My fifth Toastmasters speech: Getting physical

The assignment for this, my fifth Toastmasters speech and with the project name “Your Body Speaks” was to express myself physically as I gave the speech, so I walked when I described walking, bowed when I described myself bowing, etc.


My uniform is a simple pair of trousers, the legs of which reach barely below my knees; a heavy cotton jacket; and a simple white belt.

As I change into my uniform, I can start feeling the cares of my day — even the stress of the drive to the dojo — fade away. Like traffic sounds fading as I go deeper into a forest, I may not notice it right away, but the hurry and bustle is less, then less again. I’m often the first person to arrive and I have the changing room to myself.

Once I’m dressed, I gather the bag of wooden weapons and leave the changing room, then walk down the flagstone path to the dojo itself. This is a simple wooden building on the edge of the woods, with a high roof, windows all the way around, and a porch across the front. The flagstones of the path are irregularly spaced, requiring me to slow down even more as I approach the porch.

I step onto the porch and leave my sandals by the bench. I slide the door open and bow. I enter the dojo and place the weapons in their proper corner, then get the broom and clean the dojo. As I do each task carefully and in its proper order, the external stillness starts settling deeper and deeper into my mind, and my body further slows. I’ve gradually learned that taking time to do something carefully and well holds value in and of itself.

Sweeping done, I enter the dojo again, bowing more deeply as I do so. Bowing slows me down, makes me pay attention. Bowing breaks the rush that I go through most of my life in. Bowing reminds me of why I’m here. It shows my respect for my teacher, and the teachers who went before him, and shows my respect for this space, for my fellow students, and even for myself.

I begin my warm-up, and while I’m stretching and rolling and swinging my arms, other students begin to arrive, each quietly bowing in and greeting me. Finally, our teacher shows up and we pause in our warm-ups to welcome him.

Soon the class begins, and we always start by bowing again, very formally this time, once to the front of the dojo as a symbol of respect to the teachers who have created, preserved, and strengthened this art, and once to our teacher; he bows to us as well; the respect goes both ways.

Then the class is in full swing, and we are practicing with sticks or wooden swords; throwing each other across the room (and being thrown!); learning new skills or practicing familiar motions.

On the inside I’m feeling a swirl of emotions. I’m gleeful when I execute a front roll correctly and at high speed; I’m frustrated at not being able to do a pin or a kata correctly which I thought I’d perfected. I’m embarrassed when I forget something my teacher just taught me a few days ago.

In the brief interludes of rest I sometimes think about the fact that I’ve spent so much of my life avoiding anything that might embarrass me, anything that I wouldn’t be able to excel at doing, and I wonder how many good things I’ve missed. At the dojo there’s certainly no danger of my excelling! I’m no natural athlete, and even those who are athletes may have to start studying when they’re in their teens to be considered experts… but that matters less here than anywhere else I’ve been. Experts don’t spend any time strutting around on the mat; they spend their time teaching and learning and practicing. The teachers and my fellow students are incredibly helpful to me, because we can’t have fun on the mat unless everyone is as capable as possible. It’s an art with no competition and no conflict.

Every time I make a mistake, forget a move, or mix up my Japanese vocabulary, I start to sink into my usual self-pity and self-accusation, but none of that comes from my teacher or my fellow students, and I’ve gradually learned the difference between humility and humiliation, between being humble and being humbled. My pride, which has stopped me so many times, in fear of being hurt… I’m finally learning how to set it aside and not be ruled by it. To learn, with no expectation of perfection, an art that seems to get bigger the further into it I go.

I’m starting to discover that there’s something to learn that’s not only in my head, things to learn that you can’t cram for, that take years to discover, and that that discovery is both inside and outside. It’s how to be physically present so that I can roll out of a throw without being hurt, and how to be with other students with respect and attention. There’s something in the process that is changing me in subtle ways. I can tell that a change is happening, but I can’t tell where I’m going yet.

Finally, the class ends, and once again we bow to the front of the dojo, then to our teacher, and last to each other, quietly gather our wooden weapons and bow a last time as we leave the mat.

The good things…

I complain. Okay, I complain a lot.

But I’m not in a bad mood all the time. Today I thought I’d list a few things I’m happy about this week. It’s been a stressful week, so it’s good to look at some good things, too.

First: my arms actually aren’t hurting for the first time in ages. So there’s that!

Today is a Friday, and I’d normally be preparing for our weekly Toastmasters meeting, but with the holiday we’re taking a week off. Our corporate club has been incredibly welcoming and encouraging over the last three months. I’ve learned so much from all of you!

This afternoon is the start of our autumn Aikido seminar with Donovan Waite Sensei; he’s an awesome teacher, and I get to spend time with everyone at my dojo, all of whom have graciously welcomed me and helped me learn over the last year. September 2 was my first anniversary.

September 2 was also my 17-year anniversary with Wells Fargo. That’s pretty amazing for me; it’s more than three times longer than my longest previous job. I had a couple of difficult days this week at work, but my manager and my team backed me up and helped it get better.

Somewhere in September will mark my 20-year anniversary of when I first got sick. Cancer isn’t something to celebrate, but surviving cancer for 20 years certainly is. I was fortunate that I had an excellent surgeon who kept working on my case when the early test results were confusing. I suspect that I would have died without his determination and skill. I’m also thankful for the friends who supported us during that time, and my lovely wife, who worked, cared for our animals, and spent every spare moment at the hospital with me. Thanks!

I appreciate everyone who has helped me be a better person.

Thank you.

My third Toastmasters speech: A moonlit highway long ago

Below is my third Toastmasters speech, given as my entry in a humor contest on August 28. I was made ineligible for the contest because I went over the time limit of seven minutes, but I count it as a success because people did laugh, and I did manage to get up and do a speech without checking any notes while I was speaking.

 


Massachusetts is not only more rural than people think; it’s more rural than most people would believe. Massachusetts is very rural, even though it’s about 1/5 the size of North Carolina while having two-thirds the number of people. The reason for this is that nearly everyone in Massachusetts lives either within a 45 mile circle of Boston, or in a series of other towns and cities that stretch, like pearls on a string, in a long, east-west line of population along old Route 9.

Route 9 goes from Boston through Framingham, Worcester, and Springfield, and out to the western border with New York. Route 2, along the northern edge of the state, stretches just as far, but there are fewer big towns, and thus it is very isolated in places.

Charged with patrolling these highways are the troopers of the Massachusetts State Police. The State Police are one of the oldest highway patrol forces in the US, and I suspect that they were the model for many other states when they started up their highway patrols.

Years ago, before equal opportunity became a concept, the patrol only hired big guys, I think there was a minimum height of 5′ 10″, and many of them were much taller than that. They wore knee-high boots, bloused trousers with a stripe down the side, Smokey Bear hats, Sam Browne belts… you know, the kind with the strap that holds up your service revolver? Overall, they were some very serious and impressive-looking dudes.

These guys are simultaneously the driver’s biggest fear (because they are constantly lurking behind overpasses) and biggest friend, because they’ll stop and help you if you’re broken down.

Back in the late 1980s, I was unemployed and working as a carpenter for hire. My van had gotten wrecked, and I ended up with a two-door car, a 1970s vehicle that seemed to be about the size of one of today’s sport utility vehicles. I think I paid $75 for it. The driver’s door wouldn’t open, the odometer was broken (which meant I never knew how far I’d driven), and the gas gauge was broken (which meant that I ran out of gas rather often). Being broke, I didn’t try to get the gas gauge fixed; I just bought a five-gallon gas can and kept it in the trunk. When I would run out of gas I would just glide to the side of the road and put in enough gas to get me to the next station.

I was working as a carpenter, so I needed to be able to carry lumber. I looked at the car and thought… “I can build a roof rack to carry lumber!” But the trunk lid was in the way. So I did what any maker would do; I took a wrench and removed the trunk lid. Now the hinges holding the lid were standing upright, so I bolted some 2×6 boards to them, and ran other 2x6s across the roof and tied them to the front bumper. I was in business!

Also in the late 1980s, my wife and I had just gotten married, and for some reason we were totally in love with the idea of homesteading. We poured over every issue of The Mother Earth News, she read seed catalogs, we planted a garden, we raised chickens for eggs, built a fancy compost heap, and raised geese; big, gray geese.

When we got a chance to buy a cabin on five wooded acres in central Mass, we thought we had our homestead! We were very excited. We got the place in the winter and over the next few months we gradually cleaned up the cabin and started moving our stuff. We spent every weekend there and started looking for work.

Finally, in August, came the last step; moving the chickens and geese out to their new home. The chickens were easy. Put them into large boxes and close the lids. Chickens tend to get very quiet when it’s dark. Geese are another matter.

Our geese were big. They had really large wing spans and could be ferocious when they were agitated. We consulted Mother Earth News and learned the trick for transporting geese. You gather some old feed bags snip off the bottom corner. You take a goose, fold its wings, and carefully put it head-first into the bag until its head emerges from the corner. With their wings restrained they sit quietly. Except that when geese are stressed, they pant rapidly, with their tongues sticking out. Geese in bags are very stressed.

When the big day came, I got off work, got home, got the feed bags, carefully cut a corner off each one, and bagged up geese, setting each one on the back seat of my car. I headed out on the 75 mile drive from the coast to the hills of central Massachusetts.

Around ten PM, driving up a long, empty stretch of Route 2, the car ran out of gas. No panic, this was something I knew how to do. I glided to the breakdown lane, put on my emergency lights, and got out to fill up the car. The moon was out, and it was a beautiful evening. Suddenly a police car arrived and pulled up behind me, blue flashing lights adding to the overall effect of the moonlight and my car’s hazard lights.

The trooper got out of his car…

Trooper: “Good evening, everything okay?”

Me: “Yes, officer. I ran out of gas, but I’ll be on my way shortly.”

Trooper: “Good, good.”

He clicked on his flashlight and shined it on me; long hair, jeans with the knees ripped out. He examined the car’s trunk, with the lid missing and the 2×6 Beverly Hillbillies roof rack. He strolled up next to the car and pointed his light into the back seat.

He stood there for a long while, not moving.

Then he clicked off his flashlight, did a smart military turn and marched back to his patrol car — never looking my way — got into his cruiser, turned off the lights, and sped away.