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.