birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

Magicians, Volunteers, DeMolays, Frat Brothers, RAs

Our Brotherhood

From the outset, it isn’t a good fit. Our new fraternity “brothers” are in trouble with the college because of their low grade point. Their only choice is to recruit an incoming class with much better grades. We aren’t the card-playing guys for whom studying is something to be put off until absolutely necessary. We eat and sleep in the frat house, but we live in the library. Some of our guys play cards with them, and some of their guys go to the library. But for the most part, we are in different worlds.

When it comes to fraternity traditions, things like the pledging process and initiating the new members, we can’t be bothered. Really, we’re too busy with academics and sports, and who cares anyway. What we want is a place to party and that’s why we’re members. Someone wants to join our house, let them. This is a big source of tension with the old guard.

And politics makes everything worse. The Vietnam War is raging, killing some 500 Americans every week, and it adds up to a foolish waste, a tragedy. That’s not how many of our brothers see it. So the frat house is divided like the rest of the country about the need to fight and die in Southeast Asia. This is amusing to us since the Greek fraternity system was born after the Civil War as a way to help reunite the country. To their credit, some of our brothers are in ROTC training programs and are indeed going to war.

There are lots of individual conflicts, but the split takes a big turn when the grade point of one of our guys slips below the line and the fraternity votes to eject him from the house –just for purposes of residence because it turns out you can’t actually leave “the brotherhood.” The damn breaks with a fistfight toward the end of the year, and most of us don’t return.

I don’t regret joining that fraternity because those guys in our group are among my best friends in life. I just wish I had better understood who I was before I made all those vows to a group that turned out to be so wrong for me.

—CF

Magic

A year ago, I would have had nothing to write for this topic because I had never really joined anything that required an initiation, but now this one is a slam dunk for me. In August 2016, I successfully auditioned to become a magician member of the Academy of Magical Arts, and its Hollywood clubhouse, The Magic Castle.

The audition process involves 10 minutes of questions and answers and 10 minutes of performing magic for a panel of magicians. The stakes were nil. I have no interest in pursuing magic as anything but one of many hobbies. There is no limit to the number of times you can audition. I hadn’t told any of my friends that I was auditioning, so if I failed, no one would ever have to know.

The stakes could not have been lower, and yet, it was one of the most stressful things I can remember doing. I have no fear of public speaking—I don’t seek it out, but I don’t get anxiety about it. I have walked into interviews and performance reviews and first dates and many things with much higher stakes with a minimal amount of nervousness.

Yet for some reason, this silly audition that meant nothing caused me an insane amount of stress. I use an app that tracks the quality of my sleep each night. One of its features includes looking at a line graph that tracks how well you sleep over time, and in the months leading up to my audition, there was a noticeable drop in my ability to get through a night of sleep. My average went from 85-90% sleep quality, down to about 65-70%. I’ve been tracking my sleep for about 4 years, and there is no equivalent drop in my ability to get a night of rest, in spite of all the other more important things I’ve done in that time.

I hadn’t really been a fan of magic as a child until my parents took me to see Penn & Teller, when I was maybe eight or nine years old. From there, I read all of their books and watched all of their specials. When I was about 13, I saw Ricky Jay perform his show, “Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants,” in Los Angeles as a benefit for the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Though I was wowed by his sleight-of-hand, it was the writing that tied his tricks together that really fascinated me, and would inform a lot of my own writing in the years ahead.

I’m not sure why, but I had never considered the possibility of actually learning magic, until a couple of my closest friends decided to start taking classes at the Castle, and asked if I wanted to join. The Magic Castle offers classes to members and non-members, and one of the perks of being a student is being allowed to go to the Castle on weeknights.

I still didn’t think I’d ever take the plunge and audition, but I came to really enjoy spending nights at the Castle, meeting unusual people, seeing the wide range of performers that fit under the umbrella of “magic,” and generally getting a window into this fascinating subculture.

My friend and magic classmates had begged off of auditioning, and so I decided: why not? I booked the audition in March, and the next available audition date they could give me was August. I was glad to have the five months to prepare.

I spent a lot of money on books and tricks, trying to find the right pieces for me. The goal of the audition isn’t to fool the magicians—they are going to know everything you are trying to do anyway. What they are looking for is for you to show an appreciation and respect for the art form. To show that you care enough to put time into learning some sleights, but also thought in to constructing an act that is unique to you and your personality. At the end of the day, it’s a private club, and they want to let in people that they would like to get to know as fellow members.

Eventually, I stumbled onto a trick that would work for me. Rubik’s Cubes are having a resurgence not only as a puzzle, but as a magic prop. I had been a cube-solver since high school, so I was able to tell my personal history with the cube, and tie it into the history of the cube, and then perform a couple of tricks invented for the cube. Around that nucleus, I tied a couple other basic tricks that only required a modicum of skill.

I showed up to the Castle with my routine solidly memorized and my props in an old cashbox I’ve had since I was a kid. We had to wait about two excruciating hours before the auditioning would begin. A member of the Magic Castle’s Membership Committee introduced himself to the eight of us gathered there and let us know the procedure for the evening. We’d be called into one of the Castle’s smaller theaters one at a time. We’d then wait as a group upstairs until everyone was done. At that point, the magician members would deliberate, and then we’d be called back downstairs if we had passed the audition or taken aside and given “notes” if we hadn’t.

My interview went fine—I told them a little bit of my story, I mentioned the magic books in my collection, and my interests and preferences in magic. My performance went poorly. I messed up several times, but kept my cool, and kept going. I walked out 100% convinced that I had failed.

Lo-and-behold, another hour and a half of waiting later, I found out that I had passed, and I felt relief like I didn’t know was possible. It wasn’t until the stress had alleviated, that I realized how nervous I had been. And now – a year later – I couldn’t be happier to be an initiate in this strange club at the heart of this even stranger art form.

—DT

A Club That Would Have Me

Oooh! Oooh! I thought as I saw this morning’s prompt, this is one that I can do! Then, I quickly realized that what I had for an initiation, a real, official one, wasn’t at all what I should be writing about and that a metaphorical initiation, one filled with emotion and passion and maybe even profundity is what was called for.

I then spent most of the day thinking about those, whether it was my initiation into, er, manhood and the pride I felt after, on my way home, while waiting in the Jack-in-the-Box drive through where nothing could erase the grin from my face, or maybe a deep and meaningful recounting of my initiation to daily life in the desert and the changes from urban to rural life. That, I thought, might be interesting for some people to read.

I’m going to write about the official one.

It was maybe important in my life, but it wasn’t in the slightest an emotional event. My dad was a Freemason, and I’m actually quite happy that he was, mostly because it allows me to scoff at those who conflate membership in a secret society with the Illuminati. Trust me, neither my father nor any of his Masonic brothers were in any way fit or interested in ruling the world. It was just a perfect example of a 1950s type men’s club.

I’m not sure how much “lodge work” there was going on, but my dad loved using it as an excuse to get out of the house and neither my mom nor any of my sisters ever questioned it. At night, after work, he’d go to the “lodge” and we’d all be fast asleep by the time he returned.

Over the years I learned a little about it, primarily that it was the non-Catholic version of the Knights of Columbus and that there were a couple flavors of it, one for protestants and one for Jewish men. Inside the protestant rite, which my dad belonged to, he was most active in the Knight’s Templars, which involved marching around with swords and wearing hats with ostrich feathers on them.

Also, they’d hold conventions every few years, to which he, my mom, and I would sometimes travel and get to see another city.

All of that is important is because he was quite interested in all that, and when my younger sister was old enough to become a member of the adolescent girl’s version, the Job’s Daughters, she did and got to wear a white satin robe and we’d all go to the public, annual ceremony where they appointed their officers.

The girls, I though, all looked pretty neat in their mostly identical outfits and they sang pretty well, too.

There was something called the Rainbow Girls, too, maybe some version of competition, but my sister didn’t join that one and, frankly, had very little to do with the Job’s Daughters, either.

I, on the other hand, was expected, I guess, to join the adolescent boy’s version, the DeMolays.

The way I saw it was as a Junior Masons, and we did many of the same things, I guess. I don’t remember feeling any pride or sense of accomplishment or anything at all, really, following my initiation into that secret order (we had handshakes and everything!), but it made my dad happy and I even ended up leading our chapter for a year.

There were a number of precepts centered on good, clean living, and worshiping God, and being a good citizen, most of which came up when he performed rituals and recited the ritualistic questions and responses, but which those of us in my chapter never let get in the way of having a good time outside of the temple or lodge where the meetings and ceremonies were held.

The first formal dance I went to was with the leader of the Rainbow Girls who shared the lodge with us, so it gave me a start on a life of avoiding formal dances.

While not many of precepts of the DeMolays stuck with me, I did meet a group of guys with whom I’d be friends through most of high school, so I guess it did a great job of fulfilling the fraternal part of being a fraternal organization. All but one of my friends was a member of our Order, and even those who weren’t strictly friends, were the only guys I hung around with.

Those were the guys with whom I did typical guy stuff with, driving around, sneaking drinks, and learning about drugs, and even going on a double date, so I guess it was very instrumental in shaping my youth and my life. I certainly would have turned out different had I not been a DeMolay, but I’m not convinced any of how being one shaped me and let me grow is something they’d ever put in an ad.

But, yes, I was initiated and I can even still remember some of the signs and rituals.

—RK

The all girls' experience

I am one of those people who went to an all girls school. In fact, the school that I went to was known as a finishing school for decades. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis attended my school before she was famous.

I really had no idea what I was getting into when I stepped on that campus at age 13. Still wet behind the ears from middle school, I walked into a house that have been turned into a dorm. This would be my home for the next nine months. I would be living with girls from all over the country, and all over the world.

One of the things that I love about the school, when I look back on it in hindsight, is just how steeped in tradition the school truly is. Little things take on such a bigger meaning when they are part of a tradition. At my school, it was all about earning your ring. When you came in as a new girl, you were the bottom of the barrel. There were color combinations we would get yelled that if we walk, there were parts of campus will be grill that if we crossed them on foot. Those who came before us, and those who are older than us not only demanded respect, but in our eyes have truly earned it.

The initiation ceremonies begin from pretty much the first day. Lots of little activities string together across the course of the year meant to indoctrinate the new girls into the Waze and the culture of the school. One such "tradition" that certainly left an indelible mark on my brain happened the first night the old girls in my dorm returned. They gathered all of the new girls into one room, and solace in the circle. They turn out the lights, grab the flashlight, and proceeded to introduce themselves with monster light streaming from their chins to the upper parts of their four head. Everything about this felt ominous. Exactly as it was meant to.

I will never in my life forget Erica Doyle. She grab the flashlight and put it to her chin. And then she leaned forward and looked at every single one of us directly in the eye and repeated the same phrase… "My name is Erica. And you don't fuck with Erica!" We didn't!!

But not all the traditions were scary, or what would be called he's in today. Some of them were delightful and lovely and sweet and endearing. We have this tradition at school at singing. We have a time in the spring where the old girls make song books for the new girls. All of the traditional songs that have been song from the first days of the schools found in a written down in a book. Each new girl gets one of these books, And it is the responsibility of the old girls to make them. And then we sing.

At the end of the year, all the trials and traditions lead to the ultimate ceremony where in we knew girls become old girls ourselves in. It takes place in the garden, we are all dressed up, you invite the old girls that mean the most to you to gather around you and wish you good thoughts and good future. It may sound hokey, but for the girls going through it both old and new, it is truly magical. And, when it is over, you have been initiated into the school. You have become one of them. In one of the songs that we sing as we close the ceremonies like this: repeat the line "Farmington's our home." It is in the work towards the initiation that makes the home so important to each and everyone of us.

—SJ

Room 111

When I was a junior in high school, I got married.

Ok, well, not married in the literal sense. At the small private school I went to for the last three years of high school, the yearbook and the yearbook staff were somewhat famous: for consistently winning awards for in the top 10 books in our size category in the country, and for being really, really weird.

This weirdness was cultivated and encouraged by our yearbook advisor, Mrs. Kazmierski (called Kaz by everyone, even her own children). And if you didn't quite know how far the rabbit hole went when you made the cut to be on staff, you learned very quickly when, at the beginning of the year during the first class meeting, that year's Editor-in-Chief got down on his or her knees and said "will you marry me!?" The returning staff members all smiled knowingly or rolled their eyes and said yes, while the newbies looked around confused. Then Kaz herded us all out onto the lawn, where the ceremony and reception were to take place. I wish I remembered more about what all went on, but I know there were toy bridal veils and top hats, a ceremony that involved us joining hands and pledging our loyalty and dedication to each other, and gag gifts for the yearbook room (a memorable one being a Santa leg you attached to the ceiling as if he had fallen through the roof, and that became a part of the permanent decor for years afterward).

That initiation ushered in some of the best parts of my high school years. My junior year, the book had the theme "Chiaroscuro," and my senior year the book was themeless--quite the departure from "what I did on my summer vacation" and "the volleyball team worked hard and a good time was had by all." Who on earth builds a yearbook around a concept from Renaissance painting? We put in vellum end papers for heaven's sake, and swore to each other we'd kill our friends if they tried to sign on them--but that "out of the box" thinking was what we were known for and won awards for--and anyway, everyone knew we were "weird," so they went with it.

Year after year, for as long as you were on staff, you lived and breathed that book. In that yearbook room I learned how to brainstorm, how to dream, how to think of impossible ideas and dare to think I could make them real. I learned how to write about things that weren't book reports or historical events, things that had passion and soul and mattered to the actual lives we were living in the present. We had inside jokes, we watched each others' copy and headlines for unintended innuendos (more common than you would think; we were a bit naive), and we worked late into the night eating countless slices of pizza when we were on deadline and had a batch of pages to finalize. We had that invaluable thing: a home base that wasn't our house our our parents, a place that was safe where we could exist as the people we were becoming or the people we wanted to be, where we could try and fail and experiment and always know that no matter what, the book and the staff and Room 111 would always be there to take us back and let us try again. We were family. And maybe, married to each other in some ways after all.

—CG

Volunteering

I wanted to help, I assume: I do not remember at all what led me to the American Red Cross building on Route 50 to volunteer that day. But almost immediately I knew that I did not want to do this.

I was supposed to be volunteering all summer, three days a week, although time has obliterated the exact path that led to my would-be summer of volunteering at the Red Cross. In fact, all I have is a snapshot in my mind of one instant of that day, accompanied by memories of feeling wholly unprepared.

My mother must have driven me there, as I was only 14. The Red Cross offered day care of some sort, is all I can figure all these years later. That image I have now stuck in my head is of me standing next to a young boy who must have had autism. I must have been assigned to be his caregiver. He was seemingly unaware of me standing next to him. I had no idea what autism was and no idea why he was unresponsive to anything I said or did. I do remember he started walking away, and nothing I could say or do could stop him. I think I tried to gently take his hand but he let it drop, or shook me off, and kept walking. I felt invisible and confused: he was not acting in a way that made sense. It was as if the laws of gravity and physics and sense were upended, defied; as if objects were floating upward, or a horn was being blown and the sound that came out was cotton balls. I was completely thrown off.

In the moment we stood there, I needed as much help as he did, I think; as a 14-year-old, I realize now, I should not have been assigned to this boy or left unaccompanied to tend to him.

I don't recall how I started as a volunteer there but I do know I never went back. The absence of recollection of the before and after makes the memory no less uncomfortable even now.

—JG

Carousel

The process of becoming a resident advisor in college was very involved. First you needed, I think, to apply and get some recommendation, probably from your current RA. And then you had to take a class for a whole semester. And then you had to sort of apply again and go through a process called "Carousel."

I don't know why they called it that, but it was a series of dizzying interviews and role-playing and more interviews that went on for hours. I don't know what exactly they were trying to accomplish, or who they were weeding out. I guess some people might've applied just to get the free housing, which wasn't an inconsiderable savings in Los Angeles even back then.

I recall, and I've written about this before so I hope this isn't really cheating, that I was being interviewed by two or three current RAs, and one asked me a question that went something like, "Some people believe that we all hold some prejudice against others, even if we don't know it consciously. Do you that that's true, if is so, do you know who you're biased against?"

Apparently not only did I ascribe to this theory, I didn't miss a beat in telling this young may that I was particularly prejudiced against born-again Christians. If he was taken aback, I don't remember his showing it. Why? he followed up. I thought about that for a minute and then said, "Well I think it's because they are always trying to convert you, and I don't really feel like I want to be changed, and the suggestion that I need to change seems, in fact, sort of prejudiced to me."

"So you're prejudiced against them because of what you perceive as their prejudice?"

He said it better than I could. I might've said, "I don't like feeling judged for being queer," but I hadn't really figure out that this is likely what was at the heart of all this.

(Side note: Turns out that RA who interviewed me was a member of Campus Crusade for Christ.)

The second part of the Carousel process was the role playing, where you would go from room to room and solve or address the kind of problems you might confront as an RA. So it might be a drink party, or a roommate spat, or some student freakout. I don't recall all the details of the role-playing scenes I stepped into. I do know that the next year, in the very best acting turn of my life, I played a student who was seriously depressed after a bad breakup. I was the Meryl Streep of Carousel that year.

These exercises, of course, could never prepare you for the true initiation of actually doing the job. For me, that came in the late fall or early winter of my first year. My apartment was on the first floor, and had a glass door that faced the interior of the apartment complex. There were two other RAs on the ground floor, but none with glass doors. In short, it was always obvious if I was home or not.

One night a kid knocked on my door and said he needed help because his friend, who didn't live in our building, but was at his apartment, had been raped and he didn't know what to do.

Let me tell you, that was not a scenario that we went through in Carousel then, through I bet they do today.

The young woman who I found in his bedroom was sitting on his bed and had clearly been crying. She didn't live on campus, but didn't know who else to call, so she'd come to see her friend. Her hair was wet. She'd already showered.

This was not a drunken frat party situation, either. Off campus, actually far from campus, a stranger had gotten into her car with a knife and forced her to perform oral sex on him. At least that's the amount of detail I got out of her. I sat with her for a long time and slowly, slowly, slowly convinced her to let us call the police. And then I sat with her until the police woman came and talked her into making a report with a description of the man who'd attacked her.

—RR

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