There was a time after my kids reached legal adulthood when I greeted Halloween with a sigh of relief. No longer did I need to hustle creative juices, time, and money to try to outdo other moms and grandmas in costuming little ones, but also I was relieved from guard duty over teen hijinks like neighbors’ houses or underage drinking. In those days, my eyes used to achieve maximum blurriness when I paced the floor and watched the clock in trepidation.

But after that early epoch, as I attempted to sink into a cathartic calm of middle age, an adventurous friend appeared on my doorstep one October 31. I forget how old she and I were, but I’m sure in the range of 40. Neither of us had been invited to an adult Halloween party, the type featuring hard liquor and harder attempts by married folks to connect with a “swinging” temporary partner. She, however, was rarin’ to go out on monkey business.

Her idea—cobble together a costume out of whatever we could lay our hands on and try to pass ourselves off as children to our friends and neighbors. What astonishment we’d create when we revealed ourselves.

Since we both are short, barely breaking five feet, we weren’t much bigger than the early teen rabble-rousers we saw coming to the door during the evening’s later hours. She’d supplied herself with charcoal and eyeshadow so we could disguise our faces as well as dressing herself in a wig, and shabby old clothes she’d retrieved from discards in the closet. I raided my husband’s stock of outdated outfits, we smudged coloring on our jaws like five o’clock shadow and around our eyes like weary laborers, and off we went.

In front of the stop, we paused to plot. We agreed to slump and hunch a bit and pull our hats down. We figured we resembled 13-year-old boys dressed as bums. I still doubted we’d fool anyone, but I beat on the door, mumbled “Trick or treat,” and held out a bag. She did the same, but she disguised her voice better than I.

Our friend, who was also a neighbor and whom we saw almost every day, didn’t bat an eye. She hauled out the candy, loaded our bags (it was late in the evening, so she had a lot to get rid of), chatted a bit about Halloween mischief, and escorted us to the exit. That’s when we revealed our true persona. We’d buffaloed her completely.Halloween 

And so it went at each of the half-dozen or so homes we visited. We hoodwinked every single person, and we gathered a load of sweets that I did not share with my family later. I’d worked too hard for my booty.

In addition to being a fun anecdote for my personal history, our little adventure convinced me that people see what they want to see, not what’s really there. I don’t think our costumes and makeup were particularly artistic, but not a soul really looked at US.

Since that time I’m never surprised if a homeowner shoots his own child during the night, thinking he’s battling a thief; or if a policeman guns down a dark fuzzy character figuring he’s stopping a murderer; or if a hit-and-run driver flees the scene assuming he’s collided with a squirrel or cardboard box.

In these days of “rush-to-judgment,” whether that’s the perpetrator responsible for the violence or the ever-disapproving public judging it, it’s waaaay too easy to make accusations or even take action based on unfounded assumptions. Let’s think a little before we do so. A teacher once told me, “Never assume, it makes an ass of u and me.” Something to consider.


THE DANGER OF PRECOGNITION: when a nightmare becomes real

I’ve always wished I possessed extrasensory perception. I was particularly keen to have telepathy or teleportation, to read people’s minds or instantaneously transport myself across miles. Alas, this was not to be, despite hours wasted focusing with all my might, eyes clenched closed, on the feat.

I recently realized, however, that I may have experienced precognition all unaware. Because the incident happened years ago when I was a child, and fulfillment of its prediction didn’t occur until recently, I failed to recognize the episode for what it was.

When I was about thirteen, I had a particularly vivid dream. In it I was sitting in the driver’s seat of a car next to another person. We weren’t driving, not surprising since at the time I didn’t know how to. We could see through the windshield, however, and the sight amazed and terrified us. While inside the vehicle we couldn’t move, experiencing a paralysis, outside the world continued to function. In fact we were passing through time, years, and the landscape flashed by in fast-motion. We sat frozen as we saw empty prairies become layered with streets, then housing developments, then business buildings, finally skyscrapers reaching up to the heavens. A sense of horror, terror, seized me. More than anything, I wanted to break loose of my immobility to escape.

There was no resolution to the dream. I woke and retained the general impression for years. In fact it inspired in a convoluted way a still-to-be-published novel.

More than that, it laid the groundwork for a continuing nightmare in my mind, one that appears to be taking shape in my hometown and nearly everywhere across the nation. With what appears to be a great deal of pride, the Denver Post reports Denver’s City Council is set to approve planning for huge development smack in the middle of what now is an amusement park and a sports arena.  A massive tsunami of thousands of people to live and work there, crowding our streets, putting pressure on urban design which even now resembles solid blocks of ugly, depressing architecture.

I fear in the not-too-distant future, the entire country will resemble the horrendous developments of southern California and the megalopolis of the East Coast. This is no way for humans to live, not if they wish to encourage decent relationships and positive lifestyles for all. Surely no one, not even the perpetrators of the rude, violent, threatening behavior that accompanies modern conditions, would willingly accept this horror. If you’ve ever been on a New York subway in rush hour or in front of the Colorado state capitol where a park has been laid waste by trash, human excrement, foul language and behavior, you know what I mean. In our mad rush to equate constant growth with “progress,” we’re laying waste to ourselves, our culture.

Somehow all those years ago, my unconscious must have received the information about the impending tragedy. So I obtained my goal of achieving precognition, to my sorrow.

“Find Me”: a “what if” we don’t want to answer in an examination of reality, emotions, and life through a novel

illusion“Find Me,” a new novel by Laura van den Berg, is presented in a deceptively simple, straightforward style. Written in present tense by its protagonist, a young woman named Joy, often relying on facts and lists, she first exposes her attitude about her involuntary quarantine in a hospital, following an epidemic, which first robs people of their memories, then their lives. She’s one of the few immune. But as the story unwinds, another, even more traumatic fact about her life appears. Abandoned as an infant, she’s lived in a series of foster homes, and the occurrences there left indelible marks that she accepts with equanimity. So we think. By the book’s end, we begin to question her view of reality and hopscotch back to previous scenes trying to dig out truth.

In writing this device is called an unreliable narrator.” It appears in books as diverse as “Alice in Wonderland,” “One Flew Over the Cuckcoo’s Nest,” “Lolita,” and “The Life of Pi.” In fiction, as in life, the unreliable narrator is a person telling the story who can’t be trusted. Either from ignorance or self-interest, this narrator speaks with a bias, makes mistakes, or even lies. 

Why is the unreliable narrator widespread? My guess is because that’s the way life is. Have you ever experienced an incident at which other people were present, then talked about it later, only to discover your view’s and theirs differ widely? Those much-applauded and quoted studies conducted by experts support the phenomenon. Witnesses can be sincere, and believe they’re telling the truth, and hold completely opposite views.

The truth is that we all are reliable to ourselves and unreliable to everyone else. I was called to serve on a jury recently, and nearly everyone questioned said he’d base his decisions on the facts. But studies show over and over that even eyewitnesses can see a situation completely differently. Look at the dozens of people freed over the past few decades when scientific evidence proves their innocence. We quite honestly can think we’re right. . .until this is shown to be wrong.

So in the end, the unreliable narrator may very well be reliable as to what he believes. Who’s to say Joy in “Find Me” isn’t headed to a reunion with her mother?

Spiritual faith abounds with this perspective. The “72 virgins in Heaven” concept of reward in Islam (although misinterpreted in our pop culture) could very well be true for Muslims who belive it. The Catholic Purgatory encompassing purification over time to redeem yourself from sin, the child who believes in the Tooth Fairy long past the age of baby teeth, the millions of women who place credence in a lover’s “I’ll be with you always. . . I’ll take care of you,’ the list is endless.

These are our own perceptions of reality, and to us they are real. Does this mean we’re all wrong? We shouldn’t trust our instincts, perceptions and thoughts? Bow to the supremacy of science? No, for what’s considered “science” seems to change almost as quickly as our emotions.

I think it means we shouldn’t rush to judgment the way we do. We should always be willing to look at different perspectives, honor others’ opinions, put ourselves in the other guy’s shoes. The universe is vast, our world holds quadrillions of fascinating objects and happenings, and differing realities (to some, illusions) are part of that.

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” Albert Einstein

Laughing on the Outside

smiile            I learn a great deal about human behavior from television news. The actual facts and events are almost irrelevant. Instead I observe the talent. I’ve noticed over the past five years or so that, like the plummeting content of print publications, newscasters convey less and less news. Grins spread over their faces constantly. I recently saw three anchors spend five minutes of prime time on attractive cats and jokes. The weather reporter had local kids doing guest spots, and each of them ended with a variation on “It will be an awesome day.” Even when the broadcast is tragic—a massive fire, a shooting at a school—the cast’s expressions are neutral but still congenial.

Does this mean we have fewer tragedies in the world? That the number of wars, attacks, rapes, murders, falling stock markets, epidemics, droughts have plunged? No, it just means we’re trying our best to ignore them.

One refrain, not limited to TV, is “make a great day.” Commanded at the conclusion of emails, spouted when conversations are drawing to a close, this phrase assumes we have control over the pleasantness, good will, and productivity we’ll experience. As if a day’s atmosphere can be constructed like a brick wall—one brick for feeling healthy, another for a good meal, still another for a pleasantry from a companion. On the inside of that wall are the good, nice, successful, pleasant people like ourselves; on the other the failures, dying, poor, whatever. We can block them out of our consciousness.

Why do we have to be happy all the time? Why, if I’m not animated and grinning, do passersby chastise me, “Smile!”

While this situation feels and is artificial, I’ve read about studies that show people who head for the fantasy side of existence rather than reality actually are happier. Perhaps it’s not important to know which individual hates you or dwell on the work assignment you flubbed. I knew a man who was convinced he was a great public speaker even though others cowered when he approached a microphone. A woman beautiful in her youth and edging toward old age still believing she was a knock-out despite her sags, fat, and wrinkles.

As for expressions on the human face, other studies have shown if we smile, we feel better; and certainly those around us or seeing us do, too.

So if we’re wearing rose-colored glasses, it’s ok. And if television news reporters spend the greater part of the time telling jokes, grinning, laughing and spouting “Make a great day,” perhaps there’s nothing negative (pun intended).

If we’re in the mood for moans and cries, we’ll have to go to reality shows, like the Bachelor.  I saw more sadness and tears there than I’ve seen in the news in a year.