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

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

Almost gone, almost an artist, almost graduated, almost tall

wotthehell

Daddy almost did not see his nephew one final time before he died -- just four weeks before he died. I have a photo, 3-year-old Jacob in a red T-shirt, one hand on a toy elephant, pausing to look up with wonder at his grandfather. His grandfather, my father, also in a red shirt, looking down at him with wonder. Daddy was holding a cane with an elephant head as the handle.

That was his final May 4 of the 88 May 4ths he had lived through.

Daddy almost did not come to dinner at our place, three weeks before he died, to have dinner and see our new chandelier and hear music he loved. Having him come to our place was a rare event because Mama is hard to get around in her wheelchair and dementia, and usually I'd just go over there. But he liked to get her out of their apartment, and he also liked the change of pace and the food and the music we play during meals. We had pasta I brought in from down the street, good garlic bread and a salad, and he was introduced to Roomful of Blues. He kept stopping the lively conversation about boxing and writing and football and politics to start singing along with the songs.

We almost did see Roomful of Blues -- I promised him we'd go when they came to town. But he died.

Daddy almost did not see the anniversary present from my husband: a cappuccino John had fixed with the foam in a heart design. I sent a photo of it to Daddy by email because I knew he'd get a kick out of it.

That was a week before he died.

Daddy almost did not realize anew how much I appreciated his passing along to me a fondness for Don Marquis: "today I herd with bums" was the subject line in an email I sent six days before he died. The full text I sent:

i have had my ups and downs
but wotthehell wotthehell
yesterday sceptres and crowns
fried oysters and velvet gowns
and today i herd with bums

It was because of Daddy that I'd even heard of the song of mehitabal. I forgot I sent it; when I talked with Daddy a few days later he mentioned it right away, just to let me know.

I almost went to ballet Saturday morning, two days before he died, thinking that he only was going to have surgery for a hernia and it would be the first chance I could take ballet since I'd broken my foot in January. I chose to skip ballet to keep Daddy company in his shared hospital room. I almost missed the chance to talk politics and sports and music with Daddy again.

I almost missed seeing him the last 15 minutes of his life when he was awake and truly himself: Monday, I managed to get in early for an emergency dentist appointment I could not delay, though I wanted to be at the hospital for Daddy, as I was not sure when surgery was. I drove like a maniac from the dentist's office to the hospital and ran into his room. All seemed fine, though he was still uncomfortable. I talked with him for 10 minutes ....then heard him cough in an unfamiliar way.

I almost missed that nightmarish cough, but then I would have missed the chance to talk with Daddy for the final few minutes he was still Daddy before the septic shock hit.

wotthell.

—JG

 

Almost Artists

My Dear Hayley and Charlie:

I think you’re probably tired of hearing me tell you that you both have lots of creative ability and that I hope you pursue those interests. We send you contradictory messages about making it on your own—and it is wonderful that you are both independent—and trying to be artists. But, after all, that is what “day jobs” are for.

Maybe I encourage you in that direction because I wish someone had encouraged me. Even before college, I loved taking photos and playing with film. During college, I assembled a portfolio and was applying to film school as well as law school. I was trying to decide but I was definitely immersed in the law, policy, and politics area having spent the last semester of college in Washington doing internships, and going back after graduation to work in Congress. My parents thought law school would be best for me.

During the time of deciding, I see a film called “Relativity,” by Ed Emshwiller, and I come out of the theater thinking, “I could never make something that good.” This is a dumb way to think about a career decision, but I have other friends who have similar stories. Usually, this is called a “talent crisis.”

I am also swept along by the currents of my time. The Vietnam War is a daily fact of life with lots of people are dying. Lawyers are getting things done resisting the war. I have an internship at the Federal Communications Commission, working for a well-know anti-war Commissioner, Nicholas Johnson, and I get to know a lot of socially conscious lawyers who are devoted to reform. I like and respect them and I appreciate what they are doing. Chief among them is a lawyer from Los Angeles, Tracy Westen, serving as Nick Johnson’s principal staffer. Bob Thorpe and Gary Gerlach also worked in the office. I end up crossing paths later on in life with all of them, but to this day I still talk periodically with Tracy who spent his career in the public sector.

One reason I am thinking about graduate school is that it will give me at least another year of student deferment from the draft. And ambition is definitely motivating me toward law school since I can see a path toward interesting jobs and a lot of possibilities. Eventually, I am accepted by Georgetown Law School in D.C., and Boston University. I try to visit Georgetown and when I open the main door of the old law school, I see a crucifix. I never made it inside and said yes to B.U., a much more diverse and stimulating environment. And, right next to your grandfather’s office where I become a frequent visitor. But after law school, I end up back in Washington.

When it comes to following your artistic selves, I think you know that at any time you can pull the ripcord and end up with a meaningful pursuits. And you have little pressure to go back to school quickly since you can do that later if you want and that seems to be the way of your generation. Naturally, I hope you will make the career decisions that are right for each of you. So far, it looks like you’re both doing well figuring out who it is you’d like to be.

Your loving father,

—CF

 

Almost There

My Rubik’s Cube-solving skills speak to how much free time I had in my youth and teenage years. I did, however, have a core group of about five or six friends. We were all super serious students, who spent much more time studying than we needed to. By our senior year, we were all in those “college-level” Advanced Placement courses that culminate in a big terrifying 4-hour test sometime in April.

The tests are administered at the same time around the country, but my school was on a strange calendar running from about late-October to mid-June, so once the tests were over, we really had nothing to do for about a month or six weeks. Teachers would come up with various “final projects,” things to keep us busy while we rode out the clock, waiting to go off to college.

My A.P. English class was taught by a notoriously difficult teacher, who was in the final years of her career. Looking back, I can tell that she was having fun toying with a bunch of hyper-achieving kids, setting always-moving goalposts for us, making sure nothing we ever did was good enough. At the time though, we were all convinced that she was senile or crazy or just sadistic.

For our final project, she did something unexpected. She usually had students work on a significant written assignment a thesis or the like, but she decided it would be more fun to break us into groups, have us write a script, and shoot a movie. She had arranged for us to use A.V. equipment belonging to the public access T.V. station that had its studio on our school’s campus.

The only prompt we were given was a photograph, which had to in some thematic way connect to the film that we made. I ended up by luck-of-the-draw in a group with a group comprised essentially of those five close friends of mine, including my very first friend Alex, who I had met on the first day of pre-school.

We had a month to work on the project. The photograph we were given was of a mountain climber about to go over the top of a sheer face of a cliff. I don’t know how we came up with it, but the title of our movie was “Almost There.” I think the #1 movie in America at the time was “Can’t Hardly Wait,” about a bunch of seniors in high school about to go off to college.

Either for practical reasons or for just a sheer lack of imagination, we decided to shoot a movie about six friends, who were really just fictionalized versions of ourselves, about to go their separate ways off to college. I think we were required to make a 10 or 15 minute film, but our final cut was close to 45.

There was a loose a story we came up with, but basically we spent the weekends of our last month of high school going around filming our lives, getting kicked out of various places for shooting without permission, and honestly just being goofy in front of a camera. Cell phone cameras didn’t exist yet, and none of my friends were (or are) film people, so I think this is the only period of my life for which significant video footage exists.

I still have a digitized version of “Almost There” (we actually shot on tape, because digital wouldn’t be a thing for another two years or so), and I still watch it from time to time. My first friend Alex and I have grown apart and have separate lives, but we do check in every few months or so. We still have inside jokes from “Almost There,” that we’ll text to each other at random moments.

We also put together a soundtrack for the movie (because, of course, we did), and I have a CD of it that I can use to time travel with.

Now, when I think about Mrs. Baum, the scary English teacher, giving us that assignment, I see her genius. That time was one of life’s first huge transitional moments, and I have this weird, absurd, slightly surreal record of it. (In a way, its not unlike this 40 Days & 40 Writes project which will give me a varied catalogue of things that were bouncing around in my head between August and September of 2017.)

And now, I’m going to shoot a text to Alex, and ask him if he thinks we’re still Almost There.

—DT

Horseshoes, Hand Grenades, and Nuclear Weapons

 Well, somebody had to say it.

I don’t think I’ve ever thought about the concept of almost before this, but after spending the better part of a day wondering about it, I’m thinking that one word would be a great tattoo for me to get. Or, maybe I should design a family crest so I could use that as my motto.

If I think back over my life, I’m sure I almost had something happen that would have been a huge deal, a life changing even if you will. As it is, I can’t remember any such dramatic or noteworthy incident, so I’m going to content myself with thinking I had a whole bunch of little, mundane almost moments, the same as everyone else.

And, also, there’s a whole lot of almost properties that could be used to describe me.

At a little over six feet in height, I’m almost tall. My hair has receded from my brow and I’ve developed a bald spot on the crown of my head, so I’m almost bald. Ive neglected and lost almost all of my teeth, and thanks to a cataract, almost lost sight in one eye.

That’s already a lot of almosts, and that’s just the physical stuff that almost everyone can see (the bald spot on top of my head is kinda hard, though, since for most people you’d have to be standing while I was sitting).

It could be argued that I almost had a long and happy marriage, but while I was overjoyed at the time, she wasn’t and it only lasted a few years because of that. I’d like to say I almost fully recovered from that failure, but that would be a lie. I’d get married again in a heartbeat, but I almost think I’m now far too damaged to be attractive.

I do think I have a rather nice smile, almost an inviting one, but no one’s ever told me that.

I almost know as much about some things as other people do, but not quite, and I’m not sure it even rises to the level of knowledge. Maybe it’s more like a belief or conviction. I almost know a little about a lot of things, but it’s more like being acquainted with them.

Some people have said I should do voice-over work, but every time I hear a recording of my voice I think it’s too nasal and is almost a horrible one. It almost sounds great in my head, but nobody else gets to hear that, so I’m guessing that doesn’t count for much.

I pride myself on being honest, and I think I’m almost always so, but do exaggerate from time to time when I think it’s funny to do so. I’ve almost entirely given up on trying to impress anyone and I’ve almost rid myself of a competitive nature, but every once in awhile I look at how I’ve thought and presented myself and realize I’m almost a total failure in that regard.

I almost never listen to other people as much as I should, and I almost always try to make conversations about me. I’ve almost gotten pretty good at putting myself in other people’s shoes and seeing things from their viewpoint, but lately there’s been an awful lot of people whose outlook and world view almost completely floors me.

I’ve almost finished with this little exercise now, and I’m certain (no almost about it) that while I’ve found it incredibly hard in the oddest of places, I’m going to miss seeing what everyone else has to say about the topics.

I almost wish we could keep on doing this.

—RK

Latin, law and lessons

Dear kids, students, draftees, myself and others...