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Sharing My Sparklers

AAA Lighting
Aardvark Repair Service
Aardwissen, Lars
Aarnet Design
Aasinja, Meredith

Those are the first five entries in the current Raleigh, North Carolina phone book. OK — you know I’m just playing with you. There is no longer any actual thick paperback city phone book here or probably where you live. They have all gone the way of the rotary-dial telephone.


Well, I do see that you can download a PDF file of many city-specific old phone books just by using your magic iPhone. But if your iPhone incompetency matches mine, then accessing a PDF is about as likely as accessing a UFO.


I am dwelling on old phone books here because my real subject is the single most popular compliment paid to me by audience members following one of my talks. But I couldn’t figure out how to begin an essay bragging like that about my performances, given the innate modesty and self-effacement by which you all know me.


That’s the second time in a mere three paragraphs that I’m playing with you. Modest? MOI? Hardly. But if I had a nickel for every time a person used to approach me after a lecture and say “You know, Professor Engel, you could just stand up there and read the phone book,” I’d have enough money to buy a gallon of premium gas at the current price.


Of course, having been tossed that same lovely verbal bouquet so many times, I had to come up with some kind of clever retort. I would fake surprise and reply, “Well, why didn’t I think of that? Forget Charles Dickens for my encore performance. Next time I’m just bringing the Yellow Pages.”


I agree that it’s not a knee-slapper, but it sufficed, and it always elicited an appreciative (or at least a kind) chuckle. And I was always flattered that they thought I could make any subject interesting, even phone-book recitation. 


But they were wrong — since I am no more skilled than most speakers in making a dull topic riveting. But I am super-skilled in transforming merely interesting topics into mesmerizing ones by uncovering the gemlike arcane facts within them and then presenting them with all their Sparkle.


Let me give you an example. Let’s pick a totally arbitrary topic: American holidays. Now let’s narrow it down to…well, The Fourth of July. An adequate speaker on this subject might think to include the triple coincidence that both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams not only died within five hours of each other, not only on the Fourth of July, but in the year 1826, Independence Day’s Golden Anniversary.


Professor Engel responds with a “meh.” I am betting most of you already knew those coincidental facts too, didn’t you? No Sparkle there. 


Had I been orating on that topic today, I would have concentrated solely on Jefferson, the author of the Declaration. Narrowing the topic deepens the audience’s concentration. I would perhaps give some biographical facts similar to those of other Jefferson speakers, but I would conclude by noting that he wrote the Declaration on a traveling writing desk very popular in the eighteenth century, one that — no surprise here — he had invented himself. But that’s not the Sparkle.


The portable desk functioned best when the traveler set it flat between his waist and knees. The folding board attached to the top of it became the tilted writing surface. Jefferson called it his “writing box.”


But as early as the 1830’s, people were already calling it… a “laptop.” 


THERE’s the Sparkle!


And so, readers, I ask you to set off a verbal Sparkler tonight at a huge fireworks display by loudly proclaiming that America’s first sacred document was indeed written on a laptop. 


And if you are too short to be seen or heard in that crowd — well then by all means stand on a phone book.


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