Four notes of “Waltzing with Bears,” and I’m there, hearing the song for the first time as it echoes through the middle of the night in the atrium of the Clark Kerr Conference Center at the University at Berkeley, with a couple of dozen people in every costume imaginable singing the chorus as they do their best to waltz.
The occasion was Mythcon XIX. I was in graduate school, with a travel grant to deliver a paper that would eventually become the first chapter of my thesis. Trish and I were staying at Greyhaven, where, Paul Edwin Zimmer had told us, we could stay in the dojo with six witches from Denver. His promise sounded like the start of a dirty joke, but it was true – although he hadn’t mentioned that the witches’ harps would be taking up most of the space.
We were so excited that we could almost have flown south without the aid of Cathay Pacific. About mid-afternoon, we pulled up in a taxi in front of Greyhaven, that famous center for fantasy writers, pagans, poets, Renaissance dancers, the Society for Creative Anachronism hanger-on. “It looks just like the cover,” Trish said of the house, referring to the Greyhaven anthology that had been published a few years back. As the taxi pulled away, I got the anthology out of my bag to confirm the fact.
My first impression was of a house that was semi-dark, piled high with books, and full of people coming and going. Paul, we were told, was not awake yet, being nocturnal, but I soon got lost in the bewildering array of introductions. Somehow, we ended up on the second floor’s porch, talking with Kelson as he build a cardboard boat for a play that would be performed at the conference. When we left, Vancouver had been enduring a hot spell, so we remarked at the pleasant coolness on the porch, although I don’t think Kelson quite believed us.
We felt a little out of depth, since we were meeting many people for the first time. However, Paul rose early to greet us – something that rarely happened – and soon we were off on a conversation that raced back and forth like a terrier out for a walk in the park, and back on familiar ground.
That night, the house held a party. The party marked the opening of Mythcon, but we were made so welcome that it almost felt like a celebration in our honor. Here were all these brilliant people, some of them famous in their own circles, like Vampyre Mike Kassel the poet and Brother Charles (aka The Mad Monk), and we were accepted as belonging to the crowd. It was people-watching on a scale that I had rarely managed before, and I was ready to make the most of it, brachiating from conversation to conversation like an orangutan. I hadn’t been so over-excited since I was a boy.
Mind you, I did worry a bit when an earnest-looking young Unitarian minister and his wife latched on to us, apparently as the most normal-looking people at the party. We weren’t used to thinking of ourselves that way, and the impression made me feel for a moment that our welcome was tentative. But I laughed off the feeling, and the party continued, with more people drunk on words than what was in their glasses.
We spent the next day exploring Telegraph Avenue, and in the evening walked up to the conference center for the official start of Mythcon. It felt like a more subdued version of the previous night, as we worried with Ursula K. Le Guin about our mutual friend Avram Davidson and met Mythies like Sherwood Smith and David Bratman for the first time. We felt so much at home, that somewhere in the evening I found myself volunteering to help with next year’s Mythcon, which was being held in Vancouver.
The next two days were given over to the scholarly papers. I attended some, but what I remember most were the endless conversations and the unofficial events, like the performers doing a dance based on Le Guin’s Always Coming Home, the play based on Diane Paxson’s Westria series in which Kelson and his cardboard boat appeared, and Don Studebaker appearing in his role as Mark Twain in an expensive-looking ice-cream suit and extemporizing answers to questions from the audience.
Most of all, I remember the bardic circles. These were parties where each person took a turn performing or reciting a song or poem, asked someone else to perform, or passed. Presided over by Paul Zimmer in full Scottish regalia, the circles were even more magical than the rest of the conference, going on until three or four in the morning, when we would stagger down the street to Greyhaven and collapse down in the dojo.
I believe it was the second night that the semi-professional singers joined the circle. A man and a woman, they were in High Renaissance costume, each carrying an outsized balalaika. They seemed much more accomplished than the rest of us, and I could see Paul worrying that they might discourage members of the circle who were shy.
Cunningly, Paul started the circle so that the turn of the professionals would come mid-way around, an hour or two into the first round. As they started, I had a momentary fear that would try to dominate, but instead they started playing “Waltzing with Bears,” making waltz-like motions and dipping cautiously as they tried to reconcile dancing with protecting their instruments.
Maybe it was the instruments that got to everyone. Or maybe it was the echoes in the atrium or the contrast between their bright costumes and the dark just beyond the windows, or all these things at once. But whatever the reason, Paul and a few others started dancing to the music as well.
At the end, everyone cheered and applauded, and asked to hear the song again. This time, almost all of us got up, some in suits and ties, others in cutoffs or Medieval or Regency costume. Everyone was laughing. I’m not sure that we didn’t hear the song three times, but before the second performance was halfway through, I doubt anyone was in a condition to count.
After a break, the circle continued another couple of hours. Nothing quite equaled “Waltzing with Bears,” but the members of the circle were mellow after the performance, gradually running out of energy close to sunrise. I think we got three hours of sleep that night, which made the trip home something of a challenge. But the feeling that we had participated in a golden moment lingered for another couple of days, and I have never quite forgotten the moment ever since.
I’ve seen my share of trauma and pain, but my memory of that performance reminds me that the wonderful and the unexpected have happened to me, too. At times, I even look at one of the many Youtube renderings of the song, wondering if it was really written by Dr. Seuss, as sometimes claimed. But after listening to the song, I turn quiet, knowing that the people who made the memory are dispersed or dead, and that I will never have another chance to go waltzing with bears.