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.