A few years ago, I was working as an editor for a large educational publisher. For Halloween, there was a costume contest held in one of the conference rooms in the afternoon. The safe route in a situation like this is to not dress up at all, and let others run the risk of embarrassing themselves. It’s something like singing karaoke in a bar: funny to watch other people try to do it, but a different story altogether when you’re the one behind the microphone.
I liked these people I worked with, though, and I wanted be a part of the contest, without overdoing it or calling too much attention to myself. So I played it safe and dug out an old black felt hat, similar to the red and white striped “Cat in the Hat” style that was popular about a decade ago. Mine was solid black, though, and it was clearly meant to pay homage to Abraham Lincoln.
The Literature books that we were in the process of putting together had materials from a variety of authors, including Lincoln. His Gettysburg Address, besides being a brilliant explanation of what was at stake in the Civil War, is brief enough that students will read it without telling you how boring it is. This makes it ideal for inclusion in any textbook to be placed in a high schooler’s hands.
I took my hat to work that day, and put on a solid black sweater that I wore all day long. I figured that I would put on the hat, stroll down to the meeting room and, if not win the contest, at least feel like I was a part of the festivities.
As the day wore on, however, I got a sense that things wouldn’t be that simple. A casual sampling of what others had done revealed that clever plays on words were the order of the day. A colleague dressed entirely on orange, with a green hat atop her head, was going as a “caret,” while another was going as “falling action” (which entailed making a motion as she would tumble to the ground). And worse yet, it appeared that no other literary figures would be in attendance. I knew that my Lincoln “costume” wasn’t going to go over very well.
What to do, what to do? I went back to my desk and put my thinking cap on. And not my black felt hat, either. But I did stare at it for awhile, wondering if I should just stuff it into a desk drawer and go to the contest wearing my black sweater, acting like that was just what I wore to work that day. Problem solved, right?
But then it hit me. I could still make it fly, but first I’d have to do some prep work. Fortunately, there was still a little time.
At lunchtime, I went to a drugstore in the building next door. It was late October and the Holidays were right around the corner, so I found a strand of blinking Christmas tree lights that would do just fine. Then I went back to the building I worked in to pick up some Chinese takeout, a pair of chopsticks, and a few straws. I went back to my desk and got to work.
I’ve never been able to use chopsticks effectively, but I wasn’t going to use them to eat. Instead, I wanted them to poke some holes into my black felt hat. You’ve gotta break some eggs if you want to have an omelette, right?
I assembled the straws into the shape I wanted, but I needed some way to fasten what I had done onto the hat. I made a visit to the supply room and procured a handful of brass fasteners, which could be twisted so that they would hold everything together. Then, when I thought I had everything the way I wanted it, I made a nervous trip to the part of the floor where the restrooms were. This entailed leaving the office and waking past the elevators, where I was certain that somebody would see me. What this would mean, I wasn’t sure. But I didn’t want anyone to know what I was up to.
I went into the restroom, which was thankfully empty, and tried on my creation. It looked OK, but a couple of mirror-aided adjustments were in order. If anyone had come in at that time, they probably would not have any idea of what I was up to. But it was a nervous few minutes, anyway.
I finished up, exited the restroom, and went back to my desk. My afternoon coffee that day contained the added flavor of success.
When the time for the contest arrived, I grabbed my handiwork and headed on my way. I didn’t think I would win, but I felt confident that I had done enough to make an impact on my colleagues. That was all I really wanted, anyway.
The meeting room had some munchies and drinks set out, for people to mingle a bit before the contest started. I grabbed a cookie and some juice, and talked with some of my colleagues for a bit. We were all happy to have a momentary respite from the crazy, irrational deadlines that we often lived under. And the deadlines would still be waiting there for us when the afternoon’s festivities were over.
The contest started, and everyone taking part had to get up in front of the others to see if anyone could guess what their costume was. When it was my turn, I walked to the nearest outlet, plugged in, and said a line that I’d wanted to say ever since I first heard Linus say it in the Charle Brown Christmas special:
One of my colleagues standing near the light switch indulged my request. It was daytime, but the lights had been on, just like they always are in an office. The room got moticeably darker, and I waited for a second or two for the lights to take effect. Needless to say, I had everyone’s attention at that point.
I pointed at my hat and asked my colleagues what they saw. Three straws had been stuck together with some tape, and then surrounded by the flashing lights I had bought earlier in the day. Immediately, several of my colleagues recognized it as the letter A.
“Very good,” I said. “Now, what is this letter A doing?”
“Flashing,” one of my colleagues ventured.
“Keep guessing,” I said.
“Blinking,” another called out.
“Right! So put them together,” I invited.
“Blinking A” someone said. It was a moment that I recognized from my days as a teacher. They were close, but still needed just a nudge to get to where I wanted them to go. An editorial term seemed to be the way to do this.
“Transpose the two and then tell me what you get,” I told them.
“A blinking.” I looked at who said it, and then pointed at my hat.
“Ayy blinkin!” I could almost feel the light bulbs turning on in the minds of those in the room. If there had been more moments like that when I was teaching high school social studies, I never would have left the classroom to do anything else.
From my colleagues’ reaction, I could tell that my gambit had worked. The idea, and the work required to bring it into being, had happened in just over an hour’s time. Everything should come together so fast.
I didn’t win the prize for best costume (and I honestly can’t remember which one did), but I did accomplish the things that I wanted to do: keeping the Lincoln motif, while giving my creativity a workout. I think Lincoln himself would have been impressed with the results.