Thursday, December 3, 2015

To Speak or Not to Speak... the Answer is Obvious

I joined Toastmasters two months ago. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for many years, but I never dug up the courage to follow through. I thought it would be nerve-wracking, I would be under a lot of pressure to succeed, and I would be out of my league with other speakers.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Toastmasters, it’s an international organization and its club mission statement is “We provide a supportive and positive learning experience in which members are empowered to develop communication and leadership skills, resulting in greater self-confidence and personal growth.”

Formal speaking in front of a group, large or small, can be intimidating to many people. It certainly was for me. I’ve had to speak in front of groups, and I always get nervous and end up with the “ums” and “uhs” and “you knows” in plentiful supply during my talk.

Finally, at the urging of a friend, I attended my first Toastmaster meeting with a club that was still fairly new. It made me feel better to know many of the members had been attending for months, instead of years. Yet we also have seasoned members who help keep the club running efficiently and effectively and mentor us as we grow.

I make the majority of my living writing and editing. Although I enjoyed the two months of Toastmasters, and intended to keep going, I had to wonder - what does this bring to the table in regard to where I am right now in life?

The answer came to me as I was preparing my first formal speech called the Icebreaker. I had to introduce myself to the audience, letting them know a little about me.

If you haven’t tried to condense your life into a few minutes, let me tell you that it’s more difficult than you might imagine. I’ve had many diverse careers, raised a family, married and divorced, went on several grand adventures, and have many interests - all of those helped shape the person I am today. Narrowing down the focus was challenging.

I was only given four to six minutes for this speech. It seemed like forever when I thought about standing in front of the members for that amount of time. Yet when I actually wrote out my speech and timed myself during practice, I talked for over eight minutes.

Now the tie in to my writing. I had to be super organized, like I do when I’m trying to write a story, stay on task, and make sense of everything I included. During my speech I needed to cut out the extraneous words and thoughts, because I simply didn’t have time to go off on a tangent. When I write I need to trim up the prose, because my readers wouldn’t have patience for my off-the-subject rambling, no matter how brilliant I thought my writing was.

Just as organization is key to an effective presentation, with a clear introduction, body, and summary, organization is also key in fiction and non-fiction writing to trim unnecessary words and keep the story moving.

When I timed my first speech about growing up on the farm, and realized I had to cut a minimum of two minutes off, and preferably more since I wanted to throw in some well-timed pauses for effect, I had some problems deciding what was important and what I could cut.

Are you kidding me, my entire early childhood was important, right? Wouldn’t my audience want to hear about my adventures riding dirt bikes in the pasture, climbing the apricot tree even when we weren’t picking the fruit, going through my grandfather’s old shed and finding decades-old copies of Life and National Geographic?

Here’s where my writing experience helped.

Kill Your Darlings.

Be ruthless. Just because I was in love with a scene or a description or a character, didn’t mean it belonged in my story. Or in my speech.

I thought my first speech went well, considering. I was nervous, had to rely on notes, and needed to speed up at the end to finish within the time limits. It’s going to take practice and time to become proficient at giving speeches, just as it does to become proficient at writing.

Even if I never have to give a formal speech in front of an audience other than my Toastmasters club members, what I’m learning about communication and leadership is invaluable. I can see how, as I become a better speaker, my writing will become clearer and more interesting.

My initial worries about Toastmasters were put to rest after the first meeting, and now after my Icebreaker speech I can safely say that it’s not as nerve-wracking as I thought it would be. I don’t feel pressured from other club members - I feel fully supported. Although the long-time members are much better speakers than I am, no one makes me feel like I’m out of their league. I’m part of the club, supported, mentored, and encouraged every step of the way.

Not to mention it’s also - dare I say it - fun!

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Mushrooms, Anyone?

A mushroom goes into a bar and sits down to order a drink. The bartender walks over and says, ''I'm sorry sir, but we don't serve your kind here.''

The mushroom sits back and asks ,''Why not? I'm a fun guy!

Actually the mushroom wasn’t a fungi, he was a fungus. If he was one in a crowd of mushrooms then they would all be fungi.

Scientific names confuse me. And they ruin my jokes too.

A few weeks ago I walked into my bathroom and noticed some very odd things growing in a potted plant I had sitting on the windowsill shelf. They looked like little yellow lawn ornaments, with a stem and an egg-shaped top.

On closer inspection I realized I had four perfect mushrooms growing (you can only see three in the pictures.) They were about three inches tall. I was certain they hadn’t been there the day before, but it was possible they were but still too short to easily see.

My first thought was  “Ack, I have fungi growing inside my house.” That couldn’t be good, right? What if I breathe in the spores? Could it make me sick? Could it kill me?

I immediately moved the offending pot with plants and fungi out to the garage, thinking I should dispose of it later. Still, I was curious. What was this? Was I the only one who inadvertently grew mushrooms? I tried to keep excess humidity out of my bathroom, so was I doing something wrong?

Before I took drastic action and threw the baby out with the bathwater (goodbye lovely little medicinal houseplant) I decided to do some online searching. To my surprise, delight, and relief I found immediate answers after typing in Yellow Mushrooms Indoor Plants.

The first site I opened was helpful and interesting. This particular mushroom is the Leucocoprinus birnbaumii. The site was Tom Volk's Fungus of the Month. I was relieved to read that there was nothing to worry about, the mushroom couldn’t hurt my plants, and wouldn’t hurt me if I touched it. He did write we should avoid eating it no matter how cute it looks. No worries about that!

The spores most likely came in with the soil. Although I had moved the houseplant from my living room to my bathroom almost a year ago, it took awhile for the conditions to be perfect for my unintended - but now interesting - mushroom farming.

The second site I found was equally as positive. The mushroom expert who created this site even urged kids to send in their drawings of this cool looking ‘shroom, but still cautioned parents to let their children know mushrooms growing in potted plants should not be eaten. 

The last webpage I opened was not so positive. The author called the mushrooms "less than desirable, basically useless, and mostly ugly". I sort of felt sorry for the little fungi when I read that. Maybe they are undesirable, serving no useful purpose in my house, but they certainly aren’t ugly, at least in my opinion. I thought they were intriguing and beautiful in their own way. 

Then I did a search to see if inhaling the spores could cause respiratory distress or fungal infections in the lungs. I found a lot on black mold that could be associated with respiratory issues, although not all mold was in that category. I couldn’t find any warnings about mushroom spores being dangerous. That did ease my concerns.

After my research, I thought I would bring the plant back into the house, but I put it on the shelf where it had been earlier. I had to decide if I would keep the mushrooms as a unique decoration.

Turns out the decision was out of my hands. The sun shining through the window must have been fatal to the little guys, since the next day they were shriveling up.

Ultimately I decided to reseed my houseplant and replace the soil. Although the mushrooms were uber-cute and very interesting, and even though many experts declared them to be safe for people unless included in a salad or soup, I wanted to proceed with caution.

My brother had a lung transplant fourteen years ago, and has fought off various fungal infections in his lungs over the years. I’m positive this is not the same type of fungus, and almost certain it wouldn’t be harmful for him to breathe the spores. Still, for my peace of mind, I would rather not have any type of fungus blowing out spores anywhere in my house when he visits.

Although this story had a sad ending for my little yellow mushrooms, it was certainly an interesting learning experience for me. I discovered that it really wasn’t my fault the mushrooms grew, that it was just a circumstance of the proper humid conditions since the spores were present in the potting soil. I also learned to appreciate the beauty of something new and remarkable, and to do a little research before panicking.

It’s a good lesson for life in general, and maybe even how we treat others - humans, animals, and plants. Just because something is surprising, brand new, and looks different doesn’t mean it’s dangerous or frightening. A little research is better than a knee-jerk reaction to these little surprises that might pop up in my flowerpots (and in my life.)

Although research has its downside too. For instance, after finding the joke at the beginning of this post, I realized it was scientifically incorrect and I’m not sure I could ever, in good conscience, tell it again. 

You’re welcome.