Wednesday, October 30, 2019


When asked what costumes they wanted to wear for Halloween this year, both of my grandsons said, “Pennywise.” Despite being fans of Stephen King, both of my daughters said “No” to their son’s request.

I thought it interesting that both of them would choose the costume of a character in a movie neither of them has ever seen (at ages 11 and 9, they’re a little young for IT.) And yet, Pennywise has become part and parcel of the Culture of Fright, and both of them know all about him, even if they haven’t even read the book.

I’ve always wondered if kids who choose scary costumes as opposed to fantasy (princess) or occupational (astronaut) costumes are trying to get a handle on something that otherwise scares them. As if becoming a partner of the thing that frightens them will give them a handle on how to deal with that fear.

If that’s so, maybe my earliest costumes were telling. For two years in a row, I’m guessing Kindergarten and first grade, or maybe first and second grade, I wore the same costume. Part of it was purely economics: the dang thing fit me the second year and so no one had to put out any kind of money to get me a new one. (We weren’t creative about costumes when I was a little kid. We were into Woolworth’s.) So for two years in a row, I dressed up as a devil.

Hmmm. When The Exorcist hit the big screen while I was in college, I lined up to see it like everyone else. I don’t mind saying that the movie traumatized me for years. And I mean years. As terrifying as I found The Haunting the first time I saw it, as freaked out as I was about the sci-fi thriller H-Men, and as disturbed as I was by The Zombies of Moro Tau, nothing ever exploded my psyche like The Exorcist. And I had read the book, too. Something about it struck way too close to home, and I needed a long time to get past it. Maybe I should say, quiet it down. I still won’t watch it. Did I already know I had this particular fear back when I was in early grade school?

A few years later, I made the classic choice and dressed up as a ghost. No, I didn’t cut eyeholes into a sheet and put it over my head. I just used the old sheet like a winding shroud. If I had been clever, I might have cut it up a bit to make it look tattered, but that didn’t occur to me. I just wanted to look like an apparition. I’m sure I mostly just looked like some weird kid wandering the streets in a bedsheet, but what the heck. At least it wasn’t a Casper costume from Woolworth’s.

Still, that fascination with ghosts was already there. At the time, I was too young to be doing sleepovers at friends’ houses, so I didn’t yet realize how different my house was. But clearly something had taken root in my brainbox. Shortly after dressing up as a ghost, I began writing my first ghost stories. I had already started collecting them in print, thanks to Scholastic Book Fairs.

I no longer dress up for Halloween. I haven’t been to a party in years, and I think the last time I donned anything resembling a costume was at my first job in health care. I was working reception and business office and we were invited to dress up for the big day. The first year I turned myself into a skater boy complete with backwards baseball cap, untucked shirt, and a pair of jeans that were huge on me. I nearly got kicked out of the office before they realized it was just me. If I were to be invited to a Halloween party now and dressing up became mandatory, I have no idea what I would wear. I don’t even know what I would want to wear.

I admire adults who still put on fancy dress, and I really admire those who do Cos-play at Comic-Con and events like that. I apparently don’t have the inclination or the skill to put together something really fetching out of a universe I enjoy. I guess that when it comes to costumed characters, I’d still rather just read the book.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

For Some, Superstition Is the Way

My college edition of the American Heritage Dictionary defines superstition as “A belief that some action or circumstance not logically related to a course of events influences its outcome.”

I’ll buy that.

In this season of Halloween, with its ghosts and goblins and black cats, I got to thinking about superstitions. There are tons of them, as we all know. The clich├ęs involve the black cat crossing your path, not walking under a ladder, not opening an umbrella while inside, getting seven years of bad luck after breaking a mirror, and throwing salt over your shoulder. I’m sure there are tons more than that, but those are the ones I think of immediately when thinking about superstition.

Some of those are undoubtedly related to being practical. It’s not necessarily a great idea to open an umbrella while inside, especially if, like Jim, you like golf umbrellas, and you’re in small space filled with breakable objects. Walking under a ladder seems like a spectacularly bad idea if there’s a person at the top of said ladder with a full bucket of paint, a sharp tool, or a pane of glass.

But then there are the superstitions we all develop. Don’t we? For years, there was a particular song that, if it played on my radio, I felt obliged to listen to the whole thing even though I CANNOT stand that song. I don’t know why that idea got stuck in my head, but if I went to switch it off, I felt as if something bad would happen. That must be superstition exemplified and I have no idea how I got there. I have since talked myself out of it and happily switch stations if that dang song comes on, but it took me a while to get there. Funnily enough, I worked for a few years with a woman who had the same feeling about her own particular song. She told me that if she didn’t listen to it, something bad happened to a loved one. YIKES. Neither of us ever told the other which song was apparently ruling our lives, as naming it would add to the jinx.

As weird as that may sound, I know I’m not alone in that kind of thinking. I know sports superstitions are rampant, among both the players and the fans. Michael Jordan, for instance, insisted on wearing his North Carolina shorts under his Bulls uniform. Serena Williams has to bounce the tennis ball a certain amount of times before her first serve. The NHL actually has a “play-off beard” tradition, where the team members grow their beards until they get eliminated (or win). There’s also something called The Sports Illustrated Curse, wherein teams and players worry that being on the cover will destroy their chances at winning the season. And then there are the fans with their flags, their cheers, their face paint, their lucky shirts, and their chants. I suppose all of this, especially for the athletes, is somewhere between a placebo effect and self-fulfilling prophecy.

But what about superstitions in general? Why did mankind –and why do some of us individually—come up with these rituals and routines in hopes of influencing outcomes in our lives? I think that the human mind spends a lot of time looking for patterns, even if we don’t realize that we are. It’s like pareidolia, the facility we have that allows us to see shapes in clouds, or faces in a dirty window. We look at a raw stimulus, as it were, and our brain finds a way to make sense of it. I suppose if someone had something very bad happen to him after a black cat crossed his path, he might make that connection.

On the other hand, I can’t help wondering about those things that were taken as general belief , each for its own culture, and all cultures seem to have superstitions, just like they all have ghosts and monsters of some sort.

Have you got any yourself?

Wednesday, October 16, 2019


I have always loved trees. When I was a kid, I used to wish I could climb as high as my brother did when he was trying to build his tree house out in the back yard. When the leaves would spiral off the branches in the fall, I always had an assortment of the most colorful maple leaves that I could find. In high school, I had my first trip to Vermont and spent some time hanging out under a stand of trees in a heavily-wooded area, listening to the autumn rain splash down on the leaves and branches above me and laughing when I would eventually get wet, which was surprisingly intermittent. The trees around me were that thickly interwoven.

As an adult, I traveled up to Door County, Wisconsin for the first time in July, and then again that following October. I felt as if I’d found paradise when I saw what fall splendor looked like with all of those trees, against the backdrop of both Green Bay and Lake Michigan. I can never fully celebrate autumn without a trip up north to see all those magnificent giants and their glorious streaming scarlet and flaming orange finery.

Today was a windy day here in Illinois, and the trees rustled and sighed in the gusts that both caressed and tossed their branches. And it’s when the wind is blowing in the fall, whether gentle or harsh, that I feel most as if the trees are talking to each other.

There is a road up in Door County that Jim and I love to walk. The total trip is just a little over three miles, and back when I was still running the occasional 5K, that was my favorite training route. There are trees all along the way, and when the wind gets going, the branches lean back and forth and make their little “talking” noises, and I swear they are having their conversations. During one of our many walks up and down that road, I realized why J.R.R. Tolkien would have come up not only with talking trees, but with Ents. If you were to take that walk with us, you would understand, too. The trees on this road are old and tall and majestic, and when they bother to lean toward each other at all, and only at the wind’s insistence, I would swear they are sharing observations and comments. The writer in me would swear they are conversing with each other. And I wish I could understand them.

People are drawn to different aspects of nature. My grandson, AJ, loves predatory animals like sharks and all of the big cats. His room is decorated with pictures of these critters and he always makes me think of a particular dialogue from Jurassic World: “We need more.” “More what?” “More teeth. We need more teeth.” (If you’ve seen the movie, this will make sense. If you haven’t, it will make sense when you do.) My other grandson, Johnathan, is currently obsessed with poisonous snakes and spiders. He just loves tarantulas and the fer-de-lance, and spends time reading up on “the most poisonous snakes” or “the biggest spiders” in the world.

Lots of my friends are gardeners and they have my complete respect and admiration. I’d garden too, if I didn’t have the unfortunate tendency to kill nearly everything I try to cultivate. It’s like they pop their little budding heads above the ground, see me, think to themselves, “Oh, it’s YOU,” and then curl up and die after giving up completely.

But trees? Trees are my buddies. I always feel better, no matter where I am, if I can look out the window and see trees. Even just one. I feel great when I get to go out among them, like in the north woods of Wisconsin. They make me happy. I think I might even be able to grow one without killing it, but I haven’t tried yet so that the fantasy can continue to thrive within my head. But one day, I may just try growing an acorn. If that lifted its head above the ground, saw me, and kept going, wouldn’t that just be amazing? In the meantime, I’ll continue to enjoy the ones out in nature. Maybe if I hang around them long enough, one day I might begin to understand their conversations.