I recently attended an unconventional conference — an “unconference”, as they call it.
The event was like nothing I had ever experienced and fostered both intellectual bliss and psychological discomfort. Thankfully, the bliss eclipsed the agony — but it was a close call there for a minute. Would you like to hear more? Excellent, because I have prepared more.
The conference was hosted by Google and some other very Google-y companies with which I am intimately familiar, but solely as a consumer. Before the conference, such companies were essentially faceless to me. I don’t have a cousin that works at Facebook, for example. I didn’t go to kindergarten with Elon Musk — and thank goodness, because I know he would’ve eaten my paste!
This year marked the 11th year of this thing. The 350 people who attended hopped on planes and trains and came from all over the country to get to Google’s Chicago headquarters. But those 350 people weren’t just any 350 people, oh ho! No, no: We were all on the list. Oh, yes. There was a list. Because whatever you want to call it — conference, unconference, think tank, nerd camp, slumber party for geeks — is by invitation only. First, you have to be nominated by someone who has attended in the past, then you have to apply, then you have to be selected. If all that works out, you can get your groovy nametag and it’s on like Donkey Kong.
Speaking of Donkey Kong: I think I met the guy who invented Donkey Kong.
It’s possible. Because that’s the kind of person who goes to this thing. The whole place was swarming with top brass in the fields of gaming; government digital operations; linguistics; neuroscience; the internet … There was a guy who owns and operates a yo-yo empire. I met a woman who makes the Chicago Botanical Garden the Chicago Botanical Garden. I was in a discussion group with the host of a very, very, very popular network reality television show. I attended a talk given by the UK’s leading war correspondent. I went to an “Ask Me Anything” session about the Chicago transit system hosted by the guy who is literally in charge of Chicago’s transit system. In the mix were scholars. Writers. Thinkers. Artists. Doctors. Comedians. Lawyers.
And one … whatever I am.
There were numerous occasions when I had to swallow hard and try not to cry. And I know, I know: You’ll say that I was in the room because I qualified to be in the room! Logically, I knew that. But emotionally I couldn’t get there. No matter how you slice it — and though every single smartypants person was so friendly and awesome — these people were intimidating. Many of them are also exceedingly wealthy, so there was that inadequacy going on, too. I wasn’t in my comfort zone, sister. I was in my “uncomfort” zone which does seem appropriate.
In a few different sessions, I said things that just didn’t come out right. Afterward, I would tell myself, “Fons, don’t talk anymore, just listen in the next one” but then I’d go to the next session and get so excited about the topic that I’d raise my hand and say something and that sounded stupid, too. The session I lead went okay, but okay wasn’t enough: I wanted it to be amazing. At lunch or in the hallways between sessions, I was nervous. Surely there was lipstick on my teeth. Surely I had toilet paper sticking to my shoe. I bit my cuticles so bad I drew blood — twice. I had to put a band-aid on, which made me feel like a gross weirdo with a band-aid on.
In my defense, it was a lot of stimulation and sensory overload. The conference is objectively stressful and the organizers warned all the first-timers that it would be. When I shared with my “homeroom” leader that I was freaking out, she couldn’t have been nicer and confessed that the first year she came, she left after the first day! However fancy-pants it may be, being thrown into a room with 350 strangers is a lot for anyone, she said, especially if you work from home or with a small team. I told her how I was in a pretty fragile state, too, from some life stuff, and that maybe that was affecting me. She gave me a hug and grabbed my hand and we went and got schmancy coffee from the coffee bar. Things got way better after that. I learned more in three days than I thought was possible.
And the stress is a distant memory, now. I’m eager to volunteer to host the monthly salons local attendees put together between conferences, and, if I get to go again next year, I’ll be the first on the list to volunteer to help out newcomers. As soon as I get my nametag on, I’ll wing my way through the crowd, eagle-eyed, looking for any girl with a fresh band-aid.
I’ve been wanting to ask you something for a long time, so it’s exciting to finally get the opportunity. It’s a three-part question:
Show me the rounded-edge Kodak prints, the polaroids, the slides — I love it all. If it’s got your personal quilt history in it, I’m interested, and I want you to tell me about the pictures, too: Who are the people? Where were you? What year was it? And what was she thinking with that haircut? Things like that.
Here’s an important note: While I’m interested in quilt history from the big bang right on up to five minutes ago, I’m specifically looking for quilt-related photographs of people with their quilts taken from roughly 1940-1990.
That 50-year span is where I’m spending major research time for a number of projects. I can comb through this or that archive, and I frequently find things in databases and so forth, but asking you to share pictures is way better because you’re a real-life person who can, you know, talk to me. A citation can’t talk. Besides, I think this is going to be super fun.
I’m trying to think of things you’ll ask so that I can answer you ahead of time. Let’s see how I do:
I have pictures of all the quilts I ever made! When do I start??
Wait, wait! I love that you documented all the quilts you made but I am not looking for pictures of quilts by themselves. I am looking for pictures of people with their quilts. Making them, showing them, sleeping under them, presenting them, hiding under them, waving them like flags, cuddling up in them, helping sew them, using them for oil rags in the garage — all of that, any of that and more. Picture of you and the quilts in your life. That’s what I’m after. The photo up top is the kind of thing I’m talking about. Does this make sense?
Got it. Now, reassure me what you’re doing with these. These photos are my property.
I want to look at these photos for my own edification and research. If there comes a time when I say, “This photo is incredible and I would like to use it for [insert project here]”, then I will contact you and we will both enjoy filling out many forms. Consider these words our very public, very binding contract: Whatever photos you share with me go no further unless we go further together. Look, it’s possible a hacker could get into my computer and start flinging pictures of you sewing in ’72 with Jan and Marla at the old house on Sycamore Street, but this would be out of my control. I do not think anyone will do this.
I’m so excited! I’ve been waiting for years for someone to ask to see my “Krazy Kwiltin’ Daze” photo albums. I have scanned a lot of my photos already. Where do I send the pictures?
If there’s a tidal wave of photos (!) there will need to be another system, but for now, scan your pics and email me at mary @ maryfons . com. Attach as many as you like. You can put “Photos” in the subject line. Alternately, you may put in the subject line the kind of ice cream you like best. I’d like to look at an email box full of ice cream flavors, wouldn’t you? I encourage you to use this option.
But, but … I don’t have a scanner. Or maybe I do, but I don’t know how to use it. I have so many photos! I hate technology. Now what?
I was afraid you’d ask this. I hate technology, too. I think you have to ask someone at a Walgreen’s or a FedEx-Kinko’s to help you? I suppose it would work to take a picture of a picture and email it to me from your phone. But this might be a miserable task, since I’m asking for information along with the picture. Speaking of information …
What kind of information do you want? I forgot to put the milk away last night, so I hope you don’t expect me to remember names and exact dates on a lot of these pictures.
I left the milk out, too. Just do your best. Try to identify the people in the picture. Tell me where the photo was taken. If anything, do try to remember the year, even if it’s a rough guess. But don’t sweat this: I’m not doing genealogical research; this isn’t forensics. Just gimmie the gist.
The idea of this makes me happy, but I fear that I will feel sad while I’m doing it. It makes me not want to do it.
I know. It’s hard to go through old photos, sometimes. People have passed away. Everyone 25 years ago was 25 years younger. Yes, nostalgia may have its way with you. It always has its way with me. Don’t do anything you don’t want to do. Stick those photos back in the drawer if it’s too weird. I’ll survive!
I have this fantasy of sitting and looking at humble photo after humble photo of people and their quilts during this timespan. I’m hoping I’ll see a picture of kids in the ’80s making a quilt fort; I’m prepared to drool over a photo of a sew-in at a college dorm; I’d love a black and white shot of a protest quilt of some kind; I’d just die and go to heaven if one of you sends me a picture with someone smoking while quilting, but this would surely be too good to be true.
Whatever you send, whatever you remember, thanks for being there.
I wasn’t kidding. About the Sunday Evening Post.
But on Sunday, I had to go to the hospital. You guys, I’m so sorry. I left in the early evening, right when I had planned to sit down with you for a nice fireside chat. I was so looking forward to it. All day, I was. Proof is in this very moment: I’ve just walked in the door to my home after so many days and what am I doing? Even before taking out the garbage, even before putting in a load of laundry. Even — prepare for astonishment — before making tea … I’m here. Right here.
I’m still here.
The Sunday Evening Post was late, but it was always coming.
Say you’ve been living in the same city for over a decade and then decide to move away.
Before you leave, you’ll probably enjoy some intentional farewell-ing. If you’re an extrovert with a robust social life, you might get a going-away party. The party might be a big deal or a small deal, but either way a send-off would be a gathering of people who will miss you when you’re gone. At the very least, someone will want to grab lunch with you before you dip and they might pick up the check. For luck, you know?
Now, a couple years later, let’s say you move back.
You don’t slink back. You don’t return in shame under cover of darkness, but your return could not be considered triumphant. I mean, it’s not like you slayed a dragon or rescued a village of maidens — or even one maiden. And while (most of) the people you used to know are happy to see you back, it would be unwise to expect a fête with kazoos and signage. Seriously, don’t wait for that. People are living their lives. Your comings and goings are not as significant to them as they are for you, and that’s okay. The truth is, it’s “out of sight, out of mind” for most of us, squirt.
What I’m getting at is that it would be a mistake for me to burst into the room, as it were, and proclaim my return to PaperGirl, waving my best Queen of England wave, batting my eyelashes while wondering how many virtual roses may soon come sailing to my feet. I know many of you have missed me — and thanks for making me cry, dweebs — you’re busy. You’ve been living your life. You’ve got concerns that do not concern a blog or absence thereof. And believe me, I know that some of you may have missed me for awhile but missing turned to annoyance because let’s face it: I ghosted. For a minute. And we have a … thing.
If you’ll have me, you can have me. I’m home.
And if there are any of you out there who might make a fuss; I appreciate it. A lot. But I don’t really have a choice. When I drifted away and put my head in the sand, I had no idea how drying all that sand was. I’m going through a lot of moisturizer — and I like the fancy stuff. It’s not sustainable. Besides, stuck in all this sand, I can’t hear or see anything, which means I can’t see you.
My idea is to write The Sunday Evening Post* every week. We have to set reachable goals. We have to ease into things. If I get too excited, I’ll spill my bowl of soup and then feel defeated and stick my head back in the sand.
I cannot express how good it feels right now to mix metaphors for you.
*We reserve the right to bend time and space.
At this point, I think it’s best that I make a list.
A list of the reasons why this PaperGirl has been so absentee. A list of reasons why she’s struggling. Why she is internet-skulking around, looking guilty, trying not to wake anyone up when she gets home, slinking through the back door with the stealth of a teenage ninja with something to hide. Perhaps it’s time to make a list of the reasons why the woman feels as though there is something to hide. Like a grocery list, except with guilt and creeping dread. And shame! Don’t forget the shame.
And now, the reasons why I am not checking in as much these days …