Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Monday, May 09, 2005

Culture Shock

A spa is not a conference hotel. That much I could see as soon as I checked into the San Diego Paradise Point Resort for this year's national conference of professional organizers. A conference hotel has connective tissue - hallways, elevators, furniture, people watching spots, central gathering places. That's what gives us the sense of being a family under one roof with multiple opportunities to strike up conversations. Meeting members from all parts of the country was what being a conference animal was all about.

What we had here was a Southern California outdoor deck living, sun on the water, sailboats cruising by, chip and dip sort of experience. It was lovely once you figured out which parking lot to cross to get to the buildings for each function, but it didn't work at all when there was an unseasonable downpour the first morning.

Most of the activity took place in the massive dining room about the size of Hawaii. It was so far to the other side there was a haze on the horizon. I only saw one quadrant of it because once we had directed our friends via cell phone and much hand waving to the first meal we just kept returning to the same roosting spot for every subsequent event. Last year at 600 people it was manageable, but 805 was a bit scary especially when 300 of them were new organizers. It just wasn't possible to make all the strangers into familiar faces in four days.

We owe our growth to the extreme makeover type TV shows where 6 months of work is finished in 24 hours. (If only we all had onsite carpenters, unlimited budgets and full staff). Shows like Mission Organization have been a boon to the industry allowing the most driven of us to publish books, develop products, appear on TV and radio, hire husbands and acquire staff, all in five years.

After ten years I was still a one-woman show, but I was not interested in growth. I was interested in deepening my expertise and quality of service to my clients. This sentiment was better served at the NSGCD conference (National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization) held on Tuesday on the same spot, only there weren't more than 200 of us. It may be that fewer organizers have the patience to help clients overcome severe organizational problems compared to the extreme makeover types eager to whiz clients through transitions.

As I sat down with the nearly 800 women (the men in the room couldn't fill two tables), I felt that I had drifted far from the mainstream. (Yes, you could have told me that. One of my conference roomies, Judith Kohlberg, founder of the NSGCD, says I have a certain edge that some might call cynical. Cynical is it! I'd prefer to think of it as artful irony). At conference last year I connected with several people about politics since there was still the hope that we could vote Bush out of office. This year there seemed to be no socio-political context beyond HGTV. It was a world of business optimism flush with success that made me feel foreign and I hadn't even left California. Two of my fellow chapter members, San Franciscans, also feeling alienated, commented that San Diego was the land of the Minutemen, the Navy and more smokers than they've seen in a long time. Definitely not the Bay Area.

Then there was the sign on the bulletin board. Two actually. The first one was neon pink and announced a Christian prayer meeting. The sign right next to it in neon orange with the same type face, said

Do not post items of the following types. Any that are, will be removed.
• Advertisements for products or services.
• Announcements that could be offensive to other attendees

This last bit was the frightening part. I mean what could a population of service oriented, women post that would be offensive? I raised the alarm to my fellow queers.

"Do you think they mean us?" I asked Denslow. Every year Denslow has put up a sign on the bulletin board inviting queers to get together (though not using the word "queer"). That's how we met and came to be roommates since 1996 along with Judith and now Jo, a new organizer.

Denslow has defended this right to post our announcement like a lioness protecting her cubs and she was ready to do so again. We had a new management company this year and so far they had been excellent. Denslow confronted the staff at the desk and reported back. The staff member said they themselves would much prefer to party with us than hang out with a Christian prayer group, but this request regarding the posting of offensive announcements had come in some months ago from a NAPO member and they had honored the request, not knowing what kind of culture this was. And yes this probably did mean that our announcement would be considered offensive.

"Trust me, you do not want to fight me on this," said Denslow. They didn't. Unfortunately we were not prepared this year. We had completely forgotten about picking a time for the queer gathering and it was already Friday. Denslow had way too much to do as head of the Quantum Leap committee (a pro-bono project to help welfare recipients organize their lives so they could get jobs) to track yet another event. "Plus I'm ADD," she reminded us.

Damn! We were going to loose this turf war. Not that we were not visible. Plenty of visible butch dykes what with Sandy as chapter president this year and Jo and that cute little new chapter member no one has identified properly yet, and I was wearing a tie on Thursday with my yellow-pages vest. Not to mention that most of the men in this business including the president of National are Gay. Maybe it was better not to show a presence in this bulletin board war and celebrate that we were fully integrated.

It was the new people that our gathering was for. Those poor souls looked like shipwrecked sailors when they found us at past gatherings, so grateful were they for a respite from all the hetero female energy. I would be prepared next year with a full array of rainbow flags in several sizes and pre-typed out bulletin board fliers.

For now we had matzo on the table and two different kinds of dessert because it was Passover. This was to make up for having to schedule the conference during Passover in the first place. It does give me an appreciation for what the Board is up against. Still missing was an environmental agenda.

I actually had a conversation with two organizers who felt that recycling got in the way of their work. They wanted to throw everything into garbage bags and not let the client sort for recyclables until after everything was set up. "Well I can't very well tell them not to recycle if I'm driving an electric car to their house and asking them to let me plug it in," I said which pretty much ended the conversation.

It was the electric car far more than queer politics that had taken me so far off the beaten path. Having the car gave me ownership over the politics of energy in a way that left most people on the sidelines. It was a shock to my system to be suddenly plunged into a consciousness that seemed completely oblivious of global events and environmental considerations.

"The brain does not process negative thoughts," claimed the keynote speaker, a British humorist who recommended saying the word "great" very enthusiastically for every occasion. Harmless stuff meant to jack up the energy level.

"Ninety percent of your thoughts are negative," I learned in a workshop teaching us to turn to positive self-talk. All this ungrounded positivism was depressing me. Were we really expected to just put on a happy face and find success? It would just mean that things would have to get much worse before enough noticed.

It wasn't until Saturday that I regained some equilibrium at a workshop given by a charismatic lesbian and her ex-lover, business partner. (Denslow got her story over breakfast). They were facilitating an open space forum to brainstorm certain topics that were important to organizers. It wasn't so much the topics, but the format that was exciting and every chapter Board member present agreed that I (as Program Committee Chair) should do this at a chapter meeting.

I managed to nap through most of the awards banquet, waking up long enough to find out who won the Founders award. I breathed a sigh of relief that there would be no drama over this. The recipient was not She Who Will Not Be Mentioned who had managed to get herself nominated once again. The award went to Barry, the popular and loveable President just voted in for another two more years.

The closing keynote speaker was a performance artist in the most benign sense. He managed to artfully straddle a very fine line between patriotism (pictures of flags, the Statue of Liberty, fireman) and diversity (people of color - children overseas, peace signs, even a silhouette of the Buddha). He painted mystery pictures that revealed themselves only in the final strokes. Denslow thought this was trite and manipulative, but it was restful for what last brain cell was left after this full week.

He said something about how being too comfortable took him away from the creative edge. It sounded good, but I came home feeling more like a shade plant that had spent too long in the sun. Catherine kept asking if I was okay. My brain needed a complete re-booting before I could get back on my soapbox with any authority. "Let's go to the Bioneers conference this year," I told Catherine. The Bioneers assessment of the global situation makes the Green Festival look like a rock concert.


At 2:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember when I worked at AOL. One time I put a political notice on the bulletin board, which was obviously there for everyone to use. I went by a day or two later, and somebody had taken down my green advert and replaced it with an official looking notice that said "NOTHING POLITICAL BELONGS HERE", or words to that effect.

I dithered about what to do for a while. I showed the offending notice to a few people whose opinions I respected. Then I tore down the offending notice. Management never put up a replacement, and I was more covert about my politics after that.

For me, that was the beginning of the end of my respect for that employer.

I'm still wondering how to respond to that kind of assault on free speech. I would love to learn of any good ideas...


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