Table Topics

Monday, February 27, 2012

On Saturday I participated in a Table Topics contest. I belong to Toastmasters International, and Table Topics is its way of teaching members to think on our feet. As a regular part of each meeting, the designated Table Topics Master calls up members (and sometimes guests) and poses a question that the member hasn't seen before. The speaker gets only a few seconds to think before starting to talk.

Earlier this month I won my club contest. Then Saturday I competed against the top two contestants from each of the area's three clubs.

At regular club meetings, speakers often receive different questions. For the contest, everyone received the same question. To keep anyone from having an unfair advantage, all contestants left the room and were called back one at a time.

While we were awaiting our turns on Saturday, one of the contestants wondered aloud whether he was required to answer the question asked. During regular meetings some clubs allow the speaker to ignore the question and talk about a different topic, but this was a contest.

That's when we got into a discussion about the purpose of Table Topics. We all agreed that it helps us with extemporaneous speaking, but we didn't agree on whether that means we should stick with the topic in the question. One reason I never became a trial lawyer is because I'm not good at thinking on my feet, so that's a skill I want to learn. But how will I learn it if I can change the subject whenever I want?

The person who raised the issue held a different view, contending that learning to speak without notes or advance preparation doesn't require you to answer the question asked. And I agree with him to some extent. But if you can choose a topic you are comfortable with whenever you don't like the one you are given, does that really teach you to think on your feet?

At the club level, the contest question was, "Which cartoon character is most like you?" (or something along those lines). Mickey Mouse immediately popped into my head, but I discarded him because I didn't see the parallels. So I tried to think of a different character and quickly rejected the Disney heroines that flew through my mind. In desperation, I returned to Mickey Mouse and started talking while I was still thinking.

The essence of my speech was that Mickey Mouse began as an undeveloped character and matured over time, and I hoped that was true of me, too. I also mentioned that Mickey was an ordinary person rather than a superhero, and so am I. By the time I finished, I was quite satisfied with my answer.

On Saturday, the contest question was, "If you had unlimited funds, where would you travel?" A much easier question for me, especially since several of us had been talking about the Great Wall of China right before the contest began. So I started by saying I had an unfair advantage and explaining why. Again, I was satisfied with my performance. But I learned more from the harder question at the club level.

When the person who had wondered if he could change the question was called in, he answered the one that was asked, and he took second place. I took first, but that was just a bonus.

Because I'm in it to learn rather than to win.

Neither Lion Nor Lamb

Monday, February 20, 2012

Sometimes we roar like lions; sometimes we follow like lambs. Both are okay when they are well-thought-out, conscious choices rather than a way of life.

But some people almost always roar like a lion, and others almost always follow like a lamb. People who know me now find this hard to believe, but I used to be among the latter crowd.

I'm currently training to be a Stephen Minister, and recent lessons covered how to be assertive. That means standing up for our rights in ways that respect both others and ourselves.

A refresher course is always helpful, and that's what it was for me. I learned assertiveness when I took Introduction to Sociology as a junior at Hope College. The class met at Graves Hall, which is the building pictured at the head of this post.

To mix and mangle cliches, when the class began I was a quiet little mouse who let people walk all over me. By the time the course ended, I had learned to stand up for myself.

Introduction to Sociology didn't intentionally include assertiveness training, and what I learned from that experience was probably the culmination of a longer growth process. But I remember it as the first time I Aced an assertiveness test.

The course grades were based on quantity rather than quality. Attending class was enough to earn a D. Handing in the homework earned a C, and participating in class discussions earned a B. Getting an A required doing all those things plus a project. And even the worst project was good enough for an A.

The professor divided us into small groups of four or five. Mine included a very vocal male student who pushed his illogical ideas onto the team. To my surprise, the others went along with him, and whatever suggestions or concerns I dared to express were ignored.

I could have gone along, too, and the lamb in me would have done so in the past. Or I could have become aggressive and tried to impose my own will on the group, but the lion's roar would have been totally out of character and probably wouldn't have accomplished anything except dissension. Still, something inside me rebelled at getting an A for inferior work. So I asked the professor if I could do an individual project instead, and she agreed.

Although I was thinking primarily of my own needs at the time, the welfare of every member of the group was at stake. Because I spoke up, my confidence increased. I learned new things about sociology from the project I undertook on my own, as well as gaining practical experience from observing the way the group had functioned before I left it. And hopefully other members of the group looked at my example and pondered whether they should be so quick to follow someone just because he was forceful and following was easy.

One day the lion will lay down with the lamb. But until then, the most we can hope for is to live assertively, respecting both others and ourselves.

Because respect is everyone's due, including yours and mine.

A Tale of Two Rivalries

Monday, February 13, 2012

In 2003, Roland, John, and I spent New Years week in New Orleans. Although we probably knew there was a Sugar Bowl game on New Years Day, we didn't pay much attention. Before we went, that is. Once we got there, we couldn't avoid the Georgia Bulldog fans. Not only were they everywhere, but they were loud and rude. They also kept us sleep-deprived, coming in drunk at 6:30 a.m. the first night (or morning) we were there and throwing a loud party in the hotel courtyard the last night. And based on they way they acted in public, I'm guessing that they weren't very courteous to the Florida Seminole fans either before the game or after the Bulldogs won. Not a good advertisement for the University of Georgia.

Contrast that with Saturday, when I attended a Rivalry Party at one of 80 locations around the world. These parties were set up to watch the 2011-2012 season's second basketball game between Hope College and Calvin College, and fans from both schools attended. Over the years, the wins and loses have been fairly even, and this year the better team won, with Hope beating Calvin 83-70. (For those of you who don't know, I'm a Hope graduate and the daughter and mother of Hope graduates.)

Hope and Calvin are Division III teams, and they have a lot in common. Hope is located in Holland, Michigan, and Calvin is 30 miles away in Grand Rapids. Both schools have Dutch roots, and they are affiliated with sibling Christian denominations--Hope with the Reformed Church of America, and Calvin with the Christian Reformed Church. These commonalities feed the rivalry, and even the NCAA has recognized the rivalry's strength. (Read the NCAA article here.)

Still, the hallmark of the Hope-Calvin rivalry is not the fierce competitiveness it generates but the sportsmanship and respect that each team and its fans have for the other team and its fans. That's why I'm proud to be part of it.

Last Thursday I listened to my fellow Toastmaster Carol Kelly give a speech titled "Competition." The gist of the speech was that competition is good because it fosters teamwork and perseverance and other good values. But I especially liked this line: "Winners and losers are products of competition, but they're not the outcome."

Because it isn't winning or losing that defines a rivalry. It's the attitude.

When Money is Another Way to Care

Monday, February 6, 2012

Big-eyed, starving orphans from far-away lands. Tornado victims from nearby towns. Homeless men and women without hope. So many causes to choose from.

As the mailman delivers the contribution statements and receipts I need for tax purposes, I notice that some of the causes I used to give to aren't represented this year, and my giving to others has decreased. I wish that weren't the case, but with a reduced income since my retirement, I have had to make some tough choices.

No one can give to every cause that tugs at his or her heart. So how do we choose among them?

Many people contribute to organizations and causes that touch their lives. A widow may give to the local hospice organization that provided emotional support when her husband was dying. A cancer survivor may give to a national organization that funds cancer research and education.

People also contribute to organizations and causes that touch their hearts. Someone who has never known hunger may give to a food pantry. And someone who has never been out of the United States may give to foreign missions.

Choosing a cause or causes is only the first step when giving to national and international organizations. There are a number of groups that fund cancer research, for example. So how does someone narrow it down to one?

When considering charities with similar goals, it helps to ask each for a copy of its annual report. The annual report should describe what the organization does and provide a breakdown on how it spends its money. Two cancer organizations may fund both research and educational efforts, but one may spend the majority of its funds for research while the other spends a larger percentage on education. A person more interested in funding research to find a cure might choose the first, while someone more interested in educating the public on prevention and early detection might give to the second.

The amount the charity spends on its programs is also a consideration. The Better Business Bureau's Standards for Charity Accountability suggest that at least 65% of a charity's expenditures should go towards its programs rather than for administration and fundraising. Organizations that rely heavily on volunteers often dedicate an even larger percentage to their programs.

Most charities are required to file Form 990 with the IRS. If the annual report does not provide the information you need, the organization's most recent Form 990 and some simple math will show how much the charity spent on its programs that year. Small charities and some religious organizations are not required to file Form 990, however.

If you itemize deductions, you need to know whether the contribution is tax deductible. Just because an organization is tax exempt does not mean that your contributions are tax deductible. If an organization's primary purpose is to influence legislation, for example, you cannot write off your contributions. You may still want to contribute, but make sure you know whether your gift is tax-deductible before preparing your taxes.

The Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection publishes a fact sheet called "Charitable Donations: Give or Take?" that provides additional tips for checking out a charity before contributing. The fact sheet is available online at

I'd like to give money to every worthy cause that comes calling, but that isn't practical if I want to eat. And even if I gave everything I have, it wouldn't be enough. So I select a few causes and organizations that touch my life and a few more that touch my heart.

Because it's all about making choices.