Monday, October 7, 2013

Featuring James Hansen

The chandeliers in the ballroom of the Michigan League building on the University of Michigan's campus, together with the curved ceiling, bring to mind an ancient mead hall. The wood paneling, mostly ornate and rich in color, remind me of a Methodist church I attended as a child in Kalamazoo. 

The tables are carefully set with three forks per plate, two knives, and a spoon. There are also wine glasses and coffee cups, and small plates with two servings of butter each that are shaped like roses in bloom. This is fancy stuff, I think to myself as I sit at the table in the corner beneath the giant projection screen. I arrived two hours before the dinner, as requested, and have nothing to do but watch the flurry of activity. I am there to sell copies of the keynote speaker Dr. James Hansen's classic book Storms of My Grandchildren, but they aren't allowing non-staff into the ballroom, and the staff isn't interested in me or the books. So I sit. And watch.

Once the servers and staff have scuttled off to other tasks, the tables complete (for now), it's just me and the four or five sound and video tech people. A girl walks in looking confused and approaches me. I guess a person sitting behind a table looks important. I help her properly orient the map she has of the room, and she explains that she is supposed to lead guests to their tables in case they have trouble finding their spots. I warn her that the tables have not been physically numbered as they are on her map, a tidbit I'd picked up from the servers, and wish her luck. We chitchat for a bit, then she goes off to explore the room and match it to her map, a smart move, I surmise what with the total lack of numbers on the thirty-odd tables dotting the large room and all. 

A man comes in and asks if he can buy a ticket at the door. I highly doubt this. I know the event is sold out from talking to the staffer who realized the tables hadn't been numbered earlier, but also that there had been a few cancellations, so I direct him down the hall to the check-in table. He might get lucky, and the Ecology Center (who was putting on this shindig) might get another $100. 

Around six o'clock, when the guests were set to begin arriving and I am hoping to make a few book sales, I am told to go down the hall myself and pick up a lanyard with my name and table number on it. I am also told not to go back into the ballroom. So much for earning my wages, I think. I am instead directed into the reception area where I read all about the Ecology Center and the programs they support and are affiliated with, such as the Built By Michigan coalition, the Green Chemistry and Safer Materials Project, and the ReUse Center. I have actually recently been to the ReUse Center in Ann Arbor. I picked up a used travel mug with the Caribou Coffee logo on it and a book of residential home floor plans because I love architecture and building things in the Sims

There is a minibar set up. Yes, I am technically on the job, but I consider getting a drink. It's an open bar, and there are still hours to go before I have to drive home. The cost is a tip, though, for the poor guy stuck there handing out glasses of wine and mimosas, and I have no money on me because my bag is stuck in the ballroom with the books I am supposed to be selling.
I move on to the hallway and study the art showcased on the walls. It is all very interesting and each is the product of a past professor of the college, honored by having his work (they are all men) displayed in this lovely antique hall indefinitely. I take a picture of the purple glass windows to perhaps use as a background image for my blog one day, then wander back to the ballroom where I hope they might let me in. They will not. Instead, I chat with the girl from earlier about the store I am there to represent and other odd bits of conversation that people make when they aren't really a part of what is going on around them. (Since I am wearing a T-shirt with the store's logo, a few people chat with me. It's always nice to hear genuine glowing reports of your place of employment.) 

Moments before the literal trumpet sounds to alert everyone that it is time to enter the ballroom for dinner, it is discovered that though someone has been able to go through and quickly number all of the tables, they are numbered in reverse, placing all of the high-end donors in the back of the room, furthest from the stage and keynote speaker. What a disaster! The ballroom doors are once again sealed, and a crowd of around 200 people gather outside. One of the owners of the store enters from the stairwell behind me as I wedge myself just outside the ballroom, hoping to slip in at the first chance.

"Are you selling many books?" he asks.

I smile somewhat sheepishly and inform him that I have been locked out of the ballroom with the books inside. He frowns, says how odd that is, then moves on. I hope I am in the clear.

When we are all finally allowed inside, the tables properly numbered, I scoot over to the unnumbered table with the books where two men are already looking through them. I wait there until the start of the dinner, but no one buys anything. I calculate how many books I need to sell in order to pay for my time there, and send up a silent prayer that I manage to sell that many once dinner is over and people will be allowed to roam freely once again.

Dinner is a little bland. The wine glasses are filled with ice tea, which I find delightful, and the young woman next to me, a grad student, and I make pleasant conversation. Everyone jokes that we are sitting at the "kids table" because I am clearly the oldest one there at thirty. 

The big thing about the three course meal we are served is that it is locally sourced. Pats on the back for everyone! Or not. I examine the menu and discover the vegetables come from Ohio. Yes, Michigan borders Ohio, but it's a good forty-five minute drive to the border from Ann Arbor, and I have been lead to believe that vegetables are grown in abundance in the surrounding area. I grow some myself on my apartment's balcony. Ohio is admittedly more local than California, but hardly as local as within the state of Michigan itself. The cheese is from Wisconsin, which makes a little more sense because it's Wisconsin, cheese capital of the U.S. and just around the Lake from us. The coffee was roasted in Plymouth, MI, which is getting closer. However, three roasters located within ten minutes of the university immediately spring to mind: Mighty Good, Roos Roast, and the Ugly Mug, in order of distance. At least the pumpkin mousse was made with pumpkins from Dexter, a cute little town located only twenty minutes away. (It is also the most delicious part of the meal.)

During the meal, the Munzel Award is presented to Peter Sinclair who Skypes in from Iceland, where he is on location and it is around midnight. I take note of his name because he produces a series on YouTube called Climate Denial Crock of the Week which I want to look up later.

Dr. James Hansen takes the stage, and he has some very interesting slides to go with his presentation. This being a benefit for the Ecology Center, and Ann Arbor, he is, of course, preaching to the choir. I am aware of a number of the statistics he throws out there, but I did learn a few new things. I wasn't entirely aware of the plight of the monarch butterfly, for example. (I think I read something somewhere at some point.) What I really take away from the speech is that we're screwed. Even if we change everything right now, we've already done irrevocable damage that we're just going to have to live with for the remainder of my lifetime at the very least. Joy.

Coffee is served with dessert, Dr. Hansen is winding down, and I duck over to my table of books, ready for the masses to buy a copy to have the good doctor sign. An older lady immediately sneaks over to me and hands me a twenty. One down! I think to myself. It turns out more people than I anticipated are interested in getting signed copies because as soon as Dr. Hansen leaves the stage and it is announced he will be signing books in my corner of the room, I am mobbed. This is wonderful, I think, if a bit overwhelming. Not only am I making money, but people are further educating themselves on the very serious topic of climate change. (I assume they will read the book anyway. They may not.) 

A guy with smoothed back, prematurely gray hair, piercing blue eyes, and a nice suit slides into the chair next to me, offers me his business card and tries to talk me into giving him a book for free. He tells me this has worked in the past, that he knows our owner and she allows it. He always sends a check in the mail later. He just forgot Mr. Wallet that night. His slick baby-talk does not work on me. 

Since he mentioned knowing the owner, I direct him to his table and invite him to ask there about taking a copy. He actually does this, though it is clear he does not know the owners (a married couple) as he circles their table a few times. One of them does come over and buy a book for him, which I find interesting. I wonder who this guy is. Maybe he has impressive credentials? Or maybe we have very generous owners who are less cynical than myself. When he picks up his book from me, I give him the store's address and the owner's name so that he may write out his check and mail it to us at a later date. 

When the books are signed and the ballroom is empty of lingering chatty guests, I pack up my gear, feeling quite pleased. I was treated to a lovely, if not terribly flavorful meal, good conversation, and some wonderful speeches by knowledgeable people. Unlike the art in the hall, this line-up featured a woman alongside the men, though they outnumbered her three to one. Judging by my fellow guests at the kids table, though, where men were outnumbered by women six to one, the future of climate change and green technologies will have more female power. 

And I sold close to twenty-five books. Mission accomplished.

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