It’s a bit past seven in the morning. I’m feeling both an adrenalin rush and a desperate need to crash. I arrived home late last night following a two-day road trip talking to groups in the Camden-Philly suburbs only to be up at 5:30 this morning for a 6:00 radio interview with a Denver station. Now, with the interview over, I’m looking forward to a bit of a beauty sleep and then a noon interview with a Washington DC station.
Yesterday, believe it or not, I watched alpacas being auctioned. I had a day to kill between my two talks. One of the facilitators from the Camden-area group, Karen, drove me to her farm in southern Jersey. Karen is a wonderful host, and we bond instantly. We sit up with her husband Doug, dipping chips into delicious homemade salsa made from produce fresh off the farm. Next morning I experience the therapeutic joy of waking up to a splendid and restful pastoral vista rather than my customary view of the parking lot to my apartment complex.
A farm breakfast (real eggs!), then it’s off to a place called Cow Town, where farmers and locals congregate to buy and sell and socialize. Did you realize that hay is not just hay? Karen explains to me there are more varieties than Heinz. I can see how a poor ignorant city boy like me can easily be conned into buying the overpriced gourmet stuff.
We enter a shed and proceed along a raised catwalk and arrive just in time to see a guy below in a cowboy hat auctioning three alpacas. The animals are sort of a cross between a small camel and a feather duster. Two or three handlers with plastic paddles herd the sold livestock down a chute. The auctioneer, incidentally, talks just like Porky Pig.
This is definitely so cool.
What am I doing here? A week before I was in Chicago receiving master classes in how to speak in public. Tom Wootton, author of “The Bipolar Advantage,” had invited me to join him on three speaking engagements. First night out I’m basically an author reading from a script. Next day Tom sits me down and works with me. Tom had a very successful career on the corporate speaking circuit, and now he is applying these skills to delivering very innovative and powerful bipolar workshops. He is a master. He patiently works with me on my presentation. We tear my talk apart and retool it and practice speaker fundamentals. His wife Ellen joins us, and I do several dry runs before them, constantly tweaking the talk as we go along.
Next night, I venture out into the Chicago dark without my notes. I know I’m going to screw up, and sure enough, two minutes into the talk it happens – I forget what I am going to say next. I have a microsecond to decide whether I’m going to look like a deer caught in the headlights or go for divine intervention.
Divine intervention is the way to go. Amazingly, I relax, confess what’s going on, and turn it into a humorous story. Now my audience is with me. I proceed to the next part of the talk I remember, and make it through the remaining half-hour with only a few minor screw-ups.
Back in New Jersey, I practice my talk in our living room in front of my wife’s stuffed panda collection. That’s right. Stuffed pandas – Little Panda, Liberace, Baby Groucho, Boris and Natasha, Beetlebaum, and the gang. Also Whitey the polar bear and Einstein the Princeton tiger. All these eyes staring at me, sizing me up. If I can make it with this crowd, I can make it anywhere.
So now it’s off to the Camden suburbs for my first solo gig. Fifty people have turned up to hear me talk about my new book, “Living Well With Depression and Bipolar Disorder.” Keep in mind, I’m an introvert. Speaking, much less engaging in conversation doesn’t come naturally to me. That’s probably why I became a writer.
Five minutes to show time and I retreat to the bathroom. I force myself to breathe as I review my notes one more time. Then it’s time to break a leg. I have the daunting task of talking about how we need to be smart about our illness without coming across as a smarty-pants. You turn your audience off by acting smarter than them – it’s one of the many valuable lessons I have learned from Tom.
My first joke goes over well, and the audience is with me. After talking to pandas for four days I actually find I’m enjoying myself. I’m passionate about my topic and it’s showing. Heads are nodding. People are straining to listen. I’m connecting. Everything is flowing.
I wrap it up without a hitch and find people flocking to the table to buy my book. On the ride to her farm later on, Karen tells me she had assumed this must have been the fiftieth time I had given my talk. If you count the pandas, she’s not far off.
But if I really want to be good at this, I am in for a sustained period of brutal self-examination. Tiger Woods changed his golf swing at least twice after winning his first Masters, and I have to be willing to do the same. I do it constantly with my writing. Good enough is never good enough.
So I’m not going to give myself an “A” for my two performances. But I have no hesitation in giving myself an “A-plus” for personal transformation. I confronted some of my very worst fears head-on, took risks, didn’t allow my natural temperaments to defeat me, and checked my ego at the door. My reward is a lot more than being able to talk in public. In ways that will become apparent to me over time, I have moved forward.
I want to celebrate, but I need to be fresh for my next radio interview. Time to focus on the present, on what I need to do to get through the day. I’m running on fumes when I need to be rested. I need to settle down. Time for my beauty sleep.
Published On: November 06, 2006
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