The Clubhouse; Sometimes the Chair needs a chair.

Convention reviewed: VCON #41

[Note: photo with titles provided by Karl Johanson.]

Behold the lineup of Guests of Honour at the opening ceremony for VCON 41, held in Surrey B.C. Sept 30 to Oct 2nd, 2016. I chaired that convention. Hence my presence in the picture. Note how happy everyone looks, how happy and confident. Then observe my jovial expression. My joyful expression. My exuberance.

Uhm, well, actually, my visage does appear a bit … let’s just say that the few photos I’ve seen of me at the convention exhibit a tight, pinched expression, even when I was attempting to smile. I was under severe stress. Almost more than I could handle.

Nevertheless, the opening ceremony went quite well, I think. Judge for yourself. The link below (filmed by Editor GoH Karl Johannson) shows most of the ceremony (camera problems cut out some bits). I am visible in profile on the left most of the time. Note how I strive to smile and nod approvingly, even laugh at appropriate moments. But tension is visible too.

VCON 41 Opening Ceremony

711 people attended VCON 41. Most of them had a good time most of the time. I know, because I asked frequently, especially the Guests of Honour. In fact I asked them so many times the last day of the convention they began to question WHY they were having a good time. What did I know they didn’t? Perhaps they SHOULDN’T be having a good time? Got on people’s nerves I did.

This is my first Amazing column in months. Fact is VCON 41 left me numb, dead in the water. I’ve only recently begun to pick up my other projects I abandoned last summer. To explain, from a purely personal perspective:

At VCON 40 the Chair for VCON 41 unexpectedly had to bow out. Nobody appeared willing to take her place. I thought about it, then offered myself. After all, I had chaired VCON 25 more or less successfully. Surely I could do it again?

First things first, I figured organization was the key to success. Organization! One of my few natural talents. Normally things were planned and set well before the date I volunteered, but I assumed effective organization would allow me to catch up quickly.

Being VCON archivist I immediately pulled out dozens of files containing things like multiple hotel contracts, budget statements, minutes of ConCom meetings, etc.
“How nice,” I thought, “look at all this nifty stuff!”

I did. Then shoved most of it back where I found it. A few files worthy of precedent-study I kept aside and placed in my desk drawer in case I needed to consult them.

Atop my desk I positioned a file box ready for files deserving individual containment, files like hotel contracts being negotiated, a budget comparison of recent VCONS, lists of potential Guests of Honour, and so on.

Then down to business.

I boiled it down to three essentials:
First, a CONVENTION LOG. A blue binder with lined paper wherein I wrote down terse descriptions of each day’s conundrums, resolutions, emails, phone calls, ideas, reports, proposals and, rarely, decisions. If emails are sufficiently fact strewn I printed them out and threw them in as is. Then I underlined important names and topics with red ink. A handy dandy reference to the ConCom’s collective stream of consciousness and panic.

Second, THE BIG BOOK OF VCON. A large red binder with separate tabbed sections for every conceivable department and relevant topic I needed to keep tabs on. Obvious things like “Art Show” and “Registration,” but also more specific items like “Insurance” or “Set-up Logistics.” Here I recorded every relevant fact, observation and suggestion. It was my VCON Bible. I could turn to it and immediately discover what it is I was supposed to remember on any given aspect of VCON. My cheat-sheet essential. Never left my den.
Third, MEETING NOTEBOOKS. Absolutely necessary.

For many past VCONS the monthly meetings stretched far too many hours because every ConCom member felt entitled to speak up whenever they wanted to, had difficulty staying on topic, and worst of all, being fen, tended to impulsively blurt out witty remarks to interrupt the proceedings to the point of converting them into a one-upmanship wit-fest.
Couldn’t think of anything better calculated to bring on a bout of senile agitation on my part, so I resolved to be firmly in control of each and every meeting and keep them focused and efficient, all the while writing everything down to keep pertinent facts fresh in my memory.
Hah! I say again, hah!

[Note: VCON 41 program book with wonderful cover art by Eric Chu featuring the “Robotter,” the official VCON Mascot. Observe the VCON logo, three Salmon Kill marks, and the “Eat Fish and Die” slogan on the hull of the flying machine.]

First of all, controlling fans is like herding cats. Worse, it’s like herding cats high on catnip. Absolutely impossible.

Second, while a goodly number of people eventually joined the Convention Committee to do good work, not all positions were filled. I wound up doing ad sales, some publicity, pre-con liaising with dealers, writing the newsletters, preparing writers workshops, liaising with Guests of Honour, some web site blogs, and Ghu knows what else, not to mention trying to keep track of everything.

Third, in the final frantic months of the con all “Three Essentials” were thrown out the window. There wasn’t time to write anything down. Information and demands cascaded on me in torrents and all I could do was lash out in decisions which may or may not have been correct.

When I checked into the hotel on the Thursday evening I began to feel relaxed. Everything was in motion, everything decided, nothing I could do about it now, I thought, so I might as well relax and enjoy the con.

Hell, no. Problems cropped up immediately. Technical problems. Logistical problems. Cash flow problems. Unexpected major flaws which could prove financially catastrophic. Legal problems. Miscommunications. Outright disputes. And all this after months of detailed preparations designed to cover every contingency.

The con went by in a blur. In fact, I went 44 hours straight without any sleep at all. At times the urgency of a given situation had me racing along corridors, adrenalin flowing, heart pounding … which is odd, because normally I need my cane to walk, at best, at a sedate pace. Plus my heart medicine was rendered ineffective by all that adrenalin and I was in atrial fibrillation much of the time.

I’d compare being a Chair at a midsized con to being in combat. You may have had the best training in the world, had access to learned studies of past wars, memorized countless weapons and tactics manuals, but once the hot metal begins to fly you don’t have time to sit back and contemplate your choices, everything demands instant reaction on your part, instant decision making; you’re flying on instinct and gut reaction. There’s no time to think things through. No time at all.

In a sense, all my knowledge of convention running gained over 40 years of experience, not to mention my familiarity with convention history and assorted methods of tackling this and that potential problem, counted for nothing.

Some local fen have been complaining for years that VCON keeps reinventing the wheel, that the collective body of experience needs to be written out, the experience shared, so that the ConCom knows exactly what it is getting into and how to logically and rationally deal with all tasks and potential problems that might arise. This looks very good, rational, and reasonable … on paper.

Reinventing the wheel? More like fending off the wheel; a big, whirling, leaden wheel studded with spikes and dripping with burning oil. Not much fun at all.

The above represents the dark side of VCON 41 as perceived by me. Was there a light side?

[Note: Spider Robinson has just arrived at VCON 41. I greeted him as he came in. I’m trying to look welcoming, but I’m already stressed to the max. Photo by Karl Johanson.]

Needless to say, 99% of the problems were behind the scenes, invisible to the attendees, which is the way it should be. As for myself, when I wasn’t hyperventilating, there were some good things.

I did most of the contract negotiation, in that the hotel would send me a version by email, and I’d promptly add comments and proposed amendments in red ink, show it to Rose Wilson and Susan Walsh (contract committee members) to get their input, incorporate their suggestions, then send it to the hotel representatives. A few days later they’d send it back with their comments and counter arguments in green ink. I would then add comments and further proposals in purple ink, etc. It got to be quite the colourful document.

We wound up with a contract greatly to our advantage, one with low requirements in terms of minimum room nights and hotel costs. Quite proud of that. Also pleased we paid off the function space fee a few days BEFORE the deadline. That sort of thing makes a hotel happy.

When I invited Robert J. Sawyer to be our Author GoH, I happened to mention Jamie Anderson had already agreed to be our Supermarionation GoH. Robert replied to my email within two minutes, absolutely guaranteeing his acceptance, providing I allowed him to interview Jamie for an hour in front of an audience. Robert be a huge fan of Gerry Anderson’s 1960s series (Stingray, Fireball XL5, Thunderbirds, UFO, etc.) and was delighted at the prospect of meeting his son. The interview went extremely well, I’m told, but unfortunately, I was in the middle of a three hour writers workshop I was moderating and was unable to attend. Oh, well.

Another wonderful panel I missed was “Justify the Science Flaw” with Editor GoH Karl Johanson and Astronomer Jaymie Matthews among others. However, you can be present for a portion of the panel by watching the clips below:

Justify the Science Flaw – part 1    Justify the science flaw – part 2    Justify the science flaw – part 3

Jamie Anderson turned out to be an absolutely fantastic guy, easy going, easy to approach, and more than happy to share his knowledge of his father’s shows, of his own efforts to get a modern puppet series titled FIRESTORM into production, and much else besides. Always a relief when a Guest of Honour you’ve not previously met is revealed as an ideal GOH.

Eric Chu, who among many achievements did the art design for the “Battlestar Galactica” reboot, did yeoman’s work on multiple panels, mostly to do with his contributions to “Hollywood North.” Stan G. Hyde led the Monster Attack Team Canada in an entire track of programming devoted to stop-motion animation and Japanese Kaiju films. Karl and Stephanie Johanson shared their experience and expertise in editing, publishing, and art in myriad panels as well. And Spider Robinson was his usual wonderful self (as you noted if you watched the opening ceremonies). His “Beatles Sing-A-long” concert (a VCON staple) with Steve Fahnestalk was one of the best ever I’m told. I regret being so busy I missed darn near everything, but I can say with absolute conviction that I am damned proud of our Guests of Honour. They were wonderful.

For me the highlight of the convention came when I was sitting at a table in the hotel restaurant and, having just finished signing a bunch of cheques for Treasurer Kathleen Moore (to pay artists in the art show), was nursing a beer and trying to relax.

Robert J. Sawyer was seated across the aisle with Jamie Anderson and a couple of “Hollywood North” pros who’d dropped by, not to attend the con, but to meet Jamie, and Rob waved an arm and invited me to join them at their table.

I went all fanboy for some reason and muttered I didn’t want to interrupt them while they were talking shop. “Nah, we’re not talking shop,” said Robert. “Come on, we’re all fans here. Join us.”

We were soon talking enthusiastically about various obscure movies and sharing anecdotes about their production (in my case second hand, based on what I’d read over the years). Wish I could remember what we discussed, but it has all slipped from my memory. However, I can say it was the most pleasant dinner table conversation imaginable. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

Well, one thing I remember. Jamie confessed that his favourite Supermarionation show by his dad was TERRORHAWKS. Robert mentioned he’d only seen a couple of episodes. Jamie jumped up and ran to his room. He came back a few minutes later and gave Robert a CD of the entire series. Wow. Just wow.

One final anecdote. I moderated the Friday Novel Writing Workshop featuring, as Professionals, Author GoH Robert J. Sawyer, Eileen Kernaghan, and Alyx J. Shaw (my wife), plus four “newbies” being critiqued. Alyx and I arrived first, along with our pet chicken (a Bantam Silkie) named Phoenix, who sat contentedly in her carrying case throughout the three hour workshop, occasionally pecking at seeds. Everyone else arrived and the workshop got underway.

I couldn’t help but notice that, while fully participating in the workshop and offering sage advice and critique, Sawyer’s gaze remained fixed on Phoenix. Came my announcement of the first ten minute coffee break, Robert rose to his feet and leaned forward, fists firmly planted on the table.

“Let me address the elephant in the room,” he said. “Who is this chicken and what is it doing here? Introduce me.”

Ah yes, we had left Phoenix out of the general introductions at the beginning of the workshop. Sawyer was pointing out an important real life lesson for writers. If there is something extremely unusual in a scene which none of the characters are paying attention to, there better be a darn good reason.

Either that, or Robert was just checking to make sure he wasn’t the only one who saw a chicken in the room.

[Note: Phoenix participating in Panel Discussion. Photo by Lynda Williams.]

To sum up: In an ideal world the Chair of a convention, once the convention is underway, sits back and lets events unfold. In truth I was run off my feet in what was one of the most stressful experiences of my life. Preparations for VCON 41 consumed all my time and effort to the exclusion of everything else, and the convention itself left me numb and burned out. Only now am I beginning to recover.

After much thought I’ve decided to retire from active participation in VCON and WCSFA (the legally registered Society overseeing VCON.) I’m a senior now, and no longer have the “infinite future” of youth ahead of me. In the years remaining to me I want to devote myself to a quiet, relaxed, contemplative way of life. This essentially involves a lot of reading, a lot of email and Facebook communication, and much time working on writing projects like my Polar Borealis Magazine, OBIR Magazine, the Auroran Lights Newsletter, a couple of Apae, perhaps a novel, and, of course, getting back into writing Amazing Stories Columns. All of this I can do at my own pace without the stress and pressure of deadlines.

Oh, if asked, I will continue to do three Writers Workshops at every VCON, and perhaps the Elron Awards (fandom’s oldest ongoing spoof awards, established at VCON 1 in 1971), but it’s time to let this Old Guard get on to doing old guy stuff and encourage the New Guard to carry the torch for VCON. I’ve done my bit.

This column isn’t really about VCON 41. It’s about me. I offer it as an example of a life-long fan discovering his limitations and learning to live with them. Perhaps a useful object lesson.

I conclude by offering my heartfelt thanks to the Guests of Honour, the Convention Committee, and all the volunteers, who collectively put on a great con despite a Con Chair running around like a chicken with his head cut off. The theme of the convention was “Muppets, Puppets, and Marionettes.” I figure I was channeling Beaker from Sesame Street the whole time. Certainly felt like it.

BY THE WAY:

You can find a fantastic collection of zines at: Efanzines

You can find yet more zines at: Fanac Fan History Project

You can find a quite good selection of Canadian zines at: Canadian SF Fanzine Archive

And check out my brand new website devoted to my OBIR Magazine, which is entirely devoted to reviews of Canadian Speculative Fiction. Found at OBIR Magazine.

And then check out my newest new website, devoted to my paying market SF&F fiction semi-pro zine Polar Borealis, at Polar Borealis Magazine

3 thoughts on "The Clubhouse; Sometimes the Chair needs a chair."

  1. stevefah says:

    Ah, you’re right, I missed it. Thanks for the mention (I did a quick egoscan and just must have skipped that paragraph). It was Spider who thought it was the best we’d ever done. Yes, he made his living at one time singing and playing guitar. He’s a much better guitarist than I am–but then, many people are!

  2. stevefah says:

    An enjoyable con, Graeme. Good job! I’m surprised you didn’t mention the highlight of the convention–Spider, T*A*M* Gordy and me, with our annual Beatles singalong! (Well, it was a highlight for me, anyway!) 🙂

    1. R.Graeme Cameron says:

      Ah, but I did, in the second paragraph after the “Justify the Science Flaw” links. I mentioned both Spider and you, and that someone told me it was “the best ever” in recent VCON history. Might even be Spider who told me that before he left. Or you. I can’t remember. But thank you for mentioning T*A*M* Gordy. Not having been able to attend, I wasn’t clear on who all was leading the sing-a-long. Remembering back to the last sing-a-long you guys led a couple of years ago, I do know with certainty that it is always an absolute blast for all participants. You might not think it to look at him, but Spider has an extraordinarily powerful singing voice.

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