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Spider's Online Diary

26 June, 2006
Callahan's LegacyThe Coolest Party Ever

© 2006 by Spider Robinson; all rights reserved.

If you're Canadian, and awake, you probably know Moses Znaimer-and even if you don't, your life has been significantly impacted by him more than once, for the better. If you're a non-Canadian, take a moment to go scope out his wikipedia entry, and when you have I think you will agree that he's a character more remarkable and colorful and accomplished and just plain interesting than one generally finds in real life, cooler than the other side of the pillow.

Naturally, he throws the coolest parties ever. I just got home from one.

Do you go back far enough to recall a superb, award-winning PBS TV show created and written by the late great Steve Allen, called Meeting of Minds? It was basically a science-fictional version of The Tonight Show (which Steve also created)-Time-Travel Talk TV. Each episode made you a fly on the wall as four great historical personages from different eras sat around a table and shot the shit, with Steve as moderator. A typical show might bring together Sun Yat Sen, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Niccolo Machiavelli, and Aristotle for a half-hour chat about the nature of love and hate. Way cool.

Moses Znaimer does something ten times cooler than that, every year in Toronto, for three days straight.

IdeaCity is a three-day conference-okay, glorious free-for-all-held at the splendid Isobel Bader Theatre, limited to 500 attendees who've paid from CDN$1800-2950 apiece to be there, offering them 50 different noted speakers from wildly different fields-astronauts, politicians, dancers, inventors, kazoo players, actors, you name it-four in each session, with extended conversation breaks, and truly amazing nightly parties. There is no topic or theme. Any ideas at all are welcome as long as they're interesting. Scripted speeches from a podium are forbidden; presenters are expected to wing it, for an absolute maximum of twenty minutes, with whatever audiovisual aids they can dream up to assist them. IdeaCity 06 just ended.

A complete list of even just this year's presenters would stun your eyeballs; they included Mike Papantonio, who co-founded Air America Radio; Electronic Arts Games Creative Director Steven Rechtschaffner; worldclass shit-disturber Barbara Turnbull; 10-year-old violin prodigy Harris Wang; mezzosoporano Jean Stilwell; William Sampson, who nearly lost his head in Saudi Arabia, literally; Steve Schklair who's working on realtime broadcast of 3-D television; and director Michael Lennick, who made the documentary series Rocket Science and is currently making the Stardance film with my wife.

The final session, on Friday June 23, featured the National Ballet of Canada's great prima ballerina Veronica Tennant; notorious publishing mogul Lord Conrad Black of Crossharbour, currently under almost as many indictments as the Enron boys; John Howe, Canadian born author and the artist behind Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings"; and me.

It was the second time Moses Znaimer has invited me to IdeaCity (the last was 2002), and I don't know how I will ever repay his kindness and astonishing generosity. Each time has been a stimulating, life-changing experience for me-not to mention some of the most lavish treatment I've ever experienced in my life.

It begins when you leave the baggage claim area in the Toronto airport, and see a very pleasant-looking man holding up a large sign with your name clearly printed on it-which he doesn't need, because Fred recognizes you on sight. His brand new limo is the exact polar opposite of "modern" air travel: a truly civilized way for human beings to move from one place to another, and you're old friends by the time he decants you before The Suites At One King West, a 19th century apartment hotel with 4-star 24-hour room service and windows you can open and jump out of if it suits you. Big living room; roomy kitchen with microwave, good coffeemaker, dishwasher and fridge; big dining room; big sitting room; huge bedroom with outstanding superking mattress and zero-gee pillows; washer/dryer; two full baths with separate tub and shower; 3 cable TVs with DVD; highspeed Ethernet acces -- a man can manage to hunker down for a few days in a shack like that without too much strain, if he puts his mind to it.

Next morning, Fred's waiting outside with an even newer limo to whisk you away to the feast of ideas as though downtown traffic were something only for lesser creatures. The huge basket of welcoming gifts waiting for you at the registration desk includes a new Blackberry. So does your spouse's gift basket. Everywhere you look is the very latest top of the line Apple Computer gear-dozens and dozens of hot demo machines wired up every way there is, lying around available for anyone who hasn't brought his or her own Powerbook. There is a state-of-the-art Aveda pleasure robot disguised as a leather armchair, which instantly know things about your body and soul that even your wife of 30 years only intuits-you feel you could take at least 12 g ees cradled in it.

Everyone around you is talking at once, and nobody is saying anything that isn't interesting. For the hundredth time in your life you see an old fellow who's a dead ringer for Pete Seeger, only this time it really is Pete Seeger, and you shake his hand, Pete Seeger's picking hand with your own hand, and thank him profusely, and he gives you his autograph on a CD sampler of his Folkways classics. Twice in the same day, you see another of your heroes, Peter Bergman, co-founder of the mindmelting Firesign Theater, and the second time it isn't a fevered hallucination, and he gives you his card. (If you don't know the Firesigns, the Big Sur of Surreal, try their recent CD Give Me Immortality, or Give Me Death!, or one of their classics like Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers.)

This goes on for three days straight, all day long. Every night, the feast is Lucullan, and the company heady, and the conversation glorious. Only one of the 50 presenters is an unexpected dud, the guy who designed the Nokia phone, who does a straight 20-minute commercial to universal disgust -- and even he is not booed. This is Canada. Moses effortlessly mc's each session with wit and style, introduces every presenter himself, clearly having the time of his life in a splendid vanilla ice cream suit that makes him look like Sir Alec Guiness triumphant.

In introducing me, late Friday afternoon, he simultaneously warms my heart and blows my mind-by telling the audience I've kept him up all night reading an advance galley of VARIABLE STAR, and showing them the bookmark about 4/5 of the way through!

Fortunately, I've brought Robert A. Heinlein himself along for moral support, using his recorded voice in support of my own as I plead the case for the utter necessity of manned space flight and off-earth colonies as soon as possible. (Which I can sum up by paraphrasing Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil: "We gotta get out of this place-or it's the last thing we'll never do.") It goes over well. Smart, kind crowd. I have a pleasant chat with Lord Black backstage afterward; he takes polite exception to my characterization of Richard Nixon as a "treacherous rat bastard." A most gracious gentleman.

By the time Saturday arrives and your old friend Fred teleports you one last time, to the airport, your head is buzzing with cross-pollinating ideas, and you're in such a warm glow that for once you almost don't mind being degraded, insulted, tortured, dehydrated, oxygen-starved, overcharged for unforgivable "food," and otherwise treated like a troublemaker in Gitmo for four or five hours, and then ransoming back your car for slightly less than it would have cost you to drive to Toronto and back. Magic that can make air travel endurable is mighty magic indeed-and it lasts all the way back home, is still around days later when you finish unpacking and sleeping and finally get back to your desk to write a Diary entry about the experience.

Thank you, Moses Znaimer, for inviting me and Jeanne to your Promised Land this year. It was a solid gasser-again. Once was an unexpected honour, twice is way cool. I hope you liked the ending of VARIABLE STAR. Robert and Ginny would have loved to know you. I don't know any other wealthy man alive who has so thoroughly earned his money, who makes such intelligent and creative use of it, or who gets such a fucking bang out of it.

Give Karen Dubin and Marijke Daye and the rest of Moses' crack team of tactical and logistical geniuses a month or so to recover from IdeaCity 06 and bury their dead -- and then give serious thought to visiting and signing up for IdeaCity 07. The sooner you do, the less it costs-and those 500 slots go fast. If you have a dull time there, it'll be your own damn fault.