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Sharing Mana‘o

“Curiouser and curiouser!” cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English).

— Lewis Carroll, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”

“Curiouser and curiouser” may not be good English, but it’s an appropriate description of our current state of affairs. Like Alice in Wonderland, we seem to have fallen into a surreal otherworld where bizarre characters spout gibberish, and uncertainty and absurdity are the only constants.

For weeks, political pundits have speculated about the possibility of an “October surprise,” but no one, to my knowledge, predicted it would entail the president testing positive for COVID-19. Not publicly, anyway.

(Side note: Although the term has been used in the U.S. since the 1980s to describe a news event, contrived or not, which could sway election results, “October surprise” was coined more than a century ago. According to dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster, the phrase was used in newspaper advertisements of the early 1900s, touting annual sales events at department stores. The earliest documented use appeared in an 1888 edition of The Sacramento Bee, an ad for an “October surprise sale” on silks, plushes and velvets at Hale Bros. Many decades later, in 1965, the Chicago Tribune called the Cubs’ hiring of Leo Durocher as manager “an October surprise.”)

It was William Casey, as Ronald Reagan’s campaign manager in the 1980 presidential race, who first applied the term to politics. In July of that year, Time magazine reported that the Reagan camp expected President Jimmy Carter “to pull what they call ‘the October surprise,’ meaning that shortly before Election Day, he will inflate the importance of some overseas event in an attempt to rally the country around him.”

They were alluding to the Iran hostage crisis, suggesting that, if Carter could negotiate the release of the 52 Americans being held at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, he would likely win the admiration of voters and a second term as president. But October passed with no resolution of the crisis, and Carter lost the election. Negotiations continued, of course, and the Americans were finally set free on Jan. 20, 1981 — minutes after the inauguration of President Reagan. The timing of the hostages’ release gave rise to conspiracy theories — none proven — that the Reagan campaign interfered with Carter’s attempts or even bargained with the Iranians.

In nearly every presidential election since, news media have described breaking news events, potential scandals and even natural disasters as October surprises. Usually, there was just one “surprise,” maybe two. But in 2016, Rolling Stone printed a list of 23 “surprises,” all of which occurred in the final month of the race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. I remember thinking that there wasn’t much else that could surprise me anymore . . . and then I was proven wrong on election night. Regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, you probably felt the same. Even Trump appeared to be surprised, albeit pleasantly, by the outcome.

2020 has been full of surprises and unprecedented occurrences. I’m afraid to wonder what else could happen, and we’re only a week into October. Instead, I will try to take comfort in another Carroll quote:

“For, you see, so many out-of-the-way things had happened lately, that Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible.”

After all, “curiouser and curiouser” could actually describe happy, positive occurrences, as in an impossible dream. It could be a good thing, even if it’s not good English.

* Kathy Collins is a radio personality (The Buzz 107.5 FM and KEWE 97.9 FM/1240 AM), storyteller, actress, emcee and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every other Wednesday. Her email address is kcmaui913@gmail.com.

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