For Here is Bespoke Windbagerry: Vacate the Hall, and the Podium too


Jack Aslanian


It is beyond belief how effortlessly wistfulness can make us forgiving, but then who could have foretold the upheavals we have experienced between a year ago, let us say, and the present — in inconceivable venues, all over the world. That’s our lot. That was then, and this is now. We have what we have. There were things that used to be irksome then, but which because of distancing, sheltering, shutdowns, and etcetera, I now remember appreciatively, as if they had been liberating divertissements, and I sigh: “Ah, how we did not have the wisdom to recognise and savour them as good [or “better”] old days.” Such, in retrospect I now admit were many bygone CME conferences I attended irritably, because things do not always line up to my satisfaction. To have a satisfying CME there ought be a concordance of supportive conditions. You ask how have I scored? Shut the window firm and give a short listen.


Overall, I’ve fared not much worse than 60% in my search for accommodative seating, which is a less unnerving outcome than an 80% miss, for example, because that former outcome allows me to regard glibly the randomness of destiny. Otherwise, I’d have to entertain doubts about ineptitude. I am picky and unready to quibble with fate. Nor do I nimbly entertain superstitions or thoughts of being victimised and jinxed...


The last time it happened?... Honestly, it has happened many times —unpredictably often. I just don’t remember precisely the date of the occasion that has afforded me the pleasure of devising this retrospective riposte. Perhaps it was a couple of years ago, maybe even one or two more than that. It would have had to be in the days of yore — before Covid-19 and our widespread reliance on video-conferencing.


This is how I remember it: It is about ten minutes before the start of a quadripartite panel discussion. The topic? Let’s say author-editor relationship, or if it matters, something close enough to that. I have been badly situated in more lecture halls than I can remember, so I choose my seat hopefully. The crescendo hubbub of the audience fills the hall ahead and aft. In step with that a bolus of angst is building up in me like a ball of fermenting dough, and it is jostling my hopes. Many things can go awry to sully the “learning experience.” There is the discomfort of unwelcoming industrial furniture. The leg of the table demands an extra physical toll to be paid awkwardly for choosing to sit at the end of the row on the aisle. The acoustics are irritating. The room temperature beseeches adjustment — but to whose taste? My stature scuffles with my view. A cell phone jingles somewhere — likely in complicity with a colleague’s ambition to nurture and broadcast self-importance. Another rings more faintly closer to the entrance — and more in the lobby. A couple of seats immediately behind me now have become wellsprings of networking banter, yet I have a policy not to abandon an aisle seat once I’ve established myself.


An eerie extrasensory premonition precedes an internal verbalisation of doom: “Once again in my life as a conferee, there goes the neighbourhood.” Dashing my hopes for an undisturbed audition are two colleagues settling in the empty chairs in front of me. (I will refer to them as C1 and C2 — “C” for colleague.) To her credit, C2 turns half around to confirm that the seats were unoccupied. I cannot resort to an evasive hoax. Civility mutes my regrets. “Take it. It’s ours,” C1 pre-emptively tells C2. The manner that claim has been established does not bode well for neighbourly mutuality.


C1 resumes the gossip C2’s inquiry had interrupted. It has been said that if one ignores vexations they will go away. Would that that were so! How indeed did the neighbourhood slip away? Two rather well coiffed heads bobbing before me leave little doubt about the sightline I should expect to resign to. The moderator at the lectern begins introducing the panellists, but the impolite chatter between C1 and C2 continues. C1’s collegial confessions have little to do with the topic of the session. I sense it is C1 who chooses the topics of her riffs and sets the cadence, and C2 is being attentive and responsive just enough not to offend her. Yet, they are within my earshot, and I cannot avoid being distracted and eavesdropping. C1’s physical fidgeting continues — her obtrusive corpus; an irritating voice; a stifled kibitzing murmur. My thoughts go to the attendee immediately behind me. Am I unsettling her as much as C1 and C2 are disturbing me? Is she wondering why I am restless? Might I be suffering back or neck problems? Could there be a chatty attendee thrumming in the row ahead of me? Do I have immediately aft a soulmate who suffers similarly, but she because of me? Many of us are but precariously balanced dominos in such gatherings...


At the end a couple of weeks after that conference I easily might have forgotten C1 and C2 in the jumble of memories of uncomfortable conferences past, but for the question/answer period that followed this one. Two questions initially were posed from the floor and recognised dutifully with pro forma admiring declarations from the responding panellists — “That is a very good question,” let it be duly noted, of course. The second questioner asks for advice how to deal with linguistic and compositional flaws that authors could have. C1 whispers to C2 as if to say, “You just wait and see.” And immediately rises, further blockading my sightline as she piggybacks on the previous attendee’s question and delivers her opening gambit, which judging from the timbre of her voice no doubt is intended to be perceived a just riposte.


C1: “Why don’t they learn?" she asks. The “they” is widely understood by the attendees of this session to refer to deficient authors — especially those for whom English is a second language.

The panellists’ words are lost to me as I feel provoked by the proverbial camel’s back being strained by C1’s vehemence.

C1 repeats her petition: “Why can’t they learn? They are supposed to learn. They must learn.”

Reassured by the admirableness of her input, C1 volubly expands the thrust of the question. She sounds exacerbated, but apparently also is satisfied with her belittlement of linguistically deficient authors. And to boot, she publicly has shown herself to be a staunch champion of professional dedication, quality, collegial punctiliousness, and other such catchwords of our profession.


She then retreats into her seat with an inflated huff. Rescued by the fact that C1’s last words were not crafted as a question but a (merciless, let’s not be too circumspect to emphasise) demand, the moderator cedes to another question from the floor. By the time that has been discussed, the indignation and the opinions I wished I had delivered upon C1 are safely corralled internally. I rue the opportunity I had lost to get even for, among other things, her grating murmur and the ruination of my sightline. I could also have, alas, railed and offloaded upon her at least a consolatory diatribe: to point out that she was being unclear on concept. For if all authors comply with her imperious pipe dream of a wish and learn how to write well, we medical writers and editors would be bereft of our jobs. Whether as freelancers or employees, we are gainful because in our institutions, internationally, there are authors who do not have mastery of writing skills and of their languages, be they native or second. And apparently we also have colleagues who don’t have a handle on sound logical thinking. Whether we huff or we puff, without dependent clients, we have no chance to work — not as freelancers and not as employees.