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

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

Pretending to be older, wiser, more together. And building a backyard carnival.

Novice of Disguise

I mostly pretend to not care or that it doesn’t hurt.

I felt much better about that until several years ago when someone who I thought should know told me that depression wasn’t about feeling bad or feeling low, which I rarely do, but was more closely aligned with apathy, which I feel quite often.

I think it’s fair to say that while I don’t do a lot of talking to myself, I will, involuntarily, reactively, tell myself “I don’t care” fairly often when presented with something. I do that so much, and have done it for so long, that I like to think I’m used to it by now, but I also realize that every time I tell myself that it’s another one of those thousand cuts that will eventually kill me.

The thing is, I *do* care and it *does* hurt, but I guess it’s either a defense mechanism or, maybe, the result of my upbringing that I can’t admit it. If my dad taught me anything, it’s that men don’t cry, and while sometimes I do, it’s hardly ever the full fledged cry that I wish I could do.

After my ex told me to leave, I rented every very sad movie I could think of so that I could cry when I was alone in my little apartment. Then, I’d tell myself that I didn’t care, that it didn’t matter.

I’ve come up with many, many reasons or justifications or arguments about why I don’t matter, and I still think that on some certain level they’re true, at least in the same way that no individual ant or bee or plant matters to the whole. I don’t think about that very much, though, because as soon as I do I realize that subject was covered better than I ever could in a Christmas story featuring Jimmy Stewart. And, since someone else has already done it, there’s not much uncovered ground for me to explore.

I pretend it doesn’t hurt when no one pays much attention to what I say or do, but that’s the corner into which I’ve painted myself and the bed I’ve chosen to lie down in. I pretend it doesn’t hurt to not be the center of attention when that’s what I sometimes want, but a lifetime of refusing to let people get close to me has pretty much guaranteed that is all I should expect to receive.

I have what I think is a good sense of humor and frequently say funny things, but I’m sure that’s something I do for cover or to make people like me, but it rings hollow when I drive home alone after being out and have no one but my pups to turn to.

I think, down deep inside, it all *does* matter to me, that I *do* care and hurt, but then I tell myself that so does everyone else and I need to stop thinking I’m something special. I might be a bit taller than normal or maybe have a different way of looking at things, but it’s not anything to gloat about or point to as an achievement or accomplishment.

Also, sometimes at Halloween I dress up in costume and masquerade as someone else, so I guess that’s pretending.



Pretending To Be a Teen

I am really scared, nervous because the room is packed with kids and parents, and we kids are auditioning. Wellesley High School is preparing for its annual Christmas show and this year they are producing “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” The audition is just one of several held at the town’s elementary schools.

Smiling and holding my hand, my mother calms me down, telling me I know the song—“American the Beautiful” —and like singing it. “And we’re at Katherine Lee Bates Elementary School, your school, named for the woman who wrote the song,” she whispers to me.

I love being in the production of the operetta and playing Amahl. I am eleven years old and walking to the high school for rehearsal every day after sixth grade is a new adventure. Acting and singing on stage is also new and the music teacher in charge tells me to pretend to be a crippled boy who can only walk with a crutch. He shows me how and I practice walking with one crutch at home.

Mostly I like being with the high school kids. I have a whole cast of big brothers and sisters. And I’m a big kid too, riding home in cars after rehearsing, and listening to rock n roll on the car radios. No teachers or adults, just big kids riding around having fun, singing along with the radio.

John, one of the three kings, usually gives me a ride in his late model Oldsmobile and the car is always full of other kids lugging books. Kids just carried piles of books in those days and John’s are strewn around the car. His voice is not the best, but we don’t talk about the show, and everyone likes him.

Some days we stop for something to eat or drink at one of the teen hangouts in town and they take me along too for a coke. I like the freedom they have and it seems to me they can do anything they want. After the last production, we all say goodbye but I miss riding around in cars with my friends and pretending to be a teenager.



You Can't Make This Stuff Up

When I was a kid, I was never a kid. I don’t remember “playing.” I know I did. I had games that I would play with my friends, but playing “make believe”—being a pirate or a spaceship captain—I was always too serious or self-conscious for that. The closest I would come, I think, would be making up stories, but usually I was some kind of narrator to the story, not a participant in it. In elementary school, my best friend and I would usually spend recess walking the perimeter of the playground just talking to each other about life. We were more like characters out of an Eric Rohmer movie than third graders.

Looking back, this explains a lot about me, and the person I became. Or maybe the person I always have been. Recently, however, I have discovered that I do in fact have the ability to play. About a year and a half ago, I befriended a coworker who’s main gig was as an actor and an improviser. I’ve enjoyed going to improv shows throughout my life. It’s of course a hit-and-miss style of comedy, but most of what I had been subjected to over the years had been “miss.”

My coworker and now friend Sara is part of a unique improv company that doesn’t do comedic sketches and games, but rather creates fully improvised plays in various genres and styles. From Twilight Zone to Sondheim to Star Trek. I started going to her performances. I was amazed at the quality and consistency of what they did. Whatever genre they were taking on, they would deconstruct it, identify the things that made it work and use those structures as their guide.

All of the actors in the company have the ability to write dialogue spontaneously that is better than stuff it would take me weeks to come up with. I was amazed at their ability to create characters on the fly, to draw narrative arcs, and to wrap things neatly together in a 45 minute play.

I was fascinated by their process—how do you train to do something like that? Sara insisted that as a writer and as a human being, I needed to take class there. I was hesitant. I’ve sat through too many of my friends’ intro-level UCB showcases over the years to want to subject anyone to that. Sara assured me though that there was no end-of-class performance.

I put it off for a few months, but after I passed my Magic Castle audition last August, I realized that the things that scared me were the things worth doing, so I figured I’d sign up for her theater’s basic, intro kindergarten-level course. The instructor, Lisa, was an improviser with the company who I had seen many times and who I was in awe of.

From the get-go, I was terrible. This was no surprise to me. I had strategically avoided all the things in life that would in any way make me a good improviser. My creative process has always been to sit alone in a quiet room for extended periods of time until ideas come from out of the ether.

As the weeks went on, however, I improved. By the end of my first 12 week class, the word “blossomed,” had been used to describe my transformation. I’ve now completed the second course in their curriculum and about to start the third. I’m still terrible, but I’ve learned incredible things about improv, about theater, about myself. The list goes on.

The one breakthrough I’ll describe involves something that I’ve always struggled to do—getting out of my own head. When I’m in a scene performing and things are lost or I feel like I’m reaching for story, my writer brain wants to take over and start to create a narrative or to justify through explanation. This is a recipe for boring theater though. The key is to just – and this a terrible cliché – be in the moment. Make eye contact with the other improviser. Look to them for clues, because what is going to be interesting to the audience, and what is going to drive the story forward, is ultimately the relationship between the two of you.

Now, in my mid-30s, I can say I’ve played a spaceship captain. I haven’t played a pirate yet, but I’m sure we’ll get there soon enough. Better late than never.




Scarlet O'Hara Syndrome

I have a fantasy about tomorrow. Always tomorrow. Today I might as well go to bed late and eat terribly, because tomorrow I will get down to business. I will wake up two to four hours earlier than I usually do and I will feel refreshed and on fire. There will be tea or coffee chugged in front of the sunrise. Dawn will feel bright and opening instead of daunting and critical. I'll gather myself and all my creative musings in front of a computer or notebook and from me will flow all my thoughts uninhibited and freely. I might have meditated while the sun rose and feel truly grounded and connected to a higher power. I'll be both present with my good feelings and in flow with my amazing ideas. Time will pass easily and I'll finish my writings with time to prepare for work like other people must. I'll brush my teeth, for once -- Something that I almost never do in the morning unless I am literally about to go to the density. I'll pick out an outfit that requires steaming instead of the outfit of a child which requires only semi- matching shoe choices. I might even wear heels or something in my skinny wardrobe. Tomorrow, I won't have woken up to a half empty jar of Nutella or peanut butter so things may be fitting better. Then I'll drive to work and feel like I should legally be allowed to, instead of feeling mildly, guiltily curious when I try to shift gears at a red light despite driving an automatic car and having never learned to drive shift. Is this a past life muscle memory? Tomorrow I will eat nothing for breakfast so I burn off some calories instead of opting for penut mnms or penut butter cups because surely if I eat them early I'll have burned them off by the end of the day, right? Then I'll get straight to work, responding to the emails I've been avoiding for the past few days and months for no good reason other than commitment issues and the feeling that I won't be able to adequately reply without stopping time and really giving a couple a few hours of my time. Tomorrow I'll eat a lunch that is purely healthy instead of finding a way to eat cheese, even though I'm lactose intolerant suddenly. If I do eat cheese, tomorrow is the day I'll finally remember to take my pills before I start eating. Tomorrow I'll check in with my sponsor at a reasonable time instead of feeling so guilty I didnt call her the past few days that I decide to not call her or use the app that allows me to skip directly to her voicemail even though she calls me out for that. Tomorrow I will have of course remembered to bring my gym shoes to work, and my headphones, alternative socks, a sports bra and my iPad so I have no excuse not to go to the gym. Then I'll get home and manage to not get extremely and irrationally mad at at least four drivers for trying to cut the traffic line at the 101. I might have even figured out the language app and started finally learning French, or Italian, or improve my Spanish like I have been wanting to do for the past 14 years. Speaking of doing something I've been avoiding for half my life, tomorrow is the day I will really have written in a way that confirms to me that I'm not just ducking around. My morning and afternoon writing will amass to something tangible that I can share and finally point to as the beginning of my writing career. I probably will also have dinner or dessert tomorrow impromptuly with people who live near me that I swear to reach out to but never do. I'll call Frooze and pretend to have seen her movie, or Miriam and I can go on a walk like we did that one time almost a year ago. When I get home tmorrow I'll take off my pants in some new elegant way that doesn't look like a toddler trying to get out of a swamp. I'll pick them up off the floor. I'll eat a meal that is more substantial than alternate bites of Trader Joe's hummus and jalapeños. Maybe I'll watch one of movies I've listed in one of the seven different places where I write down the names of things I ought to have seen by now. Then I'll take a bath in the tub and it'll be remarkably ant free because tomorrow I've spent 4 minutes caulking over the hole they traverse through every day. This will be great at putting me in a sleeping mood. This along with my rigorous gym workout will mean that tomorrow I don't have to to rely on taking a sleeping pill to fall asleep. Who knows, tomorrow I might even remember to take off my makeup. Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow. What a glorious day it will be.




Pretending: a make-believe necessity.

In my experience, and backed up by some pretty impressive people reporting pretty impressive research findings, play and make believe are imperative to the good growing up of every child. It lets you explore without real world consequences (most of the time, anyway); and, in the words of either GK Chesterton or Neil Gaiman, (the internet can't come to a consensus): "Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed." There might be Big Bad out there, but we can figure out how to fight it.

When I was given free space to dream and pretend as a kid, I chose some very odd things to make believe about. Like, for some reason, I was obsessed with playing Carnival in our back yard. (I don't know how this effected my psychology in either of the ways I just listed, but I'm a firm believer in both, so I'm gonna go with it).

Playing Carnival meant I would spend all afternoon building rides and attractions in my back yard, after which I would cajole my younger sister (or friends, if they were over), to play with me on and around.

An orange, plastic-sided Fischer Price wagon became the Wagon Ride, as I dragged it over every inch of concrete in the area, including up and down the narrow alleys that bounded our house on either side.

A K'nex set (much like an Erector set, but made out of brightly colored plastic building pieces that snapped together) with instructions helped me build a miniature ferris wheel, which got placed off to one side so we could imagine we were riding it. Or maybe it was just for show...

An old, hand-me-down Fischer Price farm set became the Farm Exhibition Hall, where all the people who came to our Carnival (or maybe it was more like a County Fair with the inclusion of the farm) could come to show off their animals and see everyone else's.

Our swing set, with its slide, 2 swings and a small glider also became a part of our midway ride collection, and if it were summer and the kiddie pool were out, sometimes we would tie the hose to the slide and the slide would be transformed into a water slide. The apricot tree, easily climbable, would also get conscripted as a ride--maybe inspired by the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse at Disneyland.

We'd draw decorations on the cement and use the Monopoly money from my Monopoly, Jr. game as ride tickets. But what amuses me with this memory, however, is that whenever I got the itch to build this out, the makeup never wavered. Once I had my stable of attractions and rides, I never created new ones or added to the pot. My Carnival was a closed system.

I remember that when I would be making all this, I felt free and in my element; like no one was hovering or telling me what to do. I got to come up with my own ideas and make my own decisions on how to make them come about. It was a trial run at having control over my own life. And I found that I liked it: not just the control, but the freedom to try and make the things that I thought of in my head, and bring them from thought to reality. Definitely good practice for being an adult. And if I hadn't been able to play pretend as a kid in safety, when else would I have had the chance to try it out?



Donny John

I write postcards to the president. Not every day, but nearly so. I've written 108 of them since he took the oath of office.

It was a New Year's resolution I made, to write 200 postcards to the man I least wanted to be commander in chief. At the time, around the inauguration, there was a lot of talk about how those of us in blue bubbles -- and I definitely live in the bluest of the blue-blue bubbles -- need to "engage" with our political opposites. I'm from a small town in Ohio, so I (admittedly arrogantly) feel like I know quite enough about my political opposites; that's why I still live in California. Instead, I decided to "engage" with the man himself.

At the outset I made a decision to not berate him. Much. If I was going to write to him 200 times, I needed to talk about real issues, actual legislation, things that mattered. I do think he looks stupid when he smiles and his hair is a national embarrassment. But I would not write those things. Though I didn't really put it in these terms to myself as I started, I guess I didn't want to write down anything that I wouldn't actually say to him in person if called upon for my opinion.

My approach over time has come to resemble writing to a stubborn and slightly odd uncle who really just needs some tough love and to be told how to straighten up and fly right. When I can't quite muster that much connection, I seem to "wonder" a lot about him, in the vein of, "I wonder if you will ever come to recognize the value and humanity of refugees." But I also praise the rare momentary move where it seems like he might need a bit of reinforcement. His agreement to work with Democrats on DACA this week was one of those.

To keep this resolution, I bought two boxes of 100 postcards and 200 stamps -- sheets and sheets of Harvey Milk and Wonder Woman. I also made myself photograph each one and post it on social media. I'm sure that my friends and family are tired of my notes to Donald Trump, but it's the only way I can think of to hold myself accountable. I doubt many people actually READ what I write on them, but everyone I see seems to have registered that this is a thing I'm doing.

The stack of postcards, pre-stamped, sits at the counter where I eat breakfast and read the news on my iPad each morning. And when I hit the new story that hits a nerve, I pick up the pen. I have the address memorized -- 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington DC 20500, if you need it -- and then I just get it all off my chest. Sometimes I'm barely squeezing in all my convoluted thoughts; sometimes it's just three sentences: "I thought I was going to miss Sean Spicer. But this Scaramucci show is quite entertaining..."

It's become something I just do every morning, like read the paper or clean out the cat box. I sometimes wonder if it even qualifies as a political act. Maybe it's more a performance art piece.

For weeks after the election and inauguration, though, I was losing half my day down the rabbit hole of news stories about the insanity that seemed to have gripped our nation's capital. Betsy DeVos? Sam Clovis? Jeff Sessions? The nominees sent me into a tailspin daily. But eventually I found I could write a postcard about it, stick it in the mailbox, and off it would go, and I could get on with my day.

Of course, I'm pretending that anything I would say to Donald Trump matters.




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