Sunday, May 18, 2008

Lethargic? Bummed? Do Something Different

I was in a blue mood for days. I was cranky and tired. I’d never recovered from getting up at 4:00 AM in order to get my relatives to their plane on time, early one weekend morning. It wasn't just that. I was under so much stress—a litany too long to start, much less finish. Then there was the 100-degree weather in the State Capital, and, at the time, California’s energy crisis, the incentive for keeping the air conditioning at minimum to avoid paying maximum electricity bills.

I was in such a funk, I could barely work, and I even admitted it to myself and most of the people around me. I began to discover that two of my other workmates in our row on Dilbert Avenue had also taken a deep physical and emotional dive. I began to wonder if we had sick building syndrome in Sacramento’s newest skyscraper. We had malaise, tummy trouble … a lethargic bunch that didn’t have the energy to give a hoot. (Talk about an energy crisis!)

When I got off the train in my hot, but achingly familiar suburb, I did something different for a change—something other than going straight home. I was almost out of gas, and I knew I’d be pushing it if I didn’t roll over the tracks the half-block to the nearest Quick Stop. While I was at it, I figured I’d roll another few blocks down to the grocery store, knowing I was also on my last grain of dishwasher detergent. And I had let my wallet bleed down to a little loose change. I needed a rendezvous with a money machine. It was too hot to go back out. I figured if I could just stand it for another half-hour, I’d be home free without fear of running out of anything essential—gas, money, or clean dishes. No more icky, sticky heat till the next day.

This simple act of doing something out of routine was my salvation. I really got into grocery shopping. I don’t think of myself as a person who gets into ruts, but I was coming to the realization that I might even be in a ditch.

In the past few years, I have had more than one occasion to rediscover how much I am wed to ritual, and how much any break in my routine leaves me crabby and out of sorts. And I am married to someone just as bad, if not worse …

… and we lived for eleven years with a dog worse than both of us put together. If I missed his walk by five minutes or his tuck-in ceremony by a nose, Bear was all over me, letting me know that his internal alarm clock was blaring. We chuckled all the time about our creature of habit.

The routines and rituals of daily living are a delicious comfort, but too much comfort leads to couch potatoes and prehistoric disease (dragon tail). Depression is another name for a rut, a ditch, a downer. No matter what you call it; you have dug yourself too deeply into the mire of life, going back and forth over the same spot, over and over again.

Give up, get up, and do something different! Do something that goes forward. Do anything but cover the same ground that’s wearing you thin and thickening like quicksand all around you.

How do you think of something different to do, when you can’t even create the spark to jump start your own life? If you can’t think of something different right away—at least do something out of order. Eat dessert first. Sleep with your clothes on. Read the newspaper instead of watching the news, or put yourself on a news diet for the night. (You’ll be amazed to learn that we can live without headlines!) . Skip your usual TV show and listen to the radio—or channel surf and randomly choose a program that’s the same number of clicks as the day of the month you were born.

Juxtaposition … the unexpected … random acts of kindness or disorder … they are rut busters.

When it comes to chasing away the blues—maybe, like I did, on the way to the ATM machine— you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find out that a little change is all it takes.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Blunders into Blessings

Before someone dragged me to a Toastmasters meeting in 1999 and signed me up for the cure, like most people, I would rather die than speak in public. Mind you, I had been doing it since 1969. People told me I was told I was good at it—a natural. But no one could see or hear my knocking knees behind the podium. They didn’t have a clue about the agony I went through every time I was sentenced to the spotlight.

What is it we’re scared to death of? Blunders. Making a fool of ourselves. Looking stupid in public.

Now as fate would have it, our own US President makes so many speech blunders, he inspired a segment on the
Late Show with David Letterman called Great Moments in Presidential Speeches. Love him, hate him, or anywhere in-between: You’ve got to admit, President Gobbledygook has raised the public speech blunder to an art form. It is an eye roller to hear his latest tongue trips next to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “nothing to fear but fear itself” speech or JFK’s most quotable “ask not what your country can do for you.” Unfortunately, our current President’s boo-boos are heard ‘round the world.

None of us is leader of the free world, of course, but our cheeks still burn over our public mistakes and speech mishaps. I’ve come to realize that we have a choice in how we view flub-ups. We can see them as humiliating, learning experiences, and/or amusing, depending how we look at them.

I, for one, have gone home from more than one meeting mortally embarrassed for days over some mistake I made in front of the group. What does that say about me?

First, I take myself way too seriously and have lost my sense humor, at least temporarily. Everyone else was having a big belly laugh. Why not join the fun? Second, I expect too much of myself, namely perfection, which is unattainable. Third, and most importantly, I’ve allowed a gaffe to become divisive in my mind instead of cohesive.

Blunders can join people together in a fraternity of laughter and a sense of belonging to the same club of human foibles. You’ve probably seen good speakers do this hundreds of times. You’ll forgive the speaker anything, because you’ve been there. Best of all, the speaker just proved her humanity to you.

We’re fortunate in Toastmasters, and in the places most of us would have occasion to speak, because we’re likely to encounter friendly audiences. But a friendly audience is vastly in the eye of the beholder. Anticipate acceptance, and you’ve got it. Expect rejection? You’ll see it everywhere, whether or not it’s actually there.
If there’s a single commandment of public speaking, it isn’t Thou shalt not goof. Rather, it is Thou shalt not bore thy audience. I can imagine the Distinguished Toastmaster in the Sky delivering this one-liner on a stone tablet with a large clap of thunder.

Blunders are blessings because they can turn a speech, whether lukewarm or dazzling, into a conspiracy of fun and sharing. To grow is to take risks and accept that the price of admission is making mistakes.

Revel in your errors, learn from them and most of all, know them for the blessing they are. We are so melodramatic. Better to be laughable. (Laugh able.)

Public mistakes are not tombstones; they are touchstones of our shared humanity and stepping-stones to our growth as speakers.

Photo: My mom never had any trouble laughing at herself, something I’m still trying to learn from her.