Story is Character, Boys and Squirrels

I've been having a lot of trouble with aggressive squirrels here at the barn. I guess that's one of the trappings of finally having a place to work that could be even remotely described as "writerly." Though both the Disney and Warner Brothers backlots flank the Equestrian District where I live, by L.A. standards this is the country. Snorting horses clip-clopping down my back alley keep rhythm with the babble of a garden fountain I figured out how to plumb myself in perhaps my most elaborate procrastination coup to date. Birds chirp, trees rustle, leaves fall.

Wouldn't you just know that the nation of Sciuridae, from the Latin, would invade from the hills -- yakking it up in two distinct and highly sophisticated languages, Kuk and Quaa, according to my research. I won't get into which is used around the exchange of various nuts and which is used around the exchange of squirrelly fluids, but it all comes down to one appetite or the other. I've never understood how these beady-eyed rats spun their fluffier tails into a successful public relations campaign. People, these are flea-ridden, disease carrying, bilingual rodents, with the temerity to nest in piles of scavenged dryer lint within spitting distance of your head! Where is the outrage?

This got me thinking about the relationship between story and character. If you Google "sexy squirrel," by the way, actress Zoey Deschanel comes up with alarming frequency. (Please don't ask how I know this until you've tried it yourself). The point being that given certain attributes in the hands of a deft storyteller, anyone or anything becomes a love interest, a villain, a hero, a mother, a child of the corn. A student of mine once made a short film called "Boy Meets Squirrel" about a geek who befriends a loyal squirrel on campus, only to have to choose between the critter and the girl who thinks the whole thing is super weird.

Then there's my next door neighbor, a fine painter of some note, who once gave me a signed ornament depicting an impossible love story between a squirrel and a dancing bunny worth more on eBay than I paid for a new bed at Macy's. (Don't ask how I know this, either, but two can squirrel away for the winter). Anyway, none of this occurred to me until I went screaming to his door after leaving a bag of garbage overnight in the courtyard. I awoke to the chattering of Kuk and Quaa as a ragtag invasion re-purposed its contents as a residential subdivision for up-and-coming neighborhood vermin.

I wasn't sure what I expected the artist to do when confronting the squirrel leader I call One-Eye (for a vile physical quirk that speaks for itself) burying unpopped kernels of microwave popcorn in my potted lemon tree. Had my neighbor picked up a shovel and beaten them all to death without ever dropping his girlfriend's Maltese, we would have been firmly in the realm of Steven King. I'd have had to change my locks and all, but still. He's from Dallas, I think, and was very Texan about it, not saying much as he pounded on my fence until the last of them shook the Skippy jar from its snout and scurried off.

Despite having sponsored the attack, I wanted this poetic soul to know I wasn't some kind of cretin; that I understood his nuanced use of anthropomorphism to depict the bitter alienation of the human spirit, of love, and loss and yearning for connection. "Damn that Orrville Redenbacher!" I said instead. "All these kernels were supposed to pop." We cleared away the scattered apple cores and peanut shells and went back to our houses to work.

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