Thoughts on BlogHer 08

I’ve been super reluctant to post about our recent San Francisco trip and the BlogHer 08 conference. Writing about a women’s conference is so laden with explosives that even with my HAZMAT training, I’ve been worried about touching a nerve or saying something that would be misconstrued as chauvinistic or misogynistic. But I really feel like a male perspective adds to the conversation about the difference in how the genders process things.

As my life has become more public, I haven’t regretted or resented what it means. I do not regard myself as famous. But some do. And when those some get concentrated together, reality seems to warp. The energy changes and things that I would never give more than .05 of a second thought, become front and center and the resulting processing grinds me to a halt. Especially socially. I’m not whining. I have a hard time processing the level that people are fans of my wife. The intensity of emotion directed toward Heather is astounding. On both good and bad sides. Being with her at BlogHer was a huge eye opener for me in terms of admiration that people have as well as the level at which they dislike Heather. I understand what happens when someone becomes famous, regardless of scale. Local bands, popular politicians, actors, musicians, et al are all subject to these same kinds of emotions. Humans react in strange, paradoxical ways when other humans gain attention. I’ve been a part of that on a much much smaller scale than Heather. Much smaller. But the dynamics are the same. Press, fans, detractors and outsiders all weigh in. It can be hard to navigate. I still have a huge admiration for how Heather has handled the attention from all corners and how she continues to be creative, every single day. Her strength has been and is inspirational to me. I simply don’t know how she does it in the grinder. But she does it. Well.

We had a lot of things on our to do list for our trip to San Francisco, and I still feel badly that we couldn’t see and do everything we wanted. We had some appointments and business to attend to. We tried to see as many friends as we could. There are so many friends in San Francisco that we really could stay there for a few weeks and still not see everybody like we’d hope.

In that framework of familiarity and bittersweet scheduling, we set out for the conference. We had hoped to sneak in the back of a few sessions and sneak back out, so Heather could enjoy the conference from an attendees perspective and so she wouldn’t be overwhelmed before her session. We had hoped to make it to more sessions but Im afraid I’m to blame for that.

On the Friday morning (opening day of the conference), I got a call from my Mom that her sister had died the previous night. This sister was my mother’s last surviving sibling. This past holiday season, this same aunt lost her husband. He was in his late 80s and had been very ill, so his death, while difficult, was not a total surprise. Of my extended family, this particular uncle and aunt have been the closest to us over the years. We spent a lot of Thanksgiving days together and their grandchildren were in the same age range as me and my younger sister. For several years, we would spend extended stays during the summer at each others houses. We’d go swimming, play in the park and play heated games of Sorry! and Clue and Pit. I looked forward to seeing my second cousins (cousins once removed? children of my cousin?) every summer and every holiday season. Just about every time we drove to Salt Lake City, we’d stop in and say hello and my mom would get her cold Tab fix from my aunt.

Losing my uncle brought into sharp relief my own mortality and that of my family. I worried for my aunt, who was older, losing her sight and had been married to my uncle for 67 years. I was worried for my mom, who is no spring chicken. It’s hard to see people who were so vital in my youth get older. My aunt took her husband’s passing as well as could be expected. Her surviving family stepped in and helped a great deal. My mom spent a few days a week with her sister over the past seven months watching movies, shopping and spending time together. I’m so glad they had that time together now that my aunt is gone.

I offered to come home from San Francisco that day, but my Mom said the funeral would be on the following Tuesday. I would be able to stay and support Heather through the press appointments, meetings, parties and the conference.

I spent the rest of that Friday in a haze of random recall. The cookie drawer. My aunt had metal, 1950s cabinetry well into the late 70s. In a very child-accessible drawer was an assortment of cookies. We were always invited to have a cookie when we visited. Her chocolate chip cookie recipe is amazing. Music. She taught music for years and was very involved with music teaching in Utah. She influenced a lot of people through her music, including me. She played beautifully. Sweetness. My mom’s family represented a broad range of personality: salty to sweet. My aunt was the sweetest and most kind of them all. Design. My aunt had teak furniture. Their dining set was mid-century modern and lovely. They had a teak sidebar and buffet as well. Their house was always so full of nice things…

If I saw you or spoke with you on that Friday, please forgive me being weird if I seemed so. Being “on” in the middle of a personal tragedy demands something deep within that I have yet to discover inside myself. In a way, though, this tragedy underscored the intensity of being around so many diverse and interesting women.

One of the hardest things for me to pinpoint is why this conference was so different from others we’ve attended. It’s not just that it is a women’s conference, or that women are the main attendees. It goes deeper than that. I believe that it touches on how women process things. How women interact. How women socialize (and likely, are socialized). There is an internal nature to women that was much closer to the surface than I have ever experienced. Projections, disappointments, boundaries. All of it. Right on the surface. It’s strange to feel so much support along with so much of something else that you can’t define. Plus, given that 99% of the people around you have publishing outlets… it can get a little strange.

Amongst the strangest things of that weekend was saying or doing something and knowing that we’d be under a scrutiny unlike other conferences. BlogHer represents the core of Heather’s audience; the core of women self-publishing and the core of a rising voice of women. However, it also represents the paradox around putting oneself out there. Heather gets recognized now and then, and we’ve been in interesting circumstances where someone will approach and introduce themselves. I enjoy meeting people and this is always a chance to meet people who are readers and supporters. That part of the conference was spectacular. It felt like there were far more bloggers around than at South by Southwest. Even still, wondering if anybody would recognize us and determine that we were horrible people because of how we spoke or seemed. Some argue that “this is your business” and I can see that. What isn’t our business is controlling how people read vocal inflections, conversations and body language. Everything at BlogHer is on display. It was exhausting to consider. I stopped considering that every comma, every breathe could potentially win a new fan or cause somebody to feel like they were treated poorly. I know one person who handles this kind of thing well. Heather. She’s amazing and was gracious and lovely to every single person who approached her.

Which makes reading the recaps of the conference so strange. How can so many people who were there see something so different? How does Heather turning away to look at me or say hello to someone else constitute an affront? Especially in a conference setting? This has never happened at South by Southwest, but seems to always follow Heather to BlogHer. I don’t think this is a “dooce®” phenomenon. This is a feminine phenomenon.

Stephanie Klein, whom Heather shared a stage with, wrote that being at BlogHer is like “a constant, 3-day, pledge class” and I think that sums it up very well:

It’s really like walking around a constant, 3-day, pledge class, wondering when you’ll finally be able to fully relax and be inducted into the sorority of women. It’s scary in a way that shouldn’t be. I hear way too many people mention “private parties” with apologies. “Oh, are you going to the Nintendo dinner?” she whispers. No. I wasn’t invited. “What about the private party at the suite upstairs by this sponsor? Oh, did you go to the sponsored private cocktail…” Since when did blogging become so elitist? It really is just another way, ironically enough, to feel rejected.

Until, that is, you aren’t. Until those moments where you connect immediately to someone you’ve read before. To someone who just gets it, with whom you share all the unspokens. And then it all changes. Your outlook, your enjoyment, and what you get out of it all. What I was reminded of most at my first BlogHer experience, at the most basic level, is what it’s like to go about making brand new friends, without relying on insincerity, or flattery, without bonding over mean girl moments. How fragile all of us can be, how nervous, how eager we are to be liked. And how ridiculously satisfying it is to connect with strangers who are now suddenly so much more.

The thing that most gets in my craw about reading the reactions from attendees is that people don’t seem to understand that Heather has helped you in some way. If you blog, Heather has helped you. She’s made it easier for you to accept advertising and easier for you to make money self-publishing online. Heather has helped move blogging into the mainstream. Even if you disagree with that and publish those thoughts, Heather has helped you. Heather is a lightning rod. And you benefit, even if the story is negative, you still benefit, because the mention of what you do just got added again to the greater dialogue. You don’t have to like or agree with Heather, but I was with her 98% of the time she was at BlogHer and she never once said or did anything untoward. Never once.

Which makes the conversation during her session and the resulting posts surreal. I was there. I didn’t feel any drama. I didn’t feel anything other than admiration from and for this roomful of women doing amazing things with their talent. Is it weird to have people say things about you like you aren’t a real person (whether those things were said with good intent or not)? It is. And sometimes it’s weirder than others. I don’t see how responding to that question by using a recent example of a popular blogger (and one who used threatening language) and then having that blogger stand up and say she’s drunk and then declining to respond to said blogger because who engages a drunk person in front of a thousand people? How is that in any way anything other than sheer professionalism? And trying to keep the panel moving forward? How is that in any way a bad thing? Or dramatic?

You should know that a couple of hours before Heather took the stage, she was made aware of threats of physical violence to both of us. Heather could have bowed out. She could have decided it wasn’t worth the risk. She didn’t. She went on with it. I would have supported her regardless of her choice. But under all of it, she sat up there and was a complete pro.

It’s only dramatic if we make it so. I haven’t written about this strangeness until now because I didn’t want to contribute to the making of anything other than, “Wow, my wife is fucking amazing in front of people; that she had the presence of mind to handle a potentially volatile situation with extreme professionalism says so much about who she is.”

Of course people are going to make something of nothing. It’s fun. The technology enables it. Whatever. What would you do if you were the subject of a mildly confrontational blog post and then later in an extremely awkward way in front of a thousand people by that someone who made the original blog post and was someone you didn’t know?

Heather could have evacuated the conference following her panel. She did not. She stayed and said hello to every person who wanted to speak to her. Every person. Including the person who created the awkwardness on her personal site and in the session. Heather was nothing but kind and gracious. But some attendees didn’t see it that way. And they are entitled to their viewpoints. I question their grasp on reality, but that’s my thing and I’ll own that.

Finally, BlogHer feels like a really unruly gathering in the way the first Woodstock might have felt to a music fan. There are moments of brilliance and historic weight combined with lesser pleasantries. To the credit of BlogHer, the restroom facilities seemed to be working just fine and no one had to be worried about the brown acid.

EPILOGUE: Heather doesn’t know that I’m writing this. I think it’s important to mention that she’ll be reading this for the first time, just like you. I’m going to open comments. Maybe I’m a masochist. Maybe I’m trying to understand women better. I’m married to an incredible woman. It needs to be said.