JuliaFierrophotoYou just launched your debut novel, Cutting Teeth, you run The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, and you have two children. How do you do it all?

My lifelong insomnia has been a blessing in disguise. I pretty much sleep four hours a night, and am doing my best to ignore conspiracy theories like this, that simultaneously attempt to cut my productivity in half and promise my inevitable doom.

It is amazing what you can accomplish if you abandon all household chores that aren’t absolutely essential. Sure, we’re living in chaos, but mom’s making great progress on her next novel and the number of Sackett Street writers attending classes has doubled in the last three years. It turns out that women can “have it all”—they might be miserably tired, suffer from high blood pressure, and not have enough time to eat well, exercise or have meaningful relationships, but you can do anything when you don’t give yourself a reason not to.

Life is funny. I mean, just when you think that you’ll never get a newborn Kenyan cow named after you, WHAM!, you hear the sweet pitter patter of little hooves. As I type this, Rob the Cow (who, by the way, is quite the looker) is happily grazing in the Kenyan village of Sauri (population: 4,214 cows and nearly that many people). When I first met the future Rob, he was approximately three hours old, just a newborn, naked and nameless. We were introduced to one another towards the end of the two-week African safari that I took with my wife Julie and her parents.

You’re probably wondering, “How the heck did you get a cow named after him?!? Are you, like, a Cow Whisperer or something?” The answer to the second question is NO. Believe it or not, I’m not even that good with animals. This probably stems from the fact that, before this trip, the only time I’d encountered wild animals was while riding The Jungle Cruise at Disney World (oh, and diving away from an angry stampede of senior citizens en route to the General Tso tray at the all-you-can-eat China King buffet in Ft. Lauderdale). Soooo when Julie asked me if I wanted to go to Kenya with her family, naturally I was excited. And not just because her parents were paying.

Julie’s parents are soil scientists whose jobs require them to live in Kenya about six months of the year. This qualifies them as official Kenyan residents, which is a pretty big deal because, in addition to receiving junk mail (“You might already be a winner! Return this card and win a free cow!”), they get to participate in the traditional Kenyan Welcoming Ceremony where each new resident, upon receiving their pair of complimentary running sneakers, is asked to recite the Kenyan Creed. I’m paraphrasing: “I vow to face each day with strength and bravery, taking on all challenges, laughing in the face of danger, doing my best to seek out dangerous and potentially life-threatening situations, under strict accordance with the Fear Nothing Principle.”

The Fear Nothing Principle, as explained by The Idiot’s Guide to Avoid Getting Eaten by a Lion, has only one rule: fear nothing. Allow me to clarify. Nothing, in this case, includes everything that might worry someone (me) who’s traveling to Africa for the first time (again, me). My father-in-law, who has lived in Kenya for over fifteen years and is the only man I know that has caught a shark WITH HIS BARE HANDS, then placed it (still alive) into a household bathtub, is diehard follower of the Fear Nothing Principle. That’s bad news for me.

You see, when it comes to things like disease, infection, and wild animals that could remove all the flesh from my body in 0.2 seconds, I prefer to follow the somewhat safer, yet no doubt less manly, Fear Everything Principle. Sure, I understand this mindset might make some men feel weenie-like, but personally, I’ve grown pretty accustomed to the Fear Everything Principle over the years—really ever since 1988 when I became the talk of Camp Coleman for being “the kid who got the funky purplish rash over his entire body from playing in the woods and had to spend three weeks quarantined in an empty cabin that smelled like socks and warm cheese.”

So there you have it. A Fear Nothinger and a Fear Everythinger going on a safari to deepest, darkest Africa. Man, this has TV magic written all over it! So if you’re a TV exec looking for your next ratings hit, I’ve got just the thing for you! It’s called “Nothing to Fear but Everything” (it’s a working title) and it follows the wacky adventures of a modern-day odd couple as they trek through the jungles of Africa. It’s your classic fish out of water story meets Cinderella story meets swashbuckling blockbuster meets any other popular cliché that would help get the show on the air. And best of all, it’s based on real life so the scripts practically write themselves! For example, here’s an unedited transcript of an actual phone call I had with my father-in-law prior to the trip. As you’ll see, like any good sitcom, hijinks ensued.

ME: How many different travel vaccines do I need?
HIM: Why would you need vaccines?
ME: What about Malaria pills? Don’t I need those?
HIM: What for?
ME: What happens if we’re viciously attacked by a pride of hungry lions?
HIM: There’s nothing to worry about as long as you have your running shoes. And a change of underwear.

But don’t get me wrong; it’s not that my father-in-law didn’t care about my fears. He just didn’t think there was anything to be afraid of! Take our first day in Kenya, for example. When our jeep’s engine overheated and we were stranded on the side on the highway—and by “highway” I mean “dirt path in the middle of nowhere with nothing around us but 50,000 acres of dust and rocks”—he simply shouted out: “Everything’s fine; I’ve got it all under control!” Now keep in mind that he had to shout if he wanted us to hear him over the sizzle of the radiator and the hissing from the snake that was just five feet from my door. Seriously.

But despite this being a situation that some (read: sane) people would find to be unnerving, both my in-laws remained true to the principle and, amazingly, feared nothing. Impressive? Yes. But the real test was still to come. About four days later, in fact, when we traveled to Masai Mara, the wondrous savannah that Disney animators visited to collect research for “The Lion King,” a film that, looking back, was mostly accurate detail-wise, but quite frankly, we spent a few days in the savannah and I didn’t hear ANY animals singing. Not a one.

So we’re in Masai Mara on our fifth or ninth day of safari (it’s hard to keep track when you’re dehydrated), and everyone is actively playing the “spotting game.” This is where you spend several hours driving around the savannah in a jeep, trying to spot animals by peering through binoculars, which incidentally is something that I’ve neverbeen able to do very well because when I look through the eyepieces, all I ever wind up seeing are my eyelashes. My in-laws, on the other hand, are exceptionally skilled at spotting which is great for them because they’re also avid bird watchers, a hobby that involves squinting through binoculars, seemingly staring at nothing for long periods at a time, then saying things like: “Is that a blue-chested fartwallop?” “No, I think it’s the pepper-speckled hasselhoffer.”

I tried hard to be good at spotting, I really did, but unfortunately I just couldn’t contribute much to the game.

“Oh, oh! I’ve found an elephant,” I’d shout with pride.

“That’s a tree,” my in-laws would say in unison.

As you can see, spotting is a true measure of one’s patience, visual scanning techniques, and most importantly, the ability to tell the difference between a living, breathing animal and a stump of wood. Thankfully though, every once in a while, you get tipped off on where to look for animals. The rule of thumb is that if you’re driving around and spot a parked jeep filled with people, chances are, these folks have stopped because they’ve found something good. Or a lion has eaten their tires. Either way, it’s a National Geographic moment.

And that’s what happened to us. My mother-in-law (again, an expert spotter) saw a jeep in the distance and sprung into action. “Drive over there! Fast!” she yelled with the trademark enthusiasm of a Fear Nothinger. “I bet it’s something good!”

“I hope it’s dangerous!” my father-in-law yelled back, licking his lips in anticipation.

We sped ahead, racing through the grass at record speeds with almost-but-not-quite as much concern for safety as a city cab driver. When we got closer, we noticed there was something beside the parked jeep: another jeep. And there was another jeep beside it. And another. Turned out there were eleven jeeps in total, all filled with people, arranged side by side in a semi-circle. Whatever these people were looking at, it HAD to be good.

We pulled up alongside the other jeeps and I couldn’t believe what I saw: a pride of five lions gorging on the carcass of a buffalo. Right there. Less than 30 feet from us. It was surreal to observe these awesome creatures in their natural habitat. We watched for several minutes, staring in awe as the lions devoured the buffalo. The scene was so amazing that I (momentarily) ignored my Fear Everything instincts and instead, reveled in the excitement of the moment. And that’s when I noticed all the other jeeps had turned off their engines while ours was still roaring away—a definite safari no-no. And I wasn’t the only one who noticed this glaring violation of safari etiquette. At that moment, mama lion looked up from her feast and let out a mighty roar. Directed right at us.

Now when placed in a situation like this, there’s two clear choices one can make: stay or leave. Actually, there’s a third choice, but “wet your pants” would require way too much coordination under this kind of pressure. Clearly, a Fear Everythinger, valuing their limbs over a good photo op, would choose to leave, which leads you to assume that a Fear Nothinger would stay, right? Right? Not my in-laws. No; THEY decided on a fourth option: to drive closer to the lions.

Hold up. For dramatic purposes, that needs to be repeated.

There was (Percussionist begins banging on drum) a pride of five lions (drumming gets louder and faster) feasting on a buffalo right in front of us (drumming is super fast and crazy loud) and WE DROVE CLOSER!!! (Big finale: drums, cymbals, horror movie scream, chicken squawking, et al.)

It turned out that driving closer was a very, very, very bad move. All five of the lions stopped eating to stare at the insolent fools who had the audacity to interrupt their buffalo banquet. Hell, even the other people, all of whom were professional Fear Nothingers (you could tell because their pants were completely dry), were shocked at this display of stupidi…er bravery.

So there we were. And there were the lions. With less than ten feet between us. Course my in-laws were in Fear Nothing heaven, enjoying every second of this. Meanwhile in the backseat, I was enjoying it as well, much in the way I enjoy getting a tooth pulled.

“Turn off the engine so we can hear them chewing,” my mother-in-law suggested.

“Wow, look at the size of those teeth!” my father-in-law said as he turned off the car. “Betcha those babies could tear right through human bone!”

“Can we get any closer?” asked a familiar voice. Noooo, it couldn’t be! Surely it wasn’t! I looked in the direction of the voice and saw…my wife! What?!? Did my wife Julie, a tried and true Fear Everythinger, seriously just ask if we could drive closer to the lions? This coming from a woman who slipcovers public toilets with four rolls of Charmin before sitting down? What was going on here?!?

I thought I knew my wife pretty well. But the gentle woman I married was suddenly several continents away from the wild-eyed adventurer sitting beside me. Julie had gone from a Fear Everythinger to a Fear Nothinger in less time than it takes me to clean the lint from my belly button. I was shocked. Especially when she climbed into the front seat of the jeep, joining her parents for the traditional Fear Nothinger snack (beef jerky) and a classic Fear Nothinger discussion that involved questions like “Do you’d think the papa lion would mind if we pet his mane?” and “How long do you think it’d take one of these bad boys to digest a human body?”

I was feeling lightheaded, which probably had as much to do with the stench of Slim Jims filling the air as it did with my shock of Julie going over to the ‘dark side.’ Meanwhile, the lions had yet to return to their feast. Something about our presence (maybe it was the smell of fear from the backseat) had fascinated them and they were too distracted to eat. SO distracted, in fact, that they abandoned the carcass lying in front of them and starting walking towards us.

“Hey look,” my father-in-law said as he turned off the car. “That one’s licking its lips!”

All five lions were now directly in front of the jeep, staring at us through the windshield and drooling. After taking a moment to survey the situation, I knew we were in trouble, and not just because the mama lion was tying a napkin around her neck and setting out the good china. We were in trouble because the jeep was parked, the cameras were out, and the lion-human staring contest was entering the second quarter. Clearly, my wife and in-laws had no intentions of leaving anytime soon.

“What do you suppose the big one’s thinking?” my mother-in-law called to me in the backseat.

“Mmphmwmb,” I said. (Though I had lost the ability to produce intelligible speech, I was still quite capable of whimpering.)

I didn’t know how much more of this I could take and yet, my in-laws and wife were only getting started. I knew it would take some amazing, miraculous act of a higher power to persuade my father-in-law to drive away.

“I gotta pee,” my father-in-law announced. “Let’s get out of here.”

And with that, my father-in-law went to start the jeep. But nothing happened. He tried again. Nothing. The battery was “dead” as in “gone” as in “finished” as in “holy crap, we’re gonna be lion kibble!” Now you won’t believe what happened next, mainly because it’s pretty unbelievable, but ‘believability’ never stopped Jerry Springer from reporting a story, and it won’t stop me! Besides, I promised myself that if we ever made it out of this situation with all limbs intact, I’d write about it. So here goes.

It was at that moment, that exact moment, that the lions, all five lions, began, get ready, to circle the jeep!

(Percussionist throws his drumsticks in the air, screams like a eight-year-old girl, and runs away.)

Let’s recap: we’re stuck in Masai Mara with a dead car battery and a pride of five lions circling our car. It was anyone’s guess as to what would happen next. Would my father-in-law continue to laugh in the face of danger? Would my mother-in-law, expert spotter, notice the two vultures flying in circles above our jeep? Would Julie ever return to being the person I married (“There’s a bug 400 feet away! Kill it! Kill it!”)? Would I ever resume a normal breathing pattern?

All jokes aside, this was very bad. C’mon, LIONS CIRCLING THE JEEP?!? Surely, THIS would be grounds for a Fear Nothinger to cry out “Principles Schminciples!” and start Fearing! Think again. Amazingly, my father-in-law remained calm and tried to reassure us (“I’ve got it all under control”) while my mother-in-law attempted to get our minds off the situation with some light conversation (“Look in that tree! Is that a black-billed sniffle sniveler?”). Even Julie kept her cool and showed a familiar softer side (“I think we could cut back on the Charmin”).

Amazing. Here’s a situation that would send Crocodile Dundee back to his trailer for a Scotch and Dasani and yet my insanely brave family members continued to fear nothing. I was impressed. And I wasn’t the only one. The lions also seemed impressed, or just bored, because they walked away from the jeep and returned to their buffalo buffet. And then, another miracle happened: my father-in-law turned the key and the jeep came back to life.

“Now wasn’t that fun,” my father-in-law asked as we drove away from the lions and back to the lodge.

I’m happy to report that was the last lion encounter we had in Kenya. In fact, the wildlife we saw thereafter was an assortment of giraffe, monkeys, zebras and other animals that, while exotic and beautiful, don’t send your pulse shooting to triple digits. No question about it, these animals were much more my speed. Like Rob the Cow, for example, which brings me back to the matter of how one goes about getting a cow named after them.

Truth is, it’s all who you know. The villagers in Sauri are extremely grateful to my in-laws for the countless resources (food, electricity, Coca-Cola) they’ve introduced to the village. And rather than giving a Hallmark card, the villagers show their appreciation by naming animals after you and your loved ones. So, long story short, the villagers named the cow “Rob” out of gratitude to my in-laws for their hard work, assistance, and for passing on valuable knowledge about soil science. Plus, they know better than to tick off the guy who caught a shark with his bare hands.

SACRAMENTO, CA –

Anyone who has a younger sibling knows what it feels like to be loved unconditionally. If you have enough siblings, you may even know what it’s like to be loathed unconditionally. Me, I’m lucky to have two younger sisters who would have done just about anything I asked them to do when we were younger. It might be said that I made them into my own personal slaves. Kati was about 16 years younger than me, so her tenure was short-lived and she didn’t get into nearly as much trouble as my sister Jess.

I would get Jessica to break into my mom’s secret stash of M&M’s. Or I’d have her steal my sister Melissa’s favorite doll so we could torture it. We’d also dress up my brothers as girls and take photos of them. Or we’d convince the youngest child of the moment to eat bugs, or dirt, or rotten grapes. And if we ever got caught, or if someone tattled on us, Jess would always take the blame. She never once told my mom that I made her do it. Of course, she was (and still is) adorable, so my mom was never too mean to her. Sometimes she’d get her hair pulled or be forced to apologize or sit in time out. But as soon as her punishment was meted out, she’d be back in my room hoping to play barbies (which I was always able to talk her out of because I didn’t ever want to take my barbies out of their boxes).

In my family we all had what I guess you’d call a “soul sibling.” Jess was mine. Even though we were six years apart with two other girls between us we were paired together from the time she was born. When she was a baby, I’d hold her whenever my mom would let me, and as she grew she became attached to me. She would beg my mother to dress us in matching clothes and we’d talk incessantly about how we should have been born twins.

Jess and I also shared a room, and a bed, for as long as either of us can remember. Even when I finally got my own room at age 12 Jess would sneak down in the middle of the night to sleep in my bed with me. I was afraid of the dark and of killers hiding under my bed, so I appreciated the company.

I managed to get over my fear of the dark and I bought a bed under which nobody could fit, but I’ve never been able to get used to being in bed by myself. In fact, I’ve never been able to get used to being alone at all. Since the time I moved out of my parents’ home, I’ve had one boyfriend or another to keep me company. When they weren’t around, I’d turn on the TV and the stereo at the same time to fill up the silence and loneliness threatening to envelope me. Then, two weeks ago, the other half of my bed was vacated, with nobody new waiting to fill the void.

And so it is that, at age 28, I’m learning how to be alone with myself for the first time.