I’m on a train from Boston to New York after spending the weekend at Readercon, a sci-fi and fantasy literature convention. On this leg, I’m spread out at one of the cafe car’s diner booth tables and I’ve decided this is actually more romantic than the side-by-side seats.
Cons are weird. They are little suspended worlds of textured beige wallpaper and malnutrition where time works differently. Even if you travel across the country to go to one, you end up spending so much time in hotel lobbies and ballrooms, cut off from sunlight, free from rules about when it’s appropriate to drink. This was entirely book-centric and even the small dealer’s room was strictly selling the written word. It tempered the bizarre con effect, but not entirely. I’ve been to Anime Expo and SDCC and D*Con – those are truly flash cities. Unsurprising trivia: I’m a person who is uselessly upset that I wasn’t alive for a World’s Fair.
The last time I did a travel-diary-like-thing it started from a place of being disoriented in an unfamiliar territory that was kind of terrifying in its beauty, and beautiful in a way I didn’t have a foundation for. There is nothing terrifyingly beautiful about a chain hotel meeting room. I like hotels, though, or at least have enough Feeling about them to be worth self-interrogation. It’s not the same as how I feel about neon signs and diners but it seems related.
[My whole sign thing is that when I see huge neon signs – especially stacked on top of each other or with literal arrows underneath a giant C O F F E E or whatever – I feel like they’re trying access something different from just “ah, a coffee place, I acknowledge this info.” They’re pointing to some location in the conscious. They’re demanding me not to stop and get coffee but to respond from a more primal level where the memory is stored of what coffee is to you – routine, warmth, relief. Something like that.]
Hotels are caught in between trying to short cut to the memory store for home/comfort and luxury, which are often at odds with each other. Chain hotels in suburbs that do their trade in business trips and cons have better luck with the former. The restaurant in the Boston Marriott Quincy, which we were all more or less confined to for meals, had a section of the menu literally labeled “warmth.” (it was soup). It’s not my home, nor is it a thing that feels like home (“feels like home” being, I admit a bit sheepishly, an integral part of my brand of travel insight). Maybe it’s that I find the ways hotels usually fail or come just short of hacking into ideas of home and security endearing. They’re trying hard.
But take hotel beds. They go too extreme on the idea of comfort. They’re all soft and fluff and no support – prefab clouds. I always sleep too long and too intensely in these beds that by the time I pry myself out of their somehow oppressive plushness my back is screwy and I’m so drunk on sleepiness that it feels like having a fever. Intimacy also makes you physically lazy, so I sleep more with/around my boyfriend than when I’m alone. When you find a person or situation where you can drop some layers of pressure and psychic stress, it’s almost impossible to not turn into a useless, feline noodle. Maybe what hotel beds are trying to do is valiant, in their way. For travelers without homes, boyfriends, best friends, etc. to collapse into, maybe the hotel bed is trying to simulate that safety that lets us catch up on emotional rest.
I can’t write a travelogue during this like I could going around New Mexico. The scenery of the con proper is limited and more about people than a place. And can you believe that re: people I feel Complicated? Going to anime cons both as a fan and for work had its own associated neuroses but deep-diving into a subculture that I have almost nothing to do with or contribute to is a weird limbo. To the extent of my own self awareness I still don’t want to be an SFF writer even though I like it and even sometimes love it thanks to foolproof alchemy of “listening to someone you care about talk about their passion.” I even have Things to Say about stories. But I’m not in that racket, no.
This gives me an advantage in a way. I’m not starstruck or 1:1’ing myself with any particular literary figure. On the other hand, I feel like a dumb idiot and I worry that people think I’m like a child dragged along to a movie only their parents want to see, just taking up space. I’m not a valuable connection for people, which, again, is also a good thing: if people are acting like they like me, they probably do.
With everyone mashed up against each other in the same hotel bar, of different levels of fan and professional engagement but all hardcore, you don’t know whether a conversation you’re jumping into is just a conversation or networking or talking about the Craft, and that makes me nervous because I like to be in control of my expectations all the time. The bigger risk is that I feel it’s just not my social language, somehow. I do think I’m smart. I’m a smart girl but so many issues that I’ve let shape my life are about the external and physical. Even when it’s not necessary, I let the concern over taking up space as a female body that people do or do not think is attractive lead the way. I was never a Pretty Girl ™ but I’ve never learned how to carry myself like someone who is ultimately assured in their intelligence. It’s thrown into stark relief watching women who know how to move around like they are as smart as they are, to word it badly.
Seems like a lot to hold being afraid of taking up both physical and intellectual space at once, but it turns out I can do it!
I got to go to a friend’s first ever public reading, and part of that was a wonderful story involving ice cream. It was evocative enough that the idea of not eating ice cream immediately after was absurd. The nearest creamery was a 25 minute walk so we broke the con world barrier and once we got past the corporately nice hotel landscaping, Quincy, Mass. is actually pretty cute. I have never been to New England but the ramshackle sports bars and body shops uh…point to the “Ohio” location in memory, which I definitely, drunkenly referred to as the “home row of America” the other night. We went to a small ice cream place across the street from two barber shops and were served by a girl who was excited to be going to college in the fall, with an accent I’m not used to hearing in person. The walls were covered with retro tin signs and the kind of decorations you find in homes with pillows and spoon rests that say “live, laugh, love” on them. It’s not that I’m pointing this out with any sense of irony. I think it’s endearing. The ice cream tasted so good and it’d been so long since I ate full fat ice cream, and almost a year since I’ve put down an entire bowl in front of someone.
I think a lot about small towns and what it would be like to throw everything aside to live in one, even though it’s hard to imagine any kind of satisfying life for myself in the Mansfield, Ohios of the world. I miss being a kid who, if allowed, would eat ice cream in front of anyone and everyone daily. But mostly I miss how when I was young, I didn’t think of Mansfield as small. We used to catch fireflies in jars, but I also go looking for them in Prospect Park, so at least some things don’t change.
Note: people call sprinkles jimmies?? Who gave them the right to just…do something that cute?
[the details of the time slot that goes here are too complicated even for my bullshit personal blog]
Boston: We spent part of a day in part of Boston. We laughed a lot and I cried in a park but it ain’t New York.
Back to the train, though. Trains are the best of hotels and diners, on wheels and bolstered by the utilitarian glamour and nostalgia of industry – and of course hope and promise. Trains are catnip for someone who thinks the purest experience of happiness we can achieve is waiting for it to arrive.
Sometimes I still remember the ending of Pink and I feel things. pic.twitter.com/uc1WZDunly
— moé, but make it fashion (@mollyann_e) September 13, 2017
The coastline of New England is so beautiful, even with my itchy feelings about how it’s only me having a first-time here. It makes me think of how Milan Kundera wrote :
While people are fairly young and the musical composition of their lives is still in its opening bars they can go about writing it together and exchange motifs… but if they meet when they are older… their musical compositions are more or less complete, and every motif, every object, every word means something different to each of them.
When I was 17 and read The Unbearable Lightness of Being for the first time, I was constantly underlining it, to the point that I felt like it was a bible of interpersonal guidance. I underlined the above, too, because it seemed obviously true, but it’s not until now that I can fully appreciate it how strange that harmonizing and remixing and sampling can be.
Now speeding past harbors and port towns* definitely trigger the “feels like home” thing, but for whatever reason the Boat version of life seems to fit on an older person than the one with the van or the one who lives in a small town and has to drive to get to the store. So many of the big waterfront houses have two colorful Adirondack chairs in the yard. They are like the wooden signs in the ice cream place with sayings about the beach and gardening: twee for sure, but would we really reject such a preciously straightforward version of contentment if it were handed to us? I’m not so naive as to think that the people who sit in those chairs with glasses of wine in the evening are uncomplicatedly satisfied. We never really arrive, and maybe they have a lot of wistful inner monologues about the people on the trains going by.
*there is a town called Mystic, Connecticut. Mystic!!
People put so much pressure on how travel can change us and it rarely lives up to that cosmic hype, but I guess I got all I could hope for from a trip. I saw things I’ve never seen before, and I left feeling more rooted in things that matter, that were already there.
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