On Not Being Invited to Speak at Panel Discussions

I’ve been to a lot of panel discussions. I know what they’re like. When one hears the phrase panel discussion, one likes to think it’s a discussion that goes somewhere—like Plato’s Symposium. This is not always the case. Panels frequently fail to adhere to the template of dialectical inquiry. Attending a panel discussion is often about schmoozing, bringing your business card, double-dipping cauliflower, drinking as much beer as possible, and recognizing at least a few people in the crowd. I have no problem with that part.

The problem occurs later on, when people are supposed to file into a hall to listen to the panel discussion itself. I tend to find myself in the audience at these occasions. Maybe I shouldn’t, but I usually take that as an insult. I don’t assume that I know more than any of the people who get chosen to discuss things in panel form. I’m not more charismatic than they are; my knowledge of various subjects is limited. But it strikes me that, even if I don’t know anything about, say, string theory, they never bothered to ask if I did. I was never part of the equation.

I’m not sure why I keep showing up at these things. I always go expecting to learn something and expecting to eat something. And I always leave embittered, bursting with gotcha questions, and a little miffed at the fact that, by being invited to a panel discussion and then told to sit in the audience, I’d actually been invited not to speak on the topic in question.

My wife asked me if I wanted to go to a panel discussion a week ago. She did it as a favor. She works in marketing. This particular panel discussion was conducted in honor of a design firm in our city of Baltimore. The firm, apparently, doesn’t exist anymore. But when it did, she told me, they represented the bold future of design in an age when design wasn’t bold. They had pioneered the format of the college viewbook as we now know it. I went to this discussion with an open mind, assuming that I would be in front of a small colony of Mad Men, people with fire and vision, who had transformed the universe and built up the service-based American economy of ideas and vision as we now know it.

When my wife told me that she’d wrangled tickets, I said I’d be glad to go. It sounded like they were the hottest tickets in town. I would learn something about design. I also had visions of a huge sideboard, loaded with quivering hors d’oeuvres, jellies, compotes, and reasonably good wines. I don’t know much about design, I don’t pretend to, and I wouldn’t even think of bringing my business card to a meeting like that. But I do know the difference between cheap wine and reasonably good wine.

On the night in question, we submitted our tickets at the desk. There was a large, buzzing crowd of people I had never seen before. There was a large ice-filled bucket full of Amstel Light. I walked immediately to the table required. There were also glasses, quivering, with wine, white and red. I was ready to double fist, and maybe down a shot as well—this really was the life —when the waiter behind the table put his hand on mine. Did he need an ID? I reached for my wallet. No, he said, I needed to buy a three-dollar ticket.

A three-dollar ticket, to pay for the open bar?

No, he said, to pay for a single drink.

I flexed my ears. Maybe I hadn’t heard right. A single drink? I could go two blocks north, to the Rendezvous, I told him, and buy a National Bohemian for $2, and $1 on Friday nights. I could spend another 50 cents, and get a 24-ounce Budweiser. I could listen to Dokken on the jukebox. I could stare at a gigantic plywood-shaped asshole hanging above the bar, tagged with photographs of people who hadn’t paid their tabs. And here, at this so-called panel, jammed in a crowd of people with strange glasses and weird haircuts, I was supposed to pay $3 per Amstel Light? Imperturbable, the bar person told me that, Yes, I had heard right, and that, fine, I was free to go to the Rendezvous. And could I move over please, because there was a line forming behind me?

Finally, we filed into the chamber itself, a cavernous university auditorium, which boasted the most sophisticated sound system ever. I’m assuming that it was sophisticated, because otherwise, there wouldn’t be much point in hanging corrugated steel at weird angles above the stage. The rear seats were roped off, presumably to condense the audience a bit for the camera. And on the stage itself was a large table, glowing under the dim spotlight, with six people behind it, all people who had been highly placed in the firm, most of them white-haired. The names of the respective people, presumably, in front of the respective people themselves.

“Without further ado…”

That phrase was spoken immediately by a stammering ex-student who proceeded to read in barely audible tones what was apparently a tribute to one of the people on the panel. The person he was paying a tribute to was a white-haired man with a huge, thick mustache, who was wandering behind him on the stage, shuffling, with this hands clasped behind his back. The tribute went on. It included a list of awards, which the person himself, whose name I forget, seemed to acknowledge with a self-deprecating shrug, while the speaker, or payer of tribute, offered a self-deprecating assessment of his own tribute.

The man with the thick mustache eventually took over from the student and began to pay tribute to the payer of tribute. After a few grumpy jokes, which were evidently intended to make it seem that he’d been dragged, kicking and screaming, to this conference, not because he didn’t want to be there, but because he didn’t deserve to be there, there was a long silence. I had lost track of what he was paying tribute to at that point, but I assumed the silence was a memoriam, or a public prayer. It was not. He had left a letter in his leather satchel, which, fortunately, he had had the presence of mind to bring with him on stage. He opened the satchel, and after burrowing around in it for a while, offered a murmured explanation to the audience, which was sitting there in puzzlement. “This isn’t because I’m nervous,” he said. “It’s because there’s something in here I want to read which I can’t find.”

Eventually it was located, and the show was back on the road. What he had pulled out was an epistolary tribute to the guy sitting closest to him at the table. His name was, well, let’s call him Ray. He had white hair, a close-cropped beard, and he looked like he was in tears. Because of the tribute? No; Ray had weak eyes; the spotlight bothered him. Anyway, the laudatory letter was read, acknowledging something—something good—about Ray, and then, once the man with the mustache had finished reading it, he placed it back in his leather satchel and asked Ray to comment. It was a softball question, but it was not a question that Ray chose to answer immediately.

Instead, Ray, with hands folded in front of him, began to pay tribute to the people next to him, people, he said, who were more deserving of being paid tribute to first than he was. The people at the table, some of whom were designers, seemed to nod their heads reluctantly, and modestly, the implication being that there were other, even more talented people, who deserved to be up there more than they did, and that it was absurd that those people couldn’t participate in the panel. The man on the far right of the table, who looked particularly frail, was motionless and seemed to have his chin pressed against his collar. He wasn’t responding in one way or another to what was being said.

That may have been the cue for the next topic of discussion: all those who deserved to be there at the table, but couldn’t, because they were dead. Ray listed the names, which flew by, and, as he listed them, he paid each one an effusive tribute of one or two lines. None of the people named, of course, had the alternative of softening the compliments, or modestly deflecting them, or naming people for whom those generous appraisals were more deserved, because they were, in fact, dead. Paradoxically, the fact that they weren’t around to deflate the praise with a well-chosen self-deprecating remark made them seem a little pompous.

Then Ray himself, returning to the subject of himself, initiated his response to the letter read by his friend at the podium. I call it a letter, but it didn’t really read that way; it sounded like a prepared speech that had been written by someone who, for whatever reason, was golfing in Florida, or wading in the Adriatic, instead of coming to Baltimore to deliver the praise in person. Ray noted, I think, that he was sorry that the person who had written the letter hadn’t actually shown up. And then he began to recite the virtues of the colleagues to his immediate left (although, as I’ve noted, he’d already done that once before). There was some redundancy in these tributes, and they were frequently interrupted by humorous asides and behind-the-mike murmuring between people at the table who had, apparently, noticed for the first time that their old workmate, or co-founder, was sitting right next to him or her. They were apparently unaware of the high tech acoustics.

At about this time, I was beginning to feel that I had heard enough. This was, I understand, a design firm, but it could easily have been any other kind of firm, because nothing the panelists said offered any inkling of what it was the Firm actually did. The assumption was that anybody who was fortunate enough to make it here already understood, in triplicate, what this firm had done, even if it no longer existed. That was when I decided that, once again, I had come to the wrong panel discussion. With my wife, I joined the slow stream of early exiters.

Maybe it was the cold night, but as we headed out, a shiver slivered my soul. It happens whenever I leave one of these things. I began to wonder if I would ever be asked to sit at a panel discussion. No one had ever worked with me for long enough to pay tribute to me. I’m a freelancer; I get fired every time I do a job. A panel discussion on design firms, with my name next to a microphone, was definitely not in the cards. At least I didn’t see it being in the cards. But as I headed out of this one into the streets of Baltimore, the inevitable happened once again: I began to wonder what I would have said if, by some fluke, they’d decided to call me up there on stage. Just to fill in for that guy at the far right, the one who looked like he’d seen better days.

I would seize the moment. That’s what I would do.

I would grab the mike with one hand, and walk out from behind the elongated desk to the edge of the stage, and tell them what I had learned in my several decades of existence. I would tell them not to make the mistakes that I had made. I’m sure that at this point, the moderator, if there was a moderator, would indicate that my time was up, since I was merely substituting for someone who had been unable to make the panel. But I would tell him to shove it. I have spent several decades in silence, I would say, I have spent a large sector of my life listening to people with microphones attached to their coat lapels, and with cameras greedily lapping up their flat faces. They have been telling me what they think as if I could not think myself, and they have been occupying portions of my mind, and claiming them as their own. There have been panelists who expect to be referred to whenever I’m feeling leftist, or rightist, or just moderate. There have been panelists that I’m supposed to build my personality off of.

No, I’ll say, I’m not going to accept that. Once again, I think, the moderator would try to interrupt me, noting that my time was up. I would banish him verbally from the stage.

The only thing I have to say for myself, I’d say, faced with a life in obscurity, without awards, is that I’m proud that I haven’t ever, and won’t ever, give in. I don’t give in. I haven’t gotten awards for it, I haven’t had a 30-minute biopic made about me, but like every one of you tonight—and I mean the ones who are sitting in the shadows—I’ve gone ahead, contributing my thoughts, offering my readings on life, even when I’ve been told that they’re not wanted, not desired. People have kicked me out of their offices, my ideas for improvement have festered in the suggestion boxes of companies, and they’ve probably headed to the shredder after that. My visions have flown forth like lost whooping cranes trying to find their way south for the winter, but without anything to guide them, or anyone to greet them. I have opinions on current affairs, and the only panels I get invited to are the ones late Friday night, at places like the Rendezvous, where I’m required to buy beer before speaking, where I get no microphone, and where my auditors are too drunk to care what I say. But you know what? At least I get to talk!

Maybe this is where the audience would start to cheer loudly.

I am like each one of you, I’ll say, ignored, without a seat at the table, exiled from debate. And I’m here to pay tribute to you. I want all of you, all of you out there in the dark, each one of you, to come up here, and come up now, because time is growing short. We’re not valuable because of our awards, I would say. We’re not honorable because of our longevity. We’re here because we want to, we want to be with others, we want to listen, we want to make contact, we want to improve things, even when the world around us is crumbling, and on this night, I want to hear your voices, I want to know you’re close to me, I want to be one of you.

Then, I’m assuming, there will be a large roar in the audience, and like a single beast, they’ll storm the stage, and mount the platforms, and carry me off, a champion of those like myself who have never been asked, but who are always willing to offer their thoughts at a panel discussion.

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