I spent much of the week before last at CONvergence, a sci-fi/fantasy convention in Bloomington, Minnesota. Here is a general recap of my trip and my impressions!
Wednesday night, July 4, I was greeted at the airport by Stephanie Zvan of Almost Diamonds, Justin Thibeault of Lousy Canuck, and Stephanie’s younger cousin Erin. Stephanie lives within driving distance of the convention and so Jason, Erin, and I all stayed with her for its duration. And thereby saved a lot of money. (Thanks Stephanie!) Thursday we joined up with PZ and his family to pick up all sorts of furniture and props for the Freethought Blogs party room, where we would entertain a streams of guests for three straight nights.
It took me a long while to register at the convention because there was a mix up with my registration materials and the line for the help desk was extremely long. But the line provided my first taste of what CONvergence would be like: it was filled with people who were very friendly and very unabashed about their geekery. People would drop what were to me obscure sci-fi/fantasy references without batting an eye and simply assume I understood and appreciated what they were talking about. They would confess their geeky obsessions and the lengths to which they went to fulfill them without any apologies or embarrassment but as though they were perfectly ordinary pursuits, sought after with perfectly understandable passion.
All weekend, there were people with fantastic costumes everywhere and the costumes spanned a huge spectrum of science fiction and fantasy, probably half of which I did not even recognize. On the help line I met Sonja Cardwell, who put together this fantastic homemade CONvergence Masquerade Costume Contest winning Sabriel costume. She not only assembled all the parts of the costume individually but she sewed all the keys onto the coat herself:
The huge Tim Burton geek in me much appreciated the lengths to which she described having gone to create an awesome homemade Corpse Bride costume too:
Sonja’s Deviant Art page with more pictures of her work is here. She is just one example of hundreds of elaborate costume wearers who roamed all around the convention.
CONvergence was the kind of place where the people who weren’t in costume or wearing a geeky t-shirt or looking at least a little freaky in at least some way stuck out like total weirdos. The spirit in the air was one of completely free, and completely accepted and congratulated, self-expression. A friend who I described this to told me I would enjoy San Francisco, only there I am told they’re a bit more judgmental—of the normals.
I did not attend very many panels but I saw enough to get a feel for them. They were, for the most part, not top-down lectures from credentialed experts. In some cases it even seemed that the only qualification someone needed to be on a panel was an eagerness to geek out about its topic. A lot of panels featured healthy audience participation. I always found the atmosphere to be inclusive, collaborative, and generous. They were basically loosely guided geek outs.
Throughout the weekend, I got to spend a whole lot of time with a few of my Freethought Blogs colleagues, which I admit was my main enticement to make the trek in the first place. As already mentioned, Jason and I were staying with Stephanie. So the three of us traveled back and forth to the convention together daily, often worked the party room together, and bumped into each other constantly at panels and in hallways. Thursday night I enjoyed dinner with PZ, Mary, and their two sons (and PZ picked up the tab—thanks PZ!). It turns out PZ’s family is not entirely as hostile to gods as he is. When I asked their favorite super heroes, both Alaric and Connlann chose Thor, and Alaric spent every night in the party room dressed as Jesus. It was great getting to know Mary throughout the weekend. She was so unassuming and kind and worked so diligently all weekend to make sure every small thing that needed to be done was taken care of. And PZ’s real life alter ego is as everyone always says—mild-mannered, gracious, witty, and placidly friendly (except for the occasional soft spoken cutdown).
Later on I met PZ’s daughter Skatje and her boyfriend Kyle. Kyle studied philosophy in college and he and I have known each other for a couple of years thanks to Facebook. It was nice to meet (and debate) him in person finally. I saw Brianne again briefly (we met previously at the Reason Rally) and one night was able to chat up Cristina Rad a bit. She was typically blunt and hilarious. It was like getting a live version of her YouTube performance to talk to her. As a big fan, I ate that up.
There were a number of Skepchicks that I got to know including, Heina Dhadaboy, Kammy Lyon (who indefatigably coordinated everything), Debbie Goddard (who was endlessly reciting atheist movement lore), Bug Girl (who quite generously offered to pick up the check for my dinner on Friday night because I don’t have health insurance—thanks Bug Girl!), Olivia James of Teen Skepchick (who was a recent philosophy graduate with as many ideas about Batman as I had), Anne Sauer of Mad Art Lab (who made creative cocktails), and Rebecca Watson (who was, unfailingly, the charismatic life of the party everywhere I encountered her).
Several of PZ’s talented students showed up to help us out with our party room and they were among many people I tried to convince of my metaethics throughout the weekend. Once, the very affable and smart occasional Camels With Hammers commenter Rieux was on hand for one of those discussions. I made him defend Camus since his internet pseudonym comes from Camus’s The Plague (which, incidentally, was the only Camus book I ever read) and I dislike the paradigms and the reputation that Camus and existentialists like him gave to atheists. Rieux is now Freethought Blogs famous for being with us at CONvergence while his wife was expecting at any minute. Thunk was also an enthusiastic mainstay of the room who I would be remiss not to mention here. And I also enjoyed spending some time bonding with Phil, a Camels With Hammers reader who was one of the volunteers for the Skepchick party room that was conjoined to ours.
I would say that a majority of the room’s visitors who had never previously heard of Freethought Blogs welcomed the information that we were an atheist blogging network. This was as receptive an audience for general outreach as we could have chosen. I only wish we had a clear banner with the name of the blog network and an enticing description of its nature somewhere highly visible in the room (and not just outside of it) so that people were not reliant on us to explain to them who we were and what we offered online. We also should have had cards with the website address to give out to all our visitors. I am afraid all too many passed in and out, got their shot of the delicious Amygdala Reanimator (replete with gummy brains), and left having learned nothing about Freethought Blogs.
On Saturday, I participated in a panel called “The Philosophy of Batman”. I was the only philosopher on the panel so I was the only one to actually bring in any technical philosophical distinctions or reference the philosophical tradition at all. Since there were five people on the panel it was hard to say very much (and a couple people said hardly anything), but I was able to get my main points across and to do a little debating.
I crammed Batman information pretty nervously all morning before the panel. Then I was really psyched out when I saw Batman himself waiting outside before the panel started. Then I gulped hard when I learned that the guy who would be sitting next to me, Christopher Jones, has drawn Batman for DC Comics. Jones proved to be affable, entertaining, warm, and not at all intimidating. The other talkative panelist turned out to be Daniel Wallace, author of The Jedi Path: A Manual for Students of the Force and many other Star Wars reference books. Had I known about his Star Wars work I probably would have followed him around the rest of the convention. (Here’s an interesting interview with him about his work on Star Wars.)
And all turned out well with the panel, especially since, again, I was the only one who actually knew about formal philosophy. Christopher, Daniel, and I did most of the talking. My nightmares of the geeks with encyclopedic knowledge of Batman comics lore indignantly exposing my egregious ignorance never came to fruition. But my last minute cram session paid off as I was occasionally able to offer a few well-timed nugget of my newly acquired information. I received some really positive responses from the few people who I heard from about their take on it. I also got a free t-shirt in promotion of The Dark Knight Rises (which comes out next weekend, so go see it! My mom bought us tickets to see Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises all in the same evening! I can’t wait! Go Batman!)
And later on, I bumped into Batman himself in the halls and he was eager to hear more about what I thought. So I went on for another hour or so explaining my full philosophy of the Bat to him. We’re now Facebook friends–but I won’t publicly reveal his secret identity so don’t even try asking me. Here is a picture of me with Batman and David (the banjo player):
CONvergence ended Sunday, July 8, and the next day I went up to St. Cloud for a day with the Secular Student Alliance of St. Cloud State University. That day was a blast. I recount it in my next post.