Saturday, July 17, 2010

meet us in the whirlwind: the first workshop, Day 2

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Apple and crackers in the stomach to start the day. Woke up earlier than the rest and attempt to get my things in order. But soon it is all activity in the hotel room, as bodies groan to alertness and snippets of conversation get interrupted with brushing teeth and morning showers. Wi-fi in the hotel room is malfunctioning, stalling my prep for our first workshop today. Soon we are heading out; I carry a laptop, camera, phone, and a stack of book posters clutched in the crook of my elbow.

By the time we arrive at Cobo Hall it is astonishingly busy, packed with even more people than from yesterday; we soon learn that the numbers coming through keep growing each passing day. Parking is a pain, but thankfully not a repeat of the previous night's fiasco of trying to find our parked rental car in the wrong ramp. The moment we enter we head straight for the AK Press table to pick up books. I meet Kate for the first time, which again is strange - yet another person who I've only gotten to know as a voice on a conference call, or words issuing over an email, but still a living breathing human being who worked like hell with us to bring this book into being. After perfunctory greetings I rush off to the second floor and the Media Center, where Melissa from Radical Reference has surveys waiting for me. They're trying to get a sense of how activists get the info they use - a straightforward and useful form of research, so where better to deploy it than in workshops on research? I asked her a few days back how many completed surveys she hoped to received. "One-hundred would be great," she said. "Well," I replied, "in a space of 20,000 people, let's see how we do."

Walk over to the room for our workshop; to my great relief, there are no long lines waiting to get in, no massive logistical snafus that accompanied the first USSF three years ago. All the same, I'm glad to arrive half an hour early. Move through all the little tasks almost habitually, though in fact it is our first time doing this: setting up signs and posters, arranging chairs, writing up notes, preparing money envelopes and shorthand accounting systems for any books we sell. Through all this the panelists arrive: Chris, Harmony, Michal, and of course Craig. Through all this, still, attendees arrive, sit and wait patiently. For many minutes I work with a man in a wheelchair who is trying to find the right room where his friends are. Even as the stress amplifies, so too does the relief: you find the little things - all the panelists are here! we'll have a good crowd for the event! - that take an incredible weight off your back.

I slip into public speaking/event mode easily, welcoming the crowd, notifying them of start times, asking to keep the aisles clear, pointing out open seating, talking loudly and confidently, using choice humor here and there. As friends back in New Orleans used to say, "Professor Peace has taken the stage." I introduce the collective and what we do; I stump for the book; I set up the context for the notion of research in struggle, and get the panel started. All off-the-cuff, which is my favorite way of presenting, yet also not without its frustrations - the moment I stop talking and Chris opens up for the panelists, I immediately regret all the things I wish I had said but didn't, all the ways I could have framed things better but didn't. But this is ultimately not my show; all of us in Team Colors know that, one way or another, the success of our panels and workshops will come from collective wizardry.

As each panelist presents, I feel better and better about how it's going. Each speaker makes clear and powerful points; all of them are prepared and thoughtful. None of them seem at all ruffled by the ballooning crowd in the room which keeps growing and growing throughout. I recalled telling the others in the collective once, "I know we requested rooms for 25 to 30 people, but don't be surprised if we get 75, 100." They countered by reminding me that an obscure collective like ours couldn't possibly draw those numbers. Now, seeing all the chairs occupied, the floor space packed with sitters, the walls lined with standers, the place brimming well beyond what fire codes should allow, I feel no great sense of intimidation and/or pride. I'm still wearing my moderator hat: all I can think about is the comfort of the panelists and attendees. I note with dismay that some people are sitting down right next to the panelist table, getting prime view of their shoes; I note there are older folks in the back with hands cupped around their ears, straining to hear. That people can stay engaged and attentive in spite of their obvious discomfort is one of those human mysteries that I do not understand.

Michal finishes up and I move quickly into the facilitation role. I pass out 25 Radical Reference surveys to a crowd that tops 100. I call for questions and five people raise their hands. My first choice stands up, a large older man with a beard, staring inquisitively at the panelists. "My question is directed to you, the young man who spoke earlier..." and he proceeds to talk at length with nary a question in sight. It is also unclear which of the young men - Chris or Craig - he's referring to. He talks at length about various groups and people that have been providing answers "to the kind of questions you're asking," though what he's getting at remains unclear. I know I have to intervene at some point, but am unsure when. Craig - assuming that the man is talking to Chris - exits briefly to use the bathroom. He misses the point where the man mentions the Illuminati - my cue. As the man pauses mid-thought, I leap in: "So what is your question?" "My question is...won't you all please come down to the table we have downstairs and talk with us more about the work we're doing?" The crowd laughs - we find his question funny, but also that he was finally caught naked with nothing but a shameless plug. I'm actually surprised my intervention cut him short, until later we realize that his attention was devoted to Craig, not Chris, and once Craig left for his bathroom break in the middle of his yammering, it must have taken all the fire out of him. Craig laughs himself silly at his inadvertent but strategic snub.

Another more easily digestible yet equally shameless plug from an attendee has me worried; these first two questions have chewed up over ten minutes alone, and there is precious little time for discussion. Thankfully, the crowd brings the questions back to where we want them, and while it is so little in the end, the panelists make do the best they can. We learn, to our surprise, that the majority of the people in the room are engaged in some form of academic research, and it's clear they've been brooding on all the difficult questions of the academic industry, accountability, and trust.

We break right at noon and people swarm up to the table, excited. I immediately start taking money and getting books into people's hands. Strangers come up and thank me, thank the panelists; I strain to go through the room and find various friends and acquaintances. As the room begins to empty, I rush to the bathroom. My health problems have set in again, much to my dismay, and as always, with no obvious cause or catalyst. My latest theory is that it can all be traced to moments of intensive stress, which for the most part is of the negative kind for me. After our first successful workshop - one that greatly impressed Craig, which is a feat in and of itself - I decide it might be time to revise the theory to include positive stress. Either kind appears abundant at the USSF.

Still, I note that, even in the 10 minutes afterwards, as I return completed surveys to Melissa in the Media Center, Team Colors has managed to launch a feedback loop of support to counter the stress. As I wait in the Media Center, a woman I don't even recognize says, "Hey, I heard about your workshop and that it went really great. Thanks for doing all the work you're doing." I graciously thank her, assuming her comment is an anomaly. As we discover later on, it's one of many small currents that form out of resonance and encounter, and without fail, flow back to us.

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