A poet to keep an eye on

December 29th, 2009

Joe Wilkins is fast becoming a favorite poet of mine. His prose ain’t bad, either.

PSA for Switzerland-based writers

December 28th, 2009

It can be lonely, being an expat writer: writing in English in a non-English speaking country, looking for workshops or mentors, a community of writers, in a place that doesn’t share your mother tongue. The internet helps – oh, the internet helps a great deal – but there’s nothing like a little face-time with fellow writers. 

If you’re in the Geneva area – define “area” as you wish – you might want to look into the upcoming Geneva Writers’ Conference.

“A train is a dragon…”

December 17th, 2009

As I am standing on the platform waiting for my train to take me to the city for my appointment with hematology, a freight train speeds through the station on the opposite track. The snow, light and dry as soap flakes, swirls in eddies, rises and falls, dances back from the tracks. The cold air pushed forward by the train hits me, I lift my face from the article I am reading, close my eyes as the wind surrounds me and flutters the pages of my magazine, breathe. I taste iron, and dust, and winter. I feel the wheels clattering under my feet, rumbling deep in my chest. I think of a snippet of a poem on one of the Small Boy’s “educational DVDs”:

“A Modern Dragon,”
By Rowena Bastin Bennett
A train is a dragon that roars through the dark
He wriggles his tail as he sends up a spark.
He pierces the night with his one yellow eye,
And all the earth trembles when he rushes by.

Metaphors are important to me; it’s what I do. Words, however inadequate, and I do think they are inadequate to the task most of the time, are the only way to cross the rivers between us. Metaphors and similes, images and comparisons, get us closer to the heart of things; but only closer, never there. Maybe it is a fundamental lack of faith in my own talent, but how can I ever bring you onto the platform next to me, with the train rushing by, the sound changing as a container car gives way to an empty flatbed, the dancing snow, the wind in my face, the iron in my mouth, the abandoned page fluttering in my hand? What metaphor for this moment, gone now with the train? Always down the track, not halting at this station.

I still would

December 14th, 2009

Yesterday R’s parents took the boys so that R and I could have a few hours together in the city. A nice lunch, some holiday shopping, a cafe latte and our respective books. It has always been one of our favorite things to do, just to sit near each other and read, looking up now and then or nudging each other with our toes. We don’t get to do it much anymore. Yesterday afternoon we did, and over the top of my book I stole a glance at him sitting across from me in his black sweater and new jeans and thought, “Yeah, I’d still hit on him in a bar.”

Is there a Dr. House in the house?

December 11th, 2009

I recently received the letter with the results from my blood work, and – though I’m no doctor – I have to say it was less than edifying. It was so far from edifying, in fact, that even the hematologists found it unedifying and have decided that I need to do the whole thing again. On the one hand, the fact that they have found essentially nothing is reassuring – the more obvious culprits like Factor V Leiden and certain mutations have been ruled out. On the other hand, having no firm explanation for something that could have killed me is less than reassuring. 

There were two finding that bordered on being useful and I’m assuming their border-line nature is the reason they want to run the whole battery of tests again. There were some indications of a possible Protein S deficiency (which affects less than one percent of people in the United States*, so it kind of figures that that would turn up since it seems beyond unlikely that somebody with Factor VII would end up with emboli in the first place.) Apparently I might also have a Vitamin K deficiency, which can lead to the Protein S deficiency. However, a Vitamin K deficiency can also inhibit blood clotting – and the fact that those two things coexisting makes absolutely no sense to me at all is why I am not a hematologist. Furthermore, nobody can explain how I came to have not just a thrombosis but a full-blown embolism (more than one, in fact) in spite of having an underlying condition that inhibits blood clotting. One would think that it would have been almost impossible for me to end up with emboli, but apparently I am some sort of medical oddity and it’s time to call in Dr. House.

I also seem to be developing an allergic reaction to my anti-coagulant, which is a heparin solution that I inject daily. Under ordinary circumstances drug therapy in the aftermath of an embolism, or prophylactic treatment in the case of a diagnosed clotting disorder, is quite simple: there’s an oral anti-coagulant. Under certain circumstances (pregnancy, for example) people can’t take the oral medication and have to inject. Other conditions for which the pill form are contra-indicated include Factor VII, so I’ve been injecting my anti-coagulants since August 3. Which on its own has been no fun, but to make it worse I suspected I was having some sort of reaction to the Fraxiforte quite some time ago, what with the swelling and the welts and the kind of itching that would send a horse running off a cliff in crazed agony. The blood test confirmed this with some anti-body level (that’s about as specific as it gets, I’m afraid) that should hover at around 4% (of what, I do not know) charting in at about 35%. So yeah, I’ve developed an allergic reaction to my anti-coagulant.

All of this leaves me sort of nowhere. I’ve been given a prescription for several massive doses of Vitamin K to take before the next round of blood tests. I’ve been switched over to a different anti-coagulant – the one other one I seem to be able to use – until the next round of blood tests. I’m to keep going on as I’ve been going on until the next round of blood tests. And we’ll see if they show anything.

And then I’ll call in Dr. House.

* For purposes of putting me in a medical chart, the fact that I was born in the US to parents who were also born in the US and then spent the first thirty years of my life in the States over-rides my Swiss residency.

This, tonight

December 9th, 2009

Walking across the drive from my mother-in-law’s house, I hear my brother-in-law’s white horse nickering for his chestnut companion who has been taken out for a ride by J. I can smell wood smoke, and the pine trees in the woods next to our house, and snow whispering to us from the Eiger on the horizon line. The lights on our house have just gone on and the sun is setting behind the birch tree. I am walking home to fry eggplant for dinner, to put into a tomato sauce with garlic and olive oil and fresh parsley; I am here on the gravel drive between the two houses my sons call home. It is a good place to be.

What’s the difference between a bowl and a kidney dish?

December 7th, 2009

I once wrote a story in which one of my main characters, a 13-year-old girl, wakes in her hospital room after surgery to discover that she has broken her femur so violently in so many places that metal plates and screws have been inserted into the bone to help it knit together. On hearing this news, she begins to gag – she is about to throw up. My second main character, a 28-year-old doctor with a backstory, searches around for “a bowl” for her to throw up in. (He does not find one, and cups his hands for her to throw up into; the gesture is meant to reveal his character.)

I’m currently reading Water for Elephants, and I read this line last night: “I turn as vomit explodes from my mouth. Someone is there with a kidney dish, but I overshoot…” Do you see how precise that is – kidney dish? The reader instantly pictures the curved stainless steel dish used in a hospital. The reader has a solid image in her head. A bowl? What is that? Tupperware? Glass? Something from the cafeteria? That – that precision, that detail and care, that research to get it right, that sharpening of every word – that is the difference between stories that stay inside the computer and stories that make their way in the world.

What’s the difference between a bowl and a kidney dish? All the difference in the world.

Late bloomer

December 3rd, 2009

Late in life – she will turn fifteen next summer – our cat has turned into a mouser. Two days running now, I have stumbled upon dead mice. I found the first by accident, in the laundry room. It was lying on a towel on the floor that Miss Cat appropriated quite some time ago as a soft place to curl up and hide from the boys, and I glimpsed it out of the corner of my eye. The laundry room is downstairs, next to the boiler room, and I’m sure the mouse came from the boiler room; we do all of our living on the ground floor, so a mouse or two in the boiler room doesn’t bother me much. It’s a farm; it’s inevitable.

This morning there was a dead mouse lying next to my bed when I woke up. It makes sense now, the way the cat jumped onto our bed in the middle of the night, pranced a little circle around me, and jumped down to the floor again with a soft cat thump. Then back to the bed, a circle, a thump. It is what she does when we accidently shut the bedroom door with her in the room, but the door was open, and it was four o’clock in the morning and I was annoyed and I pushed her – hard – off the bed. Then this morning, the mouse. Ah, yes. She had wanted  to show it to me, in the middle of the night. (Please, let’s all assume that the mouse was not in her mouth when she jumped up on the bed. Nevertheless, the sheets, they are being washed.) I’ve just finished reading The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig, and allow me to steal an expression from his character Rose: I take exception to mice – live or otherwise – in the bedroom.

Miss Cat has lived nearly all of her life in urban apartments. Now, in her old age, the farm is speaking to her instincts. Good for her. Just not in the bedroom.