To go along with my normal teaching duties, family duties, and story-a-day-blog-writing duties—leaving not a lot of room for actual writing—I’m also currently embroiled in one of the two yearly tasks that I dislike more than anything I’ve ever done. The one not going on now—Cubs beer vendor orientation—will take place in May, and is a six-hour meeting to fill out paperwork, take OSHA food safety quizzes, and qualify to serve alcohol in Cook County. The one that is going on now is my reappointment application, the yearly binder I have to compile so Missouri State will hire me back for the next academic year. This is the fourth year I’ve done this binder, and next year, if all goes well, I’ll be doing it for the final time, as I’ll go up for tenure. In the meantime, though, it almost kills me every time.
My reappointment ap is a gigantic three-ring binder that includes a very detailed description of everything I’ve done since coming to MSU. If I publish a story, that creates a new entry, which has to include a description of the story, a description of the journal, and things like acceptance rates and circulation for that that journal. The same goes for readings and interviews, half-page entries for each, and since I did published several stories, did fourteen readings and interviews, and my book came out—a much longer entry on its own—that’s a lot to catalogue. I haven’t even started with my teaching and departmental service, which includes everything I do for Moon City Press. The binder is a book-length tribute to myself, is time-consuming and complicated, and is due on Monday.
Of course, if all goes well, I will earn tenure, and tenure is its own reward, not something that should be easy to obtain. What bugs me about the process, all this paperwork, all these pieces of paper slipped into plastic sheet covers, is that it’s about me. It’s weeks of hours of time, time that could be spent doing more things to write about in the binder. I understand there’s no other way to prove to a neutral band of administrators that they should give me a lifelong job, but I wish I could just send them a quick email, telling them I didn’t do my report, but instead, I am off making Missouri State proud. Trust me, I’d like to say, I know what I’m doing. It doesn’t work that way. Until Monday at 5 p.m. CT, this project will occupy the forefront of my mind.
Counseling me through all of this is my colleague, mentor, and friend, W.D. Blackmon, another fiction professor here at Missouri State, just about the wisest and most even-keeled person I know. He is the fourth entry in MSU Week at Story366. So far I’ve covered Danielle Evans, Kevin Brockmeier, and Stacy Tintocalis, and am now on the writer who leads us into teaching and writing victories, Dr. Blackon. W.D. has been the Chair of English for over twenty years now and has shaped our department, and so many writers’ careers, since. He brought me in for a reading before I ever thought of teaching here, hired me for a ranked position three years later, and has given me every opportunity to succeed; I’ve proposed classes, suggested curriculum change, and have fashioned a literary identity for Moon City Press, and he’s never once uttered the word “no,” no matter what I propose. That kind of support has been invaluable to me, my career, and my family. I could not ask for anything more, so if I have to write a giant report about myself, I can do it. W.D. has my back.
On top of all this, Blackmon is a gigantically talented fiction writer, and I’m happy to be writing about his story “Blood and Milk” today, from his novel-in-stories, aptly titled Blood and Milk: A Novel in Stories, from Etalia Press. The story “Blood and Milk,” as well as the whole project, details the life of Becky, a mom, a daughter, a granddaughter, and a wife, who could not be better defined than by these roles. If Carver wrote dirty realism, Blackmon is an artiste of ultra-dirty realism, perhaps filthy realism, as Becky’s life is as real as it gets. She is a working-class, blue-collar member of our race, and everything she does is for the people she loves, with only one goal in mind: To retain the everyday. Becky takes care of her slipping-fast grandfather, cancer-stricken mother, brain-damaged daughter, and often-absent husband, along with another daughter, Claire, who is, in comparison, the most maintenance-free (at least for now), as much as an ten year old girl can be. On top of all this, Becky’s nine months pregnant with child number three, so things are going to get a lot harder before they get easier.
Blackmon’s greatest accomplishment in “Blood and Milk,” perhaps, is how he catches all this at the perfect moments. The story, and the book, start with Becky in line at Kroger’s, her oft-addled grandfather fighting over a KitKat with Ruby, the daughter who has the brain damage. This impossible tiff leads to Ruby having a seizure, which happens quite a bit, though not always at the front of the grocery line, ten customers behind her, staring slack-jawed as she coaxes her daughter back to a relaxed state. Making matter worse, her husband Mike is late (again) coming home from work, which forced her, in her state, with these dependents, to the store, to fetch the olive oil Ruby needs for her special diet. An anxious reader would expect Becky to go into labor, right there on the item conveyor, but Blackmon is wise not to overdo it, to turn this exact moment of frustration into something out of a sitcom. This way, Becky has to recover, gets to hold her anger until she gets home, and when she does, Mike is in for it. I won’t reveal what happens, but Becky proves to be a strong woman, a strong protagonist, as brave and fierce as they come. Realism has never been so … real. Filthy.
The rest of the stories in Blood and Milk chronicle Becky’s life, stopping in at different points, often jumping ahead several years. Characters come and go, as people tend to, but life’s problems never go away, not when you’ve taken on the burdens that Becky has. Her resolve is tested, and even when she falters, it’s never for long. She’s a tremendous hero, the kind that gets overlooked in this era of CGI capes. Each story, like the front and back covers, is flanked by gorgeous photographs by Julie Blackmon, the author’s wife, setting a tone for the book, their honesty and revelation just as vivid and telling as the words in-between.
Becky might be imagined, but her problems aren’t, so when I whine a bit about having to toot my own horn, to construct this self-aggrandizing binder, I should probably remember how lucky I am to have this opportunity, and to not face what Becky faces every minute of every day. Blood and Milk is a gift by a talented colleague, and I’m lucky to have him to keep me grounded, like his impressive protagonist.