Stale New Year’s Thoughts

Fact is, I’m not much for New Year’s anymore.

I don’t go out, I don’t stay up, and I don’t pay a lot of attention to those tedious “year in review” features that seem to be the principle media fare during Christmas Week. I may be slipping, but I haven’t slipped so far that I can’t remember paying $3.35 for gas without prompting, and being reminded about “Gangnam Style” is no way to kick off a new calendar in any case. But that isn’t to say I don’t practice certain beloved rites of the season. One of my favorites is not making any New Year’s resolutions.

Sure, I used to indulge in that sort of sketchy enterprise, but it wasn’t for me. For one thing, I typically set my bar so low I could never be completely sure whether I was staying the course or not. When your resolution is to “not put things off as much,” any chance act of celerity looks like success, never mind that 6-inch pile of unanswered correspondence. For another, vowing to buy a new laptop in the coming 12 months isn’t exactly a bid for self-improvement, especially when you’ve been pricing them online since October. These days I just don’t have the energy for the charade.

But that’s me.

Beth Foster, on the other hand, has pledged a healthier and more active 2013. “I re-upped my membership at 24-Hour Fitness and plan to stop in for a swim a few times each week after rehearsals and shows.”

Seems to me like a better resolution would have been to cut down on all those rehearsals and shows, but then I’m not a founding member of the small-but-feisty “One Night Stand Productions” theater company, and the only thing I hate worse than doing something once is doing it again. Still, swimming is purportedly aerobic, and since Beth tends towards cleanliness and a couple of laps count as a bath, she might actually realize a net time savings.

I deem Beth’s resolution worthy of support, if not emulation.

Mary Ann Tate forwarded an inspirational post suggesting a way her Facebook friends can spend 2013 creating a personal “Year in Review” featuring more “What I Did Last Summer” and less Taylor Swift. “This January,” urges the post’s author, “why not start the year with an empty jar and fill it with notes about good things that happen? Then, on New Year’s Eve, empty it and see what awesome stuff happened that year.” Mary Ann thinks that’s a great idea.

“What a great idea!!!”, she commented.

Assuming I could find a jar around here that isn’t already full of rubber bands, loose hardware, expired Arby’s coupons, bone-dry pens, or something that may be leftover gravy, I consider this resolution dangerously vague. If my new brake shoes fail catastrophically and the new ones come in under $300, is that a “good thing”? How about when I match three on Lotto? Do I need to write a note if I leave a half-cup of coffee in the pot and somebody else has to brew the next one? Or if a friend catches cold and I don’t get it from them?  No, the remembrance jar is nice in principle, but carries a pronounced risk of over-commemoration.

I would urge caution.

“My new year’s resolution is to not let my daughter on my Facebook, and to find a proper journal for her..:P,” declared Peter Allen.

Notice that Peter’s sensible plan is safely personal. Though I still maintain that too many well-meaning resolutions – “be nicer to people” for example, or “give more to charity” – arrogantly force unconsulted others to be party to one’s private self-improvement scheme, Peter has cleverly charted a course of rehabilitation that reserves credit and distinction to himself while ensuring that any potential sacrifice or inconvenience will be suffered by somebody who lacks effective legal recourse. Perhaps most ingenious, by cleverly adding a playful emoticon at the end of his resolution, Peter can plausibly dismiss it as a harmless jest when grandma gets involved and the whole thing goes south on him.

It’s a thinking man’s resolution.

Happy New Year, Peter’s daughter.

My Austerity Plan

vacation-movie-poster-395x600I don’t object to presidents having a little break, now and then.

I’m swell that way.

Hey, everybody needs a vacation, right? Obama works hard for his very nice living, and far be it from me to deny a working man a little well-earned rest and relaxation. I have no doubt that a couple weeks on an Oahu beach will send Barack back to the Oval Office marvelously restored and revitalized and ready to confront the problems that 2014 holds in store on a fresh set of Duracells.

And think of the fun for little Sasha and Malia, splashing in the surf, collecting shells along the waterline, wearing grass skirts at the hukilau – the stuff of treasured memories. There’s a reason that millions of Americans make Hawaii their winter destination of choice. Why should the Obamas be any different?

Because it’s costing you and me a fortune, that’s why.

The number that most often appears in the press is $4 million. That’s the cost to taxpayers, they say, every time the Obamas jet off to the 50th state for the holidays, which they’ve done every Christmas for the last five years running, which yields a cumulative tab of something in the range of $20 million dollars worth of leis and luaus. But if that sounds like a lot of your tax dollars and mine, it’s really just the tip of a far more expensive iceberg.

It sets us all back about $180,000 an hour to keep Air Force One in the air, and takes about nine hours to fly from Washington, D.C. to Honolulu, which makes for a super-first-class round-trip fare in the neighborhood of $3.25 million dollars. Tack on advanced security teams, chase planes, and air and lodgings for the massive and ever-present Presidential retinue, and you’re probably getting pretty close to the stated mark.

The ultimate upgrade

The ultimate upgrade

But the mark should be set a lot higher. Last year, when Obama was wrangling with Congressional Republicans over raising the debt ceiling, Michelle and the girls flew out ahead of him, doubling the mileage and dumping an additional $3.25 million in the First Family’s Christmas stocking. This year, Barack flew back mid-way through their holiday, again doubling the cost and tapping the public purse for something approaching $8 million.

But wait! There’s more!

There’s always more.

Lots of real costs aren’t counted in the standard press estimate. For the two weeks of the Obamas’ vacation, the Secret Service has uncontested control of Oahu, and it doesn’t care how much you or I spent on our modest junior suite at the Hilton Alana Waikiki, or what we’re hoping to see and do while we’re there. The president is a high-value target, and the Secret Service is quite reasonably fixated on protecting the Commander in Chief. And if that’s institutionally expected and patriotically commendable, it can play havoc with civilian economies.

You will respect my authori-tah!

You will respect my authori-tah!

On the tiny island of Oahu, already burdened with the second worst traffic in the country, security teams descend like a swarm of locusts, barricading streets, installing checkpoints and generally restricting public ground movement during peak tourist season. The president and his 30-car motorcade breeze through the maze of inspection stations while local, tourist and commercial traffic is choked nearly to unconsciousness. Local law enforcement and emergency services are on high alert, and on ‘round-the-clock overtime, from well before the Obamas arrive until long after they’ve left, straining state and municipal budgets.

Wade at your own risk

Wade at your own risk

Tourist-heavy Kailua Bay becomes a densely-patrolled security zone, and anyone inadvertently blundering across the Coast Guard’s invisible cordon risks a $40,000 fine or 10 years in federal prison. Popular surfing spots on the bay are off-limits during the Obama’s vacation, bad news for local businesses that depend on them. The beaches and shorelines near the Obamas’ residence are also taboo, and Coast Guard vessels stand 24-hour picket all along the waterway that ebbs and flows past the foot of their sculpted yard.

The 'short' tour

The ‘short’ tour

Nobody worries about Imperial Japanese Zeroes, anymore, but the Secret Service is still diligent in protecting the president from airborne assault. Temporary flight restrictions require flights within 30 nautical miles of CinC’s location to obtain special FAA approval before turning rotor or prop, which is a major headache for an island simply buzzing with flightseers. Because there is no place on Oahu that’s not within 30 nautical miles of everywhere else on Oahu, that stricture applies to all of them. And standard practice designates the airspace within 10 nautical miles of Barack Obama as off-limits to all but law enforcement, “life-saving” medical, and military traffic, effectively idling all private and commercial aircraft based within that circle. And, of course, that 10-mile radius moves along with the Obamas every time they and their caravan head off in search of touristical adventures, grounding Cessnas, Bells, and vacationers’ long-planned activities as they go.

Continental breakfast included

Continental breakfast included

Although it may seem like a small thing compared to the expense of Air Force One, the Obamas’ posh vacation rental house on the gated peninsula of Paradise Point set taxpayers back a lot more than the $50,000 rent the Obamas’ are footing out-of-pocket. While far easier to secure than, say, the Royal Hawaiian, the five-bedroom, five-and-a-half-bath bungalow wasn’t built for such problematic guests and needed substantial upgrades before the First Family could settle in. Pre-Obama listed at about $3 million dollars, the waterfront sugar-shack known as “Plantation Estate” had to be outfitted with bullet-proof glass throughout, and modifications to the grounds facilitate surveillance and protective tactics. And so the leader of the free world can stay in the Beltway loop while strolling white sands a half a world away, the property was decked out with state-of-the-art satellite communications and encryption equipment, all of which must be uninstalled at public expense when the Obamas pack up their “I-Heart-Honolulu” T-shirts and go home.

Hard figures are just about impossible to come by. They’re just about impossible for me to come by, anyway.

Averaging available estimates, it’s likely that every Obama Christmas since 2009 has required close to $20 million federal tax dollars to celebrate, for a five-year total of nearly $100 million, which whopping figure doesn’t account for local and state taxes deployed, local and state taxes lost, lost commercial revenue, and collateral costs borne by John and Jane Q. Public. It also can’t address the frustration and disappointment experienced by thousands of locals and vacationers caused by the annual presidential disruptions, costs that have no dollar value, but are no less painful.

It probably sounds like I’m picking on Obama, and I suppose I am. But I don’t mean to. My beef is less with him, specifically, than with the broad acceptance of allowing a public official to lavish public monies on personal amusements. Fact is, the problem is probably just more obvious now because Barack Obama is among relatively few recent presidents who haven’t had a private retreat to fall back on. Reagan and George W. had their ranches. Bush Sr. had Kennebunkport. Even Jimmy Carter could hide out on his peanut farm when the pressures of office grew wearisome. But if there’s no shame in not owning a private compound wherein to recluse, there’s no excuse for sticking it to your constituents every Christmas just because you don’t. Granted, $20 million is a drop in the federal government’s $3.6 trillion 2013 bucket, but there’s principle to be considered, and principle matters.

The Obamas – and, to a distressing degree, the press – justify their annual Hawaiian holiday as a “family tradition.” I would say that’s no justification at all. Most American families have Christmas traditions, and most of those traditions are dictated by, and at the changing mercies of, factors beyond mere whim and desire. If a family can’t afford to spend the holiday at Epcot Center, they celebrate at home. If a corporate employee is transferred from Chicago to the Dallas office, their family necessarily trades family portraits at the Christmas Market for postcards of Santa’s sleigh pulled by a team of armadillos. Every time a soldier is reassigned to a new post, that family’s traditions are adjusted accordingly.


The president’s post is in Washington, D.C., and he should accept the limitations it places on his family’s movements and recreations. If the Obamas’ “tradition” can only be supported through massive infusions of tax dollars, then it’s a tradition that should never have been started in the first place. For a president to insist on a right to squander mountains of public funds on his family’s vacation because he did it last year, and the year before that, defies both reason and rectitude. Would you let the plumber gouge you just because he got away with it before?

There’s just something incredibly shabby and decidedly un-American about bartenders and teachers and small merchants subsidizing a “public servant” in his leisure pursuits to the tune of millions per year.

That same culture of political privilege and free-spending excess is what encourages the government to ask for a fleet of plush $65 million Gulfstream 550 jets to spare “Congressional leadership” the indignity of commercial air travel, or the drudgery of being ferried about at whim aboard bought-and-paid for Air Force executive aircraft. It’s why the Internal Revenue Service thinks nothing of blowing $49 million in two years on a series of swank and boozy “conferences.” And it’s why Congress approves $440,000 annually to pay for attendants to push the buttons in all of Capitol Hill’s fully automated elevators.

A bulwark of democracy

A bulwark of democracy

But, as I said about a 1,500 words ago, everybody needs a break, and no president can rightly be denied his down time. Trouble is, the office itself guarantees additional public expense and interruption every time its current occupant sticks his nose outside the White House door. Is there any place, the long-suffering wage-earner might wonder, where the President and his posse can kick back without kicking taxpayers in the teeth?


Officially, it’s Naval Support Facility Thurmont. Originally it was called Shangri La. These days, it’s better known as Camp David.

It was established by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1942 to provide presidents and their families with a peaceful, secure and convenient vacation destination. It’s located in Catoctin Mountain Park, nine square miles of hardwood splendor, peace and repose, resting just 70 miles and a half-hour helicopter ride from the South Lawn. It contains a miniature village of posh accommodations, all of them decked out with the finest amenities tax dollars can buy. It’s replete with first-order satellite communications and encryption technologies and a world-class kitchen. It’s the kind of top-tier Appalachian resort for which other folks might gladly lay down $2,500 a night, or more.

It has a golf course, for crying out loud!

It has a golf course, for crying out loud!

It’s operated by Navy personnel and guarded 24-7-365 by lean, green, mean Marines, comes equipped with its own Cold War-class bunker, and it’s already paid for through normal budgetary channels.

I would propose that all presidents – starting in 2014 and henceforth for all time to come – be required to take all vacations at Camp David. This simple and perfectly reasonable plan would not only save taxpayers a large fortune up front, it would spare the nation at large the collateral costs and inconvenience that attends every presidential holiday.

But perhaps a personage of such august position would find repetitive exposure to that brand of completely free luxury a tad monotonous.

Cry me a river.

Every occupation entails certain conditions, constraints and obligations, and if a politician sets his sights on a position with a $400,000 salary, a solid-gold benefit package and perks that would have made Tsar Alexander blush, he should be prepared to make some sacrifices for the job. No doubt the tax-paying 45-year-old Manhattan dishwasher who spends every Christmas, Easter and Independence Day with his family in a 2-bedroom cold-water walk-up in Queens would be more amenable to the arrangement, if only he could afford it, which he couldn’t in a million years, or if Camp David were available to civilians, which it isn’t and never will be. And it’s certain that the Marine private prepared to lay down his life for his vacationing CinC would prefer to spend his own holiday in Cabo, if his duty and his honor didn’t demand he spend it at his post.

Now that's not so bad, is it?

Now that’s not so bad, is it?

While they may not always have a lot of honor, presidents have posts, too, and duties to the nation that elected them, and budgets to live within. They’re not kings, and the wealth of the nation is not at their disposal. If presidents don’t want to avail themselves of the plush vacation digs the country provides, they can spend the holidays languishing in the opulent comfort of the White House. Their high office doesn’t come with a blank check on the Treasury, or provision to indulge their every animal appetite, or the right to discomfit the productive public for purposes of personal entertainment.

But it does come with some pretty sweet bennies, and Camp David is one of them.

I’m sure the presidency is a stressful job, and I would encourage Barack to take advantage of that sumptuous taxpayer-funded resort every chance he gets.



I’m swell that way.


Litter-ally Speaking

Litterbug, Litterbug, shame on you!

Look at the terrible things you do!


Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.

I have littered.

The other day I was going hiking with my friend, Bonita, and picked up a bottle of Snapple on the way. The trail was long, steep and rocky, tricky footing most of the way. Up top, I sat down to enjoy some richly-deserved refreshment, and set the Snapple bottle down on what I thought was a nice, even surface. Unfortunately, the surface was neither nice nor even, and the glass bottle fell over and broke. It was a pain, but not a big one, and I carefully picked up the pieces and headed into the trees.

Bonita says “Where are you going?”

I say “To get rid of this glass.”

She says “You’re not going to just dump it in the woods, are you?” It wasn’t really a question, Father.

I say “What do you expect me to do with it?”
“Carry it out,” she says. “You can’t leave it here.”

I say “Well, I’m gonna bury it. In the middle of nowhere. It’ll never turn up again, I guarantee it.”

She says “I can’t believe you’re even considering it.”

I could see Bonita was walking on the edge of violence, and very carefully tried to explain my reasoning.

I say “I guess I shouldn’t have brought a glass bottle, but I did, and now I know better. But if you think I’m going to head back down that lousy trail with a thin nylon day-pack full of razor-sharp glass shards slung on my back, you’re very much mistaken. One slip and I could have a bigger problem than defiling Mother Nature.”

Bonita says “What if a squirrel, or a bird, gets into it? It could kill them!”

My position, Vicar, was that if some chipmunk is stupid enough to eat broken glass, then that would make me a positive agent of Natural Selection.

Ooooh…I’m gonna pay for that one, aren’t I? You do know it was just a figure of speech, and not an endorsement of evolutionary theory, right?

Anyway, I wasn’t about to head down with a pack full of broken glass, and Bonita wasn’t about to let me bury it in the woods, and I was starting to think that one of us wasn’t going to leave that mountaintop alive when Bonita remembered seeing the disintegrating hulk of an old, lidless metal box rusting its way into oblivion a few feet off the trail only a couple hundred yards from where we stood arguing. Sometime, probably years ago, somebody had dropped a pop can into the box, which in Bonita’s mind, apparently, qualified the box as an approved trash receptacle. With her not-too-enthusiastic blessing, I deposited the glass in the box, where it will remain perfectly intact, visible to hikers, and easily accessible to stupid woodland creatures for ages to come. But then, putting the broken glass in the box was never really about doing the best thing under the circumstances, it was about satisfying the modern anti-littering lobby’s manic compulsion to put-it-somewhere.


Please understand, Padre, that I don’t like litter any better than any other right-thinking person. You might say I was raised in the Faith – pick up your toys, put away your clothes, throw away your trash. For much of my life, not littering has been more habit than conscious choice.

I guess the first time I gave any real thought to littering was as a young man, when I was fortunate to travel abroad and spend time in foreign parts where folks discard their unwanted surplus with almost child-like spontaneity, and without a hint of public condemnation. I have seen otherwise picturesque streets and plazas virtually buried in trash, and I can tell you it’s a pretty grim picture. Wading through seas of wadded-up newspapers, candy wrappers and plastic beverage containers, I’ve been astonished to wash up against government donation kiosks, drifts of rubbish almost obscuring signs pleading for contributions to help fight the nation’s chronic littering problem.

Was I wrong, Father, not to make a donation? I mean, if Jacomo and Jocasta Q. Publico can’t be bothered to drop their empty Pellegrino bottle in a trash can, I doubt my humble piaster will buy their cooperation.

Forgive me my digression, Father. I only mean that having seen first-hand how rampant littering degrades the common landscape, I had discovered, for the first time in my life, a rational reason to not litter. On the other hand, I also saw for the first time that not everybody considers the offhand scattering of rubbish a crime against civilization, a symptom of moral dissipation, or a brutal rape of Gaea. I guess you could say my general stance on litter, while personally unchanged, was still evolving.

After all, littering is what humans do. From coprolites scattered about an African cave, to llama bones moldering on the Pampas, to shell middens heaped along the Chesapeake, to lakes of stone-chips surrounding the pyramids, to fume-choked Newcastle awash in coal slag, creating waste is nothing more or less than the genetically inevitable byproduct of all human activity. It’s in our DNA. Altering and manipulating the natural world is Mankind’s principle survival mechanism, and both of those processes necessarily generate trash.

I can see you multiplying Hail Marys in your head, Father, but hear me out. 

It’s been my observation that just as humanity’s endless ingenuity produces no end of garbage, its inventive nature and native opportunism never stops finding new and better ways to deal with the mess. More than 90 percent of this country’s industrial waste winds up getting used again, and again, and again, for crying out loud!

Sorry for the outburst, Your Worship, but in this highly complex and diversified economy, one person’s dross is almost always somebody else’s raw material, and it’s cheaper to buy pavement-extender, or fuel, or compost, from a guy who’s got boxcar-loads of it sitting in his back lot than to make it yourself from scratch.

Littering, littering every place,

My, what a disgrace!


You make a good point, Father.

No, I’m not really an industry, and not really in the market for worn-out tires, but I’m equally impressed with our culture’s methods for handling non-industrial waste. Most people in this country – except maybe you, Padre – crank out about four pounds of solid waste every day. Subtract for curbside recycling, backyard composting, garage sale-ing and re-gifting, and that still comes to something like 250 million tons of public nuisance every year. Yeah, that is a lot of boxcars, Father, about 3.7 million of them, just in case you were curious, and all that trash winds up attracting crows and coyotes at one of the nation’s 3,091 clean, safe, efficient, and virtually inexhaustible landfills.

Why the disapproving cluck, Padre? That’s a good thing! If you want to know the truth, the miracle of modern trash collection is the real reason I’ve mostly sworn off littering. Let me explain.

To my way of thinking, littering is just the most public manifestation of laziness, or “sloth”, in your professional lingo. Face it, these days you’re rarely more than a few steps from a designated trash receptacle. They’re everywhere, from the mall to the park to the city sidewalks. And if you don’t happen to be next to a trash can at a particular moment, you will be the next time you stop for gas, or groceries, or a crunchy Gordita. And there’s no shame in dumping that Gordita wrapper on the floor in the back seat of your car until you get home, because how many wastebaskets are in your own house? Seriously, Father! How many do you have in the rectory? Oh. I would have guessed more than that. But of course you must be a very tidy person. Cleanliness is next to Godliness, right?

And honestly – in the unlikely event that somebody finds themselves on foot and miles from the nearest garbage bin, what could they possibly have to throw away that won’t fit into their pocket or purse? If they carried it into the wilderness, they can certainly carry it back out again, provided it isn’t bristling with pointy death, or on fire. These days there’s just not much excuse for not dumping your junk in proper fashion, because the responsible disposal of trash has become ridiculously easy and convenient.

Magical, really.

Where is that 250 million tons of trash? You don’t see it. You can’t smell it. It’s just…gone. Properly disposed of, every gum wrapper, every shampoo bottle, every orange peel, every Snapple bottle, simply disappears. That’s because a huge and largely unnoticed army of men and women – taxpaying, family-raising, society-contributing men and women – do nothing for 40 hours a week besides taking care of your four-pound problem. The cigarette butt is whisked away by night; the empty Tender Vittles tins vanish while you’re at your desk; if you don’t have an ant problem, it’s not because you’re some kind of domestic genius, it’s because those well-gnawed hot wings were long gone before the ants got wind of them. And that vast organization, operating 24 hours a day, out of sight and out of mind, is our society’s smooth-running answer to the 500 million cubic yards of garbage we create every year, a volume that works out to something like 5,300 Nimitz Class aircraft carriers no longer harshing our buzz, or 2.3 million Boeing 747s we don’t have to step over to get to the lawn mower, or 314 Saint Peter’s Basilicas stuffed to the rafters with carry-out boxes and soggy coffee filters.

Yes, I thought you’d like that, Vicar.

Okay, okay, I know other sinners are waiting, but here’s the thing – I don’t like litter for the same reason I don’t like vandalism. Something, anything, however humble or mundane, if maintained in its manufactured state is capable of performing its intended function, and is thus a net asset to the world. Break it, and it becomes a problem requiring effort and, probably, money, to be dealt with. The window in the abandoned house is, at very worst, a neutral object that may yet be salvaged to someone’s gain. Throw a rock through it, and it instantly loses any possible value and becomes a hazard to human navigation.

Likewise, the Snapple bottle thrown into the bushes, or the parking lot, or the street, becomes an obstacle to the smooth flow of human intercourse, and an affront to enlightened society. Properly disposed of in a trash can, it becomes part and parcel of that smooth flow, a sterling example of modern enlightenment, a symbol of all that Man can accomplish.

Do you see what I’m getting at, Padre? Simply by not littering, we can all participate directly in what may well be the single greatest achievement in the history of civilization – the American waste disposal system. And, to me, that’s worth the effort.


Absolution! Right! I’m getting to that, Father. I thought priests were supposed to be patient.

Rusty box or no, I definitely littered, and in this day, and in this locality, I know very well that’s a serious moral transgression. And as long as I’m unburdening my soul, you may as well know that one time I drove off with a small stack semi-worthless pamphlets sitting on the roof of my car, which predictably blew off somewhere between Golden and Boulder, and I didn’t go back to find them and dispose of them properly.

It didn’t even cross my mind.

Whew. That felt good.

Does it count that I’ve never littered with malice aforethought? It should, because on those rare occasions that I have abandoned manufactured waste upon the land, I did so with only charity in my heart.

Maybe the devil made me do it, but I’d prefer to think I acted in the best Christian tradition by not risking my own well-being to comply with an irrational zero-tolerance littering policy, nor wasting my time and several gallons of gasoline looking for reading materials that were probably already halfway to Cheyenne. And what about our responsibility to future generations of archaeologists? What about that, Father?

For people like Bonita, and I guarantee your flock is full of them, even the smallest incidence of littering is the greatest evil Men can visit upon the Earth, and no justification exists for it. For me, the cure can sometimes – very rarely, but sometimes – be worse than the disease.

Lord forgive me, Father, but I think I could litter again.


It really makes one wonder what kind of house you keep,

When everywhere that you go is your personal garbage heap!


The Ghosts of Halloween Past

The ancient Halloween custom of Trick-or-Treat seems to have fallen out of favor.

The fashion these days seems to be to be the Halloween Party.

Lots of churches hold Halloween Parties, and a few clubs, and no few Highly-Engaged parents. The basic premise is that, instead of wandering the darkened streets, kids dress up in store-bought costume and sit around in a large, noisy, well-lit rooms gorging on Safeway cupcakes and getting cherry Kool-aid all over their rented outfits. Call me crazy, but that sounds a lot like every kids birthday party I ever attended, and not particularly spooky.

Another growing alternative to traditional Trick-or-Treat is that of the mini-mall variety. Instead of wandering around the darkened streets, kids get to march down straight, noisy, well-lit sidewalks and gather discount treats from merchants. Maybe I’m missing something, but accompanying my parents to the grocery store doesn’t seem to jibe with the holiday’s profound mystery. And note to merchants: Any coupon, even one for free stuff, is not a “treat”, it’s a marketing trick.

One espoused benefit of the Halloween Party/Mall Crawl vis-a-vis genuine Trick-or-Treating is that they provide secure environments in which childrens’ intake and behavior can be more easily monitored and controlled. Another is that, because the events are narrowly scheduled, participation can be more easily penciled into parents’ day-planners. Most often cited, however, is the perceived safety to be found in large numbers, tightly confined. Safety is, after all, the greatest of the modern virtues.

It’s also a shame.

When I was a kid, Trick-or-Treat was Halloween.

Sure, then as now, that curious holiday is a mental process that begins with the bone-deep thrill that comes when you see the season’s first TV commercial featuring a Jack-o-Lantern, or a vampire bat. But the thrill I felt was not rooted in anticipation of bobbing for apples or standing in line in front of Radio Shack, but on the vivid memory of Halloween Night, the strangeness of being outside, alone after dark, the weird anonymity I felt, and the excitement of blood-curdling possibilities that I utterly believed could happen, but didn’t really believe ever would.

Halloween should be macabre, not manufactured. Trick-or-Treat is Halloween on a kids’ own terms. On that night, after the sun went down and the Jack-o-Lanterns came out, I was filled with a delicious, giddy apprehension. All the weird and horrid things that seemed like excellent fiction the rest of the year suddenly seemed plausible, even probable.

On Halloween Night, the universe was off its plumb. Quiet neighborhood streets were haunted by the unseen, the cavernous shadows between homes populated by imaginations running on over-drive. Neighbors’ houses I knew very well became mansions of menace, each one watched over by short, squat demons whose breath carried the secret smell of scorched pumpkin. Pressing the doorbell took a mischievous kind of courage one could only feel on Halloween, and there was an odd thrill of triumph each time a friendly grown-up opened the door and presented candy instead of drooling fangs.

It was all just make-believe, and we knew it. But it was also very real, and we knew that, too.

Even today I can’t catch a whiff of burning pumpkin without flashing back to little knots of my costumed contemporaries appearing out of the darkness, and disappearing back into it just as quickly; to housewives wearing witches’ hats and door handles festooned with fake cobwebs; to scary records playing on outdoor speakers somewhere across the valley; to demonic flaming eyes glaring down from porches set back among the trees, luring me to certain destruction, or maybe a full-sized candy bar, or maybe something in between.

Anything could happen. It never did, but it could, and that was a powerful difference.

Halloween was special because it wasn’t just a party, and it wasn’t just free candy, and it wasn’t just TV Jack-o-Lanterns and rubber vampire bats. It was a nightmare come to life, but one that unfolded along known lines and could be met, and mastered, by a child without the interference of adults.

Removed from malls and multi-purpose rooms, Trick-or-Treat is the imagination set free, terror on a leash, your darkest and dearest dreads pressing up against a thin, black curtain. It is fear, and enchantment, and independence, and discovery.  It’s the beating heart of Halloween, and without it the holiday is a tame and toothless affair.

And that’s a shame.

My Dinner with Madalyn

A while back a friend invited me to join an exciting new discussion group forming on our little piece of the Good Earth.

Lots of smart people had expressed an interest in coming, he said. One expected member had once run for the state legislature, he said, and another one worked in Washington. D.C., rubbing elbows daily with the nation’s movers and shakers. The very cream of the mountain area’s intellectual crop would be expounding for my personal edification, he said, and I would be a fool to miss a priceless opportunity to be so edified. I’ll admit to feeling secretly flattered that he thought me of a level to exchange words with such luminaries, but sitting around and talking isn’t really high on my list of things-to-do-tonight and I hoped he could flesh out the offer before I verbally signed on the invisible dotted line.

“Sounds like it could be fun,” I said, deftly hedging. “What kind of a group is it?”

“Nothing too formal,” he assured me. “Just some people who like discussing philosophy, and politics and current events. We’re planning to meet once a month over dinner. Very casual.”

He was playing to my weaknesses, and the supper-shot struck hard. Still, it takes a lot to get me out of the house after 5 o’clock, so I pressed for details.

“Does this group have a name?”

“Not officially,” he said, with an offhand shrug. “But we’ve been playing with the idea of calling it the ‘Freethinkers Group’. You seem to have strong opinions about everything. I think you’d really like this.”

There are many gaping holes in my cultural fabric, and the term “freethinkers” was one of them. I envisioned a sturdy cadre of lofty souls bravely pressing the boundaries of intellectual achievement.

“But that’s not firm, or anything,” he continued. “In fact, one of the purposes of the first meeting will be to give our group a name and decide exactly what we’re all about. The worst that can happen is you’ll get a good meal, and if you don’t like what you hear you never have to go back.”

What the heck. He was right about my love of endless argument, after all, and there were a couple of restaurants I was looking for an excuse to try.

“What the heck,” I said. The first convocation of the Evergreen Freethinkers Group was held at the local Himalayan buffet, and maybe 10 people showed up. The failed statehouse candidate and Washington bigwig turned out to be the same person and, as far as I could tell, she was selected principally to serve as a kind of celebrity recruiting tool. She styled herself an “advisor and consultant”, but it took me less than five minutes to divine that she was a Washington lobbyist. Her presence in the group was not reassuring. On the other hand, the head Freethinker and the chef behind our little banquet for the brain was a person I knew well, and liked even better. And if most of the others were strangers to me, they all seemed nice enough, and nice enough is good enough in my book.

Supper was tasty, conversation sparkling, and my seat surprisingly comfortable, almost ergonomic, enabling me to shovel pork masala down the hatch at peak efficiency while waiting for somebody to say something somehow related to the group, or freethinking, or thinking at all. Trouble was, nobody did. I hate to take things on myself, but felt pushed into a corner.

“So what’s a freethinker, anyway?” I finally asked, a little slyly, trying to sound like I totally knew what a freethinker was and the question was really designed to open a broader discussion of the deeper nuances of that species. The response left me feeling even more adrift. Most of my fellow diners became instantly engrossed in the remaining contents of their plates. A handful leaned back in their chairs and exchanged those pointedly expectant looks people get when they’re deferring the question to someone else. After a long beat, somebody finally took a stab at it.

“Freethinkers are people who explore different perspectives on a variety of topics.”


“So that’s what this group is?” I asked, feeling intellectually, if not gustatorially, unsatisfied. “We just talk about stuff? It seems like we should have some guidelines, or at least a theme. Otherwise this is just a once-a-month supper club, right?”

“Well what’s wrong with a once-a-month supper club?” smiled one wag, feigning hurt surprise to general and vaguely relieved laughter. As I knew I ultimately must, I was rapidly establishing myself as the squeaky wheel and malcontent in their cozy little chat room. I leapt to damage control.

“I just mean I was under the impression this was some kind of philosophical thing. Did I misunderstand?”

“Oh, no,” said the lobbyist, throwing me a kindly bone. “It definitely is a philosophical discussion group. Freethinking is all about philosophy.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. “Okay, so, just as a starting point, could you define exactly what the freethinker philosophy is?”

More plate-staring, more questioning glances.

“I guess you could say freethinkers have a humanist perspective,” said the lobbyist, finally. “In fact, I think we should call ourselves the Evergreen Humanists Society.”

Alas, once again my vast and comprehensive ignorance proved a humiliating barrier to understanding. In these enlightened times, I expect most everybody is familiar with Humanism, is versed in the Humanist agenda and prefers light Humanist tracts for summer beach-reading. I had exactly no idea what she was talking about.

“Okay, so what is a Humanist?” I pleaded, pathetically frustrated. “What is the Humanist philosophy?”

Uncomfortable silence. It was astonishing, really. I was sure that every other person at that table could have answered the question in their sleep, but clearly nobody wanted to. Perhaps feeling responsible for having evoked the Humanist specter before one so benighted as I, the lobbyist at last addressed me in that sweetly patient way usually reserved for the instruction of small children and the dangerously inebriated.

“Humanists believe in human solutions to problems instead of religious ones.”

Somewhere in the back of my murky mind the pilot light winked on.

“I’m not following. So we’re against religion?”

“Oh, no,” she said. “We don’t have anything against religion. We just don’t think it should have any influence on social, economic or political decisions.”

“Well I’m not sure there’s any way to avoid that, short of Thought Police,” I said. “People vote their conscience, and in America most people are religious. You can’t really separate one from the other, can you?”

“Oh, no, and we wouldn’t want to try. But we can educate people about the Humanist point of view and enact laws to prevent organized religion from imposing its moral agenda on the rest of us.”

“The rest of us being…”

“Anybody who doesn’t subscribe to the dominant religious viewpoint.”

With a whoosh and a roar the burner kicked in and I was suddenly afire with comprehension. My mess-mates, many of them pretty solid acquaintances, a couple of them good friends, were atheists. Well why in the world didn’t they just say so at the get-go? Were they afraid I was going to leap from my chair brandishing a crucifix and hose them all down with holy water?

“So humanists are athiests,” I pronounced, with a melting sigh.

“Oh, no. Many humanists are atheists, but they don’t have to be.”

“So a Christian can be a humanist, too?”

“Oh, yes, as long as they don’t let their private beliefs affect their public policy.”

“I’ve never met a Christian like that, but then I guess I haven’t met all the Christians, yet. So humanists think Christians are okay as long as they vote like atheists.”

“I wouldn’t put it that way. We simply believe that the solutions to human problems lie in human reason, not in some higher power.”

“But if a Christian’s higher power tells them to feed, like, 10 zillion starving African children, that’s a solution to a big human problem.”

“But religious aid always comes with strings attached,” she said, plainly growing exasperated. “Christian charities have no right to impose their values on other cultures.”

I was going to point out that dead people have no values at all and ask how many shoes humanist ministries distributed last year, but the table was clearly losing patience with me. It belatedly dawned on me that no member of this discussion group had come wanting, or expecting, to hear a dissenting opinion. It was a meeting of the faithful, and I was the heretical fly in their communal bowl of thenthuck. Conversation continued in a desultory way for a few minutes, most of it geared toward soothing the lobbyist’s wounded psyche. I was uncomfortable, and I sensed most of my companions were by then uncomfortable with me. Still, the tapering banter was instructive of the humanist worldview. While they were wonderfully tolerant of virtually every religion on the planet, their indulgence did not extend to Christian philosophies. Any idea, concept or belief originating in the Bible but lacking the authoritative support of a competing philosophy such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and even Islam and some of the least restrictive Protestant Christian sects, was immediately and firmly dismissed as fruit of the poisoned tree. Their scorn was particularly bitter toward the Church of Rome in general and the Pope in particular.

“The Catholic Church is basically a religious tyranny,” said one fellow, with dramatic emphasis. “I personally find it incredible that anybody still buys into a bunch of 2,000-year-old superstitions.”

Heads nodded all around, and I knew I would not be returning to the Evergreen Freethinkers Group, or Humanist Society, or whatever other not-especially-descriptive label they ultimately chose to misrepresent themselves.

But please don’t misunderstand. People who know me will tell you I’m no champion of religion, Christianity or otherwise. In the interest of full disclosure, I was raised a Catholic, went to Catechism classes both summer and winter until my 16th birthday, and have always found Catholicism’s deep historical continuity among its most appealing features.

Then again, I dropped religion like a hot rock the first chance I got. Yes, it was partly laziness and late Saturday nights, and partly a general boredom with the monotonous sameness of Mass, but mostly it was because, like many teens of my generation, I read Jonathan Livingston Seagull, took Philosophy 100 because it sounded like an easy A, and joined in many a profound and chemically-enhanced debate with others of questing minds.

Thus philosophically fortified, I decided long ago that the Big Questions are called that because they’re quite plainly beyond the reach of our small mental faculties, and that anybody who claims to know The Truth is taking far too much on faith. I’m not just not-religious, I don’t consider myself particularly spiritual in any sense.

On the other hand, I believe in a higher power, if only because the world is far too miraculous to be the product of mere happenstance. I believe in moral absolutes, because as a student of history I’m familiar with endless disheartening examples of the ease with which the human animal can slide into brutality when not restrained by conventional conscience. And I believe in the continuation of the soul because it has been my observation that Wise Nature wastes nothing, and it would seem out of character for it to discard my consciousness, or yours, or a bug’s, or a ferret’s, or a humanist’s.

If anything, my rudimentary philosophy is a shabby patchwork of Socrates’ “Credo”, classical Stoicism and Kiri-Kin-tha’s First Law of Metaphysics, with a strong dash of Adam Smith as observed by Plato’s Third Eye. But if I didn’t take the humanist rejection of Christian philosophy personally – and I really didn’t – it still bothered me on practical grounds.

Driving home from the restaurant I thought for the first time in a long time of a story I’d once written for the newspaper. The local Catholic priest was launching a series of philosophical discussion groups aimed at high school students. The talks were supposed to be non-denominational, and if I had my doubts about that I still thought it would make an interesting article, and I was pleased to see more than a dozen kids turn out for the premier. Clearly sharing my skepticism, the students started out by doing their best to force the priest into a religious corner from which he couldn’t possibly escape. I was tickled, and secretly hoped they’d succeed, but it quickly became obvious that we in the audience were both over-matched and out-classed.

To my surprise, the vicar displayed perfect mastery of philosophical schools from Buddhism, to Taoism, to Zoroastrianism, to Islam, to Druidism and even animism, and he spoke of them all with unmistakable respect and, I thought, a somewhat less-than-perfectly-pious enthusiasm. Apparently as nonplussed as I was, one of the kids asked him how it was that a Catholic priest came to be so versed in the faiths of infidels.

“It’s standard teaching at the seminary,” he said. “Philosophy is a search for truth, and all religions are just searching for the same truth by different paths. Catholicism is one path, but there are plenty of others that are just as valid. By dismissing a philosophy – almost any philosophy – you’re depriving yourself of the truth it contains.”

And that, it occurred to me, was the problem with my freethinking friends. At any given moment, I thought, thousands of monks, priests, pastors and prelates are studiously contemplating and debating, pondering and weighing, in a relentless search for truth, and they’d been at it for more than 21 long centuries. Surely among them they’ve come up with something worthy of consideration. Yet those prickly humanists will reject out of hand the hard-won product of billions of man-hours of concentrated philosophical thought simply because of its tangential association with a historical figure named Jesus of Nazareth.

Say what you will about the official Catholic stances on gay marriage and female priests, but throwing that baby out with that bathwater is just willful ignorance, and that’s just bad policy. While deeming themselves the most enlightened of humans, my dinner companions were, in fact, among the most closed-minded, certainly far more so than that well-read Catholic priest.

True, humanists will probably never wage violent crusade against Believers, but only because there will probably never be enough of them together at one time to make a good show of it – even freethinkers aren’t immune from base natural passions. And if they’re not already on a non-violent crusade to prevent fellow citizens from acting upon their personal philosophies as their consciences demand, then what was the point of our most delicious supper?

Love it or hate it, and for all its many abuses, past and present, organized religion is the greatest force for good existing in the world today. And whatever your thoughts on the Pope, Catholic Charities International will do more to alleviate human suffering today than the American Humanist Society will accomplish from the instant of its foundation until the end of time.

I would ask of the humanists of my acquaintance only that which they would ask of the Christians of my acquaintance: Live and let live, Brothers and Sisters. If you don’t want to give up your right to the free and unfettered expression of your faith, don’t expect them to give up theirs. It’s a free country, after all, and that’s a foundational American philosophy.   I never went back to the Evergreen Freethinkers/Humanists/Supper Club, and I’m pretty sure it didn’t miss me. I’ve been back to the Himalayan buffet lots of times, though. The sha momo is fantastic.