Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Week in Seven Words #433

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Two terrifying short stories

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

Title: The Autopsy
Author: Michael Shea

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Week in Seven Words #432

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 22, 2018

Week in Seven Words #431

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Week in Seven Words #430

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Week in Seven Words #429

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Two Very Different Movies Full of Poignant, Painful Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Week in Seven Words #428

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

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

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

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

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

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

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