A few years ago, Scathing Online Schoolmarm featured here a satire of a Christmas letter to friends (she seems to have lost it — she’s still looking for it). She thinks Gregg Easterbrook wrote it, but she’s not sure (she sent an email to him asking about it). The author found just the right combination of insufferably boasting tone and vulgar materialist content, and SOS went into some detail, in that post, praising and analyzing this little masterpiece…

Ah! Just heard back from Easterbrook! (His latest book is Sonic Boom.) Good man. It’s no longer at the New Republic (showed up in ’04), but Easterbrook found it for me in a pretty obscure place, and I’m very grateful to him. Here it is:

Dear Family and Friends,

What a lucky break that I’m in first-class on the plane back from Istanbul, because there’s room to take out the laptop and write our annual Christmas letter. My brand-new laptop receives wireless satellite Internet from anywhere in the world. While I was at the board of directors session during the Danube cruise, I pretended to be listening to the chairman but actually was using the laptop to watch Emily’s oboe recital on live streaming video from Chad’s digital minicam! So the world really is growing smaller. And if you haven’t gotten one of these new laptops, you should. Of course, now there’s a waiting list.

It’s been another utterly hectic year, and yet nurturing and horizon-expanding. It’s hard to know where the time goes. Well, a lot of it is spent in the car.

Already Rachel is in her senior year at Pinnacle-Upon-Hilltop Academy, and it seems like just yesterday she was being pushed around in the stroller by our British nanny. Rachel placed first this fall in the state operatic arias competition. Chad was skeptical when I proposed hiring a live-in voice tutor on leave from the Lyric Opera, but it sure paid off! Rachel’s girls’ volleyball team lost in the semifinals owing to totally unfair officiating, but as I have told her, she must learn to overcome incredible hardship in life. Now the Big Decision looms, and that is whether to take the early admission offer she has from Harvard or wait till she hears about Julliard. She is just a wreck about that; girls her age should not have to make such high-pressure choices! The whole back of her Mercedes SUV is full of advanced-dance brochures as she tries to decide.

Nicholas is his same old self, juggling the karate lessons–he doesn’t tell the other boys he is a Yodan fourth-degree black belt so he won’t frighten them–plus basketball, soccer, French horn, debate club, archeology field trips, poetry-writing classes, and his volunteer work. Yodan usually requires nine years of training after the Shodan belt, but prodigies can do it faster, especially if (not that I believe this!) they are reincarnated deities. Doing the clothing-advertising modeling for the Gap cuts into Nick’s schoolwork time, but how could I deprive others of the chance to see him? His summer with Outward Bound in the Andes was a big thrill, especially when all the expert guides became disoriented and he had to lead the party out. But you probably read about that in the newspapers.

What can I say regarding our Emily? She’s just been reclassified again, now as EVVSUG&T–“extremely very very super ultra gifted and talented.” The preschool has retained a fulltime special-needs teacher solely to keep her challenged: Educational institutions are not allowed to discriminate against the gifted anymore, not like when I was young. Yesterday Rachel sold her first still-life. It was shown on consignment at the leading gallery without, of course, the age of the artist disclosed. The buyers were thrilled when they learned!

Then there was the arrival of our purebred puppy, and the issue of what to name him. Because our family mission statement lists cultural diversity as a core value, we settled on Mandela.

Chad continues to prosper and blossom now that he has gone freelance. He works a few hours a day, spends the rest of the time with the children or restoring the house–the National Trust for Historic Preservation rules are quite strict–or supervising the maids. Whose Social Security taxes we pay, not that they ever say “gracias.” (I write “maids,” plural, because can you hold onto to one of these women more than a month? We can’t!) Corporate denial consulting turns out to be a perfect career niche for Chad. Fortune 500 companies are calling him all the time. There’s a lot to deny and Chad is good at it.

Me? Oh, I do this and that. I feel myself growing and flowering as a change agent. I yearn to empower the stakeholders. And this year I made senior partner, plus cashed out 825,000 stock options. I was sorry I had to let Carmen go on the same day I brought home the $14.6 million, but she had broken a Flora Danica platter and used the main house phone line for personal calls, something about a sick child! Chad and I got away for a week for a simple celebration of my promotion. We rented this charming, quaint five-star villa on the Corsican coast. Just to ourselves–we bought out all 40 rooms so it would be quiet and contemplative.

Our family looks to the New Year as a continued opportunity for rejuvenation and enrichment. Chad and I will be taking the children to Steamboat Springs over spring break, then in June I take the girls to Paris, Rome, and Seville while he accompanies Nicholas to another international tournament in Copenhagen. He swears he never looks at the blonds! Then the kids are off to their camps in Maine and before we know it we will be packing two cars to drive Rachel’s things to college. And of course I don’t count Davos or Sundance or all the routine excursions.

I hope your year has been as interesting as ours.

Love,

Jennifer, Chad, Rachel, Nicholas, Emily & Mandela (paw-print)

UD is so glad she and Mr UD passed up a trip to Sundance when we were in Utah this summer…

Anyway, why is UD revisiting this great piece of satire? Because a non-satirical, entirely sincere version of the form is now being passed around online, and a comparison of the real thing, written by the novelist Janette Turner Hospital, who’s on a visiting appointment at Columbia’s MFA program at the moment, with Easterbrook’s fake, is instructive.

Before she came to Columbia, Hospital taught at the University of South Carolina. In a letter to her former students there, Hospital admits she prefers Columbia.

Forwarded below are a couple of emails sent to all of our Columbia MFA students. It’s the kind of invitation students here receive-and take up-at least once or twice a week in a cornucopia of literary riches. It seems to me that USC writing students should also know about these opportunities, since you could car-pool up to NYC very cheaply and stay at youth hostels on Manhattan (within walking distance of Columbia U and Central Park) for just $30/night (shared room) with linen, towels, and breakfast provided. MFA students from other states take advantage of this and visit in groups. Why not USC?

As for news from this very different MFA planet, I’m in seventh heaven teaching here, and not only because I have Orhan Pamuk (whom I hope to bring to USC for Caught in the Creative Act), Oliver Sacks, Simon Schama, Richard Howard, Margo Jefferson, etc., etc., as colleagues, though that is obviously part of it.

My students also live and move and write in seventh heaven and in a fever of creative excitement. Columbia’s MFA is rigorous and competitive but students don’t just have publication as a goal – they take that for granted, since about half the graduating class has a book published or a publishing contract in hand by graduation – so they have their sights set on Pulitzers.

This program is huge, the largest in the country. It’s a 3-year degree, with 300 students enrolled at a given time. Each year, 100 are admitted (in fiction, poetry, nonfiction) with fiction by far the largest segment. But 600+ apply, so the 100 who get in are the cream of the cream.

Students take workshops and literature courses in equal measure. They are avid readers and intense participants in seminar discussion. And here is one of their toughest hurdles: they do not pick their own committee for the thesis. They do not even pick their own supervisor. These roles are assigned. They are not even informed who their committee members are until one week before the defense, when they receive the detailed written reports signed by their committee members. This is certainly a bit nerve-wracking for the student, but replicates exactly what happens in the publishing world where the coldly neutral eyes of agents and editors are assessing your manuscript. Columbia’s MFA feels this rigor has a lot to do with the high publication rate of students.

In my first week here, I was presented with two theses of students unknown to me and required to write detailed reports. I was given the names of other committee members, and it was up to us to make contact and arrange to meet to discuss the theses we’d been assigned. There are 30+ members on the MFA faculty, but the program also uses a number of well-known writers resident in NYC who are not faculty. I have found these meetings and discussions with NYC writers rather wonderful.

Sixty theses have been submitted for fall graduation (approx. 35 fiction; 15 poetry; 10 nonfiction). On average, each year from 5 – 10% of these will be failed, and the student will be advised to try again for spring graduation. If the thesis is failed, the student will not meet with the committee but will receive the detailed reports. In the two weeks from Oct 4 – Oct 15, all those who pass will meet with their committee for the “thesis conference.” Since pass or fail has already been decided, this is not a “defense” but a conference in which the committee discusses positive and problematic issues with the student and makes recommendations of what should be done before submission to a publisher.

This kind of rigor about the thesis (absolutely no easy rides here) has a lot to do with the high publication rate. But there are certainly other factors which contribute: students do internships at the New Yorker, Publishers’ Weekly, Paris Review, and at major publishing houses. They attend multiple readings by famous writers every week (not by any means all at Columbia, but at the NY Public Library, the 92nd St Y, at NYU, etc.

Also, the program hosts a reception for all graduating students with about 30 major editors and agents invited. At his reception, each agent or editor is presented with an anthology of the work of the graduating students, along with contact emails. No wonder the students are off to a flying start. Agents and editors hover like major-league recruiters at college championships.

But I think what thrills me most of all is the sheer intellectual intensity of the students. Although I have taught at a number of the most highly regarded MFA programs in this country and in England, there’s only one other place I’ve ever taught where there was a comparable atmosphere, and that was MIT, where I taught for 3 years. At both places the crackle of intellectual energy in the air is almost visible, like blue fire.

And then there are all the peripheral pleasures of living on Manhattan: we’ve seen the Matisse exhibition at MOMA, have tickets for the opening of Don Pasquale at the Met Opera, have tickets to see Al Pacino on stage as Shylock in the Merchant of Venice, etc etc. Plus I’m just 15 minutes walking distance from Columbia and from all the sidewalk bistros on Broadway, and 3 minutes from Central Park where we join the joggers every morning. This is Cloud Nine living on the Upper West Side (which is known to my agent and my Norton editor, who live in Greenwich Village, as “Upstate Manhattan.” ) We love it.

All best wishes,
and think about the invitations below which my Columbia students will be attending.
JTH

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7 Responses to “Hospital Admissions”

  1. Dave Stone Says:

    Think this could get me into Columbia’s poetry program?

    Though my email is very Hospital-full,
    My intention is solely Hospitable.
    I can’t help that it’s true
    That it sucks to be you
    And your life is so wholly Hospitiful.

  2. Michael Tinkler Says:

    This is a piece of work. Or maybe JTH is!

  3. Polish Peter Says:

    Wow. JTH seems to have a little too much free time. The phrase “crackle of intellectual energy in the air is almost visible, like blue fire” is risible.
    Actually, the Polish Peter household has received Christmas letters like the Easterbrook parody that were not parodies. In response, I once composed a parody letter that portrayed the most mundane events as landmark accomplishments, but my family thought better and suppressed it lest we alienate all our holiday correspondents.

  4. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Polish Peter: I think Princeton, NJ (like, say Palo Alto, CA – and indeed like Easterbrook’s and my Bethesda, MD) may be one of the few places from which Easterbrook parodies that are not parodies would indeed issue.

    While Les UDs haven’t received letters, they’ve certainly been, in social settings, on the receiving end of extended Easterbrook parodies that were not parodies.

  5. Polish Peter Says:

    Actually, the most extreme examples came from California and Tennessee!

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