To New Beginnings

I did something crazy last week. Well, crazier than the things I usually do. I joined Toastmasters International. People who know me may have a hard time accepting the fact that I’m absolute crap at getting up in front of a group of people and talking. Or playing an instrument. Or breathing.

I’m someone you’d think would be great at speaking. In one-on-one interactions I’m relaxed and comfortable – occasionally too comfortable. But once there is a quiet room full of eyeballs focused on me, my hands start to shake and I forget – I’m serious – how to breathe. (Just a note – if you ever happen to look at me and I’m yawning, it’s probably NOT because I’m bored or tired. It’s probably because I’m trying not to hyperventilate. It might be a good time to ask me if I’m ok.)

The real reason I decided to try Toastmasters is because of a talk I did last September at a meeting of the Jane Austen Society of Metropolitan DC. Apparently everyone enjoyed it, but I have a secret to tell you: I messed up my notes. Badly. It’s a very good thing I had slides, because it turned into a much less formal and more conversational talk than I had intended. But don’t let “less formal” and “conversational” deceive you, unless you think it’s totally relaxing to have a conversation with someone who is 30 seconds from bursting into tears and running out the door. But what do I know, I got a good review! Apparently I’m just naturally talented.

That experience was terrifying enough that I decided I would either never do another talk, or I’d figure out a way to do a better job the next time. Then I was asked to speak in Chicago this spring. *gulp* I knew I had to make up my mind.

I decided to jump in to Toastmasters with both feet. I’ll be doing my “Ice Breaker” speech next Thursday night (my husband’s birthday – happy birthday dear, I passed out in front of a room full of strangers!) and right now I’m planning to do a sort of “Parallel Lives” thing1, telling the story of my life along with the life of my Dear Jane – how reading and education were vital parts of our childhood, how each of us almost took the wrong path (poor Harris Bigg-Wither) (poor NMT), how each of us finally found ourselves in a situation where, with the kindness and support of our closest family, we were given the freedom to pursue our passions… yeah, I think it’ll be okay. I just have to be able to get through it without passing out.

Drink to Isabella Thorpe - and to my new venture!
Drink to Isabella Thorpe – and to my new venture!

Turns out these Toastmasters people are everywhere. There’s a club here in town, so I showed up last Thursday unannounced and unexpected. I was wearing the Chuck Nagy jersey I got for free at a game we went to last year, so there was quite a bit of “Oh, is your last name Nagy?” and “So do you play baseball?” nonsense. Sort of like a room full of Christmassy aunts trying to figure out how to talk to a niece they haven’t seen since Easter. I actually enjoyed the meeting quite a bit. It’s kind of like a game show – two people get up and do speeches that are between 5 & 7 minutes, and then the next part is called “Table Topics,” where one person stands up and asks questions to a random attendee and that person has to get up and do a 1-2 minute speech based on the random question or topic.

I went again last night and had my swearing-in ceremony. Wait – let me tell you how it really happened:

I ran into the building, slipping and crunching and almost falling on the snow outside, at 6:31. I burst through the door just as they were finishing reciting the Pledge. Before I could catch my breath I had to take my place at the front of the room and undergo an induction ceremony. I’m sure I was beet red, especially after I realized halfway through the ceremony that I was chewing gum. At some point in the next few days I’m sure I’ll show up on their facebook page getting sworn in as a Toastmaster. Now you know my secret – there was a little ball of Eclipse WinterfrostTM in my left hand.


Then I was told I’d be running the timer that night! Wow, nothing like a trial by fire. But though I may have been all shaky & sweaty the whole time, I did it! Oh, and – one cool thing that happens with this club is that you’re given a “mentor.” Turns out mine is kind of interesting. And to be sure, if Sir Walter’s “man might have had the arranging of his hair, he should not be ashamed of being seen with him any where.”

In case you hadn’t guessed, another “new beginning” for me is this site. I’ve often thought about having a nice, clean, professional place to share my thoughts about writing, reading, Austen, Shakespeare, etc. I hope I can live up to that level of intellectual stimulation. However, don’t be surprised if I occasionally slip in some football or stories about kids.

Thanks for reading. Please feel free to comment with suggestions, questions, or anything else that’s on your mind.

1. …inspired of course by Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, something I started reading after watching Richard Burton & Elizabeth Taylor burn up the screen – and much of the ancient Hellenistic word – in Cleopatra. I just wanted to get a little better feel for poor, long-suffering Marc Antony. Yeah, he was pretty much a drunken letch, but we all have faults.2

2. Plutarch’s work is also known as Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans or simply Plutarch’s Lives – and unlike Cleopatra, it’s available for free at