A Low Key Gathering: or, How Not Fitting In Made Me Fit Right In

The Low Key Gathering at House on the Rock was a fabulous time.

I arrived Friday afternoon, ready for fun. It had been a long week of mid-terms at college, and everyone but myself had been sick at my house for the previous two weeks. I felt empty, and used up. I was ready for a weekend…any weekend.

Other American Gods were gathering already, taking in the new visitor center. The new gods held little power over the whole complex, and people, myself included, gazed in consternation at their cell phones, wondering why they couldn’t seem to get a message to anyone, anywhere.

Through the magic ritual of waving my phone around like a spastic Harry Potter impersonator while murmuring pleas to the higher powers of 3G, I was eventually able to check into Foursquare. Thus knowing I was in the vicinity my compatriots located me, and we made small talk while waiting for all to begin.

As we talked, darkness began to fall. When the shadows had just begun to lengthen, I checked to ensure the tent doors (for a tent was where Neil would be speaking) had not yet been opened. We continued talking, and walked out perhaps 45 minutes later to find that more than one hundred people had arrived and formed a line to enter the tent, all under the cover of darkness. Or they simply teleported in from wherever they were. There’s no knowing, but they were suddenly there, and all ahead of us.

Once the doors were opened and we all filed in, it made no difference. The seats were excellent, and the great mass of us made small talk while we sat. As is my habit, I jumped into any conversation I happened to overhear a snippet of which interested me. In this manner I happened to meet Chuck Lawton of Wired’s Geekdad, which was a pleasure. Not only did Chuck deal with my eavesdropping and conversational intrusions with aplomb, he agreed that my decision to have my Kindle signed was “cool.” As I had been agonizing over the decision (what if he won’t sign it? what if the sharpie wears right off? what if it breaks next week?) it was nice to hear from someone else that it was a neat idea to have Neil sign all my books in one grand stroke.

Neil did not keep us waiting long, and his arrival was greeted with great cheers and applause.

Then, Neil read to us.

I’ve always loved listening to Neil read his pieces, and have all the albums wherein he does so. This, though, was my first time hearing him read something live. There, next to the House on the Rock, which I knew as an old friend before American Gods was published, Neil wove a spell. The tent we were in wooshed in and out, as if it were drawing in great breaths and holding them, the better to hear him speak. His words, telling again the story of Shadow and Mr. Wednesday making their way from Illinois to the great carousel, rolled and skittered amongst us until they filled the place. Finally, as Shadow stepped on the carousel and his world changed shape, the tent let out its breath, and the world spun wildly around me. I looked about, and realized that as Shadow was seeing the American Gods, so was I, all around me.

The fans of Neil Gaiman are a curious bunch. They cross the boundaries of fandom, coming from all walks. The single thing I think they have in common is a yearning for the other place…the place past this world that we seem to touch on every once in a while. As I sat in that tent, with Neil looking out at us, we all touched it together, just for a moment. We were the gathering of American Gods.

Neil smiled, and we all breathed again, and the applause was thunderous. He had stated that he couldn’t imagine reading anything else, at that place and that time. His decision was certainly right.

Neil then answered some of the questions that had been emailed in. His thoughts on Joseph Campbell were enlightening, and his quote of the night (“Twitter is to blogging like crack cocaine is to a nice glass of red wine.”) regarding his accessibility to fans was phenomenal. Also, he informed us that there’s a super-tentative-maybe-probably-not-but-it-could-happen chance that American Gods will be a television series.

Neil then read us a few more things, including a poem entitled “My Last Landlady” which captured the Hallowe’en vibe quite well. He finished with a reading of a short story about Saint Oran and Saint Columba and the island of Iona, a tale I knew before, but which was beautifully executed.

We filed out of the tent shortly after, many of us headed for another line, as we had tickets to have Neil sign things for us. I was certainly tired, as it was ten o’clock, and I’d been up since five, but I felt refreshed by the nights events. After a quick stop at the loo, I got in the (now enormous) line, and prepared to meet the man. My compatriots were quite a ways ahead of me, as they apparently have bladders of steel, or the ability to weasel through lines like greased ferrets. Mayhaps both.

I must stop here, and inform you that this was not the first time I’d met Neil. I’d seen him once before, in passing, in Madison, when I recognized him on the street, a long time ago (’94? ’95? I’d have to check my journals to be sure.) I awkwardly greeted him by mispronouncing his last name. He seemed genuinely surprised, gave me a quick handshake, and went off to wherever he was headed. I had no idea that he was living in the Midwest then, and still imagined him as a London writer. I hadn’t seen much of America yet, and in some ways his visions of American places had colored mine, as well. In some ways, they still do, making places I only visit on occasion just a bit brighter than they might otherwise be.

After two hours in line, during which I got to know some delightful Illini in line ahead of me and torture them with my attempts at humor, I arrived at Neil. I greeted him with a “Hullo, Neil,” and he smiled and said “Hello” back. Although obviously tired, he was definitely not weary, and was kind enough to let me stumblingly inform him that “Your dreams sometimes let my dreams speak to me more clearly. Thank you for sharing your dreams with us, Neil,” while he signed my Kindle. He then smiled warmly, and looked into my eyes, and shook my hand. I always feel like a blazing idiot when I meet famous people, but Neil made me feel unselfconscious about it. Thank you, Mr. Gaiman.

The next day, I awoke to find myself feeling old. I know I AM old in some ways, but at age thirty-three should I feel hung over just for staying up till two AM? I prepared myself for the day with Angry Bull Testicle Juice and pastry, and headed off to the House on the Rock once more.

Arriving at 10:30, I figured I would make the second panel with Patrick Rothfuss quite easily. However, 15 minutes later, I found that I had neglected to actually read my welcome packet thoroughly, because those panels were taking place at the House on the Rock Resort. Being a Spring Green resident for the last four years, I knew this was down Highway C, near the American Players Theater. Being a Spring Green resident of humble means and a current college student, I didn’t know exactly where, as I can’t afford either. So, I set off to find it.

I arrived a few minutes late, to find that Patrick Rothfuss is a guy I would absolutely love to sit down and have a few drinks with and talk about damned near anything. The panel was a delight, and I sincerely hope that Neil’s WebGoblin can get them up somewhere for everyone who wasn’t there or able to see them streaming live. A few (loose) quotes from the panelists:

“When communications change, the story changes. When the story changes, mythology changes.”

“In ancient times, there was no one true story. With the rise of the internet, we can have open source Gods back.”

“We don’t love our Gods for how we feel about them. We love them for how they make us feel about ourselves.”

“You used to count bodies on your altar. Now you count pageviews.”

Good stuff! All the panels were fabulous during the day, but this one stood out for me. It was very dynamic. I wish I hadn’t missed the first few minutes.

After that panel I again met up with my compatriots, and we moved from panel to panel. We saw people speak on the nature of fear, and the mythological melting pot of the Midwest. I asked a few questions that may have possibly even made me sound like I wasn’t the quintessential idiot. We had lunch, and we talked about the ideas these panels had gently freed in our heads and left rolling around. We even saw a panel on teaching using the works of Gaiman! I know I would certainly take such a class.

The day wore on, and I felt more and more tired. My sense of alienation was rising. I felt like I didn’t belong at something this great. I didn’t have a costume planned, because I didn’t have the time or energy while focusing on school to get something together beforehand. Also, I secretly hate dressing up, because it draws attention to me. Put me in a room with more than 10 people and I mostly want to hide in a corner. However, one of my compatriots had pushed at me enough that I attempted to throw something together when I headed home for a quick dinner.

So it was that I found myself in a large green robe a few hours later, a small work hammer in my hand and a glowing blue mason jar tied to my waist with a rope belt. Twenty minutes of digging around the house had made me Goibhniu, Celtic craft god and lord of the forge. He always appears in drawings dressed in green, and is known to brew the draught of immortality from the rays of the moon. If it weren’t for the fact that I naturally look like an idiot, it might even have been an okay costume.

I arrived to find the costume contest beginning, with the line of participants stretching far into the night. Not wanting too many people to have to see me, I ducked in the side door to watch the proceedings.

Sadly, no stage was erected for the participants of the contest. With half the tent taken over by the slow moving line, and many of the contestants unable to sit down, the costume contest was a few hours of attempting to see what everyone was talking about. I did get to see all the contestants and their wondrous costumes, usually a few minutes after they were introduced, as they left the holding area and moved past me. I was a bit tired, and restless, and not really feeling very much like going to a party by the time the contest was ending. I also felt rather self conscious in my costume attempt.

So it was that I moved with everyone else to the Welcome Center, where drinks were had, and mingling transpired. My compatriots took off into the night, mischief on their minds. I grabbed an excellent manhattan, and headed into the House on the Rock.

The House is possibly the strangest place for a party to happen, ever. I’ve been there many times, but had never seen it like this. The mystery of the place is incredible after dark. Shadows move and sway as you walk throughout, and colors and lights take on an otherworldly clarity, as if they’ve become hyper-real. Laughing couples rushed past while others slow danced in the corner, swaying in time to the slightly off key strains of the Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies while unmanned instruments moved behind them. I think that night may have been the closest I’ve ever come to how my grandmother used to describe Underhill. Still, in the midst of all this wonder, I felt apart.

Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so, if I hadn’t been alone. I don’t know. My wife was at home, and another dear friend couldn’t make it but desperately wanted to be there with me. I looked at everyone having a grand time, and knew that I didn’t belong there that night. I was trying too hard.

A beautiful young woman who obviously had imbibed too much already fell into me, and I held her up. We chatted for a few minutes, and she invited me back to her room. The desperation in her eyes seemed wild, and I felt as if she could somehow sense that I was the outsider, and wished to take me away from there. I politely turned her down, taking care to be gentle, and maneuvered her to a party of nearby revelers who were taking in the show of a street magician. I watched as the delight reentered her eyes, and knew she was back in the dream.

I wandered on.

I headed into the carousel room just in time to see Neil climb aboard. I was a ways off, as the crowd was large, but I watched him go around, the look of joy so naked on his face that I nearly cried. I waved as he took pictures of the crowd, and cheered as some of the other contest winners climbed aboard. For a moment, it was as if the joy of the whole thing was too much. Then the eyes of the mannequin angels above gazed down on me, and the weariness set in once more.

I left the carousel room, headed outside, thinking that perhaps just a bit of air would do me good. I wandered up the walkway to one of the unlit alcoves that show the tremendous view of the hillside leading down from the rock during the day, and found my jar of glowing immortality juice illuminating another couple who wished a “quiet moment.” I quickly looked away.

“Sorry. I took a wrong turn.”

“Oh. Were you looking for the exit?”

“No, no. I know where I’m headed.”

That was when I knew that the exit was where I needed to go. The party just wasn’t in me that night. I turned, and walked up the ramps to the parking lot. I looked back over my shoulder as I neared the car, and I smiled.

Although it wasn’t what I expected, it was a night I won’t forget. I might not have felt like I did, but I’d fit in as well as anyone. I will never forget the weekend where I was an American God.

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~ by Benjamin Kenneally on November 4, 2010.

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