Sunday, October 30, 2011

Friday night was the "spooky nature trail" at the nature center.  The path, flicker-lit by jack-o-lanterns, winds through dark and breezy woods  among us pirates, monsters, witches and wizards.  Nico this year was off at a birthday party, but Monica and Porter and I volunteered as actors once again.  She was dressed as Professor McGonagall, and walked the trails as a benign presence, making sure the pumpkins stayed lit.  I donned some wizardly gear - a purple robe, green skullcap, and a staff wrapped in purple and gold rags with a light dangling from it's grip.  Porter wrapped himself in my old gray swiss army cape.

We found a deserted stretch of woods between the great spiderweb maze at the edge of the meadow and a mixed witch and pirate pair further down the trail.  We could hear other pirate girls staging their swordfights on the wooden bridge behind the rocky ridge.  We're not given any script, but just expected to be spooky (but not too scary for the littlest kids) and/or entertaining.

Porter and I improvised a little schtick where he would huddle like a gray rock under his cape, then loom up and block the trail as some kind of hostile stone troll - to gasps or shrieks often enough.  Then I would emerge from hiding, yelling and brandishing my staff to drive him off.  When we'd scared some kids, I asked them if I should turn the troll back into a stone, "because I am a wizard of these woods, after all!"  and they all thought that was a great idea.  So thrusting my lit-up staff at the chest of the troll, I would turn him "back to the stone from whence he came!"  Porter, whose gangliness is hidden by the cape would spin and drop to the ground as a small boulder, nearly indistinguishable from the granite rocks all around.  Then I would usher the walkers politely around the corner entreating them to beware of the pirates that were infesting the forest.

It was a fun piece of improvisation, and never quite the same twice.  Sometimes the troll dodged my first spells; sometimes the stone came back to life.  A young astronaut helped out with a nerf gun that had a turn-to-stone setting.  One pre-teen who shrieked had to be restrained by her friends from beating the poor troll with a tree branch.  Sometimes I was a wizard who'd misplaced my troll, and could they let me know if they came across him.

Afterwards, as I was salving a parched throat with cider, I was thinking about conversations I'd had with friends lately about art and entertainment.  The "Occupy Wall Street" protests have been encouraging many people to think about ways to extricate themselves from the powerful financial and cultural institutions that seem to dominate us, and who seem not to have our interests at heart.  Withholding your money from the banks; withholding your obedience from the state; perhaps cutting the cable and withholding your attention from the television?

My grandmother and her sisters kept diaries in the 1920's and 30's, and reading them I have been struck by how much visiting they did -- despite the fact that traveling 5 or 10 miles during a Pennsylvania winter was no simple task.  I think there was often work involved, but there were also their own forms of entertainment and fellowship.  They were all well-read, and they memorized poetry and did recitations and music.  50 years later she could still rattle off silly, humorous poems to entertain her grandchildren.

There's a tremendous amount of effort put into making us passive consumers of entertainment - partly through the admittedly high quality of much professional production, but also by the marginalization and even mockery leveled at the amateur.  I'm no professional actor, but I'm capable of entertaining a stream of children and adults who are in good spirits and are willing to be pleased on their whimsical walk through the spooky nature trail.  If the Viacoms and Disneys and Time-Warners of the world are going to continue to throw their lot in with greed and cultural destructiveness, I for one am perfectly happy to fall back on the talents and good nature of the people around me -- where hidden talents lurk.

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