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.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Week in Seven Words #381

He rehearses his chorus song sweetly and a little goofily.

He's delighted by the rides he's taken on the subway. He likes observing people's behavior, how they make use of limited space and what they do to pass the time during their commute. As an older man, he hasn't become jaded. He loves to investigate and explore, and the mundane can be fascinating.

Leafy trees look like they're wearing green ruffled blouses.

She brings flash cards to the table. Her mouth is pressed to a thin line as she flips them over by her plate. Her food goes largely ignored.

People often unleash their anger on an easy target, but here she doesn't - she's nice to the waitress, who was nervous about getting blamed for the restaurant's mistake.

It's been a while since I received a bear hug. It lasts long enough for the warmth to settle into my bones, but stops short of making me feel trapped.

The meal is heavy. The diners sag, and their eyelids flicker against the weight of sleep.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Week in Seven Words #380

I'm in Brooklyn somewhere, after a late dinner, and every subway station I go to is closed, the stairways to the tracks boarded up. I wander out to a boardwalk overlooking an ocean. I can see the moon not by looking at the sky but by looking through the dark, transparent ocean. The moon is glowing through the water. It's enormous.

The conversation deteriorates into peevish muttering. Again, no progress towards a solution or even an understanding.

In a crowded, noisy room, they find a window seat tucked behind curtains, where they press up against each other and whisper.

During the meal, he scrolls through headlines on his phone. He rarely reads the articles. Only headlines, which make him feel vindicated sometimes but angry mostly.

After the party, they fall into a couple of chairs and kick off their heels. The table is covered in used glasses and liquor bottles filled to different levels. They pour drinks and clink their glasses, which probably aren't clean, in a wordless toast to a night well-spent.

She walks barefoot to feel the rasp of the stone on her feet.

She slips an invitation under my door. It's for a dinner, a few weeks from now.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Fraught Parent-Child Relationships in Daniel Deronda

Like other novels by George Eliot, Daniel Deronda is dense and rich. Eliot has an exquisite sensitivity to the inner life of her characters and the way they're struggling with or making sense of their place in their society and culture.

Three of the characters (Daniel, Gwendolen, and Mirah) struggle to find a place for themselves in the world. For different reasons, they're not at home in their own lives. Parent-child relationships are a key reason they feel lost or are experiencing a crisis.

Gwendolen isn't a likable character, but she's rendered sympathetic by Eliot, especially as the novel unfolds, and she begins to question who she is and how she can ever learn to be good. She's raised out in the country in a respectable family that's fallen on hard times. The most influential adults in her life are her mother and uncle. Her mother, who seems to have known only unhappiness in marriage, clings to Gwendolen, and often Gwendolen needs to be a mother to her. Her uncle is short-sighted in some ways and fails as an adequate father figure for her.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Week in Seven Words #379

Canceled plans give the weekend a deflated feeling.

The fat trophy on his desk, the one I can imagine filled with mead, is a trophy he made for himself, celebrating something athletic (the inscription is small).

When he makes a nasty comment, it's similar to how he might squat and defecate in public and look you in the eye while doing it. Even if you turn away, you're left with the image of him exulting over his excrement.

She has another nightmare, but this time she also has someone's hand on her shoulder, comforting her.

She likes affection, but what she values more is trust. Let them give her the keys to a car or house, the permission to plan a wedding or offer investment advice, and she'll be happy.

One of them is enthusiastic about life and wants to learn more about it; he'll open his window and take pleasure in a tree branch, crooked like an elbow. The other one, who is roughly the same age, keeps the windows shuttered and rarely opens the door, but acts as if she knows exactly what's going on in the world.

It isn't a good idea for her to read true crime novels, just like it wasn't a good idea for her to look through WebMD for hours. Now she'll think someone is going to brain her with a statue, possibly because she has rabies.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Week in Seven Words #378

He brings out a glass bowl with six strawberries bathed in whipped cream.

The kid is determined to pretend that she's happy. She speaks in greeting card platitudes and draws smiley faces on her work. It's her way of getting through a childhood that's starved of love.

The day is flush with sunlight, and the air smells clean. I walk for an hour and feel calm.

He spins the fidget toy on the surface of the desk (spin spin spin), his attention focused entirely on it and not on his book.

The silver din of utensils and the voices sparkling and roaring pin me to the doorway for a moment, before I step into the restaurant bar during happy hour.

The cat doesn't belong to anyone in the building. He moved in, and some of the residents took responsibility for veterinary fees. Now he wanders the corridors and curls up for hours in the courtyard among potted plants and folding chairs.

Her gratitude catches me by surprise, and I don't know if it's deserved. I smile awkwardly, and the thoughts seem to empty from my head to make room for confusion.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Book recs from what I've read over the last few years

I plan to make these an annual post. What I have here are some recommendations from among the books I've read between 2014-2017.

I've read more from the Classics Club Challenge than I’ve yet written about (like Daniel Deronda by George Eliot and The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty, both recommended). Some of the others from the past few years that I recommend: Villette, Of Human Bondage, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, The Country of the Pointed Firs, The Periodic Table, Ivanhoe, Persuasion, The Living Is Easy, The Age of Innocence, and Old Goriot.

Here's an ongoing list of short stories I recommend; I've added many over the last few years, and I mention where I read each one, so hopefully you'll find some good short story collections to check out.

One of the standout history books is 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War by Charles Emmerson, a fascinating look at major cities around the world in 1913, including London, Buenos Aires, NYC, and Vienna. Full of rich depictions of politics, economics, and other elements of culture. Also, it's eerie reading about various predictions or other analyses people made at the time in light of future developments.