A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Thursday, November 3, 2011


The Big Bad Wolf raced after the Wicked Witch, oblivious to the fact that the unicorn was lagging.  The ladybug was swaddled in so many insulating layers that she was sweating profusely on this five-degree-Fahrenheit night.  The mouse, incandescent with joy, had long since stopped caring whether her tail was dragging in the snow. And the 35-pound grizzly bear kept hopping about erratically, shrieking, “Trick or Treat!  Trick or Treat!” to no one in particular.

I love Halloween.

Logically speaking, that should be a sarcastic comment.  This year Halloween was a Monday night.  A week’s worth of unfinished chores and unanswered emails haunted my subconscious.  Nonetheless, I didn’t do a single load of laundry or open the eighteen-page spreadsheet that was festering on my hard drive.  Instead, I spent the evening lurking in the icy darkness with four other parents, a jester’s hat pulled down over my ears.  My job was to hand out glow-sticks and blinkers, haul around the spare clothes, marshal everyone out of harm’s way every time a car crept past, and say fifteen times, “Don’t forget to say thank you!”  The mouse and the bear – my own little beasts -- were filling bags with atrocious foodstuffs at an alarming rate, while cavorting with gleeful greed.  Halloween, after all, is basically a festival of sugar and death, with some mischief thrown in for good measure.  I ought to hate this annual ritual.  But somehow I adore it.

“Just take one!  One!” 

There’s always a house or two where the owners leave out a bowl of goodies, and trust to social graces and good manners – something that can be in scant supply on October 31st. Maybe I like the holiday for its sheer perversity.  As parents, we all try to teach our kids a few basic social rules.  For example, pajamas and a tutu do not constitute formalwear; begging is never acceptable; talking to strangers is dangerous; and Laffy Taffy is not packed with essential vitamins and minerals.  Then, once a year, we let them dress in gauze, tinsel, face paint, and cardboard boxes, give them each a sack, and set them loose on the neighbors.  The irony is almost as delicious as the mini-Snickers.

“Wait for the unicorn!  She’s only three.  She can’t keep up!” 

She’s trying to, though – and I empathize, because I can remember being a three-year-old. I was convinced that wearing a white pillowcase over my head transformed me into a scary ghost. I was suitably irritated that all my grandmother’s friends wanted me to take it off so they could tell me how cute I was.  This year’s assorted menagerie, with the witch as their mentor, took themselves pretty seriously, too -- despite looking like a waddling brigade of stuffed toys.

My kids adore plush animals so much that they’ve overwhelmed a closet with their collection -- so their costume choices were no surprise.  In fact, they seemed to think the highlight of the evening was visiting the home of the school nurse, because she and her family gave out toys instead of Instant Tooth Decay.  The bear adored the tiny fox.  The mouse was in love with the bunny.  Species confusion abounded in this universe.

Even if she’s not a big fan of candy, the nurse – my friend Sharon -- wholeheartedly supports the creative aspect of this festival, and I have to agree.  By the time I was six or seven, Halloween became a great excuse for ludicrously ambitious craft projects.  The year I was Robin Hood, I wanted to make a bow and arrows that really worked, using only randomly selected bits of wood from our suburban back yard.  When I decided to be a knight, I set out to craft a full set of armor from old cereal boxes coved in aluminum foil.  Now that I have kids, I can leap back into this creative arena.  The mouse and the bear were pretty enthusiastic about costume construction, and harbored an ardent desire to sew on their own ears.  No needle-wounds were inflicted in the process.

“Hey!  You’re stepping on my tail!” 

The mouse made the tail herself.  It’s a trace long.  Her grey fleece footie pajamas had a dump truck on the front, but we hid it with a picture of Swiss Cheese drawn on yellow duct tape.

At the elementary school costume parade, I was a little disheartened by the ubiquitous Batmen, Spidermen, and Disney princesses, all in prefab printed nylon.  Where was the duct tape, the badly-aimed hot glue, the repurposed cartons?  But even if the artistry left something to be desired, I was soon suckered in by the enthusiasm.  Every little Batman exclaimed in excitement over every other little Batman.  No sugar had yet been consumed.  These kids were rocketing along on the mere anticipation of sugar.

I didn’t blame them.  Because, whatever its drawbacks, Halloween is undeniably fun.
Maybe I like Halloween because it doesn’t try to have any purpose besides entertainment.  On Halloween, I don’t feel bad about borrowing festivities from a religion to which I don’t belong, and I don’t feel guilt-tripped by hearts and flowers, fatherly neckties, flags, monuments, or rewritten bits of history.  I am not supposed to think deep thoughts or reflect on my failings.  I’m just supposed to be silly and eat candy.  Even on a bad day, I can usually manage that.  Looking monstrous isn’t too hard either, as several of our neighbors demonstrated.

“Aaaaaaarrrrr!”  The man behind the mask made quite an impression.  In the flickering pumpkin-light, it took me a few moments to realize I knew him, even when he quickly doffed his headgear to avoid psychologically scarring my children.  I often see Tom on his bike, and we recently visited the backwoods cabins he owns at Tolovana Hotsprings, but I never knew exactly which house was his – or that he owned such a remarkable rubber ghoul head. 

Then again, why shouldn’t he?  Halloween also offers the allure of transformation, the chance to change personas for a night, no questions asked – even if it’s been thirty or forty years since you were a kid.  Want to cross-dress?  Dye your hair purple?  Wear fishnets?  Morph into a lime-green Crayola?  Go for it! 

Tom wasn’t the only unexpected friend we found in a circuit of a mere dozen or so houses.  The mouse bounced down the steps of another cabin ecstatically proclaiming that she’d found a classmate there.  It wasn’t particularly surprising, of course.  We were a half mile from home, still in the wedge of Fairbanks that makes up our elementary school’s district.  And yet – it was news to me, too.

And that, I realized, is perhaps the thing I like most of all about Halloween.  It turns every other holiday inside out.  Not that I don’t I love the traditions and festivals that look inward, toward home, hearth, family, and friends.  Generosity and thankfulness are a big part of these, too.  But only on Halloween do we turn outwards so completely.  And when we do, we find goodwill along with the Good-n-Plenty -- not to mention some remarkable amateur performances, free of charge.

As the kids cavorted through the icy darkness, pumpkin after pumpkin grinned at them.  Door after door opened.  There were friends behind those doors, and strangers, and people somewhere in between the two: might-be-friends, and recognizable strangers.  There were people who admired the children’s costumes even as they misidentified them, and people who cooed.  There were people who smiled, and people who mock-terrified.

I was grateful to each of them.  I really earnestly hoped that Mouse and Bear were remembering their thank-yous, because I wasn’t appreciative of those folks just for giving away treats.  I was also thankful to them for showing my kids that the world is full of creativity, humor, kindness, generosity, and surprises -- and that sometimes, taking candy from strangers is exactly the right thing to do.

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