I joined two teenagers in holy wedlock yesterday. I consider it an accomplishment since I’m not a minister, they hadn’t thought about marriage when they got up that morning, and I was wearing a pair of boots on my head. In fact, they had never seen me and didn’t know I existed until three minutes before I pronounced them man and wife in front of 30 strangers who didn’t even bring gifts.
All in all, it was a pretty normal spring-time Sunday for me.
I work at a renaissance festival in the spring. Most people go there to have fun, except the guys dragged there by their girlfriends when they’d rather be watching NASCAR, but they fear they won’t get laid tonight if they say no. I don’t go there to have fun. I go there to goad other people into having fun. I get paid just like most professional actors, which means I earn less per hour than a blind dishwasher in Burundi.
People have a lot of different opinions about renaissance festivals, and festivals are run a lot of different ways. There are a lot of jokes about renaissance festivals, some of which are hilarious. For example:
You know you’re at a bad renaissance festival when there’s an eight minute drum solo in the middle of “Greensleeves.”
Mainly I work there because it’s an acting challenge. I like to call it theater with no stage, no script, and no separation from the audience. To put it another way, I have no idea what I’m going to say or do until it happens, we have 33 acres so I have to pin my audience against something so they can’t get away, and I have to make them look brilliant even if they’re gaping at me with a sliver of turkey leg hanging off their cheek. I can tell when I’ve done a decent job of transforming into my character, because my character likes almost every person he’s ever met. You can ask my wife and my friends just how much that does not describe me. So—good acting challenge.
In most cases you have to select your audience, stalk them, and approach them. The best part is when they see you coming and their eyes get that desperate, calculating look. It’s as if they were trapped between a river and an army of tigers, and they’re assessing whether they can make the jump to freedom. At the same time they hover between smiling and not smiling, because they’re not sure which one is most likely to draw the tigers’ attention. That’s the best part because they have such trepidation when you arrive, and you know that when you’re done in a few minutes they’ll be happy, or amused, or feel welcome. Or maybe they’ll feel relieved that you’re done, which is at least better than getting drunk and kicking a mime.
Anyway, I don’t want to talk about renaissance festivals. I just said all that in order to say this.
One day fifteen years ago at this festival I don’t want to talk about, I got tired of selecting and stalking my audience, so I set a trap. I gathered a double-handful of little rocks and sat on a bare, flat spot on the ground. Then I began placing and stacking rocks in patterns that didn’t mean a damn thing. Within ten minutes I had a bunch of little kids, about six or seven years old, picking up their own rocks and stacking them along with me.
I didn’t give them any instructions or rules. My only rule was that whatever they did was perfect. If they knocked down 30 existing rocks, I told them that was the most beautiful thing ever and those rocks must have been in the way. The funny thing was that most kids had a parent standing nearby telling them to be careful and not mess anything up. We tried to ignore those parents as much as we could.
This weekend I realized I hadn’t set a kid trap in a decade and a half, so I gathered up some rocks and went to work. In the first five minutes several kids stopped to look, but none of them sat down to play. In the following five minutes a couple of kids brought me rocks, but they wouldn’t sit down to help, even though I invited them. The parents, who were grown up versions of my kids from 15 years ago, just looked and didn’t say anything. After 30 minutes I gave up and moved on.
What the hell?
I pondered this change last night as I ate an economically priced New York strip, and I came up with a small array of possible explanations:
Stacking rocks loses its charm when a child can play Angry Birds on his cell phone 24 hours a day, even on the toilet.
For a child today, sitting down to play with an unknown person seems as dangerous as injecting arsenic into your neck.
Today’s children are expected to follow rules that govern every type of human behavior, so when they looked at the unstructured rock-stacking activity, their minds couldn’t deal with it. Their brains had to reset like a computer that’s been told by Captain Kirk to divide by zero.
I didn’t like any of those explanations. They’re all depressing. And since I possess modern man’s ability to convince myself that the things I don’t like are untrue, I denied all these explanations. As I choked down the last gristly bite of cow, the correct explanation revealed itself.
It’s me. I am 15 years older. I’m 15 years stranger. I no longer look like the fun but kind of weird uncle. Now I look like the really weird old guy doing something with rocks that’s inexplicable but probably bad. No wonder they stood out of reach, watching like I was a musk-ox in the zoo. They didn’t know what to make of me, but they were sure nothing good was going to come out of me.
So I’ll put my kid trapping techniques aside from now on and go after older audiences. The kids are safe. Wait until they’re teenagers on a date at a renaissance festival, though. Then I’ll own their asses.