Trick or Treat?

My son is now nearly 30, but this memory of Halloweens past never gets old. Hope you enjoy it as much now as we enjoyed the experience back then.

My firefighter, age 4.
My firefighter, age 4.

My oldest son has always loved dressing in costume. This is the kid who, when he was not much taller than the kitchen table, insisted on clomping around in a big old pair of cowboy boots and a ten-gallon hat that we’d found at a yard sale.

On any given day throughout the year, and especially when guests were coming to visit, he’d dive into the dress-up box and come out as a magician in a cloak and top hat or King Arthur with a sword and chain mail. He’d even bully his friends and younger brother into playing along, transforming them all into construction workers in hard hats and clumpy work boots as they headed out to excavate the sandbox with big Tonka bulldozers.

So Halloween at our house is not just an excuse to wander the streets shaking down neighbors for treats. It’s a major celebration my kids anticipate for months in advance with as much anxiety and preparation as a wedding or bar mitzvah.

Their costumes are never the wimpy excuses lesser mortals buy at KMart. They are elaborate creations that spring fully formed from imaginative vision and the wealth of possibilities that can only be found at the Salvation Army Thrift Store.

But one year—I think he was about 12—my son made the serious mistake of pushing his mother just a little too far and ended up being grounded on Halloween night. It was the worst punishment he’d ever had to endure. For weeks he had schemed how he would patrol the neighborhood like Martin Sheen through the jungles of Apocalypse Now, face painted brown and green, wearing military fatigues and brandishing an automatic weapon. Now I was the bad guy, making him stay home on the biggest party night of the year, and man, was he mad!

When the fateful night rolled around, though, he wasn’t about to let this little inconvenience squash his excellent adventure. Since he couldn’t go out of the yard, he decided to put on his camos anyway. He climbed the small maple tree that grew in front of our house, and every time some poor, unsuspecting child started up the path to the front door, he’d fall from the tree as if he were dead.

This is how my son dresses up these days.
This is how my son dresses up these days.

The scam was a huge success. It scared everyone who dared venture near our house for treats that night. Timid little girls in sweet pink tutus shrieked and ran back to their mothers waiting at the sidewalk. Big green aliens and rubber-faced hunchbacks probed the fallen body with uncertain toes, or walked far away around it as they continued on their way to our door.

My son ended up having more fun that Halloween than ever before. The next day in school, friends congratulated him on his outstanding performance, and months later neighbors stopped me on the street to tell me stories their kids brought home about the boy who fell out of our tree on Halloween night.

We didn’t have much candy around the house that year, but boy was that Halloween sweet.

A version of this essay was broadcast on NPR affiliate WVTF, Roanoke, VA on November 1, 2002

© 2002 Linda J. Kobert

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Hands Off

Twenty years ago, I wrote an article for the American Journal of Nursing in which I wondered whether health care’s newly adopted “universal precautions” would change the nurse’s relationship with the people for whom she cared. At that time, health care workers were struggling to gain control over the spread of HIV and other blood-borne diseases.

We were required to wear gloves, masks, gowns, and eye protection any time we might come in contact with someone else’s body fluids. And I worried that all this gear might make us seem like aliens to our patients. I worried that the women I cared for as a labor and delivery nurse might feel repulsed, like we thought they were untouchable at the very time they needed human touch the most.

As time has gone by, we all seem to have taken in stride the need for some of this personal protection. These days, no one seems to notice the latex barrier between a care giver and another person’s blood. Even at school, the teacher covers her hands before attending to the child who has scraped his knee.

But I was reminded recently of this aversion I still have to universal precautions as we now face another infectious threat. During a recent visit to my kids’ school in Charlottesville, I walked up to a teacher, whom I consider a friend, and extended my hand in greeting. Rather than taking my hand in hers, however, she instead put her own palms together in front of her heart and gave a reverent little bow.

“Swine flu,” she whispered by way of explanation.

I was horrified.

I understand, of course, that H1N1 influenza is spreading across the globe in a worldwide pandemic. People who pay attention to such plagues are seeing visions of the 1918 flu pandemic that killed far more people than World War I, which was also being fought at the time.

Absenteeism from the flu, at schools and workplaces, is definitely high this fall. A few people have even died from the disease or its complications. And yes, it’s very useful to practice good hygiene as a way to avoid spreading germs of any kind.

But really, do we have to spurn all personal contact? Must we stop greeting each other with a friendly handshake? Can we no longer join hands in circle games or prayer? Should we shrug off a friend’s attempt to hug us?

I’m sorry. I can’t do this. I’ll wash my hands more often—vigorously, and with lots of soap. I’ll cover my nose and mouth when I cough or sneeze. I’ll stay home if I don’t feel well. But I don’t want to stop touching people, and won’t stop inviting them to touch me.

Babies die from lack of human touch. I fear I may die as well if I can’t touch and be touched.

Twenty years from now, I hope no one can even remember a time when we were advised to avoid physical contact with our fellow human beings. In fact, I hope the CDC’s recommendations to keep our distance serve as a powerful reminder of just how important it really is to be close to each other, to feel another person’s skin right up next to our own.

This essay was broadcast on  NPR affiliate WVTF in Roanoke, VA on January 4, 2010.

© 2009 Linda J. Kobert

Trick or Treat?

Carter Mountain Pumpkins My oldest son has always been a real life actor. This is the kid who, when he was not much taller than the kitchen table, insisted on clomping around in a big old pair of cowboy boots and a ten-gallon hat that we’d found at a yard sale.

On any given day throughout the year, and especially when guests were coming to visit, he’d dive into the dress-up box and come out as a magician in a cloak and top hat or King Arthur with a sword and chain mail. He’d even bully his friends and younger brother into playing along, transforming them all into construction workers in hard hats and clumpy work boots as they headed out to excavate the sandbox with big Tonka bulldozers.

So Halloween at our house is not just an excuse to wander the streets shaking down neighbors for treats. It’s a major celebration my kids anticipate for months in advance with as much anxiety and preparation as a wedding or bar mitzvah.

Their costumes are never the wimpy excuses lesser mortals buy at KMart. They are elaborate creations that spring fully formed from imaginative vision and the wealth of possibilities that can only be found at the Salvation Army Thrift Store.

But one year—I think he was about 12—my son made the serious mistake of pushing his mother just a little too far and ended up being grounded on Halloween night. It was the worst punishment he’d ever had to endure. For weeks he had schemed how he would patrol the neighborhood like Martin Sheen through the jungles of Apocalypse Now, face painted brown and green, wearing military fatigues and brandishing an automatic weapon. Now I was the bad guy, making him stay home on the biggest party night of the year, and man, was he mad!

When the fateful night rolled around, though, he wasn’t about to let this little inconvenience squash his excellent adventure. Since he couldn’t go out of the yard, he decided to put on his camos anyway. He climbed the small maple tree that grew in front of our house, and every time some poor, unsuspecting child started up the path to the front door, he’d fall from the tree as if he were dead.

The scam was a huge success. It scared everyone who dared venture near our house for treats that night. Timid little girls in sweet pink tutus shrieked and ran back to their mothers waiting at the sidewalk. Big green aliens and rubber-faced hunchbacks probed the fallen body with uncertain toes, or walked far away around it as they continued on their way to our door.

My son ended up having more fun that Halloween than ever before. The next day in school, friends congratulated him on his outstanding performance, and months later neighbors stopped me on the street to tell me stories their kids brought home about the boy who fell out of our tree on Halloween night.

We didn’t have much candy around the house that year, but boy was that Halloween sweet.

A version of this essay was broadcast on NPR affiliate WVTF, Roanoke, VA on November 1, 2002

© 2002 Linda J. Kobert

Hot Fudge

My friend Wendy, who used to run the health food store in Crozet, looks at me strangely as I show off my new car. She’s trying to be polite, but I know what she’s thinking…She wants to know what’s wrong with me. She’s trying to figure out how this friend she thought she knew… this person who brings her own canvas grocery bags and buys whole wheat flour and brown rice in 25 pound sacks…She wants to know how I could possibly be the same person who now owns a speedy, gas-guzzling Camaro Z-28…brand new, not even used.

“Looks like a midlife crisis to me,” Rick says looking envious as he checks out the six-speed manual transmission and asks about the 5.7 liter V-8 engine.

“It’s quite a new image for you,” Sharon tells me peeking through the open T-tops at the black leather interior.

“It looks…naughty,” Lisa muses. Her South African accent is filled with nuance.

I understand. I know they’re having trouble connecting the soccer mom they think they know with this sexy black sports car I’m standing next to and calling my own.

I admit that, developmentally speaking, I should be trading in my ubiquitous, ten-year-old green Taurus station wagon for a new lease on a grey Honda minivan. It’s what everybody expects. And with two teenage sons and a car pool, it would be far more practical.

But Roberta gets it. Roberta wears a floppy straw hat and sings the blues as she struts down the street. Roberta plays in the sandbox with her four-year-old son Noah and sprouts fluttery silk-and-wire wings even when it’s not Halloween. Roberta understands. She knows that this car is all about not giving up on dreams and desire even when you’re vice-president of the school’s parent association and your kid is going off to college next year. She knows it’s defeat to try and make do with what makes sense.

It’s like, yeah, you can call it dessert when you order the low-fat, plain vanilla frozen yogurt in a cup. Maybe it is healthy. Maybe it is affordable. Maybe it is practical. But wouldn’t you much rather have a hot fudge brownie sundae piled high with real, homemade ice cream, layered with pecans and whipped cream and topped off with a big red, juicy strawberry?

Now wouldn’t you?

After all these years I’m finally getting it too: Life is short…go for the hot fudge…with the top down and Lynyrd Skynyrd blasting away on the stereo.

♫Oh they call me the breeze. I keep blowin’ down the road…♫

A version of this essay was broadcast on NPR affiliate WVTF, Roanoke, VA in January 2003

© 2002 Linda J. Kobert