On the road again
I am taking a break from the meme for a few days while I’m on the road. I’m sure you’re all crying in your oatmeal.
It is 8:30 a.m. I am sitting in Cranky‘s apartment. Cranky and Baby J have gone for the day. The whole building seems to have gone for the day. This is as quiet as it gets in New York and I am enjoying it. Baby J is, if possible, even more fun than she was when I was here two months ago. She’s standing now and will sometimes go for a walk with you if you offer her your hand. She will put a death grip on your finger. She smiles easily and likes to play games like in which you look as much like an idiot as possible, which is what babies do best, I think. Many little piggies went to market this morning, but after a while, Baby J was only interested in them coming home. When I would start in on the toes, she would give me a “No, silly, you are doing it wrong” look and start scrabbling her little fingers up her own leg to show me the right way. It wasnt hard to follow her instructions, as she would keel over in a fit of giggles. That’s all the positive reinforcement I needed.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me backtrack to Sunday. So I’ve been interested in the Improv Everywhere events for some time. Mr. Spy doesn’t understand the attraction. But they just look so…joyous. So when I saw one was coming to Chicago, I started thinking about it. I had shown AJ some of the videos of previous events and he really wanted to go. I promised to take him before I knew I would be flying to New York the next day. I was going to cancel, but then it turned out to be such a beautiful day. So I said to hell with the packing, downloaded the instruction track onto both of our iPods and we hopped the train for the city.
We grabbed some takeout and ate in Millennium Park, the site of the event. We had been instructed to wear either a red, blue, green, or yellow shirt (AJ and I both went in blue). As we ate, we looked around to see if we could figure out who else was joining the event. It wasn’t hard. Mostly they were in pairs or groups in solid shirts of bright colors. Mostly they were in their twenties, although there were a few families and a couple of other mothers and children like AJ and I. After we finished eating under the shade of a tree near the Crown Fountains, we wandered over toward the plaza by the Bean sculpture, where we thought there would be the biggest crowd. At 1:30 on the dot, we hit play. AJ and I looked at each other and grinned. I could tell he liked the music. We shuffled through the crowds staring at each other and smiling. We looked at those without headphones. They had no idea that something was about to start. As far as they could tell, it was just another big crowd in front of a Chicago tourist attraction.
“Welcome to the Mp3 Experiment Chicago. My name is Steve and I’ll be your omnipotent voice today. Follow my instructions and we’ll have a pleasant time together.”
First he directed us in some deep breathing exercises. Most of the crowd stopped moving. Then we were directed to look around at the others to try to figure out who was part of the experiment. We all put our hands up so we knew for sure. Now the onlookers were starting to be aware that something was up. We stretched. “Stand as hard as you possibly can.”
About this point, AJ bumped his track and it wasn’t in the right place. We swapped MP3 players and I reset his track. We were instructed to point to our houses, then the South Pole, then Nicaragua. Now the crowd was starting to attract a crowd. We were instructed to hug someone wearing a different color shirt. Then we had to hug an inanimate object. AJ and I hugged a railing. Nearby, people were hugging bushes, trees, the Bean. We were then instructed to hug an animal, but we were unable to find one. AJ figured he was an animal, so he hugged himself and I hugged him.
On and on the instructions went, getting sillier and siller. We squared-danced with strangers and, after a while, we dropped to the ground and took a nap to a soundtrack of lullaby music. At one point we were instructed to walk around and then freeze in place for 1 minute. This was my favorite part, because AJ and I happened to freeze directly in front of some non-participants.
“What the hell is going on?”
“They’re all, like frozen!”
“It’s really creepy.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a non-participant wave a hand in front of a frozen person’s face. After about half a minute had passed, some of the non-participants who had been hanging on the edge of the crowd, began walking through the living statues, staring and pointing. We had become art. Then all of a sudden we unfroze and went back to what we had been doing. The bystanders were startled. After a beat, they laughed and cheered.
After a few more instructions, we were told to walk over to the lawn in front of the bandshell. There we made ourselves into a gigantic target organized by shirt color. First with green in the middle, then red, then blue on the outside. Then they asked red and green to switch places. Then we were to be a giant dartboard. The yellow shirts, still standing on the outside, were the darts. On cue, they plunged into the human target toward the bullseye.
Then we played a game of twister, touching elbows and feet of people in the color that was named on our soundtrack, and sitting down in place when we got out. We played the world’s biggest game of freeze tag, while Steve, the omnipotent voice, shouted out which color was “it.” Finally, we celebrated in slow motion, giving each other very slow high fives. As one of the few kids participating, AJ was very popular for high fives. Then it was over. We took off our headphones and strolled to the edge of the lawn. A group of people stayed in the middle and started dancing — square dancing, swing dancing. There was no more music. We stood and watched for a while, trying out the bystander role for a change, then strolled across the park to the Art Institute.
There were a couple of things I found interesting about the MP3 experiment. First, we went from being very fixed on other people — on identifying the participants, on wondering what was coming next — to being wrapped up in the moment. By the time of the freeze tag game, we were just having fun racing around the lawn. For me, more than AJ I suspect, it was really amazing just to run around and have fun playing a game without the self-consciousness that adulthood brings to such pursuits. Everybody was doing it and it was a blast.
The other thing that interested me, and this is my musicological side that doesn’t ever shut off, was the way music controlled the experience. In watching the video I posted yesterday (and I couldn’t watch very much — shaky video gives me motion sickness in a way that actual travel never does), I was struck by how different it looked than felt. That’s because we had a soundtrack that changed with each activity to reflect its motion — hoedown music for the squaredance, lullaby music for napping, a parody of the theme from Chariots of Fire for the final celebration. The music continued throughout. And it was the music that gave you a sense of being part of the group.
Afterwards, in the Art Institute, AJ wanted to be the Cruise Director. “I know where everything is now,” he said. He does. I liked seeing him take ownership of the museum. We go to this one a lot because a) it’s a wonderful museum and b) we both get in free, he for being under 14 and me because my university has an arrangement with the museum. He surprised me by wanting to look at the Japanese art, maybe because his class had studied Japan earlier in the year. We looked at the armour. We examined Flemish Renaissance paintings and all the fantastic and complex scenes contained therein. We looked at the furniture exhibit, where AJ, who has a very clear sense of design in his head, pointed out all the things he liked the best. And we went to an exhibit of Soviet era printing, which was more interesting than I expected. It’s always enjoyable looking at art through AJ’s eyes.
When we were done at the museum, we walked to the el and headed north to Mr. Spy’s mother’s house. AJ hadn’t been on the el in a long time, and he loved looking out the window although, when somewhere near Logan Square we saw a thick plume of black smoke billowing over some buildings, he asked me a bunch of questions about it and then leaned over and whispered in my ear, “I’m a little bit scared.” Fortunately, after we plunged through a tunnel and came out again, we couldn’t see it anymore. After a brief visit with Mr. Spy’s family, during which his mother took everything out of the refrigerator in an attempt to feed us things we didn’t wish to eat, we headed home and I started to panic in earnest about my trip. But I’ll save that story for another day. It’s nearly 10:00 and I’m still in my pajamas. I probably need to do something about that.