So now I can finally talk about the big project that has kept me virtually silent on all social media for the last month or so.
It started… oh, a couple of years ago, when I realized that the year 2011 would mark both my 50th birthday and Kate’s, and also our 20th wedding anniversary. This confluence of major milestones seemed to call for a big celebration, and after some cogitation I decided I wanted to hold “BentoCon: A Science Fiction Convention and Square Dance.” The name BentoCon commemorates the fanzine Bento that Kate and I have been producing on an approximately annual basis since 1989, and the combination of science fiction and square dancing commemorates the two hobbies (or is that ways of life) that have occupied so much of our time together.
The idea of a birthday convention is not our invention. The first one I’m aware of (though we did not attend it) was Elise Matthesen’s EliseCon, which begat Jane Hawkins’s JaneCon (which we sort of crashed), which was followed by Donya Hazard White, Deb Notkin, and Jeanne Gomoll’s CroneCon and Ellen Klages’s month in France. But BentoCon was going to be the first with a square dance.
After kicking around ideas in a desultory fashion for a year or more, at the end of 2010 we decided to get serious about the project, and signed a hotel contract in January of 2011. Over the next few months we sent out invitations (although we would have loved to invite everyone we know, the space was limited and so, unfortunately, some lovely people had to be left out), arranged for a celebratory cake, booked a square dance caller (our good friend the talented Bill Eyler, and asked some of our friends to help us run it (notably Karen Schaffer, who headed up the hospitality suite, and Mary Kay Kare, who ran the at-con registration desk). Kate and I ran the program, publications, hotel, audio-video, and displays as well as being the chairs and guests of honor. I joked that we really could have used a couple of GoH liaisions.
The last few weeks, especially since the Worldcon, were incredibly hectic; we were both working on BentoCon essentially every waking hour and neither of us got a whole lot of sleep. But when people began to show up, and we saw the square dancers and the science fiction fans chatting happily together in our incredibly convivial hospitality suite, we knew it had all been worth it.
We had a fabulous hotel, which in a previous life as the Hotel Multnomah had been the site of the 1950 Worldcon. The main program space included a fireplace, which (thanks to a last-minute inspiration of Kate’s) we decorated with cardboard stand-up photographs of the various awards on our mantel at home. The large and comfy hospitality suite was mere steps away from the program room, and included distinct areas for food, games, conversation, jigsaw puzzles, and badge decoration (thanks to a fantastic collection of stickers sent by Geri Sullivan who, alas, could not attend in person). On Saturday night we had a second function room, just across the hall, for the square dance, to which we’d also invited any local dancers who cared to attend. And the mezzanine area between them all was the site of the registration and info tables, plus two additional tables for a book swap and craft swap. The latter two provided a useful public service of redistribution of quality books and craft items to people who could better appreciate them, as well as draining away any impulse our guests might have had to bring presents.
The hotel’s location in downtown Portland was superb, within walking distance of Powell’s Books and tons of excellent restaurants, not to mention a couple of “pods” of food carts, a half-dozen chocolate shops, and Portland’s only glow-in-the-dark pirate-themed indoor mini-golf. The hotel staff were also fabulously helpful and efficient.
We recognized from the beginning that this event might run afoul of the Geek Social Fallacies, especially #4 (Friendship is Transitive, which we risked violating by inviting people from different social groups), but we needn’t have worried. We opened the convention (after softening everyone up with the singing of rounds and a pair of fabulous cakes from the Bakery Bar) with a pair of panels on “introduction to science fiction fandom for non-fans” and “introduction to gay square dance culture for non-dancers” that got everyone on the same page and gave people things to talk about. Everywhere I looked for the whole rest of the convention I saw dancers, fans, and relatives talking together, going out to dinner together, and singing songs together.
The singing of songs was a surprisingly important part of the event. We opened with the Apple Maggot Quarantine Song from Bento #1 and “To Stop the Train” from Bento #4, complete with gestures. On Saturday we had a group singalong, with projected videos and lyrics, of our favorite songs from Tom Lehrer, Jonathan Coulton, Queen, the Arrogant Worms, Savage Garden, and They Might Be Giants. And my old college roommate Kurt Gollhardt brought out his guitar on Saturday night; a mixed bunch of fans and dancers sang Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and show tunes until the wee small hours.
The relatives were also well received. I’ll note that Camille Alexa claimed to have a “rockstar crush” on my dad, which he asked me to explain. I’m not sure I can. (Sorry Camille, he’s already got a girlfriend back home.)
We had a single track of programming, including readings by the authors present, a discussion of great female SF writers, the “embarrass David and Kate hour” of baby pictures and anecdotes by the relatives, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and “On the Road with Kate and David” with slides, videos, anecdotes, and an explanation by Kate of how she finds fabulous restaurants wherever she goes.
The square dance on Saturday night was a hit; the dancers had a blast and the fans participated enthusiastically. With the addition of some dancers from the Portland square dance community, we had about forty people doing simple square dances, country dances, a line dance, and the Time Warp, plus a couple of full-level demo tips. I’ve been to a lot of introductory square dances and this was one of the most fun I’ve ever attended.
We also had a group Greek lunch on Friday, a catered Japanese dinner in the hospitality suite on Sunday night for those who remained (a much better way to close out the con than the usual spluttering away), and on Friday afternoon a choice of walking tours (Kate led the “Keep Portland Weird” tour to such sites as the 24-Hour Coin-Operated Church of Elvis, while I led a chocolate tour to some of those nearby chocolate shops). Any remaining unprogrammed spots in the schedule were filled in with “nanoprogramming” by the participants.
All in all, it went fabulously well. The worst problem we had wasn’t even at the convention, it was when Janna Silverstein got rear-ended on the way home, damaging herself and her car.
We spent Monday packing up and moving everything out of the hotel. After that Kate and I both came down with sore throats, aches, and general overall exhaustion that has kept us near-comatose since then. But it’s a good kind of comatose.
That was a lot of fun. I think we might do it again… in another fifty years.