Thursday, September 3, 2015

Dragon Con 2015: Dragon Con - My Favorite Place to Be (that Almost Wasn’t)




I’m a huge fan of Dragon Con. Ask anyone who knows me well. They’ll tell you that I’m practically a walking, talking, breathing advert for the convention during the parts of the year that I’m not there and enjoying myself at my favorite home away from home. In the last few years I’ve even had more than a few people call me, depending on how kindly disposed they were towards me, either the most loyal or most fanatical fan of the convention that they know of. But the weird thing (Funny thing?) about that is that if I had gotten my way about it, I would never have been a fan at all


 [Upfront disclaimer – I have been volunteering at Dragon Con since 2014]

Here’s the thing about me. I’m not a big convention person. I don’t mean that to say I’m not a fan of going to conventions. I’m actually a huge fan of getting together with my fellow geeks under one roof and enjoying all the various genre stuff we love together. No, by that I mean I just have never had a great love of conventions after they grew past a certain size.

I had kind of decided some time ago that the perfect convention for me was no larger than, at absolute top, the 5,000 to 6,000 attendee range, and, honestly, I actually prefer (in most cases) slightly smaller. I didn’t come up with that attendee cap arbitrarily either.

My experiences with a number of conventions in the late 1980s through the late 1990s went as follows. I enjoyed the smaller fan conventions. I liked the vibe and the fan connectivity at these events. I liked the fact that there were things to do there that were all fan level events. You know, like how-to stuff done by people closer to your experience range in ‘X’ field who were able to tell you the tricks they had learned to get over hurdles you were still trying to work out, fan panels that were goofy discussions about growing up on a favorite comic book series or toyline, or things that were more hands on and interactive.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked the "A-ticket" attractions of having celebrities and celebrity events at the conventions as well. I loved getting to meet the people who created the things I enjoyed growing up and being able to thank them for the years of enjoyment they gave me. I loved seeing people talk about the crazy days on the set of whatever movie or show they worked on.

But for me, the right kind of convention was and always will be the ones that feel more fan driven and have that fan energy and fan connectivity. Unfortunately, my experience with a few cons (no names) made me think that you just couldn’t have that small, fan driven convention vibe after you reached a certain point of growth. As some cons grew larger, they needed to physically get bigger. To physically get bigger, they needed to shell out more money. To keep earning a profit, they needed to draw more people to their now physically bigger convention. How most have done this over the years was by going after bigger attractions. They went after bigger guests along creating bigger ways to showcase the bigger guests.

Occasionally, the need to do that meant that they had to cut out some of the smaller, more fan driven activities to make room for the bigger stuff. I understood the reasoning behind it. The bigger the attractions, the more people you draw and the bigger you can grow. And, really, I understand that for a lot of fans out there the deal is that the bigger attractions equal bigger enjoyment. I’m kind of one of those fans, but I value that really cool fan connectivity and vibe/energy maybe a little more, and it seemed like that was getting lost in the growth of some of the cons that I had experiences with back then. So I basically decided from there on out to stick to smaller conventions.

Fast forward to early 2004. I met a girl that I started dating. We got along well enough and we shared more than a few common geek loves even if she lacked the key genre love to be a long-term relationship prospect. That woman simply had no appreciation of quality horror whatsoever. She absolutely was not a true horror fan in any sense of the word. It was going to be her one major character flaw that would do us in as a couple I was sure, because I can drive non-horror fans nuts with my horror binges and horror genre related pastimes. But she did have a thing for this convention in the southeast known as Dragon*Con.

I’d heard of Dragon*Con before I met her. I’d been told about it in either 1990 or 1991 by a coworker who moved up my way from his hometown down on the South Carolina/Georgia state line area. To hear him talk about it, it sounded like a really fun convention to be sure. It just didn’t quite sound fun enough to, on my back then much more limited budget, shell out for the hotel costs, the 12 hour drive, and the unknown food costs I’d be facing on top of the price of admission into a really nice sounding but kind of small convention. I had those locally, and it wasn’t quite as hard or as expensive to get to the local ones. I ended up at that time just putting it out of my mind.

I heard about it again about a decade later. I’d long been fan of Peter David’s work, and I’d followed his editorial writing from his But I Digress column in the old Comic Buyer’s Guide over to his website. He’d quite favorably mentioned his experiences at the convention as a guest in the column over the years, and he wrote daily updates for his (I think it was) 2003 visit on his website. He made it sound great, but he also made it sound like it had gotten rather big. I looked it up. It had gotten rather big. It had gotten big enough that now I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend the money to go given my experiences with cons over a certain size.

But this girl I was dating at the start of 2004 was very pushy about it. She’d lived down that way, worked just a ways down the road from where the convention is now, and she loved the convention. She really pushed for it, but I was able to dodge going by playing the finances card. She was coming out of a bad spot and was a bit short on play money. I’d just bought my first home and covered a few emergency expenditures. I somewhat exaggerated my poor financial situation, playing the finances card rather expertly, and we skipped that year.

Things changed in the relationship in the following year. By 2005 that girl I was dating had become my wife and had access to my bank account. I wasn’t quite going to be able to play that card again. As it was, things happened that year and we legitimately had tight enough finances that I could play that card well enough to stay home in Virginia for that Labor Day weekend. So, of course, a few months later she sort of played a financial trump card.

As soon as our tax returns hit the bank account in early 2006, she hopped online and had two memberships ordered and payed for almost faster than the keyboard could keep up. They’re nonrefundable if you didn’t already know. I tried to play the hotel costs card, but she got me in checkmate with that game by working out the use of her parent’s timeshare about 20 or so minutes outside of the city. We would be staying there for free during the convention. The only possible complication now would be my not getting the requested time off from work. For years I wasn't entirely sure she didn’t put a call in to my Shift Sergeant on the evening I had promised her I’d put the leave activity request in.I'd never gotten a request approved that fast. I've only recently had her confirm that, yes, a bribe consisting of a large batch of homemade fudge was involved.

I was going. Despite my best efforts, I was going to be driving the way the hell down to Georgia from Virginia trip to mix and mingle with, at that time, just slightly more than 20,000 people at a big convention.

At that point I started doing some additional net research on the con, trying to get a feel for what the con would be like from reading up on as much fan chatter and geek news coverage I could find. I wasn’t exactly super thrilled with the idea of going at the time, but I decided to grin and make the best of it.

So a few months later I found myself driving the long road to Atlanta. We got into my wife’s parent’s timeshare, zipped into town to grab our memberships, and killed time that evening by looking for a place to eat. The next morning we headed back into the city, found a parking place, and headed on in through the Peachtree Street doors of the Hyatt and into my first Dragon*Con.
Whoa…

As impressive as Friday was, Saturday was huge. To my very great and pleasant surprise, all the big ticket attractions were there, but they had kept intact and in place pretty much all of the stuff I loved finding and doing at smaller fan cons. It was absolutely a big convention, but it fiercely and protectively held on to its fan driven heart and soul.

Not only were there so many things to do that I went slightly crazy trying to do and see everything I wanted to do and see, but there was such an amazing fan vibe and energy in the place. That fan vibe and fan energy that you find at the smaller cons was still there, but magnified to the nth degree. It was like a giant metaphorical hug and slap on the back welcoming you in and telling you make yourself a part of the family. And we did. Or, well, I did seeing how my wife had been family for a while by that point (and had been a lot more pleasant than she could have been about me keeping her from her annual Dragon Con family reunion for as long as I did.)

I don’t think I’ve ever been the same since. That’s a good thing by the way.

I’ve talked about Dragon Con to a lot of people over the years. One of the consensus opinions I’ve come across is that Dragon Con is a convention that creates three types of people. There’s a very small amount of people who, for whatever reason, just don’t get it. Maybe they go looking for a certain kind of big convention and, since Dragon Con isn’t that for them, they just don’t get it. Then there are all of the people who do get it. They're the ones who come whenever they're able, and really enjoy the con. Then, on top of that, there are the people who really get it in a way that maybe only the words “severe addiction” describes, but with much more positive connotations. I’m in the third group.

When we left the convention that Monday evening, I had come to two conclusions. The first, in answer to my wife asking me what I thought of my first Dragon*Con as we were driving away, was that this was going to be my four day home away from home from now on. The second, much to the relief of my wife’s ears, was that I was never again going to drive around in downtown Atlanta any more than I absolutely had to drive. My wife has never heard me swear while driving the way I did that year while trying to get from the downtown area back up onto the highway every day. Really. Ask her. She’ll confirm this.

Dragon Con is my favorite convention. Period. End of story. Full stop. For a little over four days every year, it’s also my favorite place to be. A large part of that isn’t just the convention itself, but everything we walk away from the convention with every year we go.

For us, Dragon Con is family. We have friends that we can sometimes only see at Dragon Con; and certainly only see all in one place there. We always leave the convention with more friends than we had before the trip down. It’s also “family” because it’s in the family. We have two kids who ask us if it’s time for Dragon Con again more often than they ask us if it’s time once again for Christmas or Halloween. I also find a lot of stuff there that I would have never heard of at almost any other convention that I go to that often becomes some of my favorite geek things.

My connections to and from the convention have worked their way into other parts of my life as well. Back in 2013 I was working on some stuff that had me searching out Dragon Con related materials on the World Wide Web, and one of those search hits found me the ESO Dragon Con Khan Report. That introduced me to the ESO Network. That introduced me to Needless Things. So, yeah, you can blame Dragon Con for you having just read all of this here.

Plus, I've got some really great memories of enjoying very good times with friends and family at Dragon Con. Probably quite a few of them are very unique to Dragon Con as well.

But, anyhow, yeah, I absolutely fought going. I wouldn’t have gone either if I’d had my way, but I’m way more than a just a little glad that I finally went. I’m probably about overdue for thanking my wife for that again as well.

Jerry Chandler is in Atlanta as you read this (assuming you’re reading this on the day it goes live.) You won’t see him because he’s in a tiny little room doing volunteer stuff, but he’ll be out and about during various days of the con; hopefully in the area of at least a couple of ESO and Needless Things related panels. If you say “hi” to him, he promises he won’t bite. Well, not much at least.

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