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.