* For me one of the best parts had to be meeting Suki and Wade Tooley, two of the nicest people I have ever met. Suki was responsible for (and deserves all the blame) for my invitation to the festival. She and Wade took it a heck of a lot farther than just being good hosts, though. They treated me like a king (no, not Rodney), they wined me and dined me, and they were the best company anyone could have. Even though I couldn't have spent more than maybe twelve hours with them during the entire trip, I've rarely ever felt so close to two folks in such a short amount of time.
One of the nicest aspects was finding out that they're fairly "like-minded" when it comes to socio-political issues and the like. That might sound like a small matter, but in the charged atmospheres of academia and funnybooks that I patronize, it's NOT. Finding someone who actually (gasp!) dares to think like me is a rarity, and to be honest, in my emails with Suki in lining up the event, I never went into such matters, as far too often it can be a dealbreaker (I know we'd like to think folks are not that closed-minded, but don't kid yourself). But within a short time, it became clear that these two actually GET it. and we groused about stuff like we've known each other our whole lives.
They were kind enough to pick me up at the airport (with Suki holding a sign that said "Troy Hickman" and Wade holding one that read "No, really, Troy Hickman," as I recall). They took me by the theater to see and get a photo of me standing under my name on the marquee (you wanna talk about surreal). They let me ride along with them to the Mark Wheatley speech the night before mine (I think Mark and I had met years ago, and we both vaguely remembered it). They took me out to dinner...and more dinner...and after dinner...and I think they were even present during my dinner with Andre. They did a hundred other things to make sure I had a grand time while I was there.
And you know the best part? Truth be told, I may sound like a sappy goof when I say this, but when has that ever stopped me before? The best part is that I sincerely feel like I've made a couple of new friends, and that's not something I do too often, and it means a hell of a lot. They're wonderful people, and very smart, and exceedingly funny, and I'm so glad to know them (and right now, anyone who knows me is thinking "so why would smart, funny people hang out with you, T-Bone?").
* Speaking of smart, funny friends, I was about twenty minutes into my speech, squinting out into the crowd (they never really turned down the lights, so I couldn't see very far into the vastness of the place), when I noticed there was a young woman down front who was smiling and laughing at everything I said. My first thought was "there's a nitrous oxide leak in the theater!"
Eventually, though, I realized it was my friend Sondra, whom I've known for ten odd years, but had never actually met before. Over the last decade, she's also been incredibly kind and supportive towards me, so it was a tremendous thrill to see that she'd made it to the speech (she lives nearby). Sondra is an absolute force of nature, by the way. I try to surround myself with people who are bright and quick-witted (to make up for my obvious limitations), and she's just freakishly good, so much so that she should really be in stand-up or some other area of the business of show. She went with us to "dinner" (OK, it turned out to be a Sprite) after the speech, and at one point, in a forty-five second window (yes, I notice stuff like that), she went from a southern belle accent to a high British accent to what might be best described as a "Maury show guest" accent, and all with top-notch ad-lib material. She's like what Robin Williams would be if he were funny. And, like Suki and Wade, just one of the best people I have ever had the privilege of knowing, just so normal and decent and kind, but then, I've known that for years. Sweet baby gherkins, why are such people associating with a reprobate like myself?
* I got to stay at the Marriott Waterside, a really nice hotel downtown. Is there anything cooler than having your own hotel room? I'm one of those folks that uses absolutely EVERY amenity they provide, from the ice bucket, to the steam iron, to the shoe polishing cloth. They had some great facilities, too, with a really complete exercise room, a 24 hour laundry, etc.
I did have a brief moment of terror, though, when I went outside to take a look at the outdoor hot tub, only to realize that I couldn't pull the door back open once I was out there. There was NO ONE else around, and it was only an hour or two before they were going to come and get me for the speech, so I began to panic, worrying that I'd miss it because I was trapped out there with the hot tub.
Of course, then I realized that the door opens in instead of out. You know, for ostensibly a fairly bright guy, I can be quite the dullard. That photo on the right, btw, was taken about thirty seconds before I started panicking...
Here's a fact that will tell you everything you need to know about Troy Hickman: the first night at the hotel, I rode the elevator to every floor (there are 24 of them) to check out what soft drinks were in each vending room.
* The food was just fantastic during the whole trip, and I'm sad to admit I probably put on ten pounds in the couple days I was there. On Wednesday, after the Wheatley speech, there was a FANTASTIC spread of food at the reception, and I gobbled it up in a manner that would've shamed PacMan (and frankly, he needs shaming). Then, because that's not enough to sustain my brobdingnagian girth, Wade and Suki took me out to a great place for sushi and tempura and about a dozen other things that I wolfed down. Of course, after half a night's sleep, I had to get down to the hotel' BREAKFAST BUFFET (hey, it was included in the hefty price of the room). Then there was my pre-speech meal (a great plate of fish and chips), followed by the reception food, followed by the buffet again the next morning, and---well, let's just say that I left Virginia looking like Mr. Creosote...
* The speech itself, if what folks are telling me is true (and not an attempt to spare my Cindy Brady-like feelings), went very well. The theater is a beautiful old place, and they gave me mine own dressing room (it had a wall-length mirror with lights around it, just like in the movies!), brought me down for a mic check (and yes, I said "sibilance, sibilance" just like you'd expect me to), and set me up with a cool remote control for my slide show.
I was nervous as hell at first, but after a few minutes I loosened up and got on with the business of explaining how I'd gotten into funnybooks, and more importantly, how I'd managed to keep loving them while dealing with them as a business.
Folks seemed to dig it, and at the signing in the lobby afterwards, the good folks from Barnes and Nobles sold out of the Common Grounds trade paperback. I also met some fantastic people (I was especially taken by the two little kids, (Isabelle and her brother, I believe), who showed their fine manners and upbringing by coming over before they left and shaking my hand, saying "it was nice to meet you, Mr. Hickman." What a sweet, sweet thing.
And Suki presented me with a lovely silver engraved cup as a memento. I'm going to tell people it was given to me by the people of Virginia for saving them from the Stone Men of Saturn...
Anyway, it was just a wonderful trip (and the moolah doesn't hurt either!), and I sincerely hope I can do more of this sort of thing in the future. Thanks so much to Suki, and Wade, and Sondra, and all the fine folks at Tidewater, and even to the lady at the hotel restaurant who seemed mad that I only tipped her the FIRST day I was there for the buffet (hey, it's hard to know what 20% of zero is!). I love comics!