The Fate of the Cow Palace

To many of us, the Cow Palace represents one thing: the Dickens Christmas Fair, where so many of us enjoy spending a good portion of the winter months, reveling in Dickensian England, surrounded by dozens of our closest friends and entertaining the public.

But Dickens Fair only takes up a small side-building of the Cow Palace, for just two months out of the year. The rest of the year, the Cow Palace remains a hollow shell of the grand gathering place it was in decades past. Chainlink fences separate it from the surrounding community, the gigantic parking lot is typically a desolate stretch of asphalt, and when niche events do use the venue, they give very limited contribution to the surrounding community.

Even the Dickens Fair doesn't really bring anything to the neighborhood as a whole. A few actors may pop over to McDonalds or KFC for a snack occasionally, but predominantly the money that the event generates stays within the chain link fence.

Now that the city is planning to buy the Cow Palace, level the existing venue and replace it with housing, shopping centers and a school. Things that the community desperately needs all twelve months of the year. They want to destroy the venue in which we've spent the past many years celebrating the holidays in an unparalleled manner. So our instinct is to resist, to fight back, to petition the city to keep the venue as it is, so we may continue out revels.

But please, take a step back. Look at the Cow Palace as a whole, instead of just our small portion of it. Look at the community that the Cow Palace is in the center of. Is it really the best possible use for such a huge plot of land? Should we really be fighting to save a venue that is out of code, out of its time, and out of sync with the neighborhood in which it resides?

The Dickens Fair didn't start at the Cow Palace. We can move our little slice of England to another venue and it will continue to live for decades to come. I urge you all to keep this in mind over the coming months. Instead of pouring your energy into "saving" something that's already showing signs of decay, why not instead pour it into finding a new venue for the event that we all love so much.

Don't fight to keep hold of the past. Look forward to rebuilding fresh for the next chapter of the Dickens Fair's history.

2006 Browncoat Ball – Postmortem

I originally posted this on the site. That domain is being passed on to the folks who run each year's ball, so I've backed it up here for posterity.

When the Chicagoland Browncoats accepted our pitch to host the 2006 Browncoat Ball in San Francisco, we knew we had our work cut out for us if we wanted to put on an event that would live up the 2004 Browncoat Ball in Chicago. This postmortem is meant to be a pragmatic analysis of the choices we faced, the decisions we made, what worked and what didn't, so the cities that are submitting pitches for hosting the 2007 and 2008 balls can maximize the effectiveness of their own planning processes.


In planning the second Browncoat Ball, the first question we had to face was "what is the essence of the Browncoat Ball?" What aspects of the 2004 event did we definitely need to echo in our event, which could evolve into something better, and which might be better replaced with something completely different. Below is a general outline of the philosophical decisions we made that guided our planning process.

  • The Browncoat Ball is Primarily a Fan Mixer
    There are many types of conventions and get-togethers. Some revolve primarily around meeting celebrities, attending themed panels, getting early glimpses at industry projects, or browsing a dealer floor full geek-related products. At many of these conventions, meeting and getting to know your fellow fans is a side note that occurs in small doses between events or while waiting in long lines. However, it is these interactions with our fellow fans that truly make these conventions memorable. The Browncoat Ball is the opposite of these conventions. Getting to know your fellow fans is the primary objective of the Browncoat Ball, and all other aspects of the ball should be arranged to further that goal.

  • Keep it Inexpensive
    The Firefly/Serenity fandom is incredibly diverse. Browncoats come in all shapes, sizes and tax brackets. This makes it possible for high-priced, exclusive conventions to be successful by targeting a small number of well-off fans. But as a fan mixer, the Browncoat Ball should be accessible to as many fans as possible. Ticket prices should be kept low, and the expected additional budget for each attendee (for food, shopping, etc) should be kept as reasonable as possible.

  • Everyone is a Fan
    Conventions that center around celebrity panels and signings create a separation between the fans and the celebrities, in addition to turning the event into a work day for the celebrities. This violates the fans-meeting-fans nature of the Browncoat Ball. Therefore, if any of the cast/crew wish to attend the ball, they should do so as fellow guests and not as hired celebrities. There should be no signings, no audience panels and as little pre-ball publicity regarding their presence as possible. If someone is coming to the Browncoat Ball specifically to meet a celebrity, their expectations will not match the theme of the event, so we'd rather they attend a celeb-centric event instead to achieve their goals. Any celebrity who attends the Browncoat Ball should be able to look back at it as a great party, not a day at work.

  • No Dealers Floor
    We all love shopping on the dealer's floor of mainstream conventions. But running a dealer's booth requires a great deal of time for the vendors, which means they will have less of an opportunity to participate in the social aspects of the event. Thus, having a dealer's floor would violate the spirit of the first two rules. We also want to make the event as financially accessible as possible to a large number of fans, and knowing that there will not be a dealers floor allows people with a lower budget to attend without feeling like they're missing out on something.

  • No Charity Drives
    Browncoats have a wonderful habit of turning just about every event into an opportunity to raise funds for worthy charities. As one of the first groups to organize one of these mind-boggling fundraisers, we get that. And we're incredibly proud of all of our fellow browncoats and their inherent drive to make the world a better place. But fundraisers take a lot of time and resources to run, which would again detract from people's ability to enjoy the social aspects of the event. And again, we want to keep the expected cost for the average attendee as low as possible, so it's best if we save our fundraising energies for events with a larger audience of potential donors. This is our weekend off. We can save the world next week.

  • There Will Be Dancing!
    The Browncoat Ball is a ball - the social event of the season. There has to be dancing, and it should be as elegant and fancy as possible, while still being accessible to the majority of fans. Those who want to dress up, show off their frippery and immerse themselves in an environment similar to that to the Firefly episode Shindig should be able to do just that. But those who don't feel comfortable dressing up or dancing should still feel comfortable attending and socializing.

  • History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes
    As the second in a series of annual events, the Browncoat Ball needs to retain the essence of the previous event(s), while still adding its own flair. It doesn't have to (and, really, shouldn't) be identical to the previous event, but people who attend both events should have their expectations met and be able to recognize it as an extension of the previous events, rather than a deviation from them.


Keeping these guiding philosophies in mind, we then tackled the event planning for the weekend, based on the outline of the 2004 ball.

Friday Night - Shuttle Service

In 2004, the Chicagoland Browncoats organized a shuttle service, where attendees could send in their arrival times and there would be a friendly Browncoat volunteer waiting for them at the airport to greet them and whisk them off to the hotel. We loved the idea of the shuttle service, but several factors conspired against us on that front.

Most of our local volunteers live in San Francisco proper, and therefore don't have cars. And the shuttle service was one of the things that we forgot to delegate ownership of until the last minute, so there just wasn't time to get all our ducks in a row. I would highly suggest adding this to future events, if possible, since it really makes out of town guests feel welcome and breaks down the shyness barrier (you at least know one person, once you get there). But you definitely need to have someone who is responsible for organizing this as their primary task, and not make it one of the minor tasks of a main organizer.

Friday Night - Meet And Greet Dinner

In 2004, the Friday night dinner was a Tea Party themed affair, help in an open-air patio at the top of the hotel. This was an opportunity for everyone to meet one another in an informal setting, so they could mingle and get to know everyone. We had intended for our Friday night dinner to be similarly informal, and chose the "dinner at Fanty & Mingo's" theme for the occasion. However, when the Empress of China showed us their amazing ballroom (which came free as long as we had something like a 50 person minimum), we couldn't resist.

This ended up adding a lot to the event (TWO full dinner/dance balls in one weekend? Sweet!!), but was also a bit of a drawback in some respects. While most people seem to have had a great time Friday night, some of the more shy people felt a little uncomfortable being in such a fancy environment with so many people they didn't know. Given this, I would suggest that if the Friday night dinner is as fancy as ours was this year, there should be some sort of get-to-know-you mechanism built in. Maybe it's as simple as having locals assigned as greeters, to seek out the shy folks and introduce them to a few people, or low-key meet-and-greet introductions at each table.

Saturday Afternoon - Boat Tour

In 2004, the Chicagoland Browncoats rented out an L train for a "train job." They had local guides lead a long line of people a few blocks away to the L station, loaded everyone onto the pre-decorated train for a rail tour of Chicago. Initially, we considered having the 2006 ball in Sacramento, so we could keep with the train job theme at the uber-cool Railroad Museum they have there. But it really isn't as enticing a city as San Francisco, and was too much of a commute for most of our locals.

In the end, we decided that what made the train job great was giving everyone a chance to see the city in which the event was being hosted, so we replaced the train with a boat tour of the San Francisco Bay. This gave us an even more extravagant way to see the city, and solved one of the main complaints we had heard about the 2004 train job. The sightseeing aspect of the train job was great, but the physical layout of a train car makes it very difficult to get to know more than just the few people sitting around you. The ship gave everyone a much more social atmosphere, where they could move around and meet a variety of people. Plus - bonus - cash bar!

Saturday Afternoon - Scavenger Hunt

We also chose to continue the tradition the Chicagoland folks started by having a photo scavenger hunt, as well as a physical scavenger hunt, to give people incentive to keep a lookout for local landmarks. We didn't have very many submissions for the contest portion of the scavenger hunts, however, so I'm not sure whether or not they are worth implementing again at future events. They're fun for those who participate, but they add to the logistical complexity to collect/collate everyone's submissions, and if you do a good enough job getting people to socialize with one another during the day, that's ultimately going to take precedence for most people.

Saturday Afternoon - Dance Lessons

One new addition we made to the Saturday afternoon schedule was dance lessons. At the 2004 ball, most of the scheduled dancing was of the modern variety, since not many of the Chicagoland browncoats were ballroom dancers. But the attendees from San Francisco (two of whom later became the organizers for the 2006 ball) spent an hour or so giving everyone some impromptu lessons on how to waltz and do a very simple group bonfire dance, and everyone loved it. And since we knew that there were a lot of closet browncoats among the San Francisco ballroom dance community, we knew we had to turn it up a notch and make ballroom dancing a central aspect of this year's ball.

With our Browncoat Ball organizers having decades-long roots in the local ballroom dance community, we were uniquely positioned to be able to add a ballroom flair to our ball. But we were lucky enough to have one of the most popular ballroom instructors in the area among our fanbase, so we were thrilled when Joan offered to give dance lessons and create her own Shindig-inspired Sir Warrick Harold dance for us. And we had far more men-who-can-dance than your average sci-fi gathering would have had. This was a smashing success, and I would highly suggest that future host cities get at least a few of their volunteers up to teaching speed in at least waltz and one "if you can walk you can do this dance" dance, since that really does separate the Browncoat Ball from every other club and high school gym dance that people are used to attending.

You can also take advantage of the precedent set by the 2006 ball in inspiring your attendees to learn to dance before they even arrive. We had planned to have a video podcast of in-character Companion Waltz Lessons, but we couldn't find volunteers to take ownership of that project. And our attempts to get global browncoat groups to take local ballroom lessons before the ball didn't meet with much success. But now that there are so many photos (and videos, once our 2006 Browncoat Ball Souvenir DVD is finished) available of people dancing and enjoying themselves at the previous balls, it should be much easier to capture the imagination of prospective attendees and inspire them to embrace the dancing aspect of the ball. Particularly the men. Just explain to them that learning to waltz is easier than it sounds, and show them the photos of all those gorgeous browncoat ladies who were wishing they had someone to dance with, and presto!  :-)

Saturday Night - Browncoat Ball

Saturday night is the main event. The Browncoat Ball itself. In 2004, the ball was held in a traditional hotel conference room, with maybe a 12' ceiling and a small dance floor. They had a few musical acts (like The Great LukeSki) to entertain us while we ate, and then a CD mix of mostly modern music to dance to. As previously mentioned, the organizers of the 2006 ball are regular participants of the San Francisco ballroom dance community, and have been so terribly spoiled by the semi-monthly Gaskells balls, monthly PEERS balls and bi-monthly Friday Night Waltz events that we simply couldn't settle for anything less. We fell in love with the dance floor at Empress of China, and seriously considered having the Saturday night ball there, but ultimately decided that it was important to have the main event within the same building as the hotel, since no one wanted to walk several blocks in their frippery, or worry about sending the kids back to the hotel without them if they got tired.

We looked at several hotel options before finding the Marines Memorial and their gorgeous Commandant's Ballroom. Most of them had adequate facilities, but were either way out of our price range or had already been booked in advance. This is one of the main reasons that we will be accepting pitched for both 2007 and 2008 this year, since the more advanced planning a ball committee has, the more hotel options will be available to them.

Ultimately, our Hotel choice had its plusses and minuses. The hotel itself was perfectly situated right next to Chinatown, had a gorgeous ballroom, beautiful rooms, a great hospitality suite, and was very reasonably priced. However, we did run into a lot of last-minute problems that we probably could have foreseen if we had asked them for more details before signing our contract. For any future ball committee, I would strongly suggest that you follow these guidelines before choosing your hotel.

  • Make sure you thoroughly understand the contract. Even before signing, ask them for a sample bill, assuming that you have the minimum attendance you would expect in a worst-case scenario. The biggest problem we faced with the 2006 ball was a vaguely worded clause in the hotel's contract that meant we had to pay about $2500 more for the hotel than we had expected. (The $9000 minimum only included the food, while we thought it included the food, bar, tax and gratuity - woops!).

  • Make sure they give you a sample floor plan of the ball space, as it will be arranged the night of the ball. The Marines Memorial told us that we could have as big a dance floor as we wanted when we toured the facilities. So when we gave them our final numbers, we asked for as large a dance floor as possible while still searing all of our guests. When we arrived that afternoon to set up for dance lessons, they had a postage stamp sized dance floor set up, and tried to charge us an additional fee to even expand it to the still-tiny dance floor that we ended up with. Ultimately, we did convince them that they could not charge us extra as they were actually giving us less than what they had promised, and most of the non-dancer attendees didn't seem to notice the difference all that much. But if you look at the difference in dance floor between the Friday (semi-formal) and Saturday (fancy-main-event) venues, you can understand how disappointed we were with what we got versus what the hotel promised verbally.

  • Make sure you get to visit the hospitality suite ahead of time. We discovered many things about the hospitality suite at the very last minute, and had to work around them. For instance, we did not know ahead of time that you needed a hotel card key to get to the floor the hospitality suite was on, which was quite inconvenient for local guests and guests who were staying in other hotels. It wasn't until we put on our first DVD that we discovered that the hotel TVs were rigged to only go up to 20 on volume, so the room full of people who were expecting to watch Firefly could see - but only just barely hear - what was going on. And I think the fact that there was no door between the bedroom and living room areas explains why our professional onsite masseuse got so few clients - that was a bit of a shocker.

We also learned a very important lesson about how hotels and restaurant differ. Our general requirements for the Friday and Saturday night events were basically the same (dinner and dancing for 150 people), but the expectations and behavior of the venues were very different. The restaurant's motivation was to sell 150 dinners, and everything else was just to add to the ambiance. Their prices were very reasonable, their staff was amazing, and they were eager to help in every respect. The hotel, on the other hand, was very much used to handling weddings, and didn't seem to know what to do with us. That said, we still think it is very important for the Saturday night event to be in the same building, or within a very short walk (maybe 1 block) of the hotel, for the aforementioned reasons.

Saturday Night - After Party

Invariably, the ball itself will end far too early in the evening. People will still want to party. Having a hospitality suite where people can retire to for a casual continuation of the festivities is essential. Having a variety of room parties for them to choose from is even better (the Fillionaires' Bordello room party in 2004 was legendary). And an organized outing can be great too, if it's close enough and has enough room for everyone.

Sadly, most of the Fillionaires were missing from this years ball, and none of the groups held their own room parties. But the mellow hanging out and pseudo-TV watching (again with the volume problems) was a lovely way to wind down after the ball. I heard great reviews from those who attended the after hours soirée at Swig, but it sounds like the room we had reserved there was too small to hold everyone who showed up, so it got hot/crowded/loud, and a lot of people ended up filing back to the hospitality suite, bit by bit.

Arguments could be made one way or the other on what types of events should be available after the ball (rowdy vs mellow, full-group vs smaller split-off groups, etc). The important thing is that there be somewhere for people to retire after the ball, so they can spend more time getting to know all the new friends they made at the ball. And the more accessible the alcohol, the better.


In 2004, Sunday was reserved for a general Chicago sight seeing day, and most people ended up using it as a travel day instead. This year we knew that most of our attendees were either locals or within a short plane ride, and we really wanted to extend the opportunity for everyone to spend more time to further build the friendships they had started at the Saturday ball, so we intentionally planned something that was enticing enough that it would get most people to attend, but still casual enough that the long-distance travelers wouldn't feel gypped for having to miss it as they flew home.

The Chinatown tour was the perfect compromise. We were a little surprised to learn that our little tour was the same weekend as the Moon Festival and the Folsom Street Faire (both of our main organizers live in San Jose, 45 minutes south of San Francisco, and were not aware of the dates for these hugely popular annual events), and given the opportunity to do it over, we might have scheduled the start time for the Sunday event a little bit later in the morning to give people time to recover from the previous nights festivities (noon is still a reasonable hour to start one's day, right?), but the reports we heard from most folks for Sunday's casual romp about town were positive.


The lack of a dealers floor and celebrity photo ops is part of what makes the Browncoat Ball unique, since it is purely a by-the-fans-for-the-fans event. However, that also makes it a little trickier to fund the event, since you can't rely on revenue from those sources. This section will concentrate specifically on the financials for the 2006 ball, to give future host cities an idea of how we funded our ball, and what might be considered to make next year's ball run more smoothly.

For the 2006 Browncoat Ball, we relied on ticket price as our sole revenue stream, and cut the budget as thin as possible to keep the ticket prices as low as we could. This would have worked fairly well if we hadn't misinterpreted that hotel contract. Below if a full breakdown of the income and expenses that went into funding the 2006 ball.

Ticket Sales $19441.38
Merchandise Profits $348.00
Cash Donations $80.00
Souvenir DVD Profits pending
TOTAL $19869.38
Saturday Night Hotel Event $11719.12
Friday Night Dinner $3550.00
Boat Rental $2962.75
Saturday Night Band $850.00
Blue Sun Room Rental $681.72
Bus to Boat $520.38
Promo Postcards $242.93
Gft Bags $210.00
TOTAL $20736.90


Once we had our event planned out and it was time to book our resources, we started by setting up a separate bank account and PayPal account specifically for the event. This is the same method we used for the Equality Now charity fundraiser we had run at ComicCon 2005 and it seemed to work fairly well there, so we went the same route for the 2006 Browncoat Ball. This worked well for us since we had a small organizational committee, but it also left our treasurer personally responsible for any deficit that might result.

Future committees might consider setting up a non-profit entity under which to manage the funds. However, you must make sure that you can pay for the venue fees using a credit card, as debit cards have a daily limit that will likely be too low to pay for your venue fees.

Security Deposits

Our first financial hurdle was to pay the $1000 deposits that were required by the hotel, restaurant and boat in order to reserve them for our chosen date ($3000 total). We did not have any seed money when we began our planning, so we solved this problem by putting the deposits on our treasurer's personal credit card and then reimbursing that amount from of the first of the ticket sales. At $150 per ticket, we only had to sell 20 tickets to cover this amount. This was accomplished within the first three hours of tickets going on sale (57 tickets were sold within the first 24 hours), so this was an acceptable way for us to fund the deposits.

Ticket Sales

For ticket sales, we created an online form which would collect the registration information for those who wished to purchase a ticket, save that information to a database, and then send the ticket holder a confirmation email with instructions on how to submit their payment. This worked very well for us, and could easily be repurposed to serve future balls (with a few small PHP/MySQL tweaks).

Since some people are not comfortable with online payments, we allowed payment by PayPal or by Check. For PayPal transactions, we asked that people pitch in a few extra dollars to cover the PayPal fees if they could afford to, since we were cutting our budget so thin, and nearly everyone did so. For check payments, the only problem we encountered were a few people who made their checks out to Browncoat Ball instead of to our treasurer, but ticket sales were far enough in advance that there was plenty of time to send these back and have them resend corrected checks.

While we were still in the planning stages, we set up a pre-registration form to see how many people would be interested in attending a San Francisco Browncoat Ball at a $150 ticket price. We didn't put very much effort into publicizing it, but we received 287 positive responses, so we figured hitting our 150 person break-even target would be easy. But as the event grew nearer, ticket sales hovered right around 100 without signs of an increase. Since the fixed price of the boat and hotel relied on a 150 person attendance to break even, that discrepancy would have left us several thousand dollars in the red, so we added single-day tickets to the mix to encourage more local attendance and offered a number of discount tickets on eBay to bring in more national attendees.

By scrambling at the last minute like this, we were able to drive the attendance up to 151 people, but due to the discount tickets and disproportionately low profit from the single-day tickets, that still left us a close to a thousand dollars in the red. This crisis could have been easily avoided by making ticket sales available earlier (tickets were not available until 6 June - only three months before the event), by increasing advertising on the web, through podcasts and at additional conventions, by developing additional revenue streams, and by allowing for a more conservative estimate when calculating the break-even attendance level.

Expenses Outline

The Friday night dinner was a per-person charged based on menu choices, with a very low minimum (50 people, I think) in order to get use of the ballroom for free. We had initially planned to go with the Flaming Baby Quail entrée, but were forced to downgrade to the still-delicious, but less flaming secondary option when the fiasco with the hotel contract put our budget in the red. Had we not had that problem, the Empress of China would have been a steal even at the slightly higher price point. You'll find that restaurants are much more willing to work with you than hotels, as they expect to get most of their money from the food they normally serve, whereas hotels are used to conventions and weddings, where catering and additional services are much more pricey. Ultimately, we had about 120 people in attendance Friday night, and paid $3500 total ($1000 deposit up front when we made the reservation, the rest paid via credit card at the end of the evening).

Chartering a private boat tour was a flat fee, with a maximum occupancy of 250 people. We paid a couple hundred dollars extra in order to have a cash bar on board (which was definitely worth it, considering how friendly browncoats are when they drink), which brought the total to $2962.75 ($1000 deposit up front when we made the reservation, the rest paid via credit card two weeks prior to the event).

We also decided that it would simply be far too chaotic to have everyone find their own way to the pier, 20 blocks from the hotel, so we chartered a bus to make two trips from the hotel to the pier in the morning, and one trip back to the hotel after the boat tour. This cost an additional $520.38. If attendance had been higher, adding a second bus for additional trips would have brought that amount up by an additional $300 or so.

The Saturday night ball was where we ran into budget issues. The way we read the contract, we got use of the ballroom for free as long as our total bill was at least $9000. However, what the fine print boiled down to was that we had to spend at least $9000 just on food, and the price for the cash bar, tax and mandatory 18% gratuity was taked on in addition to that $9K minimum. This meant that we would be paying for at least 151 people, even if attendance was only 100, which prompted us to add a lot of last-minute ticket options, offer far too many tickets at below cost, just to get something for those unused seats, and slim down our budget everywhere we could find room, to avoid getting stuck with a huge amount of unused-but-paid-for food. Ultimately, we ended up getting exactly 151 people in attendance (including 10 comped guests and about 30 at discount prices), for a total bill of about $11719.12. ($1000 deposit up front when we made the reservation, the rest paid via credit card at the end of the evening. We made the grim discovery that a debit card has a $3K/day limit, which lead to a fair bit of stress the night of the ball, and a few more overdraft fees than I'd like to admit to.) Renting the hospitality quite as a registration location and focal point for social activities was essential. We paid $681.72 for two nights, which brought our total amount due to the hotel to $12400.84.

Additional costs included $850 for Bangers & Mash (the band that played Saturday night), $242.93 for 2000 VistaPrint advertising postcards (distributed at ComicCon, DragonCon, and locally), and another $210 for gift bags, prizes, decorations, and the like.

The total cost of the Browncoat Ball was $20736.90 and the total income from ticket sales, merchandise profits and cash donations came to $19869.38, which left us with a deficit of $867.52. This deficit was due partially to our misinterpretation of the hotel's contract (which was roughly a $3000 difference, which would have left us with a healthy surplus) and lower than expected registration. By following the suggestions below, this should be a very simple thing for future host cities to avoid repeating.

Post-Ball Fundraising and the Carry-Forward Fund

The 2004 Browncoat Ball's budget resulted in a surplus of $948.72, which can be applied as a carry-forward to cover the deficit of the 2006 Browncoat, if necessary. However, we would very much like to make the 2006 ball self-funding, so that the carry-forward fund can be applied to future events. So we are planning one last potential revenue source to eliminate the deficit before we make the final decision on whether or not to rely on the carry-forward fund.

There are two aspects to the post-ball fundraising plan. The first is the ability for people to donate money directly through PayPal, which is something that several attendees requested. The other is to sell Souvenir DVDs, which will include everyone's video footage and high-resolution photos from the ball. We are still working on acquiring everyone's photos and videos for the DVD and working out the budget for how much they will cost to create. But our hope is that we will be able to create the DVDs for no more than $5 each and sell them for $15 each, for a $10 profit per DVD. If we are able to achieve this target, we would need to sell DVDs to 2/3 of the attendees to break even, but even if only 1/3 of the attendees purchased a DVD we will have cut our deficit in half.

If we still have a deficit after the DVD sales and PayPal donations are complete, we will use the carry-forward fund to make up the difference and the remaining amount will remain in the carry-forward fund for future events. If DVD sales and donations are positive enough to turn our deficit into a surplus, any amount that is raised above the deficit amount will be added to the carry-forward fund.


While the majority of the 2006 Browncoat Ball went of with amazing success, there were several things that we learned about how a future ball might be able to avoid some of the turbulence that we experienced. The following is an outline of the most important of these lessons.

  • Delegation of Responsibility
    The biggest mistake we made in planning the 2006 Browncoat Ball was relying too heavily on two main organizers, and not sufficiently delegating responsibilities for individual tasks to a wider group of volunteers. When we submitted our pitch to host the ball, we assumed we would have more than enough volunteers to act as lieutenants for various tasks, considering the past experience our group had in running fan tables and other events. What we failed to consider was that the group would still be active in planning other events during the same time that the Browncoat Ball was being planned, so our group's resources were spread too thin. The earlier you can get a large group of local volunteers organized, and the more you can run your committee like a small business, with responsibilities and ownership of various aspects clearly defined, the better your chances of success (not to mention avoiding burnout).

  • Additional Revenue Streams
    While we don't want the Browncoat Ball to lose what makes it special by adding a dealers floor and celebrity photo ops, there are still a few additional sources of revenue that can be pursued to help balance the budget and take some of the risk out of relying purely on ticket sales. Merchandising is one avenue that should be explored. The tshirts and posters that Adam created for us contributed $348 to our bottom line, and that was with them not becoming available for sale until shortly before the event (with barely enough time for some items to be shipped in time for the ball) and not having any on-site stock. Sponsorships are another avenue that we considered but did not have the resources to explore since the idea occurred to us so late in the process. Getting a small chunk of change from each of several geek-friendly sponsors (like QMX, Dark Horse, Margaret Weis Productions, Jason Palmer, or other Firefly/Serenity licensees) in exchange for promoting them on your website and/or printed material might be a nice way to supplement the budget without detracting from the quality of the event.

  • Advertising
    We had a lot of good ideas on how to advertise the event this year, but most of them either came too late to implement, or got lost in the shuffle when the main organizers became backlogged and were never executed. Postcards are a great way to advertise an event, but you have to be careful about deciding where/how you distribute them. At venues where there a lot of geeks who might not yet know about the ball (such as comic book stores and conventions) you can get a lot of publicity this way, but if the event occurs too close to the ball for people to make travel arrangements, if most of the people at the event will already know about the ball, or if the postcards are displayed on a table with millions of other fliers where they won't get noticed, this money could be wasted. Downloadable marketing assets (like fliers, web banners or LiveJournal icons) can also be useful, since they allow your potential attendees to spread the word for you among their own online communities and at their local comic book shops. Creative audio spots that can be played on geek-centric podcasts are another great way to get new attendees attention. The 2004 crew had several video "waves" on their website that they used communicate the flavor of the event, which were very enticing. You could even create your own podcast to keep prospective attendees in the loop on recent developments and get them excited about the event. We had considered producing a weekly video podcast of Companion Waltz Lessons to make it easier for attendees to learn some basic dance steps prior to the ball and add to the buzz around the event, but this too ended up falling through the cracks.

  • Be Financially Conservative
    Avoid being too optimistic about your attendance level. If you hold pre-registration to gauge interest before an event, you should consider requiring at least a nominal deposit to eliminate wishful thinkers from skewing your numbers. When planning various aspects of the event, identify items that can be cut or reduced should your budget be tighter than you expected (for example, having the option to downgrade for a premium menu to a mid-range menu). Hope for the best, but plan for the worst. And triple check your math.

  • Negotiating With Venues
    Be very specific when negotiating with vendors and service providers. Ask them for sample bills based on your agreed assumptions before giving a deposit, to make sure there are no unexpected gotchas in the contract. Ask them for a floor plan of the space you're reserving, including dance floor size and what costs extra (they tried to charge us $10/table at the last minute for centerpieces), to make sure that your expectations and theirs are in sync. Make sure you tour the facilities in person and pay attention to as many details as you can so there are no surprises. The same goes for any other relationships you may set up with third parties, be they sponsors, service providers or partners.

  • Ticket Sale Strategy
    Make tickets available for sale as early as possible - at least six months prior to the event date. This will allow people to better fit the ball into their vacation schedule and budget and give you more flexibility should you run into problems along the way. Single-day tickets are also very important if you anticipate there being a lot of locals who won't be able to make it to the entire weekend but would still like to take part int he event. Price them high enough that people have incentive to buy the weekend pass, but try to make them available as an option.

  • Well-Defined Schedule
    Several aspects of the weekend suffered a bit because we did not have a clear schedule printed up in advance. There should have been a welcome package that every attendee got when they signed in which contained times, locations and maps for all of the weekend's events. Instead, people had to rely too much on word-of-mouth and some last minute planning, and the Sunday Chinatown tour particularly suffered as a result.

  • Social Mixer Dances
    We can't recommend enough having a few social mixer dances that people can learn on-site before dancing. Saturday on the boat, lots of people asked if we were going to do the Haymaker's Jig again that night, since they loved it so much the first time. And Joan's Sir Warrick Harrow dance got an even better response. Ammy has volunteered to teach and call the dances at the next ball, if you would like.

  • Happy Hour
    Happy Hour at the hotel bar was a huge hit. Games of chinese checkers came out, and it was a nice social hour on the first night. Even if it isn't free in the future, we would recommend holding something similar again.

  • Love
    You can do all the math in the 'verse, but you take a boat in the air you don't love, she'll shake you off sure as the turnin' of worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down. Tells you she's hurtin' 'fore she keens. Makes her a home.

    In other words, if you're not having fun, you're not doing it right!


Red-Headed Grandchildren

I sent my mom a copy of Done The Impossible, so she could hear all about the charity fundraiser I worked my ass off on last year, and see some of the friends I made in the process. She loved it! And her first comment (after asking why I didn't get interviewed) was that I should marry Christina Hendricks. You know, my mom's taste in people for me to marry has really improved since college! :-)

She must really like her, too. The last time I told my mom about someone I had a crush on, she said I could only marry her if she'd send my mom flowers like Sarah did. (I still can't believe that was the first time anyone ever sent my mom flowers! She'll never stop loving Sarah for that.) But she says Christina wouldn't even have to do that. Just so long as she provided beautiful red-headed grandchildren. My mother cracks me up!

Then it occurred to me that I got a photo taken with Christina back at Flanvention. So now I'm emailing my mom the below photo so she can dream of beautiful red-headed grandchildren (and leave my brother alone about it for a while - he owes me!).

Flanvention Tidbits

It looks like my intention of writing an in depth review of Flanvention is going to end up in the same "good ideas gone wrong" bin that as my non-existent review of ComicCon. However, since I already dropped a teaser for Scott, and he could probably use a pick-me-up about now, I'll throw in something quick. I won't go into the panels too much, since they've already been thoroughly covered on the boards. But I did want to highlight a few things that were of particular interest to me, 'cause I was involved.

First, I have to say that the best part of the weekend for me wasn't seeing the cast or taking part in any of the official events. It was the browncoats. A while back, I wasn't even planning on attending the Flanvention, due to some drama I had been inflicted with (a long story that's really not worth telling). But after talking to Renee on the phone one night, I remembered why I had gotten so involved in this fandom in the first place: the people. Sure, I wanted to see the cast. But I needed to see my fellow browncoats again. Especially since this was the last event at which I knew for sure that some of my favorite folks would be in attendance. So I had to go. And I was not disappointed. I had a great time seeing everyone again, got to know a few people I had met at ComicCon a bit better, and even proposed marriage at one point (though, admittedly, only so I would have the ability to threaten Jen with divorce and deportation when she acts up). Good times. But on to the more report-worth bits of the weekend...

Surprise Guest Panelist: Shawna Trpcic

On Saturday, during the girls' panel, someone asked them if they had swiped anything from the set when Firefly was canceled, and Morena wistfully replied that she wished she had been able to steal some of Inara's costumes. So, of course, someone piped up and mentioned that Shawna was currently auctioning off four of Inara's dressed on eBay. Morena's eyes went wide, saying "really??" and then did a very cute "well, why didn't she tell me?" pout.

I couldn't resist a setup like this. I went to the back of the room where it was quite, called Shawna, explained what happened, and asked her if she'd like to talk to Morena. With Shawna on the line, I went back to my seat, waited for them to finish whatever question they were in the middle of, then shot up my hand to be next. Jewel called on me, so I stood up, held out the phone and said "Morena, I happen to have Shawna on the phone right now, if you'd like to talk to her." Again, she did that "What? No, really?" bit, so I ran up to the front and handed her the phone, with Shawna on speaker phone. The two of them chatted for a few minutes about the costumes, and Morena asked her how her babies were doing and such. Then Summer took the phone to ask her about one of a maroon dress of River's (which, sadly, is locked away somewhere in Fox's archives).

The off-shoot of this is that there are now several pictures on the web of both Morena and Summer holding my cell phone. Which cracks me up, since I had already been complaining that my iPod got to take a more vacations than me (when it was mailed to Jewel and back), and now it appears my cell phone is more famous than I am, or am likely to ever be. hehehe On the other hand, it didn't hit me until a few hours later, but when Jewel called on me she had called me by name. Which was a surprise to me, since I didn't think she recognized me in person. Huh. Who knew? :)

Thank You to Christina Hendricks

One of the last minute additions to Flanvention's roster was Christina Hendricks, who played Saffron on the Firefly TV series. I had met her very briefly at the premiere, but it wasn't until I talked to her Saturday that I realized just what a sweetheart she really is. I asked her to sign a caricature of Saffron one of the SF Browncoats made as one of the prizes for the WonderCon 2006 charity fundraiser, and she was just nice as could be.

Everyone who met her agreed that she's just great. But the problem was she was locked away in the tiny, hard-to-find signing room for most of the weekend, so not very many people did get to meet her. She wasn't included in the girls' panel for some reason (wouldn't that have been a hoot?), and they even had an Angel panel at one point, even though she and the twins were sitting in the signing room. Remember, this was supposed to be a Firefly/Serenity-specific con. What were the organizers smoking?

Anyway, I really wanted Christina to know that the fans appreciated her being there, and would love to see her at future cons (not to mention in the Serenity sequel), even if the Flanvention organizers didn't seem to share my opinion. So Saturday morning I snagged a framed Jason Palmer print out of my car, signed a nice little note on it, and brought it around to see if anyone else would like to sign it for her as a thank you gift.

I spent most of the day going around getting it signed by over a hundred browncoats, and had just finally sat down for the first time all day, when we heard people saying "goodbye Christina, thanks" from the other side of the lobby. Startled by the possibility of missing my chance to deliver my little creation, I instantly sprang off the couch (somehow simultaneously grabbing the painting from beneath my legs), and bolted to intercept her on the other side of the lobby.

I told her she couldn't leave yet, because we had a thank you gift for her, and gave her the painting. She looked genuinely shocked (probably because I had practically appeared out of nowhere), gave me a kiss on the cheek and said thank you while a bunch of other people in the lobby clapped for her. Then she walked back over to her boyfriend and said "wow, that was weird!" We were maybe ten feet away, so I said "you know, we can hear you" and she laughed. :)

So what does any of this have to do with Scott? I mean, really, that's the only reason any of you read this far, right? To find out what I did for Scott, and why he owes me? Well, of the 100+ signatures, all but one of them are authentic. I knew Scott would have loved to have been there for this, so I forged his signature down at the bottom, so he could put in his well-wishes by proxy. And really, this was safer than having Scott there in person, considering his habit of yelling my name at the top of his lungs whenever a cute redhead walks by (for the uninitiated: long story). That would have been just a little too unsettling for Christina, I think.

Anyway, here's a photo of the poster in its finished form. You can click on it to see the high-res version, and read all the signatures close up. – ComicCon Fan Table and Charity Drive

You've heard about the shiny little fan table the SF Browncoats ran at WonderCon. You've heard about how they raised $2000 to benefit the Red Cross Tsunami Relief Effort. And you've heard rumors that they're working on another fan table and charity drive at ComicCon that's supposed to blow the WonderCon thing out of the water.

But where's the website? When do we you get to find out what we're planning for the con? Where's the sign up list for volunteering? Where's the info on the charity we're going to be benefiting this time around? And where is that frelling prize list we keep hearing about, gorramit!??

Fear not, fellow Browncoats! The time has come for the great unveiling!!

What will you find here?

  1. Info on the SF Browncoats, and all the wacky things we've been up to.

  2. We're hosting the largest-ever Firefly fan table at ComicCon. Find out what we'll be up to, what kinds of schwag we'll have, and how you can become a part of it all.

  3. There's going to be a massive charity drive to donate Equality Now (one of Joss's favorite charities). Browncoats from around the world will be able to donate at the con. And we're accepting online donations too, so even those who aren't lucky enough to be at the con can get help us make the biggest Browncoats charity drive ever!

  4. Prizes!! Everyone who donates (at the con or online) will be entered into a huge drawing for thank you prizes. We're just starting to get the prizes together, but we already have an amazing list of shiny trinkets for you to ooh and awe over. And there will be more prizes added between now and the con, as we hit up more generous Browncoats and continue to get things handed to us out of the blue (did we mention the iPod Shuffle?!).

So check it out. Tell all your friends. Give in to your temptation to join us at ComicCon. Take a look around and see if you have anything you'd like to donate as a prize. And, most important, scrape together every last penny you can afford, and help us show the good folks at Equality Now just how mighty Browncoat generosity can be!! :)


[Also, if you catch any typos or broken links, send me an email off-list and I'll fix 'em up right.]

Writer’s Block

My life lately has been consumed with two things: my project at work, and the charity fundraiser I'm helping organize for ComicCon. The deadline for the first is fast approaching, and I'm terrified that I might be forgetting something. And the other is kind of flying in a holding pattern while the paranoid side of my brain refuses to let me concentrate on anything important.

At WonderCon, Miyu single handedly put together a last minute fan table and charity raffle, and raised over $2000 for the Red Cross. I had a blast hawking tickets, and even gave up my opportunity to attend the signing (Nathan, Adam, Summer, and Joss were there) to remain at the table and pimp the charity. So when Miyu mentioned the idea of doing another charity drive at ComicCon, I was interested.

Of course, I had no real intention of going to ComicCon at that point. It's an awful lot of money to spend on a weekend trip to a town I've already been to. But when I read about the charity she had chosen, Equality Now, my perspective changed. I rarely do anything interesting with my vacation time. And while I do still intend to save up a few weeks to spend in Italy next summer, I can't think of a more fulfilling way to spend a few days vacation than hanging out with geeks and using my vast capitalistic powers to benefit a worthy cause.

Lets do the math. WonderCon was a decent sized con, but nothing huge. And it was just Miyu organizing everything, last minute. And we raised $2000. ComicCon is ten times the size. It's frikkin huge. We have two months to plan. Several of the cast helped last time, and we have plenty of leads on getting them involved again. We haven't even really tried to start getting prize donation, and we've already got some amazingly cool stuff (the generosity of my friends never ceases to amaze me). Plus, we're going to be accepting donations online, so those who can't make it to the con (including a slew of UK and Aussie Browncoats) can get in on the prize drawing. Just imagine what kind of good Equality Now could do with the money we could potentially raise here.

I've been so slammed at work lately that I haven't had a chance to really get started. I have a list of contacts I need to write to, and a mental list of other people I want to badger for donations. And that's not even touching on the suggestions my mom has given me. But now that work is finally getting sane again, I can get down to business.

The first step, of course, is finishing the website, so I have somewhere to point people for all of the relevant info on the group, the con, the charity, and the ever-growing prize list (yes, I am perfectly comfortable with using people's greed to get them to do good - hehe). But for some reason I just can't get started. I have the outline for the site done, and all the pages are where they need to be. But not a word of content has been written.

The longer I stare at the blank page, the harder it is for me to find a place to start. Which is ironic, considering how hard it is to get me to shut up once I've started writing. I think something is bothering me at a metaphorical level lately. And until I can figure out what it is, it's going to continue to smack me down any time I try to concentrate on anything important.

Frikkin' metaphors. Nasty little creatures...

WonderCon 2005 – A Summary

This weekend, I went to WonderCon, at Moscone Center. The first thing I noticed as I entered the con was that they had some serious con security. I had barely found the Firefly fan table when the rest of the Browncoats started showing up. Miyu, of course, was already there and hard at work. Much to my delight, Rosie and Tamara, who we met in Chicago at the Browncoat Ball, were there. And I got to meet Saxon, and several others who I had seen on the boards.

The first thing most of us did was to head over to the autograph line. They had a gigantic line that you had to wait in just to pick tickets out of a series of buckets, one for each autograph session. If you got a winning ticket, you got the arm band to attend the autograph session. There were five buckets, I think. One was for the Firefly cast (Nathan, Adam and Summer), one was for Joss Whedon and John Cassaday, and the others... ah, who cares. I was hoping to get the Firefly cast, but I got Joss & Cassaday, so that was still pretty cool.

While we were waiting in line, I got to hang out with a bunch of the Browncoats, and had a great time chatting with them. And I kept noticing people pointing at me, since I was wearing a Mal outfit. Saxon's daughter said she was surprised I wasn't being mauled by women in that outfit, and I agreed that it was a frikkin' tragedy that I wasn't. :) Donna was in line with me, and kept catching me out of the corner of her eye and thinking that it was Nathan - even though she knew it was me (I later signed a postcard for her "Donna, I'm not Nathan. Love, Ray"). Oh, and I got an email from Tzegha while we were in line, which was primo timing.

The highlight of the day, of course, was the panel at which Joss, Nathan, Adam, and Summer spoke. Joss, Nathan and Adam are just as funny in person as people say, and they played off each other seamlessly. Summer was absolutely gorgeous. She seemed kind of nervous and shy, and didn't say much (with Nathan and Joss to compete with, it's no surprise she couldn't get a word in), but she was constantly striking these demure poses that were just downright adorable. Being a clever little monkey, I picked up one of those Griffin iTalk Voice Recorders for my iPod, and brought it with me so I could get an audio recording of the panel. Those who missed the con can check out the audio download and a cheat sheet for the visual cues.

Most of the rest of my day I spent manning the Firefly fan table. We were raffling off all sorts of Firefly schwag to benefit the Red Cross' Tsunami Relief. We had books, DVDs, t-shirts, signed photos, and the like. The t-shirts Alan asked about when he interrupted the panel on Nathan's cell phone were part of the raffle, too. And half way through the day, Nathan even sent over his own Serenity sweatshirt (complete with stain under the collar) and signed on the arm, for the drawing. Hawking the tickets was a blast. I haven't had that much fun hawking since I worked Inn Yard at the Blackpoint faire. It helped that the people I was hawking to were fellow browncoats, and that all the money was going to a good cause. I even bought $30 worth of tickets myself, in hopes of winning a deck of the custom Firefly cards (which Miyu made, and could have made a fortune if she were selling - everyone was asking if they were for sale).

Later in the day, Joss stopped by the booth. He was incredibly gracious, and stuck around chatting with us for a while. Before exiting the booth to be flooded by a hoard of fans, he shook all of our hands and very sincerely thanked us for all we (meaning all the fans, not just those at the table) have done to support him, and keep his show flying. We thanked him right back just as sincerely, and off he went to meet (more of) his adoring fans. Having already met Joss and not caring too much about autographs, I ended up taking the armband I won to see Joss and Cassaday, and told the crowd around the booth that the next person who bought $20 worth of raffle tickets would get the armband too. It took about ten seconds for someone to swipe that up, and it got more money for the cause, so I was happy.

Shortly before the raffle, I finally got away from the table and got a chance to see the Firefly fan room. Miyu arranged to have an entire room set aside for fans to gather in and watch Firefly episodes. It was amazing to see how packed the room was. Even with the quite a few Browncoats still on the convention floor and at the booth. there was standing room only in the room, which spilled out into the hall. It was great to see how many fans showed up for this!

Shortly before it was time for the raffle, Lil' Ewok ran out to the con floor to track down Joss (in the way only a teenling geek girl can), and brought him back to the room. Seeing him coming down the hall, we had them kill the projector, and told everyone who was coming. Joss comes in, sees Jubal Early's face frozen on the screen, and asks "what'ca watchin?" Joss then agreed to pull names for the raffle prizes, and then gave another very heartfelt thank you to the fans for sticking with the show through thick and thin. I also got an audio clip of Joss doing the raffle (5MB). The "hot" comment is when he's looking at a signed photo of Jewel Staite. When he says "this is very, very useful" he's referring to the giant bucket-o-cash that was the Red Cross raffle proceeds.

After the con, I gave Miyu a ride to the cafe where the after-hours shindig was going to be taking place, and then headed back to try and make it to the masquerade that was being held (and possibly to try and run into that cute girl dressed as Death ;) ). The masquerade was too packed, though, and they weren't letting anyone else in. So I just grabbed something to eat and headed back to the cafe.

Possibly one of my favorite parts of the weekend was getting to know some of the Oregon Browncoats. Erin was an absolute charmer, Kira was seriously cool, and Kira's boyfriend Steve handed my ass to me at the Ms. Pac-Man table, so he certainly earned my respect. I spent most of Sunday hanging out with Erin and her friend Bernadette. The three of us were there for the Starship Smackdown, which really deserves its own post. Suffice to say, though, it was quite an upset. In the history of Starship Smackdown, the only ship to ever win has been the original NCC-1701 Enterprise. But this year, Serenity and the Enterprise tied. Woohoo!!

WonderCon 2005 – The Serenity Panel

The premiere panel of WonderCon this year was undoubtedly the Serenity panel (and considering that they were followed by Kevin Smith, that's saying something!). Joss Whedon started the panel by bringing up John Cassaday to announce that they are going to be doing a second year of Astonishing X-men. Then he brought out Adam Baldwin (Jayne), Summer Glau (River), and Nathan Fillion (Mal) for a long Q&A session, and to show a clip from Serenity.

But don't take my word for it. Listen to it yourself. The first audio clip here is of Saxon & Rosie talking about their experiences on set as extras, which was basically just me testing to make sure the recorder was working. The second clip is a one hour long recording of the entire panel.

The following table provides cues to what's going on during the audio clip. Just match the time count on the clip to the row in the table and you'll get why people are laughing in several places. Warning: The audio clip and visual cues include the preview of Serenity.

Table hidden behind cut...

WonderCon 2005 – Starship Smackdown

Starship Smackdown is a brilliant concept. You get a panel of three uber-geek judges, moderator, and an audience-suggested list of 16 starships. Then you go through them, pair by pair, deciding which ships would defeat the others based on their benefits and weaknesses (loosely defined, of course). With the eclectic group of ships chosen, and the obscure and silly reasons that people give for why one ship would win against another, I'm absolutely kicking myself for not audio-recording it.

Apparently, though, in the entire history of Starship Smackdown, the only ship to ever win has been the original NCC-1701 Enterprise. This year, it came down to a tough showdown between the Enterprise and Serenity. One judge (who was calling in remotely via cell phone and drinking heavily) voted for Serenity (mainly due to the superior babeage). The second judge voted for a tie, convinced that after fighting for a bit, the two crews would eventually decide that they have nothing to fight over, and fly off into the sunset together. And the third judge stuck with his allegiance and voted for Enterprise.

With the number of Browncoats in the audience, if it had gone to an audience vote, Serenity would have stood a good chance of taking the crown. But instead, they let the audience decide if it should go to a showdown, or if the tie should stand. With only one dissenter, the landslide decision was to let the tie stand. Enterprise's dominance is shattered by our girl Serenity. Go Browncoats!

I'll probably add a play-by-play later, if there is interest. Some of the show-downs are classic.

Lost and Found

[I'll write a full account of my first Burning Man experience later, when I've had time to rest, rehydrate and unpack. But I wanted to get this bit out while it still has meaning.]

I'm back from Burning Man. As expected, my first year of Burning Man was not the mind-blowingly positive experience that it is for most people. It was, however, exactly what I intended it to be: an opportunity to remove myself from the world and shake the hornet nest that is my mind, and see what demons really are behind my current woes, so I can begin to understand them.

I brought a lot with me to the playa: pain, anger, frustration, distrust, fear, and isolation. Some of that was left on the playa, and swept away in the ashes of the burn. Some remains to be dealt with. But what I left behind was replaced with something new. I do not have names for all of these yet, but I'm sure that will be revealed to me in time. But there are a few things I brought back which I can name.

The first is a fortune cookie that I was given at a little noodle house and bar on Venus, which read: "You must leave something behind to receive something new." I have been repeating this to myself in different tones since then, and have found not only that it is true now, but that it has also been true in the past. Some were left behind in order to purge myself of them, and some were left for safe keeping. I just need to bring a gift to leave behind in order to retrieve them.

Another thing that I brought back with me was a fifth question. I mentioned before the four questions which, if asked enough times, will eventually reveal a truth about you. And I also mentioned that different people live their lives by one of these questions or the other. But I missed one question. "What are you afraid of?" I am amazed at the variety of my answers so far. This question may be the key to unlocking my current riddle.

But one of the most valuable nuggets of wisdom that has been added to my arsenal I didn't receive until I returned from the playa and continued feeding my B5 addiction.

"I used to think it was awful that life was so unfair. Then I thought, wouldn't it be much worse if life were fair, and all the terrible things that happen to us come because we actually deserve them? So, now I take great comfort in the general hostility and unfairness of the universe."
- Marcus Cole, Babylon 5: A Late Delivery from Avalon

One of my fundamental life philosophies is that you have to bend when the wind blows. When you brace against the wind and attempt to resist the laws of nature, you will shatter when the winds blow hard. But if you learn to ride the winds, there's no limit to how far you can fly.

Lately, I realize, I have not been bending. I have been trying too hard to make a stand and sink in new roots, and haven't been embracing the chaos that is inherent in the system. So when the chaos knocks on my door, it comes as a punishment instead of as a challenge. If I keep this up much longer, I will shatter. My first order of business should be remembering where I left that ability to dance gleefully in the winds of chaos, and what gift I must bring with me in order to retrieve it.

I think I know the answer to where I left it. And I'm pretty sure that M&Ms are the appropriate gift. But I might also need to retrieve a few more treasures as well, while I'm there. I'll wait a few more days to see if I get a call that could change the nature of this treasure hunt. If the call doesn't come in, I'll be on my way back to the wilderness to do some digging.

Good Fire, Bad Fire

"Love is a fire. But whether it is going to warm your hearth or burn down your house, you never can tell."
- Joan Crawford

This is how I feel right now. Although it is more about Life than Love.

The vast majority of negative energy in my life lately is rooted around that spontaneously combusting wall heater and the evil lawsuit that spawned from it. Thanks to that fire, my spirit is beaten and bloody, and I'm so emotionally raw that every other problem in my life seems ten times nastier as a result.

But the vast majority of my joy for the past few weeks has come from the fire of a hand made medieval kiln and the amazing group of people who built it. Thanks to them, I remember what it means to be alive, and I can muster the moxie to keep fighting the good fight.

No, you never can tell what role fire will play in your life. But the effect it has on you, overall, is much more predictable. When it burns down your house, the trauma is intense and painful in the short term, but fades over time into a buddhist-like lesson on the unimportance of physical and monetary goods. But when the fire warms your heart, that warmth is wholesome and vibrant and stays with you through the decades - an ever-present reminder of your connection to the world.

Maybe fire isn't so bad after all...