Korea!

Hey friends,

I may have mentioned this in passing, but, uh, we’re moving to Korea.

Yeah.

When we came to Dallas, it was with the understanding that we’d be here for two years while Loc went through school, and that two year span is near its end. We booked our move this past weekend and submitted our paperwork to vacate our apartment on Monday; it’s full tilt towards the future.

I’ve found a lot of good in this city. I got back into the workforce after taking a gap year at 27; I found a new way to serve post-Army, as a yoga instructor capable of healing and a Toastmaster capable of inspiring, and I’ve used both of these to help other people grow. I have good friends here too, and they’ve helped me – and accommodated me – as I’ve worked through the joys and inconveniences that have gotten me to where I am. I appreciate all of it. 

Before leaving Germany to come here, I pinned a few places on my Dallas map… most of them were churches. I’ve always had a thing for the high ideals and rich culture of certain churches. Many pivotal moments of my life have unfolded in churches – but that’s a tale for another time. 

One of my Dallas churches hosts my Toastmasters club, which I joined within days of arriving, and it has proved a regular source of inspiration and wisdom even as I’ve failed to attend almost every one of its Sunday meetings. I love YouTube. But the Toastmasters club, my Toastmasters club, fuels me weekly – I am more committed to that group than I am to my job. I draw immense energy from investing in others.  

Every Monday, I leave work at 6 PM and drive to the Dallas First Unitarian Universalist Church, which take between 20-30 minutes, traffic dependent. I use that time to set my mind right to walk into a group of 10-25 people who may or may not know me, and take charge. I welcome them, teach them, coax them into roles, then celebrate their presence and their commitment to growth. It’s a nice change from my Army leadership days; I get to believe in what I’m doing. And I’m never disappointed; my club is the most vibrant Monday-night meeting you’ll ever find. I’ve been in leadership there for a year and a half now, and I’d continue on if life didn’t beckon elsewhere; I love it fiercely. Without fail, I leave those meetings fulfilled. 

I doubt I’ll find so vibrant a body at Camp Humphreys. In a way, that’s sad. The Army is not particularly known for its intellectual prowess, nor its openness to discomfort and emotional vulnerability. But it gives me an opportunity to build such a body, however small. The bones are there – the Camp Humphreys USO, though unresponsive, has mentioned Toastmasters on its Facebook page. I’ll be an awkward duck, the gay army husband in a sea of army wives – situation normal, that – but there’s a certain allure to that, expectations of gay best friend tropes aside. I think I’ll be fine. (Update: there are two clubs at Osan Air Base, not too far away. And there are dozens in Seoul – I consulted Toastmasters International for this info; there is no Camp Humphreys club listed. Not surprised, but satisfied.)

Korea’s workforce is less regulated than Germany’s, and that’s a boon to me. I anticipate I’ll be able to teach English as a second language and yoga in my native tongue, either in Seoul or in Pyeongtaek, where I very much hope to live – that’s the nearest sizable town to the Army base, and it’s connected to Seoul by a one-hour train ride. I’ve started learning Hangul, which is the Korean alphabet. I can already spell ‘teeth’ and ‘child’ and ‘ouch’ – I can translate for Loc! We move in 3-4 months, which gives me ample time to buckle down and build a proficiency in the language. Again, YouTube is incredible. And with downtime at work, I can cram a whole lot of study into a day. Right now, I’m trying to wrap my head around Korean vowels. I’ll get there.   

I’m really excited though. I’d been experimenting with apps to learn Korean, and they’re okay, though I struggle when I can’t learn in context – I’ve learned several languages, and I prefer to do so from the ground up. I poked around online yesterday and found grammar charts galore! Grammar charts make me smile – I used to love language learning, and charts are such efficient learning structures. I haven’t seriously studied a language since college, so I’m looking forward to this deep dive. I want to make kimchi while conversing with my sister-in-law’s grandma, and I want to do it in Korean – she offers no other choice. There’s my goal; the bar is set. The method is http://www.howtostudykorean.com (they use YouTube too!), and consults with my brother and sister-in-law. Pretty rad, that. 

Teaching seems promising too. I’ve read that the hiring really picks up in August and September, which is right when I’ll be settling in. So, I have reason to believe that I can integrate really quickly into my new environment; I certainly intend to. I may end up teaching kids – I haven’t really interacted with kids like that in years. I figure I’ll be okay though; I’ve learned to project calm over years of practice, and I’m married to a master of the child’s mind. That, and I like going full native; it’s delightfully transformative. I tend to feel most alive when I’m climbing mountains, actively helping others, or conversing in  a foreign language. I can do all three of those in Korea, and at the same time! Smiles all around. 

So yes. Life is good. Change is inevitable. The military just happens to expedite and dramatize change a bit faster than civilian life typically does. More frequently too – we’ll spend two, maybe three years in Korea, then punch off to Europe or Hawaii, where I’ll have to reinvent myself all over again. I profess, Loc’s military co-resident is going to Grafenwoehr, where we were both previously stationed, and telling him about all of the wonderful things that await him induces waves of nostalgia that give me beautiful pause… Bavaria is, improbably and wonderfully, my home. I’d love to land there after Korea. I’d be happy to retire there, years from now. 

But guess what? I’m going there next week! I can’t wait to hug my friends, to race down the autobahn to see them, to run freely through misty field and forest – and joy of marvelous joys, it’s spring. There’s nothing so warmly, delicately beautiful as a Bavarian garden glistening in the morning sun. I’m so glad I did my military service there – the natural beauty alone sustained me on many a dark day. Maybe that’s why I feel such a strong affection for a land whose native tongue I do not speak: it sustained me without any expectation of return.

To quote Wendell Berry, it all turns on affection. 

Stay tuned – I’ll be snapping pics aplenty. 

Oh, and I gave a speech the other weekend – you can find it here. Fair warning, it’s not the light and fluffy stuff of my blog. Maybe I’ll pick a lighter topic for next year’s competition – maybe then, I can talk about cultural bridges and kimchi with my grandmother-in-law. Could be fun. 

Love you all,

James

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Our Move Is On!

Greetings one and all –

You know, the thing about writing a regular blog, is that you don’t always want to write a regular blog. Any habit, I guess, is subject to our whims, emotions, and erstwhile distractions, and any habit worth keeping requires that we overcome those obstacles. Fun, huh?

Anyway, here we are; our move is upon us.

I can’t say that it came on us fast, but the fact that half our belongings will sit in a Texas warehouse without A/C certainly did. So, we’ve gone from planning to stash a large number of things in storage while we’re abroad, to selectively separating the safe from the spoil-able. At least, what we hope will be safe from the spoil-able: all of a sudden, my wine supply and our paintings are joining us on our Asian excursion – glad the government’s accommodating there. I’ve had skunked wine before; I don’t remotely recommend it. Melted paintings though? Might breed a modern masterpiece! We don’t want to risk that though. I guess I’m getting more conservative with age – or I’m not 23 and light of possessions anymore.

I spent Thursday working while Loc managed the move. I’ve been drafting a persuasive speech for Toastmasters, and I’m arguing for a more mobile lifestyle than the average sedentary style… on the floor. I’ve been sitting on an exercise ball or kneeling in myriad different ways at work since November; it’s finally catching on with my peers. One coworker has recently assumed a similar setup, though he has yet to buy in on the ball, and several of my coworkers are intrigued – I love watching how little cultural shifts ripple through a group. I learned about the sit-to-rise test, which asserts that one’s life expectancy is directly correlated to one’s relationship to the floor, at least the ease with which one can get down to and up from it. My coworkers spent a few minutes trying to figure it out themselves – some of us have work to do. The cool thing, though, is that any informed work you do will reap real benefits – just stick to it!

But for real, if you’re reading this standing or in a chair, do yourself a favor and sit on the floor. You can squat if you like too – your body’s best position is its next one. So, sit on the floor and move often. Look at this awesome graphic of non-chair/couch sitting options! Isn’t it amazing? 

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Are you on the floor? Try it for a bit. Build on it tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day, and so on. Build a new habit. Move more. Mix it up. For more, check out this link, then keep learning. I love Katy Bowman – she’s amazing. 

Good? Good.

Moving comes with the offloading of personal projects too. My new coworker grew up in Asia and is equally taken by the floor thing. But she’s also a fledgling container gardener, and an aspiring organic one too! She mentioned an interest in worm composting and container gardening the other day. In doing so, she solved one of my last logistical problems: she’ll take my worm bin!  It’s funny, she’s following the exact same path I set out on last January, and she’s as excited as I was. She’s also inspired me to go back to Homestead Heritage, an agrarian society with 19th century aspirations outside of Waco  – yes, that Waco. It’s a gorgeous place.

I’ve part and parceled my plants out to my peeps too – most of those are at work now, and most of them have been claimed. I imagine I won’t have any difficulty parsing out the rest of them either. Equally cool, my coworker wants to buy my car! So, we’ll sell mine and send Loc’s forward. If I can do it, I fully intend to go car-free in Korea. I trust that, with the public transportation, I can do it. Climate change is real, and if I can further reduce my footprint, I will. That, and I enjoy a good challenge – immersive language learning  is an exceptionally fun one.

It’s Saturday as I write, and my friends and I are currently cabin camping up in Oklahoma. We were going to go real camping, but the forecast this Wednesday showed a heavy wall of rain passing right over us, so we opted for plan B and divvied up responsibility. Plan B’s been good – it did indeed rain fiercely on Saturday, so much so that our power went out – that kicked my planning brain into hyperdrive. I have crème brûlées in the fridge, bread proofing on the counter, no electricity, and an increasingly warm house! I also have a grill, a few coolers and a substantial temperature differential. So, I’ve got an open door for air conditioning, my dough in a cooler with ice packs to keep it in check, and my Dutch oven heating up on that grill. Never done it before, but there’s a first time for everything.

The power has since come back on, but all systems are go – I’m running with it. Why not?

That, and life’s all about adaptation. It’s not the strongest nor the fittest, but those most adaptable to change who thrive.

Stay nimble, my friends.

Happy Sunday,

James

Yoga, My Body, and Me

I’ve had a few exciting awakenings this past week. Seems I’ve bumbled my way into doing things I thought I’d never do again. Case and point: my left knee.

My narrative’s always been that I have a bum left knee. My right knee is as healthy as can be; it’s never given me pain (beyond that which I inflict myself), and it’s been resiliently sturdy under much physical abuse. Testament to its fitness is my ability to do an unassisted pistol squat – a controlled descent and ascent, on one leg. My right leg: it’s always just been there.

The left knee’s a different story. Maybe my posture’s been wrong for years and that’s been fueling the issue. Maybe the arthritis that runs through my family’s genes is manifesting itself early. Maybe it’s the duck step the Army instilled over years. Maybe it’s my love of running and aversion to gyms. By any rate, I’ve only ever been able to pistol squat with my left leg once in my life, and that was when I was in peak marathon form a few years ago. Otherwise, my best effort is a 30-degree bend in the knee before it lacks the stability to continue further – I need a wall to carry on, and it’s painfully unstable. But lately, I’ve focused holistically, and that knee’s part of the package.

Last fall, I undertook an education in yoga. Yoga has exploded in popularity in the past twenty years, making it ever more accessible to the average person – and ever more desirable to a Lululemon-wearing subset of American society. I’m not part of that subset – I wear rainbow Ranger panties. I also practice at home. I like the Jeffersonian notion that the body is more than just vessel for the head; I find myself in a smaller subset of the yoga community – less flashy, more hard work-y. Dorky hard work-y: I exercise my toes.

Anyway, I took a teacher course that stressed self inquiry and self exploration – try setting a timer for five minutes and moving as your body compels you. If I were to do that now… well, I did, and I ended up reclined from a kneeling position, sensation singing in my quads – supta virasana, in Sanskrit. My program introduced me to a few teachers that I’ve continued to study, and I find myself immersed in the pursuit of stability and mobility under their tutelage. If you’d like to investigate yourself, they’re Bernie Clark, Katie Bowman, Josh Kramer, and Justin Wolfer.

My mornings are yang; dynamic high-intensity repetitions followed by static long holds to muscle exhaustion – a technique I learned from Josh Kramer. This fuels muscle strength and tone, which in turn augments stability. Try standing on one leg and balancing. Raise your arms over your head. Now close your eyes. That’s a measure of stability.

Now, in order to do that successfully, you’ll probably have to do it a few times, probably near a wall, and and probably over time. But you can do it! Keep at it! Do it while watching TV! While standing around your kitchen! A slow minute at work! In line at the grocery store!

I’ve also been learning about neural pathways – the body is built for maximum efficiency, such that what we do becomes easier with practice, and what we don’t do, seems impossible. I’ve used this logic to work my way into a full Asian squat, heels down, and I’ve also used it to float up into an arm balance. One is more readily useful than the other, but I’ve mapped them in my brain such that I can do them reliably on command – it’s pretty handy.

You could also use this tool to, say, learn to brush your teeth with your opposite hand. Your dominant hand has a neural map of your mouth; your non-dominant hand does not – unless you’ve deliberately developed it. This neural mapping is how amputees have learn to write with their toes. The human body is amazing, and for most of us, underutilized. I prefer to emphasize the ‘amazing’ bit.

Mobility training just reinforces this. Per Justin Wolfer, mobility is the strength and neurological control within your full range of motion. My right knee is entirely mobile – if I want to squat at, say, a 100 degree angle, I can. My left knee, historically, is hardly independently mobile – I can do 30 degrees and 180 degrees, but naught in between those extremes, and not without discomfort. Yoga taught me how to pay attention to my body, but Katie Bowman really drove it home: her book Move Your DNAis hugely transformational – I’m passing it around my office now. Because of it, I sit on the floor, cross-legged, straight-legged, or kneeling on my heels, and I’ve addressed my duck-stepped alignment issues – try standing with the outsides of your feet parallel. Return to it every time you find yourself standing around. Try walking that way – keep at it. 

Bernie Clark’s guiding question is ‘what stops me?’ He’s a trailblazer in his own rite – he’s taught me Yin, in which one ‘marinates’ in a pose to gain neurological access, and he’s got two beautiful books on anatomy – Your Body, Your Yogaand Your Spine, Your Yoga. I don’t actively teach yoga now, but when I do, my teaching will be heavily influenced by him. I love how he applies science to a practice rife with mysticism and rather unfounded health assertions. 

Anyway, my knees. I’ve been doing workouts led by Josh Kramer on the Alo Moves app – paid subscription; I really like it –  and he deliberately addresses legs. Turns out one can do leg day, even in the context of a yoga class. The first time I tried to do skandasana –  a squat in which one leg extends to the side, toes to the sky, while the other leg squats, bearing the weight of the body – I found it inaccessible when my left leg bore the weight. But over weeks, I kept at it, two half-hour leg workouts a week, and before too long, I had it. Neural mapping and a bit of hard work – amazing.

And because I can do skandasana, I can now do a left-legged pistol squat. Because I have the strength and stability to do that pistol squat, I no longer feel weakness and instability (read: pain) in my left knee. Whoah! Having been accustomed to a low-level pain there for so long, it’s amazing to me that it’s gone, and without treatment or medication. For me, it’s not about the pose; it’s about whole-body health. And because I addressed what ails me, I’m that much healthier. I’m not letting that ailment return, not again.

What stops you? Is it muscle on muscle, muscle on bone, bone on bone, or just your mind against what you know to be necessary? Knowledge applied with discipline and persistence yields results. Some things are beyond our grasp – I’ll never be able to, say, lick my elbow. But healthy joints? That’s something almost all of us can achieve.

Healthcare starts at home. Knowledge matters, and knowledge is at your fingertips. I’m no expert, but I can likely point you the right way – and I’m here to help.

Happy Mother’s Day! I’m grateful to my mom for supporting rather than seeking to shape my interests. Confidence comes from such a foundation.

Namaste, y’all!

James

Teacher Me (About Time!)

Greetings gentle people,

All the dominos are falling into place. It’s wild, and it’s happening quickly.

I’ve had my heart set on teaching in Korea since we floated the idea of moving there last year – I feel it’s the best means of self-actualization I’ll find out there, and it gives me a chance to dip my toes in the water before I actually commit to a teaching career, which I’ve aspired to since I realized how deeply my high school teachers impacted me, way back when. (It also means I won’t have to work on post, but let’s stay positive in our reasoning, eh?)

Anyway, I was poking around on an ESL teacher blog the other week when I saw a link that caught my eye – apply today! I clicked on it, followed prompts, hastily updated my resume, uploaded said resume, and clicked ‘submit.’ The next day, I got a phone call to schedule an interview, which I had to return because I don’t answer my phone no more – darned robocallers. She was gracious in reply though, and I interviewed the following day. It was surprisingly easy – my interviewer even skipped the mini-lesson she’d had me prepare! But I learned a lot about Korean video game culture in my studies – that’ll come in handy. Google ‘PC Bang.’ Or the Korean ‘Cinderella Law.’ Crazy, huh?

Things have flown since then. This recruiter keeps me on a tight schedule, and that’s actually pretty awesome. It winnows the ill-committed, anyway – and I feel everything I’m going through is a test of commitment. I spent last weekend building an application packet to submit this past Monday – that’s that video that I posted to Facebook last Sunday. I submitted it and was told to wait 2-3 days for a response. I adjusted my expectations accordingly. The response came the next day – an offer. Under-promise, over-deliver – a sales tactic. Smart!

I signed a contract of sorts this past Wednesday, and that unleashed a quest – I’m now systematically destroying any chance I had at evading international law enforcement. Fingerprints, FBI background checks – the most entertaining thing is my diploma. A West Point diploma is huge, but they want (a copy of) that too. So, I’ll take it to a print shop, get it scanned and shrunk down, take both to a notary, then get the photocopy apostilled. I have to get a lot of things apostilled. Or should I say apo$tilled – that is not a cheap service!

Fortunately, my handler has given me adequate time to proactively pursue my quest, and I’ve got a public notary in-house at work. Two of them, actually. Just yesterday, I got fingerprinted at a drug test shop (as have 30 other aspirants, I was told). That feeds into the FBI background check; it’ll be notarized, and apostilled too. Apo$tilled, I mean – they’re chipping away at my donut fund! (N.B. I did purchase opera tickets on a whim last night – Verdi. Falstaff. I walked there. It was wonderful.)

…but I’ll gladly pay that price for a chance to immerse myself in Korean culture. I didn’t get to do that in Germany, save weekends, but I got just enough to love that country. My Deutsch ist Scheisse! My Korean is coming along quite nicely though – I can now express want, and I’m working towards conjugations. Intelligible by August!

We’re packing out of our house this month, and soon. I’ve been doing Kondo-lite, sorting through my items by type rather than room or whatever, and without the boot camp feel. I did books, papers, plants and seeds on Thursday, and Saturday was ‘scrub my flower pots’ day. We’re putting half of our stuff in a storage pod in the states while we’re abroad, going light- that means no flower pots. Or maybe just two. I have a lot of flower pots. 

Ooh – get this – the government will store our wine! We were afraid we’d have to have a really, really big block party. Now, we’ll just have a big party – we talked it up for a while, thinking we’d lose it all. We can still have fun. I hope our wine storage is temperature controlled – it would be sweet to age it without temptation. 

That about sums up major movements around here. 

Oh – I did put an armload of books in the little free library around the corner the other night. Somebody had left their entire collection of John Irving books there; I added my collection to hers and took one for my own perusal: The Cider House Rules. I grew up hearing about the movie (1999), so I figured I’ll read it. My exchange felt like a communion, though I know not with whom. How radical it’s become, to sit quietly and read. 

Speaking of radicals, I’ve been somewhat taken of late by Nathaniel Drew, and through him, by Matthew D’Avella – YouTubers, both. I’ve picked up bullet journaling, sort of, and a habit tracker for real. Matthew D’Avella did an interview with an essentialist the other day – Gregor McKeown – that was quite compelling. As one who is prone to spreading oneself too many ways, I appreciate a dedication to fewer things; it’s certainly less stress. The habit tracker is an intriguing way to look at my personal prejudices. It’s also quite the aspirational document. I’m… tempering my aspirations. 

If you’re in the market for a good memoir, I recommend The Tender Bar, by J.R. Moehringer. I picked it up on a lark; I love it. I’ve rationed myself to one chapter a day, at bedtime, to prolong my enjoyment. It’s a masterful coming-of-age tale, and its language and story arc is rich and supremely satisfying. I wish I had such characters as he depicts in my own narrative! But it’s nice to admire another. If you enjoy storytelling, you’ll love J.R. Moehringer.

What book have you loved lately?

I can’t wait to start teaching!

Anyeonhigaseyo! (Bye!)

James

Homeland

It’s hard to express in words just how much I love Bavaria – it’s a place that I hold very near to my heart. Part of that is due to the friendships forged and experiences shared there. Part of it is because it nurtured my soul when I needed it most. And part of it is because it just felt like home, and I really, really needed that as I stepped onto a plane and into the Big Army. Like, really.

After graduating from West Point, I took my time getting down to Fort Benning. I had laid out the perfect plan, one that would allow me to roll straight from my officer training into the prime rotation of Ranger School, and from there into the Big Army. It was supposed to be 16 weeks of IOBC (Infantry Officer Basic Course), ten days between courses, and 61 days of Ranger School, walking with spring, en route to the active Army by May. Ranger, however, took 139 days, which placed me square in Florida’s summer squalls, in July. It sucked.

It’s an Army aphorism – no plan survives initial contact. I should have known better.

And so, I was still at Fort Benning in September 2012, more than a year after I’d first reported. I’d been friends with a self-described slum lord for most of that time – he, my friend Richard and I dominated trivia night at our local Hooters, big boobs and all. By Christmas 2011,  were well on our way to national Hooters trivia domination. It was… a different time.

In some respects, my slum lord friend was an unsavory character. He was also classy, fancy, and exciting. He owned a trailer park out in Cusseta, Georgia, and he loved to tell us how he’d have poor black people scrub his pool clean with toxic chemicals and no protection. He also wore meticulously monogrammed Oxford shirts and impersonated a military officer to get us nice rooms at the Ritz and W Hotels in Atlanta, with nice reservations at fancy steakhouses. I didn’t have the strength of character to call him on any of that then… I did benefit from the relationship, and he was quite a friend to all lieutenants, so long as we took care of him. He did take good care of us, mostly.

One fond memory takes place in Vaughn’s Platoon, at Ranger School. Vaughn’s Platoon consists of a motley crew of Ranger students who wash out of the first phase of the school, but get another shot – this is called a recycle. Their task is to paint rocks, string ropes, and mow lawns in preparation for the international Best Ranger Competition. Students get recycled into this once-annual event in a fairly arbitrary manner; the caliber of my peers there was testament to that. This cycle break a six-week ordeal. Colloquially, it’s known as The Gulag. And while I did have to mow an acre of grass with a weed walker while a junior soldier stood over me on his cell phone, I didn’t find it thatbad, even when the riding mower rode up behind me; I have read Solzhenitsyn. I liked to think of it as an easily-exploited minimum-security prison.

So I did.

My friend Richard had reported to Ranger on New Year’s Day, 2012, leaving his black Camaro in John’s care – we three rang in the new year building Richard’s kit on his living room floor.  I started in the next class, on February 26, 2012.

I passed through the Ranger Assessment Phase, a brutal week of winnowing, in the most notoriously difficult company of three – we did dumb things like lunge a mile to our water obstacle course and stand around with Camelback bite valves compressed between our teeth, sucking electrolytes for dear life: to let them fall was to face expulsion. Our pass rate for the week was right around 50%; the other two companies had to cross-load students into ours to balance group sizes. So purged, we moved into the training cycle, Darby.

Every morning, each squad would receive a mission and begin preparing for it in a planning bay; we had hours, but every minute mattered. Bear in mind that does get cold in Georgia. Now, all was proceeding according to plan until one morning, when a cinder from a burn barrel – our warmth – caught me in the eye, searing my retina. I didn’t seek aid until twilight, when my night vision goggles brought home just how badly I’d been hurt – localized pain that screamed for relief… on my eyeball. I had to report it as a medical emergency. It was, but it bore consequences.

I spent a succession of mornings at the clinic, where a doctor monitored my recovery; any worse, and I’ve had really washed out. But I was okay, even happy – the medic who drove me hooked me up with food, and I’ll forever associate the joy of Red Solo Cup with those drives – but it visibly took me from my platoon, morning after miserable morning. This, I believe, was what landed me in Vaughn’s Platoon – optics are everything, and I was optically absent. But I was joined by lots of good people with equally strange stories. We worked hard, got strong, and read books; we’d be back. Friends, even the enlisted folks read books! We talked about Marcus Aurelius and Lao Tzu together. It was, almost, magical.

It was also insane. We had three sergeants in charge of us. One, Rod, was the chief, but not quite in control of even himself. One, Warrior, was our friend, but quietly. And one, Hall, was a loose but lazy cannon. My friend Landon was the student chief of the Light Side. I was the student chief of the Dark Side – I was Red, and I could get you anything.

Anything.

Ranger School gives new depth to Shawshank Redemption.

Now, I had my ways, of course – that quiet friend of an NCO was really good at turning a blind eye when we went to the store for our weekly pizza run – as I’ve said, it wasn’t all bad. Landon and Warrior would cover the pizza, and I’d collect and pack my pockets with all sorts of illicit contraband: calories, caffeine, nicotine – I’d figured out that, if you sliced a ring out of your helmet’s padding, you could install a dip tin in its place, flush with the foam. We lined the long axes of out mattresses with Snickers bars and hid dip under the mop buckets out back – no sergeant is checking the mop buckets. Even after a friend got caught with dip spit in his canteen, I evaded every inspection, that time very narrowly, and only thanks to my friend Tyler and loose cannon Hall. I guess I’d developed a reputation. Rod called for me; Hall had just claimed me, and I walked him to Tyler’s second locker, which had naught but a tangled coil of paracord inside. He bought it; I was saved.

I did it for the thrill – and man, it was fun.

But John, John was an unknown, and he loved a thrill too. One day, I fixated on tacos, Taco Bell style – I had to have them. There were some 60 students in Vaughn’s Platoon, and a half dozen supervisor types in all. To do this, I figured, we’d have to source at least four tacos per person. And so I called in an order for 270 tacos to our local Taco Bell and coordinated with John to have it brought over. I guess this has happened before, and they didn’t make these tacos until someone showed up and paid for them. I, being a prisoner, had no credit card – hell, I called from a phone booth. But John stuck it out and brought them in by cover of night, lights off in Richard’s black Camaro. He was in and out before the sergeants ever saw him. And I had a bajillion tacos.

Sergeant Rod, the boss, should have been upset by my delivery – this was a blatant thumb in his authoritative eye. But I fed him, and his friends. So, he just shrugged and invited us all to partake – no sense in waste. We laid out the tacos in the classroom, buffet style, and jailer and jailed ate alike. It was a Shawshank moment. Right then, I was Andy Dufresne, and every man had a beer.   

John also supplied us with books. I read Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbrokenthere. Louis Zamperini’s crazy tale was one that I needed then – I had my own motivation to push through, but he left me in awe. That book is still worth reading. John gave me lots of books – A Confederacy of Dunces, a Beatles biography, assorted fiction and non-fiction by the box load. I’ve never seen so many young men reading together in silence. It was, simply, amazing.

I eventually cycled back into Ranger School and went straight through to Florida phase – 61 days without a hitch. Well, fifty-something days then a hitch, and I recycled again, this time in the swamps of the Florida Panhandle in June. This recycle wasn’t so bad – it was only ten days, whereas the first was so long that I fed the class that I started with their graduation breakfast. In Florida, I ate lots of ice cream sandwiches. I also debated the merits of dumpster diving for last night’s cream pies with my most respectable peers – Ranger School is extremely debasing. We didn’t do it. I did eventually make it out, and with a tab. I know people who spent six months in the course and did not earn that coveted bit of cloth. The things we esteem.

Five days after I finished my Ranger training, I looked like a Holocaust victim. The cadre allow that time to feed students sort of like like foie gras ducks, beyond the public eye before we re-entered society. I wish I’d taken a picture that day. The image of me standing in a striped shirt in front of a full-length mirror is seared on my mind; my knees and elbows protruded. Ranger School is a brutal place that exacts a weighty toll on its students: I lost a fifth of my body weight and, likely, years on my life. My brother had a chance to go; he took my example and chose another way. He’s still in the Army; I got kicked out – but that’s another story.

I graduated on 13 July 2012. I hit my year mark at my apartment complex in August. My buddy John was always scheming, and his latest scheme was to provide fully furnished apartments to lieutenants in a luxury apartment complex. He pulled in furniture from one place, kitchenware from another, and clients from me and my friends. We all decided that it’d be worth a go – my place was kind of trashy, to be honest – so we signed up en masse and moved in quick. He was soon at capacity, and I was a third man in an apartment with people I hardly knew. John, he did everything under the table, acting as if in doing so, he were doing us a favor. In retrospect, that was a really, really bad idea – for him and us both.

Outprocessing at Benning is notoriously difficult for new lieutenants. We spend all of our time as students clustered in one small area of the post or wandering the woods, and the clearing procedure required that we cover the entire map, and without a good one. This was before smart phones matured – we had blurry 8-1/2 x 11 sheets of paper. That, and government employees with irregular hours… it was awfully stressful, and for no reason at all. So, when it came time to to move out of my place, I was already pretty frayed. The Army is nothing if not frustrating. That’s the nature of bureaucracy.

On top of this stress, comes John. I’d spent maybe two months at his place, and it was time for me to move on. We’d done that underhanded contract a few months back, and I’d given him a $700 deposit – a lot to most people. I hadn’t damaged my apartment, so I wanted my deposit back. He wouldn’t give it to me. Instead, he cooked up a story in which neither my brother nor my good friend had paid their deposits, so my deposit covered one of theirs. To get it back, I’d have to get them to pay up. I ardently believed, and still believe, that this was a crock of shit, and I wasn’t having it. The tension escalated day by day; my friend was no longer a friend.

I’m not a destructive person by nature. I’d grown up in the shadow of Matthew Shepard and 9/11, and I was an ardent idealist. I joined the infantry with this grand idea of being the guy who holds the hounds of war in check – me, a squeaky lieutenant. I’ve seen the dark core of my nature just twice in my life. One was precipitated by Butters, my Moroccan house kitten. The other was animated by John.

Our feud flourished. It spread to other West Pointers. We petitioned our friend’s father, a lawyer, and we initiated proceedings to get John on Fort Benning’s black list – an economic kiss of death, of a sort. In response, John spun terrible rumors among us, seeking to weaken us through division. He also stood between me and my flight. I don’t remember exactly how it resolved – he is still blacklisted, and I did not get my $700, but the specifics escape me. But one thing, I remember vividly. I vividly remember seriously contemplating harm to the only life he loved. I envisioned razor blades in peanut butter-coated apples, gifts  for his two beloved hounds. That’d teach him. It was awful. I know I can kill – I was bred to kill.

But my self-preservation instinct was stronger than my desire for vindication; years of Stoic meditation gave me the discipline to pass the test,  and I boarded the plane, peaceable but taut beyond belief – tension in the shoulders doesn’t cut it; I was rigid. My every thought on that flight was, ‘if Bavaria is like home, I’ll be alright.’ Over and over again – a verbal rosary. I don’t know how I’d have coped otherwise, not then.

But Bavaria, Bavaria did not disappoint. I landed hours away and boarded a bus to cross the German country into Bavaria. Even on the highway, the famed autobahn, the landscape was verdant, lush, tinted vibrantly by reds, yellows, and oranges – it was September, after all. As we crossed into Bavaria proper, I felt the weight slough off my shoulders; this was the very landscape of my childhood, and it welcomed my weary soul. I knew that, no matter what would come, that land would nurture me, and I’d be okay. I was a nomad, but I’d found my home.

And so it was.

Ergo, any time a friend invites me to a Bavarian wedding, I’ll go. I’ll always call that place home. Any chance to visit, no matter how short, is worth it. I’m glad I have such wonderful friends who feel the same as me. It’s good to belong.

Love you all,

James

The Results Are In

So… the big day has come and gone. 

I’ll be blunt: I didn’t win. 

I’m not overly put out by this. Among other reasons, I have a wedding in Germany that precludes my continued participation – now, I no longer have to feel torn between attending my good friend’s wedding in the land that I most love and giving that speech to a larger crowd for a chance at yet another round of the same. But the main thing is, I performed exactly how I intended to, and I pulled it off well. In a competition against my own fallibility, I won, and handily. 

That’s not to say that my speech was not received well; it was. People laughed at the right points; I let them laugh to completion. People came to tears at the right points; I let them process that too. I crafted a speech on a devastatingly sad series of events and managed to deliver it such that people sincerely enjoyed it. Take the Thenardiers out of Les Mis and listen to that show – ain’t nothing but sorrow. I managed to run the gamut of human experience, from devastation to jubilation, and send them off inspired. I really enjoyed myself too, and I did it within my prescribed time limit.

I had my friend record the speech because I’m interested in self improvement. I know that I can win this competition at the international stage. Not this year, clearly, and maybe not next year – hell, who knows if I’ll have a Toastmasters club next year – but I believe this goal is firmly within my reach. I’ve been walking down a road that fits my fancy for almost two years now, and I don’t intend to lay it aside simply because I’m moving to a foreign country – speaking, like writing, is something that speaks to me, and I’ll find a virtual club to keep growing if I must. I’m not letting this hobby go dormant. 

As to the whereabouts of that recording, well, it’s on my friend’s phone. I gave him mine with instructions on how to use it, but he’s not an Apple user and couldn’t figure it out, so he used his, and for that, I’m glad. He’s going to put it on a thumb drive; I’ll see him Monday. I’ve never watched myself perform before, and I feel like that’s a powerful tool for self improvement, particularly in this arena. One person told me I looked down too much. Another told me that I needed to project more at parts. I’ll see this all for myself soon enough. It’s data towards a greater understanding.

I’m glad I worked through this project. It was a unique beast; I’ve never spent four months crafting a seven-minute speech before. Let me tell you, it takes all of that time to visualize, write, revise, and rehearse a speech of this caliber; I probably could’ve used another month. But because I went through it, I feel I could reasonably do it again, and by myself. A lot of mentors gave me a lot of really good advice, and it’s stuff that I’ll keep with me for the rest of my life. I am incredibly blessed.

This speech also reignited my passion for singing. I wanted to take voice lessons as a kid but never did because of varying instability growing up. That didn’t stop me from singing though; I sang from seventh grade all the way through college, and I got some really neat opportunities as a result. Now, I have two great textbooks on singing and the wonderful world of YouTube vocal coaches at my disposal, and the will to actually employ them. Cardio, singing, and speaking all intersect at the breath, and singing offers a wealth of exercises that benefit the spoken word. That, and singing is one of the best medicines I’ve ever found – it’s right up there with a morning run after a spring storm. Singing – it’s not just for showers.

The person who bested me gave a very different speech. In one word, mine was ‘gravitas;’ hers was ‘motivation.’ Hers had less substance to it, but it was almost melodic, and she delivered it to great effect. I feel like, in a different crowd, my speech could win. However, we were in Texas at 2 PM, and people wanted something more upbeat than 9/11 for their Saturday entertainment. Funnily, we’re both Army vets. I met her briefly before the contest; she was a supply officer in the army who started out as a private. One has to work pretty hard to cross over, and she did it. I give her props – I hope she keeps climbing. 

Friends, I’m used to being misunderstood. I grew up a gay kid in a cow town in rural New York. My best friend for years was my piano. I took refuge among the theater kids in high school, and I met my dearest friends in a French class my senior year. I tossed my newfound belonging away to attend West Point, join the infantry, and serve in an organization that loathes three-syllable words. Folks, that’s just not me. 

It’s not uncommon for an artist to toil for years before being recognized for the quality of his work. Hell, Vincent Van Gogh died an unknown and is now hailed as the greatest Dutch painter after Rembrandt.  Talk about a transformation! I just hope I don’t have to die to for recognition – I’ve got a lot of life yet to live.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my club. I love these guys. I did my dress rehearsal on Monday, and I had people coaching me for a full forty-five minutes after the meeting – stuff that I’d actually use! They also showed up in spades to see me speak yesterday. I’m really glad to belong to such a fine group, and thrilled to share what I’ve learned from them with others.

Onward & upward!

James

Obsession

So, it turns out that crafting a speech is a whole lot harder than writing an essay. At least, it’s harder than writing the type of essay we all wrote in high school. It’s not an ‘oh shit, I have to turn this in tomorrow and it’s midnight!’ affair, it’s a ‘wow, this borders on obsession’ affair. I haven’t passed a day in the past week without sitting down to tinker with its contents. As I write this, it’s Friday, and I’ve just done my bit for the day. Yesterday, I spent twenty minutes tinkering with a sentence I’d put to song – a song that echoes the excitement of first going to New York as a boy.

Yeah, I’m obsessed.

When Mary Oliver died a few months ago, I was bereft. I’d learned of her quite by accident, and she’d quickly become my muse of grief and wonder. She accompanied me on the Appalachian Trail, through the devastating death of my friend, and on to the healing power of friends and friendship, fields and forests, mountains and lakes. As muses go, she’s in my top five. So when she died, I drove my sorry self to my local bookstore and looked for anything bearing her name. What I discovered was a slender volume dubbed ‘A Poetry Handbook’ – not exactly a consumer’s first choice. I was undeterred – it was a tie to a friend I’d never met, one taken, perhaps, too soon. I bought it.  

I picked up six or seven other books that day, and I turned my attention to an eighth – I read my friends’ books first. But in time, I looped back to this one, in hopes that it would help me craft a better speech. This speech. It did not disappoint. 

In her introduction, she discusses the importance of a steady practice in engaging the ephemeral element out of which mystery is born. This is what elevates a poem to memorable heights. I believe it’s what makes prose truly memorable too – I think Steinbeck, McCarthy,  Hugo – they strike chords in the soul that resonate across time. Such writing is a disciplined and solitary act, and its yield sparkles like gold in the sun. 

Speeches are no different. 

She cautions that, without a steady practice, the cautiously creative element of our interior may never surface; so unengaged, it can hide a lifetime. Consistency is key to its engagement. I’ve attended to my speech almost every day for four months. I worked with a mentor last weekend, overhauled the whole thing, then worked it every day since then. It’s now properly polished, at least to her satisfaction. I don’t know that I’ll ever be fully satisfied, but it feels good enough – we are our own worst critics, after all.  And it sounds good – Mary Oliver’s latest gift to me was an essay on sound. Dress rehearsal’s Monday; this speech sings.

That same practice is required of this simple blog, albeit with marginally lesser intensity. 

When my parents visited last week, my mother insisted that I read Educated, then went out and bought a copy to ensure that I’d do it. I was reading Jurassic Park at the time – a nod to my husband – and I told her it’d have to wait until after I’d finished it. Of course, I can’t refuse a beautiful book, especially one that touches at my roots and aspirations. My resolve quickly cracked; I read the prologue and was hooked. I put down Jurassic Park. I consumed Educated. Mornings for my writing, evenings for hers. I found my evenings slipping past my bedtime, my book in hand, my brain alert. Shutting down to sleep itself was an act of discipline. Daylight Savings Time really didn’t help. 

But my speech.

I’ve been listening Clear & Vivid by Alan Alda lately, and one episode in particular has stuck with me. It’s Sarah Vowell on Writing and Clarity – her motto is ‘start strange, end sad.’ It’s quirky, and it works for her. She also contrasts the difference of spoken media and written media. The difference is stark – in spoken media, the speaker is competing with traffic and the din of daily life, so points must be brief, deliberate, reiterated. There is, generally, no time to languish on tangential branches. 

Working on my speech has been an obsessively disciplined act of reduction – only deliberate tangents, and quick. How can I convey the meaning I seek to convey in the shortest but most impactful sentence possible? When you’re trying to stuff as much as I am into a 7-minute presentation, that’s essential. It’s also been a 3D puzzle. Where do I stand and when do I move there? What body language do I use to accentuate my message? How do I ensure that I come across deliberately but not mechanically? And tone, volume, pitch – how would you speak this next question?

Have you ever been totally transformed by an external event?

That’s the opener. It sets the tenor for everything that follows. It’s not an insubstantial consideration. Frankly, my friends, I want to win – I can reasonably see myself at the top of the Toastmasters heap someday.

Let’s address these several tangents:

Mary Oliver’s message, beyond one of a gentle discipline, is sonorous: a rock is not a stone. I took her message and massaged my entire speech with its precepts – aspirants, elisions, and plosive stops… I owe her a great debt of gratitude.

Tara Westover was a child when the ATF laid siege to the Weaver family at Ruby Ridge; her book, Educated, opens hauntingly with a childhood fantasy of that scene, instilled by her bipolar father. My speech picks up with the Murrah building, and could just have easily touched on Waco and Dave Koresh – all three of these events are steps along the rise of white nationalism in America. Ruby Ridge and Waco both inspired Timothy McVeigh; he was piqued by the first and hardened by the second. His truck bomb detonated two years to the day after the fiery conclusion of the ATF’s botched siege on the Branch Davidians. Alas, there’s no room for these stories in this particular speech. 

And Sarah Vowell reads everything she writes aloud. Starting weird and ending sad is an entertaining proposition too, and I am rather fond of the written tangent. All have merit for writer and speaker alike.

I’m in a reader’s rut now. Have you ever read a book so good that when you finally put it down, closing it slowly, reverently, its wonder washes over you, and you suffer for want of an equally good book for what seems like forever? Educated is one of those books. Jurassic Park is still at my bedside. I’m not ready for that one yet. I have Nabokov’s Laughing in the Dark; Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse; Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom; and Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun on my short list. I think I’ve settled on the last of these – it’s a bedtime book. I don’t think that Nelson Mandela is a bedtime author. My speech closes with him. He too loved Invictus, and to great and inspiring effect.

When I post my blog next week, I will know the outcome of my competition. Whatever the result, the project itself has transformed the way I think about writing, and that alone is worth the effort undertook: it’s changed my relationship with myself. 

I think that’s pretty cool.

Happy Sunday!

James

A Speech Unveiled

Well, I did it. My parents came too. It was surreal. 

What is it, you ask? I’ll tell you. 

But first, some back story. 

Way back in January, we received notice of this year’s Toastmasters competitions – Evaluation and International. In the Evaluation Contest, a guest speaker is brought in to deliver a speech, which is then evaluated in turn by each of the competitors, while the others sit ensconced in a separate room. It’s a lot of fun, and I considered competing in it too. But my real interest was in the International Contest – I enjoy its allure. 

The International Contest has such a lofty name because it carries with it the potential to compete on the international stage. You can see a selection of past winners on YouTube – I’ve watched them time and time again myself. They are engaging, instructive, theatrical – very much a performance. 

An international speech is a story worth telling, one that runs the audience through an array of emotions in seven brief minutes. They usually revolve around a transformative personal experience, from whence this emotional array derives. I think it’s the epitome of solo stagecraft – every movement has an impact on your delivery. It’s the most layered and nuanced bit of writing I’ve ever done. 

Anyway, I competed at my club on Monday – I performed that piece of nuanced writing. My parents were in attendance; they came to Dallas on a whim, but this speech was one of their compelling reasons. I was glad to have them. 

We had three other speakers. Of them, one is qualified to progress to the next level of competitions, and he surprised us by registering when he showed up to the meeting. Whoa. I’m really proud of my Toastmasters club. The other two guys spoke for the opportunity to practice; they haven’t hit the threshold required to advance just yet, but they’re hungry. One of them gave his first speech ever in front of a group, and he killed it. I admire the strength of will that he demonstrated. Toastmasters is great for nurturing your faith in humanity. All three were worthwhile, relatable, and engaging stories. I enjoyed them immensely. 

And then I was up. We’d drawn lots at the beginning of the meeting, and I’d gotten the coveted slot – last in presentation, first on the mind. The only drawback was that I was hungry, but couldn’t eat the delicious chocolate chip cookies that Amanda baked because I didn’t want to gunk up my vocal cords. I’m a singer; I’m licensed to be a bit dramatic. But I didn’t feel any nerves until I was standing awaiting my introduction. I’d been preparing for this moment for two months. 

The air in the room shifted palpably. We’d heard about attending church as a gay couple; the importance of sports to character development; and Europeans cheering for Martin as he huffed up the hill in his second attempt to bring his wife a glass of champagne. Now, the topic was grim:

At 9:01 on April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh seared the nation’s psyche.

I survey the audience – hands had drawn to chests in response to emotional upheaval. My audience is largely my parents’ age; they got the reference. I continue: 

He had detonated a truck packed with explosives near a federal building in Oklahoma. The percussion was so great that it struck a 3.0 on the Richter scale, 16 miles away. It left scores dead, hundreds wounded, and a thousand homeless. It was the worst act of domestic terrorism to date. I was six.  

I stood, arms at my side, until the Richter reading. Then, I lifted one arm and extended it slowly away from me, stressing those sixteen mile. The floor was mine.  

I don’t remember that, nor the trial that followed; I was just too young. What I do remember is his execution. The day was June 11, 2001; I was twelve. Watching the news, what struck me most were his last words: Henley’s Invictus, a defiant declaration of self determination: 

I am the master of my fate

I am the captain of my soul

Finger to chest emphatically, survey the room. Eye contact is powerful. 

McVeigh gave the warden a handwritten copy before he was strapped to the chair; he died, but his poem lived on. I was intrigued; I quickly put it to memory. It really scared my mom. 

Three months later, the towers fell. 

Nearly eighteen years later, that emotion is still raw. I let it course over me, through me. Pause for dramatic effect. I continue: 

This, too, I remember. I was at school, seventh grade. I was also in New York, albeit several hours from the attack. This was before cell phones; my school broke the news at lunch: they gathered us together to deliver it once. 

I forget the speaker’s name; we called her Lord Farquaad. Shrek was big in my family then, and Lord Farquaad was the ogre’s absurd antagonist. We could relate. But Lord Farquaad spoke now, and her topic demanded gravity: 9/11 eclipsed Oklahoma immediately and viscerally. I was emotionally struck, but not externally impacted. Some of my peers were not so fortunate. Hurt was everywhere. My childhood died that day; such evil shook my young soul. You too?

Lord Farquaad got a hearty laugh; I let it run full cycle before resuming. By the paragraph’s end, I had my audience near tears. You too? They nodded in somber accord. Pause for reflection. Resume: 

9/11 did not recede. Rather, it swelled into a crescendo of the 24-hour news cycle: I saw the towers fall a hundred times; I heard New Yorkers rally together with love; I sensed the drums of war beating on the near horizon. 9/11 dramatically informed my life. In response, I turned inward. In 2002, we invaded Afghanistan. In 2003, we invaded Iraq. The weight of the world fell on my shoulders. Singing was my escape. 

Tempo, tone, intensity – I leveraged that crescendo to my advantage, then pulled out back to address its impact on me. Scene change: 

In the fall of 2002, before Iraq, I was in Once On This Island, our middle school musical. I was a lead, one of four strong singers. At our director’s behest one day, we each sang an audition on audio cassette. I was more thrilled to record than I was to audition: this was a first! Because of it, I can proudly say that I have once done more with a cassette tape than just destroy it! Maybe you can relate. But I digress.

At 30, I’m one of the younger people in the room. The cassette tape flies. 

In January, my mother got a call: I alone had been chosen for a national honor choir, singing tenor. She was elated; we danced around the room in ecstatic joy – hers more than mine. Joy felt unattainable those days; it was a harsh winter, and I was prone to seasonal depression. But puberty had transformed me, and I was no longer a tenor. I was a bass – a bass who was going to New York!

Puberty’s a funny word, and it did happen then; it threw a wrench in my plans, but eh. That choir was one of the great privileges of my young life. Few things were of greater developmental import:

February came, and with it, my big break. I still wonder at the timing. War in Iraq was imminent, and teens were singing for peace next to the two craters of the towers while armed troops stood on street corners and people flowed past them in protest. It was a tumultuous time. It was a sacred time. 

I’m ever so grateful that I run. Try saying that mouthful in one emphatic breath. Pivot to the divine:

It was then that I first sang the prayer of St Francis: ‘Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.’ His words rang truer than anything I’d ever known: they soothed my shaken soul; they still do. I learned then that I could captain my soul and share it too. My mother’s worry was allayed; I could be unconquerable and kind, a steadfast warrior for peace.

Resolution. Yes, I sang. It took a lot of discipline not to eat that cookie. It paid off. 

Epilogue and charge:

Because of 9/11, I became a soldier. I commissioned from West Point speaking Arabic, determined to use my gifts for good. Because of St Francis, I had the wisdom to do it well. And I did: I deployed to Afghanistan, where Arabic is the language of God. With it, I served Afghan and American alike. Pain had led me to this place; love was my response. Pain in this life is a given; love in this life is a choice. Pain is all around us; what do you choose? 

I cede the floor.

The club transitions to a vote. Once complete, ballot counters collect all ballots and retire to another room to tally them. The Master of Ceremonies introduces the hosts of contestants to the audience with a brief series of questions; it’s a chance to get to know the speakers a bit. I am last. Scott queries, ‘how’d a redhead star in a show about Pacific Islanders?’ I was blue. ‘Oh wow, that’s amazing.’ Yeah, I grew up in the shadow of Ithaca College and Cornell – there were lots of amazing people there. He recedes to his own private reverie; in ways, my childhood is a gay guy’s dream. Dani shakes him out of it.

My mother speaks: ‘I need to give a speech to explain this speech. I just wanted my son to be happy!’

My father relates how my scout troop chose to give up a planned boating weekend on Cayuga Lake to raise money for the Red Cross at the mall. It was a tender and touching moment – fuel for phase two of my speech.

The ballot counters return, signaling the end of our guest commentary. They deliver their results:

In third place, Martin! In second place, Tim!

In first, me. James. 

Now the real work begins. The speech above is a monologue, more or less. I’ve enlisted my mentor to help me turn it into a dynamic back-and-forth between me and my audience, one in which their participation is solicited time and time again to keep their interest. Writing and the spoken word demand different treatments: one allows you the luxury to languish in the lushness of the prose, rereading at will. The other is a fleeting moment, vocalized once and then gone. It kind of reminds me of the blue accelerator pads in an old racing game I had – use them or fall behind.

I can’t go on to the third level of competition this year; I’ll be in Germany for a dear friend’s wedding, and I won’t miss it for anything. But I’ll be damned if I don’t try to win what’s coming all the same. I’m tickled by the thought of presenting this to Texas crowd. Yeeehaw! 

Wish me luck!

James

To Craft A Speech

I am a writer.

Sometimes, the words flow like water from a fountain. Sometimes, they falter, like ink from a failing ballpoint pen. Always, they require an edit, though these vary in intensity and duration. I’m not writing for college admission anymore, so I’m at liberty to practice as I please. 

I am also a speaker.

Speeches are different. A speech, with care, can be theater. Like a piece of theater, a good speech is not written, it is wrought. The distinction is significant. 

To write is to put pen to paper, or fingers fingers to keys, with some degree of effort, and record. Typically, I can let an idea foment in my head for a few days, then sit down and write it out. I’ll give it a quick read for clarity once I’m done; a blog so executed typically takes me about two hours. This is writing. It’s almost formulaic. 

‘Wrought’ derives not from ‘write,’ but from ‘work.’ A good speech is not written, it is wrought, and it takes enormous time. It is envisioned, drafted, written, reviewed, reduced, focused, honed: every word matters, as does its placement. The arrangement of words within a sentence, or sentences within a paragraph, or even paragraphs with in a larger body, can confuse or clarify. My goal is clarity, which is relatable, engaging. Thinking a story into being is not a linear process, so emotion and ideas tend to surface before structure is built. Emotion is murky. Ideas are slippery. A good speech must be wrought.  

I have been working on one speech for six weeks. I’ve been thinking about it for eight. I look at it every day, morning, noon, and night. I speak the words, considering their rhythm, their tone, their effect – and if I don’t like it, I change it. I’ve changed this speech over and over and over again. I’ve sent it to writers for edits. I’ve considered their edits individually and deliberately. I’m laying body language against individual sentences. A work of this caliber is demanding. There is no quickness about it. It sets itself a part in presentation. I will deliver my speech next week. My parents will be in the crowd. 

There is a corollary benefit to the writer. A speech is an opportunity to tell a story. In Toastmasters, a speech is an opportunity to tell a story in 5-7 minutes. That’s not a lot of time to fill, so one must learn to tighten the material to just one subject. As one advances, layers are crafted within the speech, and these create depth and meaning, increasing opportunities for the listener to connect with what you’re saying – that is the game we’re playing, is it not?

In Toastmasters, you get immediate feedback, both written and spoken. You have a dedicated team of functionaries tasked to watch your language, your mannerisms, your body language – they focus on meeting your needs, as you state them. When writing, you’re lucky if people respond to your solicitations for feedback. Practicing oratory helps a writer hone his storytelling, which amplifies his potential as a writer. We are all storytellers competing for attention. It’s the good storytellers that get heard. Good storytellers practice. 

I believe that the same degree of effort must go into anything that one wishes to do well. With effort and direction, humans can learn most any skill. We’re an amazingly adaptable species. Three years ago, I knew how to make a loaf of quick bread. Now, I know how to make diverse loaves that I would proudly sell – and I do, at work. In the interval, I experimented, documented, practiced, failed, and practiced some more. And I read. I have a dozen books on the art and science of bread. Among the things I love about humanity is our inclination to share our knowledge and wisdom. Perhaps I’ll blog about the ease of the no-knead loaf. I’m going to teach my family how to do it next week, live and in person. I’m excited. 

Long ago, I decided that I was not content to be a mere consumer in our consumer-driven society – that’s one of the reasons I learned how to bake great bread. I think it’s important to stake a claim in the world and apply persistent effort towards justly taking it. The world is much more interesting when people pursue what interests them, get good at it, and then share it – it takes discipline, effort.

 We ought to all seek to be more than what we are. By steady degree, we can achieve greatness. To do so is to honor the immense potential that resides within each of us. Call it forth – what will you bring the greater conversation?

James 

Just Get Going

On Monday, my friend asked me to teach him how to sing. I’m grateful he did. 

Tom’s request led me to a podcast, Sing Better Fast. It was a slow week at work; I listened to it in the quiet times in my office. The show is hosted by two men: one of them is a dedicated athlete; the other can shatter crystal with his voice. This grows important – this podcast is not just for singers. 

The very first episode is a twenty-five-minute philosophical inquiry into the disposition of humanity – if you listen to it at 1.5x speed, as I do, it’s even shorter. In it, they classify the world into two populations: those who believe the can’t, so they don’t; and those who believe they can, so they do. It was a healthy kick in the butt – a pep talk worth repeating. I found myself almost insulted, but fully engaged. I tend to surrender to the winter doldrums – I have fallen into the I can’t, so I won’t camp. I’m emerging from them now. I listened to six episodes in succession on my first day. 

If you do nothing more, I recommend you pull up this podcast and listen to episodes 1, 2, 6, 9, and 10. You can even listen to them slowly, one by one. They are general enough to apply to any endeavor, and they are compellingly done. I found myself taking notes. I found myself altering my attitudes and behaviors because of them. I even found myself in a bit of a quandary, trying to pursue multiple unfinished objectives at the same time; these podcasts agitated me, unsettled my psyche. I’m learning to further focus and layer my time. I will give these episodes another listen, maybe even a third. 

The truth is, it’s too easy to be lulled into an easy complacency in this fast-paced and wireless world. It’s too simple to Netflix and chill at the end of a long workday, frittering the evening hours away, day after day. We’ve done enough, we say; I’m out of juice, okay? But to settle so easily is to accept that we’ll never account to anything more. We are watching Huxley’s feelies, consuming his soma. It’s a soullessly productive existence. This should be discomfiting: life’s not meant to be lived without soul. That’s not life; that’s shallow survival. We’re all better than that. 

I find myself renewed in several pursuits. I find my yoga practice deepening. I find my writing improving. I find myself reading more than I have in years. I’m re-training my voice to sing too. Try sustaining lip bubbles – purse your lips together and blow a raspberry. It’s hard, right? Now try to reduce your airflow as you do it. Give it pitch. Change the pitch. Keep trying. This is a basic singer’s drill – not easy, right? I now have greater justification to sing in the shower!

This is what they call an attitude of incremental refinement. The pursuit of mastery demands an attitude of incremental refinement. A master never rests content in his achievement; he presses on in the pursuit of greater knowledge and comprehension. Mastery requires neither conceit or arrogance, but rather a humility and a willingness to ask questions, to learn from others. Humility is fundamental to lasting success. 

What I think I admire most about these guys is that they stress accepting yourself where you are, then working from that baseline. You can’t deliberately grow if you don’t deliberately and honestly assess where you are. Many of us have delayed starting projects that matter to us because we lack the self confidence to do so; there’s no time; or we lack the support to start. Self-doubt squashes big dreams. I’m no saint here – I have a laundry list of projects I’d like to work through but haven’t, though the means are at my disposal. I’ve owned a guitar for four years. I’ve never really played it. I’ve fallen into the ‘others can’t, so I can’t’ mentality more than I care to admit. 

I’m not advocating that we cut our pleasures to pursue our dreams. I’m suggesting that maybe we use Netflix as a reward rather than a medication. Maybe that means that we read for half an hour before we tune in to our favorite show. Maybe that means we go for a walk to unwind. Maybe that means that we set specific hours for sleep and stick to them. 

I bought Raise your Voice, Jaime Vendera’s book. I found it on Half-Priced Books for half of what it costs on Amazon. I’m excited to work through it. I’m excited to grow a life-sustaining passion into something profitable. I will teach Tom how to sing, and in the process, I’ll deepen my own understanding of an art that has long buoyed my spirits.  

Growing up, I watched a lot of Malcolm in the Middle – as a family of four boys, we could relate to Francis, Reese, Malcolm, and Dewie. Malcolm once quipped ‘You want to know the best part about childhood? At some point, it stops.’ It was the line of an exasperated kid, and it was funny. Many people feel the same way about school. I think the best part about school, though, is that it can teach you how to learn on your own. Learning for your own sake is a joy. Joy is a deeper emotion than happiness; it is a state of being that transcends the ups and downs of daily life.

Practice what you love. Practice it again and again and again. Every master was once a beginner, and every master has wrestled with his own demons. We are all mere mortals. With discipline, mere mortals can achieve greatness.

Listen to this podcast.

James