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

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

Into the woods, and the ocean, and the operating room

Following the crowd

I did not grow up with siblings. My father had a child from a previous marriage, but he was well out of the house by the time I came around and to this day we don't have much of a relationship. Growing up, my neighborhood friends became like my siblings, and I was blessed to come from a place where there were plenty of kids for me to keep company with.

My mother, while I am sure she loved the fact that she could send me out the front door as soon as breakfast was over, and not need to worry or see me until dinner make her happy as can be, was somewhat concerned at the fact that I was a follower. The neighborhood was idyllic. The kids who lived there? Not so much. We didn't have any thugs or future criminals (well, Brad C was a sketchy mother, and I wouldn't be surprised if he was arrested for stalking) in our 'hood, but we did have kids who, being kids, didn't always make the best choices. Again and again, my mom told me to be careful, to not do everything Ashley and Debby and Meredith were doing. Use my head, dammit.

We lived, for all intents and purposes, in the woods. Forest surrounded every house in my neighborhood, and we would often follow a path through the woods to the river. Hills, trees, leaves, roots, branches, moss; all kinds of flora and a few fauna everywhere you could see. One of the best things about the 'hood was there were no fences or walls or barriers between houses and properties. The forest took care of the natural demarcation between homes.

If she had told me once, she told me a few dozen times to not go through the woods to short cut over to my friend Elizabeth's house. She could list off the families whose yards I would traipse through to get where I wanted to go and tried to reason with me that it was nearly as fast to go on the street like a civilized person. But this one day, Ashley and Meredith and I were heading over to see Elizabeth, and they were taking the short cut through the woods. Like, how was I, younger than both of them, supposed to stand up to them and rebel? How was I expected to say "thanks, girls, I'll take the longer, hotter, less adventurous way to get there"? I would be laughed at, teased, left behind. When you are 9, there are few things in the world worse than being teased or laughed at.

We started through the woods. My first clue that things were not going to go well was the fact that they were all wearing sneakers. I was wearing sandals. Open toed, strap across the front of my foot, sandals. Not shoes for going through the woods, if only because of ticks! But I followed them, ignoring the butterflies building in my stomach. Everything went well, until we had to climb the embankment in the Burt's yard. They had built a retaining wall out of old railroad ties, and the only way through the yard was over it. Ashley and Meredith got over without incident. Then it was my turn.

I remember feeling utterly clumsy and uncoordinated. I stumbled a little with the first couple ties, but when I got about half way up, all hell broke loose. Those old ties were able to withstand the other two girls but by the time it was my turn, they were no longer able to hold their position. A railroad tie is exceptionally heavy when it rolls down onto your foot, smashing your big toe between itself and the tie below.

To this day I have a little puffy scar where the tie struck. Hobbling home to tell my mom what happened was both painful and humiliating. I would love to say I learned a good lesson about following what I know is right, but really, I just learned that my mom did, in fact, make an excellent nursemaid, and you can't walk without using your big toe!



Spring break scars

Consider our friend, coral. Reefs of it are dying, I read. I feel bad. Coral seems nice, beautiful, and important part of life undersea and therefore life, period.

Coral reefs also apparently are filled with bacteria that can leave scars that last a long time. I learned this firsthand-- to be more precise, first-shin -- in Mazatlan when I was in college. It was spring break, going to Mazatlan from Arizona was a good deal and so I went, even though I don't love water and it was, of course, a beach resort on the mainland of Mexico.

The fact that I don't love water compelled me to go to the beach on the first day of our five-day stay, grab hands with my roommate and eagerly insist we go barreling into the ocean at full speed.

Later, in a nearby hospital, I was told by the locals that there was exactly one small patch of coral for miles along that stretch of the ocean. I had barreled right into the patch, which was not that far out but just deep enough that it could not be seen by a college sophomore from the East Coast trying to prove her mettle, and how carefree and fun she was, by running fast and straight into the water.

I also found out that I am prone to keloids. This is a scar that takes on a purple, raised life of its own. My shin was infected from its encounter with bacteria-filled coral, and my body produced an annoyed, shiny, raised scar that lasted many years, long after my other memories of Mazatlan had faded. Oh, right, wait. One other thing I remember: Among young tanned things baring lovely tans on smooth bodies at evening gatherings, I was the one with a huge bandage on my shin, running a fever.


A Smack in the Head

The Cabin is our parents’ getaway in Fryeburg, Maine, a three-hour drive north of Boston. One of the Cabin’s chief features is the lack of a telephone. My father is a surgeon and when he is at the Cabin, no phone call can summon him away from us.

With unfinished knotty pine walls, and without a foundation, the Cabin is a shack not suitable for winter. It smells like being inside a pinecone. Years later, my parents build another one, winterized with finished walls. We kids love being at the Cabin, surrounded by nature, lakeside in the pine forest.

There are few neighbors, but one day we play baseball on the beach with a family staying nearby. We use a rubber ball and wooden bat. At 10 years old, I play catcher for my little league team, so I am catching. The neighbor boy my age does not play baseball. After he finally manages to hit the ball, he throws the bat—a big mistake in schoolboy baseball—hitting my head and in a flash I am on the ground gushing blood that covers my face and hands.

“Don’t worry,” says my dad, “scalp wounds bleed like hell, but you’re fine.” We walk back to the Cabin to clean up the wound, and I see the gash in a mirror—a gaping cut across my forehead. My father says this is not the kind of wound we can just stitch up on the kitchen table like he has for lots of neighborhood kids with cuts. There are no sutures in the Cabin anyway.

We head off to the emergency room to sew me up. Learning that my father is a doc, the on duty physician invites him to help with the stiches. While I am being worked on, my dad smiles at me, but I also see him grimacing. He is a perfectionist, especially when it comes to surgery, and he thinks the emergency room guy is unsteady and slow. I know he wants to take over, but he is stuck watching. Later, he tells me this and we laugh about it. “It doesn’t matter because the scar you’ll have will be close to your eyebrow and it won’t really show,” he tells me.

Years later, we will agree that if you have a professional skill, watching someone else do that work badly is pure torture.


The Eyes Have It

My first memory is very specific. I'm three years old. I'm sitting up in a hospital bed. I'm being wheeled away from my parents by a man wearing what looks like a shower cap and a face mask pulled down on his chin.

I look at the man and ask, "Do I have to?" He says, "Yes" with a warm, reassuring smile, and I say, "Okay."

The man, I now know, was a pediatric eye surgeon, which in retrospect sounds like the most stressful job a person could have.

The surgery had been planned for months. I had been born with a rare condition where the muscle and the nerve that moved my left eye weren't connected. There was no way to attach them, but the surgery was necessary to stretch out the muscle, so that it didn't contract and make me cross-eyed later in life.

I don't remember any pain from the surgery or any negative feelings or trauma at all around it, amazingly. There isn't even a physical scar around my eye. The mark it left is usually invisible: my left eye doesn't move to the left past a certain point.

It took me until well into my childhood to realize that I have to turn my head to look to the left, or I freak people out when one eye moves and the other doesn't.

My parents were a little concerned that it would affect my field of vision for driving, but I have always seen like this, so I'm used to compensating for it. So much so that I didn't even realize until my late 20s that my eyes operated in a completely different way than most humans.

My brilliant and loquacious ophthalmologist Dr. Hoff pointed out to me for the first time about five years ago that my eyes didn't actually work together. What happened was because they didn't move together, my brain compensated and decided to use the left eye for distance and the right eye for things close-up.

I finally knew why I had never been able to see Magic Eye Puzzles, and why 3D movies always looked blurry to me. Also, why I could never catch a ball: because it would change position suddenly when it crossed over from one eye's territory to the other's.

I don't actually see in three dimensions the way most people do. In a normal person, the brain takes input from each eye and uses the subtle differences between the two signals to create a three-dimensional field of vision. What’s known as binocular disparity.

Because my brain is only receiving input from one eye at a time, the only way I am able to create three dimensions is seeing that one object is larger or smaller or is in front of another because it blocks it from being seen.

Perhaps because I never played team sports, I don't have any physical scars (fortunately), but I do carry a remnant from my surgery—my first memory—that informs quite literally how I see the world.


Sweet Scars

One afternoon when my brother and I returned home from school I was feeling extra magnanimous. I must have done well on a pop quiz because instead of feeling awkward and insecure I felt in extreme possession of myself despite having to wear a school uniform that included starched kilts. I had free time and I saw the afternoon stretching before me like a wide open invitation for impromptu decisions.

I looked upon my brother struggling with a science experiment and instead of locking him out of the house or generally degrading him with my words, I offered to do the tricky parts for him. His teacher assigned the students a task involving making a pane of glass out of sugar. Private schools, amiright? So we'd have to attempt to basically make rock candy at home. Even at the time, I thought, this teacher wants these morons to melt sugar in a pot and then pour it on a cookie sheet? What a simple job. What simpler times. I pity the fools.

My brother saw the situation for what it was. He invited his friend over, handed me his entire homework set and set up a game in the next room where he could both pretend to be helpfully nearby and and totally tuned out.

I got a pan and carefully stirred the sugar in. Turning up the heat I watch the pile of crystals for a while. Nothing happened. Almost imperceptibly, the pile started to shrink and a brown goo began to take shape at the bottom of the pan. This was going far too slowly. I turned up the heat. Finally things started bubbling, and I stirred the sauce. A speck of molten sugar popped up onto my hand. I screamed. Water boils at 212 degrees fahrenheit. Sugar begins to melt at 320 degrees and it starts to caramelize around 340. As the sugar burned a hole through my hand, my arm jerked up and down in the air still holding the pot stirrer. A glob of liquid sugar lava flew off and hit my ankle where it slowly slid down my foot taking the skin as it went.

My brother never ran to my aid. Instead he carefully stayed ten feet away and laughed so hard he fell to the floor. Our babysitter found us and immediately took over, scolding me for doing such a dangerous activity, despite the fact that it was actually assigned to younger, more irresponsible children and I was the saint who had surely saved their lives by putting myself in the crosshairs.

The scar on my hand faded but my ankle looked ravaged by piranhas so I slightly altered the true tale when people asked about my scar. "I was saving children," I'd humbly say. Sometimes it was from sharks. Sometimes they were orphans. Never did I admit the true enemy was actually caramel.


Emerging From My Youth

I'm fairly confident I've never scarred anyone physically, and I find it even less likely that I've caused anyone emotional or mental scarring. I don't like hurting people and am more likely to disappoint than to injure.

I have a few physical scars, and they do all have stories, but no glamorous or unsightly scars: mine are mostly small ones, and I think I got the last one when I was in Jr High, so none of them are what I'd call recent.

The four scars I can still see are one just under my left nipple that I got while crawling around with the girl down the street in one of those large boxes that major appliances came in during the early 1950s. Neither the box nor the girl (Hi, Cathy!) had anything to do with it, but I got the scar from one of those industrial staples they used to use to hold the boxes together. I'm not sure anyone knew I was injured or until just now, that I even have the scar.

The most evident scar I have you can hardly see any more, but it's very much a part of my "permanent record." I was around thirteen and in school when I slammed my thumb into my school locker. I was holding the top of the locker door, as one does, while closing it by kicking it shut and somehow managed to mistime and sliced my thumb open using the locker door.

Since that scar runs nice and straight across my thumb's pad, it stands out like a flashing neon sign if I get fingerprinted (don't ask).

The other little scar is on the knuckle of my left hand's index finger, the one where the finger meets the hand proper. It's a small one, even smaller than a pea, but is a nice circular shape and I remember tracing it with a pen all during my school days when I was bored. I got that one playing with a neighbor's boy while attempting to piece together part of his Snap-Train.

Those were small wooden trains that ran on pieces of connected wooden track and, in this case, instead of snapping the two pieces together properly, they misaligned (which may have been my fault) and one of the pieces of track jammed into my hand and gouged out a small flap of skin.

Again, no adults gave it much notice, and I don't even remember crying or anything.



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