Most of my descriptions of the past are remembered and recollected, which gives me the opportunity to discuss them in the style of my current writing, to couch them in the perspective of my present vantage point. And while that has a lot of advantages, since I’m a better writer than I used to be and have more experience, it comes with drawbacks as well. The past is tinged in a different way in light of my current standing. Things that used to work out or seem good or be for the best may be more complicated now. Truth is vision without perspective, yet we can never really transcend our own perspective in the moment of looking from it. The best we can do is to suspend or question the trappings of that viewpoint in the moment we are peering out its filtered windows.
But one of the advantages of copious record keeping, of not having a bonfire of all my worldly goods and papers (yet), and of living so publicly, is that I can offer unedited perspectives of the past to describe the past. And in collecting the evolution of these perspectives and sources, and periodically revisiting them, I can arrive at something closer to objectivity about a wider swath of time. Which is not to say that objectivity is necessarily ideal, since there is much to be gained, as in debate, from simply having a perspective. But at least some of the biases of the moment can be strained and teased out, or juxtaposed with biases of other moments.
There are two significant anniversaries this weekend, one that most are contemplating, and one that only debate people would have cause to observe. The first is the twenty-five year anniversary of the Challenger explosion, a seminal moment in my own childhood, the Kennedy assassination or 9/11 of its era. The second is the ten-year anniversary (this debate-scheduled weekend, if not this precise calendar date) of Zirkin and I winning the North American Championship for Brandeis.
I could describe these key moments in my life in poetic detail, could frame them in light of what I’ve learned or experienced since then. But given my ability to present vivid first-hand accounts, I will favor those instead. Actually, the first is already a reframing – it’s my college essay written at seventeen about being five. The second is the direct first-hand reporting of my life from Ithaca, New York, that fateful weekend just shy of a decade past.
Obviously the second anniversary is more directly significant to my current existence than the first – I am not about to board a spaceship at this moment, but I am about to head to New York for a North American Championship. It will be my first as a coach – we lacked the money to attend last year. The snowfall, just flurries tacking on to the nearly-two-foot total already achieved in Jersey and NYC, is doing its best to make the world into a little impression of Ithaca. To say I would have high hopes for this weekend would put far too much pressure on the situation. But, as ten years ago, I am at home with the presence of possibility. Like every pre-debate morning, the air is pregnant with the promise of unpredictability. If there is one take-home message from my life that I can draw today, it’s that anything – anything – can happen.
College Application Personal Essay
Storey Clayton – circa December 1997
The crisp winter air was never too cold in that part of California. Fog, the closest we ever got to snow in California’s Central Valley, hovered just a few feet off the ground, blanketing vision with a soft, gray thickness of sky. In Visalia, a fairly small town that virtually no one had ever heard of, I was growing up. Like all five-year-olds, I had hopes and dreams for the oh-so-far-away future. I was almost six, after all, and that birthday would bring me another step closer to the great adulthood that somehow loomed, though inconceivably, in my mind.
As I walked through the fog that managed to nestle itself in my backyard, I wondered what turning six would mean to me. True, it was a month away, but anticipation has never been a weakness of the young. For example, I was busy anticipating the invention of time travel that would rush me quickly back to the age of the dinosaurs. I had dinosaur coloring books, pop-up books, full-length in-depth books, plastic toy models, the works. Only one thing surpassed my deep desire to immerse my life in the examination of every aspect of dinosaurs.
For that, I looked to the sky.
I don’t remember exactly when I first realized that I wanted to be an astronaut. I don’t even remember exactly what drove my curiosity about space, about the universe high above the clouds. There was something fascinating about what couldn’t be seen, about what was just beyond the realm of vision, truly of comprehension. It was kind of like Sunday School, except that no one who tried to explain space to me ever set limits on it. Outer space, and the exploration thereof, was the only thing truly big enough to consume my imagination.
I spent hours exploring the backyard fog, mentally exploring the clouds. I never quite got the feeling of weightlessness, but I was disoriented enough, surrounded by the dense gray that stood just inches from my nose and encircled the rest of me. I kept thinking that if I could just get beyond that fog, just reach the other side of the thick mass of cloudcover, that I would see Mars or Saturn only a few feet away. That all the solar system, and perhaps others might be within reach.
I talked with my friends about this wild fascination with the vast realm of outer space. They always made fun of my belief in time travel and the expectation of seeing dinosaurs someday. “That’s not real,” they’d say. “You can’t do that for reals.” But space travel, now that was “for reals.” People had done that before. More importantly, people would be doing that even more in the future–a lot more. And to man all those spaceships going zillions of miles in the air, they’d need fanatics like me. And I would be ready.
My young life had almost never been filled with absolutely uncontainable excitement. Certain birthday parties and Christmas Eves, and probably the trip to the Natural History Museum in L.A. with all those dinosaur skeletons had excited me almost uncontainably. But it was simply not comparable to my teacher’s announcement one winter morning. “Class,” she said, “next week we’re going to see the space shuttle take off. You all know about the space shuttle, don’t you? Well, we’re going to see it next week as it happens. Right on the TV screen.”
I could barely emit the words from my bubbling almost-six-year-old mouth when my mom picked me up from kindergarten that day. Not just a satellite with no one on it. But an actual spaceship with people on it, would take off as I watched it, at the very same second. Spoiling it only a little, she told me that she had known already. Everybody knew. It seemed that the entire town, no, the entire world would be watching this spaceship as it went up in the air. Off to the Moon, or to Mars, wherever, it didn’t matter as long as they were leaving Earth and heading off into the endlessness of space.
Only overjoyed excitement could enter my consciousness as we congregated in the first-grade room. The first-graders were in their desks behind us, the second- and third-graders standing in the back, and we were sitting on the floor, looking straight ahead at the chalkboard which contained the spelling list. It was filled with words like “space,” “ship,” “shuttle,” and, as an extra-challenge word, “astronaut.” Just as I was analyzing these words, sending my imagination flying once more, the television was wheeled in front of my vision. The vastness of space was about to be mine to watch, to observe, to savor.
We were reminded one last time that everything we saw was taking place at that precise moment. Through the much-celebrated “miracles of modern technology,” we would see what took place at the exact second in which it took place. Nothing had been rehearsed. This was the real thing.
The countdown came, and we all shouted along with it, a classroom filled with a hundred screaming children, all counting in reverse order from what our teachers drummed into our heads daily. “Three, two, one…” and then silence. We remained in an overwhelmed, fascinated silence. No one breathed for seconds. Only the vague sound of cheering from the crowd in Florida, so far away, and yet at this precise second.
Then, the space shuttle exploded.
The silence remained. The teachers were not near the television’s off button because no one had expected a reason to turn it off. We all watched, all knew, could not comprehend or understand, but still fervently knew. All but one of us knew all too well, and he asked, “What happened?” to break the minute’s silence. The moaning of the announcer in Florida seemed so desperately far away as the pieces of the shuttle fell to the water below in a fiery mess, at this precise second. No one answered my classmate’s question. A teacher had finally found the off button. The disaster faded into the comforting blackness of silence.
When I went home that afternoon, I hadn’t cried much. But my dream had died with the seven astronauts aboard the Challenger. It was over for me. I picked up my plastic stegosaurus and stepped out the back door. I could see the back fence all too well. The fog had evaporated.
Introspection, My Worst Friend
Storey Clayton – 2-4 February 2001
2 February 2001
-Ben Harper was solid, but in comparison to a lot of my more recent concerts, not quite fantastic. Glad I went though. The first encore (all acoustic) made it all worthwhile. I’ll post a setlist sometime when it’s not 2 & a half hours before I have to pack & leave for Cornell for the weekend. Woohoo NorthAms.
3 February 2001
[from Ithaca, New York]
-You gotta get pumped. & worship the coffee. & jump around. There’s been no dancing at this tournament, but there’s still the pumped-ness.
-Where are all these alleged Canadians? Zirk & I were 0-for-6 on the ol’ Canada train. But still, it was some of the best debating we’ve done in our careers. If only we can keep it up going into tomorrow, we might have a shot.
-Banquets are not my scene.
4 February 2001
[from Ithaca, New York]
-So I was sitting there, the whole time, telling myself “prepare to hear ‘Yale A’ so as not to be disappointed, prepare to hear ‘Yale A’ so as not to be disappointed…”… the second I heard “Brand–“, I went nuts. & I felt good about going nuts. We have been on fire all weekend.
-North American Champions. That will take getting used to.
-I expect this to sink in by Wednesday at the earliest. The thing is, I’m still just overwhelmed by the crowd reaction, by the fact that people cried in our round from being moved, that the Weisenthal case exceeded expectations, that Zirk & I got everything we could’ve wanted outta this tournament & so much more, that this was utterly transcendant in every way that a debate round can be transcendant. & Harry & Jeffie really gave the case a just opp. & I just don’t know what else to say. I am blown away.
-4 & a half days is still plenty of time to miss someone.