It was a day a little bit like today
the way the clouds threw shadows over the hill
the day you realized that you weren’t going to find your future.
You were never going to go to Mars
You were never going to open the door that led, inexorably, to Narnia
(or even Telmar, you weren’t picky, and you were confident of your ability
to lead the revolution.)
Inigo Montoya was not going to slap you on the back
and invite you to take up the mantle of the Dread Pirate Roberts.
There would be no sardonic Vulcans or Andorians;
you would never be handed an elegant weapon for a more civilized age.
That was a strange day.
It ranked up there with the day that you realized that everybody else saw the you in the mirror, not the you inside your head. Not the you that was lean and tough and clever, not the you with perfect hair and a resonant voice that never said “Um….?”
Not that you.
No, they got the one that was fat and wobbly and stiff inside with terror, the one who was a little scared of eye makeup, the one who wore black because it was better to be freaky than pathetic.
You were never terribly fond of that you.
It was a day not at all like today
a day where the sun shone very brightly around the edges
that you realized that you could write that future.
You could blot out all those old arguments in your head by asking each character “What happens next?”
“And what do you say?”
“And are there ninjas?”
It wasn’t the old future, but it was close.
(Besides, by that point, you’d realized that Inigo probably bathed once a month and that when people stuck you with swords, you’d fall down and shriek, and also that your feet hurt. And writers get indoor plumbing
and birth control pills if they can get them.)
It was a rather odd day
though not entirely unexpected
when you met the people who were angry with you.
It took awhile to figure out. Much more than a day, in fact.
Eventually, it came to you that those people had a future, too,
but they hadn’t quite realized they weren’t going to find it
and they blamed you for the fact it wasn’t here.
You were not the sort of person that lived in their future.
You were still too fat and too wobbly and much too weird, and you laughed too loudly
like a good-natured hyena
and you were not supportive of their high and lonely destiny.
And if you were here and their future wasn’t
it was probably your fault
and if you went away
maybe they’d get to go to Mars after all
pal around with Tars Tarkas
have phone-sex with the Pierson’s Puppeteers.
They got very mad about it.
You pictured them hopping,
arms and legs going up and down
like angry puppets
when somebody pulled the string coming out of their crotch.
It was all very strange.
It was a day sort of like last Tuesday
or maybe the Friday before last
when somebody came up
with a copy of your book
it was dog-eared and they looked like they might cry
and they said “Thank you.”
It was a day.
It was a day a little bit like today
So a lot of conversation is going on at the moment, post-Worldcon, about just how weird the demographics were, and that leads to “I’m tired of all this ageism” and while I am arguably not the most interesting or insightful on that matter, nor do I have a lot of experience with Worldcons, but hey, it’s the Internet, and when did that ever stop anybody?
I will say right now that it was by-and-large an older white con. Tina came along as part of my entourage (She said she’d never been on an entourage before!) and at one point she turned to me and said “Wow. I feel like the youngest person in the room.”
Tina’s in her fifties. I’m thirty-six.
In fact, the topic came up practically every time we talked to somebody–“Wow. Anybody seen a teenager?” Teiran claimed to have, and said they were the only ones who bought anything. The furry contingent sat around the bar shaking our heads. At Anthrocon—and indeed, by standard demographic spread—we are solidly middle-aged. At this con, we felt terrifyingly young. Of all the cons I do (and I have done many, over the years) this was far and away the oldest skew of any of them.
As for the panels—well, going through the program book, we had one on the fifties, one on the sixties, and either eleven or twelve—I lost count, I admit—on Robert E. Howard. I’ll just leave that statement standing there for a bit.
Now, before anybody gets their bowels in an uproar about ageism or about how we’re blaming fandom’s intransigence on old people, let me hastily say that this is a symptom, not necessarily the cause.
We will come back to SF in a minute, in fact. For now, let’s go on to my two other main fandoms, gardening and birdwatching.
Both of these hobbies skew older in a big way. Average ages tend to the fifties, and in practice, when I go to a birding hot spot, I can generally expect that I will be either the youngest person there, the second youngest, or that somebody’s got really well trained children. Birders are usually OLD. The only difference between a bunch of avid birders and a bunch of Worlcon attendees is that one group is wearing binoculars and tends to be in marginally better physical shape. (Again, this is not a reflection on the nature of fandom. If panels occurred on the tops of mountains or the middles of swamps, we might see a similar trend.)
The primary difference, I’d say, is that there are marginally more female birdwatchers, according to the survey I looked up for the purposes of making my point. Otherwise they also tend to be overwhelmingly white*, tend to a somewhat higher than average income, and incidentally are overwhelmingly married.
In gardening, I couldn’t find a good analysis of the racial demographics, but as garden bloggers go, I am on the young end of the spectrum. There are more women. The bloggers tend to be white—this may or may not reflect the demographics of gardening so much as blogging. Certainly the impression of gardeners tends to be of little old ladies with sun hats and dirty gloves.
I have been told, by the small subset of gardeners who read my gardening columns that aren’t already fans, that they admire my “punk-rock” style of gardening. (I have no idea what this means, but I assume it’s a sort of “you’re a weirdo who swears a lot and your bio pic has dyed hair, but your heart is in the right place” thing.) Definitely there is an impression that I am young, and a little out there, but that’s okay.
Now, somebody’s going to yell that birding is nothing like SF fandom, to which I say “Uh-huh. I travel around the country, running into some of the same people each time, doing an obscure thing most people think is really weird and geeky, which involves specialized knowledge and equipment and has its own lingo, dedicated almost entirely to the art of collecting one weird thing. (Bird sightings.) Then we all get together and compare our collections, engage in friendly one-upsmanship about Who Has Seen The Weirdest Thing. Then we tell stories about funny things that happened relative to acquiring said sightings. There are high end fans. There are obscure rules. New sourcebooks come out regularly. We judge each other for unethical behavior. There are clubs and organizations. We feel strongly about it.”
You tell me that’s not like fandom. Go on, do it. Tell me how different it is to stand in line to be at the midnight showing of Star Wars vs. getting up at 3 AM to be at the dawn chorus for the Colima Warbler. Tell me how your specialized knowledge of Lord of the Rings is wildly different than my specialized knowledge of the Ringed Kingfisher. Tell me that my comfort reading of The Essential Earthman and yours of Earthman’s Burden are different. Do it.
Then please hold while I laugh at you. It will take a few minutes for me to finish, so you might want to make a cup of tea.
Gardening? Sure. We have flame wars, did you know that? Oh, we do. Talk to terribly nice people about butterfly bush being invasive and some of them will try to take your head off with a trowel. People have screamed at me for saying that mimosa trees are an invasive thug. There are wars fought over hybrid tea roses. I put my nose up snobbishly at the Stella d’Oro daylily, the Mourning Dove, and people who think Heinlein was the Greatest Author Who Ever Lived, in more or less equal measure.
In fact, my dear doubting reader, as far as age goes, my other two fandoms outrank SF fandom. Audubon’s first volume of Birds of America came out the year before Jules Verne was born. There were fortunes made and lost on collectibles in gardening long before any SF writer was a twinkle in his great-grandfather’s eyes.** SF fandom led to all sorts of scientific advances? How about Mendel and his pea plants and, y’know, genetics? How about the advances (some of them dangerous and disturbing) that arose from learning to extract nitrogen to make fertilizer to bring in a potentially dystopian world of too many people who, nevertheless, we still more or less manage to feed?
These are fandoms. These are people who act like fans, which is to say that they act like people, because much as we’d all like to pretend we’re special and different, we all do pretty much the same things, which is get together with our friends and find things to be excited about and bitch about stuff we think is stupid and go to daggers drawn over relatively insignificant details that an outsider would find really, really ridiculous. The difference between me in a used book store and me in a garden shop and me in the hill country with binoculars is mostly a matter of sunburn and what will eventually need to be watered.
Having said that.
The problem of Worldcon, sez I, and of a subset of SF fandom in general is not that it is full of old people. All my fandoms are full of old people. So far, it hasn’t been a problem. They’ve generally been glad to see me, and I’ve been glad to see them. The guy with the scope who got me my Elegant Tern was probably a contemporary of Jules Verne, and the guy who patiently got me onto a Cerulean Warbler in High Island was weathered like a megalith. And I would put any curmudgeon in SF, no matter how legendary, up against the late Henry Mitchell, who would have turned them into mulch and planted daffodils amongst their bones.
No, the problem is that it is insular and intransigent and run by rules (Robert’s Rules of Order, ahem***) that favor the status quo over change. It is that it has problems, and one of the manifestations of that problem is that young people aren’t showing up.
I am not saying that Worldcon would be infinitely better if it was run by the young whippersnappers. I am saying get your shit together, because whatever’s going on is making sure there are no young whippersnappers. However old birders and gardeners might be as a clump, people are still showing up who aren’t eligible for AARP—and we are welcomed. Gracefully, not grudgingly. (And in fact, among gardeners at least, people under 35 finally caught up with other age groups pretty recently. Whatever they are doing, it is bringing in new blood.)
And also that maybe eleven (or twelve) panels on Robert E. Howard is…well, bizarre, anyway. You go to a garden show, there will likely not be eleven (or twelve) hours dedicated to a single cultivar from 1936. I’m sure Howard’s awesome and all, but does he merit eleven (or twelve) times the number of YA panels, total?
A gaming section so small you could hide it in a matchbox is probably part of the problem. And the fact that we keep getting called “lady authors” is a problem. (We do not call female birders “lady birders” or female gardeners “lady gardeners.” That would be stupid. Other fandoms know this.) Maybe contempt toward all these “media awards” at the Hugos is part of the problem. (Birders, for one, embraced technology hard and fast. We spent the entire trip through hill country on our Sibley apps, checking eBird, which pinpoints the GPS coordinates where a bird has been sighted. You invent a better, lighter pair of waterproof binoculars and birders will fling money so fast it’ll look like a blizzard.)
Maybe an anemic dealer’s room with All The Same Stuff, And Too Much Of It is part of the problem. Gardeners like new stuff. They like old stuff, too—I bow to no one in my love of many heirloom plant breeds, and I plant them for a sense of history and continuity, and don’t get some people started on how much better the old narcissus bulbs were—but you only have to flip through a catalog for “NEW NEW NEW NEW NEW and also NEW!” Birders like new stuff—or dread it, occasionally, as the word comes down that science has now split the Winter Wren into two different species, the Pacific and Winter, and now we have to go find one or the other—but if there are birders going “Damnit, Winter Wrens were good enough for me as a boy, and they ought to be good enough for anybody! I won’t acknowledge the Pacific Wren! That’s stupid!” I have somehow missed it.
Three largely gray fandoms.
In two, I’ve always felt intensely welcome. Total strangers have showered me with cuttings, patiently walked me through fieldmarks on birds that were (to them) extremely common, and cheered with me when I saw a new bird for the first time. Birders will routinely let total strangers sit in their garden to get a rare bird that has showed up at their feeder. Gardeners will spend hours hunting through guides to figure out what kinds of weird flower you’re looking at.
In the third, this past weekend, I sometimes felt like an archaeologist looking at the ruins of a dying civilization. And I love SF fandom. And I want better for it than that. Birding and gardening, as Kevin points out, do not require a secret handshake.
We have got to do better than this.
*The only minority group with equal participation was Native Americans, interestingly enough.
**If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re clearly too young and obviously don’t know the SMOG handshake. Pffeh. Go ahead, ask. I will shame you for your ignorance, then perhaps condescend to tell you. Maybe. If you’re lucky.****
***”Never get involved with people who fetishize Robert’s Rules of Order,” says my friend Dave, who has been in fandom long enough to know people that were old when I was born.
****Yes, I am joking, and yes, it’s the Dutch Tulip thing.
So let me get the really huge awesome amazing stuff out of the way first—my buddy Mur Lafferty won the Campbell Award!
Seriously, I was terrified. This was her last year eligible and I really wanted her to win it, and not just because she has driven me to the airport at 6 AM before. More on that and LoneStarCon to follow.
So I went out to Texas Hill Country with my buddy Tina to go birding, a few days in advance of LoneStarCon (this year’s WorldCon location) and we had an awesome time. Texas Hill Country is legendary among birders for the sheer variety that show up there. Sadly, it was August, which means that there were far fewer birds than most other times of the year, and also that it was MISERABLY HOT.
Nevertheless, we saw 77 different species (and bear in mind that this was an incredibly low number for the area!) 20 of which were new life birds for me.
Now, because somebody always asks, I keep what’s called a “life-list.” It notes the different bird species I’ve seen in my life. It stands at 412 at the moment. This is respectable, if not terribly impressive. 378 of those are what are known as “ABA birds”—birds I have seen in North America and thus eligible for the American Birding Association’s check-lists. Tina’s ABA list is over 600, which is well beyond respectable and puts her into a rarified class of birder. She’s a shameless twitcher, will drive twelve hours to find a rare bird blown in from Asia, and is generally hardcore.
We go birding with each other regularly because I have “freakish eyes” (in her words) and can spot birds, even if I usually have no idea what I’m looking at, and then she can tell me what they are. After I managed to spot a perching common nighthawk, I am forced to admit that she may have a point. (Google them. They are bark-colored lumps of weird.)
We spent quite awhile in pursuit of the endangered black-capped vireo, which sadly eluded us. (Well, August…) At one point, chasing this bird, we went to Lost Maples Park and headed for a trail that supposedly was heavy with vireos. The ranger looked at us dubiously, looked at our footwear, and said “It’s…steep.”
Now, the night before, to digress a bit, we had gone to the Frio Bat Cave, where a charming ranger took us up to the bat emergence. This is the second largest concentration of mammals in the world, over 10 million Mexican free-tailed bats, but because of the drought, it was a slow year. Many bats had already migrated. We didn’t expect much…
…but good lord, did we get it.
More northerly bats, migrating south, had apparently stopped at the Frio Cave, replenishing their numbers. (The ranger was very pleased.) We were the only two tourists there, and we sat in profound astonishment while waves of bats poured out of the cave and passed a few feet over our heads. I have never experienced anything like it. The band of bats snaked through the sky, going on and on, looking sort of like the Milky Way in reverse—a thick strip of black specks on deep gray sky, all the way to the horizon.
It was a bit like the Grand Canyon. You had a sense of such extraordinary immensity that you knew your mind wasn’t able to hold it all. I cannot parse 10 million. Hundreds streamed over my head every second and hundreds more and hundreds more and eventually the first bats were lost in the dusk and they were still coming out from the cave without slowing. To say it’s a wonder of the natural world sounds trite, but it’s the only thing I can say that makes sense. I can’t wrap words around it hard enough to make anyone else comprehend it. I stood right there at the cave mouth and I couldn’t comprehend it. It was one of the biggest things I’ve ever seen.
And also they didn’t have restrooms, and I got a lifer black-throated sparrow while I was communing with a friendly bush over the hill. So there’s that.
Anyway, getting back to the original point about vireos and this slope, our ranger—who was a volunteer firefighter and did cave rescue and had about 4% body fat—told us how miserable this trail up to the vireos was.
He may have understated the case.
It was brutally steep, which we could have handled; brutally hot, which was harder; and the surface was made of loose, ankle-breaking scree. We got up three switchbacks and Tina had to call it. I was grateful. Coming back down was wretched, trying not to turn ankles, fall, and slide all the way to the bottom. No vireos.
We birded from the car a lot after that. And also saw The Most Terrifying Insect In The Whole World, but that deserves a separate post of its own.
At one point, sitting in the car studying several large bushes, I saw a vireo. So did Tina.
“It’s got white eyes!” she said.
“No, dark eyes!”
“It’s got yellow lores!”
“No, it doesn’t–those are white lores!”
And then we realized we were on two separate birds.
And then I flipped through the bird book and discovered that I was looking at something that was either a blue-headed vireo…or the endangered black-capped vireo we’d been hunting. And I had seen it and Tina hadn’t.
And I am already on thin ice after that bit with the Laysen albatross.
The reason that I am not a dead body in a ditch in Texas is because, fortunately for me, it was a blue-headed vireo. (Nah, she would have been happy for me. Mostly. Probably. Kinda.) Still a pretty awesome bird, I have to say, and I was pleased to spot it.
There was also the Incident With The River.
We were out, fairly late, in the dark, driving down a county road. It had houses and farms on it, but no lights. There were thick black shadows over the road. (We were, incidentally, looking for Chuck-widow’s-wills, but didn’t find one.)
At some point, as we drove forward, I looked up, saw one of those thick black shadows didn’t look…right…and yelled “SHIT! Water!”
Tina slammed on the brakes and we sat and stared at a river. Which was not on the map. Which was across the road. Which had no signs saying “Warning: Surprise River!”
Seriously, I know Texas is all about individual responsibility and all, but who lets a river go over a road without putting up a sign that says “Hey! River here! Might want to rethink your speed!” !?!
On Sunday morning at the con, we snagged Jeff from Sofawolf (also a birder. Actually, there were a lot of birders at the con, to our surprise—who knew it was so common in fandom?) and went out to a water retention area at a nearby park. It was hot. (Sensing a trend, here?) There were baby grebes, though, and a baby grebe is a heckuva thing. (Google it. Seriously. If you took a baby tapir and turned it into a duck, you’d have a baby grebe.)
We were in pursuit of the elusive olive sparrow for Tina. This bird makes a sound like a ping-pong ball being dropped on a table. It is a very drab sparrow, devoid of anything particularly interesting, and it likes to skulk around in the bushes and be skulky. Tina did not have this particular bird, and when you’re hitting the 600s, new life birds are hard.
We hiked to hell and back looking, got nowhere, got sunburned, and returned sadly to the car…and as Tina opened the door, there was a call like someone dropping a ping-pong ball on a table.
Jeff, of Sofawolf, is a forty-something guy from Minnesota, works in IT and furry publishing. I’m a thirty-something, tattooed woman from North Carolina, write children’s books. Tina’s fifty-something, Canadian, former dental hygienist. We three very different people froze and snapped our heads around in a synchronized movement as precise as any drill team.
The call came again, from a shrub partway down the road. (The call is coming from inside the bush!) We slunk toward it. And after several minutes of frantic whispering, we got on the bird. (Someone saw it. This is “getting on the bird.” You then try to get others on it. I should really do a post about birder lingo…)
It was…well, a drab bird. Not very olive, not very rufous, just enough of both to let us know what we were looking at. It made the call, it flitted away. We did the lifer dance. (Jeff captured this with his phone. Now Tina and I can never run for public office.)
So that was our birding trip, and it was awesome. Next time, though, I’m going in spring.