Chapter 12: The Conference

At the airport Daria made her way through security. It was the usual humiliation of pulling half the stuff out of her carry on, taking off her shoes and standing in the 'strip search machine.' At least in her mind she didn't think anyone would be keeping the picture of her to hang on their wall. This was of course followed by having someone deign to allow her to pick up her stuff and head toward her flight.

The flights were blissfully uneventful. The short flight from Lawndale to Baltimore was like that ride long ago to Alternapalooza (Had it really been 15 years?) in The Tank, except that there were seats to sit on rather than sitting on an old trunk. Thankfully, the flight was short enough that she didn't have time to get motion sickness. Once she got off the plane she had to go quickly to her next gate – which was all the way across the airport, of course. Thank goodness she wasn't 7 months pregnant!

The flight to Florida at least was a plane of respectable size. But, she was stuck in the middle seat in a row behind the wing. Luckily, no one sat next to her that was larger than the seat nor did any of the people in her row emit any strong odors. The woman by the window said, "Excuse me" when she climbed over Daria to get in her seat. The man on the aisle – clearly on a business trip – politely said, "Hello" and then was looking at something on his phone. Daria stuck her nose in a book to avoid any conversation. The only people to talk to her during the three hour flight were the flight attendants asking her what she wanted to drink and if she wanted to buy their snacks. Daria took the drinks and skipped the snacks. Paying four times as much for some of the same mediocre snacks stocked at the gas station did not appeal to her. At least this was not one of those airlines that had started charging for overhead bin space. Even pregnant Daria was small enough that the cramped quarters of an airline seat still provided enough space for her to stretch her legs and relax a little bit.

Finally her plane touched down in Florida. After getting off the plane she headed to the baggage claim area and got her checked bag. Then it was off to find the hotel shuttle. Daria was thankful she didn't have to rent a car. It was not only cheaper for the university, but she hated the hassle of driving in the traffic of an unfamiliar city.

The hotel was near the airport. It was a very nice hotel, spa and conference center with palm trees in the lobby and an actual bell staff and concierge. As with so many conferences of this type, however, she was effectively on an island until she got on the shuttle back to the airport. Checking in was very easy and she was quickly up in her room. She had treated herself to the upgraded room, even though she would have to pay the difference between it and the standard room out of her own pocket. At least she didn't have to share with anyone from Lawndale State – eew. Checking her watch Daria saw it was 1:00 am. She pulled out her phone and called Tom. Since he was in Minneapolis on a business trip it was only midnight there.

"Hi Daria," Tom answered.

In total deadpan Daria replied, "Hey Tom. I just wanted to let you know that I made it here OK and that the goons at security didn't decide to haul me off, strip me, and then waterboard me because I had a deadly nail file or something."

Tom chuckled, "I miss you. Your observations are priceless. How is your room?"

"It is really quite nice. It's worth the extra money. The place is tasteful and not cold. I have a table and 4 chairs as well as a desk and chair plus a couch. There is also a microwave and refrigerator. You better be careful. I could get used to having a king size bed all to myself."

"Is there a decent view?"

"I haven't looked. It's dark, but I am on the 16th floor so surely there is a view of something other than the dumpster." Daria walked over to the window and peered through the floor length drapes. She discovered that she had a balcony, so she pulled the drapes back, opened the door and stepped out. "From the balcony it looks like I can see over the city. Since this is Florida there appear to be lots of palm trees and nothing resembling a hill in sight. Looking down I can see the pool area, hot tub and what looks like a tiki bar."

"Sounds like it should be an enjoyable stay," Tom remarked. "It is certainly better than here in Minneapolis. We are having a blizzard. It started late this afternoon. I'm glad I don't have to drive anywhere. The customer scheduled our meetings in one of the hotel conference rooms. So, my team can wait for them to come to us."

"How are the accommodations?"

"It's a nice hotel. It's a little on the modern and cold side, but not bad. It would be better if I had you in the king sized bed to keep me warm! I can't get used to sleeping without you."

"That's sweet Tom, even if I don't believe it."

"Are you ready for your presentation?"

"As ready as I will ever be. My session is tomorrow afternoon. We have the keynote speech in the morning and one set of breakout sessions followed by lunch. Then the afternoon is all breakout sessions."

"Have you decided which ones you will attend?"

"I already have my list. There are a couple of papers I really want to attend. I also want to go to the late breakout session in the afternoon which focuses on teaching. Maybe someone will have some insights on how to inspire my otherwise sleepy students."

"How are you feeling?"

"Baby and I are just fine. No nausea or other problems. I am going to have to seriously think about buying maternity clothes when I get home. I am approaching 10 lbs (4.5 kg) of weight gain and even my 'fat clothes' are getting to be only marginally comfortable. I brought a couple of dresses with me on this trip so that I wouldn't be trying to get around in pants. I'll wear a pant suit for my presentation, but that is the only time I plan to wear pants."

"Going commando for the conference?"

"You have a dirty mind, mister! You know darn well what I mean."

"OK. OK," Tom replied.

"Well, I need to unpack a little. I knew it would be late when I got here, so I brought some ramen noodles for dinner. Then I will get to bed. I love you Tom and I miss you."

"I love you and I miss you too, Daria. Call me tomorrow, OK? I want to hear how everything went."

"Sure. Bye."

"Bye, Daria."

Daria ended the call. After taking care of unpacking a few items she went and plugged in the room's coffeemaker, filled it with water, and turned it on. Since this was a nice hotel the coffee cups in the room were ceramic. She put the hot water she had made in two of them and added her noodles. Soon she was eating her dinner from the cups with a plastic fork she always kept in her bag. Sitting alone she used the time and her phone to catch up on email and read the news. Afterward to finish unwinding she caught a repeat of an episode of Sick Sad World, and then went to bed. The last thing she remembered before falling asleep was looking at the clock. It showed 2:11 am.

….

Daria was sitting in the second largest ballroom of the hotel. She had managed to get six hours of sleep last night, got up and after a quick run through the shower was able to get dressed and down to the ballroom before they took away the continental breakfast items and coffee. The room was set up with rows of chairs. Aisles ran up the middle and along the sides. Daria was sitting on the side aisle with a small plate holding fruit and a muffin on her knees, a napkin in her lap, and a cup of coffee in her hand – the baby would understand. Daria needed the caffeine. Such was breakfast.

The place was at least three quarters full. Daria had picked a spot on the outside in order to be able to leave if necessary. She was a little uncomfortable, since the waist on the pantsuit was tight. The keynote speaker was about to start. Her topic: Dominant Themes in Literary Discourse from the Early 20th into the 21st Century – Progressing to the Post-Modern.

The conference chair got up and introduced himself, the organizational staff, and various important people attending the conference. It was the usual boring stuff that kicked off any conference. Then something caught Daria's attention.

The chair continued, "I am especially happy to announce that we will be offering a special session added at the last minute on spotting and developing potential new authors. Amy Barksdale, managing editor from QuickCanon Publishing, has agreed to hold a special session in this room tomorrow starting at 4:00 pm. She will address the following: Identifying students with literary talent, development of new literary talent, and preparing and submitting initial materials for consideration by a publisher. Everyone interested is invited to attend. There will be refreshments following the session sponsored by QuickCanon Publishing."

Daria thought to herself, 'I never expected to see Aunt Amy at a comparative literature conference.' She pulled out her phone and typed a quick text to her Aunt, 'I am at the conference. See you in your session. Can we get together?' Then she sat back as the keynote speaker started her talk.

The day went by as was expected at an academic conference. The day's keynote speaker finished and then everyone shuffled off either to the breakout session they had chosen or to the bar. There were even some people who simply hung out at the bar and when an interesting session came up would ask others arriving at the bar to borrow their registration badges. They would then attend while the other person sat in the bar and drank. Once in a great while a session would actually erupt in a heated discussion about some literary concept. One rumor had it that in 'years past' there was some vicious name calling! While Daria was certainly passionate about her chosen field she was not unreasonably enamored of its place in the world. In fact, she had to chuckle about other rumors of how in 'years past' fist fights erupted in either a session or 'out back.' She surmised that if true it probably had some relationship to time spent in the bar.

Daria was headed to her presentation when she felt her phone vibrate. Looking at the display there was a text from her Aunt Amy. It read, 'Dinner 2nite at 7 in hotel? C u in lobby.' Daria texted back 'C u there.'

Daria arrived at her session. The chair's assistant was setting up the presentations. Daria gave him her data stick and he set up her presentation as well. She would be the third out of five in the session. Each person had 20 minutes – 15 to present and 5 for questions. Daria sat down and awaited her turn. She was actually somewhat excited. It looked like the small room was almost half filled! Whenever a presenter had 20 or more in the presentation it was a real success.

The first two papers were interminable. They were at best arcane comparisons of Latin American and African themes. Then it was Daria's turn. The chair introduced her and gave a brief overview of her resume. Daria was quickly standing and facing a room full of people. Her topic: French Influences in German Water Corpse Literature. This was material drawn from her doctoral thesis. As she started her presentation she was surprised that it was not fear that seemed to grip her. It was boredom! During the presentation she had to work hard to add inflection to her speech, gesture, and make eye contact with the audience. It would have been easy to deliver the talk in total deadpan while standing motionless. When she finished there were several people who complemented her diagramming of the subject to make it clearer. Daria thought that it was helpful having an accountant as a husband! After she was done she sat down and waited patiently as the other presenters came forward. Finally, it was over.

….

Daria was standing in the lobby in a blue print sundress and white flat sandals. She was thinking how much more comfortable she was than in her pantsuit. That is when she saw her Aunt Amy emerge from behind a pillar in the spacious area. Amy's auburn hair was showing some gray framing her oval face. But Daria's favorite aunt still had a great figure and turned more than a couple heads in the lobby. Amy walked up to Daria.

"Hi Daria," Amy said.

"Hi Aunt Amy," Daria replied.

Amy put her hand on Daria's shoulder. Daria didn't flinch. Amy was allowed to touch her. "You know you should just call me Amy, especially here at the conference. And I'm not the only Aunt here – Aunt Daria!"

"I know. I got the call from Tyler at the office just before heading to the airport. I think Quinn and Elias are supposed to go home today. Anyway, it is kind of hard after all these years not to call you Aunt Amy. Ingrained habit I guess."

Amy smiled. "Your mother called me last night. I haven't heard her so excited in years! For once she was excited in a good way and not just mad about something relating to Rita. I guess becoming a grandmother is better than fighting with your sister! Let's go get some dinner. Afterall you are eating for two!"

"That is what I keep telling myself," Daria replied as they walked toward the hotel's fine dining restaurant.

Once they were seated and perusing the menu Amy asked Daria, "So, how is your pregnancy going?"

"So far, so good. My first ultrasound went well. I am gaining weight at the right rate. As you can see I am avoiding alcohol and the same goes for caffeine. I try to walk around my building every day now that it is cold. I will take 'the long way' to class to increase my number of steps. I'm getting a little swelling in my ankles, however. And of course I take my vitamins and go to my prenatal appointments."

"I assume Tom is dealing well with your pregnancy?"

Looking over her menu Daria answered in total deadpan, "Of course. You know Tom. He is so in love with me that he will do anything. I think if I asked him to carry me up and down the stairs he would do it – at least until his back broke!" Both women laughed. As she finished her comment the waiter walked up and took their order.

Amy asked, "What about life in the ivory tower? Are you enjoying being a professor?"

Daria smiled at her aunt and answered, "Well, at Lawndale State we joke that the ivory tower is more like a mud brick hut! We seem to be caught in the uncomfortable middle. We are not specifically a state research university – where it is publish or perish – nor are we totally a teaching institution. Our basic teaching load is three classes per semester and we are expected to do original research. Tenure decisions are not the classic 'publish or perish,' yet you better have some publications in at least a couple of decent journals plus papers in the proceedings of conferences like this one. Thank goodness they have not gone down the path of using the number of times your work is cited by others to determine your fate! Along with that you need to be effective and well rated in the classroom. So, you wind up having to do both teaching and research reasonably well, though you cannot focus on one and then neglect of the other."

"Sounds like it keeps you busy."

"It does. In my three classes I teach about a hundred students total. That is quite a few papers to grade every week! I try to stagger longer assignments so that I do not have more than one class' essays to grade in a given week. Mid-term exams and finals are more challenging, since they tend to occur at the same time. I probably spend a minimum of 10 hours per week grading. While I love the freedom I have as a professor to do what I want, sometimes it is a job!"

Their meals arrived and Daria realized that she was really hungry. Then she remembered that lunch had been a couple granola bars and a bottle of water. She had ordered pork chops, mashed potatoes, and green beans almandine. The meal was both nutritious and would not make her or the baby uncomfortable.

As they ate Amy went on with her line of questioning, "So do you have any graduate students yet?"

"I have one master's student. He is researching vampire literature. My department chair wants me to serve on a couple of doctoral committees before I take on a doctoral student. I'm fine with that. He has promised to place me on two committees this semester. I think it is more to understand the dynamics of the faculty than anything relating to the student."

"I am kind of surprised that Lawndale State has doctoral programs," Amy commented.

"We get a few doctoral students. Most are international students who will become university faculty back in their home countries. They want to get their degrees somewhere that English is the national language. Frankly, our doctoral programs are not that difficult to get into. However, the other faculty members have told me we are not 'easy' on the foreign doctoral students. They have to be fully fluent in English by the time they are done. We expect them to speak and write as nearly native speakers."

Amy just looked at Daria and said, "It is certainly easier to deal with written than spoken language."

"All of our full-time doctoral students get teaching assistantships and are expected to perform at the level of junior faculty. We observe them in the classroom as part of their evaluation before their comprehensive exams, which they have to pass before being allowed to start their doctoral theses."

"Sounds like a solid program," Amy said.

"Actually, it is. It may not be the doctoral program at Columbia I went through, but I believe that we turn out competent graduates who will do well in their positions."

Amy smiled at her niece. She then commented, "I'm proud of you, Daria. I like seeing you take pride not only in your work, but your institution as well."

Daria deadpanned, "Some days I feel that I need to be placed in an institution. Other days my colleagues make me feel like I already am. You should have seen our most recent department meeting." Daria and Amy both laughed at the comment. Then Daria asked, "So what are you doing now Aunt Amy?"

"I'm now at the point in my career where I manage the genres of books that we publish. I worked my way up from basic editing to managing individual authors to managing a specific genre to now overseeing how we strategically select genres to best compete in the marketplace. I try to anticipate readers' tastes and be the first to satisfy their demands. Sometimes it means trying to create a whole new genre or sub-genre to open up opportunities for both the company and authors."

As she finished what was on her plate Daria remarked, "That sounds challenging."

"It is," Amy replied. "That is why I travel so much. You can only get so much information from surveys and sales data. What is really needed is to get out of the office and go talk to readers and authors. Different regions have different tastes in books. I am here at this conference to talk to professors, like you, who potentially see new writers emerging. I want to see their work, but I want to see it after you have had a chance to help them develop their talent."

Daria said in total deadpan, "You don't think that the whole process of higher education forces a bland sameness onto the young writers destroying their very souls?"

Amy laughed and with a wry smile retorted, "It doesn't on the good ones, does it Melody?" referring to Daria's books about her fictional spy Melody Powers.

"Touché," Daria replied.

Amy went on, "You do things like teach them to write in complete and grammatically correct sentences, conceptualize their story line, and even read widely to understand how other authors convey their ideas. There is nothing worse than trying to read the work of an untrained writer. One that writes as they speak. It is especially bad if that writer misuses words and ignores the rules of grammar. Even if the story is compelling poor technique can make it unreadable."

Daria nodded her head, "Yeah. As Jane has said to me about artwork – 'suck is not a style.'"

Amy chuckled and then replied, "Precisely. Faulkner could write in his style because he was Faulkner. Someone who has read one of his books trying to imitate that style is just kind of pathetic."

"You can say the same about Hemingway," Daria injected.

"True. So, tomorrow I want to talk to your colleagues about spotting and developing talent from the publisher's standpoint. Hopefully I will get good attendance at the session."

"Serving refreshments will definitely help. I have noticed with faculty members, 'If you feed them, they will come.' As long as the session is not scheduled at the same time as 'happy hour' I think you will be fine. This bunch really likes their liquor."

"We will have beer and wine, but maybe I should hold the session in the bar," Amy said.

"The only problem with that is that you would then get some of the old lechers hitting on you. Some of them are so desperate they even hit on me!"

"You are an attractive young woman Daria."

"Thanks. But, I will stick with Tom. He is faithful, loyal, and totally devoted to me – oh God, it sounds like I am describing a dog!" Daria said putting her face in her hands.

"There are certain similarities between dogs and men," Amy observed. "Now let's order some dessert and coffee."

"Sure, as long as the coffee is decaffeinated and the desert is free of chocolate, since chocolate has caffeine."

Amy observed, "You poor thing. You really are sacrificing for this pregnancy."

"I know. I guess that means I will be a good mom," Daria replied.

The two women enjoyed their desserts and more conversation. Daria had to admit that even with decaffeinated coffee crème brulee was a great desert. When they were finished they headed to their rooms to get a good night's sleep.

"No adventure. No one stalking you. No one is even hitting on you. It sounds really boring," Jane Lane said to her best friend.

Looking at Jane on the screen of her phone Daria replied, "It is, though after the trip to Europe I have had enough adventure for a while. Oh, and one guy did hit on me. But, I like a nice boring conference with other professors. It is both intellectually stimulating and entertaining when one of them gets passionate about unimportant minutiae."

"What?" Jane asked.

"You know – unimportant little stuff," Daria clarified.

"Oh. Why didn't you say so?" Jane replied.

"I did. The best part has been getting to see my Aunt Amy. We had dinner together and then I went to her special session on developing new authors."

"How did those go?"

Daria answered, "Dinner was great. It was good to catch up on things and talk about Quinn. The session was hilarious."

"I thought you said sessions were boring. How can they be hilarious?"

"Aunt Amy is smarter and quicker on her feet than most of the professors attending the session. As she talked about what QuickCanon was looking for there were a couple of guys in the audience who took great exception to the idea that she wants to publish stories and books people will actually read. Such things are just not sufficiently literary! We need more books examining the evils of capitalism from the perspective of the chicken who will wind up on the dinner table. We need to expose the chicken's pitiful life and gruesome death and what that chicken is thinking in its last second on the planet. How do the smells of blood and death weigh upon its mind before it is 'processed'? Of course the implication is that we humans are processed by the evil industrial complex just like the chicken."

"You're kidding, right?"

"I'm using hyperbole, but honestly from some of the things that were said I am not exaggerating that much."

"I think I will stick to painting. At least I don't have to listen to fellow artists unless I really want to."

"It was fun watching Amy take these guys apart. One of the things she talked about was the simple fact that the only way to have funding to pay for the publishing of stories about doomed chickens was to have successful mass market products creating sufficient profits. No profits. No deathly boring chicken stories.""

"She makes a good point. I take commissions for works that I am not that excited about because it pays the bills. It also allows me to do my own work."

"Amy's point exactly. I thought it was kind of ironic that her company provided chicken wings as the main item on the snack buffet. They even had jerk sauce for dipping!"

Jane laughed. Then she cleared her throat and said, "So on another topic, have you planned my bachelorette party yet?"

In perfect deadpan Daria responded, "Of course, Jane. Everything is set. We are going to meet at your place and then go to a restaurant I picked out that has a separate party room. There will be food, drinks, and we will all watch the movie 'My Dinner with Andre.' We can then have a discussion about its meaning and how the two people having dinner together developed their vastly different worldviews."

Jane stared at her phone in stunned silence for a moment. "You know you are going to Hell, right?"

Daria smiled, "Not if I believe Father Tim! Seriously, I'm not going to tell you anything. The limo will pick you up at 7:00 pm that night."

"So how is dear old Mr. O'Neil? Is he really a better priest than he was an English teacher."

Daria smiled at the screen. "He is. Believe it or not he is actually doing some very good things in the community which make a difference. I've worked a few Saturdays at his food bank. His style and compulsive empathy are very effective for getting significant donations. There are people in Lawndale not going hungry this evening because of his work."

"I'm glad to hear that."

"I have to go, Jane. They're calling my flight. We'll talk more next week about your wedding plans. Say 'hi' to Jim for me."

"OK. Bye Daria," Jane said and ended the call.

…..

Friday morning Daria sat in her office preparing for class. It was always a little disconcerting being in the same place and doing the same thing at the end of a week as you were doing at the start of the week, but there was a whole trip to another city, meetings, and a presentation in between. Of course it was always nice when she or Tom returned from a trip. They always made certain to celebrate. With both of them returning from trips the celebration was especially satisfying! Next week it would be the same only without the traveling.