Ralph C. Smedley was an education director for the Young Men’s Christian Association when he discovered the need for speech training. In 1924, the program he developed became known as Toastmasters.

Today, Toastmasters International is a global organization devoted to developing leadership and public-speaking skills. All these years later, the program Mr. Smedley invented is still going strong and working wonders.

I first became involved in Toastmasters years ago when I joined a local club. It was a lot of fun because everyone was there to help everyone else and you never knew what someone would decide to speak about.

One lady brought in stunning pictures of her hike through Europe. Another lady spoke about curling, that crazy sport where you sweep the ice with a broom to direct what look like giant bocce balls. I even got to participate in a very spirited debate, which was a lot of fun.

Then my kids got to the age where they needed to be ferried to various after-school activities all the time so I had to give up the program. Lucky for me, I’ve got a little more free time these days so I joined another Toastmasters club and I’m having a great time. Who says you can’t go back again?

Over the years, I’ve read many times that public speaking is the number-one fear for most people, feared even more than death. That’s why a program like Toastmasters is so wonderful.

Everyone in that room is supportive to the max. No one makes fun of you if you’re not perfect. In fact, after any speech or other activity, you are always provided with constructive feedback meant to help you improve for next time. That’s a great thing if you want to learn how to speak better in public.

Maybe you’re reading this and thinking, “I have no use for Toastmasters because I’m not a TV star or running for office so what do I care about public speaking?”

The thing, is you may not have to speak in a professional manner, but there are so many other public-speaking opportunities that the average person may encounter: at church, town board meetings, weddings, or funerals.

If you really think about it, you’ll realize that, any time you are speaking to anyone, you are engaged in public speaking, so anything that makes you communicate better has to be a good thing.

Here are a couple of examples of public-speaking failures.

My grandmother chose her son-in-law, my uncle, to give the toast at her fiftieth wedding anniversary celebration. So my uncle stands up, raises his glass, says, “Salute,” and sits back down. Even as a kid watching that, I knew there was something missing.

Then I was at a graduation celebration. The speaker spent 15 minutes talking to the graduates, who were sitting behind her on the stage, rather than to the audience. It was like those of us in the audience were witnessing a locker-room pep talk. Both that speaker and my uncle most certainly would have benefited from some Toastmasters training.

Of course, when you start studying public speaking, you do become more tuned in to what speakers do and say. At a cancer survivors’ dinner, the very enthusiastic speaker, a survivor herself, did a wonderful speech that was very well received.

However, several times during the speech she said things like, “As I stand her at this podium” and, “I never would have believed that I’d be here today standing behind this podium.”

If you’re in Toastmasters, you know that when you speak you stand behind the lectern, which itself rests on the podium. After the speech, I tried to think of a nice way to tell the lady this not-so-subtle distinction without looking like a jerk, but in the end I let it go. She’s not the only one who makes this mistake; it happens all the time. So what can you do?

You can go to a Toastmasters’ meeting and just sit there if you want, but it’s much more productive to have a role at the meeting. Some of the roles are speaker, speech evaluator, timer, grammarian, and “ah counter.” This last one requires some explanation.

The role of the ah counter is to listen to each speaker and count each time he or she says some kind of a vocal “crutch,” like ah, um, you know, or some other vocal stumbling block. This is not done to embarrass the speaker.

On the contrary, it’s done because so many people aren’t even aware they’re doing it. It really is a positive thing, yet I spoke to a friend at a party recently and she told me the reason she dropped out of Toastmasters was because she didn’t like having all her “ums” counted.

I felt bad about that, because the feedback is always supposed to be done in a positive and constructive manner. I hope that’s the way it was done with her but I can’t be sure because I wasn’t there.

One of the best things about Toastmasters is the sheer creativity of the speakers. It’s amazing what an otherwise ordinary-looking person can come up with for a speech idea. One young lady at a recent meeting did a speech on pairing wine with food; her speech was as good as anything I’ve ever heard on the subject.

Another spoke of growing up in a different country and struggling just to go to school, often under the threat of starvation, bodily harm, or even rape. I about had tears in my eyes after that one. If you enjoy hearing heartfelt speaking, you will most definitely love Toastmasters.

A really fun thing at a Toastmasters’ meeting is Table Topics. This is where a random subject will be brought up and the speakers will have a minute or two to do a brief speech on the topic. This requires quick thinking and is a great way to keep you on your toes.

Some topics might be “who was your favorite boss and why” or “what was your favorite vacation,” topics that are generic enough that everyone should be able to come up with something interesting. Table Topics are fast and fun, give everyone a very non-threatening way to participate, and are always a highlight of any Toastmasters’ meeting.

As you progress in Toastmasters, you receive various achievements and distinctions. If you complete the speaking and leadership tracks, you can earn your highly coveted Distinguished Toastmaster award. There are folks who earn their DTM and then start the program all over again because they love it so much.

There are also annual speech contests, conventions, and leadership training. I tell you, had I gotten into Toastmasters when I first started working, I’d be a lot higher up in the pecking order than I am now, no doubt about it.

Practicing public speaking and learning how to run meetings and communicate effectively are skills that help you develop into a strong and confident leader. Those skills of course help you in all aspects of life, which is great.

If Toastmasters sounds like something you’d be interested in, just visit Toastmasters.org, put in your ZIP code, and you’ll find a list of local clubs. Some are closed like my current one where only members of an organization can join, but others are open to the public and would gladly welcome visitors.

There are clubs that meet at all different times and places so you can find one that works for you if you’re interested. There is no obligation to join and it’s a lot of fun so I encourage you to check it out if you can.

In these trying times, when it seems like so much of society has devolved into an almost constant us-against-them conflagration, it’s so refreshing to find a group that welcomes anyone who wants to improve their communication and leadership skills.

The fact that it’s so much fun as well is icing on the cake. Thanks to Mr. Smedley for creating such a great program so many years ago, and long live Toastmasters.


Lots of folks make New Year’s resolutions, and I'm one of them. I even try to keep them. This year's resolution was to stop swearing. How about that.

I know many of you reading this never swear at all. Good for you. I look up to you. I've even seen my father-in-law bash his finger with a hammer and let out an “aw, shucks” or something similar.

If that had happened to last-year’s me, the string of profanity that ensued would have used up all the special characters on the keyboard. You know, @##%%^^, like that. But no more. I'm really making an effort this year to stop swearing and clean up my language.

Growing up in Brooklyn, I was first exposed to all the Italian swear words (mostly when the relatives came over). Then, as I got into school, I picked up their English counterparts.

The thing about swearing is it’s such a part of the culture. I've heard swearing done so well it's almost like poetry, believe me. But I know just because it’s so common doesn't make it right or even appropriate. That’s why I'm trying hard to make this long-overdue change.

Depending on the media you peruse, your exposure to swearing can basically desensitize you to it. Certain TV shows, as you well know, are full of profanity, but don’t think it’s limited to the “boob tube.”

I read all kinds of books, and I especially like thrillers. For some reason, maybe to make the characters seem more authentic, these books are often filled to the brim with swearing. I guess that’s a reflection on our society, that authors feel the need to make their characters swear to make them seem realistic.

There are so many colorful colloquialisms that feature swearing. It’s fun to use them from time to time. That’s why they are so popular. The challenge is to modify them so they don’t include the swear words, which isn’t always easy.

Say you go to the doctor and you’re really hurting. When the doctor asks how you feel, it can be tempting to say, “It hurts like a %#$#,” especially after you’ve waited over half an hour when you arrived on time.

Better to catch your breath and say something like “Doctor, this really, really hurts.” So there you go. Getting your point across emphatically can be done without swearing.

There used to be a thing for guys about not swearing in mixed company. I always did that and still do.

However, I work in a large office with lots of women and, let me tell you, some of them can swear up a storm. There’s always a little cognitive dissonance when you hear those raw words coming out of a lady’s mouth, but gals can do anything guys can do, right?

One area where swearing is out of control — and everything else is as well, when you think about it — is social media. For some reason, decorum seems to fly out the window when you’re at the keyboard (a lot like behind the wheel).

Why folks who are fine in person behave this way when they are somewhat anonymous online is begging for a dissertation or three hundred. I’ve even had my moments in these arenas, unfortunately, but not many (thank goodness).

Something just sets you off and then you regret it later when you have time to cool off. Taking a deep breath before typing anything you might regret is always the best advice.

I listen to a lot of radio. Virtually every radio show where people can call in is on some kind of a delay, usually seven seconds, to give the host time to “dump” the call.

The FCC has strict rules about profanity of any kind over the public airwaves, which is why this delay is necessary. It always makes for awkward moments when a caller finally gets through but doesn’t realize he should be listening to his phone and not the radio.

No one in radio likes “dead air” and that’s what you get when this happens. Unfortunately, swearing is so common that the seven-second delay won't be going away anytime soon.

I don't listen to a lot of rap music, but I do like a few tunes. I looked for one of them, and there were two versions: an edited version and an “explicit” version.

Thinking the unedited version would be better, I selected that one, and was subjected to an amazing, almost constant, stream of swearing and profanity. As troubling as that may be, in a technical sense, to get that much cursing to line up in a musical way is still interesting.

Nevertheless, I had to switch to the edited one. I mean, I’ve heard it all before but this was just too much in too short a time.

I learned this from our friends at Wikipedia:

— Roughly 80 to 90 words that a person speaks each day (about a half a percent) are swear words.

— Swearing is considered anger management by some;

— Swearing can reduce the effects of physical pain; and

— Some patients who had lost their speaking ability due to brain damage could still swear.

People trying to stop swearing like me can create a “swear jar” where some amount of money is deposited each time swearing occurs. I don't know if I’ll do this, but it’s nice to know that I’m not the only one struggling with swearing.

Maybe what I’ll do is promise to open the thesaurus every time I think about swearing, in the hope of finding a better alternative. Then again, this could lead me to even more swear words. Oops.

Let’s finish with just one example based on a true story my friend told me: His wife put $100 down on a car and then came back the next day to finish the deal. When it was all done, the wife noticed that in the final price the dealer hadn’t take off the $100 deposit amount.

When she told this to the salesman, his response was, “I was hoping you wouldn't notice that.” Now what would your response be to that statement?

Last year’s me would have used up all the special characters on the keyboard, let me tell you. A better response would be to ask to speak to a manager, not in the hope of getting the salesman fired (no one wants to see anyone lose his job) but in the hope of getting that $100 back and maybe even another $100 for good measure (I mean, the nerve).

Swearing is a fact of life but one that, at least for me, needs to be a lot less prominent. Wish me luck.


You see them in the waiting areas of banks and car dealerships. There may even be donuts next to them. They’re part of a little oasis of hospitality in an otherwise sterile environment. While this is a noble purpose for sure, pod-based coffee machines are devastating to our environment. Convenient, yes, but at what price?

I read somewhere recently that, by 2050, the weight of plastic in the world's oceans will be greater that the weight of fish. Think about that for a minute. Think about it as well the next time you toss that used coffee pod in the trash. I have and I’m not at all happy about it. There has to be a better way.

You should know that I'm in no way a so-called “tree hugger” environmental activist. I’d never spike a tree or go out on a boat to foil fishermen. Yet I care very much about the environment, as we all should.

We have only one planet for our use and the use of our kids and grandkids and their kids. We should learn how to take care of it. Dumping millions of used coffee pods in the oceans every year just because they are convenient is not showing respect for dear old Mother Earth at all.

You can see why pod-based coffee machines are popular in waiting areas. So easy to manage. Pop in a pod, press a button, and you’re done.

Yet I heard a woman justify their use in her home because she didn’t have time to clean out a regular coffee machine. I'm sure she works hard and has a full plate to deal with but, if your life is so busy you don’t have time to clean out a coffee machine, then you are doing something wrong. Really.

I discussed the used-coffee-pod problem with my engineer son-in-law, and he explained to me that they are probably made of special plastic because the water gets so hot. That was interesting, so I called one of the companies that makes these coffee pods.

The company wouldn’t confirm the reason for the plastic used in the pods but did say the company was aware of concerns with pod disposal and promised me that by 2018 it would be changing them to a recyclable material. I suppose that’s good news but that means millions if not billions more will wind up in the ocean until then. Bummer.

There was a post in the zoo that is Facebook the other day that offered tips on what to do with used coffee pods. Like many Facebook posts, it was a “clickbait” thing where, instead of just pointing you to an article or list, you had to click and click and suffer through all kinds of junk advertising to get to the information.

I didn’t have the stomach for that – I never do – but it at least got me thinking about what can be done with used coffee pods. Gardeners can use them for seed starters; they already have a water drain hole. Magicians can use them for sleight-of-hand tricks. Handymen can organize small amounts of hardware. I'm saving mine to make a big stacked, artistic display (think modern art).

Of course, to reuse the pods, you have to get the coffee grounds out of them. This is a messy procedure you do over an open garbage can. It’s not pleasant but if it keeps even a few of these little buggers out of the oceans I can deal with it. If you’re a gardener, save the grounds for your compost.

To be fair, many of these pod-based coffee machines allow you to substitute a special, reusable pod where you can add your own ground coffee. That’s great but, if you are going to use ground coffee anyway, why not just get a regular coffee machine or percolator?

In my case, I’m using a machine my son no longer had a need for, and we have a lot of pods we’ve gotten on sale. I’m not happy with it, but at least I’m keeping the machine itself out of the landfill. Better than nothing.

When you start thinking this way, you can drive yourself crazy. If you go to the landfill, look at the big pile and see what people throw out.

In the old days, so much of this stuff would have been repaired. Today, that’s often not possible because of cost (a replacement product is so cheap) or design (many products are assembled in a way that precludes repair). It’s very frustrating to live in such a throwaway society. It's not right, but what can you do? (Save your used coffee pods for one thing.).

It’s the same thing when I make a very rare visit to a fast-food restaurant. Look at the amount of paper and plastic left over after a typical meal of burger, fries, and a shake. It’s unbelievable. Multiply that by millions and then think of the tremendous load this puts on the waste-management stream. I'm not asking McDonald’s and Burger King to stock fine china, but there has to be a better way.

It’s great that banks and car dealerships think so highly of their customers that they want to provide free coffee for them. I just wish there was a way to do it that was easier on the environment.


Where I work they sponsored a Green Commuting Day recently. The idea was to take an environmentally friendly way to work.

I ride a motorcycle that gets close to 50 miles per gallon to work whenever I can, but in the spirit of the event, I chose to ride my bicycle for the 10-mile commute each way that day. The only thing greener than a bicycle is walking. Maybe someday I’ll allow myself three hours to try it but not this year, haha.

At 6 a.m. I made sure the bicycle’s tires had enough air, strapped on my bag, put on my helmet and shades and, just like that, I was off.

It was cool that morning, but I knew from past experience all I’d need to wear on top was a t-shirt. A ten-mile ride is nothing for an experienced bicyclist, but for me, I knew I’d work up a good sweat by the time I got to the office. That’s why I brought a bag containing a change of clothes along. There’s a shower where I work but I hoped that wouldn't be necessary — hopefully, I wouldn’t be pedaling that hard.

The first part of my route took me through the Albany Pine Bush Preserve. Every morning during the work week I either drive my truck or ride my motorcycle through there. The contrast in doing it on a bicycle was surreal.

First of all, going slowly you can much better appreciate the beauty of nature. The lush greens and earthy browns of the sleepy forest combined with the early rising sun have timeless beauty. The amazing thing was hearing the singing of the many different species of birds that live there.

As I slowly pedaled through the winding curves I imagined that this symphony of nature was being performed just for me. The thought came that once we humans finally finish ourselves off if we manage to leave any kind of habitable planet at all, the insects, birds, and other wildlife will do just fine without us. Kind of morbidly pragmatic, I know, but this is the tenor of the time we live in.

When you are walking or riding a bicycle on a quiet road and a car passes at 10 miles an hour (or more) over the limit you realize what a violent and shocking event that really is. The shoulders on the roads around here, if they even exist, are not all that wide. Being that close to 5,000 pounds of speeding metal, glass, and rubber is quite disconcerting, to say the least.

The commemorative T-shirt I was given for Green Commuting Day shows two arrows with the words “3 foot, please,” asking for at least that much space from passing cars. Wouldn’t it be nice, as the Beach Boys famously sang.

From the Pine Bush, I soon found myself heading east on Washington Avenue Extension. This busy four-lane road has really wide shoulders, which is great. The bad thing is there is a lot of detritus and debris there. You never notice it when you’re flying by on a motorcycle or in a car, but on a bicycle it’s all there for your endless fascination and enjoyment. Here are the items I saw:

— car parts of all kinds (belts, hoses, reflectors, mufflers);

— all kinds of cans, bottles, and fast-food bags and wrappers;

— clothes, including T-shirts, sweats, and a bra;

— pennies;

— sunglasses;

— dead animals, including a large, smashed turtle;

— lumber; and

— broken glass.

Most of this stuff I've seen before, but how do you wind up with your bra on the side of the road? I must not be going to the right parties anymore.

When riding a bicycle on a busy road like this, the name of the game is constantly trying to anticipate what the car and truck drivers are going to do. I installed a little mirror on my left handlebar and it’s so handy I’ll never ride a bicycle without one again. Seeing what’s coming up behind you is so valuable. It’s still kind of nerve-wracking when a lot of cars are flying by, but it’s manageable if you always pay attention and stay as far to the right as you can.

The thing that never fails to amaze me when walking or bicycling on roads that we normally drive on is how much work the vehicle is really doing for you. There are inclines that you have no idea are even there until you walk or bicycle them. The engines in our vehicles take all the physicality out of getting around.

Now you might ask yourself, is that worth all the pollution, the depletion of our finite resources, the traffic, and the accidents? We have structured our society so that a vehicle is, in most cases, just about mandatory.

However, I heard that in Sweden you can bicycle everywhere on dedicated paths, and then in the winter, you can even ski to work! I like that a lot, I really do. Can you imagine how much fitter we’d all be if it really was convenient and safe to ride bicycles or ski all over the place?

When I got to work, I locked the bike up at one of the many racks provided. Then at my desk, I made the decision not to change into my clean clothes. I was a little bit sweaty and I had to ride back home anyway so why bother? The bright, day-glo commemorative T-shirt I was wearing would be a good advertisement for Green Commuting Day. Maybe next year more of my co-workers will participate. Another benefit of not changing out of sweaty riding clothes is it’s a great way to keep meetings short, haha.

When the work day ended, I began the ride home, and that’s when the trouble started. The ride into work had been very pleasant and enjoyable. The ride home was without a doubt the worst bicycle ride of my entire life.

First, it was late in the day, so there was much more traffic. Then there was the heat, which was very, very hot for May (a day after setting a record of 95 degrees). Lastly, I had a 20 to 25 mile an hour headwind in my face for virtually the entire ride home (due west and I’m told this is the way it is all the time). Not only was this headwind terrible to pedal into, for much of the ride it smelled like skunk. If this ride sounds terrible, believe me, it was. When I got home I was just about wiped out.

Green Commuting Day is a great way to encourage finding energy efficient ways to get to work. I’m glad I participated and I hope it happens every year. Any time a vote comes up for more funding for public transportation or bike lanes, I’m there. I hope you are too.


One time when I worked for a savings bank, I had to drive “Mrs. K,” a bank vice president, to an event. She was mature, prim, proper, and well dressed all the time, but that didn't stop me from tuning the car radio to my favorite rock station.

Just then, the classic rock instrumental anthem “Jessica” by the Allman Brothers Band came on, and Mrs. K said something I've never forgotten: “I don't really like rock music, but this I like.” She was a good egg.

In case you’ve never had the pleasure, “Jessica,” a staple on rock radio stations, is a seminal Allman Brothers tune from 1973. It's so ingrained in our culture that, even if you don't know it by name, once you hear it you'll almost certainly recognize it. It features Dicky Betts on guitar, and was named after his daughter.

Being that “Jessica” is so wonderful and well known — a true “national heirloom” according to the Wall Street Journal — every time I meet someone named Jessica I always ask her if she’s heard it. Nurses, dental assistants, waitresses — once I meet a Jessica, I pop the question, as it were, and just about every time I'm looked at like I have two heads. Sigh. Is this what getting older is like?

These Jessicas that I query are usually in their twenties, just like my own two daughters. That means their parents are around my age. Conceivably the parents know the song “Jessica,” at the very least. Maybe they didn't name their kid after the song but still.

If you are my age and know the song and then name your daughter the same name, you think you'd at least tell her about it. Then again, even though “Jessica” is basically an American standard at this point not everyone likes rock music. Still, once even people who don't like rock, like Mrs. K, hear “Jessica,” they immediately like it. It's that kind of song. You can't not like it.

I try not to be all wrapped up in my phone all day like everyone else, believe me, but the other day when a young nurse named Jessica claimed she'd never heard the song I whipped out my phone and pulled it up on Spotify. Just like that in the doctor's office we're all groovin' to the Allman Brothers.

Of course, once she heard, it she recognized it. I would hope that all the Jessicas in the world would be just thrilled to share their name with such a beautiful tune.

The funny thing is, if I try to hum the tune, it only makes it worse. The melody is very distinct, and I think I can hum it, but my musician wife looks at me cross-eyed when I do it. How frustrating is it to hear something so clearly in your head — I mean, I must have heard “Jessica” hundreds of times — and yet I can't even come close to it by humming. That's pretty sad.

This doesn't happen to me only with the song “Jessica.” I was so shocked that my brilliant engineer son-in-law had never heard of “Mr. Ed,” the classic TV show about a talking horse, that I bought him the box set. Now, whenever I visit my daughter, we put on an episode and I can't stop laughing.

But it's not only “Mr. Ed.” If I added up all the great shows the so-called “generation Xers” have never heard of (“Laugh In,” “Hee Haw,” “Get Smart,” and so many more) I'd go broke buying box sets.

Have you ever heard a World War II veteran talk about dancing with his honey to Big Band music? Think about a guy sitting in a wheelchair or holding a cane, waxing poetic about something that you have no way to relate to. I know this happens.

Well, I was lucky to get a free subscription to satellite radio when I got my new truck and they have a ’40s channel. Let me tell you, Big Band music is some wonderful music. Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Gene Krupa — it's really, really great.

To have come back from the war and found yourself in a big dance hall, having a blast with your best girl must have been something. I'm glad our many veterans got to enjoy it back then and still have those memories now.

If you've never heard the song “Jessica” — and especially if your name is Jessica — do yourself a favor and have a listen. You'll be glad you did.