October greetings. I hope you will take a few moments to read the latest installment of my column, “The New Spooky.”
Over the last few weeks I’ve been fiddling with constructing my family tree on ancestry.com. (Thanks to my old high school friend Georgie for getting me hooked.) I managed to trace one line back as far as Torvild Ljøstad, my great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great grandfather (that’s 17 greats) who was born in 1370 in the Norwegian county of Aust-Agder, possibly at the site of present-day Vegårshei.
I take that with a grain of salt. The further back you go, obviously, the more chances for error. I haven’t double-checked every link in that lineage. Still it’s interesting to think about.
At the same time I was playing with that, I seemed to find myself making more trips to the local graveyards, which led me to contemplate the untimely demise of a young woman named Virginia. I even started actively searching for certain graves. And generally I have just been enjoying the cemeteries.
We also discovered the shrine to Santa Muerte — Saint Death.
Sheer coincidence? Perhaps. But this is, after all, the time of year associated with such matters. The Day of the Dead, All Souls Day, All Saints Day, Hallowe’en, Samhain — many names, many cultures, many traditions, but sharing a common theme of remembrance and reverence for ancestors, those who have come before, those who are no longer with us.
Fittingly, Persephone had the idea that she wanted to be a ghost princess. That led to a costume idea for the whole family.
We attended a Samhain ritual. It was focused on remembering ancestors, and it was quite beautiful — or at least I think it was. I was distracted by a certain toddler who was getting antsy. The “Samhain for Kids” celebration was fun, even though our girl was the only child there, but by the time the full grownup ritual was underway, well, it was just too much, too long, for a two-year old, and we were not familiar enough with the surroundings or the proceedings to really cope effectively as parents. I hope our daughter’s behavior was not too distracting to the other celebrants. It became more of a “learning experience” than a spiritual one for me. I wish I could have been more fully present, but in this case I guess you could say my descendant trumped my antecedents.
Nevertheless I got a good snippet of video from before the ritual began.
Here’s the moment I want to hold in my memory of that night: dancing barefoot on the grass with my wife and daughter dressed in ghostly white robes while a dead geisha played the drums by a bonfire. That was magical.
We cut out early and got back home in time to receive several troupes of trick or treaters. I was surprised by the number of kids making the rounds (under adult supervision) despite the big Saints game underway at the time. But the all the kids were home by the time the second half began, and that was a much more exciting half as it developed.
And so yesterday morning, on the Day of the Dead, Persephone and I visited the shrine of Sante Muerte.
When I posted about the shrine to the Mid-City discussion group, a neighbor reacted as follows:
I’m don’t really want to judge any religious beliefs but just so people know, the SANTA MUERTE (Holy Death) is considered almost devil worship by most of Mexico. It is used by most criminals in the narco trafficking, kidnapping, & underground Mexican world to legitimize their activities. It is why the country of Mexico has not recognized it as a legitimate faith. Like all religions or political idealogies, extremists can twist anything to legitimize their activities. Just thought people would want a little perspective. For Americans who don’t know better, in Mexico, it would be similiar to glorifying Islamic terrorists & their warped string of Islam…. I travel to Mexico a lot & enjoy studying the history & culture of the country. But I admit, the statues & shrines are pretty weird & cool.
I’m not sure what to think of that reaction. I do know that I misquoted the sign when I wrote about it the first time. It actually says, “Welcome! To the Shrine of La Sante Muerte and the Dead.” I had forgotten that last part, “and the Dead,” but it’s crucial. Clearly, whoever erected the shrine is thinking about the same thing as the Wiccans who devised the Samhain ritual we attended and the Catholics we saw at the cemetery whitewashing the family tomb.
We left three satsumas.
I wonder what Torvild Ljøstad would have made of it.
Hallowe’en is just around the corner, so here’s a mix for the occasion. It’s eight different versions of my favorite song of all time, by eight different artists.
These are my favorites from the notorious collection of a hundred-odd versions which is floating around the torrents somewhere.
The original is not included, but surely everyone’s heard that before.
So, what to do in a strange city when you’ve got a few hours to kill? I could have looked up my cousin, but I’ll see her in a couple months at our family reunion (sorry, Les) so I took a more adventurous approach. I put my web search skillz to use. I wanted to see if I could discern from afar some pockets of coolness.
I don’t know much about Houston, Texas, but I know what I like. And I found it at a place called Anvil. It’s an old tire shop which has been tastefully converted to a bar.
But the drinks are out of this world. I mean they are seriously good. Their menu lists a dozen or so seasonal cocktails and 100 classics. We had a number of delicious drinks. I got a Pliny’s Tonic, an invigorating sensation, made with gin, lime, turbinado syrup, cucumber, mint and some sort of spicy chile. Meanwhile the Boss Lady got a Balmoral. (Strangely enough the Food Princess seems to have written about the same two drinks on her blog.) For round two I enjoyed a Dixieland which was much more sedative, and exactly what I needed after the Pliny’s. It was made with rye whiskey and a bit of absinthe and I forget what else. Very, very good.
The Boss Lady and I could probably have stayed at Anvil all night, but the third member of our party (Nan) was less of a drinker so we decided to shove off and get some food. We walked down the street to a Thai place that was quite excellent as well. But my heart remains at Anvil.
Really, it’s a shame there are aren’t more places like Anvil. The cocktail is one of America’s significant contributions to world culture. It should be celebrated widely.
I did see this place as we walked to the restaurant:
Perhaps it’s my destiny is to move to Houston and give Anvil some competition?
So much for Friday. The next night represented more of a challenge: Halloween in Houston.
First we attended the conference awards banquet, where as previously noted, we did not win but did place as finalists. The persistent question which dominated our thoughts throughout the planning of this trip: Who schedules a banquet for Halloween night? I suppose it was just an unfortunate coincidence. Boss Lady is an enthusiastic Halloween celebrant as well as a thoroughly acculturated New Orleanian. She wanted to be in full costume down on Frenchman Street. And my daughter is just getting to the age where she can appreciate dressing up, so I would have liked to spend Halloween with her.
Instead, we were in downtown Houston.
So we went to notsuoH.
This place looks like it was a shoe store maybe 30 years ago, which was probably the last time it was cleaned. Old merchandise still sits on the shelves in boxes. Meanwhile lots of weird funky art has been added, and an eclectic freaky laidback crowd hangs out here. In New Orleans terms, maybe it’s a cross between the Saturn Bar and the old Mermaid Lounge. But in New Orleans a place like this would blend in with the surroundings. In downtown Houston it kind of stands out — at least that’s my impression from a single visit.
As fate would have it there was an excellent band playing there Hallowe’en night, the Free Radicals.
Cool funky jazz rock, mostly instrumental. The one song they sang was about healthcare reform. They were awesome. The crowd was into it. Some people were in costume, some were not, and with some it was hard to tell. But everyone was dancing and having a time.
So Hallowe’en in Houston turned out pretty cool after all.
One last weird footnote: In the wee hours of the morning, as Boss Lady and I made our way back to the hotel, we found ourselves dodging bicycles. Soon (around 3 AM) the otherwise deserted streets were streaming with cyclists. The next morning, on the way to the airport, we asked our cabbie and he said they did this every Sunday morning. That doesn’t really make sense to me. Why would people get up at that hour to ride their bikes downtown? Maybe that’s just how the roll in Houston.
Here at work we had our Hallowe’en social hour yesterday afternoon. I supplied the music; unfortunately we didn’t have the bandwidth to play this over the internet. Hopefully you do. So here’s a halloweenish mix of thirteen tracks including music by Andy Forray, Bauhaus and Body Odor.
Warning: This mix contains three covers of a certain classic vampire song, plus the original. Yup, four versions of the same song. It’s my favorite song in the whole world, and I personally can’t get enough of it. All four versions are pretty awesome, and somewhat different, but consider yourself warned.
Unfortunately people noted the Halloween decor in our office wasn’t quite up to the level of years past.
That’s because our ever-attentive administrative assistant is back in the hospital. I don’t know whether to call it a relapse or complication or what, besides which I don’t really want to air someone’s private medical details in this venue. All I want to say is that everybody here misses her, and we all hope she makes a speedy recovery.
Personally, even though I miss O—, I wouldn’t miss the ostentatious, over-the-top, faux-creepy decorations. That sort of conspicuous consumption is really not my style. Halloween is the number two biggest holiday after Xmas in terms of spending, mostly on candy and plastic junk manufactured on the other side of the planet. Meanwhile, it seems to me the essence of what make Halloween cool gets more obscure with every passing year.
When I trotted out my old essay on this subject last year, I garnered the following comment:
The crapification of holidays and perversion of the origins, sadly, is not limited to Halloween. Not even close.
The permanent adolescence of the American adult may have something to do with it. When we were kids, this was a kids’ holiday. Now it’s adult.
But that’s not quite my point. I never thought of Hallowe’en as a kids’ holiday. If anything, I was objecting to how it’s been turned into kiddie fare. Don’t get me wrong, I think kids and everybody should be able to groove on the spooky vibes emanating from All Hallow’s Eve. But that very spookiness is increasingly attenuated by the drive to sanitize the holiday and capitalize upon it.
Yeah, Christmas too. Bah. Boo. Boo hoo.
Here’s the full-on Crown Royal costume in all its glory.
I drilled two tiny holes through a Crown Royal cap to make her crown. Two leg-holes in the classic Crown Royal bag (1.75 liter) and voila — instant costume.
I feel I should clarify that Crown Royal is no particular favorite of mine. I mean it’s all right, but I don’t go out of my way for it. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever purchased a bottle until now, when I thought this would be a cute look for her first Hallowe’en.
Of course she’s too young to go door-to-door but we did get a handful of neighbor kids as usual. Here’s Darth Vader and Betsy Ross.
We handed out Ring Pops because we knew we won’t be tempted to eat any leftovers. But Xy got the jones and sent me to Rite-Aid for some chocolate. We listened to a passel of covers of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”; for real late-night spookery we turned to The Moon Lay Hidden Beneath a Cloud. Man, that’s some creepy music.
Why do I hate Hallowe’en? It’s because of the Electronic Light-up Scary Yo-yo from Gealex Toys. It’s because of the Ma & Pa Bones Permaplastic Glow-in-the-Dark Skeletons. It’s because of the Sound-Activated Pumpkin Novelty from Hallmark: “It Lights Up — It Laughs!”
It’s because of the Spooky Vampire: “Light-sensor activated! Lifelike animation! Talks in a spooky voice!” Wave your hand and the plastic vampire’s eyes light up. He opens a coffin, revealing a plastic skeleton. Its eyes are blinking on and off. “Welllllllcome…” A tinny voice emanates from a hidden speaker. “We’ve been waiting for you!” Demoniacal laughter. A crash of organ chords.
That’s why I hate Hallowe’en.
Shopping at the grocery store, I immediately notice the salad bar, decked out in seasonal display. Stuffed dolls sit on all four corners: two witches, a scarecrow, a pumpkin-man. They’re made in China from “polyester and synthetic fibers.”
An inflatable ghost is suspended from the ceiling, half purple and half transparent, the word “Boo!” on its belly.
Anatomically correct skeletons swing from the orange-and-black crepe-paper entwined columns. Hanging inside the salad bar, white ghost-baggies with twist-tied necks trail ectoplasm over the lettuce. Plastic jack-o-lantern buckets contain bacon bits, croutons, napkins, and packets of House Italian Dressing (by Kraft).
The produce section is festooned with fifty-odd pumpkins. My wife swears she saw a Kroger employee commended by his superior for painting them all with happy, goofy faces. One pumpkin has a blue nose and is slobbering like a rabid idiot. Caught up in the wonder of it all, my wife puts her produce in the wrong cart. A ruckus ensues.
At the deli I spot a witch with googly eyes and flourescent green skin, wearing a fluorescent orange robe and fluorescent yellow shoes. According to the speech balloon over her head, she is saying “Eeek!” Why?
Perhaps she was frightened by that evil owl eying her from across the aisle. But wait — that owl is no Hallowe’en gimmick. It’s the Hooters Owl, gazing lecherously from a packet of Hooter’s Wing Breading.
A chill runs down my spine and between my legs. I know about Hooters. These are the people who offered to pay for my sister’s breast augmentation surgery. All she had to do was take a job waiting tables at their bar in Union Station. In the Hooter’s uniform, of course: very short shorts and a cut-away tanktop.
Scary, huh? I guess you gotta get a boob job to work a boob job. My sister turned them down. But we still tell the story on spooky autumn evenings.
And now, at last, you can do up chicken wings at home just like they make ’em at Hooters. And if you’re lucky, you can get a girlfriend to dress up like a Hooters waitress for you. Or just rent the “Girls of Hooters” video. (Better save that cooking grease.)
A hapless 6th-grader finds a phosphorescent “Jason” hockey mask in the dairy freezer. His mom makes him put it back. He tells us that his home is decorated with strings of skeleton-lights that flash on and off. “It’s really annoying, actually.”
I wonder: what’s happened to Hallowe’en? Was it always this cheesy? Does anyone really think that day-glo witches are frightening?
I wander into the potato chip aisle. The Ruffles package sports a green- skinned witch with six warts (count ’em — six!) on her split nose and tufts of purple facial hair sprouting on her fat chin. She’s wearing not one but two conical hats: a traditional black witch hat with belt and buckle, atop which is perched a tiny party hat, polka-dotted orange and purple.
A poster hangs from above: an ancient mummy confronting a barrel in his Egyptian tomb. Who has violated the sanctity of his sacred resting place? Grave robbers? No! Candy manufacturers! The barrel springs open to reveal a cache of glowing “fun size” Snicker bars.
The “Back To School” candy-kiosk depicts a hallucinatory panorama: a freckle-face kid peering out from behind a huge pile of books stacked with Milky Ways, giant pencils marching toward a playground where one boy hands a small packet to to another — is it a drug deal? Sure enough. M&M’s.
A lovable ghost bobs up beside me, hugging a load of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Hershey’s Kisses, and York Peppermint Patties in his transparent arms.
“Don’t be scared,” he says. “I’m a friendly ghost.”
I can’t help snorting: “Scared? You couldn’t scare my six-year-old niece. You couldn’t scare anybody, except maybe Ray Bradbury.”
The silly specter cocks an eyebrow. “Ray Bradbury? Who’s he?”
“A writer. He predicted a sanitized future, a time when people are no longer afraid of the dark, because all the tales of horrible wraiths and flesh-eating goblins have been suppressed, forgotten, censored.” I stare right through the amiable apparition, lost in thought. “It looks as though Ray was right. But it’s not the censors. It’s the vendors.”
“You know, the sugar-peddlers. They’re cashing in on a Hallowe’en for kids. That’s why everything’s so cute. That’s why you look so goofy.”
“Well, you look pretty goofy yourself, mister!” He floats off in a snit.
I can’t help but feel that something has been lost.
They had a Halloween party at our daycare. Besides seeing all the kids in their costumes, one of the highlights was a ride around the block in the six-seater buggy. That’s our girl up front wearing the Crown Royal bag.
I hope to complete her costume with a little crown by the time Halloween actually gets here.
There’s a few more photos in this here Flickr set.
We had about 16 trick-or-treaters pass by our home in Mid-City tonight, up from ten last year and zero the year before that.
Olivia brought this thing into the office last week. Press the button and it comes to life and recites a variety of different spooky-humorous messages.
Update: I assumed this item would be put in storage once Hallowe’en had passed. But Olivia tells me that “since our boss is a psychologist” she plans to leave it in place in perpetuity.
Xy doesn’t always get into holiday traditions, so I was surprised when she brought home four pumpkins last week. She attached notes to three of them saying they were from “the Great Pumpkin” and had me deliver them to three young neighbor kids. Those pumpkins have since been successfully carved into jack-o’-lanterns.
Last night I carved ours. Instead of a candle, Xy bought a battery-powered light that changes colors, which gave me a chance to use the camera’s “multi-shot 16” feature.
We tried roasting the seeds, but Xy used too much salt and they were basically inedible.
Have I mentioned Lamar? He’s Justin’s younger brother. He’s about 13 but you might guess he’s ten. A sweet kid, but I worry about him.
He reminds me of myself at his age, kind of quiet and a little bit shy. I was very quiet and painfully shy.
I found refuge in books, and I’ve tried to interest Lamar, but he doesn’t seem to have acquired the reading habit. His current goal in life is to be a bus-driver, and he watches in fascination as the streetcar rolls past on Canal Street.
We played Frisbee in the street for a while yesterday. He’s got no father in his life, and I sometimes find myself seeming to play a stand-in for that role. Sometimes I help him with his math homework, when the instructions are oblique enough to stump his mother. As a student in the local public schools, he’s not allowed to take any textbooks home.
He often helps us with our groceries. He knows all our cats by name and likes to say hi to them when he comes in the house. Sometimes Xy gives him a little treat, like ice cream. Today when Lamar was eating his ice cream he suggested Xy might want to make Halloween cookies. “You know,” he suggested, in his thick and slightly slurred New Orleans accent, almost incomprehensible to me, “black cats, pumpkins… You could make them tomorrow!”
He’s a walking weather report, and he can always tell you the forecast. He’s excited about Halloween. 20% chance of rain. He’s planning to dress as a clown. Xy and I have both tried to interest him a godawful velvet clown painting I plucked from a local debris pile, but Lamar has proved a tough customer.
We had exactly three trick-or-treaters tonight, all very young, not to mention cute: a seahorse, a unicorn and a chef.
Xy usually grades papers downstairs, but for Hallowe’en she wanted to be by the front door to meet trick-or-treaters. (Yes, our front door is upstairs. It’s a New Orleans thing.) She set up a little table for her schoolwork, which I thought was sufficiently adorable to warrant a picture. She’s got her portable TV rigged up so she can watch the made-for-TV movie about the Canal Street brothel — a true story which took place in our neighborhood. (Xy says the movie sucked.)