Saturday, November 1, 2014

Toilet Papered Trees, Princess Pumpkins, and Amish All the Way

by Drew Martin
I always forget about Mischief Night (Cabbage Night, Goosey Night) until I go running Halloween morning and see the toilet papered trees. Pictured top, is a tree I passed before sunrise yesterday and then returned to an hour later for this photo. In the predawn, trees in such a state have a mysterious appearance, and if you do not think about the mean intent then they have a kind of adorned and festive look.

I have bittersweet memories of Cabbage Night as we called it when I was a kid. On one side it was one of the most exciting and rouge nights of the year because of the excused vandalism you could pull off. But once I was with a neighbor who was the son of a retired boxer from the military. Instead of going to the store and buying the typical assortment of shaving cream, toilet paper, and eggs he stalked another group of kids doing the same and then waited outside the store along the road, as I tagged along. When the kids came out, this neighbor started a confrontation, punched the leader of their little group in the face, and then took all of their supplies. It was really carnal and still shocks me when I think about it. 
Fortunately, my middle kid, a teenage boy, does not care to go out this night. 

This year I took off from work and went to my youngest kid's school Halloween day parade. It was amazing to see all the costumes the elementary school kids and their parents put together. The best was one kid who has some disabilities and is bound to an electric wheel chair, rolled through the parade decorated as a tank.

Another thing that caught my eye at the school was a princess pumpkin: totally white and bejeweled, pictured here, middle. I love that the girl who did this disrupted the whole orange/earthy feel of the pumpkin and transformed it into the rarefied object that perhaps never quite returned to its original form after serving as Cinderella's carriage.

I know some parents who do not let their children partake in Halloween because of cultural and/or religious reasons. On one side I understand their concerns but I also think this pagan holiday can be quite liberating. It is the one day of the year you can be whatever you want: men can be women, women can be men, little kids can be monsters or warriors or princesses.

In past years I have gone as a vague early American in honor of my first pre-Pilgrim, British relative who arrived to the Jamestown area in 1619 but most people thought I was trying to be Samuel Adams.

Last year was the first real Halloween in a couple years. The year prior was cancelled by Governor Christie because of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, and the year before that was Snowpocalypse, when we had a blizzard and were without electricity for more than a week with freezing temperatures. Last year our family went to a party in town and I threw together a last minute costume: an alien cyclops, which had a Yo Gabba Gabba feel to it. I tried to stay in character but people did not want to talk to me when I tried to carry on a conversation with my alien language: a pattern of blips and bleeps.

This year I decided to put a little more effort into my costume, and to really use the day to explore a character I wanted to be - an Amish guy. The costume actually started with my straw hat that I wear out in the sun, especially when I am doing yardwork. One neighbor calls me Farmer Drew. I have a string that kind of holds the hat to my head but recently I was talking to another neighbor when it blew off and I told him I should get some elastic to loop around my chin so as to hold it on. He suggested an elastic Amish beard. So I ran with that, got a pair of suspenders from a lawyer at work (who insists they are braces) and then I put on old, black dress pants, and an old blue dress shirt to complete my Amish outfit, pictured here, bottom.

When I told people I was going to be Amish for Halloween, I got a lot of comments that I was being offensive but the truth is, there was no hint of mockery in it. I have always fantasized about the Amish and have loved visiting their lands in Lancaster County.

To prepare for my character I watched nearly five hours of Amish documentaries: one British series for their Channel 4 called Meet the Amish, and one BBC documentary called Amish, A Secret Life. The entirety of all five shows can be watched below.

Meet the Amish, is a reality show that follows five teenagers on Rumspringa, which is the letting-the-hair-down period for Amish youth before they decide whether or not they want to be officially baptized in the Amish church, and say goodbye to the conveniences, luxuries, information, and entertainment of the modern world. I have seen this kind of thing before but going to Britain was a twist. And like all the other versions where the show might have been set up to gawk at youth who many people would consider to be living under a rock, it actually turns out that you see how 
the more worldly hosts come across sometimes as privileged, unskilled, vulgar, petty, and immature.

These youth are followed through different locations, with a week in each spot. They start with hapless kids in South London who stay out of trouble by street dancing, spend time with an artist and her family in Kent, are pampered in a snobby castle in Scotland, and then hang out with communal surfers in Cornwall. They go to music festivities, raves, and the beach a couple times. They seem most at home when they can participate in hands-on tasks, such as when the two young Amish women take up the hem of a dress of a spoiled Scottish teen for her party, or when the three young Amish men build a chicken coop for the head of a Surf school. There is a combination of amazement and horror as they watch people dance, drink, play music, and talk about their loose relationships.

In Kent, the artist they stay with shows them her style of painting, dripping a mixture of acrylic black paint and glue with chopsticks onto large sheets of paper. The creation of art is something new to them and something they comment on wanting to explore more.

After the Meet the Amish series, I watched Amish - A Secret Life, which turned out to be a documentary that the BBC got more than they bargained for. The network set out to get a closeup look at an Amish family, even though it is forbidden to pose for pictures or movies. What ends up happening is that the young family they follow turns out to be part of a movement to redefine their Amish ways and label themselves as Amish Christians. They do things that are clearly against the elders wishes, which are grounds for excommunication and being shunned from the group. They mingle with former members who were shunned, and even go so far as to be rebaptized in the secret of the night. The young father of the family explains that it is not the Amish lifestyle that will make people happy but rather accepting their Christian faith, which need not be tied to the lifestyle.

What I liked most from all of these glimpses into the Amish life, is the way the youth react to seeing the ocean for the first time. On the way there they talk about what it must be like but are awed by its vastness when they finally see it in person. It was also extremely interesting to see their conviction in their belief. When we typically talk about people who believe in creationism and are extreme Christians, there is typically a right-wing political bashing that goes along with it, and we see it as a real ignorance in the face of scientific evidence. But when a beautiful young Amish girl talks about her belief in this world as god's creation it is hard to find fault with her because, for one thing - she is not looking at it in comparison to scientific evidence, and for another thing, I kept thinking how beautiful the world must be to her.