Friends on the Internet, how are you doing? How were your summers? I hope you are all very well.
Listen, there is something I have to tell you about. I read a book this summer that was life-altering. I know, that’s not something I often say in this column. Generally I say something more along the lines of, “Oh, books—you mean those squarish, fibrous things the children play with?” Well, I am eating my roughage-y words now.
I am all pro-tome these days because I have big news: I was appointed PTA Overlord at my kids’ school! I don’t yet know exactly what this prestigious position will entail, but surely it won’t require much more than occasionally sitting in my royal box, pointing my light saber at impressive charts and graphs, and enjoying bake sale goodies while watching some parent volunteers joust.
As you can imagine, I spent the summer busily preparing for my coronation and studying the scrolls on which our PTA by-laws are inscribed. And as I read, the following fact leapt out at me: the meetings over which I will preside (in my ermine cape? Or my sequin bolero? Hmmm…) are to be run according to a book called Robert’s Rules of Order.
Now, I have eaten many bowel-stimulating books in my past life as a non-Overlord, as a mere mead-sipping English major at Big Ten college, but Robert’s Rules of Order is one book I have never tasted. So I promptly bought it. That is, I bought Roberts’ Rules of Order Newly-Revised, (i.e., RONR) the In Brief edition, for the simple reason that the regular RONR is 816 pages, and given my gall bladder issues, I will probably never gobble a volume that fatty again. And really, why bother, when the RONR In Brief, edition (which weighs in at a still-not-all-that-brief 197 pages) tells a prospective Overlord everything she needs to know?
So I started reading. Here’s the first line of the book. How much do I wish I had written this opener?
How many times have you been to a meeting that didn’t go well?
Friends on the Internet, if there is a greater demonstration of the solace that a single, chocolate-y, Fiber One bar of writing may offer us, I don’t know what it is. It’s only the first sentence and yet I am immediately soothed by the balm that are the words of Brig. Gen. Henry Martyn Robert, who has miraculously noticed the seemingly innumerable hours I have spent at a “meeting that didn’t go well,” and has generously taken it upon himself to improve this painful bit of my personal, and our collective, human experience.
Of course, this has even more meaning for us as parents, given that we are no strangers to personal or collective human experience, let alone its painful bits. And this is why I think RONR should be cast as a parenting book, because it contains what is perhaps one of the most arresting pieces of parenting wisdom I have read.
This idea can be found in Part II of the book, in which the nuts and bolts of meetings are explained. Most meetings, according to RONR, follow a traditional order of business: the Reading and Approval of Minutes; Reports; Unfinished Business; and finally, New Business. In a properly conducted meeting, RONR states, there is no such thing as “Old Business,” although it is common “for the chair to allow, under that incorrect title, business to be brought up which was already considered at an earlier meeting, or business which was merely brought up as an informal suggestion.”
There is no such thing as Old Business. There is only New and Unfinished. This is not a new idea, but it is an idea that is hard to swallow. The amazing thing about RONR is that this notion is explored, not by a poet or scientist—the ones often lauded for having deep thoughts about these issues—but by our friendly guide, Robert, who was reportedly only trying to preside over a church meeting more efficiently in 1876, when he began what would become the RONR empire, writing and publishing a book that would be reissued over 125-plus years and counting, with 11 editions to date.
And yet Robert saw it—that is, he saw time—like an emperor; dispassionately and without fear. And like the many beautiful and moving books that (unlike RONR) do make it onto liberal arts students’ syllabi, RONR also tells a story, only it is not the story of how we meet in time, I don’t think, so much as how time meets us, which is something that is not that much fun to think about, characterized as it is—at least in my experience—by a massive and overwhelming indifference. Robert, the emperor-to-be, looked this situation straight in the eye.
The result, RONR, is a map of how to act in time. And being a map like this, the question RONR asks us indirectly is, why do we hold meetings as if we are going to live forever? Why do we bring up old business and let it swirl around and go nowhere as if we weren’t sitting, feeling the breeze from 7-odd billion knife-thin fans rotating on 7-odd billion wrists?
According to RONR, in order for new business to be brought up in a meeting, there has to be a motion, and the motion must be seconded, and there is a momentum in how a motion swells and crests, and then, once decided upon, disappears, at which point there is no old motion. There is only a new motion if one is made. For Robert, a meeting is a sort of religious service honoring the breadth and depth of our ability to perform actions in time, which means: once. If RONR is followed correctly, there is no repetition of movement. There is only our attention to, and participation in, a continual renewing of movement.
As a parent, I find this idea fantastic. How much better a parent would I be if I would merely stop rehashing Old Business?
Robert outlined how we may work together in time, respecting our real relationship to time, and that, my friends, is a visionary work of art. Whether are parents or not, we are living, and meeting, together in a human family. As I write this the 9/11 memorial lights are piercing the sky. Here is a very good question for every human meeting in the universe today: can we discern, even as we are moved by anger and grief, what is truly unfinished business versus what is merely old?
I make a motion, as PTA Overlord. Let there, in this new school year, be only new and unfinished business. Let us go forth, parent volunteers—because in truth, we have no choice. Let us go forth gladly, and make cookies and cupcakes, with fiber or no fiber in them, depending, and let us sell them for the greater good, and let us eat them together in peace. Let us know that any man or woman attending a meeting, jousting or eating, may be an emperor or empress. May we learn to observe correctly. This meeting is adjourned.