When Halloween gets lost in translation

Pretty much kaput, Halloween means just about nothing to me nowadays. The thrill is gone. The chill is gone. I’m not 7, dig. 

Yet something about Halloween sticks, hovering like a blanket of graveyard fog. Each year I gladly inhale the occasion’s residual festive fumes, pumped in like so much giddy-making nitrous oxide. Hey, unlike zombies, I have a pulse.

Though costumes are long — and forever — doffed and I’ve retired the habit of sneaking morsels from the communal candy bowl (It’s for the kids, dammit!), I remain devoted to this perverse, very North American celebration of the gross, grim and ghoulish. (And, yeah, I lied: the Reese’s cups are mine.) 

But I effectively don’t partake in the big-picture party, unless you count sometimes serving as the eve’s Doorbell Dork, doling out Snickers and Tootsie Pops, smiling like the village idiot on cue when a particular and rather mystifying catchphrase (starts with trick) is shrieked by decked-out kiddies (and a few shameless, straggling grown-ups who can only dream they’re getting a Kit-Kat from this finger-wagging candy dispenser).

It’s a festival of enforced flamboyance. Excess is enshrined. Generally sane people douse themselves in corn syrup blood. Sex is flaunted in racy micro-fashions: cats and maids and devils. It’s masks and makeup and Marvel; wigs, witches and wizards; Pokémon, pirates and pop stars (and, yes, Pop Tarts) — the palette is as infinite as it is infantilizing. The id comes out to romp. 

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Halloween in Sevilla, Spain, 2016 — amateur hour.

In placid suburbia, lawn dioramas have grown ambitiously disgusting. I love the sinew-chewing zombies (with staticky sound effects), life-size, yoga-posed skeletons and tombstone-cluttered cemeteries, gnarled limbs popping out of the ground. I beseech you: gross me out.

It’s a bacchanal of fantasy and horror, whimsy and steroidal imagination. It’s pop cinema — slashers to superheroes — sprung to life. And it’s uniquely, wildly American (and, I hear, Canadian). 

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Halloween, Beirut, 2008 — not cool.

I’ve done Halloween in London, Paris, Beirut, Ho Chi Minh City, Kathmandu and Sevilla. As the locals tried to summon the spirit, they invariably botched the holiday, blundering with gauche costumes (er, blackface in Beirut and Paris) and feebly attended parties — strictly amateur hour, training wheels required.

Except when they’re not. Except when the night has been co-opted with the verve and vision matching the western prototype. All eyes on … Japan. It’s said that Japan has only been practicing Halloween in earnest for five years. But amateurs? Hardly.

The Japanese were born pros, built for Halloween. Nothing is lost in translation. Dress up and cosplay are daily mainstream occurrences. Stroll anytime through Tokyo’s Harajuku district for teen fashion so high, so rococo, it passes as a perpetual street costume party.

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Harajuku teen, Tokyo, in April 2006.

Which should make this year’s Halloween something special. I land in Tokyo on October 30, giving me less than 24 hours to steel for whatever that hyper-charged city has in store in the way of a woozy wingding.  

Because there is no way I’m not wading into the most outrageous Halloween hotspots — like bustling, youthful Shibuya, where a million revelers are expected — to get the full Japanese treatment: anime and cosplay characters, J-horror ghosts and vampires, video-game avatars and the universal diet of Star Wars, Harry Potter, Power Rangers and other mega-brands. (Oddly, Where’s Waldo? seems to still be popular. I’ll look into it.) 

This is what I wanna see, Halloween with kick (I’ll return with a full, bloody report):

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Witches? Zombies? No idea but I’m thrilled. 
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Nerd, nerd, nerd, nerd and nerd. That’s five nerds. God bless them.
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Grisly Disney: zombie versions of famous cartoon characters, including Minnie Mouse and Snow White.
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A gaggle of zombie fast food (flesh food?) servers. Do you want fingers with that human hamburger?

And the best for last …

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Fourth of July: slightly better than you think

So they do the big community fireworks show in our exurb the night before the Fourth of July — that is, today, the third — presumably so they don’t have to compete with the real fireworks shows, the mega-extravaganzas detonated by the nearby big cities. Makes sense. Can you imagine if every town and city shot off their arsenals at the same time on the same night? The skies would be pyro pandemonium. (Would that be so bad?)

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For our country-fair version of neon-blooms and sky-borne booms we’re granted largish park space, hot dog and churros stands and only slightly embarrassing cover bands with names like The Rolling Clones doing their best not to asphyxiate classics by CCR, the Beatles, Journey, Foreigner and scads of other woolly ‘60s-‘70s supergroups. The music and fireworks are free. The hot dogs are not. Parking is combat. There is no alcohol. 

This is not a recipe for delight. The Fourth is kind of a dead-end holiday to begin with. Perfunctory plastic flag-waving and high-school-band parades aside, I don’t think many Americans are actually reflecting on the adoption of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. You might be, but really you aren’t. It’s all very patriotic, in a face-painty kind of way.  

th-1.jpegThat said, it’s a good summer holiday, sort of the kickoff to the season (which happens to be my least favorite season, just saying), that is strangely rife with hot dogs. They’re all over the joint.

A good holiday, but not the best. That honor goes to, well, just about every other American holiday. Easter, with its gobs of chocolate, is almost better than July Fourth. Thanksgiving is better. Certainly lawless Halloween and the gift-bloated Christmas surpass it. Hell, even my birthday beats out Independence Day, which is kind of like the special little brother of holidays. Sacrilege? Sorry.

But we settle. The Fourth has its fun. Fireworks, especially from the stance of this recovered pyromaniac, are glorious. Even the rinky-dink version in the ‘burbs, with rampant children, grassy blankets, hot dogs, snow-cones and long-in-the-tooth bands belting out “Don’t Stop Believin’” casts a pleasant spell — and gundpowdery smell.

Away from the park, beer flows and barbecues flame. Small gatherings happen in backyards. Kids squeal and peal and dogs slalom around bare legs and sandaled feet. (Those dogs want … hot dogs.) The occasional dancing sparkler is unveiled to the astonished eyes of youngsters.

I have indelible memories of the holiday as a kid on the beaches of Southern California. It was magic: illegal firecrackers, smoke bombs and Roman candles, lit from inside huge sand pits we dug that sat four or five friends. We were there all day until the city’s big fireworks show unfurled in the night sky, over the ocean, popping, bursting, crackling, streaming. And there we were, watching below, aglow in a thousand sizzling colors.

* Update: The local fireworks shebang was rained out on July 3. They rescheduled the big party for, get this, July 13 — a wee late. And it’s Friday the 13th. Isn’t that its own wild holiday?

Summer’s almost gone.Yes!

“Throughout August, with almost sadistic joy, I watch summer slowly die.” — musician-poet Henry Rollins

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Today, in the first week of August, my niece was rattling off why fall is her favorite season and she slipped into this refrain:

“No bugs! No bugs! No bugs!”

I almost applauded. Fall is my favorite season, too (winter’s a close second, or maybe they’re tied). I can’t do summer. I don’t do summer. August is the cruelest month — it spews volcanic heat, it seems to last an eternity — but when it arrives I count the days of summer’s final steamy breaths. September is around the bend. It won’t be long till I can slip on a jacket. The anticipation’s killing me.

In summer the heat’s too murderous, the days are too long and the pants too short. We know this. But some of us actually like this. Everyone chirps about how nice it is outside at a torrid 88 degrees. They start eating outdoors, drinking beer in blazing sunlight. I’m vampiric. There are outdoorsy people, then there’s me. I’m indoorsy. “Sun and fun” don’t compute. (One word: barbecues.) Like a possum, I’m a nocturnal creature. I crave the dark. Now, where’s the AC?

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Not a good look.

No one likes humidity, but that’s one of the joyous gifts of summertime. I have pretty curly hair that swells and swirls in the humid soup, until it shares attributes with the protagonist in “Eraserhead.” Humidity is the devil’s flatulence.

I’d rather shiver than sweat. I lived for years in Texas, where summer lasts 10 months out of the year and sweating is a way of life. It’s one of those places where when you sit outside at a bar you get soaked by misters. Sweat and mist. Bring a towel, slicker and umbrella.

I travel a lot but never during the summer — the rigged prices, the crowds, the heat exacerbated by global warming. (Those scourging heat waves in, of all places, London and Paris are a scandal.) Tropical “paradises” are off the table, though I hold dear my spring and fall trips to Vietnam, Thailand, Hong Kong and India, epicenters of perspiration. I was positively soaked-through the whole time during all of them. From India I flew to Nepal just to cool off near the Himalayas and breathe relatively fresher mountain air. In Thailand, I got sun poisoning. That’s a long, humiliating story, featuring one beach, eight hours and zero sunscreen. (The upshot: I could barely move my swollen legs and I had to drink two gallons of water a day.)

UnknownI thrive on fall and winter’s cooler temperatures and shorter light cycle. Long sleeves and jeans happily return. Kids go back to school. Arts seasons commence and prestige pictures fill movie screens. (The monstrous snowfall, you say? I can’t hear you.)

What about blameless spring, with its temperate climes and floral efflorescence? Careful, spring can get you too. That’s why it’s my second least favorite season, with all of its pesky augurs of summer: rising temperatures, plants and pollen, picnics, longer days, and, of course, those bugs, bugs, bugs.

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Coming soon.

When summer goes skedaddle, these things go with it: outdoor music festivals, flip-flops, exposed hairy legs, beach outings, tank-tops, camping, sunburn, restaurant patios, body odor, baseball, “The Emoji Movie,” hidden tattoos, small-town parades, parasails, Toyota Summer Sales Events, rattling, weeping window ACs, people named Jasmine and Tyler.

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Halloween in Sevilla.

Summer’s dragon’s fire will soon be extinguished by the crisp gusts of autumn. Turning leaves, shorter days, harvest moons, soup, fall TV, Halloween. Halloween is a big one. It’s way up there on my niece’s list of fall glories. (Since I travel so much in autumn, I’ve done Halloween in London, Paris, Beirut, Ho Chi Minh City, Kathmandu and Sevilla. Each city bumbles the American holiday. For now, it’s strictly amateur hour.)

And yet there are six calendar weeks left of the warm stuff, so maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. But I don’t think so. August is the last hurrah, the season’s dying gasp, and it’s here and, with sunglasses tucked away, we are ticking off the days, closely, carefully, ecstatically.