The 2002 American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA) National Championship at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) was one of the great highs and lows of my life. It marked the culmination of my competitive debate career and a turning point in my relationship with the woman who would become my (first) wife. It would long be remembered as my favorite weekend of debate despite becoming a crippling and embittering disappointment in terms of my actual debate performance. And in light of events of this year, the whole event would retroactively transform into a debacle, with the one grand saving moment of both the weekend and my life (perhaps the best story about me that exists) becoming yet another tired tragedy in a litany of a lifetime of mistakes.

The tournament got off to a great start, long before the tournament itself. Brandeis was in the habit of renting a team van to attend the National Championship, a tradition I believe started by our coach Greg once we got in the habit of qualifying teams for Nationals. While we were heavily laden with the teams who’d qualled and our additional free seed, a number of judges were also along for the ride, mostly younger debaters who’d just missed as part of a year I spent seemingly dropping semifinals by one ballot almost every weekend. These included close friend Nikki, who was the only person in the world fully informed about my personal intentions for the weekend after a late-night post-practice conversation about where I saw my life going. And then someone went and suggested that they braid my hair.

I’d had my hair braided a couple times before, most notably at the Senior Retreat in high school, a weekend I’ve long remembered as the lowest point in my life after the age of ten and perhaps the saddest I’ve ever grappled with being until 2010. It’s always been an amateur effort by a group of bored girls, though I usually really enjoy the look and feel of the results, at least until my head starts itching a few days in. For this tournament, there was something particularly important about taking up the spontaneous offer of hair-braiding – I’d always wanted to attend a tournament with my hair in braids and there was something about the freeing nature of doing something so unconventional and even bizarre in the most important, serious, and ultimate tournament I’d ever faced that felt like a necessary rite. I remember the bewildered looks of many rival debaters as I entered the halls, debaters who expected me to be one of the contenders for the Championship, wondering why I’d decided to go off the deep end at such a pivotal time.

Thanks to the power of photography and preservation, you don’t have to take my words for it:

My recall for the round-by-round progress of that tournament is uncanny to this day. I would mentally replay the competitions and speeches on lonely train rides and in late-hour contemplation, in downtime at numerous jobs and drives. First round against Yale novices, Korn and Bendor (the former of whom went on to become an APDA President and help me run the 2007 Vassar Nationals five years later), and they ran a case against civil disobedience. Phil Folkemer of Maryland judging. The goofy grins that Tirrell and I exchanged when they read the case statement, the flawless opportunity it gave me to wax eloquent on my personally favorite topics. Round two, judged by an UMBC dino who seemed twice my age, removed his shoes, but still looked askance at my wild and unkempt ‘do. Hitting Joe Ross and his partner, the same Joe I’d met at the debate camp I hadn’t wanted to attend in the summer of ’97, the same place I’d met Kate who was directing that selfsame tournament, the camp that seemed to all but save my life at the time from the bottomless rabbit hole I was dropping down. Joe who was dating my girlfriend’s best friend and debate partner, the concentric circles of a nine-year debate career looping and spilling, combining and recombining into an effortless beautiful confused mosaic. We ran the Professor case, our classic first-rounder, cruised easily into a 2-0 record despite the judge’s possible misgivings about my reckless youth.

Just two rounds on Friday for a title tournament, then gearing up for the next day. The irony of talking briefly about the Lottery case, the one we’d prepped for Emily and Lauren just in case, given that they were perhaps the only opp team we fully respected at the contest. Emily asking me how to opp the case idly on our way into the tournament together. My joke, my mysterious smile: “Well I’m not going to tell you that now.” A dead giveaway of what we’d run when, horror of horrors, they posted round three and we were in fact Gov against Princeton CG.

The round that became unfortunately ugly, Lauren and Drew getting fiercely competitive as Em was upset about our case choice and I was just trying to enjoy my last round running my favorite case. Speeches going well over time, getting docked for scores apparently already suffering, and then the realization going into round four that we’d just put my girlfriend on the brink of elimination from Nationals, which was (as was the general tradition, the prior year excepted) breaking only to quarterfinals. And both our teams, speaks tanked, hitting our two respective least favorite teams. Me squaring off against the President of APDA, a fierce rival of both Emily’s and mine. Emily against Yale’s top team of juniors, the same group who’d gotten her to unknowingly prep against me at Worlds and then bragged to the whole American contingent about throwing a wedge in our relationship.

And then the judging debacles ensued, a mad scramble of scratched and ineligible judges leading to a sophomore panel for Emily’s round and our round being judged by an ex of mine, another Florida high school debater, more circles spinning and spinning around this epic series of events. To top it off, the Columbia rivals chose to run a case I’d already hit, no less when debating with Kate for our first time ever her freshman year, one I’d long remembered for its topic being organ donation and my LOR crystallizing into themed tags about different organs, including “The Appendix: extra extraneous stuff in their case that doesn’t help”. I gave basically the same opp, basically the same LOR, and we won this time around. The MG from that team would be dead within a half-decade, but no one knew that then. He’d beaten Emily for the APDA Presidency the year before and nothing he’d done since had endeared him to either of us. Emily would spend as much of her senior speech calling him out as thanking anyone else.

On to the 4-0 round, a matchup with defending National Finalists, current Team of the Year, and future (spoiler alert!) National Champions, the other top-rated Princeton team. We had a fabulous round with them about where to try Milosevic, a case they ran and did well, though we ended up disagreeing with Steve Maloney’s call that we hadn’t carried the contest. I remember an ornery and bored-seeming younger brother of Yoni watching the round, seeming utterly disinterested in debate as he was treated to a real showcase round. The same kid would go on to debate quite ably for Yale, including a great performance in the best round I would ever judge, a match between he and his partner and a Stanford team in a bubble round at Nationals 2006.

4-1 still left us a shot at the break, though the quality of our competition was indicating to us that our speaker points must be pretty poor. Emily had already learned they’d dropped 4th round to Yale and would need a miracle to try to become the one 2-down team to break. With our points, it was utterly clear we needed to win. We were Gov against good friends and excellent opponents Raj & Phil from MIT. We had burned Lottery. It was the most important round I’d faced since National semifinals the year before. It threatened to be my last. Drew and I looked through the casefile. I almost whispered “Reparations”. He looked askance at me. We’d never run it together in competition. It was perhaps the most open case in our file. But one, like Lottery, that I really believed in. He asked if I was sure. I nodded definitively. “If this is my last round ever, this is exactly what I want to be running.”

It wasn’t our last round ever, nor as it would turn out even the last time that I’d run that case, given Emily’s and my return to APDA four years later for a one-tournament sequel. We put it all on the line for that debate, asking the US government to give $1,000,000 to every man, woman, and child born on a reservation or whose parents were. It’s the only time we ran that case without it being recorded and it was by far the best that case ever did. At one point, panicking, MIT actually suggested that we weren’t giving enough to Native Americans, that perhaps the only real apology would be actually bankrupting the United States. We won and were in, though it would take many long hours of agonizing waiting for us to learn that.

During those hours, I spoke to Emily about their chances, about how much my former teammate, the President of ‘Deis debate when I’d joined, had liked their 6th round and given them a shot to break with high points. I took the braids out of my hair in preparation for the formal banquet. I nervously contemplated my plans for said banquet, ideas I’d discussed as possible with Em at some point so as not to put her unfairly on the spot, but to still make a magic moment. My hair was curled and crinkled as we dressed in our hotel room for the pending announcement, both of us on pins and needles about all to follow that fateful night.

Off we went. The vegetarian offering was disappointing, the hotel’s standard introduction of servers a cringeworthy combination of Disney and racism. We could barely eat. The nerves and tension mounted. Lots were drawn for the order of senior speeches and Emily secured the last one of the night. I asked to trade with her. She smiled at me sideways and said okay.

The speeches rolled on, shorter than normal at the behest of UMBC who, like the Disneyesque introduction, was losing the banquet hall at midnight. I was finally called, almost over time already. Nevertheless, I proceeded with my longest speech on APDA, calling out that same President briefly before launching into an ode to the people I’d loved so dearly and competed with so fiercely for four years. I closed with two people. The first was the host of that tournament, an old and important friend from that debate camp and everything that followed. The second was Emily. I only spoke briefly of her before losing myself in emotion and noting that I had a question to ask her if she could come up to the front.

It was the second-happiest moment of my life (the happiest to that point), but somehow cannot remain so. Or maybe it will until something somehow surpasses it, something that God-willing will not fall victim to the eternal tarnish of time. It is a moment that prompts tears and breaks my heart to even begin to contemplate, one that did plenty of both at the moment. That hushed ripple of rising shock when I said that sentence still makes every nerve ending tingle. I can recall every second of that slow walk all the way from the back of the room. Everything slows to almost a standstill, then I get up, hug her, and everything goes into warp speed. A hundred congratulations, a thousand smiles. I almost didn’t notice when they announced that Brandeis CT had advanced to quarterfinals.

We were facing NYU A, including a person who, as I noted at the open of my LOC, had judged my very first APDA round ever, a contest at Columbia Novice, which Kraig and I went on to win, where I also had to LOC, this time following a 150-second PMC from Riley McCormick. She went on to get much better and I somehow scrambled about 6 and a half minutes of responses out of her barely outlined case. I remain uncertain to this day how he was qualified to judge that round and yet also had a year of eligibility left for that tournament concurrent with my own senior year, but I don’t mean to cast aspersions. I’m sure it was all above board. What happened that round, though, never seemed quite so much to me.

The auditorium was packed, a steep rising lecture hall that had clearly decided this was the quarterfinal to watch. There were some surprises in the break and a couple noticeable absences, including Emily and the same MIT team we’d edged in 6th round. It wasn’t until awards that we learned the latter was supposed to break but hadn’t due to a mathematical tabulation error. But us against NYU was a battle more predicted for semis or even later, and we had the edge on Opp. Only three judges were in the round to decide the contest.

Had there been a floor vote, we would have won by an almost 95-5 margin. But only three opinions mattered. One was clearly with us. One was against us for reasons that sounded strange, but I ultimately felt were sincere. And the tiebreaking vote was from someone who, as I flashed through my memories of his time at that tournament after the heartbreaking announcement of our 2-1 loss, I could not separate from images of our opponents. Indeed, I still have run across pictures from that tournament where he is in every car, every room, every table, every situation hanging out with our two opponents. They were the closest of friends.

Which would be somewhat acceptable had he been able to give me a coherent reason for his decision. But it rapidly became apparent he’d made no effort whatsoever to adjudicate the round at all. His flow was almost blank and he stumbled over forming the beginnings of a sentence about why he’d voted Gov. After five minutes of stammering, the judge who’d voted for us intently listening as well with increasing concern, he finally said “Look, it’s not about you guys personally.” To which I looked him straight in the eye and said “I know. It’s about them personally and that’s why this is an illegitimate decision.”

There was no recourse for the apparent travesty and I long blamed my close friend Kate for these events, at least in part, though my calling out of her tournament’s tab policies hurt her perhaps even more than I felt hurt by unfairly losing my last round ever. The ensuing conflicts led to a long-time dissolution of our friendship that we have only recently patched up, exacerbated by a series of slights and indignities that seem to mar many friendships that become infused with the heat of personal competition and ego. I handled it poorly. She made some mistakes too. These things happen between people. I am learning to try to figure out how to forgive. But there are many people in my life who I can give a second chance to, even if I don’t forgive them fully. Even if they can’t try to take that second chance.

Suddenly the tournament was a crushing failure. Yes, I was now engaged, and yes, we’d had a great run. But my debate career was suddenly over, just when I’d been preparing for semifinals as so many around me had told me how certain it was we’d dominated quarters. I couldn’t bear to watch semis, making sure to recommend that the Chicago team hitting NYU protest that judge’s empaneling before I took off for a long walk around campus. I returned for finals, featuring that same NYU team, forlornly telling some Harvard kids about the case Drew and I had prepped for National Finals while we watched a round about libertarianism instead. They promptly stole the case and ran it at Triangulars next weekend. But Emily and I would get to run it at BU Finals four years later and you can listen to the round.

Fast-forward eight years and seven months. I am back at UMBC for the first time since that fateful weekend. My marriage has ended in betrayal. My life has wended back to debate in a big way. And while it’s not Nationals and we didn’t have a big rented van and it’s a really bad idea to braid someone’s hair while they’re driving, something like that same team spirit has gelled and coalesced at the Rutgers University Debate Union (RUDU).

Our best team went north to MIT by themselves and, as of this writing, it looks like their being awarded 9th team and just being kept out of the break was the result of a mathematical tabulation error – they should have been the 6th or 7th breaking team. Left to their own devices, the five teams we took to UMBC all consisted of first- or second-year debaters, all kids I’d tutored from the beginning of their time with parliamentary debate. Chris and Ashley were fresh off their first varsity break together at the massive Fordham tournament just before Thanksgiving. Krishna and Bhargavi were fresh off losing a bubble round at the last tourney they’d attended together just before Krishna’s finger was smashed in a car-door and kept her out of competition for a while. Our novice teams had put together some good performances lately. But without our top team, how would we fare?

The tournament was no cake-walk. We thought Chris and Ashley were undefeated after Friday, but it turns out we were all 2-1 or 1-2 at that point. Our novice teams had both gotten out of the gate 0-2. We weren’t even sure they were breaking to quarterfinals, meaning that all of our teams might have almost been out at that point. And then it became Saturday.

We got our pairings and it was evident no one was 3-0. People prepared cases, went off to rounds. Krishna & Bhargavi came back bubbling about a spectacular 4th round and got the information they’d won 3rd round after being worried about it. Chris & Ashley returned confident. The stage was set for important bubble rounds. And then Chris & Ashley drew the highest-ranked team in attendance, the nation’s 6th team from Hopkins. They were nervous, but finally were able to be pep-talked into not being intimidated. They felt good about the round afterwards, but weren’t at all sure of the outcome, of what the judge would focus on. And then, after pizza and waiting and long last, the announcements came.

First, our novice hybrid team was into novice finals. Then, Chris & Ashley broke. Then, Krishna & Bhargavi did too. Suddenly there was a World-Series-like mob of breaking debaters on the side of our row in the General Assembly lecture hall. Two teams in quarterfinals, including the first break ever for Krishna & Bhargavi. Maybe this UMBC tour was going to be different.

While Krishna & Bhargavi were out of cases and had to borrow one for a tough round in quarters, Chris & Ashley were well prepped and took down a Fordham team 2-1 with one of their classics. Then I was given the semifinal round off from judging, a nod from a tab staff well stocked with judges and knowing that I’d probably like a chance to see my team. We went down a cinder-block tunnel and I almost froze. I realized what couldn’t quite be true – this lecture hall where Chris & Ashley were about to debate for a trip to their first final round was the same one that had hosted my last qualified competitive round ever. Quarters at Nats 2002. At first I thought I’d been wrong because the desk up front was different – I told myself it was just very similarly situated and sloped. But as I examined the desk, I realized it had to be a new computerized addition not present in 2002. And after comparing it to this old picture from that round:

…it was all too clear. And for extra fun, one of the panelists on this semifinal panel was the legitimate of the two who’d dropped me so many years ago in that ultimate round. I had a sinking feeling. Would history repeat itself? I dug into the seat for the round between Maryland and Rutgers and watched.

At first, I was a bit nervous. Chris was on his game in LOC, but his time management wasn’t amazing. And then Ashley started to really turn things around in MOC, setting up what turned out to be one of the best opp-blocks I’ve ever seen. Chris’ LOR was nearly flawless. A kid I’d seen often be rough and flailing was polished, rhetorical, inspiring. I was taken aback. The PMR was strong, but there was no way we were dropping this one. It was half an hour until we heard a 5-0 decision favored Rutgers. Chris & Ashley were going to finals and a win away from both qualifying for Nationals.

The Final was a treat. Chris & Ashley had fun with a case from the back-burner of Fordham’s file and made the right choice of those offered them in an entertaining opp-choice. They won a 6-3, us tensely waiting for the announcement that was started, stopped, and restarted three times after we’d learned of many other great awards detailed in this post on the RUDU blog. The exuberance was overwhelming with the announcement, the sheer joy and shock pouring out that as I well recall only the very first tournament win can bring. Indeed, after collecting their trophy, Ashley and especially Chris actually tackled me to the ground in celebration:

Getting up slowly from the floor, almost teary and completely mindblown, I came to terms with the incredible pinnacles and troughs of human emotion and experience. I’ve been talking periodically about my writing The Best of All Possible Worlds tearing open a portal of surreality in my life that may never again close. That the fork in the road taken by the completion of that piece has irreparably heightened the extremity of everything that follows. It’s a weird, vaguely extreme thing to believe, and yet you may understand if and when you read it. The quarterfinal round I judged was about the interpretation of art and made for a fascinating debate. And yet I must conclude that titles should always be bigger than authors’ names on book covers, because any good work is far greater than the author could have intended. And what if in crafting that work, I crafted undeniable surreality for myself and the rest of my days? What is to anchor us to the present, to the understanding that our lives are indeed as random and mundane as probability would lead us to believe?

I don’t have answers today, a lazy Sunday spent basking and recovering from the enormity of all these memories compiled and reconfigured, for both the worse and the better. I’m not sure I’ve ever had quite so much fun as a debate tournament as this Saturday at UMBC. It’s quite a replacement for a prior Saturday at UMBC. I will be processing this and more for a long time to come. But for 24 hours, I’ve been happy. And I’ve lived through enough to know just how to appreciate that. I pulled Chris & Ashley aside to remind them before the Final round of just one thing: to have fun. To appreciate what they were about to experience. I have to pull myself aside and remember that too sometimes. Now, mostly. Right now.