He makes the announcement as if pronouncing his death: “I have to give a speech.”
To a group of Japanese mothers. About overseas education, child-raising and whatnot. Informal mostly. Yet at a podium, before an audience.
“Well, don’t make it hard,” I advise. “Get an interpreter.”
But Japanese skills — or lack thereof — turns out not to be his problem.
“I can’t speak in front of people! No matter what language! I can’t!”
Ah, so it’s stage fright, aka the American disease. Americans supposedly fear public speaking more than anything — spiders, sharks, or even heights.
With my own ultimate fear being getting chased by a giant hairy spider to the edge of a sky-high cliff, to gaze far below upon a sea of writhing sharks all waiting with their mouths agape and their dinner napkins knotted in place.
Public speaking scarier than this? Hardly.
“Don’t stand there and snivel! Pull yourself together!”
“How?” he says.
It’s easy. And then I share some helpful public speaking hints, with Hint #1 being that old standby: “Keep in mind — no matter what happens — 1 billion Chinese won’t give a hoot.” And I arch my brows as if I have just imparted the deepest wisdom since someone told Custer to hop on his horse and run.
But he shakes his head.
“You’re kidding, right? With smartphones and the Internet, I expect half of China to be right there in the room with me, giving a full chorus of hoots. Along with the rest of the Twitterverse. In two minutes, I’ll go viral as a laughingstock. You watch.”
OK, Hint #2, another old favorite: “Imagine the entire audience is sitting there naked — a vision guaranteed to make you grin and relax.”
“You must be nuts. It’s a room full of young mothers! And I have an active imagination! I need to talk, not gawk!”
OK, OK, Hint #3, a twist on the above: “Imagine the entire room is filled with clones of someone you love and trust.”
“Like . . . Uncle Bennie?”
“Yes! Pretend you’re talking to good ol’ Uncle Bennie!”
“Pretend he’s alive.”
“He was as deaf as a rock. I’d have to shout.”
“Pretend he can hear.”
“And he could never shut up. He talked like a buzz saw.”
“Pretend this time he just smiles and nods.”
“Plus he would never sit still. He was always on the run from creditors.”
“Pretend they found him.”
“They did. That’s why he’s dead.”
On to Hint #4. “Wear your lucky shirt.”
He stares at me. “Who on Earth has a lucky shirt?”
“It doesn’t have to be a shirt. It can be lucky socks or a lucky bow tie.”
He waves me off, but then his eyes light up. “Wait! I do have a lucky ski mask! I could wear that!”
I scoot to Hint #5 before he can add his lucky handgun: “Encourage yourself by focusing on good memories.”
“I don’t have any.”
“Oh, come on. Everyone has good memories. How about your first pet?”
“Buttons? When I think of Buttons, I remember the street before our house and then that truck.”
“Gosh. OK. Your first sweetheart, then?”
“Same thing. Same truck.”
Hint #6: “Whisper your own words of encouragement.”
“That sounds easy!”
I clap him on the back. “There you go then.”
“Like, ‘Don’t screw up this time, you loser!’ “
“Or how about this?” He crouches and whispers. ” ‘You worthless toad! Try not to creep people out!’ “
Hint #7: “Create a distraction. You know, to take the pressure off. For example, you might release some small animal into the back of the room.”
This idea he likes.
“How about one of those ring-tailed lemurs? They’re cute. Friendly too.”
“I was thinking more like a mouse.”
“Now, where am I going to get a mouse?”
“Well, where are you going to get a ring-tailed lemur!?”
He hadn’t thought of that. “A capybara, then. Like a mouse, only bigger. We could unleash it in the back while no one was looking. “
“Again, where are you going to get a capybara?”
He says I am no help at all. “What’s left?”
Hint #8: “Come out smiling and don’t stop. Smile, smile, smile.”
He tries it. He smiles at me nonstop for 10 seconds. I swallow and say, “Hint #9!”
He is still smiling. “What? Isn’t this working?”
Talk about the creeps. “Only if you wore your lucky ski mask.”
And then I give my final piece of advice:
“Even if you goof up, the world’s not gonna end.”
“Right. The only thing ruined will be my life.”
“Don’t forget your audience. They’re Japanese. They will be polite, grateful and responsive even if they don’t understand.”
But now he has a better idea.
“Why don’t you speak instead!?”
“Pull yourself together!” he says. “The world won’t end!”
Maybe not. But suddenly a spider, a cliff and a pool of sharks all look inviting.
“OK, OK!” I tell him.
“No need to worry! . . . I will find you a capybara.”
When East Marries West appears in print on the third Thursday of the month. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org