The carpet in the San Mateo Marriott Airport Hotel is a pattern of geometric beige and grey shapes, impervious to dirty loafers and rolling suitcases. Someone designed this carpet, I think as I rush through the lobby. This shall be our carpet, someone declared.
I am late to the conference. The marching band is finishing a pump it up number, as I enter the back of the banquet hall, balancing a side plate of mini-croissants and sliced cantaloupe atop my conference program, scouring the room for an open seat. I find one in the back between a short man with dreadlocks and a woman on her laptop with a spreadsheet open and a pencil behind her ear. The nametag hanging around my neck is attached to a green lanyard. Most other people seem to have blue or red lanyards. Perhaps I signed up for the vegetarian lunch. I look down at my kangaroo leather boots and try to recall which meal preference I stated.
It is sweltering outside but inside it is conference weather, drafty from the air conditioning. I am wearing a sleeveless dress and regret forgetting to bring a conference shawl. Everyone else in the room is in long sleeves except for one woman in a sleeveless navy dress with a spider web tattoo covering her shoulder.
This is my first conference in four years. Well that’s not true. I attended a bloggers conference in Perth where I learned I didn’t want to be a blogger. I wanted to be a writer.
As a woman with a news anchor haircut officially welcomes us to the conference and reviews the day’s schedule, I polish off the mini-croissants and contemplate returning to the buffet for a yogurt cup. Instead I open my program and circle the workshops I plan on attending.
I spot a colleague across the room. I text him, Hi I can see you. I see him check his phone and look around. Finally he sees me and waves. He is in a blue lanyard.
A woman at my table (red lanyard) gets up and leaves behind a pink notebook. The cover reads, in cursive, A Place For Your Dreams. Soon she is back with coffee and two apricot pastries.
It is freezing in here. Many years ago I attended a fundraising conference where the keynote speaker was a man with a disability who climbed Mount Everest. I do not remember his disability but I remember some of his slides made me feel very cold.
The first clue that this is not a fundraising conference is it is quieter. Also there are more men.
The workshops are surprisingly good. One of them is about storytelling as persuasion, and my eyes unexpectedly fill with tears when the communications consultant in the black jumpsuit says, “Especially in turbulent times, stories can save us.” She has smoky eye makeup and elegant arm movements that make it look like she is gently scooping up her audience. She tells us humans are narrative animals. She says Martin Luther King said I have a dream, not I have a pie chart.
This is an example of using humor at a conference.
In another workshop, a woman asks too many questions that aren’t actual questions (red lanyard), and I want to say something but remind myself I am not in charge of this room.
At lunch I join my coworkers at a round table with cloth napkins and two breadbaskets. We swap stories about the sessions we just attended. Who knew the mayor of Stockton was so dynamic, one of them says. I notice I am happy to be with these people. We are a team, I think, as I unwrap a butter patty.
Men in black serve us grilled chicken with sides of cooked carrots and mashed potatoes. The lanyard colors didn’t mean a thing. I shiver and dig in.