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03.11.07 5:22 p.m.

I don't really need people anyway. I've got a boneless cat.  

-Randy Milholland


Previously in Xenology: Xen was a geek.

No Such Convention

I walk around the main building at Vassar, operating under the mistaken notion that having taught at this campus means I have the slightest idea how to find the convention. It does not matter that I didn't actually teach in or ever before enter this building. My navigation skills should be generalizable.

I found out about No Such Convention from reading the news post at the bottom of a Something Positive comic and would not otherwise have seen cause to attend. Given that I certainly wished to meet Randy Milholland, having wasted what likely amounts to days reading his comics over the years, but wouldn't wish to travel outside of my comfort zone without the accompaniment of at least one buffer friend, Vassar seemed a nice concession. That Jeph Jacques of Questionable Content fame was also going to be present sweetened the deal more than enough to be worth my $15 admission fee for the three days.

When - by diligently following hand scrawled signs - I find the room, I apparently look as though I belong or at least am confused enough to justify my presence, since I get out of paying. By the time I figure out where exactly I should have deposited my money, I had been at the convention for an hour and feel I grandfathered in. This will persist for all three days I attend, no one organized enough to notice I lack a nametag.

In my wandering, I stumbled past the webcomics table, consisting of two couples expectantly sitting and watching the geeks graze off anime swag. I indulge what I am certain is a common pathology of webcomic fans: I assume that the artist directly fashions their characters after themselves. The man behind the Questionable Content table looks little like a scrawny, emo musician Marten, the comic's protagonist. Instead, I can picture him at one of the keg parties my older brother held in his adolescence. Likewise, while Randy Milholland occasionally draws both himself and Davan as having beards, it does not do justice to how he actually looks, somewhere between Alan Moore and your coolest undergrad TA. Randy Milholland

Randy actually spots me, or rather the shirt I am wearing, as it features his characters Peejee and Choo-Choo Bear next to the legend "Take Care of Your Pussy!" It was originally designed by The Betsy for a production of The Vagina Monologues at MIT years ago, which I stammer to him when he asks if I bought it on-line. He knows the story, as he is a starring character. He is the one who drew the picture when she overtly said she would just take the panel she wanted. However, I am mysteriously unable to shut myself up. He asks how long I've been reading the comic and I yelp, "Years!" as though anyone ever says something else. For want of something useful or memorable, I offer my admission money at him and motion to a t-shirt asking him if he accepts cash, making a rectangle in the air and calling it "the cash" because I have some kind of horribly contagious, sudden onset idiocy. If I am a customer, I become less useless in this interaction and I imagine selling merchandise is a main reason for an artist to waste his or her weekend at a con, possibly second only to increasing readership among the valuable demographic of geeks who will then order merchandise on-line. It's a vicious cycle. Jeph Jacques

I have little surplus cash to throw at Jeph Jacques, who is thankfully distracted by exceedingly cute fan girls. Instead, I queue up to ask for a free sketch. In mere seconds, the girl before me gets a picture of my favorite character Hannelore, a genius girl with severe OCD. He mentions to the fan girl that when people don't know what they want, he usually just draws a singing penis. I know what I want, but that girl just got it and I feel strange saying, "Play it again, Jeph," though he most definitely will be drawing several more of her before the night is out. Instead, I say that I would like a picture of a singing penis. He gives me an odd look and, in a matter of seconds, sketches out Faye, one of his main characters. I nod my acceptance, startled and impressed at how quickly she appears on the page. I break into a grin of delight when I notice that she has a singing penis on her shirt.

Pleased with my new acquisitions, I poke my head into doors until I find the room containing a sufficiently earthy looking woman and decide that this must be the scheduled henna panel. I'm not sure how much interest I actually have in henna. I've had it applied more than once and it gels well with my latent hippy genes, but am happy enough not marking my body for the next few week. Honestly, I mostly needed something to fill time until the belly dancing panel and this more than fits the bill. Mind you, I don't actually wish to learn to belly dance either - such is not the providence of men - but am keenly intrigued at the prospect of watching others learn.

As I come in halfway through the class, I have no vested interest in figuring out what I've missed and just absorb factoids, such as that henna can be mixed with Pepsi, as it contains everything the henna needs to activate (sugar, water, acid) plus a kick of transdermal caffeine. Instead, I observe the relative comeliness of those girls in the room and wonder if any here will be belly dancing. Despite my best, misinformed prejudices about conventions, the added factor of Vassar (and the darkened gaming room next door) succeeds in shattering them. The denizens of Vassar are women so attractive that they have no choice but to be bisexual. (Nothing quite like fighting stereotypes with stereotypes.) Even the stigma of geekiness cannot cause them to be anything but attractive. And gay, but I am a male and find college lesbians understandably appealing.

I am seated next to a young blonde whose name - Rachel - I glean from the maroon folder she checks as though it told her the time. Our teacher hands us triangles of Mylar and instructs us in making them into loose cones to apply theoretical henna. The thick moss goop the instructor mixed up would not be ready for a day, existing only as an example of texture and tease. Rachel has no luck making a cone, blaming the seams of the plastic. I offer her mine, as I have no investment in my success and like her impishness as she pokes at the world and grins at its texture. She trades her twisted plastic for mine and I make hers into a cone as well. When the next step comes to tighten it to a sharp point, all my skill evaporates in an attempt to follow directions. Rachel felt no such difficulty, wordlessly taking my failure off my hands and rolling it into success.

We interact this way for the whole of the class, nearly wordlessly forming a partnership as I get her tape and she hands me items with a purr or chirp. Then, the class ends and she leaves. No belly dancers come in to take her place, the class having been canceled without anyone telling me. Perhaps such knowledge comes with a paid admission.

It takes only an hour and the immediate absence of single serving companionship from Rachel for me to feel lonely and out of place. I silently chant my incantation, "I was accepted to this school. I teach here over the summer. I belong here." I can't buy my conclusion though. I briefly indulge sour grapes, reminding myself that the line is a thin one and boys at geekfests shouldn't throw stones.

I was not supposed to be alone. Dan Kessler, along with Zack, had said that he would come to keep me company. He does not end up coming even once, though I cannot much blame him. He doesn't know the artists that drew me here and would waste his day only because I would otherwise feel as lonely as I do.

I stay only until the end of Jeph Jacques' panel, which is understandably funny. As I came in late, I am seated up against the back wall. Next to me is Randy Milholland, who is sucking on an empty pipe when not using the occasion to heckling Jeph. The dynamic between the two is highly entertaining and will continue to play itself out throughout the convention.

I arrive the next day midway through the writing panel. I had hopes there would be other writers, but there is just one man. I had seen him previously at Wicked Faire, sitting behind a card table and trying to connect with every passerby in hopes of finding a customer. Whether this is productive for him then, I don't wish to hazard a guess. Having used this strategy without success when I sold jewelry at the Renaissance Fair, I couldn't hold much hope. The day before, bereft of entertainment, I tried engaging him in conversation as to his novels and anthologies, but my head wasn't in it owing to cold medicine and the carnival barker positivity with which he infused his every word even after I reiterated my lie that I did not have the disposable income to buy books I had no interest in reading. I just stared at a book he had written using the character of Cthulhu and pondered the ethics of his claiming he had coauthored it with H.P. Lovecraft when he really just rifted off the public domain mythos.

The panel was likewise, very little about writing beyond the pessimistic rejoinder that we aspiring to be published should abandon any hope of retaining our copyright or intellectual property and quite a lot of specific information about his books. I scanned the room, but couldn't tell whether anyone else in this room had read a single word this man published. They seemed too bright eyed and confused to be here for him, aspiring writers instead of fans of any color. He bragged how he wrote the best Archie story ever written, how he received more fan mail than the comic had ever received before or since and that was why he was no longer employed there. He's just too clever and the fat cat hot shots couldn't take it. I struggled to keep my face impassive when he asks if I have any questions for him and am content to have arrived late. As he ends, he gloats that we aren't real writers yet, because none of us saw cause to pick of the dirty penny in the back of the room that he had been eyeing throughout his lecture. Jeph Jacques and Randy Milholland

I am not there for him anyway, but Randy Milholland's panel. I would do it an injustice to try to recap it, but to say that he is much more sacrilegious and just as funny as his comic's suggest. Soon into our question and answer session, he is describing how he would like to have his protagonist brutally rape the robot in Jeph's comic to further infuriate Jeph's fans. My interest in his comics has so long seemed a private indulgence that I crinkle my brow as people around me fish for exact numbers to season their questions as if to proclaim, "You may have asked a question that proved entertaining, but I know the first appearance and bust size of Kharisma from memory." I would feel more ease in believing they did careful research and had the numbers scrawled on the insides of their cuffs.

Both Jeph and Randy make their comics their careers, a concept I find constantly startling. Making one's art into a job is so fantastical to me that I cannot envision it. Granted, their profits come mostly from advertising and merchandise, but their art is what makes people care enough to buy a t-shirt reading "Math is Delicious!" I get the feeling that this fact surprises even them still.

Exiting the panel, I get a call from Flynn's phone. I had mentioned to him that this convention was going on and tried to entice him away from Vampire the Masquerade for a weekend, but didn't expect that I would have any success. Role-playing is a big part of his life and the thrall of geekiness and video games cannot easily slay that.

The voice on the other line was not Flynn. "Conor?" It had been months since last I heard his voice outside of his answering machine that I felt odd being able to talk back to him without a beep. He tells me to wait for them outside of the building so they don't get lost. Jeph Jacques and Randy Milholland

When Conor and Flynn show up, I am skidding on the slush in front of the building. Flynn bounds over the hedge to hug me to Conor's protestations. "I feel like we are in the world of the dead and we're looking at Conor living," Flynn says. I feel like heading to the end of this barrier to give Conor a hug. I like to believe that there was once a time when Conor would have been the first one over the shrub to join me in the slushy world of the dead.

While it was great to have people with whom to share this, Conor seemed distant. It was far from a consistent issue - while we watched the Pictionary game Jeph and Randy had in lieu of a joint panel, Conor was smiling and actively guessing - it was persistent enough to be noticeable. I know that he has been doing a lot of work that requires introspection, but I worried there was something more of which I am ignorant. It's been months since last I saw him, but I'm not positive I am seeing him now.

Shortly after the panel, just as I am plotting what to do next to cheer him up, Conor asks Flynn to drive him home. I try protesting, offering to buy them food if it is an issue of money. Conor smiles and demurs, saying he needs to go and find a job to make his own money. He promises that we will get together soon, but I don't know that I can indulge optimism. I will see him when I do and not a moment sooner.

After walking them to their respective cars, I return to the convention and mope a bit. I muse going home, but Zack is playing a show in the Cubbyhole in a few hours and it seems ridiculous to miss it when I am so close. I opt to just keep a low profile and kill time until it is time to leave for the show, but Randy spots me and asks if I am having fun. Conor, looking a little lost

"No," I admit, "My friends all ditched me." I explain a little further in detail, perhaps more than I should with a relative stranger, but the [fictional] confessional nature of his comics makes me feel that I know him even if it isn't reciprocal.

"So get new friends," he says. "There is a rave going on tonight." This has the curious edge of a mission, so I realize that I have to do it. He goes so far as to bring me to the organizers and ask where the rave is being held tonight.

No one is in the Cubbyhole when I arrive, so I skate on the ice next to it. My phone rings again. "Melissa?" While I have spoken with her in the last four months, I haven't actually seen her. She couldn't come to my handfasting because of work and we have not connected since.

"What are you doing?" she asks.

I tell her, making sure to emphasize that I am there to watch Zack play and that this may include Cristin. There is some vague bad blood between them, though not so much that I would anticipate anything more than a drive by snarking when combining them in close quarters. Still, I make her promise not to cause a ruckus or, if there must be a ruckus, at least making it an entertaining one.

The only ruckus, albeit an entertaining one, comes from a homeless man who wanders in and sits near the stage. With every verse of folk standards Zack sings, the man feels the need to agree or disagree as though this was sung for his approval. We all laugh awkwardly at this and wait for someone to do something. Finally, the owner of the Cubbyhole simply asks the man to leave for being disrespectful and we are all a bit disappointed.

Melissa, Angela, and Stevehen show up after Zack's set, when his friend Greg is on the stage. Everyone greets one another and it seems friendly, but I am still ready for the ruckus. We sit through the rest of the set, which is geeky but blown away by Greg's confidence. At one point, he tells us to cuddle up with that special person. I motion for Angela to sit on my lap, but she returns the gesture, so I cuddle against her until the end of the song.

When the show ends, Melissa and her crew migrated outside so she could smoke. I told her of my plan and tried to convince her that she wanted to join me, especially if she were doing it ironically. She attempted to talk me out of it through two cigarettes, then I started to leave.

"So you're really going?" Melissa asks, genuinely surprised.

"Yes, a strange man told me I had to." This is not logic that will sway most people, it is not intended to actually sway her much, but it is the way I work. If told something that sounds like a quest, I need to follow it through to its logical conclusion, particular by someone I find peculiar and interesting.

"You haven't seen Angela, Stevehen, or me for months and you are going off to some rave? At Vassar?" Melissa is incredulous, but it isn't my fault that the absence has been so long and this was my plan beforehand. I offered to include them and was rebuffed thrice, so my guilt was minimal.

I turn the block and here the reverb of "Brickhouse" by The Commodores. Before me is a blue car parallel parked over three spaces, all of its doors wide open to allow maximum sound. I continue to approach, making out the street lighted figures of three girls dancing to various degrees of success in the middle of an active but unhurried street. When I am within twenty feet, the smallest one, a redhead, asks if I would like to dance with them.

"Oh, absolutely." I feel the tug of purpose, even if the tug has little to do with the girls and everything to do with the night. Through three more funk songs, we dance around the street, leaving the yellow lines only when confronted with creeping headlights. The girls introduce themselves in a break between songs as Fern, Niki, and Geneva though my attachment between girl and name vanishes as quickly as it appears. The girls beg off to pick up the pizza they had ordered and, from a sense of obligation and completeness, I give the three of them one of my cards.

I continue onto the rave because I cannot be certain that traffic interruption constituted fulfillment of my obligation and, having left my friends behind, I had already invested my evening in this activity. There was no sense turning back on a technicality, though cute girls arbitrarily dancing in the street as a way to time their pizza order felt a lot closer to the ethics of a rave than a college sanctioned dance party.

I can hear the music, the anonymous pulsing techno, before I enter the building and need do nothing more than follow the sound to a spiral staircase. At the top of this staircase sit a few young people, only one of whom I recognize from NonCon, hawking glowsticks and bracelets. I shrug to them that I don't think I need these things and descend into the MUG.

It is not my scene but, again, I've already paid the cost of my attendance in the unlikely chance I will actually make a new acquaintance here so I am going to see this through. From the edge of the dance floor, I slowly move closer to the other dancers. Each pulse of the music seems to moan "26!" and I drown it out with fervent rationalization. Yes, I am likely... somewhat older... than these people, but I don't look grossly unnatural. I can mimic well enough and no one is dancing in a particularly talented fashion. That hardly seems the point of a rave, even a school sponsored one. At least I look more comfortable that the shirtless man with raccoon mascara, rubbing his pleather crotch against the leg of any proximal female in lieu of dancing or inner poise. To the discredit of the young ladies, his tact doesn't earn him a knee in that selfsame groin.

There are sixteen people present, myself included. Seven females, eight males, one raccoon. I counted as a mantra instead of being self-conscious. I counted and I moved and I sweated, but I kept myself enough in the moment that I felt satisfied.

I left after an hour of fruitless dancing. The problem with attempted to fulfill the requirement of meeting people at a rave is that it requires the use of one's body and little more. One cannot speak, certainly, and this is far more where I excel. This is especially so given that I was not willing to communicate through marking my assumed territory through rubbing my gonads on people. It seems tacky and ineffective at best. Hardly the way to make new friends.

Soon in Xenology: Salem.

last watched: Midnight Cowboy
reading: The Physics of the Buffyverse
listening: Reprieve

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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