So I was at the Packaging Your Imagination conference in Toronto yesterday -- me and a couple of hundred other writers for children. And you know what I remember most vividly about the day? Lunch. It's not that I didn't have a great time hanging out with old friends and making new ones; it's not that I didn't learn stuff at the master classes, and get a kick out of prancing around on stage (yes, sadly, that is me in the photo) and making myself and others laugh. But lunch marked a real change for me. Not the meal itself, which was sandwichy salady straightforward. It was the venue.
The conference took place at a college on the University of Toronto campus. Lunch was in the dining hall, and there was a High Table and I -- this is where my eyes widened and my breath quickened slightly -- I was instructed in no uncertain terms to sit myself there.
Are you sure? I said.
Yes, said the bossy lady with the bundle of sticks, standing in the doorway.
I've never eaten at High Table before, I said. Are there rules? Do I have to talk to the person on my left first? Can I swear? Do I have to finish my meal before I can get a dessert?
She frowned, gestured, and I took my plate in my trembling hands, made my way up (yes up -- High Table is actually two steps above the level of the floor) to my place. I sat between two people who were so at ease that they were clearly used to High Tables. They were not a bit snobbish, and answered my questions very naturally. By the end of the meal I was able to make a small joke -- one of those zen master and a rabbi and a necrophiliac jokes -- and the polite laughter all round the table told me I had hit the right note. Then we dispersed to our afternoon sessions. It took my blood pressure some time to come down.
All right, maybe I am making this a bigger deal than it was. But I was not comfy up there. I had a moment thinking, I am not a High Table guy. There's nothing special about the way I eat lunch -- nothing to mark me out from the other lunchers. If I ran the Packaging conference --- well, it would be a complete failure because I would forget to book the venue or get the date wrong or something -- there wouldn't be a High Table. Or, better yet, there'd be High Tables for everyone. And no fascists telling us where to sit.
I ran into a very energetic forward-planning lady at the after party. She is already thinking about next year. She asked if I had any suggestions. Packaging Your Imagination is perfect, I said, except for one thing. I turned to get my drink and when I turned back she was gone. Oh well. I wonder if she reads my blog?