28 Oct

Rapping at my neighbor’s door

“Halloween Fears” in the Harrisburg Patriot-News (October 28, 2010).

“Suddenly there came a tapping, as of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.” Edgar Allan Poe penned these words in “The Raven,” the story of a lonely man hidden inside his home, so distraught over the loss of his beloved Lenore that an intruding raven sends him into hallucination. The story is replayed each October in our own sad interpretation of the poem.

Today, we are haunted by stories that Halloween is dangerous. Schoolteachers distribute leaflets promoting Halloween protocol. Reporters deliver their annual how-to articles on safe trick-or-treating. Such fears, advertised each October, are just as fictional as the ones that come wrapped in hockey masks and prosthetic fangs.

Joel Best, chair of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware, has scanned newspapers for more than four decades in attempting to track instances of tampered Halloween candy. During this time, Best has found no evidence that any child has ever been killed or seriously injured from the candy.

Five deaths from tampered candy have been reported, but follow-up stories concluded that four were the result of other causes. The one verifiable tampering case, in fact, involved a boy whose own father had poisoned his Halloween goodies. And that was in 1974.

Even though the threat isn’t real, our fears are enough to decimate one of the few great community days of the year. It seems that our front doors see much less traffic on Halloween than in years past.

Years ago, as a young Spider-Man, gangster or ninja, I would join the throngs of masked goblins in the neighborhood for a night of rapping. Pillowcase in hand, I loved the excitement. The streets were alive with the chatter of neighbors, the creaking of doors and the musical notes of doorbells. Sure, sugar was the primary goal, but a sense of community came along with it.

Rap-rap. “Oh look, hon, it’s the Dolan boys. Wait a minute until Mrs. Smith comes, guys. She’ll love the costumes!”

Rap-rap. “Look — it’s the devil, He-Man and a ninja! Tell your parents we said hello, fellas!”

Rap-rap. “Come on in,” the vampire said, leading me through the most famous haunted house in the neighborhood, appropriately across the street from a cemetery.

That haunted house is no more, but it’s just as well, for today’s trick-or-treaters wouldn’t dare set foot into someone’s home. They’re better trained than that. “Stay on the front steps where I can see you,” our children are told. “And say ‘thank you.’”

Our homes have become like that famed haunted house in my childhood neighborhood — scary places that we don’t dare to enter. Like Poe, we’ve created a vision of fears.

We fear the unknown, and if we don’t know our neighbors, then we begin to fear them. If we were to get to know the people in our neighborhood, these fears would dissipate.

In the last two decades we’ve created countless ways to keep ourselves hidden behind our own chamber doors — the Internet, home entertainment systems, high-tech home security, attached garages.

Getting to know our neighbors is no longer a high priority. Sure, our homes are wonderful retreats, but they could be so much more. They could be places to share as well. We live in neighborhoods, and too often those neighborhoods lack what we look for in a home: community.

Perhaps if we were to realign those priorities and escape from our insular lives, then maybe we’d rediscover that community. Or maybe we don’t want to, and so we buy into the myth of poisoned candy as an excuse not to make the effort at community.

Even if I recognize the kid behind the little Harry Potter getup when he comes to my door, I probably won’t see him again until next Halloween. And perhaps I won’t see him even then. Unless, of course, I go gently rapping, rapping at my neighbor’s door.

20 Oct

The Invasion Part 2: Silly Bandz

“Silly Bandz Invasion” in Main Line Today (November 2010).

The little critters started appearing in our house one at a time. Before long, they began to multiply. Fearing an infestation was imminent, I called the exterminator:

“Hello. I think I have any infestation in the works.”

“Can you describe the nature of the infestation, Mr. Dolan? Ants? Stink bugs? Click beetles? Creepy-crawlies?”

“Well, yes, I have all those, but they’re not the problem.”

“Then what is, sir?”

“Well, each one is different. They come in all colors and shapes. Some disguise themselves as farm animals and sea creatures. Others look like dinosaurs, and some seem to take the shape of letters and numbers. I even caught one trying to camouflage itself as a diamond ring.”

“I see, sir. This is bad. Do any of these critters glow in the dark, by any chance?”

“Why, yes! Some of them do. Not only that, I tried to release a few outside and discovered that some even change color in the sun.”

“Sir, please do not try to handle these creatures yourself. I’ll send someone right out to your home.”

“Why? Are they dangerous?”

“Mr. Dolan, you have an infestation of shape-shifters. They first appeared in Japan, but made their way to the United States two years ago by way of a manufacturing plant in China. They then immigrated illegally to a warehouse in Toledo, Ohio. From there, they’ve traveled by school bus to unsuspecting towns across the country.”

“But what are they?” I pleaded. “How do I get rid of them?”

“Someone is on their way, sir.”

This was worse than I suspected.

A few hours later, Clyde came to the door, armed with full body uniform, eye protection and a spray canister of toxic formula strapped to his back. I greeted him with a nervous smile.

“I understand you have an infestation of shape-shifters, Mr. Dolan,” he said.

“It seems that way.”

“Do you have young children?”

“Uh, yes,” I answered.

“Ages, sir,” prompted Clyde.

“Uh, 6, 4 and 1.”

“Hmm. This is going to be tough. Let me have a look around.”

Clyde made his way through the home, and it wasn’t long before he came across the first shape-shifter. There, sitting on the kitchen counter, was a blue letter “S.” Not far away some other letters had gathered—M, O and D.

Clyde pulled out a red bag labeled “Hazardous Waste,” then proceeded to pick up the shape-shifters with his bare hands. “Clever little critters,” he muttered to himself.

Clyde inspected every square foot of the home. They were under the couch, inside drawers, atop dressers, even in the bathroom sink. Clyde then examined my daughter’s schoolbag. Dozens of shape-shifters had attached themselves to the outside of it, and many more had burrowed themselves deep inside its pockets. The nest had been found.

Having cleared our home of the shape-shifters, Clyde handed me a bill for $100. I thanked him for his thorough work and watched him pull out of the driveway.

Just then, my 6-year-old daughter and her friend came running across the lawn. To my horror, dozens of shape-shifters had attached themselves to their wrists like parasites!

“Look Daddy!” she hollered. “More Silly Bandz!”

Clyde would be coming back.

19 Oct

The Invasion Part 1: Stinkbugs

“Invasion of the Stinkbugs” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (October 19, 2010).

Drifting off to sleep, I’m roused by a faint buzzing from across the room. It quiets, and I start to drift off again. But it resumes, and this time it sounds like a helicopter coming in for a landing on my head.

I thrash, blindly reach for the invader, and find myself cupping it in my hands. I race through a nighttime obstacle course of furniture to the bathroom and hurl the noxious creature into the toilet.

Good night, stinkbug!

I return to bed unable to sleep, knowing that an army of foreign invaders is setting up camp throughout the house. All spring and summer long, the brown marmorated stinkbugs raided our home, and now they are settling down for a long winter’s nap in the eaves, insulation, and boxes of holiday decorations.

Perhaps longing for democracy, the stinkbugs hopped a flight or boat from China a dozen or so years ago, and now they’re quickly making themselves at home. It seems democracy suits them just fine, as does the absence of natural predators.

Yet surely the most powerful country in the world can find a way to combat these stench-ridden critters? Unless the political powers that be simply choose to look the other way. Maybe the invasion is part of a leftist conspiracy to popularize Obama’s “Cash for Caulkers” program, encouraging people to seal up their homes to keep out the bugs as well as the cold air.

The political ramifications don’t end there. With Election Day approaching, debates about securing our borders and giving stinkbugs a path to citizenship are sure to come up. Arizona lawmakers could make it legal for exterminators to detain all shield-shaped insects, regardless of odor.

While a government solution to the stinkbug invasion gets tied up in political debate, we are left to our own wits. And judging by the homegrown solutions being bandied about, we’re at our wits’ end.

Countless combinations of fluids, from hair spray to bleach to Mr. Clean, have been suggested by inventive homeowners. Rubbing dryer sheets on your window screens is supposed to help. So are giving your entire house a bubble bath, sucking the bugs up in a vacuum cleaner, dropping them in a mixture of water and broken-up cigarettes (I suppose tobacco will kill anything eventually), and doing the hokey pokey.

For farmers, the stinkbugs are more than just a nuisance; they’re feasting on apples, peaches, corn, soybeans, and more. And I’m afraid the needed help won’t come in the form of Febreze crop dusters or John Deere vacuum attachments.

I trust a solution will be found, but until then I’ll lie awake knowing I’m harboring the enemy. And should they decide to strike again, I’ll have a can of hair spray at the ready.

16 Oct

The red light

Driving along the highway, my eyes lay on the road before me – the cars, the turn signals, and the race to wherever home may be.

“Hey, Dad!” calls the four-year-old voice from the back of the car. “Look at that sunset – it looks just like a red light!”

I turn to my right and see the giant, burning orb crashing into the westward horizon. The sky burns red and orange, an explosion of light before the arrival of dark.

And yes, it does look just like a red light.

As well it should, calling us to stop . . . and bringing us to a halt.