bioStories Blog is an extension of the online magazine bioStories: www.biostories.com. Essays from the magazine, news, updates on contributors, and other features appear here.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Arribadas

by M.K. Hall

That August, the week I was supposed to deliver the baby I had miscarried, Joe and I went to Costa Rica to watch the turtles lay their eggs. The trip had been my idea. I wanted to both run away and press into my loss. “The turtles arrive in the rainy season with the new moon,” I had said, enchanted by the grand synchronicity of their motherhood. “They come out of the water all at once and dig their nests in the night.”
When we arrived, the sun was setting. Exhausted by our travels, we decided to forego the guided nighttime expedition into the Ostional Wildlife Refuge, opting instead to stretch our legs at the beach not far from our hotel. The formal tour was supposed to be spectacular. Our innkeeper told us that in a span of only four days between 150,000 to 200,000 olive ridley turtles visited the beach. It was a phenomenon, he assured us, “not to be missed.”
At Playa Ostional, the tide was low. A faint odor—like a fish tank due for cleaning—tinged the summer wind. Black winged zopilotes pecked at broken shells, the beach otherwise empty. Without a guide, we didn’t know where to look for turtles and spent more time taking photos than watching the water. Photos of the sunset that failed to capture the multitudinous sky. Photos of our bare feet covered in sand. Photos of us looking not at all mournful. 
Perhaps because we were not paying attention, her arrival in the early blue dusk felt like magic. She dragged herself onto the gravity-stricken sand, her carapace heavy without the sea’s buoyancy. After a flip or two of her fins, she would pause, her neck panting, and blink those big wet eyes at us. I had not imagined her journey to the nesting zone to be so laborious.
“Come on, mamma. Lay some eggs,” I said.


At my first prenatal appointment, my doctor had been unable to detect a heartbeat so she sent me across the street to the hospital where their equipment was more sensitive. I lay down on the examination table in a too cold room while the technician unwrapped a condom for the ultrasound probe. When it was inside me, she maneuvered the probe around like a joystick, and did not hide her impatience whenever I winced.
“Sorry, just a little bit longer,” she would say unapologetically, then complain that my doctor had called a few too many times to check on the results. The technician had to pause the exam at one point to answer the phone.
“She’s the mom of a childhood friend,” I explained. “I guess she cares about me.”
The technician started to ask me questions about my friend and we realized that we went to high school together. I remembered auditioning for Model United Nations in front of the technician and doing a terrible job because I didn’t know anything about global politics or making oral arguments. She had the same unimpressed look on her face when she confirmed that there was no second heartbeat in my body. 
“And what do you do now?” she asked, helping me sit up.
“I’m a lawyer.” 
She laughed, “Of course you are.”
I laughed too, grateful for her lack of bedside manner. Maybe what was happening to me was not supposed to make me feel so sad? For her, my loss was routine. 
Later I researched the mundanity of miscarriage. The March of Dimes website states that ten to fifteen percent of recognized pregnancies result in miscarriage. Falling down the Internet’s rabbit hole eventually lead me to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to the CDC, nearly one in five women in the United States is raped, and that eighteen percent only represents reported cases.  
“There is something terribly wrong with the world,” I thought, staring at my computer screen. My grief had grown in the aftermath of the exam, after telling my friends and family that I was no longer having a baby, after recovering from surgery to remove the ‘uterine contents’ that I had already named. “Still. I want to bring new life into it.”


As dusk deepened at Ostional, more turtles heaved themselves from the water. Between the high tide line and tall grass, the turtles began to dig, their flippers ineffective shovels, scattering broken shells. At first I thought the shells—soft and smooth as ping-pong balls—were remnants of hatchlings who had made their way to the sea the season before.
Then the zopilotes came. Black shrouded and wearing wrinkled gray masks, the vultures brazenly snatched eggs right from the prostrate bodies of laboring turtles. Those delicate orbs were broken before they even touched the nests meant to incubate the babies for the next three months. Other zopilotes would riffle through just buried nests, devouring, as the mothers scurried toward their true homes, their flippers leaving divots in the sand. It was with palatable relief that the turtles crashed into the waves and disappeared.
As the day faded to twilight, more tourists arrived. Groups would encircle a nesting mother, shooing the birds. (For their part, the turtles did not exhibit a preference between vultures and voyeurs.) I watched one girl break from the circle to chase the zopilotes away, chastising the birds in a British accent when they returned to their watchful positions, and I recognized a younger version of myself in her futile anger. At thirteen I would have done the same. At thirty-three, I thought I understood something about death’s role in the cycle of life.
I read afterwards that while predators consume a few thousand eggs, the majority of eggs do survive. In fact, harvesting eggs is permitted at Ostional Wildlife Refuge in the seventy-two hours after the turtles first start to appear because subsequent arrivals destroy the nests of their sisters as they dig to make their own. Still, those avian thieves with their Grim Reaper robes and scythe beaks were hard to root for.
Since we had sneaked onto the beach without a guide, Joe and I were at liberty to remain loyal to our turtle. The first arrival. We kept a respectful distance, grumbling about the groups farther up shore who crowded the nests, as if we ourselves weren’t eco-tourists invading the spaces that belonged, for generations, to these reptilian creatures.
Other mothers had already constructed their nests, labored, and left. Our turtle was still only partway to the grass. A wash of iridescent pink and soft beige brightened her skin. The turtle lifted her head toward the grass and the ravenous black birds and the great distance she still had to climb, and suddenly changed course.
“Mamma turtle, I didn’t see you lay any eggs. Where are you going?” I asked, though it was clear she had turned back toward the sea. Her tracks made an actual “U” in the sand. Joe and I watched a wave swallow her.
I didn’t know turtles could do that. I thought their biology compelled them to swim thousands of miles to the same natal beach where they had been born, to lay their eggs, to return season after season, year after year until they died out in the water. It never occurred to me that a sea turtle might journey to the beach and decide not to participate in the tremendous feat of motherhood. To change her mind.
Or maybe it hadn’t been a choice. Maybe her body simply could endure no more. Maybe our presence frightened her away.
I stared at the place she had vanished for a long time.  
“She did good,” I told my husband. “She tried really hard.”
He held me as the sun went down. We made our way blindly to the car, arms outstretched against the dark, afraid we were stepping on buried eggs.


I should add that a few days before our departure, I found out I was pregnant. Joe had phoned me from work, frantic. “We forgot to get vaccinated. Call your doctor.”
She was able to squeeze me in that afternoon. We had only just started trying again, but I figured Typhoid and Hepatitis A were probably unwise injections to receive in the unlikely event I was with child. I took a detour to the drugstore, rushed home. On the toilet, I did my best to aim my pee at target surely better designed for a man to hit. The result came back positive. I peed on another. And then one more.
I found my happiness untrustworthy. Late for my appointment, I decided not to call my husband until I was certain. At the medical office, my doctor said she would run a blood test, but that the drugstore results were reliable. She recommended precautions to avoid disease, assuring me that although I would arrive uninoculated, Costa Rica would be safe. 
And so, the trip that was originally intended as a kind of closure on mourning turned into an unexpected babymoon. I had to skip surfing lessons and hot springs and tropical cocktails. At one point, Joe and I got into a fight because I insisted on flinging myself down a resort’s spiral water slide, laughing as my body crashed into the pool.
“If you lose this one, don’t blame me,” he said, darkly.
We argued. I cried.
Then I went down the slide again out of spite. 
At my various doctor’s appointments over the next several months, I would routinely be asked, “Is this your first pregnancy?” No matter how domed my belly grew or how forcefully my baby kicked at my guts, there remained that pecking reminder of loss.
I told myself that once I cleared the first trimester and the risk of miscarriage subsided, so, too, would my worries. When I entered my second trimester, I reasoned that once I felt the baby move, I would be relieved of my anxieties. By my third trimester, I accepted that I would never stop fearing for the safety of my child. I was already a mother.  
We never did go back for the guided expedition to see the turtles fill the beach. At night, there were supposed to be so many arrivals the shore seems made of turtles. Maybe the spectacle would have stirred something deeper inside us, but Joe and I agreed what we had witnessed was enough.



M.K.Hall is a graduate of Harvard Law School and the MFA program at NYU, where she taught creative and expository writing. Her work has appeared in publications including The Rumpus, Open Letters Monthly, The Margins, American Literary Review, and Literary Mama. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, rescue dog, three-legged cat, and son, who was born the April after the journey to Costa Rica. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Quilter

by Joanne Passet

My great grandmother spent forty-six years in the Toledo State Hospital. In the only picture I have of her, Elizabeth Ross Frank stands in a grove of pine trees on the hospital grounds. Taken in the 1930s, it shows her wearing a slightly rumpled long-sleeved dress sewn from dotted fabric, a few wisps of silver hair escaping a pragmatic bun at the nape of her neck. Despite being institutionalized for over four decades, she stands erect and dignified, hands relaxed at her sides and dark eyes gazing into the camera’s lens. She does not look insane.
I first learned about my great grandmother the year I turned thirteen. One warm Saturday in the late 1960s, the pastor drove a station wagon full of teens across northwest Ohio to tour the state hospital. Eager to spread good cheer, we crafted fluffy flowers from colored tissue paper and fastened them to green pipe cleaner stems. Clutching bouquets in our hands, we entered the ward, but came to an abrupt stop when we encountered a long hallway lined with wheelchair-bound patients. Heads lolled on chests, muttering filled the air, and the smell of urine stung our noses. An elderly woman reached out to me, but I recoiled at the sight of cloth ties binding her body to the chair. Forcing an awkward smile, I thrust my flowers into her gnarled hands and retreated outside.
All the way home I kept thinking about the horrors I had seen. How could anyone live like that? After dinner as I dried dishes, I poured out my concerns to my mother. I couldn’t imagine anyone regaining their mental health in such an environment. The kitchen grew silent, except for the sound of dishes being rinsed, then I heard Mom inhale. “Your Dad’s grandmother was a patient there.”
“What?” I had researched our family tree for a school project, and had never heard such a story. “Why was she there?”
Mom glanced at Dad, engrossed in the sports page of the daily newspaper. “Childbirth injuries.” Mom shook her head. “Such a shame.”    
I knew better than to ask Mom to elaborate. As much as she loved to gossip, she was a bit of a prude when it came to discussing “female complaints.” Only years later did I realize she attributed my great grandmother’s hospitalization to postpartum depression. 
          “I have one of her quilts. Would you like to see it?”
Nodding, I followed Mom into the bedroom and watched as she positioned a metal step stool in front of her closet. Steadying herself, she reached to the top shelf and tugged at the corner of a rectangular box. Dust floated through the air as she removed it from the shelf. Reaching up, I let the box slide into my arms and carried it to the bed. An aroma of mothballs filled the air when I opened it and parted acidic tissue paper.
I was disappointed when we spread the quilt on top of the bed. Quilters today sew with colorful wrinkle-free fabric, but my great grandmother had made do with scraps of old dresses and shirts—blue and brown plaid, lavender and white checks, black and white gingham, a yellow floral print, and a field of red dotted with tiny flowers. Bits of yarn bound the pieced top to a striped flannel backing. I had expected to see intricate applique or a familiar pieced pattern like Grandmother’s Flower Garden or the Double Wedding Ring. Yet when I took a closer look at the quilt, I discovered amazing precision. My great grandmother had sewn forty-two pieced squares in orderly rows, six across and seven down. I admired her even stitches, twelve to the inch, and the precise way the corner of each piece met the next, yet I was puzzled. How could this quilt be the product of an unsettled mind?
Eager to learn more, I dug through a box of family portraits in search of her picture but came up empty handed. Instead, I found a solitary image of my great-grandfather at midlife and a portrait of Elizabeth’s children taken shortly before she left home. In it, her firstborn, Will, wears high-buttoned boots with short pants and a neatly pressed dark suit jacket, a handkerchief peeking from his breast pocket. He is seated, a self-satisfied look on his face, while his pudgy sister Alma stands to one side in a pleated winter dress, relieved only by a bit of white lace at her neck. Unbeknownst to the photographer, his image unwittingly captured the waning days of Alma’s childhood. Only nine when her mother was hospitalized, she had not yet mastered the secrets of whitening sheets, sewing a fine seam, or baking an apple pie.
Sadness washed over me as I pictured my preadolescent grandmother, denied a mother’s love and forced to exchange her childhood and schooling for a lifetime of cooking, canning, baking, mopping, scrubbing, ironing, washing, darning, mending, and gardening. Dead by the age of seventy-two, people at the funeral said she had worked herself to death.
One day a few years later, a padded envelope arrived in the mail. “I thought you’d like to have this picture of your great grandmother,” an elderly cousin had scrawled on a yellow Post-it note. Pulling out a manila folder, I opened it and found myself staring into my great grandmother’s eyes. If only the picture could speak. I waited until after dinner to show it to my father, and was stunned when he pronounced it a good likeness.
“How could you possibly know?”   
“Once Mom and Dad took us boys on the train to visit her.”
          This was news to me. “What do you remember about that visit? About her?”
          “She was much like any other old person. She commented on how much we had grown, then sat next to Mom talking in low tones.” Whatever they discussed, nothing seemed out of the ordinary to my father, not even the hospital grounds, where he and his brothers played until it was time to return home.
Haunted by my great grandmother’s story, I set out to discover more about her life and the real reason for her commitment. Elizabeth Frank’s tombstone provided a death date and led me to the local newspaper archives for a copy of her obituary. Born in the spring of 1856, she grew up in a northwest Ohio county named for the Wyandot Indians who, like her, experienced forced removal and life in confinement. Her German-born father focused on material success, mining gold in California until he earned enough money to buy farmland in Ohio. Unfortunately, success did not guarantee happiness. A bolt of lightning killed his namesake in 1871, and his weary wife died four years later. As the oldest girl among five surviving children, nineteen-year-old Elizabeth assumed responsibility for the household and her younger siblings.
No portrait survives to commemorate the day in August 1879 when my great grandmother married George Frank, the son of a neighboring German Lutheran farmer. Sporting a Van Dyke beard, her husband was a hardworking first-generation American, determined to establish himself by putting in long hours. Five decades later he was still clearing trees from his land with an axe when a stroke took his life.  
Like other farm wives of her generation, Elizabeth filled daylight hours with work, sewing clothing, baking bread, cooking meals, and canning fruits and vegetables on a wood stove in the summer kitchen. In 1881 she gave birth to a son, followed by a daughter three years later. While her husband cleared 160 acres of oak and maple trees, Elizabeth planted nearly two dozen eastern white pines along the bend in the road at the front of their property. Each day she carried two-gallon buckets of hand-pumped water to the saplings, coaxing them to grow. Today a half dozen remain as her legacy to us, having survived years of drunk drivers and high winds.
          Tragedy struck the family in 1885 when the failure of the Central Bank and the loss of an eight-hundred dollar investment led Elizabeth’s father to suffer a “dethronement of reason.” Eluding his family, he entered his workshop, climbed up on a barrel, tied a rope to a rafter, slipped a noose around his neck, and jumped. I initially dismissed his suicide as situational, but after reading studies about suicide, I began to question if the family had a history of mental illness.
          No documents survive to shed light on my great grandmother’s life from her father’s death until the day in March, 1894, when my great grandfather petitioned the county probate court to declare his wife insane. Under Ohio law at the time, a husband could commit his spouse to a state hospital upon the recommendation of a judge, a physician, and two witnesses. More than 120 years have passed since that day, yet her commitment papers remain sealed under the HIPPA Privacy Rule, making it impossible for me to discover why she lost her freedom.
          Approaching the question from another angle, I contacted the Ohio Historical Society, which houses the Toledo State Hospital’s records. Upon learning that her oldest living descendant, my father, could petition for access to some information, I assisted him with the paperwork. Six weeks later he received an official letter in the mail, a single sheet of paper containing three short paragraphs.
Scanning the page, I devoured the few snippets of information: the date of her committal, the person accompanying her to the asylum, and her diagnosis: chronic mania. Immediately I pictured a fastidious German-American housewife scrubbing floors and windows over and over again. Then I noticed two more words: homicidal behavior. I couldn’t believe it. Not in my family! When I told my father the shocking news, he nodded, then shared another piece of our family’s unspoken history: my great grandmother believed her husband wanted to harm her, and attacked him with a butcher knife. Saddened by this discovery, I filed the letter away in a folder bearing her name, convinced I would learn no more.

          Years passed. My father entered a nursing home, and our farmhouse grew too much for my mother to manage. While sorting through dishes, correspondence, pictures, clothing, furniture, and papers accumulated during sixty years of marriage, we once again removed the quilt from its shelf in the closet. “Would you like to have it?” she asked, eager to see a family heirloom passed on to the next generation.
A chill filled the air the October evening I took my Elizabeth’s quilt home and spread it on my Civil War-era bed with its carved walnut headboard. It looked brighter than I remembered. Exhausted from days spent emptying Mom’s farmhouse, I crawled between the sheets and pulled the quilt up to my chest, fingering its coarse Depression-era cotton and the lumpy batting inside. Tears came to my eyes as I thought about my great grandmother’s life. I would never know what she thought or felt, but I vowed to renew my effort to piece together as much of her story as I possibly could from scraps of information preserved by the hospital and others incarcerated there.
Turning to annual reports, I reconstructed the day my great grandmother arrived at the Toledo State Hospital. She and my great grandfather traveled by train because the trip would have taken two days by buggy. The county sheriff or a trusted friend may have accompanied them on the journey. It was not unusual for the patient to wear a straitjacket. 
          Upon her arrival, an attendant would have taken Elizabeth to an Admission Room and examined her for scars, bruises, and vermin. She stood five feet seven inches and weighed 135 pounds, a sturdy farm wife who kept herself neat and tidy. Donning hospital clothing until her own could be marked, she was then escorted to the ward, where she learned about hospital routines and met her housemates, other women suffering from mania, melancholia, menopause, menstrual disorders, overwork, pregnancy, and religious excitement.
A frugal man, my great grandfather must have taken some comfort in knowing the state covered the cost of his wife’s care (until 1910, when the hospital began charging four dollars per week). But what was he thinking as he sat in the administrative building speaking with the hospital’s superintendent? Was he numb? Or was it a relief to turn his wife’s care over to others so he and his children could sleep in peace? Life with her must have been worse than living with the stigma of having a wife in the asylum, but nonetheless he was losing his companion, the mother of his children.
I like to think a farmwife like Elizabeth would have found solace in the hospital landscape—150 lush acres punctuated by trees, shrubs, well-manicured lawns, and lakes. Opened in 1888, the Toledo State Hospital initially operated on the premise that environment was the best medicine for a troubled mind. Instead of being locked in a sterile hospital ward, restrained with straps and mittens, Elizabeth and other “moderately disturbed” patients lived in solid two-story brick cottage with spacious day rooms and inviting porches with inviting chairs lining the front porch. Three times a day, attendants escorted patients along tidy sidewalks to the women’s dining room, where other attendants served as wait staff. 
Examining pictures of the hospital found online, I try to envision how the grounds must have appeared to work-weary farmwives with demanding husbands. Could a woman raised with my great grandmother’s rigid German-Lutheran background ever learn to relax? I can see her attending church services in the chapel, but it’s hard to imagine her joining other residents at dances, concerts, theatrical performances, baseball games, lantern shows, and lectures. Did she ever accompany other patients on outings to the circus or the nearby Walbridge amusement park, with its colorful merry-go-round and wooden roller coaster? Was she in the audience when the newly emerging African American poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar recited his recently published work?
In addition to providing a healing environment, hospital employees administered noninvasive hydrotherapeutic treatments, including soothing baths, needle sprays, salt glows, and wet sheet packs. Only later, after state hospitals grew overcrowded, did they experiment with electric shock therapy and lobotomies.
In the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the state hospital superintendent believed work assignments would give able-bodied patients a sense of purpose and accomplishment. In keeping with this premise, Elizabeth became a bed-maker, stripping soiled linen, turning mattresses, applying clean sheets and blankets, and fluffing pillows. I don’t know if she had other gender-specific assignments, for instance, cleaning wards, washing and ironing clothes, and working in the kitchen. I know she sewed, because I have her quilt, but in all those years there she may also have tried her hand at making woven baskets, rag rugs, and paper flowers—anything to pass the time in a constructive manner.
A number of patients recovered their health and returned home. According to the document from the Ohio Historical Society, a hospital physician pronounced my great grandmother ready for a trial home visit in March 1896 and promised to discharge her into her husband’s custody if all went well. In the two years since Elizabeth’s admission, her son had grown into a young man of fifteen and her daughter, now eleven, had become the mistress of the house. Imagine the tension and uncertainty.
Likely uneasy in his wife’s presence, my great grandfather arranged for a neighbor to sleep in the house at night. In an environment filled with constant scrutiny and emotional distance, Elizabeth’s paranoia resurfaced. In less than six weeks, she accused her husband of trying to poison her, and he returned her to the hospital. The admitting physician recorded her inability “to remain adjusted to home conditions,” noting she had threatened “injury to her family and herself.” It was her last visit home.  
When I told my father about Elizabeth’s home visit, I sparked another memory, this time of a day in the early 1930s when the state hospital informed his parents of her eligibility for discharge. The hospital had grown overcrowded and administrators deemed a number of patients eligible for release. By this time, Elizabeth’s daughter Alma was caring for a household of men—her father, husband, and four strapping sons. She worried about how her mother and father would interact. Alma’s husband, my grandfather, feared his mother-in-law would be too much of a burden for his already overworked wife. And my great grandfather, a small man, still feared his wife might cause him harm.         
Meeting to discuss their options, the family could not figure out how to reintegrate Elizabeth into the household, so they decided to leave her in the hospital. The decision came at a cost. It was the Great Depression and the fees for her care had reached $600 per annum, far more than many farm families earned in a year. In her seventies and illiterate, she had nowhere to go.  

Their decision appalled me, but I was not surprised. My childhood was peppered with stories about neighborhood men who failed to get ahead because they had wives who insisted on doing frivolous things like buying store-bought clothing and going on vacation. Good daughters, I learned, took jobs in town, lived at home, and turned their earnings over to their fathers. I knew the barn was more important than the house, crops than flowers, sons than daughters, and land ownership the most important of all. There was no place for Elizabeth in this worldview.
A simple five by seven card records great grandmother’s death from bronchial pneumonia on December 23, 1940. During her time in the hospital, her diagnosis, originally chronic mania, changed to dementia praecox with paranoid tendencies, a diagnostic box appearing in American asylum records beginning in 1896. According to historian Richard Noll (American Madness), state hospitals at one time assigned this label to approximately twenty-five to fifty percent of patients. As I read more about this premature form of dementia, later relabeled schizophrenia, I started questioning my great grandmother’s diagnosis. Given the progressive disintegration of dementia praecox patients in a pre-pharmaceutical era, I doubted her condition would have improved enough to justify a proposed discharge after forty years of hospitalization.
When I first learned about Elizabeth’s lengthy hospitalization, I assumed it must be an aberration. I wouldn’t allow myself to believe others suffered a similar fate. Then I read an article about the Toledo State Hospital cemeteries, where at least 1,994 men, women, and children who died during their hospitalization lie interred under brick-like stones inscribed with patient numbers. Like Elizabeth, many of them had spent decades in the hospital, but upon their death, no one claimed their bodies. Some had outlived their families, while others had been abandoned, in life and in death.
With the passage of time, state hospital cemeteries in Toledo and throughout the nation fell into disrepair, their neglect perpetuating the stigma of mental illness. In many locations, only rows and rows of depressions in the ground remained to mark patients’ graves, the numbered stones obscured by layers of dirt and grass. In recent years, however, volunteers working under the auspices of state hospital cemetery reclamation projects are restoring grave markers and identities to these faceless patients, and they are transforming hospital cemeteries into places of remembrance and reflection.
As I scrolled through the names of hundreds of women buried there, I wondered if I had found my great-grandmother’s friends, women who she knew better than members of her family: Gertrude G., Phoebe H., Grace L., Jennie P., Lettie S., and many more. Year after year, decade after decade, they had celebrated Easter, July 4th, Thanksgiving, and Christmas holidays together. They had walked to and from breakfast, lunch, and dinner talking about the weather, flowers in bloom, and squirrels running across the lawn. They had worked with one another in the hospital kitchens, laundries, and sewing rooms. The optimist in me wants to believe they grew to care for one another.
Unlike the patients buried in the hospital cemeteries, my great-grandmother’s body returned home for interment in late December, 1940. During her lifetime, our nation matured as it endured the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and World War I. Women earned the right to vote, experienced the autonomy that comes with driving a car, and had their voices heard in public as well as in private, but she missed out on these rites of passage. A daughter, a sister, an aunt, a wife, a mother, my great-grandmother was denied the day-to-day reality of these roles. Yet the day after Christmas a handful of mourners, all of them family, gathered in her former home for a subdued funeral service. For his text, the pastor chose Luke 8: 4-8, the parable of the sower. He may have compared Elizabeth to the seed scattered on a busy path where it has no chance to grow, or to seed spread among rocks and thorn bushes, but I prefer to think of her growing where she was planted, on the grounds of the Toledo State Hospital, as friend to other patients, helper to attendants, seamstress who mended clothes, and creator of the quilt that comforts me on cold winter nights.


Joanne Passet lives, writes, and knits in Bloomington, Indiana. Her latest book, Indomitable: The Life of Barbara Grier, was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. Readers can follow her blog at https://knitwritebton.wordpress.com/

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

In the Matter of My Law Degree

by Barb Howard

We are moving. Packing must begin. But, first, a weeding out of the things that should not be packed. The junk. I bravely start in our ersatz storage space—known as the crap closet. In the closet, along with ski boots that don’t fit anyone in our house, a loosely-strung badminton racket, a ball pump, and a clothes iron (so thats where it was!), there are certificates of education of the type that one might hang on an office wall if one didn’t work primarily in one’s kitchen. Among them is my law degree. Roughly three times larger than the others—making it about the height of a beer fridge—the law degree stands out from the pack. There it is: ironic (given its relative size and how little law I practiced), non-reflective (figuratively, but also literally because I paid for non-reflective glass), and, frankly, with all its self-importance and Latin curlicue-ness, kind of goofy. I won’t go so far as to say the degree looks like a joke.

How many lawyers does it take to screw in a light bulb?

I practiced law in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The tasks I was given as an articling student and junior associate kept me busy and in lawyer clothes (it was the no-shoulder-pad-is-too-big era). By setting up small companies, closing down small companies, and telling individuals why they should become small companies, I thought I was successfully doing what downtown people did. Company stuff! I had only worked in an office once in my life—at a summer job where my main responsibility was to write tiny words on tabs for file folders and which I quit spur-of-the-moment when I got offered a job as a canoeing instructor. In any event, at the law firm I didn’t trouble myself with the larger picture of what I was accomplishing or about how much law I was actually practicing. I was twenty-five years old and making money. In one performance review I was told that I smiled a lot. Too late, I realized that was a tip-off, a hint that I wasn’t going to be smiling for much longer.

The managing partner, the guy with the manicured hands and perpetual ski tan, soon invited me to his office to tell me, essentially, to take my smiling face, my shoulder pads, and briefcase, home for good. He said I seemed nice but that I never seemed to “get it” (“it” being the practice of a law, I guess) and suggested another profession, really any other profession, might be a better fit for me. He said, recalling the recent firm ski trip, that he hoped that we would cross paths on the slopes sometime. On my walk home I imagined how we might cross paths on the ski hill and the managing partner did not fare well in any of the scenarios.

“Let go” was the euphemism for firing in those days—the odd implication being that there was new-found freedom involved, that it was a fine thing to be let go from your salary. If I was smiling when I got let go, it was just out of bad habit. Mostly I was wishing I had been plain fired, not let go. Being fired sounded like chutzpah and moral outrage were involved. Like I stood up for something. (Smiling?)

Hey, I don’t know how many lawyers it takes to screw in a light bulb. I didn’t practice long enough. But I do know they should all go about it very very seriously. No smiling. And I also know that skiing skills won’t necessarily keep them on the lightbulb team.

What do you call ten law students buried up to their necks in sand?

I arrived at my legal training through an indirect path. I liked the outdoors and so, after high school, I enrolled in the faculty of Forestry at a west coast university. To the eighteen-year-old me, that was a logical move. (I didn’t learn about logic until law school, and I didn’t pretend to be logical until I had children.) My parents seemed doubtful. My dad started referring to me as Smokey the Bear. He was a lawyer, which at first glance may seem highly significant to me and my law degree. And I suppose that it was. However, and I know this will be unbelievable to anyone who, unlike me, grew up in a “tell us about your day” type of family, I had no idea what being a lawyer meant or what my dad did at work. He never talked about it other than to refer to it generically as “the office” or “work.” As in, “I’m going to the office” or “some of us have to work.” Certainly, because my dad was a lawyer, I knew that there were such things as lawyers. But I’d like to think I could have figured that much out myself.

My mother, a woman of quiet wit and uber calm, and with the power to crush any ill-conceived dream with a single practical observation, suggested I shouldn’t feel pressured to go to university just because my older siblings were degree holders. She said there were other options for people like me. Like me? You know, she said, outdoorsy types. Sporty types. I should have given her words more thought but, at the time, with my teenage chip on one shoulder and my teenage ego on the other shoulder, it felt like she was calling me that old cliché—the dumb jock. Come to think of it, she probably was calling me that.

So, of course, being eighteen, I ignored everyone’s input and forged ahead with my Forestry plan and, of course, soon discovered that hiking in the woods was not the same thing as identifying the woods, understanding the woods or, for that matter, cutting down the woods. This was long enough ago that, even though the course content no longer reflected it, the hearty refrain to my faculty song was "cut, burn, and pave!" I learned a few things about nurse logs, cork boots, and waterproof pencils. Still, there was a problem. I liked the words dendrology and silviculture more than I liked studying dendrology and silviculture. While I was in Forestry, I was also taking English courses. In Forestry, we could only read good books in our spare time, whereas in English we read good books as part of our course work. And, full disclosure, I got better marks in English.

One night, at a gathering of the woodchoppers at the university pub, I confessed to a Forestry prof that I was thinking of switching to the faculty of English. He said, do it. Then he bought me a beer by way of celebration. I never was sure if we were celebrating me or celebrating the fact that Forestry would be rid (let go!) of me. (In fact, they weren’t rid of me—for years I stayed on their intramural teams and hung around their parties like an invasive species.)

So I finished in English. And then, like thousands of uncreative Arts students before and after me, saw no way to make a living other than by attending that privileged temporary haven from the working world: law school. Long story short: I did not distinguish myself in law school (except perhaps that one night on the broomball rink) but I did graduate and obtain the large certificate that ended up in my crap closet.

What would I call ten law students buried up to their necks in sand? Drunk. Once your gut is full of beer and law student comradery, burying yourself in sand might seem like a grand idea. A funny photo op. I came home from my first year of law school so bloated with boozing that I looked like a puffer fish. In my graduation photo, two years later, there is no visible improvement. Maybe a better question would be to ask how many law students of that era became full blown alcoholics during or after law school. That’s a stat that should be kept. Still, from what little I remember, it was super fun. I was probably smiling the whole time.

How do you save a drowning lawyer?

I articled and practiced briefly at the aforementioned firm, and then, after being let go by said firm, I got a job at a big-ass oil company. What let-go Calgary lawyer from my era didn’t work at an oil company? Oil companies were welcoming and, in those days, didn’t seem to expect too much from workers at my level. No nights or weekends, every third Friday off, and a helluva Stampede party. At the oil company it seemed no one ever missed lunch. Lunch was important. I spent mine on a bench in the Devonian Gardens—writing stories. I wrote fiction. But, sure, a few law colleagues, barely disguised, might have ended up on the page. Some as heroes and heroines, some as ski-tanned nutbars. The oil patch job wasn’t exactly drowning me, but the writing certainly buoyed me. More writing, I decided, would be a good thing.

I left the oil company for a legal writing job that I could do mostly from home. I wrote case summaries at a publishing company that was a de facto holding pen for pregnant lawyers, female lawyers with preschool children, and female lawyers who did not “get” the profession. I fit all those categories. Although lawyers are typically portrayed as being long winded, the women in the holding pen were efficient with words. They didn’t have time to fuss around. They knew their shit. They didn’t take shit. That was impressive. However, in the world beyond the holding pen, the job was seen as lower grade. Women’s work. Once tainted with a case summaries job, it was a rare lawyer who could claw their way back to private practice.

When I worked for the legal publisher, I did my summaries at home and, once a week, I put on some shoulder pads (smaller ones than I wore in the ‘80s) and drove a floppy, yet succinct, disk of my words to the downtown office. Email was newfangled and considered too risky a conduit for this type of groundbreaking information. While working from home, with no overlord to keep track of how I was using my time, I began writing fiction during the daylight time when my kids were at daycare--which is when I was, in theory, supposed to be writing the case summaries. I also began a lifelong practice of rationalizing my outdoor activity time as the same as working out in a downtown gym over lunch. This all led to a panicked writing of the case summaries in the middle of the night when my kids were asleep. I learned this skill of burning the candle at both ends at law school, and am thankful to have it. Others might call it time mismanagement.

I quit the legal summaries job, my last law-ish job, when the publishing company decided they wanted everyone to work in the office. That would have thrown a wrench into my fiction-by-day, law-by-night, outdoor-activity-whenever-I-felt-like-it system. I began calling myself a writer even though most people rolled their eyes. Twenty years ago I wrote a contest-winning story (loosely linking a beekeeper and a kid I threw up with in elementary school after we binged on powdered Kool-Aid) in Canadian Lawyer and established—at least to the five or six people who read it—that I did indeed do some writing. I was no John Grisham. No William Deverell, although their names were, and are still, mentioned to me at every turn. In any event, with that resounding one-story success and an unhinged optimistic view of how fast my literary star would rise (still waiting on that …), I settled into my writing life.

How do you save a drowning lawyer? One answer might be: send her to a legal publisher where, outside of the traditional legal pools, she is able to envision writing as a career. Throw her a life ring and let her kick to a different shore.

A lawyer, a writer, and a marriage commissioner walk into a bar.

Over the decades I’ve gone through various phases in my relationship with my lawyer-past. My bios, supplied for stories and books and events and in courses I teach, illustrate a shaky progression. When I first declared myself as a writer I didn’t have any publications and so I used my lawyer-past to flesh out an otherwise empty bio. I felt it said, hey, give me time, I was busy before this run at writing. And, I was proud I had made it through law school, albeit without flying colours. I only practiced for a few years but I did have that oversized degree as tangible proof that I graduated. Then, about fifteen years ago, after a few publications and around the time I was working on an MA in Creative Writing, I entered a phase of embarrassment that I ever was a lawyer. I met a few established writers who told me they could have gone to law school but they didn’t because they knew it would suck out their souls. One writer told me she went to law school for one year and then dropped out because it was conformist and restricting. They all indicated they were SO not lawyer material, and I understood it, as I believe it was intended, to mean that lawyer material was a bad thing. I took “lawyer” out of my bio and entered a period of pretending that I had no educational or working past, that I emerged fully-formed from a creative writing petri dish. I did a fine job of deleting from my bio not just the lawyer aspects but all the traditional and comfortable trappings in my life, including my husband, my kids, my proclivity for (and free time for) outdoor activities. I assumed “lawyer,” and all my other life accoutrements, made me look too mainstream and shoulder-padded to possess any creative abilities.

More recently, I have re-introduced “former lawyer” into my bios, in part because I have been digging around in my lawyer past, and in law in general, and I am exploring the interface between law and writing. Many individuals participate in both professions. In the creative writing classes I teach there is usually at least one lawyer enrolled. One obvious overlap is that lawyers and writers draft, edit and nitpick over written words. In my experience, both lawyers and writers tend to read widely beyond their job requirements. Of more interest to me, though, is the way both professions are based on narrative. In law, the story—the “what happened” or the “what if this happened”—underlies everything. The five w’s (who, what, where, when, why) of storytelling could form an outline for any lawyer interviewing a client, building a case, or drafting a contract.

Lawyers and writers are trained to look at scenarios from every angle. Writers call those angles Points of View and while they might only choose one or two through which to tell a story, an experienced writer will consider all the Points of View, the mindset of all the main characters, in order to create a rounded text. Similarly, a lawyer must study a legal situation from the perspective of all the stakeholders, or characters, in order to not leave holes in a contract or court case.  

In a civil suit, the parties are usually called the plaintiff and the defendant. In Canadian criminal cases, the parties are usually called the accused and the Crown. In contractual documents, the sides are often called the something-or and the something-ee. In writing, similarly, the parties to the story are often called protagonists and antagonists. In real-life law and in most good writing, the sides are rarely as clear and dichotomous as the models suggest. Perhaps someone is withholding information, perhaps someone’s backstory makes unreasonable actions seem more reasonable, perhaps a third party, a secondary character, arises and throws a wrench into the expected narrative. It’s the grey areas that make both law and literature interesting. Arguably, it’s the grey areas that make literature, well, literature.

 

There are also commonalities in the nature of the relationship between lawyers/writers and their clients/readers. That is, the very relationships that are the source of their incomes. Just as there is a contract between a lawyer and her client, there is an implied contract between an author and her reader. A client expects a lawyer to handle their narrative situation. A contract is formed when the client pays the consideration of a retainer or fee. Similarly, be it fiction or nonfiction, a reader expects the author to handle and deliver a story. Arguably, a contract is formed when the reader buys a book. Arguably, a contract is formed when any reader, not just the book purchaser, opens a book and puts their trust in the author to spin a story. If you open my book and fall asleep after two pages, I probably have not upheld my writer-end of the contract. I haven’t delivered the goods.


And, finally, lawyers and writers provide checks and balances on each other. Through stories, writers remind lawyers that they could be as upstanding as Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch (“upstanding” in the way he is generally viewed to be in To Kill a Mockingbird as opposed to recent deconstructions and his portrayal in Go Set a Watchman) or as vile as Charles Dickens’ Mr. Vholes (the name says it all). Writers create works that warn lawyers that if they don’t take care of the institution of law they could produce folly or unfairness or worse. The term kafka-esque would not have arisen without a writer (and, as it happens, an insurance lawyer) named Franz Kafka.Lawyers provide assistance and legal balance for writers. Most writers can’t afford a lawyer but, when a situation goes really bad, who you gonna call? Maybe a publisher or a writing organization who calls a lawyer on your behalf? Maybe a friend of friend of a guy who used to date your neighbor is a lawyer who feels the need to address copyright breaches, disappearing publishers, libel suits, and the Will your famous writer-spouse forgot to draw up? When they are available and affordable, lawyers can be useful. And at the highest level of the law, the union between lawyers and writers is forever sealed because lawyers are integral to maintaining that key Charter right for writers: freedom of expression.

What's the difference between a dead skunk and a lapsed lawyer?

Perhaps I’m dreaming, but I’d like to think that there are many differences between a dead skunk and a lapsed lawyer. At the very least, there seem to be some obvious physical differences like, say, the number of legs.

A similarity between the dead skunk and this lapsed lawyer is that neither of us can practice law. I had one short phase of thinking I might re-write the Bar exams and re-enter the legal world. But, like the skunk, that phase died. The process would cost too much money, take too much time, and I had too little interest. It galls me to say it, but maybe that managing partner who said I didn’t “get it” was right.

Back to the crap closet and my law degree. I decide to keep the iron, thinking I will try a few sessions with it but feeling pretty sure that I don’t own enough iron-able clothes to make it a serious pastime. I fill a garbage bag with fossilized runners, hazy swim goggles, and all the other items that will never be used or re-used by anyone, and I drive to the local dump. Among the things I toss in? My law degree. I never missed it when it was in the closet and it’s just too big for where I’m headed. I don’t know if I “get” what I am doing now, or if I am better at it than I would have been as a lawyer, but I do know that I am enjoying the direction. I have no regrets about getting that degree and no regrets about dumping the physical representation of it.

A few more differences between a dead skunk and this lapsed lawyer? Okay, one of them is alive. And that one is still smiling, not at the dead skunk or at a joke, but at how things have a way of working out over time.


Barb Howard is the author of the short story collection Western Taxidermy which was a finalist at the High Plains Book Awards and a winner of the Canadian Authors Association Exporting Alberta Award. She has won the Howard O'Hagan Award for short story, published three novels, and is currently writing, at a snail’s pace, a book about law and literature. Barb lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. www.barbhoward.ca

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Birds and Beatles


by Rick Bailey

     I’m reading a New Yorker article about Paul McCartney at the breakfast table one morning. At the top of the page there’s a black and white photo of him and John Lennon, circa 1965. It’s the year, the caption tells us, of Help! and Rubber Soul.
     My wife and I are leaving for Italy in a week. I’ve been downloading stuff to my Kindle to read while we’re away. I’ve got enough to last me quite a while, some novels (a few trashy ones, a few edifying ones), Clive James’ Poetry Notebook, a bunch of articles from the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and the New Republic. (I guess I’m keeping it New this spring.) When language fatigue sets in over there, and I know it will, with the constant strain of trying to listen very fast to decode flights of Italian, it’s a pleasure to lie down in silence and read in my own language.
     “Photo by David Bailey,” I say to my wife. Our son’s name. “How about that?”
     “What?”
     “This article about Paul McCartney. It has a photo by David Bailey.”
     Hmmm.
     I give her a minute, then ask, “Who’s your favorite Beatle?” 
     “Don’t start.” 
      She’s reading a book called Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth Century Mediterranean World. The bibliography is forty pages. Good lord.
     “Are you taking that thing on the plane?”
     “Maybe.” She pushes a small taste of eggs onto her espresso spoon.
     “It’s a brick.”
     “Jesuits,” she says. “I love the Jesuits.”
     I hum a few bars of “When I’m Sixty-Four.” Two pals and I turn sixty-four within a few months of each other this year. I’ve suggested, more than a few times, that we should have a “when I’m sixty-four party” sometime this summer, to celebrate ourselves.

     Later this day I will drive ninety minutes north to visit my old friend Brian. His caretaker Sheila has told me he’s not quite himself. Listening to music in the car, piped from my iPhone into the radio, I make a mental note of oldies I’d like to play for him. “I’ve Got Friday on My Mind,” by the Easybeats; Cyrcle’s “It’s a Turn Down Day”; The Beatles’ “Dr. Robert,” so we can hear that scratchy guitar and lush chorus. I’d like to see him react to the organ solo in Bonnie Raitt’s “We Used to Rule the World.” In the car I play the music loud, today even louder than usual. I know I probably shouldn’t. My wife and kids tell me I’m getting a little deaf. (A little?) These days the car and treadmill are the only places I listen to music. I can’t help myself. I want it loud.
     He’ll be sitting in his wheelchair at the kitchen table, his back to the doorway I walk through. I rehearse the scene in the mind. “Remember this?” Sitting across from him, I’ll play part of a song. I’ll wait to see the look of recognition, watch him travel back in time. “How about this?”  When my mother was sick and I made this drive, I listened to podcasts, for reflection and for laughs. For these visits, I want bang and bash. I want nostalgia.

     We bought every Beatle album as soon as it hit the store. This was, of course, back in the vinyl days. The first three or four lps, in mono, cost less than five dollars. We took them home, put them on the turntable, and sat down to listen. It was “close listening,” almost like the close reading of a poem advocated by the New Critics. In the front bedroom of Brian’s house on 3rd Street, we sat on the floor and played the records over and over, holding the album covers, like holy objects, in our laps. There was a photo or two to look at; on the back, a song list. You listened, and you looked. “Meet the Beatles,” headshots of four young guys in partial shadow; twelve songs, the longest of which was “I Saw Her Standing There” (2:50), the shortest, incredibly short by today’s standards, “Little Child” (1:46), produced by George Martin, for Capitol Records.
     Years later, my kids went totally digital. They bought CDs and queued up the songs they wanted to hear. On some CDs they listened to only one or two songs; that was it. Back in the vinyl days, we listened to the whole album, every track all the way through, even the songs we didn’t particularly like. Ringo singing “Act Naturally.” Really? To lift the needle, move it to the song you liked, and set it down, aiming for the barely visible gap between tracks, was to risk scratching the record.
     A scratch would last forever. That was the thing about vinyl.
     And now it’s back.
     I have purist friends who could explain why vinyl is better: the sound profiles you get in analog are richer, far superior to the sterile precision of digital. I guess I get that. I’m still kind of an analog guy. I look at the clock and say “a quarter to” and “a little after,” it bothers me that soon kids will no longer be able to decode the face of a clock and tell time, the way many of them will never learn to write in cursive. I remember moving the needle to tune in an AM radio station in the car. I like a speedometer needle. I go about seventy mph (not sixty-seven) when I drive up to visit Brian.
     I should ask him, What do you think about the vinyl craze these days?
     I know what he would say.
     Who gives a fuck?   

     He’s sitting in his wheelchair with his back to the door. The dogs bark when I walk in. There are seven of them. It takes a minute to calm them down. Brian gives me a crooked smile and says, “How the hell are you?” It’s his usual greeting. He has a full beard, a lot more salt than pepper, and he’s wearing a hat. It occurs to me that in all the recent pictures of him I’ve seen, he has that hat on. When I ask him how the hell he’s doing, he turns his head and points to his hair, slate gray, wisps of what’s left of it hanging down. It’s the radiation, he says.
     I figure we’ll get a few basics out of the way, before getting down to basics.
     Sleep?
     He says he sleeps just fine.
     Appetite?
     He says he’s an eating machine.
     Pain?
     Not even a headache. If the doctor didn’t tell him he was sick, he wouldn’t even know it.
     I ask if he’s ever had a beard before.
     Couple times.
     He’s sixty-four years old, a September birthday, a year older than me. Three months ago Sheila organized a benefit. It went from noon to nine at the Elks Club bar in Bay City, all music all the time, played by over forty years of musician friends in the area. Brian packed the place.
     I tell him I’m thinking about a “when I’m sixty-four party” for me and a few pals this summer. What does he think?
     Yup.
     Next to the kitchen table, a tv set displays weekday afternoon programming. He watches it while I ask more questions, about his sister, son, nephew, a pal we call Easy Eddie. I’m thinking about my song list when he wonders, Hey, what’re we going to eat?

     In this New Yorker article, published in 2007, Paul McCartney confesses to dyeing his hair. He also confesses to being freaked out about actually being sixty-four. “The thought is somewhat horrifying,” he tells the interviewer. “It’s like ‘Well, no, this can’t be me.’” The article is contemporaneous with the release of an album called “Memory Almost Full,” which the interviewer describes as “up-tempo rock songs … tinged with melancholy.” I know the album. When it came out, I listened to thirty seconds of each track at the iTunes Store, bought one song, “Dance Tonight,” for $1.29, and downloaded it. It’s a jaunty piece with a kazoo solo in the bridge.
     The writer mentions the famous deaths: Lennon, Harrison, Linda.
     McCartney, I learn, was sixteen when he wrote “When I’m Sixty-Four.”
     When Brian and I were that age, we had begun to realize we were not going to be the next Lennon and McCartney. We had written exactly one song together, called “If I Could Dream,” which some years later he managed to get recorded with a band he was in, graciously crediting “Bailey and Bennett” in parentheses beneath the song title as the composers.
    
      I come back from Mulligans with two bar burgers, mushrooms and mayo on his, and French fries. The dogs bark. Four or five of them eventually settle under the table. We eat our burgers, watch a little more tv, and I think again about my song list. Maybe I won’t play the songs after all. Who wants to listen music on a phone, anyway? In the kitchen it will sound like a cheap transistor radio.
      I say, “Hey, remember ‘It’s a Turn Down Day’”?
      He looks at the tv for a bit, then turns my way. “The Cyrcle,” he says. “They were a good band.”
     The show we’re listening to is called The Doctor. It’s talk. Two men, two women. One of the men is dressed like a doctor. They’re discussing castration as a way of punishing rapists. Or maybe it’s a preventative measure. The man dressed as a doctor explains that there is both surgical and chemical castration. The two women agree that, either way, it’s an extreme measure. They are both against it.
     I try another one: “Remember ‘I’ve Got Friday on My Mind’”?
     It takes a minute. He turns away from the tv and gives me a partial crooked smile and a nod. “Good song,” he says.
     I know the nod.
     Sheila says, “Getting tired, Brian?”
     It’s for me. Well, okay, I think, that’s enough.
     We sit together for a while longer, through the rest of my fries. Brian takes a bite or two from his burger, gazes at the tv. Before going to commercial, the doctor previews the next segment of the show. They’re going to talk about a woman’s cancer treatment. The woman on screen looks familiar.
     “Is that Bruce Jenner?” I say.
     Sheila says it’s not Bruce Jenner. It’s a real woman.
     “Goddam,” Brian says.
     We watch a few more minutes in silence. I get up to go. The dogs rouse and congregate around my feet. I tell Brian see you in a month or so, shake his hand, and lean down for a long hug. “You hang in there now,” I say. “I’ll be back the middle of next month.”
     He nods, says thanks for coming, Richard.
     “See you, right?”
     He nods. I’m pretty sure he nods.
     About the time I get to the freeway, which takes ten minutes or so, my iPhone shuffles to a favorite Beatle song. I play it loud and sing along: “You say you’ve seen certain wonders, and your bird can sing.” That would be another song to mention, on another visit.

     A few days later, my wife and I are upstairs packing. It’s mid morning. I’m tossing power cords for my phone and Kindle and laptop into a carry-on when I realize I’m not wearing any pants. What happened to my pants?
     “Have you seen my black sweater?” my wife says.
     When did I take off my pants? For a while now I’ve been walking into rooms only to find I can’t remember why I’m there. I’m used to that. Like tinnitus, it comes with age. Losing my pants is new.
     “Did you hear me?” my wife says.
     “I heard you.” I look around the room, feeling mild panic. No pants, anywhere. “Which black sweater?”  
     I stand there, marveling at this altered state. Then I remember: I took them off in the other room, in front of the closet, so I could try on another pair I had fitted a while back.
     “I’m losing it,” she says.
      There they are, the pants I tried on, in the carry-on. So the other ones are over there?
     “Can you hear anything I’m saying?” she says.
     “I hear you fine.”
     We’re all losing it.
     One of these days I’ll have to get my hearing checked. I sort of don’t want to know. I think about my parents growing old, my father and all his hearing aids. There were owls in the woods a half a mile away from their house. My parents almost always slept with a window open. For years they said they heard owls all night. One day my wife and I were up for a visit. When I asked about them, my mother said yes, the owls were still there. Then she added, “Your dad can’t hear them any more.” I think he took it in stride. What choice did he have? Still, it broke my heart.
     One day it will happen to me. I’ll wake up, look for my pants, and I won’t be able to hear the birds and the Beatles. I’ll have to remember to consider myself lucky.


Rick Bailey writes about family, food, travel, current events, what he reads and what he remembers. The University of Nebraska Press will publish a collection of his essays, American English, Italian Chocolate in summer 2017. He and his wife divide their time between Michigan and the Republic of San Marino.