Reflections from The Podium

Oh, how I wish I was writing a reflection about my bike racing season, but um, I’m getting slaughtered this year. Destroyed. Annihilated. Nothing to see this cyclocross season.

I moved up into the Ladies A (expert/pro) category this year because on paper I look like sandbagger in my local series. Turns out, I can pedal with the fast ladies for less than a minute and then they are gone. Poof! Out of sight. Then I’m caught by the quick pedaling Ladies B and Single Speed racers. After that, I focus strictly on trying to take stylish hand-ups, not crashing, and heckling the dudes I know. It’s also entirely joyful to cheer on other women that I lap in the beginner category or single-speed category. The woman who is leading the A’s is my teammate, and it’s awesome and humbling when she blows by me on the last lap. We start at the same time, so she’s gaining a full lap while I’m out there goofing off.

So yes. Not that podium.

I want to share a bit about the keynote podium. First of all, a few of my friends had hilarious reactions to the news that I was a keynote speaker. One said, “Wow, I can’t believe you could be professional for that long. An hour seems like a long time for you.” Another told me that she was fed up with me reading all those “bullshit leadership books.” Another said, “What the fuck was up with that bingo card? You get paid to make dumb shit like that?”

Anyhoo. Needless to say, people’s reactions were beyond interesting. Whether I knew them personally or if I just met them for the first time; people had fascinating observations about what I said from the podium. And then later what I posted on this blog. Gratitude to everyone who shared, commented, and talked to me about that keynotery.

The keynoter gig wasn’t like doing a workshop or teaching a class or MCing an event or presenting at conference. It was way more interesting than those performances. It was probably one of the most engaging experiences of my professional life. I definitely overthought it. I definitely stressed out about it way too much. I wrote way too much. There isn’t really a how-to manual for writing a keynote. I mean, I think there probably is but it’s probably written by master of the universe man with too white teeth and sales pitches attached to his leadership mentor programs.

I’ve seen a keynote or twenty in my life. Some dreamy. Some amazing. Some controversial. Some delightful. Some confusing. Some bewildering. Some boring. Some hilarious. Some delivered with the thrill of a dial tone. Some passionate. Some clearly phoned in. When I thought about emulating the key note speakers I admire, I’d spiral into self-doubt. When I tried to think about being controversial, all I could think about was how my words could be twisted and manipulated into damning the work that I do and how that would hurt the team of people with whom I’ve shared three years of my life. They would have supported me, no doubt, but I didn’t want anyone else to suffer because of my unsubstantiated ranty rants.

And honestly, my favorite controversial moment in a keynote was from George Siemens who showed a slide with a dead animal in the desert while delivering a one-liner on how educational technology companies see higher education as the last carcass to feed on. I still laugh my ass off when I think of that line. I couldn’t deliver a controversial zinger like that without cracking myself up on stage. I think you need Siemens’ talent for research and a deadpan Canadian accent to really pull something like that off.

I also didn’t want to talk about what was wrong with education. What was wrong with technology. I didn’t want to invite Ol’ Ranty McRanty Indrunas to take the mic. I wanted to bring some joy to people’s lives. As silly as that sounds.

People who care about teaching with technology have pretty tough jobs. Conferences are a bit of reprieve from the woes of budget cuts, austerity, and challenges of everyday leadership. Who wants to hear from smartass rant machine from the private sector?

Wait. I think I just wrote my blog’s new tagline.

Where was I? Oh. Right. The keynote. So stressful! And I hate making slides. I thought about skipping them and going rogue, but then I felt like I was half-assing the job more than I was being defiant. I know some people claim that keynote slides deliver content to folks who are not there, but they don’t really work for me. I scroll through them on Slideshare and I don’t see the story. The person. The passion. Just small quips and images from the talk. Cliff notes of the cliff notes, if you will.

I stressed about making the slides look professional, and in the end, I just decided to circle favorite images from my paragraphs and when I was tired of writing, I searched open source photo sharing sites to find images. I had a lot of fun with those searches.

Here’s the thing.

The most fascinating part wasn’t the preparation or the delivery; it was hearing about what people connected with in their own lives. How people clung to the off-the-cuff things I said. The stories I shared. The ideas that I talked about. It was different for everyone. Midway through, I tried that trick that all Communications teachers advise about making eye contact. You know, like if you scan the room everyone feels like you’ve made eye contact. And oh my word, everyone was looking at me! I mean, nobody was checking email. Scanning their phones. I completely lost my train of thought to see so many eyes engaged with what I was saying next.

In the end, I suppose what resonated with most with folks had to do with what I said about leadership and cycling. I’m still teasing out those ideas, but it got me thinking. Perhaps the leadership gurus have it all wrong. Maybe we don’t learn about leadership through work, or our careers, maybe it’s something that comes together through everything we do in our lives. A wholistic experience of who we are. Every thing we nerd out about informs how we’d lead people. How we build community for ourselves and others. Not a very sexy thesis for a leadership book. Maybe a little too hippie dippy.

But I think there’s something there about leadership.

For instance, I had a very reliable bike race volunteer tell me recently, “I don’t want to be in charge, I don’t want to figure out what we’re doing. Just tell me what to do and I’ll be there. Just don’t ask me to make any decisions. Just tell me what to do.”

In another non-work situation, a person said to me, “That’s a great idea. We just need somebody with the time and energy to make it happen.” And that response is really somebody saying, “It ain’t me, babe.”

Okay, so I don’t really know where I’m going with all of this, but while I was working on this talk in earnest, I took a Community Education class. And yes, I had a year to write it, mind you, so I read for 10 months, stressed out and procrastinated for a month, and then wrote everything two weeks before the conference. I lost two weeks by shopping online and/or searching Redfin. Super mature.

I somehow organized four weeks of my life so I could take a 90 minute class every Thursday a month before the keynotery. It was a goal of mine to try creative writing courses. Again. This time I wasn’t going to care about grades or impressing my teacher.

Once upon time, I wanted to be a Continuing and College Education coordinator or director. I thought I was going to fight the Good Fight and make sure that my community had painting classes for the elderly, yoga classes for broke hippies, and courses for chakra reading life coaches. Pottery classes for aging punk rockers. Classes for people who wanted to learn about wine? Bring it, Amateur Sommelier who is really just a well-travelled wino. Classes for people interested in Norwegian knitting patterns and candle-making? I was ready to line up all the Hygge experts. Interested in cooking with curry? Fire up the naan oven and make a meal! Want to learn how to blow glass bongs? I’d make sure the kiln stayed lit while you sobered up.

You name it. I was going to fight for those budgets, hire the best people, write the coolest pamphlets to appear in community mailboxes, and curate all the life-long learning coolness. For The People.

Then I did the math and realized that I’d make less money than when I was adjunct. I’d work harder than I was an administrator for less money. That I’d probably have to wait tables on the side to pay for my school loans that were supposed to move me up the prosperity ladder. Continuing Education, I have a thing for Broke Artsy Types, but you know, I just don’t room for another one in my life. Maybe someday. Don’t call me. I’ll call you.

So anyways, I took continuing education classes on writing for four weeks in a row. I clapped my laptop shut after work, rode my bike to the class, and sat there silently in every class. I didn’t participate. I didn’t ask questions. I used the time to write and think. Two of the teachers were pretty mediocre–I’m very opinionated about what I think is “Good Teaching” so I’m the first to admit that sometimes I just need to STFU and be nice. Instead of feeling like they were wasting my time, I stopped paying attention and wrote. It was rude, but they didn’t know whether I was taking notes or writing my grocery list or my next novel. I considered my super cheap tuition a charitable donation the Continuing Ed Director who married up.

Holy moly, two of the classes were awful. Let’s just say that if you’re teaching a class on writing, reading your own work and quotes from others is not really teaching. It’s like showing a finished lasagna and then peeling off each layer one-by-one without talking about how you prepped any of the ingredients. Or it’s like painting a tree without really explaining how you do the strokes to make the tree look like a happy tree. It’s like you’re practicing for reading your own work as a creative writer and you’re not teaching a damn thing. But I digress.

One teacher was incredibly charming. I’d guess she was pretty green at teaching and had ten lesson plans when she really needed one. It took everything I had to not go up to her and give her advice after class. She had worked herself into a lather trying to cover everything. I saw myself in her marathon of 90 minutes. I make that mistake a lot. I so know, you just want TELL IT ALL. I so get it, sister.

One of the teachers really impressed me. She had skill. She made me think. She gave really good advice. I’m going to take a class from her again. I plan to read her book. I had this I-miss-teaching-sadness-brewing. I started down that magical ridiculous path I call “Will I Regret Not Getting A PhD Someday?”

And then one of the students asked a really fucking dumb question. Bubble bursted. Boom. Reality. Earth to Indrunas.

I know we all lie to another and say there are no dumb questions, but let’s face it, sometimes there are really dumb questions. Clearly, this student hadn’t been listening at all to the teacher. So frustrating! Thus, the answer to his dumb question had already been covered in her lecture.

And that’s when it hit me. I love taking classes. I love learning from other people. It’s the other students that crush my will to live. What a great reminder that I have zero patience for my fellow students in seminars anymore. No, I will not regret not getting a PhD. I can’t stand seminars. Right! Thank you, Dumb Question Guy! Yes! I’m done with school. Thank you! My current gig is rad. Note to self.

For example, one of the reasons I’m dedicated to a certain yoga studio is they have a strict silence rule. Total heaven. I get to listen to the teacher and I never have to hear some fellow yogini co-opting the entire class to ask questions about how “to release her anger” at her ex-husband from her tight quads and her third chakra. Or I never have to hear some horndog yogi tell me he “appreciates a flexible woman” while stretching his dirty eyebrows at me. Hell is other students, Sartre. Thank you, Dumb Question Guy.

So what was the question? He asked the teacher about memoir writing: “What if I can’t remember everything that happened?”

Sigh.

I looked at the teacher. Bit my lower lip. Waited for her response.

She said, “Going back to my Frank McCourt example,” she said patiently, “Do you really think he remembered all those details from his childhood? Sometimes you just have to trust yourself and make shit up.”

She earned my respect. That’s a good teacher. That’s the type of teacher I hope to be when faced with Dumb Question Guy.

I love Dumb Question Guy when I’m the teacher by the way. Ask me all the Dumb Questions and I’ll eat it up as a teacher. When I’m a fellow student, however, I can’t stand you, dude (keep in mind, I use “dude” interchangeably in the gender neutral).

As a teacher, I probably would have said something smartass-like, “Going back to my example of Keith Richards’ memoir Life, you really think he remembers any-goddamn-thing after he discovered heroin? It’s your memoir. Who’s gonna know you’re a liar, man? Nobody cares.”

More importantly, who is really going to care about the truth if you can tell a good story? Like to this day, I wish James Frey had said, “You know what, Oprah, screw you. I’m not apologizing for shit. I was trying to sell a book and I wanted a million goddamn pieces of gold in my bank account.” (I love Frey to this day, and I buy all of his books in hardback because he got a raw deal from Oprah. People lie. It’s called memoir writing and nonfiction).

What if I can’t remember?

Really?

Nobody cares.

They’ll follow along. Hopefully learn a thing or two. Enjoy the time with your words and move on with their lives.

Well, and since I brought up Keef, and his memoir, I’ll let him conclude this post. Life is one of the most disappointing rock-n-roll memoirs, by the way. The first third of the book is amazing and the rest you could just learn from a Google Image search. But even Keith, for all his liver abuse, has a poetic moment.

Indeed. Here it is. His best sentence. And might be a lie.

“My life is full of broken halos.”
― Keith Richards, Life

About Alyson Indrunas

Always learning about instructional design, educational technology, #OER, professional development, adult education & writing. Travels to talk about Open Education during the workweek. Advocates for more girls on bikes during the weekend. Bike racer w/ @queensofdirt A Memoir.
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