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FanFest In Review: Welcome Back to Camp

Mariners FanFest was this weekend, and I attended both days along with Meg, because what are friends for if not to feed the weirder animals in your personal menagerie?

We love Camp Mariners, oh yes we do, to the blue, we shall be true
We love Camp Mariners, oh yes we do, to the blue, we shall be true
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

FanFest is the first and last days of summer camp telescoped into one weekend, done in the dazzling days of midwinter rather than summer’s languorous sprawl, everyone shivering and shaking rain from their jackets as you wait for the gates to open, casting glances at people who seem familiar but might as easily be strangers, all of you clustered together under this one identity, wearing your camp t-shirts, a sea of blue and green (and a few newcomers who wear shirts from that other camp across the street, that bigger and pricier camp, and you keep a safe distance from them) and a few veterans who are wearing shirts that were made before you ever came to this camp, and move around this place like it’s a second home.

You study your list of activities and plot a route in your head and then the gates open and you’re swept along and all your plans scud away like clouds as you step over the threshold and into a place where the air hums gently with excitement, even on this day where no numbers on the scoreboard will turn, nothing will be decided other than yourself and your relation to this place for the coming season, how much of it you will carry with you when you leave, this place that is both home and not-home. The athletic kids make a break for the field, to zipline and swing bats and throw balls and walk on grass and dirt that is just regular grass, regular dirt, but made holy by being enclosed in this space, and when a very small girl kneels down and fills her palm with infield dirt and regards it like it is a handful of magic, you will nod in understanding, because you were that girl once—it is what draws you and everyone else here, that casual promise of magic—and you resist the urge to do the same, and instead make the turn into the nearest dugout. If you wanted, you could climb the stairs to the top corner of this place and see the button that opens and closes the roof; you could visit the bank of windows where people who are paid actual cash money to write about baseball gaze over the field (you will think, idly, of Roman emperors and gladiators); you could visit the clubhouse and wonder who hogs the most space, who is messy, who sneaks an extra cookie off the snack tray. Today is the day where forbidden spaces become unforbidden. A liminal space, a crossing-over place, however brief, but today you stand as equal to this place and the people within it; today everyone is a fan.

There is a new Camp Director this year, and he has brought a new Head Counselor, and you go to listen to them talk, to hear them explain themselves. This is what several other campers want—an explanation, an accounting; some seem to want a personal apology (things haven’t been going well at camp)—and the new Director entertains them all. He is charming but firm, honest but kind, just the right amount of humorous, and relentlessly articulate. He does not say “uh” when answering questions, that is how committed he is to what he is saying and how it expresses his vision. He is also handsome and well-dressed and you don’t want to admit that this positively influences your opinion of him but it does. You didn’t realize, before, how sloppy things had become, and you sit up a little straighter, and you notice everyone around you is doing the same.

Then you wander off to find some campers you know, some people you recognize. Everyone is the same, but different. You wonder if you, too, are noticeably different, if anyone would notice even if you were. James lost weight and has an easy smile as he grips your hand. Tai got a girlfriend and they’re everywhere together and it’s like he flipped a switch labeled “adult” as he looks out for the littlest campers, makes sure they’re having a good time. Charlie’s best friend moved away but instead of shrinking into himself he’s opening up even more, running for Class President and Class Clown all at the same time. There are a bunch of new people also, crowding in with their hopes and dreams, and you try to make them feel welcome, because you want them to love your camp like you do. “Have a great season,” you say again and again. “Have a great season,” everyone says, and the chant echoes enough that you begin to believe, everyone believes, it will be true.

And this is what keeps you coming back, year after year. You shake your hibernating self out into the cold world to stand in lines and walk up stairs and never know where the nearest bathroom is so you can have this perfect day, a day with no expectations and no requirements other than to explore this space with people who are, in some way, your kin: everyone from the pimpled paper-passer working his first job to the woman leaning on a cane as she walks determinedly to an autograph session to the elderly couple in matching outfits planning a spring training strategy as they wait in line for coffee—you are all bound together today in hope.

Then, at the very end of the last day, when most people have gone home to continue crossing days off calendars, Charlie will get up and do karaoke. Earlier when you saw him speak he was measured and thoughtful, but the crowd is sparse now, and he puts on a wig and glasses and says "let's do this." He sings, badly but loudly, and encourages everyone else to sing, and we do. He does some dance moves (one of them involves jumping off a chair and you worry briefly for his safety). The space shrinks down and you are possessed by an intense feeling of belonging. This place is your place, these people are your people, this man singing karaoke until he is literally red in the face belongs to you, and you wouldn’t have it any other way.