A movie not to miss: SPEAK

We all speak. Some beautifully, some loquaciously, some haltingly.

Most of us are comfortable speaking in 1-on-1 conversations, in small groups, and in meetings with people we know. But many of us (myself included) find “public speaking” a whole different game.

Public speaking—giving a “speech”—freaks. us. out.

Some people are more scared of public speaking than they are of dying (I wouldn’t go that far)!

Filmmakers Paul Galichia and Brian Weidling decided to explore the fear of public speaking by following the journey of the 10 finalists in the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking.

Their 90-minute documentary delivers compelling stories of ordinary people who decided not only to improve their public speaking skills, but to make a mark on the world with them. It will make you laugh, it will make you squirm, it will engender compassion. And take some Kleenex.

Every person I’ve talked to who has seen the film has raved about it. In the car on the way home, my husband and I couldn’t stop analyzing the characters and their portrayal. When I got home, I immediately sent an email to the president of my Toastmasters club to say we needed to host a screening—for as many people as possible.

If you need some motivation, inspiration, or affirmation, or if you just like a really well-done film, go see SPEAK. Then let me know what you think.

My Favorite Olympics Moment

One of NBCnews.com’s top headlines today was “50 Memorable Moments of the Games.” How about that Gabby Douglas? or Michael Phelps? or Usain Bolt (talk about an appropriate name!)? Amazing athletes, all. My favorite Olympic moment—in rowing (no surprise to those who know me)—did not make the list.

First, let me say NBC did not show nearly enough rowing, and they made it way too hard to find specific events on their TV schedule (not to mention how far off schedule they got). So when serendipity led me to the Men’s Lightweight 4 final, I rejoiced simply to see some blades in the water.

Great Britain was the clear favorite, having dominated the early heats. Denmark and Australia were also contenders—but truly, on any given day, most of the crews had a shot. As with elite runners and swimmers, top rowers frequently finish their race within fractions of a second of each other. The Men’s Lightweight 4 race was no exception, with the top three crews finishing within a third of a second—on a six-minute race.

The different race strategies were evident. Do you start fast to gain an early lead? Or row a steady pace, then power it in at the end?

Quick lesson: The rower in the stern-most seat is called the “stroke.” The stroke sets the pace; everyone else follows. When the stroke’s oar hits the water, all the oars hit the water. When the stroke speeds up, everyone speeds up. While the whole crew knows the strategy going into the race, everything is dependent on the stroke’s executing the strategy and the rest of the crew’s following.

At this elite level of rowing, I expected exemplary technique, stellar athleticism, and a photo finish. What I did not expect was South Africa’s winning its first gold medal in rowing.

When I think of South Africa, I still think apartheid. I remember learning about it in school, trying to figure out whether it was pronounced apar-thide, apar-tide, or apar-tate. I remember wondering what I would do if I ever met a white girl from South Africa—could I be her friend or would that be a tacit endorsement of institutional discrimination? Of course, it was perfectly fine—and practically required—to be friends with any black girl I might meet from South Africa. (Neither of which was remotely likely in the middle of Iowa.)

History has never been my strong suit, so while I knew South Africa had not attended the Olympics for many years, I had to visit Wikipedia for a refresher on dates. South Africa participated from 1904 to 1960, was banned in 1962, then returned in 1992, apartheid having been started in 1950 and dismantled 1990-1994.

Now, I keep a pulse on global politics, but I’m by no means an expert on current affairs in South Africa. I imagine that a couple of decades is long enough for significant change, but not nearly long enough for all the old daily injustices to have been completely removed. How much progress has been made?

When South Africa won the men’s lightweight 4, James Thompson, Matthew Brittain, and John Smith followed stroke Sizwe Ndlovu to victory.

My favorite moment of the Olympics was when three white South Africans followed their black leader—and it got so very little attention. Progress indeed. Well done, crew.


Lessons in Contrast

Harry Potter has returned to Hogwarts in search of what he thinks is Voldemort’s final horcrux; meanwhile, Voldemort’s forces prepare to attack the school. Professor McGonagall assures Harry they will do everything possible to give him time to search. On the steps of the school, she intones “Piertotum Locomotor!” thus calling the statues and suits of armor to their duty of protecting the school. The stone warriors leap from their high perches and thunk to the ground, crouched ready to pounce. The professor turns to Mrs. Weasley and giggles, “I’ve always wanted to try that spell!”

Last night I went to an outdoor screening of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2. The movie reminded me again (I’ve seen it several times…) of the importance of balancing darkness with light, heaviness with humor. The last Harry Potter movie carries a great deal of darkness, visually and thematically, but the creators excelled at inserting contrast into all that darkness.

On the eve of battle, we see a combination of imminent danger, fearful power, and childlike pleasure. The humor allows the audience a momentary break from anxiety. The levity stops the movie from taking itself too seriously.

Likewise the film contrasts the visual darkness (gray to the point of difficulty in making out details at times) with the brilliant scene where Harry meets Dumbledore at what appears to be a very clean version of King’s Cross Station. The white light, almost blinding initially, certainly would not have the same impact without so much darkness surrounding it.

I’ve noticed this need for contrast in other media as well. For example, it’s tough—really tough—to get vulnerable when you are giving a speech, to share something sad or disturbing from your own life. And as hard as it is for the speaker to say, it’s sometimes even harder for the audience to hear. Even if they empathize with you, your sharing of an uncomfortable experience makes them uncomfortable. But balanced with an eensy-weensy bit of lightness or humor or joy, the discomfort becomes bearable. (Easier said than done.)

I have a friend who is a leadership coach. I admire him and I’ve learned a lot from him. But I’ve almost given up on reading his newsletters because everything is so. heavy. I want to say “Dude! Lighten up! Can’t you see the humor in this situation? Everything is not suffering and sacrifice.” As someone who dealt with a parent’s Alzheimer’s for many years, I recognize that laughter can bring as much enlightenment as tears.

In my writing, I find each poem has a certain flavor—dark, light, humorous, cynical—but collectively I think I have a balance of different feels and emotions. I think I avoid monotony (tough to judge one’s own work though).

How does the idea of contrast affect your creative work? Is it a conscious consideration? Does it just come naturally?

Here’s hope for all the aspiring novelists out there

The Art of Racing in the Rain: A Novel

I just read (well, skimmed) The Art of Racing in the Rain.

It’s for a new book club I’m visiting next week, so I wanted to like it. I really really wanted to like it so I could participate enthusiastically (!) in the discussion, but I knew I was in trouble by page 7.

Wow. Can you say “trite,” “unoriginal,” and “one-dimensional”?

No character development. Shoot—no characters! Only stereotypes!

Completely predictable, not to mention unbelievable, plot. The whole thing reads like a bad Lifetime movie (apologies, Lifetime).

I struggle to see how nearly 2000 ratings on Amazon come up with 4.5 stars. That’s either a comment on the sophistication of the reading public, the success of Garth Stein’s marketing machine, or a whole lot of hope given to those of us still honing our craft.

Publishers, you can do better than this!

All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Science Fiction

(NOTE: This post is a version of my 10th Toastmasters speech, which I gave earlier this week. You’ll just have to imagine the gestures, facial expressions, and vocal variety!)

I am a science fiction geek. Always have been; always will be. Books, TV shows, movies. Doesn’t really matter. It’s a special filter through which I see life. I’ve learned a multitude of life lessons from sci-fi. Here are five…

Lesson 1: DON’T PANIC!

New job? DON’T PANIC. New baby? DON’T PANIC. Starting your own business? DON’T PANIC. Fire in a crowded movie theater? Even then—DON’T PANIC. It rarely does much good, so DON’T PANIC.

Those are the words inscribed in large friendly letters on the cover of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the best-selling travel guide in the universe!

I first read Douglas Adams’ book, about poor Arthur Dent, dragged about the galaxy after the earth is destroyed for a planetary byway, when I was 18 and traveling the trains around Europe. This was well before the days of Kindles, back when travelers still traded paperbacks to have something new to read.

DON’T PANIC was particularly helpful advice for a young person traveling alone for the first time, nervous, frequently lost, and—let’s face it—a little bit panicky. Plus, it made me laugh hysterically. Did you know it’s practically impossible to panic when you are laughing?


Lesson 2: Engage!

In Star Trek: The Next Generation, there is always a “situation”—a problem to solve, a disease to cure, a civilization to rescue—and it generally involves flying off into space somewhere. Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Be still my heart!) orders the course to be set. “Course laid in, captain.” The captain points his finger and says, “Engage.” And they fly off to save the universe.

I had a prickly relationship with my father growing up, and when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I went home to spend some time with him. Every night we would watch reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Watching Jean-Luc point his finger and say “engage.” That was how we were able to engage—a common interest, a common experience, a common love of science fiction.

How do you engage with life, engage in intellectual pursuit, engage with family, engage with friends? However you do it, just engage!

“Engage.” It’s more than an order—it’s a philosophy.

Lesson 3: If you want to do something, you have to go do it!

Octavia Butler was rare in the literary world, an African American female science-fiction writer—and the first sci-fi writer to receive a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant.

I discovered her work many years ago through a science fiction book club. We all loved her writing so much that when we saw she was going to be at a sci-fi conference a few hours away, we eagerly jumped in the car to go see her.

At the conference we were enthralled with her speaking and followed her around like puppies waiting for a treat. I had her sign all my books and I told her how much I loved her writing and that I wanted to be a writer too, and her response was “Well, you know what you have to do to be a writer? Write!”

I’m a slow learner, so I’ve picked up my pen and paper occasionally over the years. I’ve taken writing classes. I’ve experimented a bit. But I never really committed until I started this blog for my writing challenge “May Manuscripts – 31 Days of Meeting the Muse.”

You know what I learned? I’m a writer! When it comes right down to it, when I commit, I am a writer.

What is it you want to do? Have you committed? Lesson #3: If you want to do something, you have to go do it!

Lesson 4: Be magnificent!

Lesson #4 comes from the British TV show Doctor Who, which has been around since 1963, with 11 different incarnations of The Doctor. The Doctor is a Time Lord who travels through time and space in his ship, which happens to be a blue British Police phone box. The Doctor is particularly fond of Earth and its human inhabitants, and typically has a human “companion” who travels with him.

In the episode “The Runaway Bride,” Donna is accidentally transported to The Doctor’s ship—in the middle of her wedding. Confusion ensues, and she spends the episode traveling with The Doctor to save the world from the evil Empress of the Racnoss.

At the end of the adventure, The Doctor asks Donna what she’s going to do next. She doesn’t know. He asks her if she wants to travel with him, to become his companion. But Donna decides The Doctor’s life scares her to death; she declines.

He looks at her with sadness, but understanding. “Thanks, then, Donna. Good luck. And just…be magnificent.”

How many times has anyone told you to be “magnificent”? Or “wonderful”? or “spectacular”? Choose your own adjective.

Donna’s response: “I think I will, yeah.”

Lesson #4: You don’t have to save the world from an evil empress, but whatever you choose to do, be magnificent!

Lesson #5: Pursue Love

Our final lesson comes from a giant in science fiction Ray Bradbury, who wrote The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, and The Illustrated Man.

A few quotes…

  • “People ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it. Better yet, build it. Predicting the future is much too easy, anyway. You look at the people around you, the street you stand on, the visible air you breathe, and predict more of the same. To hell with more. I want better.”
  •  “If we listened to our intellect we’d never have a love affair. We’d never have a friendship. We’d never go in business because we’d be cynical… Well, that’s nonsense. You’re going to miss life. You’ve got to jump off the cliff all the time and build your wings on the way down.”
  • “Love is the answer to everything. It’s the only reason to do anything.”
  • “My job is to help you fall in love.”

Do you see the lesson? Science fiction is not about the science. It’s about the humanity. It’s about understanding the human condition. It’s about love. Pursue love.

It’s true I’m a science fiction geek. Science fiction is the filter through which I see life and learn the lessons I need to learn. Don’t panic; engage; if you want to do something, you have to go do it; and then…whatever you do…be magnificent. Be magnificent and pursue love.

When Karin Met Chris…

Our wedding anniversary falls between Christmas and New Year’s. We have traditions surrounding our anniversary—mostly involving food, lying around in bed, and watching the same movies every year—including When Harry Met Sally…, a perfect movie for the holiday season—dragging Christmas trees around, skating at Rockefeller Center, dancing at New Year’s Eve bashes (Has anyone ever really attended a party like that? Not us).

We’ve seen When Harry Met Sally… so many times we’ve memorized the lines. We keep saying we have to watch it on mute and just recite the lines ourselves. Sigh. This might have to be the year.

Rest in Peace, Nora Ephron.

I am now a “competent communicator”!!

When you join a Toastmasters club, you start working through the “Competent Communication” manual, a series of 10 speeches, each with a different focus (organization, vocal variety, gestures, etc.), culminating in a big “inspirational” speech to wrap it all together. After two years of procrastination, I finally wrapped up my 10th speech yesterday. And you know what? I was OK!

I roll my eyes at the name of this particular Toastmasters award – Competent Communicator, or CC. I’d like to think I’ve been “competent” for quite some time—after all I’ve been in the business world for (cough) a few years, I’ve run a few meetings, facilitated a few strategy sessions. Sit with me one-on-one and I’d say I’m even better than “competent”—at least “decent” if not “pretty good.”

But public speaking—giving a formal presentation—has always made me nervous. (I am not alone—depending on what list you read, fear of public speaking ranks right up there with fear of dying.) So I figured when I started my own business, I’d better spend a little time getting over that particular fear—or at least learning to hide it better. Thus, Toastmasters.

A few observations about the journey to competence…

  • Early on, I took a presentation skills class from a really good speech coach. I’ve taken public speaking classes before, but somehow in this class the messages came through differently and resonated differently. Perhaps a case of “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”
  • Recently I had a chance to watch this speech coach rehearse for an hour-long keynote address. Something about the process shifted my thinking from “presentation” to “performance.” Hard to even describe what happened, but I recall a similar experience watching Olympic downhill skiers many years ago when I was still learning to ski—“Oh, that’s the rhythm/motion/flow I’m supposed to have.” The next day on the hill—way more better!
  • I’ve written about affirmations on this blog. One of my affirmations this year has been “I have a voice that others need to hear.” That shift in my mindset has helped me stop worrying about what other people think and simply focus on what I need to say—after all, they “need to hear” me. How could I refuse them? 🙂
  • I took the opportunity to read a few of my poems aloud for the vocal variety speech, which really was my first foray into “performance” rather than “presentation.”
  • I practiced this last speech a LOT. I’ll be the first to admit, most of my speeches got nowhere near this level of preparation. Our club has a tradition of giving a standing ovation for the 10th speech—so I figured I’d better earn it. And, go figure, practice made a difference!
  • Finally, the “performance” of the speech became much easier because I had some passion for the topic. Since I liked what I was talking about, my facial expressions and gestures and movements more easily reflected that. No stilted feeling of “Oh, I need to put a gesture HERE.” I was in the “flow.”

Yesterday’s poem was written a couple months back, but was part of the process to reach speech #10. Yesterday I did intone my “first true words” in a manner of speaking. I’ll try to repurpose some of those words in an upcoming blog entry. I mean, really, who would not want to read “All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Science Fiction”??

Here’s to Toastmasters—to competence and beyond!

RIP Ray Bradbury

Did anyone else’s heart sink when they saw that Ray Bradbury had died?

I grew up on science fiction—that projection of current science into a possible future and the exploration of the impact it could have on human society. The genre as a whole strongly influenced my thinking, and probably contributed to my being a strategist and a writer. Ray Bradbury in particular left a mark with his vivid short stories from The Illustrated Man and The Martian Chronicles.

Two stories from The Illustrated Man, with its undulating tattoos shaping disturbing tales, lodged in my brain. In “The Veldt,” Peter and Wendy have become so attached to their technology (in the form a nursery prophetic of the Star Trek holodeck) that when their parents try to take it away, the children murder them via the lions in the African veldt they’ve created. Parallels, anyone?

And in “Kaleidoscope,” after a space ship explodes, the crew find themselves floating in space—away from each other. Their communications last a short time, and in that span their various reactions are explored. Imagine the inevitable end—imagine speeding through space, running out of air with no one to save you. Imagine how that would feel. Bradbury did, and let us feel it too. THAT is a horror story.

Ray Bradbury is one of those giants upon whose shoulders many other writers and thinkers have stood. I think it’s time to pull out my old, beat-up copies of his work and remind myself just how giant he was.


A lovely tribute from Peter Sagal at NPR.

The Challenge Has Been Met!

We’ve reached the end of May Manuscripts: 31 Days of Meeting the Muse. My goal was to: 1) produce something daily and 2) publish something daily (not necessarily the same thing).

Mission accomplished!

My stats:

  • Days of writing – 31!
  • Days of publishing – 31!

My unexpected stats:

  • Views during May – 344!
  • Views on my busiest day – 63! (Thanks, Mom!)
  • Followers – 20! (Really? Who wants to read what I have to say?!?)
  • Comments – 46! (Although I have to admit about half are my responses to others’ comments…)
  • Likes – 43 (No, they weren’t from me!)

Now, I know for those of you who’ve been blogging a while, all that is no big deal. But, gosh, don’t you feel a little bit of pressure as the number of Followers grows?? What if they don’t Like your writing anymore??

I started this challenge expecting to write for me, myself, and I—and my challenge buddies Linda and Wendy. What a great surprise to find all the support out there—THANK YOU!!!

I also found myself exploring other people’s blogs, so I’m now following blogs from 14 people that I’ve never met. They’re from all around the world. Some are writers, some artists, some musicians. Wow! I never knew how fun all this creative sharing (and learning!) could be!

Halfway through my challenge, I did a lessons learned post. To continue the list for the last half of the challenge…

Lesson 5: Challenge brings growth.

Like fasting for Ramadan or giving up chocolate for Lent, sticking with your challenge even when it is annoying or irritating or uncomfortable and you just don’t want to do it…stretches you. And when you’ve stretched that far you can say “Oh. That wasn’t so bad. I think I can do even more!”

In 2011 I wrote about 12 poems all year. This past month I wrote 10 poems! Most of them aren’t worth pursuing much further, but 3 or 4 are. Not bad!

Lesson 6: Support is essential.

Besides the unexpected followers noted above (again—yay!), my cohorts Wendy and Linda were tremendous. We checked in with each other via email almost daily. As all three of us are the introspective type, we frequently made observations about ourselves, our responses to our challenge, the shifts we felt, the resistance we ran up against. A debriefing session mid-way through the month, and a writing retreat 2/3 of the way through added to our sense of community.

Thank you, challenge buddies—you were my muses!!

Lesson 7: Just SHIP!

I read Seth Godin’s blog on a daily basis. One of his core themes is “Ship!” In other words, don’t just write and never share your writing. Don’t try for perfection – get the 80% solution out there. Ship frequently and make adjustments based on the feedback. Get your ideas or products out there for the world to use, enjoy, criticize.

The month of May provided a great lesson in shipping. Now that I’ve started, I’m not sure I can stop…

Finding my voice

Bob Page took a stand against Amendment One here in North Carolina. He spoke out. Loudly. And now, according to an article in the N&O, his business is feeling a backlash from customers who disagreed with him.

Bob has a great company, which he founded in 1981: Replacements, Ltd. It helps “[connect] our customers with their most cherished memories” by providing replacement china, silver and crystal pieces. You know that set of Grandma’s china that you lug from house to house and during one move you accidentally broke a bunch of salad plates? His company helps you find replacements, even when the pattern may be discontinued. (It’s a fascinating showroom, including a museum of rare pieces. I highly recommend a visit.)

Bob’s company took a clear stand against Amendment One when many other businesses wouldn’t. Most businesses stayed neutral, with the majority of anti-Amendment One comments coming from business people as individuals, not as representatives of their companies.

One of my affirmations this year has been “I have a voice that others need to hear.” Today I realized it’s not just my thinking or essays or poetry they need to hear. They need to hear my support when they are going through a tough time, my encouragement when they do something difficult, my reinforcement when they take a stand on a sticky topic.

When I told my husband that I was going to write Bob Page a note, he looked at me bemused. I could read the question in his eyes: “What in the world are you doing that for?”

Why? Because I have a voice that others need to hear. Today I have a feeling Mr. Page might need to hear it.