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

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

Summer break, career break, life break

Harder than I have ever worked in my life

When I was interviewing for my current job, I was told - more than once - that I have probably never worked harder in my life than I will here. Not exactly the kind of message you want to send to prospective employees, but it does make sense looking back because it is completely true. Never in my life have I put more of myself, and spent more of my time, at a job.

I work in an all boys' boarding school. When the boys are there, the school is never quiet. There really isn't such a thing as a day off, or down time. 400 boys need pretty much constant supervision or bad things can happen.

I went to the sister school, some 30 years ag0, just a few miles away. There is lots of down time over there - weekends, evenings. It works just fine, and not to be sexist, but it is because it is 300 girls as opposed to 400 boys. Give boys too much free time without proper supervision, and they are likely to burn the school down.

I run the learning center. This means I work with boys who are both diagnosed with some learning difference, or with boys who are just scattered and in need of guidance. Unlike the other teaching faculty who teach 4 classes and that's full time, I teach all 7 classes a day. It is a rare moment when I have my office to myself. More often, it is brimming with teenage boys, all needing something - perhaps a kick in the butt, or a hug, or an ear. My afternoons are spent returning phone calls and the like, and then in the evenings, I proctor study hall. This goes on at least 6 days a week from September through May. There are times when the pace is truly frenetic.

But we do this crazy work because of the boys. The relationships we build with these young men, the ability to help them plan and guide their life is such fulfilling work. The job is not so much a job as a calling, a mission if you will. It is so vastly different from the life I had in public school, where the teachers nearly ran the students over trying to get out of the building when the bell rang. They were not about to put in one more minute than they were contractually obligated to. I met students who needed help in Algebra a few Saturdays at a local Starbucks and was promptly reprimanded for doing so because my extra effort made the other teachers look bad.

None of that happens here. It is expected that you will go, if not beyond expectations, at least to the fullest extent of the letter of the law. These boys are away from home - some of them across the world - and we as faculty become their surrogate parents. Locus Parenti. Parenting is not a 9-5 job.

So when the school year comes to an end, and there is no one to look after, no grades to check, no one to take to the mall or have over for dinner, when no one comes through my door needing to talk - that's when everything stops. The hamster wheel no longer spins out of control. It is "off" time.

And I hate it.

It sounds ridiculous but it is easy to get used to the pace, and in a sense to thrive on it. The busier I am the happier I am. The more the boys need me, the more fulfilled I get when I can help them.

It comes at a cost though. My own family sees very little of me during the school year. We eat most of our meals at school (which is an amazing perk for my budget!) and I will see my husband and youngest son then. Weekends are out since we have classes Saturdays. Even vacations can pose challenges if we are hosting a boy who cannot go home because he lives in China or Taiwan.

Summers are different. Summers, the boys are all gone. There is no work to do. The campus sits quiet. I have no one to drive, or grade, or encourage. It is a forced quiet.

It takes me about two or three weeks to actually wind down. The first few days after the boys all leave, I feel like I can't quit pacing; I am looking for something to do. But then the quiet begins to settle in. I start getting comfortable with it again. I rediscover my love for sitting and reading a book on my deck. I sleep late (ish - I can't sleep last 8 no matter what). My breathing slows. I learn how to cook again. I take long walks with the dog.

And just when I start to really enjoy the quiet, when I think "Ok - I've got this relaxation thing down" it becomes time to start it all back up again.

Let me tell you - rebuilding those callouses is hard work!



A Life of Deprivation

I’m perfectly content with my life and it sure seems I have everything I need and a great deal of what I want. Overall, pretty damn happy, all things considered. Still, if I look beyond the end of my nose and see or meet with other people, I can’t help noticing that they have a lot more than I do now, or ever will.

I’m going to guess that I had some real rough financial patches early in my life, maybe even to the extent of it keeping me awake, but I don’t really remember them. Instead, since I never got into the whole “plan for the future” thing (later problems would be those of a future me, and they would be his to deal with). For most of my working career, then, I don’t remember ever worrying much about money.

I don’t remember postponing things for much of my life, but that might be in large part to my fairly modest hopes and dreams. The extravagances I wanted, I just went out and bought, without much thought. I’d pay them when the bill came in or, or when I next had to make a payment on my credit card.

I was never rich: I was just never very good with money.

I don’t remember pricing things in grocery stores, or even paying much attention to how much they cost. I didn’t buy a lot of really expensive things, but I did spring for beluga caviar when we were having a nice dinner and bought a few bottle of very nice champagne, all of which I enjoyed. And, not to show off, but mostly just to see what the fuss was about (and, yes, I could tell the difference!).

Now, later in life, while not preoccupied with it, I am mindful of the cost of just about everything. Not only do I think about what it might cost to do something, I also worry about wear and tear and entropy. I’ve gotten to the age when, say, I buy a pair of hiking boots and realize I may not have to buy any more for the rest of my life, that these will be the last pair I’ll ever buy.

I no longer have, nor can afford, my earlier free wheeling spending habits, and it hurts. There are some things I don’t have now, and I also know I never will. In line with that, there are also more and more things that I have to pass up and know I’ll never have, things I’ve decided to avoid so that I can afford to live at all for another month or year or whatever.

I’m not even sure if I have smartphone coverage where I live (I know for a long time I did not), and I’ve quit checking. While I would love to have a smartphone and apps and all that stuff, I’d rather not spend money on either the phone or the service, and so I deprive myself of something I’m sure I’d enjoy.

I now just look the other way when ads or the desire pops into my head, and had I been doing that all my life, I’d no doubt be in much better shape than I am right now. I’d love to drive into Los Angeles and enjoy some food from the restaurants and eateries I loved going to and miss desperately, but I don’t want to spend the money on gas. Or on wear and tear on my Jeep’s tires, or the Jeep itself. The longer I can keep things together, the less stressful my life can be.

When I was working, I used to look at some things and check out the MTBF, the “mean time between failure.” Everything built or manufactured is going to break down at some future time, but that was never a concern of mine. Now it’s an obsession, and I can wince each time I flick a light switch or turn on the sink, knowing that it’s only a matter of time before the switch breaks or the faucet doesn’t turn off.

So, I try to use things as little as possible and take the hit now, postponing later, costly replacements. By giving stuff up now, I can live to enjoy another day.



Staring at the Wall and Other Tips for Productivity

When I think about slowing down, the first thing that comes to mind is learning. A lot of my hobbies: (music, magic, tennis, etc.) are about repetition of small movements, building into longer chains of movements, and eventually committing things to muscle memory.

My favorite tennis coach had an expression he would say to us often: “Practice slowly, learn fast.” It was a clever idiom, and I’ve remembered it and tried to apply to other areas of life. When mastering a difficult task on the piano, the key is to teach your fingers to do it at a slow but rhythmically accurate pace, and then slowly crank up the metronome.

The technique is incredibly effective, but it has an evil twin brother for an amateur musician like me. When you have internalized a piece of music to the point where you can fly through it by memory, your thinking brain can actually forget how to string the individual notes together. There are pieces I can whiz through at tempo, but if I had to slow them down, the muscle memory breaks down, and I can’t even remember the notes.

The interrelationship between pace and learning extends to other areas than practicing instruments or learning card tricks. When it comes to writing, I am a bit of a thorn in the side of my fellow National Novel Writing Month competitors for my ability to rack up my word count at a frenetic pace. At work, I’m known for being able to knock out difficult pieces in rapid time.

People ask me how I’m able to do that, and it’s somewhat counter-intuitively about slowing down more than it is about speeding up. My office in DC used to overlook a street corner where bicycle messengers would gather, waiting to receive notice of jobs. They’d circle around on their bikes, eat lunch, play catch with a baseball, or generally just lay around on a grassy triangular patch outside of DuPont Circle.

When one of them would receive a call that he or she had a job, you’d see the person stand up, slowly and methodically pack up their lunch, a book, a Hacky Sack, etc. into their messenger bags, casually sling the bag over their shoulders, grab their bike by the handle bars, and hop on.

At that moment, when they were on the bike, they would take off at breakneck speed, flying away to wherever their pick-up destination was. I would see this happen again and again throughout the day. It made me think of what my writing process was. I spend a significant amount of time thinking. I try never to rush that process. I get all my thoughts in order and ready to go, and then only once everything was in its proper place do I start typing.

I tell the Allegory of the Bicycle Messengers to my creative friends, and some of them immediately recognize it in themselves, and others have no clue what I’m talking about. To me, maintaining a constant pace is a recipe for disaster. I have friends who I really believe only operate at one speed, but for me to be at all successful, I have to punctuate my periods of rapid activity with ones of almost none.

The playwright Samara Weiss said, “A significant amount of writing involves staring at the wall.” I used to have this quote pinned to the wall above my desk. And I would, in fact, spend a lot of time staring at it. Either that or looking at the bicycle messengers out the window.



The break

Slowing down has been a recurring theme for me for my whole life. I was labeled a type A early on, a high achiever, but I think I've been looking for ways to slow down since about middle school.

I had this memory recently. I was a participant at a summer camp in high school that was called the Governor's Institute for Communications. There were 24 kids from around the state, including me and my friend Emily from my high school. And we had a week to develop some kind of communications program around some idea. It all seems sort of weird in hindsight. But they divided us up first into groups of idea people, implementers/doers, and leaders. I was a leader.

Somehow, though I didn't get that the leader was not necessarily supposed to be the idea person too, and I feel certain I pretty much bossed my small team into my idea, which was essentially a program against working too hard too fast. It was railing against "fast-forward, multi-tasking culture."

Let me reiterate: I was about 16.

I didn't really take my own lesson to heart, though. I would occasionally overload myself with activities and projects, and by the time I was a senior, even a part-time job as a sports stringer at the local paper. My mother could tell, though, and would say: You need to start writing lists of things. I was get too busy and distracted and lose track of what all I had to do.

That happened to me again in college, where by the time I was a junior I was an editor on the newspaper staff, a resident advisor, had a part-time job at the health center, and oh, was a film student who was supposed to really be single-mindedly focused on writing scripts and shooting Super-8 movies. I liked all my various jobs, and I kept my grades up, so why change? Why slow down and focus on one single thing?

When my first bout of depression struck, it's not that I was overworked, or really even overwhelmed. I went to work for months unable to figure out why I was unable to sleep, unable to taste my food. But it got worse, and then worse. I remember telling one boss that I couldn't taste my food, and she replied, "That doesn't sound good." I told another, "You know, I'm really not operating at 100% here," and she said, "That's OK. At 75% you're still doing better than most people here." But I knew it wasn't true.

It wasn't until I told that second boss that I was just going to have to quit, that I couldn't work any more, that she said, "You should take a leave." I didn't know this was an option. It wasn't going to make life easier for her -- I was the second TV editor she'd lose in a matter of months -- but I could also tell that she recognized my mental state, probably because she'd been there.

And that summer, 13 year ago, was the first time that I really slowed down. I did nothing. On purpose. I saw my doctor once a week at first, then later once a month. I took my first yoga class. I read books. I just tried to be still and stop my mind from spinning. I waited for the SSRIs to work their magic, and they were magic.

I think about that time a lot. That boss who suggested a leave, she saved my career at that moment. I would go back to the paper a month later into an easier posting, though on the drugs I probably didn't even need to gear down. I felt enthusiastic again for the first time in nearly a year.

But my ambition was gone. I'd slowed down and I wasn't ever really speeding back up again.



On slowing down: Now would be a fine time to mention "Local Hero," one of my favorite movies, in which harried American businessman travels to small town in Scotland and must readjust all expectations. This summary does this wonderful film no justice at all, but what I mean to say is I wish I could point to such a self-contained experience to describe an experience in brief that does not include illness or accidents.

Thinking more broadly, though, it occurs to me that there is a time in my life I needed to slow down, though it took me decades to realize the motivating factor. In my early 20s I moved from Washington, D.C., to San Diego, the utter antidote to the Type-A personality-culture I grew up in. Like a fish doesn't know she is in water, I had no concept that life was different anywhere else. To me, living and working with people who worked round the clock, were talented and creative and taking tranquilizers and seeing therapists and writing books (everyone in town is writing a book, janitors included) was the norm. It was normal to be keyed up about work even if you loved it and it kept you in a constant state of white-knuckle nervousness.

Everyone in Washington took everything very, very seriously. I remember walking down the street, looking up at the buildings with their long rows of windowed offices going up 20 stories and thinking, this is what happens in D.C.: in every office each occupant at the end of the day picks up the stack of papers she had slaved over for 12 hours, and places the stack in the desk of the office next door. Meanwhile, the person in the office on the other side would do the same, so everyone ended up having a stack of paperwork to go through every day. That, it seemed to me, was what life in D.C. was. Lots of paperwork, bureaucracy, unsmiling people walking very fast.

So I left a I great full-time job at the Washington Post for no job, in San Diego, a city that was always sunny and calm and no one took anything seriously at all.

Only years later did I look back and understand that I had to remove myself from my background to be able to slow down and decide what pace I really wanted to keep.

Yet unlike in "Local Hero," there is no watch left untended in the waters; even after 30 years there is an internal clock I can't seem to get rid of.



The Last Craniotomy

Under the bright lights of the operating room, the only part of the patient’s body visible is her shaved head peeking out from beneath a sea of green sheets. My father paints her scalp with dark brown disinfectant. He is dressed and ready to go, and with scalpel in gloved hand he is studying her x-ray. His long time anesthetist breaks the silence.

“Hey Charlie,” he says to my father, “right as she was going under, she told me what a wonderful man you are. If she survives you today, I think you have a chance with her.”

“Oh here he goes with the usual crap,” says my father, chuckling and then drawing the scalpel quickly across her scalp, opening a large wound across the top right side of her head. Blood pours from the wound and drips off her skull into the catch basin on the floor. When she stops bleeding, my father eases back her scalp with an instrument and his finger to expose her cranium.

Now in my 30’s, I have been watching him operate since I was 17. He had called me earlier to invite me, and my wife, to see his last craniotomy. He is 70 and thinks it is time for him to stop brain surgery. He always says he would know when it was time to quit, and that time has come. Besides, he says, “the younger docs in our group need the practice that comes from having more cases. There are a lot of neurosurgeons now, and I need to give them my cases."

He knows this middle-aged woman has a tumor, but it is the mid-1980’s and the big question is does she have a malignant or benign growth. If malignant, her life will end soon.

He is ready to bore holes in her skull, and his nurse rolls up the drill, a piece of equipment as old as I am. Most of the paint has flecked off the machine, but with a few remaining spots on the old electric motor, and with its fan belt, it looks more like it belongs in a garage than an operating room. “Here comes the antique ice cream maker,” says the anesthetist.

“This drill works just fine, and has never failed me,” insists my father. But it won’t start.

“Who could believe this. For his last operation, he’ll have to use a modern drill,” says the anesthetist. They are both laughing now, cutting the tension as they always do.

He has to use the new drill, but with some struggling since this instrument is unfamiliar to him, and it slips slightly a few times. But he bores the little holes, as small chips of the patient's skull fly, and then passes the wire saw through them to remove a small piece of her cranium. The tumor is close to the surface of her brain and he carefully pushes brain tissue aside to expose it. Now he begins removing the tumor by slowly cutting all around it, all the while talking out loud to himself. “Oh careful, careful, Fager, watch that . . .” Yet, it surprises me when he gently lifts the tumor out and places it on the tray his nurse has ready. Under the intense light, it is an ugly grey, birds egg sized, goopy sack. He says it doesn’t look good, and off it goes for biopsy.

Within minutes a nurse appears at the door and glances at him with a small shake of her head, telling him it is malignant without saying a word. Now he dissects more tissue around the area of the tumor. “She’s got a few months, maybe a bit more,” he says. A resident starts to close her up, as my father steps back to watch, coaching him as he works.

My father is quiet as we leave the operating room. Forty-five years of brain surgery has come to an end. He still has a few more years as a neurosurgeon, but he’ll stick to the spine cases now, usually removing slipped discs. “Well, that’s it,” he says, as a nurse turns off the lights in the operating room.


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

Cheating, peeking, swapping, nonconforming