It was fall of 2003. I had just moved to Vermont, and didn't quite feel at home yet. Not that I've ever really felt at home anywhere. Did you ever have the feeling that you were just a little bit different? That you saw things that others didn't see (and perhaps missed things they did see)? Well, that's how I've felt much of the time.
It was my good fortune to come across Skeptic magazine in the bookstore at Georgetown University, and a new issue arrived in my shiny new mailbox about a month after I moved to Vermont. I read it eagerly, and saw an ad therein for a convention in Las Vegas featuring James Randi and Penn & Teller.
It was called The Amaz!ng Meeting 2, and I decided to go. And nothing's been the same since. I immediately bought tickets to everything... the workshops, the fundraising dinner, and started hanging out on the JREF Forums to see what this was all about. I was shy and didn't post much, but I liked reading the comments and looked forward to meeting these interesting people.
When I got to TAM, I was nervous and felt out of place. A lot of the attendees seemed to know each other, and I had little hope of fitting in. And then a miracle happened.
After about 30 minutes of sitting in the room watching Hal Bidlack* and James Randi* speak, it began to dawn on me that these were my people. These were the people that I could wink at or nod to and they'd know what I mean. They were the ones who would know what hypnogogia was, and would understand that science wasn't about facts but a process. And they were here.. and we were together, and it was good.
And then it got better. Michael Shermer* talked about why we believed weird things. Banachek* blew my mind. Jamy Ian Swiss* blew it again! Bob Park became a new hero, and every single person in the audience fell in love with Julia Sweeney as she showed us a new idea called "The God Monolgue" that eventually became Letting Go of God. Ian Rowland introduced me to cold reading, which has been invaluable. Phil Plait* discussed the illusive (and non-existent) Planet X, and Eugenie Scott impressed everyone with her battle against creationism.
And then... I got to interact with these folks! They were real people... not just props on a stage. I shook Randi's hand, had dinner with Julia (and 40 other folks), talked with Penn about Bullshit!, had a chat with Banachek... and on and on. I got to meet the late great Jay Marshall. There wasn't a line to stand in.. he just sat down at my table during a break with his son Aye Jaye, who then "magicked" a quarter away from me only to place into his wallet, which immediately burst into flames. Jonathan Pritchard, then a JREF intern and now a practicing magician, bent a fork with "his mind" right in front of me. One breakfast, another TAM attendee asked to join my table, and I learned that he worked with Oppenheimer on the Manhattan project. Where else can you have these encounters?
For that weekend, I had the sense that I wasn't alone. There were other folks with similar interests and ideas, and every year, they made the return migration home to TAM. I haven't missed a single one since.
I collected what was in my pockets at the end of the trip, and made a collage-y thing that still hangs on my wall. Slick gave out amethyst crystals, forum member Eos of the Eons gave everyone a loony, and the hotel laughingly gave out fortune cookies at one lunch. My fortune: "There will always be delightful mysteries in your life." So far, that's been true. Hmm.
There are a lot of "in" jokes at TAM, but the great thing is... you are already "in." You don't need to be shy, you can sit with anyone and have a sparkling conversation. Try it, and you'll see.
TAM 7 promises to be more of the same. Every one with a * by their name will be returning this year, and many new speakers will become our friends by TAM's final goodbye. They'll become MY friends, not because I work for the JREF, but simply because they'll be there at TAM with me. This can happen to you, as well.
There really is nothing like this, and I regret that you have to take my word for that. But please do. Take a look at these videos, and understand that is only one tiny part of what TAM is. TAM is about the attendees, as much as the speakers, and hopefully, you'll be one of us this year.