The Great Kay Conspiracy of ’09

Aug 11th, 2009 | By | Category: CG Blog

Where o where to begin?

In early March, I was contemplating the distressing facts of my wife Kay‘s art.

At that point I’d known Kay for about eleven years, and she’s always had a talent for art. She has a very unique, cartoony style that’s simple, evocative, and lends itself to silliness. One of the first things I can remember about her was thinking that she’d probably end up seriously pursuing art, either as a career or a passion (or both).

But the opposite happened. A lot of things contributed to it, mostly Real Life getting in the way, but the amount of art Kay has produced has declined over the years, until at this point she only doodles things for our son every now and then.

One of Kay’s biggest obstacles – other than time – has been a lack of resources to help her learn and grow: she has some limited art supplies, but there’s only so much she can do with them. In particular, her old Intuos drawing tablet is very dated – it still seemed cool when she got it in 2005 (on clearance, since they were making room for the new model), but there’s so much it can’t do. In fact, her old tablet wouldn’t even work with her newer computer.

In thinking ahead to her birthday (August 6), I contemplated getting Kay one of the newer tablets, the Cintiq series. In addition to being larger and enabling the artist to draw directly onto their image on the screen (with the Intuos tablets you draw on a blank pad and it appears on your computer monitor), the Cintiqs have extensive and wide-ranging art capabilities, with multiple pens that can accurately simulate just about any media (like watercolors, airbrushing, etc.)

Unfortunately, the Cintiqs are also quite expensive: the 12-inch model that I thought would be perfect for Kay costs $1000. With WorldCon approaching (Kay’s birthday fell on the first day of WorldCon in 2008 and 2009), I knew I’d never manage to scrape together all that money in time.

Not really knowing what to expect, I turned to our friends for help. On March 12, I asked them to contribute whatever they could towards getting a Cintiq for Kay for her birthday. To my surprise and delight, a number of people enthusiastically agreed to help, and within a bit more than a month I’d gotten pledges for the entire amount!

That would have been plenty. It would have been amazing. But no – Craig Allen and I had other ideas.

The day after I first asked for pledges, Craig emailed me with an idea. Craig’s an amazing woodworker (check out his site for examples of his incredible work), and had the idea of building a wooden storage box for the tablet. He also thought we should make Kay work for it. So he came up with the idea of building a lock onto the box, with sliding rows of letters; that way, he could “program” the box so that the slides would have to be set to spell a particular word in order to open the box.

Since he knew that Kay and I were going to WorldCon, Craig suggested that maybe I could arrange a sort of scavenger hunt for Kay; make each letter of the word a “clue”, mix them up, and have her hunt them down and unscramble them, and then give her the box when we got back, so she’d have the word to unlock it.

I thought this was a great idea, so Craig started working on the box, and I started contemplating how to arrange the clues. One of our friends, Nathalie, suggested that, since Neil Gaiman was the guest of honor at WorldCon (and Kay is a huge fan), he would make sense to ask for help. I thought it was a long shot, but this friend knows Lorraine Garland, Neil’s assistant, and asked if she would help. (Actually, Kay knows Lorraine a bit too.) Lorraine liked the idea, and we exchanged a few emails about it. We ended up somewhat hung up on how to make it work, logistically: Neil Gaiman is a very busy man at any time, and especially recently with the popularity/success of the Graveyard Book and the Coraline film, plus him being the Guest of Honor at WorldCon… finding time was a real problem. We decided to ponder on it and return to talking later, when WorldCon was closer.

In the meantime, I began emailing people about helping with the conspiracy while at WorldCon. I’d initially thought that I’d just drop clues on cards at various places, but the talk of getting Neil Gaiman’s help made me think that I should ask a bunch of writers and artists instead, so all the clues could be delivered that way (Craig actually claimed the first letter, via a subtle line in a poem he wrote – I’ll get to that later).

I contacted a couple of people we’d met/seen at last year’s WorldCon, but several of them weren’t going this year – understandably, since last year was in Denver but this year was in Montreal, a trickier proposition for USA-dwelling folk. There wasn’t exactly an “order” to who I asked when – it was kind of, “Oh yeah, I bet he/she would be great!” and immediately emailed them.

To my complete shock, the first person I got a Yes from was author Cory Doctorow. I’d been working my way through his excellent body of work, and Kay was at that moment reading Doctorow’s Little Brother (which has been nominated for or won scads of awards, including the Hugo, the Prometheus, the Campbell, etc). Little Brother was not only impressing Kay, it was awakening her subversive side, which pleased me no end. So I was thrilled to have Cory enthusiastically willing to help.

The next person I heard back from was Beth Hommel. Beth is assistant to Amanda Fucking Palmer, whom Kay loves; AFP wasn’t going to be at WorldCon, but I’d had some idea that maybe Beth could get AFP to sign something, and then send it to me, and I could give it to Kay when we got home as “the last piece of the puzzle”. Well, Beth managed to do one better: it turned out that very soon she was going to help AFP and Neil Gaiman with a mass signing of hundreds of copies of their collaborative effort (along with photographer Kyle Cassidy), Who Killed Amanda Palmer. Beth offered to get a cover signed with two of the letter “clues”, one each from AFP and Neil. Of course I gratefully accepted. This solved the problem of how to arrange for time in Neil’s schedule at WorldCon; Lorraine agreed that it was a great solution since the WorldCon problem was still stumping her.

A few days later, I heard back from author Nalo Hopkinson, who loved the idea and agreed to provide a “clue”! Nalo’s an excellent writer (Brown Girl In the Ring was brilliant), and her blog is a good one to follow too.

I did have a few people not respond to emails, but I figure they were just going to be busy – understandably. WorldCon for writers is SRS BSNS.

Then I had a “duh” moment. Howard Tayler of Schlock Mercenary had made a big impression on Kay at last year’s WorldCon, when we met him at his booth in the Dealer’s Room; while chatting, he’d done a quick color drawing of Kay, which she loves and still pulls out to show people. So I emailed him, and a few days later got a Yes from him as well. That was the 6th and final letter.

While all this was going on, I had ordered the Cintiq itself on July 7 (delivered to my mother’s house so Kay wouldn’t see it). And Craig had been building the box, and sending me pictures of it in-progress.

Craig finished the box shortly after, and shipped it on July 14; it arrived at my mother’s house on July 21. Since I was overly-excited to see it, and the tablet had arrived already, I came up with a pretense to go over to my mom’s house on the 22nd and take a look, and put the tablet inside so it was ready.

The box was absolutely gorgeous. Kay grew up in the Arizona desert, and Craig built the box with that in mind; the woods were selected to reflect the colors of the desert. Craig built ornamentation onto the lid to look like the places Kay loves so much, and misses (now that we’re living on the east coast): the top is styled to look like the Superstition Mountains and surrounding desert, and the bottom like Monument Valley. The lock’s latch is actually a part of the Monument Valley mountains. The inside is all brown and dark orange felts, with holders for the tablet’s pen and pen base, and a lower section to hold the accessories. The care and attention to detail, the degree of tailoring a gift to its recipient that went into the making of this box is mind-boggling.

And then: Disaster.

After admiring the box for a while, my mother and I decided to put the accessories and tablet into the box. And the tablet didn’t fit.

Specifically, the cable that sticks out of the top of the tablet. The tablet itself would have fit snugly, but the cable sticks out very rigidly, and there was no room for flexibility. And the cable isn’t removable, it’s permanently attached. No matter what we tried, we couldn’t get the tablet to fit; we couldn’t try and force it in without damaging both the box and the tablet.

We were both horribly upset – not because of the mistake itself but because Craig had put so much effort in and we didn’t see a way to make it work. I went home and immediately emailed him, asking if he had any ideas.

After apologizing – which he did not have to do – Craig asked for some more details and then said he’d ponder the problem to see if he could come up with some solution. We thought that maybe the padding on the sides could be removed, but that didn’t seem like there would be enough room even then. The only thing I could think of was to actually cut into the wood of one side to create a “groove” for the cable, but that wasn’t something that could get done before we returned from WorldCon. Craig said he had a couple ideas, and would try a few experiments on his end.

While Craig worked on the solution, I set about arranging the details. I worked with the various clue-givers about specific days/times would be easiest for them to give their clues to Kay; I gave Beth the wording of the clues for Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman to sign on the book’s dust jacket, and she got that done. I also confirmed all our reservations in Montreal, since I thought it would be nice if we had an actual place to stay while we were there.

On July 31, Craig emailed me again, and told me quite possibly the last thing I expected to hear. Essentially, without having the box in hand, he hadn’t been able to come up with a solution to the problem of the tablet’s cable. So since the box wasn’t going to work, he built another one.

The first box had taken Craig almost four months from conception to completion. But he managed to redesign and rebuild a second box that would fit – in the span of about nine days. He didn’t tell us that’s what he was doing because he wasn’t sure he could get it finished in time, and didn’t want to get our hopes up. But he did it.

The second box was shipped on July 31, and arrived at mom’s house on August 7, the Friday of WorldCon. I didn’t get to see it ahead of time in person, but Craig sent pictures. It really is very similar; the only differences are the size, which is bigger to accommodate the cable, and the inside, which is lined with purple felt because Craig couldn’t get more of the previous felts. It is every bit as beautiful, as much a work of art, as the first one.

The copy of Who Killed Amanda Palmer was a bit delayed due to their receiving the “innards” of the book later than expected, but Beth generously contributed one of her personal copies. It shipped on August 3, overnighted to make sure that it arrived on time. …it didn’t. It still hadn’t arrived when we left for WorldCon on August 5 (Wednesday). But we were a bit too distracted with getting all ready for the trip, and I didn’t really think much of it.

We drove to Montreal on Wednesday, August 5, and spent the afternoon and evening settling into the hotel and relaxing a bit. The following day, Thursday, August 6, was Kay’s actual birthday. This is when the fun started.

I had hoped to have the first clue, embedded in a short poem written by Craig, slipped into Kay’s information packet when we got our registration and badges taken care of on Thursday morning. I had actually emailed the WorldCon staff a couple of times asking for help, but hadn’t heard back. Unfortunately, it wasn’t really feasible – the information packets weren’t pre-tagged to specific people, they were all generic, so there was no way of guaranteeing that Kay would get the right one.

As a failsafe against that, I had purchased a blank greeting card and inserted the poem inside. Around 11 or 11:30 am, we sat down to relax a bit, and I handed Kay the card. (In retrospect, I really should have handed the card to our son Bastian and told him to give it to Kay and say “Happy birthday momma!” But I didn’t think of it until afterwards.) Here’s the poem:

There’s an old superstition, or so I’m told
‘bout a man named Waltz, and a vein of gold
And like this fabled Deutschman mined
You’ll have to have clues to claim your find

So first you go fourth in the alphabet
To discover the letters you’ll need to get
As you journey along…listen carefully now
For people you meet will help you learn how

As each new assistant provides a fresh lead
You’ll need to assemble the word that you need
And if you’ve read carefully, all that is here
Down deep in your mind the first should appear

The first line of the second stanza is the clue: “fourth” instead of “forth”. The fourth letter of the alphabet, or “D”.

At this point, Kay knew something was up. But she didn’t know what… and she didn’t know about from whom would come her next clues. In fact, based on the poem’s comments about “assistants”, she actually asked (rhetorically, knowing I wouldn’t answer) “How am I supposed to know who to ask to help me?”

Fortunately for Kay, she didn’t actually need to ask for help, as the clues came to her. She discovered this around 3:25pm on the same day. At 3:30pm, the panel “The Webcomics You Should Be Reading” was starting. One of the panelists? Howard Tayler, of course. While Kay was distracted by a conversation with another con-goer (Theresa – very nice lady), I slipped away, ducked into the room and touched bases with Howard. Then I got Kay (“The panel’s going to start!”) and we went into the room.

There I produced a copy of the Schlock Mercenary collection The Tub of Happiness, which Kay had no idea I had, gave it to her, and pushed her towards Howard to get it signed. Howard asked her which character was her favorite, and when she said it was Schlock, he drew her a big sketch of Schlock, wrote “Happy birthday! Your next clue is ‘E’.” and signed it. Kay’s stunned expression was priceless. Howard didn’t exactly keep it “just between us”, either, joking with some of the rest of the audience: “What’s this? It’s almost as though I’m part of some secret conspiracy!” (Some of the audience members took some business cards from me because they wanted to know how it would all work out!) After we sat down Kay was giving me the evil eye. I believe she actually punched me just then, the first of many times during the weekend. I’m not sure, I’m still a little woozy.

ETA – PIC: Kay with Howard Tayler

Jump forward to Friday morning (August 7). It was about 9:54 AM, and we’re sitting outside a room waiting for the previous panel to let out so “Intellectual Property and Creative Commons” can start at 10. Meanwhile, I’m trying to send a text while not looking like I’m sending a text.

I’m not sure if it was because of my text or because he remembered, but Cory Doctorow walked out of the room and greeted a couple people while glancing around; I heard him murmur “I’m supposed to meet someone” to one of them. Meanwhile, Kay has a look on her face that meant “Is that Cory Doctorow? Nah, Bart would be saying something.”

I caught Cory’s eye and nodded slightly at him, and he walked over, said hi and shook my hand. I introduced him to Kay, whose eyes have just about bugged out of her head. I pulled out the copy of Little Brother we’d brought to get signed, and said “I was hoping you could personally sign this?” (“personally sign” was Cory’s suggestion for our secret code phrase – it turned out to be unnecessary, but it was all part of the conspiracy.) So Cory took the book, wrote “For Kay – Happy Birthday! Your next clue is R.” and signed it.

Shortly thereafter, Kay muttered to me “How many more of these do you have planned before I start to cry?” So I knew we were on the right track.

ETA – PIC: Kay with Cory Doctorow

It didn’t get any easier on Kay that afternoon. At 2 PM we slipped over to the autographing area, and this time Kay actually watched as Nalo Hopkinson signed Brown Girl In the Ring with “Kay, your next clue is ‘E’. Happy birthday, Worldcon 2009”. At this point both my arms were already liberally covered with bruises from the punchings.

ETA – PIC: Kay with Nalo Hopkinson

At that point, all of the during-Worldcon, pre-planned surprises had been sprung. Kay had 4 letters (D-E-R-E), and was frustratingly trying to decide if I was taking her DEER hunting or if there was something hiding in the REEDs for her.

I’d originally thought that it was okay to have the final 2 days of the convention free of clues, because it meant that Kay would be constantly looking over her shoulder for the next surprise. But I realized that there were many opportunities to add to the whole thing, and so I resolved to throw in a couple more clues on the fly… just to mess with her.

Okay, not just to mess with her. Kay has often used the phrase “my desert” to refer to the Arizona desert she fell in love with as a child. So I figured I could add M-Y and it would still make sense to her… once she deciphered it.

I got my first opportunity early on Saturday, when we were in the Dealer’s Room during a lull in the programming. Crossing Chaos Enigmatic Ink is an independent literary press, and they had a small table in the Dealer’s Room. Kay and I love to support smaller publishers, so I was perusing their table and found an interesting-looking book, Marvellous Hairy by Mark Rayner. I was chatting about it with the guys at the table, and discovered that one of them was in fact Mark Rayner. So while Kay was off looking at another table, I bought the book and asked Mark to sign it “To Kay. Your next clue is ‘Y’. Happy birthday!” I handed it to Kay and collected my punching.

ETA – I completely forgot to get a pic of Kay with Mark. My bad!

I had planned on asking Jay Lake to provide the final clue of “M” at his autograph session that night – Kay and I have both been reading Lake and like his work a lot (his latest book Green was completely absorbing). But then an opportunity dropped into my lap and I had to take it.

At 5 PM we went to a panel “Aunts In Spaceships”. In addition to being an interesting topic, one of the panelists was Sharon Lee, who co-writes the Liaden books with Steve Miller. We had met Lee and Miller at last year’s WorldCon (in fact Baz had probably been responsible for making them sick shortly afterward). I had emailed Lee and Miller asking if they would help provide a clue some time earlier, but hadn’t gotten a response.

But it became pretty clear that either a response had gotten lost or overlooked, because they clearly knew about it. While Kay had gone off somewhere, I noticed Steve Miller near the back of the room, and went over just to say hi. Without any prompting he immediately remembered that I’d had a special autograph request and asked if I had the book with me. I told him I didn’t, but I did have one I’d planned to bring to their autograph session the following day (Sunday).

That evening we had dinner with some friends in a nearby restaurant. Cory Doctorow was one table over having dinner with his family, and as they got up to leave he stopped over long enough to ask Kay “How’s the birthday going?”

The next day worked out perfectly. We arrived that morning when Sharon and Steve were just getting set up, and they asked if anyone there would take some cash from them and run to get them drinks, as they had just come from business and were parched. Kay volunteered all on her own, which gave me the perfect opportunity to talk with them about exactly what to write without her overhearing. When she returned, they signed a copy of their book Agent of Change with “Your next clue is ‘M’.”

ETA – PIC: Kay with Sharon Lee (We completely forgot to ask Sharon and Steve for a pic. This was when we ran into Sharon later.)

So as of Sunday night, Kay had D-E-R-E-Y-M, and was accusing me of misspelling “DREAMY” (and for some reason never thought of REMEDY). The second box had arrived, and my mother had confirmed that the tablet fit. Everything was going off perfectly… almost.

Remember way back a whole 1500 words ago when I mentioned that the book Who Killed Amanda Palmer hadn’t arrived?

Disaster Part Two: The book had not arrived when we left for WorldCon. In fact, the USPS tracking number showed it in Flushing, NY on August 5, two days after being shipped. Remember, this was supposed to be “overnight” shipping. I had contacted Beth about it, but there wasn’t really anything she could do. As of the morning of Monday, August 10, it had vanished, and we had assumed it was lost.

While I was very happy with how everything else had gone, I was very sad that that book – which as I said was supposed to be presented as the big ‘final piece of the puzzle’ – was gone. So it was with a slightly heavy heart (on my part) that we packed our car, checked out of the hotel and started driving home.

At about 10:45 AM we stopped to switch drivers. While Kay took Bastian to the bathroom, I called my mother and asked her to have a greeting card ready with the final two clues written inside; we couldn’t very well ask Kay to wait while we worked out something else!

We got back on the road again, and just a few minutes later at 11:10 AM, I got a text from my mom: “It came! Right after I talked to u! Yippee” (As Beth eventually put it, “Who knew that ‘a whole week’ is the new overnight?”)

With a huge amount of relief (on my part), we drove the rest of the way home, with me sending text updates to my mother every so often. We Arrived right around 3 PM. I went up to the door first, just to make certain, and sure enough the door was cracked slightly. Inside was mom, sitting on a chair and holding our video camera. The box was right on the table, covered up so we could do the Big Reveal properly.

Mom had wrapped the book (at least I assume it was her?), so Kay opened it first. There are Dueling Clues on it: “Your next clue is ‘T’.” “It’s actually ‘S’.”. Neil and Amanda have both signed it, as well as Beth, and Beth even drew a little key on it. It’s gorgeous. So we made Kay work out the clue first (She needed a little hint: “It’s a phrase you’ve used frequently to describe something precious to you.”), and then we had the Big Reveal.

ETA – PIC: Kay checking out the box (#2). That’s me and Bastian in the background.
ETA – PIC: Kay with both boxes and the Cintiq. You can see Who Killed Amanda Palmer too.

PIC: Box #1 (too small)
PIC: Box #2 (just right)
PIC: the Cintiq 12WX (With a “jubilant Kay” doodle)

The rest… was every bit as wonderful as I’d hoped for. Amazement. Shaky legs. Tears. The buildup was brilliant, and just focused everything perfectly. It was almost too much, but I’ll let Kay describe that part. Suffice to say, for my part, it was worth every second of effort.

Now please stop asking me how I’m going to top this next year. Because I haven’t got a clue.


(P.S. – this post is just too long, and with all the references and fact-checking has taken almost 4 hours to write. So I’m going to do a completely separate post with photos, or upload the photos and add some links here, a bit later. There’s also video that will get up on Youtube as soon as we get the chance.)

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  1. […] can read all about it at the Crossed Genres blog. Then perhaps you can think of other ways to intrigue him. (I imagine painful twisting might work, […]

  2. […] Rather than try to condense what happened, I think it would be easier if people read my after-the-fact blog post. It’s long but worth the […]

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