Circus Life – I am a geek

Confession #1: My friend J moved to London a month before I did, so I was not entirely alone when I arrived. (She made the far more practical choice to enroll in teachers’ college in the UK rather than my wing-and-a-prayer approach.)

Confession #2: I am a geek.

My social life, for those first two months in London, revolved around a pub called Pages. This was the first (and only) scifi pub I had ever encountered, with Star Trek-themed decor and a model of the Starship Enterprise hanging from the ceiling. I believe that during the week it was a relatively normal place, but on Saturday night, it belonged to the geeks.

£3 got you in the door, and if you didn’t turn up early – particularly on Buffy-themed nights, called Nos (Nosferatu) Nights – you wouldn’t get in at all. Inside, some folks were in costume, others were just dressed up – my friends had a distinct goth flavour, with corsets and lace, chainmail and vinyl. We were there to hang out with people who loved the thing we loved, to be geeks together in a safe space.

We were also there to watch the newest episodes of scifi TV shows, played on bootleg discs mailed from North America. These episodes wouldn’t air in the UK until months, or even years, after they aired in the States, and going to Pages was the only way to see them. (This was back in the infancy of the internet, before iTunes or streaming or pirating.) When you’re passionate about something, patience is not so much a virtue.

It being a bar, there was also booze, which helped me to be a little less awkward. And once the episodes were over, they jacked up the music and we danced until the end of the night. I sprinted for the last tube home more than once – London is a giant, sprawling, international city, but even on Saturday night the tube shuts down before midnight.

A decade later, I still miss Pages. I still think there should be scifi pubs just like there are sports bars. In fact, I think there’s functionally very little difference between the two. There has never been another social space where I have felt so accepted, so at home.

I grew up in a small, conservative private school. My graduating class had only thirty-nine people in it, and I’d known about half of them since I was four. I left that school very well educated but socially… challenged.

I lived at home through university, so I never had the explosion of self discovery that seems to happen in that first year out in the world. But, free from all the expectations and assumptions of high school classmates who had known me my whole life, in university I began to slowly unfurl.

I realized that I was probably gay, or at least bi. (The moment when it clicked that being a lesbian didn’t make me something else, but rather explained who I had been all along was an epiphany. It was freedom. But that is a story for another time.)

I also began to read about paganism, and Wicca in particular, and found it fit my worldview much more closely than either of the organized religions I encountered as a child.

(I felt bad for my parents sometimes – rather than outright rebellion, I just grew progressively stranger.)

I met J during this time, and she was the first friend I had with whom I felt safe to explore that side of myself. (Not sexually, just for the record. J and I never dated, or ever wanted to.) Back in the dark ages of the Internet, when the online world was just taking its first steps beyond CompuServe and AOL, we used to hang out on the same mIRC chat room. (It was devoted to the television show Babylon 5.) In addition to both being scifi geeks, J and I also shared a love of theatre, and books, and travel. Years of not fitting in at school conditioned chameleon tendencies into me, and spending time with someone so much closer to who I was on the inside was a profound relief. I didn’t have to hide nearly as much.

As I mentioned above, J moved to London a month or so before I did. Shortly after she arrived, she spent the weekend at a science fiction convention and made friends with all the most interesting people there. (J is very much NOT an introvert.) When I finally turned up, J couldn’t wait to introduce me to them all.

Exactly one week after I arrived in London, there was another convention. It was for a show neither of us watched, so J and I didn’t go for the whole weekend, but J insisted we turn up for the dance on Saturday night.

It was too cold to wear my party clothes for the long schlep out to the hotel by Heathrow airport, so I packed them in a bag to change into when I got there. Once I was all dolled up, though, I ended up with a heavy bag of everyday clothes slung over my shoulder as I hovered on the edge of the crowd.

The dance hadn’t started yet, and  people were just milling. J disappeared to say hi to another group of friends, and I ended up by myself, surrounded by people I didn’t know. They were all very nice and welcoming – J had told them all about me – but they were also cooler and prettier and more confident than me[1]. I felt painfully awkward. I’m not good with new people and I don’t do chit chat well. I perched on a chair on the far side of the table from everyone else, listening to conversations about people I didn’t know, and tried to look nonchalant. I felt like the dorkiest dork in the world.

It was easier at Pages, though. In smaller groups, and with a shared passion for Xena to start us off, I got to know these new friends. I got to see them geek out just like me, not just about tv shows, but about books and theatre. Most of them were pagan in one way or another. And a majority of the women identified as bisexual.

They were my safe space. I was still shy and I was still awkward, but I had such freedom to explore. I tried on so many different pieces, just to see how they fit. I wore leather trousers and metal bras, lacy goth, and revealing cyberpunk. I wore too much makeup, or none at all. I drank rum coolers and danced to cheeseball pop music. I played pass-the-icecube in the pub late one Saturday (mouth to mouth, with a little kissing, until there was nothing but a melting sliver on a cold tongue), with half a dozen other girls – no boys allowed – just because it felt good.

Saying goodbye to those girls, walking away in the middle of that exploration to go on tour with the circus was a shock to my system. In retrospect (and with huge irony, given the story of how I got the job) it was the worst possible timing.

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1. I sent this post to J, so she could read it before I made it public. I wanted to make sure she was okay with what I was writing. (She is.) And she replied:

“You know the funny part about this line? If you’d asked pretty much any of them, they’d have said the same thing about everyone else. [We] had a long talk about that once. And none of us ever realized we were the “cool kids” at Pages and at the cons until someone from outside the group told us. We were just being who we were and dressing how we wanted to. Perception is a funny thing.”

(BACK TO POST)

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Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name…

This evening, I intended to go to a new writers’ group. I found it in some local listings, and it’s been on my calendar for more than a week. I printed out copies of my piece and everything. I thought it would be a good chance to workshop a piece that’s getting ready for submission and to meet some new people at the same time.

I didn’t end up going. My day changed shape at the last minute – my boss turfed me out several hours earlier than expected, and I had a wide open slab of time to get some errands done I’d been stressing about finding time for. And by the time I’d gotten all of that done, I was on the wrong side of the city and had burnt out all of my energy.

There’s always next time.

And what ended up happening instead was so much more magical.

Back in late 1995 or early 1996, when the internet was just learning to crawl, I was a regular visitor to an mIRC channel. Internet Relay Chat. It was kind of a precursor to Twitter, I guess, but instead of individuals making statements, it was a giant conversation that everyone on the channel participated in. And there were no character limits. The channel I was a part of was all about Babylon 5, a science fiction television show that was airing at the time. That was meant to be the main topic of conversation, and it often was, but we talked about anything and everything. The people in that channel became good friends of mine, back in the day when people looked at you funny when you said you had friends on the internet.

I was a regular in the Babylon 5 channel until late 2000, when I moved away from home and started travelling with my job. I didn’t realise until today that it was a part of my life for five years. I’d never counted before.

In recent times, some of us from the channel have been finding each other on Facebook, and a couple of weeks ago a conversation with one of them led me to go exploring and see if mIRC is still a thing. It turns out that it is. So tonight, we decided on the spur of the moment to meet up on mIRC again. We rounded up as many of the old guard as we could. I was impressed and amazed at how many of us had stayed in contact, if not as a group, then in small pockets.

It was… mind-blowing. The program, for all intents and purposes, has not changed AT ALL in nearly 20 years. It still looks exactly the same as it did in 1996. Everyone reclaimed their old nicknames, and… it’s hard to explain. It was like a family reunion. Or a glimpse back in time. We talked about people I hadn’t thought of in years. We resurrected in jokes and old habits that were 15 years old. We struggled to remember commands and shortcuts that had once been second nature. (It’s as if, some time in the future, you found yourself struggling to remember a hashtag for the first time in two decades.) And I began to remember the physical construct the channel had once taken on in my head. It had an architecture, a geography. And furniture. There was a couch, a big couch in the middle of the room. And a tree. And with each comment, with each “do you remember…”, a new piece of that construct would come into focus. I could feel my brain stretching to find the old dusty files in the back corners of my memory. It was a wonderful experience.

And I’m so glad that I got to be a part of it. It was an excellent reward for my laziness.