BayCon 2019 Con Report, Part 2 – Behind My Scenes

To see the traditional report for 2019, go here.
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This year’s BayCon was a strange one for me, and my expanded con report below reflects this, which is why I’m prefacing it with why. There is some duplication where my energy management directly impacted my activities, but I will try to minimize this. I am providing both, as I said in the previous report, because invisibility is a real problem for those with disabilities, even visible ones. Therefore, seeing the con experience from someone with physical and mental limitations might both encourage those so affected and help with understanding.

I’ve been marshaling my energy at BayCon for many years at this point, making sure I reserved enough for my commitments when I used to spend energy in every direction and experience the full variety of what BayCon has to offer. After WorldCon last year, though, my time ran out. I lost my voice, something rather necessary for a panelist as I’ve been for BayCon a while now. It was only the most dramatic sign, though. My ability to walk under my own power and to concentrate have declined, too, as those folks waiting for me to finish editing Apprentice can attest.

When I was invited to be a 2019 panelist, I was already in a desperate scramble to figure out how to communicate again. Talking like the Swedish Chef on the Muppets might be amusing as a party game, but it is not that successful in communicating. I’d made great strides, all things considered, but I did not have reliable control over my voice and the effort to speak coherently took so much energy there was little left to think. Not an ideal characteristic in a panelist.

I really believed this year would be my last BayCon ever, and the thought tortured me.

First step was declining the invitation. I had no guarantees I’d ever be able to speak conversationally again, much less contribute on a panel.

Still, I first came to BayCon as a member, and until I started having to watch my energy consumption too closely, I continued to participate as a member when I didn’t have responsibilities. Over the years, BayCon has become my Spec Fic family, a place where I can have all those deep conversations real life avoids, and explore the impossible, improbable, and things I hadn’t realized I wanted to learn about. I’ve made good friends for all we see each other once a year, especially since I moved out of the Bay Area. It’s my community, and has always recharged me to create and to ponder.

I had a lot to lose.

A few months after declining the invitation, months spent working intensely with a speech therapist and compiling a treasure trove of mechanical and programmatic assists, I felt in control enough to offer to do a workshop for teens interested in storytelling. My thoughts were two-fold: 1) For all high school is a nightmare for many, teens (especially con teens) tend to be more flexible and open than adults when faced with difference. I think it’s part of how many things are changing around them, but for whatever reason, it’s generally true. 2) With so many video games using Text to Speech (TTS) voices, they’re better trained to understand me if I had to resort to my basic TTS system. Without knowing whether I could relearn to speak, I hadn’t laid out the costs for a sophisticated TTS system but rather adopted a free one called eSpeak. It works, but does not sound human.

My speech therapist knew my goal was to be able to talk to my friends at BayCon and then to give this workshop. She focused on techniques to help me control tone and word management as well as energy, but I was nervous about whether it would hold up under a live test. Nervous, but hopeful. I also put everything into my voice and concentration, committing to being pushed around in a manual wheelchair when I grew too tired to use Grover. Walking takes energy I couldn’t afford to waste. Even before BayCon began, I’d been planning and training for months.

I forgot, in all my stressing, to account for the BayCon factor. These are my people. Even those I hadn’t met before had more in common with the openness of teens than often found in the adult world. Instead of burning energy being self-conscious of how I sounded like a caricature of myself, I explained the problem and just went with it. People who didn’t know me thought I had an accent while those who did enjoyed my new voice as a fun addition to the whole that is me. I’m a natural mimic, so accents often came out in my storytelling before this.

I was better able to accept my own limitations because everyone around me accepted the difference. I didn’t feel like I had to apologize for how I spoke or push myself to minimize its visibility, which inevitably makes it worse.

Sure, it was exhausting. I had to run off and nap whenever my energy dipped low enough to steal my voice (and usually returned with the wheelchair). I had to make choices based on reality rather than just doing what I wanted to (I never got to any of the concerts, for example). But I had been struggling to accept this as my last year. If it had just been a physical decline, I could have worked around it, but losing the ability to talk (or so it seemed) and with how quickly my brain fries, I thought I’d have nothing to contribute and no way to enjoy myself.

Instead, the welcome and delight with which I was received, and the joy in my offers–however limited–to contribute, all boosted my confidence and calmed my fears.

My workshop was not heavily attended, but with the late hour, I’d accounted for that in my planning. I kept the structure flexible so I could adapt and borrowed pieces instead of following the structure at all. We had an intensive session focused on the differences between oral and written storytelling, how to understand your characters through seeing through their eyes, situational comedy, and half a dozen other things tailored to their existing characters and needs.

Everyone seemed to have fun, and from the feedback I received afterwards, it had been a grand success. I certainly enjoyed myself learning about their fun stories and helping hone their skills. Their enthusiasm and willingness to explore made a real difference. As many teachers will tell you, no matter how good the lesson plan, if the audience isn’t involved, it’s going to fall flat (oddly a storytelling lesson as well).

Not only that, but I’d been able to fulfill my commitment to BayCon in doing my part. I didn’t even need to resort to the TTS system (though I did have a Dr. Pepper to assist in energy management). In my copious spare brain time (yes, Apprentice comes first), I’m thinking of tidying my notes into a short workbook so the more structured prep doesn’t go to waste. We’ll see if that happens as the same is true about my prep notes for the panel on Body Language at WorldCon, but who knows what the future holds.

I ended up able to fulfill to my promises (a big thing for me) and enjoy myself at the con despite all the necessary adjustments to make it work. I went to a couple of interesting panels on the first day, spent a lot of time talking with friends, and even held the fort at Gaming for a bit to give Angelo a break. I spent off hours when I wasn’t napping in Gaming, using it like the Oasis (the quiet space) by working on puzzles, teaching Angelo (and observers) how to play backgammon, and gazing longingly at the replica game machines that were adorably miniaturized (joystick games and I have long since parted ways because of arm issues).

On Monday, I joined in on a Kaiju panel that was missing a panelist, something I would never have thought possible, especially on the last day, a few short months before. Thanks to the timely contribution of a Dr. Pepper from my friend Anne to ease the migraine, a topic I have a sideways position on, and the willingness of BayCon members in the audience to help recover movie titles I couldn’t produce, I had a fabulous time. Even more, so did the other panelists and those who came to hear us. It proved I can still provide entertainment as a panelist and contribute to off-the-cuff discussions. When assigned a panel normally, I write myself cheat sheets with titles and items I want to bring up, but it’s the dynamic and spontaneous nature that makes for an excellent discussion.

This BayCon was a wonderful gift as far as I’m concerned. Whether time (and new meds) brings improvements to my condition or not, next year I’ll still have BayCon to look forward to. Someday, I’ll get my cyborg body and not have to worry about all this anymore, but for the time being, it’s good to know careful and flexible planning still makes BayCon possible.

In case you’re curious, here’s a run of the tricks I used:

  • As mentioned above, I used both Grover (my innovative LifeGlider walker) and a wheelchair.
  • I now carry Cafe Rio caffeine toffees from Trader Joe’s with me always (not just at the con) because my migraines are aided by caffeine and it’s a quick, portable treatment while the sugar helps with my energy levels.
  • I put a turmeric ginger tea bag (Newman’s Own) into my water bottle to make an anti-inflammatory tincture I was constantly drinking.
  • Every morning, I had a protein-heavy breakfast of eggs and hash browns from Apple Fritter (a short drive from the con)
  • I drank tons of coffee. (If you order plain coffee at the hotel restaurant, it comes in a carafe to keep it warm and contains more than three cups, at least if you use cream!)
  • But the main thing was I listened to my energy levels. I took the downtimes in Gaming where I could still visit with friends but didn’t have to expend much energy. I found places to rest or sit down when having hallway conversations so I didn’t become incoherent. And I accepted the need for naps (which for me is huge as I don’t like to miss a minute).
  • I also didn’t stay up as late and so got more sleep each night than I used to require, more even than the 1-2-6 guide for cons (one shower, two meals, and six hours of sleep).

Bottom line: I had to be very flexible and willing to enjoy what I could without berating myself for the things I couldn’t. But, none of it would have been possible if I’d been wasting energy left and right trying to maintain the appearance of normalcy like I do by instinct in normal life. At home, I do an hour outing, and the cost is often two to six extra hours of sleep or useless fog time. It’s wonderful to learn the energy BayCon has always offered me still exists even though my years as an Energizer bunny are now behind me.

That’s the full story behind this year’s BayCon (the main stuff though I’m sure I’ve missed some pieces). It’s a learning process, and I failed to maintain at one point, but no one is perfect. I just try to learn from my failures and minimize them going forward.

Whether or not you are working with limitations, share some of your favorite con tips in the comments. What may seem obvious to you could really benefit someone else.

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