Has it ever happened to you?
I suppose it could be referred to as an "out-of-body-experience," an occasion where your eyes and brain have floated to the ceiling and gazed with wonder upon your body's current station in time and space.
Okay, that sounds a little too marijuanically inspired. What I'm asking is, have your ever found yourself in a situation where you wondered, "Holy great grandmother of Spock, how the hell did I get myself into this?"
Some folks are naturally talented at speaking publicly. I am not. In fact, back during my tenure as a mullet-headed accountant, my manager suggested joining Toastmasters to overcome my paralyzing fear, not only of public speaking, but of just chatting with clients.
Since the accounting profession hangs its fedora on a rack constructed of trust and competence, things weren't going so hot for my shaky young self. My brain often formulated feeble, ill-advised messages my voice box bellowing froggy chirps of choppy helium-laced vowel slurs.
Profound anxiety spawned feeble and often inappropriate attempts at humor:
"Hi, Cliff, can I um, please take a look at your accounts receivable ledger? I promise I'll return with a full tank of gas. Heh, heh."
"Cliff, it looks like your fixed assets are fully depreciated. You know they have drugs for that, now."
"Hey, Cliff, unless you buy me lunch at Arby's today, I'm going to capitalize your net operating loss carryover. Kidding! I had you, didn't I?"
I joined a local Toastmasters group that met during lunchtime and gingerly dipped my toes into the tepid waters of public speaking. Speech by speech, my paralyzing fear subsided and I was able to say things that didn't leave me stammering and embarrassed.
"Table topics" became my favorite part of the meetings. Each participant is handed a piece of paper with a word or two scrawled on it and must speak on the subject for thirty seconds. It was absolutely terrifying each time, but upon finishing, provided a rush I'd not yet experienced.
Especially if I could draw a couple of laughs.
I immersed myself into the extemporaneous quicksand, participating in table topics at every meeting and entering the club competition. I won it and moved on to the district competition, which I also won.
The next step was the Area contest, held in a small theater. I stood backstage, waiting giddily, confident that I could handle any subject lobbed my way. Finally, my turn came and I sauntered out and planted myself center stage. The capacity audience fixed its gaze upon me as my breathed deeply and focused on master of ceremonies to my left:
"Tim, if you could be any vegetable, which vegetable would you be?"
Holy shit. Think, you bastard. Nothing.
What happened, Cocky McRoosterson, queried a snarky elf in my head, cat got your tongue?
I stood center stage, bleeding out. My legs felt submerged in warm butterscotch pudding, every internal organ engorged with poisons generated by my toxic silence. I had to say something, anything...
"I'd be a zucchini," I blurted out. Are you serious? asked the mind elf, did you really just say 'zucchini'? Ha, you are such an idiot. Oh well, good luck, you've only got forty-five more seconds to fill, you tool. Let's hear it.
Honestly, I don't possess any recollection of what I said for those next forty-five clicks. I hope it wasn't inappropriate considering my ridiculous choice of vegetable. Couldn't I have just said asparagus or artichoke or even tomato, the fruity cousin who hangs out with the veggies?
Nope, had to be zucchini.
That's when the whole out-of-body thing kicked in. I hovered above my quivering corpse shouting, "What the hell is wrong with you, Mr. Death Wish? You could have just participated in your little club and performed your little speeches, but no, you had be a hotshot."
My next recollection is looking out upon the audience, politely and uncomfortably clapping as I disappeared stage left. Their faces mirrored my emotions—shame, embarrassment, raw humiliation.
Driving away afterward, I resolved to never again insert myself into such a vulnerable situation. Taking risks was fine when the rewards were assured, but watching helplessly as my dignity vaporized in front of a couple hundred people? Nah, I'll wait for the next bus, thanks.
Last Friday, after twenty-five years, I finally leaped back and straddled the the bony spine of that bucking impromptu bronc. I answered a few questions as part of a live radio show. I've done a few other radio junkets, but never in real time, and never where I didn't know what I'd be asked.
"Oh my god," I thought in the days leading up to it, "what if I 'zucchini' this thing, too? What if I say something obscene or insensitive or, worst of all, nothing?"
None of that happened. And while I didn't totally kill it, at least I didn't soil myself before thousands of innocent listeners, and approached the situation with considerably less hubris.
I suppose that's a start.