Being Herded By Sheepdogs: Overly-Elaborate Musings On Convention Space

Convention hotels are a lot like Hungarian sheep dogs; they’re both subtle and profound.
Now, that’s a hell of a metaphor to process on a Monday morning, so let me tell you about the time Gini went and played Frisbee with a bunch of friends and their Hungarian sheep dogs.  They’d spread out in a big grassy field, as you do for a good athletic game of Frisbee, the dogs bounding and bounding around them… and ten minutes later, they’d realize they were accidentally flinging Frisbees directly into their friends’ face.
The sheepdogs were herding them, you realize.  Not overtly; just a clip to the heels here, a dog underfoot there, and next thing you know everyone’s standing in a ten-foot circle.
Gini always laughs nervously when she tells that story, as if the sheepdogs had hypnotized her.  It’s funny… But it’s also an example of how subliminal stimuli cause drastic changes.  And if you’d told me how critical hotel layouts would be to shaping a convention experience, I would have laughed.  But it’s crazy how a hotel will change the experience you have.
Ideally, what a good hotel will have is a flytrap – i.e., some large and central hangout space where all the traffic is naturally funnelled through.  If you’re in search of company, you can just go to the flytrap and have the world flow by, because your buddies pretty much have to pass you if they’re going anywhere else.
Such conventions are merrily convivial.  You meet more people, because you accumulate.  You start talking to someone in the flytrap, he sees his friend passing by and calls him over, and wham!  Suddenly, you have a new friend.  Then that new friend calls his buddy over.  Next thing you know, you’re making con-pals by the score.
If you want to remove yourself from the flow, simply exit the flytrap.  It’s that simple.
A mediocre convention hotel will have a few gathering places – sometimes it’s the con suite, sometimes a bar off to the side, but you have to find and then hunt three or four spots if you’re looking for someone.  It feels uncomfortably like you’re prowling sometimes, going to the coffee shop to see if there’s anyone interesting, then headed up to the con suite, hunting for a group of people you know to pal around with.
These cons tend to be less mix-y.  You still meet people, but the groups are a little more segregrated – like calls to like, and if more often than not the writers are hanging in the bar and the cosplay people are down in the lobby.  You’ll meet other writers if you hang with the writers, but your chances of cross-pollination are lower.
The terrible convention?  Has lots of eddies and secret spaces – back-room bar areas that can’t be easily seen from the outside, lobbies with five chairs (and nobody wants to stand, it feels like lurking), narrow hallways.  You can’t find a space where masses of people can gather, only fours and fives.  You may not even know where people are unless you text them, text them constantly.
In circumstances like this, people default to the consuite.  But at that point, the suite becomes overloaded because everyone is going there, and it usually overflows, becoming claustrophobic and hot.  So people stay in their rooms behind locked doors, gathering with old buddies.  It’s incredibly hard to meet new people at cons like this, unless you luck into the right room.
And it’s weird, because from a “normal” perspective, this breaking up of spaces is a good thing.  When I’m staying solo at a hotel, if I gather in the lobby with a few buddies, I don’t want strangers walking up to me.  So a little solace is actually clever design.  But in con-mode, I’m usually looking to circulate, and when the people could be in one of twelve different microspaces, that makes the con experience more difficult.
(And while I’m at it, why does it always seem like at every con, there’s that one friend who you run into every twelve seconds, and the person you’re dying to hang out with but never actually see?)
It’s just odd, how much space can reshape our interactions and experiences. Con-time is an odd rush of emotions and friendships, created in a pressure chamber, and as humans we’re usually not wanting to acknowledge what herd animals we are.  But the hotel space is one big puli sheepdog, quietly affecting us in ways we don’t fully fathom.

The Adventures Of Tintin: What Didn't Happen

We saw The Adventures of Tintin last night, and didn’t care.
It’s kind of weird, because Tintin was supposed to be thrilling!  Full of chills!  A wild, Raiders-style whoop-it-up where you get even crazier stunts!
The problem was that none of these stunts actually happened.
Watching Tintin, I saw a lot of cartoon bodies careening about, but as wonderfully rendered and animated as they were, they were still CGI.  You see a movie like Raiders of the Lost Ark, and you know subliminally that somewhere, a stunt man put himself in danger for this.  There’s a real guy under the truck, a real set of spinning blades, people fighting for balance to not fall off the plane.
Whereas Tintin had bigger stunts, but they were all hollow.  I kept looking up admiringly, saying, “That’s nice setwork” – but I never really felt like these floppy CGI ragdolls were in any danger, nor did I care.  People soared and sailed in a meticulously-choreographed stunts, but why was I invested?  Tintin and Captain Haddock had were more random collections of plot hooks and traits than real people, so it certainly wasn’t that I was invested in their goals.  This was such a happy-fresh movie that it was apparent that Goodness Would Win from the opening credits, so it wasn’t like I was worried they’d lose.
(And yes, it’s a comic book movie.  I’m aware of the origins.  But as an introduction to these comic book characters, I didn’t much care for Intrepid Boy Reporter Tintin, and Captain Haddock was amusing sidekick relief but so goofy that I wrote him off.  It may be accurate, but it didn’t really grab me.)
I’m not saying that CGI leads to not caring.  I mean, Gini and I nearly wept with tension at the end of Toy Story 3, where the toys were in the garbage heap.  But if you’re going to treat your characters as comic relief for the entire film, with only brief and obligatory pitstops at the well of We Will Show Our Interior Pain For Thirty Seconds, then I’m not going to care at all.
Whereas with a lot of terrible action films that absolutely no characterization, my reptile brain is still tickled during the action sequences because I go, “Holy crap, someone’s in danger.”  More often than not it’s the stunt guy, but when someone’s hanging off a building, there’s all of these subtle cues that tell me to worry.  And I do.
It was interesting.  Adventures of Tintin should have been riveting.  Everything was bigger than Raiders.  But somehow, it wound up being smaller.  And I worry this is what Spielberg and Lucas wanted from Star Wars and Raiders in the first place.

Beekeeping Is Wheekeeping

So I have a horrible confession, but I’m going to do it on film: here, listen to this.

That’s right; we hadn’t been in the big hive in nearly seven months.  So it was time to get in, but I’ll be honest and say we were a little scared.  Bees aren’t aggressive when they have nothing to protect, but once they have seventy pounds of honey and brood, they get a little defensive when people rip open the tops of their houses with crowbars and start rooting around.
…comparatively, this is.  I mean, our bees are very nice bees.  But a bee buzzing around your head, bumping you, hits some primal terrors. And there are a lot of bees:

I should add that for the seventeenth time, I misidentified a clump of ladder wax – which the bees use to climb between boxes – as a queen cell. I don’t think I’ll ever know what a queen cell is. But we’re paranoid about queen cells, because it’s the spring season and we’re told our bees are getting ready to swarm, and when that is imminent the #1 sign is queen cells, as the bees produce a new queen to tend to the old hive, just before the old queen flies off with about 20,000 bees to resettle.
There’s technically nothing wrong with swarming except a) it leaves your hive weaker, and b) we don’t look forward to explaining to the neighbors why there are 20,000 bees clustered under their eaves.

Here, you can see a bunch of now-dead pupae – which was the word I could not remember to save my life – that have been pulled free of their comb here, which makes me feel bad. And here, you can see me actively irritating Gini with every pronoun as I mourn at a not-quite-ready-for-prime-time bee who we’ve inadvertently yanked out:

And here, you can see the bees scattering as we use the smoker, which is oddly hypnotic, as well as seeing all the boxes spread open and laid apart.

(No, we did not see the queen. We never see the queen.  I can’t wait to see the queen in the other hive, because she’s marked, but even after a year we still go, “Wow, that’s a bunch of bees!”  Amateurs.)
Unfortunately, soon after this video was taken, this happened:
Basically, if you have a smoker – which is a metal canister filled with slow-burning wood – do not pick it up by the bottom. Which Gini did last year, and I did this year, rendering me with blisters across two of my fingers. Which was incredibly painful, requiring three hours’ of icing. It seems like a rookie move, and it is, so don’t do that.
In any case, by that point I was mostly out of commission, meaning that Gini would have to examine the bottom box of the bees alone. And at that point they were actively angry, with about three bees trying to go at us each, buzzing angrily, and Gini didn’t want things to get worse. So she slowly panicked and decided to put the hive back together.
We need a plan at this point. The bees are clearly healthy, but the top box of the honey super? It should only be for honey, guys, and already it’s filled with brood. This is a thriving hive, and if we take the honey super off, there’s a good chance the bees will feel crowded and swarm. If we don’t take it off, then we’ll have to get a new honey super come the end of the summer… and not only does that seem a little clunky, but we really want honey this year.
If any beekeepers have advice, I’m listening. In the meantime, I’m going to put more ice on my poor fingers. Ow.

Ironic, That A Movie About Getting Screwed By The Man Is Doing Some Screwing Itself

So I was watching Tower Heist last night, which is a better movie than it has a right to be.  I knew it was about Ben Stiller and his other service-job buddies breaking into the apartment of the rich banker who defrauded them out of their pensions… But I wasn’t prepared by how much character work went into what’s otherwise a pretty by-the-numbers film.  There was a lot of effort put into showing how helpless and futile these working-class stiffs, most of whom took some pride in their jobs, felt when they were ripped off by a guy who wasn’t even punished for what he did.
Then I read that this was initially meant to be an African-American “Ocean’s 11,” and it all sort of came together.
I think I would have enjoyed this film a lot more if it were an all African-American film – it would have been stereotypical in its portrayal of blacks being the underclass, yes, but also more interesting to see a bunch of smart black men (and women) triumphing against a broken system.
But then I thought of Red Tails, which George Lucas claimed that Hollywood refused to fund because “all-black casts don’t sell movies.”  (Presumably because whites don’t want to see them.)  I know that’s why Tower Heist eventually had to get Ben Stiller on board.
That irritates me, because there’s a self-fulfilling prophecy here.  Most movies don’t sell.  You need to have your films make two to three times their initial budget to start being profitable, and the vast majority of movies don’t clear that.  Hell, Tower Heist with its all-white cast, sure didn’t.
So saying, “Black casts don’t sell movies, so we don’t make them” is kind of like saying, “Look, we gave you your one chance at bat, you missed, so you blacks clearly aren’t meant to be baseball players.” Forgetting that even the most skilled baseball players are lucky to hit four out of ten.
I think the perception is that white people won’t watch black people, which is doubtlessly true for some white people.  But on the other hand, it’s amazing what happens when a Will Smith or a Denzel Washington become a box-office star, because then somehow that white terror goes away.  Or when Tyler Perry makes a film, which admittedly mostly appeals to black people, but then those films get insta-marginalized to the field of “Tyler Perry films,” which is Hollywood code for, “the man’s a freakish outlier, nobody else can do this.”
Look, Hollywood.  You know what people want?  Good goddamned films.  The truth is, you don’t really know how to make them; as William Goldman once infamously said, “Nobody knows anything.”  If creating a hit movie was as simple as putting the right elements together, every movie would be a hit.  But some movies have an indefinable something that makes them great, and most do not.  Why?  Hell if I knew.  If I did, I’d be churning out bestselling novels.
So take some chances, man.  Make more action-adventure movies with all black casts.  See what percentage of them catch fire.  Because giving them one big shot every decade or so isn’t enough at-bats to see how someone’s truly hitting, man.

I Kind Of Feel Like I Should Say Hi

Depression is, sadly, eating my face.  And depression’s boring to write about.  I started to write an entry on how this time is worryingly different (arriving earlier than usual, possibly rooted in real-life needs), but then my brain went, Christ, is he writing about that shit again? and I wandered away, bored.
It doesn’t help that I’m working on a very different Novel of Doom, one that’s literally mostly character study, and it’s terrifying me.  While it has a speculative element, which is the term we use in The Biz to say “Weird shit ahoy,” mostly it’s two teenagers talking to each other as one of them falls in co-dependent love with a vampire.  Who they don’t know yet is a vampire.  So I’m like, “Nothing’s blowing up, nothing is happening, this is boring, it must be boring,” and every time I write this novel – which I thought would be easy – I’m freaking out because we’re 15,000 words in and there hasn’t been one atomic explosion.  And I’m convinced without all that frippery, it must be dross.
Which may or may not be true.  Plenty of novels are written about ordinary people, and they work.  But for me, this is a bare minimum – stripping away all my strengths of creative ideas to just work on two people having ordinary lives before the weird stuff hits.  I’m not convinced I can do that.  I’ve been mainlining Stephen King (oh, Christine, you’re the best book ever) to try to remind myself that you don’t need to start with a gun to the head, but this is tapdancing way outside my comfort zone.
So it’s a weird time.  This journal may be all bees and comment-whores for a time.  And yes, I know it’s my space, but I still feel guilty about being a bad host.