Halloween Candy

I never cared much for costumes on Halloween. I remember one year wanting to go as Dr. Grant or any of the rabble of JP employees, but ended up going as a surgeon (it wasn't my idea). And no, it wasn't even a cool "diabolical surgeon" or anything, just a regular surgeon with face mask, gloves, and scrubs. In other years, I think I just ran around in a black cape and top hat and tried to be... something in a black cape and top hat.

I never really thought it through deep enough. If I had a thing for top hats one year, that's what my costume was. I cared more about the candy. Every Halloween you always came back with the same-old cheapo "bargain bag" variety. You always got a few handfuls of Reese's, M&Ms, and KitKats, a bunch of those Mr. Goodbars and Nestle Crunch, a solitary box of Milk Duds, and about a thousand rolls of Smarties. Usually if you dug through your bag deep enough, you might stumble on some Skittles, Laffy Taffy, Nerds, Mike & Ikes, or Dots, but that's if you had a good night. You were almost sure to get your Mars fix though. They gave out Snickers/Milky Way/3 Musketeers/Twix minis by the bucket-load! And sometimes you'd get a few oddball throw-ins... like once (I kid you not) I got Pepperidge Farm cheese crackers. That's in the dictionary under "lame."

In pursuit of all this free candy, I was definitely tempted to ignore the "please take one" rule to my own peril--concerning baskets left unsupervised on doorsteps. One time when out Trick-or-Treating, I decided to take that taboo second handful on a dark and lonely doorstep, and learned my lesson for good. The psychos jumped out of nowhere, screaming, "RAAH!" I almost fell off the step! So, word to the wise: either take one, or take the whole damn basket. 

The neighborhoods you decided to hit up made all the difference in your stash, and we usually tried to hit up a few different parts of town. The housing plots were just too PC on Halloween. Everything there was pretty well lit and everyone was packing it in around 8pm. It almost seemed like the holiday was only for the 5-and-under crowd, but those were the neighborhoods with the most freakin' candy, I swear. If you wore different masks, or just covered your face, you could visit a house a few times without them even knowing it. Their front doors were like Grand Central. On a darker side street like the one I lived on, sure there was much more fun to be had in the bedlam of Samhain, but that was only because few had their porch lights on, so few cared whether you had a trick because they hadn't treats. Those who did, took  f o r e v e r  to answer their doorbells.

So while I was sure to regale my friends with tales of wild chases in the dark, setting off party poppers and hurling toilet paper, I never did anything like that. There was never any property damage, just a whole ton of trespassing and a sugar high that could've put me in a coma.

Leafblowers Rule

Here's me in the leaf corpses.
When given the task as a kid to name my favorite season and draw a picture of it, I thought for a while, and chose "all of the above." I know that's not a season, but there was just something about each of the four seasons that I liked, and that hasn't changed. When it comes to autumn, I get it, it's crisp, it's colorful, but I don't go nuts over the season like most do. Screw pumpkin spice! And screw pumpkin-spice pie scented candles! That autumn-crazy apple-pumpkin-cranberry-spice-smelling Yankee Candle store we got around here is nothing more than a great place to mask a fart when you're at the mall with your girlfriend. And that is a true story! I don't want to smell orchards and pies and cinnamon and nutmeg and whatnot this time of year, I want to eat them! Don't tease me Yankee Candle! Is there any hope for autumn to be as awesome as the other seasons, as in, something even the 8YO me could like?

Well, when it comes to autumn, of course, the big thing on my mind is the leaves literally dying all around us, their copses being raked into piles to be trashed, burned, and jumped in by small children. Suddenly all that stuff "up there" hits the ground, you get crispy leaf corpses underfoot and blowing around, and they need picking up. It's payback for the free air, I thought. Well, you could rake them up, but come on, that's not nearly powerful or fun enough. Men have not always done a great job making life easier on this planet since the time of the mammoths, but we certainly know how to make it more fun. And one of our greatest achievements since our glory days of prehistory has got to be the "leafblower."

Don't get me wrong, it's not that they're completely useless. They may never actually get the lawn clean, and may actually end up making it worse at times, as you go scurrying around to chase after leaves in every which direction, but no, they do have their purpose, and it's a purpose that could've only been originated in a guy's head. That their actual use, and therefore why they were invented and why we continue using them, is more about, how shall I say this... allowing their users to have the most fun being an idiot while still making it look like "work" was being done. For that, I'd say the leafblower is a level of genius worthy of a Bud Light radio commercial.

Every kid, raised in a temperate climate has memories of raking a big pile of leaves and jumping in them, throwing them around, and then generally needing to rake them back up... so I won't bore you with the details of that. Trust me, there was a lot of it. My dad did have some pretty ingenious ways of raking leaves though, involving a leaf blower and a big tarp. Autumn is literally the best time of year for leaf blowers. You pick one of those up as a kid, rev it on, and have yourself a little mini Wizard of Oz in your front yard. Find a pile, blow it to pieces. Make it rain! Get those leaves cornered and make it tornado! Play volleyball with a leaf, blower style, and see how long you can keep it in the air! Stick the nozzle between your legs backwards and pretend that the sheer power of your ass-blaster gusts are blowing the front yard clean! Blast the nozzle in your brother's face and watch his mouth gape open, his eyelids curl up, and his hair fly back in the breeze! Chase your sister and really screw up her hair from behind! The possibilities are endless. The yard never gets clean, but it's sure fun.

Anyways, something about autumn (November included) always reminds me of childhood and family... perhaps it's because Halloween is around the corner (for childhood that is... I assure you, my family doesn't make me think of Halloween!), and perhaps it's because this is the time my family used to start getting together (...nice save!). Something about the fall made me think of the mundane routines in life--going shopping, going to the Laundromat, going to school, raking the leaves... and as the weather got colder, how we'd always start paying attention to things that could get us out of the cold... like all the big sales.

The second thing I picture is a gourd... not for any particular reason, other than it being a funny word, and the fact that you just can't think of autumn without picturing gourds. I have no affinity for them or eating anything involving pumpkins, and actually had a pretty daunting experience with one that I'd rather not relive (so definitely expect a post on it soon). Maybe it's just because I like the word "gourd."

And I guess that's all I have to say about the chick-y-est season of them all.

School Floor-Time Farts

I tell you, all that time on the classroom floor is a killer on your body, and boy did we ever spend a long time on the floor at school. From K to 4, we'd be down there for small group instruction time, reading time, easel time, project time, movie time, auditorium time, song time... any time they needed to call a "time." All that time, I'd just be looking up from under the tables and chairs and wondering how that vantage could've come to dominate my day, and, who stuck that gum up there? Seriously, what were they thinking by subjecting kids to this?

Aside from the sheer uncomfortable yoga positioning they were forcing us to do on those rock hard carpets, spending so much time on the floor has its other follies. It also turns out that when you spend a lot of time hunched over sitting Indian-style, sprawled out, or bent over on a hard rug...etc., any disturbance or show of force when coming to a stand can cause unintentional and unexpected internal "shifts" (especially true after eating anything they served in the cafeteria). This knowledge comes from personal experience.

It was the 4th grade. I was nine. The floor group thing was over and we were all to go back to sitting in our chairs like people. I forced myself up, and from out of you-know-where (and without even checking with me first), as if just to say "hi!"... out blurped this low and sputter-y "bluRRRp!" It was a fart, not very loud, but just loud enough. I just froze. It was a pure "what was that?" kind of moment, and I didn't even know it was me for a half second. I did a mental damage report. All systems were go. Shorts were go. Awesomeness was definitely go! At least I could be thankful it was deployed from a half stand position because if I had been still firmly planted it probably would've launched me at least an inch into the air! "Houston, we have liftoff." But let's not exaggerate. I'm not taking Apollo 13-style liftoff, I'm talking more like Apollo 13-style explosion. "Houston, we have a problem..."

I wouldn't have thought much about it from there, but these two girls (who didn't like me much already) were sitting just a few feet behind me, and I tell you they had front row seats to that performance, both forced to weather the storm I'd just unleashed. One quickly remarked to the other, "ugh, Mark just farted." Now I didn't know if I should've been ashamed or extremely pleased, but I got to admit that one minute of embarrassment for 16 years of "ah! gotcha!" pride is pretty good in my book though, even though it's always more of a deal breaker than an ice breaker. And so I say, "hehe, got ya, girls!"

Five Great Forgotten Kids Films

The 80's and 90's brought us some of the best in children's entertainment, and some of the worst, but still a whole bunch of films every kid should see at least once. In the aughties, no great children's film went forgotten (aka "Finding Nemo"), just the bad ones (aka "that other one with the fish"). But when it comes to films from the 80s and 90s, it's seems not only did the bad ones get buried (The Pagemaster), but so did the greats! We remember them of course, so let's change this for the kids these days.

In that spirit, here's five "forgotten" kids films from the 80s and 90s that every kid ought to see, in no particular order--the kind of films I'll be sure to force my own kids to watch one day, whether they like it or not. This will be the first in a two part series. Now before you say anything, the list is of course limited to the films I've actually seen, which is why "The Last Unicorn" or "Flight of the Navigator" or "Your Personal Favorite" is not here.

The Land Before Time - Who could forget probably one of the saddest kids' movies ever made? Bambi has nothing on the trauma of this little Apatosaurus! After his mother's death, right before his eyes, Littlefoot goes through all the stages of grief, from outright sadness, to directionless depression, to this hardened, near-delusional obsession (searching for the "Great Valley") which drives him and all his friends right to the verge of death before, finally, the rewards of his determination suddenly fall right in his lap. The animation is lush and the score ranks among one of the most heartfelt, depressing and yet life-affirming, with just a touch of good, clean, schmaltz. But what a beautiful, and ironically, "timeless" film, so long as you just toss the sequels. 

The Rescuers Down Under - Or is that, Dan-Indah? Granted, it's been a while since I've seen this one so I can't comment on the particulars of the story, but this is the rare Disney sequel that is actually light years ahead of its yawn-fest original. With this one, there is a great sense of adventure, a real sense of danger, and spectacular flight scenes with the boy on the giant eagle. In fact, it's almost like a whole different kind of film. I even remember being spellbound by a scene involving eggs sitting in a nest on the side of a cliff. It gets forgotten because it came sandwiched between The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast and wasn't a hit like they were, but this is definitely a "Disney Renaissance" film. The animation is superb, and...well, like I said, it's been a while, but I do remember a lot of eggs in the movie, and a hungry Komodo Dragon.

The Never Ending Story - Almost every single shot of this film is jaw-dropping, and even the old-timey "creature shop" special effects work to enhance the film's own sense of magic. Let's face it, Bastian was a dork, but then he goes and lives out this epic fantasy in the life of the fearless warrior boy Atreyu...who then spends his time getting sneezed at by huge turtles, getting shot at by conspicuously "breasted" sphinxes, and getting talked at by giant rocks... and yet, every minute of their shared quest is dazzling. Every girl, and hell, every boy, cried over the death of Artax. And if your kids have gone without seeing the Ivory Tower poke out from behind clusters of rock floating against the night sky--just when Atreyu's at the end of his faith--then chances are, they're missing out on a whole new level of elation. A truly fantastic film. 

The Little Mermaid - I know... it's a girl's movie, but with an opening that has dolphins leaping out of the way of a huge wooden ship as it comes plowing through the mists and crashing through the waves, I was sold in the first minute of this classic. What an awesome ship, and later it even meets a fiery end during a terrible storm too! A Disney masterpiece, it's arguably the best "songed" Disney film, in that the songs actually tell us volumes about the characters and aren't just there to fill time. And there's actual feelings behind these characters, even the prince has a personality for a change, not to mention his very own name! Plus, Sebastian the "jah mon!" crab was just damn hilarious. You may wonder why I include it here, but there's a reason. I think what's "forgotten" about it is that it actually is a good movie.

The Secret of NIMH - Bluth's masterpiece...yeah, you can't overstate how great this film is. Perhaps its a bit dark, but so what? Ms. Brisby's personal quest is a very simple one--to save her home and her children--and yet, it's one that ends up pitting her right in the middle of a larger and more confusing world, from the cutthroat to the mystical, and yet, all of that is secondary to what she needs to get done. It's a cautionary tail about mad science, a film about overcoming real-life struggles, and an exploration of the powers beyond. And the animation? Come on, it's the Secret of NIMH--of course it's wondrous. I can't even try to knock this one... even the idiot loveless blackbird was funny.

So there's my first five greatest forgotten kids' films of the 80's and 90's. There will be more to come when I feel like it, and I promise more 90s films next time! In the meantime, go out and stream these right now, if you can, or better yet, rent them on VHS-- the way they were meant to be seen!

Our Santa Fe Alco Train Set

Before my brother and I moved into it sometime in 1994, the downstairs bedroom was called "the playroom." It had tastelessly primary-colored wall-papered walls (with cartoony dinosaurs), a spherical light fixture with a tiny "basketball hoop" around it (it was there when we moved), and a lush blue shag carpet good for losing Legos in. And there were plenty of Legos there, piled into draws--a garbage heap and grave site for every set we'd ever built, demolished, and obliterated until it became nothing but "unorganized grabasstic pieces of ABS-plastic you-know-what."

But at some point the room went from being 50% hideous color scheme and 50% Lego bricks (which formed much the foundation, believe it or not), to 50% hideous color scheme (that didn't change) and 50% Big Honkin' Train Set. This train set was propped up on a table--a piece comprised of pure, quality, Home Depot plywood and 2X4's constructed by dad so we could work it at eye-level. I don't remember, we must have got the train for Christmas or something, but it was... the... absolute... sweetest thing a 7-year-old boy could ever dream of owning, even if they're not dreaming of it.

My brother and I were huge train freaks at that age, thanks to years of watching Thomas and Shining Time Station every morning. We had the novelty wooden "train whistle" thing and the conductor's hats (I had the blue one, he had the red one), and if there was a wooden train set in a store at the mall, that was the end of any hope our parents had of getting some shopping done. Everything with us was about trains, trains, and more trains--probably moreso for my brother than me (I was also into boats), but this one was the epitome of all that relentless adoration for all things that ran on tracks.

It was Lionel's Santa Fe Alco Diesel Freight--one of their classiest-ever electric modern trains. It had a batch of boxcars, an oil tank car, a flatbed car, and a caboose--everything you'd want. The track was one big oval, which included a shorter line you could switch it onto, and one whole side was a ramp with a bridge. Within this oval, we of course built our own Lego city, which was mainly my doing. It's not good enough to just have a nice model train set, it has to have a small village within it too, so all the little Lego people who were hopelessly outsized for the train anyway could stand back and watch it as it went around in circles with no real destination. I remember it came with little plastic people too.

Of course we crashed that thing a hundred times. We'd set the thing up to go on a certain track, and then switch the lines with the little lever thing before it made it there, just to watch it go off the rail. Dad was never happy about us doing that, but then again, it stands to reason seeing that he probably paid for it. As to what happened to it? Well, perhaps we crashed it a few too many times. Eventually we had to pack up the playroom because my sister was born and she got our room. The two of us moved in downstairs, but by then I think our whole train fandom had given way to something else entirely. To what? I don't know. The train set was just more memorable.