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I had a lot of fun at the AALL annual meeting in Boston. It’s making me rethink professional conference attendance. Not necessarily not going, but having to be more deliberate to get what I want out of it. Last year, I found the numbers of people a bit much, and figured it was post-pandemic. But it’s not, for me. It was good to learn that, because now I can think about how to do something to manage it.
In Denver last year, I knew that, post-pandemic, I needed to make an effort. It had been years without seeing people in-person. I had a chance to have a great one-on-one with a new colleague, which we scheduled before the conference started. I also just sat in the conference space. I figured, if nothing else, people might just sit down adjacent or people I didn’t know were there would spot me.
It doesn’t always go the way you want. I had one attendee come up and stand, for what felt like hours, and talk down to me where I was sitting. I could have stood. They could have sat. I expect we both were unsure how long the interaction would last, with me hoping it would be short. (Usually, if it’s someone I want to talk to, I ask them to sit if that’s what I’m planning to do)
I hadn’t really considered what I would do differently for Boston. I went in with a short-list of folks I’d said I was going to look for, who I knew were there. I was able to catch up with the folks who started me off in law librarianship. I sat down with some folks who I had only met in business meetings and had a chance to just visit, and bumped into others between sessions and shot the breeze.
There was still something, though. Me.
That’s anxiety for me. You’re anticipating all the things that can go wrong, not necessarily the probability of those things. I try to keep my anxiety under control but I’m not always great at it.
The thing that unsettled me was the kindness of strangers. You may know that I’ve been trying to help my brother for about 4 and a half years. I have not experienced a terminal illness but I have imagined it’s not dissimilar in how people’s responses to it manifest themselves.
Over the years, folks who know me might check in and see how things are going with Paul’s case. The ones who know me really well mostly check in on my mental health when it’s popped up in the media and I’m having to do interviews.
The hardest times are when it pops up unexpectedly. I was on a video call with a San Diego group and someone I only know from those interactions asked how Paul’s case was going. It was a bit jarring and there’s not much I can say. This is particularly true because I don’t talk about it at work and there are people I interact with who have no idea. So someone asking in a meeting or call may be enlightening other folks who didn’t know before.
The perhaps unique factor in Paul’s case is that it has political implications. As time has gone on, some Americans have staked out political positions based on how the Trump and Biden Administrations have acted. Some of these interactions with me reflect that. They show support or concern for Paul’s situation or our family, but while also denigrating this or that politician or U.S. government department.
It probably goes without saying that I say as little as possible to reinforce anyone’s perception. It means stepping into a persona I use for media interactions when I’m dealing with colleagues or other well-intentioned folks. One thing I have learned pretty deeply in the past few years is how to deflect or be non-committal.
One challenge that keeps the anxiety perpetually bubbling is that you can’t always anticipate when these interactions will arise. Like this random text I received on Google Voice recently from an unknown phone number:
That’s not really something you can respond to directly. Also why would you text someone random out of the blue like that? It’s better than this sort of voice mail message:
It means I don’t always answer phone calls and am careful with phone numbers. When a Board member asked me for my cell number, I declined. It’s not a number I make available to people outside of my family.
Outside of work, I use a burner VOIP number so these texts and voice mails go into a folder. They’re not a conversation that I am ever a party too. It’s why I think I lean so hard on email, because for me (and frankly for the other person), it’s a less intrusive way to communicate. I can read emails I receive when I’m ready. But in-person activities, like a conference or a work meeting with people outside my library, create a bunch of unknowns.
Take It At Face Value
One thing I am constantly reminded of is that most people are operating from a place of kindness. Their intent is to show concern for me, or Paul, or our parents, or family or whatever. Even the racists and the misogynists and the advocates of demagogues and those with a parasocial connection to Paul’s case.
I opened my email one morning in late June to find a stranger from Florida had texted me. He was concerned that Paul’s case wasn’t getting the coverage other cases were getting. In this and most cases, I’ll respond and he and I ended up having an actual call. I could ignore it but I appreciate the kindness intended, even if the underlying concern is misplaced.
This can be caustic too. I could just ignore all of these interactions. But on the one hand, I worry about my own humanity if I am not responsive to kindness. On the other, I know that the enemy is out there and can use these sorts of interactions maliciously. I don’t actually think the Kremlin would target me. Or would they? Talk about trust issues!
I had the chance to visit our sister just after the Boston conference, out on Martha’s Vineyard. And in conversations with her and her partner, and my folks earlier this month, it came out that we’ve all had the same experience. The most well-meaning people impact how—and whether—we have social interactions. We’ve all defaulted to staying home more often than we might have before.
In my case, I have tended to avoid social situations that are going to increase the probability of that sort of conversation with people I don’t know. It’s why you won’t find me at opening receptions or awards dinners. I’m dreading a work function coming up this October because it’s one of the few events with lots of people that I can’t avoid. At least it’s a known quantity, so I can anticipate potential conversations.
But I have to admit, I hadn’t really thought about it with Boston since I was mostly just attending sessions or connecting with people I’d arranged to see specifically. I can get to those early and choose an empty table or one with known quantities. I can linger afterwards to avoid too many folks. It meant I was taken aback when, on the first morning, someone made a comment about Paul. It was kindly meant. And, truly, I appreciate the concern it shows for me and my family.
It’s such a tricky situation. I’m a very private person and so would usually not ask about something in someone’s private life unless I knew them really well. Doing unto others. But I can see how that can come across as uncaring. I was speaking to someone recently who described how people, when they learned of this person’s trauma, withdrew entirely.
There’s also the reality that most people aren’t going to say anything. In my case, although I feel like I’ve been on every media platform, most people don’t know about Paul’s case. The hiring committee of my law library’s Board had no idea, and didn’t learn about it until I’d been working there for some months and they saw me on TV. So some of this anxiety is unrealistic, because I’m not the center of attention that I may feel. I’m overthinking the spotlight.
It’s also not unique. I’ve noted to many people that our family is far from unusual in having some ongoing trauma. Ours may play out in public, or in ways that are different, but there are many people navigating their own suffering and anxieties. If anything, we may have more likelihood of a positive outcome to share—like Paul’s freedom—than many people can look forward to.
I think, in the future, I will probably continue to lean on the small gatherings of people that I mostly know. Even if they happen in the context of larger events like conferences, they seem the best way to split the difference. It’s not a great to expand a professional network but perhaps that’s a benefit of being mid/late career.