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Matt Refghi dressed as Silent Bob, with Conker the Squirrel from Conker's Bad Fur Day

Me with my pal Conker

By this point, I think pretty much everyone that knows me understands one thing: I really like hanging out with geeky people in costumes. Despite a recent video where I expressed doubt about continuing my yearly Dragon Con attendance, I did end up attending for a fifth consecutive year. However, unlike most years, I flew to Atlanta without knowing whether I’d do the interviews that I’d become accustomed to. Overall, I was in a mode where I was thinking about where my online presence was going, and whether I would continue spending my free time as I was. This was largely due to the timing, as I’d recently experienced a certain amount of turbulence in my personal life. Though I weathered the storm, it was the ideal environment to bring about some good ol’ self-reflection and improvement. In the end, I decided that I’d book my flight to Dragon Con and simply fill in the blanks as the date approached. To make sure that approach could work, I planned to have my equipment and suit with me so I had options at my disposal. A few days before my flight, I pretty much concluded that I’d attend two days of the Con, rather than four, and that I would use those days to focus on photos and having a good time, rather than doing my usual interview work. I figured this open approach would make it easier for me to just enjoy the experience, thereby facilitating creative flow. That kinda played into the whole “fun first” attitude that I’d taken on since I encountered that patch of rough air. Plus, I thought it’d also give me an opportunity to reflect on conventions in general, and perhaps derive some humor from some of those reflections.

Pulse bar at Dragon*Con Photo by Mark H. Anbinder

Photo by Mark H. Anbinder

So anyway, apart from knowing that I’d be revisiting the Dragon Con atmosphere that I loved, I was looking forward to speaking to a contact I met last year, a woman that I saw as a mentor of sorts. She was a fairly well-connected producer who had her own film crew, and like me, she was involved in interviewing people at conventions, and had her own company associated with that. Last year, she had offered valuable advice at a pivotal time in my life, and though we didn’t spend all that much time chatting, we did get along pretty well. She also introduced me to certain Dragon Con speakers she knew, and the like. Given how I was reviewing what I was doing with my web presence, and I valued her advice, I thought speaking to her would prove helpful. I was also looking forward to seeing her again; it’d been a while. So as the Con approached, we connected via Skype, and I sought her general advice regarding where I was thinking of going with my web presence, while also hinting at some of the obstacles that I’d faced and bested since we last spoke. Unexpectedly, by the end of the call, I was presented an offer: since I had no specific plans at the Con, she offered to book me time with one of her own camera crews. This was huge: as a guy who wants to be on camera, it’s kind of hard to do so without having someone to hold the camera, especially at conventions where they typically reject stationary setups. I mean, sure, I could have devised some sort of a gadget that I could fashion around my waist, with an awkward metal arm extended out to achieve the best selfie-interview angle possible, but that seemed a little tacky. Just a little. A crew to follow me around seemed a lot better, as it would also potentially allow me to do more comedy-type skits, which I felt I didn’t have enough opportunity to try. Now, as far as I understood, I’d still have to do my own video editing, I’d still have to pay for my own travel, but I’d have the benefit of having a crew, and a certain support structure. In return, of course, the footage filmed would be signed over to her.

Oh, sure, I'll just ignore that you have a friggin' rocket launcher on your shoulders.

“Oh, sure, Joe, I’ll just try to ignore that you have a friggin’ rocket launcher on your shoulders.”

I saw it for what it was: an opportunity to learn from my mentor, while having an actual film crew following me around. Now, it’s true that I got pretty damn close to that in 2013 with my friend Joseph Pereira and his massive shoulder-mounted rig, but at the time, the on-screen time was split between the two of us – the idea of having a dedicated crew interested me. I also liked the idea of not imposing on anyone – if the crew’s sole function was to fulfill that role, then I wouldn’t worry as much about whether they’re having a good time. Still, right from the start, my mentor was clear in saying that there would be no guarantee of being paid for the filming I would do at Dragon Con… and I really didn’t mind. (Though most might not realize this, my primary reason for doing what I do online is that I simply enjoy it.) So, despite having no guarantee of being compensated by my mentor, the offer was attractive to me. And, beyond that, I saw it as a challenge: what if I threw myself into this new team? What if I just rolled with it, had a good time? It would certainly bring forth many new experiences, and that’s always good for blog posts, even if I totally make a fool of myself. So I happily agreed to film with her crew, and asked her to send me a copy of the legal document I’d have to sign, so I could review it. Surprisingly, she refused, and said that I had to trust her.

Whoa, what? Yeah, I know what you’re all probably thinking: red flag. But you have to understand, though I didn’t speak to her much beyond last year’s Dragon Con, this woman quickly understood things about my mentality, and she wanted to help push me beyond certain barriers. For example, she challenged me last year at Dragon Con to be less analytical in the selection of my guests, because she felt that I could pretty much interview anyone – there was no reason to pick and choose. Everyone’s interesting, whether they’re in costume or not. So, in her reluctance to send me the release agreement, she was reminding me that sometimes, my robotic mind could take a break. Therefore, I agreed, in the moment, that I would defer my judgement of the legal document until I saw it in person. That much I could do without putting myself in a vulnerable position, legally.

Photo by Matt Refghi

Photo by Matt Refghi

Before continuing with this tale, let me emphasize: last year, meeting this person was an extremely positive experience for me: she confirmed what I had long since suspected in my mind, what I was building towards, and beginning to see: that I could go far in the industry if I wanted to. The opportunity of working with her crew meant two things:

  1. I’d have an opportunity to work with experienced professionals, and,
  2. the concern of finding a camera crew would evaporate, leaving me instead to focus on my on-screen performance.

Through the collaboration, I could refine my interviews, explore more creative skits, and overall, just create even more stuff that I could be proud of. There was also the side-effect of increasing my visibility on the web, and if all went well, my readership, views, audience… maybe even generating more income from from it. (She said she’d provide some monetary compensation when and if the content we filmed got picked up by a network.) Think about it: in my shoes, in a self-reflective phase, wouldn’t that be a really attractive prospect? To fast track my progress, potentially? Naturally, I was excited about where it might lead.

But I’m not one to be driven purely by my emotions, I calculate, I think. So after the call, despite the good news, I knew that my decision would ultimately be made at the moment that I saw the legal document in front of me. I usually preferred seeing things like that in advance, being a thoughtful creature… but I respected her decision, and shifted my focus to getting ready for Dragon Con, but not just any Dragon Con… a unique one.

Photo by Matt Holland

Photo by Matt Holland

As my first order of business, I proceeded to get my suit dry cleaned, while also packing the bags I’d have with me. The plan was to meet up with my mentor in the morning, hang around with her team, and then eventually film with them. I’d be traveling by public transportation, otherwise known as the MARTA (a network of trains and buses). I knew that this would mean carrying around my suit with me, in a suit bag (a thin, protective layer of material that is closed with a zipper)… plus my backpack, which contained a change of clothes and various other supplies. At a certain point, I was told I’d have the opportunity to put my stuff in one of their hotel rooms, to lessen the load, which was good. Since the meeting was in the morning, and I planned to use public transportation to get there, I knew I’d have to leave even earlier to get there on time. Plus, I hadn’t yet bought my pass, and I knew that that usually involved waiting in a line. Seeking to be my usual cautious self when it came to timing, and wanting to avoid hauling my heavy suit around too long, I arranged to have a lift to the place where I had to buy my pass, a specific hotel. I also made sure I had enough cash to pay for the full four days outright, rather than credit – I knew from experience that would result in a shorter line.

So on the first day of Dragon Con, I awoke in the early morning, and packed the last few things that were pending. Soon after exiting my room, though, I realized that the person giving me the lift seemed to be under the impression that I wanted a lift to the MARTA, not the registration hotel specifically. Furthermore, the lift’s departure time wasn’t what I expected – she offered to drive me out there two hours later than anticipated, which would have made me miss the meeting. Since I knew the person offering me the lift was lacking in the sleep department, and probably really didn’t want to do stuff in the early morning, I simply asked her to drop me off at the latest possible time that I could manage. And rather than having her drive me to the hotel, I just agreed to the MARTA drop-off. She needed the sleep, and I didn’t want to abuse of her generosity.

Photo by Wesley Fryer

Photo by Wesley Fryer

So next thing I knew, I was dropped off at the MARTA station. I immediately approached one of their Breeze card machines (necessary to access the MARTA network), and entered an order for a 3-day pass. When doing so, I selected credit as an option… however, eventually, it asked for a zip code. I wasn’t sure what to put since I was from Canada. Before comically defaulting to 90210 (or looking up the zip code where I was staying during my stay), I noticed a sign on the wall. Put simply, it stated that if the zip code differed from the credit card’s billing address, I’d have to call for assistance. Since I didn’t have time to spare, I immediately cancelled my transaction and decided I’d pay with cash. There was an assistance phone to my left, but I didn’t want to add that experience to my life at that particular time.

Photo by Brett Lider

It needs money to live. Photo by Brett Lider

So I repeated the same steps, only this time, I fed a 20 dollar bill into the machine, and waited. And… waited. And… waited. For some reason, after paying, it seemed to be stuck on the “issuing card/change” step. There I stood, watching attentively as it struggled, forever lost in its thought, until I decided it was taking too long… I’d have to call for assistance (/sigh). The first thing the woman on the phone asked me to do was cancel, if I could. I tried that, but the machine didn’t respond, sure of its own sanity. Out of ideas, she dispatched an attendant to come assist me, and asked me to wait. At that moment, I sent a message to my mentor letting her know that I would likely be late due to transport issues (late lift arrival + waiting for attendant). A few minutes after, while still waiting for the person, the machine suddenly dropped out of the “issuing card/change” step, and threw a message to the screen: “cancelled due to lack of user action”. I had never been so happy to be kicked out for inactivity. Unfortunately, it also seemed to have forgotten that I had given it 20$. It had simply devoured my cash, without even having the decency to issue a receipt, so I had no proof that it accepted my money to begin with. After about 15 minutes of waiting, the attendant arrived – but given the lack of proof, he couldn’t refund me the cash. He said he needed to have witnessed everything, and since he didn’t, I’d have to file an incident report so an investigation could be launched. I agreed, and followed him back to his office, as requested.

Eventually, we approached this office with a big dark tinted window, likely double-sided so MARTA people could see out, but everyday folk couldn’t see in. As we approached the door, he turned and asked me to wait outside for him, to which I complied. And as I waited, with each passing minute, I debated whether 20$ was even worth the trouble, considering that I was going to be late for my meeting. After almost 10 minutes, he resurfaced with a form, one which he had pre-filled with the information I had already provided. He explained that the investigation might take up to 10 business days, and that I’d have to submit that form at one of two other stations to get it started: either Five Points (the center of the MARTA network), or Airport (the furthest station possible). My stop was the one right before Five Points, but I had to make it for that meeting, so I thanked the attendant and went on my way. I’d either have to mail it in, or visit that station sometime in between my Dragon Con days.

Photo by Robert Neff.

Photo by Robert Neff

Since I wasn’t really an expert in their MARTA layout, when I landed at the right station, I popped out my phone to help me get situated. As was often the case during Dragon Con, downtown Atlanta had an abundance of cosplayers roaming its streets, and as long as I had a general sense of where my destination was, it was actually possible to follow the people in costume to find my way around. So I did that, and once I found the hotel, I was happy to see that the lines were short – my strategy of bringing cash had also placed me in the better of two payment lines. I soon got to the payment booths, where I paid for a 4-day pass given the filming I had agreed to, rather than the 2-day pass I was thinking of getting before. I then left and worked on locating my aforementioned mentor, which didn’t take all that long, thankfully.

Surprisingly, I had managed to make it roughly on time… I greeted everyone, and we jumped right into discussing the things we’d be doing. As you can imagine, there was a certain excitement to the whole meeting, for me, as it was the start of something really new, interesting. Fast forward a few minutes, and I had met more of her people, including the film crew, with whom I was to film some stuff in the coming hours. Next thing I knew, I was sitting opposite my mentor at a two-person table on a large outdoor balcony/rooftop type area (a few floors up the building, not the top), and a release agreement was placed in front of me. I read it, and it all seemed fairly standard, but I still wanted to call my sister, a lawyer, to get her opinion on the terms. My mentor wasn’t too thrilled with the idea, but she allowed me to do this. The result of the call was what I expected: it seemed, to us at least, that it was probably a boilerplate agreement, nothing really major to worry about: but there was one thing that bothered me: the scope. The language in the waiver wasn’t too specific, so basically anything she filmed of me would be hers, without compensation (other than a 1$ payment received immediately after signing), with no time limit and no specific event context. I thought about it, and decided that I wanted one change: a limit to the scope.

Photo by Terry Robinson

Photo by Terry Robinson

So I returned to my mentor, and mentioned the change that I desired: that the scope be explicitly set to Dragon Con 2014, after which we could revisit the possibility of me signing the broad release agreement. I suggested she think of it as a trial, simply, so I could test out the experience with her team. Long story short, she didn’t like this. Out of principle, she said1 she wouldn’t alter the agreement, at all, and that I’d either have to sign it as is, or not sign it. She mentioned how at least one specific high-ranking celebrity had signed the agreement, and that if they could do it, I could do it too. She emphasized how in that exact moment, that agreement was my first leap of trust – if I couldn’t actually bring myself to put aside my concerns and sign the document, according to her, I was never going to make it in the industry. Me not signing, in her opinion, would be proof that I would always be an obstacle to my own success. I continued to insist, and she even went so far as to say that I had no value (quite a change from everything else she told me in the past), and that she was taking a risk on me. I could understand this to a degree, but I disagreed with the whole “no value” part. When I mentioned that, she replied saying that I did have potential, and she was merely approaching the whole scenario as she felt any producer would. In other words, it was a test, and it all swung back around to trust, which in her mind, was the first step… signing that document was a symbol.

(1Whenever I refer to things that were said, please keep in mind that it’s never verbatim, and not necessarily in the order things were actually said in the moment. I’m merely simplifying the otherwise complex structure of certain conversations.)

A woman deep in thought, with her hand over her mouth, slightly. She looks to the right, with a slight frown.

Photo by Nicola Jones

When it came to trust, I felt I was being reasonable: I was willing to trust her to compensate as she felt fair, even though the agreement only promised a 1$ compensation right after signing. That was a compromise, of course, because legally, I’d have no guaranteed right to compensation beyond the 1$. But it was a calculated risk, and I felt it would have been acceptable given that my own solo efforts weren’t primarily driven by money. But beyond that, I really liked her as a mentor, and ideally, I wanted things to work out. Though I felt I was making a fair compromise based on trust, she wasn’t satisfied… she really wanted that signature, without any compromise of her own. And on my side, I knew with absolute certainty that I’d be foolish to just sign up out of sheer emotion, ignoring what I felt was unwise, an agreement without any clear limits. My request was simple, after all… I simply wanted her to write Dragon Con 2014 in pen, that’s all… but she refused, wasn’t willing. And so, after coming all that way, I had to refuse. The release agreement retired to her bag, unsigned. It was a sad conclusion, but I knew I had done what was right for me.

We still sat there and spoke, for a while, despite the unfortunate conclusion that had just reached. And then, at a certain point, her crew started gathering again, as they were were looking like they needed to mobilize. At around that time, she pointed at the suit bag that I’d been carrying around all day, and told me to get dressed, as I’d be going on camera soon. As you might imagine, at this point, I was really intrigued… how could she still want me to be on camera if she didn’t have the explicit right to use my footage? Did she simply not mind, and was putting trust… in me? So I asked her to clarify, and she claimed that she didn’t even need me to sign it anyway, and that she already had footage of me giving her the right to use my material.

Please press play:

 Sound by Raccoonanimator

Mmkay, thanks for doing that.

Now here’s the thing: last year, I did give permission to be interviewed by her people, but there’s no way that the audio clip I provided would ever reproduce the exact, broad terms she was looking for in that release agreement: if anything, it was just something like “sure, you can interview me.” Now, as you can imagine, I realized her choice of words were probably influenced by her annoyance with my refusal… to be taken with a grain of salt. But given the nature of the comment, I felt like it was a little close to being a fear tactic to get to me to comply. Who knows, maybe I misinterpreted it… but regardless, with the events that preceded, it meant that I was growing really uncomfortable with the whole arrangement. So eventually, I communicated that, and parted ways with her. I didn’t like seeing the plans crumble, but I felt I had to trust my instincts and walk away.

Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simões

Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simões

So, after a long, crazy morning, I emerged from the hotel, and realized that I now had to carry around my suit all day, despite not really needing it anymore. Among other things, no more filming plans meant no more hotel room to stash my suit bag. It might seem like a small thing, but I had a heavy suit in there, with two spare shirts backing it up. At Dragon Con, the main thing I would normally do is walk around, appreciating costumes, and taking photos of pretty much each one I saw. Do you know how annoying it is to fumble around with a suit bag in your arms before you can take a photo with your phone, sometimes needing both hands? Now, you might not realize this right away, but this wasn’t any old suit bag. Think about what that suit bag symbolized, at that point: it contained the clothing that I would wear, on camera, with this film crew – and it’s the exact suit that I flew with in case I’d get a chance to film. A suit bag that I would have left in the hotel room of one of my mentor’s teams, a team that would have been my team (at least for that Con). Furthermore, it was also related to me classing up my look on camera, an initiative that was partially motivated by my mentor’s support last year. So it was a really positive thing…. which then kind of turned into a negative after the whole deal imploded.

Photo by Tim Dorr

Photo by Tim Dorr

I tell you, that suit bag just got heavier as the day went on. I fumbled with it between photos, while I ate lunch, while I met people, and while I attended panels. During panels, I simply flopped the thing on the back of my chair, and used it as extra padding. And then there were other cases, like in the bathroom: you know how there are usually places to hook hangers in stalls? Well, that’s great, but there’s usually nothing when you’re washing your hands. So in those moments, I’d have to put my backpack down, then flop my suit bag right on top of that, while I washed up. By the time I went back to pick it up, it had usually slid part-way down the backpack, and found itself on the floor. All day, that suit just continued to remind me of the day’s unfortunate events.

Up until, eventually, I decided I was done… I was tired, and quite frankly, I wasn’t having the best day, considering how the super exciting meeting ended pretty much on the opposite side of the spectrum. I knew I did the right thing, I had no regrets, but I was pretty tired. Instead of heading straight home, I summoned the energy to take the MARTA to Five Points, one station over, where I handed them the completed form so they would eventually release my 20 dollar bill from custody. Then, I boarded the train to head back to the station where I was dropped in the morning. As I sat in the train, I flopped my suit bag on the seat next to me, and I began to reflect on the events of the day. Among other things, I remembered that I paid for the full 4 days, expecting to be with my mentor and her crew, rather than the 2 days I had originally planned. 4 days only made sense if I was filming, which was no longer the case, so I decided that I would skip the last two days, and instead go rafting with my sister, my original plan. I also decided that I would approach the next day’s Dragon Con as I originally intended – I would have fun, re-experience it as I once did, and derive humor from it. Losing the cash for those two extra days was unfortunate, but I tried to look at it with positivity: that money was supporting my beloved Dragon Con.

Photo by Brett Weinstein

Photo by Brett Weinstein

So as I was pondering all this on the train, it came to a halt, abruptly. Me and the other passengers looked at each other, all expecting a message via the intercom, at some point. We waited, silently, and eventually, someone’s voice crackled through the speakers. We just couldn’t actually understand anything they were saying…. there was too much static, the person was talking too fast, and they were not really pronouncing their words too well. A couple of us laughed out loud, and shook our heads at the stereotypical bad subway audio. Eventually, we understood “mechanical problems,” and that was enough. One woman actually spoke up, and told us all how she’d been delayed all day with the MARTA, and that she couldn’t believe she encountered yet another problem on the same day. I glanced at my suit bag, flopped over next to me, and laughed internally… yea, I knew what it was like to have a messed up day.

After a few minutes, the MARTA resumed, and I eventually found myself at my destination. It’s at that point that I realized that there were no buses leaving from that station directly. So I called my sister to see if she could pick me up, which she agreed to do, but cautioned that it was traffic hour, and that she might be delayed as a result. Upon hearing this, I instead suggested that I hop back into the MARTA train, and travel to the next station (which I knew would have bus service), and then simply find my way back to her place by catching the bus. I reasoned that it would be cool to get used to the public transport system in Atlanta, given how often I visit. She agreed, and I went off on my journey, which was fairly straight-forward, in my mind.

Photo by Jeff Muceus

Photo by Jeff Muceus

Unfortunately, in my fatigue, I got confused about which train was the right one, and missed two in a row. The third I thankfully caught, and it did in fact get me to the right place. So from that new station, I walked down a few blocks, and began to wait at the bus sign, alone. After a while, I realized that it was actually pretty hot outside, it being Atlanta in the summer, and all. This seemed problematic given a general lack of tree cover, and a rising suspicion that the bus just wasn’t coming – I thought I missed it. So I called the hotline I saw advertised for the MARTA, and after waiting a minute or so, I confirmed with a MARTA employee that it was, in fact, on its way… it was just late. After what seemed like forever, with my suit bag cleverly hooked into the bus sign, I spotted the bus in the distance. It was a long, tiring day… a lot went wrong, but when I boarded that bus… only one thing mattered in the universe… and that was that they had air conditioning cranked to the max… and it was divine. And so there I sat, with a grin on my face as I enjoyed the unexpected, super-powered air conditioning, something our buses definitely didn’t have in Montreal, and despite the unfortunate events of the day, the turbulence, for a moment there, I was pretty damn content.

I stopped near my sister’s place, marched up to her door, unlocked it, and I dropped that damn suit bag right on the table, at long last. It was a lovely moment in time. I started the day with really high expectations, only to have them fall apart. I lost a mentor, a machine ate my money, a train broke down, my suit bag experienced more of the world than ever before… altogether, it wasn’t the best of days. But you know what? I’ll never forget how amazing that air conditioning felt in that bus, at that moment.

Thanks to: Elisa, Jenn, and Joe.

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