I was sitting at the bar at a conference recently – that seems like that’s all I ever do at conferences. It certainly is the most enjoyable aspect; not because I’m a drunk, but because that’s where you actually get to talk to people. All day at the sessions you can have artificial interactions, or conversations about your work and what others are doing and how you might apply someone else’s work to your own, but none of that is really all that appealing, at least for me. Now, of course there will be a session or two that are engaging and make it all seem worthwhile, but for the most part, the only reason I go to conferences is to see old friends – and to make some new ones. And drink, apparently.
I got into town in the early afternoon and went straight to the bar. Not by choice, but that’s where the people I wanted to see most were (two of them), and each one had a friend with them, one of whom I knew. Then a few others trickled in and out, and before you know it, after a good 2+ hours of holding the bar up we’ve got a crew of eight or nine. And then it’s time to go – to partake in the conference; or rather to continue to drink while at the conference. This was the open hall portion where there were many booths and such, and they were actually serving booze there, so apparently that’s what they wanted us to do. I mean, after that there was another social, and one more for each of the nights to follow. It seems whomever came up with the idea of conferences in the first place had drinking built in. Smart person.
Conferences, I guess, are made up of the people from your field who have made the biggest mark, are the most in need or want of talking about their “accomplishments,” and those who are trying to break into the field. Really, a hodgepodge of everyone from a field. Yet, there are definitely people who don’t come/go to these things, for many reasons, I suspect: money, perceived value, lack of care for what others are doing, dislike of those who attend, fear of crowds, etc. Like vacations, conferences are draining. Especially when the drinking is front-and-center. But you don’t eat right, you don’t sleep right, you’re always “on,” so it all takes its toll. You arrive home feeling exhausted, and sometimes, you arrive home wondering why you decided to go in the first place. This crisis can be for many reasons, maybe because you didn’t get out of it what you thought you would; or maybe you just don’t like those people you thought you did. One of my friends mistakenly thought she could get CEUs – nope, sorry. Maybe you should read the fine print next time…
Another friend wondered aloud about the damage we do to the environment to go to these things, especially when we travel so far for such a short period of time. Is there really anything that needs to be learned so badly that we have to fly somewhere to do so? Are we even learning anything there in the first place? More than likely the reason most people go to these things is to see their friends (and get out of work – and drink in a new environment), so I guess that is a sound argument, but in place of the environmental damage we do, maybe we should come with a new way to value our chums. Maybe it’s time to start cutting people out of our lives. I mean, what better excuse to do so: “Sorry, it’s for the environment.” Too bad that doesn’t extend to other forms of communication that leave open the door for sustaining relationships…
People also go to conferences to hook up with random people from their field. Yes, that’s right: random sex. But sometimes that is more work than it’s worth. When you’re in a small field and a small fraction of that field attends a conference, you don’t have a lot of options. You single in on your best chance and you kind of have to fully commit. More often than not it is never worth it, but there is something about those short seasons of sex hunting that are appealing. Thing is, while some people are ready to “play the game,” for whatever other reason they see it as a gateway to a relationship. “What? No, I’m not going to have a relationship with you just because we hooked up at the conference. You live 10 hours away from me and we only ever talk at this conference, once a year.” Some people just don’t understand hookup culture. I guess maybe we age out of it (or are supposed to), so perhaps some assume we’ll be more mature as we age. Gotcha, sucker!
I like hearing the stories about the old folks in the field from their “prime”: who they hooked up with, who got so drunk they missed their presentation, who got blackballed from the field for something they said or did, etc. People often assume that we gain wisdom as we age, and we do, but we don’t lose all of our stupidity along the way. We hold onto that. It is a very renewable resource. It multiplies, it seems. I’ve seen a lot of people get dumber in spite of what they supposedly know. I’m just thankful I started off pretty low in the intelligence and common sense category; nobody can rightfully get mad at me. What would you expect from an idiot? A drunken one at that…
I typically walk away from a conference wondering what the point was – aside from seeing friends. Yet all along I always look forward to the next one. Maybe it’s because I get a few days off work, maybe it’s because attendance is somehow viewed as “professional development” so we’re encouraged to go, but more than anything it’s because I hope to learn something there, sometimes. And I do, occasionally. Some seminars are engaging, some lectures are thoughtful. Some connections made are lasting. And somehow, some way, there will be something that gets engrained in my brain there that sticks in a corner only to be dislodged down the line at the right time. That’s right, someone says something that affects my thinking or actions, and maybe in some strange way it passes through me – the great conduit – to society and actually has some residual value. Maybe, just maybe, all that alcohol purifies the thoughts and conversations, distilling them into some existential truth to be passed on. Bartender, I’ll have another (conference).
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