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

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My Friend Dorothy

I first met Dorothy through my friend Aimee. They were both 1st generation Taiwanese immigrants who had grown up going to school together in South Pasadena, hating each others' guts in that way that secretly meant they were both terribly jealous of each other.

I met Aimee while in a very hilarious church production of Jesus Christ Superstar (performed on Easter weekend, no less!), and one day when I was over at her house, there was Dorothy.

Dorothy is...a force of nature, and has quickly become one of my favorite people. I don't know if her voice or her laugh has a volume knob on it or ever did, and I don't even care. I think it's the size of her opinions and her personality that make this most-times self-effacing introvert feel safe to come out of hiding. I feel like I have permission to come up to her level and not have to saw off the rough edges of anything.

She calls herself petty and bitchy, but I think what she actually is, is someone who prizes honesty, will not suffer fools and will very cheerfully tell someone she thinks they are full of shit, and right afterwards offer to buy them a drink. She can speak with the same eloquence on the latest episode of the Batchelor as on education and race theory-- and often will, even if her audience is a less than willing participant. She loves what she loves, whether there is someone to join her in it, or not.

Besides reality tv and social justice, Dorothy has two loves: potatoes and Harry Potter. So much so that she has many tattoos of french fries and baked potatos (or "potatoos") mixed in with others on her arms and shoulders, and has the Deathly Hallows and a lightning bolt inked on the top of each upper thigh.

Dorothy is always up for anything. That is another reason why I love her: whereas with most of my other friends I end up wracked with doubt regarding schedules, intrusions and obligations (and what my place is in among them all), Dorothy is both enthusiastic and straightforward enough that I know she'll either be up for anything (we just got theater tickets to a play that she's only modestly interested in seeing, just so we could hang out because she knew I wanted to see it), or will just tell me a simple "no" or "not right now" without worrying about hurting my feelings.

This is true self-esteem, I think--so hard to come by, it sticks out like a neon sign when you see it.


Introduction: The Boat

I wish I could introduce you to my friend, whom everyone calls “The Boat.” There are several stories behind this nickname, but I can never remember them. When I met Boat in college nobody used his real name, Robin.

The Boat is short and stocky, but not overweight. As the years have passed, his neck seems to get shorter so that his head looks closer to his chest. He has a broad face with wispy, thinning hair turned from dark brown to grey. His brown eyes get bigger when he laughs. I think he is a handsome guy.

He is the best athlete among our group of college friends, and always was. He loves sports and had a career in sports marketing. If his knees had been sturdier, he would have been a professional athlete in any number of sports.

Charming, lovable, fun and kind are among words that describe the Boat. He had two great loves in life, and both of the women broke his heart.

Unfortunately, he does not want meet you, or anyone else he doesn’t already know, for he is a hermit. He lives alone in the country on a lake, going to sleep at dark and getting up at dawn. Mostly off the grid with only satellite TV service for sports and no smartphone, he once boasted to me that he could not see another human being, or structure, from any part of his property. Yet, people who know him are fond of him and his friends like me adore him.

I am going to visit him in a few weeks, with another friend. He has been having a rough time recovering from the death of his near 20-year companion, the faithful cat “Miss Pi.” We will do all the things we did in college and I can’t wait to be with him at the lake house.



You can't miss Bob. He's like six-foot-four and mostly bald except for a fringe of hair that used to be very blonde but now is darker and grayer. He's wearing glasses. He is probably near a normal body weight for his height, but he still looks thin.

I remember in college he got Hepatitis A during an outbreak on campus. (We blamed the cafeteria, though the university didn't point such fingers. Ha. USC.) He lost a lot of weight and I think was down to maybe 130 pounds. With the height and blondness and jaundice, we laughed despite ourselves that he looked like a giant banana.

You'll also know Bob at a distance because he'll be slightly sloped to one side, and you'll realize it's because he has a cello in a hard case slung over his shoulder. He's a professional cellist, in addition to being a college professor of environmental policy and a freelance environmental consultant. He's always held two or three jobs as long as I've known him, managing some sort of security in the diversity.

Bob's pants will nearly always look a bit baggy on him, and if he's not in a tux for a concert, he's in jeans or some variation of twill khakis. In the quintessential mental image I have of Bob, he's also wearing a black mock turtleneck and a sweater vest or a cardigan in some print. It will involve blue and turquoise and maybe some dark red.

Bob has a fraternal twin brother, and when they were younger they looked nearly like identical twins. I remember when Tom came to visit USC and people who didn't know them mistook one for the other. Today they just look like brothers. Something about Tom's features are a bit softer. He's lost a lot of his hair too, but maybe not as much. His face is just a bit more open.

Bob looks more serious. While he's not always serious, so much of what he does involves concentrating very hard: performing with an orchestra, figuring out how to teach 20-year-olds about sustainability. For years, before he met his now-wife and they had a son, he would spend every morning at a diner near his apartment in Eagle Rock and read the Los Angeles Times from front page to last page. He knew far more about what was going on than I did, and I worked at the newspaper.

Bob has to bend down what seems like a long way to give me a hug. I sometimes wonder if its uncomfortable for him as I bang my head into his shoulder. Amusingly, I'm still a good six inches taller than his wife.



I am blessed to work with some truly amazing young men at my job. I tease that I have three biological sons and 400 adopted ones. I would like to introduce you to Cole.

I have known Cole for only a year, but he has been my son's good friend since Parker started at Avon. I got to know Cole through his wardrobe because often times Parker would come home wearing Cole's clothes. Cole was a border, and my son was a day student. If Parker needed something, he would raid Cole's closet because the two boys are just about the same size.

Cole is tall, just around six foot two, and slender like Parker. He isn't skinny or scrawny, but merely slender. Clothes hang on his frame quite well, and he has an excellent sense of style. That is, until he is playing golf or engaging in some other utterly preppy activity, and then his satirical and sarcastic side comes out. One day I was taking a group of the boys to go play miniature golf, and Cole came to the car is competing madras prints. His pants, alone, could light up a small city and the shirt he chose to go with it completed the seventh circle of fashion hell. Generally, he is impeccably dressed, opting for subtle jackets and pants, but going a bit more wild with his ties and socks.

Cole has a presence. He is tall, but he walks with the air of a runway model. Every step feels calculated and deliberate. His jawline is legendary around school; the boys all envy him this feature. His green eyes are deep set, between his high cheekbones, and his dominant forehead. He has a constant smirk on his face. The right side of his mouth upturns toward his ear and is the only part of his face that betrays its near perfect symmetry.

The one attribute, other than his enviable jaw, the boys clamor over is his hair. Light brown and straight, he has perfected the "coif" over the last couple of years. You know Cole by the outline of his form, including the hair. Shorter over the years, and mildly fluffy on top but groomed to near perfection in a wave off to his right side. Cole has been called model-handsome by nearly everyone who comes in contact with him, but there is a deep well within him you can see if you look hard enough.

He is an artist. He doesn't paint or draw, but he sculpts. Clay, resin, paper; he manipulates things to create the image he has in his head. This can be seen as he goes through the word. He doesn't just accept objects as they are, but he truly investigates things, looks at objects, and situations, from every angle to get a true understanding of it. If the boys look hard enough, they can see this in how he interacts with them, in how he responds to situations. He is not one to accept how things appear on the surface and will be the one asking questions, probing for more detail. He plays devil's advocate to push kids to think about what they are saying, even if this means going against what he, himself, believes in order to force the kids he is with to dig deeper.

He is a comedian. He loves music, and will nearly always have headphones on or hanging around his neck. He saunters into a room, responding to the music only he can hear. He is sarcastic as hell, and often irreverent with his observations and musings, and loves to make others laugh. He isn't one who will tell jokes, but his observations of others and his quips about humanity will make you think and laugh.

He is a caretaker. When any of the younger boys at school have a problem, Cole is the one who will sit with them and talk it through. He will allow them to feel scared or angry or hurt and will bring his own view of the world into the space in order to get the boy to laugh, once he has expressed his worries. You can feel his nurturing presence when he is around those who are younger than he is, and he takes his position as mentor quite seriously.

Cole is one of my son's best friends, and a boy I admire greatly. He is a stand-out individual, a man among boys. He knows who he is and what he believes, and this can be seen in how he carries himself. In a crowd? He'd be easy to spot.


Southern Man

The first thing I learned about David is that he doesn't like to be calledre Dave.

For a slight man, he was very imposing in the way that I suspect black belt judo masters are, not in any manner of an aggressive way, but totally confident. He knew what he was, and was comfortable with it and saw no need at all to try to impress anyone,

He was very mild mannered but, as I was to learn, could be provoked and had no problem defending himself or his belief, but you wouldn't know that when you first met him (it took me nearly a year to see that side of him).

Physically, he's probably of about average height, thinner than most Americans I see daily, but his most striking feature is his long hair. It may have, must have, been dark brown once, but now it's tempered with some gray, as is his goatee. His eyes are bright, clear, and in constant motion, as are his hands as a Parkinson's sufferer.

David is smart, very smart, and is our resident source of plant and animal information as well as a great navigator and an incredibly generous man. He's extremely well traveled, which you can learn once you mention anywhere in the world. His father was a chef for US diplomats and he grew up in more countries than I have teeth. Also, as a chef, he must have taught quite a bit to David, who is possibly the best cook I've known. Or, no worse than second.

He has a quick and ready laugh and a droll sense of humor. He's often quiet, thoughtful, or as he calls it, "boring."

In spite of growing up everywhere, he considers himself from Tennessee, where parts of his family still live. I've never been close friends with anyone from the South and not only does he have no accent, he's not at all what I expected from a Southern Gentleman.

He and his partner were the first people up here to invite me to their home for dinner. They have three dogs and insisted that I bring mine, so in addition to feeding me and his other guest, he also made sure all the dogs had meals I'm sure they still remember. Now that I have a second dog, they insist I bring both of them when I visit and his partner makes such a fuss over my dogs I'm sure they think don't love them enough.

You wouldn't know he's from the South, you might not know he's gay, you can't tell that he knows every plant and animal in this area from just seeing him, but you'd probably smile because he makes you do that.


The fifth-grader

My friend is about 11. She's a bit chubby...perhaps it's baby fat. She has buck teeth but doesn't realize that's anything odd, maybe does not even know really what "buck teeth" means. She also has skinny legs, which her father calls piano legs, in such a way that she think it is funny and loving, which it is.

She has long, dark hair parted down the middle, because all of her friends do. Her eyes are slanted in a way not like the rest of her family, to the point that a crude friend of her father's calls her Ming-Choy. She doesn't know what that means, and doesn't think she looks so different, though people sometimes ask if she's half-Asian.

She is not shy, in fact, speaks up a lot, in class and among friends. She tries to organize things. If for instance a group of friends is trying to decide what to do, like a sheepherding dog she will start nudging them one way, the way she things is right, makes sense. Her friends usually go along.

She does have friends, though one day she overhears one of them calling her bossy.

She takes ballet, has for five years. Her mother is the one who brought the carrots as snacks to all the 6-year-old girls taking ballet in the school cafeteria after school ended for the day.

She is terrible in physical ed, though, and doesn't like it much, except for volleyball and soccer, which she likes but who knows if she's good. But she cannot do a pull-up to save her life, or swing from horizontal bar to horizontal bar, which schools test for once a year. She fails. So she is the one looking miserable for most of PE.

Or she is the one reading: She loves to read so if there is a crowd gathered and someone is off somewhere else reading, that is probably this 11-year-old.

She adores cats and dogs and wants to be a vet.


Meet Rebecca

I have never met anyone like my friend Rebecca. I doubt you have either. She and I worked closely together for several years before she left to get a post-graduate degree in public policy, on her way to changing the world.

Working alongside her, I gained an admiration for her extraordinary professional abilities. I don't think she was older than 24 or 25, when she took over running a complex program serving hundreds of children across Los Angeles.

Years later, I found out that the only job she held before this one was as a ski instructor. I've never met someone who has paired such natural ability and unassuming confidence.

It was, however, when we became friends outside of work that I realized her most impressive qualities had nothing to do with work.

A short, spirited, bespectacled woman, she was often mistaken for one of the students in her program. More than her stature and her casual dress, I think people assume she's younger than she is from the energy she brings to everything she does.

Her genuine, unabashed curiosity about the world and the people who inhabit it is childlike, in the best sense of the word.

We bonded over our love of sandwiches, and would frequent a sandwich shop across the street from our office. After years of going there, we found out that the staff there had assumed that we were brother and sister. Short and bespectacled myself, I could see their confusion, but also took it as a great compliment.

My coworkers and I would always marvel at how someone gets to be like Rebecca. To have as much confidence and intelligence as she has without an ounce of precociousness is unusual.

She's never afraid to share her opinions or to disagree, but she does it in a disarming and non-confrontational way. Most people who attempt this usually come off as condescending.

When I'm in a tough spot or feeling out of my element--one of my first thoughts is usually: how would Rebecca handle this? I then try to find a close approximation of what she would do that is workable for me, and go from there.


Seven courses, fish faces, obnoxious hosts, family gatherings

Hair, Hands, Teeth, Eyes