Fitting in is never easy, especially when you’re trying to squeeze yourself into a tightly-packed little community like Shady Glen.
At our first Shady Glen barbecue, adrift in a sea of unfamiliar faces, we wandered about unmoored until the Couple came over and introduced themselves. They seemed like a very nice couple. They escorted us around, introducing us to others, helping us fit in. Everyone seemed to know them, and like them, and we could certainly see why. Young, attractive and friendly, the Couple drew people to them. They made us feel like we might actually fit in here.
As we talked with the Couple, we learned they were building their dream house, a Tuscan farm house that, they took care to emphasize, would be real Tuscan, not one of those prefab stucco boxes with a few Tuscan features pasted on that masquerade as Tuscan these days. To ensure the utmost authenticity, they had traveled throughout Tuscany with their architect, examining numerous farm houses to ensure that their plans faithfully represented the archetype. No detail was too small for their attention.
While the Couple’s house took shape, they lived in a guest house on the property so they could monitor the construction, ensuring that every little task conformed exactly to the plans. And if it didn’t, they’d make the contractor rip it out and do it over again till he got it right. They even developed a new construction technique (or at least a new way of replicating an old technique) to achieve a certain effect with the stone.
Needless to say, this added months, then years, to their construction schedule, but if something’s worth doing, they’d say, it’s worth doing right.
This all seemed a bit much to me but, if you’re going to build your own house, I guess you might as well build what you want. And I have a soft spot for eccentric quests, so even if the Couple’s Tuscan house odyssey was a bit odd and vaguely off-putting, I cast an indulgent eye on their plans.
Turns out mine was a minority view. As we went about fitting in, meeting more of our new neighbors, we learned that the Tuscan house project pretty much rubbed everyone the wrong way. To the older residents, the Tuscan house’s look-at-me audacity embodied everything they hated about the Yuppies who’d taken over their community. To the other Yuppies, the Tuscan house’s huge size and insanely expensive craftsmanship diminished their own hard-won structure stature. And of course those in the stucco boxes masquerading as Tuscan houses resented everything about the project.
These complaints were typically murmured out of the Couple’s earshot, no one wanting to torpedo their relationship with such an otherwise engaging young couple.
The grumbling would have stayed underground if it hadn’t been for the Design Standards. Every house in Shady Glen must conform to the Shady Glen Design Standards as administered by the Shady Glen Design Review Committee, a standing subcommittee of the democratically-elected Board of Directors of the Shady Glen Homeowners Association. You cannot begin construction without the Committee’s approval, and the Committee will not approve your project until it ensures that every last detail satisfies the Design Standards.
The Tuscan house satisfied the Design Standards when it was first approved, but the Couple’s unceasing quest for perfection drove them to continually tinker with the design And each time they changed the plans, they had to obtain a waiver from the Committee.
At first the Committee routinely granted the waivers, but as the neighborhood grumblings grew, the Committee toughened, suddenly finding obstacles where none had been before, sticking to the letter of the Design Standards, refusing to bend an inch in the couple’s direction. The Couple’s vision of perfection now receding, they held fast, arguing and appealing and lobbying and doing everything in their power to change the Committee’s mind or, failing that, change the Committee’s composition.
If you believe the Couple, the Committee was out to destroy their dreams. If you believe the Committee, the Couple was out to destroy the Design Standards, and therefore the community. Whatever, all I know is the Couple allegedly went ahead and changed their plans without Committee approval, the Committee slapped a stop work order on the project, the Couple allegedly attempted to defy it by restarting work, the Committee levied a heavy fine and barred the Couple’s contractors at the gates, the Couple hired a big time lawyer, and both sides ran to court.
Homeowner litigation is routine in Shady Glen, practically a required element of any construction project, so it’s usually a ho-hum-who-cares kind of thing here. This time, though, it was different.
Residents took sides. Most already hated the house, so they followed the case closely, rooting for the Committee to squash the Couple. Meanwhile, the Couple’s high-powered attorney uncovered a few alleged problems with the Design Standards, and the Committee’s prior administration of said Design Standards, and the canny Couple used this to assemble a coalition of aggrieved residents recently squashed by the Committee, offering them sweet payback (both figuratively and, in the case of those who’d paid fines, literally).
For months, every conversation began with “Whose side are you on?” It was pretty much all anyone talked about here.
Anyways, to make a long story a little less long, the Couple won. The Board was forced to amend the Design Standards. The Committee was forced to return a few years’ worth of fines. And the Shady Glen Homeowners Association was forced to reimburse the Couple for their substantial legal costs.
The Homeowners Association is ordinarily overly solvent, swimming in so much excess cash it could easily absorb these costs. This time, though, the Board decided to levy a special assessment on every homeowner to pay these costs, taking care in their letter to inform us that our hard-earned money was being funneled straight into the Couple’s pockets. If you don’t like it, the letter said, tell the Couple.
This hard-ball tactic turned a number of fence sitters against the Couple, further isolating them. The Wife was banned from her book club. The Husband was no longer welcome at the Saturday morning basketball game. The Kids were no longer automatically invited to birthday parties.
But at least they could finally finish their house, which they did. As they house neared completion, they planned a housewarming party to end all housewarming parties, an incredibly special one-of-a-kind celebration up for their incredibly authentic one-of-a-kind Tuscan house. And, not incidentally, a perfect opportunity to reward their allies, snub their enemies and maybe convert a few fence sitters.
As fence sitters, we were invited. Most of our new friends weren’t. We decided to go anyways, figuring it might be fun and at the very least we’d get to see the house that started it all.
All you need to know about the party is: (1) The house was, indeed, incredible, (2) in case anyone failed to notice that the house was incredible, they hired docents to lead tours of their incredible house and (3) as a parting gift, we were each given a professionally-produced DVD that documented the construction of their incredible house in loving detail, complete with a deep-voiced narrator, multiple camera angles, slick animated titles, background music that sounded vaguely Tuscan and gauzy close-ups of the Couple that blurred away all blemishes.
It’s been a couple of years since the housewarming party to end all housewarming parties, but my jaw still drops when I contemplate the sort of mind that hires a team of architecturally-trained docents to lead tours of one’s new house. Can you imagine? They must have spent hours working with the docents, walking them through the house, pointing out all the hidden details, quizzing them to be sure they correctly recalled the precise type of stone used in the patio or the age of the dining room chandelier.
And that DVD! It’s slicker than anything I’ve ever seen on HGTV. More than that, though, I’m blown away by a mind that would decide, before construction has even begun, “Hey, let’s hire a video crew to follow us along, preserving our project for posterity, and then we can give it to our neighbors as a cherished keepsake of our greatness.” My mind reels.
Sure, I fancy myself a connoisseur of the absurd, and I chose to live in an absurd little community, but c’mon, even I have my limits. This was way beyond absurd. It was simply too much, even for a jaded absurd-watcher like me.
The Couple lost a lot of supporters that night. And, even worse, their DVD was the comedy hit of the summer, circulating throughout Shady Glen to much mirth and merriment, all at their expense. It was so over-the-top, you just had to laugh. They lost whatever respect we ever had for them. They became jokes.
So when, the other day, I flipped absentmindedly through one of those gossipy glossy magazines celebrating local consumption and celebrities, the sort they bulk mail to high income zip codes, and I saw an article entitled “Under a Tuscan Sun in Los Angeles,” I can’t say I was all that surprised to discover it was an eight-page paean to the Couple and their house.
Supposedly shot at an afternoon party, the piece consisted of page after page of pictures of the Couple and their beautiful friends enjoying gourmet Tuscan treats in their incredible Tuscan retreat, all with a perfection that could only be stage-managed by a publicist. Was it intended as a beacon to lure us back to them? If so, it didn't achieved the desired effect. For as I examined the captions, I realized that none of their guests resided in Shady Glen. Not one. If the Couple had hoped to rehabilitate themselves in Shady Glen, they should have invited a few Shady Glen residents, just enough to make the rest of us jealous enough to let bygones be bygones in the hopes of getting invited next time. (Yes, we’re really that shallow.)
Instead, the article confirmed the Couple’s complete isolation from the rest of us, a situation that is unlikely to change anytime soon, for who among us would ever want it known that we associate with pariahs? (Yes, we’re really that shallow.) Isolation isn’t so bad – I, for one, generally prefer it – but for two charismatic people who’ve devoted their lives to being the center of attention, it must be hell.
It’s a shame, for they seemed like a nice enough couple, especially at that first barbecue when they ushered us around, starting us on our quest to fit in just as they started their quest to fit out.