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

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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