A girlfriend of mine told me that when her teenage boy says things that are just unfounded or based on random stuff passing through his (otherwise very intelligent) head, she tells him, “When you say that, it makes you sound stupid.” She provides this feedback with parental concern in her voice, not surliness.
I thought that I might start to say that to adults, especially educated ones, who direct clichés at me.
For instance, I like Halloween. And I know many others who do. People who get into Halloween can come up with incredible costumes when they put their minds to it. My friend Dave came to our house last night dressed as “Partly Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.” He was wearing a blue shirt with cotton balls glued onto it, and carried a tray of meatballs. I ate one of them, which put a little dent in the costume. Other friends came as Frankenstein and his bride, Nancy Drew (1930s version), Julia Child, and the mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, Paul Soglin. Everyone made me laugh. We looked good as a group, and at the end of the night the muscles of my face hurt from smiling.
What is interesting is that I do not think anyone except my husband and I (who didn’t have much in the way of costumes lying around since we just moved from France) bought anything new from one of those Halloween stores that have sprung up lately. Our friends mostly made their costumes from things lying around the house; or ground meat lying around in the fridge, in the case of Dave.
In our neighborhood, where the fall leaves are still looking bright and colorful, most people have jack-o-lanterns on the stoop. Some also have gourds and shocks of corn. We put up a lighted spider’s web with a big plastic spider in the middle. I like all of this for many reasons: I like how it gathers together objects that please me in the fall. I like an excuse to have a party. I like that people can take on identities that they do not occupy on a daily basis. I like the fact that this holiday, like many holidays, breaks up the weeks and makes us stop and do activities or be creative in ways that we are not in the preceding weeks. I like that the costumes provide us with entirely new conversations to have.
One year when I was a kid, about 6 years-old, and my parents didn’t have any money, my mother realized that my brother and I were now capable of making our own Halloween masks. She got the newspaper, which we dutifully shredded, and mixed up the glue, and we formed wire mesh into cat and devil faces. After we painted them, our papier-mâché masks looked great. I do not think we even looked poor. Along with our friends Lise and Arne, we pulled a wagon from house to house until it was so full of candy that we could hardly drag it home.
The year that my family moved from the village-like suburb where we went trick-or-treating with Lise and Arne to a large apartment building downtown in Hyde Park, Chicago, I felt cheated on Halloween. I put on another homemade costume, a paper bag that I painted with black and yellow stripes and feelers of black pipe cleaners, and went up and down the tiers of our building trick-or-treating. There were many elderly people in that building, and they didn’t even realize it was October 31st. Or they had forgotten what it meant that it was October 31st. They opened their doors, saw a bumblebee standing there, and nearly had a heart attack. “Trick or treat!” I remember yelling, not letting their mini heart attacks stop me. Most of our neighbors didn’t have any candy lying around, and if they did it was black licorice or very old after-dinner mints that they had bought for the previous Thanksgiving. I came home, bitterly, with hunks of fruitcake and oranges in my bag. And that was it for Halloween in Hyde Park. I longed for the days of the big hauls in Arne’s wagon.
People in other countries who do not have Halloween as a tradition, and scrooges in the U.S., have told me that Halloween is “just commercial.” Now, there is absolutely no doubt that it is commercial. I have been most distracted by all the costumes that are called Sexy-Something. Cruising through a Halloween Express store, I pulled a Sexy Zombie costume off a hook inadvertently, largely because it looked a little less cumbersome than the full-on Unsexy Zombie. My husband pointed out a few Sexy this and that’s to me. It was all very funny for a woman; much, much less so when I thought about buying such costumes for little girls.
But for many of us, Halloween is also all of the other things I mentioned above. So while no one has to like Halloween, insisting that it is “just a commercial event” might reveal a lack creativity and a lack of childhood memories. And in the end, saying this – especially without having any Halloween tradition – as my friend would say, just “makes you sound stupid.”