I attended the New Yorker Stories From the Near Future conference a week or so ago, and managed not to schmooze with a single New Yorker writer. This was harder than it sounds. They were all over the place -- one could hardly move without tripping over Malcolm Gladwell or stepping on James Surowiecki's toes. Thanks to convention center designer Frank Gehry's non-eye for detail, New Yorker writers were easier to find than trash bins. But with the exception of offering my jacket to a shivering (and fetching) Rebecca Mead when we happened to use adjacent computers, I didn't reach out to a single one.
For a relatively young, aspiring journalist, this was a grand opportunity lost. Such is life.
It's not a matter of shyness -- had John McPhee been there, I would gladly have invited him to dinner and later asked for a few snippets of hair on the off chance that I could someday clone him, or at least derive a gelatinous blob posing both serious ethical dilemmas and a jackpot Talk of the Town. I'm just constitutionally averse to using people as means to my ends, except in an open and transparent way. The intersection of social and professional makes me uncomfortable.
By this I don't mean talking shop, or enjoying a conversation with someone who happens to be a colleague, but pretending to be interested when I'm bored and friendly when I don't care. It's probably less about ethics than cognitive dissonance. The sensation makes me want to break things.
Naturally, I found out later that Mead wrote an article I deeply admired about the commercialization of eggs used for in vitro fertilization , and a friend from the conference ended up doing drunk late-night karaoke with a bunch of New Yorker writers while I rushed off on a belly full of free booze to a date that ended flatly. Oh well. I'll never know what opportunities I lost, but I certainly gained one hell of a hangover.
Image: Eric Kilby