Pop Culture: Almost Gruntled
Looking a gift something-or-other in the mouth
By John Fladd firstname.lastname@example.org
When we first moved into our house three years ago, we had a bit of a problem with chipmunks.
Some sort of misunderstanding over the ownership of our garden took place. Harsh words — well, some harsh words and some nasty squeaks — were exchanged. Unfriendly gestures took place, followed quickly by retaliation and escalation. One thing led to another, and well, before we knew it, we had a full-blown blood-feud on our hands.
As I say, though, it’s been three years now, and the Chipmunk Intifada has quieted down a bit. We don’t actually invite the chipmunks over for cocktails or anything, but open hostilities have been more or less suspended. Unfortunately, where the chipmunks left off, somebody else — possibly someTHING else — has taken over in a creepy, almost BlairWitchy way.
We have a very long driveway. It is my job to stop at the mailbox by the road on my way home from work every day and see who we owe money to. So, two or three months after we moved in, it was I who discovered the large rock in our mailbox.
I took the rock out and looked it over. It was big — about the size of a basketball sneaker, so it probably hadn’t gotten in the mailbox by accident. It had no stamps, nor was it addressed, so, given our Postal Service’s stringent regulations, it had probably not been delivered with the rest of our mail. I looked around, but didn’t see anybody on the road who might have put it in our box, so I shrugged and dropped it, cursing briefly as it landed on my foot. I had bigger things to think about, so I quickly put the rock out of my mind.
“Those crazy neighbor kids!” I thought to myself, as I scanned the perimeter for hostile chipmunks, then got back into my car for the long trip up to my house.
(What I had failed to consider when I thought this was that I had never actually seen any kids on our road. Even now, after three years, we have never actually met any of our neighbors and the existence of local children is only theoretical. Every now and then, we hear firecrackers going off in the woods and we chalk it up to these hypothetical kids, but still, we have never seen them.)
Several months — perhaps even a year — later, I found another rock in our mailbox. Again, I threw it to the side of the road and forgot about it. In retrospect, this may have been a mistake.
One afternoon this past summer, I opened our mailbox to find a large bundle of mail. Without thinking, I simply grabbed it by the magazine on the bottom of the pile and pulled it all out of the box. I was lost in thought at the moment and was only vaguely aware of something sliding across the top of the pile, then falling to the ground with a plop.
I was surprised — to say the least — to find that somebody had put a stick of butter in our mailbox. I looked down at the butter, laying in the dust, oozing out of its wrapper in the mid-summer heat and wondered, reasonably enough, why somebody had put butter in our mailbox.
I still don’t know, but I have a theory.
I took a class this past fall on Early American History, where I learned that conflicts between Europeans and Native Americans — the Thanksgiving Story notwithstanding — took place pretty quickly, often on the first day that they met, based on misunderstandings over the concepts of gifts. Europeans, it turns out, really didn’t have a good grasp of the concept of housewarming presents.
It went something like this:
When a French or British sailing ship would appear off the rocky coast of New England, the local tribe would be understandably curious and would send out a scouting party to find out who these loud, smelly guys with the beards were. Many of the Eastern tribes had a tradition of exchanging ritual gifts with new acquaintances, so they made sure that they took appropriate symbolic objects with them.
The Europeans, on the other hand had a mission to make a profit everywhere they went, and viewed every encounter with other people as a business transaction, so when the locals approached them with something strange — a dead skunk, say — they would often frown in confusion and refuse it.
“But I don’t WANT to buy a dead skunk!” they might say, wondering who these loony people were.
Meanwhile, the Indians were just as confused, and more than a bit insulted. “Hey!” they probably said to each other. “You saw me! I offered him the skunk and he turned it down!”
One thing led to another, rude gestures were exchanged, and now, 500 years later, both sides are really wishing the guys on the boat had just taken the damn skunk.
So what, you may ask, does this gross oversimplification of the history of American race relations have to do with the butter in my mailbox?
What if — and keep in mind that this is still a theory under development — my wife and I have been so focused on the more dramatic chipmunk situation that we have overlooked another interspecies relationship, possibly with more dire, longer-reaching consequences?
In my mind’s eye, I see a pack of raccoons forming a human pyramid beneath our mailbox (well, not “human,” but the raccoon equivalent) and sending one sweaty, grunting raccoon to the top with a big rock to put in the box.
“Did you put the rock in the box?” the leader on the bottom of the pile may have asked, probably a bit grumpily.
“Yes! I put the rock in the box!” the raccoon on the top may have replied, probably a bit peevishly, thinking that the other raccoons were questioning his competence.
“And they get too many catalogs!”
We didn’t take the rock OR the butter. So now, I have a vision of a tribe of insulted raccoons sitting in the woods behind our house plotting something. Keep in mind that they have opposable thumbs and could — theoretically — operate small firearms. What if those haven’t been firecrackers we’ve been hearing in the distance?
Granted, this is as unlikely as it is disturbing, but just recently, I have been working on a new theory that isn’t as scary, but is even a little more depressing: Given the tracks in the snow leading out to our compost pile, what if there is a family of Amish possums out there, shivering in the cold, who are just trying to pay us for all the garbage they’ve been eating?
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