Tuesday, January 13, 2015

How Sarah Koenig is helping me stay fit just by telling stories

As some of my readers already know, I seized upon the idea of becoming a writer based on an experience I had when I was given the assignment to write a short story. Upon its completion, that story was read aloud to an audience, and when that audience responded with unsolicited positive feedback ("I liked your story!"), I determined I would spend my life writing stories. My decision was helped along, I will confess, by my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Walton, who had given the writing assignment and who had read my story to my classmates. Still, the experience was profound and life changing. I mean, here I am, fifty years later, still writing and publishing stories of one sort or another.

What I gained from that event was the experience of having an audience become so wrapped up in a story (in this case, a story about a boy who builds a robot) that they are utterly swept away by it. Ok, it may be a stretch to characterize a passel of nine-year-olds as being "swept away" by anything other than a cupcake party or the last day of school, but they truly were attentive. They laughed in all the right places and were surprised by the plot twists. Mind you, I was nine. The adulation afterward at recess ("Your story was good!") went straight to my head.

Because of that event (and because I am an avid reader of fiction... and a lit major), I have known all my life that a story well told can be powerful indeed. And it is this very power that has been unleashed with the production of "Serial," a new podcast produced by radio station WBEZ in Chicago (which also produces This American Life, a popular weekly radio show on NPR). This is how the podcast is described on its website, www.serialpodcast.org:

Serial is a podcast from the creators of This American Life, and is hosted by Sarah Koenig. Serial tells one story—a true story—over the course of an entire season. Each season, we'll follow a plot and characters wherever they take us. And we won't know what happens at the end until we get there, not long before you get there with us. Each week we bring you the next chapter in the story....

The first season of Serial (which I had greatly anticipated, having been a fan of This American Life for many years) involves a murder that was committed fifteen years ago; a teenage girl was allegedly killed by her former boyfriend. He is now serving time in prison for that crime. But aspects of the prosecution's assertions do not ring true to Koenig as she embarks upon her own exhaustive discovery of the facts surrounding the case, and so with each episode of Season One, we are made privy to the investigation step by step. Knowing that this is not fiction, that a young man's fate hangs in the balance as Koenig attempts to determine if he has been unjustly accused makes this story all the more compelling.

I've been listening to each episode on my iPod as I ride my bike to work. I heard the first episode Monday and honestly, I don't even remember the ride in, I was so riveted by the story. It's only a couple of miles from my house to the campus where I teach, but it's uphill every bit of the way. Having "Serial" to keep my mind off pushing those pedals has been a godsend.

As a reader, I'm a big fan of radio stories, as they challenge us to construct images from words and also to learn to listen attentively. Koenig's friendly, down-to-earth narration coupled with her pointed but never demanding interview skills contribute greatly to the success of this podcast as a whole. I hope it continues with a strong Season Two. I haven't even finished Season One yet, but I'm already looking forward to the next story.

If you're interested in listening to the podcast, you can download it for free from iTunes, or simply go to the website, www.serialpodcast.org (or click on my link) and listen on your computer.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

If only tears were words

Ever since I was a child and understood the nature of war and conflict, it has been appalling to me that humans would kill each other over ideas. The fact that a man would do violence to another man not to defend himself or others against harm, but because of a thought (God is green/the earth is square/whatever) that the other man might hold in his head just seems incredibly senseless and barbaric.

As a teacher of Journalism, I participate in conversations every day regarding what we should or should not include in our newspaper. [I want my young students to weigh the impact of every story, every idea, every sentence and yes, every word or image we present and that they realize their own responsibility in that impact. But never, ever in any of our conversations have we ever had to consider that we were in danger of being gunned down because of what we might choose to print.

It is my fervent hope that every journalist around the globe tonight will write something--anything--in response to the shootings at Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Consider our words a universal embrace of those who were closest to this tragedy... and a raised fist to those who perpetrated the pointless attack. The pen is mightier than any weapon. Let the resounding thrum of fingers battering keyboards by the thousands be heard in heaven tonight.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Remembering Mark Strand

Pulitzer Prize winning poet laureate Mark Strand died yesterday.

When I was a deeply depressed graduate student, I composed a pastiche of Strand's poem, "Courtship." I did not do so because I was a fan of Strand's esoteric work. I dashed it off while meeting with some fellow students. We were supposed to assemble a presentation of "a Twentieth Century poet." In the midst of a bitter, anyone-can-write-like-this-guy moment, I switched the point of view in the poem from male to female and celebrated both the difference and the opposition. A year or so after graduation, I was going through my poems one day and found it. On a whim, I tracked down where Strand was teaching (Utah, of all places) and sent him a copy.

Some weeks later, I received a handwritten reply which begins "Dear S. Kay Murphy! You have written an absolutely stunning pastiche." I was at once delighted and humbled. His letter went on to ask about my plans for the future and whether I would eventually pursue poetry writing or teaching. Classy. With all his accolades, he took the time to respond to a quirky stranger.

And he did so again when I wrote to him a second time, asking permission to pursue publication of the pastiche along with his original (since he seemed to enjoy mine so much). His reply, again handwritten, began "Thanks for writing back. Of course you have my permission...." What a sweetheart.

I had addressed him in the letters as "Dr. Strand," assuming that he'd earned (or been given) the PhD long ago. At the end of his second letter, he closed with this: "Dept. of Clarification: I'm not a doctor. No PhD. Wouldn't think of having one." Somehow, it made me like him all the more.

Strand lived to be 80. He was named the United States poet laureate in 1990, and in 1999 he won the Pulitzer for his poetry collection, Blizzard of One.  Our hope, as writers, is that our work will continue to live on after us, offering us a type of immortality. I have no doubt that Strand's work will continue to be included in anthologies for years to come. Somewhere out there is a young grad student in a 20th C poetry class struggling to make sense of the moderns, the confessionals, et al. May she land upon a poem of Strand's that hits her right between the intellectual eyes.

Note: "Courtship," by Mark Strand, can be found easily with an internet search.  "Courtship: A Pastiche," by S. Kay Murphy, cannot, as mine (thankfully) never made it into print.

My sincerest condolences to Strand's son and daughter, Thomas and Jessica. Your dad was a pretty cool guy.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

About my failure to be gracious at the post office

One of my ex-husbands—the sweet, forgiving one—used to tell people (in my defense, mind you) that I had been "raised by wolves." He offered this as an explanation whenever I committed a social faux pas of some kind. He understood that I never intended to be rude, but there were certain lessons in grace and good manners I hadn't learned as a child or young adult, partly because I had to raise myself and partly due to my introversion. Social interaction has always made me feel uncomfortable and inadequate, and these feelings are reinforced every time I fail at responding correctly in social situations.

Friday at the post office was a great example.  After work, I rushed home to pick up my granddaughter's birthday present which needed to be shipped that day in order to get to her before her birthday. That same day, I had received an email from a school in Missouri ordering twenty copies of Tainted Legacy. Since I had to get to the post office anyway, I decided to ship the books as well.

Which is why I ended up staggering into the post office carrying one package containing twenty paperback books and another on top of it containing a Hello Kitty backpack ("Hello Kitty sleeping bag inside!!"). My biceps were fatigued by the time I had negotiated the parking lot and two doors to get to the line, and as I stepped up to what I thought was the end, a petite older woman looked at me and said, "Español?" I didn't hear her the first time, so I leaned closer, said, "Pardon?" and she repeated her question: "Español?" Finally I understood.

"No, I'm sorry," I said, stepping around her and into a line of six people. The sixth person in line was an older man wearing wool slacks and a sweater—on a ninety degree day. He had watched our exchange, and he stepped slightly to the side and faced the others in line.

"Does anyone here speak Spanish?" he asked the group. A voluptuous woman in a tight-fitting dress and sexy shoes stepped out of line.

"I do!" she proclaimed, and the man motioned her over to the woman who needed help. The two women chatted away in Spanish, the older woman asking frequent questions while the sexy woman answered quickly and, seemingly, authoritatively.

The gentleman had saved the day by simply speaking up for the woman who didn't speak English. Why didn't I do that? Why did it not even occur to me?
            And as Sir Galahad was stepping back into his place in line, holding a single envelope in his hand, he noticed my burden of boxes. He stepped to the side again and made a sweeping gesture with the envelope hand.

"You can go ahead of me," he said.

But I declined. "That's okay," I told him, "they aren't that heavy." The truth is, they were heavy, and my arms were already aching, and I still had five people ahead of me. So why couldn't I just graciously accept his offer and allow myself to be the other damsel who gets rescued? I don't know. I just don't know. Part of it is believing on some level that I don't deserve such kind treatment from strangers. Part of it is that accepting help of that nature undermines my badass tomboy persona.

The bottom line, though, is that these were missed opportunities. I could have been the one to find help for the non-English speaker, and I could have accepted the man's kind offer to cut ahead of him in line. In either case, I would have had to be a bit more mindful of the others around me instead of being, as usual, completely absorbed in what I was doing.

This is, I think, the key to being gracious. It's about being mindful always of the others around you, whether they are known to you or whether they are strangers. It's about seeing them and what they need, which requires focusing outward instead of inward. Be patient with me; I'm still learning.

Saturday, November 1, 2014


It wasn't cancer this time. This time, I didn't see the look of panic-held-in-check concern on my doctor's face. I did not feel the stomach flop because the word "malignant" wasn't spoken. Nor did I have that dizzy whirlwind of a moment when I demand of myself the answers to a thousand questions, the first of which is "Who will raise my children?"

This time, in a fifteen-minute consult with a dermatologist, I learned about Seborrheic Keratoses (and also about how most women don't talk about it as these are spots which come with aging, and they seem to cluster around women's breasts). Up until I heard the doc say, "Actually, what you're seeing is not even a mole, it's something even more benign..." I'd been taking shallow breaths but trying to remind myself to breathe deeply, walking tall but experiencing brief flashbacks to the cancer scare twenty years ago when I became paralyzed on the couch for days, waiting for surgery, then test results.

This time, I was free. Free to go home, no follow-up appointment to wait for, no hasty plans to spend the day as a surgical out-patient. Free to hand out candy to trick or treaters and smile at the pretty, pretty princesses and the awesome teenage mutant ninja turtles without having, behind my eyes, the specter of my mortality. This time I could rise the next morning and take my dog on a long walk without having to wonder who would take on this blessed activity (admittedly a chore to some folks) if I were no longer around to do it.

I usually don't talk about my brief but scary bout with skin cancer twenty years ago because, well, when I do, I feel more than a bit of survivor's guilt. The original misdiagnosis of malignant melanoma sent me into a tailspin from which I was still trying to recover when it was determined that, no, this cancer wasn't going to threaten my life; it would hardly even inconvenience me. Since then I have lost a brother to the real kind of cancer, the kind that knocks you down for a while until you fight your way back up, demanding to live life on your own terms, not those dictated by the disease. I have a friend now who has just finished his last round of last-ditch-effort chemo. He, like my brother, 'should have,' 'would have' died many years ago. But Jerry, like my brother, has not been willing to go. They humble me with their courage.

Dan is in my thoughts today on this eve of All Soul's Day, as are others I have lost. As for me, Death was nowhere to be seen outside my door last night. Only trick or treaters.

Sunday, October 26, 2014


I want to share the events of Wednesday because I don't believe in coincidences. I know that when a certain flawless timing is clearly evident, it is not a random, coincidental occurrence, but rather a reassurance that the Universe is watching over me. Or guardian angels or spirit guides or gods or goddesses or The Almighty, whatever makes you comfortable within the context of your particular faith. I do not promote mine over yours. But I am grateful for the daily guidance offered me by those who have passed over.

So here's what happened:
A week ago—through, again, a chain of events that could only have been orchestrated by powers greater than my own—I discovered a mole—well, actually three new moles, several inches apart, hiding underneath my left breast. I had to stop and think a moment about how long it has been, but oh my gosh, twenty years have come and gone since a chunk of my leg was removed because I was misdiagnosed with malignant melanoma. Turns out it was just squamous cell carcinoma. No big deal, easily treated (May I have some of my leg back, please?), and, within a few years, mostly forgotten. Life changing, though, of course. When your generally affable doctor sits next to you and takes your hand in his before saying, "We think it's melanoma," your life does indeed flash before your eyes. First you see the faces of your children. Then, if you're a writer, you think of all the plot lines you have yet to flesh out.

So when I found these little suckers, I immediately (well, as "immediately" as Kaiser would allow) made an appointment with my primary care physician. I knew that my doc would be as flummoxed as I was about whether these strange gray-ish marks were anything to worry about, but that she'd refer me to a dermatologist and we would go from there. Couldn't wait.

On Tuesday, I arranged a sub with my co-worker, the lovely and no-nonsense Lisa Brandt, whose job it is to find suitable teachers for my classroom. The week prior, however, when I'd been absent to attend the funeral of an old friend, things hadn't gone well in my classroom, so I decided I would leave the house at the usual time, head over to school, make sure the sub had everything she or he needed, then stop by Coco's for a cup of coffee before traveling on to the dreaded but necessary doc appointment.

In reality, here's what actually transpired: When I walked out at 7:00a.m. to go to work, Cloud's battery was dead. (Cloud being my 2003 Ford Ranger. I love her... but... she is getting up there in age.) I popped the hood, tapped on the battery terminals like we used to do with Mom's Oldsmobile (even though I could see that there was no corrosion), and when that remedy didn't work, I went back inside and called the auto club. While I waited, I called Lisa, who had my sub call me, whom I spoke with briefly to make sure everything was good, and just after that call Pedro showed up for the rescue.

"It's the battery or the alternator," he said. "Let it run for 45 minutes to give it a charge, but I would strongly recommend you have it looked at today so you aren't inconvenienced again." Good man. I obeyed, letting it run while I wrote out checks, then I drove around doing errands until it was time for my appointment, which went exactly as I'd expected. Thirty minutes later I was walking back out to the parking lot with an appointment slip in my hand: 3:15pm, Halloween Day. Can't wait.

Here's the cool part: I drove home, changed my clothes, threw the Trek in the back of the truck, drove to Big O (the one in Rancho Cucamonga on Archibald just north of Eighth, where Jim and John manage to keep my wheels rolling in the nicest fashion without ever ripping me off), dropped off the truck and rode home on the bike. As I hefted the bike in through the front door, my phone rang. Antonio at Big O was calling to let me know it was just the battery, they'd dropped in a new one, and Cloud was ready to come home. I took a long drink of water, rolled back out the door, and went to pick up my truck.

There were two things I wanted most to do on that stressful doctor day to re-focus, re-center myself. One was take a long bike ride (mission accomplished!), and the other was to take Sgt. Thomas Tibbs on a long walk. I did that as well.

See, if the battery had gone dead on a day I had to be at work, it would have caused all manner of inconvenience for me (because I'm never, ever late for work), for Lisa, who would have had to scramble around to find someone to sit with my first period class until I arrived, and for my students, who would probably have had to just sit with nothing to do as they waited for me to arrive. But... timing is everything. Thank you again, my guardian angels, my guides. Oh, you know who you are.  

Monday, September 1, 2014


Dan with Black Bart/photo courtesy of Carl Botefuhr

In 1966, my brother Dan stole a police car. He was nineteen at the time. He wasn't a thug or a criminal, and he wasn't fleeing a crime scene. When the officers parked at the curb of a residence where a party was getting a bit loud, my brother, a guest at that party, spotted them through the window and quickly retreated out the back door, high-tailing it over the back fence and walking around the block to see what would happen to his friends still inside the house. Dan had intended to stroll by nonchalantly, hands in pockets, but when he noticed that the cops had left the keys in their squad car and the engine running, he couldn't resist. Keeping his hands in his pockets (to avoid leaving fingerprints), he opened the door, slipped into the driver's seat, and drove away. Two blocks later he drove the car into a field, surrounded it with tumbleweeds, and walked away, keeping the keys. He was never caught.

This story was legend in our family and was often repeated on holidays such as Thanksgiving when we all got together. Years later I would share it with my high school students—with the strict admonition that they never, ever try anything so foolhardy.

When I mentioned to Dan once that I shared his story with my students, he chuckled and asked, "Do you also tell them about how I stole a big yellow school bus?" On a walk with his girlfriend and her young son one fine day, they happened upon a bus yard, where row upon row of bright yellow buses sat waiting for the next school day. The boy mentioned that he'd always wanted to ride in one. Since the large chain link gate to the yard was rolled pen, Dan saw no harm in taking the boy inside and climbing into the nearest bus (his girlfriend all the while repeating, "Dan, I don't think this is a good idea"). Lo and behold, Dan found a set of keys above the visor, and to the child's great wonder and thrill, fired up the big bus and drove it right out of the yard as a maintenance man ran along behind shouting at them to "Bring back that bus!" As Dan looped around the big city block and headed back toward the yard, he formulated a complicated plan for escape. "You run that way," he told his girlfriend, "and I'll run the opposite way. He can't follow in both directions." It worked. Again, he was never caught.

My zany, devil-may-care brother had countless adventures in his life. As an adolescent, he was a chubby, nerdy kid with glasses who spent far too much time lying on his bed, eating and reading science fiction novels. But in high school he had to walk two miles to school and two miles home, so he quickly lost the excess weight. Then contact lenses replaced his thick glasses, and suddenly my brother resembled James Dean. With his exceptionally high I.Q., he was smart, confident, attractive and far too ready and willing to embrace what kids would refer to now as the YOLO lifestyle: You only live once.

And what a life he lived. My brother taught me many things: Dogs are family members. Repressed anger can kill you (or at least make you very ill). Bullies are, more often than not, very frightened people, which is why they take pleasure in frightening others. And funerals are for those left behind.

We fought a lot when we were kids, then reconciled as young adults, then fought a lot in middle age (as I found myself still saying, "You're not the boss of me!"), then reconciled again. In Dan's last weeks of life, we spoke often on the phone. We said "I love you" a lot.

Today marks five years since he passed. I still tell him often that I love him, and I still miss him trying to tell me what to do.