Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Deal Me In - A Less Intense Version

This year, I'd like to read The Best American Essays of the Century (editor – Joyce Carol Oates; coeditor – Robert Atwan). I've already read some of the book, but there are many interesting-looking essays that remain. With that goal in mind, I'll be participating in Jay's Deal Me In Challenge, and more specifically the "Full Moon Fever Version," which requires just one suit from the card deck – that's what I can realistically commit to given the other things I'd like to read this year... plus, you know, work, chores, all that. (Click on the link for more details about Deal Me In and its variations, especially if you're planning to read essays, short stories, or other short pieces this year.)

These are the essays I've chosen. Randomly picking a card from a suit (let's go with hearts) will determine reading order. And for each of these, I'll respond with a blog post either here or at Bright Across the Lifespan.

Ace: "The Devil Baby at Hull-House" by Jane Addams

Two: "Once More to the Lake" by E.B. White

Three: "Artists in Uniform" by Mary McCarthy

Four: "The Marginal World" by Rachel Carson

Five: "The Brown Wasps" by Loren Eiseley

Six: "A Sweet Devouring" by Eudora Welty

Seven: "Perfect Past" by Vladimir Nabokov

Eight: "Illumination Rounds" by Michael Herr

Nine: "The Search for Marvin Gardens" by John McPhee

Ten: "Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying" by Adrienne Rich

Jack: "The Solace of Open Spaces" by Gretel Ehrlich

Queen: "A Drugstore in Winter" by Cynthia Ozick

King: "Heaven and Nature" by Edward Hoagland

Monday, December 30, 2019

List of Books I Recommend (2019 Edition)

Over the past year, along with continuing to read good short fiction, I've enjoyed some books I'd like to recommend here.

Three of the nonfiction books deal with critical thinking and the ability to discuss ideas:

How to Think by Alan Jacobs, which I wrote about in this post – What Affects the Quality of Your Thinking? (It's Not Just Intelligence).
The Tyranny of Opinion by Russell Blackford, which I wrote about here.
The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, which discusses various policies and attitudes that are preventing kids from becoming more resilient and emotionally and intellectually mature.

In another nonfiction book, the author traveled around the U.S. for half a year and recorded conversations with a variety of people – The Lies They Tell by Tuvia Tenenbom, which I wrote about here. Come to think of it, this book also deals with critical thinking and honest, well-informed discussion (and their frequent absence from conversations, speeches, and interviews).

Another nonfiction book, The Drowned and the Saved by Primo Levi (translated by Raymond Rosenthal), discusses some aspects of the Holocaust that are most difficult to explain and discuss, particularly the psychological effects (on victims, tormenters, bystanders). He's exploring how humans think and feel in circumstances that are deeply, deliberately inhumane.

For novels, there are a bunch I'm recommending:

Two Shirley Jackson novels – We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Road Through the Wall. Although they're different in many respects, they both present confining worlds for their characters. In one, it's a home where the reclusive remnants of a family live years after a horrible crime. In another, it's a street in a 1930s California suburb, where everyone is deeply conscious of class, sex, race, and religion, and cruelty and loneliness flourish even in respectable homes. Dysfunction is prevalent.

Speaking of confined spaces, As We Are Now by May Sarton is a powerful novel about a retired math teacher who is placed against her will in a nursing home and struggles to keep hold of her sanity and spirit:
Yes, I am afraid of a torture far worse than petty harassments, the torture of not being believed. I am afraid of being driven mad.
One of the heart-breaking things is, as the novel goes by, you want to keep believing her (and you can of course) but there might also be a doubt in the back of your mind about the accuracy of some of her perceptions. That uncertainty, however small, is part of the experience of reading this novel. And then she will say things like, "I am not mad, only old. I make this statement to give me courage," and it hits you once again how alone she is.

You'll find another interesting and tricky narrator in The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, which I wrote about here. Mr. Stevens, the butler to end all butlers.

In Good Behaviour by Molly Keane, the narrator also leads a narrow life, where much passes her by, and the reader may realize things about her family and acquaintances that remain unnoticed by her.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith has a teenaged narrator keeping a journal about her life in an old castle. Her dad is a writer stuck in what appears to be a hopeless state of writer's block. Other castle inhabitants include her sister, brother, and sweet, eccentric stepmom; also, a young man who continues to live with the family and help them out even though they can't pay him anymore and are barely staying afloat in their genteel poverty. I enjoyed the narrative voice in this coming of age story.

Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson is a novel that begins and ends in Australia. The main character struggles to escape from her backwater town only to return there towards the end of her life and wonder why she had left. A strong voice, vivid descriptions, and insights into regrets and what-ifs make this one worth reading.

I also read more Australian novels from the Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries series by Kerry Greenwood. Miss Fisher is a wealthy society lady and private detective in 1920s Melbourne, and the secondary characters in the books are memorable too. I haven't read each book in the series, which starts with Cocaine Blues, and some of the books are better than others, but overall the experience is like sampling chocolates from a large box.

Moving on to something quite different – Cancer Ward by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (translated by Nicholas Bethell and David Burg). The novel is set a couple of years after Stalin's death, and the characters are the patients and medical staff at a cancer hospital. They're facing the personal upheavals of disease and the political shifts that might mean a return for an exile and the fall of a once-favored party official. The hospital is its own little world reflecting different aspects of Soviet society and politics.

Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo is set in a small town in NY state. The town itself is a character, as well-written as the rest of the characters who are very much a part of their surroundings. You couldn't picture them living elsewhere. (Years ago, I watched an adaptation of the novel starring Paul Newman and Jessica Tandy, and I remember liking it. I'm glad that watching it made me add the book to my to-read list.)

I recently wrote a post on narrative point-of-view inspired by Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones. The novel focuses on three fifth-grade students in Atlanta during the child murders of 1979-1981. I like how distinct each character is in this book.

Then there's The Unknown Bridesmaid by Margaret Forster. It cuts back and forth between the adulthood and childhood of a psychologist who works with troubled young girls. The psychologist herself needs to deal with guilt and isolation stemming from her own childhood, in particular a life-changing day when she took her cousin's baby out for a walk without permission.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Week in Seven Words #490

The cafe is cozy, dimly lit, with a decor of dark wood and cream. What kills the atmosphere is a large, loud TV mounted on the wall, the people on it yammering away.

The splinter doesn't hurt so much, because it has lodged in a callus.

The wind stirs the pages of her speech, as if reminding her to look away from the words and at the audience.

Hearing good feedback on a draft of my novel sweetens a week of painful, worrisome symptoms.

A teenager takes a swig from a large bottle. "Water is the best f*cking drink," she says. "It's my best friend."

One man gives a lecture on confronting viewpoints radically different than your own. Another holds a discussion group that reminds me of sitting around in a dorm room at 1 a.m. pondering the meaning of life.

We haven't seen each other in a while, so over pizza we have a short, intense conversation that we try to pack with all kinds of important things – family, politics, cultural differences, the tendency of pigeons to crap on roofs and balconies.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Week in Seven Words #489

On a traffic island, as we wait for the light to change, she demonstrates capoeira moves, fight-dancing at a post.

It occurs to me an hour into my trip that the black sun hat I'm wearing is terribly unflattering. But I'm already miles from home and need that sun protection. Guess I'll have to look like a time-traveling Puritan.

On our way to dinner, she reports what someone else said about me. Whether she's relating the other person's comments accurately or editing them heavily, I don't know. The only result is that I feel uneasy. Not motivated to change, just motivated to spend less time with her and with the third party she's eager to quote.

The unannounced interruption to subway service makes our trip over an hour longer. We need to get off the train at one stop, take a bus to another stop, get on another train, and finally switch to another bus. After that comes a short shuttle ride. But it makes our arrival even sweeter. We appreciate, even more, the wide-open view of the river, the soft lawns, the flowers pulsing with color among evergreens and rocks. The air is also so clean.

The peonies are a creamy pink. They look like pastries.

siddur (סדור)
One woman talks about treasuring the repetition in prayer. Another speaks beautifully about the legacy of the Siddur. I like not just the learnedness of the discussion, but the frankness. People don't often talk about prayer in a way that's both scholarly and personal.

The light falls in a pearly sheet on glass bowls with cacti, on poppies in a cream-colored vase, on a pink crocheted cap.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Week in Seven Words #488

The dad's "SHHHH" is at first louder than the rising pitch of the child's tantrum.

The view opens up to brown hills and sunlight in visible tracks angling down from the clouds to the water.

The young woman sitting behind us on the bus is being taken on a guilt trip by her mother. She fretfully pleads her case – that she isn't staying away from home too much, or using work and friends as excuses for avoiding home. She lists dates and times when she was in fact at home, but her case is crumbling, the judge unforgiving.

She has become ridiculous to her friends, largely because her voice turned into a blaring horn as her hearing deteriorated. But there's nothing ridiculous about the joy that transforms her face when her grandson visits unexpectedly.

She glances at her daughter, who's asleep open-mouthed on the sofa, then looks away with pinched lips. "Look what's become of her," she murmurs, her disappointment genuine.

The dog is sleek and golden, friendly and energetic. He also loves eating feces, any feces he can find. His own, the cat's, another dog's. He isn't picky.

The wine bottle rolls out of the fridge and shatters, and for an hour after we're still finding bits of it. Splinters of glass wink at us from unexpected places, such as a couch cushion. What brought the glass to the couch? The soles of someone's thick socks.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Week in Seven Words #487

A narrow path takes us through a narrow park. I get the feeling that I'm in an alimentary canal, a digestive tract. There's enough food and shit scattered around to strengthen that impression.

Anxiety is like clinging to a salt-caked rock miles from shore as cold waves slap you around.

A cat investigates the automatic doors. She's too small to open them on her own. When a human passes through, she sticks her head and some of her body into the gap but quickly pulls back as the doors close. Maybe she's afraid of being trapped in the building, an unfamiliar place that smells heavily of humans and disinfectants.

Decades later, she still behaves like an unloved little girl not getting enough attention from her parents.

She eats cake with popping, slurping noises.

She has tripped and is lying facedown with her face in her hands. What hurts her more than the bruising is the awareness of a crowd around her, staring.

rubber band
She walks away from the math problem and for a few minutes pretends it isn't lurking in her notebook. With a sigh, she returns to it. Solves it. Smiles.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Six Fun Movies to Watch During the Holiday Season

A few years ago, I made a similar post, which will give you several more recommendations. These movies aren't themed for the winter holidays, but they're fun to watch on a cold night with a warm drink, like hot apple cider with rum, and they're (mostly) family-friendly. (Yes, even The Maltese Falcon can be fun for the whole family... why not.)

Title: Cinderella (1997)
Director: Robert Iscove
Language: English
Rating: G

This is a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical adaptation of Cinderella, set in a pretty Disney version of a European town. The stepmother's house looks like it's made of stained glass and melted crayons. I like how vivid all the colors are in this one, including the lush blues and purples of the ballroom scene.

The cast is vibrant. Whitney Houston plays the fairy godmother, Bernadette Peters is the stepmother, Whoopi Goldberg is the queen (an opinionated lady who makes squeaking noises of dismay), and Jason Alexander (best known as George Costanza on Seinfeld) is a royal servant with an Italian-ish accent and a song-and-dance number about the upcoming ball.

Paolo Montalban is cute as the prince, and Brandy Norwood plays a lovely, fragile-looking, and sometimes vacant-looking Cinderella. I like how, even before the prince finds her at the end, she decides to leave home, knowing that she deserves a better life than the one she has with her stepmother and stepsisters.

Title: How to Steal a Million (1966)
Director: William Wyler
Language: English and some French
Rating: Not rated

This movie has the absurdity of a screwball comedy. The leads, Audrey Hepburn and Peter O'Toole, associate under highly improbable circumstances and look beautiful while doing so. (O'Toole is so damn charming here. Reminds me a little of Peter Wimsey - intelligent, doesn't appear to take much seriously, but is more serious than he appears.)

Anyway, Hepburn plays Nicole, the daughter of an art forger who passes himself off as an art collector. He's a Wizard of Oz type of scoundrel. One thing leads to another, and Nicole realizes that to keep her father's crimes from being discovered, she'll have to steal a statue he loaned to a museum. Simon (Peter O'Toole's character) arrives on the scene as a burglar who may be able to help her. Or so she thinks.

Week in Seven Words #486

The concierge could have undergone Marine Corp boot camp training and would still not have been prepared for this particular guest and her battery of demands.

Rain gushing like the sky is full of faulty plumbing.

The cloying scent of flowers and dog feces in a narrow park.

Dressed in gym shorts and gray tees, they've plonked themselves down on a couple of pink armchairs and are now discussing whether Noah's ark could have been built.

They get sucked into a game set in another world, where there are portals opening to demonic realms and taverns where you can quaff an ale by a roaring fire.

We're eating at the bar, conversation minimal, eyes mostly on the food. We're seated shoulder-to-shoulder in quiet companionship.

They know which part of the store their child has run off to, because he's left a trail of crumbled crackers for them to follow.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Week in Seven Words #485

We sit at our own table, each of us with a little heap of food, including shawarma. At one point, a man with a sonorous voice sings "Hatikvah," and that's the highlight of the evening.

He normally has little to say, but with so many ladies around, he becomes more lively and charming. He shares cheesy, non-threatening jokes and plays up how nice he is to his mom.

The day is damp and unexpectedly cold. We meet at a pizzeria and sit at a sticky table, where I read through her writing. It's full of twisty, creative ideas and sparks of humor. But it needs more patience. She likes telling the reader everything upfront about a character's background and personality, when some things should be discovered more slowly.

Phone calls to three different offices to deal with an insurance claim rejected because of a paperwork error at a doctor's office.

The eggplants go into the ground in bright green shoots. Each plant gets its own mound, where it's tucked in for the next stage of growth. One woman presses her fingers to her lips and caresses the leaves of the ones she has planted.

They hand out lollipops to struggling students. Your grades may have tanked, but at least you get to saturate your mouth with artificial cherry flavor.

Contorting into different positions. I'm not sure how this is supposed to be relaxing. Ow, my back.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Week in Seven Words #484

At the lecture hall, the walls are a Pepto Bismol pink. I sip Diet Coke to try settling my stomach, before realizing that I probably won't be able to sit upright for two hours, not with this 24-hour bug churning in me.

A sleek gray rectangle with an impressive amount of power.

Wires have burst from the walls like intestines. It's a cold and dusty room.

The rooms are in gray and white, the lights are bright, the professionals simulate kindness.

The birthday card spurts from his hand and splats on the table, where a newspaper will soon slink over it.

Staying up late to look at models of RVs. I imagine fitting one out and just driving for months.

I wish them all well, while feeling out of place among them.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Eight Short Stories Dealing With the Complexities of Gratitude and Good Deeds

Title: The Advocate
Author: Janet Frame
Where I Read It: Prizes

Ted is super helpful. On a busy street, he assists people with disabilities or kids separated from their mothers. He puts in extra time at work. And he keeps referring to the many friends he has, and the people at work who like and value him.
Then why was he so alone? Why does he go to bed each night hoping for immediate sleep to ward off his loneliness? Why does he go every Sunday afternoon to the pictures and sit alone in the dark through two showings of the programme, and then return to his deserted flat and once more go to bed, trying to evade the loneliness?

He hasn't a friend in the world, and he knows it.
Ted is super helpful, or at least that's how he sees himself. Behind his back, people call him unflattering things, like "conceited" and "overbearing." But what happens after his death? They say nicer things about him at his funeral - that he was "helpful," "courteous," "a noble and good man." Has the way he died influenced how they choose to remember him (or how they say they remember him)? His attempts at helpfulness form a shell around his hollow life, and the way people speak of him after he departs from that life doesn't change how isolated he was. His helpfulness never meant as much as he wanted it to.

Title: The Comforts of Home
Author: Flannery O'Connor
Where I Read It: Everything That Rises Must Converge

Fear, anger, and self-hatred are often directed outward. Good deeds may be twisted by a lack of self-awareness and a poor understanding of other people. Gratitude is easily overshadowed by resentment and contempt.

Thomas, the main character, is in his 30s and lives with his mother, who supports him and tends to him. When she extends her generosity to an unstable young woman, Thomas finds the situation intolerable. His life is shaped by his mother serving him, and by the voice of his deceased father, a man with a rotten character; his father's voice is in his head, corrupting him and rendering him powerless to be his own man. Thomas shares some similarities with the young woman he hates, namely the fact that neither shows much gratitude to his mother. They're also both stunted people. Instead of fighting to understand himself better and push against the demons in his head, Thomas makes the fight external, so that his mother's home becomes a battleground where he pits himself against a female demon. He can't see or admit to himself that he's stuck in a state of immaturity or that (horrors) he may even find this woman sexually attractive.

Title: The Embassy of Cambodia
Author: Zadie Smith
Where I Read It: The Best American Magazine Writing of 2014

Fatou is an undocumented African immigrant who currently lives in England and works for the Derawals, a wealthy Indian family. She considers whether she's their slave, as they withhold her wages for food and board and keep hold of her passport. However, they don't keep her locked up, maybe because there are few places she can go. One exception - that Fatou makes an exception for herself - is a local health club; she sneaks into the club using one of the Derawals' guest passes that they've forgotten about. And she makes one friend, another immigrant studying part-time in England and working as a night guard.

The story highlights sharp divisions. A street, even in a first world and supposedly liberal country, can be carved up among different ethnic groups who keep to themselves. There are also divisions based on wealth and on one's status as an immigrant. Fatou can't declare to the wider world who she is and where she lives. Back home, she worked at a resort and was raped by a guest who afterwards pleaded with her not to tell anyone, as if the authorities would have helped her. So she's in England, working for a family that despises her and would respond to accusations of injustice by insisting that she feel grateful for their employment. However, when she saves one of the Derawals' children, they find that they can't live with gratitude towards her. To feel grateful to her would mean seeing her as a fully fledged human, and the position in which they've placed her doesn't allow for her full humanity.

What on Earth does the embassy of Cambodia have to do with any of this? Fatou passes by this embassy. She can't see past its walls or know who is playing a game of badminton on its grounds. The idea of Cambodia is an abstract one. She's as of little concern to them as they are to her. People can live a short distance from each other and know nothing of each other.

Title: A Gift from Somewhere
Author: Ama Ata Aidoo
Where I Read It: The Art of the Story

The story starts with an encounter between two people: a wandering religious man who scrapes together a living offering spontaneous prayers and placebos, and a woman who's afraid her baby is dying. Her other babies have died, and this one looks like he's going to follow. The man, who didn't anticipate having to work miracles with a nearly dead baby, is terrified the child will die in his arms; as soon as he has handed out an injunction to the mother for preserving life, he gets out of there and leaves the child to its almost inevitable death.

The story then shifts perspective to the mother. Her baby, named Kweku Nyamekye, unexpectedly survives and becomes a thriving boy. Was it a divine miracle, worked through the religious man? What happened exactly to cause the reversal in her fortunes and her child's? It's a mystery. There's also another mystery that the mother can't understand - the hatred that her husband feels towards Nyamekye. Maybe he envies the extent of her devotion to the child, what she's willing to sacrifice for the boy and the bright hopes she holds for his future - an adult life that will maybe offer more possibilities and broader horizons than his father's. The characters seem to live in an invisible, complex system of weights and balances, where the calculations are made just out of sight.

There's a ferris wheel feeling to the story, sinking and rising in one's chest, only the ferris wheel is an unstable one; it wobbles more than is safe and might tumble and roll away. Despair rises to hope and joy; hope and joy sink to anger and defensiveness, before rising again to hope. One person's fortune might feel to another like a curse. Throughout the narrative, there's a bewilderment about why people behave the way they do, and why events unfold as they do. The characters are religious, but ascribing events to divine will still leaves them uncertain and reeling, shaken with gratitude and joy or staggering with loss. There's little they take for granted.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Week in Seven Words #483

I need to see each day as a jewel that has landed in my palm.

They've hung up bird feeders in one part of the woods. It's a bird plaza now with restaurants and chatter and excited cries. Squirrels try to intrude, while humans mostly keep a respectful distance, observing this avian culture with its own languages and customs.

A park ranger looks out over the formal garden and breaks into a smile when she spots two young men, her grandsons. "Happy birthday!" they call out, and she laughs as they hug her. Nothing could top a surprise visit from her grandsons on her birthday. They lead her down a path. Behind a mass of shrubs, a dozen other family members are waiting for her with balloons, cake, and gifts.

In one garden, the ranks of daffodils and tulips look like pageant contestants; their gowns are creamy and crisp, pink and white and yellow. In another garden, the tulips are at a party, in disordered swirls of color at sunset.

Close to dusk, an egret with a neck like a question mark poses on a flat rock.

Savoring a pear on a walk after dark past store windows with lurid sci-fi displays.

When it barks, the dog sounds like a sea gull. A goose stands on a stone fringed with small blue flowers. A child in pink taffeta tears down an avenue of pink blossoming trees. I'm in a fairy tale.

Week in Seven Words #482

Phone calls yielding false information, corrections, sarcasm from rude receptionists, repetition (what's your date of birth? what's your insurance?).

Throughout the afternoon, I enjoy samples of the food she's prepared.

A silvery waterfall in a marble lobby. The tap-tap of heels, the squeak of leather shoes.

I enjoy singing with them. I enjoy his jokes. We walk back on a cool, windy night.

Some of the characters: A chatty widow with a chin that looks like a weedy garden; another woman, quiet and carefully put together, wearing creamy makeup and eating her cake with quick, tidy bites; a young man propelled by wine and joy to dance at the end of the meal with two other men, their shirts crawling out of their pants, their faces flushed.

Going to a different type of synagogue. I notice what's been truncated in the service and omitted deliberately or carelessly. I also notice the atmosphere of geniality, welcome, and compassion.

She prays for people who are feeling stuck. I close my eyes, hearing this prayer.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Week in Seven Words #481

The baby is replete with slices of banana. He reclines on his dad's lap and accepts the mushy offerings from his mom.

What does my health insurance plan cover? The customer service representatives don't always seem to know. They offer optimistic but uncertain responses.

A lumpy black tree - it glows with dark warmth like a coal.

A peach gray sunset over the river. Blossoms imprinted on it like stars.

They exclaim over a Portuguese water dog, which flutters at their attention and seeks their patting hands.

Two girls roughhousing. Shoves, handstands, shouts, laughter.

"I don't get it," she says. Then, as I explain, her eyes seek the ceiling, the surface of the desk, her phone, her nails. "I don't get it," she says.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Week in Seven Words #480

More schools handing out high grades based on low standards. They lull students into a complacency that's shattered by failed statewide exams.

The fierce wind blows dirt into our eyes. The dirt is loose because nothing has been planted yet. Only a few stringy weeds have claimed the soil.

We're stumbling through the steps for completing the square, as if we're in a clumsy mathematical square dance with no feel for the music. Just going through the motions.

A duck puffing and rustling with deep blue in its wings, looking like an agitated decorative pillow.

She urges me to admire the chandelier, to contemplate its intricate beauty, but it's blazing, and my eyes hurt.

People gather in the park to fish, share a blanket, feel fresh air, catch at a friendship that's slipping away.

A turtle on a rock, its head tilted up as if it's scenting the weather.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Week in Seven Words #479

It's a bleak, grand landscape of bare earth and massive rocks.

The bookstore is underwhelming, basically a shrunken Barnes & Noble with a selection watered down to what's most trendy. One of the things I like about bookstores is coming across a book I wouldn't have known about otherwise; that isn't likely to happen here.

A teenaged boy plucks a bud from a magnolia tree. "Is this opium?" he asks his friend. An old lady, walking past them, snorts with laughter. She tells them to come back in a couple of weeks, when the beautiful opium will be in bloom. ("But is it really opium?" he asks. She shakes her head and explains that no, it really isn't.)

They've turned a part of the park into a meadow with mulch paths. The long grass is soaked in sunshine.

Around the rock clusters, the stream looks like a ripply diamond-paned window.

A blister is ballooning on my pinky toe, but I don't mind so much, because it's good to be hiking.

She complains how he's glommed onto her, and how he won't stop talking, but she has no problem using him to carry her coat, camera, or backpack as the need arises.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Week in Seven Words #478

They used to like her. Now they just humor her. It's painful to see.

She looks like a ball of satin. Her puffy clothes have a pink sheen.

A stroller abandoned beside the statue of a warrior, its swords upraised.

We're clumped around tables on the second floor, the room warm, the liquor poured liberally, one girl dressed as a pirate blurting, "Arrgh, arrr!" to muffled laughter.

Pine needles look like cascades of silver-green water.

On a cramped balcony they've lined up clay pots painted light blue, lavender, and ochre. An outdoor garden where nothing grows yet. It's all prettiness and possibility.

They announce his single status to the room. When he blushes and lowers his eyes, they laugh.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Six Short Stories Showing Professional Decline (or Failure)

Title: The Colonel's Foundation
Author: Louis Auchincloss
Where I Read It: Legal Fictions

What I remember of this story... the main character is a lawyer who belongs to his firm's founding family. Unlike the people who currently run the firm, he isn't shark-like and aggressive; he's more of a gentleman lawyer. To show his colleagues and bosses that he isn't useless, that he can pull his own weight in a cut-throat environment, he takes the case of an eccentric old man who wishes to set up a foundation as part of a will. Things don't go as planned, in this wry story of greed, blindness, and a desperation to prove oneself.

Title: Dark Matter
Author: Martin J. Smith
Where I Read It: Orange County Noir

He reached into the pocket of his robe. When he pulled it out, I saw something black in his hand and swallowed hard. Who carries a gun in their bathrobe?
The narrator serves eviction notices and is now in a house on Balboa Island (in Southern California) where a washed-up rock star lives. The rock star invites him into a world of tremendous dysfunction, including a dead groupie in a bath tub and a tiger on the loose. Just a freaky little story about decaying celebrities and the people they bring down with them.

Title: Of the Cloth
Author: William Trevor
Where I Read It: The Hill Bachelors

The dream came often and he knew it did so because the past was never far from his thoughts. He knew, as well, that the pages could not be turned back, that when the past had been the present it had been uneasy with shortcomings and disappointments, injustice and distress.
Reverend Grattan Fitzmaurice oversees a declining Protestant church in Ireland (a denomination called the Church of Ireland). He notes without apparent resentment that a nearby Catholic church seems lively enough; the story eventually mentions the child abuse scandals, but at this point the damage to the church's popularity and overall participation isn't noticeable.

Fitzmaurice and his Catholic counterpart don't interact until the death of Con Tonan, a Catholic man who used to work for years in Fitzmaurice's rectory garden. Fitzmaurice attends Tonan's funeral, and later that evening a Catholic priest visits him for a chat. The story portrays peaceful resignation and the realization people sometimes have about the purpose of their lives. For Fitzmaurice it may not have been anything grand, but it meant something – his greatest mission in life may have been to help his Catholic gardener. ("He had never thought of Con Tonan in his garden as a task he'd been given, as a single tendril of the vine to make his own.") Maybe he couldn't sustain the entirety of his congregation, but he was good to someone in apparently small ways that were still important.

The story's atmosphere is a part of its beauty. Making his way through a dark garden, during the evening of his day and of his profession, Grattan Fitzmaurice thinks of Ireland as a whole and finds in his love of it some more common ground to share with the priest:
They loved it [Ireland] in different ways: unspoken in the dark, that was another intimation. For Grattan there was history's tale, regrets and sorrow and distress, the voices of unconquered men, the spirit of women as proud as empresses. For Grattan there were the rivers he knew, the mountains he had never climbed, wild fuchsia by a seashore and the swallows that came back, turf smoke on the air of little towns, the quiet in long glens. The sound, the look, the shape of Ireland, and Ireland's rain and Ireland's sunshine, and Ireland's living and Ireland's dead: all that.
Fitzmaurice, a relic in some ways, is a part of this greater landscape.

Title: Prince of Darkness
Author: J.F. Powers (James Farl Powers)
Where I Read It: American Short Stories Since 1945

Another story with priests! I didn't think I'd find it fascinating to read about a priest who wants his own parish, but the story held my interest. This priest has an image of himself as a rebel or nonconformist of sorts, not always tactfully holding his tongue or pandering to his superiors. However, at a crucial moment, he behaves deferentially. And his 'rebel' stance is really about getting a reaction out of his colleagues, rather than an expression of deeply held principles; he isn't trying to change anything for the better. To parishioners he's indifferent, dismissive in the confessional, and he lives to cater to his soft appetites and to find a cushy position. This selfish, soft, insubstantial character represents some of the deeper problems in the priesthood, including a contempt for female parishioners in particular and an embroilment in petty politics and status-seeking.

Title: The Psychologist Who Wouldn't Do Awful Things to Rats
Author: James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon)
Where I Read It: The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories

Tilman is a psych researcher in an animal lab. His colleagues treat the animals like machines they're breaking apart into components, and it doesn't matter how cruel they are if the cruelty serves science. Tilman, in contrast, has a set of rats he's breeding, and his work involves observing their behavior; he feels kindly towards his rodents and wouldn't try to remove various parts of their nervous system or other organs.

This approach is looked down on, and the head of the department subtly threatens Tilman's career, telling him that his work is too vague. And while Tilman is a gentle guy, there are some hints early in the story of darkness in him, when he contemplates some of his colleagues and students, particularly the ones who are female. Tilman's career changes - some would say for the better - after he drinks absinthe. Crude misogyny and a complete indifference to animal life make him a new scientist ready to impress his boss. (Could he have stuck with his original line of work? He loved pursuing questions, and he was patient. But he gives up in the face of the pressure, and the humanity drains from him.)

Title: Willing
Author: Lorrie Moore
Where I Read It: The Art of the Story

She was unequal to anyone’s wistfulness.
Sidra is an actress whose career has gone nowhere. She abandons her life (in the sense that she lets it run away from her), and it begins in some ways to resemble her roles in its cheapness, aimlessness, and tawdry confrontations with a guy she's sleeping with and doesn't love. Part of what's interesting about this story is how its voice and its main character grab your attention, but once your attention is held, you wonder what it is you're looking at, other than a trainwreck of a human life.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Week in Seven Words #477

He butts into her study session with sighs and dramatic comments. "How do you not KNOW this stuff already?"

I don't hear the bike as it barrels towards me on the sidewalk. I only realize after, what could have happened if I'd stepped a foot to the left.

Ineffective sorts of triage - that's what he calls the proposals to address an ever-growing wealth inequality and a middle class eroding.

He asks, "What inspires you?" "Good writing," I say, "good discussion, good books."

A husky and a squirrel run alongside each other, with only a slender fence between them.

I come across these lines from Emily Dickinson: "Not knowing when the dawn will come / I open every door."

High-end department stores create a "poverty chic" aesthetic for their window displays. The clothes look like they were fished out of a donation bin an hour ago, but they cost hundreds of dollars.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Week in Seven Words #476

A blast of temper sends him stomping away from the table to shout at his kids.

Grimy windows, gray weather, the smell of unwashed sweaters, a short line for sandwiches.

The apartment gleams after a thorough cleaning.

They like the board game because it's politically incorrect; it asks for impersonations of accents, mannerisms, facial expressions. But they don't count on the awkwardness of enjoying the game in public. Shortly after one of the players has shared her version of an accent from India, they notice two people from India at a nearby table. Immediately, they feel sheepish. They laugh uncertainly.

He talks about how his dog is kinder than most humans. Maybe that's the case, but it's interesting to consider what he means by kindness. With dogs, as long as you bond with them, they'll usually be on your side no matter what; it isn't a hard decision on their part, requiring some mental or spiritual effort. With humans, kind words and actions are a conscious choice. Kindness is complex, and it can be difficult, especially in a complicated situation or when you're feeling irritated or impatient. A dog's loyalty can feel wonderful, but does it make sense to compare it to human kindness?

He hits on an uncomfortable truth about his parents' marriage, and the room goes tense with silence and funny breathing and forced, puzzled looks, as if the kid doesn't know what he's talking about.

In a week, she goes from defiantly using a flip phone to texting frequently, delightedly, on her new smartphone. Including a masterful use of emojis.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Week in Seven Words #475

As his wife and kids explore the plaza, a man dozes on a ledge with his feet in an empty stroller.

The kids, small and roughly the same age, form a messy row at the restaurant counter. They remind me of teacups, piping, clattering, releasing whirls of steam.

The hamburger is a salt lick, but the conversation is good. Half-eaten food and intense discussion.

Lights dance on the ceiling in dots and rhombuses.

"Can we go on the rides?" the child asks. "This is a museum," her mother replies. "There are no rides."

In the park, music from a hoarse violin. A bird makes tentative hops towards the violinist.

Celebrating the conclusion of a stressful obligation with a personal pizza and episodes of a show set in outer space, many light years from here.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Week in Seven Words #474

Bumping into someone with the same last name, whose first name is different from mine by just one letter, and whose dad's name is the same as my grandfather's name.

At the board game cafe, we're packed with our puffy coats and bags on benches around long, narrow tables. Beer bottles are placed at easy elbowing distance. One guy, red from drink and heat, roars with laughter at every suggestion that comes up in Cards Against Humanity.

Panhandlers press through the crowds outside of bars and nightclubs.

Rain in white slashes on the window. It's cozy indoors, just us, speaking little and sharing food.

She's a poet, her business card tells me. She says little about herself, and in that way becomes imbued with poetic mystery.

After dinner, they pass the time with Snapchat filters, forming images of elves, goblin aliens, and victims of demonic possession.

The restaurant is clean and unostentatiously elegant. It has dark wood paneling and surfaces that glow with intimate lighting. The food is arranged in neat, stiff patterns on spotless plates.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

When Ellie Arroway Makes First Contact in Contact (1997)

Title: Contact
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Language: English
Rating: PG

In Contact, Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster), who for years has been involved in a search for extraterrestrial life, gets to make face-to-face contact with an alien.

It's a disorienting sequence of events, with ambiguity as to what happens (and how it happens). It's also the most visually beautiful part of the movie. Arroway, committed to recording what she is seeing as she glimpses new parts of the galaxy, is almost robbed of speech by how magnificent everything is. With tears in her eyes, she talks about how officials should have sent a poet to be the ambassador of humanity. Maybe a poet could have found words, though I think a poet would have been overwhelmed too. I especially liked Foster's performance in this sequence; it was moving.

The moment of first contact itself is part of this resplendence. It's a gentle connection, full of beauty and wonder and humility. The being she encounters assumes the form of her father, who passed away when she was a child, and this image becomes a metaphor of how this alien species views humans. The aliens are more advanced and mentor-like (though not close to all-knowing); the humans are fledglings, not yet prepared to become part of the web of species that have established communication with each other.

I smile thinking about how a movie involving an extraterrestrial experience makes you appreciate humanity more, as brutish and arrogant as we can be. (What's likely the first sign of us that aliens pick up is a broadcast of Hitler's speech at the 1936 Olympics.) The movie celebrates the potential of humanity, and not just our potential for destruction.

I liked the portrayal of science: the enthusiasm, obsessiveness, long hard slogs, and careful thought and preparations. Also the fight for grant money, and the stress of dealing with politics and with other people sliding in to take attention and credit from you. (As in The Silence of the Lambs, Jodie Foster plays a woman in a field dominated by men and fed up with the politics and power plays.)

Contact also discusses faith, the awe and humility in faith. The main proponent of faith and religious belief in the movie is Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey). McConaughey's performance is mostly about looking calm and wise, and Palmer's function is mostly to remind Ellie that there are different kinds of "unknown" and "unseen," and that science alone can't provide guidance about developing a meaningful life. (He also isn't "anti-science.") Humility and a sense of wonder are (or should be) a part of faith and a part of scientific discovery; we are questing beings – humble, thoughtful, and courageous at our best.

Week in Seven Words #473

My mind is gripped by the potential mistakes, the possible costs, the hypothetical scenarios where things go terribly wrong.

It's a social event where no one is at ease. People are sizing each other up, suspicious and assessing.

A homeless man has set up a small room made of blanket walls by the doors of a supermarket.

Giving more thought to a chapter that portrays a slide towards despair, a character contemplating an end to her life. I check that I'm writing it with sufficient care.

Looking both embarrassed and proud, he talks about how he allowed himself to get really mad and fight a few other men at a subway station, just because he needed to relieve stress. I had never pictured him as the type to let off steam through physical combat with potentially lethal repercussions, a situation where someone could end up knifed or knocked onto the third rail.

We aren't having a conversation, just taking turns talking. The topics drift and leave little impression.

A clear, crystalline day when the air seems to come from a fresh spring untainted by car exhaust and sidewalk garbage.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Week in Seven Words #472

She prefers working for a smaller company. The larger corporations demand too much conformity.

The room has deep red wallpaper and animal heads mounted on the walls. Nothing else.

I'm looking through picture books for a gift, and it amazes me how skinny books with simple illustrations and one word per page ("Running," "Flying,") have double-digit price tags.

He returns to the topic of his anger, and how he wishes he had learned earlier in life a whole vocabulary of emotions. To be able to put words to his feelings would have helped him stave off the outbursts that derailed his career. It's never just about words; it's about understanding yourself, the source of your feelings, and the options for how to act.

The branches of the bare trees form a diaphanous net that catches the sunlight.

I overcome my own self-consciousness to talk to him, which helps him overcome his self-consciousness. We have a lovely chat.

From many windows, the same game is flickering. One large TV after another, mounted to a wall and dominating a room with the same shots.

Week in Seven Words #471

I need to curb my impatience and allow him to arrive at an answer. He needs to think quietly, then have the time to explain and evaluate his conclusions. I don't want to immediately jump in and tell him what's wrong. He needs to work through it.

For most of that one day, I look at the rest of the world as if from another dimension.

As she walks, she tosses crumbs from a plastic bag. Pigeons fly in from all around. Their wings make splatting sounds, and they land in a bristling crowd on the sidewalk.

There's a cleft in the rock, and it overlooks water, trees, and shimmering buildings. People take turns standing in it for selfies. It's practically a photo booth.

They negotiate eating a pizza outdoors, in an atmosphere of tension and discontent. The seats are uncomfortable. The napkins fly off.

She's unliked, unloved. Maybe deep down she realizes how much, and it hurts to see.

A woman uses a bullhorn to remind the kids on the playground, "Keep your coats on."

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Nine Short Stories That Involve Friendship in Some Way

Title: The Devoted Friend
Author: Oscar Wilde
Where I Read It: The Happy Prince and Other Tales

"'There is no good in my going to see little Hans as long as the snow lasts,' the Miller used to say to his wife, 'for when people are in trouble they should be left alone, and not be bothered by visitors. That at least is my idea about friendship, and I am sure I am right. So I shall wait till the spring comes, and then I shall pay him a visit, and he will be able to give me a large basket of primroses and that will make him so happy.'
The Miller is wealthier than Hans not only materially but also in wisdom. He has such strong ideas about what a good friendship should look like and makes sure that Hans lives up to them. Even if this results in Hans giving and giving to the point of death, while the Miller benefits without losing anything at all, the Miller will still be able to pat himself on the back for being a steadfast, devoted friend.

Title: Fish
Author: Lienna Silver
Where I Read It: Los Angeles Noir

The story features older Russian immigrants living in Los Angeles. The main character, Ivan Denisovich, was forced into a gulag earlier in his life (the character is an allusion to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn). These days, Ivan lives comfortably, though he isn't entirely satisfied with his life and feels out of place in California. In the course of the story, he heads out on a fishing trip with a much more easygoing friend; their lifelong friendship, which has spanned continents, has given Ivan's life a greater sense of stability and continuity. But by the end of the story, he learns some things about his friend. Should he react in anger? Because what would anger change, anyway, late in life.

Title: A Friend in the Trade
Author: William Trevor
Where I Read It: The Hill Bachelors

This is a surprisingly moving story about a married couple (Clione and James) who part ways from an odd, often self-absorbed friend (named Michingthorpe). They're about to move out into the country, and because Michingthorpe doesn't have a car, he likely won't come by anymore.

Their friendship has a professional basis, as they're all working in the book trade, but Michnigthorpe has become more than a professional connection. He's a part of their life in a way that feels more personal. He's probably in love with Clione, even if he doesn't (or can't) show it in a conventional way. Also, he appears to need the couple more than they need him. Few other people – maybe no one else – would spend time with him as they do.

Whatever the true nature of Michingthorpe's attachment, Clione doesn't want to write him off as just some oddball with poor social skills.
She does not know why he will not come, only that he won't. She does not know why the pity she feels is so intensely there, only that it is and that his empty love is not absurd.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Week in Seven Words #470

I see people tuning out of politics because of the craziness overload. The feeling of disconnect is understandable. But with greater disengagement, particularly from people who are more sensible and moderate, there will also be greater extremism and corruption.

He understands pieces of the math – a rule about square roots, another about order of operations – but how to bring it all together? That's the really tough part. The word problems are especially confusing.

On adjacent blocks: luxury developments and project housing. Few storefronts, except for a convenience store almost walled-in by construction scaffolding. Sidewalks mostly empty.

Along the water, the wind almost carries people away like bits of fluff.

The gleeful malice of people who know they have the mob on their side. For the time being they can avoid accountability and critical self-reflection. They're all pumped up and ready to tear other people apart, the easier the target the better. None of this is about courage.

Signs of his nervousness: showing up late and taking frequent bathroom breaks.

An hour of mild conversation at a cafe, like a soak in tepid water.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Week in Seven Words #469

I don't understand the appeal of a carriage ride in the park. The horses look depressed. The ride won't even show you the best sights.

They've been married for 30 years, and there's a 20-year age gap between them. Their wedding took place when he was in his 20s, and she was in her 40s.

One of the main points of agreement among the dozen or so people around the table is how difficult it is to change a habit. It's great to hear about the different approaches people take to uproot an entrenched pattern of behavior or thought. The strategies include introducing a new habit to supplant the old one, speaking out loud to yourself, and keeping track of progress in a journal. Outcomes vary, with reports of progress, backsliding, futility, triumph, vigilance.

Where to even start with this essay. He's gasped out a couple of sentences. Copy and pasted a bunch of links into the file but hasn't read them yet. Come to think of it, that's a start of sorts. We can work with what's there.

We cut through the park about an hour after sunset. I like how alien it feels. The rock formations look like gigantic creatures curled up in sleep. The skyline glitters like a computing device. People emerge into lamplight and lose themselves in shadow soon after.

He shows me the blueprints, the promise of a home remade. He tries not to think too much about the bureaucratic red tape and the noise and messiness of construction.

At night, we walk past the large, arched window of a museum. A marble statue, turned mostly away from us, still seems to peer at us from the corner of its eye.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Week in Seven Words #468

Teens form clots on the train's platform, their eyes on their phones, mouths pressed to sugary drinks.

The structure, repetition, and sheer colorfulness of a picture book. Some wit in this one too. Since I'll probably be reading it more than once, it's best to find qualities to appreciate.

It's a crisp, sunny day, but in the middle of our walk a mild hail falls, only a passing shower, pelting us lightly.

She looks tired – coffee firmly attached to her hand, bags under her eyes, a weak grin of determination.

He's become obsessed with wrestling, namely WWE wrestlers. Using cardboard from discarded boxes, he's cut out and colored in a slew of wrestlers. I identify Hulk Hogan from the yellow blobs of hair on the face.

We're huddled together by the water. The sky is creamy and tinged with pink and purple. The buildings are silvery.

At lunch, they play a Trivial Pursuit type of game on their phone, the screen getting smeared with barbecue sauce as they stab at the answers (which are mostly correct, except for pretty much anything in the sports category).

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Who's the Butler in The Remains of the Day?

Years ago, I watched The Remains of the Day, and just recently I read the novel, which was written by Kazuo Ishiguro.

The narrator, Mr. Stevens, is an aging butler who has been working at the same grand home for decades. In the 1950s, that grand home is owned by an American, a kindly man who encourages Mr. Stevens to take some time off. Mr. Stevens embarks on a weeklong road trip to visit a woman he still thinks of as Miss Kenton, though she has been married for years now. She was once a housekeeper working alongside him during the 1920s and 1930s, the pinnacle of his butlerhood, when the house belonged to Lord Darlington.

The novel alternates between Mr. Stevens' observations about his road trip and his reminiscences about his years under Lord Darlington. What I enjoyed most about this book is that it's difficult to pin the narrator down - who is he, really?

He says that being a butler is much more than wearing a costume of professionalism that one easily discards. A butler must be, at almost all times, in complete mastery of emotions, impeccable at service, ever correct in conduct, and placing the needs of his employer first. Only when a butler is completely alone, says Mr. Stevens, can he shed his professional demeanor.

The thing is, Mr. Stevens never seems to set aside his professional demeanor. Even in moments in the book when he's on his own, his mind is focused on professional matters. When it's revealed at one point that he sometimes reads sentimental love stories, he claims it's primarily to improve the way he speaks on the job. Though he unbends enough to admit to sometimes enjoying the content of the stories, this enjoyment is secondary to professional improvement.

He can't even talk about personal matters without first making them professional. His wish to visit Miss Kenton after all these years holds personal interest to him, but he ultimately justifies his trip by saying that he wants to talk to her about her potential return into service as a housekeeper, so that she can help him with a current staffing shortage. When he talks about his father, who was also a butler, he focuses not on their father-son relationship but on his father as a professional servant. (Mr. Stevens Sr., on his death bed, expresses the doubt that he's been a good father to his son, but Mr. Stevens Jr. dashes away to fulfill some duties rather than speak of this matter to his father.)

It's clear that Mr. Stevens is disconnected from himself emotionally, but is the disconnect really so powerful that he can barely understand himself? Or is he still deliberately acting the part of butler to his current audience, the reader? Because if he's addressing the reader, he isn't entirely alone, and he can't quite shed his butler persona and talk about certain personal issues more directly. Then again, the butler persona seems to be much more than a persona to Mr. Stevens. It's not acting - it's something that he's integrated into himself so deeply, and he probably wouldn't know how to behave without it.

Towards the end of the book, he speaks most openly about his profound regrets, but interestingly, he doesn't address this revelatory speech to the reader, but to a stranger who happens to be sitting next to him at a pier. The reader finds out by listening in, as it were.

Maybe confronting his regrets too directly, as an explicit part of his narrative to the reader, would lead to utter mental collapse. He needs his butler duties to prop him up. His commitment to duty has sheltered him all these years from overly close contact with other people, though of course they've left him with regrets. One regret is missing the opportunity to marry Miss Kenton. Another is that his former employer, Lord Darlington, who received Mr. Stevens' unquestioning loyalty and self-sacrifice, was a Nazi appeaser – maybe not so much because he subscribed to Nazi ideology but because he was a dupe who helped the Nazis influence other well-connected, powerful Brits to take a similar stance on appeasement.

So what's left for Mr. Stevens at the end? He mentions that he needs to learn how to banter, as bantering seems to be a way to connect with people. However, his main reason for learning banter is to better please his new American employer. He's a butler, through and through, to the end. It could be that's the impression he wants to leave to the reader, but it's also probably the only solid reality he can hang onto in his life, the only way he knows how to keep living.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Week in Seven Words #467

Squeezed into a seat on the subway, a young girl hugs her younger brother on her lap and kisses him repeatedly on the back of the head.

She soaks her feet in a foot bath with a bath bomb that dyes her legs faintly blue.

The boats on the pier are massive and idle. A gangplank has extended from one of them but no one walks on it. It's a drowsy day.

The massive clouds make the buildings by the harbor look small and brittle.

Asleep in his seat, he has bent forward so much, his face is parallel to the floor.

Gates and guards and more gates around an ominous complex that makes us nervous just going near it, as if there's an unseen line we can't cross unless we want to fall under suspicion.

We walk on streets that are chiseled like diamonds, the glass buildings cut in spectacular shapes. We also walk on streets that are narrow and made narrower by heaps of garbage bags.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Week in Seven Words #466

She's giving an outdoor talk, and her voice strives to rise above the wind.

I bump into someone I know quite well in a location where I don't expect to see him. For a couple of seconds I don't recognize who he is, because his face is usually framed by other surroundings – not a street with a church on one side and glossy, sparkling storefronts on the other.

Late at night, the subway platform fills with people waiting for an infrequent train. They look up from their phones, crane forward to peer into the tunnel, sigh, look back at their phones.

The Camperdown elm looks like it has melted. Its branches are rivulets of brown wax.

We murmur how we'll see each other soon, but we probably won't. Our friendship has weakened in the last year or two, not for any one reason, or really any obvious reason.

Someone plays "La Vie en Rose" on a saxophone under an archway. They're striving to create a certain atmosphere – romantic, nostalgic, Parisian – on a muddy day.

Ginger and carrot soup to soothe what might be the beginnings of a cold.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Wave Hill: January 2013 and June 2019

There's a beautiful set of gardens in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx overlooking the Hudson River: Wave Hill. I was there once, several years ago, in January, and twice just this past month.

I'm going to share some photos of what it looks like in winter vs. late spring/early summer.




Friday, June 28, 2019

Week in Seven Words #465

We watch a movie and wonder why it was made. But we don't wonder why we're watching it to the end. The couch is comfortable. The company is undemanding and pleasant.

They pass some time with songs, a dance routine she made up with her friends, and random odd dribbles of entertainment on YouTube.

The dog strains on his leash towards the cat hospital.

The herbal smell of floor wipes, the wood floor glistening.

Each pretty house is like a storybook. Open one, and the rooms and the people would pop out in colorful illustrations.

Walking through a chill spill of rain to an overcrowded restaurant.

On her scooter she attempts to go over a speed bump slowly, as if it's a hill she's scaling.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Week in Seven Words #464

The small box of chocolates is a gift of appeasement, and I'm pleased to be appeased at this moment.

It's important to trust in small tasks. To fight the tendency of trying to catch up by doing too much all at once, failing, and feeling discouraged.

The surface of the lake looks like crinkly photographic film, black and white.

The day is fading, leaving a last gentle imprint of light on windows and bricks. We walk in silence.

For a minute, he embodies laziness. He lies on the floor. Pretends to need other people to tug him to his feet and into motion.

We enjoy a discussion that makes us feel cozy and connected, in a room many stories up with a view of steel and blue shadows.

None of the foods are appetizing. Not the sticky muffins, not the pretzels crackling like dry grass. But we appreciate that they've been laid out for us; we weren't expecting refreshments.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Week in Seven Words #463

They've booked a room next to an indoor swimming pool. During each pause in the lecture, we hear splashing and giggles.

He murders time with an online game in which something that looks like a decapitated bunny head rolls around in tunnels.

Mandarin cinnamon tea, a small high table, a conversation that flows for an hour.

It hits me again how much isn't taught at school. Even basic academic knowledge. So much gets picked up at home or in other places, like an after school activity or visits to a library, a museum, or a park.

I try without success to show a gratifying level of excitement about a gift I have no use for. I wish I could have prepared for the moment somehow.

We walk through cold streets where glowing, cheerful lights are strung. I carry a sparkling blue bag full of chocolates.

The dog tries to investigate the inside of my mouth. A couple of hours earlier I ate beef, and she's wondering if there's more to my mouth than the scent. Maybe I'm holding back on her, hoarding meat in my cheek pouches.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Week in Seven Words #462

On the train, a toddler keeps asking why the doors aren't closing yet. His mom rephrases her answer several times, providing explanations that he doesn't seem to understand or accept. Or maybe he just enjoys the series of answers, each one tweaked to be slightly different while remaining reassuringly repetitive at the same time.

For part of the year, they live in a motor home. It's a little over 24 feet long, with a bed tucked in back, a seating area like a small diner booth, and a shelf full of books above the opening to the cab area.

She doesn't know what to do with herself without her phone. She craves the infinite scroll, the fresh supply of images.

Two wolf-like dogs oversee the debate from the sofa. They look mildly interested, and a bit intimidating. Maybe they could be moderators, growling at anyone who goes off-topic.

There needs to be a game in the style of Oregon Trail, only the characters are trying to navigate the phone system of a major corporation with the ultimate goal of speaking to a human being who can provide accurate and complete answers. Along the way, your characters suffer from: disconnected lines, misinformation, long stretches of obnoxious music, rising blood pressure, automated voices that request and fail to process your input, a dozen paths or more and only one leading to competence.

The Ghirardelli squares left on each seat are a lovely touch. Chocolates on chairs, a fantastic way to welcome people to the event.

The toddler has a helmet with spikes on it. In between bursts of smooth gliding, he trips and topples over his scooter. Picks himself up, looks over his shoulder, and glides and trips and topples again. He's like a baby dinosaur learning to walk.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Week in Seven Words #461

They give me a beautifully crafted card. It opens like a red flower with many delicate petals.

Two teenaged boys take turns stepping on the head of a rake, to make it fly up at them. They want to see if they can stop it from hitting their face at the last moment.

The ice breaker activity he proposes: after stating your name, demonstrate your favorite stretch or warm-up exercise. Someone else has already done jumping jacks, so I go with toe touches.

I've been visiting their house for years and only now discover that they have an attic.

I study the table in appreciation before the food gets demolished. There are green glistening vegetables, a mound of mashed yam, two small bowls of gleaming cranberry sauce, trays of beef, turkey, and chicken... a feast.

The crackle of leaves. The scrape of the rake. The hiss of leaves compacted in trash bags.

A rough edge of anxiousness and resentment, a perception of favoritism, mars an otherwise fun board game.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Holding Beauty and Sadness at Arm's Length

I’m talking about the novel by Yasunari Kawabata, Beauty and Sadness, which I had begun to read for the Classics Club Challenge.

The start of the novel opens with the main character, Oki Toshio, reminiscing about bells ringing during New Year’s Eve in Kyoto. A little later, he is sitting in a tea house on the grounds of a temple on New Year's Eve. The great bell at this particular temple doesn’t sound quite right; he and the women he’s with are too close to it. The experience of a bell winds up being different in-person than in his nostalgic thoughts about listening to the ringing over the radio.

The moment reflects a theme in the novel - the stories we tell about ourselves and others close to us are prone to distortion, warped by our character, our feelings, and what we wish to focus on. Oki, who is a novelist, understands that fiction can distort reality, including idealizing people or removing essential parts of their humanity. His fictional distortions have led to a bestselling novel and to pain and betrayal for people in his life.

There are genuinely beautiful passages in Beauty and Sadness, including descriptions of paintings and the possible psychological state behind them. What kept me from finishing the novel was the hollowness of the characters and the way they seemed programmed to fulfill certain functions in the novel. They appeared to act on desire, jealousy, vengefulness, and what they consider love. But each struck me as not quite human. For example, there’s a teenaged character, Keiko, who uses her beauty and sexuality to enact vengeance. She just doesn’t seem real at all. More like a figure from mythology or fairy tales, something like a succubus.

Maybe that’s what the author aimed for, but within this particular work, I don't think it was effective. As for the other characters, they also appeared to be stuck in various ways, hurting each other or acting on impulses, each in the manner of an automaton following instructions from the author. Was the author deliberately making puppets of the characters, and showing that their passions were just strings jerking? I don't think the characterizations worked well.

I also don’t think my reaction to the novel stemmed merely from cultural differences. I’ve enjoyed works by other Japanese authors and have enjoyed various Japanese films as well. But the characters in this one pushed me out of the story with their hollowness. They were vessels that sometimes rattled weakly and emitted steam and other times leaked a bitter lukewarm liquid. I set them aside and turned away from them.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Week in Seven Words #460

I mention a recent interest I've taken in plants, and he mistakenly assumes that I'm talking about cannabis.

Now that it's her turn to talk, she doesn't want to stop. She steers the conversation towards animals and how she can't resist rescuing them. Her body shifts and contorts through her monologue, until you can see her seizing the puppies from the box where they've been abandoned and clutching them to her chest.

An evening of yellow roses, candle light, and pleasant conversation.

Walking home at night, I spot the Microsoft logo reflected off the glass of a church door.

The pale flowers have sprung from a crack in the pavement, as if the sidewalk is offering them up gallantly to anyone passing by, anyone who cares to notice.

We're an odd assortment, like the lint and leftovers in the pocket of the world.

"Get to them before they get to you," he says. Out of context, the words sound sinister. But he's talking about setting the tone of a conversation or any social encounter. From the start, he says, be forthright, courteous, and, if it comes naturally to you, crack a joke. Disarm another person's irritable mood or complaints, right at the beginning.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Week in Seven Words #459

The leaves by the lake light up in a shade of gold seen in Medieval art.

The western-facing windows look like eyelids in the fading sunset. Some are peach in color. Others are grayish, creamy, or dusky.

The leaves stamped to the ground are like the handprints of trees. One of them I can immediately identify: the ginkgo, its leaves fan-shaped.

The sleek, rustling zippiness of ducks. They tear after chunks of English muffin on the south shore of the lake. Along the northern shore, people are feeding geese. The geese are impatient and aggressive. They barge out of the water for more food and honk their indignation when their demands aren't quickly satisfied.

In front of a narrow house, in a yard as small as a cardboard box, an old woman tells a young girl, "You're a sister, a granddaughter, a daughter, a cousin..." She spells out the relationships that help the child define herself.

A man who used to be in the Chinese air force and a musician dressed in military garb from the American Revolutionary War both have daughters enrolled in the University of Pittsburgh.

The colors of the leaves are lush and bold. They've erupted against the backdrop of a broad river with cliffs on the other shore. By my waist and feet are delicate purple flowers, a gentle counterpoint to the trees that burst like fireworks.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Week in Seven Words #458

Deep in the park, the air is deliciously cool and fresh in the early evening. A thick yellow light has unrolled like a carpet between walls of shadow. Some of the trees glow. Others have given themselves to a pool of dim, gray water.

A young boy speaks rapidly in Chinese, except for the English words "Day of the Dead," a Mexican holiday.

We discover a small, airy cafe that serves meltingly sweet pancakes and a farmer's breakfast with eggs and potatoes. I don't eat anything else for the rest of the day.

I've drifted off course unintentionally, but feel as if I'm being guided to see beautiful things. I've taken a longer route, and it's full of serendipitous pleasures.

At some point it dawns on us that we're part of a large crowd all waiting to watch a bunch of pumpkins get towed across the water.

It's a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, the food is passable, and as long as I can claim one of the few stools by the window, it's a good place to read quietly for half an hour before an appointment.

The large muddy puddles on the narrow path cause traffic jams in the dark. People with strollers and bulky cameras grind past each other to avoid the ankle-deep muck.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Week in Seven Words #457

The advice you give someone may have worked for you, but won't work for them. They don't have to live your choices.

Some trees look like they have eyes, mouths, and, at times, whole faces imprinted on the bark. On one tree, what looks like multiple faces are emerging, their expressions stunned.

One motif that stands out in our walk: aggressive yellow jackets who are territorial about public garbage cans.

He eats out of a tub of ice cream while watching his favorite basketball team lose.

Walking along with two heavy grocery bags and one eye scrunched shut, after something has lodged against my eyeball on a windy day.

Holding the wine glass over my head as the kids kick a soccer ball around the room.

She prepares a strange tangerine tea. It smells good but tastes like a bitter oil.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

First Hike of Spring (Bronxville to Valhalla, NY)

Two Sundays ago (3/24), I joined a group for a hike along the Bronx River Parkway in Westchester from Bronxville to Valhalla (where there are no dead Vikings feasting).

The border between winter in spring is very brown. Though even with few leaves and flowers, the landscape can still be beautiful.




Our lunch stop was in Scarsdale, which is a pretty town.


We walked through some of the residential neighborhoods where the homes have a variety of architectural styles.



However, the most impressive structure wasn't in Scarsdale but in Valhalla: the Kensico Dam.



In total, it was about 12 miles on a day when the temperature climbed from the low 30s in the morning to the mid 50s in the afternoon and stayed sunny, for the most part. A satisfying walk.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Week in Seven Words #456

The kitchen is dingy, and the cook keeps her phone and keys on the counter among spatters of sauce and grease. But the soup is pretty good, and so is the chicken sandwich.

Framed by the window, the cluster of buildings and lights resembles a computer motherboard.

As with other high schools, the architecture for this one evokes a prison. It's a slab of gray with the windows barred.

He doesn't read the book, just looks for answers on Quizlet, which his indifferent teacher will accept with an automatic checkmark.

His mind is roaming an elsewhere. He's shifting in his seat, and soon he'll hurry out the door to walk off his restlessness.

Buses slide out like tired slugs from the tunnel.

"The truth will set you free" is how the expression goes, but this freedom, whatever it happens to be, generally isn't quick or guaranteed. What the truth does is show you some of the ways in which you're chained. From there, you need to figure out how to unchain yourself, if you even want to, and if you even can.

Week in Seven Words #455

Two large stores that sell tons of electronics and related accessories, but no wrist rests for typing and no plans to stock any. I begin to wonder if typing is going out of style, somehow?

As if she's a dignified statue splattered in pigeon crap, she doesn't respond to the contempt they show her.

When editing another person's work, I have to carefully strengthen the text without changing the author's voice to my own.

A glaring sun, the relief of the wind, weeds among the basil and old tomato plants.

Her essay is disjointed, as if she has dropped it on the floor, gathered up the broken pieces, and spread them out on paper. This is what an early draft often looks like.

Though she's usually late, she usually brings cookies, so all is forgiven.

She periodically flies in from the Netherlands to volunteer around NYC and write about her experiences. It's an interesting way to observe some of the social dysfunctions in the US and the civic or altruistic efforts in response.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Week in Seven Words #454

I love the green and gold of early autumn, the faint chill, the lingering summer.

It's beautiful to give and receive uncomplicated goodwill.

Sometimes, I'll try to talk myself out of trying something new. Most of the time, setting aside my misgivings works out better than expected.

A buoyant nighttime walk, among people out with their dogs.

Browsing through planners and journals is pleasurable. I may not buy any of them, but it's fun to look at the elegant pages ready for notes, meetings, and goals.

They talk about their love of school supplies - fresh boxes of pens and pencils, pristine index cards, glue that will make its way to colorful posters.

I dance three times with the Torah. Even when I have it in an awkward hold and my arms ache, I love holding it. I want to keep that memory vivid, the sensation of the scrolls in my arms, the weight taken willingly and happily, and the unselfconscious celebration, surrounded as I was by women old and young, some full of energy, others going through a hard time in life, all of them present, singing, dancing, clapping, or looking on, a part of it all.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Nine Short Stories With Major Betrayals

Title: Dosas
Author: Edwidge Danticat
Where I read it: Tales of Two Americas

Elsie, a Haitian immigrant who works in the U.S. providing home health care, gets an urgent call from her ex-husband. Apparently, his girlfriend has been kidnapped in Port-Au-Prince. Elsie has already been betrayed by her husband and his girlfriend before, so she could just hang up on him. Instead, she hears him out and agrees to help.

As an immigrant, Elsie would have hoped to find a community she can rely on, with people she can trust. But she's pretty much on her own. In the course of her job, she helps another Haitian immigrant suffering from renal failure, but he's wealthy, and any sympathy he or his daughter feel for her is limited. Already, she has suffered profound betrayal in her personal life. Maybe she's willing to risk a lot to stay connected to people, because the alternative, a life of mistrust and loneliness, isn't bearable to her; she's already profoundly lonely. By the end of the story, she seems like someone baring her neck to vampires. And there are true vampires in this story, draining her.

Title: Family Man
Author: Annie Proulx
Where I read it: Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3

What's the legacy you've been left with, and what legacy do you leave to others? The main character is spending his final years in a nursing home, among people who watch a lot of TV and paint their faces. He comes across people he once knew, or thought he knew, but they've changed from how he remembers them. Who were they, and who is he?

In the course of the story, his granddaughter visits him and expresses an interest in his life. What he shares with her isn't inspirational, not the kind of story you're eager to pass from one generation to the next. His past contains a deep betrayal by his father. I don't want to spoil it all here. Suffice it to say that he had discovered a shattering lie that showed him how little he was seen as a person worthy of love and respect, and how much he had missed of the father-son bond a boy craves – to be uniquely his father's son and carry his father's name proudly.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Week in Seven Words #453

We've been deposited on a platform between two trains. We know that one is set to go south, the other north. But which is which? The Charlie Brown's teacher voice on the announcement system doesn't help us figure it out.

They talk at length about the tax deductibility of parking spaces.

One kid is crying about the absence of chocolate among the dessert choices. I feel for him.

It's a day of heavy rain. Indoors, the walls are leaden and smudged with shadow.

To keep the kids quiet, she assigns them clean-up duties. To make the clean-up duties fun, she has them pretend that the spills, discarded napkins, and strewn clothing are all clues in an intricate mystery. They're the detectives, using the evidence to come up with a story more interesting than "I spilled my juice and knocked my friend's coat off the back of her chair and left it on the ground until my mom told me to pick it up."

The ambiance of the room has changed. It used to feel like a lounge where people drink whiskey from cut glasses and smoke cigars. Now it's brighter and more colorful, with furniture that's easy to clean, like a lounge at a family-friendly hotel.

There are always fresh weeds among the plants you want to keep.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Mrs. Dalloway and Monet (an impression from Virginia Woolf's novel)

When I read Mrs. Dalloway, I had the impression of a Monet painting. At a certain distance, the characters are coherent. Close up, they don’t entirely lose their coherence, but you can see them made up of an animated patchwork of sensations, feelings, and unsteady thoughts, and abrupt switches between memories and the present day. They aren’t as solid or clearly defined on closer view, though they still have richness and texture.

(On Googling around to see if Woolf may have wanted to evoke something like an Impressionist painting, I found this essay on “Literary Impressionism” and the general push against 19th-century realism in novels.)

I enjoyed this examination of character. The characters in Mrs. Dalloway are given shape by the shifting contents of their own minds, and also the impressions that others form of them. In seconds, a character can go from being a well-liked companion to a strange, embarrassing figure, avoided in public and perhaps deserted for good.

An old woman knitting on a bench may evoke a mythical figure, because of her posture, or because the light hits her a certain way, who knows:
The grey nurse resumed her knitting as Peter Walsh, on the hot seat beside her, began snoring. In her grey dress, moving her hands indefatigably yet quietly, she seemed like the champion of the rights of sleepers, like one of those spectral presences which rise in twilight in woods made of sky and branches. The solitary traveller, haunter of lanes, disturber of ferns, and devastator of great hemlock plants, looking up, suddenly sees the giant figure at the end of the ride.
A reputable psychiatrist can embody a certain menacing spirit:
Conversion is her name and she feasts on the wills of the weakly, loving to impress, to impose, adoring her own features stamped on the face of the populace. At Hyde Park Corner on a tub she stands preaching; shrouds herself in white and walks penitentially disguised as brotherly love through factories and parliaments; offers help, but desires power; smites out of her way roughly the dissentient, or dissatisfied; bestows her blessing on those who, looking upward, catch submissively from her eyes the light of their own.
The textures of different characters overlap, as they brush up against each other throughout the day. Throughout the novel, the point-of-view slips around, as if a cloud of consciousness is traveling a corner of London and settling over people’s heads, allowing us a quick, intense look at each of their mental landscapes. The characters feel fluid and connected to each other, their lives all part of a living painting.