Last year I went to the 31st Annual Walla Walla Wine Auction to benefit the regional Planned Parenthood, and was amazed at how much fun it was. Every year they have a theme (last year’s was the speakeasy), and the Marcus Whitman Hotel is transformed for the occasion. Grafting a live auction with wine is a brilliant stroke, because as one’s inhibitions plummet with all of the tastings (there are more than 30 wineries pouring their product there), the number of bids one puts in on the silent and live auction items rockets. When we came to the 6-bottles of Leonetti cabernet sauvignon in 2012, I kept my paddle in the air, thinking I was bidding someone else up, and instead won the wine. This year I knew better, darn it. Also Susanne looked at the ready to grab my arm and get our purse strings out of any melee. I admit I was also excited because this year’s theme was all about a steampunk version of the wild west, and I was curious to see if people would dress up beyond finding a pair of driving goggles and sticking them on a cowboy hat.
Once again we weren’t disappointed with the decorations—the line in was drawn by a hitching post, flanked by a building that read “Jail,” and then we walked under a gate to the trading post, where the wines were in mid-pour. I waved at two of the people I knew working for wineries in the first room, then took a look at the wines assembled for the “cork pulls.” Thirty bucks got donors a grab at the bucket of corks, which corresponded to the bottles on the display. It was a less fancy display than last year, but I saw some great wines on the table. Susanne has great luck with these, and in a flash, she had won a magnum from Dunham Cellars. I pulled a rose. I hate rose. But it will make someone happy at a future gathering, I guess.
We wandered around and found our favorite wineries, me sipping the tastes with our friend Leah, Susanne sniffing at the glasses and snagging a few things from a long table of charcuterie. Then we looked at the silent auction items, promising ourselves that we’d limit our household to two items. We made a bid on two magnums from Rotie (a northern and a southern blend), and another magnum from Waters—Forgotten Hills. I sampled popcorn made with nitro-infused flavors, watched a chef carve meat off of a whole pig, shook hands with folks I knew, and sashayed up to a wall of ice that held tiny bites of seafood. I love you, seafood wall. I’ll see you again, someday.
The first silent auction room closed, and I saw we won the magnum pair from Rotie. Susanne made me promise not to open them until she was all done being pregnant and breastfeeding. I pinky swore, because seriously? I cannot drink a magnum of wine on my own.
Once the second silent auction closed, the auctioneer, a spirited woman with all the charisma of the Dalia Lama and Paul Newman’s love child (see? I made it gay) came over the PA system and began shepherding us into the ballroom for the start of the live auction. We sat at our assigned table and picked at the desserts set for each seat. Nothing beats a chocolate-dipped strawberry in November, amiright? I perused the auction items listed in the guide, knowing which one I was going to bid on before we’d even shown up at the hotel. It’s mildly fascinating in a bored pretend rich way to see which auction pieces go above or below the listed “retail” price in the guide. Trips to faraway places all were gaveled below price, while most of the wines went higher. I mean, it’s a wine auction, right? So that makes some kind of sense, but I’m not exactly a Sotheby’s or Christie’s rat, so I honestly don’t know these things.
There was a break in the middle of the auction for a testimonial, which the organization does most years. It’s kind of a Walla Walla staple. Now that I work in nonprofits in town, I have sat in the same ballroom at least a dozen times to hear the tear-jerker statement from some individual whose life was practically saved (or at least salvaged) by the agency in question. Eight-year-old orphans, former runaways who had no other recourse, adults with severe learning disabilities, I’ve heard a variety of stories and watched people pull out their handkerchiefs at the end, and sometimes I’ve wiped away a few tears of my own. So when a young woman got up to the podium I was ready for anything.
Indeed, her story left me shaking in frustration. But not because of our trying times or the challenges in our world. I was frustrated at Planned Parenthood. She told a story that started with “I told myself that this would be the last time I went to Planned Parenthood,” basically weaving between direct statements that whatever was going on with her, she didn’t want her regular doctor to know. A self-identified born-again Christian, she was clearly engaged in sexual practices about which she felt a lot of shame. At some point she gets married and at some point after that, has an affair. WWJD, person giving testimonial? I knew where this was going, since hey, it’s a Planned Parenthood fundraiser. So the question began to coalesce in the air—how will the religious woman handle an unwanted pregnancy?
Sure enough, she got pregnant from her affair. My mind raced with beaucoup de pop culture references to just this scenario. The Scarlet Letter. Richard Chamberlain in The Thorn Birds. Any episode of 16 and Pregnant. V: The Final Battle. None of these stories end well, so I braced myself a little, but I also felt a sense of impending disappointment, if only because there were probably no alien babies in her scenario. She remarked about how torn she was. (Of course.) She told us the staff were professional and understanding. (Uh, that’s what Planned Parenthood is.) She relayed that they found her a doctor who was also a Christian and who listened to her and her concerns. (I began thunking my head on the table.) Because you know, PP can be a scary place, with “Pro-Abortion” signs on the walls (Susanne said, “I’m quite positive there’s not a Planned Parenthood in America with a poster that reads ‘Pro-Abortion.'”). When the woman got around to telling us that she decided to keep the fetus to term, hardly anybody in the room was surprised. She finished out by declaring herself “against abortion,” and at that point, Susanne had already lost her poker face, and was now actively throwing shade all around the ballroom.
We talked immediately afterward about what had bothered us, and identified several things:
1. This was the wrong audience for this particular testimonial. We’re pulling out our wallets and giving collectively, more than $140,000 to our local PP clinics. We’re probably pro-choice people. I for one would rather hear from a pro-choice individual ON THIS PARTICULAR NIGHT than someone opposed to abortion and choice.
2. This testimonial could have been better contextualized with another testimonial and not used as a standalone story for us. Maybe a doctor from the clinic who has seen all kinds of stories? Someone who could look back on her experience ten or twenty years ago and give us a talk about what positive things choice has done for her? Someone who got an affordable mammogram? Something!
3. While this person has a right to frame her story however she wants, Planned Parenthood is responsible for the ambassadors it promotes as the voices of its organization. This woman didn’t represent PP well except via backhanded compliments and unintended descriptions. I’m not calling for extensive grooming of every person giving a testimonial, but there are so many women out there who would sing the organization’s strengths without cutting it down in the next breath. Pro-choice people in Walla Walla have to hear the angry mythology about women’s reproductive rights all the time—can we have one moment in which those erroneous beliefs are not center stage?
4. Other people in town need to hear her story. A nonjudgmental, affordable, full service clinic staffed with expert, caring, and professional people? Who listened to a Christian woman’s concerns without condescending to her? Tell the churches in town! Those of us at the annual fundraiser already know.
I’ll continue to support PP, of course. But I was saddened that this was their choice at the biggest gathering of pro-choice people for the year. It’s like if I stood up at our fundraiser and said, “OMG guys, like anybody can get HIV, not just the gays! Hey, could you give us some money?”