Sunday, February 8, 2009

Immortalized for Quite Some Time

The only trophy I ever won was a silver statue of a man giving a speech. At age fourteen I signed up for the Optimists Oratorical Contest in Richfield, Minnesota, and won first prize for a stemwinder about my father’s missionary career.

On the day of the event, I shined my shoes and donned my three-piece corduroy suit. I practiced in the mirror. My dad drove us over to “the venue,” as he called it, which turned out to be a small banquet room with dark green walls in the local Embers restaurant.

I delivered my silver-tongued oration with poise, eloquence, and not a single relapse of the annoying soprano voice that I had so recently left at the portal of puberty.

The Optimists clapped. My mother beamed. We ate our free steak dinner. That night I was so keyed up I couldn’t sleep. I sat up in my bed in the basement and clutched
The Trophy. This was going to be the start of a big career, I thought. With public speaking skills like this, I would soar to great heights.

* * *

Harold Goldsmith called from Washington on a Friday afternoon in 1986. He said he had a favor to ask, but he hoped I would see it as quite an honor.

“I'm scheduled to speak at a big conference at Howard University,” Harold said. “You know that’s considered the Harvard of the historically black colleges. But something's come up -- I can’t do it. How would you like to fill in for me and give a talk at Howard?”

I told Harold I would do it. I was twenty-eight years old, just out of graduate school. I’d never spoken at a conference before -- but how hard could it be? After all, I was an award-winning orator . . .

“The conference is on
Public Policies to Help High Risk Youth,” Harold explained. “Why don’t you present some of our new stuff on mortality rates and county characteristics?”

“That sounds good,” I agreed.

Harold went on; he was full of advice. “The thing to do is to make some nice charts and graphs. Then get Chuck to take pictures of them -- 35mm slides -- and do a slide slow. It’ll be great.” (This was back in the day when we all walked to work in howling blizzards and had no PowerPoints.)

I had two weeks to prepare. I made many beautiful charts and graphs. Chuck took the pictures with his Nikon and we got the slides developed. I polished and practiced my presentation so it took exactly forty-five minutes, leaving the balance of an hour for audience response and questions.

I flew up to Washington on the night before the conference and took a taxi to the Howard Inn. I practiced my talk one more time in the hotel room and was starting to feel good about the next day.

Arriving at the auditorium in the morning, I learned there had been a slight change in the schedule. Another speaker had been procured, and the two of us would now be sharing a single session, which was to last ninety minutes total.

The hall began to fill with people and I sat down in the front row. Then my co-speaker walked in. He was a tall, strikingly handsome black man. He was elegantly dressed and impeccably coiffed. He wore gold cufflinks on his sleeves and had a silk handkerchief folded like a sort of impressionist origami sculpture and tucked into the breast pocket of his tailored, three-piece suit.

I did not realize -- until he stepped in front of the crowd and opened his mouth -- that he was the reincarnation of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

He prowled the stage. He spoke without notes. He had a dream. His voice rose and fell and it sounded like a cello. After awhile, the people got caught up in the cadence of it, and were moved to audible response. “Tell it to us, Doctor,” they said. “That’s right . . . Mmmm,hmmm.”

An hour went by -- it seemed like minutes. “Speak it, Doctor!” In a final flourish, he removed the origami handkerchief and dabbed his brow. When he stopped, the applause rolled down liked thunder from the heavens. People wept. They were ready to sell all their possessions and give the money to
Help the High Risk Youth of America. But they did not want to come down from the mountaintop -- not just yet.

The conference organizer stepped to the microphone. “Thank you so, so very much, Doctor,” she gushed. “You have really showed us the way forward today. Now folks, let’s take a short break and then Dr. Jeffrey Swanson from the University of Texas in Galveston will speak to us. I’m sure we will all want to hear what
he has to say.”

The crowd filtered out and the conference chairwoman rushed over to me. “We are running way overtime,” she said anxiously. “I’m sorry about that, but do you think you could cut your presentation down to about ten minutes?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I will do the best I can. I have a forty-five minute slide presentation in that carousel over there. But let me try to pick out just a few of the best ones . . .”

There wasn’t a moment to waste. I rushed over to the slide projector where my carousel was already locked and loaded. My hands trembled as I tried to screw off the top. The slide holder seemed to catch on something. I applied some pressure, kept trying to open it, and then the carousel flew out of my hands.

It sailed like a flying saucer and crashed to the floor. It rolled and flipped and scattered the slides like sheep running out of a corral. I chased after them, one by one. Each slide was precious to me in its own small way. I held each one up to the light to identify its special markings. Then I started doing triage, talking to the slides: “You. I will show
you. Back into the carousel immediately. Not you! You will not be shown.”

Seconds later, I heard my name being introduced and I was on the platform looking out at all those people. I opened my mouth and said something and it sounded like I’d sucked a helium balloon.

I showed the first two slides. They were in backwards. I started to panic and my mind went blank. Then I thought of my mother and the words of the 23rd Psalm flashed across my mind.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. . .”

Somehow, I found my way into the middle of what was to have been my lecture and made a desperate grab for a central point -- the Main Thing that I had planned to have people remember. It was just this:
“My statistics show that there are three kinds of areas in the United States that have the absolute worst mortality rates due to homicide, suicide, and any cause of death related to alcohol and drugs. First are all the American Indian reservations. Second are all the towns in the Rio Grande Valley along the Mexican border. And then you have your inner-city ghettos in the big cities like Washington, D.C.”

I must have been out of my mind. It had not quite dawned on me until then, but I was about the only white person in the entire assembly. Now I could literally feel my face being drained of whatever color it had once possessed. Except for my cheeks, which I could feel turning purple. I was a mime. I was Bozo with a helium balloon voice.

I paused and there was stunned silence from the crowd. There was no “tell it to us, Doctor.” Just silence.

It was the kind of silence that an airline pilot would notice when the engines go dead. One minute he’s sitting up there in the cockpit climbing out of Cleveland. The next minute he sees this flock of Canadian geese go by. There are these little bursting clouds of feathers behind him (Poof-poof!) . . . followed by silence. Now he’s a few thousand feet up in the air with all these people on board. And then the pilot has this one crystal-clear thought, which was exactly the thought I had, standing up behind that podium at Howard University:
This thing is going down.

I limped to the end and showed my final slide. It was to have been the crowning glory of my presentation. I had spent a lot of time making it -- a three-colored jimdandy of a bar graph showing, in alarming detail, that the absolute deadliest places in the United States of America were all the counties where the minorities lived. The only small mercy is that the slide was upside down. The colored bars descended like square stalactites, hanging stupidly from their Sanskrit labels.
* * *
It’s February, 2009, and I’m standing in front of a crowd in the ballroom of a convention hotel in Barcelona. “Thank you very much for that kind introduction,” I say. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. It’s a distinct honor and a privilege for me to speak to the Forensic Faculty of the Royal College of Psychiatrists at this important conference here in Barcelona. Especially for somebody like me, who is not a psychiatrist, and coming as I do from an extremely foreign country. . .”

There are polite chuckles from the audience of Brits and I follow with my icebreaker punch line. “I hope the simultaneous translation services are working so that all of you can understand what it is that I’m trying to say.” (Warm laughter.) I meander through my PowerPoint presentation for the next forty-five minutes and leave the balance of the hour for questions from the audience. At the end, my hosts are complimentary and I feel happy and relieved.

It had been a long journey back from that dark day at Howard University over two decades ago. I may never have recovered at all, were it not for the inspiration I received from the 43rd President of the United States. For eight long years, he stood up and said things
to the entire world that gave me the hope and courage to go on.

First of all, he understood the fact that bad things really can happen to us sometimes, when we least expect it, and right under our nose:
"I remember meeting a mother of a child who was abducted by the North Koreans right here in the Oval Office." -- George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., June 26, 2008
He also inspired us to bounce back and keep on trying -- to stay the course -- no matter who opposed us or how bad things got; failure was not something we shouldn't try to excel in:
"And so, General, I want to thank you for your service. And I appreciate the fact that you really snatched defeat out of the jaws of those who are trying to defeat us in Iraq." -- George W. Bush, to Army Gen. Ray Odierno, Washington, D.C., March 3, 2008
With him, you could believe that nothing was impossible:
"I am here to make an announcement that this Thursday, ticket counters and airplanes will fly out of Ronald Reagan Airport." – George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., Oct. 3, 2001
And when people did the very best they could under the circumstances, he was simply grateful and let them know it. At times like that, it was as if he were speaking directly to me:
“Thank you, your Holiness. Awesome speech." -- George W. Bush, to Pope Benedict, Washington, D.C., April 15, 2008
He did this effortlessly, with the dignity and charm of insouciant witlessness.

Back in my hotel room, I flip on the BBC World News. They’re discussing the cockpit recording from the US Airways flight that landed in the Hudson River.

“Yes, Nigel, this Captain Sullenberger has become a real hero in America,” says the BBC anchor. “Indeed, I suspect he’s going to be immortalized for quite some time to come.”

And there it was! Just when Forty-Three had ridden off into a Texas sunset and we didn’t know what we’d ever do without him. Just when we’d turned over our country to a Lincolnesque orator who couldn’t mangle a metaphor if it bit him in the butt. And along come the Brits, of all people, to pick up W’s mantle and carry on his rhetorical legacy.

That evening in Barcelona, I try this out over tapas and wine with my newfound friends, the British forensic psychiatrists. They chuckle politely and continue their high-spirited collegial banter about serial rapists and a girl who killed both her parents and a doctor who faked having cancer -- just to get attention -- to the point of undergoing two rounds of real chemotherapy.

* * *

As I finish writing this, Iberia flight 6251 ascends from the valley of Madrid and banks north toward the snowy Pyrenees. I’m headed home to try and put some food on my family. I’m pleased with how the keynote speech went. “Heck of a job, Brownie,” I say to myself. Then I glance out the window from seat 36A. Just for a moment, all those little wispy clouds down there start to look like feathers. I scan the sky for geese.


Julie Staples said...

Oh, can I just shrivel up and crawl away for you (Washington)
You must have been exceptionally good to evoke polite chuckles and warm laughter from the Brits (Barcelona)
So glad to hear the BBC will be taking over for Forty-Three. I was afraid I would need to resort to a 10th reading of "Bushisms."
Excellent writing as always.

Bob said...

Hey Jeff, I continue to love the way you weave personal history and current events together into a compelling narrative. What fun! Your Howard upstaging sounds miserable. I do a fair amount of PowerPoint these days. I'm relieved to report that my most-uncomfortable moment, other than being heckled once by a kook, was an unfortunate typo leading to a reference to "pubic meetings". Remarkably, many in the audience of 200 or so never noticed, thank goodness! Also, I appreciate your recollection of my Dad's slide technique. Thanks for sharing! Bob :-)

Chuck said...

I know just how you felt. Last year I had to present to the largest forum in my life (about 1500 people). I had really great and important data to present. I was the second speaker. The first one was an older physician who proceeded to present every red meat argument on the subject along with beautiful pictures on her slides. She got a standing ovation. I babbled my way through my presentation and was glad to get out of the hall.


Jay said...

Ouch, Jeff. Your Howard University moment brings me back to my shared University Club moment with you, on the occasion of your promotion to full professor. Fall, 2007. A grand sweeping motion of my right arm across the entire group of your distinguished colleagues and my bold proclamation to all, "I don't care what you do!" Ya never get used to that "swing-and-a-miss" feelin' with so many serious people looking on. Fortunately for you and me, in our ongoing quest for happiness and success this side of eternity we have our 25% stake in a common Swanson gene pool. This mutual Swedish heritage is one of great benefit in striking that delicate balance between the three keys to success (as Ralph Waldo Emerson has written) in this life. Accordingly, at those times we are not hitting home runs and "winning the respect of intelligent people" along the meteoric rise of our career paths, we can still, by natural inclination, be "laughing often and much and winning the affection of children".

Jim Gronvall said...

Such is life, by the time you think things are under control, someone throws a goose in your engine and the rest is a lead balloon. Been there, done that for 35 years in the classroom, and now am enjoying finding ways to help others without having to be up front or in charge. Working with my hands and saying little is a rewarding experience.

Take care,
Cousin Jim