Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Owl Story

The owl story is legend in my family. I thought I would post it here to make sure to have it memorialized.

The wildlife that lived around our house in Louisville ten years ago is now mostly gone. When we moved in, there were open fields between us and the nearby lake, and we frequently encountered hawks, owls, raccoons, and coyotes. Today those fields are full of houses; the former wild residents have long relocated, but memories of them remain. The most vivid remembrance I have was the fall evening when a great horned owl slid down the chimney and into the fireplace. Fortunately, the glass doors around the hearth were tightly shut, and all he could do was peer out at me like a little jailbird, while I stared in astonishment and the dog hid behind me. After I gathered my wits, I started making calls to various organizations: the Humane Society, the Division of Wildlife, and a wildlife sanctuary—each recommended that I call one of the others. I was not pleased, but as it was almost 10:00 p.m., I decided that I wasn’t going to get the problem solved that night.

In the morning, I went down and took a closer look at my captive. He looked like a Halloween decoration—two big eyes, a huge beak, and a pair of giant claws. As I had just started a new job and didn’t feel that I could request a day off because there was an owl in the fireplace, I went to work thinking that I would figure out what to do from there. A colleague advised calling the Bird of Prey foundation. I had to beg the woman who answered their phone to help me and swear that I wouldn’t sue them for any damage to my house; she ultimately agreed to send someone over to remove the owl that evening. I hid my irritation when she queried me as to the size of the owl. I explained that he was “giant-sized” and “huge,” whereupon she politely asked, “Is it the size of a robin?” I hung up wondering what kind of owls they were used to dealing with. My owl was as big as a dozen robins.

Promptly at seven that evening, a young woman rang my doorbell. To my amusement, she was carrying a small cardboard carrier, not much larger than a shoebox. No way was the owl going to fit in there, although a robin would have. But I didn’t say anything, just nodded when she held it up to show me and escorted her to the family room. I pointed at the fireplace and was vindicated when my rescuer walked over, peered in the doors, dropped the box, and exclaimed, “Oh My God! It’s a Great Horned Owl!”

Next came the tricky part—the extrication. The Bird Girl asked me to get some blankets, and outfitted each of us with one, but did not provide any explanation as to how I was supposed to use it. I gathered I would figure it out. She opened up the fireplace door, and talking to the bird the whole time, started to slowly position the blanket around its claws. “See, it’s going well,” she said over her shoulder to me. At that moment the owl obviously tired of the nonsense and sprang from the fireplace and winged around the room. He bounced off the ceiling and landed next to my benefactor. She threw her blanket at him but missed, and he circled the room again. This time he landed next to me, and amateur that I was, I dropped my blanket on him, having gotten the gist of what to do.

It was easy from there. The Bird Girl gathered him up in the blanket and we went out the front door, where she sat him down on the ground and then gently eased the blanket off him. He stood there for a minute, looking up at the two of us as if wondering what new tricks we might have up our sleeves, and then in one beautiful moment, he spread his wings, lifted off the ground, and was gone.

Until we renovated our family room, we proudly pointed out to our visitors the wing prints on the ceiling made by the ashes on that owl’s wings.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Dodging the Ice Bullet

A week ago, I was in Kentucky. Indeed, I was bebopping around Muhlenberg County with my sister, her mother-in-law, and my mother. We had quite the time, visiting antique stores and junk stores that professed to be antique stores. We lunched out in the country and enjoyed a fun day driving past fields and farms en route to our various destinations.

Now, one week later, all has changed in Muhlenberg County, in McLean County, in Daviess County--all of my stomping grounds. I got back to Colorado in the nick of time. Two days after my departure from the promised land, an ice storm hit with a vengeance. So much of the infrastrucure is above ground in Kentucky, that the effects were devastating. The governor has declared the entire state a disaster area.

A combination of broken tree branches and downed power lines has left hundreds of thousands of people without power. All businesses and schools are closed. People are being asked to stay home so as not to endanger themselves from the downed power lines. Cell phones aren't working; some landlines barely do so. It is a mess.

My family is hanging in there. My parents are lucky; they still have power in their little subdivision--one of the few places around where the power lines are underground. My sister, Karen, drove from Calhoun to Greenville on Tuesday to collect her mother-in-law who had lost power and was afraid to drive. By the time they got back home, Karen's power was gone, so they relocated to a friend's house down the road. My brother has no power, so he went to my mom and dad's house. My sister-in-law moved to her sister's house and then they lost power.

My mother actually seemed to feel it was quite an adventure--the worst outage she ever remembered. One of her biggest complaints about the whole thing was that her cable service was out for two days, so no T.V.! She thought she really needed to go to the grocery pretty soon, though.

It was good to hear that everyone was safe. They certainly have a mess that is going to take a while to clean up.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Spastic Home

As my mother and I wandered through an antique store, she chattered away about people I had long forgotten and many I had never known. My brain stumbled over her words as she mentioned someone who had lived out their days at The Spastic Home. I stopped her to ask if that was its real, official name. She said she thought so and I thought, "wow."

Since she had mentioned it, I well remembered the place--in today's jargon it would be called, "The Home for the Disabled" or something along that line. I suppose I haven't seen anyone with that type of physical disability for many years; I don't know why and I have to wonder. Where are those people with spastic limbs, some disconnect between brain and body? Are they hidden away, or simply no more due to medical advances or abortion or better nutrition and prenatal care? I suppose there are studies that would tell me the answer.

When I googled 'Owensboro' and 'The Spastic Home,' I didn't get much back. There were two or three references to the facility, but nothing official and lots of other mentions of people calling their pets or themselves "spastic." When I was a kid, the term was used in a derogatory manner by children and teens to disparage their friends and enemies, somewhat along the same line as "retard." I haven't heard it used in that way for many years.

When I was in junior high, there was a boy in the special education class with an enlarged head. His name was John. He was severely disabled; looking back, it seems amazing that he was even alive. He was probably the age of a sixth grader at that time. I have a vivid memory of looking out of my class window and watching as some other students encouraged him to do a crazy dance, Jed Clampett style. I remember, too, that he didn't live out junior high.

For whatever reason I rarely encounter folks today with disabilities such as these; they have disappeared or are hidden. They aren't forgotten, though.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Back in Muhlenberg County, Down by the Green River, where Paradise Lay

I am back in Kentucky--it feels good. It was a hassle getting here--I won't travel through Chicago again in the wintertime, if I have a choice. On top of the travel delays and stress of worrying whether I was going to miss my connection, the weather here is very Chicago-like. Yesterday the high was 14 degrees, with a wind blowing that nearly did me in when my father insisted on bundling up and going for a walk. It only gets this cold here a couple of times a year--and I am here during one of those times.

I am indeed staying in Muhlenberg county, at my sister's house in the country outside of Calhoun. It is so nice to wake up and be in the country, and watch my brother-in-law go out in the morning and feed the cows. I have two little dogs and two sweet cats here to love on when I miss my own pets.

Being in Kentucky always gives me a list of topics to write about. The landscape, the people here are just different but also familiar to me. I am glad to be here and spend time with my family and marvel over the differences from my home in Colorado.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Elvis Fan

I can’t really think of Elvis without thinking of Ruth. Ruth was my suitemate in college, and the penultimate Elvis fan, expert in his life history, songs, movies, and trivia. She papered the walls of her dorm room with his posters and was always on the alert for an opportunity to steer the conversation to a discussion of his merits, driving us crazy with the on and on of it. This was back in the days when Elvis was on television, long past “You Ain’t Nothin But a Hound Dog,” gaining weight but still able to throb some hearts. I recall walking through the lobby of our dorm one night during one of his T.V. specials and spotting Ruth parked in front of the TV, bouncing up and down and screaming. My roommate and I waited excitedly in our room for a call that she had fainted, but she somehow held it together.

Until I met Ruth, I had never considered the merits of Elvis. He was just some guy twisting around on the stage singing about love. In my eyes, he was already an old man, and certainly not worth the effort that Ruth put into worshipping him. I laughed at her, poked fun, and jeered on every occasion when she brought him up. My ridicule did little to flag her devotion and thinking back on it later, I wish I had been less critical. I should have enjoyed watching a true Elvis fan in action.

When Elvis died in the summer of 1977, I was driving across Ohio. Upon hearing the news on the car radio, I immediately thought of Ruth, as all of her friends did. We knew she would be devastated. Back at school for our senior year, I asked her how she was; she said fine. She wasn’t really though—Ruth changed when Elvis died. She lost the sparkle in her eyes. She broke things off with the guy from Utah she was having a fling with, and went back to her steady high school boyfriend. She stopped going to parties and told us she was too busy studying to socialize. She settled into planning the rest of her life and then following the plan—degree in home economics, engagement, marriage, kids. Worst of all, she did it with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.

Incredibly, I found myself wishing that Elvis had hung around. His loss left a big hole in the road for me, and I didn’t even like him. I missed the days when Ruth inserted his name into a conversation that started out as a discussion about a psychology test. Some people never feel that amount of excitement their entire lives—I know that I haven’t very much.

I haven’t heard from Ruth in many years, but I like to think that one day she woke up feeling excited like she did in our college days, when Elvis was still alive. Perhaps on the anniversary of his death some year, she became a hard-core Elvis fan once again, and hung her dorm room posters all over the living room. Or, in 1992, when Bill Clinton announced that he didn’t think George Bush would have liked Elvis very much and that was just another thing wrong with Bush, she might have gone into politics. Any year now, she’ll run for national office on an Elvis platform with slogans like, “It’s Now Or Never” or “Follow That Dream.” Or maybe one day when she got a piece of mail with an Elvis stamp on it, she left her husband and moved to Memphis, and got a job working as a bartender during the week and a tour guide at Graceland on the weekends.

Even if not the extreme, perhaps Ruth did take some action. If she hasn’t, maybe she still will. She might go to Memphis for Elvis week in August, where she’ll make new friends and come home with T-shirts for her family, who will think she’s just entering menopause and it could be worse. She might welcome a big stray tomcat into her spotless home and name him Elvis or The King. Maybe she’ll just get out her old records and buy a turntable from a flea market and listen to them when she’s supposed to be doing something more important.

John Lennon once said, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.” We all need a hero to drive our passions and inspire our zest for life, someone to look up to and admire. I missed the inspired Ruth. So what if Elvis was a fat, old guy. If he kindled the excitement in Ruth’s life, then it didn’t matter what I or anyone else thought of him. I admire her now for her fandom, because I envy the passion that she felt. I know now—there’s nothing like an Elvis fan to teach you about passion.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Back Doorbell

On a visit to Colorado some years ago, my mother regaled me with the various goings-on back in Kentucky, even going so far as to list the latest home repairs. When she remarked that my father had fixed the back doorbell, I puzzled a bit over her words, suddenly wondering about a household item that was missing from my own house. I hadn’t even known it was gone.

Later, unable to stop thinking about it, I speculated that that if someone rang my back doorbell today, I’d probably call 911—if I even had a back doorbell, that is. Why would I need one? In the fifteen years that my husband and I have lived in Colorado, no one has ever come to our back door to contact us. My interest piqued, I conducted an informal survey of houses in my neighborhood and around town. The evidence was overwhelming—modern homes have no back doorbell. Homebuilders eliminated the item long ago from their list of standard features.

But when I was growing up in a small Kentucky town, plenty of people used our back doorbell. In fact, there was a de facto social order regarding who came to the back door as opposed to those who used the front door. The neighbors and my aunt and cousins always came to our back door, signaling they were not “formal” company. Charlie Mayfield rang the back doorbell—our farmer friend who dropped off vegetables and fruit from his harvest. Butch and Dallas, the employees in my father’s electrical business, reported to work every morning at the back door. And once a week, Father Dave, our priest, rang the back doorbell to roust my father out for a bicycle ride.

The two doorbells, front and back, were located less than thirty feet apart. Each had its own unique sound, allowing us to discern immediately which door to answer. Depending upon that ring, we also knew what type of visitors to expect and where in the house to accommodate them. Front doorbell people were seated in the living room, including politicians, the Avon Lady, or my sixth grade teacher who came to review a class project. Conversely, folks who rang the back doorbell sat with us around the kitchen table. Never was the difference more clear than on the saddest day of my childhood when my little brother died in a traffic accident. Police, friends laden down with casseroles and cakes, the funeral director, and our tearful relatives—each rang the bell that reflected their relationship with our family.

Today’s standard is simple: all categories of visitors frequent the same door at the front of the house. Family, girl scouts, salesmen, preachers, friends, and strangers alike ring the front doorbell. Those people who used the back doorbell years ago have, like myself, forgotten what it represented or that it even existed. No doubt it vanished into extinction due to a combination of factors, including home security, the prevalence of two-income families that leave no one at home during the day, and our transient modern society. Neighbors are no longer considered extended family, as they change more frequently than they did a generation ago. The unfortunate result is modern society’s loss—the disappearance of the close-knit, back doorbell communities and their contributions to our everyday lives.

Since remembering the back doorbell of my childhood, I sometimes daydream about the people who might ring a bell at the back of my current house: a gardener sharing vegetables or plant cuttings; an old friend trading a piece of pie for a cup of tea; a neighbor searching for a good listener. Instead, even the front doorbell is silent most of the time, ringing only occasionally to announce package deliveries or a Jehovah’s Witness. The back doorbell’s demise was truly brought home to me when my parents moved from my childhood home to a newly built house across town. When I recently visited them in Kentucky, I was not surprised to note that there was no back doorbell. Even my mother didn’t request one for her new home. She knew no one would ring it.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Welcome, 2009!

I am so glad to have a new year finally here. It feels cleansing just to have 2008 behind me; so many bad things happened. For me, the year 2008 is like a slimy, sticky substance that you can't get off your hand with one washing. I told my sister this morning that it was the worst year of my life. I told all of my family today that this was going to be a better year--gotta feel that way!

I started out with a nice walk with my great friend Catherine and my dog Molly. Catherine set a brisk pace, otherwise I would likely have lollygagged. Molly was up for any pace we wanted to set. Afterwards, we sat and drank coffee and gossiped and did not eat any junk food--what a great example.

I spoke with my family and wished them a good year; I am writing in this blog; I played my guitar and plan to spend time on the bass. I am working on my short story, "Living on the Left Bank." All in all, a great start to the year.

Yes, audacity, reinvention, and self-image!