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

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

Leaving, staying, returning, remembering


The word hometown seems lonely, which means, I fear, I don't have one. I have lived many places, in many houses and apartments: A house in Birmingham then one in Alexandria, Virginia, both when I was too young to remember; the house I grew up in in Northern Virginia; an apartment in Washington, D.C.; four or five places over my 17 years in San Diego; one apartment in Indianapolis then another in Austin; three or four in Los Angeles; three over six years in D.C. That list doesn't include the places I rented while at school in Charlottesville and Tempe, Arizona.

My twin brother, who never left the D.C. area once his career started, would be able to answer instantly. Northern Virginia is his hometown.

Or perhaps he would waver for a minute over the same thought that gives me pause: Does Birmingham have a place on the list of potential hometowns? We moved when we were less than a year old, but growing up, we went there every year, staying for a few weeks. We were raised by a very Southern mother and grandmother in a home steeped in knowledge and practices and cooking of the South. Our house in the Northern Virginia suburbs of D.C. seemed to have the same designation embassies do: cross the threshold and you were on Alabama soil.

When I hear "home is where the heart is," I think somewhat cynically, that's a saying to make those who moved around a lot feel better. But hometown is not the same as home. One can feel at home somewhere that isn't a hometown.

During the latter part of my three decades in California, I thought, in mathematical terms, have I spent more than half my life in California now? (Should I count only my adults years?) Is California home?

California has a permanent home in my heart; my poignant dreams several times a month of its landscape and lifestyle are testimony to how much I love it. Where is home? I don't know. But my hometowns, I would have to say, are both Birmingham and Falls Church, Virginia.



Unoriginal Observations About Los Angeles

Though it’s not always where I’ve lived (and not where I intend to live forever), Los Angeles will always be where I am from. I’ve found the cliché to be somewhat true: native Angelenos are unusual. Almost all of my close friends come from somewhere else, and few of the people I was close to growing up would I still consider friends at all.

I’ve written a lot about this city over the years, spanning from my first job in high school writing a city history column for my local community newspaper to last year when I wrote a neo-noir novel set in and inspired by downtown LA in the 21st century.

Because I don’t have any other hometowns to compare it to, I don’t know if this is universal to everyone’s hometown, but the city and my relationship to it has changed dramatically throughout my life. I grew up in what I now know was an incredibly sheltered life on the West Side. Speaking strictly geographically, the “center” of the city in my understanding of it has moved steadily eastward throughout my life.

LA’s other reputation of not being a single city, but of being a hundred tiny cities all clustered around each other, is true, and also must play a part in my feeling like I am constantly discovering something new. My friends who drive for rideshare always comment how they constantly get taken to places and neighborhoods and streets that they never would have known existed.

Culturally, growing up here I didn’t understand I was in a bubble. How could you, if you never left it? I grew up thinking I was a stressed or intense person. In my early 20s, I lived outside of Southern California for the first time, and the people I would meet kept commenting on what a laid back Californian I was. They’d talk about how relaxed and calm I was in any situation. This took a long while for me to wrap my head around, but eventually I came to realize that even a rather neurotic Southern Californian could read as a Zen master on the East Coast.

In addition to being a native-born Angeleno, I am a third generation one. My parents were both born in Los Angeles, and their parents moved here early in their lives. Twenty years ago, my parents used to talk about how Los Angeles wasn’t the city they grew up in. So much had changed that they felt they would need to leave at some point, and they had designs on retiring up north to wine country (or other escapist fantasies).

As the years went on though, their relationship to the city began to evolve. They began to see all the good that was reborn out of the ashes of their LA that was left behind. They still kick around the idea of getting a small vacation home somewhere or moving out into the exurbs, but I really think if they’ve lived here this long, that this is where they are going to stay.

I have mirrored their journey in some ways. The first time I moved away was for grad school to New York, and I was apprehensive about leaving. LA was all I had ever known. Fortunately, I had a perceptive and bossy girlfriend at the time who was convinced (rightly) that I needed to leave. Ironically, we ended up moving back to LA a year later, because she hated living outside of LA. I followed her back to LA so our relationship could blow-up as the Early-20s-Relationship-Bible always prophesizes, before setting out again less than a year later.

Once I finally had a taste of life outside the bubble, I wanted more of it. I spent the next few years living away before circumstances once again brought me back to LA in 2010, for what I thought would be two or three years back in my hometown, before setting off on my next adventure.

Like for my parents though, the city had changed on me. The place I had found so stifling a few years before now seemed filled with promises and possibilities. I made new friends (people who hailed from all over the country and world). I moved to a neighborhood that I didn’t even know you could live in growing up. I found a job that was interesting and fulfilling.

I came to appreciate all the things that make my hometown unique—something I could never have done without having left: the weather (obviously), the incredible mix of cultures, the creativity and expanse of the arts scene, the diversity of natural settings (yes, you really can surf and ski in the same day here). Even the city’s greatest structural failing, the lack of public transportation, is slowing getting resolved.

I don’t know if I’m here in this city to stay or just here for a long stretch before heading somewhere else, but I know that LA will always, in one way or another, be home.



The Dinky Club

I don’t see it coming but suddenly he has shoved me to the ground, pinning me on my back under his big body. Having just moved in, I am meeting Sandy Leonard, the neighborhood bully. His knees are on my puny 6 year-old arms, he is slapping my head and his blond curly hair is shaking while he spits in my face that I’m a runt. I start screaming and soon my father is pulling him off me. Quickly, while my dad starts to scold him, Sandy breaks free from my father’s grasp and runs away, down the street to his house.

Later, Sandy and I become good friends in a neighborhood gang of kids that includes our younger brothers. Sandy is our leader and always has an idea for another game or adventure. One day we ride our bikes way across town, completely out of bounds from the rules our parents had set, to play in an abandoned quarry Sandy somehow knew about. Another day he leads us into the woods to take down our pants for a peek show with a neighborhood girl.

The next day we head to a house on the block with a kid our age, a new arrival in the neighborhood. We go to the back door, and behind the screen door, the new kid starts making faces at Sandy while his mother is busy in the kitchen. Soon, Sandy opens the unlocked door and bolts into the house running after the kid who now has taken off trying to escape. Just as Sandy gets a grip on him, the mom grabs Sandy and drags him to the door. That is the last time I see Sandy bullying someone.

Our favorite pastime is something Sandy has created in his backyard called “The Dinky Club.” Dinky refers to Dinky toys, small-scale cars and trucks. We each have a few square feet that ad up to a miniature town at model railroad scale. Sandy builds a farm and I make an airport with runways. We play in the Dinky Club for hours at a time building the town. Then we have a war and wreck it all, and then rebuild until the next war.

At heart we are nature boys and we have lots of pets, including turtles and garter snakes we catch near the brook that runs through the block. We spend hours playing in the brook and we especially like damning it up and finding crayfish and other creatures. Once, we take small snakes to school in socks. I get in trouble when I show it to the girl who sits next to me and she starts screaming.

Sandy is a year ahead of me in school, and by the time we get to high school, neither of us lives in the old neighborhood, but we are still friends. Physically, he is the same big, burly guy I’ve always known, not fat but short and stocky. Now he loves archery and competes regularly. He also likes woodworking and I take an industrial arts course with him and make lamps on a lathe. Sandy and I are the only students in the class on a college track.

During my junior year, Sandy asks me if I want a job at the Star Market in our town where he works afterschool and on weekends. I join him there and we unload trucks and keep the shelves stocked. He trains me how to order and keep my aisle supplied. I can’t actually do the job without his help. But I like working there and he and I laugh a lot and have fun.

Sandy has a two-person kayak and we plan a two-day camping trip down the Charles River. The river runs through our town and then meanders south into rural country. He has mapped it all out, where we’ll camp, where we’ll end up. The first day we find an isolated area for the campsite and while we’re setting up, we hear gunfire and soon bullets are hitting the ground around us. We scramble down the bank and into the boat, head upriver and then walk inland until we discover a bunch of guys having target practice. We are camped behind their range. But all is well and they let us try the guns, including a 45-caliber handgun they insist we hold with two hands to fire.

After Sandy graduates from high school, his family moves away and we lose touch. I don’t see him again, but I hear he is a computer scientist living in Maine. I doubt our paths will cross again, but I hope they do. Thinking about him makes me smile.


Me and Several Million Others

The idea of a hometown evokes some wonderful pictures, none of which have anything at all to do with the reality of mine, Los Angeles, California (or, as I like to playfully explain it to people, “a big city in the lower left of the US”). To be honest, Los Angeles isn’t very much of a town, anyway.

In countless movies and books, characters talk about their hometowns in nostalgic terms, and scenes of them are often centered around a city square or a city block of businesses that would have no chance of surviving in today’s WalMart world.

Since I was a young, growing kid and had nothing to compare it to, I considered growing up in Los Angeles to be normal. Obviously, I did my growing up in a tiny, tiny part of LA and not in the city as a whole, but as time wore on, I ended up visiting many, many parts of it and was rarely uncomfortable in any of its neighborhoods.

About all that I though of them was, “this isn’t home.”

In later years I became increasingly spoiled, even after traveling a fair bit during the years I was growing up. My family took vacations, often to northern Minnesota where my parents were from and where pretty much all my relatives lived, and did so in the new car my dad would buy every three or four years just for that purpose. We’d alternate between taking northern and southern routes, so I got to look at a fair number of states and stay in an assortment of motels in a variety of cities.

Of all that, though, Los Angeles was my home, and one thing I took very much for granted was the availability of everything I could imagine (and ten times beyond that), as well as routine visits by bands and performers if I cared to see them.

Los Angeles would have overwhelmed me with its offerings, but since I needed to drive or be driven to get to them all, my hometown was more or less restricted to my zip code. That’s where I went to school, that’s where I ate and shopped, and that’s where my friends came from. It was a small place, surrounded by an immense one, but it was my home.

In keeping with LA traditions, it was also constantly, if slowly, changing. My neighborhood was the home to Los Angeles International Airport, and that featured quite a bit in my memories. Before it was the sprawling LAX that it is today, it was a much smaller airport where we could go, stand on top of the control tower, and watch propellor driven planes land and take off.

By my high school years, I had several friends who lived in areas LAX would soon claim and level, mostly, I think, to keep those residents from bitching about the noise so much. I spent countless days growing up just visiting the airport, watching people come and go, and marveling at the planes.

The thing that took me the longest to understand was that other people, from other places, couldn’t drive over two hours and still be in the city. That was a feature of LA I still smile about, and, yes, I get defensive when other people knock LA.

It has more than its fair share of flaws, and the smog is so bad at times I can’t stand it, but on clear days, while never what I’d call “beautiful,” LA can be a very pretty place.



Avon Calling

I am currently living in what I consider to be my hometown. We moved here when I was four years old, and I moved away when I was 18, after I graduated from college. My parents also moved, taking my graduation as a chance for them to escape the snow.

My childhood was idyllic. I am an only child, but the neighborhood I grew up in was littered with children from college age, to diapers. Regardless of the stage I was in, there were kids around me in the same phase of growth. We could walk to each other's houses, and our was truly a neighborhood where the parents could send the kids out after breakfast and call them home for dinner, knowing good and well everyone was safe. We all knew each others families, right down to the cars everyone drove. We could tell who was coming home by the sound of the engine.

Summers consisted of playing ghosts in the graveyard or sharks and minnows in the Bruni's pool. They taught those of us who didn't already know how to swim. Their mom, Leslie, would always have snacks and drinks for us and made the best damn homemade lemonade I have ever had. We walked home without supervision. There wasn't a house we passed that didn't know each of us by name. We never, ever, worried about strangers because no one who didn't live there ever came through, and should a stranger dare to come down the street, the phone chain began immediately with Mrs Punzak. "Janice - there's a red car coming your way.. I don't know it. Is Ruth having company again?" They were THOSE kinds of neighbors.

But they were also the kind who you could call in a pinch. My mom had to go in for emergency surgery when I was about 9 and without missing a beat, as if by telepathy, Mrs. Boyle from across the street swooped me up, despite not having any kids of her own in the house anymore, and kept me safe and entertained until my dad got home from the hospital.

Not everyone was picture perfect; our other across the street neighbors, the Cole's, were more of the "don't do that, we do not want to get them angry" kind. Mr. Cole had gone in for open heart surgery. I can say now that I suspect it was simply a ploy to get away from Judy, his wife. Separate and apart from that, one Saturday we were having a tag sale. My mom posted in the local paper, and my friend Ashley and I decided to put up some advertising on the street.

We wanted chalk.

We couldn't find any,

We did find crayons.

Massive lettering adorned the street, in the middle of summer, announcing our wonderful Tag Sale!! Ashley and I were so proud of our work, until Judy, in her pants suit and block heels, comes screaming out of her driveway, aiming directly at us. Evidently, Bob would suffer yet another heart attack if he saw how we had defamed the neighborhood and defaced the street he loved so much. I will never get the image of my poor mother, hair in curlers, trying to scrub melted crayon out of asphalt. (Clorox works fairly well should you ever find your self in need).

In the winter, we donned our boots and put our skates around our necks and hiked to the pond. Lake Eeris we called it because it would freeze practically solid and creek all winter. That was where I learned to skate. The first time I was on an ice rink, I nearly broke my neck despite thinking myself a fairly decent skater. Natural ice and man made ice vary greatly.

I wanted to return to my home town when I had my own kids, and give them a glimpse of something akin to magic. I am beyond grateful I have had such an opportunity.



Desert Air

I was born in San Bernardino, CA, a city about 2 hours east of the Los Angeles area that is mostly known for: belonging to the county of the same name, the largest county in the country (taking 3 hours to drive across); its declaration of bankruptcy 5 years ago; and a high per capita population of meth cookers.

So, when asked, I normally say that I am from Redlands, the much nicer town about 20 minutes away, mostly known for: the historic Victorian houses of its former orange ranchers; a high per capita presence of churches; and jokingly being referred to as "the Beverly Hills of the Inland Empire." Which, if you've actually been to the Inland Empire, you know is like saying "this college is the Harvard of Peoria, IL"--but it's a good, if ironic, way to contrast it vis-a-vis the surrounding communities.

Whenever I go to home to Redlands (mostly to visit my mom), it always surprises me how much of it is in my bones. There just is something about going back to the place you were a part of me relaxes once my feet hit the pavement, in some sort of symbiotic relationship by which I don't truly make sense anywhere else, other than this place that held me while I was first figuring out how to Be a Person. I get out of my car in that dry desert climate, and the air feels and smells in just that certain way it did when I walked through it on my way to drama practice and church youth group, to outdoor musicals in the park and off-campus lunch my senior year of high school. I look up at the mountains in the near distance (the same the mountains I drove up and through to my very first job) and I feel known, bounded, contained. Like all the uncertainty in the rest of my life could fall into place and become clear if I just sat here for a moment and listened for lessons from the past.

It is, of course, a very attractive lie--one that would keep me immobile and frozen if I listened to it for too long. For even as my hometown is the place that held me and formed me, my hometown is also a place of dashed fantasies and broken hopes. It's the place where I learned about the world but was unable to experience it; the place where I learned what love could and should be but saw its promises thwarted over and over again; the place where I first experienced the closing of the American mind and was compelled (though I hardly knew why) to take steps to keep my own mind from being closed as well.

Even so, I think that coming to sit in this air and this place, for a time, can unearth old dreams and desires, and the energy I once had behind them... and now that I am older, with more power over my path, I can choose to recommit to them and see what they could mean. Going home means I can re-meet my Self: thrust backwards into my own history, remembering with a little more clarity who I have been, so I might be able to figure out who I want to become.



An Involuntary Leaving

My parents are getting ready to leave my hometown. They've been living there 45 years, since I was just a toddler, and certainly before I had any memories that stuck. I was born in Columbus, but even my earliest memories are of the big brick house on Coshocton Avenue where we lived until I was 5, where I was confirmed in the Unitarian church in the yard, where I proclaimed my first love for fellow three year old Lynnie Thompson.

I was back most recently about 14 months ago to see how some things had changed and others hadn't. There had been for decades a sand a gravel quarry just south of Main Street in Downtown, but since all the roads went around it, it was possible to never really realize how big the area was where they were digging up all that sand that would become all that glass that would be the main industry of town until it wasn't any more. That quarry has now become a lake and park funded by the community foundation, of which my father was a part. He's proud of his role turning that closed quarry into a beautiful park, and I'm glad I got to see it last summer before my parents decided that there time in Mount Vernon is coming to a close.

You don't really get to choose your hometown in the same way that you don't get to choose your parents. You're born into it -- or at least I was -- and it shapes you this way and that. I know so many bad things that happened there -- crimes, of course, but also just stuff -- but I also can't imagine how I would have turned out had I grown up anywhere else. In Mount Vernon I could roam on foot or bike. I could walk to downtown. I could walk home from school with my friend Aaron and stop at the drug store and buy (and eat) all the 1-cent Tootsie Rolls our pocket change could acquire.

I had lunch recently with my friend Saharah, who grew up in Los Angeles, and she asked about where I grew up. I think the question went something like, "So you grew up with a white picket fence and the whole thing?" There were no fences, but there were old stone walls and a gang of neighborhood kids would run wild on summer nights playing ghost in the graveyard up and down the hill of connected back yards. We would catch fireflies. We would climb trees and some of us would fall and break arms.

I've lived far away from that hometown for most of 29 year now -- far more time than the 16 years I spent there. Los Angeles remains my hometown of choice, and is of course the hometown I offer up in conversation to anyone I meet. But my Ohio hometown often feels like it lives in my DNA.

I thought it would also always be there for me to visit, with a trip to the farmer's market on the square, or maybe a drive out the country roads toward Amish Country. But my sister and I both chose to make our lives and build our careers in different, larger places that offered more opportunities. That was true for many of our peers as well, and so the parents have moved away just like their kids did, to be closer to the grandchildren or the now-adult kids who will care for their parents in that final turnabout play of life.

My parents leave in two weeks. They've found another small town, about the same size, closer to my sister. It too has brick streets and a quaint historic downtown -- and is probably more vibrant. I'm sure they'll like it. My dad is talking about buying a boat because on the eastern shore of Maryland they are surrounded by water. It'll be my parent's home, but it won't be my hometown.


Charging, saving, pledging, balancing

"I have to say..." Or maybe I don't.