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Random musings on a writer's life & times, with occasional input from acquaintances

 

Wednesday, April 09, 2003

 
Hey! Do you want to read a “racy” essay I wrote? It appears this month in an online magazine, The Dead Mule. Go to www.deadmule.com and surf to the essays. My name appears at the top of the list.

In her introduction to the essay, Editor Valerie MacEwan calls it “racy.” I’ve never before seen my work referred to as “racy.” I kind of like it. Makes me feel insouciant, perhaps even a bit dangerous. You can read the essay and decide if the tag fits.

I get a kick out of The Dead Mule. It is based in North Carolina and emphasizes Southern stories, poetry and essays. MacEwan contends no good piece of Southern writing is complete without a dead mule. My essay, which concerns my adolescent years in Georgia and Florida, lacks a mule, dead or living, but does contain alligators.

 
Today is my son Joe’s twenty-third birthday. Such a deal.

Anyone who reads this weblog regularly realizes this is a busy time at the Jordan house, because yesterday was the twenty-fifth anniversary of my marriage to Joe’s mother, Cookie Jean. Joe missed being born on our second wedding anniversary by a little more than four hours. In retrospect, it seems appropriate he almost arrived on our anniversary, because the boy more or less sealed the deal of the marriage.

You might say Cookie Jean and I took a while getting used to being married. Or you might say we waged open warfare for two years. We fought about everything, from the choice of our first couch to her use of her maiden name (it’s Chandler, and she still uses it -- that’s one of many battles I lost). We fought about who did the laundry and who washed the dishes. We fought about her dad and my mom. You name it, we wrangled over it.

But then along came Joe. Oh, we fought over him, too, before he was born. Cookie Jean wanted an old-fashioned name (like Samuel or Benjamin) and I wanted something trendy, like Travis or Tyler. She mentioned hyphenating his last name. I said over my dead body. We compromised on Joseph for a first name, because it was old-fashioned (her preference) but alliterative (my fallback position). She picked Chandler for the middle name. I picked Jordan for the last. And so we produced Joseph Chandler Jordan, heir extraordinaire.

And he was that from the get-go, it seemed. Cookie Jean oohed and ahhed over our son from the moment he made his public debut at Good Samaritan Hospital in Corvallis, with dad standing by the delivery bed wringing his hands. Mom thought he was great! Dad hoped he was healthy. Each viewing the birth from a distinct perspective, we embarked on a long journey down the winding road of parenthood.

For several months after Joe was born, Cookie Jean took maternity leave (she was a copy editor at the Albany Democrat-Herald in those days) and did the full-time mom thing. I would trudge home from my job as city editor of the Corvallis Gazette-Times in the evening to find the two of them in the kitchen of the little house we’d bought, Cookie Jean preparing dinner and Joey, often as not, ensconced in the pots and pans drawer at the bottom of the stove happily clanging every piece of metal in sight. I often found myself taken aback after a day in the semi-quiet of a computerized newspaper office, but the noise amused Cookie Jean. Joey would clang the pans and happily yowl along in time to the clamor. Cookie Jean would lean over, grinning, and shout: “Let’s be loud!” He’d clang harder, yowl higher. “Let’s be loud!” she would would shout again. I would stand in the doorway to the living room and wonder: This is what mothers and sons do? But it was a happy noise, and that made it a good noise.

A few months after Joe’s birth -- he gave up being Joey about the time he started kindergarten, incidentally -- we fetched up against a severe money shortfall, so Cookie Jean returned to her job. She worked Tuesdays through Saturdays, and I worked Mondays through Fridays. Joe went to a babysitter four days a week, but on Saturdays I was the Provider of Care. This gave us a major opportunity to bond. (The first bonding occurred the day after we brought him home from the hospital. Joe was crying up a storm and his mother, in tears with post-partum depression, couldn’t make him stop. Home for lunch, I took the boy from her and walked around the house in my three-piece city editor’s suit, humming to him. He quieted, then fell asleep in my arms. Did I feel like Dad, or what?)

Those Saturdays were something else, though. My basic approach to infant care has always been simple: feed as necessary; diaper as necessary; otherwise, just see to it they don’t kill themselves. If the kitchen gets trashed or the carpet gets wrecked, so be it. Collateral damage, you know.

Cookie Jean went off to work early each Saturday morning, and Joe and I began the day with cereal (Cheerios for me, oatmeal cooked to a nice hair-, cheek- and hand-sticking consistency for Joe). From there, we moved to the day’s activities. I sat in a rocking chair in the living room reading a book while he crawled around looking for things to get into and/or destroy. Every twenty minutes or so, I rose from my Kurt Vonnegut or John Irving novel and went to check on him, monitoring his tossing of pans from the stove drawer onto the kitchen floor or his eating of matches discovered on an end table in the study/bedroom. One of his favorite activities involved toilet paper. There was a small cabinet under the bathroom sink, and the first thing Joe did if left unobserved was head for that cabinet and the toilet paper it contained. He would drag out half a dozen rolls of paper, unwrap them all, gum a few and unravel the rest in long, flowing rivers of white. When I found him, I’d haul him out of the bathroom and latch the door, leaving the river to be cleaned by Mom when she got home.

This fun and games went on until lunchtime. Preparing lunch was always a time-consuming operation, because Cookie Jean had definite ideas about nourishment for her First Born. She had decreed he would not eat canned baby food. She cooked his food, from pot roast to ground carrots to applesauce, and froze it in little cubes in the ice tray of the refrigerator. My task was to thaw out these cubes and feed them to Joe. This was before we had a microwave oven, so the thawing involved putting the cubes in a bowl placed in a small pan of hot water. By the time I completed this process, Joe was usually cranky and the ballgame I wanted to watch on TV was underway. I tried to deal with both issues by tugging a bed sheet out of the closet and spreading it on the living-room floor in front of the television, dragging Joe’s high chair from the kitchen onto the sheet, and feeding him cooked carrots while watching the game with one eye. The little rat took advantage of my distraction, choosing every crucial moment of the game to fling food around the room.

By the time I finished feeding him solid food, Joe was exhausted and so was I. I held him while he drank milk from a bottle and fell asleep, and then put him down in the crib his room. At that point, I collapsed into my rocking chair in front of the television. Cookie Jean would arrive home at mid-afternoon to find Joe asleep, me near catatonic, the kitchen floor covered with pans, the bathroom awash in toilet paper and dried food coating the sheet, high chair and living-room carpet where it extended beyond the sheet (the kid had a powerful arm). Ah, good times. I recall them fondly.

Cookie Jean would be disgusted with me, but she shrugged it off quickly, choosing to interpret the mess as evidence that her son was active and energetic. We collaborated on cleaning it up, usually finishing about the time Joe awoke from his nap and started looking for more toilet paper.

Yeah, Joe gave Cookie Jean and Dave something to dwell on other than who wrote checks to pay the bills and who called the Chinese restaurant to order take-out food. For twenty-three years, we’ve been amused, amazed, entertained, puzzled, and irritated -- sometimes all at once -- by his behavior. Nowadays Joe lives in Palo Alto, Calif., where he works for a tutoring service, writes and plays the guitar. And his parents are still married.



Tuesday, April 08, 2003

 
My wife, Cookie Jean, and I today observed our 25th wedding anniversary. Two of my three sons and a buddy cooked dinner for us (chicken burritos, anyone?), and a good time was had by all, as they used to say on newspaper society pages.

As a gift, Cookie Jean gave me a plant called a crown of thorns. It’s a prickly little cactus-like thing adorned with delicate pastel blossoms. That’s symbolic of both my personality and the kind of marriage Cookie Jean and I share, we decided. She said the flower-store clerk told her the plant is impossible to kill. That’s symbolic of our marriage, too. When we married, a lot of folks predicted it wouldn’t last long. They were wrong.

Cookie Jean’s gifts from me included a copy of “The Devil in the White City,” Erik Larson’s nonfiction book about a serial killer in 1890s Chicago. That’s symbolic of her long-standing interest in reading about murderers, which I suspect is indicative of a deep-seated but craftily concealed desire to eliminate people who disagree with her commie pinko leftwing political views. That’s just one reactionary husband's opinion, of course.

This weekend, Cookie Jean and I will drive to Orcas Island in the San Juans, off the Washington coast north of Seattle, to celebrate. I wanted to go to Hawaii, but Cookie Jean is wary of terrorists. She refused to go anywhere that required getting on an airplane or a boat. I didn’t mention that visiting Orcas Island requires a ferry ride until after she’d already booked the hotel reservations. (Speaking of crafty.)

It’s a good thing there were no terrorist scares in 1978, or we might never have married. On Saturday April 8 of that year, we flew from Portland to Reno, Nevada, in the morning, got married at the Washoe County Courthouse at noon, and flew back to Portland via San Francisco by nightfall. Driving back to Salem and Corvallis, where she and I lived, respectively, in those days, we spent our wedding night in a motel along I-5. It was, as they say, a whirlwind experience. Sort of like the 25 years that followed.

Thanks for the trip, Cookie Jean.




Monday, April 07, 2003

 
Hey, I’m being timely!

Tonight is the championship game of the 2003 NCAA basketball tournament, which many of us couch potatoes have been following intently on television for the last month, so I’m marking the moment with notes and comment on novelist Pat Conroy’s recent basketball memoir, "My Losing Season." I enjoyed it, although Conroy’s flaws as a writer are fully evident throughout.

At heart, this is an account of the author’s last season as a point guard on the basketball team at The Citadel, a military college in South Carolina, when he rose from benchwarmer to most valuable player on a troubled, losing squad. While relating the tale of that team, he also works back and forth in time, giving a nonfiction portrait of his brutal Marine colonel father (the prototype of "The Great Santini," the central character in Conroy’s most successful novel, which is the best book ever written about being a military brat) and the rest of his large family, his lifelong obsession with basketball, his efforts thirty years later to track down and reconnect with his teammates and coach from that last 1966-67 season, his failed marriages and his writing career.

For the most part, the book is readable and interesting. Occasionally, it is funny. (Conroy works best when he works funny, but I get the impression he -- like so many of us -- feels humor is a “lower” form of writing.) Occasionally, the book is overwrought and repetitious. Also, it is haunted by a peculiarly self-effacing attitude, which causes Conroy to tell us far more often than we need to hear it that he was and/or is an untalented basketball player, a limited writer, a bad husband, a cowardly son, an ingrate at the gung-ho Citadel (he tells at guilty length the story of a teammate who suffered as a POW during the Vietnam War while Conroy marched with peaceniks, pursued graduate studies, taught grade school and wrote).

Much of the overwriting and repetition occurs when Conroy focuses on basketball. I respect his attempt to capture the rhythm and feel of his much-loved game in words, but somewhere along the line he should have paid additional attention to the idea that less is more. He specifically rejects that concept at one point in the book when he analyzes his youthful taste in reading and his own approach to writing -- MORE is more, he contends -- and that may explain the gushing in which he indulges. It’s the same flaw that pops up in his later novels, especially "The Prince of Tides." He, plus readers and critics who have made those books bestsellers, would contend he is waxing lyrical, but I’d call it the literary equivalent of an actor hamming it up. Conroy goes flowery and melodramatic in circumstances that don’t suit it. The cycles of life in a basketball game! The dead baby in the freezer! The family-rapers eaten by a lion! It causes a crusty old minimalist like me to say, “Come on, Pat -- get a grip!”

Conroy might have gotten away with applying lyricism to basketball if he’d only done it a time or two, but he goes to the well too often. Several games are described in breathless purple prose, and the reader gets winded. Conroy thinks the flaws and strengths of his character are reflected in his basketball career, but I’d rather read about the character and the life it led to than I would the games. I’m a sports nut, but there is just so much to be said about dribbling, shooting and rebounding a basketball.

On the plus side, Conroy dwells interestingly on paradoxes in "My Losing Season." One reason I have always enjoyed his work is we share a sense of life's many paradoxes, its ambiguities and contradictions.

Conroy loved basketball, but he wasn’t very good at it. He hated the ferocious military environment of The Citadel, but looks back on his college days with nostalgic affection. He endured two bitter divorces, but says he was a bad picker of women and worse husband who got what he deserved. He loved and admired but hated and feared his fierce father. He loved his mother extravagantly, but realized she was responsible for enabling his father’s viciousness with the seven children he abused (Pat was the eldest) and herself. He felt and feels his college coach was inept, brutal and perhaps half-crazy, but speaks fondly of him. He was a military brat who stayed out of the draft and protested against the Vietnam War. He went to college with hundreds of men who fought in the war, and he feels guilty he didn’t serve (he believes he should have gone into the military and done his duty, then protested against the war after he got out). He is an alcoholic who no longer drinks. He experienced a mental/emotional breakdown in the process of writing every book he published. And so on.

I hear what you’re saying, Pat. For many of us, it was ever thus.

P.S.
As a former resident of the Jayhawk State, I say -- Go, Kansas! Beat Syracuse!



Sunday, April 06, 2003

 
Son Los Siete de Domingo, verdad? Mooey bean, gracious!

1) What are you wearing?

Yellow University of Oregon sweatshirt with dynamic Donald Duck logo on the front, black-on-white white souvenir tee shirt from the 1996 Outspokin’ for Habitat Bike Ride, black, gray, red and white plaid pajama pants, white Nike sox, sweat boots.

2) What are you reading?

“The Fourth Hand,” a novel by John Irving.

3) What’s for dinner?

Who knows? My wife has been out of town for a week, visiting relatives in California, and I have exhausted my entire repertoire of take-out food. Why don’t you drop over and donate a tuna casserole or a bacon quiche?

4) What’s the best thing that happened this week?

I had two poems accepted for publication by West Wind Review, a literary magazine published at Southern Oregon State University in Ashland.

5) What’s bugging you?

Aside from my wife being gone for a week? Aside from eating take-out food for said week? Well, let’s see. Income taxes. The accountant wants information, the government wants money, I want to be left alone. I am the Greta Garbo of taxation.

6) Where in the world is Carmen San Diego?

East Flat Rock, North Carolina

7) What’s it all about, Dave?

As Oliver Twist sang: “Food, glorious food -- that’s all that I live for!”





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