It’s Halloween! Happy Halloween, everybody. This has long been my favorite holiday and one of the only ones that I enjoy which doesn’t feel tinged with something problematic (e.g. the origin story of Thanksgiving and its accompanying genocide mucking up a conceptually very nice holiday). I mean, realistically, that’s probably not even true, since a lot of people get into some pretty gory/overly dark stuff on Halloween and while I appreciate spookiness, the place a lot of people take Halloween is pretty bad. Like everything, I suppose. I think the only person I’ve ever encountered who has anything like the deep abiding love I feel for Halloween and the October season generally is Ray Bradbury, and I’ve only really encountered his testimony of same on the written page. Others come close, though.
It would take a long time and be a mite dull to list all the things I love about Halloween, plus I think I’ve already made the attempt a few times. See also that it’s the only holiday I regularly celebrate through theme-changes on both this blog and the last one. The feel of the mood, the pumpkins and ghosts, the prominence of themes around the supernatural, the spiritual, the haunted, the past, the mysterious. The candy. And, yes, the costumes.
When I was in third grade, I had the kind of exuberant fervor for life that I think I’ve sometimes (even often) manifested since, but definitely took a big hit in 1990 (and 1997, and 2010, and 2013, and yeah). But in that year, I was full of this zest and excitement, pretty much constantly. To call it the “last good year” would be melodramatic and wholly inaccurate, but I think in many ways it was the last unfettered year. I guess many people would call it the last year of my “innocence,” whatever that means – innocence is a concept that generally troubles me, but there is something to the notion that during that year, I still had an unbridled optimism for the future and for the challenges and joys of every day that was simply never constant again, even in phases where things in my life were very, very good.
A lot happened that year. We had moved to Oregon, I made a ton of new friends, I was in the Dickens Play, I had a fantastic teacher (Mrs. Mary Kerwin) who challenged and inspired me, I discovered sports, I was elected class President (after suggesting that we have an election as a civic education exercise), and I was just happy. I also, which may be endemic to third graders, just didn’t care what other people thought of me. I mean, I liked having friends and wanted to get along with people, but I was totally impervious to possible negative opinions or judgments of peers. Which is an attribute I have had more of than most people throughout my life, but was way more unfettered then than since.
Which may explain why, when I woke up early before school on March 17, 1989 and decided to craft myself a leprechaun costume made entirely of dark green construction paper and Scotch tape, there was no voice in the back of my head that contradicted with warnings that this project might not go so well. I believe I had been working on it for about 90 minutes when one of my parents awoke and blearily observed that I was making quite a bit of clutter. I definitely remember getting a little frustrated at one point shortly before school that the costume hadn’t really come together as what I was hoping, that it mostly just looked like a young boy wearing a whole mess of misshapen green construction paper. And the ensuing conversation with my father where he gently suggested that most people don’t even dress up for St. Patrick’s Day and maybe it would just be a better idea to put on a green shirt instead. To their immense credit, however, neither of my parents pressed the issue very far and both allowed me to board the bus as Green Construction Paper Monster.
No one had the slightest clue what I was trying to be, resemble, or achieve. There were definitely people who could tell that all the green must have something to do with the date, though I was also wearing a green shirt underneath, so the effort must have seemed superfluous at the very best. There are, mercifully (or perhaps tragically, depending on one’s appetite for schadenfreude) no pictures of this outfit that were ever taken, but I’m sure your imagination can suffice at this point. If not, picture a very small third grader with a bowl cut walking into a small factory producing green construction paper and Scotch tape. Then, a bomb goes off. The remaining exploded tatters of each attach themselves to all parts of the boy, hair included (I think I was going for some sort of hat), in random fashion. The boy boards the school bus.
Most reactions ranged from quizzical to speechless to an overt series of concerned questions. I was generally considered mentally stable and coming from a family that cared for me, both of which attributes came under almost immediate scrutiny upon my arrival in Mrs. Kerwin’s third grade classroom. I was offered numerous opportunities to away to the bathroom to change, remove tape, or at least perhaps “adjust” in some small way the monument to dead construction paper that I was ensconced in. Bits of poorly taped paper kept coming off at random times and, rather than see this as a blessing or even a less-than-subtle hint from the universe, I would obstinately re-tape, sometimes rummaging in my desk for my own personal roll before jamming ever more clear sticky material on the tortured green mess and adhering it to my shirt, pants, shoes, or hair.
Then we went to recess. And at recess, it rained.
It should herein be noted before we proceed that this school was in Gearhart, Oregon, which is in the middle of Clatsop County, which is the extreme northwestern-most county in the state. Most of coastal Oregon is absurdly soggy, but Clatsop County actually juts out into the Pacific Ocean where it meets the gargantuan mouth of the Columbia River, essentially trapping all the moisture from the both bodies as storms sweep in off the sea. It rained, no exaggeration, about 300 days a year in that area when I lived there, though rarely all day or torrentially. The sky was perpetually gray, the ground that was not sand was eternally muddy. Watch national weather maps for the next month and you will see that most every day, that little upper-left corner of Oregon has a patch of green on it, even when the rest of the country is bone-dry. It rained all the time. A day when it didn’t rain at all was notable.
And somehow the interaction of the inevitable rain and my paper costume had not occurred to me in advance, any more than I predicted that not everyone at school would immediately gasp “Oh, you’re a leprechaun!” upon seeing my handiwork.
It was even worse than you’re imagining. You might not be imagining my complete stubbornness, my total unwillingness to accept the obvious defeat that my drenched and ruined costume, soggy crumbling paper literally coming off in wet clumps on the playground was, in fact, drenched and/or ruined. I wildly told my friends that I would dig up some green construction paper when we came in for some “repairs.” I think it was almost the end of recess, when the perpetual heavy drizzle became a hard rain and we had to go in early, that I realized the costume (such as it was) was beyond salvaging and broke down crying.
You might think that this experience would traumatize me, would make me unwilling to dress up in future, much less to design homemade costumes. But any residual sting from this incident (which of course only grew funnier and more heartening over the years) was quickly overridden by my unflappable love of Halloween. There were homemade costumes to come through the rest of my youth, of ghosts and elephants and pirates. At Seneca Center the one Halloween I had to work, I made an impromptu fish costume with a blue net laundry bag that was nearly as laughably impressionistic and ridiculous as the third-grade leprechaun, with me having to explain to the kids how to interpret what I’d tried to do hurriedly before a 16-hour Sunday shift. When I took my love of Halloween to my office at Glide, transforming it with string lights and dimly lit pumpkins every October, I famously came to work in this home-crafted elephant costume:
Yes, the kindergarten teacher dressed up as … me. Which was almost as absurd as my ridiculously homemade but kinda lovable elephant.
The elephant was a big hit and I followed it up the next year with a gecko:
And while I really loved being a big green thing that, y’know, looked like something, a lot of the homemade charm of the elephant was missing in this online-bought and highly manufactured (though detailed) costume. There were a lot of assumptions that I was trying to be the GEICO Gecko, especially from the people on the street which, while I like the GEICO Gecko as much as I like any corporate shill… is still a corporate shill. So that was a lot of fun, but kind of a flop, even though I revived that for the UPenn tournament I helped tab in 2010.
Which brings us all the way to this year, 2014. And for once, I was not the subject of the absurd costume, but rather my school-teaching girlfriend, Alex, who had the opportunity not only to dress up at work for (the day before) Halloween, but to do so in an environment where hundreds of kids would see her and where her primary task for the day was manning the Fall Fair, a whole day of work basically just celebrating the holiday. So we had to have a great costume.
I think we did:
I asked Alex what she’d most like to be and she said a whale shark and we just kind of ran with it. We bought towels and cut them up, we bought googly-eye attachments and an industrial stapler (dubbed, literally, as the Epic Stapler) and white duct tape for the dots that didn’t work as the dots themselves as originally planned but did a great job at adhering paper dots to the back. You may not be familiar with the whale shark, but I was a big fan when I first went to the Georgia Aquarium and Alex has been completely obsessed since we went this summer.
The costume was not nearly as awesome as I think we’d both been envisioning at first – we had trouble with the idea of where to put the head, considering have it overhang Alex’s physical head, having it kind of around her back (as we chose), or even having Alex’s head popping out of the whale shark’s mouth, as most regular shark costumes choose. But whale sharks are not dangerous to people and subsist on krill, so we thought that would kind of send the wrong message and ruin the aesthetic of whale sharks’ mouths. The tail was perhaps the most problematic, folding back in on Alex’s legs rather than bowing out away from them. Of course, we worked on the costume the night before it was necessary, with me making dots from 4-6 in the morning when I awoke early to complete them and we’d nearly given up. So we didn’t really have time for adjustments in the morning dress rehearsal and just had to go with it.
The costume wound up being really uncomfortable and a little indiscernible (even with a smaller whale shark prop, many kids were confused), so Alex actually ditched the giant piece early in the day in favor of the same elephant hat and gray adornment I took to Glide years ago (we’d prepared a backup for the heat, just in case). But I’m not totally giving up on old sharky here. With a year to plan and tweak the tail and some other small elements, the whale shark may yet swim again.
Until then, at least the real ones are in Atlanta, swimming about. With no green construction paper to get wet in the tank with them: