Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Between the lines

The broad supermarket windows are papered over with Halloween coloring-contest entries, and while the clerk bags my spinach, EggBeaters, bagel, frozen yogurt, I listen to several little kids bouncing up and down in front of the display and claiming their own handiwork. "That's mine," one girl says, glowing. "Ten years old," she emphasizes, underscoring a talent she hopes we realize is beyond her years, and when I collect my groceries and go over to look, I see that she has written the same next to her name on the form. Maddy! 10 years old! Maddy has embellished the line drawing of trick-or-treaters further by inscribing one of their plain paper bags with "BOO!" and some possibly bat-like squiggles in dark-green felt-tip. And time obligingly collapses, thirty years accordioning down so that for a second I can feel it too: that pride and validation, the fifteen minutes of fame that come from seeing your careful crayoned submission scotch-taped above the rack of Presto Logs and the food-drive barrel.

Outside half a dozen kids are swarming over the hay-bale corral of pumpkins in front of the store, selecting the perfect victim for a jack-o-lantern. I glance at them and one of their weary dads looks so much like my uncle that I do a double-take right there in the parking lot, almost speak to him before realizing, stupidly, that no, he looks three decades older than that nowadays, and don't we all. It's his birthday today, and my mother's too. Happy birthday, Unc. Happy birthday, Mom.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Hello, weenie

I made a point of going up to Herkimer and securing a window seat today, because it was the Greenwood/Phinney district's annual Halloween celebration, where the kids are welcomed to trick-or-treat up and down the main drag of businesses. I'm a little skeptical of how the process has evolved since I was a kid, because it simply can't be as thrilling, never mind scary, to go door-to-door in broad daylight on a crisp fall afternoon. But at least they're not relegated to a mall...and the spectacle offers some prime hilarity, which I suppose is all the better for being well-lit.

Anyway. So I took up a stool at the street-facing counter for nearly 2 1/2 hours, laughing helplessly at the hordes and hordes of kids in synthetic manufactured costumes, and painstakingly homemade costumes, and indifferently assembled "costumes" that I do not think, really, should count. I have a couple rules about Halloween; one of them is that, if you are old enough to grow your own mustache, you are too old to be begging for free candy on the sidewalk. (For the girls, if those high heels are your own, same thing. Or, you know, the mustache--though if you are thus tonsorially...gifted? challenged? you probably ought to receive a mini-Snickers and some sympathy.) I gave the five teens outfitted as the complete Scooby Gang a pass, though, considering that Fred agreeably put on both a blond wig and an ascot. Although, Shaggy--come on, you get a D for effort, because a Shaggy costume just involves rolling out of bed and putting on the contents of the laundry hamper. The dazed munchies are optional. Probably you will need that pillowcase of candy later, Shag.

On the other end of the spectrum, a word of advice, to parents of the smallest trick-or-treaters: the cute floppy feet attached to the costume pantlegs, or the ruffled fairy anklets, or the long gauzy strips of princess-gown hemline? Do not put that crap on your charges who have barely mastered plain regular walking. That kid is going down, casting a debris field of dropped candy for a three-foot radius, and there will be tears. Toddler total-faceplant tally, just those directly in front of my window? Three. "OoooOOOHHHhhh," me and all the other spectators in the windows moaned, each time a little plush tiger or bumblebee or dinosaur smacked the concrete headlong. Owie.

But good grief, storebought costumes have gotten fancy since I was little. Whatever happened to the old ones, where you got a thin molded plastic mask and what amounted to an acetate romper, usually with the character's name and face printed idiotically right in front? I can remember bumbling down the block in those, already a little freaked out by the darkness and certainly unable to see, since my glasses wouldn't fit underneath the mask. The elastic band snarling in my hair, my breath forming cold condensation on the flimsy plastic...good times. We coveted those! I can remember pawing frantically through the display at Fred Meyer in search of a Princess Leia...and the crushing disappointment of getting stuck with Chewbacca. (Sis, that year, was a three-foot-tall Darth Vader. Hee.) But now the costumes are plush and voluminous, sequinned, bedazzled, equipped with hats or wigs, fake foam muscles, giant spiny lizard heads that bob above the wearer's own. Too much! Too easy! I want to see you work at it a little, kids, come on.

So I was pleased, in the ceaseless tide of princesses, fairies, fairy princesses, and superheroes, to see a few kids marching to a different beat. A little-girl Hulk, pushing her younger sibling in a stroller: right on. A boy dressed as Angus Young from AC/DC. A...prairie bride? another princess? tall and gangly, but with checkered Vans clearly visible beneath the six-inch ruffled hem of her ivory gown. A boy who I think was meant to be a Barack Obama campaign bus, clunking down the street inside a blue-painted cardboard box with paper-plate wheels, festooned with all manner of Obama and Biden and HOPE stickers. Ten more days, little man! Rock the vote! Also, a pug in a pumpkin suit. Come on, that's hilarious! A pug! In a pumpkin suit!

My runner-up favorite: two boys, probably 14 and so hovering on the border of trick-or-treat legitimacy...but allowed a pass by me, for dressing in drag. One had a long red wig and hideous skirt; the other was galumphing gracelessly in white-go-go boots, updo, and glasses--yeah, waitaminute. Yes. Yes! Sarah Palin. An eighth-grade drag Sarah Palin. So, major points for going as the scariest thing this liberal-enclave neighborhood can envision right now.

But I've saved the best for last: the girl, probably 11, whose Girl Scout uniform I recognized in a glance, that shrill kelly green. "That's cheating," I thought idly, as she got into the candy queue in front of the coffeehouse. "That's an extracurricular activity, not a costume." Then she turned around. The jaunty green vest of merit badges, the little neckerchief thing, were shabby and streaked with gore, her face painted gray, eyesockets hollowed, lips and chin gruesomely bloody. A ZOMBIE Girl Scout! Oh please, please let her have thought of this herself. Please let her have come to this in total exasperation after years of flogging cookies in front of the supermarket and being forced to camp in the rain. The Ghoul Scout stared blankly right into my face, dead-eyed, through the Herkimer window, never breaking character. "AWE. SOME," I mouthed at her through the glass, before she turned and shuffled away, undead, triumphant. Oh, zombie Girl Scout, you are made of win. Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

So happy to see that thing

I have been remiss in not mentioning this year's Tomato Nation Fall Contest, where the great Sarah Bunting unleashes her readers on Donors Choose. People sponsor dozens of projects in underfunded K-12 classrooms across the country, in increments large and small...and last year, Sars whipped up more than $100,000 freaking dollars. She also danced around in Rockefeller Plaza wearing a tomato costume to reward us all, but that bit is really just the condiment on your bacon-and-lettuce sandwich, because A HUNDRED GRAND. FOR THE CHILDREN.

Times are tough, I surely don't have to tell you. Cartoon moths are flying out of my wallet just like they are yours, and everyone else's. But Sars puts it quite succinctly in her call to action this year, and this is the part that stuck with me:

...maybe you want to give money to your presidential candidate of choice, and the bailout crisis…well, the average taxpayer is going to get punished, without having even done anything wrong.

So is the average public-school student. The government is going to help these investment firms eventually; in a few days Congress is going to ram something through and bail out the big boys. Little boys? Ain't getting squat. Your senator isn't debating who gets what science books or overhead projectors right now, or how much money to earmark for waterlogged Galveston schools. No, it looks like that's on us.

One of the excellent things about Donors Choose is that, if you donate $100 and/or fully fund a project, you get a little packet of notes and photos from the teacher and kids in question. I contributed to a couple projects last year--a set of novels for one class, a set of art supplies for another--and got a tide of responses, one of which I've kept on the fridge since. It's on day-glo orange paper, each word written in a different eye-popping color of oil pastel crayon, and signed by a kid named, to my delight, Eugene:

THANK you FOR THE ART supplies I AM SO HAPPY TO see THAT Thing

Me too, Eugene, me too.

Today was payday, at last, and tonight I clicked through the projects and got choked up in spite of myself, and donated half again what I'd intended going in. I put a few of my dollars toward yoga mats for preschoolers, and an entire stack of Judy Blumes for an elementary class (because ol' Judy is the patron saint of 5th-grade English, bless her), and bowling lessons for a group of special-needs kids, because I am famously a worse bowler than Barack Obama and maybe if someone had intervened when I was still in the primary grades I would not find the lanes so humbling today.

So. Dig through the couch cushions, empty out the spare change in your car's ashtray, and get clicking. Do it for Eugene, and the little bowlers and yogis and readers, or photographers, or playwrights, or budding scientists just itching to dissect owl doots. If that's not enough of an incentive for you, maybe this will be: this year, if we crack the same total, Sars and her tomato suit are headed to Washington, D.C. to help George and Laura pack. Or to be wrestled to the ground on the White House lawn by the Secret Service, whichever. The suit looks nice and cushy and padded, probably for the best.

Thursday, October 02, 2008


Rose City, part II.

I'd set aside my Saturday in Portland for touristy crap, which may or may not be the kind of touristy crap the average tourist anticipates. The hotel was a scant few blocks away from the Portland Saturday Market, a nearly year-round cavalcade of artists and buskers and food booths that sounded promising...but on my way there I stumbled across Voodoo Doughnut, an establishment I'd already seen profiled at least once on t.v.

Voodoo Doughnut is an extremely...alternative donut shop, which will also marry you should you request or require it--they have a sliding scale of ceremonies with or without donuts. They are also famous for their outrageously indulgent donut toppings, like breakfast cereal, or bacon atop a maple bar. They are also also famous for their snickeringly provocative donut names. When I got to the front of the long line, I just pointed at the one I wanted, twirling around in its glass case: chocolate cake donut, with chocolate icing and Cocoa Puffs on top. The clerk sang out its name for the benefit of all: "One Triple Chocolate Penetration," she shouted, causing the man behind me to erupt in astonished/alarmed giggles. Probably I should have turned around and chatted him up. Do you come here often? Anyway. The donut was hilarious in concept, if fairly ordinary in execution; cereal atop a donut apparently gets damp/stale quickly. I will have to return to assess the bacon maple bar on its own merits.

On to the artists' market. It was kind of a gloomy, overcast day, so I'm not sure how representative the booths I saw were...but there was a little more of the patchouli-and-B.O. crowd going on than I tend to prefer. I did spend some time lingering over an artist's psychedelically colored pen-and-ink rendering of Johnny Cash, flipping the classic bird. I would seriously hang that on my office wall, so it's probably for the best that I didn't have $30 cash on me. Oh well.

And then: I noticed the first of what were ultimately several stained-glass artists' booths. Oh dear. I have only mentioned obliquely, I see now, what my father did for a living--he designed and built custom stained-glass windows for nearly 30 years. Took an extension class at the local community college when I was a little girl, and built an entire business and a considerable reputation from it. He put windows in businesses and churches, in Street-of-Dreams houses and in McMansions for people with more money than taste. It always amazed me, that my dad, who if we are being honest was strapping and kind of loud and prone to fart jokes and could potentially be classified by Jeff Foxworthy as a redneck, had ended up making a living this way: this delicate, translucent, elegant art form. It was a secret in plain sight, a hidden depth that I saw him practice every day but that I was not smart enough, not soon enough, to ask about.

This is a prelude to my saying that, for several years, Dad had been a presence at the Vancouver, Washington farmers' market on summer weekends. He loved the intrigue of bickering with the market's governing board--oh, man, the epic wrangling over choice booth real estate, insanely boring and what I wouldn't give for a fresh earful...but more than that he lived to banter with the teeming hordes. He couldn't have been making serious income just from the suncatchers and the metric ton of glass marbles he sold out of a couple antique gumball machines, but he used the attention to secure larger commissions. Dad was a salesman down to the bone, a cheerful master of wearing you down with corny patter until you succumbed: to buying whatever it was, to forgiving him something, to being his friend for life. I never went down to Vancouver to see him in action, but I didn't need to. I knew exactly how he would be.

Except maybe, too late, I did need to see it, because I stood there in front of some random person's booth in Portland, hyperventilating, throat tight. There were suncatchers and kitty-cat potholders and, I don't know, blown glass bongs arrayed all around me, and hucksters everywhere manning their tables, hamming it up, messing with the crowd in genial booming voices, and for a minute I thought I would have to run. Knocking over incense burners and bags of organic dog treats, crashing through the line at the falafel stand. My heart hurt.

It helped when, after considering for a moment, I decided that this particular stranger's stained-glass doodads were cheap-looking and ugly. Thinking that, I could proceed.

* * * * *

Later that afternoon, Mecca. Powell's, where to my complete incomprehension I had never previously been. And seriously, what the hell? Why didn't Dad ever take me to Powell's, summers when I was bored out of my skull in La Center? He would have earned points for eons, would still be redeeming points with me from beyond the grave. Missed opportunity, Dad.

Anyway. There's a smell that good bookstores have, a clean papery scent of books that is definitely not to be confused with the musty funk of used books left to mildew in the basement. Powell's smells wonderful. "Have I died?" I wondered to myself, and for two and a half hours I was one of those people kicking the plastic shopping basket ahead of me across the linoleum, unwilling to lift it the entire time. I did have a pre-programmed boundary, in that I had to be able to carry it all back on the damn train. That helped me to get out with my life and only $150 in the hole, hilarious water bottle included: pretty damn decent.

I did find myself getting verklempt (for the second time that day) in the children's section, where I hadn't even intended to go--I wandered down the pink staircase instead of up the purple one, or something, and there I was. It stretched on for half a block in front of me, shelves almost higher than I could reach, and oh, oh, all the books. I've written before about how I was constantly being hustled out of the public library or the tiny mall bookstore as a kid--not because the adults in my life were cruel, but because they were unfortunate grownups with boring grownup shit to do. So, the sight of a children's book section larger than my house made me actually tear up a bit. I wanted nothing more than to go back through time to my ten-year-old self, hand her a $100 bill, and say "Meet me here in two hours. Have fun. Go!"

I'll just have to make up for le temps perdu.