Sunday, October 18, 2009

Pumpkins Not Print-outs

Posted By on October 18, 2009, 4:23 AM

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Dear World: Your new pumpkin-carving technique is stupid and inhuman.

You scotch-tape pre-printed templates to a random squash, then use a commercially produced disposable plastic safety-awl to carefully pierce out an outline, which you will whittle out with something like a plastic butterknife. If you follow the illustrated instructions correctly and methodically, you will be rewarded with the glowing likeness of one of five socially approved Halloween logos, such as Spooky GhostTM or Screechy CatTM -- exactly like the one on your neighbor's porch! ---

Even if you design your own print-out to create a social statement, you miss the point entirely -- Halloween has nothing to do with politics or consumer culture (although the candy's pretty good). It's a holiday which has been utterly rejected by establishment religions. To celebrate Halloween is to embrace your own human mortality -- and nobody can put a brand-name on that.

--

The first time I was introduced to this ersatz simulacrum of Halloween cheer was 10 or 12 years ago. Noreen and I had been hosting an annual pumpkin-carving party for long enough that it was starting to become a tradition among our friends. And it was always great fun -- until that dreaded year.

Now, the best jack-o-lanterns are primitive, tribal, uncivilized and utterly pagan -- that is to say, there is some art involved. You choose your pumpkin carefully -- ideally, one that has been grown on your own vine, or better yet, a friend's. But, if necessary, you spend 20 minutes pawing through the stack outside a quality supermarket until you find just the right one.

However you acquire it, there becomes a fateful and intimate bond connecting you and that pumpkin. It has been destined since it was a flower on the vine to be your pumpkin, and it is your responsibility to recognize its unique personality and bring that personality out with your knife.

You cradle your pumpkin in your lap, tenderly rotating it between your hands until you discover its profile. Then, you look that pumpkin square in the face, and it reveals to you its true nature. Is it happy? Frightened? Angry? Mischievous? It's impossible to tell until you and your pumpkin make that special connection -- the connection that comes at the moment the pumpkin says, "Yes! Carve me" ... and, with a deep breath and a shudder of trepidation, you take the knife in hand and resolutely plunge the blade into your pumpkin's firm yet yielding flesh.

The task still remains to scrape every vestige of seed and stringy pulp out of your pumpkin's interior. It's an arduous job, and it takes patience, but it is necessary to prove your devotion -- only once you have gallantly rendered the insides of your pumpkin completely clean are you free to carve out the vision of you and your pumpkin's shared destiny.

Of course, while all this is going on, cocktails are served, candles are provided, and prizes are awarded for the best jack-o-lantern.

At least that's how the party always went, until that dreaded year. It was the year that one guest took it upon himself at the last moment to unexpectedly "invite" his sister and her three children.

Now, I'm not one of those child-hating types. Children are often very charming, and at parties they tend to inhabit their own strange world, which can provide a welcome distraction from the realm of adult social responsibilities. One moment, you're trapped in a conversation with a man who, after a few drinks, always starts reminiscing about his ex-wife -- and always uncomfortably within earshot of his current wife. Then, the next moment, a child miraculously appears out of nowhere, grasps your hand and breathlessly explains that you must come see how the Giant Bearded Wizard has discovered a way to defeat the Scary Ordinary Ogres.

What luck! Thank you, imaginative child! And, usually, the thing about the wizard and the ogres ends up being farcically overcomplicated and good for a laugh. 

So, yes, I like children. Children have imagination and creativity -- and especially, they have blessed access to that strange world they inhabit at parties.

It's kids I can't stand. Kids are the mass-produced proto-consumers Americans churn out in vast numbers. And the offspring of the "invited" sister were very definitely kids: Instead of stories and experiences and nurturing communication, they had been raised on Disney movies and McDonald's Happy Meals and cheaply produced TV adventure cartoons featuring Disney-themed Happy Meal characters. They seemed unwilling or unable to enter the strange world of the real children: They stood uneasily apart, their eyes constantly scanning the room for the next plastic cereal-box prize.

In short, these kids were a drag. They were small versions of the kind of adults we never invited to parties.

There they remained, clustered helplessly together on the periphery of the party -- until the sister produced brand-name, cardboard-and-plastic wrapped pumpkin-carving kits from a Wal-Mart sack. That's when the kids sprung to life: They went right to work on randomly selected pumpkins, industriously tracing around mass-produced templates with safety-awls and whittling out patterns with safety-butterknives until, voila!

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One pumpkin looked exactly like Ariel from Disney's The Little Mermaid. And I can't even remember which Disney characters the other two kids had manufactured -- I only remember that looking at those dead, perfectly rendered, commercially trademarked things filled me with a sense of despair. Standing next to the vibrant, artful jack-o-lanterns my friends and the real children had produced out of joy and sheer imagination, the Disney pumpkins seemed to suck all of the vitality out of the evening.

Our party had been invaded by a corporate sponsor, and I resented it. Yet the sister seemed to plump with pride, as if she believed her kids' fake-o-lanterns, in their market-driven flawlessness, were obviously superior to all the others. I was furious!

When it came time to assemble the party guests to distribute prizes, the sister pushed the three kids, with their hands expectantly outstretched, to the front of the crowd. What had always been a joyful, silly, drunken event (and, really, was the only time I was ever any good at public speaking) now became a dreary chore. Instead of just riffing on the pumpkins, I was expected to systematically reward her kids for mechanically completing their assigned tasks.

I just couldn't go through with it. I did my best to distribute the prizes with the usual good-natured bonhomie, jeering and applause. The real children, and a good many adults, were handsomely praised and rewarded with silly, ironic toys. But, what could I do? If those three kids couldn't produce a genuine jack-o-lantern between them, how could I possibly issue a prize?

Those expectant little outstretched hands remained empty.

Afterwards, I think there was some kind of angry altercation involving the sister and some of the prize-winning guests. She felt her kids were entitled to a reward. I think perhaps she persuaded some guests to donate their prizes and then enlisted her brother to conduct her own award ceremony so as not to scar those three young proto-consumers for life. I'm not sure; I avoided the whole scene.

But, to this day, I hate the new pumpkin-carving technique. It's soulless, artless, and utterly devoid of the Halloween spirit.

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