Building Characters

By E. Adam Porter

Editor, News of SCC & South County

 

Halloween is right around the corner, which means the Great Debate has commenced at the Porter house. Not, thankfully, ‘Who Gets My Vote,’ but ‘Who Wears What Costume?’ My younger boys are at that perfect age where the magic of Halloween is still very real, and they are big enough to carry their own candy sack. 

When they select a costume, their purpose is to become that character, at least for the evening. To assume what, in their kid brains, these characters would be like. Their imaginations have a lot of help in the form of their favorite books, movies, and TV shows. Not to mention Dad’s stories. Hence the ongoing debate, which ping-pongs between “I’m going to be something completely new and different” to “I’m going as the same character as last year.”

This is the continual tug and pull between the familiar and the risk of trying something new. Each kid manages this challenge in a different way. Growing up, my eldest, who inherited a fathomless well of creativity from his Mama, always had the best Halloween costumes, most of them homemade. If a character called for armor, he made it. Makeup? He learned how to perfect the look. Props? Gathered in advance or built on the fly. Sometimes this led to unexpected results. The year he went as the Incredible Hulk, all his green makeup washed off while bobbing for apples, so he finished the party as “Bruce Banner.” Another year, he won the costume contest at our neighborhood Halloween party dressed as a character from the movie, Hot Fuzz. Then there was the year he and a friend were such convincing “homeless people” that other trick-or-treaters offered them cash donations, even though they insisted that they were just in costume. This year, though, will be a bit different. Chris enlisted in the US Army, after a brief stint as a civilian, when his seven-year tour in the USAF ended. So, for Halloween this year, he will be back in BDUs, rucking through the woods somewhere in Missouri.

My middle kid has somewhat peculiar and entirely specific tastes. Last year, he wanted to go as a character from a cartoon that’s been off the air for years. No costume shop in the county had anything close to the look, so we turned to Google. Fortunately, someone on the other side of the planet did not let us down. We found a movie-specific replica, which he wore at least once a week until the costume was so torn and threadbare even duct tape failed him. This year, something similar. We ended up piecing together his costume from various parts. When someone recognized what he was, he kept smiling and hasn’t stopped since.

My youngest is more experience-driven. He’s cool with just about any costume, because most of the fun, for him, is riding through the neighborhood in the back of the pickup, shouting “trick or treat” and getting gobs of gobstoppers and other sweet treats. The key, though, is that his costume must also be something he will wear for play throughout the year. Over the years, he’s been a fireman, a cop, Iron Man, and a ninja. This year, he’s weighing astronaut, pirate, Captain America or To Be Determined. Kid likes to keep his options open, which leads us back around to the endless “Who will I be?” conversations. 

As I was listening to this lively debate for the umpteenth time, I got to thinking about how it’s not too much different than the decision we all face when we wake up every morning: “Will I be the same person I was, or will I look for some way to grow, to learn, to explore?”

For many reading this, life is about the pursuit, about learning and trying new things. It’s a lesson many of us should take to heart. Far too many people never really go anywhere or do anything. We put it off for a tomorrow that never comes. Life, as they say, gets in the way. Kids, work, bills, cutting the grass every week, and other perpetual chores seem to suck all the potential and adventure out of life. 

Thing is, no matter our age or place in life, apathy, distraction, and redundancy are choices. And, if we’re not careful, those choices become habits. That’s one of the reasons, in The News, we choose to focus on stories about people doing new, fun, and interesting things: people picking up a softball bat or a basketball for the first time in decades, dusting off a musical instrument, pursuing a new craft or hobby, or heading out on an adventure. No matter what that “new” choice is, the result is a mixture of learning new things and becoming a new person. Our habits, our priorities, even our brains, are reordered by embracing something unfamiliar.

In The Fellowship of the Ring, JRR Tolkien has his reluctant adventurer, Bilbo Baggins, tell his impetuous nephew, Frodo: “You step into the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.” It’s a truism Bilbo experienced first-hand. He went There and Back Again and became a new person. A dynamic that World War I veteran, Tolkien, was intimately familiar with. And that’s the point. When we set out to experience something new, we’re not entirely sure who we will become along the way. 

Kids find it easy to wear and shed different costumes, because their young brains thrive on experimentation. We tend to have a harder time with it. Comfort and routine, and memories of past mistakes, keep us from stepping out onto the proverbial road. Sometimes, though, it helps if we dress the part, and there are plenty of opportunities to do just that this month.

 

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