A Full Embrace of the Wandering Mind: Rick Bailey's Essays
A Review by Rachel Rueckert
I’ve often heard that a good writer can write about anything and make it interesting for a reader.
If this is true (which Rick Bailey has fully convinced me of), Get Thee to a Bakery, a collection of essays published by the University of Nebraska Press (2021), is a masterclass in how to make art out of the quotidian. Bailey tackles truly mundane subjects like haircuts, routine dentist visits, egg yolks, Kindles, cold pizza, flooded basements, leaf-stuffed rain gutters, dog turds in the yard, sun hats, and the infuriating folks who continue to add two spaces after a period. He writes about all of this and makes a reader laugh and care. Really care. Bailey transforms the mundane into careful case studies of the under-examined to point to larger themes like aging, marriage, food, travel, climate crisis, and the quirks of language.
If we look under the hood (and I want to, with equal parts envy and curiosity to learn how someone can write fun yet depthy essays about toothpaste, visiting the bank, and loading the dishwasher), there are a few mechanisms Bailey seems to favor. He has a particular knack for evocative, solitary first-lines that drop us right in. A few samples:
I’m smarter than squirrels. But not by much.
“Feel my face,” I say to my wife.
She announced, out of nowhere, that she could see auras.
Bailey’s essays are brief and punchy, often in the three to five page-range on average. They are direct in language but indirect in their surprising, meandering associations. An undercurrent that runs throughout this collection is an implicit and explicit warning of the dangers of trying to water-down experience. “If you work at it, you can quantify much of your life, reducing it to data sets. You can achieve the data-driven life. But do we want to?” Everything Bailey does seems to resist this approach. At one point, the narrator is in a yoga class. Bailey writes: “Eyes closed, I pay attention to my breathing: That’s the putative reason for just lying there: A mindful warm-up. Letting my mind wander is the real reason.”
This full embrace of the wandering mind feels infused throughout the collection. Bailey’s essays are an active mind at work on the page. In “Get Thee to a Bakery,” the first essay of the collection, we move from precarious ladder climbing to pie to the history of pumpkin in Europe to meditations on mortality. In “Stand Up,” a poignant piece that begins with some bent-over trees in the narrator’s yard, we next visit a neighbor, hash out the physics of building materials that the narrator wants to buy to help the trees stand again, then swerve unexpectedly to a talented student in the narrator’s class with a “tall-girl hunch.” The essay ends back at the trees. “They are fatigued,” he writes. “But they are also living things. Maybe they will recover and stand up straight, be fully themselves. That’s what I want.” In another essay called “Smitty,” we begin with a squeaky, sliding glass door at Krogar that sounds like an old, laughing “Aunt Betty,” then learn of a student who’s been plagiarizing. We next pick up a hitchhiker bound for Amsterdam, ending the essay back at Krogar. “The doors roll shut with Aunt Betty’s laugh sounding better than ever. I know it won’t last. Kroger will eventually fix the doors. I wait for a few more laughs, a sound I figure I can use almost as much as the occasional fear of death.” Somehow, Bailey seems to ground his essays every time, offering a satisfying conclusion to a grand tour of a winding thought based on a winding day. The frame of a day or week, the present—whether that be at home, in San Marino, Florida, Shanghai, or Detroit—structurally frames most of these essays, perhaps why Bailey chooses to write almost exclusively in the present tense, offering an intimate immediacy.
Another essential feature that makes Bailey’s work so engaging is his humor, the oil to his model car. His terse sentences and use of understatement are particularly effective. A few examples from various essays that made me laugh out loud:
I noticed [the leftover hotdog] just before we went to bed, resting on the cutting board next to the cooktop. It was dark, leathery, deep reddish brown, just on the verge of cracking open. A leftover hot dog that must have been cooked for…the five-year-old or the two-year old. A leftover hot dog, unwanted by small children. This morning it was cold, the fats inside it congealed, its leathery skin even leatherier. The minute I saw it the night before, I wanted that hot dog. There was about it a certain air of inevitability.
Three days a week I go to the local senior center to exercise. On the ground floor is Scrabble…Downstairs is the gym. The major seniors prefer the pneumatic weight machines; chat-friendly, sitting required. Minor seniors walk the treadmills and the indoor track. I think of myself as neither. I’m more like an apprentice senior. I run. I rev up the elliptical. On a good day my rate of exercise inspires shock and awe.
The pancake is not a precooked, warmed-up, ersatz mistake. Inside a machine the size of an old-fashioned breadbox is a plastic bag of premixed pancake batter. You push a button on the left, and the box emits a quiet hum, and three minutes later a perfectly round, medium-rare comestible gradually rolls out of the side of the machine. Think pancake fax.
[After having a supposed-wart scraped off by a doctor] She washes her hands, tells me it still might be a wart or it might not. I should come back if the thing comes back. It was a pleasure, for her and me both.
…could we go any slower? I estimate, between the twelve of us, we’re traveling at five hundred photos a minute.
No, I will not start wearing one of those personal data devices anytime soon. To count my steps and hours of sleep, to monitor my blood pressure, to issue edifying, or depressing, reports on calories. What if they figure out how to datify cheese consumption?
Get Thee to a Bakery hits the high notes of laughter and the base notes of what it looks like to grapple with aging and uncertainty. He infuses wisdom and tenderness alongside pettiness and deep dives into words like “skeezy” and “Golositá,” and we love the narrator all the more for it. Food plays a vital part of this story, as the title and being married to an Italian might suggest. But more than the musings on snooty wine tastings, the virtues of healthy crackers, and morning vegetable cocktails, I think of food as a metaphor for Bailey’s essays—the daily bread of life on full display. Routine, perhaps mundane at times, but nonetheless essential. Often, delicious.
Rachel Rueckert is an MFA candidate at Columbia, where she also teaches Contemporary Essays. Her work has appeared in River Teeth, The Maine Review, Hippocampus, The Carolina Quarterly, and others. She is hard at work on several book projects. Twitter: @Rachel_Rueckert | Website: rachelrueckert.com.