July is panel season. Everywhere you look there are panels conferences. The worst thing about them is that they involve changing planes somewhere. The best thing about them is that attending them gives you the illusion that your brain continues to be susceptible to new ideas.
Last week I was in Aspen at the Aspen Institute. Everywhere you looked there were panels. People who were between panels were having panels. There were panelists in the ascendant; there were panelists in disgrace. There were panelists who felt validated to be invited, and there were panelists who were worried they would never be invited to appear on another panel again. There were panelists who didn't give a damn and panelists who cared deeply. There were panelists looking for their next jobs, like Harvard's Larry Summers; panelists in the midst of tabloid episodes like Duke University's Richard Brodhead; panelists currently out of power but much in favor like Madeleine Albright; panelists who were there to show they were still alive, like Colin Powell, who isn't; panelists like our fearless leader Arianna Huffington, who appeared on every panel, simultaneously. There were panelists like Bill Clinton and Karl Rove who were not on the program and who turned up after days of rumor. Were they coming? Had they arrived? Were they dining at Matsuhisa? Did they have altitude sickness? Hovering over it all was the host, in this case the Aspen Institute's Walter Isaacson, introducing every panelist to every other panelist.
What is it about panels? They're an alternate reality, sometimes sublimely irrelevant, often on a subject slightly too bland, too general, non-partisan or simply passé. Panels almost always disappoint. They promise fireworks but turn out to be well-mannered. They promise self-improvement but are often merely self-validating. Yet I have never met a panel I didn't love in some way.
Here's are some things I have noticed about these panel episodes:
*You have to decide which panel to go to. Do you go to the panel you know something about, or the panel you know nothing about? The panel you know something about is called something like "Media Ethics," or "The New Media." Several of your friends are appearing on it. The panel you know nothing about is called something like "Water: Is It The New Oil?" If you choose Water/Oil, you realize about half-way through that you've made a terrible mistake: the panel you know nothing about is boring. But it's too late to leave and go to the panel you know something about. So then you feel sad. This is known as Panel Remorse.
*But on the other hand, you choose to go to the panel you know something about, the one your friends are appearing on. It's about the Internet, and the blogosphere, and being wired, and what's happening to the next, brain-dead, My Space-obsessed generation, and as you sit through it, you can't believe that you have failed to be invited to be on it because you Really Have Something To Say That Would Change Everything. This is Panel Envy.
*At some point, you have to go to your room to return phone calls. You decide to go during the panel that you absolutely know you will hate every minute of. This panel is usually on the subject of Spirituality and contains one or more ministers. You will miss nothing if you skip it. It will be worse than spending an hour in a red state. So you leave and go to your room to return your calls. You get back just as the minister is winding up. He receives a huge standing ovation from an audience of vicious, bitter atheists. He is, according to the people who saw him, the greatest thing at the conference. Everyone is talking about him, and you missed it. You feel stupid and out of it. This is Panel Mortification.
*Sometimes you go to a very exciting panel. It stars someone like physicist Brian Greene from Columbia University. He paces the stage and thrusts his hands in the air. You feel as if you're watching a contemporary version of Richard Feynmann. You haven't felt this engaged and brain-challenged since you saw Copenhagen at the National. In one hour he explains everything from Isaac Newton to string theory. Afterwards you feel brilliant. The next day you remember nothing. This last is Panel Amnesia.