Sunday, July 24, 2016

Six Short Stories About Children Dealing With Injustice

Title: The Balek Scales
Author: Heinrich Böll
Translator: Leila Vennewitz
Where I Read It: A Walk in My World

"The Balek Scales" reads like a folk tale. It's set in an area of European countryside ruled by the wealthy Balek family. By law, only the Baleks are allowed to own a set of scales. Local villagers bring produce and what they've found foraging, like mushrooms, to the Balek scales and receive payment based on weight.

A boy (the narrator's grandfather) discovers that the scales are rigged. The villagers' response feels like a scale tipping. They've accepted a certain amount of injustice in their lives, but this uncovered lie tips them over into outrage. What changes for the villagers after the lie gets exposed?

The villagers can apparently cope with little money for lots of hard work, as long as they enjoy some pride and some faith in the order of things. The Balek family didn't just injure them materially with the rigged scales. They wounded the villagers' dignity. They also degraded their own image. The discovery of their cheap, mean dishonesty broke their power over the villagers' minds. It also makes sense that a child discovers the rigged scales. A child who still plays and is still only learning how to do things the way things have always been done.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Week in Seven Words #298

A piece of driftwood rocks in the middle of the bay, when a sea gull launches off of it.

The warped stone sculpture could be many things. I see it as a woman wearing a cowl.

He returns to the table with beer, pretzels, and hummus.

Pettiness encased in righteous sentiment.

One man has shimmering birds on his shirt. Another wears a sunset on his shorts. A woman puts on a swim dress in pastel American flag colors. Underneath it, her bathing suit is a riot of neon green and orange, colors straight out of the opening credits to a Nickelodeon show.

She's stuck on an algebra problem. "We're going to help you," they tell her. They look over her shoulder. "Why don't you just take out the variables?" "I can't do that," she says. They shake their heads. "You're making things too complicated. Just remove the variables, and you're good." She tries to explain the problem to them, but they cut her off. "Why are you being so difficult?" they say. "We want to help you."

Some of his tattoos seem to spring from his muscles like strips of animated film. His other tattoos are more static and turn his chest and back into a billboard ad.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Week in Seven Words #297

Like a bloodshot eye, the moon flickers faintly red through a film of cloud.

I'm running late to meet with a hiking group in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Based on subway travel time estimations, the group's route, their likelihood of heading out 10-15 minutes late, and the speed at which they'll walk, I guess which subway stop to get off of and wind up only a few minutes out of sync with them.

During our conversation she laughs, and then tells me it's the first time she's laughed all day. It feels good to do that for someone.

I watch them play a soccer video game with graphics so crisp the players look real. There's also real-time commentary, giving the effect of an actual televised game. It's kind of mind-blowing. From my own childhood I remember a small Mario in profile stomping on mushrooms. A Sega Jurassic Park game had more sophisticated graphics, and it let you play as either Alan Grant or a velociraptor (I enjoyed being the velociraptor). But it hits me now, how much games have changed.

I think about the difficulties of writing a 'weak' main character. Someone struggling with some of life's more basic demands. I don't want the character to become too pathetic or seem too hopeless. I also don't want to hit an unchanging note of defeat for pages on end. There's a challenge in making a character enervated while keeping the story dynamic. And even in the character's weakness, one may see the potential for greater strength developing.

Buildings brimming with activity. The balconies filling up. The windows showing faces, silhouettes, and household clutter.

A homeless man and a monk walk on opposite sides of the street. "I belong to an awesome church," the homeless man calls out. "Join my church." "I like my church," says the monk. The homeless man laughs and says, "My church is for everyone. Your church is part of my church." "No," the monk replies, "my church is the one church for everyone."

Friday, July 8, 2016

Week in Seven Words #296

The neon fizzle of lemonade and the odor of fried food at the street fair.

On the subway, he sits with his head nestled between huge headphones. As the train screeches around a bend, he bobs his head and smiles.

"In the divorce," she says, "I got the friends. The good friends."

Among the books displayed shoulder-to-shoulder or on their backs along the table, I find a collection of Yiddish stories. It smells like it's been waiting in the back of a bookcase for its day in the sun.

The child pushes away her mom's hand. She wants to try walking on her own, away from the hand that clutches at her shoulder and arm.

I love watching adults do cartwheels or dance spontaneously.

A hard blue river foaming at the mouth.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Melancholy in Harvey (1950)

Title: Harvey
Director: Henry Koster
Language: English
Rating: Not Rated

On the surface, Harvey is a light-hearted story. It features Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart), a gentle middle-aged man whose best friend is a giant rabbit named Harvey. For the most part, only Elwood can see Harvey and talk to him (though others might get a glimpse now and then). A question that runs throughout the movie is whether or not Harvey is "real." Is he a figment of Elwood's imagination, or is he an animal spirit of some kind with a presence outside of Elwood's mind? At one point Elwood gets taken to a psychiatric hospital, and the joke is that the staff assumes that his overwrought sister, Veta Louise Simmons (Josephine Hull), is the patient and not him. He's so polite and laid-back, so gentle and courteous. Maybe it doesn't matter that he's hallucinating a giant bunny who's his closest friend.

Movie poster for Harvey (1950)

In many ways, the movie is fun (like when Elwood's portrait with Harvey comes on-screen). And its general tone of kindliness and gentle mischief suits the main character. The movie questions people's need to pathologize eccentric behavior. If Elwood isn't harming anyone, why not leave him alone? Elwood gets along well with pretty much everyone. He sees beautiful things in people, their potential for good. He's able to regard them with patience and love.

In contrast, the movie's authority figures are often petty, small-minded, and driven by their egos. They insist only on their version of reality. One pompous young psychiatrist even gets annoyed with the sensitivity and caring discernment of Ruth Kelly (Peggy Dow), a nurse at the institution. As for Elwood's sister - she wants to accept and love her brother, but she's also afraid to believe in Harvey's existence. She has an inkling that the rabbit is real in some way. But if she allows for a reality where a giant mostly invisible rabbit is real, wouldn't that mean she's crazy? Her efforts to avoid the appearance of craziness often lead her to act in unbalanced, neurotic ways.

Throughout Harvey, Elwood's calm, beautiful thoughts and the charm of his eccentricity shine through. But there's no doubt the movie is melancholy too. Elwood is a ruin in some ways. He drinks steadily. He doesn't seem to have any adult responsibilities; he lives with his sister, who runs the household. His life is made pleasant by alcohol, Harvey, and an appreciation of people's company. There are a few moments when he reflects on himself, and his tone is wistful. "I'd almost be willing to live my life over again. Almost," he says. And, "I've wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I'm happy to state I've won out over it." He says he was smart for years, but now recommends being pleasant.

Although he views the world in a kindly way, he needs protection from it. Maybe the only way to cope with other people's hardness, and their ruthless determination to get everyone to think as they do, is to soften the world and see it through a haze. To imagine, as a constant companion, a friend who isn't even human and in that way offers safe relief for loneliness.

Nurse Kelly at one point feels that Elwood truly sees her, and she wonders if she'll ever feel happier than at that moment. Because will anyone else ever take the time to sincerely understand her? She's used to getting talked over. Like Elwood, she lacks ruthlessness. How will she continue negotiating a world where sensitivity and patience have little value or means of expression? A thick cushion of imagination and drink helps Elwood live as a child-like old soul and go about his life largely untroubled. Other people might adopt a similar approach, though less extreme. Some remind themselves to be more kind, to take more time to really listen. Many become callous.

Elwood doesn't skip around bestowing uncomplicated happiness on everyone. He remains on the fringes of his town as a kindly alcoholic who can make people smile sometimes, and sometimes get them to think more deeply about their life. That's beautiful, in and of itself. He has a beautiful soul, and it's bruised deep.

(Image source: Wikipedia.)

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Week in Seven Words #295

When the adults ask him questions about what he values, the boy makes flippant remarks. He doesn't like how they want to sit in judgment over his words and pick apart the things he holds important. He deliberately gives them nothing of value.

They receive love, or something like it, only when serving their parents' shortsighted and limiting needs.

A plate of puffy chocolate cake floats around the room. With bits of cake indented and crumbling, we know the kids have gotten to it first.

They send me a gift card with money from their own account. It's a lovely gift, and it reminds me that they aren't little kids anymore.

A dinner that's more like a joust, the guests having a go at each other across the length of the table. All in good fun, they claim.

The delicious crackle of a pan filled with pepper steak and mushrooms.

As I get older, my relationship with my religion becomes more like an invigorating wrestling match. And sometimes like an expedition.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Week in Seven Words #294

To his great pleasure, he gets to roam around with kids a year or two older. They accept him without condescension and pay attention to his opinions.

I put on oversized orange glasses, hold an inflatable guitar, and pose for snapshots. It's fun. I like these photos much more than the formal ones.

He drinks his way to greater warmth and friendliness. His smile is relaxed, his voice cheerful. For a few moments, I imagine we're close.

With slow, savoring bites, they suck up the gooey center of a fried Oreo cookie.

The speeches are more or less what I expect. The room is mostly silent, and people continue to eat.

Once they've filled their plates at the buffet table, they don't move. They stand at the table, eating and talking, their elbows bristling as they defend their ill-gotten space.

I don't know who the kid is, but he's out on the fringes of a parking lot, playing on an embankment dotted in dandelions. No one else is around.