We settle onto the mostly empty light rail train to lead us back to our car after a long day of panels and rushing about. Amber complains of an ache.
The man in the seat before us, an elderly, black guy with a loose smile, asks if one of is suffering from a heat headache. Amber motions to her ankle and blames the steepness of the steps to get on.
"For a headache," he says, "the best thing for it is vinegar. You take a spoonful of it, then you drink cold water half an hour later. It thins the blood and cools you off."
Amber says that, prior to the advent of carbonation, vinegar soda was all the rage for its citrus tang. I stick out my tongue in disgust, musing aloud how this makes a sort of sense, since aspirin is also an acid. However, I think the remedy he proposes is less one of science than of the soul, that he said the right sort of thing at the correct moment to catalyze a lesson in me.
I am fond of a tapestry called The Vinegar Tasters. It shows three men sampling a barrel of vinegar. One has a sour expression, one a bitter one, and the last is serene. The vinegar in this visual analogy represents life and - though I won't linger on it too much here - the three men, the heads of Eastern philosophies (Confusianism, Buddhism, and Taoism). Though the first two men react with unpleasantness to the taste, the last man doesn't expect vinegar to be other than it is and so reacts with satisfaction to the flavor. He can take his medicine.
I am not so enlightened, which this trip to Otakon showed me. I lost sleep the first night because my anxiety had me fixate on the amount of money this trip was costing me, coupled with our trip to Maine the week prior. I am not a rich man and seeing my available cash quarter when I check into the hotel made my breath feel tight in my chest. All the same, that is the cost of admission and I knew it to the extent I wanted to; there were no more surprises than I introduced via my willful ignorance. I have been trying to accept that I am buying the memories I want to have, but immediately fire back that Otakon has never been a set of memories I cherished. My best Otakon was being a vendor because I hardly had to deal with the convention itself. Rather than places where I can have fun, conventions are to me opportunities to work. In this, too, there are no more surprises than I introduced; I should know exactly what to expect when it comes to Otakon and it isn't sincere or cute to pretend sticker shock.
Yes, I will admit that Otakon is not my geekdom - partly because I do not know that I have a geekdom as much as a collection of proximal interests that skew toward the geeky. I am not passionate enough to justify flocking with the similarly interested. (The only exception might be writing in general, but I would gather other writers in an enclosed space only so that I might seal it shut in a fit of jealousy and watch them suffocate. In my head, it's a zero sum game: every reader they get is one I don't.) The customs and lexicon of the otakus remain foreign to me, even as I've married a woman who was visibly delighted when the near-annual reboots of Digimon franchise were individually summarized - though it sounds like a mouthful of gibberish succeeded by "-mon" until I joke I've had a stroke. I cannot pretend at anthropological extraction. I feel about conventions as I do theme parks: A series of activities - fun to everyone around me - that leave me a bit queasy.
My edges felt frayed that first day. I love Amber, but our lives give us a lot of individual time to pursue our interests and art, to say nothing of exercise and sleep.
Despite this, Amber seemed affectionate, even when I felt less than cuddly. I don't know what I've done to deserve her. I would certainly find myself too prickly for affection. I think this is just her nature and try to be kind to her for fear of suffocating her light.
When we watched a Japanese woman singing, Amber hooted and clapped loudly.
"You really seem to like Yoshiki," I noted, meaning that I did not particularly enjoy the experience and wanted her to reveal what I was missing so that I might be among the clued-in. Much of the crowd laughed at appropriate moments when Yoshiki stopped to speak to them in high-pitched Japanese - though I could not imagine so many of them are conversational enough - so I accepted I was an outsider.
"I just like cheering," she assured me. I find this aspect of Amber irresistible. She throws herself with zest into the experience of living. Even though she couldn't understand a word out of the singer's mouth and the music was not what she would listen to recreationally, she sounded like Yoshiki's biggest fan because that is the best way to be. I want never to do anything that would dampen her enthusiasm for life, though I know that I am occasionally a less than ideal companion because my issues or needs make me grumpy.
That night, my anxiety urged me to fixate on things I could not control, which stole sleep as it made me increasingly miserable. I focused on my breathing, but I couldn't Zen myself back to sleep. No matter how I practice, I have yet to reach the point where I can control my mind when it is fighting me. Logic never works, though. I know the truth. My demons aren't good listeners.
I would have been more happily be home writing. I have enough material in need of description, but that was not how I was to spend this weekend. The stress of life comes from wanting it to be other than what it is and fighting against its flow. I couldn't be upset that Otakon was not other than what it was. I accepted it and Otakon itself didn't stress me. Even if it was not the experience I might have wanted, it was the one I had. I could either tense myself cramped or open my hands and let it flow around me.
I felt less of a separation from this crew than I had in years prior. It is easy to give into the instinct to say you are not like the boy with a full neck beard and greasy hair. I'm certain he has fielded his share of mockery, which no doubt led him to retreat further into his niche interests, but that only made me feel more compassionate for him and his kith. The thirty thousand people in attendance weren't hurting anyone and, at least for a long weekend, they had a community that accommodated them. They get to belong somewhere, alongside those who can also prattle on in a sort of jargon that might as well have been clicks and whirrs as far as my ears were concerned.
By refusing to make a mental separation, as I had in years prior, I could relax into the experience of being here. I was neither better nor worse than most of these people, simple experiencing my own facet of what it is to be at Otakon. I had no real attachment to what panel I saw, so I was not upset by missing most. (It is impossible to not miss most panels since a half dozen are scheduled concurrently.) This might be the attitude I need in life, rather than reaching toward the paths not taken as they branch out of my sight. I am here, in this moment, whatever that entails.
I spent much of my life not appreciating anime. It boiled down to having seen the American dubs of Sailor Moon, having brushed against a few self-righteous fans of media that seemed identical to my outsider eyes, and deciding I was not missing much. Whenever I dipped my toe into the genre again, it seemed to involve a lack of creativity or humor I liked (and most of the original, female dialogue sounds like Japanese spoken by breathy squeak toys), so I relegated this to the box of things I didn't care about. However, being at Otakon reminds me that disliking media often amounts to not understanding it or its context. Thanks to Amber and Daniel, I have been exposed to Madoka Magica, Panty and Stocking, Psycho-Pass, Kill La Kill; anime that embraces and subverts the tropes that put me off when I was younger; media that uses the genre for inventive and unsettling storylines. Any art can be done well or badly, however more popular the latter will tend to be among teenagers who care more for identity than quality.
I focused on the scheduling the basics of biology - eating and excreting - around the programming on Amber's tablet. I wish I could have taken a pill that would have made it so I didn't have to eat for a weekend, simply so I didn't have to enter the soupy air of Baltimore to get food. I wanted not to have to factor in costs and calories when it came to following Amber's lead.
After we hustled to get into the fan parodies - in essence, redubbed and recut anime clips - Amber went off into a corner to return her sister's call. She was gone some minutes before returning and informing me that her father's cousin Debbie has died and arrangements will be forthcoming. I met this woman once and remember mostly the direness of her cancer diagnosis and the infectious cuteness of one of her daughters. Amber hesitated as to what we ought to do about this - a part of me thought she were about to propose leaving the convention to dash up to Long Island until the funeral - before affirming that there was nothing to be done tonight. She sat next to me and watched a series of goofy and inexpert animated skits until this morbid news faded into the background. Owing to traffic and scheduling, it will be impossible for us to make it in time for the viewing, so Amber will send flowers.
Saturday, we arrived half an hour early to the room where I would be conducting my panel, The Monsters You Don't Know. The people conducting the prior panel were still speaking and continued for several minutes into my prep time, as I fidgeted beside Amber and wished them away. I was too nervous to endure their desire to extend their time in the limelight.
I set up in minutes and watched as the room fills. I was too fluttery to count, but Amber estimated that I had around two hundred people in attendance. People waited outside the room to get in for an opportunity to hear me speak, though I imagine they were more interested in the subject than in me. All the same, as these people laughed at most of the right times, I felt more energized and excited than I have before. I've conducted successful panels before, but I've never felt as appreciated as when someone from the audience tells me he could listen to me talk forever.
As we walked to the convention Sunday morning, Amber halted in apparent delight. "Is that basil?" she asked, already bending over a crack between the sidewalk and a building. Amid the scattering of thirsty grass were a few lighter, round leaves. "What are you even doing there, basil?" she asked it, pulling off a leaf so I could smell it. That this aromatic plant made a place for itself in the midst of the city charmed her utterly, though it is the sort of everyday occurrence that would go unnoticed by almost everyone else in the world. I love her more for how happy this made her for the rest of the day.
Amber grew quiet whenever anyone mentioned that Otakon, having grown to capacity, would be leaving Baltimore for a convention center in Washington, DC. She knew this area and, to her, Otakon has only ever been at the Baltimore Convention Center. I had no such attachment. Otakon is an experience, not a place. It will settle just as well into the container of Washington, DC, and, even it is not her experience, there will be a new crew who never remember an Otakon anywhere else.
"Hey, could anyone help me out with a dollar?" the old man on the light rail asks.
"No, sorry. I paid with my card," I apologize. He has to ask, I have to decline. That is the dance, just like asking someone in passing how they are. He moves to another seat and I watch Baltimore recede into my past.
Soon in Xenology: Faces. Travel.