Friday, October 29, 2010

Halloween: The Oddest Holiday

“I was amazed to think that you would take the candy with you, too.”
- A Halloween break-up, described in Richard Shindell's Are You Happy Now?

Of all the holidays or semi-holidays or special days on the calendar, Halloween is by far most bizarre. I know, that's not really breaking news.

But have you ever sat down and thought through this celebration of the unwell, the unloved and the undead? It's a particularly unique festivity when you compare it to the happy, sunshiny ones like Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Its origins may go back as far as the Roman Empire, but it's more typically linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain, which acknowledged the end of the “lighter half” of the year and marked the beginning of the “darker half.”

Not to bum you out but that darker half is starting … oh ... right about now.

Western Christianity loads up early on the side of holy with back-to-back holidays in November. Between the fairly exclusive club honored each All Saints Day on November 1, and the much more inclusive All Souls Day on November 2, you would think that just about every human being who ever lived is covered.

But not so.

For every action there is a reaction, and so evil must have its day. And as evil has been known to do, it launches a pre-emptive strike on October 31. Many communities experience some form of “Mischief Night” on the 30th, too, but so far that's not an official event. (Still, you may want to mentally prepare yourself to deal with soaped windows, toilet papered shrubbery and/or egged houses.)

The pull of the dark side is strong. Only the holiest of holy parents prevent their children from trick-or-treating entirely. This usually results in years or even decades of intense therapy in later life attempting to answer the question “Why couldn't I at least be a bunny or a princess?”

Personally, I have gone out as a scarecrow, a cowboy and Dr. Zorba from the TV show Dr. Kildare, among others. I have it on good authority that even a big star like Frank Sinatra loved Halloween, and apparently went out for many years as different characters, including a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king.

Still, no matter how dark the origins of Halloween are, most kids are in it for the candy. (I have a theory on the connection between the dental industry and Satan that involves Halloween candy but that is for another day.)

For now, let me ask you this: Might Halloween candy be a gateway food leading to a society of brain-munching zombies?

Hmmm … Stephen King, eat your heart out.

* I'm very proud of the fact that I've completed this short piece on Halloween without once mentioning Christine O'Donnell and witchcraft … oh, damn … there goes THAT resolution! Well … be sure to vote this week.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Importance of Lying

“Everything I tell you is a lie. I am lying now.”
- The conundrum of logic that caused a 23rd century computer to explode in confusion in an episode of the original Star Trek

It starts with the Tooth Fairy and it doesn't end until they tell you how good you look in your casket.

After food, clothing and shelter, I believe that lying is the most important human need.

Most of us don't realize just how much we depend on “inoperative statements,” which is the ingenious way that lies were described during the Watergate scandal. I recently saw the movie The Invention of Lying (as a big Ricky Gervais fan, I'll give three stars) and it got me thinking. (This is always a dangerous situation.)

It seems that a world filled with nothing but the truth would be a very scary place. What we're talking about here goes far beyond the well known “Does this make me look fat” question. We have all come to know that the answer to that must be something leaning very strongly toward “no.” The closest answer to “yes” that you can get away with is “Don't be silly,” and that only works about half the time.

To see just how much we depend on non-truths, think of your response to questions like these:

“Got any spare change?”

“How old are you?”

“How much do you weigh?”

“Is this seat taken?”

“Did you enjoy the yogurt hoagie I spent all afternoon making for you, honey?”

It may be that the best lies are the ones we tell ourselves:

“If I comb my side hair just right no one will notice that I'm bald.”

“The tighter the jeans the better I look.”

“Of course I'm an excellent driver.”

“People find my sarcasm very endearing.”

“These N&Ns are just as good as the more expensive candy.”

Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against the lies we tell ourselves. Sometimes these self-deceptions are the main motivators that help us get out of bed every morning.

Lying is so much a part of our lives that we have developed countless ways to say it, including: fabricate, misinform, stretch the truth, mislead, bear false witness, fudge, distort, deceive … and my favorite way of confessing without really confessing, “I misspoke.”

On the Mount Olympus of Lying we have politicians. We've all been excited by the amazing new ideas on which they campaign, only to be disappointed by the same old methods by which they govern.

But when you think about it, the incredibly consistent dishonesty of politicians is really the fault of voters like you and me.

We don't like to hear bad news, no matter how true it is.

Just ask Jimmy Carter how gloom and doom plays with the voting public. His famous “malaise” speech led to what Wikipedia describes as “one of the least successful” presidential re-election campaigns in American history.

That's mainly because, right there in the other corner we had … Ronald Reagan!

Ron was there to tell us that we were the shining light we always knew we were. Hostages in Iran? Freed! Economic morass? Trickle-down prosperity is right around the corner. So, what else can I do for you, America?

And just as would-be band leader Harold Hill fooled River City into self confidence in The Music Man, President Reagan made Americans feel better about themselves. And that felt great.

So who can blame politicians for telling us what we want to hear?

There are honest politicians. They're the bankers and salesmen and mechanics who never quite made it into office.

Just to be clear, I'm not in favor of all lies. Providing false alibis for murderers is not a good idea. And swearing that, in spite of record cost-cutting measures, you've taken all the safety precautions in your offshore drilling project is a definite no-no.

But the next time you catch someone in a small prevarication (how's that for a fancy way of saying “lie”?), cut that person a little slack. For the next lie that's told may just be your own.