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The horrors of holidays hit home

Holiday season is upon us all too soon. Most people find holidays stressful. There's scientific proof: Christmas causes the most nervous breakdowns. There are gifts to buy and wrap, trees and houses to decorate, cards to send and cookies to bake. Money is spent before it's earned, and credit cards hit the maximum limit. Ho, ho, ho.

Thanksgiving also has its moments. Questions abound: Am I going to have a dozen people suffering from food poisoning because I stuffed the bird too long before I cooked it and some insidious poultry bacteria took root deep down in the bread crumbs?What if the oven doesn't work, like the time we had to put the turkey on the Weber grill and ended up giving thanks at midnight? (At least with food poisoning you get credit for having cooked the meal.)

What about how much cholesterol there is in everything? What if Uncle Benny has a heart attack at the table? Then again, what if he doesn't and just spends the entire time insulting Aunt Pearl? What if everyone cancels and there's too much food? What if nobody cancels and there isn't enough?

Most important, should we feel guilty because we're gorging ourselves and there are people all over the world starving? Exactly how guilty?

But the all-time winner in the stress department at our house is Halloween. It started around the end of August, when I overheard my son talking to a friend.

"What are you going to be?"

"I don't know, what are you going to be?"

I thought it was an existential conversation on the meaning of life and the probability of an afterlife, or maybe a serious heart-to-heart about their future careers. But I learned the truth in mid-September, when I was brought in as a consultant. Zack, sounding worried, woke me one morning with the question, "Mom, what should I be?"

"Oh, honey, you're really too young to worry about that now. You've got your whole life in front of you."

"I've got a little over a month!"

Thinking my husband had been protecting me from some horrible medical diagnosis, I bolted upright, screaming, "A month! What's wrong with you?"

"Mom, does the word Halloween ring a bell? What am I gonna BE?"

Now, I don't know about you, but when I was a kid, Halloween costumes were kinder and gentler than today and required a lot less planning. I was always a gypsy. Year in and year out, I wore the same thing: hoop earrings, lots of lipstick, a big skirt, and one of those blouses you never see anymore with elastic around the top that you pulled down around your shoulders.

My best friend was always Dorothy from `The Wizard of Oz." We ran around the streets filling our grocery bags with candy, passing lots of Tin Men and Cowardly Lions and cowboys and clowns and fairies and witches and goblins, and the occasional Abe Lincoln.

This year my son wants to be Princess Diana after the crash. Hey, don't get mad at me, I just tell it like it is. The worst part is, all his friends think it's a great idea. And these are good kids.

Last year Zack went as an escaped psychopath who committed suicide by jumping off a cliff but survived. Actually, I can't remember if he survived or if he supposedly died and came back as the ghost of the psycho.

The boy across the street, older and wiser, went as a cyclist who had an unfortunate meeting with an 18-wheeler. He spent a small fortune on fake blood, not to mention three hours applying his wounds. Then there are the usual run-of-the-mill Freddie Kruegers with chain saws, emergency room victims, and people who've lost their heads, literally. Just answering the doorbell on Halloween night can be quite sickening.

Costumes are not the only source of indigestion. The candy consumption for the next few weeks is, of course, staggering.

Sadly, it's all so boring, with everything sealed up tight at the factory. Prepackaged little Milky Ways and Snickers and Starbursts and Reeses Peanut Butter Cups, the last of which are discarded on New Year's Eve, work their way into every kitchen cupboard and drawer. How clinical!

I know, I know. There are crazy people out there who could poison the children. But in my day, creativity was the watchword in Halloween treats.

My mother, an apathetic cook who thought dinner for company was a couple of cans of tuna and some Campbell's Tomato Soup, would knock herself out on Halloween. She spent hours gathering an assortment of goodies - cookies, popcorn balls, candy corn - then wrapped them in orange napkins festively tied with a black ribbon.

There were even more unique offerings in our neighborhood. Mrs. Lopez down the street, who was from Mexico, was the talk of the block. She'd come to the door with a frying pan in one hand and a spatula in the other, drop a freshly fried tortilla right in your bag and then sprinkle powdered sugar on top.

Often this turned out to be more of a trick than a treat, since it would melt all the Tootsie Rolls and Hershey's Kisses underneath it, so it was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, since nobody would ever go back a second time.

These days, the most exciting treat is a king-size Nutrageous candy bar, dispensed in the more affluent neighborhoods.

With Halloween looming later this month, things are getting tense around our house. Zack's burning question, asked daily, is, "Mom, what am I going to be on Halloween?"

I vetoed the Princess Diana thing, so we're back to Square 1. The only thing I can tell him with any certainty at this point is "nauseous."