The Ren Faire and me: the social connection, part 1

(This post is part of a series that goes over why, after 13 years, I’m leaving the New York Ren Faire.)

Once upon a time (1984 or ’85), a performer playing a Gypsy at the Bristol Ren Faire in Wisconsin plucked a young man out of the crowd and danced with him as part of the end-of-day celebration. It was just part of the show, and she probably thought little more about it.

A few months later, at Gencon, that young man found himself in a role-playing game with that same young woman. He introduced himself after the game, they started talking… and wound up continuing that conversation on a balcony of the convention hotel for the entire night, until the sun came up.

The following year, that young man returned to the Bristol Ren Faire hoping to meet that young lady again. After he got there, he thought he wouldn’t find her, since her name wasn’t listed in the program book. But she was there after all. He re-introduced himself, and their relationship began.

A few years later they were married, and they are still together.

That’s the story of Walter and Deborah. But I’m so vain, I probably think this post is about me.

I met Walter in 1987. Both he and I were physics graduate students on the same experiment at Fermilab, near Chicago. We were both gamers, science-fiction fans, and like to attend conventions. We became friends, and of course Walter told me his "meet cute" story with Deborah.

It planted an idea in my mind: If Walter could meet someone at a Renaissance Faire, why couldn’t I?

If only that had remained a simple notion in my mind! Unfortunately, in the mind of a lonely and social inept gamer/SF/computer geek in the 1980s, it became more than an notion. It became a fantasy, and later an obsession.

From the perspective of 20+ years later, the folly of the notion is crystal clear. The story of Walter and Deborah was theirs, not mine. But many a young girl’s ideals in life are shaped by Disney princesses meeting their Prince Charming; mine were shaped by a story no worse, though through glasses no less rose-colored. Walter and Deborah are human beings, with their own problems and issues; like all fantasies, the story I built in my mind ignored all those trivial details.

The major effect of that story on my life is to give me the desire to visit a Ren Faire.

By 1988 both Walter and I had moved back to the New York area to do the analysis on the data we collected on that experiment in Chicago. I don’t remember where Walter stayed when we got back, but I found an apartment in Nyack NY, where I live to this day; I’m typing these words from there now.

The nearest Ren Faire to Nyack is the Sterling Forest Renaissance Faire near Tuxedo NY. In the summer of 1988, Walter helped me put together a Ren Faire costume. I walked through the gates of that Ren Faire for the first time in "garb"; from that day to this, I don’t think there have been more than five Ren-Faire-style events I’ve attended that I have not been in costume. You can see pictures of me from that time in my life here.

There were no magical "meet cute" moments. None. Putting a costume on a geek and what do you have? A costumed geek. Putting on a robe and a cape gave me no new social skills, in and of itself.

However, there was a fantasy to be had while wearing the costume and adopting a persona ("Winston, a Wizard from Wainscoting"). I continued to visit the Faire regularly; in 1989 and 1990 I went almost every weekend. Other folks at the Ren Faire had come with similar fantasies of one form or another. I hung out with the an organized group of Rennies, who called themselves Adventurers Unlimited (AU).

(Aside: In my association with the Ren Faire, I learned three definitions of the word "Rennie": (1) a Ren-Faire groupie, used mostly by Ren-Faire groupies; (2) someone who works at a Ren Faire, used mostly by those who work at a Ren Faire; (3) someone who has become familiar with a Ren Faire act and feels obliged to interfere and heckle, used mostly by Ren-Faire performers.)

I hung out with the Rennies and with AU, but I didn’t feel comfortable with them. There was a time when I felt especially outcast, a social misfit even within a group of misfits. I had accompanied the Rennies to a visit to a local bar after the Faire, and they were dancing and singing along with songs I didn’t know. I left the place, went to my car, and started to put my costume away.

Another Rennie, Michael "Doc" Brennan, walked out to get something from his car. Doc was well-known among the Rennies, friendly and out-going. He saw me leaving, and decided for no reason I ever knew to start a conversation with me. He helped me to see that everyone in that bar had the same issues I did at some point in their lives, and encouraged me to give it another try. I did, and with that new perspective I didn’t feel uncomfortable anymore.

Doc passed away a few years later in a tragic accident. I won’t go into the details, but it had to do with his desire to be friendly and to help others. I shall be forever grateful to him. In large part due to him, I didn’t have to feel alone in the midst of a party.

There were a couple of women in AU in whom I had an interest, but it was not reciprocated. One was really cute and charming, but she only had eyes for Doc. Another was small, bright, and feisty… and very experienced at fending off geeks like me. I hung out with the Rennies for the general company, but there were no romantic opportunities.

There was no fulfillment of my unrealistic romantic fantasies, but there was the chance of fulfilling another fantasy: empowerment. Through AU and science-fiction convenstions, I discovered live-action fantasy role-playing (LARP). I joined NERO-NJ, bringing the fantasy of Winston to life (remember the pictures?). Over the course of playing the game, my role in the LARP grew larger, both within the game and in the real-world management that it took to run it.

As a result, my involvement with AU gradually stopped. I still went to the Ren Faire every summer, but perhaps only two or three times instead of all seven weekends. I had not found romance, but I’d found an environment suited to my limited social skills. The obsession had faded, though the fantasy remained.

However, the Ren Faire was going to become a nexus of my social life again.

To be continued…

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