28 January, 2022

My Speech for the Nineteenth Annual Speak Easy Gavel Club Banquet

Glossophobia: the fear of public speaking. It's one of the most commonly reported fears. How common? Well, there are a little over forty people in this room right now. Since roughly three out of four people report feeling nervous speaking in front of a group, at least thirty of us would probably be anxious about coming up here, standing at this lectern, and delivering a speech. They might get a little case of jitters, sweaty palms, faster heart rate. Or it could be mild panic, with lightheadedness and rumbling guts. Anxiety runs a whole gamut of symptoms.

Even those of us who aren't nervous about the actual speaking part of public speaking face challenges. What subject do we choose? What tone do we take? How do we craft a good, attention-grabbing introduction and finish with a meaningful message? Do we invite questions at the end?

So you see, no matter who you are, public speaking takes a pretty significant investment of thought and effort. Why on earth do we put ourselves through that? This is the Speak Easy Gavel Club's nineteenth banquet. How has this club continued to exist for nearly twenty years? Wouldn't it be easier to just... not?

A man named Ralph C. Smedley founded Toastmasters in 1924. It started out as one club, which met at a California YMCA. Within fifteen years, though, it grew into an international organization. Today there are Toastmasters clubs in 143 countries around the world – more than 360,000 members, all striving to become better public speakers. And just like us in this room, most of them struggle with either glossophobia, the fear of public speaking, or with the other issues I just mentioned. Why put ourselves though the stress and the hassle? Are we, and every other member of this organization, crazy?

I want you to consider this: if someone with a terrible fear of spiders – arachnophobia – decided to go down to the zoo and stare at tarantulas once a week, would that make them crazy? If someone afraid of heights – that's acrophobia, another common fear – took up climbing lessons, wouldn't you applaud their bravery?

In his inaugural address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." I believe that every Gaveleer in this room has realized the essential truth of Roosevelt’s statement. Week after week we come to club meetings and test ourselves. Some roles, responsibilities, and situations are more challenging than others, but we push the limits of our comfort zones. We leap right out of the cozy nests that would keep us warm and safe, and we try to fly.

We don't do these things because they're easy. Easy would be rolling out of bed, watching some TV, going out to rec, eating a soup, playing a few games of pinochle, staying up for The Late Show and going to sleep. That's easy. There's no challenge. Easy is tedious. Easy is boring. Easy isn't going to do anything for you. There's no reward in easy. To get lasting pleasure from life, we need challenges.

Now, when I say "challenges," I'm not talking about mountain climbing or deep-sea diving. You don't have to run a marathon in Siberia to reap rewards from entering a challenging situation. For some people those are all that works to help them feel alive. For the rest of us, non-life-threatening challenges work great.

Studies have shown this to be a universal human truth. But do we really need science to tell us this? If we didn't crave challenges there'd be no checkers or chess, no soccer or baseball, no Jeopardy! or Wheel Of Fortune, no pie-eating contests or marathons, and of course no Gavel Club.

Now I'm going to share with you a little secret. I joined the Speak Easy Gavel Club in 2019, but before then I never had any interest in public speaking. I'm a writer. The closest I'd come to this was doing readings at coffeehouses, which were fine but didn't really challenge or inspire me. My goal in signing up for this club wasn't to be the next Tony Robbins or Jimmy Swaggart, so what was the point?

Our growth as human beings depends on curiosity, a willingness to experience new things and meet new people, an open mind to what's possible, not only for ourselves but for the world around us. Having expectations closes us off to countless possibilities. I didn't know what I was getting myself into when I joined Gavel Club. I thought it'd be an interesting way to spend a couple of hours each week, and maybe I'd get to work out a different writing muscle group by writing speeches. What I got surprised me.

Firstly, I learned that writing is as different from public speaking as building a boat is from tap dancing. I know I'm a terrible dancer, but I'm having fun trying. Thanks for not walking out on my performance here. Secondly, I made connections that helped with an amazing job opportunity. I wouldn't have known working with computers within the DOC was possible, let alone been offered a position doing that, had it not been for Mr. Brown, who gave me the heads up when a position opened at XSTREAM. Finally, and most importantly, I found friends, people who I genuinely trust and care about, who make my life richer for being in it.

What doors might Gavel Club open for you? Glossophobia is the fear of public speaking. Glossophilia is the love of it. Face your fears. You might find that you end up loving them.

06 January, 2022

Prison Programming with a Mission

Beginning on 1 January, I took over as the custodian of XSTREAM Therapeutic, one of twelve closed-circuit TV channels broadcasting to the population of Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center. I willingly traded my previous responsibility, the prison's all-animation channel, for this one. In a true win-win-win situation, XTOON went to our resident anime fanatic, Jacob, who gave our sci-fi nut Paul his own movie channel, so that Paul didn't have to keep justifying the therapeutic value of, say, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Obviously, we get broad latitude in our programming choices, so handling XSTREAM Therapeutic ("XT" to us insiders) means big fun for me. It might not be so cool, except that we recently started receiving educational videos from the Web. How it works is, we give our boss a list of subjects, he goes into his office and returns an hour or so later with a hard drive full of MP4s for us to broadcast. This is a breakthrough that's opened up a veritable universe of possibility.

I've designated Monday as "Art Day," with documentaries on artists, "Great Paintings Explained" videos, poetry readings, and a drawing how-to thrown in here and there. That's followed by TED Talk Tuesdays. Thursdays are for nature and anthropology docs of the Nature and National Geographic sort. "Science Fridays" came from their equivalent on NPR. (We just got the Hubble IMAX documentary I never got to see, as well as cool videos on neuroplasticity, quantum physics, and microorganisms.) I also have a few academic lectures to satisfy the handful of lonely intellectuals skulking around this place. It's a good mix.

People often talk about things resonating with them based on their relatability. With this in mind, I've tried to get more BIPOC-generated content – especially when the subject is academic or falls within one of the fields typically associated with "white culture," such as publishing or classical music. I want this stuff to draw people in, then expand their horizons. Ultimately, I want to promote the empathy that's so sorely lacking in this place.

Because I'm a subscriber to the theory that no discipline better fosters empathy than the humanities do, I'm especially focused on the arts. With their woven webs of words, storytellers, poets, and writers offer real talk. Painters show us new perspectives. Musicians give us novel compositions packed with meaning. By repeated exposure to others' ideas beyond the hand-to-mouth reality of the streets, maybe the seeds of change will take root. Maybe self-esteem will grow. Maybe due consideration for someone else will gain foothold. Maybe inspirational fruit will be born.

Except in states like Vermont, it's an unfortunate reality that far too many of those identified as BIPOC in this country are imprisoned. (Although even in New England, black people constitute a disproportionate percentage within the criminal system.) I believe that XSTREAM's broadcasts should reflect this fact – albeit, without pandering to anyone. It's a point I've been tacitly making with a lot of choices on the job. And I think it's having an influence. Joining the push for inclusivity, our ad-hoc concert curator, Luke, has a growing list of black musical artists for the boss to seek out. (XT plays concerts on weekends.) I also run the Mix, another channel on our network, where I try to play mostly movies and series that feature black faces.

This whole effort could be nothing more than a quixotic attempt by a well-meaning but tone-deaf white person to do what he's deluded into thinking is right. No one's said anything to the contrary yet. In the meantime, if anyone has content suggestions, by all means, leave them in a comment below!