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.

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?