Many Paths to Potlatch
by Andy Hooper
Potlatch was held at the University Plaza Hotel, a blocky building overlooking Interstate Five, which features an incongruous faux medieval interior motif that led me to refer to it as the "Tudor Nightmare Village" at Corflu Five nearly ten years ago. That was a fine convention, as was Potlatch Three, and several other events held there over the years. Walking back into the Tudor Nightmare Village, memories of all those great parties and programs came back to me and made me feel about as comfortable as I have at any con. If only we could pack up the T.N.V. and put it down in the center of a Worldcon . . . .
I arrived later than expected, because I had succumbed to a mad impulse to publish a fanzine for the convention about 14 hours before registration was scheduled to open. The Gafiate's Fakebook, as I eventually titled it, was a series of fanzine reviews cribbed from Apparatchik, with some expanded comments, and a FAAN awards ballot stapled to the back. I spent much of the evening forcing copies on everyone I met, with the observation that midnight Friday was the published deadline for valid ballots. Janice Murray later told me that at least 15 people had turned them in, and since I only made 60 copies, I felt like a 25% return rate was pretty impressive.
Another task which consumed part of Friday was following a path which Carrie had mapped out in anticipation of leading a walk through the neighborhood as part of Saturday afternoon's "nano-programming," self-organized informal programs which are a hallmark of Potlatch's participatory ethic. I found it a little ironic to be "participating" all by myself, while friends from as far afield as Belfast and Australia were presumably having a brilliant time back at the bar. A steady rain fell throughout the adventure, which caused the green "corrected" course I drew on Carrie's map to run and blotch badly. Did I really write: "2: SPHAGNUM GORILLA-DOG, 1.78 miles"? Neither party which followed the map over the next two days reported spotting a canine/primate/clubmoss hybrid, so the delirium may have been upon me by then.
Ah, but back to the convention. It was a revolutionary affair designed to delight every dedicated apparatchik. Potlatch concentrates on written SF, but does not perpetuate a class distinction between readers and writers. Authors such as Rod Garcia y Robertson and Suzy McKee Charnas, and editors like David Hartwell and Rachel Holmen, just show up and pay their money like anyone else. Local comic creators Donna Barr (The Desert Peach) and Roberta Gregory (Naughty Bits) were both around Friday night, and I'm pretty sure that not too many people knew who they were, even though Donna, in her signature broad hat, came as close as anyone to wearing a hall costume.
Anita Rowland's con suite was well-stocked all three nights, and aside from some panicked calls from the hotel asking us to please stop talking in the halls on Friday night (some front desk genius had placed some people undergoing treatment at the University Medical Center uncomfortably close to the party), it was an unqualified success.
The program began at ten the following morning. There were four scheduled major events for Saturday, and I made it to the first and last. David Hartwell led Robert L. Brown, Molly Gloss and Stephanie Smith in a mannered discussion of "Victorian Utopias." The panelists all had wide command of the material considered, but I didn't hear anything that struck me as especially surprising. The last half-hour of open discussion and comment was more lively, rather as if everyone was finally waking up as the hour approached noon.
Before going in to the panel, I had stopped near the registration table. Sitting out with the freebies were copies of the fanzine G–tterd”mmerung, confirming that Tommy Ferguson had arrived. Even if he had not been wearing a T-shirt advertising an Irish Pub, I think I might have been able to pick him out in ten seconds. It wasn't just the haircut, or the pallor acquired by enduring a Toronto winter; it was his glasses. They looked like Tommy might have lifted them right off of Anuerin Bevan's face in about 1938.
Anyway, after first panel ended, I introduced myself to Tommy, and we retired to the con suite to talk through the rest of the morning program block. While others were discussing computer viruses, the role of single malt scotch in fantasy and Delany's protagonists, Tommy and I took advantage of the opportunity to leave the hotel and walk around in the pouring rain for an hour. I headed down to University Way to look for a last CD or two for the dance; Mr. Ferguson followed along, and allowed me to demonstrate that even the cheapest Chinese food in Seattle, is better than 97% of Chinese restaurants in the U.K.
On our return to the hotel, Tommy went looking for the gym, while I took the grand tour of the Dealer's room, which was actually smaller than the con suite. A half dozen book sellers had crammed their tables into the room. The material ran toward collectible editions and expensive used paperbacks, but David Hartwell had one copy of Howard Waldrop's new book Going Home Again from Australia's Eidolon Press. By the end of the weekend, I was afraid the constant drooling was going to damage the book's finish . . . .
The final program of the afternoon was worth waiting for: Mr. Waldrop, Eileen Gunn and Ellen Klages discussed the Giant Rat of Sumatra as an introduction to great unwritten works of literature, which at least two of the panelists had dragging along behind them like a revenant's chain. As usual, the verbal gifts of those three panelists would have been sufficient to sustain a panel discussing dental hygiene, but with a topic which so thoroughly captured the imagination of the audience, they were lucky that we ever let them leave.
Saturday evening is slightly blurry to me. The monthly Vanguard fan party was held at Potlatch on Saturday evening, but I don't know who was there; I never got back up to the room. As soon as I got back from a brief dinner with Spike Parsons, Carrie Root and Karrie Dunning, Jerry Kaufman and I began trying to set up the sound system for the dance.
I had Jerry Kaufman's amp, speakers and CD player, while we have jury-rigged a connection with another CD player borrowed from Kate Schaefer and Glenn Hackney patched through the recording input channel. As soon as we got the system set up, I began trying to figure out which channel was which, and the delicate ballet of cue, pause, play, switch and volume adjustment that would command my attention until midnight. I screwed up a few times, and the "pause" button on one of the players had a disturbing tendency to act like "play" instead, but people seemed to have a good time. The hotel staff certainly did; they were bopping quietly at the edge of the room, and one of them asked me if I had any Duran Duran to play for him (I ought to observe that they were all very helpful and nice; Suzle Tompkins has been working with the University Plaza staff for so long and so well I keep thinking they'll try to hire her). I even got people to dance (well, a little) to a Massive Attack remix of Nusrah Fateh Ali Khan's "Mustt Mustt." I always say, if you can get people to dance to Pakistani devotional music, you must know what you're doing.
When the dance ended, it was about time to turn the revolutionary watch over to the late shift. I hung out in the con suite for a while, but the cobwebs were creeping in around the edges. I remember talking about the Mariners' prospects for 1997, the beauty of certain late 18th century Czech string quartets, and the origins and great eras of Seattle fandom. It was 2:30 by the time I left, and the con suite was starting to clear out, but lots of people held on much longer than I did.
There were three big events on Sunday, the brunch buffet, a reading by Howard Waldrop and the Clarion West benefit auction. The banquet was sold out by the time I decided I might like to get a ticket, but the Waldrop reading was hard to resist. Being so close to the con actually worked against me there; while there was never any question of spending the money for a hotel room so near to home, but to walk down to the hotel by noon, I'd have to get up by ten. Carrie would have given me a ride, but she was meeting some people for yet another nine am walk. I ended up having to stop and cough up a lung in the Aurora Avenue viaduct, which made me a little late; but of course, as I walked in, everyone was staring glumly at their used dishes as the staff drifted slowly around the room to clear the tables.
Howard had not stayed up all night writing a new story as he had often done in the past. As he put it, the new story he was working on would "change human consciousness forever," and as such, it did not seem proper to rush such a powerful process. Besides, he said, "I'm fifty and a half years old now. I don't do all that stuff I used to do." So, we were treated to an almost entirely new story, titled "Mr. Goober's Show," which he had completed for Swancon last month. It begins with a Jean Shepard-like evocation of bar conversation about forgotten TV shows, then leaps back in time to link a little-known part of America's technological history and a chance encounter with something not of this earth. Waldrop spans 40 years with brief epistolary passages, and says some very powerful things about how we'd feel if aliens really did contact us personally. To me, it was the climax of the weekend, and a fine addition to the Waldrop canon.
After the Clarion West auction, the effects of limited sleep across the weekend started to catch up with me. I still had the energy to stride out purposefully with Sheila Lightsey, who wanted to see the "waterfront." Unfortunately, only Lake Union was within walking distance; while this provided a gorgeous view of the downtown skyline in the setting sun, Sheila was slightly disappointed to hear that we were a canal and a set of locks away from salt water, and probably sixty miles from the open ocean. We trudged virtuously back up the hill to the hotel, and this little jaunt put me just under 20 miles walked for the weekend. This made it easy for me to agree with Carrie when she asked if we could go back home early, and I have to admit I didn't miss that staring, half-sleep feeling that characterizes most dead dog parties. I must leave it to others to comment on the long death throes of the weekend.
On the whole, this seemed like a slightly less elaborate and lavish event than Potlatch Three, the last time the convention was held in Seattle. Various Bay-area fans could be heard making plans to blow everyone's doors off at Potlatch Seven. But I was quite satisfied with my weekend. Any time a large number of my friends want to fly and drive across the country to hold a literate, generous and well-behaved relaxicon a few blocks away from my home, I promise I'll be there, especially if baseball season hasn't started yet.
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Next article: Potlatch Snapshots, by Randy Byers.