Monday, December 31, 2018

Week in Seven Words #442

The table is crowned with a vase of lilacs and gladioli.

They're cheerful and polished, but their smiles seem carved out of their flesh. Their brightness has the potential to become hard and repellent.

Heavy rain, so thick it seems to come down in clots. Afterwards, the air is cool and fresh.

It's an odd, disjointed dinner. The conversation drifts frequently to weather disasters. During the silences, people peer at each other uncertainly. One guest is silent and remote, with a pinched look, as if he had been running from exhaustion for a while before it finally overtook him.

The 2 train crawls like an old fat snake that has eaten too much.

The office suite reminds me of a student center on a college campus. There's a coffee bar, vending machines, puffy sofas sitting low on the ground, and several tables tucked into booths.

A man is jogging with his dog by the lake. "How are you doing, boy?" the man asks. The dog pants. "You doing good?" The dog continues to pant. "Good boy!"

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Week in Seven Words #441

I walk past compact homes with cute balconies. On each balcony, there's a small circular table kept company by a pair of empty chairs – many little scenes set for conversations outdoors at sunset, a drink in hand, a view of the sleepy street.

The shopping center is cold, clean, and gleaming. It has a vague cologne smell and an atmosphere of emptiness.

The sunflower peeks into the rear windshield of the SUV.

Sometimes, the people who understand me best are authors I've never met.

I stay out of the discussion because of the rampant infantilization. The participants generally want to scream their point of view without hearing a bit of disagreement. Disagreement makes them feel bad. In the course of their tantrums, they threaten people's jobs, reputations, and safety.

When I step out the back entrance of the building at night, a rat immediately scurries past my feet, brushing the tips with its body. It disappears into the shrubs and not through the open door, I think.

At the gym, a man listens to a comedy podcast while doing yoga. He keeps laughing and falling out of position.

Friday, December 28, 2018

The Daughters in Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens

Paul Dombey is wealthy, proud, and heartless. Well, not entirely heartless. He shows signs, even at the start, of being able to feel a bit of unease now and then at how he treats his daughter, Florence. Because she isn't a son who will one day go into business with him, he maintains a distant coldness towards her and suppresses the occasional twinge telling him that he's not as a father should be. At various points, he also feels hatred, jealousy, or outrage because of the love and loyalty she receives from people who should be giving their attention primarily to him.

Dysfunctional parenting is a major part of Dombey and Son, which I read for the Classics Club Challenge. Dickens makes a connection between cruelty and neglect in private homes and cruelty and neglect in public life. Mr. Dombey measures Florence's worth by what she can bring to his business; she doesn't seem worth much in monetary terms. Similarly, there's a scene where Florence, as a child, is kidnapped for a short while by an old woman who steals the nice clothes off her and gives her some rags to wear before setting her free. As she tries to make her way home, Florence is soundly ignored or sneered at because of these rags; in public, her worth is measured by how much (or how little) money she appears to have.

Two other daughters in the novel – Edith Granger and Alice Marwood – are additional examples of the harm that comes from viewing people and relationships in a purely transactional way. In their case, it's their moms selling them into marriage or prostituting them. Florence, at least, had the benefit of knowing that her mother loved her; perhaps this is one reason Dickens has her maintain her angelic character. Edith and Alice, in contrast, are full of rage and bitterness, and Dickens winds up pushing them out of the way by the end of the novel, giving them tidy endings in an overseas home or in death. Florence gets to stick around because she maintains purity and an inhumanly forgiving personality. No anger for her, unnaturally so. (Among the wronged daughters in this novel, the options are all-consuming rage combined with compromised sexual purity OR unblemished forgiving sorrow combined with sexual purity.)

In any case, Dickens has chosen women as the primary way of showing the dangers of treating people as objects in a transaction, with Florence worth nothing to her dad, and Edith and Alice worth only as much as they can bring to their moms through looks, charms, and/or pleasing accomplishments.

Edith, by the way, is Mr. Dombey's second wife, and one reason their marriage tanks so quickly is that Dombey uses a go-between to express his displeasure to her. This go-between is Mr. Carker, the right-hand man in Dombey's business. (This is another way Dombey is mixing business with personal relationships.) Carker is the most smiley villain I've seen in any book. At no point did I come close to forgetting that he smiles a lot, because Dickens refers endlessly to Carker's teeth. Well, not endlessly. Carker does come to a pretty grim end, and his teeth stop appearing in the novel.

What I like best about Dickens is his description of places (here's one example) and certain psychological states and social conditions. His characters, however, don't feel quite real, even if some of their thought processes are complex and real. His descriptions can be wonderfully inventive, but he also falls back on repeating dull phrases like "weary head" and "little hand." The book, which is roughly 950 pages, is over-sweetened and made false at various points by excessive sentimentality. It's also larded with repetition.

I still think it's worth reading because of its better parts and its themes, particularly how genuine love and closeness can't exist in a relationship that's based primarily on how useful someone is to you in the wider world.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Week in Seven Words #440

Strong winds course across the rooftop. The plants and wooden stakes shiver.

One of the ways they bond is by sneering about politicians they both hate.

Now that she has started using emotion words, she likes to declare what she feels. ("Angry! Angry.")

He'd be a good person to work with, because he just wants to do the job well without any fuss.

The baby finds the small bag of dried mango that one of her older brothers really likes. She bites into a piece with a growl of satisfied possession. Because he's the closest in age to her, she especially enjoys claiming his stuff.

It's family pool time. One girl is stretched out on a lounge chair reading after a swim. Her dad tosses around her younger brother. The kids weave around each other in the water.

The warm, gentle surprise, when love comes to me unexpectedly.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Week in Seven Words #439

The farther east we walk along the beach, the more Russian we hear. A few young women run up to us at one point and say something in Russian. On seeing our blank expression, they switch to English, and we understand that they'd like their photo taken in front of the ocean.

The lawn has a velvet sheen in the sunshine.

Facing the ocean are murals depicting its degradation.

Along the boardwalk, there's a lot that's cheap and bright: plastic colors, sweet and fried foods, silly sound effects from quick games and rides.

The rollercoaster looks like red scribbles on sky blue paper.

It's a pleasant crescent of beach with a patchwork of umbrellas. There are circles of shade from the umbrellas, planks of shade from trees, and shade that shifts like cloth cast by the leaves.

He pretends to know it all, but his act is unsteady. His lips turn down at the corners. His eyes widen and look away. To make up for the uncertainties coursing through him, he deepens his voice and tosses an insult.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Week in Seven Words #438

A tourist family clumps beside me on the subway. When they hear my reassurance that they're on the right train, and that we're all going to the same place – the Staten Island Ferry – they follow me like baby ducklings until they're safely on the boat.

He apologizes for talking too much, but there's no need. He's funny, clever, and down-to-earth. His brain is an old bookshop of anecdotes you'd actually want to listen to and historic trivia made more interesting by his theatrical retellings.

Two daycare workers push a large mini-van type of stroller with six babies, who stare at us in fascination, as if they're taking a tour of a zoo stocked with strange adults.

A silent, muddy path in the woods. Something is watching me from the undergrowth. A cat.

The dog hops onto the couch, where I'm working on some editing. She presses against me and sniffs at the small pile of pages balanced on my thigh. There's a chance that she'll try eating one of them. (She doesn't. Maybe the kind of ink I'm using isn't appetizing.)

There's a timeless quality to the park's headquarters. The main room is small and smells of sawdust. The lighting is cozy and dim. Maps are scattered across the table, and posters and diagrams that largely go unread make the walls colorful. I can see the room being preserved this exact way for decades.

The field is shaped like a bowl. It's screened by trees all around, and on one side it's bordered by a broad river.