The Folx From Anxiety: My 2018 XOXO Festival
I’m standing outside an Airstream trailer parked alongside the cornucopia of food trucks that have been gathered for the 2018 XOXO Festival. It’s the penultimate day of the conference, and I’m waiting to speak with purr-sonal finance expert Lillian Karabaic for her podcast. I’m early, as is my wont, and I can’t help but eavesdrop as Lillian’s previous guest compliments her on her ensemble.
“Oh, this is nothing,” I recall Lillian saying. “Wait until tomorrow, when I go full Bowie.”
I smile, reassured for the umpteenth time this weekend that I am amongst my people.
I knock gently—tentatively—on the door of the trailer, and I introduce myself. Lillian exclaims, “Oh, good! You’re early.”
I’m about to apologize—a bad habit, I’m sorry—when Lillian tells me that me being early is all good, because the guest scheduled before me, Lucy, is running a bit late.
At the sound of those two syllables—Lu-cy—my mind explodes. It couldn’t be that Lucy, could it? The one I’ve been wanting to meet ever since I arrived in Portland? The one I’ve seen at meet-ups and gatherings at least twice now, who I still haven’t had the courage to say “Hi” to?
Lillian explains that we can get started now with my interview, and if Lucy happens by we can just do the interview all together. I nod, my brain still aflame at the possibility that I might finally meet someone whose work I so adore, and then we step up into the trailer, Lillian and me. It’s as we’re slipping our headphones on, as we’re adjusting our microphones, that that Lucy does indeed walk in: Lucy Bellwood, adventure cartoonist and all-around awesome person from the internet. And before I have a chance to say that I’m psyched to meet her, we’re recording.
I try not to sound like a dummy, talking about Patreon with a personal finance expert and someone whose following on the platform dwarfs my own. I think I’m successful, mostly by speaking only when I’ve got something cogent to say.
(It’s funny how that works, my fellow straight, white, cisgender dudes. Maybe listening more than we speak can be a good thing, huh?)
Afterward, we all step out of the trailer and chat briefly before dinner. There’s a whole lot of conference left this evening, and even a bit more tomorrow, and we’ve all got places to be. Or, well, they do. And as much as I’d like to be a hanger-on and absorb their coolness by osmosis for the rest of the evening, I’m too self-conscious to risk overstaying my welcome. But the big takeaway for me is that people who make awesome things are fundamentally people. Just like me. Just like you. And they don’t mind talking with you if you’re a decent human being about it.
I wish I’d realized this sooner.
I’m on my way into the bathroom. This is a few days earlier and I’ve resorted to that old stand-by stress-relief technique of mine: get out of the room for a second and go pee. I’m not sure what’s going on inside Veterans Memorial Coliseum, or what’s going on inside my head, but I know I need a break. Too many creative people coming up with too many creative solutions to too many impossible problems.
Then I nearly bump into a person I’ve seen in this same room at least once before. And though I want to say “Hi,” and tell them why I think they’re awesome, they probably have no idea who I am. And, also: we’re in the bathroom.
First Rule of the Bathroom: We do not talk in the bathroom.
This is the spouse of one of the co-hosts of my favorite podcast, and following them on Twitter has been especially illuminating for me. They identify as transmasculine in their bio and I have been the teacher of many transgender students over the past few years, so following them and the parts of their journey they share online has, in at least small ways, made me a better ally and a better teacher to my students. At least I’d like to think so.
But how am I supposed to say all of that to them right now, in a bathroom in Portland, Oregon, when I probably look like an asshole who is silently questioning whether they’re in the right bathroom? (Or maybe I didn’t look like that until right this very moment, right now when I started worrying about looking like that? Christ, what is wrong with me?)
They leave, but not before we make the briefest bit of eye contact. I worry that I might have ruined their day, even if only in the smallest of ways, and I spend bits of the rest of the evening worrying about that.
And bits of the next few days. And even a few moments while typing this essay.
Eventually, on the last night of the Festival—during the last hour of the festival, in fact—I’ll meet up with people I’ve chatted with on the Anxiety Channel of the XOXO Slack, people I should have sought out way sooner because they were amazing to talk to and totally got me and I would have felt less alone the whole time. But I digress. On that last night I’ll share bits of pieces of this story, and I’ll be reassured by the folx from Anxiety that everything is OK. And I’ll reassure them that everything is going to be OK for them, too. And we’ll all go back to our cities feeling just grand about our experience at XO. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Right now I’m standing in the middle of a bathroom in Portland, Oregon and I should probably finally go pee.
On the first night of the festival, I say nothing to anyone. I’m so shy that the first conversation I have that’s longer than 5 words is with a woman who can tell that I’m lost on my way back to my hotel at the end of the night. She kindly gives me directions.
The next morning, I get up wicked early for a conference call with my bosses back on the east coast. This provides me with the opportunity to get a jump-start on the day, a day that is labeled XOXO Social on the schedule.
I walk across one of Portland’s gorgeous—and plentiful—bridges and make my way north, away from the Rose Quarter and toward a Scandinavian restaurant called Broder Nord. I’ve heard good things, and they deliver. I order bacon and a small order of their Æbleskiver, and these Danish pancakes are so delectable that I know within one bite that I should have asked for a full order instead. Dipping each bite into one of the two sauces I’ve ordered—lemon curd and lingonberry jam—I savor everything. I don’t want it to be over.
But, of course, eventually it is.
Not before I have my first proper conversation of XOXO 2018, however. A gentleman with a lanyard very much like mine takes a seat at the table next to mine and we chat while I finish my breakfast and he waits for his. As I leave the restaurant, I feel certain that this is going to be the start of a good day.
My plans for XOXO Social are ambitious and I immediately realize I’m not going to get to every meetup I’ve marked on my calendar. That ends up being freeing rather than depressing, however. Because I’m a guy who loves constraints, and deciding to make this a day about quality over quantity ends up being a great decision.
(Spoiler alert: that should be the rule all conference attendees live by, by the way. Don’t focus on getting to everything. Focus on getting everything out of whatever you get to.)
I attend a tour of Scout Books, a fantastic small press that I almost immediately yearn to collaborate with, I attend meetups for the Writing and Patreon channels of our XOXO Slack, and I meet amazing people at every twist and turn.
My secret method for overcoming my crippling social anxiety? Get to each meetup as early as I can, then let other people introduce themselves to me as they make their way in. A total cheat, I know. But it works.
Case in point: I’m at the See See Motor Coffee Co. for the Patreon meetup. I’m there early, have already had myself one of their scrumptious sausages for lunch, and am nursing a latte while I admire how deftly they’ve merged motorcycle shop with coffee bar. In walk the first few peoples, among them a guy named Matt who I will end up conversing with several times over the next few days. He’s got a podcast, he tells me (though I don’t think he says what it’s called), he’s thinking about starting a YouTube channel, and he’s exploring the possibilities of Patreon as well. Like me, he seems to be opening himself up to a whole lot of possibilities at the conference. Unlike me, at least on the surface, he seems pretty okay with the uncertainty of seeing where things take him, of just going with the flow. I admire him instantly.
I don’t realize until the last day of the conference that Matt is Matthew Cassinelli, formerly of Workflow (the app acquired by Apple and turned into their new Shortcuts feature in iOS 12), and that his podcast co-host is the one and only Alex Cox, whose work I love and would have died to meet while she was at the conference. Had I realized that Matt was Matt, I don’t know if I would’ve had the nerve to speak to him that first time. And so: he could have been like Lucy, that person I kept wanting to say hello to, but didn’t, at least not until fate intervened. Or he could have been like Alex, his Supercomputer co-host, who I never did work up the courage to introduce myself to at all.
It reiterates the point: people are people are people. Don’t be a dick, and you can meet just about anyone you might want to meet.
I sit in PDX, the airport specifically, eating too much pizza and waiting for my plane home to Boston. I’m wearing my XOXO conference t-shirt, which I think is the ultimate power move on your travel home day. Really, I mean: it’s an instant icebreaker if you bump into a fellow conference-goer in the terminal (or on the MAX, as I did).
I sit there, eating my pizza, reflecting.
- Did I meet everyone I wanted to meet? No. But were the people I did meet universally awesome? Yes.
- Did I feel out of place? Yes, at times. But was that all in my head? Yes. Yes, it was. There was a pop-up karaoke bar with custom theming, four days and nights of creative geeks geeking out about creativity, and a freaking podcast truck right on site. I wasn’t out of place. I was exactly where I was meant to be.
- And: would I do it again in an instant? Absolutely.
The last time I attended conferences on the regular, I was the administrator helping to run the whole show. And so, I send a warm thought out to the Andys—Baio and McMillan—hoping they’re sleeping a well-deserved sleep.
But I’m quickly back to thinking about where I was, headspace-wise, the last time I attended a conference. I was in a car on the way to an airport in Denver, Colorado, on the way home from what might have been the last conference our organization ever held (in the end, it wouldn’t be, but we didn't know that then). I was trying to listen to a coworker of mine assuage my guilt about taking a new job. I was trying to listen to him as he told me that it was OK to take care of myself, that if the organization was going to fall apart either way, there was no shame in jumping overboard before I went down with the ship. “Think of yourself first for once,” he told me. “Go out there and find something new. Fill yourself up instead of letting yourself be drained away.”
It only took me eight years to really listen to him. I attended XOXO 2018 not because it would enhance my teaching career, though I suspect it might, and not because it would immediately benefit my writing practice, though I suppose that it might do that too, eventually. I went because I was a human being who needed to be filled up, and I wanted to be among other human beings who needed the same thing in this fucked up country of ours.
And fill me up it did. With new ideas and new perspectives, a heaping helping of local food, and an urge to get out there and start making something awesome once again.