I’ve lost my crowd-chops. Again. Two days at the Common Ground Fair in Unity, Maine taught me that. Truth be told, I haven’t had them for years, since well before I took up the life of a near solitary, living with my husband, two cats, and, for the moment, two pigs. Sometimes even that feels like a crowd.
Crowd-chops is not about being around lots of people. It is two parts random interactions and one part being unable to escape. It is about needing to think on your feet in situations where a planned script will do you no good. Sure you can draw on experience, and the more the better. But if you’ve got crowd-chops, you revel in the unexpected, take joy in confronting that random interaction that will make you re-mix your knowledge base in new and interesting ways. You’ve got to love serendipity.
Pigs who have made a break for the bigger field count as a crowd, at least the first couple of times. Then you learn that a bucket rattling suggestively with pig-kibble is enough to lure them into the pen. And after a few escapes (and a husband with power tools) they are well contained and no longer a crowd. Cats, as well, with their random crunchings and munchings as they eat prey head down are, at first, crowd worthy, particularly when you step in still wet intestines that didn’t meet their culinary standard. But gradually this slips into the normal workings of a household and stops being a crowd. By the same token a jam packed bus station can provide solitude with travelers studiously examining their own knees and declining to make eye contact.
I was at the Common Ground Fair to run a couple of demos, one in spinning and one in energized knitting a la Twisted Sisters. Beyond that, whenever someone approached any of the other spinners and asked about spindling they were sent my way. I have taught people to spindle before, but never for two days straight. Never in weather that never quite turns to rain, never gets above 58°, and never stops blowing. All was not smooth sailing.
There is finding the right level of language to use with different people, sometimes teaching vocabulary. Hair and fur become fiber. Round-thingey becomes a whorl. But there are those who want language like “capacity” and “torque” and “stored energy” and “tensile strength” while others are satisfied with “twist” and “winding.” Older learners tend to over-think what they are doing. Even more, however, they have not learned anything totally new for years , even decades, whereas younger people are used to learning new things. Spinning requires you to coordinate what your tool (spindle or wheel) is doing as well as manipulating the fiber that is being spun. “Park and draft” is a handy strategy since it separates the spinning from the drafting components, but you still need to keep the fiber from untwisting, or getting bound up with already spun yarn, while you are managing the spindle’s part of the process.
In the midst of one lesson, I suddenly realized that “clockwise” really mean nothing to people under 25. I watched several of them figuring it out, but for many it was like watching one of those mimic games. (You know, like when someone does the motions for “the bear went over the mountain” and tells you to do it. You’ve watched carefully but missed the part where they crossed their ankles when they said the word “over” or some such nonsense.) They would watch what I was doing and try to discern what “clockwise” meant. I finally twigged on what was amiss and asked one if it would be easier if I said “north to east” and they looked immensely relieved.
What does this have to do with crowd-chops? It is actually a wonderful parallel to what interacting with strangers, and making sure they have a good time, enjoying their experience, and leaving with a sense of having learned something new, of having grown. This is what I tried to do at the CGF. It is what I’ve always tried to do in the classroom – another venue where crowd-chops are required. It takes energy, perspective, and a commitment that you will not say “just go away, I’m tired” no matter how exhausted you are, even when you can’t, yourself, escape.
Having your crowd-chops in good working order is like being able to spin and talk at the same time. It is like being that guy who used to appear on the Ed Sullivan spinning plates. It is knowing how to sweat only on the side of your face that isn’t facing your audience. The last time I had serious crowd-chops, was when I was working in computing at The Jackson Laboratory. Every day I fielded random questions, from people with wildly diverse needs and levels of expertise, from people who could clearly describe a problem, to those for whom triage was a guessing game:
“It doesn’t work”
“What seems to be going wrong?”
“It’s not doing what I want it to do.”
“What did you see on your screen that first made you suspect things weren’t right?” These were scientific staff, mind you, who would never have accepted a description like that for a genetic manifestation.
For a while teaching school seemed to be a relief from that chaos. That hope disappeared in the space of my first day in front of students. As random as working at TJL seemed, I could at least go to the bathroom whenever I wanted to, or walk slowly between assignments to catch my breath. School has no such respite. By the second week of school, after that first year, I was back in the groove, chops in place.
I took my first summer off. My kids had elected to go to camp. Andrew was working full time. I sat on my porch drinking seltzer water with lemon, reading mysteries, and taking breaks to cook fine things. It was glorious. When comparing notes with a teacher who had started at EHS the same time I did, she was astounded. Not that I hadn’t worked, but that I had not once sought out companionship. “That would drive me crazy, to be all alone, even for just one day.” What a thing to admit! I thought.
That is the crux of having crowd-chops. For some of us it takes practice and conditioning. Our natural state is solitude. I found the book A Party of One subtitled “A Loner’s Manifesto.” I recognized myself instantly. While I can get my crowd-chops back with a little work and practice, I’ll always lose them again at the drop of a hat. I’ve got strategies, now. I know not to panic when faced with a crowd that believes they have random access to me. I have patterns I can draw on to get back into the game more quickly. I can step outside myself, and watch what I’m doing and saying. Even so, while I will never intentionally be in a situation where I require crowd-chops for more than a few days in a row, I will make sure I have some alone time in the crowd, to discharge and recharge.