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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.

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?”
     “This article about Paul McCartney. It has a photo by David Bailey.”
     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.
     He says he sleeps just fine.
     He says he’s an eating machine.
     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?
     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.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

From Snitch to Scab

by Richard LeBlond

I began my newspaper career as a snitch, age nine, in 1950. We lived on the northern edge of Portland, Oregon, only three blocks from the cut-over bottomlands between the city and the Columbia River. This intermittently flooded wasteland had been partially filled by railroad beds, stockyards, and disposal areas for industrial waste. To a boy of nine, it was a frontier with high potential for treasure (some of it toxic), and one afternoon I found it. Down at the foot of a railroad embankment were hundreds of advertising circulars all rolled up like small newspapers.

There was no value in the circulars themselves. The treasure lay in how they got there. They were supposed to have been delivered house to house by a boy on a bicycle. I figured he had tossed them like a dead body into the early morning miasma. Delivering advertising circulars was a coveted job, one of the few a child could legally do. I took home a piece of the evidence, and dad called the distributor. I was quickly rewarded with the miscreant’s job.

The circulars were supposed to be delivered in the early morning once a week. Some guy in a truck dumped a large bale of them on our front porch after midnight. Mom had to get up an hour before me to start rolling the hundreds of circulars so I could toss them on porches like the professional paperboys did. But even with her help there was not enough time to complete the deliveries before breakfast and school.

I wasn’t about to devote another morning to the task, let alone a precious afternoon, so it wasn’t long before I realized the practicality of the snitched-on boy’s method. I began to deliver to as many houses as time allowed, then hid the overburden in more secluded areas of the wasteland. The bodies were never found, so I continued distribution of the circulars to the local neighborhood and bottomlands until I finally got a job delivering real newspapers at age eleven.

(There is a parallel between the start of my newspaper career and the beginning for a politician—tear down the unscrupulous incumbent, then discover the job can’t be done by scruple alone. “Politics,” observed socialist Oscar Ameringer, “is the gentle art of getting votes from the poor and campaign funds from the rich, by promising to protect each from the other.”)

In the early 1950s, Portland had two dailies, the morning Oregonian and the evening Oregon Journal. My first newspaper job was delivering the Journal in late afternoon, after school. The paperboys gathered at the newspaper’s district distribution center, a sturdy shack at the back of a supermarket parking lot. We had to be there before the newspaper truck arrived, so there was always time to kill, and the favorite place to kill it was in the supermarket’s candy section. Our goal was to shoplift as many candy bars as possible under the ruse of the purchase of one or two. Once outside, we tallied and compared the sweet ephemera.

The nickel-and-dime thievery was of course perilous, and every now and then one of us was caught. But for my group of pre-teen boys in the early 1950s, shoplifting was only a risky option, not the beginning of a wasted life. Better behavior had to compete with peer pressure, unenlightened self-interest, and the inherent goodness of a Baby Ruth candy bar. Most importantly, shoplifting reduced the drawdown of wealth I was acquiring for a bicycle upgrade.

(At the time, I was only interested in the money I was making, and gave no thought to the economic system newspaper delivery represents. We were little franchises. The newspapers themselves were actually being sold to the paperboys, not to the subscribers. Once a month the company handed us a bill, and we collected from the subscribers to pay it. The remainder was ours. Any account unpaid was the paperboy’s problem. He not only received no profit on those accounts, but had to pay the company for the papers he had delivered to the scofflaws. Yet even with the economic assistance of eleven-year-old boys, printed newspapers appear headed for oblivion.)

I became a newspaperman during my senior year of high school, when I discovered that calculus and girls couldn’t be studied at the same time. Getting girls to make out requires effort and focus when competition, pursuit, and anxiety are factored in. I abandoned my dream of becoming a geologist exploring for oil in Venezuela, and amended my curriculum by replacing lonely and cerebral calculus with a very sociable course in journalism. The journalism class was responsible for writing and publishing the school newspaper. I loved sports and got the plum job of sports editor, even though I wasn’t much of an athlete, breaking my arm the first time I tried to swing on rings.

One of my responsibilities after a varsity game was to call the Oregonian and the Oregon Journal to relate the score and a few highlights. That year our football team was very good, and I had kept track of statistics for each player. I began getting phone calls from the Oregonian reporter who covered high school athletics. He wanted those statistics for his weekly column. After a couple of months, he asked me if I would be interested in the most stupendous offer anyone had ever made to me: a one-night-a-week job as a bottom-rung copy writer at the downtown Oregonian building itself, in the exalted sports department.

At first, I just worked Friday evenings. That was game night. Several of us were there to answer phone calls from informants, record the scores and highlights, and write a two- or three-sentence account of the game. My literary career was airborne.

Following high school, I enrolled as a journalism major at Pacific University in Forest Grove, about thirty miles west of Portland. I kept working part-time for the Oregonian, adding Tuesday and Saturday nights to my schedule.

Thanks to the business world’s chronic cost cutting, I was about to get even more work. The newspapers had recently automated another part of the printing process, causing a seventy-five percent reduction in the number of workers needed among members of the Stereotypers Union. In November 1959, the stereotypers went on strike, and members of other unions refused to cross the picket lines.

Managers of both newspapers huddled in the Oregonian building and attempted to print their dailies with non-union help. Tempers flared when non-union workers crossed the picket lines. There were fights. A newspaper delivery van was blown up. Then the managing editor of the sports department called and asked me to be part of the non-union publishing team, with a full-time job. I crossed the picket line with a bodyguard: Dad. My career had entered the scab phase.

“After God had finished the rattlesnake, the toad, and the vampire, he had some awful substance left with which he made a scab. A scab is a two-legged animal with a corkscrew soul, a water brain, a combination backbone of jelly and glue. Where others have hearts, he carries a tumor of rotten principles. When a scab comes down the street, men turn their backs and Angels weep in Heaven, and the devil shuts the gates of hell to keep him out.” – attributed to Jack London, probably erroneously.

Whoever wrote it, they were wrong about my having rotten principles. I had no principles, and no politics either, so by default was a Republican like my dad. I had been convinced that crossing the picket line was the right thing to do, even though I felt guilty for it. I continued crossing the line uneasily for another two years. (The strike lasted five years before the unions finally gave up.)

Every now and then, as I crossed the picket line, I would see the reporter who had recruited me from high school. He never spoke to me, but his gaze conveyed admonishment and deep disappointment. It is a gaze that still haunts me, and in my own mythology, it was the beginning of another way to view the world.

Richard LeBlond is a retired biologist living in North Carolina. Since 2014, his essays and photographs have appeared in numerous U.S. and international journals, including Montreal Review, High Country News, Compose, New Theory, Lowestoft Chronicle, Concis, and Still Point Arts Quarterly. His work has been nominated for Best American Travel Writing and Best of the Net.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017


by James Hanna
Those who say the truth will set you free have probably never been polygraphed. I had the experience in my early thirties during a campaign of self-renewal, leading inevitably to the West Coast. After spending a decade as a counselor at the Indiana Penal Farm, a provincial Midwest prison, I felt like a bastard at a family reunion. Was it because I built on my education instead of boozing with good ol’ boy guards? I had attended a nearby state university under a blind assumption: the patented belief that a master’s degree would open the door to promotions. Sadly, the reverse proved true. Organizations will stigmatize overachievers as surely as they flag the fuckups. (If you doubt this, watch any season of Survivor.) And so I was deemed overqualified when I faced the promotion boards. One of the inmates summed it up well when I told him I was leaving. “Sounds like a plan,” he said. “Do it soon. You don’t need to be hanging around Podunk, Indiana.”      
          I relocated to the Golden State and submitted a job application to the Santa Clara Department of Corrections. California has always been an innovator in the field of criminal justice, so I was more than confident I would soon take my place among the learned elite. I applied for the position of deputy jailor, a menial job, but one from which I intended to soar like a butterfly shedding its cocoon. Before long, I would be devising programs, publishing in correctional journals, and initiating critical reforms.
          I reported to the Santa Clara Government Center to take the written test. The questions struck me as wholly redundant, and I scored in the high nineties. The oral interview, which took place at the Santa Clara County Jail, was also an effortless challenge. One of the board members, a plump correctional lieutenant with a goatee, simply shook his head. “Ten years as a counselor,” he said. “A master’s in criminology. And you want to work as a deputy jailor?” I told him I needed a change and he laughed. “I see,” he snorted. “Are ya gonna take up surfing?” The board gave me a ringing endorsement, which left me with one final obstacle. To wear the uniform of a deputy jailor, I would have to pass a polygraph examination.
          I received a letter from the Santa Clara Human Resources Department, instructing me to report to the Government Center, Room 101, to take the polygraph test. I was advised to allow three hours for the test and to bring a number two pencil. I chuckled at the irony of the location. Room 101—wasn’t that the chamber of horrors in Orwell’s 1984?  The place where aberrant Winston Smith was reduced to a quivering pulp? Convinced I would fare better than poor Winston, I showed up early on the day of the test.
          Armed with my number two pencil, I entered Room 101. The room was utterly barren except for a desk and a chair. No carpet cushioned the floor, no flowered plants scented the air, not even a requisite landscape painting hung from the drab green walls. Behind a second door, in what must have been the testing chamber, I could hear a couple of voices. Voices so strained and muffled that they seemed to belong to ghosts.  
          I sat by the desk and waited, my pencil as sharp as a tack. After ten minutes, the second door opened and I felt my muscles tense. The man who entered the room was so fleshless that he appeared to be carved from bone. His nose was sharp and hawkish, his smile was frozen in place, and a thick pair of horn-rimmed glasses expanded his muddy brown eyes. He looked at me incuriously and handed me a booklet. He smelled of cheap aftershave.
“Answer these questions, pardner,” he muttered. “Answer ’em truthfully.”
He vanished back into the testing room in a lingering wave of Old Spice.
I broke the seal to the booklet and began to read the questions. There were approximately two hundred of them and they made me feel like a freak. Have you ever exposed your anus or genitals for sexual gratification? Have you ever been married to two persons at the same time? Have you ever had sex with animals?
Indignant, I cruised through the questions and marked almost all of them no. Only a few gave me pause. Have you ever engaged in drug use? Well, I smoked pot a few times in college. And once I sampled a dab of meth. Better check yes, I decided. I don’t want to make the scrolls flutter.
Have you ever been referred to a collection agency? another question read. Once, I remembered. When I didn’t pay a medical bill because I had been overcharged. Do they really need to know that? I wondered. I gritted my teeth and marked the yes box.
Have you ever abused, struck, or injured any person under fifteen? I remembered spanking my toddler brother after he crapped on the living room rug. Did I have to put that down? I shrugged and checked the yes box once again.
You’ll be given a chance to explain your answers, the last section of the booklet advised. I signed and printed my name in this section, acknowledging the terms of the test. I then pocketed my pencil and waited for Ichabod Crane.
An hour passed. No one came. Has he forgotten me? I wondered. Eventually, the voices grew louder—they seemed to be at odds. “If you’ve stolen a car we’ll find out!” boomed Ichabod when the inner door finally opened. 
The woman who dashed across the room looked angry and harassed. “Do I look like a car thief?” she shouted back as she opened the door to the hallway. Glancing at me, she held her nose, then hurried from the room.
A practical soul may have seen this incident as a portent of pending doom. But my instincts were akin to Don Quixote, not savvy Sancho Panza. One less rival for the job, I thought as I rose from the chair. It was my turn now. I held my head high, like a bird drinking water, and entered the testing room.

As I sat by a desk where the polygraph was perched, my palms began to sweat. I felt more like a patient on life support than a pilgrim on a mission. A blood pressure cuff, plump with air, gripped my upper arm like a hall monitor; a couple of rubber tubes, also tightly inflated, hugged my chest and abdomen; and a pair of electrodes pinched two of my fingers like dime store rings. The cuff was to measure my heart rate, the tubes were to record my breathing, and the electrodes were to pick up whatever perspiration my fingers might produce.
I tried to chat with Ichabod, but his focus was on the machine. Clearly, he had no interest in whatever I had to say. “Answer the questions truthfully,” he mumbled. “Don’t be making stuff up.”
 Activating the polygraph, he asked me some baseline questions.
“Your name is James Hanna?”
“Yes,” I replied, and the scrolls began to nod.
 “Are you sitting down?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Have you got a bachelor’s degree?” he inquired.
“I have a master’s,” I said.
Ichabod shut off the polygraph as though he was swatting a fly. “That’s not what I asked you, pardner,” he muttered. “Stick to yes or no answers.”
 I felt familiar anger as he turned the machine back on. How many times was I going to be penalized for advancing my education?
“Have you ever stolen from an employer?” he asked.
“No,” I sarcastically said.
“Have you ever lied to someone who trusted you?”
“No,” I fibbed.
“Have you ever driven a car when you had too much to drink?”
I knew enough about polygraph tests to know that these were control questions. Who hasn’t taken a pen from work, lied to a friend, or driven a car after having a sip too many? I was expected to lie on these questions, which would provide a comparative response. If the scrolls fluttered less on the relevant questions, that meant I would pass the test.
“Ever committed a sex crime?” he asked.
“No,” I proudly replied.
“Ever been addicted to drugs or alcohol.”
“No,” I triumphantly chirped.
“Ever stolen an automobile?
“No,” I crowed with glee.
The questioning continued for another minute then he turned the polygraph off.
“How’d I do?”
He scratched his jaw. “The results are inconclusive.”
“What does inconclusive mean?”
He sighed. “Shall we try it again?”
He asked another series of questions, this time intermingling the control questions with the relevant ones. Whenever I was asked about job theft or drunk driving, I dug my fingernails into the palm of my free hand. If I spiked on the control questions, I reasoned, I would surely pass this damn test.
When the questioning was done, he turned off the machine and gave me the final verdict. “Deceptive,” he snapped.
I looked at him incredulously; I felt as though I had been slugged. “Just where was I deceptive?” I asked.
“Alcoholism, drug addiction, sex crimes, and car theft.”
“You’re kidding,” I stammered. “I’ve done all that? When would I have found time to go to work?”
He folded his arms then stared at me with the air of a hanging judge. “Ya may as well come clean, Tom Hemmings. Whaddya trying to hide?”
 “Nothing,” I snapped.
“Horse turds,” he answered. “Whaddya trying to hide?”
I knew my anger was showing when he opened the drawer to the desk. The drawer contained a handgun and several ammo clips. As I looked at the gun, he pushed the drawer shut; he was only warning me to calm down. But the sight of the weapon did not dissuade me from taking a shot of my own.
“Ask me if I killed John Kennedy,” I said. “I’d like to see the result.”
He looked at me so piously that I felt like a Salem witch. “Whaddya trying to hide?” he repeated. “Whaddya trying to hide?”
Arguing was useless; his mind was as closed as a tomb. What have I done to deserve this? I wondered. What is my unavowed crime? Whatever the sin, I would never forget that unforgiving gaze.
I unhooked myself from the tubes and wires. “Have a good day,” I said. I could feel his eyes boring into my back as I walked out of the room.
Only when I stood in the hallway did I feel the full weight of my anger. I had a crime coming to me, I reasoned, and vandalism would do.
I whipped out my number two pencil as though I were drawing a sword. And I scrawled a single word on the door to Room 101.


James Hanna worked as a counselor in the Indiana Department of Corrections and recently retired from the San Francisco Probation Department, where he was assigned to a domestic violence and stalking unit. His familiarity with criminal types has provided fodder for much of his writing. His debut novel, The Siege, depicts a hostage standoff in a penal facility. Call Me Pomeroy, James’ second book, chronicles the madcap tales of a street musician on parole who joins Occupy Oakland and its sister movements in England and France. Hanna’s stories and essays have appeared in many journals and have received three Pushcart nominations. Many of his stories are included his third book: A Second, Less Capable Head, which was designated a Distinguished Favorite by The Independent Press Awards. Hanna’s books are available on his Amazon Author Page