just a puppy.
He used to look up from my sock-feet, the crescent whites of his eyes shining through the cold winter-dim like tiny Cheshire smiles.
He used to stand just inside the bedroom door, watching, snuffling at the air as I pretended to sleep as he looked in on me, making his nightly rounds, making sure we were safe.
You'll blame me for this...
A good Hard Determinist has little use for blame, less still for forgiveness. He knows only the physics of fallen dominoes. He dwells in rows of memory, weeding emotion. He knows to look past the hole and see the shovel responsible. He learns that life runs deep within the what, where, when, and yet never the why...
We are who we are by way of what we have been before, due only to that which we have done, which we will do until all we’ve ever been is all we’ll ever be.
We are who we are, and what I have done is everything, and nothing, all at once.