“What are you doing April 8th through the 11th?” a friend asked me.
This would have been Sunday at Katsucon, which was held this year from the 12th to the 14th of February in National Harbor, MD. Katsucon had drawn over seventeen thousand people that weekend, which was a number everyone was pleased about. Later on, people would be less pleased about the sparse acts of vandalism that were perpetrated against the hotel by stupid, pointless assholes.
But these things happen. If it weren’t for convention staffers and hotel employees, those things would happen a whole lot more often. As far as I was concerned, the convention overall had been a pretty good one. I didn’t really enjoy the electrical fire that forced an emergency evacuation of the population of a small town in a Stephen King novel. I certainly didn’t enjoy the occasional attendee taking out their frustrations on me. It’s not as sexy or dangerous as it might sound. It usually just consists of being insulted by someone who thinks I’m having a lot more fun than I actually am.
A lot more fucking fun, apparently.
And here’s the thing: I am usually having fun. Not so much the part where I have to tell strangers what they can and can’t do inside the walls of the hotel or convention center. That part is necessary, but it’s not particularly enjoyable. In a broad sense, yeah, I am having fun. Even after twelve years of attending and staffing fandom conventions up, down, and presumably across the Mid-Atlantic. It’s fun. It has to be. No one’s paying me to help get seventeen thousand and change out of the Gaylord in National Harbor MD. There is no potential for power and glory in making sure someone who cut their forehead open has someone to watch over them, while you go and get someone with from the convention’s extraordinary medical staff. You’re there because it’s a very specific, very odd kind of fun. If you’re talking to someone who has never even attended Otakon or MAGFest, let alone staffed those elaborate bedlam scenarios, it’s the kind of fun you can’t really explain to them. You can try. You can try a lot. I’ve been trying for over a decade, and I’m still making the effort.
I even tried to explain the long and the short of it in a Drunk Monkeys essay I wrote almost four years ago. I’ll stand by the essay for being interesting, and for being a pretty good try, but I still don’t think I’ve explained myself properly.
I’m still not getting very far. If you weren’t there for cocktails from 2-liter plastic bottles at three A.M., then you just weren’t there. If you didn’t get to tag along for that time a dozen of us spilled into a Thai place for a long, deliriously pointless dinner, I’m sorry. I’m not trying to make you feel bad. You may have missed out on something big. You may not have. I have no idea how you would respond to running across a deserted freeway at dawn, as though your life actually was in peril. What I do know is that the mass collection of memories that I’ve built up from 2005 to the present amount to the main reason why I’m still staffing. It all brings us to why I’m still riding buses, and still dealing with the unfathomably inept WMATA systems. Staying patient on any kind of commute is impossible for me these days. I don’t know why. I guess I’ve just had enough.
Or I’ve almost had enough. I guess. Since I’m still doing this.
It’s not the drinking that keeps me coming back. My last convention was Fur The More, which occurred from April 8th to the 10th of this year. I most certainly did drink, over the course of the fairly long weekend. I had drinks with relative strangers, while we soldiered on through one brilliantly earnest Rock Band track after another. I had drinks later on with some of my long-time friends and fellow staffers, over some equally earnest karaoke, when we had our post-con party on Sunday night. Drinking at these conventions can be a lot of fun, if you’re into drinking in the first place. At this point in my life, I’ve got things down to just shy of the healthy social variety. I’m way more proud of that than I should be.
But it’s not the liquor that brought me to Fur The More, a convention for and by those who identify as furries. A convention for a culture that I have no tangible connections to. I can’t even say I was even very interested in the culture. It just struck me as something that a group of people did that I didn’t really understand. But since it’s not for me to begin with, who the hell cares what I think. Someone asked me if I wanted to be on the security staff, and I said sure. I’m grateful that I’m still silly like that. What I thought was that it might come out to an interesting opportunity to learn something. My other thought was that it would be fun to do a convention that would be new to me. I even dragged my fiancé Cara along for the ride. She hadn’t been there for Katsu, and I thought it would be fun to staff something together again.
We’re just one of the many couples that work at these things together. Many of these conventions create families, or give existing families the opportunity to be weird under the same massive roof. You may not understand why I staff Anime, video game, or furry conventions. What I think you might understand as an alternative is family. This is especially true, if you understand that family comes with a list of near-endless possibilities, definitions, and combinations. I have had literal blood family on staff. I have built a network of friends who have become the kind of extended family you get from the type of circus you can find in old Hollywood movies. I have someone who I’m planning to marry this November, who I actually met at Anime Mid-Atlantic in 2011. These are a few of the definitions I’ve worked out and on, over the past several years.
But still, the reason why I keep going to these things is not solely for that family idea. It’s not whatever some starry-eyed jackass might be passing around the room or huddled masses. You know it’s not the art of conversation in a small hotel room that’s packed thirty or thirty million from the rug to the bumpy ceiling. It’s not the equally-essential art of finding your deodorant under the pile of towels and toiletries that aren’t yours in the bathroom.
Without question, it’s not the mix of healthy and unhealthy foods. Especially when you realize your body doesn’t handle the shift from one philosophy to the next as well as it used to.
As far as Fur The More specifically goes, it’s no single story I can tell you about. Even if you attend conventions like New York Comic-Con, Anime USA, or if you head all the way to San Diego for that little song and dance they do every summer, you may not get the furry thing. If you only know the concept from second-hand information, memes, or the small group of jerks who have ruined the animal hashtags on Tumblr, I can’t imagine you have a very high opinion of this deceptively specific group. For as long as I’ve known people like to wear animal costumes, I don’t think I’ve ever really had an opinion on how they like to express themselves, spend their free time, or whatever the case may be. There are a lot of things like that for me. Whenever possible, I remind myself that not having an opinion is fine. At worst, I thought it was a little weird. I know some people have far harsher views on the furry community. If my experience with kinky conventions has taught me anything, it’s that people would rather have strong opinions on things they don’t really get, than not have an opinion at all.
Then again, I’m sure some people have had legitimately uncomfortable experiences with people who identified as furries. I don’t doubt that for a second. Every single group or fandom within the larger convention scene has a few people like that. They’re either too selfish or too fucking nuts to realize they might ruin things for someone else. Those people are always going to be around. The only thing you can really do is try to remember that one person doesn’t represent the whole. Twenty people don’t represent the whole either. And so on.
Even as I knew this on that Sunday of Katsucon, I still didn’t really know a lot about furries. I figured I would learn something, if I was going to spend three days in a hotel around them. If I didn’t, well, I’d still get to see friends who definitely qualify for that family status I was explaining earlier. I’m talking about people like Abdul Hadi Sid Ahmed, Derek and Christina Fine, Andy Tobin, Kit Drago (the amazing chap who runs Fur The More, and does an amazing, underappreciated job at that) or Christian Savage. If I ever talk or write about conventions, it’s inevitable that one or all of those names are going to come up. You can imagine more names with ease. In fact, you can go ahead and imagine so many names, I lose track. Between staying out late, and the fact that I can’t keep anything in my cold oatmeal brain for more than an hour, it’s hard to remember almost everyone.
Staffing Fur The More was win-win for me. Cara and I drove from Long Island to New Jersey that Thursday. The reading I was able to perform in Keyport, New Jersey gave me some social momentum for the convention, which would start for us on Friday. The reading was also a nice chance to sell some books at Espresso Joe’s, while watching performances from the likes of Damian Rucci, Charles Joseph, Charles Bivona, or Chelsea Palermo. If there is one thing I don’t get to do enough in my life, it’s read in front of entirely too many people. Something to keep in mind, if you’re reading this, and you want to send a working writer on the road for a few decades.
We dug the reading, made it to Manassas VA a few hours later, and stayed with my friend Barbara for the night. When we got to hotel hosting Fur The More, which is the Sheraton that can be found in Tyson’s Corner, VA, there wasn’t a lot of time to do anything but get to work. It was quiet all over, but bodies were still needed. About an hour after we had picked up badges and signed in with our security department (security went by the name Rangers, which is silly and fantastic at the same time), I realized I had been in this hotel before. My first staffing gig, which would have been Anime USA in 2005. I had been to conventions before that, but only as an attendee. On an exhausted whim, I volunteered at that one for some much-needed crash space. Somehow, that one time necessity has spiraled into dozens of conventions, endless commuting, and a roll call of people I’m really glad I know.
Obviously, I’m way too nostalgic, so I thought about all of that quite a bit. In the eleven years since that Anime USA, they have added a lot to that part of Tyson’s Corner. Less than two minutes from the hotel’s main entrance, you can get to a Walmart, a Smashburger, and a gym that someone decided to slam down right on top of the Walmart. None of that stuff was there eleven years ago, I can promise you.
There hadn’t been a metro stop less than five minutes away either. That would have been nice in 2005.
From the perspective of a staffer, it was an astonishingly quiet show from Friday to Sunday. That’s partially because we’re talking about a small (but growing) convention with an attendance of approximately 990. For the most part, smaller conventions do not recreate that last-twenty-minutes-of-The-Deer-Hunter vibe that you get from the bigger ones. It’s also because I don’t work overnight shifts, which is when the interesting things tend to pop up. Most conventions are fine things to bring the small kids to. However, that doesn’t change the fact that a small group of blurry assholes are going to drink too much and act the fool. That element is always around. Security from one convention to the next just happens to be really good at dealing with people who are willing to ruin everyone else’s good time for the sake of theirs.
Believe me, I used to be of those assholes. They’re not going away. They just happen to be the minority, and they generally cause the biggest headaches at night. Chances are, I’m not working. You can find me roaming hallways with relative strangers, trying to stand still long enough to catch up with someone I haven’t seen in a year or two, or sitting in the bar. In a perfect world, I get to work afternoons at conventions. This lets me sleep in a little, which seems to be the best arrangement for everybody. In a slightly-less-perfect world, I get the morning shift. That puts me up and on the road to brilliant conversational back-and-forth with 200-or-more people by 7 or 8 AM. That was the shift they gave me at Fur The More. That was fine, in the end. In the mornings and early afternoons, especially at a smaller convention, people usually just want directions to somewhere else. I can handle that. I can also tell you for the 900th time to wear your fucking badge. Except I’ll be as nice about it as humanly possible.
And you’ll be as nice about it as possible, too. Unless you’re one of the rare breed who believes part of my fun is derived from asking people to do things. It’s not. However, if you already believe it is, there isn’t much I can do to convince you otherwise.
Has my job changed a lot since 2005? Have conventions changed much? My job is essentially the same, although I’ve worked in departments other than security at one con or another. I guess I’m a lot more responsible than I used to be, since people have been telling me that over the past couple years. More often than not, I know how to handle a given situation. I guess that’s the sum total of all the weird experience I’ve been building up. Other than that, a lot of this stuff strikes me as being about the same as it was when I started out. The for-profit conventions are more prolific than they used to be. People will pay a lot of money to meet someone who got killed on a 4th season episode of Supernatural. I don’t know why.
Younger conventions are striving for stronger, smarter approaches for inclusivity. That’s definitely a good thing. Marginalized groups that are sick of the politics are starting up their own parties. That’s awesome as hell. A lot of the more established conventions are doing the same. That’s good, too. It’s also really cool to see the “Cosplay is Not Consent” idea gaining so much support and traction at conventions of all shapes and sizes. Fur The More had a number of posters up that featured a furry-specific variation on the ideology. All of this paints a different, better picture of the convention scene in 2016 than what I was aware of in 2005. People are working to make a more elaborate, safer space for everybody who comes through the doors. You have to be pleased about these things, even if there are always elements to conventions that still need some work. Even as you keep in mind that nothing is perfect, no matter how hard everyone tries to make it so, you try to note the good that’s going on.
In a larger sense, even though I still don’t really understand the appeal of fursuits, Fur The More wound up just being an opportunity to constantly note the good things about fan conventions. Over and over again, in all the small, weird ways that only make sense to people who attend/work these things (whether you’re staff, a vendor, part of another convention, or on staff with the hosting hotel), I remembered why I’ve been staffing for so many years. I hung out with people who had been furries for years, even decades. I hung out with their kids. I watched a parade of roughly 220 people in fursuits march through the hotel. All of it creates the larger idea of why this is an atmosphere that I can’t leave behind. Even if I don’t plan to wear a fursuit, or even one of those tails that are also popular with people who don’t consider themselves furries, I get that atmosphere. I still understand what it’s like to be around a handful of your interests/hobbies/passions/obsessions for two, three days. I don’t have to connect to the specific culture anymore. I don’t have to know the Anime series you’re talking about, because it’s been a number of years since I’ve made it all the way through anything that might be considered new. I don’t need anything to appreciate just how happy you are to be there. I can be around, looking for my own interests/hobbies/passions/obsessions, and I can be aware of your energy. You can be aware of mine. We’re having a goddamned blast for entirely different reasons. The fact that we’re in the same room or building presents us with this opportunity to share and still remain unique. We may consciously take advantage of that opportunity in one form or another. We may do it unconsciously.
The possibilities represent a figure that at least feels like it’s greater than endless, although I know that doesn’t make a smidgen of sense. I’m still feeling all of this after eleven years. I can be aware of it when I’m sharing flaks over a movie in some video room. I can be aware of it when I’m stuck in a bad place at four o’clock in the morning, which is something that thankfully doesn’t happen to me too often anymore.
I can be aware of it at any given moment of a convention. Best of all, I can be aware of it through examples that completely differ from one another in every possible way. Since I’m still walking away from conventions with this mentality, it’s easy to say yes to any offer to staff that comes my way.
When my friend asked me at Katsucon what I was doing April 8th through 10th, it was easy to answer him. When they offered me Fur The More, I said yes without even thinking about it. You can get addicted to these things. The feeling can come and go, but it takes a lot to reach the limit where you don’t want to be around anymore. A few times in the past, I thought I had hit the limit. Not so. Not if I’m still here, still making friends, and still surprising myself when I want to know what’s up on Friday night.
But I can’t quite explain all of that to you, if you’ve never been to one of these things. Or at least, I’m not explaining it to my satisfaction. I guess I’ll never be satisfied, which means I’ll probably try this again in a few years.
Cara gets it. She had her own fun and experiences at Fur The More that she could tell you about. Unless something happens, we’ll both be on staff for Balticon this year. I’ll let you know if I bump into George R.R. Martin.
If none of this makes sense to you, I’m sorry. The only suggestion I can offer is to check out whatever’s coming up next in your neighborhood.
That would help me a lot, actually.
Especially if you have an open mind.
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