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.