“I’d have already been at the wrestling show by now.” That might seem a slightly odd thought to have on a Thursday night, and especially one that might carry a note of disappointment and dejection, but perhaps not if, like me, you’re a veteran and regular at Dragon Con. I’ve been going, with at least some regularity, since about 2003. I took a few years off from it when I lived in California, when the travel and effort just felt like too much, but I’ve been at the last three in a row. In a sense, it’s a way I’ve marked the changes through my adult life, since it’s a yearly experience that’s spanned my life from the ages of 23 to 41, and every year I’ve gone with slightly different eyes.
If you haven’t been to Dragon Con, the easiest way to explain the experience is that it’s the only sci-fi/fantasy convention that’s truly multidisciplinary, participatory, and done in a spirit of sharing and community. Its headcount frequently rivals that of Burning Man (which is held at roughly the same time), and is the only con I am aware of where, in a single weekend, you can personally party with the cast of a TV show (whom you just met by accident), have a prominent author critique your writing, make 20 new best friends playing pickup tabletop RPGs, have an entry in a film festival, and lose in a robot battle to Grant Imahara. Just walking between these different events, you’ll see so many displays of human creativity being shared that you’ll be tempted to forget all about your desination and just watch. Every year, there’s been some magic moment. One year, that was meeting John Lewis, who was promoting a graphic novel based on the Civil Rights movement. One year, it was seeing my disabled sister-in-law go completely starstruck and lost when she got the autograph of an actor from Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.
One year, the serendipity of Dragon Con plopped me and my girlfriend (now my wife) right in the lap of a group of friends we’ve kept for nearly 15 years. This group of con regulars are some of the kindest and most creative people we know. Together, we had peak experiences at Dragon Con. We threw huge parties, met amazing VIP guests, and then retired from all that work to live our lives together. I’ve gone to 3 weddings from that group and sent gifts to more. Some of those weddings were entirely within that group, too. We’re basically all on this ride together forever now.
Right now, we’re all sad. Our annual “nerdy gras” has been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and we’re all missing one another and our beloved Dragon Con in our own way. But I’m missing something above and beyond all the costumes, all the spectacle, all the strange and beautiful moments that make up Dragon Con and end up making it special for everyone year after year. Sure…I miss all that, but there’s something more that I miss.
Dragon Con, every year, was a chance for me to try something new. That was really my goal every year– do something new. I’m built on sensation and experience, and i can have an incredibly short attention span. I spend significant effort keeping myself focused on what I should be doing almost all the year, and that leaches over into putting a great deal of my personal self off. I’m so focused on keeping myself practical that i don’t really make a lot of room for free and open play, frivolity, or pointless creativity. Dragon Con throws that into stark relief. It’s a place where you can stand around with a puppet on your arm and people will just walk up to the puppet and start talking to it. It’s a place where a midnight showing of UHF will somehow, inexplicably, come with free spatulas. And I never got to go to a midnight movie, so that sort of thing is the only facsimilie of the experience I’ve got!
Dragon Con and its sense of license to explore, play, and try is where I tried playing a tabletop RPG for the first time in nearly 30 years, and where I discovered I love the feeling of sitting around a table with friends creatively telling a story. It’s where I took a seminar lecture on the architectures of retrogaming machines and fell in love, again, with the game consoles and computers of my youth. Probably most personally, it’s the place where I took my first baby step into coming out as non-binary, as the gaming track offered pronoun stickers for my badge and I thought “Hm…this feels like a low-risk way to see if this feels right for me.” It did. I found a part of myself I’d repressed under years of “being an adult”, and it was waiting at Dragon Con. Those who know me well know I look different when I’m in the flow of the con experience. I’m weightless. Somewhere between an elf and a big kid.
And that’s really what I’m missing right now. It’s my annual dose of magic and the encouragement to let myself try and express and do things for the sake of doing them. Had there been no pandemic this year, I was planning on painting a miniature. Because, really, who could expect me to buy all the kit just to see if I like doing it? And I always say I’m a terrible artist, so all the more reason to lean into the discomfort and try.
Dragon Con’s got an online experience this year, and that’s all nice, but for the next few days, I’m going to do my best to make my own magic. I’m going to work on projects that have no point. I’m going to set up a new emulator on my retro arcade machine. I’m going to do NES coding. I’m going to build. I’m going to roll up RPG characters just to look at them. I’m going to watch a stupid movie that makes me laugh. I’m going to party with my family during AEW All Out, because we’d never miss a Dragon Con wrestling show, so we sure as hell are going to watch a big wrestling PPV. I’m going to chat and Zoom with my old friends and we’re going to remind each other that the magic will be there again someday, and until then, we’ve got to tend to those sparks in our heart so we’ll be ready to make, give, and receive that magic again.