Thursday, July 19, 2007

retreat (n.)

a time - usually 2-3 days in duration - for a group of people to gather in order to speak, learn and drink themselves stupid.

"Does this seem weird to you?" I asked Dawn about an hour into our drive deep into the south on a muggy day. She rolled her eyes toward our companions eating dried fish in the front seat and I smiled and shook my head. "That we're all driving for several hours - leaving together and arriving mostly together - to check into a hotel so we can talk for 3 days? Why come all this way?"

She shrugged then disagreed with me that it was weird. "I'm looking forward to it." She declared and I sighed. My retreat buddy failed to share my disdain for the event and I told myself firmly that I should be a better sport. Wrinkling my nose at the odor of stale fish flesh, I resolved to try.

We arrived at the hotel - amidst people I see every day - and waited for someone to park the car as we unloaded overnight bags, laptops and posters. We then waited in line - behind people we work with every day - to hear that our rooms weren't yet ready.

"The hotel is very pretty." I offered, trying mightily not to be pissy. And I looked around at the gracious, historic structure in approval. It is lovely here - the rooms are as welcoming and lovely as the lobby area. The glass in the window is rippled from age as it rests in frames painted bright white. The drapes are thick to keep out the oppressive heat, but colored a pale mint. The furniture is deep mahogany and sits - sturdy and elegant - next to overstuffed chairs in muted tones.

Checking our watches, we decided traffic had slowed us down and proceeded to look for the conference site, nearly 3 blocks away. It's not far - and the downtown area is also very pretty - but I was sweating by the time we reached our destination. We had met several other retreaters on the way, and the atmosphere was decidedly different. Away from work, we were somehow lighter. It was nice to see familiar faces in a strange environment. To joke and talk as we wandered new streets in an attempt to find our meeting place. To complain halfheartedly about the travel or heat or time away from our lives, united in purpose despite any unpleasant feelings.

Arriving at the building after receiving friendly directions, we were welcomed by staff and directed to a large room with tall ceilings that held several round tables surrounded by wonderful chairs. Padded chairs with gently curved backs and arms. Sturdy tables that held papers and pencils and the sodas and refreshments we quickly joined a line to obtain. Armed with Diet Coke, fruit, vegetables and pretzels (albeit stale pretzels), I found my seat and settled in.

I thought to turn off my phone, then checked to see if there was a wireless signal. There was and I made a face of approval. This wasn't nearly so bad as it could have been. The preliminary talks - state of the department and the like - were informative and entertaining. The men presenting were bright and funny and if the invited speakers were less so, it was understandable that their air would be more formal than those coming from our own group. I fidgeted a little toward the end of our time in that room - sparing a moment to sigh over the length of the day tomorrow - but chewed my pretzels as quietly as possible and finished my second can of soda.

We returned to get our keys - neatly labeled and ready - and found our respective rooms. I met my roommate - an adorable young woman who is as peppy as she is sharp. I'd like her tremendously if her phone would stop beeping in a demand for electricity she seems determined to ignore. I, conversely, start each time it shrilly beep-bloops. I had time to admire the view of the library across the street, bounce on the tall, fluffy bed, then checked my email on the free wireless (!) here before answering Dawn's knock at the door to summon me to the reception. We found finger food - delicious and filling enough to call it good - and drank decent white wine while the room warmed with many bodies, all eating and drinking and socializing. I felt a moment's guilt over not trying to meet new people, but glanced around and saw everyone conversing with at least one other person.

This was nice, I decided.

Then reconsidered.

There were several people moving about the room, speaking just loudly enough to overhear. They were inviting selected people to dinner.

"Don't fill up." They'd say, turning away from most of a group to speak only to certain people. "We're going to dinner later. A few of us. Are you coming?" After one man caught my attention, I watched him drift around the room, inviting some, excluding others.

This is what I hate. The subtle politics and odd favoritisms. As the important and loved members slowly congregated to leave, I made my excuses as well, a bit soured on the event, though I'm trying not to let it overshadow the lovely parts of the day. But this is why I don't fit. When left out, I withdraw even more, and I did. Coming back to my room after arranging to meet Dawn in the morning for more free food at breakfast.

Mom isn't feeling well at all (More prayers please? Thank you.) so that worried me. I have more data to analyze that isn't going all that well. And I'm neither favored nor particularly liked here. But I am here, listening and participating, freshly showered (I hope some of my smellier colleagues can say the same tomorrow) and sitting on my comfy bed writing for my blog.

Day 1 wasn't so bad at all.


H said...

I always liked retreats. It would probably be great for my department to do them once in a while, but so far we have failed to organize one. To me it was a chance to get to know people around you that you didn't before, find out what everyone is actually doing, discover new possibilities, expertise, possible resources. Plus, I like parties. I too suffer from outsiderness often enough, I have never fit in very well, and "old-boy" groups can get my back up, but for me that is actually much less at a retreat then it is in the halls of my institution.

I love meeetings too, so much brandy-new cool science things going on....

Oh well, I am just a geek :-)

Anonymous said...

so sorry about your mom, I am praying.

and I do the same thing when excluded from the "important" people dinners. why does it have to be so HS?

Psychobunny said...

Sorry about your mom. Sending lots of good wishes her way!

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