Friday, February 27, 2009

Conferences 101

Welcome to my lesson: how to attend a conference and enjoy it. It should be pretty easy. You are getting out of the office for a few days, you are escaping your burdensome spouse who always takes the left side of the bed, you can drink a lot (and it’s expected of you), and you get to go to lovely places. Conferences are held in places like San Diego, Honolulu, San Francisco, New York and Chicago. They are also held in places like New Orleans, Atlanta, Washington, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Austin. Let’s just assume you are going to a transit conference in Austin – the charming college town-capital city of the great state that is neither fully eastern nor western, neither fully swampy nor desert, neither fully redneck nor Latino. Some people might find Texas to be one of the strangest states in the union.

Anyway, I’m diverging from the lesson. The most wonderful thing about a conference is that most of the decisions are made for you. You pay your attendance fee (early, please, for an advanced registration rate) and book at the pre-selected hotel and make your travel arrangements and go. Rather than trying to decide whether you should stay at the Hilton or the Sheraton or the Omni or the Four Seasons, you are told that the conference will be at the Radisson, on the north side. Well, Radisson hotels are fine in some places and not fine in others. You don’t need to worry about the fact that they’re one of the most unreliably “nice” or “not nice” hotels chains in the world (followed by Best Western and Holiday Inn, at a slightly lower start rating).

Arrival. When you arrive at the Radisson Hotel North Austin, check to see the surroundings. You should be aware that conference schedulers often like to choose these desirable suburban hotels on the outskirts of cities because they want to help you avoid the distractions of the downtown area. If your conference were downtown, you would feel under so much pressure to visit bars on 6th Street and the cupcakes on South Congress and the Lyndon Johnson Library, whereas a suburban location allows you to focus on your schmoozing and knowledge-building without distractions. Nevertheless, even suburban conference hotels can offer amenities. Are you excited to see the Radisson sits in the parking lot of a slightly decrepit mall – Highland Mall? And there’s a Sheplers across the street. Don’t they sell cowboy boots? Will that mean there will be somewhere for you to walk when you need a break from the conference festivities. Is that a Gold’s Gym across the street, too, in that mostly empty shopping center? Keep in mind that you may prefer to make use of your Gold’s Gym travel pass rather than using the Radisson facilities so you don’t have to see other conference attendees lifting 3-pound weights in their leotards and sweating beads of fried chicken grease on the stationary bike.

After you check in and go to your room, study the surroundings. Make sure it is a comfortable reprieve from the activities downstairs. Adjust your sleep number bed, turn down the air conditioning, open the sliding door to the deck (even if it doesn’t look like it will open, they built good aluminum sliding doors in the 1970’s when the hotel was built, so just give it a tug). Admire the small bottles of shampoo and drop one in your overnight bag so housekeeping will give you a new one tomorrow. Pull out the iron and get your conference clothes in good shape for tomorrow morning when the activities really begin. Be sure to run downstairs before you go to bed to register.

Registration. The first evening of the conference is usually registration. This is when you show up and pick up your nametag (and quality durable bag made in China with the conference logo screened on it). Just make small talk with the people who are at registration and you’ll be fine. Make sure you get the right ribbons hanging down from your nametag: are you on the board? Are you’re a member? A speaker? A vendor? Remember, the more little ribbons hanging on your nametag clearly demonstrates to the others at the conference that you are a very important person, and you want to make sure they don’t forget it. If they offer “zany” ribbons like “bored member” or “my feet are tired” or “hold that thought,” I recommend going for the most positive ribbon you can find: “plays well with others.”

People like a positive attitude at a conference.

Be sure to sort through your bag and see how many free pens or pads of paper your have received and then pull out the conference program to see if the schedule remains the same as it did when you registered. You may also want to look to see if your photograph appears with a bio, which can be a little embarrassing whether you expected it there or not, especially if it’s a picture you took at home and then photoshopped to make it look professional like the photos of politicians and CEOs and motivational speakers. Don’t worry if you realize it looks a little plastic-y, because that’s okay at a conference, but next time lay off on the Photoshop smear tool .

Morning dilemma. Set your alarm for an early hour and get downstairs for the breakfast buffet. Be sure to brush your teeth first (so people don’t step away from you) and wear your name badge. Also bring along any little yellow and blue tickets they might have given you at registration (you have to turn them in for meals). One of the scary things for a new conferencegoer is where to sit at meals: Do you head toward the big empty round table where nobody is seated only to hope that the most interesting people will join you and strike up a conversation? Or do you plunge yourself into a full table of talkative conference-goers and watch their discussion drop off as you claim a seat at the table?

I recommend looking for a table with two or three people already seated. Make sure they look like they have some power – avoid the interns or the secretaries. Find the board members and the general managers and prove yourself to them. Just be natural and ask lots of questions, and try to be charming and flutter your eyelashes a lot between bites of your drippy bland grits with congealed gravy.

What happens if someone unfriendly comes to sit at the table? No worries. That old crow of a woman wearing the religious jewelry – oy vey, the crosses – on her jacket may be a transit board member and well respected consultant, but you can take one look at her and know she is someone you would never want to talk to or work with. Just smile, and say good morning and go back to your undercooked potatoes.

In conference sessions, keep at least one empty seat between yourself and the person next to you. It’s impolite to crowd, especially when in windowless suburban hotel conference rooms that were creatively remodeled with pastel splashes in 1983. Watch the PowerPoint presentation and avoid the speaker’s eyes. That way, it looks like you are genuinely interested and reading important things to yourself. And that way, you can just daydream if you want to. If you do get bored, try to count how many times PowerPoint has accidentally skipped a slide and the presenter had to figure out how to go back. Or how many times a Windows Vista message popped up about some random security issue that needs to be addressed during the presentation. Or how many times the laser pointer missed its target.

Fun time. After all of the conference sessions, and the evening has rolled around, it’s time for the fun stuff: It’s called a vendor’s exhibition. Remember, it is unnecessary to leave the hotel for dinner because they will set up cash bar counters in both corners of the exhibition where you can redeem the red tickets or use cash for cocktails and beer. The middle of the room will be filled with fried cheese and spiced mushrooms and crudités and a Mexican man carving a ham! Olé! But the real food can be found around the perimeter of the room: bowls of snickers bars, chocolates, Twizzlers, hard and unappetizing candies emblazoned with the name of a transit agency, and much more. In addition, you’ll find squishy stressballs shaped as buses, pens and flashlights and pen-flashlights, envelope openers with the name of a bus engine company, squishy tire key chains, plastic coffee mugs and much more. You are supposed to run around the room and grab as much of this stuff as you can – and also chat a bit with the vendors who will sign your “visited vendors passport,” so with 30 or more signatures you can be entered to win door prizes. And if you happen to be one of those vendors, you will enjoy none of the above because you will be standing next to your display, signing hundreds of “visited vendors passports” and encouraging people to take piece of candy. And a brochure to go with that?

The morning after the festivities can be embarrassing depending on your behavior and which individuals at the conference accompanied you to the hotel bar. But keep your head held high and take the first flight out of town. By the next conference, nobody will have remembered the embarrassing things that happened at the last conference, but they will be very happy to see you.

Save your receipts so you can submit an expense report and get reimbursed for the experience. The company thanks you for your service and looks forward to sending you to more conferences in the future.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Horrible Product of the Month: Smart Start Strong Heart

Don't skip breakfast. It gives you lots of nutrients.

I made a terrible mistake. I got to work and hadn’t eaten breakfast, so I ran inside oh-so-glam Rite Aid across the street from my office and snagged a box of cereal. I saw “strong heart” and strawberry and oats and thought, “gee, that sounds yummy and healthy and I love strawberries and oats are so good and it’s on sale for $2.50 so I will buy it.” That was my mistake.

There are so many gross things about this product, I don’t know where to begin. But let me lay them out for you.

Lookin' mighty tasty.

Yep, there’s Splenda in this shit. After my first bite of the cereal, amply filling an ugly blue bowl (God knows who it belongs to, but it was in the office kitchen so I used it) and dousing it with fat-free Berkeley Farms milk, also purchased from Rite Aid, I took my plastic spoon (I know, it’s very environmentally unfriendly to use the plastic spoons in our office when we have freshly cleaned stainless steel spoons, but I was already feeling sort of cheap and dirty with my Rite Aid cereal, so I figured the spoon would complete the package), and dug into the bowl and plopped two or three of the little cereal squares into my mouth with a splash of slightly pink milk (more on that later). I took a bite and crunched it around my mouth. I felt the spiky strings of hearty oats mixing with the fresh aroma of strawberries, chewed it up, and swallowed. I noticed a mildly unpleasant aftertaste immediately – it was overly sweet but didn’t taste natural at all. And that’s when I saw my arch enemy had filled this crap with toxic, sucralose (aka Splenda). I suddenly broke out in a rash up and down my arms and legs, and my throat closed up and I started to gasp for air – in my mind. Fortunately, none of that happened and I thought to myself, “We’ll I’m hungry, so I’m going to finish the bowl of this terrible crappy Smart Start cereal.”

Fresh ingredients in every bite! Kellogg's!

There’s also High Fructose Corn Syrup. I love those advertisements by the High Fructose Corn Syrup people telling us how high fructose corn syrup is sweet and natural just like honey and sugar and maple syrup. Yeah, we’ve heard that before: from those evil Splenda tale-tellers. Well, Kellogg’s managed not only to shove Splenda particles into this healthy cereal, but also managed to make corn syrup the fifth ingredient in here. It sort of reminds me of when Burger King changed their recipe to include “real mayonnaise” on their Whoppers instead of the less expensive synthetic mayonnaise they had used for many years to save money. It sounds like Kellogg’s cereal creators are torn between the bad sweetener lobbyists.

Here I will interject that I don’t really have any respect for Kellogg’s. Many years ago, my friend Anne, who lived in Battle Creek at the time, and I went to a terrible indoor Kellogg’s museum and theme park. We entered the vast gift shop of Snap, Crackle and Pop beanie babies and plastic “Toucan Sam” mugs and Sugar Pops cowboy sheets and more. It looked like a bad idea all around, and a $15 per person charge at the door made us turn around and walk right back out into that very large but very empty parking lot.

Strawberry Crunchlets. I love cereals that put freeze dried strawberries into them. I love them so much that I dig through the flakes and pull out the strawberries and eat them by themselves. In fact, a few years ago, I decided I should look into ordering the freeze dried strawberries by themselves and found a creepy Mormon survivalist store in Utah that sold huge cans of them for cheap via the Internet. I downed several 10-gallon cans and decided it was time to start eating fresh things again and to stop peeing in red streams. Anyway, I thought that this cereal-like product would have those same tasty strawberries, but not until I had tasted that Splenda-Corn Syrup flavor did I notice that this cereal offered eaters “real strawberry flavor” in the form of “strawberry flavored crunchlets” made of sugar, corn cereal, corn syrup, modified cornstarch, soybean oil, citric acid, glycerin, natural and artificial flavor, and red and blue food coloring. That’s cruchlets, mama. That’s what Kellogg’s puts in healthy adult cereal.

These are strawberry crunchlets on a piece dissected.

Mmm. The milk reminds me of childhood. The wonderful thing about this adult product is that it does everything it can to be as crappy as a child’s sweetened cereal, but in disguise. But you get your full childhood treat at the end of the meal. After you take that last, now soggy, puff of slimy glycerin packed goo, and you peer into your bowl, guess what you see? Pink! Pretty pink. Just like that revolting Nestle Quick strawberry-flavored milk you guzzled as a child because you liked strawberry better than chocolate. I took the bait and swigged the milk. My mouth filled with a pink bismuth-colored swell of Splenda and corn syrup, a few squishy remnants of the cereal, and an acknowledgment of manufactured health food to the highest degree.

Do not eat Kellogg's Smart Start Strong Heart. Unless you like to torture your internal organs.

Pretty pink after-milk from a pink medicated cow.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Don't be alarmed

I think I have been spending a bit of time fretting lately. I should not fret. It is not good for the heart or the skin. Everyone has been giving me that look of chin-down, burrow-eyed deep concern, as if I am caught up in terrible traumas. But it is only a house remodel. And it is moving along. So here’s the update: Everything has totally been stripped, and then some if it has been rebuilt. But when you are (read that as “when your contractor is”) tearing apart sheetrock and ugly plastic closet doors and decking and boards and nails and paint chips, and you discard them in a 12-foot pile of debris in the back yard, certain things can go awry.

Because somewhere in the midst of that debris, a fire alarm may have been disposed, one that once clung to the ceiling on one of the floors in the house.

Yes, our neighbor Doug – one of those genuinely nice people whose friendly demeanor is elevated further by his Scottish accent – called me on my cell phone a little before 11:00 pm a week ago while the rain was saturating San Francisco. The call went something like this:

“Hello?” (Me in my harsh deep voice when the caller ID doesn’t tell me who it is).

“Hey Joey, it’s your neighbor, Doug. “

“Oh. Hi, Doug. How are you doing?” (now friendlier)

“Well, I’m calling to tell you that there is a bit of a loud noise, like an alarm coming from the back of your house.”

I was startled. The house was on fire or something had been broken in and stolen . “I’m so sorry, Doug. I’m on my way home and then will be right over.”

“Ok, that sounds good. The neighbors are sort of gathering around and wondering what’s going on. I can see a red flashing light in the pile that looks like it might be where the sound is coming from.”

“Oh, gosh. I’m so sorry. We’ll be over really soon to deal with that.”

I called Brad and told him about our predicament. He jumped in his truck with a flashlight. I hopped off the J-Church streetcar and he was there to pick me up and drive us over to the remodeling project.

Just driving up the street, the acute shrill of the alarm was mind-blowing. No wonder Doug had to call. There it was, the 12-foot pile of unsteady boards and sticks and trash, complete with sharp nails – the extremely rusted kind— with a high-pitch, high-decible sound being emitted like a newborn vulture that got lost in its creaky nest. Only this vulture was a smoke alarm pulled out in the demolition and this nest was not very well constructed. The rain soaked my hair and clothes and ears, but I could still hear the directions from our neighbor, Doug, who stood on his deck trying to guide me from above to the source of this neighborhood siren.

A few more dubious steps up the pile and I slammed my hand into one of those nails that makes you think, “Gosh, when was that last tetanus shot?” Brad kept yelling to be careful and to let him do it and that the pile was so unsteady and slipping. Meanwhile, I maneuvered a few more steps up the pile wanting to take the credit for being the hero that spared the eardrums of our neighbors.

With Doug’s neighborly guidance, I grabbed the noisemaker and flung it over the pile and down into the driveway near the street.

Brad and I went back to the ‘fretting studio’ to dry off and try to fall asleep.

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