19 July 2008

The Mysteries of Conferencing

Here I am back in London, having gone to Scotland for a week-long conference in a charming seaside town.  I had all kinds of trouble getting there, but I think that just has to be accepted for any multi-part journey. What was much nicer was that once I did get there I discovered that if I looked out my window I could see bunnies on the lawn!  I love bunnies! And these ones were quite brazen and at home, little families of them hopping all over the place as bunny-like as you please.  You can see them there above, and here's a picture of the sea for good measure (that's not me):

Years ago I went to Edinburgh with my best friend, and while we were there her grandmother told her that on some nights in high summer it never got fully dark; they're that far north.  Well, 21 years later I FINALLY came back, and I remembered to pay attention to check the veracity of this statement.  I can report that as of July 17, the sky stays streaky until 11:23. Here it is at 9pm:

The conference itself was very enjoyable.  The papers were good, but even better was the company.  It must be admitted that I generally find academic conferences a curious combination of gruelling and enervating:  the papers often bore me, or I find them hard to follow, but at the end of a day I'm nonetheless exhausted.  I think part of this has to do with the fact that I often don't know many people at a given conference, and even if I do know them we seldom make arrangements to hang out together at the end of the conference day.  Thus, I get no time to relax by discussing the various panels with friends.  To some extent, this was true of this conference, too -- that is, I found it tiring.  But part of the charm of this particular conference is that everyone seems to know each other:  the same people go every year, so there comes a feeling of chummy clubbiness.  Also, and I've noticed this before, all British academics seem to know one other.  Britain is not that small, but the impression you get from going to conferences is that it's the size of your thumb.  Everyone knows everyone, or at least knows of everyone, and as a result they all know each other's news, sometimes each other's scurrilous news.  Now, I am a big fan of gossip, when that gossip is simply passing information about who's published what, done what, gotten what job, and behaved badly toward whom.  I have zero interest in reputation-damaging gossip, and I never pass on anything negative I hear, but I do love the information aspect of gossip.  So it was enormously pleasurable to attend this conference because I got to learn who everyone was, and what they had all done or were doing. But also, there was an even-more-pleasurable sense that we were somehow all a family, guaranteed to like each other and have a certain amount in common (although there still was the usual need for small talk) and welcome each other.  I can't help it; I just like that.

It's odd, because I would say that most people would think of me as a loner, and I'm certainly someone who needs a good deal of time on her own.  At the same time, however, I love communities, I love inserting myself into families, both real families and made ones.  As a child I was loathed by all my peers, so perhaps I love these communities so much now because it's making up for the exclusion of my earlier years.  

I should probably say at this stage that my paper went down very well.  And since I wore my bright purple dress (although I only fit into it by a whisker, so much food were we faced with. I'm actually disappointed that the gym will not be open tomorrow), I was also much admired for my "glamour."  No wonder I loved these people!

I also had the extraordinary experience of meeting what I believe to be The Bitterest Man in the World.  Truly, he was seamed richly with the bitter.  I would say 9 out of every 10 of his statements was laced with spite or contempt.  It was extraordinary!  Perhaps even more extraordinary is the fact that I chose to hang out with him; the first time I couldn't avoid it, but the second time I did it voluntarily.  Okay, I have to admit that I did it because I thought he found me attractive, which is terrible.  Oh, vanity, vanity!  Nonetheless, it did give me a chance to observe his bitterness up close, and to be simultaneously mystified and astounded.  He has a two-year contract at a very prestigious university, which also gave him a free apartment (!); he has a book contract; he is not hideously ugly; he appears to have had more than one girlfriend; a number of distinguished academics greeted him with familiarity and pleasure:  and still he is bitter.  People are a mystery.

And finally, because I arrived for the conference a day early, I was able to spend a leisurely afternoon in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.  In fact, however, I could have spent two minutes there and missed nothing of delight, for when I entered their very impressive great hall what should I find facing me but this:

Oh, Robert Louis, how it makes my little heart go flippity-flop to see you!  Tee-hee.

What's more, on the middle day of the conference we went into Edinburgh, where, in addition to having perhaps the most tender piece of salmon I've ever had in my life (thank you, Ramada Inn on Princes Street), I also visited the Writer's Museum.  As one approaches the Writer's Museum there are random paving stones with quotations from Scottish authors.  I took photos of my favourites, and I'll leave you with one of them:

Indeed, it is!

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