Monday, December 31, 2018

Week in Seven Words #442

The table is crowned with a vase of lilacs and gladioli.

They're cheerful and polished, but their smiles seem carved out of their flesh. Their brightness has the potential to become hard and repellent.

Heavy rain, so thick it seems to come down in clots. Afterwards, the air is cool and fresh.

It's an odd, disjointed dinner. The conversation drifts frequently to weather disasters. During the silences, people peer at each other uncertainly. One guest is silent and remote, with a pinched look, as if he had been running from exhaustion for a while before it finally overtook him.

The 2 train crawls like an old fat snake that has eaten too much.

The office suite reminds me of a student center on a college campus. There's a coffee bar, vending machines, puffy sofas sitting low on the ground, and several tables tucked into booths.

A man is jogging with his dog by the lake. "How are you doing, boy?" the man asks. The dog pants. "You doing good?" The dog continues to pant. "Good boy!"

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Week in Seven Words #441

I walk past compact homes with cute balconies. On each balcony, there's a small circular table kept company by a pair of empty chairs – many little scenes set for conversations outdoors at sunset, a drink in hand, a view of the sleepy street.

The shopping center is cold, clean, and gleaming. It has a vague cologne smell and an atmosphere of emptiness.

The sunflower peeks into the rear windshield of the SUV.

Sometimes, the people who understand me best are authors I've never met.

I stay out of the discussion because of the rampant infantilization. The participants generally want to scream their point of view without hearing a bit of disagreement. Disagreement makes them feel bad. In the course of their tantrums, they threaten people's jobs, reputations, and safety.

When I step out the back entrance of the building at night, a rat immediately scurries past my feet, brushing the tips with its body. It disappears into the shrubs and not through the open door, I think.

At the gym, a man listens to a comedy podcast while doing yoga. He keeps laughing and falling out of position.

Friday, December 28, 2018

The Daughters in Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens

Paul Dombey is wealthy, proud, and heartless. Well, not entirely heartless. He shows signs, even at the start, of being able to feel a bit of unease now and then at how he treats his daughter, Florence. Because she isn't a son who will one day go into business with him, he maintains a distant coldness towards her and suppresses the occasional twinge telling him that he's not as a father should be. At various points, he also feels hatred, jealousy, or outrage because of the love and loyalty she receives from people who should be giving their attention primarily to him.

Dysfunctional parenting is a major part of Dombey and Son, which I read for the Classics Club Challenge. Dickens makes a connection between cruelty and neglect in private homes and cruelty and neglect in public life. Mr. Dombey measures Florence's worth by what she can bring to his business; she doesn't seem worth much in monetary terms. Similarly, there's a scene where Florence, as a child, is kidnapped for a short while by an old woman who steals the nice clothes off her and gives her some rags to wear before setting her free. As she tries to make her way home, Florence is soundly ignored or sneered at because of these rags; in public, her worth is measured by how much (or how little) money she appears to have.

Two other daughters in the novel – Edith Granger and Alice Marwood – are additional examples of the harm that comes from viewing people and relationships in a purely transactional way. In their case, it's their moms selling them into marriage or prostituting them. Florence, at least, had the benefit of knowing that her mother loved her; perhaps this is one reason Dickens has her maintain her angelic character. Edith and Alice, in contrast, are full of rage and bitterness, and Dickens winds up pushing them out of the way by the end of the novel, giving them tidy endings in an overseas home or in death. Florence gets to stick around because she maintains purity and an inhumanly forgiving personality. No anger for her, unnaturally so. (Among the wronged daughters in this novel, the options are all-consuming rage combined with compromised sexual purity OR unblemished forgiving sorrow combined with sexual purity.)

In any case, Dickens has chosen women as the primary way of showing the dangers of treating people as objects in a transaction, with Florence worth nothing to her dad, and Edith and Alice worth only as much as they can bring to their moms through looks, charms, and/or pleasing accomplishments.

Edith, by the way, is Mr. Dombey's second wife, and one reason their marriage tanks so quickly is that Dombey uses a go-between to express his displeasure to her. This go-between is Mr. Carker, the right-hand man in Dombey's business. (This is another way Dombey is mixing business with personal relationships.) Carker is the most smiley villain I've seen in any book. At no point did I come close to forgetting that he smiles a lot, because Dickens refers endlessly to Carker's teeth. Well, not endlessly. Carker does come to a pretty grim end, and his teeth stop appearing in the novel.

What I like best about Dickens is his description of places (here's one example) and certain psychological states and social conditions. His characters, however, don't feel quite real, even if some of their thought processes are complex and real. His descriptions can be wonderfully inventive, but he also falls back on repeating dull phrases like "weary head" and "little hand." The book, which is roughly 950 pages, is over-sweetened and made false at various points by excessive sentimentality. It's also larded with repetition.

I still think it's worth reading because of its better parts and its themes, particularly how genuine love and closeness can't exist in a relationship that's based primarily on how useful someone is to you in the wider world.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Week in Seven Words #440

Strong winds course across the rooftop. The plants and wooden stakes shiver.

One of the ways they bond is by sneering about politicians they both hate.

Now that she has started using emotion words, she likes to declare what she feels. ("Angry! Angry.")

He'd be a good person to work with, because he just wants to do the job well without any fuss.

The baby finds the small bag of dried mango that one of her older brothers really likes. She bites into a piece with a growl of satisfied possession. Because he's the closest in age to her, she especially enjoys claiming his stuff.

It's family pool time. One girl is stretched out on a lounge chair reading after a swim. Her dad tosses around her younger brother. The kids weave around each other in the water.

The warm, gentle surprise, when love comes to me unexpectedly.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Week in Seven Words #439

The farther east we walk along the beach, the more Russian we hear. A few young women run up to us at one point and say something in Russian. On seeing our blank expression, they switch to English, and we understand that they'd like their photo taken in front of the ocean.

The lawn has a velvet sheen in the sunshine.

Facing the ocean are murals depicting its degradation.

Along the boardwalk, there's a lot that's cheap and bright: plastic colors, sweet and fried foods, silly sound effects from quick games and rides.

The rollercoaster looks like red scribbles on sky blue paper.

It's a pleasant crescent of beach with a patchwork of umbrellas. There are circles of shade from the umbrellas, planks of shade from trees, and shade that shifts like cloth cast by the leaves.

He pretends to know it all, but his act is unsteady. His lips turn down at the corners. His eyes widen and look away. To make up for the uncertainties coursing through him, he deepens his voice and tosses an insult.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Week in Seven Words #438

A tourist family clumps beside me on the subway. When they hear my reassurance that they're on the right train, and that we're all going to the same place – the Staten Island Ferry – they follow me like baby ducklings until they're safely on the boat.

He apologizes for talking too much, but there's no need. He's funny, clever, and down-to-earth. His brain is an old bookshop of anecdotes you'd actually want to listen to and historic trivia made more interesting by his theatrical retellings.

Two daycare workers push a large mini-van type of stroller with six babies, who stare at us in fascination, as if they're taking a tour of a zoo stocked with strange adults.

A silent, muddy path in the woods. Something is watching me from the undergrowth. A cat.

The dog hops onto the couch, where I'm working on some editing. She presses against me and sniffs at the small pile of pages balanced on my thigh. There's a chance that she'll try eating one of them. (She doesn't. Maybe the kind of ink I'm using isn't appetizing.)

There's a timeless quality to the park's headquarters. The main room is small and smells of sawdust. The lighting is cozy and dim. Maps are scattered across the table, and posters and diagrams that largely go unread make the walls colorful. I can see the room being preserved this exact way for decades.

The field is shaped like a bowl. It's screened by trees all around, and on one side it's bordered by a broad river.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Week in Seven Words #437

They're on the rooftop garden, sketching. Paths made of loose stones coil through the grass and overhanging plants. Blanket flowers burst from the greenness in pinwheels of red, orange, and yellow.

The art installation is a pile of boots, basically. It's a work of calculated indifference.

A young man on the subway recites his own poetry. It's clumsy, in parts, but earnest. He speaks it with sincere intent and force of thought.

To reach the porch of the pink house, you would walk on a path of uneven paving stones, past flowering bushes, under a trellis, and between two tables covered in a cloth patterned with sunflowers.

The children are arrayed before their parents to dutifully sing.

The neighborhood is a mix of quaint shops, charming cafes, industrial barrenness, churches, and patches of greenery.

When the weeds are cleared away from the container, what's left is a lone pepper.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Two Movies Where Women Face Contempt From Their Families

Title: English Vinglish (2012)
Director: Gauri Shinde
Language: English and Hindi, with some French too
Rating: Not rated

Shashi (Sridevi) is a quiet, unassuming married woman who runs a small business from her home selling laddoo, an Indian sweet treat often served on special occasions. Because she doesn't speak English or show much worldly sophistication, she's regularly treated with dismissiveness and contempt by her husband, Satish (Adil Hussain), and daughter, Sapna (Navika Kotia). A shift in her life comes when she flies to New York to help with a family wedding. Secretly, she enrolls in a crash course in English, attended by people from around the world, including Laurent (Mehdi Nebbou), a Frenchman who falls in love with her.

The movie is bright and polished. Much of its depth of emotion comes from Sridevi's performance. Her acting really carries the film and makes even the clich├ęs entertaining. The most moving scene is highlighted in the screen capture above: at the family wedding, Shashi stands and delivers a speech. During one part, she describes the beauty of a family – how a family isn't judgmental and will never make you feel small or mock your weaknesses, but will always give you love and respect. Many families (including her own) fall short of this, sometimes far short. Shashi describes her hopes of a haven free of contempt.

Title: The Heiress (1949)
Director: William Wyler
Language: English
Rating: Not rated

Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) is the only child of a widowed doctor, Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson), who often reminds her, in various small sighing ways, that she isn't nearly as beautiful, witty, charismatic, or accomplished as her late mother.

Though Catherine lacks a lot of the qualities that would make her a social success, she's still a kind and gentle person who's full of love. Unfortunately, the people closest to her place little if any value on her good nature.

Who does love her? Not her father - something she realizes more starkly as the film goes by. What about Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), a handsome young man she meets at a party? Morris seems charming and tender, and it isn't long before he and Catherine are making plans to get married. But her father disapproves, insisting that Morris is a mere fortune hunter who's pretending to love Catherine because of her inheritance.

The movie is a powerful look at how betrayal and lack of love can harden someone. Catherine's fine qualities wither under the contempt, ruthlessness, and dishonesty displayed by the people she loves most.

Olivia de Havilland has an expressive face and eyes. She's wonderful at playing the sweet-natured, naive, helpful, loving, loyal, kind, shy, and socially awkward woman... and later transforming into the compelling figure of the cold and terrible beauty. (If you feel optimistic, you can hope that one day she will find someone honest and loving, and will not shut out the world entirely. That maybe her capacities for love and trust have not been permanently destroyed.)

Monday, November 19, 2018

Week in Seven Words #436

"It's a little shortcut," the hike leader says. "I think it should be ok." This is our introduction to a narrow, unused cross-country skiing trail bordered by trees covered in poison ivy that we'll eventually have to hang on to in order to haul ourselves up a long muddy slope leading back to the main path.

The delicate flowers look like they were dabbed onto the greenery by Monet's paintbrush.

I confirm that no one is buried in Grant's Tomb.

She doesn't have big expectations for her volunteer work. Just a little more light, a little more hope, in her own small way picking away at apathy and callousness.

While figuring out how to work my way into a party where I don't know anybody, I buy time by pouring a fizzy drink into a large plastic cup and slowly peeling off my jacket.

She's made so much slime on this patch of wood floor that it's become completely slippery. Even weeks later, I skid on it, startled.

High Line Park has a picture book quality. You look out on a jumble of different architecture, colorful billboards, and murals. The route resembles, in turns, a railway track, a forest path, and a city sidewalk.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Week in Seven Words #435

They're a young couple, boyfriend and girlfriend, looking like they've stepped hand-in-hand out of an ad for chewing gum or smartphone accessories. They're also deep in conversation. As they pass us by, I overhear a part of it. They're discussing whether it's possible to stab someone to death with a pencil.

Most of the people in the group are men, and tough-looking men at that, but never mind the stereotypes, because they enjoy making the flower arrangements and giving each other (and the women) supportive comments over the creation of lovely little bouquets inserted into small silver-colored vases.

In the subway car, a young boy shimmies up one of the poles, shouts, "I'm a Tetris piece!" and slides down.

The room is dim, and incense burns by a small statue of Buddha. When asked if he's Buddhist, he replies that he isn't but was just trying to create a certain ambiance. A shoeless, quiet-voiced, spicy-smelling atmosphere of meditation.

Leaf patting leaf, and one branch rustling to another.

She thrusts her hand into the soil and jerks it out with a gasp. Her finger is bleeding. She's been cut through her glove. Her first worry is that she's gotten nicked by a piece of glass or, worse, a discarded needle, but it turns out to be a thorn.

Pretending that mind and body are disconnected is terrible for one's health. Referring to the body as a mere "sack of meat" – to be disregarded or modified in whatever way you imagine – is profoundly damaging.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Floating Pumpkins, the Battle of Fort Washington, and Autumn Foliage

Two recent NYC parks events worth noting –

One was on 10/28 and involved a flotilla of pumpkins tugged across the Harlem Meer in Central Park by two people in kayaks.


Here is the flotilla getting set up, around sunset.


A little earlier, I had walked around some other parts of Central Park, including the Reservoir:


This brilliant glow was in a clearing a little north of the Reservoir:


Without meaning to, I detoured to the northwest of the park, where The Pool is especially lovely in autumn:


And I crossed east again, to where the Harlem Meer is, through the North Woods:


Sunday, November 4, 2018

Week in Seven Words #434

It's a sleek open space where the light fixtures look like upside-down salad bowls. Three speakers eventually settle on stools facing the rows of seats. As the sky darkens, they discuss ways to make AI more ethical. From protecting data to detecting biases in programming, there's much to discuss, and there aren't simple answers.

In 15 minutes, I learn more about horned dinosaurs than I ever learned in my life.

In the lower level of the supermarket, smoke is pouring out of a freezer. A little later, as I wait on line, we're asked to evacuate. Everyone leaves their cart or basket behind, and it makes an eerie picture: piles of abandoned food, much of it perishable, trailing along an empty store.

During the storm, it looks as if a lightbulb is flickering between the clouds.

We don't order the oxtail soup. We just marvel at its price.

The gift she receives is a doll that says, "I love you," and chuckles like a trapped squirrel. Keeping at a distance, she motions for it to be placed back in its bag and out of sight. Later, we play with the silent pink bear she likes; I help her and the bear down the slide.

On the radio, Vivaldi's Four Seasons comes on played by Isaac Stern, Pinchas Zukerman, Shlomo Mintz, and Itzhak Perlman. It's a violin extravaganza.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Week in Seven Words #433

On hearing the announcement of her retirement, he isn't sure whether to clap. Would clapping come across as congratulatory, or would it reveal what he really thinks?

Dancers in costume have drawn people under the tents, in a pause for music, shared enjoyment, the sense of being part of a larger culture, and a reminder that they're not always locked into the pace of work and errands.

The window at the historic synagogue is a giant disc of shimmering blue.

A robin with a worm twitching in its beak waits to see what else we'll uncover when we pull out the next weed.

Leaves are layered, green and purple, in the lamplight. After a day of rain, the air is moist and cool.

A small, quiet square, a bench, and a flowering tree.

I have a poignant dream of her in which she's younger and in better health. I spot her across a city street at night. Soon after, we're on a train on a gray day, and she's heading for the house of one of her grandsons. She has an older address, one he's moved away from, but insists it's the one she wants to go to.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Two terrifying short stories

Both of these are from The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories.

Title: The Autopsy
Author: Michael Shea

Waiting behind him, Dr. Winters heard the river again - a cold balm, a whisper of freedom - and overlying this, the stutter and soft snarl of the generator behind the building, a gnawing, remorseless sound that somehow fed the obscure anguish that the other soothed.
This is one of the most chilling stories I've ever read.

The main character, Dr. Winters, is called on to act as a coroner for a small, rural town where a blast in a mine has resulted in multiple deaths. The explosion wasn't an accident.

The investigation is one of the last that Winters will participate in, because he is dying of cancer. The image of abnormal cells destroying healthy tissue and taking over the body hints at something else that Winters will experience before the story ends. (Winters, in a wry way, sometimes talks to his cancer, as if it's an entity with some degree of awareness.)

Among the chilling details are the visceral descriptions of an autopsy. Winters is sinking his hands into the aftermath of violent death. The language is elegant as it describes inelegant things. Winters' interactions with the bodies he examines also sets the stage for what he will experience by the time the story ends.

This story wouldn't have been worth reading if it was all about mindless gore. As awful and vivid as the physical details are, the atmosphere of psychological horror – the entrapment, helplessness, aloneness, and torture – is what lingers. Also, the story is excellent in how it uses the setting to enhance the horror: Winters, alone among the bodies in a small examination office ("... the generator's growl, and the silence of the dead, resurgent now").

It's also worth noting that the victims get a chance at the end to make a final spasm of effort to defeat the evil entity that has no pity for their poor flesh and for their minds and spirits.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Week in Seven Words #432

The art installation is a spider-like creature risen from a shallow pool, its skinny legs dimpling the water.

It's amazing to discover a rapport with someone who's different in many ways. We have a low-key, comfortable relationship.

With a roar, the boy charges at the pigeons. After they scatter, he wanders away looking confused, as if suffering from a loss of purpose.

In a hoarse voice, he talks about the 1960s, and at first I don't see the point in what he's saying and why it's relevant to the discussion. Then I get it, as he describes what he calls the fight for the nation's identity. He's tying it to his personal fight, to the risks he's taken to find his own identity – not a set of labels to fix to himself, but discoveries unearthed from a torn up landscape.

At the square, over a dozen people roller-skate in formation, past a guy with a "Jesus loves you!" placard fixed to his chest. Near him, another guy sits on the steps in small sweatpants, his pale ass spilling out. A group of Buddhist monks (or men dressed as monks) burn incense and press flyers onto people. The farmer's market is packing up to the sound of skateboards cracking against the pavement. Homeless people lie on their sides on benches, socks out, looking exhausted.

The three of us play Quicktionary and can barely speak sometimes because of how hard we're laughing.

The baby is delighted to look at my photo, but regards the real-life version with caution.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Week in Seven Words #431

She writes a song parody and sings it in a bored voice that's even funnier than the altered lyrics.

The WWII memorial looks impressive in the sunlight, but I wonder what it's like at night, somber and shadowed in the deserted plaza.

He's directed to a dull site on statistics for further explanations. I help him hack away at some of the paragraphs on box plots and IQR.

Beneath the tents in the parking lot, the volunteers bag yellow squashes and other vegetables of varying condition. Of the people lined up to receive an allotment of produce, many are elderly. One man pretends his collapsible shopping cart is a motorcycle.

About a dozen people are gathered by the arch to sing a protest song with clever rhymes. They look satisfied with their gesture of defiance, but I wonder if they could have spent their afternoon (and the time set aside for rehearsals) more usefully by taking concrete actions to further their cause.

On a rainy day, the subway station is a rank armpit. Puddles form around the metro card machines, which look like leaking nodules. Water sluices through cracks in the platform and meets a stagnant end in shallow depressions.

The bridge is the focal point, but around it have sprung lawns and paths, piers where ice cream is served and people play sports or lean over the water.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Week in Seven Words #430

An impromptu playdate for a couple of dogs. One of them shivers on his owner's lap. The other is a little rocket of a dog, testing the limits of his leash. They sniff at each other for several minutes.

I receive a book by mail from a friend. She calls me inimitable.

The problem with these political conversations isn't the agreement or disagreement. The problem is that conceding anything or introducing nuance is considered a personal defeat and a betrayal of "your side." The assumption underlying each conversation is that you're aren't going to achieve a greater understanding. It's that you're going to do everything to destroy the other person, and that includes relying on underhanded tactics such as misrepresentation. Don't listen closely or think too much, just attack.

Rocks are mounted up the sides of the reservoir, with ducks squashed into the crannies, their heads tucked into their backs. Pods of turtles blend in with the rock.

With peony robes and flickering fans, the girls rehearse a dance show at the foot of the hill.

Magnolia blossoms, before they open, look like mineral formations.

From the soil of the first draft, a second draft has emerged. It's thin and in some places sickly, but shows promise of fuller color and foliage.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Week in Seven Words #429

She can't figure out why she's having trouble sleeping. Nothing she tries helps her enjoy a night of unbroken sleep. "Is it the way everything's structured?" I wonder. "Is sleeplessness a built-in feature to the way we structure our lives?" She tells me that this is what an insomniac colleague said as well.

The paths along the stream have become brighter and clearer. Rock bridges and little peninsulas with viewing points have opened up, and yellow flowers grow in bunches by the water.

In the garden, a young, fair boy brandishes a daffodil and says, "Behold!"

I spot a red-winged blackbird. It has gold and red bars on its upper wings that remind me of epaulettes.

A man and his son gaze at a small pond in a quiet part of the woods in the park. The pond is barely ruffled by the stream that flows into it. "This is a mosquito breeding ground," the boy says. "That's what I was thinking!" his dad replies. They laugh a little.

He turns the question around on his teacher. "What's your purpose?" he asks. His teacher replies, "I'm still figuring it out."

The stress reduction tips promoted by his workplace amount to giving employees a plastic spoon and encouraging them to dig into a mountain.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Two Very Different Movies Full of Poignant, Painful Hope

Title: Awakenings (1990)
Director: Penny Marshall
Language: English
Rating: PG-13

Based on a memoir by Oliver Sacks (which is on my to-read list), Awakenings tells the story of a treatment administered in the late 1960s to a group of patients who had been stricken decades earlier by encephalitis lethargica. The disease left them in a catatonic state. They stopped moving and talking. They seemed to stare into space all day. They were written off by hospital staff as incurable.

And perhaps there is no permanent cure, but when Dr. Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams) gets appointed to the psychiatric ward where these patients have been shelved, he notices that they exhibit some responses. For example, catching a pair of glasses that have almost fallen to the floor. They may not be 'dead inside,' which is the received wisdom. It's horrifying to consider that they live with awareness while trapped in their unresponsive bodies.

Sayer experiments with administering L-dopa to these patients. (L-dopa started being used as a treatment for Parkinson's disease, and a possible similarity between Parkinson's and what these patients were suffering was the impetus for trying the treatment.) To people's astonishment, L-dopa has a positive effect, at first. The patients wake up.

A central theme explored in this movie (and captured in the title) is what it means to be awake, alive. One of the patients, Leonard Lowe (Robert De Niro), was struck down by encephalitis lethargica as a boy. His doting mother (played by Ruth Nelson) has stayed by his side throughout his catatonia. He awakens to find himself decades older. As with other patients, his reactions are a mix of wonder, joy, trepidation, sorrow, and frustration. Leonard has a deep thirst for life. There's a beautiful scene, set to "Time of the Season" sung by The Zombies, where he and Sayer leave the hospital and explore the outside world for a bit. Leonard is thrilled. Being alive and awake feels so fantastic, and at one point he says of other people:
"They've forgotten what it is to be alive! The joy of life, the gift of life, the freedom of life, the wonderment of life!"
He also becomes increasingly impatient at not being able to leave the hospital permanently to live on his own. He wants to be a man, an adult, after being long deprived of the opportunity. But he and the other patients need to remain under supervision until it's clear that the drug works. As it turns out, its effects are short-lived.

Sayer, meantime, is discovering a deeper meaning to life. He's a shy, reclusive man. Prior to working in the ward, he conducted experiments on earthworms. Humans seem to bewilder him. At first, he doesn't understand Leonard's thoughts on the joy of life, those beautiful words tossed through a window that's been briefly opened. A window that's sliding shut again in the final part of the film. Sayer's most meaningful human contact, possibly in all of his adult life, is with these people who are grasping at life before the window closes. Leonard becomes his friend, in a relationship that sometimes turns antagonistic. A nurse working on the ward, Eleanor Costello (Julie Kavner), might also become a friend or girlfriend, if given a chance. It's a chance Sayer decides to take, at the end.

This is my favorite Robin Williams role, of the movies of his that I've watched so far. Except for one moment where he comes across as Williams the Entertainer, he fully slips into Sayer's gentle, withdrawn character. De Niro also gives a whole-hearted performance, throwing himself into it physically and emotionally.

What I especially like about Awakenings is the refusal to give in to despair. I'm speaking not just of the characters but of the tone of the movie as a whole. What happened to these patients' lives is horrifying. The movie shows the consequences of missing decades and trying to discover who you now are, even as the treatment keeping you awakened may fail. But there are also scenes of dancing, including a lingering slow dance for Leonard and Paula (Penelope Ann Miller), a woman visiting her father at the hospital. There's delight in music and insight in poetry, as in the scene where a poem by Rilke, "The Panther," strikes Sayer as a window into the minds of his catatonic patients. And there's love and a need for companionship, long denied by Sayer, though by the end he realizes that he needs other people to truly live.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Week in Seven Words #428

He's attached by a balloon string to his job. At work, he's mostly off on his own, bobbing in one place with his phone, his eyes on the screen where his real life is unfolding.

His glazed-over eyes and faint "mm-hms." Another short, unsatisfying conversation.

Her voice doesn't have any inflection when she describes her day. Mostly, she talks about other people. Who said this and that and the other thing.

The cold stone basement dust smell of an old dim house.

They tell me I'm old for sending emails. It's almost entirely texts for them now, and half the texts lack text, they're a barrage of emojis. (And I feel old complaining about this, as if I'm shaking my fist from my imaginary front porch, where I sit with curmudgeonly dignity on a rocking chair and communicate with the wider world via telegraph.)

Two young boys get a pink kite going in the breeze. It looks like a floating piece of candy.

I'm not sure why I like gefilte fish. It's basically a brick of fish matter.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Week in Seven Words #427

Each shelf is furry with dust and stuffed with books and papers.

Enormous garbage bags bristling with papers. Some of the papers had seemed important once or were at least worth some attention, and now they're being chucked.

A peaceful meal with joyful songs. I cherish it.

I talk to someone who disagrees with me strongly on various political issues, but the conversation is courteous. No seething anger or oneupmanship. We learn from each other, and even though she hasn't convinced me to adopt her way of thinking, at least I have a better understanding of why she thinks the way she does.

Past midnight, there are sporadic bursts of activity on the streets. Various objects seem more alive, like the traffic lights changing color when no cars are around. There are pockets of people, some drunk or laughing as if they're drunk. There are solitary figures too, a few lost in thought, others striding with a purpose, dangerous or not.

At their dad's prompting, they stand up in front of the room to sing, their voices sweet, their demeanor self-conscious.

Three men, unrelated to each other and strangers until this evening, sit in a row at the table. All three are bald, white, young, thin, and wearing glasses.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Four Short Stories Where Underdogs Triumph

Title: The Cambist and Lord Iron
Author: Daniel Abraham
Where I Read It: Fantasy: The Best of the Year 2008

Olaf works as a cambist in an exchange office. He unfortunately attracts the attention of a dissipated, cruel nobleman, Lord Iron, who puts him in an untenable situation that will very likely cost him his life. Olaf succeeds in extricating himself, in this story of wits and courage triumphing over power and cruelty. (Olaf is a fan of adventure novels, but his own story is an even better adventure, and he's a better example of the traits he admires in fictional heroes.)

Title: Lolita
Author: Dorothy Parker
Where I Read It: Mothers & Daughters

A vivacious, petite, and charming woman, Mrs. Ewing, has a daughter named Lolita who appears to be everything her mother isn't. She's shy and quiet; you can fail to notice she's in a room. She's plain and doesn't clean up well. She can't do much around the house. Most people in town kind of pity Mrs. Ewing for having a daughter like that, even if they have nothing against Lolita. But when Lolita gets courted by a handsome, charming man, it becomes apparent that Mrs. Ewing needs her daughter. She needs to compete with her daughter and come out on top, looking more attractive and desirable. Life has less relish when Lolita isn't around to serve as her mother's foil.

This short story came out shortly before Nabokov's novel was released. Parker's Lolita gets a considerably happier ending.

Title: The Revolt of "Mother"
Author: Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Where I Read It: Great American Short Stories: From Hawthorne to Hemingway

Sarah Penn's husband promised her 40 years ago that she would one day have a real house, not the home that's been crumbling around the family for decades. It's a promise he has never fulfilled, instead providing nicer, newer quarters for the farm animals. At the start of the story he's determined to build another barn. When Sarah lays out her case plainly, he's unmoved. In a poignant moment she retreats to her room, emerges again after a while with red eyes, and resumes her work.

After appearing resigned, she winds up meeting his taciturn obstinacy and callousness with quiet resolve. If her husband is a wall, she finds a clever way around him that works out for everyone. There's a difference between being dutiful and being a doormat, and she knows her own mind and what's right. (Even when a clergyman comes over at once point to advise her against her unorthodox course of action, she remains resolved.) Freeman I suspect was giving Sarah the kind of satisfying outcome that she would have liked more women in the real world to enjoy, should they have been stuck with such a husband.

Title: Triumph of Justice
Author: Irwin Shaw
Where I Read It: Legal Fictions

Mike Pilato wants to receive some money owed to him. He never got the promise of this money in writing, but he doesn't think it should be too hard to go to court without a lawyer and defend his case. Typical court proceedings don't tend to favor people like Mike, who isn't polished and who pronounces Thursday as Stirday. But Mike manages to upend the order of the court for long enough to get a necessary confession. He uses methods that would lead to unjust outcomes in other situations, but here they make sense to him, because someone is brazenly lying. ('Justice' and 'respect for legal proceedings' aren't always the same...) The dialogue is key to the story's humor and keeps the text punchy.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Week in Seven Words #426

Beyond the whirring tools and the dentist's graceful hands, an episode of Blue Planet plays on a small screen. I have no idea what's going on, aside from seeing great quantities of fish, but the general blueness is relaxing.

Sometimes a brilliant moment is made of sunlight falling on the white planks of a house and on the spruce that has sprung up beside it.

The toddler stumble-walks with his finger out pointing.

Art can be an antidote to oversimplification, smooth and quick explanations, cowardice, and brutality.

She tries to entice me to watch the movie by showing me a YouTube clip, but all I see is syrup and little substance and actors who talk as if the dialogue is sticking to their teeth.

The dog gets so excited that her owner has come home that she launches herself at my stomach from several feet away.

A writing assignment of many words that makes me realize just how important it is to have the right roof over one's head.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Week in Seven Words #425

A 20-minute walk or a 20-minute subway ride takes me to neighborhoods far apart in architectural style and atmosphere. In one neighborhood, some of the homes look like they could feature in a fairy tale. They have charming irregularities, an uncommon interplay of shapes, bricks arranged into patterns that may be communicating something.

I never know where a laugh will come from. This time it's a pun delivered by someone calling from across the Atlantic.

He's preaching about oppression and civil rights to a crowded train. He isn't asking for money; all he wants is an audience for his rage.

When they're loud, the chickens sometimes sound like sea gulls. Otherwise, their vocalizations are quiet and peeved. (If I were anthropomorphizing them, I'd say it's because the sickish scent of compost fills the hen house, and the discarded vegetables and fruit don't meet their standards, not like last week's compost, which was richer in variety and quality.) My favorites are the buttery-colored Buff Orpington variety. (Mostly because I like the name 'Buff Orpington' - sounds like a character from a P.G. Wodehouse story.)

One eye-catching detail are the red flowers and plants cradled in windowsills. They include poinsettias, carnations, and roses.

A field of lavender licked by a cold wind.

Morning rush hour. "Stand clear of the closing doors," says the subway conductor. Then he shouts it. At the next stop and the one after that, his voice is pleading. The stop after that, he sings the words in an anxious lullaby melody, as if he's a parent whose baby is wide awake at 2 am.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Two Screen Adaptations About Orphan Girls Who Change the Lives of People Around Them for the Better

Title: Anne of Green Gables (1985)
Director: Kevin Sullivan
Language: English
Rating: G

This two-episode TV mini-series adaptation of the Lucy Maud Montgomery book is enjoyable for multiple reasons, including the stunning Canadian landscapes.

Shades of autumn, spring and summer greenery, the sparkling ocean - it's a feast of the four seasons, full of natural beauty.

The casting is good too. Both the roles of Anne Shirley and Diana Barry are played well (by Megan Follows and Schuyler Grant respectively). As for the adult characters, I love how Colleen Dewhurst and Richard Farnsworth play Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, the aging sister and brother who initially wanted to take on an orphan boy to help them with their farm, but instead had Anne arrive at the local train station. I like how Marilla's hardness is tempered by a sense of justice and a wellspring of kindness, buried deep, that Anne eventually brings out. And how Matthew is pretty soft on Anne right from the start.

One thing I found both amusing and disturbing is how Anne often expresses emotions in a lofty, stage-like fashion, almost as if she is detached from them or afraid to discuss them more bluntly. It makes sense for a character who has dealt with loneliness and neglect by play-acting and disappearing mentally from a harsh environment to more beautiful imaginary worlds.

Overall, it's an excellent mini-series: lovely, engaging, spirited, and fun to become absorbed in for a while.

Title: The Secret Garden (1993)
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Language: English
Rating: G

One of the most beautiful parts of the movie is a time-lapse sequence showing the arrival of spring, with flowers opening, plants pushing slowly out of the soil, and the land becoming green. The images have a rich, visceral quality that I love.

This adaptation of the Frances Hodgson Burnett book is full of such beauty. It's also a movie infused with hopefulness, where the dark neglected places in the land and in people still have potential for life, with enough nurturing.

I didn't find the adult characters compelling, and the movie is too rushed towards the end, but it's still delightful. The younger actors are excellent. Kate Maberly carries the movie as Mary Lennox. The child of wealthy but neglectful colonials in India, she becomes an orphan living in her reclusive uncle's estate in the Yorkshire moors and finds in herself a great capacity for self-sufficiency and love.

Dickon, the boy of the moors who can communicate with animals, is played well by Andrew Knott, and I enjoyed the peevish, wounded theatrics (and genuine pain) conveyed by Heydon Prowse as Colin. Also, Laura Crossley plays Martha, a housemaid and Dickon's sister, with a wonderful honesty and sweetness.

So much in this movie hinges on the sense of place. The large house with the echoing cries, drafty corridors, and abandoned rooms inspires fear and curiosity. And the garden has a character of its own, full of fairy-like enchantment and possibility.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Week in Seven Words #424

The rhythm of our conversations is two people kicking a ball around aimlessly.

Her shawl has rippling shades of blue, light and dark, as if a small ocean has settled around her shoulders.

He stares in bemusement at his useless homework that his inebriated teacher won't bother to read.

Along one avenue, each block seems to be copy and pasted, one to another. A succession of groceries, nail salons, pizzerias, and chain restaurants on repeat. (But there are some variations. A community bank, now and then. And sometimes the grocery store specializes in a certain cuisine.) Along another avenue, this one primarily residential, homes with their own small lawns give way to chains of homes with a flight of front steps and no lawn, followed by a block of project houses, then back to the homes with the front steps.

The park is all bare trees pawing at the sky, and leaves that have settled in rustling folds on the grass.

The dog pants ferociously during the game of fetch. She darts, gasping and growling, down the hallway as if the tennis ball is an escaped criminal she alone can bring to justice.

Three cats emerge from a salt marsh. First a pair, then a lone one with a black mustache and thick white fur. None of them have collars.

Week in Seven Words #423

What they hate the most about homelessness is its visibility.

This evening, I don't have the presence of mind to focus during a public reading, but I don't want to stay at home and leave an obligation unfulfilled. So the words flow past me, as if I were a dull rock in a stream.

Two young children playing. The older one says, "Be the baby." To which the younger one replies, "Not a baby. I growed up."

He acts as if he doesn't take things seriously. But from behind his jokey, sardonic front, a grave concern will sometimes emerge about the world and his place in it.

They haven't come to learn but to assert their own certainty.

I'm advised to temporarily avoid chocolate, tomatoes, and tomato-based products, basically half my diet. (Just kidding. A fifth of my diet, tops.)

Meeting a deadline, sending something off, the relaxation that follows, muscles unknitting.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Flirting With Heatstroke: Two Hikes on 90-Degree Days

Drinking a lot of water and using sun protection (hat, sunscreen, long light sleeves) made these hikes bearable. So did the fact that we stuck as much as possible to shade and enjoyed a leisurely lunch break among trees. Still, I'd never hiked in such weather, and I found the most difficult part was the air. It's more difficult to breathe and sometimes felt like inhaling cotton.

That said, I'm glad I went on these two hikes: one outside of NYC, and the other entirely in it. Both of them with Shorewalkers.

Ossining and New Croton Dam Loop

This hike, which was roughly 13 miles, started and ended at the Metro North station for Ossining, NY and included a visit to the New Croton Dam. Much of the hike was on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail.


Where we spotted deer at one point.


Saturday, September 1, 2018

Week in Seven Words #422

A woman at the gym whistles and sings (something like, "Ooh, baby, don't leave me") as she does bicep curls. Her biceps are extremely well-defined. Maybe singing to them helps.

A teenaged girl poses for a professional photographer. A woman who's her mother, lovely too though blurrier around the edges with age, watches sharply, as if she's using her eyes to chisel her daughter.

The toddlers stagger around blowing bubbles that they then try to catch with tiny hula hoops.

The latest game she's come up with is to have us pretend we're a variety of people auditioning for Hamilton. Seeing as I know few of the lyrics or melodies by heart, I'm the comic relief.

Heading down the block, I spot a man wearing a t-shirt that says "The Future Is Female," and a woman with a sweatshirt that says "Messy Hair Don't Care." Her hair is neatly pulled back.

Someone has brought a half-finished bottle of chocolate syrup to the food drive. Standing among the respectable canned foods and boxes of pasta and oatmeal, it looks sticky and disreputable.

They think she's incapable of understanding people, when the real issue is that she isn't motivated to, mostly because the people around her don't invite understanding. They prod at her mind and lament that she doesn't think and feel as they do.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Week in Seven Words #421

Most of the rooms are in shadow on a rainy day, but the kitchen remains bright and welcoming.

We try building a tall, convoluted slide for marbles, and we finish about a third of it before I leave. The instructions aren't straightforward, and similar pieces have been painted the same color. But I'm surprised to find myself enjoying the project.

When conducting Beethoven, he looks like he's listening to heavy metal. Head banging, gritted teeth.

A catastrophic argument is looming like an iceberg on the horizon of our evening. We avoid it by a hand span, and watch it from the corner of our eyes as it looms up beside us before falling away into the night.

A man sits quietly by the bandshell caressing his guitar.

On the train during rush hour, people dive into pockets of solitude. They fix their eyes on the kneecaps of the person sitting opposite. They play repetitive games on their phone or hunch behind a newspaper. A young woman with a soft face and thin hair stares out the window and croons to the music from her headphones.

His bottle is tucked into a brown paper bag. As the bus rolls on past big-box stores and ranch-style homes, he sips from the bottle and talks about his court date tomorrow for a drinking-related offense.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Week in Seven Words #420

One of the boys loses control of his skateboard, which rockets into a woman's chair.

Is what they're saying true? They don't care if it isn't. What matters is that equally ignorant people agree with them.

There's no telling when he'll arrive. Over a stretch of 40 minutes, he repeatedly claims to be 10 minutes away. Meantime, I read on a bench outside the cafe he chose. I get up, stretch my legs, look around the corner. The cafe has decent potatoes and strange chickpea fries. Our conversation, when he arrives, is propped up by friendly, distant remarks. He buys a heap of desserts. I feel at peace, knowing that I have no plans to meet with him again.

The pizza parlor is a little red cube with a window and a crowded counter at lunchtime. There's enough space for three stamp-sized tables. I wait at one while eating a slice of excellent margarita pizza, as my phone flickers with text messages about subway delays.

Two young girls on scooters, pursued by the fretful whine of their mother's voice.

A cloud of glossy rectangles spangled with lights and colors: the children's section of the bookstore.

When his voice spikes, he covers his mouth with trembling hands. He had been striving for an impression of generous ease and calm. Now he looks child-like, afraid to be punished for displaying strong emotion.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Two Short Stories Involving Girls Suppressing a Memory of Betrayal

Title: The Girl Who Loved Graveyards
Author: P.D. James (Phyllis Dorothy James)
Where I Read It: Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales

It was to be another warm day, and over the serried rows of headstones lay a thin haze pierced by the occasional obelisk and by the wing tips of marble angels whose disembodied heads seemed to be floating on particles of shimmering light. And as she watched, motionless in an absorbed enchantment, the mist began to rise and the whole cemetery was revealed to her, a miracle of stone and marble, bright grass and summer-laden trees, flower-bedecked graves and intersecting paths as far as the eye could see.
This is a quiet, brutal story. It ends with the main character going on a journey to uncover her past, only to find a great gaping nothing. What awaits her is the recognition of a guilt and loss that have already hollowed out her life.

The story begins when she moves in with her aunt and uncle around her 10th birthday. She has been told that her father and grandmother both died of the flu. Until she becomes an adult, her main pleasure in life is to take refuge in a local graveyard. She feels most at home among the dead.

Her aunt and uncle aren't affectionate, and she doesn't have friends. The one relic from her life before her aunt and uncle's house is a cat, and she doesn't even like it. Although she has stifled her memories of her earlier childhood, the events she doesn't remember have left their stamp on her and her relationship with everyone and everything around her.
Those first ten years were a void, unsubstantial as a dream that had faded but that had left on her mind a scar of unarticulated childish anxiety and fear.
The part of the story when she rediscovers these events is horrifying. Memories spring to life, bringing clarity but no hope.
It seemed to her that she had passed through a barrier of fear as a tortured victim might pass through a pain barrier into a kind of peace.

Title: Lavender Lady
Author: Barbara Callahan
Where I Read It: Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives

A folk singer has written a song about a nanny who watched over her as a child. The song speaks of love, devotion, and sudden loss. But when she sings it, she becomes overwhelmed with sadness and fatigue, as if the song demands an extraordinary amount of energy to complete.

The story is a good example of the mind's denials betrayed by the body's truth. The singer doesn't want to examine the beautiful lies she's spun around her former nanny. Her conscious mind can't accept the truth. Her body, however, betrays the presence of a dark memory.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Week in Seven Words #419

Sleeplessness chases me throughout the week, catching and dragging at each day and leaving the nights unsettled.

She's shuffle-dancing with sparkling sneakers on a dark street.

The book club meets in a mildewy room that's washed of color by fluorescent lights.

A large, shimmering, melting moon glimpsed in the early morning at the end of the street, over the slate gray river.

When he suffers anxiety over a trivial issue, he needs to remind himself to consider the true source of his fears. It isn't the triviality. That's only a mask for the larger, deeper thing that gnaws at him.

Her story is a dead horse flogged with angst. Tens of thousands of words of angst: fire, deaths, abuse, amnesia, comas. She's dragging her characters by the heels through hot coals across a continent.

Each time she plucks a string on her guitar, there's a sensation of a raindrop landing in my mind.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Week in Seven Words #418

An aquarium has been installed at the ferry terminal, and its fish, which are frontosa, wear the most melancholy expression.

During the walk, I find many stories on the ground. Next to a pothole in a parking lot are a pair of sparkling sneakers and a small backpack. By the curb several blocks away, there's a guest book from a first birthday party, fallen from a purse or bag or out of a car. On another street, an upright piano lies on its back with a can of beer cradled against its chest.

One of the dentist's instruments sounds like R2-D2, so even though I'm getting a cavity filled, I'm trying hard not to laugh.

The elevated sidewalk, narrow as a wick, bears us down a block of 19th and early 20th century houses with conical towers, decorative trim, wraparound porches, and other features that delight the eye and tickle the imagination.

A quiet beach, the sea in gentle argument with the sand. A gull is seated on the water, as on a blanket of blue tourmaline.

A broad blue cloth of sky and water with an uneven row of buildings stitched to the horizon.

She's lean, spare, and self-contained, sufficient unto herself.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Week in Seven Words #417

His comments continue to twang like out-of-tune piano keys.

She comes across a stranger's dog tied to a bike rack by the convenience store, and she instructs it to sit. When it merely stares at her, she raises her voice, to no effect. This is how the owner finds her, chiding his dog for disobedience.

His teacher copies materials from Quizlet and a couple of other online sources for the class assignments. His students know where to look and what answers to supply. What he's taught them isn't history or English literature, but the basics of Googling.

Whenever we meet, we rehash the same two or three topics. There's a comfort in that, the way playing a familiar song might put you at ease for a short while.

Shrugging apathy away like a rank old sweater that's been clinging to my shoulders.

It's unclear if her concern is genuine. Her face can flicker with lively expressions and just as soon go blank.

The chandelier in the lobby looks like a gleaming, elegant squid monster, a high-end Cthulhu presiding over the obsequious concierge staff.

Friday, July 27, 2018

The Upheavals of Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South

North and South is full of upheaval. The main character, Margaret Hale, is the teenaged daughter of a vicar who decides he can’t be a vicar anymore and leaves the church. The family moves from a lovely, sleepy village in the south of England to a polluted industrial town in the north, where Mr. Hale starts working as a tutor, meaning that he and his family slide down in social rank. In the coming months, Margaret struggles to understand a new culture, suffers the deaths of people close to her, and meets John Thornton, a young industrialist who initially inspires distaste. By the time he stops being so distasteful, there are enough misunderstandings and intervening events to keep them apart for a while.

The novel’s upheavals also come from the cotton mills of England’s Industrial Revolution. Margaret is horrified to witness workers living in grinding poverty and dying from the cotton fluff they’ve inhaled. Hunger, rage, strikes, fluctuations in trade, wild speculations, and shifting, uncertain social positions are all a part of this northern town the Hales now live in.

Along with portraying some of these societal changes, the author, Elizabeth Gaskell, explores the personal changes as well. What does it mean to live well and be a good person within this brutal system? Mr. Thornton, for instance, seems to have two sides to him: the cold and calculating manufacturer, and the man who brings fruit to Margaret’s ill mother. By the end of the novel, he has taken some initial steps to forging a relationship with his workers that’s more cooperative and less antagonistic. The book isn’t sentimental about these changes – it’s not like they all become the best of friends and eliminate poverty and disease from the town. But the adjustments in perception and attitude are there, in part because of Margaret’s influence (some of his words later in the book echo hers from earlier on), and possibly because Thornton has been taking lessons from the gentle Mr. Hale. Also, because Thornton has the potential to change in these ways. He’s disposed to it, susceptible to these influences by virtue of his own character.

The nature of change, the influences that work on people’s character, aren’t always straightforward in this book. Margaret tries to do good and be dutiful, not always with success or consistency (which I like, because it’s more realistic than if she were a spotless angel free of all biases or lapses). At the start of the novel, both she and Thornton are, in their own ways, quite sure of themselves. Their presence in each other’s lives and the upheavals they go through work certain influences on them.

Thornton becomes more inclined to flexibility and compromise. He handles a devastating failure with great dignity (not that he’s free of turmoil, or frustration and dejection). He’s also utterly overcome with love, struck and possessed by love to an overwhelming extent. For much of the book, he has no hope that this love will give him happiness, only that by experiencing it he will become enriched.

Margaret has been a pillar to her family from the start. What primarily changes is her understanding of herself and her relation to others. Change for her doesn’t form a smooth path with clear epiphanies. She struggles. She sorts out her thoughts in solitude, something that isn’t easy for her to do, as she generally puts her family’s feelings before her own. The book shows her embracing hours of reflection and grief as a necessary way to order her thoughts and find peace (not necessarily happiness, just peace). Passivity and despondency become quiet resolve, with time, with effort. So much of that essential effort is unobserved by the world. Failure would mean an attempt to go back in time to previous conditions that are no longer recoverable. There is no going back. Those who try will stagnate; they might die.

Gaskell starkly portrays the psychological effects of change: hopelessness, loneliness, aimlessness, displacement, and fear, along with the possible delights of discovery and curiosity and receptivity to love. One of the reasons I enjoyed this novel is the way Gaskell lets each upheaval truly be an upheaval. It’s not that the characters are entirely helpless. But they are tossed around a lot. They form promising plans, only to find themselves suddenly short on time or opportunity to implement them. They may not know who to turn to for guidance (Margaret is often so alone in this respect). Sometimes they make momentous choices in a rush, under pressure; in a matter of seconds, they change the course of their lives, and may find plenty of time afterwards to regret and repent. Wisdom develops after the circumstances in which it was sorely needed, and there may be only a small chance of applying it in the future to similar situations.

I keep thinking about Margaret’s hours of solitude, when the soul is wrestling with life and with itself, and the outcome is uncertain. I like how the characters aren’t allowed to become complacent. Even the final lines, playful and loving as they are, point to a challenge Margaret and John will soon face: uncomprehending or disapproving relatives. The ‘happily ever after’ isn’t a promise of an untroubled life; it’s a life where they have a strong chance of facing the upheavals together, with mutual love and support.

I read this for the Classics Club Challenge.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Week in Seven Words #416

Speak hastily, regret deeply.

Her goals are made of sand. She shapes the beginnings of a castle, and a gentle wave sloshes over it and smoothes it down until it looks like a decayed tooth. She doesn't attempt to rebuild it.

They ask me to sit with them and watch the first several minutes of a reality TV show I last saw years ago. Nothing about it has changed. It's as if the participants are all scooped out of some tub of homogeneous 20-somethings.

As a cleanup crew feeds branches into a woodchipper, a young boy watches avidly. I wonder what fresh impressions are forming in his mind, in the mind of anyone really who has never watched Fargo.

The truck, with its rear tire stuck, growls against the curb and coughs up exhaust.

She applies her forehead and cheeks, as much as her mouth, to a gigantic chocolate bar. Smeared in chocolate, she smiles for the camera.

Cotton swabs of fog over the river.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Week in Seven Words #415

She's developed the habit of slipping behind her phone and not looking up. There's always something new to see, an infinite scroll.

From the other room, we hear the eruptions of a horror movie: wild squealing growls and a rumble of strings and drums.

She tells me that one of my cheeks is puffier than the other. I give her what must be a blank or bewildered look, so she repeats herself and peers at me with a semblance of concern. She's so convincing that I actually check in the mirror, but I see nothing out of the ordinary.

We hold a practice interview that fails to simulate the conditions of a real-life interview, unless the real-life interview will be filled with laughter and digressions about books and vacation ideas.

The drink they order is a giant goblet of neon blue liquid.

He displays a flat affect at work. Nothing moves him. He's there for the paycheck. But get him talking about Gary Cooper, and his eyes sparkle. His mouth trembles into a smile.

People conspiring to make each other more blockheaded.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Week in Seven Words #414

The clouds look like archaeological findings: pottery shards and splintered spears.

Enticed by the display of fat, creamy desserts, most of them crowd into the bakery. There's no room inside for them to eat, so they savor their glistening cakes and donuts by the curb. At a convenience store on the same block, I buy an adequate granola bar.

There's so much in her life that's out of control and wildly unfair, so she finds little ways to try to reclaim power. These efforts can make her appear fussy or ungenerous.

I take a photo of a couple of Minions characters posed on a front lawn, and I send it to him so that he can show it to his son. He replies to my text, and we begin a soul-baring conversation, the kind I wouldn't have expected to start with a Minions photo.

The atrium is our way station on a windy evening. We're surrounded by men mostly; they're reading newspapers or resting their eyes. When we set our salads on one of the metal tables, it shivers, as if unaccustomed to any weight.

One homeowner has set up speakers on his lawn to play a jazzy version of Schubert's Ave Maria, something a fallen angel would listen to at a blues club over a Bloody Mary.

The train has gone above ground. In the faint, peach-colored light of early evening, it skims past rows of old houses. A languid peace has settled over me in the nearly empty car. I could watch the rooftops slide by for an hour without feeling impatient.

Monday, July 2, 2018

New York City Sites for the Fourth of July (All Five Boroughs)

If you're visiting New York City around the Fourth of July (or want to go armchair traveling), and you're interested in American history, this is the post for you. These sites are either connected to the American Revolution or show something of NYC's colonial period.

This list is limited to sites I have visited (so you won't see a photo from the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene, for instance). For each site, I also mention other neighborhood attractions. Enjoy!

The Bronx

Stockbridge Indian Memorial (Van Cortlandt Park)


You'll find this memorial in the northeast part of Van Cortlandt Park. It's a tribute to a group of Native Americans, allied with the colonists, who died in August 1778 in a clash with an overwhelmingly larger number of British and Hessian troops. (Here's an article that goes into greater depth about the Stockbridge-Mohican community.)

In the neighborhood: Van Cortlandt Park is massive (one of the city's largest parks) and has golf courses, sports fields, and miles of hiking trails. The Van Cortlandt House Museum on the west side of the park dates from the 18th century, and during the Revolutionary War, both Washington and General William Howe, the commander of the British troops, made use of it. If you're in the area, you can also visit Woodlawn Cemetery, where a variety of historic figures are buried. The cemetery is close to the east side of the park.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Week in Seven Words #413

At first, his mood expands to generosity. Then it contracts to a tight anger that makes the air difficult to breathe. The anger doesn't last long. It gradually lightens into an occasional snide remark, delivered with a smile.

The dance of candlelight in a dark room.

Images from Blue Planet play out in front of me while the dentist scrapes away at my teeth.

He clutches a handkerchief to his mouth and looks around furtively, after coughing in a way that brings to mind the expression 'patient zero.'

During foosball, we both adopt the 'random spasm' strategy, meaning that we don't know who will hit the ball or when or where, but sometimes a goal happens anyway.

I slip back into a bad habit, but it doesn't last as long this time. I can step out of its clutches more quickly.

He's a happy, loved little boy. Helped along in his walking, he looks around to see who's watching him carry out this amazing feat.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Week in Seven Words #412

This time, the game we play is one where I try to tickle her belly, and she tries to block me. When she grows bored with it, she stands under the dining table for a while, her hand on her mom's knee.

Her younger siblings agree that she should distribute the chocolates. She slices open the box and displays the possibilities. She reads the chocolatey description of each truffle and its contents. As they crowd around, she cuts the truffles into halves and thirds for sampling.

The candles melt into a pond of rose, purple, and sea green.

Good books reinvigorate the conversation you have with yourself and the world.

She's abandoning her social media accounts, one by one, to unclutter her mind and free her time.

The soprano warms up her voice in the ringing acoustics of a church.

It's a grubby work of art. It shows a meanness of character, a cynicism that denies beauty.

The Fits: Control and Loss of Control in Coming of Age

Title: The Fits (2015)
Director: Anna Rose Holmer
Language: English
Rating: Not Rated

While watching this movie, it occurred to me that I could have tuned out after 20 minutes if the lighting, the tone set by the music, or some other subtle element had been different. But the energy in The Fits, and the way all the elements came together, kept me engrossed in it. I found the movie compelling and thoughtful.

There's minimal dialogue, and a sense that there's so much more that needs to be said, but instead of being spoken, it's expressed in movement. The movie is filled with energy, much of it exploding out of the main character, Toni (Royalty Hightower), as she negotiates some of her first steps into puberty.

Set largely in an inner city community center, the movie focuses on two main activities. One is boxing, which is the boys' activity, though Toni starts off the movie training in it with guidance from her older brother. The other activity is dance, which is the girls' activity. Toni increasingly becomes drawn to the dance group, hovering at their perimeter, making some friends, but remaining uneasy about her place in it and what it means for her commitment to boxing.

The 'fits' refers to a kind of seizure that sweeps through the girls, affecting only them. It's never clear what it is exactly. In the movie, it's real enough (and very eerie), and it may represent something about the female body changing in adolescence, a kind of rite of passage. Toni witnesses the girls experience it, one by one, while not feeling anything like it herself. At least not at first.

The movie sets up various contrasts. Boys and girls, the vigor of boxing and the vigor of dance (the dancing is full of precision and power and includes punching movements, making it not too alien from Toni's experience of boxing). There are contrasts between the individual and the group, and tensions between simple conformity and a real sense of belonging. Are you doing something because it's expected or because you've found it's truly what you need or want to do? There are social pressures to fit in and find the place where one belongs, while struggling with doubt and feelings of displacement.

Toni also struggles to balance control over her body with the things she can't control. Mastering dance or boxing is an expression of power and individual commitment and skill. But the discomforts of growing up and changing, the loss of control that's part of experiencing the fits, these are overwhelming. They're frightening in how they can't be stopped.

The movements are the language in this movie. Toni and other characters make declarations with their movements and claim power for themselves through movement, even when confronted with the inexplicable and overwhelming fits, which seize control of their bodies and can't be resisted.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Week in Seven Words #411

Before the clouds release their cold drizzle, he sits on the lip of an inactive fountain and sings "Stand By Me."

Some of the leaves are wrinkly stars. Others are broad hands and tear drops. They're everywhere; above, below.

They make fun of the way she talks, so I stand up for her.

A grizzled man dances on roller skates by himself, the music from his radio subdued.

The leaves spatter the surface of the lake like gobs of paint. The trees lean over the water to examine the painting in progress.

The water tower crouches at the edge of the building like a great mechanical spider about to pounce.

At the post office, a long, shuffling line. Everyone has the complexion of cheese under the sickly lights.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Week in Seven Words #410

On a walk down the dark path, I hear the rat traps popping by the side of the building.

Leaves are spiraling down, swirling around my head, and a bright moon is peeking past the edge of a skyscraper.

One chocolate chip cookie helps him through math. The second cookie remains uneaten, and he has poked his pencil through it in frustration.

I don't know what else is going on in their lives or if they'll even be back next week, but I appreciate that they're here now - a group of men and women playing folk music in the waning light.

I like how she and I slip into easy conversation as if we haven't not spoken for several years.

Now and then, I dose myself with an episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a show that's funny and undemanding.

The assignment moves towards completion, one paragraph after another. The paragraphs sometimes shift position for greater flow and cohesion. It's a slow but inexorable process.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Kingsland Wildflowers: A Little Greenpoint Surprise

Last Sunday, I visited the Greenpoint neighborhood in Brooklyn for the first time. They had an Open Studios event where local artists allowed visitors to stop by and look at their ongoing work.

I found myself less interested in the art than in just walking around the neighborhood.

One highlight was Kingsland Wildflowers, a small, scrappy oasis in a heavily industrial section of Greenpoint.

On Open Studios day, people were out on their fourth floor terrace and the rooftop garden sketching.



Some were strolling.


The metallic domes in the background are from the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. The neighborhood is also home to multiple scrap metal yards. Kingsland Wildflowers fits in to this theme of renewal, reuse, and reclamation.


Friday, June 8, 2018

Week in Seven Words #409

The spread of food on the table is her work, what she delivers to the evening. Glistening food, soft, stewy, juicy food, heaps and hills on every platter.

She doesn't see her birthday as a cause for celebration. She shows me a text on a cracked smartphone screen. It's from her mom, and it conveys disappointment and limp well-wishes.

A couple of the older kids find the infant activity center fascinating. One of them sits on the floor for a while and spins the transparent sphere that's full of colorful, pebble-like bits of plastic. He doesn't remember, but when he was a baby, he loved doing the same thing.

An assignment I've taken on becomes much larger and more complex than I had expected. It's anxiety-inducing. But I feel something in me rise up to claim control of the sprawling text and the web of citations.

When I tell him about my problem, his reaction is a relief. He doesn't become violently agitated, dismissive, or contemptuous. He doesn't act as if I've gutted him or as if I need to be pitied. He just listens. He accepts what I'm saying and acknowledges that it's a problem. Although there's no apparent solution, not at present, I feel less alone. It's amazing how powerful it can be when someone sincerely hears you out.

It's a hydra monster kind of argument. For every spiteful remark or bad idea I chop off, two more spring up.

It's time for him to take care of his reptiles. He sprays them with water, makes sure they're fed. It doesn't matter to him that they're made of plastic or rubber. (In a whisper, an older child asks me, "He does know they're fake, right?")

Monday, June 4, 2018

Four Very Different Short Stories Focusing on a Female Character

Title: Comforter of the Afflicted
Author: F.H. Batacan (Maria Felisa H. Batacan)
Where I Read It: Manila Noir

This story is set in Manila and centers on the investigation into the murder of Olivia Delgado ("Libby"), who was helping abused women escape from their violent partners. Although she is dead, Delgado remains a living presence, solitary and tenacious. She had channeled her anger into a lifelong struggle within a system where abusers usually have significant advantages, not least because victims are often conditioned (both by the abuse and by wider social mores) to bear the abuse without complaint.

The story becomes an unsentimental tribute to her and her life spent putting up a mighty fight, starting when she was young and attempting to protect her mother from her father. Delgado died fighting also. In spite of how it all ends, the struggle was worth it.

Title: Edie: A Life
Author: Harriet Doerr
Where I Read It: American Voices

A story about a nanny, and it isn't twee or in the least romantic. The writing has a wryness steeped in melancholy. The nanny works for a family where the father was only really in love with his first wife, who died. His subsequent wives aren't suitable. It's not that they're "evil stepmothers;" they just don't really fit into the household.

The nanny, meanwhile, can't serve as a replacement mother. However, she gives some kind of stability to the children and space on her wall for their eerie pictures. What happens when the children grow up? Is she forgotten, having never been a part of the family in a way they recognize? She has worked at the heart of the family but remains at its margins.

Title: Ruminations in an Alien Tongue
Author: Vandana Singh
Where I Read It: Other Worlds Than These

"To understand the aliens I became a mathematician and a musician. After that, those three things are one thing in my mind: the aliens, the mathematics, the music."
I found this story enthralling. It's lovely to see a story that combines math, music, and language, instead of rigidly dividing up the disciplines. The main character, Birha, is a professor on another world who has unlocked an alien outpost and studied the alien tongue (acoustical scripts and poeticas, a kind of instrument). There's also an alien artifact that changes the probabilities of events.

The story comes in waves and spirals. There are meditations on love and self and time. I think of this story as a journey that I went through wide-eyed and bewildered.
"I am myself and yet not so. I contain multitudes and am a part of something larger; I am a cell the size of a planet, swimming in the void of the night."

Title: Tits-Up in a Ditch
Author: Annie Proulx
Where I Read It: Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3

Raised by her grandparents, a girl grows up unloved and unvalued in Wyoming ranch country, in a story that deftly renders an entire society, the way it's changing, and everyone's status in it. Proulx shows the girl's life unfold from childhood to an early marriage and a stint in the military during the 2003 Iraq War.

I like when an author shows the ways an individual life is enmeshed in a particular culture and shaped by family dynamics. There's a degree of inevitability in this story's depressing ending. Not that people are utterly powerless or are merely a passive product of their environment. I've seen a tendency, however, to greatly underestimate the effects of upbringing and culture on the choices people make and the possibilities in their lives. The imagery of cattle in this story is tied to how the main character is pushed along certain paths.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Week in Seven Words #408

Their yard sale is set up on a street corner, and it looks like they've unloaded a pirate ship. There are chests of different sizes, exotic rugs, a sword, grimacing sculptures that look like idols swiped from a jungle altar. (The sword is fake, as it turns out.)

There's little space in the sculpture shop, and I'm afraid to move. The sculptures are thin and fragile, with wavy contours and ornaments made to snap off at the errant touch of a shoulder.

He sets the toddler loose, and she aims unerringly for the puddle. He picks her up just as the tips of her feet touch the edge and sets her down several feet away. Immediately she swerves and heads for the puddle again.

The low seat by the window on the second floor of the bookstore: a place for people to pause and take stock of their day (or life), or burrow into a book for a while. Today a nanny is there, leaning her forehead against the window while the baby lies across her lap, asleep.

During Trivial Pursuit, he keeps hoping I'll trip up on Sports & Leisure. After several questions about athletes I'd never heard of competing at sports I rarely watch, I get a question about a mixed drink I enjoyed the week before. That's more like it.

Halfway through reviewing the text, I realize that I've been reading 'garish' as 'garnish.' That makes a difference. Also, I'm probably hungry.

A rare moment when we're alone, and I discover that without the constraints of other people, we're able to speak freely and find common interests we didn't know we shared.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Week in Seven Words #407

I'm sometimes surprised at how much fear and anxiety people carry around with them, even people who seem to "have it together." It's relatively rare to meet someone who isn't trembling at the edges or clamping down on an emotion that could sweep away their equilibrium. (I'll add that I'm not making these observations from a remote distance, untouched.)

He's wearing a jacket with the name of a far-right conspiracy website printed on the back. He's plugged into the truth now, is what he thinks.

A town hall, the officials sounding quietly sympathetic, and the constituents sounding completely unconvinced that anyone competent is in charge.

All the restaurants look alike, with the same yogurt parfaits in mini-fridges, pizzas dribbling on waxed paper, and hamburgers the size of a fist.

Talking to them becomes less complicated when I realize they're not interested in a discussion. They want to figure out if I'm on the right side (their side) of a given issue. If I express a doubt or point out an inaccuracy, it means I'm not on their side. Even if I mostly agree with them, they expect me to share all of their sentiments and use their preferred language. I can't do that, but at least I now understand why I'm being set up as their opponent.

Making slime has become a fad among kids. She shows me hypnotic videos of people squeezing, stretching, and poking the viscous substance. Some turn the slime into artistic works of multiple colors and elaborate designs. Most enjoy the gummy, squelchy noises it makes.

It's a soggy evening, like a paper towel that's been soaked in cold water.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Some thoughts on Home by Toni Morrison

In this Toni Morrison novel, two siblings leave their backwoods Georgia home, get even more scarred out in the world, and come back to find that home is a more complicated place than they’d ever thought. Not as stifling as in their childhood, and offering possibilities for rebuilding their lives.

The novel is set in the 1950s, and one of the siblings, Frank, has returned to the U.S. from the Korean War. He brings with him post-traumatic stress and memories that make it difficult for him to live with himself. He’s also black, and needs to transition from a recently desegregated army back to a society where segregation is still the norm, through official enforcement in some places and unofficial enforcement in others.

Meanwhile, his younger sister, Cee (nickname for Ycidra), flees her hateful grandmother by running off to Atlanta with a man who dumps her. Her search for better paying work brings her to the home of an unscrupulous doctor who hires her as his assistant and conducts unethical medical experiments on her and others.

It’s relatively rare to see novels featuring Korean War vets (and black vets, more generally). During the war, Frank has seen and done things that he can’t come back from. (“Back was the free-floating rage, the self-loathing disguised as somebody else’s fault.”) He has discovered things about himself that he would never have guessed at and that he doesn’t know how to confront.

The novel explores the question of what a home truly is. The characters lead precarious lives, and they could be driven out of their homes all too easily. So how does someone create a home when violence, destruction, illness, and complete destitution are nipping at the borders and can spill in at any moment?

Home is not simply a place, it’s a set of relationships and connections, and deep impressions on the mind and heart. The characters have perpetrated or witnessed profound violations in the world. Home is a place where you’re not degraded and where you ought to be free of those violations. At home, you can confront the demons and have people stand beside you.

Cee gains new strength with the help of women who stand in for the lack of a mother figure in her life. Chief among them is Ethel Fordham, who tells her, “Somewhere inside you is that free person I’m talking about. Locate her and let her do some good in the world.”

So home is where you can heal, among people who find worth in you, and it’s where you can do worthy things, even in the face of harsh odds. Of Ethel’s garden:
Her garden was not Eden; it was so much more than that. For her the whole predatory world threatened her garden, competing with its nourishment, its beauty, its benefits, and its demands. And she loved it.
Morrison doesn’t sentimentalize home or make the folks of this backwoods town charming and endearingly simple. Other authors might have gone down that path and trivialized the story and the struggle of these scarred characters.