Have Shot – Will Travel


Going to a Conference Sans Zoom?

Fortnightly Magazine - July 2021

Do you have a moment? If you do, would you try to imagine something with me. 

Try to imagine that you and I are hanging out at an industry conference. Ok, I know, no big deal there. You and I and everyone else have been cycling through a series of these events this spring. 

Except, except, in this fantasy we're conjuring up, there's a humongous difference. Now stay with me on this one. Really, please stay with me, however far-fetched this story sounds. 

Imagine the conference we're at isn't taking place on one of those video chat apps like Zoom. No indeed, picture the two of us in the very same physical space. That's not all. Picture the two of us in the same physical space as the other conference attendees, literally. As if somehow the event drew all of us to a single GPS location, from our devices and home workplaces, with a magical mega magnet.

Now wait a sec before you throw up your hands and give up and say, come on buddy, who are you kidding? Could you consider instead what such a conference might be like? All I'm asking is, play along with me in this wacky thought experiment.

As I've set the scene, you and I are actually standing next to each other, no more than a couple of feet apart. And just to be clear, I do not mean virtually. I mean we're standing near enough such that if I reached out to you, or you to me, as super scary as that seems, we'd be touching.

You want to hear scary? Add to this fantasy that a friend from the commission, or a utility, or one of the state advocate offices comes on over. Gosh. What the heck are we to do? Social interaction would be forced upon us. We'd need to make a momentous decision right away.

Are we looking at a fist or elbow bump? Or is the approaching friend expecting to shake hands (as they would in that distant past you can only recall vaguely)? Or, yikes, is the friend actually expecting to give us a hug? If so, if that's about to happen, what in the name of "just and reasonable" are we going to do?

The choices? There's precious few. You could run for the restrooms. You could put on your facemask and scream out, I've only been vaccinated twice thus far and haven't yet received my third. Or, if this is a NARUC conference, you could duck out of sight into the room where the gas committee is in session.

I don't know which of these I'd choose. But being socially awkward to begin with, I'm just not ready for that first collegial hug at a conference after hibernating for fifteen months.

Truth be known, this is not a theoretical exercise. For as I write this column, I shall be attending the annual education event of the Mid-Atlantic Conference of Regulatory Utilities Commissioners in a mere two weeks, physically, in-person. Not only that. In two weeks I'll find myself at the conference's welcome reception where a couple of hundred of our close-knit utility regulatory family will be itching to get a lot closer than waving from afar. What a daunting dilemma for someone who has been outside �" aside from throwing out the trash �" no more than a handful of times per fortnight, let alone navigating a convivial crowd of regulators and the regulated.

I fully realize that by the time you read this column it'll be too late for any advice. Sink or swim, I will have backstroked my way through the MACRUC 2021 event, which concludes on the thirtieth of June. Was I able to adjust enough to enjoy a laugh and exchange exaggerated stories with old friends in utility regulation with aplomb? 

Only time will tell. Maybe I'll report on how things went in my next column in the August issue of Public Utilities Fortnightly. By then, perhaps I'll be all the way back to my life-of-the-party personality. Yea, right.