Sometimes the Halloween Mask Hides the Demon’s Face

Photo by Mathias P.R. Reding from Pexels

I am in the later stages of writing a memoir on my manic high-school shoplifting business for publication (still need another round of outside edits and a cover design), and to seed that, am releasing some reflections—and broken mirrors—from my younger days. Here’s one on Halloween (usual link list follows):

Children are very dangerous. I know, I was one. For instance, when no one else is home, they might release a sibling’s hamster in the house just to see where it might establish a new burrow. The hamster’s new home might remain a mystery forever. (Personal recommendation: Your sister will forget soon enough anyway.) Or they might test every spray-can cleaning product with a lit match to see which one makes the most vivid incendiary device. (Personal recommendation: Anything with “Dow” in the product name is a good bet.)

Or they might get up in the parent’s attic, remove most of the collectible coins from their coin booklets, and spend them on candy. (Personal recommendation: saying “I didn’t take ALL of them” will not invite forgiveness.)

Children are even more dangerous at Halloween, and I don’t mean just because they might be wearing a Donald Trump mask. Now I’m not talking about tiny children here, the four-, five- and six-year-olds who stumble up the walkway to a Halloween house and give a benumbed “thank you” to the householder who coos over their costumes, while the parents of the costumed lurk in the sidewalk shadows.

No, I’m talking about the eleven-, twelve-, and thirteen-year-olds, who are considerably more in need of their parents’ supervision, because they are capable of—no, delight in—wreaking havoc. Their brains are soft cheese. Deeper channels of ethics and wisdom? None.

Halloween was a holy time for me, because I was crazed for sugar. I was one of those kids who live for (and lived on) dessert, so I would eat dessert seven or eight times a day, no preceding meal necessary. I was very accomplished in scouring the neighborhood trash for deposit bottles, which I’d return to the store in exchange for candy bars.

Ah, free enterprise. Thus, the notion of a night in which you dressed funny and house after house would give you candy if you knocked on their door? Preposterous. And exhilarating.

But having reached that dangerous age, I also craved a little mayhem with my M&Ms. Necessity being the mother of dementia, my neighborhood cronies and I constructed a realistic looking life-sized dummy, with a dressmaker’s dummy’s head sewed into a long-sleeved shirt, covered by a baseball cap, long pants, and shoes sewed onto the pants. On a dark night, on a street where the cars went by pretty fast, the dummy would fool a fair percentage of people. Which street?

As it so happened, my small suburban street butted up to a four-lane boulevard, with steady traffic. We’d employed this street many times in our pranks: in the daytime, I once took a six-foot ladder out into the median between the two sets of lanes, light bulb in hand, and ascended to the top of the ladder and pretended to be changing a bulb, while drivers in passing cars gaped and my friends on the sidelines laughed.

We also took a small poker table out to the same median and set it up with folding chairs, and dealt a few hands of poker while the cars whizzed by. Just one of those flukes that no one hit us, or no cop pulled over to inform us of just how not-clever we were.

Where were the parents, you might say? Well, mine were in our house, as were those of my friends. Had they looked outside, they would have been mortified, but again, just a fluke that no parent happened by.

My mother, bless her, raised me specifically NOT to be this way. Since we were always outside playing baseball or hide-and-seek or some other thing anyway, we were presumed innocent from those on the comfortable couches inside. (In fact, don’t tell my mother in heaven about any of this; she’s heard enough about the shoplifting.)

So, we had the right street: the big boulevard. We had the right night: Halloween. We had the right attitude: we were idiots. We set that dummy lying in the street, an arm cocked over its pathetic head, and pulled back into the bushes to watch.

Oh my. Cars coming screeching to a halt, or whipping around in a wild swerve. And one, a Porsche going too fast, actually did a full 360-degree screaming circle after jamming hard on the brakes. But our favorite was the guy who skidded to a halt, jumped out of the car, picked up the dummy and shouted “That’s not funny!”

He was right, of course. I marvel to this day that a high percentage of kids do make it out of adolescence alive, because so many of them have no sense of consequence whatsoever. We didn’t see the dummy leading to an actual accident (potential: high) and possibly to serious injury (potential: high) and probably lifelong consequences: (fact: we had no clue about consequences). And we were regular kids, raised by conscientious parents, who tried to instill sense and ethics. But children are dangerous, as I’m trying to point out.

That’s why we also threw Halloween pumpkins at passing cars. Now I think I only actually hit two cars in all my efforts, but imagine you are driving along and a rocketing orange missile hits your car. A ripe pumpkin has a lot of heft, and when one strikes a car going 35 miles an hour, it makes an unusual sound, a deep thunk combined with a liquidy, squooshy echo. Very satisfying. Except to the driver. But nobody crashed. Again, just a fluke.

Of course I did other bad things at Halloween, like when a house had a big bowl of candy labeled “honor system.” It was like the coins in the attic—I didn’t take ALL of them. What do you expect when you’re dressed like Satan? That’s HIS honor system.

Our neighborhood was straight middle-class, so we got the regular Halloween offerings: tiny candy bars, hard candy, gum, nuts. We would also immediately launch skyward anything like an apple or orange that a well-meaning householder would supply. Fruit? On Halloween? Absurd. What were they thinking? Of course, “thinking” was something we were pretty much amateurs at ourselves.

Once we went up in the gated rich folks’ neighborhood near our own, where amazingly, they were letting in the grubby outsiders. Here were houses giving away regular-sized Snickers bars! Another donuts, and they were hot! Another, full RC Colas, which is remarkably bad judgment. [Return to what I said about hurling pumpkins.] As an aside, if you ever need to detonate anything, just put a bunch of Sweet-Tarts in an RC Cola and cap it back up. But then you need to back up too, quickly.

Fast forward about a thousand years to a couple of Halloweens I’ve had being on the other side of the door. My girlfriend and I spent an entire evening with the lights off, cowering, because we’d forgotten to buy any candy, and we hadn’t made any plans to go out. Truly a mixed message: we had a lit pumpkin on the porch, so we were inviting candy-seeking door-knockers who would go unanswered. I remember us whispering when we heard kids pausing outside and then moving on: “Are they going to come up? Damn!” And believe me, I wasn’t going to offer any of the apples we had.

The first Halloween we had at the house where we live now we made big preparations: lots of carved, lit pumpkins, both of us fully costumed, a big bowl of candy—and nobody came. We live in a semi-rural area, that’s pretty dark, with lots of space between houses, and I guess that’s not too appealing these days. We felt pretty stupid, waiting around for hours without one trick-or-treater.

But it worked out OK: I ate all the candy. I’m no longer as dangerous as I was, but some things never change.

Linkability

A few recent articles of mine:

On the Things You Carry and the Things You Leave

The objects and objectives of travel are subject to mysterious forces — and sometimes cosmic jokes. Published in October 2021 in the Bold Italic.

A Caravan to the Castle

Airstreaming in the UK has some parallels to road-tripping in the US, but it’s not nearly as easy to go castle-hopping here. Published in the Fall 2021 edition of Airstream Life magazine. (c) 2021 Airstream Life, published with permission.

Big Sur: Beauty and Bliss in My Own Backyard

I’ve stayed in a number of striking places overseas, but my neighbor just down the street, Big Sur, is second to none for captivation and beauty. Published in October 2021 in the Bold Italic.

Other Writers’ Posts

The Most Important Thing for Living a Fulfilling Life, According to Psychologists

“… our conception of what a good life looks like should include a consideration of whether it is “psychologically rich,” which they define as being, “characterized by a variety of interesting and perspective-changing experiences.”

The Case For Letting Things Fall Through the Cracks 

He makes the case that the cause of this never ending chase—and the burnout it often leads to—is a sense of not-enough-ness. We expect external successes to solve internal worth issues.”

How To Craft A Routine For Everyday Success

“Routine might not sound all that creative, but it reliably summons the muse on cue. Evolutionarily, the ability to perform habitual actions on autopilot freed human brains to invent fire, tools and TikTok.”

Are You Pitching and Missing? My Shoplifting Memoir Can’t Steal Enough Interest


Image by U.S. Army Korea (Historical Image Archive). Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It’s April Fools’ Day—what better time than to tell you the story of a fool?

I have a colorful high school history: besides the standard bushel of bad judgments and emotional flurries of self-absorption and self-loathing, I had an intriguing job: shoplifter. I was never much for regular jobs, then or now, and my shoplifting work basically fell into my lap. Or, more accurately, into my jacket.

I discovered, through trial and error, that I had a knack for stealing things from stores. So much so that I was a happy reseller of all manner of goods—cassette decks (yep, I’m old), 8-track decks (uh-huh, same), records, books, clothes, liquor, cigars, even gasoline, car parts and briefcases —to high school companions. Easy money.

I spent serious hours determining best practices, escape routes if caught, alterations to my clothing to better conceal goods, casing stores, plotting pilfers, and collecting branded bags from stores for later theft in those bags in those stores. I was so enthused about my work that it carried over for a couple of years after high school, including glories like close encounters with the law and a bit of jail time, and a shameful little resurgence in my first year of college. Old habits die hard.

So many were the misadventures that they screamed to be recorded. Since there was nowhere else to go over this past virus-bespattered year, I went to the memory banks. I’d written a couple of essays on my five-fingering over the years, but never the collected tales. Collect them I did (with the help of many cronies from my past, to argue dates and details) and I ended up with 52,000 criminal words in late summer.

Using resources like the Poets and Writers filterable publisher’s databases of small presses and agents, Agent Query, Writer’s Digest, and Twitter, I found agents and publishers who work with memoir, and sent them a query, or proposal or sample material, as dictated by their guidelines. (Reedsy just opened their own searchable literary agent database, but I haven’t used it yet.)

All in all, I harassed 66 of those buggers, and they managed to say no in various ways. The bulk of them by not replying, politely advising on their sites that “if you haven’t heard from us within [6, 12, 18] weeks, we’re not interested.” Others did send replies, mostly form letters, and a few friendlies sent warm, personal letters of regret that my work wasn’t suitable for their list.

Though I’m still within the time boundaries for a few of these lovelies, Route 66 feels like it’s closed down for me, so it’s probably time to pave the self-publishing road again. I’ll likely work with a developmental editor first (making inquiries now), and of course find the right cover designer. I am looking into laying it out in Vellum, which sounds promising.

I originally wrote it in Scrivener, a great program for organizing (and shifting about) chapters and notes. Scrivener does output for print and ebooks, as does the free Reedsy and Draft2Digital for ebooks, but I have had issues with all before (possibly user error) and I am looking for something easy with more power. I hope the links help with your own publishing pursuits.

I might look for marketing help as well (nosing about in that now, since I’m late already), but my budget might not afford a fast carriage with many horses.

The memoir is a reflective work that takes a tangled emotional journey. But it’s funny too, because dribbling new basketballs out of stores is funny. To me, at least. I will likely put out a call soon for readers and potential reviewers, if you’re interested.

In the meantime, keep your hands in your own pockets.

Linkability

Here are a few of my recent articles, followed by some from other writers, mostly on the mental health front, and which have been helpful in these unhelpful times.

Brother’s Bond: Bourbon Is Thicker Than Blood

Who knew that vampires prefer bourbon to blood? The former stars of “The Vampire Diaries,” Ian Somerhalder and Paul Wesley, make a bourbon. And they are mighty serious about it. Published in April 2021 by the WhiskeyWash newsletter.

Bay Area hikes: Devil’s Slide Trail, near Pacifica

The landslides lost are our gain: After many closings of Highway 1 over many years, the old highway was turned into a hiking trail with dazzling ocean views. And then you can go to the Louvre of Taco Bells. Published in March 2021 in the San Jose Mercury News.

The Whiskey Of Pennsylvania Is Something To Take Note Of

Like your whiskey mixed with your history? Here’s a piece of mine on Pennsylvania rye (and though only a bit wry, the article has some deeply distilled history). The first Penn rye guys are from way back and the new craft distillers work from there. (By the way, my suggested headline, “Catchers in the Pennsylvania Rye” was way better.) Published in March 2021 by the WhiskeyWash newsletter.

Other People’s Posts

How to train your brain to be more present
“The value of noticing these thought patterns is that you can intervene. Rather than allowing yourself to follow the track started by the thought that interrupted you, you can refocus yourself on the task you were working on before. In that way, you minimize the influence of these extraneous thoughts.”

The 7 types of rest that every person needs
“Creative rest reawakens the awe and wonder inside each of us. Do you recall the first time you saw the Grand Canyon, the ocean or a waterfall?

The Life Cycle of Thoughts and Why Your Brain Needs a Filter
“Instead of getting bamboozled by whatever pops to mind, reminding ourselves that it is a thought—nothing more, nothing less. When we see a thought for what it is, we are not ensnared by the baggage that typically comes along with it—the drama, glitz, promise, fear, whatever makes it the bright shiny object of the moment.”

This ‘Optimism Training Plan’ Will Improve Your Outlook in Just 5 Days
“The mind can be a junkyard of ideas, as opposed to a center of clarity where you can apply the science of thinking about the future with an optimistic lens.”

Please Add Chocolate Cake to My Apocalypse Order

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels


Samuel Beckett, that existentialist coyote, has a couple of quotes from his stories and plays that are regularly used to shore one’s self up, even if the quotes seem to be wearing black frocks and carrying scythes. There is the pithy “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on,” which reminds me of the Black Knight in Monty Python’s “In Search of the Holy Grail” who is in a sword fight, gets his legs and arms cut off and says, “It’s only a flesh wound,” and battles on.

Then there’s Beckett’s “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better,” adopted by Silicon Valley bro culture as a kind of entrepreneurial mantra. (No bro ever mentions the following paragraphs, with their “Throw up and go … Throw up and back … Throw up for good” and like phrases, which suggest that failing better could necessitate many hot showers.)

Beckett, who had to be a gas at parties, had a bleak outlook on human nature, but leavened it an inch or so with black humor. He never saw 2020, but he would have had some thoughts about it, even if they would be monosyllabic and soaked in bitter herbs. I haven’t thrown up for good, but I definitely feel like I’ve thrown up and back. I suspect much of our country feels the same way.

So, it’s been a melancholic period for me, with inspiration in short supply: a deadly virus, apocalyptic fires in the West and a megalomaniacal president does that to a fellow. I have mostly been working—including trying to get it in front of agents and publishers—on the memoir from my larcenous high school days; you can see what that’s about in the first link below. (By the way, I found a nice resource on querying information at QueryLetter.)

Otherwise, I can’t seem to get my engine started to write any fiction, since truth is not only stranger than fiction these days, it also makes me want to nap. I am going to do some website revamping, and more targeted querying for some articles I am enthusiastic about writing. Enthusiasm, I invite you back.

I hope you are all doing well with your writing work and in your lives. Cheerio!

Linkability

The list is a bit deceiving because I hadn’t put new publications in my last couple of blog posts—lately all I’ve been hearing is “our budget has been cut” and “sorry” from editors (if I hear anything at all). But here’s some of my most recent work. August, sigh, seems like 10 years ago…

Missing Some Memories? I Might Have Stolen Them

Memoirs can take many turns—mine turns towards crime. Specifically, the years I spent as a high-school shoplifter, taking orders and selling the goods. Scandal! Here I go through the mechanics of writing memoirs, best practices and the galling lack of shame I had as a teenage hooligan. Published by the fine folks at WriterUnboxed in September 2020.

The Magic Of Malting Makes For California Whiskey Wonders

Carefully tended malted grains give whiskey (and beer) some oomph. This piece of mine explains some of the techniques, some quite old, in producing quality malts, and the quaffable results. Published in September 2020 by the WhiskeyWash newsletter.

Why the 4468 Mallard Is Such a Badass Train

The speed record for the world’s fastest steam train is held by the Mallard. Set in 1938, at 126mph. Still the record today—that’s steaming. Published in September 2020 on Popular Mechanics magazine.

Pet Sitting Disasters: Read This Before You Apply for Your Next Pet-Sitting Gig.

My account of lunatic, scary, and bewildering experiences house-sitting crazed pets in many parts of the world. Published in September 2020 on The Professional Hobo. (Originally published on the now-defunct Bluntly Magazine.)

Kayaking Elkhorn Slough is a wildlife and otter lover’s delight

My piece on a lovely day amidst the wildlife (among them my girlfriend) of diverse and diverting Elkhorn Slough in central California. Published in August 2020 in the San Jose Mercury News.

Hands-on Ecuadorian Artisans Are Hands-Down Amazing

My belatedly published piece on a pre-pandemic trip to Ecuador, where my sweetheart and I saw the appealing handiwork of impressively talented artists across many disciplines. Published in August 2020 on Dave’s Travel Corner.

A Treehouse for Adults

The next best thing to flying in your Airstream: glamping in one that’s 25 feet up off the ground. Published in the Summer 2020 edition of Airstream Life magazine. (c) 2020 Airstream Life, published with permission.

Amazing Grace, the Trailer that Makes Memories (and Holds Them, Too)

The inspiring life and early death of a beloved daughter prompted her parents to start foundations in her honor, and name their Airstream after her too. Published in the Summer 2020 edition of Airstream Life magazine. (c) 2020 Airstream Life, published with permission.

And on the mental health front, a front I need in the back as well, here are some pieces from other writers that have been helpful.

Take Ownership of Your Future Self

Curiosity: The Key To A Long Life

Optimism Makes Your Brain Work Better

To Do Your Best Work, Use the 85% Rule

Seeking Happiness Won’t Help You Make Major Personal Decisions. Here’s What Will

Stop Procrastinating Today With Behavioral Science