March 5, 2021 § 1 Comment
By Jody Gerbig
When I was a college student visiting home, I chose to spend many of my limited afternoons and evenings with my grandparents, then in their mid-sixties and early seventies. They were, in their retirement, some of the most interesting people I knew, my grandfather playing violin with his chamber-music group or cooking the latest New York Times recipe, my grandmother trying new bridge tactics and attending symphonies. I enjoyed sitting among them and their friends, eating brie and multigrain crackers, discussing art exhibits, new memoirs, and the moral implications of farming salmon. Their lives felt uncomplicated by young children or work stress, their days filled with chosen pursuits. No one else I knew led such rich lives. No one else seemed so leisurely contemplative, free to let thoughts wander.
I was reminded of those visits while reading Rick Bailey’s essay collection, Get Thee to a Bakery, an exploration of daily life lived mostly in retirement, including long lunches with foodie friends, special trips to the “vegetable guy,” and discussions about key changes in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.
That is not to say Bailey’s writing is all highbrow, however. His essays are often funny and self-deprecating, focusing on either the mundane (shopping for nativity Jesuses in San Marino), or the hilariously grotesque (ordering dog poop by the gallon to teach his neighbors a lesson). In “Alien Pleasures,” he admits to enjoying the odd hotdog left on the counter overnight. In “You’re Not Going to Eat That, Are You?,” he considers eating the squirrels invading his bird feeder. His writing is sharp, ironic, and humorously honest, but his character is contemplative, thoughtful, even sweet, his affection for his wife seemingly unwavering.
Just as dynamic are Bailey’s feelings about aging, sometimes mourning his youth and other times celebrating life’s changes. Appropriately, he opens his collection in the fall season, when air is both “crisp and faintly rotten smelling.” Perhaps he should not be climbing the ladder to clean the gutters himself anymore, but he does anyway, an attitude that carries him through most days. Of his food preferences, he says, “as you age, your taste buds dull and die. Bitter becomes okay,” a lucky thing, he thinks, for someone trying to drink his eight servings of vegetables each day. His gradual hearing loss makes crowded restaurants more difficult but allows him to use the word circumambient obnoxiously often. Bailey essays approach aging not as an end, but as a transformation, like a caterpillar becomes a moth, or like someone wipes his Kindle clean to make room for new lists of highlighted words to look up. With age, he says, comes longer lists, more to remember, so it is best, occasionally, to start fresh.
Bailey’s writing style makes defining his collection difficult. In each essay and throughout the collection, he revisits seasons, conflicts, and motifs in such a way that I sometimes felt I was reading an epic poem and other times watching an episode of Seinfeld. I am mesmerized by his ability to weave together disparate ideas. In “Back to Comanche,” for example, Bailey covers as many as five topics (moths, road rage, revisionist history, and hypertension), ending with the realization that most rage is pointless and self-destructive. Only at the end of the essay did I ask myself whether all five topics were related, though I didn’t mind the possibility they were not. Bailey’s details are often fascinating and real on their own, capturing both the arbitrary and connected nature of our days. Rather than espousing a thesis, his collection evokes new questions, creating an experience similar to the one he describes while assessing Susanna Langer’s Philosophy in a New Key: “All day long stuff happens to us, we are flooded with sensations, experience, and meaning. The mind processes the experience, stores it in memory, in code—images, words, figures, sounds—in symbols that we access and organize, and shape and reshape into meaning. We live in a swell, a tide of significance that rises, envelopes us.”
Like with my grandparents, I wanted to hang out with Bailey’s essays longer than I was afforded. In them, I felt comfort, inspiration, joy. In some ways, they make me look forward to my own retirement in which I might dare to climb the ladder when I shouldn’t, or lean back too far, threatening to fall. And, why not? Perhaps the view from that climb will inspire an interesting thought. Perhaps, if I fall, I will land with my eyes pointed skyward, noticing, like Bailey does, the delightful oddness of the everyday and the wonder—the gift—of still being alive.
Jody Gerbig lives in Columbus, Ohio, where she is raising triplets and a writing career. Her essays have been published in Columbus Monthly, VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, Brevity Blog, and elsewhere. She also writes fiction and serves as an editor at 101 Words and Typehouse Magazine.