Friday, September 16, 2011

SpoCon 2011: Meandering ... Part One

SpoCon 2011:
Meandering Through Spokane’s Home Grown
Science Fiction
Fantasy Convention


Wally Lee Parker

(all rights to this material retained by the author)

Part One
“Its heart is in the right place even if all its ducks aren’t in the water”

            During the Comic Con held at Spokane Community College this spring, we picked up a small glossy card advertising SpoCon described as being “Spokane’s Local Sci-fi/Fantasy Convention”.  We considered this promo-card just another mild curiosity just another one of the gazillion little freebees found at the comic convention.  And that was it right up until the wife noticed that the promo-card listed author Patricia Briggs as the convention’s “Guest of Honor”, and that Dan Dos Santos the illustrator responsible for all the covers for Patricia’s bestselling “Mercy Thompson” urban fantasy series was listed as “Guest Artist”.
            No turning back now.
            My wife another Patricia is a voracious reader of most anything to do with vampires, werewolves, and the like.  She immediately fell in love with the Mercy Thompson character.  The fact that Mercy’s adventures take place in the Tri-Cities area of southeastern Washington State, not that many miles from our Spokane home, only adds to the allure.  And the idea that my wife might finally get to meet one of her favorite writers sent me searching the internet for SpoCon references as well as questioning everyone I know as to what they might know about past incarnations of SpoCon.

            The Spokane sci-fi and gaming convention appears to largely be a local fanboy (and fangirl) endeavor although there are doubtless some regional and national organizations involved as well.  That’s just to say that in appearance this seems a fan-based, shoestring operation aimed primarily at gamers; meaning a local event not pretending to aspire to the level of such as Seattle’s Emerald City, and more attuned to those that enjoy one to one combat across the top of a gaming table.  That lack of pretense is good, since taking on airs tend to suffocate the spontaneity of home-grown events.
            And after all the disparaging remarks about former SpoCons were shuffled through, even the convention’s critics felt the really important thing was that Spokane was at least trying to have a convention of its own.  Those critics may not think it worth the $35 weekend pass, but the idea still seems something worth trying.
            Let me reiterate that the lack of polish associated with SpoCon is not necessarily a bad thing.  As with any non-professional production, there’s a learning curve involved.  Over time problems do get sorted and things do get better as long as everyone is willing to learn.  The first part of leaning is to take a cleansing breath, pull in the defensive hackles that tend to plug the ears to even creative criticism, and take a realistic look around.  Then go with your strengths.
            I was raised in the Clayton/Deer Park area north of Spokane.  My original idea of a parade float was a flatbed trailer being pulled by an Oliver or Ford-Ferguson tractor.  Cardboard and crepe paper may not be as sophisticated as one-hundred thousand fresh cut roses, but when one of the princesses on the float is your eldest sister, that’s worth more than all the roses imaginable to a six year old.  Just like giant fairs and giant parades, what the giant conventions are likely to lack is that down-home sense of community.
            On occasion I’ve heard Spokane referred to as an overgrown cow-town.  Well, not so much since we lost the stockyards and the attending aroma.  Still, what people seem to be thinking is that the city lacks that sophisticated edge though I suspect the town more than makes up for any such shortcomings by its abundance of backdoor economic swindles and overt political shenanigans.  Kind of like our super-sophisticated congress.  If one were to revisit the cow metaphor you might say; if Spokane were a pie, it would consist of a topping of pretentious, well-greased bible-belt gentry crusted over a sour redneck filling.  Again kind of like congress. 
            I do worry that the rednecks might rightly consider such a close association with Spokane’s gentry or even worse, congress an insult.  So let me clarify that I agree with comedian Jeff Foxworthy’s stipulation that the term “redneck” means little more than an individual or group possessing “a glorious lack of sophistication.”  Most rednecks I know are more than willing to accept that assessment as it is intended a non-critical observation of the obvious.  The rednecks that give pause are the ones that fail to see themselves as other might which means those that fail to see themselves with any degree of humor.
            It reminds me of one such redneck who was more than willing to punch me out because I suggested Dolly Parton had had a boob job.  Assuming that’s the standard, it’s a sorrowful day for the now soiled virtue of southern women.  After all, Dolly settled the question herself when she said, and I quote, “I’ve had a boob job.”  For those of us who understand that feminine virtue is found in the heart, not in the stifling corset of society’s apologetic myth of femininity (a dichotomy resulting when the object of such ornate chivalry is otherwise reduced to a state of second-class citizenship), Dolly a humanitarian of considerable reputation remains a first-class southern belle despite any surgical augmentation such a hard-headed business woman might need to titillate the fantasies of the more emotionally stunted members of her male fan base.
            And let me add as a card-carrying member of the working-class that it’s amazing how many carousing, drunken defenders of womanhood have no problem going home and beating their wives to a pulp if so inclined.  Which indicates that the above described example of Dollywood chivalry is just one of those boastful little fantasies one often hears loudly expounded to the nearest available barmaid.
            In the final analysis, once you wash away the unique colloquialisms, rednecks are just working class people with mannerisms rooted to the rural.  I know that as a fact because my own people were farmers from the Ozarks, and our family history is well peppered with anecdotes from the War of Northern Aggression and the Great Okie Migrations told in a brogue that others consider “quaint” if you get my drift.
            Being considered quaint which usually settles out as being considered backward does on occasion hurt.
            My mother, orphaned at an early age, only had a second grade education.  Coupling that with the residual of her Okie brogue, it always bothered her that others might think her backward.  On the other hand, she was smart enough to try to teach us that people needed to be judged on things other than the airs they assume.  Her answer was always, “What’s important is the difference ‘tween how they treat you when everyone’s lookin’ and how they treat you when no one’s lookin’.”  So when one of my sisters worried that her own kids might pick up some of Mom’s uneducated Okie brogue suggested Mom take a speech class, Mom lit up like a Roman candle.  “I taught you better!”
            As for other examples of our redneck lack of sophistication, I recall the time one of my plumper aunts told my mother, “Hon, I found the best diet.  I can eat anything I want as long as I take two tablespoons of Epsom salts in a glass of water right after.”
            My mom came back with, “That’s a laxative!  You’re just shooting your food through before it has any time to digest!”
            “Yeah, I know,” my aunt replied.  “Ain’t it wonderful?”
            Likewise, if your expectation of sci-fi fandom includes a similar inherent lack of sophistication sophistication in this case being defined as a notable dearth of commercial polish then you’re well on your way to being able to integrate into the gentile joke called fandom.
            Being a retired person who spends a fair amount of money on comic books, I’ll most certainly allow you to become as incensed as you wish at my discloser that fandom is a gentle joke.  I’m going to allow you to become incensed because I spent the majority of my working life around pain.  I’ve waded through human blood, vomit, spittle, feces, and tissue.  I’ve seen both the best and the worst of humanity and I want to tell you sincerely, if it wasn’t for all the misery, life would be quite nice.  Fandom is escape.  Fandom is a fantasy and as such it’s a joke.  And it’s also a blessing.  The insanity of fandom, oddly enough, can become a quiet pool of sanity if one doesn’t become too enraptured.  The fans I enjoy being around are the ones that are in on the joke.  No matter how serious they seem to be, they understand that fandom is just a diversion.  As for being around the others as for being around those taking their entertainment with such a grim seriousness that they’d throw down the gauntlet at something as benign as a suggestion Wonder Woman might have augmented boobs there’s not so much joy in being around those kinds of people, and apparently not all that much joy for them in being around themselves either.
            That’s just to say that the gentleman willing to punch me out in defense of his Dolly Parton fantasy was likely not one of life’s happier campers — as is most any sci-fi/fantasy fan that has lost his or her sense of humor to the dark side. 
            But then, we all have our off days.  Whenever I find myself become more insufferable than even I can stand, I just recall one of dozens of little incidents I’ve been witness to that tend to draw life into perspective incidents such as the morning I received a call from a nurse on the surgical unit.  She was rattled.  “Wally, everybody else up here is busy.  This isn’t something I can ask housekeeping to help me with, but I can’t do it myself.  Please.”
            She warned me, but it was still too much to take in.  The patient had set himself up on the side of the bed, legs dangling, for breakfast.  His breakfast tray was setting on his over-bed table.  The nurse had pulled the table away when she charged into the room at the screams of the room’s other patient.  The deceased was still sitting, but slumped against the bed’s headboard.  All this was shielded from the hallway by a curtain all this was shielded except for the large smear of blood on the floor.
            Death was pretty obvious.  There’s nothing like it.  The color was a wash to near cinematic black and white overcoated with that odd kind of blue we’d see in the cathode glow of early television screens.  It’s unique in that there’s a waxy translucence to human skin that makes real death hard to emulate with makeup.  And there’s a droop to the face.  All the little ticks and tremors and tensions are gone.  People like to say it’s a look of peace, but what’s really left is perhaps better described as a soul-deep weary.
            And the cause of death?  Well, there’s blood everywhere.
            This not-all-that-old man had an “inoperable” esophageal aneurism.  A weakness in the wall of his body’s massive central artery was ballooning out against and into his esophagus where the rubbing caused by the act of swallowing was slowly eroding through the patient’s thinning artery.  The artery would eventually rupture.  And everyone including the patient knew that when the ballooning artery finally broke, blood would gush up his throat and out of his mouth.  Unconsciousness would follow in seconds.  And death from exsanguination shortly thereafter.
            The patient had been sitting on the side of the bed, just starting his breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, and orange juice.  Perhaps not the best diet for someone with an esophageal aneurism but what the hell.
            “When I got in the room the only thing I could think of was that the patient would drown in all that blood,” the nurse related.  “I was ready to run for a suction kit when it struck me that any kind of intervention was ridiculous.  Thankfully he was unconscious.  The blood flow was already slowed to near nothing.  And there was nothing to do but let the process finish itself.”
            There’s a reason “and never do harm to anyone” is a clause within the Hippocratic Oath.  Sometimes doing anything will in fact do nothing but harm.  Death isn’t always an enemy.  But for most nurses it takes special training to be able to accept that.  It’s not in their nature.  And watching people die in endless repetition wears away something especially when you know that dying is for the best.  Still, it tends to breaks something deep inside the care giver.  Those who work with the dying can sometimes become callous to it all, but more than likely they break themselves into alternate selves the clinician and the other.  And you learn to read those who have two such souls.  There’s a subtlety and sadness etched into the face.  There’s an odd, deliberate grace to their movements.  Perhaps most evident in the oncology nurses the cancer nurses.  Soldiers who have seen too much often have that same look, that same not-quite-in-phase distractedness.
              All that was left for us on that long ago morning was the cleaning process somewhat helped by the blood’s congealed state.  Perhaps the worst part was pulling the jellified mass of blood and scrambled eggs out of the patient’s mouth.  And then cleaning a pint or two of the same off his breakfast tray.  And all this time wondering how much awareness there was for the patient in those last few seconds?  Was it surprise, panic, pain, terror, or just curiosity at where all that blood was coming from?  Or maybe just an overwhelming sense of sadness?
            Having lived with so much death, having held a fair number of hands as life left the body, having stood by helplessly time and again as decades memory storied in the organic wetware of the brain dissipates in those first few minutes after death, I’ve grown a bit weary myself.  Too weary to tolerate making something seem far more important than it is.
            Which would beg the question; when an order of importance is placed on all the possible choices that arise between birth and death, what’s the proper place for fandom?  It’s not something like your native intelligence, your sexual orientation, skin color, or your grandmother’s criminal record; you know the things you really don’t have that much choice in.  Fandom is something you become a part of because you want to.  To me, an angry, obnoxious, overtly serious fan is someone obviously in the wrong pew.
            As for the apparent lack of sophistication at most fan events, maybe what’s really needed here is a clearer definition of the term sophistication.  To me there’s nothing more sophisticated than common sense.  It reminds me of a little piece of advice I once read in Playboy magazine.
            Let me preface this by saying that among those generally classified as neo-conservatives, Playboy is perhaps the most hated corporation in America (and hating corporations is a hard swallow for neo-conservatives considering the compromising positions most are willing to assume in their corporate relationships).  In fact, it may be that Playboy is the only corporation neo-conservatives hate more than the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  And the reason is found in the articles the neo-conservatives don’t want you reading.  (Yes, I’m implying that objecting to the photographs is just a smoke screen.)  Their real objection has to do with the fact that Playboy has long been a fairly effective proponent of integration, women’s right, gay rights, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, a sense of journalistic responsibility to the Bill of Rights (though I do disagree with Playboy’s stance on the Second Amendment) and the welfare of the Republic, and most every other of the rights and moral imperatives that tend to piss neo-conservatives off.  Attacking Playboy feeds into that sadomasochistic right-wing fantasy of breaking all dissidents to their righteous will kind of like what the Jesuits attempted during the Inquisition.  After all, both groups the neo-conservatives and the Order of Jesuits have at one time or another come out in favor of “interrogatorio mejorado del agua” which translates out as “water enhanced interrogation.”  And both groups have traditionally had a remarkable percentage of their membership engaged in closeted and often bazaar sexual activities most often in direct opposition to their avowed beliefs and carefully staged public personas.
            But I digress.
            I believe it was back in the late 1960s that a man wrote to the Playboy Advisor asking something to this effect.  “I was sitting at a bar when another gentleman approached and started to chat.  It took me awhile to realize I was being propositioned.  At first I was mad.  I had no idea what I had done that would make him think I was that way.  Finally I just waved him away and left the bar.”
            The writer went on, “I’ve asked several of my colleagues how I should have handled something like that, and the usual response was that I should have beat the propositioner to a pulp.  There’s got to be a better answer.”
            The Playboy Advisor replied, “Try doing what sophisticated women do when confronted with an unsolicited proposition.  Look the gentleman in the eye and say, ‘I’m not interested.’  If it needs to be taken any further than that, rest assured you’ve already done the proper thing, and however uncomfortable things get from there on out is totally up to the other.”
            And that leads me to believe that one of the indicators of sophistication is a measured response that makes sense.
            This brings me around to an opinion of SpoCon from someone who has seen a lot of conventions.  Mike Briggs freely admits that he is the voice behind his wife’s website.  Writing best-selling urban fantasy takes such a large part of Patricia Briggs’ time, she can’t do the website justice.  So Mike takes on that duty along with a lot of the more mundane nuisances involved when it comes to Pat’s convention appearances.  Regarding SpoCon, Mike wrote, “It’s young and they’re struggling a little with finding the perfect facilities for a growing convention, but the leadership is superb.”  Since Mike has been dealing directly with SpoCon’s leadership, he should know.
            I’ve attended two conventions now, Mike Briggs has attended dozens.  If he is essentially saying that SpoCon has its heart is in the right place — even if all its ducks aren’t in the water I’ll go with that.  At least SpoCon is still small enough to have a heart.
            One suggestion I have for the SpoCon group is to apply a bit more expository chat to their website.  People are constantly asking why they can’t buy day-passes at reduced prices as opposed to a three day membership.  The closest I got to an explanation was that it had to do with licenses and taxes.  Selling only three day memberships allowed the group to maintain its status as a convention.  If the group sold day-passes, such would move them into the ‘event’ category and require a whole new set of overlying licenses and taxes.  Simply said, the group can’t afford to sell day passes.
            Another little problem with the website; I followed a link to pre-registering and found a form I was supposed to fill out and mail.  I began the process of filling the material out and noticed that the place indicated for the convention on the form was different than the Doubletree Hotel as mentioned on the website.  Closer investigation indicated that I had been directed to last year’s pre-registration form which means I would have been sending in too little money for a no longer existent event.  That was a bit confusing.        I sent an email to one of the contacts mention on the website and was sent a link to the proper page.  For next year, a cleaner path to pre-registering would be appreciated.
            Very much a plus was that we were able to do everything online, including paying with PayPal.  It always makes me more comfortable to not have to send a credit card number to an essentially unknown entity and a few otherwise reputable companies and groups have lost my business simply because they don’t offer that service.
            I promptly received a confirmation notice by email.  Since I sent our order in late May, by the beginning of August I was getting a bit concerned.  Though I’d gotten a confirmation, I had not received any explanation on when I was going to receive the passes themselves.  When August arrived but no passes, I sent to following to the website.
            “I’m more than a little fuzzy on how all this works.  I’ve ordered two of the 1 x 3 Day Adult Badges from the SpoCon store and apparently, as a result, have been listed on the SpoCon website as a member of the “Inland Northern Science Fiction & Fantasy Gaming Association” for the last five weeks and two days.  What has not been made clear at least I’ve been unable to find any clarification of this on your website is what happens now.  Our confirmation email included details regarding our badge numbers and such but I’ve no idea if these IDs are going to be mailed to us, if these are to be picked up at the hotel on the first day of the convention, or what.  I’d be grateful for a little guidance on all this.”
            In short order I received this reply from “Carol”.  “The badges and your packets will be waiting for you at the registration table in the pre-registration section. I look forward to seeing you.”
            That most certainly did help, but being old and easily confused, I still had to write one more note to the website.
            “I seem to be finding all kinds of little problems as I try to wade through all the stuff on the SpoCon website.  The latest issue involves signing up for the various events using the website system.  The wife and I have registered to stay at the Doubletree during the convention, and I want to make sure we’re both able to take advantage of everything offered.  The wife is especially looking forward to meeting Patricia Briggs.  Our immediate problem is how to get signed up for the events we want to attend using the system provided on the website.  I’m assuming the system is considered intuitive by the organizers because little guidance is provided, but I certainly can’t make sense of it.” 
            Within a few hours I received this in reply.
            “I’m sorry for the confusion.  The website system is somewhat new and not ideal by any means.  All you’re doing when you sign up for an event on the website is create a printable schedule intended for your personal use.  Events at the Con itself are offered on a first come bases with no sign-up needed.  If it’s likely to be a popular event the Masquerade, Steampunk Spectacular, and other large events arrive a bit early. 
            “As for Patty Briggs, I am very confident you will get to meet Patty at some point over the weekend.  She is very public and very approachable.
            “If you have any other questions, please feel free to ask.”
            So the website is confusing, but the people with the answers are readily accessible.  This is good.
… to be continued …

Jump to Part #2 of SpoCon 2011.

Jump to Part #3 of SpoCon 2011.

Jump to Part #4 of SpoCon 2011.

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