Austin to OKC
While it was great to visit my friend Cynthia and the Austin bloggers, that was only an extra benefit to my trip. The Garden Writers Association symposium, my primary reason for traveling, was still ahead of me. Cynthia drove me to the airport very early on Friday morning, where I managed to have one last Round Rock for breakfast. My flight from Austin to Houston was uneventful. My flight from Houston to Oklahoma City was delayed. That didn’t bother me one bit, as the flight’s departure was originally scheduled a bit too close to my arrival from Austin. The delay gave me some breathing room, which I used to phone my family, among other things. Jackie Soule, a GWA member from Arizona, overheard me chatting with them and introduced herself after I got off the phone. Presto chango! My first new friend, who sat with me on the flight–the only flight of the trip where they didn’t adhere to assigned seats.
After we arrived at the Oklahoma City airport, we joined a few other GWA members in a shuttle to the hotel. After checking in and schlepping my luggage upstairs, I found the registration table for the symposium, and began my initiation into the ways of conferences, conventions and the like.
My Symposium Initiation
First, there is the name badge, pictured above, a much more complicated affair than the sticker that says, “Hello, my name is” that gets slapped on you at more casual events. At the top of the pouch is a pin. Apparently each year’s symposium has its own pin, and veterans of past symposiums are encouraged to wear the pins from previous symposiums they’ve attended, presumably so that other attendees can say, “Oh, you were at Vancouver? I wanted to go but couldn’t make it. How was that?” If you’re thinking, “Who is organized enough to remember to bring their pins with them?” they had that covered, too. Pins from previous years could be purchased at two bucks a pop. Most of the people that I saw wearing pins from other years were officers or board members.
The most important thing about the name badge, however, is that it is actually almost a wallet. It folds over itself (so that you are actually only seeing half of it here) and inside there are pockets. One pocket is for your business cards to hand out to others, the other for the business cards you collect from them. Because really, regardless of how informative the educational sessions are or how inspiring the gardens toured, the symposium is one big schmooze fest–I mean, networking opportunity. I probably didn’t take as much advantage of this as I could have, but I gave it my best shot, accumulating a three-quarter inch stack of business cards.
I was also given a knapsack stuffed full of literature. I didn’t even think to look at any of it until after I got home, which was a mistake, as there was a map of Oklahmoma City in there that would have helped me orient myself geographically, and other pamphlets that would have helped me get a better sense of the area. Once I was back home, the most interesting item I looked over was my free rose rock. Around here, we frequently dig up small shell fossils embedded in rocks, but no rocks naturally shaped like roses.
The Regional Meeting
Then it was on to the regional meeting. I’m in Region 1, which encompasses all of New England plus New York State. I had never been to a regional meeting because they always seem to be held in Boston or NYC, at a time of the year when it could easily snow a foot around here, and who wants to drive three or four hours and then get stuck in a blizzard? Not to mention I am afraid to drive in a big city, and unlike networking, I have no desire to practice getting better at it. So I was looking forward to meeting some of my “neighbors,” but our region had only three other people at the table. To be fair, these regional meetings were competing with an optional but apparently very popular writing workshop, but even still, our region’s table seemed especially under-populated. At least the main topic of conversation was having a regional meeting somewhere else besides Boston in the winter.
The Newbie Reception
My next stop was the First Timer’s reception. Here they match you up with a veteran attendee who supposedly will coach you on getting the most from the symposium. Well, they didn’t have enough veterans to go around, so I had to share with another newbie, Shane Smith, who is not only the director of the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, but author of the Greenhouse Gardener’s Companion, Growing Food & Flowers in your Greenhouse or Sunspace, which another GWA member in the business of selling greenhouse glazing described as the industry standard. I remember the three of us sharing what we did that brought us to the symposium, but I don’t remember picking up any tips on how to make the most of it. Shane and our mentor, both of them men, seemed to bond pretty well, but I was on my own when dealing with trade show, and I felt I could have used some help.
The Trade Show
The trade show, euphemistically called the Garden Products Exhibit in the symposium program, was where various book publishers, plant growers, equipment manufacturers, and fertilizer and other amendment concocters all gathered, hoping to persuade us garden communicators that they had the latest, greatest, whatever. It was noisy, crowded–just about overwhelming. But it was here that a lot of the networking went on, not to mention an awful lot of free stuff got handed out. And not just your usual baseball caps, pens, and sticky notes, but plants, free plants!
Talk about panic inducing! It was the type of situation where, no matter where you are, you feel quite sure that you are missing out on the real prize. Somewhere on the other side of the noisy, crowded, chaotic, cavernous room, they are handing out something better than what is being pressed into your hot little hand at the moment. At least, that’s the way I felt. And I didn’t really have a good handle on the etiquette of the situation.
There were some things I was genuinely, truly interested in, like reviewing garden books. (And when the market rep from Timber Press took one look at my name tag and said, “Oh, I love your blog!” I floated on air for the next five minutes.) There were a lot of other things where I was interested in their free stuff (drawing for a free iPod? Here, take my card!) but not their product. And even when I was interested in their product, I wasn’t necessarily interested in their literature, but felt obligated to take it. I just couldn’t think of a tactful way to walk up to an exhibitor and say flat out, “Hi, whaddya got that’s free?” and wasn’t smart enough to say, “Why don’t you just give me your card and the CD?”
And the knapsack they had given us was just not the right carrier for transporting booty. It was too awkward to get on and off one’s shoulder, and too unbalanced to be left dangling on one’s arm. I quickly discovered that the very simple but very large totebag made of landscaping fabric worked much better (thank you, Easy Gardener!), and once it filled up I took it up to my room, emptied it, and ditched the knapsack while I was at it. Then I went down and filled that totebag up again. Then it was time to go to dinner.
It’s all Mary Ann Newcomer’s fault
This would be a good time to explain that the reason I was attending the symposium at all was because of Mary Ann Newcomer. I had been helping her with her blog, Idaho Gardener. Mary Ann, a veteran of several symposiums and other meetings, is buddies with Debra Prinzing, who was trying to line up a panel discussion on garden blogging. Mary Ann persuaded Debra that I was perfect for the job. For my part, I felt a bit less like a profligate spendthrift blowing a year’s writing income on a few days’ tomfoolery when presented with task of explaining blogs to garden writers. While I only got a modest honorarium for the panel discussion, it at least provided a thin veneer of legitimacy over the siren call of free plants and the possible opportunity to meet some of my favorite garden authors. Rounding out the panel was photographer David Perry, another friend of Debra’s.
Dinner at Myriad Botanical Gardens
We all got along quite well, and I wound up spending a part of every day with them. Debra and Mary Ann had been at the writer’s workshop, and we hadn’t really connected at the trade show, so dinner was our first event together, and where David and I met. In recent years the GWA had gotten away from hotel dinners, and, with the help of generous corporate sponsors, treated attendees to catered events in less traditional venues. So it was not too surprising that dinner tonight was at the Myriad Botanical Gardens. What was surprising is that we could walk to the gardens from the hotel. I have to confess that all I saw of the gardens was what could be seen en route to the buffet tables. I wasn’t worried about missing dinner so much as anxious to hook up with Mary Ann. I hadn’t met Mary Ann in person before this trip, but we had spoken on the phone and emailed countless times, and by this time I was so disoriented I was ready to grab the most familiar thing in all this newness and just hang on.
No, I didn’t literally hang on to her, but I did stick by her side for the rest of the evening, and the four of us sat together through the Native American dancers and Michael Wallis’s stories about Route 66. Wallis, in addition to chronicling the history of Route 66 and the western United States, was the voice of Sheriff in the animated Pixar movie Cars. According to the Wikipedia, “Wallis’ most recognizable feature is his mustache. The front grill of his character, Sheriff in Cars was designed to resemble his mustache.” Wallis recounted traveling on Route 66 with the Cars development team, and many of the characters in that film were based on the trip they took together.
Back to the hotel
When that was over we all went back to the hotel. Before I could go to sleep, I had to get my free plants settled on the windowsill and the literature sorted out. My roommate, Dawn Hummel, and I agreed that we needed to go right to sleep. As soon as we turned out the light, we proceeded to gab like two best friends at a slumber party! After she fell asleep, I was still tossing and turning. I hadn’t slept well in weeks and despite the comfortable bed, I wasn’t about to start now. I was too wound up, trying to assimilate all the new people I had met and all the things I did that day that I’d never done before. I had survived two trips through airport security and hadn’t lost my luggage or missed a flight. But the panel discussion was still ahead, and I hadn’t written down what I was going to say and we hadn’t rehearsed what we were going to say as a group. As a matter of fact, we were going to meet in Debra’s room tomorrow afternoon to get our presentation coordinated. I wondered about the panel discussion and how that would all work out, and then I wondered what I had missed at the trade show and if I’d have a chance to work my way down the other aisle. And then I thought about how my roommate was going to get up early for the photoshoot and told myself for the umpteenth time to stop thinking about things and just relax. I’m sure it was well after midnight when I finally conked out, and Dawn’s alarm was set for six in the morning.