Taking the High Road: Giving Feedback in a Polarized World

One of the things I love about Toastmaster meetings is the opportunity to hear diverse perspectives and stories from club members with a wide range of backgrounds, experiences, and political affiliations.  For some, Toastmasters may be the only place where members are exposed to viewpoints that differ from their own.

In July 2022, I witnessed two very different presentations while attending two community Toastmaster clubs in Phoenix, Arizona. The speeches also had many similarities, as both were well presented, dynamic and passionate. The speakers were intelligent, successful and respected baby boomers whom I know and admire.

The topics of the speeches were socially charged ideas given from the presenters’ point of view and frame of reference.  Based on the size and diversity of the audience, it was probable that not everyone agreed with the premise and points of talk. 

Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com

What impressed me most about these specific Toastmaster meetings was the high quality and neutrality of the formal speech evaluations.  Providing verbal feedback on a topic that you may not agree with is not easy and the club members accomplished this should be praised and respected.  The Speech Evaluators did an outstanding job of providing quality input on the delivery and structure of the speech while avoiding judgmental statements on the content of the presentation.  They took the high road and made me very proud to be a Toastmaster.

I felt strongly about this topic in October 2016 and published a blog entitled “Objective Evaluations in a Polarized World”.  In this article, I emphasized that “the ability to give objective and neutral feedback on another person’s speech is hard enough without the many external and internal factors influencing us. Pesky things like human nature, emotions, personal biases, insecurities, extreme political views, polarization of opinions and what I call the “siloed, echo chambers” of social media”.

Now more than ever, my advice from six years ago on giving objective evaluation is important and relevant.

Below were my key recommendations:

  1. Remember that as a speech evaluator, you are there to observe and provide neutral and constructive feedback, recommendations and suggestions on the basic tenants and techniques of effective communication and public speaking. 
  2. Focus on the Delivery and Structure of the presentation with specific examples.
  3. When commenting on the Impact of a speech (especially if you disagree with the content), try to set aside your personal emotions and biases and look at and assess the overall audience response to the speech.
  4. Honestly ask yourself if the topic/point of the speech is clouding your ability to provide positive and objective feedback on the Delivery and Impact. If it is, then:
    1. Try to put yourself in the shoes of someone who supports the topic and reflect on how they would respond to the speech.
    2. Run a “What if” scenario in your mind by replacing the content of the speech with something that you agree with and see how you would view and analyze it.
  5. Open your mind, take off your biased filters and focus on how the speaker is connecting, delivering and making their point.
  6. Ask yourself: Was the speaker able to motivate, educate, influence or inspire?
  7. The purpose of your evaluation is to encourage and help club member improve and develop strong communication skills, not to impose your views, values and opinions about the subject matter.

Hit Me With Your Best Shot

Fear of Needles: No

Sick of Shots: Yes

Skeptical about Public Health Officials’ Guidance:  Definitely

After receiving four injections in my arm in 2021, I wasn’t too excited to get a fifth shot in my shoulder this past week.

I experienced a good bit of trepidation as I entered my doctor’s office in Phoenix, Arizona.  The plan was to get a corticosteroid injected into my shoulder capsule  (bursa) to help with the pain and immobility I have been suffering with since the beginning of 2022.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Like millions of people around the world, I received three doses of the mRNA vaccine in 2021.  My frozen shoulder started shortly after 12/28/21, when the Wal-Green’s pharmacist administered a flu shot and a COVID booster shot in the same arm.   While I don’t know if these shots were the direct cause of my shoulder issue, the location and the timing are awfully coincidental.   At this point, I am in no hurry to get another mRNA vaccine in any arm until there are longer-term, controlled, randomized studies conducted.

So now, after seven months of physical therapy, yoga, massage, chiropractic adjustments, healthy eating and oral medication, I am giving corticosteroids injections into my shoulder a shot. 

Healing from frozen shoulder is a long and frustrating mind game and I hope that this latest treatment helps me get past the plateau I have hit. 

The Best Medicine

It’s so good to be sitting on the porch of a cute, cozy cabin and reflect on what is important in life. Health, family and friends top the list of most valued gifts.

Spending time in the greenery of nature is soothing to my soul and my morning walk did me good. This fun sign below caught my eye and got me thinking. What do I want and how do I plan to get it? Where should I go and why? So many questions are swirling in my mind.

The cabin I’m staying in is small and quaint. There is no Wi-Fi or Internet and uploading the photo above took over 5 minutes. During the time I waited, I thought more about what I wanted to share here with you. It slowed me down even more to reflect and creatively choose my words.

Here are some of my answers to the questions:

Who: Me

What: Calm my mind and heal my shoulder

When: Now

Where: In the woods of Arizona

Why: Life is short and I want to alleviate the pain

How: Appreciating the beauty of the verdant trees and the sounds of the birds.

Getting away from the day-to-day grind of work and chores is a wonderful treat. Strong and simple – just the way I like it!

So many of us are hurting right now, physically and emotionally, and my wish is that you can take a moment for yourself and ask- Who, What, When, Where, Why and How.

The honest answers may be your best sign post to get you moving in the right direction.

Strange and Independent Things

“Freedom lies in being bold.”

– Robert Frost

I have chosen Independence Day 2022 to write about Stranger Things Season 4 for a number of reasons. 

First, the finale was big and bold, colorful and dark, intense and touching- much like our 4th of July fireworks.

Second, the themes of standing up and fighting back against bullies, tyrants and evil forces resonated with me.

Third, it reminded me of the kick-ass American spirit, strength and courage of the 1980s.

Lastly, brave heroes are important and should be recognized and respected.

I’ve written about the prior three seasons of Netflix’s popular series Stranger Things in my blog and book and I continue to enjoy the fond memories of my childhood. Being a class of 1985 graduate made me connect even more with the story and the characters of Hawkins High School class of 86. I was taken back to Friday nights spent with my girlfriends at Skateway 9 near my hometown in New Jersey. The lights, music and action of the roller rink were perfectly captured in the show and it brought back vivid memories of being bullied by the mean-girls at school who didn’t like me for some reason or another. I still had great fun with my good friends and loved the energy of disco music.

Being a fan of the band Metallica, I was especially delighted by the scene with Eddie Munson (my new favorite character) playing “Master of Puppets” on top of the trailer in the Upside Down. This character was also the Dungeon Master in the D&D games played with Dustin, Will, Lucas and Mike. In the end it was a brilliant and masterful performance by the misfit teenager who partly reminded me of Eddie Van Halen and some of the guitar-playing boys I went to high school with ( Joe Argese, Scott Janis, Craig Boschetti, John Horvath and Mike Gardner).

Speaking of music in the 1980s, I have great memories of being in the Spotswood High School Marching Band/ Color Guard. Just like in Stranger Things, we had dorky, hot and uncomfortable polyester uniforms and it didn’t stop us from having fun at the football games, local parades and other events. We even took cool bus trips to exotic places like Montreal thanks to our amazing music teachers Mr. Cohen and Mr. Milstein. I’m still in touch with many of my friends from band on Facebook and during trips back home including Ed Dougherty, Charles Kolbasowski, Steve and Carol Varga, Rose Fairchild Neliden, Stacy Remantas, and Janet Warley.

The amazing cast of strong female characters on Stranger Things continued to inspire and impress me. These women didn’t give up and gave it their all in the face of extreme pain and malevolence. I especially liked the intense powers of Eleven, the courage of Max, the ferociousness of Nancy, and the witty intelligence of Erica. These strengths and personal attributes are sorely needed in 2022. Watching Nancy expertly handle the shotgun to fight off the monsters reminded me of Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2.

Pure, unadulterated, bad-ass courage and skill by nerves of steel women- that’s what I’m talking about!

And so, these are my random, strange and independent thoughts on July 4th about Season 4 of the sci-fi hit Stranger Things.

Here are the strong and simple messages I was left with:

Keep fighting for your friends and don’t give up. 

Good will conquer evil.

Letting Go to Unfreeze my Shoulder

It’s 102 degrees today in Phoenix, Arizona and my left shoulder is still frozen.  It all started six months ago when I noticed that it hurt to move or lift my left arm.  I chronicled my experience and action plan in my last blog titled:  Frozen Shoulder, Autoimmune Diseases and COVID-19 Vaccines.

In the last two months I’ve made some progress toward healing my arm and shoulder and am happy to report that the stabbing pains are mostly gone and I can put on my shirt with relative ease.  My range of motion, however, is not much better than it was four weeks ago. 

I am not a patient person by nature and it’s been very hard for me to slow down and accept the fact that my left arm can’t move or function like it used to.

Five years ago this summer, I wrote an article titled Mighty Gumby and the Importance of Flexible Strength where I reiterated some great advice I received in my Austin yoga class : “Flexibility needs to be supported by strength and stability”. 

As I look back on the 2017 photo of my back, shoulder and arms, I can’t help but feel a bit sad and dejected at my current state in 2022.  At this point, I can barely raise my left arm to be parallel to the ground much less flex my bicep. 

Me in June 2022
Me in July 2017

My friend and Yoga Therapist, Nancy Martch recently asked me,  “What is your arm injury telling you?”.  In my mind I rephrased the question to – What have I learned from this painful and physically limiting condition?

Here are my thoughts about recovering from an illness or injury:

  1. Be patient with your body.
  2. Slow down and appreciate the small, micro-improvements you see or feel.
  3. Be flexible and adaptable with what you can and cannot do.
  4. Be accepting of the situation and have gratitude for the strong and healthy parts of your body.  (I have new respect and appreciation for my legs and back).
  5. Do not compare the injured area or side of your body to its healthy counterpart (in my case my left arm to my right arm). 
  6. Do not compare yourself to anyone else.
  7. Let go of any expectations.
  8. Continually observe, analysis, research and explore new possibilities for healing and recovery.
  9. Listen closely to your body for it will tell you what it needs.
  10. Be kind to yourself.

These past six months have been a humbling experience for me as I come to accept that my recovery could take over a year.  I am doing all that I can to keep moving and positively support my body’s immune system.  The systems, habits and actions I employ include:

  • Yoga therapy
  • Physical therapy and weight lifting
  • Swimming
  • Massage
  • Anti-Inflammatory diet

A slow healing process is never easy but I’m optimistic that I will be able to lift my left over my head some day.  I have put the Mighty Gumby back on my desk so I can be reminded of the importance of flexibility and a positive attitude.

Here’s to Letting Go and healing my frozen shoulder!

Frozen Shoulder, Autoimmune Diseases and the COVID-19 Vaccine

In December of 2020 I wrote an article titled “Risk and Reward: Why I Will Take the COVID-19 Vaccine”.  I even published it in the Health and Science chapter of my book Strong Words and Simple Truths.

I took my first Moderna mRNA vaccine in March of 2021 and had my booster administered at the end of December 2021.

I had done a large amount of reading and research on the safety and efficacy of the new mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 in late 2020 and made what I thought was the best decision for my family and me at the time.   Knowing what I know now in June 2022, I don’t think I would make the same decisions.  For one thing, I definitely would NOT get the flu shot and the booster shot in the same arm on the same day.  I’m not sure that the vaccines were cause of my current medical condition but it may have been the trigger.  Allow me to explain what has happened to me in the last five months.

In April 2022, four months after getting my booster shot, I was diagnosed with Frozen Shoulder (Adhesive Capsulitis).  I had never heard of this painful condition before and have since learned that people with thyroid autoimmune disease have a higher risk for getting it.  Autoimmune disease happens when the body’s natural defense system can’t tell the difference between your own cells and foreign cells, causing the body to mistakenly attack normal cells.   Frozen Shoulder is an inflammatory disease that takes many months to recover from.

My symptoms include severely limited movement of my left arm and shoulder and sharp, stabbing pains in my upper arm (due to nerve impingement).    These issues started a few weeks after the double injections in the same arm and progressively worsened over three months.

Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

Over the last two months, I have taken extremely deliberate actions to try to lessen my pain and heal the underlying issue that is causing this illness.   

Here is what I have done or am doing:

  1. Got an MRI of my upper arm.  Consulted with Orthopedic Doctor who diagnosed the Adhesive Capsulitis. He prescribed an NSAID that I take daily.
  2. Visited Chiropractor, Peter Nemanic, who has helped release some of the main trigger points in my upper back and shoulder muscles.
  3. Received numerous therapeutic massages on back, arms and neck.
  4. Completed a 21-day purification and cleansing dietary program  (Standard Process products).
  5. Seeing Physical Therapist, Christine Anderson, who is helping to release the nerve impingement in my back and improve my range of motion.
  6. Working with Naturopathic Doctor, Todd Winton, who put me on a treatment protocol to decrease my inflammation and stabilize my immune system.
  7. Seeing Yoga Therapist, Nancy Martch, to increase body awareness and mindful movement in order to create more ease in the body and more efficient postural and movement patterns—all with the intention of alleviating pain and creating better health.
  8. Participating in Stretch Fit training classes at Mountainside Fitness gym.  This is for lower body flexibility.
  9. Daily stretching exercises for my arm and shoulder.  These are supported, passive movements since the shoulder joint is still restricted.
  10. Drinking more water and significantly limiting alcohol intake.
  11. Daily supplements:  Vitamin D3, Zinc, Fish Oil and Vitamin B Complex.
  12. Walking and/or easy jogging 4-5 times a week.
  13.  Keeping detailed logs and journals of my symptoms and treatment progress.
  14. Eating a healthier diet with less sugar, dairy and grains.

It is my hope that I can regain full range of motion of my left arm in the coming weeks and that my body’s immune system will reset and stabilize since taking the Moderna COVID-19 booster shot.

I strongly believe that it is important that we each understand our own risk factors and medical conditions that may impact our immune systems’ response to vaccines.   Our unique health profiles and risks should be well understood prior to taking any new medications.

With so many Americans having autoimmune diseases (an estimated 25 million), I feel it is critical to research and consider the risks versus rewards during our new age of COVID-19.

NOTE:  I am not a medical doctor and you should consult your own physician for medical advice on these issues.

Photo by Steve Smull

Hidden Treasures, Golden Bonds

Bill donated a gold nugget and came home with a treasure named Chester.

On Saturday, April 30, 2022, five members of Ahwatukee Post 64 volunteered at a local event called Coffee and Rigs in the parking lot of C2 Tactical in Tempe, AZ.  Their mission was to increase awareness of the benefits of joining the American Legion and recruit new members. 

Post 64 Members (l to r) Al Hunter, Brenda Smull, Pete Meier, Bill Musik and Jack Armstrong

The Coffee and Rigs event was the first of its kind and featured eight vendors/organizations including:  Off Road Warehouse, Turtleback Trailers, Buff City Soap, the American Legion Post 64, Rubicon Rescue, Precision Sports Accessories, and Circle R Farm Food truck.

The Post 64 table of brochures, flyers, flags, candy and historical Legion caps also included tickets for two raffle prizes- a one year family package membership at C2 Tactical and a 2.2 gram gold nugget.

Bill Musik, a Vietnam veteran, donated the gold nugget and discovered a wonderful treasure in return and adopted an adorable dog named Chester from the Rubicon Rescue team two tables down. Chester was perfectly suited to Bill because of their compatible stages in life. Bill had wanted a more senior pet that he could care for through the rest of the dog’s life.

Bill and Chester relax at home. Photo by Steve Smull

C2 Tactical provided Post 64 with the generous one-year membership and has been extremely supportive of Phoenix area First Responders, Veterans and animal rescue organizations.  C2 Tactical is generous with donations of membership packages, classes, and range time when asked and this April event was the third time to they have had Rubicon Rescue host a table at their community functions.

Rubicon Rescue dogs. Photo by Steve Smull

Rubicon Rescue, a local non-profit organization, brought eight dogs and a litter of tiny kittens to the event.  It was great news to hear that four dogs, including Chester, were adopted that day.  Rubicon Rescue’s Mission it to save abandoned, abused and injured shelter animals and they certainly made a positive impact toward this goal.

This event is part of a new PR and membership campaign at the Post 64 and was spearheaded and attended by Al Hunter, Jack Armstrong, Bill Musik and Brenda Smull.   Our Post Commander Pete Meier also supported our efforts at the table.

It was a positive and supportive showing at the Post’s table and the happy, spirited, and appreciative rescue dogs warmed everyone’s hearts.  

A precious face waiting to be adopted. Photo by Steve Smull

Building a Keynote Speech, One Story at a Time

I’ve begun working on a keynote speech and thought I’d share with you my idea and the process I’m using to craft it.

The working title is of my presentation is The Power of Small:  Sys-bits for Big Results.  The initial speech will be 20 minutes in length and is the main deliverable for a Toastmasters Pathway project (Level 5 in the Presentation Mastery path).

The concept for this keynote has been swirling around in my mind for many months and features ideas and tales about systems, habits and methodologies that I have used in the past 40 years to accomplish my goals.  My personal experiences as a unicycle rider, a Toastmaster, and a published author will be highlighted as I weave together the stories and points in support of my Power of Small approach.

My first story will describe my experience of learning to ride a unicycle when I was ten years old and how I, without knowledge or formal training, employed the principles of Agile and experimentation to achieve my lofty goal.

The second story of my keynote speech will chronicle the techniques and visualize tools I used to compile and publish my first book in five months.  Leveraging my Project Manager and Scrum Master skills allowed me to know which systems and habits to use to get the job done on time and under budget.   I also think that my “Power of Small” method of book writing improved my creativity and increased my quality.

The final story of my big speech about small steps will feature an analysis of the Toastmaster educational program called Pathways.  This proven system is an incremental learning experience designed to help members build the skills they need to be better communicator and leaders.

Another big step I’ve taken in my speech creation in hiring a professional Coach to assist me in refining, shaping and optimizing my words and my delivery.   More to come on this endeavor.

So that’s what I have to share with you thus far. 

The small steps of my journey to an amazing Keynote have begun and I’m excited to report my progress along the way to you.

A Spirited Launch at The Buzzed Goat

On November 4, 2021, I hosted a book launch party for Strong Words and Simple Truths in Phoenix, Arizona. The venue was a fun, independent coffee shop called The Buzzed Goat and Ernie the hedgehog fit right in.

Our spirited gathering included over 30 friends, coworkers, toastmasters and veterans. The energy in the room was electric and I was thrilled to be able to speak in front of a live audience.

Below is a video of my short presentation and tribute to military veterans.

Ernie and me at the book signing table

For more information on my book Strong Words and Simple Truths click here.

To order on Amazon, click here.

Building a Book with Agile

Building a Book with Agile

Earlier this year I embarked on a journey to write and publish my first book, Strong Words and Simple Truths. After eight years of writing this blog, I knew I had enough content (102 Posts with over 50,000 words). The trick was figuring out how to knit together so many seemingly disparate topics into a cohesive and interesting story.

I had a mountain of ideas and knew I had to focus, organize and categorize.

The first thing I did was put on my Scrum Master hat and break out the pink and yellow sticky notes! For a definition of what a Scrum Master is click here.

With an Agile mindset, I set about the task of visualizing every blog post.  I did this by writing the title of every blog with a black marker on square sticky notes.   The pink notes covered the majority of the wall in my home office.  For more information on Agile click here.

The next step involved organizing and grouping the blog titles into themes or categories.  I ended up with eight themes that I wrote on larger, rectangular sticky notes.  I moved the smaller titles around on the wall so they were under the appropriate theme.  I let this display sit on my wall for many weeks and I spent hours staring at them to see how they looked together.  I moved some titles around and I removed over 20 blogs entirely.  This editing process was difficult but very important to the integrity and flow of the book.

The beginning stage of my blog grouping wall

The eight themes became the chapters of the book which are:  Communication, Toastmasters, Creativity, Veterans, the 1980s, Gratitude, Science and Health, and Agile.

I built a storyboard of the eight chapters to help visualize the order and flow of the themes.  I evolved and iterated on this multiple times and landed on this display which includes the custom drawn illustrations by Alex Delit Garcia.

The Final Story board

The creation of the Table of Contents was quite simple as I ordered the blog titles chronologically under each chapter/theme.

To tie all of the chapters together, I chose a fun and symbolic circus theme.  Each chapter was represented by a character or element from the circus and I spun a tale about a curious girl named Elizabeth and her hedgehog friend, Ernie.  The story took us on a “run away and join the circus” journey and wove together all of the chapters’ topics with the Ringleader kicking things off.

The use of a creative and symbolic fiction story to tie together 80 non-fiction articles was a fun and effective way to compile and build a book in a short amount of time.  From the start of my sticky note wall display to the publication of the book was five months (including the creation of the chapter illustrations and the editing/formatting).

I often call my book a patchwork quilt of lifelong learnings, dreams and ideas and I hope you enjoyed my sharing of the stitching process!

For more information on Strong Words and Simple Truths: The Courage to Communicate, click here.