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.

A ‘plague of offense’?

I’ve been seeing posts and articles claiming that “everyone is offended these days,” with the implication, at least, that everyone should just get over themselves. I agree to a point, but I also think that some of this is a passive-aggressive way of saying “stop pointing out that I’m a bigot.”

Here’s my take on the ‘plague of offense’ that we’re apparently suffering through. Subject to revision/refinement as I think this through…

I don’t expect to get through the day without being offended
(I’ll try not to whine about it beyond posting a snarky comment).

I don’t expect to get through the day without offending anyone, but I don’t go out of my way to do so. I think people who do are just showing that they’re jerks. If I cross the line from expressing an opinion to being deliberately offensive, call me out on it.

My “being offended” is different from pointing out discrimination and bullying behavior. If you think that you can silence me by telling me to quit being easily offended, you’re wrong.

There are problems that won’t go away by being ignored; if someone points out racism, sexism, or any other social issue that they think is a problem, don’t imagine you can shut them up by claiming that they just need to grow a thick skin.

My second Toastmasters speech: Heroes


Below is my second Toastmasters speech, built on the requirement that I had to organize my speech properly; with a clear beginning, middle, and end. This is still in the form of the notes I spoke to during the speech. I’m planning to re-write it to fill in the blanks, similar to how I delivered it during the meeting. I got feedback after my speech that the portion where I talked about everyday heroes could use some expansion, and my transitions between ideas could use some smoothing out, so I’ll probably buff up the full-text version a bit.


Intro

Green skin! Stretchy arms! Invulnerability to bullets! They can fly! Woohoo!

  • In movies and comic books, this is how heroes are presented. But this isn’t a new thing.
  • Hero stories are some of the oldest stories we have.
  • The story of Gilgamesh, the King of Sumer, was first written down about 4,000 years ago.
  • Achilles was a hero of the Greek story of the battle of Troy
  • Bellerophon was the hero who captured the winged horse, Pegasus
  • In fact, if you look at their abilities, the heroes of ancient myth look a lot like our modern comic-book superheroes, or maybe the other way around, who knows…

Body

  • When I was a child, I was fascinated by heroes.
  • I watched The Amazing Spiderman every Saturday morning; I knew about Sampson, and David & Goliath
  • I wasn’t much of a comics reader, but boy did I love Aragorn and Faramir in The Lord of the Rings
  • When I was a little older, I devoured the stories in the Reader’s Digest magazines my mom got. There was a column called “Drama in Real Life,” filled with heart-wrenching stories of people saving their families, co-workers, and complete strangers.
  • I still love stories like that! We have featured some of them on Wells Fargo Stories, such as the one about the mortgage consultant who rescued two people from their car, stuck on a train track.
  • When I was growing up, I wanted to be one of those heroes. I had daydreams of saving people, but growing up in the suburbs doesn’t give you many opportunities like that.
  • As I got older, I started to collect heroes of my own, such as the surgeon who diagnosed my cancer and saved my life.
  • There are some pretty clear trends here.
    • In the ancient stories, the heroes are mostly demigods or the children of demigods,
    • In the comic books, most heroes have had some extreme thing happen that changed them from being “merely human” to being a superman.
    • Even my surgeon has a bit of the superhuman about him… years of training, decades of experience
  • Over time, I started to recognize another kind of hero
    • People with no superhuman skills; people who aren’t descended from gods, who haven’t been bitten by radioactive spiders, and who haven’t even had years of training to be surgeons, firemen, or rescue helicopter pilots.
    • People like my night nurse when I was recovering from my surgery. Whenever I woke up, there she was, with the most amazing patience and kindness.
  • I started realizing that I had known many heroic people,
    • Like my mom, who raised five kids at home with another in college; she woke up at 4 every morning to get the day started for her family; she worked part-time jobs to make ends meet.
    • Like my dad, who worked 50-60 hours a week, and when he came home grew food for us in a large garden next to the house.
  • These heroic people are not superhuman, they’re not flawless, and they don’t have extraordinary gifts.
  • What they do have is grit. They get up, show up, do what’s in front of them, and care deeply about the people in their lives.
  • They’re not only the unsung heroes, they’re often totally invisible to most everyone around them

Conclusion

  • I still love heroes, and will always love hearing the stories of the heroes of newspaper stories, who rush into burning buildings to save children or jump into rivers to save drowning people.
  • I certainly don’t mean to take anything away from people who do these things, but I want to suggest to you that, while not everyone is a hero, there are more heroes around us than we may be used to thinking of.
  • There are probably heroes right here in this room.
  • The person in the next chair might be a hero.
  • The person in your chair might be a hero.

Mr. Toastmaster…

Why don’t we teach our kids critical thinking skills?

I was reading this thread on Quora, and one of the comments included the observation that we teach American schoolchildren scientific facts (if even this), but rarely teach the scientific method, which would better enable them to figure things out for themselves.

I have thought about this off and on, and my conclusion is that there are many institutions, not just religious ones, that benefit from a population that doesn’t think critically about the world. I’m not saying there’s a coherent strategy to keep people uneducated (there’s no need to imagine a plot), but there’s no push to make it happen, so it doesn’t happen. Here are a few such organizations or institutions that I thought of off the top of my head:

  • Marketing: you would prefer it to be easy to convince people to buy your stuff
  • Politics: easier to get people to vote for you if you can use emotion and not logic
  • Military: people with good critical thinking skills might see that military action is usually not your best first option (probably a sub-category of politics)
  • Religion (of course)
  • Professional team sports (probably a sub-category of marketing)
  • Parents who want their kids to grow up believing in the same things they do

 

My first Toastmasters speech: The Icebreaker

Note: when making a speech to a Toastmasters club, you have to open and close the speech in prescribed fashion. The “icebreaker” speech is the standard first speech in the Toastmasters program, designed to get you talking in front of an audience. I procrastinated writing this speech until 10:45 on Friday morning, July 31, with the speech due at our noon meeting that day. I printed it out at 11:50 and walked over to the neighboring office building where our corporate Toastmasters club has its weekly meeting. I mention this so you know I’m not holding this up as an example of a well thought-out speech!


Jorah’s Icebreaker speech, July 31, 2015

Mr. Toastmaster; ladies and gentlemen

(PAUSE)

This is my icebreaker speech… and I panicked at first, thinking that I was going to have to discuss giant Arctic working ships with highly reinforced bows and powerful engines.

(PAUSE)

When I realized I was only expected to talk about myself, I relaxed right away, but then had the challenge of figuring out how to restrict myself to five minutes on a topic that I actually know a lot about.

(PAUSE)

Since our Toastmasters club is work-related, I decided to focus on how I learned some of the skills I use in the job I have now.

What a long, strange trip it’s been

I’ve had few different jobs, not all of them as swanky as the one I have now!

  • I’ve swept floors (I think I’ve probably spent 20% of my working life sweeping floors), washed floors, waxed floors, and installed floors…
  • I’ve built houses; torn houses apart, put roofs on houses, and even dug tunnels under houses…
  • I’ve vacuumed parking lots, driven fork lifts, mixed sand, melted bronze…
  • I’ve gathered chickens at night in barns where the ceiling was so low I couldn’t stand up straight…
  • I’ve gathered eggs, loaded and unloaded trucks, decorated ballrooms at fancy hotels (favorite memory; crossing a Boston sidewalk carrying what looked like a 20-foot marble column), and stocked warehouses…
  • I’ve done inventory of parts for nuclear submarines, sewn futons at a commune in New Hampshire, given people baths, cleaned printing presses, done quality assurance, and inspected medical labels at night in a darkened room with a strobe light running for 10 hours at a time…
  • I’ve done newspaper page layout, published a magazine, delivered newspapers, taught job skills to disabled persons, and stood guard over submarines loaded with nuclear weapons…

As you can tell, none of that sounds like background for a career managing corporate web sites.

But no matter what job I’ve had, I’ve always tried to do my best. I’ve always tried to learn something new at each job, I’ve always tried to solve problems, and — perhaps most important — I’ve always worked hard.

Being a stock control clerk in the Navy, I learned about categories and naming conventions. It turns out that being able to work out sensible names and categories will give you a good foundation for understanding web site construction, where you have to arrange things so that people have a chance of finding them.

By having a new job every few months, I learned how to learn new things quickly.

Being able to walk onto a new job and learn long sequences of processes like how to transform piles of lumber, drywall, and roofing shingles into a house… can help you understand how to write process documentation for publishing web sites.

I’ve discovered that I can look at a problem and relate it to something I learned 30 years ago… and often solve that problem.

I’ve learned that no job is beneath me.

I learned not to look down my nose at someone because of the job they have.

Because…

You are not your job. Your current job doesn’t have to limit where you end up. I’m proof of that. If someone who knew I flunked out of high school saw me working in that chicken barn in 1995, they wouldn’t have credited the idea that I’d be working for a top Fortune 500 company a few years later.

And all of this has made me grateful. I no longer have to stand on wooden platforms thirty feet in the air, with freezing water dripping down my back. I don’t have to shovel manure, or work on sun baked roofs, or risk giant rolls of paper shifting and breaking my leg, nor getting burned by molten aluminum.

(PAUSE)

My life has taken me in some strange directions, and much to my surprise it has now brought me here, to a Toastmasters meeting in a beautiful building in Charlotte, and I’m glad to be here and thank you all for welcoming me.

Mr. Toastmaster…