Saturday, March 27, 2010

Week in Seven Words #8

We're the ones who don't fit neatly anywhere. Off the main room with the bright lights and song and long tables, we're in the semi-dark, five or six of us, whoever wants to drift in and talk about anything, from holiday plans to obscure historical details, and whether it's possible to both be cynical and hold onto cherished ideals. We're in the side room with the books, leftover crackers, and the windows facing sunset; in key ways we're beautifully different from one another, but seeking similar things - the pleasure of good conversation, along with room to slouch and stretch out our legs.

The darling buds of March. They're set, in shades of light pink, against backdrops of gray sky or drab brick; they're framed by windows, where they seem to be looking in with rapt attention. Some trees have already flowered open, but on others the buds hold tight to themselves as long as possible; I'm expecting them to be especially spectacular when they finally yield to the season.

To help someone out with a project, I agree to be photographed carrying out a number of different actions - playing cards, getting chased, sipping from a cup, reclining in a chair. I also need to mimic angry and violent actions - punching and kicking. I find it difficult to act those out, because I keep cracking up; I don't look angry enough. Finally I manage it but even then it feels like a comic sort of anger, as if I'm a cartoon character with steam coming out of my ears.

He wants me to give him a signal if he's getting to be too long-winded in front of the guests. The signals we discuss range from the relatively subtle - three taps to the side of my nose, a beseeching stare - to the more obvious, like throwing my head back and letting out a huge groan.

The short thin raincoat isn't enough against the downpour. The rain soaks into my jeans and sweatshirt sleeves. I wear the rain on my skin for hours, cool against my thighs and wrists and the slope of my shoulders.

A light dinner beneath a peach and gray sky; the breeze for the most part is mild and pleasant. I sit alone and eat slowly. I stop often to sip my root beer and lean back in my chair.

Very young infants are often underestimated. But there's so much that they can do, and many things that they're primed to learn. They have certain cognitive structures in place. They can pick up contingencies about the properties of the world and its objects. As the weeks fly by after birth, they show an ability to reason (in their own elusive, nonverbal way) about events in the world. The glimpses we get into their minds reveal amazing processes.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Undone - a short film

A wrenching, disturbing, and beautiful film.

From the film-maker:
A stop-motion animation using textured and tactile materials, as well as personal imagery, that represents the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Inspired by my grandfather.

Undone from Hayley Morris on Vimeo.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Week in Seven Words #7

A low-slung yellow moon. Daffodils in early evening light. The scent of hot buttered pretzels from the shop I walk past nearly every day.

I had some sort of plan for the afternoon, but it gently derailed - I forget an address that I'm supposed to remember, confuse one building with another, sit in the cool shade beside two old men eating ice cream, spot a friend playing frisbee, listen to him then argue with another friend about love and sex and the meaning of it all (while the ice-cream eating men look on in amusement), hear an interesting talk signed by a deaf man (and spoken by an interpreter), and watch the sunset while sampling two flavors of lollipops.

A last minute suggestion leads to a one-day trip. It's full of work, study, and difficult concepts to follow and grasp, but there's also that hour in the early afternoon spent taking a walk with someone I barely know (but get to know better), out in the sunny streets with the unpredictable architecture, and a small square (not green yet, but starting to show signs of green) where an outdoor band plays brassy music for an appreciative audience of passers-by.

She goes out of her way to meet up with me; she brings me a homemade chicken sandwich and slices of orange. It's the first real meal I've had that day, and my headache starts to recede.

When he asks me if I'm paying attention to the conversation or just watching the birds battle it out over a scrap of food in the shrubs, I can honestly tell him that I'm doing both.

I find myself in possession of several boxes of raisins. And I do like raisins. They go on my oatmeal, in my yogurt, among chopped up fruits or salad greens, and embedded in my rice pudding.

On the other end of the phone he's scratching his head just like I'm scratching mine. And just by sitting and talking out the problem slowly and being befuddled together, we start to untangle some of it; we begin to pull apart the strands of this quandary.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Two Shades of Regalness

Contrasting the fountain in City Hall Park, NYC as I encountered it August '08 and December '09.

I like rediscovering places in different seasons; how the place will feel very different from what it was when you were last there, but there's a sense of familiarity too, however faint. You can think, what are the most significant changes? And what are those elements that are most important in preserving the familiarity? In both seasons the fountain's lanterns burn; the effect is also different, depending on the season.

About this fountain, I think it's a delight (the whole park is, but the fountain is the gem embedded in the heart of the park; from the gates onwards you're drawn to it). I like how in both seasons it looks so regal, but in different ways.

A more playful, proud and confident regalness in summer. Shimmering and golden, taking delight in itself:

And then in winter a certain regal warmth and restraint, a kind of dignified dowager queen:

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


Over at the bookworm blog I was tagged into participating in this likes/dislikes list; so, rarely one to turn down an opportunity to procrastinate on my work, I cut and pasted it from her blog and filled in my own answers after each like and dislike (if there was a line for something I both like and dislike it would be procrastination).

I like genuine happy laughter.
I like holiday meals, especially dinners that last late into the evening.
I like understanding people and why they do what they do, say what they say (think what they think).
I like walking outside right after it rains (and walking more generally).
I like water - streams, rivers, waves, droplets on a window...
I like old bookshops where the owner's cat sits in a corner staring at all the customers and old libraries where I'm too distracted to read because I'm staring happily at all the books and the architecture.
I like writing - quietly, without interruption.
I like finding a brilliant piece of music I've never encountered and thinking, "How could I have never heard this, ever?!"
I love my family.
Today was cool, pleasant, windy.
I dislike arrogance.
I dislike slander.
I dislike watching parades.
I dislike pettiness.
I dislike bureaucratic pointlessness.
I dislike shrillness.
I (secretly) like hording chocolate in a certain corner of a particular kitchen cupboard.

I have a moment's pause before posting this - for instance most if not all of the things in the like category could best be described with love of some kind, and some of the things in the dislike category I feel more strongly about than dislike... But I'm just going to go ahead and stop over-analyzing.

And because I have to enlist three more people into filling this in (it's the rules!)... I don't know, anyone who stops by and wants to do this is welcome to (just post a link to yours in the comments so I and others can go enjoy what you've written).

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Week in Seven Words #6

It's not the first time this has happened: seeing the text of a story or poem in a dream. While dreaming I read it, took delight in it, but now that I'm awake the words have vanished, and I can't remember them. Some people have told me that this sort of phenomenon isn't real the way I want it to be, that my waking mind is just filling in some blanks afterwards. But I know I had something, and that it went missing and left no visible trace. I like to think the words are still somewhere in my mind and that they'll come out some other way.

The first stinging insect of the season that I've spotted. It writhes against the paving and looks like a sharp bright bead in the sunlight. Something probably struck it down; its wings twitch uselessly.

One kind of classic conditioning experiment carried out on lab rats is a startle experiment, in which a rat in a cage is subjected to a very loud sound (which may be paired with a milder warning noise or other stimulus that the rat will come to associate with the imminent fright). Where I live the building-wide fire alarm system has been malfunctioning from early afternoon to early evening; unlike the rats in some of those experiments we don't get the benefit of a warning each time the next ear-shattering fit of shrieking starts up. Also unlike the rats, we at least have the liberty of leaving when we're fed up.

In the middle of a pedestrian lane sits a cast-iron chair; it was left there probably as a joke of some kind. The chair has delicate curved armrests, and its back has been molded into the shape of a heart. I crouch and peer through the heart at the cloudy sunset down the lane, at the bare trees, a passing biker and a small knot of people discussing their dinner plans. The chair looks lost and a little forlorn, unmoored from a circle of identical chairs chained to a table twenty feet away.

At lunchtime I leave my coat behind when I take a stroll. The sun is warm on my shoulders and neck.

The hole in the wall has been repaired. The wall is now a clean smooth off-white, and the smell of paint permeates the room. By the side of the bed there's also a small new rug, rainbow-striped; first thing when I get out of bed each morning my feet land on a splash of sharp colors.

The train station late at night. The ceiling expands in a pattern of red and gold. The announcements sound like faint echoing chants. Aisles and benches are empty and clean. Here and there a few people sit bowed over their luggage, dozing until it's time for them to depart.

Friday, March 12, 2010

One reading of "Travel Directions"

Earlier this week I came across a good poem. Travel Directions by Joan Siegel doesn't focus on the traveler's destination, which remains unspecified.

There ought to be a word
for the way you know how to get some place
but don't remember the names of streets

The poem speaks of a number of things. For one, the very real phenomenon of knowing how to get around a place or from one place to another without necessarily knowing street names, exact distances, or any other details you could readily use to direct other people. It's just a route you've taken so often it's embedded in your cognition, your senses and muscles. You don't have to think about it, and if you do, the details that emerge will probably be meaningful only to you.

That's another thing about this poem - how ultimately personal life and its travels are. We can share our perceptions with others, but at a fundamental level we experience the world alone; no two people will perceive, experience, think about something the same way. We can always do our best to share though, invite people into our minds (as far as they can go).

Another beautiful excerpt:

then the road turns sharply uphill past a red barn
where a black dog jumps out to race you for a quarter mile
and finally recedes in the mirror like a disappointment

The dog offers enthusiasm, joy, and simple companionship; these are kept at the roadside, never embraced, as the journey unfolds.

the road winds vaguely past
houses people road signs
while time hums in your ear and you remember
the dream you left behind that morning

There's a shift from the outward senses and the external world (which, even if experienced differently, can still be acknowledged and experienced together) to the writer's inner world, to a dream that only the writer knows about and no one else can guess at. The traveler's at a place where really no one can follow her.

Now I'm going to go off on a neurology-related tangent:

The poem reminds me of an article I read a few months back on episodic vs. semantic memory. Episodic memory is the term used to describe our memory for autobiographical events, our personal narrative; semantic memory is for general knowledge (knowing the state capitals, or what a watch is used for, or the multiplication tables). The two kinds of memories can certainly overlap and be enmeshed, but there are also distinctions between them; these distinctions can be seen, for example, in people with certain kinds of neurological damage that predominantly affect one type of memory but not the other.

In one neurological study, a person with episodic memory amnesia was asked to describe his old neighborhood. He could remember major landmarks and broad, general spatial relations between different places. But it was all a brittle, bare sort of mental map, very sparse. Minor landmarks and details were absent. Associations, memories, the whole personal feel was gone; I don't think he would have had the experience of the person in Travel Directions, being able to describe a journey based on such personal recollections/associations rather than the most abstract generalities.

(Though I'm not sure how he well he would navigate those places on foot, and I forget if they gave him such a test. Episodic memory can also be distinct from motor memory; for instance, a person with episodic memory amnesia would not necessarily lose his ability to play the piano, so maybe he could walk around his old neighborhood in habitual accustomed routes.)

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Week in Seven Words #5

We wear coats over our pajamas and have a drink on a balcony at night. This is a good time for talking, for catching up. A slice of the city is laid out before us - a lot of windows, some dark and blank, others allowing peeks inside to late dinner parties or flickering TVs.

Hearing the young boy ask "why?" makes me a lot less complacent about my knowledge of the world, how it works, why things are the way they are. Suddenly I'm struggling to find answers (or even just adequate words) for questions I'd foolishly assumed settled.

Over the course of the week I hear several different people exclaim, "what a beautiful day". The days are still cold; the wind can still be cutting. Dirty snow remains on the curbside. But there also seems to be a different quality to the daylight - stronger sunshine maybe. Or perhaps it's only wishful thinking, people wanting spring weather now without a moment's further delay.

The tri-corner pastry traditionally eaten on the holiday of Purim. I eat a few over the course of the holiday - one with a raspberry center and a hard shell that I soften in a glass of milk. Another is apricot, an especially sweet filling that looks like topaz. And the third is full of poppyseed paste.

In the morning, when the fever breaks, I'm tired, damp, and deliciously inert. I have no inclination to move, and even though I know I'll need to get up in ten or fifteen minutes to start the day, I feel as if those minutes pass more slowly, stretching out like putty.

She sits on my lap with a book of illustrated nursery rhymes; we're in the soft blue chair in the corner, near the lamp and her drawers full of teacups and dolls. We go through the book a few times; sometimes she leads, sometimes I lead, taking turns choosing the songs. She names the prominent figures in each picture, points to them, describes their colorful expressions; she sounds the words and melody of each song carefully, as if the rhymes will fracture if she's not gentle with them. Her hands turn each page with slow clumsy reverence.

On the train the man sitting in front of me is a U.S. senator. He conducts several long cell phone conversations on the intricacies of law, the impact of proposed policies, and the need to battle government corruption and wasteful spending. Ok, fine, I'll be serious. What he actually discusses is several ways of staying afloat - how to raise money, how to write an indignant press release about an organization that just endorsed his opponent, how to zero in on his opponent's weaknesses. That, and when his driver should be waiting for him when he disembarks from the train. On the plus side, at least he's travelling by train (and not even business class!) rather than jetting around like a lot of his colleagues.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Tree-magicians and waterbirds

Since childhood I've enjoyed anthropomorphizing trees. Actually I enjoy anthropomorphizing creatures and objects in general, but for trees I have a special fondness. They've got so much character, and in the winter especially when they're stripped of concealment their striking nature emerges.

Sometimes I see them as spell casters. Like this one, gathering his powers, assuming the pose in which he will unleash his magic:

The gnarled fingers touch the lake

Which then becomes a place where ducks can paddle through the architecture

And sea gulls can strut across moonscapes

(Central Park, NYC, late December '09.)