firewoodI’m writing this now because I want to grab a hold of these feelings while they’re still fresh and new, while I can still grasp them at a moment’s notice and feel them well up inside of me, full to burst. Right now, the reflection comic I’m working on is piece-meal—thumbnails scratched in the margins of my work notebook (before you scold me, mainly during lunch! But sometimes during meetings. Don’t tell my boss), a few proof-of-concept approaches, but not much else. I’d love to have the comic done by the end of September, but looking over at my calendar shows that practically every weekend is booked this month, so we’ll see what happens.

I initially wasn’t going to go to MaxFunCon East, to be honest with you. It was a lot of money, I had already planned multiple other trips and expenses this year, and frankly, I didn’t feel like I deserved to go: I was (at the time in June) a recently unemployed artist/designer, trying to figure out what the hell I was doing with my life, applying to job after job with no avail. Which is ridiculous in retrospect, but I felt like I had to do something in order to earn the right to be in a room with a bunch of other artists and creators that I greatly admire; something big. It was my mom who convinced me to make the trip, despite her not entirely understanding what it was. I guess she saw, somehow, that I needed it.

During the whole week building up to it, I was a constant ball of nervousness and worry. I barely slept, I spent my workday jittery and anxious, drank way too much coffee in an attempt to focus on things that needed to get done, scarfed down meals and immediately jumped into illustration work the minute I got home (I had known I wanted to make gift art for months, but with other convention prep bogging down my schedule previously, it got pushed off till the last minute, like you do). Thursday night was spent sitting on my basement floor, punching as many buttons as physically possible as podcasts I had already listened to three or four times mumbled in the background.

This was also the first time I was doing anything big like this totally by myself. Other events and conventions, I was a part of a group of well-known friends, but this? One solo ticket, please and thank you.

It was a six-hour drive to the Poconos, and I spent it with my brother, who—due to both of our lives being ridiculously busy—I don’t get many opportunities to have good conversation with. I think the trip alone was worth it for that drive: being able to talk with him about workplace efficiency models, social issues, video games, and everything in-between was a blessing. It wasn’t until the last 15 minutes of the drive that all of the anxiety hit me square in the stomach, and I was positive I would spend most of MaxFunCon East hiding in my room, too afraid to talk to anyone.

Being an early arriver meant that, while festivities hadn’t officially started yet, there were groups of people congregating at the hotel bar—a place I’ve never felt comfortable at, let alone by myself. I hung out in the lobby, checked my phone, doodled in my sketchbook, pulled up Pokemon Go (which I hadn’t done in weeks, so I knew I was reaching at that point).

How to cope with feeling socially anxious: draw your feelings, I guess? That's a cool thing to do.
How to cope with feeling socially anxious: draw your feelings, I guess? That’s a cool thing to do.

Alright, Kardamis, I thought after what felt like an eternity. Suck it up and get in there.

The second I stepped into the bar, I was greeted warmly by a bunch of people I had never met before, and that overwhelming wave of anxiety reduced to a mere drop as I ordered a drink and broke the ice with a prepared moment that I milked the whole weekend: “Hey, um, do you guys want Adventure Zone buttons?”

(On a side note, that hard cider I bought was SIX FIFTY and it was only a WOODCHUCK CIDER. I can get a six pack of that here for six fifty. Highway robbery, that is.)

As Friday progressed, I felt more and more comfortable with this group of strangers: it was like we had all known each other for years, but had just never met face to face. My roommate Whitney and I finally located each other at the welcome reception (she was looking for me too, asking everyone she talked to if they’d seen an Emily around), and we hugged jubilantly—you would have never known that the only words we had exchanged previously were a few emails earlier that week.

It was Justin McElroy’s benediction that made everything fall into place.

I’d hate to try to paraphrase it, because I don’t feel like I could do his words justice, but it turned into a resounding theme for the weekend: believing in people—even when they do terrible, terrible shit—is a choice; a kind of faith, if you want to call it that. I thought about that a lot as we had quickly built up a small group of us that met for lunch and dinner in between classes on Saturday, seeing the constant assurance that people were ok and comfortable throughout the weekend, everyone making sure those who needed water after that wild party Saturday night had it, the beautiful feeling of being welcome that soaked into the place, making it feel like more than a maybe-haunted inn nestled away in the Poconos, but a home.

He cracked a bottle of brandy and addressed the crowd: “I know when John Hodgman does this, he normally gets the expensive stuff—“ as the bottles started to get passed among us. With my incredible coordination, I poured maybe half of the swig of Paul Masson I took onto myself and quietly choked down the other half (smooth, Emily. Also: pretty sure this was the first time I ever had any amount of brandy, and I’m kind of glad it was from a shared bottle with a room full of other amazingly lovely people). And while I was already a little misty-eyed from his speech, Travis approached from the side of the stage with a guitar, and Justin continued, “So, I’d like to play my favorite Regina Spektor song.”

The opening chords to Firewood started, annnnd yep, whoops, full-on crying. This is why I don’t wear mascara, my dudes.

I’ve been to a lot of conventions, had a lot of opportunity to meet people who have made things that have influenced my work and my life, and let me be honest with you: a lot of them sucked. I hate how uneven those moments feel, that weird interaction that happens between fan and artist, especially when you’re a fan who is also an artist. I never know what to say, never know how to express my appreciation, because what I really want is to feel equal. I want to have a conversation, I want to acknowledge that, despite my knowing of their work and it affecting me deeply, we’re all just people who are trying to figure out how to fly together in this huge and confusing world.

There’s some quality about being an artist (and I’m using this term broadly, way more broadly than any of my art professors would appreciate, to describe anyone who makes things) where you know you can fly, and the goal is less about showing off that ability, but showing other people that they can fly too. The sky is a very lonely place when you’re up there all by yourself.

MaxFunCon East wasn’t like other conventions. Was I nervous when I stayed after the Adventure Zone live show to give them the gift art I had made? Absolutely. But there was something magical about that moment, because suddenly, the mysticism was shattered (I was also mainly thankful I didn’t trip on stage), and everything was just…normal.

Look. I’m not a party person. I’ve never been. My definition of “party” in college was a couple bottles of cheap wine, drunk games of Ticket to Ride and Super Smash Bros, and Chopped reruns.

That party Saturday night was one of the best nights of my life.

I danced like an idiot. It wasn’t even that I didn’t care if anyone was judging what were likely the worst dance moves on the face of the earth: I knew no one cared. Myst was being projected on the ceiling, the music and dancing was so ridiculous that the floor was shaking down the hall, there was a conga line, an Under the Sea singalong, the most uproarious rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody I’ve ever been a part of (someone stepped on my foot during that bit, and I didn’t even care. The bruise is still there, and it’s pretty nasty, but it’s a badge of honor, honestly). I worked up my nerve enough to talk to Justin after the crowd cleared out a bit—as festivities had started to move to the aforementioned hotel bar—to tell him how much his benediction meant to me (confirmed fact: Justin McElroy is one of the best huggers), played a rousing game of Codenames in the game room with people I felt so lucky to call friends: people who were strangers twenty-four hours ago. It was surreal and amazing and I couldn’t stop smiling the whole night.

I keep thinking about these little moments from the weekend, little gestures that stick out like lit torches in a dark cave: conversations, promises, mementos that mark an unforgettable experience. Some of these I want to keep for myself (or, rather: brag a little bit about during conversation with friends) because they’re reminders of the kindness in this world, even when it seems bad sometimes.

There was a time in college (and right after graduation, only a year ago) when I was in a really, really rough place. I’ve talked about it here before, I’ve written comics about it, I got my first tattoo to commemorate stepping up and taking control of my life.

There are only so many moments you get, only so many memories you can make in life. I made a promise to myself in deciding to go to MaxFunCon East that I would take any chance I can get my hands on, but more importantly, appreciate and love all of the people I meet along the way. And the little hint of melancholy that’s welling up in my chest as I write this tells me I stuck to it, because I already miss the amazing people I met and the moments we shared.

“Uh, this is a little weirdly personal,” I found myself saying to Griffin McElroy on Sunday, “but I just wanted to say, I’ve been going through some rough shit, and um, the podcasts and everything, they really help. So thank you.”

“That’s good to hear. Uh, not that you’re going through shit—”

“Haha, no, yeah, I get ya.”

There’s always going to be hard days. There are going to be days where getting up out of bed seems like an insurmountable task. But you keep going, because there are only so many moments. And sometimes you need help from people to light those moments up when they seem darkest.

Believing in people—and by extension, believing in yourself—is a choice. It’s a choice you make every single day you wake up and face the world at your doorstep. And sometimes, it’s a damn hard choice to make. But moments like MaxFunCon East make it hell of a lot easier.

Everyone knows you’re going to live. So you might as well start trying.

(And hey. See a bunch of you at Candlenights at the end of the month, eh?)

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