Thursday, December 29, 2016

Deal Me In 2017 - Short Nonfiction Version

Over at his blog, Bibliophilica, Jay has announced the 2017 "Deal Me In" Challenge.

Pick a bunch of short stories, assign each of them to a different card in a deck, and each week pick a card at random. Read the story and share your thoughts about it. (If you don't want to do this on a weekly basis, use only two suits from the deck or something like that.)

The thing is, I don't read short stories based on a pre-planned list. But I'd like to participate. Given that the challenge allows for variations, I'm focusing on essays, feature articles, letters, and speeches. I've been making a list of my own anyway as part of my effort to study more short nonfiction.

So here's my list. I plan to comment on these here or at Words in Bold, depending on the topic.

(If you're interested in participating in this challenge, whether with short fiction, short nonfiction or a mix, go for it, and let Jay know.)

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Week in Seven Words #320

It's a crackling park. Branches bristle, evergreen needles scritch, mulch grinds underfoot.

The branches wave about the tree's crown as if it's casting a spell.

In everything, she chases love, sincere unflinching love, withheld from her as a child and longed-for decades later.

Shoulders relaxing as I settle at the table with a glass of sparkling wine.

Forehead-slapping moment when the words I've rehearsed come out costumed in a different meaning and tone.

"They don't know how to write," he says of his students. "They don't care. They think they have nothing worth sharing. Maybe they don't!"

Sucking on cough drops as the wind nips my cheeks and throat.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

"I see you when you're sleeping..."

Before I go off to light the first Hanukkah candle, I wanted to share this, as it gave me a much-needed laugh earlier this week. Happy holidays, folks.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Week in Seven Words #319

Half the content of these books is beautiful nonsense, lovingly tended to in the small, dim library.

One ranger is a flinty middle-aged woman. The other is a younger woman with red, wind-bitten cheeks and an honest face. They takes us down paths strewn with the sweet gums' spiky seed pods.

"You have a special bond with her," she says. "And she loves you so much."

American beech bark scarred with names.

A long stretch of gray glass buildings broken up by a grocery store, flowers huddled by its door.

It isn't a discussion he wants, but a chance to speak his opinion as if it's law.

This is love, or some of what love is - sharing the best parts of yourself with others, and hoping their own best self responds.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Bye, Autumn

These Central Park photos are from a beautiful day at the end of October. It had unexpected warmth. (And, towards the end of the day, I got an unexpected sting from what was probably a bee. This was followed by a massive howling rainstorm. But up to that point, the day was a dream.)



Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Week in Seven Words #318

She married someone who picks at her like tissue on the bottom of his shoe. With a determined smile, she spins his sullenness as shy charm, his malice as social awkwardness.

Under the fluorescent lights, the fake plants look anemic. So do the people - washed out, moving as if their feet were planted in deep, sucking mud.

All the information we've found suggests there's no way the problem will disappear on its own. (Yes it will, he says.) Let's try a treatment. Giving it a try costs almost nothing. (It's unnecessary.) Why? (Because.)

She gets a hit of anger from the TV news, her round-the-clock drug.

They're tech-savvy, but that doesn't mean they don't like offline games. Case in point - her scavenger hunt with clues planted among stuffed animals and kitchen appliances.

Once people go into the little soundproof room in their mind, it doesn't matter how hard you pound on the door. I forget this, even though I've seen it often and done it myself.

PowerPoint, pizza, multi-colored plastic chairs - it's like I'm back in grad school.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Week in Seven Words #317

It's an old-timey lobby with wood paneling, cubbyholes for mail, and a brass call bell at the front desk. I expect to see men lounging around in homburgs and high-wasted trousers.

The corridor has a triangular glass roof. Beyond it are roosting birds and gray sky. Lamplight reflects off the metalwork.

Mirrors extend the front hall infinitely. The doorman sends us up to where the old man lives on every last drop of his fixed income.

By mashing buttons, I score a slam-dunk in video game basketball. When in doubt, mash the buttons. Something will happen. I try it again, making a shot across the full length of the court. I wish I could say it goes in.

I stare at the payphone as if it's prehistoric. My friend comes up behind me and says, "You can... call people on this?"

With the slogan, he identifies his tribe and takes a mental shortcut. The conversation ends.

Pushing through to the other side of tiredness to finish a project on time.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Age of Innocence: Newland Archer as an Opera Singer

Both at the beginning and towards the end of The Age of Innocence, the same aria from the same opera gets performed for the same group of people, the upper crust of New York City in the 1870s. The same soprano, Christine Nilsson, sings it both times. No doubt her voice is beautiful, but because the novel highlights the words of the aria in little outbursts, the effect is a plaintive bleat ("M'ama!").

The fine music and the aria's tribute to love plays in the background. What's in the foreground are the social rituals of the upper class, who examine each other with their opera glasses. One of the mistakes Newland Archer makes is assuming that love and fine art reign central and supreme, while less worthy social machinations can unfold in the background.

Newland is a young man from an old family. Even if he isn't outrageously wealthy, he embodies class and respectability. His mother and sister dote on him, and his life is leisurely. His position at a law firm exists mostly for form's sake. Cultured and at ease with himself, he has every reason to believe he's in command of his world.

At the start of the book he becomes engaged to May Welland, in all outward appearances an excellent match. But soon after, he falls in love with her cousin, Ellen Olenska, who has fled to New York from her husband. In the drama that plays out, Newland hangs on for much of the time to the belief that he's master of himself, and that fine thoughts and passionate feelings, truth and beauty, are central in his life. He's pulled between personal inclinations and powerful social demands, but even as he struggles, he believes that it's his choice that matters. His and Ellen's.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Week in Seven Words #316

She's always struggled with writing, so it's with stunned pride that she sees her piece on the wall, winner of a weekly contest.

She hits replay on the music video (please don't let this get stuck in my head), and there it is again, the Vegas-style Egypt with a talking sphinx throne.

Stirrings of hope and love, late at night. I encourage these feelings with a pep talk, like using bellows for a fireplace.

It wouldn't take much for me to vomit. A sudden movement, maybe. I fold myself into bed on my side, knees to chest, and hope that sleep will ease the nausea.

As four of us play Monopoly, she sits apart, a few feet from the TV, to better shout at the pundits and politicians.

Floating on "Dreams" by The Cranberries in breaks between assignments.

Critical thinking, he assures me, is impossible. There's even a script for giving up on it. ("Other people are thoughtless and extreme, and I'm just reacting to them. They're making me do this. If they didn't, I wouldn't.")

Friday, December 2, 2016

Week in Seven Words #315

Open doorways breathe out sour smells, moist wood smells. People wait for death with the TV on as round-the-clock company.

When she sits, her cloud of perfume settles like a soft cloak, cushioning the bench and protecting her from other people's touch.

The elevators groan open and admit you at your peril.

With a sense of satisfaction, she tells me that the world is going to pieces. It could be that it's her own world she's talking about, the one of slowness and illness. If her body is crumbling, so must everything else. She's not alone in her disintegration.

She speaks with command, her message urgent and worth hearing. Most of us won't act on it. We'll think we've done our part by showing up and appearing attentive.

One of those hopeful days, when the storms have ended, and it's possible to think there'll be no time wasted. The future is all mellow morning sunlight.

A dim marble lobby where a doorman paces, muttering about his dead phone.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Week in Seven Words #314

They love talking about actions having consequences, until it comes to something they've done. Then, good intentions are all that matter.

She writes a tribute to her friends, the three closest, who cluster around her when shockwaves spread through her life.

The greatest gift her parents gave her, she writes, is a love of cheese. Cheese platters and wine are what hold her family together at home and abroad.

We play charades. I act out a kangaroo. "Karate bunny!" she shouts. I try again.

The boy runs straight at the headlights. He cries when his parents snatch him away.

The basketball flies around like Flubber in the cluttered room.

Dark windows and deserted streets tell me stories I don't know how to interpret. Some neighborhoods wither like unwatered vines, and it isn't always clear why.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Six movies that fit the holiday season

Title: Home for the Holidays (1995)
Director: Jodie Foster
Language: English
Rating: PG-13

In spite of its premise - woman visits her bonkers family for Thanksgiving - the movie isn't a standard, sitcom-like holiday comedy. The main character, Claudia (Holly Hunter), reconnects with some of her family, runs up against resentment and anger, and falls in love with her brother's guest, Leo (Dylan McDermott) - but these developments don't feel contrived. The actors inhabit the movie naturally, as if they aren't putting on a performance.

I like the exploration of the family, the ways in which they're close or have fractured. Claudia and her brother, Tommy (Robert Downey Jr.), cling to each other as the unconventional children, while their sister, Joanne (Cynthia Stevenson), is perpetually on the outside and profoundly unhappy; she's married, has two kids, helps her aging parents, and so one would think she'd be comfortably settled at the heart of her family, but she seethes with stress and joylessness, pushing people away while also living with unnamed betrayals (including self-betrayal).

Among the older actors, like Anne Bancroft and Geraldine Chaplin, there are also strong performances, especially Chaplin's heartbreaking, eccentric character, also a family outsider. The filmmakers don't let the movie get melodramatic, though. There's restraint to the anger and pain, and there's plenty of light-heartedness and some moments that made me laugh. Though Claudia's life is in a bit of an upheaval, she has good things going for her; she's smart and fierce, and has a close relationship with her teenaged daughter, Kitt (Claire Danes). Not all is right in the world, but there's enough that's good.

Title: I Remember Mama (1948)
Director: George Stevens
Language: English and some Norwegian
Rating: Unrated

The movie centers on the matriarch of a Norwegian immigrant family living in San Francisco in the early 20th century. She's played by Irene Dunne as practical, devoted, steadfast, and sharp, her influence present in everyone's lives - such as when her older daughter, Katrin (Barbara Bel Geddes), has dreams of becoming a writer.

I Remember Mama is warm but not cloying. It's spiced with enough humor and character complexity to keep it from becoming too sentimental.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Week in Seven Words #313

Catching up on housework while the Internet and phones aren't working. Keep glancing at the router to check if service is back. Resume dish-washing.

We're side-by-side on the couch, our legs pressed together beneath a staticky blanket.

Fairy lights, purple skies, an evening chill.

We speak through scarves, our voices smothered.

After services in the synagogue, a boy and his father take turns being rabbi and cantor. When it's the boy's turn to be the rabbi, his father asks for a speech or some wise words about the week's Torah portion. "L'Chaim, L'Chaim, L'Chaim!" the boy says.

The quivering gray-brown rocks on the reservoir are ducks.

Kids run up and down the synagogue aisles. The space for prayers is also one for play.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Week in Seven Words #312

Blunt, cranky, and doesn't care about popular opinion. A pinch of humor in his mouth, lips turned up at the corners.

For unknown reasons, the restaurant plays a kind of soft, demented circus music. Everything turns sinister: the glint of cutlery, the irregular laughter. The waiter's secretive smile when I order a hamburger.

He introduces me to "Two Truths, One Lie," where you share three things about yourself and everyone tries to guess which one is false. The U.S. states I've visited and number of miles I've walked in a day throw people off.

For a couple of hours, we're absorbed in building train routes across Europe.

Unwilling to do something fun, she claims the sofa and calls attention to herself by complaining.

When the adults are being childish, take a break from them and sit at the children's table.

He's absorbed in his rain forest of pop-up trees and plastic prowling animals.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Week in Seven Words #311

The desk chair that's meant to be sat on, not ridden, breaks. She slides off it with an expression that's part-guilty, part-puzzled. We live in a strange world indeed, where desk chairs just fall apart without warning, she seems to say.

Watching the Matilda movie from the 1990s, and the only person truly freaking out from Trunchbull is another adult in the room. "Is this... how can this be real? How can she get away with this?" he asks.

People looking for a purpose and a place find neither, seek someone near them to blame.

He prefers passive-aggressive insults. Instead of telling me directly what he thinks about my character, mind, and looks, he'll discuss someone I bear a resemblance to and make hostile remarks about the qualities I share with them.

In an orange coffee mug, she's growing what looks like a valiant twig. Whatever it is has sprouted a couple of leaves and angled itself towards the window.

Pages whirring, books thudding, students sniffling over their assignments.

A pink evening glow of laughter and play.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Two film noirs where hitch-hiking goes horribly wrong

Title: Detour (1945)
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

Detour was made on a shoestring budget, which works for its overall mood. A musician, Al Roberts (Tom Neal), hitch-hikes across the US to get to his fiancée in California. She represents the sort of life that a schlimazel and, ultimately, murderer like him will never enjoy. He's not only unlucky, but wallows in his unluckiness, seems to rush out to meet opportunities that will further make him unlucky. One of the best shots is of his face, full of stubble and despair, as he sits in a diner.

The only time he seems to struggle against his character and fate is when he plays piano. The music feels like a protest against his worst impulses.

Most memorable of all is Vera, a woman Al meets on the road. Ann Savage plays Vera as a wildly creepy sexual hellcat, full of rage and bitterness. Her eyes alone promise torment. She could have been one of the Furies in a Greek tragedy. I like how Savage's performance evokes both a particular woman and vengeance incarnate. Al is almost definitely not the worst man Vera has ever had to deal with, but he's there, in her path, ready to embrace unluckiness.

Title: The Hitch-Hiker (1953)
Director: Ida Lupino
Language: English and some Spanish
Rating: Unrated

Two men on a fishing trip pick up a stranded motorist. He's Emmett Myers (William Talman), a psychotic criminal who has escaped from prison. One of his eyes never fully closes, so even when his victims think he might have fallen asleep (and they can maybe make a break for it), they aren't sure if he's watching them.

The filmmakers maintain strong psychological tension throughout the movie. Roy (Edmond O'Brien) and Gilbert (Frank Lovejoy), the fishing trip buddies, know that at some point Emmett will kill them. They just don't know when. (A fact that he torments them with.) Subtle contrasts emerge between them, in how they react to their likely fate, while struggling to stick together, stay sane, and find an opportunity to fight back.

There's an excellent use of music in this film, including some classical music in a scene out in a desert by a well where a killer may be disposed to drop bodies. There's also light Mexican folk music in a moment where Roy and Gilbert may very well die. The suspense is especially strong during one scene involving a long walk on a dock through shadows.

Part of the movie is set in Baja California, and notably it portrays the locals as people, not as caricatures of another culture. Another impression the movie made on me is how it never gets melodramatic. It just lets the tension stretch out, the feelings churn and from time to time erupt.

Week in Seven Words #310

The wind slashes at us all the way up the hill.

She lingers in her daydream. Its air smells like a bakery, and its streets are cobblestone. Roses burst from a breach in the wooden fence around her Queen Anne house.

Sidewalks held together with cement, gum, and mashed litter.

It's a rumbly night with noises from parts unknown.

Receive an email from her. Attached, a selfie with our faces wreathed in hearts.

A movie stitched together from nostalgic moments, explosions, and characters who arrive with pre-packaged, top-level abilities. Dressed conveniently in white for good, black for bad.

An academic article, written as if each sentence was held to a fire and partially melted.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Week in Seven Words #309

They're all in flames except for the destroyers. He hunts for mine, and I for his, across the war-torn grids.

He's assigned an essay on the Battle of Gettysburg, and chooses to write it the length of the Gettysburg Address, 272 words. It reads naturally, without too many adjectives thrown in for padding.

The cold rain has crawled into my socks.

We play to 100 points. As soon as we're both close, he lies on the floor, hands flailing, so that if I win, he can say that he let me.

The harpsichord music is fury and frayed nerves. Forked lightning kept in a crystal vial.

For the sake of inefficiency, they invite us to an in-person orientation. We spend fifteen minutes signing in, finding our seats, and picking up a thin packet of information we could have received via email. Following a ten-minute PowerPoint presentation chock-full of information already contained in the packets, the Q&A session begins. Crickets chirp. We leave.

Cuddling on the couch, because it can't already be time to say good night.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Postmodern Jukebox Delights

Postmodern Jukebox does covers of contemporary pop songs in older styles.

For instance, Rihanna's "Umbrella" (ella, ella...) in a Singin' in the Rain style with tap-dancing.

And Green Day's "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" in soul music style (and so beautiful, how it builds).

Other gems I've found so far: Radiohead's "Creep", Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance", and Beyonce's "Halo".

Friday, October 14, 2016

Week in Seven Words #308

Before he finally gets locked out of his account, he tries one password after another, probing at his unresponsive memory. Each time, he's convinced that he's only off by one character.

Through cracks in the window, the cold seeps in and curls around my hands and ankles.

Around my wrists, they've placed interlocking plastic chains - some in pastels, others in night-glowing neon.

Cloudy bins of candies in toxic colors line the cold, bright aisles.

His nose has puffed up like a sponge toy that expands in water.

Dark-haired and silver-haired, they play a violin duet in the dim light.

"Don't worry, don't worry," he pleads. He doesn't know what else to do. He only wishes she'd relax, even as his frantic voice communicates the uselessness of such a wish.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Week in Seven Words #307

As children they're learning the art of wearing different masks: the politely engaged one with their teachers, the unruffled, easygoing, coolly knowing one for their classmates.

He appears with a handlebar mustache on a Time Magazine cover. "Impressed?" he asks.

He compares my defense skills to a professional player's, in a game of basketball involving a small plastic hoop lodged above a closet door.

At the end of the week, a cold grips my throat and wrestles me down.

The words don't hurt so much as stick to me like random rubbish, a scrap of paper I've stepped on when it's raining out.

She likes to make each occasion more special with a handmade card. The thought and care she puts into her work creates closeness.

One of those awkward conversations where you feel as if you're surrounded by tripwires. Even a safe topic, taken slightly off course, is liable to lead to an explosion.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Labor Day Hike: Mostly Bronx

On Labor Day, I went on a roughly 20-mile hike that started in East Harlem and ended in the Bronx by the Whitestone Bridge. The hike almost didn't happen, because Hurricane Hermine menaced the city from afar for a while, but the weather turned out beautiful - sunny all day, no violent winds or flooding.

The hike was organized by Shorewalkers, a group I've walked with before, in and around NYC.

So here's the starting point, near the 6-train stop at 125th Street and Lexington Avenue.


We headed east and crossed the Triborough Bridge to Randall's Island, where part of our walk took us under the Hell Gate Bridge and Railroad Viaduct.


We were near some athletic fields, and the air off the water smelled clean and fresh, even though there's a waste treatment plant nearby (the winds were blowing favorably).

Randall's Island is located between Manhattan and Queens, with the Bronx to the north. Rikers Island, with its massive prison complex, is also in view, along with the smaller North and South Brother Islands.

North Brother Island was where officials twice confined Mary Mallon, nicknamed "Typhoid Mary." It's also where the steamboat, General Slocum, ultimately came to rest after catching fire, in a hideous maritime disaster that killed over 1,000 people.

As for that rail viaduct we walked under earlier, with the beautiful concrete arches? The original plan had been to use exposed steel for the bridge's piers (or supports), but there were concerns that mental asylum inmates on Randall's and Wards Islands would easily climb on those to escape. Reinforced concrete was the solution.

All of these darker bits of history we absorbed on a calm, sunny day with beautiful views of the East River.


Monday, September 12, 2016

Week in Seven Words #306

A Mustang parked outside a condemned brick home. Its front left tire is poised on the edge of a scum puddle.

His conversation - mostly heavy sighs and talk of how everything is ending.

They stand on the edge of an empty fountain and embrace.

She stages her skilled, frenetic dance in the narrow aisle between two bookshelves.

Their need for a scapegoat outweighs anything good she does.

People's image of themselves can act as their greatest obstacle. They didn't work alone in constructing that self-image. If they ever want to tear parts of it down, they'll need help, perseverance, and tolerance for pain.

Scooping gobs of warm, wet clothes from the washing machine.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Week in Seven Words #305

The dog, tied up outside, whines low and long over all the things she can smell but not jump on and lick.

I'm reminded of what it's like to play tag in a house. Ducking behind a door and waiting for the pursuer to run past into a different room. At the end, getting caught with a fierce hug.

Cold, clean air, a muddy lawn, leaves, a swing set at dusk.

He tells me about the relationship between manatees and elephants, and hippos and whales - just some of the topics we migrate through, using books, toy animals, and YouTube videos as supplements.

They show me a video of what at first looks like a skittering punctuation mark: a pygmy shrew, among soil and rocks and exploratory human fingers.

We cram ourselves onto a gondola swing. It creaks in protest, lurching under our weight.

This time, she finds a wound in me that she can tear open wider. My responding anger is so strong. It collects in my throat and chest, and I'm close to letting it fly. Like a snake that's reared back and spread its hood.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Five Short Stories Set in Haiti

Title: The Blue Hill
Author: Rodney Saint-Éloi
Translator: Nicole Ball
Where I Read It: Haiti Noir

With the government's permission, toxic garbage gets dumped near a village. It renders the dirt an unnatural blue and covers people in blue pustules. The story is basically the ravings of a local detective. Sick from the toxins, he lies in bed gripped by visions. And what he shares is compelling: apocalyptic and poetic, with historic flavors and images of dragons and demons. It's a cry in the dark, at once futile and necessary. ("We will at least have the elegance to bear witness.") A story written as a prolonged fit may have dragged or come across as belabored. But it's powerful, and it pulls the reader along through hellish landscapes and images of a battle that the broken people, like the detective, don't have the health or power to engage in physically. It's their souls sending up a cry that no other person hears.

Title: Claire of the Sea Light
Author: Edwidge Danticat
Where I Read It: Haiti Noir

Claire is a young girl whose mother died giving birth to her. After she spends a few years with her mother's relatives, her father takes her back. She wants to stay with him, but he's more ambivalent. He cares for her but feels he can't properly raise her. As a fisherman, he knows he might die at sea or have to move elsewhere at a moment's notice for work. What will happen to her then?

The story is told from his point of view, but still shows some of what Claire experiences, not knowing where she belongs and whether or not her dad wants her. He's holding her at arm's length, because he doesn't know what to do. Along with the fear of being lost to her, I also got the sense that he fears becoming too attached to her, after having lost her mother. (The mother is very much present in her absence.) To Claire, her father's ambivalence may come across as rejection, especially when a wealthy fabric vendor who lost her own daughter expresses interest in taking her in.

There's a beautiful scene in the story, set before Claire's birth, where her mother is swimming among glowing fish in the ocean as Claire's father looks on with concern and wonder. Claire's strongest ties may be to her mother, who in being dead can be safely loved with the assurance that, in a way, she isn't going anywhere.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Week in Seven Words #304

From behind the rocks on the beach, a woman's voice rises and falls in octave scales. I imagine she's a siren, warming up to lure sailors.

The evening is as smooth and comforting as a chocolate bar. (But I'm not good at accepting comfort. I enjoy the moment, while wondering how long the peace will last.)

One of the moms talks to the kids in a patient sing-song voice. She talks to the adults the same way. There's no off-switch for that voice.

She talks about her life as if she's read about it in a three-paragraph magazine profile.

The baby tries to arch out of the stroller, her mouth opening for a cry that she hasn't yet worked up the breath to release.

The shriek that fills the room comes from a bird at the window. It flutters off before we can get a good look at it.

We're trying to map out motives as if they follow a straight course from A to B, when what really happens is that they go through hidden tunnels and rebound off secret mirrors and raise echoes in sunken caves before emerging into the light.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Week in Seven Words #303

I don't think her sense of humor gets appreciated enough. She isn't the designated "fun one," so in the typical all-or-nothing fashion, her loved ones dismiss her as no fun at all.

The ceiling comes apart in flakes like dandruff across the bathtub and sink.

By the end of dinner, I'm not sure what color his eyes are, as they were focused mostly on his phone. I should have sent him a text asking.

The tennis ball dimples the net. As the kids practice, their sneakers scritch against the leaves littering the court.

The bottle of soda bubbles and glugs as he tips it into his mouth. It looks like he's pouring gasoline into himself, to refuel mid-hike.

Confronted by the large rock with the plaque embedded in it, we try to recreate a historic moment in our imagination.

The hike takes us up a steep, leafy incline, on paths baked gold by the late afternoon light. Cloud shadows drift over the cliffs across the river.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Week in Seven Words #302

It's possible to keep finding out fun things about people you've known all your life. Like how fiendishly good someone is at Connect Four.

Her dress makes me think of key lime pie and margaritas.

A "how to be happy" advice piece makes its rounds among people I know. It offers unelaborated suggestions like, "Don't be stressed!" and "Surround yourself with happy people!" Well, if we're all reading about how to be happy, we'll be surrounded for sure. We've definitely got a shot at this.

He scrolls through online comments sections for an emotional charge: outrage, anger, confirmation of superiority.

Another rigged conversation, weighted in favor of the answers she wants.

I think the train is going to blow by the station. But it stops, with the sensation of a rubber band about to snap.

His thoughts travel like a paper airplane that drifts off-course and gets lodged in a ceiling fan.

Spotlight (2015): A Look at Abuse Dynamics

Title: Spotlight
Director: Tom McCarthy
Language: English
Rating: R (language, descriptions of sexual crimes)

Spotlight is low-key and intense. Based on a true story, it shows the methodical, plodding, emotionally draining work put in by a team of investigative reporters from The Boston Globe, as they revealed a widespread coverup of child sexual abuse in their city's Catholic church hierarchy.

The movie stays respectful of its subject matter. There's no mindless grandstanding or sensationalism. It presents disturbing details in a straightforward way.

Though the movie focuses on one major religious organization, it highlights some general characteristics of abuse and institutional coverups:

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Week in Seven Words #301

Trying to figure out how to play with her collection of Shopkins, we come up with a game. I'll pretend I can take only one Shopkins figurine with me on a vacation. One by one, she'll pretend to be the figurines pleading their case. She'll have each one present reasons for why it's the best choice and will address my questions and concerns. ("As ice cream, I'll keep you cool and give you something to eat if all the restaurants serve gross food.") She comes up with creative, funny ideas and also makes some of the figurines self-sabotaging.

Late afternoon shadows make the woods even more inviting. I'm tempted to stay until night, when I'd have a much harder time finding my way out.

More lungfuls of clean air to take with me to the city.

The tree seeks itself in the leaf-choked stream.

During the hike, I hear a faint roar. It's sports commentary, seeping from his headphones.

Suddenly, we're at the lake. Silky water ringed with colorful trees. It's a view that breaches the hardened places in my mind.

After the hours she spends finding and implementing a solution for their Internet outage, they largely ignore her.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Week in Seven Words #300

We share a table at the atrium and for an hour write quietly in our notebooks. At one point, a man wanders in and tells everyone he's just bought a house. Then he dances, his arms out-stretched. I look at her, she looks at me, each of us thinking, "Is he going in our story?"

The advice she gives me assumes good faith in everyone. That if you tell someone you're hurt, they'll hear you out sincerely, instead of enjoying your discomfort or attacking you for troubling them.

The pond is gold and olive green in the early evening. The trees that border it are a tarnished silver. We sit on a bench, the backs of our hands touching.

He's tried to hide it from me, but I can see on-screen that he isn't feeling well, and I get uneasy.

Short-rib tacos paired with a frozen non-dairy mango-flavored dessert.

People dip their toe in the past, in a room with limestone walls and rippling columns.

If everyone else left, it would just be me in a dusky room where unicorns prance on the high stone walls.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Week in Seven Words #299

One sculpture awaits us barefoot beneath golden trees. Another looks at us and away from us with dozens of eyes.

We lean against the railing of the bridge as the dusk gathers. The river has turned into a sheet of mica. Blank, burning eyes emerge in the dark - a train approaching.

A conversation on the road, between a pedestrian who lectures a driver on right of way, and a driver who punches his horn in reply.

These parks are kept clean and lovely, and they're left undeveloped. People can lie on the grass just a few feet from a rocky beach. And there's breadth to the space, so they can pretend they aren't on a crowded island. The sunlight is soft today, and bikers take off their shoes and curl their toes in the grass.

He knows he's not allowed to hit people. So he slams pillows on the floor. But even that isn't allowed. So where's the anger supposed to go?

On the river: sailboats, yachts, a battleship, barges, banana-colored kayaks, and inflatable dolphins. The waves thrown into disarray by the watercraft.

Harbor water rises and falls against the statue's anguished face.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Six Short Stories About Children Dealing With Injustice

Title: The Balek Scales
Author: Heinrich Böll
Translator: Leila Vennewitz
Where I Read It: A Walk in My World

"The Balek Scales" reads like a folk tale. It's set in an area of European countryside ruled by the wealthy Balek family. By law, only the Baleks are allowed to own a set of scales. Local villagers bring produce and what they've found foraging, like mushrooms, to the Balek scales and receive payment based on weight.

A boy (the narrator's grandfather) discovers that the scales are rigged. The villagers' response feels like a scale tipping. They've accepted a certain amount of injustice in their lives, but this uncovered lie tips them over into outrage. What changes for the villagers after the lie gets exposed?

The villagers can apparently cope with little money for lots of hard work, as long as they enjoy some pride and some faith in the order of things. The Balek family didn't just injure them materially with the rigged scales. They wounded the villagers' dignity. They also degraded their own image. The discovery of their cheap, mean dishonesty broke their power over the villagers' minds. It also makes sense that a child discovers the rigged scales. A child who still plays and is still only learning how to do things the way things have always been done.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Week in Seven Words #298

A piece of driftwood rocks in the middle of the bay, when a sea gull launches off of it.

The warped stone sculpture could be many things. I see it as a woman wearing a cowl.

He returns to the table with beer, pretzels, and hummus.

Pettiness encased in righteous sentiment.

One man has shimmering birds on his shirt. Another wears a sunset on his shorts. A woman puts on a swim dress in pastel American flag colors. Underneath it, her bathing suit is a riot of neon green and orange, colors straight out of the opening credits to a Nickelodeon show.

She's stuck on an algebra problem. "We're going to help you," they tell her. They look over her shoulder. "Why don't you just take out the variables?" "I can't do that," she says. They shake their heads. "You're making things too complicated. Just remove the variables, and you're good." She tries to explain the problem to them, but they cut her off. "Why are you being so difficult?" they say. "We want to help you."

Some of his tattoos seem to spring from his muscles like strips of animated film. His other tattoos are more static and turn his chest and back into a billboard ad.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Week in Seven Words #297

Like a bloodshot eye, the moon flickers faintly red through a film of cloud.

I'm running late to meet with a hiking group in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Based on subway travel time estimations, the group's route, their likelihood of heading out 10-15 minutes late, and the speed at which they'll walk, I guess which subway stop to get off of and wind up only a few minutes out of sync with them.

During our conversation she laughs, and then tells me it's the first time she's laughed all day. It feels good to do that for someone.

I watch them play a soccer video game with graphics so crisp the players look real. There's also real-time commentary, giving the effect of an actual televised game. It's kind of mind-blowing. From my own childhood I remember a small Mario in profile stomping on mushrooms. A Sega Jurassic Park game had more sophisticated graphics, and it let you play as either Alan Grant or a velociraptor (I enjoyed being the velociraptor). But it hits me now, how much games have changed.

I think about the difficulties of writing a 'weak' main character. Someone struggling with some of life's more basic demands. I don't want the character to become too pathetic or seem too hopeless. I also don't want to hit an unchanging note of defeat for pages on end. There's a challenge in making a character enervated while keeping the story dynamic. And even in the character's weakness, one may see the potential for greater strength developing.

Buildings brimming with activity. The balconies filling up. The windows showing faces, silhouettes, and household clutter.

A homeless man and a monk walk on opposite sides of the street. "I belong to an awesome church," the homeless man calls out. "Join my church." "I like my church," says the monk. The homeless man laughs and says, "My church is for everyone. Your church is part of my church." "No," the monk replies, "my church is the one church for everyone."

Friday, July 8, 2016

Week in Seven Words #296

The neon fizzle of lemonade and the odor of fried food at the street fair.

On the subway, he sits with his head nestled between huge headphones. As the train screeches around a bend, he bobs his head and smiles.

"In the divorce," she says, "I got the friends. The good friends."

Among the books displayed shoulder-to-shoulder or on their backs along the table, I find a collection of Yiddish stories. It smells like it's been waiting in the back of a bookcase for its day in the sun.

The child pushes away her mom's hand. She wants to try walking on her own, away from the hand that clutches at her shoulder and arm.

I love watching adults do cartwheels or dance spontaneously.

A hard blue river foaming at the mouth.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Melancholy in Harvey (1950)

Title: Harvey
Director: Henry Koster
Language: English
Rating: Not Rated

On the surface, Harvey is a light-hearted story. It features Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart), a gentle middle-aged man whose best friend is a giant rabbit named Harvey. For the most part, only Elwood can see Harvey and talk to him (though others might get a glimpse now and then). A question that runs throughout the movie is whether or not Harvey is "real." Is he a figment of Elwood's imagination, or is he an animal spirit of some kind with a presence outside of Elwood's mind? At one point Elwood gets taken to a psychiatric hospital, and the joke is that the staff assumes that his overwrought sister, Veta Louise Simmons (Josephine Hull), is the patient and not him. He's so polite and laid-back, so gentle and courteous. Maybe it doesn't matter that he's hallucinating a giant bunny who's his closest friend.

Movie poster for Harvey (1950)

In many ways, the movie is fun (like when Elwood's portrait with Harvey comes on-screen). And its general tone of kindliness and gentle mischief suits the main character. The movie questions people's need to pathologize eccentric behavior. If Elwood isn't harming anyone, why not leave him alone? Elwood gets along well with pretty much everyone. He sees beautiful things in people, their potential for good. He's able to regard them with patience and love.

In contrast, the movie's authority figures are often petty, small-minded, and driven by their egos. They insist only on their version of reality. One pompous young psychiatrist even gets annoyed with the sensitivity and caring discernment of Ruth Kelly (Peggy Dow), a nurse at the institution. As for Elwood's sister - she wants to accept and love her brother, but she's also afraid to believe in Harvey's existence. She has an inkling that the rabbit is real in some way. But if she allows for a reality where a giant mostly invisible rabbit is real, wouldn't that mean she's crazy? Her efforts to avoid the appearance of craziness often lead her to act in unbalanced, neurotic ways.

Throughout Harvey, Elwood's calm, beautiful thoughts and the charm of his eccentricity shine through. But there's no doubt the movie is melancholy too. Elwood is a ruin in some ways. He drinks steadily. He doesn't seem to have any adult responsibilities; he lives with his sister, who runs the household. His life is made pleasant by alcohol, Harvey, and an appreciation of people's company. There are a few moments when he reflects on himself, and his tone is wistful. "I'd almost be willing to live my life over again. Almost," he says. And, "I've wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I'm happy to state I've won out over it." He says he was smart for years, but now recommends being pleasant.

Although he views the world in a kindly way, he needs protection from it. Maybe the only way to cope with other people's hardness, and their ruthless determination to get everyone to think as they do, is to soften the world and see it through a haze. To imagine, as a constant companion, a friend who isn't even human and in that way offers safe relief for loneliness.

Nurse Kelly at one point feels that Elwood truly sees her, and she wonders if she'll ever feel happier than at that moment. Because will anyone else ever take the time to sincerely understand her? She's used to getting talked over. Like Elwood, she lacks ruthlessness. How will she continue negotiating a world where sensitivity and patience have little value or means of expression? A thick cushion of imagination and drink helps Elwood live as a child-like old soul and go about his life largely untroubled. Other people might adopt a similar approach, though less extreme. Some remind themselves to be more kind, to take more time to really listen. Many become callous.

Elwood doesn't skip around bestowing uncomplicated happiness on everyone. He remains on the fringes of his town as a kindly alcoholic who can make people smile sometimes, and sometimes get them to think more deeply about their life. That's beautiful, in and of itself. He has a beautiful soul, and it's bruised deep.

(Image source: Wikipedia.)

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Week in Seven Words #295

When the adults ask him questions about what he values, the boy makes flippant remarks. He doesn't like how they want to sit in judgment over his words and pick apart the things he holds important. He deliberately gives them nothing of value.

They receive love, or something like it, only when serving their parents' shortsighted and limiting needs.

A plate of puffy chocolate cake floats around the room. With bits of cake indented and crumbling, we know the kids have gotten to it first.

They send me a gift card with money from their own account. It's a lovely gift, and it reminds me that they aren't little kids anymore.

A dinner that's more like a joust, the guests having a go at each other across the length of the table. All in good fun, they claim.

The delicious crackle of a pan filled with pepper steak and mushrooms.

As I get older, my relationship with my religion becomes more like an invigorating wrestling match. And sometimes like an expedition.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Week in Seven Words #294

To his great pleasure, he gets to roam around with kids a year or two older. They accept him without condescension and pay attention to his opinions.

I put on oversized orange glasses, hold an inflatable guitar, and pose for snapshots. It's fun. I like these photos much more than the formal ones.

He drinks his way to greater warmth and friendliness. His smile is relaxed, his voice cheerful. For a few moments, I imagine we're close.

With slow, savoring bites, they suck up the gooey center of a fried Oreo cookie.

The speeches are more or less what I expect. The room is mostly silent, and people continue to eat.

Once they've filled their plates at the buffet table, they don't move. They stand at the table, eating and talking, their elbows bristling as they defend their ill-gotten space.

I don't know who the kid is, but he's out on the fringes of a parking lot, playing on an embankment dotted in dandelions. No one else is around.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Four Off-the-Wall Crime Stories

Sometimes what I like is a crime story that's a bit ridiculous. Like these four. I enjoy the dry humor, irony, and sarcasm, and the little darkly funny twists.

Title: The Adventurous Exploit of the Cave of Ali Baba
Author: Dorothy Sayers
Where I Read It: Lord Peter: The Complete Lord Peter Wimsey Stories

"I've got the great big top Moriarty of the whole bunch quietly asphyxiating at home."
Peter Wimsey is a duke's son and amateur sleuth. He wears a monocle and is given to prattle (or "talk piffle"). It's to his advantage that he looks foolish, because people often underestimate his sharp mind. But in this story, he leaves behind his monocle and stays mostly silent. It's the only way to bring down a powerful secret society of criminals, in a high-stakes game of undercover operations, psychological tricks, secret loyalties, and complicated safes. The suspense is strong here. Also, the title is not at all unusual in a short story collection that includes "The Piscatorial Farce of the Stolen Stomach." (I liked this story better than the stomach one.)

Title: Murder on Orchard Road
Author: Nury Vittachi
Where I Read It: Singapore Noir

Feng shui master C.F. Wong has spent his career restoring the favorable energy in homes after a murder has been committed in them. (Is "restoring favorable energy" an accurate way of putting it? I don't know anything about feng shui other than reading sometimes about how people try to position things in their rooms - and the story doesn't really go into it much either.)

Recently, Wong's attempts to find more lucrative gigs has landed him work ensuring the success of a major car race. With his use of feng shui practices, the race will ideally be entertaining and please all the wealthy sponsors. But the day of the race, Wong comes up against various problems, including a Buddhist abbot who doesn't know when to keep quiet and a colleague's son who gets accused of murder. The story is humorous, with Wong so clearly fed up with so many people's BS but needing to make a living and keep everyone's feathers unruffled. It's also interesting to read a story set in Singapore. (Orchard Road is a major commercial street, full of shopping plazas and also well-known for huge displays of Christmas lights.)

Sunday, June 5, 2016

GWB and New Jersey Palisades Hike

The last Sunday in May, I went on a hike I'd planned out myself (as opposed to joining a group with a hike leader). The basic route was this: start on the Manhattan side of the George Washington Bridge (GWB), walk across the bridge, do a loop involving four trails in the New Jersey Palisades Park, and then walk back across the GWB.

The NJ Palisades Park website was really helpful with its maps and trail descriptions. And I got inspiration from this blog post too.

The pedestrian entrance to the GWB is near a playground in a low-traffic residential neighborhood west of the GWB bus station in Upper Manhattan.


Week in Seven Words #293

Foam churns in the wake of the ferry. The city recedes to the size of Legos. I lean back and feel the wind coast over me. The water is deep and glistening.

From between the rocks, the water whispers.

Sunflowers, leaning out of buckets, press their faces to a bright window.

Most of the homes have porches half-screened by flowers and leafy branches.

I'm walking in a world of pastel colors: pink doors, seashells, light blue skies, flowers enfolding fences and homes.

In a dimly lit room with dusky, rose-colored walls and no TV, I press bandaids onto my blisters and settle back in bed with a novel.

The famine memorial is spread out in the foreground. Behind it, a glass-fronted convenience store displays large cutouts of a spoon and fork.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Week in Seven Words #292

She's happy making life a little softer, a little kinder for people.

They gallop across the dance floor with their arms around each other's shoulders.

Sentences get tangled in my head. Words get caught in dark upper branches, beyond sight. It's time to take a break.

She insists I'll feel better if I tell her what's bothering me, but I hesitate. There have been some occasions where I've felt better, but usually the main focus becomes her emotions. I have to make omissions or tiptoe around things to keep her from becoming upset. I'm the emotional caretaker. I'm also not always sure what she does with what I tell her, how she might fling it back at me at some future point.

Her dress makes the sound of a rainstick when she settles on the bench.

The house looks bashful, its windows peeking out from branches held like fingers to its face.

Maybe the path in the garden is shaped like a question mark, and you stroll there wondering, "Why am I here?"

Monday, May 30, 2016

A bit of American Civil War History: Prentiss Brothers

A few weeks ago, I visited Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. It's a National Historic Landmark, and various well-known people are buried there, including Samuel Morse, Elias Howe, and Leonard Bernstein. And Boss Tweed, who is one of the city's most famous corrupt politicians.

There are also thousands of Civil War veterans buried at Green-Wood. Among them are two brothers from Maryland, Clifton and William Prentiss.


They fought on opposite sides of the war, Clifton for the Union and William for the Confederacy. Both died of injuries sustained at the Battle of Petersburg. Their nurse at Washington's Armory Square Hospital was Walt Whitman. And I didn't realize it until a few minutes ago, but he wrote about them in Specimen Days: Two Brothers, One South, One North.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Week in Seven Words #291

Most of the time what people need is for someone to hear them out. Not immediately jump in with a solution, or a way to rationalize or explain away a problem. Just someone to sit and listen patiently and with a sincere effort to understand.

Our conversation doesn't mean much. All it does is swat away the silence that would otherwise creep in between us.

There's little to see by the highway except for thin trees and industrial lots. But the flow of traffic is easy, and the sun is out, so there's a light feeling in me, and the world looks beautiful.

I have misgivings about the phrase "the real you." It's built on an idea that there's some private version of you that's real, and the rest of you is relatively fake. The thing is, all of you is "the real you." Your different facets, and the way you modify your behavior in different contexts. People can be charming in one situation and behave monstrously in another; or maybe they behave with kindness across a wide range of situations. Maybe part of "the real you" is a tendency to profess opinions that you don't believe in when you're among people you want to impress, while in other situations you speak more freely. One reason I dislike the phrase "the real you" is that people sometimes use it to distance themselves from parts of their personality they don't want to think about. Or they use it to portray someone in an oversimplified way.

He pauses the TV and stands beside it to give me a lecture on baseball stats. He explains what each number in each little box means. Maybe he thinks he can convince me to stop being indifferent to baseball. I appreciate his effort to involve me in his interests, and the way he steps into a teaching role with enthusiasm. I still couldn't care less about baseball.

Having my arm used as an impromptu ballet barre.

They made me feel at home. That's the warm, lovely feeling I take with me after visiting them.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Week in Seven Words #290

The three of us on an old couch, laughing until our eyes sting and our stomachs cramp.

As the bathtub fills, it becomes a sea of rising toys: capsized boats, smiley animals, figurines peering into the soapy deep.

The room doesn't get much direct sunlight. The light that fills it is soft, and partly filtered through branches. On powder-white shelves there are books, seashells, perfumes and lotions, homemade art, flowers, and small gadgets.

I like the buffet-style meal, where at least ten dishes are spread out on the kitchen counter, and I take a tiny bit of almost everything.

I read to him for hours, and he gets teased about it. They tell him he's choosing boring books that no one who's older than him could like. For a moment, he looks uncertain. "My books are interesting!" he insists. And I back him up. He shouldn't feel bad about the books he loves. And some of them are interesting, even for adults. Even when they're read more than once.

I like seeing how their understanding of life develops. How they think about their own experiences, make sense of the world, question ideas that don't seem quite right.

He won't be satisfied if you tell him you saw a shark. He needs to know the kind of shark. Blue shark, lemon shark, whale shark. He even has a reference book that he can't read yet, but that he's had others read to him so many times that he can point you to the right page and have you educate yourself about the proper shark. I learn about animals I didn't even know existed.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

As Seen Through These Eyes (2008): Confronting Annihilation with Art

Title: As Seen Through These Eyes
Director: Hilary Helstein
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

"As Seen Through These Eyes" is a documentary about the Holocaust, and specifically artists, musicians, and writers imprisoned in ghettos and concentration camps.

Sometimes, their artistic talent saved them from death. For instance, one man played the harmonica very well, and a camp commander requested regular performances. One woman was singled out by the infamous Dr. Mengele in Auschwitz to paint portraits of the camp's Romani population; while she saw their beauty, what Mengele was interested in was the exact shade of their skin and shape of their ears.

Other people were murdered because of their art. For instance, they may have been kept alive in a ghetto to draw up propaganda posters, and were caught also secretly sketching the scenes of misery and brutality around them.

Art also became a way for people to grapple with their trauma, during and after the Holocaust. They wrote, painted, and performed music that expressed their torment or that shared their longing for beauty and life. Sometimes art was their one form of freedom and their way of staying sane. One musician described the importance of playing the fiddle. Because his experiences in the camps felt like an uncontrolled bass rhythm inside of him, maybe the fiddle would balance out the bass and bring some harmony into his life.

The movie shows many examples of art and presents interviews with survivors. It's also narrated by Maya Angelou. Altogether a beautiful, moving documentary and worth watching at any time. I'm writing about it now because Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) begins this year at sundown, May 4.

Week in Seven Words #289

She speaks like a job applicant. Her voice is smooth and bright, and she's stocked up on polite exclamations. I wonder what she sounds like angry or melancholy. Or better, honestly in love with something.

They act like dogs displayed in a pet store. In short turns, they strut and yap, trying to get a reaction from customers. They respond to cues. When they hear a word, they perform a trick or bark in a certain pattern. "The Economy." "Yap, yap, yap." "Immigration." "Woof! Woof."

"Who are you?" she says. And her friend replies, "I'm afraid to find out."

We're in a warm, dense forest. We could be miles from the city. Except sometimes, through the trees, we hear rap or reggae. Or a truck rumbling by.

The towering shrubs in the forest look like reptiles, rippling green and gold as they sun themselves.

I find myself in a situation, that isn't trivia game related, where knowing the capital of Zambia comes in handy.

Beyond the imposing gate is a field of weeds, waist-high. All that's left of a formidable estate.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Week in Seven Words #288

They laugh at the old-fashioned special effects, but are clearly into the story, these kids raised on CGI.

She practices her song and dance routine with a self-conscious grin, her voice sometimes falling to a whisper as she tries not to laugh.

One of the useless comments people have made to her, on hearing about her mental illness, is "Just get over it. It's all in your head." Their ignorance is all in their head too.

Most of the time, she lies on the couch with her head on her arms. But as soon as Toto appears, she tenses and starts barking. She rushes to the TV and presses her nose against the other dog, as he runs away from the Cowardly Lion.

As he picks his way across the cracked asphalt, he keeps his head submerged in a newspaper. Even when crossing the street.

The art in the lobby features women draped in silk and crowned with poppies, leaves, and sunflower petals.

Instead of trying to refute her arguments, he questions her right to argue. Now she has to use up energy defending herself on a more basic level.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Three Short Stories Featuring Gardens

Title: Broken Glass
Author: Sabina Murray
Where I Read It: Manila Noir

"Now you go play, and when you think you know what happened to that man, the one that flew straight down, you come and tell us, okay?"
In "Broken Glass," a huge backyard, some of it laid out in neat gardens, other parts of it wilder, reflects the characters' social terrain. A young girl named Angela lives in a walled-off wealthy neighborhood in Manila. On a visit to her aunt's home, she hears her mom and aunts discussing an attempted break-in the night before. A security guard apparently shot the intruder as he was scaling a perimeter wall, but it isn't clear where the body is.

Angela goes out to play on her aunt's property. Along with clear paths she can easily follow, there are also sections - especially farther from the house - that remain overgrown and untended. She encounters different domestic employees who, like the gardens, give her safe assurances mixed with hints of danger. They're obliged to treat Angela well, but they also refer to dark things that Angela is too young and sheltered to understand. By the end of the story, she's a little less sheltered, and her safety feels more precarious. I like how the author shows the subtle destabilizing shift in the girl's life.

Title: The Flower Garden
Author: David Guterson
Where I Read It: The Garden of Reading

A teenaged boy is torn between two dreams: continuing to be with a girl he loves, and playing baseball. He feels the intense promise of both. He helps the girl with her garden, and when he's with her there, he believes their love will last forever. But then he heads to baseball practice, and the girl feels less real to him than the dream of trying out for a professional team.

The story starts in a golden haze of summer, when he's 17-years-old and eyed with wistfulness and nostalgia by the old people in his neighborhood. He's a world apart from these older people, though by the story's end he's taken a significant step towards them, with his young dreams crumbling. At one point, in winter this time, he revisits the garden. The story seems to ask whether a relationship (or someone's dreams) can survive that killing blast of winter, whether there's enough faith in spring and renewal.

Title: The Garden of Time
Author: J.G. Ballard (James Graham Ballard)
Where I Read It: The Garden of Reading

A husband and wife live in an elegant estate with beautiful gardens. On the horizon, a horde of people approach. The husband slips into the garden and plucks a blossom off a special kind of flower. The horde falls back. Every time they get closer, he picks another blossom. Each blossom stops time, for a short while. The horde can't overrun the estate, tearing it apart, as long as there are enough of these special flowers in the garden. There's a sense that the aristocratic couple live in a magic bubble of time, and that the horde outside inhabits a different time altogether. Soon, the aristocrats will run out of flowers, their bubble will burst, and the life they've cultivated in it will end once and for all.

This husband and wife face each day with resolution, going about their lovely routines, even when they know their efforts are futile. The story's poignancy comes from the desire to see that beautiful bubble stretch out for longer. But they can't stop time and forever live as if threats to their way of life don't exist. The most they can enjoy is a temporary reprieve. No new flowers are growing in their garden. It isn't a fruitful place. As beautiful as it is, it may also be stagnant. There is no permanence compatible with mortal life, and any change, whether it's considered good or not, goes hand-in-hand with destruction of some kind. The husband and wife can see no way to either directly confront the horde or adapt to any of the changes coming. The state of permanence they achieve in the end is a frozenness without possibility of growth; they're still beyond reach from the horde, but their time is past. They can only exist as reminders for people who care to look closely.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Week in Seven Words #287

He's hunched in the shadows with a book spread open on his palm. It's only a textbook, but he looks like a conjurer.

"I love my job," he says, with a dejected expression.

They've turned the broken corners of the porch into a garden. Missing boards are where flowers nestle now. Plants obscure the splintered railings. A rainbow windsock trails against the chipped paint.

Beneath the stains of black mold, there's a pattern of flowers. On each colorful tile, a different flower: foxglove, pansy, rose.

The blue-gray water and settling clouds swallow the sun.

What do you want to be when you grow up? "A nice man," he says. "I'm going to be a very nice man."

One of her ways of trying to get me to change is to say, "No, you can't be like this." Maybe if she waves her hands in a complicated pattern, the spell will take effect.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Week in Seven Words #286

Mornings are delightful when I get a lot of things done. When I don't, the whole day seems to slow down. Futility and fear creep in with the lengthening shadows.

When he walks by, he hisses at us through his smile. I don't shrink away, but feel a rising strength, like I could strike back viciously if I needed to. I look over my shoulder to make sure he hasn't turned around and started following us. He's looking back over his shoulder too. Nothing happens. But we were purely animals, at that moment.

The summer dresses on the rack look more like banners in blue, orange, and purple, meant to wave from the front windows of a house.

The thunder sounds like it's emerging from the ground.

Asked what an ideal vacation would look like, I imagine lots of hiking, train rides, and English country cottages with gardens in bloom.

I'd forgotten how funny these magazine quizzes can be, where stating your preference for a forest or a beach helps unlock the secrets of your personality.

In what most people would use as a jewelry box, she keeps a collection of erasers. Some shaped like cupcakes, others like flowers and friendly robots. Also a few without any design, just the standard small pink block.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Seven Photos of Spring in Central Park

The Lake:


The Conservatory Garden:


A duck in the Harlem Meer:


The Harlem Meer:


The Pool:


The Reservoir:


A tree that looks like a Dr. Seuss illustration:


Monday, April 11, 2016

Week in Seven Words #285

A lovely duet as the sun sets and candles flicker on the table.

As the waves withdraw, they clutch at the stones, wishing their foam were webbing that could hold them to the shore.

Moments that pass in a vibration of joy.

He pretends it's an editing request, but what he really wants is a new article, from scratch.

It's a tree like the head of Medusa, snake-like branches twisting and striking.

He likes to act as if he's a judge, and I'm the prisoner at the bar. He makes a statement that's exaggerated or untrue, then sits back with his arms folded over his chest and watches me exert myself to correct him. I catch on pretty quickly to what he's doing and end the conversation, which he takes as further proof that he's right. Such are his standards of proof.

He's hunched over his book, but looks up from time to time to see if anyone is coming over to interrupt his reading.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Week in Seven Words #284

Eyeing an assignment sidelong - a tough one, and I wish I could put it off. But if I do that, it will expand in my mind like a tentacled beast, throttling other thoughts.

Sneakers squeak on the indoor basketball court. Athletic giants peer down at the players from a mural that runs along the upper part of the wall.

In a coffee shop where the light doesn't reach every corner, we're huddled over tea and plates of pastries. The window is smudged with dirt and rain.

The sign says, "Do not smoke on this bench or near this bench." Maybe it will be replaced soon by a sign that clarifies what 'near' means - three feet? Five feet? Ten? We can't leave these things to chance. People need to be told exactly what to do. Make sure a security camera is pointing at the bench too, just in case.

"I've seen it all," he says. But no, he hasn't. He just feels like he has. And for the time being he lacks the energy to risk any new experiences. He's retreated, hurt, and the world looks inhospitable to him. But comforting, because he's made it smaller than it is. He can pretend to see into its far corners. Nothing will surprise him.

The fountain erupts in a shower of light, like a watery fireworks show.

She's arranged the flowers to look like butterflies, circling and landing.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

12 Beautiful Music Videos

Carnival (Natalie Merchant)
Wandering around taking photos of a city. I love the exploration, the mood of taking things in and questioning and leaving questions unanswered.

Everybody Hurts (R.E.M.)
I like the words flashing over the people in the traffic jam, revealing their thoughts. Their separation from each other and their shared plight.

I Am Not a Robot (Marina and the Diamonds)
Simple, direct, beautiful with a few different looks, including astronomical body paint.

I'm Going Slightly Mad (Queen)
I like so much of Queen's music - and some of their other videos - but this one is my favorite video. Comic, tragic and creative. (I also love the lyric "one wave short of a shipwreck" to describe descending madness.)

Kind and Generous (Natalie Merchant)
Peaceful, magical carnival atmosphere, with people hanging out together in whatever costumes they choose.

Lately (Charlie Winston)
More disturbing and intense than beautiful, but kind of beautiful too. In an eerie way.

Level Up (Vienna Teng)
Hopefulness, inspiration, starting over. Beautiful breakdancing.

Nobody's Fault But Mine (Abigail Washburn)
This was filmed live, with the musician wandering from room to room in an abandoned building, the acoustics changing. It's an amazing performance.

Papaoutai (Stromae)
The video shows a boy trying to connect to a father who's mentally or physically absent. Comedic and heart-breaking.

Poison Tree (The Milk Carton Kids)
A security guard roaming a mall with his imagination and memories. The images in the video somehow soften the bleakness of the lyrics.

The Sensual World (Kate Bush)
Dancing, deep colors, the feeling of love and old legends. Kate Bush is like a beautiful sprite.

Tightrope (Janelle Monáe)
I love the idea of an asylum for people practicing music, dance and magic. The dance moves are awesome, and I like this song so much.

Week in Seven Words #283

She walks ahead of the rest of us, and I understand the mood she's in - restless, unwilling to talk, needing to feel like she's floating free.

Between the chainlink fence and the water is a zone of discarded objects: a pink Disney princess balloon, a bike wheel, green bottles and a soccer ball.

Volcanic colors of sunset over small gray buildings.

An email I expected arrives. Even though I sensed that something like it was coming, it's no less disappointing.

Skyscrapers like silver blades cutting into the night.

Half an hour gets sucked away on a TV show where people make petty, poorly thought out decisions and end their night drunk and brawling.

We walk past the yachts in the marina and marvel at their features, like the hot tubs and lounge chairs. "Which one is yours?" she asks, grinning. I tell her that mine isn't a yacht. It's a leaky rowboat. The amenities include a bucket to bail out water.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Week in Seven Words #282

She pushes a stroller heaped with picture books. There's a child in there too, somewhere.

At some point, he started to sound like a 1950s TV dad. Though in some ways he has matured, his thoughts have also hardened and narrowed.

I leave the room in anger. Outside, a few things calm me: The air, the trees and the soft afternoon light. The self-possession I feel, when I finally realize that the greatest part of my anger comes from things I'm insecure about or afraid of in myself.

The music surrounds us, forms a roof over our head with the clouds and stars beyond it.

I'm told she was a quiet, self-conscious child who sometimes had problems at school. Her own stories of her childhood are different - that she was confident, tough, never afraid.

The cough that latched onto my windpipe for weeks is finally relaxing its grip.

The bottom half of the beech tree is a mess of scars and initials. Farther up, the trunk smooths out, rising past all the parts that are defaced.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Country of the Pointed Firs: Jewett's Exquisite Book

The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett is intense in its depictions of people sharing their lives while also living apart and alone. An author spends a summer in a remote coastal village in Maine, at the end of the 19th century. She meets people who show her parts of their life and the depths of their character. And at the end, she has to leave. It's only a season, full of weight and breadth but also coming quickly to an end.

The book, which I read for the Classics Club Challenge, isn't plot-heavy. It's a collection of meetings, conversations, meditations on nature (human and the natural world), all beautifully written. The people who inhabit the village become extraordinary because of the attention the author gives them. Here's one look at Mrs. Todd, whose house the author stays in for the summer:
It is not often given in a noisy world to come to the places of great grief and silence. An absolute, archaic grief possessed this countrywoman; she seemed like a renewal of some historic soul, with her sorrows and the remoteness of a daily life busied with rustic simplicities and the scents of primeval herbs.

And here is an old man she meets:
There was a patient look on the old man's face, as if the world were a great mistake and he had nobody with whom to speak his own language or find companionship.

The book weaves together beauty and joy with misery and loss. These feelings are inseparable. As the author looks out on nature, she observes the decay and death along with the promise and loveliness:

The tide was setting in, and plenty of small fish were coming with it, unconscious of the silver flashing of the great birds overhead and the quickness of their fierce beaks. The sea was full of life and spirit…

It was not the first time that I was full of wonder at the waste of human ability in this world, as a botanist wonders at the wastefulness of nature, the thousand seeds that die, the unused provision of every sort.

The author grows pretty close to some of the villagers, and the villagers feel fairly close to each other, or at least committed to each other; at the same time, they're separated in private griefs and memories they rarely speak about. They've enlarged their lives by finding a place in an extended family or community, or by gaining an intimate knowledge of nature, whether the woods or the sea. But they're still alone, each distinct and separate in character.

I'm tempted to share many more excerpts from this book, because it's so beautifully written. The author takes a season and tries to give it permanence in text. Even when there's the bittersweet feeling of knowing it all passes, that all these people have died, something of them and the world they live in are still around.

In the life of each of us… there is a place remote and islanded, and given to endless regret or secret happiness; we are each the uncompanioned hermit and recluse of an hour or a day; we understand our fellows of the cell to whatever age of history they may belong.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Week in Seven Words #281

A dragonfly, a branch and a monarch butterfly, suspended against the blue-white sky in a mosaic.

The dip has been sitting out for hours. The chips and crackers have been pawed into crumbs. The guests have had too much wine to notice.

She painted the sunflower drooping against a faded wall. The sunflower looks like it's losing color the way people lose blood.

She twirls in a dress made of soda cans and playing cards. Silver streamers run through her hair.

At the coffee shop, the outdoor seating is a bench encrusted in cigarette butts.

Walls of sloppy, spiraling graffiti become, just one block down, a series of murals: blue faces, owls, the moon's surface.

Depending on the light, the leaves on the tree look like paper sometimes, and other times like moths about to break into flight.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Week in Seven Words #280

Rain spatters the window. The backyard looks like green liquid, a parsley shake.

The candies are a brightly colored glue of sugar and preservatives.

He doesn't like the cake, but he eats it, because it's cake.

A spider threads its web across the mouth of a stone lion.

His aquarium is a blue tub. The fish are plastic toys, and bob as if they're dead. He pokes at them to make them look lively. They lurch and sway in the water.

Throughout the game of Clue he glances at his phone, gets up to eat, and forgets what he asked the other players. He still wins. He's like a fictional private eye who looks unprofessional and gets dismissed as an idiot, only to solve the murder way ahead of the police.

A plot of dirt bakes in the sun. Nothing, not even a weed, grows in it.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Eight Short Stories About Divorce or Separation

Title: Access to the Children
Author: William Trevor
Where I Read It: Dumped

"Access to the Children" is primarily a story of regret and delusion. The main character had an affair and left his wife and kids. After his lover leaves him, he becomes desperate for what he gave up. He sees his kids every Sunday, but throughout the story there's little sense that he knows them. He's taken to drinking heavily and settling them in front of a TV until it's time to take them home.

What he clings to is the hope that his ex-wife will forgive him and take him back. He insists that this will happen; he's even predicted a date for it. Meantime, he drinks. His alcoholism simultaneously fuels his delusions and serves as proof that he's deluded. His complete self-destruction isn't inevitable, but it's likely. And though the story doesn't show him lashing out violently at anyone, it remains a possibility, a deep unease stirred up by the thoughts of a destructive man.

Title: Amor Divino
Author: Julia Alvarez
Where I Read It: The Art of the Story

The main character, Yolanda, is going through a divorce while living near her grandpa, who has dementia. She is one of several Yolandas in her family, including her grandpa's late wife. Stories run in parallel in "Amor Divino" - the young Yolanda and her soon-to-be-ex-husband, and her grandma, Yolanda, and her grandpa, with their love that was legendary in the family (though the image of their famous love fractured when her grandma fell ill and railed bitterly out of her illness at the end of her life).

Love manifests in unexpected moments, sometimes when there's desperation for it, a need to see it realized a certain way. In this story it feels like a narrow stream that disappears for long stretches underground and surfaces, from time to time, in brilliant, harsh light.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Week in Seven Words #279

As we approach the lake, we hear a girl cry, "Kimmy! Kimmy!" Her voice is urgent. Is a child drowning? But there's no sense of emergency at the scene. The people standing along the shore are interested in what's going on, but not tense or afraid. Kimmy, as it turns out, is a dog. We see her head poking out of the water as she paddles towards a small wooded island in the middle of the lake. Her owner calls her from the shore, to no effect. She lands on the island and disappears into the scrub. Some time later, a rowboat with police and park rangers heads out to capture her. By the time we finish walking around the lake, she's at he bottom of the boat, exhausted and sopping, her adventure over.

The trees are maracas filled with birds.

The ones who remain silent, what do they think? From time to time, they smile or frown. Other people talk past them. At the end of the meeting, they slip outside without looking at anyone.

Ten different crayon drawings of Helen Keller on a backdrop of concrete and construction paper.

A girl with fierce, matted hair rides her bike up and down the hill, over and over, as if she wants to flatten it under her wheels.

I'm the only one who shows up for his lecture. He takes it in stride, telling me that even if I fall asleep, he'll benefit; he'll at least get a chance to revisit his thoughts, maybe experience new insights.

All around her, people eat, talk, and laugh, the kids chasing each other. She sleeps, her head on her arm. I don't know why, but I get the sense it's the first time she's been at peace all day.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Week in Seven Words #278

First impression of the school corridors: bulletin boards, artwork, and the reek of disinfectants.

I pace in the rectangle of light from the doorway.

"I'll stick around for an hour" becomes "I'll stay all night."

They tried to console him in his grief by telling him that other people have suffered too. But when does that approach work? Did they think other people's pain would ease his own, or that it would be a good idea to somehow shame him out of his sorrow?

A powerful mental rush where I feel focused and thirsty for knowledge.

The kids have been coached to repeat lines, hop on cue and wiggle around dancing when the teacher tells them to. They're old enough to start feeling embarrassed by the silliness, especially because it's orchestrated by adults and not spontaneous.

She says, "I'm worried." What she doesn't say is, "I need to control you." But those other words are there, whether she realizes it or not. I'm not going to pretend they aren't.