Tuesday, October 31, 2006
My Haunted Halloween
This weekend we attended my cousin's annual Halloween Hayride party. The event is mainly planned for the kids, but the adults enjoy it equally, if not the more.
My cousin, in particular, gets into it to an extent you'd never guess from her behavior the rest of the year. She's more likely to be found reading a romance novel than an Anne Rice book, and she wears pastels instead of basic black, but when Halloween rolls around, out come the life-sized witch and mummy she's acquired from the Halloween store, and every room in the house is festooned with cobwebs and plastic rats. This year, she told us gleefully, she's waiting for the cardboard coffin she saw at Meijer's to go on sale. "Then I can store this guy in it," she said, pointing to the fanged ghoul propped next to us in the foyer. "I think that would be so cool."
The festivities began with a costumed witch named Basil cavorting in the barn, frightening the little children with her cackles and concocting an exploding brew of Diet Coke and Mentos. In her oversized sparkle sunglasses she resembled a sort of Halloween Elton John. Basil was then joined by a surprise guest, Witch Hazel, an out-of-town aunt who made the trip especially for the party. The adults, knowing her secret identity, were delighted to see her; the little children were more terrified than ever.
Which leads me to the scariest thing about the day: sadism. We grown-ups were delighted by the children's fear. When it was time for games in the basement, one tiny child, petrified by the skeleton pinned to the ceiling and the fog machine vapors filling the air, squealed, "I don't want to be here!" and tore in a panic for the stairs. "Aw, how cute," we chuckled. When Basil first emerged from the haunted barn, my cousin's six-year-old son froze in his tracks, eyes glazed with tears, then slowly started backing away. Did we feel concerned for him? No, we could hardly contain our glee while recounting this moment of terror to his doting parents.
Most years, the hayride portion of the day is a haunted hayride through woods filled with scary decorations. This year the weather was so foreboding, with a sudden hail storm in the morning and strong winds throughout the day, that the hayride was put on hold and the outdoor decorations were used inside the house instead. But later in the day, as the weather cleared and the sun shone through the golden leaves of the (still wildly swaying) trees, it was decided that we would go on an "old-fashioned" hayride, i.e. not haunted. So we piled onto the bale-filled wagon, my cousin's husband started up the tractor, and off we went into the benign woods.
But were they so benign? The afternoon light slanting through the branches was beautiful, but the long shadows were kind of eery, and as the wind grew stronger the powerfully swaying limbs began to creak overhead. As we bumped along the path, something inspired Hazel (riding amongst us) to let out a mighty shriek, and at that moment there was a crack, and a big tree came crashing down, its roots bouncing out of the ground, mere inches from our wagon. We passengers were scattered with twigs and bits of bark; some even got a little scratched up. It seemed there might be something in those woods after all, something that thought it was time the adults got a taste of their own medicine.
Back at the house, things got a little hairy as the evening wore on. The mummy in the dining room kept turning its head to stare at people with its one goggling eye when no one was looking, and the plastic dracula hanging at the window banged at the glass, buffeted by the wind, as though trying to get in at his toothsome victims. A bowl of brain jello jiggled unappetizingly in the kitchen. The boys were playing with a sticky eyeball that rolled creepily down the walls. They tried to toss it higher up the wall, but it was difficult to aim because of the way it clung to their fingers, so they kept flinging it unintentionally into unlikely, unsettling places, such as an aunt's wrist, where it peered at us like an unfortunate growth until it was retrieved.
The tiny boy who'd been afraid of the basement had, by now, taken up a constant refrain of, "I want to go home, I want to go home." Or simply, while tugging at his mother's clothes, "GO HOME!" Sadly for him, he and his family were set to spend the night in this house of horrors. Eventually his mother took pity on him and whisked him off to one of the blessedly undecorated bedrooms upstairs.
Meanwhile, the boys with the eyeball had managed to get it stuck on a ceiling - not just any ceiling, but a vaulted 30-foot-high one. Attempts to dislodge it with a broom from the landing above only got it further stuck and smooshed. There was much conversation about the eyeball on the ceiling, and apparently sound really carries in that house, because the tiny, frightened boy summoned his mother with more wailing. What he wanted to know, when she came to his assistance, was whose eyeball was stuck to the ceiling.
"Aw," we giggled when we heard the story. "That's so cute."
Monday, October 23, 2006
We saw some old friends the other day: Tony, Jackie, Neil, Lynn and the rest. So what if I've never actually met them. I feel I know them.
If you've followed the "Seven Up" series over the years you know who I'm talking about. This is the every-seven-years documentary by Michael Apted following the lives of a group of British people who were originally filmed as schoolchildren in 1964.
I first heard about these movies in college when a favorite English teacher mentioned them in passing - I think trying to illustrate that we were all, in our early 20s, totally freaking out. She described how the individuals in the movies all got kind of crazy or angry or confused as they neared young adulthood, but by the next cycle they seemed back, in some sense, to the foundation personalities they displayed in early childhood. (All except for the semi-tragic Neil, which perhaps shows just how close the teen and early twenties years are to mental illness. Not to make light of mental illness, but at first it's easy to mistake his troubles for garden-variety late-teen angst.)
I chased these movies for a long time. In the most melodramatic sense, I suspected they held the secret of life (or at least the key to my confusing teens and 20s). Every time I went into an artsy video store I'd check the documentary section. I think I did find one of the movies once - maybe "28 Up" - but I was reluctant to jump in at the middle. I didn't know the series was still being made, so when "42 Up" came to U.S. theaters it was an exciting surprise - that was the first one I saw. Then when the series thus far was released on DVD several years ago we started at the beginning and watched them all in a rush, 42 years of lives on fast-forward.
It happens that with the lag of the U.S. release schedule, I'm exactly two cycles behind the project's participants, so in a sense I'm on the seven-year plan, too. While they're experiencing 49, I'm 35, and last time around was 28. It's spooky, as the film recaps key points in each person's life, when their timelines synch up with mine. It's comforting, seeing these commonalities, but a little unsettling, too, as though personal choice has much less to do with the paths our lives take than we'd like to think. The "49" film has an extra tinge of melancholy because for the first time, the participants have noticeably aged, like so many Velveteen Rabbits with their stuffing starting to sag and their fur rubbed a little thin.
One of the participants, John, says several times that while he can see how the project would interest people, he doesn't know that there's "any value" in it, a boggling comment to anyone who loves these movies. Those of us who've come to know John (or at least feel that we do - he and the others might contend that we only "know" Michael Apted's version of them) have come to expect him to make dismissive statements like these, but several of the others echo the sentiment as well. All I can think is that it's a defensive stance on their parts, that they could not bear to live their lives unselfconsciously without playing down the "value" of allowing them to be documented.
Tuesday, October 17, 2006
The Michigan Caribbean
Isn't it funny what fresh eyes and a little distance - or 10 or 20 years of distance - can do? Also on my late-summer Michigan visit, I took an afternoon trip to the Lake Michigan beach town where I spent many summer weekends in my youth. Unfortunately, it was that early-teen period of youth when I would much rather have been back in Chicago with my friends on weekends, so I didn't appreciate it much.
But on this visit, coming over the crest of a bluff down one of the lesser-known public access ways (no $10 parking fees here, thank you very much), the lakeshore looked like a little slice of heaven. I was stunned by how pristine, almost tropical, the beach and water looked.
Uncrowded, tranquil, this was just the kind of beach I'd been searching for up and down the coasts of Cape Cod. Heck, even the Caribbean! Isn't everyone searching for the perfect beach? The perfect stretch of white sand with hardly anyone on it, that goes on and on without interruption by some stupid resort or beach club, so you can walk for miles, just like in the promotional ads that drew you to that particular beach in the first place.
Look no further; it exists on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan. Just a tad bit colder maybe, and with slightly less exciting snorkeling.
This is the lighthouse pier, town icon and favorite destination for beach walks, as in, "Want to walk down to the pier?" It's always nice to have a destination.
Long before the low-rise jeans craze, this is where I witnessed my first plumber's crack, casually displayed by a dude fishing in the rain off the side of the pier. The image is seared in my memory. I was shocked and horrified: how could he not know what was happening? Somebody had to help this man!
Little could I guess that years later, for all women in America under the age of 25 this would be become the standard look in fashion. I guess South Haven always had a lot going for it, even back then.
Monday, October 16, 2006
I've been sitting on these pictures for weeks and weeks - I took a trip to Michigan late this summer to visit some family, and here are a few things we spotted as we took a reminscent stroll around the property. Needless to say my aunt and uncle's grandchildren love to go visit them there.
This is a peacock, eating my aunt's black-eyed Susans, much to my aunt's chagrin. A flock of about 30 of them freely wanders the property.
All the grand-daughters have big bunches of the tail feathers at home, and I, too, was sent home with a gorgeous sheaf of them (garnering me lots of attention at the Detroit airport). One of the peacocks likes to cross the road to visit the neighbor, who feeds him. (Why else would a peacock cross the road?) Though they mostly wander around independently, I'm told that when dusk falls they all wander back together and congregate in the big tree by the barn, where they roost for the evening. That's just where they like to be, come nightfall.
"What's that?" I asked my cousin, startled by the big white thing scuttling into the underbrush.
"Oh, just an albino peacock," she said dismissively. Then she noticed it had chicks with it, and took a little more interest.
Behind the house is a little ornamental fish pond that has, over the years, become a wonderland of amphibian life. (Once, years ago, it had a frog with a turquoise head living in it. We kids liked to imagine submitting pictures of it to National Geographic, or Ripley's Believe it or not - surely such a specimin deserved special attention.) A favorite activity of the grandchildren is frog-catching, though they also have the option of heading down to a bigger pond where the bluegills and sunfish are poised to gobble at their breadcrumb-loaded fishing lines.
This fellow was christened "Tiny Tim," which I suspect was not an intentional play on the name of its captor's rather tall father. Only one name really goes with "tiny," after all. He (the frog) was humanely ensconsed in a Tupperware of pond water until his later release.
The crown jewel of my uncle's Great Lakes menagerie would have to be the polar bear. Sorry, "Lost" fans, it is no longer living, but it still packs a nice punch for the unsuspecting. The barn is filled with taxidermied creatures, some purchased that way, some personally captured by the guys in the family, but this one, I believe, was procured from a local car dealership. The hair on its nose is worn away from years of fond petting from the children of prospective car buyers; otherwise, he is still quite majestic, if a little yellowed, and makes an excellent backdrop for family Christmas photos.
Look at my cousin, posing there in her running gear. She's not afraid! Albino peacocks, stuffed polar bears, whatever. It's all in a day's work on the farm.