"We feel like this every year," I tell Lynn. "In the last couple of days before the MLA meeting we're completely stressed out and we don't think there's any way that we can get everything done that needs doing. But we always end up having a great time..." She nods, "Yeah, yeah, I know..."
This will be my 22nd consecutive MLA annual meeting. In those first few years it was just about the only travelling that I did, and it seemed as if all the rest of the year revolved around it. Now it's just one more trip among many, but it still carries the most emotional weight. The other conferences or meetings I go to are relatively low-key affairs, compared to MLA's insanely overbooked schedule. Every one of the twenty-odd sections needs to have its own business meeting and a couple of program sessions, and then there's all of the committee meetings and task forces, the plenary sessions, the general business meetings, and the whirl of receptions and social events.
For some reason, this year I've been asked by a number of people who are attending the meeting for the first time, or who have only been to one or two, how to get the most out of it. I tell them to go to all of the social events they can -- the most important part of the meeting is making those connections. I suggest going to the main plenary sessions, since those speakers are usually fairly interesting, and to the general business meetings, which are usually not very interesting in themselves, but which do give you a good idea of how the Association functions. I say that it might be worth going to a section business meeting or two -- generally only the most committed members bother going to those so it's a good way to meet some people who may be keenly interested in some of the same topics you are.
And then, alas, I tell them to skip most of the contributed paper sessions, or at least to be extremely selective. Contributed papers are not a great way to share information, and to sit through a session just because you feel you ought to be there is not a good use of your time. Going to hear a particular paper that's on a topic that you may be working on might be a good idea, especially if you take the opportunity to meet the speaker. The poster sessions are good for that reason. You can manage your time and attention better.
I think of the meeting as an endurance test, juggling my own responsibilities, spending time with friends, finding little spaces where I can get off by myself and recharge, exploring a bit of whatever city I find myself in. Every year, the meeting leaves an indelible mark. All of the major themes of my personal life, as well as my professional one, are reflected in the unfolding trail of annual meetings.
It was at the last MLA meeting in San Antonio that Lynn and I first showed up together as a couple, where I went into the exhibit hall, finally in a fury of frustration and said, "I need to talk to you... now." Where we went outside and I said, "I'm tired of being one of your boyfriends," ready to end it right there. And she grinned and said, "Okay. You're it. I just needed someone to pull me off of the ledge... Can I go back to work now?" And left me sitting there, dazed and exhilarated...
It was in San Antonio that Mark Frisse said, speaking of Lynn, "That woman has whole cities inside her..." So true.