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Sunday, October 28, 2001

Halloween Harris Style

Halloween is still days away, but the excitement meter is already pinned at our house. And this is before my seven-year-old daughter goes into sugar overload from her candy bounty to come.

It’s for her sake that Halloween is a big deal at our place, and there are lots of important decisions to be made. She has her costume planned months in advance, and while always clever, never gets too exotic, expensive, or age-inappropriate (she’s too young to want to be Angelina Jolie in “Tomb Raider”).

Then, just as the calendar turns to October, she starts bugging us to go pick out the Official Harris Halloween Pumpkin. Make that plural -- this year, we also have to have a backup pumpkin, in case there’s some sort of Jack O’Lantern mishap. Gee, where’d she get that idea?

After making her big orange selections, she insisted that we carve right away, but my wife and I were able to table that discussion for awhile by explaining the concept of how fruit can go from pleasantly raw to unpleasantly rotten when left exposed for a fortnight or two.

In the meantime, we kept her busy festooning the house with a boxful of Halloween decorations. Yes, we erred slightly by allowing her to apply ghoulish stickers to the windows -- she applied all of them to the same kitchen window pane and then asked for more so the room wouldn’t look lopsided.

By the weekend before H-Day, there was no more delaying. It was time to dig into the pumpkin. Fortunately, our daughter had designed an intricate drawing of exactly what the Jack O’Lantern must look like, complete with cartoon word balloons saying “Boo!” She got these ideas from a pumpkin carving kit that my wife – in a moment of total insanity – found at a local store. One look at the renderings on the cardboard and I laughed for a half hour.

You know the way the pictures of food on a restaurant menu never look anything like the actual dish that’s served to you? The same is true of these pumpkin carving samples.

The cruel people who produce this product try to convince you that you have a chance of success by giving you little carving tools to work with. In my house, the only way the final product would come close to resembling the illustration is if they also provided a professional pumpkin carver (there must be people who specialize in that, in a world where you can make a good living forming chopped liver into a turkey shape and carving ice into giant swans).

Let’s just say we’re not good at the visual food arts. It doesn’t matter how extravagantly it’s designed -- our Jack O’Lantern will always end up with triangle eyes, a triangle nose, and a mouth with three top teeth and two bottom teeth. You can hope for Pumpkin Van Gogh, but we’ll just end up with both pumpkin ears missing. Nevertheless, once that candle was placed inside, my daughter gave us a big, satisfied smile (which I’m happy to say, contains more teeth than the Jack O’Lantern).

When it comes to trick or treating, I’m happy to say we live in a neighborhood where lots of kids are out doing the door to door routine, usually accompanied by a few Dads, including me.

Best of all, none of the Dads bothers with an intricate costume. That’s why I’m certain that none of them will be stupid enough to wear an Osama Bin Laden mask this year. Besides the waste of $95, what’s the appeal? Are you hoping to pick up some hot woman in a Taliban-approved burqa?

I’ve always been creeped out by adults who get too into their Halloween costumes. You’ll never see me dressed as Frankenstein, or Austin Powers, or Tony Soprano. Even in college, when I attended a costume-mandatory party in the girl’s dorm, I hated the concept so much that I just strapped a colander to my head and went as an upside-down bowl of pasta. Two things should be apparent from that story – one, alcohol was involved in my last minute costume choice, and two, I didn’t spend much time in the girl’s dorm after that.

Anyway, back to the food. The part that we are good at is choosing which candy we’ll give away. There’s a delicate balance to be achieved here, because you want to get something good enough that you’ll enjoy eating the leftovers (mini Mr. Goodbars, tiny Twizzlers), but not so tempting that you down them before the doorbell even rings on the 31st (orange cream filled Halloween Oreos, pulled pork sandwiches).

You also don’t want to get the reputation as The House To Avoid because you gave away the wrong thing last year. Anything from the fruit and vegetable family qualifies here, as do homemade taffy, stale candy corn, or bulk stationery. On the other hand, there’s no real risk of retribution, because the “trick” option rarely exists anymore. What’s the last time a house got egged over a bagful of zucchini sticks?

Here’s to a Happy Halloween. Lots of families need it as a distraction this year. And remember, when it comes to telling hair-raising stories, avoid the recent ugliness and stick to the classics from days of old. Tell your kid about when you invested in internet stocks. Oooh, scary!

Tuesday, October 16, 2001

America's Anthrax Anxiety

AAAHH!!! Anthrax!!!!! AAAAHH!!

There, do you have it out of your system yet? We really need to calm down. Get some perspective.

Tell the media to knock it off. They’ve made anthrax the new Chandra Levy. Do you realize how lucky we are that the envelope that went to Tom Daschle’s office didn’t go to Gary Condit instead? Larry King’s head might have exploded at the confluence.

Yes, the media (particularly the television news networks, with their nonstop info-tickers) deserve a lot of credit for feeding this frenzy. Tom Brokaw signed off the “NBC Nightly News” on Monday by saying, “In Cipro We Trust.” That’s the antibiotic that he and others have taken on the chance that they’ve been infected by anthrax.

What kind of pronouncement is that for a network news anchor? I’ll bet that many viewers took that as a suggestion that they go out and get some Cipro to be safe, too. Unfortunately, it’s an antibiotic, not a preventative, which means that it won’t keep you from getting anthrax poisoning -– and if you take it too much and for too long, you’ll actually reduce your body’s ability to fight off the anthrax bacteria. But never mind the facts, In Brokaw We Trust!

I’m not saying that there is absolutely no threat from anthrax. But I am saying that instead of Cipro, maybe America should talk to its doctor about a prescription for Paxil, the anxiety medicine. After all, statistically, you’re more likely to die in a roller coaster accident than from anthrax infection!

The US Post Office delivers 680,000,000 pieces of mail every day. So far, a grand total of one person has died from anthrax. The number of people infected is somewhere around a dozen, and all of them are doing fine with medical attention. In other words, we’re at about the same level we were with shark attacks this summer. Still, when the media overplayed that story, people all over the country became fearful. Because, as you know, those Mississippi River mud sharks are a real threat here in the midwest.

As of this morning, the FBI reports that there have been 2,300 reports of possible anthrax -- in the last week! Anywhere anyone spots white powder, hearts start pounding. It’s like living inside the body of Robert Downey Jr.

An airplane full of passengers was moved to a secure area at Cleveland’s airport for four hours because someone noticed some white powder coming off the end of a newly started roll of toilet paper. Hasn’t everyone seen that before? Same thing happened with a tissue box at a high school in the St. Louis area yesterday. In Kansas City, a middle school was evacuated after a cafeteria worker spotted some kind of white powder. Turned out it was baking soda, which you’d hope someone in the cafeteria might have seen before. What’s next, sales of CoffeeMate drop? Ever looked under your printer to see the white dust caused by hundreds of pieces of paper moving through the machinery? Please, don’t pass the salt, whatever you do.

The National Association of Broadcasters sent a memo to every radio and television station with instructions on how to handle mail. One of the things they said to be careful with is any package that has an odor or a stain. Gee, thanks for the tip, because those are always the first ones I open! I love getting stinky mail, don’t you? There goes my subscription to the Runny Cheese Of The Month Club.

Here’s another heads up: don’t inhale someone else’s dead relatives. In Georgia, a railroad worker spotted a container with a white powdery substance inside. Nope, not anthrax. It was human ashes from a cremation, placed in a box so they could be spread instead of buried.

We’re also told to be very cautious with our junk mail. Before this reminder, I would simply throw it away unopened. Now, I use special sanitized tongs to toss it into the trash.

Speaking of odors, did you hear the story of the guy in Pittsburgh who called the cops to report that he had smelled something odd coming out of the sewer? The dispatcher paused, asked him if he was serious, and the guy said, yeah, it really doesn’t smell good. To her everlasting credit, she told him that he should stop sniffing sewers, because they have always smelled bad, and there’s no reason to panic.

Panic. That’s the word, isn’t it? Remember all those announcements that we shouldn’t be afraid, or the terrorists have won? Keep it up and it’s game over.

People have been buying gas masks by the thousands (which, incidentally, means you’re not being patriotic, because the number one manufacturer of gas masks is a company in Chile!). Many stores have sold out of them faster than they did American flags, although you can probably pick one up from any of the people who still have them stockpiled in their bunkers from the Y2K hysteria. If you bought a gas mask, you’d have to carry it with you at all times, wouldn’t you? Otherwise, how would you know when to have it and when not to have it? Do you only put it on when opening your mail or passing a sewer?

I wonder if the people who have run out to buy masks have also bought them for their kids, and if the kids are supposed to hang on to them all day long at school. There are times my daughter can’t remember where her lunch bag is, and I’m supposed to assume that she’ll be able to get to her gas mask in time?

I can’t count the number of reporters who have told us that law enforcement officials remain on alert. That’s a relief. Wait a minute. Why would they ever not be on alert? Is there a “loaf around and don’t pay attention” status?

Hope this doesn’t mean the cops have cut down on their trips to the donut shop. I hear there’s a white powdery substance on some of those sugar crullers.