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.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Week in Seven Words #406

She dresses up as a flower and fits her small, black dog into a bumblebee costume. Then she holds him in her arms for most of the evening.

On my way to a meeting, I walk by a display window and see a T.V. with a news chyron displaying a report of shots fired downtown. I keep walking, wondering but not wanting to know, not yet.

His own little rebellion against having to do grammar exercises is to try to include the word 'frappé' in each sentence he writes.

These are cold streets full of rectangles of steel and glossy items on display in rows of windows. It's like walking through a catalogue.

He has lost the thread of his lecture. Forty-five minutes in, he's still giving us the introduction. Meanwhile, the audience has started taking over. They don't just ask questions; they begin to share personal anecdotes that aren't always relevant. The lecturer limits himself to echoing their thoughts.

Basketball players in a congratulatory bundle fill the train car with laughter.

The park is awash in a deep pink sunset, the color of cheap candy or cough medicine. A rat climbs a soldiers' monument where usually only people and pigeons roost.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Week in Seven Words #405

It's a gentle room. Blonde wood floors, small folding chairs, purple, pink, and light blue yoga mats rolled up in the corner. A diaphanous, dark curtain has been drawn across the floor-to-ceiling mirrors.

For his son's birthday, he asks other family members to send in warm greetings and anecdotes that collectively create a picture of the young man's character and all the good he's done for the people close to him.

At the subway station, there's a heavy, happy woman belting out James Brown's "I Feel Good," and her performance is full of real joy. A few hours later, on my return trip, I see that she's gone, and in her place are a small group of men that seem to be combining a bagpipe with jazz, an effort more creative than successful.

I'm settled awkwardly at a table, sipping spiked cider and not sure I'll find anyone to talk to. Two people find me though. They're lovely, and the afternoon swims by on laughter and food.

A few hours spent looking up health insurance rates and coverage.

Our afternoon is hurrying to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant for greasy food, eating it too quickly at a small park, and running to catch a movie. Bloated but satisfied, we arrive late enough to miss the previews.

Is this guy flirting with me? He's in my personal space, but he's from a culture where personal space is minimal, so I don't know. He's also touching my arm a lot and talking at length about James Bond. It's one of those times I wish I could read social cues more easily. In any case, I learn a lot about James Bond.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Blog's Name in Books

I found this fun little activity here: match a book from your to-read list to each of the letters in your blog's name.

Tale of Genji (Murasaki Shikibu)
History (Elsa Morante)
Excellent Women (Barbara Pym)

Shirley (Charlotte Bronte)
I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith)
Love and the Platypus (Nicholas Drayson)
Leaving Atlanta (Tayari Jones)

Only Yesterday (S.Y. Agnon)
Faust (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

Timeline (Michael Crichton)
Home (Toni Morrison)
Ella Minnow Pea (Mark Dunn)

Winter's Bone (Daniel Woodrell)
Ormond (Maria Edgeworth)
Rhinoceros (Eugène Ionesco)
Little Dorrit (Charles Dickens)
Dombey and Son (Charles Dickens)

Week in Seven Words #404

We walk along the reservoir in the dark. The water is glossy, and the backdrop is a hard, glittering skyline. One building has a red spire, like a syringe. From a dark pocket of trees, someone sings "Piano Man," his voice bright and disembodied.

The protesters outside the hotel take up a chant that has the pitch and rhythm of a child's taunt. It makes them sound immature and powerless, as if they need to wrap up their playtime soon and be home before dark.

A dad treats his young son like a computer program that needs constant debugging. Everything the boy does warrants a sharp remark, as it doesn't fall within the precise specifications of the programming.

We explore the edges of a milky gray pond. The leaves underfoot are clumpy and pulpy. Overhead, a black squirrel shudders along a tree branch and leaps, the branch shivering at its departure.

An aunt and her nieces and nephews sit on the steps of the museum and eat vanilla soft serve ice cream with sprinkles. A grandmother watches over a grandson and granddaughter as they pretend a giant, sloping rock is a hill of snow for sledding. A mother and her teenaged son relax on a bench and discuss face recognition software.

One train rushes by, then another. They sound like roaring water and hollow, rattling stones. The train we need still hasn't arrived. I spot something small and dark under the opposite platform: a rabbit the color of soot. It seems portentous, the Dark Bunny of Delays.

The glass sculptures look like alien growths transplanted among the flowers and mushrooming out of the pools of water.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Three Short Stories About Daughters and Their Not-So-Maternal Mothers

Title: The Girl Who Left Her Sock on the Floor
Author: Deborah Eisenberg
Where I Read It: The Art of the Story

“Fading smells of bodies clung to the air like plaintive ghosts, their last friendly overtures vanquished by the stronger smells of disinfectants. An indecipherable muttering came from other ghosts, sequestered in a TV suspended from the ceiling.”
Francie is at school on a scholarship when her mother dies. The girl is burdened by a sense that she has been unloved and disapproved of; her mother gave her care that didn't feel caring, as it came with a heap of anger and bitterness. Francie may also have been kept from important truths about her life.
The hospital floated in the middle of a vast ocean of construction, or maybe it was demolition; a nation in itself, of which all humans were, at every moment, potential citizens. The inevitable false move, and it was wham, onto the gurney, with workers grabbing smocks and gloves to plunge into the cavity of you, and the lights that burned all night. Outside this building you lived as though nothing were happening to you that you didn't know about. But here, there was simply no pretending.
Francie confronts the inescapable. There's her mother's sudden death. There's the aloneness, and being left in the dark to fumble towards a new life and deal with questions that can't be ignored. Adults look at Francie like they don't know where to put her or how to get her out of the way, and Francie herself doesn't really know where she belongs, only that she can't escape her life. The legacy of mother to daughter is one of a dark, cutting, and uncomfortable weight, the burden of a fury that never abated. The question is if Francie will ever find a place in her life where she can live at greater ease with herself.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Week in Seven Words #403

The small cakes and cookies displayed in the shop window look like they were created with paint markers. They can't be real baked goods. And if they are, they can't taste as good as they look.

They're slightly loud and fuzzy with wine when we bring gifts. Their dog trots around, absorbing pats and belly rubs and cuddles.

A tall, beefy man in a turquoise tank top and cream-colored Bermuda shorts is walking three small, identical white dogs.

When he's stressed out, his home crackles with tension. His family skirt around him, finding things to do in other rooms and saying little that isn't necessary.

The room is overrun by kids who pelt each other with candy, kind of like dodgeball but without any clear sides, more like a free-for-all of sugary projectiles.

On a brief visit to a library before a meeting, I find what promises to be an excellent book. I didn't expect to come across it and wasn't looking for anything like it, or anything in particular. Is this something that can be experienced online, where algorithms suggest only books that are similar to what's been recently read or searched for?

The girl glides on a scooter, her golden hair floating in the light of the streetlamps.

Week in Seven Words #402

During dinner on a second-story terrace, the wind sighs at us through the crown of a tree.

At first it looks like a piece of stained glass, catching at the corner of my eye. It's a monarch butterfly poised on a leaf and opening its wings.

She left work a few months ago to become a stay-at-home mom. Within a few days, she began reorganizing a communal playroom in her apartment building and looking for other projects to sign up for. I'm guessing she will soon return to the corporate workforce.

It seems like overnight she's become a major Hamilton fan. She's memorized all the lyrics, even the complicated rap battles stuffed with historical references. Today, she greets me at the door with "Washington on Your Side."

Pity is uncomfortable and distasteful, regardless of whether it's felt about one's self or other people. This thought comes to me in the middle of a conversation with someone I'd rather not be talking to. I don't want to pity this other person or have that be the motive for the conversation.

The library has multiple floors, cozy and compact. A spacious staircase links them together. Footsteps echo in it, and whispers and laughter.

We spend an afternoon at the fringes of a park, with traffic at our backs and terraced greenery before us. There isn't much hospitality indoors. One place is cliquish and for another we lack the required ID. So we're outdoors, waiting for the afternoon to fall away into evening.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Some Jewish Culture and a Walk up Manhattan's East Side

This past Sunday, I took a tour of the Museum at Eldridge Street, or the Eldridge Street Synagogue. There's still a small active Orthodox Jewish congregation there, but its purpose is mainly to preserve a critical part of the Jewish culture that flourished in Manhattan's Lower East Side from the second half of the 19th century and into the 20th century.

This grand synagogue opened in 1887, and the congregants were Jews from Eastern Europe. It's a beautiful example of Moorish Revival architecture.


The congregation began to see a decline in the 1920s when the US enacted immigration quotas that hit hard at people trying to come in from Eastern and Southern Europe. As Jewish families moved out of the Lower East Side, newer immigrants weren't coming in to replace them and maintain a steady level of congregants at the synagogue.

In the 1950s, the main sanctuary was closed off, and the few congregants used only the Beit Midrash (a smaller room for religious worship and study). A restoration project began in the 1980s and was completed in 2007.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Week in Seven Words #401

She drops yet another reminder that she wants to see me married, and I can't help it, I just start laughing, to her astonishment.

The difficulty of dealing with someone who's regularly unreasonable. Trying to anticipate what I'll be able to say and how I'll need to say it.

When tipped forward, the watering can spurts and sprinkles, and the leaves shiver. The handful of fat tomatoes still clinging to the vines begin to glisten.

She's a moon-faced woman with a pink, voluminous lap where her daughter sits as on a throne.

There's a woman faking anger on TV, because she wants your anger to be real. The woman would like to let her viewers know that they're smart, like her. They know what's really going on out there. They need to stick it to the haters, the craven, dishonest fools who are currently watching some other show.

There's a strangely human vulnerability to the injured bird that tucks itself among the leafy plants. Its feathers are disordered. It hops away at approaching feet but doesn't fly.

I'm surrounded by people, but the afternoon feels surprisingly empty. A quick nap helps. And then song, and a prayer service at the day's end.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Week in Seven Words #400

A homeless man with a CD player hooked to his belt searches for bottles while accompanied by Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli singing "Time to Say Goodbye."

The talk focuses on the complications of forgiveness. How does one (or can one) forgive repeat offenses? What if the offender shows no sign of remorse or is unwilling or unable to change? What if the offense is too serious? It's a heavy discussion, and many of the people present either remain silent or speak in short, clipped phrases, as if there's so much more they'd like to say but too little time.

At the birthday party in the park, small pink balloons are tied together in a cluster that brings to mind a diagram of the stages between zygote and embryo, a ball of cells rapidly multiplying.

His words trigger my temper, and I regret letting my anger show. It feels like defeat, to lose control even briefly. It's also pointless. The provocation in and of itself is superficial. The anger has deeper roots and is bound up in problems I wouldn't be able to discuss with him. We're on the level of surface irritations.

An old woman is in the middle of a calisthenics routine by the river. A toddler approaches and begins to imitate her: jumping, stretching, squatting, hopping on and off a stair. (In this last one, the toddler crawls on and off rather than trust her legs too much.)

The water is tinted gold in the late afternoon. I look up from my book as a dog trots by wearing aviator shades.

There's a man who sits in the lobby of the synagogue or sometimes on the front steps, like he doesn't want to get too close to the praying but doesn't want to abandon it either.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Some Thoughts on George Eliot's Silas Marner

As a young man, Silas Marner was betrayed and ostracized, leaving him with deep psychic wounds. His consciousness of the world narrows to a routine of weaving and lovingly counting a small but growing horde of money. From anything connected to the past,
... his life had shrunk away, like a rivulet that has sunk far down from the grassy fringe of its old breadth into a little shivering thread, that cuts a groove for itself in the barren sand.
The money serves as a beloved object and safe, if very poor, substitute for a connection to other people. Regarding Marner's work as a weaver, Eliot writes:
Every man's work, pursued steadily, tends in this way to become an end in itself, and so to bridge over the loveless chasms of his life.
Without love, you often see obsessive behaviors, addictions, and compulsions take root.

Marner's life and heart expand again after he adopts a child whose mother he has found dead near his home. (The immediate environs of Marner's home are depicted as a place where death is near, especially in the dark, underscoring his vulnerability but also making him reminiscent of a Hades-like figure with his horde of precious metal.)

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Week in Seven Words #399

We're eating salads outside in the dark by a bike lane and jogging path in the park. From around the bend, we hear a blues song, and it's getting louder, the hoarse, broken, beautiful voice coming our way. A young girl appears, swinging a portable radio.

On the rooftop garden, they've planted marigolds with tomatoes, collard greens, lavender, thyme, cucumbers, dill, Jamaican peppers, and other herbs and vegetables. Bees swoop around (I achieve an uneasy coexistence with them), and white butterflies look like petals sprung to life. A monarch butterfly appears too and lingers.

One of the men in the subway car is moved to tell us about his dog. "Her name is Ginger Rogers," he says. He pauses, as if waiting for the dog to spring up from where she's curled up at his feet and start dancing.

His voice, lofty and sonorous, opens me to my anger and frustration. There are multiple entangled reasons for these emotions at this time.

In the span of a 12-story elevator ride, he shares his business aspirations and lists some of the books he's been reading to push himself into a mindset of success.

It's cozy and delightful to have a movie theater almost entirely to yourself and the person you're with.

Some of the tomatoes are green and heavy. Others are crinkly and emptied out like candy wrappers.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Earth Day walk

It started at Cadman Plaza Park in Brooklyn, where there's a memorial for WWII.


Then south to Borough Hall, where I joined a walking group. We headed west into Brooklyn Heights to look out over the East River.


Saturday, April 21, 2018

Week in Seven Words #398

There's a beach by a quarry, and it's one of the best places I've been to, beautiful and invigorating. It's made up of slabs of rock strewn along the shore. Just picking one to sit on is a pleasure. I rest for a while with the sun on my shoulders. I could have spent days there.

A river wends through red, green, and gold grass. A kayak emerges from under a bridge, and sunlight shimmers in its wake.

Walking to the farthest reach of the jetty, I have a feeling of being embraced by blue. The sky, with some blue-white smears of cloud, the harbor spreading out on all sides, and the water trickling through the clumsy string of rocks - blue all around.

It's an old house, with enormous trees fussing around it and petting it with their branches, and shrubs rearing up to screen it protectively. It keeps silent about the people who lived there and what they saw from its windows. What we have are some facts embellished by imagination.

It's a town of fudge and ice cream and pastels, flowers in window boxes and clapboard churches overlooking the ocean.

In an art museum, I like the portraits best. They're characters expressing stories.

The sound of a blue whale's heartbeat.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

For National Poetry Month: 30 Poem Recommendations

April is National Poetry Month in the US. Take the opportunity to enjoy some good poetry.

1) A Word on Statistics (by Wislawa Szymborska)

2) A Noiseless Patient Spider (by Walt Whitman)

3) The Jabberwocky (by Lewis Carroll)

4) To be of use (by Marge Piercy)

5) From Blossoms (by Li-Young Lee)

6) What Kind of Times Are These (by Adrienne Rich)

7) The Good-Morrow (by John Donne)

8) The Peace of Wild Things (by Wendell Berry)

9) Resumé (by Dorothy Parker)

10) The Writer (by Richard Wilbur)

11) Poetry (by Marianne Moore)

12) First Gestures (by Julia Kasdorf)

13) Translation (by Anne Spencer)

14) To fight aloud is very brave (by Emily Dickinson)

15) Bleezer's Ice Cream (by Jack Prelutsky)

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Week in Seven Words #397

Babies can be so nonchalant. This one has a cold, and without pause, she sneezes straight into her dad's face, then continues peering around and reaching for things.

"This time, it's going to be different," he says, "I'm going to write fiction that has characters. I mean, they're going to be like people this time."

The number of people at the table makes it so that there isn't any pressure on me to speak; at the same time, I'll have someone to talk to (and something to talk about) when I choose.

He senses the pressure placed on him to read the words, to make the effort exactly to the adult's specifications, and he ducks behind his phone.

She holds her troll doll in the air to watch the wind comb through its hair.

The first night is rough, because my throat is raw and painful. The next day passes on wobbly legs. Then the second night comes, and with it, thankfully, a deep, healing sleep that helps so much.

We walk on a sandy path by the river. It runs like a thread through needly pale green shrubs.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Week in Seven Words #396

There are several groups meeting in the atrium. One is for learning Spanish, another for figuring out how to make your home more neat. Although the neater home group is the one I should be signing up for, I've joined a discussion on streamlining business processes. It takes a while to get started. The host shows up late; most of the people who RSVP'ed don't turn up at all. (The conversation is interesting anyway.)

A mariachi band steps into the subway car with the suddenness of a channel change. Everything's bright and lively and loud for a couple of minutes. Later on in the ride, as the train stalls on a bridge, breakdancers appear, a hair's breadth away from head injury as they swing wildly from the poles and do backflips.

A young boy and his mom sit in the mouth of a blue tent that's backlit by the sun. They take turns blowing bubbles.

The different parts of Prospect Park feel only loosely connected. We explore a forest where a stream slips through tumbled rocks. We come to a dog beach where people wade ankle deep and throw toys for their dogs to splash after. A picnic area floats past us at one point, in a mist of smoke. We follow the tail of a larger body of water; it's serpentine and keeps changing shape. Clearings open up, criss-crossed with shadow, and large meadows suddenly spring into view, bared to the sun. These places don't feel like parts of the same park, only that they settled next to each other by chance the day we visited, so we could walk from one to the other.

In these narrow streets, a theme emerges of brick submerged in leaves. Trees screen polished windows, and plants spill out of window boxes.

A passionate sermon in a woman's voice resounds through a barred door. It's a storefront church that contains a cauldron of apocalyptic feeling.

The lower level of the museum is home to vintage train cars, one of them displaying an ad for cocoa with eerie children. The upper level shows a history of city transportation and its challenges, from overcrowding to extensive flooding.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Five Short Stories About Terribly Dysfunctional Marriages

This is a fruitful topic for short fiction.

Title: Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree
Author: Helen Nielsen
Where I Read It: Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives

The main character thinks she's past the point of making terrible mistakes with men, that her life is stable now, but she's wrong. Her husband makes her feel that she needs to be on a pedestal - and then ultimately prove that she's like all other women by falling off it. It's that sort of relationship pattern. In any case, she starts getting calls from someone in her past. She assumes she's being blackmailed or stalked. She's smart and careful in general, but not about the people close to her. This story has murder and betrayal.

Title: Her Three Days
Author: Sembène Ousmane
Translator: Len Ortzen
Where I Read It: The Anchor Book of Modern African Stories

The story is set in a culture with polygamous marriages, and the main character is one of four wives. She's awaiting the three days her husband is meant to spend with her and recognizes that she's falling out of favor with him. I remember her observation about the pretenses in her marriage, the lies she needs to tell to make the marriage seem worthwhile. She has to pretend that her husband is a good man, because her identity is bound to his stature and character. If she has submitted to a man who isn't worthy of respect, what does this say about the meaning of her life and its worth?

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Week in Seven Words #395

The wetlands we walk through are deceptive. They aren't the original wetlands, which were destroyed. They're a restoration. But the restoration is failing, because even though the obvious ingredients seem to be there, there are missing elements or imbalanced interactions that are turning the area into a woodland.

The dog is boarding at a veterinary hospital, and I'm not allowed to take her outdoors. After she jumps at me and races around the small room and sticks her head in my tote bag, she sits on my lap for a while to stare out the window. Later, when I shoulder my bag, she realizes I'm about to leave. She presses her paws against my thighs. Her soft whining makes me feel even worse for her.

Her interest in the city's water systems and resources is inspiring. She's found an issue she's committed to and acts on it, giving talks, leading hikes, and volunteering to measure water contents. There's a purity to her focus.

A man yells, "Grow, grow!" at a plant box outside of his apartment building.

A thick tree has fallen across the trail. Part of the trunk has been cut away to let people walk through it, as if it's a wall now with a doorway.

I step off the curb, then quickly back on it, as a delivery guy on a motorized bike blows a red light and zooms past. The bike swerves as if he's losing control of it. Another delivery guy, waiting at the light, screams for him to stop. It takes the length of a block for him to slow down.

After each deep thumping noise, the fountain sprays a mist of water as if it's the blowhole on a whale.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Week in Seven Words #394

We lean on each other as the train sways. Our feet adjust to accommodate the extra weight of the other person, and I smile to think we're like a four-legged, two-headed creature.

He's best to be with when he's feeling soft-hearted and full of fun. The years drop from him, and he wants a laugh and good company.

Etta James is calling for a Sunday kind of love through the speakers of his laptop.

She looks fragile in the driver's seat of the SUV and in the pale wash of its interior light. The courage in her comes out in a tired smile.

It's the sort of day where the highlight is hearing "Bohemian Rhapsody" at the supermarket. Not a lackluster cover band performing it, but Queen itself.

The lake looks like it's covered in brown oilcloth and dribbles of spilled pea soup.

"Money doesn't change you," he says, "it just shows you who you already are." So if someone turns mean and stingy (or kind and generous) when they acquire money, did they have those tendencies all along?

Monday, April 2, 2018

Two old movies with false preachers

Title: The Miracle Woman (1931)
Director: Frank Capra
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

It's Barbara Stanwyck's performance and screen presence that make this movie worth watching. She convincingly plays all shades of emotion, from righteous fury to tenderness to despair. She subtly expresses conflicted feelings and moments of doubt.

Her character, Florence Fallon, is the daughter of a minister. At the start of the movie, she delivers a tirade from the pulpit of her late father's church, because the congregation had treated him callously. After the congregants leave her to her anger and grief, a con artist (played by Sam Hardy) takes advantage of her in her vulnerable state and persuades her to enact a revenge against all the falsely pious people out there. He launches her into stardom as a fake faith healer, and she travels around giving fiery speeches and tricking people into giving up their money.

Even though Florence has become a false preacher, her words still have power in a way that sometimes does good. John Carson (David Manners), who lives alone and is blind, is convinced not to kill himself when he hears her over the radio. Although he's skeptical about faith healing and the spectacle surrounding her preaching, he's still moved by her and attends one of her shows to find out more. Florence herself is starting to get tired of her false preaching, and meeting John gives her a further push towards an honest life.

There are things the movie could have done without, namely the over-use of a ventriloquist dummy. But I liked how it shows faith and truth and love struggling to find a way out and take root, in spite of everything that tries to cloak, choke, or impede them.

Title: The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Director: Charles Laughton
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

The Night of the Hunter has the landscape of a dark folk tale. A river at night where young children escape by boat from a frenzied murderer. The murderer standing over the children's mother in a cramped and shadowed bedroom. The silhouette of an old woman with a gun held across her lap as she defends a house full of children from the murderer. During that scene, the old woman, Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) sings a hymn, and the murderer, a false preacher named Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), joins in from where he sits outside in the dark. The words he uses are a little different from hers.

Powell is able to pass as a preacher not only thanks to his charisma but because he taps into some twisted beliefs that already resonate in the communities he cons. He exploits existing unhealthy ideas about female sexuality and marriage. He's good at finding the places where love and compassion are lacking. Like other predators, he also hones in on vulnerable people: lonely widows, girls raised without love, children who lack the protection of reliable adults.

These are some of the psychological insights that emerge in this riveting and disturbing movie. The movie is also sensitive to the behavior of children who have been hurt, abused, or betrayed. For instance, John (Billy Chapin), the young boy who flees the murderer with his sister, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), receives a great gift from Rachel Cooper when she believes him that Powell is a dangerous man. John wasn't expecting to be believed when it was his word against the word of an adult. In another scene, he winds up beating Powell with a doll, and it's really a moment when he's raging against his birth dad, who stole the money that led Powell to appear and win over the children's mother, Willa (Shelley Winters). In another scene, Ruby (Gloria Castillo), one of the vulnerable children in Rachel Cooper's house, admits to sneaking out at night. Rachel responds by holding her and talking to her about the difference between real love and the kind of superficial (and potentially dangerous) attention Ruby gets from boys and men, which she has mistakenly confused for love.

The movie is richer for all of these moments. But it's also worth watching just for Mitchum's performance as a superficially charming terror, a real nightmare figure who can smooth talk in one scene and hunt children like a beast in another.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Week in Seven Words #393

The cart with her belongings clanks against the walls and comes to an uncertain stop at the head of the stairs. Twice, a neighbor passing by helps her move something down to the U-Haul. Another time, it's a homeless guy who makes five bucks for the box he carries.

She joins me at the synagogue that evening. I sit on a cardboard box at her left arm. The seats and floors are filled with people.

One of the stories we hear: A concentration camp inmate, given an opportunity by the Red Cross to send a postcard to someone, realizes there may be no one left who cares whether he's alive or not.

The storage facility reminds me of a video game where you need to adjust your speed and timing to keep from getting shut out and having to start over. The entry doors will stay open for ten seconds, the elevator doors for seven or eight. If you hit someone with your cart, you lose points. Lower level, make a right, then another right. If you hit the walls with your cart, you lose points.

Street after street, there are empty storefronts, evidence of high rent blight. To run a small business in this environment has become untenable for many.

Hanging baskets of flowers at the farmer's market, nuts and chocolates too. Only the meat and seafood seem suspicious in their sweating coolers.

On both sides of a narrow apartment building, there are sunny, vibrant gardens with raised beds of flowers, a small fountain spilling its melody, and a gazebo where a woman and her grandchild sit among piles of picture books.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Week in Seven Words #392

The post-and-rail fence has fallen apart and let a deer through. The gaps in the fence have also offered scaffolding to plants.

During a get-together at a friend's apartment, a married couple tells me not to live by any ideals because inevitably I'll fall short of them and become a hypocrite. I don't know whether they're taking their own advice, but they seem comfortable with themselves.

He tells me it's ok to be an asshole as long as you're upfront about it. It's honest that way. But I don't think he'd be fine if I were to act like one. Or if anyone close to him did.

Misfortune seems to shadow her, even in small ways. The bottom of her shopping bag opens like a trap door, and the cans of beans clink on the sidewalk, and the water bottle sprays her feet. Once in the car, she can't find her keys. She does, eventually, but only after running back to the store.

A photo shows a group of boys who are friends. They look alike, more or less - similar size, same clothes, all of them cute kids. Another photo shows a group of girls who are friends. Also more or less alike, dressed alike, all of them pretty and none of them too pretty.

Someone I'm used to seeing behind a podium as he commands the attention of a crowded room, his voice formidable, I now see in a grocery store one night, his face yellowish under the lights, his eyes tired as he pleads over the phone.

They don't know, and don't want to know, who they're raising. Maybe they'd hoped for someone else as their child.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Week in Seven Words #391

The pond reflects a mosaic of leaves.

If I'm not in front of them, do I exist to them? (Like an object permanence test, but for relationships.)

How much I've entrusted to computer systems I don't control, and the irritation and sometimes fear when they don't work for reasons poorly understood.

She takes her break at a picnic table, a mason jar of flowers at her elbow, her clipboards laid aside.

The water spreads across the harbor in overlapping sheets, the edges stained with sunlight.

They've brought what seems to be every kind of greasy, salty, sweet processed food to their picnic and the kind of folding chairs that cut your legs out from under you and make you give up on standing. We're in for a satisfying, sedentary stupor.

Coming across a small bookstore. Feeling wonder and a pang of worry, as if I'm in the presence of an endangered species.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Week in Seven Words #390

The loose grouping of historic buildings has the air of a ghost town. The grass in some places is unkempt. A mother and daughter fighting from opposite sides of a bench pierce the quiet but soon leave, as if they were spirits who hadn't known how to find rest. The crackle of bees from a wide porch, a cat sprawled on shaded gravel, highlight the absence of people.

When the buses aren't too crowded, they can be relaxing. They roll and curve gently, sigh when they come to a temporary stop. The other passengers tend to be quiet, mostly caught up in phones or in staring out the window. When in pairs or small groups, they talk only now and then. At one point, a mother, son, and grandmother climb on board. The son lolls in his mother's lap as the bus glides on.

A mistake following the trail takes me to a quiet, stifling pond, bright green with algae. The air is still and hot. I wonder what I'm doing here, where I can go next, when a heron unfolds and takes flight.

There's a fragile atmosphere in this home, as if a misaligned paper on a desk will prod an ugly argument to life and ruin the evening.

The real estate agent trots up and down the street, as she explains to someone over the phone that she's misplaced her car keys.

It's a tiny museum; the air is cool and smells dusty. If I knew more ahead of time about Tibetan Buddhism, I would understand more about what I'm seeing. There are labels, but few explanations. The shelves are lined with placid gleaming statues and ornate metalwork. The gardens, set on a hill, are walled in by trees and stone and lined with prayer flags.

The deer watches me in stillness, a question in its eyes. It retreats because it doesn't want to risk the answer I might give it.

Friday, March 9, 2018

The Optimist's Daughter: Examining Love and Loss

She wept for what happened to life.
Laurel, the main character of The Optimist's Daughter, is a widow and now an orphan after her father passes away, years after her mother's death. She moved away from Louisiana a while ago, but returns for the duration of the book - first for her father's medical problems, then for his death and for a short time after the funeral.

Her parents' home is full of things she hasn't known about or hasn't thought about in a long while. It's also tainted by the presence of her father's second wife, Fay, a crass, insensitive woman who at one point gets compared to the weather, an uncomprehending force of nature that sweeps through people's lives.
For Fay was without any powers of passion or imagination in herself and had no way to see it or reach it in the other person. Other people, inside their lives, might as well be invisible to her. To find them, she could only strike out those little fists at random, or spit from her little mouth. She could no more fight a feeling person than she could love him.
The novel reckons with the costs of love. With love comes profound loss; how does one cope? Is the solution to live like Fay, who performs grief but doesn't feel much of anything in a deep way? Because she feels less, her survival in this world seems more assured; in this sense, she's more hardy than Laurel. But she's brittle in other ways. Laurel does survive, in her own way, relinquishing possessions and bearing memories forward.
The memory can be hurt, time and again - but in that may lie its final mercy. As long as it's vulnerable to the living moment, it lives for us, and while it lives, and while we are able, we can give it up its due.
One of the things I appreciated about this novel was the sensitive way it made the dead come alive in memory. They aren't fixed and silent images. Laurel, for instance, considers those who have died and wonders about them, why they acted as they did, and what they'd say or do now. Of course, it's not the same as them being alive, but they're a part of her world still. I think a part of her courage - to keep living, free, afraid, full of light - comes from thinking about her relationships with them and their relationships with each other.
Between some two people every word is beautiful, or might as well be beautiful.
While Fay lives in the realm of objects, just plain hard materials, Laurel has greater depth and so has more to lose. And yet, she's strong at the end, cut loose from her father's home and going off on a tide of spirit and possibility.

(I read The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty for the Classics Club Challenge.)

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Week in Seven Words #389

Washington and Lafayette clasp hands, their differences in age and height smoothed over by the sculptor and by the shadows of the overhanging branches.

Throughout the conversation, she keeps pointing out how she and her husband agree on everything. "He and I never discussed this issue before, and look, we think the same!" She infuses her voice with hope. Her husband says nothing, keeps eating.

Each grotesque appears to have its own story and store of sly remarks. Each gives the impression that he's only pretending to be a sculpture; as soon as you leave, he'll scamper around on the window ledges. Some look drunk. Others are spies and thieves who will sneak inside when they're sure the building is empty.

He's come up to hike alongside me when I notice the quote on his t-shirt: "I would prefer not to." From Bartleby the Scrivener. I ask, but with a smile he prefers not to tell me why he chose this shirt on a day of vigorous movement.

As I talk, I watch my words slide off them. I'm a gentle rain shower passing through their evening.

By the side of the church, the pink and white flowers look like the lining for a baby's crib. Before a brownstone, buttery flowers melt open in the sun. Others spring, pink and broad, from a ceramic planter. Leaves cascade from an open window - a houseplant bent on escape.

By day, the bird bath is for the birds, usually no more than two at a time, each shivering and luxuriating in the water. At night when the birds are gone, a cockroach perches on the edge of the bowl, its antennae fanning.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Week in Seven Words #388

Baby goats press against the legs of the man who feeds them; they peer out from the folds of his trousers. Chickens walk around in their strange, obsessive way, making discontented noises.

The artists have set up studios in derelict homes. Most of the rooms are empty; some are papered in sketches. Here and there, a dash of paint disturbs a long stretch of dust.

With their bodies, they seem to form letters of the alphabet. Their spines curve, and their arms rise and bend. Their instructor walks among them and gently edits the poses.

A walk between downpours. Everything is soaked in the smell of after-rain.

The music growls and punches holes in the quiet.

The worm, freshly plucked, flops around in the bird's beak.

The fountain looks like it's juggling balls of foam. People sigh as they watch it; some record it on their phones. I like seeing this lack of jadedness. People taking pleasure in a simple, beautiful sight.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Funny Songs from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

I don't watch this show, but someone sent me the first clip, which made me laugh. It starts out like a typical inspiring song about facing your fears and goes on to become a series of terrible suggestions.

I found this second clip from the show - a hardcore electronic dance music video about someone getting ready for guests.

Week in Seven Words #387

Bored, he texts me from the party to list all the places where he could hide from the other guests. The shrubs by the pool provide good coverage. There's room for most of him behind the piano in the den.

I love an early Sunday walk when the light is soft and the streets are mostly empty.

I'm beaten badly by two children at Settlers of Catan. They rob me of all my resources. They laugh as I lose my lumber and ore.

There are different ways of saying good-bye. One is to avoid saying it at all, to turn away at the moment of parting and slip into another room.

She sits in a blanket nest on the bed and frets. I cup her cute bald head in my hand, and she calms.

A sulfurous odor leaks out of the pails of water he's set up in the basement for his plastic animals. He's lined some of the pails with dirt from the backyard, and without knowing it has invited new kinds of organisms into his collection, alive and bacterial.

I don't pay attention to the tendons in my feet, until one of them painfully, insistently reminds me that it exists.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Week in Seven Words #386

The conference room smells like grease, leather, and aftershave. The attendees, mostly men, scarf down pizza and sit on colorful plastic chairs. They're talking about cutting-edge technology, while pretending that they're in a school cafeteria. There are board games stacked on every table.

The giant seated ballerina looks like a float that broke off from a parade and came to rest among skyscrapers.

Ten years ago, did you imagine your life as it is now? (When I ask her this, she shakes her head and frowns.) So that means that ten years from now, your life may also become something you can't currently imagine. Hopefully in a good way. You aren't stuck.

After demanding that he prove his identity, they ask him a bunch of questions about himself. Like, "What's your nickname for string cheese?" He answers each one, but they look skeptical, telling him that they're not sure it's really him. These are the kind of mind games older siblings come up with.

Building a fragile trust with the baby, who smiles with saliva-bubbly lips and then breaks into a wail.

Sunlight, green leaves, and a pale gray pond in the early morning.

Balloons float off into a dusky sky as the orchestra warms up.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Five Short Stories Set on Staten Island

Staten Island is an underrated borough, sometimes talked about as if it's basically a landfill with some homes. However, there are beautiful places on the island, like these:



And there are plenty of interesting stories to be told there. The ones here are from a collection called Staten Island Noir (part of the Akashic Books noir series, which collects stories about crime and mystery from around the world...). So all of the stories here are dark in nature. A couple are quite funny though. And yes, a landfill plays an important role in a couple of them too (that's inevitable, for Staten Island).

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Week in Seven Words #385

The barefoot woman on the terrace is singing as she arranges her body into meditative poses. Her voice, clear and high, reminds me of the music of Hildegard von Bingen.

The tiramisu melts at the touch of the fork.

I feel like a package on a conveyor belt, directed first to the booth with the camera models, then to a counter for processing the order, followed by another counter for the payment, and then to the pick-up area, until I'm finally deposited through the automatic doors to the curb.

The first thing that delights him about the trip is the length between stops for the express train. For her, it's the garden where she hovers over flowers with her camera.

Exploring an herb garden: the spidery magic of milk thistle, and sharp, refreshing scents of rosemary and sage. The gardener gives a talk on women's medicine in the Middle Ages, including plants, like birthwort, that led to serious health problems. At one point, she begins referring to menses by its old-fashioned euphemism, "the flowers." Someone becomes confused about which flowers she's discussing.

The accuracy of the text is questionable, but the illustrations are compelling, inviting the reader to discover obscure connections between plants and people.

Her horror story begins with a man sitting alone on a boulder in the woods. It ends with a giant, murderous avocado bursting through a kitchen door.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Week in Seven Words #384

The town is charming and delicate. There's a sheltered dock with a gazebo, and a street with shops displaying quaint, insubstantial things. Only the vehicles seem out of place: heavy, expensive cars and a bus that wheezes to a stop to take us away.

A dazzling set of motorcycles outside a convenience store. Some of the riders head inside, others stretch out on a grassy slope that leads down to the trees.

They stand at opposite ends of a coppery pool and play catch. If the ball lands in the water, the game will end.

A bird drops backwards from a branch, then twirls midair and rockets off.

The dirt track ends at a clearing steeped in early evening light. Logs and flat rocks are scattered around it, as if at nightfall creatures will emerge from the trees to take their seats and hold an assembly.

When hiking a familiar route, he brings a book for the gentler sections. This time it's a collection of Emily Dickinson's poetry. Another time it was short stories by Chekhov.

Sometimes the path is made up of wood planks or smooth dirt. Other times, it's a jumble of rocks and roots that jerk my ankles in different directions.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Week in Seven Words #383

A fatty meal, followed by shooting hoops in the driveway and a video introduction to the largest dogs in the world.

It would be an eerie statue to visit at night, the Alice in Wonderland who sits on her giant mushroom at the east side of the park. She's smiling, dead-eyed, while the Mad Hatter grins unpleasantly beside her.

On three occasions, strangers approach me at a bookstore or convenience store for advice on which birthday card to buy for their boss. I don't know why I've been chosen to help, but it's a responsibility I try not to take too lightly.

Somewhere in the trees, there's a frenzied drummer. To the east, a charity walk pours down a broad paved path. Cheerleaders with dazzling pom-poms shout encouragement. In a clearing across from the cheerleaders, LARPers skirmish with foam weapons. Another group practices capoeira, and a saxophonist, playing under a bridge, is enfolded in the echoes of his music.

On a terrace by the lake, a man with a guitar sings "Layla." He performs with heart and a voice rough with age. His music colors the stones and the water, and it nourishes the people who walk by. A few smile at him.

The kids are in high spirits. They dance (including swing dance!) and sing to the music churned out by a piano player who labors body and soul to do justice to Duke Ellington. The evening's low point is at the start, when a teacher uses the words 'hip' and 'cool' and then looks like she can't get the taste of them out of her mouth.

The storm smashes through the park like a tantrum. Branches dangle like the arms of marionettes.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Three movies about people with precarious lives in the US

Title: Ballast (2008)
Director: Lance Hammer
Language: English
Rating: Not rated

At the start of the movie, a man has committed suicide off-screen. The people he leaves behind include his identical twin, Lawrence (Michael J. Smith Sr.). The movie takes its time revealing who everyone is. The suicide disturbs their already difficult lives and stirs up emotions that could overwhelm them. In the course of the movie, they redefine their lives in some ways and draw together to keep from succumbing to despair and poverty. Sometimes, they seem like the only three people in their world (if one died, only the other two would notice - though at one point there's also a kind neighbor, played by Johnny McPhail, whose intervention saves a life).

The two others are Marlee (Tarra Riggs) and her teenaged son, James (JimMyron Ross). James is a misdirected kid. The adults in his life have serious hardships of their own, so that in spite of good intentions they don't always offer him the guidance he needs, though they try. The school he goes to seems to give him only opportunities to be preyed on. His life is closed-off and lonely, though the filmmakers thread some hope into it, in his changing relationship to a gun: a gun he first uses to express anger and a show of control, then uses as possible self-protection, until finally he does something with it to attempt to prevent further death.

Where the characters live, in the Mississippi Delta, the landscape is muddy and gray in the winter (sometimes it's startling, like when birds in a noisy mass burst into the sky). The characters cling to the lifelines they can find, including a gas station and convenience store that's been abandoned and might serve as their livelihood and a second chance of sorts. Maybe these characters would be worse off, more lonely and directionless, if they were apart from each other.

As the movie ended, I wondered what would happen to James. His mother wants to save him from violent kids, but can she protect him from the demons inside, the impulses of self-destruction? What's his place in the world, living with despondent, angry adults? There's a shot at the end of the movie of a man in the front passenger seat of a car, and for a second I thought it was James, but no - the movie has remained in the present. James is in the backseat. But this could be his future, traveling through the same ruts in a muddy landscape.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Week in Seven Words #382

In the late evening, a man does Tai Chi by the river. His fluid, practiced movements make him a graceful silhouette against the last blaze of sunlight on the water.

We're at a long rectangular table. It seems to be under the influence of different weather phenomena. At the far end, three people are rumbling with thunderous anger. In a chair near them, a woman suddenly smiles and speaks in a reassuring voice, like sunlight breaking through clouds. Among the children, there's balmy, breezy weather; they're relaxed, laughing and chatting.

His explorations take him through a room full of alcohol, oysters, and chatter. (What are people eating and wearing? How is the restaurant organized, indoors and outdoors?) We watch volleyball players next. "What do you notice about them?" he asks. I mention that they're all men, roughly 25-40 years old. Maybe they're co-workers or in an amateur league. But there's something else I haven't mentioned. "Look at how they're all smiling," he says. He's noticed their happiness.

In quiet corners of the elevated park, people are curled up on benches - sometimes in pairs or in small groups of friends, other times reading alone or murmuring into their phones. One woman meditates in lamplight. The park snakes past apartment buildings on the level of their upper floors. The window shades are not entirely effective. There are still glimpses of life at home: a pair of feet in a foot bath, the flicker of a TV, an empty, neatly made bed, an empty bathtub in dim blue light.

Clouds coast on a baby blue sky. The horizon has softened to a shade of peach. Fishermen set up a boom box that plays soft percussive music.

It's amazing that this is really Jupiter I'm seeing - the pinprick of light resolving into an image of the distant planet. Almost as if I could touch it.

The dance she comes up with is a sequence of summer images: bees, sprinklers, back strokes, ocean waves, and sunshine.