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The book begins with a "Twenty Question Multiple Choice Self-Help Quiz." Each question is actually a short chapter. For example, the first chapter deals with the "amnesic self" and asks why amnesia is a favorite device in fiction and especially soap operas. Other chapters deal with the nowhere self, the fearful self, the promiscuous self, and so forth.
The second part of the book is an essay on the nature of the self, complete with numerous diagrams and arrows. The third section presents discussions of various manifestations of the self as transcendent, orbiting, exempted, lonely, and demoniac. The last part is called "A Space Odyssey" and is captioned "What to do if there is no man Friday out there and we really are alone?"
Obviously, this summary says virtually nothing about what the book is about. Suffice it to say that Percy brings his playful humor to the central existential question of human meaning and he presents it in the form of a self-help manual.
Margaret is a sculptor whose detached and unaffectionate physician-husband has just exited their marriage. Depressed, she is in dire need of work to survive and to cover the costs of urgently needed dental work. She gladly accepts a museum commission to recreate a life-sized likeness of Lucy, the Australopithecus afarensis hominid.
The plan is to reconstruct the body using casts of the fossil bones and to depict a single moment in Lucy's past, as captured by the fossilized Laetoli footprints. Made by a hominid pair, the prehistoric footprints show how the smaller creature--Lucy--hesitated in her unknown journey 3.6 million years ago.
As Margaret reassembles her ancestor and situates her plausibly in that mysterious moment, she rediscovers her own animal body, its senses, needs, and beauty--and she begins to reassemble her life.
In the end, she appears to find love and joy with a musician whom she first encounters on a purely physical basis. Yet she is comfortable with an ambiguous future.
Rachel is married to passive Leon who is utterly dependent on her care and organizational skills. They live in a vast, blanc-mange of a suburb where Rachel constantly looses her way while driving home from work. One night, she seeks direction from Wilkes. A strange recluse, he is obsessed with his teenage memory of the lost "girl on the bus" and leads a support group for agoraphobics.
Through contact with Wilkes, Leon gradually grows more independent and finds himself a job. Rachel becomes obsessed with the search for the meaning of "Harry," a mystery man who recurs in her husband's dreams and begins to take over her thoughts. She consults a psychologist, Alex Silver, who soon has Rachel enrolled in a study with two other women. Silver uses dream-deprivation with the goal of enhancing insight about her marriage, her life, and her friends.
Cameo appearances of three depressive, mid-life siblings, Dick, Jane, and Sally, with their dog, Spot, and cat, Puff, emphasize that life in modern suburbia can be a pathology in itself. In Jane, Wilkes finds his lost girl on the bus. Rachel dumps Leon and finds happiness with the agoraphobic developer of the aptly named "Arcadia Centre," where expense, space, light, greenery, and intimacy are employed unstintingly to create a non-pathogenic space for human collectivity.
Helen Martin is an expert on medical art. She travels by train through Europe--Vienna, Prague, and Munich--looking for her journalist husband who has vanished for a longer time than usual. Their marriage is childless and flat. On the train, she awakens to temporary but surreal changes in her body--her breasts are enormous, her thighs huge. She meets her alter ego, Rosa, an obese and aging woman doctor, and original owner of the sizable breasts and thighs.
Rosa’s gift of a strange book-like box, containing images from Vesalius, bones, vials, leads her to many other people, including a blind intellectual, a philosophical train conductor, and a soon-to-be-murdered museum curator. These people add objects to the box, while removing others and awakening her dormant senses and identity in the process.
Helen learns that her husband disappeared while researching a story about woodblocks from the great 1543 anatomical atlas by Andreas Vesalius. The woodblocks are believed to have been destroyed in the allied bombing of Munich in World War II, but Helen suspects some have survived. She picks up the work where he left it. The rediscovery of her husband--temporarily at home in Vancouver and irritated not to find her there--comes as an anti-climax. Helen realizes she does not want him any more and boards another train to we know not where.
The young English doctor, Mary Percy Jackson (M.D. Birmingham 1928), went to practice in northern Alberta for a year. She had been recruited by a philanthropic movement that targeted women doctors: they could be paid lower wages and would also cook and keep house. But she fell in love with the subarctic community, its native peoples, and a certain widowed farmer with two young sons, and stayed for the next seven decades.
Dr. Jackson became the only physician responsible for the well being of aboriginals and settlers in a wide radius of remote territory where winters last more than six months and the only effective mode of transportation was the horse. Married and in relative prosperity, she did not seek payment for her medical work, although she appreciated gifts in kind.
Despite the isolation, Jackson was vigilant about nutrition, vaccination, and tuberculosis control and she kept up with the latest advances in health promotion. She and her husband were active in improving opportunities for education. The film closes with a simple party for Jackson, at the local school named in her honour.
It is London, June 13th, 1923, and Clarissa Dalloway, in her late middle age and recovering from some kind of heart ailment, is about to hold a party. As she prepares for her party, Clarissa remembers--in flashbacks--the time when she chose to marry the wealthy politician Richard Dalloway over her more adventurous relationships with Peter Walsh and her possibly-lesbian friend Sally Seton.
Clarissa does not seem unhappy, just intensely aware that in choosing one kind of life for herself she has had to relinquish the chance of others. It seems that she has planned the party as a way to affirm the choice she did make, but it turns out to do more, to suggest that the other possibilities were not lost after all.
Another character's experience of June 13th, 1923 is also told: Septimus Smith, suffering from what we'd now call post-traumatic stress syndrome as a result of his experience in the trenches of World War I, is about to be hospitalized by his physician, Sir William Bradshaw, a specialist in "shellshock." To avoid this, he commits suicide by jumping from a window. The two plots come together when Sir William, a guest at Mrs. Dalloway's party, describes Septimus's death.
For Clarissa, his story disrupts the careful balance of her perfect evening. She goes up to her own window and for a moment, it seems, contemplates suicide too. But she returns downstairs to dance with her husband. Sally cuts in, leaving Clarissa free to talk, at last, with Peter. The unspoken threat of Clarissa's illness, as well as our knowledge of Virginia Woolf's own suicide, remind us of her fragility, yet the film leave us with the exhilarating sense of encountering a woman who is complete.
Like the train images in the last two stanzas, this poem is a train of thoughts about medicine, doctors, and patients' relationships to doctors, medicine and illness. The poem begins with the narrator's (presumably the poet's) Chinese doctor writing a prescription in Chinese. The poet begins daydreaming about the characters, and this leads to a soliloquy about daydreaming and illness and the slower pace of the ill, hanging "suspended in the wallpaper" of waiting rooms.
A recollection of the poet's "lady doctor" and his infatuation with her leads to a revelation of his desire to have illness and suffering, just to be with her. He philosophizes "suffering itself is medicine / and to endure enough will cure you / of anything." He decides he'd like to suffer like his mother, who seemed to not only accept, but also relish, the sick role of the weak, dependent state.
The Short History of a Prince is the story of Walter McCloud beginning in his teens and ending as he approaches forty, told alternately in Walter’s adolescent and adult voice. Weaned on Balanchine and Tchaikovsky by his eccentric, cultured aunt, the teenage Walter dances and dreams of playing the Prince in The Nutcracker. Supported by his loving family, including his older jock brother Daniel, Walter confronts the ambiguities of sexual identity as he becomes more aware of his conflicting feelings for his two best friends, Mitch and Susan (also dancers and far more talented).
Suddenly Walter’s pleasant, routinized family life is interrupted when his brother Daniel becomes ill, transforming his life, his parents’ life, and his friend Susan’s life when she becomes romantically involved with Daniel even with the knowledge of his terminal diagnosis. The following year is full of change surrounding Walter’s acknowledgment of his love for and subsequent involvement with his friend Mitch, and his ultimate response to Daniel’s dying. The adult Walter, a first-year English teacher near the McCloud summer home at Lake Margaret, Wisconsin (after a career at a doll house shop in New York City), is still trying to understand the meanings of family, love, desire, and friendship.
The Ramsay family are spending the summer in their holiday house on the Isle of Skye. Mr. Ramsay, a mathematician, and his wife, who runs the home, have eight children, including the beautiful Prue, who is likely to be married soon, and James, the youngest, still fiercely attached to his mother. There are also assorted guests, including Charles Tansley, one of Mr. Ramsay's students; Lily Briscoe, a keenly observant painter; and Mr. Carmichael, an opium-addicted poet.
James wants to be taken by boat to visit the lighthouse and his mother encourages him, but his father, enraging James, says it'll be impossible because of the weather. That night Mrs. Ramsay gives a dinner party where she orchestrates the complex dynamics of the family and their guests into a perfect social unit, which is presented as a kind of work of art.
This is followed by a short interlude, "Time Passes," which marks a shift in scale from the human to a wider view, where encroaching darkness and dissolution threaten the house and the lives connected to it. During this period, Mrs. Ramsay dies, Prue marries and then dies in childbirth, and a War takes place in which Andrew, another son, is killed.
All these events are diminished by the universal context of time and change against which Woolf places them. The final part of the novel returns to the human scale. About ten years later, the surviving characters are back at the house and Mrs. Ramsay, though dead, continues to be the central figure, motivating much of what occurs. Mr. Ramsay now takes the still-angry James to the lighthouse, and Lily Briscoe, inspired by her memory of Mrs. Ramsay, is at last able to complete the painting she began years before.
A strange Irish girl is "away" ever since she lay beside a drowned man. A teacher marries her, providing stability if not sanity, but the 1840s famines begin and the couple flee Ireland with their child Liam. They establish a homestead in a remote part of Ontario where a baby girl, Eileen, is born.
Not long after, the mother disappears and is not seen again for years until she is brought home dead. The son learns that she had been living by a lake immersed in her fantasies of the long dead lover. Eventually, Liam is left to care for his sister alone; they travel to a small port town where he realizes that Eileen has become an attractive young woman with desires of her own. She too goes "away" following a lover, but returns to Liam and his wife to live out her long and lonely life.