Thursday, June 22, 2017

Week in Seven Words #346

At different points in the hike, we smell heavy flowering shrubs, a days-old tuna fish and banana odor from the waste treatment facilities, throat-scorching exhaust fumes, the cleanness of salt water and suntan lotion.

The homes are in cream, peach, and plum colors. They overlook a river that has a silver sheen in the mid-day sun. Hibiscus shrubs line the paths, and swan-shaped flower pots nestle in the shade.

We try ballroom dancing one evening, and we laugh much more than we dance.

She's a silent, steady hiker. She wears headphones and walks at an unvarying pace.

There's a story wherever we look - off the shores of the island, there was a boat accident that killed hundreds, and in the shade of a massive bridge, a grove of trees has been planted as a gift from a foreign prince.

Most of the graffiti images are cartoon characters and portraits of local residents. They stare at bricked-up warehouse windows and smile across unused train tracks.

For neighborhoods along the shore, the marshes offer different kinds of protection. They help filter pollutants. They reduce erosion and flooding. They're a bit of nature stitched to the fringes of a city.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Old Goriot - what genuine feelings survive when everything's a transaction?

Honoré de Balzac sets much of his novel, Old Goriot, in a dingy Parisian boardinghouse during the period of the Bourbon Restoration. Madame Vauquer runs the place and might call herself the "mother" of all the tenants - mostly young people who are struggling to make their way in the world (like the law student, Eugène de Rastignac), old people who are probably stuck there for good (like the titular character, Goriot), and maybe one or two others whose finances are a mystery.

The boardinghouse occupants, if one squints, could be seen as a kind of family, dining together and getting in each other's business, but Madame Vauquer isn't a real mother. Her relationship with the boarders is transactional, and the ones who can't afford to pay her much get the worse rooms. It's business.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Week in Seven Words #345

The cat hops on the chair and places a paw on the table. The human glares at her. The cat gazes into the human's eyes. She places another paw on the table.

On a warm night, the ice cream store is a cold, clean square of light.

When he plays Clue, he starts to shorten most of the names, maybe because he's trying to sound like a hard-boiled detective. Miss Scarlet becomes 'Scar.' The conservatory is "the serv."

He comes across short stories of people from a country he doesn't care about. After that, he wants to know more about their struggles and their way of life. He'll ignore a news report, but the short stories humanize them to him.

At the table, the kids interview each other as they pretend to film a talk show. Meanwhile, one of the adults crafts an ostentatious display of temper for the waiter.

Many situations can be improved on with a bit of jazz hands and a song.

The car smells like sweat and onions. Even with the windows rolled down, the smell persists, mixing with the cool wind and swirling through our heads.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Week in Seven Words #344

A German couple who have just gotten married in NYC have an impromptu first dance by the lake in Central Park. A performance artist who has been playing guitar all afternoon sings "Can't Help Falling in Love," and a small crowd of passersby from the city and around the world join in as the couple slow-dances.

A square of bitter dark chocolate dissolving.

Turtles bob towards the shelf of rock where people have scattered crumbs and chunks of fruit.

A book, a bench, clean air among trees.

The statue of a sword-wielding king on horseback has been toppled. This could be taken as a sign of political upheaval, but really the monarch is undergoing restoration and will soon be righted.

He portrays her volatile behavior as normal. This is one way he copes with it and accepts it as part of his life.

It's been months since I've heard from her, and I'm both worried and relieved.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Some articles on the state of healthcare in the US...

One article I read for Deal Me In - "Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us" by Steven Brill - is a depressing look at medical costs in the US. Although it was written before the ACA (Affordable Care Act) really went into effect, the problems are still prevalent in our messed up healthcare system. For instance, the article gives examples of the lack of transparency in hospital bills and their inexplicable charges, and how hospitals can charge patients multiple times for the same item (a pill, a pair of latex gloves, etc. etc.) at inflated prices.

And this article only gets at some of the issues that make our system unworkable in the long-run. One sign of a good article is that it motivates you to immediately look for others on the same topic, which is how I found this one, also worth reading.

Another critical part of the healthcare problem lies with our habits and choices, too little emphasis on prevention and an industry bent on getting us to live off of junk food (topic of a different essay). Plus, wages aren't keeping up with the costs of healthcare (and housing and education).

I don't know what to say about all of this. So I'm just dumping it here in a grim heap for you to pick through.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Week in Seven Words #343

Fat green leaves ripple against the railings of the balcony.

Cicadas sound like crackling wind-up toys.

The broad reservoir is rimmed with trees and buildings. To the north, stumpy apartment houses mostly, and to the south, silvery high-rises.

She reads a lot, and mostly on her own, but she sometimes wants to be read to. She can close her eyes whenever she wants, or jump in to share her ideas with someone who won't have a problem pausing to listen.

The rubber ball from a game of jacks shoots away and pings the table legs.

mise en scène
They could stage one of Shakespeare's plays here, in the garden where the paths whirl up a hill among flowers and low-hanging trees, and the rats scurry around at dusk.

They don't make hide-and-seek too scary for him. His mom hides, but he can still see her elbows and purse poking out from behind the tree, so he's laughing and stumbling to her immediately, without a fear that she left for good.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Hike from GWB to Piermont, NY

Last Sunday, I went on a hike that started at the George Washington Bridge Bus Station in Upper Manhattan and ended roughly 18 miles later in the village of Piermont, NY. Most of the hike took place on the Long Path trail through the New Jersey Palisades, and some of it also cut through Tallman Mountain State Park.

The hike was challenging mostly because of some steep parts and many places where the trail was rough. The weather turned out great, sunny but not too hot.

Here are some photo highlights:






Friday, June 2, 2017

Week in Seven Words #342

She's dressed in every color of the rainbow, from an orange scarf down to sandals dotted in red rhinestones. When she poses before a spray-painted brick wall, the graffiti seems to unfold like wings from her body.

One of them has conquered water, the other air. They push at the bounds of what's physically possible.

She's draped across a bench in an evening dress, a cluster of trees shading her from the morning light. She had gone to a party the evening before, and when it wound down, she hadn't wanted to go home. She spent the night walking until she wore herself out. Her dress shoes have demolished her feet.

To make sure I'm serious about my intentions to visit, she asks for a pinky promise. Afterwards, a hug.

He curls up next to me on the couch, his hair tickling my arm as the movie plays.

Her deep-cleaning skills are impressive. Decades' worth of grime melt away.

The night air is like a warm towel pressed to my face.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Two 1940s movies with WWII vets struggling in post-war life

Title: Act of Violence (1949)
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

At first, Act of Violence seems like a straightforward crime thriller set in post-war suburbia. Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan) is a stalker menacing a peaceful home. He carries a gun and looks like he could use it without flinching. But Joe isn't a criminal, though he may become a murderer by the movie's end.

The man he is after is Frank Enley (Van Heflin). They served together in the war and spent time in a German POW camp. Frank now has a wife, Edith (Janet Leigh), and a baby son. He's well-respected in his community; people consider him a war hero. To Joe, Frank's cheerful, prosperous life is an injustice. Joe remembers what Frank did in the POW camp, and what his fellow POWs suffered for it. Joe is permanently injured and easily written off as crazy, but at least he survived and will now have his vengeance.

Act of Violence should be a better known movie for its strong acting, the tone of uneasiness throughout, and the difficult questions it raises. What would you do to stay alive? How do you manage to live with yourself, if you've either deliberately committed evil or made a terrible mistake? Are things you did under extraordinary circumstances reflective of your everyday character?

Joe and Frank wrestle with these questions post-war. As do the women in their lives - Edith, who learns disturbing information about her husband; Ann (Phyllis Thaxter), who as Joe's girlfriend tries to persuade him to abandon his revenge mission; and an aging prostitute, Pat (Mary Astor), who finds Frank when he's trying to hide from Joe. The movie doesn't make the mistake of turning Joe into a righteous hero and Frank into a full-fledged villain; Frank's reasons for acting as he did during the war are muddled, and Joe is so consumed by anger that he's becoming less of a person and more of a destructive force that will burn itself out.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Three visually beautiful movies

Title: 35 Shots of Rum (2008)
Director: Claire Denis
Language: French (and some German)
Rating: Unrated

35 Shots of Rum keeps the dialogue sparse and lets the camera linger on people's expressions and gestures, the light and shadow surrounding them. A widower, Lionel (Alex Descas), and his college-aged daughter, Josephine (Mati Diop) share a close, affectionate relationship, but they're each facing profound changes in their life. Lionel is approaching the age of retirement and watches a former colleague struggle with finding meaning in his life now that he no longer works. Josephine, meanwhile, is in love with a neighbor. Lionel and Josephine are devoted to each other and comfortable sharing a home, but they know they won't keep living as they are indefinitely, and it's difficult to cope with.

There's a lot of visual beauty in this movie. Some of it geometric - trains traveling in the dark with their windows as squares of light, while the windows in buildings are lit rectangles. The play of light is wonderful too, like with the rails that glow in the afternoon or early evening. The combinations of color are also lovely - creams and coffee colors, grays and navy blues, with pops of red. (It reminded me of Edward Hopper paintings.)

And I like the movie's quiet emotions. The tenderness conveyed with few words between father and daughter. The regrets and disquiet, the closeness and loneliness.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Week in Seven Words #341

The express checkout machines are marvels of futility. People run their coupons back and forth to no effect, swipe cards that aren't read, feed bills that get spit out. A sign flashes. "Help is on the way," intones a ghostly female voice. Does anyone come?

As we pray on a Friday evening, an ice cream truck starts to crank out music, and we laugh.

People who are suffering don't need to hear that they should have had perfect foresight; that if only they'd acted perfectly and anticipated a dozen possible eventualities, they wouldn't be suffering.

An old fridge, speckled with mold, its belly full of warm food.

Sometimes when she talks she falls into a rhythm similar to stream-of-consciousness. It doesn't really matter who she's talking to; she just needs to empty her mind of stories and details. Sometimes she expresses a hope or wish, or she makes things up to give the impression that her days are full of excitement, accomplishments, and closeness to people.

Insults that contain a truth I'm squirming to avoid.

It hurts watching kids quickly give up on something because they're afraid of looking stupid.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Week in Seven Words #340

Playing basketball while wearing glasses.

In a sunset after a thunderstorm, the clouds have a tangerine underbelly.

His dessert is a cookie drowning in half-melted ice cream. It doesn't matter that he won't finish it. Part of the pleasure comes from chasing chunks of cookie around with his fork in the sweet puddle.

Someone who checked out the book before me penciled a warning over one of the short stories: "If after 5 pages you think this is going to change it isn't. It's like swimming in molasses and takes more from you than it gives back."

To find the speech moving, I have to forget most of what I know about the speaker. I just take in the cadence and listen to the phrases promising hope and progress. For a short while, I can believe the speech is real. The world doesn't yet intrude on its promises.

When we step outside, there's a mix of rain and blinding sunlight. The sun has set fire to the rain.

She lays out a tea service for a woman with white woolly hair and a girl with blue ribbons in her braids.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Marilynne Robinson's "Psalm 8" is a thoughtful, nourishing piece

For Deal Me In, I recently read "Psalm 8" by Marilynne Robinson.

So I have spent my life watching, not to see beyond the world, merely to see, great mystery, what is plainly before my eyes. I think the concept of transcendence is based on a misreading of creation. With all due respect to heaven, the scene of the miracle is here, among us.

I was drawn to this essay because I've read the eighth psalm; I come to it from Jewish faith, and Robinson from a Christian background. I wanted to see what she had to say on it. The essay isn't entirely about the psalm, but it explores some of its themes. At one point, the psalm asks what man is exactly, to have the notice or remembrance of God. What is man to merit such attention?

("A question is more spacious than a statement," Robinson writes, "far better suited to expressing wonder.")

One reason I like this essay is that it's an intelligent, perceptive exploration of religious text and experience. I've come across writings on religion that flatten the world and make the soul shrink. This essay is full of an appreciation of mystery.

Also, there's a love of humanity in it. It's written without sentimentality but with a recognition of people's special dignity. And there's humility in it too, not exaggerated in any way, just a straightforward kind in which the mind is alive with questions that present no easy answers.

In some of her other writings, like her essay, "Darwinism," Robinson speaks out against the way people use science to try to diminish humanity; she isn't "anti-science," but writes of how science can become another ideological weapon. So can religion, but in reading Robinson's writing, religion is nothing so simple as that. And that's one reason I appreciate what I've read so far of her work. She isn't an ideologue; she doesn't want to make the world uglier by pretending everything is knowable.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Week in Seven Words #339

She's an American dating an Israeli, and she doesn't know what to make of his parents. They aren't mean to her, in fact they seem to like her, they're just... I get it. They're thoroughly Israeli. I sit with her for a while and try to help her understand.

Do I miss him? (Not really.) Should I? (Emotions aren't obligatory.)

By the bay there's a row of abandoned houses. Sand has crept in through the cracks in the boarded up windows. Each door has grown a wild beard of leaves.

There's a thick smell of paint in the corridor, and the light is cloudy with dust.

I'm not a beach person; when I take time off, I probably won't be sitting on a beach for hours. But I love the smell of sunscreen. I love the feel of sea water curling around my ankles.

They're not looking to learn, just hoping to become more certain of what they think they already know.

She's hoarse, her throat sanded away by a weeks-long cold.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Austen's Persuasion and exploration of intimacy in conversation

Something that jumped out at me while reading Jane Austen's Persuasion for the Classics Club Challenge was the exploration of intimacy in conversation.

Throughout Persuasion, Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth barely speak to each other. When they do, it's pained small talk conducted in public. They have a significant shared history and much to say to each other, but they don't speak. They mostly notice each other, wordlessly. Or they hear about each other through what other people say. But there are social and personal barriers between them.

What they need isn't public conversation anyway. Conversation overheard by other people often comes across as silly, insignificant, or misguided in this book.

Look at Admiral and Sophy Croft, for instance. They're a model for happily married couples, well-matched and walking side-by-side through life (and on-board ship). Their conversations are almost never overheard publicly. You see them spending a lot of time together, heads together, but rarely does the reader hear what they say to each other. (The one significant time a conversation of theirs takes place in front of other people is when Anne briefly shares their curricle - and in that scene, the Admiral's observation about how Frederick should choose one of the Musgrove girls isn't a sensible one.) Their most meaningful exchanges are private, where even the reader can't access them.

So, Anne and Frederick aren't meant to have conversations for public consumption. But how do they get to the place where they can talk privately?

There's the letter at the end. Some say it's Frederick's letter, but really he's writing it in collaboration with Anne, based on what she's telling someone else in the room. It's a joint effort. And it's what brings down the barrier, because a letter is private, wholly, and introduces space for intimate conversation between them at last.

(That letter also makes me think of Anne drawing a bow back, throughout the book. Frederick's the arrow. She slowly brings him to a place where he can fly forward true in his intentions.)

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Week in Seven Words #338

All of the dancers are talented, but one in particular has presence. She creates a mesmerizing character, and even when she isn't moving, she commands attention.

When possible, I don't use a purse. I like a small colorful backpack, secured on both shoulders and well-stocked.

The theater is dark, and she's bored. Her phone casts a square of white light that irritates other people, but gives her a pleasant scroll through all the headlines and texts that have cropped up in the last hour.

With some of the dancers, the effort is obvious. They can't hide a straining muscle or how a limb struggles to extend. Beside them dance the ones who seem to need no effort.

I want to make her laugh, so I do a chicken dance and jazz hands.

They reach over the railing to pet the horse in the enclosure. A park ranger warns them off. "It bites," he says. They immediately back off. The horse remains still, revealing nothing.

Insects glide over the sand like silvery sci-fi drones.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Week in Seven Words #337

"Look at this beautiful sand castle!" the boy's mother says, moments before he kicks it apart.

The professor's voice is undercut by a steady 'scrape scrape scrape' like wood getting planed by hand. It comes from three seats in front of me. A woman is scratching her arm, showering large flakes of skin.

Alcohol isn't allowed on the beach, but who would look twice at their coffee thermos, even if they pour its contents into plastic shot glasses.

The skin cooks, and the wind cools it.

A dog on the beach frisking away from the incoming water, then leaping after it as it retreats.

The girl takes off her flip-flops, holds one in each hand, and twirls on the sand.

I ask her why she rarely says anything kind to me. I don't get the answer I want to hear, though I do get the one I expect.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Break me off a piece of that sugar, chocolate, and palm kernel oil composite

One of my selections for Deal Me In was “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food,” an article by Michael Moss on how food companies refine their products to increase consumption as much as possible.

The article looks at the issue from the point-of-view of the companies and their scientists and marketers. We come across as lab rats sucking on sugar water in a bare cage. Any weakness, preference, or craving is an opening for more food to pour in. (I love the names of some of these - a cheap substitute for cheese might be something called “cheese food.” It’s cheese-like in nature; cheese-ish.)

Friday, March 17, 2017

Week in Seven Words #336

Cold dishes, AC pouring down on us in syrupy chillness.

When I arrive, the first things I hear are "Hey! There's a large horsefly around, and it bites. See, this is where it bit me. I was bleeding. No one knows where it went. So, how are you? Why are you just standing there? Sit, relax."

On the heels of a first draft, plenty of doubt. But a healthy sort of doubt, one that invites new considerations instead of feelings of futility.

In the pool, he pretends to be a seal, and his dad is the killer whale hunting him. The other kids play a more straightforward game of tag, ducking among pool floats and getting caught and tossed around.

A response to my recent breakup: "You aren't dating someone else yet?"

He's lost a finger to DIY fireworks, but says that one of these days he'll get the hang of them.

He shares stories from camp, mostly involving counselors and camp administrators exercising poor judgment. One of these golden moments involved a man roaring in on a motorcycle to terrify the kids as a joke. (The cops didn't find it funny.)

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Week in Seven Words #335

I don't always know how an author's life will affect the way I react to or analyze their work. Just sometimes, the knowledge interposes itself between the work and me. The literary merits may still exist, but with the shadow of the knowledge on them.

People have a village mind and vote on global issues.

What she does on the diving board isn't diving; it's flying. She throws herself into the air with a faint smile. She's just as much at ease in the air as in the water.

She sets up a doll schoolroom, where her doll, equipped with tiny books and pens, pretends to be stupid.

She's over six feet tall, and has trained herself to be less intimidating by smiling and laughing a lot. She's also been advised to give up high heels but has refused so far.

They're sweating and shivering as they wait in line at the bank. The loss from their account is only a glitch, they hope, easily reversed.

The ghost stories we share become explorations of what we're really afraid of - the fears that we hesitate to speak on the off-chance they'll become true.

Friday, March 10, 2017

What does a representation of home mean?

For Deal Me In 2017, I read "Home," a part of Maya Angelou's Letter to My Daughter.

She considers how people carry a representation of their childhood homes in them - the landscapes, the struggles, what the imagination constructs, the impressions that are strongest.

At one point she writes:
I am convinced that most people do not grow up... I think what we do is mostly grow old. We carry accumulation of years in our bodies and on our faces, but generally our real selves, the children inside, are still innocent and shy as magnolias.
What would it mean to grow up as opposed to grow old? Is my 'inner child' my real self, or only part of my real self (I'd say part of, an important part, but not the only one).

Do most people only grow up superficially? I've seen adults of otherwise sound mind throw tantrums like young children, because of something that struck them the wrong way. Maybe they're acting on an old wound or giving voice to a part of them that never grew up. They may have gotten stuck somewhere in their middle school years emotionally or psychologically. People often don't realize how much they're influenced by their childhood experiences, the patterns of thoughts and behavior they established then.
... I believe we feel safest when we go inside ourselves and find home, a place where we belong and maybe the only place we really do.
What if someone doesn't have that sense of a place in them? How does one find it? (Or construct it?) Is there a danger of getting trapped in it?

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Week in Seven Words #334

A waterfall of bird chatter in the hour before dawn.

Tracing threads in the development of a religion. A move towards greater compassion here, an intensifying disgust of women there. Scholars scrambling to tie together the disparate threads.

He's straining to grow a beard, so he can look like a worthy substitute for a respected older teacher. As he lectures, he scratches his cheeks.

After struggling over whether or not to call him, I reach for the phone, only to have it ring as soon as I touch it. Our conversation doesn't go well.

If only my laptop could talk back. It would freeze halfway through its request for me to stop cursing at it.

I show up five minutes late to find the stage set for a courtroom scene. I'm the accused.

We watch Chamber of Secrets together, and the part that upsets him most isn't the basilisk, but the teacher betraying the students and threatening to wipe out their minds with a spell.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Three Billy Wilder Films on Self-Respect

Much goes on in these movies directed by Billy Wilder, but an important theme in each is self-respect.

Title: The Apartment (1960)
Language: English
Rating: Not rated

The main characters in The Apartment are commodities, useful to the executives in the company they work for. C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is a corporate drone who lets the higher-ups use his apartment for extra-marital hookups. Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) is an elevator girl who has made terrible relationship choices. One executive in particular, Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), has them living in the palm of his hand. They look to him to make their lives better, even though he's a major source of their problems.

By the end of The Apartment, both Baxter and Kubelik gain some self-respect. The movie plays out as a comedy sometimes, a drama too (with MacLaine's performance really holding the movie together and giving it its emotional weight). It's also a romance, though I didn't care much about Baxter and Kubelik getting together. They break free of Sheldrake, and the movie ends with a card game, which struck me as a reminder that they've now entered a chancier sort of life. They've lost some security in their future. Before, life played out predictably. Their increased self-respect is worth it, but it's risky. At least now they're stronger and can bear those risks.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Week in Seven Words #333

After getting picked on, he picks on another kid. Watching his pain play out in someone else is satisfying.

There are people who say, "You can tell me anything!" and then react with rejection, contempt, or rage the moment it sounds like something they don't want to hear. Not long after, they'll repeat, with a pristine memory, that you can tell them anything.

The river has an orange and silver shimmer. In the foreground, cars race past with headlights like fireflies.

The adulthood his parents show him seems easy to master. There's a small set of correct beliefs. There's a larger set of beliefs to pay lip service to and mock in private. There are certain people it's ok to laugh at and wound. Always act as if you know what you're doing.

Four of them have tumbled on a diamond-patterned blanket. Their faces give them a free pass on all mischief.

She's happy I call her on her birthday. I'm happy I didn't talk myself out of it with the usual excuses: it wouldn't matter, she doesn't know me well, I'd just be bothering her...

He's presenting a complex lecture, and all it takes is ten seconds(?) of zoning out for me to lose the thread. Like a cat batting at yarn, my brain goes after it, before curling up to nap for the remaining fifteen minutes.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Living with Music (and noise, lots of noise)

Ralph Ellison starts his essay, "Living with Music," remembering an apartment he used to live in during the late 1940s with thin walls and unfiltered noise from outside. He describes neighbors who would blast music, drunk people who would sing (or scream for quiet) outside, and one neighbor in particular living in the apartment above who was dedicated to studying singing… all day long, as Ellison tried to focus on his writing.
In those days it was either live with music or die with noise, and we chose rather desperately to live.
There are a few things I love about this essay. One is Ellison exploring the distinctions people make between music and noise. Another is the way music is the means of both trying to understand people and attempting to block them out or knock them down. For instance, his upstairs neighbor - she reminds him of when he would practice trumpet growing up (to a mix of detractors wishing he’d stay quiet and supporters wondering if he’d be the next Louis Armstrong). He comes to admire her and her dedication to song. Her practicing also drives him nuts sometimes, and he blasts music (the same pieces she’s practicing, but performed by world-class musicians) as a way of trying to silence her. She doesn’t rise to the bait or quit practicing, and they eventually settle into a way of coexisting based on understanding and greater courtesy. Meantime, he rediscovers an appreciation of music that he mostly gave up when he set aside his trumpet.

Music is also a way for him to bring together different aspects of his culture and self. He loves classical pieces, jazz, Negro spirituals, and writes about the error of seeing only stark divisions between different types of music:
There was a mistaken notion on the part of some of the teachers that classical music had nothing to do with the rhythms, relaxed or hectic, of daily living, and that one should crook the little finger when listening to such refined strains.
I also want to leave this excerpt, when he reflects on serious jazz players:
Life could be harsh, loud and wrong if it wished, but they lived it fully, and when they expressed their attitude towards the world it was with a fluid style that reduced the chaos of living to form.
Each “must learn the best of the past, and add to it his personal vision.” Playing jazz is only one way of doing this. And any such endeavor usually starts with, and many times doesn’t get past, “an effect like that of a jackass hiccupping off a big meal of briars” (Ellison describing his own trumpet music). But one could argue the attempt is still worthwhile. (Though maybe not for people forced to overhear you as you figure things out. Like, in the case of writing, the teachers who have to read your work when you're trying to learn how to wax poetic...)

(This was one of my selections for Deal Me In 2017.)

Friday, February 24, 2017

Week in Seven Words #332

Walking the length of a massive bridge on foot. Car fumes, heat, and over-the-shoulder glances to check for bikers bearing down. A pause now and then to stare at the river spreading undisturbed in a blue haze.

Some of the steps are even. Others are ragged stone stitched together with grass.

A trail threading through tall grass. It wears a patchy coat of sunlight.

Shortening a conversation with someone who likes to pour fear into my bones.

Planning and leading the hike takes a new kind of confidence, and I like that I can pull it off. I tend to brood about everything that can go wrong in any situation. To some extent, it's useful, but not when the thoughts become paralyzing.

By the river, there's music from decades ago and greasy food and cooler air. Shade on overhung paths and peace for the soul.

She asks me what the book I'm reading is about. How do I explain it to a kid? (Or to anyone, in a few seconds.) It's about people making bad decisions and receiving bad advice. Plus, someone doesn't know who his real parents are. And another person doesn't much like a man she's encouraged to marry. And...

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Week in Seven Words #331

Dominos and Pictionary cards scattered on a dusty floor.

She has a knack for finding a frayed nerve ending and plucking at it. But this is one of the moments when she's reassuring, and I feel grateful for that.

The doctor has a quirky sense of humor, sometimes hard to read, which I like except for the occasional moment when I need to know if he means his advice seriously. Other points in his favor - he keeps his kids' drawings in a stack on his desk, and he can find a vein in my arm to draw blood from.

A wedding party takes photos in front of a towering mausoleum where a husband and wife are entombed.

The dog smashes the puddle, then waits for the reflected trees and buildings to re-form around him.

A statue of Joan of Arc on horseback. From behind, it looks like she's marching forward unopposed. At another angle, she's preparing to go down with a fight. A third angle shows her watchful and issuing a warning.

He looks a little hurt, when I joke that his mom needs an hour of solitary quiet.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The letdown in "The Dream" by Winston Churchill

When I chose “The Dream” for Deal Me In 2017, I assumed from the title that Winston Churchill would be discussing some vision of the future. Instead, he describes an incident in November 1947, where he was painting in a cottage and imagined a visit from his dead father.

They have a conversation. Much of it is Winston filling his father in on some of the developments in politics and world affairs since the late 1800s. And war - with more said of the Boer War than either World War I or II, until Churchill offers a brief, blunt assessment of the costs of both wars towards the end of “The Dream.”

What does this piece say of Churchill? In some ways, it comes across as impersonal. The conversation might as well not take place between a father and son; the father is a prop. At various points Churchill seems to elbow his readers in the ribs or shooting them a meaningful glance, intending that they note his opinions on various political figures and subjects.

But there are also moments where the father-son connection (or the absence of one) comes into focus. The distance between them, the fact that his father may not have thought much of him. And at the end, Churchill’s disappointment in himself and what he’s perhaps failed to achieve or live up to. Turbulent personal feelings emerge now and then, sometimes shadowing the casual, more amiable parts of the conversation. Mostly, they’re held in restraint.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Week in Seven Words #330

What at first sounds like the wind crying resolves into choir music broadcast on a radio in a waiting room down the hall.

She makes short videos of evil twins leaping out of mirrors and people finding an intruder in the closet as they tour their new home. I'm cast in several roles. My favorite is the one where I get stabbed with a plastic pineapple and deliver a monologue for the ages.

All of the commuters packed, flesh to flesh, turn the subway car into a sausage link.

He continues to be fanatic about how normal he is. His way is the one true way of normality.

Waiting for the elevator, stone-faced as a Buckingham Palace guard, while a neighbor and her child scream at each other a few feet away.

Pleasure from a potato's crinkly gold skin.

In her marriage, she's a courtier. Dressed in elegant fabrics that pool on the floor as she bows and scrapes.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Agnes Grey - Revenge of the Governess!

I didn't know anything about Anne Bronte before reading Agnes Grey, except that she's the overlooked Bronte sister. But by the end of the book I figured she'd worked as a governess and that it had not gone well. This book might have given her a little power. On paper, she could enjoy some mastery - trotting them out, all the wealthy vulgar fools who spoil their children and mistreat their governess (a governess who, in the book at least, earns a happy ending to make up for all the unappreciated labor and neglect).

Agnes is a clergyman's younger daughter, and when her family falls into financial straits, she offers to work as a governess. Her older sister and parents doubt her and try to discourage her. She's the baby of the family and has led a sheltered life. She romanticizes the job, imagining that it involves a lot of gentle teaching and chiding and comforting.

In the first family she works for, she gets a bunch of unmanageable brats dumped on her. The parents offer her no support and blame her for the children's faults, so she's helpless in dealing with them. The second family that hires her gives her teenaged daughters to work with. There's little she can do to teach them. Outside the schoolroom, they sometimes spend time with her when they're out of other options. Otherwise, they ignore her. Neglect, loneliness, invisibility - Bronte writes these feelings confidently. The only upside to Agnes being ignored is that she enjoys a few opportunities to spend time with a local curate. She falls in love with him, and he's actually a decent man. (No Heathcliff here.)

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Week in Seven Words #329

I don't know about the beekeeping on the premises until suddenly there are clouds of them around box hives on each side of the path. The part of my brain that isn't screaming reminds me that conserving bees is important, so isn't this wonderful? So wonderful.

Petals lit up like stained glass in the low-slanting afternoon light.

A man and child dressed as giraffes are reading by a pond. They could be characters from the picture book spread out between them.

The ambulance circles through the cemetery's front drive, to where an old woman sits with her head in her hands on a bench. The EMTs kneel beside her for awhile. Eventually, she waves them off and leaves under her own power.

On a search for a subway platform that isn't blocked by construction, I walk through a part of the city new to me. The buildings are indistinct in afternoon haze. A man on a stoop toys with a guitar.

Leaves and blossoms draped over weathered stone. Small American flags on a bright yellow lawn.

He's at my elbow, telling me I'm taking photos of the wrong things. "What's so interesting about that? Take a picture of this! See?"

Friday, February 10, 2017

Who are you? (Anyone) - For My Brothers and Sisters in the Failure Business

Seymour Krim's essay, "For My Brothers and Sisters in the Failure Business," was a Deal Me In read, a gripping one that explores a way of being I recognize.

I like the essay's intensity, its frankness and the way Krim gives it a thick texture. It feels like dough to knead and pound on.
Our secret is that we still have an epic longing to be more than what we are, to multiply ourselves, to integrate all the identities and action-fantasies we have experienced, above all to keep experimenting with our lives…
The ‘failure business’ he writes about is the life of imagining yourself as different personae and trying to act them all out, rather than dedicating yourself to any one thing. The failure he describes comes from trying to be too many things, in a society (specifically, the US) that seems to make that possible and offer endless choices (though for many people, this isn't the case, and the US he describes here is largely a dream itself).
When do you stop fantasizing an endless you and try to make it with what you’ve got?
It becomes addictive. It leads anywhere and nowhere. I like that he explores how self-defeating it can be, but at the same time not without its rewards. Sometimes it even pays off for people in practical terms. But the risks are steep. What happens when you realize you have little to show for the passing years? (Though you can also ask what "little to show" means. People can change profoundly and enrich themselves in ways that aren't obvious if you don't know them intimately.)
But if you are a proud, searching ‘failure’ in this society… then it is smart and honorable to know what you attempted and why you are now vulnerable to the body blows of those who once saw you robed in the glow of your vision and now only see an unmade bed and a few unwashed cups on the bare wooden table of a gray day.
I like how this essay is a wry celebration and a lament. Krim writes with bitterness, but not without passion. He embraces disillusionment without sounding broken.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Week in Seven Words #328

I hear the anger behind their words more than the words themselves. It's a smug, desperate, vindictive anger that rips through their speech.

Men in black coats gather at a bus shelter by an abandoned lot. Rain dribbles off their hats.

Rounds of Monopoly Deal, with groans, squeals, and eyes narrowed over fanned cards.

Tables pushed together in a U-formation soon bear a load of beer, soda, and nachos with melted cheese. Between the chairs, a cockroach creeps, tasting possibilities.

When he finds out I'm Jewish, he asks why people hate Jews. The Jews are in danger, he says. He's a third grader who has never, to his knowledge, met a Jew before.

Returning from a weekend away to an ocean of laundry.

As an adult, she finds coloring books relaxing. Some of the pages she's working on show mythic creatures. Using colored pencils, she makes a phoenix shimmer with fire.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Turgenev, narrating an event he says he has no right to witness

When living in Paris in the late 19th century, Ivan Turgenev got invited to a behind-the-scenes look at a public execution. “The Execution of Tropmann” is what he wrote in response. (And what I recently read for Deal Me in 2017.)

The essay ultimately questions the use of capital punishment - and, more strongly, capital punishment carried out in front of a public audience.

But Turgenev tries not to hammer readers with his point-of-view. His approach is to lay out a narrative of the hours leading up to the execution.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Encounters with Strangers in Three Short Stories

Title: Good Climate, Friendly Inhabitants
Author: Nadine Gordimer
Where I Read It: World Literature: An Anthology of Great Short Stories, Drama, and Poetry

A middle-aged white woman working at a garage in South Africa finds herself in a dangerous situation when she takes up with a guy she barely knows.

There’s a strong disconnection between the woman, the world around her, and the needs within her. She’s lonely and has fallen out of touch with her daughter. The only people she might turn to for advice or assistance are the “boys” (really, adult black men) who work at the garage. She isn’t honest with herself, and lives in a society that discourages various kinds of honesty. The lies she tells herself leave her vulnerable to unscrupulous or unstable people, and will maybe prevent her from reaching out for help from people whose worth she comes close to seeing but won’t (or can't) allow herself to see.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Week in Seven Words #327

During the blackout, we're both downstairs, and the only ones awake in the house. We move as if we're underwater. The candlelight wavers against the cabinets.

Suddenly, there's a dog on my lap. She gives me a look - "You got anything to say about that?" - then inspects the room from her new vantage point.

On a walk through a cold drizzle, we enter a street full of mansions. They seem like inflated bouncy castles, mushrooming from the dark green lawns.

He's easygoing when he's awake, says there's no need to worry about things. I find out he has nightmares. ("Call the police!" he urges in his sleep.)

Every room is tidy and lovely. I pause in each, anticipating the days of rest.

This is the weekend of pie. One richly lemon, the other rhubarb and apple. Leave me the filling and a fork, and I'm good.

I help him build a giant zoo with blocks and plastic fences to make the pens. It's intricate and cramped. He has elaborate reasons for why different animals should be corralled together. Under his supervision, they wouldn't dare attack each other.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Filling our minds with stock figures: On an essay by Terry Pratchett

For the Deal Me in 2017 challenge, I read Terry Pratchett's grumpy, funny essay/rant on the clichés of fantasy fiction, and what 'fantasy' and 'escapism' mean. He calls his piece "Elves Were Bastards," to attack the cliché of the noble elves from Tolkien.

He rails against:
... so much round-eyed worship of mind-numbing myths, so much mindless recycling of ancient cycles, so much unthinking escapism.
I like how he distinguishes between meaningless escapism vs. an experience that you learn from and take something from.
But the point about escaping is that you should escape to, as well as from. You should go somewhere worthwhile, and come back the better for the experience.
And later:
The best stuff does take you somewhere. It takes you to a new place from which to see the world.
It's also a sense of wonder not limited to fictional stories.

Pratchett's repeated use 'mindless' is key. It's inevitable that we'll retell stories, but they shouldn't be expressed in rote ways, without care, thought or imagination, not if they're to be meaningful.

This got me thinking about the contents of our minds in all respects, especially our representations of other people. It would be easy to fill up on 'stock characters' - two-dimensional representations. It makes life simpler in some ways; what to think, and the right ways to act, take on apparent clarity. At the same time, it's an unfulfilling way to live. It's also like a bad diet that poisons the health of the mind. It compromises the ability to understand complex situations, in anything from politics to personal relationships.

Stock figures are stunting. If we can imagine only the 'noble elves,' we're limited, lacking in wisdom and more vulnerable to deception. The stock figures populate a deceptively simple world, and chances are if we escape to it too much, we'll stay trapped in it. One way or another, we'll suffer and allow others to suffer without understanding complex situations and the possibilities for how to act.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Two Winter Walks in NYC

One on New Year's Day, the other on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. They covered different neighborhoods in Northern Manhattan, including Inwood and Harlem.

Walking from the George Washington Bridge bus station to Fort Tryon Park takes you through some beautiful residential neighborhoods in Washington Heights. These apartments aren't far from Bennett Park, which is the highest bit of land in Manhattan (just a little over 265 feet above sea level). Like other places in Washington Heights, it's a site of Revolutionary War military action (mostly Washington resisting but ultimately retreating from British forces, as they pushed him out of Manhattan).


From Inwood Hill Park at the northern tip of Manhattan, a view of Spuyten Duyvil Creek, and beyond it, Marble Hill and the Bronx:


Friday, January 20, 2017

Week in Seven Words #326

This time, the flare-up is over a jar of expired sauce. He slams the jar into the garbage bag; she fishes it out and nearly slices open her hand.

He likes the kids who act out. They're more honest, he says. But what about the kids who stuff their pain so deep it eats them alive, even as they smile and get good grades?

At a few points during the film, the panelists pause it to take questions. Some of them respond with substantive answers. Others devote their time to protracted thanks, reeling off names. The lights over the screen sear our eyes.

A panhandler wearing a Trump mask props up a sign in front of him that says "Mexican Wall Fund."

At a meal of rituals, songs, and prayers, he keeps an eye on hockey scores, checking his phone with an exaggerated sneakiness that's meant to fool no one.

They hug, for once, in a small room saturated with cooking smells - meat sizzling, herbed potatoes softening.

We toss ideas back and forth and build a story, with joy and energy.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Week in Seven Words #325

The tulips look like a tipsy choir, open-mouthed and unsteady.

He practices a dramatic swivel in his parents' office chair - revealing himself to the room with menace and flair. Like a responsible adult, I suggest that he pretend to hold a whiskey glass, maybe a cigar.

She treats my emotions as an inconvenience. Like, why can't I just not have them? Consider how much simpler life would be.

The shivers of a robin in a bird bath.

Lemony willow leaves stain the pond. A child showers the ducks with gold and brown crusts.

We part ways, for good I think, and all I am at this point is tired.

"I don't know what I'm doing, but I'll survive by pretending I do," is their way of working, and I don't know if I want to roll my eyes at them or give them a hug.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Beethoven's Heiligenstadt Testament (read for Deal Me In 2017)

When Beethoven was in his early 30s, he addressed a letter to his brothers explaining his withdrawal from society and misanthropic behavior.

He tells them that for several years now he’s been losing his hearing and can’t bear the thought of people finding out. He considers the humiliation, the wounds to his pride:
Oh, how could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than others, a sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection, a perfection such as few in my profession enjoy or ever have enjoyed.
This is a common response to personal struggles - self-imposed isolation, to spare oneself from pity or insensitive reactions. He expresses its agonies, the fear of exposure warring with the desire to be understood.

What’s most powerful in his letter is the tension between craving life and desiring an end to his suffering. He admits that he considered suicide. What mostly held him back was an urge to keep working on his music. Though virtue, too, might have played a part in holding suicidal thoughts at bay, he emphasizes the role of art even more: “Oh, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had forth all that I felt was within me.”

Continuing to live to see out one’s potential, and what one can keep bringing to the world, even in the face of suffering and uncertainty, means everything. It isn’t something that can be encouraged through platitudes or rote admonishments. It’s bloody and raw and hard-won (and can be easily lost too). It’s everything.

Beethoven lived another twenty-five years after writing this letter. Here’s his last symphony, courtesy of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on their YouTube channel:

I read this letter as part of the Deal Me In 2017 challenge.

Week in Seven Words #324

He bullies away the gaps in his knowledge, filling them with loudness.

The driver reacts to the near-collision by shouting at everyone else.

Wind that could tear the hair from your scalp.

When asking for feedback on her poems, she doesn't expect a blast of criticism, but braces herself just in case. It's an act of vulnerability.

The branch has landed in a silken reflection of trees and clouds.

The tree has a bare trunk and a tangled mass of branches at the top, like a nest for a giant bird.

I pose badly, she says. It's in the way I hold my chin, look past her shoulder, keep my lips pursed so I won't laugh. But it doesn't matter, because the end result is the same: two sets of ellipses for eyes and glasses, a beaming crescent mouth, and a nose that looks like a raven in flight. I cherish it.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Week in Seven Words #323

Pushing him on the swing, his small, solid back against my palm.

Peeling the lid off a bin full of sheets and towels and bringing them to my nose for a deep breath.

We dissect twigs and seed pods with plastic knives that he calls "plant knives." Afterwards, he shows me some plastic animal pets, including a rat with a yellow splotch on its back that he calls a "sunspot rat." (It also has white spots on it, but he says those are there to make it look sick so other animals don't eat it.)

The dog is nearly beside herself with the need to press her nose into people.

In the first round of our drawing competition, we both draw tigers, and he declares himself the winner. Second round, after I've drawn his sunspot rat, he graciously calls a draw.

The silence of what we're not telling each other makes the car feel like it's going to implode.

They take hide-and-seek to another level, not only finding the most improbable places to hide but texting each other updates on the seeker's location.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

How do you write about the city? On "Here Is New York"

I read E.B. White's "Here Is New York" for Deal Me In 2017.

White wrote this sprawling essay in the 1940s. NYC has changed quite a bit since then, and was changing moment-by-moment even as he was writing about it. That quality is something he tries to capture in the essay - that even as he sits alone in a stifling, hot room, all the city’s activities swirl around him.
A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry…
What I liked best about this essay is how it shows the challenge (futile, perhaps, but worthwhile) of trying to tackle a subject as big as the city. White is trying to capture what the city is and what it means to people, but there’s so much of it, so what does a writer do?

He approaches the city from different angles - making observations about various groups of people, neighborhoods, the way you can remain fairly insulated from major events if you want. He’s trying to throw a net around a massive fish, and in the dark it struggles and eludes capture. Now and then he records glimpses of its body and sometimes clues as to what it is as a whole, but it slips away.

(These are issues general to writing - what details do you focus on, and what do you leave out? When is a work of writing complete?)

White glides from general statistics to descriptions of specific streets. He discusses a trend and tosses out an anecdote. He breathes the romance of the city and lays bare its darkness (“the cold menace of unresolved human suffering and poverty”). You get a sense of what the city is, while realizing that there’s so much you still don’t know. And I like how White does this - with the essay unfolding not so much as a walk, but as if White had wings and were hovering here and there, pointing things out, before going off to have a drink.
All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation; in New York the fact is somewhat more concentrated because of the concentration of the city itself, and because, of all targets, New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm.
Whatever the city is, humanity and its burning questions are caught up in it. (For instance, how can so many people live more or less peacefully in a cramped space?) He hopes that the city will endure. It must.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Week in Seven Words #322

The immaculate bareness of a garden with its gates closed.

"Please, no quarters," the cashier says. "A lady came in this morning and paid me 56 dollars in quarters."

They dial up the excitement in a game of Twister by trying to put each other in chokeholds.

I keep thinking this is going to be an awkward, painful conversation, made more uncomfortable by the fact that it's over the phone - not face-to-face or by email, which is what I prefer. But it goes well. There are no leaden, sinking silences.

Reaching a private, hard-won milestone that gives me hope.

It hits me that I don't look like anyone in the room. Superficially, I could say I have the same hair color or skin color as most of them. But I couldn't blend in if I tried. One after the other, hair, clothes, gestures, unblemished sameness, and I'm amazed and a little afraid sitting there sticking out.

Colors creep into a brisk, cold landscape. The shades of blue in the reservoir, the green tint to the gray plants by the wayside that hold out for warmer weather.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

"The water sustains me without even trying..."

A beautiful duet. Have listened to it over and over again. The lyrics are poetry.

Week in Seven Words #321

Finding something I wrote in all earnestness when I was young, when I so earnestly wanted to please.

Cleaning deep under my desk, I find something that makes me wish I'd cleaned sooner.

Connect Four pieces clattering on the table like a slot machine jackpot.

One guy grunts at the weights, another groans at the weights, a third vacuums the carpet, and a fourth gasps on a treadmill.

They'd like me to be a receptacle for their unpleasant emotions. A sponge that will soak up their excesses.

The standup routine is raunchier than anything they've watched before, giving them new words to mouth in wonder.

In every season there's something to make you slip: ice, leaves, a slurry of mud and motor oil, blossoms rotting.