On pumpkin season – in which I seek to allay Mary Schmich’s autumnal worries.

Yesterday I sat in my living room and read the Sunday paper — on actual paper, as one does, if one has any remaining sense of decency and/or culture.

The Chicago Tribune is so small these days, shrunken in both page size and page numbers as bean counters continue to try to mitigate the damage done by Sam Zell and an entire culture that held that it was reasonable to expect a 20-30% return in print news, even as new technologies were changing our very understanding of the word “print.” When I delivered the Tribune as a young girl in sleeply suburban Lake Bluff, the Sunday paper was so massive that the delivery process could break your back, and if not your back then your bike, and if not your bike, then at the very least the panniers in which you had cram-jammed as many copies as you could fit for your first trip out on a frost-aired morning.

I’m sure veteran Tribune columnist Mary Schmich remembers those papers, and I’d guess that like me, she remembers them fondly — aside from her column duties, Schmich was also the writer of Brenda Starr for 25 years, and back when the Sunday paper weighed a ton, the comics pages were broad as a river, their brightness a kind of beacon amid the black and white spread across and tumbling off the coffee table. Although I often argue that the good old days weren’t actually all that good, some things really were better once upon a time. The Sunday paper is a sterling example. Nostalgia isn’t always wrong.

In yesterday’s Sunday paper, though, Mary Schmich argued for a different kind of nostalgia, one with which, alas, I cannot agree. In the course of a sweet rumination on the beauty of October in Chicago, she expressed frustration with the fact that pumpkins have become big business. “There was a time,” she wrote, “when a pumpkin was a pumpkin.”

Carve it up, stick a candle in, make a pumpkin pie. The humble pumpkin, however, has morphed into a marketing monster.

Autumn as Pumpkinpalooza.

There are pumpkin lattes (Starbucks). Pumpkin bagels (Einstein Bros). Pumpkin pie doughnuts (Dunkin’ Donuts). Pumpkin cheesecake doughnuts (Krispy Kreme). Pumpkin pie blizzards (Dairy Queen).

Schmich goes on to present an incomplete list of the pumpkin-flavored items currently available at Trader Joe’s — and though it is incomplete, the list numbers 14 items. It’s hard to argue with her logic.

Indeed, I’ve also been known to shake a metaphorical fist at pumpkins — and also in the general direction of inflatable lawn ornaments, a month’s worth of Halloween programming on Disney Channel, and the annual roll-out of “sexy” costumes for girls aged roughly toddler and up. Gentle reader, if you know me at all, you know me as a shaker of fists.

But lately I find myself taking a different approach to the Pumpkinization and/or Halloweenization Of Everything, because though it represents marketing run amok, though it encourages the sale of neon-green spider “webs” and bedazzled purple “spiders,” though the very idea of pumpkin in coffee is an outrage that should have coffee growers rioting in the streets — it’s all rooted in the season in which we happen to find ourselves, not the one that’s still two months down the road.

Moreover, not only is Pumpkinpalooza an entirely autumnal affair, not only does it fend off the frantic selling of The Holidays until at least November 1, not only does it mean that I can re-stock my supply of Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Pancake and Waffle Mix (note: pumpkin pancakes are not an outrage) — it’s also completely American and utterly without import.

Christmas actually means something, and that something is a thing which many Americans do not celebrate or in which they find no meaning, and much as we rabbit on about “the holidays,” as if to include Hanukkah and the New Year, we all know which holiday is king.

And I’m kind of ok with that. I’m Jewish, but that just means that I’m in the minority — as are the atheists, the Hindus, the Buddhists, the Muslims, and all the many, many Americans for whom Christmas is not their jam. The vast majority of our American brothers and sisters celebrate Christmas some way or another, and the captains of industry long ago realized they could make a buck off of joy. So ok: From November 1st, it’s red and green as far as the eye can see.

But in October, everyone can just be a regular American. Whatever All Hallows Eve once meant, modern-day Halloween no longer means anything even remotely similar, and the pumpkin in our foodstuffs means even less. It’s just a kind of collective silliness, an enjoyment of frivolity and sugar, with a nod to the harvest and bounty and your unalienable right to scary yourself silly. I can drive around with my kids, gaping at houses bedecked in Halloween ghoulery, and feel that nothing but my own curmudgeonly and mildly lazy character stands between me and my neighbors. I can love the smell of fall leaves and secretly miss the smell of them burning, eat too much candy corn and be grateful it’s a once-a-year thing, and freely mock Pumpkin Spice Latte enthusiasts with fellow cranks everywhere.

So Ms. Schmich, let me just say: I, too, remember the days before Pumpkinpalooza, and I agree there is a certain shine to the memory. But mostly what our new fall traditions have done (in addition to further lining some well-lined pockets) is carve out a little breathing space for the here and now, to be equally shared by all Americans. It’s ok.

And just in case you might want to come over someday for pumpkin-free coffee and an Airing of Grievances about inflatable ghosts, I’ll save you a chair. I’ll even share the comics.

Good stuff: Halloween in Small Town America.

Halloween has a rhythm where I live. At about 3:05, the toddlers arrive, all monkeys and princesses and lions and so on — cute as buttons, only smaller. They can barely make it up the stairs, though one year, one had to make it all the way up the stairs and into the house, because when a toddler has to go potty, a toddler has to go potty.

Then come the elementary school kids, followed closely by the middle schoolers. The first group is still followed by parents, whereas the middle schoolers roam in packs of giggling shortness, people so close to being big and yet absolutely not-big-yet.

At that point, the occasional sullen teenager shows up, with little but a bandanna to suggest it might be a dress-up holiday, but I somehow manage to demand eye contact and a thank you, or at least a “Happy Halloween…”, by sheer dint of my own annoying friendliness. Look, I’ve bought about $80 worth of candy — I am going to smile and y’all are going to be friendly, darn it!

Then the teen moms and their toddlers and babies arrive, from across the border in Chicago. Indeed, all afternoon, folks are arriving from five blocks away, a neighborhood where paychecks are small and dangers real, and I am frankly happy to have them. It’s a chance for me to be a good neighbor to young families and little kids who I never see, otherwise, because the street that runs between our respective municipal borders serves almost as an iron wall. I only wish that when the teenagers show up, I could also hand out cans of beans and packages of condoms. Maybe some year I’ll offer at least the latter.

And then I run out of candy (and I mean: I buy about $80 worth!) before the evening is even really done, and I turn off my light, and my scattered family and I reconnoiter and wind up eating pizza at the same friends’ house, exhausted but also oddly exhilarated.

I love Halloween in my Small Town America enclave, where the schools are good, the population wildly diverse, the libraries built of a nice solid brick, and the fall leaves drifting everywhere around me. And it all starts in about 15 minutes! So off I go.

But if you’re interested in the etymology of the holiday’s name (presuming we’ve all heard the word “hallow” before — what, for heaven’s sake, is an “een”?), after the jump you’ll find a nice little piece that I read in the dead-tree version of the Chicago Tribune yesterday.  Newspapers! Now that’s a business that seems haunted, mirite? I’m right.

Any who. Happy silliness to one and all!


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