Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Europe 2010 - Salzburg - Day 6 of 12

The morning brought long gray threads of clouds and a charged feeling in the air. Once more I was up early, enjoying the chill. Between the Schloss and the Meierhof building I found a chair perfectly situated for contemplation of the lake and the Berchtesgaden Alps rising beyond. Sunrise painted purple stripes and contours upon Mount Untersberg, and I felt good to be here. The haze and heat of the afternoon would compress the canvas, squashing all that color from the mountains. I needed to slow my thoughts, my breathing; I needed to concentrate on being here now, for a while at least.

It wouldn't take long for the lure of wireless internet to split my attention. Even outside, I could click through news stories of life outside our little kingdom. Still, it was pretty cool to learn just how connected Salzburg is to reality beyond the gate. Yesterday Chuck Hopkins, a UN bigwig on issues related to global sustainability, was talking about shipbreaking in Bangladesh, using it as a metaphor for how industrialized nations are transforming poorer regions into toxic garbage dumps. This morning, that very phenomenon was featured on the first page of CNN's website. I felt like I was sitting in the center of the world.

Andy by the lake
Breakfast followed, filled with conversation about the problems and potentials of being so ubiquitously wired as a society. Then it was time for our theme groups to regather. Anticipating more afternoon heat despite last night's storm, we arranged some chairs around two couches in the marble hall. I looked around to see if everyone was present; it always seemed like we'd lose someone due to the tensions of our deliberations, our efforts to mesh so many different grooves. But everyone was there. I was too, but I felt different this time. I resolved today accept the flow of our group's unfolding project.

Discussing our group project
As a task-oriented person, often viewed as a perfectionist, this decision felt like a personal revelation. I drifted back to a conversation I'd had with an SJSU colleague. She told me that I focused too much on decorum, on the rules for time and place. Once those rules (at least my perception of those rules) got broken, I'd fall to pieces. That's why I got so stressed about our meetings; I was pretty sure I knew how things should operate, how we should get things done. I couldn't understand why we couldn't simply follow the rules. Oh, how I secretly appreciated my lesson in German queuing procedures on that first day. Today, though, things would be different. While our group was still tasked with producing some sort of presentation about sustainability and the global commons, my rule was much more basic. I just wanted to get along and enjoy the conversation.

Right about then, other group members began to realize their own tensions about our looming deadline to present something before the whole seminar. By ones and twos, some folks had worked on their own plans to organize our efforts. Someone would pass around a typed proposal, only to be confronted with an alternative proposal sent from the opposite direction. Debates about organization and content seemed to grow intractable. Watching the mess unfold, I flashed on Office Space, imagining myself as Peter Gibbons. I was listening to the world with my own personal hula soundtrack.

That's when a group leader announced that we might do better to split into subgroups, given our failure to agree on a common plan. I turned off my internal soundtrack. Splitting up was a mistake. Our shared topic was the "public commons," for goodness sakes. I felt no particular tension about the matter, actually, but I knew that my earlier silence that morning had earned some trust. Suddenly I remembered a guy from my grad school days, the one who rarely raised his hand in class. Unlike me and a few of my nervy colleagues, he always held back. Yet whenever he spoke, we all leaned in a little. His words were invariably apt, and their rarity made them all the more precious. I realized that I wanted to be more like that guy than the motormouth I tend to be.

This time I spoke and people listened. I said that splitting our group wasn't only sad, it was unnecessary; we had enough consensus built already to pull our disparate threads together. Offering a sense of our potential direction but leaving the details to others, I kept my remarks short, and as I wrapped up, I felt an unhurried calm as I surveyed the faces around me. Even that fellow who'd castigated my talkative nature on Saturday agreed, we could pull this thing off if we stuck together. Really nothing had changed. I was still sitting on the outside edge of the group. But then again, no one was in the center of our circle of chairs. Somehow we'd stumble our way to a conclusion. Things afterword, more or less, fell into place, and we departed, tired but satisfied. That evening I'd learn that all the groups were suffering their own birthing pains. It felt good to be part of something larger, even if that something was shared suffering.

Once more I planned an early bedtime, but couldn't abide the heat in my room. Walking back to the terrace by the lake, I joined a group of folks that seemed almost randomly assembled. As the hours drained, our group created a rule that newcomers had to bring a bottle of wine, and enough people scavenged up remainders from dinner that we kept a rowdy party going until early in the morning. Occasionally I'd lean back, my head dangling over my chair, to follow the courses of satellites spinning bright lines in the sky. Our inhibitions relaxed, our conversation got frank (and sometimes a little raunchy). At about half past three, we floated back to our rooms. The night was so hot that I kept my door open, allowing wind to get sucked in through the window. Security was stuffiness, and I felt nothing but airy calm. On the grounds of a palace, I built my very own shotgun shack.

Day 5 | Day 7

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