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

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

Hair, Hands, Teeth, Eyes

The higher the hair, the closer to God.

I have been at a loss as to what to do with my hair for my entire life. So brown it's almost black, and so wiry due to my Semitic heritage that for all of my school-going years, I was futilely resigned to having a shoulder-length bush on my head, and that was just that.

Where other girls would have gone to their mother for advice, for me this was a non-starter. From my earliest age until I put my foot down at 8 years old, my mom cut my (then straight and glossy--damn puberty!) hair in a pageboy for ease of grooming and getting ready in the morning. This, combined with some excellent hand-me-down threads led to many early micro-traumas of smart-ass classmates asking me if I was a boy, and if I wasn't, then why did I wear old corduroys and have short hair?

Upon my rebellion in third grade, I overcompensated and grew my hair out to my mid-back, and would only hold it back using a headband. I never put it in a ponytail as I had VERY strong opinions about the "weird" shape of my face. I also read too many books about girls growing up in "olden times" who went to bed after plaiting their hair in a long braid down their back, and so for a time I, too, slept in a braid. If I'd taken a shower before bed, this led to some interesting results the morning after.

The aforementioned puberty came, my hair grew frizzy and I fell into despair. This stage of life did not treat me well and my feelings of helplessness when it came to my body were strong, so I did my best to blow dry it straight and tried not to think about it (or look in too many mirrors). Later, to my hairdresser's dismay, I discovered wet-dry straighteners and John Frieda, and spent most of the next decade getting up an hour earlier on mornings I washed my hair, so as to have enough time to straighten it directly from the shower, the smell of burning hair wafting around me. I have really thick hair. I wore out a lot of straighteners.

Now, I know that my teenage trauma could have been solved by a trip to an actual beauty supply store for some shampoo that was not Head 'n Shoulders (I was terrified of dandruff too) and a better conditioner. A few years ago, my sister looked at me and said, "I think your hair is curly. You should try some gel." And so, with the help of the internet, I entered the world of silicone-free shampoo and attachments for my hairdryer and special haircuts where the stylist cuts the hair dry "according to your unique curl pattern."

It worked. After all that, I just had curly hair. On most days, even though you can now see I inherited my father's premature grey, I like the ringlets and swoops and other odd things my hair does--although it does drastically limit my cut and styling options. What I wouldn't do to have bangs again.

But I do think a first foray into color-treatment is in my future...


Not So Idle Hands

For all they do for us, hands are an under-appreciated part of the body. The things I spend my time doing—writing, plugging away on my phone, doodling on the piano, even playing tennis all require a lot from the hands.

Tennis, in particular, is famous for being about speedy footwork and generating power from the shoulders, but the game is really played in your hands. The sport—like most things that require both focus and fluidity—is played best in a state of relaxed tension. The easiest shorthand (no pun intended) for getting into that state is loosely gripping the racquet, as if it were floating in your hand a little bit.

It’s a simple change, but it’s one of those little tweaks that changed my game. Releasing my hold on the racquet just a little bit had a ripple effect on the rest of the body. My arms moved more fluidly. My shoulders turned wider. My shoes glided just a little bit more smoothly along the hard court.

The hands—in addition to our brains, our eyes, and our voices—are tools for interacting with the world. I don’t want to know the stats on how much of my day I spend typing, whether it is at work writing letters and emails, texting or surfing the web on my phone, even writing this very essay now at the end of a long day.

Nervous energy and anxiety run in my family, as do hobbies which require keeping the hands engaged. My dad and I play the piano. My mom knits, needlepoints, and crochets. About two years ago I discovered the appeal of learning magic. I started taking classes in sleight-of-hand and realized how satisfying it can be to sit for an evening watching TV and manipulating a deck of cards, a handkerchief, or a coin.

Invariably, if I’m sitting at a table for too long, I’ll pick up and start turning the salt shaker in my hand, or if I’m sitting on a Metro train, I’ll coil and uncoil my iPhone cable in my hands. At the end of a work day, I can usually find one or two straightened-out paperclips on my desks. The most alluring thing about being a smoker to me would be all the gesture and movement it requires. Instead, I just crack my knuckles incessantly.

Physically, my hands aren’t anything remarkable—small for a piano player’s—about average for someone my size. They fortunately have great stamina, and if I am patient enough, they will pick up new skills and techniques faster than I expect them to.

When I’m done writing this, I’m going to Google if there are any studies that have looked into whether manual dexterity is a genetic or learned trait. Being a neurosurgeon obviously requires extraordinary mental abilities, but you also have to have responsive, coordinated, and steady hands. One of my most interesting friends is a welder who specializes in working in hazardous or difficult conditions—like in a scuba suit under water. Of course, he had to have skill and strength and training and nerves, but also very steady, careful, and methodical hands. Even if he was just reaching to pick up a glass, you could notice the precision with which he did it.

It makes me think about my hands and the frenetic energy they seem have. Or as I should say, the frenetic energy I myself have as expressed through them.



I have big teeth. And a small mouth. I'm sure some people might quip about now that I have a big mouth. But I'm talking literally here, not figuratively.

To start, my baby teeth wouldn't get out of the way. I lost exactly one baby molar. I had to have seven others pulled out by a dentist. My dentist said we needed to "make room" for my adult teeth.

My front teeth came in like monsters, far oversized for my tiny 7-year-old head. I was a small kid. Despite all that space-making they were crooked to boot. I'm not sure I cared; I can't have been a very vain kid given my love of tube socks and tank tops. Still, the teeth pulling was just a foreshadowing of things to come.

I got braces in the 7th grade. Now it was my orthodontist saying that there wasn't enough room in my mouth. My three years of intense orthodonture began with a palate expander. For those who haven't had the pleasure of this adolescent torture device, it is like a mini car jack for the roof of your mouth. There's a little metal rod that you insert and twist, and that slowly pushes apart the two halves of your upper jaw. Fun, right?

Still, there wasn't really enough room. I had a 6-inch growth spurt in 8th grade, and reached nearly my full height. Still, my poor skull didn't get any wider. The dentist pulled out four of my permanent bicuspids.

Finally, halfway through 9th grade, my teeth were ready. And the braces came off. My teeth were perfectly straight, but still... big. Especially my front teeth. I even had the bottom of one filed down so that it didn't jut out so far below my second incisor. I wore my retainer religiously for four years, finally ditching it when I went to college.

After college, while still covered by my parents insurance, I had my wisdom teeth removed. That was an ordeal involving anesthesia and stitches. No room in there for wisdom teeth, though.

I'm a still a little self-conscious about my smile in pictures, though mostly I focus on how asymmetrically squinty I am when I smile. Sometimes I think that really no one notices. But about two years ago I ran into a college classmate at a restaurant. I hadn't seen her in more than 20 years. And she said, "I knew it was you. You always had such straight teeth." So I guess people do notice.


Meet cute and Mongols

My eyes. Because of my eyes I learned very early the words "Mongol hordes on the Eastern steppes." The words "raping and pillaging" came up, too, but because the human events were so long ago (13th century?) they seem a reference more academic than anything. These words came from my father, who is steeped in history, politics and opinion, and was there quite often when people would ask where I was from (even while I was with my family).

My eyes seem to have lids, or lack of same, that make me look Asian (ish). And perhaps my eyes are sort of slanted(ish).

Besides making it hard for me to apply eyeliner, I think my eyes with their vague asymmetricalness are an asset because the first conversation I had with one extremely shy guy in the newsroom started with his asking me if I was half-Japanese. I burst out laughing until I realized he was serious; then I guessed to myself that maybe he was half-Japanese. I stopped laughing, and said, "I'm Jewish," because, well, the non sequitur seemed then to make sense. The guy is my husband now. His Japanese mother claims he liked me because I looked Japanese.

Recently, in viewing a photo of his grandfather, we both noticed that his mother's father was far taller than the rest of his family in Yokohama. We wondered if there were some mixing of empires (outside of politics) way back when, an intermarriage his family would no doubt disavow. After all, Japanese (like Jews) claim that Japanese are Japanese through and through.

My father went to Romania to witness that country's elections in 1990, the first elections in decades. My grandfather, Hymie, escaped there during a pogrom, and it was the first time my father had been to his father's homeland. Daddy said all the young women there had eyes just like mine.

— J G

Hidden Treasure

Even thought nobody's ever seen it to comment about its looks, I'd be wrong to think anything other than my brain has been my biggest liability and asset.

Especially as I age, I can't go a month or so without remembering a quote that I believe came from Thomas Edison who said, roughly, that all he asked of his body is that it carry his brain around. I was agreeing with that before I ever heard it.

The first body-type thing I learned to hate was running, and from then on, I've never asked much of my body. I do love the parts of it that are sense organs, and I cannot imagine how I'd fare without eyes or hands or feet or tongue or ears, but I'm certain it would be better than I'd do without a working brain.

I never received many compliments about any part of my body, not honest ones, and I can remember only one or two people ever making any comments one way or the other. I used to be fascinated with my eyes when I was in Junior High, sometimes even lying about how they'd change colors, but I was the only one who mentioned them at all. I wanted them to be deep and romantic and inspiring, but honestly they were just eyes. I learned by the time I had to renew my driver's license that it wasn't quite accurate to call them green: they were hazel (a color, by the way, that I read would end up being everyone's eye color if our species survives long enough).

Maybe I like my tongue best because it lets me taste delicious food, well prepared, but that's such a rarity now that I can't say it's all that important. Also, I don't talk a lot (or need to), so from a perfectly practical point of view my ears would be more important. They at least let me hear things, and nowadays there's plenty to listen to.

The only part of my body that used to get any notice, any compliments, was my brain and how it worked. People used to tell me I was smart, and my immediately and studied response was always along the lines of "If this is smart, it's not all it's cracked up to be."
Still, bosses used to say I sounded smart after interviewing me, and I was occasionally even called an "expert" in my field of knowledge. That pleased me, but I never told anyone.

I could do little wrong as far as my mother was concerned, but the only compliment I ever remember my dad giving me was an oblique one. He wanted a son who wanted to compete in athletics and win and be strong and manly and what he got, instead, was a long-haired philosophy student. To ease his conscience more than to please me, he once told me that employers liked college graduates because it was proof they could think.

Well, I don't know about that, but, yes, I got that from my education and it's served me well. Until it no longer did.


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