After Action Report: Vandalia Con

It’s Tuesday!  Yeah, I know, I’m shocked, too; who knew I could post on not Mondays?  But apparently the Internet still exists between my blog posts, even if I haven’t bothered to climb out of my suspended animation chamber to witness it personally.  You may be wondering why I’m posting today, instead of yesterday.  The answer is that I spent all day yesterday recovering from my weekend.  It’s been a long loooooong time since I was as active as I was this weekend, and my body decided to register many, many, many complaints.  But it was TOTALLY WORTH IT!

Vandalia Con was this weekend.  As you may recall, Vandalia is a very cozy little convention held in Parkersburg, WV over Memorial Day weekend.  I approve of cons, as a rule, but this one is extra special.  Its motto is, “Saving the Mothers of Invention,” and they mean it:  all proceeds go to help needy women get mammograms and cervical cancer screenings.  I approve wholeheartedly; women’s health is a serious issue here in the darkest jungles of Appalachia, and anything that improves the chances for a woman to be diagnosed and treated successfully, I’m behind it.

My word, such pretty scenery!

My word, such pretty scenery!

I have women in my own life (you know who you are!) who would not be here, were it not for screenings and early detection/treatment.  At least one sister who, thanks to a mammogram, had her cancer detected at stage zero.  Do you know how great that is?  Yes, she had a mastectomy.  But she didn’t have to do the chemo, she didn’t have to suffer with the radiation and the sickness.  They caught it early, they were able to treat promptly, and thanks to that, I still have a big sister now.  That’s what Vandalia does:  it makes it possible for people like my sister to live.

I don’t see why more cons don’t do this.  It’s not like there’s a shortage of nerds.  Every time you turn around, we’re congregating to dress in bizarre clothes and enjoy being geeky together.  Why not take advantage of our natural nerd migrations and use it to raise money for women’s health?

Speaking of bizarre clothes and enjoying the geeky life, I should probably get on to

Front view

Front view

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Rear view. Isn’t that cool?

the after action report, huh?  Short version:  I HAD A BLAST!!!!  No, I have never been to a con before, so I have no ideal frame of reference.  But I have attended enough SCA events to know the difference between a good event and a bad one.  This was one of the gooders:  you can tell by the number of smiles to be found.

And this is just the lobby! Wait until you see the rest of the place!

Venue:
The venue for Vandalia was the Historic Blennerhassett Hotel in downtown Parkersburg, WV.  I myself wouldn’t have guessed that Parkersburg would have enough traffic to make a midrange hotel like the Blennerhassett profitable.  But apparently, they do, ‘cuz the place is thriving.   If I understand correctly, it’s a “non-smoking, pet friendly” hotel.  I do know that several people were there with dogs.  The hotel’s over a century old, and has gone the extra mile to preserve the Edwardian character of the place.   It is gorgeous.  I don’t mean in a “oh, cool wallpaper” kind of nice.  I mean gorgeous as in (to quote a fellow attendee of the con), “I was half asleep after driving in from North Carolina [that’s an eight-to-ten hour trip through the mountains, depending on route and traffic] and all I could think of was to sleep.  I came into the lobby and I was like, “Just point me toward the be- oh my God, how beautiful!” and like that [snaps fingers] I was wide awake and exploring.”

Ma Clarkson and her Gang of Miscreants! (aka my daughter Sarah, my son Levi)

What I’m saying is that this place is not the Holiday Inn.  Our room — which was 100% wheelchair accessible, including showers — was beautiful and absolutely huge.  I seriously doubt the furniture was antique, but it sure looked it.  Four of us (Jan, me, my daughter Sarah, my son Levi) slept in that room for two nights, and not once did we feel crowded.  There was room service, complimentary ice delivery, the housekeeping department was scary-efficient, you name it.  Oh, yeah, and they were nice.  Every staff member were smiling and friendly and glad to help, even to the point of pushing the chair of an old cripple like yours, truly when I got stuck and couldn’t get up a ramp.  They were not even slightly fazed by the weirdness factor a bunch of Steampunks brought with them, which made me very happy.  While I enjoyed occasionally “freaking mundanes” in my SCA days, there is a level of diminishing returns; I can only be looked at like a lunatic so many times before it stops being funny.  The staff here never flinched, and good on them for it!

The hotel allowed the con to use a bunch of their conference and meeting rooms.  The rooms were generous, good lighting, good acoustics, you name it.  I liked the fact that there were little conversation pits (metaphorically speaking) outside the conference rooms.  If you were waiting on somebody in a class, or just wanted to pass the time, you had a place to sit and talk with your compadres, rather than having to constantly stand and block hallway traffic.

Downsides to the venue:  You know, I can’t really think of anything except little quibbles.

  • Because the building is so old, I’m betting they got grandfathered on a lot of the Americans With Disabilities Act requirements.  To wit, the halls could be a little narrow for a wheelchair and a person to pass one another.  But wheelchairs are the exception, not the rule, so it’s not likely to come up for everybody.
  • The hotel has a private parking lot, but it’s a little hard to find, and it’s not that big.  On the other hand, their staff was glad to come all the way out to your car in the lot and help you transport anything you needed transport, so there’s that.
  • There’s an in-house restaurant in the hotel, which is wonderful. But I would like to have had other eating options.  Okay, to be fair, there were other options, sandwich shops and the like.  But my kids and I had never been to Parkersburg before, and Google Maps isn’t always user-friendly, so it took us some effort to find the nearest Jimmy John’s.  Maybe a quickie listing of walking-distance restaurants could be in the works for next year’s event?
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Could this steampunk family be more adorable?

Event Organization:
Very very good.  I give them an A+.  Then again, both Bret and Shelly are old hands at SCA events (and getting SCAdians organized is like herding cats), so I expected nothing less.  Let me tell you something:  anybody can be a good organizer when things are going well.  The way you tell the pros from the hacks is how they react when things go wrong.  And yes, there were hiccups, no shows on commitments a couple times, minor schedule juggling, and of course the inevitable “SCA time” (things getting started five or ten minutes late).  But Bret and Shelly were on top of things so well that all it ever became were hiccups.  The average attendee barely noticed, and I personally didn’t hear a single complaint.

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Well, actually, yeah they could! How precious is that! Squeeee!!!!!

I don’t know if this is a common thing at non SCA events, or if it’s just a Vandalia thing.  But the schedules/programs for Vandalia were printed up to look like Victorian broadsheets, which was a brilliant period touch, one I appreciated a lot.  And even more, I appreciated the fact that they were everywhere, stacked outside the elevators on every floor where things were happening.  This is good, because I have a tendency to lose programs; I must have collected half a dozen of these broadsheets over the course of the weekend.  They were easy to read, too.

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Even more pretty scenery!

Another good thing was that the schedule was well designed.  I’ve been to SCA events where the schedule was packed so tight you felt like you were racing against the clock; it’s hard to have fun when you’re frantic with worry over the clock.  I’ve also been to events where the schedule was so loose that there were huge chunks of downtime (otherwise known as boring parts).  Vandalia struck a nice balance on this score.  They had nothing scheduled before eleven in the morning, so you could wake up at your own speed, grab some breakfast and generally pull yourself together before the fun begins.  The schedule had enough classes, panels and events planned out so that you could keep busy through the day, but still have time to visit the vendors, check out the scenery walking past, or just kick it with your friends.  Most of the stuff was between lunch and dinner; after dinner there were a couple things scheduled, but was mostly left pretty loose.

Complaints:  Umm, really, none that I can lay at the feet of the organizers.  They had a couple no-shows that ended up cancelling classes I was looking forward to, but that wasn’t Bret and Shelly’s fault.  One class was a serious disappointment; I was hoping for a lot more information than I got.  But again, that was the teacher’s fault, not the event’s.

Highlights:
I loved the classes (as if you didn’t already know I’m a hopeless nerd).  There were too many that I wanted to attend, and some were cross-scheduled, so I sent my minions — err, I mean, my darling children — out to take the classes I couldn’t get to.  I think my son’s head asploded when he went to the Airship Regatta.  The Regatta was kind of a wet firecracker, thanks to too few participants.  But there was enough to make my son start foaming at the mouth, and agitating for his dad and he to get some supplies and start building their own.  Shelly, if you or your sweetie are reading this, be ready for a grudge match in the airship line next year; I’ll be bringing my own homegrown rivalry to spice things up!

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a kid-oriented presentation on Johnny Appleseed. It was very adult-friendly, and I enjoyed sitting in on this one very much.

I liked the fact that several of the classes were not just kid friendly, but actively aimed at kids.  I don’t know if this is standard con practice, but I approve, regardless.  I attended at least one of these classes, and was gratified to see that I was not the only adult who wasn’t embarrassed to attend a kid’s class.  “Interesting” doesn’t have an age limit.  There were other classes flagged as definitely not kid-friendly (the only one I attended of this kind was about ghosts), which again, I approve of.

There were several ticket events, I guess you’d call them, where an extra fee (ten dollars) was required to take part.  I didn’t get to any of these (I had a ticket for it, I just got busy elsewhere).  My kids attended a couple of these, tours of the hotel, local museums, etc.  They enjoyed them very much.  I didn’t get to the Tea Dueling event, darn it!   But I did get to the fire breathing show.  It was way cool!  They had a couple of members out for injury, so they decided to team up with a gentleman who did a bubble show for the kids.  The result?  Pure gold!  Here, take a peek!

There was a music show starting a little bit after dinner on Saturday and running until pretty late.  I caught pieces of it and it was good.  I was very happy to see that Eli August and the Abandoned Buildings were there.  Here’s a brief clip of their performance (you can just see the top of my be-laced hat on the right hand side, half hidden by the chick in the boater hat).

There was storytelling later that night, in the same area.  I was probably too tired to fully enjoy this one, but I had promised to interpret this particular gathering for one of my deaf friends, and I couldn’t renege.  Again, I was glad to have attended:  who doesn’t love singalongs and scary stories and ballads and poetry, all shared by handsome men?

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See what I mean? Such pretty pretty pirates (and a dieselpunk to keep things interesting!)

Gosh, I’m leaving out so much!  There was a small vendor area (I love this place, all the pretty scenery wanders through that area eventually), a casino night (I made a killing at blackjack, thanks to my misspent youth).  I gave the parade a miss on Sunday afternoon (I’m not a big one for parades, and with my wheelchair, I’m more of a float than a participant), but I was there for the farmers market; they let us take part and it was more fun than I anticipated.  That’s where Bonnie’s Bus was, which provides mammograms to all comers, no woman over forty turned away, regardless of your ability to pay.  There were the very young, very VERY handsome pirates who put on a show for the kids, told stories, and generally improved both the tone and the scenery of the whole con simply by showing up.

Final verdict?  SUCH a win!  I’m so going back next year, and bringing more money, more pretty clothes, and more memory cards for my camera!  Seriously, anybody can have a good time at an event like this.  But how often can you have a good time and serve a good cause at the same time?  It’s a win win.  MARK YOUR CALENDARS!   We had people from as far away as Rhode Island and North Carolina (as well as one fellow originally from Yugoslavia, but I’m doubting he made the trip just for us).  If they can make the trip, you can!

Quick note on another subject:  Tanith Lee, British author of science fiction and fantasy, died on Sunday.  She was not a particular contributor of steampunk, dieselpunk or new pulp.  But still she was a science fiction author, and the world is a little less bright for her absence.  Thank you for your stories, Miss Lee, and enjoy your final jaunt into the stars.

Okay, with that said, I know it’s Tuesday instead of Monday, but the same drill still applies:  comment, tweet, share, write.  If you have a contribution to Fun Friday, give me a shout at ajwriter-at-ajclarkson-dot-net.  If you don’t have a contribution, but you wanna just shoot the breeze, ask a question, send me a million dollars, same email addy.  Now that the sewing frenzy is past, I am hoping to get back on schedule.  So the next time you’ll see me is tomorrow.  Until then, be good!  And if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!

(totally not kidding about the million dollars; I have bills to pay!)

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