Dealing with Dinosaurs
The signs look bad, literally. The laminated signs I’ve crookedly affixed to the walls keep falling off. This week, and this week alone, laminated signs hold power over me. Every time I walk by them, they fall, like they’ve been waiting for their cue. I put them back, hoping that this time the tape will take, and as soon as I turn my back, they fall.
It’s the week of literature summer camp (okay, actually it’s a world-renowned research conference, but it might as well be a summer camp), and I’m the den mother. I’m actually an assistant mother, and I spend a lot of time answering questions with, “I’m not sure, you’ll have to speak to my boss.” In fact, asking me anything is usually just a waste of time, a stop-gap until the “conference participant” is afforded some time with my boss (I’m like the elf who leads you to the mall Santa), but people find it comforting to know someone’s listening to them, and they have a lot to say.
Half our participants are senior citizens, enjoying a literary holiday. They are big “communicators.” The traffic on the way to Santa Cruz was abysmal. Their room isn’t ventilated properly. They have special dietary needs. Where will they be able to park? How many stairs are there to their room? In all fairness, it’s hard for them to get around, so they need to plan ahead, but a lot of them aren’t used to needing help, and this makes them surly. It’s a huge blow to the old pride to have to rely on other people, but still—when someone moves a cooler from your car, up a hill, and then into your room—you should take the time to be extremely appreciative. Especially when that same person moves your cooler and luggage and then moves the microwave (you made her order especially for you and your dietary needs) to your room.
The other half of the attendees are academics, and the professors haven’t made it to the 21st Century. I’ve had to explain Word to several professors and the importance of turning machines on before trying to use them. Do career counselors assess computer skills and suggest that those who fail become professors? Would these people die without the nurturing care of a university? Who watches them when they’re at home?
The senior citizens aren’t in the 21st century either, but at least they have an excuse: they’re hellza old. The families of the senior citizens usually strap them with cell phones, but they don’t know how to use them, so they try to use our phone as an answering machine. I tried to explain that a cell phone will also function as an answering machine, but checking messages on “that thing” is “impossible.”
The century divide causes other problems. Most of our conference information is on our website, but I often hear, “I’m not on the internet,” read: “I’m not a functioning member of society.” These people become extremely irate when they’ve missed vital information because it wasn’t mailed to them.
This reluctance to use technology is annoying but usually kinda adorable, “the little old lady can’t even use her phone,” but apparently it can also be deadly. A lovely, ludite lady, who was struggling with our office portable phone (she thought it was a cell phone and kept going outside its range), told me that she was walking in her neighborhood when she came across a woman who’s husband was having a medical emergency. The woman needed to help her husband, so she handed her cell phone to the ludite and instructed her to call 911, but she might as well have told her to make a call with a lobster. The ludite ended up running back to her house in order to make the call on her rotary phone. “Luckily, he didn’t die,” she said.
“Did you learn how to use a cell phone?” I asked. There was an awkward pause.
“I need to learn.” She said. YOU THINK? It’s as if she jumped on her horse, rather than getting in a car to speed to the hospital. I’m not even going to get into the tirades I’ve also heard this woman go on about her Plantar Fasciitis (a strange foot disorder I pretended to also have just so I could be part of the conversation).
I’m dwelling on the quirks of our participants because while working twelve hour days, it’s important to focus on the defects of those bothersome people who keep expecting you to do your job. Otherwise you might have to acknowledge your own ineptitude and the brutal reality that when you try to help people you often make things worse. After several participants complained that we were instructing them to come to our office, so we could tell them to go to another office, I put a sign up telling them to go directly to their final destination. Unfortunately, at 1pm that office closed, so participants parked near our office, saw the helpful sign, drove to the other office, and then had to drive back to our office.
I do stupid things too, and I look forward to my grandchildren making fun of me because I can’t use a Badingus (high-tech tool of the future), but the generation gap between mine and those I’ve been dealing with this week is particularly gruesome. Just look at Carolyn Dreary Patillo.
I’m writing this right in front of her, but she hasn’t noticed because she’s too busy talking. I’m not sure talking really is the right word because it implies some form of communication. She’s blathering about the journey to Santa Cruz and “are the geraniums in our office put there because they were Dickens’ favorite flower?” Finally I have no choice but to decipher what she needs. This is difficult—her brain doesn’t work linearly—but I correctly assume she needs help to her room. I grab her luggage and load it into the sweet golf cart I drive like a terror, hoping to scare the Golden Girls. As I drive her to her room, she talks about her trip to Cleveland, where there are “lots of black people.” When I point out her room, which she couldn’t find earlier, she explains that she couldn’t find it because the woman she asked for directions had a “Spanish accent. She looked half Mexican.”
Having grown up in the capital of PC, I am shocked: actual unchecked racism, unabashedly displayed. I don’t say anything. I just unload her bags, letting her carry them upstairs, and speed off in my golf cart. On the drive back, I’m angry that I didn’t say anything, but then I realize, she will be dead soon. Besides, she was wearing two different shoes, and it’s hard to find that threatening. I’m part of a different generation, one that elected a black president. Granted, I’m positive my grandchildren will shake their heads and wonder how people in grandma’s time could ever have made gay marriage illegal, but for now, Obama becomes comfort for a week of dealing with dinosaurs.