my darling potato

RotatoExpress-PotatoOne thing Toastmasters is teaching me is that short is sweet. I need to be sweeter.

For my speech this past week, I spent 8 minutes talking about the history of the potato. That’s one minute longer than I should have.

Each of the first 10 speeches at Toastmasters is supposed to be 5–7 minutes long. To qualify for best speaker of the night, you need to end your speech somewhere between 5 and 7 minutes. That night, two of us went overtime and the third speaker didn’t speak for long enough to qualify. No one was best. ("And all the children are above average.")

When I write for the Freeman, where a feature article is supposed to be 800–1,200 words, my first draft is always too long. It’s tough to write anything substantive in so few words. Same problem at Toastmasters: my speeches run long.

The trick in both cases is to murder your darlings. (That authorial adage has been attributed to every major writer of the last century, from William Faulkner to Stephen King, but it seems to have originated with Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.)

I’ve always taken murder your darlings as a directive to trim that fat in my prose, to kill off the side thoughts and turns of phrase I’m most proud of, because they distract from the main purpose of the writing. Clean and efficient prose can also be beautiful.

Murder your darlings applies to more than phrasing or side thoughts; it can refer to whole scenes, several characters, or even, sometimes, what you thought was the point of your piece when you first sat down to write it.

At Toastmasters, I wanted to tell one of my favorite stories, about how the 18th-century French potato evangelist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier got the working poor of Paris to adopt the potato into their diet.

Even though the potato reached Europe shortly after Columbus introduced the New World to the Old, it took centuries to become a common part of European mealtime. For one thing, both the best medical advice and the dominant religious instruction of the time told people to avoid the supposedly malignant tuber.

While religious wars fractured Christendom, Catholic priests and Protestant ministers were united in telling their congregations to shun the potato. Why? Because it wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the Bible. Surely, if God wanted human beings to eat potatoes, He’d have mentioned them in Genesis.

If that logic strikes you as questionable, wait until you hear what early-modern Europe considered the established medicinal wisdom. According to the "doctrine of signatures," any plant’s effect on the human body can be determined by its appearance. Crack open a walnut and what you find inside the shell looks like a little brain; ergo, walnuts are good for the brain. Dig a potato out of the dirt and what do you get? A filthy, pale, gnarled clump of vegetable flesh. Ergo … potatoes cause leprosy. QED.

By the 19th century, however, the potato had become such a central part of the Western diet that it caused a population explosion in Europe.

How did this maligned root vegetable go from unholy pathogen to European staple crop?

The answer seems to be war.

When soldiers descended on your part of the countryside, they carried away everything edible they could find — above ground.

If you depended on grains, you starved. But if you also grew a few potatoes, an army could pillage all your wheat, slaughter and consume all your animals, and trample your field for months without destroying your backup source of calories. As a Plan B for the downtrodden, the potato proved superior to expectations. It turns out that an acre of potatoes is more nutritious than an acre of wheat. It may have been ugly to the eye and bland on the tongue, but the potato made the peasants who adopted it stronger and healthier — and more fertile.

When Frederick the Great discovered that foreign peasants were surviving the Prussians’ invasions because of this secret buried treasure, he had seed potatoes delivered to all his Prussian peasants, along with instructions on how to plant and harvest them, and ordered all of Prussia to become potato eaters. He threatened those who failed to cooperate with having their ears and noses cut off! The Prussian people quickly adopted a potato-based diet.

Parmentier, the hero of the story I was so hot to tell at Toastmasters, served in the French military and was taken as a prisoner of war by the Prussians. Fed nothing but potatoes for three years, he emerged healthier than when he’d been captured. He returned to France with a mission: convert his fellow countrymen to this miracle food.

Freeman editor Max Borders writes, "Ultimately, there are only two forces in this world that matter: power and persuasion. Those who love liberty shun power."

Where Frederick used power, Parmentier used persuasion. And some trickery.

The king of France was easy. For His Majesty’s birthday, Parmentier gave him potato flowers and served him various potato-based dishes. Once the king was sold, the royal court rushed to follow, followed rapidly by anyone who aspired to greater social status.

Parmentier began to hold all-potato dinner parties for the VIPs of Paris, including such foreign dignitaries as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson — which is how the "French fry" came to America; Jefferson had them served in the White House.

That brings us to my favorite part of the story. The French working class wasn’t so easily persuaded. In fact, the aristocratic association with potatoes made them ever more suspect to the impoverished Parisians on the eve of the French Revolution. So Parmentier resorted to guile. He got the king’s permission to plant 40 acres of potatoes just outside Paris, and had soldiers patrol the perimeter and chase away the inquisitive. All of Paris was soon convinced that something valuable was growing in those 40 acres.

When the soldiers withdrew at night, the city’s poor snuck in and pilfered the royal potatoes. Et voilà: Parmentier’s triumph.

That last story, the tale of Parmentier’s cunning, is what took me over my time at Toastmasters. I knew I was going over time when I told it, but that last story was the whole point of my speech.

Each speaker at Toastmasters receives a small slip of paper from every person in the meeting with comments on that evening’s speech. My reviews were generally quite positive, but a couple of them told me I should have cut the last story and ended on time.

Before delivering my speech, and while delivering it, I couldn’t imagine leaving out that story. But as soon as it was over, it became clear that the story — much as I still love it — undermined the larger story I had told.

AudiblePotatoI opened with my lifelong love of French fries, and how I no longer eat them. The narrative then followed the potato from the Americas over to Europe and back again with Thomas Jefferson. From the end of the French fry in my life to the beginning of the French fry in America: a perfect narrative circle. And one that was easily told within 5–7 minutes.

But like my scheming hero, Parmentier, I had my eye on a prize that had nothing to do with the demands of my audience. Had I focused more on the organic shape of the story I was telling, the needs and virtues of that shape, and the experience of my audience — rather than my own darlings within the story — I would have realized that Parmentier was perhaps more like Frederick than I want him to be. I should instead have emulated Thomas Jefferson’s lighter touch.

Toastmasters joke

SyldaviaShirtAt last night’s Toastmasters meeting, I was the “Jokemaster.”

According to the agenda, the Jokemaster “Provides a light-hearted story or joke to kick off the meeting.”

Here’s the composed version of what I memorized, altered, and delivered a bit more spontaneously:

Mr. Toastmaster, fellow Toastmasters, esteemed guests:

I spoke last week about what a reclusive homebody I’ve become, about working from home and spending all my time on the Internet. But it didn’t used to be that way. Before Benjamin was born, Nathalie and I traveled the world.

For our honeymoon, we hiked in the Highlands of Scotland. We play bocci with the old men of Paris in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower (only in France they don’t call it bocci: they call it pétanque). We walked, hand in hand, on the raised platforms of the Palazzo San Marco over the floodwaters of Venice. We even crossed the Adriatic and traveled inland to visit the tiny autocratic puppet state of Syldavia — where, I’m sorry to say, we quickly ran afoul of the law.

I won’t go into details. I’ll just say that it’s all too easy to break the law in a totalitarian regime. We were arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced all in one day. The sentence was death. The tribunal of judges asked if we had any last requests.

Well, when I was a younger man, I wasn’t as shy as I am now. So I requested, no I demanded to address my captors, my judges, my executioners, to speak about the glories of the tradition of freedom and the evil of their police state; to show them how their own interests, not to mention those of their oppressed subjects, would best be served by the light of liberty —

Nathalie cut in: "I have a last request too," she said. "Please shoot me before he gives this speech."

My Toastmasters Icebreaker speech

icebreakerMister Toastmaster, fellow Toastmasters, esteemed guests. The irony of the "Icebreaker" speech, at least for me, is that talking for 4 to 6 minutes about myself strikes me as neither easy nor interesting.

Last January, my wife Nathalie and I drove up to Baltimore to attend the annual cocktail party of one of our biggest clients.

We got all dressed up and mingled with hundreds of strangers.

Quick show of hands, who here has been to a party full of strangers in the past year or so?

When two strangers meet at a party, what do they say to break the ice?

Yes, right, here in America, we say, "What do you do?"

Nathalie informs me, by the way, that this typical American icebreaker is not what people say in Europe. When two French people meet, for example, the first question is "Where are you from?"

When I was growing up in New York City, watching way too much TV, the stereotypical socially awkward icebreaker — really a failure to break the ice — was "Read any good books lately?" And on TV, after this question was asked and the laugh track died down, the two strangers would grow quiet, look away, and silently admit defeat.

Maybe I shouldn’t be admitting this, but I honestly don’t know why that’s supposed to be such a bad question. I’d much rather be asked about good books than about what I do for living.

What do I do for a living, you ask?

I’m a publishing consultant. I work with independent authors and free-market institutions to get their books onto Kindles and iPads and sometimes into print.

And if you met me at a party and asked me what I do for a living, I’d probably give you that answer in the same perfunctory manner in which I just did here.

But if you were to say, "Oh, you work with books? What sort of books do you read for fun?" — You’d see me light up. You’d see me come alive. As they say in books, you’d see me warm to my subject.

I work with economic books and with writings in the classical-liberal tradition, but that’s not what I read for pleasure anymore.

Those things are what I did read for pleasure when I was a web-application programmer for a big bank, but now I read quirky historical narratives, such as The Professor and the Madman, about a certifiably insane Civil War veteran and the role he played in the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary; or A History of the World in 6 Glasses, which reviews the past 4 or 5 thousand years through the lens of beer, wine, spirits, tea, coffee, and Coca-Cola.

What am I reading now, you ask? Actually, I’m mostly listening to this one as an audiobook. I go back and forth between text and audio. The book is by Tom Standage, the same author who wrote 6 Glasses. It’s called Writing on the Wall: Social Media The First 2,000 Years. One of the many things he talks about is the advent of the coffeehouse in 17th-century England.

Standage claims that coffeehouses and the publishing network based out of coffeehouses were really the first Internet. I love Starbucks, and I bet their coffee is better than what I would have been served in 17th-century London, but I still wish I could go back and spend some time in one of those old coffeehouses, where everyone was reading and writing and debating ideas.

I also read less-quirky historical narrative, but my favorite books are the ones that take two seemingly disparate ideas and see what results when you combine them.

And the truth is, my passion isn’t in books, either. It’s really in new ideas.

Better than "Read any good books lately?" would be "Had any interesting thoughts lately?" or "Learned any new ideas lately?"

I have a best friend whom I followed to Charlottesville 20-something years ago, and then did not follow back to New York when he left. He’ll phone me to say, "I had a thought I think you’ll appreciate." And then we’ll talk for an hour.

When I get off the phone, Nathalie asks, "How’s David?"

"I don’t know."

"What do you mean you don’t know? You just talked to him for an hour!"

"Yeah, but that’s not what we talked about."

When David and I were kids, we were sort of famous among our peers and the local grownups for walking around the streets of Manhattan deep in conversation, just the two of us. That turns out not to be typical for a couple of preteen boys.

As I mentioned before, I watched way too much TV, and it’s part of why I read so late and so slowly, but one contemporary criticism of television that never made sense to me back then was that it was a passive medium. You just sit there and zone out. I never zoned out! I engaged the TV as a source of ideas, sometimes a mentor, often an intellectual adversary.

We don’t let our 7-year-old son Benjamin watch too many videos — in fact we don’t have a TV in our home — but I can see him doing the same things with online cartoons and movies that I did with TV around his age. He wants to talk about them afterwards, ask questions, critique the premises, figure out how everything works.

Benjamin is also a lot more sociable than I was at his age. I suspect he won’t have any trouble at cocktail parties when he grows up, even if, like his old man, he’s most passionate about the kind of ideas that are better discussed over coffee than over cocktails.

This brings me to why I’ve joined Toastmasters. I think Tom Standage is right about the 21st-century Internet being our modern version of the 17th-century coffeehouse. Much as I love Starbucks, it’s not a hotbed of radical new thinking.

It provides the wireless Internet access I can use to get to the hotbed of ideas, but I engage those ideas in my writing and reading, and mostly online — not face-to-face with other human beings.

Through Toastmasters, however, I hope to become a more adept and spontaneous tradesman of ideas, presented and discussed in the real world, offline, where I don’t always have time to compose my thoughts (the way I composed this speech).

I thank you for listening to me, and I thank you for the help you’ve already given me in bringing my life out of the house, off of the Internet, and into the world.

Mister Toastmaster.