A Tale of OpenCon

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This was originally posted in the UK-Poly Mailing List, and with kind permission of the writer, Karen, we reproduce it here for your enjoyment and enlightenment.
Small disclaimer – it’s pretty long, as it’s considerably detailed.

I didn’t go to OpenCon last year, for a number of reasons – I didn’t know anyone else who was going well, and some quite unpleasant comments were made about accessibility. While I don’t have a personal need for access arrangements the attitude behind the comments was off-putting to me. I was not keen on going to an event about non-monogamy being held in a venue with shared dormitory accommodation or on a space being shared with a group of sexual healers (which happened in 2010).

In 2011, OpenCon had exclusive use of the venue. I had not come across the model of ‘unconference’ – an event with very little prior organisation, with organisation left to the participants to determine at the event before, and didn’t like the lack of information about what was planned. Dorset is also quite a drive from where I live and combined with all of the above points, meant I chose not to last year, hoping I would then see some interesting write ups from people who did go.

As it happened I saw very little online beyond ‘it was great’ about last year’s event and that didn’t help me decide whether I wanted to attend or not; I like detail and no one was giving any detail. This year, I remained curious about the event, but not sufficiently curious to want to put a lot of effort into it (I have enough other demands on my time and didn’t like enough of what I’d heard to want to find more time for it). Not having
heard anything about it made me want to go along one year and see what I thought about it, thinking it unlikely I’d ever get a decent report back from anyone else. Discovering someone I care about was thinking in similar sorts of ways about it helped, and in large part I went because he was going & we were able to find somewhere nice to stay off site, meaning had either of us not enjoyed the event there was non-event space to go back to; as well as interesting bits of countryside to explore.

I left much later than I planned and as expected got stuck in traffic for some time. I eventually reached the venue at about 9.40pm, feeling somewhat tired from all the driving and the four hours sleep I’d had the previous night. My sat nav directed me to a venue 200 yards before Osha Leela on the wrong side of the road – I think a number of people’s did this. The roads in the local area are winding country roads that are somewhat narrow in places. I suspect the area is a good one for walking in – I’d taken my walking boots with me, but didn’t end up wanting to go for a walk. By the time I got there, there were white boards with post it notes showing sessions people were running for Saturday and Sunday and people were sitting around chatting over tea. I saw a couple of people I normally only see at BiCon and got to talk to them for a while that evening.

The venue was a large, old house that’s been converted for use for groups of people to stay, with larger social spaces and communal dining space and out buildings and camping space. The smell when I got out of the car reminded me a lot of arriving in a field to camp. A torch was useful for finding my way from the car park to the house that evening (they’re actually very close together, but I didn’t know where I was going at that point).

The entrance hall felt more like a hotel lobby or perhaps a more precise description is as a good general purpose social space – people were wandering in, stopping to chat and wandering on into other spaces. The dining room was very noisy – due to the hard floor and high ceiling and numbers of people eating in that space at meal times. The large room within the main house used for some sessions was nice – wooden floor with lots of pink cushions for people to sit on the floor and some hard, high backed chairs without arms. There were lots of windows and thus lots of light. Signage says you can’t wear shoes in this room.

We left at about 10.30pm or so to go and locate our B&B and got lost, due to a lack of signage and trying to do the journey for the first time in the dark. (This all really just adds in to reminding myself to stick to my original plans for when to leave when going to events), but we got there eventually and found a very nice, spacious room. Breakfast the next morning was very good too.

On Saturday morning, I went to a session about feminism and non-monogamy. It was held in one of the cabins (which weren’t wheelchair accessible) and was a small group of people, all coming at feminism from different angles. I was fairly quiet for most of the session, with lots of discussion being about things I’ve never experienced (ie. how feminism affects division of household tasks – living alone means I don’t have to negotiate this with anyone, I do all that needs to be done) and lots being things I wanted to listen to, rather than contribute to directly.

There were a number of people at the event who seemed to have English as at least their second language, which made a number of conversations very difficult – concepts that are familiar within particular groups of white, middle class British people are not familar to those from other cultures. A lot of poly related terminology is not very well defined within English, so trying to explain concepts to people who don’t have English as a first language is particularly difficult.

I had coffee in the break between sessions and then went on to the flirting session. It was useful to be reminded of why I tend to avoid the flirting sessions at BiCon (The UK’s national bisexual conference/convention) these days and also useful to get some idea of what constitutes good flirting by people who do that sort of thing. It’s not that I don’t understand the concept of flirting anymore, but that that’s not how attraction to people works for me. Someone asked me who in the room I fancied and I didn’t have an answer; it is incredibly rare for me to be attracted to people on the basis of appearances only. When I start talking to people, I want to have a conversation, focusing on content and then see what happens from there – that might look like flirting to some people, because I tend to be good at listening to people, but that isn’t what I’m doing. Attraction for me comes much later on, once I know someone, if it’s going to happen at all.

I had lunch – the food being vegetarian was OK for the weekend; there were some things I wasn’t terribly keen on, but that might have happened somewhere with a mixed menu. There seemed to be enough food about that if you didn’t like one bit of a meal you could have a double helping of another bit. There weren’t really separate choices of meal though. I spoke with a couple who told me they were old enough to have been hippies first time around and found it good to get to have lunch with different people at long-ish tables.

There is a fairly significant cross over of BiCon people at OpenCon, but also a lot of other people, which was good – there wasn’t the same sort of feel I sometimes get at BiCon of people moving around and socialising
mainly with their friends. This was a much smaller, cosier event that felt calmer, more relaxed and less busy than a BiCon does. In terms of space it seemed more contained. It was different from BiCon, but not a bad sort of different. With the exception of some bits of session content that seemed to assume people are not single (and that happens everywhere), it was somewhere I was happy to be. I had been anticipating there being lots of men around without good boundaries and that wasn’t the case.

During the afternoon I went to the double session about poly in more depth. It was again interesting to be discussing poly with a number of people working in at least their second language and nice to have a longer session for a change, with more time to think and more opportunities for people to say things, though I was still fairly quiet.

Then there was a coffee break and I went off to a session called ‘creative communication’ where we did an exercise designed for theatre students. It involves making the words meaningless to enable a pair to focus on the other aspects of their communication so it’s easier to see what else is going on. One person calls an observation about the other person and then the other person repeats it (eg. Caller: ‘you’re wearing glasses’ Repeater: ‘you’re wearing glasses’) and this carries on until the phrase is meaningless. Then, the more sophisticated version
involves the caller doing the same thing, but the other person receives, so the interaction is something like Caller: ‘you’re wearing blue jeans’ Receiver: ‘I’m wearing blue jeans’ and then this is repeated until the
Receiver decides to call something else ie. ‘you’re wearing a purple hat’ and the original caller becomes the receiver. The things that are called out are meant to be observations – starting with physical observations and then becoming more abstract, but without becoming judgments. It was interesting to watch the interactions between
different people as we all tried this – some pairs became animated, others angry, many collapsed in giggles.

Then we tried writing mini communication passports dealing with explaining how we express particular states of mind and what we need (for a particular definition of need – this is hitting my personal need vs. want line) or don’t need from others. I would like to see more of this sort of thing in general, not just for poly people, as it’s generally useful.

After this came dinner and then I spent most of the evening sitting around chatting to people. One of the big contrasts for me with BiCon is that I had time to spend sitting around talking to people – to new people and to some people I’ve been aware of at BiCon but haven’t had the chance to talk to. I listened to a bit of the second half of the open mic – listening to live singing of this sort makes me thoughtful and sleepy – I was actually reminded a bit of jazz evenings I’d been to while at university.

There was a sauna at the venue (I didn’t go anywhere near it – I don’t like being too hot, didn’t want to navigate issues of nakedness with a group of people and was busy doing other things). On Saturday there was also ‘guided dancing’ – I’m not sure what that was as I left the room to go and do something else as I didn’t want to participate.

The large room in one of the outbuildings (with mattreses and cushions) was used for a cuddle party and for massage. I didn’t want to go to either of these things – what I can say is that there was a session held at the end of lunchtime on Saturday to discuss the rules/set up for the cuddle party and that there were lots of people left in social spaces at the point these things were going on.

Again, we left at about 10.30pm and arrived back the following morning in time for the 10am session slot (on both Saturday and Sunday mornings there were 9.15am sessions, but nothing really interesting to either of us was happening at this point in the day – I think there would have been spare rooms available had people wanted to run something else).

The semi-obligatory non-monogamy and kink session was full of people and again there were language problems with some people not having come across British vernacular before – even in relation to quite simple pieces of terminology. I wonder about the merits of having more than one non-monogamy and kink session and splitting it either into beginners and not-beginners or finding some other logical divide to get smaller groups for discussion purposes. Most of the people within the room said very little and I’m not sure how much of that was because there were enough people speaking already and not a great deal of opportunity for others to join in or how much was around people preferring to discuss things in smaller groups.

I then got semi-deliberately sidetracked sitting around chatting and didn’t go to any other planned sessions. I commented, while sitting in the lobby area that we were a roomful of people who all looked like we’d been fed mild sedatives as we were all sitting about being very quiet, lost in our own little worlds. At about 2.30pm a couple of people were having trouble getting a taxi to take them to the train station so I offered to take them and considered that good motivation to start the long drive home rather than stay to the very end. I really wasn’t in the mood for the sort of scene that happens at the end of BiCon with lots of hugging and people crying and I was imagining that was what was going to happen. (I’ve no idea whether it did or not as I’ve not spoken to anyone about the end of the event yet, but that is what I was expecting to happen).

The drive home was much better than the drive there. I stopped at a different set of services this time round and was pleased to find the Waitrose there is open 24 hours a day. I got home at about 7.30pm.

I suppose I would like to see some sort of session for people who prefer polyamorous relationship structures and are currently closer to single than anything else as the lack of discussion (and material) about ways of doing poly for people who aren’t part of a primary (I really want there to be a better word for this, that doesn’t involve ranking people) couple is something of a personal bugbear of mine.

I liked it enough that I may well go back next year, if it happens again then. I will still stay off site. I avoided all the ‘activismy’ workshops this year to avoid getting involved in doing things I don’t have time to do, so I don’t know what the plans are for next year, or if indeed there are any plans.

One Response to A Tale of OpenCon

  1. [...] experience as a first-time OpenCon participant was in some ways very similar to Karen’s but in others quite different, so I thought I would add my testimony, in case it may be useful to [...]

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