Samhain, I Am

Jack-o-lanterns are blooming on doorsteps, paper skeletons are dancing in windows and supermarket aisles are loaded with enough candy to fell a small nation with a hypoglycemic shock wave. It must be Halloween. That, or the prevailing trend in home decor has gone the way of 10-year-old Goths. Either way, the season of tricking and treating is upon us. Mwahahaha! (By the way, that burst of diabolical laughter is now a real word and is in the dictionary.)

I grew up during the first great wave of Halloween’s commercialization into a kiddie cash cow. This would be after the release of the novelty hit — Monster Mash — and the animated holiday special It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown but before the arrival of Elvira and her cleavage, as white and precipitous as the Cliffs of Dover.

It wasn’t always like this. There were once Celts, then later 12th-century Christians involved, though, sadly, I have little information on their cleavage. I’m confident there was no cleavage when it came to the New England Puritans and their opposition to the evolving holiday. Halloween’s reception with these guys would be colder than a witch’s tit. Until they burned her.

It wasn’t until the first decades of the 20th century that Halloween became assimilated into mainstream America. And I think I know why.

Not to get too X-Files on you, but consider this: What if the oft-bandied backstory about Celtic harvest rites (“Samhain”) and Halloween’s origins were cooked up on Wikipedia to cover the true story of Halloween. I’ve been meditating on the notion for a while and it comes down to what Sonoma County’s own Mark Felt, a.k.a. Deep Throat, might’ve said if Hal Holbrook hadn’t said it for him: “Follow the money.”

This is where the Halloween money flows — to the candy makers. And dentists. Is there a conspiracy between Mars, Hershey, Cadbury, See’s, etc. and the American Dental Association.  Like one hand washing the other, then snapping on rubber gloves and grabbing the pliers. Think about it. Nearly 600 million pounds of candy is sold between September and November. That’s a $2 billion business; two billion little pictures of a man with wooden dentures who ain’t smiling.

Candy rots your teeth because bacteria in your mouth feed on the sugars and excrete acids, which causes decay and cavities. Basically, when you eat a Bite-Sized Snickers Bar, you’re also feeding prokaryotic microorganisms, which eat the sugar and poop in your mouth. That poop eats holes in your teeth. So, thanks, Snickers.

The Centers for Disease control report that tooth decay will affect 49 percent of kids between ages 6 and 15. That’s nothing compared to the 95 percent of people their parents’ age, who will also experience tooth decay. All those holes have to be plugged. Tooth-colored composite resin fillings will run you between $90 and $250 a cavity. Clearly, standing up against these kinds of numbers is near to impossible, if not downright scary. Remember when those well-meaning carrot farmers got together and offered “scarrots” as a healthy Halloween candy alternative? No one does. In fact, I’m a bit nervous even writing the word “scarrots” for fear of receiving a candygram from Dr. Butterfingers, DDS.

If you ring my doorbell this Halloween and I don’t answer don’t take it personally. Unless you’re Tom of Maine.

Now that I’m adult, Halloween candy is the least of my concerns this time of year. It’s all the rash of adult costume parties and their hipster upgrade, the so-called “masque.”

A blend of pantomime, oration, music and dance, the “masque” is a theatrical form that flourished in the 16th century but was abandoned in the following one as new entertainment technologies took center stage – namely puppet shows and costumed animal acts (the YouTube of their time). The masque, however, is undergoing a revival of sorts as a Halloween-themed entertainment in some local quarters. In its present incarnation, the masque is something of a mid-life crisis in costume. The revels seem devised to squeeze the greatest amount of embarrassment from the greatest amount of alcohol, purchased for the least amount of money.

Consider the 21-and-over spin on “bobbing for apples,” wherein participants dunk their heads in a wine barrel attempting to sink a tooth into an ever-elusive bung plug. Interestingly, no one ever seems to find the plug despite repeatedly submerging their faces into the barrel. Instead, they just get drunk on wine and spit. In fact, most hosts do away with the bung plug entirely thus rendering the act totally futile, unless one considers open-mouth kissing 50 gallons of wine worth their time. I know I do.

Another local custom at the masque is playing “tryst or trite,” a game derived from an ancient mating ritual in which a would-be suitor attempted to woo the object of his or her affection with salacious poetry. The modern version eschews the verse for more direct statements of attraction, which are rewarded with either a kiss or a slap across the face, depending on the cleverness of the line. For example, approaching a woman costumed with a sheet over her head and querying “Are you a ghost or are you just ready for bed?” would likely result in a slap as would, “Those holes aren’t for your eyes.”

As with any Halloween party, costumes are a major factor, however, the masque manages a slight spin on the tradition. For reasons that can only be explained by quantum physics: if one elects to attend the party un-costumed, be assured that everyone else will be in costume. If you go costumed, you will be alone unless you go as something that seems wholly original, which also means someone else will inevitably have the exact same costume as you. At which point, you should just go home to practice what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.”

Beyond games, the masque also entails dramatic presentation, though locally, this has become less popular since a particular drama club inadvertently raised the devil by performing the wrong unholy text. I, of course, chided them for it in my review (having worked in Hollywood, I was the only person in the audience to recognize him). Like the masques of yore, the “dumbshow” remains a standard feature, but it’s no longer realized in pantomime. Rather, it’s interpreted literally from our contemporary vernacular – meaning it’s really dumb. I mean, completely idiotic – so stupid, in fact, that CNN was loath to air it last September but, alas, Republicans are big on playing dress-up and striking fear in the hearts of rational people. Boo!

As always, it’s important to play it safe this Halloween whether you’re at the masque or not. Don’t take candy from strangers – just their babies. Wear reflective tape on your costume, but not over your eyes. Don’t believe a werewolf who says that lycanthropy can be spread only during a full moon; it’s contagious throughout the lunar cycle with or without obvious symptoms (like fangs). In my opinion, the best thing to do on Halloween, is what I do. Stay home and work on reanimating my dead, dearly departed career.

Nothing Left to Lose (at the Estate Sale)

When I repatriated to Lumaville from Oakland, I quickly acclimated to the abundance of street parking. Except on Sundays when the nearby Methodist Church has services, or if there’s a parade, or it’s the Rivertown Revival, or the farmer’s market, or some other bullshit that takes up the street parking in front of my overpriced flat… A few weeks ago, it was an estate sale.

After circling the block like a parking vulture, I realized the real vultures were those streaming into the house across street – the house those of us in the neighborhood refer to as “haunted” given its gothy architecture and the preponderance of decoy crows pinned to it (to ward off… other crows?). There are also the inexplicable champagne glasses wired in a permanent toast in a parapet above the front door.

Whimsy + chince + general dilapidation = spooky.

Naturally, I assumed this meant that Freda, it’s octogenarian occupant, was dead.

Some dark part of me also thought that her little dog might have eaten her. It’s Lumaville, afterall. But it didn’t, as I later confirmed.

After driving past my pad several times, I finally sandwiched the Mini between a pair of moving van’s parked near the deceased woman’s house.

Sidewalk signs beckoned me into the estate sale. I knew I wasn’t going to give up my grudge without at least a walk-thru.

The interior decor was, to coin a phrase, “My Own Private Versailles.”  

I took photos because I knew you wouldn’t believe me and I haven’t the interior design vocabulary to describe my neighbor’s unique and personal aesthetic. And, yes, I admit taking photos at an estate sale might be an act of poor taste (though I was not the only one — it was so damn fascinating). Hence, karma obligated me to purchase something.

I bought a vintage game of Sorry (my putative apology), a live David Bowie album, a small tripod, a kite and some twinkly Christmas lights intended for my gazebo. The old lady would be happy, I thought, but then realized, what does she care? Freda’s is just another word for nothing left to lose…

With apologies to Mr. Bowie.
With apologies to Mr. Bowie.

Throughout the experience, the adage, You Can’t Take it With You came to mind. It’s also the title of a play I performed in high school, the theme of which set my course for what we might call an “aspirational minimalism.”

Sometimes, I’ll think about those people in the design blogs who have reduced the objects in their lives to a mere 100 and my chest tightens as I consider crush of possessions I still own and the realization that I’m a real person and actually need them all.

When I was suddenly single in my late 20s I went to Crate and Barrel to replace the kitchenware that went with the ex. I picked a single plate, bowl, silverware setting and proceeded to the checkout only to be chided by a shopping companion for thinking too much like a solo act. Now, living alone again, I have enough place settings to host a moderately-sized dinner party. Which is to say I just have a lot of dirty dishes.

At the estate sale, I inquired after the decedent and was told that she was alive and well in San Francisco and the sale was in part helping to pay for her care.

She was alive? I felt played. Like an old Bowie record.

Then I felt relieved. I wasn’t a vulture after all. And the old lady was alive to boot. And there would be a smidge more parking on the block. And… Well, in the month it’s taken me to file these thoughts, a man in a pink blazer and a Napoleon hat hosted some sort of party at the vacant house (which is now for sale) and, ironically, there was no place to park. Also, sadly, predictably, Freda died. I learned this from someone who read it on Facebook – because, you know, that’s how we roll these days. Perhaps I’ll get a little dog and train it to eat me when I die so I’ll finally get some clickbait mojo on Facebook.

In the meantime, in tribute to my erstwhile neighbor, here’s “Here Today Gone Tomorrow,” a track on David Bowie Live at the Tower Philadelphia, which I now own thanks to Freda.