There was a moment at Hurricane Who this weekend in which I was trying to decide how much fun I was having.
This has nothing to do with the sterling job Jarrod Cooper and his co-conspirators did in pulling together their first convention. Yeah, there were some problems with the hotel — lack of working Wi-Fi and generally execrable food for starters — but the guests, topics of conversation and entertainment were perfectly scaled for roughly 350 first-timers. Programming and personnel-wise, this was a great convention.
(And, indeed, the reason I came to Hurricane Who was Toby Hadoke, and his currently-penultimate "Moths Ate My Doctor Who Scarf" performance expressly did not disappoint. I ran into him, pacing and smoking outside, an hour before the show, as the foyer's cash bar was completely failing to fill up with people in that slower-to-gather way perhaps peculiar to American fandom. Would people show up? he asked me. Where are all these people? I managed expectations down: "You'll have a great audience, no matter its size." At least a couple hundred people gave him a standing ovation. And I saw one unnamed writer, despite having seen "Moths" a few times before, shed a manly tear at the end. All right, it was Rob Shearman. But I digress.)
So I had a brilliant experience, got to interview and re-interview wonderful people, and learned more about a show that I love. Got turned on to Torchwood Babiez — YES — snagged far too many toys for a one-child household, and saw formerly respectable entertainment professionals abase themselves utterly in Just a DWNY Minute. I was thoroughly entertained. I would come back in a DWNY minute.
I came to Hurricane Who alone. This was hard for a lapsed convention-goer, especially one who had (a) only gone to local conventions and (b) never gone to one alone. Add to that (c ) to borrow the British phrase, I'm rubbish at bars and parties.
Well, not completely rubbish. But I split the difference quite evenly between extraversion and introversion — an edge case on the Myers-Briggs. I love people, and I like making friends. But entering a closed system as the one stranger in the room makes me nervous and reminds me of every social inadequacy I've ever committed since age six. (Who knew that declaring I'd marry a classmate would entertain the others so thoroughly? I hid in a locker. But I digress.)
On Sunday I shared a meal with a couple of kind folks who described some SF convention horror stories, during which I had an "Is this ME?" moment as one described the generic creepy person hovering at the edge of the table at the hotel bar, trying to make himself Part Of The Group.
I had determined early on that I wanted to socialize but wouldn't intrude. Thus, through most of the convention I wound up being That Guy who would tentatively enter one social center like the bar, survey the scene for a bit, not see a comfortable opportunity, walk self-consciously to another, lather, rinse, repeat. Some people witnessing such a spectacle might indeed perceive this wandering ghostly figure as, well, creepy. I hope not.
Going to a convention all by yourself, with no pre-existing connections, really is hard stuff. You might think that you are attending a meeting of your Tribe, a gathering place where everyone is like-minded and you will be welcomed as part of the community and all will be kumbaya and intellectual kinship and free love. And you would be naive. (But adorably so.)
The reality is that SF conventions are just like communities everywhere else, albeit more eccentric. Aside from the practical issue that many people at cons simply want to focus their limited time on reconnecting with friends they haven't seen since the last con, you are simply not entering a single mass of people. Unless you have the Ferris Bueller-like aura of a Tony Lee, you will find yourself navigating sportos, motorheads, geeks, etc. with only patience and luck to determine if any of them will consider you a righteous dude(ette). That's provided you're not, in fact, a creep — in which case you might use the inevitable downtime for reflection and self-improvement, because no one is destined to be.
(This is actually a very average-male-centric way of viewing the solo con experience, of course. If you're particularly fair of face, and especially if you're a woman in a relative sea of hetero men, then you may in fact be attracting all manner of attention. I don't have any experience with that scenario, but I'm told that the sensation of being appraised is not uncommon and frequently uncomfortable.)
So Hurricane Who would have been a lot easier for me, socially speaking, had I been able to bring my wife or another acquaintance with me. And I absolutely recommend that if at all possible. You'll have greater confidence in numbers, and other folks at the con may be reassured to see you demonstrating the social graces with someone else and be willing to enter your orbit. (By the way. Whether you're solo or not, let them. If you don't want to be lonely in a room full of people, you need to not just seek company but welcome it.)
But if you can't find a travel companion for a convention, should you give it a miss? Not really, no. As long as you're confident that the programming, the facilities, the events, and all else that a convention is built around will be enjoyable, then go! Have appropriate expectations for the social hours. Bring some books for downtime. Obsess grumpily over your podcast — that worked wonders for me. Take full advantage of the con itself. You may not find yourself in the middle of a whirlwind party 24-7, but you will be likely to make the acquaintance of people you will see again — on Twitter, if nothing else — and the next time will be just that bit easier.
I spent the first 24 hours of Hurricane Who thoroughly enjoying the programming but feeling a bit lonely. I finished Hurricane Who with more sensible expectations, met some great people (fan and pro alike), and walked away with some good interviews and good memories. Being a wandering ghost was a small price to pay — and some of those wanderings led me in good directions.
* * *
Just as I was finishing this piece, I got a message from another acquaintance — someone I don't know well, but someone I like. I learned they have been facing some bad news, and it has taken a worse turn.
Social navigation at a convention can be a breeze, or a challenge. It can even be a serious obstacle to overcome, depending on your comfort with people. But it is also, as Steven from Radio Free Skaro might put it, a first-world problem. You will have much harder things to confront.
With appropriate expectations in place, take the opportunity to enjoy yourself. Make the most of it. You can find moments of beauty in the dark.