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 I raided my husband’s stock of outdated outfits, we smudged coloring on our jaws like five o’clock shadow and around our eyes like weary laborers, and off we went.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.


When Science Fiction Becomes Fact, the Dangers Aren’t Zombies, Aliens, Robots, Weapons of Mass Destruction, or Comets

Octavia ButlerScience fiction is a genre chock-full of stereotypes. Doesn’t take much imagination to throw in an alien monster or launch a barrage of special effects through images or words about explosions, fires, and destruction.

Then there are the few thoughtful works that hold a mirror up to us and show us the real horror we are or could become. Such is the case with Parable of the Talents, the second book in Octavia Butler’s duet of the near-future. The time is about 2035, the society is ours, gone slowly and terribly astray, like TS Elliott’s vision in The Hollow Men. “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.”

Published in 1996, the book comes sooooo close to many happenings today. Slaughters in Africa and the Middle East; hidden concentration camps of low-income workers and their families tacitly approved by governments; discrimination against the poor like we have in our country; pronouncements by rich or powerful individuals blaming the powerless for their own situations; disappearances of people that challenge the system; arming of the citizenry; ambitious individuals who bend the truth, even lie, as they set up tar-babies as objects for hatred, using politics or religion as the excuse; brutality against women and helpless. While all these evils don’t occur in any one location, they are present in the world today.

Protagonist Lauren Olamina has moved, escaped, from LA with her doctor-lover, to establish a tiny community in northern California. There they struggle to raise crops, build homes and businesses, and occasionally fight bad guys and rescue a few from the huddled masses. But they can’t escape the evil of authoritarian—or greedy?—do-gooders who want to wipe them out. Lauren’s husband, friends, and neighbors are killed, her infant daughter snatched from her.

Fortunately, steeped as the novel is in religious ideas of one sort or another, one holds some promise. Lauren’s vision of spirituality is a philosophy called Earthseed. It preaches acceptance, tolerance, and community purpose. Despite a vision of the future so close we could turn the corner and be living it, optimism is possible.

Butler, an African-American woman who won numerous awards, including a MacArthur “genius” grant, was unusual in the scifi field. Unfortunately she died in 2006. Although she’d planned additions to the series, none were published, as far as I can tell. I keep thinking, wondering, what she would have thought about Obama’s election, about the mouthings of politicians who think (or at least claim) they have all the answers, the attacks of some against public education and tolerance. Equally, what would she have thought about wave after wave of extremist, violent terrorism launched in the name of God, regardless of the affiliation or country of origin of proponents.

I’m sure she would have laughed about the popularity of zombies, vampires, robots, and other easy-to-sketch villains. She knew that the real horrors of the future lie within humans themselves, and she warned us as best she could while she encouraged us to think about the consequences of our actions. . .and inactions.

Dark Futures

What’s your vision of the future? I think we find it nearly impossible to believe life as we know it will continue past our own deaths, so our pictures tend to be catastrophic and depressing. Think of 1984, Brave New World, The Road.

This certainly is true with the current spate of dystopian novels targeted to young adults. Over the past year or so I’ve read four, beginning with The Hunger Games trilogy, continuing with Article 5, Legend: Day and June, and Divergent.

Some interesting points appeared as I reviewed the quartet:
• They all were written by women. When I began reading scifi years ago, few of these novels had female authors, and it was not uncommon for a woman writer to use a male or androgynous pen name.
• They all feature very strong female protagonists. To a greater or lesser degree, they don’t depend on men to get them out of trouble.
• The works all envision a future so wretched I’d certainly entertain the idea of suicide to escape.
• Violence is common, and the women indulge nearly as frequently as the men.
• The heroine has a male companion who verges on being a strong love interest. These are YA books, so the couples don’t have sex.
• There is hope at the end of the book (or the series) that the current order will be overthrown, and freedom, equality, and peace will prevail.
Unfortunately, the sub-genre is becoming formulaic, so I hope writers will start throwing in some surprises. . .NOT including zombies or vampires!

Why do these books appeal to teens, and to adults who don’t rule out the protagonists in their books by their ages? Yes, the tomes are escapist and entertaining, but I think there’s a little more at work. Consider this:
• Humans want perfection or as close as we can get in our everyday lives, but we also long for challenges. These plots provide thought-provoking trials
• We need contact and love, but we also seem to lust after violence and hate. As long as we’re not in danger. Stand-ins for brutality, cruelty, and sadism thrive in the narratives.
• It’s kind of nice to think the world will go to hell after we leave it. Like a mother saying, “I told you so” to the child who burns himself with a match.
• Through these books, we can explore the paths our society might be on, as well as eternal questions of good and evil, justice and injustice, individuals and groups, albeit in greatly simplified approaches.

I think I’m close to my limit on this type of novel, primarily because their visions are restrictive and repetitive. But I have something up my sleeve. My own dystopian novel entitled Emancipation. Whether it ever sees the light of day will depend on my reaching an Utopia, in which publishers are beating down my door to release my work.

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Fort Robinson

Fort Robinson

I’ve never been able to understand why men indulge in fistfights. Seems to me at the conclusion you have bloody, damaged participants, and no one wins much of anything except a snippet of status. By extension I feel the same way about armed conflicts. Seems to me the people of both countries lose out and only the top dogs, be they generals or CEOs or presidents stand to gain. The rest of us are poorer, damaged, depressed, and older, but not wiser.
I've come to accept that aggression and violence must be part of the human condition. After all, look at stories and histories down the ages, right from the beginning, i.e., Cain slew Abel. Maybe we needed that brutal streak to guard or feed our families.
From this bias, I'd be unlikely to wax enthusiastic about a military facility, but here I am, touting Fort Robinson. Now a state park in Nebraska, it was an active post from 1874 (first as a camp, then with permanent buildings) until after WW II. These days, although many structures remain, together with a smattering of horses that remind visitors of the Fort’s equine prominence, it’s become a recreational area, perfect for families to run wild and those seeking a retreat from everyday busy, as well as a time capsule of Old West history.
As I peeked into the reproduced or renovated cabins and houses, saw where Chief Crazy Horse received his death blow from a bayonet in the back, imagined the thousands of dogs trained for military during WW II, and walked the paths of a German POW camp between now-vanished barracks, I was struck over and over by the similarities among all the people who’d lived here more than the hegemony* the US government exercised. The Indian women who managed to escape during the 1879 debacle with their children had much in common with the military wives who feared losing their husbands to violence and their children to illnesses. The German soldiers held to a routine almost identical to the Americans’.
Fort Robinson is the perfect place to ponder these questions. You can bed down in the old enlisted men’s quarters in simply furnished but immaculate rooms. Walks or rides or biking let you contemplate nature and just how tiny our struggles seem next to the wide Nebraska skies and variegated greens of grass, evergreens, and shrubs.
I wish I could have packed Fort Robinson’s time and space for musing to my everyday life.
* Hegemony: domination, preponderant influence, or authority over others.