Saturday, December 19, 2020

Week in Seven Words #531

This covers the week of 3/22/20 - 3/28/20.

Social media: callousness, fear mongering, and a little bit of fun.

They organize a worldwide hour of prayer. At such and such a time, say the following psalms, and know that even if you're alone in your room, others are praying with you.

Masked dog walkers in the dark. They look furtive, as if they're doing something that's only borderline legal.

They're concerned but also feel a grim satisfaction over what they see as a long overdue humbling for arrogant humans.

At night, the grocery store is mostly empty. The few shoppers are listless, moving as if a breeze is pushing them about. A Beach Boys song plays in the background ("Good Vibrations"). From under shelves of snack foods, a rat emerges in a thick blur of motion. It vanishes under a shelf of drinks. 

They've recently made their yard more drought resistant. Islands of plants in the midst of small colorful rocks. They take refuge in it now, settling on folding chairs to breathe in the crisp air.

Strangers asking me if I have enough toilet paper is something new.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Six Short Stories for a Chilly Evening

These probably won't warm you up. There's something bleak about them.

Title: Death of a Professor
Author: William Trevor
Where I Read It: The Hill Bachelors

A little vipers' pit of academia, where a prank obituary gets published about a professor, and he eventually finds out. Supposedly high-minded people mired in pettiness. From what I remember, any moments of grace in the story come from the professor's marriage, where it seems there's a genuine kindness, a sincere wish to protect feelings and cover up embarrassment.

Title: Gravel 
Author: Alice Munro
Where I Read It: Dear Life
She may have thought she could manage well enough. And I may indeed have thought that she could do anything she wanted to.

Two siblings live with their pregnant mom and her boyfriend by a gravel pit. The pit is just there, waiting to become the site of tragedy. The attempt to make sense of the events around the pit involves what-ifs that are haunting but impossible to resolve. Could the surviving sibling have rushed for help sooner? Did their mom's boyfriend know how to swim? Given how unreliable memory can be, the answers may be completely inaccessible. But the narrator's mind is still caught up in the questions, particularly, Why, why did it have to happen at all. Even if the narrator could somehow travel back in time and into another person's mind, what answers would there be?

Title: The Hospice
Author: Robert Aickman

This story wraps you up in dread and eeriness. An unhealthy, creepy, stifling atmosphere.

The main character, Maybury, takes a shortcut and gets lost in a neighborhood of hedges and poor lighting where he's attacked by a cat-like creature. (Possibly a cat, but it's hard to tell. There's much that's hard to explain about this captivating story.) He comes across what may be some lodging for travelers:


Even though it doesn't appear to be a medical establishment, there's a cloud of sickness over everything. The inhabitants live a kind of regimented, unwholesome existence that isn't fully explained. They gorge themselves at dinner, as if they're getting plumped up for someone else to feed on. The room Maybury is given is hot and has no windows. He's pressed into strange, uncomfortable interactions.

It's unclear what's real. But Maybury seems trapped, as do the others, physically and mentally. Maybury's entrapment begins even before he enters the hospice; it wasn't his idea to take the shortcut. Maybe the residents (prisoners?) of the hospice represent people caught in their own appetites and struggling like flies against sticky paper. That's only one possibility.

Title: Mrs. Manstey's View
Author: Edith Wharton
Where I Read It: Manhattan Noir 2

Perhaps at heart Mrs. Manstey was an artist; at all events she was sensible of many changes of color unnoticed by the average eye, and dear to her as the green of early spring was the black lattice of branches against a cold sulphur sky at the close of a snowy day. She enjoyed, also, the sunny thaws of March, when patches of earth showed through the snow, like inkspots spreading on a sheet of white blotting-paper; and, better still, the haze of boughs, leafless but swollen, which replaced the clear-cut tracery of winter.

Mrs. Manstey is a widow who lives in the back room of a boarding house. The view from her window is her world really, and Wharton captures all the interest and variety the character experiences even from this limited vantage. Then, in a neighboring property, a tall wall goes up...

Title: Some Letters for Ove Lindström
Author: Karin Tidbeck
Where I Read It: Jagannath

This story comes from an anthology that's like a small, odd but lovely tree in the corner of a yard. Each story is a fruit, and some are lush and full with a complex flavor. Others you hesitate to bite into. You push aside some of the fragile branches and find a pair of eyes blinking at you.

In this story, the main character's estranged father has passed away. She had cut off contact with him because of his excessive drinking. Years ago, when the character (whose name is Viveka) was a small child, her mother left the family. There had always been a touch of otherworldly mystery about the mother.

Viveka, who is in between jobs, returns to the place out in the country where she was born. She settles there, cuts herself of – or is being cut off, because what happens in this story feels like a mix of personal crisis with a pressure from some external force. Like a fantasy, as if someone hitting rock bottom will be recalled to another world or another type of existence, instead of just sinking into unglamorous isolation.

Title: Tough Men
Author: Edna O'Brien
Where I Read It: The Love Object

The story portrays a blighted adulthood and a promise of manhood (and its stature or rewards) that hasn't materialized. A shopkeeper waits with two other men for someone else to come by with what seems to be a good investment opportunity. The shabbiness of the scam, the frustration and anger boiling up to no effect are what stood out most for me.

Monday, December 7, 2020

Week in Seven Words #530

This covers the week of 3/15/20 - 3/21/20.

They trawl through several stores, buying bottles of water where they can.

Her semester cut short, she's flying home on short notice from thousands of miles away.

His temper is fraying. He's stressed out about the tanking economy and deeply worried about his job.

We pass joggers, kids playing basketball, a temporary memorial to synagogues destroyed during the Holocaust, many trees, an obelisk, rows of stores closed.

On a bench in the garden, a woman is reading. Three patient, relaxed dogs are nestled around her.

Ducks with white and black backs peel away from the water.

Some people are going about with masks. More than during the previous week. They give the streets an eerie feeling, normal daily activities mixed with strangeness and unease.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Week in Seven Words #529

This covers the week of 3/8/20 - 3/14/20.

In one day, most of my calendar evaporates. One cancellation after another. Businesses close. Classes are cut short.

I ask her why she's looking through Zillow. "Escapism," she says.

Mixed messages from politicians, pundits, health experts. I wonder if I'm underestimating the seriousness of this virus. Or maybe it hasn't fully sunk in that we're in deeply unusual circumstances and nobody knows how any of this will turn out.

Distracted during synagogue services, my eyes and mind roaming the room. 

We're in a building that tomorrow we won't be able to enter. We talk about the virus and how people think it spreads. We have little idea of what we're talking about. Sharing things we've heard on the news produces a mixed effect: heightened anxiety combined with the relief of unburdening some of our anxieties.

The supermarket is clotted with thick lines. People are stocking up.

By this point, I'm used to working from home. But it's not the same now. There's an intensified uncertainty and a constriction. The city where I live has become much less familiar.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Week in Seven Words #528

This covers the week of 3/1/20 - 3/7/20.

I'm starting to look at snifflers and coughers suspiciously. Like the young guy sitting at the other end of the room who keeps coughing wretchedly into his hand. To the person he's sharing a table with, he says he's fine. But he does admit later on, with a sigh, that he's tired.

We use the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine to look at Apple's website from the 1990s. It had a blocky table-based layout. It looked so amazingly clunky and amateurish (by today's standards). 

The students say they don't want to learn more about the Holocaust, because it's too horrible. At least they see the horror in what happened.

"Does he ignore me because I'm not as smart as my brother? Is that why he barely talks to me?"

The dog flops onto my lap, face-up, to remind me that she hasn't gotten tired of belly rubs yet.

I cringe at the dynamics in that home, the disrespect that flows casually to the mom, the vulgar comments about women and girls.

Two things people are talking about all the time: the virus and the presidential election. The presidential election and the virus.

Week in Seven Words #527

This covers the week of 2/23/20 - 2/29/20.

He's convinced that he's a loser, and he speaks to himself the way he wouldn't speak to anyone else. After years of such self-talk, the words are almost comforting. They've become something like a reliable truth, even though they aren't true.

She doesn't want to finish her homework, so she stretches out each question with pretend thinking, bathroom breaks, trips to refill her cup with water, and off-topic questions. 

A row of old computers chuntering on through the same tasks, year after year, under different masters wielding different tools.

Her skirt floats around her as she dances, as if it's a flowing extension of her energy and grace.

Mounds of laundry fed into the maw of a washing machine.

Her dragon sculpture looks as if it will come alive at any moment, whipping its tail around and stretching its jaws open to unleash fire.

I force myself to finish something I'd rather not be doing and that I wish I wasn't doing alone.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Week in Seven Words #526

This covers the week of 2/16/20 - 2/22/20.

She's productive, patient, organized, and kindly, intelligent without being arrogant, a good teacher overall.

They keep cutting into each other's speech, and their voices are getting louder, so it seems at first like they're working themselves into a fight. But they're in agreement. They're vigorously, almost rabidly, agreeing with each other about a set of political beliefs. Around them, the other coffee shop customers keep their eyes fixed on phones and laptops.

In a neighborhood that's otherwise cold and dingy, the library is a warm nook.

We part ways sweetly on a dark street.

We curl up side by side for a long conversation.

A cheesy cartoon, crude jokes, and stilted conversation.

Sobs, slammed doors, the seeming hopelessness of a fight with a good friend. Chances are that half an hour from now, they'll be on speaking terms again.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Week in Seven Words #525

This covers the week of 2/9/20 - 2/15/20.

His face is beaded with sweat. On his nightstand, a thermos is perched on a short stack of books, and beside it a bottle of over-the-counter fever reducer.

Our fingers are numb and chilly from handling wet bags of celery in a stiff wind.

Wounded, she staggers back to her feet, her jaw set.

Their backyard is a narrow rectangle, just big enough for the kids to take their noise outside for a while.

Some of my most peaceful moments that day are on an elevated subway platform, waiting for the train. It's a lull in my schedule. The day is cold, but the sun is steady, and I can stamp some warmth into my feet.

A bit of biology knowledge – on meiosis – floats up to consciousness at a critical moment. Sometimes you don't know when you'll need to know something.

The leftover fruit, soft with rot, is tempting. They shuffle closer to snatch up the firmer specimens, while ignoring every barked order to leave.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Week in Seven Words #524

This covers the week of 2/2/20 - 2/8/20.

A girl riding on her dad's shoulders raises her pink mittens to a drizzly sky.

The sunlight crackles on salt-encrusted streets.

The gutters are belching litter into a foul-smelling wind.

She has no illusions about what she'll learn. She has little hope that she'll do better. The next few hours are just a way to pass the time.

They fall back on what sound like programmed responses. A "hm" in response to an observation. A tiny set of one-word answers to any questions you may have. Chunks of your own speech echoed at you. Their eyes drift to a wall, a window, and rest expressionlessly.

She thinks of how to make every corner of her home more lovely. The flowers I come across while climbing the stairs make me smile.

"I don't belong in school," she says. But where does she belong? She doesn't know. Maybe there's a quiet room somewhere with a door that locks, a pair of ear buds, and a phone.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

COVIDiary: Masked and On Foot

One thing I've been doing during the pandemic is walking for miles. Here are some of the highlights:

The 42nd Street branch of the New York Public Library


A small park near the American Museum of Natural History


Sunday, August 30, 2020

Week in Seven Words #523

This covers the week of 1/26/20 - 2/1/20.

Who does he talk to when he needs to confide in someone? Who do I talk to?

I hear what sounds like a ghost moaning, but it's just a bus easing up to the curb late at night.

What is the phenomenon of trees holding onto their brown, shriveled leaves in the winter?

A narrow metal shelf bulging with cartons of chocolate milk. 

Refusing to stay in the bitter overflow of another person's emotions.

They present us with a packet of forms and with a platter of purple grapes and potato chips that aren't really potato chips but are supposedly something healthier. The meeting is much like the one months ago. Similar concerns raised, the same pairs of hands tied, but at least we're venting a little.

They remind me that they still know I exist. Now and then, I flicker into their awareness.

Week in Seven Words #522

This covers the week of: 1/19/20 - 1/25/20.

She barely reaches forward with her mind, because so much has stopped mattering to her.

They've taken a break from studying to play a game of Uno. Every so often one of them says, "How dare you!" in a playful way, chiding the other for a good move.

He gets grief for preferring dance to basketball, and she gets grief for preferring basketball to dance.

We detour through an art gallery, a warren of color.

"Can I still write to you?" he asks. And yes, I'm fine with hearing from him by email.

She gives me honest feedback about my book, and I'm thrilled.

He mentions a gratitude exercise, a pause to list some things you're thankful for. I start doing this at the end of each day before falling asleep. Just thinking about a few things – moments of interest, progress, contentment, or happiness – I'm glad I've experienced. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Week in Seven Words #521

This covers the week of 1/12/20 - 1/18/20.

Gray streets dusted with litter. A chain store here and there, lots of chain link fencing, and some windowless concrete walls.

I almost flub one part of the coding test by overthinking things, making the questions more complicated than they are. Instead of looking at the simplest explanation for what they mean, I interpret them as a set of trick questions. 

A sleepy walk, early when it's still dark. It seems like the only other people outside are the ones walking their dogs before work.

Reading a memoir, I notice that the author speaks of going it alone but at the same time keeps mentioning people – family, friends, mentors, colleagues – who helped out along the way. There was no "going it alone." Sure, there was hard work, individual effort. But the support, encouragement, and connections were ever present.

The basement food pantry has shelves of beans, canned meat, packets of tuna and pink salmon, canned vegetables and fruits, and plastic bags bulging with bread. Some of the bags are collecting moisture. Some of the bread is stale. A delivery of food arrives through a chute propped up under an opening high in the wall. Boxes of food tumble down the chute and skid across a long table.

Waves of sadness come over me, pouring over and through me.

A pleasant dinner followed by the unpleasantness of a stomach bug.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Four Romance Movies With Very Different Plots

Title: The Enchanted Cottage (1945)
Director: John Cromwell
Language: English
Rating: Not Rated

Oliver Bradford (Robert Young) is a WWII vet who suffered disfiguring injuries. Laura Pennington (Dorothy McGuire) works as a maid (and also has a strong talent for wood-carving art). Pretty much everyone dismisses her as plain. Oliver and Laura become friends and marry for companionship, but some time after their wedding they begin to perceive each other as beautiful, as if a transformation has come over their physical appearance.

There are a few things I like about this movie:

- Generally good acting, especially a touching performance from McGuire, showing Laura's kindness and profound sadness and loneliness, a burning desire to be loved combined with the torment of knowing that it's highly unlikely. Herbert Marshall also puts in a lovely appearance as a blind pianist (who lost his sight in the First World War), and Mildred Natwick is surprising as a housekeeper who could have been a creepy Mrs. Danvers type of figure, but instead is supportive of other people's love even though her own prospects for happiness were bitterly thwarted.

- The movie shows the perniciousness of pity – not just self-pity, but also treating another person as pitiable rather than helping them see what's good, blessed, and possible in their lives, and doing so in a way that isn't condescending.

- I also liked how the movie depicted the uneasiness around "ugly people." This uneasiness exists in the filmmakers themselves and in the audience. The two main characters are what can be called "Hollywood ugly." Oliver hardly looks like the Phantom of the Opera, and while Laura does look remarkably more plain in comparison to her physically transformed self, she still has a facial structure and figure for conventional beauty. In the romantic moments between the couple, we see them as they see each other – the loved one rendered physically beautiful. Would the audience have enjoyed watching them kiss passionately if they were both still shown in their plainer state?

Monday, August 3, 2020

Week in Seven Words #520

This covers the week of 1/5/20 - 1/11/20.

She stares at the surface of the desk and pulls on the drawstrings of her hoodie until her face is almost swallowed up.

Someone on the subway looks very much like Robert Picardo, the actor who plays the EMH on Star Trek: Voyager. It might actually be Picardo himself. Obviously wearing his mobile holo-emitter.

She says she doesn't confront people. If they bother her, she ignores them. If they persist in bothering her, she ignores them harder. This seems to have worked for her so far.

He's been kicked out of a group for making a silly joke. Not even a hateful one, just a joke that might be considered tasteless and silly at worst, meriting an eye roll. He can't believe it's happened, but he feels more sane when I hear him out and agree with him. ("Yes, this really happened, and yes, it's nuts.")

This Indie RPG game is set in a cyberpunk world with industrial espionage. As with the film noir one I tried, what I like best is the improvisation (which is often creative and goofy) and the collaborative construction of a rapidly changing story.

They serve an overpriced, salty sandwich, and I figure it's the last time I'll go there for lunch. But while I'm there, I value it as a rest stop from the cold weather. A place to refuel before I keep walking.

Another free dance class – the music is fun, the mirrors track my stumbles on quick turns.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Week in Seven Words #519

This covers the week of 12/29/19 - 1/4/20.

Eight candles glowing. Rivulets of colorful wax.

She doesn't stop at fixing the grammatical mistakes. She also thinks of ways to make the text more readable by improving the flow from one sentence to the next. I'm proud of her.

He worries about his work – projects canceled, certain positions trimmed. He wonders if a mass layoff is coming.

Upset but unsurprised to hear people downplaying or attempting to justify yet another violent anti-Semitic attack.

I've never tried jackfruit before, but I order jackfruit tacos, and they're delicious. I think one difficulty people have when trying vegetarian or vegan dishes is that they compare the meat substitute to meat. If you don't do that – if you just accept the dish as it is, tasty in its own way – it's much more satisfying.

One of the good things about this free dance class is that many different people have shown up to try it, including people who are self-conscious about moving too much in front of others. By the halfway point, everyone is flowing around, looking relaxed.

It isn't long into my visit when I feel a silent pressure mounting against me. I'm being pushed out the door, without an unkind word or physical force. Just a look or two, a pause, a pursed mouth, and I know not to overstay my welcome.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Week in Seven Words #518

This covers the week of 12/22/19 - 12/28/19.

Her dollhouse, I discover, has musical features. So that I won't forget about these features, she replays them repeatedly.

In the car, I'm a little nauseous from lack of sleep and a breakfast of a single square of chocolate, which seems to hop around like a checker piece in my stomach. What helps is a walk through the parking lot in the mostly fresh air.

I'm struck most by a sculpture inspired by Abraham and Isaac, the near sacrifice of the son by the father. The father figure looks tense and determined but nonetheless reluctant, holding back at the sight of his adult son kneeling with throat bared. The son is prepared, appears not to resist at all, but his fists are clenched.

One museum guard allows me to keep my small backpack on me, as long as I wear it in front, like an artificial potbelly. Another guard tries to get me to return to the coat check with it, but I clutch my potbelly protectively and defend it from removal.

Scuffed-up stairs and tired-looking stoops are showered with tinsel and potted shrubs.

A deer among fallen branches by an empty swimming pool.

An elegant bridge and brittle ice, bare trees and dark, cold water.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Week in Seven Words #517

This covers the week of 12/15/19 - 12/21/19.

He's vibrating with tension as he waits to hear the news: Appendicitis or not? Surgery scheduled when?

Her middle school experiences include kids making up lies about other kids to broadcast on group texts and social media. Fights manufactured from false accusations are a regular form of entertainment for many. No one is completely safe from being targeted.

They descend an icy stairwell with balloons in cold blue bunches trailing them.

Throughout the group conversation, he hints that his sex life is active, that he's successful, and that he's unbothered by anything. He isn't weak. Never weak. Beneath his performance runs an undercurrent of anger and bitterness.

I try an indie RPG (role-playing game) for the first time. It's a game where you and the other players make up a storyline on the fly, based on improvisation and with structure provided by a set of rules. This game is set in a film noir universe. Without fully knowing what I'm doing, I make up a detective character and spend much of the time interrogating other characters and staging a clumsy break-in that gets me arrested. I like the collaborative aspect of the world-building and story-telling.

I know what they'll say: They're busy. It's an excuse I won't argue with, because I'm uncomfortable about making myself an inconvenience. I just wish I wasn't in the category of potential inconvenience.

Arguing with someone about English grammar is not how I want to spend the next 20 minutes, but here we are.

Two Short Story Recs: Themes of Arrogance and Complacency

Title: Sandkings
Author: George R.R. Martin
Where I Read It: The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories

Simon Kress likes to collect exotic pets from different planets. At one point, he purchases insectile creatures known as sandkings. They come in four colonies – orange, red, black, and white – with each colony sharing a hive mind. The colonies can interact in various ways, including waging war, and they're capable of forming images of their owner (as if their owner is a god hovering over their world).

Simon becomes bored with them quickly. Rather than leave them to interact and flourish with minimal interference, he agitates them by withholding food and watching them fight over scraps. Then he begins to pit them against other types of creatures. He receives warnings that his behavior will end in disaster, and it does – after he horrifyingly drags down others with him, then meets a horrifying end himself, with the evidence of his cruelty staring back at him.

Even if, like me, you never got into George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, you should still check out "Sandkings." It's a chilling story.

Title: The Tip-Top Club
Author: Garrison Keillor
Where I Read It: American Short Stories Since 1945

Bud Swenson is a radio personality whose show, "The Tip-Top Club," has attracted many devoted fans. From the early 1950s to Swenson's retirement in the late 1960s, his fans have been tuning in for special interest stories, gardening advice, mild congenial remarks, and overall positive feelings.

Over the course of his time on the show, Swenson speaks less and becomes merely a vessel for his audience. He seems to fade away, his personality gently but determinedly rubbed out. The audience members calling in dictate the content. What they want is camaraderie and no controversy. Swenson's personal views and character aren't important as long as he gives way to them.

However, once Swenson retires, his replacement makes waves by actually having opinions and wanting to discuss books, political issues, and other cultures. He may be open and friendly, but he's met with tremendous hostility by Swenson's fans. It isn't Swenson they miss, but a platform for themselves to showcase their own comments on the topics they prefer to discuss. How they react to this new host – with a nastiness that may seem surprising coming from people who pride themselves on being nice – reminds me of different internet subcultures. "The Tip-Top Club" has attracted the best people who naturally know what's best to put on air, and they get really angry when you don't allow them to control the content.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Week in Seven Words #516

This covers the week of 12/8/19 - 12/14/19.

The holiday market is a dense, sweet-smelling mass of pine and cider. Clustered booths of ornaments, jewelry, scarves, and glossy desserts are overrun by curious and restless shoppers.

She questions my safety to a ridiculous extent. Sometimes I wonder how much of what she voices is concern versus a vague impulse to undermine my sense of competence.

It's so cold outside, our fingers are burning with it, as if ice is being rubbed all over them. The metal seats pour more cold into our butts and backs. We huddle into ourselves and share a small bag of lime ranch potato chips.

The bookstore where I donate a bunch of DVDs has a friendly, barn-like feeling. You're expecting authors to roost in the rafters, dropping pages of their latest drafts.

The subway doors slam against my arms, punishing me for my unwillingness to wait for the next train.

The second bookstore looks like the backdrop to an upscale magazine photoshoot. It's stylish, with lots of dark wood and gleaming hardcover books, but it feels inert and uninviting. You could easily imagine a few models in overpriced clothing posing next to the pristine cookbooks. An area devoted to books on wine is close to the children's section. There are no kids around.

He's tired, so his thoughts spiral inwards. His eyes glance off the rows of trumpeting angels, the massive tree in the background, and the crowds holding up their phones to capture the scene.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Week in Seven Words #515

This covers the week of 12/1/19 - 12/7/19.

For one kid in the group, algebraic equations can't be fully trusted. The variables are weird and nebulous. Arithmetic is more familiar ground; one can walk on it sure-footed.

Slogans, self-promotion, and meandering intros leave much less time for substance.

When asked, she says she doesn't like any books, movies, or shows. Just the Internet, here and there, like funny little things she sees on Snapchat.

Trash bins are scattered liberally around the park. The trash itself is scattered liberally around the bins.

Somehow it's still in business, but I'm not complaining: A tiny movie theater that shows interesting but unpopular documentaries to an audience of three or four people.

We arrive at the supermarket as it's closing. Left outside, we stare through the glass at the last few shoppers while the freezing wind batters us.

One of the politicians on stage says, "We're all glad about the city's minimum wage laws." From the audience, a woman who owns a small business raises her hand and begins to express some kind of doubt or disagreement. The politicians swiftly talk over her, to get the town hall event back on track, they say. Because even during the Q&A, they need to maintain a tight, controlled environment that allows for only certain kinds of questions or opinions to surface.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Week in Seven Words #514

This covers the week of 11/24/19 - 11/30/19.

Gossip, bickering, utensils rustling, the scrape of chairs, the shuffle of sore feet.

He's happy that I've finally agreed to let him buy me a TV to replace the outdated (but still functioning) cube I've been using so far.

I sign up for some health insurance, avoiding a pushy salesperson and opting for website enrollment. Not really happy with different aspects of the coverage, but it seems the best of a sorry bunch.

Currently, his favorite stuffed animals are fish. He lines them up on the carpet, while his older brother asks if it's normal for a kid to have so many stuffed fish. (Responding with a pun, carp-e diem, probably isn't acceptable.)

Bogged down with a cold, she receives orders to quarantine herself at one end of the table.

I loosen the manacles of emotional manipulation and set out to do as I planned.

Even late in the evening, the bookstore is full of people who have wedged themselves onto windowsills and into narrow aisles to read.

Book Rec: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Betrayal is one of the themes in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. Set in Edinburgh during the 1930s, the novel centers on a bold, unusual schoolteacher (Miss Brodie) and a small group of girls she takes under her wing. From about the time they're 10 to when they leave school at 17, they're called the "Brodie set," as if they're part of an exclusive club.

Miss Brodie's mission is ostensibly to give the girls a much broader education than they'd receive through the school's ordinary curriculum. But over time it seems that she's trying to mold them to her own liking or fix them in place with her own labels or judgments. I think that's one of the betrayals in the book – when students begin to seem less like students and more like acolytes, or like attendants in the court of a queen. To what extent can Miss Brodie fix their path in life, given her influence over them?

And how empty is her own life, that she needs such a degree of influence over her students? In what ways has she betrayed herself?

At different points in the book, the narrative flashes forward to show the girls as adults. It's revealed that one of them betrays Miss Brodie to the headmistress of the school by revealing the teacher's fascist sympathies. Miss Brodie's admiration of fascism seems like it's based on puffed-up fantasies (also, it's interesting how the nonconformity of Miss Brodie, who refuses to be like other teachers, co-exists with her fondness for the Blackshirts and with her own desire to mold her students and their paths in life).

When the student informs on her, to what extent is it an act of betrayal? You're left to wonder at all of the motives at play. If Miss Brodie violated the trust and responsibility of her position as teacher, informing on her may be seen as a necessary act, even if her misdeeds have less to do with her misguided admiration of Mussolini and more to do with how she attempts to influence the girls. The student in question may also have been trying to gain some control over Miss Brodie; she may have been struggling with the profound influence Miss Brodie has had on her life. It may be that the student Miss Brodie influences most – the one who becomes most psychologically enmeshed with the errant teacher – is also the one who turns on her.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Week in Seven Words #513

This covers the week of 11/17/19 - 11/23/19.

Three cops in the lobby of a small health clinic, boredom heavy in their eyes and the droop of their faces.

His passion is helping people grapple with a clunky, overburdened, often unfair system. While his suggestions for health insurance don't suit my circumstances at the moment, I'm sure other people find what they need through his assistance.

After sharing some useful information about dinosaurs and shark attacks, she builds box-like structures out of colorful magnetic tiles. I show her how a well-placed triangle can help keep them upright.

Enjoying good company in a dim, crowded restaurant while trying to keep a swarm of anxieties penned up in the back of my mind.

Looking through current health insurance options isn't doing much for my well-being.

Two cross-town bus rides, a doctor's visit, a bookstore stop, and lunch at a restaurant that serves excellent carrot and ginger soup. Liquid sunshine on store windows and gentle blue skies.

He really wants to win the game, you can tell. He takes on a tone of faux friendliness, begins to insist to everyone in the group that none of this is important. His mouth flattens into a quivering line. After he loses again, he pushes away from the table to buy a beer.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Week in Seven Words #512

This covers the week of 11/10/19 - 11/16/19.

"Just try to be a good person," he says to the group. "Don't compare yourself to others."

As we watch a movie that's hollow and pointless, the night hums around us.

The berries are enticing. They grow in tight, glistening bunches on the deep green leaves. "Don't eat any," one mother tells her kid. "Only the ones we give you. The ones we give you are safe."

We share a bag of popcorn in a courtyard enclosed by bricks.

The trees part, and I find a bench streaked with sunlight.

Many resolutions amount to futile gestures and relapses. (Oh, well. Try again.)

A delightful surprise left in my bag: a bar of 88 percent dark chocolate.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Week in Seven Words #511

This covers the week of 11/3/19 - 11/9/19.

It's a bright, vivid street, even at dusk. The windows glow with everything I won't or can't buy.

She's trying to do something ethical with her data science work, conscious as she is of how data can be used to manipulate people, deprive them of privacy, or deny them favorable decisions in unfair ways that are difficult or even impossible to appeal.

The fog has feasted on the skyscraper, eating away the steel.

jet lag
Night after night, waking up in the middle of the night, to the flat, dark hours.

He tries to hook up old speakers to an old computer. "Houston, we have a problem," I say, and we make crackling static noises and laugh.

She makes claims that force you into a defensive mode. For example, her questions already contain what she considers the true answer. She doesn't ask to genuinely inquire.

I think of what needs to be rebuilt, and I shiver at what it will take.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Two Very Different Movies Featuring a Science Fiction Script

To be clear, neither of these movies is science fiction. But in both of them, a sci-fi script plays an important role.

Title: Bowfinger (1999)
Director: Frank Oz
Language: English
Rating: PG-13

Bobby Bowfinger (Steve Martin) is a middle-aged, low-budget Hollywood filmmaker down to the last of his money. His ambition is grand, but his prospects are depressing. He has a stellar script – "Chubby Rain," which is about aliens that arrive on Earth in rain drops and take control of people's minds – but to finally enjoy his big break, he needs a celebrity for his film. Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy), an action movie star, fits the bill. Kit, of course, won't give the time of day to someone like Bobby Bowfinger, so Bowfinger takes the unconventional approach of filming the movie with Kit, without Kit knowing he's in it.

It helps that Kit is secretly delusional and paranoid (about aliens, among other things). What also helps is Bowfinger's faithful cast and crew, and the fact that they find Jiff (also played by Eddie Murphy), a dorky pushover who looks remarkably like Kit and could help with closeups. (One funny moment in the movie is when Jiff casually mentions his connection to Kit, and you see everyone's reaction.)

Bowfinger is funny and ridiculous. It's also a biting commentary on some aspects of Hollywood culture. There are no romantic relationships, only the opportunistic seductions enacted by Daisy (Heather Graham), and the driving action involves multiple major deceptions.

That said, the film can still be oddly touching. Bowfinger's cast and crew include Carol (Christine Baranski), who commits to her role as if Chubby Rain is high art, Afrim (Adam Alexi-Malle), the screenwriter who hopes to quit his accounting job, Slater (Kohl Sudduth), a young and not especially bright young actor who just wants to see himself on-screen, and Dave (Jamie Kennedy), Bowfinger's loyal camera operator. Plus the illegal immigrants Bowfinger rounds up from the border who get a crash course in movies and wind up doing quite well for themselves.

So even though it pokes fun at Hollywood and big celebrities, Bowfinger doesn't really get dark. It doesn't delve too deeply into all the dysfunctions of celebrity culture and the powerful, unscrupulous people who operate in it. It's about second chances and happy endings, at least happy from the perspective of the characters, who stay afloat and get to make another film. (The title of that masterpiece is "Fake Purse Ninjas".)

Title: Please Stand By (2017)
Director: Ben Lewin
Language: English (and some Klingon)
Rating: PG-13

The best thing about this movie is how it conveys someone's passion for telling a story, and the genuine love, hard work, and commitment that go into writing. The main character, Wendy Welcott (Dakota Fanning), is a young woman with autism who is a devoted fan of Star Trek. She prepares a submission for a Star Trek script competition, and when it seems like she won't be able to mail it in on time, she decides to travel to the movie studio and deliver it in person.

Were various plot points a bit of a stretch? Sure. In some ways Please Stand By is also a light movie. Although things don't go smoothly for Wendy, the movie keeps an underlying positive tone. She encounters some people who are criminal, obnoxious, or indifferent, but she's also able to depend on the kindness of strangers and the dedication of her caretaker, Scottie (Toni Collette). Even her sister, Audrey (Alice Eve), who has been keeping a distance from Wendy pulls through for her.

The parallels between Star Trek and Wendy's real-life adventures are present but not overdone. The universe of Star Trek, and some of its relationships, make sense to Wendy, particularly when it comes to the hero of her script, Spock. (Full disclosure: I haven't watched the original series with Spock, but I have watched large chunks of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager, where characters like Data, Odo, and Seven of Nine are outsiders who wrangle with the difficulties of human interactions and emotions.)

Wendy's script writing turns into a way for her to connect more with others. In all, this is a movie with good acting, some genuinely moving scenes, and a memorable depiction of how intense writing can be and how worthwhile it is to write.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Week in Seven Words #510

This covers the week of 10/27/19 - 11/2/19.

I hurry back to give her a second kiss.

One statue with a ripped out torso embodies depression. Mind and body laid to waste.

At an Uzbek restaurant: salads in small, shallow dishes and a delicious stew that settles comfortably in my stomach for what seems like days.

A rich salmon salad in the morning. Pecan cookies in the afternoon. Some yogurt for dinner.

On one outdoor terrace, a sculpted horse considers the ocean and the narrow streets of an old neighborhood. On the rooftop, a real bird with black and white feathers perches on a steampunk-like contraption. Nearby, a statue skulks, its face lost in the shadows of a hood.

The cat peers out from among broad, dusty leaves.

By the ocean: scooters, bikes, paper boats strung up in the air, a rippling flag on a rock among the waves.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Week in Seven Words #509

This covers the week of 10/20/19 - 10/26/19.

Her campus is embedded into a hillside. She leads us up and down flights of stairs and shows us her favorite corners, like a nook in the library or a bench on a quiet lawn. In different corners, lemon, grapefruit, and olive trees grow.

A golden light has settled on the hill. On the remnants of a fortress, a chunky, plastic playground has sprung up.

I walk among peach-colored blossoms, and geese waggling their butts, and cats dozing in high grass. A booming noise, like the sound of car meeting concrete, ruptures the afternoon. It turns out not to be car-on-concrete, but one car glancing against the other, with thankfully no one hurt, though one adult is shouting and a baby is wailing.

The sun presses like a warm hand on my arm and head. When the pressure gets to be too much, I find refuge in the scented shade of the garden. Later, we slip into the museum, which is laid out brilliantly, especially its archaeology wing. From room to room, with detours into adjacent civilizations, it's easy to follow the historical timeline.

Parts of the day are marked by clean air, and clean, sharp flavors and scents. In the morning, we're in a forest with evergreens, and the purity of the air is stunning. Later in the day, I drink a rich, foamy, tart, sweet juice of pomegranate and red apple. Towards evening, we stop in a shaded yard. The air is cool, and the flowers spray from the shrubbery as from a fountain.

Dinner is served on many small plates, which we pass from one person to another while helping ourselves to dollops. The conversation gushes along, and into it we pack many missed conversations from over the years. Afterwards, we walk along broad, well-lit, empty streets.

The ceiling fan in the bedroom whisks air over me cool as milk.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Week in Seven Words #508

This covers the week of 10/13/19 - 10/19/19.

Her cooked vegetables are in autumn colors: moist purples, tender shades of orange and gold.

The windows of the plane are tinted, so that the clouds look like they're dipped in blue. Soon, the plane tilts and soars over the water, which is all dark except for silken spills of light, like shifting dunes, where the clouds have cracked open to admit the sun.

I show her a song sheet she gave me years ago. She sings quietly with tears in her eyes and says, "I came from a warm household. Poor, but warm."

There are wild parakeets in the park. They look like bright, chattering leaves that have peeled away from their home trees and now go where they wish.

They arrive in homage to a religion they lightly practice. They feel that some traditions are worth preserving, at least for their kids.

Just because I use the expression "relatively small," she guesses that I have a research background.

Two men – pot-bellied, slow, gentle, sure, with ruddy, cube-shaped heads – discuss weight loss. "You know," one says to the other, "losing 50 pounds is like strapping a sack of potatoes to you and walking around with it all day. It takes effort."

Monday, May 11, 2020

Recommending Scenes from Village Life by Amos Oz

Tel Ilan, a pioneer village, already a century old, was surrounded by fields and orchards. Vineyards sprawled down the east-facing slopes. Almond trees lined the approach road. Tile roofs bathed in the thick greenery of ancient trees.

In Scenes from Village Life, Amos Oz opens windows into the lives of different characters living in a village in Israel. Many of the residents continue to operate farms, but the face of the village is changing. People have opened up restaurants and galleries and have leased out land. They're making a living from tenants or from visitors who come by each weekend to search for art, furniture, and other items of interest. Along with the external changes in the village, there are private transformations, unsettling and destabilizing occurrences experienced quietly.

These are some of the qualities of the book that stood out most:

- So many of the descriptions enfold you, the sensory details chosen with sensitivity, hitting the right notes ("A deep, wide silence lay on the garden...")

- In many of the episodes in the book, an absence is what brings people new insights or forces them to confront what they've been avoiding. A nephew who doesn't show up, a wife who disappears after leaving an ambiguous note... during each incident, the characters who remain behind discover something important about their lives, such as a truth they've ignored or denied.

- Characters probe at the limits of what they can understand about themselves, other people, or life. For instance, in one part of the novel, a man shines a flashlight under a bed. In this dark space, a teenager had previously killed himself. What does the flashlight illuminate? ("I had no further reason to turn my back on despair." Does despair still linger in that empty space in tangible form?)

- The novel captures the village's instability, not just in the way that personal relationships become unstable and unpredictable, but also in how the village has changed. Its connections to its farming days are weakening. The future is uncertain. Long-standing residents aren't sure what comes next in their own lives and for the community as a whole. At the same time, there's much that remains familiar. The things that haven't changed may accentuate everything that's different.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Week in Seven Words #507

This covers the week of 10/6/19 - 10/12/19.

In an old spiral notebook, I start a bullet journal, and so far it's working well. The method at first seems cumbersome, but in practice it's pretty easy to use, and there's no need to make it fancy.

It's a home with an aggressive commercial quality, like the set for an ad. There's little that's personal in it.

Her mind is ravaged by dementia, so she doesn't realize she's at a Yom Kippur service. She thinks it's some kind of simcha, like a wedding party. "I can't dance," she keeps saying. "Oh, there's the wall," she cries, her fingers tracing the mechitza.

Searching for a hat in a department store. Racks and racks of clothes, people rifling humorlessly, each item subjected to sharp inspection.

Golden chrysanthemums, a golden haze to the afternoon.

Praying part of the time outdoors, alone, in the cool air.

The movie theater lobby smells like a dank basement toilet. The movie itself is like an air freshener. Beyond being light and pleasant, it doesn't leave a strong impression on me. What I remember more strongly is the walk afterwards, late into the evening.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Week in Seven Words #506

This covers the week of 9/29/19 - 10/5/19.

The leaves are turning a spangly orange and gold. Coolness is working its way into the warmth of the day.

I respect how attentive she is to other people. She pauses in the middle of praying to make sure someone has a seat, and to soothe an elderly lady who thinks she's been transported to a date decades earlier.

The kids find a way to amuse themselves by chucking their shoes through a hole in the net. "Special delivery!" they shout.

When I return, I find her asleep on the couch with her fingers still suspended in front of her, her freshly painted nails drying. As good a time as any to catch up on some sleep.

She's seized by moments of querulousness, and it's best to let them slide. Her hours are often pinched with pain, and one day washes into another.

What I touch I must try to make good.

It's impossible to start over completely, he says with dimmed eyes, but you do the best you can.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Week in Seven Words #505

This covers the week of 9/22/19 - 9/28/19.

Curled up on the couch with intense cramping, waiting for the OTC painkiller to kick in. My feet swivel in time to the pulses of pain, and I try to let the murder mystery novel I'm reading distract me.

She shows an interest in Revolutionary-era Boston, after I show her an image of Samuel Adams beer.

In the back room of the board game cafe, the wall is scuffed and dented. A small sign hangs on it, asking customers not to kick it or bang on it with their fists.

I find a notebook for her, in light blue and decorated with hot air balloons, in which she'll probably want to write the poems and song lyrics she isn't yet ready to share with anyone.

I clean my shoes and donate some boots, towels, and pillow cases. Under the couch, I find dust clumps that look like small gray wigs.

She's trying to find a chair, or configuration of chairs, that will suit her. She slides from one to the other. She chooses a middle seat, before scrambling back to settle against the wall. I don't think she'll find anything she likes, because the discomfort is embedded in her mind. She can't uproot it by means of rearranging chairs.

She's frustrated that they don't consider a cold to be an illness. They take no care to cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Three Sherlock Holmes Stories to Read in Lockdown

This past weekend, I read a few Sherlock Holmes stories that I found strangely relaxing, even though at least one of them involves murder. Maybe because each story is like an orderly, manicured garden with well-defined paths. Holmes and Watson are ever the same, with Watson admiring the genius of his friend, and his friend saying that it's nothing at all, you just have to observe things. (In some cases, you also have to be able to distinguish between different kinds of cigar ash, topsoil, etc.) The endings aren't mystifying. Just take the route Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has laid out for you, and you'll be entertained.

(You can also amuse yourself imagining Holmes in lockdown. When not on a case, he enjoys being indoors, experimenting with chemicals, playing the violin, or getting a little coked up.)

All of these are from Sterling Publishing Co.'s volume, The Adventures and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). You can also find the Adventures and the Memoirs online on Project Gutenberg. ("The Crooked Man" is in the Memoirs, and the last two stories in the Adventures.)

Title: The Crooked Man

Crookedness can refer to a physical characteristic or to a moral one. In this story, a man is dead after an argument with his wife, who has fainted away at the scene. There's also evidence that a third person was in the room. Holmes probes a little deeper and discovers a horrific betrayal from decades ago.

Title: A Scandal in Bohemia

Irene Adler is in this one, a woman who looks after herself capably and stays a step ahead of Holmes. Is she the villain of the story, or someone who has been wronged and is trying to protect herself? Holmes falters slightly in this one, I think because he bases his predictions on what a woman would typically do in Adler's situation, and she's unusual.

Title: The Speckled Band

This story involves a country house, a cruel stepfather, and an elaborate method of premeditated murder. What I liked most about it was the sense of dread that builds to the point where everything is revealed.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Week in Seven Words #504

This covers the week of 9/15/19 - 9/21/19.

She likes being read to while she's being fed. And she likes repeated readings. This time, it's the Berenstain Bears and a dinosaur bone that goes missing from a museum. After the nth such reading, I sit across from her and her dad with a book about a different bear: Corduroy. She switches chairs and settles in for another story that bears repetition.

She tells me that her favorite teacher, a humanities teacher, resembles me, which is why it's her favorite class.

She repeats the name of her car's model, in bursts of delight.

His interest in wrestling has diminished. Now he's into fishing and fishing videos.

Not for the first time, I wonder if I were to get up, push my chair back in, and leave, would anyone present care.

It amuses me when a teenager tries to be shocking. Kid, you don't know how young you look to me.

His voice is wrenching. At midnight, the lights flicker out, as if in response to the feelings he has evoked.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Week in Seven Words #503

From 9/8/19 - 9/14/19.

The middle child feels aggrieved, blamed by an older sibling who sides with a younger one.

The birthday cake is slathered in butterscotch icing. Over the weekend, it disappears in chunky slices that melt away on people's tongues and between their teeth, and in fist-sized balls that a child digs out of its side, and in slivers of icing picked away by restless fingernails.

They cycle quickly from "I hate you" to hanging out together laughing to being deeply annoyed with each other again (which they call hate), a mood that soon shifts back to affection.

My clothes are damp and cold from a heavy rain, but the walk to the restaurant is worth it. A good burger, an easy flow of conversation, just a lovely evening overall.

The first night, she pretends to be a doctor, and she even knows the word "MRI," though she pronounces it "enMarigh." The second night, she's an ice cream truck driver handing out blueberry and mint scoops on cones.

Creativity, laughter, and hyper-competitiveness during board games. Once again, I get my ass whooped in Settlers of Catan by a ruthless kid.

The large dollhouse is reserved for a couple of small dog figurines and a little plastic baby in a drawer.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Deal Me In: "Heaven and Nature" by Edward Hoagland

On another blog, I've written a response to Edward Hoagland's essay, "Heaven and Nature." This is for the Deal Me In challenge. The essay deals with a very difficult topic, and one that people understandably don't like to think about.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Two Movies to Watch With Your Kids

More people are staying home these days, and some family-friendly entertainment may be what you're looking for. (Or maybe these movies will drive you nuts, and you'll let your kids watch them if they want while you hole up in another room to get some work done.)

Title: Annie (2014)
Director: Will Gluck
Language: English
Rating: PG

You would think by reading some of the reviews for this film that it's a horror show, that it will make you want to claw your eyes out and stuff your ears with cotton balls, but what I found was something different.

- The lead actress, Quvenzhané Wallis, approaches her role in a lovely way. She plays a quick-thinking sweetheart of a girl who powers through life with optimism and charm, and her performance doesn't feel forced.

- Jamie Foxx's performance is pretty funny and, at times, genuinely moving. He plays an out-of-touch billionaire running for NYC mayor who tries to boost his performance in the polls by throwing money at everything – sound familiar? – and he does it well.

- There are tongue-in-cheek moments and self-awareness in the film. Even though some scenes are played in earnest, other times the movie nods to its own ridiculousness and lets in some sly humor. There's a scene poking fun at Twilight types of movies, an acknowledgement of how little privacy people have in the age of smart technologies and social media, a look at the corrupt strategies a political campaign will resort to, and some fun with the conventions of a filmed musical (how can someone succeed at being mayor if they're dancing and singing so much?). As an adult, you can watch this movie with kids and still find enough humor in it yourself. It doesn't take itself so seriously, though it does touch on some serious issues (like, it's all well and good to sing about how everyone has a shot at success, but what do you do about poor education or parental neglect?).

- The movie is sentimental, but I didn't find it so cloying – first off because of its self-awareness, and secondly, because I accepted the rules of this fictional universe, where a poor kid will get adopted by a billionaire whose basic decency has been buried under money and workaholic habits. The performances from the main actors and supporting cast work pretty well too, balancing earnestness with an awareness that this is a fun bit of entertainment. (Among the supporting actors, Rose Byrne plays an especially sweet character.)

- Are the musical numbers powerful? I don't think they're breathtaking, but they're still engaging, and the actors hit some of the right acting notes during each (even if the singing isn't mind-blowing).

- I enjoyed some of the footage from around NYC (shout out to the 125th street stop of the 1 train!)

I think some of the people who gave it awful reviews loved the 1980s Annie, which I might have watched as a kid but don't remember. If you're a fan of that one, you may approach this one with mistrust and distaste, and you maybe won't allow yourself to enjoy any of it. I can't help that. All I can do is recommend 2014 Annie for people in search of a reliably entertaining family-friendly musical.

Title: Kit Kittredge: An American Girl (2008)
Director: Patricia Rozema
Language: English
Rating: G

A movie based on an American Girl doll? Yes, and it's entertaining, with enough to enjoy even if you're an adult. Set in Cincinnati during the Great Depression, the movie features Kit (Abigail Breslin), who dreams of becoming a reporter. When her dad loses his job and heads to Chicago to find work, her mom turns their home into a boarding house and takes in lodgers for money.

Kit winds up experiencing some of the struggles of the Depression, writes about what she sees, and identifies the real criminals behind a series of thefts while preventing someone innocent from being arrested. Along with its clever and cute scenes, the movie shows some of the harsh realities of poverty as well as efforts people made to get by and help each other.

The villains wind up being a bit Scooby Doo-ish in their final act, where they're thwarted by those meddling kids. And there's a schmaltz overload at the end. But it's still a decent movie with good work from the child actors and an array of well-cast actors among the adults. The standouts are Julia Ormond, who gives an affecting performance as Kit's mom, and Wallace Shawn, who plays a cantankerous newspaper editor. Also, Colin Mochrie from Whose Line Is It Anyway has a small role as a hobo.

Additional suggestions:
Check out the movies I've been recommending on this blog, including other family-friendly ones like Mary Poppins, The Wizard of Oz, The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, and Lilo & Stitch.

Week in Seven Words #502

With these Weeks in Seven Words posts, I'm still catching up to the current week... and it's eerie to see the contrast between life then and now (virtually empty Times Square, for instance, and going to a restaurant).

She opens the door, receives the gift, and closes the door after a bland thanks that says nothing.

We walk up 7th Avenue, the lights of Times Square tiring our eyes, before we switch to 6th Avenue. Homeless people are folded under scaffolding.

When we arrive at the restaurant, it's empty. At one table, three workers are on their phones. One of them springs up to take our orders, which we take with us to a round green table several blocks away by a massive library.

If I deny my own past, if I pretend that I was wiser than I was, then I also deny how I've matured.

"La, la, la, la... la, la, la, la... Elmo's song... La, la, la, la.... la, la, la, la... Elmo's song..." The toddler keeps squeezing the doll, bringing forth new bursts of Elmo's song. More Elmo's song. Elmo loves singing.

The restaurant is still a small cube where people are crushed elbow-to-elbow at the counter. But they've broadened their menu. I pick a salad with barbecue chicken and tortilla strips and find a bench in a nearby park outside of a museum. "Enjoy," says a guard, eyeing the salad bowl with unmasked appreciation.

She tries to hide by ducking behind her backpack and slipping on a pair of shades. It's like when a younger kid plays hide-and-seek by sticking the top half of their body under a bed but leaving their legs exposed.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Week in Seven Words #501

Round every corner you turn, there's a TV. At least one of them is on at all times, sometimes two.

"Please don't take a photo of my work," she says, emerging from her art booth. "Buy it."

She hops on my lap to lick watermelon droplets from the table. She disregards the calls for her to stop, and the reminders that she's not supposed to eat from the table, because watermelon is worth being disobedient for. Besides, as a good dog, she gets a lot of leniency, because her main offenses are eating from the table and attempting to steal and eat toilet paper. Nothing serious.

Feeling a bit sore and bruised inside after receiving entirely positive, detailed feedback on a piece, only to be told vaguely that it's not a good fit.

Eating a chicken sandwich that tastes mostly like salt, ketchup, and bread.

The heart-shaped anniversary balloon was bobbing around by the ceiling. Now it sinks towards the tile floor, where it's kicked around by restless feet.

A male deer, looking puzzled and wary, slips into a backyard away from us. We watch him through the gap in the faded wood fence.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Week in Seven Words #500

She uses "heavy" to describe anything big or adult-like.

Even though he's more experienced with JavaScript than I am, he can still find it perplexing. Like why 2019 gets interpreted as a number even though it was typed as a string.

Right after we step into the store, the wind picks up, and the storm rushes through the streets like an overflowing river.

I'm caught up in a flurry of impatience with myself. But impatience is preferable to feeling undeserving and inadequate.

The salesman, crimped and white-toothed, hovers too much, but he does point me to something worth buying.

An old woman walking with her spine perpendicular to her hips refuses help with her bags. She's holding one in each hand, and they seem to balance her.

The doctor's office is tucked below street level. It looks grubby and shabby, and the air is thick with the tang of disinfectant.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Friday the 13th Short Story Rec Roundup

I've done this sort of post twice before, to recommend some short stories that are twisted and dark, that depict people who suffer bad luck or make self-destructive choices.

Title: Before the Law
Author: Franz Kafka
Translators: Willa and Edwin Muir
Where I Read It: Legal Fictions

Before the Law stands a doorkeeper. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law.
It isn't clear what the Law refers to – maybe some deeper understanding of justice, answers about how the world or universe works, who knows. In the story, we never find out, because instead of the Law, what we see are three "f"s: fear, frustration, and failure. Should the petitioner have tried to push more forcefully past the doorkeeper, or ask different kinds of questions? Or would the petitioner have failed at any attempt to gain admittance? Let's add a fourth "f": futility.

Title: Forgotten
Author: Anne Mazer
Where I Read It: Sudden Flash Youth

Two children who have been playing out in the forest return home in expectation of warm food, their beds, and motherly attention. When they return, no one opens the door for them. They see their mother inside, absorbed with her baby, but she doesn't notice them. It's as if they're on another plane of existence, have become ghosts, or never existed to her. A child's nightmare.

Title: The Happiest Place
Author: Gordon McAlpine
Where I Read It: Orange County Noir

Most of the strength of the story comes from its narrator, a security guard at Disneyland in Anaheim. He gets fired after footage shows him apparently trailing a teenaged girl. But later, the head of security contacts him and asks him to investigate his third wife on a suspicion of infidelity. Is the narrator being set up? Or is he quite shady, unreliable, and possibly a murderer?

Title: In For a Penny
Author: Lawrence Block
Where I Read It: Manhattan Noir 2

Paul kept it very simple. That seemed to be the secret. You kept it simple, you drew firm lines and didn't cross them. You put one foot in front of the other, took it day by day, and let the days mount up.
An ex-con needs to find ways of filling up his free time and keeping certain temptations at bay. We eventually get a better idea of what these temptations are, and the fact that we don't fully learn what they are makes the revelations more chilling. On his way to work, he passes a nightclub and tries to avoid it in different ways, like crossing the street or changing his typical route. But like a tractor beam it pulls him in. The story does a good job depicting his attempts at resistance, and his surrender.

Title: The Long Sheet
Author: William Sansom
Where I Read It: The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories

I recommended a Kafka story earlier in the post, and while this one isn't by Kafka, it's Kafkaesque (not in every respect, but in its depiction of a certain kind of imprisonment and futile labor). In "The Long Sheet," people are held in a long, doorless, metal room where there are skylights but no windows. They're divided up into cubicles, and through the cubicles runs a sheet that's thoroughly soaked. They need to wring it dry with their hands and not stop until it's completely free of dampness. In the meantime, their captors thwart them in different ways; for instance, they release bursts of steam.

The groups in the cubicles carry out their labor in different ways. In one group, the workers do enough to feel smug about their efforts, and their work remains insufficient. In another, the people give up and see the task as hopeless. In the third, they're out of sync and some are trapped in their own neuroses or foibles – one is afraid of sheets because of a childhood incident, another fumbles because he gets distracted, another tries to cheat, and a fourth works well but goes unnoticed. In the last cubicle, the one with the greatest chance of success, the people surpass the limitations of the other cubicles and keep their object – freedom – in mind.
'Unproductive? The long sheet a senseless drudgery? Yes - but why not? In whatever other sphere of labour could we ever have produced ultimately anything? It is not the production that counts, but the life lived in the spirit during production... Let the hands weave, but at the same time let the spirit search. Give the long sheet its rightful place - and concentrate on a better understanding of the freedom that is our real object.' At the same time, they saw to it that the sheet was wrung efficiently.
What happens when they succeed at their task? Do they obtain the freedom they seek, or do the captors peering through the skylights have a different conception of freedom? It's a sharp, bleak story depicting how different people try to deal with what may be a futile struggle.

Title: Mr. Millcroft’s Birthday
Author: P.D. James (Phyllis Dorothy James)
Where I Read It: Sleep No More

Nobody here is nice. Not the elderly father and not his grasping son and daughter. He tricks them into moving him to a more expensive nursing home in this dark, funny story that may contain murder.

Title: Smoke Ghost
Author: Fritz Leiber
Where I Read It: The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories

An advertising executive has a disturbing conversation with his secretary on what a modern-era ghost would look like. "I don't think it would seem white or wispy or favour graveyards. It wouldn't moan. But it would mutter unintelligibly, and twitch at your sleeve." He imagines it as "grimy" and "sordid," reflecting all the terrible things of modern life, from neuroses to soulless industrial jobs to people living in terror of being bombed in their homes.

In the story, an apparition of this sort stalks him. What does it want from him? At the end, he says he'll worship it, give himself over to it, but is it really appeased? (And how will he keep it appeased?)

Title: The Terrible Screaming
Author: Janet Frame
Where I Read It: Prizes

I'm ambivalent about the way this one ends, but it's still worth reading. The story depicts a city where there's a screaming heard all over, but no one wants to admit to hearing it. They're afraid of looking crazy, so they rationalize what the screaming might be (a product of tiredness or an overactive imagination). When a distinguished visitor arrives and asks about it, the official who welcomes him gently informs him that there's no screaming, and the assistant to the official is afraid of speaking up and losing his job. Also, a specialist is on hand to give people private care and rest from what they think they're hearing.

There's an atmosphere of quiet terror in the story, and I like how the author depicts a society where people are creating a collective sense of denial, a civilized falsehood to mask a haunting truth.

Title: You Are Now Entering the Human Heart
Author: Janet Frame
Where I Read It: Prizes

This one is set in the science museum in Philadelphia (the Franklin Institute) and mentions an exhibit I've been to: the giant replica of the human heart, which you can walk through. A visitor considers experiencing the giant heart, but winds up first going to another exhibit where kids on a field trip are being shown a snake. The purpose of exposing them to the snake is to ease their fears and decrease the chances that they'll kill a non-venomous one. The guy running the demonstration ropes the teacher into it and wraps the snake around her. Her terror wars with her need to appear calm and dignified before her students. What will triumph – her intense fear of snakes, or her fear of what the students will think if they discover what a tenuous grip she has on her composure?

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Week in Seven Words #499

"I hope I never get tired of this stuff," she says, about cartoonish sculptures on the 14th Street platform of the A and C subway lines. She doesn't want to become jaded.

We eat burgers in a lovely cellar-like restaurant, noisy but cozy.

She's demolishing a large bag of potato chips while watching a Korean soap opera on her phone.

During the first half of the class, she acts as if she knows everything, and only gradually becomes more open to seeing new ways of solving problems. Others never develop that openness.

The instructor acts as if he has clumsily assembled his patience out of plywood. With each question, each hand waving in the air, it splinters.

Some of the sofa cushions feel like taut air bubbles shifting under me. One of them, though, has just the right balance between staying firm and giving way.

Two elegant, well-groomed dogs are crossing the plaza with a mincing walk, and I wonder if they're 18th century aristocrats who have been reincarnated as canines.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Week in Seven Words #498

We find Jupiter with its banded surface, and a tiny, pale Saturn. Strangely, it's our moon that's foggiest and most unclear.

The meal before the fast is full of water-rich foods, like cucumbers, turnips, green beans, and watermelon.

When the fountain leaps to life, one boy steps back in startled wonder. The other climbs on the rim to peer closely at the shifting configurations of water.

I prefer the reading voices of the older men, their raspy, trembling dignity. The younger men recite without feeling in a nasally intonation.

In a park installed on old elevated rail tracks, there's an atmosphere of forest enchantment. Some people paddle their feet in a dark stream. Others are tucked on wooden lounge chairs screened by leaves. A handful of children listen to gentle music while painting tiles in the foggy light. We turn a corner and discover a dark, massive sculpture of a human head.

They order marble cheese cake, strawberry shortcake, and a dense chocolate cake with chocolate frosting and chocolate pudding. Without even planning it, I grab one of the extra forks and shave off some of the frosting. It's almost too much in sweetness and richness, and it undermines the resolve I had formed to avoid chocolate for the week.

A thunderstorm brings dusk to mid-afternoon. Lightning dips into the river like a bony finger.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Week in Seven Words #497

A young brother and sister play with a water bottle for about an hour. First they take turns tossing the bottle to make it land upright on the ground. Then they roll it and kick it back and forth. After that, they relocate to a flight of stairs and toss it up and down.

She channels her thoughts through narrow conduits of social justice jargon.

I don't know why a cloud of bees has formed above the bed of a pickup truck, and I don't get close enough to find out.

On seeing his grandma approach with the stroller, the toddler wails that he isn't ready to leave. He stomps off shouting, "Bye!" She blows him a kiss. He softens enough to send her one back. Her relaxed posture misleads him into thinking he's safe from capture. He toddles closer, grinning. He's still grinning when she snatches him up and straps him, wailing again, into the stroller.

Her coughing fit ends, and her soulful voice crawls out, cradling each note of a slow melody.

During the sonogram, the technician asks me to be patient as she tries to locate one of my ovaries. "It's like deep sea diving," I murmur, and she laughs. (The outer office has an ocean resort atmosphere. Soft pop music and a decor of seashell pink, cloudy white, and calm blue.)

Some shimmering classical piece is playing in the background, and I'm sinking into the sofa, my thoughts calm.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Eight Unromantic Short Stories

Yesterday, I posted a playlist for Valentine's Day on another site. Today, I've decided to shatter dreams of romance with the following stories. Enjoy!

Title: After You've Gone
Author: Alice Adams
Where I Read It: Legal Fictions

An attorney attempts to bring some order to her feelings and thoughts after her boyfriend leaves her. She analyzes different areas of her life and assumes a dispassionate attitude about a deeply personal and emotional topic. In her letter to him, she even advocates for his new girlfriend, asking him to be kind to her. The story is worth reading for the performance the main character delivers.

Title: The Connor Girls
Author: Edna O'Brien
Where I Read It: The Love Object

The title refers to a pair of adult sisters who live with their father. In the area of Irish countryside they call home, they're the elites. However, a scandal breaks the family apart when one of the sisters falls in love with a man her father considers unsuitable; she's Protestant, and her lover is Catholic. She leaves home and returns only when her father passes away. The marriage she once hoped for never takes place. For a while she's in the grip of an intense grief and has a drinking problem. But eventually, she settles back into life with her sister. Her heart was broken, her hopes thwarted, but by the story's end she's healing and is also more open to the community around her. You wonder, as much pain as she went through, maybe marriage to the man of her choice would have put her in worse straits? Or maybe she would have been deeply happy. There's no way to know for sure.

The story's narrator is a neighbor of the Connor girls. Her family comes from a lower class, and she has always looked at the Connors from the outside. When she grows up, she chooses to marry outside her parents' wishes. After a period of estrangement, she visits home with her husband and young son. The visit highlights her husband's contempt for her parents, their rural way of life, and yes, for her too. The narrator is deeply alone, wrenched away from her parents' world but in a relationship that isn't loving. She also no longer has a community to call her own. Ultimately, the story doesn't portray marrying against parental wishes as an unquestioned good in all cases. Sometimes it might be the best choice, but the risks are serious, and one might lose a great deal. Should you take the risk then?

Title: The Country Husband
Author: John Cheever
Where I Read It: American Short Stories Since 1945

Cheever is good at writing about middle-aged, upper middle class suburbanites who possess the accepted trappings of an adult life - marriage, children, a job, a lovely home – but if you look more closely, you discover that they are profoundly immature. Something in them remains undeveloped. In this story, a man experiences a shock – he survives an airplane accident – and appears to spiral into a mid-life crisis that he doesn't have the wisdom or maturity to handle. For example, he feels lust for his kids' young babysitter (he thinks of it as love, but it doesn't come across as genuine love), and acts on his feelings in a selfish, nasty way that hurts other people.

Title: The Furnished Room
Author: O. Henry (William Sydney Porter)
Where I Read It: Manhattan Noir 2

A man searches through NYC for a woman he loves. He goes from one derelict boarding house to another in the hopes that someone knows where she is. She works in theater, and her fate is at first unknown. By the end we find out.

The visceral descriptions of miserable places are the most memorable parts of this story.
They trod noiselessly upon a stair carpet that its own loom would have forsworn. It seemed to have become vegetable; to have degenerated in that rank, sunless air to lush lichen or spreading moss that grew in patches to the staircase and was viscid under the foot like organic matter.
Human misery is imprinted on furniture and on the floors and walls. You can feel the presence of former occupants in depressing ways.
One by one, as the characters of a cryptograph become explicit, the little signs left by the furnished room's procession of guests developed a significance. The threadbare space in the rug in front of the dresser told that lovely women had marched in the throng. The tiny finger prints on the wall spoke of little prisoners trying to feel their way to sun and air. A splattered stain, raying like the shadow of a bursting bomb, witnessed where a hurled glass or bottle had splintered with its contents against the wall.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Week in Seven Words #496

By the salty, polluted river, the grass is long and glossy. Purple flowers and soda cans nestle in it.

Worries are better dealt with outdoors. Not in the confines of a familiar room but in a wider space with water, trees, and people.

A caterpillar, small as a piece of macaroni, squiggles on my neck.

A woman is simultaneously playing the violin and hula hooping. Packing her talents together in the hopes of collecting more money in her violin case.

She keeps lowering her book with a sigh. The whoosh of the passing cars distracts her. I've written it off as background noise, like the wind. After she calls attention to it, I pause to listen, and I realize how much noise I accept as a given, just a part of life.

Toy sailboats find their balance on a sheet of dark water.

Rain comes down in thick continuous clots and spatters like white paint on the street.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Week in Seven Words #495

We sit across from each other in a tiny office. Construction noise shatters our conversation.

The water in the fountain is dark and murky. Lily pads float in the basin. Partly a fountain, partly a pond, presided over by the statue of an angel.

The planes, which have been used for war, now look like painted toys displayed in unrelenting sunlight.

Anxiety: small, sharp stones on a stream bed churning in a powerful current. Regret: boulders thundering down a hillside.

Metal chairs beneath branches delicate as bones. Many people are reading, scrolling through websites, or sharing silence with friends. One man is alone and insane. He's ranting about $10 and listening to Elton John and Phil Collins on a small radio.

We push our way through the stuffy, narrow corridors of a ship. What must it have felt and smelled like, powering through the Tropics in days of no deodorant or A/C?

The dog leaps at me and puts her paws up on my legs for a neck massage and chest rub. One guy looking on says that he could use a massage to his neck too.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Five Short Stories Highlighting a Socioeconomic Divide

Title: Enough to Lose
Author: RS Deeren
Where I Read It: Tales of Two Americas

Three months in with Secured Properties, mowing lawns for bank repossessions at ten bucks a pop, and I had inhaled more grass clippings, caked my eyes in more dust, and ridden more backroads than I had known were in Tip County.
The narrator is a man on a financial treadmill that will be going only faster in a post-recession US. At any time he can be flung off. His wife, who has found some dubious work through a multi-level marketing scheme, wants to have a baby. They already gave up a baby to adoption years ago for lack of means to care for him. Now they aren't teenagers anymore, but their financial situation is still precarious. Having a kid is a hopeful step; the narrator is worried that it's unrealistically hopeful.

The narrator's work partner is a gruff man who had "probably been some kind of stupid at some point in his life" and now just wants to get each job done cleanly and quickly with not a minute wasted. During their work, they encounter a man who is still trying to live on his repossessed property; he's desperate not to let it go, to admit that his hope for a home is lost for a good long while (probably permanently). The narrator sees what could happen to him and his wife – the loss of everything they're barely holding onto, the meager chance of having enough money to raise a kid, the lack of well-paying job opportunities, the need to turn into an emotionally closed off machine to make barely enough money. The story wraps the reader in layers of tension.

Title: The Gully
Author: Russell Banks
Where I Read It: Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar

From what I remember, "The Gully" starts out in a very poor neighborhood on an island nation. Three men commit acts of vigilantism. Soon they pool their resources and offer their services in justice (like killing robbers) for a fee. Over time, they make enough money to leave their violent, impoverished neighborhood. They outsource their work to others and extract money from people as they see fit. The story ends with them regarding their old home with contempt, as if they have forgotten where they came from and what they did to leave. How many times has this type of story played out in real life?

Title: The House Behind
Author: Lydia Davis
Where I Read It: The Art of the Story

The two homes in this story could exist anywhere. The one in front is wealthier and more elegant. The one in back is shabbier. A courtyard divides them, where the residents of both homes throw out their trash. It's the one place where they interact. The narrator, who lives in the house in back, says:
“Curiously enough, many pairs of houses in the city suffer from bad relations like ours: there is usually an uneasy truce between the two houses until some incident explodes the situation and it begins deteriorating. The people in the front houses become locked in their cold dignity and the people in the back houses lose confidence, their faces gray with shame.”
Here, the exploding incident is murder.

Some people are illuminated in beautiful prose in this story, but they're never really developed as individuals. They're representatives of different places and classes. Those in the front home react largely as a group, and so do those in the house behind, which strengthens the impression that these relationships and actions will be replicated many times between different sets of strangers. The details will run together and fade, and will anyone care to learn anything or change anything? Each house, front and back, seems to exert a relentless influence on the behavior of its occupants.

Title: The Lesson
Author: Toni Cade Bambara
Where I Read It: American Short Stories Since 1945

At the start of the story, a group of kids in a poor, predominantly black neighborhood in New York City have their own contained world – a certain friend group, places they're familiar with, things they're used to doing. They don't know much about the world beyond, not in a concrete way, until the well-educated Miss Moore takes them on a trip to F.A.O. Schwarz, where the toys are well beyond their means, and where they feel completely out of place.

The main character, Sylvia, doesn't take to this lesson in social and racial divide without disgruntlement or questioning. The field trip to the super-expensive toy store rattles the way she sees herself and her place in the world. What she makes of the trip – how she interprets it and how it will affect her life – isn't clear. She may see herself as neither a warrior nor a victim of circumstance. Her choice at the end, to give more thought to what she has seen, may not be all that Miss Moore intends for her to do, but thinking things over is better than either pretending ignorance or swallowing what you're told without question.

I don't think the lesson Miss Moore delivers is even one lesson. It's a starting point, perhaps an initial spur to get the kids to... do what? Perhaps work hard, think more, gain an education, help enrich their own neighborhoods. Possibly take political collective action at some point. Her approach may also backfire and become a discouraging shock that makes the kids want to ignore what they saw and stick to their familiar turf; they're not exactly receptive to Miss Moore to begin with. One thing I like about the story is that the kids aren't tractable. Their reactions are realistic and individual, including Sylvia's need to consider what she'll make of this new awareness that her world is not just the world of her neighborhood, and that she can cross the boundaries of her neighborhood, though at the price of greater struggle and discomfort.

Title: Morocco Junction 90210
Author: Patt Morrison
Where I Read It: Los Angeles Noir

There are some interesting tidbits about Beverly Hills history in this story, which highlights class divides in a wealthy community. Minerva, the narrator, isn't rich, but her dad worked in security for some of the big movie and TV studios and was well-respected. Through his connections, she has found work helping actors prepare for roles and interviews. She lives on the edge of a glamorous world, a sad world in a number of ways, as many people are desperate to protect damaging secrets and shore up shaky reputations.

Minerva likes to gather information about people – not necessarily for any purpose, nefarious or otherwise, but out of curiosity. After a woman is found dead, Minerva figures out something about the woman's past and the reason she had been selling off her jewelry. The motive of wanting to spare a family from disgrace, and the way residents experience social divisions between old and new Beverly Hills, give the story some echoes of Edith Wharton. The society has its largely unspoken codes – what you can get away with, and what you can't bring yourself to even admit.