Categotry Archives: But the Past Isn’t Done with Us

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Suicide: 13 Reasons Why and S-Town

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, The Problem of Being a Person, The Wild Wild Web, Tags: , , ,

Content Warning: This post will talk extensively about suicide. It is the author’s belief and, indeed, thesis, that talking about suicide, honestly and in detail, is the best form of suicide prevention. But if you feel differently, this post may not be for you for a variety of reasons.

Spoiler Alert: This post will talk extensively about season one of the Netflix television series 13 Reasons Why and the entirety of the This American Life/Serial podcast S-Town. It is highly recommended that you only engage with this content if you have seen and heard both of these pieces in their entirety. (Separately, it is highly recommended that you see and hear both of these pieces anyway.) Short of that, it is at least recommended that you do not proceed unless you’ve ruled out engaging with any content you haven’t engaged with, unless you don’t mind said content being spoiled.


The real John B. McLemore (left) and the fictional Hannah Baker (right).

“The way people talk about suicide in this country infuriates me. Because most of it is very much a way of not talking about it. People treat suicide like it’s ultra-contagious ebola, that it is unspeakable, unthinkable, and that even discussing it without a biohazard suit on will somehow create a wave of copycat suicides and an epidemic and therefore we should just zip our lips and praise the person who just ‘died’ (not, never ever, ‘killed themselves’, even though that’s what actually happened) and ignore the gargantuan elephant busting down the walls of the room that the person in question just chose to publicly end their own lives as a statement.”
Let’s Talk About Suicide, 13 August 2014, a post which can be read as a kind of premise to this one

As someone who wrote the above, admittedly angrily, less than three years ago, it’s been heartening to witness the sudden success and virality of both 13 Reasons Why and S-Town. They were each released in late March, just three days apart, in their respective entireties, per the new expectations of the media bingeing culture. While the former is based on a novel that’s been out for a decade now, there is poetry in this nearly simultaneous release, and the resultant arc of fame and discussion has sparked, perhaps, the beginning of a sea-change in how we address suicide in American society.

Of course, with fame and success and audience come the inevitable backlash, which has poured out in spades for both shows. In the case of the TV series, outcry has focused on raw portrayals of sexual assault and suicide in material that is clearly aimed at a younger audience. In the instance of the podcast, descriptions of suicide are deemed more tolerable, while critiques focus on invading the privacy of the suicide after his death, converting his call for an investigation into a biography of him, unearthing a number of intimate details about the man. The common thread in these critiques is the idea that we are shown too much. That there are limits and boundaries to what we should see, what we should hear, what art should attempt to portray about its subjects.

Which shows, of course, that the critics of each of these works could not possibly have done more to miss the point of their material. For what both works do, profoundly and with abandon, is demonstrate that the desire for privacy, the urge to stay quiet or, worse, miscommunicate about our feelings and intentions, is literally killing us. That suicide is not some spectral ebola: unseen, unheard, misunderstood, and treatable only with pills. Rather, suicide is the product of our society, it is rooted in a profound loneliness manufactured by our ignorance of other people’s realities and our unwillingness to share the truth of our own. Suicide is not, as the clueless adults prattle throughout 13 Reasons Why, solely the responsibility of the individual who made the decision to end their life. Instead, suicide prevention is our collective responsibility, not just with hotline referrals, but by actually opening up our lives and our hearts to those who are suffering.

And not, as so wittily and honestly depicted in 13 Reasons Why, only after a suicide. The job of preventing a potential suicide, of reaching out and listening, helping, and trying to cause less harm, starts today, whether you know someone affected or not. Because you can watch the fictional Hannah Baker, you can hear the real John B. McLemore, and you don’t have to wait for someone closer to home to kill themselves. This is the purpose of art – to serve as a proxy for horrible things so that maybe we don’t have to learn every lesson firsthand. Maybe we can learn from the experience of others, the portrayal of realistic characters, and prevent similar calamities in our own futures before it’s too late.

Suicide is a growing problem in this country. The suicide rate has increased more than 25% since I graduated high school, now killing more Americans than car accidents, which is saying something. It’s at a 30-year high in the most recently available data-year (2015), a figure that has probably increased in the subsequent year by preliminary reports. 44,193 people took their own lives in the US that year, making it the second leading cause of death for the 15-34 age group. And for all you “guns-don’t-kill” people out there, fully half of all suicides were committed via a firearm.

(Further, for all you people out there worried about terrorism, 94 Americans have been killed by terrorists since 2001, compared to the 515,654 who killed themselves from 2002-2015. That’s a ratio of 5,486:1. But it’s worse, because 49 of those 94 died in Orlando in 2016, a year for which we don’t yet have suicide data, so the ratio is actually 11,459:1. Think I’m cherry-picking by avoiding 9/11? Including 2001 brings the suicide total to 546,276 and the terrorism total to 3,028, a ratio of 180:1. Suicide is killing one-hundred and eighty times the number of Americans as terrorism since 2000, including 9/11. Can you imagine what doing 180 times as much to combat it would look like?)

Neither of the suicides in these March 2017 art works are via firearm. The fictional Hannah Baker kills herself in a very visceral wrist-slitting scene that actually made me weep while watching it. The real John B. McLemore drinks potassium cyanide while on the phone with a county clerk, as described briefly but painfully by S-Town host Brian Reed. As critical journalists have been quick to shout from the rooftops, traditional guidelines discourage detailed descriptions or depictions of suicide methodology in fear of “contagion” and “copycatting”. But this guideline misses the fine line between sensationalizing or glorifying an act and depicting its true horror. Nothing about either depiction could be confused for glorification. Rather, the message of each detailed and even gory depiction is clear: suicide is painful and difficult. This messaging achieves two fundamental things that the critics tend to miss: it illustrates both that suicide is not an easy way out, thus deterring suicide and it illustrates quite viscerally just how much pain the suicidal person is in when they undertake the act. Indeed, Hannah is surprised at how much the razors hurt when they enter her arms, having not been a cutter beforehand. And John is overwhelmed by how much the cyanide burns on its way down his throat. The fact that they follow-through demonstrates the level of suffering each of these lonely, tormented souls is enduring, emphasizing how critical it is for those who can to try to help.

But each artwork takes an additional step to further cement the messaging, veering yet further from any possible glorification and fully into the realm of deterrence. They then keep the camera or microphone on the scene to show the aftermath. Not just the long-term aftermath: for Christ’s sake, the entirety of 13 Reasons Why is about aftermath, as is about half of S-Town. But also the short-term, immediate aftermath… Hannah’s parents coming into the bathroom, unable to grapple with what’s happened, clutching their daughter and begging her to wake up. The county clerk saying, matter-of-factly, “Every night it’s a replay. I’m still just — there’s not a night that I don’t think about him, that I don’t wake up and dreaming about it, or thinking about him. Not a night.”

One of the fundamental truths of suicide is that those who undertake it feel like the walls are closing in, the options are foreclosing, and that everyone either hates them or will be better off without them. Contrary to the “revenge fantasy” notion that the media so often mistakenly finds in suicidal behavior (and is misrepresented as Hannah’s intent and story), most suicides actually believe they are removing a burden from the ones they love in the moment they commit the act. Not only is this reality well depicted in both shows, but the objective untruth of the suicides’ self-perception is also exposed, in extensive detail. 13 Reasons Why is relentless in showing how utterly bereft Hannah’s parents are, how impossibly lonely Clay is, how much she is missed by the community that made her feel unloved. Here the message may sound like an after-school teen drama: you are loved, even though it’s not cool for us to show it or even admit it. But at the same time, the exact same message shines through S-Town, as applied to a closeted eccentric in the rural South who is upwards of 50 years old. You complain that your town is anti-intellectual and desperate, but you are recognized by intellectuals the world over as a foremost artisan in an ancient skill. You feel you have no one in your life, but there are people who are willing to do extraordinary things, make themselves uncomfortable, in the hope that you will find joy or peace. It is hard for me to imagine a more hopeful message for the would-be suicide to hear, to witness, than that they are loved beyond their wildest reckoning and would do deep damage to the ones they love.

There are differences between the shows, of course, and these differences, beyond the basic questions of truth and fiction, men and women, age and youth, make the two a fitting pair in ushering in a new, more bold and open era of talking about suicide. Perhaps the most obvious is that John B. McLemore talks almost incessantly about suicide before he does it, casually throwing around plans and notions and the inevitability like he’s talking about next Tuesday’s ballgame. On the other hand, Hannah Baker dares not speak the name of suicide, of ending things at all, until the day she does it, even then retracting her statement and being coy with the school counselor mere minutes before she walks out of school and toward her bathtub. These mirrored depictions themselves are helpful reminders that what we have often been taught to watch out for by well-intentioned experts on the subject is wrong: there is rarely a clear moment of warning or an easily detectable warning sign to look out for. There is rarely a clear shift before something actually happens, which is why so many people are blindsinded, as the world most recently was by Chris Cornell a week ago, by suicides.

By telling us to worry about and care for those for whom suicide is either so stigmatized that they cannot bear to discuss the possibility, or for whom wrestling with suicide has become so commonplace that no one really hears the warnings or takes them seriously, these twin offerings remind us of the messy reality of suicide. It doesn’t come with a clear yellow flag, then a clear red, with just enough time to react. Only the most advanced and open of the suicidal are able to give that, have a network of people to whom they reach out when the triggers and risk factors mount. Far more often, the onus has to be on those around them to reach out. Not in a reactive way, not in a biohazard suit, not in a scary way to jump the gun and say “oh my gosh, are you going to kill yourself?!” But in the calm, steady, loving way of expressing appreciation, telling someone how much they mean to their world, how glad they are to have them in their world. Yes, suicide is complicated, but it is not random. Nor is it inescapable. Had either Hannah or John had people regularly, sincerely reminding them how much they meant to them in their world, easing up on the criticisms and caustic jokes, replacing some of them with risky, heartfelt appreciations, it’s hard to imagine either of them getting to the brink.

But high school and the rural South are not places where heartfelt appreciations are easily given. Guess what? Neither is anywhere else in this country, maybe outside of a few counseling centers and non-profits that take emotional affirmation and work seriously (Glide comes to mind). S-Town does a laudable job of universalizing a region of the country we so often judge and lampoon, especially on outlets like NPR, disproving the tropey assumptions that most people bring to the first episode and recognizing John as a “citizen of the world”, a place he worries about very much. And 13 Reasons Why, to its credit, makes high school a very adult place. The subject may be, partially, about not knowing how cruel high schoolers can be to each other, but it’s also about the fact that high schoolers take their world as seriously as adults do, with fully adult consequences. Over and over, adults’ inability to understand the stakes of ages 14-18 costs them the opportunity to connect with and even save their children.

Which is why I find the most frequent criticism of 13 Reasons so powerfully laughable: the idea that it’s inappropriate for young viewers. The response that any of the actual students at Liberty High would make is as follows: “So we’re young enough to live it, but not to watch a depiction of someone else living it?” Given that the most crippling and yes, suicide-inducing feeling, especially for teens, is isolation and loneliness, the idea that no one understands or cares, how can we bash a work of art that bridges that divide for bullied, assaulted, harassed, or suicidal teens?! That shows them that They are Not Alone and, maybe more importantly, that Their Problems are Real. Enforcing the reality of their problems does not make someone suicidal go over the edge; it’s the feeling that one is crazy for caring about these problems that entrenches an unconquerable loneliness and self-hatred that pushes people past the brink. Remember that the first step is admitting you have a problem? If everyone else thinks the problem is poppycock or silly, then you’re just pathetic for not being able to cope with it. If there’s acknowledgment, you can start to tackle it like a problem that’s as hard as it feels.

Which is why, as a subplot, the unvarnished and horrifying depictions of sexual assault are also part of the fundamental deterrence of bad behavior and affirmation of feelings found in the show. Like suicide itself, these kinds of scenes tend to be anesthetized on screens or, worse, sort of glorified and glamorized as in Game of Thrones. Talk about reaffirming your rape culture! By stark contrast, 13 Reasons takes every pain to show both the heartlessness of rapists and, more importantly, the immense deadening suffering experienced by their victims. By doing so, by creating a scene that itself may actually be traumatizing (another oft-lobbed critique), 13 Reasons sends a powerful antidote to any guys who may brush off their actions as un-serious, no big deal, or any of the other hundreds of excuses that rape culture makes for its atrocities. By sending this message not only to 14-18 year olds, but perhaps to the tweens as well, it serves as great counterspeech to the messaging of pornography, toxic masculinity, Game of Thrones, and society as a whole. No one can watch those scenes and not loathe the rapist, not have their heart break for their victims, not reel at the permanence of the damage that was wrought. There is nothing sensational or attractive about these illustrations, but they are real and honest and do good, hard work to deter rape without victim-blaming.

The sexual scenes in S-Town are perhaps more ambiguous in their nobility. Indeed, explorations of John’s romantic history and latent penchant for consensual mutilation have been cited as voyeuristic and, while humanizing, possibly a bridge too far for a posthumous podcast. I find this critique more understandable than those levied at 13 Reasons, but still insufficient. Through his endless talks, his extensive writing, and even the initial invitation to Brian Reed to come down to Woodstock, Alabama and start recording, it was clear that John’s search was to be understood. Or, short of that, to be heard. It is hard for me to imagine John being upset with his fate as a kind of tragic anti-hero, someone brilliant and misunderstood, loved by more than he thought, possibly felled by his own ancient practices with mercury and self-inflicted isolation. Do we need to know about his disappointing encounters with men or needles to get the full picture? I think we do. It is only by understanding the depth of his loneliness, how hard he tried, and also how unbearable his ongoing mental agony, that we can start to understand why he was in the position he is, why he did what he did.

And that’s what this is all about. Why. It’s right there in the title of one of them. The other, S-Town, is short, of course, for Shittown, the moniker the borderline anhedonic John gives his environment. Shittown is his reason why, after all. As Brian evaluates in the second episode, before we’ve learned of his suicide, “The shitty misfortunes John fixates on, they’re not a bunch of disparate things. They’re all the same thing. His Shittown is part of Bibb County, which is part of Alabama, which is part of the United States, which is part of Earth, which is experiencing climate change, which no one is doing anything about. It maddens John. The whole world is giving a collective shrug of its shoulders and saying fuck it.”

Brian goes on, even more meaningfully: “What I admire about John is that in his own misanthropic way, he’s crusading against one of the most powerful, insidious forces we face — resignation, the numb acceptance that we can’t change things. He’s trying to shake people out of their stupor, trying to convince them that it is possible to make their world a better place.”

That’s what both of these shows are doing, too. They’re campaigning against resignation, numbness, acceptance. Against the resignation that suicide will always just be there, a problem plaguing us. Against numbness to the feelings that lead some people down that path, against numbness to the idea of feelings at all: that they matter, that we are here to connect, that we should take risks with each other to create meaning instead of just following the same pattern of being cool kids who make cutting, sarcastic jokes. Against acceptance of what happens to us: cruelty, isolation, loneliness, rape, suicide. These things don’t get better by putting up posters, by labeling people, by pointing the long narrow finger to go talk to some other person who can handle you and your problems. They get better by us seeing care for others as our collective responsibility, reaching out, taking risks.

Most critical pieces on 13 Reasons Why, especially in statements posted by anti-suicide organizations, have cited a notable uptick in calls and even hospitalizations stemming from the release of the show. How or why this could possibly be a critique of the show rather than a compliment baffles me. With well over 40,000 suicides completed each year, plenty of people are failing to either seek or receive the help they need to stay alive. If more people are seeking that help in the wake of a show that speaks honestly about these issues, isn’t that an improvement? When more people sign up for health insurance, health-care advocates see that as a victory. Why not the same when more people call the suicide hotline? Isn’t that the whole point of posting suicide hotline numbers everywhere? To get people to actually call and talk?

Your mileage with suicidalism and with these pieces may vary. It’s worth noting that, despite the binge-ability of these works, I just finished each of them within the last 24 hours, having taken weeks to absorb both. Part of this is because I’ve been doing a lot of writing in the last two months, as well as some debate travel, so I haven’t been in a position to just sit down and listen for seven hours or watch for thirteen. It’s quite possible that the emotional overwhelm of that experience is less manageable than manually stretching it out. That Hannah’s descent into cascading calamity feels more like madness at that pace, that John’s depression is contagious at that speed.

But I still fundamentally deny the premise that suffering like that is so contagious, or that it redoubles the pain for those already hurting. We are all trapped in our own skins, all living with ourselves constantly and hoping to make fleeting contact with other souls on this isolated rock. Hearing about and, more importantly, really understanding the pain and reasoning of a relatable human being is so often soothing. Yes, if all the inputs are for hopeless despair, that can get overwhelming. But in showing that Hannah and John were loved more than they knew, were understandable, in treating their lives and deaths with respect and compassion, we get tragedy without hopelessness. We get a model for what not to do next time, in our own lives, how not to turn away and isolate ourselves and others.

Both shows are meditations on time. John with his old clocks brought back to life, his painstaking evaluation of the value of a life. Hannah with her examination of causation, of the precise point of no return, of minutes on a tape until it clicks. All we have is the time we are given. And in seeing honest examples of those who choose to cut that short, we might better appreciate the use of it when we awaken tomorrow.

If we shun these depictions, if we shame them as showing too much too riskily, we build taboos around suicide as strong as any stigma that we’ve carried from our cultural history. As shown in these shows, suicide is hard enough to talk about sincerely and seriously without slamming the few major media pieces that can actually manage to do so. If we want people to ask for help, we have to be ready to give it. And that requires being willing to see, hear, and think about suicide in all its messy horror. Hopefully 13 Reasons Why and S-Town are just early heralds in this new open, honest, and authentic approach to an issue we are all, in some way, affected by.


This is the part of the article where I’m supposed to provide the number for a suicide hotline. A suicide hotline may help you connect with someone to talk about why you’re feeling suicidal and how things can get better. Call 1-800-273-8255 if you’re in crisis or need to talk to someone. Yes, it can be awkward and weird. But as I’ve always said about suicide, if you’re willing to entertain ending everything, shouldn’t you try everything else first, just in case?

But I’m also going to invite you to reach out to me if you want. I’m assuming pretty much everyone here reading this blog knows or has known me in some way or at some point, so hopefully you feel comfortable reaching out. If you don’t know me, the proverbial door is still open. E-mail me at storey@bluepyramid.org. Make no mistake, the call to the hotline above will be faster and put you in touch with someone more officially trained in ways of dealing with suicidal ideation. But I am a 27-year survivor of suicidalism and may have some ideas or insights or tips that are not part of mainline conventional wisdom in suicide prevention. A list of some of these tips is available toward the end of this post.

So if you think I could be helpful, reach out. It’s only by people connecting with other people that we’re going to start to beat this thing.


Joyce Hayes died yesterday morning. Not by suicide, but at the end of a long illness. She was 72. By any rights, this post tonight should have been about her, but I am still processing her death and what it means to me and the countless lives she touched and saved. I have been thinking about this post for a long time, it’s been building, and I had to get it out of my system before addressing the power of Joyce’s love and its impact on the Glide community and beyond. Hopefully that will be up in a day or two.

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APDA Nationals 2017: A Debate Odyssey

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , ,

The RUDU affiliates present at the National Banquet. Left to right: Deepta Janardhan, Geneva Kropper, Jeremy Kritz, Sean Leonard, Storey Clayton, Kurt Falk, Chris Bergman, Mitchell Mullen, Hailey Conrad, Dan Bates, Max Albert, Alex Jubb, Russell Potter, Pasha Temkin, and Quinn Maingi. Photo by Shanti Hossain.

It is three-thirty in the afternoon on a Thursday, the day before the first American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA) Championships to ever be held at Rutgers University will commence. I am in a grungy but comfortable New Brunswick apartment just over the wrong side of the proverbial tracks, a block north of the children’s hospital where I once, years earlier, spent consecutive nights keeping watch in a patient’s room with a Jonathan Franzen novel and the mantra to appreciate each minute of life in sequence as my only bulwarks against total despair. The apartment, sporting five bedrooms and two full bathrooms, is shared by five young men of various affiliation with the Rutgers University Debate Union (RUDU), the team I coached for five years, all of whom arrived at the university and the team after I left it. I have spent the week mired in a familiar combination of sleeplessness and debate geekery, punctuated by a refreshing and unsettling unfamiliarity borne of relatively new characters populating the otherwise reminiscent scene.

Suddenly, a scream emerges from the corner bedroom. Max Albert, a tousled, thinly bearded intellectual, flees. “Pasha, there’s a bug in my room! Help!”

The hailed Pasha Temkin, whose frightening thinness is augmented by a narrow chin, a penchant for wearing a long beige trenchcoat, and a floppy mop of high brown hair that a former teammate has dubbed the “white boy swoop,” responds with glee. “Let me kill it, Max! I love killing bugs.”

The two retreat into the bedroom, close the door to contain the insect, and spend the next four minutes uproariously failing to exterminate it. Whoops of laughter and little yelps of fear spill out from under the door in sequence, followed eventually by a large black fly and the two young men who, led by Pasha, chase it to the kitchen window. Eventually, they manage to shove the window open, briefly let in a second fly, and then successfully brush both away and out of the apartment. Heaving with exertion and continued laughter, the two join me in the living room and plop on the couch diagonally opposite. “I hate bugs,” Max says, smiling broadly before returning to his usual contemplative visage.

It is a rare moment of unexpected levity in a week that’s been deadly serious. Max and Pasha just finished their season as the best partnership on APDA, clinching the coveted Team of the Year (TOTY) award in dramatic fashion at the Swarthmore tournament, besting the second-place team, from my alma mater (Brandeis) in the final round and the third-place team, from perennial powerhouse Yale, in the semifinals. Not only is this the first year in two full decades that neither of the top two TOTY have hailed from the Ivy League, but it’s the highest finish for either Rutgers or Brandeis ever. More impressively, Max and Pasha are APDA sophomores, each completing just their second year of competition on the league. No sophomore/sophomore team has ever won TOTY before. Admittedly, Pasha is a Rutgers junior who “redshirted” his first year by attending few enough tournaments to not count as his novice year. But they are still the youngest team ever to take the honor, in both APDA experience and years on Earth.

Max (left) and Pasha (right) on their way to a round during Nationals. Photo by Shanti Hossain.

Our story doesn’t begin here. Perhaps our story begins in St. Petersburg, Russia during the summer of 1995, where Pasha’s mother resides, pregnant with Pasha while I am an American exchange student spending two weeks in the recently liberated city. Did I wander past Mrs. Temkin on my way to my host family’s apartment one night, nodding briefly under the never-dark sky of a northern July? It is hard for me to imagine that moment now, internalizing that I was fifteen at the time and Pasha not yet born, hard to realize as I still feel so at home in an APDA entirely occupied by people so much younger than I am. Maybe our story begins two years earlier, when I was invited as an eighth grader by Sonia Roth to join the Lincoln-Douglass debate team she was coaching, after we shared each of our first classes at the Albuquerque Academy, third period history after the long opening assembly. Maybe it begins in 1998 at a meeting of CLEANS, the non-drinking students’ organization at Brandeis, where Adam Zirkin convinces me to come to a debate meeting despite my swearing I was done with debate heading into college. It is hard to remember my resistance to debating on APDA in 1998 when I have spent so much of the subsequent nineteen years so heavily invested in the league.

But our story, this week, really begins at James Madison University in Blacksburg, Virginia. That’s where I bid farewell to the Tulane team, to James Capuzzi and Michelle Daker, with whom I’d spent most of the last five days. It was Monday morning, April seventeenth, and Rutgers had just been announced as the seventh best team at the Madison Cup. The top six would advance to the long table finals, receive $1,000 each for their personal use and at least that much for their teams. Max had finished third the prior year, with Sean Leonard, and was counting on another top performance. Pasha banged his hand on the white-tableclothed surface before him. Michelle flashed me a look, knowing I was about to embark northward with the two of them.

James Capuzzi (left) and Michelle Daker (right) at the Madison Cup. Photo by Storey Clayton.

“Looks like you’re going to have a real fun car ride,” she quipped.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “Seventh is probably the worst.” We went on to speculate as to whether that or eleventh was worse, noting that eleventh place is the cut-off for getting any money for one’s debate program at the Madison Cup. Max and Pasha had at least just earned $500 for RUDU, while it was still possible that James and Michelle had placed eleventh. (We later learned they didn’t.)

The Madison Cup is a tournament in its own format, slower and more rhetorical than most formats of parliamentary debate these days and unique for its six-team, twelve-debater free-for-all. Rounds take about an hour and are judged by overtly untrained “lay” judges who are supposed to evaluate who contributed the most to the round’s discussion but often defer to who sounded prettiest. Sean had twice before made finals and was supposed to return this year with Kurt Falk, but was called away to work, where he is supervised by Matt McMillan, an APDA contemporary of mine who went to Columbia and did political work in New Mexico after graduation. Kurt has been on the road with Tulane all week, flying out to see Alex and I before joining us for the sixteen-hour drive in an overstuffed van to William and Mary from New Orleans for APDA’s closing tournament of the season. At the tournament, James and Michelle hit Max and his hybrid partner from Hopkins in round one. Max won, but was chastised by the judge for being too mean. “I didn’t think he was all that,” noted Michelle after the round. “It was a regular round, but he acted like he was destroying us.”

On the other side, hours later on Monday, in the car, Max explains to me. “You know, I hit your Tulane kids first round. And the judge said there was no need to be so mean. And I didn’t even realize I was being so mean. I just have no idea in a round if I’m winning or not. So I pull out all the stops, just in case.”

I’ve seen this movie before, and I tell Max so, driving north on I-95, hours into our return from Mad Cap, two novices from the University of Pennsylvania who opened Mad Cup against Tulane in tow. “Oh,” I note. “You’re just like Rob Colonel, the Yale dino. I used to judge him all the time and tell him to ease up on people or go for bigger, more gutsy advocacies in certain rounds. And he would look me in the eye, deadly serious, and say ‘I can’t do that, Storey. If I lose, you’ll drop me.’”

Rob Colonel was also TOTY, but not till his senior year. He lost his last chance at the National Championship in semifinals in 2013, setting up this round that I chronicled at length four years ago. The next National final, of course, featured RUDU debaters Sean and Quinn Maingi on my last official weekend coaching the team before I left to move to New Orleans. I came back the next year to watch them make semifinals at Nationals. Last year was the first APDA Nationals I missed since 2009. I’ve only missed five (2004, 2005, 2008, 2009, 2016) since I first competed as a freshman in 1999.

Rutgers’ National Championship is different in a number of ways from the four in which I competed and the nine prior in which I judged. Most prominently, the league explicitly allowed the host school to seriously compete in this one. Fellow APDA historian Joel Jacobs (Wesleyan ’89), with whom I used to judge at the Stanford tournament during my years in California after APDA, informed me that Harvard won their own Nationals in 1992. I am back largely to help Rutgers try to repeat the feat.

Rutgers isn’t my home turf anymore, this weekend, now that I’m back. Or it is and it isn’t. Pasha and Max have been coached for the bulk of the year by one Shomik Ghosh, TOTY partner of a guy who infamously threw a very public tantrum at the 2014 National Championships after his team had lost to Sean and Quinn in the semifinals.^ Shomik, having never actually attended Harvard, was far less attached to the Harvard reputation’s supremacy and apparently offered to coach Pasha and Max long-distance, all the way from Michigan Law School, after he judged them at the Harvard 2016 tournament and they ultimately won, quite a coup for a school that was usually blackballed and tanked at the largest tournament of the year. Seeing the dingy and rusting John Harvard Cup in Pasha and Max’s living room when I first ascended their stairs was among the more surreal sights of the weekend, really internalizing that not only was the Rutgers-Harvard feud over, but that they had conquered said feud before Shomik offered to coach them. I think only briefly of another team that could have won that Cup from Rutgers, before the feud, Chris Bergman and Ashley Novak, who broke as the undefeated 4-seed in 2011 before I made the second worst coaching decision of my life and advised them to run a not great case to save better cases for later out-rounds. They didn’t make those later out-rounds and lost the chance to assert themselves early in the TOTY race they were intending to contend for.

Shomik is the real coach, but he’s only coaching this top team, a tradition from a lot of elite coaches to focus on just one partnership instead of the whole squad. The team as a whole is allegedly coached by the so-called “Director of Debate” at Rutgers, a gentleman hired by the School of Communication and Information after I departed who was getting a PhD but had no concept of APDA style and whose impact, generously, has been net neutral on the team. His inability to really help the APDA squad is not really his fault – the mismatch of his skills and APDA’s needs is just one of countless examples of Rutgers’ lifelong inability to avoid getting in its own way. There aren’t really PhDs who would want to professionally coach an APDA team and SC&I posted for a position that required a PhD to back the teaching load. If it weren’t him, it would have been someone else who would ostensibly run the team and meetings but be really unable to help them improve.

Shomik has certainly helped, though. He’s guided Pasha and Max into a position of focusing on social justice cases, some of Shomik’s authorship, which must have made their run to the top of the TOTY board as two white (Jewish) men more palatable to the league, I imagine. I first heard much of their casefile from Russell Potter when he came to help run the Tulane tournament in February and I was impressed. I’m excited to work with this file and this team, believing they are standing up for good ideas and important concepts that APDA has long neglected. As always, it’s important to not just win, but win the right way for the right reasons.

A couple hours after the bug, Shomik calls on speaker-phone to check-in with Pasha and Max. We’re all huddled up in the living room and he’s just gotten out of some sort of exam or class and is nearly delirious for a variety of reasons. We talk over the casefile, the deliberate choice to limit it to social justice as a subject, my contribution of an old case, run only once in history, that fits with the theme. Shomik is skeptical of the case at first, peppers it with possible opps and accusations, feeding into Max’s innate fears about the case’s possible weakness. Max goes to work on a thumbnail already dangerously close to the quick as I try to fend off the opps and for a moment it’s just Shomik and I debating for the kids, old hands sparring over the outcome of a team we’re deeply invested in. Finally, Shomik pauses to reflect, then asks one critical question about how to closeout the case in PMR, the last speech of the round. And then I answer, giving a two-minute version of the so-called collapse, answer all possible opp rebuttals in a way that turns them aside. On the other end, I can almost hear Shomik’s excitement before he expresses it, he says the word “exactly” four times in his response, exhorting Max to do exactly that if they run this case, and the four of us are all on board, all on the same page, excitedly anticipating the next day and the next and the next and when we can run this case.

Pasha and Max are a study in opposites. I realize this early in the car ride up 95, leaving the Madison Cup, though there were hints of it when I first met them both. Maybe our story begins back there, at Fordham University, the fall of 2015, when I met Max and got to know Pasha (we’d met the year before, after TCNJ Nationals 2015, at Winberrie’s in Princeton of all places, for the RUDU team dinner), when they first won a varsity outround, then another, and had their breakout performance in their first full semester of debate, making the semifinals of a 20-point tournament, what would ultimately be their second marker of a 7th TOTY performance unheard-of for novice debaters. Pasha is one of the most verbose people I’ve ever met, saying something for a person who has now spent nine years as a debate competitor and seven more as a coach, who has spent a majority of his adult life living with a debater. He processes life through speaking, often mile-a-minute, constantly verbalizing the past, present, and future in a staccato narration of what is, was, and will be. Max is nearly silent throughout, saying almost nothing as he listens to Pasha’s stream of language, weighing in often only after a heavy sigh and being pressed once or twice by Pasha. In larger groups, it is fascinating to see how this conveys vastly more weight to Max’s few words. Due to their rarity, their sparse and long-considered nature, Max’s few words come across to a group like a declaration, an edict, the utterances of Vivek Suri perhaps, or Professor Snape, or the guru on the mountaintop. By contrast, Pasha’s constant talking becomes the soundtrack, background music, and often the most important bits of it have to be repeated for their blending into the rhythm of everyday life.

It is hard not to imagine that Max has cultivated this contrast, that he enjoys his role as the thoughtful sage in the wake of Pasha’s perpetual narration. When I ask him what he hopes to achieve in life, Max describes himself as a poet. He says, understatedly, that “money is not particularly a goal” in his future. And yet this air of dreamy mystery seems wholly sincere – over the course of the week, I realize that Max lacks the fundamental confidence necessary to manifest an image of himself for the public perception. His interface with the world is the genuine product of his experiences and perspective.

No wonder, then, as Pasha says in the car, “Everyone on APDA is in love with Max, girls and guys.” He pauses. “And Max is totally uninterested.”

“I just haven’t found anyone on APDA who would garner my interest, y’know?” There is an awkward pause, perhaps as Max recalls that both my ex-wife and current fiancee were APDA debaters. “That’s just my experience.”

Their contrast and subsequent mutual admiration is what clearly works about this partnership. Pasha is forlorn and wistful when he talks about Max’s belovedness, his eloquence, his ability to command a room with a few well-timed words. At one point when describing a compliment from a mutual friend, one that sort of offends Max in the way that people who work hard are offended by their “natural talent” being complimented, Pasha blurts “Are you kidding me? I would kill to have someone say that about me!”

But it’s a two-way street. Max is clearly impressed by Pasha’s confidence, by his ability to hold forth and talk about any subject, anywhere, instantly, without carefully considering his thoughts. After all, Pasha’s fingernails are in fine shape, he approaches the world with gusto and enthusiasm, he has not once considered quitting debate. This bravado could be mistaken for a front, but it seems to truly reflect Pasha’s relative indifference to what the world thinks of him. Which contrasts highly with a discussion we have toward the end of the car ride about what Max enjoys about debate. I am essentially interviewing him after he reluctantly agrees to talk about his struggles with debate, Pasha bouncing in the front seat and trying to avoid jumping in.

“What do you enjoy about debate?”
“The validation. Winning. Being thought of as good.”
“And what do you feel most of the time you’re debating?”
“Paranoia.”
“Paranoia?”
“Fear.”
“Of what?”
“Losing.”

I have tried to convince them that earning TOTY should give them a lifetime get-out-of-jail-free card for worrying about people thinking they may not be great at debate, for worrying about losing a particular round. I have failed. But I have also neglected to tell them that once, when I was an APDA debater, I sincerely told my friend Ben Brandzel that I should be good enough to win Nationals even after a final round where the entire audience and judging panel yelled “Shut up, shut up, shut up” throughout my speech.

There is a very good argument to be made that the obsession some people develop with success at APDA debate is unhealthy, that it leads to mistakes later in life. The Rutgers tournament theme this year, as Pasha reminds me on the car ride, was the struggle of a debater with the concept of quitting debate and its connection to feeling suicidal. I could not possibly make this up. The tagline was “The Myth of Sisyphus” with the subhead that read:
“There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is quitting debate.” -Albert Camus

Select quotations from the tournament invitation for this event:

“Each weekend, we do the same thing, over and over again. Each weekend, there is but one winner, but we pretend that all have benefited. We lose our sleep, our time, our health, but convince ourselves that the next weekend, we will succeed.”

To capture the absurd, we revel in it. Victory is meaningless and arbitrary, but we celebrate it.”

“Unless you win, you lose. Even if you win, the feeling of satisfaction is momentary, illusory. Next week, there will be another tournament to win. If you don’t, you lost. You’re welcome.”

The official tournament logo of the RUDU 2017 regular season tournament.

Max has said he’s functionally quitting debate after this tournament. By explanation, through a story that is later retold by several of Max’s roommates and teammates on multiple occasions, I am asked about an episode of Bojack Horseman, a show with which I am vaguely familiar for having never watched it. TOTY here is analogized to an Oscar for the character. The conclusion is that winning the award provides one good night, but the struggle begins anew the next day. I find I cannot relate. The whole point of an Oscar, or TOTY, or any other award seen as the peak of a proverbial mountaintop, is that no one can take it away. Thereafter, if anyone asks you about that thing you did (acting, debating, etc.), you have an unassailable description of reaching the top. I have spent 16 years feeling this way about winning the North American Debate Championship, even though many of my peers would not consider this the pinnacle that TOTY is.

We are at practice, Tuesday night. Max has said that he wouldn’t go to practice, but then he went. He said he wouldn’t stay, but then he stays to work on a new case while he watches a practice round. He gets so involved in the practice round that he doesn’t do much work on the case. He offers feedback to the team, Mitchell Mullen and Jeremy Kritz, the half-seed team, as they finish their debate with visiting debaters from CUNY. I first met Jeremy at Rutgers Day when he was a junior in high school and he wandered in to the RUDU room where we were holding public debates and challenging visitors to debate us. He debated Sean 1-on-1. We were all impressed and encouraged him to come to RUDU in two years. He did.

Max draws the line at RUDU Till Dawn, a new tradition started last year by the obsessive Mr. Leonard. We’d always had a Nats Boot Camp at Rutgers in the week before Nationals, famous for a lot of unconventional techniques of focus and re-adjusting thought including staring at candles, burning papers, and visiting graveyards. That, and a whole bunch of preparation. But never past one or two in the morning. Nevertheless, in the spirit of Sean, the CUNY boys, Mitchell, Pasha, and I debated till sunrise in their apartment. Max opened the door at 4:45 during our fourth consecutive round, squinted and glared at us, went to the bathroom, and returned to his room.

Boot Camp this year, aside from the Till Dawn shenanigans, has been limited by the fact that Rutgers is hosting Nationals and very little has been arranged or finalized till the last week. Indeed, when the invitation was first posted, later than normal, the Tournament Director was ominously listed as “TBD”, which I later learn is cover for the fact that Pasha is essentially TDing as well as competing, a feat never attempted. Naeem Hossein, an affable computer science guy who loves debate but lacks the time for it, is eventually named TD, but can only be there on Friday. It’s really Pasha’s show. Much of my week on the apartment couch is spent listening to Pasha call potential banquet venues in an effort to book something after the initial arrangement with Rutgers and the Heldrich fell through. Just before practice on Tuesday, Pasha, Max, and I had visited an Indian restaurant in Edison that had a cancellation of an event. They’re willing to work with the Rutgers-approved caterer that’s been booked for months. We take it. I end up paying the deposit, through Venmo after the league pays Pasha. It is nice to know that my years of fronting money for RUDU are not wholly over.

Practice on Thursday. Miriam Pierson and Will Meyer come over from Swat and Gov a case on Pasha and Max. It’s designed to play to the latter’s weaknesses so everyone gets a solid practice on what they can expect at Nationals. I’ve judged Will a lot over the years, but it’s my first time seeing Miriam. She’s impressive, giving a great MG that neutralizes most of Pasha’s LOC. Quinn has been coaching this team for two years, while traveling to an absurd quantity of tournaments to help tab. I have a moment to realize how large the footprint of Rutgers coaches is on the league now: Quinn coaching Swat, Sean coaching TCNJ, Russell coaching Princeton, and Bergman coaching Fordham. Ashley used to coach Brandeis as well, but not this year.

The next round, I judge novices Hailey Conrad and Dan Bates against the CUNY kids, who have returned after staying up till dawn two nights ago. I find them to be both great and thoroughly neglected. Hailey in particular runs an excellent case and gives a great PMR and I am surprised that I haven’t heard more about this very talented novice earlier in the year. Not for the last time that weekend, I wonder what can be done for a team that ostensibly has two coaches, but really has none for people below the top-line pair, a partnership itself comprised of sophomore debaters. I resolve to try to be more available to this team in future. If Shomik can coach from Michigan, I can certainly help out from Louisiana.

Tournament Friday. I have breakfast with Pasha, Max, David Vinarov (one of the roommates and teammates, a dedicated member of RUDU who inexplicably isn’t attending Nationals), Sean, and Geneva Kropper. David surreptitiously pays for everyone’s meal on his own birthday. The conversation is light and happy, there’s a lot of hours to go before any real competition starts. I’m excited, that tournament first-day enthusiasm starting to swell. Pasha is mostly concerned with logistics, what he might have forgotten. Max is clutching the book he’s exploring, volume one of Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, reminding me more and more of Dave Reiss by the day. I lament Dave’s absence from Rutgers’ first Nationals. He should be here.

Geneva and I return to the apartment to pick up luggage while the others scatter to do tournament tasks or, in Sean’s case, work on his day job. We discuss how poorly college prepares people for life, among other things. Then we walk to campus, past the hospital, past the Easton Avenue Apartments, where Sean used to live, and Farhan Ali before him, reminding me of late departures and the sleepy sheepish smile of one of our oldest debaters. Then down College Avenue, past the new bookstore and its RUTGERS clock, past the oldest buildings on campus, to one of the newest. Finally the enormous new Academic Building looms in front of me, a building I briefly saw on a visit over Winter Break, but have never entered. We tentatively step in to the West Wing, hoping this is correct. It is.

The building doesn’t look like Rutgers. It is gigantic and colorful and gorgeous – modern without being horrifically ugly. Big glass windows adorn the side of an enormous wide staircase, wide open spaces outside of small glassy classrooms and the giant plush lecture hall that is the object of our journey. This will be GA (general assembly) for the weekend, a red stadium-seated two-story learning palace, gleaming with the freshness of a newly built classroom and the promise of days of competition to come.

Nationals 2017 GA – Academic Building 2160. Photo by Storey Clayton.

And then, we wait.

As I’ve observed in prior posts and countless dialogues with fellow debate geeks, title tournaments (Nationals and NorthAms specifically) all have the same shape. Day one, Friday, two preliminary rounds, is slow like a building thunderstorm, calm at first and full of trepidation. Then day two, Saturday, four prelims, is the longest day ever, a marathon, an endurance challenge, with eons between rounds and the feeling that wins are more dodged bullets than triumphs. Then the banquet is a sweat for all but two* teams – those who competed in the 5-0 round and know they will break whether they won or lost. The banquet announcement, preceded by interminable senior speeches, is itself a lifetime of anxiety. And then if you’re in Saturday, is a blur. The bracket resolves so quickly and careers are over and it’s just 8, 4, 2, here’s the final round, boom.

*Lately, three or even four teams have entered sixth round undefeated with slightly larger Nationals fields, so this courtesy and relief has been extended. Last year, Pasha and Max, as novices, had the good fortune to be in a 5-0 round and not have to sweat the banquet. This has come up repeatedly over the course of the week, their desire to get back to the 5-0 round. I have only debated two 5-0 rounds in my life, my junior and senior years at NorthAms. Those banquets were the best and my cortisol levels compared infinitely favorably to the same years’ Nationals banquets, where I broke from winning 4-1 rounds. For what it’s worth, I lost both 5-0 rounds at NorthAms, making all four of my title breaks on a 5-1 record. (Ben Brandzel and I were 17th at NorthAms my sophomore year – mercifully, they only broke to quarters, sparing us from being the first team out.)

Friday, true to form, is slow and uneventful. Pasha and Max Gov twice, the current favored position in the Gov/Opp dichotomy, favored over the last few years for the first time in APDA’s 37-year history. They win both rounds, but Max frets over burning early Govs and having to Opp later against better teams. I assure him that this at least gives them a marginally higher chance of getting 4 Govs over the 6 rounds. The other two Rutgers teams drop their first rounds, Hailey and Dan running the case they’d run the night before in practice and we’d beefed up, but only because the Opp team made some very clever sidesteps of their advocacy and basically conceded most of it. Both teams bounce back in round 2, though, to compile 1-1 records, along with the “Thomas Edison State University” team of Kurt and Pete Falk, making one last run at glory in their final moment of eligibility. The big eventful story that most people are telling that night is that Colonel judged Max and Pasha in round two and didn’t know they were TOTY, but hilariously said they “had potential” after discovering they were sophomores. Russell dutifully ran up to Colonel after hearing this and informed him they were TOTY, to which he immediately, in pitch-perfect deadpan replied, “I couldn’t tell.” As harsh as that sounded, we later learned he gave them a 52.5/3, so they were actually just fine.

Arbi and the Falks. Photo by Shanti Hossein.

The most eventful part of Friday for me is seeing a parade of Rutgers dinos, many of whom are here only for tonight, coming back to judge and see how far their school has come in both building heft and in hosting Nationals. Rachel Moon, Nick Hansen, Maxwell Williams, and Arbi Llaveshi check in to judge rounds and catch up and it’s great to see how many people are involved in teaching and education in some capacity. Nick tells me a wonderful story about attending some gala fundraiser for Rutgers as one of the freely invited students upon the opening of the building in which we stand and that Barchi made a joke about “Notice how it’s still just called ‘Academic Building’, hint hint.” I guess Your Name Here Building was a little too obvious, even for the pandering of Rutgers. I am taken back to the moment when I asked if we could name the Debate House (11 Bartlett Street, long since given to Dance Marathon and other frat-based organizations, despite what the RU website still says) Reager Hall, after Richard Reager, the greatest all-time coach of Rutgers debate (involved with the team from 1924-1956). I was told, in no uncertain terms, that they’d be happy to do this for a 5- or 6-figure donation to the school. It remained, officially, 11 Bartlett (Debate House or Haus, unofficially, though sometimes, very unofficially, the House of Nanners).

The old Debate House at 11 Bartlett Street as it currently stands. Photo by Storey Clayton.

Friday gets out late, mostly the fault of interminable APDA Meetings, easily the least desirable and interesting part of the league, wherein debaters argue about debate rules for debate tournaments, and also when and where they should next hold these arguments. I abstractly want to go hang out with people in the hotel, but after saying I’ll stop by, I fall asleep. I blame this less on age and more on starting to get sick, as Pasha did, over the course of our week of preparation.

Saturday, though, I’m up early. I’ve talked a little about pre-debate mornings here and there and the enthusiasm they generate for me. For whatever reason, Saturday morning, usually the result of very little sleep and a too-early alarm, generate special manic energy for me as I look forward to a day of debating (or judging or coaching or just being around debate) that counteracts the minimal sleep and turns it, inexplicably, into fuel. I can only offer as evidence anyone who’s been around me consistently on debate Saturday mornings.

Before everyone assembles, before the day kicks off, I meet Myles Albert, Max’s father, the only person who ends up making me feel truly guilty that I’m not still at Rutgers (though this was not his intent). He reminds me, more than anyone else, of Wayne Zirkin, father of Adam, my junior year partner and the reason I came to APDA after all. He has the same grandiosely intellectual bearing, the same zest for communication, the same sense of being just slightly more ethereal than you in a way that makes you wonder if he is a portal more than a person. Wayne once called me out of the blue to invite me to spend the summer selling his jewelry on a cruise ship in Alaska. I was halfway through with my novel at the time, the first serious writing project I’d tried to launch, and not ready to call the whole thing off in 48 hours for an unexpected jaunt. But I appreciated the offer and acknowledged that he was on the very short list of people who try to arrange something like that on that kind of notice. I still think my parents think I should’ve gone. Max’s parents, however, like Pasha’s, who are also attending some rounds this weekend, are just learning a lesson about Rutgers that I learned hard a couple times. They don’t understand why the administration is not more overtly impressed, why Max and Pasha are not regarded with at least the recognition and esteem offered to the nearly omnidefeated football and basketball teams, the teams for whom winning one game in the year-end Big 10 Conference tournament is seen as a mammoth feat. Myles waxes grandly about scholarships and parades and even the institutional support of a coach who will go to bat for such things. I lament my absence. We used to try, I tell him, gently, but this administration, the people who oversee these clubs, will go to extraordinary lengths to waste the opportunities that debate success at Rutgers provides. In some ways, changing APDA is easier than changing Rutgers. I turn away to make sure everyone’s ready for round three.

And then the slow plod into madness. I catch up with all the old Yale dinos I used to judge who’ve returned to judge years after graduating: Colonel, Trinh, Cugini, Bakal, Li. I judge some extraordinarily close and interesting rounds, trying hard not to let my own stress about Rutgers’ performances sneak into the room while I’m adjudicating. Two Rutgers teams drop round 3, but Max and Pasha learn they’re 3-0 after an interminable period of indecision from their third round judge, who is also in tab. The other two teams are now on the brink of being out, needing to speak magnificently even to sneak in the backdoor of the break. Max and Pasha draw Opp in round 4, prep hard for the case they end up hitting about not invading Vietnam, emerge victorious with high speaks. Mitchell and Jeremy cruise to victory in their third straight Opp, squaring up at 2-2. Hailey and Dan drop, though, ending their Nationals run with two rounds to go. They resolve to have fun and learn what they can from the next two rounds and there is an almost palpable relief that the remaining rounds will be less cutthroat.

And then Brian Canares shows up to hang out, watch a round, participate in the action. Brian is among the oldest Rutgers dinos we’re actively in touch with, the Treasurer who literally made the team able to compete my first year coaching, before I was paid, before the team had any reasonable budget, when we went to each tournament begging for reg breaks and only arriving because I could donate my car to the cause. Brian squared the books and kept going to appeals meetings for more money, leveraging our fledgling success into enough cobbled money to enable us not to turn novices away from tournaments, the foundation necessary on which to grow a competitive team. It was incomparably special for me that Brian could not only make it to the tournament, but spend time catching up and then actually watch Max and Pasha debate. Doubly so for them going into that round with the their third Gov, the new case I’d given them, against a very good Yale team for the bye to the break round. Brian is one of a few seniors during my first year of coaching who I deeply wish I’d gotten to spend more years with. All have gone on to do awesome things, medical school, law school, time in Egypt, and in Brian’s case, a career in teaching, which we discussed extensively. It meant so much that he could see the journey of the team from his day to this, to TOTY and hosting Nationals in a shiny new building, that they could see the roots and origin and debate in front of someone who was there when the idea of Rutgers breaking again, much less winning a single tournament, seemed a laughable impossibility. There were few greater moments for me in that weekend.

Not only did Max and Pasha carry that round, clinching their second straight title 5-0, their second straight banquet without sweat, but Trinh talked to me about Hailey and Dan, whom he’d just judged in the pull-up round between the top 2-2 and the bottom 1-3. He talked about how awesome Hailey is, asked if she was a novice, and sheepishly admitted he’d justified for a novice for the second round this Nationals. Hailey had not only earned a 26.75 from a judge that many teams had scratched for his reputedly stingy speaks, she’d knocked out one of the pre-tournament favorites to break, 4th SOTY, from the bottom of the bracket below. I ran off to tell her and the rest of the team the good news, shortly before receiving confirmation that Max and Pasha were still undefeated. Meanwhile, Mitchell and Jeremy had won on Gov and secured a 3-2 bubble spot, depending on speaks. All was looking up as, for the first time since second round, RUDU had gone 3-0. Meanwhile, unfortunately, the Falks had been knocked out, still smarting over a fourth round decision they disagreed with, and dropping fifth round to go to 2-3.

And then, the bubble. It wasn’t actually a bubble for Max and Pasha, of course, but it was a bubble for an inordinate number of teams. The second TOTY team from Brandeis, who were pulled up to hit a 5-0 team from Princeton. Mitchell and Jeremy, we hoped. Thirteen teams who were 4-1, knowing they were a win away from clinching a spot in the coveted octofinals. And twenty-five more who were 3-2, needing both a win and good speaks and sufficiently good previous speaks to secure their spot. Two of whom I was judging, Harvard CH and Fordham A.

My round was fascinating, a narrow case offered by Harvard, well Opped by LOC and resoundingly defended by what seemed like a very good MG. But then atop the MO speech, Fordham showed me that all of the Gov assumptions rested on a defense of the status quo, that this was actually Opp’s ground, and that the incentives would be different than status quo incentives in the Gov world. It instantly turned what had seemed a ferocious, possibly round-winning MG speech into a paper tiger, and did so with something I’d seen very little of all weekend amongst the stressful razor-thin rounds of Nationals: humor. The Opp block was easily the most entertaining and effective of my weekend and the PMR’s only attempt at mitigation was rightfully called new by the Opp team. I allocated a 53/3 to Fordham and vaguely wondered whether they would be the annual free seed to make the break. Moreover, I relished knowing their fate when I would have the opportunity to withhold same information from Bergman all night, instructed as per Nationals tradition to disclose nothing of the results of round 6, maximizing suspense for the 38 teams on some form of the bubble.

It did not take long for me to be confronted by Bergman. He was standing with his team, Ellen Hinkley and Marcelle Meyer, both of whom were pointedly not asking me about the decision, as I returned to GA after handing in the ballot. He tried to be vaguely coy in the way he was asking me, but I got very near his face and smiled broadly. “You know, Bergman, I was elated to see that I was judging Fordham in the bubble. Because I knew it would mean I knew something you wanted to know all night and there would be nothing you could do about it. It’s like double Christmas!”

Much of the rest of the evening was spent with him trying to work out what that meant, Princess Bride-style, for his team’s chances.

The banquet venue turned out all right. The big change from normal Nationals, besides actually having enough seats for everyone, was the lack of alcohol. And while some of the dinos and other folks whinged about this at first, it made for the most respectful round of senior speeches I’ve possibly ever seen. Senior speeches, one of my favorite traditions of Nationals, indeed of all of APDA, are the farewell monologues from graduating seniors where they are given a free mic to discuss whatever they want, good or bad, to offer thank-yous, call-outs, shout-outs, condemnations, or observations. They are often talked over by drunkards in the back, usually themselves long since graduated dinos who are among the oldest in the room in age only. This year, however, people listened. And it was an important year to listen.

Mars He, APDA’s President-elect, a decidedly affable Harvard debater in the tradition of Allen Ewalt (indeed, the entire Harvard team has seemingly switched over to a large squad teeming with a multicultural, gender-balanced group of very friendly debaters^) MC’ed the speeches. And after a frantic search from the intended opener, Nathan Raab, the opener was instead Megan Wilson from Yale.

Her speech was somber, measured, and excoriating as she described the uphill battle she faced and her long-time debate partner faced as highly successful women on the league, much of the setbacks coming from initiatives and groups that were designed to help women and people of color succeed on APDA. She was specific in calling out the caution and gendered language used to attempt to limit her success or make it fit patterns expected to be more palatable for the still too sexist league. Megan going first set the perfect tone for the night – it enabled many people on the fence between a few thank-yous and a genuinely necessary call-out to tip the scales and go for the call-out, the message APDA needed to hear. APDA spends a tremendous amount of its time being self-laudatory for an event that, while decidedly intellectual, can often live on the border of sophistry and grand-standing. Senior speeches are one of our built-in counterweights, where we have to listen to the voices we’ve excluded or minimized and, hopefully, resolve to do better.

As the speeches went on, the contrast between those by white men, usually a bevy of calm thank-yous and plaudits for friends, and those by everyone else, punctuated by hardship and unfairness, could not be missed. Among these latter were both speeches by the members of Fordham A, Ellen and Marcelle each taking time to criticize APDA’s seemingly innate sexism but also observe how easy it had been to build a gender-balanced (or, indeed, “matriarchal”) team at Fordham by simply creating a culture of talking to everyone, regardless of their background or perceived skill at debate. There was a call-out about a team showing up with tons of novices, only two of them female, and then ignoring both female novices while they got left behind in housing. It was certainly depressing to see that APDA still struggles with these issues, even in an era where the APDA President (outgoing) is a Black woman, Jerusalem Demsas. That said, she’s only the second woman to be President of APDA in its 37-year history; the first was Ashley Woods in 2011-2012. Yeah, if you’re scoring at home, that’s 30 straight years of only male Presidents. Though, hey, still better than the US as a whole.

But it was also heartening to see that so many people made this issue a centerpiece of their speeches, felt compelled to share their experiences, felt that tonight, the most important of all nights on APDA, they would be heard. I was sitting with Alex Jubb and Deepta Janardhan and talked with them after the night about whether this trend reflected a worse overall culture than their time or my time or just meant that the culture was thawing enough so that people felt they could talk about it and push things to improve. The consensus seemed to be the latter. It’s one of those weird evolutionary quirks of APDA that things have not been linear in gender and racial balance. For example, three of the four National Championship teams in my era included a Black man. And one included a woman, who, going into this year, was the last woman to win APDA’s Championship, in 1999. And of course, in 2001-2002, we had the first female SOTY (Speaker of the Year, the top individual honor for the season), capping a top ten SOTY that had exact gender parity (5 women, 5 men) for the first and only time in APDA history. Just six years later, in 2007-2008, the top woman in SOTY finished the year ranked 19th. How did this happen?

And this is not to say, as Kate Myers pointedly reminded me later, that our era was a bed of roses or treated women well. But the results certainly speak to a gulf in opportunity to succeed and how debaters are perceived that cannot be ignored. Gender parity or a female national champion are not proof that everything is solved, but an 18-year drought in the National Championship is more than sufficient proof that there are really significant problems.

The senior speech that stole the show was from Jemie Fofanah of Temple University, a woman I remember judging at TCNJ Nationals two years ago, who I had been quite impressed by. She delivered a slam poem calling out APDA’s sexism and especially racism, observing how many people will run cases about people from her background but refuse to acknowledge her as a person, refuse to live their life in a way that accords with how they talk about her people. And worse, they are basically exploiting black and brown bodies to win a round while never really considering how patronizing they sound or how inconsistently they apply these values. It was a thunderous condemnation, punctuated by pointed requests for Mars not to cut her off (the early senior speeches had not been time-limited, but the banquet hall owners were getting restless late in the night and they’d tried to implement a 3-minute limit to that later speeches, which fortunately was basically not enforced). It was the only speech to receive a standing ovation from more than just the speaker’s team and close friends.

Jemie Fofanah of Temple delivers her senior speech. Photo by Shanti Hossain.

It is worth noting, here, that the last two senior speeches of the night, delivered by the ranking seniors on the outgoing APDA Board, the six-person elected panel of students that governs the league, were given by women of color. Yidi Wu, the outgoing VP of Finance and Jerusalem, the outgoing President, struck a more hopeful, mixed tone than many of their prior speakers. They acknowledged the league’s failings, but also its progress, saying emphatically that they didn’t want novice women to be sitting at this banquet and get the impression that they should quit, that they would graduate in three years embittered, that they couldn’t contribute to even more progress in that tenure. And while such exhortations often ring hollow, they ring truer from this testimony than they might from other sources. And in the context of APDA’s cultural shifts from ten years ago, they ring possible. This is not the corporate world telling ambitious young women there may be exactly one more slot open for them at the top by the time they get close. It is not, of course, better than it should be, and that is unfortunate. And now, it is time for the break, almost suddenly in light of the surprising brevity of these last two speakers.

Yidi Wu, of Brown, delivers her senior speech. Photo by Shanti Hossain.

Mars wraps up and the very tired tab staff, Diana, Quinn, Adele Zhang, Anirudh Dasarathy, and Dan Takash, assemble on the stage. They have been here for over an hour with the break ready, the list divided up into teams closest to them to announce. Unlike in past years, even the Nationals break seems subject to a one-clap advisory, something I find jarring and out of place in the midst of the most important and difficult break announcement of the year. Of course some teams still whoop and cheer for their own, none louder than Fordham upon announcement that they are indeed a free seed in this year’s break, that their sixth round performance was enough for them to make the elite cadre of 4-2’s in the octofinals. Rutgers (Max and Pasha) are in, but we knew that, as the sixteenth team is announced, they are the only Rutgers team to make it. We still don’t know the outcome of their sixth round, nor will we till the following morning. As the dust settles on the list in my hand of breaking teams just announced, I realize two more things of signficance:

(1) That’s still a lot of Yale (5 of 16 teams).
(2) Quinn didn’t announce his own team!

Diana Li announces breaking teams while Anirudh Dasarathy and a devious Quinn Maingi look on. Photo by Shanti Hossain.

Quinn did announce Rutgers, yes, from where he graduated in 2015. But he didn’t announce Swat MP, the team he coaches, making their first Nationals break during his two years of coaching there. I certainly enjoyed a good fake-out in my days of tabbing and announcing breaks, and would in fact routinely push the most surprising Rutgers team into the last break announcement slot of the “no particular order” to maximize their suspense. But it’s another step entirely to watch your coach announce his alma mater and then stand back without announcing you when you’re on the bubble! But they are in and jubilant and only a touch mad at Quinn.

And Fordham, indeed, is only a touch mad at me. After fist-bumping Max and Pasha, I head over to tell Fordham about sixth round (they know, of course, but a little bit more) and I see a cavalcade of tears and hugging and a too-smiley attempt at a glare from Bergman as he gets swept into the maelstrom. One of the debaters tells me that she was pretty sure they’d won sixth round, but kept having doubts, but still thought they were speaking too low to make the break. “Isn’t this better?” I ask rhetorically. “Isn’t this better than just knowing the whole time?”

Marcelle Meyer (left) and Ellen Hinkley (right) embrace after being announced as breaking to octofinals at Nationals 2017. Photo by Kara Hurley?

Laughing through weeping is my only real reply, along with a half-hearted tongue-in-cheek condemnation from Bergman.

As the crowd thins down and people pile into Ubers, rental cars, and school vans, I confirm with Max and Pasha that they don’t want to work tonight. Max expresses a brief concern with the casefile in light of Jemie’s moving speech, but Pasha brushes this away. Pasha is now deeply sick – he is about two days ahead of me on a cold and our rhythm of nightly tea has not been enough to stave off the worst of it for a man running both a National tournament and debating to the top of said tournament on a weekend where New Brunswick was hit with a surprising cold snap after near-summer weather. They both need rest and I am starting to feel my own illness and like I’m not of much use. So much of Nationals is usually about preparing cases for Gov, but the current perception of Gov’s superiority means that prep seems limited overall. Cases are all likely to win, the idea goes, and opping is a crapshoot, so you just wait nervously and hope for the best. Until tomorrow, then.

Tomorrow comes, early, but there is a significant delay from tab in assembling panels to adjudicate and we end up waiting over an hour in a tense anticipation. I have told both Fordham and Rutgers folks that I have a premonition they will hit in the octofinal round. This sense mostly comes from poetry and the idea of vaguely where each team is likely to be in the bracket, but this also counts on the notion that Rutgers might have beaten Princeton in round six. When pairings go up, we learn that they did not, that Rutgers has fallen all the way to the seventh seed, for a date with ten-seed Brown, Yidi and Caleb Foote. This pairing is complicated by the fact that Pasha debated with Caleb last weekend in a “hybrid,” winning the final regular season tournament of the year, but also exposing a lot of potential cases to this team. Max, nervous, not expecting such a strong team, suggests a case I haven’t even heard about, but it’s never lost and he jokes that “there’s like one opp”. Both Pasha and I are concerned enough about his concern that we fall in line with the case choice pretty quickly, I make a cursory review of the points and confirm that they both feel good about it. We tell Brown we’re Goving, I tell Max to breathe, we disperse to our rounds. I am judging, on a panel with Colonel for perhaps the first time in our lives, between the 8 and the 9 seed, this year the bottom two 5-1 teams. I head off to my round.

Judging Nationals out-rounds when one has a vested interest in other rounds is a unique perspective. I talked with Vivek extensively about this once, how the feeling of lack of control in coaching is greatly exaggerated because one can’t even watch, can’t be in the room, and the demands of judging (no less such important rounds) takes all of one’s energy and focus to get right. This was especially true in this round, what proved to take the longest to adjudicate, a narrow 2-1 win for William & Mary (Jerusalem and Jessica Berry, a novice) over one of George Washington’s two break teams. The round was fast, messy, and unclear, leading to a tortuous adjudication process in the new world of consensus panels, which I feel are the worst part of British Parliamentary debate now imported into APDA. Traditionally, out-rounds involve a straight and independent vote of the odd number of judges assigned to an elimination round. Each person decides their ballot as though they were the only judge in the room, writes Gov or Opp on a little scrap of paper, and then hands it to the chair, who tells everyone the winner and their margin. Then the judges discuss the round with each other for fun as they head back to tab to report the decision.

With consensus panels, on the other hand, debaters are charged with not only winning the round in which they debated, but also winning a second round in which they cannot participate, that between the judges. While consensus panels are sometimes handled reasonably and fairly, questions of the relative reputation and ability to debate about the round between judges often sneak into these “consensus-building” sessions and certainty about the round from some judges can be mistaken for a conviction that should sway a whole panel of uncertain judges on the other side. Even in the best case scenario, when a straw poll comes back unanimous, it often takes ages for a consensus panel to agree to finally call it a consensus (this would happen in the semifinal round I would judge later in the day).

Colonel, Lauren Blonde, and I had a fun, lengthy, and agonizing discussion, feeling really guilty for holding up the tournament and making everyone wait. But ultimately we voted 2-1 for William & Mary, on the same lines of our initial straw poll, making the only difference from regular voting the extra 45 minutes it took. Hilariously, the round was so close that our reporting of the outcome was contradictory and almost led to a colossal error in the announcement that would have created a lot of headaches and heartaches for tab and teams, respectively. In the end, everything was restored to equilibrium before such damage was done.

But not for Rutgers. Their tournament was over, they were out to Brown on consensus, the first loss for that case. It had gotten too wrapped up in the con law aspects and Brown had done just enough. Cugini, on the panel, told me it had been really close for all three judges, but they all saw it the same way. Pasha was devastated. Max was gone. I was bereft, but it’s National Sunday and there was only so much time we had till it was time to go judge again. This time, it was the same William & Mary team against another GW, consisting of Andrew Bowles and Nate Sumimoto, a match-up of the top two SOTY speakers (separated by a 99-98 margin at year’s end), both paired in “pro-am” partnerships with novices.

The round was a showcase, a fantastic display of rhetoric, but ultimately an incredible strategic play by W&M in Gov. The case was built as a series of red herrings with the third point as an “even if” backup to stand and win even if all the herrings had been caught and skewered. Opp spent their entire time on the herrings, dropped the key point in LOC, MG failed to call much attention to it, and PMR kicked the door down on a round that Opp had seemed to be crushing since four minutes into the Opposition’s opening. It was a masterpiece of strategic debating in a National Quarterfinal, all the more breathtaking for the fact that I’d literally believed Gov would be incapable of winning at the outset of PMR.

Jerusalem Demsas delivers the winning PMR in National Quarterfinals. Photo by Pasha Temkin.

Semifinals lacked the same rhetorical verve, featuring a dull and thick case intended to slog the Opp (W&M yet again) out of the round, which it did successfully, arguing, of all things, that pork barrel spending should return to Congress. I was uncompelled by the notion that the relative death of pork barreling has accelerated the era of gridlocked mutual hate in American representative government, but Gov did more than enough to prove it for the purposes of the round, against little resistance from a team that had undertaken an impressive run but come up just shy of the final. And then we were there, the final round of the National Championship, just like that.

I was off the judging panel, apparently the result of a scratch from a Yale team that had been running deeply interesting and philosophical cases all weekend but apparently feared my judging because I share the “old dino” reputation of being “low speaks” (I gave five 26.5’s this weekend). This Yale partnership, Miles Saffran and Jim Huang, had been in the position I’d said all tournament was the catbird seat, the top-speaking 5-1, in this instance, the three-seed. This team, whoever they are, usually loses a middle round in a close but high-speaking position, then goes on to cruise through rounds five and six by wide margins. The team has a structural advantage by being loose, a key component of success at a title tournament. Max and Pasha were many things this weekend, most of them great, but they were never loose. Max, who has returned to the tournament, seeming relatively okay with everything, may not have a loose bone in his body. Pasha seems capable of being loose, sometimes, but not when he’s running a tournament. And maybe not when there’s talking involved – his intensity may be too much. Miles and Jim, meanwhile, as they finally return to the beautiful GA, now adorned with glittery trophies for the season and the tournament, seem to embody that loose feel native to 2- and 3-seeds, to the top 5-1. Their opponents, hailing from the other semifinal, are Swarthmore MP, Miriam and Will, who’ve made it out of the 12-seed like any good NCAA upset squad. Adele asks me to time and I settle in to watch the fireworks.

The round proves to be excellent, ticking most of the boxes of what a final round should be, though periodically there are moments from Gov reminiscent of the 2010 final from Harvard, Cormac Early and the late Kyle Bean running “magic empathy”. Gov’s case, ostensibly, is that empiricism is irrational. As they run the case and flesh out the points, however, their stance starts to appear something more like “empiricism alone without help is insufficient,” which is somewhere between a slippery advocacy and a collapsing tautology. Miriam, however, in LO, is more than up to the challenge of both making the necessary observations to ward off any possible collapse and continually returning to humor about empiricism as its own proof. The round, ultimately, is extremely well engaged from all four speakers, exploring the nature of reality, knowledge, and epistemology from an entertaining and accessible vantage. But after rebuttals, it’s pretty clear that one side has convincingly carried the day.

Will Meyer (left) and Miriam Pierson (right) receive coaching from Quinn Maingi (center) before a National out-round. Photo by Shanti Hossain.

Right before floor speeches, now delivered after the round and away from the panel to prevent them from swaying the outcome of the all-important round, I head over to Quinn and Deepta, grabbing for Quinn’s surprised hand. “Congratulations on coaching a National Champion,” I say.

They spend the next forty minutes asking me if I’m that sure Swat won and will prevail. I say I would have to be pretty confident to come over and congratulate him, but at the same time, I think it should be that clear. Obviously, with consensus panels, anything can happen, and one obstinate judge could sway the whole group, especially if they claim philosophical authority on such a high-minded round. But I’m confident and say he should be too.

Adjudication takes more than an hour.

But there’s plenty to do in that hour, the cascade of season-long awards, the eventual National awards from this tournament, with the final round reserved for the very last. Among these is Quinn winning the Distinguished Service Award (DSA), thanking him for a year of running countless tournaments in the south while always offering assistance to everyone. He is surprised, or seems it, but Deepta and I both knew it was coming. He gets back to his seat and says “that’s nice, but it’s not what I care about,” referencing the looming unannounced final round. It occurs to me that if Swarthmore wins, Miriam will have broken the 18-year streak of all-male National Championship teams, dating back to my freshman year, comprising just shy of half the time the league has been in existence. Women won in 1997, 1996, and 1985, but never from 2000-2016.

Quinn shows off the DSA. Photo by Shanti Hossain.

As I remark to Deepta, considering this, “if it can’t be our boys, I hope it’s no one’s boys.”

Our boys. With the TOTY trophies. Photo by Shanti Hossain.

And then, finally, at long last, the announcement. Swat on consensus. They are National Champions. Finally, a woman holds the title again. And a guy I coached to National Finals has coached a team to the National Championship. My coach, Greg Wilson, who debated for UConn, never made the out-rounds at Nationals, losing a bubble round in his last opportunity. But he coached me to National Semifinals, along with another team (Zirkin and Jordan Factor) to National Finals. Then I made Semifinals and coached Quinn (and Sean) to Finals. And then Quinn made Finals and coaches Swat to the title. All one can ask for is for the accomplishments of those who come after us to exceed our own. For this to be achieved in both debating and coaching was a satisfying solace to Rutgers not winning their first National title. For Swarthmore, it was their fourth, putting them actually pretty high on the all-time list (only Harvard [10], Princeton [6], and Yale [5] have more). The Naval Academy (1983) remains the only public school ever to win. The Ivy League has won 26 of the 37 titles.

Miriam and Will at the Banquet. Little do they know they are a day away from winning Nationals. Photo by Shanti Hossain.

People thin out, hugs and goodbyes and celebratory photos are taken, people thin out further. It is, eventually, Pasha, Max, Deepta, Russell, Mitchell, Shanti Hossain (Pasha’s girlfriend, the official tournament photographer, to whom I am indebted for the lovely photos in this post), and me. And a very unclean GA. And the breakfast display still outside Scott Hall, where GA was going to be, then wasn’t, this morning.

We clean. We pick up items, we mine behind chairs and under desks, we clean from spills of illicit food and beverages and pick up keys and pens and IDs left by people long before the tournament. We scour this beautiful room that didn’t exist on the campus a year prior, the heads of the team, the dinos, and a generous person who has given a lot to the tournament. And there’s something about this time, this bagging up trash outside GA and then heading to Scott Hall to move tables and do it again, that feels like the seminal moment to me. Behind Scott Hall, which hosted our team meetings in 2010-2011, the breakout year, the first time RUDU was in the top ten of anything, in front of Murray Hall, the host for the next three years, the glorious runs in COTY and Nationals and all that was witnessed. Bagging curdled milk and stale coffee and the rock-hard remains of a bagel under the cover of night, just beyond the watchful gaze of William the Silent, down Voorhees Mall.

This is water. This is water. Under the bridge, past the banks of the old Raritan, and into the ground, to be dredged and drunk in future years by those yet unborn who will debate ideas we have yet to imagine.

Me, at Rutgers. Photo by Shanti Hossain.

I fling the last black plastic bag, lopsided and slightly overfull, up over my head, into the dumpster, and hear it land with a satisfying thunk against its neighbors. Smacking my hands against each other in an exaggerated tone of “mischief managed,” I notice that just a little creek of whitish coffee has landed on my sleeve, a rivulet running down the Rutgers Student Life sweater I’ve been wearing for three days straight.


^A couple of small references, including a name, have been removed from this piece at the request of an individual referenced.

by

Twisting the Night Away

Categories: A Day in the Life, Adventures in Uber, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Marching to New Orleans, Video Games Killed the Free Time, Tags: , , , ,

For more of my life than I care to admit, I was an avid player of Dark Age of Camelot, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG for, well, long). Dark Age, for the uninitiated, was basically the precursor to World of Warcraft (WoW), which you’ve definitely heard of, except the graphics were better (far less cartoony) and the game was harder. Much harder. When a former family member got me WoW for Christmas (perhaps the last thing I wanted at the time), I remember playing it and marveling at how little work everything took. Dark Age felt like work and, thus, in its weird way, was kind of rewarding.

In Dark Age, I primarily played a bard, who I named Fiver Mep, whose task was to sing and play songs to aid, comfort, and heal his friends. Bards in Dark Age were (I should say “are” because the game still exists and I still occasionally play the free months the remnants of the game offers me to try to get drawn back into the addiction) equipped with three particular songs: one providing power, one endurance, and one speed (of movement, not amphetamines). The intent was that only one of these could be played a time – it’s pretty hard to imagine that multiple songs offered by a bard simultaneously would be of any real value. However, at some point early in the game’s inception, a bard discovered that two songs could be played at once to mutual effect. This strategy came to be known in the gameplay parlance as “twisting”.

Because each task in the game was initiated by a keystroke, twisting entailed constantly pressing two buttons in a row, in a vaguely frenetic rhythm, permanently during the game. This while also peppering in other tasks such as, for instance, typing to chat with other players or pressing buttons to heal or conduct other magical activities entailed in the game. I tried twisting for an hour or two one night and quickly found that it wasn’t for me. Playing just one song didn’t involve any repeated keystrokes at all – just a single button to start the song, which would play indefinitely until you decided to stop. This differential in gameplay experience was easily the distinction between enjoying a game that still felt a little like work sometimes and working very hard indeed at a job that was supremely boring. Many players disregarded or refused to adventure with Fiver when he informed them, emphatically, that he did not twist. Others, who had actually played bards in other lives, were more forgiving.

I offer all this as a little metaphor, though one that most may find inscrutable, for the experience of simultaneously driving for Uber and Lyft. I have now been an Uber driver for just shy of nine months (!), but only recently finally got around to signing up for Lyft. The primary motivation was the emerging #DeleteUber campaign sweeping the nation in the wake of the startling discovery that a corporate CEO was not, in fact, a good person. While I myself was not about to delete Uber, I had long been wondering if Lyft was better in some way and was eager to not lose all my business, or at least all my business that hated Donald Trump (read: basically all my business). Plus, it felt like essential research for my book: it would be weirdly neglectful to write a whole book about driving for Uber and not even mention Lyft or detail the rival’s pros and cons. So a couple weeks ago, I began peppering in sessions of Lyft.

The word on the street has always been that Lyft pays better (including and especially because they enable tipping through the app), while Uber keeps you busier because many more people use Uber. I have since been told that this last part is a regional difference – there are apparently some US cities where Lyft is actually the primary service and Uber is struggling to catch up. But in New Orleans, Uber is completely dominant, or at least was before the advent of the Trump administration. In my time with Lyft so far, most of the stereotypes above have demonstrated themselves to be true, though the better money is somewhat inconsistent. There is a $1.25 fee built into each fare with both services – Uber pockets this, but Lyft splits it with drivers. Thus the minimum driver compensation for a ride is $3.75 with Lyft and $3.00 with Uber. For about six weeks, Uber actually upped theirs to $3.75 (for min-fares only, keeping the difference for all longer rides) in New Orleans and lowered the airport pick-up bonus to try to stop 80 people at a time from waiting 60-90 minutes in the airport lot for a single trip. Apparently, this brought about heavy backlash from the seeming majority of NOLA Uber drivers who just want to be airport shuttles and they reversed the change. No amount of praise for the change from me could stop it, so I was pleased to see the extra 75 cents a ride from Lyft, which really adds up when you’re doing short runs in the Quarter.

Tipping, however, has proven to be a bit of a red herring. While it is true that a much higher portion of Lyft riders tip than Uber riders (I would say roughly 40% choosing to tip as opposed to the 12-15% I’m used to), the tips tend to me much smaller. With cash tips, $5 is customary (people actually apologize for tipping less even though everyone tipping me exactly $1 per ride would yield more in total tips than I currently receive) and $20 is not terribly uncommon. It helps, I suppose, that it’s usually 2:30 AM and people are drunk out of their minds. Whereas the cold sobriety of the app, plus the option to decide on a tip up to 24 hours later, yields a ton of $1 and $2 tips. Now, don’t get me wrong, $2 tips are fantastic! But it’s not quite the difference of tripling my tip total vs. Uber that was purported. Additionally, of course, all the Lyft app tips are reported to the IRS, so that can be a difference depending on how you treat your cash tips (relevantly, many waitstaff and bartenders still give cash tips on Lyft). Though as I’m realizing doing my taxes this year, the US has lots of ways to make it basically impossible for anyone who claims to be in business to pay any taxes whatsoever. The horror stories and fears I had about a significant Uber tax liability have been pretty well put to bed by a quick tax session Uber hosted and a newly thorough understanding of Schedule C.

The really tangible potential differences in money break down as a comparison between Uber’s surge and Lyft’s Power Driver status. Uber’s (in)famous surge pricing squares up supply and demand and offers a real opportunity to make bank when driving during, say, Halloween weekend, or, as I can hardly imagine, the upcoming weekend featuring a full slate of Mardi Gras parades and the NBA All-Star Game. When demand is high, during such times or at the end of a game or concert, then Uber drivers can make a normal night’s worth of fares in a good few rides. This is definitely slightly over-rated as part of the income of Uber driving, especially with recent efforts by the company to nerf surge by making the zones much smaller and rebound on each other more slowly. But it can add up on Saturday nights and holidays and during events. Lyft allegedly offers PrimeTime as their corollary to this, but there’s only one problem. It is, apparently, a lie. When you agree to do an Uber pick-up, they tell you the value of the surge the fare will carry. I have done hundreds of surge rides and they’ve all added up to the total promised. When you agree to do a Lyft pick-up, however, they do not tell you if it has a PrimeTime value. And despite picking up many riders in the thick of a pink-shaded PT event, not one of my 88 Lyft rides to date has been deemed a PrimeTime fare. Some preliminary Internet research reveals widespread belief that PrimeTime is somewhere between a scam and a myth and my experience certainly correlates to this. More disconcertingly, many drivers attest that their riders have said they were charged PrimeTime for pick-ups that did not pass such bonuses on to the driver.

This would make Lyft super problematic were it not for the Power Driver status, which is almost enough and possibly quite enough to forgive them for lying about PrimeTime, if they in fact are. (It’s possible that it just doesn’t work somehow, given Lyft’s other technological inferiorities, below.) If a driver accepts 90% of their offered Lyft rides in a week, while completing at least 15 rides during peak hours (a narrow band of afternoon rush hours plus Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights) and 40 rides total, one gets an extra 10% of the total fares, getting 85% instead of the normal 75%. Bump those last two numbers up to 20 and 60 and you get another 10%, meaning you keep a full 95% of the fare charged to the rider (less whatever lying about PrimeTime may be happening, of course). For those of you used to Uber rates, this is the equivalent of getting 1.26x surge on every single ride for the whole week. That’s pretty great. The one week I made the grade here, it was worth an extra hundred bucks. Not enough to compete with surge during Mardi Gras, perhaps, but certainly something to boost a lot of Tuesday nights.

The problem, of course, is that Lyft is often slower than Uber, and more problematically is not afraid of sending you on a wild goose chase for a fare. Uber often strands riders with their requirement that every pick-up be 10 minutes or less from a driver’s current location. (Surge gets triggered if no riders are available within 10 minutes.) Lyft, on the other hand, has given me multiple requests that are 25-27 minutes away. Which is insane. Especially in New Orleans, where you’re always 15 minutes from everything. 13-20 minutes away is a regular occurrence. Of course, most Lyft riders don’t want to wait this long, so 85% of my requests that are that far away get cancelled within 3 minutes. Which just doesn’t smack of efficiency. And because acceptance rate is such a core part of Lyft’s access to the coveted Power Driver status, then you really can’t just turn your nose up at a 20-minute trek. With Uber, I often have enough work that I decline something 8-10 minutes away as requiring too much unpaid gas.

As a result, twisting becomes the norm, especially not on weekends or during events that are busier. In this instance, twisting entails keeping both apps on simultaneously and ready to go, then switching off one app as soon as a request comes in on the other. As I predicted when I first heard about this, this process is hectic and stressful, especially when you remember that you are also, y’know, driving while this happens. Usually driving just involves hitting the phone screen once and then a second time to navigate – not hard when the phone is mounted to the air conditioner or some equally accessible spot. But all the opening and closing of apps is challenging. Already, I’ve had two instances of basically simultaneous requests and had to cancel one (usually the Uber one because acceptance rate –> Power Driver) and just take the other. It’s not quite playing power song and endurance song at once for hours, but it’s not the easiest either. And at least that only impacted fake or simulated people, er, magical creatures?

Of course, the problem is that just choosing one of the apps now creates this insidious FOMO effect whenever one doesn’t immediately have a ride request. I am driving around just trawling for a ride, but I could have both apps on, my brain tells me. I bet there are constant requests on the app you have closed! Is it really that hard to twist?

A week before Saturday, I even was double-apping on a Saturday night, something I swore never to try because of how busy Saturday nights are ’round here. But that promise was so quickly broken the second I’d gone five minutes without a request.

As far as other empirics, there’s not a lot of difference. There seem to be more women traveling alone on Lyft, which is a big part of their marketing strategy for both drivers and riders. (Lyft actually conducts an interview, which Uber does not, though I would not exactly describe it as much of a screening process from my experience.) Lyft riders have disproportionately talked about how they don’t want to use Uber, or are trying not to, but many find it hard in New Orleans given the dominance of Uber in the market. Lyft riders seem much more diligent, on average, about being ready for their ride right away when I pull up, though this may be a product of the significantly longer wait times involved in sending drivers long distances to pick-ups. When the GPS or rider mess up on the map, Lyft automatically starts the ride when you leave to go to the right location. While this theoretically is to help the driver get compensated, it empirically just creates cancellations when the rider freaks out that they’re listed as riding in the car when, in fact, they are not. Lyft won’t let you text riders for some reason, which Uber insists is what riders prefer. Most riders on both platforms cannot remember which service they’ve used to hail me, which is something I definitely remember from just doing Uber as well. Though the ones that do remember and are not strongly anti-Trump have usually just had a bad experience with Uber, which seems weird to me knowing that so many drivers use both platforms interchangeably.

Many people in the cultural imagination, including a guy out front of a bar last night who saw both my signs in the windshield and asked me incredulously how such a thing was possible and wasn’t I a traitor to both companies, seem to not realize that one can do both, much less at the same time. For companies that brand themselves with such contrast, black vs. pink, businesslike vs. whimsical, pro-Trump (now not-un-pro-Trump?) vs. anti-Trump, the reality is basically the same. You are in a person’s car and they are taking you where you want. No matter how much corporate veneer and artifice we put on things, we remain, unflinchingly, just people in all that we do.

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When the Good Die Old: Mary Tyler Moore (1936-2017) and Richard Adams (1920-2016)

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Primary Sources, Read it and Weep, Tags: , , ,

Richard Adams died on Christmas Eve last year. That will always be a fact of my life, that I got engaged to Alex on the night of the day that Richard Adams, author of my favorite book of all-time, Watership Down, passed away. I was sad, of course. Not sad enough for it to derail my planned proposal, or luminaria day, or anything like that. And not as sad as I wanted to be. Because, after all, the man was 96. It is sad to know that the world no longer contains a person who has done so much for you personally as to write your favorite book. But less sad to know that they got as much time as anyone would want here, and perhaps more.

Eighty is not ninety-six, certainly, and Mary Tyler Moore didn’t have quite the impact on my life that Richard Adams did. But I spent a lot of my teenage years watching Nick-at-Nite incessantly, hours at a time, and both The Dick Van Dyke Show and especially The Mary Tyler Moore Show were key features of the late-night network’s lineup at the time. I loved them both, but especially the latter, where MTM had been able to shed some of the sexist tropes of the DVD writers and really star on her own as a model of independence, talent, and humor. It’s not to say that the MTM writing was totally without sexism, but as people have observed the world over in the last 24 hours, Mary Tyler Moore was ahead of her time and a pioneer for feminism.

Of all the Nick-at-Nite shows I really liked (along with close second Get Smart, Dobie Gillis, Dick Van Dyke, Bob Newhart, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, Taxi, and Cheers) I think I loved Mary Tyler Moore the most. Her show was fresh and funny and avoided a lot of traditional romantic arcs that one would expect from that kind of show. Mary Richards was not continually pining for one person in a will-they/won’t-they battle that where we all knew the ending on the second episode. She was independent, smart, and worked in journalism, but not as the flashy broadcaster you might expect for someone in her role. She was a producer, and one who can see the buffoonery of the pretty figurehead in the anchor role. She worked with a tough boss, an old-school journalist, and the insight into the world of the news and how it really gets made fascinated me. More than anything, Mary’s world felt real to me. Her effort to make it in the world of work, friendships, relationships, and what we now might call “adulting” resonated with my picture of what the future might look like. She, and the show, were eminently authentic.

Watching Mary Tyler Moore, growing up on the coming-of-adult-age story meant for a prior era, I found so much to emulate. I wanted to be like Mary. I wanted to be compassionate and emotional and independent and capable like she was. I wanted my life to look like hers. And not just because I wish I’d been my age in the sixties instead of the nineties.

I’ve probably seen every episode of the show at least twice. It’s in the pantheon with Gilmore Girls and Doctor Who and The Wire and Lost and probably a smattering of the other Nick-at-Nite selections listed above. I think of myself as someone who really doesn’t like TV, but I’ve honestly watched a ton of TV for someone in that category.

Richard Adams is not my favorite author of all time, any more than Mary Tyler Moore is my favorite actor. Adams’ other works are uneven, generally disappointing. He is one of those authors who possibly had only one truly great story to tell, his first, something crafted over years of oral storytelling in long car rides with his daughters. I tried to get into The Plague Dogs and couldn’t, largely because it was about dogs and not rabbits. (It prompts the question of whether I would have been deprived of the grand and life-changing allegory of Watership Down had it been about dogs instead.) I liked The Girl in the Swing, but it was a bit overly sensationalized. Even the sequel Tales from Watership Down, which I was so excited to hear of and read, rang hollow, felt a bit contrived, felt like an effort to tweak and/or cash in on the past, left me feeling pretty empty. None of this really cheapens Adams’ legacy for me, though. Just ask Harper Lee, whose only (until the cynically commercial effort to publish Go Set a Watchman) book stands atop the Blue Pyramid’s composite list of people’s top twenty-five books of all-time. You don’t need to write more than one book to change the world.

How do we mourn those who had a full long life? Is it okay to feel less sad? Having so recently experienced the sudden death of a 34-year-old, I can say that it feels different and it probably should. Of course, the other key difference there is that I knew Jon, while Richard and Mary only influenced my life as far-away strangers, through their art. As someone who hopes to be an influential artist, I can mourn this loss by proxy, while still recognizing that I would expect the sadness of people impacted only by art to be quite muted compared to those who actually know me in real life.

Perhaps a more apt comparison would be how I feel about Moore and Adams relative to, say, David Foster Wallace. They all impacted me from distance, but DFW, by his own choice, didn’t get the time he should have been allotted. Part of that loss, to be sure, is the pain of the books unwritten, the art unmade, the other things one could have enjoyed. And part of it, perhaps, is not being able to meet someone who influenced you so much. I never much carried the illusion that I could meet Mary Tyler Moore or Richard Adams someday. But DFW felt more accessible, gave me more time to get in a position where such a meeting would be more likely.

Which makes mourning all feel a little selfish, I guess. And stranger in light of my primary emotion at the loss of Adams and Moore being somehow sadder that I’m not more sad. But maybe being at peace with death, when it comes late in life and after it has been full, is okay. Maybe a little more acceptance is just what’s called for when the good die old.

Or maybe I should look to one of the most profound and powerful meditations on death I’ve ever read:

One chilly, blustery morning in March, I cannot tell exactly how many springs
later, Hazel was dozing and waking in his burrow. He had spent a good deal of
time there lately, for he felt the cold and could not seem to smell or run so well as
in days gone by. He had been dreaming in a confused way — something about rain
and elder bloom — when he woke to realize that there was a rabbit lying quietly
beside him — no doubt some young buck who had come to ask his advice. The
sentry in the run outside should not really have let him in without asking first.
Never mind, thought Hazel. He raised his head and said, “Do you want to talk to
me?”

“Yes, that’s what I’ve come for,” replied the other. “You know me, don’t you?”

“Yes, of course,” said Hazel, hoping he would be able to remember his name in
a moment. Then he saw that in the darkness of the burrow the stranger’s ears
were shining with a faint silver light. “Yes, my lord,” he said, “Yes, I know you.”

“You’ve been feeling tired,” said the stranger, “but I can do something about
that. I’ve come to ask whether you’d care to join my Owsla. We shall be glad to
have you and you’ll enjoy it. If you’re ready, we might go along now.”

They went out past the young sentry, who paid the visitor no attention. The
sun was shining and in spite of the cold there were a few bucks and does at silflay,
keeping out of the wind as they nibbled the shoots of spring grass. It seemed to
Hazel that he would not be needing his body any more, so he left it lying on the
edge of the ditch, but stopped for a moment to watch his rabbits and to try to get
used to the extraordinary feeling that strength and speed were flowing
inexhaustibly out of him into their sleek young bodies and healthy senses.

“You needn’t worry about them,” said his companion. “They’ll be all right —
and thousands like them. If you’ll come along, I’ll show you what I mean.”

He reached the top of the bank in a single, powerful leap. Hazel followed; and
together they slipped away, running easily down through the wood, where the
first primroses were beginning to bloom.

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Haunted City

Categories: A Day in the Life, Adventures in Uber, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Marching to New Orleans, The Wild Wild Web, Tags: , , , , ,

It’s Twelfth Night. Happy Twelfth Night, everybody! Here is my favorite song about Twelfth Night:

It occurs to me that posting links to things isn’t really good enough for the long-term posterity of the web. Sometimes I review old posts of mine and pretty much all the links are dead. It’s just about a universal. For all that people clamor in fear of a web that Never Forgets, it seems I spend a lot more time lamenting a web that has lost a bunch of information. Major websites are keepers of major information, but then they get caught up in IPOs and mergers and inevitable failures. The people who ran the show get away with billions and the grunt folks lose their jobs and all the creative energy and thoughtful exchange poured into that particular series of tubes is lost in a reshuffle. Remember how much original music was on MySpace? MySpace is just a butt of jokes now, but it’s also the Facebook of yesterday. Say what you will about creative destruction as a principle, but it’s got destruction right there in the description. It’s hard to know whether it’s reassuring or depressing that all the preeminent corporations of today will be gone in a century. Their infinite consumption and recomposition feels like a fitting metaphor for an ecosystem under heavy pressure to fold.

Anyway, for the future record, the song linked above is “Pieces of the Night” by the Gin Blossoms, written by the late Doug Hopkins, one of my erstwhile poetry/rock-n-roll heroes/cautionary tales. I am now older than Doug was when he killed himself, which is a little daunting. That said, I didn’t even like Doug’s music till after he killed himself, so what can you do? But the guy knew something about memory. And regret. Oh lord, the regret.

Twelfth Night is a big deal in New Orleans. It’s not just a Shakespeare play, but the opening of the Mardi Gras season, also known as King Cake season around here. People will sell you a King Cake before today, but you’re really not supposed to eat it until now. King Cake is basically New Orleans in a pastry, it’s decadent and overly sweet and purple, green, and gold. It’s got frosting and sprinkles and tastes a little like kissing a unicorn. You would imagine.

Here, have a look:

I’ve made that image permanently linked from the Blue Pyramid, so if somehow most of the web crumbles, but someone is left keeping up the maintenance fees on the Blue Pyramid after many long years, then future people will be able to see New Orleans Mardi Gras King Cake in all its sugary glory. There’s a lesson here about the fragility and temporality of an entirely electronic-and-connection based medium, but the only feasible alternative is to literally print out reams and reams of webpages on actual paper, which itself has longevity issues in most conditions. But, like mandalas and snow and luminarias and perhaps most things that are good in the world, maybe posts aren’t meant to be permanent. Maybe they’re meant to be made, consumed, and discarded all in a day. #snapchat

What can’t be consumed in a day is memory. I kind of meant to post this in Albuquerque, or post about this phenomenon, because Albuquerque really gets my senses going. But I realized, over time and missed opportunity, that Albuquerque is not the only haunted city. Any city can be haunted if you fill it with enough people and enough time for rumination. And now that I’m trying to exercise every day (he said as he looked out the window to a 40-degree thunderstorm, recoiling), there’s a lot more time for observational rumination. Which is perhaps good for writing but bad for my daily frame of mind. Putting those on a diametric axis is probably roughly accurate, regardless of situation, come to think of it.

Anyway, Albuquerque always feels charged and haunted when I first get in. Everyone I’ve ever loved has logged serious time there, and most of the people I’ve liked. There are few corners or streets or establishments that I can pass that are not encoded with memories or references or something that links in to a long and roller coastery past. This is a trope of homecoming, made all the more relevant for not living at home all the time, preventing an old haunted place from becoming mundane again since it does not inhabit one’s daily spectrum. Any landscape, from Manhattan to the Grand Canyon, becomes routine upon daily backdropping. I have had daily commutes past the cable-car turnaround in San Francisco, to the historic Old Queens building at Rutgers, now through the French Quarter at night, and I chant to myself to not let it become typical. It’s the fish, a la DFW, praying to the universe: “This is water. This is water.” It is a hard and thorny discipline, reinfusing the omnipresent magic in your daily normal. But in almost anywhere on Earth that is not war-torn or deeply impoverished, much less America in the twilight of its apex, it is a thing we can and should do. It is also a trope to feel blessed by the ability to exist, to think, to absorb, to move. But it is a trope we too often dismiss for failure to see the real power within.

There are times when the hauntedness of a place, especially Albuquerque, can become overwhelming. Times I wish I could look at a street corner or a building and just have it be a corner or a place. I’m sure German has a word for the deeply felt desire for a cigar to just be a cigar. But you know it’s not just a cigar and you can’t unsee it, any more than you can unsee the other half of a tessellation once you’ve unlocked its mystery. Then again, there are benefits to the inability to unsee. A connection to a sense of place and time and purpose and being on a journey. A real sense of identity and temporality and presence that can be hard for the overly ruminative mind sometimes. It’s not all bad.

In this state, and sometimes in others, I find that I am often almost seeing people. In crowds, in restaurants, on corners. Driving up to them to get in my Uber or driving past them to deliver the latest passenger. Walking around a corner shelf in a bookstore, past the endcap in a grocery store. I am in a near-constant state of being startled by visages of people from the past. This has been such a frequent reality for me that it made it into my first book, Loosely Based, under the theory that there are only a few templates in the world and people just keep recurring. It’s not true, of course, it’s much more that our pattern-seeking brains are trying to eke recognition out of an ocean of strangers. A world of seven billion souls is impossible to comprehend, much less process. We keep looking for flashes of recognition in a sea of empty anonymity.

What pulls me out of it, usually, is the sudden realization that the people I think I’m recognizing are not those people anymore. I will think I see a high school classmate and I will be startled, then curious, but what gets me to realize they are not a high school classmate will be the fact that the person in front of me is currently in high school. And, of course, my high school classmates are, like me, all in their mid-thirties now. None of them look like they’re in high school. My memory of that classmate is fossilized to them at 17, but I will never see them at 17 again. This can often be an actual wrestling match in my brain – the main thing that gets me to rule out the idea that the stranger is the person I first thought they were is the understanding that they can’t be that age anymore, not that they have some distinguishing feature from the person I mistook them for. Just yesterday, I stared at the spitting image of a college classmate for some time before being sure they were 22 and said classmate was, well, 38.

The grand irony of all this, of course, is that this pattern-seeking would probably keep me from actually recognizing many of these former classmates and acquaintances if I saw them on the streets of Albuquerque or New Orleans or Manhattan. They’ve aged, they’ve gained weight, they’ve cut their hair, their hair has lost color, they’ve acquired a string of kids or worries or responsibilities or all of the above. So I am traversing a city, continually starting at apparitions, while the real ghosts could lurk in plain sight, undetected.

We are not well built for change, we humans. We adjust slowly, painfully, and usually under duress. We fall back into habits, patterns, addictions, comfort. It takes so much self-encouragement, self-criticism, inner reflection and yes, resolution to get us to make even the tiniest of alterations. And yet change so often feels refreshing and rejuvenating, exciting with the promise that the old gnawing discomforts and annoyances we’ve mistaken for familiar don’t have to be omnipresent. It’s a familiar bear to wrestle around the early part of January. And here on Twelfth Night, especially, a night when revelers will take to freezing rain-soaked streets to honor Joan D’Arc, patron saint of New Orleans, of the misunderstood, of Pyrrhic losses and those who die before their time. When we defy the winter and its discontent with toothachey sweets and bright mismatched colors, with loud noises and glasses held aloft. Tonight, for the first time in nearly a decade, it may actually snow in New Orleans. Just some flurries, just some flakes, a brief taste of what’s burying the rest of the nation.

I’ll be out there to see it, driving in search of wayward souls looking to find their way home. Seeing them as my past once was, haunted by memory, chanting to myself to not miss the present. This is water. This is the French Quarter in New Orleans in 2017. This is Earth and we are all alive.

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A Life Lived Out Loud: Remembering Jonathan Bernbaum (1982-2016)

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , ,

On Saturday morning, I woke up late, as I usually do these days. I’d been out driving till about 3:00 AM, wrapping up Friday night much earlier than normal. I was feeling a little sick. That night, I had nightmares, as is still pretty usual. As is the tendency these days, one of the first things I did after waking up was check my phone.

I saw the following update from Facebook: Elizabeth Turnbull marked herself safe during The Fire in Oakland. Elizabeth Turnbull is the married name of a Smith debater who was in the college class of 2004, who only recently moved to Oakland.

My first thought was of how many people I know in Oakland, how many I know in the Bay Area, and how catastrophic a fire would have to be to warrant that level of a safety check. I immediately went to Google News for more. I saw that it was an electronic music show and I immediately thought of Jon. Jon, or just Bernbaum, as I knew him, has been going by his fuller name of Jonathan Bernbaum for years as he became a world traveling highly acclaimed VJ, performing at dance parties, raves, and events of all kind all over the world. This seemed like exactly the kind of event he would be playing, or attending. But almost immediately thereafter, I banished the thought. He was almost certainly somewhere else in the world, anywhere but Oakland, playing in Dubai or Estonia or Shanghai. I went to see his recent Facebook posts.

He’d just returned from a multi-country tour of Asia, playing huge events, a few days before. His latest post, which I suddenly remembered seeing, was about divesting from Wells Fargo to a credit union. Above that, a few comments of concern from friends that he hadn’t yet marked himself as safe. And then I found the event page for the show where the fire had started and saw he was marked to attend. My blood froze. It wasn’t clear whether he’d been performing or just attending, but it looked like he’d been there. I posted on his Facebook page, then that of the Brandeis debate team, hoping someone else knew more, knew better than I did.

Jon and I weren’t close lately. We weren’t totally far, either, but we hadn’t seen each other in person in something close to a decade. This is the nature of the world of social media and Facebook, much like the slow-motion horror that unfolded above and in the 36 hours that followed before it was confirmed that he was among the victims of the fire. You don’t ever lose touch with people, unless you really want to, those connections to people you shared brief important times with can remain, unbroken and open, as you keep up with each other’s lives. We had recently touched base a few years ago when he was headed to Finland for the first time and asked for recommendations and I caught up on his incredible career as a VJ. Even more recently, he’d commented on my post just last month about the election wrap-up. A fellow far-lefty, a borderline (?) pacifist, an anti-establishment comrade, we saw the world in much the same way, both in those college years we shared and so many years down the line.

We met at Brandeis, the fall of his first year there, when he joined the debate team I’d been on for two years prior. He immediately established himself as an uppity novice, a big voice with big opinions who had a way of getting under people’s skin but was deeply committed to improving as a debater. He had bluster, bravado, stubbornness, intelligence, and will. He was, to most, an acquired taste who really grew on you. While he sometimes led with abrasiveness, he was passionately interested in ideas and how they worked, pushing people to their limit to see how they ticked. That spring, after Zirkin and I took a break from our failed TOTY run to try to qual teammates, Bernbaum and I debated together at the tiny Wellesley tournament.

It was a disaster. We went 2-3, one of my only losing records at an APDA tournament. But despite the poor performance, I found I loved debating with Jon. He was bold and brave in his argumentation. He was passionate and excited. He was as enthused for our 2-2 round, when we had no chance of breaking, as he’d been for our opening round, when we had high hopes. He brought his trademark intensity to every speech, every round, every recap of the round. Sometimes that intensity was a little manic, but he was determined to harness it to improve. And he’d earned 4th novice speaker in the process. I vowed that we’d return to another tournament the next year and avenge our record.

It was Amherst the next January where we attempted to fulfill this promise. The mid-sized field of 47 teams sported a veritable murderer’s row of debaters, including three debaters who would go on to win Nationals in the following two years. After a solid first round win, we hit the tournament favorite, that year’s second TOTY (Team of the Year, the annual overall rankings for partnerships on APDA, our debate league), Beth O’Connor and Adam Jed from Yale. Danny Schwarcz, a recent Amherst graduate and star of their team, was our judge. We were Opp and Bernbaum started freaking out a little that our luck from Wellesley was back. I started wracking my brains for what case they’d run against us, since I had hit this team about every other weekend all season. And then I remembered they had a case that many teams ran about eliminating victim impact statements, one they’d never run against either of us. We started discussing counter-arguments to this case.

When Danny got to the room, he asked what we were talking about so frantically and prepping so much since we were Opp. I told him we had a hunch about the case and Bernbaum flashed his trademark evil grin. Danny, to my chagrin, said he thought that case would be really interesting and he hoped they’d run it. We went back to prepping. When Yale returned to the room with their case ready, Danny observed that we’d predicted the case and our opponents immediately said that they doubted this was possible. He said “we’ll let you know when you read case statement” and Beth got up for her PMC. Before she was finished saying “We have an interesting case for you about the sentencing phase of jury trials,” Jon and I had both burst out laughing and Danny was trying to hold a poker face through giving her a thumbs-up. Only mildly flustered, she went on to deliver the case. Emboldened by our preparation, we went on to win.

We dropped round three to the team that would go 5-0 in in-rounds, consisting of Tim Willenken, who’d had only moderate success with his regular partner that year and his novice partner for the weekend, Josh Bendor. I forget who we beat round 4. In fifth round, we proved to be the middle 3-1 team and got pulled-up to hit the top team at the tournament, a 4-0 squad from MIT, who’d dubbed themselves the Ivy League Assassins for the weekend. They were drawing little stick figures of every Ivy League debater they bested that weekend beside their names each round. But, of course, Brandeis is not an Ivy League school.

The team, good friends Patrick Nichols and Phil Larochelle, who would go on to win the 2003 North American Championships as well as this tournament, ran an opp-choice case of whether a rebel movement in a developing nation should use violent or non-violent means to resist an oppressive government. They ran this as a trap, knowing I’d pick non-violent, presuming it to be the much weaker side. Christopher Russo, the ranking dino in experience and age on the circuit at the time, judged. The round was hard-fought and razor-close, but ultimately Jon and I were able to fend off Phil’s onslaught of examples with the notion that just because non-violence had been tried less didn’t mean it wasn’t more effective. I’m not sure I’d ever been in a round where both my teammate and I felt so passionately about a side we were arguing and the importance of its implications. Not only did we win the round, it was the only blemish on the Ivy League Assassins’ perfection that tournament. They won every other round with perfect ranks and finished as tournament champions and the top two speakers.

Despite the two utterly epic victories, Bernbaum and I broke to quarterfinals as just the eighth seed in the tournament, lining up for a rematch with Willenken and Bendor. I remember the round being pretty packed and we were both nervous as we waited, not being able to predict what this Yale team would run against as we had in round two. They ran opp-choice, should we value the letter or spirit of the law when they conflict, a classic LD resolution from prior years. I’m not sure we even deliberated before immediately choosing spirit. Jon was brilliant in the round, citing several instances of old racist and sexist laws whose letter is exclusionary but can be reinterpreted to be more inclusive in our more enlightened contemporary understanding of society. While we lost the round, I’d never seen him debate better and I was so proud to be his partner that weekend.

Later that year, we’d debate together officially just once more, defending the proposed Brandeis boycott of Kraft, the idea that good friend Ben Brandzel had championed as President of the Student Senate. This was in a public debate on campus, one of the first we ever did, and placed us, for the third time in a row, in the position of passionately defending a political position we staunchly believed in. It was practically like The Great Debaters, now that I think of it.

Our names on the board for the public debate on the Kraft referendum.

Our names on the board for the public debate on the Kraft referendum.

At the end of that year, at our senior banquet, Bernbaum won the Most Improved Debater award, a testament to his dedication, perseverance, and intensity. No one had any doubt that he was by far the most deserving recipient.

Jon stayed on the debate team his junior and senior year, but from what I heard his commitment to the club was variable. He was not always his happiest and most at home in college. While he loved Brandeis and his intellectual pursuits there, he struggled at times with his outlook on life, his weight, with finding a place and direction in his life. When we reconnected in 2005, when he’d graduated and moved back to his childhood home in Berkeley while I lived in Oakland, he seemed restless for his life to begin already. He became a regular at the Big Blue House poker nights, joining our teammate and good friend Zimmy, plus a variety of Seneca and PIRG friends and our landlord. We told old debate stories and laughed and joked and he perfected his wily and cunning poker faces, which were kind of the opposite of poker faces in trying to deceive you not with impassivity but with gregariousness. Such was always his wild, goofy way. That February, he, Zimmy, and Chris Russo took me out for Mexican food for my birthday and talked about everything and I remember it being one of those magical perfect nights of conversation, blending mundane personal insights with grand political hopes and all of us thinking deeply about our role in the universe.

Soon, of course, Jon found his role. His journey to USC to study film, then to Pixar, then to his incredible niche as an artist VJing shows, was a deliberate and chosen path that led him to a cornucopia of friends, accolades, and fulfillments. Like all of his paths, it was not entirely constructed or fully planned, but included whimsy, whim, and just a dash of madness. Simultaneously, he turned the path inward on himself, reshaping how he interacted with the world in drastic and important ways. He excised junk from his diet, losing an enormous amount of weight. He committed himself to pursue only the activities which he felt were valuable and important. Turning down a full-time offer at Pixar to pursue his creative vision to create wild visual displays for enormous parties is something no one saw coming, nor could anyone deny its obvious rightness once we saw his success in that scene. He had found his place, and tens of thousands of people were richer, more enthralled, and more thoughtful for his influence.

If there is a silver lining to this immense tragedy, a minor mitigation to the abyss of our loss in the wake of Jonathan Bernbaum’s death, it is the solace we can take in knowing that he had found his calling and had time to hone and develop it. That he was recognized for his creativity, intensity, and brilliance by so many in his short time here. In that enormous accomplishment, we can all take inspiration.

Jonathan Bernbaum giving a floor speech, Middlebury College finals, March 2002.

Jonathan Bernbaum giving a floor speech, Middlebury College finals, March 2002.

I have been overwhelmed all weekend by little flashes and snippets of Jon, mostly from the time we shared on the debate circuit. Jon giving a floor speech, cracking good jokes and bad ones, in his characteristic blustery high volume. Jon donning just one black glove, grinning creepily in a staring contest before he burst out laughing just before his opponent blinked. The sheer joy Jon expressed in the car the first time he heard the Barenaked Ladies song “I Know”, an irreverent romp through our cultural inconsistencies that I’ve never since heard without thinking of him.

Here, have a listen:

Beth Mandel and I making the impromptu decision to call the race of extraterrestrial aliens in our crazy new case “The Bernbaums” when running the case at Middlebury in front of Jon’s best non-Brandeis APDA friend, Sam Rodriguez. The hilarity that ensued, not least from Jon himself, who loved it. Some drunk MIT debaters at the epic Fairfield 2001 party asking if they could “haze Bernbaum” while I defended him against their onslaught. At one point, Jon actually said it was okay if they hazed him but I fended the MITers off anyway. Later, one MIT debater, having to be content with hazing his teammates, would stuff beans down the ear of another to the point where the latter would need surgery to remove them. Jon’s love/hate friendship with Zimmy, how the two grew close after college when they were both in the Bay Area, after years of being good but bickery friends. Jon’s penchant for accents, impressions, corny jokes, and arch facial expressions.

Bernbaum and I being goofy, Toronto Worlds 2002.  Photo by Beth Mandel.

Bernbaum and I being goofy, Toronto Worlds 2002. Photo by Beth Mandel.

More than anything, I am struck by how many people I would be worried about writing this remembrance for, in this way. It’s not always the most flattering picture of Bernbaum, but it was the Jon that I knew. And I know, unequivocally, that he would be more than okay with that. Because he was never untrue to himself or the reality of the situation. He was unflinchingly, bravely honest. He never ever cared what anyone thought of him. He was himself, only himself, and only ever wanted to be himself. The best possible, ever-improving version of himself, but not at the expense of total authenticity. More than anything, this is what I most deeply respect and love about Jon Bernbaum. He was unapologetically himself – goofy and intense, thoughtful and loud, a powerfully emotional intelligent human being.

He’s a human being I wish I’d known better. I wish you’d all had a chance to know him. I hope we can all be a little more like him from now on. I’ll miss you, Bernbaum. You made so many people so happy here. I hope you knew that.

by

Signs

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Marching to New Orleans, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , ,

I am looking around the room and there is a little mug half-full of orange juice and don’t even get me started on where the mug came from because it’s another memento that should have died in the fire, the fire that never was. And I think a lot about this trend, this policy of not seeing drinks as a binding contract, something that must be finished; I’ve never felt that way about plates or meals but somehow always have felt that way about drinks but she doesn’t, which is completely fine of course, little collections of Coke and water and OJ to be dumped out in the sink when they’ve grown too stale, and bang, it takes me back to a little girl in a movie and the phrase “It’s contaminated.” The contaminated drawn out in the overly scripted way that smart children use to simulate being less smart children who don’t know a word or can’t get it out properly, the fake-child cheese that I definitely remember pulling out on occasion in early acting gigs because how could you not. And I remember where this comes from, the movie Signs, the movie I saw on my first or second night in New Orleans (I could look this up and will in a minute), the night I had concluded, we had concluded let’s be honest, that New Orleans was not for me (us), that this city that was so vaunted and talked up was really just a hall-of-fame for drinking for frat antics, for the kind of life that I (we) had rejected so early in college, which was why I (we) spent my (our) whole time debating instead. New Orleans was such a washout (oh God, that pun, really Storey, do you even listen to yourself sometimes?) that we had given up on it on night #1 (night #2? don’t look, it’s too painful) and said “Do you want to just see a movie?” and the other had been so relieved that we didn’t have to spend another night trying to make Bourbon Street work for us and we really thoroughly enjoyed the movie, even though it was maybe just slightly too scary for her and we walked out into a warm night under what I remember being a fullish moon and thinking that we would be able to get through anything together because we could jointly make decisions like this, of course. And now I know better, not about her frankly, because fuck that, but about New Orleans, that we were so unprepared to look for the real gems of the city, that the meme of Bourbon Street being The Place To Go is just silly and of course what any 23-year-old would know, but it’s not real, it’s not true, it’s not enough, and we could have seen so much more then just before the storm, before both storms, ha ha, not funny, how can you even compare, but there it is, and that theater became Canal Place, the same general location in the same mall, but nicer, more mealy and sit-downy and with overly fancy food and there will always be two reasons you don’t like going there, even though it’s where you took refuge in extreme moments of anger because you don’t cut yourself and you really try not to hit your head, just those two times really, so instead you do things like going to places where the memory is there. And you can ask, reasonably, well why the hell come to New Orleans and it’s like, don’t you understand this whole country is haunted? Because that’s what you try to do when you love someone, you take them everywhere, to places of memory, to new places, like some feral animal trying to mark your territory with the scent of love because you’re so damn happy to have it or so damn proud or you just want the whole country, planet, all your friends to smell like that person or because you don’t even think of it because that’s just who you are and what you do and what you love and you want to share share share everything and no one is there on your shoulder saying to reserve this place just in case, even though you remember wishing you’d done that in high school, though strangely that set of pilgrimages was to go back everywhere and make a new untainted memory except for perhaps that damn tree that you could never return to because really, there are limits to these things, aren’t there? Aren’t there? Where are the limits? Other than the limits that you can set yourself that you somehow miraculously manage to follow, while driving altogether too fast past Mardi Gras World, never ever Googling the day after blocking and never ever Googling the guy before because you know what kind of retinal damage would be done, that honestly the spots from the head-banging are nothing compared to that kind of injury, what you have to try to live up to and never can because you don’t have a chance in hell. And you tried so hard to block out all knowledge, but you couldn’t and there was a wedding on the day you were goddamned going to a wedding, you’ve got to be kidding me, and you couldn’t pull your eyes off of that one fast enough, no way, nohow, and are you really contemplating going to the Ballpark in Arlington (or whatever corporate bullshit name they’re calling it these days) ALONE, what kind of idiot are you really? That was that same trip, just a few days later (you could look up exactly how many, but don’t, not yet), and you want to spend three days there alone just because the Mariners are in a pennant race and they’re chasing Texas and you have a flexible schedule now in part to do things exactly like that, but are you thinking about this really, thoroughly? But then again, is it any different than anything else, really? Than the mugs and cups and glasses and papers and pictures and books and stuffed animals and posters and furniture and clothes and clothes and clothes that you literally surround yourself with? Really? Even your friends, your most supportive friends who have been so helpful and tried so hard trip over things all the damn time, because how can they not? When your whole life is a minefield and they want to be closer to you than seventy-five feet, they’re going to hit mines, them and especially her, her who is trying so hard it hurts, who you are desperately trying to repave places with her scent instead, but you have that sneaking suspicion in the back of your mind, put it away, no, it will be different this time, won’t it? Won’t it? You haven’t earned relating to this character enough, isn’t that why this book is in your life, this book you relate to more than you can almost ever remember relating to anything, isn’t it here to show you how much harder things would have to be to earn this kind of self-hate, this kind of self-doubt, this kind of aversion to everything. Or is that just more self-hate talking, that even your misery isn’t sufficiently earned because it’s so inferior to someone else’s misery, imagining the Damage Olympics and you’re up there with all your limbs intact and all your privileges strong and everyone’s laughing at you and your pain like you are the equivalent of the fat swimmer whose father was on your Olympic Committee so you got to go and party and finish last and expose corruption in your country for a day before American corruption stole the headlines back where they belonged. Why can’t you get out of your head? Why can’t you just MoveOn.org? You know, deep down, it’s something to do with your memory and its vividness, angels and demons, the curse of being able to imagine settings and recall them, plus of course the obsession with documentation (you could look up so much, just scratch that itch now, it’s nothing like Googling, the great unforgivable divide that you’ve honored all these years, it’s just your own archive, c’mon), after all even DFW took himself into electro-convulsive eventually, but of course that also killed him, just about literally, because it nuked his talent and he couldn’t work and this is just one of the many cautionary tales you dredge up when your friends pound you so hard to just go to therapy, just talk to someone, what’s the worst that can happen, we are insufficiently equipped to help you with this, your family is, your girlfriend sure as heck is (what are you trying to do to her, anyway, and are you really going to post this diatribe really in public where she and everyone can read it, really, what kind of catharsis will that give her, honestly, are you trying to kill everyone here?)? And it’s like well, the worst that can happen is you take your brain away through various chemical and electrical means and it’s a little silly to care so much about me getting through all this if the brain isn’t going to be intact, isn’t it, because that’s basically all that matters, it houses all these feelings and the belief that life is So Serious which after all is what may have separated you from all these people in the first place and made it unlivable, in the end that’s what it comes down to, isn’t it? That you care so much, too much, and that’s not meant to sound like the job-interview weakness, oh I Just Work Too Hard and Care Too Much, it’s the same kind of aggressive honesty that DFW talks about in Infinite Jest, no one actually wants that level of stifling, insecurity-bound self-reverberating honesty because it’s too much to be confronted by everything that’s going on behind someone’s eyes when they really spill it all out, there’s a reason that spill-your-guts is a cliche, because they are bloody ugly entrails and no one wants to see those and there’s a reason we have a visceral reaction to seeing and smelling that, our animal nature kicks in and says this is Wrong, I must Get Away, nature is upside-down when I can see innards and after all they are called innards for a reason, use the language you love so much you idiot. There is nowhere to run to, really, unless maybe you just move to Kazakhstan or somewhere else that isn’t contaminated (“It’s contaminated!”), burning all your stuff right before, I mean all your stuff, really, and shutting down pictures and memories and Facebook, you just go and it would look a little like the monastery plan in 2011 (God, how this book has made you re-look at that idea in a new and entrail-colored light) and you could go an volunteer somewhere and just try to cleanse all the memory away without actually excising it chemically, waiting to get old and senile and only have the memory of what’s in front of you. She would come with you, if that’s what you needed, you know she would, and isn’t that enough, maybe, to make it worth it, to know for sure? Or are you just another idiot human who believes there is a test for faith out there, you don’t need to read a book as brilliant as this one to know that faith is not there to be tested, that the whole notion of that is wrong, that this is the PTSD talking like it always does, the loudest and most explosive voice in the room, shouting down the reasonable elements because it is always behaving like the wounded animal it is. And like, yes, we get it, you need balm for your wounds and you just want to be heard, but maybe let someone else talk sometimes, maybe let someone else have the floor, we haven’t heard from Hope in a while, over there in the corner, smiling shyly at all these boorish injured guys in the room, don’t you have something to contribute to this discussion? And Hope looks down meekly, then looks up, and she admits that she just has the same platitudes and cliches that she’s always had, but maybe if you say them enough, they’ll work, and her voice tilts up at the end and almost squeaks, almost fades out, and you go over and try to hug her to the point where you’re almost crushing the wind out of her, and this is the problem with Hope, you can’t hold on to her like this or you’ll kill her, so you back off sheepishly and grab the back of your hot neck with a hand and then some other angry voice takes the floor and she just shrugs at you like she doesn’t even resent you almost strangling her with your embrace just now and you know Distraction will have the floor soon, the same Distraction that almost took over that dark desperate night in your dorm room in the Castle, the pulsing music of Cholmondoley’s blaring up and urging you to do drugs, to go to the equivalent of Bourbon Street that you have access to, to join the throng and the slippery phrase “self-medicate” because this is one of the real, tangible reasons that your memory is so much stronger and clearer and brighter and they have ways of fixing that. That every night you ferry people along their corridors of this decision, sometimes coaching them through the little memories that pop up and poke through, like the leg of an alien in the grass, just a glimpse that startles and the music is almost that dramatic in the background, whenever there’s a reference, an image, something you Did Not Google but have to see anyway, the world really does move beneath you, and for the wrong reasons and that shot of adrenaline shoots from your heart (sure, adrenaline is probably not literally stored in the heart, I guess it’s a jolt of blood or something) and jams in your brain and briefly fogs everything on landing and then it becomes clear, all too clear, so much clarity, and you just can’t wait anymore, you have to remember even clearly, distilled, like the vodka you won’t have, clear as a damn bell, what you were thinking at that moment, it will feel good to scratch the bite (mosquitoes, everything I own is a souvenir of Liberia), to watch it swell in size three times, because sometimes then it pops and the poisonous pus emerges and you can start to heal, yeah right, ha ha, have you even been paying attention?

31 July – 9 August 2002

SignsAlien

by

The Kid in the Hall

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Let's Go M's, Tags: , ,

TheKid95

Any Mariners fan knows that 1995 was the most magical year of baseball in our history. The Mariners overcame a 13.5-game deficit (11.5 games on August 24th, with just over a month to go in the season) to catch the California Angels, beat them in a 1-game playoff, come back in the 11th inning to beat the Yankees in the franchise’s first playoff series ever, before finally coughing up the ALCS in 6 games. The comeback is perhaps the most legendary in baseball history, but it has a dirty little secret. While reputed as being a fundamentally miraculous turnaround, it coincided completely with the return of one legendary player from injury, who immediately transformed the team from a plucky .500 club to a team with a world-class centerpiece.

That same person ignited the first game that started the turnaround, which happened to be his first game back from an injury that had befallen him in May. He also scored the winning run in the Yankees series. And from today on, he’s a Hall of Famer.

Ken Griffey, Jr. is known for saving baseball in Seattle. The Kid, as he was called from day one in Seattle, debuted in April 1989 at the age of 19. I was 9 years old, living on the Oregon coast, and in my first full year of baseball fandom. I didn’t root primarily for the M’s at the time, but that season of hearing Dave Niehaus recite the dynamic accomplishments of the rookie was already helping turn me away from the team that would win the championship that season and to a lovable band of perennial losers. Of course, Griffey was determined to change the narrative in Seattle. He didn’t save baseball in the city, he created it.

He didn’t do it alone, surely. Edgar and Randy and all the guys had a big part to play in the 1990s Mariner squads that turned the tide of history for the club and kept them from moving to Tampa Bay, something that was all but a done deal midway through the ’95 campaign. But without Griffey, it’s hard to imagine any of that success. When he went down with his severe wrist injury that May, it seemed like fate was truly out to get the M’s. The 1994 strike had felled a team that had won 9 of their last 10 and was closing in on first, while Griffey was having a career year. Even 1995 was shortened by the strike, with the season getting off to a late start that made The Kid’s absence even more powerful. As soon as he came back, Refuse to Lose was born. So 1995 isn’t just the story of an unbelievable comeback. The comeback is made a little more believable by the infusion of one of the greatest of all-time.

It’s easy to see echoes of 1995 in 2016. Of course, as I’ve said in several of my “Let’s Go M’s” posts on this blog, it’s easy for a Mariners fan to see echoes of 1995 in every season. Once your team has overcome an 11.5 game deficit starting in late August, no lead in the standings feels insurmountable ever after. But after a hot start this year, the M’s have struggled mightily in midsummer, falling back to .500 after a year that promised to finally end our longest-in-baseball playoff drought. Of course, there’s a dirty little secret behind this collapse as well: the injury to Felix Hernandez.

On May 27 of this year (Griffey’s ’95 injury had taken place on May 26 when he crashed into a wall), Felix pitched his last game before going on the Disabled List with a calf injury. At the time, the M’s were 28-19, 1.5 games up on the Rangers in the AL West. In his absence, the team slumped back to .500, going 19-28, an exact mirror image of their hot start with Felix available. On Wednesday, he returned to action, with the team 47-47 and 7.5 games out of first (the team’s deficit peaked at … wait for it … 11.5 games). While his start was shaky, he overcame a rough first inning to keep the game close and the M’s were able to win on a walk-off in the bottom of the 11th. It was a game that looked so much like 1995, it gave me deja vu. The M’s went on to beat the Blue Jays 2-1 and 14-5 before slipping today. They’re 3-1 since Felix’s return and 31-20 overall with him on the roster. And the Rangers have been collapsing, not quite like the ’95 Angels, yet, but enough to let us in the door. Entering play today, the Mariners were just 5.5 out.

Am I reaching too hard for a narrative today, the day that Ken Griffey, Jr. was inducted into the Hall of Fame with the highest vote percentage in the history of the Hall? Perhaps. After all, Felix doesn’t play every day and there’s only so much impact any one pitcher can have on an entire season of games. But as The Kid surely knew in 1995, actual play is only a portion of a superstar’s impact on the team. They also teach and inspire their teammates. And their presence, their active placement on the roster and in the field, makes everyone else believe that greatness is possible. It’s easier to believe you can fight for that comeback when you know Felix is looking on from the dugout, that he’s going to be pitching every five days, that there’s always a chance.

It’s become fashionable in baseball this century to discredit such notions, to believe that baseball players are human beings on the field who are affected by emotions and momentum and environmental factors. I don’t know how these people explain Tiger Woods’ epic collapse that aligned with the collapse of his marriage and his public humiliation in the international media, nor even how they explain Griffey’s rapid deterioration when he left Seattle, let alone every change in approach made by players after trades, signings, and changes of all sorts. I think the real explanation is much more clear: baseball is still played by people, not robots. Sabermetrics may reveal some trends and statistical value where not previously seen, but the biggest determining factor in a player’s performance is still how they feel in that moment. And Griffey was a great not just for his stellar athletic ability. He was an all-time great for elevating everyone around him, making them better than themselves, making them want to be even better than that.

There are a million memories to recount of The Kid, none of which do full justice to him, and all of which are being covered by the mainstream media today as he goes into the Hall. Some I even discussed here when he retired as a Mariner in 2010. By all means, read everything you can about Griffey today.

The city of Seattle and the fans of the Mariners will never be able to do enough to thank Junior for all he did. But the best way to try might just be to make another storied comeback this year. The M’s made the playoffs just twice after he left the team, the first two years he was gone, inspiring the meme that M’s kept getting better without superstars. Randy Johnson was traded in 2000 and the M’s set a record for regular season wins the next year, after losing two Hall of Famers in back-to-back years. Of course, Ichiro had joined the team in 2001 at the peak of his career, so, y’know, we didn’t only lose future denizens of the Hall. But there’s a Mariners cap in Cooperstown, now and forever. My oh my.

by

Bernie Sanders and the Future of American Democracy

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

When I was growing up in Oregon, I was an avid 4-Her. (That’s pronounced four-ae-cher, not four-her, if you’re not familiar with 4-H.) We had ducks, geese, rabbits, and chickens, and I would show them at the county fair every summer, especially the summer I was 12. During that year, we’d just formed the Beach Bunnies 4-H club after I’d spent a few years in a couple other clubs, and we won the coveted Herdsmanship Trophy at the Clatsop County Fair in what proved to be the only year of the club’s existence. And it was the only year we took Patty Duckworth to the fair.

Patty Duckworth is probably my favorite pet of all-time. She was our lone duck to survive an overnight raccoon attack that killed our three other ducks, including her brother, Patrick. She almost didn’t make it, living three months in our spare bathtub being nursed back to health as the skin on her neck re-grew and other wounds healed. This experience transformed her, making her believe that she was indeed a human just like us, that she belonged in the house, and giving her a taste, somehow, for rabbit food. She was a very attached animal, following me around all over the yard, constantly communicating, and showing some minimal PTSD by making warning quacks anytime anyone got near. We jokingly called her the guard-duck.

In the 1992 Clatsop County Fair, we entered her in the mallard category. There are generally two ways to show animals at the fair – entering them as examples of their breed (kind of like a dog show) and actually showing them, which is more about the presenter’s command of the animal and knowledge of how to work with their animal (which I guess is like a different kind of dog show). We did both with Patty that year, but her status as a mallard only mattered in the breed ribbon. She won a red ribbon, which roughly conforms to second place, for the female mallards.

The only trouble was, we soon thereafter found out that she wasn’t a mallard at all. She was a rouen, a similar but ultimately different breed. We’d been sold Patrick and Patty as mallard ducklings, but the distinctions in the yellow-brown balls of fluff they were at the time were probably lost on the farm store staff. Or maybe they just knew mallards were more popular since most folks haven’t heard of rouens. Rouens, in fairness, look very similar to mallards, including the distinctive green heads with little white collars on the males.

Bernie Sanders is a lot like Patty Duckworth. Not just in being one of my all-time favorites, but in being entered in the wrong category as a candidate. And like Patty, he earned a red ribbon. My liberal friends, tripping over each other to line up behind Hillary Clinton, have been maligning Bernie for everything he’s done lately, especially staying in the race, and even his allegedly poor showing in earning his narrow red ribbon to Hillary’s blue. I think this misses the real headline, which is that a rouen almost beat a mallard in a mallard contest. Bernie Sanders is not, nor has he ever been, a Democrat. He’s a Socialist. And he very nearly staged a successful takeover of the Democratic Party, despite having transparently joined for the sole purpose of doing just that. His near-victory* should not be processed as a crushing defeat so much as a very exciting signal to radicals, and a very scary one for traditional Democrats.

*It’s worth noting that he could still win the nomination, which is why he hasn’t dropped out. We have between now and Philadelphia for Hillary to get indicted. I don’t think it’s very likely, but if it happens, boy will all those liberals be glad that Bernie stayed in so Trump doesn’t win 47 states in November.

The Democrats have been a centrist party since Bill Clinton took them in that direction in 1992. No major nominee for the party in the intervening time could be confused for being leftist, let alone far-left, with the stated exception of Barack Obama, before we saw what his government actually looked like. The pattern of talking left but moving center-right has been well-established, underlined by the purported success of the Bill and Barack administrations, which actually amounted to sort of aimless rightward drift, with the notable exception of a few solid policies in Obama’s lame-duck half-term. The reforms to wage and hour laws and the reaching out to Iran and Cuba make me wonder what an actually progressive president could achieve. Sadly, there’s no way we’ll find out in the next four years unless Hillary gets indicted.

The craving people feel for a real progressive movement in politics is clear in more than just the Bernie movement. The success of Occupy that set the stage for Bernie, the advancement of Black Lives Matter, the brief but popular campaign of Howard Dean in 2004 (before he sold out), the immense popularity of who we thought Barack Obama would be, and the general rising disgust with a society built on debt and income inequality all speak to the potential power of a real progressive. And with a rising consciousness about climate change and real environmentalism, combined with the ongoing fallout from the 2008 financial crisis, it is becoming increasingly clear to many that capitalism is not compatible with progressive ideals. Indeed, that capitalism represents a very real destruction of human life, either as we know it or altogether, at least for the vast majority of eligible voters. It is painfully ironic that the only remaining messenger of this reality in the 2016 contest is himself perhaps the all-time poster-boy of capitalism, a charlatan and huckster who has crafted a lifetime of imagery around being the ultimate capitalist.

And, of course, his adherence to that message can be trusted about as much as anything Hillary pivots to in order to curry favor. The final general election choice being offered by the major parties is a race to the bottom between two inveterate liars, two individuals who embody self-aggrandizement and empowerment at the expense of all else, who radiate detestable self-promotion and opportunism, corruption and greed. One is popular because he was born into money, the other because she married into power. These twin titans of American folly are pitted against each other in a fear-fueled campaign to the death, one that opens with a near-majority of America probably hating both of them, 85% hating one of them, and this is before they throw the first real punch in their heads-up fracas.

If I were trying to disenfranchise an entire nation, to nullify hope and eliminate faith in politics for a whole country, I could not imagine two better candidates to wield the coffin-nails. I have quipped that by the end, about seven people will vote in each state.

That claim itself at this point is a bit of referendum on why we vote. Most of my cynical colleagues from various generations of APDA have insisted that people vote out of fear, not hope, despite what 2008’s turnout may say to the contrary. They insist there will be robust and enthusiastic turnout as people storm to the polls to reject Trump’s brand of bullying racist populism. I observe that Hillary is probably the most hated politician in America of the last two decades, so just as many fearful folks would turn out against her. But ultimately, I think this level of fear and exaggeration just leads to fatigue. Fatigue that does not inspire one to drive to the booth and pull the lever for the lesser evil. We shall, of course, unfortunately, find out.

I would say, today, that if it remains Trump vs. Clinton and remains a generally perceived two-person race (surely Gary Johnson and Jill Stein will exceed expectations, but probably not approach 10% each), that Trump’s about 62% to win. I don’t think the long race favors Clinton when she has to slog it out with someone who has made his life in show-business, someone who the camera and the soundbite favor, someone who has already made his living out of belittling people and remaking his image. They are both practiced liars, both skilled manipulators, but I think the fresher face to this particular scene has the edge, especially when Trump seems more in touch with the reality of 2016’s electorate and real financial situation. I don’t think it will be a slam dunk and I don’t think it’s guaranteed, but the Democrats are already underestimating Trump nearly as much as the Republicans did, and we all saw how that turned out.

(Incidentally, I still think, even as of today, that Paul Ryan has about a 30% chance of being the Republican nominee. It’s really up to the party how to proceed and they don’t have to follow their own rules. And Paul Ryan would beat Hillary Clinton in a Reaganesque landslide, if only because he’s totally avoided all the 2016 action and thus doesn’t symbolize this ugly year to voters.)

So what of people like me? Like so many of my friends, like so many people who know that the future is not capitalism but a turn toward something anti-corporate and truly progressive? Where do we go for help and hope, other than to the protest ballot for Jill Stein? Do we form our own party and start running for 2018 spots? Do we make sure to point out all of President Clinton’s flaws if she does get elected, relishing in yet 4-8 more years of being called a traitor every day and demanding too much of someone who allegedly represents us? When both parties insist on boxing out any voice we have despite the fact that we nearly took over a vaguely hostile centrist party, do we just give up on this groundswell of power and move on to knitting clubs and 4-H and other pursuits? Do we move to Europe?

I don’t really have an answer today. My Dad has insisted for twenty years that “there are no political solutions.” I’ve perhaps never been closer to agreeing with him. And yet the demographic trends point out that the balance of time favors the Bernie supporters and the real progressives, that this movement is only likely to grow more powerful over the next few years, not less. And more importantly, that power can’t help but be accelerated by a Trump or Clinton presidency, one that continues to pay off the cronies, the rich, the companies, and the greedy. Eventually, capitalism resolves to one person owning everything. The closer we get to that, the closer we get to either literally discarding democracy or witnessing some more serious backlash to capitalism within it.

There is a lot of reason to be hopeful about 2020, then, I guess, though it’s that kind of hope that involves thinking the war will be so bad that there must be a good peace settlement in four years. In the meantime, it might be a good time to unplug from all domestic political news entirely, lest you start believing all the impending insults and drama mean something to the real future of our country.

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Duckland

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Telling Stories, Tags: , ,

DucksOnAPond

When I lived in Oregon, I was in a lot of plays. I started (and ended) my professional acting career, serving in the ensemble for the Lewis and Clark Pageant, an annual summer play on the riverbank in Seaside designed to commemorate the expedition and desperately tie our little rural/tourist corner of the world to something monumental in history. I was one of two children in the play (we were both about 8-10 years old), and we danced in the scene in Missouri to celebrate the expedition’s departure, then played Native American children who encountered the expedition, and at one point I think I also played the equivalent of a cabin boy on the expedition itself. Mostly I was backstage and watched the various scenes as the real keelboat floated on its tether and various dramatic and vaguely historical happenings unfolded before the summer beachgoers. I also spent a tremendous amount of time with journeyman actors on the rural Oregon circuit, having some of my first non-school contact with adults who were not of my family. And I got a social security number and card, a prerequisite to collecting my nominal paycheck for the performances. I don’t know if it was standard procedure to not issue these things at birth in 1980 or if it was just that my parents resisted such norms at the time.

I also began my most serious and earnest writing project to date there, and one decidedly more original than the more substantial one that followed (that being The Legend of Enutrof, an embarrassingly derivative rip-off of Brian Jacques’ medieval fantasy novels starring talking animals). Enutrof was a few years later, dipping into the New Mexico years, and topped out at about 135 pages before I realized just how unoriginal it was. But the prior effort, crafted mostly during the mosquito-bitten summers in the twilight pageant of my 9th summer, was called Duckland. It reached about 50 or 60 pages before I gave up, though these were handwritten pages in my unimpressive scrawl, so it probably translates to something more like 20. This was based mostly on the largest and most vocal community to adorn the pageant’s stage, a flock of ducks.

(Incidentally, Google informs me that a flock is usually what a group of ducks is called in flight. Apparently it’s either a raft or a paddling in the water. If I’d just casually dropped “a paddling of ducks” there, though, I think you might have thought I was one of those kids who tortured animals from a young age. I was not. Without that connotation, though, I kind of like that. Though a raft is reminiscent of the omnipresent keelboat that was a key feature of the stage, so maybe we should go with that.)

The ducks were ostensibly wild, but functionally domesticated in the way that so many approachable animals become when they have ongoing contact with human communities that cultivate their presence. The riverbank where the pageant was held was reasonably traversed with tourist traffic taking in the pastoral scene even when the show was not on, and the show only increased this presence. Inevitably there would be a lot of children, or older folks, and they would bring bread, so by the time I met this raft of ducks (weird, right?), they were far more likely to waddle toward strange people than away from them. All while making that low murmuring sound that can be translated as a very soft quack, but really sounds more like Donald Duck at half volume and one-third speed.

The ducks were endlessly fascinating to me, even though I had ducks of my own at home to tend to and play with. These ducks could fly, though they mostly did so only when spooked to lift off the water, take a long arcing bank, and then land splashily again a few yards away. They had specific habits and social structures, unique personalities, and group tendencies. I got to the point where I could pick out many of them from the crowd between their appearance and proclivities and of course started naming them. Naming them quickly became a story and the story soon went into pencil-on-notebook-paper efforts that piqued the interest of many fellow actors as I chugged away at it.

Duckland‘s protagonist was Jimmy Richter-Duck (all of the last names were *-Duck, which I guess was a bit redundant, and there was definitely something about an earthquake in Jimmy’s past, maybe when he hatched?). An outsider and iconoclast, his primary issue with duck society was its slavish devotion to the cycle of the sun. Why should a duck go to sleep just because it’s dark out, Jimmy inquired of his fellow fowl. Jimmy stayed up late and even slept in during the morning, boldly resisting nature’s precepts. He started winning other converts to the cause of night-owling (-ducking?) when I ran out of steam on the project. There were other subplots too, but I’d have to dig through the archive boxes in Albuquerque to be sure of their nature. I think Jimmy had a romantic interest who he really wanted to stay up late with, as well as a rival duck of some sort who constantly derided him.

It’s much easier in retrospect, as it often is, to see echoes of my own arguments with my parents about bedtime reflected in Jimmy’s struggle, though that was a battle I won fairly early in childhood, unlike haircuts and the eternal skirmishes over food. (As I prepare for my own potential fights with a possible child down the line, it strikes me how my parents never had a chance on any of these issues in the long-term. Or would I have been so committed to them in adulthood had they not been arguments in childhood?) But I’d like to think there was also something more fundamental or universal in Jimmy’s resistance to nature, even amongst a more obviously nature-bound group like ducks (as opposed to how humans perceive themselves). Of course, it was pretty clear to me at the time that the ducks perceived themselves more like people do than like people perceive ducks. And this is more than a “what’s water?” query from a fish. It should be obvious to anyone whose spent extensive time with communities of animals that they have elaborate communication, something I think is only fit to call language, along with daily tribulations and variation to rival our own. Duckland at times felt almost as much like journalism as it did fiction.

I remember that my scribbling attracted the specific attention of a particular actor who I probably spent the most time backstage talking to. My image of him is a little hazy, but he was definitely overweight, with glasses, and a bit of a nerdy demeanor. He talked to me, as most of the actors did actually, like an adult, and even read some of my writing. After perusing some pages of Duckland, he asked if I wanted to be an intellectual. I said unequivocally yes. He told me that I was wrong, that one shouldn’t be too intellectual. Feedback that, when I relayed it to my father, he was horrified to hear. I still cannot think of this guy or even that whole summer without almost immediately thinking of that series of conversations, how passionately my dad defended being an intellectual and intellectual pursuits, and how hot under the collar I felt for even allowing myself to talk to someone who decried the approach.

I wish I could remember his name, but I don’t. We would play chess during longer stretches of waiting backstage. It’s also obvious, of course, that he was an intellectual, a serious and sensitive one, and that he regretted his own path at the expense of something more socially acceptable or popular. Or easy, perhaps. That he spent his time backstage of a vaguely dweeby semi-professional play hanging out with a precocious nine-year-old rather than, say, any of the actresses. That to the extent that he could pass on advice, it was to avoid his fate.

In the end, I’m with Jimmy Richter-Duck. You’ve gotta make your own path. Walking through Audubon Park yesterday, basking in the overheated glow of a gorgeous day filled with the freedom that only the recently resigned (and not destitute) can feel, I saw some ducks, heard the low murmur of their conversation. And hoped that the rest of that guy’s life was longer on opportunities and shorter on regrets. I’ve collected plenty of regrets myself, but being an intellectual isn’t among them. Nor is any single time I’ve gone on a walk in search of ducks.

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Prevention and Cure

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , ,

PreventCure

We live in a cure society. Not just because we have races for the cure and build awareness for cures and believe that eventually every malady we face will someday be cured. Also for those reasons, but not even primarily because of that. It is reasonable to hope that we can discover, create, and utilize cures for the things that go wrong in our lives. But as the old adage reminds us, it is even more reasonable (and efficient) to aim to prevent those things in the first place.

We don’t believe in prevention in this society, though. I guess we’re starting to believe a little in the prevention of pregnancy and the transmission of STDs, but otherwise we’re not really into taking steps to keep ourselves from harm. We drive cars, we put the cell phone right up to our brain, we eat poorly, we live with chronic stress and pain and fatigue and anger. And whenever the inevitable things go wrong, when we have accidents or cancer or heart disease or panic attacks, we wait impatiently for the cures to come in and make it all better. To get us back in the game so we can head back out and reinjure ourselves and we can begin the cycle anew.

When I got kidney stones in 2010, my assigned urologist was uninterested in even examining what in my life might be causing the phenomenon. He rattled off a list of prescription drugs that would help combat the stones’ effects, as well as some advanced treatment options for splitting the stones into more manageable kidney pebbles. He rolled his eyes when I asked about side effects of these drugs, let alone the little lasers that could play Bruce Willis to the calcified asteroids in my organs. But the contempt really came out when I asked what steps I could take to keep from getting kidney stones in the future. Apparently I was his first patient to deign to ask why I was getting kidney stones in the first place, so I could attempt to stop doing whatever that was. Granted by the assembled populous of kidney stone and prostate cancer sufferers in the waiting room that I was below his average patient’s age by about four decades and this made me decidedly more invested in future behaviors than most of my comrades, but still. He blinked at me and acted like he hadn’t heard the question. When I made another pass, he mumbled something about eating more stone fruits and maybe less dairy. They are made of calcium, after all, those kidney stones. Not all of them, but the ones I had, according to a week of urine I collected in an orange bucket.

Turned out that the real issue was dehydration, the result primarily of crying basically all the time over my divorce. Which, you know, is not a diagnosis that I could reasonably have expected him to come up with. I got the 100% real cranberry juice (something a friend had to tell me about, because my doctor certainly wasn’t going to) and cut back on cheese, but hydrating more and crying less did most of the trick. I haven’t passed a stone in three years.

So this reality certainly applies to the medical field and our entrenched beliefs about it. It’s part of why medical costs are so disproportionately high in this country, driven as they are by the cure-side of the equation. Prescription drugs are one of the single biggest industries, in terms of both absolute size and ongoing growth, that we have in this nation. Preventative medicine is kind of a fringe notion, vaguely associated with quacky herbs and the word socialism. No matter that health plans focused on prevention rather than repair are immensely more efficient and effective than their rivals. That doesn’t propel a growth industry so much as the maintenance society. And we all know a society addicted to cancerous growth cannot abide a viable maintenance plan.

But this goes well beyond just the medical field as a notion about how we are to live our lives. We live with a model of life that presumes it will create all manner of unhealthy side effects, then try to sell a variety of cures to solve those problems. Stress, unhappiness, inadequacy, depression, infidelity, insomnia, crime, poverty, disaster. We expect most of these things to befall us as we approach our daily life, making it vital that we raise enough money for the tools to fix them: yoga, gym memberships, better food, vacations, therapy, medical care, and entertainment of every possible variety. Examine our professions and pastimes in this society and how many of them are making up for some real or perceived deficiency created by the hardships of life. And I am hardly here to sit on some high horse and chastise you about these things: in the past year, I’ve signed up for yoga, a gym membership, tried to eat better food, considered counseling, taken vacations, and bought a lot of entertainment. It’s not like all or even any of these things are innately problematic. But when we feel a desperate need for them as the natural consequence of the way we live our life, it might be time to take a step back and re-examine.

There is a simpler and perhaps more documented model for this kind of prevention-cure dichotomy in our society: childcare. Childcare is almost uniquely expensive in America, perhaps the only thing people are willing to sacrifice for more than health care. And the justification for buying childcare is maintaining one’s place in the capitalist economy: bringing in enough money and perhaps prestige to keep the wheel turning. For so many couples in America, the equation doesn’t really work: it’s break-even at best. But the notion of living on just one income, of ditching the job for the child, is often unthinkable, even when it would make more total financial sense, to say nothing of the benefits of not having one’s kid raised primarily by a stranger.

Now this particular example is massively complicated by the gender issues involved, with the deadly combination of traditional sexist expectations of women to be the primary caretakers and the pay gap exacerbating pressure on women to be the ones who step away from the workplace. When one adds bias against both women and men with career disruptions on their resume, these factors negate the simplicity of the choice for a lot of couples. This makes it powerfully important for many to stay in the workplace, even if they’re running on a treadmill just to keep up. But if we could hit a giant reset button on gender perceptions in our society (yes, this would fix a lot of things), making it truly as likely that the man would stay home in any given instance, then we’d have another example of it being totally nonsensical to choose cure over prevention.

The trouble is, whether you think it applies well in the childcare example or not, we know that prevention is more effective than curing. Beyond the cliche, it’s fundamentally obvious to us that the cure is never 100%: there are always complications and side effects and increased risks going forward. And sure, prevention is never 100% either. You can avoid the stressful day job and still get depressed. Condoms break. The train can crash just like the car. But at least prevention gives you a good chance at 100% avoidance. And the worst-case scenario of failures in prevention are needing the cure. In other words, the worst-case scenario of a prevention mentality is relying on the best-case scenario of a cure mentality.

What tangible steps can you take in your own life to replace cures with prevention?

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The Quest for Understanding

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , ,

For most of my life, the prevailing presumption underlying my existence is that I was on a mission to be understood. More even than to be loved (though I of course see them as related), certainly more than to be happy. Simply to be really fathomed, to have someone be able to see into my thoughts and feelings and take up residence. If not comfortably, per se, at least with the notion that this is comprehensible.

I would argue that this is a more universal desire than might be readily agreed to. I have argued, at times, that this is all anyone wants out of life, or what most people most want. I’m not convinced this is the case anymore, in part from growth in (note the irony here) understanding others, and starting to grasp the depth of human diversity and perspective. There really are people, whether it’s deeply authentic or largely shaped by societal structures, who just want to be happy. Or, more often, comfortable. And being understood isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it’s a deeply unsettling experience.

Such an unsettling experience, that was simultaneously disturbing and movingly comforting, was had by me last night. It took place, like so many moving and disturbing experiences, in a movie theater. It was the experience of watching the new film Infinitely Polar Bear.

Folks, if you have even a passing interest in understanding me, if you want to know what it’s like to be the crazy person you know or read as Storey Clayton, this is your chance. Get yourself to a theater.

It’s not perfect. It’s not exactly spot-on in every place. I leaned over to Alex about four times during the screening and said “I’m not this bad, right?” It’s fueled by substances, both alcohol and tobacco and also lithium, none of which I’ve ever partaken in, nor ever plan to. And that makes a huge difference, in the severity and breadth of manifestations of manic depression. The see-sawing nature of addiction and chemical reliance certainly put a more dramatic and tenuous spin on the experience of emotional sine-curves. But good God, by and large, it was like watching a documentary of my emotional reality. Made doubly more mind-blowing by the fact that Mark Ruffalo, an actor whose range and depth I’ve always found disappointing, was bringing it to life so perfectly.

I was also probably more flabbergasted than normal by the fact that this viewing was one of the few in my life where I had the ideal movie-watching experience. I’d seen no previews, read no synopses or reviews, had no Earthly idea of anything about the movie other than its title when the movie began. All I knew is that someone I trusted to know me, at least a bit, had vouched that I would like the movie. So to have the movie really seem to get me, to understand my life and perspective, while I was viewing it this way, was incredibly special. One of the best experiences like this I ever had was seeing Memento in Boston at that vaguely independent theater that always seemed to spell doom for relationships. The immersion that can be achieved by having no idea what experience is coming brings movies the closest to simulating real life that they can. Something about that unpredictability that underlies our existence.

This issue of understanding, by the way, is what has made romantic betrayal such a particularly consternating aspect of my life. There is something about the people who came the closest to understanding, who professed understanding almost endlessly, being those who suddenly shun and disregard, that creates the ultimate devastation. There is this sinking feeling, actually attested to by my ex-wife, that the more one understands, the more inevitable betrayal becomes. That getting that close to the reality, to actually knowing what’s going on, creates repulsion, fear, the need to separate oneself. It is the increasing conviction that being truly understood will create this betrayal that has led me, for the first time in my life, to consider that being understood might not be the goal after all. That maybe we’re here to help each other get by without understanding.

True fact: I have received one (1) new e-mail during the time I’ve been writing this post. It is an invitation to the latest Bring Your Own Story event, wherein the theme of storytelling will be “To Good to Be True”.

I, literally, can’t make this stuff up.

Maybe I should just go hang out with the screenplay writer of Infinitely Polar Bear. Or even Mark Ruffalo, who seemed to capture something that so easily could have been a caricature as a real experienced life. Frankly, most people will probably see it as a caricature. And some of the extremes are things that I may not have actually done, though I’ve probably been close to everything depicted, outside of those scenes involving substances. Which I guess brings us to the only conclusion I can be sure of from all this today: Thank God I never started drinking. Thank you grandparents, thank you Gin Blossoms songs, thank you Sarah Brook and Fish for stopping me when I got off the plane from Liberia. I am convinced today that alcohol alone is the difference between me managing life as a high-functioning manic depressive who can “pass” as “normal” (though of course this blog lives in public largely because I don’t believe in passing) and being worse off than the polar bear stumbling through life on a screen near you.

The movie's publicity wing seems to be suppressing screenshots of Mark Ruffalo's character making a scene so they can market the film as a heartwarming triumph over adversity, I guess.  This slightly manic scene will have to suffice to capture just a glimpse of the real experience.

The movie’s publicity wing seems to be suppressing screenshots of Mark Ruffalo’s character making a scene so they can market the film as a heartwarming triumph over adversity, I guess. This slightly manic scene will have to suffice to capture just a glimpse of the real experience.

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The Closeness of Baseball and the 2015 Seattle Mariners

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Let's Go M's, Tags: , ,

Logan Morrison scores an insurance run in the top of the 11th this afternoon after doubling in the go-ahead run for the M's against the Twins.

Logan Morrison scores an insurance run in the top of the 11th this afternoon after doubling in the go-ahead run for the M’s against the Twins.

The Mariners did something this afternoon they haven’t been doing much lately. They won a game.

Even more surprisingly, they won the game by more than a single run. The final score was 4-1 in their favor. Less surprisingly, it took them 11 innings to get there.

Those of you who read my baseball posts or follow baseball more generally may recall that while the M’s wound up one game shy of the playoffs last year, they had the statistically most exciting regular season last year, by a wide margin, as I ruminated on last October. This year, they’ve captured an almost dominating penchant for a different kind of baseball excitement than being close to the playoffs, and one that makes each inning even more engaging: close games.

The Mariners have played 39 one-run games this year, the most in the American League and third-most in baseball. That represents fully 37% of their season being games decided by the closest possible margin. Today’s game was their 15th extra-inning game, also the most in the AL and tied for the most in baseball. They are 20-19 and 8-7 in these two categories respectively, making such close contests basically toss-ups when the M’s play them, better odds than their .453 winning percentage overall (and way better than, say, their .418 winning percentage in games decided by more than one run). No one in the AL has won more 1-runners and only two teams have lost more (the A’s being notably hapless with a 10-25 1-run mark which will both underscore the near-miss potential of “moneyball” and make Oakland fans resentful of any kind of “how close we could have been” message I give the M’s from this post).

By the standard metrics of excitement per game, of memorably close game, the Mariners are at the top. But what happens when we drill a little bit deeper into the data?

The Mariners have been involved in 12 walk-off games (those ending in the very last at-bat), winning 5 and losing 7. For context, they were 2-6 in such contests all of last season (8 games total of 162, contrasted with 12 this season in just 106 so far). Less than a week into the season, they played four straight one-run games, the first three of which also went into extra innings and the last two of which were walk-off losses. In the middle of last month, they again played four straight one-run contests, with the fifth right after being a wild 11-9 win in which they overcome an 8-6 deficit in the top of the 8th with a pinch-hit grand-slam by Franklin Gutierrez, in easily the most exciting pitch of my Mariner fandom this year. I was jumping around the room and scared our rabbit, who has little appreciation for baseball, and the game’s 20 runs and 26 hits took four hours and felt longer than most extra-inning games, coming down to as close a game as a two-run contest can be. They’ve played 21 2-run games (at a disappointing 7-14 clip) and 13 3-run games (much better at 8-5). While they’ve been outscored by 58 runs total in 106 games, they’ve been outscored by just 4 runs total in the 73 of them that have been decided by 3 runs or less. Meaning the remaining 33 have carried a 54-run deficit, in which their record is 13-20. Three of those have been wrenching double-digit losses. Their largest margin of victory, on the other hand, is 7.

I don’t have enough data in front of me to know how some of this compares to other teams or other seasons, but I’ve spent enough years as a fan to know that most baseball isn’t this close, at least not this consistently. Of course, one of the greatest aspects of baseball is its lack of clock and the fact that no game is ever truly over till the last out is recorded. One’s theoretical chance of coming back to win is always in play until this happens, unlike timed games where victory is often long beyond physical reach before their conclusion. There is no being 25 points down with one minute to play in baseball. You may be down 10 runs with one out to go, but people have come back from that kind of deficit before, which can not be said of insurmountable timed leads in basketball, football, soccer, and hockey.

The end result of all this is that while the Mariners languish 10 games below .500 and 12 games out of first place, they feel like they’re in it. Every game is going to go the full nine, maybe the full eleven or twelve, and it seems that, punctuated by a couple embarrassing blowout losses, just about every game is going to be a nail-biter, ending in tragedy or triumph, and often a string of alternating tragedies and triumphs as we match the other team run for run. It is this exactitude, this playing to precisely the level of the other team whether it’s in hitting or pitching or both, that is so confounding about the 2015 Mariners, and simultaneously makes them so entertaining to watch. They did things like winning exactly every other game during the first 12 days in July, going 6-6 without ever doing the same thing in back-to-back contests. After that, they didn’t compile more than a 2-game streak in either direction till a rare sweep loss to Arizona in which only one game was a 1-runner. It was also an extra-inning game, the night after an extra-inning one-run walk-off.

How can you not want to watch this, even if it mostly ends the same way the last 13 seasons of Mariners baseball have, outside the playoffs?

Part of this, of course, is augmented by an irrationality that I think is almost unique to Mariners fans who were avid in the 1995 season. After our first playoff year ever as a franchise (after an 0-18 start in seasonal attempts) came from an unthinkable comeback in the standings, down 11.5 games on August 24th and coming all the way back to force a one-game playoff for the Division title with the Angels, every Mariners deficit seems possible to overcome. The spirit of Refuse to Lose has never left Mariners fans, so we can look at a 12-game deficit in early August and say “meh”. It’s utterly nuts, to make every season into 1995 in our imaginings, a year when the Mariners went 25-11 in their last 36 games, then won a one-game playoff 9-1, then came back from 0-2 in the ALDS to win 3-2. But for me, for I suspect most long-term Mariners fans, we see the glint of ’95 in every shortfall. We are the worst kind of incorrigible optimists, able to make hope out of the feeblest of circumstances. Excitement like that found in each game this year sure doesn’t help.

I have often pondered the role of sports in our lives, as irrational and control-ceding and time-wasting as they can be. But one of the things they add to our lives, for those of us who let ourselves truly care about the teams and their outcomes, is a level of drama, thrill, and uncertainty that is rarely found in the other routines of our modern existences. When it is found, it is often all too real, the drama of a near-miss car accident or the uncertainty of the fate of a loved one. Sports, like amusement parks, offer people a chance to safely let themselves experience these ups and downs, to get emotional over things that are not, ultimately, life and death. And while every sports fan will tell you that what they most want for their team is a championship, there’s something to be said for the excitement along the way. A championship is just a moment, but nail-biting see-sawing one-run games are a little version of that kind of moment, over and over again. Tune in tomorrow night for more lead changes, blown saves, 9th inning homers, and an outcome as unpredictable as life itself.

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The Electability Trap

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

Americans are obsessed with having voted for the person who happened to win. It’s bizarre, and I’ve discussed it before, and it’s a large part of what never gets fixed about politics in this country and why we re-elect 99.9% of incumbents (rough estimate) and have a deadlocked system of two parties that are virtually indistinguishable in actual policy. But whatever. I’ll accept that as given since it seems like reality and I can’t fight it every time.

What I want to observe in this post is how bad people are at predicting electability, even when trying to chase that dragon. Because it’s pretty well documented, especially in the recent history of the Democratic Party. And, of course, it directly relates to 2016.

You know who the two most obvious electable nominees of the Democratic Party have been in my lifetime? Al Gore and John Kerry.

Who, if you’ve forgotten and are scoring at home, share zero years of lifetime Presidency, combined.

There was never any earnest, real excitement around these candidates. There was never verve or enthusiasm. But there was a strong sense that they were winners. These people were established! They were going places because, uh, people have heard of them? And stuff? And familiarity must breed some sort of excitement in November? Right?

Now, yes, I realize that Gore may have technically won the 2000 election, though we’ll never really know for sure. But you know what he didn’t win? His home state. What a winner!

Meanwhile, there have been two extremely successful two-term Presidents who have served as scions of the modern Democratic Party. They were also most commonly criticized throughout the primary process as one deathly word: “unelectable”.

You know these folks. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Part of why they were so unelectable is that you didn’t know these folks that well even two years before the election. Oh yes, Obama gave that stirring keynote at the Democratic Convention in 2004 that showed just how totally awful John Kerry really was as a candidate, but even then people smiled for the State Senator and told him that maybe in 2016 he’d have enough party credibility and establishment under his belt that he could consider running in the primaries. Clinton was a non-stop liability throughout the primary season. He had affairs and controversy following him all over the campaign trail. Meanwhile, in 2008, Obama was every bit the outsider that Bernie Sanders is today, against the presumed obvious nominee that Hillary Clinton was then, as she is now.

A funny thing happened on the way to the Convention. Excitement.

You see, it’s actually enthusiasm and energy that drive elections. This is what Americans, especially over-thinking political Americans, always seem to forget in analyzing electability. Barney Frank has certainly forgotten this, though he and all his Democratic establishment cronies are absolutely terrified of Bernie Sanders taking the Democratic Party back in the direction of its actual principles, before drone strikes and the TPP and workfare. His recent post in Politico is getting a ton of traction in my Facebook feed, mostly from debaters who seem to like the political gamesmanship of elections far more than the clash of principles. And Frank himself transparently bends over backwards to claim there’s basically no difference between Sanders and Hillary, despite Sanders shouting from the rooftops about income inequality, the slaughter of oppressed peoples at home and abroad, the minimum wage, and billionaires, while Hillary quietly defers and goes back to platitudes and equivocation.

Let me ask you a question. Are you excited about Hillary Clinton? Do you know anyone who is excited about Hillary Clinton?

And allow me to clarify. I didn’t ask if you were excited about the theory of four more years of a Democratic President, or about Supreme Court nominations, or about not-Republicans, or any other red herring issues that Hillary supporters have trotted out. And I didn’t ask about the abstract of a woman President since, after all, I know exactly what you would think if it were Sarah Palin vs. Barack Obama now, or back in 2012, so that’s not your real voting issue or what drives your enthusiasm, even if you have put aside the fact that her initial political experience and qualification was First Lady.

Are you energized? Are you inspired?

There may be a few of you who answered yes, I guess, though I think you’re lying to yourself. Unless you’re reading this, Chelsea. You’re probably pretty pumped.

But the crowds and the rallies and the buzz are telling the story. The excitement, the only real excitement on either side of the fence, is for Bernie Sanders. Oh sure, Trump is getting a lot of attention, but not a lot of enthusiasm. It’s mostly controversy. After all, he had to pay people to attend his candidacy announcement and pretend excitement. Trump is great theater, but he doesn’t have the energy. No one else on the Republican side is really getting people jazzed. Bush and Rubio and Walker all seem to have a bit of a following, but it’s with the same kind of verve of the most ardent Hillary supporter, which is to say a tentative shruggy kind of “well, I guess he’s…. electable?”

Energy wins elections. Obama. Bill Clinton. Reagan. In the modern media era, it’s this visionary excitement that drives voters to the polls. Not a resigned half-compromised “Well, let’s go with the establishment candidate because they have name recognition.”

Hillary does have name-recognition, along with strong and intractable unfavorability ratings from a majority of the electorate. People who like to talk about Bernie’s unattractiveness to Republicans forget that Hillary was the target of merciless attacks from the Republicans for most of the ’90s, far more hated than her husband, and was probably the biggest driving force behind the 1994 midterm Republican landslide. Those people haven’t forgotten how they feel about Hillary, no matter how many wars she’s promised to fight.

Meanwhile, Sanders has that kind of alternative appeal that could peel a lot of the fringe wings of the Republican Party away, just as a Ron Paul candidacy would have peeled a lot of fringe Democrats had he ever been nominated. If you see a Bernie Sanders general election against some big Republican Party hack, someone like a Jeb Bush or a Scott Walker, his authenticity and creativity are going to run circles of excitement around the trotting out of another established insider. Just as Hillary, the ultimate insider, seems slippery, dishonest, and unappealing to the average voter.

The only way Bernie Sanders can lose this primary contest coming up is if Democrats vote with their fear instead of their heart. Choose Kerry over Dean, choose Gore by default, choose tired unexciting establishment cronies to carry the banner instead of someone with fresh ideas that actually galvanize. You may think that your primary issue is electability, but I think you need to think again.

Three obviously electable Democratic establishment campaigns... that lose.

Three obviously electable Democratic establishment campaigns… that lose.

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It’s 2015 and You are Alive

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, If You're Going to San Francisco, Know When to Fold 'Em, Marching to New Orleans, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Quick Updates, Read it and Weep, Tags: , , , , , , ,

There’s a lot going on. There always is. Despite the efforts of various media outlets, phone applications, and the narrative brain to confine your existence to a narrow set of coherent and perfectly tailored activities/perceptions, reality is a cacophony of wills battling for your attention and interest. I can’t consolidate today. But I feel compelled to document. My thoughts are scattered and they’re cloudy… and like clouds, the thoughts can blow away. The Internet, as long as electricity works, is some sort of vault with which we can offer solidity to the clouds. That’s even how it’s described.

Barack Obama is suddenly the President he said he was going to be, at least a bit, in a lot of different fields. This is both exciting and sad. I have been one of the more anti-Obama leftists out there, frustrated as anyone about his drone strikes and his corporatist policies and his total ignoring of the plight of anyone who looks like him or the environment or poverty. And yet, every other day, there’s a news story about Obama suddenly talking about the prison-industrial complex, or opening an embassy in Cuba, or openly celebrating gay marriage. The 2008 Candidate, who disappeared for six or seven years, is suddenly back on the scene. It doesn’t take a political scientist to understand that it’s not having to win any more elections that is the direct cause of this change of (return to?) heart. I’m not sure anything could more concretely underline what’s wrong with the American electoral system than that someone feels they have to sell out for six years in order to sneak in a few good policies at the end. I still hold out hope that he’s going to commute every death sentence in the nation on January 19, 2017.

I have moved three times in the last twelve months. This one is mostly just sad, or exhausting and frustrating. All three were summer moves, in New Orleans, though the first one started in Jersey, where it wasn’t much less humid than here. Okay, it was a bit less humid. Every time I move, I say I’m going to get rid of all my stuff. I never do. I hate how American I am, deep down, in many ways. I can only say that moving frequently is good for me, so I don’t build up too much complacency about my acquisitions.

Returning to Berkeley was not as hard as I feared. I expressed a lot of trepidation about flying back to Berkeley, by myself, to spend a few days. The context of the trip was of course magical, but I still expected to feel a lot of angst and sadness. There was really very little. The place is still incredibly haunted, but I was more heartwarmed by seeing all the old great restaurants and little quirks that make Berkeley what it is. This was all only augmented by happening to start reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius right before the trip, which I feel like is nearly impossible to follow without a deep understanding of the Bay Area. It’s easy to forget that there are places where people unironically embed poetry into the sidewalk, where a meditation center is available as an AirBNB, where a guy like Ben Brandzel could be raised in context. Remembering that is nice.

Being without the Internet is both immensely frustrating and kind of good. This new apartment is great in a lot of ways, including that we get to have our rabbit, Brownie (quickly becoming a Facebook mini-celebrity) and that it’s walking distance to all the great stuff on Magazine Street. But it’s expensive, something we justified in part by the claim that Internet is included. This claim was greatly exaggerated, at least so far. Internet works about 30% of the time and will go out for days on end. I am not great at standing up to landlords, though we’ve been grousing a bit. But in the meantime, I’ve both gone without writing posts I was really excited about and read more than I would have otherwise. I guess it makes it about a push. The Internet, like so many things, is a tool that takes on a life of its own if you let it. It’s just a tool. It’s just a tool. How you use a tool is what determines its value.

I mostly eat when other people are around. It’s not that I completely starve when I’m alone, but I can regulate my food intake much better when there aren’t social pressures to eat with someone. Alex has been back in Jersey for a couple weeks and I find that my eating patterns have settled back to a more comfortable minimalism for me. Given that I gained 50 pounds between 2010 and 2015, I prefer the self-regulation level, which has brought 10-15 pounds off that high-water mark. I’m not looking for 2010 weights, which were depressively skeletal, but I also have no business being 170 pounds.

I’m not sure any news story has made me happier in years than Ashley Madison getting hacked. It’s hard to think of a business more pernicious or predatory of human emotions, nor people who more thoroughly deserve the searing light of publicity. I hope it all gets published in a wiki-style searchable index.

Walking in the rain in New Orleans in the summer is no big deal. I remember the one year I lived in DC, suddenly rain was not a hard deterrent to being outside. New Orleans is the first place where the rain has been sufficiently warm to replicate that experience. It was highly unintuitive to start out on a walk two nights ago into a burgeoning thunderstorm, but I felt reassured and ready. And I wasn’t disappointed. Remarkably, tons of people were out in the rain, equally unhurried. Yet another way this is a seriously liberating place to live.

Patience is an incredibly easy lesson to forget, but it’s at the center of everything. This is a lesson I had to learn and forget, learn and forget, learn and forget when playing poker semi-professionally. And it’s still at he heart of poker, and every competitive game out there. The fun and even more forgettable thing about patience is that it actually can slow time down, which makes you feel like you’re living longer. This is mostly just a note-to-self that I’m sharing with everybody. Yoga and meditation are kind of the embodiment of patience, that unhurried slowing of intention and desire and replacing it with the ticking of each second, slowly. Time is extremely perceptual. Everything in Western society pushes us to rush through things, push for a future that may never come, go go go go go at a busy and overwhelmed pace. This is a life-destructive, time-destructive force. As much as we can layer our lives with the opposite, with patience, with milking a second’s worth of time out of every second, the more whole we will tend to feel.

I have a lot more thoughts, all of which at one point could possibly have merited a whole post on their own. But this format, a little more like the days of Introspection, is fitting for now. And now I have to go get ready to have a day at work.

Life hack:  thinking about death makes you feel more alive.  Remembering that so many are dead makes you appreciate not being there yet.  It is not a coincidence that New Orleans is both one of the most stunningly vibrant cities in the world and has above-ground graves everywhere.

Life hack: thinking about death makes you feel more alive. Remembering that so many are dead makes you appreciate not being there yet. It is not a coincidence that New Orleans is both one of the most stunningly vibrant cities in the world and has above-ground graves everywhere.

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Independence Day

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, If You're Going to San Francisco, Pre-Trip Posts, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , ,

“There was an exodus of birds in the trees
because they didn’t know we were only pretending.
And the people all looked up and looked pleased
and the birds flew around like the whole world was ending.
And I, I don’t think war is noble
and I don’t like to think love is like war.”
-Ani DiFranco, “Independence Day”

I’m going back to Berkeley on the 4th of July. I’d already be on the plane right now, but it was delayed, which is a bit of a surprise given how few people choose to fly on this day. Berkeley, of course, is the origin of my “4th of July Hat”, so named for the day I bought it. The hat is featured in this picture:

4thOfJulyHat

When I tell people how cold the Bay Area is, especially in the summer, they don’t believe me. I talk about this hat. It’s not just that I’m a chronically cold person who chose to wear this hat on 4th of July (the day perhaps most associated with heat on the entire calendar) in Berkeley. It’s that street vendors were selling this hat on 4th of July in Berkeley. Meaning they had to believe that other people, other more normal and warmer people, would also be interested in making such an acquisition. And they were.

Of course, that picture was taken in on December 23rd in Albuquerque, a few years later, a place where it sometimes snows. Like the snowflakes on the hat. It never snows in Berkeley. That would make the cold worthwhile.

Despite my bellyaching (I blame the delayed flight), I love everything else about the Bay Area except the weather. I love the people, I love the places, I love the restaurants, I love the… oh. There are also the memories. I love a lot of the memories. And I hate a lot of them too. There’s really just nothing to be done about that.

I just watched “500 Days of Summer” twice in the last 72 hours. I think it might be the perfect movie. I saw it at least thrice in theaters when it came out and I’ve seen it a couple times since. The movie is many things, including a brilliant depiction of miscommunication and misunderstanding and how that can emerge and evolve, but it is mostly a distilled and exquisite rendering of how love impacts the human brain and how completely devastating that experience can be. And perhaps even more perfect is its depiction of memory, how it can lie and cheat and illustrate and illuminate. I almost watched it again this morning. I can’t get enough.

It is, I guess, a weird time to focus on such a heartbreaking film when I’m on my way to the wedding of a dear friend. But such dwelling also coincides, of course, with only my second return to the Bay Area since the demise of my marriage that spent 6 of its 7 (pre-separation) years there (curse you, New Jersey!). As much as anything, visiting the Bay Area is like going to the grave of my married life and waiting for the ghosts to come rising from the earth. Good times.

The other movie it makes me think of is “Inside Out”, which may be battling “500 Days of Summer” for the top spot in my heart this month. [Be you warned, for here be spoilers!] How a core full of happy yellow memories, powering a whole field of identity can be stripped of its meaning, soured blue and sucked away to lead to collapse and ruin. Yes, the ultimate lesson is that efforts to make yourself happy when you’re not amount to bullying and that sadness is the conduit to compassion and listening and ultimately, hope (or at least a richly complex emotional life). But the metaphor of how quickly those yellow memories go blue, never to be reclaimed, spoke to me perhaps louder than anything else in the film.

There was going to be a tie-in to the USA here, its annual Orgy of Jingoism, why I choose to fly rather than get pressured to watch fireworks meant to simulate the murderous destruction of other nation’s people. I remember some Bay Area 4th when I was too upset by the whole thing to see straight, it was a Big Blue House year, me moping around Oakland and not wanting to go anywhere while Fish and Emily tried to boost my spirits. Or maybe I’m getting it tangled with the summer of 2002 in my mind, a year before the wedding, back in Waltham, when I decided to skip out on Emily and … I want to say Nikki and maybe Ariel? … and just came back and played video games with Russ because I couldn’t handle the disconnect between everyone’s buoyant patriotism and my angry sadness. They probably both happened, though the little blue-red orb of the latter incident is becoming clearer in my mind as I write this. Blue and red, of course. The days flip around, the memories shoot through the chutes, and I am no closer to knowing how to sit with this than I ever have been.

It is a happy time, a happy trip. So many of the orbs that remain yellow from this time involve the people I’m going to see. Brandzy, of course, and friends from Glide, and a town that almost claimed my college years, that I fell in love with during my first real flirtation of my lifetime, then gave a good seven years almost a decade later. The gobstopper of emotions, as I’ve always said. The swirly swirl of rainbow colors, all together. Rainbows. I still remember that meal at the awful Turkish place in 2004 with Brandzy and I, and of course ErinPHull.org and Emily, the day they started marrying everyone, the brief time before injunctions and stoppages and then Prop 8 came to delay it all for a while. That brief, heady time before this ultimate fulfillment.

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
-Justice Anthony Kennedy, Obergefell v. Hodges

Maybe we’d all be better off if, at the outset of it all, some loud and authoritative voice said to us: “But you should know upfront, this is not a love story.”

Or maybe I’m just on the downslope of the roller coaster. I’m sure I’ll be up again soon, possibly in accordance and angle with the plane I’m about to board.

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Baltimore and American Exceptionalism

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

I'm not saying it's a police state, but...

I’m not saying it’s a police state, but…

It was trendy there for a few weeks of Internet time to write snide little stories on how American news events would be reported on by American news if they weren’t American news events at all. How would Ferguson look to the American media if Ferguson were taking place in Iran? People would giggle. But I’m not sure we’ve taken it sufficiently to heart. I’m not sure we’ve realized how deeply profound this exercise is. Because the bias, your bias, is on the side of law and order of the authorities in the United States. Deep down, you believe, at least a little bit, that these authorities and their enforcement arms derive fundamentally from the consent of the governed and the consistency of the Constitution while, deep down, every other place’s order derives from something at least a little bit fishy or corrupt or questionable.

Sure, I shouldn’t say everyone. There’s a few of you out there, perhaps public defenders or those who have run directly afoul of our judicial system, maybe of our police force in one city or another, who might be so skeptical of our own hierarchy for maintaining order that you trust most other systems and peoples more. But by and large, it’s very difficult to grow up in this nation without assuming that the order of things here is to keep everyone safe and happy, while the order of everywhere else is at least a little bit selfish or misguided.

This is crazy thinking, people. Myopia of the first order.

Even if you believe, deeply and truly, in the American experiment in its best form, the notion that it is an unending train of progress and success is facially ludicrous. This nation codified slavery, genocide, and discrimination of nearly every kind imaginable. This history is not over, with the right of same-sex couples to marry still being a hotly debated question rather than an obvious no-afterthoughts protection. And then there is the right of people to be safe and protected by their government, rather than prejudicially being labeled its enemy by virtue of the color of their skin. A right not to be profiled, not to be assumed to be dangerous regardless of one’s true intent or capability.

I am not here to condemn all police officers, nor to accuse every person in the country of being a racist. But if you don’t see something systemic about the way African-American men are treated in this society by so-called law enforcement entities, then you’re simply not paying attention. And the litmus test for that is if it were happening anywhere else. If Iran or China or Syria were rounding up one kind of people at that kind of rate and routinely slaughtering them unarmed and unthreatened, we would label it persecution of a minority group. We would call Baltimore a justified freedom-fighting movement. We would likely label efforts to retribute against such a movement the first steps toward ethnic cleansing.

I am a pacifist. I abhor violence of all kinds and shapes by all sides. I, frankly, don’t believe in freedom-fighting movements when fighting is the operative word. So I’m not here to justify the exceptional violent actions of the few in Baltimore. But I do think it’s vital to contextualize the reality of a group forced to live in fear, continually watching innocent men turned to martyrs while the mainstream establishment refuses to pay attention. The reason that Black Lives Matter became a slogan is that it really seems to so many that they don’t. For agency after agency after agency to approach the killing of Black men like an administrative hiccup to be explained, obfuscated, and shuffled away without fear of censure or even oversight from higher governmental authorities is to tacitly endorse, as a system, the indifference that enables these killings to become so commonplace. It is somewhat unsurprising that a nation that refused to launch even a cursory investigation into the financial instruments that nearly triggered a global economic collapse also stands uninterested in auditing its racial practices in terms of law enforcement. But admitting you have a problem is the first step. Flatly standing behind denial just makes you look laughable in any objective view.

Unfortunately, America is the land of the unobjective view. Look, we all like the home team. We all root irrationally for the team that’s nearby, whose players are familiar and relatable and that one grew up just down the street from me! It’s human nature to be a bit provincial. But you don’t hear Norwegians capping every campaign stump speech passionately evoking the God-given fact that Norway is the greatest country that was, is, and will be. That kind of commitment to self-aggrandizement was a hallmark of the monarchies this American idea was intended to replace, replete with all the ego and greed that monarchies bred. How can we read about severed spinal columns that go “unexplained”, about yet another plastic water gun or set of keys mistaken for a firearm, and continue to stand by this notion that we are infinitely better than any other country, any other system, any other people trying to improve the way things work in their society?

If you love America, you love its changes. You love its desire to improve itself. The people rising up in Baltimore are trying to remind you that this country has only become better though resistance, through the people who are willing to defy authority to expose its injustices. Movies like “Selma” remind us that our current heroes were branded as unpopular troublemakers only a generation ago. And while it’s sad to admit that the very same struggle back then is still a major obstacle to progress now, believing anything else is to fold up two very large American flags and stuff them in your ears and take a third and drape it threefold before your eyes. This nation has been systemically oppressing the same people for centuries. It’s only going to stop if we admit that’s what’s going on, that’s what’s been going on, and we need more than cosmetic changes or the condemnation of a few case studies to truly fix it.

This country was founded on the principle of rising up against unjust authority for what you believe. The cause was vastly less justified than the cause of oppressed African Americans at any point in our history – it mostly amounted to whining about taxes. To fail to embrace the legitimacy of this cause is un-American. Far more un-American than believing that this country is still a work in progress, still has a long way to go, and still may never be the best country of all-time.

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Nationals Eve

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Pre-Trip Posts, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , , ,

Harrison "HWhitty" Whitman and I on the first day of APDA Nationals 2002 at UMBC.  We'd just won Rutgers the weekend before, qualling him for Nationals.  I had braids in my hair for my last Nationals ever, something I'd always wanted to do.

Harrison “HWhitty” Whitman and I on the first day of APDA Nationals 2002 at UMBC. We’d just won Rutgers the weekend before, qualling him for Nationals. I had braids in my hair for my last Nationals ever, something I’d always wanted to do.

It’s like Christmas Eve for me tonight. Or, more fittingly, since Christmas Eve is really my holiday, it’s like Christmas Eve Eve. The night of the 23rd, when the roof lumis are done and all the rest are waiting in their neat little rows in the garage anticipating the soreness and joy of light that will follow the next night. Except tomorrow is not the night for luminarias, but the first day of the American Parliamentary Debate Association‘s National Championships. Almost as fun, almost as exhausting, always as memorable.

I’m quite proud to have the distinction of having attended more APDA Nationals than any other person. I guess I don’t technically officially know this to be the case, but I know enough APDA history to realize that no one else could be close. Tomorrow will mark my arrival at my 13th Nationals, at the 35th convening of the prestigious title tournament. The first Nationals was held when I was a year old and I didn’t attend till I was 19, in 1999, but dinos (ex-debaters) barely came back for more than a year or two then. Indeed, my own coach went to at least 9 Nationals, maybe ten, with 5 as a coach, and possibly was the record-holder until I probably broke it a couple years back. Institutional memory is traditionally thin on the circuit, as with almost all college pursuits that are not sports with their bevy of outside observers and journalists and scouts.

I competed at Nationals for the four years I was eligible as a debater, 1999-2002, though I didn’t qualify as a fully seeded competitor my freshman year, falling a ballot short of the necessary final round in the last weekend of the year. I didn’t break till my junior year, after an abysmal run with my 5th TOTY partner Steve Rabin in my sophomore season, capping a semester we’d won three straight tournaments during with bitter disappointment. Zirkin and I made it to semifinals, finishing third, felled by our rivals Fletcher and Luftglass from Yale who I’d beaten on Gov in huge semifinals twice earlier that year, burning our two top cases in the process. We were simply a case short of where we needed to be, pulled out an old first-rounder, and got trounced. I would use this as an admonishment to Rutgers kids for five years of coaching that you always need one more case. Fourteen years later, I still feel regret.

Which is silly, because being third at Nationals after winning the North American Championship that year is awesome. And I really can’t look back on my career as a debater and feel anything but grateful. But sometimes I still do.

The less said about my senior Nationals the better, in some ways, though there were things that were amazing about it as well. I have the most pictures of it, too, nostalgia seeming so present already in the moment, it feeling like one of those times when time slows down, stops, almost reverses. My recollections of that tournament in particular are sharp and vivid like a predictable movie on a screen in front of me. The joys and the pains, some of the greatest of both I’ve, to this day, ever felt. And I was profoundly aware of how important that weekend would be to my memory, a rare and valuable thing to go into an event with. Time was so slow those three days. I still remember every round. My mind goes there often, reinforced by a life with debaters offering the opportunity to tell more stories of Nats of yore.

Myself and Andy "Drew" Tirrell, arriving on campus for my last (sort of) round ever, Nationals Quarterfinals.

Myself and Andy “Drew” Tirrell, arriving on campus for my last (sort of) round ever, Nationals Quarterfinals.

Then there were years of judging and tabbing. I was in the tab room for the Nats my alma mater hosted the year after I graduated, at Brandeis in 2003. Then I missed two years in a row, my longest hiatus from the event. I came back to judge in 2006 and saw a bubble round that I’ve long called the best round I ever judged (and certainly received the highest scores) with Stanford’s Baer and Chan defeating Yale’s Schneller and Bone. I tab directed the 2007 Nationals at Vassar, the first ever dino-run tab room with multiple schools represented, an experiment that quickly became the league standard after that trial. Then I missed two more again before returning for five years as a coach, including tab directing again at West Point in 2011. Indeed, tomorrow will break a streak of being in the tab room for Nats every four years that dates back to 2003.

Of course, possibly nothing will trump last year. The 2014 Nationals Finals run by Sean and Quinn for Rutgers was just the kind of thing that you can’t make up, though people do in movies all the time. Of course, we would have won it all in a movie. But it doesn’t matter, it didn’t matter. The redemption after a year that was so trying in so many ways, the disastrously depressing banquet when we all were almost sure we’d missed the break, the elation of getting in, and then the utter triumph of winning octos and then quarters and then dethroning back-to-back defending champions Harvard on a 4-1 decision. Of getting the Gov in a National Final. Of getting to go out, to step away from coaching, on top. I honestly may have been more tempted to stay, to give it one more year, had we just been knocked out in quarters. But you can’t fight the narratives your life is giving you sometimes.

A very giddy and relieved Rutgers team at the Nationals 2014 banquet at UPenn after Sean and Quinn had broken as the 13-seed.

A very giddy and relieved Rutgers team at the Nationals 2014 banquet at UPenn after Sean and Quinn had broken as the 13-seed.

All the same, I hope we get it this year. The whole she-bang. You have to. There isn’t a single person going who isn’t thinking, somewhere in the back of their mind, about hoisting the trophy and being National Champions. That’s the nature of Championships. You dream big. You see yourself up there. You imagine the steps to get it. And everyone but one team, two people and their supporters, are crushed by the end.

This will be one of those weird years where, technically, I don’t have a role, other than judging and bringing the history. Rutgers has a new coach now, officially, though I certainly plan to do some coaching as well. I’m not in the tab room. I’m long past the days of competing in tournaments that count. I’m there to savor the experience.

There are so many nuances to a Nationals tournament that have long made it my favorite single experience, that keep me sure that I’ll come back for more when this year’s trophy is hoisted and stowed away in a van for a journey home to wherever it’s going. I adore Senior Speeches. Despite the bitter memories of my own, I find Senior Speeches, the little farewell gifts of seniors to the circuit, to be moving and touching and funny and they always, without fail, renew my faith in the event of debate and in APDA as a whole. I feel honored that I’ve heard so many of them and eagerly anticipate this year’s batch.

There’s the expectations and the surprises. Every year, a hallowed team with a realistic chance of winning it all fails to break. Whether it’s the pressure, the preparation, the bounces of it being just one tournament for all the marbles, events always conspire against at least one team that everyone had near the top of their bracket. And almost as often, most every year and especially so lately, an unexpected team or two come out of nowhere to contend for the Championship. My very first Nationals in 1999 were won by a team that no one had on their radar, that no one would have put in their break, defeating TOTY in the Final round. The last two years have featured plucky underdogs taking a low seed and an under-rated season to a 2nd place finish. Semifinals traditionally has at least one team that barely made it in. My junior year, our semifinal was the #2 vs. the #3 seed. The other side of the bracket was the #9 vs. the #13, in the first year that Nationals had broken past 8 teams in at least 3 years.

There’s the reputation bump to those unexpected teams, though, the ones that aren’t seniors. The next year, that same #9 and #13 seed met in Finals at Nationals. They were the only two teams to beat Tirrell and I, the Champions in round 5 and the runners-up in quarters.

There’s the predictable rhythm of the tournament, one that has held true for all 12 Nats I’ve yet attended. The first night, two rounds, is sluggish and ominous, like a distant thunderstorm edging up to the horizon. Teams often come out of the gate heavy. It’s slow for a two-round night when we’re used to three. First round match-ups are surprisingly easy for the top teams, usually, lulling you into a sense of security. (Usually. Our 5th TOTY sophomore year, we hit the best free seed at the tourney first round, a team that had been to four or five semifinals and would have qualled twice over under the modern-day system.) Then the second round matchups are often brutal, reminding you that this is the title tournament after all, and you’d better start bringing it.

Day two is the second-longest day of debate that exists, trumped only by day two of North Americans in the tight-link era (an extra hour per round for the adjudication staff to fight over the motion for the next round). It is always interminable. Always. People look up after round 5 and feel that another day must have passed already. The day drags in a mess of anticipation and waiting and idle wiredness. If you’re lucky, truly lucky, you hit a Zen state where you can just take the day as it comes and drink in the opportunity to speak and do what you love. I think I hit that state my senior year, somehow, feeling so at peace with our decision to run a wide-open case in the bubble against an MIT team that remains the only team I know of to be mis-tabbed out of the Nationals break. Usually, though, you escape rounds rather than winning them. Even the rounds you crush, you just breathe a huge relieved sigh for having gotten them. Every moment feels like an elimination round, even sitting around in GA, feeling like you could fall asleep and miss something or be ninjaed in the back by a competitor. It’s grueling. And then the banquet is impossible, hours and hours of being unable to taste your food or keep it down as you wait for results. Softened only by senior speeches.

Day three, whether you’re in it or not, is lightning quick. It’s such a stark contrast from day two that it’s breathtaking. If you’re in it, you don’t have time to think or process or take stock of the day, it’s just hear the announcement and run to prep for the next round and hope that you’ve done enough prep work in the week(s) leading up that you don’t really need to think right now. You just react. This principle governed how smooth the Rutgers ’14 run was as well as the hard demise of the Brandeis ’01 run. The bracket just resolves and every time you look up, it’s only 8, 4, 2 teams left with a chance at the whole enchilada. Seniors and geniuses are suddenly sitting on the sidelines, and maybe you’re one of them, too stunned to realize that the dream is over, maybe for this year, maybe forever.

I can’t believe this shit isn’t on ESPN by now. I just feel incredibly lucky to be a part of it again, to feel at home in this hallowed league, to have the sense of perspective to appreciate it and not apologize for how much I love it. It’s a truly great tournament and I’ll see you there tomorrow.

Love.

Love.

by

The Promise of Spring
(or: Today, It’s Next Year)

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Let's Go M's, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , ,

SafecoSpring

It’s fitting that baseball begins in spring.

I’m not much of a spring person myself, having a penchant for difficult times in April and May. I was always with TS Eliot on the whole April question and I probably offer the quote about cruelty each time we get this far around the sun in one form or another. But all that rebirth and Easter spirit, all those flowers and ripening trees, it all culminates in the burst of energetic joy that is the reopening of baseball season. And no matter how trying an April you’re having, you have to love that.

One of my favorite past posts is about the promise of a new debate tournament, a new weekend, the new possibilities unfolding from a weekly reset of contests in which any given one could be won outright. I wrote it in September 2010, at a time when I was hurting deeply and found little faith in any new beginning that did not emanate directly from the chance of my team winning a debate tournament. For the second time in my life, I dug myself out by digging deeply into debate and the hope of having one concrete thing that I unassailably still enjoyed. September is the spring of the debate season, but April is the spring of reality as well as baseball.

Last year ended catastrophically for my beloved Mariners, with the whole year coming down to game 162, the first time in over a decade that the last contest of the season mattered. The M’s won, but so did the A’s, and that wound up being all that mattered. To make matters more heartbreaking, the Wild Card game winners, the Kansas City Royals, charged on to the World Series, a feat still not reached by nearly 40 years of prior M’s squads. Say what you will about the travails of yearning since 1908, Cubs fans, but at least you have a championship to remember. (Okay, “remember” is probably not the right word unless you’re the world’s oldest person, but maybe “read about”.) Four decades is less time to suffer, but in some ways more poignant. There was no apex for Seattle, no fulfillment for the Mariners.

Yet.

But every year dawns anew. For Cubs fans, for Mariners fans, for followers of every team, no matter how hapless. There’s a sense of expectation, to be sure – the M’s are expected to do well this year with new signings and a pitching core poised at a communal peak. There are teams that virtually know they’ll be slated for 100 losses, for whom it is hard to get the gumption of hope and excitement. But even then, is there not a surprise team every year? Is there not some collection of young men for whom doom was predicted who are still contending in July, August, September? The whispers of April always abound, this could be our year. It could be. The record is clean, 0-0. We are tied for first place. There’s no saying we can’t do it.

The M’s were just such a team last year. Predicted to return to the bottom of the heap in the AL West by most (okay, maybe just above Houston), they played 162 games that mattered for their season. Or 161 2/3rds, riding out the last three innings having finally been eliminated. By proving the point, they renewed the promise that even those of you out there with a hopeless band of misfits, with bad contracts and steroids suspensions and management lowering expectations, even you can revel in early April and its universal hope. Even if you like ill-fated three-letter teams like Cubs and Mets, you can lift your spirits this month and dare to dream.

Sports are objectively stupid. They take valuable energy and resources away from fixing our problems, offering little beyond the value of pure entertainment, already an overrated pursuit in our society. I have made my peace with the fact that baseball is wasteful and unhelpful and still I love it and can’t help myself. I will always pursue it, always invest time and emotion and energy better suited for nobler things into the crack of the bat and the dive of the catch and the eruption of tens of thousands as a ball clears a wall. It’s silly. It’s nostalgic and beautiful and heart-rending and strategic, but it’s also silly.

But it does offer us a model for renewal. A model for a place to find joy and rebound even in the darkest times. Sports offer us a metaphor not only for what could literally replace warfare if we came to our senses, but also for the resets that our own lives need from time to time. People can ruin you, they can squash your dignity and stomp on the things you value the most. They can trample your sense of self and punish you for your vulnerability. But they can never impede your love of a team, nor deny the gorgeous reality of that 0-0 record, all the games yet to be played, the possibility unrolling before you like a bright blue tarp on freshly mown grass.

My team is 1-0 now, the hopes redoubled by the unblemished start. Like a new car driving off the lot, that first loss goes so far in dashing these fresh spring hopes. Hold on, now. Hold a bit longer, like the balance of a yoga posture, like the tentative bloom of a flower against the frosty near-freezing chill. A loss is just a loss. 161-1 is a marvelous record, though we’re all going to lose at least 40. We always do. Grip tighter into the ball, into the hope, hold your breath if you have to. Every year is a new chance at everything you’ve ever wanted, no matter how much you’ve lost before.

by

My Life with Yoga

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , ,

“When I talk to people about sadness and depression, as I often do, one of my suggested strategies is really internalizing and absorbing good days and ‘banking’ them as antidotes against future storms of sadness. Not because they will make you less sad when the storms come, but because those good days came after other days that felt like rock-bottom before, and the resilient memory of the good days will give you hope that such good feelings can come again.

Today was one of those days. A banking day. I was incredibly productive at work and had good energy there all day, a day after having a migraine and almost going home early. I went to yoga (3rd time in 4 days), took a class that was about 80% of what I was doing at my peak and it just about destroyed me. I almost gave up halfway through, but I pushed through it and completed it and talked to the great instructor afterwards about how to do better. I felt amazing afterwards, though, healthier than I have in over 5 years. And then I went to Bring Your Own Story and “earned” (via rock-paper-scissors) the Wildcard slot to tell an old classic while hearing a lot of other great tales.

Banking this one. Remind me the next time the chips are down.”

-Facebook post, 10:47 pm, April 2, 2014

Like so many good things in my life (Brandeis, Counting Crows, David Foster Wallace), yoga was introduced to me by a girl. She was barely “a girl” in the sense that I mean it – we went on a few dates of little consequence before she made it clear she wasn’t interested romantically, but still thought I was an interesting person. It’s hard to say how much of it was that I was a few months into my marital separation and how much was that she just wasn’t into me that way, but I’m sure both played a role. We kept hanging out for most of that year, though – periodically hiking and meeting up at weekly yoga and getting the occasional meal. She was a deeply dissatisfied grad student at Rutgers who echoed my frustrations with the state of New Jersey, insisting that Buffalo, New York was more like the West and the South than it was like the East Coast. After a year, she took a leave of absence, went on a Birthright trip, made aliyah, and joined the IDF. Seeing Facebook pictures of her in the IDF uniform, toting weaponry, just months after making fun of Israeli policy, was so unsettling to me that I stopped responding to her e-mails, mostly because it reminded me too much of someone else with what I would call a “cult-follower’s personality”. I still feel bad that I didn’t respond to the e-mail she sent in the midst of this transition, questioning the speed of her changes, asking me for spiritual guidance. I just couldn’t. The ruts were too deep and painful, I didn’t have the strength. I went to yoga class, thought about it, and let it go.

I had long been into meditation, my interest first sparked by an Eastern Thought class in high school, taught by one Ken Hause, who taught me (among other crazy things) that it was safe to eat chalk, something I would later employ in a critical debate round my senior year at MIT. He was a truly crazy man, someone deeply unexpected to be found at Albuquerque Academy, and he took part of his class to teach people basic meditation practices, including pranayama breathing. I had a vivid dream of him dying in 1997, but he was alive and well as of this 2012 Journal article, which makes me happy. He seemed like one of those people that one could discover was actually partially responsible for the Earth’s rotation.

After that, I meditated for a long time, just on my own, and always felt that yoga was a little unnecessary as a guided meditation. It felt like creative writing classes always seemed – like the very nature of involving a teacher and a guidance interrupted the nature of a solitary creative exercise in the first place. How can you concentrate when someone is in there talking, telling you to concentrate? It didn’t make much sense.

But I had no real understanding of yoga until I started it, getting brought along by that girl to a grad student yoga class at Rutgers that her friend was starting up. I had no idea it was so athletic in nature, that the stretching was a kind of physical activity and advancement in itself. That the guidance was vital to learning the practice. That my body was capable of postures and balances that I never would have found on my own. It was amazing.

The class was once a week, on Tuesday nights, two blocks from debate practice and ending half an hour before it, and I quickly found that I came with a different, better energy to Tuesday night practice once I’d gotten into the yoga habit. I was calmer, less focused on my pain, more able to have that “away energy” that is so lacking in the clash and conflict of debate rounds. And I began to notice changes in myself. I developed stomach muscles for the first time in my life. I felt stronger, more flexible, more energized. It probably didn’t hurt that I was trying to bounce up from the terrifying weight of 115 pounds, the direct result of the traumas of the summer before and an early fall when I was deciding whether to stay on the planet or not. I already had a pretty typical yogi body; I just needed to add the strength.

I became reliant on this weekly endeavor, this moment to recenter my place in the universe, to feel good about existing and to stop fighting everything. I bought my own mat. I got good at crow pose, a crazy gateway to inversions where one has one’s entire body piled on one’s hands, arms fully extended, knees into elbows. I sang the praises of this concentration and focus and physicality to anyone who seemed open to it.

And then, slowly, I stopped going. I forget whether the class actually stopped or I felt sheepish about going without my ambassador friend. I had technically attended, entering the grad student lounge to which I was otherwise uninvited as her “guest” even on weeks where she didn’t make it. No one really cared and the yoga teacher welcomed me every time, but that was just the sort of thing for me to overly worry about. We don’t ever lose our grade school instincts sometimes. So I decided I could do my own home practice, that I knew enough of the moves and the order and the flow. And that was great for a while. I kept it up, sometimes 45 minutes a day, practicing even more often. And then it became 30, then 15, then 5. And then it became easy to skip.

The weird thing about yoga is that I don’t think I ever looked forward to it, but I always felt great about it afterwards. It was hard and demanding and sometimes bordering on painful. It interrupted the rest of life, wherein thoughts and arguments and internal dialogues are constantly bubbling around. I like my critical brain, I like evaluating and judging everything, trying to distill potential narratives and improvements. Yoga got in the way of all that, a big giant timeout, but one that always made me so grateful for the opportunity afterwards. I would never exactly look forward to it, but I would never skip when I was attending the group practice either. And I would often feel exuberant the rest of the night, even extending into the next day.

So I lapsed and stopped and life happened again. And that was that, until recently.

Turning 35 triggered something in me. It’s funny how people talk about age like it’s nothing, like your birthday doesn’t change anything. I think that’s true, innately, but there’s something about marking the passage of time that impacts our self-image. And 35 hit me like a ton of bricks, it felt like a real turning point. I guess it’s the birthdays ending in 0 that are supposed to make us freak out like this, but I was in a perfect place in my life when I turned 30, wouldn’t have changed anything, and couldn’t have been happier. Thirty didn’t freak me out because I felt like I’d come to the balance I’d always been hoping to find. And then, of course, everything changed overnight, and I stumbled along in ruins just trying to get through another day. In some ways, with all the twists and turns of those years in Jersey, it felt like I didn’t even come up for air until this February.

The first manifestation of this freak-out about being 35 came 7 days after the birthday, when I posted that I wanted to revisit my Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim Grand Canyon trip at 40 to mark 20 years since I first did it. I remembered a promise I’d made to myself at my last GC visit that I wanted to be a person who could always hike there, who was in sufficient shape that the beauty of the Canyon wasn’t lost to me. The day I turned 35, I was as far from that as I’ve ever been, over 160 pounds with a big gut and having spent most of the last two years sitting, either at poker tables of judging debate, not even walking to work anymore. I know that I wasn’t actually really overweight the way that I felt, but these things happen when we’re not paying attention to them and suddenly one wakes up in middle age. I’d gone through enough of a metabolism shift and readjustment at 27 to know that I don’t want that to be me. I like my naturally thin build. I like being physically active all the time. It’s easier to be happy, or okay with life, when one is playing basketball or doing yoga or even just walking regularly. And having a goal of getting back to the R2R2R trip by 2020 is focusing for that.

So it took a week where Alex was out of town (home for Spring Break) to separate me sufficiently from inertia to get down to Wild Lotus Yoga six blocks from my house and start practicing again. This was literally four and a half days ago and I’ve been three times already and I already feel like I’ve been back on the horse for months. The centeredness, the awareness, the peace, the burgeoning strength. I can’t recommend it enough. And I look like such a walking stereotype with my bright teal mat and my ponytail and my skinny arms, but sometimes tropes exist for good reason. Of course a regular yoga practice is my natural home. Its spiritual roots, its basis in India, its focus on peace and awareness and living in the moment. Yeah. It’s kind of where I always should have been.

Maybe it’s not yoga for you, though you really should try it if any of this sounds intriguing. But so much of our lives gets hijacked by obligations and time-wasters. Pretty much all of the big inventions of the last half-century – TV shows, the Internet, cell phones – bring this enormous dump of time that is the nourishing equivalent of greasy potato chips. (Yes, I’m conveying this critique to you through the Internet.) But getting onto the yoga mat or out on the trail reminds us of our purposeful animal roots. We are creatures in this lifetime, we are meant to go and do and be. Huddling in front of screens serves its purpose and has a value, if only to connect with other people. But sometimes we also must connect with the Earth itself. If only to remind ourselves that it, like us, is precious, and not merely an obstacle to getting to where we want to be.

GCDawn

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