Sunday, December 31, 2017

Week in Seven Words #377

Revisiting the same text, I find in it something new. Better yet, I have someone to discuss it with.

There's a snow globe approach to history that preserves a golden moment. It's untainted and unchanging, this little world of pretty homes and valleys and people smiling without end. It never existed outside of the glass, but that doesn't matter to the people who admire it.

The meal is in some ways about endurance. It's about not losing my temper when faced with crassness, disrespect, and a smarminess that's tempting to smack off someone's face.

As he opens his mouth, he realizes that no one he wants to talk to is paying attention. He looks around the room once more, hoping for eye contact, before settling back in his chair and staring at his plate.

The tree leans over the path to inspect the fire hydrant hidden in the shrub.

The mistake was preventable, I was careless, and I hurt someone else too.

The soup makes for a complete meal. Each spoonful of this amazing soup is a blessing.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Week in Seven Words #376

The park is a narrow strip of grass by the river. Mostly, people pass through it on bikes or jogging with their dogs, but few linger. One guy though has laid out bowls of food for pigeons and stray cats. The pigeons have appeared, but not the cats. They'll come, he says.

Jets of water from the firefighters' hoses form successive arcs in the sunlight. (There's no sign of a current or recent fire. Maybe it's a test of hose functioning or a training session.)

They're the kind of teens that would be portrayed in the media as troubled or wild. They're polite and give us precise directions that help us find our way through a neighborhood hit by unexpected street closings.

Her spine curves along the underside of the boulder as she searches for insects in the grass.

The river looks like Turkish coffee, and the bridges are the open mouths drinking it.

Barbed wire loops along the stone walls that enclose the drug rehab facility. The building is an old stone structure with narrow windows, the shades drawn on most. There's silence from the yard behind the wall.

By the rail yard, there's a broken water fountain. Grass springs out of its nozzle.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Dyker Heights and Its Extravagant Lights

Yesterday evening I joined a local branch of the Appalachian Mountain Club on a walk that had nothing to do with mountains, forests, or hiking trails - it took us through Dyker Heights, a neighborhood in Brooklyn known for its elaborate display of Christmas lights and general winter holiday decorations (like smiling snowmen waving from front lawns).



Friday, December 22, 2017

Week in Seven Words #375

Entering numbers into a form, carefully, on a laggard computer that decides at odd moments to step out for the computer equivalent of a coffee break.

Thick sheets of rain sweep past the movie theater's marquee. The lobby is stuffy and has a dusty, buttery smell.

They like improv but are also afraid of it, because it's too unpredictable. They hold back, undermining the scene, for fear of saying something unacceptably weird.

There's a lot of reassurance to be found in a shared pizza and companionable silence.

It's a roaring 20s theme party, where the gals show off their gams in shimmery knee-length dresses that shiver as they dance.

The interviewer acts like he's trying to corral a horse. He wants the rage of denial, the flare of indignation. Followed by inevitable submission.

Sometimes, making them laugh is as simple as holding a staring contest with the head of a unicorn.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Week in Seven Words #374

She wishes her experiences would have more weight and texture. She thinks she's skimming over everything, recognizing but not appreciating beauty.

The suggestiveness of a bookcase, paintings, plants, and piles of papers glimpsed through a window.

Wind chimes chattering by an empty street.

The mural reminds her of home - a two-story house in a wooded lot, with a driveway shaped like the head of a cobra.

I try to feel around the edges of her carefully curated personality for what I think is there - her, her self, whatever that means.

Waiting to learn the outcome of her hospital visit. Stomach clenching every time the phone rings.

The sidewalk has disintegrated to a narrow shoulder of road, and I'm reminded of the suburb I grew up in. A nail salon, an Italian restaurant, a bagel store, and a laundromat in a clot beside an artery of traffic.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Five Short Stories for the Winter Holidays

With one exception, none of these is specific to the holiday season, but they explore themes associated with this time of year.

Title: A Christmas Memory
Author: Truman Capote
Where I Read It: It appeared at the end of an edition of Breakfast at Tiffany's

This story aches with love and separation. A young boy and an elderly female relative who's a bit childlike and eccentric are pals in a house where they're both overlooked. Their friendship won't last for long before they go separate ways in life, but Capote infuses the story with rich details that makes their relationship timeless in memory. Mostly, it's the two of them preparing for Christmas. Here's a walk through the woods:
A mile more: of chastising thorns, burs and briers that catch at our clothes; of rusty pine needles brilliant with gaudy fungus and molten feathers... Always, the path unwinds through lemony sun pools and pitch vine tunnels.
And making fruitcakes:
Eggbeaters whirl, spoons spin round in bowls of butter and sugar, vanilla sweetens the air, ginger spices it; melting, nose-tingling odors saturate the kitchen, suffuse the house, drift out to the world on puffs of chimney smoke.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Week in Seven Words #373

She deals with the fussy kid by pouring chocolate candies into his hands. His parents won't find out until later.

At the lake's edge, she pleads with her friend on the other end of the line. Her friend has slipped into an inexorable state of mind, and no pleas will move her.

Sharing a window seat and sipping apple cider with rum on a chilly day.

Elephants are so weirdly awesome. The configuration of their anatomy, their perceptiveness and intelligence, their size, their apparent emotion. They're fascinating.

We're not close; there's no strong love between us. Our hug feels like a tentative touch to a wound.

I swing between having hope in humanity and thinking we're just complete wallowing morons.

He thinks his words are gold coins; he's pouring them out for us beggars, and we should be grateful. But all he's doing is tossing us some pocket change and bits of lint to go with it.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Week in Seven Words #372

Cleaning out shelves, coming across movies I used to like and books I've forgotten about.

Chasing an almost-chocolate flavor in a supposedly healthier variant of ice cream.

The dog looks mouse-like with her new haircut, especially when she wiggles between our feet in search of crumbs.

The woman sitting next to me is pregnant and uses her belly as a shelf for the book so we can both read from it.

In the dark, it's the neon shorts, t-shirts, and crop tops that are the most visible parts of the joggers, who advance in a 3x3 squad. They look like a collection of colorful squares and rectangles that rise and fall piston-like against a gray screen.

He sings about "sticking it to the man" (or something to that effect), and it sounds tired and lame. The sentiments of rebellion have been commercialized.

By the streetlights, the trees have an icy green-blue tint, as if they've been flavored with mint.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Week in Seven Words #371

Several adults are squashed together at a picnic table. They shout, sing, and jump up to make backstroke swimming motions. One of them pretends to ride a horse. They're playing Time's Up, round after round.

The stationery store reminds me of a candy box. I buy a couple of gifts for someone and linger over the glossy, gold, silver, pink papery confections.

Walking a couple of miles at night. The streets look like they were sloppily glued together. The sidewalks have ruptured. The buildings leak. On one street, the strongest light is from a supermarket window papered over with ads for detergent and ham.

In one room, the kids make silly videos with their phones. In the other, the adults seethe at the cable company over service disruptions.

I can remember details from conversations that took place months or years ago, but I'll step into a home I visit regularly and not notice new furniture arrangements or a large new shoe rack by the door where I'm just now placing my shoes.

The high school students walking alone are stone-faced and wear earbuds. Some hold their phones a couple of inches from their eyes.

I stare at the screen for minutes without knowing how to finish the paragraph, but as soon as I get up to run errands, everything - the paragraph, the whole article - comes to me.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Movie about veterans: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Title: The Best Years of Our Lives
Director: William Wyler
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

In The Best Years of Our Lives, three men return home from WWII and struggle to adjust to civilian life. Al (Frederic March), Fred (Dana Andrews), and Homer (Harold Russell) live in the same city, and though they've only just met on the plane home, their lives intersect in important ways throughout the movie.

Although they each enjoy happy or hopeful endings, the movie shows the ways in which their lives could have derailed (or still could derail after the closing credits). Al is welcomed back by his loving family, and the well-paid position he held at a bank remains open to him. However, he has taken to drinking heavily and isn't at ease either at home or at work. Fred can't find a good job, and his marriage is strained. He's also suffering from post-traumatic stress. Homer lost both his hands during the war and fears that his fiancee is sticking with him only out of pity. He also begins to isolate himself after receiving pitying and uncomfortable looks from family and friends. (Harold Russell actually did lose his hands during WWII, and this was his first movie role.)

Friday, November 10, 2017

Week in Seven Words #370

She's a cute little peanut, slouched in her stroller. Disgruntled, squirmy, delighted, and peaceful in turns.

Our conversation is a lazy river that turns into Class IV rapids.

Rot has crept into every petal. Rotting roses smell like potatoes.

Near Times Square, an animated display of M&Ms attracts the kids. They run to the cloudburst of candies, the shower of colorful sugar.

She doesn't want to use the steps at first. They're slippery and lead to a path smeared with mud. But the view is worth it for her: A stone bridge, a pond that doesn't bare all its secrets but asks you to follow it as it curves out of sight.

As I head north, they catch up to me at each crosswalk. When I veer west, they give up their pursuit.

This time we meet at a Dunkin' Donuts the size of a pocket. She raises the coffee to her nose, lowers it without taking a sip, and describes the wreckage of her life.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Week in Seven Words #369

As I pick through a Bach prelude, my hands feel like spiders crawling over cracked pavement.

I pry the lid off the banana walnut scented candle and breathe.

One night is a rough night, anxiety a rising flood in my skull.

We are docile and subdued on the line through the metal detectors. A guard is curt to an old woman who isn't sure if she's at the correct location.

His thoughts are oil in a frying pan and a crackle of buzzwords.

The room where potential jurors wait is full of sunlight, warmth, and murals displayed well above eye level, to no one's loss. The clerk splits our heads open with a whining microphone. From time to time, we listen to lists of names, and people shuffle out. Shoes squeak, and newspapers rustle. One man falls asleep. His snores sound like a bumblebee trapped in a bottle.

In an unlit hallway, they've set up tables with cookies, chips, and sandwiches of uncertain freshness.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: Exploring Abuse and a Degraded Culture

... how many of my thoughts and feelings are gloomily cloistered within my own mind; how much of my higher and better self is indeed unmarried - doomed either to harden and sour in the sunless shade of solitude, or to quite degenerate and fall away for lack of nutriment in this unwholesome soil!

Anne Bronte's novel explores emotional abuse - in this case, within a marriage. She also looks at the bigger picture of how abuse may be condoned, ignored, or encouraged by the surrounding culture.

The narrator, Gilbert Markham, meets a woman who has moved with her young son to Wildfell Hall, a home in his neighborhood. He comes to know her as Helen Graham, a widow who paints for a living. After a serious misunderstanding, she gives Gilbert her journal, which explains her marriage and her flight from an abusive husband. Until that point, Gilbert was the sole narrator. The journal focuses the novel on Helen's voice and story. A woman finding a way to express her usually buried thoughts or live independently through writing and art is an important theme (one that I remember emerging in Charlotte Bronte's Villette and Jane Eyre too). Helen's husband destroys her paintings at one point. In another scene, she fights off an attempted rape (from one of her husband's guests) by using a palette-knife, a tool of her art.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Two Very Different Movies That Both Show a Room Full of Mannequins

Title: The Band Wagon (1953)
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Language: English
Rating: Not rated

The Band Wagon is a musical about people making a musical, and the leads - Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse - are amazing dancers. They aren't strong actors, so when they have to convince the audience their characters are falling in love, they can't do it through dialogue. There's one dance - filmed in the park and called 'Dancing in the Dark' - that does it, because of how they flow together, with Charisse's balletic grace and strength mesmerizing.

Another dance number, 'The Girl Hunt,' is a musical parody of film noir and hard-boiled detective stories. Astaire plays the tough detective (which is funny in and of itself), and Charisse plays both a helpless-seeming blonde and a dangerous brunette. There's some amazing dancing in this number, and a room full of mannequins at one point. 'The Girl Hunt' is both ridiculous and riveting. (If you're a fan of Michael Jackson's music, you might like to know that his music video for "Smooth Criminal" took inspiration from Astaire's suit and the scene at the nightclub from 'The Girl Hunt.')

Another notable musical number - 'The Triplets' - features Astaire, Nanette Fabray, and Jack Buchanan as triplet babies. They wear baby gowns and dance on their knees. (I'm not making this up.) The lyrics are also funny. These are violent babies who rhyme cleverly.

Fabray, who has great presence and sings wonderfully, should have been in more musical scenes. At least she's part of the group singing 'That's Entertainment,' the most famous of the songs from the movie. This isn't a movie that takes itself seriously. It's silly and full of music and dance talent (ballet, jazz dance, a tap routine in top hat and tails). A really enjoyable movie.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Week in Seven Words #368

She's catering the party. The doughy, salty, sweet dishes are spread across the counter.

The park has been carved out of a rocky hill. You think you're heading north, but really, you're climbing to a lookout point. It's a beautiful detour. You head back down, and again attempt to make your way north. Now you're in a garden. Could these stairs take you out of the park? No, you wind up at another lookout point. Best make yourself comfortable. Here's a bench.

He has turned a part of the basement into a sanctuary for snakes. They live in drawers and pails. Many of them are stuffed animals, and the rest are plastic, but he takes the trouble to feed them and set up a program for breeding them.

There's this frustrating thing that happens in conversations. People hear the name of a person or thing they don't like, and their brain blows a fuse. From thoughtful, complete sentences, they go to slogans and taunting names. They begin to raise their voice, and the intelligence leaves their eyes.

As she sleeps, expressions drift across her face - a wrinkle of fussiness, the glow of a passing smile.

With his face mashed into a couch cushion he says, "Why am I watching this garbage when there's other garbage on?"

They have trim beards and pleasant smiles, colorful graphs on PowerPoint slides. And they make economics sound so straightforward.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Week in Seven Words #367

R-rated rap lyrics muttered by a sensitive boy who wants to sound tougher.

The shop displays candies in cartoon colors and chocolates in silver foil. Popcorn erupts in a buttery river from bright red tubs.

What people find acceptable can change quickly. Many seem unfazed by governing practices, speech, and behavior they would have condemned in the recent past. Others begin to criticize things that they've let slide before.

She doesn't know which soup to buy. She wanders up and down the aisle, her fingers tracing the cans and cartons. From the way her hands shake, her difficulty must run deeper than soup.

In the elevator, he tells me that he knows double-digit numbers. He points to 10 and 11 and names them proudly. "But what happened to 13?" I ask. He pauses, staring at the unaccountable gap between 12 and 14. Then he laughs. "They DEMOLISHED it!" he shouts. "Hahahahaha!"

The sign advertises mulled wine and apple cider donuts. The words alone - and the colors and curves of the letters - flood my mouth with their flavors.

His Facebook feed is full of people he dislikes. As long as they're angry, he's satisfied.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Our Little Sister (2015): Exploring Forgiveness and Trust

Title: Our Little Sister
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Language: Japanese
Rating: PG

Our Little Sister is a movie that brings more beauty into the world, not just entertainment. It doesn't show unnecessary drama. Any tension arises from the characters' circumstances; the writers didn't shoehorn arguments into the plot. Much of the movie is grounded in what makes life beautiful, like sharing food and conversation with loved ones. I also like how the movie explores forgiveness and trust.

Three adult sisters who live together learn that their estranged father has passed away. He had abandoned his family for a love affair with a woman who became his second wife. His first wife, the sisters' mother, also wound up abandoning them at some point after. The eldest sister, Sachi (Haruka Ayase), stepped into the role of mother for her younger sisters.

When they attend his funeral, they meet their teenaged half-sister, Suzu (Suzu Hirose), for the first time. Their reaction to her is curiosity and kindness, and they invite her to live with them.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Halibut Point State Park is Amazing

In early September, I went on a vacation for a few days to Boston and to some of the towns within commuting distance, including Rockport on the Cape Ann Peninsula. The highlight in Rockport was walking from the center of town to Halibut Point State Park.

It used to be a granite quarry, and the quarry is full of water now. It's stunning.


Along with walking around the quarry, you can look out over the ocean.


And head down to a beach layered in slabs of rock.


Have a picnic here.


The walk to and from town is also wonderful, with beautiful yards and gardens along the way, and openings to the sea that tease the imagination.


I felt lucky to visit these places.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Week in Seven Words #366

A fun evening of Code Names, drinks, and food.

They're helping her learn the distinction between cool weird and uncool weird. Cool weird is when you make silly faces with your friends for Instagram, maybe use a filter or app that gives you puppy ears and big glasses. Uncool weird isn't a sanctioned strangeness. Even if it's creative and doesn't harm anyone, it's suspect.

She folds Trident gum wrappers into birds.

The alarm over the door begins to shriek. A worker approaches it with a grimace, then walks away. A minute later, another worker comes along, grimaces and walks away. Another minute goes by, with another grimace.

The word 'problematic' has started to bug me. People often use it in a way that's lazy and full of insinuation. "That book is problematic." Meaning? A vague unease, a condemnation without a coherent argument.

Hearing about war gives him a thrill. It's the swagger of war he likes, the way deep-voiced media figures growl a threat of reprisal.

An empty plaza framed by ads, shrubs, and an office building that looks like a fort.

Week in Seven Words #365

He tips his hat and wishes me a good afternoon. It's sunny out, and he's serene. It really is a good afternoon.

Fingerprints of sunlight on faded brick and joyful murals.

In the gap between brownstones, there's a fenced off dirt plot, studded with rocks. Two cats inhabit it. One sprawls on a bed of sunlight. The other watches me with menacing alertness.

Kids seize each other in headlocks outside the department store in front of the mannequins and pink placards, as they wait for their mom to finish shopping.

In their community, neighbors, friends, and coworkers will show up with trays of food in the days after childbirth.

She sleeps in a warm crescent against my stomach.

With classes cancelled for the day, the campus is silent. A building with a crenellated tower casts a shadow over the grounds.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Seven Short Stories I Should Have Read with Coffee

It was International Coffee Day recently, and though I don't drink much coffee, maybe it could have helped with the short stories here. These are short stories I liked but wasn't sufficiently alert while reading them. (And I took few notes.) They're also tricky in different ways - they might depend on a slippery narrator or express something frustrating and undefined just out of reach.

Title: The 5:22
Author: George Harrar
Where I Read It: Boston Noir 2

"The simple question 'What if?' could lead to so many disturbing places."
Walter Mason, a researcher at MIT, is solitary and sticks closely to routines. His daily commute doesn't stray from its schedule. Then, on one of his train rides, he notices a woman who's wearing a scarf. When the wind blows it aside, he sees she's missing an ear. In the course of the story, the woman disappears from his commute, and one day the conductor who's always there doesn't show up either. The train also misses his usual stop.

The shake up to his routine is unsettling and creates unease. But it could wind up not affecting his life much. Or maybe it will nudge him towards something better. Moments that appear inconsequential can call for courage and have a profound effect, like taking a chance to talk to someone instead of stare at them.

Week in Seven Words #364

A sunlit, sterile store displays several rows of small devices.

During the subway ride, she asks about each stop and what you could see in the local neighborhood. A proprietary feeling for the city comes over me. It doesn't matter if a subway station is grimy and rundown; I look on it with fondness, because it has become my grimy and rundown station.

The furniture from centuries ago looks doll-like, as if the people then were not only smaller but more delicate and fragile.

A high-speed boat skips like a stone across the river.

The baby wears a striped hat. She squirms from time to time in her sleep. Her sleep seems intent, energetic.

They dab, dance, and toss their hair on the videos they make with a lip-syncing app.

It's a quiet ward, which is surprising. The hospital room has a dim evening glow. For the moment, the baby is being weighed and measured in the nursery. A nurse, who strikes me as sincerely caring, quietly speaks to the mother, both about what to expect in the coming hours and about a maternal health issue that needs to be monitored.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Week in Seven Words #363

As evening closes in, the tower of the High Bridge looks like the home of a mage. A light gleams inside it, eerie and suggestive.

Over sweetened almonds, we talk about embittering life events.

A blank, bright field, and at the far end, two kids throwing a frisbee that they never catch.

Long walks through the city are full of interesting shapes. Some buildings look like a wedge of pie, narrowing where two streets split in an acute angle. Metallic semicircles shine from the side of a substation. Buildings march along the river in cubes and rectangular prisms.

There's a free class on Photoshop, which I'm not familiar with, though I figure it may prove useful at some point. I'm the only one who shows up. The instructor looks as awkward as I feel, but we get past that quickly enough, and twenty minutes later I'm pasting a giant baby onto the surface of the moon.

He crouches by the side of a tennis court and buries his face in the dog's neck. It's the happiest moment of his day so far.

The evergreen sapling looks like a glowing gold feather duster in the forest.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Lucy Snowe from Charlotte Bronte's Villette is a fascinating narrator

Lucy Snowe, the narrator for Charlotte Bronte's Villette, starts her story in her godmother's house, where she's visiting. She's a teenager at the time and inhabits the house like a shadow. She says next to nothing about her birth family, which is unusual; all we know is that she's English. She observes other people closely, and she enjoys some quiet pleasures, unnoticed. Soon after this visit, she makes vague reference to events that lead her to fall out of touch with her godmother, and the tragedies and hardships that leave her alone in the world as a young woman. (No details on what exactly happens.) She winds up working in a French school, and her thoughts about her circumstances are realistic and complex.

Part of why I find this narrator fascinating is that she can be frank and blunt. But then she'll turn away suddenly, holding back information and withdrawing from the reader's sight. She is outwardly reserved - many people think her so - while emotions can run rampant in her. She isn't an unreliable narrator in the sense that she has sinister motives or strong delusions, but she's disconcerting. She understands how much she's confessing, and wants to keep some things to herself. Sometimes, she'll introduce a detail or observation that jars the reader out of the complacent belief that they've got the characters fixed in their mind. The reader is kept at an uneasy distance while still being absorbed in the narrative.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Week in Seven Words #362

The clock, striking a late hour, gets shouted down by police sirens.

They bring her out on a blue leash. Immediately, she's on my lap, squirming, sniffing, and sticking her head in my tote bag, where I've tucked away some treats for her.

A toddler stands before a taller doll and interrogates it. The doll, unresponsive, receives a finger to the eye for remaining aloof.

The church has strung together signs on its lawn with slogans that try to demonstrate that it's welcoming (or the preferred word, "inclusive") to anyone who wants to attend. The slogans ring empty, a cut-and-paste job.

Candle wax in multiple colors melts in psychedelic streams and puddles.

The man on the sofa dozes beneath a portrait of an alert military leader.

In the glow of the lamp, a pink bedspread scented with lavender and mint.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Week in Seven Words #361

They have a quick, vicious temper. They'll unleash it without absorbing its effects; they may even forget, an hour later, just how angry they were. The absorption is left to me.

She's finished reading the Harry Potter series, but doesn't want to let it go. Potter Puppet Pal videos are among the media she's found to maintain her connection to the Wizarding World.

Teens with fruit punch hair bump shoulders as they drift through the park.

For indoor soccer, the footrest is the goal. In the middle of the game, the dog trots over and lies down in front of it to lick the floor.

"He's entitled to his own opinion!" she tells me the day after. An irrelevant comment, as I never argued about anyone's right to share an opinion. As for the content of the opinion, I can't argue about that either, without being called names or told that I don't really mean what I'm saying.

The gingerbread truffle bursts and melts on my tongue. I think with even more gratitude about the person who gave it to me.

Throughout the store, there are sniffly kids with smeary noses and slurpy coughs.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Week in Seven Words #360

He knows it's ridiculous to spend this much money on shoes. He laughs at himself, even as he buys a pair and takes photos of them - first in their box, then on the floor, and after that, with himself in them.

He's afraid to care too much about anything. His heroes have soured on him. His teachers are dead inside. His friends take pleasure destroying things.

The room is wrecked. He stands to the side, nodding slightly to the music from his headphones, as he takes in the work ahead of him.

They craft a lie and treat it publicly as truth. It's the only way to keep peace in their family. They tiptoe past uncomfortable topics and avert their eyes from vile behavior.

She wants to write an email that's persuasive and appeasing. So much is at stake for her, with this one email that may never be read.

Soft pink tomato guts slick between my fingers.

The street is split open with repairs. Mice pour out, seeking other homes.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Paper Tigers (2015): How Did One School Change Its Approach to Delinquent Student Behavior?

Paper Tigers is a documentary set in a school known for high rates of delinquent student behavior and academic failure. It explores the background of some of the students and shows the changes undertaken by the school to help students deal with various problems, graduate, and even go to college.

Many of the students come from homes that are broken in some way. One of the critical parts of Paper Tigers is a discussion of ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and research showing how a greater number of ACEs in childhood leads to an increased risk of all kinds of problems throughout life - such as abusive relationships, poor health, struggles with work and finances, and mental illness.

ACEs include emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse, and households with domestic violence, substance abuse, mental illness, or family members in prison. However, when children and teens have a healthy relationship with an adult, it serves as a protective factor that can help mitigate the effects of ACEs.

In the past, the school's approach to misbehaving students was purely punitive. The documentary shows how teachers began to also offer mentoring and guidance, not only punishments. The school also set up an on-site clinic that provided some basic health services and counseling. By the time the documentary wrapped up, there was a significant drop in the kinds of behaviors that lead to detention, suspension, or expulsion, and there were higher rates of graduation.

I like how the documentary shows the communal effort it took to make this new approach successful. Of course it depended on each teacher working with dedication and spending time with students who aren't used to positive attention from an adult. But the teachers were also able to give each other support. The school administration was fully committed to them and to the students. And the community at large supported the school. As inspiring as it is to read stories about a lone teacher bucking the system to reach out to students, a school-wide change works so much better when everyone is working together. It's more effective, and there's less burnout.

The documentary is also important for opening up a discussion about traumatic childhood experiences. These aren't one-time events - they're ongoing toxic problems that chip away at mental and physical health and stunt development. I also wondered about the teens who don't act out, but who keep things bottled up. The documentary doesn't really focus on the kids who struggle but don't express it through crime, violent outbursts, and other misbehavior. It was impressive, however, just to watch teachers who genuinely care about their students' academic performance, well-being, and life prospects.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Week in Seven Words #359

The robin perches in the heart of a brambly shrub.

Her life has been set to a soundtrack of slammed doors.

Our good-bye has a taffy-like quality. We say it and stand close, and after talking some more, repeating ourselves, we part slowly, the distance between us stretching by inches.

My first sight of her is the bike helmet she's still wearing, as she hunches over her phone, her upper body framed by a dark window.

She may not know who has sent her the note expressing thanks, but she's happy that someone has appreciated her efforts.

They've strung up a few lights to give an otherwise steely, soulless street some color.

The egg he cracks in a neat stroke, but the yolk plops on the floor.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Week in Seven Words #358

There's a bundle of blankets on the couch. It takes me a few moments to realize it's a child, staring at the TV through the fog of a cold.

I need to guard against the antsy expectation of the next thing, the unsettling need to keep scrolling down the page or refreshing it.

They're reading young adult novels set in dystopian societies, and I like their analyses of these books - what makes sense to them, what doesn't, and their take on the characterizations. Their thoughts on what they read have become more complex.

He's bought neon orange gravel for the fish bowl. When he cleans it in the sink, it makes a crunchy, rustling noise in the spray of cold water.

I speak to someone who calls himself progressive. To him, being progressive means using certain tortured terminology and immediately shaming people who don't. It's likely the correct terminology will change soon, so he'll have to keep a close eye on developments. Signaling correctness is a key way to avoid ostracism.

Wine-colored leaves shaped like stars, suspended in perfect stillness under a streetlight.

The waiter brings out a slice of cake with a candle stuck to it. It's meant for an adult's birthday, but mostly the kids devour it, after it gets sectioned with a steak knife.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Vicar of Wakefield - I tried...

Sometimes when you visit a website, it loads too slowly. Maybe there's a blue bar on the browser (like on Safari) that strains forward by millimeters and after a certain point doesn't move anymore. You refresh the page, it starts loading again, and still, no progress.

That was my experience with The Vicar of Wakefield. It isn't a good sign when reading a book feels like staring at a slowly loading website. After a couple of attempts, I put it aside. Because I chose it for the Classics Club Challenge, I feel obligated to say something about it here.

The vicar likes to shake his head over his family's follies. Maybe he regrets his own follies too, but it's his family's weaknesses that cause him to moralize. He sighs and chides them a little, but he seems to have little effect on anything around him. That's about as far as I got with him - his family falls on some hard times, they run into one man who doesn't seem to have money and another man who does. I flipped to the last pages - I'll admit I was curious enough to do that - and things seem to get tied up neatly, more or less.

I chose this book after hearing it recommended by people who found it witty and entertaining. You may get more out of it than I did.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Week in Seven Words #357

Pumpkin pie filling rises between the tines of my fork.

The choice of entertainment falls to the youngest child. He picks a documentary on fish that weigh a lot. Everyone winds up gathering at the TV to watch.

She calms her patients with soft string music, a dish-sized fountain, and a murmured mantra.

A parent, embarrassed by his children's bickering, loses his temper. His overreaction is significantly more embarrassing than anything his children have done.

One of the apps on her phone lets her make movie trailers. The latest one features a bad-tempered dance instructor and the floating head of a unicorn.

The waiting room is part of a suite of doctors' offices. The sofa cushions are stiff. I toy with a book, without reading it. Through a thin wall, I hear wracking coughs and a low, anxious voice.

It's been a year since we last spoke, and it would be a shame if we never spoke again. I email her, and she replies with warmth and surprise. We're still friends.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Week in Seven Words #356

Today, I'm an eyebrow that isn't properly tweezed. Tomorrow, I'll be a forehead pimple. By which blemish will I be assessed the day after?

They express their political stance by posting a meme or buying a product featured in a feel-good commercial from a large corporation.

He has made the mistake of giving broccoli to the dog.

They're stuck with an indifferent teacher who asks nothing and accepts almost anything. In response, they ask their teacher almost nothing and ignore almost everything.

When only the orchestra is playing, the violinist stands calmly, surrounded by the storm of music.

I tell her that I need to talk to her mom for a couple of minutes, then I'll be ready to play. At the two-minute mark, she pops up from behind a cabinet, startling me and reminding me of my promise.

The wind feels like dozens of gentle pats to the face.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Van Cortlandt Park and a Laura Mvula song

This past Sunday, I went on a hike through Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. The hike leader also gave a talk on the role the park plays in the city's water supply, and the challenges of supplying water to a city of millions.

This is a memorial on Katonah Avenue, right outside the northeast corner of the park, for tunnel workers who lost their lives building Tunnel #3, a major piece of city water infrastructure.


Some photos from the hike:




Also, because it's summer - and Laura Mvula's "Green Garden" (and its music video) is full of what I like best about summer - I'm sharing it here.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Week in Seven Words #355

We leave the TV on in the other room and play boardgames to the background noise of dismal news.

Part of his job is to quell people's dread. Even when he's solemn, there's a gleam in his eye, reflecting a bright shore that he assures people he can see.

They ignore anything that reflects poorly on the politicians they support, while magnifying every pore and blemish in their opponents.

Sometimes a hot, unreasoning anger seizes them, and they look like they're about to rip each other apart. Then a switch flips, and they cheerfully subside and watch TV.

She considers the best color for her bedroom walls and skims through a book of soothing pinks - coral, rose, crepe, salmon.

The best colors emerge in the afternoon. Gold light on leaves and dusky red bricks. The soft blue of the sky calls to mind feathers and eggshells.

They're fooled by an excerpt that's taken out of context and given sinister meaning. It's something they saw in passing on the internet and absorbed without questioning.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Of Human Bondage: Explorations of Growth, Maturity, and Self-Destruction

Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham follows Philip Carey from when he becomes an orphan in childhood and begins to live with his aunt and uncle, who is a vicar.

Set in England (and sometimes France and Germany) in the late 19th century, the novel shows Carey attempting to make sense of the world by adopting different ideologies. First comes the religion of the boarding school he's sent to. Once he sheds most of those doctrines, he tries to become an artist in Paris and subscribe to various theories of art and life. It's only later, when he works to become a doctor (and backslides into near-fatal poverty along the way), that he begins to accept the mess of human life - the behaviors that are baffling and contradictory, the great muddle of people who are all just trying to live, and who can't all be captured in abstract theories. He does this with some humor and greater compassion.

I like how, even as he sheds different creeds or ideologies, he sometimes keeps their more beneficial lessons. How does he determine what's beneficial and what isn't? It isn't always conscious. He discovers answers through difficult experiences - like his poverty, and his self-destructive love for (or obsession with) a woman who repeatedly hurts and abandons him, and just seeing the cases he comes across in his medical studies and as a doctor. He also has a clubfoot and learns early on how people use it as an excuse to be cruel to him. (His clubfoot, however, isn't his major impediment; he has a tendency towards self-destruction that battles with his thirst for life.) Pushing through the great mess of the world, Carey sometimes finds people and activities that help give his life meaning. Some signs of his increased maturity are his capacity to live with uncertainty, to take pleasure in more straightforward and wholesome joys, and to accept human frailty and the fact that no, he'll never fully understand everything and that he'll keep making mistakes, though hopefully not the same kind of mistakes (with the same magnitude) as those of his younger years.

Does he give up some of his dreams at the end, or does he find other dreams and sources of happiness that are just as good, if not better? He finds a place in the world where he can do some good. Throughout the novel, Carey tried to find a place for himself in ideas or in people who share his ideas, but never really was at home anywhere. By the end of the book, he can make a home somewhere. He may always feel different from other people (as each individual differs from any other), but he can live among people with greater peace and a sense of having a shared lot in life.

Carey's struggles in the book, his attempts to make sense of life and his tendencies towards self-destruction, moved me.

(I read this novel for the Classics Club Challenge.)

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Week in Seven Words #354

He's bored reading about U.S. labor laws from the early 20th century. Then he comes across a YouTube video about the labor conditions for smartphone manufacturing. He starts to pay more attention, make connections.

The fountain has three statues of women spinning in dance, hand-in-hand. It's ringed by flowers, and as the flowers draw bees, the fountain draws people to take photos, and to kneel by its side and run their fingers through the dark water.

The storm whips up dirt and litter. In the stinging rain, discarded cups whirl around. With clothes soaked, I wait under an awning with several others. The wind steers the rain to us.

A handful of hours made for a walk on wooded paths along pools and streams.

The park is a handful of benches and a bit of greenery in an alley. The bricks catch at the sunlight, and flies swarm in the moist shade.

A woman relaxes on a blanket with a dog tucked against the curve of her waist.

An insect bite crackling with pain.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Week in Seven Words #353

She wears a shapeless black dress. A shawl patterned with pomegranates covers her head and trails down her sides. She is standing still. For a few moments, I can't tell where she's facing.

Books they can't yet read are open on their laps, as they imitate the adults around them.

I reach a tipping point where the room gets too crowded. People are starting to edge into the aisle and block the exit. I slip by them and out to the sunlight and cool air.

A phone call that fills an hour and more, and makes me feel like I'm soaring.

Leaves suspended in late afternoon light, against windows that have a copper shine.

Where does your responsibility end and another person's responsibility begin? What are the best ways to map these boundaries fraught with guilt and anger?

The red chrysanthemums are the essence of red. They're strawberries and blood and fire engines.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Hannah Arendt Exploring Thinking and Moral Behavior

In her essay, “Thinking and Moral Considerations,” Hannah Arendt writes:
Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention which all events and facts arouse by virtue of their existence.
She writes that while it’s not possible to always be “responsive to this claim,” there are some people who seem unaware of it.

Arendt’s focus is on people in authoritarian states who acquiesce to evil and participate in it willingly. She doesn’t focus on deliberate wickedness, like how a sociopath or hardened criminal would act. She examines ordinary people who - in better times, under better governments - would strike you as moral in their day-to-day conduct.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Week in Seven Words #352

For the first time in a while, I give her a kiss on the cheek. I try to pay more attention to her anecdotes.

Bags of clothing mushroom out of the donation bin.

Sunset spattering peach and gold on the river.

She builds a zip line for her dolls, just because. This is one of the pleasures of childhood, the project launched on a whim after you've finished your homework.

He's almost one. He's got a healthy baby face. As such, he needs to keep ducking away from people who screech Those cheeks! and dive in with their pincers.

She dozes off at the table and starts humming "Frosty the Snowman." When she wakes up, she asks where the music came from. A radio? No, it's not the right season for carols. Was it us, singing?

In a voice that bears a full freight of disappointment, he lists what he thinks is wrong with the world. The words are like stones thrown into my stomach.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Week in Seven Words #351

Heading outdoors at night, to cars making slow, uncertain turns and buses sighing against the curb. I'm at peace with the world for the moment.

The dish of eggplant parmigiana is about the size of a tire, and I'm too deep in good conversation to eat much of it.

A heavy meal mid-afternoon - soup, salad, potatoes, meat, as sunlight seeps onto the table like honey.

She doesn't hold a grudge, but welcomes everyone and gives hugs and kisses freely. Something in her remains relaxed in the face of how disappointing people can be.

In the upstairs room, most of the books are gone. In their place are pamphlets.

Some of the kids score goals or make clean passes that show they've been training. Other kids aren't as skilled, but at least seem to like playing. One boy has a hard time of it. He's kicked in the chest by an angry player from the other team (who gets booted out). Later in the game, the ball slams into his face. It's just not his day, but he stays in the game as long as he can.

A sunlit path, shrubs on one side, water on the other, and bicycles humming like wasps.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Week in Seven Words #350

Prayers, exuberant songs fill the synagogue. In the back, a woman who has a mental illness is bent over a book on her lap. Occasionally, she says something that sounds like, "But, but, but..."

We brainstorm stories, and she becomes less timid with her ideas. She's worried that what she writes will somehow be wrong. The idea of mistakes not even mattering in a draft - that anything can go into a draft - is delightful to her.

We discuss repentance and how to keep it from becoming self-flagellation. Repentance is oriented to practical action - acknowledgement of the wrong done, and sincere efforts to make amends and to make changes to future behavior. Self-flagellation pushes people into purely emotional territory, where they give themselves up to their own sense of wrongness and get stuck in it.

The front steps are the place to go for downtime. If there's a spare half-hour between meetings, and the sun is out, settle down. The narrow street before you becomes the world for a while. Read, close your eyes, maybe hope for an interruption from someone you like.

For a moment, I think it's a real dog, dead or injured and floating in the river. But it's only a stuffed animal. Soon after, a boy comes running with his younger sister following. They find a short, spindly branch by the river bank to haul it in.

It's a peaceful evening, the clouds stitched to the sky in threads of peach and light blue. The wind carries sea salt on its breath. Leaves are murmuring overhead.

It's tacky to put the names of politicians on a kippah. But he likes to turn himself into a walking ad for his favorites.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Two Recent Walks: Governors Island and Harlem

Last time I visited Governors Island was five years ago, when it was still in earlier stages of development and pretty eerie. In late June, I took the five-minute ferry trip from Lower Manhattan to walk around it again. There's more going on there now, and it's a lovely place to walk, bike, and picnic, play around on slides or zip-lines, and enjoy some art and history.

Highlights for me included the view of the NYC harbor from the area of the island known as The Hills. (The crowd of people in pink clothes were attending Pinknic, a rosé wine festival.)


Another part of the island I enjoyed was the small urban farm and composting center. I was happy to see birds that aren't pigeons.



Thursday, July 6, 2017

Week in Seven Words #349

Like many kids, he doesn't like writing. If only there were a program that could instantly convert his thoughts into coherent paragraphs. Instead, he has to grind the point of his pencil into his notebook and dig up each word.

One of the most companionable kind of dinners is when you and your loved ones demolish a pizza.

When we've almost arrived at the solution to the math problem, I realize we could have done it in 27 or so fewer steps...

One sign the dog is on the mend is that she's getting yelled at again for eating toilet paper.

They spot each other at opposite ends of the room. One of them laughs, and the other flies across with arms reaching.

An insect bite of indeterminate origin. Should I worry? Half the sites say yes; the others tell me no, probably not.

They're at a bar, and the beat of the music fills the space between them, helping them delay a conversation they'd rather not have.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Eight stories of Americans making journeys

Title: Going After Cacciato
Author: Tim O’Brien
Where I Read It: Breaking Into Print

A soldier stationed in Vietnam decides to walk to France. Other members of his squad try to stop him. Cacciato has a reputation for being dim-witted (a "rockhead," he's called), and his idea is absurd, but at the same time it doesn't seem all that crazy to try to get away, no matter how. The way they've been living so far, with comrades dying in gruesome ways and days full of pointlessness and ugly nonsense, it doesn't seem that crazy for someone to want to walk off into the distance. But that would be desertion, and the rest of them can't let him do that, can they?

O'Brien later developed this story into a novel, which I haven't read, but already in this story he fleshes out distinct characters - some petty and eager to kill, others more sympathetic and thoughtful.

Title: The Halfway Diner
Author: John Sayles
Where I Read It: American Voices

A group of women makes a round-trip by bus each Sunday to visit their men at a state penitentiary. The diner is the halfway point on the trip.

The bus is their world in this story. The women break into different groups, sometimes forming friendships, but what happens in the prison may affect their own relationships. To what extent will they take up the battles between their men and reenact it among themselves? The story unfolds through the eyes of one of the Latinas - who has a well-written voice - and I love how the inside of that bus becomes an entire world, and so does the dismal diner. Sayles also has a gift for writing female characters as realistic people, instead of walking bundles of cliches (the same holds true in what I've watched of his movies so far - Passion Fish and The Secret of Roan Inish).

Monday, July 3, 2017

Week in Seven Words #348

Outside the supermarket, they gather at a giant cardboard box filled with watermelons. They tap on each one and explain the connection between the sounds and the quality of the fruit. The lesson soon gives way to the pure enjoyment of listening to what a watermelon sounds like when a small fist is knocking on it.

There's no other sound in the room but his beautiful voice expressing contrition.

At the veterinary hospital, the animals that are unwell are tucked into back rooms, while in the lobby, a large healthy pug trundles around like a greeter. He belongs to one of the staff, but carries himself with a proprietary air, as if he owns the building.

How have these two teenaged girls spent their afternoon? The evidence is on the table: homework, novels open facedown, a dog-eared fashion magazine, and a game of Risk Europe in progress.

The violinist bends like a tree lashed by a storm, the wind singing through her.

The second movement of Dvorak's New World Symphony is one of the most beautiful pieces of music. It's a reassurance that, one way or another, all will be well.

The dog is shaky and crosses the room in tentative steps, her head down as she settles on my lap.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Week in Seven Words #347

She arrives late to the concert and trills apologies, her arms flung wide for balance, as she walks crabwise down half a row to her seat.

The chocolate rugelach they bring out isn't dry and flaky. The chocolate is seeping deliciously into the dough.

She transformed a secondary character from a stock figure to a person.

She makes a Lego version of me, a princess with glasses and a crown, and installs me in a two-story, two-room house with a rooftop observatory and the necessities - a tree, a book, a bar of gold, a hairbrush, and a cape.

In the back of the pickup truck, he keeps a stuffed animal basset hound that stands guard over his gear.

A day of feeling down ends on a bright note, as if a curtain's been brushed aside, thanks to a good dinner with some good people.

He's a few decades older than they are, so he flirts with them in a paternal way, one leg propped on the seat next to theirs, his elbow on his knee as he leans forward to explain the world to them and give them little compliments. They smile at him politely until his wife reappears.

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.