May 28th, 2009

WisCon Friday

Friday morning the 22nd was clear and a good day for driving. Georgie
and I gave Sue Blom a ride from Milwaukee to the con, which gave us an
additional source of entertaining conversation for the drive. After a
bit of a delay figuring out how to fit her scooter into the car, we were
off and made it into Madison by noonish.

Check-in with both the hotel and con registration went smoothly. We
hauled our baggage up to our room and then went down to circulate. The
Gathering was of course full of people we knew, and Georgie in
particular hardly got in the door before being buttonholed by friends. I
had a package of old WisCon material I wanted to pass on to Liz Henry,
and so was scanning for a woman with brightly colored hair and a
wheelchair. I thought I had acquired my target and homed in, only to
find Ellen Klages! Upon our expression of surprise at this development,
Ellen told us about the bad fall she had taken a couple of months ago,
injuring both knees, which wasn't entirely healed up yet. Co-GoH Geoff
Ryman joined the conversation, and we all began to drift around the
room, paying particular attention to the Tiptree auction items. Jeanne
Gomoll was there, who congratulated Georgie on her OddCon speech,
reminiscing a bit about history (especially past WisCon concom
meetings--) in common.

I was interested in the "Cultural Appropriation 101" panel/class, given
by Tiptree winner Nisi Shawl, Victor Raymond, and E. Cabell Hankinson
Gathman. This was a well-organized presentation and gave a very well
balanced and useful general overview of some basic concepts relative to
cultural appropriation.

We both had our first panels of the convention at 4:00PM, "Mod Squad"
(#34) for me, and "Rethinking Disabling Metaphor" (#38) for Georgie. I
contributed along with Moderator Beth Plutchak, Alan Bostick, and Ian
Hagemann. The four of us represented as many different moderating
styles, and we took a lot of good questions from the audience, most of
whom were also scheduled to moderate this year. I thought it was a very
good panel, and there seemed to be good feedback on it. Georgie reported
that the "Disabling Metaphor" panel, which focused on suggesting
alternatives to critical terms like "lame", "crazy", or "blind" went
well and was fun also.

For dinner break, we took advantage of the good weather, and got a pasty
from Myles Teddywedgers that we ate on a bench on State Street. The
pasty was as savory as ever, and the State Street ambiance was nice.
Then we strolled down to the Chocolate Factory for ice cream cones.

We got back in good time for the Opening Ceremonies. This year's skit
was presented by Broad Universe, who put on a funny, highly symbolic,
and loosely logical voyage through Ellen Klages' subconcious.

The next panel we went to was "Phantom Maids and Ghostly Ladies" (#56),
since both of us like a good ghost story, and were pleased that
panelists Catherine Lundoff, Valerie L. Guyant, Sarah Monette, and
Kristine Smith were well prepared and provided a good review of the
topic including giving us some new titles to look for.

My next panel, at 10:30PM was "Not Exactly What We Expected: Bastard
Gods In Chalion, Terre D'Ange, and Elsewhere" (#62). Michele Cox did a
good job moderating myself, Marna Nightingale, and Vito Excalibur in a
lively panel that played to a full room. We spent quite a bit of the
time analyzing how deities like Bujold's "The Bastard" and Carey's
"Elua" were both rooted in, yet very distinct from, historical god
figures such as Coyote or Dionysus. Marna Nightingale, who specializes
in anthropology of religion, was particularly valuable on this panel,
but the rest of us pitched in effectively, and the audience seemed to
appreciate the effort.

After that, we went up to the sixth floor and drifted through the
parties, making a particular point to check out the jewelry and the
poetry at Elise Matthesen's "Haiku Earring Party,' before going to bed.

WisCon Saturday

Saturday morning was cool and drizzly when we got up, so instead of taking an extended walk around the Farmer's Market, we went more or less directly over to Café Soleil (L'Etoile's morning bakery operation) for obligatory (for us) croissants and pain au chocolat, pausing to admire such flowers, herbs, and mushrooms as were on offer along our way.

Georgie got to moderate "Anarchy 101: It's Not Chaos," (#70) at 10:00AM, with M.J. Hardman, Farah Mendelsohn, and Jef a. Smith. This was a very informative panel with a lot of good information to provide. I know that Georgie didn't get anywhere nearly through all her notes, and the other panelists were similarly well prepared and the audience very interested. I was very pleased with the presentation over all and thought it went very well.

Then, lunch break, a first pass at the dealer's room (we ultimately bought a few more books than some years, and some jewelry) and the Tiptree Bake Sale, which had many very yummy things, as ever.

At 1:00PM, Georgie was in the chair again for "Science/Religion/Art" (#88), which sought to add a third value to the too-often two-sided "science vs. religion" debate. This was a great panel for this subject, since we had Georgie (artist and art historian), Ted A Kosmatka (author), Marna Nightingale (religious anthropologist), John H. Kim (physicist and teacher), and Brad Lyau (science historian). Georgie had been afraid the panel might disintegrate, but instead it pulled together nicely, giving a good look at the reality of the perceived schism between science and religion, and how art affects and draws from both. I particularly liked Marna Nightingale's idealized "functional" definitions (which I'm paraphrasing from memory--): Science is the study of how the Universe works. Religion is the philosophy of how we relate to the Universe. It was pretty well agreed that, sticking to those functional descriptions, there need not be conflict between the two, but that absolutism on either side destroys the potential for harmony.

We then went to hear "The Continuing Vision and Revision of the Transgressive Woman Warrior," (#111). Presenters Kate Fruend and Valerie Guyant did a good job reviewing the current status of the woman warrior figure and to what extent any can be considered truly transgressive as opposed to being merely extensions of the early "Wonder Woman" type of male fantasy figure. A good point was brought up wondering whether or not it was useful to have role models that have to be superhuman (Buffy, River Tam) as opposed to talented normals like Sarah Connor or Zoe Washburne from "Firefly." I did not find the presenters' defense of the coercive aspects of Anita Blake's current situation in her series quite convincing, but, admittedly, I am one who finds this turn of events in Laurel Hamilton's writings creepy. Still, all in all, an enjoyable program item.

"The Treatment of Aging in Science Fiction and Fantasy" (#123) was next. This panel really never picked up steam, since the panelists (Eleanor Arnason, Gerri Balter, Richard Chwedyk, Magenta Griffith and Diana Sherman) pretty much admitted that there wasn't much subject matter in the SF field to work with, and fantasy wasn't much of a consideration since it was full of immortal or very long-lived elves, wizards and vampires, etc.
The discussion did get into issues of ANTI-aging, taking up such works as Elizabeth Moon's "Herris Serrano" universe and the problems that can occur from having effective anti-aging treatments available; and the frequent used plot device of putting older characters into new young bodies (John Scalzi's "Old Man's War," among others). Between panelists and audience members the discussion managed to maintain reasonable interest until time ran out.

For dinner, we went to Nadia's on State Street along with friends Darlene Coltrain and Steven Vincent Johnson. Nadia's is a fine dining restaurant we haven't been to in a couple of years, and we were pleased to find that standards had not fallen off. I had a nice dry sherry as aperitif, and Georgie and I split an appetizer of roasted foie gras with apples and dried fruits that was just delicious. We traded tastes for a sample of the mussels that Darlene and Steve had ordered, and found those excellent as well. Entrees were Norwegian salmon in Pommery mustard butter sauce for Georgie (lovely!), and I had a seared duck breast with "lavender honey and peppery lime sauce," which was one of the best duck dishes I have had. Steve had the salmon as well, and Darlene opted for the grilled double lamb cotlette with garlic and rosemary sauce, which was also pronounced very fine. The only disappointment came with dessert. We were all pretty much too full to all order desserts, but Darlene convinced us that we could lessen her burden by taking tastes if she ordered the strawberry shortcake. When it came, the 'shortcake' portion consisted of a very bland, white, sugary pound cake which wasn't what anyone had been expecting or wanting, although I must say that the strawberries and whipped cream were good. Service was attentive, so overall I rated the dining experience very very good.
We went back to our hotel room and chatted a bit, with Steve and I sitting on the sidelines while Georgie and Darlene hammered out a barter exchange of artwork. Darlene had seen a reproduction of one of Georgie's drawings (one I call "Demon Cat") at OddCon and very much wanted to acquire the original. It was agreed that the bargaining would continue in the dealers' room next morning when Darlene's wares were available to be considered.
We went back downstairs for more panels, and chose "Witches and Wizards: Gender and Power in Portrayals of Magic," (#141), which was the weakest panel we attended all weekend. None of the panelists seemed to have a grasp of the topic either in history or in literature. Other than providing some examples in which "witches" tend to be old, ugly, and poor (Brothers Grimm) whereas "wizards" (cf. Merlin) have responsible government positions, no one made a real effort to either support or tear down any argument that the distinctions were cultural, stereotypical, or even real.
We wandered over to the Tiptree auction and caught the last bit, Ellen closing up active auctioneering a bit past scheduled time, with the very reasonable statement that no one needed to keep going until midnight to squeeze out the last five dollar bid. We ended our evening again with a brief pass through the parties.

Wiscon Sunday

We started Sunday by scrounging breakfast from the Con Suite (pretty
good doughnuts--). I must thank Hope Keiffer and the rest of the Con
Suite staff for the amazing amount of work they do every year, this year
including taking classes in food handling for safety's sake.

Georgie is of course interested in library topics, so we went to "Public
Libraries: Where's the SF?" (#165). Although there was some useful
information exchanged, the panel lacked momentum, with most of the
panelists, except Farah Mendlesohn, not seeming to be well prepared or
willing to express a strong opinion. As an audience member, I'm afraid I
made a bit of a jerk of myself arguing with Ms. Mendlesohn. (Although I
DO still think that we were getting at two different meanings of "form"
when it comes to reading material. Oh, well, it gives me an idea for a
panel topic for next year--.)

At the noon break, Georgie and Darlene completed their bartering, with
Darlene getting the artwork and Georgie coming away with a gorgeous
double-strand necklace of rough amber beads and pearls. It was a good
bargain in which both pronounced themselves satisfied.

The next panel we went to was "The Care and Feeding of Your Vampire,"
(#171). Moderator and author of "Vampire Cabbie" Fred Schepartz did a
very thorough job of preparing for this panel, with a good list of
provocative questions. The other panelists, Alex Bledsoe, Suzy Charnas,
Alaya Dawn Johnson, and Jordan Castillo Price, have all authored vampire
novels, and had very interesting things to say about which of the
"vampire rules" they adopted or not and why.

My next panel was "Terry Pratchett, Feminist Author?" (#188). This was
to talk about the many strong characters in Pratchett's "Discworld"
series, and panelists Chip Hitchcock, Carl Marrs, and Farah Mendlesohn
pitched in with a will. The polling question as to favorite female
character in Discworld elicited an interesting variety of responses,
including Susan StoHelit, Nanny Ogg, Agnes Nitt, Lady Vimes, and
Anathema Device (from "Good Omens"). After a very entertaining
discussion, we pretty well boiled down to agreeing that, while Pratchett
could not really be considered a feminist, he definitely likes women and
does as well by them as he can. The large audience seemed to enjoy the
At 4:00PM, Georgie had "Dystopias are Easy, Utopias are Hard," (#210).
Along with Deanne Fountaine, Carole Breakstone, and Phoebe Wray, the
panelists gave a good exposition of the histories of utopias in
literature (and some attempts in fact), the problems they have
presented, and some good speculation on WHY the idea seems to be doomed
to founder on the rock of human cussedness.
We went out for a light dinner of sandwiches at Potbelly Deli, and then
came back to dress for the evening. This was "Fancy Dress Party" night,
so we pulled out the stops. Georgie wore a fabulous formal gown and
jacket of teal with teal and silver corsetage, which drew complements
from everyone who saw it. I was doing "Wulfenbach Minion" from the "Girl
Genius" comic, which outfit consisted of a navy long coat with elaborate
maroon and metallic facings, black lace jabot and cuffs, black shirt
with a "Wulfenbach" winged tower pin, black breeches and boots. I got a
number of appreciative remarks on this outfit also.
Since we weren't actually RUNNING the Fancy Dress Party this year, we
were able to actually attend the guest of honor speeches for a change.
After doing a lot of clowning around doing the weekend, both Geoff and
Ellen decided to play against type for speeches. Geoff read from his
introduction to a forthcoming anthology he is editing, based on the
Joanna Russ theme "When It Changed." This collection of original stories
matches up science-fiction authors and practicing scientists to come up
with a story based on potential developments in the scientist's
respective fields, and sounds fascinating. Ellen gave a touching
recounting of her initiation into fandom and to becoming a writer. While
having a familiar "finding my tribe" theme, it was still both funny and
poignant, with Ellen's reading from her 3AM journal entry bringing tears
to my eyes.
We then went upstairs to provide moral support to our friends who were
doing the heavy lifting of running the Fancy Dress Party, Tim Kozinski
and Judy Seidl (who are dealers as "Ganesha's Treasures"), Judy's
husband Bob, and Henry Osier. They did a really fine job of picking up
and running with the party traditions of elegance and good food and
drink. They had a very nice snack spread, and the drink du jour was a
flavorful and not-too-sweet fruit punch which could be had with rum if
one was of age.
This year's theme was "Classic Fancy Dress", which meant come in
whatever's fancy for you. People turned out in a marvelous collection of
outfits ranging from the simply elegant to the beautifully bizarre. I
stationed myself at the door and acted as greeter, which we consider an
important function, as there are a lot of parties where you can drift in
and drift out without being talked to, and you don't really even know if
the organizers are in the room or not. For Fancy Dress, we want people
to know that everyone is welcome, even if not specifically dressed up.
It's a good sign when you have to ask people to leave when the party
closes up. We closed the doors at about 1AM and began tidying up. By
1:30 we still had a conversation group centered around Pat Murphy, at
which time I made a "closing announcement," which went something like
"Ladies and Gentlemen, at this time the Fancy Dress Party ends its
broadcast day. Cue picture of American flag, Star Spangled Banner." The
people all then obligingly began to SING "The Star-Spangled Banner" all
the way through as they genially filed out, inspiring a marvelous
collection of "WTF" faces from the people in the hall. Now, that's a way
to end a party--.

WisCon Monday

WisCon Monday, we slept in a bit, but still took in one panel before
hitting the road, which was "Not Enough Tricksters," (#236). On this
one, Joell Smith-Borne, Charlie Anders, Lesley Hall, and Julia
Sparkymonster lead an entertaining discussion that covered issues such
as what makes a trickster as distinguished from one who tricks people as
part of a scheme or plot. It was agreed that there is a certain required
element of chaos-bringing, of upsetting the status quo involved. The
panel and the audience named and discussed various figures from
mythology through popular culture, including such characters as Coyote,
Loki, "Slippery Jim" DiGriz, and Bugs Bunny. A good time was had.

Following that, we gradually disengaged from the con, said good byes,
and slipped out. Driving home was good, and we got there in early
afternoon in good time to unpack, get dinner, and unwind before going
back to the mundane world on Tuesday.

All in all it was a very good convention for us, and we're already
signed up for next year.