Volunteering at Heroes And Villains Chicago

It’s been a couple of weeks since the Chicago event, and I am just now getting around to writing about my experience. I went to Chicago expecting to be more comfortable volunteering, but Chicago was an entirely different beast. Because Chicago is so much closer to Cincinnati than New York, we decided to leave early on Friday morning. This meant leaving at 5 AM, and doing setup upon arrival. We walked into the convention center thinking that we would start assembling booths, and discovered that in Chicago, this was a union job. This meant the primary focus of the volunteer force would be assembling the merch booth.

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The merch booth is a large 5-piece structure that ships in dozens of pieces. The experience is not unlike assembling Lego. The primary differences are that the merch booth weighs close to a half-ton when assembled, and unlike a Lego kit, there are absolutely no instructions. Not only are there no instructions, there is no one who recalls seeing a successfully assembled merch booth onsite, so the experience is something like assembling a puzzle, which may or may not be missing pieces, with no picture on the box to guide you. It’s like a logic puzzle and a jigsaw puzzle had some sort of psychotic baby. Assembly was fraught with peril. Thankfully I had the foresight to bring a multi-tool with me, which made things go a little more smoothly.

We determined that there were two essential tasks: first, to figure out what the various pieces did, then to ascertain some sort of idea of the finished product. Chrisha set about trying to find a picture of the finished booth via Google. I worked with some dudes to deduce the functions of the various pieces, Sherlock Holmes style. After about an hour, we had the three major sections assembled, but the overall picture was still a mystery. All Chrisha had been able to find on Google was pictures of Esty’s boobs. Chrisha was eventually able to locate a picture, and we kind of saw how the sections came together, after zooming in on a grainy picture. No matter how many times I said “ENHANCE!” I just couldn’t get a crystal clear pic. I think that maybe the IT on CSI is BS.

gold_badgesSo once the merch booth situation was handled, Chrisha and I finished the day working in ticketing. I enjoy working there because I can clown around with the attendees and volunteers. I especially love finding a volunteer who is very serious about the job, or stressed out, and playing little good-natured pranks. Like saying that an error message on the TicketLeap app means we need to call the police, or telling the attendees the password to get into the con was “cantaloupe”. I also put together all the gold badges for the event, and had a bit of fun with them. One volunteer was sick or something, and wore one of those mask things that Japanese people wear on the subway. I made sure to address her using my best impersonation of Bane, every single time I talked to her. By Sunday she was probably ready to kill me.

The next day was the first day of the con, and I guess the number of volunteers was short. I was supposed to work at the merch booth, which I did for a couple of hours, but then I was diverted to work line control for Brian Tee. I had never worked line control before, so I was sort of making it up as I went along. Brian was really nice, and spent lots of time with his fans, a lot of whom were kids because he’s playing Shredder in the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film. I screwed it up pretty badly on Sunday when I got bored and waved a few people over to go through the line, but other that I think I did OK. I am definitely not cut out for line control, it takes a kind of attention to detail that I just don’t have. I am much better suited for jobs that require interacting with people.

Saturday night was the Nocking Point party. These events are always awesome. This particular party had Brother Sal and The Devil May Care on stage. It was great fun dancing with Chrisha. I don’t dance so much as get drunk and sway back and forth, but at many events that is good enough. Brother Sal complimented our dancing, and my kilt. I was not aware that Neal McDonough was a Blues musician and played an amazing harmonica. Well, he played a number of songs, sang, and did a tremendous job of making the night amazing. At one point he decided to dive off the stage, and wanted some men up front to catch him. I and some other big dudes made our way up front and caught him. It was insane. His wife also got on the piano and danced, and Neal tried to get her to jump off as well. I am half disappointed and half relieved that she didn’t jump of the piano and into our waiting arms. A highlight of the evening was getting to shake hands with Neal and tell him what a huge fan I was of Band of Brothers. It was a short interaction, like many that I have had with celebrities, that I assumed he forgot about.

I guess maybe he doesn’t get a lot of recognition for Band of Brothers, maybe? I don’t really know why, but the next day I came up to Neal at his booth and he remembered me. It started when I saw a guy in full Easy Company cosplay. He was dressed head to toe in vintage WWII gear, down to the steel pot helmet and brown jump boots. His costume was amazing. I managed to get a picture with him, and he was really excited that I liked his costume. We chatted for a minute, and I told him the brief tragic tale of my short stint as a U.S. Army Paratrooper. A bit later, when Neal arrived at his booth, I ran up to to tell him about this Easy Company guy.

When I get up to Neal, he asks me where my kilt was. I was taken completely off guard by that. I just sort of went “Uhh…” but in my mind I was like “Not now Neal McDonough, we don’t have time!” I showed him my picture of The Easy Company Guy and asked him if it was OK to bring him up to see him. Neal said he had to see this guy, so I went back to my post at Brian Tee’s line and hoped to spot The Easy Company Guy again. In a little bit, I spotted him, and took off to get him.

I am sure The Easy Company Guy was startled and confused when I ran up to him and was like “Yo Easy Company! You gotta come with me!” and I grabbed his arm. On the way to Neal’s booth I explained that I showed Neal my pic of his costume, and that Neal was eager to see him. I ran him up the VIP line and explained that while I can get him through the line, I couldn’t get him past the manager. When I turned to explain, The Easy Company Guy was totally in shock that this was happening. Again, I had to return to my post, so I didn’t get to see what happened after that.

Apparently it went very well, because The Easy Company Guy came to find me. Turns out his name is Dustin, and he was absolutely pumped that he got to meet Neal πŸ™‚ I got a hand shake and a big “THANK YOU!” which was easily he highlight of that day. As the con was closing down, I went back to get Neal to sign my shirt. I said to Neal, “How excited was that guy?” Neal said The Guy was visibly shaking and Neal gave him a moment to collect himself, which I thought was just awesome of Neal. Neal shook my hand, thanked me, and said “You’re a good man, Chris.”

I had no idea that was on my bucket list, but it was, and I got to cross it off πŸ™‚

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Volunteering at Heroes And Villains New York/New Jersey

I just ended a day of volunteering with Heroes and Villains Fan Fest in Seacaucus, New Jersey. It was quite a treck to get here (10 hours in the car) but we arrived ahead of the storm. We had a lot of fun despite The Great Blizzard of 2016 that caused New York City and the state of New Jersey to declare states of emergency. We arrived Thursday and spent the morning and afternoon of Friday doing setup. It was also a great experience in the power of social media following a disaster. I live in a very boring part of the country, so I have never been part of that kind of event. It’s clear to me now how important platforms like Twitter are to getting people organized.

Setting up a con is a lot like being in the military and deploying to the field. Things have to be unpacked, set up, and logistical issues abound. Hardware was disassembled and packed in a rush at the end of the last exercise, so things are missing, mislabeled, or broken. This is true of military units, and it’s equally true of conference volunteers. In these situations I usually take charge of something, partly to help others, but mostly to be able to focus on something and not be bossed around by others. In this particular case, I played a role in building autograph booths. Each autograph booth consists of a series of railings that form a kind of human corral, similar to the line at a bank or a roller coaster. I gathered a small group of volunteers, whom I later named “The Booth Bandits” and we set about building or helping others to build booths. It quickly became apparent to me that the details and precise measurements that go into booth building are not my forte. Diligence and attention to detail are my wife’s bread and butter, so with her as the architect of each booth, I shifted my focus to getting the materials needed to keep that bandits moving. It was fun, we had many laughs, including establishing our base of operations, known as BanditHQ.

The next day, Saturday, was when the storm hit. Nearly 3 feet of snow buried the New York Metro Area, and the Governor of New Jersey initiated a travel ban for the roads until 7am Sunday. Not to be deterred, social networks were engaged, and the people stranded in their hotel rooms began having informal parties in the lobbies of their hotels. People began to travel to other nearby hotels, and before long people were cosplaying, playing games, and generally having a good time without the con. We played Fluxx for a couple of hours and it was a blast. The climax of the event was Saturday afternoon, when Stephen Amell, John Barrowman, Katrina Law and Robbie Amell were spotted at a local restaurant (one of the few restaurants that was still open). Within minutes the restaurant was packed with fans, and the harried but good natured staff did their best to seat and serve everyone. Outside the restaurant, people were making snow angels, including Katrina Law and John Barrowman.

Saturday night, after much work to change venues to the closed Expo Center, we attended the Nocking Point Winery Mixer, hosted by Steven Amell and his partners at the winery.  There were drinks and live music, including a few duets with Stephen Amell and John Barrowman. Before I say anymore, I want to convey that these dudes aren’t just actors, they are entertainers. The medium matters not. If you put these cats in front of an audience, they will entertain. Rather than describe the shenanegans, I will just embed some videos, but I doubt that they will capture the magic of the evening.

One interesting story from the evening was that a woman who attended the party enjoyed herself a bit too much and her girlfriends were having a bit of trouble getting her back to the hotel. I offered to help her, since I have lots of experience carrying injured soldiers and kick boxers, as well as drunk hackers and twinks. I got her to the elevators at our hotel, since we were headed the same way, and she and her friends were very thankful.

On Sunday, the Expo Center re-opened, and the con was on in full. We had to show up for orientation at 7AM, all of us nursing hangovers. I would put my physical and mental health for that day at about “Thursday at Defcon.” I had been assigned to work Katie Cassidy’s booth, but to be honest, the prospect didn’t intrigue me, mostly because I am not a fan of hers. I am sure she is a great person and everything, I just ship Olicity and that’s that. Sara Lance (Caity Lotz) was a better Black Canary in my opinion, and Caity couldn’t get a flight, so I just wasn’t into the idea of celebrity work. Fortunately, I got the opportunity to work at the information desk where I was able to enjoy myself quite a bit.

The information booth was a lot of fun. I got to answer questions and help people find things, and after a while I figured out how to joke with people coming to the con. My favorite gag was to tell the people who needed to find the ticketing booths to walk up to one of the ticketing people and tell them that their hair looked nice before handing over their confirmations. Then once they got their badges or wristbands, I would tell them that the password to get past the door was “cantaloupe.” My goal was to have one of the Expo Center’s security people ask someone why the attendees were talking about cantaloupes. It didn’t work. The other great thing about working the information booth was that I lucked my way into a free staff photo op, which let me, my wife and our friend get a photo with Stephen Amell and John Barrowman.

The best moment for me was when a young Japanese girl came up to the booth. She was completely lost. She had never been to a con before, and she had no confidence in her ability to speak English, even though she spoke English very well. Rather than give her a bunch of directions, I just helped her with her wristband and escorted her through the exit on to the expo floor.

Later in the day, when I went to talk to my wife, Chrisha, she told me about her own encounter with a young Japanese girl who was a huge John Barrowman fan, but she was so nervous about meeting him that she was in tears and just froze up in the autograph line. Chrisha talked to her as she went through the line and then basically pushed her in front of John. When it was over, the girl was so glad that Chrisha encouraged her that she gave her a big hug and followed her on Twitter.

I told Chrisha my tale of a nervous Japanese girl, and I wondered if they were the same person. A couple of hours later, the girl that I had escorted came up to thank me for my help. She was positively ecstatic about meeting John, and showed me a picture from her photo op with him. John had his leg around her, and she had her hand on his butt. It was the cutest thing ever. And to top it off, she said “I’m so sorry. I couldn’t help it. I touched his butt.”

The girl went on to mention that another volunteer helped her get to John Barrowman, and when I mentioned that Chrisha was my wife she looked stunned. Then I took her over to the ladies in ticketing to show them her picture with John, which was met with a chorus of gleeful screams as every one of the ticketing ladies gushed over the photo.

As the con ended, we helped tear down the booths and pack things up. Again, it was reminiscent of my days in the Army. Watching the HVFF staff trying to roll up the giant bouncy castles to fit into their bags for transport was like watching a someone going through your own childhood trauma πŸ™‚ In retrospect I should have snapped a picture of their ordeal. We loaded things up as best we could, absent a lot of direction in the chaos. Everyone was thankful for the help with tear down. I enjoyed the experience immensely. I think that working a con might actually be more fun than attending. This has also been my experience at Defcon. Working a booth for Dualcore is way more fun than standing in line for talks that will end up online anyway.

I didn’t choose the conlife, conlife chose me

welcome_to_defconI just got back from having a wonderful time at Wizard World Comicon in Louisville. A couple of years ago, I was was pretty active in the hacker community, attending hacker conferences like Defcon and giving talks at smaller conferences like Notacon, Nolacon, and Skydogcon. My involvement has led to some great friendships, and to opportunities to do crazy things like appear in a rap music video.

In the past couple of years my wife has become seriously interested in sci-fi cons, and so most of my free time has been wrapped up in that for the last couple of years. I won’t say that it’s better than attending hacker cons, but it’s definitely less exhausting. When I get together with hackers, we tend to get super drunk and engage in various shenanigans. When I hang out with my wife at sci-fi cons, I still drink and have a lot of fun, I just don’t seem to have multiple concurrent hangovers and exhaustion to boot. This trip to Louisville was especially great because I got to meet most of the cast of Arrow.

imageI am a big fan of Arrow. There are some real parallels with Batman, but they are mostly superficial. The primary difference is that because Arrow is a TV show, there is way more exploration of the characters, their interactions, and their stories. Of particular interest to me is the number of strong female characters. Felicity Smoak, Sarah Lance, Nyssa Al Ghul, the list goes on. The show is full of women who fight beside and against men, and they often, but not always, come out on top. It’s not perfectly gender equal, but it’s a real accomplishment for a prime-time TV show about a male superhero. I also love John Diggle, because I feel that he represents how someone like me would react to finding himself in the DC universe. He is a warrior in his own right, but he is suddenly facing threats from supervillains, metahumans, and magic. He also falls back on his military training, for better or worse, until he learns to embrace the insight of his teammates.

So on this trip to Louisville, I got to go to panels and stand in line at the celebrity walk, and all the usual things you do at a sci-fi con, and then on Saturday night something amazing happened. While having drinks at a hotel bar, my wife got a Twitter alert about Stephen Amell being at a dueling piano bar, of which there is only one nearby. Within seconds she and her fangirl pals took off. Not only did they ditch me, they left me with the check πŸ™‚ When I caught up to them, most of the cast of Arrow were on stage singing karaoke. I was able to shake hands with Paul Blackthorne and Steven Amell, and I managed to get a picture with David Ramsey, the actor who plays John Diggle. I also engaged in some other shenanigans with John Barrowman, butΒ a picture is worth a thousand words, so I will let that do the talking for meΒ πŸ™‚
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