Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Week in Seven Words #488

The dad's "SHHHH" is at first louder than the rising pitch of the child's tantrum.

The view opens up to brown hills and sunlight in visible tracks angling down from the clouds to the water.

The young woman sitting behind us on the bus is being taken on a guilt trip by her mother. She fretfully pleads her case – that she isn't staying away from home too much, or using work and friends as excuses for avoiding home. She lists dates and times when she was in fact at home, but her case is crumbling, the judge unforgiving.

She has become ridiculous to her friends, largely because her voice turned into a blaring horn as her hearing deteriorated. But there's nothing ridiculous about the joy that transforms her face when her grandson visits unexpectedly.

She glances at her daughter, who's asleep open-mouthed on the sofa, then looks away with pinched lips. "Look what's become of her," she murmurs, her disappointment genuine.

The dog is sleek and golden, friendly and energetic. He also loves eating feces, any feces he can find. His own, the cat's, another dog's. He isn't picky.

The wine bottle rolls out of the fridge and shatters, and for an hour after we're still finding bits of it. Splinters of glass wink at us from unexpected places, such as a couch cushion. What brought the glass to the couch? The soles of someone's thick socks.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Week in Seven Words #487

A narrow path takes us through a narrow park. I get the feeling that I'm in an alimentary canal, a digestive tract. There's enough food and shit scattered around to strengthen that impression.

Anxiety is like clinging to a salt-caked rock miles from shore as cold waves slap you around.

A cat investigates the automatic doors. She's too small to open them on her own. When a human passes through, she sticks her head and some of her body into the gap but quickly pulls back as the doors close. Maybe she's afraid of being trapped in the building, an unfamiliar place that smells heavily of humans and disinfectants.

Decades later, she still behaves like an unloved little girl not getting enough attention from her parents.

She eats cake with popping, slurping noises.

She has tripped and is lying facedown with her face in her hands. What hurts her more than the bruising is the awareness of a crowd around her, staring.

rubber band
She walks away from the math problem and for a few minutes pretends it isn't lurking in her notebook. With a sigh, she returns to it. Solves it. Smiles.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Six Fun Movies to Watch During the Holiday Season

A few years ago, I made a similar post, which will give you several more recommendations. These movies aren't themed for the winter holidays, but they're fun to watch on a cold night with a warm drink, like hot apple cider with rum, and they're (mostly) family-friendly. (Yes, even The Maltese Falcon can be fun for the whole family... why not.)

Title: Cinderella (1997)
Director: Robert Iscove
Language: English
Rating: G

This is a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical adaptation of Cinderella, set in a pretty Disney version of a European town. The stepmother's house looks like it's made of stained glass and melted crayons. I like how vivid all the colors are in this one, including the lush blues and purples of the ballroom scene.

The cast is vibrant. Whitney Houston plays the fairy godmother, Bernadette Peters is the stepmother, Whoopi Goldberg is the queen (an opinionated lady who makes squeaking noises of dismay), and Jason Alexander (best known as George Costanza on Seinfeld) is a royal servant with an Italian-ish accent and a song-and-dance number about the upcoming ball.

Paolo Montalban is cute as the prince, and Brandy Norwood plays a lovely, fragile-looking, and sometimes vacant-looking Cinderella. I like how, even before the prince finds her at the end, she decides to leave home, knowing that she deserves a better life than the one she has with her stepmother and stepsisters.

Title: How to Steal a Million (1966)
Director: William Wyler
Language: English and some French
Rating: Not rated

This movie has the absurdity of a screwball comedy. The leads, Audrey Hepburn and Peter O'Toole, associate under highly improbable circumstances and look beautiful while doing so. (O'Toole is so damn charming here. Reminds me a little of Peter Wimsey - intelligent, doesn't appear to take much seriously, but is more serious than he appears.)

Anyway, Hepburn plays Nicole, the daughter of an art forger who passes himself off as an art collector. He's a Wizard of Oz type of scoundrel. One thing leads to another, and Nicole realizes that to keep her father's crimes from being discovered, she'll have to steal a statue he loaned to a museum. Simon (Peter O'Toole's character) arrives on the scene as a burglar who may be able to help her. Or so she thinks.

Week in Seven Words #486

The concierge could have undergone Marine Corp boot camp training and would still not have been prepared for this particular guest and her battery of demands.

Rain gushing like the sky is full of faulty plumbing.

The cloying scent of flowers and dog feces in a narrow park.

Dressed in gym shorts and gray tees, they've plonked themselves down on a couple of pink armchairs and are now discussing whether Noah's ark could have been built.

They get sucked into a game set in another world, where there are portals opening to demonic realms and taverns where you can quaff an ale by a roaring fire.

We're eating at the bar, conversation minimal, eyes mostly on the food. We're seated shoulder-to-shoulder in quiet companionship.

They know which part of the store their child has run off to, because he's left a trail of crumbled crackers for them to follow.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Week in Seven Words #485

We sit at our own table, each of us with a little heap of food, including shawarma. At one point, a man with a sonorous voice sings "Hatikvah," and that's the highlight of the evening.

He normally has little to say, but with so many ladies around, he becomes more lively and charming. He shares cheesy, non-threatening jokes and plays up how nice he is to his mom.

The day is damp and unexpectedly cold. We meet at a pizzeria and sit at a sticky table, where I read through her writing. It's full of twisty, creative ideas and sparks of humor. But it needs more patience. She likes telling the reader everything upfront about a character's background and personality, when some things should be discovered more slowly.

Phone calls to three different offices to deal with an insurance claim rejected because of a paperwork error at a doctor's office.

The eggplants go into the ground in bright green shoots. Each plant gets its own mound, where it's tucked in for the next stage of growth. One woman presses her fingers to her lips and caresses the leaves of the ones she has planted.

They hand out lollipops to struggling students. Your grades may have tanked, but at least you get to saturate your mouth with artificial cherry flavor.

Contorting into different positions. I'm not sure how this is supposed to be relaxing. Ow, my back.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Week in Seven Words #484

At the lecture hall, the walls are a Pepto Bismol pink. I sip Diet Coke to try settling my stomach, before realizing that I probably won't be able to sit upright for two hours, not with this 24-hour bug churning in me.

A sleek gray rectangle with an impressive amount of power.

Wires have burst from the walls like intestines. It's a cold and dusty room.

The rooms are in gray and white, the lights are bright, the professionals simulate kindness.

The birthday card spurts from his hand and splats on the table, where a newspaper will soon slink over it.

Staying up late to look at models of RVs. I imagine fitting one out and just driving for months.

I wish them all well, while feeling out of place among them.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Eight Short Stories Dealing With the Complexities of Gratitude and Good Deeds

Title: The Advocate
Author: Janet Frame
Where I Read It: Prizes

Ted is super helpful. On a busy street, he assists people with disabilities or kids separated from their mothers. He puts in extra time at work. And he keeps referring to the many friends he has, and the people at work who like and value him.
Then why was he so alone? Why does he go to bed each night hoping for immediate sleep to ward off his loneliness? Why does he go every Sunday afternoon to the pictures and sit alone in the dark through two showings of the programme, and then return to his deserted flat and once more go to bed, trying to evade the loneliness?

He hasn't a friend in the world, and he knows it.
Ted is super helpful, or at least that's how he sees himself. Behind his back, people call him unflattering things, like "conceited" and "overbearing." But what happens after his death? They say nicer things about him at his funeral - that he was "helpful," "courteous," "a noble and good man." Has the way he died influenced how they choose to remember him (or how they say they remember him)? His attempts at helpfulness form a shell around his hollow life, and the way people speak of him after he departs from that life doesn't change how isolated he was. His helpfulness never meant as much as he wanted it to.

Title: The Comforts of Home
Author: Flannery O'Connor
Where I Read It: Everything That Rises Must Converge

Fear, anger, and self-hatred are often directed outward. Good deeds may be twisted by a lack of self-awareness and a poor understanding of other people. Gratitude is easily overshadowed by resentment and contempt.

Thomas, the main character, is in his 30s and lives with his mother, who supports him and tends to him. When she extends her generosity to an unstable young woman, Thomas finds the situation intolerable. His life is shaped by his mother serving him, and by the voice of his deceased father, a man with a rotten character; his father's voice is in his head, corrupting him and rendering him powerless to be his own man. Thomas shares some similarities with the young woman he hates, namely the fact that neither shows much gratitude to his mother. They're also both stunted people. Instead of fighting to understand himself better and push against the demons in his head, Thomas makes the fight external, so that his mother's home becomes a battleground where he pits himself against a female demon. He can't see or admit to himself that he's stuck in a state of immaturity or that (horrors) he may even find this woman sexually attractive.

Title: The Embassy of Cambodia
Author: Zadie Smith
Where I Read It: The Best American Magazine Writing of 2014

Fatou is an undocumented African immigrant who currently lives in England and works for the Derawals, a wealthy Indian family. She considers whether she's their slave, as they withhold her wages for food and board and keep hold of her passport. However, they don't keep her locked up, maybe because there are few places she can go. One exception - that Fatou makes an exception for herself - is a local health club; she sneaks into the club using one of the Derawals' guest passes that they've forgotten about. And she makes one friend, another immigrant studying part-time in England and working as a night guard.

The story highlights sharp divisions. A street, even in a first world and supposedly liberal country, can be carved up among different ethnic groups who keep to themselves. There are also divisions based on wealth and on one's status as an immigrant. Fatou can't declare to the wider world who she is and where she lives. Back home, she worked at a resort and was raped by a guest who afterwards pleaded with her not to tell anyone, as if the authorities would have helped her. So she's in England, working for a family that despises her and would respond to accusations of injustice by insisting that she feel grateful for their employment. However, when she saves one of the Derawals' children, they find that they can't live with gratitude towards her. To feel grateful to her would mean seeing her as a fully fledged human, and the position in which they've placed her doesn't allow for her full humanity.

What on Earth does the embassy of Cambodia have to do with any of this? Fatou passes by this embassy. She can't see past its walls or know who is playing a game of badminton on its grounds. The idea of Cambodia is an abstract one. She's as of little concern to them as they are to her. People can live a short distance from each other and know nothing of each other.

Title: A Gift from Somewhere
Author: Ama Ata Aidoo
Where I Read It: The Art of the Story

The story starts with an encounter between two people: a wandering religious man who scrapes together a living offering spontaneous prayers and placebos, and a woman who's afraid her baby is dying. Her other babies have died, and this one looks like he's going to follow. The man, who didn't anticipate having to work miracles with a nearly dead baby, is terrified the child will die in his arms; as soon as he has handed out an injunction to the mother for preserving life, he gets out of there and leaves the child to its almost inevitable death.

The story then shifts perspective to the mother. Her baby, named Kweku Nyamekye, unexpectedly survives and becomes a thriving boy. Was it a divine miracle, worked through the religious man? What happened exactly to cause the reversal in her fortunes and her child's? It's a mystery. There's also another mystery that the mother can't understand - the hatred that her husband feels towards Nyamekye. Maybe he envies the extent of her devotion to the child, what she's willing to sacrifice for the boy and the bright hopes she holds for his future - an adult life that will maybe offer more possibilities and broader horizons than his father's. The characters seem to live in an invisible, complex system of weights and balances, where the calculations are made just out of sight.

There's a ferris wheel feeling to the story, sinking and rising in one's chest, only the ferris wheel is an unstable one; it wobbles more than is safe and might tumble and roll away. Despair rises to hope and joy; hope and joy sink to anger and defensiveness, before rising again to hope. One person's fortune might feel to another like a curse. Throughout the narrative, there's a bewilderment about why people behave the way they do, and why events unfold as they do. The characters are religious, but ascribing events to divine will still leaves them uncertain and reeling, shaken with gratitude and joy or staggering with loss. There's little they take for granted.