August. It’s the month of our association’s annual meeting. As I’ve said in past recaps, it’s the biggest perk of the job, spending nearly a full week in another city. So far, it’s been all new destinations for me. Boston. San Francisco. And this year, Atlanta. Sure we’re a staff of less than 40 running a meeting that draws more than five or six thousand people every year, and it keeps you busy enough to lose track of time, but when the workload eventually begins to settle and you’re allowed a little time to yourself to roam, it can still be something of a vacation. And on the company’s dime, no less.
But, there was a lot of grumbling about our destination this year. We only wound up there because of some financial arrangement with hotel regarding our holding the meeting there in 2003. The staff complained far too much beforehand about the kind of weather we should expect. The notorious summer heat. Which was silly, considering that it was almost consistently in the 90s all summer right here at home in DC. Not that any of us really had to contend with southern weather anyways. If anyone was able to make it outside the hotel, it was likely by the convenience and comfort of the Skywalks that connect the hotels, the food court, and nearest metro in the hotel district of downtown Atlanta.
Pathway bricks in Centennial Olympic Park, Atlanta.
Atlanta is a different kind of city. It’s got roots in the Civil War and later, in Civil Rights. Coca-Cola strangely appears all over the way the Carnegie and Dupont names do in the North. Although more than 5 million people call it home, Atlanta lacks the big-city impatience and pretentiousness, the psuedo-bohemia and uptown hipsterism confined to small sections. So “city” becomes reduced to a definition of look more than feel. Take away the metro and the skyscrapers and it’s just big and Southern. It’s hard to envision zillions of international and local visitors descending upon its borders when the Olympics were hosted there in 1996. Not exactly a place on someone’s typical bucket list that way last year’s meeting site, San Francisco, was; Atlanta’s layout favors the local more than those merely passing through. A place where a tourist needs a car and a keen eye to find things open past 10PM even on the weekends. It’s also an expensive city for the ambitious sightseer. Taking in a few sites, historic or otherwise, can set you back a bit. Though, foodies will love this place. There are restaurants everywhere.
Milk stout and mango pie at Vortex in Little Five Points, Atlanta.
It wasn’t surprising, then, when our meeting services department announced that this year held the lowest registration numbers, only slightly better than those in Montreal four years ago. My coworker would remark later that this meeting had a “strange vibe” and I suppose that a smaller pool of attendees had something to do with it. Our meeting next year is in Chicago, a popular destination that may restore some sense of normalcy. I was lucky, though. Tom and Matt drove up for the first half of the meeting and since they had the car, it provided a little release from the hotel and the exhausting bustle of long days. (Able to explore a lot more of the city than I did, I recommend Tom’s blog posts on the trip here and here).
At first, it seemed like this year’s meeting would get off to a bad start. Flights were delayed going out of the DC area airports to Atlanta at a time when most of the staff was scheduled to depart. The night before, police had tracked down the chronic stabber at the Atlanta airport, although the delays the next morning were traced to a bottleneck at the DC airports, the planes held earlier given priority to fly out first, leaving everyone delayed, essentially.
“Flying isn’t what it used to be,” a man groaned to another in first class as our pilot informed us that they’d be shutting off the engines to save gas until they got the OK from air traffic control to depart. The first class passenger’s revelation seemed about 5 years overdue, since that would be about long enough to complain about the now-standard hassles of flying in the last 10 years. Specifically, getting through security checkpoints and the aggravation of paying U.S. airlines more and getting less. His comment later made sense when I boarded a flight on Air Canada out of Atlanta. I paid no baggage fees. Sat through no delays. And was provided with a large selection of in-flight entertainment that I could select and watch until the moment we landed, even for a flight as short as the took from Atlanta to Toronto.
All in all, with the exception of the parents who freaked out and declared their kid missing when, after having a fight, the 13-year-old disappeared for about 6 hours (as kids who plan to “runaway” will do), things proceeded that week largely without drama. In fact, it became ridiculously low key. “Look how orderly everyone moves. Single file lines,” an elderly Asian woman said to me one afternoon while we were passing between hotels on the Skywalk. It seemed to characterize the whole conference.
This year, we, the research associates, were assigned more substantive schedules. The administrative chores of setting up the bookstore, poster session, and filling in the registration booths typically fill the bulk of our working hours. Instead, we attended more sessions, workshops, and informal meetings alongside our boss who, at least for us non-senior associates in our tiny department, has been trying for the last few years to impress upon us the importance of professional development that we lacked coming out of Masters rather than say, doctoral programs. PhD candidates undertake tremendous research projects with intense faculty supervision, and often do some teaching. In a Masters program, you could float through relatively anonymously, even when writing a thesis.
“You are not assistants anymore, you’re associates,” my boss once told us and, graduation to middle management took a while to get adjusted to. To figure out, really. Greater ownership of and input in our work. Presenting our research at meetings like these. And, most importantly, networking! It took a while, but my boss did finally make professionals out of us and with it, I’ve gained a little sense of pride and liberation in this job.
I’m still not very good at this networking thing, though. To me, it seems best done by those who already have some connections and in sociology, I have very little. I didn’t graduate from the discipline, and except through invitations to participate in various surveys, I don’t have much contact with the “outside” (i.e. our membership). I did recognize a few people by name or face at this year’s meeting that I had met in meetings or some related channel of business. A lady at the Institute of Physics who has this wonderfully wry sense of humor. A former intern of our Program Officer who just finished her PhD at Howard and was transitioning into a teaching job in Texas. I only wish that Lyz’s former adviser (who coincidentally worked with my former adviser) came to this year’s meeting so I could have made small talk about Human Centipede, since he had replied to Lyz’s Facebook comments about it after we saw it one weekend.
See… I’m totally professional!
My boss made compromises, too. A life-long devotee to career, there was a lot of early contention between the (then) three of us that made up our tiny department. It was her belief that, because my coworker and I were unmarried and childless, that we should adopt a similar ethic. “40 hours is the minimum” she once said, referring to the amount of time my coworker and I should spend in the office. It can be a remarkably stressful job — especially for my boss who oversees it all. And, there’s are times that we have to put in the extra hours on a project, but we’re not exactly saving lives. I wonder though, because she spent so many years researching gender issues in the labor force, whether it was her natural way of responding to the social forces and trying to help shape our professional leverage as women. But we’re a different generation. In a field now dominated by women.
Thankfully, the contentiousness eventually faded. We grew into our roles as middle managers, the other research associate and I, and my boss seemed to borrow (a little) from our desire for flexibility in our work. And as a woman in her late 60s, she absolutely should. I’ve noticed in the past year that she’s made more use of the massive amounts of paid leave she’s accrued, probably at the risk of losing some of it if she didn’t. I think it may also be her own sort of negotiation for having to deal with the politics of a cash-strapped non-profit and the frustrations of so often having to internally defend the importance of our department. But in the end, at least she’s taking advantage of the breathing room when the time allows, taking more vacations with her husband. Considering the stress of these kind of jobs, those kind of breaks are essential.
But my boss will always work, irregardless of when the retirement eligibility clock finally stops ticking. A colleague at a reception one evening asked the newest addition to our department, the senior research associate, “So you’re going to be your boss’s replacement?” We laughed, wondering whether she took my boss seriously about retiring any time soon. The lady who has so often said, “I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I retired anyways.” Projects have already been planned over the next three or four years.
One of the places we spend a lot of time working during the Annual Meeting is Registration. The process is pretty simple. People show up. Get their preliminary materials. Go on their way. Even if there’s someone missing from our rolls (what we call a “situation”), the process is pretty efficient. Lines usually form out of the door on the first and second days of the meeting, when the most people show up to get their badge and conference programs. When it’s almost non-stop name searching, it things move pretty fast. But as the days pass, only the stragglers and people who ask us simple questions because we look desperate for human contact trickle in here and there. When we share the hall with the bookstore or the exhibitors, like last year, it tends to offset that and with it, our desperate fight to stay awake. This year, though, we were isolated in a hall with sub-arctic temperatures, and with fewer people having attended this year’s meeting, it often got quiet enough to hear the grinding of our teeth as one person too many asked, “Aren’t you cold in here?” Actually, it got to be so cold that one of the temps decided that one way to warm up, aside from polyester instead of rayon pant suits, was to wear her business-womanly wigs. I never knew a wig could serve that purpose.
I’ve found that one way to survive the inevitable droll of working at “Registration Row,” as our meeting services department calls it because the walls are lined with a perpendicular row of booths, is to find a talkative temp. In Boston, my single-serving friend (see, I’m being clever AND referential!) was an older, charming psychologist/aspiring science fiction writer from the area who was very good in engaging the guests in small talk, and in between, telling off-color jokes. In San Francisco, I met an interesting woman who worked at Microsoft for the man who initially developed the idea for what would become the XBox. Fondly recalling the company perks, it was quite a change from her prior job as a social worker, where she became so intensely disillusioned by institutional indifference and opportunism. In Atlanta, the temps were all older black women, with the exception of one young wispy girl who’s succinct commentary on the war in Afghanistan was that we are “going to get blowed up” and one middle aged man who wore spiffy zoot suits with spats and walked with a real swagger. The older black women had those age-old names — Doris. Velma. Vivienne. And Carol, my latest single-serving friend. These women shared a remarkably friendly report with each other, and I say remarkable, because it took me a while to realize that not all of them already knew each other when they started working the gig at Registration Row. But, they talked as though they had been friends for years, a social ease I’m rather jealous of. Was it Southern friendliness? Or something more widely cultural?
But I struck up small talk with Carol after a chubby woman in a t-shirt and denim shorts approached our section of the alphabet wearing a light blue bonnet. It seemed immediately nerdy to me, but Carol took a different interest and asked the woman if that particular color meant something. She had only ever seen them in gray, black, and white she said. The woman explained that it did for one particular sect — maybe it was mennonites — and smiled warmly, saying she had another and would bring one for Carol the next day. I asked Carol if she thought the lady would really come back, and she laughed a little, said she didn’t know, and started to tell me about guests that she had quickly made friends with over the years temping at these kind of events. A few whom she kept in touch with. Some who over the years, she lost touch with.
(TO BE CONTINUED)