Tuesday, October 19, 2010


October is where summer goes to die.

Die slowly. Lingeringly. Languidly. Sumptuously.

Green leaves the leaves. They turn dry and crinkly and take on those magnificent hues of death: burnt orange, saffron, and old gold.

Big bristly burrs of chestnut drop, thudding on the hoods of cars, smashing on asphalt. Collecting in the curbs where Laotians and Cambodians and Koreans and Vietnamese poke through looking for specimens that promise a creamy white flesh nestled inside the peel. The taste of them is crunchy and mildly bitter with a smoky aftertaste. They can season almost any meal. Here in Seattle they are considered delicacies (an 8 oz. jar of chestnuts can sell as much as $10 to $20 dollars), and people will spend hours searching for promising samples on Bigelow, which was once lined with so many chestnuts the branches arched over the street providing a lush, luxurious shade. Many have recently died. The ranks of chestnut hunters has thinned.

In “Ode To A Chestnut On The Ground,” Pablo Neruda writes: “From bristly foliage you fell / complete, polished wood, gleaming mahogany, / as perfect / as a violin newly / born of the treetops, / that falling / offers its sealed-in gifts, / the hidden sweetness / that grew in secret / amid birds and leaves, / a model of form, / kin to wood and flour, / an oval instrument / that holds within it / intact delight, an edible rose.”

Toward mid-October the iconography of death begins to appear. Ghosts, witches, zombies, and demons. Huge spider webs with giant bristling spiders at their center. Skulls and rags festoon porches. Gravestones appear on lawns strewn with maple and oak and walnut leaves.

Yesterday Roberta and I went to Champion’s, a local costume supplier. Wizards and witches and an alluring femme fatale in a gown of sparkly, scintillating red gazed out from the front display window. At the center, rising from a block of skulls, the devil himself rose muscularly and red, a merciless face of cruelty nailing us with its unabashed sovereignty of evil.

I gazed at the firm torso. What was the devil doing with a bellybutton? It’s hard to imagine the devil as a fetus, a harmless little humanoid with a silly little tail and umbilical cord.

Roberta bought a red tutu and leotard. She is going to be a zombie tightrope walker at her job in the bakery. Her boss is going to be a ringmaster. Her young, thin co-worker is going to be a muscle man. Another co-worker, a young woman, is going (unwittingly, it seems) to be a bearded lady.

It surprised me to see among the skulls and skeletons for rent or for sale, a cluster of AK-47s and a rack of female breasts. Now when, exactly, did boobs become scary? Has anyone ever seen a late night movie of giant breasts attacking Manhattan? Nipples zapping people dead with squirts of milk? Attack Of The Colossal Fun Bags?

I like October, which always puzzles me, because I hate winter. Seattle winters are dreary affairs, endless days of gray, gloomy rain, drizzle, bone-chilling damp, humidity drooling down the walls and windows like the catarrhal discharge of a distempered sky.

What is it about this month that appeals to me? The cooler temperatures are often a relief after a sweltering summer, but this year’s summer was hardly a summer at all. It was cold and rainy. More like a winter than a summer. I miss the summer of two years ago when temperatures stayed in the upper 90s and one day reached 104. Now that’s a summer.

There are odors of freshly rotted fruit that I find strangely appealing, and the quiet drama of transition itself is alluring. Schools are in full session, so the streets and parks are quieter. And October also has the special appeal of daylight savings, when an hour is regained, clocks set back for a lovely, voluptuous stretch of extra sleep.

But what I like best are the monsters and goblins. These playful little enactments of death and the afterlife. Of things that are dead, that aren’t quite dead yet.

This fall has the special addition of being an election year. Which means we are surrounded by actual zombies. Glenn Beck. Sarah Palin. Christine O’Donnell. Sharon Angle. Who are these people? What rock did they crawl out from? Did they ride in on some asteroid, some tea party comet? Is earth being bombarded by stupid rays from Mars?

Every time I hear Sarah Palin’s screechy voice on the radio I feel my brain go numb, as if someone had just plunged 10 cc’s of Novocain into it. How is it possible to go into public and say such insanely stupid things? “When 900 years old you reach, look as good you will not,” “we’re starting to really kind of rear the head of abuse,” “Nuclear weaponry, of course, would be the be-all, end-all of just too many people in too many parts of our planet,” “with the impacts of climate change, what we can do about that, as governor, I was the first governor to form a climate change subcabinet to start dealing with the impacts.”

How is it humanly possible that someone this crass, stupid, and empty-headed can campaign for president, garner so much media attention, and occupy high government office? What has happened to the world? Are we living in some sort of bizarre, parallel universe where ignorance is applauded and intellectual achievement is vilified?

Something is broken. Something vital to the human community is broken. “Everybody knows the dice are loaded,” sings Leonard Cohen, “everybody rolls with their fingers crossed.”

And so, with what may be a Republican majority again in the Senate and House of Representatives, the world rolls inexorably into another winter.

But I hope not. It would be nice if the Democrats got the message. No more foreign wars. And please, can we at least begin to do something about climate change? And education? And our crumbling infrastructure?

I hope, too, that if we have another winter of heavy snow such as that of several years ago, when walking just one inch on the surface of the sidewalk required a maneuver of firm, careful, adaptable balance, the mayor has enough sense to salt the streets.

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