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.