One of the issues I have with Large Important Events is that they tend to take months to pull together properly. By the time they arrive, you’re running flat out just to keep from falling behind. They chew up months and it feels like you should be entitled to a big ending.
Independence Day ends with fireworks. A public execution ends with a hanging on the courthouse lawn. There’s a final moment of something that marks the definitive end point.
With us, though, it’s just a whole lot of build up with no pay off. There’s no money shot. The end just kind of dribbles out… and those who endured it limp home with whatever you call the event planning version blue balls.
Now it’s important to remember that when it comes to event planning at the very best I am nothing more than a marginally talented amateur. I’m reasonably good at establishing requirements and subcontracting them out to people who can do that actual work. What I lack in any meaningful way is the patience requisite to answering the same five questions 437 times after providing that information in a read ahead packet that clearly no one bothered to read.
The real problem, though, isn’t necessarily who did or didn’t read what… it’s that although I’m tolerable good at identifying requirements, I really have no actual control over them. In the parlance of my employer, I’m not a “decision maker,” and frankly, as I’ve said loudly and often, I don’t want to be one of those. The most significant “wheels coming off” moments I find at an event of any size aren’t actually a result of poor planning or staff work so much as they’re the result of one of the deciders being visited by the Good Idea Fairy twelve hours or so before the damned thing starts.
The result is that plans are made, flyers are printed, and advertising is done… and the new thing that’s being injected starts looking a lot like an after-thought instead of something that was carefully considered and added because it created value in the week’s proceedings.
But since I’m just a guy sitting here, what the hell do I know?
1. “Free” college. Almost a decade ago, the federal government stepped in and allowed people to refinance their mortgages during the housing crisis – but only if you let your payments fall behind. If you took your word as your bond and paid on time even though it was hard, well fuck you sucker. That’s why it took me $30,000 out of pocket to close the sale on my Tennessee house. I played by the rules and got properly fucked for the trouble. Now Senator Warren comes along and wants to push student loan “forgiveness” as the brave new way ahead. If she gets away with it, once more I’m a sucker for playing by the rules, doing the hard work, and being responsible for paying my own debts. I really do despise the 21st century.
2. Morale. Apparently as a moral boosting endeavor we’ve installed a wall-sized mural with my organization’s name blazed across 30-feet of graphics and some fancy new signage in our bit of cubicle hell. I’m sure someone thought it would be a good idea and that everyone was sure to find it inspirational. I’m just not one of them. I’m probably too jaded and cynical at this point to ever be bought off by new signage. That’s just the kind of guy I am. Want to improve my morale? Throw me a step increase in recognition of the work I’ve done. Hit me with a time off award – that one is my personal favorite. Order up some office chairs that aren’t low bidder junk or computers that aren’t crippled right out of the box. If you’re going to spend the money, spend it on something that matters… because new wallpaper doesn’t get it done.
3. 5PM. Being a creature of habit, there’s not much I value more on any given weekday than leaving the office on time. I value arriving on time, too… because getting to work on time is a reasonable employer expectation. The converse should also be true – leaving on time should be a reasonable employee expectation. Except the average office is full of subtle signs and symbols that it isn’t the case. No one will come right out and say it, but you’re supposed to just understand and not mention that someone at echelons higher than reality has scheduled a meeting to start an hour or two after you’re supposed to have departed the area for the day – and that’s assuming that the meeting will accidentally start on time, which of course it won’t… The not so subtle message being that anything you have outside the office walls couldn’t possibly be as important as what’s happening inside them. Then again, this is often driven by the same people who think they can fix morale problems with wallpaper, so it’s whatever I guess.
I had three things all laid out for today. But all three of them combined don’t hold a candle to the one big thing that has been absolutely crazymaking this week… and that’s waiting until the last fucking minute to decide to pay attention to the onrushing train bearing down on you.
It’s not that I have a philosophical problem with needing to do things at the last minutes in and of itself. Sometimes a crisis really is a crisis, something that arrived by surprise and was otherwise unavoidable. However, what we here treat as a crisis is almost always something that we’ve seen coming for months, but have elected to ignore until it shows up on the front stoop like a drunk uncle at Thanksgiving. That is to say that nearly all of the chaos brought on by suddenly engaging at the last minute is completely self inflicted.
If there’s nothing else I’ve learned in my 16+ years here in the heart of the Great American Bureaucracy it’s that no amount of planning I can do that will offset late-in-the-cycle visits from the Executive Good Idea Fairy. No amount of anticipating needs, or prep work, or casting entrails will ever get you ready for things that should have been mentioned three months ago but show up with less than three weeks to go.
I spent more of the day applying some academic rigor to food trucks, cake cuttings, and feel good opportunities that one might think was strictly reasonable under normal circumstances.
Personally, if I were making decisions on who should be involved in this kind of information gathering, I wouldn’t pick me. I’m not in any way sure what would make someone look at me, a guy who by nature loathes parties, events, or large gatherings of people, and decide that he’s the one who needs to play a significant role in party planning writ large. It’s a skill set to be sure, but I have to think that you’d be far better off giving the role to someone who has better instincts for what people might enjoy.
Believe me when I tell you that what sounds perfectly nice to me generally doesn’t come close to passing muster as being good enough for the gods of Olympus. It’s just a difference of tastes and perspective. To me, a good party mostly involves a fire pit, a half dozen or fewer people, and plenty of liquid refreshment. Once we cross into the realm of crab puffs, linen tablecloths, and mood lighting I’m 100% making shit up as I go along.
My best time imaginable is finding somewhere comfortable to sit, cracking open a book about the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic era, and enjoying a well-made whiskey drink. Trying to convert me into a producer of something that feels like it could give the Ice Capades a run for its money seems like square pegs and round holes territory, really.
On days like this it really is helpful to remind myself that no matter what happens, whether the final product is loved or loathed, the clock is ticking and this iteration of the greatest show on earth will be here and over sooner rather than later.
Like many industries, here at Tharp Weddings and Events LTD (a tiny subsidiary of Giant Bureaucratic Organization, USA), we have a busy season. At the moment we are directly in the middle of it. Which explains the random nose bleeds and increasingly surly attitude.
The simple fact is the next five weeks are going to fuse into an undifferentiated and increasingly frenetic hail of emails, phone conversations, meetings, briefing slides, and random conversations in the halls. It’s like being inexorable pulled towards an earth-based black hole centered on the first week of May that’s doing its level best to suck in every element of reality that surrounds it while spewing anti-reality out on the other side of the event horizon.
For someone who has to work diligently at being civil and talkative in a crowded room, the whole thing is basically a preview of what my version of a hell dimension might look and act like.
This time of year is something that is simply endured. If it feels like over the next few weeks that the writing here is suffering, it’s not your imagination. On the typical day I’m busy using every scrap of available energy to fend off the encroaching madness. Historically it doesn’t leave much in the tank to deliver the kind of online snark you’ve come to expect around here… and for that I am gravely sorry.
You all have probably heard of back seat drivers. You know, those pain in the ass people who ride along with you and critique everything from your speed to your turn management to the placement of your mirrors. The same thing happens when you plan a big event. You end up with a few (probably) well intentioned know-it-alls who want to understand every irrelevant detail of why things are happening the way they are. Back seat planners are the absolute worst… mostly because the answer to their endless litany of questions is either a) Provided in meetings they didn’t attend; b) Was a decision made at echelons higher than reality at an equal and opposite organization; c) An unplanned expedient measure executed on the fly with little or no prior coordination; d) Caused by someone who failed to follow guidance that everyone else clearly received; or e) A complete and total cockup caused by any number of both preventable and yet unforeseen circumstances.
It’s fun that anyone thinks I might exercise the all-knowing prerogatives of the Great and Powerful Oz… but the reality is that on a good day, I’m just keeping most of it together through the exercise of personal will and determination, decent relationships with a few of the other planners, and a complete willingness to call audibles on the fly and hope for the best.
No plan, you see, survives first contact. It’s a notion which you’d think people in this line of work would have a passing familiarity.