Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Conferee II

"'Christmas,' said Dr. Drinkwater, 'is a kind of day, like no other in the year, that doesn't seem to succeed the day if follows...every Christmas seems to follow immediately after the last one; all the months that came between don't figure in. Christmases succeed each other, not the falls that follow.'"—from Little, Big

My current job doesn't usually spot me a trip for the big meetings (for reasons including both stinginess and my usual failure to impress), but as I mentioned earlier, having been prepped and then somehow gainfully employed in the sciences for a decade and a half makes it difficult to completely avoid them. Here I am at a mini-symposium at the nearby university, my first permitted outing since the disaster in December, maybe let out because I don't have to actually talk at this one. Whether or not I succeed at identifying like-minded friends at these things (I am not likely to even stay for the open bar tonight), I still recognize a lot of recurring faces and names, some I've seen for the better part of that 15-year span, for the purposes of a handshake or even just to note and observe. The good doctor didn't quite nail it: it's not unique. Technical conferences follow Christmas time too. Even for those folks you see on the outside, the hotel-confined microcosms proceed one after the other in a succession of neckties and nametags, with elves, perhaps, (or grad students) filling new data and research trends into the talks like the gifts that must have somehow been purchased and deposited from outside the Christmas continuum.

This more or less yearly schedule makes observing people an unsettling experience. It's bad enough that time keeps eroding our bodies in analog, but watching our colleagues decay in a discretized, time-lapsed slideshow, it's horrific. Occupying some independent timesteam, the lost intervals are confused with a continuous experience, and the sudden eruption of wrinkles and unburdening of jowls appear to be the action of intervening hours instead of missing months. It's actually similar to what you notice in actors, when you catch a long-running series all at once, graying and drooping in the ivisible spaces between each year's shoots. Even finding forgotten acquaintances on Facebook hasn't been this bad. Ten years later, I expect us to have all noticably aged; my mind registers the intervening years in a way that is obviated during these recurring encounters in supertime.

Since I personally recognize a handful of these characters, I am pretty sure that my impression is correct, but I do have a competing theory. As I said before, there's a whole taxonomy of conference archetypes to be examined (and if they can make good hay with categorizing web personalities, someone really has to go to the trouble to describe them. It's not going to have to be me, is it?). I feel like I'm cheating, but one thing I've noticed about my own aging process is that I increasingly cast people I meet into a big array of character types. If I identify enough people who remind me of each other, then they become family in my limited mind. So running with that thought, there's a possibility that I don't actually recognize anyone here at all, that I've mapped them all to people I noticed back in grad school (or maybe grade school). I guess the test would be to start attending conferences in completely alien fields, to see if I can convince myself I know anyone, or everyone, or if it feels more like I'm crashing someone else's Christmas party.


bright said...

I'm going to a conference next week to learn the Essentials of Effective Equipping Ministry, wanna come? :-)
(I would be happy to collaborate on that conferee archetypes list. My experience is mainly in church and non-profit org conferences, so that might skew the results.)

Keifus said...

No way, creative alliteration is never a good sign. Sounds like your in for talks by management consultants.

But I like your idea--why not strike while the iron is hot. Who knows when they'll let me out again? (I suspect technical meetings might harbor some unique species too, but that just makes it a more worthy experiment.)