Community

The Schlock Mercenary Anniversary Party

Being a blogger is a serious disadvantage for certain activities, such as planning a surprise party for your spouse. For the last week and a half my head has been full of stuff about which I could not blog. I’ve been chewing my nails looking at the weather, stressing over the fact that the party time was scheduled at the same hour as the book signings of some friends, and trying to guess whether everything would go well. It did.

Schlock Mercenary 10th Anniversary

Howard was pretty sure I had something up my sleeve for today’s 10th anniversary of Schlock Mercenary, but he did not expect a full party. I truly can not take credit for the event. My major contribution was to approve the good ideas of others and to help make sure that Howard arrived on schedule. The big banner and the birthday cake were both provided by Rodney.

Schlock's birthday cake

We even sang happy birthday to Schlock, but Howard was the one who blew out the candles.

Candle blowing

Most of the party attendees were locals, but those from afar were represented by Pi and Kreely who’ve been along for the ride since the beginning and traveled all the way from Washington state.
The plaque

Dave Brady created an amazing plaque built around a digital photo frame. It is full of pictures provided by far-flung friends and fans. He cast the metal for it himself.

Schlock bowl

The decorations were provided by my amazing sister-in-law Rebecca. She crafted the Schlock candy bowl out of insulation foam. I’m glad I took a picture when I did, because this guy spent most of the party looking forlornly into an empty bowl. The kids took off with his treats.

Place settings

She made some awesome table decorations too. But I think the coolest thing was the epaulets.

Epaulet photo
You can see them right above Howard’s shoulder. Most of the attendees were wearing them by the end of the party. I meant to acquire some, but I got distracted talking to people. By the end of the party, Howard’s epaulets found a new home anyway.

Antennae

It was rainy and cold when the party began, but people came anyway. It warmed our hearts that so many carved time out of their busy lives to celebrate with us, even outdoors in the rain. There were enough people that I did not have the chance to talk with everyone. By the end of the party the sun had come out and the world looked brighter. We shared potluck food and many lingered past the ending hour. It was an excellent event.

Unexpected Evening at Home

I planned my whole day around the fact that I was going to escape my house and hang out with adults in the evening. It was all arranged. Kiki was going with Howard. Link would babysit. But then the scout camping trip changed locations from a campground somewhere to my neighbor’s back yard. Link heard the news and suddenly switched from being glad to miss it, to being excited about going. I could not look into his bright, hopeful eyes and say “No you can’t camp out with your friends, you have to babysit.” (The fact that a resentful babysitter is not a particularly good babysitter also played into the decision.) I gave permission and Link gleefully ran off to camp while I canceled my plans. Since Link being excited about camping is the far more rare event, I know I made the right choice. But I still wish I were headed to Salt Lake right now.

This story could be a lead-in to a discussion on parental sacrifice, or a personal pity party. I don’t really want to go either of those places. Loving someone means that sometimes you put aside the things you want for the things that they want. This is true for any loving relationship, not just parent for child. In my case, the kids have had to miss lots of things they wanted because of the needs of the business or the fatigue of their parents. It is only fair that I take a turn sometimes. This need for sacrifice is true in a larger sense as well. I often find myself attending or planning events that I’d rather skip because I value the organization or people involved. I think everyone does this at times. The trick is to do so with my eyes open, knowing that I am giving a gift of time and effort. Like any gift, I need to make sure that I give it with an open heart, not resentfully. And so I am glad to stay home so my boy can camp, even though I’d rather be elsewhere.

Thoughts on external perception, internal experience, and CONduit

The lobby of the Radisson Hotel in Salt Lake is so familiar that it feels like the living room of a good friend. This is not surprising since I’ve attended CONduit at this same hotel for at least 5 years. Many conversations with many friends have taken place there.

On Saturday evening there were only seven of us, Bob Defendi, Dan Willis, Eric Swedin, Mette Harrison, Julie Wright, Jessica Day George, and me. Other people drifted in and out during the course of the evening, Including my daughter Kiki. Prior to dinner the same space had held a different mix of people. In past years the group gathering in this space gets so large that we moved the lobby furniture. Then the hotel staff came by and we had to put it all back. But for the larger part of Saturday evening it was the seven of us who planted ourselves in chairs. None of us had any intention of moving until it was time to go home.

I have known and loved all of these people for years. We always manage to fill our time together with fascinating conversations. This time the conversation turned to family histories and childhoods. The breadth of experience was a bit staggering. Three people had been through medical traumas sufficient to kill a person, stories were told of depression, family strife, mental instability, alcoholic parents, neglect, cancer, and abandonment. After the conversation moved on and fragmented into smaller pieces, Eric Swedin and I spoke about how interesting it was to learn all this new information about people we have known for so long. As Eric said, “It’s always interesting to learn the back story.”

I have to agree. People are the reason I return to CONduit year after year. I love the gradual unfolding of friendships. I love that each year my group of acquaintances expands as more people become friends. It simply is not possible for me to spend time with everyone that I would like to in one short weekend.

Reading that back story list in print makes it seem that the conversation was deep and heavy, but it really was not. Everyone spoke cheerfully about their experiences, while still acknowledging they were hard. I thought about it afterward and was once again amazed by these people whom I have claimed as friends. They have been through some very dark places and you would never know it to look at them. They all seem bright, brilliant, healthy, and whole. The experiences give them a well of sympathy and understanding without weighing them down.

I’m sure they feel burdened at times. I know that I do. But that was not what I saw. I saw survivors who took their hard experiences and made them useful. These are people I can aspire to emulate.

Julie Wright and I had a short conversation about when we first met. She told me how early in our friendship she felt so cool because I invited her out to lunch during a convention. I laughed because I spent that whole convention amazed that someone as awesome as Julie would want to spend time with me. We laughed together about how internal experiences are often far divergent from what is apparent to others. In those early years we both felt out of place while assuming that the other belonged.

It was particularly interesting to me this year to be attending CONduit without Howard. We usually attend together and tag-team to cover events and run a table. Howard was greatly missed and frequently asked after. What was heart warming to me was that not once was I dismissed as unimportant without Howard in attendance. Cavan did make a joke saying, “You mean you exist when Howard isn’t here?”
“Apparently.” I smiled back. But the truth is that for years I felt like my professional acceptance at conventions was only because I trailed in Howard’s wake. People came to know me because I was Howard’s wife, part of the Schlock Mercenary team. Over the years I’ve earned the respect I was given, but my internal perception remained the same. I know this because I keep being surprised when professional respect is shown to me in Howard’s absence.

Revan and Malak came to request an interview for Dungeon Crawler’s Radio. I assumed they were attempting to schedule Howard, but they already knew he was elsewhere. It was me that they were seeking out. For fifteen recorded minutes we had a wonderful conversation, in which very few of the questions focused on my role in supporting Schlock Mercenary and XDM. I’d assumed those would be their primary interest. I did talk about them some, because those things are a big part of my life, but I also got to talk about mixing marriage and business, my Hold on to Your Horses book, and my book of essays.

Mette Ivie Harrison and I shared a reading. Just the fact that I had one made me glad. Mette and I arrived together to an empty room. We joked about how we could just read to each other. Fortunately a few more people came. Mette went first and read from one of her many books. She was so calm and competent reading from her bound book, when all I had were sheets printed from my computer. After the reading was over, Mette confessed that it was her first reading and she worried that she should have brought something new rather than reading from a published book. She’s been a published author for years, I’d assumed she was reading from a wealth of experience.

Thoughts about external perception, internal experience, and amazing people continue to percolate in my brain even though the convention is done. I looked around my church meeting this morning and realized that it too is filled with amazing people whom I admire. These people have also lived through dark times and survived them. Some of them are probably going through a dark time right now.

The people at church have no idea how amazing they are. Just as my friends at the convention do not see in themselves what I see. Just as I doubt myself and others see something different. I need to remember this when I feel like nothing I do matters. I need to remember to step confidently, smile brightly, and work to transform my hard experiences into something useful. I need to take my own insecurities and self doubt, then look around me. Others feel the same. Just as the words of others are gifts that teach me to believe in myself, I need to find ways to give out similar gifts.

I also need to use the connective powers of the internet to help me meet up with my friends more often than once per year.

The odds and ends of Penguicon thoughts

A last few thoughts which sprang from my experiences at Penguicon.

***

It was fascinating to me how many of my conversations at Penguicon turned to parenting. At first I was a little concerned. Parenting is huge in my life and a topic about which I feel truly competent to speak at length. I worried that I was somehow unconsciously shifting all conversations in that direction. But then I realized that parenting is huge in many lives. This was confirmed by David Kletcha, who kindly reassured me that writers talk about parenting all the time.

***

I truly enjoy people watching at conventions, because people have given themselves permission to wear things they love just because they love it. I’ll watch the couple wander by with big stuffed bees on their backs and I wonder what those stuffed bees mean to them. If I’m not completely burned out on socializing, I’ll sometimes ask. In every case the person lights up, happy to tell her story. People want to be seen. They want to matter and to be special. Among the fascinating choices in personal dress, I love most to see the ensembles which are aesthetically perfect. I want to say beautiful, but that is not the right word. Sometimes the clothes are meant to challenge. But I am always impressed when the person and the clothes form a harmonious whole. For example, I saw many corseted figures during the convention. Most of them looked somewhat uncomfortable. But there was one woman who passed my booth and she walked like the corset was not even there. She was graceful and proportionate. It was a beauty to behold. Upon inquiry, I learned that she is almost never without her corset. The practice showed beautifully.

***

A girl came by the booth with a hugely wide-eyed expression. She spotted the Schlock Mercenary merchandise and gasped “Oh he’s here?” As I watched she almost melted into a puddle of squee. She apologized to me saying. “I’m sorry this is my first convention.” I could tell she was shell shocked by having so many cool things gathered together in a way she had not previously believed possible. The squee was not so much for Howard as for all of it. I saw her several more times, and she appeared to have settled in to the convention. I’m glad. I hope she had a great time.

***

During the convention I had several good conversations with Jim Hines. He and I have met before and so I was glad to see him in person as well as on the internet. On the last day, when everyone is trying to catch everyone they want to fare well, Jim came up to the booth. We spoke for a moment and then it was time to part. There was the slightest pause and in typical Jim Hines “Let’s drag this thing we’re not saying into the middle of the room where we can look at it” fashion, he said “Do we hug?”
Yes we do. And we did.
I thought about that afterward. There are stages of friendship and acquaintance. Sometimes there are moments when the boundaries are still being defined. You feel close to the other person, but you don’t want to impose a level of intimacy that they may not be ready for. Then there is this careful dance which sometimes goes wrong. Hesitance to impose can be received as a hesitance to grow closer. Then two people, who really want to connect, both end up feeling a little rejected. When I find myself in this careful dance, I need to take a page from Jim’s book. His direct question opened him up to overt rejection, but it also made things clear. And then there was a hug.

***

One of the hazards of a convention is the repetition of stories. I’ll launch into a story and realize that I’ve related it twice before at this event, but I can’t remember whether it was to this group of people. Howard named this feeling Parastorynoia. Which is a pretty good word for it.

***

I was describing to Sal and Caryn the process off pushing myself to the edge of my limits and just beyond.
“When I do that, I discover how strong I am, and I’m less afraid forever.” I paused a moment “And sometimes I push far beyond what I thought my limits were.”
Sal responded, “When you do that, you get new limits.”
I looked at him and knew without a doubt that this he is a person who has gotten new limits repeatedly throughout his life. Extensive military training is designed to do that.
I haven’t been in the military, but it still feels like my life is a long stream of challenges after which I am stronger and less afraid. In some ways I’ve become a challenge junkie. I take on more than I should far too often. The risk is real. It is possible to break rather than become stronger. I have no intention of stopping, but seeing what I’m doing is good.

***

And on that note, I think I’m done sorting my Penguicon thoughts. Time to move on to the next things.

Culture Comparisons

A couple of people we met during the course of Penguicon had also visited Salt Lake City. They talked about the “weird vibe” they felt there. Howard laughingly compared it to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and both times the person laughed and said “That’s it exactly.”

Since those conversations I’ve been pondering how I feel about being a participant in a culture which feels like Invasion of the Body Snatchers to those outside it. There is a significant homogeneity to LDS/Mormon culture. It comes from shared religion and shared neighborhoods built into tight knit little communities. In many ways, Utah is like hundreds of small towns all smashed up against each other. You get the in-everyone-else’s-business nosiness of interested neighbors along with the benefits of neighbors who watch out for each other. From the inside, this culture feels very safe and predictable. People raised there are often afraid of what may lay outside. This is unfortunate, because outside are a lot of amazing people worth knowing.

Human brains are wired to pay attention to things that are different from what they normally see. This is why a visitor comes to Salt Lake City and may feel uncomfortable. The locals are acting in near unison according to social norms that are foreign to the visitor. This same discomfort happens to me when I visit elsewhere. At Penguicon I was bombarded by social situations which were just slightly askew of what I am accustomed to. Add to that fact that I moved through several different social circles within the convention, each with it’s own rules. I spent time with writers, with webcartoonists, with Con com staff, and with Aegis. In passing I saw a dozen other social groups. It really was a lot to take in and analyze so that I did not commit any faux pas.

Upon returning home, Howard and I had the opportunity to describe the convention to people here in Utah. I quickly realized that my descriptions were creating a much wilder picture of the convention than was actually true. The truth is that I’ve seen the same sorts of silly/fun/play behaviors here in non-drinking, strict dress-code Utah as I saw at Penguicon. The costumes are different, but the desires to relax and be accepted are the same.

I do not believe that everyone can just get along with everyone else. I know that there are fundamental conflicts of belief which people need to fight for. But I also believe that there is far more common ground to be had that some people are willing to admit. I have to believe in that common ground, because I found comfortable places at Penguicon and I am wonderfully comfortable here at home in Utah. Part of me thinks it is strange that this should be true. But mostly I am just glad of it.

The Working Desk

Desks are surfaces on which one piles Things To Do. My piles of things always begin as neat stacks, but the stacks quickly encroach upon each other. New layers are constantly added to the top, while the lower layers are slowly squished into the paper equivalent of sedimentary rock. In theory desks are also used as work space. I should be able to lay things out around me while I am actively using them, and be able to write notes using the available clear spaces. Usually my available clear space is about the size of a post it note and I have to slide the keyboard out of the way when ever I need to put a signature on a document. Eventually I have to have a day when I scrape the whole mess off of the flat surfaces and sort through the archeological layers of my business life. Then my desk functions as it is supposed to for a brief period of time.

Working Memory is the desk of the brain. It is the place where ideas and thoughts are processed before being used. It is where stray thoughts are organized into cohesive sentences. It is where numbers are added and multiplied. It is where images are mentally transformed. Like a physical desk the available space varies. Fatigue and distraction fog out the edges so that the working space is smaller. At these times it is literally harder to think and organize. Other things can clutter the working memory space. To Do lists, relationship shifts, and any other stress you can name all act like piles on the edges of the desk. They eliminate chunks of the working space and distract the attention.

Of late my working memory desk has been extremely cluttered. The result is that I feel closed in, unable to focus, and frustrated at my inability to process things efficiently. It is time for me to scrape the desk clear and sort through what is there.

Work:
I’m still trying to be in talent wrangler mode, but it is wearing on me. Howard doesn’t need full attention as much as he did early on, so we’re shifting this to a more balanced state of affairs. There is still lots of work to do. Howard is almost done with the RMS bonus story. Then he’ll have to catch up on the buffer, create a cover, and help with the last odds and ends on the book. I am also coordinating arrangements with 3 conventions. We’ve also gotten started on some necessary preliminary work for some of our summer events.

Family:
I’m in the process of getting Link registered for his first year in junior high and Kiki registered for her first year of high school. Both processes involve learning curves for me to hike. I’m also attempting to be more consistent about homework times and dinner times. In theory this structure will help provide a framework so the kids can succeed, which will lead to them feeling better about themselves and thus reducing conflict. So far the results have been various.

Community:
I’ve been a bit of a social hermit. All the stress causes me to draw back and conserve my energy. Unfortunately this also has the effect of reducing some of the contacts which provide me with energy. I need to be getting out more because I think it will make me happier when I am at home.

Spirituality:
I attend church every week, which gives me hope and energy. I have not been doing so well at regular scripture study, which also helps me gain perspective on the other parts of my life. This is my center of balance. If I do better here, everything else will probably fall into place.

Me:
I have not had much time for the things which matter to just me and I can feel that. I need to get outside. I need to garden. I need to walk. I need to get to the gym. More writing would be good too.

As usual, once I clear the desk and toss the stuff that is just clutter, I find that my piles really are not all that big. I don’t have too many things. I am not buried. Now I just need to get stuff done.

Building a Community

I recently wrote a blog post in which I discussed the wonderful neighborhood community in which I live and how holiday celebrations enhance that community. There were several responses to the post, but one in particular struck me. The commenter expressed envy because she does not have a loving community and wishes that she did. Over the next weeks I kept thinking about that comment. I also spent time thinking about how communities are formed, how they thrive, how they can wither, and what can kill them. I combed through my experiences with communities of friends, Science Fiction convention attendees, writers, mothers, neighbors, church members, role playing gamers, Schlock fans, and youth leaders. My experiences with communities have taught me that communities and friendships are the result of nurturing and effort. Occasionally they spring into being effortlessly, but more often they are built and must be maintained. I fed all my observations into my analysis of the formation of community and I think that I have identified some conditions which can be used to nurture a community or even start one from scratch.

Communities are formed on commonalities. The commonality can be a location such as a town or neighborhood. It can be a school or church. It can be centered around a hobby or pursuit or aspiration. Whatever this hub for the community may be, it needs to be something that the community members care about. It needs to be part of their self identity. Getting people to emotionally invest in a community requires that they buy into the commonality and help form a shared identity

Communities thrive on proximity. The proximity can be either physical (as in a neighborhood) or virtual (as online) but the community members need to be able to bump into each other frequently. Lots of small contacts make people feel familiar much more quickly than widely spaced extended contacts. It is in the course of small contacts that people share the small details of their lives and which engage other people to respond, help, and care.

Communities require the cooperation of multiple people. One person can not create a community out of sheer force of will. If all the connections run to the community founder it is a contact chain, not a true community. Communities are like a mesh with connections running every direction. One person can do much to encourage the mesh to develop, but other people must also participate.

Community connections strengthen when members have multiple points of contact. This can be multiple settings or multiple conversational topics. All people are multi-faceted and they feel closer to people with whom they can share more than a single facet of who they are. This is a major reason why parties and celebrations can be so important to communities. The celebration takes the members outside their habitual spaces and encourages them to find atypical topics for conversation.

Communities based on acceptance and understanding have more durability. In theory a community can define itself by those it excludes, but exclusion introduces an element of fear. Community members must worry if they will one day also be excluded. Exclusion makes communities brittle and inclined to fracture. A community based on respect and acceptance allows the members to feel safe. People who feel safe are much more likely to emotionally invest in the community.

Communities have rules. The rules are important for defining how the community is to function. The rules may be very stringent or relaxed. They may be codified and set out clearly for all members to see. If rules are codified, communities flourish best if there is also a codified process for altering the rules as needed. Communities without codified rules have implied rules about how the members will treat one another.

Communities must police themselves. Sometimes a person enters a community and proceeds to behave in a way that creates contention or breaks rules. It may be open confrontation or it may be subversive and hidden. This person is the proverbial rotten apple which has the potential to spoil the whole barrel. In order to keep the community strong, this person must be managed. Ideally the person’s power to hurt the community is removed, while leaving open the option for the person to stay. Sometimes the contentious person must be evicted from the community in order to prevent further damage.

Communities prosper when the members work to build them
. People are more emotionally invested where they have spent their effort. The fastest way to bond someone to a community is for them to feel needed in a community building job. Make work will not do it. The fastest way to become a part of a community is to volunteer. Spreading out the work among members also reduces the risk of members being overburdened or burned out.

Communities grow stronger when members are willing to take emotional risks. People can not feel connected when they are concerned with defending themselves from pain. When one community member is brave and opens up emotionally to share their life, other community members will respond in kind. Such opening up is always a risk, but when the risk is taken and responded to kindly, the community bonds strengthen. This risk does not have to be a huge baring of souls. It can be as simple as breaking the ice by introducing a topic of conversation.

Communities thrive when they don’t keep score. There is no problem with the community structure being built around a system that encourages people not to take advantage of others. But if the community spends too much energy make sure that the scales of cost and benefit are exactly even for each member, it introduces division and contention. Communities which encourage members to pay forward rather than back tend to be the longest lasting. Freeloaders should be addressed using the community policing policy.

Communities take time. They take time from each individual member who must spend it on community connections and events. They also take time to develop and grow. Occasionally communities form very quickly, but generally they grow slowly from few connections to many, from weak connections to strong. Trust in the community grows and traditions form. Over time the members begin to depend upon the community and turn to it in times of stress. Communities can also wane and die by the same passage of time. The growth or diminishment of a particular community is dependent upon the actions of its members.

Communities may or may not have a clear leader. Either way can work, but the presence of a community leader changes the internal dynamics of a community. If there is a leader, that person has great power over the community and a responsibility to act in ways that will help the community thrive.

Communities must allow for members to leave peacefully
. People have only so much time and energy allotted to them. They must choose where best to spend it. Sometimes this means that people need to depart from communities. Other times conflict between members will precipitate a departure. If the departing member is let go peacefully, they are much more likely to return when the departure conditions have subsided. Additionally a peaceful departure process helps other members feel comfortable that they are not trapped in a place where only a major upheaval can get them out.

The list is not comprehensive and perhaps some of the points are arguable, but as a jumping off point for discussions about community I think this list serves well. It occurs to me that these same conditions can be applied to fostering a friendship with an individual. I’m interested in other people’s thoughts on community as well. What have you noticed that I haven’t listed here?