Saturday, December 25, 2010

Would You Like Some Advice With That?

Shopkeepers are wonderful. They sell us soap and batteries, bag it all up with a smile, and then proceed to tell us how to run our lives.

Or maybe that only happens to me.

As a single person, I’m used to getting advice from family and friends, suggestions that I take this class or buy that dress, all in the interests of netting a man. They seem to feel I’ve made a blunder by not getting married, and it’s their duty to help me straighten it out.

But twice now, that well-meaning prying has spilled over into shopkeepers. Once, at a produce store, the man at the checkout stand was weighing my one yam, my one crookneck squash, and my single serving of green beans. He shook his head, looked me in the eye and said, “You need to get married.” Another time, while bagging my items on a hot day, a vendor at the farmer's market asked me if I was heading out to the lake that afternoon. No, I said. She asked if I was married or had kids. No, I said. “Well,” she cheerfully offered, “you might as well go to the lake. It's not like you've got anything else to do.”

Now, I realize these shopkeepers were just trying to be neighborly. But it made me realize that single people are one of our culture’s last remaining punching bags: poor schlumps who have so obviously erred that they deserve—indeed, need—unsolicited advice. There’s probably some patriarchal, Judeo-Christian mumbo-jumbo going on here, but I’m not going to think about that. I’m going to go home and enjoy…the sound of no one talking. The wild taste of a single yam.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

WWJFD (What Would Jessica Fletcher Do?)

My grandmother was crazy about Murder, She Wrote. I used to think that was very grandma-ish of her; it made sense that she’d like Jessica Fletcher, a plucky detective who was roughly her age. And a bonus was that she could follow the plotline without having to see the TV screen—my grandmother was legally blind. So, in my mind, Murder, She Wrote joined The Lawrence Welk Show and Gunsmoke as another TV dinosaur that only my grandma could love.

But one day about ten years ago—probably when I was sick, because that’s when I watch reruns from the ’80s—I happened upon an episode of Murder, She Wrote. I’d never really watched it before, but a guest star caught my eye, some comforting face from my childhood like Ben Murphy or Shirley Jones. The plot was a tidy puzzle, with clues scattered like treasures at a mildly intriguing garage sale. It was fun and soothing in a perverse, murder-y sort of way. I watched another. And another.

Before long, I was a full-on fan—an easy thing to be because that show, a darling of syndication, was on freakin’ all the time. But I didn’t go around telling people I watched it; my friends were all coked up on their Sex and the City and NYPD Blue. But most nights found me parked in front of the TV at 7:00 with a plate of burrito on my lap, tuning in to see what tangle Jessica would think her way out of this time.

Eventually I began to think of Murder, She Wrote as a self-contained universe with its own peculiar laws of physics. There, as sure as gravity, the loudmouthed bully always got whacked, the young hunk was accused but always found innocent, and the victim died tidily in the parlor, with a dribble of fake blood on a dress shirt.

But the real attraction became Jessica herself. She handled every twist and turn—every sexist police detective, every ill-mannered eyewitness—with grace, kindness, and aplomb. In a word, she was polite. And as the bodies fell around her and the widows grieved and the families schemed to get the money, her politeness was an anchor that everyone clung to—even me, balancing beans and rice on a fork and thinking about my own exasperating co-workers and family members. The lesson here seemed to be, Politeness may not cure everything, but it sure doesn’t hurt.

I still think of Jessica whenever someone’s rude to me, or when a friend needs a pep talk. I know that the reason she’s wise is because a roomful of writers made her up, but that’s nothing new. In its own way, Murder, She Wrote is like Aesop’s fables, or Greek mythology, or, one might argue, the Bible. They’re all just stories about how we (humans, gods, tortoises) should treat each other. And if the lesson is taught against a background of murder and mayhem, that’s nothing new, either. We humans have always taken the good with the bad, the sweet with the bloody. Such is literature. Such is life.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Poem: The Pasture on Sackett Road

If I chose to sit, I’d find
a bit of bare grass among
mines of manure flaking beige
under the sun, nowhere

to lean, the wire fence rusted
and slack, anything rigid
forbidden: no pails or rakes,
or let alone chairs. Horses

have a gift for entanglement.
At thirteen, my jeans
were filthy from hours
cross-legged on the ground,

passive in a land
of larger forces, fleck
of blue in a brown eye,
quake of flesh,

hocks and gaskins flexed
in everyday elegance,
a sweltering land
of sweet and grass

and the endless perambulations
of a dozen wise horses,
their tails the flags
of our small nation.

(appeared in Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, 2004)