Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Putting It All Together in Pittsburgh

I KNEW IT WOULD BE GOOD. When Marianne Novy invited me to be part of a panel of men who write adoption memoirs, I knew her Encountering New Worlds of Adoption: 2nd International Conference on Adoption and Culture at the University of Pittsburgh this past weekend would be a conference at which I would not only want to present, but also to stay for its entirety.

I was not disappointed.

The Cathedral of Learning (pictured - no that's not the Empire State Building) hosted English professors, sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers, historians, lawyers, authors, filmmakers, poets, novelists, memoirists, feminists, activists, birth parents, adoptive parents, adoptees, and others in the best conference on adoption I've attended since becoming aware of such things in 2003.

The session on Men Write Adoption Memoirs was held on Friday afternoon. Chaired by Faith Adiele, a 1986 Harvard graduate who also happened to be a friend of my best friend Gail, the session was packed. Faith dubbed it "the man show" as women made up the vast majority of conference attendees. She got a laugh. As did all the readers, prompting Jean Strauss, who presented on the opening plenary panel Adotpion Memoirs Classic and New, to ask us whether or not we concsciously infused our narratives with humor.

"What struck me," she said, "was that you all say the same things we [women] say, but you make it funny."

Laughter is the best medicine. Was it Reader's Digest that coined that gem?

Adoption and the attendant issues are serious business. But there is humor in everything, if you let yourself see it.

Ralph Savarese, Peter McCullough, Ned Balbo, and I responded that whatever effort there was to infuse our work with humor was largely unintentional. Peter, an academic writer who read from a manuscript-in-progress, said that he used humor to tell his personal story because he wanted to make space for an audience he didn't think would be all that interested in the solopsism of autobriographical writing. Still, I think his delivery is what garnered most of the laughs. Having taught at Oxford for some time now, his acquired British accent and wit made many of his metaphors even more funny than they might have been on paper alone. Ralph dismissed with the "conceit of remembered dialogue" and read primarily from his 9-year-old autistic son's own words that his son had typed on his computer. Ralph was able to infuse humor into a story of torture and redemption. No small task. Ned read with the quiet deliberation of a literary poet, but still managed to draw a few laughs.

I've never considered myself funny. But bringing the characters of my life to life in a way that I hadn't in a long time got lots of laughs. My people are hilarious. What with all their downright uptight religious dogma. At some point you just can't take it all so seriously. And this reading told me that I might need to perform again sometime in the near future. Perhaps it will inspire me to finish adapting parts of my book into a performance piece that tells the story of my reunion from the perspective of eight people in my adoptive and biological families. Attending the conference with her mother was a little girl who couldn't have been any more than 7 or 8-years-old. At the closing dinner, she told me that I was one of her favorite speakers.

Children don't say such things unless they mean them. I took her compliment seriously. Perhaps my semi-retirement from performance will come to a semi-end sometime in the near future.

I can't possibly write about all the great sessions I attended in one entry. But conferences are, ultimately, about meeting and connecting with people. I'd like to think I made friends with Susan, Emily H, Lorrain, Jean, Emily P, Janet, Carol, Shayla, Cindy, Marianne and her husband, and a few others whose names escape me at the moment. But if by some chance you're reading this and I haven't named you, you know who you are. The conversations I had with you all on shuttles to and from the airport, at the hotel lounge, around the dinner table, between sessions in the labyrinthian cathedral stairwells and halls, walking to restaurants, and at the final lunch are fresh in my mind.

I thank Marianne for a wonderful, fulfilling experience and I hope to attend the 3rd International Conference on Adoption and Culture whenever, wherever it may be.

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