Hello and thank you for coming. Please behold how confident I am up here in the corner of your news page. I smirk from my thumbnail photo, all devil-may-care. I will tell you about my experiences downtown or even share some personal shortcomings without pause or second thought. I am one cool kitty, when you get right down to it. I’ve been talking to you people for six years or so and I never so much as clear my throat.

I think confidence is very sexy. Don’t you?

So it’s noon and I’m speaking before a group at the public library in Portland. I stand at the podium and watch as more people file through the door and into chairs. With each new body that fills the room, my blood pressure climbs a notch.

That old man is looking at me even though the speech has not yet begun. He’s assessing me and estimating the chances that I will turn into a blubbering jackass once the speech begins. The woman next to him is staring too. Do I know her? Why is she wearing sunglasses and keeping a hand in her purse?

I clear my throat and reach for a cup of water. Obvious gestures of nervousness, both of them, I wish at once that I’d refrained. I smile and lean toward the microphone. It hisses at me like a demon when the first puff of breath is upon it. The blood pressure climbs higher and now batters at the ceiling like a bat.

“Hello,” I say, “and thank you for coming.”

Only my voice cracks horribly on the third syllable and I sound like Peter Brady when he finally got the pubescent change at the age of 30.

And it gets no better. I answer question after question and I can feel the words trembling out of me, as though they went on a carnival ride in my throat and came out dizzy. The more uncomfortable you get at a podium, the more aware you are of the condition.

Words wearing oversized shoes trip over each other as you send them out into the room. The eyes blink rapidly like the wings of a dying bird. All the fluid in your body gets sucked into some inner sponge and then oozes out through your forehead. Hyper aware of what your hands are doing, you begin to do ridiculous things with them. You let them hang at your sides as though your arms are paralyzed. Or you fling them out in wild gesticulations like you’re an airport guy trying to land 15 planes at once.

Lord, how I hate public speaking. I like to think that most writers are the same. We have become accustomed to speaking through pencils and keyboards where words need only to travel from the mind to the fingers. There is no vocalization or mannerism to be concerned with, just that steady stream of words flowing like electricity. I can give you a thousand words in just cool minutes, performing literary gymnastics as I go.

I try to get up before a group and it’s Peter Brady, that dork, all over again.

When I’m in a bar, at a party or out among the downtown throngs, I work a crowd like Denis Leary between sets. “Hi there. Nice to see ya. How’s your wife and my kids? Bada bing!”

Throw a podium in front of me or a row of occupied chairs, and I’m the shy schoolgirl with the head-mounted braces and the horned-rim glasses.

As you’ve always suspected.

I once agreed to speak to a group of third-graders about the mechanics and joys of being a news reporter. Third-graders, who still think boogers are funny and whom I can relate to on many levels.

And yet, when I got up before the group, all I knew was that there were 59 eyes staring up at me, hoping for the best but expecting the worst. Because don’t let anybody fool you, children don’t have all the world experience, but they can sense when someone is falling apart at the head of the class and they will rip you apart.

I got out of that “Children of the Corn” situation through an act of diversion. I plucked the police scanner from my hip and let the kids pass it around and play with it. As long as they were focused on such a marvelous toy, they were not focused on me and I was able to escape through a window.

And at this point in the narrative, you are no doubt expecting me to pass along great nuggets of wisdom about the task of public speaking. Well, I’ve got nothing for you, chump. My only advice is to weasel out of it as often as possible.

You have to be out of town that day, surely. You would love to speak to the Women’s Auxiliary on Thursday but you can’t because you are having a tooth extracted that day. I will actually schedule myself for an extraction to get out of a speaking engagement even if I have no dental problems.

I have three teeth left.

*Note to the American Dental Association: No, I will not come speak to your group about my experiences in radical home dentistry. I’d be glad to send along a note, though.


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