Merriment Turns to Mayhem When Halloween Prank Goes Wrong! Every year we see headlines about practical jokes taken too far. Like the October 31st my friend returned from college to find the family home empty, furniture overturned, the kitchen splashed with what looked like blood. She freaked, fled, and called the cops, who tracked down her mother and step-dad at a party, laughing over their hilarious trick. I suspect my friend still has trust issues to this day.
Then there was the high school teacher who wanted to foster Halloween spirit, so he burst into a classroom wearing a ski mask and brandishing a chainsaw roaring at full throttle. A prank about killing children in a school — who could object? The really surprising thing was that in the chaotic stampede only one student broke a leg. The lawsuit was settled out of court for $100,000.
And of course, there’s the famous 1938 “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, in which a (fictional) Martian invasion was presented in a breaking-news format so real it had viewers calling the authorities in a panic. Cops tried to storm the broadcasting studio to stop the show; the press turned the tale into living legend.
Americans have a history of going overboard at Halloween, and judging by all the skeletons, pumpkins, and giant spiders in my town, families are making the most of the season despite the specter of Covid-19 hanging over our heads. In fact, Halloween — with its apocalyptic atmosphere and emphasis on masks — fits fairly naturally into the pandemic landscape. No doubt pranksters are busy planning over-the-top stunts via Zoom.
Other upcoming holidays —Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanza, Las Posadas, Diwali, Chinese New Year, Winter Solstice, New Year’s Eve — are a bit trickier to navigate.
Let’s start with the big question: is it safe to travel home for the holidays?
The short answer is “no.” But you already knew that.
“Thanksgiving and the winter holidays may look like the only bright spots in the hellscape that is the end of this year, but they come with a unique-to-2020 set of logistical challenges,” writes JR Thorpe in Bustle. “This year, spreading COVID-19 to your community and the people at your table is much more of a threat than your aunt's awful sweet potato casserole.”
“I happen to like my family. But I’m not insane enough to risk death,” 82-year-old Mort Zwick told the NY Times. “I’m not going to rend my garments and cover up the mirrors because I can’t see my children … Every time I miss them, I think of how lousy they were at one stage of their growing up.”
“Mort’s got a point,” Rich said. “It’s the same for holidays; there were plenty of good times, but let’s not forget the lousy parts.” I flashed back to various verbal brawls and embarrassingly inappropriate jokes. The year someone didn’t show up because he was in jail. Close friends who said they never ate any dish their relatives brought because they suspected the food had been poisoned. The time a guest showed up drunk accompanied by a young girlfriend with whom he canoodled on the couch for hours, surrounded by twenty-five guests including his horrified mother and several fascinated adolescents.
Obviously we won’t have that kind of entertainment this year, so we’ll have to rely on our own resources to make the holidays fun and meaningful.
Trick-or-treaters won't be coming to our door this Halloween, so at dusk Rich and I are taking a driving tour of the most spectacular decorations we've found on our daily walks; I can’t wait to admire them in their full, spooky glory lit up after dark. As we cruise around, we’ll listen to songs like "Monster Mash" and of course, wear our masks.
I’ve often wondered why nobody writes Thanksgiving songs, and then I ran across 29 Perfect Songs to Add to Your Thanksgiving Dinner Prep Playlist. It has everything from Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” to Little Eva’s wacky “Let’s Do the Turkey Trot” to Fats Waller’s “All That Meat and No Potatoes,” followed by “Do the Mashed Potatoes,” courtesy of Mr. James Brown. Perfect soundtrack! We’ll be singing along to these golden oldies as we prepare turkey with all the trimmings. (I’m collecting recipes for the leftovers; if you have a good one, please pass it along.)
The great thing about Thanksgiving is that if you eat some turkey, you’ve pretty much fulfilled the ritual and can snooze contentedly in front of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Oh yes, they’re having one, but it’s been reinvented in hopes it won’t become a super-spreader.
The next holiday — which for us is Christmas — involves countless traditions: carols, cards, tree, stockings, presents. Rich and I won’t be celebrating with others this year, but we plan to honor all the customs, plus a few of our own, such as holiday snails. We’ll exchange silly gifts, dress up, cook a feast, eat too much, drink too much, and tell stories of Christmas disasters.
What disasters? Well, there was the time our dog Eskimo Pie found a gift-wrapped rum cake, ate the entire thing, and was discovered in a drunken stupor. Or the year we managed to find a live tree in Seville, back when árboles de Navidad were rare, and right after we decorated it, a strong wind blew through an open window knocking over the tree — which then shed all its needles. And there was that unforgettable moment when I tipped over a bottle of red wine on a snow-white tablecloth while eating Christmas goose with British friends. The list goes on and on.
But when you come right down to it, these moments add spice to the season. Like families, holidays are messy, maddening, and every once in a while, magical. We love them just as they are — not despite their imperfections but because of them.
In 2020, the way to prove how much we love our families is to stay away from them. This morning I heard from a Sevillano friend with whom I’ve celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas for many years. He and several relatives now have Covid-19; one is in the hospital.
“I made the potentially deadly mistake ,” he wrote, “of putting my guard down in a family setting. If nothing else please take this lesson. A common last name is not a certificate of immunity, and no matter how much you love someone we are all strangers when it comes to the virus. I was peer-pressured into excessive stays, not ventilating enough, and tolerating behaviors that exposed everyone... Thanksgiving is going to be a super-spreading event, and the best way to express love to our families is to remain alive for them.”
Like ill-considered Halloween pranks, this year’s holiday gatherings may seem like a good idea at first, but there’s a very real chance they will come back to haunt you and yours. I believe our best move is to fill the next two months with as much love, laughter, and social distancing as possible. And brace ourselves for whatever gobsmacking surprises 2021 has in store for us.
Good luck out there!
Do you have any holiday plans? Disaster stories? Recipes for leftover turkey? Please share them in the comments below.
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This article is part of my ongoing series of articles on surviving the pandemic, if possible while holding on to some shreds of our sanity and sense of humor.
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One long ago night, Rich burst through our front door shouting, “We have to get rid of the living room!”
“Okay,” I said. “Should I get the sledgehammer?”
“No, I mean reconfigure the space. I just heard a talk by Mike Vance, one of the creative geniuses who designed Disneyland. He says living rooms are too formal. What we need is a kitchen for the mind — a space that’s equipped to nurture creativity the way our kitchen is designed to nurture our bodies. Here, help me move this armchair.”
Over the next several hours, we shoved furniture aside and dragged in a microscope, our desktop computer, books about astronomy and natural science, wind-up toys, a life-size statue of a dog, and dozens of other random objects that had been languishing in obscure corners. By the time we were done, the living room looked far less like Pottery Barn and a lot more like 221B Baker Street, a glorious hodgepodge of brain stimulants.
“Now that’s us!” Rich exclaimed in satisfaction.
Ever since that day, we’ve viewed our lodgings (even temporary ones) as kitchens for the mind. And that’s helped keep the conversation lively all these years. But lately I’ve been looking at our domestic arrangements from another angle.
“Winter is coming,” I said to Rich. “Cold, flu, and Covid season. You can bet we’ll be spending a lot more time indoors.”
And we’ll be doing it in California. Normally we’re back in Seville by this time of year, but with the worldwide spike in cases, the worrying state of air travel, and parts of Spain going back into lockdown, we’ve decided to stay put in the Golden State at least until January. It’s not a bad place to “shelter in place” — the gentle phrase Californians prefer because it sounds mellower than such bummer, buzzkill words as “lockdown” or “quarantine.”
“What can we do,” I asked Rich, “to make the house more comforting, more interesting, more us — reflecting the way we live now?”
“Well, Mike Vance used to say that innovation needs to involve all five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell. So whatever we do, let’s keep that as a goal.”
Bearing that in mind, I started reviewing the places in our house where we spend the most time. Could they be tweaked to better fit our new lifestyle?
I wish I could report that our lifestyle includes reading great literature, playing advanced-level chess, and studying Mandarin or quantum physics, but the fact is we are, like most people, watching ridiculous amounts of TV. So we started with that. Rich repositioned our two biggest, comfiest armchairs to get a better angle on the screen and brought in a couple of soft footstools. “Sight, sound, touch – all covered. What about taste and smell?” he asked. “That’s easy,” I said. “Popcorn!”
Our days often revolve around Zoom calls, during which we chat with family and friends, attend lectures and poetry readings, and voice our views in town hall meetings and political roundtables. It took me a while to get the hang of Zoom — not so much the technology, but learning how to feel comfortable and look presentable onscreen.
I set up a fixed spot for Zooming, based on three pro tips.
1) The device’s camera is at eye level (far more flattering!).
2) I sit in an upright chair, so I don’t slouch out of camera range, leaving friends talking to my left ear.
3) The light shines on my face, letting people see me clearly.
I usually have a cup of coffee or glass of wine in hand — completing Mike Vance’s five-sensing requirement.
My sister Kate and her husband are getting a puppy to keep them company, and I have to admit I’m envious. But as one viral tweet puts it, “Really wish we had a dog right now but then I remember that old slogan… a dog is for life, not just for a global pandemic.” If you have a canine companion, you’ll appreciate this news item: “The World Health Organization announced that dogs cannot contract COVID-19. Dogs previously held in quarantine can now be released. To be clear, WHO let the dogs out.”
Rich just wandered past my desk, and I asked him what he finds most helpful in adapting to long stretches at home. “Structure and sacred spaces,” he replied promptly.
“What are your sacred spaces?”
“I know I’m going to get up every morning and spend time there,” he said, gesturing to the landing at the top of the stairs, where he has a small desk, a big armchair, and three sunny windows. “Drinking coffee, easing into the day. That’s sacred to me. Doing yoga in the bedroom — that’s another sacred space for me. My time in the garden. My workbench in the shed. Practicing my ukulele and my Spanish. These all keep me comfortably, solidly anchored in my day. I know I’m exactly where I need to be, doing exactly what I need to do.”
And then he added, “Don’t forget to tell them about the goldfish.”
This is another one we owe to Mike Vance. Shortly after our living room became a kitchen for the mind, we invited friends to dinner, explaining in advance about five-sensing, asking them to tell us about their favorite foods, music, artists, and so on. We then did our best to create a dining experience that touched on all their favorites.
Needless to say they got an earful about Mike Vance. And when they asked what exactly we did with the microscope, Rich mentioned that one of his goldfish had just passed over into the Great Beyond and we’d put it in the freezer, intending to dissect it. By now we were on the second (possibly third) bottle of wine, and the tiny cadaver was soon thawed in the microwave and dissected under the microscope; everyone wanted a look. We were just getting to know this couple, and I remember thinking, “Well, if this doesn't scare them off...!” Incredibly, it didn't, and we became fast friends. There are few bonding experiences quite like a mini autopsy.
“Innovation,” said Mike Vance, “is the creation of the new or the rearranging of the old in a new way.” As you’ve probably noticed, our world keeps rearranging itself. Experts forecast a major coronavirus surge as people head indoors to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas together. Bracing ourselves for Covid-19, the Holiday Edition, Rich and I are rearranging our space and reimagining our lives. We’re expats living in our home country, extroverts who rarely socialize in person, frequent flyers grounded for the duration. We are living into an unknown future — one that may not always be comfortable, but certainly won’t be dull. I foresee plenty of mystery, suspense, and surprising developments. And isn’t that pretty much the definition of adventure? Maybe are lives haven’t changed that much after all.
How are you preparing for pandemic winter? Any tips or concerns to share? Let me know in the comments section below. And hey, good luck out there!
This article is part of my ongoing series of articles on surviving the pandemic, if possible while holding on to some shreds of our sanity and sense of humor.
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Have you noticed anything weird lately? I mean besides the global pandemic and collapse of civilization as we know it? Apparently an increasing number of Americans are finding quarantine less isolating than expected, thanks to spectral roommates from the Great Beyond.
“For those whose experience of self-isolation involves what they believe to be a ghost,” wrote Molly Fitzpatrick in the NY Times, “their days are punctuated not just by Zoom meetings or home schooling, but by disembodied voices, shadowy figures, misbehaving electronics, invisible cats cozying up on couches, caresses from hands that aren’t there and even, in some cases — to borrow the technical parlance of Ghostbusters — free-floating, full-torso vaporous apparitions. Some of these people are frightened, of course. Others say they just appreciate the company.”
Reports of ghostly apparitions and hauntings are about six times higher than usual, reports paranormal researcher John E. L. Tenney. Many, he says, can be explained away by long days at home, jittery nerves, and the natural creakiness of settling houses. But in some cases, he suggests, there may be more to it. “Perhaps we’re just now starting to notice that the world is a little bit weirder than we gave it credit for.”
Americans have always loved a good ghost tale; 45% say they do believe in spooks and 30% claim they’d be open to living in a haunted house. And in 2020, it seems, more of us may be doing just that.
Some ghostly roommates seem to be reaching out with a message. Like the one in the apartment American Madison Hill rents in Florence, Italy with her boyfriend (who naturally denies all responsibility for the strange occurrences). First, the bathroom began behaving strangely, slamming doors and throwing towels on the floor. Then small objects began appearing on her bedside table in a manner she described as “mischievous.” One was a long-lost camera lens, which Hill, who’d majored in film in college, took to be a nudge to return to her craft.
Not all spectral visitors offer career guidance, but there are other upsides to hanging out with the undead, as outlined in “The benefits of being haunted during the pandemic:”
Phantoms and wraiths aren’t the only ones enlivening our lockdown routine. There’s been a 50% uptick in reports of extraterrestrial visits as well, according to UFO researcher Chris Rutkowski. "Most cases are just ordinary mistakes, misidentifications, but … last year, there was about 3 percent that remained unexplained, that didn't seem to be airplanes, stars, fireballs, all those types of things."
For decades, the US government has been accused of coverups, most famously of an alleged spaceship in Area 51. You can imagine the rapture among ufologists when, in April, the Pentagon admitted to secretly searching for UFOs since 1947, announced an official new task force to investigate “unidentified arial phenomena,” and released videos of three recent UFO sightings.
“When you think about how nuts this year has been,” said late-night host Jimmy Kimmel, “think about this: the Pentagon releases video of UFOs, it’s barely even a story.”
Are more spaceships heading our way these days? Why now? Are we extra-interesting during a global crisis? Could someone be offering cheap package tours to our corner of the universe — the intergalactic equivalent of supersaver fares to Guadalajara during spring break? Or do Americans just have more time to stare at the sky thinking, “Hey, it’s 2020; anything’s possible.”
Personally, I’m dubious about the existence of UFOs and ghosts, but I’ve heard too many stories from reliable friends and relatives to insist it’s all nonsense. Rich still talks about the strange lights inexplicably following his car late one night as he was driving to the Cleveland airport. Alien spacecraft? Road-tired eyes? Is the truth out there?
OK, let’s say we are sharing our planet — possibly our homes — with creatures from another dimension. How do we adapt to the new paranormal? It’s challenging enough sharing space with family members, roommates found through Craigslist, or your partner. (Not for me, of course, because Rich is perfect in every way, but I have heard this about others.) I Googled “getting along with quarantine companions” hoping for ideas that might help us ease non-humans into our circles of trust.
I read endless horror stories about miscommunication and bad behavior, from filthy shared bathrooms to sneaking in random, possibly infected sex partners, plus all the usual arguments over chores and who drank the last six-pack. There was sensible advice, too, such as not shaming others (no leaving them hand sanitizer with a snarky note!) and being considerate about cats, music, Zoom calls, and not leaving socks on the living room floor.
Winnowing through it all, I found three valuable concepts we should have learned from paranormal movies, had we been paying attention.
1. “In most zombie movies, there’s usually someone who endangers the lot. Don’t let that be you,” advises the NY Times. Words to live by. When survival is jeopardized, whether by zombies, Martians, or Covid-19, then safety — and comfort about safety protocols — has to be a top priority. Rich and I have agreed that if we differ on, say, how often cotton face masks require washing or whether we need to disinfect something before it comes into the house, we default to the most paranoid opinion. Somebody may have to perform a few little unnecessary tasks, but it allows us both to feel completely safe at home — no small thing these days.
2. “Nothing spreads like fear,” says the tagline for the film Contagion. Sometimes it seems every conversation ratchets up our sense of panic. I take my hat off to Amanda Feigin of Minneapolis, who lives in a house with five friends and instituted a “no repeats rule” regarding pandemic gabfests. “You can only offer up new information regarding the coronavirus,” she wrote on Instagram, “to eliminate the repetitive/echoed conversations that add stress and anxiety.”
3. “I feel like I’m living in the Twilight Zone,” my friend Marlene said. Yes, our lives have become as surreal as sci-fi. But that's not all bad. “One of the biggest roles of science fiction,” said futurist Arthur C. Clark, “is to encourage a flexibility of mind.”
Mental flexibility may turn out to be the most valuable survival tool we have. Whether or not our future involves close encounters with extraterrestrials, ghosts, zombies, or stranger things, it will require us to step up in unimaginable ways. Being open-minded will help us embrace our improbable new circumstances and find the courage to enjoy the wild ride that lies ahead of us. Good luck out there!
If aliens did show up with one of these memory erasers (as seen in Men in Black), would you want all your memories of 2020 deleted? Let me know in the comments below.
This article is part of my ongoing series of articles on surviving the pandemic, if possible while holding on to some shreds of our sanity and sense of humor. Sign up below to get it in your inbox each week.
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What is it about weddings that encourages people to be so astonishingly indiscreet? I remember one best man starting his toast, “I’ve known the groom for twenty years. I’ve seen him through…” Long pause. “The dark times…” Naturally we all leaned forward, agog to learn about his misdeeds, but sadly there were few specifics. Another time, the mother of the bride remarked to me at the reception, “I’m so glad my daughter is marrying your friend. He’s nice, and she is such a bitch.” Groping for a suitable supply, I fell back on, “Waiter, we need more champagne over here!”
Every wedding planner has a horror story worthy of The Exorcist author William Peter Blatty. “We had a bride who literally lost it on the wedding day,” recalls JoAnn Gregoli of Elegant Occasions. “She fired her maid of honor and her best man, and she wouldn't dance with her dad because someone challenged her attitude. The entire family left the wedding because of her attitude. The priest was literally performing an exorcism on her in the church and almost would not marry her — I had to beg him to complete the job.” Glossing over whether any self-respecting priest should have consented to perform that ceremony, my heart really goes out to the groom. I picture their wedding night much like the one in So I Married an Axe Murderer.
My stroll down wedding-memory lane was prompted by the recent announcement that one of my nephews is engaged. This happy news has naturally sparked endless discussions about nuptial plans — none of which involve me, because I won’t be going unless the wedding is postponed until the pandemic is genuinely under control (and who knows when that will be?). Until then I'm viewing big weddings — along with family reunions, motorcycle rallies, and White House gatherings — as potential super-spreader events and intend to avoid them like the plague-vectors they are. But that's me. Opinions obviously vary.
“Weddings are so different from going into a store or sitting in a restaurant for 45 minutes,” an Arkansas wedding planner explained. “These receptions last for three, four hours, and everyone is in an indoor space, breathing the air. They aren’t wearing masks and they are dancing. And when they start drinking, it’s like there is no pandemic.”
Drinking is famous for convincing us that it's OK to do foolish and irresponsible things. As Dorothy Parker famously said, “I like to have a martini. Two at the very most. Three and I’m under the table. Four I’m under the host.” If you need yet another cautionary tale, just watch this video.
We always start out with the best of intentions, but sometimes things just spiral out of our control. An August wedding in Millinocket, Maine has been linked to 87 cases of Covid: 30 attendees caught it and spread the disease to 35 friends, relatives, and coworkers, who passed it to 22 others, including residents of a jail and a nursing home. Much as I’d love to be part of my nephew’s big celebration — and finally tell all those embarrassing childhood stories about him I’ve saved up over the years — I’m sending my regrets.
Which brings me to the question of how we can gracefully, lovingly, and firmly decline social invitations that significantly increase our risk of catching our death.
It’s tempting to glance at the invitation and dash off a note saying, “Are you insane? Why would you even consider holding a large, indoor wedding/family reunion/Halloween party/dog adoption jamboree during a pandemic?” But in the interests of family unity and long-standing friendships, you'll want to strive for a trifle more finesse.
All the articles I’ve read suggest that before you accept or decline you should ask for event details and safety protocols. Is it indoors or outdoors? How many people are likely to attend? Will social distancing be possible? These same articles convinced me, when Rich and I first returned to California in May, that inviting people over for drinks and nibbles on the deck was safe so long as everyone agreed on safety measures in advance. Sometimes this worked beautifully. However — and I feel certain Dorothy Parker would back me up on this — often those safety measures disappeared along with the first martini or second glass of wine. We drink to relax, and that can mean letting down our guard and taking risks which seem insignificant in the moment yet loom large in our memory the next morning, causing us to break out in a cold sweat as we review our behavior and that of others.
Rather than focusing on the event, I find it more helpful to begin by assessing our own situation. An article in the Houston Methodist Hospital newsletter suggests considering whether or not you:
The answers may help you find the clarity to make a firm decision one way or the other. If you are going to decline, don’t beat around the bush with elaborate excuses or effusive apologies. Houston Methodist suggests you say something like, "It's great to hear from you! I miss seeing you, but I'm avoiding in-person gatherings due to Covid-19 right now. How about we plan a virtual hangout soon? I definitely miss hanging out with you!"
I have delivered various versions of that statement to everyone I know and now have a very active Zoom social life. Most people have given up inviting me to anything IRL (in real life), but recently one couple found a format that actually worked: attending a drive-in movie in separate cars, chatting by phone before the film. As it happens, the film is Blithe Spirit, the Noël Coward classic ghost comedy, which ties in with our spooky movie theme for October. Perfect! It was only after accepting the invitation that I realized the one teeny, tiny flaw in this plan. As far as I know, there are no rest rooms at this event, which with drive times and previews will last three-plus hours. Guess I won’t be having any Coke with my popcorn.
Adapting to the new abnormal isn’t easy for any of us. I don’t envy my nephew, his bride, or the family members helping them plan their pandemic wedding. Will they opt for a micro wedding (50 guests max) or even a minimony (no more than 10) followed by a sequel wedding (big reception later)? Will there be a belated bach (delayed bachelor party) or wifelorette (post-wedding substitute for a bachelorette party)? Will they avoid travelling after the ceremony and schedule a latermoon?
I’m saddened to think that I won’t be there in person to wish the newlyweds all the happiness they deserve. But I’ll send a nice gift, which is far more useful. And I’ll be with them in spirt, hoping that these words will be as true for them as they have been for Rich and me over the last 34 years:
A happy marriage is a long conversation which always seems too short.
— Andre Maurois
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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