Saturday, October 31, 2015

How Fubar Can Be Achieved Without Anyone Being a Jerk

The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men, gang aft agley.
        —Robert Burns, 1785

"Fubar" is an old World War II term, an acronym equating to "fucked up beyond all recognition." Over the decades it has escaped exclusive use in the military to enter the lexicon of administrators everywhere. Even if you don't know the term, you know the concept.

I had a fubar experience this weekend while attending the annual North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO) Institute in Ann Arbor MI, and I want to describe it this Halloween, both because it's frightening how badly things went, and because this calamity was achieved all without anyone being incompetent or malicious.

Setting the Table
I've been on the faculty for NASCO Institute for the past 20 years and it's one of the most fun things on my calendar. It happens every year late in the fall (carefully avoiding a home football game of the University of Michigan, during which Saturday parking is impossible), and I get to offer workshops to college students who are having a positive first experience of cooperative living. They come to Institute to learn more and I get the privilege of being one the people to provide it. Somewhere in the vicinity of 350-400 students attend.

In addition to offering workshops, I also bring Community Bookstore, one of the FIC's resource arms, offering DVDs and books focused on cooperative living, right livelihood, sustainability, and group dynamics. With few exceptions, we have collaborated with another entity in running the conference bookstore (in the early years it was Rainbow Bookstore of Madison WI; in more recent years it has been Boxcar Books in Bloomington IN). Both have been a pleasure to work with. 

For the past decade we have been collaborating with Boxcar. They have been capturing sales for both of us, and then we pay them a processing fee in exchange for running all the credit cards. We have a simple way to track when one of our titles sells and we reconcile accounts before going home on Sunday. It's been a great arrangement.

Based on the steadiness of this relationship with Boxcar, I told our Bookstore Manager that we didn't need to pack sales materials for this event—because Boxcar would be handling all that. That meant less things to put into boxes and to schlep around.

One of the variables each year is when we're allowed to start setting up the bookstore on Friday. For a variety of reasons it's an advantage to set up as early as possible and thus I had asked NASCO staff Oct 19 when I could have access to the bookstore area. The answer was 11 am. That sounded good to me and I proceeded to subsequently schedule a client conference call for 4 pm that afternoon.

As is my wont, I arrived in Ann Arbor late Wednesday and had an easy day on Thursday, catching up on email and visiting with friends. When I returned to my quarters Thursday evening and checked email, things started to get weird.

Curveball #1
I got an email from NASCO staff informing me that they'd just heard from Boxcar that they weren't coming to Institute, and I'd be running the conference bookstore alone. Uh oh. 

Curveball #2
In addition, there was a revision on when I could get into the room: it had been changed to 4 pm. This was not happy news. Right off the top this meant that I wouldn't be able to participate in the conference call I'd agree to, and I felt jerked around.

I wrote NASCO staff back right away asking: a) where the bookstore would be located (in the course of 20 years we've been in five different rooms of the Michigan Union), to see whether the space was lockable; b) whether I could get any help from NASCO staff to cover the bookstore while I was teaching my two workshops; c) what hours I was expected to be on duty.

The answers were discouraging. The location (which is generally a good one for bookselling) was going to be in the same room as the conference hang out space and where there'd be free tea and coffee. As such, the room needed to be open:
Friday, 4-10 pm
Saturday, 8 am - 10 pm
Sunday, 8 am - 4 pm

They offered me a space where I could move the books into a lockable room temporarily, but I'd be totally on my own to do that as they had no staff to spare to help with that chore. With a compromised back, the prospect of moving the bookstore inventory multiple times was a nonstarter. I was going to have to figure out how to operate the store on my own nonstop, perhaps covering up inventory with table cloths during my workshops.

Operating as a lone wolf, I was going to have to last all day and eat after 10 pm on Friday and Saturday. As I've done crazier things, I figured I could suck it up in order to protect FIC's potential book sales.

Curveball #3
Late Thursday night, NASCO staff discovered yet another problem. They are renting rooms in the Michigan Union for this event (where Institute has been hosted for longer than the 20 years that I've been attending) and the decor of the rooms is up to the Union. In general, this has never been a problem, but the staff discovered that the rotating art collection in the proposed lounge/bookstore area featured an anti-abortion theme (while I have no idea what kind of art that is, I took their word for it). As NASCO is deeply committed to women's rights and anti-oppression, this unexpected turn of events was highly offensive and there were scrambling to figure out what could be done to manifest a different configuration of rooms. 

I was told to stand by relative to what would happen. I told them I'd plan on arriving Friday at 4 pm with the books unless I heard from them otherwise. Because I needed to scramble to buy a receipt book and stop by a bank to get 1's and 5s with which to make change for cash sales (in my experience, everyone has 20s), I checked my email right before leaving my guest accommodations. There was nothing new from NASCO so off I went.

I completed my errands and hired a couple of young men to help me unload my books (for $20) just outside the door of the proposed bookstore area. Feeling good about getting that accomplished I parked the car and walked back to the Union to discuss matters with NASCO staff. 

The first thing they told me upon arrival was that they were not able to resolve the art work snafu and the Union was not able to provide an alternate room at the 11th hour. They were sorry, but there would be no bookstore this year. It was a unilateral decision and a done deal.

I didn't not smile when I heard that. I vented for a couple of minutes, took a deep breath, and then made plans to get the books back into my car. Fortunately, I got help in this regard from Michigan Union staff and I didn't have to cough up another $20.

While this sequence led to the silver lining of my having a much more relaxed schedule Saturday and Sunday (all I have to do is teach two workshops), I am out the cost of driving round trip to Ann Arbor (about $250: car rental and gas), because if I'd known that I couldn't sell books I'd have taken a train to Ann Arbor and then continued east to Maryland for next week's FIC fall meetings. In addition, the Fellowship is out the chance to sell books.

The Post Mortem
In all, I was buffeted around by a number of things outside my control—all within the span of about 20 hours:

a) Boxcar decided not to come at the last minute, after it was too late for me to secure help to staff the bookstore or to pack the sales materials we'd ordinarily need if operating alone.

b) NASCO staff neglected to pass along to me correct information about when I'd be able to access the bookstore, which scotched my plans for participating in a client conference call.

c) The Michigan Union had chosen artwork for one of its rooms for rent that was offensive to a longstanding client yet was unwilling to make adjustments.

d) Though FIC (represented by me) was a stakeholder in whether or not to operate the bookstore (we were the ones, after all, going to lose money on non-sales, not NASCO), the decision was made without my input.

While this did not represent a good sequence for me, it's instructive to look at all of the above a second time:

a) While I don't know what happened in Bloomington, Boxcar folks have been very reliable over the years and I have to think think that someone got sick at the last minute or some other emergency occurred that forced them to cancel. While it put me in an awkward spot, and it would have been much easier to cope with it if we had been informed before I left Missouri Wed morning, I'd have handled it. I have considerable experience running conference bookstores by myself.

b) I found out Friday that NASCO wasn't told of the switch in access time to the bookstore area (by the Michigan Union folks) until right before the event and the staff person I had been working with simply forgot that I was depending on that information. While that was awkward for me, it's easy to understand how a busy person could drop a ball without being a bad person.

c) I'm not sure how things look to the Michigan Union. Undoubtedly they have a policy about equal access to the range of artwork that's placed on display in their rooms (which has an interesting parallel to NASCO's stand about equal rights), yet it's also interesting that they insist on clients coping with whatever they put on display. How hard would it have been to simply have taken down the artwork for the weekend?

I can see how the Union wanted to protect freedom of speech, and at the same how NASCO didn't want offensive art overlooking their hang out space. Stalemate.

d) NASCO staff was put into a tough place. They very much wanted the hang out space (they'd been using that room successfully in recent years, and the alternative was out in the hall), yet they felt they had to stand up for their strong position on women's reproductive rights. It's no fair criticizing them for not anticipating the possibility of being confronted with anti-abortion art—who would think of that? Besides, NASCO had been using the Michigan Union for decades and never encountered a problem like this before.

While I'm scratching my head over NASCO being an umbrella organization for cooperatives and they didn't include me, an obvious stakeholder, in reaching a cooperative decision, I also understand that they were operating under pressure of time and needed to make a decision.

All of which is to say, I can see how all of this happened without anyone being mean-spirited or non compos mentis. And I still felt like I got run over by a garbage truck. 

Sometimes you're caught in a perfect storm without an umbrella and it's really no one's fault.


Unknown said...

Karma from your last post about smartphones?

Anonymous said...

Sounds like NASCO is an organization without rudder or purpose. They allow "anti-abortion artwork" to hijack their meeting (no doubt to the glee of the anti-abortionists. They swap meeting times at the last minute, and screw over a vendor and longtime supporter.