Thursday, December 25, 2003

The Forever Tree

As I've mentioned before, Christmas Eve used to be the big present-opening day for our family, with Christmas Day reserved for visiting Grandma at her Bucktown cottage and family friends a few blocks away--family friends who owned a full-sized aluminum Christmas tree.

In my memory, the tree is huge--at least ten feet tall, with ornaments the size of 16-inch softballs and hundreds of colorfully wrapped presents for the extended family. I'm sure it wasn't anything quite so Wonkaesque in reality. It was most likely the size of an average Christmas tree--just shinier.

Since then, though, I've maintained an affection for aluminum Christmas trees, just as I maintain affection for Gardenburgers. See, there are plenty of vegetarian products manufacturers that try--try, mind you--to simulate the taste of animal flesh. And they do a fairly good job of it, too--except for products that try to mimic the flavor of beef patties. None of them quite get it right; even the best of them (Boca, probably) taste no better than the dried-out things they used to sling on deflated buns in the Ellen Mitchell Elementary School lunchroom. Gardenburgers--the original, not any of its offshoots or sub-brands--succeeds as a sandwich because it doesn't even try to imitate the flavor of beef. They merely serve as a tasty option. (Not that I'm a vegetarian; I've flirted with it many times in the past, usually because the woman I was interested in at the moment was one and I wanted whatever she liked. Yeah, I know--creepy. No wonder I could never get a date.)

I feel the same way about aluminum trees. They're not trying to be like pine trees, like so many other artificial trees do. They're metallic, man-made alternatives to evergreens and spruces, first manufactured in the late 1950s by Aluminum Specialty Company of Manitowoc, WI, and popular through the end of the next decade.

A couple of years back, it became hip to own a vintage aluminum Christmas tree. Every antique shop that had one in stock, no matter what its relative condition--some of those poor things looked like rats had been nesting in them for decades--propped it in the window with a hefty price tag conveniently turned away from the viewing public; you had to go inside and look around if you wanted to find out how much it cost.

One shop in Wicker Park, Wonderland Multivintage on Milwaukee Avenue (packed wall-to-freakin'-wall with old radios, leopard-print coats, action figures and lunchboxes) had several aluminum trees in a range of sizes, from the full-sized ones I remember to table-top models--all at prices that made my wallet clamp itself to my thigh and steadfastly refuse to come out of my pocket. Red Secretary and I were shopping along Milwaukee Avenue, looking for gifts for her parents (I believe she settled on insect-shaped tealight candle holders--I know I picked up a couple for myself), when we sidled in and looked around. One tree really caught my fancy: a four-footer with full branches and nicely textured "needles." The price, however, was not so nice: $140. Meow. (No diss intended to Wonderland Multivintage--all the aluminum trees in all the antique/vintage shops were pricey that year, no matter what the size, shape or quality.)

RS and I still came out with wicked cool stuff--old-school ornaments for me (mostly angels that matched up well with what I already had), a Burger King stuffed doll for her--but the aluminum trees all stayed behind.

I still visit Wonderland whenever I'm in the neighborhood. Sometimes, I buy. Sometimes, I don't. Usually, I just take a quick tour, realize I don't have the scratch to shop, and head back out into the cold.

The Saturday before Thanksgiving, I was having lunch at Earwax with Kaytee, who was very kindly giving me a very nice frame for my futon so that I could actually buy a--gasp--bed to sleep on. (Now, if I could just get around to shopping for a bedÉ.) Earwax, for those who don't know, is on Milwaukee Avenue--just up the street from Wonderland. And would Kaytee be interested in doing a little shopping before we stopped by her place and hauled out the futon frame? Why, of course she would! So after a few minutes of wandering along Milwaukee Avenue, we arrived at Wonderland, where the windows had been dressed in holiday style--and the aluminum tree of my fancy was still there.

There was no price tag visible--surprise!--but I wasn't sure I really wanted to know. I had already decided that I didn't really want to decorate La Casa del Terror this Christmas; after the way this year has gone, I don't feel especially festive. But as I looked at the aluminum tree in the window, I thought that it wouldn't hurt to ask. If it was still too expensive, it could stay there another year. Or two. Or four. But if it was in my price range....

Kaytee and I went in, where all of the counters at the front of the store were covered with holiday decorations: chrome-plated ornaments dangling from a rotating wire rack; boxed glass tree toppers; reindeer arranged before Santa's waiting sleigh; a whole tabletop with nothing but whole and partial Nativity scenes (some missing a wise man or two, others with angels on high looking down on an empty manger). The counter guy, busily hustling back and forth, putting out "fresh" product and taking away anything not fitting the theme of the season.

"Excuse me," I started, hating to interrupt the man in his work, "Can I ask about something in the front window?" He stopped, nodded without speaking, and followed me out the heavy glass door.

"That one's sixty-five," he said when I pointed to the tree of my fancy.

That, to me, seemed a reasonable price. "Done."

While the counter guy pulled out the original box and dumped what looked like dozens of kraft paper tubes onto the floor, Kaytee noted that there was a color wheel beside the tree, and I aksed for its price as well. "That one's forty-five," he answered in a monotone.

Well...damn. That was almost as much as the tree. The counter guy then gestured to a collection of color wheels on the floor behind him. Some were large, others small. One looked like a salon hairdryer, but bronze in hue. He took this one, walked to the other side of the store, plugged it in and set it on the floor. "I haven't tried these out yet this year," he said, resuming his task of stuffing aluminum-clad branches into kraft paper tubes while the color wheel rumbled to life and proceeded to emit a filling-rattling grinding sound.

Kaytee, who had taken up the cause of stuffing tubes as well, looked at me. "Will that bother Ms. Christopher?"

"Fuck Christopher," I replied. "That sound will bother me."

I decided to forego the color wheel--for this year, anyway--and just take the freshly boxed tree back to La Casa del Terror. Kaytee and her boyfriend gave me a lift back, the disassembled futon frame tied to the roof of his car. After we carried the frame up to the third floor and dropped it on the back porch, I said my goodbyes, went back upstairs with the aluminum Christmas tree and, in a moment of nearly blasphemous giddy excitement, assembled the tree and set it up in the kitchen atop Great Grandma's old wooden table.

That is the first, last and only time I've put up any Christmas decoration before Thanksgiving. But, as I said, I wasn't much in the mood this year, and that goofy, glittery four-foot Evergleam tree helped me feel better about the impending season. Not that I've added much decoration to the display: Peppermint Kitty, a gift from a co-worker years ago, and Angelique, the decades-old little angel found in Grandma's house after the house had burned. Oh...and Santa Cthulhu Plush, who bids you celebrate "Cthulhu-mas" and brings you "tidings of despair" (hee) and Charlie-in-the-Box (from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) atop the TV ("Nobody wants to play with a Charlie-in-the-Box!"--I feel your pain, my brother).

This is very light decoration, compared to past years, true. But walking into the kitchen and seeing that aluminum tree, lighted from below with pine-scented candles, makes me feel good. So do the cards with messages of holiday cheer affixed to the woodwork above and to the side of the tree--cards from Chicago neighborhoods like Ukrainian Village, Andersonville, Lakeview and Chinatown; and from towns near and far, with names like Round Lake Beach and Richardson, St. Joseph and Dayton, Gibsonia and Evanston. There's even one from an old high school buddy who now lives in the town where my aluminum Christmas tree was manufactured so many years ago: Manitowoc, WI.

Put it all together, and it forms a core of holiday spirit. Maybe it's not as strong, warm or glowing as in years past, but it's present--and welcome--nonetheless.

Merry Christmas, one and all.

Saturday, December 20, 2003

A Girlish Girl Goes On

The night of the first new episode of 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter after the death of John Ritter, a cold, wind-driven rain came down on Chicago, swaying trees and rattling windows all over the metro area. I'd worn a leather jacket to work that day, so when I got home the upper half of my body was tidy and dry, but from the waist down I was soaked. I squished when I walked. I wasn't a happy camper.

When I came in the back door, I put my foot out, as I usually do, to keep Ms. Christopher from dashing out. She still tries, after all these years, even though the one time she succeeded she spent a day outside and was eternally grateful to be found, brought in, cleaned up and fed.

But this night, she didn't come to the door. And with all that had happened--with her sister Lottie having died just weeks before--I immediately thought the worst.

I needn't have. Neither of the Girlish Girls ever liked storms, and even though this night's event lacked sufficient sound and fury, it was still enough to make Christopher hide under the couch beside the phone--the same couch Lottie liked to hide under those last few weeks she was ill. I pulled back the denim-colored cover to find Christopher there, blinking at the beam coming from the forest-green Maglite, letting out a "meep" and pretty much looking like she wanted to be left alone. I gave her a stroke or two on her forehead and went back to the kitchen to make dinner.

After a while, when the storm had passed and I'd had my good cry, Christopher came out from under the couch, pushing her head and front legs from under the cover first, then pulling the rest of her body through. She stopped in the kitchen first, no doubt to grab a bite to eat from the can of Friskies Senior Ocean Whitefish I'd put down earlier, and to make a stop at the litter pan. Then, she returned to the living room--and jumped up into my lap.

Ms. Christopher had never been a lap cat, really. She liked attention as much as any housecat does, but preferred to get it in the form of pats on the head while standing atop the radiator cover in the kitchen or reclining in the cradle of the Kitty Kondo. She rarely jumped up and demanded attention. Lottie was the sociable one--the one who butted you with her enormous head and jumped up on the couch (with amazing ease, given her size). She wanted to be a lap cat, but was far too large to properly fit on a lap--even one as wide as mine has become in recent times--so she'd either drape her front half over my lap or, more likely, curl up next to me and continue butting, purring hard enough to shake my glasses off.

After Lottie was put to sleep, I cried for days. Talking about her for more than a few seconds would start the waterworks right up again. (And it still happens: at lunch today, I was in a used bookstore, looking through the Children's section, when I ran across a copy of James Herriot's The Christmas Day Kitten--which, aside from being a very sweet book with lovely art, features a scene in which the kitten's mother dies. Yup. Lost my shit right in the basement of After-Words.) I was sad, angry, name it, I felt it. What I found after a brief search on the Web, though, was that what I was feeling wasn't unusual at all. In fact, it was expected.

What's more, I learned that other pets in a household where one has died grieve as well. Not in the same way as people do, true. Cats don't get death. They just know that their companion--or, in this case, littermate--isn't there anymore. And, in many instances, the surviving pets take on personality traits of their deceased partners in crime.

So it is with Ms. Christopher.

She butts me with her head when she wants attention. She clambers up into my lap--which, being somewhat smaller (if noticeably fluffier) than her sister, she actually fits in--and often continues up onto my chest, kneading my much-too-substantial gut with her talons and yanking up threads from my sweater. She's become much more personable. I even have witnesses. At this year's HMB, she approached everyone in the room for a petting session. In past years, she'd peek out at the gathering of strangers in the living room and maybe--maybe--come out and cry piteously, but she wouldn't work the room the way Lottie did. This year? She was belle of the ball, even though she damn near lost it when Sailor J tried to pick her up and cuddle her--Christopher wasn't quite ready to be held by a total stranger. Not yet. Maybe next year.

Christopher has also taken up other habits of her sister's--like licking plastic bags to get attention (even in the middle of the night, when I'd much rather sleep in a tightly curled ball than play with jingly catnip toys), sharpening her claws on the Kitty Kondo (Christopher used to prefer the couches or the corners of rooms, especially when she was pissed at me) and sitting in the desk chair (which has been in the living room since HMB) and watching me watch TV. When I work at the iMac, she either sits at my feet or stretches out on the futon behind me. Either way, she meows and wants to be petted.

She still does many of the same things she always did--tucking herself into my right armpit at bedtime, reaching up to lightly pat my nose and lips with her paw as I try to fall asleep, complaining loudly about the lack of fresh food about an hour before the Bettie Page Bondage alarm is supposed to go off--but she's become more outgoing, more talkative, more visible in the past few weeks.

I'm sure part of the change is the lack of competition for affection, food, space to recline and just be pretty, etc. Christopher has me all to herself--when I'm in La Casa del Terror, that is. The rest of the time, she's on her own. Cats are solitary creatures by nature, but she was used to having Lottie around--to play with, to fight with, to snuggle on the futon with. Now she's alone for long stretches of the day. For the first time since she came out of the womb. And it's freaking her out a bit. Me, too.

(I'll get another cat at some point. Not as a replacement for Lottie--no cat, no matter how sweet or smart, will replace my Girlish Girl--but because I don't think Christopher should have to spend her days in solitude. The extra company would do her--and me--good.)

But I think that, more than anything, Christopher has started to do what Lottie did so well: pick up on what I'm feeling and try to comfort me. She knows I'm sad and wants me to feel better. And she wants assurance herself, wants to know that I'm not going to leave and never come back. So she sits in my lap, on my chest, kneading away and ruining my best sweaters, rubbing her head on my chin and purring contentedly. And for those few minutes, I do feel better. Neither of us is alone. Nor need we be.

We've got each other. And, for now, that's enough.

Monday, December 8, 2003

Review: Satan's School for Girls (2000)

Who the hell (pun intended) thought it would be a good idea to remake a crappy '70s made for-TV horror movie? Producer Aaron Spelling, who made the original Satan's School for Girls and is behind this updated version starring Shannen Doherty (who had previously been fired by Spelling from "Beverly Hills 90210 and would later get canned again by Spelling from "Charmed").

Shannen plays Beth, whose younger sister commits suicide--or does she?--while attending Fallbridge College, one of those campuses that has an abandoned student union that, it seems, damn near everybody in this movie traipses through at one point or another. Oh...and a dead tree with a pentagram carved into it. Subtle.

Beth goes undercover at Fallbridge to find out what really happened to her sister, and nothing is as it seems. She hears stories about "The Five," a cult of witches who supposedly wield incredible powers. Too bad none of them has the power to make Satan's School for Girls scary or at least interesting.

You can see where this movie is going within the first five minutes. And that wouldn't be so bad if it weren't such a boring ride. Doherty seems distracted and listless much of the time (she later told TV Guide that she was suffering from a "flaring ulcer" during filming). And none of the other actors, including Julie Benz as Beth's Fallbridge roommate, Victoria Sanchez as a hot goth chick or Kate Jackson (who was also in the original) as the headmistress, can pump any life into the proceedings.

Director Christopher Leitch (who also brought us Teen Wolf Too, bless him) keeps things moving along as well as he can, but this thing bogs down at the script level. The cultural references have been updated, with jokes about Bill Clinton and Judge Judy, but it allows for no suspense, no intelligence on the part of Beth (sure, the guy you just slept with accidentally says "You're stronger than they think," but do you really suspect him of being in on the plot? Do you even suspect that there IS a plot?), no more depth than your average puddle after a spring shower. And the music is mostly synthesized crap.

If Spelling were going to bother with this remake, couldn't he have had fun with it? Or, at the very least, have let the viewing audience have some fun? We know he can do camp-"Melrose Place" proved that-so why not remake Satan's School for Girls as a parody of bad made-for-TV Satan-worship movies, instead of just adding to that list?

Wednesday, December 3, 2003

Reveiw: Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein is controversial film among horror flick purists: would it have been kinder to have let the classic Universal monsters be, rather than trot them out one last time to prop up the sagging big-screen careers of comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello?

I beg to differ. House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula were such lousy, weak, boring, cheap efforts that bringing the monsters back one more time, even in a self-parody, was a relative kindness to them.

Think about it. Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein had a healthy budget, especially in comparison to the House of movies, and the horror elements involving the monsters are played straight, thus making the monsters actually threatening for the first time in years. They also make great straight men for Bud and Lou, who play bumbling shipping guys who wind up hauling the bodies of Dracula (played for the second and last time by Bela Lugosi, who gets one last shred of dignity before spending his remaining years in Ed Wood films) and the Frankenstein Monster (once again played by large, lurching Glenn Strange).

It's all a plot by Dracula to find a new brain for Frankie--and believe it or not, Lou's the leading candidate to donate! Larry Talbot (who else but Lon Chaney Jr.?) shows up to help foil the plan, but of course he shows up on a night with a full moon, damn the luck....

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein is no more logical and pays no more attention to continuity than any of the other Universal horror films. There are all sorts of questions one could ask here: Wasn't Larry Talbot cured in House of Dracula? Didn't Dracula die (again) in that same movie? How come Dracula's reflection can be seen in the mirror? So what if Drac and Wolfie fall into the ocean at the end--vampires and werewolves aren't hurt by water, are they? And just how many times can you burn the Frankenstein Monster to death before you figure out that it just doesn't work?

You can beat this movie up as much as you want for its lack of fealty to logic or legend, but the fact remains that it's still a good deal of fun. The horror and comedy balance one another nicely, and the monsters are treated with more respect and admiration than they'd been in a long, long time. And while you can ask for a better end for the Universal stable of monsters, you probably couldn't get one. So live with this--it's better than what came before it by a long shot.

(NOTES: Chaney plays the Monster again briefly late in the movie, standing in for Strange, who had been injured during filming and couldn't perform. And the voice of Vincent Price is heard at the very end of the movie, chiming in as the Invisible Man.)