Sunday, March 31, 2013

Week in Seven Words #164

For the first time in an embarrassingly long while, I can see the bottom of my desk drawers. It's a cathartic moment.

She's a competent person who psyches herself out, her thoughts chasing suspicions and omens.

My knuckles are raw and bleeding, as if I've punched a wall, but the only things they've battled against are dust and cold, dry weather.

In a heartbeat, she feigns hysteria, her voice plaintive and her eyes moist. Cars zoom by on the highway.

He's in a bowler hat and a red bowtie, and he sits in the front row. From there, his tired jokes and loud asides are sure to disrupt the speaker.

Cleaning for Passover means a fresh start. Everything looks neater and more spacious. There's room to work and grow. I'm not going to be buried in the detritus of past years.

I'm amazed at how patient he is, fiddling quietly with the picture book as he waits for me to wrap up a conversation on the phone.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Blue Iguanas of the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park

Last month, I took a few days off for vacation, and my destination was Grand Cayman. One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, where you can come across the island's blue iguanas, a species that can grow over five feet long.

The blue iguanas, which are native to Grand Cayman, came very close to extinction (there were less than 20 left in the wild in 2002). The botanic park is one of the sanctuaries on the island where they're breeding and their population levels are rising.

They roam freely in the park, and so it's likely you'll see them as you walk around.

Here's one that was relaxing in the sand garden. A park volunteer pointed him out and said he'd just chased another male off his territory, so he was likely tired out. He tolerated the company of six or seven tourists standing around taking photos.


Another one was stalking around a picnic area. There are signs warning you not to feed them, but I suspect someone fed this one anyway, because it was moving towards us in an eager, possibly aggressive way. When they're warning you off, the blue iguanas bob their heads and open and close their mouths; this one wasn't making that kind of display, but it still put us on guard, so we backed off. They're herbivorous, but they can bite.


Lastly, we were on a woodland trail, which in February was dry and brown, and one of them came out ahead of us on the trail. It walked for a bit, stopped, bobbed its head and opened and closed its mouth at something in the shrubs, kept walking, stopped a few more times to do the whole aggressive head-bobbing display again, and finally settled in a spot of shade right in the middle of the path.


We decided not to try and walk around it, as it was keeping an eye on us and had made aggressive displays. It really liked the shade, right on that spot on the path.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Nonfiction Book of the Month: Women's Letters

Title: Women's Letters: America from the Revolutionary War to the Present
Editors: Lisa Grunwald & Stephen J. Adler

I'm thinking of starting a monthly feature where I highlight a good nonfiction book I've read. Because March is Women's History Month, this is my selection for the month.

The cover for Women's Letters: America from the Revolutionary War to the Present

I read this one cover to cover, though it's also possible to skip around the book and sample different letters. A number of these American letter writers are famous (e.g. Abigail Adams, Emily Dickinson, Clara Barton, Julia Child), while others are obscure, though not less interesting.

The topics are enormous in range. You'll see arguments on multiple sides of important political and moral issues in the U.S., including slavery, the persecution of Native Americans, major wars, the suffragist movement, civil rights, and birth control and abortion.

The women here write about love, sex, academics, travel, religion, pregnancy, their jobs inside and out of the home, fashion, family issues, illness, and death.

Some of them served in the military (including a military nurse with multiple battle stars giving an account of treating concentration camp survivors at the end of WW2). Others never seemed to have ventured out of their home state. Some of the writers were slaves or former slaves (including women who didn't know how to read or write, dictating their letters). Within pages of each other, one woman describes a party game involving poetry and another describes undergoing a mastectomy without any anesthetics. You don't know for sure what you'll come across as you turn to a given page.

For each letter, the editors have provided some historical and biographical background, so you can get a sense of the letter's context.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Week in Seven Words #163

Getting speckled with snow as I take a long walk.

As everyone is celebrating, I taste the undercurrents in the room. Along with genuine warmth, there's a strong flavor of condescension and cynicism. People are smirking instead of smiling.

People in shambles in a green-carpeted parlor.

The conversation goes much better than I expected it would. More listening, calmness, and humor than I would have imagined possible. Acceptance is still a long way off, and maybe it will never come. Regardless, I have to do as I see fit.

My opinion of him (which isn't definitive, not least because I'm acting as an armchair psychologist), is that he's deeply self-absorbed. Occasionally he turns away from his work or personal interests and notices someone else. He might even be moved to do a kindness for them. Then he'll forget about them and become irritated and puzzled when they contact him.

Jolted out of a quiet Friday afternoon by some really good news.

We stand outside talking in the damp. Occasionally the front door opens, disclosing golden light and a roar of voices.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Worth Watching: Tales of Manhattan (1942)

Title: Tales of Manhattan
Director: Julien Duvivier
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

Tales of Manhattan is made up of a series of vignettes involving a cursed evening coat. Coming in contact with the coat might bring you misfortune, though in many cases the misfortune reveals an important truth or blessing in disguise.

From Wikipedia

Each vignette is distinct, with its own storyline and set of characters. They're also uneven in quality. Sometimes Tales of Manhattan is great; other times you wonder what the filmmakers were thinking. But I'm recommending it anyway, because it's packed with wonderful actors who do some strong work with whatever they're given.

First Tale
A temperamental actor (Charles Boyer) isn't sure that the woman he's having an affair with (Rita Hayworth) will leave her loveless marriage. Boyer has a compelling screen presence, and Hayworth is mesmerizing. A lot of the action is set in an eerie hunting lodge where the walls are crowned with the antlers of slain deer.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Week in Seven Words #162

When I talk to him on the phone, he tells me that he's finally starting to treat himself fairly, see himself as someone who has a lot to offer. It's inspiring to hear him speak this way, especially in light of my own tendencies to undervalue myself and play down my abilities.

I love the unpredictability of people (as long as they don't turn out to be axe murderers). I never imagined I'd get into an in-depth conversation on fanfiction tropes with someone at a Shabbat lunch.

Books, photos, a light behind a door that's mostly closed. She talks about all the things she'll do, some day, and casually mentions that she's afraid of dying.

I'm reminded again of what an asset it is to have patience, as long as patience doesn't turn into inertia.

Two choices: implode with embarrassment, convinced that you've lost everyone's respect... or just keep going and realize that, contrary to what your melodramatic brain is telling you, things are actually ok, and no one cares as much as you think they do.

The fierce sulking of a teenaged girl.

Wheel of Fortune is fun for young kids who are learning to spell.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Good Short Fiction: 3 Tales from 40 Short Stories

Collection: 40 Short Stories: A Portable Anthology (1st ed.)
Editor: Beverly Lawn

Title: Civil Peace
Author: Chinua Achebe

Soon after his country's civil war, a decent man counts his blessings and tries to make a life for himself and his family again. But the end of war doesn't guarantee stability, and everything that he and his family work for and try to save could easily be taken from them. Life is precarious in both war and peacetime, and sometimes the man wonders if there's any form of justice in the world that people can understand. He can't explain why good things or bad things happen; all he can do is make the best of what he has, try to survive, and leave the bigger questions unanswered. Achebe's story has a sweet, bewildered tone; even when robbers show up at the man's house, there's a sad sing-song quality to their words and the writing as a whole, like the voice of their child-selves in a world that makes little sense.


Title: The Lottery
Author: Shirley Jackson

Even knowing what would happen at the end (this was my second reading), I was tense throughout. I was also able to pick up on more of the foreshadowing this time around.

The story is set in a small town, where people are pleasant to each other, very neighborly, and there's excitement and nervousness about an upcoming lottery. The lottery is a regularly held ritual calling for the participation of all citizens, young and old.

When this story was first published in the late 1940s, it struck a nerve. Jackson had set The Lottery in a location resembling an ordinary small American town. She made a good choice; small American towns with their neighborly people have been the sites of brutal group violence. No matter what its history, there isn't a single community that can allow itself to be complacent; setting a barbaric ritual in what appears to be a pleasant, ordinary place highlights this. The story also questions the foundation of people's lives. If an otherwise friendly bunch of people perpetrate a savage ritual, one that has no apparent purpose, what does this say about the rest of their lives or the way they think? On what principles does their society rest - on traditions upheld without question? Why do they need this ritual?


Title: What We Talk About When We Talk about Love
Author: Raymond Carver

Four people sit around drinking and talking about love, or what they think love is. It's not as if they reach a consensus. One of them is a cardiologist, this time talking about the heart in another sense.

Throughout the story, some examples of "love" are offered up. One person defines the actions of an abusive ex-boyfriend as love. Another talks about an elderly couple who've landed in the ICU after a car accident.

I like the story for its quietness, its skilled use of dialogue, and the way it raises many questions about love and our perceptions of it. What are the narratives about love that we live by, for better or worse?
There was a time when I thought I loved my first wife more than life itself. But now I hate her guts. I do. How do you explain that? What happened to that love?
The characters are in a quiet room, and they all seem detached from their lives, probably because they're drinking and reminiscing, and are also trying to step back and evaluate experiences they usually don't think about. (What, if anything, will they make of their thoughts? Will they change anything in their lives, or are these thoughts on love only left to quiet moments with a drink on hand?) There's minimal information about their surroundings, but sometimes a detail jumps out, like the presence of leaves at a window.


Other recommended stories in this collection include The Cask of Amontillado (by Edgar Allan Poe), Paul's Case (by Willa Cather), A Good Man Is Hard to Find (by Flannery O'Connor), The Metamorphosis (by Franz Kafka), A White Heron (by Sarah Orne Jewett), and The Open Boat (by Stephen Crane).

[Updated 1/2015]

Friday, March 8, 2013

Week in Seven Words #161 - Grand Cayman edition


Sore with sunburn, we seek the shade of the color garden with its wall of trees and shrubs, its tiny darting lizards and tropical flowers.

The free parking lot in Georgetown, by the harbor, is a grassy lot where roosters strut around, pecking at the dirt, dodging the occasional car, and crowing their hearts out.

At the poolside, everyone is pleasantly soused.

The public bus is a van, but there's room for everyone who wants to get on. There are some bus stops along the route, but the driver will stop anywhere if you flag him down. He listens to the same rapid, unending, unchanging music that plays everywhere else on the island and that sounds better when you've had a drink. When people pay him, he keeps the cash clutched in his fist, even as he drives.

After trundling along for some time with its head bobbing aggressively, the large blue iguana settles right in the middle of the path, in a patch of shadow cast by an overhanging tree. It stares at us dispassionately, not realizing that it's blocking our way. We could step over it, or maybe try to slip around it. Blue iguanas are herbivores, and they rarely bite people. But why take a chance? So after several minutes spent staring at it as it stares at us, we turn around and head back. Humans, with all the force of our intelligence, foiled by a lizard seeking a little shade.

For the first time in years, I swim in the ocean. The water feels like silk. When I look down at my hands, they're green and white. Waves spill over my back.

The labored breaths of sea turtles coming up for air.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Worth Watching: Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

Title: Lars and the Real Girl
Director: Craig Gillespie
Language: English
Rating: PG-13

In Lars and the Real Girl, Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) buys a sex doll but doesn't use it for sex. The doll, named Bianca, is fully clothed and gets treated with care. Lars courts her chastely, takes her around town, and introduces her to people as if she's real; he even gives her an interesting back story. Instead of functioning as a sex toy, the doll becomes his way of working through a deep-seated inability to connect with real people.

Lars real girl.jpg
From Wikipedia, Fair use, Link

I can hear some of you going, "Okkkaaaay..." and backing away slowly. So let me give you some background on Lars. His mother died giving birth to him. He grew up with a distant father and with an older brother, Gus (Paul Schneider), who left home as soon as he could. Now Gus is married to the warm and lovely Karin (Emily Mortimer), and the two are expecting a child. Lars lives near them physically, but keeps his distance emotionally. Though he can't articulate his fears, he is deeply afraid of people's unpredictability and mortality. He also doesn't respond well to physical touch.

How do people react to Lars and Bianca? After some initial hesitation, the townspeople play along with Lars's delusion and let him heal through it. Although Gus's first impulse is to have his younger brother committed to a mental hospital, he's dissuaded from this course of action by my favorite character in the movie, Dr. Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson), who combines cool understanding and warm compassion in her role as the town's medical doctor and psychologist.

Delusions can have their own logic and reveal something real and meaningful about the people experiencing them. And people reveal a lot about themselves in the way they respond to another person's psychological difficulties. Gus's initial desire to have his brother committed stems less from concern than from embarrassment and, more deeply, guilt and personal shame.

Is it realistic, the way the other people in the community come to support Lars and treat Bianca as a town mascot? Such widespread acceptance is rare, but not impossible. Read this article, which discusses the influence of social environment on people's ability to cope with mental illness. Ostracizing and isolating people with psychological problems makes them much worse off, but unfortunately that's what we usually do in our culture. The approach taken in Lars and the Real Girl might be more conducive to healing.

The movie is funny too. It shows the absurdity of the situation, but treats the characters with kindness. I also like how Lars uses a doll to work through his issues, instead of using a real life woman as a personal crutch or savior. He has a love interest in the movie - Margo (Kelli Garner), a colleague at work who seems to like him too, in a shy way. But on some level he realizes, even in the midst of his emotional disconnection, that he's not yet ready for a real relationship with her or with anyone except Bianca. And even Bianca starts to show signs of independence as the movie progresses, proving herself to be less pliant than she appears.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Week in Seven Words #157 - #160 (28 word catch-up post)

I'm sorry I was away for a while. I took a break from blogging, and it wasn't planned. Some changes in my schedule, new work, and - just this past week - a vacation I'll be telling you about soon, kept my attention away from the blog. So now there's a backlog of "week in seven words" posts.

This is going to be a mega post of week in seven words. Four weeks' worth. After this, I plan to go back to posting one set per week.