Months ago, promptly upon becoming the parent of a school-aged child, I unlocked a new Dad Achievement: squinting into the middle distance and saying, "I'll consider it" when I had no intention of doing so.
I said it again earlier this month, when my six year-old son asked about Halloween.
Having turned six, he has more agency and fiendish cunning than last year, so the discussion of What To Do For Halloween would have already been a protracted negotiation, even without the national Covid-19 death count rounding a quarter million and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention labelling trick-or-treating a "higher risk activity."
And we should be celebrating the first of what would normally be about six years of Classic Halloween — full of sincere giddiness, costumes that are more heroic than horrifying and unselfconscious fun before the costumes turn all-scary, or horny, or disappear.
But we're not.
My wife is immunocompromised, which means that, for all intents and purposes, we are, too, for the duration of the pandemic; "higher risk" activities are out. Also, we live in Florida where Ron DeSantis, our Republican governor, has made it clear that, unlike corporations, we're expendable — and on our own to navigate protecting ourselves, as he will not use the powers of the state to protect us from anything but the inconvenience of only having access to take-out instead of dine-in restaurants temporarily. And so, to borrow one of the governor's favorite terms, even after monkeying with our Covid dashboard and grudgingly providing Floridians with limited hospital data only after being sued, there's no denying that the state hit the wave months ago and will be surfing it all day, every day, long into 2021.
I confess to mixed feelings about how this will impact my son's Halloween experience.
On the one hand, this Halloween would have been the first time he was really a full participant in anticipating the day, picking out his costume, and enjoying the spoils of his candy hunting and it's the first one he will miss. But on the other hand, there's a sense of relief for having a world-historical event blame for half-assing it this time. I can't ever think of a good costume; this year, I can blame Covid. I'm frankly too miserly to pay for the good costumes I can think of; this year, I can blame Covid.
Every parent knows that, no matter how trivial, optional or commercial the holiday, Insufficient Parenting Anxiety will overtake you.
My son — who otherwise evinces near-zero daily interest in Spider-Man — is determined to wear Spider-Man pajamas in lieu of an actual costume (yet again), and, yet again, I didn't fight that. Oh, well: Covid. And I didn't have the budget to really go all-out decorating the house before buying 30 pounds of candy because parents from all over the area drop their kids off in my neighborhood... because of Covid.
But every parent knows that, no matter how trivial, optional or commercial the holiday, Insufficient Parenting Anxiety will overtake you. Even under the best of circumstances, it will whisper in your ear that whatever you've done is still less than your child's happiness is owed. The self-recrimination of canceling some important childhood holiday outright is almost unthinkable, no matter how much you know what the "right" decision is.
So I told him I'd consider it, and now everyday the boy and I wander the neighborhood, scope out the neighbors' scary decorations and kibitz about which ones are the coolest. On Saturday night, we'll be do much the same — wandering around in the open street, checking out the good costumes and avoiding the candy being handed out at all cost. He'll probably wear something Spider-Man affiliated; if I'm motivated enough, I'll put on a suit, grease back the top of my involuntary Covid Mullet and go as ESPN's Barry Melrose. (I will not be motivated enough.)
A lot of my neighbors — like a lot of the country — seem determined to try to hold a normal Halloween regardless of our current circumstances. Some have tiptoed up to the line of outright denialism in person and on Nextdoor; others who thought they could bargain with a virus arranged a "neighborhood only" trick-or-treat for Halloween Eve, as though "our" kids would be safe among each other, and the lower-income kids who get dropped off were the issue. (As with most of Nextdoor, it's difficult to conceal the magical racial and class formulation undergirding their anxieties.) It wound up being closer to something safe the way everything is nowadays: barely anybody was there.
The Halloween optimists are the most welcome, even if misguided. One neighbor announced her plan to dress like a witch, fill a giant plastic cauldron with candy, and ladle her witch's brew of miniature Snickers and whatnot into children's waiting buckets. It would have been an elegant solution — if she could have guaranteed that all the children would have been masked up and distanced from the bowl, and if she had been following CDC guidelines to mask up in public places and avoid indoor spaces.
My neighbor Laura — one of those people for whom Halloween might as well have been invented and from whom communal cheer and enthusiasm is pleasantly impossible to avoid — has erected a PVC-pipe apparatus descending from her porch, inspired by a Buzzfeed article. It stood bare for a few days, waiting for the process that took it from a work-in-progress Super Mario warp pipe to a suitably scary long, mummified quasi-arm. Barring candy jams, she can stand on her porch and deposit sugary treats safely in buckets and bags from a dozen feet away.
It's almost enough. I want to be optimistic too.
Insufficient Parenting Anxiety is on the knife's edge of overriding my knowledge that I am keeping my son and my wife safe with the thought that I am paving the path to his future with loneliness and stolen joy. But on Saturday night, Barry and Spidey are going to stay in middle of the street, marveling at all the things they didn't struggle to be able afford this year, before going home to a house festively cordoned off with police tape and biohazard signs and eating exactly the candy they wanted and had shipped straight to the house. The Joneses don't need to be kept up with. Not this year.
Because ultimately, it doesn't matter how conscientious any one neighbor tries to be: At heart, all they can guarantee is their own safety. Every beautifully disguised expression of individual caution shatters as soon as it collides with the absence of collective action. And our governor, like too many politicians, has ceded the certainty of collective action to the hope of individual caution. And we, as individuals — with more than 9 million of us infected and more than 230,000 of us gone forever — are suffering the consequences.