Horrors! It’s Halloween!

Kresge ad

“From ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord, deliver us! —- Scottish saying

There were snow flurries in Chicago this morning. Winds at 25 miles per hour, gusting higher, will be howling all day. It’s Halloween, and Halloweeny weather arrived right on cue.

Did the sun ever shine on Halloween when I was a kid? Surely it must have, but I only recall dreary drizzle and cold blustery winds. Even so, Halloween was second only to Christmas for kid fun and hoopla. We scrounged up our costumes from a box of old clothes in the basement.  Those pathetic ensembles sold at Kresge’s? No one over the age of four would stoop to wearing one of those. Really, would Frankenstein really have his name and face on his own shirt? It seemed that every family on our block owned one reasonably presentable costume. One year, my mother made a scarecrow costume for my dad to wear to an adult block party. Every year afterwards, one of us Dineens was a scarecrow. The Tyrrells had a Chinese coolie costume— maybe not so politically correct. Every year, another Tyrrell, another Chinese coolie.

We trick-or-treated for hours, carrying our loot in old pillowcases, and avoiding houses that gave out popcorn balls or — ugh! — apples. When word spread that some old lady was giving out full-sized Hershey Bars, we stampeded. In a neighborhood where our family of seven was on the average side, my mother  kept busy at our door.  She insisted that we stop in at home midway through our plundering and dump out our rejects to fortify her dwindling supply. Those peanut butter chew things wrapped in black or orange waxy paper? They were recycled into our handout bowl.

First, we each hoarded our own collection of goodies. When it came to Hershey Bars or Three Musketeers, no one was sharing. Once our stash dwindled down, though, it all went into a communal bowl and through November, the selection shrunk. Snickers, Milky Ways, Mounds, Baby Ruths, Almond Joys disappeared. Then, we nibbled our way through the Turkish Taffy, Tootsie Rolls, Bazooka Bubble Gum, Pixy Stix, and Safety Pops. Finally,  the rejects– wintergreen discs or root beer barrels– would linger at the bottom of the bowl until my mother tossed them in the trash and reclaimed her Pyrex for Thanksgiving Day mashed potatoes.

My nostalgia for Halloween ended when my kids were of trick-or-treat age. My self-imposed Mom report card looked pretty good in most categories, but as a creator of Halloween costumes,  I barely earned a D+.

Sure, one year I made adorable matching mouse costumes for my kids. With a neighbor’s help, an easy pattern, and some pink and blue flannel, I managed to transform my little ones into cunning cuties and even had some usable pajamas after the big day. But in the process, I drove my neighbor, a true seamstress, nuts. She was all about even hems, edged inseams, and ironing. I was all about shoving fabric willy-nilly through the sewing machine and being done.

“Here, Ellen,” Margie instructed, “after you stitch the seams, open them up, press them flat with a warm iron, and then we’ll do a running stitch along their edges. Then it’ll look nice and finished.”

I rolled my eyes. “But it’s on the inside. Who cares how the insides look?”

“Well, I do. And you don’t want them to fall apart, do you?”

“Margie, I don’t care if they fall apart. These costumes only have to last around the block on Halloween. Let’s get this over with.”

Margie sighed, unwilling to lower herself to my standards of stitchery. “I can’t work like this,” she said. We tug-of-warred over the little pieces of fabric, but ultimately I won – sloppy seams, crooked hems, and all. Our friendship survived, but she never let me near her tricked-out Singer again.

So, I was left to my own devices. Our photo albums are mysteriously devoid of cute Halloween pictures. With a limited budget, and an even-more-limited imagination, I preferred not to chronicle my failures for posterity. We did the usual gypsy, cowboy, and witch, dragging items out of a bag of family cast-offs at the eleventh hour. As a teacher, I was chronically up to my eyeballs in grading and report cards with Halloween’s arrival coinciding with the end of a school quarter. Sitting up until the wee hours crafting a costume was not going to happen, not until I got all the worksheets graded.

But to my credit, I, Incompetent Mother, never lowered myself to purchase those sad little pieces of nasty, non-flame-retardant polyester. The Halloween stores that now spring up in every strip mall didn’t exist, and store-bought costumes in the eighties were just as tawdry as those Caspers and Tinkerbelles of my childhood. Once, I succumbed to an easy way out and bought a mask for my son. His voice muffled behind the fake face, he wailed, “Mom, I can’t see a thing!” and promptly walked into a mailbox post. After trick-or-treating, he threw up, sick from breathing the petrochemical fumes oozing from the plastic strapped to his little face. No, I vowed while mopping up vomit, my kids were never again going to wear store-bought disguises, and become walking advertising for my Halloween deficiencies.

So, each October, stomach in knots, I stewed over the impending holiday, while those Competent Mothers were buzzing happily along at their sewing machines, turning yards of tulle into Swan Lake-worthy tutus, stuffing batting into the arms of glossy robots like those straight out of Universal Studios backlots. Their Big Birds were laden with meticulously placed feathers, their Raggedy Anns adorably authentic.

“Matthew’s dragon costume is coming along so well!” I’d hear from another mom sitting next to me at a soccer game. “I was up all night sewing on the scales by hand, but he is so happy, and I’m having so much fun!”

“Really! It sounds adorable!” I’d squeal, suppressing the urge to choke her. This woman actually likes Halloween, I marveled. Well, I can’t help it if I don’t sew, I consoled myself. For me, a few scraggly knee patches stitched onto jeans meant scarecrow.

Then some non-sewing Competent Mom would gush, “I’m so excited about the school bus I’m making for Jacob to wear,” and I’d clasp my hands together so I wouldn’t slap her. A school bus? She’s making her kid into a school bus? Inside, I wept in despair.

Apparently, even Competent Moms who weren’t handy with a needle and thread didn’t let that stop them. Imagination is all it takes, they insisted. An old cardboard box, a glue gun, and some spray-paint, and they transformed their kids into walking, talking refrigerators, TV sets, rocket ships. Why didn’t I think of that? I dunno, but I sure didn’t. Like Cinderella’s fairy godmother, Competent Moms waved a magic wand, turning grocery bags into teddy bears or palm trees. And they actually enjoyed it. Where was my magic wand? If I fashioned something out of an old sheet, it looked like an old sheet, usually covered in bedroomy, flowery prints, not the all-purpose white.

Year after year, I muddled through, until my kids were too old for the annual ritual. But I still shudder when I contemplate the damage I may have done to their self-esteem. Sure, they seem to be well-adjusted adults, but did Halloween conjure up childhood horrors? I can’t bring myself to ask them.

A couple years ago, I overheard the new generation of mothers, including my daughter, expressing angst over putting their offspring into acceptable Halloween garb. What they are complaining about, I wondered. With a swipe of a credit card or a click of a mouse, they can get respectable-looking Halloween regalia. Plus, Pinterest — where was that when I needed it?

These moms have their won challenges.

“My five-year-old wants to dress like an ax murderer, and carry a bloody ax.”

“And Lily wants to be a rock star… but everything they sell looks like hooker clothes.”

“Audrey wants a costume that cost ninety dollars.”

“Well, here’s what I do,” said one mom. “I tell them that everything must center on a plastic garbage bag; they can choose a white one or a black one. ‘Let your imagination run wild,’ I tell them.” The other moms gaped.

A garbage bag? What could that be, I wondered. A hockey puck? A black-eyed pea? A hard-boiled egg? A snowball?

Well, even I never scarred my kids for life by dressing them in a Hefty.

But, Honey, you’re my kind of mom!




Crossing the Line

“The Florida in my novels is not as seedy as the real Florida. It’s hard to stay ahead of the curve. Every time I write a scene that I think is the sickest thing I have ever dreamed up, it is surpassed by something that happens in real life.” — Carl Hiassen

On the right side of Interstate 75 was a billboard asking the question, “Where is the birth certificate?” A few miles down the road, a Confederate flag the size of a tennis court waved in the breeze. Yep, we were in Florida, where people see things a little differently from the folks up North.

There’s a lot to love about Florida — stunning beaches, balmy weather, palm trees and blue skies. Sarasota is a gem, a vibrant city with excellent theaters, a thriving arts community, great restaurants, and beautiful vistas.  Still, we snowbirds can  find plenty to roll our eyes about.

The  Sunshine State has no shortage of wackadoos. Odds are, when you hear a news story that makes you say, “huh?”, chances are it took place right here. There are the biggies, of course, like the tragedies of Travon Martin and Caylee Anthony. The murder in a movie theater over an argument about texting? Tampa. Beyond these attention- grabbing stories, there are plenty of others that make us scratch our heads.

Just recently, “fangate”, the less-than-original “let’s add ‘gate’ to coin a new word describing a scandal”, occurred when the two candidates for governor,  Charlie Crist and Rick Scott, squabbled over whether or not it was fair that Charlie brought a fan to the debate when Scott didn’t.

“How come he gets a fan and I don’t?”

With all there is to discuss about Florida’s future — its economic growth, its environmental issues, immigration, etc.– a fan became the focus. The current governor, Scott, sulked outside for about seven minutes rather than come into the auditorium and debate the issues while Crist  coolly smirked behind his breezy podium. Geesh! These two guys are right now in a dead heat, and not just for who’s going to be elected. They’re also tied in the dislikability category, each with about a 47% unfavorable rating from Floridians. Gee, why?

A couple weeks ago, Victor Thompson was arrested on drug charges in nearby St. Pete.  So? What’s so unusual about a drug arrest?  Just take a look at his mug shot. Seems Mr. Thompson has chosen to express his love of the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady by having the image of Brady’s helmet tattooed on his head, complete with an authentic-looking Riddell label. Now, that’s a fan! Check it out.


This week’s best, or maybe worst, example comes out of Tampa, where Dante Robeson landed in the hospital with gunshot wounds when he objected to his neighbor’s dog pooping in his yard. So much for Standing Your Ground.

Good thing we Illinoisans don’t have any knuckleheads like these. Well, except for the four governors/ felons and the former darling of news media and now convicted murderer, Drew Peterson.


Left Behind

Left Behind

“My parents didn’t want to move to Florida, but they turned sixty and that’s the law.” — Jerry Seinfeld

I spent the morning purging my closet, rearranging what to take and what to leave behind. Our snowbirdism officially begins on Monday, when we head south for the winter. Mike’s golf clubs, some Chicago delicacies –two frozen tubs of Italian beef, a couple jars of giardeniere, packets of Frontera mole sauce–, piles of sandals, shorts, and tee shirts, the computer, and some cute new lanai throw pillows will be smooshed into the car Clampett-style for our two day trip.

As rookie snowbirds, figuring out what goes and what stays takes some thinking. Stuff I don’t wear either here or there ended up in a Goodwill-bound bag. But what to pack? No wooly sweaters, no winter coats, no boots – yippee! Black suede pumps? Scarves that aren’t fashion accessories, but a preventative for frozen nostrils? Those twenty long-sleeved tees that I layer under sweaters? The fuzzy Dearfoam slippers? A cozy robe? Left behind.

Left behind. Some of my life falls into that category, too. Stuff in the discard pile: Professional responsibilities. Weekly Grandma days. Weekly shopping excursions with my eighty-nine-year-old mother. Book club. Lunches with old friends. Meetings for a glass of wine with the Baker Babes. Writers group. Some soccer games, dance recitals, swim meets that could use a grandma in the stands.

We’ve dipped our toes into snowbird life before. For twelve years, we’ve been flying down to Sarasota for little snippets of time. When I was no longer tethered to a school calendar, the snippets stretched – three days turned into five, seven days turned into ten. Last year, freshly retired, we tallied a total of twelve weeks spread over six months, an all-time high. We even stayed for one seven-week stretch, when I read a lot, lolled at the pool, joined a card group, went for walks on the beach, made some new friends, trained to be a literacy volunteer, and settled in. That polar vortex back home? Missed most of it.

Now, we’re off for the whole winter. Except for the month of December, we’ll be there until May. The stereotypical retired couple moving to Florida? Yup, that’s us, I guess.

I’ve been responsible, organized, and task-oriented my whole life. I’ve been busy, real busy. One thing I’ve learned: busyness is not a virtue. So, I’m giving myself some pep talks about this life transition. Give yourself a break, Ellen. Ditch that little shroud of guilt that you tend to wear if you sleep in a little, spend an afternoon reading a book by the pool, or fritter away an afternoon playing iPad Scrabble on the lanai while others are hunching their shoulders against Chicago’s brutal cold. Walk the beach or the Ringling Bridge, and love every step. Soak up the sunshine – slathered in sunscreen, of course–, admire the palm trees, and delight in the sandhill cranes that mosey through the neighborhood. Take a writing course, just for fun. Tutor, because you love it, not because it’s required. Find what you enjoy, and enjoy it.

One more thing that’s getting left behind? The feeling that I Have To (fill in the blank).

Now, let’s hit the road.

In the Pink

“Everything in life is luck.” — Donald Trump

The fear came in increments. First the call about needing a second mammogram… “Just routine,” the voice assured me.

But it wasn’t. The radiologist ordered an on-the-spot ultrasound, so I knew we’d upped the ante. I watched the two ultrasound techs calibrate the spot they saw.

A few days later was the needle biopsy. Anyone who’s been to Jiffy Lube, where a car is put on a lift, and the tech sits underneath, draining the oil, will recognize this scenario. First, I was strapped face down onto a table, the breast in question dangling through a hole. My neck and back silently screamed “Let me go!” while I waited for the doctor to arrive. When he did, I could barely see him, my face smooshed into the gurney. The hydraulics hoisted me ceiling-ward, and the doc slid his chair underneath to plunge in the needle. Did it hurt? Hell, yeah! But it was quick. Finally, I was released from bondage, trussed in a tight wrap, and sent home to await the results.

Days later, we were headed to our favorite waterside spot in Florida when my phone rang. Yep, cancer. The word banged around my brain even while the doctor told me it was small, probably just a lumpectomy, probably no chemo… but yes, I had cancer. I had cancer. I cried, my husband cried. We hugged, and then bucked up, sipped pina coladas and watched the boats skim along the intercoastal. I dreaded calling the family, but I knew they were waiting. My daughter sobbed. My son, the analytical one, went on line, did his research, and assured us all, as the doctor had, that this was just a blip on the screen of my life.

The next couple weeks meant consultations with an oncologist and a surgeon, pre-op EKG and MRI. I felt like a tumor with a person attached as an afterthought. I dutifully listened, followed directions, and worked on smiling.

After sleepless nights filled with “what-ifs”, it was Halloween – lumpectomy day. Pre-op meant more unpleasantness, but nurses kept me mellow with some magic stuff in an IV. Meanwhile, my husband and daughter tagged along each step of the way, with nothing to ease their nerves. Our biggest concern: Had cancer invaded my lymph nodes, requiring chemo? Post- op, I was immediately alert enough to ask the question, and blubbered when I heard the answer I’d hoped for. Meanwhile, in the waiting room, my husband and daughter shed their own tears of relief. Since no one hangs around in a hospital very long these days, I was home by the time the trick-or-treaters began ringing the doorbell.

After a couple of weeks, I joined other cancer patients in the radiation waiting room. I had hair; some of them did not. My treatments were two-a-days for a week; theirs, once-a-days for a month. Wearing our little smocks, we watched morning TV, chitchatted about Oprah, and waited for our turns. First, there was the pro forma CAT scan to be sure my port hadn’t wiggled out of place. I was slid into the metal casing and gazed at a beachy scene, palm tree and sunshine, taped to the ceiling while the machinery did its thing.

Then, my turn for radiation. The doc and technician led me into the chamber – a place right out of an old Flash Gordon episode. They hooked me up. Then I chose the day’s music– Harry Connick? Natalie Cole? Barry Manilow? Someone pushed the on button, then skedaddled to avoid radiation’s risks. I lie there humming along to Old Blue Eyes while the cell-killer zinged through my chest.

By early December, the ordeal was over.

My diagnosis was Breast Cancer Lite– no mastectomy, no chemo, no bald head. But even Cancer Lite isn’t a great time.

October, when my news came, is Breast Cancer Awareness Month – when the world is awash in perky pink. NFL players wear pink shoes, major leaguers swing pink bats. Pink paper towels, pink yogurt cups, pink M and M’s, pink Everready triple A batteries called out to me while I shopped, “Breast Cancer! Breast Cancer! You have Breast Cancer!” just in case I had forgotten.

Now, seven years have gone by, and once again, it’s October. No cures for breast cancer yet, and pink still runs rampant. Everyone is trying to “save the tatas!” Macy’s posts ads for breast cancer pink “Fight Like a Girl” workout tops and “Warrior” yoga hoodies. Every NFL team sells its own version of pink team wear, for “awareness”, but guess what? Only a smidge of the profits help breast cancer research and the rest lines the NFL’s coffers.

I think of my friend Denise, no fan of October’s avalanche of pink. She sailed through a mastectomy — no chemo required. A couple years later, cancer invaded her bones, and she endured several bouts of chemo and joked about avoiding pink ribbons. Next, a tumor attacked her brain; this was her death sentence. Was she not “fighting like a girl?” Wasn’t she “warrior” enough? Ridiculous. Her death was not about her courage or her grace; she had plenty of both. It was about an ugly, cruel, evil disease.

I bristle at the obit page cliché “lost a courageous battle with cancer.” Battle? ”Battle” implies a loser, a failure, a less able combatant — one lacking the strength, the determination to vanquish the enemy. Cancer doesn’t fight fair, no matter how hard one wars against it. Of course a positive attitude is a good thing, but it’s not a cure.

I’ve never worn any pink survivor button like a badge of honor, or slapped a survivor sticker on my car’s bumper. I’ve been no braver or no more optimistic than those who ”lose the battle.” A warrior? A fighter? No. I’m just luckier than so many others who don’t get the good news I did.

Making an Impression

“The first thing in the human personality that dissolves in alcohol is dignity.” — Author Unknown

The restaurant, about the size our living room, was filled with diners, mostly French. The singer and the pianist had taken a break, and we were feasting on our desserts. Abruptly,  the hum of private tete-a-tetes was shattered when  a boozed-up party of five burst into the room.

First an old man staggered in, bumping into tables as he fumbled around for a chair. Then, two men– his sons, we’d surmise– and their wives followed. “Grazie!” one bellowed to the restaurant owner who showed them to the table.  Grazie? Were they Italians? No. Definitely not. Right away, we knew they were Americans, the kind that didn’t know the difference between “Grazie” and “Merci.”

Immediately they trampled on the ambience of quiet civility.  Every slurred word and brash comment ricocheted around the room. “I want champagne! I want champagne right now!” screeched one woman, whose husband shushed her. “You don’t need any champagne!” he insisted. She persisted; their squabble accelerated.

Meanwhile, the other son and the old man confabbed about some business deal. That  guy would just have to take it or leave it, he was an asshole, they weren’t gonna leave any money on the table, they’d show him. Oblivious to the other diners, these hotshots blathered on, clearly impressed with their business acumen.

We all knew their drink orders, and we all heard every snippet of their plan to squeeze money out of someone back home. Maybe in a TGIFriday’s or a Buffalo Wild Wings, their decibel level might have been drowned out under the rumble of  big screen NFL games. But not here, in this elegant little space, with Parisians whose voices don’t carry past their own companions.

Other patrons shot disapproving glances their way. They never noticed.  We finished our desserts and our wine, cringing at the spectacle as we slunk away. Proud to be Americans? Not that night.

The Old Familiar

“Make every day a travel day.” — Cliff Hsia

The suitcases are unpacked and put away, the laundry is done, the three bags of vacation hold mail have been whittled down to almost nothing. I snuck in a walk in downtown Naperville, and caught up with a friend over a McDonald’s Diet Coke. Last night, I grilled chicken on the grill, and Mike watched a new episode of NCIS.

Normalcy feels good. It felt good to use my own washing machine instead of those in a Paris laundromat. It felt good to make small talk with the woman at Casey’s deli, instead of struggling to form a coherent sentence in French. It felt good to hop in my car, park it on Jefferson Street, and wander through Talbots to see what’s new.

Naperville looks beautiful. The trees are changing color, and crunchy leaves line the curbs. Best of all, we squeezed in a pop-in visit to see our daughter and son-in-law and two grandkids. Their dog Buster went wild when he saw me, and both kids, even Owen, threw their arms around me in one big, fat, joyous hugfest.

Home, sweet home, indeed.  Being away, even to Paris, has me relishing the everyday  here. Yeah, the thrill of a trip to Jewel will disappear in a day or two. The obnoxious political ads on our all-American TV are already wearing thin. Today, though, home is where my heart is, even if there’s always gong to be a big chunk of it lingering on Rue de Montagne de Ste. Genevieve.

Scrolling through my iPad yesterday, I found this article that seemed to be meant for me. His suggestion: “Fall back in love with your life by getting out of your bubble” sounds like a pretty good way to live. I’m resolving to keep my eyes open and savor the little details. I won’t be seeing the Eiffel Tower when I’m walking through town, but the Naperville Library has two books on its hold shelf waiting for me. Sweet!

Take a look:   http://www.huffingtonpost.com/cliff-hsia/how-to-make-every-day-a-t_b_5870840.html