square heads, shutter sisters and other diversions at blogher09

On Saturday, the last day of the Blogher09 conference, at the Storytelling and Blogging panel, in a roomful of women who were there to discuss writing and creativity, I took the microphone and talked about a woman with a square head. I spotted her at the People's Party on Thursday night as she threaded her way around little knots of people. She held a glass of white wine in her hand and her neck supported the most geometric face I have ever seen. Not just a square face, with the mouth and chin peculiarly squashed, as if her head had been built to order by a slightly careless designer - but a downright cubic head. I wanted to lift up her hair and search her skull to see if she had corners and right angles.

It was a mistake to mention her. I was trying to describe my ideas on storytelling, and the way in which I would approach the story of the BlogHer conference when it came time to hack my way through the experience. I drew some laughs from the room, but I knew that at least a few of my fellow attendees would visit my weblog later, and they would expect an appearance from the square-headed woman. She went from a stray detail to a great square rock in the stream of my story, turning the flow of my narrative to chaos and foam.

Damn you, square-headed woman. And damn me too, who wanted to impress a roomful of women.

*

I wake up at 3:30 am Thursday morning to fly to Chicago. On the Regina-Toronto leg of the flight, I start watching Sunshine Cleaning. The flight lands and I miss the last 20 minutes of the movie. On the Toronto-Chicago leg, my wife watches the movie and describes the ending for me. As the plane begins to drop down from 38,000 feet, the moment of my birthday passes. I am 38. Seven hours from now the square-headed woman is waiting for me.

*

On Sunday afternoon we finally leave the hotel and walk out into the city. Chicago is much as I remembered it from my last visit in summer 2004: downtown streets like dried river paths through art deco canyons, the air suffused with muggy heat, homeless people stepping in and out of notice as they ask for change or emerge from under bridges. Everyone has cameras riding on their hips. There seem to be more Irish pubs than ever.

*

Twenty years ago my parents are driving me out of the city, along a gravel road so thick with grasshoppers that we seem to be splashing through them. It is my 18th birthday and I am on my way to a creative writing school in the country. Next to me lies a heavy Smith-Corona typewriter with an erasing ribbon and a golf ball head. Within a few days I will realize that most of what I write is pretty terrible. The square-headed woman sips her glass of white wine and takes a drunken step into the party ballroom.

*

Saturday evening and I am the impromptu judge of a contest at the Shutter Sisters suite, standing in front of a crescent of women and holding a plastic glass of red wine. The square-headed woman is 48 hours in my past. Next to me Stephanie Roberts holds up a book of photographs. Jen Lemen stands on a chair and calls out questions. Shutters click. Two hands go up. Someone blurts an answer. I put down my glass of wine and point.

*

At the MamaPop party the DJ puts on the last song of the evening. Friday night has segued into Saturday morning. The bar has closed an hour before but people still crowd the room. As the first notes of Lean On Me sound, a few dancers slip their hands around each others' shoulders and form a circle, an uneven, swaying, drunken organism that swallows the entire floor in seconds. I insert myself between Schmutzie and Lena. My drink splashes over my wrist as the waves of force in the circle break against my body. The lights go up and we wander out in search of more drink, set stubbornly against the end of the night.

*

I walk out of the People's Party on Thursday night in search of Schmutzie, who has vanished somewhere in the press of 1,000 conference goers. Women sling swag bags over their shoulders and swig beer with their free hands. I spot Schmutzie by a pillar, talking with a tiny woman in glasses and soft slipper-like shoes. The woman catches my eye as I walk up and we move into a long, easy and grateful hug. I have waited years to meet Blackbird, and the moment is just as warm and unforced as I had always imagined. As we embrace, a woman with the squarest head I have ever seen threads past us and disappears into the crowd.