We learn by doing


Halloween is nearly upon us and I have, for all intents and purposes completed my rights and responsibilities to friends, family and kids.

My Halloween efforts are probably best summed up in two adages:

– “It looked good on paper.”

– “His eyes were bigger than his stomach.”

What I learned by doing…

The display

When I began designing my 2017 Halloween display, I had a rough idea how to leap upwards from last year’s Dead Thing Pen.

In that design, I took a section of my driveway, “fenced” it off with edging stones that I painted black and gray, dumped in a ton (well, about a quarter of a ton, in reality) of black mulch and placed all sorts of Dead Things (animal skeletons) in the Pen, accessorizing them with purple LED lights and shooting fog at them.

I took to my easiest planning program, Excel (’cause of all the nice grid lines) and plotted up this year’s quantum leap, the Dead Thing Driveway.

Instead of mulch, my idea was to use foam as a base and just paint it black. I killed myself (nearly literally) last year placing down and shoveling up all that mulch.

Along the way, I learned a lot…

– Polyfoam, a rolled version of foam that is most commonly used in seat cushions, does not have the stability to be used as a base for placing items. It’s too mushy, hence hard styrofoam blocks

– Do not paint inside the patio. The fumes have nowhere to go but in your lungs. Even after pulling out the plastic table and spraying out back, the wind would still kick enough fumes (through my face mask) for me to be mildly concerned.

– Start WAY early. Way. I began in July and finished just before October. Yikes!

– Styrofoam blocks are impenetrable. That means no water absorbency (per se), but also no way to “shove” the Dead Things into the blocks, Outside of carving, there was no method to make sure they stayed put. Thus I bought floral wire and used that to secure all their little feet and claws.

– Mulch or not, 36 edging stones and 73 styrofoam blocks means a lot of lifting and bending. You never know what your age is until you have to do a lot of lifting and bending.

– Florida gets lots of rain in “fall”. More so, we get lots of wind. While the wires held down the low-to-the-ground Dead Things, my main character skeletons took a beating, most specifically Animal Control (AC). Eventually I took a stake from one of my excess Halloween light kits and secured him to it with fishing line. That solved the issue.

– LED rope lights, designed for outdoor use, are not necessarily as outdoorsy as claimed. In my case, the rain shorted out several rope connectors (which then shorted out other connectors). Ultimately, I solved that problem by copious amounts of electrical tape around the connections. That should be super fun come breakdown day.

– Finally, never create a design that, by design, prevents you from parking in your own driveway. In South Florida. During rainy season. ’nuff said.

The party

Historically (as in the last 21 years), I throw a BBQ party on the weekend prior to Halloween. On rare occasions, Halloween falls on a weekend and that just multiplies the fun (and work for me).

This year, I had plans to serve many of the new recipes I had tried during my “cooking challenge” I had set for myself (a new recipe each month). But, as mentioned before, it is rainy season in Florida and an impolite tropical disturbance had formed south of me and was planning on causing massive grief for South Florida on only one day…the day of my BBQ party.

Normally, I set up heating trays on a table on the patio and bring pans from the oven out there for people to meander around while sitting at one of the two long tables I set up on my patio for them to eat at. But the rain was coming from the east, which then coated half my patio with water.

Here’s what I learned…

– I took half the chairs (the east side) away and simply left room for about 8 people to sit outside and not get wet. But even doing that, there was no way for people to walk to get food without stepping on the potentially dangerous slippery wet tiles.

– I covered my counter top with the indestructible Grandma hand-me-down towels (going on at least 40 years and still only a few stray threads coming loose) and set up an impromptu buffet line behind my dining room table.

– I cut back on snacks and munchies, finally learning my lesson that putting out so much is just a recipe for packing up more at the end of the night. I still had plenty ready to go out if the existing supply was eaten, but all that was either in the fridge or the pantry.

– Similarly, I took about half of everything I made and packed it up in the freezer. Turns out that was just about perfect. I did leave the second batch of my famous 7-cheese mac & cheese out and that was prescient, as the second pan was half eaten as well.

– Incredibly, no one spilled or dropped any of the potent dishes (seafood paella, stuffed cabbage, eggplant parmagiana or franks and beans) on my lily-white (well, more of an off white, but I’m being poetic) carpet. Amazing! In retrospect, I probably should have put a protective covering (plastic, most likely) on the carpet by the food. I just got lucky, I’m sure.

– The whole process seems so smooth and efficient (it’s a lot easier for me than carrying all those pans out to the patio), that I think it may become a permanent change, allowing me to give people more room outside on the (hopefully) better weather BBQ’s in the future.

– Like the food, I moved down from 2 liter bottles of soda to those 1.25 liter sizes. Again, another perfect choice, as I’m not left with three or four half-filled bottles of soda.

– Overall, the party turned out fabulous despite messy weather and no ability for anyone to park out front (except my Dad and Stepmom and, with them both approaching 90, I think that’s totally appropriate).

– Best of all, two people brought cupcakes and one brought a small cake – all buttercream and all vanilla. And I got to keep almost a dozen of those cupcakes. Now those are the types of leftovers I like!


There were a lot of firsts for this Halloween, both from a designing and a hosting standpoint. I had a plan to make it all work, but I never knew if it would all work. Until it all did.

We learn by doing.

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