The Umbrella Ceremony
For a half-dozen or so years, talks at the Center have ended with the umbrella ceremony. When all the questions have been asked and we are out of time, I announce that we will now move to our closing ceremony. This is the key phrase that alerts the room to sit quietly for just a moment more. By this time, I am standing at the front of the room with an umbrella. I turn to the speaker and, with some gravity, motion the speaker to move towards me. I bow and, with both hands outstretched, offer the umbrella, reciting the incantation, "It is my honor to present you this umbrella."
All this works well enough when I chair the session. Speakers are often caught unawares by the ceremony. However there is usually enough good cheer in the room that they are willing to play along. Afterwards, I may need to explain that this is a special umbrella. It has the Center logo and a rather wonderful drip guard that makes it uniquely functional. Most importantly, the only way to get one is to earn it by giving a talk.
There are talks in the Center that I do not chair. Then I arrange with the chairs that they will conduct the umbrella ceremony. Curiously, it is something the other chairs find hard to do. One of my colleagues will simply thrust an umbrella at the speaker, saying "Oh, here's an umbrella." The body language is all wrong. It's a one handed gesture, with little eye contact. The chair has not even turned his body fully to face the speaker. I have explained these breaches of protocol, but to no avail.
There is something deep at issue. Perhaps these reluctant chairs have a sense of personal dignity that I lost long ago. I think that moment may have come when I had young children. I discovered that they love it when you sing them simple nursery rhymes. They are entertained wonderfully no matter how tuneless your croaking. They love it because it is specially for them. That little child lives on in all of us. Even the loftiest of grown-ups can be swept up in a little pantomime, as long as it is only momentary.
Recently, the failure of the ceremony reached memorable heights. I had been instructing a new chair in the finer points of the ceremony. You must adopt a serious demeanor; turn to the speaker; motion them towards you and present the umbrella gravely, humbly and respectfully. I could see from her shocked expression that this was one step too far.
"Don't worry," I urged, "once you start, the speaker realizes that it is a little pantomime. They always play along. That is how stage magicians can get their effects with a person randomly chosen from the audience. People want things to work and will help spontaneously without prior instructions."
No, came the response, this was not something this chair could do. If it had to be done, she would call me up to the front at the appropriate moment and I would do it.
We now had a plan. The talk was closing and I was sitting conveniently at hand, waiting to be called upon. The chair was juggling mentally all the little worries that make chairing complicated. We are out of time now, but did everyone who should, get their chance to ask a question? How do we now move to the next phase?
As she stood there going through her mental list, I could see a difficult moment of realization pass over her face and then a darkness. Out it came:
"...Oh... we still have to do that stupid closing ceremony."
She realized immediately what she said and I could see her grasping for ways to pull the words back out of the air. But it was too late. They were free. She called me up to the front to perform and I did my best. The speaker, however, was now spooked. When I gravely called him over to receive his umbrella, he paused and inquired suspiciously if he was in any personal danger.
It is now days after the event and, as I sit typing these words, I am smiling, as I have been over these events for the past few days. I have no real idea why. Perhaps it is the little child in me. Or perhaps it is what I often say to people who inquire after the ceremony.
"Umbrellas?... We give them because they are just inherently funny."
John D. Norton