Friday, April 30, 2010

Getting comfortable

After having called in sick for my previously-scheduled volunteer day at the Edison Labs, I went back in this week for another full day. I have to admit I wasn't all that excited for some reason. Maybe it's because I'm still under the weather. Maybe it was the uncertainty of what I would be doing that day, and the discomfort of knowing I'm not as prepared as I'd like to be to respond to questions. Again, I'm my own toughest critic.

Once again, I was shuttled up to Glenmont to shadow the rangers on tour and at the potting shed/visitor center. From the first few minutes I spent with them down at the main office at the lab, I knew it would be a good day. Nice guys, great senses of humor and positive attitudes -- very easy to get along with.

This looked to be a busy day: four pre-arranged group tours in the morning, followed by four public tours in the afternoon. To make matters even more interesting, the morning tours were scheduled back-to-back, every half-hour, and one of them would possibly have the park superintendent along. My role? Help keep the group together, answer questions if I could, smile, and keep inquisitive hands away from the contents of the house. I'd spend the morning in the house with one ranger, and then head back to the potting shed and perhaps do one tour with the other ranger to hear his spiel.

After going on a total of five tours, I actually think I could handle taking the lead on my own. When I was there doing backup a few weeks ago, I was pretty overwhelmed by the depth of information the ranger guide was sharing about some of the furnishings in the house, wondering if I could ever remember them all. This most recent experience made me realize two things: first off, some of the rangers don't even know all of it (hence the handy notebooks in each room), and second, it's near impossible to cover the whole house in 30 minutes if you go into that level of detail. So... I might be more ready to lead one of these tours than I originally thought.

In many ways, the Edison experience is turning out to be more instructive than the Ellis Island activities. While I have more autonomy at Ellis, there's greater variety of activity at Edison, and seemingly more focus on the volunteers as a resource. (Granted the Ellis Island thing is a bit of a hybrid, given that I'm volunteering through Save Ellis Island.) In fact, one of the rangers took me aside before his tour to share his approach to working with visitors at Glenmont, and the methods he uses to make a connection for them. I'd also heard much of the theory during the training at Ellis Island a few months ago, but he gave me his personal view on why it's important and a successful approach for him. Pretty cool.

Still not sure what I'm going to do as far as touring, but volunteering is giving me incredibly valuable experience and perspective. I've got the mechanics of being the backup down pat, and I got the sense the rangers were glad for the help. The funny thing, too, is that I think I'm getting more comfortable with the public speaking part. As I've said before, I was a pretty lousy presenter in a business setting, but that was likely due to general disinterest in the topic. Now I don't have much of an issue with it. And after talking with a few people at both sites, I've come to realize that my usual fear -- getting the first five minutes of the tour under my belt without feeling like a blathering idiot -- is a pretty common one. In a lot of ways, it's like acting. You know what you need to say, you have to be engaging, but you need a little time to settle into your role.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

And let's see...

... that NYU class I signed up for? The one on freelance magazine writing?

Cancelled again, due to low enrollment.

Is someone trying to tell me something, or does NYU just enjoy volleying back the same $310 I sent them? Or does everyone see freelancing as a futile venture?


Friday, April 9, 2010

Entering the Edi-zone

It's official: I'm now a volunteer in the Edi-zone. Goofy, yeah, but my little nickname for the Edison National Historical Park.

After going to a couple more volunteer events and talking to a couple of the on-staff coordinators, I got an unexpected call from one of the rangers. They were going to be shorthanded one day and needed someone to come in and help ferry visitors around. Given my experience at Ellis Island, they were hoping I'd be able to step in quickly. Uh, sure. I can come in for the morning. No problem. It's easy enough to 'sweep' behind the tour and make sure nobody lags behind or touches anything they shouldn't. And I know enough to answer questions, right?

Yeah... well...

I was assigned to help out the rangers at Edison's house, Glenmont, which is about a half mile from the Labs in an idyllic gated community called Llewellyn Park. They were expecting two seniors groups to come in the morning, ranging from 20-30 people per tour. Okay. That's about the max size for the Ellis Island tours I do, so I figured I knew what to expect in terms of group behavior and so forth. But, of course, the Ellis Island tours are in a fairly expansive area, whereas Glenmont is your classic late 1800's mansion: smaller rooms and lots of stuff to handle and trip over. While there are velvet ropes and a convenient green runner to show visitors where it's safe to walk and what's off limits, we all know that the ability to pay attention to rules is skill that fewer people have than one might think.

One of the rangers stayed behind at the greenhouse/potting shed that serves as the visitor center for Glenmont while the other ranger and I went to the house to turn on the lights and music. Stuff I love: walking back staircases and the servants' areas not open to the public. This house would have been a fantastic place for kids to play hide and seek!

The first group showed up more or less on time, and I stayed just inside as the ranger gave his opening patter on the porch. He claimed that he'd be able to do the tour in a half hour, but it was already becoming apparent that it would be a challenge. This group was already participating vocally, and it looked as if there were some slow walkers.

Every ranger's going to do a slightly different tour, and this one was doing an "E! True Hollywood Story" on the house's pre-Edison origins. Unfortunately, I was too preoccupied watching people to have much of the rest of his commentary sink in. First there was the photo buff who was jockeying to get the best perspective and hanging behind the group. Then there were the people who wanted to know the provenance of the artwork on the walls. Uh, well, probably nobody any of us ever heard of, but I can look it up in the notebook that outlines the contents of each room and is helpfully tucked in the corner. But then we're getting way off topic here. It's a Victorian house, jammed with ornamentation and knick-knacks of all sorts. It could take a year to tell you about absolutely everything.

Not surprisingly, two of the visitors weren't keen on (or able to) climb the stairs to the second floor, so it was my task to keep them company in the first floor conservatory. Mina Miller Edison had a lovely sunroom where she kept plants and watched birds, and there are several seats there for people who choose not to take the tour upstairs. Not surprisingly, the Park Service wants to be sure they don't wander off and touch things, or worse, which is why I was there. That's fine, but I felt pretty dumb not being able to answer some of their questions. Hey, it's not as if I hadn't been there a million times before... right? I felt like the overconfident kid who didn't study much and got nailed by every question on the exam.

Also not surprisingly, the tour took longer than 30 minutes, which meant that the second tour got backed up (and thus the rest of the day would, too). We did a quick turnover and brought in another 25 people, this time a group from outside Scranton. They were a chatty bunch, asking questions right from the start -- the type who do my tour for me before we leave the starting gate. Then several of them didn't want to climb the stairs, so I never did get to hear the rest of the ranger tour. And again, there were questions I had to refer back to the ranger, since I didn't know enough yet.

I felt like a jerk leaving at noon, when the rangers were starting to get the public tours in, but I consoled myself with the knowledge I'd set the boundary and they were happy to get any help that day. As I walked to my car, I heard one of the seniors telling another, "It's so nice when you ask a question and can get an answer." In my paranoid, sarcastic world, I took that as a hit, but then who knows. And I can't know everything right off the bat. It all takes time.