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.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Week in Seven Words #452

I dream of popping out of an airplane to film it in the clouds, which are soaked in a deep orange sunset.

Her apartment is filled with light and has a fragile quality. She moves as if she's afraid to touch anything. A picture frame on the gleaming piano or the small blue vase on the coffee table can shatter easily.

She's convinced her 3-year-old grandson is at the synagogue. She keeps asking people if they've seen him. He must have run off somewhere. It doesn't matter that her nurse and some of the congregants gently explain that he isn't there – that the boy she's thinking of is an adult and not in town. She's certain he's run away and gotten lost. She insists that people look for him.

kavanah (כַּוָּנָה)
I feel pierced by the urgency of the prayers, and the melodies, and the moving, sobbing, joyful, singing voices.

The middle-aged man who shares the elevator with me sees that I'm going to the seventh floor. "Seven's a lucky number," he says. "Hopefully," I say. To which he replies, "It's a prime number." So I point to his destination. "That's a multiple of seven," I say, because he's heading to floor 28. "So it is!" he replies.

That evening, there's a large moth in the synagogue. Mostly it hops and skips among the lights. Sometimes it dive-bombs people.

"They try to be so helpful," she says, sorting through the holiday care package, "but as a pre-diabetic, I can't eat a lot of the food here."

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Week in Seven Words #451

What happens, he asks, if you've made a great mistake or committed a serious unethical action, but since then your life has grown around it? The mistake has become a part of the structure of your life, and in ways that are helpful to other people. How do you make amends under those circumstances, without causing greater harm?

Glasses clinking over a table softened by white cloth and sprays of flowers.

It's easy to be wise, he says, when you're young and naive. He used to give people marriage advice before he got married. He laughs now, thinking back on that time, decades ago.

One of the benches in the park has a plaque dedicated to a homeless man. It was his bench.

In the light spitting rain, the white columns of the fountain jet up, and the top of each column breaks away to leap like a liquid acrobat.

She comes over to cook, and throughout the afternoon I enjoy tastings.

A misty rain tickles my forehead. Sea gulls circle in the mist, and a duck lifts away from the river.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Week in Seven Words #450

The knights face each other on a sunny field, their armored shoulders white in the sunshine.

Beside a brick apartment building, porcelain children sit on swings attached to the lower branches of a tree. Lifelike butterflies climb the old boards of a fence.

"I screamed like a girl," he says, when describing a scary moment in the play. "No," she replies, "you screamed like a boy, since you're a boy."

I describe something as I wish it had been and not as it was, and I'm hit with a pang of painful empathy; I understand her better.

The hike leader admits that whenever he says, "This is a good spot for a photo," what he means is, "I need to rest." At one point during the hike, he informs us that there are some interesting glacial potholes we could look at if we detour down another path. But wouldn't we rather head for the bathrooms? Most people vote for the bathrooms.

Water spouts from the mouth of the stone frog. It runs through stone channels and emerges from the ground in thin white claws. One boy keeps filling up a cup to splash his younger sisters in a game of water tag. They run laughing through drops of glistening water.

The bottom of the creek is made up of tiny hills and plateaus of mud. What's left of the water has settled in the valleys.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Excellent descriptions of the weather in Cheerful Weather for the Wedding

This morning the countryside, through each and all of the big windows, was bright golden in the sunlight. On the sides of a little hill quite close, beyond the railway cutting, grew a thick hazel copse. To-day, with the sun shining through its bare branches, this seemed to be not trees at all, but merely folds of something diaphanous floating along the surface of the hillside – a flock of brown vapours, here dark there light – lit up in the sunshine.

In this Julia Strachey novel, the characters left less of an impression on me than the rooms they live in and the countryside that enfolds them. The descriptions of the weather are fantastic. And no, the weather isn't always cheerful. The wedding isn't cheerful either.

Out in the drive there, standing about round the motor-car, in the furious March gale, everyone felt as though they were being beaten on the back of the head and on the nose with heavy carpets, and having cold steel knives thrust up inside their nostrils, and when they opened their mouths to avoid the pain of this, big wads of iced cotton-wool seemed to be forced against the inside of their throats immediately, so that they choked, and could not draw any breath in.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Week in Seven Words #449

Among the people listening to the outdoor opera broadcasts: a young couple who have chosen seats close to the giant screen and are now eating noisily and whispering, a young boy who is entranced, a panhandler crouched outside of a pharmacy blocks away, the voice of the soprano an eerie reverberation around him.

"It's not a baby," he insists. "It's an action figure." But she doesn't care. Every small human-shaped toy, including Iron Man, is a baby to her.

The cantor is astonishing. His voice is full of hope and poignancy.

The opening scene is entrancing. The green curls in her hair flow into her shimmering gown, as she reclines among the roots of a tree.

We admire the embroidered birds and flowers on robes the color of pomegranates. We peer at the details on peacock feathers and at rivers ghosting across a canvas. The delicacy of blossoms and snow is exquisite. So are the tigers rippling across the golden panels.

At the restaurant, they move her to a different chair, one that isn't in view of the gum ball machine. Another way to distract her is to ask her to sing; her repertoire includes the classics, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," "Baa Baa Black Sheep," and "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."

With a sketch book positioned on her thigh, she sits before a painting by Artemisia Gentileschi that depicts Esther and Ahasuerus. The sketch focuses on Esther, who is close to fainting; her body looks as if it's about to come apart in different directions.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Week in Seven Words #448

The fountain looks like a dandelion in a fuzzy state. Instead of sending seeds into the wind, it releases soft white droplets.

From around the corner of the block, through a lobby, to a cramped waiting room, which doesn't have enough chairs, down a roped-off corridor, into an elevator, and finally up to the sanctum, a broad, gleaming chamber with plenty of cushy chairs and bureaucrats forcing smiles from behind the counter.

Low-key, humorous grumbling from people well-acquainted with bureaucratic inefficiencies.

She writes about the end of a friendship but gets frustrated when the words make the relationship and its dissolution sound trivial. She wants whoever is reading it to understand how much it hurt her.

It's supposed to be a discussion group but it has a cultish infomercial feel to it where everyone is relentlessly bright and empty-eyed.

Her resting face gives the impression of boredom, but her thoughts are energetic, and if you talk to her about an interesting topic, she becomes animated, her eyes brighter and a smile ready to flicker to life.

Just when I'm thinking the street is bland, full of the dull mirrors of office building glass, I spot an enormous church with a dome.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Some Notes on Network (1976), the Dark Look at TV "News"

Title: Network (1976)
Director: Sidney Lumet
Language: English
Rating: R (for language mostly)

For years, Howard Beale (Peter Finch) was a respected, level-headed figure in TV news, but he’s about to get laid-off for poor ratings. After he has an on-air breakdown, one of the network executives, Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), sees the ratings potentials of keeping him on. She convinces Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), a hatchet man for the corporation that bought the network, to push for the Howard Beale Show, which turns into a major success.

This is a funny and dark movie that can be painful to watch because so much of our current culture is in it, even though the movie was made in the 1970s. The Internet and other mass media are basically Network on steroids. Some thoughts on the film:

Friday, January 25, 2019

Week in Seven Words #447

She says there's something about me that draws people in a way that makes them want to talk, share their thoughts, and ask questions.

"It's going to take more than one try," I tell the nurse who's about to draw blood. "No it won't," she says with a little smile. And she's right. For the first time I can remember, I'm not poked multiple times; she manages to find the vein in my arm and draw blood in one attempt. "This is amazing," I say, and she reveals her secret: she had spent 10 years working with babies. My skittish adult veins are no match for her skill.

Being peered at like this feels strange. It's an annual checkup, so it's expected, but it's still unsettling to get inspected from scalp to toes (where a mild subungual hematoma stains one nail).

It's a short walk, maybe a mile or two, but it takes longer than expected. There are different conditions to negotiate, such as where to walk so the sun isn't always in my eyes, what to do about impatient, aggressive drivers who are blocking the crosswalks, and where to turn when the pedestrians' route is a thread through construction chaos.

In the middle of the aisle, a girl in a glossy pink skirt hugs a girl with golden ringlets.

The thunderstorm sounds like a throat being violently cleared.

They say they listen well, but keep interrupting the young man and telling him they don't understand him. Even as he tries to explain, they cut him off. When he trails back to his chair, they tell him they appreciate his contributions to the discussion.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Week in Seven Words #446

The waterfall reminds me of a rich lather, soap washing away from a crystalline dish.

A few of us settle at a picnic table. The trees cast large, blotchy shadows. I eat some nuts and dark chocolate. Although we don't have a lot of time to linger in the park, we don't feel rushed.

There's an almost perfect stillness to the water. It bears the imprint of the sky, the clouds, and the hillocks covered in dark green trees.

We trudge along the slick dirt trail, our breaths heavy, our bodies sluggish, and talk about automation and AI, the functions that sophisticated machines will take over.

A deer and her children bound past us, the leaves crackling with their energy. A few seconds later, the leaves are still. The forest is quiet, as if we had only imagined them passing.

We're city-dwellers in a small town on a Sunday afternoon, stunned at how many stores and restaurants are closed.

I find out, after the fact, that he had to go to the hospital. Everything turns out well, but it's still disturbing that I didn't know. I was working, sleeping, going about my routine as usual.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Three Short Stories About Revenge

Title: Casting the Runes
Author: M.R. James (Montague Rhodes James)
Where I Read It: The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories

This is an entertaining, creepy, and fairly straightforward story about revenge after academic rejection. A scholar turns down a paper about alchemy and subsequently gets marked for death by the paper's author, a deeply unpleasant man named Mr. Karswell. Karswell enjoys toying with his victim and encouraging dread and despair. (At one point, the victim, reaching for a watch, instead touches "a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and... not the mouth of a human being." I like that – we don't know what mouth it is, but it definitely isn't a human mouth.)

Title: The Method
Author: Janet Fitch
Where I Read It: Los Angeles Noir

"The Method" has a well-written first-person narrator, Holly, who's a struggling actress. She meets a charismatic older guy who becomes her lover and also wants her to gain access to the decrepit mansion of an old actress. The reason he gives her is that some of older woman's possessions are valuable as memorabilia. But the story takes a darker turn, as the narrator realizes certain things about her new lover and the old actress. I liked the details about the mansion, and the way the story evokes the feeling of being faded and used up. A kind of solidarity develops between the two women, and the ending is intense and grim.

Title: The Victim
Author: P.D. James (Phyllis Dorothy James)
Where I Read It: Sleep No More

A man kills his ex-wife's second husband. I especially liked the descriptions of the route the murderer takes to commit his crime and the griminess of the home he lives in. The story is a good study of obsessiveness; obsessive people can be readily manipulated, especially if they're lovelorn.

Week in Seven Words #445

With a confidence that comes from distance and emotional detachment, she advises her friend over the phone to end the relationship.

The band plays jazz by the green-tinted lake. Their most enthusiastic fan is a toddler in a stroller who complains when his parents try to roll him away.

The basketball courts have become a bazaar for arts, crafts, and colorful clothes.

After finishing her lecture, she gets a smarmy remark from an older man that's countered by an encouraging and thoughtful remark from an older woman.

She keeps her sunflowers tilted toward the front door, so when visitors step into her home, the flowers surge at them in a bright greeting.

He strums a guitar beneath a spray of wisteria. There's no melody, only spurting chords.

She has moved into her apartment below ground, and her horizon is a potted plant, a rodent trap, and a padlocked cellar door.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Week in Seven Words #444

When we take the dog for a walk, she trots open-mouthed, tongue lolling, and glances behind her every minute or so to check that we're all still there, not just the person holding the leash, but all of us, her pack of humans.

Ice crackling in a plastic cup, silverware rattling, a stream of tables with people chattering.

A dog tied outside the grocery store lurches to the end of his leash with eyes popping as each person who isn't his owner emerges.

The river is pink, gray, and yellow as the day fades.

Her bright anecdotes are a barely adequate cover for her unease.

When she takes my passport photo, she tells me not to smile, so of course I smile and have a hard time stopping.

It's a sinuous trail. It dips in and out of the trees, bumps against the water, then flings itself inland through tall grass.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Week in Seven Words #443

She spreads her coat on the floor and invites two kids to squash up on it for a story. Raindrops squeeze from the coat into the carpet, as the pages of the picture book flip.

I head deep into the belly of the store, which is full of glitter, stickers, crafts, and lines as long as intestines.

He says that after a tragedy people shouldn't ask 'why,' they should ask 'how.'

They use arguing as a strategy of escapism. If they're full of outrage over one thing or another, they can avoid dealing with other emotions and underlying problems.

"What do you do?" they ask him. "I think of myself as a philosopher," he says, and seems to mean it. As he is silent for most of the evening, and gives brief, vague replies at other times, it's difficult to determine what he thinks about.

He wants to grieve on his own. But he's also terrified of being alone at a time like this.

We're going to pretend that there's no reason (and maybe there is no conscious reason) that we haven't seen each other in a while.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Recommended Reading From 2018

What did I read this past year that I recommend?

From the Classics Club Challenge list: Silas Marner by George Eliot, North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, and Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens.

Other good novels included Home by Toni Morrison, which I wrote about here, and Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple, where the writing is painfully lovely as the story unfolds of a marriage breaking apart due to infidelity.

For a light-hearted, funny novel, I recommend Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp; though it’s set shortly before WWII in England, it has little to do with the upcoming war, and focuses on the amusing characters, with most of the action in a country house and small neighboring village.

For detective novels, I read two by P.D. James that I liked, less for the mystery and more for the way she writes characters and scenes. They’re The Black Tower and Death of an Expert Witness. (Both of them feature Adam Dalgliesh as the detective.)

Just a couple of days ago, I finished reading The Ladies Auxiliary by Tova Mirvis, a novel set in the small Orthodox Jewish community in Memphis; a new arrival stirs up fresh life and energy, even as her presence causes underlying tensions in the community to surface as well.

Also, I’ve continued discovering good short fiction and adding it to the ongoing rec list.

Moving on to nonfiction. I recommend Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie, a collection of essays focused on the natural world (I wrote about one of them here). Also, Living an Examined Life by James Hollis, which could give you much to think about

Then there’s Voices From Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich, an oral history of the disaster told from a variety of perspectives; much of it is gut wrenching, how people struggled with the effects and the uprooting of their lives, how they faced the sickness and deaths of family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues, how much they knew or wanted to know, the lies they heard, the way some of them didn’t want to leave no matter what had happened to the land.

I also recommend No One Cares About Crazy People by Ron Powers. Powers provides an overview of mental health treatments (or “treatments”) in the western world and the present failures in the U.S. to help people suffering from schizophrenia and other serious conditions; many end up in jail, repeatedly hospitalized, or on the streets. Along with discussions of policies and attitudes, there’s the author’s personal story; both his sons developed schizophrenia, and one committed suicide. What would it take to improve mental health care, which is underfunded, fragmented, and full of misconceptions?