My boyfriend makes elf ears. Long, pointy, flesh-colored things you can slide over the tips of your real ears when you pretend to be a goblin or fairy or your favorite Lord of the Rings character. His name is Paul Bielaczyc, BS’02, MS’04, and he makes these ears with his brother in an East Nashville studio, along with noses and foreheads, masks and scars — basically, any costume prosthetic you can imagine. And while I always have a good outfit on Halloween because of him, every time I tell people what he does, I am faced with blank stares and confused, sometimes horrified, expressions.
“Elf ears?” someone will say at a cocktail party. “What on earth are those?” I find myself at a lot of cocktail parties these days, talking to people I don’t know because I’m supposed to learn how to network. I’m 25 now, four years out of college, and my social life is slowly migrating from two-for-one drink specials to wine-and-cheese night at someone’s Pottery Barn-themed apartment.
The small talk at these soirees is always the same: big, friendly smiles, enthusiastic head nods, and superficial discussions about things I don’t actually care about. If I mention my boyfriend in conversation, my new acquaintance will ask a few perfunctory questions about our relationship. How long have Paul and I been dating (six years), how did we meet (as undergrads at Vanderbilt), and what does he do for a living? And that’s when things get interesting.
No one responds to the mention of elf ears with a nod and a smile, the way they do when the answer is “lawyer” or “accountant” or any other one-word job description. Sometimes I wish I didn’t have to explain Paul to everyone I meet. “He makes fake wounds and gashes?” I imagine someone saying at a party. “How interesting–so do I!” But this never happens. Paul has the prosthetic bullet-wound and exposed brain-bits market all to himself.
Over the years I have perfected my description of Paul’s job. He owns his own company, I tell people. It’s called Aradani Studios. He started it with his brother. First it was ears, but then they moved on to other prosthetics, then costume jewelry and customized weapons like flails and maces. Last summer they hired a seamstress to sew made-to-order costumes. They don’t have a storefront, but they do have employees who travel to conventions and festivals for them, and sometimes they travel themselves. Oh, they’re also artists who illustrate fantasy books.
The conversation usually ends there, punctuated by an awkward silence that hangs in the air one second too long before someone decides to change the subject. But sometimes I’ll see a spark of recognition in a person’s face–usually a man’s–and he will say, “What kind of fantasy books?” And that’s when I throw out the terms Paul has taught me: Dragonlance. White Wolf Publishing. I don’t know what these words mean, but I say them cheerfully and forcefully, the way my father taught me to recite “vice president of the financial division” when I was in first grade and had to do a report on what my parents did for a living.
“Dragonlance?” the closeted geek will ask. He will look at me with wide eyes, and suddenly I’ll realize that I’m facing a man who wants nothing more than to drop out of business school and play Dungeons and Dragons all day. “I love Dragonlance! What did he do for them?”
“I dunno,” I’ll reply. “I think he drew a horsey?”
The truth is, I don’t really know what Paul does. I see his drawings and look at his latest ear molds, but I don’t know which piece of artwork is sold to which company. And because I’m not interested in sci-fi or fantasy–I’m more of the shoe-shopping, America’s Next Top Model-watching type of girlfriend–I really have no idea why he’s so upset when he comes home from work in a bad mood because 20-sided dice wouldn’t glue onto a flail.
“What’s a flail?” I will ask, or “Why are you gluing dice onto it?”
That’s when Paul will turn to me with a look of mild pity, as if I’d just asked him to explain how to ride a bicycle. “A flail is a type of medieval weapon. I’m gluing dice onto it because then geeks will want to buy it.”
“Oh, like a Bedazzler!” I’ll reply. “For the type of people who cover their cell phones in pink rhinestones. I get it.”
Sometimes when I explain Paul’s profession, one of the closeted geeks will be so enthusiastic that he’ll get other party guests interested, too. I’ll find myself surrounded by people in khaki pants and Old Navy performance-fleece pullovers. They will stare at me like zoo visitors before a baboon exhibit, trying desperately to comprehend a job that allows employees to wear chain mail instead of blue jeans on Casual Friday. “Where does he make his products?” one of them will ask. “What’s his job title?” “Who buys them?” “How did he get the idea?” “How many ears have they sold?”
The answer to that last question is 25,000 pairs. Thanks to Aradani Studios, 25,000 people now know the joy of latex prosthetic elf ears. And that’s not even counting the customers who buy other products like noses and foreheads and vampire fangs. Paul and his brother even sell furry faun pants to people who want to dress like Mr. Tumnus from the Chronicles of Narnia movie. Of course, those who wish to look like a wardrobe closet are still better off going to Ikea.
When they’ve satisfactorily investigated the business side of the elf-ear endeavor, the next thing people want to know is how it affects me. I look so nice and normal, they think–am I really dating a man who owns his own set of leather armor?
“Well, he doesn’t wear it,” I tell them. “It’s for decoration.”
I do find Paul’s profession strange, but it’s a familiar kind of strangeness, something that makes sense to me but is hard to explain to others, sort of like telling a foreigner why our democratic political system keeps electing people named Clinton and Bush.
My boyfriend likes his job, so I like it, too. I don’t care that he sells costumes to sweaty-palmed World of Warcraft fanatics who smell faintly of microwavable burritos, if he doesn’t mind making small talk with someone in chinos who has a strong opinion on shiraz versus pino grigio.
In fact, I try to have as little contact with Paul’s customers as possible. I used to attend the occasional convention with him–even I found the prospect of meeting the original Chewbacca interesting–but after a former Star Trek actor hit on me without wearing pants, I decided that the scene was not for me.
Most of my visits to Paul’s conventions have gone smoothly, but one particular trip stands out in my mind. My boyfriend is a friendly person, very animated and enthusiastic about his work, and his energy is infectious. One day he talked to another festival worker–a large woman who wore leather gauntlets as part of her everyday outfit–and she decided that she would try to steal him from me. Musketeer-like and clutching a sword, she challenged me to a duel. I’m a fairly wimpy person–I can’t play poker because I’m too stingy to make a bet–and there was no way I’d be able to beat a woman who owned her own saber. So I ran away.
Other times, I’m the one who looks like an idiot at the conventions. Most attendees are there for one reason–because they are extreme fans. They spend hundreds of dollars on obscure memorabilia, dress up in costumes of their favorite characters, and fawn all over the celebrities who attend the conventions. The celebrity guests expect to be recognized and adored by these fans, but because they’re usually B-grade actors from sci-fi or fantasy movies, I have no idea who they are. I once held an entire conversation with the man who voices Space Ghost on the cartoon television show, and when I finally found out who he was, I said, “Oh. That’s nice,” and wandered away. Only later did Paul tell me that the actor was the convention’s guest of honor.
I have similarly embarrassed myself in front of Star Trek actors, Battlestar Gallactica characters, and the guy who played Hercules on that horrible USA television show by the same name. The only convention guest I’ve ever been excited to meet was LeVar Burton, the blind guy with the visor on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Burton came to the convention because of Star Trek, but I wanted to meet him because he hosted Reading Rainbow. I waited in line for an hour, behind hundreds of people clutching Star Trek DVDs, books and action figures they wanted autographed. When it was my turn to meet him, I shook the actor’s hand and said, “Thank you, Mr. Burton. I really admire the way you read Angelina Ballerina.”
These are the stories I tell at cocktail parties, and if I’m lucky, I inspire laughter instead of awkward silence. When I moved to New York City last August to attend journalism school at Columbia University, I wasn’t sure how to explain my boyfriend to my new acquaintances. On the one hand, New York is full of weirdos, and Paul’s career is almost boring compared to the man in my building who makes his living by dressing up like the Statue of Liberty and selling knickknacks to tourists. On the other hand, Columbia is a fancy institution, full of fancy people who wear fancy clothes and do fancy things like win Pulitzer Prizes. Would Pulitzer Prize winners care about the guy who hosted Reading Rainbow?
As it turns out, the answer is yes. Not only do Pulitzer Prize winners like Reading Rainbow, but they love elf ears. I’ve already hooked up one classmate with a pair of her own ears, and other people have asked to interview Paul and his brother for articles. Even if no one else takes advantage of my Halloween costume connections, at least I’ll have something to talk about the next time I find myself at a cocktail party.
When people ask about Paul’s educational background and how he developed the skills to follow such a bizarre, unraveled career path, I tell them he learned it at Vanderbilt. He learned about sculpture in his undergraduate studio art classes, and sometimes he crafts 3-D models of his drawings using the Maya animation software he learned in graduate school.
I keep telling Paul he should hang his Vanderbilt diplomas on the walls of his booth, right between the orc mask and the Legend of Zelda shield. When his elf-ear sales finally hit 30,000, he can look up at the diplomas and see how far he’s come. At least his master’s degree in computer science was good for something.
© 2015 Vanderbilt University
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