McStepford: A lesson in Cool

11/15/2008 By Shawn Burns

One of Erin’s baby friends, whose name I will change to Froggy for no nefarious purpose but merely because he was dressed as a frog for Halloween last year, moved into the neighbourhood across the street a few months ago.

It is an intimidating neighbourhood. That is, when Froggy’s mom was greeted with welcome baskets of cookies and muffins and frankincense and myrrh she was also greeted with the ominous: "We go all out for Halloween here."

She wasn’t quite sure what to make of this, but she heard it over and over again from neighbour after neighbour: "We go all out for Halloween." Veiled behind this description was an instruction: "You will go all out for Halloween here."

"All out" meant decorating and giving out candy on an enormous, four Costco bags scale; no matter that Froggy is too young to go trick-or-treating himself: "Don’t disappoint the neighbours by failing to fully participate in Halloween." It meant that one family set up a haunted house, while another one was known as the "water station" for the parents, where "water" means "definitely not water." Playtime at the park with other families new to the area was filled with conversations beginning with "Have they come by to tell you about Halloween yet?"

As Halloween approached and the decorations and candy were purchased Froggy’s parents grew bored with the idea of answering the door every 30 seconds to dish out a handful of candy to the kids who were coming from all over (some were dropped off in cabs. I’m not joking.) Halloween can be tedious if you let it be. The neighbourhood’s reputation was built on opulence: impressive decorative displays and magnanimous distribution of candy. Froggy’s parents had the candy but the decorations weren’t keeping-up-with-the-Joneses. And they didn’t care. They were going to insert themselves into the neighbourhood and stamp it with their idea of fun rather than let the community mold them into the perfect McStepford household.

A table was set up on the front porch. A hand-scrawled sign was made that read "American Idol Auditions", and a toy microphone and speaker set were brought outside. And then, with the help of some friends who came over for the evening, Froggy’s parents played "American Idol" judges for hours and hours while forcing the kids in the neighbourhood to sing for their Costco candy. They stayed in character (Simon, Paula, and Randy) whenever there were kids around and the line to sing sometimes stretched down to the street.

You’d think the kids would have been shy. In fact, Froggy’s parents figured no one would sing and this experiment in scrounged conceptualization and personal enthusiasm would be an epic fail. But the kids sang.

The adults sang. The grandparents sang. The preschoolers sang. Even, toward the end of the evening, the teenagers. The self-conscious, easily embarrassed teens stepped out of their cocoons of faux-coolness to sing songs of their own choosing in front of total strangers, risking that fate worse than death to a teen: mockery. But just as the teens were uncharacteristically brave, so too were their contemporaries uncharacteristically joyous and encouraging. There was no room for cynicism on the porch.

Once, as one crowd of singers and groupies dissipated three figures materialized out of the darkness, stepping forward into the porchlight.

Figure 1: "You have done the neighbourhood proud."

Figure 2: "Very proud."

Figure 3: "Too proud."

All Together: "Ha. Ha. Ha."

Figure 1: "You have set the bar high for next year."

Figure 2: "Very high."

Figure 3: "Too high."

All together: "Ha. Ha. Ha."

And with that the Wyrd Neighbours cloaked themselves in darkness once again and returned to the "water" house.

Coolness, the teens realized and Froggy’s parents demonstrated, is what happens when you embrace even your meager resources with enthusiasm. It is giving a shit, completely, about what you give a shit about, not pretending that you don’t. It is not keeping up. It is remaining yourself, and thrusting yourself into the world, not like it belongs to you, but like you don’t belong to those around you.

Froggy’s parents offered the best, most enduring Halloween experience for everyone who came by, and it wasn’t because they spent the most on candy or decorations, but because they spent the most of themselves. And doing it because they thought it would be fun and hoping it would entertain the kids meant that even that cost was minimal: a little laryngitis the next day; a dead battery in the scrounged mic-and-speaker set.

Next year they’re going to make the kids dance too.