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)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

List: Suggested Names for Future SyFy Channel Disaster Movies

Meteor Smoosh

Super Duper Nova

Asteroid vs. Serial Killer

The Moon Is Falling Apart!

Does It Seem Windy?

Lava Pop



9.1: A Big One

Crikey, It's Hot

Poem: Reading Arabic

This week we read the words aloud,
their meaning less important
than the work of glottal stops
and vagaries of breath and tongue.
Our teacher translates gently:
Bahyd, eggs. Jhutheth, corpses.
Bass, enough. Nine-to-five words.

If you stare at a letter–say, yaa’
long enough, it winds away
from sound and word, curls
into a quiet shape:
the shell of a snail, or the spin
of creekwater as it winds down
into the pipe beneath the street.

Bowls of letters swell and taper,
chambers fill, half-fill with air.
Body-shaped words fall prone
in sleep, or sit with a cup of tea
on a bench in the marketplace,
pressed in quiet gossip
among a row of ample women.

(appeared in Faultline, 2001)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

DVD Review: Lost in Austen

Over the years, I’ve become a reluctant fan of Pride and Prejudice in all its incarnations. I say “reluctant” because, on the surface, it’s a fluffy romance, the prototype of a jillion stories of star-crossed-lovers. (But oh, underneath—such depth, wit, and barbed social commentary.) So I was surprised to find that I’d missed this four-part BBC miniseries when it aired in 2008. But that’s what Netflix is for.

Lost in Austen’s premise is simple: Hip urbanite Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper) finds that she’s mysteriously swapped places with Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of her favorite novel, Pride and Prejudice, via a little door in her shower. In an echo of Peggy Sue Got Married, Amanda can’t quite believe that she’s been transported to the early 19th century, but she can’t get back and has to muddle through the next few weeks in the strangely familiar setting of the novel she knows so well. (Elizabeth, meanwhile, is marooned in 21st-century London.)

Stranded in the Bennets’ house, Amanda finds that the plot of Pride and Prejudice is just getting underway: New neighbor Mr. Bingley pays his first visit and soon introduces his brooding friend, Mr. Darcy (Elliot Cowan). Amanda, plopped down in Georgian England with her pageboy haircut, leather jacket, and lip gloss, claims that she’s “a friend of Elizabeth’s from Hammersmith,” which the family seems to think is explanation enough.

Amanda looks on in wonder as her favorite novel unfolds, but there’s a problem: Elizabeth isn’t there to meet Mr. Darcy at the first fateful ball. And that flaw in the plot sets other flaws in motion: Bingley falls in love with Amanda, not Jane; Jane, not Charlotte, is wooed by the creepy Mr. Collins; Charlotte threatens to chuck it all and move to Africa; and Darcy has about as much charm as an ingrown toenail. Amanda tries and tries to get the plot back on track, but her schemes spin off more chaotic results. Before long, it’s a mess—not at all what Jane Austen wanted, as Amanda keeps thinking. And how will she ever get Elizabeth back to the 19th century, where she can marry Darcy and complete the story?

The best part about Lost in Austen is that it transcends the parody genre, although it’s funny throughout. At some point, you (and Amanda) have to just throw out the plot of Pride and Prejudice; this story has become a different animal, and old characters begin taking on new dimensions: There’s much more to Mr. Wickham than meets the eye, Mrs. Bennet (Alex Kingston) displays a backbone she never had in the book, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh cheats at cards. Even modern Amanda, who seems made out of snark, shows another side when the question becomes her own destiny and happiness. In the end, she has to write her own novel—as we all do, one way or another.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

List: Plausible but Untrue Explanations for Why I Named My Cat “Iniki”

Named for a Finnish hockey star I once slept with, except I was really drunk, so it might have been that guy from Dallas.

Lakota Sioux for “able to locate and step on lymph nodes.”

Named for the Pacific island on which I did all the brave humanitarian work depicted in the Lifetime movie about me, from which I made diddly—well, four thousand dollars.

Named after my Uncle/Aunt Iniki, who was much more cool after the surgery.

Named for Thor Heyersen’s boat.

It’s almost “Bikini” spelled backwards, except that “Inikib” would have sounded weird, and just calling her “Bikini” would have brought up Barbie connotations. All a reminder of my half-assed “environmentalist” phase.

Can’t spell “Inky.”

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Poem: Convertible Women

Convertible women
know how to knot
the scarves that dance
off the racks.
Their hair laps
in ribbons at the nape
of their necks.

They have friends
with names like Nat
and Barb who swing
slightly on the turns
and suck their passenger-
seat cigarettes
with sage indifference.

Convertible women
meet the wind
and bend it around
their opaque
They split the air
like red bullets.

All the brown hard-top lives
could flip
and still have something
to save them.
Convertible women
stick their necks
right out.

The wind escorts them
through the stop sign, past
the Chinese take-out
and the carpet emporium
and all the way out
to the dream roads, just them
and sound and sky.

(appeared in Free-Wheeling: Poems About Cars)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

List: Most Alarming Things to Cats

Dishwasher (fill cycle)

Vacuum cleaner

Electric guitar

Man riding lawnmower down middle of street

Whistling tea kettle

Three-legged dog ringing doorbell, pretending to be flower-delivery person, then massacring cats inside

Garbage truck backing up street

Veterinarians running amok with giant Q-tips

Raccoons at back door

Sunday, October 24, 2010

DVD Review: Colonial House

Colonial House, an eight-part documentary, was one of a series of “educational reality shows” that aired on PBS a few years ago. I’ve liked all the incarnations of this idea, where they take modern people and make them live like people did in past centuries, from the gentle 1900 House to the whiny 1940s House and the savagely funny Frontier House.

So, what do we learn from Colonial House? This: People don’t like to be told what to do.

Colonial House’s recipe is fairly simple: Send 15 or 20 “colonists” (ordinary Americans from all walks of life) to a remote shoreline in Maine, add some log cabins and a lot of dried peas, and see how they get along with day-to-day life using only the technology that was available in the 1600s—essentially, sharpened sticks and handsaws.

The story starts out with the plucky colonists, wearing scratchy-looking costumes, arriving at the dusty encampment that they'll call home for the next three months. Their first job is to read their “charter” to find out who’ll be doing what—who gets to be governor, lay preacher, freedmen, and indentured servants. The one chosen for governor is a Baptist minister from Texas in real life, a kind family man with plenty of experience motivating people. But before long, we find he has an agenda: He wants this little colony to be a City of God—the kind of harmonious Christian community that nowadays can rarely be found outside of cults and communes. And right away, there’s trouble.

All begins to unravel when some of the colonists can’t bring themselves to follow the rules that would have governed a 17th-century settlement. The atheists refuse to attend church. The women don’t like wearing head coverings, and they resent having to cook for all the men (no small feat with 1600s technology) while being banned from sitting on the governing council. The indentured servants resent being—well, indentured servants, which turns out to be just as bad as it sounds. And the two African-American participants have their own set of objections to this proto-slavery system, and both leave the colony abruptly. So what starts out looking like a living-museum piece on how to split lumber turns out to be a crash-course in civics.

I can only imagine the producers of the show saw this coming. They decided, after all, that the “governor” would be a real-life Baptist minister. And the “lay minister,” supposedly plucked from the crowd and forced to learn preaching on the fly, is in fact a theology professor. So right away, I’m thinking, “Evangelical Christians running things? That won't fly with everybody.”

And it doesn't, at least not at first. The Bible-quoting leaders are frustrated by their church-resistant flock. They try a few kind words, and they get nowhere. They try force, and they get rebellion. They finally have to throw up their hands and abandon all hope of saving their countrymen’s souls, because the corn needs planting and nobody can work while everyone’s yelling or tied to a pole in punishment. I guess on a remote tip of northeast Maine, with winter already biting at your heels, you either get your priorities straight or you starve.

This all makes me wonder how many people died in the early colonies as a result of bad management. Colonial House shows us that an off-balance colony can quickly tumble into real trouble—food supplies dwindle and the local native Americans, who are in a position to help, are offended by the bad manners and clumsy bargaining skills of the colonists.

And while nothing’s really at stake here—these faux colonists are merely stockpiling supplies to see if they “would” survive the winter, which none of them will stay to see—still, it’s a fascinating look at the complex little system that’s duplicated over and over in human societies everywhere, from Rotary clubs to sports teams to the United Nations. Governing, large or small, is a tricky thing. There’s a fine line between leadership and despotism, and those who get a little power seem to want a lot. And suddenly your goofy, salt-haired fatherly type morphs into a dictator, and everyone becomes obsessed with bringing him down. Meanwhile, banks crash and people lose their jobs and small countries are invaded and soldiers abuse POWs, and…wait, that’s another reality show.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

DVD Review: Ballykissangel

Now deep into my Netflix addiction, I’ve just finished all six seasons of the BBC comedy-drama Ballykissangel.

Ballykissangel is one of those shows that had to grow on me. When I first encountered it on PBS years ago, it seemed like a self-consciously quirky knockoff of Northern Exposure­—a fish-out-of-water story about an English priest who’s been transferred to a backwater village in Ireland. The town comes replete with eccentric locals—the rich guy, the feminist, the rubes, the barflies—and, at first, the humor seemed cloying and the accents impenetrable.

But I soon realized that there was much more to Ballykissangel. Once I developed an ear for the accents, I found the show had writers, good ones, who could weave together disparate stories and somehow make them come out right at the end. They could elicit a satisfied sigh from me, or they could turn on a dime and suddenly make me think, hard. The plots are secondary; the main attraction is the relationships that grow and dissolve between the characters—beautifully drawn, complex morality tales of flawed people who, somehow, become important to us. And then, to lighten things up, there’s the occasional flatulent dog, or an automated confessional booth falling off a truck, or the impossibly beautiful 23-year-old Colin Farrell, already with the eyebrows.

The show went through a couple of bumpy patches and jarring cast changes, notably in seasons 4 and 6. But somehow the writers always pulled it off. Just when I thought they were about to shipwreck the show in a morass of slapstick, they’d stun me with a story about alcoholism, or the inexact sciences of preaching and policing, or the twin punishments of grief and guilt. I kept thinking, “How did they get me to care about these people so much?” And that, of course, is what a good writer does.

So bravo, Ballykissangel. I only wish there were more of you to enjoy.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Poem: For Blossom, a $10 Hamster

Your God will know you
by the slant of your one white spot
and the way you don't cry out
when lifted from your cardboard cage
by the giant hand of a five-year-old girl.
In your two months you already
have become secretly pregnant,
the dials of your soft body
spinning through their complications
in the slave cells of the pet store.

Think, if you were rare, the distant sightings
and cataloguing, your steep and cordoned
habitat, the teams debating your very
existence on that clean pin-top of land.
Instead you, born in a clutch of sisters,
known only by your crooked spot
(though to your sisters you smelled like you
and your name was never Blossom),
here you are sleeping on sawdust
the girl tries so hard to keep clean,
and though she is not your God,
she lays a finger on you late at night
to feel your warm pulsar of breath.
And when the mean boy comes over to play,
she hides your box under the bed
and says you ran away,
her face on fire with the lying
she does for you, Blossom, as if
you were the last of your kind
on Earth, and she
was the only one who knew.

(appeared in Mudfish, 2009)