Sunday, April 20, 2008

Lessons I Learned in a Trash Can

Author Jane K. Cleland sent this one in. You can meet her at the Poisoned Pen on May 8 at 2. She will be signing her new mystery Antiques to Die For. The Discussion will be followed by Afternoon Tea at Casa del Encanto.

The first time I spoke in public professionally, I fell upside down in trash can. There were seventy-six people in the room. This is true.

Trash_can I was walking backwards up the center aisle in a hotel’s meeting room holding an example of excellent graphic design high above my head when I ran into the oversized garbage can that one of the hotel workers had forgotten to remove after the noontime refresh. I was wearing a skirt and high heels and I hit the trash can at just the right place to tiddlewink myself into the can head first.

I recall the moment well.

My first thought was for my hair. I have baby fine hair that’s hard to style and all I could think of was how awful and unprofessional I’d look once I got out of the trash can. My second thought was for my suit. It was a soft gray wool suit, the first I’d ever bought and the only one I owned. I had another seminar scheduled in Dayton the next day. What would I do, I wondered, if I couldn’t salvage my suit? My third thought was for my carefully mounted example which had frisbeed somewhere to my left as I’d flipped upside down. It was a really, really great example of an important principle relating to eye path in design and now, as far as I knew, it was gone. How could I make the points I needed to make without it? How could I possibly replace it by the time I got to Dayton?

Time seemed to stand still. Truly, I have no idea if this nightmare lasted seconds or minutes or even longer. At first, I thought I could handle the situation with aplomb.

Then, as panic set in, I stopped thinking. I suddenly realized the true horror of my situation. I was upside down in a trash can with no hope of getting out.

People weren’t laughing, but I didn’t take this to be good news. I figured they were stunned, and thus silent; mortified, and therefore ignoring the situation; or so embarrassed on my behalf there was no comment worth making. I decided to stay in the trash can until every single one of those seventy-six participants left the room. I figured that eventually someone from the hotel would arrive and haul me out and I could skulk away, never to return.

Two men seated nearby approached the can, peered down, and with a quiet “you take the thigh, I’ll take the hip,” hoisted me out and set me upright. They stepped back. I smiled and thanked them politely. Then I thought of my hair and my suit. The trash can was filled with dry goods: discarded newspapers, crumpled napkins, and unwanted advertising flyers, that sort of thing. This was good news. My naturally buoyant optimism leapt forth as I realized that I wouldn’t have to worry about clumps of cherry Danish matting my hair or staining my skirt. It was my lucky day—I’d fallen into the dry goods trash can. Can you imagine how awful it would be to do a header into the discarded coffee bin?

During those first few seconds of recovery, I had the presence of mind to thank my rescuers, smile broadly as if everyone knew this was nothing more than a really clever goof on Jane and they should therefore relax and share the joke, and accept the offering of my beloved, nicely mounted example of excellent design from the woman six rows back who assured me that the bruise she’d received when it struck her shoulder would soon fade from memory. I went on with enormous (if I do say so myself) savoir faire. The seminar was a success.

Which goes to show you that sometimes things that start out bad can end up good. My protagonist, Josie Prescott, for example, got chased out of her high-powered New York City Rockypointjettyjan job because she was the whistle blower in a price-fixing scandal, and she ends up owning her own company in beautiful, business-friendly New Hampshire.

The trick is not to panic and to show grace under pressure. Remember that the next time you fall into a trash can.

I love speaking to readers and writers—and I’m fearless. Bring on the trash can! If you’re hosting an event, I’d love to deliver a keynote address. I have speeches on Killer Antiques, Finding Stolen Art: A Detective Takes on the Nazis, and Behind the Writer’s Veil. Please contact me directly.

So, tell me, have you have fallen into a trash can lately? I welcome your comments.

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