Thursday, October 11, 2018

Week in Seven Words #430

An impromptu playdate for a couple of dogs. One of them shivers on his owner's lap. The other is a little rocket of a dog, testing the limits of his leash. They sniff at each other for several minutes.

I receive a book by mail from a friend. She calls me inimitable.

The problem with these political conversations isn't the agreement or disagreement. The problem is that conceding anything or introducing nuance is considered a personal defeat and a betrayal of "your side." The assumption underlying each conversation is that you're aren't going to achieve a greater understanding. It's that you're going to do everything to destroy the other person, and that includes relying on underhanded tactics such as misrepresentation. Don't listen closely or think too much, just attack.

Rocks are mounted up the sides of the reservoir, with ducks squashed into the crannies, their heads tucked into their backs. Pods of turtles blend in with the rock.

With peony robes and flickering fans, the girls rehearse a dance show at the foot of the hill.

Magnolia blossoms, before they open, look like mineral formations.

From the soil of the first draft, a second draft has emerged. It's thin and in some places sickly, but shows promise of fuller color and foliage.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Week in Seven Words #429

She can't figure out why she's having trouble sleeping. Nothing she tries helps her enjoy a night of unbroken sleep. "Is it the way everything's structured?" I wonder. "Is sleeplessness a built-in feature to the way we structure our lives?" She tells me that this is what an insomniac colleague said as well.

The paths along the stream have become brighter and clearer. Rock bridges and little peninsulas with viewing points have opened up, and yellow flowers grow in bunches by the water.

In the garden, a young, fair boy brandishes a daffodil and says, "Behold!"

I spot a red-winged blackbird. It has gold and red bars on its upper wings that remind me of epaulettes.

A man and his son gaze at a small pond in a quiet part of the woods in the park. The pond is barely ruffled by the stream that flows into it. "This is a mosquito breeding ground," the boy says. "That's what I was thinking!" his dad replies. They laugh a little.

He turns the question around on his teacher. "What's your purpose?" he asks. His teacher replies, "I'm still figuring it out."

The stress reduction tips promoted by his workplace amount to giving employees a plastic spoon and encouraging them to dig into a mountain.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Two Very Different Movies Full of Poignant, Painful Hope

Title: Awakenings (1990)
Director: Penny Marshall
Language: English
Rating: PG-13

Based on a memoir by Oliver Sacks (which is on my to-read list), Awakenings tells the story of a treatment administered in the late 1960s to a group of patients who had been stricken decades earlier by encephalitis lethargica. The disease left them in a catatonic state. They stopped moving and talking. They seemed to stare into space all day. They were written off by hospital staff as incurable.

And perhaps there is no permanent cure, but when Dr. Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams) gets appointed to the psychiatric ward where these patients have been shelved, he notices that they exhibit some responses. For example, catching a pair of glasses that have almost fallen to the floor. They may not be 'dead inside,' which is the received wisdom. It's horrifying to consider that they live with awareness while trapped in their unresponsive bodies.

Sayer experiments with administering L-dopa to these patients. (L-dopa started being used as a treatment for Parkinson's disease, and a possible similarity between Parkinson's and what these patients were suffering was the impetus for trying the treatment.) To people's astonishment, L-dopa has a positive effect, at first. The patients wake up.

A central theme explored in this movie (and captured in the title) is what it means to be awake, alive. One of the patients, Leonard Lowe (Robert De Niro), was struck down by encephalitis lethargica as a boy. His doting mother (played by Ruth Nelson) has stayed by his side throughout his catatonia. He awakens to find himself decades older. As with other patients, his reactions are a mix of wonder, joy, trepidation, sorrow, and frustration. Leonard has a deep thirst for life. There's a beautiful scene, set to "Time of the Season" sung by The Zombies, where he and Sayer leave the hospital and explore the outside world for a bit. Leonard is thrilled. Being alive and awake feels so fantastic, and at one point he says of other people:
"They've forgotten what it is to be alive! The joy of life, the gift of life, the freedom of life, the wonderment of life!"
He also becomes increasingly impatient at not being able to leave the hospital permanently to live on his own. He wants to be a man, an adult, after being long deprived of the opportunity. But he and the other patients need to remain under supervision until it's clear that the drug works. As it turns out, its effects are short-lived.

Sayer, meantime, is discovering a deeper meaning to life. He's a shy, reclusive man. Prior to working in the ward, he conducted experiments on earthworms. Humans seem to bewilder him. At first, he doesn't understand Leonard's thoughts on the joy of life, those beautiful words tossed through a window that's been briefly opened. A window that's sliding shut again in the final part of the film. Sayer's most meaningful human contact, possibly in all of his adult life, is with these people who are grasping at life before the window closes. Leonard becomes his friend, in a relationship that sometimes turns antagonistic. A nurse working on the ward, Eleanor Costello (Julie Kavner), might also become a friend or girlfriend, if given a chance. It's a chance Sayer decides to take, at the end.

This is my favorite Robin Williams role, of the movies of his that I've watched so far. Except for one moment where he comes across as Williams the Entertainer, he fully slips into Sayer's gentle, withdrawn character. De Niro also gives a whole-hearted performance, throwing himself into it physically and emotionally.

What I especially like about Awakenings is the refusal to give in to despair. I'm speaking not just of the characters but of the tone of the movie as a whole. What happened to these patients' lives is horrifying. The movie shows the consequences of missing decades and trying to discover who you now are, even as the treatment keeping you awakened may fail. But there are also scenes of dancing, including a lingering slow dance for Leonard and Paula (Penelope Ann Miller), a woman visiting her father at the hospital. There's delight in music and insight in poetry, as in the scene where a poem by Rilke, "The Panther," strikes Sayer as a window into the minds of his catatonic patients. And there's love and a need for companionship, long denied by Sayer, though by the end he realizes that he needs other people to truly live.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Week in Seven Words #428

He's attached by a balloon string to his job. At work, he's mostly off on his own, bobbing in one place with his phone, his eyes on the screen where his real life is unfolding.

His glazed-over eyes and faint "mm-hms." Another short, unsatisfying conversation.

Her voice doesn't have any inflection when she describes her day. Mostly, she talks about other people. Who said this and that and the other thing.

The cold stone basement dust smell of an old dim house.

They tell me I'm old for sending emails. It's almost entirely texts for them now, and half the texts lack text, they're a barrage of emojis. (And I feel old complaining about this, as if I'm shaking my fist from my imaginary front porch, where I sit with curmudgeonly dignity on a rocking chair and communicate with the wider world via telegraph.)

Two young boys get a pink kite going in the breeze. It looks like a floating piece of candy.

I'm not sure why I like gefilte fish. It's basically a brick of fish matter.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Week in Seven Words #427

Each shelf is furry with dust and stuffed with books and papers.

Enormous garbage bags bristling with papers. Some of the papers had seemed important once or were at least worth some attention, and now they're being chucked.

A peaceful meal with joyful songs. I cherish it.

I talk to someone who disagrees with me strongly on various political issues, but the conversation is courteous. No seething anger or oneupmanship. We learn from each other, and even though she hasn't convinced me to adopt her way of thinking, at least I have a better understanding of why she thinks the way she does.

Past midnight, there are sporadic bursts of activity on the streets. Various objects seem more alive, like the traffic lights changing color when no cars are around. There are pockets of people, some drunk or laughing as if they're drunk. There are solitary figures too, a few lost in thought, others striding with a purpose, dangerous or not.

At their dad's prompting, they stand up in front of the room to sing, their voices sweet, their demeanor self-conscious.

Three men, unrelated to each other and strangers until this evening, sit in a row at the table. All three are bald, white, young, thin, and wearing glasses.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Four Short Stories Where Underdogs Triumph

Title: The Cambist and Lord Iron
Author: Daniel Abraham
Where I Read It: Fantasy: The Best of the Year 2008

Olaf works as a cambist in an exchange office. He unfortunately attracts the attention of a dissipated, cruel nobleman, Lord Iron, who puts him in an untenable situation that will very likely cost him his life. Olaf succeeds in extricating himself, in this story of wits and courage triumphing over power and cruelty. (Olaf is a fan of adventure novels, but his own story is an even better adventure and a better example of the traits he admires in the heroes he reads about.)

Title: Lolita
Author: Dorothy Parker
Where I Read It: Mothers & Daughters

A vivacious, petite, and charming woman, Mrs. Ewing, has a daughter named Lolita who appears to be everything her mother isn't. She's shy and quiet; you can fail to notice she's in a room. She's plain and doesn't clean up well. She can't do much around the house. Most people in the town kind of pity Mrs. Ewing for having a daughter like that, even if they have nothing against Lolita. But when Lolita gets courted by a handsome, charming man, it becomes apparent that Mrs. Ewing needs her daughter. She needs to compete with her daughter and come out on top, looking more attractive and desirable. Life has less relish when Lolita isn't around to serve as her mother's foil.

This short story came out shortly before Nabokov's novel was released. But Parker's Lolita gets a considerably happier ending.

Title: The Revolt of "Mother"
Author: Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Where I Read It: Great American Short Stories: From Hawthorne to Hemingway

Sarah Penn's husband promised her 40 years ago that she would one day have a real house, not the home that's been crumbling around the family for decades. It's a promise he has never fulfilled, instead providing nicer, newer quarters for the farm animals. At the start of the story he's determined to build another barn. When Sarah lays out her case plainly, he's unmoved. In a poignant moment she retreats to her room, emerges again after a while with red eyes, and resumes her work.

She appears resigned, but instead winds up meeting his taciturn obstinacy and callousness with quiet resolve. If her husband is a wall, she finds a clever way around him that works out for everyone. There's a difference between being dutiful and being a doormat, and she knows her own mind and what's right (even when a clergyman comes over at once point to advise her against her unorthodox course of action, she remains resolved). Freeman I suspect was giving Sarah the kind of satisfying outcome that she would have liked more women in the real world to enjoy, should they be stuck with such a husband.

Title: Triumph of Justice
Author: Irwin Shaw
Where I Read It: Legal Fictions

Mike Pilato wants to receive some money owed to him. He never got the promise of this money in writing, but he doesn't think it should be too hard to go to court without a lawyer and defend his case. Typical court proceedings don't tend to favor people like Mike, who isn't polished and who pronounces Thursday as Stirday. But Mike manages to upend the order of the court for long enough to get a necessary confession. He uses methods that would lead to unjust outcomes in other situations, but here they make sense to him, because someone is brazenly lying. ('Justice' and 'respect for legal proceedings' aren't always the same...) The dialogue is key to the story's humor and keeps the text punchy.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Week in Seven Words #426

Beyond the whirring tools and the dentist's graceful hands, an episode of Blue Planet plays on a small screen. I have no idea what's going on, aside from seeing great quantities of fish, but the general blueness is relaxing.

Sometimes a brilliant moment is made of sunlight falling on the white planks of a house and on the spruce that has sprung up beside it.

The toddler stumble-walks with his finger out pointing.

Art can be an antidote to oversimplification, smooth and quick explanations, cowardice, and brutality.

She tries to entice me to watch the movie by showing me a YouTube clip, but all I see is syrup and little substance and actors who talk as if the dialogue is sticking to their teeth.

The dog gets so excited that her owner has come home that she launches herself at my stomach from several feet away.

A writing assignment of many words that makes me realize just how important it is to have the right roof over one's head.