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

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

Likes, loves, losses and that the losers get lost

A Lot of Drops Can Fill A Bucket

This morning, just after seeing today’s topic, I had to take the Jeep in and hoped that it would pass its smog check. It did, which saved me the trouble and expense of having to correct some weird nitrogen level or something that I have no idea how to fix. I mean, it’s nothing obvious like if a brake falls off, it’s just something a computer says is wrong.

Back in the “good ol’ days,” of course, you could just take your car to a slightly less than reputable dealer and have them tests a known good car if your own car failed, but I wouldn’t know anything about that and you can’t do that any more.

Anyway, so I had a hope, and its been satisfied, so I no longer have it.

If I were to sit down and write them all down, I have no doubt I’d end up with a pretty good, long list of things I hope would come about, but not very many that are neither unrealistic or that most people would consider petty. Several years ago I was astounded to discover that somehow or other I’d ended up without any hopes, something I don’t think is a very good sign, but that might be remarkably indicative of my life.

I’m nearly certain that I once had hopes and dreams, if not personal ones for myself, ones for others or society as a whole. I’ve never had a lack of hopes for other people, I just don’t have them for myself, not grand ones, anyway.

An advantage to not having hopes is that it cuts down on the number of disappointments I suffer, but that’s not the point.

I like to tell myself that I’m now practical, maybe for the first time in my life. I can’t think of any material goods that I want or hope I’ll get, and I know better than to wish for some sort of mental, psychic change in how I think or react. Yes, I can change my attitude, but it takes a lot of time and work and frankly I’m old and lazy and don’t have the energy or time to make any large changes, not any more.

Like I said, though, I do have tons and tons of little hopes, ones that I can actually see being fulfilled at some point, and those keep me going and reward me with the occasional thrill of accomplishment. Yes, they’re little things (“I hope I can make it to the gas station before I run out of gas,” or achievable without work on my part “I hope Dawn likes my post about the dogs!”), but that doesn’t mean they can’t mean the world to me. Without big, grandiose hopes, my life is built on the success or failure of lots of little ones that usually reach their conclusion the same day I come up with them.

Would I like to have a big, meaningful hope? I don’t know. I decided a long time ago that we get out of life almost exactly what we want. If I really wanted, and didn’t just say, I want a million dollars, you can bet I would have spent my life focused on achieving that goal, of reaching that hope. But, I didn’t want it, not enough to do much about it, but what I did hope for I pretty much got.

I hope I never have to buy another car, or any more dishes, and it would be great if I had a lifetime supply of toothpicks and sponges. I’ve reached the age when I probably won’t need to buy another pair of hiking boots, but I also hope I’ll live long enough to wear out all my clothes.



Big League Baseball

Saturday afternoon in June, and my father parks his 1956 Chevy Belair in the lot at his office near Kenmore Square in Boston. He is taking me to my first Red Sox game and we are trudging across the square toward Fenway Park. I’m a ten-year-old Little Leaguer and my father has taught me how to play ball. Like most of my friends, I love baseball and follow the Red Sox.

The urban landscape is grey and gritty, and near the ballpark there is a seedy row of bars crowded together. At last we are climbing the stairs to find our seats. At the top of the staircase, I see the field for the first time and I am frozen in a rapt gaze. The bright green grass floats like a lake amidst the drab, decrepit feel of the park, mesmerizing me. I never forget that moment.

Years later, as an adult, sharing the experience with friends, I learn that many have the same glorious memory of seeing the field as a kid for the first time.

My father grew up in Brooklyn and my grandfather took him to Ebbets Field when he was a boy to watch the Brooklyn Dodgers. They walked from their apartment on South Prospect Park Avenue. Now, my team is the Dodgers. My father and I laugh that he is a Red Sox fan and I route for his boyhood team.

And both teams, year after year, break our hearts with losses. Eventually, both clubs emerge to become “national” teams, followed by millions. Every year, I hope the Dodgers win it all. But if they don’t, I’ll still watch their games and cheer for them. For those of us who played the game as kids, baseball endures. When I go to Dodger Stadium, I always take my ball glove from high school. I hope to catch a foul ball that comes my way and in that moment I too will be playing big league baseball.



Karma may hold me in contempt

As a rule, I do not wish ill for anyone. I try to be a good person, and I try to see the best in others. I have mentioned several times that I love what I do, and I realize that when one chooses to work with all boys, there will be a few Neandertals in the mix. It is to be expected. It is disheartening when those who fit that bill are your colleagues.

I genuinely hope they retire or get fired soon.

One hears a number of comments when one works at an all boys' school, and I have been questioned many times about what it is like to be a woman teaching at an all boys' school. The presumption is that there is widespread misogyny, that the female faculty feel unsafe from the looks of the men, that the behavior is egregious at best. Unfortunately, it is the faculty, and not the student body, who perpetuate behavior that makes us, the women faculty, feel uncomfortable.

We are trying to raise good men, whatever that means. To me, it means raising young men up to be those who value relationships, who can show empathy toward others, who understand how to love and respect someone else, to be open and compassionate toward people different from you, and to above all live a life he can be proud of. To some of our veteran faculty, these lessons are not as important as drilling into their heads the notion of being a MAN.

And I do not believe these men really understand how their words are understood by younger ears, nor how those words perpetuate a culture of sexism and violence. Today, as a group of young boys were listening to a lecture on how to be healthy, the notion of sleep was brought up and the importance of getting enough of it. One of the major offenders said, "And it helps if you get to sleep next to a beautiful woman."

He did not say you sleep better next to someone you love, or next to your spouse. He assumed everyone in the audience was hetero-normative, and he emphasized the fact that she had to be beautiful for a man to sleep soundly. It may not feel like a big deal, but his words were that of a conquest, not of love or affection. This same adult also made comments about races and has used the N word in front of students. He is 'old school" and I have heard many times "that's just the way he is; he doesn't mean anything by it."

We have another faculty member who has been known to get drunk at the holiday party and grope the female faculty. He has also threatened another female teacher when he assumed he could get away with it.

I see my job as trying to help these boys become good, upstanding citizens and fully developed humans. Men like these two on our campus are a cancer and they need to go. We need our young men to hear from other men who value their relationships, who are willing to admit they are wrong, who do not fear talking about how things feel, and when they are upset. We need them to understand that objectifying women will not fly outside our hallowed walls. They need to understand that it is acceptable and even encouraged and welcomed for a man to express how he feels and that men are not relegated to feeling only lust, happiness, and anger.

I am hopeful that even if they don't leave this campus, their influence will be lessened by the other men who do value integrity and women and being whole and complete human beings. There are younger faculty who value engaging on an emotional level, who are not afraid to talk about feeling sad or isolated or confused. They do not embrace the "win at all costs" mentality that also perpetuates violence and attitudes of entitlement. If you are not willing to lose, then you must fight with your last breath to win. "No one is going to get anything over on me" leads young men to feel their only option is to fight. But who decided winning was all there is to life? Men like the ones I work with, unfortunately.

I believe the tides of change are coming to our school. I believe and hope it is what the boys want from their mentors. It is, regardless, the least we should provide these young men as they navigate the path to adulthood.



Hope with a stamp

When I first posted photos of my postcards to Donald Trump on Facebook, I got a comment that sort of cracked me up: "You can't reason with the man." It seemed very sincere, like I was being warned that it really was a waste of time to bother making a cogent point in the context of a 4x6 square in the mail. I replied, "I don't actually think he reads his own mail."

When, a few weeks ago, Sarah Huckabee Whateverhernameis trotted out a letter from some 11-year-old kid in front of the national media, though, I thought well, someone is reading that mail. I think about the people who must come into physical contact with these postcards. My mailman, for one. He picks these up every day from my mailbox. I'm sure he doesn't read them, but he knows what I'm up to -- and that I've made him a participant in my political action, though that is just part of doing his job.

I think too about the people -- many of them volunteers -- who work in the office of White House correspondence. They have to read each letter and file it under a certain topic, and keep tallies of what people are weighing in on. There were several great stories about how many letters Obama got, and how each day he would get a folder of 10 letters from regular Americans. I think that's my hope: that someone is handing Donald Trump a folder with 10 letters, and that somehow one of mine will get in there. That he will somehow have contact with the crazy postcard lady from L.A.

Sometimes I imagine it: Donald Trump, pacing around the Oval Office, trying to figure out what to do, asking himself, "If only I could get some clear advice from that postcard lady."

The postcards were easier in the months of nominee coverage and confirmation hearings, and then there were many, many to write about the absurd drama about the Affordable Care Act and the collapse of the GOP's effort to repeal it. I'll admit it: I gloated a bit when that whole thing went down in flames.

Sometimes, weirdly, he sort of does what I say. Maybe I'm only a half-beat ahead of the news cycle -- like when he got rid of Steve Bannon. But that generated a weird feeling. Like: I wrote this down, and I sent it off in this magic post box, and now he got the message. Rationally I know that is not the case, but it has a strange effect, bonding me even more to this ludicrous endeavor.

I've written to him about refugees, his nominees, about his "big, beautiful" wall idea, about Russia. So many postcards about his Russia problem and how he should handle it. If only he'd listened to me, this whole special counsel thing could have been avoided. I've only once told him he should resign, and that was after the white supremacist/Nazi/Confederate sympathizer rally in Charlottesville. Really, everything felt darker after that. I couldn't quite maintain my personal charade that DJT is just a nutty uncle.

Still, I keep writing to him, even if it is more for my sanity than his. Sometimes I don't know if I could walk away from the news if I didn't have a way to just get what I'm thinking off my chest. I was inflicting more of this on Facebook before, but now I don't have to. (Of course, I do post my postcards.) It's a moment of daily closure. And truly, it's a daily prayer of what I hope the president would really do.



The Optimism Tax

I’m violating an unwritten rule of birthday wishes here by revealing what I wish for, but I’ll take my chances. I don’t know at what point in my life I decided to always make the same wish, but for as long as I can remember I’ve wished for health. My own and that of the people in my life.

Knocking on all kinds of wood right now: I’m a generally healthy person. I stay fairly active. I don’t deprive myself, but I generally eat fairly well. I do pretty much all that’s recommended for preventative healthcare. But at the same time, I know that it’s really a crapshoot. We all have heard those stories of the people who smoke cigars into their 90s, and the people in perfect shape who suddenly drop dead. I think most people consider themselves generally “healthy” people, because you’re healthy in life until you’re not.

Though I do think about it every year before I blow out the birthday candles, this isn’t really something that I think about a lot. A friend of mine used to talk about paying the “optimism tax.” If you generally believe that things are going to turn out okay, you can save yourself from wasting time on worrying. Occasionally, of course, you’ll get caught off-guard, because something will go awry, but then you don’t have to beat yourself up too badly, you just have to pay the optimism tax and move on.

Epictetus—everyone’s favorite stoic philosopher—had a good mantra for this. When things go wrong, we should all say to ourselves: “Coping calmly with this inconvenience is the price I pay for my inner serenity.” I actually say this to myself a lot. Often when I’m sitting in LA traffic.

I do my best to plan and minimize risk and set myself up for success as much as I can, but at the end of the day, I really try my best to just hope for the best. I’ve always loved Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is the thing with feathers / that perches in the soul.”

When I feel my heart race from good, nervous excitement, I always imagine that to be the bird flapping its wings. I’m hoping things are going to turn out for the best, but I just don’t know. That fluttering can occur in all sorts of moments—when I’m engrossed watching a play and hoping it’s going to sustain itself, or when a friend is having surgery and I’m waiting to hear news, or I’m holding a raffle ticket waiting for them to finish reading off the number. It can be the biggest things or the smallest things, the feeling is the same just modulated differently.

So each year, when I’m given that one wish, the thing I hope for is for everyone I know to stay healthy. I’m a good agnostic: I don’t think that sending a wish or a prayer out into the world does any good, but I know it doesn’t hurt either. And I know that our own health is something we all have control over to a great degree, but I know that it also takes a lot of luck too. So whatever benefit a wish can give me, I like to put it there.



Swipe left, swipe right

I have not been lucky in love. If by "not lucky," you mean "wracked by so many predilections and anxieties so as to seeming eschew the whole notion of it by default."

And yet, here I sit, still hoping, genuinely hoping, for love to come into my life.

(Boy, what a dopey answer. And yet, a true one.)

Not just love, but a long-term partnership (marriage, co-habitation, I'm not picky) made up of an honest and warm and practical love where each partner values themselves just as much as they value the other person--in fact, the where the valuing of themselves is the very thing that renders them capable of loving the other person. Where each can see the other and reflect them back to themselves, so they each are able to see more clearly.

The irony of this statement being that, in this scenario, I am one of the aforementioned partners: me, of the predilections and anxieties and default eschewing. We can see where this is going.

I have read the books and attempted the inner work, and the anxieties have lessened a bit, but mostly it is a matter of feeling so very old, and of feeling so very tired, and of LA being so very big. If I thumb through Bumble and see an actor's head shot, a tanned, shirtless and hairless torso, or a pose with some exotic animal one more time, I swear I will fall over from the inanity and never get up again.

There is also the fear, founded or not, of being sought out only to be used and tossed away, and who would want to bring that into their life? There is so much dross to sift through to find the gold, and only so many hours in the day.

And yet, I hope. I hope for the energy, someday, maybe soon, to have the energy to do the sifting, and date making, and cute dress wearing, and small talking that you have to put in to finding a partner these days.

I hope for the ability and openness and caring to be to him what he needs, just as I'd need the same from him.

I hope for a man who is kind, and grounded, and patient, and curious...and if he has a photo with a tiger, well--we all have to deal with character flaws in those we care for, don't we?





I adore my mother. Like all daughters and mothers, we had fights and argued when I was growing up, but she was wise and wonderful in ways mamas should be. She protected her three kids from my father's irrational outbursts so that even if he was mad, we'd know his behavior wasn't acceptable and in doing so, she helped us know what was OK and wasn't -- but she loved him and showed that, too, did not undermine him in ways that made us respect him or their relationship less. So she kept our family strong.

She hired a piano teacher for the three kids but made us take lessons only long enough to learn the basics, so that we'd have it instilled in us. But she did not push; she let us stop taking as we gained greater interest in other pursuits.

She signed me up for ballet; I take ballet classes to this day.

She got us three kids our library cards and took us to the library regularly. She treated us like adults by sharing her fascination with science and favorite authors. I remember watching every rocket launch with her. I also remember she gave me "Oliver Twist" to take to camp one summer when it was far beyond my ability to comprehend.

One day when I was young I wandered out of my room saying that I was bored. That irritated her, which startled me, until I realized the point: that it was not anyone's job but mine to occupy my mind and time.

Because of her, our house was always open to friends. Quite a few ended up finding refuge for hours or days, or even months, when their own parents, drunks or worse, did not offer a kind or safe haven. She never asked questions, just set another place at the table. She was a creative and wonderful cook, not the I Studied in France type but the Let Me Add This Because It's Here and -- voila! -- it would be a tasty meal.

She loved animals and we had a constant assortment of dogs, cats and turtles who adopted us.

She was well-read and a good conversationalist and knew a lot about a lot. She majored in physics when only 2 percent of physics majors in the country were women.

I remember the not-so-great things, too, like she would get angry at me for not understanding math. It came naturally to her and she didn't understand my confusion. A child of the Depression, she would have us wear clothes for years beyond when we should have, because she mended them. No fancy lunch bags for us; used and re-used paper bags were good. She chose off-brand products that, I figured out later, might not have lasted or long or tasted as good.

She let us sleep out in sleeping bags on the back lawn on summer nights, but I remember well the musty smell of sleeping bags still wet from morning dew many days later; rather than buy expensive tarps to keep the sleeping bags dry, she'd use garbage bags, which did not work.

But I remember going in after friends and I had gone "camping" in the back yard and she would be fixing us pancakes for breakfast.

She is still alive. She has dementia. It has been so long since she started failing that we are sad and sadly used to it now. For years I was embarrassed and angry on her behalf for this fate. I'd help her knowing which was the toothpaste and which the ointment, which was the bra and which the underwear.

She recognizes family, I think. She will several times a week say something beautiful and funny: "One day I will do everything I intended," while gazing dreamily into space; "Do you know how lucky you are?!" while looking at, and blowing kisses toward, a photo of my father. But she needs medication to keep from being uncharacteristically angry.

Here is my hope: I hope that she will die, soon. Peacefully, without pain.

It's a wish that has to be a secret to all but those closest to me, who understand.



Connections lost, jobs left, opportunities missed

Privilege, scholarships, trials, politics