Fall is a Four-Letter Word

Fall. It’s a four-letter word in my book.

I know masses of people love fall more than anything, but I am not one of them. Yes, I can appreciate the beautiful colors of the leaves changing (although, in Chengdu the leaves just go from gray with a green undertone to gray with a brown undertone, so there is no rainbow of earth tones to stomp through here), and I get that some folks love the cooler weather (again, I’m a fan of a cozy hoodie- for about three days and then I am ready to go back to tank tops and shorts), but overall, fall is just not my thing.

Fall means Halloween, which you don’t even want to get me started on. (Least favorite holiday-ever. Non-event “holidays” like Arbor Day and Presidents’ Day are a better use of a line on my calendar than one that includes creepy costumes, teenagers asking for candy and way too much of the hideous orange/black color combination.)

Fall also means summer is over. I love summer. Even now, when I’m not teaching and don’t get the whole thing off. I love the when it is dark and still warm enough to sit on the deck at a restaurant. (Or, more fittingly for my current situation, on a plastic stool on the sidewalk.) I love getting an ice cream cone and going for a walk after dinner. And I love cute sundresses and sandals, neither of which is practical when I can see my breath in the morning air.

But, as much as fall is not one of my favorite things, this year, I’ve decided I’m going to enjoy every minute of it, as it will be my last fall for…well, who knows how long. For at least two years, in Kuala Lumpur, there will be no need to pack away the skirts and sandals, and then 2016 could bring anything from the bitter cold of Nuuk or Ulan Bator to more time on the equator in Antananarivo or Nairobi. With KL only a few months away, I’m contentiously avoiding sweater shopping online. Old Navy and Maurice’s send me tempting emails on a nearly daily basis, but I’ve been diligent about deleting them without opening their percentage upon percentage off deals.

To that end, I’m looking at all the great things fall in Chengdu has to offer. I’ve already ordered several new pairs of fun colored tights to brighten up the hazy days that have settled on our basin and this weekend I’ll make the dresser drawer transfer, moving my long-sleeved t-shirts and sweaters into the regular rotation and putting the summer clothes to rest in the spare bedroom. I’m guessing there is hotpot in my very near future and the fruity teas have reappeared on my desk at work.

Fall is here, but it is going to be okay.  I’ll wait patiently for the fan-shaped leaves of the gingko trees to turn yellow; I’ll throw a big Halloween bash at the consulate and have my heart warmed by the adorable toddler costumes; and I’ll enjoy the coziness of snuggling up in a hoodie, fuzzy sock and a throw blanket to watch hours of Netflix in an attempt to avoid death by pollution.

This year, fall is still a four letter word, but no longer a “four letter word.”

Did I Actually Just Enjoy Halloween?

Halloween costumes can be a walk down memory lane (or at least another block in the search for the end of the sidewalk.) One year I was a mouse, wearing black tights over black shorts, a black shirt and some mouse ears, plus an electric cord for a tail. One year I was a clown with this crazy jumpsuit that came out of my mom’s closet (I have no idea why she owned it in the first place!), added some wild hair and was a clown. And there was the year I dressed up as the Chicago Bears defensive end with the best grammar and writing skills. (I didn’t actually know what defensive position Shea plays, so I had to look it up on my handy-dandy internet, which sent me to his Wikipedia site. You know you have officially reached “it-dom” when you have your own entry on Wikipedia.)

After teaching middle school for nearly a decade, I saw an array of crazy costumes many of them straight out of a package from the store. (Don’t even get me started on the parents of middle school students who buy them *any* costume with the word “sexy” on the packaging. It happens…more that you would like to think.) Maybe it is a sign that I am getting old (that and the streak of gray hair that has appeared on my temple, which my stylist in America insists is white, which I guess makes okay somehow), but I remember costumes being made from what you could find around the house and then adding a detail or two, if needed, from the second-hand store. When I was a kid, costumes were more about creativity and craftiness than the shimmery and skimpy outfits being pushed by retailers. Although, I do have to say I’ve been very impressed with some of the pictures I’ve seen on the internet. People are still creative! But, the thing that all those awesome costumes I see online have in common is they are cobbled together from pieces of this and parts of that, original designs, not store-bought tedium.

Being in charge of this year’s Halloween events at the Consulate in Chengdu meant I was right in the middle of the spooky goodness this year. But you know what? It was great! Since Halloween costumes can’t be bought in Chengdu, families either had to prepare in advance (super advance!) or come up with something from what they had here. I loved that yesterday’s costumes ranged from an Olympic track athlete, decked out in a warm-up suit, race number and medals to the white rabbit in her dance leotard, tights and cute little ears, with some of Mom’s makeup for a nose and whiskers.  Halloween, Chengdu-style, was a bit of a throwback, which was awesome!

To further point out how maybe my hatred of Halloween could be toned down just a tad, a high school friend and fellow blogger (and all around awesome gal!) put together an amazing Halloween display in her yard. As one who professes to not be on the Halloween bandwagon, I kind of, really, wish I had been there to see the spectacle in person. (Check out her blog here.  This whole month has been filled with holiday posts and pictures. The mummy is my favorite!) Her enthusiasm and excitement are contagious, even from the other side of the world. (Could Halloween be like SARS, spreading on the wings of sneezes and airplanes?)

For someone who claims to dislike Halloween so much, it sure seems to get a lot of play time on this blog. Could it be that I secretly love this ghostly and ghoulish holiday? No, that isn’t going to happen anytime soon, but there are parts of it that are growing on me. (Adults in costumes will never be one of them though.)

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The Hunt for Orange October

It’s that dreaded time of year again. No, it is not Tax Day. Nor is it time for back-to-school dental check-ups that always end in the need to have a cavity filled. It isn’t even the shortest day of the year, when the sun seemingly rises and sets simultaneously.

It is Halloween.

I know some people love this holiday with a passion that most hold in reserve for their spouses and children and baby pandas. I admire those who can look upon this season of spooks and goblins as a blessing bestowed upon autumn by the pagans of years past.

I am not one of them.

Last year, I laid out my argument against Halloween in terms my dislike of most things in costume. (You are welcome to review that good-natured anti-Halloween diatribe here, in “Gourd Sculpting and Arachnid Treats.”) But there is more to my dislike of Halloween than just adults dressed as creatures from Star Trek that follow me around bars in Las Vegas. ( I would like to take a moment  to point out that toddlers and babies are excluded from my aversion to costumed critters. Whether it is a niece dressed as a puppy, the awesome kid who showed up on my doorstep dressed as a UFO in an outfit fashioned from two Rubbermaid trashcan lids fitted with Christmas lights, or a sleeping baby as nearly anything, whether it be animal, vegetable or mineral, I am on board. Little ones in cute costumes are adorable. The distaste starts when the disguised reach middle school. Sorry niece #1- you’ve hit the line this year! Unless, that is, you fathom some awesomely literary costume, of course. Then I will reconsider my arbitrary line.)

Although the costumed creatures are reason enough to not have Halloween on my “favorite days of the year” list (which I don’t have a physical manifestation of, but does exist in my head), I also cannot get on board with the black and orange thing. Black is okay. It is slimming. It makes for a nice little dress. On a car, it can help hide dirt. But, orange? Nope. Rarely is orange a flattering color and it is impossible to rhyme in a poem. It is a waste of a wedge on the color wheel.

Regardless of my personal feelings about Halloween, part of my CLO job is to plan/host events for our community in Chengdu.  Any such day that is uniquely American or culturally significant becomes a bigger deal when you are living overseas. People want their kids to experience Easter like they would in the US, with a giant bunny who delivers eggs filled with chocolate in baskets of plastic grass. They want an abundance of red, white and blue streamers amid which they can eat BBQ while celebrating the birth of our great nation. And, they want Halloween– costumes, trick-or-treating, jack o’ lanterns. ..the works.

To prepare for this festival of ghosts and ghouls, we needed pumpkins, as I am hosting a carved-pumpkin contest next week. (I hesitate to call it a jack o’ lantern contest, as entrants might have to be creative with how they design their oddly shaped gourd art.) Out went the call for pumpkin orders and in they came. With a total required number of orange orbs surpassing the two-dozen mark, I thought I’d get thirty, just to be safe.

With the help of our staff gardener, I headed out to a wet market on the edge of Chengdu, which was great because I love markets! There is something fabulous about seeing all the fresh produce stacked and ready for purchase. The colors in an outdoor market seem more vivid and vibrant. The smells are more aromatic. (This is true for both the pleasant scents and the not-so-pleasant odors that waft on the breeze.) Markets tend to have a different sort of shoppers than supermarkets, which is also intriguing to experience.

Chinese pumpkins aren’t quite the same as American pumpkins. (I am sure there is scientific nomenclature that would trace the lineage of these various gourds, but that isn’t my world. In the US, I see large, round, very orange pumpkins. In China, I see large, squat, toadstool-like, slightly orange gourds trying to pass themselves off as pumpkins.) But, Chinese pumpkins are the only choice, so we’ll do our best with what we have.

After digging through a woman’s enormous pile of pumpkins, sorting out the best, most-likely to be carve-able ones, we had a stack of thirty chosen gourds. As the gardener picked through the stack, helping me along in the process, getting a “hao” (thumbs-up) or “bu hao” (thumbs down) on each selection, he quickly caught on to what I was looking for and supplied a good number of pumpkins to our purchase-pile.

At one point, looking up from my hunt for the next great pumpkin, I glanced over my shoulder to see a crowd of probably fifteen or twenty people, mostly older folks, watching the show. I can only imagine what they must think of the blonde woman in a skirt and galoshes, buying thirty pumpkins. Is there a good story to fill in those gaps?

Thanks to the help of the gardener, I was able to haul my load of necessary Halloween adornments back to the consulate where they were quickly picked up by those who had submitted orders, taken to be carved in to…I actually have no idea.

While Halloween is not high on my list and I’m not a big fan of dressing up, I will be celebrating more than I have in years.  (My current costume plan is to go as the great Chicago Bears defensive player, #99, Shea McClellin, but Thad tells me he is pretty sure Shea never wore gray yoga pants with his jersey.)  And it will be great! I’ll judge funky-shaped carved pumpkins, that I am sure will be extraordinary, since our community is amazingly creative. I’ll hand out candy from the “trunk” of my hot-pink scooter during the “truck or treat.” And I’ll do it all with a genuine smile on my face because distinctively American holidays are just a little more special when you live on the other side of the world.

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Hallowmas or Christween?

Seriously Target?  It is a well-known fact that there is no holiday I like less than Halloween, but still…have you no festive soul?

As proud owners of a silver Nissan Sentra for the next twenty-four hours (LASIK transportation), Thad and I decided to use our short-term mobility for such exciting adventures as dinner off the Metro line and a trip to Target that didn’t require crossing our fingers and hoping the bus doesn’t blow right by us.

After a tasty (and quite onion-y on Thad’s part) dinner at Lost Dog Café, we headed out to Potomac Yard to get candy for the costumed critters sure to ring our doorbell on Monday evening.  Heading to the back of the store to where the specialty aisles are usually located, I expected to be confronted with rows of Halloween costumes littering the ground in utter chaos.  (Halloween aisles resurrect nightmares from my teenage job as a clerk at ShopKo. I don’t know what it is about costumes, maybe it is part of the creepiness of the holiday, but the hangers seem to be invisible to the shoppers.  Why hang something back up when it can go in a pile of glittery, sparkly, wig filled refuse?)

Before we reached those ridiculous aisles, we stumbled upon something even more absurd- Christmas! Stockings to hang by the chimney with care, bells to jingle all the way, Dashers and Dancers and Comets and Vixens. It was all there.

The Halloween aisles and the burgeoning Christmas aisles have merged into one large holiday conglomerate. I could easily reach out and grab a pumpkin emblazoned bag of orange and black M&M’s with my left hand and simultaneously choose some adorable sledding penguin wrapping paper with my right.

As I pondered the corporate greed that might be blamed for this holiday insanity,  I realized that the possibility of a conspiracy exists, but it isn’t on the part of big-business.  The immediate jump from Halloween to Christmas really profits one group more than any other- the turkeys!  They are more than ugly (yet yummy), wattle-bearing birds- they might just be the brilliant minds behind the skipping of Thanksgiving. Much like the Chick-Fil-A cows and their campaign for us to eat more chicken, the birds have caught on and figure they’ll pull the same stunt by capitalizing on the consumerism of America. Target seems to be happy to comply with this devious plan, as the orange and black and red and green have mixed into a muddy gray of holiday ludicrousness.

Like it or not, Halloween is Monday night.  Let’s give our slowly sagging jack o’lanterns and spider-web covered bushes their chance to shine in the eerie strobe lights.  Santa and his elves can wait in the wings for just one more week before they make their first magical appearance and parents have to begin to explain how Mr. Claus can be at  both the mall and the parade a at the same time.

Gourd Sculpting and Arachnid Treats

As many of you might know, Halloween is my least favorite of all holidays.  The aversion actually stems from several different routes, but the two major ones are my utter enmity towards the color orange and a high level of discomfort around costumed things.

On the costumed things tangent, let me demonstrate my issues with a short story:  A few years ago (okay, it was pre-Peace Corps, so more than just a few) Thad and I took a mini-vacation to Las Vegas with a few friends. Our group included Jeremy and Justin, two of his friends from high school, and Shannon, my best friend and fellow middle school teacher. After wandering the entire length of the Strip, several times, the day was drawing to a close, but there was one Vegas site that was high on a few people’s “Must See” lists- the Star Trek bar. Now, while this was not on a desirable side trip for me, I had hauled the entire group to the Excalibur so that I could get period pictures as a princess!  I owed them all an uncomplaining trip to nerd-dom. To be fair, the bar itself was pretty cool.  There were all these fancy, futuristic machines that poured drinks and lots of shiny and sparkly cocktail choices.  All was going well- for a short time.  Soon after we arrived, as Shannon and I sat giggling at the other bar patrons, suddenly a costumed creature appeared in front of us.  (I am still unsure if it was male or female.) As I have little Star Trek knowledge (other than trying to emulate Geordi LeForge by wearing my banana clips over my eyes) I didn’t know what character this things was supposed to be, but it was creeping me out.  S/he asked questions about where we were from and what we were doing, but all seemed to be aimed directly at me. After giving short, terse answers, I tried to look engrossed on whatever was playing on the TV at the time. The creature walked away, but soon it appeared again. (I later learned that my lovely husband was beckoning it over when I wasn’t looking.) Shannon, being nearly as filled with the heebie-jeebies as I was, agreed to skedaddle with me.  We quickly made plans to meet the others outside the hotel when they had finished their sci-fi concoctions and we made our hasty exit.  The only problem?  Apparently the costumed things are allowed to roam freely!  I figured if we got out of the bar itself, we would be safe, but no such luck.  Whatever this thing was continued to follow us through the hotel.  We had no choice but to beeline it for the closest building exit.  While we waited in the hotel’s driveway in Las Vegas’ slightly uncomfortable gazillion degree weather, we came to the conclusion that melting into the pavement like ice cream cones at a state fair was a better option that being tailed by whatever costumed creatures lurked in the comfort of the air conditioning.

But I digress…

Without Mom’s backyard pumpkin patch to wander through and pick my own pumpkins from, I was constrained to choosing from the supermarket’s meager selection.  Knowing that I had to haul my pick home on the bus, all colossal and prodigious pumpkins were quickly taken out of the running to be this year’s Halloween star. After sorting the short, fat pumpkins from the tall, long ones, I proceeded to turn the lucky top picks in full circles to get a view from each angle.  (I use a similar process in December with Christmas trees.  Thad loves going along on these excursions!) As the culling process proceeded, I finally narrowed the field down to two.  One had a better color to it, but it was a bit small, so he (I always refer to my pumpkins as male)earned himself the runner-up spot. The tiara and sash went to a rather rotund gourd that had a great tilt to him, making the perfect canvas for my jack o’lantern. (Note to Shopper’s Supermarket: Do something about your harvest display located near the pumpkins. Those bales of straw are not hay, they are straw.  There is a huge difference. And  three bales does not a haystack make!)

With our gourd safely back home, it was time to finish getting ready for the carving party. (Yes, the pronoun “our” is correct.  Thad and I decided to share one pumpkin.  We would split the fun.  He would clean the guts out and I would carve.  Fair deal!!)  I soon finished decorating my spider cake- arachnids from Oreos (!) and got the house picked up and extra chairs hauled in from the patio.

John and Erin showed up, right on time, with apple cider, a couple more pumpkins and a carving kit.  It was time to get to it!

After covering the table with newspapers we had collected from the “free paper” boxes nearby, it carving commenced. Erin, our resident artist, carved an intricate design of bats flying around a sliver of moon, edged with clear marbles for stars. John, after painstakingly cleaning his pumpkin and sorting the seeds, carved his jack o’lantern in about three minutes flat. My effort fell somewhere in between the two with a clownish-faced Halloween friend.

Without the terror of costumed creatures lurking about, our evening of carving pumpkins and munching on spider cake made the thought of Halloween just a little easier to swallow. Celebrating pre-Halloween is the future of the holiday for me!

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