by Joshua Alan Terry
Toasted by the Toastmasters!

I'm beginning to think that in order to be a successful writer, one must also be a bit of a masochist. Sometimes to find material, you have to deliberately put yourself in miserable circumstances. This is really the only way to justify my dating experience after twelve years.

It's also probably the reason that a couple of weeks ago, after a period of intense negotiations*, my old friend Randy convinced me to attend a local meeting of the Toastmasters. I thought I had heard of the group before, but wasn't sure if I wasn't confusing them with a product I'd seen for sale on the Food Network recently.

It turns out the Toastmasters are a private organization dedicated to the development of sound public speaking skills. Every Monday morning the group meets in the back room of Lamb's Café in Salt Lake, taking turns giving prepared speeches and offering each other constructive criticism. A Toastmaster friend in Randy's neighborhood had invited him, and now Randy was inviting me to participate.

As a part time writing instructor at Salt Lake Community College, I felt a little cocky going to my first meeting of what I figured would be the Amway of Public Speaking. Surely there wasn't anything these folks could throw at me, old hand of the public stage, that I hadn't seen before.

When Randy and I were shown into the back room at Lambs, I felt like I was being welcomed into some sort of ancient fraternity. At the open end of a long u-shaped table was a wooden podium emblazoned with the Toastmaster's crest. This podium was further enhanced by a backdrop of multi-colored ribbons the group had merited.

The local group itself was a vast cross-section of Wasatch Front professionals, from airline pilots to lawyers to Internet auctioneers (Randy). The one that impressed me the most was the guy that had actually been one of the monkey extras in the original "Planet of the Apes" movie.

The whole bunch was very friendly and welcoming, but the entire affair was really quite formalized. Three different speakers gave speeches while three others were assigned to give formal critiques. Another member was assigned to monitor time, while another got to run the buzzer that would sound anytime a speaker said, "um."

I couldn't get over the fact that the member designated to preside over the weekly meeting was called the "Toastmaster." Each formal speech and critique was obligated to address the "Toastmaster" formally, as in, "Thank You, Madame Toastmaster," "Greetings, Madame Toastmaster," or, "Madame Toastmaster, your omelet is trying to crawl off of your plate." Eating breakfast during this whole affair was simply too much for me, as visions of a woman clad in white robes and a khaki apron distributing golden-brown toast against a backdrop of angels singing and waving strips of bacon dominated my imagination.

I would have been content with my visions and my top notch French Toast, but since Randy was in charge of the weekly round of impromptu speeches, I soon found myself standing before the Toastmasters, trying to improvise a speech on the most sincere Christmas gift I'd ever received.

For the next two minutes, I focused intently on maintaining good volume, posture, eye contact, and above all, cutting out the "um's." The only problem was I had no message. Was I really talking about a mess kit I had received in 1985? I was all shell and no substance. Like Communism.

As I bashfully took my seat, victim of the most tremendous brain fart since the time I'd tried to woo the affections of a blond named Jodi in the sixth grade, I quickly determined that no one there would ever find out I was a professional educator. If anyone did find out, I would quickly tell them I was only an adjunct faculty member, and therefore not responsible for any of my actions. I could not be the zit on the cheek of academia.

Lousy improv aside, I was invited to join, probably to make the other members feel better about their skills, which I now had to admit were formidable. I smiled graciously, knowing full well that free breakfast or no, I wouldn't set foot in that room again unless I'd memorized a speech that would blow the Gettysburg Address out of the water.

That night in my English class I was a blubbering idiot. Score another one for the masochist.

*Transcript of negotiations:

RANDY: I'll buy you breakfast if you come.

JOSH: OK.

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