Monday, February 22, 2021

Week in Seven Words #535

This covers the week of 4/19/20 - 4/25/20.

The dog is brisk and friendly as always. Ready to take off on a walk, sniff the larger world, investigate fascinating stains on sidewalks.

In a more densely wooded part of the park, I keep an eye out for bird feeders. There were several in one spot the year before, creating the sense of a town square for birds, a plaza with restaurants. But it seems that no one has put up feeders this year. The joke is that even the birds need to socially distance.

A "we're all in this together" hope-inducing message displayed on an empty theater.

Tulips in fiery colors are breathtaking.

It's satisfying, the way the path curves along the lake, and you can't see too far ahead.

There's little sense of competency at the helm. I had been plugged into the news, but now I wonder if it's worth it. I don't think I'm learning much.

The streets are largely empty of traffic. Granted, it's easier to go on a walk this way. And the air is cleaner. But the emptiness is eerie, as if civilization has retreated slightly.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Three Movies Showing the Grubby, Treacherous Side of Human Nature

Title: 5 Fingers (1952)
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Language: English (with bits of other languages, like German)
Rating: Unrated

This movie is an excellent espionage thriller. The main character isn't a hero, and I wasn't rooting for him to succeed, but I still found the story gripping, with all the twists, the double-crossing and mistrust and bitterness and greed. Also, James Mason's performance is wonderful.

Mason's character, Ulysses Diello, works for the British ambassador in Turkey during WWII. I won't tell you what his job is, because finding out as you watch the movie will probably give you more enjoyment. It's a job that has taught him how to maintain a neutral expression, regardless of his personal feelings. And he'll need this quality to pull off his nefarious plan, which is to sell some confidential information to the Nazis and then flee with the cash to start a new life elsewhere.

Does he achieve his hoped for ending, a life of luxury? Even if you're guessing that no, he doesn't, it's worth watching how it doesn't happen. 

Title: The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)
Director: Peter Yates
Language: English
Rating: R

This movie ends with both a whimper and a bang. 

Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum) supplies weapons to bank robbers. He's also in contact with the feds, who want information about the higher-level gangsters he works with, part of an organized crime network in Massachusetts. Eddie is low on the organized crime totem pole, and he's in danger of going to jail for the rest of his life.

One thing I like about this movie is that it shows the sordid nature of crime. In other movies, criminal life often gets depicted as slick and daring. Here, it's a grubby world where people play against each other in the dark and scurry around to survive.

The shabbiness of Eddie's world also comes across in the shabby 70s atmosphere of coffee and pie in grubby diners, and cheap suits, and a gun dealer's loud yellow car.

The bank robberies in the movie are ugly and suspenseful. There's a real horror in them (starting with the masks the robbers wear), while at the same time everything about them is so shoddy and disgusting. Again, I like how there's no glamor given to crime.

Title: Pitfall (1948)
Director: André De Toth
Language: English
Rating: Not rated

This is a merciless sort of movie. The lead character, John Forbes (Dick Powell), gets to drive away at the end with his loyal wife, but it isn't a "happy ending." The outcomes for some of the characters show a lack of justice.

Forbes has a steady job and a loving wife and son. The movie gives a wry intelligence to his wife that makes the early depiction of their home life a little more interesting, and not just saccharine. But Forbes is bored of his life and – in the course of his work in insurance – starts an affair with a model, Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott). 

Mona is initially unaware of the fact that Forbes is married. Had she known, she wouldn't have started up with him. A surprising thing about Mona is that she isn't a conniving femme fatale. She isn't really a bad person at all, especially compared to the men around her. She attracts the attention of multiple distasteful men, including the dishonest Forbes, and – much worse – J.B. MacDonald (Raymond Burr), a private detective.

MacDonald is a gross, creepy stalker who's willing to coerce a woman into a sexual relationship. In a scene that's deeply uncomfortable, he shows up at Mona's workplace where she models clothes and has her try on different dresses while watching. Basically marking her as his property.

At the end, after various scenes of blackmail and violence, Forbes gets to coast back into his outwardly picture-perfect life. How does he live with what he's done? The ending has a bitter taste, but it's probably the ending best suited for this bleak movie.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Week in Seven Words #534

This covers the week of 4/12/20 - 4/18/20.

It's a cold damp day. Blossoms are still thick on some of the trees.

One triumph: resisting a temptation.

In the middle of worrying, I do something that creates more worries. I'm fed up with myself.

Reading Sherlock Holmes stories is relaxing.

Running round my mind are all kinds of catastrophic possibilities. They're making a well-trodden path with loops.

Phone calls with long wait times. The music that plays in a loop while I'm on hold is the week's soundtrack.

Appreciating a quieter day – some delicious food, a few colorful notebooks, and good conversation.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Week in Seven Words #533

This covers the week of 4/5/20 - 4/11/20.

We set up a socially distanced movie night, each of us in our homes texting each other now and then. It's a mini-series adaptation of a book, and I think I would've normally liked it. Now I don't have patience for it.

People being ungenerous and snide while telling others to just be kind.

The seders are lovely. Each one an island of relative calm.

Last-minute cleaning. Most of it is actually cleaning; some of it involves stuffing unsorted papers into tote bags.

One volunteer gardener among the flowering plants that are almost as tall as she is.

Hit by a tsunami of anxiety, and I don't handle it well.

I know when it's 7 pm because that's when the cheering for healthcare workers starts up.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Week in Seven Words #532

This covers the week of 3/29/20 - 4/4/20.

The convenience store is a cube of white light on a dark street. A masked cashier listens to 80s rock while staring out the window.

In every building on the block, people are at their windows cheering on healthcare workers. They shout, clap, whoop, bang on pots, and blow on trumpets and recorders. Overall, it's a cheerful sound, but I can't help thinking of jail inmates banging their metal cups against the bars.

This feels like a lost springtime. There are blossoming trees and other kinds of loveliness, but it all seems out of reach, as if it's in a parallel world.

Streets emptier and sirens more prevalent.

A magnolia blossom cradled in the split trunk of a tree.

I don't know where I want to walk. I just walk.

He wears gloves every time he needs to open a door. With a gloved hand he also pulls down his mask and scratches his face. 

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.