I’ve been fond of Pi-Con since I first discovered this friendly little con held in Enfield, CT. Some of my best con experiences have been there, or on route there. Also, some of my most memorable experiences (e.g., Hurricon). Being invited to 8Pi-Con as their “Guest of Awesome” was surprising and flattering, so I was especially looking forward to it this year. And, once again, they managed to out-do themselves with friendliness, hospitality, and intellectual chocolate.
A newbie to Pi-Con came to the post-con feedback session and spoke up to say how much he enjoyed the con. He said he was nervous at first, but was welcomed almost instantly and swept up in the experience. “It isn’t as all cliquish,” he said. And I think that may be one of the most important things that characterizes Pi-Con. If there’s a knot of folks talking about something, and you wander over, it isn’t like what I’ve experienced at some cons, where you’re given a fishy, evaluating eye, being judged whether you are qualified to join the conversation. Instead, you are much more likely to get noticed and dragged in with eager inclusion. Pi-Con is the convention equivalent of a conga line. Everybody is having a ball, and they’ll pull you out of your chair or your spot in the shadows against the wall and cheer you into the line.
As Guest of Awesome, I got included in the planning stages this year. I helped out here and there over the prior weeks, not doing all that much. Then I saw the frantic posts just before the con as they wracked their collective brains trying to figure out how to transport some large pieces of equipment from their storage facility in Somerville, MA to the con. I hate driving anywhere within nuclear blast distance of Boston, but realized they were in a pickle and I could help. So I ended up going down a day early to meet a couple of the staff folk and get seven-foot grids strapped to the roof of my car and every spare inch inside packed with boxes and sound equipment. It all went smoothly and I made it to the hotel by nine o’clock Thursday evening.
I was rooming with last year’s Pi-Con Guest of Awesome, Broad Universe president Trisha Wooldridge (she’s also a senior editor for Spencer Hill Press and a published writer). So there was an awful lot of awesome in that room. What made it even grander was that we were in Rm. 221. Of course a “B” had to be added to it. (And, in classic Pi-Con spirit, when someone on the staff noticed this, they had to renumber the Board Room next door as “221A”.)
Trisha and I were joined by Lisa Amowitz, another author with Spencer Hill and a panelist at the convention. Trisha and Lisa were there early, too, participating in a publisher’s retreat in the same hotel. So we settled in the room that evening together, staying up until one am drinking Scotch and playing Cards Against Humanity.
The first day of a con is like when the circus comes to town. Everything is exciting as the roustabouts set up the tents and the animals roar and trumpet (in our case, it was vendors setting up shop and tech people roaring and trumpeting at one another (and at con chair Jeff Warner) making sure sound systems worked and rooms had the equipment presenters needed. By mid-afternoon the registration table was in place and attendees were starting to arrive. Some panelists rolled in at the last minute. I was out for a stroll and encountered David Larochelle driving in circles in the parking lot searching for a space less than an hour before his “How to Think Good” panel (with Ari Alpert, Carl Fink and Dr. James Prego; I checked out the panel and it was good indeed, the discussion centering around common errors in thinking and how to use the methodologies of science to correct them.)
There are, of course parties, as there are at any con worth its salt. The place to be Friday night was the Broad Universe party ( held in our room in Dealer’s Row which doubled as the Broad Universe and Spencer Hill Press outlet). Heads up, people: If you ever go to a con and see that Broad Universe is having a party, you must go and bring your appetite. They always have the best food. No bowls of taco chips and salsa from a jar; no supermarket trays of boring veggies and dip. BU offers things like Oreo cookie cheesecakes, cucumber sandwiches, pickled asparagus, eggplant dip, and other delicacies. And chocolate. Always chocolate, in assorted varieties, with and without nuts. Actually, there are always nuts. They are generally in charge of the room.
At one point we had a magician named Jeff Kempton pop in. He was with the burlesque show going on the “main tent”, but ended up coming back to the BU party after his gig to wow us with his tricks and comic patter. Should you ever need a magician, he does not have a website, but you can contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My schedule was rather a marathon, so I didn’t have the opportunity to attend a lot of the events and panels going on, like mask-making, the drum circle, filking, costuming, the sari-wrapping workshop, and belly-dancing for nerds, not to mention the other vendors selling cool books, outfits, dorkware and gear. For a small con, it was amazing all the stuff going on.
At 11am on Saturday I had the privilege of doing an interview with Allen Steele, the writer guest of honor who, aside from being a prolific and multiple award-winning author, is a tireless promoter of the human exploration of space. He was easy to interview. I just needed to wind him up and let him go. I fed him the topics he loves to discuss: Space, first contact, and how we are going to get there. With the US government backing away from space in an appalling abdication of intelligent leadership responsibility, it will fall to the private sector and perhaps cooperative ventures among various other governments to get the job done. First contact may be risky (Stephen Hawking has warned that it may not go at all well for us) but Allen is cautiously optimistic.
We had a few minutes left at the end of the hour, so I mentioned that Allen had done a short stint as a Washington correspondent back in the 80s, and asked him what he took away from that. He grinned, talked a bit about how he arrived there with high hopes, only to beat a hasty retreat. Then he told us the story of how his picture ended up on the front page of the newspaper as he shuffled past the White House, apparently bent into the teeth of a wild winter storm going on at the time. What the photographer did not know was that Allen was not fighting against the wind, but fighting for his life, attempting to give himself the Heimlich maneuver after wolfing down too quickly a hot dog purchased from a street vendor. (He succeeded, which why he lives to tell the tale.)
After that great beginning, I went on to a blur of panels and events, including the Broad Universe Rapid Fire Reading (which I recorded for a future BroadPod podcast) and the Panel in the Pool, which is a tradition moderated by Jeff Warner and set literally in the hotel pool with participants in bathing suits. Watery subjects are discussed, this time the remarkable news, recently released, about Ctenophores or comb jellyfish, which it turns out aren’t really jellyfish at all. In fact, genomic sequencing reveals that they are from a different branch of the Earthly evolutionary tree altogether. Among other things that make them remarkable, they have evolved a nervous system that uses a completely different chemical language, which developed independently from the rest of the animal kingdom.
We spent a happy hour splashing in the pool and discussing the implications for alien life forms and where in the solar system (or indeed in the universe) we may be likely to find alien life. Crikey the alligator, as is also the tradition, lurked nearby in the bushes, but was silent on the subject. He was waiting. To attack.
The elegant Steampunk Tea, to which I had been invited, was directly after the Panel in the Pool, so I wrapped myself in my Dr. Who bathrobe and hustled on over. I felt terribly out of place among all the posh costumes and assorted frippery, but in good Pi-Con form, I was made to feel welcome by organizer Deb Chowdhury and the experts who were serving proper cups of tea to go with our scones, fruit and clotted cream. I tried not to drip on the scones.
Incidentally, I owe a great debt to Jeff Warner. He knows why.
My panels all went well, with interested and engaged audiences (and we didn’t have to adjourn to the bar once due to the members of the panel outnumbering the audience, as is con protocol). Thanks to Lisa Evans, Suzanne Reynolds-Alpert, Kate Kaynak, Dr. James Prego, Grant Carrington, Allen Steele, Mario Di Giacomo, Ellen Larson, and Michelle Wexelblat who contributed their opinions and expertise to those conversations. Our last one for Saturday was “Asexuality: the Ultimate Taboo?” which took place at 9 that evening. I was pessimistic about the attendance, seeing as we were up against “Machinery of Joy”, a panel on robot sex, with Grant Carrington, Jennifer Pelland and George W. Claxton, very stiff competition indeed (ahem). Ellen, Michelle and I sat at the table, gloomily resigned to being upstaged, then watched in astonishment as the room began to fill up. To our amazement it was the other panel that had to give up and adjourn for lack of interest. Dear me. I did feel badly for Jen, George and Grant, but I must confess, our victory was sweet. What was even better though, was what happened at the panel. It was one of those rare and wonderful occasions where people had come, not knowing quite why or what to expect, and left with profound insights about themselves and others.
I know I learned a lot, and was frankly stunned to find out just how many people out there identify as, or at least can relate to some aspect of being asexual. Individuals admitted to feeling awkward and pressured into entering into sexual relationships with partners they are romantically involved with, even though they are far more into it for the love and companionship than for the sex. It’s expected; if you don’t desire someone physically, they presume it isn’t “true love.” I honestly had no idea, and I had the impression many members of the audience didn’t know it was a thing, either. But they started “coming out” all over the place. Because this was the last panel of the day, and no one else needed the room, many folks hung around to talk long after. Michelle Wexelblat, who is a clinical social worker, was deeply interested and moved down into the audience to talk with them. I stayed for a while, but then had to go. It had been a long day and I was burned out. Besides, Barfleet was calling.
Okay, I’ve ranted about Barfleet often enough in past post-con posts that I won’t bore my readers with more of it here. Suffice to say, they host parties at select conventions that can’t be beat. Music, fabulous drinks, and an atmosphere which fits perfectly with the Pi-Con tradition of friendly, safe and inclusive. No cameras allowed, because they want folks to feel safe letting themselves relax and explore the perhaps naughtier parts of their nature. No harassment allowed either, again, because they are determined that their guests feel safe. Operation Hammond is on call (“Nerds helping nerds in times of need”) for those who have a bit too much fun, or make the mistake of sampling an excess of horta or speaking aloud the name of Y-T (I just learned the significance of this Barfleet drinking ritual and am sworn to secrecy).
There are a number of Barfleet chapters spread across the country; our local one is the UBS Shameless, with Captain Rhandom Bhagczech who, by the way, recently had a baby. (The Captain brought the bairn by earlier in the day and I got to meet her. I’m not much for babies, but damned if this wasn’t cutest little bugger I ever did see.) There was much speculation as to whether the party would come off as planned, after multiple debacles at Arisia. But they did everything right this time, and it went off without a hitch. They had the customary raffle for charity at the end of the night, and although I did not win the official UBS Shameless shirt, I managed to bribe the woman who did win it to surrender it to me, and there was much rejoicing. Their regular DJ was not on hand, but they improvised very nicely using a laptop and good speakers, so although they did not have the Safety Dance, I was able to request it by supplying it on my iPod. (Because I always request the Safety Dance at Barfleet.)
Sunday morning I dragged myself out of bed (not hungover, I’ll have you know!) sleep-deprived and suffering from Last Day at the Con syndrome. Although the consuite generally does not open until 9am, I took a chance and wandered down there at 8:30 and lo! What to my wondering eyes did appear but fresh coffee, scones, and other assorted yummies. I wept with joy and praised the name of Terry Franklin, who manages the consuite. Bless you, bless you, dear Terry!
Fortified for the day, I went forth to my final three panels where I Fell Behind the J-curve with Grant Carrington, Ari Alpert and David Larochelle, Built Better Gods with George Claxton and Vikki Ciaffone, and protested Fiction having no place in the Common Core Curriculum with Suzanne Reynolds-Alpert, Ken Kingsgrave-Ernstein, and Kristi Petersen Schoonover. (I felt impoverished with merely two names at that last one.) I had gone into the Common Core panel fully prepared with all sorts of info provided by my husband, Larry, who is an activist teacher of middle school Language Arts and working hard to raise awareness about high-stakes standardized testing in general and Common Core in particular. (He’s a member of BAT — Badass Teacher Association — and will be a part of a march on DC late in July.) But Kristi trumped me handily, coming in armed with reams of print-outs packed with facts and figures. It was a lively, heartening discussion and a great way to wind up the con for me. I left feeling that there’s hope for public education after all, and with luck and stubborn persistence we may be able to turn the corporate tide.
Back to the Broad Universe Dealer’s Room, where there were tasty snacks and steady traffic. At one point several members of the Barfleet crew, including the Captain, came down to say hello and buy books. They picked up copies of my own Archimedes Nesselrode, and cleaned us out of UnCONventional, the con-themed anthology put out by Spencer Hill Press which mentions Barfleet in the acknowledgements as the inspiration for the collection (and includes a short story of mine). The Captain also shared the beta prototype of a Cards Against Humanity deck they are working on called “Oh the Humanity” which will be, of course, Barfleet-themed. More on that as news comes in, but I am tickled to say I have my own card in it.
Alas, all too quickly it was over. At the feedback session the praises of the staff were sung, for there were remarkably few snafus. The torch was passed from Jeff Warner to Michael Whitehouse, who will be 9Pi-Con’s chaircreature, and dates for the next year were announced: mark your calendars for April 24-26, 2015. Michael Whitehouse, by the way, aside from handling registration and other odds and ends, created the Concardia deck for the con, with beautifully designed cards (a representative sample is at the opening of this post).
Time to pack up and go home, and that would have been an uneventful business if not for the fact that I now needed to deliver back to storage that which I had earlier liberated for the event. I found my way to the storage facility without incident, the gear was off-loaded and put away, and I received quick tips for how best to get back to the highway. There my luck failed me.
Yes, it was partly due to fatigue, prolonged sleep-deprivation and general post-con mental fogginess on my part. But it’s also largely due to Boston. There are good reasons why many people, myself included, hate driving anywhere near Boston. After studying my maps, my directions, struggling to identify unidentified streets, following signs for I-93 which led to intersections with no clue of which way to turn, getting trapped in cul-de-sacs and on one-way streets going the wrong way, I finally wept with joy as I achieved the ramp to the highway, going, blessedly, in the right direction.
There you have it, Octo-Pi summarized, which is a task roughly comparable to summarizing Proust. A few other shout-outs to the folks who helped make this my best con ever: Inanna Arthen, who did the herculean job of figuring out the programming grid, Beck Prigot, for alligator wrangling, David Silber and Rick Kovalcik for grid wrangling, also Lisa Hertel, Abby Noyce, and Tom Traina for, well, stuff. You, and Jeff and Debi and all the rest, you’re the ones who are awesome. Not me.
See you next year.