Tuesday, June 21, 2011

"The Speech"

A few weeks ago, Dr. M asked me if I would make the welcoming speech at her psychological institute’s upcoming fundraising dinner. I said no. I then went home and immediately wrote the speech.

I showed it to her, to see if the content was appropriate. That was one of my concerns. On those rare occasions when I’m asked to speak at an event, my initial response isn’t not, “That’s too scary for me”, it’s “I wouldn’t know what to say.”

I had still not agreed to make the speech. I just wanted Dr. M to see what I would say in it, if I did. Though I do have to acknowledge that it’s a little weird to write a speech I had already refused to deliver.

I have never asserted that I was normal.

My “I wouldn’t know what to say” concern dissolved when Dr. M enthusiastically approved of the content. But there were other obstacles to overcome. Agreeing to perform before strangers is generically scary. To anyone. Even the most experienced practitioners. It was said that Jack Benny, who told jokes to audiences for over half a century would bite his fingernails to the quick, in fearful anticipation of how the audience would respond.

In the speech I wrote, I immediately tried to curry favor with a self-deprecating introduction:

Good evening. I’m Earl Pomerantz. I’m (Dr. M’s) husband. Dr. M is the Clinical director of the (name of institute.) If this were a show business event, I would be considered, what they call, the “non pro.”

Beyond generic nervousness, however, there was also the fact that this was an audience of practicing psychotherapists. As I said in my speech,

I have to tell you, I feel a little uncomfortable standing up here in front of a roomful of psychological professionals. Right now, you’re probably assessing my body language, thinking, (WITH CONCERN) “I ought to give him my card!”

And on top of all that, these were Dr. M’s co-workers I’d be taking on. One of whom was the institute’s founder, a woman who, though miraculously robust, was a hundred-and-two years old. In my many years around these people, I had never heard one person poke even the gentlest of fun in her direction. (At her age, it could easily prove to be the “cause of death.” Nobody wants that on their resume.) I registered my “taste” concerns in the speech.

I also feel a little uncomfortable, because, being an outsider, I’m not exactly sure how to approach this. I don’t know what’s appropriate to say. Where’s the line? I mean, you have your founder, (mentioning her name), a woman who’s a hundred and fifty years old…knew Freud personally…they may have had a little…(wavering hand gesture, indicating an intimate relationship) It’s hard to know for sure. There’s nobody left to ask.

Can I say that? – I don’t know – Is that okay?

There would also be a special honoree that evening.

And then there’s the man we’re honoring tonight, (mentioning his name.) What can I say about him? That’s (Dr. M’s ) boss. She has to go in there on Monday.

­And then I said,

Let’s try this.

The fact is, (the honoree) and I don’t have a giant direct relationship. What it amounts to pretty much is that, at his Christmas party, I carry in the ham. And get pig juice on my sports jacket. That sports jacket cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

As is my way, the content of my speech was based entirely on fact. Except, maybe, the “Jewish cemetery” thing. That may not be true. I am not beyond inserting elements for comedic effect.

But not many. Firstly, “Sticking to the facts” is my comedic “comfort zone.” I do carry in the ham at the guy’s Christmas party. And, on occasion, I have dribbled pig juice on my sports jacket.

The second advantageof sticking to the truth is that if they don’t laugh, I can always fall back on, “I’m not trying to be funny; I’m just telling you what happened.”

Moving on…

Adopting the “put upon” persona I’ve been promoting for a lifetime, both onstage and off, I proceed to tell an extended story about how, though, I am not accustomed to cooking,

I came from a generation that never thought we would have to. We were wrong.

When Dr. M calls at the end of the day from work saying she’s coming home, it occasionally falls to me to prepare dinner.

Which I semi-graciously do, fixing the only thing I know how to cook – broiled chicken,

It’s easy. As long as you remember to turn on the broiler. I forgot to do that once. Dr. M came home, and it was, like,


rice pilaf,

No problem there. The directions are on the side of the box.

and, for a vegetable – broccoli.

Which involves boiling water and steaming, but I don’t remember for how long. Broccoli doesn’t come with directions.

The problem arises when,

Just as Dr. M is about to leave, (her boss) saunters into her office, plunks himself down on one of her chairs and says,

“(first name of Dr. M)…I’d like to run something by you. “

He then proceeds to tell her about a problem he has already talked to her about…five thousand times. But he behaves as if he has never spoken to her about the problem before. What’s the problem?

(WITH INTENSIFYING CRAZINESS) “We’re running out of money. Where’re we gonna get the money? We gotta to find the money! We need to make some money! How’re we gonna get the money-money-money-money-money-money-money-money-money-money-money-money-money!!!

By the time Dr. M finally comes home – two hours late –

....the chicken is all dried out, the rice pilaf is a brick, and the broccoli is all… (gesture, indicating wilted)…it’s like seaweed.

That is the nature of (Dr. M’s boss) and my “indirect” relationship. I’m collateral damage. Keeping her there listening to his obsessing, turns my gourmet dinner into chicken jerky…and two totally inedible side dishes.

Those are the highlights of my speech. I worked on it every day, sharpening, refining, doing everything I could think of to continually make it better. All the time insisting that I wanted to do it. Dr. M replied that if I didn’t, that was okay. She would write her own speech and deliver it herself.

Over the next couple of weeks, I asked Dr. M how her speech was coming. She told me she’d been too busy attending to the myriad details of the event to get to it. Her behavior gave me the feeling that she would never write that speech, and I’d be pressed into service, whether I wanted to be or not. So I continued working on mine.

Then, three days before the fundraiser, Dr. M e-mailed me a draft of a speech she had written, asking me if I would take a look at it.

Dr. M’s speech was very good. And more importantly, it was vastly more suitable than the speech I had written. If you go back, you will notice one prominent element in my speech’s construction.

It is not about the Institute. It is not about the fundraiser. It’s not, except tangentially, about that night’s honoree.

The speech was almost entirely about me.

I called Dr. M and told her I really liked her speech. I then went to work, doing what I do best.

I helped make her speech better.

That evening, I sat proudly as Dr. M stood at the podium. Her speech, which we had practiced together at home, was solid, appropriate and successful.

I was certain the right decision had been made. Though it did not stop me from quietly mouthing portions of my speech to myself throughout the evening.


PG said...

Behind every great woman stands a man with dried out chicken, chunky pilaf and wilted broccoli!
Plus ca change, plus ca la meme chose, in a way.

Hippi Longstocking said...

What, no vodka?

Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; not to make this all about me, but I'm sure I posted a comment on "The Speech". If I did and you didn't like it and deleted, that's cool; if I'm losing my mind I guess that's not cool.

I liked the story and how you told it in this post.

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