It’s 9:00 a.m., and I’m standing on a corner where two empty streets intersect. It’s clear and sunny, but the wind gnaws at the exposed skin below the knot of my scarf, and my hands are warmed only by a cup of coffee.
There’s no hustle. Walk signals and stoplights cycle endlessly for non-existent traffic. A coal barge idles under a bridge. Even I remain motionless.
After a moment, I catch a thin refrain unspooling in the frigid air. The sound grows, and I recognize the clamor of church bells echoing down the incline. I’d all but forgotten Palm Sunday, and as my coffee cools and I turn to face the sun, the churches dotting the hilltop compete in calls to worship.
Pittsburgh is a strange place.
I’d spent the preceding five days at the American Copy Editors Society’s annual conference, a communion of editors, lexicographers, grammar gurus, and word nerds of all stripes.
When I signed up, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was desperate to get out of my office and my own head, and the dreaded nag of stagnation glimmered on the horizon. And, were I completely honest, I’d seen Twitter explode during the previous year’s conference in Las Vegas, and I was determined to be part of the in-crowd this go around.
I arrived by car, which presented its own set of problems: the hotel only had expensive valet parking. I ended up dragging a broken suitcase, a wool coat, a laptop bag, and a pair of boots down three flights of parking garage stairs and across four city blocks. By the time I reached the check-in line, I was frantic with the notion that I’d miss the freelancer happy hour and subsequently Everything Would Be Terrible.
What a crock of shit. I did indeed make it to happy hour (though I missed the appetizers). Everyone was warm and gracious, and I miraculously parted with the first stack of my business cards without quite realizing how I’d done it. I even won a year’s online subscription to The Chicago Manual of Style—my most-used reference. I traded increasingly intimate small talk, wondering at my ease, and finally slipped away for dinner on my own. (Ramen and dim sum, if you’re wondering.) Small steps.
Thursday morning initially left me feeling like the kid picked last for kickball: I wasn’t sure where I needed to be, if group breakfast existed, or whether I’d find folks to pal around with. A plethora of people were already engaged in friendly conversation, and I wondered if I were the only one who didn’t have ready friends. Regardless, I managed to get up, run(!), and make it to the first-timer’s session, a cup of coffee clutched tightly in one hand. I settled in near faces that seemed happy-hour familiar.
“We have a special guest here to talk to you,” Brady Jones announced.
“It’s Beyoncé,” one of my seatmates whispered loudly.
I suddenly had a feeling everything was going to be okay.
The rest of the day unfolded as though in a dream: I hustled from session to session with a newfound friend, furiously typing notes and fighting to unkink my cramped legs. I attentively followed (and posted to) the #ACES2015 Twitter feed. The rapid-fire social media network became accepted background static for the event: everyone tweeted everything. Miss a session? No worries—plenty would livetweet it. Want to organize a food outing? Tweet about it with the appropriate hashtag (i.e., #teampierogi). It was glorious. In a somewhat surreal experience, a few people tracked me down solely based on information from my Twitter feed.
“You’re the one who mentioned the shiny shoes and the blazers,” someone would say.
“I am,” I’d confirm, and we’d shake hands and trade cards. Avatars became introductions.
Later I shared a generous pitcher of margaritas with Gerri Berendzen, two of her Mizzou students, and Dilane Mitchell. (I should add that my notes from the session following lunch don’t make a lot of sense.) I admired Gerri’s students; their futures brimmed with possibility. What if I’d known about ACES as a student? What if I’d pursued journalism rather than creative writing and marine biology? What if I’d gone into print media rather than the corporate world? I could have questioned my path forever.
I found myself in conversations so animated they fluidly moved from conference room to bathroom to coffee to the reception hall. More business cards disappeared. By the time I finally crashed in my hotel room, exhausted and stuffed with cheese and cured meat and mashed potatoes, it was almost midnight.
While I enjoy social events, I find them draining. Interpersonal interaction requires extensive use of all my cognitive resources: I gain creative energy, but my dark eldritch powers trickle away. And yet, I’d been on my feet talking, listening, and learning for seventeen hours. My people, I thought, easing sparkly pumps from tired feet. I briefly struggled with my pajamas before giving up. This is where I’m supposed to be.
Friday and Saturday passed in much the same fashion, though colder, snowier, and pierogier. (Is that a word? It should be.) I bought half a dozen delicious, tiny donuts after braving a turbulent shuttle ride to a Polish deli with Rachel Stuckey, Susanna Fix McCrea, and Melissa Morrow. I discussed plane crashes and the politics of translation over Cajun food with Karen and Michelle. We even got shushed at the banquet when, as we strained to hear and see the presentation preceding Ben Zimmer, things got a little rowdy.
I spent brief periods agonizing over which panels I should attend, especially because many popular panels ran simultaneously. How to choose between Mary Norris, diversity, or clarity in medical communications? But even when a time slot featured sessions that seemed inapplicable or uninteresting to my work, there was always something of value to learn. (The notable exception was “Niggles, Nudges, and Uh-Oh Sensors: The Intuitive Art of Catching Errors” in which I nodded off, though to be fair, I was dead tired and needed to nap.) I sat in thirteen panels—
- Editing in a Digital Environment: Best Practices for Workflow and Quality Control
- Switching Seats: Transitioning to a New Career or Medium
- Using Checklists to Foolproof Your Editing
- Social Media Fact-checking
- Working Away from the Office: Benefits and Drawbacks
- Level Up! How to Get More Out of Your Freelance Business
- Deep Grammar
- Niggles, Nudges, and Uh-Oh Sensors: The Intuitive Art of Catching Errors
- The Language of the LGBT Community
- Optimizing for Search or Social: Is It Really a Trade-Off?
- Women in Management
- Giving Copy a Face Lift, With No Pain
- Proofreading: Catch Mistakes Before They Cause a Crisis
—and actively followed many more. My brain—stuffed with lessons, best practices, and new names—practically exploded. I never even made it to the lexicography discussions. Between panels, transcribing notes, and the miserable weather, I barely explored beyond the hotel.
The conference culminated in an adventure with my newfound girl gang that involved dessert, cocktails, cat pictures, and an after party at Olive & Twist, a local bar. (And, incidentally, an after-after party at a smoky karaoke townie bar outside of Pittsburgh proper. Margaux, I’m so sorry I met you while I was drunk; you are a lovely person.) We got back to the hotel late, elated and desperate for pizza, knowing that our elevator hugs were probably the last word before we left for our homes the next morning.
My final morning walk is synecdoche—my conference experience in entirety: a curious oasis of calm and belonging in (what should have been) an overwhelming stream of activity. A brightening. A melody of benediction tumbling away.
Handouts from many of the panels are available here, and you can read the ACES2015 blog here. My notes will be forthcoming to interested parties. I couldn't possibly mention all the wonderful people I met, but you should seek them out. Go read the #ACES2015 Twitter feed!