Sunday, November 4, 2007

Speech Lite

Last night a man who has hired me at some considerable fee to edit his writings was inaugurated as president of a university and since he has struck me as otherwise being a good fellow and potential friend, I accepted the invitation to attend the inauguration.

I arrived at the appropriate auditorium, accepted a program nicely pimped out with a yellow cord to suggest the mortar board tassel and found, as has become my survival-oriented habit, a aisle seat near the back.

Even though I was prompt, the ebullient lady in academic regalia at the podium was already in mid sentence of what was to become a fifteen-minute salutatory. Thumbing through the program, I learned that she was the chancellor of the university system of which my client was to become president of the Santa Barbara campus. I also learned that she was the first of, get this, twelve speakers, the last of whom was my client.

As well it might, my mind began to reel.

Twelve speakers under any circumstances is bad enough, but twelve speakers wearing academic regalia causes the mind to shift into overdrive from reel to boggle.

In what some writers would call a flashback and what some mental health professionals would call a fugue state, I was transported back five months to the very same room where, as a member of the staff of a writers' conference, I was a part of an even larger cadre of speakers, a cynical trope on the gladiators at the Coliseum to the audience. We who are about to die salute you, they said. Our greeting to the audience of three hundred fifty-odd writers was on the order of, We who are about to teach you first bore you to death. This is particularly ironic because, just previous to being led into the auditorium, we were enjoined, nay, abjured to keep our opening comments to ninety seconds. There were thirty of us. Factor in another fifteen seconds for advancing to the dais, fiddling with the microphone, speaking our ninety-seconds-worth, then fifteen seconds to get back to home chair, you have accounted for an hour. Even without academic regalia, it is unlikely that most writers, given a captive audience, will surrender the floor in the allotted ninety seconds.

My fugal state took me a hundred miles south to a building that greatly resembles the cake at the wedding of the daughter of a wealthy Republican. The building is called Town and Gown, its name aptly suggesting its locale at a university. As if to confirm this suggestion, Town and Gown is next to the alumni center. Every year in the past of my tenure at the University, I gathered with approximately thirty brother and sister faculty members at an event called The Fall Festival of Writers, meant at first blush to give new and incoming students an opportunity to hear their faculty read, each from his own work. At the earlier faculty meeting in which we were primed with University Commons hors d'oerves and wine of uncertain parentage, we were admonished to keep our presentations down to ten minutes. We all knew this would be impossible for Shelley Berman. Once, for some unexplainable reason, when I was put on to read before the estimable Mr. B., I blew the whistle on our ten-minute cynosure and in the manner of congresspersons and senators, yielded a minute of my time to him. He later admitted to roars of laughter that he would have taken it anyway.

The point of my woolgathering is this: The world is divided into two segments of society, those who give speeches and those who listen to them. You would think that anyone on the cusp, which is to say having had to listen to speeches as well as having to give them, would be mindful that there is little difference between waterboarding and being forced to listen to speeches. In the former, the victim fears death by drowning; in the latter the victim becomes resigned to being bored to death. Neither is a pleasant way to go, and to anyone who wants me to confess to something, the mere threat of having to listen to speeches is enough to break my resistance.

The last good speechmaker I'm aware of was Bobby Kennedy, the more so because of the way he seemed to change, to turn human and caring before our very eyes. I have no doubt that had he lived, a few years of making speeches would have had their pernicious effect, and so, in my mind, Bobby Kennedy goes out like Houseman's Athlete Dying Young. At one time, Jesse Jackson had it, but too many sermons and speeches will catch up with you, Reverend, and pull the rug from under you. At one time, Woody Allen was pretty good at what he did, but listening to him now, you get the sense that he's hitting on some underaged chick off in the wings.

It is important for us to recognize the chemistry between the orator and the listener, which is to say that given my own penchant for escape, when we sit to listen, we sit on the aisle at the rear and when we stand to speak, we remember all those who have been trapped by their curiosity, enthusiasm, and faith into the front-row seats.


R.L. Bourges said...

Never, ever, ever did one of my timed speeches, the ones I had carefully edited and read at the same rate as the intended speaker, get delivered in the allotted 90 seconds/2 minutes or hour. There's something about a podium that sends speakers into a fuge state of their own, maybe? a craving for the perennity of those gazing -albeit bored - faces staring up at them?

John Eaton said...

Speak the speech, I pray thee, trip-hop-tastic on the tongue.

I remember Dukakis in Chicago, Jesse in the burbs, and Joe Lowery, among so many others.

Most academic folk I've heard were not nearly as interesting outside of class, or the pub, or the barbecue.

Something about the lights, and the gowns, and the formalisms of it all, I think.

I was, however, tickled to watch Rosemary Daniell clear a hall once with one gyno-poetic phrase after another. She took it to 'em that day.

And Nikki Giovanni, in preshow, asking a wellwisher where he got the awful suit he was wearing. He came penitent to thank her for reading that evening. We all smiled, and had some more wine.

John :)