Thursday, January 20, 2011

Just Words

Repeating phrases. Sometimes that is all that comes to me when I try to sit down and post to this wonderful little blog of clutter. Unfortunately for you, dear reader, that means that what you are exposed to is an inordinate amount of inane ramblings that are better fit on a cocktail napkin and then tossed after it has absorbed the bar's evening accumulations. But I digress.

Two days ago, I woke to the words of the greatest expository speech ever produced. The words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have A Dream," speech is widely known and often praised as one of the greatest works of contemporary oration. Perhaps it is the one of three pieces of the last century's only notable and quotable pieces of public speaking that the public can turn to and reflect upon and find some message in at any given time. While parts of the speech were scripted, other parts were spontaneous. The portion we have come to know was pieced together from previous works of Dr. King made into a new entity, the way proper oration and extemporaneous speaking should be done. While the message is powerful and the words significant, I am not going to post about that whatsoever.

Instead, I plan to post about tapeworms and toasts.

Yes. Tapeworms.

Bare with me now, it all has to do with extemporaneous speaking and the ability to take ideas from different places, form cohesive sentences, and then make a lasting impression. I will get to the tapeworm in just a moment.

Years ago, when I was a smart-ass freshman in college, fascinated with the determinist workings of sociobiology and the writings of Nietzsche, I was trapped in a colloquium course. For those unfamiliar with this pedagogic style, at my institution,  colloquium courses were attempts to combine writing composition, public speaking, humanities into one cohesive year-long course of study. In other words, "Everything you should have learned in high school, if your school had bothered to teach you, or you paid attention."Not to sound like an elitist, but the class was far beneath me, and I had little ability to leave. Instead, I went through the motions, wrote my "A" papers, played devil's advocate, and presented logical arguments in debates. I also played the roll of agitator.

At one point in the year, it was decided that we were going to work on extemporaneous speeches. I thought this would be a great exercise. I had once been on my high school speech team and competed quite successfully. Extemporaneous speaking was a fun challenge, I loved having to riff on challenging ideas, literature, poetic thoughts, or obscure concepts. As a class we decided to come up with topics.

The first suggestion: What is your favorite color and why? I gagged. Immediately I protested, this isn't how extemporaneous, or, "On-the-Spot" as we were calling it, speeches should go...We need something timely, topical, challenging. The professor quieted me down and took another suggestion: If you were running out of your burning house what three things would you grab?


And so the class went on until they, not I, had decided upon fifteen topics. All of my suggestions were tossed out as too serious, too obscure, or too complex for a five minute impromptu speech. When I protested, I was met by blank stares. The discussion was over. Our little colloquium continued on.

A few weeks later, our professor offered students to try their hand at extemporaneous speaking. No one would take the chance on being the first to subject themselves to this experiment so I offered. The professor looked through a list of topics and picked one at random, "This will be good," he plainly stated, "Your topic is, 'What is your ideal pet?'"

I rolled my eyes and a woman in the class named after a sports car, no lie, chimed up, "Let's see him do something with this," hoping for a benign tale about kittens or puppies.

I cleared my throat and began my speech, "While many animals are warm and fuzzy, the cost and clean-up can be such a hassle to deal with. Do we really want to handle kitty litter? Or what about the expense of dog food? In this day and age when finances are tight for me as a lowly college student, few pets seem more practical than a tapeworm..."

For the next five minutes, I expounded the glories of the parasite; how the elite used to seek out certain types of tapeworms for diet control; the animal's extreme length; their little need for care; and never a need for walking. Logical, factual, fascinating, and captivating: It was everything an impromptu speech should be.

I came to my conclusion and ended with a simple, "Thank you." The people in the class sat somewhat aghast at what they had just listened to. It wasn't a tale about fluffy, it was and ode to the fish tank. It was a proudly hoisted middle finger to their mundane tiny world. When I reached my seat, I then stated, "Next time, ask me something serious."

After that speech, no more opportunities for impromptu speaking were offered. Whether that was my doing, I have no idea.

In the next few months, I have the opportunity to toast two of my best friends on their wedding days, though given the unconventional nature of things, I don't know whether the male-bride's maid will actually offer a toast of some sort. I have been debating for sometime on how I should properly handle this standard of the American wedding. Do I script out my ideas for a brief conversation on my friendship with these two individuals or do I speak with once the mic is handed to me with little preparation? The rambling toast is a trap at any wedding, and I am certain they would not want an ode giant squid or whatever fancies me a few months from now.

Full circle time. The great orators of the past all draw from their own previous speeches to create new works that transcend time. The mundane can be contorted into marvelous shapes and figures that perplex even the most unfazed if we can shape our language in just the right way. Now I have a mission, to accomplish this for two very special people on two separate occasions. And I can't talk about tapeworms.

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