So You Want To Go To WisCon, Part II: Expectations

Okay, so, last year as part of a fiendish plot to lure some awesome people to my “home con” of WisCon (both specific people and awesome people in general), I made a post about the logistics of it all. Now that my plan has worked, I have some friends who have told me that they’re coming but are nervous because they don’t really know what to expect.

So, let’s talk about that.

The Environs

The convention is almost entirely contained within the Madison Concourse Hotel. They have an extensive photo gallery on their website, if you like to have something to visualize. You can see the check-in desk, you can see the grand staircase that connects the lobby downstairs to the main convention area up stairs. You can see the conference/ballrooms, done up for some kind of banquety thing. Those are the same rooms where the larger panel discussions are held, albeit with fewer tables and more chairs.

Almost all of the conference rooms, meeting rooms, and event spaces in the Concourse have themed names and the theme is “state capital”. When you see a con event is being held in “the Capitol”, it’s talking about a room in the hotel’s event floor, not the big pretty building on the square behind the hotel. Trust me, that had me scratching my head the first year.

The hotel can seem imposingly large and intimidatingly posh, especially when you realize it’s the type of hotel that’s used to hosting lobbyists and guests of state officials. If you booked through the con website, you got the con rate for your room. The rack rate is listed on a placard on or near the door, in accordance with state law, so you can see for yourself what it would cost to stay there normally.

Don’t be intimidated, though. The hotel knows us. They might not know you, but they know us in general, and we’re friends going back decades. The Concourse hosts the con every year in a very symbiotic relationship; the con is held in a hotel that mostly does state government-related business on a government holiday weekend, so we turn a slow weekend into a full house for them. We do need to remember that we are not the only guests (there’s often an airline pilot convention and sometimes some other events overlapping our convention, to say nothing of miscellaneous tourists), but everywhere you go in the hotel you’re more likely to be surrounded by WisCon people than not. And within the “event” floors, everybody there should be a con member.

So, you don’t have to explain yourself to the staff when you’re checking in or whatnot. It’s not their first rodeo. At the same time, they will be very cognizant that it might be your first rodeo. They don’t mind answering questions or giving directions. Just bear in mind that the hotel staff and the con staff are separate; the hotel staff can tell you where the Senate Room is; they can’t tell you what event is in it. But there’s an app for that, as well as pocket schedules.

The hotel is the type of hotel that’s meant to impress people. The food options there are all some degree of “fine dining”, with prices that reflect it. If you go out the hotel and take a left, at the end of the block is State Street, which has dining options for all budgets from “state government bigwig” to “college student”; it’s got a capitol building on one end of the street and a college on the other, so, you know. There are quite a few delivery options, too, and yes, they will deliver to the hotel.

In recent years, the Concourse redid its lobby to be a huuuuuge open seating area with smaller arrangements of seats. During the con (and just before and after), this is the setting of the informal event dubbed “LobbyCon”, also known as “people just hanging out together”. It can be very crowded and noisy during peak times, but very chill. If it’s late at night and you’re too jazzed up to sleep, there will usually be people in the lobby hanging out. It’s well-lit, it’s comfortable, and there will be at least a night auditor on duty at the desk. It’s a great place to go at any hour to be outside your room and have the possibility of hanging out with people.

There is a bar open to the public on the first floor. Like everyone else, the bartenders know the con is coming, they know the drill, most of them are into it. There’s usually a special menu of sci-fi/fantasy-themed cocktails available. Light food options are on offer at the bar; hours may differ from the bar’s hours of operation.

Most of the programming is on the first and second floor, with some of the sixth (“the party floor”, aka “the loud floor”). The sixth floor is the location of the Con Suite, which does its best to provide food to con members who can’t just go out and buy food, for whatever reasons.

The third floor has some controlled-access (i.e., you need a room key) areas of interest, including a little kitchenette with microwave, the fitness center, and the pool and spa. There is a biiiiig hot tub attached to the pool, and a sauna and a game room off the pool deck. No extra charges for using any of the amenities or equipment here.

You wear your swimsuit in the sauna. There’s a big button right outside the door that starts it, and a bucket of water with a ladle for getting steam. It’s all pretty straightforward. If you’re finding yourself with a severely scratchy throat after a few days of talking loudly in crowded rooms, try popping a cough drop or lozenge in your throat and sitting in the steam. It’s magical.

The top three floors of the hotel are the “concierge level”, here known as the Governor’s Club. The rooms there are pricier. The elevators will not go to these floors if a card reader is not swiped using a keycard from them. They also have their own express elevator that *only* goes between the 1st and 2nd floor (the hotel’s public spaces) and the top floors, which means that it can’t be used to access the pool or the party floor. There is a bar up in the Governor’s Club levels called the Governor’s Club lounge (often just referred to itself as the Governor’s Club). It is not open to the public, it has a more limited stock and some restrictions (no shots, no long islands; e.g., nothing designed to get people very drunk very quickly), and so doesn’t have the specialty menu, but it is gratis, here meaning “you’re paying for what you drink out of the price of your room”.

On the subject of elevators: There is a bank of three elevators plus the express elevator. They get very busy and very slow at peak times (especially around meals). If you have an issue with crowds or claustrophobia, or you have time-sensitive dietary needs, it may be worth your while to play your meals for off-peak times so that you aren’t trying to get up and down the elevators when everyone else is.

If you have the mobility and spoons for stairs, there *is* a grand staircase connecting the second floor (where a lot of evernts are) to the first floor (where the hotel exit) is, and of course, there are flights of staircases recessed behind doors on every floor. These doors are controlled access! You can open them from the hallway without a keycard; you might not be able to get back in at your destination without one. Make sure you have your keycard with you before taking the stairs. If no one’s there to let you out, probably call the hotel’s front desk.

On that subject: the Concourse’s internet infrastructure is severely taxed with a buncha freaking nerds hanging out, and there are some cellular dead spots in the hotel’s architecture (notably the elevator banks). So don’t rely too much on time-sensitive electronic communication to keep in touch with your people.

Bathrooms are just about everywhere, because a lot of the smaller event spaces are meeting rooms that have their own dedicated bathroom in the back. These are all single occupancy and are all any gender. The hotel provides refreshing ice water stations throughout the convention space, and believe me, proper hydration will make a huge difference. I know it sounds hokey, but. Drink the water.

At least during the con, the hotel does not have a door person (there is a revolving door and an automatic door; I just mean, there’s not a person in a smart uniform holding it for you), so don’t worry about tipping on your way in. I’m sure assistance getting to your room with your luggage can be arranged if you need it, but they don’t have a bell stand with a bell hop there to just do it, so again, no worries about having a tip ready.

If you take the shuttle from the airport (instructions in previous post), that is an appropriate tipping situation. A buck, two bucks, five bucks. Use your budget and your discretion, particularly if you have  a heavy suitcase that the driver loaded and unloaded for you. Tipping housekeeping is certainly appropriate; there are guidelines for the basic expectation in the con’s literature. It’s not a lot. You can always tip more.

Tipping waiters and bartenders in the hotel bar and restaurant is normal. If you’re coming from out of the country and you’re used to people being paid for their labor in a straightforward fashion without this layer of subterfuge: servers are being paid with the expectation that they’ll get most of their wages in the form of “gratuities”, with an expectation that it will be 20% (1/5th) of the bill. So, you have a 20 dollar meal, it’s a 4 dollar tip.

This does not apply to “counter service” restaurants (which includes all fast food chains), which is generally any place where you order standing up at the counter, even if the food is then delivered to your table. If there is a “tip jar” on said counter (it will usually be labeled as such), that usually means that tips are accepted (e.g., for exceptional service or because your change is inconvenient) but not expected. If there is no tip jar on the counter, the staff is likely unable to accept tips. Again, this is for “counter service” restaurants, where the menu’s on the wall and you pay in advance at a cash register behind a counter, not “table service” or “wait service” restaurants, where you order at a table, from a waiter, off a paper or electronic menu.

The Convention Itself

WisCon is, properly speaking, a literary science-fiction and fantasy convention. It is similar to but distinct from media science-fiction and fantasy conventions, comic book conventions, and video game conventions, though there has been and will continue to be quite a lot of overlap and convergent evolution among these groups. WisCon started out to talk about books and writing and reading, but topics of discussion encompass movies and TV shows and, increasingly, video games and roleplaying games. Programming is set by members and ran by members and staffed by members, so we talk about whatever members want to talk about. This means if we have enough members who want to talk about the Jem cartoon, we might have a panel or several about the Jem cartoon.

So, it’s “literary” in the sense that the focus is on writing and reading. There is also an academic track (people present papers they wrote on various sf/f topics). The main events are panel discussions, though, which is a group of people having a conversation among themselves and the audience on a variety of topics. Each day is blocked out a bit like a school day, with events happening in time slots in pre-assigned rooms and a “bell period” between them for people to get where they’re going next. There are breaks built into the programming for lunch and dinner.

With the packed schedule and so much to see and do, it can feel overwhelming. It can also feel like you’re back in school, only you’ve been assigned every class and no one gave you a time-turner. Here’s my hard-won wisdom – take breaks. Giving in to Fear Of Missing Out will lead to burning out and missing more. Part of the con is going to the panels. Part of the con is chilling with people, hanging out, meeting people, and just taking it all in.

I have been on panels about self-publishing, about trans issues in fiction, about social media dynamics, and about what it’s like when a group only gets representation via villains (such as the queer-coding of villains in Disney movies.) Just all over the place. The panels are usually pretty informal and conversational.

Every panel is facilitated  by a moderator. The moderator as well as the panelists are all members who volunteered to speak on this subject because they felt they had something to say. There are some panels built around the guests of honor (the only special category of con member) and their areas of expertise or famous works, but WisCon panels are not really a case of “here are special people being paid to speak”; there will also be panels about the guests’ work that are other people (fans as well as scholars , and many who are both!) discussing them.

The moderators have a lot of leeway to set the tone. Sometimes (often!) the moderator will be a panelist as well. Sometimes a panel is short a moderator. I’ve been plugged into the schedule as moderator a couple of times because the original moderator had something come up. In cases like that, the moderator is more likely to sit back and play traffic conductor for the conversation than join in as a panelist. In other cases, the moderator is the person who really wanted the discussion to happen (pitched it to the con) and wants to be a part of it but doesn’t have much to say, so much as to questions to ask. And in other cases the moderator is basically just another panelist.

The moderator can steer the format towards more Q&A with the audience, or more discussion among the panelists. Some panels become an organic conversation between the panel and the audience. Some are more structured. The size of the crowd and the room and the sensitivity of the topic can affect this, as can the judgment and style of the moderator. Some moderators welcome the audience throwing out discussion points; others swiftly crack down on “My question is really more of a comment.” Again, it depends on the topic and the composition of the crowd.

The panelists can be pretty entertaining. A lot of people (myself included) pick which panels to see in large part based on who’s going to be on them. It’s not that the topic doesn’t matter, but at any given time slot there’s going to be three or four panels that sound interesting. The panelists can make and break them. If you’re going to WisCon, you might already recognize some of the panelists’ names from the spines of books or from your favorite social medium.

Now, if panelists can make a panel, they can also break them. You might find yourself sitting in a panel with a panelist who takes it over, talks over everyone else, runs roughshod over the moderator, and is basically just there to be the contrarian to the very premise of the panel. It happens. It’s absolutely fine for you to get up and walk out if this happens. It’s your time and you paid to be there! Feel no guilt about finding something better to do with your paid time.

It’s also fine for you to use your question, if you can get called upon, to direct the panel discussion towards the other members.

And it’s fine for you to make a note of the panelist and mention the experience in the member survey.

Believe me, the programming people (and they are top-notch people) pay attention to that sort of thing. They can’t solve a problem that they don’t know exists, and sometimes they suspect a problem exists but they need the concrete reports to fix it.

I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea and think it’s all just a trainwreck or a minefield. But I also don’t want anyone to think that we’ve achieved perfection. Fail happens.

WisCon billed itself from the beginning as a feminist science fiction and fantasy convention. It’s now grown to be (or at least strives to be) a progressive convention along all axes. It is not itself perfect or free of -isms. I’ve encountered transphobia from WisCon members, direct and indirect. I know people who have encountered racism. The same generational and demographical divides that are present elsewhere in fandom exist in WisCon. If WisCon has an advantage, it’s that the idea of trying harder and doing better is written into the event’s image. Every year I’ve been there, it seems the crowd is less homogeneous, that the people who were on the margins the year before are closer to the center.

One thing that we’ve been seeing more and more of is the “let’s blow of some steam” panels, for people who find themselves being asked to explain and defend their experiences over and over again on the Serious Discussions About Diversity Panels. The original panel of this format was the “Not Another Race Panel” panel. They’ve been getting more elaborately named since then. The people on them are some of the most top-notch speakers and entertainers in the WisCon returning retinue; they wind up needing these panels in part because they’re in such high demand.

There are also usually some game/activity panels that go along the lines of “Let’s Create A World”, where the panel (with some prompting or seeds or input from the audience) does a world-building exercise (or something similar) over the course of the panel’s length.

You can usually get some kind of hint about how serious a panel will be by looking at the title and description.

There’s also spontaneous programming, which is to say, there are some small rooms that aren’t being used for formal programming and anybody can go to a marker board where they’re on a grid and claim one for a conversation not being had. Say there’s a TV that just started and no one was thinking of it when programming was being developed. Say there’s some development in the sf/f world or in politics that just happened. Say you just want to continue digging into a topic that was touched on in a panel you saw. You can claim a spontaneous programming room for a particular time block and hold your own discussion there. Just make sure to tweet and such so people know it’s happening.

Other Attractions

WisCon has an art show most pieces for sale!), a dealer’s room (mostly books, some games and comics, and some crafts such as jewelry), a bake sale to benefit the Tiptree Award and the famous Tiptree Auction. There is a reception at the bookstore A Room of One’s Own on Thursday, the night before the con proper, where traditionally the guests of honor read from their works. There are readings by poets and authors (none by me; I get stage fright that is easier to manage in a panel discussion, but every year I work up a little bit closer to the nerve needed), some of which are at a coffee shop just a bit down the street from the hotel (Michelangelo’s). Show up early to those ones to get a seat; they get crowded fast.

There is traditionally a dance party on one of the weekend nights, sometimes with a theme.

On Sunday night, there are the guest of honor speeches, which are preceded by a ticketed (as in, you have to pay extra to get in) dessert reception. The speeches themselves aren’t separately ticketed and are open to all members, though the people who attend the dessert reception are already seated so they might have the best spots.

It is entirely possible and acceptable to go to WisCon and skip the big events like the reception at the bookstore and the guest of honor speeches, if big crowds in echoey spaces put you on edge, for instance. It might seem like these highlight events are “the point” of going, but the people who do go to them benefit from the fact that a lot of people don’t. The speeches are always great, but transcripts and videos are usually available before too long. I’ve both gone to them and skipped them, various years.

The Crowd

 I have to say, there’s not “a” WisCon crowd, but several overlapping ones. It can seem like everybody there knows everybody, especially if you’re new and feel like you know nobody, but it’s really more like most people know somebody. I am sorry to report that there are a number of Old Painfully Hip White Guys Who Probably Mean Well. There’s also some pretty rad genderqueer and trans people who I think of as The Youths and who are probably actually all like 29.9999 years old because I am An Old. And so on. It’s not just a mixed crowd, it’s a mixture of crowds.

Basically, picture a mix of old hippies, author photos come to life, and whatever comes to mind when you read somebody with a Pepe avatar talking about “Social Justice Warriors” and “Tumblrinas”. That’s what you’re going to see at WisCon.

A lot of people are there, essentially, working. It is functionally an Industry Event, with a lot of Industry People (“Industry” here being sf/f publishing). There are also a lot of independent artists, authors, and creators there to network and get their name out there and such. There are also a lot of people who are there, essentially, to party and as a vacation. And a lot of people who it’s a bit of column A and a bit of column B.

It’s not unusual to feel like everybody else is there to Do Something, leaving you at a loose end or as an impostor or whatever. If it makes you feel any better, a lot of the people there to Do Something feel the same way.

There are a number of official “icebreaker” type things designed to get you into the flow of things. The first day of actual programming on Friday is kicked off with The Gathering, which is a structured party that I compared to a school carnival in my previous post – held in the big ballroom-sized event space, with stations for games and activities. When progamming breaks for dinner, there are several “First WisCon Dinner” groups that form up and sally forth down State Street to various restaurants. These are mixed groups of experienced congoers and newcomers. If you’re good with large groups, this is a good chance to both meet other newbies and prove to yourself you’re not the only one, and meet people who have been coming for years and who are still interested in meeting new people.

There’s also a lot of informal measures along the same line. While there can be people in any group who seem insular and cliquish (though in some cases, it’s because they are as shy as you are and also don’t know who’s new and who’s not), there are people who take it upon themselves to act as a welcome wagon and guide, make introductions, etc. I benefited from several people doing this my first few years, and I’ve been trying to pay it forward.

Mealtimes at WisCon are prime socializing time. They can be lonely at WisCon if you’re there by yourself and don’t know anybody. Let me tell you a secret: most of the people around mealtime are looking for more people to eat with. Not everybody. Some people have specific plans, some people don’t want a big crowd. But if it’s time for dinner and you say in a loud, clear voice, “Hey, does anybody want to get dinner?”, you might find yourself approached by other lonely newbies, or invited to join a group.

If you’ve got a smart phone, you can also tweet that you need lunch or dinner plans, using the WisCon tags. See if you don’t get an invite. And I keep telling people this and I keep having people not believe me, but if you’re stuck for plans and can’t find anyone, tweet @ me or moofable (my boyfriend, Jack, who is more likely to see it, though I do turn my notifications up for the con). If we don’t have sensitive plans with someone else, we’ll be happy to meet you. If we do, we’ll try to match you up with someone.

Now, there are ~1000 people at the con. I don’t know all of them and no one can vouch for them all in a vacuum. Use your normal rules and rubrics for your personal safety, of course, and feel free to decline anything that seems sketchy or that you can’t trust. There is no WisCon Rule of Politeness that says you have to accept an invitation. But mostly I’m talking about eating in a public place with a group of people.

There is a dedicated lounge inside the con that’s a posted safer space for people of color. If you’re looking to dine away from the white gaze, I am told that popping in there before mealtime can be a good way to hook up with a group, just in case you’re feeling shy about broadcasting that particular need on Twitter. If you witness something on a panel that you need to unload about or process, you’re probably not alone and you’ll probably find other people heading to the same destination for the same purpose.

In recent years, we’ve added a trans/genderqueer space and a disability/access space for similar purposes. If you find yourself overwhelmed by all the crowds and you need to find your crowd, there are some shortcuts.

Party, Party, Party

WisCon’s party culture can take a little getting used to, and it’s still evolving. Each individual party is thrown by an individual or group who are members of the con. They provide a theme, decorate, cater, etc., basically all themselves (and/or pay someone to do so). Each party takes place in an event room/space on the sixth or second floor, and since you wind up with a whole floor of individual parties serving slightly different appetizers and whatnot, mostly it winds up being treated as one giant metaparty, with a lot of people circulating from room to room and grazing.

Parties might have activities appropriate to their theme, like making a magic wand for a book release party about wizards, or designing a mask for a “masquerade ball” theme. It’s just, no one party has a ballroom-sized space, so the theming of something like “masquerade ball” can only go so far.

Now, the larger convention party culture started as a mixture of cocktail receptions sponsored by publishers and the like and authors/congoers hosting keggers in hotel rooms and/or swimming pools. The two have sort of merged together over the years, and now that convention culture is growing up, the drunken debauchery is starting to get roped in a little.

There’s been some grousing mostly from the older generation that WisCon’s deal with the hotel prevents WisCon parties from serving alcohol (due to stuff involving their liquor license and insurance and the fact that a lot of WisCon’s parties are now happening in what is de facto public space on the second floor instead of private space with controlled access). It may be important for you to know that alcohol will be being consumed in and around the parties, but the parties are much less centered on alcohol than they were.

(There are cash bars set up near the parties, and if a party host absolutely needs to serve alcohol for some thematic purpose, their booze can be given to the bartenders to be dispensed. I don’t know how much anyone’s taken advantage of that.)

Be advised that the party floor is hot, enclosed, crowded, and noisy when the parties are in swing (generally 9 PM through the wee hours). The hallway on 6 is marked off so that there’s a traffic lane and a social loitering lane; please observe that to keep things safe and accessible. If you’re looking for a less crowded time but don’t want to miss out on the social – party hours are also a great time for visiting the lobby.

Cosplay and Consent

Cosplay has not been a huge part of the WisCon culture, though every year I have gone there has been a little bit more of it. I certainly would (and have, and am!) encouraging cosplayers to come and bring their craft to the con. I think it’s a tremendous addition to it. Certainly it’s the right crowd to be impressed with and recognize cosplay. I see this as similar to the greater emphasis on other media in addition to literature, and the youthening and broadening of the con membership. There’s a lot of the lowkey styles of cosplay, like the people do modern Disney Princess equivalents or wear dresses in superhero colors and patterns. I dressed as Maleficent for the Gathering last year and will be doing so again this year.

WisCon practices a culture of consent. If you see someone in cosplay, please remember that this does not entitle you to touch them, physically turn them around, stop them with your hand or otherwise physically control them, demand they pose, or take their picture without their consent. There are no dedicated cosplay events, so if you see someone in a costume, they’re a member like you and they may well be heading towards a panel they really want to see. Be delighted in their creativity, but you’re not entitled to their time and space.

Now, for people who want to cosplay, do bear in mind that there aren’t dedicated cosplay events, so if you’re going to dress up, keep your comfort in mind. I did my Maleficent cosplay on Friday because it’s not a full day of programming, and a few hours of that are eaten up by the Gathering, so it’s not like I spent all day going from panel to panel and sitting in, frankly, fairly warm rooms with my cloak and horned hat.

A lot of people who want to dress up, whether it’s cosplay or just being silly or glam or steampunk or whatever, wear comfy clothes during the programming day then change after dinner, so they’re dressed up for the parties. You can wear anything that doesn’t violate decency laws and people won’t bat an eye after 9. There’s not a huge cosplay culture, but there is a decided dress-up culture into which cosplay can neatly slot. There’ll be people with unicorn horns and top hats and cat ears and corsets and capes and whatnot.

Like I said, I encourage people to cosplay at WisCon. I’m going to be doing at least one cosplay on at least one day (and I’ll certainly be dressing up spiffy on other days), so if you come, you won’t be on your own. There is a culture at WisCon (there are *several* cultures, in fact), but it’s driven by the membership and it’s fluid. We can make cosplay at WisCon a bigger thing just by doing it.

Health & Hygiene

WisCon observes safe food handling standards in the ConSuite. A number of volunteers are certified for that. (They always need more help! You don’t need to be certified to pitch in, but if you’re coming back next year, you could volunteer in advance and get the certification on WisCon’s dime. They’d be very grateful! Volunteering is an excellent way to become a part of the con!)

There are generally hand sanitizers and wipes around. I recommend carrying some of your own. “Con crud”, or a variety of gastrointestinal and respiratory infections that propagate through the close quarters of a convention, is a real thing and it can hit you hard during or after a con. Best practice is to wash and/or sanitize your hands regularly. If you are flying to and from the con, sanitize your hands in the airport and plane, and wipe down any surface you’re going to be touching with antibacterial wipes.

That horrible travel cold you thought you got from breathing recycled air? Probably came from a germy surface. This is a life-changing trick that I picked up from a family member. I went from spending a week to three weeks knocked on my back by a chest cold about every other time I flew and every single time I went to a con, to almost never being sick. They’re called “airborne viruses” because you sneeze and breathe out droplets and whatnot, but mostly they wind up adhering to surfaces that are rarely if ever disinfected and you get them that way.

As I mentioned before, there is water, water everywhere and it’s there for you to drink. End of May in the midwest can be surprisingly sultry if you haven’t lived through it. It’s not nearly as hot as the end of July into August, but when you’re at a literary convention it’s easy to overlook how much exertion you’re getting. The con is a workout.

There are also trashcans everywhere! Please do not treat the convention space or hotel at large like it’s a restaurant with full busing service, or worse, a trashcan. Yes, there is hotel staff who will go around and collect empty water cups and trash and clean it up. But there’s a trashcan right there, for most values of “right there”. Don’t make things harder for the staff and don’t make things worse for your fellow congoers. There was one year where every time I walked into a conference room, there was an orange rind or a banana peel somewhere. In one case, there was an orange peel left piled on the table for my panel by a previous panelist.

It’s not that everybody is sloppy and thoughtless. This is a case where a few people can seriously impact the entire convention for the negative. Trash in places trash should not be (which consist of “the trash can”) is a safety hazard and it’s just gross and disrespectful.

It’s mostly not new people doing this. It’s mostly, in fact, old people who should know better but have internalized the idea that Surely Someone Will Just Take Care Of This. I just want to throw it out here, though, because I’m bringing new people in and I don’t want to wind up adding to the problem.

 

March Onward!

Hello, new folllowers! This is both a status post and what I call a processing post, where I reflect on things that have been happening and will be happening. Please be advised that this sort of post is not a request for advice and does not require any feedback. If you’re curious to know what’s going on in my life and in my head… well, that’s what blogs are for. I am more than capable of asking for advice if I need it.

Anyway…

February was an interesting experience after the creative high of January, when I wrote over 60,000 words of fiction and got a lot of amazing things done. I figured things would basically continue on the same, but… stuff kept happening. In retrospect, the same kinds of stuff happened in January. The difference was that in January, my creative momentum let me roll with it. In February, I just crashed and burned. Even trying to edit/format fiction I’d previously written was a lot harder. I kept telling myself that if I could just get past _____, I would get my feet under me and then make up some lost ground.

It was on the very last day of February that I finally gave up and decided it was okay that this never happened. My January word count is still amazing even divided out over two months, and I’d already approached February with the idea that I’d likely write less even if I had another amazing month. So it ended up being way less. I can live with that.

Once I let go of the idea that I was going to make up for my missed fiction-writing plans in the remainder of the month, I realized that the problem all along was that I’d been suffering something like burnout. I did ALL THE WRITING in January and needed to ease off in February. Not a big deal, and something I can certainly account for going forward. As much as I’d like to believe I can take what I did in January and be a fiction-outputting machine year round, that’s just not now things work.

So from here on out, I’m going to take my January approach of throwing myself into one project at a time and add another wrinkle: after a month of hyperfocus, a month to decompress, where I don’t place any creative demands on myself. It’s not a month of, but a month off from the pressure of producing wordcount. The things I did accomplish in February that relate to the business side of writing all happened in times when I excused myself from writing because of temporary physical impediments.

So January was a creative month, February was not. March will be, April will not be (which is handy because it’s a crunch/stress month for the business side), May will be, June won’t be (which is handy because WisCon tends to wipe me out for at least a week, more if I get sick), and so on. It’s not a perfect system as, for instance, WisCon falls during one of the “on” months, but I had my out-of-state family holiday gathering in January and it didn’t break my stride.

As I type this out, it seems incredibly obvious in retrospect that “intentionally trigger hyperfocus on one creative project after another indefinitely” was not a sustainable plan.

It’s not like February was a total wash. My political commentary continued to attract attention (and a lot of new eyes), and even brought in a little money that allowed me to deal with what might otherwise have been serious crises. I’ll need to find a sustainable balance between that and fiction as we go into March, but I managed that okay in January.

The Story on Trump’s Speech: He’s a Good Liar

Late last night, I broke down Trump’s address to the joint session of Congress on Twitter. At the time I said that it was the best speech he’s given yet, though I qualified that this was not a compliment to him so much as a warning to all of us: the regime is stepping up its messaging game, and we all have to be ready.

I predicted a lot of people would be taken in by the shiny new packaging and a patriotic wrapper provided by speechwriter Vince Haley, and when I got up this morning and checked the news sites, I found that I was right.

People sometimes ask me what news outlets I read. The answer is: as many of them as I can. And even beyond that, I look at the headlines and preview text for more. The reason I do this is because I’m trying to get a complete picture not just of what’s happening, but how it’s being framed… the meta-story of a story, if you will.

The meta-story on last night’s speech is: Donald Trump is a complete liar who has never looked more presidential than in this speech where he called for unity while saying things that are manifestly and obviously untrue. He passed a major test in what was sure to be a turning point for his presidency, and he was lying to us the whole time.

By some estimates, he told an average of one verifiable lie or inaccuracy nearly every minute.  And the pundits and talk show hosts and talking heads ate it up and begged him to keep serving more of the same.

Understand, individual people aren’t saying all of this together. Instead, we have fact-checking pieces and rebuttal pieces addressing specific claims and pointing out specific falsehoods, and side-by-side with that we have reaction pieces that talk about how it all came off. What I’m not seeing from the conventional media is anything that puts together the whole picture, of what it means that he gave a surprisingly good speech with a new, burnished and polished persona, and told more of the same lies he’s been telling.

We have a word in the English language for when someone stands up for an hour and says things that aren’t true, but which he wishes to be accepted as true, and which he makes palatable by wrapping up in patriotic imagery and inspiring platitudes and bromides about how we like things that are good and dislike things that are bad, until people find themselves nodding along with conclusions that in better circumstances they would have examined more carefully.

That word is propaganda.

The news media is not about to stand up and say that Donald Trump delivered an hour of propaganda, though, because where the line falls between a persuasive speech that is slickly packaged and actual propaganda is too subjective a determination for any one person to make.

I mean, it would be kind of like saying that someone was being presidential.

Realistically, the media has got to get better at handling things like this if they (and the rest of us) are going to survive Trump’s regime. They have got to stop acting like they’re safely up in an announcer’s box providing color commentary on a struggle confined to a playing field that neither includes them nor has any consequences that extend out of bounds.

This is not a game, there are no boundaries or safe zones or rules or timeouts, and they themselves are very much in play as designated enemies in a declared war.

Anyone who thinks that this speech signals the beginning of a whole new era with a whole new Trump is in for a rude awakening. CNN is already reporting that the White House has chosen to delay rolling out the revised Muslim travel ban executive order, so as to extend the honeymoon period for the speech.

Now, if the problem with how his actions have been received to date really were, as he’s suggested recently, a problem of “messaging”, then the smart thing to do would be to push forward with it now, while he has the public’s goodwill and has had his message accepted by the viewing audience.

If they’re in a position where they’re dead sure that releasing the executive order now would not just fail to capitalize on the momentum of the speech but kill it, they must know it’s not good.

Which is no surprise, since Stephen Miller already admitted the goal is to get to the same policy outcome with different wording.

This means that we who resist can look forward to the belated honeymoon period being over before too long, no matter how worrying it is that it’s happening.

As the day has worn on and the obvious takes get shoved out of the way, there are some signs that some in the media are paying attention to the undercurrents. An analysis piece dropped by the Washington Post shows some real savviness. It makes the point that however many hands wrote the speech, Steve Bannon and Team Chaotic Evil are still obviously calling the shots, policy-wise.

And of course, outside the mainstream media, plenty of well-followed Twitter commentators apart from myself have picked up on the rhetorical tricks that the speech employed. So, I don’t think that this speech will be the turning point at which the American people line up behind Trump or the resistance falls apart. It’s no time to get complacent, but it’s only the first step in a new battle over messaging.

The regime fully realizes how effective it was, but they also know the reality of what they’re peddling doesn’t match the sales pitch. How much mileage they wring out of these new gimmicks before the public catches on to that is going to depend in large part on how badly the tweeter-in-chief does at staying “on message” when he’s not reading a script in the august chambers of Congress.

Here’s hoping he stays true to form.


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Change of Plans (WorldCon 75 memberships for sale)

Until recently, we had been planning on attending WorldCon 75 in Helsinki this coming fall as a family. Given the state of the republic right now, we’re not comfortable being committed to taking our visibly queer, vocally anti-Regime selves across the U.S. border and back. So, with a somewhat heavy heart, I’m announcing our decision to stay home.

Our change of plans can be your stroke of luck, though. We purchased our (non-refundable, but transferable) memberships before the price went up. If you’re interested in attending, please know that we have three adult memberships to sell, one with the first-time World Con discount (80 euros, when we bought it) and two without (120 euros). The discounted one can only be transferred to someone who qualifies for it. The three memberships do not have to be transferred to the same party.

If you’re interested in buying one or more of the memberships, please send an email to blueauthor at gmail dot com. Please make sure you specify how many and which. We’ll be doing this first come, first served. The exchange rate right now is such that we’ll take 80 or 120 as appropriate in either USD or EUR, just to keep things simple. Either way we’ll be losing a little bit on it compared to what we paid, but that’s fine.

I believe the nomination period for Hugos runs through mid-March, so if you snatch these up before then, you will have nominating privileges. Even after that, WorldCon membership carries voting privileges.

Catching up.

It has been a heck of a month. I’ve mainly been talking about what’s been going on in my life (and everywhere else) on the social mediums, because I’ve mostly been on my phone instead of the computer. So, as some of you already know, the prescription ran out in my glasses. I was starting to get horrific headaches when I wore them too long, and particularly when I used them to read the computer screen… combination of brightness, focusing on tiny text, and the distance, I guess.

I’d already mostly switched to doing close-up reading with my glasses off in the past few months; that’s fine on the phone, doesn’t work for the computer, especially with my semi-recumbent setup.

I do a lot of writing on hand-held devices in an average month anyway, but I don’t like editing or publishing things without a full-sized computer screen because you can’t really get the big picture of what you’re looking at when you’re seeing just a few lines at a time. Blogging, too. My last blog post (about the Bill O’Reilly interview) was written 95% on the phone, but I got on the computer to finish it and post it.

I’ve doing well enough that I was able to get an eye appointment at a discount place, at least, which happened a couple days after that last blog post. The bad news is that discount equals not very fast; the good news is that it took a few days less than quoted. I was expecting them to come in, oh, about this Thursday. I got the call Saturday that they were ready. Even better: the back-up pairs I ordered from Zenni Optical at the same time also arrived Saturday.

With working glasses and a little bit of money, we did a lot of running around this weekend, taking care of stuff that we’ve been needing to take care of for a while. Somewhere along the way, Jack and I picked up a respiratory bug that kept me up Sunday night and knocked me out for most of yesterday. I’m still a little under the weather, so today is very much going to be playing it by ear.

For those who haven’t followed me through previous illnesses – I have a mitochondrial condition that manifests as extreme fatigue, and is exacerbated by illness. When I’m sick, I’m sick and tired, and I don’t mean a little sleepy, I mean deep-down, all-over, in-the-bone fatigue.

Now, while I haven’t been able to edit or do writing work on longer projects, I have not been idle. One reason I’m not good at the non-writing parts of the business is – I would rather be writing. Stuck off the computer but with a working phone, I’ve been messaging people, arranging some collaborations and commissioning some artwork and such, to make my upcoming fiction debuts a little slicker and more memorable than they might otherwise be.

Meanwhile – I’ve got quite a backlog of stuff to get through. I’m going to be pretty much posting at least a thing a day for the rest of the month.

I watched the O’Reilly Trump interview so you don’t have to.

Bill O’Reilly opens the interview by buttering Trump up, saying Gorsuch “roll-out” went “very smooth”. Trump talks over him to agree/insist “Yes, it did. Yes, it did.” I think O’Reilly understood he needed to nod to Trump’s dream world in order to start the interview on a good footing. The importance of establishing frame when dealing with Trump cannot be underestimated.

With this goodwill established, O’Reilly pivots to the Muslim travel ban, contrasting it as “less smooth”. Trump responds by repeating the figure of “109 people” out of “hundreds of thousands of travelers”. Now, this was put out by the White House as a preliminary figure early on in the ban’s enforcement. Even if there was a point at which it was ever accurate (and that is not clear), it was very quickly obsolete.

Figuring out exact numbers for who was affected by the ban would be tricky, because you’ve got the people who were detained, you have people who were prevented from boarding flights, and you’ve got people who canceled their plans before they got to the airport or checked in for their flights.

Trump says that “all that happened” to the “109 people” is they were “vetted very carefully”. No part of this is true. People were denied medicine or access to healthcare, forced to surrender their visas (some of which were physically cancelled; we’re told that they’ll be reissued, but the former holders must actually apply for this), deported, turned away at the airport, etc. People who sold everything they owned for a plane ticket wound up stranded in limbo.

The “vetting process”, by all accounts, consisted of “bad cop” intimidation tactics, grilling on social media usage, and questions about their opinions on Donald Trump personally. What value or security this added to the already extreme vetting process that the refugees, travelers, and residents had gone through to get to this point is not clear.

Bill O’Reilly closes this topic by asking Trump if he would do anything different. Trump demures; O’Reilly presses him (at least to a point) by bringing up the apparent fact that some of Trump’s people didn’t know what was going on. Trump rebuts, “That’s not what General Kelly said.” It’s true that General (now Secretary) Kelly of the DHS did come out and do some damage control, pushing back on the reports that there was no coordination or advance warning and DHS was operating in the dark. But it’s also true that this transparently was damage control; it was a case of “Who are you going to believe, me or your own lying eyes?” Kelly is clearly a very loyal man who prizes the appearance of an orderly implementation over his own integrity. Trump closes his invocation of John Kelly by attributing the figure of only 109 people affected overall to him.

O’Reilly then (somewhat mercifully) closes the segment, turning to Iran.

O’Reilly’s question is if Trump thinks that our country is on a collision course with Iran. Trump’s response, naturally, is an utter non sequitur. He immediately begins talking about how it’s the worst deal he’s ever seen, a terrible deal. There is no specification of what deal this might be, but O’Reilly is clearly used to Trump’s “conversation” style, as he prompts Trump to clarify.

Trump, of course, is talking about what he and other Republicans categorized as a “ransom”: a cash delivery we made to Iran under the Obama administration. As Trump tells it: there was no reason for the deal, and we have nothing to show for it, so it shouldn’t have been made.

Well, here’s the thing, babies: this “deal” was actually a debt the United States owed to Iran. Iran’s government, pre-revolution, paid us $400 million for some fighter jets. When a popular revolution deposed the CIA-installed puppet government that had bought those jets, the U.S. canceled the deal but kept the money. Iran quite understandably felt the money should be returned, and sought a judgment against the United States. We owed them the original $400 million plus interest, which over the course of three and a half decades added up to $1.3 billion dollars. That plus the initial $0.4 billion payment adds up to the $1.7 billion “deal” that Trump is talking about.

So, basically, the situation is this: for better or worse, we walked away from a contract after they gave us their end of the deal, wihtout holding up our end. We were sued and agreed to make good on the debt.

Of course Donald Trump sees this as a “bad deal”. He breaks contracts all the time. If there is nothing for him in keeping his end of a bargain, he won’t keep it. And if he’s sued, he’ll drown the plaintiff in paperwork and ignore the judgment until the other party agrees to take whatever he feels like just to get something back. I threaded on this the other day, on how he’s trying to apply this “principle” (for lack of a better word) to international diplomacy and how it’s not going well for him.

Now, we paid back the principle (the initial $400 million payment, which was actually frozen in a trust this whole time) and agreed to pay the interest, as part of a negotiated settlement that avoids ten billion dollars in punitive damages Iran had sought. Donald Trump is talking about “possibly tearing up” this settlement because he doesn’t see what the benefit of paying $1.7 billion dollars that we owe instead of facing a damaging arbitration process.

You can read more about the specifics of the deal (and holes in the theory that it was a “ransom” paid) on Snopes.

Trump refers to Iran as “the number one terrorist state” and says they’re “sending weapons and money everywhere”. Well, I don’t know much about that. It’s possible he’s caught one or two more daily intelligence briefings than I have. I’ll take his word for it.

“Sanctions,” O’Reilly says. It’s a statement. It has the feel of a lifeline. “You’re going to start with that?”

There’s nothing really substantive about Trump’s plans for Iran, though, because he is holding to the line that it’s “stupid” to tell people what you’re going to do. It’s clear he views the entire conflict as an appendage-measuring contest, and he believes Iran does, too.

Then they come on to the segment that circulated as a teaser: the Putin question. I think many more people saw this on social media or read about it than watched the interview: O’Reilly asks Trump if he respects Putin, Trump affirms that he does. O’Reilly says, with a credible level of exasperation, “WHY?” Trump’s answer, par for course, is rambling and without substance: Putin’s a leader, Trump respects a lot of people, the fight against ISIS is like super hard you guys, etc. O’Reilly interjects, “He’s a killer, though! He’s a killer!”

And Trump’s response, my hand to gosh, is “Lotta killers. Gotta lotta killers. What, you think our country is so innocent?”

A lot of people with rosy glasses that are half full on the left-wing side of the aisle saw this as a valid critique of our government’s excesses rather than an attempt to excuse Putin’s brutal and self-serving murderous tendencies, but let’s be honest: O’Reilly is talking about Putin’s habit of assassinating critics, rivals, and even allies who know too much and can do too little, and Donald Trump is shrugging and saying that he’s pretty sure everybody does that kind of thing. Everyone makes mistakes! He brings up the Iraq War as an example of a mistake that killed a lot of people, and he’s not wrong there, but it’s changing the subject from “you admire a bloodthirsty autocrat, should we be worried?” to “Donald Trump was always totes right about the Iraq War, you guys. Ask Sean Hannity!”

I think that’s the point where Bill O’Reilly, God bless a piece of him, just gives up. He stops making any pretense of trying to hold Donald Trump to answering any questions. He brings up the call to Mexico. He asks point blank if it’s true that Donald Trump said he would send troops across the border to clean up the “bad hombres”. Donald Trump digresses into what was clearly a very well-rehearsed, well-scripted answer that both neatly sidesteps the yes/no and gives an alternate explanation for the reported remark: he was offering help, which President Peña Nieto was receptive to. Does he consider Mexico a corrupt country? He loves the people, he gets along great with their president. What sort of tariff might pay for the wall? It’s an unfair situation, allthe jobs and plants, but Trump has personally turned it all around already.

Sidenote here: it has been reported that Trump, the Great Negotiator, agreed to completely stop talking about who will pay for the wall in public.

When Trump is bragging about all the companies that he has supposedly talked into bringing jobs back, O’Reilly characterizes it as Trump intimidating them. Trump disagrees, saying they’re just doing what’s right. O’Reilly is kind of beside himself at this. The idea of a president strongarming businesses into making decisions that fit his agenda is the sort of thing that should get any so-called conservative’s ire up. Bill O’Reilly makes an attempt here, but his heart’s not in it.

On domestic affairs, O’Reilly mentions that he just got back from California, whose legislature is voting to become a “sanctuary state”. O’Reilly says that this sets California and the United States on a collision course (isn’t that pretty much what the San Andreas fault is?). He really seems to like that phrase.

Trump immediately starts talking about defunding the entire state of California. O’Reilly seems a bit incredulous; perhaps he is aware that the “coastal elite” states like California actually fund the federal government and pay for the federal spending in Trump’s “real America”. California pays the federal government $1 for the privilege of getting 70 cents back. Trump certainly doesn’t seem to know this; to hear him talk about California’s out of control lifestyle, he thinks the rest of the country is paying it welfare. O’Reilly presses: “So defunding is your weapon of choice?” Trump is sticking to not committing to any specific action: “It’s a weapon. Look, I don’t want to defund anybody!”

Buddy, you brought it up.

Again, O’Reilly has no stomach for pressing Trump. He moves on, and with obvious trepidation and more than a bit of hedging, asks if Donald Trump might not have something of a strained relationship with factual things that can be backed up. This segment is basically like someone talking to Donald Trump’s Twitter. O’Reilly says that “some people” are saying it’s irresponsible for Donald Trump to claim that millions of people voted illegally wihtout any data to back them up. Donald’s first response, right out of the gate, is, “Well, you know, many people have come out and said that I’m right.”

He’s not wrong there. Many people who heard it from him or read on their uncle’s Facebook page (who heard it from him) have said he’s right, because the thing he’s saying backs up their worldview. Donald Trump’s alternate reality take on this sort of thing exists in a feedback loop with his audience, where they say a thing and he picks it up which proves it’s true to them, and he says a thing and they pick it up, which proves it’s right to him. It’s like Beavis and Butthead copying off each other on a test neither of them studied for.

Now, there’s a new wrinkle to Donald’s discourse here. He says, “It doesn’t have to do with the vote, though that is the end result. It has to do with the registration.” He talks about how the voter registration rolls have dead people, people who’ve moved, etc. Which, they do. Clearly someone close to Trump has tried to explain this to him, and made a lot of headway. But he’s still convinced that this backs him up, somehow, in his contention that there are millions of illegal votes.

O’Reilly lets Donald go through his spiel, and then says, “So, you think you’re going to be proven correct in that statement.”

And Donald says, and I kid you not, he says: “Well, I think I already have. A lot of people have come out and said that I am correct.”

Now, O’Reilly does the bravest thing of his career here, in that he contradicts Donald Trump and tries to explain the concept of “proof” to him: “The data has to show that three million ‘illegals’ voted.”

And Trump says, “Look, forget that! Forget all of that!” How many times did his advisors tell him that, I wonder? “Just take a look at the registration!” He then explains he’s setting up a commission headed by Mike Pence.

O’Reilly says, “Good, let’s get to the bottom of this.” and moves on to a real softball: can we expect a tax cut this year? Yes, Trump says, and probably before the end of the year.

Can we expect a new healthcare plan this year? Yes, well, no, Obamacare is a disaster, maybe, but definitely by the end of next year. It’s complicated, Trump says, but “You have to remember: Obamacare doesn’t work.”

Last question is a soft one, though O’Reilly does slip in a reference to one of the worrying factoids of Trump’s life (that he only gets four hours of sleep a night): does Donald ever have a moment, say when his head hits the pillow, where he can’t believe he’s really the president of the United States?

Donald Trump, to his credit, has the good grace to look directly at the camera like a character on The Office for a moment when Bill O’Reilly asks that. His answer isn’t that interesting or that convincing. From there the interview turns into a discussion of the then-upcoming game, which is now over.. It’s only interesting because when O’Reilly tells his subject that Fox Sports is demanding he gets a Super Bowl prediction from him, Trump insists that he doesn’t like to make predictions. This is funny since I can remember him crowing on Twitter about a few things he supposedly predicted. When the Pulse shooting happened, wasn’t he talking about how many people had congratulated him for predicting it?

I think what he meant was he doesn’t like saying a hard number for something that will be settled one way or the other within a few hours, as opposed to predictions that amount to “Somewhere in a nation of three hundred million people, something bad will happen, mark my words.”

Anyway. That was the Bill O’Reilly interview of Donald Trump. It’ll probably be a lot more entertaining when Alec Baldwin does it.


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I’m doing more planning than writing this week…

…but I think that might be good, long-term. My explosively amazing writing week on Secret Sisterhood was a planning session that took off creatively. Not every planning session’s going to do that. But it helped crystallize for me how much good planning and good writing go hand-in-hand. One of the reasons my projects soar like eagles at the beginning isn’t just “new relationship energy”, it’s that… historically… that’s the time I do the most actual planning out of what I’m going to write.

I don’t think of it in those terms, but I’m sketching out characters and relationships and elements of the world, and all the other things that go into what I’m going to write. Formal outlining does nothing for me, but an elaborate framework does a lot.

I just signed into the @talesofmu Twitter account to let people know that the coda chapter will go up on Monday, and the unplanned hiatus/stall will end in March. I went back and forth on that a bunch this week, but the fact that Secret Sisterhood is moving forward (located sensitivity readers and talked to some artists!) helped me make the decision, under the principle of “One Thing At A Time”.

For the next four weeks, I’m going to give one week to Making Out Like Bandits (again, did more planning than writing in the last week given to it, so I don’t have a big backlog for it), one for developing and writing a standalone story, one for Secret Sisterhood, and one for revisiting and reviving another dormant story.

Mid-Week Update: Where Tales of MU Is Right Now

Okay, so. I’m both farther behind and farther ahead than I thought I’d be with Tales of MU.

I’m farther ahead in that I now have solid ideas for *two* subsequent stories I want to tell after the current one is put to bed. I was kind of hopeful that taking off some of the pressure would make things easier, and my mind responded by racing ahead.

The “coda” chapter to wind up the current storyline is getting some re-writes to support the other future storyline. I was trying really hard to get it up during the calendar month of January in order to maximize the usefulness of the Patreon payout for it, but that felt hollow and forced.

My early experiences publishing online got me hooked on the rush of instant gratification. After spending January writing reams and reams of stuff for later publication, taking time to polish and arrange it. And the extreme pace at which the political and civic landscape of the United States has been changing has generated a lot of work for someone who can take in information and synthesize an understanding of it quickly, so the financial hit of deferring Tales of MU’s post didn’t actually hurt much.

I’m still putting together the schedule for when Tales of MU resumes. The fact that I keep jumping ahead mentally to the next-next story is making it complicated. It’s about 50/50 that the next MU story will begin updating beginning this month, or next month.

Protesting & Accessibility – A Bridge Too Far?

Yesterday, a conclave of Democratic United States Senators descended on the Bavarian Inn in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, for a retreat that was a bit less noticed than the GOP Congressional retreat in Philadelphia. It was likely put together hastily as an emergency measure for an emergency situation, and I’m going to have more to say about it later.

But first.

Women’s March on Washington of West Virginia – Shepherdstown didn’t have a lot of time to put together an organized response to the Democratic presence, but they pulled it together beautifully.

Circumstances prevented us from participating in the Women’s March on January 21st, in part because of accessibility concerns and the need to pace our shows of resistance, given our various disabilities.

But this action was largely stationary, and taking place on and near the Potomac Bridge, in sight of the frankly quite splendid inn where the Senators were gathered. This was important because there are little overlook areas with seating near the ends of the bridge, and the one nearest the inn has a little parking area with a couple 15 minute parking spots for people to enjoy the view or grab a picture, and some handicapped parking spaces that made this action a lot more accessible.

My partner Jack and I arrived at the bridge before sunup, before seven. We were meeting a friend from Shepherdstown who was absolutely needed at work today and could not participate in the action during its scheduled hours of nine o’clock on. So, we got there before anyone else and we parked without issues, and we took up position in the cold and the light rain as the sun came up over the Potomac. We were out there, “doin’ a freedom,” as the youths probably say (hashtag: #DoingAFreedom), flanking the group’s sign (“HEAR OUR VOICE”) on the bridge when the Senators in their rooms got their first look at it in the morning light. We were there when the marchers proper arrived, and had been there for just over two hours at that point.

Jack had to find a bathroom shortly after that, and this is where our trouble began. Rather than searching the campus of the nearby Shepherd University, he took his car and drove straight off to a nearby convenience store he knew would serve. While he was gone, a group of police cars pulled into the access drive for the little parking area for a little inter-agency confab.

And I have to say, there were probably 3 or 4 different police agencies there, at a spot on a state border with U.S. Senators taking up residence and a university right there, and I have to say that they were polite and friendly and supportive of the admittedly very visibly majority white crowd. I have no complaints about their overall conduct.

But they were making the accessible parking… inaccessible.

So, I went over to talk to them (second bravest thing I did all day, given that I am acrophobic and have an especial terror of bridges) and I started by asking, politely, if access to the handicapped spaces was being restricted for security reasons, or if protesters were able to use it.

“Oh, no!” one of them said. “There’s not a lot, but if someone needs it, they can use!”

I pointed out that they were blocking it, and was told they’d just pulled in for a minute to chat. I then clarified that my interest wasn’t hypothetical and that a protester who needed that space was on his way back. They politely thanked me, finished up their chat, and got back into their vehicles and pulled away… leaving behind a third vehicle, which I had assumed was part of the confab, a Shepherd University police van that had pulled all the way out of the little entry lane and was squarely blocking off the small lot.

It was also unattended.

That was about when Jack drove by, and with the lot inaccessible, he kept driving past the protest, to a park area on the other side of the bridge (the old C&O Canal towpath, I believe). Later people were parked in the breakdown lane on the Maryland end of the bridge, but at this point police were waving people past them.

Now, it’s quite a hike from the towpath parking area to the bridge, uphill, on a very cold and very windy day. Jack judged this was beyond his present level of ability (gentle currently able-bodied readers wondering why someone who needs handicapped parking would even consider the hike: disability isn’t a binary switch), and texted me from where he was parked.

Disgusted, I started taking pictures of the university police vehicle in its spot, trying to get an angle that would capture both its position and the handicapped spaces beyond and the fact that this was the only access point. My plan was to find a twitter account for the university and holler @ them about it. The sun was directly in my screen at that angle, so I didn’t actually get a good one that turned out, but… well, maybe it’s a coincidence or maybe one of the officers on site from another agency radioed them that a protester was photographing their vehicle, but while I was trying to get that sorted someone came hurrying out from the university campus and hopped into the vehicle and moved it without a word.

Now, I’d like to be charitable, but the way it was parked, I can only think two things, and I’m not sure which is more charitable. One is that someone thought that there would be a problem with protesters abusing the 15 minute parking or cramming in to the lot past its very small capacity so they’d head that off at the pass. The other was that they needed somewhere to park that vehicle and this seemed like an out-of-the-way place since no one would be using the overlook parking during the protest.

Both of these situations involve completely forgetting that disabled people exist, even while being within 10-15 feet of clearly visible, marked, and posted evidence of our existence.

Whoever parked that van there, for whatever reason, did not so much make the assumption that nobody would need to use those handicapped spaces for any reason (protest-related or otherwise) as they made no assumption whatsoever. Didn’t cross their mind.

In moments like this I am reminded of the blog story “The Elephant Disappears“, by wheelchair user Dave Hingsburger, who almost had his luggage confiscated at an airport by a security officer who tried to confiscate and cart it away from him, saying “All luggage must be attended!” when Dave asked him what he thought he was doing. Now, if your mind is jumping to the most charitable interpretation of this event from the guard’s point of view… well, first of all, ask yourself why “being charitable” or “giving the benefit of the doubt” implicitly means “to the able-bodied security officer” in this situation and not the man whose luggage was being taken.

To be clear: Dave was right there. Attending his luggage. The guard did not see him as capable of attending his own luggage, or did not see him as a person, or just plain did not see him, even though he was in full view and right there. We cannot know. People with visible disabilities are well aware that all three are possible.

People with disabilities already may have less ability to participate in organized action. There may be mobility issues, sensory issues, issues with crowds. I couldn’t have stood out there all day on my best day; we were there from just before 7 to a bit before 11 and I came home after we grabbed lunch and crashed for three hours.

I might have taken a cane with me, but I was concerned if things went south it might be viewed as a weapon, since I am young-appearing enough that people often wonder why I have one. Jack didn’t have his backpack of potentially necessary emergency medical supplies, because it would have added to our bulk on the sidewalk (that had to kept passable) and similarly might be viewed as suspicious. Might not have been a concern for a typical march in a quietly liberal college town tucked away in the Potomac River valley, but… there were elected officials afoot. Security was pretty intense on the other side of the street.

But with whatever difficulties our disabilities present, the question of “accessibility” is often less a matter of what extraordinary things must people do to allow us to access a place or event and more a matter of what things they should avoid doing that block and exclude us. Stairs are not some natural state for the entryway to a building, someone has to put them. A culture and aesthetic that centers assumptions of certain levels of ability makes them an assumed default, but it could just as easily be ramps or (where possible/appropriate) zero-entry doors.

Someone at Shepherd University made a decision that made the event less accessible. I’m sure if the individual who made that call were here, they would say they were only parked there for minutes… and it really wasn’t that long, in the scheme of things. But it was long enough to cause a problem, and more to the point, any amount of time is long enough that it might have been a problem. We’ll never know if anyone else drove past the protest, eyeing the lot and seeing it was blocked off. I’m sure the university police don’t consider “It was just for five minutes!” or “I would have moved if anyone had needed the space!” a valid excuse when they come across someone illegally parking in or blocking off an accessible space.

As I said, I will have more to say about the event itself and the politics surrounding it. I just had to get this off my chest. It’s less about naming and shaming Shepherd University (though not naming them would seem passive-aggressive, as anyone who looked at a map of the area would know who I meant) and more about talking about the general case of thinking about accessibility and remembering that people with disabilities really, truly do exist.

Mid-week update.

Okay, so. I cautioned this week is going to be experimental, and that it might go either way. The mid-week pre-verdict is that it hasn’t. That is, it has not yet gone either way. The state of the union is pretty distracting right now, if you haven’t noticed, so while I’ve gotten some good creative work done I’m not having the same momentum I would have hoped.

But I see a way forward, and I think I’m going to just circle around and focus next week on writing Tales of MU, too, instead of jumping to a different project. I have a feeling the next storyline will just be starting to catch fire tomorrow or Friday. I was talking some casual game design theory with my friend Erin Jeffreys Hodges, completely unrelated to the story, and it gave me a kind of unexpected burst of inspiration. So, thank you for that, Erin.

I’ll still be tying the current storyline off this week, and *very likely* starting the next one next week.