Saturday, February 16, 2008

Ordinary people leading extraordinary lives

Bullock and I had kind of a surreal afternoon yesterday. One of Bullock's colleagues -- a very nice man and one of my favorite people in Bullock's department, but not exactly a man known for hipness, even faded Boomer hipness that so many of our senior colleagues cling to -- invited us to his house for a command performance by the former lead singer of a '90s band with moderate national success and a huge regional following.

In their living room.

We had no idea what to expect and things got weirder from there.

First of all, let's establish some key characters and settings. Let's call Bullock's colleague Mr. Smith. And since the All Music Guide describes the '90s band's music and the singer's solo music as "bittersweet," let's just call him Mr. Bittersweet. (The title of the post, btw, is a line from one of his new songs.)

The setting was a 1928 tudor home in Professorville, the neighborhood that borders the Rust Belt U campus. (We live in the 1930s-era extension of that neighborhood, btw.) The house was really cool because Mr. and Mrs. Smith bought it from the original owner (no kidding!) and she hadn't done any major "improvements" to it, so many of its original features were still there, including the crystal chandelier in the dining room, glass door knobs, beautiful oak floors in pristine conditions (because former owner had covered them in carpetting), and those ceiling-mount crystal light fixtures that look like upside-down crowns. But most amazing of all were the drapes -- they still had the original drapes! And oh the quality of vintage fabrics! Mrs. Smith told me she had them cleaned onces by professional drapery cleaners, but they told her not to do so again because they might fall apart. But really, they looked as good as new. Or better than actual new drapes because they were real brocade in a subtle tone-on-tone shades of a luxe rosy gold. Normally I don't like that "old lady" style of drape -- the kind that has all those gathers at the top, has inner and outer layers, and hang from a utilitarian rod that comes out in a rectangular shape from the window -- but these drapes were clearly purchased by a woman of style and taste in the 1930s and they were simply gorgeous. Finally, even though the exterior was tudor in style, the interior reminded me of old Hollywood. In fact, it reminded me of my 1928 Spanish courtyard apartment building in LA, or what it must have looked like before the fixtures were cheaply replaced and the trim was painted over twenty thousand times, anyway -- all plaster walls and ceilings and dark wood trim, and a sunken living room with a beamed ceiling and a fireplace surrounded by built-in bookcase nooks with arched tops.

I tell you all of this about the setting because it really didn't seem like the kind of place where a '90s post-grunge indie rocker would give a command performance. Maybe Frank Sinatra would, but not Mr. Bittersweet.

But wait, it gets weirder.

When we arrived the party seemed almost entirely populated by close friends, family, and neighbors. And many of them were 30- and 40-somethings with kids ranging in age from infant to tween. And since the house, like many in this neighborhood, was built on a circular plan, the kids seemed constantly to run around and around from living room to dining room to kitchen to hall and back again, which made it seem like there were even more than the already 8 or 10 kids that were there.

Again, not exactly the setting you expect for Mr. Bittersweet's command performance.

The connection, btw, was Mr. Smith's son, who was friends with Mr. Bittersweet. They're both in their 30s, I think -- hence the 30-something families. And some of the kids were neighborhood kids who often play with the Smiths' grandkids. So it wasn't as random as it seemed. Still, it was odd.

And then some of the grad students from Bullock's department showed up, which he wasn't expecting, and which can instantly change the mood of a party depending on whether grad students and professors socialize. And Bullock's department isn't one of those that do.

And then I got kind of grilled by a guy who's in the local running club and leads the hashers club. He was trying to convince me to take up hashing, but frankly, I run to keep fit, so I'm not sure that adding beer to the activity is really what I want to do. (If you don't know what hashing is, here's the Wikipedia entry on the phenomenon. The fact that it has been flagged for tone seems appropriate to hashing in general.) And I'm going to out myself as a snob here, but this guy was weird even for runners, and runners are a weird bunch. I think I've seen him around at the races -- he often wears a rainbow wig and head-to-toe tie-dye. He's pretty typical of the former-frat-boy and/or oddball "craziness" of the hashing crowd. Plus the main reason why I haven't stayed involved in any Rust Belt running clubs (though I tried for one year to be involved in the local Road Runners) is that in this town everyone's been involved for 20+ years and I feel immediately like an outsider. It was different in SoCal where lots of people were new to the area. And no one ever wants to organize group *training* runs, which is what I think the whole social point of a club is. This one, though, just wants to organize the races. Well, I can go to the races then, without being in the club; I don't need the discount on the entrance fees.

Anywho, while I was trapped by Mr. Hasher, Bullock was trapped by Ed Begley, Jr.'s crazy libertarian twin who regaled Bullock with his plans to take over and remake the local Republican party by bringing in edgy youth and energy. (Seriously, he looked like Ed Begley, Jr.)

And then we briefly met Mr. Smith's neighbor and his son, both of whom are minor celebrities, having appeared on a national reality show that features families trading the female head of the household. If you watch that show, the neighbor has an unusual job in the fringes of entertainment and his son is following in his footsteps. Let's just say they're both puppeteers, even though that's not really what they do. I didn't see the episode -- I've only ever seen one (the famous one with the Christian and the Wiccan) -- but I hear that Mr. Puppeteer's temporary household partner didn't think he had a real job and made him interview for some corporate gig.

Mr. Puppeteer didn't stay long at the party, but Junior Puppeteer did and he entertained us with some close-up, um, puppetry. He was also wearing a baseball cap that said something along the lines "Puppetry by Junior." I say this not to make fun of him -- he was a sweet, polite kid, the kind who likes talking to grown-ups (and so I actually identified with him) -- but to marvel at his preternatural marketing acumen. I'm pretty sure the reason he stayed was not only because the music hadn't started but because he saw it as an opportunity to advertise himself to minor celebrities and grown-ups who might hire him for birthday parties. Indeed, Junior Puppeteer was vastly superior to the kid who left the bathroom door open while he pooped. And not just any bathroom -- the downstairs one next to the kitchen in a high-traffic hallway.

Finally Mr. Bittersweet, who'd arrived late in appropriate rock-and-roll fashion, settled in to sing. And the two tween girls settled in on the couch right next to him and giggled throughout his performance. I have to say Mr. Bittersweet was tall, dark, handsome, and scruffily rock-and-roll in a way that wouldn't usually satisfy the tastes of tweens enamored of Non-Threatening Boys, but he was also supremely sweet and patient with these girls, so perhaps that or his pretty, bittersweet songs charmed them. Or maybe they too were precocious children, already developing more teenage tastes. At any rate, I bet Mr. Bittersweet didn't expect a tween fan base. Of course, they weren't always giggling in that I-don't-know-what-to-do-with-these-emotions way, like screaming Beatles fans or their ilk. Sometimes they were just being silly, like when one of the two of them grabbed a breadstick and decided to "conduct" Mr. Bittersweet while he sang. Or the other hopped up, ran around the circular plan to the open hallway behind him and did a back-up dance behind him for all but him to see. That's where Mr. Bittersweet's supreme patience came into play. Sometimes he had a hard time keeping himself from laughing.

Meanwhile, as I was enjoying the performance -- pensive, bittersweet songs, prettily sung, generally do it for me, anyway -- one of the many kids came up behind where I was standing and wrapped himself around my leg. This was not exactly the usual kind of uninvited touching that sometimes happens at a rock show! Either this kid was an openly affectionate child or else he thought I was his mommy. She and I were both wearing dark brown tops and jeans, after all, and we both have long, dark, wavy or curly hair, so if you're only two feet tall and can't see up that high or distinguish subtle differences in types of clothing and hair yet, you might mistake the two of us from behind. So I patted him on the head and then he decided to crawl into grandma's (Mrs. Smith's) lap. At any rate, it was again a weird moment in a weird afternoon.

And the short performance ended, Mr. Bittersweet left, and so did Bullock and I, as we were meeting our friend Victoria and the Playwright -- who, btw, loosely know Mr. Puppeteer and Junior Puppeteer, it turns out -- so they could help us bring the dining room table top up from the basement workshop to the dining room, so Bullock can begin the dying and staining process. After which we had pizza while V's & P's toddler daughter ran around in circles in our circular-plan house. Why do they do that??


Anonymous said...

V's & P's toddler daughter ran around in circles in our circular-plan house. Why do they do that??

For the same reason that we'll be doing that when we have Alzheimer's.

(No, really -- Alzheimer's patients apparently love wandering in circles. It's one of the thing that differentiates Alzheimer's from other forms of senile dementia, I'm told.)

Dr. Virago said...

Well now I'm depressed. What seemed like an expression of joy and life may just be an expression of either a not fully developed brain or a deteriorating one. Great.

That is kind of fascinating, though.

On a random note, I love the fact that this post has been linked by a blog about 70s movies -- "ordinary people" being the key words. Weird.

Anonymous said...

It doesn't have to be that depressing. Children love it because it's the controlled unknown -- running away, leaving, but with the guarantee of return.

Presumably, Alzheimer's sufferers likewise.

Anonymous said...

OMG, I never watch that horrible show but caught the end when Puppeteer and Jr Puppeteer were on because they seemed so charming and the exchanged spouse was so narrow and judgemental. I had no idea it was taking place in Rust Belt. Your whole afternoon sounds surreal in a good way. Fun.

Anonymous said...

I walk in circles while talking on the phone, now that I have a kitchen with two open ends and a wall I *can* circle. Should I be worried?

Dr. Virago said...

Let's just go with the theory that walking in circles is somehow fun and/or comforting and/or pleasurable to people in all stages of maturity and brain development.

And like Meg suggests, it's all about the "fort-da" game -- or the exile and return motif!

And Virgo Sis, I can't believe you saw that episode! How funny!

The Pastry Pirate said...

Oh, your description of the house made me grieve all over again for my old house... sniff! And when I used to write about such things, I stumbled on the whole home concert circuit. It's actually very widespread and some fairly big names, esp. in folk and alt-rock, do it because they can sometimes make more $$ than dealing with a promoter, "real" venue, etc.

And another thing... an acquaintance of mine tried to talk me into hashing in an extreme hardball "you HAVE to do this you WILL love it" kinda way that creeped me out, so I really identified with your comments. And yeah, when I run, or ralk, it's to be alone with my thoughts and hopefully improve my health. Beer and a gaggle of obnoxiously social people just doesn't seem value-added to me...

Dr. Virago said...

doesn't seem value-added to me

Snort! You said "value-added"! Hee! I love to hate that phrase!

Anywho, yeah, the hashing thing seems way too cultish to me.

And I had no idea about the home concert circuit! Weird! Thanks for filling me in. Though I think this was just a "say 'hey' to some friends and do a pre-show warm-up" thing, since he sang only 3 or 4 songs and did have a show that night. But maybe it didn't seem so weird to him given the culture of it.