Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Monday, December 05, 2005

A Brief Pause Upon Losing My Voice

Last month I was drilling into some concrete and the dust combined with drywall dust that had accumulated from previous construction got into my throat. Next day, predictably, I had a sore throat and I knew it was only a matter of time before I caught whatever virus was going round. Well it was a mean one. I managed to fend it off long enough to make my presentation at our regional conference. The one about talking to clients about consumerism. That afternoon I was losing my voice just as I was ramping up to talk for two days. By Monday I couldn't answer the phone beyond an unintelligible croak.

The irony of losing my voice did not escape me. Had I not been speaking my truth? Judging from the responses from the conference feedback forms, I had strangled what I had to say. People's expectations hadn't been met. Comments ranged from "terrible - complete waste of my time" to "not as described in program". I did have a partner in crime, but I was still the architect; I had planned and outlined the presentation. I had delivered what I thought was wanted or thought I had.

This is one of those crossroads where you can perform an autopsy and then celebrate that any future presentation can only be an improvement, or deem it a failure and cut and run. Did I really believe my own message I wondered? The news is hardly uplifting and what tools of salvation I could suggest were but a token of what is needed. Maybe I should retire from my soap box and take up something obsessive and completely unimportant - collecting rare coins for instance.

After all, the world was going to hell anyway, what difference is it making that a few people care? Julia Butterfly sat in a tree for two years and got what? One tree saved and a little buffer around it, while the rest of the old growth was clear-cut and the ground doused with herbicide and the diesel fuel used to carry it. Exploitation of the planet has been systemic for decades, make that centuries. The kind of corporate competition we are being subjected to now, is so brutal, so powerful and so big, it feels like a plague in which our best response is to make ourselves as comfortable as possible, then face death with dignity and grace. Love would still triumph if we kept our humanity, even as the planet was being ground to a pulp. (Yes, this is my nihilistic rock bottom, my baseline of reality.)

During this period of voice impairment, I happened to travel deep into the hinterland of Middle America. I thought it was the Midwest, but I was told by a Midwesterner, that this part of the country might as well be Afghanistan to a Midwesterner. I won't name it less I offend the occupants. I'll just say that it sits on top of Texas like a tank bag on a Harley.

One might describe the life there as a sort of discount store Stepford wife scene. It is wall to wall chain stores and so homogenous that there are not enough Asian people to staff the local Benihana. (It was not, actually, a Benihana, it was the second string restaurant chain Shogun).

The Asian people who did work there looked like they were from southeast Asia which brought to mind a scene of a Cambodian refugee holding a sheet of paper and a plane ticket given to them by the CIA in exchange for having helped destroy a neighboring village. On the sheet of paper was a map of the U.S. with a star in the middle of it marking their relocation destination. (Not to relocate meant facing eternal feuding and probable death at the hands of the neighbors whose village had been trashed.) The landscape I was looking at, here in the middle of the map, was close to what I had imagined that destination to be.

(Why does she come up with this stuff? Didn't the waitress look happy enough? They had jobs and most likely all the comforts of our American life - TV, cars, a house with central heating for an eighth of the price we pay in the Bay Area. They were probably economic refugees from a California metropolis, which was why we were there, visiting relatives.)

As I suspended my disbelief at this artificial, bland landscape that might have been designed by McDonalds as a toy for children, I could completely understand why large parts of the population supported Bush and still do. It is simply out of ignorance. There is nothing out there to inform people of something different. Nobody's ever seen a Prius. Pick-up trucks and SUVs are the norm. Churches and TV inform the populace. Even the chain bookstore giants did not have a presence in this town. How can people choose an alternative if none exists?

I could see no reason here for people to challenge the lies they were told by our leadership and corporate sponsors. Even in the enlightened coastal areas, we resist the changes needed. To realize the full truth of global climate change, peak oil and American imperialism would mean a lifestyle shift involving stringent cut backs. Not an easy sell to those living in comfort. Nobody cares that much about Polar bears on diminishing ice fields. Why harp on it?

Not long after my poorly executed presentation, I was back at the podium again. This time in my role as program chair of the San Francisco chapter of the National Association of Professional Organizers (the same that had put on the conference). This is my second year as program chair and I had enjoyed a modicum of personal success, owing, in large part, to the costumes I put together and a funny line or two I would say about them.

My costumes were designed around the theme of the program. This one happened to be called "Speak with Presence and Power in Front of Anyone" and would be given by a Marin speaking guru named Lee Glickstein. I couldn't come up with anything so I went with an idea from a member who knew the speaker. She suggested I wear large ears to illustrate the need to listen before speaking. (Speak into their listening was how the speaker puts it.)

I thought of going down to the House of Humor and buying some big elf ears or something, but I couldn't bear the environmental cost of a wear-once prop so I made the ears from file folders stuck to a coat hanger with some big red lips hanging over my head like a halo. It was a pretty lame costume. To get away with it, I would have to tell a damn good story to the gathering of 90 or so discerning NAPO members. Luckily I had gained back enough of my voice to sound like Lauren Bacall. I would tell the story about not wanting to buy rubber ears, only I didn't want to harp on the environmental aspect, so I said,

"But then I thought, a year from now I'm going to be looking at these rubber ears and asking myself 'have I worn these in the last year?'" It was an organizer joke and got a big laugh.

Afterwards Lee Glickstein came up to me and told me that I should do stand-up comedy because I had a feel for words. He was quite earnest about it.

"Have you ever done a long piece," he asked.
"I just did this presentation", I offered."
"Was it funny?"
"No," I admitted.
"Well do comedy. You could be the luncheon speaker at national conferences. They would pay you."

I had a momentary vision of myself laughing all the way to the bank. I was flattered to be acknowledged thus, but how was stand-up comedy going to change the world, I thought. Then was immediately reminded of the obscure Preston Sturges movie, Sullivan's Travels, in which a successful director of frivolous comedy decides to do a serious picture about the destitute, because, after all, it was the Depression and people were suffering.

Yes it's true; laughter is a much needed survival tool. One of the perks (if you can call it that) of living under siege of such an egregiously bad administration, is that the jokes have gotten really acerbic and witty lately. Now if I could talk about what was meaningful to me, make it funny and laugh all the way to the bank, my faith in a just universe would be restored. (No not really, only if serious change came about).

I had set myself up to take a high jump, too high. I'd come crashing down the other side. The rehabilitation would be long and arduous, but I knew I would get back on again. I had sat in groups in silence often enough, but now when I do, I leave thinking of the missed opportunity for telling a story. A story that might stretch the dialogue or at least offer an alternative. During my convalescence, I read this sentiment and hung onto to it like a salve. "In a world so much in need of change only the different can make a real difference."


At 12:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you ever thought about joining the improv class in Redwood City? It's usually on Tuesday nights at Red Morton. I've done several sessions and probably will do the January one.

It's really fun.

At 3:18 PM, Blogger AK said...

No I have never joined such a class. My colleague Kit Davey has. Perhaps you've run across her. She brought her teacher to have her do a class with one of our meetings and it was fun. I'll keep it in mind.


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