Last week, I went to a conference in a small city best reached by an international flight to Las Vegas. It wasn’t a big conference, wasn’t particularly relevant to my current research, and in the end, I made my presentation to six other people, mostly conference organizers attending out of the kindness of their hearts. But that’s what conferences are really about anyway, right—the friends we make along the way? An important point of the trip was its function as a test-flight for my upcoming big conference trip across the Atlantic, to London. Air travel with a chronic illness—can I do it?
The test-flight was a quick one, booked on ultra discount airline Swoop. What’s it like to fly Swoop from anywhere to Las Vegas at the beginning of the May long weekend? Remember that 1990s dance song “The Venga Bus,” the one about the “inter-city disco”? Disappointed there isn’t more beer spilled on your flight? Fly Swoop.
It was my first time in Las Vegas but it had a familiar energy. Strangely, unexpectedly, it felt a bit like China—fat, English China, where what made me stand out in a crowd was nothing but the fact that I was there, in Vegas, alone.
In the dark, I drove north, into mountains which probably have a name, up to Cedar City. In a dormitory with no China-energy at all—mattress on the bed, potable water–I went to bed exhausted and keenly aware of something I hadn’t thought about for at least two weeks: the illness deep in my guts. It was there when I woke up, mounting through the day. Ignorable enough to leave me a clear head for making a comment on the presentation of the one woman who spoke during the morning. In the afternoon, I accidentally went to a talk on water management in Utah but got through it, even the question and answer section where someone asked what changed between the state’s early communal religious settler days when it was a model of responsible water use to now when it’s a complete mess. I did not jump up to yell, “Capitalism! Are you kidding me? It’s capitalism!”
Dinner was fabulous. USA, USA. The keynote address began at a little after six, in a room decorated like Hogwart’s dining hall. By 7:55, the Q&A was still in full swing. I had good will for the man speaking but realized I would be walking out at 8pm whether he was finished or not. And anyways, like most of the speakers I’d heard that day, it was more twentieth century Western theory for 2019 global issues and it was wearing away at me. The trip, the T.S. Eliot quotes, the May weather that would have been bad even in Canada—it was over for me, the conference’s queen of chronic malaise.
I needed drugs and a bathtub. Back at the dorm, damp and freezing, I looked at the raised lip of the shower stall and didn’t wonder for very long about whether I could stop up its drain and rig a tub out of it. No, drugs alone would have to do. And they did. In my own homage to the twentieth century, I laid in bed watching clips of Wayne’s World, lingering on the parts where white people speak Chinese. That’s the joke. That’s the whole joke.
In the morning, the symptoms that had me fantasizing about getting back to Canada and going straight to the emergency room had vanished. I went to just one more talk before rolling out. The conference had been fruitful. I met smart and good people, two of whom invited me to submit the paper I presented to their publications. I left right before another all-girl panel like mine began. Before heading down the mountain, I went up, to the tip top where my church has built a temple. It was a beauty, new but built after the style of the nineteenth century. The parking lot was full, the front plaza lined with people in Sunday clothes—wedding guests. Congratulations, y’all. Share your water now.
Utah, Arizona, Nevada and Vegas on a Saturday afternoon. My big backpack and the sweater I put on in Cedar City were making me look like a lone gunman, parking her rental car one block north of Mandalay Bay. Not the look I wanted, so I went into Ross Dress for Less and bought a summer dress—a red one with an elastic neckline. I wore it over my jeans.
Down at the Bellagio fountain, music came up with the water—bongos and an acoustic bass. How had I not known the soundtrack was “Viva Las Vegas”, the Elvis Presley version, the voice of the ghost of this city, heard half hourly, turning day into nighttime, turning night into daytime?
It was almost time to report back to Venga Airways. I needed to sit and gather strength somewhere out of the sun. I sat down in front of a slot machine, fed it a dollar bill, and pulled the lever, the rent for the seat. When I told a colleague of mine about it, back home, he was shocked. “Capitalism got our star student!” I heard his voice in my head as I read the text, his Shanghaiese accent.
Travel is part of this long, difficult, costly education of mine. That is actually what conferences are all about. The friends are nice but the learning also comes in being alone, unprepared, surprised, suffering a little as we take the schemes we dream up in our offices out into the world, into other people’s worlds, to see if there’s any truth to them. In Vegas and Cedar City, the work I’d done on an obscure problem of East-West ontological and epistemological theory hit the road and found some traction.
Still, when I go to London, it will be as we.