Kevin (erf_) wrote,

engineers by day

Rob and Anna Kirkenhof are definitely worth a post in themselves.

At first glance they appear to be your typical late thirtysomething, upper middle class Bay Area engineer couple. Anna creates, designs, and tests medical devices--defibrillators and other such lifesaving machines. Rob does metrics, scam detection, and all sorts of other crazy math stuff for an adult dating site--one you are likely already familiar with if you have ever sent received a file via MegaUpload or Rapidshare and been startled by a short video of a leggy blonde in a plaid short skirt, loudly welcoming you and any friends and co-workers within earshot to a site that is, um, clearly not MegaUpload or Rapidshare. I think they are both Harvey Mudd grads. Like most engineers I've met, they are staid, easygoing, rational people, the kind of folk you'd make small talk with around the water cooler, always up for some interesting conversation about mathematical theorems or the effects of vitamins on your diet, occasionally voicing their frustration with bureaucracy or other vocational obstacles. They live comfortably in a fairly large Pacific Lodge-style house (affectionately known as Alpine Butterfly Lodge, or ABL) with their friends Dylan, a PhD student, and Dawn (Cormac's girlfriend), another health care technology engineer. To many people, undoubtedly, they are just Rob and Anna from work. In their affable confidence they seem no different from the plethora of other technocrat post-yuppies who made some smart career moves early on and now enjoy a pleasant, comfortable yoga-and-organic-vegetables lifestyle.

Which is pretty much the impression I had of them until I wandered into their home library, browsing through meticulously labelled hardwood shelves filled end to end with fantasy and sci-fi novels, and saw the naked Harry Potter photos.

There is really no non-awkward way to ask about those. "Um," I inquired, one night, as Rob came in to check up on me. "That framed photo up there."

Rob stroked his scraggly, Rasputin-like beard, his balding forehead creasing. "Yeah?"

"Is that you and Anna? On broomsticks? Playing Quidditch in the moonlight? Naked?"

A deep smile spread across his face. "Oh, yes," he said. "One of Anna's proud contributions to the medium of fanart."

It turns out that being a software engineer at an adult dating site and being a research engineer at a medical devices company, slightly-above-mundane as those professions are, is enormously beneficial to doing awesome weird shit. They're great for, say, meeting people who have professional photo editing expertise and wouldn't be squeamish about posing nude. Or acquiring industrial materials, professional expertise, and access to expensive equipment to make Hollywood-quality props for extremely high-production-value fanart photography.

"This," I said, letting it sink in. There was another photo composited to look like the Hogwarts coat of arms, featuring the four current residents of the house, artistically contorting their bodies to look like the mascots for Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw, Slytherin. "Did you...These look really professional. How much did you pay to have these taken?"

"Took them ourselves," beamed Rob. "I think we did that one at Burning Man."

"That's..." I let my hands fly circles around the dangling end of the sentence, searching in vain for a place to land. "Holy shit. That's awesome."

And then I noticed the robots.

Some well-read people, having acquired both a large number of books and the means to display them, will decorate their bookshelves with plaster busts of philosophers or squadrons of ceramic angels. Indeed, there were a few of those scattered about. When you are Rob and Anna, you don't worry about having to procure just the right object to pretty up your shelves. You rummage through your pile of objects, and squee when you finally have somewhere to put them.

On the tops of each shelf, agleam in the halo of a tasteful warm-orange handmade lamp, were about three dozen transparent plastic bottles, spray-painted gold, with camera parts, laser guns, and manipulator arms coming out of them. Done poorly, the display would have just looked like some elementary school arts and crafts table. But framed atop that fancy bookshelf, with the paint meticulously layered across each robot in a perfect coat of sun-bronze (not a single missed or lumpy or drippy spot), it was unmistakably art.

"We had a robot-making party," explained Rob casually. "They were props, actually."

"For a movie?"

"...Not really." He stroked his beard thoughtfully. "It'd probably be easier to explain if I just showed you. Come upstairs."

Okay. You know how a lot of Obies, including a few who aren't artists by vocation, are artists by nature? The kind of people who are always making stuff, even if it has no intended semiotics or purpose--swishy skirts with bandoliers, lampshades sewn together from old dresses, tables wearing three-legged jeans, that kind of thing. Asking those people why they do it, even if they have an interesting answer, is entirely missing the point. Artist's statements and museum blurbs are all well and good, but ultimately, art needs no excuse. Sometimes stuff is just asking to be made.

Rob and Anna are that kind of artist. And the second story of ABL is rife with that kind of stuff.

Imagine a bar. Rows of never-opened bottles against a mirrored wall, neon signs, pool table, stained-glass Budweiser lampshades, spinny round button seats, the works. Add a homemade whiteboard Wheel of Fortune, for which every value points to a creature to the Chinese zodiac, with no other label or explanation. Imagine there is an enormous quilt made of high school t-shirts folded up on the floor, where it makes a tasteful seat, and anime wallscrolls--handmade anime wallscrolls--of Catholic saints hanging, cathedral-like, at regular intervals off the walls. Imagine that there is a spot of carpet by the staircase on which a bespectacled, reclining thirtysomething woman is reading a LiveJournal superhero slash community on the monitor of her iMac. Imagine that there is a closet off to the side of this room with more original handmade costumes than a small theater company, or perhaps a tiny anime convention.

Are you imagining a neurotic-art clutterground like Goodbye New Monday, that bookstore/bar/coffeehouse in Brooklyn with the dead Atari 2600s nailed to the wall? Good. Now imagine that, at some point during their lives, the owners of this bizarre space got so used to making weird stuff that they learned to build their living space around it with the same taste in composition that produced the weird stuff in the first place, and now, still thinking of all that cool art stuff, imagine that it has all been arranged in that tiny little room tastefully. Like, post-IKEA or museum-exhibit tastefully, in the way that a simple vase on a pedestal both projects that warm homey feeling, with no clutter and plenty of wide open space, and makes you go oooooooooh.

Can't imagine it anymore, can you. Neither could I, had I not seen it. If I ever get so comfortable with the cool shit I make that I could go, "Oh, hey, that goes in the manuscripts tree, over the sculptures carousel," I will probably experience the contented reverse of a midlife crisis.

Now imagine, in this impossible space, that a tall, balding, somewhat awkward-looking late-thirtysomething geek dude comes up the stairs (which are in the center of the room), pecks his wife on the cheek, and reaches into a little wooden desk and pulls out a huge green hardback volume of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy For Serious People, as republished by a vanity press. Now imagine that you flip it open and it is a photo comic full of naked people.

Not artsy naked people like in the Harry Potter pictures, mind you. Full-color, glossy, professionally composited shots of fucking naked people.

"You made a pornographic fumetti adaptation of a hundred-year-old literary classic," I exclaimed.

"Not strictly an adaptation," corrected Anna. "It's all in there. We didn't change a single word of the original text."

And, indeed, they hadn't. Some of the sexual tension was a bit of a stretch, and they clearly read into the text at places where they felt it would be hilarious, but it was intelligent, witty, and occasionally even brilliant, convincing even where its interpretation was...unconventional, to say the least. (CECILY/GWENDOLYN OTP) The actors were not porn stars, but random friends of Rob and Anna, which lent an air of authenticity to the performance. There was none of the airbrushing and vamping and pouty glances you'd expect from a more San Fernando Valley-esque attempt at a project like this, just a bunch of average-looking thirtysomethings having delightful chats over tea and blowjobs. And the sheer absurdity of a cast of average-looking local theater actors and post-dotcom boom Silicon Valley types, half-dressed in Victorian garb, discussing social niceties while banging each other in the ass, was clearly not lost on anyone involved. For all of Anna's impressively faithful period costumes, elaborate sets, and high-production photography, there is a lot of smirking and exaggerated surprise going on, as if the entire thing was shot at the Facebook album for a professional photographer's favorite orgy--a general feel of "Oh dear! This gentleman has just claimed my virtue. I fear a hysterical paroxysm is forthcoming! " There were moments that were just there for the sake of the lulz, like a full three pages of Gwendolen fingering herself at the beginning of Act 3 before the first stage direction or line of dialogue is ever delivered. (I asked Rob about this part, who tersely answered, "Character development.")

Oscar Wilde would have loved Rob and Anna's version of this book. He is, indubitably, masturbating in his grave.

"I firmly believe, as I've told you before," I said between fits of giggling as I flipped through the book, "that art needs no excuse. Which is why I feel bad about asking this question, but considering the impressive time, expense, and effort that obviously went into this thing, and the unlikelihood of you ever even breaking even selling it, it needs to be asked anyway: Why?"

Rob shrugged. "We thought it would be funny."

In an RPG classification scheme for the rarity of items, this would be an Artifact Masterwork of erotic fanart. Just brushing the spine with your fingertips, you can almost feel the immense creative energy of the contained absurdity within seeping through its ironic gold-lettered, clothboard-bound cover. Only a couple dozen copies of this book exist, and I can totally see it becoming a rare and treasured exhibit in some future fanart museum. You can apparently buy one of the remaining unsold copies this thing off, if you know where to look (EDIT: Buy it here!), but, of course, they didn't do it for the money.

And this work--as impressive as it is--is but a vapor-swoon daydream compared to their less pornographic (yet still not even remotely safe for work) magnum opus, a post-apocalpytic fumetti interpretation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The product of a one-year sabbatical, Anna saved up some money and left her job just so she could work on this unprecedented tour de force of wtfery. It's so enormous it's difficult to describe, and still unfinished (the sabbatical was in 2009), but judging from the rough proof it has the potential to be the Sistine Chapel of weird fandom postmodernism. The framing story involves Ash from Evil Dead in a zombie apocalypse, and the framing story around that involves a robot elementary school! (Hence the golden robot props in Rob and Anna's library.) Gawain is decked out in a metal safari hat helmet and a custom-built suit of chain link fence chain mail, and wields a hubcap battleaxe! The Green Knight's country is a post-apocalyptic Hispanic/Chinese Neo-Californian empire! All the animals are naked people in body paint, including the deer, who is slaughtered gruesomely in faithfulness to the original poem, which describes how to gut a carcass in graphic detail. All the servants are dressed in bondage gear! There is just no end to the weirdness. It is SO COOL.

And, of course, since Anna is a slasher, Gawain is gay. Which explains why he so easily turns away all those irresistible women, and why, when the Green Knight rewards him with a kiss, he does it with his mouth open. And why a line that basically goes "And the lads took him up to his quarters for the night" becomes a photo of him lying naked in bed with two pantsless young men.

('Nother edit: The project has a webpage, if you wish to see it for yourself.)

I've had the pleasure of talking to Rob and Anna maybe a dozen times since I got here. They're a far cry from all the crazy, frustrated, not-yet-burnt-out twentysomething creative types, with nothing to lose and everything to prove. They're also not those sad post-midlife-crisis types going into creative pon farr in a desperate attempt to get back in touch with their younger selves. They're grownups. Rather than trying to strike a balance between adult responsibilities and artistic bohemian insanity they have created a powerful synergy between the two, with their water cooler day jobs and their amazing bizarre art feeding off of each other. We talked a lot about random Wikipediesque stuff--healthy eating, the Pigeonhole Principle, cardiac defibrillation--and geek stuff, like new board games and Internet culture--and mundane everyday stuff, like chocolate milkshakes and office toys. We sat down with Dylan and played Arkham Horror a couple nights. One evening Rob brought out a vacuum chamber Anna had built (silica gel and transparent plastic cylinders are apparently easy to come by in her line of work) and blew up some marshmallow peeps. It was awesome.

Turns out that even geeks can age with dignity. :D

Anna and Rob are a very special breed. They are geeks, but not just geeks; they are bohemians, but not just bohemians; they are that rare middle ground between the two to which I aspire. When they play a board game, they are not playing the board game as children do; they are playing it as adults, the same way other adults would play poker or drink whiskey. When they produce a piece of art, they are not being ravaged Exorcist-like by their muses, but, having been there, are carefully and methodically making stuff with the expertise that comes from years of practice. They are essentially, dear friends, you and I. You and I, plus fifteen years, if we never stop doing what we are doing, and instead get so good at it that it just feels like the most natural thing in the world. Not something to be nostalgic about, not something you describe with the adjective "young and stupid." Something you do now, and, in fact, do better than you did when you were younger, now that you have the benefit of maturity and experience. Practicedly, authoritatively, adeptly blowing up marshmallow peeps, with all of the confidence and finesse of a high school chemistry teacher--with not one less iota of that same giddy excitement.

Sometimes, the best way to leave behind childish things is to simply let them grow up with you.

The great tradeoff of maturity is a false dichotomy. You can wear a tie to work, and, when you get home, weave it into an octopus and videotape it being lit on fire in your bathtub. The very next day, wearing a new tie to work, you are no less dignified and professional than you were the day before. And when you set it on fire again the following night, you are no less an artist than you were in the time in between. What matters, far more than whether you choose to spend your adult life playing with toys or going to fancy cocktail parties, is living your lifestyle well enough that you are completely at ease with who you are and what you are doing. And I think the problem with my view of maturity, as well-developed as it is from meeting dozens of unhappy, disillusioned older people, their hearts heavy with too-bads and what-ifs, is that until I met Rob, Anna, and the other denizens of ABL, I had never met anyone who had actually gotten to that point. Graduating from college didn't stop them from being who they are. Finding office jobs didn't stop them from being who they are. Getting married didn't stop them from being who they are. Having kids probably wouldn't stop them from continuing to be who they are. (Certainly it didn't stop some of the actors in their books--oh, geez, I pity the child who flips through one of these and witnesses the moment of his or her own conception.)

The next time someone reflects fondly upon all the wacky creative shit they did when they were young, and I ask, "What happened?" and they say, "I grew up," I am going to call bullshit.

When I grow up, I know who I want to be.
Tags: cupertino saga, essays
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