NC Mermania 2017, part 4 - Memorable Moments February 2, 2017 00:00

From Jess: 

There was so much to see and do from Friday night to Sunday evening, but, in the end, it was the connections created and friendships formed that made NC Mermania so special. Everyone who Chris and I interacted with was just so incredibly kind and giving.

It started at the mixer on Friday night, when Mermaid Olivia introduced herself and presented us with a tiny, perfect Nim that she’d crocheted -- I was so surprised and touched that I almost started to cry! Both Olivia and wee Nim are adorable.

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That generosity of time and spirit continued throughout the entire weekend; over and over again, people came up and introduced themselves, and they really made us feel at home during our first mermaid convention. There was no snobbery, ego, competition, or cliquishness that we encountered (which I'll confess I'd been a little concerned about in such a tight-knit community), only openness and acceptance and warmth.

A few examples: during the mixer, Pearlie Mae gave me a stunning mermaid pendant that she’d molded from a personal piece of jewelry and cast out of resin; Joseph McGarry, author of “Operation Mermaid: The Project Kraken Incident,” swapped books with us; Merman Arion (who'd traveled all the way from France!) introduced himself and was so sweet and welcoming; at the GAC, Mermaid Bridgette showed me the best way to pose at the side of a pool so my tail would point out straight behind me (trying to lift those flukes to the water’s surface uses muscles that I didn’t know I had!); Fablefish taught me how to blow bubble rings, which Colin was awesome enough to catch on camera so Chris could watch me in action later; Christine Michele Vogt-Klimshuk gave us a pair of beautiful handmade bookmarks and a heartfelt, supportive letter about “Rescue Sirens: The Search for the Atavist”; Tom Cardwell, one of the co-founders of NC Mermania, was a friendly face every time I saw him, and kindly took underwater photos and video of (and with!) me; Mermaid Kaitey of Kate Hall Photography captured some awesome underwater photos in the hotel pool and at the GAC; Mountain Mermaid Photography's Karsten Shein spent the weekend breathing compressed air at the bottom of the dive well to give us all stunning candid photographs; and Mermaid Jolene and her mother, Georgia, were a true joy to chat with at our Saturday night dinner -- plus, I was fortunate to spend a lot of time over the weekend swimming with Jolene and talking with her about writing, which was delightful.

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Then, I was brought nearly to tears (again!) by Casey and Natalie, who stopped by the GAC on Sunday to say hi to me and Chris in a pair of very familiar outfits.

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These amazing young women dressed as two of our Rescue Sirens in costumes that they’d crafted themselves: “walking” versions of Echo and Kelby in their mermaid forms, complete with a purple ponytail for Echo, glasses for Kelby (Natalie’s own, as it turned out!), their shell and sea star “hair flair,” “GUARD” tops, and jeans carefully hand-painted with the patterns of each girl’s tail! I was so blown away. I'm getting a little emotional just writing about it!

Every time we’ve seen people dressed as our characters -- Becki’s Kelby (the very first “Rescue Sirens” cosplay!), then Sabrina’s Nim at SDCC 2016; and now Casey’s Echo and Natalie’s Kelby at NC Mermania 2017 -- it’s been more than a little surreal. These characters started out as ideas in my head and were first brought to life as drawings in Chris’s initial character designs, and now to see them actually walking around right in front of us is almost indescribable for me. It’s very humbling.

I actually spotted Casey and Natalie from all the way across the dive well; few times have I swam faster than I did to cross the pool and greet them! I just couldn’t get over how fantastic they looked, not to mention the fact that they’d go to the trouble of making such great costumes and driving down to visit us. I was beyond honored. Ladies, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.

(Thank you, too, to Mermaid Olivia, Ashley Mayumi Wolf, and Venessa Lewis for several of the photos used in this video!)

My only regret throughout this entire event (well, besides neglecting to bring a waterproof digital camera!) was that I didn’t have more time to spend with Casey and Natalie, Jolene, Bridgette, Olivia, and all the many other terrific people that I met over those forty-eight magical hours.

At the Expert Panel, when we were all asked which superpower we would choose to have (if water-breathing was off the table, that is, since that’s probably every attendee’s first choice!), one of the Roberts twins from Finfolk Productions answered that she’d like the power to function without sleep. If only I’d had that ability during NC Mermania! I wanted to talk more, swim more, laugh more. I loved every minute of it, and I'm so glad I attended.

I want to take a moment here to thank my husband, Chris. He's my partner in all things, and it's because of him that we were able to make it to NC Mermania and have such a fantastic time.

Chris is my rock. He handled the travel logistics (including building a box to safely transport my mermaid tail), manned our vending table at the GAC all by himself both days, helped me into my tail every time I wanted to go swimming, and took the vast majority of the photos and videos that I've shared in these posts. He also provided moral support when I was nervous about something (like our panel!), and he spent the whole weekend reminding people that "Rescue Sirens" is my creation. (Because Chris is so well-known for his work on animated films like "Lilo & Stitch" and "How to Train Your Dragon," some people assume that he's the one who came up with "Rescue Sirens," which is frustrating for both of us. Chris is always quick to correct that misconception and credit me, which is so important to me and means so much!) I literally could not have done this without Chris, and I'm endlessly grateful for everything he does -- and everything he is -- every day of our lives together. I'm so blessed.

In the time that it's taken me to go through our photos and video, choose and edit my favorites, and write these four blog posts, nearly two weeks have passed since NC Mermania 2017 began. That means we're two weeks closer to NC Mermania 2018! I can't wait for next year.


NC Mermania 2017, part 3 - Social Events & Panels February 1, 2017 00:00

From Jess: 

There was so much more to NC Mermania than just swimming at the Greensboro Aquatic Center! The convention's organizers also planned multiple social events, classes and workshops, and panels so attendees could have fun, make friends, and learn something, too.

Friday Night Mixer
As soon as Chris and I checked in at the Sheraton and had a chance to freshen up after our cross-country flight and drive from Raleigh, we ventured downstairs to the first event of the weekend: the merfolk mixer! There, we were delighted to see people we'd only ever spoken to online, like Raina, as well as introduce ourselves to a host of friendly new faces. As vendors, we set up a table stocked with copies of "Rescue Sirens: The Search for the Atavist" and other "Rescue Sirens" goodies for sale, and we had an absolute blast meeting other attendees.

I'll write more about the mixer in my next post! For now, here's a photo, courtesy of Venessa Lewis:

The Sheraton's pool, which closed to other hotel guests at ten PM, was open to NC Mermania attendees from ten until midnight, tails allowed. Chris and I intended to go -- I hadn't been swimming in my tail in months, and I was so excited after the mixer! -- but I laid down "for just a minute" and was out like a light. Whoops!

Mers of Color Diversity Panel
One of the highlights of NC Mermania, for me, was Saturday morning’s Mers of Color panel discussing diversity in the mermaid community… or, more accurately, the current lack thereof. It’s a topic that I was grateful to learn more about from the people who are directly affected. Well-known mermaids in popular culture have had a major influence on society’s idea of what a mermaid “should” look like, to the unfortunate detriment and exclusion of anyone who doesn’t fit that specific mold. The stories the four panelists told of being passed over for jobs because they didn’t have red hair or pale skin were sad and frustrating, as were anecdotes shared by people of color in the audience.

Raina took some photos during the panel.

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I feel very passionately about the strength and necessity of diversity in the media we’re exposed to; I don’t think anyone, regardless of what they look like, should be told, “You can’t be a mermaid.” Especially in a world that can be, at times, negative, frightening, and uncertain, I think it’s important as people to find hope and a safe harbor in fantasy, in the stories we create and share, and it’s absolutely ridiculous that a child playing pretend in a pool or an adult working as a mermaid performer might be told that they’re the wrong skin color, hair color, gender, body shape, or anything else to be a mermaid -- these are mythical creatures, so imposing those kinds of limitations makes no sense to me. Why on earth would you restrict someone’s ability to dream?

That’s one of the reasons, when I first began developing “Rescue Sirens,” that I knew my characters would be different sizes, shapes, and races: I wanted all girls (and boys, once we introduce mermen in later books) to look at these characters and see something of themselves, to imagine that they, too, could be a Rescue Siren.

But I need help to do that. While Nim and Maris are Caucasian, like myself, Kelby is Latina, Pippa is African-American, and Echo has an Asian heritage. As a white woman writing characters of color, I want to do so responsibly and authentically. During the Mers of Color panel Q&A portion, I asked a question that’s always on my mind: how do I make sure that I’m doing this right? I added that when my husband and "Rescue Sirens" co-author, Chris Sanders, co-wrote and co-directed “Lilo & Stitch,” the crew consulted with the Hawaiian community to ensure that the film was respecting the people it portrayed.

One of the panelists, Whitney, responded that I’d actually answered my own question -- that consulting with people from the races and cultures that I’m depicting is always the right thing to do, that no one I approach is going to say, “You want to know more about me and my culture? No way; get outta here”… and if they do, she said with a smile, I probably don’t want to be basing my book on them.

Whitney reiterated that encouraging diversity and overcoming some of the obstacles that people face today begins by starting a conversation. All of the panelists agreed that they are always open to answering questions and to helping anyone who’s interested in writing or creating art that represents someone from a culture outside the artist’s own. That kind of representation is so crucial when it comes to making everyone feel seen, heard, and valued. We’re all in this together, after all.

Eric, Arielle, Whitney, and Kenn. Photo courtesy of Raina.

I want to thank Eric, Arielle, Whitney, and Kenn for taking the time to discuss race and diversity as it relates to the mermaid community, for being so open with their own life experiences, and for answering everyone’s questions with honesty and kindness. That took bravery. The Mers of Color panel was so thought-provoking and informative, and I’m really glad that the panelists, moderators Raina and Venessa, and the rest of the NC Mermania team put in the work to make it a part of the weekend’s schedule of events. For a convention revolving around fantasy, this was something very real, and very important.

Group Photo
At around 3:30 PM on Saturday, everyone at the GAC found a spot on the edge of the pool for the group photo. Chris and I weren't at NC Mermania last year, but we've heard that 2016's attendees took up one side of the pool, while this year--well, see for yourself!

In the following video, Chris takes a walk around the three sides of the pool where merfolk perched for the photo, which just goes to show how many people showed up. That wasn't even everyone! Special thanks goes to Joey Kirkman Photography for the awesome overhead shots.

(The video also includes a few photos from the Fathoms Below ball, plus a clip from the after-hours swim in the pool back at the hotel.)

This year, it was impossible to fit everyone into a ground-level shot! Attendance more than quadrupled from 2016. Holy mackerel!

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Dinner and Fathoms Below Ball

After a long day of swimming, what do you like to do? I like to eat. Man, there's no hunger like post-swimming hunger! Remember when you were a kid and you spent all day at the pool and you were starving when you got home? That's how I felt on Saturday after four hours in the water at the GAC. I was tired (and my feet were a mess after being in a monofin for that long), but I was really grateful that NC Mermania was providing dinner and dancing at the Fathoms Below ball.

The theme of the ball was the deep sea, so many people showed up in incredibly creative dresses and costumes evoking the bioluminescence of the creatures who call the darkest depths of the ocean "home." So much brilliance was on display! Blacklights made even the humblest outfit (like my ocean wave-themed dress) glow brightly, and lent the ball an appropriately otherworldly feel.

But first: dinner! Not only did we have an opportunity to talk to our fellow attendees during our delicious repast, but the staff had arranged for entertainment, too: Captain Jim would be providing music and doing magic tricks, while Mermaid Glimmer, AKA Fire Pixie, would put on a dazzling light show. It was mindblowing! Glimmer wrote a great blog about her experience that includes photos and videos, although you really have to see her in person to appreciate her art. So cool!

Chris and I were too busy dancing the night away to get many photos during the ball, but we took a few!

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For an even better glimpse into those mysterious Fathoms Below, watch this terrific video from Mermaid Glimmer highlighting some of the crazy creative costumes spotted at the ball:

After-Hours Swim
As the ball wound down, people began heading to the hotel pool for another after-hours swim. I wore my tail (of course) and also, for the only time during the weekend, sported my gorgeous custom Merbella top.

Mermaid Kaitey of Kate Hall Photography took some great underwater shots, including this one!

Workshops, Story Time, and Kids' Swims
Although I spent all my time at the GAC swimming in the dive well, there was a lot more to take advantage of, and, if I hadn't been having so much fun in the water, I would've been interested in doing it all.

There was an underwater posing class, workshops about water safety (yay!) and merwrangling (the term used to refer to the jobs done by a mermaid or merman performer's assistant), and events for kids, too. The kids' story times and swims were so popular that they sold out even after more slots were made available!

Expert Panel
By the time Sunday afternoon rolled around, I was even more appreciative of the Mers of Color panelists’ participation when it came time to appear on a panel, myself. Eep! Chris has taken part in panels at comics conventions in the past, so this was nothing new to him, but this was my first time, and I was definitely a little anxious. I was surrounded by such a varied collection of professionals, and I wanted to do a good job!

The Expert Panel assembled an eclectic group of people with expertise relevant to the mermaid community: Joseph McGarry, an accountant (and author of “Operation Mermaid: The Project Kraken Incident”) who was there to answer financial questions related to running a mermaid business; Chris and myself, discussing the development, co-writing, and self-publishing of “Rescue Sirens: The Search for the Atavist”; Marla Spellenberg, a former mermaid performer at historic Weeki Wachee Springs, Florida's “City of Live Mermaids” that really popularized the practice of swimming in mermaid tails; Merman Christian, sharing his experience as a professional merman performer; Abby and Bryn Roberts, full-time tailmakers and twin owners of Finfolk Productions; Charles D. Moisant of Silver Phoenix Entertainment, a comic book writer and creative partner of the final expert rounding out the panel: Philo Barnhart, one of the animators from Disney’s animated classic “The Little Mermaid.”

Photo courtesy of Karsten Shein (Mountain Mermaid Photography).

Honestly, between the exhaustion and the nervousness (and, now, the passage of time), the whole thing is a bit of a blur, haha! Raina and Venessa took turns moderating questions from the audience, and I remember discussing what goes into character development and whether anyone has challenged the lore that I wrote for “Rescue Sirens” because it’s so different from “traditional” mermaid mythology (the answer, at least so far, is blessedly “no”!). Chris and I also talked a little bit about the process of collaborative writing as well as what’s in store for the future of “Rescue Sirens.”

I was really proud to be a part of the Expert Panel, and very pleased with the set-up. Even though I didn’t ask any questions of my own, I learned a great deal from the questions posed by the audience. I wish the panel had been twice as long -- I wanted to hear more stories from my fellow panelists! Given my fondness for the attractions of “Old Florida,” I was especially intrigued by Marla’s time as a mermaid for Weeki Wachee. Each and every panelist had something unique and valuable to offer, and my hat is off to the staff for assembling such a swell line-up.

Closing Ceremonies
NC Mermania wrapped up with closing ceremonies that paid tribute to staff, guests, and attendees who helped make the event the smashing success it turned out to be. Chris and I were so honored to receive certificates of appreciation and a beautiful custom mermaid scale necklace for our part as special guests and panelists -- the pleasure was all ours, and we'd do it again in a heartbeat! We're so grateful to Raina, Sean, Venessa, Dan, and everyone else on the staff of volunteers who was so kind, hardworking, and dedicated to creating a magical weekend that none of us would forget.

On that note, my fourth and final blog entry in this series will highlight some of my favorite moments from NC Mermania!