Monday, February 19, 2007

Beer-belly Beowulf

Something awful happened this weekend.

Big Angry Beaver swam all the way here from the River and bit down the biggest tree on the banks of the pond. He chewed and chewed on the tired, old Cypress until it splintered and fell into a heap, sprawled across the poo-slickened footpath. Then Big Angry Beaver decorated the carcass of the ancient tree with gnawings.

Why? I understand biting off the tender young saplings, but why the old Cyprus tree? Why? Did the Big Angry Beaver have some terrorist purpose in his violence? Was there some hidden message in those chew marks, that gnawed graffiti? Was the Homeowner's Association President right? Is the Big Angry Beaver a dread danger our good civilization can not endure?

Big Angry Beaver is powerful and sinister. He walks upright on his two hind legs like a man when he chooses. He has two tiny forelimbs. He slays with his mouth or jaws - a "muthbona" in old English or just plain "mutha" in most modern English. He hunts by night, alone. He stalks the marshy places of the property.

The Cyprus tree symbolizes survival in the after-life. Did Big Angry Beaver choose to murder the ancient Cyprus because of that? Was Big Angry Beaver sending a message? What did it all mean?

I had to know, so I went to modern day Oracle, typed the all information into Google and pressed the "I'm feeling lucky" button. The answer was so obvious - Big Angry Beaver is really the murdeing monster, Grendel, from the old Beowulf tale. It makes perfect sense to me now! Grendel's lair was a large swampy lake where other strange creatures lived. My pond has many strange creatures in it. Not all have feathers or fur. There are creatures like armadillos (too stupid to live, to hard to kick very far when you catch them digging up the yard), mean snapping turtles, frogs (wicked little screamers), and snakes (I caught one once while fishing, he still has my hook and a length of line - no, I don't want them back. yes, it was the very last time I went fishing in my 1/436th of the pond.).

The Beowulf legend also has an old King had always enjoyed success and prosperity. His kingdom was envied. He built a great mead-hall, called Heorot, where his warriors would gather to drink, receive gifts from their lord, and listen to stories sung by the scops, or bards. The jubilant noise from Heorot rang out across the countryside and angered the Grendel, the horrible demon who lived in the swamplands of Hrothgar’s kingdom. The great King, Hrothgar, never knew defeat ... until the Grendel came up from the marsh. From that moment on Hrothgar never tasted victory.

What sin of the Homeowner's Association President (Hrothgar) summoned the Big Angry Beaver (Grendel)? Our King Hrothgar went door to door in the Homeowner's Association asking people to sign voting proxies. All those who signed over the power of proxy forever gave Hrothgar their vote in Homeowner's Association meetings. Without reading the evil document, about a third of the Homeowner's Association signed, giving the prideful Hrothgar a golden Hammer. Hrothgar used the great Hammer to drive any measure he wished through the Homeowner's Association. Hrothgar's great Hammer also crushed all who opposed him (and now write blogs about things).

I sent the picture of the murdered Cyprus to the Homeowner's Association President, King Hrothgar. This was his reply:

"Thanks, we had some previous reports. I've called our beaver catcher to take care of the situation."

So, just as in the Beowulf legend, Hrothgar has sent out word for warriors to rally to the kingdom to fight the terrible Grendel.

And ... (once again, the toothless Hillbilly) Beowulf got ready, donned his war-gear, indifferent to death (pulls his sagging pants up over his neon white butt crack and loads a chaw of tobacco into his black stained mouth); his mighty, hand-forged, fine-webbed ... (galvanized metal traps) ... would soon meet with the menace underwater.

The tale nears its completion. Beer-belly Beowulf only has to get lucky once with one of his many body-gripping traps to snuff the life out of the Grendel. I'm afraid Time and Luck have run out for Big Angry Beaver.

Friday, February 16, 2007

A mystery meat lasagna

"Resurrection Mary: A Ghost Story" by Kenan Heise is an honest-to-goodness, no-lie, biblio-cafeteria special - Mystery Meat Lasagna.

I picked up this book first because of the title. I love the Resurrection Mary story. I love Chicago. This book is all about both. The second reason I picked up this book is , the author, Kenan Heise. He is a Chicago landmark in his own right. His stories of Chicagoland gangsters are excellent. His travelogues are mandatory companions for first time visitors. He honed his writing skills over thirty years in the newspaper trade covering Chicago - a great deal of that time he spent as the Tribune's chief obituary writer.

The parts of this book that really work are rooted in the author's knowledge of his city and in his writing style. There are layers of brilliant travelogue in this book that turn Chicago and its suburbs into living, breathing characters. There is a secret "To understand Chicago" that Heise explains on page 83 that is an absolute truth, and certainly worth a sneak peek when you find this book on the shelf. The book's tight journalistic prose makes for a fast read.

What doesn't work in this story is the same thing that doesn't work in mystery meat lasagna. The story is strangely structured, at times disconnected, and a little soupy. It's got a full measure of cheese in every helping by wandering away the facts of the title character's story and the strengths of the genre.

Resurrection Mary is Chicago's most famous ghost. The countless retellings of her story have turned her into a legend. The strange thing about legends of any genre is that while the details may vary through their retelling, there are certain parts of the story that are sacred. Those essentials make the myth what it is. They can't be violated - under any circumstances - or the story is simply ruined. How important are these "sacred essentials" to mythic stories? Let's see ... It would have been a forgotten statistic in a baseball game if not for Babe Ruth pointing to the outfield and calling his home run shot in the fifth inning of Game 3 of the 1932 World Series. It would have been just another stupid question and answer session in yet another White House press conference if not for Richard Nixon's jowl-waggling exhortation "… people have got to know whether or not their President's a crook. Well, I am not a crook." What would the story of the Alamo be without William Travis drawing "a line in the sand" with his sword? Could you leave out Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, or the eventual death of all the defenders of the Alamo?

The real Mary of the Resurrection Mary legend comes from the early 1930s. She was a pretty, blonde, blue-eyed innocent. She dressed up to go out. She enjoyed dancing. After a bad experience with a date one evening, she walked away from Willowbrook (O Henry) Ballroom. While walking along Archer Avenue, she was struck by a car and killed. She was buried in her dress and dancing shoes at Resurrection Cemetery in Justice, Illinois, a few miles west of Chicago. Since then, people sometimes report picking up a young female hitchhiker matching Mary's description who asks for a ride to the dance hall or home from it. She disappears (harmlessly) mysteriously when she is near Resurrection Cemetery.

It was a very, very sad surprise to find in Kenan Heise's fictionalized retelling of Mary's story that she was awkward and did not know how to dance (page 131), died from ingesting rat poison at age 15 (page 132), and then became a bloodthirsty, sex-charged specter (page 147).

So, the next time a hankering for mystery meat hits, go with an old standby instead ... meatloaf.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Big Angry Beaver

All the recent rain and melted snow raised the water level in my pond. The ducks love it, the geese love it, and so does our arch enemy - the Big Angry Beaver. Now he's back ... and angrier than ever.

Originally my pond was built to for flood control. A series of ditches and canals lead through the neighborhood to the pond, and then out to the South Canadian River. Big Angry Beaver lives by the river - a river he can't dam. That makes Big Angry Beaver very ANGRY. Why? This is Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweepin' down the plain ... because there aren't enough trees to stop it. That was, of course, until we created this suburban wetland with its strange combination of natural and aesthetic diversity, wide open spaces, cookie cutter houses*, ultra-green lawns, and acres of fruitless Bradford pear trees, cottonwoods, oaks, and maples. Suddenly, even magically, there is enough wood to (almost) dam the mighty river, but the big angry Beaver has to swim up the canal to my beautiful pond, bite down a tree, then carry it all the way back to his dam on the river - all the time swimming AGAINST the current and the wind that comes sweepin' down the plain and that *REALLY* pisses him off.

Mr. Big Angry Beaver came last Spring and converted our freshly planted oaks and maples into toothpick shaped monuments to futility. We took it gracefully and replanted. Mr. Big Angry Beaver and bit down the picnic benches. We grinned and rebuilt them. Mr. Big Angry Beaver crossed the fence into my neighbor's yard and chewed down his Chinese Elm (actually Golden Lacebark Elm). The tree was big. It was beautiful even in the harshest drought. It was the center piece of his landscape, and its golden yellow leaves drew the eye up to my neighbors' house. In Winter, it's multicolored “jigsaw puzzle piece” bark was something to see. It was just a little too big to get through the cast iron rail fence, so the beaver left it there - sideways, stuck halfway through the fence. Since my neighbor is on the Homeowner's Association Board of Directors, we took action!

We are inside the City Limits, so our first call was to our local animal control person. He laughed and hung up. Someone in the Homeowner's Association found a toothless Bubba in the phone book, and set a contract with him to come and "control" the Big Angry Beaver. I voiced my concerns in a note to the President of the Homeowner's Association. I wanted to know what "control" really meant. After all, Oklahoma allows beavers (and other furbearing animals) to be "controlled" in only two ways: catching in a body gripping trap of a specified jaw-spread width, or "night shooting" the nuisance beaver by using shotgun only with BB-size shot or smaller.

The thought of someone blasting away at the Big Angry Beaver in the middle of the night terrified me. This isn't Dodge City, Kansas, for crying out loud! On the other hand, what would a body gripping trap do to Big Angry Beaver? Would it pinch off a leg? Would it break his bones? Would it kill him? Would it merely detain him so the toothless hillbilly trapper could relocate him to another town (preferably in Texas)?

I had to do some research on this before we chunked down the money. For a state that historically had almost no beaver, Oklahoma would appear to be a very beaver friendly state. We have a county named Beaver. It's small, in the Panhandle, and its largest town is named ... Beaver. In 1952, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC) relocated 29 beavers from 5 western counties to Department lands in 4 eastern counties. Now beaver is plentiful. Half the state is considered home to the beaver. One may hunt beaver in Oklahoma all year long. The season never closes. Given the birthrates, it seems that beaver is on everyone's mind. The population is so large that beaver pelts now may be purchased on the street for only $10. Because of that low amount, skuny smell and the apparently revolting flavor of beaver, we were going to have to pay a toothless hillbilly trapper to come and "control" our four legged miscreant.

In the meantime, the Homeowner's Association President (obviously an understudy of George.W. Bush) began to practice the politics of Fear. He sent around a note saying that the beaver problem is about out of control. He said "The beavers have lost their fear of Man and it is showing." Notice how he transformed the Big Angry Beaver into satanic multiples. All animals must fear the capitalized Man! He went on to say that "the beavers were going across the street and attacking the big cottonwood trees that provide shade to the playground equipment." Oh, I give up, why did the Big Angry Beaver cross the road? Could it be that there were no trees left for Big Angry Beaver to eat where he came from - the pond side of the road? The President encouraged all 436 members to "start throwing sticks and stones at these critters whenever they are close to us." Apparently people were merely stepping off the goose poo slickened sidewalks and giving the right of way to the Big Angry Beaver with his snapping big orange teeth. Dogs did. God knows I did. I mean if he could bite down an oak, I was pretty sure he could bite off my feet without too much trouble. But for the Homeowner's Association President to think that sticks and stones would "force ... (the beavers) ... back to their normal habitat away from us and our trees", well, he was just full of it!

So, $350 (US) later, we terminated the Big Angry Beaver control contract - because we had no more trees left for him to bite down.

Now we do, Big Angry Beaver is back, and I weep for the trees.

- - -

* That is, naturally, every house but mine ;-)

Thursday, February 08, 2007

A generously intimate scrapbook

"The Winds of Change on Croton Creek" is the warmest, most personal sort of recollection. It's a cherished memory more than nostalgia. It's generously intimate scrapbook, and a quilt work of personalities that tell the true life story of a girl born in 1917 in Roger Mills County, Oklahoma. These Oklahoma winds sweep up her family and carry them through some of the most interesting times in American history.

The story is so well written that it is almost impossible NOT to read the entire book in one setting. There is so much information in this story that there's something to rediscover in every reading. Clara King Davis' lush voice and journalistic narrative binds the vignettes of family life from the beginning on board the Mayflower to the present day.

It's easy to feel the warmth of a craftsman's gentle hand in these stories. It's all here - Oklahoma's rough and rowdy cowboy past, farm living, two world wars, politics, the Great Depression, the red scare, bumper crops, tornadoes, and the hardest of times, the Dust Bowl. This story is fresh because there is so much more than that here. This is the story of a family that joins together, survives and then overcomes even the harshest adversity.

That family continues to flourish in Oklahoma. In the forward, page xv, is a picture of two little girls on horseback. My grandmother is on the gray horse. Her cousin, and author of this book, Clara King Davis, is on the dark thoroughbred. The story of their adventures on horseback continues on page 124. This book is a lot of fun to read. It is rare, but it is worth picking up a copy. You'll be glad you did.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Root canal "therapy"

Today my dentist told me that teeth are hard calcified objects, but their inner aspects are not completely solid. Inside every tooth there is a hollow space which entraps a tiny tooth demon. When the demon senses even the tiniest whiff of oxygen, it becomes ... excited. The demon stabs the tooth's meaty nerve pulp with its pitchfork. It drinks. It sings old Warren Zevon songs purposely off key. The randy tooth demon pines for its eventual union with the Tooth Fairy. The painful throbbing I felt, the dentist said, was really the tooth demon stomping in time to "Werewolves of London".

Once when I was a child, one of the demons drilled his way out of a bicuspid. I thought there was nothing that can be done. The dentist pulled the tooth. Soon enough, a shiny new tooth grew in its spot. I vowed to brush and floss that shiny new tooth so I could keep it forever. But one day, many years later a bad thing happened and that shiny tooth cracked. The demon inside was trying to get loose. I went to the dentist hoping to save the tooth. He drilled and drilled, then stepped back in defeat. The buxom dental assistant dabbed the beads of sweat on Mr. Dentist's forehead. He went back in and bravely put a temporary filling over the chasm in my tooth.

Now I'm going to get some root canal "therapy". It's going to be a long two weeks until my appointment with Mr. Dentist. I've practically memorized the lyrics already of the 1987 classic "Sentimental Hygiene". What's next, "Life'll Kill Ya"? Yeah, it figures.