Karaoke Tips for People Seeking Joy

By p_a_h/ Flickr

By Jennifer Niesslein

The main thing to remember is that it doesn’t matter if you can sing. Karaoke isn’t a talent show. The trick is having confidence.

That said, do yourself a favor and start with something easy. Everyone can sing Billy Joel, say, or Huey Lewis and the News. REM’s not too tough. I once worked at a bar that held karaoke night on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I looked forward to it, if only to escape the monotony of the manager’s Bonnie Raitt tape played on a loop. (“Something to Talk About” still triggers in me an olfactory memory of fajita grease and spilled beer.) There were some regulars who did rousing versions of “Friends in Low Places” and Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.” However, it was the summer of “Love Shack,” a little old song that young, drunk women believed could transform them into Kate Pierson. It was painful. For now, you should probably leave The B-52s alone.

Singing louder makes it easier, weirdly. Also, you can’t sing karaoke ironically. You can use a silly voice all you want, but you’ve chosen your song because something about it speaks to you. A stray lyric, the particular beat, a memory you associate with the song. When it’s just you and the microphone, you can be anything—younger, older, freer, tragic, more bad-ass, more soulful, more successful, unspeakably sexy—for the length of the song. When I sing, I feel something akin to joy.


Even if the n-word is in a song you choose, you still may not use the n-word. Substitute “ninja.”


I have a karaoke machine at home, and that’s normally how I sing karaoke. We’ve amassed a pretty nice selection of karaoke CDs that has nearly overgrown the drawer where we store them. If our collection were a radio station, it might have the tagline, “The best of the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, 2000s, and today!” A little something for everyone.

Public karaoke can be hit or miss. The best public karaoke experience I had was seven years ago in Ocracoke, North Carolina. My friend Sundae is a local, and she took my husband and me out to a karaoke bar one night. The place was a huge, windowless building on a two-lane road leading out of town, away from the tourist traffic. We got there early; a small crowd gathered in the back, drinking. By the time the karaoke DJ got set up, I was one of the first to sing. I chose “The Deadbeat Club” by The B-52s, ignoring my own advice. I pulled it off okay, although I sensed that the crowd didn’t know the song and didn’t care about my rendition. An hour and a half later into the night, it was time for my second turn. At this point, the place was packed. Smoky, wiggle-your-way-to-the-bar, wait-in-line-to-pee packed. The DJ called my name, and I took the mic.


That’s right. Vanilla Ice’s “Ice, Ice, Baby.” The crowd went insane. I was loaning the rock star experience, listening to scores of people singing along with me, watching the room bounce to my voice. For the first time, I understood the allure of public performance, the high that you get from knowing you created this mass of energy.

The next day, a woman stopped me as I was leaving a restaurant restroom. She congratulated me on my performance.

The worst public karaoke experience I had happened in San Francisco at a small Mexican restaurant located on one of those steep streets on which it’s impossible to maintain any sort dignity while walking down. Brandon and I had already been out with some writers I knew, had already eaten dinner and had cocktails, but by the time we got near the hotel, we weren’t ready to end the night. The place had one raucous group when we got there, and it seemed like good times. I chose a song; Brandon chose a song.

But by the time our turns came around, the fun group had left. I had chosen an Alanis Morissette song. I will just say this: There is nothing more humbling than scream-singing about oral sex at the movies, in a room populated by only your husband and the stooped older man running the establishment’s karaoke equipment.


Don’t try to put your own stamp on it by changing the phrasing or some such.


Lyrics can throw you, even if you think you know the song. One holiday, at a family gathering, my mom requested that my nephew sing Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life.” Brit did, and we watched Mom’s face slowly register the meaning of the song’s lyrics. We refer to it now as “Grandma’s Favorite Methamphetamine Addiction Song.”

At one of our neighborhood parties, a friend volunteered to kick off the night with the first song. We were two drinks in—FYI, three is kind of the optimum place to be—and I suggested he try “Tainted Love,” a song on the not-challenging level. We were all having a good time, until he started in with the “touch me” part and happened to look around the room. Most of the adults were in the kitchen, noshing. In the room where the karaoke was, we were surrounded by children, all eager to get a turn at amplifying their own small voices.

It could have been worse. He could have been singing “My Sharona,” with its surprisingly creepy lyrics. Ick! Ick! Ick! Ick! Run, Sharona!


I sprung for the nice microphones from Radio Shack, so don’t swing them from their cords, like you’re some sort of David Lee Roth.


I grew up Presbyterian. Although as an adult, I consider myself a superstitious agnostic, I sometimes miss the ritual of a community gathering in song.

Brandon and I used to host an annual karaoke party on New Year’s Eve in our neighborhood before some of our friends moved and the new neighbors didn’t seem as interested in singing. It was one of the highlights of my year. We’d lay out some snacks and drinks, and we’d catch up. Eventually someone would start the singing.

We’d been hosting this long enough that I knew what people would gravitate toward. Ed and Lucy would do a Rocky Horror Picture Show song. Steve would sing Def Leppard’s “Photograph” with touching earnestness. Because Trisha is Canadian, she got first dibs on Alanis Morissette and the Barenaked Ladies. She also got “Me and Bobby McGee,” slapping her own thigh to keep time. Brandon and Dan would duet on some ’90s songs, and Sara would sing “Son of a Preacher Man” because she’s the daughter of a preacher woman. I’d go heavy on the hip-hop, the kids Top 40 songs, and then at some point Melissa would bust out the Grease soundtrack, and we’d all gather round and shout it out together.

At midnight, those of us left at the party would gather on the back porch with our glasses of champagne or sparkling cider to watch the city’s fireworks. Sometimes there would be a straggler, and in the first moments of the new year, we’d hear melody from inside the house.

I really need you tonight!

Forever’s gonna start tonight.

Forever’s gonna start tonight.

And then, year after year, it would.


JENNIFER NIESSLEIN is the founder and editor of Full Grown People. Her website is jenniferniesslein.com.

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The Dance: Dad’s Lead

By Beth Hannon Fuller www.studiofuller.com

By Sarah M. Wells

“What song do you want to dance to, Dad?” I asked, scrolling through lists of popular father-daughter dance songs.

Nothing seemed right. No Michael Buble or Paul Simon or Stevie Wonder would cut it; this, after all, was my father—my flannel-shirt-and-faded-blue-jeans, muddy-work-boots, calloused-hands, five-o’clock-shadow, “fetch-me-a-Miller” father. What qualified as “our song?” Maybe “Feed Jake.” Maybe “Friends in Low Places.” Maybe “Act Naturally.” Maybe “There’s a Tear in My Beer.” Hank and Garth and Buck and the Pirates of the Mississippi sang about misery, friends, beer, and mama; they didn’t sing anything about their daughters.

By the day of our wedding, Mom and Dad had settled on a song. “It’s a surprise,” they said.

Four months earlier, I had come home from college graduation with my boyfriend who they liked well enough but were still warming to, and an engagement ring. Brandon had asked my dad’s permission first, of course, out of my hearing the day before, and Dad had said yes—he hugged me extra-long before I left, cap and gown still on.

In the early planning days, Mom and Dad offered to write us a check instead: big party vs. down payment on a house. We waffled for a day or two, but in my head were visions of a white dress and a man in a tux waiting for me, dreams of dancing and spinning under a spotlight, all of our friends and family clapping and celebrating.

It was my day to plan, along with my mom, who navigated the wedding planning with me like she was my maid-of-honor. Mom and I picked the flowers—sunflowers and blue delphinium—the same that decorated the cake display we chose. We taste-tested the catering, got weepy-eyed over my bridal gown and veil, and designed the party favors together. The reception venue was our decision, too, even as my soon-to-be mother-in-law raised her eyebrows and said, “Really, a barn?”

After the father-daughter dance to whatever song Mom and Dad had picked, Rhonda and Brandon would get the party started. Rhonda’s choice for the mother-son dance was easy: Louie Armstrong would sing “What a Wonderful World” for thirty seconds, then the record would screech to a stop. Brandon and his mom would look confused for a second until Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5” would begin to play. It fit them perfectly.

I wrote the order of music and communion and rings; I designed the program and inscribed a poem; I recruited our friends as musicians. Brandon and I selected most of the songs and all of the Bible verses for the ceremony. We picked the pastor and the bridal party and the style of music to be played at the reception. We determined the flavor of this wedding, and this wedding would taste just like us.

The guest list: that was their decision—the parents—and it grew, and grew, and grew, until we all silently stared at it sitting on the kitchen counter. Who could we possibly cut? No one. Maybe there were a lot of other commitments that weekend, and the guest list would just… trim itself. Maybe in true Father of the Bride fashion, we could declare, “Well, cross them off, then!”

Also their decision: the alcohol. We toyed with the idea of a dry wedding for about a twelve-hour timespan because Brandon had just gotten a job at a new school, and we weren’t sure yet exactly how conservative they were. A few of his new employers made Round One of the guest list. It hadn’t been decided if they’d make the Round Two cuts.

“You want a what?!” Dad asked, his voice rising steadily. “We are not going to invite all of our friends to a wedding and not have alcohol. What kind of a party is that?”

“But, Da-ad,” I said. “We just thought, you know, the school… and maybe…” but it was no use. My excuses were weak, anyway; it wasn’t like Brandon and his family and our friends and our relatives never kicked back and drank a glass of wine or a can/ six-pack /case of beer, so why pretend otherwise and ruin a good time? Besides, it was Dad’s call. Dad’s decision. Dad’s lead.

So, okay, beer and wine, Dad. And yes, invite all of those people, even those people I won’t know when they come through the receiving line, and I’ll look at Brandon and he’ll look at me, and we’ll both smile and shake their hands and give them hugs and thank them for coming. And, okay, yes, pick our father-daughter dance.


Down the aisle we went, Dad in his black tuxedo looking sharp, no John Deere hat to cover his balding head or shadow his features. His hand was tight in mine, tense against a few hundred sets of eyes that watched us while we two-stepped—left-together, right-together—our paces matched, the Fugman stride slow and easy like a mosey.

I saw only my future husband at the end of the aisle where Brandon waited for me. When we reached the pastor and he asked, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” Dad answered gruffly, “Her mother and I.” I turned my gaze back to him for just that second and wrapped my arms around his neck, and he held on, squeezed and squeezed, then released me to my groom, taking his seat in the sanctuary while I remained standing.

Later, after the bridal dance ended and I parted with a kiss from my new husband, our spunky blue-haired emcee called Dad onto the floor. Dad had donned his Father-of-the-Bride ball cap as soon as the wedding ended and wore it now as he met me for our dance. The bubbles from the bride and groom dance settled and popped on the dance floor. A slow piano, slide guitar, and light percussion played.

The cut-time of Mickey Gilley singing “True Love Ways” carried us along the hardwood, Dad’s calloused palm in my manicured hand. I smiled, even though the tune was unfamiliar to me. I guess it went to number one on the country charts in 1980, the year my parents started dating. Dad would sing it to her in the car as it played on the radio. So romantic, Mom says later. But this was our dance, our slow turn under the spotlight. It didn’t seem like the right fit—know true love’s ways—but what would have been?

Earlier in the afternoon, Dad gave me over, his daughter, his only daughter, his dazzled blue-eyed daughter grinning with confidence over the man she had chosen. I came into the sanctuary my father’s daughter. I walked out of the sanctuary my husband’s wife.

How long had I dreamed of becoming Mrs. Anyone? A boyfriend, a boyfriend, a boyfriend: I wanted one, as long as he would stay around. And then another one, and then I wanted that boyfriend to become a fiancé and that fiancé to become my husband, so I could become Mrs. Anyone. In college, that was the title that mattered: I wanted a partner. I wanted someone I could pour my heart into. That’s what I thought you did after high school and certainly after college. My mom and dad had grown up across the street from each other; she was nineteen when they married and twenty when she delivered her first baby: me. Today it’s ill-advised to marry young, trouble from the start, they don’t know what they’re getting into, a whole life ahead, plenty of time for that, but from where I stood, I felt behind already.

Yes, I also earned a bachelor’s degree. I sought out opportunities to lead and to stretch and to achieve, to do more, earn praise, perform. Dad always said Fugmans aren’t afraid of work, Fugmans are hard workers. He instilled this drive. He was the man who had been my guide. But Brandon was the man I had chosen to walk with me out of the sanctuary, the man who would walk beside me from the altar forward. He brought me a different sort of pride. We had weighed and measured our potential, considered our compatibility, discussed the ways we would raise children, established our priorities. In him, I had found a worthy Scrabble opponent, someone I could adventure with, a man who could say “I’m sorry,” a man who would forgive me, too. For all of that and more, I had chosen him.

Now, Dad held the hand and waist of Mrs. Brandon Wells as we danced. Far in the past, a little girl crawled across his chest and stole his John Deere cap, blue eyes grinning into the face of the camera. She asked for Hooper Humperdink at bedtime again, and now we can all recite it from memory—Pete and Pat and Pasternack, I bet they come by camel back! Back there, too, she watched her mom and dad spin slowly in the living room to “If We Make It Through December,” not knowing then the depth in that melody, not knowing then the weight behind eyes connecting and smiles, what it means to make it through December, together. He taught that little girl the cast of a rod, the slow click and reel after the bobber plunked onto the surface of the water, how to bait a hook with a squirming night crawler. He coached the in-and-out of orange construction cones for hours until she mastered how to parallel park before her final driving test. Whether intentionally or accidentally, he had been preparing me.

Now, we turned slow around the dance floor, each sway a step closer to the last note in the song. Gone was the night we stared up at the cloudless sky on the hill by the old maple and waited for the meteor shower. Evenings swaying in front of a fire pit, turning front ways then back to warm our bodies as we talked about God and faith and family and regret, until the coals flashed red and black, flames dying, then walking slowly into the house to bed. There would be no more creasing wrapping paper in the dry heat of the excavator’s shop on Christmas Eve with him, no more Dad topping off and lifting my bushel basket of corn from the end of a row and spilling it with ease into the bed of the red pickup truck, Dad gunning the accelerator of the snowmobile through the fields with me clinging to his coat toasty in my snowsuit and helmet, Dad showing me the slow slide of a cue stick between thumb and index finger and then the thrust that sent the cue ball breaking against the racked triangle of billiard balls.

All of life before that day squeezed between his dusty calloused hands and mine, a slow turning, slow turning until the end notes began to play. My fingers are my father’s; long and lean, rough along the palms from a summer shoveling mulch, tough where a pen had rubbed and formed a writer’s bump. They were made for work; they were made for pouring your sweat into the thing you loved.

Even over the black tuxedo, fresh trim, and aftershave, I could breathe him in when we embraced, the scent of sweat and sun and earth and oil, “I love you, Sare,” he said.

“I love you, too, Dad.”

“It is a beautiful song,” Mom tells me later, “and we chose it for a beautiful girl.” Sometimes we’ll sigh, sometimes we’ll cry, and we’ll know why, just you and I… Maybe it was perfect. As Mickey Gilley lulled a final “…know true love ways,” Dad spun me out, then pulled me back in, my white dress billowing, the bill of his father-of-the-bride cap shadowing his smile.


SARAH M. WELLS is the author of Pruning Burning Bushes and a chapbook of poems, Acquiesce. Poems and essays by Wells have appeared recently in Ascent, Brevity, The Common, The Good Men Project, New Ohio Review, Poetry East, Puerto del Sol, River Teeth, and elsewhere. Sarah’s poetry and essays have been honored with three Pushcart Prize nominations. Two essays were listed as notable essays in the Best American Essays 2013 and 2012. Her memoir-in-progress on dads, husbands, and the girl between is tentatively titled American Honey. She is the Administrative Director of the Ashland University MFA Program and Managing Editor of the Ashland Poetry Press and River Teeth. http://sarahmwells.blogspot.com.


Getting Ginger

paw and hand
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Michele Coppola

My ex-husband died and left me his dog. It wasn’t an official bequest, but since all of his friends claimed to love her to death, really, but just couldn’t take her in, I drove five hours south to pick up the rickety Staffordshire terrier named Ginger who we had rescued together ten years prior.

“It’s wonderful what you’re doing,” said my ex-sister-in-law when she called me. “I’m sure Marty is smiling down on you.”

Not likely. The first time he’d gone to the hospital in liver failure, I’d texted him and asked if he wanted me to come down and get Ginger—but the only response I got was second hand from a mutual friend. He said that even though Marty knew he wasn’t able to care for the dog properly, he’d be damned if he was going to let me take her away.

“Alcohol is what’s taking his dog away,” I’d said angrily. “The same thing that’s taken everything away.”


Ginger had been our first foster dog when I brought her home from the shelter a decade ago, her hopeful eyes looking up from a skinny, dun-colored body dangling with exhausted nipples. Confiscated from a home where she’d already been bred twice, the last go-round resulted in nine puppies who’d drained her completely. It hadn’t been hard to do since she’d barely been fed and had nothing to drink save a puddle of muddy Oregon rainwater. Marty and I were in love then—with each other, and with the idea of turning our three-acres-and-a-trailer into an unofficial dog rescue.

After several weeks of fattening her up and teaching her a few commands, we re-homed Ginger with an affable long-haul driver, who took her on cross-country adventures and fed her truck-stop meatloaf. It was a fine life for a sweet dog. But a year later, a bad accident on the interstate took the trucker off the road for good and brought Ginger back to us, also for good. Once she was again curled up on our couch, Marty and I found we couldn’t part with her.

“Animals were also close to McGuire’s heart,” read the article about my ex-husband’s death. At one time he’d been a popular DJ in the small town where he’d lived most of his life, and his passing made the front page. He was indeed an animal lover, poetic and soulful, with a malleable heart that never seemed to recover from the blows and dings that come with daily life. We were immeasurably compatible, and when we moved in together, we didn’t spend the weekend unpacking; instead, we used our rent money to take a road trip through Northern California, pulling off at scenic overlooks to make out and licking fast-food barbeque sauce off each other’s fingers. Tunes from an old Allman Brothers’ CD completed the new love movie montage.

Eight years later, he refused to look at me as we sat in our second marriage counselor’s dim office. “I’m not giving up alcohol for her,” he said. I felt my face flush red—not with anger, but with embarrassment. How lousy a spouse was I that my husband wouldn’t even consider sacrificing a half rack of Milwaukee’s Best to keep me? I remember wanting to protest that I’d cooked all of his favorite meals whenever I had the time and that when my face wasn’t mottled and puffy with crying, I wasn’t half-bad looking. But I didn’t. Instead, I moved into the other bedroom and told him I wanted a divorce.


That memory still cuts me as I reach over to the passenger seat in my car, where Ginger is now coiled into a petrified ball. My hands smell like french fries and old socks after I pet her—just like the house where Marty had been living. It’s been seven years since I tearfully agreed to take our three other dogs to Portland with me and let my ex have the member of our canine family most likely to never leave his side. Ginger is fourteen now. When I tried to put the leash on her back at Marty’s house a couple of hours before, she hid behind his roommate. Finally I got her to come to me and I stroked her ears, something I remember she always liked. Still, her expressive brow was wrinkled with worry.

I’m a little worried myself. My current husband Bryon isn’t happy about having a third dog, but I have promised him that I will find Ginger another home quickly, something I already know will be nearly impossible. He and I squabble frequently; you can smell the dependability and routine on him like a nose-burning aftershave, and sometimes his rigidity is beyond exasperating. While he likes animals, he certainly didn’t want a house full of them. But he did want me, and I come with canines that bark when a squirrel sneezes and a cat who sleeps on his head. He never swats her down in frustration, though. He gently lifts her from his face and places her, carefully curled in the same position, at the foot of the bed.

We argued about Ginger the night before I went to get her. “I don’t mind you going to get the dog. I understand that,” he said. “What I don’t like is all the baggage that comes with her.”

“What baggage?” I asked, wiping away yet another large, infuriating tear from my clammy cheek.

“Yeah, what baggage,” he said, turning back to his laptop. “Go. Do whatever you need to do.”

I hate like hell that nearly every emotion I have comes out in tears. I don’t miss my ex-husband; during our marriage I slowly realized that this was how it would end for him and it’s why I left. And yet … there is something so profoundly sad about the way Marty slowly deteriorated in the last few years, like watching a fragile sandcastle that took a whole afternoon to build get washed away in the tide. But I still wasn’t prepared for his death when it happened, and now Bryon looks at my downcast eyes and thinks I’m hiding remnants of an old love. What I’m actually trying to conceal is the fact that I am beyond angry that after all of this time my husband thinks I could still be carrying a torch for my ex, and also furious that Marty was in such deliberate denial about his condition he wouldn’t make arrangements for Ginger, the companion he swore he loved more than anything in the world.

Back on the road, I stop for a sandwich at a drive-thru outside of Roseburg. I tear off a meaty corner and offer it to Ginger, who sniffs it warily, then buries her nose back in the dirty crocheted blanket that had been on Marty’s bed back at his house. I took it so that the old girl would have a familiar smell to comfort her, and also because I recognized it as one I had made for my ex many Christmases ago. Just one more thing from the past I’m dragging into the present that my husband and I will absorb because it’s what we do. We are boring and stable and responsible.

And yet, I am immensely appreciative of the fact that I have a working vehicle and the gas money to come rescue Ginger and a comfortable home where, until I find her a permanent situation, she can spend her days snoring contentedly on the couch. These resources are at my disposal in no small part because of Bryon, the man who has already called me twice to make sure I’m doing okay on the slick mountain passes. I feel reasonably sure that if the situation had been reversed—that I died and Marty were called on to come get a dog we’d owned together—he would have been both unable and unwilling to help. Not that he wouldn’t have regretted his impotency; in fact, my guess is it would have taken at least an entire bottle of booze before he didn’t feel bad about it anymore.

The sky is a watery blue-gray when I pull into the driveway of my house, the sun resigned to another day behind clouds. Ginger sits up in the passenger seat and shivers. I can barely breathe when I think about having to convince some reluctant person to take her in and then leaving her there to curl up in the dark corner of a strange-smelling place, leaving her to wonder why the man she loved so much didn’t want her anymore.


“So we have a third dog now, right?” says Bryon, who is sitting on the bed smirking and rubbing Ginger’s belly. It’s been two weeks since I brought her home, and in that time we’ve discovered that in addition to being somewhat deaf, my ex’s dog is a bit incontinent, requiring potty breaks every two hours. Unfortunately, she is also petrified of the doggy flap, so we must get up and let her out several times a night. My husband doesn’t complain about it; he just rolls out of bed and stumbles to the back door with a sigh. I’d be happy to do potty duty, but Ginger wakes him up when she’s got to go; she sleeps on the floor by his side of the bed and follows him to the kitchen, where he feeds her bits of the flatulence-inducing cheese that she loves.

“Well, no, I’m still working on it. I posted her picture on Petfinder,” I say halfheartedly.

“Oh come on. Who’s gonna want her? She’s old, deaf, has to pee all the time. But she’s such a good guuuurl,” he purrs into her floppy ear. Ginger rolls over on to her back and snuggles her grey muzzle into his lap. She attached herself to him immediately when I brought her home, and if I’m being honest, I felt a twinge of resentment. Dogs live in the moment, so it’s entirely possible she didn’t remember me at all—but apparently she knew instinctively that Bryon, with his understanding eyes and strong, warm hands, was someone to be trusted.

I get up and wrap my arms around him. “Thank you,” I whisper. I love him so much for this, for the absolute conviction that society will start to unravel if he doesn’t step up, for believing that dismissing this dog to become someone else’s problem is just wrong. That is what Bryon does—even when it’s exhausting, even when I tease him unmercifully about his Eagle-scout code of honor and wish he could just relax, already. What I didn’t realize is that it’s hard to lighten up when you’re made of such sturdy stuff.

Perhaps Ginger knows what I am just learning: that in the end, love is really about showing up, again and again and again. I was there for her. Bryon is there for me. No matter where I step in this marriage, even out to the edges of his tolerance and my good sense, the floor is sound; there are no soft spots, no decay. It will hold me up, even with the added weight of my ex-husband’s elderly, incontinent dog.


MICHELE COPPOLA is a veteran radio personality, copywriter, and freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Oregonian and Spot Magazine as well as the literary journals So To Speak, Melusine, and Short Story America. She lives in Portland, Oregon, where she shares a bed with her husband, two dogs, and two cats. Ginger passed away a little over a year ago in Bryon’s lap.

Into the Woods

girl in tree

By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Rebecca Stetson Werner

Dear Lucy,

I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand a word you say, but I shall still be

your affectionate Godfather, C. S. Lewis.

Introduction: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

I am packing for several days away from my family, away from my husband, Jonathan, and our three children. I am going to spend much of that time in a hospital, I know. I am preparing for this by carefully considering what I will need and what I need to leave behind. I stand before my closet, my Wardrobe, and consider my options. I pull out two skirts. They strike me as nicer than my typical jeans and perhaps they will somehow help me feel more comfortable, more grownup, more respectable in the hospital world I am about to enter. Maybe I’m reaching for a fur coat as I pass through the Wardrobe and into Narnia.

I move from the closet to my nightstand and gather my laptop and cell phone and coil up their power cords. I take several folders and books of work I am in the midst of. And then I grab a book of fiction, thinking I might have a lot of time on my hands, and I toss it into my shoulder bag. The one I grab is from the pile of middle-grade-reader books I have recently collected from the library for Julia, our daughter. Books that expose young readers to the world outside their family, with themes of the difficult but doable, dark but with a promise of a happy ending.

Julia and I are working our way through this stack, both of us happily devouring the stories. So perfect for her because she is nine. So perfect for me because apparently this is what I need right now. As I enter this new stage of my adult life and grow up a bit, and I reach for the fairy tales of my childhood to help me walk through this new terrain and find a path through the dark forest. Just as C.S. Lewis promised. They are my sustenance right now, and, like a gingerbread house, they have me enchanted and captivated.

So. Two skirts, a cell phone, and a child’s book to keep me company during a very adult journey. I register the irony, and also how it seems just right.

Somewhere within me, down deep, I know. I know it is very important what you select for a journey. In your bag will be the only things you will have when you face problems, uncertainties, riddles, witches, and wolves. What seems random, what seems thrown in for another purpose, or by chance? Could be what you trade for your very life.

At least that’s how it works in fairy tales.


As with all great art, the fairy tale’s deepest meaning will be different for each person, and different for the same person at various moments in his life. The child will extract different meaning from the same fairy tale, depending on his interests and needs of the moment. When given the chance, he will return to the same tale when he is ready to enlarge on old meanings or replace them with new ones.

Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment

My father has been gone from the hospital’s surgical waiting room for quite a while. Really, for a long while. Though I am not sure this is actually true. It feels as though I have been here alone—alone but surrounded by strangers who are separated from me by their own internal struggles and worries about their own loved ones—for hours.

My mother is in surgery, a minor surgery, a surgery resulting from her age, a “tune up” as we explained it to our three children when I told them that I was going to be away for two nights in order to be with Grammie in the hospital. I am here just in case. Here to keep my father company. Here to try to make sure my mother moves more easily through the complicated sequences of hospital care. Here to get her home as quickly as possible.

I have come to that place in my life: I am caring for my own children, big enough to not need me at all moments of the day, but often needing me more, needing me to be figuring, wondering, considering with them in more complicated ways. This time of tending my children blurs and overlaps with the beginnings of tending my parents. Helping them out here and there.

And then, my father returns to the waiting room from a trip to the bathroom and from a walk out to the car to find something to pass the time. He gives me a small smile and walks over to our chairs with his lopsided gait, never quite having regained his surefootedness after his knee surgery a few years ago. He eases into the chair beside me and says, “I should have left a trail of breadcrumbs. I got a bit lost.”

I look at him, assessing his seriousness.

He does not seem upset. If he was lost, he seems to have handled it. And then, I look down at my hands in which I’m holding the fiction I grabbed as I packed at home. It had remained tucked away in my bag until, alone in this room, I had dug it out in order to help me ignore the pain and sadness of the people around me, to drown out the daytime talk shows blaring on the TV in the corner of the room. To hold my gaze so I could give myself and those around me a sense of false privacy.

Its title? Breadcrumbs, by Anne Ursu.

In this moment, I realize that this book is my Floo Powder, my portal between two worlds. My magic beans, my potion in a vial, my key tied around my neck opening the last door I need to pass through. From the moment I started to prepare for this journey, and really for every moment, every major event of my life, there is a steady undercurrent of story. Moving like a river that guides and explains, flowing under the surface of real life. These fairy tales and children’s stories—with their themes and roles and relationships, their adventure and struggle with maturation and separation and needs and desires. They are told to us when we are young and are here with us in every conscious moment. We retreat to them, draw upon them, quote them, and use them between us as a shared experience and vernacular to guide us.

Fairy tales, given their oral storytelling origins, hold common truths. In fact, they must. For in order for one narrator to decide to pass them along to another, tales had to have been deemed good stories. Had to hold themes and roles and problems and resolutions that resonated with their audiences. They were told again and again until eventually they were written down. And then read again and again, until they became a part of our cultural history, and of our personal narrative and compass for our own lives, internal and external.

I look over at my father, my former woodsman, to see if somehow he knows, if he is referencing my book’s title. But he is not and does not know that I am reading this modern fractured fairy tale. He is instead listening to his own internal map, relying on the network of story that is within him as well, trying to make meaning, trying to understand these unfamiliar woods by following the rules of those storied woods he does know and has visited before. Hoping that perhaps he will know what to do now.

He and I have been adjusting ourselves to each other in these past hours, figuring out who sits and who stands near my mother during admission. Who gets the first kiss goodbye as my mother is wheeled off to surgery. Who answers the phone when my mother’s name is called in the waiting room. Who pays for snacks from the cafeteria. Who is in the lead and who is following behind on this path. It used to be him leading, always. But today, as uncomfortable with and as ill-suited to the task as I may feel, I think it may be me. If my father is not the woodsman, then I may not be the little girl anymore. Even if these woods are dark, and the nurses and wolves are scaring me a bit.

My father, as many do who reference this story, seems to have forgotten that the trail of breadcrumbs was faulty. On their first trip to the woods, Hansel cleverly drops white pebbles to lead them home. It is on their second trip that he uses breadcrumbs, his only available material, and these impermanent, edible, and disappearing trail markers are what ultimately cause Hansel and Gretel to get lost in the woods, unable to return home. Only then, faced with this problem, does Gretel rise to the occasion and lead the way on her own self-determined path to their happy ending. Somehow it is troubling to me that my father has forgotten that we don’t want to leave breadcrumbs, that what he needs is something more permanent. And inedible.

So far? My role is to hold things. I have placed my mother’s car keys in my shoulder bag next to my cell phone and have tucked her wedding ring, the one they snipped off her finger in case there were complications, into my change purse. Before I did so, I checked the engraving. The nurse had not cut through the inscription, my parents’ initials, followed by the date of their wedding. Somehow I am relieved. And like any fairy tale, each item I collect has some kind of meaning, some kind of purpose, each statement a window into underlying wishes and needs.


This is what happens on journeys—the things you find are not necessarily the things you have gone looking for.

Anne Ursu, Breadcrumbs

My phone vibrates, a text from my brother. He is at work, a doctor, several states away. He hasn’t heard from me. My father and I have been waiting here for six hours for what we were told would be a three-hour procedure. I have not texted my brother for a while with an update. Because I am trying to sit still, trying not to move. Movement might be interpreted as panic by the imaginary wolves of possibility in the room with me. I am waiting for some information. I have been hoping not to have to send a message admitting that I have no idea what is taking so long. I know right now where my father is, but I have lost my mother for a bit.

Despite the states separating us, my brother and I are here together in this new place. Trying to figure out how to make this shifting role with our parents work. And how it will work between us. Because we are still the same people, the same children. We are still on the same path, walking together, he the older brother, me the younger sister. Our roles, our history, the story of our childhood together cannot be ignored as we take these next steps.

My trickster brother, my fellow backseat rider, has grown into a brilliant and successful adult. He actually saves lives on a daily basis. In his role as Hansel, his focus is on the world in front of him, and he moves through it with strength, skill, and confidence. He expects, as darkness falls, for the white stones he wisely laid earlier to begin to glow, to keep us safe, and he expects to know the right thing to do.

I’m not sure he would ever leave a faulty trail of breadcrumbs. That’s my role. I am much more likely to leave behind a trail of the accidentally vanishing variety, birds eating the crumbs and making our way home impossible. And this mistake would not shock anyone who knows me. I have been given the role of observer, wanderer, emoter, but rarely leader. My ear is more likely pressed to the forest floor, listening to the rumblings and undercurrents and meanings that are held beneath the surface of the action above. When I try to walk the path that Hansel would blaze, I trip and stumble and get lost, because this is not my role and not the path I would choose for myself. But with my lifetime of poorly chosen materials, I am afforded the ability to laugh at myself and not be very surprised to find myself lost in the woods because I was listening to the rhythms below, with no plan for getting home. I look about the room. It is relatively empty. There is no one to ask for directions.

Some time later a nurse and then a doctor come to tell us everything has gone well. My mother is doing just fine and is in recovery. I am relieved. And a bit angry at the doctor for the frozen fitful slumber my father and I have been plunged into for the past three extra hours. I ask a few questions. My father is quiet but asks for reassurances that she is okay. My mother’s doctor looks tired. I try to forgive her. I tell her I hope she can go rest for a bit. She looks taken aback. I realize that this was not the thing to say here. She is the one doing the caring.

We are told we have another hour before she will be ready to be transferred to her room. I tell my father I will be right back, and I go to the bathroom. I text my brother and Jonathan from the stall. I need a few moments of aloneness with my relief.

I emerge and go to wash my hands. I look at myself in the mirror. I reach up to my hairline and pluck a grey hair from where it has been sticking straight up toward the florescent lights. I stare at my reflection for a few moments before another person enters the room.

Mirror, Mirror.


She had done her best to be prepared, but had not anticipated crazy people.

Anne Ursu, Breadcrumbs

Despite all my preparation, packing, and collecting along the way, I had not expected to get into an elevator with my mother, pale and scared looking, still under the influence of anesthesia. Nor had I anticipated where this elevator would take us.

“Did you and Dad get some breakfast?” she asks when she sees me walking toward her. Despite the drugs, she knows her role, her lifetime as the Baker. I feel comforted that she seems lucid. This is a very typical question from her. I answer that yes, we have. And glance at my father. Should we tell her we’ve had lunch, too? I wonder through my eyes at him. He does not answer. Unlike in fairy tales, we cannot apparently speak with our minds.

I squeeze in beside her and hold her hand, lifting my large shoulder bag above the railing of her bed. I turn to her. She is focusing on me. Staring at me. The attention is unsettling. I crack a few jokes and then swallow more, realizing that the recovery room nurses in this incredibly small space with us might see my retreat to being silly as inappropriate. Or more likely, as the rantings of a heartless mad woman. My father is silent, making himself as skinny as possible, standing behind my mother’s head. I am not sure she knows he is there.

“I think I might be talking funny,” my mother says thickly, as though her face is numb and her tongue non-responsive. And then, “Did you and Dad get some breakfast?” Her eyes grow wide, and even more scared as I answer that we have. And lunch, too. “Did something go wrong? Am I okay?” She’s garbling the words.

Her vulnerability is dawning on me. I respond by being overly cheery. I explain to her what the doctor told us, that it just took longer than they had anticipated, but that there had been no complications. I start trying to be funny again. My father can’t hear me. My mother is loopy and confused. The recovery room nurses just look at me. I am babbling.

“Did you and Dad get some breakfast?” she asks for the third time. I turn to my father, who either has not heard her or is really good at hiding his reaction. Are we trapped in some small circle of time together, sleeping in this moment for eternity while the rest of the world moves on without us? Or maybe I am just being childish and this is just something that happens when Moms come out of anesthesia?

This hospital. I was born here. And as if to make this all come full circle, I follow my mother’s wheeled bed out of the bank of elevators and onto the maternity ward. “Ah,” I say, “this is where we met.” I say it mostly to myself. But my groggy mother and her recovery room nurses look at me with equal amounts of confusion and concern.


“Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

C.S. Lewis

Once we are settled into her room, we focus our efforts on the same things that I imagine my mother and father focused upon when we were last here all together forty years ago: eating, sleeping, and pooping. I notice families outside her door taking their first walks in the halls together, babies pushed before them in wheeled bassinets. I see lactation consultants come and go. I watch some newborns being cared for in the nursery. I run into tired fathers in the kitchenette downing coffee. I think of my children, and of my now-woodsman, Jonathan, to the north of here. And turn back to my parents.

I order my mother meals on the phone and I take my father for a third meal in the cafeteria. On my mother’s ward, the mothers’ ward, we pass by the newborn nursery at its center. I see myself there as a baby and see my own children being given their first baths in nurseries very similar to this one. I quietly register that I am now like my mother in another way: there will be no more newborns for me.

My mother is struggling with her lack of control, of being the one who now needs tending, and her mood is rolling in unexpected waves. As she wakes from her long slumber, we are cast as children, then as evil step-parents, pulled in and then pushed away. Her eyeglasses now returned to her, she holds them up, looks at me through them and then not through them. With glasses. Then without. Over and over. She sees me blurred followed by invisible, and I am not seen well in either case.

I step out and go for doughnuts. I nibble from the gingerbread house for a bit and bring back treats to my parents. Upon my return, I once again enter this shifting, muddy, dim terrain populated by the where and who and when we are, and by what we packed and who all of us have been up to this moment. We crash and bump and collide into all of these selves in the room together. The Woodsman and Gretel, the Snow Queen and the Gingerbread House Woman, the wolves and the birds. Hansel is on the phone, asking me about medications for which I do not know the names. I try to make light, but know that I should have asked about this already. I would like to talk to him about how full and noisy and messy it is here in the room with all of our past and present selves dancing about like wood nymphs. But I don’t. I just go find a nurse to answer his questions.

The chaos in that room. The spilling and boiling emotions. The things that have been felt and seen and said. My instinct is to talk, to process them, as I have awkwardly attempted to do throughout the day. But I choose to hold them instead. And not just hold them, but bottle them, thrust in a cork, and pop them into my bag. That is something I can offer all of us. For now, I will keep my awareness to myself so we can all continue moving forward together. I can wait to press my ear to the ground. I can choose to just keep walking.


Now, the world is more than it seems to be. You know this, of course, because you read stories. You understand that there is the surface and then there are all the things that glimmer and shift underneath it. And you know that not everyone believes in those things, that there are people—a great many people—who believe the world cannot be any more than what they can see with their eyes. But we know better.

Anne Ursu, Breadcrumbs

Finally, I am heading home. My mother is doing well. My father is at the helm. My brother will be here later in the day. We have our happy ending. Yet I know I have now entered unfamiliar woods. And that I am going to have to walk around in them for some time now. And contend with the rustling noises.

When I get to my car, I notice that I have a message. From my father, to whom I have just said goodbye a few minutes before. I dial voicemail and set my phone on speaker. I begin my long drive back to my children, hoping to meet them outside their school, to hear about their days.

I just got outside and noticed there is a steady sleet coming out of the sky. The temperature is hovering at freezing. But as you drive north, it may be slippery. I don’t think it is going to accumulate, but I wanted to let you know. Please drive carefully.

The Woodsman has returned. So I grab a bite of turkish delight. Feel the fur coats brush against my face as I pass back through the Wardrobe. Flick the reins of my Subaru. And head north, toward home.


REBECCA STETSON WERNER lives in Portland, Maine with her husband and three children. She has a doctorate in child psychology but uses it mostly to help her better understand all of her parenting blunders and to help her children choose good books. She has contributed to Taproot Magazine and Grounded Magazine and writes about parenting, children’s books, and life in their very old home at www.treetoriver.com.


Reunion Blues

By Frapestaartje/ Flickr

By Alicia Catt

The night before my ten-year high school reunion, I join an online dating website and peruse the singles living in the town where I grew up. It’s late and I’m lonely and nursing a large bottle of plum wine. Most of my potential matches are farm-grown cowboys and college girls going through self-described “experimental” phases. I find just one promising profile; he’s barefoot in his pictures and mentions a love of bacon and grassroots democracy. I send him a message. I tell him to meet me at the reunion bar at eight p.m. the next evening, because I’ll surely need a break from my classmates by then. He doesn’t write back. Later I realize I’ve given him the wrong bar name—the reunion is at Junior’s, but I told him Johnnie’s. Or maybe Jimmy’s. There are more bars than churches in River Falls, Wisconsin, and most of them seem to be owned by men whose names begin with the letter J.

Though I now live only sixty miles away, I haven’t been back to River Falls in almost a decade. I spent most of my childhood there, but I don’t claim the town as my home. I don’t follow its sports teams or wear the colors of my high school alma mater. Containing ten thousand townies, six thousand bushy-tailed undergraduates, and a single homeless man named Artie, River Falls is every average, small-minded college town that people love to hate. Nestled on the banks of the Kinnikinnic River, River Falls is an hour’s drive from the urban center of Minneapolis. People from River Falls think they live in a suburb. Most Minneapolitans don’t even know River Falls exists.

The next day, as I drive east into town, I realize I remember more than I expected to. I pass Ryan’s house, where I once gave a terribly inept blowjob in exchange for Chinese food and being told that I was pretty. I pass Perkins, where I’d taken my girlfriend Rebecca on late-night dates and tried, usually unsuccessfully, to feel her up under the table. I pass Billy’s house, where I blacked out drunk for the first time on watery Rolling Rock and passed out topless in the driveway. And I pass the high school, now renovated to house the junior high. Here I have to stop the car for a minute and cry.


I graduated from high school before the days of anti-bullying campaigns, before teachers posted rainbow stickers on their doors to signify LGBT alliance, before celebrities made YouTube videos assuring students that it gets better. Rebecca and I would navigate the gauntlet of the west wing hallway to a rotating chorus of homophobic epithets. It was the first time in my school career that I hadn’t been entirely invisible to my classmates—so sometimes I almost liked the attention, the being-different-ness of it. Sometimes I would grab Rebecca’s hands, press her up against a locker and kiss her, our Chapstick-slick mouths slurping at each other. I would count the slurs as they were hurled our way and, even though it hurt, I’d smile a tiny bit to myself.

Coming out was no big production for me internally. I knew I liked girls in third grade when I mashed my Barbies into compromising positions in the cardboard box I termed the “Sexmobile.” In fourth grade I filled spiral ring notebooks with odes of girlish admiration to Mrs. Ferris, my teacher. And in seventh grade, instead of posters of contemporary male heartthrobs, I plastered my walls with magazine cut-outs featuring beautiful, exotic women with long hair—mostly vodka ads and fashion shoots.

But I knew I liked boys, too, because I spent most of eighth grade in a hopeless haze over dreamboat Levi and bad boy Zach, leaving anonymous love notes and fake roses from a craft store in their lockers. Most boys in my class weren’t aware I existed, but I let the ones that noticed me touch my hips awkwardly during slow songs at school dances. I liked it all. I wanted it all. I would take just about anything anyone was willing to give me.

So I came out to my band-geek friend Mike first, in tenth grade, as we were boarding the school bus to go home. You’re so gay, he said (as in the pejorative gay, referencing some teenage shenanigan I’d pulled, no doubt). And because I didn’t think there was anything unusual about that, I corrected him. Half-gay, I said. He grinned, and I grinned, and I figured that would be that.

I came out to my mother a few weeks later, in her car at a stop light. I’m bisexual, I told her. She retracted her head from its usual self-absorbed cloud long enough to glance at me. Oh? she said. That’s nice.


The trouble began when I met Rebecca. She was a grade below me, six inches taller, and perpetually clad in combat boots, black ruffled skirts, and Metallica T-shirts. On a field trip she confided to me that she liked girls. By the end of that week we were passing heart-shaped notes in the hallway.

Rebecca never wanted to go public with our relationship; in retrospect, considering our environment, she was a far more sensible girl than me. But I dragged us out of the closet anyway—grabbed for her hand and held it in the lunch line, snuck up on her at her locker and smacked her ass. By the time I realized the gay-bashing monster I’d awoken, it was too late.

On the two-year anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death—National Coming Out Day—I plastered the outside of my locker with a picture of Shepard and rainbow decals. Before noon, the picture had been torn down and crumpled on the floor, and my locker was smeared with big black letters inked in permanent marker: DYKE.

When a dye job gone bad left my hair a dirty dishwater green, I simply shaved it off. The next day, my scrawniest, most acne-ridden bully, Scott, threw a ball of wet clay at my back hard enough to bruise. Did you join the fucking army, lesbo? I held up my middle finger. I gave everyone the finger back then. Most of the time it was easier than trying to articulate a response to their ignorant comments.

Rebecca and I were walking targets for teenage cruelty. Once, someone smashed gum into her waist-length hair. Someone spit in my ear in the hallway and wedged spitballs into the vents of my locker. Someone threw a firecracker out a car window at Rebecca as she was walking home from school. And even after we broke up, after she stopped talking to me, after I swore to only date boys until I graduated and moved away, after I gave enough drunken, bored blowjobs to grant me the unofficial title of “school bicycle” because everyone had had a ride—even after all of that, the harassment continued.

At my senior banquet, I was voted the female “most likely to be on Jerry Springer,” an award that was consistently given to the black sheep of the graduating class. My male counterpart for the award was Dan, a boy who’d been held back twice and who’d been to rehab before he’d even turned eighteen. Oddly enough, Dan had always been accepting of my sexuality. Fuck ’em if you got ’em, he’d say to me, and we’d smoke cigarettes together in the school parking lot, crouching behind cars to block the wind and stares.


Ten years later, everything in River Falls looks slightly different and a little goofy, like someone twisted the kaleidoscope of my hellish adolescence and replaced a few nightmares with fun-house mirrors instead. The town has grown by perhaps three thousand people. They’re calling it a “city” now on the roadside signs that welcome visitors, but I know better. The downtown area hasn’t changed much—it’s still just one arterial booze-lined street—but the city limits now boast crops of identical modular homes that stretch to the horizon in eighteen shades of beige.

I find a strange comfort about River Falls, though, like I could shut my eyes and my body could do the steering from muscle memory alone. After my crying jag subsides into giggles, and then just occasional sighs, I light a cigarette and head for the river bluffs and waterfall on the west side of town. It’s breathtaking, desolate. I wander in the valley for a while, where the river is nothing more than a trickle through rocks. I hop between boulders and pebbles to keep my feet dry. I wonder how I lived here for eighteen years and never noticed the beauty of the place. Nobody is out here, and I wonder how everyone else could miss it, too.


I meet three old friends for a pre-reunion drink—a shot of something red and fruity for courage. They are, in truth, the only three people I really care to see. Ten years ago, Michelle was very pregnant and dating a boy who pressured her to drop out of school four months before graduation and forbade her to speak to her friends. Today, she’s a professional body piercer with a GED and two hyperactive, healthy daughters. Brian, formerly a chubby, lisping drama geek, dropped eighty pounds and now cooks five-star meals at a downtown Minneapolis restaurant. Krissy’s breasts have gotten suspiciously larger, but the change suits her, a formerly timid church mouse whose religious parents made her wear denim skirts and collared blouses to school.

We were all harassed in our own ways, by many of the same people, but my peers agree that Rebecca and I bore the brunt of it. I shrug and say that it doesn’t really matter anymore—I’m good, I’m happy. Maybe I’m lying. True, in the ten years since graduation, I’ve rarely thought of school bullies, rarely recalled teachers who stood by and let me be terrorized. But perhaps it’s not just because life has gotten so much better—it has, but it’s mostly just gotten more real, as life tends to do, and there are things to worry about that far eclipse name-calling and spitballs. Maybe that’s just the nature of adulthood.

The four of us finish our drinks and walk down the block to the reunion bar. It’s dumpy and far too dark. I’m bad with faces to begin with, and I find myself wishing for name tags. But it’s clear that this gathering was staged with minimal planning. There are no name tags—and no formalities, no surveys to fill in, no “Most Accomplished” or “Most Improved” awards to dole out. There’s only a cash bar and a pool table littered with old yearbooks and photographs. I sip another drink, sticking near my friends, until two ultra-tan blondes come crashing into me from behind.

“Alicia?” the shorter one squeals. “Oh my God!” She hugs me. I am not positive who she is, but when she pulls away, I recognize her as Megan, a girl I’d spoken to no more than five times our entire school career.

Megan gestures at her companion. “This is my girlfriend.” Blonde #2 shakes my hand and smiles limply. I am still looking at Megan. I tell her I had no idea she was gay, and good for her, and when did she know?

“Oh, ten years ago at least,” she says, averting her eyes to her feet.

I stare her down, my eyes on fire with disbelief. “Why didn’t you come out?” I ask. But what I really mean to ask her is why she never stood up for Rebecca and me, why she never said anything to discourage our bullies. Because Megan played volleyball, ran track, took photographs for the school newspaper. Megan partied like a teenage rockstar. Megan bought her clothes at the mall and never got government-subsidized free lunch. In other words, Megan was a girl with clout. One chastisement from her and my tormentors might have shut their mouths for good.

“I was scared, you know?” She speaks into her beer. “Everyone was so judgmental then. And my parents would have totally disowned me.”

I nod. Not because it’s okay, but because I understand. Or I’m starting to.

Scott, my former scrawny, acne-faced bully, swaggers dizzily in my direction. He is falling-over-himself wasted. “What’s up…Jessica?” he slurs at me, tipping his Coors Light to meet my glass.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “What’s your name?” No use, I realize, in giving him the satisfaction of knowing I remember him. After regaling me with tales of his life in River Falls as a forklift operator, he stumbles off to have another drink.

I came to the reunion for some kind of closure, but as I drive away from the small town of my youth, a strange sadness comes over me. I wonder if closure is too much to ask for. I’ll never know how things could have been different if Megan had spoken up, or if I’d kept myself sequestered in the closet until college. I’ll never know if Scott felt remorse, if any of my bullies did, if the waves of karmic retribution ever crashed over them. I suppose that’s not the important thing. Maybe I ought to simply be grateful for surviving, for getting out, for thriving. Maybe life really does get better. Maybe that’s more than enough.


ALICIA CATT lives and teaches writing in the center of the polar vortex—also known as southern Minnesota. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Yemassee, The Pinch, Word Riot, and others. She is the editor of Pentimento. She’s an extraordinarily cheap date.

The Baby Corps

By tsaiproject/ Flickr

By Kate Haas

It was a joke to begin with, a half-serious attempt to persuade my parents to move from their coast to ours: “The Baby Corps seeks qualified volunteers to aid developing families,” our pitch began. “Do you have what it takes to serve?”

“Think it’ll work?” my husband asked, looking up from the scribbled draft of our “recruitment” letter.

I shrugged. “You never know.” But I come from a two-generation Peace Corps clan, and I knew my audience. They’d be tempted. Especially considering what we were offering as an incentive.

I never expected to live near my folks as an adult. When I was growing up, my parents lived far from their own hometowns. For my siblings and me, visiting grandparents involved hours in the car and the crossing of state lines. The books I read as a kid reinforced this scenario. Fairytale heroes sought adventure far from the home castle and didn’t tend to return once they’d found it. Ma and Pa Ingalls set out for the prairie, leaving the old folks behind in Wisconsin. That was the model I absorbed. The idea was to go to college, get a job (the eighties was a happier era for English majors), and settle in some distant city. I loved my mom and stepdad. But I did not imagine that one day I’d be scheming to lure them to my neighborhood.

Some thirty years later, that day arrived. Like many otherwise rational women, I took a good look at my two-year-old—verbal, finally sleeping through the night, potty-training underway—and concluded that what I really needed was another baby.

“Are you insane?” asked my husband.

I wasn’t offended by his query. The prospect of another child terrified me, too. Simon was a charming kid now, but as a baby, he rarely slept longer than twenty minutes at a stretch, day or night. Persistent breastfeeding problems added anxiety to the miserable fog of sleep deprivation that enveloped us. Another child was appealing in theory, we eventually agreed. But we dreaded a return to all that fatigue and stress—this time while chasing around a lively little boy.

“And I wouldn’t be able to help as much,” worried my husband; in addition to working full-time, he was now enrolled in a graduate program that entailed night classes and weekend fieldwork. “It would be different if we had family around,” he added. “Like, if your parents lived here.”

I stared at him, arrested by this novel concept. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco, I had observed the way extended families shared the burden of child-rearing. I realized, of course, that people right here at home benefited from these arrangements, too. But I had never imagined partaking in such a set-up, myself. Now, as though I were watching a soft-focus movie montage, I saw how it might play out: my mother taking my energetic son for the afternoon while I napped peacefully with the baby; my stepfather cooking meals for us after the birth; maybe even—hoo boy!—a regular date night for me and my husband. Mostly though, what I envisioned was less tangible: a sense of security I hadn’t realized I’d been missing, the comfort of having family close by—even if I didn’t need them exactly the way I used to.

I couldn’t help wondering, however, if this scenario would be attractive to my parents. Retirees on a budget, they found plenty to keep them busy in Maine. But what really fired up these former Peace Corps volunteers was finding frugal, creative ways to travel. Over the past five years, while my husband and I were fixing up an old house and settling into domesticity, my parents had swapped homes with a family in Spain, worked their way across Ireland on organic farms, and volunteered at an archeological dig in Romania. Currently, they were spending a year in the Czech Republic, teaching English. My folks were accustomed to renting out their house and setting off to roam the world. Would they really want to shlep to Oregon to change diapers?

On the other hand, my mother had long been campaigning for me to have another baby. I had practically memorized her current stump speech, “The Pathetic Life of the Only Child.” (It was a marginal improvement over a previous effort, “You’re Not Getting Any Younger, You Know.”) Perhaps, we thought, there was a way to leverage mom’s lust for grandchildren into an arrangement that would make everyone happy.

That was when we came up with the Baby Corps. Its mission: to serve the needs of developing families (ours, anyway) by recruiting volunteers with years of parenting expertise. “Only an elite cadre of highly-qualified and experienced candidates will be accepted into the Baby Corps,” we wrote, cunningly. “Will you rise to the challenge?”

Then we added the kicker: If my parents signed on for a two-year stint with the Corps, we’d be delighted to give them another grandchild. My husband tweaked the design of the Peace Corps logo, with its stars and dove, to create an official-looking letterhead for our recruitment letter, and we sent it off.

Would we have gone ahead and had another baby on our own? Probably. But we never had to make that decision. Three weeks later a letter arrived from the Czech Republic. My parents were charmed with the notion of the Baby Corps and flattered that we wanted their help. They would be delighted to rent out the house again and move across the country for a couple of years. “So, get busy, you two,” my mother finished. I could practically see her smirking.

A few months later, I was pregnant. My parents returned from Europe and settled their affairs on the east coast. My husband and I found an apartment for them in a nearby Victorian and spent the summer furnishing it from Craigslist and yard sales. By now I had tempered my expectations of the next two years. My mother and I have never shied from speaking our minds to each other. She sniffs at my reading habits (“lightweight”); I frown at her wardrobe (“shmattes”). (My stepfather wisely keeps his distance.) There would be highly charged discussions, that was certain. Still, I knew that our differences would always be bridged by our shared love of PBS costume dramas, the novels of Ursula le Guin, and the wedding page of the New York Times Sunday Styles section. Besides, we had a history of supporting each other when it really mattered.

When our Baby Corps recruits arrived, it became clear that they regarded this move not only as a grandparental mission, but as another opportunity for adventure in a new location. Within a few weeks, my mother had signed up to audit Latin classes at the university. My stepfather was investigating the local art scene. They were raving about fabulous cheap restaurants we’d never heard of.

But when I went into labor, three weeks after their arrival, my parents were at our house in minutes to take charge of our now-three-year-old. The next day they brought him to the hospital to meet his baby brother. When we got home, a big pot of curried red pepper soup was on the stove, along with a tray of fresh biscuits. “I’ll be back tomorrow to take Simon to the park so you two can sleep,” promised my mother. “And don’t forget,” she instructed, pulling on her coat, “At five o’clock, put your feet up, nurse that baby, and have a big glass of red wine. Millions of Frenchwomen can’t be wrong!”

When I told people that my parents were coming to town, I invariably got one of two reactions. “Is that a good thing?” asked some, poised to commiserate. Others were frankly envious. “They’re moving here just to help out? You guys are so lucky.”

We were lucky. Parenting a three-year-old and a newborn was every inch as difficult as we anticipated. But over the next two years, our Baby Corps volunteers stepped up for us in countless ways, taking on tasks that might look minor—like staying with Simon while I took the baby to the doctor—but which made our lives inestimably easier. Weekends, when I was running on four hours of sleep and my husband was analyzing bioswale diversity, I could walk the boys to my parents’ sunny apartment, where a special stash of toys waited and I could count on conversation that wasn’t about fire trucks. And eventually, once we were all getting more sleep, there was Date Night.

True, my mother and I had our moments. Many times, I was the beneficiary of her unique brand of childrearing advice, a whiplash-inducing combination of old school techniques (“Just rub brandy on those gums.”) and woo-woo theories (“No learning to read before the first tooth falls out.”) She deplored the “draconian” hospital policy dictating that we produce our carseat for inspection before taking the baby home (“I held you in the front seat and you were fine!”) She was disappointed that, unlike her, I wouldn’t consider Waldorf education for my kids—even if I could have afforded it.

On the other hand, Mom was unfazed when her grandson wanted to wear a dress at age four, pronouncing him “adorable” in the blue-checked frock she’d saved from my own childhood. (“It’s just a phase; he’ll get over it,” she told me—correctly.) She demonstrated admirable stamina for reading aloud, delighting in introducing Simon to my old pals Frog and Toad, and that canny bread-and-jam lover, Frances. So when, at the conclusion of their official Baby Corps service, my parents elected to settle in our neighborhood permanently, my husband and I were thrilled.

My boys are in elementary and middle school now. It’s been a long time since we needed to rely on my folks for the logistical and emotional support that saw us through those first, hard years with two kids. These days it’s not their help that I value (although we never take Date Night for granted). It’s the way my parents have become a part of our lives. What I savor now are the birthday dinners and Thanksgiving feasts, the latke parties and impromptu calls: “We baked a pie, come on over.” I’m happy that for my boys, the seven-block walk to their grandparents’ house is a familiar routine, and that visiting can be as simple as stopping in for a quick hello on the way home from the library.

I’ll always be grateful for what our Baby Corps volunteers did for us. And while nobody’s looking forward to it, I’m aware that one day it will be our turn to render whatever assistance my folks may come to need. It may not be for a while, but as I like to remind my mom, “You’re not getting any younger, you know.”


KATE HAAS still regards her three years in Morocco with the Peace Corps as one of the highlights of her life. She is a creative nonfiction editor at Literary Mama and the publisher of Miranda, a long-running print zine about motherhood. Her writing has appeared in Salon, Brain, Child, Babble, and The Toronto Star. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her family. Read more of her writing at www.katehaas.com.

Transference: Love Me, Love My Problems

under desk
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By D. Baker

I’m crazy. I have been my whole life.

It was my first inheritance from my parents. On my father’s side, everyone’s a bipolar; they approached their insanity with buckets of alcohol. My mother’s family, though, settled into a nice, major depression, self-medicating through anxious and determined hard work.

I shook out in the middle—a mental illness called “Soft Bipolarity.” I’m too miserable to be a classic bipolar, but too irritable to be simply depressed. Doggedly atavistic, I’ve tried both the family home remedies. Neither worked.

Fortunately (?), I was born in the seventies; I could turn to counseling. In counseling, though, the dreadful reality of transference loomed inescapable: a miserable fact. Transference—like the wily Pan—always led me, unwitting, into inappropriate attachments to my counselors. I felt helpless against the inevitability that I would always pour unintended meaning into the interactions within the confines of four beige walls.

I recall my first experience with this, which was innocuous enough. I wasn’t sure how much older the counselor was than me—probably double my seventeen years. At the time, he seemed ancient. But his gentle and reproachless listening was a gift so deep and wide that none could compare. I came to conceptualize his small, windowless office as a down-coated nest, and I began to regard him as my BFF.

The next one was closer to my age. His office was furnished, audaciously, in black leather. The conflict that knotted inside me entering felt palpable and real. Only moments earlier, I had fumbled out my father’s car—a jalopy that held together through the creative application of wire coat hangers and duct tape.

Without insurance of any kind, how much did my father spend for my hour in air-conditioned luxury, face to face with this man whose chocolate curls and mahogany bookshelves dizzied up my mind? Whether my father expressed resentment at the cost, or whether I imposed it on myself without outside provocation, the money to buy those cool hours left me sick with guilt. Back at my house, there was no leather; the broken down, stained couch hid beneath a garish, threadbare sheet. How could I possibly justify treating my mental malady when, for the price of a few sessions, my parents could have replaced their couch with something clean and sturdy, if not new?

I recall nothing of what he might have said, that second counselor. What remains in my consciousness is yearning. I willed him to pull me close, so I could free his silken hair for my fingers to curl in as he pressed his lips to my throat, collarbone.

He never did.

There were others along the way. Although the impressions that they left don’t stand out in sharp relief, I know that I wanted them all. Because they, alone, understood. They—each of them—cared for me as no others had.

Free, with purchase.


The last in my list of head trippers was a cognitive-behavioral therapist. Over the course of our time together, I went from calling him Dr. Mendenhall to Captain and finally to his first name, Jack.

We knew each other for a long time, if sporadically. The misfortune I faced with him lay in the reality that we had the twin brothers of sarcasm and irony lodged in our brains. Our conversations played out in wit and hilarity.

That was my problem. I wished it were his problem, too.

He warned me of it. I went to see him again after an eighteen-month tour through the depths of hell when my in-laws moved into my house and a dear friend died at the age of thirty-four. “This is dangerous,” Jack said. “When you try to work through emotions this intense, transference happens.”

“What does that mean?” I asked him, unwilling to settle for euphemisms and jargon.

“Well, we have to keep it real. I’m telling you up front so you know. Instead of being unwilling to discuss the giant elephant in the room, we talk about it. Acknowledging your feelings for me will be half the battle.”

When he said that, I both loved and hated him for it.

Loved, because he understood; he knew what would happen to me.

Hated, because I felt shorn of my defenses. He may as well have cut me to my nerves, and then blown cold air over them. The desperate, clutching nature of the lunatic embarrassed me. How I wished that I could pretend that I was not that being, not that irrational woman who would inevitably pine for her mental health care giver! I hadn’t expected to be called out on my junk. If we both recognized it at the outset, how could I pretend it wasn’t happening?

As predicted, the ever-mounting disappointment I felt at the end of our therapy hours seeped through me like a slow leak. And the eagerness that flitted in the space where I once had a heart and lungs annoyed me when I realized I’d traded in vital body parts for time in his presence.

One day, I wept in rage and shame for hating my mother-in-law. Rage, because I had newly stumbled upon an old journal entry made on a Christmas morning after she told me my husband and children were happier in my absence. Shame, because I did not believe that hatred was the right choice.

I importuned him, “Jack, fix me.”

But there was no simple solution for a situation in which one has been truly, deeply, and repeatedly wronged. So he set the problem back in my lap, leaving me with prayer as my ongoing, if ineffective, recourse.

Before he did, though, we laughed, exchanging sarcasms. I told him I didn’t want to kill her; I simply wanted to make her suffer.

“To the pain!” he said, borrowing a line from The Princess Bride. That he should know the movie well enough to quote it made my skin shiver in delight—was this not proof that we were kindred spirits?

“Let’s take away her Xanax,” I said, filled with glee.

“No; let’s not take it away, but replace half of it with sugar pills so she never knows when she’s going to get one that works.”

“No,” I said. “Not sugar pills. Poison.”

“Hmm.” He smiled. “I’m thinking something dark and sexy … what about hemlock?”

“Nightshade,” I said.


How, pray tell, could a girl hope to keep her wits about her in the presence of a man who knew to suggest dark, sexy hemlock? As I laughed, a tear slid over my top lip, salting the tip of my tongue. Shields up, I warned myself. You’re looking into his blue eyes far too long.


I don’t see Jack anymore. We worked through so much that he became my biggest problem. I dreamt of him at night and woke to a sodden pillowcase, my eyelashes wet with tears. Catching myself, I choked back sobs, hoping my husband wouldn’t wake.

“Is this hurting your marriage?” Jack asked me. “Coming here?”

“Don’t speak,” I answered.

That night was Halloween. I stood outside in the cold for five hours, miserable at the spectre of the one right choice that faced me. Because, ultimately, my husband didn’t deserve my divided allegiance. Yes, he had failings, but so did I. My husband’s Asperger’s Syndrome was woefully ill-paired with my Soft Bipolar Disorder. Our cosmic mismatch spanned the emotional spectrum—where my husband felt almost nothing, I felt everything to the utmost degree.

The last time I saw Jack, my stupid voice betrayed me with its tremble, and I stared at the crumpled tissue in my hand. “Teach me how to be as unmoved by you as you are by me.”

“Am I unmoved by you?” he asked.

The moment held. I wanted to kiss his eyelids.

Siphoning off the intensity, his voice took on a theatrical tone. “Oh yes. I’m just a cold and unfeeling counselor.”

I cut him off. “I’m not coming back. I can’t do this anymore.”

“You don’t have to make that decision today,” he said. “I know you want everything wrapped up in a neat package, but this is something you have to think about.”

I steeled my resolve. “Do you imagine that I have thought of anything else this week?”

If he felt the same way, his feelings for me would have been called “counter-transference.” Something for which he was trained, instructed on how to remain professionally detached. But though he may have come to our encounters prepared, I owned no such clinical armor.


Last summer, the gamble of life dealt me a heart problem. As I sat pondering my thirty-six years, I marveled that I had it all—a husband, two beautiful children, a house, and a dog. I owned the veritable American Dream. Crowning that, I’d even been published a couple of times. There was nothing of any import that I’d left undone.

So my heart problem brought with it an endowment of gratitude and contentment.

And yet.

And yet, once in a while a certain slant of light or scent on the breeze conjures Jack, unbidden, from my memory. I marvel at how freshly lanced I feel. A part of me wonders if my flight left Jack equally wrecked, if I had somehow slipped under his training and gotten to him, as he did me.



Turns out you can tell this to your husband. All of it. Turns out, he will try to commiserate by telling you about a girl in college that he studied with all the time. And it turns out that all you will hear is, “I fell in love with someone and kept it a secret all these years.” That’s how bipolarity works. That’s the bad news.

The good news is you finally have decent medication. And with the help of decent medication, you move forward. You don’t have to carry it around for decades, mourning from the depths of your mood-disordered soul. After a few days, you can see what your husband’s intent was; in place of subterfuge and infidelity, he was really offering understanding and empathy.

You get to go back to being crazy—incognito. You get to tuck those unwelcome memories of Jack back in the mental box where they belong.

When you wake up and swallow your pretty pills, your handful of Skittles, you can, at long last, live life in the middle. And the middle rocks when compared to the bi-poles.


D. BAKER is a writer living in the Intermountain West.

Catching Up with Dad

By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Lisa Lance

“You don’t have cancer,” my sister, Katie, says slowly, with certainty.

“Are you sure? A few weeks ago you thought you had a stroke because the side of your face felt numb,” I say. (The “stroke,” as it turned out, was a pinched nerve from spending too much time in front of her computer.)

“Yes, I’m sure. You’re the healthiest person I know.”

“No, I’m not. But thanks, I needed to hear that. I’ll talk to you later. Love you.” I hang up the phone. About twenty minutes later, I receive a text: “Stop worrying. You don’t have cancer.”

About once a month, my sister and I have a conversation just like this. Sometimes I think I have a brain tumor. Other times she’s hysterical and convinced that her “number’s up.” This anxiety about death is a constant undercurrent in our lives, and it’s grown stronger as we’ve both entered into our thirties. It lies in wait until one of us notices some minor change in her body or reads a news story about the latest health concern. Then it swiftly attacks, aided by an army of medical websites and online symptom-checkers, and the panic sets in. Whichever of us thinks she might have a fatal disease calls the other, and we take turns calming each other down. We are our own little support group, reassuring each other that we still have plenty of life left to live.


On an ordinary Monday in March, I step out at lunchtime to mail a couple of birthday cards. I pull my car into the post office parking lot and sigh when I see the sign that says it’s closed. As I drive through the suburban streets toward a nearby Starbucks, my thoughts begin to work their way from the cards on the passenger seat next to me to the upcoming anniversary of my own birth. I will soon turn thirty-three. It may not be one of the traditionally important birthdays like eighteen, when you’re officially an adult, or even thirty, when you realize you’re actually supposed to be an adult, but to me, thirty-three has its own significance. To me, it means I might only have one year left.

This fear originated in the summer of 1987. I was nine years old, and it had been a year of changes. We had moved from Minneapolis to Fargo, to a new house where I had my very own room and no longer had to share my personal space with my little sister. I was a junior bridesmaid in my aunt’s wedding, and I wore a grown-up pink satin and lace dress just like the one my mom, the matron of honor, wore. I was looking forward to a new school and new friends. I was about to be a fourth-grader, and life was good.

But on the morning of August 18, I woke up to chaos. My mom found my dad collapsed in our basement laundry room, and by the time I realized what was going on, an ambulance had already taken him to the hospital. It was too late; he died. Just two weeks earlier, we had celebrated his thirty-fourth birthday.

His death was sudden. One night he was there, and the next morning he was gone. At the time, the circumstances of his passing were mysterious to me, and I didn’t find out the official cause of his death—heart failure—until many years later. Because he didn’t have a history of heart trouble, my mom suspected radiation poisoning from treatments he’d received for Hodgkin’s Disease in the early 1970s. I was never given a clear explanation of his death, and I still don’t quite understand how it could have come about so quickly.

My memories of that day are fragmented, like I’m looking through a kaleidoscope in dim light with all the pieces jumbled around. I know my grandparents were there, and I clearly remember sitting on the edge of the tub in our guest bathroom with my grandma and sister while my mom was still at the hospital. My grandma, a farm wife whose need to control life led her to the point that she ironed washcloths so wrinkles could not infiltrate her linen closet, sat on the edge of the tub and told us we should be prepared in case he didn’t make it.

Then the scene swirls in my head to Katie and me sitting on the couch in our basement family room, crying as my mom explained to us that he wasn’t coming back. A pastor who lived in our neighborhood was standing next to her. We’d never seen him before, but apparently someone thought a strange pastor was better than no pastor at all. Then the scene shifts again as my dad’s parents arrived, my grandpa climbing the stairs in our house carrying his brown leather portable liquor cabinet. And my dad’s sister, who was six months pregnant with my cousin, arrived on our doorstep without her husband. Everything else about that day is a blur.

Since we had moved so recently, and many of my dad’s family and friends lived in the Twin Cities, we had two funerals. We drove the four hours to Minneapolis for one, which was held at the large Lutheran church where I had been baptized, attended preschool, and carried a palm frond to the alter with the children’s choir each year on Palm Sunday. The church was usually such a comfortable, friendly place, but this time, as I walked to the front of the sanctuary with my mom and sister, wearing my new white and navy funeral dress, I could feel the pitying stares of the people sitting in the rows of wooden pews. We made our way to the open casket in the front where my dad lay so still, as if he were sleeping. I reached my small hand up and touched his lips. Their coldness confirmed the reality of his death—although the figure in the casket looked like him, he was not actually there.

After the funeral, we drove north and did the whole thing all over again, this time at the church where my father and mother were married, in the small town of Rustad, Minnesota, where my grandparents lived. I think the universe has shown me a great kindness, acknowledging that two funerals for a parent might be just a bit too much for someone so young; I scarcely remember the event in Rustad at all.


When I think about scenes from his life, the memories develop like Polaroids in my mind. “Puff the Magic Dragon” will always be one of my favorite songs, because it reminds me of the times he would play the guitar and make up funny words to familiar songs. He would help my sister and me produce concerts on the stage of our fireplace hearth, providing the tape-recorded background music and audience applause as we sang doo-wop along with the Manhattan Transfer into our hairbrush microphones. Even though he had a job as a salesman, I picture him working with his hands. He had built that fireplace, as well as the deck on our house and a new roof on our lake cabin. He took pride in his work and in his workshop in our garage, but he didn’t say a word when he discovered I put Hello Kitty stickers all over his big red toolbox and wrote, “I love you Daddy” in black marker on his workbench.

But he wasn’t perfect. My dad abused alcohol in an attempt, I suppose, to deal with the remnants of a childhood with his own alcoholic father and enabling mother who dreamed of having a doctor in the family but instead wound up with a son in medical sales. He had a favorite bar near our house, Sandee’s, and our family would often have dinner there. I was allowed to feel like a grown-up with my own kiddie cocktail, and we would spread cheese on rye crisp crackers from a basket on the table while we waited for our food. The place was full of people, bright and cheerful on those nights, but I also remember visiting in the afternoon, when I knew we shouldn’t be there. On those days, it was cold, dark, and empty except for my dad and the bartender, and me sitting in a booth with my sister, impatiently waiting for him to finish up so we could go home.

Even from my limited childhood view, he and my mother didn’t seem to have a happy marriage, and many nights I’d wake up to him yelling and her crying. I alternated between hiding under the covers with my stuffed animals and venturing down the hall with the hope that if they saw me, they would stop. As much as I would like to only remember the happy times, I was too aware of the dynamics within our house to simply file away the more unpleasant memories in the archives of my brain.

But the most vivid memories of my childhood, and of my dad, are of trips to our two-room, yellow log cabin on Little Toad Lake in northern Minnesota, about an hour’s drive east of Fargo.

It’s at the lake where I spent the most time with my dad, and where I most felt his presence after he died. It’s where he taught me how to fish. I loved the quiet hours in our battered red and silver Lund boat, drifting among the lily pads as he showed me how to bait the hook and cast my line, and the thrill of riding in the bow with the wind in my hair as we sped back to the dock with our freshly caught dinner. It’s where he taught me how to build a campfire, stacking logs in a teepee formation with just the right amount of birch bark and newspaper underneath for kindling. And it’s where he showed me how to toast the perfect marshmallow for s’mores, helping me rotate them over the smoldering coals until they turned golden brown. To this day, I feel most at home—and most alive—outdoors, listening to the soft lapping of water against a shore, breathing in the earthy scent of pine, or getting lost in the dancing flames of a crackling fire.


About once every three years, I travel back to the Fargo area for a family reunion, and I take a trip out to the country cemetery where he’s buried. All of the grave markers are flat, which makes it easier for mowing and other maintenance, I’m sure, but more difficult for visitors to find individual plots. I always wander through the rows for a while, silently acknowledging the graves of other family members who have passed on, most of whom were in their eighties or nineties when they died, before finding my dad’s resting place. His stone is a small rectangle engraved with my birth flower, lilies of the valley.

The last time I visited the cemetery was for my grandmother’s funeral in 2009. My mom’s cousin Curt, who had been one of my dad’s best friends, told me a story I had never heard before about one of their many hunting trips.

“I wonder what he would think of me now,” I said, and then I laughed. “I’m a vegetarian.”

I realized how different my life is from the one he lived. While he would skin deer in the garage and freeze the meat for our winter meals or teach me how to gut a fish for dinner at the cabin, I can no longer bear the thought of killing animals for food. Although he could be great fun to be around, he also kept his feelings bottled up and, when he was drinking, would explode in fits of raging frustration. I love to relax with a glass of red wine or a few beers with friends, but I consciously limit myself. And I write to work out my emotions and practice yoga and meditation to ease stress. He was unhappy in his medical sales career, and, as far as I know, didn’t have the chance to explore something that truly interested him. I am lucky to be able to further my passion for writing through graduate school. As I worry about my own health and my own decisions, I can look back at his and learn from them.


On this sunny afternoon in March, I sift through these memories as I drive from the post office to the coffee shop, and I think about entering the last full year before my own thirty-fourth birthday. I wonder what my father might have done differently in that year if he had known it would be his last. Tears stream down my face as I finally understand just how young thirty-four really was—is—and just how much life he should have continued to live.

Did my dad understand on some level how much time he had left? Seeing him every day, it was difficult to notice the signs of his declining health, so physically apparent in photos from the summer of 1987. It’s clear to me now that he quickly went from tan and muscular to a gray, gaunt shadow of himself. What did he want to do with the rest of the life he never had? Was he happy with the choices he made along the way? I’ll never have the chance to ask.

In 2002, when I got married, I tied my dad’s wedding ring into the white satin ribbon of my bouquet so a little piece of him could walk down the aisle with me. My sister did the same at her wedding. Nearly twenty-five years after his passing, I continue to carry the memories of my dad with me. For good and bad, his choices have influenced mine, and his death has shaped my life.

I may always have those phone calls with Katie, needing her to help calm my fears. We don’t know if we’ll live to be thirty-four or one-hundred-and-four, but every birthday marks the gift of another year lived. It’s a struggle to stop all the worrying and just enjoy living. But I think of my dad, and I try.


LISA LANCE is a writer and communications manager living in Baltimore, Maryland. A graduate of the M.A. in Writing program at Johns Hopkins University, her articles and essays have appeared in publications including Baltimore Magazine, National Parks Traveler, Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, Seltzer, neutrons protons, Bmoreart, and Sauce Magazine. Learn more at www.lisalance.com.

Five Pounds of Flesh

lingerie form
By The Lingerie Addict/ Flickr

By Zsofi McMullin

The surgeon sat between my legs on a low stool, his left hand gently cradling the curve of my right breast as he drew dotted lines and circles on my skin. I was sitting on a hospital bed, my feet dangling off the side and I wasn’t sure where to look. His touch was measured and medical, but the intimacy of the moment took my breath away.

“This isn’t awkward at all,” I joked, trying to break the silence in the small examining room. The surgeon laughed with me, but never broke his concentration on the measurements—between collarbone and nipple, the space between breasts—mapping out where cuts and sutures and skin will go.

He quietly explained his strategy for the surgery to the resident sitting next to him, but he continued to focus on my breasts. I was in danger of breaking out in giggles and making his precise lines go wiggly, so I tried hard to concentrate on something else … anything. His wispy, graying hair. Sun-kissed, rugged cheeks. Blue eyes. Broad shoulders, sculpted arms, big, secure hands. Concentrating on him clearly didn’t make things easier. His breath smelled like chocolate.

This, I found the most reassuring.


I am not sure when I realized that I have big breasts. And not just big breasts, but really big, bigger than big should be. I’ve always had this body and you get used to seeing yourself every day in a certain way. Sure, it changed with puberty, and the Freshman Fifteen, and the Married Ten, some weight loss here and there, and with pregnancy. But its essence—round belly, curvy hips, soft thighs, and big boobs—never really changed.

I got my first bra when I was twelve. At the time we lived in China because of my dad’s job, and I remember my mom gently suggesting that I should try on a bra. I was a bit surprised that she happened to pack one that fit me. I only started to wonder later whether it was actually one of her bras.

So that’s how it started and the sizes just kept going up and up. After we returned home from our Chinese adventure I got a couple of soft, cotton bras with pink hearts on it. Later my mom steered me to more supportive styles with wide straps and that awful beige-y hue that old ladies wear.

There are a lot of humiliating things about having unnaturally large breasts. The stares, especially when you are too young to handle such attention. The difficulty in finding clothes that fit, a bathing suit, or not being able to walk around without a bra, unless you want to look really, really ridiculous. But the thing that always got to me was shopping for bras: in almost every store—even in ones that seem to cater to larger women—you have to look in the very back and the very bottom of every display rack to find your size. I don’t know how many times I found myself shedding coat and purse and actually kneeling on the store floor to find what I was looking for. If, I could find what I was looking for.


The first time I got naked with my first serious boyfriend, he was very nervous about taking his shirt off. I didn’t really understand until he finally pulled his t-shirt over his head. There were small scars around his nipples and he quietly admitted that as a teenager he’d had breast reduction surgery.

I thought about him as I was getting ready for my own surgery and about how he liked to compare my breasts to fruits: apples, oranges, peaches. “They’re more like melons,” I corrected him once, and I remember the shocked look on his face before we both burst into laughter.

There were men who were afraid of my breasts, hesitating about touching them, maybe intimidated by their heft. There were men who worshipped and treasured them, removing my bra last as if to save the best for last. There were men who didn’t really care or notice or comment.

But as I got older, I found that I cared and noticed more and more. I don’t think my breasts have ever held me back from doing things or made me more timid or shy. But, of course, it’s hard to say now because I can’t relive my younger years with small breasts for comparison. Could I have been more popular? More active and sporty? More outgoing, outspoken, confident? Would I have been more adventurous when it came to trying new things or going after things? I’d like to think that I was never defined by my breasts, but I am sure I was to some extent, at least in my mind. And who knows how others have thought of me? Was I ever “that girl with the rack”?

After I gave birth to my son I thought, finally, my boobs can do something good. But their size didn’t ensure that they would also produce enough milk, and it was actually harder to maneuver my nipples into the tiny, waiting mouth without smothering him. So not only was it impossible to find a pretty bra, or wear tank tops, or run, or just feel like I am not all boob, but now they couldn’t even feed my baby?

As the pain in my back and shoulders intensified each year, I finally made the decision: It was time for them to go.


I found out my true bra size in a very posh lingerie shop in London a couple of years ago. Our kind B&B owner told me that I must go there because they are sure to carry my size. At the time, I thought that was a bit forward, and frankly I was just so sick of the humiliation of it all. But I was also curious. So I dragged my husband along and he walked around the neighborhood while I browsed. A woman who was about my age and was also fairly well endowed, pulled me into a dressing room. Even before I took my shirt off she said, “You are a 40H. I’ll be right back.” The number sounded impossibly foreign, especially because I realized that the bras I was squeezing myself into were two or three sizes too small.

She came back with a black lacy bra with no wires, and she quickly pulled off my old bra, which poked and bulged in all the wrong places. She put the black piece on me, adjusting me without any hesitation or permission and boom: there were the ladies, all tight and firm, lifted, separated, in place, and happy. The bra cost two hundred dollars. I bought it without hesitation. I wore and treasured that bra for years and years, washing it by hand, air-drying it, until it slowly, slowly fell apart.


The pain was excruciating when I woke up from the surgery. My nipples were burning and my chest felt heavy and somehow hollow at the same time, as if my chest cavity were scooped clean.

As a new dose of pain medication took effect and the anesthesia wore off, I took a quick peek under my hospital gown. I couldn’t really see much—just bandages and an ugly surgical bra that was way too tight. The nurses and the surgeon were obviously very excited about the results. “They removed five pounds,” one nurse informed me. It was clear that it was a big deal.

The next day at my follow-up appointment to remove drains, the surgeon made a special point to stop by and help the nurse working on me. He thumbed my nipples to see if I had any sensation—yes, I did, thank you very much—and marveled at his own handiwork. It took me a while to work up the courage to look at them without the bra and without the bandages.

If they had removed five pounds of flesh from my stomach or from my thighs, I don’t think the experience would have been that emotional. But I couldn’t quite speak or put feelings into words when I saw my breasts—small, white, firm, and even with the bruising and the swelling and the specks of blood and blue ink left over from the surgery so, so very beautiful.

“We are so excited for you,” the nurse said. “This is going to make a huge difference in your life.” The surgeon put clean gauze around my incisions and held gauze pads to my breasts as the nurse eased a clean surgical bra over my shoulder and around my chest. He squeezed my hands as he left, clearly touched by what he had done for me; I wasn’t really sure what to do with his enthusiasm. I wanted to say something witty about how excited I was, or how certain I was that my life would change, or how I really, really understood the significance of what I have done.

But I really didn’t—not then and maybe not even now. And maybe there isn’t a greater meaning to any of those five pounds of fat and tissue. The body that was mine for all these years is no longer, but I carry its history and experiences inside. Now that there is no more pain, the swelling is gone and my skin has smoothed out again, everything else about me remains the same – the belly, the hips, the hair, the nose, the stubbornness, the introversion, the indecision, the writing, the chocolate, the four-year-old.

I am still me.

Still, when I look in the mirror every morning, I feel giddy.


The lingerie shop that opened near my office is one of those places where I never would have thought about shopping just a few months ago. It is not a store that carries special sizes. There are three mannequins in the window wearing lacy, gauzy bras and panties, silky robes. Behind their headless bodies is a large room with neat racks on the walls—no digging around on the floor here.

A very young, tall, and skinny salesgirl shows me to a dressing room. I try not to be too obvious about checking her out when she mentions that she sleeps in a bra because she has large breasts. I can’t see what she is talking about.

She measures me and announces my new size. “You are between a 38 F and a 40 DD,” she says and quickly leaves the dressing room to pick out some bras for me. I am a bit bummed. Those numbers still sound incredibly big to me, but when I look at myself in the half-light of the dressing room what I see is teeny-tiny compared to my old self. I try hard not to concentrate on those numbers and letters. Just like weight, height, or age, they are just numbers after all.

The first bra I put on is light purple with black lining and lace. The straps are ruched and skinny, with just two hooks in the back and a small, rhinestone heart and a black silk bow in the front. “It fits like a glove,” the salesgirl says as she adjusts the straps, and I am too busy checking myself out to respond. I try on three more and I really can’t believe that all of this delicate and tiny silk and lace can be mine.

Whatever this surgery will come to mean in my life, whatever change it will bring—or not—almost doesn’t matter. This is a pleasure in life: to feel normal, to feel pretty, to have soft, luxurious fabric against my skin, to look at myself and not turn away. The salesgirl asks if I want my husband to come in and take a look. I tell her no. He will get his turn, but this moment is all mine.

I don’t check the price tags. I buy them all. The ladies and I waited a very long time for this.


ZSOFI MCMULLIN was born in Budapest and lived there until she turned eighteen. She became a “full-grown-person” over the past nineteen years spent in the U.S. She lives on the coast of Maine with her husband and her four-year-old son. Her day job is in publishing, but she spends all of her free time between four and five a.m. every morning imagining that she is a writer.

A Gift for My Mother

By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Amber Stevens

My mother called today to tell me her dog died. She spoke in halting, measured tones; she expected me to be devastated. I should have been. After all, I had loved that dog and had chosen her myself from a motley litter of neglected pups shivering in a hole in some asshole’s backyard, a piece of plywood thrown over the top for shelter.

“Twenty bucks for her,” he’d said, then spit a stream of tobacco by my shoe. “Hell, take two. Ain’t got room for ’em pups. Second goddamn litter this year.”

I glared at him. I was fifteen, fearless. These puppies were no more than four weeks old; I could see that. The one I chose would probably be the only survivor. I scooped her out, a trembling golden pup with liquid brown eyes, a gift for my mother, although I was really the one who wanted a dog. Her belly, pink and soft, thrummed against my palm; she mewed like a kitten. I shoved money at the man, muttered thanks, and walked home with that tiny, trembling body tucked in my coat. I loved her already, of course. Her uncomplicated love would fill a void for both my mother and me: for me, she would provide affection and acceptance, and for my mother, she would be the perfectly yielding and submissive creature she’d longed to raise.

When I left home nine years ago, fleeing cool mountain air for desert sky, my only regret was seeing that cocked head poised at the front bay window, watching me drive away. I couldn’t explain to her that I wouldn’t be back that night, or the next, or maybe ever. She had slept piled on my feet for four years, but she was technically my mother’s dog. I’d driven away and left her there and, after a few days, stopped imagining her sitting at the window waiting for my return. It’s a talent I have. Out of sight, out of mind. But I did know this, from conversations I had with my mother over the phone, when conversation with her was still possible: the puppy I’d once rescued from a hole in the ground had grown old, couldn’t run anymore, couldn’t climb stairs, had gone blind in one eye, and suffered from bad hips. So maybe that’s why I didn’t cry. I knew it was just her time to go.

With my mother, it wasn’t so easy. I pictured her on the other end of the line, frowning, broken heart warring with bruised ego, waiting for me to offer her some form of compassion, or break down in tears, or anything to flood the dam between us. I could hear her questions in the silence. What happened? What did I do? I was grateful for her pride, which I knew would protect us both from the answers. She would never ask out loud.


“Molly died,” I told my husband after dinner. Greg was at the kitchen sink, scraping leftover mashed potatoes and corn into a large coffee can. We’d recently begun composting, determined to transform our nutrient-depleted soil into something that could nurture a garden. That had been my idea. I had visions of sprawling zucchini, tomato plants with plump red fruit, flowering broccoli and crisp lettuce, thriving under the fierce desert sun. A garden against all odds. I soaked the hard ground and split it open, battling dry, unyielding earth with shovel, sweat, and stubborn will. I spread bags of musky fertilizer, breaking soft clumps against my gloves and sifting them through my fingers. I picked out stray bits of gravel and turned the soil until it was like silk, shaping perfect, even rows for sowing seeds.

The whole family planted together. My seven-year-old daughter methodically placed each seed according to the measurements on the packages, gently pressing a fresh layer of dirt on top. My son, who was two, dumped his seeds in a pile and brushed them roughly across his row, brow furrowed in concentration. Greg sprayed a fine mist of water across the plot, and we smiled at each other, hopeful. We watched the water sink in the ground, watched the ground deepen into rich, fertile black. The wet earth released pungent waves on the evening breeze, and the kids groaned, giggled, and pinched their noses.

Greg peered over the stove. “Who died?”

“Molly. My mother’s dog.”

“Awww. That’s too bad.”

He came back into the dining room, where I sat shoving food around my plate. The kids had already bolted to the backyard, Anne scattering bubbles across the lawn for the benefit of her little brother, who chased them maniacally, collapsing in laughter as they popped in his chubby hands. Greg leaned against the patio door and watched, grinning. “Look at those two. A ninety-nine cent bottle of detergent and they’re happy as clams. We could have wrapped some bottles for Christmas and saved a few hundred bucks.”


He turned to me. “What’s wrong?”

“I told you. Molly died.”

“She was pretty sick, wasn’t she?”

“Sure. But still.” I pushed my plate away. “She was kind of my dog, you know, before I left home.” It was an accusation.

“You never told me that. I’m sorry, hon.” Greg tipped his head and smiled gently. “I’m sure it was for the best.”

I looked away from his sympathy, hating it. It felt better to chastise him instead of myself, for feeling nothing. I was a wonderful person. I stared past him, at our children playing. Anne stood like a gazelle, her legs long and graceful. When she had slid into the world, slick and purple and showered in blood, my heart had swallowed her whole. How exquisite, the relief that swept through me as I clutched her tiny body to mine, gasping at the final expulsion of my pregnancy and all its secret fears. You can love a daughter, I’d thought. You can be a good mother. There is nothing wrong with your heart.


After Anne was born, we flew north to the little town nestled in the mountains where I’d grown up. Anne was my mother’s first grandchild; I wanted to give her every chance to form the bond with her granddaughter that had somehow eluded her with me. Perhaps the baby will even bring us closer, I thought on the plane. I imagined the hard lines of my mother softening as she watched me stroke my daughter’s smooth round cheek, sponge her tiny body clean, and swaddle her in soft towels; I imagined my mother gracefully relinquishing control and accepting her role as a grandmother.

The visit had been hell. She swooped in like a bat, folding Anne into her black embrace that was always more possession than affection. She pinned the baby against her shoulder while she stormed through the house collecting laundry; she clucked disapprovingly at Anne’s outfits, bundling her in blankets and whispering loudly to her husband, Tom, “The poor thing must be freezing!”

Tom would wink at me and shrug his shoulders. My anger at her dissolved into pity, for him. How could he stand it? But of course, he loved her. They had met and married shortly after I’d left home, eloping in Vegas in a move that shocked everyone. This woman who had never tolerated anyone. Tom was a good provider and she was able to quit working as a housekeeper; she took a part time job at a bookstore, spending her days quilting and working on her home. I was grateful that she had found someone she could live with; it relieved my burden of imagining how I would ever care for her later. It’s difficult to say who would be more miserable.

One morning on my way to the coffee pot, I glanced out the window and saw my mother feeding Anne a bottle of breast milk. She had spread a blanket on the grass and sat with the baby cradled in her arms, pressed against her bare chest where her button-down shirt fell open. Skin to skin contact. So Anne would know her smell. My stomach turned and bile burned my throat. You had your chance, I thought. I wanted to run out there, snatch my daughter away, and never return. Instead, I went back to bed, flinging myself down on the mattress she’d fitted with sheets from my childhood. I should never have come back here, I thought, and I began to cry, feeling all the ground I’d gained since leaving home shift underneath me, knocking me down.


She’d come to visit us several times since then, alone; Tom hated to travel. The pattern was always the same. We began cautiously hopeful, skirting the landmines of each other’s egos. She lavished praise on my housekeeping, my children, my career. I stayed up longer than I wanted to, listening to her plans for the garage shelves, the arguments with her neighbors, the peace she finds in her rose garden. How badly I wanted to love her. In those first days, we even shared secrets. She once confided her recent lab results, and how she woke the next day facing her own mortality. I once admitted to feeling like an inadequate wife, never completely at ease with an ironing board or a skillet. We smiled at each other, tentative.

By the third day, our smiles had worn thin, and all efforts to reach each other receded in mutual irritation. Her compliments would grow louder, thinning and tapering into sharp points that punctured the air, her sincerity popping like a balloon.

“It’s so smart that you let Matthew eat whatever he wants! They’re only little once, so what if they’re chubby? It’s so cute at that age!”

“Anne certainly has her own mind, doesn’t she? My goodness, what a feisty thing! I guess the less you discipline your children, the better off they are, right? So they’re strong, independent. Yes, things are different now, and I’m sure it’s for the best.”

Only I understood her. My husband was oblivious, and my children didn’t recognize sarcasm. I remembered the secrets I’d shared with her, and I felt embarrassed and angry for giving her more ammunition. Soon I was slamming cupboards and taking long walks at night, carrying on imaginary conversations where I politely told her to go to hell. I didn’t have to say anything; she knew. When it was finally time for her to go, she would ask Greg to take her to the airport, and we’d stiffly nod our goodbyes on the porch.

The guilt set in instantly, a churning in my belly, a fist around my heart. I pictured her at the terminal, sitting stoic, jaw set, wiping away angry tears. I cursed my weaknesses. What would it cost to indulge her? Why couldn’t I take the higher road? In another six months, I promised myself, I’ll try again. I’ll invite her down, and we’ll watch Anne of Green Gables and The Sound of Music and go out for huge, dripping hot fudge sundaes and swap our best salsa recipes.

And so I would invite her, and she would accept, and the goddamned trip would be just the same. Until the last time when everything changed.

When my mother called to tell me about her dog, I hadn’t seen her in two years. My husband had stopped asking, but of course, Anne persisted, fueled by the lovely, blind innocence of children. “Why doesn’t Grandma come anymore? When can we see Grandma?” I kept telling her, “soon,” hoping the knowledge would one day sink in and leave me blameless, like the truth about Santa Claus.


I stood to clear the table, glancing one more time at my son, chasing rainbows spun in soap bubbles that burst on the grass. I saw the breeze shift, saw the bubbles suddenly change course and drift toward the garden.


The dishes clattered back to the table; I threw the patio door open just in time to watch Matthew crash through the freshly cultivated plot, crushing onion stalks beneath his knees as he tripped. His arms flung out, his fingers driving through the dirt and ripping out several newly-sprouted carrots. He stared at their exposed, spidery roots, then looked up at us, uncertain.

“Bubba,” he explained.

“Oh, honey.” I stepped gingerly between the rows, scooped him out, and brushed the dirt from his clothes.

“It’s not his fault,” I said to no one in particular. “I meant to get a little fence up.” Matthew twisted away and raced back to the yard. I knelt at the edge of the garden to survey the damage, careful to avoid my husband’s gaze. Warm tears were slipping down my cheeks and I dabbed at them with my sleeve, feeling ridiculous. Here were my baby carrot plants, torn from their cool, dark shelter, where their roots had already begun to spread hungrily. I picked one up and gently placed it back in the ground, securing it with a fresh mound of earth, hoping it might survive. Greg knelt beside me and began to do the same.

We worked quietly together as the sun began its slow descent and cast honey-colored shafts of light across the patio. I felt his gaze pass over me like a shadow. He had learned not to ask. After several years together, I still didn’t know what you could and couldn’t share with a husband. No one can hear the whole truth of a person, and not walk away.

Later we made love in the dark, and after, the tears came again. I sat up and pulled my knees to my chest, wrapped my body in the blanket. I told myself it was time. In the dark, I wouldn’t have to see his face.

I told him about the last time she came, right after Matthew was born, when Tom came with her. I told him how one day, when I turned the water off in the shower, I heard Matthew screaming from the bed. I told him how I rushed into the room, laid next to my baby and nursed him, dripping water on his cheek. How I jerked the sheet over my naked body when someone knocked on the bedroom door, and then entered. How Tom paused at the bathroom door, then turned back and asked if he could watch. “I’ve never seen a woman nurse a baby before,” he’d said, and I thought it was all right, he’ll just look for a minute, and I was covered up, the baby latched on.

I told my husband how I wasn’t prepared when Tom sat on the bed and found the baby’s leg under the sheet, how I was too shocked to protest when he began stroking Matthew’s leg, rubbing my thigh in the process. I told him how my throat locked, and it seemed like it went on forever but it was probably only a minute and then the baby let go and my breast was exposed, wet with milk, and Tom gasped and then he stood and walked stiffly to the bathroom without saying a word.

Greg was silent. And then he said, “But are you sure he—”

“Don’t,” I hissed. “Don’t you dare question me. That’s why women don’t tell. But I’m telling you. A woman knows.”

Later, Greg held me under the bright lights of our kitchen. He stroked my hair. He asked me what I wanted him to do.

And I told him. Nothing. Because she needs him more than she needs me. Because their marriage is worth more than our fractured relationship. Because it’s too late for her to start over. Because I think the best gift I can give her is to let her go.


AMBER STEVENS is a pseudonym, for obvious reasons.