Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Week in Seven Words #95

My plate has something of everything: turkey and spicy beef, mashed yams and herbed potatoes, cranberry sauce, broccoli and Brussels sprouts, and a slender wedge of potato pashtida (a Jewish/Israeli frittata/quiche type of food, cooked here without a crust). Apple cider is served for drinks, and for dessert there's some of the sweet corn bread that was baking while we ate dinner.

Infants can look more solemn, critical and perceptive than the adults around them.

While gift-shopping at a bookstore I see cupcakes everywhere: cupcake calendars, cupcake recipe books, cupcakes on cards. Maybe there's always been a plethora of cupcake products, and I haven't noticed. Now they leap out at me in shades of pastel lavender and dark blotchy chocolate, kittenish pink and creamy white, sporting sprinkles or periwinkle candles.

We leave the paved path by the lake and go down a muddier offshoot; damp and soft, it coils past rocks and crackling bushes with berries.

I love the painstaking way they spell and write, focusing intently on each letter as if they realize how vulnerable language is to error and miscommunication. And each word they spell correctly is a door springing open.

My new glasses seem to have finally made peace with my brain and eyes.

She uses scrap paper, old shoeboxes, felt, string and other odds and ends for her crafts projects; things that her family might have thrown out become the cards and presents she gives them on special occasions.

Good Short Fiction: 3 tales from The Oxford Book of English Short Stories

Collection: The Oxford Book of English Short Stories
Editor: A.S. Byatt

Title: The Destructors
Author: Graham Greene

In London several boys have formed a gang. They content themselves with playing games and committing petty infractions, until a new member makes a more radical suggestion: to destroy the one house in the neighborhood that wasn't bombed during the Blitz. The man who lives there knows some of the boys, and they have nothing against him personally. But the thought of tearing down the home and everything in it - every possession, every piece of furniture, every plank and pipe and wall panel - is irresistible. They wait for the man to leave his house on a brief holiday, and they begin their work.

As I read this I thought of William Golding's Lord of the Flies and found Greene's story to be more chilling in some ways. The destruction here takes place in the heart of civilization, and it isn't driven by anything like revenge, anger, bloodlust or other out-of-control emotions. The boys don't steal anything, and they even admit that they don't hate the homeowner. In systematically destroying the house from the inside, while leaving the outer walls to collapse last, they work like single-minded termites. It's a kind of pure impersonal evil, not fueled by any emotion or ideology, except perhaps for the excitement of destruction and some deep-seated antipathy towards anything beautiful and worthwhile; maybe this uncompromising need to destroy lies at the core of every evil act. They spare nothing in the house, and wipe out every vestige of the man's identity within it. That this happens in a neighborhood already scarred by the Second World War makes it even more disturbing. The house survived the bombings only to succumb to a different manifestation of evil that seems inescapable; it's a part of day-to-day life, in wartime and peacetime, and exists even in the hearts of children.


Title: Solid Objects
Author: Virginia Woolf

The story begins with two men arguing politics as they walk along a beach. We don't hear the substance of their argument, and soon they give it up in favor of resting on the sand for a while. One of them throws pieces of slate out onto the ocean, letting them skim over the waves; the other man, whose name is John, wriggles his fingers into the sand - a childlike gesture - and finds a piece of green glass resembling a gemstone.

From then on he becomes obsessed with finding broken discarded objects that have an interesting appearance, such as fantastically shaped pieces of pottery and china, smooth lumps of iron and chunks of rock.
Anything so long as it was an object of some kind, more or less round, perhaps with a dying flame deep sunk in its mass, anything—china, glass, amber, rock, marble—even the smooth oval egg of a prehistoric bird would do.

As he combs through alleys, shrubs, and train tracks, his political career quietly implodes. Human affairs seem like background noise or faded wallpaper in comparison to the vivid objects that John finds; the objects endure as John's life slips by in his constant search for more of them. Each new find has to be more interesting than the last one. John's ambitions have been diverted into strange channels; the story never touches on what his political positions were, or what he had hoped to get out of life before discovering that first piece of green glass on the beach. None of it seems to matter.


Title: The Toys of Peace
Author: Saki (Hector Hugh Munro)

Harvey Bope has been asked by his sister to buy some peaceful toys for her sons, Bertie and Eric, when he next visits. The National Peace Council has recommended that boys be given toys that have nothing to do with war, so as to foster more peaceful impulses in them. Harvey is skeptical that "peace toys" will have any impact on his nephews' inclinations, but he decides to try the experiment. He brings them something altogether different from "the 'Siege of Adrianople' toy" they received from their Aunt Susan:
"It's a fort!" exclaimed Bertie.

"It isn't, it's the palace of the Mpret of Albania," said Eric, immensely proud of his knowledge of the exotic title; "it's got no windows, you see, so that passers-by can't fire in at the Royal Family."

"It's a municipal dust-bin," said Harvey hurriedly; "you see all the refuse and litter of a town is collected there, instead of lying about and injuring the health of the citizens."

In addition to the municipal dust-bin he's brought other civic buildings (including a municipal wash-house), along with figurines of civilian leaders. The kinds of toys, and the boys' reaction to them, are hilarious. The boys' resourcefulness is also a delight, as they turn the peaceful figurines and buildings into war toys:
Peeping in through the doorway Harvey observed that the municipal dustbin had been pierced with holes to accommodate the muzzles of imaginary cannon...

Clever and funny as the story is, it also has an underlying sadness. When Harvey observes at the end that he and his sister "have begun too late" in their peace toy experiment, you sense that he's not just talking about how old the boys are but about humanity as a whole.

Bertie and Eric, inspired by the riveting accounts of past battles they've read about, play at war with swashbuckling dialogue and cheerful slaughter. There's still an innocence to their play, because they don't know what it's like to be in real battle. In their lifetime there will be two world wars. H.H. Munro himself didn't survive WWI; when the war began he voluntarily fought as a soldier and was killed in France in 1916. The collection in which this story first appeared, The Toys of Peace, and Other Papers, was published posthumously in 1919.


Other recommended stories in this collection include At Hiruharama (by Penelope Fitzgerald) and Nuns at Luncheon (by Aldous Huxley).

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A smurf, a goose head and gratitude



It's funny how I thought I'd be able to walk through Times Square this morning. I caught the tail-end of the Thanksgiving Parade. I'm not a fan of standing around watching parades, so the short time I was there was good enough for me. I'm glad I didn't remember about the parade's location in advance either, because the floats were a pleasant surprise. Giant smurfs make me smile. The dangling head of what looks like Mother Goose both creeped me out a little and made me smile, not that I have anything against Mother Goose.

To get to the 1-line subway platform at the Times Square stop, I wound up making a detour around the crowds and into the Port Authority station, which felt like a rabbit warren. Good thing the signs were clear so I could know where I was going.

Here's a nice video from a Jewish site. The topic is blessings as a form of gratitude; as long as we're alive we can express gratitude. Whether or not you're Jewish or religious the video gives a sense of perspective on life's problems and a reminder of things to be grateful for, so I thought I'd share it on Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Worth Watching: Miss Potter (2006)

Title: Miss Potter
Director: Chris Noonan
Language: English
Rating: PG

Based on events in the life of Beatrix Potter, the film begins with Beatrix (Renée Zellweger) seeking out publishers for The Tale of Peter Rabbit. In one publishing house she's grudgingly assigned to the most inexperienced editor, Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor), with the expectation that her book will flop. Instead Beatrix becomes a popular author, with Peter Rabbit the first of many characters she introduces to the world. The film depicts her vivid imagination, her love of writing, art, and the natural world, and the way she uproots herself, with love and losses along the way, from the London home she shares with her parents to Hill Top Farm in England's Lake District.

The gentleness of the film tempers the characters. Even Beatrix's mother, Helen (Barbara Flynn), is not as abrasive as she might have been; she isn't malicious but exasperated, unable to understand her daughter's inclinations (though it still feels as if the film flattened her character to turn her into a mouthpiece of upper class snobbery). Beatrix gets sniffed at for being an unmarried lady with literary and artistic dreams, and until she meets Norman her work is viewed with condescension. But the film has no real villains.

What Beatrix struggles against is a world of stultifying constraints and soft expectations. Her passion for her work keeps her from getting dragged into a narrow life with a stale social circle and handful of acceptable activities. Beatrix resists, sometimes angrily but for the most part playfully. At the start of the film she has no friends except for the characters she's imagined. The money she eventually earns as a best-selling author allows her greater freedom from other people's control and grants her the ability to lead her own life, a world inhabited by her characters and by the people she loves.

Printing the book

Beatrix Potter's drawings are the most vibrant characters in the film, and the other characters - Beatrix herself, Norman, Beatrix's kindly father, Rupert (Bill Paterson), who gave up his own artistic dreams - tend to be at their most lively when their thoughts and hearts are caught up with Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddleduck.

The film shows the self-realization of an individual, an author and artist who finds her true home and reaches a kind of peace in her life. Norman and his sister, Millie (Emily Watson), are the first people who see Beatrix for who she is, unconditionally.

At first Beatrix and Norman are partners and co-conspirators; Beatrix wants to get her work published, and Norman wants to prove that he can back a successful book. Their partnership develops into a warm friendship full of mutual admiration, which further develops into love. Both of them are awkward and shy. They grow towards one another like two odd plants mingling their leaves and letting their stems intertwine.

Beatrix and Norman

Millie and Beatrix, who are close, steadfast friends, make for an interesting contrast in character. Millie is more bold and outspoken than Beatrix; she likes to make a statement, to joke and say shocking things, whereas Beatrix tends to be more quiet and reflective, calling little attention to herself outside of her work. But even though Beatrix is more subdued, she has firmer convictions and sticks to them more consistently, working on her books and later on devoting herself to land conservation in the Lake District.

Memorable sights and sounds
Lakes, trees, golden grass and wooded slopes, farmhouses with airy, dusty rooms full of treasures: these are some of the visual delights offered by the film. Beatrix's room in London is also lovely, with its window seat and long table full of watercolors.

Her art is beautiful. Occasionally the film animates the creatures to show how alive they are to her, but even better are the shots that linger over the still images, warm and full of life, giving you the sense that if you look away the animals really will start moving around.

Stand-out scenes
I loved the opening sequence, with close-ups of Beatrix preparing the instruments of her art and starting to paint in blue colors. A glass of water clouds up with blue.

There's also a poignant scene where in the midst of grief Beatrix tries to paint, and her creatures flee from dark fish and birds that threaten to consume them. She's isolated in her room, until Millie comes and helps bring her back out into the world.

Further thoughts
The film would go well with a blanket and a mug of tea on a rainy afternoon. It's gentle, warm, poignant and quietly inspiring.

I like how it shows the joy an artist and writer takes in her work and the world around her. However, I would have also wanted to see Beatrix's scientific pursuits, particularly her interest in mycology, the study of fungi. It would have been interesting to get a deeper look into the mind of someone who can observe the world with both an exacting scientific eye and imagination and whimsy.

Beatrix Potter at work

The first lines of the film: "There's something delicious about writing the first words of a story. You can never quite tell where they'll take you."

*All images link back to their source (Flixster community).

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Week in Seven Words #94

With new determination I open up a Microsoft Word document that's been untouched for months, and I begin again.

At the concert we sit closest to the violists and bass players. This way we're more aware of all the layers in the music, its rich harmonies, and the one moment where the lead bass player strikes a note out of tune. We're happy to hear all of it.

They sit around a table in the cafeteria pouring liquids of different densities into tall plastic containers - corn syrup, dish washing soap, vegetable oil, water, alcohol - and mostly they don't care about the bigger picture, only that it's fun to look at the liquid layers and see if their friends have made a mess. But from time to time they'll connect what they're doing to chemistry and to the properties of the world, before returning to the really important questions: will something spill? Or blow up?

On two different subway trips, a musical duo sing in Spanish and strum on guitars as they stroll from car to car.

The mild cold I come down with helps me mellow out a little.

One school I visit reminds of a nest with birds huddled close beside a clutch of eggs. Another school reminds me of an airport terminal where litter blows across the clean bare floors.

At bedtime their parents slip out of the room for a short while to unwind, and I read them a story, then another one: The Berenstain Bears in their treehouse with the pink-trimmed windows poking out of the upper leaves. Brother and Sister Bear learn that if they watch too much TV or fight all day, they'll miss out on life.

Week in Seven Words #93

I'm walking on the open palm of a beautiful day. There's water, gold and orange trees, blue skies holding rain clouds at bay. I feel raw and tired inside but the day is gentle.

School is giving him a certain knowingness. He's starting to pick up spelling and reading, the ways of the world, the lingo of kindergarten (awesome!).

Taking the long way home I find a lovely street, quiet and shaded with trees. I'm glad I chose to walk off some of my restlessness and map out a new neighborhood on foot.

Two branches of the public library within a block of each other. A prime piece of real estate.

In the room where I've been run through a proofreading test I see a motivational poster on the wall depicting a pencil stub and the word Persistence, followed by this line: We've exhausted all possibilities... let's get started.

In a strange way I've missed this: the stale breath of the station, the rumble of approaching trains, the clatter of trains pulling into or speeding past the platform.

Dusk settles in the afternoon. Buildings and statues catch the last light and hold it close for as long as they can.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Good Short Fiction: 3 Tales from Great American Short Stories

Collection: Great American Short Stories: From Hawthorne to Hemingway
Editor: Corinne Demas

Title: The Birthmark
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne

After a scientist marries a woman of beautiful character and appearance, he becomes obsessed with the birthmark on her cheek, her one apparent flaw. He's convinced that as a scientist he has the means to rid her of this imperfection.

The birthmark, shaped like a small hand, is a symbol of his wife's humanity and mortality. Most men wouldn't have considered it a flaw but instead would have seen it as a distinct feature, perfectly imperfect and uniquely hers; the reason it becomes a flaw here is because the scientist can't stop fixating on it. His wife loves him deeply and permits him to proceed with his experimentation, but after reading through a journal of his previous work she wisely grasps his limitations:
Much as he had accomplished, she could not but observe that his most splendid successes were almost invariably failures, if compared with the ideal at which he aimed. His brightest diamonds were the merest pebbles, and felt to be so by himself, in comparison with the inestimable gems which lay hidden beyond his reach.

With heavy symbolism Hawthorne illustrates the arrogance and idealism of scientists who think they have the capacity to undo anything in nature. Like other quests for impossible perfection this one ends in disaster. Hawthorne's cautionary tale addresses people's conviction that science can and should be used to eradicate anything regarded as a flaw.


Title: The Flight of Betsey Lane
Author: Sarah Orne Jewett

Betsey Lane, Lavina Dow, and Peggy Bond are three old ladies living on a poor-farm in New England. Betsey is the youngest and still dreams of traveling; when she hears about the Philadelphia Centennial, she's determined to attend. She's seen very little of the world and isn't going to miss out on this chance.

Jewett writes fresh, vivid characters. Their lives aren't whitewashed; they're forgotten by the community and spend most of the day in a cluttered room carrying out small chores. At the same time they're comfortable with themselves and, in a quiet way, full of life; they aren't pitiful.
They were close together, knee to knee, picking over a bushel of beans, and commanding a view of the dandelion-starred, green yard below, and of the winding, sandy road that led to the village, two miles away. Some captive bees were scolding among the cobwebs of the rafters overhead, or thumping against the upper panes of glass... There was a cheerful feeling of activity, and even an air of comfort, about the Byfleet Poor-house. Almost every one was possessed of a most interesting past, though there was less to be said about the future.

Betsey does get to go to the Centennial, and who knows what will come next. She's open to possibilities and doesn't let age, lack of money, or other people's expectations kill her spirit of curiosity and exploration.


Title: Paul's Case
Author: Willa Cather

Paul is young, impatient, sensitive and impractical. He has a love of beauty and refinement, a taste for flowers, champagne and theater. If he could, he'd escape from his lower-middle-class neighborhood, where everything feels dull and flat to him. Paul wants the lifestyle that only lots of money could give him but hates the thought of the decades' worth of drudgery required to even have a shot at wealth. The one job he loves is working as an usher at a music hall, because it brings him closer to brilliance and color; he doesn't realize that art itself demands years of patient work. It seems he wants only to feel, to revel in elegance and sensuousness. But life can't be lived that way, and Paul knows it; only he keeps hoping that somehow he can lose himself in his dreams and step into the world of illustrious hotels, perfume, silk, hothouse flowers and delicate luxuries.

Paul eventually shows the extent of his desperation. His vivid imagination is in some ways greatly limited, and at a crucial point in the story he fails to imagine that life can ever be better for him. There's also no one he can talk to about his struggle. His need for escape is not just a lazy ploy to avoid work. He feels out of place in his family and community and has a tendency to be high-strung. He doesn't fit in anywhere except for the rarefied places that he craves but that are denied to him. It's as if he was born into the wrong world, and he refuses to adapt to it in any way. By the end of the story he's given himself a taste of a dream life, while knowing it can't last; after that he denies himself a return to his everyday life, with its complexities, sordidness, and (he realizes too late) possibilities. Cather's complex portrait shows a boy who, by choice and by his nature, fails to negotiate with reality.
When Paul went down to dinner the music of the orchestra came floating up the elevator shaft to greet him. His head whirled as he stepped into the thronged corridor, and he sank back into one of the chairs against the wall to get his breath. The lights, the chatter, the perfumes, the bewildering medley of color--he had, for a moment, the feeling of not being able to stand it. But only for a moment; these were his own people, he told himself. He went slowly about the corridors, through the writing-rooms, smoking-rooms, reception-rooms, as though he were exploring the chambers of an enchanted palace, built and peopled for him alone.
I wonder if Paul's appreciation of this grand hotel and the way of life it represents was deepened by the fact that he didn't have a long time to stay in it. Had he constantly lived in this world, in "the bewildering medley of color," he might have grown used to it and not been as moved by it. Then again, he might have been able to enjoy its beautiful variety. That's something we don't get to find out.


Other stories from this volume include: The Cask of Amontillado (by Edgar Allan Poe) and A New England Nun (by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman).

"Paul's Case" also appears in this anthology.


This post (and this one) have been linked to at Short Stories on Wednesday #19 at the Breadcrumb Reads blog.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Extracts: As long as you're alive

"But you're alive and as long as you're alive everything's really all right, in spite of everything else. No matter what happens, as along as you're alive everything's all right."
- from Camilla by Madeleine L'Engle


Sunday, November 13, 2011

Good Short Fiction: 4 tales from The Oxford Book of Latin American Short Stories

Collection: The Oxford Book of Latin American Short Stories
Editor: Roberto González Echevarría

Title: Journey Back to the Source
Author: Alejo Carpentier
Translator: Harriet de Onís

Journey Back to the Source tells the story of Don Marcial's life from end to beginning. Time flows backwards.
Crow's-feet, frowns, and double chins vanished, and flesh grew firm again. One day the smell of fresh paint filled the house.

Sometimes the story seems like a video being rewound, but often there's a forward-moving feeling to the backwards flow of time. Don Marcial is escaping from what he's become, retracing a path towards innocence. There is no other way to reclaim this innocence, except to go forward into the past.
And a splendid evening party was given in the music room on the day he achieved minority. He was delighted to know that his signature was no longer legally valid, and that worm-eaten registers and documents would now vanish from his world. He had reached the point at which courts of justice were no longer to be feared, because his bodily existence was ignored by the law.

However, even in his comparatively innocent childhood, there's death and darkness (beliefs that he might have taken into himself unquestioned as a child and then with adulthood fully embraced or allowed to flourish, without bothering to understand them).

The story is full of rich language and psychological insight, as in the following observation of Don Marcial on his death bed:
What had begun as a candid, detailed confession of his many sins grew gradually more reticent, painful, and full of evasions.

The final lines of the story blend beginnings with endings.
Then he shut his eyes - they saw nothing but nebulous giants - and entered a warm, damp body full of shadows... Clothed in this body's substance, he slipped toward life.


Title: Midnight Mass
Author: Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis
Translators: William L. Grossman and Helen Caldwell

A seventeen-year-old student is visiting an older male relative, a man who openly cheats on his wife. One evening before midnight mass, when the rest of the household is asleep, the student and the wife have a long conversation.

The two are intimate. They don't have sex. They're intensely aware of each other. She speaks more freely and has a more open expression than he's ever seen. He observes her closely, noting minute changes in her appearance: her posture, the expression in her eyes, the way she moves her hands and arms.
Usually her gestures were slow, her attitude calm. Now, however, she rose suddenly, moved to the other side of the room, and, in her chaste disarray, walked about between the window and the door of her husband's study. Although thin, she always walked with a certain rocking gait as if she carried her weight with difficulty.

On that one evening time is suspended. There's an atmosphere of possibility and revelation. The neglected wife is seen for who she is and for what she could be, and that's part of the intensity of her conversation with the student. They are alone together, removed from other people and from the conventions of daily life.


Title: The Switchman
Author: Juan José Arreola
Translator: George D. Schade

A traveler arrives at an empty train station and wonders when his train will come. He speaks to an an elderly switchman who finds it funny that the traveler expects any train to show up. At length the switchman describes the irregularities and inefficiencies of the country's rail system.

The elaborate description of train troubles is what first drew me into the story; the switchman talks about inaccurate railway maps and about trains that stop where they shouldn't, don't move for days on end or just appear at random hours.
"This country is famous for its railroads, as you know. Up to now it's been impossible to organize them properly, but great progress has been made in publishing timetables and issuing tickets. Railroad guides include and link all the towns in the country; they sell tickets for even the smallest and most remote villages. Now all that is needed is for the trains to follow what the guides indicate and really pass by the stations. The inhabitants of this country hope this will happen; meanwhile, they accept the service's irregularities and their patriotism keeps them from showing any displeasure."

I could see the trains as a metaphor not only for life and its unpredictability but also for people's tendency to passively give themselves over to a governing power:
"The hope is that one day the passengers will capitulate to fate, give themselves into the hands of an omnipotent management, and no longer care to know where they are going or where they have come from."

Does the right train ever come? And by the end, does the traveler still care about its destination? What he might content himself with is just the feeling of being on a train, of going somewhere (anywhere) or at least having the illusion of motion.


Title: The Third Bank of the River
Author: João Guimarães Rosa
Translator: William L. Grossman

This story makes sense to me on a gut level (I think).

When the narrator is a child his father decides one day to get into a rowboat and live out on the river.
Father did not come back. Nor did he go anywhere, really. He just rowed and floated across and around, out there in the river. Everyone was appalled. What had never happened, what could not possibly happen, was happening. Our relatives, neighbors, and friends came over to discuss the phenomenon.

The father's strongest connection is with his son, the narrator, who leaves provisions for him on the river bank; they don't interact in any other way. The father remains on the water in all kinds of weather, in all seasons, staying mostly out of sight and not speaking to anyone. Years pass, and the narrator is the only family member who doesn't move away from the river. Then one day he figures out what he needs to do to get his father back on land.

It's an eerie and absurd story. There's never a clear explanation for why the father chooses this course in life and what it even represents. It's as if he's pursuing an obscure path or calling that his son, the narrator, might be drawn to one day. Or maybe the narrator will escape from his duties and from the burden of his father's legacy and leave the old man behind on the river, completely cut off from everyone.

[Edited: 1/2015]

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Week in Seven Words #92

A library has no business being closed.

Side streets beckon to us as we walk. Their houses and trees are pressed close, their sidewalks are rumpled and scratchy with fallen leaves. They're dotted with pumpkins, and their windows peek out from shutters and flower boxes.

Revelations on a Friday afternoon. I have just enough time to send out some emails and make a couple of calls before I abstain from technology for the next twenty-five hours. Monday will be here soon enough. Meanwhile I need to retreat into my Friday night and wait. Patiently.

In the park the fountain is drained. The water has given way to scattered leaves and children barreling around in the basin on tricycles.

'What-ifs' and 'if-onlys' can breed and multiply and take hold of your soul if you let them.

What comforts me: singing aloud, which brings a kind of catharsis. Meaningful reading, which shores up my sense of purpose. Another person's laughter, which spreads joy.

It hurts me to see you hurt, she says, grimacing at my bandaged wrist.

Week in Seven Words #91

Soliciting food, the cat butts its head against my shins. Under the table its eyes glow, beseeching.

The lake in Central Park isn't as large as it seems to us. From where we sit it seems to spread out for many blocks, disappearing in a bend beyond the bright trees and sliding away past the Bow Bridge.

Fifteen minutes of people-watching from inside a coffee shop. The large window shows a rainy street, umbrellas writhing and jerking in the wind, people swimming through the rain and flopping breathless into the shop.

After tea and a warm shower, I slip into the large comfortable bed and lie awake for several minutes as the room seems to hum around me.

At the walk-in flu shot clinic there are three tables set up, each with a nurse. As I fill out the forms, I hear a startled "Owww!" from a lady at the first table. Maybe she's sensitive, I think uneasily. The next woman who goes there clenches her fists as her face crumples in agony. A man follows her and bites down on his lip until it bleeds. My companion notices the nurse's technique: a swooping sideways thrust that seems to go for the bone. When the guy organizing the clinic tries to nudge us towards the stab-happy nurse, we plant ourselves next to the other tables instead.

I look for a pair of glasses that are unobtrusive, that don't leap out of my face in brash designs or completely alter the shape of my eyes. Good glasses shouldn't call attention to themselves. But that also means they're more difficult to find on the shelves, among the showier models.

Dinner guests mixing together are a kind of recipe as well; each person is a different ingredient with his or her own flavor. Unusual combinations can prove delicious. (And yes, I sound like Hannibal Lecter.)