Saloncon 2007: Culture, fashion, and panic.

Sep 26, 2007

This weekend just passed, Lyssa, Laurelinde, and I journeyed northward to the state of New Jersey to join friends and colleagues at Saloncon, a one day convention (sort of) that celebrates the finer things in life, such as dressing well for the sake of dressing well, refinement, politeness, and a chance to show off all the nifty things that we've been building in our basements all year. I say that the convention is 'sort of' one day because the festivities actually began on Friday night with the steampunk meet and greet at the hotel's sports bar and ended on Sunday with brunch in the hotel's restaurant, but I'm actually getting ahead of myself in this respect.

On Friday morning the three of us loaded up the TARDIS with our finest clothes and baggage, filled the back seat with Lyssa's knitting supplies because she's working on a major project for someone, and after lunch at the deli just down the street from my apartment complex set a northward course for the Holiday Inn at which the convention would be held. Because we left fairly early in the day traffic on the DC Beltway wasn't as bad as it could have been - we made fairly good time and hit the northern border of Delaware by 1500 EST5EDT. Just over the bridge, Laurelinde and I traded off driving duties (she's much better at long drives than I am, and in fact she loves them) and I curled up as best I could in the passenger's seat to read.

We arrived in New Jersey around 1730 EST5EDT and promptly got lost because the New Jersey roadway system makes even less sense than that of Washington, DC. For example, at least in the region that we had gone to, you're not actually allowed to make left-hand turns in a consistent manner. Instead you have to use the right-hand turning lane to drive into a little turnaround circle and cross over the street you were just on at the stoplight. Mind you, this is where they've actually constructed such turnarounds - when you need one, chances are you won't be able to find one. At any rate, we checked in at 1815 local time, hunted down a luggage cart, and unloaded the TARDIS into our hotel room. It was at this time that we discovered that Lyssa had accidentally picked up two different boots (one of hers, one of mine), which left her with no footwear for the weekend. This necessitated a quick trip to the local Macy's so she could hunt down boots. Unfortunately, we didn't get dinner until later in the evening, and I'm sure that the three of us having low blood sugar didn't help anything at all.

It was after we returned to the hotel that I changed my clothes to get ready for dinner at the steampunk meet and greet that effectively kicked off Saloncon 2007. If you've not heard of the genre/subculture/style of art called steampunk, it is in many ways a return to the original do-it-yourself punk aesthetic, only instead of black leather, silver studs, and mohawks you find people making and dressing up in Victorian-style clothing outfitted with tools, belts, goggles, and often clockwork devices (functional just as often as not). It's a genre that wonders what would happen if the street kids and hackers of today lived in a world dominated not by electricity and circuitry but clockwork automata and steam engines. Most everyone at the meetup had made at least some part of their outfit - there were a lot of custom dresses, skirts, and sometimes gowns, hand-made goggles, and jewelry or other accoutrements constructed out of brass, steel, and iron. I suppose that I was the odd one out - I hadn't had time to make anything so I hacked together an outfit, grabbed my walking stick and doctor's bag, and headed downstairs.

The sports bar at the Holiday Inn where Saloncon was being held was has gotten a little better since last year - the hummus wasn't bad and their coffee has gotten better. The field greens salad hasn't changed appreciably. Still mediocre, all things considered. Still, the assembled con-goers in their belly-of-a-zeppelin best weren't complaining overmuch about the food. A major topic of conversation was projects that we had going on, such as walking sticks, new goggles, and props that have no other real use other than to look nifty, such as etched brass toy rayguns, prosthetics, and even a time machine-in-a-hatbox(!)

Lyssa and Laurelinde, both not feeling terribly well, retired early that night while I hung out and chatted with people about some ideas that I've been kicking around, most of which will involve a sewing machine.

Just like last year, a few of us were asked by passers-by why we were dressed so strangely and what we were doing at the hotel last weekend. So far as I know, all of us answered honestly and nicely, which lead to a couple of the faces I'd seen buttonholing us after we left the sports bar showing up in the registration line to purchase tickets for Saloncon on Saturday morning.

Later that evening Lara from Pittsburgh flew into New York, caught a train into new Jersey, and called Lyssa and I because she was searching for a ride to the hotel. She hadn't been able to find a cab and needed a pickup at the train station, so Lyssa searched for directions while I got dressed and Laurelinde got ready to navigate. Through an amazing coincidence, however, Lara was able to flag down a cab while on the phone with us, and arrived in fairly short order. On Saturday morning, the three of us got up reasonably early (which is to say, around 0900 EST5EDT) so that all of us would have a chance to get a shower, get dressed, and possibly scrounge up some breakfast before walking down to registration to get our con badges and tickets for the cream tea that would be held later that day. I guess it says something about age that 0900 counts as sleeping in anymore. At any rate, Lyssa, Laurelinde, and I were ready to go by 1030 EST5EDT I would guess because we had to kill quite a bit of time before registration opened, and that includes registration opening later than expected. Lyssa and Laurelinde went off to browse the dealers' rooms while I went to breakfast at the hotel's restaurant with Rialian and Helen, and discovered that their buffet breakfast, which was technically food, wasn't worth the $11us I spent on it. Still, the coffee was half-decent (it was light years better than anything you can get on the highway, let me tell you, and certainly better than Starbuck's) and the muffins weren't bad, either. We caught up a little, and then I headed out to catch up with my partners in crime.

Laurelinde had found a captain's coat in one of the dealers' rooms, a garment not dissimilar to the one that I picked up the year before, and about as nice from what I can tell. I stopped in to purchase a couple of art prints from a local artist because they reminded me of some people that I knew some years ago. Lyssa continued her search for a corset, but regrettably there were none to be found at Saloncon this year. We'll probably have to look for them at the Maryland Renfaire this year. While there, I caught Voltaire as he was setting up his booth, and mentioned that Araxcies (my point of contact at Saloncon) and I needed to sit down with him to figure out what his requirements for the sound system were as soon as possible. Araxcies was otherwise occupied at the time, and I decided to leave herr Voltaire to his own devices because he was busily setting up his booth.

Around 1200 local time, the Vampire LARP started in Salon A of the hotel. I have to admit, I was excited about this game because I haven't been to a one in a very long time - the last LARP I attended was in early 2005 or late 2004, when the Camarilla wrapped up the old game in preparation for White Wolf's new World of Darkness. Call me what you will, but I enjoy taking part in a good game. I wound up playing a Malkavian who'd been through the US Civil War as a field surgeon (because this was a convention game, the character background was largely written already, though there was plenty of room for improvisation on my part, which was encouraged). With that historical background in mind, I opted to riff off of two derangements that I thought would work well, vis a vis schizophrenic auditory hallucinations (talking out loud to the voices of his dead patients) and shell shock.

There were only three players plus the Storyteller in this game, Adam (who played the Tremere as well as the villain (no jokes, please)), and Ellen, who played... you know, I'm really not sure what her character was, even with some out-of-character knowledge from the wrap-up. Vampires with shark-teeth are usually played as Tzimisce, which I'm fairly certain her character was not. The overall storyline was that the murders perpetrated by Jack the Ripper had thrown the Kindred community into a panic because no one really knew who was behind them, and vampires tend to be paranoid at worst, wary of one another at best. I'm pretty familiar with the historical Jack the Ripper case, so I also played Rudolf as a Freemason concerned about the murders, which would have been either helpful under the circumstances (it was, in a roundabout way) or just cracked-sounding enough to play a good madman.

When it was all said and done, my character had been staked while Ellen's character was attacked by Adam's character (I don't remember any character names, just their real names from hanging out afterward), un-staked by a passing bobby, and proceeded to mutilate the Tremere with a dissecting kit because nothing more handy happened to be around at the time. The irony of this is not lost, I assure you.

I'll spare all of you the in-character details and say only that we were all pleased with how the game turned out, we all had a good time, and I think I made a few new friends as a result.

After the game, I met up briefly with Lyssa and Laurelinde, and then went off in search of Araxcies to take care of a bit of unfinished business. We met up with Voltaire as he was closing his booth in the dealers' room (he said that he hadn't slept in better than a day and needed downtime badly; we could hardly begrudge him that) but got the information that we needed about the sound system and set off to check out the gear the con staff had rented.

Following the sound gear checkout, I met up with Lyssa and Laurelinde before the cream tea which took place at Alexander's the restaurant at the Holiday Inn (not twenty feet away from the sports bar, actually). We were assured good fare because it was being catered by Teaberry's of New Jersey, and as expected the tea selection was excellent and brewed to perfection. We were also served scones with lemon curd, clotted cream, honey, and jam in the traditional style, while Kwannon performed softly in the background. Lyssa, Laurelinde, Lara, and myself were seated together in the restaurant, with Hausfin, Mika (both of whom drove in early on Saturday), Rialian, and Helen behind us. Rialian kept everyone in stitches with his torrent of bad puns (Ri's chronic paronomasia has forced the creation of an entirely new category of puns, you see, as oxymoronic as it may sound) and tales of London by (methane digester produced) gaslight, while the four of us caught up on old times from back home and probably scandalized everyone by doing so. Think Oscar Wilde with the manners of a James Bond villain, and you probably won't be too far off the mark.

If you happen to be in New Jersey, make a point to stop by Teaberry's Teahouse - their fare is simply wonderful.

Because I hadn't fully recovered from the trip up to the hotel (between going to bed at 0330 EST5EDT and my back and legs bothering me from sitting in the car for so long), I headed back to our room to nap for an hour or two. This meant missing a couple of things (like the seance), but on the whole I'd rather be functional and aware than exhausted and ready to fall over. After shaking the cobwebs out, I changed my clothes again for the masquerade ball (jockeying for space in the bathroom with Lyssa and Laurelinde, of course - it's hard to split one bathroom three ways, especially when everyone has to do something different), and the three of us set out to find dinner. We wound up going to a little pizza place a couple of blocks away from the hotel and picked up a pizza to carry back to the room with us (because we were running short on time). The three of us were part of the team that was setting up for the masquerade ball, and all of us had our plates full.

It didn't take Bryan (head of security), Araxcies, and I long to manhandle the sound system into position at the side of the stage (two PA speakers, two monitors, about a hundred feet of cable (more or less), amplifier, microphones and mixer) and start plugging everything in. That's actually the easiest part of the whole operation - matching up 'out' jacks with 'in' jacks by way of cables with the appropriate plugs on either end. The real trick, the bugaboo, lies in debugging. Here's why:

Sound systems have lots and lots of controls that have to be tuned appropriately - each channel has volume controls, controls that dial up the high, middle, and lower frequencies, volume for the sound FX generator circuit built into the mixer, and volume that goes to the monitor speakers. On top of this, the mixer has a graphic equalizer to fine-tune the sound coming out of the whole rig, a master volume for the monitor speakers, and the master volume for the PA speakers. As if that weren't enough, there is always a trade-off between appropriate volume, not loud enough, and sufficient volume to start feedback wailing through the PA speakers. Sometimes the line between hearing-damaging feedback and "loud enough for the space" is a fine, fine one indeed. As if that weren't enough, there's the problem of more hum emerging from the speakers than sound - usually that means that one or more of your volume settings are too high and one or more are too low, but there are other causes for the phenomenon that are just as annoying, such as a bad ground allowing interference from the power lines to manifest in the audio circuitry, volume on one or more of your sound sources is off, or plugging the wrong thing into the wrong jack.

Now, with all of that, it sounds pretty easy to assemble a list of things to check while troubleshooting. Sure, it scales the bigger your sound system is but it's straightforward, right? Not really - there are some truly arcane problems that I won't get into because not many of you probably care about the math or electrical engineering miniutae, but I mention them only because they've given me a couple of gray hairs over the years (and one or two of you Out There Somewhere are nodding sagely).

The biggest problem is time: When the show starts at 2130 and you're trying to track down why a microphone's humming, it's very, very easy to lose track of time, which is what I did while trying to bring up the monitors.

Oh, and I was also running sound for the burlesque show with a custom-burned CD through a boombox patched into the PA sound system. A boombox that didn't have a real timer on it, only a display that showed which track was playing at the moment. As one might imagine, this is a real problem when a) one doesn't carry a CD player anymore, and b) the outline of the show is in minutes and seconds.

On top of all of this I was running sound for Voltaire as well, which actually wasn't too bad because he only needed a microphone and a sound input for his guitar. Most of the fiddling had to be done with the channel his mic was running on and one or two tweaks to the EQ. No big deal. Not having a boom mic was a show stopper because he would have kept running into a normal mic stand with the strings of his guitar as he moved around on stage, but I sent Lyssa back to the TARDIS to get my emergency tool kit while Bryan disassembled a couple of mic stands and the jack from his car to duct tape together a serviceable boom stand while I jockeyed the burlesque show.

The burlesque show, from where I was behind the sound system, was a lot of fun. I didn't pay attention to a whole lot of it because I was too busy trying to manhandle music I hadn't heard before (there wasn't even time for a run-through) and time everything to what was happening on stage and the floor. I have to be honest, I messed up a couple of times. I got a little trigger happy with the forward skip button because I lost track of what was lined up with what. Thankfully the troupe was able to adapt and Victor (front-lifeform for the troupe) was able to get me back on track without a whole lot of trouble. There was a minor glitch with a stage mic being turned off and no one noticing, but the performer had a strong voice and managed to get through to the audience without a whole lot of trouble. On the whole it wasn't too bad an experience - it was stressful, and it left me sweating a few times, but not bad. The troupe was very understanding about the whole thing, much to my surprise.

Remember when I said that Time was running short from the get-go? It came around to bite me on the ass, first on one cheek and then the other in about five minutes' time. First off, Araxcies came to the sound table to inform me that the hotel had politely requested that we wrap things up by 0130 EST5EDT Sunday morning, after Voltaire's performance. That wasn't a big deal because Lyssa and I only had to trim two or three songs out of the playlist I had queued up. Then, he came over to tell me that I had to trim the playlist down to 60 minutes in length, down from two hours (which was in turn down from two hours and thirty minutes).

For those of you who were at Saloncon and want to know what happened to the masquerade ball, we had to chop ninety minutes from the playlist and not take requests to ensure that we could shut down the sound system on time. This meant cutting out all of the period music that we'd lined up, deleting the tango music, and dropping a lot of other stuff that would have given the set that night a more broad dynamic of style. From the bottoms of my hearts I apologize.

I'm very pleased to say that we had a full dance floor that night at Saloncon. People of all ages came out to enjoy the music, and I thank every one of you who were there that night cutting a rug. During the longer songs of the set, I even took a little bit of time on the dance floor myself to have a good time and work off some nervous energy. Thank you for being kind, for being understanding, and for sharing your time with me. Special thanks to Lyssa for help with the playlist, to Bryan for helping me debug the sound system, and to Rialian and Mika for pumping me full of bottled water because I was dehydrating from stress and heat. I'm probably forgetting a couple of people who made valiant attempts at keeping me from blowing my buffers or having a heart attack (both from stress), so thank all of you, too, even though I don't remember your names.

I wrapped up the set around 0030 EST5EDT on Sunday morning and backed out of the way as Voltaire took the stage to perform. After the burlesque show and the glitches during the masquerade ball (which didn't go as smoothly as I'd been shooting for, but then again no plan ever survives first contact with the enemy, as a military axiom would have it). It was almost anticlimactic to see him get up on stage after everything else that happened or went wrong that night: He's kind of tall, kind of gangly, with a top hat at a jaunty angle perched atop his head and a goatee, and he carries a guitar. He wasn't afraid to interact with his audience in an almost conversational manner, with a hint of a comedy routine slipping through here and there (especially the tall tales told about his beloved grandmother). He also has a silly sense of humor, in a macabre kind of way. What else could you say of someone who writes songs about zombie prostitutes, meteors that eat brains, and lullabies for children who are afraid of the monsters that lurk beneath their beds?

Yeah, that left me scratching my head, too.

If you've never listened to his music before, he's put some of his more interesting tracks up as podcast episodes for everyone to download and listen to. As I wrote before, make up your own minds.

When everything was said and done, both the concert and masquerade ball were over, and the time came to break down the gear and clear out. In some ways, it's a faster process because you don't have to spend time figuring out where to connect things to, but on the other hand it means having to carry lots of heavy stuff when you've already hauled it once, and it can take a lot longer to figure out how to re-pack the vehicle you hauled your gear in when you're tired. Thankfully, Rialian hunted down a luggage cart while Bryan and I broke the PA system apart and coiled up the boa cables. Araxcies was nice enough to help us play Sound System Tetris to get everything safely stowed in the back of his car, and then we went back in to carefully cut the duct tape off of the jerry rigged boom mic stand so we could return them to their proper owners. Of course, Bryan's automobile jack went back into the trunk of his car when we were finished.

Once everything was packed up and put away, I headed back to the room with Lyssa and Laurelinde to change out of my sweat-soaked masquerade ball clothing (because I was sweating like an Oracle DBA tasked with the resuscitation of a dying Microsoft SQLserver install) into something more comfortable, namely, a pair of soft silk PJs. Lyssa and Laurelinde turned in for the night and I wandered down to the con suite to hang out with the convention staff as they unwound. I wound up hanging out with Tyrus, the convention's official photographer and talking about various conventions that we've been to (and cons that we'd like to go to one of these years) and with Rialian and Voltaire as they discussed Ri's mead-making methods (he brought a batch of two year old catnip damiana mead to Saloncon and was sharing it with everyone in the convention suite). I then headed outside to hang out with Araxcies and friends until far too early in the morning. Jade and Sasha from the NYC contingent had been vending this year, and made a killing on their hairfalls and cyberlocks. They were also nice enough to walk me back to my room around 0400 EST5EDT on Sunday so that I could attempt to get some sleep for the trip home the next day.

Lyssa, Laurelinde, and I got up around 0900 on Sunday morning and set about taking showers and packing up so that we could check out and hit the southward-bound highways for DC once more. We said our goodbyes to everyone, made one final sweep around the convention, and then headed for the TARDIS so that we could set out in search of decent food and travel. As luck would have it, we stumbled across a little 24 hour diner called the Somerset Diner (1045 Easton Avenue; Somerset, NJ; 08873; phone #1 732-828-5424; phone #2 732-828-5425) which had amazing breakfasts. Perhaps this is in comparison with the food that we'd been eating at the con, but they definitely do what they can to make you happy. If you order eggs and bacon, you'll get five or six strips of bacon cooked to perfection, much to the chagrin of your cardiologist. If you order the fruit salad, you'll get a dinner plate-sized platter of sliced cold fruit to share with your three closest friends. If you order anything with home fries, you'll get a mound of home fries that eats like a meal all by itself. It was also packed with people of all ages while we were there, which is always a good sign. My only complaint was that our waiter left me with a dry coffee mug for most of my meal, but seeing as how he was running around like mad doing his job, that's not a complaint but an observation upon how busy they were keeping their customers happy. Verdict: One and one-half flareguns. Go here if you'll be staying in the vicinity of Somerset, New Jersey.

Following breakfast,the three of us got back into the TARDIS and set forth for DC once more. We finally arrived around 1800 EST5EDT and wound up going to Anita's up on Maple Avenue before crashing in the living room to recover from a wild and wooly weekend.

Photographs and the setlist will be in later posts, as I extract them from their respective storage media.

Thus ends three days of writing a con report. And so, to bed.