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

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

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

Just a Hunch

I guess at some point in my life someone has given me way too much information, but if he or she did, I can’t remember the specific occasion. I know of a guy now who I tend to avoid because he goes on endlessly talking about subjects I have little or no interest in, but nothing that rises to the eye rolling, hands clapped on ears level that TMI brings to mind.

I’ve had co-workers ask me to run across the street and pick up some feminine supplies for them, which I think might qualify, but I didn’t think much of it at the time (but I have remembered the event, if only because it’s only happened once and I guess I took it as a sign of trust or closeness or something).

It’s entirely possible that I’ve never been on the receiving end because I’ve never paid enough attention to what people are telling me to notice, or maybe it’s just that I’m not easily shocked or have pretty low standards of decency. I’ll try to pay more attention in the future.

What does happen, with depressing regularity, several times a week, in fact, is I’ll be all set to post something on social media or when talking to someone, and take a moment to self-edit. Now, what I’m on the verge of disclosing may be something personal, or even some private matter, but I don’t choose to just stay silent because of any fear of upsetting them. No, it’s because, when I think about it for a second, I realize nobody cares about that shit, or what I think about it.

If they did, I reason, they would have asked me about it.So I just shut up and listen, or take in what they’re going on about.

I think, from some things I’ve heard, gotten some sort of reputation as someone who doesn’t talk very much, who is thoughtful, and all that crap. I don’t think that’s true, but I have to admit I get bored quite easily with small talk and gossip, and don’t feel like adding anything to any conversation about those things. Yes, it’s hot, or the mountains are beautiful, or I feel this way or that about some political figure, but there’s no reason, most times, for me to add anything to those conversations.

When I’m in the right mood, I’m honestly convinced that I have nothing to add that anyone is curious about or would want to know. It’s not fear of shocking them or embarrassing myself that keeps me quiet, it’s just my conviction that nobody gives a damn what I think.



A Question of Sequencing

My family is rather small. A couple of aunts and uncles out of town who we see from time to time, but the basic unit in Los Angeles consists just of my parents and my brother. For four people, you’d think the dynamics of communication would be rather simple.

In practice, it is anything but. My family operates on the selective sharing and concealing of information. There are unspoken protocols of who needs to know what and when. There are things that my parents and I share that my brother isn’t a part of, and I’m sure vice versa. My brother and I also have a running dialogue between ourselves about the harmless but absurd quirks of our parents.

When my brother and I have major life changes or other news, we usually communicate first to my mom to preview it and then extend to include my dad. Occasionally, when my brother or I have something we need to say, but don’t want to have a conversation about it, we will tell each other first and then one of us will “leak” the other’s secret, so the reaction we face from them can be a more measured one.

These aren’t strategies that we devised at some point, they are just odd customs that have grown organically over time. In sum, however, we are open and communicative and non-judgmental, so there aren’t really any true secrets that are kept permanently from anyone, it’s all a matter of sequencing.

Occasionally, we have a fun situation where there will be a few glasses of wine at a family dinner, and stories will come out. The most memorable of which was about 10 years ago—my brother was in his mid-twenties at this point—and my parents asked him if he was still in touch with his college roommate, John.

My brother said that they had been close friends for years, but that now being several years out of college and living in distant places, they had lost touch. But they had been very close all throughout college and beyond, which was amazing because the university paired them based on some lifestyle survey that they had sent in along with their application to live in the dorms.

At that moment, my dad chose to reveal that it was even more amazing, because he had secretly changed some of my brother’s answers. Apparently, my brother had selected things like “stays up late,” “likes to party,” etc.

At this point, it was 10 years later, and my brother wasn’t mad, after all it HAD in fact worked out. But my brother started laughing. He decided that since my dad was coming clean, he might as well too. He asked us if we remembered John’s girlfriend, who moved down from Bakersfield to UC Irvine with him and was a freshman there as well.

We had met her on the day we all moved my brother into his dorm more than a decade earlier. John was a normal enough looking guy, but his girlfriend Carey was a six-foot-tall woman with a shock of platinum blonde hair. We definitely remembered her.

Apparently, John would stay out late at night not just on the weekends, but during the week, often coming home at four or five in the morning. My brother thought it was a bit excessive, but didn’t mind—after all, he liked to stay up late too, and had indicated as such on his survey, he thought. Eventually though, John felt he needed to come clean, and admitted to my brother that his girlfriend Carey was actually a stripper, and he was her “driver,” taking her to and from gigs around Orange County.

The end result of my dad’s meddling was pairing my brother with a stripper’s driver. My dad choosing to reveal how clever he was, ended with the perfect: you’re not as smart as you think you are. It’s a fun pattern my family has, and probably others as well. If one great story comes out, usually there are others that tumble out after it. I wonder what other secrets are waiting to be revealed?



 I Have to Say . . .

 For as long as I can remember, we would frequently hear our mother announce, “Now, I have to say . . .” These words were her predicate for delivering some negative news or opinion that she felt a duty to share. And whenever she said it, she placed the emphasis on the word “have.”

When we were kids, my brothers and sister would often hear those words before she commented on the meal she had just prepared, as in “I have to say, whether you noticed or not, this meat is mealy.” She would ask our father for affirmation and he would agree that, yes, it does seem the meat is mealy. In the case of mealy meat, that could lead her to offer an opinion about the butcher, “I have to say, he hasn’t been giving us good meat lately, but I do like him so.”

Over time we heard many critiques from her about her cooking. “I’m sorry, but I have to say the rice is mushy,” she might comment. And she would deliver these remarks even if guests were present, more as an apology for making a mistake. As an adult I once said to her, “Mom, why talk about a problem with the meal or your cooking. Nobody will notice until you call it to their attention.” And she replied with a laugh, “Oh, I don’t care about that.” She didn’t want to try to hide something she believed was, as she would say, “not up to par.”

When it came to correcting us, her children, even in adulthood, she would also profess her need for honesty, but it would come in the form of an interrogative, always delivered with a tone suggesting her answer. “Do you like that haircut?” Meaning, that is the worse haircut I’ve seen on you. This style of comment to something objectionable, continued right to her last days.

Her compulsion to be honest was always confined to comments about her and the rest of her family. And she would often repeat an old maxim to us; “If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.” When she did have a critical comment about someone or something outside the family, she would use a positive phrase like “I’m so glad . . .” She would say, “I’m so glad we went to that dinner theater with them.” But the way she said it, with raised eyebrows, signaled that what she actually meant was “I’m so glad we went there with them, because now we never have to do that again.”

Over time, “I have to say” has become a frequent family expression used particularly in teasing a sibling. “I have to say, you really should do something about that hair of yours.” Or we ask the question, “Oh, you like that beard? “ And it is a way for us to remember her and laugh, something she would have appreciated.


Leaving, staying, returning, remembering

Summer break, career break, life break