Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween memories

When you're a kid, Halloween is the second biggest day of the year -- right behind Christmas in the "Boy, I can't wait -- how many days until it gets here?" department. A few days before Halloween, saliva would involuntarily begin leaking out of your mouth due to the anticipation of all that sweet stuff you had coming.

As an somewhat overweight child who liked to eat, Halloween was a big day for me. I lived in a fairly prosperous suburb of Houston, Texas, and back in those innocent days of the 1960s, Halloween had not yet gained the violent, ugly and overall negative connotations it has today. Parents accompanied toddlers trick-or-treating, but they thought nothing of sending their costumed elementary school children out into the neighborhood alone or with a group of friends, armed with nothing but an empty bag and a flashlight (which rarely if ever got used).

My memory is somewhat deficient, but I don't recall ever being a big fan of costumes all that much at Halloween. Those masks you bought at the store (with the laughingly thin rubber bands attached with staples) always were too small for my face, and were hot and uncomfortable to boot. I was usually too big for the manufactured costumes (Batman, Robin, the "fun" Joker), and although I probably took an old sheet and cut out eye holes and a mouth once to become a ghost, that was so cliche even back then to designate the wearer as an unimaginative loser.

So, I believe my usual costume disguise was "chubby pre-teen boy looking for candy." Since none of my school friends lived within walking distance, I usually teamed up with my younger brother. Lazy as we might have been on boring summer days, or when there was yardwork to be done, on Halloween night we were quick-moving, efficient machines of accumulation. While other kids might stop and talk with friends, admiring costumes or showing off props, we were focused like laser beams on the goal of visiting as many houses as we could and filling our sturdy bags as full of sweet swag as possible.

We would quickly scour the four streets in our immediate neighborhood, going methodically down one side of a street, then up the other side, then changing streets and repeating the process. We were always cheerful, polite and said "Thank you," as our parents instructed us to do, but we didn't hang around long.

Once we finished with our neighborhood, my enabler parents would drive us to a larger, somewhat richer neighborhood down the road where they would drop us off for a few hours. We had friends in this neighborhood, who we enjoyed seeing and chatting with, but again, our goal was conquest.

When we'd finally get home late that night -- some of the last kids out on the streets -- we'd come in the living room and dump out our bulging bags of hard-won treasure. The hundreds of pieces of candy that would spill out would cover half the floor. Our parents, on cue, after expressing amazement about how much junk we'd gotten, would warn us not to eat too much at once or we'd get sick. But we always ate a lot at once, and we never got sick, although by about the end of the first week of November we were secretly disgusted with candy, although we'd rarely admit it in case our parents would suggest we throw away the remains.

We'd always begin eating the best candy first, of course -- chocolate bars, Sweet Tarts, caramels, candy corn. After awhile the good stuff would disappear, and all we would have left is the second-rate remains -- rock-hard taffy drops, stale popcorn balls, mints, red licorice. But we'd eventually eat all that as well, unless it was truly nasty. If we couldn't feed it to the dog, only then would we throw it away.

Back in those innocent times, everyone went door-to-door trick-or-treating, and there were no "Fun Nights" or "Fall Festivals" sponsored by churches and other groups like there are today. But going door-to-door back then was truly safe. And every now and then, you'd find a house where the people really got into Halloween. They would have fake spider webs everywhere, with maybe some bloody monster dummies laid out by the front door with a record player blaring "Monster Mash" over and over. A great final touch would be the big black pot filled with water and dry ice to produce clouds of smoke over everything.

I remember at least a few houses in my neighborhood where the family temporarily cleared everything out of the garage, put up some dark curtains and black lights and made a "haunted house" they'd invite trick-or-treaters to come in and tour. In one area there was always a sheet with a hole cut in it, and when you put your hand through you'd be encouraged to dip it into a bowl of what you were told were human brains or intestines, but it always ended up feeling just like cooked spaghetti.

I also remember that Halloween night was a good time to determine which people on each block liked kids, and which did not. The kid-lovers had lights turned on and always had someone stationed by the door, ready to answer and dispense candy from big bowls. The non-kid lovers, by contrast, either had every light turned off (both inside and outside), or they had only a few dim interior lights left on. If you were brave or foolish enough to go up to the door of one of those houses and ring the bell, you'd wait a long time until someone finally opened the door, verrry slowly, and then asked, "Yes?," in a prickly tone as if you were selling life insurance or magazine subscriptions, or as if you had just relieved yourself on their orchids in the front flower beds. They never had candy.

This is hard to believe nowadays, but some people back in the 1960s actually took the time and trouble to make treats to give out on Halloween. They'd put together 700 popcorn balls (each wrapped in Saran Wrap and hand-tied with a little twistie), or make candy apples or little bags of homemade cookies. This wonderful tradition eventually stopped, however, when parents heard reports of sickos putting razor blades in apples and dousing baked goods with poison. Local hospitals would cheerfully offer to X-ray your candy for metal objects hidden within, but people just stopped making and accepting homemade goods.

This is the first Halloween where neither one of our girls is going trick-or-treating. They are both old enough now that they have switched roles and are working at our church's Fall Festival tonight. It's a fun night with big inflatable slides and jumping rooms, horse-drawn carriage rides and lots of games for smaller kids like ring toss and a cake walk. There's still lots and lots of candy given out, and I enjoy it, but somehow it just doesn't compare to those Halloweens of days gone by.

Have a great time tonight with your kids, and save the black licorice jellybeans for me.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A little Dave Barry

16 Things that Took Me Over 50 Years to Learn
by Dave Barry, columnist and author

1. Never, under any circumstances, take a sleeping pill and a laxative on the same night.

2. If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be "meetings."

3. There is a very fine line between "hobby" and "mental illness."

4. People who want to share their religious views with you almost never want you to share yours with them.

5. You should not confuse your career with your life.

6. Nobody cares if you can’t dance well. Just get up and dance.

7. Never lick a steak knife.

8. The most destructive force in the universe is gossip.

9. You will never find anybody who can give you a clear and compelling reason why we observe daylight savings time.

10. You should never say anything to a woman that even remotely suggests that you think she’s pregnant unless you can see an actual baby emerging from her at that moment.

11. There comes a time when you should stop expecting other people to make a big deal about your birthday. That time is age eleven.

12. The one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion, economic status or ethnic background, is that, deep down inside, we ALL believe that we are above average drivers.

13. A person, who is nice to you, but rude to a waiter, is not a nice person. (This is very important. Pay attention. It never fails.)

14. Your friends love you anyway.

15. Never be afraid to try something new. Remember that a lone amateur built the Ark. A large group of professionals built the Titanic.

16. Thought for the day: Men are like fine wine. They start out as grapes, and it’s up to the women to stomp the crap out of them until they turn into something acceptable to have dinner with.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Putting a (Better?) Face On Things

I just read the most interesting article in today's New York Times. It's about a new use of technology that I'm surprised hasn't been in use before now.

Basically, there is a computer program, called in the article a "beautification engine," that can input a photograph of someone's real face, and then show what that person's "ideal" face (i.e., the face found the most beautiful by others) might look like. The photos below show a woman named Martina Eckstut in her before shot (left side) and after shot (right side):

Here's a bit more from the article about what the computer program is and how it was developed:
The photograph on the right was doctored by the “beautification engine” of a new computer program that uses a mathematical formula to alter the original form into a theoretically more attractive version, while maintaining what programmers call an “unmistakable similarity” to the original.

The software program, developed by computer scientists in Israel, is based on the responses of 68 men and women, age 25 to 40, from Israel and Germany, who viewed photographs of white male and female faces and picked the most attractive ones.

Scientists took the data and applied an algorithm involving 234 measurements between facial features, including the distances between lips and chin, the forehead and the eyes, or between the eyes.

Essentially, they trained a computer to determine, for each individual face, the most attractive set of distances and then choose the ideal closest to the original face. Unlike other research with formulas for facial attractiveness, this program does not produce one ideal for a feature, say a certain eye width or chin length.
On one level, I am saddened and disturbed by this. I mean, don't we all feel bad enough about the way we look without a computer program showing exactly how far away we are from looking our best? Will there be people who buy this program, print off the photo of their "ideal" look, and then go to their local plastic surgeon and say, "Fix me"?

Then again, I must admit I am dying to see what my mug would look like after being spruced up by having my 234 measurements tinkered with. Would I actually be...handsome? Could I contemplate a career as a billboard model for beer or fast food?

Anyway, I don't have any truly deep thoughts about this now. I just thought it was neat. To read the entire article, or to see more "before and after" photos, go here.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Texas Postcard Gallery

This is not how all Texans view the rest of the country, but it's close. (Click on the postcard for a larger view)

Friday, October 03, 2008

Random Observations and Trivial Events


Looking for interesting blogs dealing with writing, I came across a website that features something called a Pen Name Generator. You type in your name, indicate what gender you are, and after you submit the information it somehow generates a pen name for you. According to this gizmo, my pen name should be Jon Stall, which sounds to me like slang for a stopped-up toilet.


Advertisers have figured out that they can no longer get away with advertising some products like they did in 1958. Remember all those old-time ads that featured women who apparently did nothing but sit at home and worry about whether their husband's collars were white enough, or if their floors had any waxy buildup? Those commercials made it appear that all women cared about was (1) housework and (2) pleasing hubby, and advertisers have figured out that nowadays that approach won't get them anywhere, because women -- if they ever were really that way, which I doubt -- aren't like that anymore. They have lots of interests besides housework.

So, if we can change an advertising stereotype concerning women, why can't we change the one which portrays all men as sports-obsessed TV junkies? I swear, every other commercial I see, especially in the fall, is about how guys will do anything -- lie to their wives, neglect their kids, spend more money than they should -- for the ability to park their butts in a chair, eat snacks and drink beer with "the guys," and watch televised sports from early Saturday morning to late Sunday night. I even heard a new AT&T cell phone ad on radio today, featuring a guy whose cruel wife was forcing him to quit watching TV sports to spend time in the park with her and the kids. But, alas!, his new AT&T phone connected with the Internet, so (whew!) he was able to spend all that time in the park checking on scores while he pretended to play with the kids.

Stop it. Just stop it. Yes, there are no doubt some absolutely maniacal, sports-crazed doofuses out there, like there are crazed doofuses of many different stripes, but I don't know any guys who worship sports above all else, do you? I do know guys -- myself included -- who will watch a game or two that interests them, but they have a lot more going on in their lives besides sports. If you can quit with the ads showing women falling in love with their vacuum cleaners, please quit with the sports addict ads.


At least three or four nights a week, Mrs. Muley and I try to take our two sheltie dogs for a walk. Our smallest one loves to hike his leg and leave his calling card on the curb about every 50 feet, while our larger dog waits to do his duty in a little patch of grass by a fence. Before he does, however, he must sniff vigorously like a bloodhound along the length of the patch, lingering longer on some smells than others.

It finally hit me the other night -- my dogs are just as connected to their world as I am to mine. When they're out on a walk, what they're basically doing is communicating with other dogs -- both sending and receiving messages. What I think of as doing a lot of time-consuming sniffing is really the same thing I do when I get to work each morning and fire up the computer. My dogs are checking their e-mail from the day before. And they never get spammed.


Visiting my local big box bookstore the other day, I couldn't help but notice a large table near the entrance filled with books relating to the upcoming Presidential election. There were books by Obama and McCain, books about Obama and McCain, books about how either the Democrats or Republicans are idiots, and books about how the country should vote one way or the other or risk bringing terrible destruction down on everyone.

My thought was -- I know publishers are always trying to make a buck, but is anybody buying these things? I mean, I've got to think that in this particular campaign, there are very few truly "undecided" voters who might need the information in one of these books to help them know which lever to pull in November. Most people, I'm betting, have known for quite some time which candidate they're voting for, and would rather spend their book budget on something else, like a good mystery or graphic novel, or maybe one of those hundreds of books with cute photos of puppies and kittens.