Staff Retreat . . . and SCAVENGER HUNT!

This morning during my dining room breakfast, responding to an email from a friend in England, I suddenly went cold: "Is that all-staff retreat today?" A quick log-in to my work email revealed that yes, it was today, and no, it wasn't at the office, and I still had time to get there on time.

Having been at the office as many years as I have, I've been to a lot of all-staff retreats. Some are great and provide useful interactions and amusement. Others fall into the Forced Fun category. I swept into a conference room at the campus's beautiful new conference center 15 minutes early with no expectations - and absolutely no memory of anything sent in advance about what to expect anyway.

My table assignment seated me with a group of colleagues with whom I don't often interact, and who had not been at MIT nearly as long as I had. In fact, I think I had seniority over the whole table by at least 15 years. By design? Oh yes, and later the committee's intention was clear . . .

The day's themes: Culture, Collaboration, Customer Service, Celebration. We each contributed an anonymous word for each category, to be revealed in a word cloud at the end of the retreat.

The best feature of last year's retreat was a series of short, quick talks by staffers we're not used to seeing behind a podium. To my delight, this year four colleagues who don't usually present gave talks, and they all brought it. And I was surprised that two of them quoted me. What on earth? One quote was from my part of the reunion staff training about how to behave, but the other was shared by a colleague I work with a lot, from a conversation we'd had about two years ago. The quote? "Lighten up, Toots. It's a party." In my office I have a magnet that I had way back when I worked at the ballet, of the dog from F***** G** holding a martini and saying that. It's a helpful reminder that what we're doing is not rocket science, it's just a party. I was so touched that she'd held that conversation so close, that it meant enough to her to share as part of that presentation.

After lunch, we were instructed on the big event of the retreat: a photo scavenger hunt over the campus (and beyond) that would take about two hours. The last time we'd done a retreat scavenger hunt was 2006 (verified by another veteran colleague during the reception) - which I remembered because of a) the discovery that MIT owns a sculpture by Picasso, a.1) learning that Picasso didn't just paint, and b) the mock-not-mock outrage when another team scored ahead because they took individual pictures with different beaver figurines and all of figurines didn't count if they were in one photo.*

The rules were essentially the same as they are for all scavenger hunts with photos. Use clues provided to visit a location and take a photo with at least three team members in it. Photos were to be texted to the committee via smartphone, with a hashtag. And the clues made apparent the committee's seating plan, because it turned out I was the only teammate who'd ever worked on main campus. Ever. The clues were good ones, just easy and just difficult enough. The locations were spread throughout the campus - and even one in Boston, for extra points. A teammate insisted we try for that - "No one else will try to get there" - and since another teammate had a car, we split in two. The Car Team covered Boston and the west of campus, and the rest of us covered the east of campus.

From a blasé "It's just a game" attitude, my rare sense of competitiveness suddenly kicked into overdrive, and I ended up leading a sub-team of three young ladies to complete our large number of photo clues. And I made them hustle! True confession: I didn't learn to ride a bike until I was nine years old, so I had to walk really fast to keep up with the other kids. So I was ready to zip this thing along, while my colleagues' gear was set on Stroll. Most of that 90 minutes I spent about 20-50 feet ahead of them saying "Come ON!"

We covered Kendall Station, the Coop, a Hub*** stop, Building 66, Gray House, the Great Sail, Nano, K****** Court, Building 7, the Hart N******* Gallery, the Alchemist sculpture, M***** Hall, the fire hose water fountain hack, and, the very last, the Picasso sculpture - which had been moved from its 2006 location to another nearby location. It was hot, and we all worked up a sweat. In the rush, we missed a couple clues, including the wind tunnel. I'm sure I'm leaving a few things out anyway.

But the BONUS question was where I knew we'd succeed: photos of all former office locations. Because I'd worked in almost all those locations! We got photos by all three old offices in Bldg 10, the Nano shot counted for Bldg 12, and a fund-raising colleague thought of Bldg W31, where the dialing for dollars staff worked until a couple weeks ago - brilliant! The Car Team managed the others.

We made it back ~15 minutes before the 2:45 PM deadline, exhausted and dehydrated. I kept sucking down little bottles of water while others worked on the special crossword (one point per correct answer). All I could do was fret that the Car Team wouldn't make it back in time. 2:40, 2:41, 2:42 - where were they?! At last at 2:43 they came barreling off the elevator, and I knew we were safe. And they'd had their own adventures . . .

Even without knowing the results, I'd just had the time of my life revisiting a place I've spent half my life. Half. Well, almost half. Damn. What happened?!

Years ago, at another one of these retreats that was held in a bowling alley, for whatever the team activity was (it was not a scavenger hunt), the team I was on came in dead last. All you can do in that situation is embrace it. "We're Number Ten! We're Number Ten!" I kept my booby prize, a small bowling game, until last year when The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up came into my life. So yeah, I really wanted to ace this thing, and I felt like we had a good chance of it with the Car Team's having gone to Boston, and with all our bonus photos. And as the scores were announced, and we kept hearing our team number not being called, we started looking at each other with that light one gets behind the eyes that says "Yeah, maybe we did it!" And I'm afraid that when the second-place team was called and it wasn't us, we let out a big cheer. Yes, victory and gift cards were ours!

All that remained of our agenda was to see the word clouds around the day's themes, which yielded one surprise for me. The one word someone had submitted anonymously for Customer Service was "Dimmick." Which means I'm going to have to spend time denying that I wrote it in, and also find out who did so and thank them. During the reception a colleague asked humorously "But did they mean it as a good thing?" I could only answer, also good-humoredly, "Some alumni would say yes, and others would not!"

Three random references during the day. Taking that temp job in 1990 . . . I didn't set out to become a fixture at this place. But that's what happened.

While sucking down the first of two beers I cornered a committee member to make sure that we'd gotten appropriate credit for our bonus photos of former office locations in Bldg 10. And she told me no - because the clue said "building" and not "entry." I still think it's being penalized for having valuable institutional memory, but then we did win - and it IS just a game and it was a lot of fun!

That scavenger hunt wore me out so much that when I got home I fell asleep for over an hour; I even missed calls from two friends. But it was the best day at the office, perhaps of the whole year.

*It's such a long story I'd fall asleep telling it. Never mind.