Friday, December 30, 2011

11 things I (re)learned in 2011

1) You can only fool yourself for so long.
Any part of your life feel like a sham? Answer that question honestly. You can't hide behind a job title or among other people. The turmoil and falseness will tear you apart inside, and cracks will form on the surface. It's best to have a reckoning with yourself, no matter how painful. What abilities, relationships and personal traits have you left untended? What fears and pains did you ignore as they festered? Did you manage to do some good? What don't you regret? And what comes next?

2) Don't expect too much from others.
I almost wrote this as "don’t expect much of anyone," but it sounded like a bit of grumbling misanthropy, which isn't my intention. What I mean is that people don't owe you things - not love or success or approval - and they're not to be confronted with a feeling of entitlement or burdened with too many lofty expectations. There might be people in your life who are generally much better than others at understanding you and treating you with love, care and generosity of spirit, but they're still human, and they can't read minds.  This isn't about accepting bad treatment from others; it's about seeing them as they are and not putting unreasonable burdens on them.  With an attitude of not expecting too much you're more likely to receive good things with gratitude instead of taking them for granted. And if you're in a bad situation or the target of toxic behavior you might be able to deal with it more effectively instead of spending a lot of time railing at everyone and everything about the unfairness of it all.

3) Demand the best of yourself
By"the best" I don't mean someone else's best or a set of superhuman expectations that you will either never try to live up to or will inevitably fall far short of if you do try, resulting in shame, guilt, inertia, melancholy, and perhaps an eensy bit of satisfaction that you managed to sabotage yourself so nicely. Don't set up your life so that you're spending most of your time licking your wounds and feeling sorry for yourself.  What do you love and hope for? What do you want to give to the world? How do you want to improve? Set goals, plan out the steps you'll need to take towards them, and expect that if you mess up or if things don't go your way, you'll pick yourself up, reassess, learn and keep going. Over and over.

4) You can't demand the best of yourself without being able to forgive yourself
A lack of forgiveness suggests little hope and faith.  Under these circumstances it's much harder to work well, live well, and see your own efforts as worthwhile because you're not really focused on the future (or on the present) anyway.  It's also much harder to avoid similar mistakes or poor choices in the future and to repair past wrongs, because you feel that your efforts will be useless.  Guilt and regret are meant to prod you towards meaningful change; they aren't signs that everything you do is futile and that there's no hope for you.  Don't be so hard on yourself.  Pining for inhuman perfection will keep you from being productive, loving, and engaged with life.

5) Figure out why you're procrastinating
It's not always easy to identify 'wasted time,' because 'wasted time' can give you inspired ideas and necessary relaxation.  Or it can wear you down and make you miss opportunities.  It's also a matter of attitude: you look at what you did yesterday or the day before, and you may see something good in it, some potential, or just dismiss it out of hand as lost time.  Either way it's not coming back.  Often it's a gut feeling: you know you're wasting time and putting off the important things, but you can't seem to stop procrastinating.  Why? Ask yourself what it is you're afraid of or what you hope to avoid.  Are you setting yourself up to fail? Maybe you think the work is fundamentally worthless or pointless; you can't think of a meaningful purpose for it.  Maybe you want to keep things exactly as they are and not face any surprises.  In any case, really think about why it is you're procrastinating (sincerely think about it, and don't just use it as yet another exercise in pointless procrastination).

6) An all-or-nothing attitude is counterproductive
One way to hold back from doing anything meaningful is by telling yourself that you won't bring about a perfect outcome or solution.  Either you want everything "just right" (whatever that means), or it's not worth doing at all: another example of superhuman expectations.  With that attitude there wouldn't be civilization.  No society can prevent or justly punish all crimes; does this mean we should stop writing and enforcing laws and stop fighting to redress judicial wrongs? Contributing to a charity won't prevent or stop every instance of hunger or sickness or pain in the world, but could it improve the life of at least one person? An all-or-nothing attitude is an excuse not to work towards anything worthwhile for yourself and others.

7) Instability is a fundamental part of life
Circumstances are always changing.  You're changing.  Life is fragile.  Living involves a series of adjustments, sometimes minute, other times huge and staggering.  If you pretend otherwise you will stagnate and be blindsided by circumstance.  There's a lifelong struggle for balance as you deal with all the shifts around you and in you.  You want to have a steady sense of self, a steady purpose, without being too inflexible or too changeable.  

8) There's no escaping from yourself
So don't be passive about your life.  And don't let others tell you what you should be; they're not the ones who will live every second of every day with the results of those choices.  Hear other people out, learn from them, value meaningful criticism, but ultimately make your own choices.  Words of approval and acceptance can feel like everything but they aren't, especially if they come from people who want you to compromise yourself.  They might have the best intentions.  They might think their advice will spare you from future pain and disappointment.  Their good intentions might also be mixed up with (or superseded entirely by) other motives: the need to control you, the need to live through you, etc.  If you're not what they want you to be then you become difficult and unmanageable.

9) Being kind is undervalued
It's seen as a weakness, or as a trait to develop in yourself if you aren't clever, good-looking, young, or rich.  There's a misconception that it's easy to be kind, because anyone can do kind things.  And it's true; anyone can.  But it's not always easy.  Not when you're having a bad day, when your temper is foul or when you're frustrated and other people are right there as perfect targets for your anger.  It's not easy when you're feeling short-changed and bitter, or when the people you're kind to respond rudely or ignore your efforts.  Part of being truly kind is also discerning the individual needs of different people, as opposed to pushing the same kind of charity or help on everyone regardless of who they are and what they really want or need; this can be very difficult to do well (and under some circumstances almost impossible).

10) Have patience
You will rarely get immediate results.  You will rarely get the exact results you expect.

11) "Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts."
You said it, Churchill.


Be well, and have a great new year.

Week in Seven Words #99

Near the athletic complex I walk through a network of trails and elevated walkways without being sure where I'll wind up: on the main street or on a lonely embankment by the river. 

Two people in stark contrast: one of them doesn't say outright that he cares but shows it, while the other one proclaims in a smooth, affected voice that he cares (really really cares) but gives little evidence of it in his actions. 

The last of my old office is cleaned out. I close the door behind me and look back only once.

I carry a notebook with me because I never know when I might see my way through a dead end in the plot. 

Lunch at the park on a stone ledge with the sunlight sinking in between the trees; I can't think of a December where I was able to eat comfortably outdoors. 

I watch a movie to relax a little and celebrate, and as it turns out some of the themes are fitting for the day: people strive, accomplish, and move on. They don't rest on their laurels. 

Two candles on the menorah tip towards each other and share a flame.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Worth Watching: Pillow Talk (1959)

Title: Pillow Talk
Director: Michael Gordon
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

Jan Morrow (Doris Day) is an interior decorator who leads an uncomplicated life fending off the advances of a friend and client, Jonathan Forbes (Tony Randall), and preparing hangover remedies for her maid, Alma (Thelma Ritter). The one disturbance in her life is that she doesn't have a private phone line in her home but has to share a party line with a man she's never laid eyes on before: Brad Allen (Rock Hudson), a songwriter who holds up the line sweet-talking a succession of women. Jan and Brad bicker over the phone, with Brad initially writing her off as a prude with bedroom problems, but when he realizes who she is and what she looks like he decides to seduce her. Figuring that she'd reject him out of hand if he reveals his true identity, he masks his voice with what's supposed to be a Texan accent and introduces himself as Rex Stetson. One thing leads to another, the truth comes to light, the lothario loses his heart, and Jan gets her revenge as only an interior decorator can.

Doris Day in Pillow Talk

Rock Hudson's character annoyed me for most of the film with his fake Texan accent and relentless dishonesty, and by the time he gets around to humbling himself a little I still didn't like him.  At least he's lovely to look at and seemed to have fun with his part.

Doris Day plays Jan as a sharp self-possessed woman with a warm smile.  It's not often that she falls in love but when she does her feet get knocked out from under her.  Day delivers her witty lines crisply, and she's overall a good leading lady for this film.

But the film is worth watching most for Tony Randall and Thelma Ritter. Randall gets good screen time as Jonathan Forbes, not only because he's trying to woo Jan but because he's also Brad Allen's best friend.  Jonathan is sly, neurotic, rich, and in his own way quite honest about himself; the film gives him some terrific lines, and he fills the screen with a simmering manic energy.  He's the kind of guy who courts a woman by telling her that his previous three marriages "were just a revolt against my mother" and reacts to his best friend's dishonesty by saying: "I should have listened to my psychiatrist; he told me never to trust anyone but him!"

Then there's Thelma Ritter as Jan's maid, Alma, who reports to work each morning with a hangover (telling the elevator man, after a ride up to her employer's apartment, "you don't have to break the sound barrier").  Even when she's woozy Alma can still see things pretty clearly; she's straightforward, straight-talking, and likes her drinks neat.  I looked forward to Ritter's appearances in the film, just as I did with Randall.  At some point I was even hoping for a bizarre twist where Alma and Jonathan decide to get hitched, with Alma mothering him and Jonathan keeping her supplied with quality liquor.

You know Jan and Brad will get together at the end; even their names sound similar. Enough said about them.  I thought Jonathan and Brad's friendship was a treat.  It's fun to have a friend like Jonathan; he doesn't stay mad at you, and when he's cackling over your downfall he's still courteous enough to fix you a drink.  As for him and Jan, they may have no romantic chemistry, but their banter can be really sweet and funny.

Memorable sights and sounds
Jan is a snappy dresser.  Snappy clothes, snappy dialogue, sharp colors, and a classy Doris Day.

An evening dress worn by Doris Day in Pillow Talk

There's also a memorable interior decorating job towards the end.

Stand-out scenes
At one point Brad figures that in order to win over Jan, he'll need to get to her through Alma.  He doesn't count on Alma drinking him under the table.

Thelma Ritter and Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk

Another good scene features Perry Blackwell, a pianist and singer, performing at a club. She sings "Roly Poly" with Doris Day (which got stuck in my head), and a couple of other songs including one that takes a sly jab at Brad and his lying.

Further thoughts
If this movie were a drink it would be a strawberry kiwi daiquiri with a little turquoise umbrella sticking out the top.

*All images link back to their source (Rotten Tomatoes).

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Worth Watching: The Defiant Ones (1958)

Title: The Defiant Ones
Director: Stanley Kramer
Language: English
Rating: PG

'Joker' Jackson (Tony Curtis) and Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier) are both serving time in a chain gang in the southern US. When a van transporting them crashes on a rainy night, they take the opportunity to escape. The problem is they're chained to each other, a highly unusual (pretty much unrealistic) circumstance in the segregated South. In order to outpace their pursuers and survive, they're forced to tone down their mutual animosity and work together. As they struggle through forests and swamps and narrowly escape a lynch mob, a bond slowly forms between them which is tested when they reach a farm run by a lonely woman (Cara Williams) who seems to offer them their first real shot at freedom.

Brilliant acting from both Curtis and Poitier. Curtis plays 'Joker' Jackson as a man with a giant chip on his shoulder. He feels he's always been short-changed in life and never became anyone important; even the crime he's serving time for was a petty theft, nothing memorable and bold. Jackson's face often twists up as he thinks about all the things he wants in life that remain out of reach. As for Cullen, he knows all too well what that's like, and unlike Jackson he doesn't have a chance at real upward mobility; as a black man in the segregated South, he's been told from an early age that he has to just grin and bear it. "Be nice," he mutters at one point, mimicking people who have given him well-meaning advice. "Be nice."

Poitier plays Noah Cullen as reflective, coolly defiant and principled, with anger simmering inside him. He's not one to shy away from confrontation. He was put in the chain gang for assault, and he doesn't let Jackson talk down to him or get away with racist insults. Because that's one of Jackson's few consolations - poor as he is, he can try to claim superiority to Cullen. But Cullen fights back, physically and verbally. At the same time there are moments even early on when he treats Jackson with a tired sympathy, an understanding of Jackson's festering disappointments. And Jackson himself, when he can push aside his bitterness, shows concern and a troubled conscience, especially later in the film.

Joker Jackson and Noah Cullen

The well-written dialogue and the performances turned in by Curtis and Poitier would have been enough to make this a strong film, but there are a couple of memorable supporting characters who also add to its richness. One of them is Sheriff Max Muller (Theodore Bikel), who's in charge of the search party pursuing the escaped convicts. Instead of making him a ruthless and relentless hunting machine of the sort typically seen in movies, the filmmakers wrote him as a decent guy who balances justice with mercy. He prefers to have the convicts back alive and not as bullet-ridden or dog-bitten carcasses. At several points, he needs to persuade his colleagues to use restraint.

Theodore Bikel as Sheriff Max Muller

And then there's the lonely woman on the farm (Cara Williams). I'll call her Lonely Woman (like the song sung by Sarah Vaughan) because it seems the filmmakers didn't give her a name, though oddly enough they named her young son Billy (Kevin Coughlin) even though his part is smaller. Lonely Woman is lonely because her husband abandoned her and Billy, and there's no one around for miles; her farm is relatively isolated, making it ideal for two convicts to spend the night. Though one of the primary purposes of her character is to show how Jackson has changed in the course of the film, she's an interesting person in her own right. When a couple of chained convicts turn up at her home, she takes it in stride. She's watchful, cautious, with a sharp eye for opportunity. Like Jackson, she's desperate to see the world and leave her current life behind her.

Cara Williams

I like how Jackson and Cullen confront one another repeatedly in this film, not just in angry and violent conflict but also in conversation; their speech is more intense than their physical fights, especially when they're reminiscing or assessing their lives. Jackson can't keep on ignoring Cullen's humanity. By the end of the film, he'll be placed in a position where he'll have to decide what's worth more: his own freedom or Cullen's life.

As for Lonely Woman, she and Jackson are kindred spirits. Had Jackson met her at the start of the film, her racist attitude towards Cullen wouldn't have given him pause, but by the time he stumbles into her farmhouse he's grown a little in understanding, while she's had no similar opportunity. Their brief connection is nonetheless powerful, and I admire Tony Curtis and Cara Williams for the way they let their characters' attraction simmer through long speculative glances across the kitchen - and then later in a soul-baring conversation in the dark, their faces full of yearning.

Memorable sights and sounds
Cullen's singing, especially at the end of the film. He sings because he can; there's no law against it. He sings with a kind of strained brightness, as if he's dragging his voice out into the sunlight. His singing can serve as a wall between himself and his circumstances, a shield he holds up to deflect attack. He also uses it to provoke others; I suspect he secretly itches for someone to try to shut him up so he can retaliate.

Stand-out scenes
I mentioned earlier the soul-baring conversation between Lonely Woman and Jackson; it's a luminous scene. They have real humanity. They're flawed, their attitudes can be downright ugly, but they also evoke sympathy. That's part of the beauty of the The Defiant Ones.

One of the stand-out conversations between Jackson and Cullen takes place at night when they're hiding on the outskirts of a village and waiting for the opportunity to break into the grocery store and steal some food. It's probably their most civil exchange in the movie so far. It doesn't mean they suddenly like each other, only that they relate to each other as men who are frustrated at every turn, well-acquainted with disappointment but not resigned to their lot in life. As they talk, they watch lights in the village houses slowly flick off.  What follows is mob justice, a desperate and despicable protest made by Jackson as he pleads for his life, and a wonderful appearance by Lon Chaney Jr. as one of those rare people who can be a voice of reason when everyone else is calling for blood.

Further thoughts
These questions keep coming up throughout the film: What does it take to get other people's respect? And what does it mean to really respect yourself?

*All images link back to their sources (Flixster Community and Rotten Tomatoes).

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Good Short Fiction: "Puss-Cat" and "The White Cat"

Collection: Tails of Wonder and Imagination: Cat Stories
Editor: Ellen Datlow

Title: Puss-Cat
Author: Reggie Oliver

Godfrey is a washed up theater actor who used to perform in supporting roles alongside the late Sir Roderick Bentley, a legendary thespian. In the story Godfrey is sitting around talking about Roderick ("Roddy") over drinks, and even though Godfrey is an interesting man in his own right - world-weary and full of forced cheer, his tongue loosened by drink - you sense that his life has revolved and will always revolve around Roddy. "Puss-cat" is the term of endearment that Roddy, an insatiable womanizer, used for all of his girlfriends and mistresses, and Godfrey spends the most time talking about one of them: Yolande, an ingenue who caught Roderick's attention after she berated him for hurting a stray cat that hung around the theater where they were rehearsing. As Godfrey puts it:
Yolande, you see, was one of those people who is instantly drawn to anything even more defenceless than herself.

There's so much deliciousness in this story, the way it's crafted in a loose narrative where each detail slips in at just the right moment. In Godfrey's reminiscences the characters come alive: Roddy, grand and careless, the charismatic egotist par excellence, and Yolande, who is way in over her head when it comes to love and life and the often sordid business of theater. And Godfrey himself, with his witty asides and drink-deadened heart, what little surprises he has in store for us. I love how the humor in the story can suddenly give way to a deep bruising darkness.

I also love the detail about each theater having its own cat, a stray who saunters around and owns the place (and keeps mice from chewing on wires and cables). Isn't it curious that Roddy, a man of the theater who calls all his girlfriends "puss-cat," really hates cats? Theater cats are a critical part of this tale.


Title: The White Cat
Author: Joyce Carol Oates

There was a gentleman of independent means who, at about the age of fifty-six, conceived of a passionate hatred for his much-younger wife's white Persian cat.

Julius Muir is in his fifties; Alissa, his wife, is in her thirties. It's her second marriage, and his first. She's pursuing an acting career in the city and spends a lot of time with her circle of theater friends, including men her own age. Julius meantime hangs around his large estate outside the city collecting valuables and wondering why he still feels lonely.

Into this picture of marital health steps Miranda, the cat. Miranda seems to show affection to everyone but Julius, and it drives him up the wall. He bought her, didn't he? Out of his loving, considerate heart he gave her as a gift to his wife, to cuddle and dote on. He sustains her, provides her with a home. Why won't she let him touch her? Why won't she love him? If someone were to ask him, "Julius, dear boy, is it really the cat that's bothering you or is it your wife?" he would say that of course it's not his wife. He loves his wife; it's just her cat he can't stand. Her beautiful ungrateful cat.

So he starts plotting how to kill the cat and make it look like an accident. It's a sad spectacle for the most part. Creepy and pitiable. He married a woman who is unsuited to him and to his ideal of marriage, and he thinks offing her cat will change things? But he's not really thinking, is he; he's going off the deep end.

Sometimes a story has a dominant color, and for this one it's a pale icy blue. Husband and wife may be cordial to one another but there's a chill on the marriage. Even Julius Muir's passions give off little heat. I see him bluish and oxygen-starved, with little to nourish him from within or from without.

Love can't be bought or demanded. And revenge doesn't always go as planned. It's painful to watch Julius square off against a house cat, and feel the futility of everything he does. Tormented by the thought that maybe a man like him can't inspire love.


Other stories from this collection: Coyote Peyote (by Carole Nelson Douglas), Every Angel is Terrifying (by John Kessel), Tiger in the Snow (by Daniel Wynn Barber), Gordon the Self-Made Cat by Peter S. Beagle, and Guardians by George R. R. Martin.


This post has been linked to at Short Stories on Wednesday #23 at the Breadcrumb Reads blog.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Week in Seven Words #98

It's an older part of the city, and it's nearly empty. I like it that way - quiet with cobblestone paths, grass, old bridges over dried-up streams, old brick homes topped with ornate weathervanes, gardens abandoned in winter, their fountains dry.

It comes on a soft bun with dark green lettuce, raw onion, salsa, guacamole, and spicy chipotle sauce. They call it the El Mariachi burger. It's a good burger.

80s teen movie: stale classrooms, social misfits, angst, puffy hair, and Molly Ringwald.

Different authors writing on completely different topics can have a beautiful resonance in one's mind. While picking over a creative problem, I come across an essay on Aldous Huxley by the departed Christopher Hitchens and some wonderful passages from May Sarton's Journal of a Solitude, and they sound an intriguing chord in my thoughts.

At the park I follow a faint thread of music and find two pairs of swing dancers by the fountain.

I'm starting to really understand what a precious gift this time is. So much is up in the air, but it's a beautiful opportunity nonetheless. I'll kick myself if I miss out on it and don't do what I'm called to do at the moment.

At the supermarket it's non-stop holiday jingles. And I want to know why so many of the recent recordings are sung in a breathy melodramatic quaver. It's a holiday jingle. Sleigh bells ring-ting-tingling should hopefully not evoke emotional torment.

Week in Seven Words #97

The world's a mop bucket.

A cold and squelchy afternoon. Rain plops onto my red umbrella.

On the train some people carry large open bags full of smaller rustling bags, magazines, paperback novels, crumbled cookies and leaky sandwiches; one woman pulls out a Yuletide stocking and starts stuffing it with chocolates. Other people are more spare and self-contained: all they need is a laptop and headphones, and they're settled inside a world within a moving world.

Even when there are no new messages or calls coming in, email and phone can be so distracting.

Washing jeans by hand requires some energy and open-mindedness (agitating the soapy water is the fun part, rinsing is slightly less fun). Smelling of lavender they dry nicely even indoors, in that little nook by the window fan.

It's a terrible thing when someone holds out a hope to you and then snatches it back.

As we walk at dusk he tells me that I brighten his day.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Queen liked Scrabble

I like Queen; I've listened to their music since I was a kid. I haven't looked up the more recent concerts with Brian May and Roger Taylor, because for me Queen isn't Queen without the four of them: May, Taylor, John Deacon, and of course Freddie Mercury.

I'm also a fan of Scrabble. So it was a delight to find this little Youtube clip of the group playing Scrabble while touring. They've never really fit the stereotypical rocker image (a few years ago May - lead guitarist, the guy with the big curly head of hair - completed his PhD in astrophysics).

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Autumn in Philly

I've posted twice on Autumn in New York, but Philadelphia is beautiful too in the fall.








Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Good Short Fiction: "A Good Man is Hard to Find" and "Haircut"

Collection: The House of Fiction (2nd ed.)
Editors: Caroline Gordon and Allen Tate

Title: A Good Man is Hard to Find
Author: Flannery O'Connor

A family goes on a road trip - a father, a mother with a baby on her lap, two bratty older kids, and a grandmother who has smuggled along her cat - and they end their journey at the mercy of a killer who has escaped from jail. The killer, known as The Misfit, attempts to be philosophical about what he does. He and the grandmother talk about faith and morals as his lackeys lead the family two and three at a time deeper into the forest. The tension, suspense, and feeling of dread remain intense even on a second reading; knowing what will happen allows you to recognize foreshadowing details. This is a story I still think about, mostly the conversation between the grandmother and the killer.
The grandmother had the peculiar feeling that the bespectacled man was someone she knew. His face was as familiar to her as if she had known him all her life but she could not recall who he was.

Throughout the story the grandmother shows a powerful streak of selfishness and shortsightedness, but there's something heart-breaking about her too even from the start - her attempt to remain relevant to the world and to her family, and prove that she's right and sees things clearly. That she's got a solid, unshakeable view of the world. Her family is dismissive of her, ignoring or scoffing at her opinions. To get what she wants at one point she tells a lie, a seemingly harmless, child-like embellishment that nudges them off the main road and into the killer's territory; when she realizes that she's lied just as much to herself as to her family, that her memory of cherished past events is faulty, her violent reaction leads to their car crashing. So the breakdown of her worldview proceeds.

The grandmother places a lot of stock in good blood and respectable manners, and seems to believe that those qualities alone are sufficient protections against evil; she's too well-bred to ever be evil herself, she thinks, and her lady-like ways will surely shield her from attack. When confronted by The Misfit she tries to save her skin by saying she's a lady. At the very end, grieving and desperate, with everything she cares about stripped from her, it seems she has returned to a more child-like state (or at least a time when she was much younger, before establishing a more solid, certain position in the world). It's a state from which she can start anew; she has gone closer to the root of herself, the source of her misunderstandings about life. Does she see things more clearly now? Or will she just flail in her grief and confusion, and try to latch onto anything that might offer comfort?

When she finally tells the murderer, "you're one of my own children," what does she mean? If it's a simple affirmation of a human bond between them, how much of this perceived bond is influenced by the fact that he's by that point wearing her son's shirt? Has the shirt facilitated a deeper understanding of shared humanity, or provided a comforting delusion she tries to latch onto? (That her boy, a "good man," is still with her… perhaps in a different form.)

Earlier, she had kept insisting that The Misfit must come from good family, good blood; she professed a faith in him based on no real evidence - by the end, is calling him her son a new manifestation of that desperate belief, or does she gain a fresh insight into the heart of The Misfit, and also into herself - an admission that her good blood and breeding have meant nothing, now that she has nothing; she and the Misfit are two people with nothing meaningful on Earth left to them. So she will reach out to him, for now he's truly a child of hers, with the same lot in life, and sharing a humanity with her own.

The Misfit, throwing the grandmother's values back in her face from the start, has a thoughtful air and gentlemanly manners that stand out all the more when contrasted with his brutality. In his conversation with the grandmother he seems to want a sympathetic audience, someone to understand his take on morality, see him, make sense of him and grant him some generosity of soul; but when the grandmother reaches out for him at the end, he can't bear it. He hates her touch, maybe because he doesn't trust her understanding of him; he can't stand the faith that might be delusion. Or maybe because her loving gesture, her desperate, whole-hearted impulse towards connection, reminds him of everything he's rejected throughout his rootless life.


Title: Haircut
Author: Ring Lardner

In "Haircut" a small-town barber reminisces about a fellow townsman, Jim Kendall, who died recently. He refers to Kendall as a good-natured prankster, but every anecdote he shares unintentionally reveals that Kendall was a cruel man, the kind of guy who could destroy a reputation or a life with a laugh and gloat about it after.

Like the barber, Kendall's friends and acquaintances were cheerful callous bystanders; they laughed along with him and didn't care about the scars he left on others. When Kendall dies it's not at any of their hands. The barber talks about some other people who in one way or another never fit into the town's society and so were naturally the butt of Kendall's attacks; if Kendall had power over someone, including members of his own family, he would exploit it. At the end, after he's brought about misery and heartbreak, he dies in a way that he might have found kind of funny had he ever been able to laugh at himself.

I admire Lardner's skill with characterization, and how he tells a compelling story through the barber's secondhand account. The barber and others like him are willfully blind to evil. They encourage it, delight in it, and let it run rampant. If enough people are laughing, then nothing can possibly be wrong; it's just a joke.


[Updated: 1/2015]

"A Good Man Is Hard to Find" can also be found in this anthology.

This post has been linked to at Short Stories on Wednesday #22 at the Breadcrumb Reads blog.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Week in Seven Words #96

Thanks to my Scrabble partner I find out that this is a kind of rough basaltic lava. It's also a great way to get rid of superfluous vowels and fit words into tight corners of the board.

It's a small cozy café with pizza, lasagna, salads and soups, and only a handful of tables. What makes the place itself special is one of the people who works there. He flirts and jokes, and in the middle of our meal walks up to us and shares a tale about a carpenter who reunites a pair of estranged brothers by building a bridge over the river that separates their properties.

I'm heading down the street on wobbly legs. Clearly I need to lie down. But first, a stop at the library.

Recently this stretch of sidewalk had a leafy golden roof, grand and bright like a corridor in an Oriental palace. Now it looks gutted, the leaves gone and the branches like brittle kindling.

As I approach the river the wind rakes through me, and even the buildings shiver.

I bring Fantasia with me and watch them laugh at the dancing hippos and the fairies spreading rime and dewdrops on pliant leaves.

With every phone call I feel a spike of tension. I don't know what the news will be on the other end. I can only pray for the best.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Good Short Fiction: "The Blue-Winged Teal" and "The National Pastime"

Collection: 50 Great American Short Stories
Editor: Milton Crane

Title: The Blue-Winged Teal
Author: Wallace Stegner

After Henry Lederer's mother dies, he leaves school to stay with his father, John, who has quickly slipped back into the kind of life he led before his marriage: a life of poolrooms, cheap hotel rooms, and girlfriends with "unreal hair" and perfume "like some gaseous poison tainting the clothes it touched." Henry's mother had held the family together; when she was alive his father had possessed a decent job and home. Now Henry can barely stand to look at his father, whose regression to his old life seems to show contempt for Henry's mother.
Henry had no desire to ease the strain that had been between them for months. He did not forgive his father the poolhall, or forget the way the old man had sprung back into the old pattern, as if his wife had been a jailer and he was now released.

Henry plans to tell his father that he's leaving; he'll go and get a job elsewhere and eventually return to school.
They could part without an open quarrel, maybe, but they would part without love. They could part right now, within an hour.

The evening he decides to announce that he's leaving, he discovers something that changes the way he sees his father and himself. In the poolhall his father brings up Henry's mother in a conversation that touches on chinaware and blue-winged teals, and Henry sees his father's eyes before the older man hurries from the room.
You know nothing at all, you know less than nothing because you know things wrong.

People struggle with grief in different ways; Henry's father has given up on himself. Could Henry help prop his father up, the way his mother did? Maybe his father is too old and too lost, beyond help, or maybe Henry doesn't have it in him to stay there in the poolhall underworld and try to pull his father out bit by bit without losing himself in the darkness. Henry is young, and he wants his own life; he wants the sunlight and the wider world. Maybe the only consolation offered to the sad, damaged characters in "The Blue-Winged Teal" is the son's more sympathetic understanding of his father.


Title: The National Pastime
Author: John Cheever

To be an American and unable to play baseball is comparable to being a Polynesian and unable to swim.

A classic American image is a father and son playing catch with a baseball on the lawn outside their home. As a young boy, Eben had once dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player and on a fateful Sunday afternoon had asked his father to play catch with him. His father, Leander, at first refused, then grudgingly consented following a private quarrel with Eben's mother. The two of them faced each other on the lawn, and what happened next scarred Eben for years to come:
Then I turned my head to see something - a boat on the river. He threw the ball, and it got me in the nape of the neck and stretched me out unconscious... When I came to, my nose was bleeding and my mouth was full of blood. I felt that I was being drowned.

From then on, baseball makes Eben feel physically sick. Through his childhood and into his adulthood, he tries with mixed success to hide his fear. His abnormal feelings towards baseball stem from his abnormal relationship with his father. Leander, the son of a ship's master, is dramatic and mentally unstable. He resents his son's very existence. He quotes from Shakespeare and could be a Shakespearean character himself, a wild and wily king presiding over his country house outside of St. Botolph's, Massachusetts. He haunts his son, even from afar.

The story follows Eben into adulthood. He marries, becomes a father. His life with his wife and kids is loving and untroubled, free of the dysfunctional family dynamics that marked his childhood. For a long while he can't really make peace with his past or lay it to rest, and the taste of blood in his mouth emerges during baseball games like a nasty smell from behind a closed door. Wounds deeply inflicted can emerge in absurd ways, and Cheever writes about the characters and their circumstances with a touch of dark humor. Leander himself is a mix of tragic and comic, a mean old man and an eccentric codger.


Other stories in this collection include: The Girls in Their Summer Dresses (by Irwin Shaw) and A New England Nun (by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman), along with Silent Snow, Secret Snow (by Conrad Aiken) and The Damned Thing (by Ambrose Bierce).

Sunday, December 4, 2011

"It's good to live it again"

A little over a year ago I posted photos of autumn in New York - more specifically Central Park - that I took on Thanksgiving weekend 2010.

Now just this past Thanksgiving I returned to Central Park with my camera, for another taste of my favorite season in one of the loveliest places I know of.






Thursday, December 1, 2011


"Cast-offs" is a short story I wrote that's been published in the December issue of Halfway Down the Stairs. Their theme for December is Farewell.

If you're interested in reading the story, here's the link. I'll also add it to the list of my writing at the top of the page.