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Mar 11 2013

Special Feature: Crommunist goes to Chicago

So as many of you probably know, I was in Chicago this past week, taking part in a panel about atheism and social justice at DePaul University. I also got a chance to discover a little bit about the city while I was there. What follows is a re-cap of my time there.

The Panel

If you haven’t already, you should read the liveblog version of the event from fellow FTBorg Miri Mogilevsky. Unfortunately, there was no video of the talk, so Miri’s recap is the closest you’re going to get to seeing it. Despite what I said in the comments, I was not drunk during the talk – I’m just that incoherent in person.

First off, I have to say what an immense honour and privilege it was to be invited to speak at the event. I was even more flattered to be included on a panel that included Anthony Pinn and Sikivu Hutchinson, two people whose work has influenced my own profoundly. I have had the opportunity to interact with Sikivu before, and she was exactly as brilliant and insightful in person as I remember from our last encounter. She does the same thing that Christopher Hitchens is noted for – she speaks in paragraphs, and her writing could have been transcribed from her speaking (or vice versa).

Meeting Dr. Pinn was a trip, because he’s ‘Tony’, this extremely laid-back and affable guy when we’re just hanging out, and then someone mentions something that is relevant to his work and he becomes ‘Doctor Pinn’ – the Rice Endowed Chair who is dropping knowledge like an over-encumbered librarian. It’s amazing to watch. For the record, I couldn’t tell you which one I like more – both Tony and Doctor Pinn are fascinating and great people to be around in their own right.

I was also really happy to be there with Ashley Miller and Stephanie Zvan. It’s weird to meet people who you’ve known for years for the first time in person (Debbie Goddard called this “meat meeting”, which I enjoy mostly for the several entendres). Ashley is warm and extremely funny, and I kept forgetting that we’re not BFF simply because we fed off of each other’s sense of humour without skipping a single beat. Stephanie is the kind of person who puts you off your guard, because she very much does not wear the fact that she’s a black-belt intellect out in public, until you’ve been listening intently to her speak and realize you should be taking notes.

I don’t really need to talk too much about my impressions of the panel itself, because you can get all you need from Miri’s livecast. What I will talk about, briefly, is the audience. I haven’t been to a lot of these events, but this one stood out to me both for the sake of numbers and the diversity. This wasn’t a bunch of white college students (which is what I expected) – there was roughly even representation of black folks, which was really cool. It definitely influenced the questions that were asked, and the direction the overall conversation took. All in all, I was really impressed.

The Chicago community

This event was organized and facilitated by Andrew Tripp of the DePaul Alliance of Free Thought. I can’t find enough good things to say about Andrew, who was an incredibly gracious and accommodating host, in addition to being an extremely erudite and passionate thinker. Someone should pay Andrew a lot of money to just be himself for their organization. He can’t drink worth a damn though.

I was also really excited to get to meet some more of my fellow FTBorg, including Brianne Bilyeu who drove down from Madison, WI to attend the panel, along with Debbie Goddard. Of course I got to meet Miri Mogilevsky and Kate Donovan as well. It should be, I suppose, no surprise that people who have demonstrated themselves to be 31 Flavours of Awesome in their writing are also really cool people in real life, but it was still remarkable.

Based on the new people I met (or people who I had known more casually online), the freethinking community in Chicago should be extremely proud of itself – but for an accident of geography I could see myself fitting in really well there. Well, and the fact that it’s America. That’s sort of a non-starter for me. If you live in Chicago and would like to be more involved in secular stuff, you’ll have a lot of amazing company.

The city of Chicago

I’ve never been to Chicago before, and I was happy to get a few examples to visit the city. Obviously one day is not enough time to see all of the things, but I did get to check out the Chicago History Museum. I was really impressed by the way the museum does not shy away at all from owning up to how much racism (and, to an extent, sexism) played a role in the city’s life and past. Yes, there is a certain amount of “hooray Chicago is awesome”, but it was definitely not all that way.

I also got to walk around and see the distinctive architecture that makes up the downtown core. I don’t usually go in for super-touristy things, but I did happily part with 30 bucks to take a river architecture cruise, which was worth every penny. You can check out some of the photos I took here. Another thing I was not expecting is how amazingly polite Chicagoans are. Everyone had what I would describe as above-average manners, unless they were behind the wheel of a car (somanyhornssomanyhornssomanyhorns). All in all, I would be more than pleased to visit Chicago again, given the opportunity.

And so that’s what I did this weekend. I have intentionally omitted the ridiculous amount of drinking I did (I assure you - after the panel) and the fact that I forgot about Daylight Savings time until it was absurdly late at night (or early in the morning, if you prefer). 4-hour flights are not a hangover cure, people. Let that be a lesson to you.

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16 comments

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  1. 1
    Ed Brayton

    I assume you mean Kate Donovan, not Ashley Donovan. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting several of those folks as well and found them all delightful. Haven’t met Ashley Miller yet, but I’m sure our paths will cross at some point. Also haven’t met Tony Pinn or Sikivu Hutchinson.

  2. 2
    Kate Donovan

    Ashley Donovan? You’re so dead.

  3. 3
    Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

    Ashley Donovan? Really now? You really were drunk, weren’t you?

    But anyway:

    It should be, I suppose, no surprise that people who have demonstrated themselves to be 31 Flavours of Awesome in their writing are also really cool people in real life, but it was still remarkable.

    Awwwwwww thaaaanks

    Also, I’ve been to that museum and it’s made of cool.

  4. 4
    Andrew Tripp

    Man, you definitely were drunk, because I went round for round with you. Unless you’re saying YOU can’t drink worth damn, which is probably true.

    In any case, I’m glad you had a good time. I certainly did. Come back any time, you northern wastrel, you.

  5. 5
    Crommunist

    Ashley Donovan? You’re so dead.

    Yikes… sorry. Wow.

  6. 6
    Crommunist

    Man, you definitely were drunk, because I went round for round with you

    And I slowed down because a) I had a flight in the morning, and b) I was worried about your health :P

    And I’m not sure how you think this works, but the fact that YOU drank a lot (for you) doesn’t mean that I was drunk. Just saying…

  7. 7
    Gregory in Seattle

    I need to become a blogger: you people go to the most interesting parties.

    In any case, I hope to coax you down to Seattle for Norwescon next year as a panelist. All we can pay is a weekend membership, but it’s fun.

  8. 8
    Crommunist

    I remember you mentioning that to me in Ottawa. I’m not really a sci-fi con guy, so I’m not sure how I’d fit in with the crowd (in terms of my subject matter) – still, worth talking more about.

  9. 9
    Gregory in Seattle

    I will email you with info this summer when we start putting things together for 2014. Basically, our main format is panels — we have more than 200 this year over the 3.5 days of the convention — on a dizzying array of topics; take a look at this year’s panels. Since you are a biologist, and I am the lead for the biology track… well, you cannot write good science fiction without knowing a thing or two about good science. We also have panels that look into issues of race and gender, among other things*, all of which are common themes in a lot of speculative fiction; since you address these in your blog, I think your voice would be a valued addition.

    And for the record, my invitation extends to all FtB bloggers who can make it to the Seattle area in future years. As I said, it is not a paying gig: we can give you a free membership for the weekend and one discounted guest membership, but you are on your own for food, lodging and transportation. I would love to get Ophelia and Dana, as I know they are local, and you are local enough that I don’t feel guilty asking. We got PZ this year only because he has family in the area. Jen will be here this year as well; she and PZ will be on a panel, Designer Genes, with our Science Guest of Honor, Edward Tenner; it will be awesome. If anyone is interested, you can use my link to contact me, and I’ll put you on the list for next year.

    * Such as orientation and lifestyle and raising children and costuming and astrophysics and language and the business of writing and art and literary memes and technology and music, just to name a few. Invited panelists can ask to be on any panel that catches their attention; they are not limited to just the track that invited them.

  10. 10
    Crommunist

    Since you are a biologist, and I am the lead for the biology track…

    Gonna stop you right there, Gregory. Not sure where you got the impression that I am a biologist, but I am very not.

    I’ll contribute what I can, but sci-fi is a bit outside my purview. I don’t read or watch much, and haven’t for a few years. Seattle isn’t that far a trip for me, so I’m happy to participate if I can. This year wasn’t possible simply because end of March is when my school and work stuff are at a particular fever pitch, but next year is certain;y a possibility.

  11. 11
    Gregory in Seattle

    Hm, sorry about that; I misremembered reading something to that effect. In any case, you are described as a scientist, and we would still love to borrow your experiences regarding race, skepticism and critical thinking. Music, too: our filk circles are legendary.

    All I ask is that you consider it.

  12. 12
    Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

    Gregory, all FtB bloggers? I’ve wanted to visit Seattle for years! :)

  13. 13
    Gregory in Seattle

    @Miri #12 – Like I said, all we can offer is a free membership to the convention and one discounted membership for a guest; you will be on your own for travel, food and lodging. But if you need an excuse, we’ll be happy to provide that :)

    Norwescon is always Easter weekend, Thursday through Sunday. It is actually held in SeaTac, near the airport, but you can take the free shuttle from the hotel and then the light rail into the city, so it is not a bad hub for tourists.

  14. 14
    freemage

    *Pathetic, self-pitying whining noises.* I can’t believe I screwed up my plans Friday night and missed this. Reading the liveblog, it was everything I’d been looking forward to and more. Though I’m glad the city made a good impression on you, Ian. The museum scene here really is incredible (I make a habit of finding out people’s interests, and then dragging them to someplace that I figure will amaze them when they visit). Next time you come, I’d recommend the American Indian Center–it’d be right up your alley, given how much attention you’ve given First Nations issues before this.

    And yes, “Chicagoan” and “Chicagoan behind the wheel of a car” are almost two separate entities. This is doubly true when it’s raining (oddly, we do better with snow than rain, unless it’s the first heavy snowfall of the winter).

    Word of warning on the museums–the Museum of Science and Industry is mostly the Museum of Industry–lots of corporate-sponsored exhibits. No ‘bad’ science, but not a ‘pure science’ focus. The Field Museum of Natural History is better for that, in a lot of ways.

  15. 15
    johnradke

    Man, I’m pissed I missed this. Next time don’t plan this stuff when I’m in Colorado!

    Anyway, hope everybody in the panel can make it back to the Midwest at some point.

  16. 16
    Kate Donovan

    Ahaha, that was a real mistake? I that you were just teasing Ashley and I :P

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