|Render Order Unto Chaos|
|December 5, 1998||Previous Tale||More Tales||Next Tale|
Last night was the Ryan White Awards, a benefit concert supporting Metro Teen AIDS, a local AIDS education center. Kevin and Susan did most of the organizing, so I was roped in to helping out as well. Susan gave me the choice of either driving dignitaries and VIPs around, or being the "volunteer coordinator." I'd seen the VIP van before, a vehicle of such Detroitian proportions that its interior space rivals that of my studio apartment, and had little desire to bully it around the mean streets of Washington DC. But I had reservations about accepting a position that would require me to manage other people. I have little faith in my own ability to form the kinds of quick informal relationships that seem to be the hallmark of a successful manager. I've long Envied people like Susan and Kevin, who are more at ease with people they've just met than I am with folks I've known for months. I've made a lot of progress on my interpersonal skills in the last few years: as time goes by, there are fewer nausea-inducing silences in my chitchat with strangers. But I've long since accepted that this is just an accident of my God-wired hardware.
What really tipped the balance was when Susan told me that as Volunteer Coordinator, I could have a 2-way radio, with an earpiece and attached mike. A chance to spend an entire day playing with the gadgetry of my childhood! Having to deal with all those human beings seemed like a fair price to indulge my Inner Child's insatiable need to play with cool electronica. They could scarcely have bought my loyalty with a more perfect toy, unless the position had somehow called for me to wield a Laser.
I had coordinated volunteers at concerts before, when I was an upstart high school peacenik organizing yearly "Jam for Peace" events to benefit the Charlottesville Peace Center. Looking back on those days, I'm astonished that a bunch of outcast students managed to put together those events without completely humiliating ourselves and losing gads of money. We had something like eight bands playing over the course of six hours, and some of them were "real" bands, acts that people paid real money to see in popular venues. We had absolutely no idea what we were doing, but the relentless social pressures of high school had taught us how to fake bravado and competence in the face of withering inadequacy. There are some tasks which cannot be done without a na´ve failure to understand that what you are attempting is impossible.
The event last night was of an entirely different magnitude: there were many people present who actually knew what they were doing. Some of them even do this for a living. The amount of money raised broke into six figures. Kathy Mattea, one of the performers, had a bona-fide crazed fan-cum-stalker in the crowd, who managed to bluff her way backstage for a moment. I got to call security on someone who was causing trouble. There was a tunnel leading from the front hall to the backstage area, and only those of us with the stylish green backstage passes I designed were allowed through. It was an evening of many such wonderful moments.
I wasn't such a bad Volunteer Coordinator. I tried to be respectful of the fact that people were doing us a favor just for showing up. Of course, the volunteers eventually divided up into one group of people who were unfailingly helpful  for the entire night, and others who sold some t-shirts and then walked off to watch the rest of the show. Maybe the latter were just sick of being ordered around by a random guy with an Elroy Jetson headset and an overdeveloped sense of authority. But I managed to hold on to enough volunteers to keep things going smoothly.
I had one small realization about my people-managing skills, and it started when I acknowledged that 1) I really liked being Volunteer Coordinator and working with all those people, and 2) for a rank amateur, I was pretty good at it. It vaguely reminded me of being an Emergency Medical Technician. There is a special mindset, a particular talent for dealing with people in a crisis situation that I was amazed to discover in myself when I first hired on at the ambulance. My brother-in-law tells a great story about his first day as an EMT, when he showed up at the scene of a car wreck and found himself thinking "whoa, somebody better call an ambulance" before realizing that he was it.
I find I like being the bottom line, the last defense in the face of chaos. I was astonished at the breathtaking sensation of walking into the scene of someone's most frightening moment and being a voice that said, "Everything is okay now. We're here. We won't let you go." Maybe being the Wired Mr. Fix-It at the event wasn't such a high-stakes gig, but it had its moments of comparable satisfaction.
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