Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Art of the Toast

The Art of the Toast
Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk Syndicate
Copyright 2007

I'm one of those weirdos who enjoys public speaking. I've given countless speeches and presentations over the years, and am just as comfortable speaking to a room full of people as I am to one person. I even come from a lo-o-o-ong line of orators (Okay, it's really just my dad, the psychology professor, but he's been teaching for a lo-o-o-ong time, so I figure that counts.)

Public speaking is one of those important skills that I think everyone needs to know how to do to some degree. So is changing a flat tire, whistling, and skipping stones. Even if you're only giving a toast at a wedding, you should be able to say something without stammering and uhhh-ing your way through the thing.

Case in point: I knew a man, Max, who was a big proponent of public speaking, and a strong supporter of his local Toastmaster's Club. He was also a believer of the "everyone should know how to speak in public" school of thought. He told me a story from when he attended the wedding of a friend's daughter, where the best man was expected to give the first toast of the evening.

A best man's toast is typically expected to be a well-thought, rehearsed affair that sings the praises of the groom and his new bride, followed by lofty wishes for love, joy, and health.

This particular "best" man, who could only be described as a mouth-breathing oaf, took the opposite tack and tried to be as unprepared as possible.

"Uhh." He rose to his feet and held up his glass. "Well, uhhh. . . I hope you guys have lots of sex on your honeymoon."

As an uncomfortable pall descended on the guests, and they halfheartedly clinked their glasses, a guy leaned over to Max and whispered, "And they say the art of rhetoric is dead."

Max told me this story to illustrate the importance of knowing how to speak in public.

"I think it shows the importance of thinking before you speak," I said. "If you're the father of the bride, and you've paid $12,000 or more to give your daughter away to some schmuck, the last thing you want is to be reminded of what said schmuck is planning to do several hours later."

Max agreed that this was a good point.

"But I can top that," I said. And I told him the story of my own ill-fated attempts at a wedding toast. A story that, to this very day, still makes me so uncomfortable, I squirm like a snake with Restless Legs Syndrome whenever I think of it.

My wife had just left for a trip, so I went to the wedding of two good friends by myself. We had been in school with the bride, who met her new husband soon after we all finished school. We watched them grow together as a couple, and celebrated when they announced their engagement.

In fact, he proposed after they had visited us one weekend. I had sort of good-naturedly hassled the guy about making an honest woman of our friend, so we were pleasantly surprised when he proposed to her on their way home that Sunday.

As a result, my wife and I jokingly took credit for their happy day, and when it was my turn for the guests' toasts at the reception, I told the story. I even remember how I ended my tale.

"Because I'm sure the marriage will be a happy one, I'm taking credit for being the impetus of the proposal," I said, my voice booming through the PA system, and filling the ears of 200 of the couple's closest friends and family.

I continued. "But if things don't work out, I had nothing to do with it."

(At that precise moment, I became intimately acquainted with the term "flop sweat.")

That's right, I actually speculated -- out loud, no less -- about the possibility of the divorce of the happy couple who had been married for less than three hours.

This was before I ever made my personal commitment to think first and speak later, so it took a few seconds for my brain to catch up with my mouth. When it finally did, my brain was shouting, "Sit down, stupid! Sit down and shut up!"

I managed to croak out a "so, uhh, good luck to you both" before returning to my seat. The blood rushing to my head and the roaring in my ears kept me from noticing the angry glares and whispered comments that must have followed me to my seat. I left 15 minutes later.

After that, I spent several years practicing my public speaking with organizations like Toastmasters, giving speeches to different groups, and mentally writing imaginary toasts in my head from time to time. And I'm fully prepared to deliver an appropriate toast at the next wedding I attend.

If I could just get anyone to invite me.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Thrill of History, the Agony of Math

The Thrill of History, the Agony of Math
Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk Syndicate
Copyright 2007

Narrator: It's a test of desire and learning, grit and knowledge, as each participant lives his or her lifelong dream. Each one has endured countless hours of grueling pain to reach this point. But for all their dreams and efforts, only one will be crowned champion. Only one can win the coveted gold medal at the 14th Annual Eastern Iowa Academic Olympics!

Jim: I'm Jim Lehrer of PBS' "Newshour with Jim Lehrer." It's a beautiful sunny day here at Stephen Hawking stadium in Cedar Falls, Iowa, as we get ready for the Academic Olympics. It's been a long journey for these academic athletes, who have studied, trained, and prepared for their moment in the spotlight, and their chance at Academic Olympic gold. I'm joined by my colleague and fellow sportscaster, Gwen Ifill of "Washington Week in Review," and Terrell Owens, wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys. How are you, Terrell?

Terrell: Great. Uh, did you say Academic Olympics?

Jim: Yes, I did. Gwen, how are you?

Gwen: Superb, Jim. You know, these athletes are true champions in every sense of the word. Their love of competition is admirable, their quest for knowledge, epic. Although only one can lay claim to Eastern Iowa's smartest high school student, they're all winners in my book.

Terrell: Stupid Drew Rosenhaus. He told me I was doing commentary on the Olympics.

Jim: It looks like they're getting ready to start the first event, the 100 meter Pi Recitation Dash.

Terrell: Did somebody say pie? What kind?

Gwen: In this competition, each athlete -- or should I say "mathlete?"

Jim (laughs): Gwen, you're hysterical.

Gwen (snorts with laughter): Thank you. As I was saying, each athlete must recite as many decimal places of pi as possible in 9.8 seconds.

Jim: They're under starter's orders.

Starter: Athletes, take your mark. . . get set. . .

Jake: 3.14159--

Starter: FAULT!

Jim: Ooh, that's too bad. Jake Mayer of Ottumwa North High has started too early, and has been given his first fault. One more, and he'll be disqualified.

Gwen: Jake is talking with his coach, Frank Fahy. What do you think they're talking about Terrell?

Terrell: Where's the pie?

Jim: You're probably right. Coach Fahy is reminding Jake to stay focused on the event, and keep his mind on nothing but reciting pi. While we're waiting for the race to resume, let's go over to the History Hurdles and our good friend, Charlie Rose.

Charlie: Thanks Jim. We're getting ready to start the 100 meter History Hurdles, and event favorite Lindsey Settles of Waterloo High School is in lane five. She's favored to win three gold medals at these games, and this is her signature event. Competitors are at the starting line. . . there's the gun! The athletes are racing down the track, approaching the first hurdle.

Lindsey: Napoleon Bonaparte!

Charlie: And Lindsey clears it easily with her answer of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. She's approaching the second hurdle, and. . .

Lindsey: The Hoot-Smawley tar-- OW!

Charlie: Ooh! Lindsey goes down! She is out of the race! I repeat, Lindsey Settles is out of the race. Donetta Greene of Grover Cleveland Preparatory goes on to easily win with her answer, the Truman Doctrine. and a time of 10.14 seconds. You can't imagine the agony and heartbreak Lindsey must be experiencing. Back to you, Jim, and the 100 meter Pi Dash.

Terrell: Where's that freakin' pie?!

Gwen: I'm know what you mean, Terrell, I'm excited too. While we're waiting, let's head over to the Calculus Pole Vault with Terry Gross of NPR's "Fresh Air."

Terry: Thanks, Gwen. As Archimedes once said, "Give me a lever and a place to stand, and I can move the world." In the spirit of Archimedes, these athletes require a high-tech fiberglass pole, and a solid understanding of upper-level high school mathematics to clear these dizzying heights. We're getting ready to watch the final jump of our leader, Carl Somersby of Indianola Central High, who will attempt a jump of 'f(x) dx = F(b) - F(a)' feet.

The judge gives the order. Carl begins his approach, solves for X, plants the pole. . . and he's over! Carl Somersby has won the gold medal for the Calculus Pole Vault! Jim and Gwen, it's pandemonium down here as Carl's team, the Indianola Fighting Protractors, mob Carl to congratulate him on his record breaking performance.

Gwen: Exciting stuff, Terry. We'll come back to you for the gold medal ceremony and the playing of the Olympic anthem, "Mathematika et Lux." Terrell, do you have any thoughts?

Terrell: You guys were lying about the pie, weren't you?

Jim: I'm afraid so.

Terrell: You cheap sons of --

Gwen: Let's take a break to hear from our sponsors. And when we come back, we'll see the conclusion of the 100 meter Pi Dash.

Terrell: There is no pie!!

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Kids Say the Scariest Things

Kids Say the Scariest Things
Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk Syndicate
Copyright 2007

Erik is out of the office this week, so we are reprinting one of his favorite columns. By favorite, we mean "stories of the times his kids nearly killed him."

My kids and I have a special relationship. They are free to bring up certain topics of discussion. I am free to make nasty faces and freak out at near-hysterical levels. They know which buttons to push, and will push them just to watch me have an apoplectic fit at the things they say. But most of the time, they do it without knowing they're pushing any buttons.

A few days ago, my youngest daughter -- nearly four -- and I were sitting alone at the table. She was telling me about one of her favorite shows on the Disney Channel, the Koala Brothers.

"Daddy, I don't like sex," she said.

My chest tightened, my left arm went numb, and I couldn't breathe.

"What did you say?" I managed to gasp, before collapsing in a heap on the floor.

"I don't like SIX," she said, a little more clearly.

"Wait, did you say 'six,' like the number six?"

Youngest Daughter couldn't understand the panicked look on my face, so she was a little concerned. "Yeah, six. That's what I said. I don't like six."

"Where did you hear that?"

"On the Koala Brothers. On Disney Channel."

"And they talked about six?"

"Yeah, six."

"And you don't like the number six? What's wrong with number six?"

She just stared at me.

I got up off the floor, grateful that I had misheard her, but immediately became concerned about a budding math phobia instead. However, Youngest Daughter is not known for her clarity of speech, so I still wasn't sure this whole sex/six question was completely resolved. So I asked Oldest Daughter a few questions about the show.

"The Koala Brothers is a show where they help each other," she said.

"Help each other with what?" I asked, blood pressure rising again. I swore that if I survived this conversation, I was suing the Disney Channel.

"You know, it's a cartoon. They just help each other with problems."

"Did they ever talk about the number six on the show?"

Oldest Daughter gave me a look that said I was obviously out of touch with today's hip, young eight-year-olds and three-year-olds.

"Well, did they ever talk about anything that sounded like the number six?"

"No. They just help people."

Since Oldest Daughter couldn't shed any light on the situation, I decided it was my overprotective imagination flaring up. I forgot about it until the following night, when the kids decided to play another game of "Let's Freak Out Daddy." My wife thought this was hysterical, and helped Youngest Daughter with suggestions.

So I decided to put my wife through the same cardiac torture I had experienced 24 hours earlier. "Hey, I know a game we could play. Tell Mommy what you told me you didn't like on the Koala Brothers."

Youngest Daughter climbed up on Mommy's lap, looked her straight in the eye, and announced, "I don't like sex."

My wife looked just as astonished and horrified as I did the previous night, but without all the gasping and flailing on the floor.

"You don't like what?!"

"Six. I don't like six. On the Koala Brothers."

I decided to let her off the hook, and flashed six fingers at my wife so she would know the Koala Brothers weren't discussing intimate relationships.

"The Koala Brothers help people," I informed my wife. "It's on the Disney Channel."

I could tell she was ready to call Disney and tell them to go have six with themselves. Oldest Daughter told us about the characters on the show.

"Are any of them named Six?" I asked hopefully.

There weren't. Just Frank, Buster, Archie, Josie, and Nick, but no Six.

"Nick was sick on Monday's show. He got a cold, and the others helped him feel better," explained Oldest Daughter.

"Yeah, sicks" confirmed Youngest Daughter. "I don't like the sicks."

It finally dawned on me what Youngest Daughter had been saying all this time. She was only concerned about being ill. She wasn't worried about grown up issues. My baby was still my baby, and I wouldn't have to deal with the birds and bees and where babies come from for the next several years. Actually, I won't have to deal with it at all; that's a Mommy conversation.

I don't think my heart could take another conversation like that.