Monthly Archives: May 2012

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An Icebreaker

This is the text of my first Toastmasters talk. In addition to my presentation, two more advanced Toastmasters presented. I received an award for Best Speech. After listening to my recording of the talk, I decided that it was not nearly as terrible as I feared. Most of my feedback from the Evaluator was concerned with me speaking rather than reading a written text. My mentor knows that I am much more competent at writing than public presentations and encouraged me to continue to use text versions one or two more times (at most) to become more comfortable with an audience.


I grew up in southwest Louisiana dreaming my get away to the mountains and cooler weather. I didn’t have in mind to settle down locally and “find someone” as everyone around me was encouraging.

My parents laid the course for my longing to live in the western states with Saturday morning Westerns, PBS documentaries, and occasional camping trips.

My great-aunt Florence who lived not far enough away in Oklahoma fueled my enthusiasm with the nature in her letters. She wrote vivid descriptions of the birds … and wildlife … in her rural yard. I lived in a subdivision. The nearest rural area, a Forest Service pine tree farm, was more than an hour away.

During my early years, my mother encouraged my fanciful ideas. She and my father and I lived in Cheyenne, Wyoming in the time before my memories began. They enjoyed telling stories of spring drives down Happy Jack Road from Cheyenne to Laramie. As I neared my college graduation and was spending summers away in Wyoming and Alaska, there was the expectation to get past those dreamy notions, find a job locally and get married. That was the prevailing attitude among everyone I grew up with. I, on the other hand, used my summers in Alaska to make headway in finding a job there.

This was in the early 90’s shortly after Oprah Winfrey showcased her Alaskan Men episodes. My family and friends in Louisiana presumed or hoped that if I was going to move away, I must be doing it to find an Alaska man.

Now unbeknownst to the rest of the country and probably Oprah Winfrey as well, Alaska man is an entirely different reality than Oprah proposed. Alaska men are rarely from Alaska and quantity does not always equal quality. As they crudely say up North, the odds are good, but the goods are odd. The rugged individualism and sense of self that attracts someone to a remote, rural area, also breeds a good bit of inflexibility and ego that isn’t necessarily the mainstay for a healthy relationship.

I was not looking for an Alaska man in the autumn of ’94 as I drove through the Kenai Mountains of south-central Alaska. I was on my way to a job interview. There were fifty miles left to go when I crested a peak and a clearing in the trees opened up. The entire west side of the Kenai Peninsula was visible. It is a broad sweeping glacial plain that goes all the way down to the Cook Inlet. A glacial plain looks a lot like a tidal flat. It’s very flat. There were mountains in the distance, but they were very far away. My heart sank a bit, but I was thrilled to be there. I was on my way to what would be a successful interview at a newspaper. I was more than happy to accept a writing job and be only an hour from hiking, biking and cross-country skiing in the mountains.

Within a year I found a job with a Girl Scout council and moved to Anchorage, the most populated city in the state. The caveat was my work. My job was to recruit and train volunteers and develop programs for girls which required travel. I would often depart from Anchorage in a jet plane, transfer to a twin engine plane and ultimately a Grummon Goose that would land on its belly in a remote bay. No one else in the office wanted the assignment. It was a dream job for me.

Over the years I didn’t hide my head or heart in the snow from Alaska men. I snow machined through the Caribou Hills with an EMT, cross-country skied with a school teacher and hiked the backcountry of Denali National Park with a Park Ranger. My perspective on the Alaska man became more open, but I was still a bit disappointed. Opportunities for moving forward in my work were limited as well.

Ten years after my first summer in Alaska, I was not looking for an Alaska man when I walked into the Latitude 62 Lodge at the foothills of the Alaska Range. It was the year 2000 and I had just left my professional job with the Girl Scouts to spend one last summer away before heading off to work in the Lower 48 or Outside with a capital O. It was time to move away in hopes of career advancement I told myself. In reality, even though I was happy there and surrounded by friends, I was unwilling to admit that I really wanted to find a companion.
Within days, I began working with a cook who spent all of his off-time in the library. He was one of those Alaska men one hopes for: attractive, fun loving, intelligent. He was drawn to Alaska to get away, but not to run away. We became fast friends, chatting while cutting vegetables, discussed inane topics like how it was impossible to find Southern style coleslaw anywhere but home, mustard vs. ketchup based BBQ sauce.

I quickly realized that I was setting off on a new journey, that I had acquired an Alaska man: a Dreher High School graduate whose mother lived in a faraway oddly named place called Irmo, South Carolina. But that is another Icebreaker for another time.

Next topic: Why the Ulysses by Bloomsday widget?

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Toastmasters – the dreaded Icebreaker

I joined Toastmasters several months ago as a way to improve my speaking skills for my job. That job is another story entirely unto itself. I have known Toastmasters exists for as long as I can remember. In the last few years, an old friend began lauding on Facebook how positive her experiences were with a group in Anchorage, Alaska.

Toastmasters is an international membership organization that guides individuals in gaining or improving communication and leadership skills. At it’s most basic level, it is a supportive, structured way to become a better public speaker whether it be for formal presentations or in a social context.There are quite a few groups in my city and having attended two different groups, I am sure that each one has its own personality. I easily decided on my group, the Saturday A.M. Toastmasters, because their usual meeting location is the city airport. It is primarily a light aircraft (small Cessnas, Beechcraft, Pipers) airport and I am fascinated by these planes.

The format of the meeting is timed and members assume roles that include among others a Presiding Officer, who hosts or leads the meeting, a Timer, who gives signals to speakers using a flag or light to keep them aware of how long they have spoken, Evaluators, who kindly review speeches giving positive feedback and comments on ‘room for improvement’. This kind of setting could easily be stuffy and uptight. Although my group always starts on time and follows an ordered meeting, it is relaxed and congenial and members always gather afterward for lunch and socializing.

The nerve-wracking aspect of the meeting for me it Table Topics. Each week a theme is selected as well as a word of the day. The Table Topics Master selects questions that fit the theme and after stating the question selects a member to stand and give an impromptu one to two minute talk on the topic. Preparation is the main source of stress for me when it comes to public speaking. I need to think over what I want to say before speaking off the cuff. My mind goes blank when asked to immediately speak before a group without prior notice. This reflects a deeper concern with feeling that my presentation will be inadequate or unimpressive.

The first level in Toastmasters is the Competent Communicator. There are ten projects to prepare and present that range from an Icebreaker to get comfortable with presentation and introduce oneself to working on format, getting to the point, vocal variety, persuasion, and other basic approaches to public speaking.

My Icebreaker is set for tomorrow morning. Originally it was scheduled for last week and I cancelled. I could say that what is going on with work distracted me, but in reality I came up with writer’s block on the closing lines. The speech is only four to six minutes long, which in many ways makes it much harder because it is so necessary to be concise. My title is I Did Not Set Out to Find an Alaska Man. It seemed an easy way to encompass the entirety of my adult life in a brief and somewhat entertaining way. It begins with me recounting that I was not thinking about finding an Alaska man during my youth when I dreamed of ways to get away from the Southern States to somewhere in the Mountain West. Nor was I setting out to find an Alaska man throughout the years I lived there. I briefly negate stereotypical misconceptions (or more likely create my own stereotype) about Alaska men. Finally, I was not looking for an Alaska man when I decided to move away from the state, left my full-time professional employment and took one last seasonal job at a lodge in the foothills of the Alaska Range, where I met my Alaska man.

Next topic: My Toastmasters Icebreaker: I Did Not Set Out to Find an Alaska Man

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I am fascinated and repulsed by blogging. It comes in spurts. There are times when I am motivated to write and I think it an excellent tool for exercise. I spend a day creating a blog, setting it up, choosing a theme, selecting a title, reformatting the layout, writing a bio, selecting fonts and text color that may in some way give it a less standard, more personal look (reminding myself along the way that is never really possible using a layout wizard)… You see where I am going here. It becomes a form of writer’s procrastination.

In the next step I begin looking through blogs, attempting to find several of interest to follow. I typically start with my own flights of fancy of the moment. This time: the simple lifestyle. After half an hour I realize that I should have searched the term frugal lifestyle or St. Francis of Assisi or travel. Anything else. I find too many webpages focused on products and people who are into interior decorating using a minimalist approach. Imagine … photos of an Amish style kitchen, stark with beautiful clean lines and light. The centerpiece is a table that clearly retails at several thousand dollars. The view from the window overlooking the table is of multimillion dollar real estate. Quirky coffee mugs with a single plate holding a vegetarian delicacy that appears to have been created by a garde manger. Although! the ingredients are all from a neat little herb garden which is pictured with evenly spaced rows and perfectly formed plants in which dirt is not visible. At this point I reach the phase where I am repulsed by blogging and can find no one to follow who has a sense of humor concerning the ‘sport’ of blogging.

I then move on to the next and final step, usually the next day. I make a post. It starts out in a ‘hurky’ manner coming out in bits and pieces. Words begin to flow and I am somewhat satisfied, feeling as if I have accomplished a start, made a beginning. That I may have done, yet tomorrow arrives and I only have a rough idea of what I will write. I decide to mull it over and put it all down on the page the next day. The next day turns out to be busy with work or an errand or it is a weekend and I cannot concentrate because there is to much to do with family. The next few days pass and weeks begin to bleed into months. At some point I find myself back at the blog looking at it like an old boyfriend. Wondering what ever possessed me to get started at it in the first place.

Two new approaches this time: no bio (it zaps writing momentum early on) and a topic for the next post (whether it is actually used or not).

Tomorrow’s topic (or the next day!): Toastmasters – the dreaded Icebreaker

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developing . . …

developing . . .

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