“Train of Thought” by Lois Baer Barr

Lois Baer Barr


Caution, the doors are about to close.
Scribbling on the inbound train from Highland Park
to Chicago, I’ve read Brent Lott’s essay halfway;
he thinks writers should burrow into personal topics
and pay less attention to technique. One night
we watched a 60 Minutes segment on ADD.
“Hey! That’s it. That’s you,” shouted Lew.
The train’s commotion reminds me of my struggle
with distraction, and we’re pulling out of Indian Hill—
wonder why they haven’t changed that one.
The next stop will be Kenilworth. Kenilworth!
Yes, that’s the street in Louisville where we lived
in a white stucco duplex on a steep hill by a wooded lot
where an Appalachian man squatted in a trailer, not
like the groomed gardens and fine houses flanking
these tracks. Look at those hydrangeas! Wilmette next.

But watch me; I can stay on track.
In high school I worked twice as hard as my friends.
In college a reading test predicted failure,
but roommates’ notes and NoDoz got me through.
Senior thesis, M.A. papers—
exercises in frustration.
My husband read chapters of my dissertation.
“Why can’t you just stay on topic?”

“I’m sort of interested in cubism,” says the man
across the aisle who got on in Glencoe.
His wife’s half-hearted nod, the furrow of her brow,
flowery tote bag hint she likes Impressionism.
Evanston Station next.

High school all-nighters fueled by amphetamines
Mom got from a diet doctor on Dixie Highway.
Wide awake, I wrote parodies for Skit Night.
It was and still is hard to stop the voices; yet
I sometimes focused.
“Look! Duck Duck Duck Duck Duck Duck Duck
Duxler’s Tires has ducks on the brick façade.”
Dancing gave me discipline; the music centered me.
Books. I lived inside of books: Clara Barton,
Nancy Drew, from her first caper to her last.
I got in bed with East of Eden. Got out to eat.
Marjorie Morningstar. I was starstruck.
Ninth grade Spanish surprised me.
Verb conjugation: such symmetry.
Word lists were repeated to mastery.
¡Gracias a Dios! I found a place to be.

Evanston, Davis Street.
A pale, round-faced man sits down facing me.
Our knees bump; so, he slides to sit catty-corner.
Still too close. He reeks of tobacco; his Dunkin’
Donuts coffee could spill on my new white shoes.

We’re close to Chicago, but I’m not finished.
Now I get why I postpone work on projects:
the panic of deadlines keeps me on track.

Rogers Park.
I focus with lists, goals, iron-clad syllabi.
As a teen I devised a sensory deprivation booth:
“Give me a break. Mr. Dunkin’ Donuts
is on his phone making an appointment!”
I would lie on the top shelf of my closet.
In college I locked myself into a small
green-tiled tub room adjoining the showers.
Oh dear, the conductor wants my ticket though
he punched and placed it in its clip as we left
Highland Park. I look on the floor. I sift through a purse
filled with receipts, coupons, Kleenex, bank
deposit slips, lipstick, gum wrappers.
The conductor gets huffy. People stare at me—
a white-haired suburbanite—like I’m a cheat.
Only round-faced man with coffee looks sympathetic.
“Oh well, let it go,” the conductor gives up.
Mr. Dunkin’ says, “They never let it go
when that happens to me.” Then he asks me
if I have tweezers. I am too furious
with the conductor to think how strange that is.
“Calm down. Control yourself.” Rose Hill Cemetery
rolls by, so beautiful from above. “Better
than the view from below,” I think.
I breathe deeply. Yoga focuses me.
My teacher says, “Take those precious thoughts
and lock them in your treasure chest for later.”
“What’s the big deal? I could pay again,”
I mutter. Sabbath ritual
in synagogue gives my life order.
Prayers fill my mind, blocking the chaos.
I like to return to places I’ve been,
places I know the grid, can navigate.
Places like Vegas and Home Depot kill me.

One day on the highway, my husband pointed
out a Ford. Usually I’m lost in thought,
don’t notice cars before they whiz by.
“Oh my God,” I cried, “you can buy a Focus!”
ADD tripping me, I drive an Escape!

We’re getting close to Madison Street, and I
must tell you that I drive my family crazy.
“Lois, are you listening?”
“I thought you were making lasagna for dinner,”
they protest when I serve paella instead.
My daughter, the shrink, says it’s not ADD.

Close to Ogilvie Station the train slows down.
Coffee guy finishes his newspaper,
moving his lips all the while. The couple
bound for the Art Institute collect their things.
Conductors wait at the door.
I’m meeting friends at the Mexican Museum.
We’ll visit the tortilla factory, see murals,
eat at Nuevo León. 3:00 on the dot,
we’ll stop everything, take the “El” downtown.
I’ll catch the 4:15 outbound train. Lew knows
I always come home from my wanderings.
Just like students know I always give quizzes
on the day stated on the syllabus, and editors
know I turn in copy by the deadline.
But could I become senile like my father?
What if ADD blends into Alzheimer’s?
Please collect all your belongings.
Pay attention as you disembark,
and thank you for riding Metra today.

from Rattle #71, Spring 2021
Tribute to Neurodiversity


Lois Baer Barr: “I think I notice the random details of life and hear the bird calls others miss, so I’m thankful I was never treated for ADD. I was fortunate as a child to be very physically active with hours and hours of ballet lessons and biking and running barefoot in our little subdivision just outside of Louisville, Kentucky. That activity kept me from acting out and being hyperactive, although occasionally I was impulsive. I never knew I had ADD until I watched a segment on 60 Minutes many years ago with my husband, who is a physician. During my academic career as a professor of Spanish, I found research engrossing, but writing articles ruined every summer for over 40 years. I found it hard to organize my thoughts into a coherent piece. Then a book I co-edited soured a friendship because I couldn’t stop coming up with ideas and get down to the job at hand. Now when I get too many ideas, I take a nap.” (web)


Lois Baer Barr was the guest on Rattlecast #85! Click here to watch …

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