Friday, May 28, 2010

NYU MFA application

Two years ago, I thought about graduate school. I applied to several top programs, including NYU's. I probably should have set my sights a little lower given my age (42at the time) and lack of publishing history. The best I got was a place on the wait list at NYU. But it was good exercise, making me polish several short stories and write five different personal essays. Here is part of one I wrote for NYU:

As a writer, I believe in negative space, in leaving room for the reader to meet me halfway. I want to write fiction that slithers in without announcing itself, but nests in the reader’s psyche for a long time. The importance of work and its relationship to identity is a favorite theme of mine. Specifically, I want to explore further the boundaries of work for my female characters. What are they willing to sacrifice for work? For principles? I also have a strong interest in exploring what home is (geography? family? work? history? landscape?) and how it relates to identity for my characters. All the different ways people can feel at home fascinate me. And why is it so important? These are the main issues engage my mind.
Work ended up a favored theme probably because I have held so many different jobs. Law is the career in which I invested the lion’s share of time, energy and money. In dissecting my failure at it, I finally realized that I had thought law was about finding the truth. But it isn’t. It is about hiding the truth. Fiction was the only place I had always confronted truth. I value my study of law, though, because it did train my mind to look everywhere for answers and at all sides of a problem. And failure is always a good learning experience.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A bit about Piper

Our dog Piper takes off at a full sprint and launches herself off the backyard berm when I throw it. She tucks all four legs tightly under her, stowing them for flight the way a plane retracts its wheels. Sailing into the ivy she wrangles the blue ball from the vines, shakes it a bit and trots back to me.

If due to my tiring arm, the ball bounces before the berm, Piper rears back onto two legs and corrals it with her chest, like a soccer player.

When she is tired, she will leave the zone of play and hide her ball in the forsythia and chew on the branches.

I never had a dog who chased balls. Maybe that is why I am so willing to indulge her. I’ve learned all sorts of different ways to throw the ball so as to not wear out my arm too quickly. I use my left hand, which had a high learning curve. A few throws ended up on the roof. Now Piper thinks the roof spits balls off at its whim.

My Aunt Hazel

My Aunt Hazel, my mom's older sister, died recently. I wasn't able to attend the funeral, so I sent this rememberance. I wanted to share it here because words are the only way people stay alive.
In 1982, when I was 16 and had just graduated from high school, Aunt Hazel generously offered to let me come and stay with her and Uncle Jim for a month in their San Diego home. Or maybe my mom just shipped me off to settle an old debt. I can’t be sure.
Anyway, we had wonderful adventures, and I absorbed some great lessons. She taught me how to pronounce La Jolla, how to eat Mexican food, and how to pick a man. She took me to Tijuana to see a Jai Lai game and to Reno to gamble. She tried to take me to Lake Tahoe, but the mountain road washed out right in front of us. A tree came down the mountain in a torrent of water and just ripped a massive chunk of asphalt from the road and continued down the rest of the mountain. I was terrified. But she just whipped her block-long Cadillac around in no time flat and reversed course. I think I learned a lot about handling adversity on that day.
I’m sure she took me to museums and the symphony and all that cultural stuff. But it’s the junk food, gambling and border crossing I remember. And California lunches – shrimp salad in an avocado half. Mmmmmm. And driving through the desert, getting sleepy from the heat. I don’t think there is another 30 day period in my life I remember with such crystal clarity.
But I should return to the “how to pick a man” advice. I had never dated before visiting California, so I needed some advice. Out of the blue, and unsolicited, as if she had a list she needed to check this bit of advice off of, she told me: “You do the choosing.” She wasn’t wordy with her advice. Thanks to that nugget, I never went out with a man I didn’t want, and I picked the husband I have today. I am so grateful.
She gave me confidence and love and she made me strong. A girl’s mother cannot do that alone. Some other grown woman, hopefully an aunt, needs to pitch in. Aunt Hazel did her niece-raising duty with no evidence of strain. In fact, she seemed to have fun too.
All this taught me how to treat my own nieces. Well, Aunt Shirley was a pretty good role model for that too, but I don’t think she’d mind sharing the credit. And I’ve seen my mom do it for her nieces. But Aunt Hazel did it for me when I was a teenager. That couldn’t have been easy. I have a wonderful relationship with two of my nieces – who of course come from Rob’s side of the family since I am an only child. Rob and I have provided a safe haven for each of them in turn when they needed it, and I love them fiercely just because I am their aunt, and I know my job. They are also wonderful people, but you shouldn’t have to be great people or even good people for family to love you.
I learned a lot from Aunt Hazel, and I will always be grateful to have had the time I did with her. As I grew up, I learned we had different opinions about a lot of things. That caused some friction when I was in my annoying twenties. But we got through it.
I tried to pay her back a little in 2001 when I was on a business trip to San Diego. We went to the Hotel del Coronado and had a spectacular meal. I think I still have a photo from then, but I don’t know where it is. I have it in my mind’s eye, though, and it is how I will remember a woman who was kind to me and taught me so much. Part of how I try and live my life is in tribute for what she did for me twenty-eight years ago.

Undone: A short story

I woke up all at once and in a panic. I couldn’t breathe. A split second later, the ventilator kicked in. The oxygen calmed me. I couldn’t breathe by myself, but a machine was doing it for me. It was not at quite the rhythm I wanted, but I quickly realized it was better than the alternative.
I couldn’t really see anything but light so bright it hurt my eyes. I felt like a creature of the night woken at noon and thrown out of her cave. I was out of my element and annoyed and scared. At least I knew where I was. I had been a doctor long enough to recognize the sounds and smells and feel of a hospital room. Slowly, my eyes adjusted; it became less painfully bright. I wondered how long I had been unconscious. I didn’t think I’d need the ventilator much longer since I was fighting it. That was a good sign. Nobody else was in the room. It was a double room, but the next bed was empty. Mine was near the window; that much I could see.
A nurse came in. Jenny. I knew Jenny. I worked with Jenny. She was good. She took my blood pressure and checked my IV, then noticed I was awake. That gave her a fright. I tried to smile with my eyes. The ventilator hid my mouth and kept me from talking. She looked scared, then tried to smile back. She held up a finger as if asking me to wait a minute. Sure I could wait, I thought. Where am I going like this?
While Jenny was gone, I tried to test myself. I went through the checklist. I knew my name, I knew who the president was, I knew I had a husband and a child and a dog and a cat and a vacation house on the Vineyard. We should be going there next week, I remembered. Okay, I passed. Brain is fine, thank god.
So why the ventilator, I thought. Why the fear in Jenny’s eyes? I am clearly okay. I did some math in my head and recited the opening lines of Ulysses for good measure. Yes, totally fine. I tried to make the machine breathe a sigh of relief for me, but it kept its emotionless, metronomic pace.
Jenny came back with Frank, a colleague of mine. I was glad to see him. I tried to wave but couldn’t. Too many blankets and tubes to disentangle from. It was cold in here.
Jenny stood a few feet away as Frank picked up my chart. “It’s good to see you awake Kate. Do you know how long you’ve been here?”
I shook my head no.
“Three weeks and a day. You had a very bad accident. Do you remember what happened?”
That long? Jesus Christ, I missed our vacation. Did Mark get Cameron ready for first grade? My patients! I had surgeries scheduled…. What did happen? Frank tried to calm me.
“Everything is okay. It makes sense that your memory would be damaged. Mark just left with Cameron, and we had a good chat. Work is getting along fine without you, although everyone misses you. It’s all taken care of. All you have to do is recover, and you’ve come a long way.”
That implies I have a long way to go. But I feel fine, I thought.
“You had a spinal injury.”
Words kept coming out of Franks’ mouth, but I couldn’t hear over the roar in my ears. How could I have not noticed my legs were gone as soon as I woke up? How? Oh god, oh god, oh god. I can’t live like this. I can’t. I started thrashing. I wanted to get away from the news.
“Jenny, could you get a sedative. I think this is going to be hard for Kate to handle.”
As Jenny left, I saw Mark wheeling himself down the hall with Cameron on his lap. No, I’m the strong one, I wailed in the cavern of my head. I closed my eyes.