On Thursday May 22 I had lunch with the a2b3 group for the 183d time. I'm writing that down as though it was a perfectly accurate number, just so that next week I can look it up and say that it will be the 184th time.
Every week I host lunch on Thursdays at Eastern Accents in Ann Arbor. People start showing up at 11:30 or so, most everyone has ordered and sat down and pulled up however many tables we need by noon, and at 12:30 someone bangs on a glass and I stand up and give roughly this presentation. This week it felt like Groundhog Day, where I was the Bill Murray character practicing piano lessons over and over again until I really was the person who was good at hosting lunch for 30 instead of someone wondering whether I could pull off hosting lunch more than once.
It was a quiet week in Ann Arbor, my home town, where Garrison Keillor comes to do his Prairie Home Companion every once in a while at lovely Hill Auditorium, though he didn't come this week and won't come next week but he might show up at any moment, making you think that he was just a voice from the radio even though you could see him on stage. Ann Arbor is still the third or fourth best city in the nation for any number of things that you could measure, and if anyone wants to put together the convincing statistic that ranks this town in the best in the nation for bi bim bap I am certain that our civic leaders can devise the numerator and demoninator for the metric that proves it. And we're justly proud of our long civic history of providing parking structures for all of the cars of all of the vistors who come to our charming town to experience its pedestrian charms.
Every week, after I give a short speech, I ask a question. Some of them are great questions, and some of them are ordinary questions, and mostly they give the lunch patron a chance to say something about themselves that doesn't depend on the "what do you do for a living" answer because when you are free for lunch sometimes that is because you are in a career transition and your sense of personal identity that used to be wrapped up in your job is cut adrift. No one needs to be put on the spot that way, so the lunch question admits a certain ambiguity about your day job.
People introduce themselves, say a few words, and hand the microphone on. We started using a microphone because the table seats 35 and it's the entire length of the restaurant. The people who come back again and again sometimes get good at describing who they are in a few words that can be repeated faithfully by anyone else who is similarly a regular. The question is almost always optional, and people are always free to ask their own question or to ask for assistance from the group from some problem, thorny and pressing or trivial and mundane; generally the specific answers wait until afterwards when people talk among themselves again.
I try to introduce the whole table by 1 pm so people can move to the next thing they need to do. It has been a remarkable crowd for many reasons, not the least of which is the wide variety in ages of the people at the table, ranging this week from just out of high school to nearly retired. It's a special design of no specific purpose that you need to get a diverse crowd - by not having a clear cut agenda, you make it possible to let pretty much any person who shows up be the right person to arrive.
At the end there is some attempt to organize information about upcoming events, either meetings of other groups that organize regularly, or one time events that someone is planning.
With the routine as established as it is, and with enough people knowing what to expect and how to work within the time boundaries that are the only real fixed limits, it's been possible for me not to show up and not to announce that the event is happening and have everything go pretty much the same as if I were there.