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9/27/15

Apostacon 2015 by DC-in-Detroit


DC is a longtime contributor to the MCB.
She can be reached at DC.in.Detroit [at] gmail.com

18-20 September 2015
Dallas, Texas



In the elevator on the way up to my luxurious 20th floor room, a civilian noticed my Apostacon badge and asked, “So, what’s that all about?”

That’s a legit question, for a couple of reasons. Seeing a banner with a big squiggly monster on it (may you be touched by his noodle appendage) is a bit of a hint that there are some inside jokes going down, but even if you do recognize the Flying Spaghetti Monster, it doesn’t really answer the question, what IS this all about? Unbelief, sure. “Atheists, humanists, agnostics, skeptics, apostates, freethinkers, rationalists, Pastafarians” yes, of course. But, as the man in the elevator asked me, “What do you do, get together and talk about how you don't believe something?”

Not exactly (although that does happen). Any non-belief convention (I hesitate to use the word “atheist” because a broader spectrum is represented at this gathering) is going to focus, at least in part, on how to navigate through our culture as a small minority. How do you parent, make friends, work efficiently, be a productive member of your society when you think and believe differently from the surrounding majority? You’ll notice this doesn’t include what our beliefs are, simply those ways in which we differ.

Apostacon in particular looks at the “apostasy” aspect of it—what it’s like to leave one’s religion. Casual surveys indicated that the great majority of people in attendance were at one point active participants in a religion. And they had all found their ways to this convention because they had questioned those belief systems to the point where they at least were beginning to remove themselves from those organizations. Sometimes this comes at the cost of their communities, their jobs, their friends, even their families. This is no small undertaking, and not something people do frivolously.

To that end, there were talks about parenting (when surrounded by “believers”), about finding community (especially in more isolated areas), all the way up to activism (Dan Arel’s talk about being instrumental in keeping $18 million of taxpayer money from being funneled into the for-profit “Ark Encounter” theme park  was a highlight). And, of course, the keynote debate, master debaters Matt Dillahunty vs JT Eberhard on the motion “Country Music Sucks.” (I’d say it was a draw.)

But really, in the end, what Apostacon is really about is fellowship—just like most other (voluntary) cons. And fun, of course. Which leads me to the more DC-ish part of this writeup, where I gush about my one and only “celebrity crush,” Teller.

Oh, did I mention Penn & Teller were there? Yeah, Penn & Teller were there.

I’ve been a fan of theirs for a couple of decades now, and have seen them perform several times. (And, of course, they are—or at least Penn is—on TV every time you turn one one.) It’s not often we get a chance for an intimate Q&A/mini-performance with the duo, however. They came in Friday for a VIP dinner reception, followed by a couple of hours of chatting (led by "Penn's Sunday School" podcast cohost Matt Donnelly), with some tried and true sleight of hand mixed in (their version of the cups and balls is not to be missed), and then audience Q&A. Always the best part of a talk, in my opinion.

At the beginning of the talk, Matt Donnelly joked, “Let’s get this out of the way first: Teller, you do talk, right?”

Teller’s response, “To a bunch of atheists? Fuck yeah.”

And that was what made this audience Q&A so different. They asked about philosophy, they asked about politics, and yes they asked a little about show biz and magic, but mostly, it was about the world, worldviews, and how to live in all of it.

Penn and Teller are two of the most humble, interesting, open, and loving people you’ll ever rub elbows with. I don’t know if this is common knowledge among people who aren’t already fans of theirs, but through their entire career—more than 40 years now—after every show, the two will come to the lobby of any theater they play in order to meet anyone in the audience who cares to get a pic, an autograph, or just shake hands. As Penn, who unselfconsciously calls each of their fans “Boss,” put it, “We may be there an extra hour and 45 minutes, but that means there’s someone who stood around for an hour and 44 minutes to talk to me, and damned if I’m not going to wait.”

I, of course, knew this. I also have something of a history of presenting Teller with hand-made items, crafted just for him. As a member of the media, I wasn’t included in the VIP dinner (press has to buy their own food, thieving, scheming vultures that we are), but I knew I’d have ample opportunity for facetime, were I so inclined. And I were. So the night before getting on a plane for Texas, I decided it was a good idea to start-to-finish a project for Teller (yes, and for Penn). They were completed with great love and care, and hand-carried through 4 airports (don’t ask) with no issues.

After their talk, I found Teller on the far right of the room (they separate themselves for the post-show flesh-press), and after watching him graciously (and gracefully) take selfies with a few dozen people, he made eye contact with me. I smiled and said, “I have a little Teller fetish for you…” He smiled in return, the consummate professional, and then I pressed into his hand the little hand-made Teller fetish (or juju doll as I also call them). His eyes lit up (with happiness or relief, who can say) when he got a good look. “This is wonderful!” The little Teller fetish was wearing pinstripes, a blue tie, and black and white wingtips (check the old photos). On the back of the doll is embroidered “Everybody got a GrisGris” with three club symbols. Most importantly, inside the fetish is an object of meaning and symbolism, which I can’t reveal. Magic! MAAAAAAGIC! We chatted for a moment, and I got a nice hug, before I floated back to the other side of the room to the Penn gaggle.

Penn’s fetish also wore pinstripes, a multi-colored tie, and oxblood Doc Martens. (Someone on twitter seriously tried to argue with me about my sartorial choices for the little copies. Someone who probably wasn’t even alive the first time I saw P&T live.) On his back, under his long ponytail, was embroidered a large scarlet A-for-atheism symbol. And yes, inside there were trinkets of significance. Penn gave me a hug and a “thanks, Boss!” and I skittered out of the way to let the remaining people get their time.

So classy and grateful, these two are. I’m just filled with butterflies every time I see them like that, literally opening their arms to their audience.

The next morning, I was checking in on the con hashtag, and to my wonderment, saw this tweet, from Teller himself.

Apostacon 2015

That’s his picture. He took that picture. That means at some point, after the show and all the people, Teller and Penn put together the gifts I’d given them separately, and maybe, just maybe, I was a topic of conversation for a moment. I was tickled all over again.

And so, that’s my Apostacon weekend in a nutshell for you: talks, fellowship, Texas (this time), and a shining moment in the warmth of the beatific gaze of my beloved Teller (actually, there were three different times I was so blessed that weekend). This is a traveling convention, which means for those of you who think you’d enjoy such a weekend, at some point, you should have the chance for it to be reachable for you.

And really, if you even think this is how you’d like to spend a weekend, you’re right—right that you’ll enjoy it, and most importantly, right to THINK.



Created with flickr slideshow.