Monday, October 24, 2005


Five years ago, my entire family found itself together in one place for the last time. There is no sense in romanticizing the family gatherings we had for holidays; they were excruciating. My father was a man who always had something to say. He was vulgar, and if a woman, especially a young one—one of my sisters’ friends or my son’s girlfriend—were at the table, he could not help but make references to sex, scatology, or bodily functions. If it came into his mind, it had to be uttered. One time when he was trying to tell a story he’d told before and no one seemed to be listening to him, he stormed out of the room. We all let him, without protest, and this became one of our stories.

My son, on the contrary, never seemed to say much to me. There seemed always to be something on his mind. At these gatherings, most of our communications involved patting each other on the back. I guess that counts, but I am a man of many words. I had always envisaged profound, ongoing conversations with my son, precisely those I was unable to have with my father. Instead I would exist in a limbo between the silence of one and the drone of the other.

My wife found these gatherings to be nearly unbearable. She cared little for any member of my family, especially my son (not her child), and they returned the sentiments in kind. Fortunately, we lived nearby and had separate cars. Often, she would beg off, and would hardly be missed. I cannot quite judge whether it was better having her around, as a foil, or absent, as one less irritant.

My three sisters rarely argued with me, but now and then they would have what I like to call a “frank exchange of views” with each other, or with my mother. Other than the general stress and the difficulty of being in the same house as my father and mother, two things about these family gatherings at my parents’ house were especially disturbing to them. My mother had a way of destroying perfectly good food, usually by overcooking or under-seasoning, always due to a maddening failure to organize and attend. In addition, she kept poor sanitary habits in the kitchen and in the house in general. My sisters were not shy about letting their displeasure with this be known.

The house itself could cloy on you, suffocate you, make you yearn to flee. Every room would be crammed with books, papers, unread magazines, mismatched furniture. Lamps did not work, or if they did they would droop in the wrong direction. In one drawer would be a dozen locks without keys, in another two-dozen keys without locks. It would have been charitable to have called the pervading odor of that house “stale.” You could never ignore it, and you couldn’t get it out of your lungs when you left. The house was always damp, always dank, which is perhaps the reason I live in the desert now.

I was spurred to write this because I was about to review a culinary book based on the warmth and conviviality of another family’s mealtimes with each other. We hadn’t a shred of that, simply the solid fact that we were together. My father is now dead, my marriage is over, my son lives in Australia, I live two thousand miles away, we finally emptied the house, engineered its sale, and moved my mother to an apartment she can afford. My grief at losing my father has yet to present itself, I am happy no longer to be in a marriage that wasn’t working, I am thrilled that my son has a wonderful wife, career and lifestyle in Australia, and I am ecstatic that the house has finally been liquidated before an oak tree careens into it. I cannot argue with any of these things. Each in itself makes sense. But we were together.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Writing By Hand

I have been used to writing using keyboards for more than 30 years, harking back to the days of the typewriter (look it up if you are not familiar with the term). There is something wrong with either my hand, that part of the brain that controls it, or both, in that writing by hand with a pen actually causes me physical pain. Back in school, I never learned to write cursive script except for my signature. When I do write by hand, my handwriting is usually very large. It’s torture for me to fill out forms by hand, especially since I live in Albuquerque. People who live in Taos or Hobbs have it a lot easier.

Sometimes when I am in bed, however, I handwrite notes to myself. I also do crossword puzzles, filling in the spaces using a gel pen, one block letter at a time. Now and then, when I have to cross something out because I got the answer wrong, I wish I’d done it in pencil, but I’d have to press too hard to use a pencil effectively. The ink in the gel pen oozes out in some marvel of physics, insinuating itself onto the porous paper of the crossword (these are from purchased compendia of several hundred). This species of lettering requires positioning, but no pressure and hence no pain.

I do my puzzles on a clipboard. When I finish one, I unclip it and let it waft onto the floor. Sometimes, before I sleep, I see a layered pile of several sheets, showing the stamp of my primitive lettering. What a shock it would be if I glanced bleary-eyed at the pile and a phalanx of precise letters, not my own, glared back at me. I would instantly want to know the name of the trespasser. My lettering, after all, is my space, my own.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Public Speaking Techniques

Back in June, I completed a draft of my book You Have A Voice, my key rules for public speaking success. This week, after allowing the book to ferment for several months, I added a number of example sections. It’s time for a second fermentation, which, as in the case of Champagne, should add some effervescence. I put up the basics for a web page for the book.

In writing the book, my aim was to distill my experience over a 25-year period and give some real perspective on what makes public speaking special. There are plenty of books out there about public speaking. I don’t agree with everything that has been written on the subject, but there is a lot of quality material. It seems senseless for me to treat subjects that have been covered at length. What I do give is my own set of ideas.

In my original outline for the book, I stressed that the actual “how-to” of public speaking may be less important than what I call the “why-to” (why speak at all), the “what to” (the subject matter), and of course the “who to” (the audience). If you know why you’re out there speaking, what you’re speaking about, and who your audience is, you can work on the “how-to” techniques as you go along. Many commentators believe that the method, the way you project yourself, is more important than the message. I disagree with this common view. I believe what you have to say is most important. I write a great deal about attitude, and respect for the audience.

Many public speaking trainers come to the profession from the world of the theater or have credentials as psychologists. Some may have degrees in communications. All that is well and good, but my background is from the world of front-line speaking: Rotary clubs, community groups, Toastmasters and the like. I am a philosopher, and theorize aplenty, but in this book I put constant stress on the pragmatic, real-world side of speaking. Fear is a constant subject in public speaking. I know how to deal with it.

In You Have A Voice I lay out 22 “rules” of public speaking, a distillation of the original 33 rules I keep on my web site (not every one of the 33 is pithy enough to generate a full chapter section in the book). Some of these rules deal with fear and nervousness directly; all of them tend to keep fear in its place. I really think in writing this book that I have put the lid on fear. I’ve never myself been afraid to speak in front of a group. Being silenced, to the contrary, seems the worse fate.