“The complexity of things — the things within things — just seems to be endless. I mean nothing is easy, nothing is simple.” — Alice Munro
A crowd is pushing into a meeting hall deep inside the monumental Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill. The event is being hosted by the libertarian Cato Institute, one of the most prominent think tanks in the nation. It’s the fourth day of my gluttonous tour of conferences in a city that keeps Eventbrite listings bursting at the seams. Sure, in most towns you can always go check out a how-to-get-rich-quick seminar, but where else besides Washington can you pick a week, any week, and have access to a meeting for single-cell analysis investigators, something called “Legislative Data and Transparency” and a presentation on the art of falconry? For me, this week is an opportunity to glimpse the florescent-lit underbelly of the city, to hear what is constantly being discussed, analyzed and broken down into bullet points behind closed doors — and, in the process, to improve my knowledge of, well, basically everything.
Now the massive wood doors are closing right on time: high noon. The Cato Institute is all class — it has catered the event, and the business-attired attendees are balancing paper plates loaded with deli on their laps. The title of the briefing is “A ‘Modern Plague’? How the Federal Government Should Address the Opioid Crisis.” There’s a hush of anticipation here among the well over a hundred people in the large meeting room. We’re all in this together. Riveted.
The gentleman on the podium is introduced as a very highly regarded doctor who ...
Crunch, Crunch, CRUNCH!
First, the sound is in one ear, then the other — it comes through like stereo crunching. I don’t have to turn around to know what is happening, since the air has the distinct odor of ranch dressing, sour cream, sea salt and vinegar. Every other person in the audience is violently ripping open the bags of chips from the free buffet and munching away. The good doctor sincerely trudges forward with his dissertation, but I’m engulfed in a chorus of crunching. The doctor is powering through, with very few hand gestures, so I can’t even follow the flow of it. He could be a dentist for all I know. No one’s laughing, so I can only assume he didn’t open with a witty icebreaker. I do catch a couple of intriguing bits: One, opioid use is not an epidemic. (It’s not contagious!) And two, just because you try heroin doesn’t mean you’re automatically an addict — you can just be a social heroin user. I’m on the edge of my seat, but ... the crunching is incessant.
This event is so lost for me now. How can such a vaunted think tank not think about what those chips were capable of?
National Electronics Museum, Linthicum Heights, Md.
Never has the entrance to an event revealed so little. A young woman sits at a desk in a dimly lit reception area, as if it is always dusk or dawn in her world. She notifies me that the museum is closed on this Saturday but that if I’m here for “that group,” I can walk through to the back.
Getting free rein to walk through the vacant National Electronics Museum means a stroll through an eerie gantlet lined with monstrous generators and high-voltage signs. When I reach “that group,” it’s a sparse, visually mixed bunch: old men in bucket hats, women who have a professorial air about them, and a handful of “X-Files” types. The 30 or so people are members of the International Fortean Organization. The name is an homage to American writer Charles Hoy Fort, who spent his life researching scientific journals and old periodicals to gather material on outrageous phenomena written off by science.
What better way to ease into a week of disorientation and monumental questions than to run away from reason and open your mind? Fort wasn’t about explanations; he didn’t proclaim proof in any one direction. He just freed up the details for public consumption — frogs and fish falling from the sky, for instance. The speakers include a police officer relating his experience during the 1975 UFO wave in Virginia Beach, and a photographer who specializes in the paranormal. It’s all intriguing, but it’s also fueling my paranoia as I gaze around at this mysterious bunch. The group gathers annually to explore new phenomena and research. To set the mood they’re playing campy, ghoulish music videos for such songs as “Werewolves of London” and “Thriller.”
During a slight break between videos I interject all I’m going to have to offer here to a couple of people in my row, basically throwing out that I believe Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen are an A.I. experiment gone horribly right. The theory takes off for an instant, traveling a few rows back.
“Hey, you hear what he just said?”
“Yeah.” But then it dies with a gruff, cross-legged guy reading a newspaper.
I spot a book on a nearby table titled “Why Science Is Wrong ... About Almost Everything.” I scroll down the chapter list: “Wrong About Quantum Physics,” “Wrong About Near Death Experience,” “Wrong About Psychic Detectives,” “Wrong About Science ... and Its Dopey Creed.”
I thumb through the pages for the details until another video sputters on the screen. It’s the creature from the Black Lagoon doing the backstroke across a black lake. The Forteans definitely have a sense of humor about themselves.
Other planned talks include “Stranger Than You Think: The Unexplained vs. the Inexplicable” and “Coincidence: A Matter of Choice — or Synchronicity?” But more conferences await elsewhere, and as a matter of choice, I stand up and head for the exit.
Stamp & Scrapbook Expo
Dulles Expo Center, Chantilly, Va.
Parking spaces are in short supply at this event, where hundreds are in attendance. It’s an abrupt leap from the otherworldly to the act of pasting personal memories. I’ve never been one for chronicling my own life or my family’s. I never took videos of the kids, never boxed clippings, but I thought this session would be healthy. Laying memories of someone’s life out before me has always made me sad, and I know it shouldn’t.
I’m instantly drawn to the acreage of tables covered by colorful scraps and laughing women at the front of the 130,000-square-foot center. I peer over shoulders like a fourth-grade art teacher.
That’s nice. Is that you in that photo?
Wow, how old is that newspaper clipping?
I hear a booming voice from a good distance. “Sir, can I help you?” He’s got the voice, but he doesn’t look like the security type. He asks if I know where I am. Maybe I still have an otherworldly look about me, but I stand out for some reason. To comprehend this, you must know that I have felt invisible most of my life, so to find that the one place I stand out is a scrapbooking event is a bit disorienting.
Before I even get my bearings he’s saying, “You’re in the crop.”
The wha ...
Apparently, you had to sign up to be in “the crop” — the area designated for live scrapbooking — and it’s sold out. And did I even pay the entrance fee? One good-hearted lady says, “Oh, let him stay,” God love her.
As I’m being led out of “the crop,” I’m still glimpsing all the work they’re doing. I have been on the floor in the homes of people I’ve lost, surrounded by boxes, nothing glued or pasted down, just a messy scattering of the highs and lows of their lives. I’m looking at the wide expanse of collages as if it were a hundred living room floors, and I am broken and lifted at the same time.
Communication Is Not Your Problem
Now I’m heading into couples therapy, alone. I’m nervous, sure, but you might agree that the only thing worse than going to couples therapy by yourself is going with your partner. Esther and Erica, the hosts of this soiree, have the glow of enlightenment, as if they’ve figured absolutely everything out and they can’t wait to tell us.
There is some awkward hanging out in a waiting area with three couples, 30-somethings to 50-somethings, but our hosts quickly arrive with broad smiles and lead us to a conference area turned banquet hall that is a feast fit for Vikings — if they’d just conquered a Whole Foods.
A main focus of one segment is how to react when your partner spills out a problem you have absolutely no answer for. Our hosts make a subtle suggestion that we are often not looking for answers or words. Maybe you just reach across the divide, take your partner’s hands in yours and admit, “I don’t even know what to say right now. I’m just glad you told me.”
At some point we go off on a tangent that involves way too many lake analogies. As in, “I feel like I’m in the middle of the lake waiting to be saved.” And before you know it one spouse is the one on shore and someone else is more of the type to wade into the lake, and another is on a dock, and then someone says: We shouldn’t use lakes as an analogy because lakes are really scary to begin with. And someone else says: No, lakes are peaceful and serene.
At the end, we each get a journal as a parting gift. I’ve never had a journal. I’m so hyped I immediately write “I got a journal!” on the first page and instantly know I will never write in it again.
Chinese Biopharmaceutical Association Conference
MedImmune headquarters, Gaithersburg, Md.
MedImmune, the host of the annual Chinese Biopharmaceutical Association Conference, is opening the halls of its massive campus to hordes of international intelligentsia. Along with the CBA, MedImmune is a giant in the creation of lifesaving and life-extending drugs, and its headquarters is an architectural blend of science fiction and utopia that looks like it landed here about 140 years from now. The hosts are handing out tote bags with absolutely nothing in them. This is how you get things done. No frills.
Our keynote speaker is J. Craig Venter, the renowned biochemist, geneticist and co-founder of Human Longevity Inc., a hero of chemistry. Venter causes the crowd of approximately 200 to gasp when, in a discussion about genotypes and phenotypes, he smashes the misconception that one can’t create an image of what a person is going to look like from a single gene.
The real bombshell he drops, though, is that we must give up the experimenting-on-mice bit. “Mice are not humans,” he says. “Humans are not mice.” We’ve all been thinking it for years, but a genius saying it gives it a little more validation.
Venter’s big quest is to extend our life spans. He has a bit of Dr. Frankenstein in his confidence, so dispensing with mice is a must. He says he much prefers to experiment on humans.
Experiment away, I say, but is longevity really ideal? Do we really want to be broke at 153 and have to borrow money from our 187-year-old parents?
Random Hacks of Kindness or RhoKDC62417
Cost: $35, free to coders
RhoKDC62417, as it identifies itself, is part of an initiative to save the world through creative hacking for good, not evil. But when I arrive for the event all the front doors are locked, and though I know this goes against the spirt of the session, right now I want to tear someone’s head off. I check my itinerary — right time, right place. I’ve been lucky in life when it comes to back doors, so I’m jerking at every handle. After ringing the main back entrance, there is a voice on the other end.
“Random hacks of kindness,” I say.
“What? Do you have a delivery?”
“Random. Hacks. Of. Kindness,” I repeat.
“There was a handful of people here for something yesterday,” says the voice, which seems to be getting gruffer. “I don’t know what they were doing. But they’re not here today. Nobody is.” Then the voice asks, “What are you here for?”
Which, of course, is the question for us all.
Fox Haven Farm, Jefferson, Md.
“Falconry can help build character, compassion and caring,” according to the man behind the next session, called Rodney’s Raptors! “Its importance is immeasurable. It changes lives.” Benches and stools and mismatched wooden chairs line the rural open-air barn. Adults and children fill the haphazard seating that quickly becomes standing room only. The crowd of about 40 is oddly quiet and patient, giving the whole scene the feeling of a country church under a big sky right before the service begins. “These are the birds of kings,” Rodney says as he introduces his winged creatures.
Rodney talks as if we’re all going to have our own falcons next week. I’m not sure falconry is exactly what I’m looking for, but then Rodney reaches into a sack, plucks out a dead mouse and feeds it to the raptor like a Cheez-It. This is what mice are for, not determining the future of man’s existence. A hand goes up in the front row, and an attendee asks about the birds’ mating rituals.
“They’re not interested in having sex with their own species,” Rodney says. “They want to mate with me.”
Rodney talks about his troubled past, and I raise my hand and ask him if his connection to the birds is almost spiritual. He goes quiet for a moment. “My belief is in God, the birds and my mother,” he says. “Lost some important people in my life recently, so when one of my birds fly overhead I think of them as the spirit of those people watching over me.”
In a minute, everybody will want a photo with a falcon — and answers to a thousand questions about the birds of prey — but on this trail of one speaker after another, it’s easy for me to see that the details and knowledge Rodney releases to the audience are secondary to what he receives from this. The endeavor is less about schooling the congregation and more about Rodney’s redemption. For an instant, the eyes of the gathering collectively gaze outside the barn at the bright blue sky, as if they can imagine every motion of the majestic birds gliding over the farm and sense what Rodney must feel when he adds, “That’s my mom flying overhead, keeping an eye on her son.”
We Are Overcomers Extravaganza
Hampton Conference Center, Capitol Heights, Md.
Cost: $75 VIP
It is still daylight as I enter the conference center, and before my eyes adjust I am smack in the middle of a celebration, as special as a wedding day. The gala, organized by the local Sisters Sad No More empowerment organization, is in full swing. The festivities include inspiring songs, poetry readings, motivational speeches, testimonials and a cash bar.
A woman steps away from a banquet table cloaked in streamers and glitter, attaches a paper band to my wrist and begins to hand me something before she’s abruptly stopped by a shout from across the room. “No, he’s a VIP.”
I’m not sure what’s going on exactly, but I guess I bought a special ticket, and I’m not about to argue my newfound VIP status. “Okay, I’ll be right back,” she says. As I wait, I watch a young woman, Ja’Ness Tate, alone onstage, singing “Fight Song.” She appears delicate, but her voice is strong, and the words match her talent. “This is my fight song. Take back my life song. ...”
The greeter comes back and says, “Here’s your VIP swag bag.” Swag bag! Man. This is an extravaganza.
Speakers and entertainers take the stage covering topics from faith to domestic violence, all including a thread of inspiration. Lift each other up. ... We are nothing without each other. ... No matter the obstacle, no matter what it is ... we need to be present ... to be there ... to listen to each other. ...
It all comes together as a regal woman takes the stage. She glistens of success and professionalism — empowerment — but she details years of being extremely fragile as she struggled to raise a child on a fast-food income and deal with her own mounting health problems. She is instantly compelling and relatable, and her talk makes me think we should all tell our stories more often.
#SayDyslexia on Capitol Hill kickoff event
Rayburn House Office Building, Washington
Inside the Science, Space, and Technology Committee Room at the Rayburn building it is quiet as a courtroom. There are only a handful of attendees. No explosion of happenings, no buffet of croissants to greet the morning, just a scene of quiet determination.
A soft-spoken woman is at the front of the room pointing out statistics and new findings on dyslexia. Tomorrow, participants will gather in large numbers outside brandishing red umbrellas to draw eyes to their plight, but right now this small group of activists is evaluating progress and future concerns. It’s a solemn display of real action taking place for a cause, real work being done. I didn’t know people were still allowed to use Capitol Hill meeting rooms for that.
Meet a Great Ape Keeper
National Zoo, Washington
I’m racing past the big cats to the Great Ape House at the National Zoo for a scheduled presentation. Any second now, one of the ape keepers will be giving a talk and hopefully answering questions.
A silverback gorilla sits Zen-like behind the glass. “What is he thinking?” one visitor says to his wife. The man’s tone makes clear this is not a question that can be answered, but just an observation. The man knows the gorilla is thinking. It’s no different than if I spot you sitting alone outside Peet’s Coffee. I know you are thinking, about what I cannot say.
The great-ape keeper was supposed to be here at 11:30, and we’re way past that. I had essentially one big question to drop. Perhaps I’m ignorant of some fundamental rule, but here goes: We evolved from apes, but they’re still here. When we humans do eventually evolve into the big dome-headed super species we’ve always envisioned, will there still be these 119 IQ humans skulking around?
An ape keeper does suddenly appear, but she’s behind the glass, brushing a gorilla’s teeth while another ape darts around in the front of the enclosure. I’ve never seen anyone, let alone a beast, looking so regal, hands-on-knees, having its teeth brushed. After the brushing, the two apes disappear from the enclosure, but about 15 seconds later they come tearing back — one in dangerous pursuit of the other — slamming off the glass, hurling and ricocheting in every direction. We are all in awe. Suddenly, my big question doesn’t seem so important anymore.
Dilemmas of a Trading Nation: Japan and the United States in the Evolving Asia-Pacific Order
Brookings Institution, Washington
A crowd of about 100 is scattered throughout a high-end cocktail party scene in the City View Room atop a building. They are wearing exquisite suits or smart pencil skirts, fresh haircuts, shoes that come with a permanent shine.
I build a small plate of food for mingling and, since I won’t know much about the Japanese trade situation until after the presentation, I make my main topic of conversation this excellent sour cherry juice drink on the beverage table. I sense, though, that I’m boring important people who jet around the world attending international conventions, so I step onto the huge balcony. I’m immediately accosted by three men who want me to take a photo of them with the monumental D.C. skyline as the backdrop. I oblige, but I abhor digital photography. Don’t you miss when you could take a waterfront photo of a couple of tourists and they wouldn’t see it until they developed it two weeks later back home in Indiana? Right after I return the camera the three men pucker up their faces as if to say, “You suck.”
That’s what a big part of the D.C. conference world is. Sure, everybody wants to gain a bit of knowledge pertaining to their career and do a bit of networking with people they haven’t seen since that crazy conference in New Orleans back in 2014. For many attendees, though, the actual conference is secondary to the adventure of visiting the capital of the United States of America.
When we hustle back into the conference room, I’m taking notes for about 20 minutes and ... wait a second, I don’t think this is the Japanese trade discussion. I might be crazy, but this just might be the Trans-Caspian forum!
2017 Trans-Caspian Forum
Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, Washington
I had signed up for that, too, but I thought it was later in the week. I’ll be damned. I did notice there were no Japanese people in attendance, but I thought maybe we were all here to talk behind Japan’s back. You know this town.
The Future of Net Neutrality Town Hall
Founders Hall, Arlington, Va.
Founders Hall, a meeting space at George Mason University, is jammed with about 200 people. The main topic is net neutrality, protecting the public interest, disallowing the big Internet providers from blocking or interfering. A local politician is dissecting privacy regulations and builds a case for what he refers to as “agile regulation.” Even as the speakers continue, both sides of the hall are already lined with people waiting to ask questions. I generally have questions about almost everything, but not the regulation of the Net. Except if our cable bills might be affected, which someone in the audience suggests, but before I can get the details the subject is changed again. As far as other Internet-related dilemmas, I’m not really concerned about having my identity stolen. Someone else might make much better use of it.
Legislative Data and Transparency Conference
Capitol Visitor Center, Washington
I’m willing to give this one a chance until I see the staging. It’s just not conducive to learning. From the back row the auditorium has sort of an eighth-grade-class-president-debate feeling about it. The stage is so large, and the speaker appears so small. It’s hard to concentrate. The goal of the conference is to bring together governmental agencies and advocates for transparency and address how legislative data is handled. I think I’m getting the data part of this presentation but not the transparency part. Or maybe vice versa.
America’s Global Image
Brookings Institution, Washington
Attendees are lazily staggering into a briefing at this renowned think tank. Pew Research Center has been working on its latest survey of how the United States and its president are viewed around the world (I know, they probably could have just guessed this time), and the results are in.
By the time the presenters get into the real numbers, attendees are overflowing into the lobby. The percentage of people polled outside this country who found our commander in chief arrogant: 75 percent. Intolerant: 65 percent. Dangerous: 62 percent. Charismatic: 39 percent. Caring About Ordinary People: 23 percent. Good thing most Americans don’t think of themselves as “ordinary” anymore. At least, that’s the impression I get from Instagram.
Hands-On Project Portfolio Management Workshop
Microsoft Corp., Reston, Va.
I’m close but can’t find the building. I pull over to look up the original message with the address, but I find a different message: The event’s been canceled. I have had several setbacks on this seminar tour of duty. For one block of time, I had to choose between two other events and a seminar called “The Unthinkable: Violence in Healthcare.” Missing that one was especially painful because the topic description contained this line: “Or, it may be an enraged physician in the operating room flinging a scalpel at a nurse.”
Impromptu bourbon tasting
Georgetown Tobacco, Washington
For an altogether different session, I choose a local bourbon-tasting event. On the third floor of this iconic cigar emporium, the scene is a cross between a ship’s captain’s quarters and a time machine layover station for H.G. Wells. There’s a scholarly guy behind a chunky desk smoking a pipe and espousing his expertise on bourbon. Before I know it, I have several bottles of bourbon lined up in front of me and am wearing a fez hat and a purple smoking jacket. I don’t know if it’s the requirements of this club or they’re simply out to make a fool of me, but it all works. The only thing that could make this any better is if I had a falcon on my shoulder.
Transforming Advanced Care: A New Campaign to Accelerate the Movement
National Press Club, Washington
It is morning, and I am in the Fourth Estate Room at the National Press Club as the speaker explains that the most common plea from those who are critically ill is: “Stay with me.” Close to a hundred people are crowded into the room, lots of press, but no matter who you are, the subject — not only the ill but the caretakers who become drained and frustrated at every turn — should hold relevance. The speakers at this briefing have verified through studies what we already know: We are all going to end up being caretakers of aging loved ones at some point in our lives. Over a decade, my mother-in-law, who lives with us and had always been remarkably robust, went from making our meals and feeding all the animals in the house in a steady manner I assumed would last forever to suddenly collapsing while hand-washing the dishes. (I had put off replacing the dishwasher that broke months ago.) She brushed it off as a dizzy spell and quickly recovered, but I took it hard, knowing the time will come when self-centered, selfish me will have to care for her and cope with the frustration of that.
The thought of caring for my mother-in-law instead of her caring for us frightens me, and maybe that’s because I do not know my threshold between sacrifice and selfishness. Some things I cannot learn from a seminar or a workshop. Part of this whole exploration is admitting that, learning that.
Make Your Own Mala — 420-Friendly Workshop
Capitol Hill, Washington
At a private home in this quiet D.C. neighborhood, our group leader, Stacey, is welcoming and gracious but puts a pen in my hand rather quickly to sign a waiver. I’m not known to be much of a thrill seeker, so signing a waiver to craft a necklace makes me feel dangerous.
Based on Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the mala necklace has become the rosary beads of people who like to smoke pot and meditate, maybe do some chanting. I assumed that marijuana might be sort of a second or third player in this mala making — kind of in place of a cheese platter — but it seems to be getting top billing. A bong is produced, and some of my fellow mala makers — a couple in their mid-20s — watch intently as it makes its way over to me and I take it in my hands. This is not much different from the first time someone at work handed me a toner cartridge for the copy machine. No idea how either works, but yeah, sure, I’m game.
Stacey has a gentle, kindergarten teacher way about her — if your kindergarten teacher ever said, “Okay, class, now we’re going to take a hit off this bong.” She instructs me repeatedly with unbridled patience, and after I take a hit everybody seems relieved that that’s over with. Especially me.
The thing about the mala is, it’s physical — the creating of it and then developing a mantra while notching off the 108 beads to reach a point of inner peace. Stacey has the six of us circle up on the floor and close our eyes as she tells a long tale filled with wonderment. I think it had an underground forest and twists and turns that were supposed to bring us to a trancelike state.
With that, we open our eyes and make the leap from the floor to card tables, which turns the whole show into sort of an arts-and-crafts session for misfits. Only one of our party is any good at this stringing and knotting thing, and I think Stacey’s patience is waning with all of us, since she repeats herself over and over as she sizes up our learning abilities. She seems preoccupied with getting up and changing the music every few minutes, but maybe she’s just going into the next room and screaming into a quilt before calmly stepping back out.
We’ve been at this for hours now. For some of us, perhaps a mala ring might be in order, but no one is buying my suggestion.
One of the two law school students is now standing in the corner of the room holding Stacey’s pug high up, re-creating that scene in “The Lion King” when the mandrill holds Simba up for all to see.
Single-Cell Analysis Investigators Meeting 2017
National Institutes of Health Clinical Center, Bethesda, Md.
A security guard asks, “Are you a patient?”
“Why do you have the hospital bracelet on?”
“Oh, no,” I say and laugh a little too nervously. “It’s just my wristband from the ‘We Are Overcomers Extravaganza.’ I forgot to take it off. VIP.”
She’s not impressed. Security is now looking at me as if I’m not only a patient, but they know what floor I belong on. Eventually, though, I’m cleared to go through the multiple other checkpoints.
The meeting starts with too many introductions, but then it turns to awards, and they announce one that comes with $100,000, and this handful of dudes wearing goofy grins shuffles out like the Beatles of science — Paul, Ankur, Jacob and Mohamad.
After receiving their award, they settle back into their seats in the front row. The row is otherwise empty, so I saddle up and eventually ingratiate myself. During a break, we all get our picture taken together, and I proudly hold up the plaque. I have no idea what, exactly, the award and plaque are for, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out by our 10-year reunion.
When the meeting resumes, my attention span is being tested. Whenever scientists say, “I don’t have time to go through the entirety of this ...” that’s exactly what they do. One speaker throws out an Alice Munro quote, and I want to follow him anywhere, but soon my ears are bleeding again.
Grafton Street Restaurant & Pub, Gainesville, Va.
I’ve wasted so much time at the single-cell conference that I have to scratch my next stop: “Stabilizing the Workforce in an Uncertain Future.” I can’t believe that even I’m giving short shrift to the American worker. Instead, I head straight to a seminar that aims to help entrepreneurs avoid screwing up and reach financial success. The organizers ask me if I’m a business owner, and when I say no they seem overly disappointed.
Around the conference table are several small-business owners. One burly guy talks of his company doing so well he’s overwhelmed and doesn’t want to miss any other opportunities he may be overlooking. The survival rate of small businesses over the long haul is not good, so the odds at this table are already stacked against the rest of us.
When the presentation ends, the organizers want my name badge back. This is a first — it’s as if they know I just don’t have the guts to follow my dream of being a small-business owner. They catch up with me outside the restroom, and I unravel the lanyard, which is twisted around my other badges. Unceremoniously I hand it over.
Adult Konversation With Kandy
Central Hampton Business Park, Capitol Heights, Md.
There is a gate, but this is no gated community; it looks more like a storage facility. I punch in the code, and the heavy chain link abruptly separates. Inside, I quickly try to take a seat, but no one’s getting in with this crew unnoticed. “So, you here to talk about sex?” a woman yells from a far table.
Well ... sex isn’t my best subject. I try to explain what I’m looking for here, part of which involves this latest news on the home front: “My wife has started claiming my cargo shorts are lame,” I say.
Maybe these folks — about 30 — are sick of talking about dildos and whips and foursomes, but there’s a chain reaction filtering from table to table. Several men in the room who are wearing cargo shorts jump up and start grabbing and peacocking their shorts. “What’s she talking about?” one guy shouts. “Nothing wrong with cargo shorts.”
“Yeah, she read it in a magazine or something,” I say. “ ‘Men shouldn’t be wearing them.’ ”
“You tell her to stop reading magazines!”
But I don’t really care what the men think. I need to get a vote from the women.
One woman demands that I stand up. “Turn around.”
I do a couple of spins. And the ladies are coming through. “They look good.”
“Yeah. That’s a sexy look,” another woman adds.
When we talk about rough sex, I already know my safe word is going to be “cargo shorts.”
The Konversation is getting louder and louder and more and more rambunctious when Kandy — whose professional, successful young businesswoman exterior perfectly camouflages her sexually driven mind and makes the most deviant behavior seem acceptable — pulls out question cards. She eloquently asks both men and women what never fails to bring us to a monstrous orgasmic state. The men hem and haw and mumble. We men are like that. But the women have no such hang-ups. In unison, they burst out the answer: choking!
Choking — I had no idea. Am I the last to know?
Hyatt Regency Crystal City, Arlington, Va.
I’m romping around this convention, mingling with those dressed in costume, which is basically everybody. Blerdcon started as a celebration of black nerds, and then all minority nerds, but now it seems to be simply all of us — white, black, Hispanic, Asian. My costume is weak, I admit — just me with my various conference badges — but I begin to imagine everything from laser beams to android shrapnel bouncing off them. But what would my superhero name be? Evolution Man sounds too grand. I kind of like Symposium Man, but what would his powers be? Powerful personal anecdotes that freeze listeners in their tracks? The ability to spot a raised hand from 100 yards?
A buoyant guy covered in blue and fruit, looking like he jumped out of the garden of “Avatar,” reveals that “underneath all this” he is a chef at an extremely busy restaurant, where he gets stressed out on a daily basis. “This is my release,” he says.
It’s a pretty good release, and we can all understand how you have to find a way to deal with the weight of this world, but suddenly I am more interested in the underneath than the costumes. Zoned out, I’m not paying attention as I plow into a herd of Power Rangers. I want to know who lurks below the surface — dental hygienist, Target clerk, judge, microbiologist, barista, gymnastics coach, CEO, pedi-cabber? I don’t know how many Power Rangers there are in real life — listen to me, real life — but when I pass through them I am at the top of the escalator, and I float down and out of the hotel as if this were all a dream.
People & Stories: Reading Deeply in Community
Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Neighborhood Library, Washington
“In each session, a short story will be read aloud, followed by a discussion about the story that focuses on connections between the text and participants’ own lives,” says the description of my next event. “Attendees do not have to prepare for the program in any way.” It was the last part that sealed it for me; I’m so tired of trying to prepare for what life comes at me with.
The woman in charge of this session, a librarian, has chosen for us a dark story: A man home alone is surprised by an intruder, and tragedy ensues. The man survives, only to question, detail by detail, how he reacted to the situation. From the first sentence I am sticking to our assignment, looking for things I identify with personally, and I immediately cling to the narrator.
There are only a few of us at this table on a busy Friday. It’s late afternoon, and half the town is trying to escape for the weekend. We will not speak until our librarian finishes the story. The action in the story peaks when a young man busts through the man’s basement window, and I am jolted. I thought this tale’s narrator would be my touchstone, an Everyman grappling with his actions, but instead the passage slaps me back to my own short-lived criminal behavior, breaking into neighbors’ homes with my delinquent, teenage fist wrapped in a denim jacket, punching out the corner window of a rear kitchen door, and reaching in to unlock the handle. Apparently, I am the intruder.
To the group, I bring up personal connections I’m identifying with in the story, but no one else at the table is opening up in the same manner. A matronly woman, with a laser focus, keeps leading us back to the interaction of the fictional characters and the author’s intentions, as if we’re just participating in the usual, unruly book club and she wants to get us back on topic. My battle with her is the one we’re all constantly having: trying to look rationally at a topic vs. giving in to the impulse of “Okay, how does this affect me?”
Part of the title of this event is “Reading Deeply,” and racing through this week of events originally made me feel as if I was only skimming the surface of life. But after a week on the conference trail, I’m brimming with what I’ve haphazardly absorbed. I’m certainly better at talking about sex now, and also the weight of our global image and the differences between mice and men. I have a better understanding of those who rise up from extreme adversity, and I learned firsthand that even geniuses at think tanks need to rethink their free snacks. I’ve experienced the spark that can be created by putting the care of the elderly against the hopeful science of us all living forever. All of that resonates, but there’s also the simple satisfaction of no longer wondering what’s going on in Washington, because now I’ve heard it all, seen it all. What I got was the shrapnel of a thousand voices and ideas in a very short span of American time. And the realization that, in the grand scheme of things, I am only the gorilla sitting here, thinking.
T.M. Shine is a frequent contributor to the magazine. His latest novel, “Dear Sarah: Lately, I’ve Been Tripping People ...,” will be released this month.