After a year away I returned to my first and favorite SF convention, WisCon. I last attended in 2008, and had such a good experience that I sent Nalo Hopkinson flowers as thanks for having convinced me to go despite my incredulity. As good as 2008 was, this year was even better. A big part of the reason why relates to that pink thumbnail.
My WisCon began before I even got to Madison. While still in DFW airport I met up with Jen Volant, just parted from Meghan McCarron after flight delays forced them to take separate planes. Jen had been assigned the last standby seat on a direct flight to Madison, whereas Meghan had already boarded a plane to Minneapolis, where she would get a ride into Madison from Haddayr Copley-Woods and David Schwartz. Fortunately for me, though, Jen’s flight was the same as my own, and we got to sit next to each other chatting about interesting research in psychology and physics all the way to Wisconsin.
We were picked up at the airport by Karen Meisner. She took us to her (amazing!) house , and introduced us to (amazing!) Amal El-Mohtar. We chatted for a while in Karen’s library, then went to the Madison Concourse Hotel to check in to our rooms. Then it was off to the Guest of Honor reading at A Room Of One’s Own, one of the last remaning feminist bookstores in the country. The event began with the reading of Joanna Russ’s story, “When It Changed,” and then WisCon Guest of Honor Nisi Shawl read an excerpt from a story that was, I believe, published in one of this year’s WisCon publications. It involved oracular dreams about Michael Jackson, who would also be a subject of Nisi’s Guest of Honor speech on Day 4. (UPDATE: Karen points out in the comments that the story, “Pataki,” was originally published in Strange Horizons and can be read here.)
After the reading Jen went off to find Meghan, and I met up with roommates Keffy Kehrli and Liz Argall (who was to stay with us unti Liz Gorinsky arrived the next day). We ended up going out to a Japanese fusion restaurant with a group that included my former teacher Mary Anne Mohanraj, Kat Bayer, as well as a man named Alex. (Unfortunately, no one had name tags yet, and I didn’t get Alex’s last name written down. If you read this, let me know who you are!)
After dinner it was back to the hotel, where Keffy and I had a pleasant reunion with Geoff Ryman, our other former Clarion teacher who was at the con. We ended up in the bar, where Geoff bought us drinks, and I finally got to meet Rachel Swirsky and her husband Mike. Rachel is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and was extremely generous with her time when I emailed her out of the blue some months ago to ask about her workshop experience. It was lovely to finally meet her, and I ended up spending a long time at a table chatting publishing with Rachel, Keffy, Liz A., Kater Cheek, and Julie Andrews. Eventually the gin that Geoff poured into me had me feeling extra social, and I introduced myself to Gwenda Bond and reintroduced myself to Annalee Newitz, whom I had met previously when she gave a lecture at Trinity University. We discussed our favorite extinct megafauna. Eventually the bar began to empty, and Keffy, Liz A., and I went up to our room and crashed.
Spent a long, lazy morning in the room chatting with Liz A. and Keffy. Our phantom fourth roommate, Michael Underwood, had appeared sometime during the night, but was gone again before the rest of us got up. Eventually we got up and left the room, immediately running into Cat Valente who had the room across the hall. We ended up heading to lunch at a noodle place with Cat and several of her friends, whose names I failed to write down. (Were you at that lunch? Let me know who you are!) After lunch I went to the WisCon gathering and poked through stacks of ARCs. A little while later I got a call from Rachel, who wanted to introduce me to several of her students from when she was at Iowa. I met L Savich, Ryan Leeds, An Owomoyela, Jei, Sam Larsen-Ferree, and Jai Marcade. I also met Ann Leckie, who was not one of Rachel’s Iowa City students, but seems lovely all the same.
From there I went to a panel on autism and Asperger’s syndrome in fiction. Curiously, no one on the panel was actually on the autism spectrum. Haddayr commented on this and offered to give up her panel space to any audience member on the spectrum who wanted it, but no one accepted her offer. That turned out to be for the best, as Haddayr ended up being the most insightful of the panelists. There was another panelist who was woefully uninformed about autism issues and frequently made statements that were ignorant to the point of being offensive, such as characterizing autism as a mental illness and equating Asperger’s syndrome with psychopathy. Fortunately, Ryan Leeds, who is on the spectrum, was in the audience and called her on her more outrageous pronouncements, giving a much-needed insider perspective. Rachel Swirsky also was not shy with her displeasure, for which I was grateful. It was, as Haddayr later noted, a panel where the audience was educating the panelists.
From there I met up with Liz A., Jen, and Meghan (safely arrived in Madison), and went out to another Japanese restaurant with Ben Rosenbaum, Susan Marie-Groppi, and David Moles. Liz A. and I spent most of the dinner talking with Ben about Maimonedean Judaism, and attempted a positive construction of atheist principles. After the meal we walked around Madison until we found a FedEx store to make copies of the posters for the Genderfloomp Dance Party (about which, more later) and the We Have Always Captured the Castle reading (ditto). On the way we talked of generational shifts in feminism, SlutWalks, and things from childhood that fail to age well. On the way back I mostly talked about how I was cold and getting rained on, so Meghan, who was wearing many layers, lent me her jacket.
Back at the hotel it was time for the karaoke party. Liz A. sang “I Wanna Be Sedated,” and goaded me into finding something on the list to sing. None of my usual karaoke songs (i.e., songs that merely require speaking to a beat rather than singing) were on the list, so I ended up giving a first-time performance of “I Am The Walrus.” Ben, Amal, and David queued up “Like a G6,” but ignored the lyrics on the screen and instead performed “Roll a D6.” Meghan offered an astonishingly great rendition of “Born This Way,” complete with contextualizing editorial against theism and biological essentialism. Then I got to serve as one of several lascivious backup dancers for Liz A.’s performance of “I Touch Myself.” By that point it was pretty much equal parts karaoke and dance party, and it didn’t let up until well after midnight. When it was over I went up to the party floor and spent a while chatting with Rachel among the wreckage of the FOGcon party, but soon discovered that three hours of dancing had left my legs unable to keep me upright for extended periods of time, and so took them upstairs to bed.
Began my day by following Keffy down to the “Journeyman Writers’ Group” event, largely because it was being run by Vylar Kaftan, whom I wanted to meet. There was an interesting discussion of query letter verbiage, but overall I didn’t get a lot out of it. After that I spent some time in the lobby with Rachel who introduced me to Sarah Prineas, who lives in Iowa City and who let me know about the local SF writers’ group she’s involved with. While I was in the lobby I ran into Kelly-Sue DeConnick and Laurenn McCubbin, who I had been looking forward to meeting at the con, and planned a breakfast date for the next day. Then it was back upstairs for an important cosmetics appointment.
In response to my saying that I was not very good at it, Karen had the day before offered to paint my nails for the Genderfloomp Dance Party. I went up to my room to retrieve my cosmetics, and found Karen and Susan chatting at the 12th floor computer desk. Karen offered to do my nails right there, and produced some varnishes of her own she had brought for the purpose. We ended up doing a layer of bubblegum pink (mine) under a layer of glittery clear coat (Karen’s). It took me a while to internalize that I couldn’t use my hands normally right after my nails were painted, and Karen ended up having to redo a few of them, but eventually I figured it out. While my nails were drying I chatted with Karen and Susan about the distinctions between editorial vision and editorial bias, and as other people walked by they were drawn in by the salon atmosphere. Jen, Cat Valente, Gwenda Bond, and Theodora Goss all paused a while in the hallway to discuss fiction and cosmetics with us. Eventually my nails were dry and the next round of programming about to start, and the salon dispersed.
I went with Jen to the “…And Other Circuses” reading by Gwenda Bond, Richard Butner, Genevieve Valentine, and Christopher Rowe. Gwenda read the beginning of her circus-themed novel in progress. Richard read a story called “Backyard Everest” which was not circus themed in any way, but was great fun. Genevieve read an excerpt from Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, her novel which just sold out its first print run (I went to the dealer’s room an grabbed a copy immediately after the reading). (Side note: before the reading started I finally got to let Genevieve know that she seems to be the only other person on the planet who understands the fabulous wonderfulness of Flight of Dragons the same way I do. I agree with every letter of that link. Until I found a clean digital copy of the movie, it would have been impossible for me to justify having children.) Christopher read a circus-themed excerpt from his D&D novel, and then a non-circus-themed excerpt from another novel, the title of which (if it had one) I failed to record. After the reading I chatted with Christopher, Meghan, and Alice Kim, whom I had met 2 years ago and of whose writing I have since become a great fan.
I went to dinner with Keffy, Sunny Moraine, and Liz Fidler. We went to a pub food and beer restaurant, where the food was quite good, as was the company, but I unfortunately had to leave the meal early with a minor bout of Crohn’s issues. I went back to the hotel and read in my room for a couple of hours until they passed. When I was feeling better I headed to the Governor’s Club lounge to snack, and ended up hanging out with Kater, Nayad Monroe, Michael Thomas, Lynne Thomas, and Seanan McGuire. Seanan and I figured out that I had met her once before, when I was in elementary school and she was playing Little Red Riding Hood in the touring company of Into The Woods. This set a new life record for known delay between two meetings with the same person.
I caught the end of the always entertaining Tiptree auction with Keffy and Liz A. I got there just in time to see Geoff get held down while a Space Babe temporary tattoo was applied to his cheek. (A cheek on his face, as opposed to elsewhere, thanks to a $100 intervention by the Tiptree Motherboard.) I made a late, winning bid on an ARC of “The Alchemist” by Paolo Bacigalupi. Then I went up and fluttered around the parties on the 6th floor for a while. I ran into Meghan, Jen, and Alice in the hallway, and as we discussed physical fitness a group began to nucleate around us. Eventually we grew too large for the hallway and bounced around floors for a while looking for free couch space. Eventually we ended up in Meghan and Jen’s room with Kater, Geoff, Gwenda, Christopher, Richard, Karen Fowler, Ted Chiang, and Barbara Gilly. We talked about primatology, and played with some of the Genderfloomp party favors, and I won a dollar bet with Ted. Eventually people began to droop, and we all retired to our rooms.
I slept poorly and had a few seriously disturbing dreams. But this resulted in my being awake earlier than normal, so I was able to join Jen for a light breakfast in the Governor’s club lounge. Jen let me know that reservations for next year’s convention block of hotel rooms opened that morning, so I headed down to the lobby and booked a room for 2012. Then I waited for Kelly-Sue and Laurenn.
This breakfast was ten years in the making. I first interacted with Kelly-Sue on the Warren Ellis Forum when I was 17 years old. She was already one of the cleverest and most well-liked people in that community when teenager-E. J. first got there, looking to impress. Laurenn I don’t think I had ever previously interacted with online, but I remember that not long after I joined the WEF, people started talking about Laurenn’s book XXXLiveNudeGirls, and I soon became a great fan of Laurenn’s artwork. Kelly-Sue got married to a man she met on the forum and had children and became a comics translator and writer, and Laurenn kept making art and became an illustrator and comics artist. I became, well, me. Finally, after a decade: coffee, tea, and scrambled eggs.
Laurenn told me about her experiences getting an MFA, and about the visual media program she’s going back to grad school for, and told me that, based on our conversation, she thought I would do well as a grad student. Kelly-Sue congratulated me on Iowa and told me that she and her husband Matt had followed some of the younger WEFugees online over the years and that I hadn’t disappointed, which is one of those absurdly generous compliments that comes out of nowhere to knock your world slightly askew. We talked about Kelly-Sue’s career, and her children, and I got to tell her how an interview she gave while pregnant with her second child was crucial to helping me crack open the emotional core of a story I was writing. It was a delightful meeting with people I’d admired from afar for years, who turned out to be even more impressive in person. I hope I don’t have to wait ten more years for our next encounter.
After breakfast I went to the panel, “How to Respond Appropriately to Concerns About Cultural Appropriation,” and listened to Geoff, Rachel, Victor Raymond, and K. Tempest Bradford speak intelligently on the subject. Geoff had a comment I especially liked that cultural practices and artifacts are embedded in cultural context, and that severing them from their context to serve as set dressing in a story is a hallmark of poor writing. After that panel I stayed in the room for the next bit of programming, “Sibling of the Revenge of the Not Another F*cking Race Panel,” with Tempest, Amal, LaShawn Wanak, and two other people whose names I neglected to write down. (UPDATE: The other two were Candra Gill and Isabel Schechter.) This was almost all good fun, but was pretty much ruined for me by one guy who went up and made an ass of himself. His name was Ben, and he had already revealed himself as someone prone to boorish behavior at the karaoke party. He went up to ask a question, and my stomach twisted into knots at the car-crash-seen-through-a-window feeling that something bad was about to happen and I was powerless to stop it. Sure enough, he spent a few minutes with a microphone in his hand doing little other than harassing Amal. She handled him with great aplomb, but I, who frequently watch awkwardness comedies like The Office through the cracks in my fingers, had my face buried in my hands the whole time. Eventually the audience booed him and Tempest called him on spouting entitled nonsense and sent him back to his seat. After that the panel proceeded normally, but I was too keyed up to really enjoy it.
After the panel I left the hotel and went to Michelangelo’s for the “We Have Always Captured the Castle” reading with Ben, Jen, Meghan, David Moles, Amal, and Geoff. Ben read an excerpt of his novel in search of a title, in which multi-bodied humans of the far future scoff at the notion of colonizing other planets. Jen read a lyrical story of a fisherman with a magical boat. Meghan read an excerpt of her novel-in-progress, which was fantastic. (I’m just going to pause here to reiterate: Meghan McCarron is writing a novel. Get excited, tell your friends; this is a big fucking deal.) David read a story called, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Giant Robots.” Amal sang a song, recited a poem, and read a story. Geoff, being a gifted performer as well as a brilliant author, was made to go last. He read a monologue-style story about a man whose job is to collect evidence for war crimes trials in areas where rape is being used as a weapon of war. He embodied his main character, and the whole room was stone silent, and when the story ended it took us a good 15 seconds to remember to applaud. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. I had to remove my glasses because watching him perform while I listened to him became a little too overwhelming. It was a deeply disturbing and powerful piece.
Between the unpleasantness at the panel and the affecting end to the reading, I ended up a bit dazed. The sequence of events evoked a surge of social anxiety, and I wandered around feeling oddly insulated from my environment. Back at the hotel, Karen Meisner found me and asked, “Are you feeling a little lost?” She gave me a huge, unprompted bolus of acceptance and reassurance, and cemented my perception of her as one of the kindest and most gracious people I’ve ever met. I headed up to my room to wait out my already ebbing funk, and commiserated with Keffy, who was also feeling shaken after an unpleasant encounter with someone possessed of a very poor understanding of how to be a trans ally. We chilled for a while, talking and reading. Then I went to have a dinner of snacks from the Governor’s lounge before heading down to listen to the Joanna Russ memorial and the Guest of Honor speeches, both of which were moving. I did not, though, stay to watch the Tiptree Award presentation, because it was time to prepare for the Genderfloomp Dance Party.
Meghan had told me she was planning the Genderfloomp dance party with Liz G. some months prior to the con, when we were hanging out in Austin. The mandate: “We seek to explore and expand our concepts of gender via booty-shaking.” The motto: “Fuck the binary, let’s boogie.” When she told me about the event, Meghan also mentioned that all the guys she had told responded with something like, “Sounds fun, do I have to dress up?” and preemptively assured me that I could attend even if I was unwilling to do drag. By implicitly doubting my commitment to sparklemotion, Meghan ensured that I would go absolutely overboard. I gave myself a $50 budget and spent two weeks putting an outfit together, getting lessons in fashion and cosmetics from hand-picked representatives from the San Antonio community theater crowd. I color-coordinated my accessories and bought ankle boots. I grew a beard just so I could shave it off before the dance. I was shooting for dazzling.
The dance was easily my favorite con programming. It was joyous and human and enthusiastic and exhausting. People made shadow puppets, twirled feather boas, kicked off their shoes and pasted on mustaches. There was a dance contest, which Keffy won after an epic one-on-one battle with Ben. I won Best Dressed, along with another fellow whose name, I believe, was Tom. At some point Liz A., Keffy, Amal, and I went up to the photobooth on the 6th floor and posed for floompy pictures. As the winners of Best Dancer and Best Dressed respectively, Keffy and I had to pose for a fight picture:
While up in the photobooth, we stood in a circle and gave each other new names. I named Liz A., “Lionel Cho, disgraced patent attorney.” Liz A. named Keffy, “Charles Beauregard, construction worker at large.” Keffy named Amal, “Gus Wrigley, accountant to the stars.” Amal named me, “Cynthia Sparklepants, party princess.” These names have been immortalized in the WisCon 35 Photobooth Flickr stream. That silliness done, we went back to the dance party and boogied until we dropped. The crowd did eventually begin to thin out, but there was a group of post-floomp hardcore who stuck around until 5:00 am, which included myself, Anthony Ha, Karen, Ben, Liz A., Liz G., Amal, Alice, and Meghan. But even we had to, eventually, call it a night. Hopefully there will be more floomping at future WisCons. For more pictures of Genderfloomp, you can view my Picasa album, or Meghan’s Flickr album.
Travel day. After packing away my cosmetics and jewelry, I had a quick breakfast in the Governor’s lounge with Keffy, Mike Underwood, Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders (both of whom had cut up the dance floor something fierce the night before). Then checkout, a sprint through the airport to catch my plane, and a lot of sitting around until I found myself back in San Antonio, WisCon behind me, the Texas sun sparkling off of my fingernails.