On October 26, I posted an old blog on Facebook: October 2008: Halloween. It is a seasonal piece and a personal favorite.
My first cousins responded on Facebook with the following:
· Paula Arzoian: I love this one, Mark!! I especially like the idea of the pre trick or treat parties. Might have to steal that one day. Halloween has always been my favorite, even more so now that the kiddo is a Halloween baby Thanks for posting this!
· David Aram Gavoor: This is one of your better articles. While clearly not a "deep thought piece," it's written extremely well, covers a topic we all know well and captures you to a T! Thnx.
I was at an engagement party a few weeks ago. It was for another first cousin’s, Chris Merian’s, son Daniel and his lovely fiancée Laurie. Chris’s brother, another first cousin, Ralph and I sat out in the beautiful Michigan fall evening and smoked a cigar. We spoke about a variety of topics. At one point, about half way through the cigar, Ralph said, “I really enjoyed your last letter. You know the one where you mused and meandered.” He clearly was saying that he enjoys the lighter letters more than the ones with weightier topics.
The Wily Ara Topouzian always comments on my writing as well. Comments is actually too benign a word. He basically takes shots at everything but then makes sure he points out that this means, at least, that he reads everything I write. In a serious moment, which is rare for Ara but welcomed by all who know him, he will also say that he likes the lighter and more nostalgic pieces over the “deep thought” pieces.
I recently wrote a business blog: Fire a Customer? Ara commented, in his inimitable and totally irritating style:
Most of the feedback I get is in line with my cousins and Ara. Even the hits to my blog tend favor the lighter and more nostalgic pieces. This most certainly begs the question, why I do not listen to my audience. It is a basic tenet of Total Quality, a field in which my industrial and consulting career is based, is to seek out and heed the Voice of the Customer (VoC). The VoC here is speaking pretty loudly and clearly. The VoC is saying reminisce more and stay on the lighter side of thing.
I would heed this sound advice except that I write about what moves me. I write about what is top of mind and what is in the news to the point of being in my face. This kind of personal writing and blogging is definitely a hobby not a business. In this light, I appreciate and value the VoC but might not heed it as much as I might if it were a business. But, I certainly do get the point and will try to make this piece lighter and more nostalgic.
It is the end of October. It is actually Halloween Day as I am finishing this letter. They holiday hype is in full gear. People decorate their house like they do for Christmas. Costumes are elaborate and there are opportunities abound to wear them for kids and adults alike.
Back in my day, which was basically the 1960s, it was a different story. Halloween was big for us as kids but it was really just one day. The decor was minimal. The vast majority of folks around our part of town had a carved pumpkin and that was it. If someone had two pumpkins or even three we would ooh and ah at the extravagant decorations. No parents really dressed up for the evening that was entirely the domain of kids. There was no scary music blaring from any loudspeakers. There was no eerie lighting, animatronics, ghosts in the tress, or gravestones in the yard.
We did not have specially made plastic pumpkins for our treats. Some of used pillow cases while others simply used paper bags with handles. As the paper bags got heavier, there was always the very real fear of the bag ripping and our booty falling all over the ground. This was an even greater risk when we trick or treated in the rain.
We always went out on October 31st. There was no real concern about it ever being a school night. Back then, we did not have that much homework in grade school and certainly teachers were conscious of the holiday in their lesson planning.
Back then there was no notion of global warming and it was often down right cold on Halloween. There was no daylight savings time, so it was dark by 5 or 5:30. It was dark and cold. My Mother, wanting to make sure that none of got sick had us in winter coats and even snow suits if it was cold enough. So, we had dual level costumes. We were not just skeletons, ghosts, or vampires. We were the Michelin Man dressed as skeletons, ghosts, and vampires.
Our costumes were not elaborate. The vast majority were not store bought. As a result, there was a disproportionate of us trick or treating as hobos back then wearing our fathers’ cast-offs and thus the easiest costume to make. Ghosts, being equally easy to fabricate, were also quite popular. If the costumes were store bought, they were pretty budget by today’s standards. There were not a lot of choice and I recall the skeleton costume as the most popular store bought one for boys and perhaps a princess for girls. I do recall the store bought costumes had molded plastic masks that were both uncomfortable and almost impossible to see out of. If we used make up for mustaches or beards, we used whatever our mothers’ had make-up wise and it was adorably amateurish.
I am sure my Mother will correct me on this but I not recall wearing our costumes to school or any church related activities. There were no parades and the local businesses really never did anything special for the holiday.
It was a darker time. Truly, it seemed darker. The streetlights were few, far between, and incandescent. Our flashlights were essentially useless and the only lighting on houses was the porch light and sole candle burning in the sole pumpkin.
Some things, however, have not changed. The first and foremost is the love of the holiday. Certainly the buildup was shorter. Homes weren’t decorated the entire month of October. There were not really any Halloween parties leading up to the big day. But, the big day was, indeed a big day. Our joy and delight in Halloween was as pure and fun as it is for any kid today.
I only remember trick or treating with my sisters. There was no question about that. It was a family thing and we reveled in the glee of it. As in most households, one parent took us out and the other stayed home to dole out the treats to other children. We would get home by eight and pour our bounty on the living room carpet to take inventory. As we went to the same houses, we had exactly the same assortment. We were allowed to eat a few items… but not too much.
Friends were not involved until the last year I went out. That year I went out with my friend and fellow Boy Scout Brad Lackie. It was clear after just a few houses that we had pushed the envelope a bit far and had no business being out there but continued and gathered our bounty in our trick or treating swan song.
In Detroit, Halloween was, in fact a two night event. Certainly, the 31st was the bigger and better of the two. The night before, however, was something different. We called it Devil’s night and it was dedicated to mischief and mayhem. Windows of homes and, mostly, cars were either waxed or soaped. Doorbells were rung with the goal of running and hiding to see the reactions of those answering the door and finding no one there. Eggs were tossed at both houses and cars.
I may have soaped a window or two and, maybe, I rang a few doorbells but Devil’s Night was never my thing. I am pretty certain calling it Devil’s Night was exclusively Detroit. With the decay of the city, the mischief and mayhem intensified to the point, about ten years ago, when arson became the main focus of Devil’s night. There were so many abandoned buildings that people just burned them. It became so bad that the mayhem became national and international news for several years running. It was embarrassing notoriety for the city I grew up in and had such warm Halloween memories.
There is a neo-classic 1983 vintage Christmas movie, A Christmas Story. The film is based on a 1966 book “In God We Trust, All Others Must Pay Cash” by Jean Shepard (1921 – 1999). The story took place in a fictional Indiana town very much like Hammond, Indiana where Shepard grew up. The story is set in the late 1930s or early 1940s (the family car in the film was a 1937 Oldsmobile). There was nothing special about the working class neighborhood but the popularity of it is in the charm of the characters and nostalgic strings that the movie pulls on. As a result, everything was special about that working class mid-west neighborhood.
Jean Shepard was a master at both aspects that made this film memorable to the point that per Wikipedia “in 2012, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’.” Shepard was able to weave timeless charm around characters we could all relate to. He created a nostalgic feeling for a time that was a good twenty years before my time but felt so very close. Given the popularity of the film, I apparently am not alone in my reaction.
Certainly Jean Shepard’s words are a major part of the nostalgic lure of this movie. But to anyone who has seen the movie, the narration, an adult Ralphie basically telling his own story, was a large part of the movie’s alluring longevity. Shepard, who was also a radio personality, did the narration himself. Cool.
That is kind of how I view my Halloweens back in the 48227 part of Detroit that I grew up in. We had the same charming and colorful people in our family, as friends, as neighbors, and as teachers in our beloved Burns School. It was a time when families only had one car, one television, and one radio which was only AM. We did not have a dishwasher, dryer, garbage disposal, or air conditioning. We weren’t wanting but it was a time just before the consumerism for which America is now known took over. That may be why those days were closer to the America of A Christmas Story than it is to the America of today.
All this nostalgia is good and all. It refreshes the soul and allows the spirit to recall memorably good times. But, this does not eliminate the duality of that was raised at the beginning of this letter i.e. between reminiscent and deep thought pieces. I am after all a mish-mash of right and light brain. Obviously, if you simply prefer the reminiscent and nostalgic, I recommend you stop reading right here.
On the way to teach a statistics class this morning, I was listening to Morning Edition on NPR. They had a great piece on a statistical study around trick or treating. George Wolford, a psychologist at Dartmouth, along with some colleagues conducted the following experiment. They gave half the children full sized candy bars and the other half of the children a full sized candy bar and a piece of bubble gum. Wolford noted that “Those children that got both the full-sized candy bar and the bubble gum second, rated how delighted they were to get these treats lower than those people that got the candy bar only.”
This is counter intuitive to the old trick or trick belief that more is simply better. The Morning Edition piece concluded that more candy is not necessarily better.
I had, of course, another point of view. Not being a psychologist but more so a mathematician and statistician, I would separate this question into two parts. First, there is the perception of getting the particular treat either the full sized candy bar alone or the full sized candy bar and bubble gum. Each exchange has, as any kid would tell you, its own level of discovery and delight. I recall approaching each house and wondering what they would be passing out. A full sized candy bar both in my day and today is a very nice and generous surprise. I can see where combining a delightfully surprising treat with a more mundane would diminish the delight to somewhere in between the high delight of the candy bar alone and the more average delight in just getting a piece of bubblegum.
Secondly, there is the issue of volume and the joy in having done gathered a lot. This might not be fully appreciated until the end of the night when the bounty is poured out onto the table or floor. Then we can assess fathom how much we collected and how much we collected relative to others.
Am I making this more complex or simplifying things? That is the topic for some future piece. This seems different then and more meaningful that making this judgment based on the treat given at just one house.
I have to go there are trick or treaters at the door.