Thursday is Resource Day

The absolute best thing about February, other than that it’s blessedly short, is that it’s a good month for planning and organization. The Christmas holiday season is over, everyone’s recovered from that stress, and one of the better ways to fend off cabin fever is to plot out the next few months’ activities. In our house, that mostly involves upcoming shows and events, especially now that the Czarina went freelance at the end of last year.

Triffid Ranch booth at FenCon X

Among cohorts, “So when’s your next show?” only yields to “So what shows are you thinking of doing?” when it comes to talking shop. Anyone doing trade shows, conventions, or art shows asks the same questions. Sometimes, it’s because the person asking it wants to wander around as an attendee instead of as a vendor, and wants to hear some options. Some want to expand into new events and venues, and need options in order to make an informed decision. Some want the war stories, so they avoid wasting time, money, and energy on a waste of a show. And others just want to compare notes. Either way, in these tight economic times, we’re all looking to minimize the risks: the last thing any of us can afford is to get stuck with another FedConUSA, so we share information as best as we can.

I’m often asked by people why I show plants at science fiction conventions, and I can say with complete honesty that it’s because of the crowds and the scientific leanings of said crowds. Within people who regularly attend such conventions, they ask how I choose paricular shows, and I admit that science goes right out the window when I go for gut instinct. I also warn that my opinions shouldn’t dictate another vendor’s decision. Oh, I can name at least a good dozen factors with shows and events that trip my internal alarms, but what might set off my gag reflex might set off another person’s salivary glands. Some folks prefer the thrills of first-time shows, while I’m extremely cautious about any event that doesn’t have, at minimum, two years of history. I’ve had extremely bad experiences with “charity” events, but just because I didn’t sell a thing at the event and received no support from the organizers after my booth fee check cleared doesn’t mean that someone else might do well. There is one factor, though, that I warn everyone in the trade show and art venue circuit to avoid, and I can sum it up in all of two words. Just two.

You’re going to laugh.

Unless you’ve been exposed to this before, I know you’re going to laugh.

The only reason you won’t laugh is if you’ve been a vendor at a show where these two words were a major part of the promotion. If so, you’re too busy screaming in rage and horror.

Those two words? “Live DJ”.

Now, to start, this isn’t a slam against actual DJs. We’re talking the DJs who regularly play clubs and intermissions between live music events. I have nothing but respect and love for my friends who do this for a living, on everything from hiphop to electronica, because much like standup comedy, I know hard it is and how I don’t have the skills for it. One slightly mistimed song, or one that breaks a theme that’s lovingly kept people dancing for the last hours, and you’re done. The good ones know why they’re there, and know that if they have a reputation for being one of the Good Ones, it’s because they understand their audiences, and get a thrill out of a venue that’s packed to the gills.

For years, I used to complain about the loudness in most clubs, and how it made communication in anything other than text message or semaphore flag nearly impossible. Of course, I talk too much, so for me, anything that inhibits my twenty-hour vowel movement crimps my style and threatens my reputation. A DJ friend explained to me, though, that a club environment that’s too quiet is a club environment that’s crashing. The main source of income for most clubs comes from alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks, preferably consumed in mass quantities, and talking gets in the way. The standard volume in a dance club precludes small talk, so patrons have one of two choices: drink or dance. You drink, you feel full of confidence, and you get out on the dance floor. You dance, you get tired and/or dehydrated, and it’s back to the bar to get more fuel. If alcohol isn’t your thing, then most clubs carry lines of various energy drinks that both encourage dancing and offer enough of a markup to be profitable. When you either run out of energy entirely or meet someone that encourages a different use of that energy, the idea is then for you to get out of the way, since you can’t just sit around and talk, and make room for newcomers who bring in additional revenues for the club owner. Turn down the music and you destroy that dynamic, and the club eventually changes the locks and puts out a “For Lease” sign.

Now, consider this dynamic with any kind of retail venue. Even the local Hot Topic turns down the volume to a dull roar, because customers and retailers need to be able to communicate. Ever notice that auto dealerships and optometrists don’t have DJs playing every day? That’s because the salespeople working those markets need to be able to communicate nuance: what this product does for you and how it’ll do it, and that’s absolutely impossible when screaming.

That’s one reason to avoid any show or event with lots of loud music, but that isn’t foolproof, either. Many live music events have vendor spaces out front or along the edge, but the organizers (the good ones, anyway) understand the need for customer communication. That’s why, at the big downtown music festival, the vendor booths are all along the edge. About the only ones close to the speaker stacks by the stage are those where customers are happy to point and throw money, such as for T-shirts. In those sorts of events, even the food vendors are further on out, both to avoid the crush of bodies and to hear a customer’s requests.

No, the other reason why I run screaming from any event that advertises a “live DJ” is that, without fail, none of these ever have a real DJ. Without fail, it’s always someone who thinks that being a DJ would be such a cool opportunity because it’s a job that doesn’t entail work. The costume is identical: plaid shortsleeve shirts over an “ironic” pseudo-vintage T-shirt, Cory Doctorow birth control eyeglasses without lenses, moustache and beard that resemble a kid’s attempts at learning to blow bubble gum on a dusty playground. The Target-purchased trilby that he insists is a “fedora”. Ex-girlfriend’s jeans and filthy Converse sneakers. Oh, and a smirk that only the wearer’s mother would think was cool. The idea here isn’t to get people to dance: it’s to shove the DJ’s musical tastes or lack thereof down everyone’s throats. fresh from the DJ’s brand new MacBook Pro. Odds are, he’s spent months nagging everyone he knows about being given a chance to play something other than his little sister’s birthday party, and he’s been given this opportunity so the organizer’s phone is no longer full of pleading and whimpering.

So here’s what happens at any kind of trade or craft show where this noxious pest is allowed to hold court. Crowd piles in, and he starts up his carefully crafted playlist of Nineties-era whiner rock. The crowd gets comfortable, asking vendors questions, and the sussurus of conversation starts to overwhelm the godawful music, so the DJ turns it up. The crowd gets louder in order to be heard, and the DJ gets louder still. By this time, the DJ is already flummoxed that passersby aren’t throwing undies at him instead of noting the chorus from Beck’s “Loser” and asking “So…is that an offer?” The music gets even louder, and any request, civil or otherwise, to turn it down is met with verbal negatives or hand gestures. By this point, the crowd leaves, the vendors are nearly homicidal, and the DJ cranks up the music even louder to impress the cute girl on the opposite side of the venue. (She isn’t paying attention: she learned years ago how to block out lousy music at college parties.) Finally, the music finally stops when the vendors pack up and leave or when the organizer literally pulls the plug, leaving our DJ sobbing “You people are so RUDE!” as he stomps off.

“And how many times have you had to deal with this?”, you may ask. Well, let’s just say that this is why I’m so leery of first-time shows until I can wander the grounds as a potential customer. I escaped before the Creed retrospective got too thick, and I’ll also note that with every show that featured a pantomime DJ of this sort, the organizers never had a second show, mostly due to vendors bringing up some variation on Proverbs 26:11. Correlation may not equal causation, but I like to call this “dodging a bullet”.

The News:
Because I raise and sell carnivorous plants, I’m constantly exposed to the misunderstandings among the general public about what carnivorous plants do. I understand the apprehensions among kids about getting close to Venus flytraps: all they know about the plants is what they’ve seen on television and in the movies, and that’s generally not positive in the slightest. After years of seeing CGI flytraps that swing back and take chunks out of the unwary, they’re understandably concerned that the flytrap won’t pull itself out of the ground and chase them down the hall. At the very least, they see the trapping hairs on the edges of a flytrap leaf and assume that they’re sharp, so I regularly explain “Want to get an idea of how strong those hairs are? Reach up and touch your eyelashes. That’s how strong they are.” I did this once in a school lecture, and even the “too cool for this” kids were surreptitiously reaching up to check it for sure.

The biggest one, though, is a regular complaint among the carnivorous plant community, and that’s the automatic assumption that these plants will magically wipe out every insect and other pest within the time zone. I’ve complained about this before, where I gently have to explain that no, a berm of Venus flytraps around a house won’t act as a deflector shield against invading arthropods. As with the kids, most of this is understandable, as [interesting plant] + [potential practical application] + [youth of customer] = [one hell of a lot more interesting than a potted mum]. It’s the people who won’t take the hint that asking the same question eighteen slightly different ways won’t give a different answer. And then there’s just the squick factor of oversharing of pest issues, such as with the hipster who came up to my booth last year, saw the word “carnivorous plants” in the banner, and yelled “Cool! Got anything that will control bedbugs?”

When it comes to dealing with insect and other arthropod pests, we’re losing, we’ll always lose and we lost the entire war the moment our distant tetrapod ancestors climbed out of Devonian rivers. I liken the efforts to keep our domiciles, our bodies, and our foodstuffs free of exoskeletal invasion with the efforts to keep your bike from being stolen when parked in public. If they’re determined, really determined, they’re going to get what they want, so the secret is to make their objective difficult enough that it’s not worth the time. This requires understanding the problem and the real solution as opposed to the hoped-for one, which often requires more study than glancing at the back of a can of Raid before blasting away and screaming like Bill Paxton in Aliens.

(A slight digression. Having a lot of friends in different fields means that I’m able to compare notes with people in all sorts of interesting avenues of study, and we all have the one catchphrase or movie quote that we have thrown at us day in and day out by people who think they’re the first individuals in the history of life on Earth to make that comment. Dentist friends hear half-remembered quotes from Marathon Man all day long. Antarctic researchers already know all of Lovecraft’s “At The Mountains of Madness” and John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing by heart, after having it quoted to them over and over. Contrary to popular opinion, dinosaur references don’t begin and end with Jurassic Park. Myself, I’m so desperately sick of Little Shop of Horrors quotes that I’d fall over dead from joy to get one reference to Bill and Josella Masen. Since I only know one entomologist, I’m constantly looking for new references, because I can only imagine that they’re nearly homicidal from years of Starship Troopers references yakked at them. It’s time for all of us to expand our cultural horizons, folks.)

This is why I’d like you all to meet Gwen Pearson of Charismatic Minifauna, who forgets more about insect, arachnid, and crustacean issues every night when she goes to sleep than I’ll ever learn. In particular, she’s constantly looking for new material on humanity’s war with the Class Insecta, including new Center for Disease Control warnings about the misuse of pest strips and injuries related to insecticides used for bedbugs. I’m not saying that reading one of her blog postings will eliminate your very ingrained and justifiable phobia of small critters with more than four limbs, but it will make you consider the why of your reactions to said critters. Also the “who,” but that’s a different story.

The Reading:

Three years ago, I was lucky and honored enough to have one of the best writing experiences I’ve ever had, by way of an article on carnivorous plants in reptile and amphibian vivaria for Reptiles magazine. Having been screwed over by some of the most aggressively incompetent editors in the science fiction community (Hi, Charlie Jane!), working for Russ Case and his stable of editors at Reptiles was a joy, only improved by getting a payment check exactly when promised. There’s very little about my old writing career about which I’m particularly proud, but that article for Reptilesthat is one I’ll cherish for a very long time.

In the meantime, I may have to get to work on further pieces. Reptiles and its sister magazines were recently bought by I-5 Publishing, and one of the first actions by I-5 was to update the magazine’s Web sites. Hence, not only is the new Reptilesmagazine.com easier to access and view, but the magazine itself is available in digital versions for phones and tablets, free with a standard subscription. My previous article isn’t available save for references, but it may be time for a revised and updated view based on new information.

The Store:
The Dallas area has a lot of interesting secrets, which usually have tiny hints that they even exist. One of those is the little storefront here in Garland at the corner of Plano Road and Walnut Street that simply reads “BONSAI” from the sign out front. On the weekends, it’s closed, with the parking spaces filled from the laundromat next door, so the joy comes from visiting the website for Dallas Bonsai Garden. Tools, supplies, soil, and whole plants, at remarkably reasonable prices, and if you live in the area, you can call in an order and pick it up to save on shipping. Of course, all orders over US$75 come with free shipping, so it’s completely your call. All I can say for sure is that I have plans for a hon non bo project that requires properly shaped ginkgo trees, so Dallas Bonsai Garden is going to be getting quite a bit of business from me this year.

The Event:
Finally, you have longrunning horticultural groups in Texas, and then you have the Heart O’ Texas Orchid Society down in Austin, running strong for nearly a half-century. I bring this up because the Society’s next Orchid Rodeo is scheduled for March 22 and 23, and I’ve needed a good excuse to visit Austin’s Zilker Botanical Garden and the Hartman Prehistoric Garden therein. Not only is flying from Dallas to Austin a superior experience to driving there, but this will be after the national nightmare that is SXSW. Win/win, all the way around.

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