Sunday, December 26, 2010

Profiles of Snowpeople

On the last day of 2009 I took a long walk through New York City and came across several snowpeople: Bob, Estella, Harry, Charmaine, Phil, and Sandra.

P1000909 Bob lives life on the edge. He loves fun, thrills, and mugging for photos that he shares with his 1,079 Facebook friends. Across the water is his favorite girl, Lady Liberty; if he had to choose he would pick her over Lady Luck, most days.

P1000911 Estella is an abstracted artist and armchair philosopher. Sometimes she's not sure that she exists; she might have had arms at one point, or eyes, or maybe she only imagined that she did. She will sublimate one day, she's fairly sure, and wonders if as a gaseous vapor she will still be Estella or become something else entirely.

P1010040 Harry woke up with a hangover today, and the light still hurts his eyes. Why get drunk the night before New Year's Eve? Harry doesn't remember the last time he celebrated anything with real happiness.

P1000932 Charmaine has a taste for the exotic. She's dreamt of traveling to tropical lands and sipping pinacoladas to the sound of surf and steel drums. She knows that this is an impossible dream for a snowperson, but she does her best to live it anyway and liven up her cold life here with a touch of the sultry and exotic.

P1000931 Phil is pretty sure the world is going to end soon. The stroke of midnight sounds about right. He can feel the ground giving out from under him every hour.

P1000933 Sandra hates being made out of snow. She figures that if she wants to stick around for many more seasons she'll need to graft herself onto something that lasts, like a tree. But nature can't accommodate a tree-snowperson hybrid, not for long.

Week in Seven Words #47

My eyelids giving up.

finger food
One lady declares that they're the best, all those tiny treats to pluck from the trays and pop into her mouth. She makes a slow appreciative circle round the table, her fingers dancing over chips, crackers, guacamole, and beans, gingerbread, olives, grapes and cheese, puffy cakes and chunks of chocolate.

Hollow-boned, flying through the night. Can't figure out when to stop and for how long.

It's nice to see the relief on their faces when the exam is over; they know that no matter how they did they get to go home now and reacquaint themselves with a full night's sleep. (A full night and an extra half-day, more like.)

When I think too far ahead I tense up. Plans are precarious, people change. Sometimes I wonder how anything can be planned.

Five minutes before joining the conversation, I tell myself that I'm going to work on my papers and not socialize.

In the tiny office they sit on the floor, backs to the wall, laptops and notebooks open on their legs, and everything seems confusing, everything, so I crack a joke now and then and some of the pressure lets up.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The sunny side of the week...

It's Friday! All week I've been looking forward to Friday.

I've got some cooking to do before the Sabbath starts, and I can barely see the surface of my desk, but for the next hour or so I'm going to just sit. Sitting is grand. It's cold outside, it's warm in here, my feet are up, the TV is murmuring something unimportant. And when I do some of the housework later, I know who I'll be listening to:

"Life can be so sweet... on the sunny side of the street!"

I hope you've found yourself dancing down a sunny street or two this holiday season.

Warm wishes to you all.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Week in Seven Words #46

She tells me about her new glasses, what they look like, how she realized at school with the blackboard and clock getting fuzzier and fuzzier that she'd need them. Her words remind me of when I put on my own first pair of glasses, the summer before fifth grade. How I slid them up my nose in the optician's shop, and the little squares on the shop's screen door leapt out sharply, along with the trees beyond and the license plates on the cars parked by the curb.

The clouds are a powdery pink, and the glass walls of the building blush in the sunset.

They're overworked, I'm overworked. We'll muddle through this together.

A wooden stairwell, carpeted, the air thick with potpurri and the banisters twined in holly. On the wall above the first landing a mirror hangs too high for people to see their reflection. In some places it's spotted a moldy black. I wonder, if I were to drag over a stepladder, what I'd see in its surface.

Students, pale and sniffly from stress and lack of sleep.

For a few hours each week I need to use an office in their building. The office they give me doesn't open at first to any keys; who knows what’s happened, I’m told, and who was the last person to have set foot in it - maybe the lock was changed. An aura of mystery builds around the room, until at last I’m given a key that works. The lock clicks, I find a small dark room, no window, no visible light switch, a desk rearing up with its legs sticking out like a creature making a last desperate defense of its lair. An empty thermos and a granola bar sit on the other desk. From the floor a phone occasionally purrs; its blinking red light hints at messages that may never be heard by human ears.

People-watching from a library window. The first reckless forerunners of snow spin through the air.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Week in Seven Words #45

My knuckles crack open in the cold.

All eight candles are lit along with the presiding shamash; the light they give is defiant and cheerful.

A slender journal in Hebrew, and the story of a girl who lived decades ago and died young. She left a deep impression on her teacher, who wrote about her elevated spirit and discerning mind; this teacher wanted to preserve her writing and keep her memory alive. In her black and white photo she looks serious and severely lovely.

The project drifts off course and onto some rocks. It groans, tilts, and waits in weary silence for intervention.

Their eyes appear on the screen as two blank white circles on a black square. The circles squeeze to nothing and spring to full circumference; they waver and blur and shift from side to side. They seem to belong to a cartoon character blinking out of a dark room.

My front door won't admit me, and at first I'm not sure why.

Snow drifts down in the late afternoon. It's the best time of day for it, knowing that there are warm places waiting for me at the end of the day's work.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Extracts: How do we love?

At last the sun came up bewilderingly bright. Sylvia could see the white sails of ships out at sea, and the clouds that were purple and rose-colored and yellow at first began to fade away. Where was the white heron's nest in the sea of green branches, and was this wonderful sight and pageant of the world the only reward for having climbed to such a giddy height?

Sylvia, a shy young girl who lives with her grandmother in rural New England, climbs an enormous tree. This is an arduous undertaking, done in secret.

The tree seemed to lengthen itself out as she went up, and to reach farther and farther upward. It was like a great main-mast to the voyaging earth; it must truly have been amazed that morning through all its ponderous frame as it felt this determined spark of human spirit wending its way from higher branch to branch.

She makes this climb in the hopes of spotting where the elusive white heron hides its nest. A friendly hunter has offered her and her grandmother money if she can find out where the bird lives.

Will Sylvia discover the location of the heron's nest? If she does, will she tell the hunter where to find it, so that she can earn money and approval, while the hunter bags himself another bird for his collection of specimens?

That's the part that makes Sylvia uneasy:

Sylvia would have liked him vastly better without his gun; she could not understand why he killed the very birds he seemed to like so much. But as the day waned, Sylvia still watched the young man with loving admiration. She had never seen anybody so charming and delightful; the woman's heart, asleep in the child, was vaguely thrilled by a dream of love.

One of the best elements of Sarah Orne Jewett's story, "A White Heron", is its exploration of different kinds of love.

Sylvia loves the creatures of the woods with a kind of sympathy to them; she loves them as they are ("The murmur of the pine's green branches is in her ears, she remembers how the white heron came flying through the golden air and how they watched the sea and the morning together...").

The hunter loves the birds chiefly because of what he is able to get out of them - another addition to his collection, a reward for his skills, the satisfaction of having the specimens stuffed and in his possession to admire and study as he pleases.

The story got me thinking about the ways in which we love other people. Is it more with a sense of fellowship, of loving another like yourself and as they are? Or do we love them insofar as they are useful to us and satisfy whatever urges and desires require satisfaction (a kind of love that ties into the "pageant of the world"). Is it a blend of both?

Sylvia might get her chance to win some money and admiration, the currency of a wider world with which she's had little contact (and never really fit into before she went to live with her grandmother). But what would she be giving up to earn these rewards? And what would she be losing if she turns away from the money and approval and the kind of love society might offer her?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Week in Seven Words #44

The boys set multiple dreidels spinning at once. The dreidels whir around the table, sometimes clacking off each other and shooting over the table-edge. At the end of each round one of the boys likes to line up his dreidels and see which letters they fell on (what are the odds of getting four gimmels?) Their younger brother thinks it's more fun to climb onto the table and swat down all the dreidels; I call him the "Dreidel Monster", and he laughs in delight.

We light Hanukkah candles simultaneously in different cities and sing together over the phone. "Maoz Tzur" makes me feel like a sturdy stone cottage full of light.

They're a comic team, bopping each other on the head. They've been doing this for years - sometimes playfully, other times hard enough to knock each other out.

I needed an evening like this one - catching up with people I haven't seen in weeks, a long dinner with good food, lots of laughter, staying after to help clean up and then sitting at one of the tables, just three of us talking about all sorts of things until it gets late.

We start with the sprightly joy of Glinka. This is followed by the sweeping mastery of Tchaikovsky. From there we step into Debussy's engimatic lagoon with its choir of sirens. And then Stravinsky's firebird unfolds, full of dazzling unpredictable spirit (and that one golden passage in the finale when the French horn emerges from the near-silence like a lake catching the first light of the rising sun).

When I visit their apartment, there's a corner of the couch that's just mine. I know that I can sprawl there for a while.

After they visit, my fridge is full to bursting with meat, milk, cheese, yogurts and juice, cups of cinnamon-spotted rice pudding, baby carrots, pickles in tupperware, red-green apples and spicy olives, netted bags of tangerines and a bar of (opened already of course) chocolate in shiny foil.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Extracts: Ghazals and Kitchen Poems

After the last post showing autumn photos I took in Central Park, I thought I'd skip ahead in the seasons and talk about some Spring Ghazals.

The Spring Ghazals is a book of poetry by Jack Hayes. I thought it fitting to talk about the book as part of the 'Extracts' series because as I read through it there were a lot of lines that jumped out, like this verse from the poem "distance equals rate times time":
I have nothing to say about the white cirrus clouds as they canoed
over the motley sky in a distant Vermont October...

There are many moments like this in the book, where I've never seen something described a certain way (like clouds that canoe) or in another poem, "Ghazal 4/29" where he describes "smothered velvet air" - but when I read it I think of course (why hasn't anyone else described it just this way?), I see exactly what he's saying. And not just seeing it either, because any given image like that stirs up multiple senses (spirit and motion and shape, texture), so you have a "cow pond exhaling smoke" in the poem "January Morning", "an aimless magnolia morning" in "Ghazal 5/3", and "the pipe smoke's choking sweetness dispelled thru the trellis" (this one again from "Ghazal 4/29").

Poems echo in other poems in this collection. That "choking sweetness" of the pipe takes on another form in the poem "song my father taught me":
dented & heavy he fished in black pools
where perch swirled yellow the sawdust's choking sweetness

in his workshop under the bandsaw's gray evening whirr...

(This workshop also emerges in "Ghazal 4/27".)

One poem can blend various places and points in time, which mix together but remain distinct too. Different memories lap at each other, impressions hitch onto other impressions. You never know where a poem will take you.

I think a lot of this comes out in the section called Kitchen Poems. There you'll find several poems with foods as their titles (like "French Toast", "Greek Salad", "Strawberry Rhubarb Pie", etc.) These poems blend together cooking, music, life, a roving mind examining its memories and sensory impressions, and it often struck me that the cooking (or food preparation) process shaped the poem itself. Like with "Greek Salad", the memories in the poem feel like ingredients thrown into a bowl chopped (they come across that way in the reading and rhythm). In "French Toast" things seem to melt together more, amid butter, yellow and gold, and the toast itself is described at the end as being "light amber like a window - the golden crust this morning/is everyone's sweet eggshell heartache"; the food is a window opening to the world (and it gives the poem a sense of expanding out). "Strawberry Rhubarb Pie" gave me the impression of someone sitting alone savoring what might be the last sweet wholesome thing he'll eat (maybe ever, maybe only for another long while); he wants to savor each forkful that must go the way of other forkfuls and disappear - maybe like those tunes he mentions:
... not to mention a
tune you hear dreaming you can even hum it
you wake up the tune is lost inside yourself

As with other poems, there are beautiful synesthetic associations, between tasting and listening to music for instance or music and the color of sky (and potatoes) in "Potato Salad": "The sky, too, needs to be white, not exactly an oboe awash in Debussy but maybe a clarinet basking in a Hoagy Carmichael chromatic progression..."

And there are moments where something seems to swim out of the words and reach into you and wrench you.

There's a lot of beauty in these poems.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

"Autumn in New York..."

"... why does it feel so inviting?"







"Dreamers with empty hands
may sigh for exotic lands;
It's autumn in New York -
it's good to live it again."

(Billie Holiday singing "Autumn in New York" brings a smile to my heart.)

Monday, November 29, 2010

Week in Seven Words #43

Hold a small piece of paper perpendicular to your lower lip. Blow across the surface of the paper. Watch it lift up instead of droop. Now you've got an insight into how airplanes fly. (The young boy is intrigued by his grandfather's on-the-spot science experiment. He runs off to get paper for everyone. Now we're all scientists, blowing on our pieces of paper, feeling a spark of wonder.)

He puts down the book and joins us in watching and laughing at the movie. Study and work don't seem possible after the meal. We're in a semi-circle, three generations, taking a break from whatever usually calls us to other places.

In the bookstore I pause at the same tables three, four, five times in the course of browsing; I touch the books, flip through them, glance at their summaries and covers, and wait for that feeling that tells me that this one or that one will be a good gift.

The bubbles are enormous. They erupt from large sticks and soapy ropes and glide through the air in rainbow amoebic shapes. When they explode clear pieces of their skin collapse to the ground.

"Look what I made you." (A soft slipper of felt in which to keep my glasses). "Look what I made." (A little felt coin-purse dangling from a red string, and on it a greeting for me in large block letters). "Read this one." (He leans on my shoulder and attends to stories of robot-like creatures who battle for the fate of Earth and its reserves of energy.) "How do you get it to open?" (Children's toys are so complicated.) "I'll give her pizza before her nap." (She pats at the doll's eyes and sticks a wedge of plastic pizza in the vicinity of its mouth.) "What day is my birthday?" (I tell him.) "But what day of the week will it be?" (I don't know.) "If you come I'll be so happy," he says.

At the end of the game I wind up with two S's and two blanks, and I won't be able to call myself a respectable Scrabble player if I don't make a seven letter word. But 'morsels' won't fit, and neither will 'sellers'. The suspense mounts.

Thanksgiving treats - mashed yams with cinnamon and pecans, cranberries glinting in a glass bowl, apple cider flowing from slender green bottles.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

An interview with...

Robert Frost's Banjo features a wonderful weekly series of interviews with writers, "Writers Talk". I'm honored to say that this week I'm the interviewee.

As part of the interview I also submitted a poem to the related Writers Talk blog called Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Pinky Toe (and I talk briefly about the origins of this funny little piece in the interview...)

Also take the opportunity to enjoy Robert Frost's Banjo; it's a blog to explore and savor - there's poetry and short fiction, music recordings (with background for each piece), photography and history and cultural commentary. The blog is run by John Hayes, a poet and musician who features his work there along with other writers' and musicians' work; he's also written books of poetry, the latest one being The Spring Ghazals, an excellent book that has gotten enthusiastic, positive and in-depth reviews.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Week in Seven Words #42

Different people I'm friends with can find it difficult to talk to each other; their approach to life, personality, interests, may not overlap much and so there isn't a lot of common ground for light dinner time discussion, especially if they don't know each other well. I like that they have to work a little harder to make conversation. Sometimes they regard each other speculatively or with bafflement, as if they're assessing species membership; other times they bond briefly over a love of sticky cinnamon kugel.

The moon squints through a film of cloud.

What doesn't get done today will not get done tomorrow but might get done the day after tomorrow.

When I need a break from work one thing I do is look up bus and train schedules and imagine myself traveling from one town to another. I take my time coming home.

The roots of the trees swim in gold leaves.

A young boy, half-shy and half-pleased, gives a little speech in Yiddish. The people at the dinner sing in Yiddish too, and there are echoes of the shtetl in their voices. I've never been to Eastern Europe and did not grow up among Yiddish speakers, but my family's history runs through that part of the world, and there's a bittersweet pain when I think about the way of life systematically wiped out and the way the rich culture still manages to endure.

To step outside and discover that it's just rained, and that after a walk through the cold clean air I'll sit down to a baked apple, golden and brown and smeared with cinnamon.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Week in Seven Words #41

I love these mellow gold mornings, when I go outdoors and the air has a bite to it, and the sun is out, and the trees shine with autumn. It seems like the most uncomplicated part of the day; everything is fresh and new. I'm not yet indoors somewhere chipping away at a pile of work. It's just me, my feet, my eyes, my roving mind, and I love taking it in - even if it's a short walk it feels like it takes up more space in time.

At sunset there is wine mixed into the waters of the estuary. The skies fade in a stupor.

Good conversation is nourishing. Not just the usual small talk or discussion of minor practicalities, but meaty rambling conversation on all sorts of topics, over a hearty lunch - a break in the day that stirs up the mind and soul.

Why peck at crumbs when I can feast?

She poses in plaid and jeans on a dusky field, her face framed with faded yellow hair.

In the back room of a storybook house that plays hide and seek among some trees, we talk about stories and poems. In the room the furniture is a hodgepodge of easy chairs, old sofas, and folding chairs that squeak beneath us as we lean forward and make our points; the light is low and warm, and a moth of some sort bangs around against the ceiling before crawling in shame-faced fashion between couch cushions.

I amuse myself thinking of the trees as paintbrushes that have been swirled around in the brown, murky water of the pond.

US 3rd Armored Division

On Veterans Day this past week, I searched for some footage of troops and veterans, and found a Vimeo account for the US 3rd Armored Division (which was active from 1941 to 1992); they had posted all kinds of videos, from interviews with veterans to footage from various campaigns across decades.

Here's one that shows General Eisenhower making an inspection of the 3rd Armored Division in February 1944, just a few months before D-Day. During WWII, the 3rd Armored Division came to be known as the "Spearhead Division" (especially under the leadership of Major General Maurice Rose, who was killed in action in March 1945); they made great gains for the Allies in the battle for Europe, and they suffered many deaths and casualties.

Eisenhower inspects 3AD - 1944 from on Vimeo.

And this one takes place at a memorial service in Iraq in 1991 and shows Sgt. Preston Holloway of the 3rd Armored Division singing the National Anthem. Before he begins singing, another soldier shares the following quote: "It is a fearful thing to love what death can touch".

Soldier sings National Anthem from on Vimeo.

Thank you to our veterans for their service across the decades.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Week in Seven Words #40

Some speakers, confronted with questions they don't know how to answer, stand behind the podium in a long silent pause of processing and confusion; their speech when it comes is halting.

We sit around a low rectangular table with a delicious makeshift meal spread out - wine, olives, chicken inside of pitas, nuts and honeydew for dessert - and the evening is full of talk, and we're together, cheerful and warm on a cold night.

Red flowers spread open against gray stone and sky.

Here they come to look and ask: earnest and nervous or sphinx-like or easy-going with a warm smile or keyed up with caffeine or politely patient or good-natured and tired or world-weary and amusing (and amused).

The sign language interpreters at each lecture are fascinating to watch. It's amazing how they rapidly translate in real time, for all kinds of speakers (mumblers, rapid-fire talkers among them), for all different kinds of words and phrases (variable, parameter, ANOVA), their hands and expressions fluid.

Past the window the world streams by: light spindly yellow birch groves, mist off an ocean, chain link fences rusted, dubious store fronts, wood plank houses, shells of factories with broken windows, a graveyard bathed in red and yellow leaves.

I agree with him. It can drive you mad.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Week in Seven Words #39

Golden bars of sunlight on deep green grass.

When I learn with her, and we're sitting with our books in front of us, we tend to laugh, sometimes a lot. It seems that the laughter is what I remember the most afterwards.

Infants are often thought of as amoral; they might squirm, smile, cry, babble, explore, but making a judgment about another person's actions might seem to be beyond their capacities. As it turns out, there's evidence that infants younger than a year do show preferences for people (and characters) who are helpful and kind to another person over those who hinder and thwart; from what I recall they also prefer people who remain neutrally uninvolved to those who actively undermine another person's efforts (and prefer those who actively help to those who remain uninvolved). Rudiments of morality, good deeds and a sense of justice are there, even before they can speak.

He speaks quite eloquently about love. Not love in the sense of falling head over heels, or getting swept away, or any other conception of love that involves losing one's mind or will to passions that are beyond personal control. He speaks about love as a choice and commitment, as something that deepens and grows throughout life, that glows inside of a healthy self and spreads outwards in ever-widening circles.

A son of one of the Bielsky brothers talks about his father's and uncles' experiences leading a Jewish partisan group against Nazis and Nazi collaborators in Eastern Europe and saving over 1200 Jews (young, old, healthy, sick, men, women, and children). Several thoughts come out of the talk - the human spirit and human courage are amazing; heroes are flesh-and-blood imperfect people; and what's it like to live with this family legacy, to be the son and nephew of people who did things like that? (From this speaker I sense deep pride but also, especially when he was younger, a need to prove that he too has guts and can live up to the family name.)

Friday afternoon. People's primary concern seems to be whether there's any coffee or cookies left.

Yellow leaves on slicked pavement.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

One Reading of "The Broken Sandal"

This is how Denise Levertov's poem ends:

Where was I going?
Where was I going I can't
go to now, unless hurting?
Where am I standing, if I'm
to stand still now?

The speaker has dreamt that her sandal came apart, and now she has to stop walking and actually consider the conditions of the road she's on - the dirt, the rocks - and where she is and where she's going.

It's a short poem, and abrupt like the thong of the sandal snapping, but like with any good poem there's much in it. Yesterday I read something about the tendency to sleep-walk through life, and the poem stirred those thoughts up too - how it's easy to fall into a direction or rhythm that we don't think about too much, make choices small and large in a similar way, until something finally arrests us. Comfort, complacency, a numbed mind then give way to uncertainty and agitation. We wonder where we are, where we're headed to, and how we'll deal with it all; things we assumed would last are absent, our previous state of mind has fallen apart. We look around us and wonder how we even got here.

What's also interesting is that the poet isn't describing an actual event - that the sandal did break - but that she dreamt it did. She's anticipating these events, thinking about life and what she's doing with her life even before circumstances might force her to. And as a poet she's calling on us to have that kind of dream too, to imagine our travels stalled, difficulties cropping up along with insistent questions about our purpose. How would we begin to answer?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Week in Seven Words #38

It's like reading The Jabberwocky, only no fun at all - a highly technical book with lots of (to me it seems) made-up words. I go galumphing through the text in search of mental toeholds.

Many parched hours, punched-through with doubt. A reminder that I'm weaker than I hope to be.

Pale green comforter. Pale blue pillow. Crawling under, curling up, hoping that a restful sleep will come.

On the sidewalk, leaves scrape and tumble across the flickering shadows of the leaves that hang overhead.

In one building, the people I encounter include a chef, several cadets, a guy who bangs out Gershwin in a room by himself, another who's happy I'm his guide for a half hour, and a girl who's polite and faintly homesick.

It's a mild afternoon, full of warm sunshine and a breeze that feels benevolent. Every bench I walk by beckons me to sit for a while. I wish I could; instead I'm headed to a place where computers glare, copy machines whir, and a smell of stale ink hangs over everything.

Little kindnesses ring true and ripple out into the world - a smile, a door that's held open, a sincere compliment that isn't held back, a word of encouragement or love. These seem like small things but they're not; they spread from one life to another to another. They restore, repair and heal.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The River Ouse

From my work-trip to York in early September, some pictures of the River Ouse.




Saturday, October 16, 2010

Week in Seven Words #37

Things that get put off and delayed do not go away. Why do I keep letting myself think they do? Though I turn my mind to other chores and tasks, the things I've tried to put off still sit there (I can see them out of the corner of my eye) siphoning away my concentration until at last I just have to deal with them.

I don't want a human life to go by unobserved. The people who seem invisible, unloved, and unwanted by others - I used to think they're ignored in large part out of a lack of time and willingness, also an indifference and callousness (life's busy, so much to do, can't stop to look, and are they worth it anyway?) but there's more to it than that. There's an underlying fear too, that anyone can slip through the cracks.

Maybe it's the colder weather, because I get a craving for pasta this week; I like the way it bubbles in the pot, the billow of steam as I tip it into the colander, and the plentiful plate of it drenched in tomato sauce, garlic, basil and mozzarella.

A new week, and new ideas rise out of the unceremonious ashes of old ones.

The world is overrun with cold water. Every step is a squelch, a splish, a spatter.

I want them to understand. I point, repeat, stare at them with a desperate encouragement, ask questions, try to urge them out of a state of passive absorption. I wait for the light to flow into their faces, the glimmer of comprehension, that tells me they've learned - and that even if they don't grasp everything, that they want to at least struggle with the material, to lean forward in their chairs and puzzle things out, ask questions, throw suggestions out there without a fear of being wrong.

The nurse administering the flu shot asks me if I'd like her to tell me when the needle is about to go in. I tell her it's not necessary, because I'm going to watch. Ever since I was a kid, I've never taken the suggestion to look away during a shot. Much as the sight is unappealing, if I don't look I'll tense up; maybe when I look, it feels less like something is happening to me that I have to just passively take.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Extracts: a peek into Bleezer's Freezer


And there's more. Click on the link to the get the full Bleezer's Ice Cream Store experience.

I've lost count of the number of times I've read this poem. I love Jack Prelutsky's absurd, brilliant confections.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Week in Seven Words #36

The sky is a crisp blue, the air is clear and cool, leaves crackle across the cobbled paths; I sit on a low stone ledge with a notebook on my lap and a mind full of contented thoughts.

He holds my idea like a leaf between his forefinger and thumb and lifts it up to the light. It looks papery and dry. He rubs his fingers together, and it disintegrates slowly.

Life can feel like a game of Tetris; if I get too distracted or take too long dealing with any one thing, every obligation, burden, assignment, and duty just piles up in weird insurmountable towers.

It's worth it, to put the book aside, the article, whatever it is that's due soon and demanding time, and just sit and talk to good people; one of them in particular, known mainly for his jokes, shares a beautiful serious story with me.

Autumn mutters to herself and shakes raindrops out of her rags.

I wake up in the middle of the night, strangely keyed up and unwilling to turn over and try to sleep again. Like a mouse scrabbling around in the dark, fixing up her nest, I spend a couple of hours sorting the piles of paper on and around my desk, slotting them into folders, drawers and piles, throwing some out, tidying them into short neat stacks.

As the silence stretches on, I feel the need to supply conversational filler. It's like stuffing styrofoam chips into a shipping box; if I leave too much space unfilled, the fragile object inside will break.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Week in Seven Words #35

The administrators who help me out are kindly, good-humored and tolerant of my anxious queries; I'm grateful they don't resemble stereotypical bureaucrats, the ones who idly bat you from paw to paw like bored cats.

I tense up in situations like these, stepping into a crowded space where I can't spot a familiar face and everyone seems to be clumped together already with their cups of sangria and their little plates of veggies and cookies. I guess their behavior reassures me to some extent as well, the fact that they're already in bunches and pairs, because it shows that I'm not the only one who feels awkward about being a lone floating atom. At last I find my way to one small group, which broadens slightly to admit me, and we stand in a little sangria-clutching circle, making introductions, searching for things we can all talk about and briefly bond over.

Some of the dancing is dignified, as when we make slow turns, our palms pressed together and our skirts flaring out and then subsiding against our legs. Other times it's happily undignified, like when I'm turning in circles with a young child who is convinced that he can dance without his feet touching the ground at all.

Leaves, gold brown and orange, whip around and batter the window like snowflakes.

She brings me a lovely new skirt the color of honeycombs and evergreens, and along with it a package of snickerdoodle animal crackers.

They're strewn among the tea lights - charred and scarred canoes floundering in a calm flickering sea.

When I have a cold, the world feels like it's coming to me through a layer of cotton balls. My mouth is limp with cherry-flavored cough drop numbness.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Week in Seven Words #34

The honey is a deep gold brown. It caresses the light and draws it in; particles of light shine faintly from inside of it.

At one point I wind up sharing a dinner table with two men who have, at different points this past year, solicited relationship advice from me. They don't know that they have this experience in common; but I know, and it makes me smile a little for some reason - maybe because it's just another example of life's little quirks of circumstance.

At the several communal meals I attend, I meet some new people. But even with the people I know already, it feels like I'm meeting them for the first time each time we sit down together at the table. I might have met them before (or even know them quite well), but I can't know for sure what they'll say exactly, or what their mood will be, or what will happen - so it's like meeting them all over again each time, and I look forward to seeing new sides of them or learning new things about them.

There are a few days when I plod around, slow and persistent and a little tired. The work of the coming months, the magnitude of it, makes itself known to me and settles down hard on my shoulders. I keep my head down and try to adjust; sometimes I think the numb accepting patience is better than the alternative - the spikes of anxiety, poking apart my concentration and scattering my thoughts.

When the tables are abandoned several flies come, rising and falling in delicate, random-seeming patterns over the remains of the food, until the plates are cleared away.

sukkah (סוכה)
Being hugged tight on all side by other bodies, by tables and chairs, by the flexible tent walls of the sukkah. The weather is lovely for the most part; when it gets too hot, some cool air swirls in between the flaps and openings, and at noon there's some shade at least. One night after a strong humid spell a storm breaks out, and rain sluices through the makeshift weave of the ceiling and onto us; the walls sway with the wind, but we just glance at each other and keep talking and laughing.

A clear white moon above the shabby silhouette of an apartment building.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Week in Seven Words #33

It washes up my throat, pricks at my eyes, swamps my chest and stomach. My remedy is to go for a walk, to hunch over a book, to gaze out the window at a hard-blue cheerful sky, at gold trees and people, families, children. The anger drains away (some of it was so silly anyway); and I think that it's best to deal with each person in the present moment, particularly if they have changed in important ways from how they used to be. I forgive, and though I can't forget certain things I think that maybe I should live as if I have.

The thick wooden window slats admit glowing fragments of tree and sky.

Sometimes our conversations are hurried and seem perfunctory. But there are other times when, in several short precious minutes, I learn something wonderful and wise that changes a part of me for afterwards.

The resolve, the strength firming, the sense of hard-won peace and powerful yearning - I hope they flow out from this day to the rest of the year.

When the plane leaves the ground, I hold my breath. There are what seem to be a few still moments on which everything depends; the plane and the passengers are suspended above earth. Will we keep rising? The odds are tremendously in our favor. Still, I hold my breath and look out the window to make sure.

I hear them coming down the hall, I hear their whispers, their hushed speculations ("What if she's not in her office?") and I wait patiently with a smile growing on my face, before they burst through the door.

I love the energetic melodies best, the ones that resound with strength and joy. There's a particular melody that comes at the conclusion of every service, and just hearing us would you know that we're fasting? We sing long and loud, affirming that we're here, that we're repenting, atoning, rejoicing, living. That we are full of love.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Extracts: "Worship and living are not two separate realms."

Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) starts this evening, and I'm reading these words now from Abraham Joshua Heschel's book God in Search of Man:
The problem of living does not begin with the question of how to take care of the rascals, of how to prevent delinquency or hideous crimes. The problem of living begins with the realization that all of us blunder in our dealings with our fellow men. The silent atrocities, the secret scandals... are the true seat of moral infection. The problem of living begins, in fact, in relation to our own selves, in the handling of our emotional functions, in the way we deal with envy, greed, and pride.

Worship and living are not two separate realms. Unless living is a form of worship, our worship has no life. Religion is not a reservation, a tract of time reserved for solemn celebrations on festive days. The spirit withers when confined in splendid isolation. What is decisive is not the climax we reach in rare moments, but how the achievements of rare moments affect the climate of the entire life. The goal of Jewish law is to be the grammar of living, dealing with all relations and functions of living.

Religion is trying to teach us that no act is trite, every moment is an extraordinary occasion.

The highest peak of spiritual living is not necessarily reached in rare moments of ecstasy; the highest peak lies wherever we are and may be ascended in a common deed. There can be as sublime a holiness in performing friendship, in observing dietary laws day by day, as in uttering a prayer on the Day of Atonement.

It is not by the rare act of greatness that character is determined, but by everyday actions, by a constant effort to rend our callousness.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Week in Seven Words #32

For close to an hour I sit with my eyes closed; they feel heavy, but sleep won't come. The airplane cabin is dark, most passengers sleeping, and on a restless impulse I pry up the shade on the nearest window and look outside. We're flying into a sunrise. Alongside the plane the skies are dark, but up ahead there's a thick melting band of beautiful orange. Piled above it are successive stripes of yellow-white, then blues darkening to black; at the foot of the sunrise the cloudscape is gray-blue, like the surface of an alien planet. This is the world I live in, and it's a blessing to see it this way.

Each scientist seems like a neuron. The neuron has its own activities, its own rate and intensity of firing, but at the same time its actions are inseparable from what other neurons are doing; connections have formed and will form between neighboring neurons or neurons that are at a remove from each other, and while the activity of a single neuron might be relatively simple, when they fire together, or in response to one another, the patterns of activity give rise to complex knowledge and understanding, a broader and more detailed picture of a given phenomenon or entity in the world.

There's time to explore, both at the beginning of the day and in the evening; there's time to squint at cathedral gargoyles, sip tea in a crowded room with flowers and wide windows, stroll through a garden in dusk when the midges are out and the skies are overcast, climb the narrow steps to a fun museum where a king is cross-examined, walk alongside a shadowed river, and stand at the site of a massacre, yet another eruption of hate and blood lust.

We're with gracious hosts. They give us a place at their table, delicious food, conversation on all sorts of topics, singing and simcha; they offer us reflections on life, the holidays, human nature and purpose and ask us to share our own thoughts. It's a warm room we're in, with light wood floors, shelves with lots of books, and the table (or tables) where everyone gathers. It's the sort of room that can somehow fit forty people almost as easily as it fits seven.

Sunset as seen from a bench in Hyde Park. It seems like we're sitting within a glass marble streaked with peach, gold, blue, and feathery gray.

In the early morning we walk on the walls of a city. On each side there are houses with chimney pots, slopes of green gold grass, brick and stone smattered with ivy, cobbled roads feeding into asphalt streets, dark furrowed trees heavy with leaves, and at our feet snails have emerged after the night's rain.

There are many different kinds of shofar notes on Rosh Hashanah. Sometimes the notes are precise, efficient and somewhat mechanical; the shofar-blower rises, performs his duties skillfully, and then returns to his seat. Other times the shofar seems to strain against the fabric of the air, against the boundaries of sound itself; there's so much feeling and effort, so much longing and appeal. The shofar blasts and rasps and lets out a wild fierce pleading blare of sound. Other times only a gasp emerges; the shofar-blower pauses, takes a deep breath, shuts his eyes in concentration and makes another attempt. During one round of shofar-blowing a two year old child is laughing wildly; the two sounds together are beautiful - the long yearning note of the shofar, straining with every wordless hope and resolution and plea, and the child pealing happily alongside it.

Week in Seven Words #31

It's been a while since I've seen a blackboard in use for an entire lesson or talk. I've gotten used to Powerpoint slides, to projectors and overheads, to occasional equations on whiteboard with marker - but chalk and blackboard, in a funny way I've missed it: the clack of the chalk on the board, dust rising from the erasers, all kinds of hand-writing from large and legible to white loopy scrawls that make you squint and tilt your head to the side.

The week is full of relatively major obligations, and pushing up among them are minor ones as well, like weeds thrusting up between paving stones.

The children enjoy the plastic and metal instruments. The parents, not so much.

A pink cupcake is an occasion for tears.

Weather reporters post themselves along the coast, against backdrops of agitated surf and twisting branches.

Mineola is tangy and bursts in the mouth. Sabra fruit has a sweet flesh and tiny hard seeds that try to burrow between the teeth.

An item arrives in the mail earlier than expected. With some last-minute assistance, a project prints on schedule. I catch someone I need to speak to in a two-minute window after a meeting. Small slices of time fit neatly into the week, making the week's work more manageable.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Heading off for a short while...

I'll be taking a work-related trip early next week, and that's followed by the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, so it's likely I won't be on the web much, if at all; I might have to post a back-to-back 'week in seven words' later (two weeks in fourteen words).

In the meantime here's a beautiful relaxing video of an enormous aquarium in Japan (and that isn't a hint at my travel destination). Enjoy!

Kuroshio Sea - 2nd largest aquarium tank in the world - (song is Please don't go by Barcelona) from Jon Rawlinson on Vimeo.

And both to the people celebrating the Jewish New Year next week and to the people who aren't - I wish you all a happy, blessed, sweet and successful year.

(added note: I didn't even notice until playing the video right now for background music that the accompanying song is called 'Please Don't Go'...)

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Week in Seven Words #30

She calls three times before her flight, clinging to a voice she loves.

Three women, a long afternoon lunch, and a breeze gliding between the balcony and the front door.

Flowers that seem ordinary and pretty during the day acquire a strange purple glow beneath the street lamps at night.

My thoughts ping around every which way - bouncing off my cerebellum and zinging around my limbic system - and I make the mistake of talking in the midst of this scattered mental state. Meaningless pings and thunks come out of my mouth, and I hear myself and think, "Who is this ninny, and why does she have my voice?"

Every so often I get up and pace in a semi-circle in front of the computer; it stares blandly back at me, displaying the little graphs, text boxes, screen captures and clipart tableaux. I bend forward peering at it all with narrowed eyes and wondering what I should pounce on next.

On the one hand I have a wrenching stomachache. On the other hand I bump into not one, but two people whom I haven't seen in a while. So I live in a split reality - a part of me is caught up in pleasant conversation, while another part is sobbing quietly to itself, wanting its hot tea and corner-of-the-couch and blanket.

There's a separate climate zone in the back of the fridge, where the temperatures have dipped and turned a yogurt cup into a popsicle, a handful of radishes into nuggets of ice, and the surface of the humous into a miniature ice-skating rink, smooth and crystalline.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A treat

I didn't know about this site until today: What Should I Read Next?

Type in books you've loved, and the site gives you a list of recommendations (with links) for new books you might enjoy (the connection between your entry and the resulting recommendations isn't always clear, but that's part of the fun). I've come across books I've never heard of and wouldn't have looked for: a great way to be surprised (and take a break from work...)

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Week in Seven Words #29

We're standing in George Washington's Headquarters in Valley Forge National Park, looking into the different rooms that have been laid out in such impeccable detail - tables covered in a carefully disordered array of documents, uniform jackets draped over open doorways, shelves with white porcelain dishes, a dining table laid out with potatoes, peas, and ham, small beds neatly made up with checkered blankets - and as we're poking our heads into one room after another he tells me (with his sharp eye for detail and his mischievous sense of humor), that these men really were ahead of their time: look, they had equipped the house with smoke detectors, and who knows how many times those had come in handy saving Washington's life.

We're surprised by a plot of sunflowers. She tells me they seem depressed, and it's true, they're hanging their heads, but the rain diminishes some of their sadness I think. When it's sunny outside, a wilted sunflower really does look downcast, drooping away from the source of its light, as if the sun has failed it. But in the rain, it's a little spot of faded sunshine, and still looks determined to bring some cheer.

Sometimes there's a feeling that the air is made up of more flower-scent than oxygen.

In my daily planner I had written a list of studious, work-related tasks I intended to accomplish that evening, but as it turns out I spend most of the time watching a good sweet movie and eating a good sweet (generous) portion of rum raisin ice cream.

She asks me why I'm afraid to open the envelope - she uses the word afraid, instead of hesitant - and the reason for my hesitation becomes clear soon after as her temper erupts when she reads the contents. She calms down in a short while though, enough to at least deal in a more level-headed way with the problem. And the next day it's possible for her to be in high spirits; during one of the stops in our road trip in the afternoon she makes us laugh so hard our stomachs are convulsed and tears are leaking out of our eyes.

Raindrops tapping on our shoulders and faces; we smile into the rain.

I expect a light-hearted night with dinner and a movie, but at one point the conversation takes an unexpectedly heavy turn. We talk about illness and death, terrible things happening to decent people, and how to explain these things (to children, adults, anyone) - and the people I'm talking to seem to want quick decisive responses (this goes against my plodding, ruminative way of sorting through thoughts, especially on topics like these). Yet there are moments, especially as the conversation progresses and my mind has had more time to consider these matters, when I can put words to some of my convictions and get a point across that I feel is important. Afterwards, as frustrated and humbled as I am by my meager understanding and struggle for eloquence, I'm also glad I have this conversation, not only because I've clarified certain thoughts that had stayed unvoiced in my head, thought of new things too since then, new angles to explore... but also because it's necessary to wrestle with these questions, to never stop asking.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Extracts: "the indefatigable system"

In the novel Olive Kitteridge there's a scene where a man by the name of Kevin Coulson has returned to his home town because he wants to commit suicide there. He parks his car near a marina and sits for a while looking out at the ocean; the gun is wrapped in a blanket in the back seat, and he fully intends to use it later on, but for now he wants to just sit and watch the ocean. That's when his old junior high math teacher (Olive herself) spots him, taps on the car window, and plops down on the passenger seat.

There's one excerpt from that section that I particularly liked, because I think it gets at how even when the mind and heart seem set on oblivion or demise, a person can still be grasping almost hysterically at life.
At the very moment Kevin became aware of liking the sound of her voice, he felt adrenaline pour through him, the familiar, awful intensity, the indefatigable system that wanted to endure. He squinted hard toward the ocean. Great gray clouds were blowing in, and yet the sun, as though in contest, streamed yellow rays beneath them so that parts of the water sparkled with frenzied gaiety.

He doesn't know whether he wants Olive to stay or go - there are some points when he definitely wants her to leave, because he senses she's thwarting his plan; as for Olive herself, it seems that even though she doesn't know the specifics and hasn't seen her old student in years, she senses that something's off, and she makes herself comfortable in that passenger seat.

The scene ends with everything getting turned upside down, and Kevin winds up rescuing someone from drowning in the choppy water off the marina:
the girl... now holding him with a fierceness that matched the power of the ocean - oh, insane, ludicrous, unknowable world! Look how she wanted to live, look how she wanted to hold on.

I don't think we find out what happens to Kevin, after that chapter (the book is a collection of stories/episodes about Olive and various people in her family and community). But no news can be taken as good news in this case; there was a reason he had decided to return to his home town to kill himself, and if he had, people would have been talking about it for years after.

As for the book as a whole - I had mixed feelings about it; it felt sharper and stronger initially, then seemed to fade, with the writing losing its freshness, and the ending coming across as too tidy and tired. I guess I was hoping for more imagination and at some points more depth. Sometimes it felt like a compilation of fractures and disorders, one after another - adultery, anoxeria, depression, suicide, more adultery, and similar-sounding notes on futility and impotence over and over again.

In any case, the characters mostly went on living, however much their lives were constricted, off-kilter or empty-feeling. One of the best elements to the book I felt was that it contrasted the difficulty and complexity of individuals with the often glib or simplistic explanations provided by doctors and therapists (and by the individuals themselves, trying to place blame or pinpoint the source of problems); pointing to a faulty gene or an imperfect parent just can't explain the whole of it - the whole of what a person is - however much it's tempting to settle for the easy explanations.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Of roses and waterfowl

Yesterday at Philadelphia's Morris Arboretum, the rose garden was a heady experience:



Had I been able to relax around the bumblebees, this bench would have been a lovely place to rest:

After the reds and pinks of the roses came the marmalade shades of the Pennock Flower Walk:

Then the browns, grays and greens of the Swan Pond. The Swan Pond appeared to have only one swan, in whose honor the pond is named:

There were many ducks (but none of them trumped the swan in the pond-naming hierarchy - maybe because most ducks secretly wish they were swans...?):

The pond is also home to geese (though no one would call it a Goose Pond - which is a shame... there are many Swan Ponds around in various parks and gardens, but not enough Goose Ponds):

Especially seeing as geese can do clever things like walk in line when crossing a road:

Similar to last week's encounters with geese, I liked observing them interact with human-made constructions like roads, ledges, and docks. And they took on some human aspects themselves, like this lone goose who couldn't keep up with the others because of an injury:

Although afterwards, as if sensing pity from its onlookers, it ruffled its wings, stretched them, stretched its neck too, and stood for several minutes with its head proudly upright. It seemed to be in sympathy with all the other strong delicate creatures that thrust themselves up into the world.



Sunday, August 15, 2010

Week in Seven Words #28

Maybe it's a game for bike riders, to see how close they can get to a pedestrian without an actual collision. Maybe pedestrians seem to them like the figures in video games who always walk in one fixed straight line, never deviating a millimeter right or left for any reason - not to side-step a pothole or animal feces, not to tilt closer to get a better view of something, not to pick up something that fell out of a pocket, or to act in any other unpredictable human way.

This week they include a watery strawberry daiquiri at an anniversary dinner, and an imaginary cup of tea at a Tinkerbell-themed tea party.

Rodin sculpted pairs of hands that are craggy and uncompromising; in the sunny room, against a backdrop of pale walls, they are dark and stark and difficult. These are hands that can sculpt the air, snag the wind and twist it. They are often grasping at something that eludes them.

In one city they're clumped on a grassy slope, with the sun slanting on them as they pick at the grass and at their own feathers; in another city they they form an uneven line among the soil and shrubs that pad a concrete ledge. In both cities they settle on spots overlooking rivers. One time I look up from my book to find them flying heavily overhead, dragging their bodies through the hot air.

Under bridges the spaces are ponderous and dim, and cars howl vaguely above you.

Times Square - lights flashing and rippling, giant yellow Peanut M&Ms high-kicking, electric red horses bucking, and through a toy story window the sight of a two-story ferris wheel in slow glittering rotation. On the sidewalks, the people move around like molecules of gas.

It's a rainy weekday night, with few people around the fountain at Lincoln Center. At first there's only one woman beside it; she wears a white raincoat and stands in silhouette against the glowing plumes of water. She leaves, and in her place a man and woman emerge, sharing a broad black umbrella. For several minutes they embrace, and then the man lowers himself onto one knee.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Week in Seven Words #27

I'm happy to see her in a sustained good mood, when she seems lighter on her feet and is prone to laughter.

Our sensory perceptions are limited by our brains and bodies; there are colors and frequencies for instance that we can't sense unaided, and everything we do sense is filtered through our unique composition of cells - it's the only physical reality we know. The man lecturing at the front of the room used to rely on a hearing aid, but after becoming completely deaf he began using a cochlear implant - a small computer that's now a part of his body; he speaks of how his brain adjusted to it, and of what it's like to experience auditory perception through such a device.

Popsicles melting together on a paper plate - lime, strawberry, wild berry - a psychedelic puddle.

It's not that I fail to notice that the road splits in two - I notice it, vaguely - it's just that I walk down the wrong fork; actually it's less walking and more a determined barreling stride, because I'm already running late, and I don't want to keep my friend waiting. I don't notice anything amiss until I'm at a quiet residential street (cue crickets chirping), just past an enormous domed church, and my friend calls my cellphone and describes landmarks I don't see.

They're so fine and bright and moist, those green grapes; we pretend to pluck them out of the painting and pop them in our mouths.

Stones and columns from other continents and eras, reassembled in dark dramatic rooms. People stroll past and study the pillars, statues, and slabs of stone; they pose with a self-conscious smile in front of carvings with wild blank eyes, or they unfold their cell phones and snap up the heavy granite in quick pictures.

All of the actors in this production of A Midsummer Night's Dream have a sense of playfulness and fun. Some of them have a sense of the words too, the cadence, letting the poetry roll off their tongue as they clatter around the stage; those who don't have a feel for the words tend to swallow them or scream them and rely mostly on slapstick fights and comic faces to pull them through. The best blend of well-spoken lines, comic timing, and physical humor is in the rendition of Pyramus and Thisbe at the end - with Bottom giving Pyramus one of the goriest deaths ever, after which the actress playing Thisbe tiptoes up to his self-mutilated, gutted, decapitated, flayed, disemboweled corpse (because in his great anguish he couldn't just stab himself) and whispers, "Asleep, my love?"

Friday, August 6, 2010

Extracts: the world of Green Gables

I recently rediscovered Anne of Green Gables while visiting family; the copy of the book is one of those lovely older hard-cover volumes with some rich illustrations, both in black and white and in color.

I love the characters, not least Anne Shirley - smart, big-hearted, imaginative and dramatic chatterbox, who starts out as a neglected, spirited orphan and sprouts up into an uncommon and well-loved young woman at Green Gables. And the places in and around Avonlea and Green Gables also become characters in and of themselves, beautiful places full of life and color with lots of "scope for the imagination" as Anne would put it.
Anne came dancing home in the purple winter twilight across the snowy places. Afar in the southwest was the great shimmering, pearl-like sparkle of an evening star in a sky that was pale golden and ethereal rose over gleaming white spaces and dark glens of spruce.

And while traveling in the evening -
There was a magnificent sunset, and the snowy hills and deep blue water of the St. Lawrence Gulf seemed to rim in the splendor like a huge bowl of pearl and sapphire brimmed with wine and fire.

Even the practical and stern (yet quietly soft-hearted) Marilla Cuthbert is not immune to the surroundings:
... but under these reflections was a harmonious consciousness of red fields smoking into pale-purply mists in the declining sun, of long, sharp-pointed fir shadows falling over the meadow beyond the brook, of still crimson-budded maples around a mirror-like wood-pool, of a wakening in the world and a stir of hidden pulses under the gray sod. The spring was abroad in the land and Marilla's sober, middle-aged step was lighter and swifter because of its deep, primal gladness.

Anne likes to give these places names of her own. Here is her first glimpse of Barry's Pond (which she renames the Lake of Shining Waters):
Above the bridge the pond ran up into fringing groves of fir and maple and lay all darkly translucent in their wavering shadows. Here and there a wild plum leaned out from the bank like a white-clad girl tiptoeing to her own reflection. From the marsh at the head of the pond came the clear, mournfully-sweet chorus of the frogs.

And when she looks out the window her first morning at Green Gables:
Below the garden a green field lush with clover sloped down to the hollow where the brook ran and where scores of white birches grew, upspringing airily out of an undergrowth suggestive of delightful possibilities in ferns and mosses and woodsy things generally.

Towards the end of the book, Anne says it best:
"Dear old world," she murmured, "you are very lovely, and I am glad to be alive in you."

Monday, August 2, 2010

Week in Seven Words #26

The sky is a dim gray-white, with rumbles of thunder running through it. Now and then lightning flashes; sometimes in the diffuse distance, other times in a sharp bolt to the ground close by.

At the National Constitution Center, a mother unwisely brings her toddler into the theater for the 17 minute show on the origins of the Constitution and highlights of its contents. The toddler is fussy even before the show starts, and when the room goes dark and the host's voice springs out loudly to the accompaniment of a bright pattern of images, the kid makes recurring noises of frustration and discomfort. Various audience members remain as patient and tense as a slowly stretching rubber band before finally unleashing a flurry of "shhhhs" at the mother, who stays until halfway through the show, when she finally gathers up her strident child and creeps up the stairs to the exit. An interesting mix of issues here related to courtesy, common sense, and the contentions that arise when people's personal freedoms and choices are at odds.

It's taken me three weeks to finish reading a journal article. It's not a badly written article, and it's on a topic of interest, so I don't understand why I keep putting it down and letting it sit, half marked-up, on the corner of my desk. This week I finally get to the end of it, and it feels as if a weight has slipped off my back.

One thing I remember from an exhibit about the influences of ancient Rome on the founding of the U.S., are the pen names colonial rebels used in their letters. Abigail Adams took to signing her name as Portia in letters to her husband, John, whereas before that her pen name had been Diana - also Roman, but without the political symbolism of Portia; in ancient Rome Portia was the beloved wife of the politician Brutus, who along with other conspirators killed the increasingly powerful Caesar. The phrase "sic semper tyrannis", which is often attributed to Brutus, became the state motto of Virginia. (It also cropped up later in American history, when John Wilkes Booth shouted it out to the crowded Ford's Theater after killing Lincoln.)

Early morning, a soft gray light from the window; I'm in bed with a book and everything seems quiet and intent.

I don't look at the story for a while. Then I come back to it and find new things to change. Afterwards I put it away. At some point it calls for my attention again, like a small child tugging at my sleeve, and I revisit it. Still some more things to change. And then there just comes a time to send it out and not think about it again for the next short while.

Cool almond milk, sweetened slightly, swimming out of its carton and into my cup.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Week in Seven Words #25

All at once the lights wink out, the fan holds its breath, the fridge gives a small sigh and is silent; everything has fallen into a dark hush. Though I can narrow down the location of my flashlight to a certain portion of the room, I can't actually see where it is, and unfortunately the flashlight isn't a glow-in-the-dark model. I wind up using the weak light from my laptop as a flashlight to find the actual flashlight. Once the flashlight is in hand, I divert myself for several moments by making its light race around the walls, before remembering that I am in fact a responsible adult and should venture out and see what's going on in the building.

On the evening of Tisha B'Av - a day marked by mourning, destruction, and exile - we sit on the floor and read the Book of Lamentations. At one point I think to myself that one of the worst things you can wish on someone is the inability to repent of anything and change for the better.

We break the fasting in the second floor library. I slowly put together my bagel, cream cheese, lox, and tomato combo, savoring it, grateful that we have food, that we're all blessed with plenty here and can sit around now chatting. We fasted out of mourning, out of choice, obligation, commitment, and feeling; no dire circumstances threatened us with actual starvation - something not to be taken for granted.

For a moment I'm so moved by his question and the tone in which it's spoken that I can't speak. Then I find my voice again and assure him that I plan to visit soon, in a few weeks - I promise.

I'm not sure at what age skipping becomes an unacceptable way to get from Point A to Point B; I start thinking about this after watching a four year old decide that the best way to go down a long hallway is to skip. And then I wonder if we stop skipping not only because it becomes socially unacceptable, but also because our impulse to skip just shrivels up as we age, so we can no longer do it lightly and spontaneously; it instead becomes self-conscious and self-mocking.

On the computer I prune out short segments of speech - pronouns like 'it' and 'him' - and find out firsthand that in isolation they often sound like an indistinct buzz. They become distinct and recognizable only when they're part of the larger speech stream; otherwise they're like stray droplets that evaporate quickly.

The topography of tiredness. From the start of the dinner to about an hour and a half into it, my energy and alertness slips downhill into a trough. Then a long stretch of good conversation perks me up again, until at midnight I'm at a peak, content and wide awake, and thinking things over rather than sinking comfortably into sleep.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Different shades of the sea

Seen around Portland, Maine...

When sitting on a bench along the Eastern Promenade:


From a walk along Willard Beach:


On a boat coasting among the islands of the Casco Bay:


And from the Western Promenade, the first day of the visit, when everything was a melting misty gray:


Saturday, July 17, 2010

Week in Seven Words #24

I can count on this restaurant to provide the right kind of avocado - not too mushy or too hard, and embedded in the chewy seaweed and sticky white rice of a delectable sushi roll.

A plate of juicy pineapple - fat glistening cubes of pineapple - by the window fan in the warm room.

I don't focus enough on my words and the implications of my work; I attend too closely to the expressions of the people in the audience. Their faces are often inscrutable; from time to time they nod, quirk an eyebrow, smile just a little. Though it's important to keep one's audience in mind during a talk I think I take it just a little too far, searching their faces for the most miniscule glimpse of their true thoughts.

Leaning against the train window, eyes half-closed, with the sun setting at my left ear.

It stems in large part from a fear of failure.

A camp counselor asks a reasonable question: "Why did you touch the waffle-maker? You know it's hot!"

She picks a few fuzzy feathery pink flowers from a tree and instructs me to tuck them into my pocket so that my hands will be free when we play catch.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Extracts: a cold hollow

The sun was not setting, nor was it seen. It hid behind the western slopes so only a hint of sun rose upward, firing the ridges with a green fire, and leaving everything in the hollow a clean, cold shadow.
-- from "Fox Hunters", by Breece D'J Pancake

Words like those give me a cold shivery feeling even in summer. Like in most of Pancake's stories, set in West Virginia, there's a cold ache running through the landscape and the characters. They can try to warm up with drink, with sex, with hunting or fighting, or with some dreams of a different life or a different place, but they still remain in those cold hollows.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Week in Seven Words #23

Ice cream, half-scooped and half-puddled, seeps through the mouth and dissolves on the tongue. Heat, sweat and sweetness on a summer afternoon.

The flowers dip their long green fronds in the water, the way people might sit at the edge of a swimming pool and paddle their feet.

Watching them play it's difficult to predict when they'll get along peaceably and when they'll slip into mischievous pestering or earnest scuffles. Another possibility is that they'll drift to different parts of the room and focus on individual pursuits involving characters, shoes, blocks, blankets, keyboards and cars.

Whole days, derailed. A sick gnawing anxiousness and pain.

The fountain is full of cool fire. Plashing white plumes surge out of its basin, and the sun is shattered on its waters.

Sometimes he invests the word with just a little too much power; he thinks that any bit of mischief or inflicted hurt will be instantaneously undone with the utterance of an earnest 'sorry'.

Flags ripple against a light blue sky.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

A Philly Fourth of July

To those who celebrated America's Independence Day, I hope you had a great and memorable holiday.

I spent this year's Fourth of July in Philadelphia.


Here's Independence Hall (the old Pennsylvania State House), where the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Second Continental Congress, and where over a decade later the Constitution was ratified and signed. It was especially amazing to be here on the 4th; history was even more present and palpable.

On a lawn between Independence Hall and the National Constitution Center, a man in colonial costume smoked his pipe for a while, before the assortment of people around him sang God Bless America with a solemn tenderness.


Next came a stop at the Old City Hall, where the first Supreme Court met (6 justices back then); one of the earliest Associate Justices, James Wilson, who was also one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, is buried in Christ Church a few blocks north. Here two naval officers, after having paused to look at his grave, step into the church.


It's still an active Episcopal church today (and was once the tallest building in North America); its congregation back then included Ben Franklin, George Washington, and Betsy Ross.

I visited the Betsy Ross house too; she was an upholsterer famous for being a patriotic flag-maker (though there's a dispute as to whether she sewed the first Stars and Stripes flag).


That colorful tubby figure in the courtyard of the Betsy Ross House is the mascot for the Phillies baseball team; this one is painted in patchwork but in other parts of the city he shows up in different colors and patterns.

Another thing to note about the courtyard is how nicely shaded it is. It was a sweltering dry day, which tended to make a person sleepy.


Though to the little girl's credit, she was still holding onto that flag even as she slept. This was on the way to Penn's Landing, which overlooks the Delaware River.


You can see the Ben Franklin bridge. And on the 4th, the USS Bulkeley was docked at Penn's Landing and allowed visitors to tour parts of the vessel.


Another Penn's Landing treat was the Super Scooper All You Can Eat Ice Cream Festival (proceeds went to the Joshua Kahan Fund).


There was Turkey Hill vanilla with walnuts, Ben and Jerry's Phish Food, a Haagen Dazs sample that was a lot like the Phish Food but without the little chocolate fish, and there was strawberry Breyers, and then two spoons of Edys mint chocolate chip (I think it was Edys, it's all a haze now)... and that's when my stomach finally protested ("Have pity, Madam").

Good thing I walked a lot today. Including a stroll down the "oldest continuously inhabited street in the US" - Elfreth's Alley (I love that name, Elfreth - makes me think of elves and eldritch creatures).


A little offshoot called Bladen's Court:



There's that delicious shade again; it cooled the air somewhat.

But shade wasn't enough; I needed water. Not necessarily to drink, but just to be near. A portion of the walk west across Center City seemed to be in pursuit of water and was highlighted by some fountain hopping.

I spotted the first fountain across from the Arch Street Meeting House.


Ben Franklin - you find him all over Philly, for good reason. Though he spent years overseas and was born and raised in Boston, Philly is his city; it's where he developed and established a name for himself, plied his trade, and undertook and implemented many of his works, inventions and projects. He represents many classic American qualities - ingenuity, solid common sense, brilliant inventiveness, hard work and rigor, geniality, civic feeling and responsibility, entrepreneurship, broad-mindedness and free and open debate.


The next fountain was in Love Park, which is a great name for a park, though I never understood the 'Love' sculpture - which is just the word stacked on itself with a lopsided O, and made of what looks like plastic.


After that came the grand fountain at Logan Square:


Here the people were naturally a part of the fountain art and architecture.


There was also a lot of fun outside the water. This group took turns breakdancing beside the Benjamin Franklin Parkway:


Farther along the Parkway, which was closed off for a street fair with food, music, raffles, and more food, people danced, swayed, and waited for the singer to tell them when to put their hands up in the air:


Then there was this guy, who started off a series of gymnastic stunts by saying, "I want to make sure you're looking at me. Look at me. All eyes on me" - which went without saying, because it's kind of hard to avoid looking at a fierce bare-chested man with ripped abs and leopard print tights who can do handstand springs.


But eventually there came a time for rest and reflection.


Whether outside the Rodin Museum, or along a quiet stretch of 20th Street.


The Schuylkill River looked peaceful in the fading light. From its banks you could watch the sunset and wait for the fireworks show later on.