Ode to Candy Corn

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Halloween is the only time of year when it is considered socially acceptable to have candy corn around the house. Candy corn is one of those foods people love to hate. It’s right up there with circus peanuts and marshmallow Peeps. Sure, lots of us will consider using them as decoration, much like those awful conversation hearts at Valentine’s Day. But eat them?

I have to admit that I love candy corn. I love how it looks in my jack-o-lantern dish on the kitchen counter. I love the sickening sweetness of it as I casually pop a few kernels into my mouth every time I pass that dish. And those little orange pumpkins that sometimes come in an “autumn mix.” They’re like candy corn on steroids!

When I was in college, there was a little drug store down the block from where I lived. It had a rack filled with individual-serving-size bags of Brach’s candy. Every other day or so, I would go into the store and get my candy corn fix. It was a total obsession. And even though I was always broke, I managed to find the funds to feed my candy corn addiction. I would even squeeze a kernel through the plastic of the bag to make sure the candy corn was sufficiently fresh.

I have always had a sweet tooth. When I was a child, my mother joked that I would eat anything if it had Mrs. Butterworth’s syrup slathered on it. So it’s no surprise that I would like that terribly sweet confection known as candy corn.

This Halloween, my daughter will come home with a pillowcase full of candy. I will fish through it for some of my favorites: Milky Way Midnight, Mounds bars, Junior Mints, and Twizzlers. But I doubt I will find any fun size packs of candy corn.  So I will have to break into my own stash and enjoy the sweetness of my favorite holiday candy, make myself sick, and then swear off candy corn until next Halloween.

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Disgraced

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Who are we beyond our race and religion? What is the cost of rejecting our cultural and religious heritage? Is admiration for another culture actually appropriation? Of whom should we be afraid? Does treating people like terrorists radicalize them?

These are some of the penetrating questions asked by Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play Disgraced. Set in a post 9/11 New York, the drama revolves around Pakistani immigrant Amir, who has disavowed his Muslim background and become a successful mergers and acquisitions attorney at a powerful firm. When his idealistic Caucasian wife asks him to get involved in the case of a local imam accused of funding terrorism, things unravel for the couple, their relatives, and friends.

While Disgraced gives no easy answers, the play implies that our hatreds and prejudices lurk uneasily just under the surface of our politically correct veneer. As the couple and their two colleagues/friends, also a married couple, converge at a dinner party, alcohol loosens tongues and inhibitions, and things go horribly awry.

Akhtar has also written an interesting novel titled American Dervish that explores a young Muslim boy’s coming of age and wrestling with the expectations of his parents, his insular Pakistani community, and the deeply held faith of a beloved family friend. The difficulty of being a “hyphenated” American and the temptation to erase one’s ethnicity seem to be themes in Akhtar’s work.

Successive generations of Americans have struggled with this tension between assimilation and appreciation for one’s cultural heritage. In the play, a character has changed his name to one that sounds less “Muslim.” A similar phenomenon occurred during World War II when Jewish and German Americans hid their backgrounds by Americanizing their names. In today’s society, blacks are often criticized for naming their children unique and colorful names, some of which reflect their African roots, and most of which reflect pride in a black culture that grew up alongside mainstream white culture in the United States.

There is a human tendency to categorize people – by race, religion, ethnicity, social class. We ask the seemingly innocent question, “What kind of name is that?” or “Where are you from?” to someone who seems different from ourselves. We hold in our minds the stereotypes that go along with a given group. Taken too far, we assume the worst of someone whose race or religion are very different from our own. And we act, often in destructive ways, towards those we don’t understand and so fear.

Disgraced is 80 minutes of heart-pounding tension and a sense of unease. The audience is taken out of its comfort zone and asked to examine its own prejudices and fervently held beliefs. It is not an easy play to watch, yet the issues it brings up are absolutely essential for Americans to consider in the current age of globalization and worldwide unrest.

Mets Get Our Goat Again

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Let me just say for starters that I’m not really a baseball fan anymore. The 1969 Cubs broke my heart, and I lost interest over the years. And let’s be honest. Watching baseball is like watching paint dry.

Yet this year I had caught a bit of the Cubs fever that infected Chicago fans. My friend Sal kept posting winning recaps of Cubs games throughout the summer. Cubs merchandise started popping up in stores around town. Even some White Sox fans grudgingly admitted that the Cubs were hot this year.

When we beat long-standing rival the St. Louis Cardinals in the first round of the playoffs, I had hope. Maybe this was our year. After all, the movie Back to the Future II predicted a Cubs victory in the World Series. Might life imitate art?

But when I realized the Cubs would face the New York Mets for the pennant, my heart sank. It was the Mets, after all, who had won that coveted prize in ’69. Sure enough, in a four game sweep, the Mets trounced our Cubbies to win the title and go on to the World Series.

Looks like it wasn’t our year after all. Yet most Cubs fans I know are taking the loss in stride. Today’s Cubs have a roster of young, enthusiastic talent and a manager who actually seems to know what he is doing. Maybe it will be enough to break that legendary Billy Goat curse.

For the first time in a long time, there is real hope in the Cubs fan slogan, “Wait ’til next year.”

Fall Back

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My favorite season has arrived. Fall is the most glorious time in the Midwest. The riot of color that began slowly around the time of the autumn equinox has taken over the leafy arches of trees that line the streets of town.

In a good year, fall creeps up on you. September days are warm, but the nights are pleasantly cool. The kids have gotten into the rhythm of school days. Honeycrisp apples fill the produce bins in grocery stores. The pumpkin spice latte makes its annual appearance on coffee bar menus.

As the season progresses, more serious sweater weather appears. It’s good football weather, and games go on under the Friday night lights at high schools across the country. Suddenly homemade soup and chili recipes become appealing. Even the furnace occasionally kicks on.

Today on my morning walk, the air was crisp, the sun shone on the golden and crimson trees, and the smell of crunchy brown fallen leaves filled the air. It promises to be one of those rare warm autumn days that pop up in the fall to give us one last taste of summer.

Nevertheless, there is a tinge of sadness to fall. The chill in the air and encroaching darkness presage the coming winter. By November, most of the leaves will have fallen, leaving the trees naked and forlorn. That’s why I love fall. It is a bittersweet time and a last hurrah before the long winter, as expressed by the following poem.

October
Helen Hunt Jackson

Bending above the spicy woods which blaze,
Arch skies so blue they flash, and hold the sun
Immeasurably far; the waters run
Too slow, so freighted are the river-ways
With gold of elms and birches from the maze
Of forests. Chestnuts, clicking one by one,
Escape from satin burs; her fringes done,
The gentian spreads them out in sunny days,
And, like late revelers at dawn, the chance
Of one sweet, mad, last hour, all things assail,
And conquering, flush and spin; while, to enhance
The spell, by sunset door, wrapped in a veil
Of red and purple mists, the summer, pale,
Steals back alone for one more song and dance.

I Still Do

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Twenty-seven years ago today, my husband and I were married. There were minor mishaps the day of our wedding. The flowers didn’t arrive on time. Then, as we left the church after saying “I do,” the heavens opened, and we were pelted with rain while a friend furiously rolled up the roof on the convertible we were taking to the reception. Best of all, a stranger crashed our wedding, making off with a bottle of booze. A friend of my husband’s, who shall remain nameless, chased the thief and bashed in the window of his car. Good times.

Over 27 years, we have had our share of hardships and blessings. Four children, financial stress, cross-country moves, emergency room visits, career successes. During the early years, I felt lonely and stressed. We had moved to Los Angeles for his work, and I often found myself alienated and alone, caring for two young children while he tried hard to make rain at work. We finally moved back home when I was expecting our third child. Aside from figuring out how to acclimate myself to cold weather again, I was happier, but he was less so. As each stage of our family life proceeds, we have sometimes come together and at other times threatened to break apart.

Marriage is hard. Everyone knows that, but until we experienced the ups and downs ourselves, my husband and I never realized just how challenging it could be. There have been many days when I don’t much like my hubby, and I know there are times when he’s only half joking about where he’s going to bury the body (mine).

Still, I miss him when he’s away on business and the weight of his body isn’t next to me in bed. I love his smell and the feeling of his strong arms around me. He makes me laugh, sometimes so hysterically the tears roll down my cheeks. He anchors me and makes me feel safe. He accepts all the little quirks of my personality, and I do the same for him.

As our children grow up, we can see the empty nest phase looming. I look forward to the many things I pray we get to share together: retirement, grandchildren, travel, and seeing our own children happy and successful.

That autumn day in 1988, I felt certain I had found my soulmate. Twenty-seven years later, I still do.

Avoiding Cultural Appropriation This Halloween

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As Halloween approaches, kids and adults start flocking to costume shops looking for their perfect alter ego. Will they be scary, sexy, cute? While moms deplore many of the teen girl offerings as too racy, and schools forbid weapons, blood, and gore, there is one type of costume that should be offensive to all: the kind that “borrows” another culture.

I’m talking about Native American headdresses, geisha costumes, Mexican sombreros and the like. While the appeal of these ensembles may be that they are exotic, they all stereotype certain cultures and relegate the people from those cultures to ancient history.

For example, how many Native Americans do you see walking around wearing war paint and feathers? Outside of solemn religious and cultural ceremonies, such garb is considered offensive. And on your trip to Mexico last spring, did you encounter lots of smiling Mexicans wearing ponchos and sombreros?

These stereotypes are offensive to people of other nationalities and cultures. Let’s take geishas for an example. I doubt most Japanese people enjoy seeing these depictions of women who are for the most part high paid prostitutes. (I realize the geisha in Japanese culture was much more, but the fact remains that rich and powerful men paid them for sex.) Is this really the kind of outfit you want your daughter to go out in on Halloween?

Unless a costume references a specific character, say, Jasmine from the movie Aladdin, dressing up like someone from a different culture is at best patronizing and at worst dehumanizing. In our country in particular, Native Americans are sick of people prancing around in buckskin and feathers with their faces painted. For them, the sight isn’t even restricted to Halloween. They are forced to see it at sporting events across the country.

I realize that most people mean no harm when they dress up for Halloween. I myself have evolved on this issue since the days when my daughter was little and I thought she would look cute dressed as an “Indian princess.” But looking at cultural appropriation from the point of view of that culture, we can see how dressing as a stereotype can offend.

This Halloween, there are plenty of fun and freaky costumes from the realm of fantasy and horror to wear. So have a little sensitivity and steer clear of cultural appropriation this Halloween. I promise the zombie and vampire factions won’t be offended.

Rube Goldberg for Gun Control?

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I had heard the term “Rube Goldberg device” in the past but never really knew what it was until my children entered fourth grade. As a science project, they were to create a complex, convoluted process for performing a simple task such as cracking an egg or turning on a lightbulb. Chicagoans who have visited the Museum of Science & Industry have probably been enchanted by its own example of such a device, otherwise known as the Swiss Jolly Ball machine.

The tortuous suggestions I have been reading about for stemming gun violence in public places remind me of these delightful yet impractical devices, named for a Pulitzer-Prize-winning cartoonist who depicted complex machines performing simple functions.

The gist of these suggestions is this: Arm more “good guys,” and you will prevent these shootings. Recommendations such as having teachers armed or hiring Vets as armed security are making the rounds on the internet as an answer to the upswing in school shootings. This just strikes me as insane.

There is no evidence that having guns around will prevent the next massacre and plenty of evidence that it’s a bad idea. For instance, President Reagan was surrounded by highly trained and armed Secret Service officers when he was shot by John Hinckley. Not one of those officers fired his weapon. Furthermore, experienced members of both the police and the military say that armed civilians getting involved in an active shooter situation would do more harm than good.

This is the insanity of the pro-gun faction in this country. Just keep throwing more guns into the mix. All the while the simple solution – to disarm the nation – is scoffed at as unreasonable and unrealistic.

The other illogical trope that I keep seeing is one that compares blaming guns for killing with blaming a spoon for making someone fat. Yet possession of a gun does make violence more likely. As former Navy SEAL Stephen Benson recalls, during basic training his instructor told them, ‘Gentlemen, the first and most important thing you’ve done by putting on that weapon is you’ve increased your chances of being in a gunfight by 100 percent.’(thenation.com, Oct. 5, 2015)

Another ridiculous argument is that other objects, such as knives, are used to kill; therefore, should we ban all knives? The fallacy here is that guns are made for nothing but injuring and killing. No one says, “I need a gun in case I lock myself out of the house and have to shoot the lock open,” or “Just a minute while I use my gun to chop up this cucumber.”

I would like to see one thoughtful, intelligent justification for having a gun. Yeah, I didn’t think so.