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Courtesy: John Scalzi

'Right now, people need JoCo:' How Jonathan Coulton and company created a massive floating safe space

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Mar 20, 2018

With a plate of smoked salmon in one hand and a mimosa in the other, surrounded by people alternately in resort-wear, Star Wars shirts, and truly elaborate cosplay, I listened every day for a week as the familiar voice of Paul and Storm’s Paul Sabourin came over the loudspeaker with “morning announcements.”

“Attention students.”

In unison, every single time, nearly everyone replied: “Good morning, Principal Sabourin.”

That daily call and response is truly one of the best examples I can give as to what makes the JoCo Cruise a uniquely geeky experience. Equal parts reverent and gently irreverent (irreverent in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone, not a downward punch to be found), where fans and their heroes co-exist for a full week, mingling over games, books, or even just the taco bar, the JoCo Cruise is the nautical creation of Jonathan Coulton with comedy musicians Paul Sabourin and Storm DiCostanzo (known simply as Paul and Storm) and featuring guests across a very specific, wonderfully weird Venn diagram of nerd culture: some from the world of genre literature, TV, and comics (John Scalzi, Patrick Rothfuss, and Amy Berg), music (Aimee Mann), comedy (John Hodgman, Michael Ian Black, Maria Bamford, and Cameron Esposito), and those wonderful spots where they intersect (Jean Grae, Wil Wheaton, Molly Lewis, and so many others).

Launched back in 2011, the first year had 350 attendees. “We were astounded,” DiCostanzo said. “We had been thinking [that] maybe 100 people will do this.”

The first several years, JoCo attendees—called Sea Monkeys—shared the ship with non-Sea Monkeys. Longtime JoCo Cruise denizen Kendra Zzyzwyck remembers those days, as well as her general rule of thumb for differentiating her group from the rest: “Anyone with wildly colored hair was ours.”

Photo by Kelly W. Peavey

By 2016, there were 1,100 attendees and JoCo's creators realized that was as big as they could get before they had to make the decision to charter an entire ship. And that’s exactly what they did. This year, the Holland America Line’s Oosterdam was filled with nearly 1,800 gamers, cosplayers, comedy enthusiasts, music lovers, and, above all else, proud nerds waving their geek flags high, reveling in the ability to do just that for seven full days surrounded almost entirely by those who feel the same way.

“For a lot of ‘nerds’—quote unquote—their enthusiasms aren’t as generally socially acceptable to share the way one can share enthusiasm about, say, football or things like that,” Sabourin explained. “And they get to come on this space, which is kind of like a con in some ways where it's a gathering of people who share this sort of enthusiasm, but we're also sort of removed from the world almost literally for a week.” 

Early on, Coulton and company realized that, given the space to do so, this is a sect of fandom who will create their own fun, their own mini-communities. And thus the shadow cruise was born. In addition to the already full schedule of official panels, shows, and performances, Sea Monkeys are welcome to add their own events to the schedule—from crafting to vintage hair tutorials to meet-ups for Blerds, LGBQ, and trans attendees. 

“We just provide as much space and time as possible for people to schedule their own events, book clubs, support groups, gaming gatherings, crafting, and we just stay out of the way of it and just let them do the things that they want to do,” Sabourin said.

For many Sea Monkeys, those shadow events mean as much as anything else available on the cruise—if not more. 

“That shadow cruise thing is almost genius in its inclusiveness,” said comedian and host of The Dork Forest podcast Jackie Kashian, a performer on the last two JoCo Cruises.  “It’s like, ’No, you are also a creator. You are also an artist.’”

But far beyond the sheer glee that comes with a plethora of options to tickle your fandom fancy is what that inclusiveness means to attendees who at times struggle to find their community outside the steel walls of this ship.

“My expectation going to general cons and get-togethers is that there are going to be few other people of color. I've just been assuming that there's not that much diversity where I go. Things are going to be really alienating and that's just how it is. I've gotten pretty used to it,” said Alicia Pressley, a programmer from Wisconsin, who was thrilled by the turnout at the shadow cruise’s Blerd meet-up. “I love that there's an active assertive motion in order to make inclusive groups, to make the space and the people more understanding and familiar.”

For Caeli Field, as someone who works for Blizzard Entertainment, she and her husband have no shortage of readily accessible people to geek out with. But thanks to meet-ups for trans people like herself, as well as a polyamory meet-up, she got opportunities for community not necessarily available in the relatively conservative Orange County where she works and lives.

“Just having a venue where we could go meet other people who are into that same sort of lifestyle and who understand that—we practically overfilled the space that we had,” she said. “It was nice being able to see that many people that feel the same way we do and are able to talk about it and things like that. Being able to even just say, ‘Oh, yeah, we're going to the poly meet-up later.’ And people are like, ‘Oh, all right. Cool.’ That’s not an experience that we get quite so much.”

Photo by Natalie Schnelle

The inclusive nature of the shadow events speaks to a larger goal of JoCo as a whole: to make sure no one feels othered, something the cruise fosters not only with the engagement of attendees via the shadow cruise but in the guests and performers they book.

“It was very welcoming right away to see N.K. Jemisin is on this cruise,” Pressley said. “That's a signal to people of color, like, ‘We respect and understand your needs; this is a person who is important to you,’ and it also is like a powerful message to everyone, like ‘This is an important and exciting person.’ Just having that inclusion in the celebrities on the cruise has been strong.”

Photo by Michael Bain

Despite the best efforts of everyone involved, for fans on board who are female, trans, or gender-nonconforming, people of color or any combination or all of the above, the cruise can serve as a reminder of their place as minorities in even the most well-intentioned geek space.

As three-time cruise veteran Cindy Lu points out, there is at least one big reason for that: “It's not cheap. And I think you have to be a certain income level to be able to take the week off, pay for the ship, and pay for all your other travel expenses, and that probably also limits it,” she said. “White-male-in-tech is heavily prevalent on the ship. But that may be the demographic who has a disposable income to be able to take part in this.”

Her sentiments were echoed by fellow three-timer Kendra Zzyzwyck. “I know tons of people who would totally come, but they just can’t,” she says, noting both her own ability to be able to attend along with her reasoning for dropping that kind of cash. “By the time I retire, I may not have a world to retire in. So I might as well boat.”

Indeed, attendees were well aware of the state of the world around us, even without access to the internet. In stand-up performances, panels on mental health and storytelling, and even the ship’s intra-ship messaging service (known as “Twit-arr”), frequent discussions arose about the current White House administration, the concept of privilege, and toxic masculinity, thanks to 2018 JoCo Cruise performer Michael Ian Black’s NYT op-ed that ran during the cruise. Debates arose between Trump supporters who felt “marginalized” by the overwhelmingly liberal cruise population and attendees marginalized in day-to-day life in no small part due to the Trump administration. For a time, it was Twitter as usual, until the powers that be stepped in and asked that the conversation be taken to the forum.

“The first sentence of our code of conduct is ‘be excellent to each other,’” Coulton said. “And that is really important to us, because it is really important to our community. It is one of the things that we value about this thing, is that people feel comfortable expressing themselves here.”

Photo by Beth Gordon

Apart from that relatively minor fraction of the time spent aboard the Oosterdam, Coulton, Sabourin, and DiCostanzo, as well as the attendees I spoke to, were quick to point out that the 2018 cruise was more positive than 2017, which occurred less than two months after Trump’s inauguration. Sea Monkey Lauren Haffner told me about that experience, her first JoCo Cruise. “Last year I noticed that everybody was just sort of tiptoeing around what happened, because it was still pretty fresh. Even the comedians and the songwriters were kind of staying away from that. But this year, they're being more blatant about it. They're really putting it out there that they feel like that what's going on is not OK.”

Even management felt the sting of this strange year, as citizens, obviously, but also as “Principal Sabourin,” “Assistant Principal DiCostanzo,” and JoCo himself as they try to provide a safe haven for fans, in whatever form that might take.

“Last year was really odd. So many of the people that attend, I think, were affected adversely by the events of November 2016,” DiCostanzo said. “There were a lot of raw feelings, but because of what this is, an environment where you're not directly connected to news all the time, I think for me personally, and for a lot of other people, it was kind of a forced time-out that was refreshing. This year has felt much more cohesive. There’s a strength to it, where it is almost like the armies have been scattered; last year was the rally point, and this year it has coalesced even more.”

Haffner also pointed out the importance of having the option to either—or both—turn it all off for a week or relish in the chance to get creative with it. “I think that some Sea Monkeys might be uncomfortable, because I know that a lot of us are trying to actually avoid the news this week, to kind of take a break, because so much is a little scary, depressing, and enraging. It's nice to be able to laugh about it, instead of chewing your fingernails and kind of hiding in a corner. We have people that can kind of distract us from it, or if they want to talk about it we can at least be open.”

And for Coulton, that happy (or unhappy) middle is important. “We have lived with the political situation for a year, and we are all kind of feeling like, ‘Well, we're still here,’” he said. “Everybody has had their own journey for the past couple of years, but for me, I have found it really helpful too as a straight white male to shut up for a while, start really trying to listen to other people's perspectives, and I think that is another thing that we pretty consciously try to bring here—to have women, and queer folk, and trans folk, and people of color and to provide a platform for those voices to be expressed.”

He credits the drive to do that with the dialogue that’s finally been happening in loud, public ways about that exact need. “I understand now in a way that I don't think that I would have a couple of years ago the importance of representation, and because that feedback happens here, where people come up to me and say thank you for having this kind of person here to speak about this kind of topic because it means a lot to me as an audience member to see that onstage,” Coulton said. “I get that and I am sort of high on it. It feels great.”

For Kashian, whose stand-up sets focused heavily on the election, she takes inspiration from a fellow cruise guest.

“We could get out of this with just everything sort of slightly crippled and have to fix it for 30 years, which, as a middle-aged white lady, I have to say that's convenient for me. You know who it isn't convenient for? A 16-year-old black kid,” she said. “Whatever happens, the genie doesn't go back into the bottle. We're all talking about it now, so there will be a change, I think in a positive way. Unless it turns into Bitch Planet, which then we will have to murder everyone, and Kelly Sue DeConnick will lead that charge!”

Until Bitch Planet comes to pass, nerdkind has at least one floating safe space, where they can at least (kind of) avoid the internet and most of the toxicity that has defined this point in time. Despite one brief foray into #NotAllMen-ery, everyone I talked to stressed the inherent goodness, kindness, and respect that exists within the JoCo Cruise, and the need for such a venue at this point in time.

Photo by Louis Srygley

"Right now, people need JoCo. I think nerds need JoCo more than anything," said longtime cruiser Jacinda Bronaugh. "It's like Revenge of the Nerds. The nerds won and then didn't make the world a better place. Now the jocks have won. I understand safe spaces now. It's not just something to mock; it's so a person can go somewhere and not be sh*t-talked." 

That feeling, that JoCo is a safe space wholly unique within geek culture, was strong among attendees as well. “I hang out with a lot of geeks where I live too, but this does feel different,” Haffner said. “Everybody is looking to lift you up and encourage you, and compliment you on things that normally you might not do at home because you'd get put down.”

Lu said that despite the demographics, the cruise differs from other geek spaces. “We go to sci-fi cons and other events, but this is where the pervasive culture is really more accepting, and I think there's a conscious focus on female empowerment, which may not really exist anywhere else.”

Beyond being accepting, what JoCo lends itself to most is community. During my seven days on the ship, I heard the word “tribe” repeatedly, along with the idea of the cruise as “summer camp.” And it really is that. More than a gathering place for people with similar interests—and the means to afford such a trip—the cruise produces camaraderie and even real friendships. In a world full of cons, where we pass by each other, maybe stopping to tell another attendee you like their cosplay, here lasting relationships are forged over meet-ups, gaming tables, and tropical drinks. 

“Cons are more about different people coming to the same place to see certain celebrities and to buy things. JoCo's more about people bringing in other people to introduce them to their other nerd friends. Including Jonathan Coulton, who is a nerd friend,” Zzyzwyck said. “Even if you haven't met him, he's your nerd friend.”

And that’s the magic of the JoCo Cruise. Where you can see John Hodgman play ping-pong with his son while Aimee Mann eats a sandwich just a table away from a group of friends wearing robes like Arthur Dent among strangers sporting fezzes; where people of all body types and abilities, across the gender spectrum and gender-nonconforming children, are able to swim and play and laugh unjudged and unbothered, the freedom and maybe even relief visible on their faces. The playing field is leveled; we’re all made friends by the kinship of this cruise, and the passions shared within. 

“The best part of nerd culture is this idea that we are all different, we are all capable of feeling like outsiders in various ways, and so to the extent that we can get together and accept each other and celebrate each other's differences,” Coulton said. “Here we are, all together. It’s still a comfortable, warm, friendly environment. It means a lot to me, and I wish we could take credit for it, but it is the community of people that we have ended up with time and again.”


Photo by Beth Gordon