My Boys

The first time we tried to teach Sam to run the circular saw, I showed him how to keep the guide level, plumb, and square; how to use the guide marks along the cut line; how to hold your tongue just out of the corner of your mouth in order to look supercool, smooth, and tough all the while. At which point, Sam said, “Why is all that electrical tape on the cord of the saw?”

I said, “Well, bud, Pappap sometimes gets ahead of him self and ends up sawing the cords off his tools.” Luckily, as we all know, Pappap is an electrician.

Sam said, “Oh.” So Pappap showed him how to use the speed square and a tape measure, how to check a two-by for warp and such, how to set the depth of the blade, how to stand with one’s hand on one’s chin just such that one looks contemplative even if on the inside one is thinking, now just where in the hell did I put my but one can’t remember the name of that thing one’s thinking about. And Sam said, “Why are there all those marks in the saw horse?”

Pappap said, “Well, bud, sometimes your old man is so focused on the cut that he doesn’t think about what’s on the other side of it.”

Sam stood there for a while, testing the weight of the saw in his hand, and set is smoothly on the work bench. He said, “Uhm, maybe I’ll just wait a while and teach myself how to run the circular saw.”

. . .

So anyway, it’s apparently “son appreciation week” or something like that. I know, I’d never heard of it either. Still, I suppose I support it – somebody oughtta appreciate the little rascals. By little, of course, I mean Zac is 6’5.” Sam, on the other hand, is only one inch taller than I.

Here’s to you, boys, I say. You sure are something. Daring. Kind. Vicious. Get your asses to work, I said. So they did. While I sat in my plush folding chair drinking rum and whatever, they did this:

Okay, boys, I appreciate it, but can you at least be a little tough about it?

Once upon a time, this was a weightbearing wall. I said, “Boys, put two headers in thar.” They said, “How?” I said, “Figure it out.” So they did. And I appreciate that. The day before that I had them build this arch:

I said, "How do you boys feel about it?" Zac said, "Great." Sam felt and looked ambiguous. The guy in the middle just sort of shows up sometimes and eats my barbecue potato chips.

And I appreciate that also. Today, I’m going to appreciate the hell out of the closet they’re going to build. Tomorrow: plumbing, I really appreciate that. Way to go boys.


Air Sharks Revisited

I think of the air sharks sometimes today and wonder where they have gone. What do they do in the summer when there are no little girls to chase to school? Will they return in the fall? Perhaps they’re migratory. Perhaps they’re gone forever. I think, in the end, they are a misunderstood species, and I hope someday we will find a way to live in harmony with them the way we have with other mysterious creatures like hermit crabs. And poodles.

As we all know, we first spotted them towards the end of Early March on one of those chilly mornings when it was just darn tough to make it to the car.
Suddenly, Naomi spotted a dorsal fin upon the deck, circling. She described it to Blaisey, and the two burst forth into the bare wild morning and leapt into the waiting car, adrift in the driveway.

I hopped in and started the engine. “What happened?” I said.

Leah said, “The sharks chased us.”

Naomi said, “All the way to the car.”

I cautiously backed furiously out of the driveway and onto the road, the sharks nipping at my taillights, chasing us all the way to school.

For instance: one jumped off the overpass where Wendover Ave crosses Holden, trying to land on the car, but it missed and landed on the road. We almost ran one over. Another hid in a tree, but we drove by it really fast. Some of them waited on rooftops for us to drive by, and I said, “How do they get on the roof in the first place.”

Naomi told me. “See,” she said, “they swim up there, they’re air sharks.”

Luckily sharks are afraid of schools, so we were safe when we arrived at the parking lot. On the other hand, Blaisey did see one going down the sliding board at the playground.

. . .

The next day, Naomi caught the bus to school, leaving Blaisey and me to hustle to the car by ourselves. With the help of Blaisey’s shark-proof boots, once again we made it to school unscathed. Which is more than we can say for the rest of the world. During the drive, she actually saw an air shark in somebody’s house. The living room for goodness sake.

This made us sad for the people who lived in the house, because Blaisey and I agreed your grocery bill would have to be enormous to feed nature’s perfect make-believe killing machine. I mean, do you have any idea how much Hamburger Helper it takes to sustain one of those things?

A lot.

Though, you’re right, Tuna Helper might be the meal of choice. Still.

. . . .

The next day, Blaisey asked me to tie her running shoes very tight so she could run away from the air sharks. Nonetheless, one of the sharks tried to get in the car with us, which made Blaisey mad, because she didn't want the air shark “to come to school to eat my friend.”

If I think about it, this incident explains why she bit the little girl on the slide yesterday – even when they’re not trying to eat you, air sharks are bad influences. Role models? No, they are not role models.

. . . .

About a week later, after we dropped Naomi at school, we drove past the giant rocking chair in front of a big brick building where a great big bunny had been holding an egg for the past two weeks. This morning the bunny was gone.

You guessed it – air sharks. Blaisey was more surprised than sad, because “I thought them only ate little fishies.” No, my dear, air sharks will dine on any critter, even Easter Bunny.

. . . .

Towards the final days of March, Blaisey decided she would from now on walk to the car alone, so I would be safe from the air sharks.

I said, "But what about you?"

She said, "I be okay."

I said, "What if the air sharks come after you?"

She said, "Then I step on them. Like this {*step*} {*step*}.

It feels good to have badass daughters.


Early July

I have to give credit to a neighbor who said that today feels like a scrotum -- as if the Earth were sticking to the sun's leg. Roger that, Pat. Still we finally got the hot tub off the porch and the dry wall up the stairs. We started a diet, we ended a binge, we found great comfort in the way sparkling water makes the strawberries bubbly.

There's not much news from N.C. except that it's hot in the day and humid in the night and vice versa. We've been remodelling since I "finished" my Ph.D. and landscaping and gardening and plumbing and you get the picture. For the most part, I've had two hours a day to write, and I'm working on The Wickedest City, which is becoming more of a historical novel than a Western. Even when it was like a Western, it was more like the movie Wallstreet, except without Charlie or Martin Sheen. It does have John Wilkes Booth in it, but I don't feel qualified to compare the actors.

traci's teaching students how to dream on the page, how to turn off their conscious mind and find out things through their writing that they don't know that they know. One thing we love about Guilford is that most of the students trust her to teach a course this way. Others reject the notion that they can't think their way into a story. Jerks. "Let them sit there in their heads writing diary entries," I tell her, "see if I care." But she pushes them and even more of them get it. I don't know, maybe I'd still rather teach middle-school math (my last major before English).

The kids are great. At least that's what I hear. Zac's been at the beach and in Athens and back to the beach -- I've only seen him a couple times. Naomi, Leah, and Sam are in PA with my folks for three weeks, catching and releasing racoons in wooden cages and swimming in one spot against the Allegheny's current.

I turned 33 the other day, so I set a new writing goal: I want to be the oldest "great American writer under 30" ever -- it will be tough, what with time and space going on and on like that forever. On the phone, Naomi asked me how old I turned. I said, "33." She said, "Neat. That's two of the same number." Later traci asked me, and I told her, and she said, "Neat. That's the same number twice." Genetics is a funny funny thing.

Two more years! I know I dwell on it every year, but I haven't had a birthday to look forward to since I was twenty. Two more years! The day I've been waiting for since I first learned about the judicial, legislative, and executive branches. That's right. Two more years and I'll be old enough to run for president. My elementary teachers all told me that "anybody can be president." So I figure I'll do it at least for a few years.

Maybe you all recall when I woke Naomi up for another day of fourth grade on 05 November 2008, and before she opened her eyes, she said, "Who won?" And I said, "Barack Obama. Are you excited?" And she said, "No. Not really. It's not like he's gonna come to our house or something." And that was the moment I decided my platform for 2012: If you elect me president of the United States of America, I will come to your house. I will sleep on your couch. I will leave the toilet seat up.

Anyway, Pappap and Aunt Jan drive the kids home Sunday, and Zac got home this evening. As for remodeling at this point, the good news is: traci and I are the only family members with a bedroom these days. The bad news is: the only bathroom in the house is in our bedroom. Oh, life, you thoroughly fickle thing.

Also, Desi says hello:


"Grey Ice Water"

Here's what Elizabeth Bishop says about gray ice water in her poem "At the Fishhouses"

Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
the clear gray icy water . . . Back, behind us,
the dignified tall firs begin.
Bluish, associating with their shadows,
a million Christmas trees stand
waiting for Christmas. The water seems suspended
above the rounded gray and blue-gray stones.
I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
icily free above the stones,
above the stones and then the world.
If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.


"Recipes for Endangered Species"

If you haven't read Recipes for Endangered Species yet, go read it. Some excerpts from Matt Dube's excellent review of traci's book:

"Traci O Connor's stories in Recipes for Endangered Species suggest a writer who never did settle but who exists instead in frenzied emotional and physical spaces that, till now, seemed unsustainable, experiences that send us back to bed, twisting sheets against our pliable bodies . . .

"To read Connor's stories, I want you to understand, is to return to that world of permeable existences, where points of view shift and tilt, almost imperceptibly, and bring you to understand identity differently than what you previously allowed for: these disparate voices, these parallax views, the linguistic franks belong together, the stories say, and the way Connor bends and warps language in humid paragraphs, doesn't let you argue . . .

"Take 'Van Gogh Dreams,' the story in this collection I am most familiar with, since I published it back in 2006. The story is, on a surface level, the interior monologue of a woman with a crush on her neighbor so strong that she feels jealous of the stray cat that nuzzles up against the object of him. ...When the stray cat meets its grisly end, it happens off the page, and while the woman at the story's center doesn't seem entirely surprised the cat is gone, she, or maybe it's Connor who decides, doesn't narrate the scene but instead leaves it out. This moment instead transpires in some weird overheated ellipsis where memory is foggy because the reptile brain is in control—it happened in a textual blackout . . .

"The way the stories elude conventional structures of identity, temporality, and disclosure makes them experimental in the truest sense; these are not stories that lend themselves to Freytag's triangle or Genette's levels of narration, at least not in any way I could discern. But even in the absence of traditional markers of academic interpretation, the characters and events bear more than a passing resemblance to people you know—each story generates flashes of recognition that guide you through; I've felt that way, you say, and though you couldn't consciously identify what that feeling was, it carries you through to the next emotional node of meaning. It helps, too, that Connor's sentences pulse and groove, are fully embodied things. Take this passage from the story 'Zombie':

Imagine being, let's say, eight years old: push out pull in, in and out—your feet punch punching the      sky. The winking sun. The sand moving beneath you. Your hands full up with chain. And, at just the right tempo, how you could marry, for a few romantic seconds, again and again, a total stranger. (51)

 "These are adult stories, concerned with the traditional adult concerns of vocation and community-building. Instead of feeling like a voice from the past, Connor's stories suggest a separate path, one all of us were tempted to follow but which few of us had Connor's courage to steadily pursue." (DIAGRAM 10.3)

Jackson's response to Dube's review: Another great review for traci o connor. One of the great things about the great responses she's received from great readers is that every reader seems to elevate a different story. Dube discusses "Van Gogh Dreams" and "Zombie." Another reviewer writes about "Goat" and "The Flying Codona." A peer told us he felt comfortable attending our alma mater after reading "Mrs. Rotham Has a Bun in the Oven, and Plans to Eat It with Butter and Jam." traci's collection is not "A Story, and Other Stories." It is not an anthologizable story and eleven "just-fine" pieces. It's a masterpiece. It's a writer's book. If you can read Recipes . . ., and it doesn't make you want to write, you're probably not a writer (which is fine, I'm not judging, I'm just saying).

"Neverending Math Equation"

When I was six, eight, ten years old (depending on who's telling the story), Mom said to Dad, "Aren't you worried about Jackson? All he does is play Atari and eat Twinkies." Dad thought about it for a moment and said, "Yeah, but he's really good at it."

A few decades from now, maybe the story will go: Mom said, "Aren't you worried about Jackson? All he does is drink coffee and type type type." The rest, I suppose, remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, maybe this song is a better birthday song. Posted post-birthday, "And the plants and the animals they're all linked, and the plants and the animals eat each other."


"People as Places as People"

Seems an appropriate birthday song. Thinking about all "the people you loved but you didn't quite know." It's a good day for that sort of thing. I've heard a lot about Isaac Brock's being cynical, and I've heard a lot about this album being soft, and I don't know how to reconcile all that, except to say I think this song is very tender and tough, and, ultimately, a pleasure to listen to.

Today's Bonus: the link is for a playlist such that we may enjoy Modest Mouse for many minutes by simply clicking on the above title. Oh technology, like a modestly angelic mouse, what joy!


"Rara Avis: How to Tell a True Bird Story"

I had an essay reviewed by "The Review Review," and I was happy with it, so I cut and pasted it here:

'Jackson Connor spices up the pastoral in his essay, “Rara Avis: How to Tell a True Bird Story.” He tells a fake one, sort of. Connor identifies bird species in rural Pennsylvania, where he grew up. But he also says that he can’t always tell one bird from another: “If I’m pressed…anything bigger than a sparrow is a red-tailed hawk, and anything smaller than a redtail is a sparrow.” Myth debunked: country boys always know the moods, flight patterns and names of every creature in the yard.

'Connor also flouts a second archetype: country boy so in tune with nature that he doesn’t have a cynical bone in his body. Connor presents something very different while recounting—and maybe embellishing—a scene from grade school. When his teacher asks the class to share family stories with a moral, Connor shares an anecdote from the Vietnam War. Seems his uncle Dewey parachuted into a Vietcong regiment after chugging bourbon in midair. When his teacher asks for the moral of the story, Connor says, “Don’t fuck with my uncle Dewey when he’s been drinking.”

'Cute little naturalists don’t talk like that, do they? Alas, Connor won’t make Oprah’s shortlist. He’s too irreverent, though highly entertaining.'

I posted the link to the page, if you're interested. And, since you asked, yes, "Rara Avis" was a notable essay in Best American Essays 2009.

Superspouse traci also had a piece reviewed by The Review Review. Her "Fat Man's Daughter," published in The Pinch was written up, but the link is broken just now, so we'll post that another time.

"The Whale Song"

If "King Rat" is decadent in its texture, "The Whale Song" is almost barren. (Both songs from "Nobody's First and You're Next.") Look at it. One line. What do I know about music? Very little, but it seems like the song is a series of instruments playing the same eight or ten notes in mostly the same order -- I could be all the way wrong about this -- but the thing is, it's a song that gets in my head and rides with me everywhere I go all day long. And I wish I were a scout so I could find a way out, but the way, so everyone could find a way out.

desperately seeking something

Dear Client 958985SZ,

Thank you for your application. We wish you the best of luck in your search for "buddies and dear ones." We really like your photo:

And we love most of your print: "Athletic young person, interested in meeting friends and so forth. Wears a great hat well. Hip, shaggy hair, and I'm strikingly good looking with down-cast eyes and a great smile."

We also love your ad: "Looking for person(s) with whom to share brilliant insights into literature and good tv, as well as eat the delicious food I cook. Applicants should be friendly and compelling."

Here' the part where we had an issue:

"Must love Rubik's Cubes." Really 958985SZ, "Must love Rubik's Cubes." We just feel like perhaps you're asking too much. We mean, like, maybe "Must love crossword puzzles" or "Must love avocados" would give you more of a potential base. Anyway, we're not trying to tell you how to live your life, 958985SZ, but Rubik's Cubes? What is this like the 80s? Like the nerd 80s? Anyway, feel free to update your profile any time.

The Management.

my ship comes in

Yesterday, I received my first paycheck from a literary magazine. After ten years of writing, it's all starting to come together. At this rate, I will have my student loans paid off in just 16,534 years. In your face student loans.