Just Figures, essay by Jackson Connor

Just Fig­ures

I. Cole­man

 

There’s noth­ing on the ice but wind. Tiny tides of pep­pery lake-effect snow whirl around the sur­face of the lake, weav­ing in and out of blue-tarp shanties that seem to coast across the ice exact­ly because they don’t move. But the only thing on the ice that feels real is the wind. I’m blind­ed to the things I can touch by the blow­ing cold which stings at my cheeks, sneaks into my snow­suit, tells me who I am.

I’m six, ice fish­ing with my dad, my Uncle Dal­lice, and my Aunt Jan. They set up the shan­ty the day before – two by fours, a blue tarp, some wood screws. It belongs to whichev­er of the three of them is head­ing out to the lake for a week­end. We cleaned out the holes they’d augered the day before, set the tini­est fish­ing poles, and lis­tened to the Cole­man lantern hiss. The steady hum against the wind still sneak­ing around out­side.

Dad shows me how to set the line, where the peanut but­ter and jel­ly sand­wich­es are, and how to stretch out my legs with­out kick­ing my own or any­body else’s pole into the freez­ing water. The wind runs cold through Cana­da and cold across Lake Erie, and cold through the low­est hills and barest trees in north­west Penn­syl­va­nia. In the mean­time, because of weath­er pat­terns that I don’t pre­tend to under­stand, Lake Edin­boro lies right along a snow­belt. They could get a cou­ple feet, four feet, six feet of snow in a sin­gle day. Lit­tle moun­tains blown into piles and blind­ing at the edges of the lake.

We pull pan fish out of that hole as fast as we can set the lines. Three shanties down from us, a cou­ple of fish­ers build a bon­fire on the ice with wood and gaso­line and a couch they’d brought out in the bed of a pick up. I don’t think that’s appro­pri­ate, but Dad says it’s okay, and it smells good, so I don’t com­plain about it any­more. The adults focus on their lines, stop­ping once and a while to recall a sim­i­lar fish­ing trip, a sim­i­lar win­ter, a sim­i­lar smell of fire. Sure, I enjoy the tiny fish­es gath­er­ing in a buck­et, but I do love to lis­ten to those sto­ries – that’s what it means to be a grown up, telling a good sto­ry.

The wind snaps the shan­ty tarp tight and whis­tles across the augered holes left out­side by dozens of anglers. The bon­fire on the ice smells thor­ough­ly warm­ing, piney, pop­ping and fizzing on the bright white lake.

I hold my hands out to our Cole­man lantern to warm them up. The steam ris­es in spi­ral­ing streams slow­ly from the cuffs of my coat. Dad tells me not to get too close to the met­al on the lantern. I say, “I know.” What does he think I am, three-years old? Then I put the palm of my hand flat on the steam­ing met­al of the lantern.

* * *

I don’t remem­ber much about being that age. I can’t chronol­o­gize events or describe in detail my psy­choso­cial devel­op­ment, though I envy peo­ple who can. On the oth­er hand, my fam­i­ly has a cat­a­logue of sto­ries they tell back and forth to each oth­er – a series of threads they fol­low in and out of our fam­i­ly his­to­ry – and this is one of them. I remem­ber what the shan­ty looked like, because we stored it or one just like it beside the garage out back for most of my child­hood. Cole­man lanterns are green with white print and, when they’re lit, two mesh nets light up like bio­lu­mi­nes­cent egg sacs. I can’t recall what col­or my snow­suit was or even whether the sand­wich­es were on white or wheat bread, but over the years I have entire­ly con­vinced myself that I knew what bio­lu­mi­nes­cence meant when I was six years old.

The met­al of the lantern bub­bled and blis­tered my skin. I recall this from hav­ing heard it, I think, more than from remem­ber­ing the event as such. I hear a siz­zling that nobody has ever men­tioned in telling this sto­ry. And, though I know this is inac­cu­rate, I imag­ine the smell of burnt hair. Per­haps those details are stan­dard in a minor-burn sto­ry. Per­haps my uncon­scious is remem­ber­ing beyond my con­scious mind. I said, “Ouch.” My dad grabbed me by the wrist and dunked my hand in the water before I could even reg­is­ter the pain. He said, “You’re okay, bud­dy.”

This sto­ry, I am cer­tain, could read as a para­ble – do what your folks say, or suf­fer the con­se­quences – and that’s fine, and maybe I’ll tell my own chil­dren the sto­ry that way some times, but my fam­i­ly has nev­er told it that way. I’ve heard this sto­ry from my mom, my dad, my Uncle Dal­lice, my Aunt Dix­ie, and my Aunt Jan, and I don’t know if I’ve ever heard it the same way twice, but I do recall that it always ends the same. Young Jack­son sit­ting on a frozen lake with one hand in the water and the oth­er hold­ing a peanut but­ter and jel­ly sand­wich. Some­times, they tell this sto­ry to talk about tough­ness. Some­times, they tell it to talk about sand­wich­es.

My hand hurt like hell, I’d imag­ine. The burn was bad, but not dan­ger­ous. We went on fish­ing, though Dad offered to take me off the ice back to the hotel. I nev­er loved fish­ing of any sort, but I always loved lis­ten­ing to those sto­ries from Dad and Dal­lice and Jan, the sounds of the wind on the lake, the bright hiss of a Cole­man Lantern, and the smell fire on ice.

 

II. Kaden and Pap­pap

 

The air sits heavy and still on the camp. The trees are heavy green and still. A cou­ple of whispy clouds are still. My nephew Kaden is five. He runs across the yard in his bare feet. He can’t cross a stretch of it, because after build­ing the chim­ney, Ange­lo and I end­ed up with grav­el mixed in with the grass and sand, and it hurts his feet. Pap­pap stands on the oth­er side of the stretch, maybe twen­ty feet away. Pap­pap says, “Come on over here.” Kaden tells him it hurts too bad to walk on the grav­el. Pap­pap says, “It won’t hurt if you walk on your toes and go ‘ooch, ouch, ooch, ouch’ the whole way across.” Kaden cross­es the grav­el. “Ooch, ouch, ooch, ouch,” he says.

Lat­er in the week, Pap­pap sees Kaden walk­ing across the same stretch on his tip­toes, say­ing “ooch, ouch, ooch, ouch.” This time, Pap­pap notices, the kid’s wear­ing sneak­ers.

My dad is Kaden’s Pap­pap, and, though Pap­pap doesn’t think of it con­scious­ly, he’s teach­ing the kid to be tough. My dad would nev­er say to his friends, neigh­bors, or fam­i­lies, “No boy of mine is going to grow up to be a pussy.” A young boy can play with dolls and cook din­ner with mom and watch British car­toons any time he wants, but when it’s time to be tough, a lit­tle kid should be tough.

I had a friend whose father stopped talk­ing to him for near­ly a year when that friend joined the cheer­lead­ing team at col­lege. When I joined, my dad want­ed to know what we did at prac­tice and whether or not I liked it. But, I’d imag­ine if I had called to tell him that my tri­ceps were sore from hold­ing peo­ple above my head all after­noon, he would have said, “Oh, for garsh sake, do you want me to dri­ve you up some cook­ies, hon­ey?” There are a mil­lion ways to be tough and cheer­lead­ing is as good as any of them.

He nev­er talks about his own tough­ness direct­ly. But we know – my tough friends and I know – the old man is tough. I’ve seen him dis­lo­cate fin­gers and the dried blood from get­ting “bumped in the head with a ham­mer.” He doesn’t brag about it, how thick his skin is, but he doesn’t com­plain either. The first time I pulled on a pair of box­ing gloves, he showed me how to use them.

Any­time the rodeo’s on tele­vi­sion (or the world’s strong­man com­pe­ti­tion, or lum­ber­jacks, or race­car dri­vers), my dad says, “I’ve always won­dered who can claim to be a badass in front of some­body who just got kicked in the ribs by a three thou­sand pound bull. What are you going to do to a guy like that?” He’s as tough as he can be, no doubt, but he also rec­og­nizes tough in oth­er peo­ple, and that we all have our tal­ents.

Kaden scrapes his knees, and, in that instant between wound and pain while his brain ana­lyzes its new data, Pap­pap says, “You’re okay, bud­dy.” Kaden bumps his chin on the counter, Uncle Jack­son hits Kaden in the eye with an errant pitch of the whif­fle ball, younger cousin bash­es Kaden with a stick. “You’re okay, bud­dy.”

More than any­thing it’s a calm­ing mech­a­nism. The bot­tom line here is that you are okay. I heard those words as often as I heard, “Time for din­ner,” when I was a kid, and I knew (most­ly) what they meant even then. Don’t pan­ic. Pap­pap doesn’t tell Kaden to quit being a pussy, the same way he nev­er “tough­ened me up” when I was young. Young boys are allowed to be hurt, but if we’re going to cry, we need to know we’re going to be alright some time, prob­a­bly soon. Usu­al­ly soon­er than we think.

My dad nev­er told me to quit cry­ing or that he’d give me some­thing to cry about. He’s nev­er said, “Well, wah, wah, poor lit­tle baby” to me or to Kaden. If my dad’s any­thing like me – and the longer I know him, the more I think he is – cry­ing sig­ni­fies dan­ger. When it is used in vain – like a joy­ful scream or a jok­ing call for help – its over­all mean­ing is desen­si­tized. Con­sid­er: “Wolf! Wolf!” or “Fire! Fire!” or “I was too sick to make it to your class this morn­ing.” Cry­ing tells any­body who is with­in earshot that I am incom­plete, I lack health, I need atten­tion. Used appro­pri­ate­ly, cry­ing is more use­ful than a degree in com­mu­ni­ca­tions or a lifes­tudy of meta­physics. Pap­pap rec­og­nizes this. Kaden and I rec­og­nize this. And we do not cry in vain.

Pap­pap tells this sto­ry again and again, “Ooch, ouch, ooch ouch,” he says, and we see Kaden tip­toe­ing across the grav­el. It’s anoth­er thread that some­times starts with Kaden or to the chim­ney Ange and I built or to the yard at the camp. Try­ing to guess what might call the sto­ry into telling on any giv­en day is as dif­fi­cult as guess­ing what might come next. Often it’s this:

Kaden is six. He chas­es his shad­ow across the yard towards a steep bank on anoth­er thick green day. Pap­pap watch­es him pick up speed as he gets clos­er and clos­er to the edge of the yard. Like iner­tia, you can’t stop a child at play. Pap­pap stands up from his lawn chair in time to see Kaden launch him­self face and bel­ly first over the crest of the hill into the flower gar­den. Pap­pap gets to the edge of the yard as Kaden turns his head back up hill. Kaden says, “I okay, Pap­pap?”

 

III. John Wayne Speaks

 

Any­body can dri­ve a truck, but what my dad wants is a John Wayne, Ass­kick­ing, Son of a Bitch truck. That’s what he’ll tell you. It could be a boat or a gun or a jack­et. Life is big and tough and will knock you upside the head from time to time. He wants stuff in that will knock back. One time, he told me, “Any­body could fuck around and get a blender, but what I want is a John Wayne, Ass­kick­ing, Son of a Bitch blender.”

Dad doesn’t know John Wayne as the well-groomed met­ro­sex­u­al who smoked thin cig­a­rettes and hat­ed hors­es. He only knows Hollywood’s ver­sion of Mar­i­on Mitchell Mor­ri­son – the guy who could prob­a­bly stran­gle that bull with one hand, who tra­di­tion­al­ly beat the everlov­ing piss out of bad guys from the Wild West to Iwo Gima, who nev­er had call to ques­tion his own author­i­ty or both­ered with gray areas of mroal­i­ty, who could drawl and holler a woman into love with him or snap a thou­sand sol­diers to with a back­wards glance – he only knows The Duke, but he knows that ver­sion means a lot.

I have been con­di­tioned – by my lifes­tudy, in my pro­fes­sion, through my trav­el – to see how I have been con­di­tioned by my prog­en­i­tors. I’ve seen them being tough, and I’ve heard their sto­ries about tough­ness. Each time I take up a thread in my own telling of the sto­ry, I empha­size this man­ner, this way of being, this tough.

I rec­og­nize times when I act tough, because it’s what I’ve been trained to do, and because I rec­og­nize it, my mas­culin­i­ty con­stant­ly rais­es a series of com­pli­cat­ed ques­tions for me – am I rein­forc­ing the patri­archy by behav­ing this way? do I feel this way because it’s nat­ur­al or because I’ve been taught to feel this way? ulti­mate­ly, is my behav­ior more harm­ful than help­ful (to me, to my wife, to my kids)? For my dad, though, he don’t want no bat­tery-oper­at­ed, limps-along lawn­mow­er; he wants a John Wayne, Ass­kick­ing, Son of a bitch trac­tor. He wants to puff out his chest and point his fin­ger in some asshole’s face, and issue forth some come­up­pance. At times, in fact, I’ve felt this too, it’s actu­al­ly worth someone’s being an ass­hole just so we can puff up and point our fin­grs in his face.

The issue gets more com­pli­cat­ed for my dad, though. He’ll tell you this: John Wayne, Ass­kick­ing, etc., but when he gets his hands on my elec­tric mow­er, he thinks it’s neater than shit that this lit­tle engine can take care of this much grass with­out fuel, and, because of how they’re built (he tells me) this lit­tle thing will run for the rest of your life with­out ever going into the shop. And he might get him one just like it if he ever gets the mind to.

When Hum-Vs hit the mar­ket as con­sumer SUVs, my dad thought maybe he should have one. “Wouldn’t it be neat,” he said, “if a guy like me end­ed up with a truck like that and paint­ed it tit­tie-pink?” I was prob­a­bly six­teen-years old, and, to be com­plete­ly hon­est, I didn’t know whether or not paint­ing it pink would be neat at that moment. Dad said, “Well, hell, I’d still be the guy with the Hum-V.” And that made more sense to me.

My sis­ter is tough, too. Make no mis­take. She’s nev­er had it easy: grow­ing up, sum­mers down at the camp – we both took baths under a hand­pump with well water; we used an out­house; we got bit up by mos­qui­toes and ants and mice and had to split and car­ry wood. She played her sports vicious­ly; learned to dri­ve in a 1977 deep blue Ford F-250; went through sev­er­al years of drink­ing hard, smok­ing plen­ty, and wrestling her way into and out of bad rela­tion­ships (just like me). She’s ten­der and com­pas­sion­ate, a bril­liant no-bull­shit teacher, kind and gen­er­ous, but I wouldn’t sug­gest pick­ing a fight with her.

My mom would rather go into the next room and pass out from the pain in her back, than let on that she’s hurt and ruin some­body else’s good time. She tripped on a bas­ket­ball I had left on the stairs one time. She asked me to come give her a hand – didn’t yell for me, didn’t let on what was wrong – and the small toe on her right foot was upside down. (What would you call that? Dis­lo­cat­ed? Sprained?) “Hon­ey,” she said, “I sure wish you wouldn’t leave your stuff on the stairs.” And I’ve felt guilty about it ever since, though her toe is much bet­ter now.

A few weeks ago, I tore out some shelves in the bath­room. There were a few razor blades that the pre­vi­ous own­ers must have dropped behind the shelves. I reached to grab one, and I was in a hur­ry, and it was a bad angle, and I was dis­tract­ed, and I real­ly thought I had cut the tip of my fin­ger off. A lit­tle chunk of meat hung by an edge of skin, and I debat­ed cut­ting the rest of it off or try­ing to fix it as it was (the next day, a friend asked why I didn’t get it stitched up; truth be told, I sim­ply hadn’t thought of it). I put some antibi­ot­ic on it, and duct­taped it back togeth­er. I guess it has been almost a month, and there is hard­ly even a scar to show for it. Mom says, “You got that from me. I heal fast.” And that’s neat, but it doesn’t give us much to show for what we’ve been through.

I’ve been taught, trained, and con­di­tioned to be tough, for sure, but these threads get tan­gled some­times in the telling. If it’s the men who are sup­posed to be tough, what’s with all the tough women in my life? When one gets hurt, is it bet­ter to react in anger or com­pas­sion, return hurt for hurt or just be for­giv­ing? Some­times I tell these sto­ries, and some­one asks, “What’s your point?” And rather than come up with a point, I pick up a new thread, weave it across what­ev­er I’ve just told, walk back into the labyrinth, try­ing not to trip over what­ev­er the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion has laid down. It’s a trap, a maze, a labyrinth. Unlike Daedalus’s labyrinth, we’re born into this maze, miles deep with threads from a thou­sand dif­fer­ent entrances criss­cross­ing each oth­er, tan­gling again on them­selves – for every one we tease out, we find anoth­er dozen have become more com­pli­cat­ed­ly entwined. Gen­der, geog­ra­phy, race, biol­o­gy, class, doc­trine – it is too easy to think we can talk about any one of those things with­out imply­ing the rest, and, yet, we know, also, it’s too much to talk about all of those things.

 

IV. Tough

 

My friend Ann wrote an essay called “Tough.” I first read it before it was pub­lished when it was called “Touch,” and I got why she called it that, but I didn’t get why she called it that. Where I’m from, steel-belt West­ern PA, and where she’s from, coal-town West Vir­ginia, touch and tough don’t just look alike in print, they work togeth­er. There is some­thing more to being tough than strut­ting or sneer­ing, and I think it has to do with how we are gen­tle as much as how we fight.

Her claim in the essay is that her peo­ple, boys and girls, are raised to be tough, to sit there and take what­ev­er comes their way – sor­row, pover­ty, dying young – and they do. They sit there, tough­ly. Every­thing that comes their way, they take it in, and they own up to it, and they die young, and they don’t com­plain, and when a ket­tle bot­tom falls from the top of a mine shaft and crush­es their spines, they accept their new phys­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions and the accom­pa­ny­ing pay cuts, but they’re tough about it for good­ness sake. No piss­ing and moan­ing. Nobody can take that away from them. She goes on to talk about rela­tion­ships and her stick­ing with bad men and being tough rather than look­ing for some­thing else. And again I want it to be called “Touch.” I don’t want it to be called “Touch.”

Some­times tough­ness is to grin and bear it. Some­times tough­ness is to fight back. Some­times tough­ness is to go with­out. Some­times tough­ness is to go out and get. Some­times tough­ness is sit­ting uncom­fort­ably if it means some­one else can be more com­fort­able. Some­times tough­ness is a strong sol­id punch in the face. Some­times tough­ness is not throw­ing the punch. Some­times need­less suf­fer­ing is masochism; some­times need­less suf­fer­ing is just prac­tice for the rest of our lives. We’ve seen tough­ness in our­selves and in oth­ers a thou­sand times a day since the day we were born, and we don’t have any idea what it is.

 

V. Not So Tough Now

 

[old fish, young fish, what is water?]

 

I went to col­lege. I went to the steel mill. I wrote and wrote and wrote. Life was hard. I was sad, and I wrote about that sad­ness and how hard it was to be sad. I worked hard, and I wrote about that work. I drank too much, smoked plen­ty, and clung des­per­ate­ly to women who refused to love me. I refused equal­ly well those women who clung to me. My friends clung to the same women, and this was our cycle. We fought each oth­er, with­out anger, with our fists and what­ev­er we could think of to say that would real­ly hurt. I’ve often thought that I chose my friends back Home based on their abil­i­ty to hurt me, to get me ready for the future, what­ev­er it might hold, and I’d imag­ine I did my share of tough­en­ing them up as well. I’ve been gone from these friends for a long time – gone to grad school, where sad­ness is often a dif­fer­ent kind of sad­ness, the sad­ness of knowl­edge: of both know­ing too much and nev­er know­ing enough. The same kind of emo­tion­al hurt comes at me when I’m in grad school as I was like­ly to find while work­ing at the mill. But the phys­i­cal pain isn’t there, the every­day sore­ness, stiff­ness, burns, nicks, scrapes, cuts, blis­ters, the smashed fin­gers, the torn fore­arm, the knot on the fore­head – this hurt, which makes pain ubiq­ui­tous, sim­ply doesn’t exist in the same way at uni­ver­si­ty.

I’ve been walk­ing up and down this metaphor­i­cal fence since I was a child, act­ing tough, punch­ing bags, swal­low­ing more than I could chew – I had to be tough, but I nev­er knew it as being tough, only as the way things are. Dan reach­es out and smacks me in the face because I’m read­ing instead of fish­ing. I catch Dan with the back of my hand, because I’m curi­ous what braces feel like on my knuck­les. We toss each oth­er around. Kick each oth­er when we’re down. We jab. We knuck­le rub. We pinch and poke and twist and, when all else fails, we punch and punch and punch and punch until we’re cer­tain the terms of our friend­ship are clear. But there is no why to doing this. This is only how we live in this place. It is only life, not some­thing I am aware of. It’s not that I don’t know what I have, rather I don’t know there is any­thing to know about hav­ing it. In fact, I have not been called upon to be tough for any extend­ed peri­od of time since I start­ed grad school. At the same time, I became aware of class, real­ly aware of it, for the first time.

Class seems, some­how, unre­al – a false way of describ­ing my very true life. When folks talk about wealth and pow­er and mon­ey, it is hard for me to get into the con­ver­sa­tion, because those things seem so the­o­ret­i­cal. When folks talk about free­dom and equal­i­ty and jus­tice, I have a hard time find­ing any­thing to con­nect the con­ver­sa­tion to what I have known, to the sounds a 700 ton press makes punch­ing holes in stop sign chan­nel, to heft­ing cin­der blocks four high on scaf­fold­ing above my shoul­ders, to drink­ing beer for a dol­lar-ten a draft and shoot­ing pool for a quar­ter a game.

Still, it is in the midst of these con­ver­sa­tions that I start to see the threads. I start to see the labyrinth, though the beau­ty of this par­tic­u­lar maze is that it exists only as metaphor, such that any con­ver­sa­tion about it begins with the acknowl­edge­ment that it does not exist. We tease out anoth­er thread, we find our way to the entrance of the labyrinth. We pass through the entrance, think­ing we’ve found our way out, but this entrance guides us direct­ly back into the labyrinth and we find a dozen more threads that lead in a dozen new direc­tions.

VI. Nature and Nur­ture

Venan­go Coun­ty Penn­syl­va­nia, where I come from, has more third gen­er­a­tion wel­fare recip­i­ents per capi­ta than any oth­er coun­ty in the Unit­ed States. I nev­er knew that grow­ing up, and I don’t imag­ine that it would have impact­ed my life too great­ly if I had known. What it means to me now is that this guy sit­ting three barstools down from me nev­er worked a day in his life, because his par­ents nev­er taught him to work, because their par­ents nev­er learned to work.

I don’t know if that’s true. Maybe the guy would have been unem­ploy­able even if he had punched his way out of a porce­lain womb in Bev­er­ly Hills. The the­o­ry is only the­o­ry – I tell my class­es about social con­struc­tions, prod­ucts of envi­ron­ments, how rhetoric and pow­er struc­tures shape our ide­olo­gies – I tell them that soci­ety is so pow­er­ful a force that it actu­al­ly shapes our biol­o­gy: we adapt phys­i­cal­ly to the world we cre­ate with lan­guage and desire.

My friend Pre­ston, on the oth­er hand, says, “It doesn’t mat­ter where you’re born, or what kind of crib you lay in, you are who you are. Your DNA,” he tells me, “is too strong, to give a rip about Nur­ture.” He’s a cytotech­nol­o­gist, which, he tells me, means he stud­ies stem cells – he’s an advanced biol­o­gist. Accord­ing to him, my the­o­ry is bunk. Soci­ety is bunk. Lan­guage is bunk. Nur­ture doesn’t mean shit when you set it right up against Nature.

I tell my stu­dents Preston’s ideas as well. And then we all set to try­ing to find our ways out of the labyrinth, try­ing to deter­mine whether class or gen­der or race are based in soci­ety or biol­o­gy.

 

Ulti­mate­ly, I argue that we learn how to behave, that mas­culin­i­ty is a guise rather than just the way things are. And, if we take that the way things are to mean the way things are sup­posed to be, I believe that we should rather weight the cost vs ben­e­fits and decide whether or not things actu­al­ly are the way they should be or if we’re blind­ed by tra­di­tion. But I’m also open to sug­ges­tions. I admit the sta­tis­tic about third-gen­er­a­tion wel­fare recip­i­ents might be mis­lead­ing. It is pos­si­ble, I would allow, that these peo­ple are sim­ply born lazy (tru­ly, there’s no way of know­ing for sure). At this point, I can only say that my moth­er heard the sta­tis­tic and she is quite hon­est and trust­ing. I could replace the sta­tis­tic with a descrip­tion of my home­towns – Oil City and Franklin, Penn­syl­va­nia – slip­ping into the Alleghe­ny riv­er, mason­ry crum­bling, sink­holes belch­ing, cars rust­ing and lurch­ing through the mud. A third world ver­sion of the Amer­i­can Dream. Where Free­dom means free to tough­en up, to sit there and take it, to work sev­en­ty hours a week and be proud of your pain.

 

VII. How, After All, Do You Cir­cum­cise a West Vir­gin­ian?

 

In my new life, I hear the jokes about my old life, about the tooth­less, the sleeve­less, the drunk hairy, the fat, the skin­ny, the back­woods, chick­en fuck­ing, the poor, poor, poor, igno­rant stum­bling mass of white trash stink­ing up Appalachia. In my new life, I see peo­ple pity the work­ers and keep a dis­tance, talk of Marx­ism and buy two hun­dred dol­lar shoes, lean in and ask, “How do you cir­cum­cise a West Vir­gin­ian?” though they are not moyles, and the clos­est they have ever been to Appalachia is fly­ing into Leguardia..

Per­haps the only thing that keeps Penn­syl­va­ni­ans from being the butt of so many jokes is that our accent is just not quite as thick rust­ed shut as West Virginia’s. West­ern civ­i­liza­tion knows about the down­trod­den in South Cen­tral L.A., because we’ve seen Omar Epps and Cuba Good­ing Jr. and the evening news cov­er­age of Watts riots, and most of us rec­og­nize the bad taste of mak­ing a joke at the expense of inner-city blacks. Such jokes are clear­ly racist, oppres­sive, lim­it­ing, hurt­ful. But, there is anoth­er kind of third world in these here Unit­ed States – it is in the tall hills of Appalachia. Look in the hollers and down the crick there, you’ll see poor. But lis­ten to them speak. By God that’s fun­ny. It’s like a car­toon of itself. Gul­der­nit.

In Salt Lake City, NPR runs “Select­ed Shorts” at nine p.m. Fri­day night. I moved there five months before my grad pro­gram began. I worked hard all week in machine shops and steel mills, drank myself to sleep on Fri­day nights, ran twelve miles Sat­ur­day morn­ings. I didn’t know any­body, and those salt flats stretched on and on and on. Life was hard. The theme for “Select­ed Shorts” (an NPR pro­gram where famous actors read short sto­ries by famous writ­ers) one Fri­day evening was folk­tales. The show began with an anony­mous 14th cen­tu­ry French folk­tale called “The Stu­pids.” A fam­i­ly of roy­al­ty whose sur­name trans­lat­ed to Stu­pid and who might have been the prog­en­i­tors of Amelia Bedelia and Gomer Pile. I don’t remem­ber who read the sto­ry, but I remem­ber every time the read­er came to a bit of dia­logue from a mem­ber of the Stu­pid fam­i­ly, that she spoke West Vir­gin­ian with a touch of Ken­tucky. She read every bit of descrip­tion, action, and the dia­logue of the “nor­mal” char­ac­ters as though she were prac­tic­ing for the cotil­lion, but when one of these medieval French nobles mis­took a pine tree for his fiancé, his drawl grew into thick slow moun­tains.

And here’s the rub: I prob­a­bly still wouldn’t be able to artic­u­late my feel­ings about home if I hadn’t spent so much time away. I prob­a­bly wouldn’t talk about home with­out my doc­tor­al stud­ies. But­The accent upset me imme­di­ate­ly. And I’ve spent a lot of time won­der­ing why. Why does it mat­ter to me? Why do I care whether she uses an Appalachi­an accent or a Bronx accent? Why would such a thing have any impli­ca­tions regard­ing my life?

The answers are com­pli­cat­ed. The answers are sim­ple. It doesn’t mat­ter at all. It’s the only thing that mat­ters at all. The answer is bound up in oth­er ques­tions I have been ask­ing myself for years: are you a racist? a big­ot? do you hate peo­ple who live on the street? Are you fright­ened of for­eign­ers? And I’ve always want­ed to answer, “No, me, no, nev­er” to all of those ques­tions, but the truth is – the truth is more com­pli­cat­ed than that. Here’s the next equal­ly impor­tant ques­tion – how do you know? Because I have a lot of black friends or always give to the poor or sup­port fem­i­nists every­where. Why? Because, I have been taught that all peo­ple are equal. Because I nat­u­ral­ly believe that all peo­ple are equal. Because I want to heal the world, make it a bet­ter place for my kids, allow indi­vid­u­als around the world to live in har­mo­ny, put an end to war, dis­trib­ute wealth and pow­er equal­ly to the mass­es. Oh, those things are a lit­tle bit true, but there is also a great deal of guilt that goes along with nev­er hav­ing gone hun­gry, with nev­er hav­ing to skip a meal, with get­ting a dif­fer­ent pair of name-brand shoes for every sport I played..

I imag­ine most peo­ple out there who active­ly con­sid­er them­selves non­racist, non­big­ots, would say the same or sim­i­lar things. I’ll bet you cash mon­ey the woman read­ing on select­ed shorts is not a racist or a big­ot either. I’ll bet you it nev­er even crossed her mind to insin­u­ate that the Stu­pids are black, Irish, Jew­ish, Female, Queer, men­tal­ly chal­lenged, because those peo­ple are real peo­ple and they have feel­ings, too. White trash, now, that’s a dif­fer­ent sto­ry. They’re just lit­tle car­toon peo­ple with fun­ny voic­es, so who gives a shit if they get the rick­ets.

It is not all right to tell a joke that begins, “I’m not a racist, but did you hear the one about the two blacks who … ?” Blonde jokes are inap­pro­pri­ate. No thought­ful, sen­si­tive per­son would start a joke about veg­etable and end it with an invalid human being. On the oth­er hand, I’ll bet you’ll get a laugh from just about any­body if you say, “Kick his sis­ter in the chin,” in response to, “How do you cir­cum­cise a West Vir­gin­ian?” Appalachi­an jokes are still accept­able in the cities, on the radio, in acad­e­mia, in oth­er parts of Appalachia. The clos­est my wife had ever come to Appalachia, geo­graph­i­cal­ly, before she met me was New York City, and even she knew some West Vir­ginia jokes. Her fam­i­ly, none of whom has ever been any­where near Appalachia, who lives and breeds in Utah, who are kind, thought­ful deeply reli­gious peo­ple, nev­er mean­ing harm, have no prob­lem what­so­ev­er mak­ing fun of West Vir­gini­ans.

They’re inbred, hyper­sex­u­al­ized – did you know there is a law in West Vir­ginia that says you’re allowed to fuck any­thing big­ger than a chick­en? – they’re lazy, unkempt, igno­rant, thought­less. Fuck­ing ani­mals. Shouldn’t it be enough that in order for the joke to work, a woman has to get kicked in the face? Well, it isn’t enough yet.

* * *

The Blue Col­lar Com­e­dy Tour could just as eas­i­ly be called The South­ern and Stu­pid and Proud of It Com­e­dy Tour. I used to say, I don’t blame Jeff Fox­wor­thy for amass­ing mil­lions of dol­lars by point­ing and laugh­ing at his neigh­bors. I used to say, I don’t care that Lar­ry the Cable Guy can say “Water-head­ed retard” with­out bat­ting an eye. What both­ers me is that we give these peo­ple an audi­ence. It both­ers me that these are edu­cat­ed human beings, per­pet­u­at­ing neg­a­tive stereo­types about human beings.

Well,” folks tell me, “Chris Rock makes fun of black peo­ple, and peo­ple think he’s fun­ny.” Well, folks who argue thus – I’m going to tell you this, and mull it over, chew on it for a while, don’t just agree because you feel like you should or dis­agree because you’ve been taught some­thing dif­fer­ent – shame on Chris Rock, too.

My stu­dents have raved about Mind of Men­cia, how this Latin Amer­i­can man deals with race issues and breaks down bound­aries by being polit­i­cal­ly incor­rect. He’s hilar­i­ous they tell me and inter­est­ing, because he says things oth­er peo­ple are afraid to say. I watched him for the first and only time on the rec­om­men­da­tion of my stu­dents and had to fight back tears. And not the laugh­ing kind. Car­los Men­cia stood up there and said he didn’t care about polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness, because he was just being hon­est. His humor, he claimed, only point­ed out the truths that oth­er peo­ple didn’t feel com­fort­able talk­ing about. He made fun of blacks for being incom­pe­tent, Mex­i­cans for being lazy, women for being emo­tion­al and over­ly con­cerned about their weight. He made fun of white peo­ple for their con­ser­v­a­tive pol­i­tics. He insult­ed the poor, preyed on the dis­pos­sessed, while con­stant­ly reaf­firm­ing the notion that he was rebelling against an author­i­ty that would have him keep qui­et for the sake of con­ven­tion­al notions of decen­cy. Men­cia cre­at­ed a false con­scious­ness that denied any objec­tion against him as prud­ish and back­wards; he put his own thoughts (which did absolute­ly noth­ing but rein­force over­wrought stereo­types) forth as rev­o­lu­tion­ary; he claimed to be under­min­ing pow­er struc­tures, when, in fact, he was only rein­forc­ing them. He took on the lan­guage of rev­o­lu­tion and used it to strength­en tra­di­tion­al and oppres­sive patri­ar­chal, racist sys­tems. He used easy and well-known jokes about gen­der, race, and class to encour­age overt big­otry, racism, and clas­sism – ooh, Men­cia, some rebel.

Sev­en years ago, I might have found some humor in Men­cia, or, at least, thought him harm­less. But, now, I’m try­ing to fig­ure out how these sorts of come­di­ans help to keep the sta­tus quo sta­tus quo-ing. I see that these jokes, these sto­ries, make the butts of the jokes some­how unhu­man. I rec­og­nize that when I have said, “You might be a red­neck if …” I have been com­plic­it in per­pet­u­at­ing dehu­man­iz­ing notions of igno­rance, lazi­ness, overt racism in my own peo­ple, when, in fact, the peo­ple I know are peo­ple, not the sil­ly car­i­ca­tures these jokes have made them out to be. Even my neigh­bor with his van up on blocks is human. Even my neigh­bor with the porch­ful of fire­wood is human. Even my neigh­bors next door and dis­tant who are the butts of every one of Jeff Foxworthy’s “You Might Be a Red­neck …” jokes are human.

I look at the way we’re taught to sit and take it. I lis­ten to how out­siders talk about Appalachi­ans. I’m com­ing to terms with the ways in which we social­ly con­struct each oth­er and our­selves to main­tain and uphold the (usu­al­ly dev­as­tat­ing) tra­di­tions of our cul­ture. I grew up tough. My friends and fam­i­ly mem­bers grew up tough, and we need­ed it, and we need it to deal with the steel, stone, and oil of our work­ing lives, to deal with drafty win­ters and sum­mer vaca­tions to Con­neaut Lake Amuse­ment Park. If we weren’t tough, we wouldn’t be able to sit here and take it when the out­side world calls us igno­rant. We can take that. And if we move into the out­side world from time to time and eat a bite of their sushi, they can take that. As long as we go back to what­ev­er hill­side we crawled out of, go on sleep­ing with our rel­a­tives, and forge that fuck­ing steel.

These jokes, char­ac­ters, sit­coms, and oth­er media like them are more threads that keep us bound up where we are, more entrances into the labyrinth, more ties that bind us to this way of life. They keep us bound where we are, keep us fright­ened of the out­side world – you hear that you and your folks are sub­hu­man often enough, and you start to believe it. Many of my peo­ple even take pride in these awful things that The Blue Col­lar Com­e­dy Tour says of them, not rec­og­niz­ing the ways in which they have been lim­it­ing, hurt­ful, degrad­ing. And, in this way, such folks walk deep­er into the labyrinth, refus­ing to see what they can see, because they’re blind­ed by the invis­i­ble maze, just as we’re blind­ing by the wind on the frozen lake.

Me, I made it out. The sim­ply expla­na­tion for this is that I got lucky, I sup­pose: through a strange series of events and, per­haps, a slight­ly dif­fer­ent set of desires than most of my peers, I took grad school over the steel mill. I can see, now, the labyrinth. Even if I can’t find my way out, I can, at least see it. And, most days, I think that’s nice, that knowl­edge, but the rest of the time, I know, the knowl­edge has cost me my home, my place in the world, a con­crete con­nec­tion to my much of my fam­i­ly and most of my old friends. And that’s just fuck­ing tough.

VII. Just Fig­ures

I left it all behind for a while – the mill, the mason­ry, the refin­ery. I’ve tak­en to wear­ing dress shoes, even khakis some­times. I under­stand the under­ly­ing prin­ci­ples of chop­sticks. I almost won a cou­ple of awards. I did win some oth­ers. I’ve had din­ners and drinks with some of the best writ­ers in the coun­try. Except for a week in August and a week in Decem­ber, I leave West­ern Penn­syl­va­nia com­plete­ly behind, but it won’t leave me alone.

My wife and I and our three kids (and one on the way) and our cat and our dog and our presents drove from Athens, Ohio to Reno, Penn­syl­va­nia three days before Christ­mas 2006. Every once in a while, I opened up my cell phone to read the mes­sage I had received the day before. “Mugged in pitts­burgh sat­ur­day night, surgery fri­day. Severe pain. Hap­py hol­i­days. Vis­it me when you are home, don’ think i’ll be able to dri­ve for some time.” I like being able to keep in touch with my friends, but text mes­sages frus­trate me. Peo­ple don’t under­line book titles or cap­i­tal­ize pres­i­dents’ names. I am a dumb read­er and I need these cues – with­out them, I might end up think­ing the mes­sage bout Moby Dick is about a musician’s penis.

Dan, who had sent the mes­sage, hap­pens to have a fair­ly seri­ous heart prob­lem, along with a num­ber of fair­ly seri­ous health issues dat­ing as far back as high school. He’s also the type of guy who is liable to pick at a stranger just to see what it feels like to get beat up by this par­tic­u­lar per­son. The phrase “Severe pain” might have had some­thing to do with his rela­tion­ship or deal­ing with his sec­ond Christ­mas with­out his grand­moth­er or it might have been an exis­ten­tial state­ment, a promise, or a reminder of the fact that I once cracked a ver­te­bra in his back yard.

Dan called my folks’ house on Christ­mas Eve. This year, a call was the best he could do. I talked to him for a few min­utes and promised to vis­it him the next day. My par­ents asked how he was doing. I told them he got beat up pret­ty bad and he sound­ed tired. They said, “It’s a shame.” Then we played more cards.

A lit­tle anec­dote about Gor­do. I hit him over the head with a spade shov­el one time on acci­dent, hard enough that, I believe, I would have knocked most peo­ple out. Square on the head. He winced long enough for the shov­el to stop rever­ber­at­ing, and shook his head as though he real­ized for the first time in his life what kind of an idiot his best friend actu­al­ly was. Then he kept dig­ging.

Christ­mas Day, when I got to his par­ents’ house, he hugged me at the door, the right side of his face swollen, bruised. His right eye sunken, almost invis­i­ble. I not­ed that it didn’t look that bad. He said the sur­geon did a hell of a job. He showed me where the doc­tor had put the tita­ni­um plates above and below the eye and one on the side. The doc­tor had recon­struct­ed his sinus­es, but he thought what hurt the most at that moment were the screws hold­ing that part of his face togeth­er. I spoke to his par­ents – them­selves a sec­ond set of par­ents for me for the past fif­teen years – while my wife talked to Gor­do about school and our upcom­ing baby. I tried to get some kitchen mag­nets to stick to his face, though I guess tita­ni­um doesn’t work like that. He had an appoint­ment with an eye spe­cial­ist the next week, because when he reads, the words at the right side of the page fall over onto the floor, because, after the bone col­lapsed and the mus­cle col­lapsed and his sinus­es col­lapsed, the mus­cle popped back up, but the bone stayed indent­ed, and there is a great deal of swelling, which is frus­trat­ing, because the best present he got this year was a first edi­tion copy of George Orwell’s war cor­re­spon­dence and some essays and he’s been want­i­ng to get his hands on that book for years.

On my way out, I hugged him and his folks and his fiancé. I told his dad that I wished we still had the box­ing gloves, I think I could take Dan this year. His dad said, “Bull­shit.” His mom told me con­grat­u­la­tions about the baby and to stay out of trou­ble and to keep in touch.

My wife scold­ed me after we left. Dan had been sweat­ing and breath­ing hard for the last half hour we were at his house. Sit­ting at that table for two hours was the most activ­i­ty he had engaged in for the past two weeks. She said, “We over­stayed. Couldn’t you see how much pain he was in?” The sim­ple answer is: “No.” But the truth is: of course I could see it. I stuck around, because I want­ed to watch my friend tough it out. He could hard­ly speak by the time we left, and he need­ed the counter to help him stand. I stayed there with him, though to leave would have been mer­ci­ful, because Dan can take it, and I know it, and he’d have done the same for me.

I told my cousins and my aunts and uncles about Dan get­ting mugged. He’s like a cousin to them or a nephew or a friend. They said, “Jees o Pete.” They said, “Well, I’ll be darned.” They said, “That’s a shame.” And it wasn’t enough. I had the sce­nario set up in my head, and I already knew they would say those things, and I knew it wasn’t going to be enough, and it wasn’t enough. For Christ­sake, I’ve been telling myself each night since then as I lie awake, it’s not enough.

Alright, I’ll say it: if there is one qual­i­ty that I admire above all oth­ers about my peo­ple back home, it’s how god­damn tough they are. Now I mean it. Every sin­gle one of them, I don’t care what they’ve done, from whom they’ve stolen, how many times they’ve been brought up on pos­ses­sion charges. If there is one thing, though, that keeps me away from home, that reminds me I can nev­er go back, that I absolute­ly can­not stand about my peo­ple, it’s how tough they are.

My mom tells me, “The sad­dest thing to me is that I’m glad it hap­pened to Dan. Get­ting hit like that might have killed some­body else.” My dad says, “Might have? You don’t hit a boy like that with your fist and smash in his face. Who­ev­er hit him, what­ev­er they hit him with, they were try­ing to kill some­thing.” My par­ents love Dan. He spent sev­en years full time in the steel mill, now he’s a year away from a degree in sec­ondary edu­ca­tion. They are damn near as upset that he got hurt as they would be if it had been me. But they’re right, and I’m glad it was him, too, by which I mean, I’m proud of Dan, too. By which I mean life is hard, and it just fuck­ing fig­ures.

I nev­er thought about class when I lived in Penn­syl­va­nia. If I did think about it, I might have thought, the rich are rich and the rest of us do what we have to do. Since then, I have lived for a spell in Red Lodge, Mon­tana; Salt Lake City, Utah; Athens, Ohio, Greens­boro, North Car­oli­na, and Athens, Ohio again.. And even now, I’m only begin­ning to under­stand what class means. I have friends and inlaws who live in quar­ter mil­lion dol­lar hous­es who don’t think they are any­where near being rich. Peo­ple who scrape by on six fig­ures and who are embar­rassed when they buy five-year old cars.

I’ve been a part of these work forces and these acad­e­mias. I’ve drunk with them and made friends with them and oth­er emi­grants to the towns. I’ve made love to some of them and even held a cou­ple through cry­ing jags. But I have nev­er been in a place oth­er than Appalachia where a group of peo­ple meet news of such a mug­ging with as much com­pas­sion or com­pla­cen­cy. These peo­ple, my peo­ple, when we say, “It’s a shame,” we mean, “It’s a shame.” We don’t mean, “Let’s do some­thing about this,” or “I couldn’t care less.” We mean we wish it hadn’t hap­pened and the world is rough and life is hard and bad things hap­pen. But we also have this uncan­ny abil­i­ty to say to our­selves, “It just fuck­ing fig­ures.” I can do this. I’ve learned it, I’ve taught it. I can say, “Damnit, Dan. That’s hard to believe. The mug­ger didn’t take any­thing except your cell phone – have you read any­thing good late­ly.” In these oth­er places, in oth­er cir­cles, I would say, “Did you call the cops? Did any­body else wit­ness the event? Can you sue the city? I am not going to sleep until we clean up those streets.” But in West­ern Penn­syl­va­nia, I know, I am cer­tain, the best I can say is that life just fuck­ing fig­ures this way, and to tell Dan, “That guy did one hell of a job with the stitch­es.”

 

VIII. Syd­ney and Duff

 

Life is hard. We know this. And, yet, I don’t want any of my writ­ing to read, “It’s not easy grow­ing up (the way I grew up).” Because it was easy for me. My child­hood was as good as any I’ve ever heard of. And I’ve reached a point where I feel as though I have over­come (or at least am aware of) most of the neu­roses which are liable to have cropped up from such an upbring­ing. I’ve made it out into the world, and, for that rea­son, maybe my claims fall apart: that my home­town is a socioe­co­nom­ic labyrinth to its inhab­i­tants doesn’t ring quite as true com­ing from some­one who writes from the out­side.

Now, my kids, they’re a dif­fer­ent sto­ry alto­geth­er. They spend their sum­mers in Penn­syl­va­nia. They spend their sum­mers in Mex­i­co. The camp still has an out­house, and the water comes from the well, but now there is an indoor toi­let and a hot water tank. They fish from the boat for eight-hour stretch­es in the hot Mex­i­co sum­mer and sit in the back of the Ford Focus for the three-day dri­ve to or from the ocean. They’re tough in their own way.

Above all else, it’s a defense mech­a­nism, I know that much. Think­ing I’m tough. It’s just a way to cov­er up the fact that I know I’m not. I read some­where a while back, “There are two types of men in this world, those who think they’re strong, and those who know they’re not.” It’s a gen­dered state­ment, I know that much, too. And it’s wrong, because I think that I’m tough. And I know that I’m not.

Tough­ness is not some­thing that I like to talk about, because just talk­ing about it makes most of us want to fight, want to throw the fuck down, or at least com­pare sto­ries about the tough­est guy I know. That’s not what any of this is about. I wouldn’t for a minute insist that I could walk into a bar down­town or out in the coun­try and kick a bunch of ass. Fight­ing isn’t our spe­cial­ty. If any­thing is our spe­cial­ty, it’s get­ting beat up, and, again, tak­ing it.

* * *

There is one sto­ry my friends from back home and I tell about the first sum­mer we worked in the mill togeth­er.

Stacey Con­fer was sit­ting in the break room, eat­ing left­overs. He said, “My wife yelled at me the oth­er day for smack­ing the kid around. She said it hurts him and it just ain’t right. I said, ‘Hon­ey, I’m just tap­ping him around, try­ing to tough­en him up a lit­tle bit, you know, pep­per him. If I don’t, the kid’s going to grow up to be a pussy.”

It’s been twelve years now, and we still quote Stacey from time to time. We all know it’s not easy grow­ing up with a girl’s name in a place where being a man is very spe­cif­ic and not up for debate, and make no mis­take about it. That old boy got pep­pered plen­ty him­self when he was young. And he’ll tell you him­self, he turned out just fine. I’m not always cer­tain why we tell that sto­ry. None of my friends ever got worse than a belt or a good spank­ing. On the oth­er hand, we have all been bit in the ass by our own Aussie Shep­herds. We have been mugged or had our legs run over by a jeep while we were passed out or got our arm pinned beneath 400 pounds of stop sign chan­nel.

We have all, in short, been pep­pered, whether we’ve known it as such or not. And, I’d imag­ine, though we des­per­ate­ly don’t want such things for our kids, we all des­per­ate­ly need such things for our kids. I’ve got­ten out, and I teach a course about the dan­gers (to both men and women) of the mas­cu­line con­struc­tion we believe in our cul­ture. I’ve got out, and I don’t work at the mill any­more, hear the sto­ries, push the steel. I wear dress slacks and show­er in the morn­ing. My tough friends are in var­i­ous stages of still being trapped by our towns. They are going to need their kids to be tough, they are not going to want their kids to grow up to be pussies, but, if they’re any­thing like me, and, let me tell you, they can’t help being some­thing like me, they are going to hope like hell that their kids grow up not to be like them.

My kids scrape their knees, bite their lips, get splin­ters, and I don’t know how to feel about all that. I want to nur­ture them, to let them cry it out, to give them time and sing them songs. And I want them to suck it up. I want them to get tough, to pour the per­ox­ide on the cut, spit out the blood, cut the splin­ter out with a pock­et knife.

I don’t know which is the right avenue for them.[TIME FRAME] Yes­ter­day, their moth­er fin­ished the last step in the long process of earn­ing a PhD. I’m two years into a sim­i­lar pro­gram. My chil­dren have aca­d­e­mics for par­ents. We have more mon­ey than my par­ents had grow­ing up, but I know now we are nowhere near mid­dle class, but nei­ther are we any­where near the work­ing class fam­i­lies I grew up around. My chil­dren are grow­ing up in the uni­ver­si­ty. For them noth­ing is impos­si­ble. They are bound up in a dif­fer­ent class that doesn’t have so much to do with mon­ey as with edu­ca­tion. They speak about col­lege as the nat­ur­al step that fol­lows the nat­ur­al stage of high school. By the time they are in high school, they are already talk­ing about grad school. They will nev­er be wealthy, nor will they prob­a­bly wear steel-toed boots to work reg­u­lar­ly.

Yet, I can’t help won­der­ing if maybe my notions of tough­ness and class are dan­ger­ous to them in ways that none of us can rec­og­nize at this point. I real­ize that by insist­ing they are tough, class aside, I am rein­forc­ing dan­ger­ous notions of mas­culin­i­ty. I also wor­ry that by priv­i­leg­ing tough­ness, I might be encour­ag­ing them to priv­i­lege tough­ness as well, to seek out pain in the same ways I have, to val­ue it in oth­ers above things such as busi­ness savvy and wit­ty ban­ter. I see my kids limp­ing about on stoved toes, rub­bing scrapes and bruis­es, cry­ing because their wrestling match with a friend got out of hand, and when I think to tell them to suck it up and be tough, the walls crop up, the bars fall into place; I see myself build­ing this impen­e­tra­ble pow­er struc­ture around them. I see my own class over­whelm­ing their own. More than any­thing, though, I see West­ern Penn­syl­va­nia pulling me back towards it no mat­ter how far I trav­el or how long I’m gone.
Jack­son Con­nor lives and writes pri­mar­i­ly in Athens, Ohio with his spouse Traci Con­nor the writer and their four badass chil­dren. His work has won awards and appeared in a num­ber of jour­nals. He has a blog about learn­ing how to write again after his press shut down and he lost his first nov­el last year.

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One Response to Just Figures, essay by Jackson Connor

  1. ginabobina says:

    Thank you for your sim­ple, but stun­ning details that real­ly take us there. Love this: "This sto­ry, I am cer­tain, could read as a para­ble – do what your folks say, or suf­fer the con­se­quences – and that’s fine, and maybe I’ll tell my own chil­dren the sto­ry that way some times, but my fam­ily has nev­er told it that way. I’ve heard this sto­ry from my mom, my dad, my Uncle Dal­lice, my Aunt Dix­ie, and my Aunt Jan, and I don’t know if I’ve ever heard it the same way twice, but I do recall that it always ends the same. Young Jack­son sit­ting on a frozen lake with one hand in the water and the oth­er hold­ing a peanut but­ter and jel­ly sand­wich. Some­times, they tell this sto­ry to talk about tough­ness. Some­times, they tell it to talk about sand­wich­es."

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