February 27th, 2006

Tarot - 4 of cups

A personal lesson from Conflation

(Quick recap: Conflation is a small annual St. Louis event, a weekend-long adults-only hotel party that is marketed only to literary science fiction fans and their friends. It was this last weekend.)

When I started writing these columns, the most I ever expected, the most outrageous far-out daydream I had, was that casual acquaintances and (very rarely) total strangers might see me, recognize who I was, and say, "Hey, I liked what you wrote about (one particular subject on one particular day)." Honestly, in my own mind, it's all that this stuff is worth. I've inherited a prejudice from the world of publishing and professional writing, one that holds that unthemed, rambling, very personal five to ten paragraph essays like the ones I write are to non-fiction writing what "observational comedy" is to professional comedy. Both are, at best, understood by both professionals and the audience to be the easiest, laziest form; at worst, they're the same trite clichés repeated ad infinitum by people so dumb that they don't realize that everybody else has had the same thoughts and rejected them as too trite to speak aloud. In an average year, I think I write maybe twenty or thirty of these (out of over 300) that I'm actually proud of at the end of the year; the hundreds of others are the journalistic equivalent of jokes about airline food.

But at parties, especially somewhat larger parties like Conflation, I'm increasingly having these weird moments where for the life of me I couldn't figure out when I, J. Random Overweightfanguy, was suddenly getting to be one of the popular people. People who would have overlooked me at best, and snubbed me maybe one time out of three, are suddenly seeking me out, seem to actively enjoy and can't get enough of my company. Frankly, the overlooking and the snubs fit my self-image more. I'm not especially attractive, I'm moody, I'm loud, I'm insecure, I'm insensitive, and I'm way too prone to dominate conversations ... unattractive qualities that are, alas, all too common in men in science fiction fandom. But only on Sunday did one of those really popular people, one of the people I'd never have thought of as my peer in any way (a soaking-hot sexy, very funny, almost relentlessly cheerful, and very, very talented costumer babe) get it through to me that people are seeking out my company because the stuff I write is making that much of an impression. They think I'm that damned good.

On one level, I do know that one of the things that does lead me to raise the breadth of my knowledge and the quality of my writing over time is that I harshly judge myself not against the average person, or against even the average person who makes a living doing what they do, but against the best. I don't know where I got this goofball idea (it sure as heck wasn't at home), but I'm relentlessly harsh towards myself for not writing as well as cmpriest, not touching people's lives and hearts as well and frequently as the_ferrett, not being as knowledgeable as (for example) somebody like thesigother, not being as much fun to be around as kukla_tko42 or becka_kitty, not dressing as sharply as David and Dawn Marie, not being as smart (and successful) as minidoc and cuglas. Don't get me wrong, it's nice to sometimes write better than average, to occasionally improve people's lives, to have a broad (but shallow) range of knowledge, to sometimes manage to make the environment around me more fun for others instead of (as I usually perceive myself) being a drag on other people's fun, having my own unique but (let's face it) shabby and flabby look, and knowing enough about most subjects to ask one semi-informed question. None of those things seem to me to be especially praise-worthy, because in my mind, the people who really deserve to monopolize the praise are the people who are (in my mind) truly remarkable, The Best.

Sunday afternoon, the in-crowd at Conflation unanimously appointed me, in public, as next year's Jester, a Conflation position sort of halfway between toastmaster and fan guest of honor, someone responsible for finding, rewarding, and encouraging any actual fun that's going on in public. When they swarmed me to make the announcement, I was absolutely, not false modestly but absolutely, convinced that they were heading for becka_kitty, who was sitting next to me, and it was only end-of-convention exhaustion and clumsiness that had them coming more towards me than her. (So, I gather, was she, to her terror.) They laughed at my befuddlement, and the audience literally roared approval. Which baffles me. Still. I don't know where some of you got the impression that I was cool and/or entertaining instead of being moody, cranky, shallow, documentedly mentally ill, and at best modestly talented, but it's making me think that you've lowered your standards too far. Otherwise, I'm going to have to adjust my self image in ways that aren't even vaguely comfortable for me.

(On an only barely related topic, though, but speaking of my being moody: Very high on the list of reasons that I wish Conflation was about 50% bigger than it has been for many years is that the small size is wrecking one of my coping mechanisms. When there are only at most two things going on at a time, all it takes is one person that I think of as a bully or a bore "following" me from part of the con to part of the con to very nearly wreck the whole event for me. I had to keep retreating to my room, because the bully, in particular, has enough of a personal fan club that he's genuinely unavoidable, and is famously so self-centered and arrogant that it does mathematically 100% no good to call him on his bullying behavior, his love of inflicting emotional pain on people he thinks are physically weaker than him, even when he bullies a harmless guy half his size in front of witnesses over a made-up outrage, one that he's more guilty of than his helpless victim, just so he can feel manly. At an event that small, the only way to keep my fervent, simmering, bubbling and intractable rage that this guy is tolerated at so many local events mostly off of my face was to periodically retreat until I got my temper under control again. If the con had been big enough to support two to four interesting things happening at a time, instead of its current one or two, it would have been a lot easier for me to avoid him without having to put myself in solitary confinement. I'm not very good at handling emotions as intense as my ever-increasing hatred towards this guy; it exhausts me. Heck, it's almost 60 hours later, an unthinkable amount of time for me to carry a grudge, and I'm still simmering with rage and frankly exhausted from it.)