Tuesday, April 5, 2011

"Presence" - The 2009 Blogvention

I admit it: I follow blogs. Lots of them. Hundreds maybe. Following blogs is almost an addiction for me: that rush as I find a new artist's blog or design blog that I can get lost in for a few happy hours. Even the fashion blogs are appealing to me lately, more and more, for their beautiful fabrics and designer gowns, though I am still troubled by the gaunt, waifish models on whom the elegant clothes are draped, girls who have become, essentially, coat hangers for the industry.

I love blogs for their photographs and graphics. I love them for their stories and the distinctive voices of the writers.I can spend hours and hours moving from artist's blog to artist's blog. I am stunned and fascinated by what photographers are doing with photography on the digital photography sites. I even read the parts in between the photographs. That is how absurdly addicted I am. Give me anything: from "I Am A Mermaid," to "Modern Country Style," to wild-and-wacky "Jennsylvania," to the Australian blog "Third on the right," to "LifeAfterNormal" and beyond: I can spend happy hours in the company of perfect strangers. Sometimes I click on embedded links in the blogs I follow and they take me out to other sites. Then I'll sign up to follow those blogs too. My inbox is crazy-clogged on Mondays with all the "new posting" notifications that come in now. It's like Christmas every week.

Many of these bloggers have what is known in the blog world as a web presence. By this, I mean they have established a long list of "followers." (Followers are regular readers, like me.) Some of these blogs have hundreds and thousands of followers. Now, that is a presence, my friend; that is a presence. The larger the number of followers you have, the larger your web presence is. So they say.

As for me, I don't have a "web presence." This is true. What I have are 10 or 12 friends and family who read the blog faithfully – and another 10 or 12 who drop in whenever life isn't swamping them. On a good day, a stranger accidentally drops in.

Here's the really great thing about my lack of web presence: these people are about 25 of the greatest readers ANY writer could have. They email. They leave comments. They laugh and they cry – and actually admit they do. A few write back with funny jokes or with funny stories or anecdotes of their own. When I was ill last December and in the hospital, they wrote to me – from wherever they were – to see how I was doing. They sent notes and emailed get-well wishes. They sent secret family recipes for bread pudding because it turns out I thrive on bread pudding when I'm sick. (Okay, so it's all in my mind, that sense of well-being I get from a fine bowl of warm bread pudding.) Another friend sent an email from Hawaii – with a photo of the ocean on it! A few strangers sent good wishes. And one former student sent me some very funny pneumonia haiku he'd written.

As I said before, I don't have a "web presence." I know this because it was confirmed for me recently at the "2009 Blogvention" – an event I dropped in on when I was meandering around in a far city, a little bored, looking for a bit of adventure or mischief. I was desperate enough, by noon, to head down Main Street wanting to linger a while in the little cafĂ© in the local Barnes & Noble, to sip a frothy latte and flip through good books and magazines. That was my PLAN FOR THE DAY (my PFTD) but on my way, I walked past the city auditorium where an enormous white plastic banner was twisting in the wind and which had purple capital letters painted on it which read: 2009 BLOGVENTION!!!

Those three exclamation points sealed the deal for me. I figured that had to be more exciting than taking the city bus around the town loop all day or sitting respectably in a bookstore and sipping frothed-milk coffees and getting all spooled-up on caffeine. So I climbed the wide front concrete steps and strolled into the auditorium lobby where a young woman sat alone at a long table. Her nametag said, "Darlene" and, below that, "Receptionist."

Darlene was texting someone on her phone's tiny keyboard. From the look on her face, it didn't seem like a pleasant conversation for the person on the other end. Someone was catching hell; I was pretty certain of that.

Darlene types, like so many young people today, with her thumbs, plump over-sized thumbs which moved rapidly over the phone's small keyboard – thus distinguishing herself from other primates – and with each keystroke the long, sculpted false nails of her opposable thumbs clicked and clacked and sometimes snagged on the tiny keys and the ridges around them, making her even angrier than she already was. Darlene was a young woman given to anger: I could see that. She'd frown and push out a great gasp of exasperation as she deleted the error and corrected the sentence or word. When she was done typing, she pushed the "send" button with what my grandmother would've called "a great vengeance."

I stepped toward the registration table in hopes that I would get there before the next texted response could arrive and make her even more fierce and impatient than she already seemed. She spotted me and tucked the phone away in her lap.

"Are you here for the Blogvention?" she asked and I could tell, from the way she asked, she wanted me to be there for anything BUT that. Ask directions. Ask for the time. Anything else.

I nodded but, before I could say that I only wanted to sit in on a few events, not the whole convention, she started rifling through folders and piling paperwork on a clipboard. She found a pen and shoved the whole mess at me. I guess I must have looked confounded because she hesitated and pursed her red lips. She sucked in a loud breath and asked was I planning to attend or not and had I already registered.

"No," I said, before she could thrust another formidable pile of papers at me, "I just want to sit in on one or two events."

She snarled and tore off all the papers she'd just put on the brown clipboard.

"You can get a day pass for the lectures in the main auditorium for $25.00 per day. Is that what you want?"

I nodded. She waited. I waited. She held out her palm. I blinked. She waited.

"Twen-ty-five dol-lars," she repeated, slowly, emphasizing each syllable.

I asked if I could write a check.

"NO. You may NOT write a check. Cash only for day passes."

So I fished out a crispy twenty dollar bill and a rumpled five dollar bill from the bottom of my purse and extended them to her. Carefully. She retrieved a strange-looking pen from a cash box and rubbed it several times over the twenty-dollar bill. Then she held the twenty up in front of her and glared at it. When it was apparent the bill wasn't counterfeit, she tucked it and the rumpled fiver into the beige lock-box and handed me two pieces of paper. The first paper was a list with the main auditorium events and presentations highlighted in green marker. The other was a map of the lobby with the public restrooms, the water fountains, and the words "front lobby" highlighted in the same neon-green marker.

She told me where I was allowed to go and what I could attend and she spoke to me as if I were daft. She emphasized the critical words, as if they were a threat: "You are ONLY allowed to be in the GREEN areas marked on this map. NO classrooms and NO refreshment tables. No ICE WATER or COFFEE or TEA. The PUBLIC water fountains are MARKED."

Darlene stopped then and squinted up at me and said, "And NO cookies when they are put out. They are for blogventioneers who PAID for the FULL weekend."

People were already emerging from the classrooms down the corridor and they walked in groups to the lobby for refreshments. They looked normal. Sort of ordinary. And by "ordinary," I mean they looked local, like others from that part of the country. Almost as if they were all – how shall I say this? – related. And had been for generations and generations. They were dressed in nicely-pressed slacks and pantsuits and skirts. They carried notebooks and portfolios bulging with papers. They wore tags on strings around their necks. And they had that pale, punched-dough, middle-aged look to them that people get after living for many years in a place where strong drink is the main event at every social occasion. They seemed at ease there in the lobby with each other. They knew each others' names. They chatted in groups. They put the delicious-looking cookies into their mouths. They sipped from Styrofoam cups. No one among them bent to drink from the water coolers in the lobby. I was, apparently, the only one who had purchased a day pass. An outsider. An interloper. A cheap, out-of-towner, day-passer interloper. A cheap, out-of-towner, day-passer interloper who was standing by herself, with no cookies in hand, in their town's auditorium lobby.

Darlene cleared her throat and, when she was sure she had my attention again, she handed me a hangtag for my neck: a blank, bright neon-green nametag. When I asked if I should write my name on it like the others who were milling about in the lobby, she just threw a crooked smile in my direction as if to say, Who cares who you are, you green-tagged, day-passer? Then she retrieved the cell phone from her lap and starting reading something that had finally come in. I moved out of range.
Blogventioneers. More strange even than the word "conventioneers" – and slightly less respectable. It had the childish, cheesy ring of "Mouseketeers."

Who's the leader of the band that's made for you and me . . . .

Who makes up these awful new words? These bad parodies of words. These miserable, ill-fitting misnomers. Who are those people who butcher the English language and make it over it in their own lousy image? For a moment, I almost convinced myself I was superior to all those others around me in the lobby, those swarming "blogventioneers." I think I was trying hard to convince myself that I had an inside edge, knowing real words as I did, not falling to made-up words like blogvention and blogventioneers.

But clearly, the other attendees who were gathering in front of the cookie trays and talking amiably to each other – these blogventioneers who had paid their fees in full – were more respectable than I was with my green-highlighted maps and my blank neon-green tag. They could have cookies and tea. They could wander down the corridors and hallways. They had their names on their tags, and the names of their blogs.

I'd never felt so out-of-place in my life and, you can trust me when I say that I have felt out of place in many places, in many towns, large and small. But never quite so acutely, so visibly, so miserably out of place as I was just then.

So I tried to look as if I didn't care, as if I weren't out of place and a misfit among them. I hid behind my glasses and studied the list of afternoon lectures coming up. I saw one that was to start in ten minutes.:"The Blogosphere: How to get there fast and be read widely."

Oh dear.

Why hadn't I thought to check the list of events before handing over the fee to Darlene the Miserable? I realized this might have been a bad idea, a worse idea than riding the city bus loop all day or sitting in the bookstore sipping designer coffee and thumbing through magazines. This might be a dull disaster of a day – a disaster I had paid good money to be part of.

I studied the list again. Two more talks would follow this one: "Blogging For Profit" and "Building a Web Presence." Since I could give a rat's backside about making a profit on anything, much less on writing, I decided to sit in the lobby on a far bench, to slouch in the warm sunshine falling through the tall windows. I'd sit there and daydream until the "web presence" talk at 3 o'clock. That way I would be close enough to know when the first talk was over but wouldn't be too close to Darlene who was looking a bit nuclear by then, texting and frowning and slamming the phone on the tabletop after each message she sent.

Darlene scared me.

There came a point. at last, where she went off down the hall to the women's restroom. I took the opportunity to snitch an oatmeal cookie and a cup of ice water from the table. I guzzled down the ice water which was cool after half an hour of baking in the afternoon sunshine and I choked down the soft crumbly cookie, afraid Darlene might suddenly reappear, see what I had done, and go into a rage, flying at me with her neon-green permanent marker and her long-nailed opposable thumbs. I have seen rabid dogs who intimidated me less than Darlene did.

She finally returned and sat down at the reception table again, her phone idle on the tabletop beside her. She had found a People magazine to thumb through and it held her attention for the next 2 hours. She seemed not to even notice me, which was what I wanted except that it made me feel even less visible and less important and more out of place than I already felt.
Inside the auditorium later, I settled myself in the back of the large room, back in the safe, indistinct shadowy reaches of the room that was elsewhere too-brightly-lit by buzzing overhead fluorescent bulbs. The back of any room, large or small, is where all the ex-Southern Baptists I know, including me, seat themselves in adulthood. We are traumatized by the sermons of our childhoods, childhoods which were spent being made – by our God-fearing parents and the stern deacons – to sit in the sanctuary's front two pews, in close range of Preacher's rantings and finger-pointings and Bible-shakings. Hellfire and brimstone were hurled at us from those Sunday pulpits and tent-revival podiums, as were the seven deadly sins and the lesser sins of omission. Sometimes I left a revival like a scorched thing, having been so close to the hellfire sermon that I could almost smell the sulfur of brimstone in my hair.

Others entered the auditorium. No one smiled in my direction. No one spoke to me. They all moved, eagerly, dutifully, to the front and middle of the room and sat down, taking out their notebooks and folios, clicking their pens, ready to capture the secrets of Those-Who-Have-Arrived in the Kingdom of Blogging. I stayed put – just me and my pity-party – in the back of that auditorium where I read through the titles of talks once again and studied my highlighted lobby map and tried to hide the fact of my blank neon-green day pass from anyone who might look my way.

Soon, the house lights went down and the podium lights came up. The guest speaker was introduced and applauded. Then the big screen behind her lit up: a power-point presentation.

Oh. Goody.

Pie-charts and statistics. Acronyms and quotable slogans. Testimonials by the guest speaker followed by snappy little sound-bytes by those others who had been pioneers in blogging and its technology and by those who were devout followers of this speaker's "methodology," people who were quoted and identified only by a first name and last initial.

I have always suspected that these quotations are probably not written or spoken by real people, that they were "made up." Invented. Characters. Conveniently-placed characters. The syntax and diction are too similar from quote to quote. Sometimes, the punctuation and spelling errors are also consistent from quote to quote. I smelled a rat. A big fat smelly rat.

But I could see, even in the dim-lit hall, others were writing them all down as fast as they appeared on the screen, as if the words were pearls of great wisdom that could sink again into the sea-water and disappear. Lost riches. Little gems. Something to repeat to others when they also finally entered one day the hallowed halls of Those-Who-Have-Arrived.
Finally, the speaker took out her laser pointer and got down to the subject: that "web presence" we were all needing so badly to establish. How to build it. How to nurture it. How to capitalize on it.

Why? I wondered. Why do any of us care whether five or five hundred people are reading what we write, looking at what we post from week to week, month to month? We're not selling anything. We're not getting rich. We're not.

Or are we?

Maybe, in some deep sense of it all, we are selling something, even if it's only our own versions of what is and has been and will be. Maybe we're all trying to capture something about the world we know – or knew once – and raise it up again before others who might not have seen it, even when it shimmered (or shimmied) right before them. Maybe we're hoping that they'll see it finally and be astonished by it and agree with us that it's been one helluva life, this one we've shared with all those strangers and friends and followers out there.

Maybe we're gravediggers in the old boneyard of mortals, digging our graves and others' too. Slowly. Beautifully. In such a way that it seems we do it like nobody else has ever done it. That we do it in such a way that grave-digging seems the only fitting end for something as wild and noble and filled with good and evil as our lives have been.

Or maybe we're resurrecting our dead. Bringing them back to stand, almost-whole again, before us. Bringing them into view so clearly and so deeply and humanly-flawed that, when we lose them again – as we surely must when the writing ends – it feels like a bitter loss to anyone else who happens to be with us there in that moment.

Maybe we are selling something: we who are writing from our most secret and vulnerable hearts and minds. Maybe we sell it – whatever "it" is – so well we don’t quite feel alone as we once did. Maybe we want even that brief connection to others, a tenuous connection, at best, that often seems so damned impossible to find any other way.

And maybe in the end, we are getting rich. Richer than we'd imagined we would be. Rich enough to fill our pockets full with the gold-dust of all those small, fleeting details of the moments we've lived and had almost-forgotten until we wrote them down or photographed them or painted them for others.

Maybe the guest speaker is wrong, a little, about that web presence and how critical the larger numbers of readers are. Maybe she is not seeing the forest for the proverbial trees, despite the colorful graphs and pie-charts and well-researched statistics. Maybe the only web presence that matters, in the end, is that we each be present and genuine in every blog-piece we write, each photograph we post, each thing we hold up to those who drop in from time to time and watch us act as if it is the only thing of any worth that we have to offer.

Maybe even Darlene the Terrible is entitled to a presence here today, with her wonderfully-manicured thumbs and her sorry attitude. Maybe even that blank green nametag is just one more ever-present manifestation of all the small signs that make decent people feel ruined and discarded, another version of signs like "For Whites Only" or "No Girls Allowed" or "Immigrants Go Home." Maybe the presence that matters today isn't the woman I was that afternoon at the Blogvention; maybe it’s the sudden presence again of the girl I was once, deeply hung in the practices and fears of a Southern Baptist childhood, her hair reeking of brimstone, her cheeks flushed from that close encounter with the hellfires.

Maybe even you, reader, are a presence, rare and wonderful, tagging along as you have, at my elbow all that miserable day though I had nothing more, ever, to offer you than this one afternoon, this little scrap from the rich bone-yard of my own life.