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

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Babies, burnout and boxes

Exhaustion to Burn Out

Sometimes I am stuck listening to someone’s airline travel story of woe. Delays, missed connections, lost bags; these tales are the same story. They never involve real suffering, just inconvenience. They don’t realize that if you fly a lot, everything imaginable will happen to you.

I am on the first leg of a two-week business trip to Argentina, and then to Europe. It sounds exciting: a blur of meetings and meals with customers and potential clients in a foreign capital. My job is selling TV programming in the international market. Fortunately, our shows are about Hollywood and the movie and TV business. In other words, we have popular global content. Everybody wants some.

The schedule is relentless and there is no time to be a tourist. On this trip to Buenos Aires, I try to sneak in the last day for tourismo. But after a week on duty, I can’t get out of bed before mid afternoon and I settle for a long walk. Then I’m on a flight to London and right to a meeting.

Now I do enjoy the job and the fun of belonging to an international community of TV programmers. What great friends I have all over the world. And I am well rewarded for succeeding and spending so much time away from home.

Yet, after ten years, I think I crossed the date line one too many times. I wonder how my younger brother continues to thrive after endless international travel for his job as an economist. He’s gone more often than me and often farther away. But my trip exhaustion is turning into burn out. I no longer care about work. I need a break, a change, some time, something new. Soon, I push away from the table, cash in my chips, and go home with no new job. I stay home and play with the kids and support my wife in her new position at work. I am “mister mom.” I have never been happier.


Moving day

In 1999, my parents moved from the house I grew up in to a smaller place about 10 miles away. I lived a continent away but asked several times if they wanted me to come back to help.

"Life can only be understood backward but it must be lived forward": I think now, knowing them as I do and knowing how hard moves are, How could I have imagined my mother and father could make this move without help? My mother, the scientist, chronically disorganized as a homemaker; my father, focused on his writing always, who needs directions to use a safety pin and was so used to my mother doing all the quotidian things for him. Neither had a clue as to how to move from a large house that had accumulated three generations' worth of stuff.

Four generations, actually: I found this out after I flew home at my father's last-minute request. I learned it over two weeks in which I averaged four hours of sleep a night: My mother tends to keep things. So did her mother, and her mother's mother, Adelaide from Mobile and Flora from Uniontown, Alabama, too. Moving furniture from a six-bedroom house would have been fairly simple had it not been accompanied by 150 years' worth of accumulated Things in boxes and bags including letters, diaries, documents, furniture, china, linens, mink stoles (one, actually, a fox stole from the 1920s; when I saw a face looking back at me from what I thought was a soft, long piece of cloth, I screamed), dresses, shoes, purses, Oriental rugs grown moldy, newspapers, magazines, framed paintings and family diplomas, piles of monogrammed stationery that showed my greatgrandfather had changed the spelling of his name from "Hirschfield" to "Hirshfield"), and heirlooms including hundreds of breakable items from Europe and Asia. All this and more had sat hidden for most of my life in the vast downstairs area that we tended to stash stuff in then never seek again.

My mother had kept the annual daybooks every year of her life since college. Touching, yes. But not when faced with a house filled with too much. These diaries of the grade-school girl who became my mother were tossed by me along with warped vinyl albums and 45s, cracked teapots, chairs with broken rattan seatings, bamboo curtains, chipped plates, bags filled with fragments of news stories whose sentimental or other meaning was long lost, posters and bumper stickers of old political campaigns, sleeping bags used decades before, cans of food and glass containers of water in the hideaway area for the tornadoes that never hit, dozens of suitcases with torn innards, paper plates and picnic items grown moldy. And so much more amassed over the years. I worked side by side with the woman who had been housekeeper with my family since I was 5; we would hold up an item that reminded us of some adventure years before, amazed at how laden with memories everything was, but with a deadline looming all we could do was shed a few tears then add it to the pile destined for the landfill.

The exhaustion, then, was physical: but it was psychological as well. I was so blinded by lack of sleep by moving day (days: it took two days and two enormous trucks) that somehow I saw but did not see the old desktop lamp my grandfather, both lawyer and author, used when he wrote his fiction and briefs in the 1930s and '40s. The lamp sat hunched, untouched and not packed for the move, on my father's built-in desk. I accidentally left it behind. For years I collected similar lamps at antique shops in silent apology to my grandfather, and to my parents, who asked months later if I knew where it was.

The break between past and present was most painful on that day that I saw-but-did-not-see that lamp: On the last day before we turned the keys to our house, built in 1960, over to new owners, I walked downstairs as the movers (at our request) took apart my father's built-in desk. They did it by taking a sledgehammer to it. The shock I felt at seeing them tear it from the wall with a hammer was visceral. It was like seeing them break the back of my father himself.

I helped my parents move to their new place, as well as move much of their stuff to storage, where it would stay for 10 years until I returned to finally help them empty those units.

I returned to California and was sick with strep throat for the next three weeks.


I Think I’ll Just Sit Down Here a Minute...

I’d like to say that most of what I know about exhaustion comes from cartoons and the occasional movie. No, that’s not because I’m some sort of rugged super-man with bulging muscles and fitness to spare. Quite the opposite.

In truth, I don’t think I’ve ever driven myself to the point of collapsing, much less collapsing with arms and legs outstretched in the pose I associate with exhausted people. I’ve just never let myself get close to that point. At all.

Which brings up my second problem with today’s assignment. Since I’ve never been in that state, nor seen anyone who was, I’ve spent most of the day wondering what the hell it means to be exhausted. Oh, sure, I could have checked one of the several dictionaries I own, but none of them are immediately handy and I don’t feel like pulling them out of the shed, not on a day when the temperature’s over one hundred.

I *have* a few times been doing something and had to sit down and take a break, so that’s what I’m going with as embarrassing as it is. Maybe it can be considered “exhausted,” but it felt more like a cross between being winded and just plain tired and needing a break.

Once I was loading a bunch of decorative garden bricks into my sister’s small pickup truck, and for the first time I could remember, I had to sit down in the bed of her truck and take a couple minutes to recover after loading only about half the load. I was ashamed and embarrassed by it, but I thought no one would ever know until today’s writing assignment came up.

Several years ago I’d offered to house and pet sit for a couple who were taking a vacation. To prepare for my stay, I loaded up a duffle bag with the clothes I’d need for a week (which weren’t heavy) and most everything I’d need to eat for the time I was there (which was).

The food severely increased the weight, in part because of things like the half gallon of olive oil and similar items I already owned and didn’t want to spend money on to replace with smaller versions.

I made it to the bus stop with no trouble and onto the first of two buses with ease. I got off the bus and began the hike to the home I was to stay at, and things continued to go fine.

I’d visited their place a few times before and knew there was a one hundred (?) step stairway up to the street where they lived, one that never gave me any trouble before. On those trips, however, I wasn’t lugging two or three cubic feet of food and clothing, and I was dismayed to find I couldn’t just skip up the stairway.

With about two dozen steps to go, I thought it would be a nice place to sit and watch the world go by, not that I was out of shape or bushed or anything like that.

So I sat. And waited. And waited just a bit more to make sure I could make the last haul, and soon attacked the remaining steps and made it onto their street and into what I’d call home for the next week.

I was sort of happy I’d lugged all that food with me, mostly because the thought of attacking those steps again seemed a bit beyond my current abilities. That feeling only lasted a day, and soon I had as much fresh food as I could eat.

And so did their pet.


The email to the WSJ

Once upon a time, actually the second time upon a time, I got really depressed by my job. It's important to understand that bit up front because it explains a lot of what happened.

Well, first, I quit my job. So I was unemployed in mid-2009 in Los Angeles, where the unemployment rate was 13.6%, and still climbing. A year later it would be 13.9%.

Second, I went to my doctor and got a prescription for antidepressants and something to help me sleep. That something was Ambien.

Third, because I was unemployed, I was recruited by a woman I'd come to know to help with P.R. for an effort she was leading to save the film program at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which had canned its film program director, which generated a small amount of outrage from the handful of people in Los Angeles who actually care about old Hollywood movies.

Through absolutely no P.R. skills of my own, a local arts writer was assigned to do a story on our efforts to SAVE FILM AT LACMA for the Wall Street Journal. Martin Scorcese had already written a piece for the LA Times calling this whole move a travesty, so getting the Journal on board was going to be a big coup for us, and give us some credibility as a group to get a meeting with the mucky-muck leading LACMA.

The problem for me is, I'm not really sleeping. Because that's how depression manifests in me: anxiety followed by sleeplessness, followed by numb exhaustion.

It's a hot summer night before we had air conditioning. And I'm not sleeping. So I get up -- it must be 1 a.m. -- and take an ambien. I start screwing around on my laptop and suddenly I get a panicked email from the leader of our SAVE FILM group. She'd gotten a call from the reporter quite late and night, and had taken the call even though it'd woken her up (mistake) and now she was sort of furious about it, and worried that she'd maybe said the wrong thing. So then she emailed the reporter telling him it was wrong for him to call her at that hour...

So I'm the PR person, right? I don't want her screwing up our story in the WSJ with her late-hour phone-answering regret. So I start to type a reply to the reporter, who, if we're being honest here, is a bit kooky himself. I mean, who DOES call a source for a story after 11 p.m.?

But the Ambien is starting to kick in. The lights are off in the house and I'm only illuminated by the screen of my laptop. And I am TRYING SO HARD TO FOCUS. And then I'm just writing about how I can't really write because I'm only replying at this hour because I'm up to take Ambien. And even though I am extremely anxious because I am unemployed and now even this totally volunteer PR situation might be going to shit, it doesn't matter because the drugs are kicking in and I am suddenly overwhelmed with a need to sleep.

And apparently somewhere in all that, I hit SEND.

I woke up in the morning wondering if it was all a bad dream. Nope. In my inbox was a reply from the reporter saying, essentially, "LOL." He wrote the story. We sort of saved the film program at LACMA. I gave up on PR.


The Longest Week of My Life

The week of April 15 – 19th, 2008 was the most exhausting of my life. In retrospect, I now know that that week would be the first week I spent working in what would become my career (at least for the next decade and counting).

I had been hired in late March to be an Administrative Assistant for Development at the United Nations Foundation in Washington, DC. When I went in for my first interview, I didn’t even know that “Development” meant fundraising. I was able to pivot somewhat quickly in the interview, and I ended up landing the job, even though I had no non-profit experience and hardly any professional experience at all.

Because timing on these things is always perfect, I received the official job offer right before I was about to leave on a two week through the UK. The woman I was replacing had quit her job to teach yoga on a beach in Mexico, and she would be long gone by the time I got back from my trip, so we arranged for me to come in for two days for “training” before I left for London.

I spent about two weeks racing around England and Scotland, taking in as much as I could on my first (and to date only) trip to the UK. The last stop was staying with my friend who was working on her PhD in Edinburgh. I was healthy the whole trip, but as soon as I stepped into the cab to head to the Edinburgh airport, I knew I was getting sick.

By the time I reached Heathrow, I had a nasty flu with a fever. I had a 4-hour layover and I remember buying the strongest meds I could find and sleeping on a row of seats in an empty waiting area. My transatlantic flight was fortunately under-booked and I ended up with a row to myself to stretch out and sleep. I couldn’t get comfortably to sleep on the seats and tossed and turned for a long six hours, before arriving at Dulles and taking the long cab ride late at night back into DC.

I remember walking through the door of my apartment, getting immediately into bed and thinking: I have a stressful first week of a new job tomorrow, but if I can make it through these five days, I can sleep all weekend. The weekend seemed so far away at that moment, but it was a dim light of hope at the end of the tunnel.

Learning to work for the United Nations was a difficult task. I would later on joke that most of the people who work for the UN, their first language is acronym. It was a large non-profit within an enormous UN system, and I was completely new to all the arcane terminology and methodology of non-profit fundraising.

It was a steep learning curve that served me well in the years ahead, but all I can remember from that first week was popping pills, trying to retain as much new information and names as I could, and knowing that if I could make it to Friday, April 19th, I could do nothing but sleep for 48 hours.

My flu didn’t particularly let up, and I wasn’t able to sleep well, and by Friday I was a shell of myself, but I was determined not to take a sick day during my first week. (Stupid decisions we make in our youth.) I ended up with a lingering cough that lasted for several weeks—the only time in my life that ever happened.

Many of my new coworkers would hear my cough down the hallway before they met me. A career secretary, Lynette, came by during my second week to find out who the source of the horrible hacking noise was and asked me, “Did they send you here to kill us all?”

I remember getting to 5pm on that Friday, gathering my belongings, and heading home. It was about a fifteen minute walk in a cool spring evening. I had made it, and had never felt so happy to be able to do nothing. I think I ordered a large pizza that night to live off of for the weekend, and didn’t leave my apartment again until Monday morning.

When April 19th comes around each year, I think of that week in 2008, and how no week since then, no matter how stressful, has ever felt as long.


Too tired to sleep

One of my favorite songs on my SoundCloud playlist is called "This Shit Comes in Waves." That seems to be true for so many things in life! Get past one hurdle and WHAM, there is another one to greet you.

No one said parenting would be easy. In fact, as the boys have grown, parenting has become harder and harder. Sorry - don't mean to scare anyone away, but you may as well know the truth. I've pretty much been a hot mess of exhaustion since 1998. It changes, morphs, as the kids grow, but it has been constant since before my oldest was born.

He wasn't an easy baby. Very fussy, colicky, needing to be held almost at all times. I felt like the narrator from The Tell Tale Heart, trying to stealthily sneak out of his room without waking him up. It never worked. He could tell the barometric change as soon as I crossed the threshold, and would begin wailing anew.

But never have I ever known exhaustion like I did when we brought his brother home from the hospital. My family should be a warning to be careful what you wish for:
My husband and I got married on the later side, and I wanted to wait a year before we had kids. I got pregnant pretty much on our anniversary.
I said I wanted two kids, but I'd like them about a year and a half apart. My sons were 18 months, less 3 days apart.
I said I wanted 3, but then retracted my statement when I thought there was no way my heart could be any fuller with the two I already had. God, or whomever, didn't quite hear that part, and we welcomed Christopher.

But my epic parenting fail, the place where I didn't know if I could breathe, let alone parent, came as soon as we brought son #2 home from the hospital. My in-laws had come to town, presumably to help, but their presence was less than helpful. My oldest was still a toddler, clingy and needy, still wanting to be held. My body had pretty much run a marathon, my hormones were a mess, and now I had a baby waking up every 2 hours. Every single part of my body hurt, down to my fingernails and hair. I was no longer able to think clearly, had run out of patience days prior, and had not had so much as the time nor the energy to shower.

I was a hot mess.

I remember clearly sitting up on my bed, crying. My baby was next to me, also crying. My husband was behind me trying very hard to be helpful and failing completely. "Why did I ever think I would be able to do this?" I wailed over and over at 3 AM. Nothing I did soothed my middle, and in the midst of this, my oldest woke up wanting to be held. I spent the next several hours trying to console two babies, while my husband tried to console me. No one was successful.

The next day, my in-laws arrived from their hotel to find everyone in their pajamas, eyes sunken, hair disheveled. They offered to take both of the kids, and let me get some sleep. Nothing sounded more heavenly, and I gratefully took them up on their offer. My husband went with them to god-knows-where, and I had the luxury of an empty house.

I took a hot shower, put on clean pajamas, and crawled into bed. Lead ran through my veins, and I could hear my pulse in my ears, but nothing on this earth felt better than my sheets and pillow. I had all morning with a quiet house, no one crying or screaming, no babies to feed or husband to worry about. Uninterrupted sleep!!!

Have you ever been too tired to sleep? It is its own special kind of hell.



Spinouts, blackouts, and impatience

The concrete jungle, the quiet desert, the river of cars