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After four months on the Ren faire circuit, I’m finally home.

It’s been a while since my last post because, frankly, I haven’t had anything nice to say. Living in a tent at the Colorado faire was much harder and more frustrating than I could have imagined. Everything was inconvenient. Take the shower, for example. It was pretty far away from our camp. You could walk to it — but by the time you walked back, you’d be covered in dust from the road. Or you could drive to it — and risk losing your parking place. I kept making the same stupid mistake over and over again: once I arrived at the shower, I’d drop my loofah in the dirt. Or I’d realize I’d forgotten my shower shoes and have to stand barefoot in the slimy grey-green shower stall. And then I’d lose my temper and spend the rest of my day trying to make everyone else miserable.

I’m pretty small and usually sweet, so my family thinks it’s kind of funny when I lose my temper. They call it “Hannah SMASH!” because I basically transform into the Hulk and wreak havoc upon the streets of New York. I used to be proud of my temper, as if it were a mark of strength or something. I’d think, I may be small and weak-looking, but you sure as hell don’t want to make me mad! This summer, though, I realized how exhausting it is to hulk out all the time. It’s not funny or endearing. I got tired of being constantly angry over ultimately small things, like buying canned soup but no can opener. I realized that everything was going to suck and be difficult and inconvenient for the next two months, and I could choose to get righteously furious about it or try to make peace with it. It’s more fun and more gratifying to hulk out, but I learned I have to let that go if I want my life to be easier.

But before I get carried away recounting all of the different things I hated about living at the faire and how I learned to deal with them, let me tell you about one thing that kept pissing me off over and over again at my job at the costume booth. My job was to help women dress up in corsets and skirts and feel totally fabulous. So what made me mad? Here’s what would happen: the lady would get all dressed up, look in the mirror and fall in love with the outfit, and then step out of the dressing room to show her husband. She’d ask what he thought, and he’d invariably reply, “Um… I like it!”

Then she’d say, “That’s it? You like it?!”

And he’d say, “Yeah, it’s… great!”

“Well, what is it you don’t like about it?”

“What? I just said I liked it! I like the way it makes your waist… and your boobs…”

“Well, but you don’t love it. I can tell.”

You see where this is going. I got so mad at this whole situation. First, I got mad that so many grown women needed man-approval before they felt like they could buy something for themselves. I’m totally in favor of collaborating with your partner before dropping a bunch of money — but it was like these women thought the outfit was only worthwhile if it got their man really excited. As if it wasn’t enough to just love the outfit and buy it. And here’s the thing — the men always did get really excited. (I can tell because I speak Man.) They’re just not usually equipped with the vocabulary to express what they love about the corset. I could say something like, “I think the warm hues in the outfit make your skin tones look golden, and the cut of the corset frames your bust without compressing it.” But Average Joe just gets a little flabbergasted when he sees his woman walking around in a garment that looks like it belongs in the boudoir. Then, of course, she takes his hesitation to mean that he thinks it’s ugly or silly or something. And then none of his backtracking or explaining can change her mind — she’s convinced she’s made a fool of herself by even trying the damn thing on and we are certainly not buying it now!

[sigh]

I started asking the women, before letting them out of the dressing room, if they felt fabulous. Then I told them that if you feel fabulous, you’re going to act fabulous, and your man is going to love it, whether he knows anything about corsets or not.

Gents, am I wrong? Isn’t confidence the sexiest garment?

I got so mad at the women who wouldn’t let themselves feel fabulous, and the women who picked a fight with their man over their own insecurities, and the women who dug their heels in and told everyone that they look fat and stupid and no corset or salesgirl in the world can change their mind. Ladies, if you’re one of those people who does shit like this, let me be undeniably clear: being a strong woman doesn’t mean stubbornly beating yourself up, and it doesn’t mean passive-aggressively bullying men. Why don’t we try loving ourselves, and seeing if that makes it easier to love our partners.

Ahem. So that’s how I feel about that.

I spent most of my summer finding ways to deal with being angry, which amounted to spending all of my time daydreaming about how wonderful it would be to have a refrigerator again. Amidst the record-breaking heat, the bears wandering into camp, and the hippies sing-shouting into the wee hours, I would take a deep breath and remember that I’m going back home to live in civilization. And now that I’m back, I have to say, it’s glorious to have a bathroom that’s inside the house, and a stove that works, and a real bed and a vacuum cleaner…

After all of the adventures I’ve had this year, I’m not keen on going back on the road any time soon. I’ve had a lot of fun, seen some beautiful new places, and made new friends, but for the foreseeable future, Lacewing Costumes is going to be a stationary enterprise and I’ll adjust to my new role as a non-traveling seamstress. Farewell, Ren faire circuit, and thanks for teaching me all of these crappy lessons.

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After a hot, frustrating season, Scarborough finally ended.

I think I finally figured out exactly what to say to people and began to feel comfortable selling my wares at the very end of the faire. I learned how to be positive and flexible carrying on whatever strange conversations customers wanted to have. One guy asked to see my stomach to check for tattoos or piercings.  Two twins said that they weren’t surprised my name was Hannah because all the Hannahs they know are pretty. A family asked if they could take a picture of me with the “traveling monkey”, which, to my relief, ended up being a stuffed animal and not a real simian.

I learned to gauge whether a parent would give in to their child’s pleas to buy a costume, and to nip the interaction in the bud if the parent wouldn’t budge. One little boy cried when his mom told him he couldn’t have a costume, and I wanted so badly just to give it to him. But that wouldn’t teach anyone a lesson, and I was thankful they walked away quickly.

I learned that drunk college students buy a lot of things they don’t need, and thirteen-year-old boys don’t like anything. Oh, and if you are a kid and you want something expensive, ask your dad, not your mom.

Closing weekend was a much bigger success, both monetarily and emotionally, than all of the other weeks. I was glad to leave Scarborough on a high note.

Then we packed up and left Texas, because Travis’ next jousting stop is the Colorado Renaissance Festival. Unlike the other faires we’ve been at, we’re camping at this one, which means eight weeks of living in a tent. I don’t have a booth at this faire, so I found a job selling corsets on faire days, and I have the rest of the week to myself. It seems completely ideal, but I’m kind of like a border collie – I need to have something to do constantly or else I go a little crazy. I’m trying to fill my days at least somewhat productively with sewing, sketching, research, and exercise. My weekend job is easy and fun, but it barely pays anything. I’m beginning to realize how much I equate my self-worth with making money, and I’m trying to learn to let it go. I have made money before, and I will make money again, but right now is my time to focus on other things.

I definitely feel like I’m getting the authentic Ren faire experience here. The only running water is from a hose, and the showers are the kind where you see everybody naked. (Despite the many saggy booties and unfortunate tattoos I’ve seen so far, the facilities are at least nicer than the ones in my college dorm, where an unidentified culprit periodically smeared poo all over the stalls and mirrors.) There is a constant waft of… ahem… herbal remedy smoke coming from somewhere on site. There are also a lot more unshaven legs, missing teeth, and faded tie-dye here than I’m used to. And ugly beards! Can anyone explain to me the correlation between Ren faires and really, really bad beards?

I haven’t seen one yet, but I’ve been warned that bears live in the area and wander into camp every now and again, so we have to keep all food in a cooler in the car. I have seen a bunny that lives under a wooden platform one campsite over from ours, and I just hope that if the Adventure Dog kills it, he eats the whole thing so I don’t have to clean it up. There are lots of spiders, moths, wasps, and weird orange bugs I’ve never seen before, and they have no regard for your territory.

On the positive side, the Colorado Renaissance Festival is really pretty. It’s on the side of a mountain, and there are lots of trees and mountain flowers and outdoor things to do. You get plenty of exercise and fresh air walking around the grounds, and it’s amazing to watch giant clouds build up around the mountain. The nights are cool, the days are warm, and so far our tent has not been destroyed by hail. But I certainly wouldn’t complain if the rest of my life after this faire season is utterly luxurious. Or, if not utterly luxurious, then at least maybe it can have flushing toilets and fewer spiders in the bed.

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Immediately after I wrote about how awful the beginning of Scarborough was, things started to get better. The very next day, we got invited to a steak dinner at the home of a swordsmith who works at the faire. We spent the evening making new friends, enjoying an excellent meal, watching fireflies, and taking a tour of the workshop where he forges the swords. That week, I got a little faster and better at making the kids’ knight costumes, and I started feeling a little more like I am where I belong.

But then of course a lot of boring, mundane crap got me down again. I got a bit disillusioned with the faire for several reasons. Last year I thought that everyone who works at the faire is doing what they love, but I’ve since met a lot of people who aren’t inspired by their work; they just feel like they’re trapped in the lifestyle because they don’t know how to do anything else. There’s not as much camaraderie among the folks at Scarborough as there is at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire. People keep to themselves a bit more, but rumors spread just as quickly. I hate gossip-mongering, but half of my brainpower is taken up with other folks’ interpersonal drama. And the faire bureaucracy is a bit of a downer, too. It seems like every decision, no matter how small, is a great political issue. Turns out Ren faires aren’t places of freedom, peace and love; they’re just corporations with costumes on.

Luckily, before I got too deep in existential crisis mode, Sunday happened.

On Sunday, I got hugs from two people I had never met before. The first one was from an artist who draws horses. She came to the faire to get some good source photos, and she liked the jousting knights’ costumes and started a conversation with me about costuming. She’s also a seamstress and wanted to know about costuming as a career and what life on the road was like, so I told her about how Travis and I met, my experience in school, and how we ended up back here. We only spoke for a few minutes, and she lives in Mexico, but we felt an affinity and when it was time for her to leave, she hugged me, said “God bless you”, and wished me well with my travels. I was so touched. I hope I’ll run into her again some day.

The second hug made me stop in my tracks and reevaluate everything.

Two boys came up to the booth after the joust to meet the knights. They were cheering for Sir Corwin (Travis), and they had gotten wooden swords and shields earlier that day at the faire. Travis signed the swords for them, and the older boy got a Sir Corwin costume. His mother told me that his birthday was this week, and he always gets to go to the faire and pick out a present for his birthday. I asked the boy, whose name was Brandon, if he went to the king’s knighting ceremony that was held that afternoon. With a stricken face, he looked up at me and said, “No, I missed it,” which may as well have meant, “and now I’ll never get to be a knight!”

Travis, without missing a beat, dashed backstage and grabbed an old broken lance piece, cut it down to size, and painted it is his colors. He returned with the lance and his sword, and asked Brandon and his younger cousin if they would like to be knighted. One by one, the boys knelt down and solemnly vowed to be honest, defend their family, stand up for those who are smaller than them. The ceremony ended with the accolade, a (very gentle) slap on the cheek to remind them that even if though it may be painful, a knight must always try to do what is right. As Travis described it, “I drew my sword and was overwhelmed with memories of seeing my father do this very thing when I was growing up. It is a strange alchemy to make a decision and when you act upon it to see your father’s hands carry it out. Thank you dad, for teaching me how to be a knight. I didn’t truly understand what that meant until today.” The family was so moved by the experience that when the boys rose as knights, Brandon’s mother cried and hugged us both and thanked us for giving her son such a meaningful birthday present.

The men of Noble Cause Productions pride themselves on being knights rather than just jousters. Anyone with enough physical strength, dexterity and a pinch of insanity can learn to fall off horses and fight with swords and shields, but it takes a person of extraordinary character to put aside his ego, pain, frustration, and exhaustion, and take the time to genuinely impact the life of a child. I am so proud and thankful to be married to a true knight.

On the drive home, I realized that all of the frustrations and doubts I had been harboring about the faire, the weather, the slow sales, and the depressing people pale in comparison to the impact we made on Sir Brandon’s family. I’m not in this to make a ton of money right away or to be comfortable all the time. I am slowly but surely building a business that will bring joy and magic to children and will remind adults of the value of play, and I’m learning a lot of important lessons in the meantime. This faire season is kind of like an internship: it’s a lot of work, all of the lessons are learned the hard way, and the pay isn’t great, but the experiences I’m gaining are the most valuable thing of all.

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you can hear his jingle bells a mile awayI’ve now been doing the Ren Faire thing for three months. I’d like to share a few things I’ve learned with anyone who might be interested in this lifestyle… and with myself for when I hit the road again after a luxurious, civilized winter living in a house with carpet and hot running water. Therefore: a few tips on how to survive the dirt, the wicked weather conditions, and living with hundreds of strange folks ranging from the extremely talented to the nearly insane.

1. Make friends with as many people as you can. You gotta live with these folks for a few months, and if you work the circuit, you might be seeing them all year round. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by being an arrogant jerk to anyone. Introduce yourself to your neighbors. Wave to people when you drive past them. It’s a lot easier to live with people you can get along with. And gossip gets around fast, so if you make an enemy, you’ve probably made enemies with their friends too. Just… try not to do that. Besides, almost everyone here is exceptionally cool and just as eager to make friends. Go to every party, bonfire, D&D game, and jam session you can.

rarely eats the children

2. That said, don’t assume everyone loves you and wants to protect you until they prove it. There’s some grody people out here. There are people who will lie to you about being a Navy SEAL and people who think they can get in your pants even though they are 35 years older and swimming in unmentionable diseases and people who want to start drama because they’re bored or insecure. Don’t give into it. You can exist in a bubble of positivity. Tell yourself this every day.

3. Certain patrons are going to say superbly weird things to you. They’ll try to convince you they know everything about swordfighting ever because they’ve been in the SCA for eight years. They’ll try to use their post-burrito gastrointestinal distress as a pickup line. (“Hey baby, are there any bathrooms around here besides these port-a-potties?”) You don’t want to be the single-handed reason that a well-meaning patron never returns to the faire. But you don’t want to get caught up in their nonsense either. If you give them too much to work with, they’ll start telling you about their divorce and their dying cat. It’s not your job to be their best friend or their therapist. Be nice, but shut them off when they go too far. I learned a neat trick from my dad (though I’m pretty sure he never meant to teach it to me): when you want to cordially discourage a behavior, just give a polite little closed-lipped smile and don’t say anything. It’s a great way to end a conversation without hurting feelings.

the tormented spirits of gauze

4. Figure out where the hospital, vet, and auto repair shop are. Write it down. Bad stuff happens. Don’t get screwed because you have to get directions from somebody stupid.

5. You can’t keep your place clean. That’s okay. There’s just going to be a lot of mud. But don’t let that affect your personal cleanliness and hygiene. If you’re not sure whether you need a shower, you do. If you can find a shower with a flash heater, use that. It heats the water right as it comes out of the shower head, so you won’t be getting alternately scalded and frozen whenever somebody turns a faucet on. But keep an eye on it because sometimes they explode. If you see water droplets starting to boil around the shower head, turn the water off. Or run for your life. Whichever is faster.

6. You live in a community. Take care of your community members and support their work. Go see their shows and buy their wares when you can. There’s an organization called the RESCU Foundation that helps Ren faire performers and craftspeople with their medical bills when they need it, so donate to them if you can afford it. Oh, and don’t smoke in the community showers.

7. Have a mud costume. Machine-wash that baby.

8. Let it go. Make peace with the fact that some of your stuff is going to get destroyed. Your shoes are going to wear out really fast. Something you love is going to get lost or fall in the mud or get crushed by a horse. It’s just stuff. If you can’t live without it, leave it at home.

you do not want it in your face9. Remember that this is theatre and therefore a hierarchy. Never pull the “Don’t-you-know-who-I-AM” card. For one thing, everybody hates that and it makes you look ridiculous. For another, unless you are the god of the faire (you’re not), you’re going to have to make compromises to make the show go on. If somebody above you asks you to do something, do it now unless you are certain they are wrong, and then ask them respectfully if they’re sure that’s what they meant. Being snarky to your superiors is a great way to get a morning star in the face.

10. Be proud of what you do. You quickly figure out that it’s not glamorous work. But like my costume design professor taught us, theatre is about making the world a more magical place. Even if you play a small role in it, the world is happier and more vibrant and more playful because of what you do. You get to shape people’s beliefs and attitudes. A little boy is going to walk away from the faire this week with the courage to stick up to a bully because he saw a knight do that at the joust. A teenage girl is going to feel beautiful because she gets to dress up in a gown instead of squeezing into skinny jeans. A grown man is going to rediscover his sense of wonder watching his daughter run around in fairy wings chasing bubbles. Your work is worthwhile. Don’t forget it.pretty flower garland

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This week we have an interview with the lovely and talented Jenny O’Connor. Jenny is the fiddle player and frontwoman for the band Circa Paleo. Her bandmates are Joshua Amyx, Kelly O’Connor, and Jay Elkins. The band plays a unique mix of tunes from a variety of cultures, including Celtic, Nordic, and Arabian. Jenny is known to the online world as “The Hot Violinist” thanks to a fan’s YouTube video of her — a nickname she was reluctant to acknowledge but has now embraced and encourages all musicians to find their inner Hot Violinist as well!


nice abs, lady

HKA: How did you first start playing the violin?

JO: Towards the end of high school, some friends of mine were playing music together. They were learning the unusual genre of Greek music and performing at Greek restaurants. My friend was learning to sing the songs phonetically and just repeating them as best she could, having no idea what she was actually saying! I played the guitar a little bit, but I never really practiced, so I was very impressed that they were professional musicians! As I got to know them, I became inspired to start practicing and actually getting better. At that time I heard a CD that my mom had played when I was a kid. I had probably heard it hundreds of times, but this particular time I had the idea of, I could actually learn something! It was by the singer-songwriter Garnet Rogers and there was one instrumental track on it, a solo violin playing a sad, slow Irish song. It completely stopped me in my tracks and I felt like it was someone communicating to me from the past. And it wasn’t really that ghostly at the time, now that I put it that way! But it really touched me, and I decided that I wanted to be an Irish fiddler. My mom had an old broken violin in the closet, and I took it to a couple of places to get it fixed up. When I asked the guy at the first shop about lessons, he thought I was asking for my kid! And when I said, “No, the lessons are for me,” he completely discouraged me from doing it. He said, “Don’t bother!” So I made some calls and eventually found an Irish fiddle teacher.

How did Circa Paleo form?

Circa Paleo formed about three years ago. Joshua and I were the founding members. We met on the Ren Faire circuit. I was in a band on the circuit called E Muzeki, and he joined that band, playing percussion. We recorded a CD in 2009 called Eleven Lives, and toward the end of the recording, Jay joined the band. We had known him for a long time because he had been a music listener on the circuit. Then my sister Kelly got out of school, and we asked her if she wanted to join. She saw what we were doing, you know, getting the opportunity to travel, so now she plays the guitar with us.

fiddle magicWhat are the rewards and challenges of traveling for a living?

A lot of the challenges of travel aren’t quite as bad with Renaissance Faire gigs as they are for musicians that have to be at a different place every single night. When you do a festival that lasts for two months you get to settle in and feel at home. There are places we go every year, so we know where to shop and what to eat and what friends we’re going to see there. One challenge is staying organized, because when you move every two months, it’s hard to stay organized and productive. You can’t have a lot of stuff. My first five years of traveling professionally as a musician, I did have a house, and I was constantly either moving in or moving out. I got to be there about six months out of the year, but I was always dressing myself out of Tupperware bins! So about three years ago, I got a trailer, and now I have my own little house on wheels, which takes away a lot of the challenges. I should mention that I’ve never lived any other way. My entire adult life has been doing this for a living. There was a time about four years ago, when I was in between the two bands, that I tried staying in one location for a while, and I got a job locally, but after the third and fourth month went by, I started getting antsy and I realized that I’ve developed a natural cycle of thinking, every couple of months, it’s time to go! I don’t even want to settle down. I like that change of scenery; it keeps my creativity fresh. Different things inspire me in Arizona than in California or in Michigan. But I do see the benefits of staying in one place. One time we spent about four months in Austin and I saw the local scene of the musicians and what you can gain from a community like that, and I thought that could be nice too.

What inspires your music?

Most of the music that we play is traditional folk dance music, so we go through lots of old tunes and recordings and find things that sparkle to us. We don’t strive to do things authentically. We have sort of an earthy taste. It wouldn’t really be correct to say that we modernize the music, but with our western ears going through this exotic music and picking out what resonates with us, it sort of narrows it down so that other people with western ears can listen and it will resonate with them too. The original tunes that we write tend to be structured using rhythms and scales from folk music but are also inspired by stories — folk tales, things from history. There are also a few modern cover tunes thrown in. We’ll take old exotic songs and make them sound a little bit more rock and roll and accessible, and then we’ll take rock and roll songs and make them sound more exotic. That’s kind of a bridge for some people. They’ll hear something that they recognize, but then they’ll stick around and listen to an Armenian harvest dance from 200 years ago that they would’ve never heard.

Do you ever feel like all of the faires that you go to, the shows that you play, and the people you see are all the same?

No! No, never! They’re all completely different. Every single day at the festival is completely different and you never know what people are going to say. People are always surprising us, and they’re completely different from one faire to the next, too. People sort of follow each other as an audience group in how they respond to the music. There are some places where people just go completely crazy and dance and sing, and there are some places where they’re just quiet and listening and it takes a few of those crazy dancers to get them all riled up.

What are your hopes and dreams for the band?

Well, we recently had two CDs come out. The first CD we recorded, me and Joshua, was a studio creation of what this band could sound like. I played the guitar, he played multiple drum parts, and we had guests come in with different instruments and we created this album that sort of sounded like a band. But with the new project, we actually had our band and we got to play together, live, in the studio. We did two CDs at once. They’re both inspired by travel. With the one called Tideland, the concept was travel by sea. It encompasses songs from Scotland, Ireland, and the journey of those people to the United States and the origins of bluegrass. And the other one, Roseland, ended up being the more gypsy caravan, jingly, exotic one inspired by land travel. As far as future hopes, it’s always been about making it possible to live outside the world’s rules — to be able to make a living being creative. So much of what we hear is, “Well, if you absolutely have to do this for a living, then do it, but if there is any other job you could possibly have, then that’s what you should do.” Ha! I want that to be available to as many people as possible, to add people to the band and travel and be free, but not starving.

When you are on stage performing, do you feel like you’re really in the music, or do you feel like you’re going through the motions because it’s your job?

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately and I learned something about it in an acting class I took. There’s an acting technique called inner imagery. It sounds kind of vague at first, but say I’m playing a song and it reminds me of a certain feeling or experience. If I think about that, it may change the way I play it, and because it’s an authentic human experience, someone in the audience is going to get the feeling of it beyond just observing the show. People say to me sometimes that the music flows through you. And I do love the songs that I play, but at times it can become repetitive, because there are some songs I’ve played literally thousands of times, so you think it’d be dead in the water. But every time I play it, some other image may come up, like imagining a person on a boat journeying across the ocean, that brings up an emotion in me that feeds into the song and the song feeds back into the emotion. And the other piece to that puzzle is the audience. Sometimes someone will be crying, and that may have been at a moment when I was just thinking about my shopping list or something, but that will help to bring me back into the emotion of the music. Even if I’m playing a song for the fourth time that day or the eight time that weekend or the thousandth time in my life, seeing the audience and getting up on stage, the music inspires me every time!

Circa Paleo just wrapped up their first season with the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire. While we’re sad to see them leave, they have great adventures ahead at the Texas Renaissance Festival and beyond! To learn more about Circa Paleo and see if they will be playing in a town near you, visit their website and their Facebook page. To become a Hot Violinist yourself, visit Jenny’s blog. Thanks for the interview, Jenny, and best of luck with your travels!

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