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Hallowe’en Explained (Again)

Hallowe’en’s a mess. Everybody tells me so.

Read the newspapers. Hallowe’en is a combination salacious bachanaal, devil worship love-in, workplace sexual harrassment playground– with the added attractions of being fired, run down by cars, dressing your daughters as Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, and perhaps getting razor blades or anthrax in your kid’s candy. Other than that: Have Fun!

Pope Gregory III moved Festum omnium sanctorum –-All Saints Day — to November first to put a Christian gloss on the thing, but I bet appeasing dead spirits that walk the earth with treats goes back to the times of the caves of Altamira. The actual caves, not the Steely Dan song.

Co-opting an existing tradition for a current generation’s amusement. Hmm. Sounds exactly like what every crank, weirdo, jerk, and dogooder busybody is trying to do right now with Hallowe’en. At least the Pope just monkeyed about with the day after Hallowe’en, so his flock could enjoy a pagan festivity without worrying about it much. It’s like a Fortune 500 company hiring P Diddy as a spokesman. It’s more about image than any change in substance. My apologies for referring to him as “P Diddy.” I think he’s just “Diddy” now. Or perhaps he’s changed it again; it’s almost 10:00 am and I haven’t checked today.

I don’t have much of an opinion about Hallowe’en. Everyone seems to have lost their minds about it. There, that’s an opinion.

I see problems:

1. People use the day as an excuse to do vicious things to one another. I don’t care for that. I don’t think you really want to be placed in any jail population wearing a costume. Knock it off.

2. Adults participate in it more than children now. That’s silly. Adults are supposed to walk behind their children with a flashlight and carry their charges and their loot for the last 7/8 of the trip.

3. People’s insane ideas about what other people should eat are intruding on the fun. Hint to homeowners: children like candy. Children don’t like candy designed for diabetics. Trust me on this one.

4. Paganism is the root of Hallowe’en. If you’re an actual Pagan, or Druid, or Wiccan, or think you’re a witch or warlock, I’ve got news for you: Hallowe’en ain’t your night. It’s NOT the one night when everybody sees the essential coolness of your worldview; it’s the one night of the year that normal people pay enough attention to the imaginary trappings of your foolish worldview to make fun of you. That’s it. Just like everybody else on Hallowe’en, you should behave and look differently for a short period. In your case, you should dress normally and act in a dignified and intelligent manner for a little while . You can spend the other 364 days acting like a loon.

5. Hallowe’en considered changing its name to: “The College Kids Don’t Wear Much, Drink Still Liquor- Keystone- Cough Medicine-Rohypnol Smashes While Re-enacting the Sack of Troy, Amateur Arson/ Rapist/ NASCAR driver/Insane Jehovah’s Witness/ Melee Night.” It wouldn’t fit on the t-shirt, so they left it alone. College kids don’t need Hallowe’en. College kids only need the calendar to read “Thursday; PM,” for all that. No use eggin’ them on.

I’m here to help. Let’s solve all our problems with Hallowe’en:

At around dusk, small children dressed in cute and fantastic costumes will visit the doors of their nearby neighbors, who will give them a little Snickers bar for their trouble. Any child old enough to be unaccompanied by an adult is too old to trick-or-treat. The children’s parents will stand slightly behind their children and wave to the neighbors and they will exchange pleasantries. The home will have a pumpkin or two on the step, and perhaps the silhouette of a witch on a broom and a black cat, cut from construction paper by a gradeschooler, in the window. These small children will not be frightened by this activity, and startling people for your amusement will get you only a rap on the head from a Maglite flashlight that you will commemorate for several weeks by rubbing the lump it leaves on your addled head. The small children will be home and asleep at the regular hour, more or less.

While they sleep the deep, comforting sleep of the weary and contented child, I will steal their candy.

Kids These Days

Multi-tasking. People talk about it, but they don’ t really know what they are talking about. It’s not their fault; there’s no such thing.

If you’re a little bright, and bright enough to know better than to be an intellectual, you can be serially interested in a lot of things without much of a pause in between. You’re fooling yourself if you think you’re doing two things at once. I’ve seen you drive and talk on the phone.

I have to “multi-task” all the time. It wears you out and invigorates you. Was it Churchill that said vacation was: “Doing something else”? I dunno, I’m too busy doing the same thing to look it up. At any rate, something else always needs doing, so it’s easy to do something else.

But there is no leisure. Literally, now: none. And I use the word literally literally, not like people that use the term multi-task when referring to talking on the phone while driving with two tires over the yellow line. I don’t remember the last time I was doing nothing.

Two or three things had to happen on Sunday, and I had to toss a fifth on the heap by taking pictures of the fourth thing, which was watching the little fellow pick apples at Tougas’ Farm in Northborough, Mass.

I’m not a good photographer but he’s blurry for a reason. He arrived home on the kindergarten bus the other day and he and all his brethren were wearing cooking pot hats made from construction paper, all still resolutely being worn all the way home. Johnny Appleseed, dad.

And so we were calling on a family member who was ill, and it was right down the street, and Johnny Appleseed, dad.

The orchard was mindnumbingly huge. You needed directions to find certain kinds of apples. Whole neighborhoods of varieties stretching off into the distance. It looks more like a vineyard than an orchard, with the trees cut way back to force the limbs and fruit to sprout. Copsing, I think you call it. Many trees used to be farmed and forced, and not just for their fruits. A “stool” is a tree stump that sprouts many limbs after cutting. They used to harvest them and weave wattles to keep the pigs in, or hold your plaster up. They’d cut trunks above eye level and climb up and harvest the stickers from time to time while allowing ruminant animals to pasture below. The animals would eat the stickers if it was a stool on the ground. Above eye level they call it a “pollard.”

Well, I inhabit the ether above the average person’s eye level, so me and the five-year-old got all the apples that weren’t at waist level, one way or the other.

They’ve got animals in pens. You pat yourself down like you’re arresting yourself, looking for a quarter to buy a handful of food pellets from a vending machine to feed to the goats and such. I realized how remote that we’ve become from anything animal. We need to have regular barnyard animals displayed in a Potemkin farm because everyone joins the Sierra Club but have never been outdoors.

I’m just like the orchard, and that little kid, when I stopped and thought about it. People pay me to make things for them. But there’s an element of the theater to it, too. People want to rub shoulders with something real, made from nature and touched by humans. I’m grateful to all the people who frisk themselves for a few quarters, and feed me through the Internet fence.

I’ll give you a bite of my apple; I hear tell there’s wisdom, and a little sin in it, too.

Harry Longbaugh’s Bench

Harry Longbaugh’s Bench

“Grampa, Mama says that old bench is special. It looks awful plain to me.”

“Your mama’s right, in a way, my boy, but like every thing a man can own, the people who use it are more captivatin’ than the thing itself. That’s Harry Longbaugh’s bench. Well, not his bench ‘xactly.”

“Who in blazes is Harry Longbaugh? Is he that man mama went to grammar school with that put a frog in her bookbag? And why do you have his bench? And..”

“No, no, my boy. You see, your grampa used to work on Harlem and Long Island Railroad, back when the years began with 18’s. I was a crack telegraph operator…”

“What’s a telegraphs any ways, isn’t that that guy who used to come to the door with the brushes and soap and get the door slammed in his face by pa …?”

“No, no, my boy. The telegraph was a machine we used to send messages to each other, before you, your mama, or the telephone was around. We did manage okay then, you know.”

“But who’s Harry Longbow? Why did you steal his bench? Is he that man that came with the crooked stick to find a place to dig for the well, that daddy says “If he ever shows his face around here again, I’m gonna…”

“No, my boy, I didn’t steal anything. You see, The telegraph operator had to keep busy all day, even when there was nothin’ to do, so I was in charge of sweeping the station in Harlem, and lighting the lamps, and tending the Lost and Found…”

“But who’s Harry Longfellow? Was he lost? Did you find ’em?, was there a reward…?”

“Harry Longbaugh! No he wasn’t lost, but there was a reward, but I didn’t get it, exactly, and if you’ll let me…”

“Is the bench your reward, did Mr. Longshanks give it to you for…”

“I declare, young man, I’ll be gone to my reward before I finish this story! Now keep still, and I’ll unwind it straight through, and no more detours!”

“Now, people left the darndest things in that station house. And we’d keep ’em in the office for what seemed like eternity, because you never knew when they’d come a ‘lookin’ for ’em. Of course there were the usual parasols and bowlers and such, but one day, the baggage boy brought me out to one the benches, THAT VERY BENCH you’re sittin’ on, to be specific, and pointed to a valise left on the shelf below, where I’d found many a forgotten item. It was a curious sort of bag. I found out later they called it a Gladstone Bag, after a Britisher, I think, and made from a Persian Carpet! Well, as a matter of good sense and manners, I keep my nose from other’s business, and stick to my own, but I felt an overpowerin’ urge to look in that bag, you see, and make out if there was something inside to tell me where I might find the owner. And what do you think I saw? ”

“Henry Longchamp’s unnerwear!”

“Harry Longbaugh, you little knothead! NO. As I was sayin’, inside, what did I see but a big Colt revolver, the old army sidearm my daddy called a “leg of mutton.” Now, you don’t see that sort of thing in New York City much, but it didn’t catch my eye as much as the money. Stacks and stack of bills, tied ever so neat with string, like little bricks…”

“Was that the reward…?”

“No, my boy, now listen. Along with the money and the pistol, there was a ticket, for passage on the “Soldier Prince,” a boat bound for Argentina! and on that ticket was a man’s name.”

“Harley Limbaugh?”

“That’s Harry, dear boy. Harry Longbaugh. Yes, it were. and I must admit, I was caught in a sort of reverie, thinkin’ about that ship, and that money, and that gun, and Argentina, when easy as you please, a man taps me on the shoulder and says, “Excuse me friend, I think that belongs to me.” He was a handsome man, with a big friendly grin, but there was something else about him, too, something hard and cold behind that smile.”

“Well, he took that bag, and walked straight out of there, and joined another man and a lady on the platform outside, and no doubt went to Argentina. And I kept that bench, where I found that bag, to remember it all by.”

“But with all that money, he didn’t give you a reward for findin’ it? What kind of story is that!”

“My reward my boy, is that I’m still here to tell the story. For I found out at the Post Office, not long after that very day, that Harry Longbaugh was known by another name too-The Sundance Kid.”

Oh, Baby; Me Gotta Go

I heard the original version of Louie Louie the other day. It’s the best.

The Kingsmen are associated with the song, but they were just carpetbaggers. Richard Berry was the progenitor. I like the relaxed, vaguely Caribbean sound of the first version.

I never understood why almost everybody couldn’t decipher the lyrics to the song, and made up all sorts of wild tales about what was being said, as I’d heard the words coming completely intelligibly out of Richard Berry’s mouth in the first place.

I’m trying to remember, but I think the Richard Berry version is in the soundtrack of Animal House somewhere. I played party music for money for a bunch of years, and there was a progression of cultural totems for the milieu. I always had the most fun in the “Otis Day and the Knights” kinda thing. I see the boneless MADD-supervised PC fun college-aged kids are allowed to have now, and I weep for them a bit. They need to rediscover their inner Elvis; a kind of rude, harmless infantilism. 1960 beats 1968, every time, if you hipsters are looking for a cool vibe to mine.

One of the most disconcerting moments of my entire life involved Louie Louie. I may have performed that song more than the Kingsmen ever did. Thousands of times. It was just another day at work to hear it or play it. All songs like that become a sort of aural wallpaper that you don’t notice much any more because you’ve been in that room so many times. I woke up late in the morning after playing some job that lasted until 2 AM. I worked all day in construction and all night in music trying to get by, and it lent an air of befuddlement to my life. A sleepy automaton vibe. The clock radio started beating me about the head, cajoling me to get back at it. I’m laying there in a half stupor, trying to remember what the hell day it was, and all I can think of is: That version of Louie Louie coming out of the radio is the worst version ever; who the hell is that? They should be horsewhipped.

As I fumbled for the off button, I realized it was a demo tape that someone had sent to the radio station, and I was playing on it.

Ain’t No Smilin’ Faces — Lyin’ To The Races

The Staples Singers on the Flip Wilson Show.

America is a wonderful place. Glittering things are just lying around everywhere. Our ancestors would hear that in America the streets were paved with gold, and ride in the holds of the rusty bucket steamships to leave musty Europe while history was giving it Extreme Unction. But the streets were not paved in gold here. That would have been a step down for America.

I went to the store to buy a little food the other day and we found almost 2% of the money we needed in the parking lot. Everyone walked right by it, for they’ve forgotten the value of it. I had to point it out to my own son. Pick it up, son, that’s money.

The Staples Singers are found money.

You’re supposed to feel better after you listen to it. You don’t clap because it’s over. You clap because you wish it weren’t.

Make sure that’s the general mood at your funeral, people. Better start now, it’s hard to catch up once you’re behind.


Let me tell you about safety.

If you live in the educated, white collar world, you know nothing of safety. That is to say: you know nothing of danger; you’re insulated almost totally from real peril.

As you move up the intellectual food chain, and your experience with the world inhabited by those faced with real, daunting challenges is practically non-existent, your attenuated worldview becomes almost worthless to people who are faced with real danger.

If you are entirely insulated from the consequences of your actions, it would be decent to recuse yourself from offering advice to others, no less so than a man who stands to profit from the outcome. When a man is facing a spinning blade, the cardinal sin is to distract him. Yelling: “Look out!” is akin to shoving him into the blade. The time to identify danger is before, not after. It is predictability and stability and a certain kind of respect that is helpful. Nothing else.

Let me tell you about the blade. You think you can handle it because you fancy yourself intelligent. You’re wrong. Because the danger it presents, the real danger, is hidden from you.

I watch people who have no business offering advice to anyone telling amateurs and professionals alike how to do what they’re trying to do. I see the safety fetishist’s clown shoes — safety glasses worn to hang a picture — and the matching squeak-nose of warnings over the toxicity of stuff you could eat, never mind touch, juxtaposed with behavior that reminds me of sheep sniffing around the shambles.

You think that you’re smart. You think that you can put your hand near the blade, as long as you don’t push your hand right in it. It doesn’t work that way.

You have to avoid putting yourself in the position where your hand will be drawn into the blade and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. There was no danger, really; you were maimed without danger announcing itself first. It was there all along in a way you’ll never “get” until it’s too late.

The wood lays there on the table. Perhaps it’s some mundane species. Straight, plain grain. Maybe it’s exotic or unusual. You like the look and feel of it. The smell of it. It gives you a little thrill to think what could be made from it. It’s full of a kind of promise of a fantastic future.

But it grew from a little sapling. Buffeted by winds, warped and enfeebled by its greedy reaching to get up to the sun before the others that would wither in the shadow of its canopy, there are stresses built up in the wood. Maybe the tree grew straight up, but the ground where it was born and raised was tilted, and the constant stress was locked in the grain. Maybe the sawyer saw that it was growing at a crazy angle, and put it on the logging truck anyway, out in the landscape where no one would know that no straight timber could ever come out of it. He’d have his money and someone else closer to the blade would find out what was in there the hard way.

Besides the stresses in the wood, there is a phenomenon associated with how it is seasoned. Most wood must be seasoned out in the air — or in an oven to do it quicker — to allow it to become useful by acclimating it to its future use. Leaving the lumber out to dry is time consuming and has its risk: bugs and weather and fires and so forth. But there is a real danger in drying out the lumber too quickly in a kiln, too. It’s referred to as case hardening. Sounds like metallurgy, but it’s not. It means when you try to pass the blade through the baulk of wood, the tensions locked into the wood are released –or better put: are revealed– by its travel through the blade. The outside of the wood seems OK. But the inside is different.

You are holding on to that piece of wood, if you trust yourself not to put your hand too near, and trust others never to fool you, or be fools themselves. You’ve been told that others have made you safe, and so you trust it a bit more than you should, maybe. On the table saw, the case hardened wood might pinch the saw kerf closed, and it will grab the back of the spinning blade and be hurled at you. Or conversely, perhaps you will hang on to it tightly enough, and it will buck and rocket away in some unexpected direction, and draw your hand into the abyss.

Big Yellow Taxi

I once had a real job. I routinely scrawled my name at the bottom of documents with vapor trails of zeroes on the numbers. People worked for me I’d never met. I flew on planes to work fairly regularly.

This never happened once then. I was a failure.

Month: October 2008

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