Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Last Essay I Ever Wrote For Applications

When you go do it like this, they know you're spent. 13 down, no more to go, sorry Columbia, for this:

Dear Columbia University

When I started my critical paper for entrance to your program, I began to cheat. I had in my possession a gently-worn copy of The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel. It’s edged in red and white, and still bears the purchase sticker from where I bought it (Borders on the Upper West Side, a steal at fifteen dollars plus tax). I adore it. But more, it was published in the past ten years, and in my genre—fiction! I told this to myself as I happily re-read on the lurching subway, fingering the pages, trying to be stoic when I felt the pangs her sentences invoked. I formulated grand plans. And then I re-read your clearly printed instructions on what we were to write.

Alas, the stories in the first three quarters of the book were not published in the last ten years, never mind written then, and so they could not count. What she wrote which I thought most spoke to me was what she wrote when she was my age, and I had a response to it all right. How she changed, and how she changed me. What it all meant. It would have made a great critical essay, in my mind.

But it’s The Dog of The Marriage that qualifies, and it is that which is pertinent to this essay, and now I realize, most pertinent to me. How to begin? With the depiction of rapes, the fear every day at being a woman, with the long shores of shuttered lake houses? With the seasons that followed, the dogs that arrived, with the husbands that left? There is endless departure, departures without permission, pervasive in her stories. Each loss flows lyrically into the next, as if each were a chapter in a well-crafted novel. A novel of loss—of love, life, youth, beauty, summer. There is sexual violence, both terrifying and thrilling. The narrator—whoever she is, Hempel, a collection of facets, her friends and my imagination—speaks the same language no matter where she arrives.

She is surrounded by people, by animals, by machines, and she is alone, with a trowel, in a man’s shirt. She is alone even in the arms of her lover as she invents a lifetime of sexual fantasies for a man who will not love in “Offertory.” She is alone as she watches the revolving door of suitors in her widowed father’s life, and when she and he argue, without words, on what time means in “The Afterlife.” She is alone as she dips the pregnancy wick into the crystal scotch glass as she recalls her favorite film and confuses who is the ghost in the movie and in her own life in “The Uninvited.” Sometimes she is irate when alone, as she is when penning the parking ticket rebuttal in “Reference #388475848-5.” Sometimes she is quiet when alone, when she remembers her mother’s death and looks upon her x-ray in the doctor’s office in “What Are The White Things?” She is on the wrong side of fifty at each moment alone. There are pets that nuzzle and boxed turtles that die on nets spread over strawberries, there are men who float in and those who she will not love. She is a competent driver, and she drives into and out of every situation, not a single one unfolds without her specific self-aware presence, and oftentimes, her actual car. She has the sensibility of a poet. There is a quiet suspension of disbelief here, those who are not the narrator speak in near-couplets (and she often turns a phrase on its head) and time is fluid—we never seem to start at the beginning. Often we’re at the end as in the title story, or in the middle in “Jesus is Waiting.” In “Memoir,” we begin nowhere, in void. And of course, that is precisely the point. Hempel may not have invented the mantra “every word counts,” but she is the gold standard in this collection. White space frightens some writers. Others must see the page the way a sculptor sees marble, and carve out from one block of it. If roughness, incompleteness remains, that is part of the whole. It’s tempting to point towards greater metaphor here, naturally, about life, but for respect for Hempel, and your time, I won’t try to make it. The Dog of The Marriage, however blunt, does not make me, the reader, scared of this inevitable time in a woman’s life. I sigh when reading it. Sometimes I want more than anything to be old and full of stories, which is a strange thing perhaps. Something that is rare, and that this work does.

As for how she does it, I understand that is the point of a proper critical essay. Also, not to use “I”. I was taught the critical essay should read, “The writer’s purpose is to do X through Y and accomplishes it using Z. Here are the number of ways in which it is done. Here is the symbolism. Here is God. Here is greed.” But, when speaking of Hempel, how can one do this in an ordinary way? In Rick Moody’s introduction he asserts, “Who gives a shit how long the book takes,” and now, here I am, cursing in my essay. It’s entirely wrong. But it is my response, my honest one. Hempel writes tightly—her characters are so compelling it’s as if the words aren’t even there, and yet, it’s all about the words, too. The sentences, as Moody says. She repeats, how she repeats so many things! And yet, it’s all over in a flash, a novel in stories, and it was short and it was all about longing. It was masterful, and it was heartbreaking. I had the idea that while writing this I’d somehow emulate her style. I’d write, critiquing Amy Hempel is like…and I would say something multi-layered and clever and just end there. Without the summation in words. But she does what I cannot. I don’t know how she does it. I realize that she does, and I see where and when. How to do it myself, I hope to learn in your program. So I’ll end my response with her words. The last in the collection, on the last page. “Unimprovable,” he says.

If only the same could be said for this essay.

Friday, December 18, 2009


Insanely hilariously good video re-posted by the good folks at You Ain't No Picasso.

To wit: 'I said it on twitter and I’ll say it here: if this had come out this year, I’d pick it for song of the year.

Boing Boing posted this video of a song written by an Italian composer in a gibberish language that is his imitation of what he thought English sounded like. It’s a great 70s funk track that incorporates killer riffs, great dance moves and manages to answer the old question “what does English sound like to foreigners?”'

Thursday, December 17, 2009

What I will prepare for Christmas Lunch

As I am lady this year (damnit!) I am cooking for the family and will be making a filet of beef (slice it up to get the mignon) with gorgonzola cream sauce. Roasted rosemary potato wedge fries and roasted cherry tomatoes. Thinking about the balsamic onions too. But the whole thing is so damn pricey!

Asking the boy to pick up a Venerio's cheesecake and Mom and Pop to bring the wine. What to serve as bar snacks as I'm preparing? Olives in orange juice? Spiced nuts? I made a pretty great trail mix for a company party last week consisting of white chocolate chips, cranberries, chopped walnuts, almonds and milk chocolate chips. It was a big hit, but we all ended up eating that instead of some amazing baked brie in pastry, homemade butternut squash lasagna, artichoke and olive pasta salad, some incredible rillettes, and all sorts of pate (which I will no longer eat after reading a few articles). Sadly, I might give up duck as well. I love their quacking too much.

Details on the other party I went to, at the gorgeous home of the nicest editor of the best food magazine still on the market (lush mac and cheese, sliced pork, cranberry mayo) to come. As well as how this endeavor, courtesy of Goddess Ina Garten to come...

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Grinchin' It

So it's cold, work goes late, you're skipping the gym, and every holiday party is designed to cram as much duckfat and sub-par Shiraz into your gullet as possible.

I'm trying to take this weekend, this freezing cold weekend, and make some hot chocolate and put some presents under the first tree I've ever had on my own! Okay, the boy brought it in, but it was me who reached my scrawny arms into the thick of the needles to wrap the lights as he looked onward with a dim realization that if he stood there long enough doing it shoddily I would do it myself, it was me who broke the borrowed ornaments and then stepped on shards of purple glass with my idiotic barefeet, me who turned the temperature up to 80 degrees despite how much I'll pay for the bill because in my parent's house you have to wear a coat at all times or risk death (my father, upon hearing even the rush of air from my brother turning the thermostat up from 60--yes SIXTY degrees at night--to 62 has roused him from his bed to chastise us) because I wanted to decorate the tree in a warm room, me who lopsidedly hung the beads and me who climbed on top of a chair nearly falling into the tree to top it with the star. Yes, I am an adult! Sort of.

And now the invites pour in. For this concert and this party and this literary event. All fabulous, and I am almost fabulous enough to deserve to be invited (so the invites state). But it is COLD. And there are too many! And I am a brat to complain of being invited. And I get a little egg nog in me and I start telling everyone they're not the boss of me. And then no one gets the joke.* And the fabulous invites don't come in April. There is no blow out bash, no spreading of cheer. That's when I want to be popular. April! Not now, not December, when my face is all red and my hair is all blown from the wind, when I've been ingesting nothing all day just to take three, count 'em, three miniburgers from The Standard at the last literary event I attended (a BBC documentary on the real Mad Men). And three glasses of champagne. That's how I roll these days. Adult, maybe. Tasteful, not on your life.

Friends, I will have holiday cheer as soon as I get rid of one or two of my jobs to pay for the holiday cheer I have to spread. As soon as I figure out how to make this interview I did on spec with this adorable musician who has no hook into a story, as soon as I turn down the heat in here to 60 and put on my coat to sit on my couch and look at my tree with no presents underneath. As soon as I complete four more applications. I have done nine. I have four more. I have cheer. It is coming.

I hope you are spreading some and can wrap yourselves in enough to go get some brunch, go to a museum, get thee to yoga, because that's what I want for Christmas, as soon as I can.

*To all the funny people out there, don't you hate it when other people don't think you're funny? You are! This is what I must cling to. Give me this lie and nothing else and I will be happy.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Kittens bring Joy, another application bites the dust

AH! I cannot get enough of this!

Also sent in UT-Austin today, that's 4 down, and maybe NYU will be done this week too (here's hoping) and San Fran State after...but if I get them all done by Monday, that will be a miracle, and the only way to keep on track...