Only a damn revolving door stood between her and the shuttle bus.
It's about 7:45 on the first morning of the ASHA convention, and a brightly polished, oh-so-rapidly turning revolving door in an Atlanta hotel is proving particularly troublesome. The door's speedy enough to bring hesitation to one conference attendee, who just wants to get outside. She's standing several yards in front of me, leaning forward in taut anticipation, attempting to read the rhythm of spin, fingers curling and uncurling nervously while a plain brown leather purse slides slowly, unnoticed, down her right shoulder.
A tentative step; a missed opportunity; the shuttle bus may have left. Shaking her head, embarrassed, she glances back at the early-morning gatherers in the lobby. Now she's leaning too far backward, too close. Automatic and unmindful, the still-whirling door snatches the purse off her shoulder. The newly liberated handbag tumbles crazily forward as cell phone, tissues and various whatnots erupt and spew onto the sidewalk, outside.
Not to worry, dear, unfortunate attendee. You're not the only one out of sync with your surroundings: It's a normal part of the beginning of the national conference experience. The opening hours at a large convention are as much about mapping out and navigating an unknown physical landscape as they are about presenting, learning and networking.
It's around 11:30 on Thursday morning, and the Georgia World Congress Center, the fourth-largest convention center in the United States, looms gleaming and monstrous above and around ASHA attendees on their first day of the conference. Most move slowly and in packs, clutching programs, heads bobbing up and down, trying to reconcile the (1) maps in the convention program; (2) colorful, ASHA-customized signage; and (3) building's ubiquitous dull gray signs rendered in a most-obscure form of Sanskrit or unbreakable military code. For all the commotion, the GWCC is strangely muffled, punctuated occasionally by greeting shrieks. All are focused on finding their way to where they need to go.
"It's this way! No, the Omni is this way, I'm positive!" Three middle-aged attendees suddenly stop between Buildings A and B, each grumbling and sure, pointing in different directions while the crowd automatically parts and flows around. Shaking her head, turned around and sore, a willowy student slumps down in one of the many available chairs along the hallway to the exhibit hall. Very, very, very high heels topple aside. She mutters, flipping through the program with her right hand while the left massages her feet.
Think about it. To reach the comfortable familiarity of predictably arranged conference rooms and their regulated, staged interactions and presentations, we must make our way across the terra incognita of the enveloping megaplex. Passageways twist and turn, inevitably knotting into cul de sacs; escalators descend seemingly to every floor but the needed one; whiffs of freshly brewed coffee waft through gigantic halls, but where the heck can one actually find some? Disorientation, backtracking and hard-learned lessons equalize all who travel from near and far: student and professor, researcher and clinician, SLP and audiologist. No one escapes the first day.
And then, something wonderful happens. The last two days of ASHA convention bear witness to one of those hidden but invariably felt marvels that's quintessentially human: Attendees adapt to new surroundings by increasingly socializing the space and making it their own. Nothing new; we've been transforming our collective places for at least tens of thousands of years. Less than you might think separates hunter-gatherer bands coming together in temporary summer base camps on sprawling, wind-bitten grasslands from modern conference attendees traversing states and countries, continents and oceans to a single building in bustling, downtown Atlanta.
Before we know it, Friday afternoon steps (well, maybe staggers) into place on the second day of convention. It's around 1 pm. Fewer attendees linger at the signage or peruse maps, but many stop to converse. Chit-chats, laughter and shouts of "It's this way! or "Let's grab a bite at ____!" percolate; everyone's got a beverage or a munchie. A man walks by, absorbed in the program, sandwich condiment of some yellowish goo type running down his right wrist and dripping down, unbeknownst, leaving a trail from the CNN Center to his conference room. Their pace purposeful, loners and pairs head to sessions. Precious tables and chairs in the more remote, quiet hallways teem with attendees.
A national convention in medias res is a wonder to behold. The empty shell of the megaplex slowly but oh-so-surely gives way to a socialized world of knowns, confidence and expediency. Step by step, attendees map and own their surroundings, their territory-shortcuts, conversation hangouts, and food spots and beverage centers of all types and price ranges surface as individuals establish their respective foraging radiuses, specialized activity areas and pathways to watering holes. Where is it? rapidly loses cachet and relevance. . .they're now more concerned with How do I behave?
Two students speed by, intense and immersed in rapid-fire exchange.
-"I'm afraid she's going to be there, too. Yesterday, good grief. [sniff] Do I sit next to her?"
--"How well do you know her?"
[shrug of shoulders]
-If somebody you know knows you and it's a small room, and she knows you're there, well, then, you know what you have to do."
-"But-but-do I really have to?" [frowns and stops] "Great, just great." [stomps off]
Histories of personal conference dealings smolder and flare as crucibles of decision-making in the present as the ASHA Convention, even in its second day, begins slipping into memory. Physical space recedes as it becomes less of an obstacle and more of a backdrop for encounters. Attendees continue to map the world around them, but now they have the luxury of being more concerned with navigating convention-specific social interactions than physical landscapes.
And the wondrous transformation continues.
It's mid-morning, Saturday, and there's a compelling, rhythmic flow to the crowds moving through the megaplex. Signage is ignored. Two friends stride by, one admitting, softly, "I've squandered too many sessions."
By this point in a national conference, everyone knows as best as they ever will the building, the linchpins of convention social etiquette, and-this is key-the all important Rules of Convention-al Wisdom that have emerged over the past three days.
1. Get over it. There is no such thing as a cheap meal anywhere in the convention center or around it. Would you like a little cheese with that whine? It is what it is.
2. What? Conspiratorial rumors of alien devices abound in Exhibit Hall A2 as the acoustics there are god-awful bad. Acoustics so terrible they need to be not heard to be believed.
3. Yes, it's true. There is a friggin' amazing row of sudsy beer on tap lining the front of one vendor in the CNN food court. Get there early, though, as everyone's mighty thirsty by 11:30. And you can't take the brewsky out of the CNN center-not that I tried or anything. Really.
4. Size matters. To avoid the three-mile long, mind-numbing, lingering-death inducing, slow-ass centipede lines at the Starbucks shop in the convention center, get your coffee from a barista at the tiny Starbucks rolling cart pulled up plumb smack between Buildings A & B. No lines! But you better have cash, mister, as they don't take credit cards.
5. Watch out! That first step off the shuttle bus is one giant leap for mankind. And you better look down-some buses have foot stools; some, without warning, smirk or faint hint from the drivers, do not.
6. You got to be kidding me. One men's restroom in the GWCC has five urinals and 20 stalls (yes, sadly, I counted them). Crucial elements of male anatomic functionality were apparently not fully comprehended by the architect of that particular facility.
And then, as always, just when we have mastered the singular space at the end of our convention pilgrimage, it's time to let it all go. Time to return to 11,000-plus differently socialized worlds. During their brief time together, attendees at the convention share not only a common discipline but an experience that's equal parts grand and human, a transformational journey of adaptation from spatial to social that is completely, irreducibly and marvelously you and me.
Returning to the hotel on Saturday afternoon, I happen to spot the poor attendee harassed by the revolving door just a few days before. She's saying farewell to a friend in the lobby. Final, big, warm-as-can-be hugs. Shiny silver suitcase pulled by one hand, brown leather purse in the other, she turns and waves, stepping effortlessly through the revolving door and onto her life.