Friday, October 30, 2015

Week in Seven Words #268

The dark building scowls at the street, its face scarred by scaffolding. The names by each mailbox are peeling off like scabs.

I'm tired of the expression "politically correct." It's become a knee-jerk criticism, a shortcut in thought.

Half of the fence has collapsed towards the house, the other half towards the lawn. An evergreen shrub has thrust itself into the gap.

A broken umbrella tumbles between the cars, tickling them as it goes.

Another expression I'm tired of - more than tired of, I'd like to pulverize it with my fists - is "good intentions." It's an excuse, a deflection, a pat on the back. A false innocence, a willful ignorance.

Some people show you a love like the horizon. It'll be yours, they say, if you keep struggling towards it, on land, by sea, with everything in you. One day you'll have their love. Just make an effort. A real effort. Break yourself on the dream of it.

Behind a restaurant, a waiter puts out his cigarette and break dances. Pigeons rocket away.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Awesome Autumn Hike: Sleepy Hollow and Rockfeller State Park Preserve


I went on a fantastic 13-mile hike this past Sunday with Shorewalkers through Sleepy Hollow and Rockefeller State Park Preserve.

The foliage looked like it was at its peak; the weather was mild, with the day starting off a little drizzly, then gray and finally sunny in the afternoon. It was brilliant.

The hike started at the Philipse Manor train station on the Hudson Line of the Metro North Railroad; it's about an hour north of New York City's Grand Central Station by train. First we walked a few blocks through Sleepy Hollow, a quiet suburb with lovely homes half-buried in autumn colors.


Monday, October 26, 2015

Week in Seven Words #267

White linens folded in a pile. Beside it, a vase of brown roses.

Long scars on a lone tree. It looks like it's been whipped.

On all fours, her nose to the floor, she searches for candy among people's feet.

The kid flops onto the floor. He stares at the ceiling, then rolls over onto his stomach. Thunks his forehead against the carpet a couple of times, rolls onto his back, and kicks his heel against the wall. "Ow," he says, and kicks the wall again. Any sensation is preferable to boredom.

Lime green graffiti lighting up a street soaked in rain.

An old man pedaling a bike, leaning into it. It's a purple bike, and he wears a Panama hat and black sandals. He shifts a toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other. The front wheel of the bike jerks left and right.

A barren nest tucked in a tree hollow.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Two Ealing comedies with Alec Guinness

It's a shame that most people only know of Alec Guinness as Obi Wan Kenobi. He looked the part and delivered his lines with gravity ("I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced"). But he could have played Obi Wan in his sleep; it wasn't his most interesting or entertaining role.

Guinness was a fine dramatic actor, and he also did wonderfully well in comedy. The following are two movies showcasing his comedic talents, both movies made by Ealing Studios after WWII.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Week in Seven Words #266

She shows me how she's patiently worked her way towards a difficult yoga pose, adjusting her legs in increments over weeks. Now she sits with serenity, as if the arrangement of her lower body doesn't register in her conscious mind.

Her job duties include ignoring the phone and investigating vacation spots on Google Maps.

The sun turns to ashes behind an aluminum fence.

A mug of tea warming my hands. A conversation that passes with no bitter words.

The dog, calming on my lap, is a pounding heartbeat wrapped in hair.

The store smells of sawdust and wheaty things. Breathy acoustic versions of pop songs make background noise.

She sinks the needle into one arm, then the other. Gives me a bewildered look, as if to ask, "Are you human?" and leaves to search for a second phlebotomist: the one I call "The Vein Whisperer," who trails her fingers along my forearms, taps the skin, holds the needle poised above the surfacing vessel.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Two stories on art and ugly politics

Title: Portrait of the Avant-Garde
Author: Peter H√łeg
Translator: Barbara Haveland
Where I Read It: The Art of the Story

In the years leading up to WWII, Simon is intoxicated with his power as an artist. He sees his paintings as a way to remake the world. In his mind, he is a mini-god, wielding fire and air. He throws himself behind vicious political movements in Europe, because they promote a new order, a vision that appeals to him. He thinks of the process more than the consequences. The costs don't occur to him, because as a powerful artist he isn't a common person; he imagines he can stand astride the world and comfortably watch it burn.

To balance out the insufferable Simon, there's Nina, his lover. She's earth and water to his fire and air. She takes him to visit a remote island where she grew up. People move slowly there; things change slowly or not at all. Simon hears a myth about a warrior's power expressed in a dream, with the power dissolving when the warrior awakes. And then there are the final scenes, where he finally experiences what it is to be small, to have others impervious to his gestures and to the ideas he constructs. In one sense, the world remains his stage, but the audience doesn't watch him with admiration or terror.

Title: The Twenty-seventh Man
Author: Nathan Englander
Where I Read It: The Art of the Story

Stalin's police have rounded up a bunch of Jewish writers, and the story focuses on four of them who share a cell. One is an author who sold out to the regime and wrote government propaganda. The second is an old revered Yiddish writer. The third is a great bear of a poet, both soulful and crude. And the fourth, the twenty-seventh man, isn't known to anyone and was most likely arrested because of a fluke, a clerical error. He's spent his life quietly writing stories in his parents' inn; while they are interesting stories, he has made no effort to publish them or otherwise make a name for himself.

This is a nonsensical, brutal situation, and Englander understands the absurdity of it. There's no compelling reason for these writers to get arrested. And they know they're facing death. As they share a cell, their conversation raises questions about why people write and who they write for (this is set after WWII, and the old Yiddish writer, for example, knows full well that most of his audience has been slaughtered). What meaning do words have when you're a few hours away from facing a firing squad? People with wisdom, talent, and regrets try to make sense of their impending death.

(Who is listening? At the very least, they're hearing each other out, and what is that worth? Depending on how you look at it, it could be worth very little or could mean everything in the world. Final flickers from creative minds about to be extinguished. Maybe they can still give each other a reason to live even when they're about to die.)

Friday, October 16, 2015

Week in Seven Words #265

Silver branches with buds that bide their time.

The plum-colored house overlooks an abandoned lot. Papers, cigarette stubs, and glass have piled up on the front steps. Among the weeds along the base of the house - the blur of rodents bolting for cover. The French doors are open by a hair.

I need to be careful, when helping her, to consider my motives and make sure I'm not playing the part of knight errant.

Suddenly the window pops open, and he thrusts half his body out and waves and whistles.

The statue stares at copper-colored pavement, a bicycle rack, a man and woman arguing about a mutual friend.

He dreams of living on a farm. He doesn't know anything about farm life, but he wants to live on one. The city makes him feel like less of a person; he imagines that on a farm, he'll feel like he's made of flesh and not frayed wires. He'll be surrounded by earth and growing plants. He'll rise at dawn and commit himself to bed at dusk. This is his dream of farm life.

The dry vines on the building look like veins on the back of a hand.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Walking the Length of Manhattan

On Columbus Day, I joined a combined walk with Shorewalkers and the Appalachian Mountain Club starting at the southern tip of Manhattan and going the length of the island on its west side. The weather was mild and sunny, and the walk uncovered many new things for me (and familiar things in new ways).

The groups met at the Staten Island Ferry's Whitehall Terminal at the southern tip of Manhattan. I noticed, for the first time, a vendor selling only selfie sticks (usually it's bottles of water or umbrellas).


First we cut through Battery Park, best known for its views of the Statue of Liberty, but home to several sculptures and monuments of its own worth visiting. Like the New York Korean War Veterans Memorial; it's a war that tends to get overlooked, crowded out of American memory by WWII and the Vietnam War.


There's also the American Merchant Mariners' Memorial, inspired in design by an old photograph.


The eeriness of it comes from how the water rises and falls against the man in need of rescuing. Sometimes his head is above the water. Other times it isn't.


Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Week in Seven Words #264

The fluorescent lights wash the life out of her face. She stares at me with smudged eyes.

It occurs to me that I'm only really learning at this point in life what to do with anger. Before, my conscious attitude towards it was, "Don't have it" and "Feel guilty about having it." I hadn't really thought of it as a healthy emotion, although - when confronted, understood and directed in mature ways - it definitely can be. Denying it is self-destructive.

Books with gilt-edged pages bursting out of mahogany shelves.

It's not ignorance that bothers me so much as people acting triumphant about what they don't know. They're proud to not make an effort to learn or think about something, even while sharing their opinion or making decisions about it. They smirk at my frustration, like they've beaten me at a game I never agreed to play. At this point, I try not to engage with them, or I don't show much of an emotional response when I do. Easier to do when there's no personal connection between us; but also manageable when there is, though that involves giving up on a part of the relationship.

When someone tries to take their problems out on me, one thing I do is picture them the way they looked as young children. This makes their adult-sized tantrum less stressful. Though they want me to parent them and deal with their problems for them, I don't want to be a stand-in for their mother.

Pink stickers, Hershey's kisses - little things that brighten a run-of-the-mill evening of homework and TV.

He stares at the orange, pink and white floral sofa. Then shrugs and arranges himself elegantly on it.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

The dancing isn't the best thing about Dancing Lady (1933) and Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)

Older Hollywood movies often called on actors to display singing and dancing talent (and the movie industry actively recruited people from musical theater and vaudeville). Many of these movies are set in Hollywood's conception of a Broadway theater. And they can be pretty uneven, with weak plots strung around musical numbers that vary in quality.

The following two movies are uneven, but I still liked them for various reasons, including the fact that they're sometimes ridiculous. They're both theater stories, specifically stories of women trying to make it big in musical shows. Neither of them has amazing dance scenes.

(A movie I highly recommend, better than either of these and more witty, is Stage Door, which I wrote about here. It's also a much better choice if you want a non-musical drama and comedy; there are some brief scenes of dancing, but no musical numbers.)

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Week in Seven Words #263

Historic plaques in grotty subway stations. The subway system is teeming with stories no one knows, because people don't like to look around when they're waiting on a platform. They pretend they're elsewhere, maybe already at their destination, and not underground in the stale air and filth.

When I walk along the dead lawns, I imagine meeting my younger self, taking her by the shoulders, and telling her a thing or two.

I hear them chanting, and their voices are like chains of silver.

You find it in the folds of her robes: an owl. Few people would spot it or think to look for it. It will never venture out of its sheltered spot.

I know I have a craving for chocolate when every large brown boulder reminds me of fudge.

Heliotrope lipstick and hair a traffic cone shade of orange. She's lit up like a flare in the gray neighborhood.

The interior of the historic church is made of dust, marble and roses. A man in the pews bows his head - praying, or coaxed to sleep by incense and warmth.