Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Perils of Public Speaking

In the past few years, I've found myself often engaged in public speaking. When The Kansas City A's & The Wrong Half of the Yankees came out in April of 2007, radio and television interviews followed, and I found myself surprisingly calm. I knew my subject matter, and made sure to go to the bathroom ten times before the talks would begin, but, still, I was amazed at my fairly matter of fact manner. Even presentations at the Hall of Fame, or the SABR National, went smoothly. If I did get nervous, it was always in the middle of the talk, not the beginning, a phenomenon I found quite interesting.

Being an elected official also entails a great deal of public speaking, but that's OK too. It's less speech-making than public access to a work meeting. Again, I do a lot of homework and know what I'm talking about before I speak. So, no nervousness there.

Now when I speak about our autistic oldest son, N., I get emotional at the most surprising times. I might mention that he passed the History Regents and feel a lump in my throat. Recounting his first class participation in college is sure to make me falter. So when I agreed to speak before a group of health professionals on N.'s college experience, I should've known I'd be a mess. Yet, I was completely caught off guard.

The event was yesterday at the Holiday Inn-Arena in Binghamton. Whenever I'm in my old college town, I wax nostalgic and, probably the emotional stage was set simply by back being in the Carousel City. In my student days, I never had any reason to go to the Holiday Inn, but thinking back on the Talking Heads show at the Arena across the street, or, wait, I also saw Rodney Dangerfield and John Sebastien there, I plunged deep into my past. I also thought to head over to my last college house and take some pictures when I was done speaking and email them to my ex-roommate.

There were six speakers. I was to be last. Not having prepared remarks, I scribbled some highlights of N.'s life on a notepad. The first five presenters were done with their talks in a total of 23 minutes, and I was suddenly up to bat. I really thought there was one more person to go before I'd head to the podium. Perhaps that put me off my game.

I began well, making it clear that I knew nothing about funding sources, programs, etc, but I knew a lot about N. The audience laughed and, as I got into N.'s early diagnosis of hyperlexia, I saw some nodding heads. Talking about his successes, and our subsequent move to Cooperstown, I was still in control. Briefly, I touched on his first year, then mentioned his one-on-one aide who joined him in 8th grade and stayed with him until graduation. That's where I lost it and lost it good. Not a small choke-up, or a hesitation, but a real cry. I needed to stop and regain my composure.

For those who watch Baseball Hall of Fame Induction speeches, and I know you're out there, you'll remember that Pirate second baseman Bill Mazeroski's speech never began due to excessive blubbering. I thought about that for a split second, and then forged ahead. A good recovery, I must say. I got in N.'s line about his "Cobleskill Adventure," as he calls his college time, and got some laughs. But, uh-oh, as I went on about his good grades and professorial support, and that this kid was maybe going to graduate from college, I could feel my eyes water. I managed to get to the end of the talk, making a few quips about how ill-informed I was about the behind the scenes funding that was allowing N. to go to college and do well.

I finished and sat down. To my leftt was a young girl, maybe teenage, who lives in a support home and spoke from her notes. She'd told me before she led off the session that she was nervous. When I sat down, I leaned toward her and said, "Well, I cried!" The health worker to my right said "You had them glued." Well, maybe I let my emotions get away from me, but, you know, you gotta lay it on the line to tell a good story.

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