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

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

Kitchen, Bed, Photo, and Stacks of Boxes

The Detailed Office

We recently remodeled the house, which I like to describe to people as detailing -- like one has their car detailed. While the kitchen got an overhaul, the other rooms got new details, like new flooring, new doors and new paint. My office, while exactly the same size in terms of square footage now has a completely different vibe.

When I bought this house nearly 20 years ago, I painted the small office a color I think of as adobe orange. It was sort of a warm Southwestern hue and made the room lively. Along the only wall that doesn't have a door or window was a set of 72-inch high book cases, so the effect was that the room was a small library. As I actually began working at home, it began to feel smaller and smaller, now that I needed a bigger desk, a real desk chair, a place to put my all-in-one printer.

The big change is the color. It's now a soft gray with blue-green hints to it. It's much more soothing, and at this stage in my life, that holds a lot of appeal. I don't need the jolt of color and energy to get to work; rather I need the calm peace of mind to find focus and flow. The color also feels more harmonous with the view out the window. Outside four trees -- two cypresses, a California live oak, and a tulip tree -- are have limbs and boughs crowding into my view. I don't bother to have curtains here. This window faces north and you'd have to be really trying to see in here. And who cares if I'm seen at my desk?

The office does have an unusual feature: a floor-to-ceiling cat tree in the corner by my desk. It's built around an Ikea Stolemen (sp?) closet pole with platforms attached that form a sort of spiral staircase. I have four cats, and only two of them can figure it out. And one of those is so big that I hope he doesn't get too comfortable, let the whole thing com crashing down on my head. It is, after all, only a really big tension rod, and I'm not sure if that's enough for a 19-pound cat.

There is also a 30-inch scratching post that is reaching the end of its lifespan. This is the state at which the cats love it the most, when they are really able to see the destruction that they've done. It's a pain for me, because that also means is the stage where strings of the coir are flying loose all over the office. I literally run a DustBuster vacuum in here every single day, Monday
to Friday.

Most of the art on the walls here was up in my office before, and has made a surprisingly graceful transition from orange backdrop to this green-gray. There is one new thing up: a plate of the front page from Nov. 5, 2008, the day after Election Day. "IT'S OBAMA!" shouts the headline in what much be 200-point type. I kept this collectable version in a closet for years becuase of a subhead: "In California, gay-marriage ban takes an early lead." For a long time, that was the painful part of that page. Nowadays, the feelings about the headlines seem reversed. I suppose there is a lesson there.


Working To the Beat of My Own Humdrum

I work in an “open” office plan. At some point, someone decided that cubicles hurt productivity and walls between coworkers started to come down. Working in the non-profit sector, I can see the appeal. The idea of breaking out of silos and spontaneous collaborations. A metaphor for an open and egalitarian workplace.

At some point, I’m hoping the thinking on this will shift, and they’ll realize it was a terrible idea and the cubicle walls will sprout back up. I’ve worked in cubicles before and having privacy and defined space, even if you are just hemmed in by odd ¾ height walls, is satisfying.

At the time of our last office move, I negotiated for (i.e. threatened to quit if I didn’t get) one of the more private spaces in a newly constructed portion of the office. I have two and a quarter walls around me, and unless people come looking for me specifically, I am mostly shadowed from the traffic of our open office.

Still I am surrounded by sounds. The sound of my coworkers typing. My Australian coworker is on a call right now, and I focus on the sound of her saying “erm” instead of “um.”

I can hear, one pod over, the sound of my coworker’s space heater hard at work under her desk. It’s the middle of August, and I can’t imagine why anyone would need additional heat. I feel bad for the three coworkers who share her space, which is even smaller than the one I share with three others as well.

I can hear the hum of the elevator, which sits about 30 feet away, behind a pair of too-thinly-constructed walls. I can hear a distant phone ringing maybe three or four pods away, and I can hear Monday morning conversations spiking in and out of earshot, as people recount their weekends and plan the week ahead.

When there’s no sound at all, I can hear printers printing, fluorescent lights buzzing, and sometimes that odd ambient humming you hear when a TV is turned on, but there’s no picture or sound coming out of it.

On my first day on the job, my boss gave me a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. She apologized for how hard it was going to be to have to write in this environment, and said the headphones would help. They do. Also, the brain’s ability to selectively focus and tune out never ceases to amaze me.

When a new coworker starts in our area, his/her voice is instantly jarring and hard to ignore. A week or two later, they too sink into the background as well. Because I work and live in downtown Los Angeles, I am almost never in absolute quiet.

When I do happen to drive out into the country, go camping, or even just visit friends in the exurbs, I am instantly struck with a ringing noise in my ears. I’ve come full circle, and the lack of noise itself becomes a sound I can’t ignore.

Six years on, my workspace is a place I’ve grown quite fond of and attached to, for all its shortcomings. I am able to write pieces like this one in it. My coworkers hear me typing away, without knowing that I’m not actually doing work I should be doing.


Tissues, memories

I'm looking at a crumpled Kleenex. I am reminded of a haiku I sent to my father and siblings a few years ago:

Mama's gift to me
Crumpled Kleenex all around
Handy, but messy

My habit of leaving Kleenex around is either a strange form of claiming territory, absentmindedness, or genetic (nature or nurture?); Mama always left a trail of tissues behind.

Now I realize that the tissue issue is not my only relic of Mama in this room. Much of what I'm surrounded by are Marx-Solomon heirlooms: a coffee grinder from the turn of the last century; the wood chair that has the face of the north wind carved on it; my great-grandmother's chaise longue and grandmother's couch (reupholstered many times); the slot machine my grandfather earned in a deal with the local sheriff.

The slot machine: Dave was a country boy from Mississippi who practiced law in Birmingham. One day stopped by to chat with the sheriff of Jefferson County, who had raided a casino the night before. Dave, I'm told, saw a room full of slot machines, and asked if he could have one. I'm not sure of the ethics of that but I know that as a result I have a beautiful wood and metal slot machine whose front has chiseled in the profile of an American Indian; the word "chief"; and scenes of hunters amid tall trees in what appears to be the American West.

The couch has a story too: I was told by friends that a man in Glendale was magic in restoring furniture. I called him, he agreed to come by. He was four hours late. When he walked in he looked at the old piece lovingly. He walked around carefully, prodded it. He asked if it was OK if he investigated further. When I said yes, he took out a knife and stabbed it, in one motion. Before I could react, he said triumphantly, "Horsehair! I knew it!" Then he cut away the upholstery I had grown up with, revealing beautiful wood carved legs I had never seen (my parents must have wanted more modern). Later, when he had not returned my calls, I found out his drug habit had caught up with him and he closed his shop with no warning. The wrangling to get my couch back from the Couch Whisperer Druggie was ugly.

I have Mama's silver, too, some of it from the 1800s, when (I'm told) the family buried it in the backyard to keep the Yankees from stealing it during those not-really-gone years of strife.

I grew up with these relics but when I was growing up they weren't relics, they were home.

Now they remind me of Mama, lost to dementia, and the memories make me reach for a Kleenex. Fortunately, I have plenty nearby.


A Whole Life, All at Once

You have me at a disadvantage.

Other than boxes of books that completely fill a shed and some arbitrary and random things still sitting in boxes on the side of the cabin and the things in the bathroom, everything I own is in the room where I'm writing.

Yes, I used to be like many other people with a home with several rooms and and four digits worth of square footage, but that was before I moved up here and ended up in a four hundred square foot cabin, twenty feet square on a side.

Yes, it's a nice round number, but it *is* a fairly small home and my efforts to cram everything I own into such a tiny place has, um, not gone well.

When I first unloaded the moving truck, the lucky first boxes had their occupants put away and nicely and efficiently stored. That accounted for, maybe, a quarter of the boxes I brought with me. The next half of the boxes, as time was getting late and I needed to return the truck to avoid another day's charge, were less artistically placed and were more or less haphazardly stuck wherever I could find room, in most cases on top of something I'd already carefully put in place. My idea, at the time, was to "correct" it all later, but I was rather naively optimistic.

Yes, a lot of stuff has been carted to the dump, but I quickly realized that, try as I might, cramming fifteen hundred square feet of stuff into a four hundred square foot cabin with ease and order. What's resulted is what a couple up here have referred to as a "Jenga home" with everything precariously balanced on top of several other things. Getting anything, now, requires what nears a commitment on my part with the time allotted to unpack, move, move whatever it is currently in the desired spot, and repeat the entire process, again, in reverse so I can continue to get around on the slim trails that I take to get into the kitchen, go to bed or the bathroom, and, well, that's about the extent of my indoor travels. Sure, it's convenient having the kitchen just a few steps away from the love seat which serves as a couch, and I've gotten used to it and am perfectly content with this mini-home, but at times, like when I inadvertently knock things over, I get frustrated and unhappy.

When that happens and I curse, my tiny dog gets scared and runs under the bed (where there's enough empty space for a six pound dog), but since I just as often laugh at my predicament, she's also learned to love, or tolerate, me.

So, I'm afraid I cannot fulfill this writing assignment. With damn near everything I own in this one room, I can't single out one particular thing worthy of the time to describe it, not without insulting all my other possessions that I'd need to ignore.

And, yes, I've learned to love and appreciate them all. Maybe it's like the saying about happiness not coming from getting what you want as much as it's wanting what you have.


My Father's Expression

Above my desk is a photo portrait of my father. He has a natural expression, almost a grin. I saw it many times --neither smiling nor serious-- looking content and confident in his blue suit and tie, holding his reading glasses.

His profession was brain surgeon. In his late 50’s, the group of doctors he practiced with in Boston, the Lahey Clinic, decided to build a hospital in the suburban town of Burlington. The site was on busy Route 128, the big highway that encircles the city of Boston. To earn the town’s permission, the Clinic agreed to have an emergency room. For my father, this required him to be on call for brain trauma, something he had never done.

One night, as we are turning out the lights at home, he is called to the emergency room and I offer to drive him. The victim is a mother of small children who has been hit by a car. She has internal and head injuries, including a fractured skull. Standing next to him while he examines her, he shows me that her pupils are unresponsive. Within a matter of minutes, as the other docs work on her abdomen, he says to me: “Not so good. You can see she has ‘doll’s eyes’ now, and she’s decerebrating.” A moment later, everyone stops work. She is dead.

One of the younger emergency docs asks my father if he would go out to the waiting room and tell the family. They are relieved when he says he will.

I have seen him give bad news many times. Tonight, I see again that he is the same man speaking the same way, whether he’s talking to me as a small boy, or telling the distraught husband that his wife just died. His expression is same as in the photo in my office. “She never suffered,” he tells the husband.


The little things

I have used my bedroom as my writing space for this exercise. Usually, I use a desk, perhaps in my office, or my lap in my family room, but I seem to find the solitude I need and the lack of distractions required here in my room.

I am married, but for a multitude of reasons, we do not share a room. Partly because he snores like a chainsaw despite numerous feeble attempts to remedy the situation, partly because we keep very different schedules, and partly because I live in a small house, full of boys, and I need an oasis. A place where I will not find any of their crap, and where I know there won't be pee on the walls. (Ok, to be fair, the potty training days are long behind us, but the memory lingers... oh, does it linger!)

My space is small, with dormered ceilings, and little cross-facing windows. There is wainscoting on the walls, crown moulding on the ceiling, and just enough space for my bed, a dresser, a small chair with an ottoman and a table. I had visions of curling up in that space with a good book and a cup of coffee, but alas, the chair merely acts as an extension of my closet. Oh, the best-laid plans.

I think it is my bed that comforts me the most. For obvious reasons, in as much as it is where I sleep, but for less obvious ones as well. I have tried to keep in mind that I live in a house of men, and my decorating, while not masculine, is also not feminine. There is a preponderance of brown, heavy pieces downstairs. The fabric on the living room furniture is a soft blue and brown, but still - there is brown.

My bed, on the other hand, gets to be girly. I get to have the dust ruffle in platinum (which, yes, is grey, but it's a soft grey. It isn't battleship grey.) My sheets and my quilt are shabby chic, somewhat fluffy in feel. I get to feel feminine in here. I get to relish in soft things. I get to have quiet, and peace, without boy noise, or boy toys, or boy fighting. I use my white noise machine to drown out all that is happening on the other side of my door, and I get to refresh.

I am ashamed to say how old my mattress is, and I would have gladly tossed it years ago had it needed to go, but it is still amazingly comfortable, and I kind of treasure it because it was the first thing I purchased for myself, by myself, when I went out on my own. The bedframe is wrought iron, with a patina on it that makes it feel very old, even though it is not an antique. There are both a headboard and a footboard, which makes the bed a monster to make, but is graceful, with soft, curving lines.

When I was in high school and in college, I was the kid who sprawled out her work on her bed, even though there was a perfectly good desk just a few feet away. I needed to be comfortable to work. My chair needed to be just right, the paper I use (STILL) needs to be just right, I am picky about my pens - they have to feel right or I won't use them. I am all about the tactile experience. So for me, my best workspace for this project is a place I gladly return to again and again. Part hedonistic, part escapist, my room is my writing workshop. My bed is my muse.



I am sitting at my kitchen table, surrounded by the last bits of washing left to do from a dinner party earlier this evening. Or perhaps dinner party is too strong a wording--some friends came over and we cooked a very tasty breakfast-for-dinner.

One of my cupboard doors is still open from the washing up that we managed to do before my poor sink backed up and I told my friends don't worry about it, leave the rest and I'll take care of it when my plumbing calms down.

The kitchen is what my mom liked to call a "one butt kitchen," which is pretty understandable for studio apartment. But the energy of many people piled in here, manuvering around each other as we all pitched in to help cook still hangs in the air, and I like it. I like having people in my house, knowing that I've hosted and fed and provided a place for them, or for something to happen. It's something I don't do nearly enough, and our lives are all scattered to the edges on a daily basis that it's hard enough thing to coordinate anyway.

But it's good to have them here, when they are here. The windows are still open from when I opened them up to air the place out and keep us all from drowning in sweat, and the crickets outside filter in as I sit here, at my kitchen table, and contemplate getting ready for bed.



Hair, Hands, Teeth, Eyes

Jersusalem, Japan, Rural Virginia