On Ye Olde Ren Faire and Nerdery At Large

I started out high school wearing, most days, a black denim jacket embroidered with a white mask and the words “The Phantom of the Opera.” Yeah. This fact still makes me blush. I was aware that my love of musicals wasn’t cool. Somehow I liked that jacket more than I wanted to be cool.

If you admit that you’re a comics fan standing in line with friends for a Batman movie, that’s one thing. Whipping out a comic in full view of the jocks at the high school cafeteria, that’s something else. Or at least, in the days before ComicCon had quite so many velvet ropes, it used to be something else. It takes a different kind of—what, courage? perverse and willful personal commitment?— to fly in the face of social norms, to follow your bliss despite a certain knowledge that you will be scorned. You have to admire the Ren Faire crowd for its total dedication to bloomers.

Once I ditched the Phantom jacket, I kept a lot of enthusiasms to myself in high school. I spent long hours measuring the exact distance between me and Samantha Mathis in Pump Up The Volume, but I never really went there.

Sometime sophomore year, the “Advanced Vocal Ensemble”  went to the Renaissance Faire. I don’t think we were being paid to sing, just officially tolerated. We were asked to dress like “wenches.”

In the parking lot, amidst a sea of unassuming sedans and station wagons, we waited for our choral director to figure out the parking brake on the van. Meanwhile, a couple stepped out of a hatchback nearby and began to change into their costumes. There, in the parking lot, they transformed from a couple in khakis and jeans into a Tudor queen and her consort. They stepped into royal blue velvet starred with silver. The queen had a bristling collar that made her neck spring like a stalk from a severe, toothy flower. I remember I found it odd that The Queen didn’t get a dedicated parking space.

But she wasn’t The Queen. She was just another noblewoman, one of many noble women who belonged to the many clans that paraded around the grounds in matching finery, announcing their arrival to the Rayban-wearers and the dust. She wasn’t staff. She was just an enthusiast.

That parking lot in Vallejo was my first encounter with a particular brand of DIY Bay Area nerdery and enthusiasm, a force that, in its most severe form, reshapes lives and sucks people into “alternative lifestyle” vortices of infighting, romantic obsession, kitchen-planning and artistic creation. I learned much more about this through Burning Man, years later.

The Advanced Vocal Ensemble assembled by a fountain where more authentic-looking wenches were washing clothes. With washboards. In muddy water. None of these people, mind you, was being paid. The clothes probably weren’t really getting washed, either, but note the dedication implicit in those washboards. We sang for a bit, and then we were turned loose upon the Faire. No one carded us at the mead stall. The enormous turkey drumsticks were cheap and plentiful. Everyone around us, it seemed, spoke in a pastiche of Monty Python jokes, Shakespearean English and Quaker pronouns. Thy ladyship, what wouldst thou have me do with this, thy spent and bloody paper plate?

A young man called out to me from a balcony. I can’t, for the life of me, remember our exchange. I snapped something back at him. He dropped to his knees and proposed. For all I know, he did that to every girl who walked by. But I was hooked. This remains half of the appeal of the Ren Faire, it seems: Heavy quipping with the inviting frankness and the protective equal opportunity approach of archaic gender norms.

Later, on a visit after the day of wenchy singing, I spent my entire allowance on a tarot card reading. The gypsy, in her orange-blossom scented clothes, may not have predicted my future but she read something in me with great precision. She invited me to sit behind her table. I reclined, cosseted, in heaven, while she talked crystals and energies with a small group of psychic friends. She gave me piece of pink quartz in a purple velvet sac that I could wear around my neck. I knew some of the cards, at the time. She offered to let me apprentice with her. I still have that piece of quartz. I couldn’t yet drive or really pay for more costumes or for repeated entries to the Faire, and I never saw her again. My Ren Faire affair was mostly long distance. But in my heart, I went back every weekend.

On our visit this week,  I saw a woman in proto-vaudevillean make-up caressing the pectoral muscles of a teenager in an Ultimate Fighting t-shirt and baseball cap. Someone tried to pull her away. “Begone! I’ve found me a favorite!” she cried. A man selling leather pouches tried to provoke my husband by grabbing my hair and pulling me in for a kiss. It remains unsubtle, Ren Faire flirting.

This time around, I almost bought a handmade, bustled dress in oriental blue silk, with heavy pewter clips on the corset. It struck me as both exotic and pleasantly period-ambiguous. When I was fifteen I had no disposable income to speak of. I can’t remember how much of an outdoor mall it was back then. My general impression of the change in the Ren Faire was that now, there are more tribal cat-people, more Midde Eastern harem-style costumes, a bit more steampunk, and a LOT more Pirates of the Caribbean. It was like Johnny Depp had populated the Tudor Renaissance with his clones.What up with all the pirates?

As a reporter, I used to spend a lot of time covering nerds: MIT computer whizzes who lived in a Star Trek themed house off campus, gender-bending contra dancers, a guy who had invented a three-D printer. Even the underground, fetish crowds that I wrote about—they were the enthusiasts of the alt-sex community. BDSM is, in it own way, super nerdy. My beat was unofficially called “freaks, geeks and universities.” All of this was a long time ago. I don’t know why it felt so freeing, at fifteen, to imagine spending my time cross-legged behind a table in a dusty fair, reading the cards, telling thy futures. But I’ve always felt comfortable among the nerds—among but not really of the enthusiasts.

As an adult, I am still sometimes uncomfortable in my own skin. I admit that I’m still drawn to Tarot cards, but also a little afraid of them. I still want to buy lots of costumes and I want to live in that blue silk corset dress, which I didn’t buy. But at the end of a day at the Ren Faire, I no longer feel willing to survive on mead alone. I no longer want to close my eyes and curl up behind the washer woman’s fountain and stay forever.

These days, at the end of the day at the Ren Faire, I am vaguely peeved that the place somehow convinced us to buy our three year-old a glass rose. Glass roses make terrible toys. Also, I want to clock the next person who says “thy.”

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One Response to On Ye Olde Ren Faire and Nerdery At Large

  1. john hollowell says:

    Favorite invented Shakespeareanism: “Excellent cool, my lord.”

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