Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Ghosts of Halloweens Past

When I was a kid, I never got to celebrate Halloween, or at least it seemed. My parents have home movies of me and my sister in costumes made from Butterick patterns – Jean was a witch with orange yarn hair hanging from her pointy black felt hat, while the four-year-old me was a ghost with a great big black “BOO” sewn across my front. The next year, I was a bride, and being in first grade, I was eligible to march in the elementary school Halloween pageant. I barely made it through that day at school, and by the time afternoon trick-or-treating came around, I was home in bed with a fever.

That was the start of the sick streak. Like clockwork, I’d come down with the flu, or a cold, or general malaise, during the fourth week of October. Like clockwork, I’d beg my mom to let me go trick or treating nonetheless, and like clockwork, I’d be stuck in bed, listening forlornly as other kids came to ring our doorbell and shout gleefully for treats.

It wasn’t so much the loss of candy that frustrated me. It was the loss of an opportunity to be creative. Every fall, I’d come up with a great costume idea, only to be disappointed, betrayed by my own body. But one year was different.

As the U.S. was starting to get Bicentennial fever, I found the perfect costume idea. I’d be Sybil Ludington. Who didn’t know Sybil? She was the teenager who, in 1777, basically pulled a Paul Revere to organize the militia after a British attack on Danbury, Connecticut. I already had a tri-corner hat from a visit to Philadelphia, and my mom had made me a cape the year before. Conveniently it was made of red, white and blue fabric.

All I needed was a horse. Hmm. Inspiration struck in the form of brown trash bags, some old boxes and a roll of masking tape. After a bit of engineering, I had my horse, complete with a hole in the middle so I could slip it over my head down to my waist. I was set for Halloween!

Then, as the date approached, I felt the flu coming over me. I fought it as much as I could, but on October 31, I had to concede. I was weak and weary, and there was no way I could go to school. It was hopeless.

I was resigned to having all of that good work go to waste, but I still half-heartedly petitioned my mom to let me go trick-or-treating for a half hour, just to take the horse out for a trot. I knew there was no chance; she was the type of parent who firmly believed the truant officers would see me out gallivanting and would send HER to reform school as punishment. A stickler for the rules, she was, and heavily motivated by shame.

Imagine my surprise when she took pity on me and said, sure, go out. Just be careful, and if you start feeling sick, come home. I didn’t give her a chance to change her mind. Faster than you could say “The British are coming,” I donned my cape, hat and horse and was out the door.

The truant officer wasn’t on the street, but some of my classmates were, jibing me for trick-or-treating when I didn’t go to school, as if they wouldn’t have done the same. Despite my declining energy, it was great to be out there, knocking on doors and collecting candy. Countless times I told people no, I wasn’t Paul Revere, and educated them about Sybil Ludington. And several nice people gave me a candy bar for me, and another one for my horse. Not a bad deal all together.

Looking back, I don’t think I lasted 15 minutes before I started feeling queasy, so it’s a good thing I had the horse to increase my draw of loot. Unlike my costume’s inspiration, I might have gotten three blocks or so in my route, but as I walked home, I felt as if I was on the victory lap. I’d finally gotten to go trick or treating, and I’d spread the word on Sybil Ludington, a significant footnote in American history.

The funny thing is that after that year, I was healthy every Halloween, just as I was getting too old for trick-or-treating, anyway. I guess that’s the breaks.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Purell, anyone?

A front page story in today's New York Times notes that many contemporary politicians are taking special steps to reduce their exposure to germs during the customary pressing-of-the-flesh during campaign season. In fact, the wife of a Kansas congressman recently went as far as to squirt sanitizing gel on the hands of people who were waiting to shake hands with Vice President Cheney when he was campaigning for her husband.

No word on whether those same people were looking for Purell to sanitize their hands after shaking hands with Cheney. God only knows what kind of plague they picked up from that bodily contact.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Fall in the Watchungs

Sunday, October 15, 2006


Today's New York Times Magazine featured a Q&A with former Attorney General John Ashcroft, who's apparently shilling his new book Never Again. As I read the interview, I had one of those "huh?" realizations that gave me one brief, glimmering moment of hope.

One of the questions read, in part, "Would you still defend the president's willingness to disregard the Geneva Conventions in the treatment and torture of suspected terrorists?"

Ashcroft's response: "I think there is a very sound argument for saying that those who violate the Geneva Conventions should not benefit from its provisions."

Now, wait. One could take that as him saying that if we violate the Geneva rules, we can't expect that our soldiers will be treated humanely if they are captured. Am I reading correctly? Is John Ashcroft -- Bush's former attorney general -- agreeing with those who disagree with Bush on torture? Say it ain't so!

Well, folks, sorry to disappoint you , but it ain't so, as the rest of the interview made abundantly clear. Well, at least the part that didn't talk about his beliefs as an evangelical Christian.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

The catacombs of Paris

Beneath the streets of Paris are the famed catacombs. Originally a series of quarries built in Roman times, the tunnels were first used for the gory purpose in the late 1700's, when mass graves in standard cemeteries were blamed for the spread of disease. In the second World War, both the French Resistance and the Nazis used the catacombs for their own purposes.

In current times, the catacombs have become a popular tourist destination, accessible through a rather low-key street level door. Once through the entrance visitors descend a circular stairway to the tunnels below.

The scene once you're there is both eerie and intriguing. Bones are piled against the walls, many segregated by type (arms and legs in one pile, skulls stacked in another), and all piles labeled with a sign noting which cemetery they came from, and when. You could just reach out and touch them, but there's that feeling that a bony hand might reach out to touch you back.

Once you've walked through the open portion of the catacombs, you take another stairway up to street level. It's all rather pedestrian, except for the very end. Just before you go outside, you're stopped by two gatekeepers who stand before a sign with the international "No" symbol drawn over a crudely drawn skull and crossbones. The gatekeepers insist -- in French -- on examining your bags to see if you're trying to smuggle out a souvenir.

As if. Try explaining to the TSA what that tibia-shaped thing is that they scanned in your carry-on luggage.