The One With the Fate Worse Than Death

I’ve been volunteered for a new! and exciting! effective leadership! training class at my company. (There are always a lot of exclamation points when you get volunteered for something.) It’s a seminar designed to brush up on presentation skills.

I am on board if only because A. It means time away from my desk and incessant emails, and B. My current role doesn’t require me to give many presentations. I like it that way. We’ve covered the Myers-Briggs scale in a previous post (Any fellow INFJs in da house?) Things began to go terribly wrong when I received a reminder about the class, and in the small print, it said each student will need to prepare a 15-minute presentation which will be videotaped and critiqued. If we have visual aids to accompany our presentation, there will be projectors and screens available. *

public speaking

I’ll speak in front of small groups when necessary without going comatose. For example, when I was teaching, I didn’t mind standing in front of the classroom. And when The Subway Chronicles was published, I did several book readings and didn’t need to imagine the audience naked. Then I was asked to be interviewed on a local television station about the book. The glare of the lights. My reflection in the camera’s giant lens. The microphone pinned to my shirt. I broke out in an anticipatory sweat. I still can’t bring myself to watch the clip.

I think I can trace my public speaking problem to high school, which seems to be the genesis of most of my problems. Our class hosted a fashion show for a local charitable organization. Somehow I ended up as the emcee of the event. I can’t even remember to agreeing to that. I must have been absent from class that day. The auditorium was full. I held a Bob Barker microphone in one hand and my notecards in another. The little red light flashed on the camera and I froze. My notes got out of order and I was announcing the wrong people in the wrong outfits. I knew my future career would not involve news anchor or game show host.

The worst part about my upcoming presentation is that we were told to pick “any professional topic that interests you.” Now I have to write a 15-minute presentation and then stand in front of a video camera while I melt into the ground like the Wicked Witch of the West? I’m down to the wire and I’m still brainstorming ideas. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

  1. Tips on surviving the zombie apocalypse (kindly suggested by a co-worker)

    I promise I won't include any gratuitous personal hygiene shots.

    I promise I won’t include any gratuitous personal hygiene shots.

  2. Video montage of Reggie
  3. Top 10 reasons I love John Hamm
  4. One word: Zumba
  5. How I Met Your Mother series finale—yay or nay?
  6. Puzzles: fun hobby or torture device?
  7. 101 uses for paper clips
  8. Tennis balls: how do they make the yellow fuzz?
  9.  Slideshow of my trip to Martha’s Vineyard
  10. An exploration of my feelings for grilled cheese
  11. A 15-minute silent meditation

 

 

 

* In corporate-speak, “if” equals mandatory. If you are available for this meeting… If you have the numbers ready for the report… If you finish the report by the end of the day… If you want to keep your job…

 

Do you have any suggestions for topics? I’m open to ideas! How do you feel about public speaking? 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

The One With Martha’s Vineyard


Every few minutes or so during my visit on Martha’s Vineyard, the word quaint came to mind. It’s so overused, but quaint feels like the right word to describe the place. This island seven miles off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, is indeed charming. You’re never far from a lighthouse or a shingled cottage. The beaches are pristine. Boats of all sizes bob in the harbor.

What makes Martha’s Vineyard so delightfully prepossessing, despite hosting vacationing Kennedys and Obamas, is more about what isn’t there than what is there. There are no billboards, traffic lights, or highways. There are no chain restaurants or big box stores (gasp).

Martha’s Vineyard is home to about 15,000 year-round residents. The population swells to more than 100,000 in the summer.

Martha's Vineyard

There are six townships on the island. Each has its own personality. The harbors on the west side of the Vineyard, or up-island as the area is called locally, had a more working-class vibe. There we found trawlers and lobster traps, and burly fishermen in wading boots. The harbors on the east side seemed to be ritzier with yachts bearing names like the “Aqua-holic” and the “Unsinkable 2″ (which leads one to wonder what happened to the “Unsinkable 1″).

Martha's Vineyard

Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard (East)

Martha's Vineyard

Menemsha, Martha's Vineyard (West side)

Menemsha, Martha’s Vineyard (West)

 

Martha’s Vineyard has five remaining lighthouses. The Edgartown Lighthouse is the most popular, though I don’t think they allow visitors inside.

Martha's Vineyard

 

The Gay Head Lighthouse was the first one on the Vineyard. It is in danger of toppling over the nearby cliffs due to beach erosion. The beach is eroding at a rate of two feet per year. It’s estimated that within the next two years there won’t be enough beach left to allow the heavy machinery access to move the tower.

Martha's Vineyard

Gay Head Lighthouse

 

Martha's Vineyard

Gay Head Cliffs and Lighthouse

The cliffs rise about 100 feet from the beach and are made of clay. On a clear day, the sunset can’t be beat.

 

Martha's Vineyard

 

Martha's Vineyard

 

On an island with a storied seafaring history like Martha’s Vineyard, you’re probably expecting some gratuitous food shots of lobster rolls and clams. Instead let me tell you about the best thing we ate:

Martha's Vineyard

 

Hidden at the back entrance to the Martha’s Vineyard Gourmet Cafe and Bakery is the business-within-a-business known as Back Door Donuts. They open at 7:30 p.m., and there is usually a line gathered for piping hot doughnuts as they come out of the fryer. This place has more five-star reviews than some Michelin restaurants. The menu is pretty simple.

Martha's Vineyard

 

We decided to order an “old-fashioned”—a plain doughnut with sugar glaze. I wish I could share a photo, but I ate it within seconds. It melted in my mouth on contact. In order to get a fair assessment of the place, it was only right that we should sample more offerings. Enter their signature selection. The apple fritter. Worth. Every. Calorie.

 

Martha's Vineyard

 

 

Hope you enjoyed the tour around Martha’s Vineyard.

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

The One With Rain on the Parade

I’m riding home from work on the subway. I’ve got my book open to a juicy part, but today I just can’t get into it. It’s mostly due to the little girl on the other side of the subway car.

She’s about three years old, full of energy. The kind of energy I wish I could bottle and sell. Next to the girl is her mother, who is holding onto her purse, a grocery bag, an umbrella (though it isn’t raining), a duffle bag, and her daughter’s pink backpack. The mother looks tired, exhausted really. This is difficult to explain to a three-year-old. The girl wiggles in her seat, with her feet dangling just over the edge, like she’s got ants in her pants, as my grandfather use to say,

People around her, including me, smile a bit at her joie de vivre, and then return to subway survival rule number one: no eye contact. But she’s emboldened by the attention and begins to sing. It’s a tuneless melody she’d belting out full force. One man takes up her cause. He claps and shimmies in his seat, and they begin a strange dance-off where he shows off some moves and then challenges her to outdo him. She shrieks with glee.

Her mother is not gleeful. In fact, she’s barely holding it together, but the man doesn’t notice. It seems that she’s trying to be polite, though the last thing she wants to do is rile her daughter up even more. Finally after fifteen minutes, we come to the man’s stop. He waves at the girl with a big smile and exits the car as the doors open.

“He’s getting off, Momma! Bye! Bye! Bye! Bye! Bye! Bye!” she yells. “I see him! He’s walking away!”

She hops off her seat and tries to make a break for it, but her mother apparently has the reflexes of a leopard—surprising, given all that she’s carrying. Her mother grabs her arm. “Sit down,” she says through gritted teeth.

NYC Subway

The girl barely hears her, but climbs onto her seat and kneels so she can look out the window. “I see him, Momma! I see him!”  Her toes are hammering against the seat. She’s bouncing so much she knocks into the woman on the other side of her.

It’s sweet and charming, but everyone in the subway car would like for her to quiet down now. We’re tired too and we’ve had a long day at work and we just need a little time to decompress. Or maybe I’m projecting. But the girl’s mother is barely containing herself. Her jaw is so firm it could be wired shut. “I said, sit down.” She turns the girl around and puts her butt in the seat. The girl is snapped back into reality with her new playmate gone and her mother angry. The abrupt shift in tone causes her to do a double take. For a beat, she looks around, wide-eyed. Then she begins to cry.

I feel a bit sad myself. I wonder if it’s the first time she’s ever experienced this in her short life—one moment she’s blissing out, and the next someone is raining on her parade.

This will happen to her over and over again. She’s having a laugh at the office water cooler when someone dumps a report on her desk due tomorrow morning. She’s looking forward to the holidays only to find out her in-laws are coming—for the whole week. Her number is next after waiting thirty minutes at the Ikea returns counter just as the clerks take their lunch break.

These kinds of cosmic bummers intrude throughout our lives. Sometimes I find myself still upset or annoyed hours later. I try to accept the situation so I can more quickly return to an even keel, like a boat righting itself in rough waves, but it takes a lot of practice. For a moment I envy this little girl because right there in the middle of rush hour, she cries, big gloppy tears, and then it’s over.

She’s smiling and asking her mother for a juice box. She’ll go home and play with her dolls and brush her teeth, the let-down all but forgotten. I wonder how long she’ll be able to do this—rebound so quickly.  I hope it’s a long, long time.

Do you let go of minor disappointments quickly? Share your secret!

Have a great weekend, everyone!  

 

The One With Faking It

One of my favorite events every year is the US Open tennis tournament. We usually purchase tickets months in advance, so we have no way of knowing which players we’ll get to see. But there is one thing we do know.

It’s August. In New York City. We expect it to be hot. But on this particular day, it was H-O-T. Like surface of the sun hot. We searched for any scrap of shade, but we were out of luck inside the two large stadiums. I dared to look at the weather app on my phone, which just made it worse: 96 F/ 37 C. I felt myself melting into the plastic seat on the verge of becoming a puddle like the Wicked Witch of the West.

It was time for a break. We left the Bryans in their doubles match and headed to the open-air food court with giant awnings for shade. A lot of other people had the same idea. While I stood in line for ice cream absolutely willing to pay the equivalent of the GNP of some nations for two scoops, a conversation started with my neighboring line-mates. We discussed the heat (naturally), the players’ stamina in the heat, and the cashiers’ lack of stamina in the heat.

You never see her sweat.

You never see Serena sweat. 

 

Andy seems to sweat a lot.

Andy seems to sweat a lot.

The cashiers at the ice cream stand looked like they were having a rough go of it, despite being surrounded by sub-zero freezers. One woman stood with hands on hips and closed eyes for a good minute before I started to wonder if I should call for an ambulance. Okay, if I’m being honest, I wondered if I should nudge her so she could take my order.

The guy in front of me turned with skeptical brow furrowed. “Fake it til you make it, honey,” he stage whispered, clearly loud enough for her to hear.

I’ve heard this adage before, probably even said it myself. But I’ve been wondering if it’s sound advice. Sometimes, I think “fake it til you make it” works. In the case of the cashier, perhaps pretending that she’s temporarily relocated to Siberia would help her get through her shift without dwelling on the heat. When I had a minor cold, forcing myself to shower and take a walk in the park made me feel human again.

Some think that the phrase stems from Aristotle: “Men acquire a particular quality by constantly acting a certain way.” In situations when we feel less confident,  maybe “fake it til you make it” avoids a negative self-fulfilling prophecy. When I was learning a tennis serve, continually hitting into the net drained my confidence, but when I started imagining I was Serena Williams, I felt more assured and poised, thereby gaining the confidence to do the very thing I didn’t think I could do.

A couple of weeks ago, some commenters touched on the “impostor syndrome”—when you don’t feel you’re worthy or don’t feel you’re in the same league with your peers. Maybe reaffirming that we are worthy by “faking it” allows us to feel like less of an impostor (ironic twist). And that ultimately helps lead us to our goal. I’m thinking about all of us writers who seem particularly afflicted by this, but it could apply to anyone: tennis champions, real estate agents, basket weavers.

But I don’t know if faking confidence or pretending to feel better is a good idea. If we cover up our true feelings, we’re not really dealing with them.  Redirecting doesn’t always work. It’s hard to pretend you’re in Siberia when you’re really sweltering in Queens. And it’s hard to be Serena Williams when on my best day I serve like Tiny Tim. Maybe we’re doing ourselves a disservice and end up draining our confidence, which the opposite intention, because we know we’re masquerading, even if others don’t.

What do you think? Is “fake it til you make it” good advice? 

Have a great weekend, everyone!

 

 

 

 

The Ones That Have Stayed With Me

Last week, a fun meme was rolling around on social media to list ten books that have stayed with you. Usually the book that is most “with me” is the one I’m reading right now, but the more I thought about it, the longer my list became. Isn’t that what a great book is supposed to do—stay with you? It was hard to narrow this down, but here is my abbreviated list, in no particular order.

 

 

to kill a mockingbirdTo Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. For me, this is the definitive book on race relations in the South. I’ve been wanting to reread this one.

 

 

 

 

a walk in the woodsA Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson. Julia Monroe Martin had this book on her list, and I couldn’t agree more. This was my first introduction to Bill Bryson’s writing, and now I’m a Bryson completist. I would read a phone book written by him. He taught me how to take a simple scene (let’s say, oh, walking in the woods) and expand it gently like a ball of dough until it becomes large enough for a pizza crust without tearing.

 

 

 

 

Brooklyn, by Colm ToibinBrooklyn, by Colm Toibin. I know what you’re thinking, but this didn’t make my list just because a good chunk of the story is set in my city. Toibin has a subtlety that so many writers lack and that so many editors try to discourage. Eilis Lacey is a character who sneaks up on you. I found myself not wanting to put this book down and thinking about Eilis even when I wasn’t reading. Then I found myself reading slowly because I didn’t want the story to end. Look for the movie coming out in 2015, screenplay by Nick Hornby.

 

 

 

accidental touristThe Amateur Marriage, or Breathing Lessons, or The Accidental Tourist, or Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant or nearly anything, by Anne Tyler. Talk about subtlety. In an Anne Tyler story, you’ll be hard pressed to describe the plot or the characters because they are so complex, so nuanced, it’s easier to just read the book than to explain it to someone. (Kind of like real life.) You’ll swear that you know people like Macon Leary and Michael and Pauline Anton and Maggie Moran. Because you probably do.

 

 

 

Suite FrancaiseSuite Francaise, by Irene Nemivrosky. This book taught me how to write with compassion and empathy. Nemivrosky died in a concentration camp during WWII. She was writing this as the events of the war unfolded and left the manuscript for her children to discover decades later. Sometimes it takes years to digest such tumultuous events, and it amazes me how she was able to write such evenhanded prose.

 

 

 

bird by birdBird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. Thank you, Ms. Lamott, for letting us know that it’s okay to write shitty first drafts, and for reminding us to forge ahead bird by bird. Bonus: The Getaway Car, by Ann Patchett. And thank you, Ms. Patchett for this: “Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.”

 

 

 

TransAtlantic, by Colum McCannTransAtlantic, by Colum McCann.  This novel sweeps back and forth in time and points of view, but always with the theme of crossing the Atlantic between North America and Ireland. At first these seem like individual short stories, but Colum McCann weaves the stories together so expertly that coming upon the connection was a delightful a-ha moment.

 

 

 

 

The Age of MiraclesThe Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker. I’m not a big fan of dystopian fiction. Sure the concept might be far-fetched, but it’s also juuussst realistic enough to keep me awake at night.The Age of Miracles poses a very simple question with very complex (and disastrous) answers: What would happen if the earth’s rotation slowed so much that each day became more than 60 hours long? Bonus: The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. Double bonus: Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. *shudders*

 

 

 

waldenWalden, by Henry David Thoreau. If you’re a regular around these parts, this one comes as no surprise. “Part personal declaration of independence, social experiment, voyage of spiritual discovery, satire, and manual for living simply.”

 

 

 

 

UnbrokenUnbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand. If I wrote a novel with exactly the same plot, critics would call it unbelievable, but this is the true story of Louis Zamperini. A track-and-field Olympian enlists in the air force, gets shot down by Japanese planes over the Pacific Ocean, survives months at sea in shark-infested waters only to be rescued by a Japanese navy vessel, is put into a POW camp under atrocious conditions, and years later returns to forgive his captors. On a sad note: Louis Zamperini died this July at age 97.

 

 

 

What are some of your most memorable reads? What are you reading now? 

Have a great weekend, everyone!