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 type 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 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.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Week in Seven Words #494

The branches are flapping in a strong wind, as if the trees are fanning themselves.

The kids are inexperienced executives; the parents are zealous secretaries and social directors.

The male and female hikers break up to urinate in the woods. They're yards apart, forming protective circles around each pee-er.

Because the elevators aren't working, the stairwell echoes with dreadful gasps.

Unresolved trauma will ruin your life, she says.

Their home is Colonial style with a broad, pale face. An American flag is draped over the porch railing. The front door opens to small rooms stuffed with comfortable furniture. Rectangles of light cast by the windows fall short of the photos on the shelves and walls.

Aside from a radio blatting from behind a door, the hallway is silent. Shadows are ganging up on the feeble emergency lights.

Week in Seven Words #493

For their meeting, they settle in a circle on the grass. When the sprinklers go off, they spring up laughing and scamper away with their notebooks and jackets.

The geese hiss at passing dogs and at two teenaged boys who are trying to see how close they can get to the fuzzy juveniles.

The town is asleep in the noon sunshine. I'm not used to places where almost nothing is open on a national holiday, and where a business owner can stick a piece of cardboard on a window to announce a nine-day vacation. One kind restaurant owner, who hasn't yet opened for lunch, lets us use his bathroom. Our own lunch we eat on a bench opposite a sleepy library. (Libraries are never open enough hours.)

The gardens slope down to the cliff's edge, the land patterned with trees, lawns, and flowers that look like brushstrokes. Some of the trees are almost neon green in the sunlight. Others remain dark and subdued. A motorboat cuts a bold white line on the river.

On a path by the river, I spot a TV celebrity and his son. The celebrity is wearing a cap and glasses, but his features are still distinctive enough for recognition. What's different is his voice. He speaks to his child in calm tones, completely different from his frenetic screen persona.

They're seated on the terrace with club sandwiches and country club smiles. Silver and dentures.

The heavy rain shower hits us in a spasm. It's soon over, leaving us with cooler air that feels creamy. The air is scented with everything green.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Two Very Different Short Stories Featuring the Wind

Title: Mistral
Author: Raoul Whitfield
Where I Read It: Hard-Boiled: An Anthology of American Crime Stories

The mistral is a violent wind best known for its effects on Provence in the south of France. The wind may rage for hours at a time. In Raoul Whitfield's story, it mirrors some of the moral chaos in the plot and represents a powerful force that a person can't escape.

The main character is a private detective whose agency has tasked him with finding a criminal on the run. The detective comes to realize that the man he's looking for is marked for death; the people who hired the agency are also criminals, and their purpose is murder. Caught in these dangerous, morally muddy circumstances, the detective realizes he has an opportunity to give his target a warning. Why would he want to help him get away? Maybe there's something honorable about it – giving one criminal a fighting chance against other criminals.

Title: A Windy Day
Author: Janet Frame
Where I Read It: Prizes

The sun is fresh, never left standing or sour, poured out clean on the stones for the dusty-throated wind to lick.
"A Windy Day" is a delightful, fresh, poetic, and unsettling picture of seasonal change. In this case, the arrival of spring. The author doesn't settle for observations of flowers blooming or ice thawing. She makes the changes disconcerting. She takes the familiar and renders it fantastical and topsy-turvy.
The motorcyclist, his knees tight against his mount, surges through the tidal streets, riding a seahorse to the lonely shore.
Reading this piece, you see the world wide-eyed and appreciate how strange it can be. Day-to-day life doesn't have to be ordinary.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Week in Seven Words #492

He makes his wrestler figurines tussle in the grass. When called indoors, he leaves them propped against a lamppost to rest until the next match.

We walk along the river right after sunset. The buildings blush slightly before going pale in the dark.

Outside in the dusk I watch fireflies and listen to crickets while thinking, "Hope for the best. Prepare for the worst."

A weed that has overrun the garden beds is very nutritional. It's amazing how something dismissed as a pest can contain more nutrients than the vegetables it's supplanting.

The women all look similar: long, wavy-haired wigs, super high heels, thin figures, babies hanging around them and on them.

For the entire subway ride, she speaks to her kids in threats. ("I'll slap the sh*t out of you," she snarls at one point.)

He squirms in the photos, grins while dancing with his friends, and delivers a speech in a dogged way, as a commitment made and seen through.

Week in Seven Words #491

When she speaks in English, her tone changes. It makes me think of confidential chats over coffee. It's a voice that invites you to share secrets.

The artistic touches really do lift the mood in the room. Even if they're just some colorful panels on the napkin dispensers, or a few star-shaped sculptures made of paper dangling from the rafters.

The doctor seems impatient. He orders some tests, and it feels more like a stalling tactic because he's not sure what else to do, but who knows.

She just taps into me, and comfortable conversation flows out.

The river is dimpled. The silver bridge glistens in the pale, pink light.

Being in pain feels lonely.

Sometimes people ask you, "Are you well, are you well, are you feeling better?" in a way that stresses you out, because you want to just reassure them. They need to be taken care of, their agitation soothed, regardless of how you're feeling.