Monday, October 30, 2017

How Old Is Too Old to Trick-or-Treat?

Image by Don Scarborough from Wikipedia

I participate in a local writing critique group, and this group caters to local writers of all ages. This is relevant because, at a recent group meeting, a young friend and fellow writer posed the question, “Do you guys think I’m too old to go trick-or-treating?”

“How old are you?” we wanted to know.

“Seventeen,” she replied.

“That’s pushing it,” we all agreed, but I nevertheless took the opportunity to encourage my young friend to go trick-or-treating anyway. “I’m a 35-year-old woman, and I’d go trick-or-treating if I could,” I admitted. Then I spent the rest of the meeting and many days since privately wondering if I shouldn’t just go for it. I mean, historically speaking, adults went souling, right? Maybe? How old is too old to trick-or-treat?

I posed the question to my Facebook friends, who took it very seriously and provided some lengthy, thoughtful responses. While at least two friends asserted that one is “never too old” to trick-or-treat, most seemed to take for granted that the cut-off point for trick-or-treating on one’s own behalf is sometime in the mid-to-late teens. My friend Dee Lishous replied, “My opinion is probably unpopular, but I don’t mind families who trick or treat together or dressed up high schoolers having fun.”

Well, sure, trick-or-treating en famille is one thing – you can’t very well let your kids wander the neighborhood alone in this day and age, and if you’re taking your kids trick-or-treating, why wouldn’t you dress up too? I mean, who passes up a chance to put on a funny costume and prance around looking ridiculous? Life’s too short, you know?

But, as it turns out, Ms. Lishous’s opinion was not unpopular at all – far from it. Most respondents said they’d rather have teens trick-or-treating than doing drugs, getting drunk, or having sex, and I almost don’t have the heart to point out that trick-or-treating only lasts for about an hour in most places, leaving costumed teens plenty of time to get drunk, take drugs, and have sex, not to mention smash your pumpkins and toilet-paper your trees.

Some respondents expressed frustration with adults and teens who trick-or-treat sans costumes, like Shanda Lear, who reported, “I did once have a grown man with no costume knock on the door. I gave him the candy, thinking that there must be a toddler following him…But I didn’t see any kids.” Another friend, Rick O’Shea, admitted to having been the creepy teenage boy who didn’t wear a costume, “only boxer shorts,” at age fifteen: “We were denied a few times but cabbaged some treats,” he said. So, a win?

While most respondents admitted to having trick-or-treated for the last time on their own behalves around age fifteen, one friend, Ginger Vitis, said, “I trick or treat when I remember it’s happening…I think the last time I remembered though, I was like 23. Once the sun goes down, it’s hard to know what day it is.” While that last bit was baffling (I’ve never forgotten what day it was because it got dark), if there is an upper limit to trick-or-treating, 23 is almost definitely beyond it. But other friends also admitted to adult trick-or-treating, including Lois Bidder, who said, “I went trick or treating with my roommate in college we were the wonder twins. Fun!”

Others, sadly, reported that theirs or their children’s final attempts to trick-or-treat were less than successful. Phillippa Bucket divulged, “I was shamed for trick or treating at 14. I had made a huge effort with my costume, too.” Oh no, Phillippa, sad face reaction. :(

It’s too bad she didn’t come across some of the more understanding friends like Shanda, who responded, “What kind of Halloween Grinch refuses to give candy to someone because they’re too old?” or Wendy Windblows, who said, “I’ll give candy to anyone in costume. I mean, we have no kids, and still do the yard up like crazy. It would be pretty hypocritical to put an age limit on who can enjoy it, right?”

Yes, yes it would.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Fun Friday Facts #119:Halloween Edition the Fourth (I Think)

Halloween is with us again -- almost. In past Fun Friday Facts Halloween columns I've discussed Halloween traditions that have fallen out of favor; haunted places; the origins of Halloween and its traditions; and candy. This year, as part of ongoing efforts to knock the dust off this blog and get it going again, I'm going to look at some of the world's weirdest Halloween traditions.

My assistant helped write this post.

According to the Reader's Digest, which is now a website even though old people don't use the Internet (or do they?), Germans celebrate Halloween by hiding all their knives. This makes sense -- doesn't the killer in Halloween have a knife? But apparently Germans aren't worried about serial killers stabbing them to death with their own santokus; instead, they're concerned that they'll accidentally cut returning spirits while chopping veggies or something. In order to avoid this, they hide the knives for an entire week, from October 30 to November 8. How do they chop things in the meantime? Is there a market in Germany for pre-chopped food stuffs? Do they chop everything in advance? I'm asking the real questions, here.

Speaking of the movie Halloween, maybe you didn't know that the mask Michael Meyers wears in that movie is a mask of William Shatner, chosen because it was the cheapest mask available at the time. Shatner himself has said that he goes trick-or-treating wearing his own mask. Oh, the perks of fame.

Many cultures have Halloween traditions that involve food. As I mentioned in a previous Halloween facts post, the Irish traditionally make a cake called barmback, which, like the French king cake, contains tokens intended to predict the fortunes of the eaters. Austrians leave a lamp on at night during All Souls Week, and leave out bread and water for the spirits of the dead. Italians are less stingy, preparing a full-on feast for the dead, and then leaving it laid in an open house while they go out to church, so that the dead can feast in peace, without having to constantly walk through their annoying descendants. Italians also make fave dei morti, beans of the dead, which are vaguely bean-shaped cookies whose purpose is unclear. 

Then again, they're cookies -- do they need a purpose?
Image by Cantalamessa, Wikimedia Commons

Other Italian Halloween foods include anthropomorphic breads and cakes, such as the bone-shaped oss de mord dolci, sweet bones of the dead, which are bone-shaped cookies traditional to the Lombard region. Sicilians make pane dei morti, bread of the dead, which may be decorated with a skull and crossbones or baked in the shape of a ring with two joined hands. These foods, along with Italian customs of decorating with pumpkins and questing, in which children go from door to door seeking gifts for the dead in the form of sweets and dried fruits, go back to pagan times, though they have now been incorporated into local Catholic traditions.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Fun Friday Facts #118: Did People Actually Use Safety Coffins?

Taberger's Safety Coffin allowed the interred person to ring a bell, alerting passersby.

Halloween is almost upon us – and that means it’s time, once again, to reflect upon death and dying. You've probably heard that, back in the day, people used to get buried alive all the time. Snopes documents several cases of inadvertent live burial, including the case of one Marjorie Elphinstone, a Scottish lady who, in the early 17th century, possibly scared a pack of grave robbers straight by turning out to still be alive. In 1674, another Scottish Marjorie, a Ms. Halcrow Erskine, woke up to find herself in a shallow grave, with a sexton trying to cut her rings off. Both Marjories returned from the grave to live productive lives; history tells us that Mrs. Elphinstone “outlived her husband by six years,” while Ms. Halcrow Erskine later raised two sons.

Unfortunately, not all those who were buried alive got as lucky as Marjorie Elphinstone and Marjorie Halcrow Erskine. William Tebb’s Premature Burial and How It May Be Prevented records, from 19th-century sources, 219 instances in which someone almost got buried alive, 149 instances in which someone did get buried alive, 10 cases in which someone got dissected while still alive (definitely worse if you ask me), and two cases of the embalming process being started on a still-alive person – a statistic that reminds me of a scary story my aunts used to tell when I was a girl, in which an anonymous Confederate soldier gets accidentally embalmed while still alive. Spoiler alert: he’s not still alive by the end of the story.

Burial alive was common in the past for multiple reasons. For one thing, people frequently fell victim to epidemics of plague, cholera, smallpox, diphtheria, and other communicable diseases that packed the double whammy of making a live person appear to be dead, while also making those definitely-alive people in the near vicinity a reason to get that dead-looking person into the ground/crypt ASAP, before the disease could spread. For another thing, as reported in Jan Bondeson’s Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear, even medical professionals disagreed on which were the real signs of death; was a person who had stopped breathing dead? What about someone who no longer had a heart beat? What about someone who had started to rot? No one could say for sure. Modern medicine was in its infancy, after all.

So, historically, being buried alive was a common, and not unfounded, fear; it did, after all, happen occasionally, and such eminent figures as George Washington and Frederick Chopin requested, on their deathbeds, that measures be taken to ensure that they were really dead before they were buried. Eventually, embalming would become popular; perhaps this was, to some extent, because the embalming process ensured that if you weren’t actually dead yet, you would be by the time they put you in the coffin. But Victorian-era inventors also saw a gap in the market, and filled that gap with patents for safety coffins that purported to offer the not-actually-dead with a means of rescue from the beneath the crushing weight of the cold, cold earth. In her compelling volume Coffin Hardware in Nineteenth Century America, Megan E. Springate writes that safety coffins were America’s answer to the waiting mortuary, a European establishment in which corpses would be watched for a period of time prior to burial, to make sure they were really dead. There were two basic kinds of safety devices installed in coffins: pre-burial devices and post-burial devices. Pre-burial devices were predicated on the assumption that the not-quite-dead person would revive prior to burial, perhaps at his or her own funeral, when he or she could activate, for example, a spring-loaded coffin lid that would allow him or her to pop right out of the coffin in front of the mourners, a course of events that would no doubt ensure the immediate creation of a new corpse to fill the recently-vacated casket. Those things aren’t cheap.

Post-burial devices were geared more toward the not-quite-dead person who had the misfortune to awake when already underground. The first such coffin, thought to have been designed by Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick in the 18th century, was a simple affair sporting an air hole, a window, and a lid that could be unlocked with a key. This design had its flaws. Later designs implemented air pipes, ropes with bells that could be rung, and even “smell tubes” that would allow passersby to ascertain whether or not the presumed-dead person had started to rot, although why you would want this information is beyond me. Such a device certainly seems less than helpful to the person in the coffin.

Vester's Burial Case offered a more elaborate bell-ringing mechanism.

While plenty of patents for safety coffins were filed, that doesn’t mean they were popular. Patents are often filed for products that aren’t ultimately produced or distributed. Safety coffins are often presented in pop history accounts as having been all the rage back in the 19th century, but according to Habenstein and Lamers’ The History of American Funeral Directing, it’s unlikely that any of the patented safety coffins were actually produced. Springate tells us that “examples of safety coffins have rarely, if ever, been identified archeologically,” and Bondeson points out that those most afraid of premature burial would be just the types to worry that the safety devices installed in their coffins would backfire – which, of course, makes sense. Perhaps the most common safety precaution taken by those who feared burial alive was the inclusion of a loaded pistol, a vial of poison, or a knife, in the coffin, any of which could allow one to end one's misery in the case of a premature interment. 

Coffin safety devices aren’t a relic of a bygone era; a patent for a coffin alarm system was filed with the U.S. Patent Office in 1983. Of course, we in modern times no longer have to worry about being buried alive. The miracles of modern medicine have saved us from the ravages of disease that spawned so much of the premature burial fears of yesteryear – and our modern, enlightened doctors definitely know how to tell when someone is dead. Just tell that to Tony Yahle and Brian Miller, two men who were both confirmed extremely dead by red-blooded American medical professionals in the 21st century, and who both literally came back to life, and are presumably still walking around out there somewhere, as alive as you or me.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Adulting Wins to Be Proud Of: Finally Growing Some Vegetables, Sort Of

Regular readers will remember that, the summer after I bought my house, I decided to plant a vegetable garden. You may recall, vaguely, somewhere in the back of your mind, that I wrote a post about digging a garden patch by hand and communing with my starving Irish ancestors, following which I never blogged about my garden again, unless you count that one time a year later when I complained bitterly about weeding the rockery and mowing the lawn.

That’s because I didn’t end up growing any vegetables. A lot of stuff didn’t come up. Some stuff came up and the rabbits immediately ate it. Other stuff came up and seemed to be doing very well, until it died. Later, I would discover that I have voles.

So, this summer, I pulled out all the stops. I decided that I was going to grow some vegetables, dammit, or else. My grandparents made it look easy – throw some seeds in the ground, nail a dead animal to a post1, and voilĂ , delicious produce.

It is not that easy.

This year, I thought I’d move the vegetable garden to a different, sunnier part of the yard, with better soil. I also thought I’d install raised beds. Raised beds allowed me to practice the only reliable form of vole prevention I was able to find in my online research, which is to line the plot with a sheet of wire mesh.

After choosing a sunny spot in the side yard, I spent three evenings digging two six-foot-by-four-foot holes in the side of the hill, installing the bed frames, and then refilling them with the dirt I’d just dug up.

I’d tried purchasing dirt in bulk, but none of the local landscaping companies had any to spare that week. You know you’re an adult when you find yourself spending a weekday afternoon calling landscaping companies in an attempt to buy a truckload of live dirt. Bulk dirt is sold on a first-come, first-served basis, apparently, and I wasn’t about to be standing around in front of a landscaping supply store at 7:00 a.m. waiting for them to open up so I could put down a deposit on some sweet, sweet soil. It’s just as well, since I needed to terrace the beds anyway. At one point, I caught my hostile neighbor gawking at me from his car while I sweatily shoveled dirt like I was tied for first place in a dirt shoveling contest. I don’t know what he was thinking, but I really, really hoped he was thinking I was burying a dead body, because I want him to be afraid of me. Maybe if he’s afraid of me, he’ll tone down the hostility.

But I digress.

Once I finished installing the beds, I topped them off with what my friend Lydia referred to as “healthy dirt” from Lowe’s, although I have to admit that I’m skeptical about the nutritional profile of corporate-sourced dirt. Then I planted corn, cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, peas, beans, shallots, and Mexican gherkins. I erected rabbit-proof fencing around the whole thing and coated it all generously in Liquid Fence Deer and Rabbit Repellent. I used the powdered kind.

I have some bad news, some worse news, some kind-of good news, and some best news.
The worse news is that the lettuce, shallots, beans, and half of the carrots didn’t even bother to come up. Beans, lettuce, shallots, and 50 percent of carrots are terminally lazy. I know that’s a controversial position, but I have anecdotal evidence – which is, as we all know, the best kind of evidence – to support it.

The bad news is that corn began growing, but stopped at about a foot tall and produced one measly, deformed ear before it all died for no apparent reason. I got three pods of peas before the heat killed them, but I knew that it was too late in the year to plant peas so that’s my own fault, really. I got three cucumbers before they, too, died for no apparent reason. I got several tomatoes, but I planted an heirloom variety called Dr. Wyche’s yellow, and they were weirder than I expected, so I probably won’t grow them again. Also, the plants spent all summer looking like they were about to die any minute. I’m surprised I got any tomatoes at all, but the plants are still out there, gamely clinging to life, even though it’s October.

The kind-of good news is that the other half of the carrots did grow and I was able to harvest about a dozen of the saddest-looking carrots in the world. 

I generously presented them to my in-laws, who said, "Are you sure these are carrots?" There are still carrots in the ground as we speak, and I understand they’re cold-hardy, so the ones that are left might yet amount to something, like a stew.

That leaves just one vegetable – the Mexican gherkins. You know how sometimes you’ll plant a vegetable garden and one thing will really go crazy? The best news is that Mexican gherkins have turned out to be really easy to grow. Seriously, if you, like me, are an apathetic, inexperienced, and unskilled gardener, plant yourself some Mexican gherkins, keep the rabbits out of them, and before you know it, you’ll have actual handfuls of weird little cucumbers that you don’t know what to do with. I like them, but I fed one to the manfriend and he made the kind of face my grandmother used to make when my grandfather implemented his pest control scheme.

The best part about the Mexican gherkins is that I didn’t even think they would grow to begin with. I had a few seeds left from my abortive gardening attempt a few years ago, so I decided to plant them. They didn’t come up at first, and I thought they were just old, but then, after three whole weeks, tiny, tiny seedlings emerged…and stayed tiny for the next three months. Oh well, I thought, they’re not going to do anything. Then, one day round about mid-August, I went out to check on my few sad tomatoes, and noticed these huge vines with little watermelon-looking things all over them. I was so shocked I had to google them to make sure it wasn’t some toxic weed that had taken over my garden like neo-Nazis at a Republican convention. When the Internet told me that what I’d found were, indeed, Mexican gherkins, and that they would continue to produce right up until the first frost, I immediately resolved to plant Mexican gherkins again next year. You don’t mess with a good thing.

1. This was my grandfather’s horrifying means of keeping pests out of the garden. What can I say, it worked.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

My Cat Is Running for President

Now, I know what you’re probably thinking: Isn’t it too early to be thinking about the 2020 presidential elections? Haven’t we got more pressing problems at the moment, like hurricanes, wildfires, gas shortages, gun violence, nuclear holocaust, heroin addiction, polluted water, crumbling infrastructure, the NFL, and reptilians? Shouldn’t we worry about surviving the next three years, as a republic, and at all, before we start worrying about which candidate deserves our vote in 2020, if indeed we are still allowed to vote in 2020?

Probably, but Fatty has been watching the news, and he thinks that if Donald Trump is allowed to be president, he should get a shot, too. It’s only fair.

So here at the reasons why my cat, Fatty, would make an awesome president:

He Is Brave and Strong

When a small animal gets into the house, some cats around here panic. A small frog once sent two out of three cats at chez McAtee running for cover from its terrifying hopping. But not Fatty. Fatty was ready to eat that frog, just like he was ready to eat the brown thrasher that got in once, or the hatchling snake that mysteriously appeared in the kitchen, if only I would have given him half a chance to catch any of them.

Not only is Fatty confident in his ability to bite the sh*t out of anything that might threaten him or look tasty, he’s also seven pounds heavier than the average tom cat – that’s more than double the size of some cats. He’s such a big cat that when I got my second cat, Max, I ended up taking him, Max, to the vet because he was so small and scrawny I thought he was underdeveloped.

“No,” the vet said, “he’s perfectly normal. It’s just that your other cat is so big that Max looks underdeveloped in comparison.”

Fatty understands that the health of presidential candidates is a topic of great concern to American voters, and he wants you to know that he’s ferociously, obnoxiously healthy and ready to rip the eyes out of any vet who says otherwise, or any vet who tries to touch him, period. It’s a good thing he’s so healthy, because giving him medicine is an ordeal. The one time I had to do it, I had to subdue him first by sitting on him. Sitting. On. Him. That’s what we’re dealing with here.

He Comes from Humble Beginnings, Just Like Honest Abe

Abraham Lincoln was born in a dirt-floored, one-room cabin in the backwoods of Kentucky. Fatty was found in a Wal-Mart parking lot, also, not coincidentally, in Appalachia. He’s seen hardship. He’s known struggle. He’s a cat of the people.

He Knows His Own Mind

Fatty isn’t one of those wishy-washy presidential candidates like John Kerry. Oh, no. Fatty knows what he wants, and he’s going to get it, no matter how many people he has to bite in order to do so.

He Is a Skilled Diplomat

Whenever someone comes into the house, Fatty immediately becomes their best friend. Doesn’t matter if it’s a guest, a plumber, a sheriff’s deputy, or an appliance repairman, Fatty will use his charm and good looks to win them over. Once, the ignition switch on my gas oven went out, and I had a guy over to fix it. I showed him to the kitchen and left him alone. When I came back half an hour later, I sh*t you not, Fatty had crawled up under the oven and was helping the guy fix it.

He Believes in the Scientific Method

Whenever something new appears in the house, like a cat fountain or a boyfriend, some cats around here freak the f*ck out. Not Fatty. Fatty is a Cat Scientist with a PhD in Checking Things Out from Purrdue University. That means he’s not afraid to apply the scientific method to investigating new phenomena, to enhance the lives of cats everywhere.

He Definitely Has No Ties to the Lucha Libre Circuit Whatsoever

Our enemies in the media have spread the vile and disgusting rumor that Fatty moonlights as a lucha libre wrestler called El Gato Terrible. Fake news!

He Is Orange

That seems to be really important to American voters these days, and Fatty is ready to give the people what they want.