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.


Saturday, July 3, 2010

Week in Seven Words #22

The intense focus of two dogs discovering a third. The two immediately strain at their leashes and begin to sniff; one of them attends to the third dog's face, the other delicately samples the hindquarters.

My foot is slightly swollen and pained. It reminds me of a grumpy companion on a road trip, complaining about distances, uncomfortable car seats, and slight jolts along the way.

The cashier is incredulous when a customer pays her in dollar coins; she at first thinks they're fake, like amusement park tokens. She's new to this country, but thought she'd learned everything about the money; she tells another cashier that a trip to the mint is in order.

The young child's mind is good at eluding experiments that try to tap into the earliest years of language use; a researcher can feel like a naturalist crouched in a tangle of vines and shrubs, hoping for a chance to cast a net at a sly and mysterious creature.

In some other world, a character I've become acquainted with holds her sword at the ready.

She's someone who's genuinely nice. I don't mean that in the bland way in which 'nice' may be used, when you can't think of a stronger or more interesting quality. She is a fundamentally nice person, and it's a pleasure to be in her company.

I think I have a firm grasp on the story, but the draft I'm working on drifts off course, and not in a mostly delightful or illuminating way. But at least I get some insights into the characters from this unexpected deviation, along with some words that I'd like to keep working with.