Hall(oween) on Wheels

Missy is just about ready for the season.

No, not the Christmas season. Missy is ready for THAT one at the drop of a jingle bell, at a pace that would embarrass even a major retailer. Holiday displays in September? Please. Missy’s been known to welcome in the spring with a 110-decibel version of “O, Holy Night” on the stereo, and you haven’t lived until you’ve seen the Face Vocal Band holiday video in July a dozen times or so.

No, I’m talking about the time of false faces and plastic pumpkins, of ghosts and goblins and culturally-sanctioned begging for food. Halloween is just about here, and Missy can’t wait.

As I’ve mentioned before, this is a new thing. Whether it’s because of her developmental disability, or just a personal preference, Missy never used to like being surrounded by people in masks and costumes, never mind struggling into an outfit herself. The magic began to happen when she realized she could become the heroes of her favorite stories, especially a certain Boy Who Lived. She’s been Harry Potter twice now, with another two Frodo Bagginses mixed in, and it looks like Star Wars might be on the way this year.

So now she points out pumpkins with alacrity and paints them with enthusiasm. (Yes, we paint rather than carve.) She ooh’s over costume pieces and keeps her Hogwarts robe handy just in case. And when October hits, it’s time to roll. Literally.

And that’s where the challenge sometimes comes in.

Because of her cerebral palsy and other balance issues, it’s hard for Missy to walk long distances. So once she’s all dressed up and has her pillowcase in hand,  she and I do the neighborhood trick-or-treat run by wheelchair.

And appropriately for Halloween, that’s when the unseen becomes visible.

If you’ve ever had to travel more than a short distance on your own wheels, you know what I’m talking about. A host of obstacles that most of us never even think about suddenly loom up with the inevitability of Freddy Krueger pursuing a teenage nightmare. High curbs. Cracked pavement. Cars parked on the sidewalk, or hedges reaching over it like a lurching zombie.

In many respects, Longmont is better than a lot of communities about this sort of thing, or we wouldn’t be able to consider trick-or-treating at all. But even so, it still requires constant awareness, regular rerouting, and enough effort in boosting her wheelchair over small hurdles that it pretty much becomes my Oct. 31 core workout.   Sometimes Missy giggles at the effort, sometimes it draws a “No!” of annoyance instead.

At times like this, I am grateful for the neighbors.

On a night when fun could easily become frustration for her, many of them keep a lookout for her. Some have met her at the bottom of porch steps with their bowls of candy, so that she doesn’t have to keep getting in and out of the chair. Some have given her an extra share, or kept a special supply on hand just for her, to make her night a better one. Many have greeted her or helped clear the way for her while going house to house with their own children.

It’s a parade of small kindnesses and moments of caring. And they make a difference.

Just as they do long after the costumes are back in the closet.

Many people face similar hidden obstacles, whether because of race or sex or disability or a hundred other things that are simply part of who they are. Most are like that crack in the pavement – easily crossed without thinking by  most of life’s travelers, but an insuperable barrier to some.

That’s where awareness matters. And kindness. And empathy. A realization that others walk on a different path and face different challenges than we do, and an effort to understand and meet those challenges.

It’s a basic trick. But it can be such a treat. And it makes all our days a lot easier.

Even the ones with overpowered Christmas carols.

Miss-somnia

“Sweetie, honey, it’s past midnight, you need to – “

“NO!”

The word had been spoken. And even though she had been yawning, blinking, and showing every other sign of being ready to make an urgent appointment with the Sandman, Missy was as clear as an Old Testament prophet. She was NOT going to sleep.

This was, needless to say, a tad unusual. Normally, one side effect of Missy’s developmental disability is that routines go over very, very well. And few things are more routine than the Dance of the Missy Bedtime, wherein is laid out the last steps through the bathroom and bedroom, culminating in a bedside storytime, a final hug, and lights-out.

But that night, the dance band couldn’t even strike the opening chords. We’d had a good time together, even a fun time, despite having to explain that even though the neighbors’ decorations were cool, it wasn’t trick-or-treat time yet.

But all of a sudden, advancing to her bedroom was like suggesting we take a walk down the plank of Capt. James Hook. Missy is tiny, but 97 pounds of “No!” has a power all its own. As Master Shakespeare put it once upon a time, “Though she be but little, she is fierce!”

And so Heather and I talked, and cajoled, and tried to understand. And as her hands indicated an object on the forehead shooting things out (complete with impressive sound effects), the problem seemed to become clear.

“Missy,” Heather explained gently, “it’s just a weird costume. It’s still the real Scotty. Does Mad-Eye Moody sing old sitcom tunes and leave pop cans on the counter?”

Oh, dear.

I might have done my job just a little too well.

Those who read the column last week may remember that I was creating a costume of Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody, a hard-bitten ally of the good guys who was most notable by his prominent magical eye. Armed with a milk cap, half a ping-pong ball, and an amazing lack of permanent scars, I had constructed a bright blue duplicate, always angled to one side of where I was actually looking.

Missy had been fascinated by the outfit, and especially the eye, examining it and calling Heather’s attention to it when I was away. She’d even made sure that I put it on for one of her own Halloween parties. (Yes, plural. Missy’s social life is far more impressive than my own.)

But apparently, seeing me in it also weirded her out a little. Maybe more than a little. Again, I was reminded that before she fell in love with dressing up as Harry Potter or Frodo Baggins, Halloween used to be an uncomfortable time of year for Missy – precisely because of all the costumes and masks on everyone around her.

When the familiar becomes strange, what can you trust? Is anyone really what they seem to be?

I think many of us could all too easily agree with that one.

Some of us have had trust betrayed. Some have discovered dark sides to beloved figures that make it impossible to see them the same way again. Many of us – maybe all of us? – have been in a situation that we thought we understood, only to have the ground slip away under our feet like a Longs Peak avalanche.

When a false step becomes that painful, it’s hard to walk forward again. To trust. To not wonder what traps are lying beneath. The experience can be valuable to learn from, but can be taken too far – as Mark Twain put it, the cat that sleeps on a hot stove-lid quickly learns not to do it anymore, but she also learns not to sleep on cold ones.

Healing takes time, and love, and friends. Maybe especially that last. In a nightmare, you’re always alone. In the waking world, there can be someone to help.

So Heather and I took the time. The final approach to the bed was made slowly, just an invitation to sit with me and look at some things on my tablet for a while. Finally, surrounded by familiar love and utter exhaustion, Missy was ready to lie back and relax.

Mad-Eye has been put away. He might come out one more time on Halloween, but only well away from the house.

Masks are fun. But some things need to be handled face-on.

Here’s Mad in Your Eye

In the still of the night, the most terrifying tale of the year waited to be born.  Not “It.” Not “Stranger Things.” Not even the Denver Broncos’ quarterback situation.

Not compared to the prospect of myself with a hobby knife in one hand, preparing to perform surgery on a ping-pong ball.

Yes, Halloween approaches. And this year, a non-profit group I belong to was putting on a Harry Potter night in advance of the holiday, so a little wizardly transformation was in order. With the aid of some building, borrowing, and scrounging, I would Transfigure my humble frame into the visage of Mad-Eye Moody, hard-bitten survivor of the wars against the darkness.

It sounded cool. Even a bit nostalgic. After all, my Mom used to make most of our Halloween costumes, sending me into the world as Robin Hood, or a scarecrow, or Hercules, or a ghost, all covered over with the heavy coat that even heroes of legend require in a Colorado October.

But completing this transformation would require sharp objects. And hot glue. And abundant snickers from the unseen peanut gallery.

You see, I’m not my Mom. (News flash!) My skills aren’t fated to be the centerpiece of “Craft Wars” or “The Handmade Project” or a PBS special on domestic skill. A Comedy Central special on unintended slapstick, on the other hand, would be right up my alley.

I’m the guy who, every Christmas, loses a wrestling match to wrapping paper.

Who once turned cleaning up dog vomit into a Chevy Chase routine, including two collisions with a bathroom door.

Who famously walked offstage in the middle of a solo, in order to make an unscheduled visit to the orchestra pit by the most direct route.

As a result, my Halloween costumes as an adult had been somewhat … well, safe. An IRS agent, with a briefcase saying “I’m not Death, I’m the other one.” A Man in Black. A reporter in a borrowed trench coat.

But no one stays safe in Hogwarts. And so, the Night of the Ping-Pong Ball Sacrifice awaited. After all, Mad-Eye Moody has to have that oversized eye. A full complement of fingers, on the other hand, was clearly optional.

In a situation like this, Harry would have relied on the wisdom of Dumbledore, or the learning of Hermione, or even the gentle strength of Hagrid. Thankfully, I had something better – a lesson in the sheer practicality of my brother-in-law.

Heather’s brother Brad has helped us with more than a few home improvement projects over the years, from repairing ceilings to replacing doors. But his best advice was also his simplest, given when a little bit of force had just solved the problem of the day.

“You can’t fix something,” he said, “if you’re afraid of breaking it.”

The more I think about that, the truer it gets. And it fits a lot more than just basic repair.

Everything worth doing carries risks. And it’s easy to get intimidated by them, especially if the task is difficult or unfamiliar. The costs loom large, the worst-case scenario all too palpable, summoned to life by the words “What if …?”

But while you never take stupid risks, taking none at all is the quickest route to failure. Not every attempt will succeed. But making the attempt gives it a chance. And when the extra push clicks something into place instead of snapping it in two, you gain something worth having – a cool costume, a repaired home, a neat idea that helps a community or a nation – plus a little more confidence for the next time.

Confidence and effort won’t solve everything. But it’s where a solution can start. It’s almost magical that way.

It certainly snapped me out of my Moody blues.

Hobbit Forming

Harry Potter, of course, was the defending champion. Han Solo nearly beat all the odds. But in the end, the winner of Missy’s annual Halloween costume sweepstakes was a Shire thing.

Yes, after two years of trick-or-treating as the world’s favorite boy wizard, our disabled ward has decided it’s time to pick up a bag and put on the Baggins. She’ll be going door-to-door as a hobbit, a choice that required some careful questioning since Missy is a lady of strong opinions but few words.

Mind you, there will be some key differences, and not just the usual concessions to the Colorado weather. (I know those well, having had to throw a coat on over a perfectly good Hercules costume when I was in sixth grade.) This, after all, will be a Missy-style hobbit, which among other things will mean:

  • That wearing anything that looks like hairy feet is out of the question. There will be shoes and they will have bling, with sparkly shoelaces that can be seen from Omaha.
  • That like Frodo by the end of The Lord of the Rings, Missy will not be wearing a sword. Not because of any virtuous commitment to refuse all weaponry, but because belts are hated with a passion usually reserved for Orcs.
  • That the One Ring will be offered up to everybody so they can see how shiny it is, only to be snatched back in a “gotcha” move when they get too close. Eventually, the fated Ring of Power will likely find its way to the bottom of Missy’s voluminous purse, where even the most determined of Nazgul would eventually surrender the search amidst a mountain of stuffed animals, toy cars, used tissues and wadded-up church bulletins.

But these are mere details, easily overlooked in the quest for One Trick-or-Treat Bag to Rule Them All. Like Harry, this is a character from one of Missy’s favorite stories of all time. So giggles are coming, and smiles, and at least three attempts to hit the Halloween trail before it’s even noon.

And really, it’s understandable. Few characters could fit Missy better.

Like any respectable hobbit, she’s a homebody who likes a comfortable routine with tea, food, and pocket-handkerchiefs close at hand.

Like any less-respectable member of the Took family, she’s curious about newcomers and the outside world, sometimes pulling hard at my wrist or Heather’s so she can look at something more closely or call out a “Hey, you!” to a passerby.

She’s a hardworking Sam who likes to help with the washing-up (even if we do have to watch for dirty dishes that quietly slip back into the cupboard) and an impulsive Pippin who just has to find out what happens if you touch this or pick up that.

But most importantly, like any hobbit, there’s much more to Missy than meets the eye.

In Tolkien’s stories, the diminutive hobbits are a quiet people with hidden reserves of courage, luck, and determination. Missy, too, is quiet – but heaven help the person who thinks she doesn’t understand what’s going on around her. She remembers faces from elementary school days, follows bedtime stories closely, has a better sense of direction than I do (especially when it comes to the bowling alley and the bookstore), and definitely knows when she’s being talked down to.

Disabled does not mean unaware.

Thinking back, maybe that’s part of why Tolkien’s stories still hold such an appeal. They celebrate those who are quiet and ordinary, while promising that there’s so much more  to see behind the scenes. They suggest that in the right circumstances, any one of us might have surprises to reveal and be able to hold their head up with heroes. That simple does not mean stupid or powerless.

How do you beat a storyline like that?

Well, besides adding brilliant purple shoelaces, of course.

Reaching for Magic

It didn’t come with a letter to Hogwarts. But that was about the only thing missing from the Halloween costume on the kitchen table.

“I have a wand, too,” Missy told Heather. Indeed she did, along with the glasses, robe and tie needed to transform our small, slight, rumple-haired ward into the small, slight rumple-haired Harry Potter. Add in a lightning scar from Heather’s makeup kit – assuming Missy didn’t squirm and Disapparate out of reach – and the look of her favorite bedtime character would be complete.

No doubt about it. This was going to be cool.

In matters of trick-or-treat season, I usually have more enthusiasm than ability. This is despite the excellent foundation laid by my Mom, who in my grade-school years, came up with costume after costume that fit both my eager imagination and the Halloween Commandments.

1) Thou shalt be able to fit a coat over it.

2) Thou shalt be able to fit a doorway around it.

Violating these rules could lead to tragedy, as my wife Heather discovered one year, when her camera costume was too wide for her to enter the Twin Peaks Mall easily. I understand the lack of candy access has scarred her memories to this day – or at least heightened her sense of melodrama.

But within those rules, almost anything was possible. And so, I cheerfully ventured forth as a bowler-hatted ghost, or a crackling scarecrow, or Robin Hood with a homemade bow (thanks, Dad) ready for chocolate-covered glory in the cold October air.

And then I grew up and mostly yielded the stage to others. Time was short and my sewing ability even shorter. (All right, nonexistent.) A third commandment magically appeared on the list:

3) Thou shalt be able to readily assemble thy costume on Oct. 30, after speaking the ritual incantation “How did Halloween come so early this year?”

Sometimes I still had a fun and easy idea, like the year I showed up to work as an IRS agent with a briefcase reading “I’M NOT DEATH – I’M THE OTHER ONE.” But the rest of the time, costumes became something for plays. Or, more often, for other people.

It happens to most of us, I think. Not enough time. Not enough energy. A little too much self-consciousness.

So we tell ourselves, anyway, and not just on Halloween. And so costumes don’t get assembled, books don’t get written, chances don’t get taken. It’s easy. Even convincing.

And often, about as transparent as a Halloween ghost.

There are always limits. Time, money, ability. But within those, amazing things can still be possible. Or at least fun ones.

But first, the dream has to be more important than the limits.

That’s where I think parents have an advantage. Building a costume for yourself might seem silly or self-indulgent. But when it’s your child getting ready for a party or for the chocolate patrol? No contest. You do what you need to do.

Maybe it’s easier to set aside those doubts when it involves someone else. Maybe self-consciousness grows weaker when the moment is no longer just about the self.

Maybe, just maybe, dreams grow more potent when shared.

It’s a magic worth trying. And it doesn’t even require a holly wand or a Hogwarts education. Just a little bit of caring about the things and people that matter.

That’s why Missy Potter has a wand today.

And it’s why we’re all conjuring up more fun than we could have imagined.

 

 

 

Behind the Mask

Missy loves Christmas, year-round.

She’ll dunk Easter eggs with great energy.

But Halloween – that’s another story.

Heather and I have never really been sure why. But even before we became guardians for our favorite disabled adult, we knew that fact: Missy and the Night of A Thousand Costumed Beggars just don’t mix.

Maybe it’s the incessant ding-dong-ding of the doorbell. Though she certainly enjoys visitors at any other time of year.

Maybe it’s the creepy imagery, the cobwebs and skulls, the looming spiders and leering pumpkins. Yet scary scenes have been some of Missy’s favorite parts in our nighttime reading together.

Heather, long more versed in the art of Missy-ology than I, has her own conclusions.

“It’s the costumes,” she theorized.

Huh?

“You know – people dressing up as something else, being something they’re not. I think that weirds her out sometimes.”

Huh.

Two thoughts crossed my head. One was just how many things I had been over a childhood’s worth of Halloweens. Robin Hood and Hercules, a scarecrow, a ghost … the transformation was always my favorite part, even if I did have to throw a coat over it in deference to a Colorado October.

The second thought was a sudden burst of understanding.

“So that’s why they put Election Day right afterward!”

Think about it.

People going door to door, asking for a small donation?

Folks trying to look like anything but themselves, assuming an appearance that will impress, amuse or terrify?

An atmosphere changed to add uncertainty and nervousness, where neither would be justified in real life?

That’s such a perfect summary of the campaign season, I’m amazed we don’t vote on Halloween.

And it’s why I think a lot of us can sympathize with Missy’s uncertainty.

Ideally, an election should help us learn who the candidates are and what they stand for. But between the handling of their managers and the negative ads of opponents, that seems to be the most difficult thing of all. Back in 1992, when Admiral James Stockdale opened a debate by saying “Who am I? Why am I here?” he summed up voters’ questions in a nutshell.

Who are these guys? Really?

Which is the mask and which is the man?

It’s not a comfortable feeling.

Perhaps the one advantage to a (tediously) long pre-election season is that there’s more chances for the mask to slip: an unguarded word in front of cameras, an overly-honest moment spurred by fatigue. But we shouldn’t need that.

I know, “shouldn’t” is a dreamer’s word. But I can’t help wondering. If our would-be leaders spent as much time showing us who they really are as they now do trying to be what we want them to be (and keeping their opponents from doing the same), what would be the result?

Shock? Disgust? Appreciation?

Who knows?

In the end, Missy had a softer feeling toward Halloween this year. Heather and I smiled across the room as she danced at a friend’s costume party, a crowned princess among the various monsters and heroes.

Tonight the masks were harmless fun.

May they come to be so for all of us.