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

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Lost in the Corridors of the Arena in Blindfolds

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Tags: , ,

Counting Crows and the Wallflowers are back on tour together again.  You should go see them!

Counting Crows and the Wallflowers are back on tour together again. You should go see them!

I’ve seen Counting Crows and the Wallflowers before. I’ve even seen them together before. I was invited to sometime in mid- to late-high school before I knew either of them well and it was a time I couldn’t really have appreciated it. I still regretted not going for a long time for all sorts of reasons. But later, I did see them, in December 2003, which is an alarmingly long ten years ago now. You can see the setlist here and what I thought of the show here.

A decade is a long time. It’s actually been almost 14 years since what I dubbed “the perfect show” at the time, still one of the best I’ve ever seen, which was the first time I saw CC ever. That was at the Hammerstein Ballroom in 1999, when they played this set in the midst of the release of This Desert Life, still my favorite of their albums. I could’ve seen this show at Hammerstein Ballroom as well, and would have loved to commemorate that full-circle, but I’ll be taking a train from LA to Albuquerque on that day. Then they’re playing at the Borgata in AC, where Fish and I saw them in the summer of ’09, but I’ll be in Albuquerque that day too. They’ll be in California in late July, but on those days, I’ll be in New Jersey.

So there was really nothing for it but to pack up the car and head four hours to a place called Big Flats, New York, where they were playing on Saturday a couple days back. I haven’t been as in to concerts lately as I once was, but this is, I believe, the twelfth time I’ve seen Counting Crows live in my life and virtually none of the shows fails to be a religious experience of some kind. The eleventh show, the last one, in New York sometime last year (Google tells me it was April 24, 2012 at the Roseland Ballroom) was altogether forgettable, being a day when I was sick and exhausted and overworked and we were far far away from the stage. But this one was a good comeback and made the first time I think my girlfriend enjoyed the show, though she was touched up with a bit of sickness probably deriving from the roadside country restaurant we hit on the way.

The Wallflowers set was among the best I could hope for from them. I’ve listened to their new release a couple times and it’s fine, but I was still hoping for a much older set of songs to be immersed in what I assumed would be about half new stuff. I was pleased to be very wrong and find that only one or two of the songs were off the new album, while some really old favorites, most notably “I’ve Been Delivered,” made the set. With that and “Three Marlenas” being my two favorite songs of theirs and both being played, though the latter still in the upbeat style they prefer for playing it live, I was really happy with their song selections.

But CC reminded me why they top my list of concerts seen and why I drove four hours to get there. Adam seemed sadder than usual, or perhaps just more immersed in what they’re now calling dissociative disorder for him, but I think must truly be some combination of his itinerant loneliness and the wonder of truly becoming famous and still being able to solve the larger puzzles of life. It has to be bizarre to feel so isolated and crazy most of the time and have adoring fans screaming your words back at you like some solipsistic echo-chamber. I don’t know what becomes of the people who connect most deeply through feelings of isolation, but I do know that David Foster Wallace said that “Fiction is one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved … Fiction, poetry, music, really deep serious sex, and, in various ways, religion — these are the places (for me) where loneliness is countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated.” It is notable that music is among the five keys to DFW’s possible escape from being, what he calls in the same passage, “a one-by-one box of bone no other party can penetrate or know.” I also know that a lot of the songs CC sang on Saturday referenced cutting and bleeding.

It’s hard to know how much of any given selection sample of Counting Crows songs sounds extra-sad or how much that’s just their style. As the otherwise worthless movie High Fidelity put it, “Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” It makes you wonder, after a time, how much of your personal romantic narrative is tinged with the failures of people like Adam Duritz, how much you’re relating because he’s speaking to you or because he’s persuading you. I still feel a weird sting of how the song “A Murder of One” turned on me and made from the singer to feeling like it may just be an anthem of enabling morally dubious behavior that was being stabbed into my back. How many of these things are justifications for behavior like I just discovered in DFW’s bio, going through women like so many energy drinks on an unending binge? And does it make it any less meaningful to you if what you’re relating to is different for how you relate and what was intended to be related to? So much for bridging our bags of bones to find common experience.

Regardless, CC highlighted why they still get to headline despite not joining the Wallflowers in having a #1 hit single at any point (though their albums always sell well in the charts). Jakob Dylan goes up there and sings and plays his guitar and the band does their thing and they even rock out on a couple of songs. Counting Crows, led by Duritz, performs. They put on a show. They remain the only band where I think the use of lights actually augments the overall performance – every move and line (often reworked) feels meaningful and powerful, every flash and tilt and tweak feels part of an orchestrated whole that creates an experience that I have never really found in the audience of anyone else’s music. I really love Weakerthans shows and that Simon & Garfunkel reunion concert gave me goosebumps, and seeing Bob Dylan always does the same in a way, but no one performs like Counting Crows.

It was an emotional and charged show, but for some reason I couldn’t get the echoes of the DFW bio out of my head while I was listening. I know I’ve drawn this very close connection between Wallace and Duritz for a long time and it may be totally something I’m seeing without it being there, like Saving Private Ryan being an anti-war movie. But I worry about Adam Duritz, I worry about how much and how deeply he feels, I worry about his meds. I worry about me too, sometimes, maybe a little bit more during a CC show, though nothing like that one time in summer 2010. I only cried during “St. Robinson” and a little bit during “Hospital” and “Rain King”. And maybe in that one moment of “Miami”. That one line gets me every time, even moreso now.

I think Saturday was the only day this month it hasn’t rained. I’m not quite sure that’s true – there must have been one other, but Rain seems to be the theme of June to go with Illness from May. It probably rained here while we were in Big Flats, New York under a mercifully sunny, if a bit chilly, sky. It started raining heavily while I was writing this, raising concerns about more flooding in our basement, or at least something renewed. We have to dry out the rug down there, excluded perfectly by the renter’s insurance we were obliged to get moving in, proving once again that the thing you’d need insurance for is the one thing that it won’t be covered for, just like cell phones in emergencies and pretty much everything touched in some way by American capitalism. Water damage is somehow in the category with earthquakes, legal demands, intentional destruction, nuclear hazards, and (I kid you not) war. Because when I think of water, I think it’s about as unlikely and dramatic as nuclear hazards or war.

It was really good to learn, however, that all bets are off for renter’s insurance in the following circumstances:

a. Undeclared war, civil war, insurrection, rebellion, or revolution;
b. Warlike act by a military force or military personnel; or
c. Destruction, seizure or use for a military purpose.

And just to be extra-clear, they added the following:

Discharge of a nuclear weapon will be deemed a warlike act even if accidental.

Something about the rising foment toward Obama’s first official war (to go with his endless unofficial one) makes these things seem a little extra relevant today. Or maybe it’s just the virality of war and unrest, as seen in Turkey stemming from neighbor Syria. It seems more and more these days that it just takes the power of an idea, the whisper of suggestion, to make realities spread like, well, the wildfires that could use some of this rain that won’t leave us alone.

But do we want to be left alone? Do we have a choice?

At least these days, we know someone is listening. All of you speaking out against the NSA have it wrong. Don’t we all want an audience?

15 June 2013
Tag’s Summer Stage
Big Flats, NY

WALLFLOWERS
Baby Don’t You Do It
Letters from the Wasteland
Three Marlenas
Everything I Need
The Letter
I’ve Been Delivered
Sixth Avenue Heartache
Closer to You
Sleepwalker
One Headlight
Misfits and Lovers
The Difference

COUNTING CROWS
Time and Time Again
Untitled (Love Song)
Four Days
St. Robinson in His Cadillac Dream (Crimson and Clover outtro)
Hospital
Black and Blue
Start Again
Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby
Daylight Fading
Perfect Blue Buildings (Miller’s Angels outtro)
Mercy
When I Dream of Michelangelo
Mercury
Friend of the Devil
Ghost Train
Miami
A Long December (with A Murder of One)
Return of the Grievous Angel
You Ain’t Going Nowhere
Hanginaround

Rain King (with Lippy Kids)
Holiday in Spain

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The Battle of Hoff Theater: My Thoughts on APDA Nationals Finals 2013

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: , ,

Whenever I talk about APDA to prospective debaters, I almost always lead with how free-form and open our form of American Parliamentary debate is. I contrast it with debate styles like policy and even the big three of contemporary high school debate (Cross-Examination, Lincoln-Douglass, and Public Forum), citing how comparatively little research is necessary, how little repetition there is from round to round. The would-be debaters, future speakers and leaders of an age of public speaking, get wide-eyed looks on their faces.

“You mean… I can talk about… anything?”

Anything.” My emphatic response.

It takes about thirty seconds, maybe a minute for the most intrepid, for the fear to set in. They do the math in their head and stop considering what a privilege this is to stand up before judges, audiences, people of all kinds waiting to be persuaded, and talk about what one wants to talk about. They turn the tables, remember the harsh high school lessons of learning what bastards other people can be, and wonder aloud, “But what if I don’t know anything about the topic that someone else wants to talk about?”

And then, perhaps disingenuously, I explain to them that the standard is anything an average well-informed college student would know about. I offer them the checks our league has instated, things like Points of Clarification (absent during my debating career, but a mainstay of my coaching time) wherein the Opposition team can query the Government almost endlessly about the topic to ensure they have fair ground for debate, and norms that people not run anything too weighted to one side. I usually quietly omit the additional check of tight calls, the technical debate term for how the opposition asks the judge to adjudicate on the issue of fairness rather than the points in the round. I quietly omit that many teams deliberately play with the line of “spec knowledge,” the norm we have against basing arguments on technical or obscure facts and citations to give themselves an advantage. I focus on the fun rounds, the opportunity to discuss individual choices in everyday settings, the chance to explain to a stranger why you feel so passionately about an issue, large or small, that affects the way we live.

The hope is that this person is so intrigued and excited about debate that they will not mind so much when the inevitable round comes along that puts them to sleep, that makes them, if briefly, regret their decision to come to debate. The round about minute details of insurance law, the round about tiny variations in interest rates, the round about something truly interesting where the speaker spoke so fast it was impossible for anyone to keep up except, somehow, the Prime Minister’s partner and judge. These rounds take people inspired by arrival and training in a new debate format and make them want to leave the activity. They take something that is generally supposed to be a conversation and turn it into a lecture, a monologue, a one-way fight where the team presenting the case, theoretically to be interesting, persuasive, and engaging, cares merely about out-pacing their opponents than why they joined debate in the first place. Hopefully, by the time they are complaining to me about that round, these new recruits to debate are so hooked on the good stuff, the discourse, the really engaging and exciting rounds, the inspirational speakers who eloquently run circles around them on the basis of years of experience, that they stick around.

I am a coach on APDA. I have been coaching the Rutgers team, voluntarily and then professionally, for a full four seasons, three of them at an obsessive, daily level. I have failed to attend only three tournaments in the last three years on a “season” that offers a slate of 26-28 scheduled weekend tournaments a year. Each tournament is a grueling 36-hour affair from midday Friday to the end of Saturday with between two and ten hours of travel tacked on in each direction. Competitors and often coaches sleep on hard dorm floors in sleeping bags between the first three and last two preliminary rounds, dreaming of hopes of the “break,” advancing to quarterfinals (or, at the large tournaments, octofinals), the single-elimination playoff rounds that are all the more pivotal for being judged by a panel of adjudicators rather than a single decider. The Rutgers team has grown from a small huddled handful of 8-12 students to a team that regularly offers 60-65 students a year the chance to compete at official tournaments, while educating or training a couple dozen more who are considering competition when their schedule smooths out. The team has gone from unranked to 24th to 5th to 9th to 3rd under my tenure. Make no mistake, I want to win.

But, as I did in my four years competing for Brandeis, I want to win the right way. And, unlike a seemingly increasingly loud chorus on the league and perhaps US society in general, I believe there is a right way. There is no question that part of the strategy of the chess game that is debate is scouting opponents, learning and understanding the cases and subjects they tend to run, and anticipating their strengths while playing to their weaknesses. Playing the right way does not require one to disadvantage oneself inordinately, to run only economics against future financiers and only political theory against would-be presidents. However, there are limits to the advantage one should push, and these are not merely checked by the ability of the other side to ask Points of Clarification (PoCs) or to call a case “tight” (unfair) in a technical way during the round. And indeed, one of the greatest checks of all is often that people are not always expert at discussing their most well-known subjects. My most frequent college partner, on my team when we won the North American Championships, Adam Zirkin, famously melted down in a round the year prior about pharmaceuticals that the other team bravely ran against him. This despite Zirkin’s primary field of study and expertise being same. His explanations were far too detailed and technical to be accessible to the common judge and they lost the audience and the round. When we found ourselves in NorthAms quarters against a fearsome dino team, they chose the same strategy. But Zirk had learned the lessons from that prior contest and I was able to provide a sufficient general framework to fend off the Gov team and take the round.

This is not, or shouldn’t be, a post about me. It is about me, a bit, or a lot, because it’s about my perspective on what may prove to be the most pivotal round for the entire APDA league in my time coaching, however long that will be. It was a round that made clear, almost immediately, seconds into the second speech (LOC, or Leader of Opposition Constructive) that it would carry that kind of weight. It was a round that people couldn’t stop talking about for days after, until one of the league’s leaders asked people to stop talking about it, and then they only stopped talking about it on the league’s internet forum. It’s a round that has haunted me since it ended, that I wake up each morning thinking about, mulling, considering, repackaging in my head. Scenes from the final round have been with me in restless sleep and idle afternoons, now four days since the round’s conclusion. It was dramatic and riveting and polarizing, as debate should be in its best form. And yet almost everyone agrees that the end product was far from debate in its best form, each team and especially its supporters blaming the other side for the mangled, sad representation of the league that was ultimately displayed in its most-watched platform of the year.

This is about me, though, a bit. This is my personal blog. These are my thoughts. This was the eleventh APDA National Final I have attended, almost certainly a record for the league. I have, in person, judged, watched, or debated against every National Finalist since 1998, save one. That is Anish Mitra of Stanford, who I tabbed 2011 Nationals with. I have a pretty good grasp on the institutional evolution of APDA as a league and how it has changed and not changed over time. I am firmly of the belief, contrary to most shorter-term “dinos” (the semi-affectionate term for former debaters used league-wide since well before my time) that the overall quality of debaters is almost precisely fixed and stagnant. Many debaters suffer under the illusion that debaters were far better when they were novices and are far worse after they have graduated, simply because of their own relative evolutionary process and relative skill to the greats of the circuit.

This is an easily explicable, if flawed, phenomenon. One remembers being devastated by seniors when one was a novice and thus misremembers them as being perfect at debate, rather than one’s own shortcomings that made them see that way. One then remembers how bad the novices seemed when one was a senior, putting them two notches below the greats of their own novice year. Then one judges those novices as seniors, easily besting the current day’s novices, who can’t even give those seniors a challenge. And thus one concludes that each year’s novice class is substantially worse than the class before, simply because of one’s own biased perspective as an improving debater. I was never especially prone to this fallacy, but I certainly have excised it after fifteen years in some contact with the circuit and eleven National Championships attended.

This is all merely a way of trying to vouch for my credentials, which itself is another reason people like to say debate was better in their day, whether it was or not. Dinos are often remembered as greats and go to great lengths to preserve that reputation. In our own weird little culture of college debate, it’s cool and credible to regale present stars with stories of greatness, feats of heroism, funny anecdotes of triumph in the face of adversity. I do the same. We all do it. Everyone who debates has a part of them, large or small, that just loves talking and loves the act of being listened to. Some take this to an extreme of attention-seeking, while most are able to balance this slightly narcissistic tendency with concern for others and an equal amount of listening. We’ve all met tons of people who fall on each side of the line and keeping that line straight is one of the many challenges of being active in this activity for years on end.

This piece is getting long and I haven’t even really gotten to the tournament. I’ll admit that I’m taking some inspiration, both in tone and in approach, from Scott Harris’ incredible ballot for the 2013 NDT Final Round. Many of you debate types have probably already read that, in whole or in part, and you should go do so and return to my piece here in about a week, since that will take you on a journey down a debate rabbit hole far deeper than this probably will. NDT is one of two National Championships for the college policy circuit and this year, for the first time in history, both of them (CEDA being the other) were won by the same partnership, a team from Emporia State University in Kansas. I got an e-mail about this a few days after it happened, because one of the debaters from Emporia State is actually a Rutgers-Newark student on some sort of exchange to Emporia, one who came to New Brunswick for a public debate between Rutgers-Newark’s budding policy team and my own parliamentary Debate Union at the flagship campus. His name is Elijah Smith and he’s an immediately engaging, charming, brilliant capable individual who is very open about his views, as most debaters are. Rutgers-Newark was treating the victory like a win for Rutgers-Newark, which it is, in a way, since Smith was raised in Newark and reared on the training of Kurt Shelton, both in high school and especially college, before he left the Newark team before this season for reasons that are still not entirely clear to me, but probably, unfortunately, have something to do with institutional support. As someone who has enjoyed immense institutional support at his sister school, this fills me with a sad sort of empathy and wistfulness.

The policy circuit long ago decided how they feel about spreading, a late ’60’s invention in debate, that transformed that league and several others into a race of auctioneering-level speed-talking instead of eloquent persuasion. Which is not to say that people in policy debate are never eloquent or capable of persuasion, but what passes for argumentation on that league would sound like a literal low hum to the untrained ears of those outside of it. Policy or cross-ex style debate exists on both the high school and college levels. Phillips 66, who sponsors the National Forensic League (NFL, a joke that everyone has made already), famously sent corporate representatives to watch the final round of policy debate in the late 1970’s and were appalled that they could literally not comprehend a single argument in the round because they were all being delivered too quickly. They threatened to withdraw funding unless a new form of debate were created to cater to eloquence, persuasion, public speaking poise, and the things that most people unaware of policy associate with the word “debate.”

Thus was Lincoln-Douglass born. This was a format I devoted much of five years to, being able to debate in 8th grade as a novice amongst New Mexico high schoolers and going on to compete four full varsity years thereafter. During my time on the circuit, LD was starting to experience a schism wherein some people felt it was appropriate to start spreading, or speaking more quickly, to gain an advantage, while most maintained the original goals for which the event was literally created. Since debate is judged primarily on the “flow,” or the tracking of arguments and which are rebutted and which aren’t, most debate formats engage in a struggle of whether speaking faster to get more arguments in is a legitimate strategy or an abuse of the point of debating. This battle has been lost on the LD circuit since a bit after my graduation from high school, as all but a handful of regional pockets now utilize and expect the spread (the etymology of this is “speed-reading,” but now refers to any sort of auctioneer-level fast-talking, whether reading or speaking on the fly) and former LDers collide with parliamentary circuits like APDA expecting to race in more arguments rather than implement traditional techniques of oratorical persuasion.

Policy debate, interestingly however, has also implemented another check on this and other tactics, which is enabling a literally endless amount of meta-debate. Meta-debate, as you might guess, is debating about debate, wherein the idea of what is being debated and how are, themselves, debatable issues in the round. The amount of meta-debate which is appropriate for APDA has been the subject of much discussion (meta-meta-debate) throughout my time on APDA as a competitor and a coach, with a burgeoning group of former policy debaters encouraging more of it to enforce unwritten rules that some teams increasingly are trying to bend. For example, in my day it was an absolute taboo to re-run the same case at the same tournament. When the practice of people violating this taboo regularly came to my attention, I started what proved to be a bit of a firestorm in calling this out. The range of suggestions to check this practice was from nothing at all (the practice is acceptable) to absolute rules to shaming-based norms to just asking and hoping that people would be good about it. But one suggestion was that this itself should become an issue in the round to be debated, whether it was fair or not that someone was reusing a case to gain a tactical advantage when most people would not do so.

As a result of its embracing of meta-debate, policy debate in both high school and college has experienced a revolutionary backlash to the spread and the tubs and tubs of research (probably now being replaced by computer files in eras of faster computing and baggage fees on airlines) formerly required to compete. A number of debaters, many of them minorities, have begun meta-debates that critique the expected investment of time and energy and lip-loosening that traditional research-heavy spread policy requires. They have offered that even discussing the topic prescribed is unimportant in the face of inequalities and injustices that flow from the expectations of their league and its format. And, amazingly, they are winning. The Emporia State debaters, the first ever pair to unite the NDT and CEDA titles under one banner, use precisely this tactic. They do spread a bit, especially in opening speeches, but they often use plain language that is comprehensible, and even stand to deliver it (spread speeches are often given seated, something incomprehensible as a debate tactic in my eyes). The spread was justified initially by an “anything-goes” approach to debate, that truly any tactic or approach to debate was fair game. And now it has come full circle, home to roost, where the people are seeing what “anything-goes” really means.

You can watch the NDT final round and judge for yourself here.

You can’t watch the APDA Nationals final round, though. You can watch the Nationals Finals from every year since I graduated online, except and until 2013. You can watch the 2003 Final in which I cast the last and deciding vote of the judging panel at the tournament hosted by Brandeis. You can watch every year since, cases Goved by Cornell and Harvard and Princeton and even Boston University. (Although, interestingly, I just checked and many finals that used to be up seem to have disappeared. I’m assuming this is a technical glitch and not a deliberate decision by some debaters to revoke consent to those previously available rounds.) But you won’t be able to see 2013 because nearly everyone found it to be a disgrace to the circuit and the league and, for some, even the very idea of debate. And no one wants those prospective recruits I opened with deciding how they feel about debating on the basis of that as its example.

Example. Used often in debate to illustrate a point or to magnify the impact of an argument. Nationals Finals is supposed to be an example. It’s supposed to be the emblem of the culmination of what debate means to all its participants. It’s supposed to illuminate and inspire, to take the back-bench novices who barely clawed to Nationals and show them what they could be in a few years. It’s supposed to be immediately visible to outsiders as a showcase of eloquence, persuasion, intellect, and education. It should teach someone something about themselves, about others, about what it means to be alive on this planet. It should elevate debate beyond a contest of wills and an effort to win an argument, transcending what we do weekly and reminding us why we all spend so much damn time and energy on it.

There is a thread in the internet forum for our league that argues there are no such restrictions or expectations of Nationals Finals. That it is merely another round where people are trying to win and that, in short, “anything goes.” If you want to bore people, to spread, to insult and jeer, to make a round as pedestrian as possible, then that is your right by virtue of arriving on that stage. Those who advocate for anything not nailed down being in play are ardently calling for anyone criticizing a National Final case choice to be eternally muzzled. Don’t criticize unless you’ve been there, and even then, try not to. It’s all about the W, nothing more.

It should probably not be surprising that the rise in this belief pattern comes at the same time that finance and economics have become the dominant future field for most top debaters, replacing law. A cursory glance at the history of high finance, hedge funds, big banks, and economics in general reveals that the last decade in the United States has brought an unparalleled belief in the magic of markets and the power of greed to override any other concerns. 2008 would have been the clarion call to action, regulation, temperance, and sanity in almost any other society, but in the US it was a mere speedbump en route to ever increasing salaries for the rich and ruthless. Only a handful of left-wingers gathering overnight in parks were mounted as counterspeech to this burgeoning national ethos when all prior era political scientists would’ve predicted full-blown revolution. But the US and its citizens are too comfortable for revolutions, too self-satisfied and assured to question things at a fundamental level. It is both why I find debate to be one of the only intellectually satisfying pursuits in such a society and why part of me feels deeply ashamed to spend so much time and energy on it (3,500 words and counting here to top it off!) in the face of much more basic and fundamental human suffering elsewhere. It is the grand conflict that envelops my soul and keeps me honest and self-critical on a daily basis.

Is there a parallel between the bottom line of a hedge fund and the obsession with just getting the W in a debate round? To me, it’s beyond obvious. Do whatever it takes. Lie, cheat, steal, press your advantage, do what you have to do to secure the win. And while we haven’t actually gotten to the point where people are openly stealing casebooks or stabbing the MG (Member of Government, second speaker for that team) in the midst of the round, those who justify re-running cases or spreading or boring someone out of the competition are not making justifications that I find distinct from those that would justify the more extreme advantage-seeking in kind, merely in degree. And nowhere is this becoming more clear than in the last two Nationals Finals.

In 2005, Opp was riding an absurdly long winning streak in Nationals Finals. Gov usually used the platform of reaching the final round to do what everyone did with Final rounds in those days, to discuss something important, meaningful, and moving, OR to discuss something they truly believed in with implications for everyone. The arguments were passionate and profound and the last round of the year nearly always left people feeling whole and good about what they had the opportunity to behold. There was rarely an expectation of winning, though there was often a hope. My teammates, Jordan Factor and Adam Zirkin, made Nationals Finals my sophomore year and I heard their discussion right before they went to prep their case after they’d chose to Gov. “Everyone remembers who was in Finals,” Jordan told Zirk. “I want to give this PMR. I believe it. I don’t care if we win. People will remember.” They proceeded to run that race-based affirmative-action is the best kind of affirmative action, a case considered all but falsistic in that era when socioeconomic affirmative-action was a cutting-edge case that was widely believed. The round was won by the MO (Member of Opposition, second speaker for that side), Jeremiah Gordon, an African American, giving perhaps the best speech of his life on why race should not be the deciding factor in admission. Jordan, who was also top speaker at the tournament, was all smiles after the announcement they’d lost. He got to give the PMR (closing speech) he wanted.

In 2001, a liberal Princeton team advocated that the Welfare State was the best form of government, while in 2002, a libertarian NYU team advocated that the Libertarian State was best. In 2003, in the wake of sweeping societal cases, UVa went small with a case about a dollar’s worth of loose change and whether to give it to a homeless man, widely regarded as the best final round case ever for its simple ability to cut to much larger questions of life and living. In 2004, Cornell questioned a basic principle of our justice system and whether we should ever give up on people entirely. And then we got to 2005.

In 2005, there was a three-way tie for TOTY (Team of the Year), the annual ranking of partnerships in APDA. None of those teams, all known for their innovative cases, reached the final round, but a team from Harvard, both named Alex, did. Known for pushing the boundaries of tight cases, they selected a case about Harvard, one that they felt was tight, in the wake of the scandal dismissing their own school’s president. They advocated against the departure of their own school’s president in a National Final. While I wasn’t there, several sources have said the only preparation they did before the round was speculating on whether the case would be called tight and concluding that no one would have the guts to “ruin” the Nationals Finals by making a tight-call.

The shockwaves were large. Not only did the tactic pay off, ducking a possible tight call and winning the round for Gov, but no former members of the league, none of the cadre of dinos I discussed this with, could believe that Harvard had taken the platform of the Nats Finals stage and run a case about… Harvard. This wasn’t something whose simple elegance somehow applied to everyone. It was a team running a case about their school, mostly with spec knowledge about their president on an issue only cursorily followed outside of Cambridge. It was shocking, not only in its myopia, but in its obvious statement that winning was pre-eminent, at all costs.

Lest anyone think that I’m being hypocritical as a successful debater calling out others for winning, I will remind people that I had the opportunity to choose a Finals case at a title tournament once. Not only in my daydreams, where I entered sophomore, junior, and senior Nationals with open opp-choice cases about wide societal issues discussed in an accessible way. But also in real life, when Zirk and I chose to Gov in the North American Championships Finals in the last year that one could wholesale choose their case in that tournament. We elected to run a three-way opp-choice case, allowing Opp to choose just one of the three options and setting our burden as defending why both of the other two were preferable. We placed the speaker (judge) in the position of Simon Wiesenthal during his time in a concentration camp. An SS officer was on his deathbed of natural causes and had asked Simon to his bedside through the instructions to his adjutant of “bring me a random Jew.” The officer dismissed the adjutant and asked Simon whether “he could ever forgive him for what he had done to his [Simon’s] people?” The choices we offered were to say “yes,” say “no,” or say nothing.

The round is the most cherished of my career, not only because of the case and not only because we won the round, but also because of how fairly and nobly the Opp, Columbia’s Harry Layman and the late Jeff Williams, engaged with the case. They chose forgiveness and argued passionately for it in the midst of a time when Jeff and I were bitter rivals and neither of us were choosing to be terribly forgiving. The round is a testament to his legacy and the fact that it was not recorded in audio or visual saddens me daily.

I raise this story not to get preachy or pat myself on the back, though I am proud of that moment, but to prove that I’m not just slinging mud at certain case choices without ever having been there. I’ve been there. I know the stakes and the pressure that takes over. I know the selfishness and the voice of the future you might be denying yourself by being 2nd in a title instead of first. But I also know that there are, ultimately, greater concerns than the W, greater concerns than giving yourself every chance to win.

The main reason this is true is because there is an audience. Because football is still more popular than debate, we do not have our preliminary rounds (outside of Nationals, which is quite well-attended) in front of throngs of people. Most rounds are five people in a room, with the only spectator also serving as adjudicator. As the break is announced and we proceed to elimination rounds, small crowds are visible, culminating in the final round, where a couple dozen people might attend. In my day, those numbers were much larger despite the somewhat smaller size of the circuit overall then, largely because there was an expectation that people stay for the entire tournament. As an added incentive, there was also a floor vote where each member of the audience chose to exit the room through the Gov door or Opp door at the round’s conclusion, both clearing the room for the judges to decide in peace and offering a public counter-weight to the opinions of the elite row of usually dino judges. People sometimes voted for their friends or teammates, but more often took their role as a judge seriously, flowing the round and deliberating heavily before choosing a door. Their votes were not weighted equally with the judging panel, of course – usually the entire floor vote constituted about a third of the final vote, with the panel getting two-thirds. But a close round could certainly be tipped by the proportional vote of the floor, which itself could be tipped by a handful of thoughtful individuals. It gave everyone an investment in the round and, in turn, required Govs to try to do well to impress people.

Of course, not every final was a showcase. Periodically, the teams on both sides were exhausted and short of energy and caring about what the round looked like, since all participants in the round had just qualified for Nationals by winning semifinals (this used to be the APDA standard before our current system of points accumulation for qualling). So there were some rounds that today would be called “trolling,” where people didn’t much care about the outcome as the 1st and 2nd place trophies were considered almost equally good. People would run cases about Santa Claus or the Cat in the Hat or even hold rounds where more cases were introduced each speech and the goal was to be funnier than the floor speeches that offer a break between constructives and rebuttals in a final round on APDA. Here many floor voters would express their displeasure by refusing to vote for either side, a last way the audience could exert their wishes over the tenor and quality of a final round.

These days, people don’t stay that often for final rounds at regular season tournaments. A whole team will stay to pound for their side, and sometimes people who are geographically proximate to the tournament in question. There are a wide range of reasons for this. The floor vote was removed sometime in the late 2000’s from the last few tournaments still using it, deemed as unfair for contests between large and small teams. The expectation of more teams being in the break has increased, somewhat commensurate with the size of tournaments and the league, but not entirely. My freshman year (1998-99), only one tournament broke to octos (including the title tournaments) and that was Swarthmore, which ran the gimmick of having four rounds on Friday and then breaking to octos after four rounds instead of quarters after five. They also ran this tournament during March Madness, printed the bracket, and allowed people to bet on it. It was fun, if not entirely without corruption. Nowadays, partial octos or octos are expected of almost every tournament over 60 teams. This is probably better for competitive fairness overall, with most all 4-1’s able to break, but it also fuels delays and exhaustion, and ultimately empty houses for final rounds.

But not at Nationals. At Nationals, everyone stays. Everyone. The -OTY awards (annual season-long achievement for Colleges, Teams, Speakers, and Novices) are given after Finals, the National tournament awards are given, the Distinguished Service Awards (always a surprise to their recipients) are announced, and usually someone (lately, me, though not this year) gives a speech about our fallen heroes, Chris Porcaro and Jeff Williams, before which the awards given in their honor are distributed. And, before all that, the Final is held. The National Final Round, the crowning glory of our league, the culmination of all our effort to distill the best in speaking, debating, strategizing, and thinking.

In 2006, one of the great teams of all-time, Johns Hopkins’ Jon Bateman and Michael Mayernick, wanted to contrast themselves with the previous final round, showing “what APDA can be” as Mayernick noted in his opening remarks in PMC (the opening speech). The founders of the league were in attendance, having been given some of the first DSAs. I was on the final round panel. They asked whether a redemptive or condemnatory ending was better for the Faust myth. It reminded me instantly of my NorthAms Final, the question of forgiveness, the question of what it means to do wrong in this world and how that should be dealt with. It was a weighty question with a touch of artistry, it was a beautiful case. The round itself, however, was not that pretty, as Opp chose to complain about the case, critiquing it for not being sufficiently clear in practical, everyday impacts. To my utter disbelief, Opp was rewarded for their complaining by a 2-1 margin on the very large panel, with me vehemently squirreling (to vote in the minority of the panel).

2007 saw a Princeton team with no expectation of even breaking at Nationals Gov in the Final, and they stated that every college student should be a vegetarian. A weighty moral issue that applies to everyone. In 2008, Princeton repeated their appearance and asked a question about the limits of debate itself, inquiring whether a scientist should deign to debate an advocate of intelligent design theory. In 2009, Johns Hopkins asked whether a Sunni Iraqi should join the insurgency, bringing the ethics of the ongoing war in Iraq home to roost in a profound and personal way that questioned our assumptions of what “terrorism” really means. Then, in 2010, Harvard got to Gov in Nats Finals again.

The Harvard team that Goved that Nats Finals is categorically different than most other Harvard teams that achieve at that level. R. Kyle Bean and Cormac Early had significantly more quirk and personality than the reputation of the typical Harvard debaters of their era (or most any era), with Bean especially being known for all manner of antics and flair. While I wasn’t in their huddle (I was at the round), I don’t doubt that the specter of 2005 loomed large over their decisions about what case to confront Johns Hopkins with. They didn’t want to be the Harvard team running a case about Harvard. They didn’t want to run something tight. They did, perhaps, want to demonstrate their lively demeanor in contrast to the extremely staid (but effective) team on the other bench, Vivek Suri and Sean Withall. So they ran a case about whether a religious family, given the opportunity, should give their child 18 years of the silent treatment if they would receive “magic empathy” for all other people at the conclusion of their childhood.

In retrospect, the case choice and the round were a bit of a bust. Aside from an amusing remark during PoCs where Bean told Suri “Surely even you must have felt empathy at some point, Vivek,” the round was a muddled mess and Opp won more by default than by skill. It was clear to me and to many watching that Harvard was valiantly trying to make a showcase round about weighty questions that are accessible and matter to people, but that this particular manifestation had gotten a little too weird and narrow and obscure in the translation to the spoken round. Perhaps that experience would color Vivek’s future choices as a coach of the Harvard team in the years to come.

But the next year, Vivek was coaching the Boston University team of Alex Taubes and Greg Meyer that won TOTY and were expected to triumph at Nationals. Meyer had his best career tournament, winning second speaker over the more highly regarded Taubes, and the team rolled to Finals, where they ran the case that all drugs should be legalized against an unbelievably unexpected pair of Yale sophomores. They won handily while still offering a case about something that mattered to everyone in the room, relied on accessible arguments, was spoken in a clear and comprehensible tone.

Then came 2012. In that year, last year, Harvard ran a case to challenge the limits of 2005’s capacity for obscurity, boredom, and this time, introducing a bit of spreading for good measure. This team was already developing a bit of a reputation for using the tactics of boredom and fast-talking to their advantage and had begun attempting tab-scratches and receiving at least scratches (the way debaters can avoid being judged by certain people) on me for comments I’d made about the creeping infiltration of spreading into APDA. Seeing myself as a guardian of the style, I have advocated against spreading creeping into APDA after seeing how LD was gutted by it, how Public Forum had to be created for eloquence and slower speaking just as LD was made before it. I envision an era when high school debate carries 37 debate styles, 36 of which are spread debate in various formats and the 37th of which has recently been invented to combat spreading.

Every time I’ve critiqued spreading on APDA, most people have either chided me that debate on APDA isn’t nearly fast enough to be spreading (yet) or insisted that there is something innate to the APDA format that will prevent spreading from succeeding, because too many orators can just make fun of the tactic and talk about big picture issues. Most judges still don’t adjudicate entirely on dropped points, despite the efforts of spread debaters to get them to do so, but rather on a holistic impression of the round. But the last two Final Rounds, especially 2013, have challenged the veracity of this statement in my eyes. But first, some context. As though the 6,500 words currently in this post were not context enough!

In 2012, C. and (another) Alex ran that the exclusionary rule should be replaced by a tort system. Depending on the reports, it was either the second or third case about small aspects of the exclusionary rule they’d run that tournament. The case was presented in a way that most found to be confusing, and all found to be incredibly boring. And while theoretically any of us might at some point be facing a situation wherein we’re accused of a crime and the police cheat to get us put away, I don’t think most people on APDA imagine themselves there. Most people do not find procedural justice at this minute a detail to be that vital. And almost no one found the way Harvard argued it in this round to be worthy of the interest, spark, and inspiration that we expect from a Nationals Final Round.

The round was ugly and few were at their best. The crowd was dissatisfied in the extreme and expressed it. The case made no sense to me until Vivek’s now-becoming-annual coach floor speech in which he explained a key facet of the case that had eluded sufficient background until that moment – one could practically see the lightbulbs illuminating over the heads of each in the audience. The Opp floor speech roundly excoriated Harvard for their case choice. The decision, by the slimmest margin, went to the Government. My de facto Assistant Coach that year, Dave Reiss, and I discussed the round shortly before the decision was announced and agreed, through pained and gritted teeth, that Gov had probably done just enough to win despite the desire we both would have had as judges to penalize them for ruining Nats Finals.

So, now, finally, we get to 2013. Last weekend. The day that won’t leave me alone, albeit only 100 hours or so after it was over. Again, the context is critical.

Rutgers had brought a school-record five teams to Nationals and they slowly thinned out over the course of the longest day that exists on the APDA circuit, the second day of Nats, the day when rounds 3, 4, 5, and 6 drag on almost endlessly amidst the sturdiest competition and most stressful stakes of the year. To make the cut of the top 16, the octofinals, one needs a 4-2 record with very good speaker scores – it’s usually the top half of the 4-2 field, but speaks have escalated at Nationals lately (not like they have in policy, but a fair amount), to the point where the breaking 4-2’s must average scores that would make them top ten speakers at most tournaments during the regular year. Going into round six, we had three teams still in the hunt, one on 4-1 and two on 3-2. One of the 3-2 teams (correctly) assumed they were already out of the race on speaker points, however, while the other figured (again, correctly) that they were very much in the race. All three were Gov in round six and went in with high hopes of securing a winning record and giving themselves at least a slim hope of hearing their name announced at the Banquet that night.

After Senior Speeches, in which Syracuse senior David Kopel called on the entire league to be more entertaining, gutsy, and intriguing in rounds, especially final rounds, and two of our own seniors, Chris Bergman and Bhargavi Sriram, also bid farewell to the circuit, the break was announced. While two of our three teams had won, the high-speaking 3-2 had been tanked out of the break. But the 4-1 was the other winner and they had clinched a 5-1 record and what we would later find out was the 6th seed in the octofinal draw. Euphoric, we gathered for pictures, offered condolences to non-breaking teams, and prepared for the fastest, most exciting day of debate on APDA, the Nats out-rounds.

We drew Syracuse, who was assigned to Gov by virtue of having had fewer Govs throughout preliminary rounds. Bergman, Ashley Novak, and I huddled around discussing the myriad of fun, philosophical, religious, and open-ended cases that Syracuse (Kopel and Samm Costello) were known to employ. We were excited having drawn this team, knowing that Kopel would never run something dull in light of his moralizing speech the night before, knowing how he’d come to Rutgers just this semester and won top speaker by running fascinating philosophical explorations as cases. We knew that not only would this play to our strengths, but it would make for a great showcase round, a great way to go out if indeed we did.

But something happened on the way to that Gov for Syracuse. Initially, my suspicions were that it was a strategic move, that they knew Rutgers was strong on philosophy and fun and they thought they’d zag to boring. In retrospect, I believe they were instead concerned about the panel, chaired by one V. Suri, who’d opped magical empathy with derision, who’d helped write exclusionary torts and choose it for Nats Finals just the year before. Flanked by judges who were not known for their sense of fun, the panel probably intimidated ‘Cuse out of their normal file and led them to choose obscure aspects of medical malpractice insurance. We lost on a 2-1, with both judges voting against us saying it was a narrow decision that we were winning until late in PMR.

We were of course stunned and devastated, then immediately felt conflicted. In many ways, we would normally root for Syracuse, an underdog school who runs fun cases, to at least go on and carry our banner if we could not do so ourselves. At the same time, what Syracuse team was this that had just given us something about medical malpractice when we were expecting ancient kingdoms or a clash of big ideas? Confused and bewildered, the team scattered to various quarterfinals, most choosing a Yale civil war between four highly touted seniors in what would be half of their last rounds. I was lucky enough to be judging that round, a true showcase about how individuals should donate their money.

In semifinals, I was judging the Syracuse team, who’d employed a fun philosophical opp-choice case to handily carry their quarterfinal against Brown. They were Opp against this year’s TOTY, Yale’s Robert Colonel and Ben Kornfeld, known for their penchant for cases about economics as future hedge fund employees. In a move that surprised no one, Colonel opened his speech with a discussion of economics, leading to the case that there should be a consumption tax instead of an income tax.

The round was not great. The case, despite the trappings of somewhat obscure econ, was actually slowly delivered and quite clear, relying less on jargon than on the common sense logic that is supposed to be the mainstay of argumentation in our format of debate. However, Kopel had no interest in the case, delivering an LOC that went less than seven minutes of an allotted eight-and-a-half, something unheard of for good novices, let alone varsity seniors in the National Semifinal. He looked bored, defeated, and frustrated, making relatively weak arguments against something that seemed not to interest him. Left little to fight against, Kornfeld then retorted with a highly repetitive MG, making the same somewhat jargony claims again and again to fill time and reaffirm Colonel’s statements.

Then Costello got up to deliver the MOC. And things changed in a hurry.

She made it personal, nearly yelling at the panel and the assembled audience of over a hundred. She screamed “This is my coming-out party, APDA, because I am [bleeping] poor.” She excoriated the Gov for making assumptions about the rationality of economic incentives when her family didn’t know how to spend money and just did whatever they could to try to get by. It was a moving speech and it took people out of the round and made them think about larger questions than what was being discussed right there. While I was very certain by the end of the round, after LOR was again underwhelming and PMR was rather persuasive, that Gov had won, I briefly considered casting a protest-vote for the Opp on the grounds of their bravery and the importance of calling the attention of an all too ivory-towered academic league to the issues that truly affect real people. While I’d found Gov persuasive, they had also seemed incredibly out of touch with the plight of the people they were allegedly trying to help in their case and this seemed worthy of observing. When I cast my ballot ultimately for Gov, I had no doubt that all six other panelists would do the same.

I was wrong. The decision was a 4-3 for Syracuse.

Vivek was one of the other two in our camp of three squirrels. He intoned in his trademark withering Snape voice that “I found the MO’s personal appeals uncompelling,” as the judges began their return to General Assembly to deliver the verdict. The other judges assured him they had voted less on personal appeals than the argument that Opp had most compellingly made, that rich Americans would escape a consumption tax by spending money earned in the States overseas, thus depleting already washed out American tax rolls further. I had found that to be the one argument on the flow Opp had won, but that it was ultimately marginal and insufficient to override Gov’s other benefits.

Vivek then went to huddle with his Harvard team, junior Josh and sophomore Ben, who were soon announced to have won their semifinal on a 5-2 split. I was excited to learn that the Brandeis team who’d Goved that round, Keith Barry and Russell Leibowitz, had run a case I’d originally written, a case I wanted to desperately run in a final round and eventually got to in my last final round of my regular career, at Rutgers Pro-Ams (the first RUDU APDA tournament) in 2002. The case asks how a devout religious believer ought live if their soul were reversed such that good acts would send them to hell and bad acts would send them to heaven. I’d given the case to a Brandeisian many years after my graduation, who then tweaked it and passed it on to Keith and Russell, who tweaked it further still. The case remains one of my absolute favorites for cleaving the question of motivation and reward from doing good for good’s sake. It made me proud of my Brandeis roots all over again to know that this was how one of their best teams in recent memory chose to go out.

And thus the stage was set for Nats Finals. The teams could not be much more different in background and shape. Despite their decision in octofinals against Rutgers, Syracuse carried a reputation of debating for the right reasons, of showcase cases, of bending minds and perceptions both of topics discussed and what it meant to be a small, under-funded and relatively new school on APDA. Meanwhile, Harvard represented a tradition of great success, though also of dry subjects and the fastest speaking on the circuit. Syracuse was represented by two seniors who would be in their last rounds. Harvard was represented by a junior who’d put up one of the best individual seasons on APDA ever and a totally unsung sophomore in just his sixth career APDA tournament, a fast-talking high school hero who most people still had never seen. There was no question what side people wanted the teams to have. Everyone wanted Syracuse to be Gov.

Everyone. Except perhaps Harvard.

Indeed, other than some mop-up discussions from semifinals and earlier rounds, all anyone could seem to talk about while we stood waiting around Hoff Theater for the auditorium to be prepared for Nats Finals, was who was Goving and how the round was about to be either wonderful or terrible. People whispered about Syracuse cases they’d seen, only boggling at how Platonic the case they might run in such a venue as Nats Finals would be. Meanwhile, they feared what Harvard would do with the forum, having been rewarded for boring the crowd in the previous year, having debaters with less career accomplishment in the round, which might only lead them to make a cautious move of running something extremely imbalanced to their side.

When we entered the gigantic theater, majestically laid out with glittering trophies, two tables, and a podium, people were impressed by the classiness of a Nationals that had not exactly spared every expense to impress us. But then it became clear which table each team was going to. And the lamentations began.

Harvard was Gov. The collective held their breath and wondered if the case would be a repeat of 2005 and 2012, something inaccessible, quickly delivered, unfair to the Opp, roundly unfair to the crowd.

On face, when Ben opened his remarks, after a dry thank-you to the rogue taxi driver who’d scuttled them out of Boston when it was ostensibly on lock-down, the case he offered was probably better than those in both 2005 and 2012. It was about a question that mattered more, certainly. But he also, out of nerves or that just being his style (I’ve never seen him debate before), shotgunned out details of the case in a rapid-fire way that made the case feel inaccessible to most of the audience. And certainly to Syracuse, who a bit impatiently asked him to repeat all of his remarks.

His advocacy was that the US should break up the twelve largest banks in the country, those that have been deemed “too big to fail.” In PoCs, he offered clarifications of asset quantities that were hilariously played out as hard for Syracuse to understand and contextualize. It is likely that both Harvard debaters are en route to careers in hedge funds or other similar economic pursuits, while the Syracuse pair are interested in Russian translation and medicine, respectively. The Harvard debaters look like a prep school catalog, while the Syracuse debaters often show up to tournaments in ratty T-shirts and speak their minds loudly. I won’t speculate on the total asset holdings of each of the four, but I want to contrast myself with those who have said this final round was not about class or earnings. Everything in America at this point in history is about class and earnings. The wealth disparity is beyond the limits of anything ever deemed acceptable by a free society and it is directly jeopardizing our ability to call it a free society. And if you’re not paying attention to that, or how it plays out to almost every interaction you have, I’m sorry, but you’re not paying attention.

Then Kopel asked what would happen to banks that didn’t comply. And Ben assured him this was not an option, that they would. The case had fiat power and there was no way around compliance if they wanted to do business in the United States.

Clearly uncomfortable, Costello eventually said, “Okay, I think we’re ready” and Ben proceeded to rattle off a metric ton of arguments about breaking up the banks. The delivery was so uninteresting and uncompelling that it sounded like a parody of policy debate. I whispered to my team that was in earshot “Do you want to ask Siri a question?” and many cracked up. Nationals Finals was opening with a speech that could only even begin to be interesting to the judging panel and those accustomed to the faster ranges of debate, one that could only leave the vast majority of the audience as cold as the delivery itself.

Several things occurred to me while listening to this speech. The first was what a brilliant ploy it was, in light of the semifinal round between Yale and Syracuse, to force ‘Cuse to defend the big bad banks while Harvard had reasons to break them up. It was a total reversal of perspective for this David (literally) and Goliath match-up, to foist defense of the hedge funds and those who play with other people’s money onto the small guys who were less well off and didn’t run in that crowd. I have no idea how many teams they would have run that case against from the octofinal draw, but whether deliberate or accidental, this was a clever strategic play.

The main thing I was thinking, of course, was whether this was even an event I recognized anymore. In light of the prior year’s Final, Harvard had jumped headlong into doubling down on their strategy of boring everyone out of the round, of making obscure, quick, esoteric arguments that challenged the Opp not to engage or counter but to merely understand. And after Kopel had shut down against a far slower, more accessible series of arguments for the semifinal case, I wondered what he would possibly do against this one.

I tried to place myself in his shaky shaky shoes at that moment, to try to imagine how I would try to take back this round for those who sought the entertainment he’d discussed in his own Senior Speech. To try to turn the tables so that Harvard felt as uncomfortable as he now did, trying to defend big banking’s ability to destroy lives with impunity and rule society without fear of check or repercussion. At some point, I whispered to someone that he had to counter-case, that he had to maximize clash by refusing to defend the banks and run a sweeping counter-case that bordered on socialism, a counter-proposal along the lines of nationalizing all banks or criminalizing Wall Street. I don’t doubt that the whole crowd was with me in the breathless anticipation of how Kopel, spokesperson for intellectual rigor on APDA this year, would respond.

He said this:

“I want to begin, surprisingly, with a little bit of meta-analysis. So, I think that you’re decision in this round functionally ought to be based on the fact that Nats Finals is a different kind of round from the average sort of APDA round. So we would ultimately argue that if you are lulled to sleep by Harvard, then you ought not vote for them, because we all spend a great deal of time coming out to these debate tournaments and giving up our weekends, giving up our time. And if we’re not actually really learning anything new and we’re just talking about banks the entire time, I actually think we should hold this league to a higher standard.”

He then discussed how this would affect future decisions by future debaters and how that mattered to people. And how the case was an embarrassment, something he has since retracted in all the fallout from the discussion of this round. And then he called the case tight, something never done in 32 prior APDA National Championships.

All of this was done amidst raucous cheering and “hear-hear”s, not just from fans and friends of Syracuse, but from an audience angered by a PMC with no vocal intonation or attempt at rhetorical persuasion whatsoever, tired of a reign of expectation that people put up with and laud that sort of debate, and excited to see someone risk everything they had worked for four years to earn on the bet that this was APDA’s “mad-as-hell-and-not-going-to-take-it-anymore” moment.

The round got ugly. Really ugly. Harvard called Syracuse and their decisions “anti-intellectual” and “a disgrace” and defended their decision to run the case on the basis of pointing out that this was an important topic with impacts on the world. People cheered for their side and heckled against the other. People felt uncomfortable and were drained. The round developed into the metaphorical train-wreck from which no head could turn. Harvard’s arguments defending the tight-call were poor and the responses were poor. Both sides simultaneously escalated and tried to slip out of the meta-call about the quality of the case as it became clear that the quality of the round overall was disastrous.

Mercifully, the round ended, but the arguments had only just begin. People across the crowd were listless and failed to move. They looked like they’d just watched a documentary on Somalia rather than a Nats Final. I told people I felt this was a turning point for the league and how it felt about certain cases and an approach to debate. Most replied they just felt this was a stain on the league that would hopefully be forgotten. I held some hope that people would vote Opp, but most everyone expected a 7-0 for Gov.

It was not a 7-0 for Gov. It was a 5-2 for Gov. The two dissenters were Robert Glunt of Cornell and Kate Falkenstien of Yale. These were the LOs, respectively, in the 2005 and 2012 Nats Finals against Harvard.

Among the five were Omar Qureshi and Reid Bagwell, people who relied on eloquence against careers that spanned many high speaker awards, as well as Jon Bateman, the MG in the Hopkins case in 2006 Nats Finals when he ran the case about Faust. Omar told me after the round that most of the panel was open to the case entirely being a meta-call about the nature of final rounds and Nats Finals especially, but that calling the case tight alienated much of the panel, which also included Adam Goldstein and Mike Childers, and isolated their decision to the tight call only. All seven said they adjudicated solely on the tight-call.

In retrospect, I don’t think the decision matters all that much. I could spend the rest of my space here (though you’ve noticed it’s unlimited, I’m sure) arguing why I think the seven judges all should have considered the meta-call about the nature of the case, that such is the only check the league or its members have against pressing the advantage of getting to Gov. But the problem is also that whether they considered it or not, Syracuse didn’t do it perfectly. They fell into several traps about the case, criticizing the case topic itself more than how the case was constructed and delivered. This enabled Harvard to argue, quite correctly, that the financial crisis and bank regulation actually are important topics of the day. And when this discussion exploded out into the wider forum, involving many APDA alums who were not at the Nats Finals, they overwhelmingly echoed that the case was interesting and accessible without having seen the PMC, PoCs, or the nature of the way Harvard has debated much of the last two years.

We ought give both teams some slack. Obviously, some of the harshest mudslinging on both sides has been retracted and can be chalked up to the heat of the moment. The crowd is being criticized for heckling, though I noticed very little of this so much as some of the most ardent and active clapping and cheering I’ve ever seen in a Nats Final. I maintain what I said early on, that Kopel’s LOC was the bravest speech I’ve ever seen on APDA, that crossing the threshold to a meta-call on the nature of Nationals Finals and tight-calling a case he believed was tight in that venue were incontrovertibly brave and difficult things to do for which he should be forever proud. And I can’t help but think, while I respect them both as imminently fair judges, that the memory of their own LOCs helped prompt Glunt and Kate to decide as they did.

But the larger question has been called and a team has sacrificed most everything, including, if the forum is to be believed (it shouldn’t – internet forums and APDA’s especially are notorious for unwarranted vitriol of which I myself have sometimes partaken) their reputations as people on the circuit, to call it. What sort of debate league is APDA? What do we want to see here? How do we want to discuss issues and what sort of issues, in what way, are appropriate for Nationals Finals, or any final, or even any round?

I think it is absolutely vital, as a simple conclusion to over 10,000 words of rambling historical recounting and diatribe, that we expect more of teams. Harvard doesn’t want this video to go up because they don’t want prospective debaters thinking that round is representative of APDA. But it is representative of APDA, both in their case choice and approach and in the backlash it received. This is a conflict that is breaking out all over the league. And it doesn’t have to be fought as harshly or inartfully as it was in Hoff Theater, but it does have to be discussed. Is it reasonable to escalate the speed and unpersuasiveness of argumentation to get more arguments in that one hopes to pull through in PMR for a narrow victory? Is that APDA? Is that what we want it to be?

People have always assured me that APDA rounds are judged holistically and that no one could simply spread and spec their way to a win in this league. I think that reassurance has been called into serious doubt by this final. And while I don’t think Syracuse losing is the deathknell of my perspective about this circuit, I have no doubt that Harvard and other teams who favor spreading and obscurity will proceed undeterred with this strategy as they have been rewarded. I fervently hope that I’m wrong, that enough backlash was built from the groundswell of vocal support for Syracuse, that they do draw back from the ledge and challenge themselves to be more interesting, to care about the audience, and to slow down.

I have the deepest respect for Josh and Ben. How could you not respect someone winning Nats in his sixth APDA tournament? Many people said his quarterfinal MO against top-seed Princeton deserved a 27.5, the highest score our league now offers. And Josh has impressed me with his true dedication to the league and interest in issues of equity, despite his lofty background. (I’m sorry, but where people come from does color their perspective and this is part of any cogent discussion on these issues.) I am duly impressed by Vivek Suri’s ability to be a part of four consecutive National Championship squads. I only wish he and his cohorts had challenged themselves in the last two years to not use every advantage available to them in this relentless pursuit.

Eventually, people are either going to have to voluntarily step back from the brink of escalation on spreading and speccing, or they are going to have to be dropped for failure to do so. There have been instances of such dropping. Perhaps the most famous speech of the year was Kornfeld’s 30-second LOC tight-call against Josh and C., critiquing not only the case itself but the very way that Harvard was choosing to debate at the time, and exposing its flaws. This Nats Finals felt like a moment like that, but had a different outcome. The jury, I daresay, is still out.

But I would posit that it is reasonable to consider such drops. It is reasonable for judges to consider fairness in all its aspects, and indeed the spirit of debate, when making a call about who won and who lost. I think it’s appropriate for Opp teams to raise these issues, and increasingly may be very important that they do so. This does not mean making assumptions or dropping people on face. It’s quite possible that Josh and Ben will return to the circuit next year with open, fun, rhetorically elocuted opp-choice cases and they should be rewarded and lauded if they do. Don’t assume that the school or the people will do what they have done before.

But if there’s a time when you’re gritting your teeth about a decision, when every part of you wants to drop a team for being unfair to the other, for squeezing every last second of advantage out of situation, maybe you should just drop that team. Or at least consider it. And maybe it’s up to Opp to raise that question first so you’re not intervening too much in the round, but maybe it isn’t.

Just as companies ruthlessly pursuing profit will only respond to financial penalties, my deep concern is that teams who only care about winning will not start caring about anything else until they stop winning. It is perhaps even less surprising from people who see themselves at the helm of those companies in future. But winning is a reward and it should be doled out for greatness, not merely finding some way, any way, to best the other team. Debaters of the future, let greatness be your standard, not doing just enough to win when anything goes.


Ed. note: A few of the debaters mentioned in this post asked for their last names to be removed so they could not be Googled in association with this post. While I personally prefer this to be a documentation of important events, I understand their concerns and have agreed to their request. If you are mentioned in this post and would also like your last name removed, I will do so. Just send me an e-mail at storey@bluepyramid.org. Given that the results of the tournament are publicly available, it probably doesn’t actually detract from the information of the post’s content.

Additionally, it seems like many of the other National Final Round videos were removed by request of the participants, so 2013 is not as much of an outlier as originally discussed.

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Alma Mater

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: , ,

Andy Tirrell and I at what I thought would be my last tournament ever, UMBC Nationals 2002.

Andy Tirrell and I at what I thought would be my last tournament ever, UMBC Nationals 2002.

It’s hard to believe that I’m about to wrap up my fourth year of coaching debate, matching the length and breadth of my APDA career when I actually debated the rounds myself. I have spent as many years teaching, supporting, cajoling, and cheering on Rutgers as I did speaking for Brandeis. It’s hard to put in perspective.

Of course, because of the ever-present reality of the sensation that time is speeding up, a universal for temporal beings that I once explained in depth on this blog, it’s felt like less time. And that first year was shorter, as was my first year of debating for Brandeis, the product of the rule that novices could only go to certain tournaments due to limited funding at the latter at the time. But the first year at Brandeis may have been the longest as I was establishing myself in a new field, a new arena despite my debate experience from earlier schooling, while the last four years have been ensconced in a community with which I could not be much more familiar.

I went to 73 tournaments as a debater. Plus two trips to Worlds to make 75. Plus, if you want to get technical, four Brandeis-hosted tourneys at which I judged, making 79 total. And I guess the one comeback tournament at BU makes a nice round 80. This weekend, I will return to Brandeis for the third time in my coaching career, to attend my 87th tournament as a coach. Plus four Rutgers-hosted tournaments, to make 91 in total. While I competed in 444 rounds as a debater, I have probably judged somewhere in the neighborhood of 550 rounds as a coach. And I’m not done yet. While you only get four years on APDA to make your mark in competition, there’s no upper limit on how much you can coach or judge.

Of course, the season is longer than it used to be. I had a 50-tournament streak that took me from late sophomore year through graduation; now the schedule routinely schedules 28 weekends a year of competition, or 54% of the available weekends in an annual calendar. The league is larger, there are more tournaments on average in a weekend, and the overall weight of APDA is heavier. The competition has probably never been deeper and the breadth of impact of the league overall is at or near its peak, despite whatever other experienced debaters would tell you about how the quality of competition has always been declining since they personally got good at the activity.

But as I’m about to head up to what I used to affectionately call The Beans and its “mining town” suburb to again traverse the hills and brick halls of alma mater, it’s impossible not to get philosophical about an event that has brought me one-thousand rounds of competitive two-on-two debate, and probably close to half that many practice rounds. It may not strictly meet the ten-thousand hour rule of mastery in terms of actual time in an official match, but with weekends being 36-hour minimum commitments counting travel time, we’re in the neighborhood of 6,000 hours of tournaments and another 2,000 of practice.

One of my debaters asked me yesterday if I could do this job for twenty years. I told him it was hard for me to picture doing anything for twenty years without getting bored, without feeling like life was somehow falling away into repetition and drudgery when other opportunities were waiting to be explored and teach me things. In contemplation of what eight years of college debate on one end or the other of the round has looked like, twenty years seems even less possible to fathom. How anyone can return to a job for decades on end totally defies my sense of imagination. I can picture people crossing the Sahara with no water and only the will to live, but a fifth of a century at the same workplace utterly boggles me.

But preparing to drive up the well-worn path from central Jersey to eastern Massachusetts, I still feel inspired, excited, alive with the possibility of a new day of debate. 171 APDA tournaments in, I’m not done yet.

The first time I prepped a Rutgers team for out-rounds, with Dave Reiss and Chris Bergman at American University's Pro-Am tournament in November 2009.

The first time I prepped a Rutgers team for out-rounds, with Dave Reiss and Chris Bergman at American University's Pro-Am tournament in November 2009.

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Requiem for an Apartment

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: , , ,

I lived there for 30 months. It was my 17th residence, if you don’t count hotels. It saw me turn my debate gig into a full-time job, the shavings of the worst year of my life into something livable, the wreckage of a marriage into another relationship with promise. That relationship started in that apartment, and always will have.

At least eight boxes entered and exited the building sealed, remaining so for the duration of the two and a half years spent there. I signed my divorce papers there, ended my last conversation with my wife there, eventually stopped hiding the knives there. It played host to a meaningful start to at least one other relationship between people not me, one whose ebbs and flows were tumultuously linked to my own perceptions on the league in which I coach. A few friends visited, some overnight, but not many and not often, usually opening the windows when they did. It was where I learned that Pandora had died, but my cat never set paw therein, despite all her stuff being there when she was put to sleep.

It was where I almost got a rabbit, thrice. As it was, I never actually had an animal in the place once, unless you count the couple of mice that were there the first few weeks I was.

The cold water faucet in the sink worked for less than 10% of my residence time. The heat was roasting in the early morning hours, but nearly off in mid to late evening. October and April tended to be freezing. The first day in fall that the heat would finally come on would be cause for dancing. The kitchen was the size of a small coffin, footprint wise. It felt like same to inhabit.

Things discarded upon departure: A bookcase with separated shelves, the plywood board for keeping art straight across the country in summer 2011, the toaster oven I’d had since 2002, Fish’s old blender whose top never worked, several coat hangers, the sparkling grape juice, Trader Joe’s cornbread mix, and microwave meals which had all been purchased at prior residences.

It had a mantle with no fireplace and I actually rotated seasonal cards there atop my turtle collection and a handful of candles. I burned cases of candles in the place, many in the bathroom in place of the appalling overhead light. There were Christmas lights of one kind or another in every room save that one, most of them with fun light covers, some of which date from 1987.

I filmed most of the abortive attempts at the Blue Pyramid Stories video series there, shortly before the giant laminated world map started falling off the wall and depriving me of my backdrop. I never was able to make the thing stick properly again and I’ve had trouble not reading that, like so much else, as a metaphor.

I rode out two hurricanes there. I watched a great deal of snowfall, departed for my first trip to the Jersey shore therefrom, and bought and installed my first air-conditioner there, which is still in my possession.

I came home late a lot. After infinitely late late-rounds of debate at practice, after all-night sessions of poker at Parx and elsewhere, after late late movies with a couple different people or just by myself. After diners and debates and bowling.

Some things will not be changing.

A lot of things will, though. There will be TV again, and better Internet hopefully, and nothing stolen from the front porch. There will be more cooking, more space, a yard in back for the nice days and the snow days. There will be laundry that doesn’t require a trip outside and wrestling with the rusty heavy storm doors and their concussive clearance. There will be less parking, admittedly. There will be less walking, though there’d been basically no walking for all of the past year, after that torrid crazy year of walking everywhere at 3 AM in drenching storms because of how little I cared.

There will be caring, hopefully.

Farewell, 119 South 1st Avenue, Apartment B. May your endlessly amended address serve someone else just as well.

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Crossing the Bridge

Categories: A Day in the Life, Blue Pyramid News, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Metablogging, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , ,

The above image has graced the top of this page for well over a year. It’s naively titled the StoreyTelling Fall 2011 Background, but I just replaced it on one of the last days of January 2013. That’s one long fall, especially when you consider that it went up in August after the conclusion of my cross-country trip over the summer.

I’d taken the picture on the George Washington Bridge, bleary-eyed, tearful, to remind myself that I wasn’t stopping on that bridge right then. That I was driving past the bridge even though I really, really didn’t want to. Even though doing so felt like the culmination of generations of effort at that very moment. It wasn’t safe to take that picture while driving, but it was a whole lot safer than what I wasn’t doing.

Not long after the picture was taken and went up on this page, life started to get better. It had been getting better the whole time, slowly, but with the advent of my relationship, the rate of progress started to speed up. I also lost a lot of momentum and interest in blogging and this page. The reasons were myriad and complicated. It was hard to talk about my relationship here. It was hard to feel like cutting off communication with Emily was meaningful when she could and probably would read this page. Even though most of what I was trying to prevent was the influence of her attitude and even existence on me, the awareness that there was still a one-way street was weird and disheartening. Not enough to abandon the project or the original principles that led to its creation, but to dial it way back.

I also just kind of ran out of gas for Duck & Cover, the product of a busy schedule, sleeping more, and the increasing irrelevance of politics. And D&C has often been a lot of the juice that keeps this page flowing and going and worth checking daily. And this was all part of a larger context of the falling off of a lot of new content at the Blue Pyramid writ large, in the mix of the total creative collapse that came from the wake of my divorce. Put simply, once I could no longer make even the most basic aspects of my life function, the entire direction of my identity work in the most rudimentary way, the idea of me telling anyone anything, of sending any messages or creating any perspectives, seemed flatly ludicrous. This was something that was immediate for my fiction, but took time to unwind here.

I often think that resolutions are arbitrarily timed and silly and kind of like the idea of making birthday resolutions more than New Year’s, though those aren’t that different for my February-borne existence. But 2013 has been different. This year has dawned sadder, more challenging, and more urgent than many before it. (I should note that it is not holistically sadder, but day-to-day reality seems to be sadder and harder for myself and most people I know. It’s strange.) There is a natural taking stock that comes with a new year, but this one seems to find more general dissatisfaction and angst than I remember people having. There are organic explanations like the bitter cold driving people indoors to stew, more universal ones about the energy of the planet, and the truth is probably an amalgam of everything you can think of, like it usually is.

So this week, it felt like it was time to cross the bridge. I won’t try to explain the symbolism of the current graphic just in case you wind up having 17 months to digest it and consider it whenever you come check what I’ve written lately. And I’m not going to make creative promises about how much there will or won’t be here. Obviously I’ve been more interested in writing lately than I have during most of the duration of the bridge graphic. Increasingly, though, I find that I am struggling a lot with the basics. I think it’s fair to say that I’ve always been good with the big picture, but terrible with the small picture. The small picture has always felt… well, small. It’s debilitating to focus on the small picture all the time. And yet, the small picture may be a really key element of what’s going on. Given my uncertainty about things these days, the upheaval of the time, my entirely melted and slowly reforming identity, it’s reasonable to say that I don’t know where to put the small picture in the overall context.

The bridge still haunts me, as such places and means have since 1990. Crossing the bridge does not mean putting it behind me or out of sight, out of mind. It means that there can, perhaps, be a new shape to the approach of life and the context of the future. Crossing a bridge doesn’t mean eliminating it. It means that one doesn’t have to spend the whole time thinking about the river that is unceasingly flowing from the past.

Or at least that’s what I’m trying.

Yoda was wrong. At this point, all I can seem to do is try.

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Enchanted Evening

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

Everything’s just a little more intense in New Mexico. The colors are a little bit brighter, the emotions run a little bit higher, the sounds resonate a little bit louder, the smells waft a little bit stronger. You may think that it’s just that I have a special attachment to this region, which is true, but part of the reason this was the place that drew my parents to stop wandering and so many others to conclude the land was charged with spiritual enchantment is just what I’m talking about. You might say the dials in New Mexico go up to 11 and, indeed, only to 11. There is very little off in this state.

It’s the most poignant time for me in New Mexico, namely Christmas Eve, the day of luminarias. I’ve explained luminarias sufficiently in prior years and prior posts to not revisit the topic in depth (click any recent December in the archive for a host of pictures and such). And as much as I fought the initial selection of this house and the departure from 12th Street, I am deeply grateful to have the opportunity to do a display each year that thousands of people see as part of the most visited luminaria display in the world. (There probably aren’t many in the world outside of Albuquerque, but I hear tell there are a few.) My friends, especially those with birthplaces or kindergarten enrollments in this state, chide my enthusiasm for sanded candled bags, but there’s no dedication like the passion of the converted. And given my reaction to the Ganga Aarti of floating candles in Varanasi, it may be that the closest I find to the physical manifestation of God is a series of countless lit candles in a wide expanse.

Of course, I do count my bags and candles, well, religiously, each year. There are currently 693 candled bags ready to go, over 200 of which have already been placed on the roof in one of the most extensive roof displays I’ve ever attempted. I say “attempted” in part because winds are expected to gust a bit this afternoon, and aside from rain, wind is the biggest enemy of the successful lighting of lumis. Indeed, I will have to post the actual figure later for posterity since I may end up getting ambitious and adding a few late luminarias and it’s also possible that there will be enough of a wipeout that all 693 don’t get used. For context, the last three years I’ve been here have been my three largest displays, with 620 in 2008, a record 772 in 2010, and 610 last year. I spent Christmas Eve 2009 in Clovis and did a small display for the Garin clan as we’d discussed doing for many years in a row.

And while I’m posting numbers of various sorts, it should be noted now and forever that the length of the fabled Luminaria Stick is almost exactly fifteen inches. This is the measuring stick, a wooden piece of discarded molding, that is hauled out annually to ensure proper spacing. Almost every year, there is a brief intense discussion and a flurry of panic in the household about the location of the stick, if it’s been lost, if someone accidentally burned it, and promises to measure the darn thing to lower the stakes of a possible loss in the future. I was pretty confident it was fifteen inches when we had this year’s extended version of this little drama, and it turns out that was the result of at least some hurried measurement in a prior December. In any case, we’d outsmarted ourselves last Christmas by packing it in a Christmas box that was sure to be opened well before the 24th, only to postpone decorating this year till the 23rd and incite the most complete resignation to the Stick being lost yet, right before we found it.

This year the roof was done with a 16.5 inch stick while we were certain that The Stick was lost, but honestly that might be better given the optics of distance and how one’s mind will envision further things as more tightly spaced than closer.

And now, as I finish my coffee, I must away to my most sacred task of the year. I was joking with my father yesterday that I would awaken this morning and bound out of bed like it was Christmas morning, only to note the mild irony of that sentiment. Luminarias are my Christmas, though. Would that we could all replace the commercialism and sensationalism of the season with a simple offering of light along the path of the weary wanderer.

See you out there.

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Object Lesson

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

I have learned a lot about myself in the past week. This is good. Learning is fun!

One of the things I have learned, or relearned perhaps, is how little I am surprised by things. Most people like surprises. I kind of miss them, I guess. Which is not intended as a way of tempting the fates. But if anything, I think I’m surprised that there aren’t more mass-shootings in America. About one a day is probably what I’d expect. Maybe we’ll get there soon. This is not a desire or a hope. It would be nice to have no mass-shootings in a year. But there would have to be a lot of changes to make that happen.

No, not increased security measures.

I wrote at length about the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon last October, how I saw it as a harbinger not of a revolutionary protest movement in our society, but as a reflection of how many people were left with nothing to do in our society. It would be nice if it were a revolutionary protest movement that was burgeoning in our society. Unfortunately, we have all seen too many revolutionary protest movements. We are watching several of them now! Look at Libya, Egypt, Syria. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. A bunch of people get themselves killed and do some killing and you end up with a society that looks a lot like it did before. But the leaders are slightly different and maybe this race or religion or sect has the advantages to lord over the prior victors. There is much to deter a young revolutionary in society today.

To believe in revolution, you have to believe in the future. You have to believe that there is a future worth fighting for. We are getting little stark illustrations all over the place that this is a foolish perspective. There will be a future, surely, in the sense of days that follow this one. No matter how much caves in or how much I lose, that is inevitably clear. But the idea that the right people can be in control, nay, that there even are right people, seems unlikely. And the more people who were raised and brought up to believe in an American dream and a future that was better than their parents’ and the mass accumulation of growth and so on and awaken to find the piles of debt and futurelessness waiting for them, the more people they are likely to go out and shoot.

I probably shouldn’t put in print that I understand that frustration and powerlessness of mass-shooters. I am a pacifist, of course, and abhor violence of all kinds, and am in no way trying to justify or vindicate the actions of James Holmes or anyone like him. But I get the idea of the world being so backwards and upside-down that only an absurdist and horrific reaction seems fair or justified. I have felt this way in my life sometimes and am very grateful to my pacifism for keeping me from stockpiling weapons. I know that some of you are probably surprised (there it is again!) to see me writing this, but I think you are not necessarily checking in with yourself sufficiently if so. Look inward, my friend. Have you never felt that kind of anger and despair?

This society is manufacturing anger and despair at an incredible rate right now. We’ve been over why, this worship of the magical “Economy”, and we’ve even been over how it manifests when people only turn the proverbial gun on themselves, most recently. As my friend and debater Kurt Falk often tells me, I should be the entertainment at children’s birthday parties. His idea for fixing all this is in his most recent post, where he joins Kurt Vonnegut (in Palm Sunday, just finished today, certainly influencing the style of this post) in advocating that we have new rites of passage for American youth, bar mitzvahs or quinceañeras for a culture unmoored. It’s a good idea. It used to be that graduating from high school was our culture’s adulthood commemoration ceremony. But now there is no real adulthood to be reached. In the sense of independence, of self-sufficiency, of freedom to make informed decisions, our newly minted adults are as bankrupt as someone with six figures of student loan debt. And just like those folks, they can’t file it and start over.

So they shoot people, don’t they? I guess that’s a little oversimplified, but that looks to be the size of it. Apparently Mr. Holmes is walking down the corridors pretending to be the Joker or some other masked movie villain (get it?), but I’m sure he was perfectly sane when he spent meticulous hours buying guns on the Internet or laying tripwires across his apartment. He did the math. He was good at it. He realized that he had no future, that the people of America who were being distracted to death had no future, and he tried to illustrate that. All the way down to the six-month-old and the six-year-old who were apparently watching one of the most violent franchises in movie history after midnight.

I am not trying to glorify this scumbag or turn him into some sort of dark anti-hero (I’ll leave that to Hollywood). But I am trying to dissent from the media chorus singing about the senseless unpredictable shock of all this. It’s perfectly predictable and it has a kind of logic. Michael Moore did much the same treatment of Columbine in his masterpiece movie Bowling for Columbine, which we should all probably go rewatch. Part of his thesis was that kids growing up in the shadow of defense contracting, preached to about how the country they’re supposed to love solves all its problems through violence, will occasionally take this environment seriously. And respond in kind. People are all agog about what’s wrong with Colorado when Michael Moore already told you. To be fair, Holmes did hail from San Diego, one of the biggest military cities in the country aside from those found in Colorado. When we have a society filled with people who play a little video game attached to real drones that blow up real people, how shocked can we be that disgruntled broke teens or twenty-somethings from the new Lost Generation walk into a movie and emulate the solutions found on-screen and in real life?

What no one seems to realize is that you need to do something with these people. I don’t mean to sound pejorative when I say “these people” – many of them are my closest friends and confidants. I coach them, I talk with them, I worry about the very concept of a future around them. They need things to do. They have active minds and have been raised on poisonous dreams about growth and accumulation. They need to put their mind to something other than disappointment, despair, and the soulless thresher we call “The Economy”.

Many would suggest a war. I have no doubt that’s one plan being hatched in the corporations funding the Obama/Romney campaign. A nice big war to sweep everyone into the old employer of last resort. You wouldn’t even need a draft, you’d just have it de facto. I’m sure a land invasion of Iran or North Korea would keep many hundred-thousands of a Lost Generation occupied and out of the way. The legend is that this is what saved America from the Depression, what saved the Baby Boomers from totally overwhelming the system in the sixties. There’s little doubt that part of the lack of enthusiasm to really make jobs and work for the youth of our society has to do with making the incredibly unappealing military look a little more enticing.

I, of course, would never suggest a war, any more than I would advocate you going down to your local movie theater and shooting up six-year-olds. They are the same thing. Only in a war, more six-year-olds die. Usually more horribly, more painfully.

I would suggest make-work programs. We certainly have things that need fixing. Let’s build a free wireless Internet network for the whole nation. Yes, even rural North Dakota and Alaska. That would require some people, wouldn’t it? Give them room and board and a college-like camaraderie, a little spending cash (so they can – gulp – see a movie), maybe access to a shared fleet of cars on weekends. Let’s build some high-speed rails so we can take all these dangerous overpriced gas-guzzling trucks off the road. Let’s build some solar and wind plants. I know, I know, it would require a total resignation from the very concept of The Economy. It would mean government was actively putting corporations out of work, and some of their employees too, and treating the youth of America with dignity and respect and like they’re people who can do things. Heaven forbid.

But what are your alternatives? These people are going to be on the dole one way or the other. There aren’t jobs, there aren’t opportunities, and everyone in The Economy is doing their damnedest to make sure there are fewer jobs and fewer opportunities to come. I guess you can repeal minimum wage and make everyone punch each other in the nose for a scrap of bread you throw from the tower at midnight, but these people are increasingly going to leverage their debt and take matters into their own hands. And they’d have to believe in a future to make a revolution. If all they believe in is despair, then you get Aurora or Columbine or Virginia Tech. You get little dark knights everywhere, believing they are extolling some kind of neo-nihilism with every bullet, not realizing governments cornered that market with wars centuries ago.

I envisioned this post a long time before there was a movie theater shooting, and it was going to be about another kind of object lesson, back to the theme of learning about myself. It was about the fact that I bought a new coffee maker I didn’t need a few months ago and haven’t had the heart to set it up and replace the old one. The old one looks like this:

CoffeeMaker

I won it at the Yale tournament in the spring of 2002. They gave out useful or fun objects like rice cookers and Gameboys and coffee makers with the budget they would have spent on shiny trophies. I actually initially took the rice cooker at Emily’s behest, but quickly swapped it for a more practical (for me) coffee maker with Steph Tatham, who’d won some lower award. The thing has worked perfectly for a decade. It’s a relic of an American era of making machines that lasted, even though it didn’t come from that era at all. I’ve probably had six-thousand or so cups of coffee out of this thing. It still worked perfectly this morning.

My intent was to replace it with this model that I got at Target for like twenty bucks:

Sunbeam

It shouldn’t take much imagination to see why I picked this out. The color is like the font of this page, the color I would pick for nearly all objects out of a pantheon of a thousand hues. It has a timer so that it will brew the coffee for me and have it ready when I blearily awaken at six in the morning to go to a tournament or fulfill some other wakeful task of existence. It is in every way perfect. Whereas the old one is dingy, off-white, wearing the stains of thousands of brews, incredibly simple in its design. It doesn’t even have digital numbers! In an era where you can’t dry your hands in public without interfacing with a motion-sensor, holding on to this thing is as old-fashioned as not having a cell-phone (I’m coming up on two years with a cell-phone!).

And yet I can’t seem to make the transition, to get rid of the old thing. It was free. It has served me so loyally for so long. It still works.

I am such a bad capitalist.

Or maybe, to borrow a phrase, I’m just committed to commitment.

Maybe we just need to take everyone in the Lost Generation and have them paint our coffee makers. Have them fan out in the neighborhoods, house by house, and ask what everyone would like updated or changed or painted or retooled so that life feels new and fresh again. So that it feels like there’s a future that’s not just austerity and decline. So that people can feel like a rich person without actually being decadent or aspiring to buy and sell people.

That kind of house-by-house work sure beats the hell out of what that phrase is being used for in Afghanistan right now.

by

Life on the Brink

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

On the first night of this month, I was in Los Angeles at the fabled Grove shopping center/farmer’s market complex near my friend Russ’ Beverly Hills apartment he’s rented for the last decade. I was with Russ and my girlfriend and we dined on delicious global food, contemplated seeing a movie, and walked back toward the parking garage only to discover the path blocked by fire trucks that looked for all the world like a new high-end trolley ride to match the overpriced prestige of the Grove’s glass-fronted stores. The crowd closed and swelled ahead, with people doing the sideways shimmy of attempting to sneak by each other without bumping rear ends against their neighbors. Two firemen with an empty stretcher pushed by us coming from the opposite directions, indiscernible poker faces on their visages.

Then we rounded the corner to make the parking lot visible and saw an opening, a police line, a white sheet unflat upon the ground. And just enough skyward fingers to do the math.

You can fill in the rest of the blanks here.

The event dominated the rest of my thoughts for the night. I tend to get a little obsessive about suicide conceptually, something I’ve struggled with being tempted by for 22 years and something that has touched just enough of my life periodically to keep the morbid fascination going. It’s something that always seems far more prevalent than people want to admit or talk about. Such a high percentage of people love life so irrefutably and unquestionably, and/or are so terrified of death, that their voice tends to shunt suicidalism off to the corner of the unthinkably mad or the blindingly stupid. And there’s this incredible shame that seems to follow suicide around, preventing newspapers and other media bastions from reporting the true nature of death for so many, scrupulously avoiding the cause of morbidity as though they’d died from an STD one can only contract from sheep. Which seems grossly unfair treatment of someone who made a deliberate and definitive statement as their last act. Sure, maybe you’re protecting the next of kin from the shame of not preventing the act and they are the ones living, after all. But I don’t think anyone seriously blames loved ones for the suicide of an individual, at least no one other than that individual themself. Who, presumably, already knows. One has to jump from the seventh floor of a parking garage in broad daylight before a hundred shoppers to get recognition publicly for what one is doing.

I don’t mean to glorify suicide, much less advocate it, but I think there’s so much obfuscation and sugar-coating in our society that it’s important to call things what they are as often as we get the opportunity. I can understand and relate to it and that’s enough for me to recognize that I would be angry if I chose that action and newspapers chose to spread ambiguity on how I left the Earth. Within days of our near-miss with the Grove jumper, NPR reported a story on an increasing epidemic of suicide-by-train in the LA area, perhaps equal parts the fault of the worsening quality of life in this country and the increase in mass transit around the favorite city of the car. As they always seem to, they managed to find and interview a miraculous survivor who reported what I imagined would be a common sentiment of not realizing the impact of his decision on the driver of the train who was left with literally no alternative to de facto ending a life. Trains occur to us like anonymous agents of the mechanized age, not volitionally driven vehicles. No one commits suicide by jumping in front of a car without thinking of the driver. It’s something about the tracks and their inalterability, as opposed to the appearance of control we all have in a car, the choice of lane and speed and turn on an otherwise structured road.

It was also worth noting, I guess, that one of my first questions about the jump was whether someone could stop it by getting under the jumper. The reality, of course, I quickly realized, is that one would probably trade one’s life for that person’s, or maybe just add a suicide to the one already in progress. I didn’t actually witness the event and I don’t know how I would’ve reacted then, but my gut feeling is that I would’ve gone to catch the person. Or at least thought to try before stopping myself. Even though it would be potentially fatal and even though I believe in a personal right to suicide. I envision myself split-second calculating whether sacrificing my arms to arrest the momentum would be a fair trade and whether I would have enough of a read on the person’s downward trajectory to make sure I didn’t put my cranium under them. Like fielding a fly ball in right field. Like the catcher in the rye. And then I consider myself on the descent instead of sizing up its slowing, and I can easily see my first comment to the attempted catcher, should I survive, being “The hell you do that for? Can’t you see I’m trying to die here?”

And yet everyone who has survived a jump from the Golden Gate is grateful that they lived through it.

Which brings me to the more unsettling and haunting theory that overshadowed my recent, mostly glorious, trip to the west, to hometowns and favorite places (La Fonda, Grand Canyon, Pacific Ocean), something I’m thinking about writing a novel about and simultaneously thinking all three of my extant novels are already about. Maybe what my whole writing career will be/could be about, what three decades as a student of human behavior has led me to conclude. I’ve long discussed that everyone tells themselves a story about their life. That everyone is the hero(ine) of their own story, that they explain their faults and foibles in the grand narrative arc of self-affirmation and improvement, and that no one is ever the bad guy. Sure, a small fraction of suicides may have finally, irksomely concluded that they may be the bad guy, but most of even those who no longer want to live are tired of being the victim or of having irreparably bad judgment that loses them hope, not concluding that they themselves don’t actually deserve to keep making decisions.

As a searing but inadvertent illustration of this, Russ showed me a comedy sketch on his Roku by someone he’s come to appreciate, his alleged heirs to Monty Python. I wish I could remember who it was, but they were British or Canadian and thus capable of humor. In any case, the skit was two Nazis in a trench with skulls on their sharp gray uniform caps coming to the horrifying realization that “they may be the baddies”. What made the scene funny is actually a dual absurdity. On the surface, it seems funny that Nazis wouldn’t realize that of course they are the bad guys – they’re a group so reprehensible and notorious that they’ve launched a century of trauma, terror, atheism, and disbelief in the potential of our very species, not to mention justification for ongoing militarism and violence. But the more profound humor is that of course the Nazis didn’t believe themselves to be the bad guys, because no one does. The idea of the Nazis having this discussion is the truest absurdity, because no one reflects on their surroundings and is really capable of ultimately concluding that they are the villain of their own story. Or statistically no one.

Which brings us to the Golden Gate jumpers (or the interviewed SoCal train jumper, for that matter) who suddenly feel that they’ve been spared for a reason and life’s worth living again. Even though many of them are paralyzed or endure such excruciating pain and injury that it would drive other healthy whole people to the brink of their prior act. Is there something profound in this about the innate livability and worth of life? Or is this actually something far more insidious and disheartening about the nature of the narratives we tell ourselves? That in a society bent on progress and obsessed with growth, we can’t merely say that our lives got worse and stayed worse. That we are driven to tell ourselves a story that everything that happened is some form of advancement, of improvement, that even the act of colossally and crushingly failed suicide can be a notch higher than what came before it because heroes must proceed.

It’s a pit-of-stomach-churning thought. Its implications are as deep and as strong as everything we feel about everything that happens to us in our lives. It’s a question I don’t even want to ask you, reading this now, for fear of its reverberations on your life. It’s more than the already notorious “are you happy?” inquiry, for there’s such a strong drive to find ways to answer that one affirmatively. But this one makes quicksand out of our daily assumptions and the way we’re inclined to react. How much of my present self-image is motivated by the desire to feel good about myself, my standing, and to justify everything I’ve slogged through before?

I think this is why people were so unsettled by my baldly pessimistic statements about my life after Emily left me. People don’t make baldly pessimistic statements about their life. They find hope, even crazy irrational unreasonable hope. And not just for the long-term, for forever from now, but for tomorrow, for the next day, just to keep themselves hanging on. And not doing so is seen as so irrational, so unsettling, so disabling, that we have come to diagnose and treat anyone who dissents as though, well, they had that sheep-based STD. Or cancer.

Yesterday’s “This American Life” (NPR radio show) episode was about Longshots and how people who have basically no chance at doing something which is on-paper impossible still get their hopes up. Damningly, two of the three depicted groups/people wound up initially losing but then actually getting what they wanted, reaffirming our self-affirming mythos about constant upward spirals. Two days ago, my girlfriend and I watched the documentary “Waiting for Superman” for the first time, watching kids with impossible odds pin their entire future to a ping-pong ball with their number on it so they could be salvaged from America’s broken public school system. Even there, a kid gets in off the waitlist and keeps our hope of the ineffably improving future alive in the midst of tragic heartbreak and despair from so many of his cutely illuminated peers.

The truth, of course, is that things don’t always get better. They don’t always improve. People get debilitating diseases that take their mobility and will before they take their life. Wars start. People lose jobs, houses, spouses, friends, lovers, parents. Every day, the sky falls in for millions and they are expected to carry on as though the sun’s just a little higher than it was the day prior. What’s good about this departure?

Of course, there are always opportunities in these losses. I’m not saying that change and alteration and loss are unsalvageably bad, or even as bad as they first seem to anyone. But to pretend that even with the inevitable growth and learning that comes from pain that pain is somehow making things better is utter nonsense. And to expect it of others is as crazy as jumping off the seventh floor of a parking garage.

The most recent suicide statistics available for the whole country are from 2009. That’s a remarkably notable 2.5 years ago. I don’t know if there’s regularly this kind of lag, as investigators and analysts sift through countless instances of insurance fraud and single-car crashes and euphemistic obituaries looking for the despondent self-inflicters hiding in plain sight. Or if someone’s put the brakes on the reporting because of recent spikes. The chart already looks like what people want out of their stock charts since 2001 (see below) and maybe reports about the jump in suicides in the military have less to do with the military than I’d normally believe. Maybe everyone’s getting off the train, or getting in front of it, or whatever vaguely macabre metaphor you want to invoke. Maybe there is something real and tangible going on in a country that’s invested everything it has in the idea that everything always gets better realizing that reality is not so predictable.


Source: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

Maybe we all just need to take a good long look at each other, help each other through this nonsense, and find things other than the unending improvement model to get us through the day. Hope is fantastic, but delusion is not grandeur. Hope can be tempered and reasonable and sufficiently tamed to make life something other than an unstoppable series of denied disappointments. Maybe by setting our sights a little lower, we can actually see the ground ahead. Otherwise, how can we help but trip and fall?

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Feasting and Dancing in Jerusalem Next Year

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

One of the few things I forgot to post about the Weakerthans concert set in New York last month was how good the warmup music was. I don’t mean the opening bands, which were hit-and-miss, though Said the Whale the first night was pretty darn awesome. I mean the music they play over the tinny loudspeaker between said act and the main event. Not only did it occasionally include personal smashes like Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”, but all four nights included the Mountain Goats’ personal anthem to, depending on how you look at it, mid-2010 to mid-2011, or probably more pertinently, just 2011 by itself, “This Year”.

Here, have a look and listen:

I know they didn’t write the song for me, really, any more than they wrote “No Children” for me. But the best music is about you, with all its rolling details and turns of phrase, and these are no exception. Although there is the ubiquitous soaking of alcohol in the Goats’ lyrics that doesn’t quite apply to me, no matter how close I came in New York that afternoon I landed from Liberia. The point, largely, is that this song seems a little more past tense than present, which is something. It’s not to say that I’ve made it, particularly, through anything other than a year. But reviewing 2011 seems a pointless exercise, while bidding 2011 farewell seems a bit more productive. The only thing that makes 2011 look like a tolerable year is that it wasn’t 2010.

What a great decade we’re off to.

I know last year at this time, when I sat down in this same room (my Mom’s lodge office) on this same computer (my then new laptop), I was emphasizing both looking forward to the West in the near future and not heaping pressure on myself to do much. Here, you can read along at home. Resolutions 2, 3, and 4 were basically entirely punted, a little bit because of 5, but almost entirely because 6 got altered in February when Farhan’s letter-writing campaign to the Rutgers administration turned into a full-time job and an indefinite lease on New Jersey for the foreseeable. How did I put those a year ago? “Significant reasons to stay.” The opportunity to actually make a living as a debate coach qualified, though I’m not sure I could have imagined it just a short 365 days ago.

What I think is most impressive about reading that last set of looking forward to this year is how much I overestimated the energy I’d have. Somehow writing a novel, trying to publish two prior ones, sinking myself into debate, and looking into Western cities seemed like a really minimal path. Maybe that says something about me, and I’ll grant that I went from spending 40-50 hours a week on debate to 70+ when the job came along, but I feel really overly ambitious in looking at that list. And I distinctly remember how constructing that list felt like cutting a lot of things and being really minimalist. The best conclusion I can draw is that you simply can’t understand how debilitating it is to go through a year and a half like the last one I’ve completed unless you’ve had a similar experience. Getting out of bed most mornings felt like a medal-worthy achievement. I’ve had several conversations with family and friends in the last month where I review a point in 2010 or 2011 and truly don’t understand how I lived through it. It’s like some deus ex machina that I don’t believe in some poorly written novel. There’s a gap in the action where the character randomly decides to ditch all his prior motivations and obvious conclusions and just keeps plugging along as though there’s some reason to. I don’t relate directly to the amount of despair I felt in most of the past year, but I also don’t quite fathom how I survived it.

Which makes looking ahead to next year a bit of a fool’s errand, except that there’s reason to believe maybe this year will be better than the last, to coin a phrase. I did once describe the entire project of blogging as giving myself the opportunity to look back a year later and see how stupid I was just a short year before. I wish I could find the exact reference or quote from sometime in the Introspection era, but I can’t. I may actually go to Jerusalem next year at some point, and/or Egypt, and/or India, and/or other possible places. Maybe I’ll hunker down and write a 4th book. Maybe I’ll never write again. The only constant of certainty is a certain amount of debate, and for that I am grateful. All of the highlights of 2011 revolve around a team that was not only the source of my strength in terms of self-confidence and enjoyment, but also friendship, camaraderie, and focus. RUDU spent the entire year in the top ten in the country, be it the top five of the last semester of 2010-2011 or the slightly lower rebuilding efforts of the past few months. We’re poised to not drop out of that perch for any of the foreseeable and some recent adjustments make me believe that we can have maybe our best semester yet open 2012.

What I don’t feel like doing for 2012 just yet is getting into specifics. Compared to 2011, there’s a lot that’s nailed down. I will be in Jersey the whole time. I’m not moving. I’m not changing jobs. I’m not doing much else besides maintaining the debate life I’ve built for myself. And I’m not complaining. I’ve been very fortunate that debate has gone as well as the rest of my life has gone poorly in the last 18 months. Every time the chips have been low in my life since 1990, I’ve doubled down on debate and gotten paid off. I don’t see an exception coming up. There may be only one thing in my life that I’m good at, but when you have the opportunity to focus on that and you really love it, that’s maybe all that you can ask for and expect out of life. Especially this year, in a global context, having confidence in a job and a community may put me ahead of most anyone. Perhaps most fully the person who I decided to excise from my life for a while in May. I have less curiosity about her life and her existence than I ever have since we met. It’s actually occurred to me for the first time in the last few weeks that I may live a long time and never want to reopen that line of communication. I don’t like giving up on people, but there are just some things in life that may be too awful to recover from. I’m not trying to turn this into a diatribe or an excoriation – it’s not becoming of a year-end wrap-up or a hopeful preview of the annum to come – but 2011 has helped me realize that maybe being the perpetual victim is not something I have to exacerbate. Emily may be right that “there’s just something about people that makes people betray [me]”, but that doesn’t mean I have to aid and abet the cause.

Maybe the better part of my personality is that which frenetically likes to dance, to throw myself into the cauldron and just doesn’t care what other people think. Emily said she spent a lot of time feeling very embarrassed by my behavior and attitudes in public. Maybe I should just live each day as though I were trying to embarrass Emily. She said I had a lot of growing up to do. If anything, I think I had to get even younger. Maybe the lesson of having someone excoriate and attempt to ruin your life is that embracing that very same life is the only ticket to hope. My reaction to Gwen’s constant lying was to start this entire effort to tell the truth, in painful detail, about everything. Maybe my reaction to Emily’s stressed-out concern for the opinions of others should be to ritually burn public opinion on a joyous pyre of the pursuit of life.

What better way to ring in the new year? What better way to embrace the fact of still traversing this crazy unpredictable forlorn but ever-hopeful planet?

This year didn’t kill me. People celebrate birthdays, holidays, and all other annual events most traditionally as a rallying cry for the fact that they remained alive, often against the odds. That plagues and storms, famines and droughts, wars and failures failed to dampen their spirits or take their last breath. So on the first day of 2012, I give you the full-throttled embracing of existence, maybe just for its own sake. It’s not what’s most important in life, but it does seem to be some sort of pre-requisite. As long as you keep walking the path, you might find your way. And you’re probably more likely to find your way if you’re dancing while you wait.

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Homecoming

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

“And I love this place
the enormous sky
and the faces, hands
that I’m haunted by
so why
can’t I forgive these buildings
these frameworks labeled home”
-Weakerthans, “This is a Fire Door Never Leave Open”

Anything becomes rote if you do it often enough. That venturesome drive that seems so long and nuanced and strange becomes old hat well before it even becomes fully classified as a commute. That activity you try, tenuously, once or twice becomes habitual once you’re on your sixth month of it. School, jobs, favored activities all devolved into a certain sameness after a time. There becomes a particular predictability, a rhythm that things adopt. And because our brains are pattern-seeking entities, because they strive to make connections and simplify things and relieve themselves of the duty of actually working hard on any given topic, they start to fill in the gaps with the fruits of a well-understood routine.

There’s the oft-cited study (series of stuides?) on how we actually read, that we don’t process each individual letter when reviewing a pre-written tome, but actually recognize the shape of words and simplify them into recognizable outlines, as though all languages were actually written in pictographs. It doesn’t take a study to think about this logically and recognize that you yourself do this – this is part of why typos are so pervasive and resist detection so frequently, especially in online media. We get used to reading faster and faster, skimming through things, and our brain wants to process the words in the ordered fashion it expects, willingly overlooking slight misalignments in favor of the desired pattern.

But despite the pervasive nature of pattern-seeking when it comes to its impact on language itself, there is perhaps no greater place for it than visiting the places of one’s memory. Homecomings, reunions, revisitations of places are more ensconced in the humble folds of the past than the bright outlook of the future. In returning to these hallowed grounds, we not only give ourselves the opportunity to examine our past for what it was, but we look at our present only through the lens of the past. It is impossible for me to look at Albuquerque entirely for the city it currently is, anymore than I could look at an old friend with the fresh eyes of the objective observer just meeting them. Every new object or signpost or commercial enterprise is in the stead of an old recollection of that same region, every change a repaving of sacred former states of being. The expectation of the past hangs heavy of the living, breathing dynamism of the present. A visit to the Frontier is laden with hundreds of prior approaches, the company kept therein, the psychology of the person who traversed those same floors and tables. A tread on the campus of a high school is a time-machine to a bygone era, each subsequent alteration of the landscape an oversharp note in an otherwise harmonious memory.

It is this pattern of, well, patterns, that perhaps makes the most important influences on our life those which deviate the most from such predictable behaviors. Conversations, for example, while sometimes falling into certain cadences or rhythms, almost always evolve and adapt to the way life currently is, to the people actually being engaged in the discussion. This also probably explains the pervasive impact of media – books, TV shows, movies, even the news all change over time and are dynamic and new, even when falling into rote outlines of a typical story arc or local news gambit. Even if I know the outline for this particular film or news piece, actually hearing the words and seeing the images is somewhat fresh, far fresher than revisiting a favored restaurant or living space. My brain is engaged in a different way by content that I don’t expect to be exactly the same and I’m able to see things more for what they are than what they were or might have been.

Which is not to oppose homecomings outright, but to put them in a certain context. Do I ever truly visit the Albuquerque of 2011? Probably not. I visit Albuquerque, 1993-2011, the summation of nearly two decades of context to a place that continually evolves and changes but wears the imprints of its impact on my life like so many kaleidoscopic sunglasses over my eyes. No wonder people enjoy travel so much, the ventures to a place where the truly unexpected can unfold before someone’s eyes, where one replaces the tired outline of expectation with the bold vibrance of the really new. And why others more laden in fear and the search for comfort shy away from such voyages, content instead to ensconce in a realm that is known and measured and can be aligned to one’s expectations in a carefully crafted way, well-worn and practiced.

The challenge, then, is to infuse the old with the new. To find a way to truly see the places of one’s birth or rearing or careful inculcation with eyes reborn to the possibility of the world at large. To visit a place not ignorant of its past impact on one’s perspective and careful memory, but at least open to its growth and change and development in new and exciting ways. Hard, possibly impossible, to do in short fortnight-length jaunts to a place so tiered in past recollections, but worth striving for nonetheless in the quest to constantly live as fully and robustly and openly as possible. Only in the light of the unsettled future can we truly make the tribulation of our past meaningful, worthwhile, and just maybe in validation of all the tremendous suffering that has led us here.

May your road home wind in new and unforeseen ways that nevertheless deliver you into a promising future.

by

Indeterminate

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, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , ,

It’s been a week. I realize, increasingly, that this space is a good inverse litmus test of some combination of how overtly busy I am combined with how ruminative I’m feeling about my life in general. While ideas and thoughts of what things mean or feel like are percolating, I tend not to write much here. When things are feeling calmer and more distilled, the outpourings tend to inundate this page. And the past week has brought much reflection.

I wanted to hold back on writing this post, or something like it, until I’d ruminated sufficiently to draw some conclusions. But as is often the result of meaningful mental inquiry, the questions have only yielded a fractal chain of infinitely more questions, with very little hope of satisfying answers on the horizon. And so I’m inclined to reflect on bathing in the questions rather than hoping to sew things up in a neat little bow. Fair warning, though, by the end of this (whose final sentences I can’t begin to envision yet), I may find some trite little cap to put on it, but I doubt it will be as holistic or satiating as normal.

A lot went wrong last week. My car, Emily’s car, the gift car, the daily needly little reminder of my past life (just in case you need a reframing of what my emotional state constantly confronts), got hit by a hit-and-run overnight driver exactly a week ago, on the eve of our departure for the GW tournament in DC. My discovery of this, which happened at some point early Friday morning between, say, 1 AM and 7 AM, between my return from the debate meeting and my departure for more debate, was made by looking for a mirror that was bent all the way back the wrong way. Further investigation revealed significant paint leavings and denting on the front-left part of the vehicle, along with broken headlight pieces from the offending party, which I petulantly picked up and put in my trunk as though life were some sort of CSI show where forensic evidence could be traced (and as though a hit-and-run-fender-bender were sufficiently significant to merit utilization of such tracing). I care less about material possessions than most and far less about the prettiness of my car than anyone (average car-washes per year: 0.33), but it’s still the type of event that just makes you hate your species. I had no time to file a police report when having to keep a schedule to make the tournament, and have functionally kind of lost the will to consider same since. It’s already blended into my reality. Something about losing everything makes you a lot more comfortable with losing a little more without seeking recourse. One’s sense of justice kind of loses its bearings when one has confronted enough unfairness.

Then one of our top debaters landed in the hospital in DC not once, but twice, facing a 103 fever and complications from dehydration and possibly bronchitis. I joined the waiting party for one of the two 5-hour late-night stints in the ER, envisaging flashbacks of my last big late-night ER waiting session and even the night I drove myself to the hospital with what proved to be kidney stones. Amidst the bleary off-lit reality of every hospital, the surreal pallor of medical danger and overtired health care professionals, I had time to reflect on how we enter and leave this society and the lives of those for whom this brink of death and destruction is as commonplace as debate has become again for me. The delirious walk back at 4 AM with the rejuvenated debater and our two cohorts felt like seeing between the lines of reality, peeking behind the webbing of the virtual reality and playing with the planes. And then of course I had a belly-punching kidney stone come in the next day, distracting me back almost out of any semblance of reality as I dealt with emotional upheaval of the vibrant community in which I am ensconced on all sides.

The weekend was not without joy, mind. There were connections and cross-connections aplenty, the opportunity for Fish to meet a good chunk of my team in DC, put them up, regale them with stories of my youth over poker and jokes and green chile mac-n-cheese. We spent a blustery afternoon walking monuments and strapping into the time machine that DC will always be for me, the hearkening of the longest single year of my existence, the 1987-88 stretch that broadened my horizons and, in retrospect, seems scarier for my parents every time I reconsider it despite my own blithe youthful excitement and optimism in that time. We took countless pictures (you can take a look), scouring DC for the photo opportunities more than our own experience, as though the chronicling of the moments was a vastly more important process than the moment itself. And in light of memory, in the full view of time, in the era of digital photography and instant re-editing, re-taking, re-imagining, it is hard for me to argue with this model. What do we have, ultimately, beyond our memories, our documentation and remnants of the past? Should we not be just as careful about their remembrance as we are about the moments themselves? Is that not, in many ways, the very purpose of this blog? Look at how many scenarios I’ve referenced by their artifactual telling in this same format rather than recount in renewed detail from the contemporary vantage!

And yet, despite my enhanced emotional bonding with so many on the team, despite the increasing feeling that I have found the wheelhouse of what to do with my time in this fugue state of pushing my own emotional ruins around into something that looks more like stacked rubble than strewn rubble, I feel a certain isolation. I could call this isolation generational, but I don’t really even see a gap between myself and my charges, let alone do I put much stock in that kind of temporal passage. More than anything, the isolation is philosophical, and its depth appears to be increasing. And while there are possible mundane causes, such as being on the East Coast, dealing with college students newly emboldened with their sense of questioning prior assumptions, even the self-selection of debaters perhaps, the overall trend seems somewhat distressing to an idealistic believer like me. It feels, more and more, like people are devolving toward some sort of faith in an uncaring, deterministic universe where meaning and purpose are replaced with cold hard economics, physics, and so-called facts. And it’s not exactly helping me fall in love with my species.

I’m smarting a bit, I’ll grant, from some selection bias over a few experiences I’ve had of late. Extensive Facebook debates and dialogues with hardened, if thoroughly illogical, devotees of science as their only religion. Near screaming debates with debaters about the unprovability of anything, relative probabilities, and the pursuit of understanding. Resigned sighs with the increasingly faithless over what their lot in life may be, how much control they may have, how much choice they even give themselves over who they spend their time with, how, why. And far too much contact with people who find the siren call of wealth, materialism, and the simplest of base pleasures to be sufficient justification for all manner of overt moral compromise. If the pillaging of my marriage tested my faith in any one person, in even the notion of the individual as someone who can have value and can be trusted, then the last week has seemed to test my faith in the whole lot of them, in the very idea of community.

And I’m exaggerating a bit. There are exceptions, as there always are. And overall, I’ve actually felt heartened and strengthened by my community, which has probably made this tidal wave of determinist resignation feel even more unsettling for its contrast. But the near-universality of declarative statements like everything coming down to economics and basic motivations or everything being a chemical reaction and physically explicable make me wonder what I’m even railing for anymore. It becomes wearying to be told how crazy one is ad nauseum. At a certain point, the crazy man has to resign himself to his fate, no matter how sane he believes himself to objectively be. For the reality is that objectivity itself fails to have much resonance when everyone is living in a different functional paradigm. Which is not an excuse for adjusting to and embracing the subjective wrongs of society as they exist, but it might be a justification for spending less energy beating back ceaselessly against the tide.

I feel like I’m being a bit vague. Summarative. Skipping steps, either because I presume that you know the course of my argument between free will and determinism, souls and science, God and nihilism, or because I’m losing my faith in my ability to persuade anyone young enough to be able to read this that there’s any question about these matters to be discussed. I also must acknowledge the extent to which time remains a factor in my life, in which no matter how much I try to avoid them, little biological necessities like eating before a long and demanding day, must be paid their begrudging due.

I think the point, ultimately, comes down to the point. Where to find purpose and meaning in a world that’s shutting such notions down like so many decrepit nuclear reactors, a world collapsing these concepts into careless mathematical formulae faster than we can even fully observe. My ability to find such direction in a direct personal bond with someone has been tested beyond its limit, snapping back in a possibly irreparable way. And thus I’ve turned to various pursuits of persuasion and influence, of digging myself out with work and effort all designed at further honing my skills as someone who has something to say about this lonely rock and its frantic inhabitants.

Some of my charges, the most observant or kindest of them perhaps, try to remind me that I’m having an influence, the old trite “making a difference”. And perhaps it’s true. Okay, probably. But it still feels, holistically, like I’m spitting in the ocean, or perhaps more pertinently trying to find a particular gob of spit in the ocean. And the process is starting to seem about that appetizing. What’s the point in being the exception to everything if you don’t get any company along the way? Am I simply doing it wrong? At what point will fatigue in hoping to be ahead of one’s time devolve into a numb alignment with the contemporary failings? And yet how could one then live with undertaking a course of action one already determined to be so problematic?

And yet, when examined closely, all of these questions seem to disintegrate in the face of the largest one of all, the one about the hope of companionship, which underlines and circles all these larger issues of isolation and distance and unrelatability. And maybe that’s where all the exhaustion and resignation comes from, in the end. It’s one thing to worry esoterically about the search for meaning coming up dry and empty after a long lifetime’s slog. It’s quite another if one undertook that slogging journey without so much as a soul for accompaniment.

I really wish I could peek at the future, just a glimpse or a hint or a sign. But to do so would violate my belief about the nature of the universe itself. Would I trade the indeterminate nature of the universe for a deterministic one merely to offer the opportunity to look ahead? Or would I immediately regret the missed opportunity to fleetingly agonize with my gobstoppered emotions?

My answer, like the rest of it, is indeterminate.

by

A Thought

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Quick Updates, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , ,

I don’t think there’s a more devastating or demoralizing conviction a person can have than that their best years are behind them.

People are extremely adaptable. They will go through almost any contortion to convince themselves to have more hope than they should, that every opportunity they face is a lottery ticket that will take them straight to the top.

This, of course, is why capitalism is so powerfully persuasive at convincing people to vote against their own interests.

But when I take a sober look at myself, my life, I know what the score is. And I just don’t know how people go on in that situation. When nothing in the future looks better than the best of the past, what purpose is there in pursuing that future?

by

Rubber Soul

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

Emily bought us this doormat when we moved to Princeton that was bright and colorful and springy. It was made out of little cut up bits of foam-rubber flip-flops that had been recycled somehow. They were tied together with little narrow metal lengths of wire, like flattened-out paperclips, and the mat’s whole surface was over 50% air as the bits of foam alternated with blank space in a sort of cross-hatch pattern. Either you’ve seen the kind of thing I’m talking about or you have some idea or it’s just impossible to describe in language alone.

The doormat is etched into my memory, mostly a tactile one, the way the little sideways-tied bits of sole would give and respond to my bare feet in the smothering summer as I talked on the phone to Stina about my reconnection and possible visit with my first fiancee, how she convinced me that I’d be playing with a fire that would surely find a way to threaten my marriage to my second. How heartily I laughed this off, how above reproach it all seemed, and yet just a few weeks later how horrific that series of conversations in the wake of what happened. Were my theories of black-magic manipulation for the first still in any way valid, I would have blamed her. Were my Dad’s theories of programming in the universe what I fully believed, I might have blamed him (ha) or, rather, Stina. But we all know who’s really to blame, don’t we?

“I no longer believe she was crazy. There’s just something about you that makes people betray you.”

The green-pink-orange-blue-black of the doormat has been haunting me lately, the splintery wood porch it adorned outside of Tiny House, bedecked by slightly overbuilt plastic white railings designed to keep even the clumsiest of residents from tipping over the three-step-high elevation and into the grass. Pandora always used to skip those three steps and even Emily managed to navigate them without too much duress, something she of course failed to do with the fateful main intersection beside campus, the place where Prospect Avenue (“The Street”) slams into Washington Road just as her nose slammed into the asphalt on a day I still think might have been the one that knocked her brain out of alignment and into apocalypse. I think I may hold on to brain-tumor theories as long as I held on to the black-magic theories of the first time around, but I might know better already. The truth is that I just like weak, scared people who make decisions too quickly. Easy come, easy go. Catch ’em on the bounce.

Don’t let all this mild criticism fool you. I still love these jerks. Oh not in any way I’d do anything about, at least not with the first, but the memory of love in my heart doesn’t fade any more than the recollection of any of the million things I’ve done wrong in my life. I can step right back into any time or date of your choosing with a minimum of effort and most of the brightest and most profound involved love with one or the other. I still look down on my right thumb and see the little stretch of straight white scar and remember fondly, creepily, fondly where it came from. I remember the explosion of the silly little plastic chain I couldn’t stop playing with, burst of letters all over the chess-cafeteria floor at St. Pius, how it felt like a sign in retrospect and how closely I clung to the equivalent silver box the second time ’round, only to have to hold it and its contents for the rest of my life like some giant bag. Maybe if I get it polished, she’ll come to her senses and come back to me, the idiot voice in my head has to offer. Maybe next time ’round, you should get something permanent, like an immovable stone wall.

Next time ’round. It keeps having to be said, whispered, asked about, like it’s some sort of destiny. Law of threes, right? Where are you, anyway? I don’t have these two jerks to talk to anymore, lovable though they are. One is sequestered in saving her own marriage, a favor the latter wouldn’t extend to me, steering a wide berth from the guy she almost bumped right into a couple months before fate took a nosedive. The latter, of course, is being kept at bay by myself in some sort of desperate bid to prove I have a dignity she refused to offer. It’s lonely without love. Lonely without people one has, did, will always love to talk to. It makes one feel unlovable.

It hit me hardest last night when I was driving home with a migraine, a real barn-burner, the kind that made me think a 1% chance of stroke might be worth it, the kind where spots fly and every noise and light is a hurricane of pain. It was so bad I tried to sleep in a 37-degree car rather than drive, but I knew soon it could kill me and sleep wouldn’t come anyway. And I thought about the person who used to prevent me from attempting that drive, I thought about the prior who used to try to absorb my pain (I mean literally) when I had one, the looks on the faces of love as they winced and agonized in pure compassion. This is the kind of thing I’m talking about with cave-dwelling, kids. I think by the end of that torturous hour home, it hurt more to know that no one cared if I drove that length than it did to see a passing streetlight shining in the same left eye that almost couldn’t see.

How the fuck do you fall out of love with someone?

It must just be me. I must be that easy to stop loving. Lord knows it isn’t a two-way street.

So where are you, three? And what do you have in store for me? Charm or fatalism? And how long is it going to take for us to figure it out?

Most people would probably say I’m too young to feel this old, to be this washed up and resigned about everything. But I’ve been through more than most people, in a sense, and I’m still reliving all of it. Every glance and touch and sigh and smile. I can almost picture taking three, whoever she may be, to the La Fonda and just praying to high heaven I haven’t seen this movie before. You can call it a pattern, you can call it routine, you can call it a sick joke, but life is cyclical as all the circles we see in our universe.

Debate went great this weekend. Poker continues to go well. I don’t have time for three, don’t have time for myself. Don’t want it. But it’s a strangely lonely feeling to not be able to share the news of success with someone. I mean, yes, there are someones, but it’s not Someone. It’s totally different. And here I am, older than when my father had me (and he was no spring chicken to parenting), watching most of my friends walk into aisles or sunsets and find out what I was talking about all these years. And you have to hope it all works out for all of them, but boy does that make you the idiot holding the bag if it does.

If you can’t spot the sucker at the table, you’re it.

Here my memory sits, feeling my toes playing with the little gaps in the soles over the weatherbeaten boards, first in contemplation of resolution of my past, then in devastation at the destruction of my future. Summer in full swelter, nights spent weeping to two and then anyone who would listen, broadcasting the epilogue of my heart into the postwar temporary housing and all the budding little families therein. I remember every crack and cranny of Tiny House and exactly where and when and how I broke down at the first phone call, at the e-mail, at every further denial upon her return.

I could really use a bounce.

by

Stability, Instability, Glass, and the Ether

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: , , ,

I spent the weekend in Lerner Hall at Columbia University. Lerner Hall is this gargantuan glass building that you wouldn’t forget if you’d ever been there – there are basically no strict right angles in the place, and the initial impression one gets of it is akin to being at sea or perhaps down the rabbit hole. Long ramps ring the entire main five-story lobby, occasionally cut-away by Escherian staircases while diagonal rooms of glass and stainless steel offer a disorienting place to work, study, and play. Imagine Hogwarts’ path to the Gryffindor common room with all the moving pictures replaced with glass and all the the wood replaced with shiny metal.

Lerner Hall is one of the all-time Significant places in my life. It was the site of the 9/11 vigil at Columbia Novice on September 14, 2001, the one that more or less created the last ten years of my life. On September 15th, after the all-night talk in Tom’s Restaurant, it’s where Emily and I wandered and chatted and eventually admitted that we were each afraid the other would get sick of us after 10, 12, 16 straight hours of talking, where it first occurred to me that I would tell our unborn daughter that falling in love is just having a conversation that you never want to end. I would be sugarcoating things if I said that I never once looked over the high fifth-floor balcony and contemplated what Em and I finally said to each other on September 24, 2001 and thought about poetry and the full view of history. But I’m still here. And the nice thing about poetic opportunities like that when they are bypassed is that it puts a certain caliber of pressure and significance on the act that is hard to run across in future. But it also makes one think altogether too much about possible worlds.

I was in Lerner to help run a debate tournament, of course, my relationship with the Columbia team roughly diametric to that with the team that helped make Columbia 2003 the all-time Dirt Standard of poorly-run contests. It’s nice to be on the beautiful urban fortress campus and feel an affinity for its denizens that contrasts so highly with the prior impressions I had in an epoch that feels mostly like it happened to someone else, at least when I’m not passing certain crosswise benches in Lerner Hall. The weekend was ultimately long and disjointed, despite being highly productive I was in a turbo-overworked mood that mixed poorly with the filter of memories made so indelible by the glass casing of a building that hasn’t changed in a decade. I felt disconnected from my own team and came to the point of contemplating how much I’m going to help run other tournaments, how much more I ought focus at these competitions on merely maximizing our own morale. Still, I had fun at times and things went well, so like everything these days, there were highs and lows.

There has been a huge kerfuffle of late of the changes made to Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg’s constant drive to open the doors of what is possible in connection on the Internet. And it’s taken me a week of meditation on it to realize that what’s wrong with the web is exactly parallel to what’s wrong with Lerner Hall for me.

The Internet is an ever-changing, ever-evolving universe. There are no constants, no rules, no expectations of consistency. There is a thin under-layer of HTML and protocol that serves as the barest of physical laws to govern an otherwise completely dynamic environment. And since it’s constantly in flux, since it alters itself every nanosecond of every 24 hours of every eternal day, there’s the constant drive to keep changing or get left behind. It is this that drove the rise of Facebook, but also the plunge of Facebook into its current sudden state of overshared disarray. It is this that drove the rise of Google, but also Google’s own descent into irrelevant distrust of the words that a person has actually typed and the barrage of over-sponsored information atop the page. And I’ve realized that the Internet’s lack of buildings is exactly what will make it a landscape where what is right and what works is never constant.

I have long lamented that the Golden Age of Blogging was fleeting and is now merely a wispy memory that current generations barely believed. When I was in college, it seemed inevitable that everyone would blog, improving their creative expression and ability to connect and engage with their peers in a format that one could digest, internalize, and interact with at ongoing leisure. It was a world that, needless to say, I embraced wholeheartedly, a world I still try to pretend exists through avenues like what you’re reading at this moment despite my awareness that blogging is now almost entirely a political vehicle or an extension of capitalism. The personal blog is not dead, but it is badly wounded, careening around the wake of its injury like a moaning quadruped mammal. Most people find blog content too long to read, too un-instantaneous to care about. It has been replaced by Facebook.

But Facebook itself already seems obviously on the decline in the wake of its bifurcation of tickers and adaptation to the “innovative” pressure placed on it by Google+. Rather than trusting in the security of a system that had worked to build the largest single network of human beings in the history of the species, Zucky and friends decided to chase the dragon of a competitor’s suggested alterations and are on the verge of destroying their own genius in the name of constant change. Not to mention they are doing so in pursuit of a competitor that already ruined their own best offering with tools like auto-complete, constant spelling correction that makes searching for a name like “Storey” almost impossible, and individualization of the algorithm that sacrificed knowledge and connection for the sake of something like solipsism and the insulation of everyone’s personal bubble.

How can this happen? Precisely because there is no glass online. There are no beams of stainless steel, no walls of brick or blocks of stone or columns of poured concrete. There is only the ether, the crackle of invisible waves that circulate globally to express an unceasingly instatic reality.

When one builds a building, one plans it. One designs it. One knows that even in the worst of scenarios, this building must stand for years. Most buildings are designed to last decades and centuries, some for a theoretical perpetuity. There is a mentality innate to that undertaking and a reality to engage for those maintaining those structures thereafter. You can’t simply change the underlying support structure of a house, a dorm building, a hall on an ancient campus. You have to deal with the physical realities, the unmovable objects, the blocking and layout and blueprints of bygone architects.

This has a lot of drawbacks. 85% of people are mailing it in at all times and some of them are inevitably engineers. But when it works, when it cobbles together to create something viable, the results are bordering on the eternal. We all can picture the Eiffel Tower (ironically designed to be impermanent, of course), the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids, the Empire State Building. These places, buildings and bridges, the output of human capacity for design and creativity, stand the test of time because they have to. But there is nothing on the Internet that carries this weight, this constancy, this static nature. And while critics of my conceptualization here might raise screenshots of the 1994 web and ask if we’d always want to be stuck there, this is like pointing to the first huts and cave dwellings and asking us to stay there forever too. Just because some early buildings are ugly or fail does not mean that all buildings innately ought be impermanent and subject to alteration. We would never accept someone adding a few floors to the Empire State Building, redressing the Statue of Liberty, knocking the glass out of the Notre Dame. And similarly, we should demand a certain consistency from what works best on the Internet if we are not doomed to writhe in the nostalgic quicksand of only fleeting success.

There is, it occurs to me, a model for this inconstant wrestling, this deliberately impermanent environment. You guessed it folks, it’s capitalism. There are almost no companies that survive even a hundred years, and those that make it that long have reinvented or reimagined themselves so thoroughly that they carry only the barest nominal trappings of their prior incarnations. You can call this innovation and evolution if you want, but it’s more that the nature of the corporate thresher is fickle, demanding, cutthroat, and prone to exterminating things. The core reason for this is the completely irrational demand for constant growth, the bizarre expectation that stability and constancy are the enemy in the face of carcinogenic consumption. Capitalism goes one step beyond sharks’ need to always move and demands that this movement carries eternal expansion as well. In a fixed universe, or at least a fixed planet, this means that beings are constantly unsound and unstable and doomed to fail at an effort whose very premise is flawed from the outset. The nature of the corporate landscape is far more Internet than college campus, institutions mere fleeting tools for the purpose of constant random change.

Which brings us back to Lerner Hall and the contemplation of the failure of all that was supposed to be constant in my own life. Is it coincidence that the rise of the capitalist worldview has corresponded so closely to the rise in divorce rates? Is it random that the Internet’s advent has, in bringing us closer together, also raised the demand for an unending change in partners, living arrangements, extolling the self over permanent connections? I submit to you that these are almost directly correlated. That in espousing a perspective where nothing can reliably be unchanging, our very view of the bonds and pacts people make with each other has also slipped into fungibility. I have said at times that change is the only constant, that there is incredible flux in our universe beyond our very comprehension and thus that traditional ideas of stability are illusory. But at the same time, the middle-ground permanence of a building, of fixed angles and supports and walls, this seems like it might not be too much to hope for. But if our model is to be corporations who constantly eat each other to survive, a landscape of a brutal ocean or savannah of unending danger and consumption, what hope do any of us have of carving out a life for ourselves that can be trusted and thus provide a platform for fulfillment?

Come back to me. Come back to Lerner Hall. The bench is still here.

by

Obligatory 9/11 Reflection

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

Yesterday I went to Philadelphia to play cards and see Ariel and be social on a day when I expected to be overwhelmed and over-tired after reconnecting with the debate circuit (see here for how that went) for another season. It was a pretty decent day overall, even if I mostly learned from the poker experience that I still haven’t gotten the formula for when to leave the table down yet. Turns out that playing with overtly bad players (spot the sucker at the table, etc.) is actually usually more costly than it is profitable. Still left up, but could have left up a lot more.

In any event, I was really sick of 9/11 yesterday. All I wanted was some NPR or talk radio that wasn’t about ten years ago, and that just wasn’t happening. I get it, I guess, but I was simply completely overwrought with the references and remembrances, especially given their personal context which I’ll outline a bit herein. Basically, 9/11 has become rebranded with a trauma for me that it never had to begin with, which is kind of weird and melodramatic, but nonetheless true for my emotions. I’m not exactly sure why I feel compelled to chronicle all this when I was so OD’ed on it yesterday, but my perspective is a fickle beast these days, to say the least.

As far as my actual perspective on the 9/11 event itself and most of its remembrance, I think Ariel summed up my feelings beautifully in her post yesterday. I include the link not only to highlight her spare but poignant description of said feelings, but also to highlight that she’s back to blogging, something that few people are doing with any regularity these days (self somewhat included), so you should check it out. And it was this same shared perception, the idea that 9/11 itself was, while tragic, vastly overblown in significance by a country and city steeped in complacency, that was so much of the baseline of Emily’s and my connection that led so quickly to our near-decade union in life.

Emily and I shared spots on APDA’s governing body, the APDA Board, with roughly similar levels of ambivalence at the outset of the 2001-2002 debate season. And three days prior to the opening tournament, the Columbia Novice contest in New York City, the events whose description need no reviewing unfolded on a Tuesday morning. The APDA Board, like so many other leadership councils, scrambled that night to determine the fate of the weekend and APDA’s President (from the host school of Columbia Novice) insisted that not only would the show go on, but so would the celebratory party on Friday night. The Board somehow concluded that it would be appropriate to cancel elimination rounds, but not the late-night festivities.

It is easy to forget in the light of a decade without terrorism in the United States how much paranoia was abroad in the land in the days and weeks following September 11th, 2001. I had friends, several of them, who unequivocally told me I was committing likely suicide by driving to New York City on September 14th and a possible atrocity by bringing college freshmen with me. I felt serious responsibilities to APDA and especially those new recruits on the team who wanted to attend that I had to lead them in whatever decision they preferred and enable a real choice on the matter. And I felt driven, as did Emily, to make sure there was a viable alternative to going to a bar on Friday night for those attending the tournament. And thus she and I planned the vigil that would ultimately yield our all-night diner talk that would single-handedly put us on a course for marriage.

It was a permanent fixture in our relationship and marriage that 9/11 directly caused our union, a serendipitous quirk that gave the historical event a greater legacy for our lives than either of us had personally found it to have for the world. And in my first e-mail to friends in the wake of her attempted over-the-phone-from-Liberia divorce salvo, I cited how this silver lining had gone gray overnight, how what once felt like a sign that all could bounce back in the universe now felt like a monument to the meaningless trudge of life’s ongoing hardship. A more draconian interpretation might instill a lesson that tragedy is tragedy and one ought never take solace in it, no matter how redemptive it seems. But most of my mind went back not to the event itself, but my tenterhooks feelings on that unfolding evening itself.

I had developed a crush on Emily for years prior to 9/11, but sometime just before 2001 had resolved to actively try to eradicate it from my mind. Her judgment and perception of people seemed fatally flawed in the context of certain overtly disastrous public incidents with her then-boyfriend and I concluded that no matter how intelligent, attractive, and vibrant she seemed, she simply lacked the judgment required for a trustworthy foundation. It was this internal argument that I mulled for hours in Tom’s Restaurant as night became day and I was forced to conclude in her flirtation and the ambiguous silence on the topic that she must finally have shed the relationship and demonstrated that I had judged her judgment a bit too hastily.

This was incorrect, though. She was still with that boyfriend at the time. And it was a much eerier and less comfortable joke sidelining our marriage that my not knowing that on that night was as responsible as 9/11 itself for our forging a life together. It was only the increasing though ultimately disproven conviction that she’d made a good decision that convinced me to quiet my own pre-committed voices against pursuing her any further.

By the time I found out her true status at the time (not that she lied about it or that we did anything that violated the relationship), I was already mentally invested in us having a future. And the rest, as they say, is history. Creepily foreshadowing history, as it turned out.

Emily asked me late in our Stateside disassembly of our mutuality whether my story on our time together would be all about the betrayal. I blinked at her and asked how it could be anything else. And she returned to platitudes about the time that we spent together for its own sake, the love that we shared, and especially her cloying refrain that I would be the better for our parting. And despite its seriously grandiose overtones, I can’t help but find a parallel to the question in the event of 9/11 itself. After all, the power and prestige of Osama bin Laden was purchased by the United States of America. His military interest, knowhow, and capability was all facilitated by the country he ultimately attacked. It is hard to imagine US officials close to bin Laden feeling like the partnership paid off overall, like it was somehow worth it in view of its fiery catastrophic conclusion.

Of course, there is an underlying asterisk to that whole angle on the story, namely that the US itself, or more broadly certain interest groups and factions within same, did probably end up better off for the experience of 9/11, despite its horrible upfront costs. It is this reality that prompts such widespread belief in the Inside Job theories that I myself share a sufficient sympathy with to make almost everyone I talk to about this wildly incredulous and uncomfortable. Almost as incredulous and uncomfortable as I feel every year that the dire predictions of in-country terrorism subsequent to 9/11 go unsubstantiated. The evidence of negligence in the face of threats is irrefutable, and the evidence of Pearl Harbor-style ignorance in the face of an impending reality is nearly so. The next step to active crafting is more ambiguous and will always remain so until someone can at least build a lifesize replica of the twin towers and send a remote-controlled jetliner into it to see if the theories invented to cover apparent empirics have any validity. You have to remember that the reason so many police and firefighters (and, frankly, regular people) died that day is because literally no physicist or architect believed it was possible for the buildings to fall. Had structural collapse even been the remotest inkling of a possibility in the minds of anyone witnessing the events as they unfolded, the death count for the day would stand around 400. And that has to give you pause, regardless of how crazy you think questioning the official story is.

Suspending that thorny, divisive, and potentially alienating question, though, part of the 9/11 story (as with any tragedy) is trying to find redemptive outcomes and hopeful plotlines that mitigate the sheer horror of the unprecedented and unpredicted death of innocent humans. Indeed, my marriage itself was key among these. Which brings us to an unsettling conundrum that has underlied a great deal of my life in the last year. Anything good that happens in my life – from the success of the Rutgers debaters to any future relationship I might have to simply having a day where I don’t cry and contemplate giving up – can be used as a justification for Emily’s destruction of my previous life. If I wind up happy in a year or five or twenty, Emily gets to come back and say “I told you so,” to justify her callous and cavalier betrayal as a necessary step in both of our lives. I would no more hope to thus be unhappy than I would myself fly a plane into a building with people in it, but the insidious extent of her poisoning of my life puts a tarnish on any future joy or success I have. Anything I hope to find or build or do is asterisked as an argument that I had to lose what I most cared about, that I had to be betrayed.

I was going to say that the difference between that seemingly irrefutable reality and people making the same claim about 9/11 is the obvious irrecoverable destruction of 3,000 lives and a certain sense of American security (and ultimately, rights). In other words, no one would ever claim that this could be somehow “worth it,” no matter what benefits were reaped, while I’ve had to endure countless close friends already lobbing the “you’re better off without her” tripe because that’s permissible in the wake of divorce in our society, but not death. But I don’t think divorce/death is actually the key distinction here. I think it’s that even Osama bin Laden didn’t have the temerity to claim that his attacks (if they were his attacks, which he [uncharacteristically of all terrorists] denied for years) would ultimately be for the good of America and its people. Yet that’s exactly the kind of claim Emily’s tried relentlessly to make.

I know how this looks. The point of this post isn’t to say I was married to the moral or functional equivalent of Osama bin Laden, or even a more audacious version thereof. Indeed, the character flaws that led to her unraveling actions had nothing in common with terrorism so much as the weakness and distractability and poor self-awareness already identified before we even kissed. In other words, I knew exactly what I was signing up for, or should’ve. The fault, as I’ve shouted over countless eye-rolling friends, is mine. Not that this itself justifies her not checking her own immature proclivities, but neither does it render them entirely responsible for surprising me. So forgive me this melodramatic comparison. It is, as discussed with Ariel yesterday, merely my inclination to intertwine themes that have an echoey resonance, to contextualize the significance of an event that, in spite of itself, carries enormous world-changing weight even in my life.

But this counterpoint helps serve another function, namely to illustrate and reemphasize the depth of pain that actually brought me to, for the first time in three decades, cut off communication with another human being. It is only by being this visceral and thorough that I can truly show how hurtful the claim that her betrayal was for my sake is. How hurtful and endlessly compounding, a domino chain of exponential increase, cascading with doubt and haunting as I am left in the wake of wondering if all my suffering is for my own good. It is also to articulate across the void, I suppose, to a person who may or may not be reading this, that that one thought, baseline of her own self-righteous defense of her actions, was the tipping point in my being able to keep her in my life or not.

It may be fundamental to Emily’s future happiness and even functionality that she believe this malicious notion. But it is anathema to my own. And as long as we both maintain this, unsoftening, we will stand as hard and opposed as the World Trade Center towers themselves. Twinned, unyielding, so similar and yet never touching. And ultimately doomed to fall.

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The Randomness of Money

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, TH'HEAT 2011, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , , ,

A couple weeks back, before the storm blew in and failed to knock out the power and the storm of novices came in to reignite the debate season, I came home and found a note under my door saying that the rent was going up about 3%. Given that I’d already splurged for more rent than I really wanted to pay when I moved here, spending more for a place on my own than I ever had as a couple, I was none too pleased about it. Yes, heat is included, which is a clutch expense in this climate, and yes, I have a functionally extra bedroom that serves as my office in a relatively palatial space in a great neighborhood. But sometimes, rent is too damn high.

But just like the day that I got waitlisted at Swarthmore (what had, in spite of myself, become my first-choice college for undergrad applications back in ’98) and the Brandeis scholarship package was the other envelope available to open in the same delivery, so too was there another envelope waiting for me this day. And instead of coming from Trudi Manfredo and friends, it was from my new academic department at Rutgers, informing me of a little stipend I’d be getting on top of my regular salary for serving as adjunct professor of the one-credit debate class. And suffice it to say that the stipend easily more than covered the uptick in rent. And so I had this weird moment of wanting to be grumpy about the increase, but being wholly unable to because I had basically found unknown money under the proverbial couch cushions of the mail.

To be fair, though, I shouldn’t have been surprised. This has basically been my entire life experience with the green paper figments we call currency in this country. Despite an upbringing where my parents and especially grandparents taught me to take money very seriously and be quite sparing in its expenditure, the actual flow of finances in my life has been something like the pacing of a poorly-shot action film. And it’s all served to remind me of what I’ve now long known – that money is totally and utterly random and that any correlation between its availability and anything resembling work or effort or especially dessert is entirely coincidental.

It is this increasing conviction, borne of scrimping money early in our life in California only to have a hit-and-run driver force $1,500 of repairs on a car we ended up ditching shortly thereafter or me follow advice to an Emergency Room bill of similar heft that was entirely unnecessary for our uninsured selves, that has probably solidified my conceptual comfort with gambling. Many people are surprised to learn that I not only gamble, but enjoy it, perhaps assuming it fails to dovetail with a life devoted to avoiding all drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and meat (probably quadruply redundant, that list, or at least triply so) as well as one spent railing against capitalism. And there are times that my anti-capitalist convictions make me squeamish about the financial fracas that is wagering, though I also have this Pi-like (the movie) fascination with numeric patterns and beating the system, something only reinforced by having a series of close friends who also invest a lot of mental energy in same. Nevertheless, I’m squarely in the camp that gambling helps unearth a fundamental truth about money and capitalism writ large, or a series of them – namely that your income always comes at the expense of someone else’s cost, and that money is oh so random.

Which is not to say, mind you, that gambling ought be random. I am a lifetime vocal opponent of the lottery for precisely that reason – there’s nothing remotely involving skill one could attribute to this institution, unless you want to sort of count this innovative couple who bought enough tickets to beat the house. Besides the fact that the lottery positions itself to violate the other fundamental rule of gambling, namely that one should only risk what one can afford to lose. A rule that I probably violated when managing some retirement funds before the dissolution of my marriage, in a sense, though once one has access to a certain amount of cash, it gets harder to see the real value of any given dollar or even thousand. And this gets even more difficult when the person betraying one steals far more than that in the effort to extort a friendship one will soon lose interest in maintaining. Good God, this stuff is so random.

But back to gambling, quickly. The point is that gambling is an arena whose entrance should be blocked by a certain playfulness with the money, and whose contents should require skill instead of luck. Which has of course driven a lifelong fascination with poker, which can combine with an addictive personality (there’s a reason I don’t get involved with mind-altering substances, or about twenty-six of them – reasons, not substances) to really ramp up the stakes. I’ve probably been a break-even player for most of my life, in aggregate, treading water at the limit game at Oaks Card Club in Emeryville, California for a few years, occasionally dropping money in Vegas or somewhere else and paying for it with pretty decent money taken off my friends $10-$100 at a time in weekly home games or in the Castle Commons back in college.

I can’t really explain why gambling is fun, but I think it’s only fun if it’s affordable and requires some sort of skill. I had twice as much fun bowling when we bet on it as when we didn’t, and the same was probably just about true for chess. Maybe it’s the risk-reward structure or the adrenaline of competition or the personality of a generation raised to be incentivized to the hilt with a thousand tiny carrots ranging from literal grade-school warm-fuzzies to free candy bars for high grades to book-club books for lots of reading. I don’t think it’s an oversimplification to say that the children of the 1980’s were a straight-up bribed generation, without even getting into the countless kids of broken homes whose parents would outright bid for their affection with toys, trips, and allowances. No wonder we’re drowning in debt and associate every activity with some sort of dollar cost or potential reward. And even I, ever the skeptic of the whole exchange of goods and services thing, get pulled under if there’s enough strategy or drama.

Something changed on this roadtrip, though, the mosaic of the nature of poker altered and shifted like a desert djinn and started to reveal itself in a new more visible light. I actually lost overall in three trips to casinos in three different states, but felt I was absorbing almost alien-inspired knowledge about the way the game should be played. Something that’s always intrigued me about poker also accelerated, namely the social aspect of the game. Even in the frigid east coast, with its brusque disregard for human communication, poker tables knit strangers together in a friendly camaraderie rarely rivaled outside of ideal workplaces and debate or sports teams. It was largely loneliness that drove me to Oaks on many of those Oakland and Berkeley nights, the challenge of living on four hours a night of sleep with a wife who preferred ten. And though I walked out of the St. Louis cardroom agreeing not to make poker a continuing thing in my Jersey life, at least until the summer, I still had this nagging feeling that I’d made a breakthrough even in light losses.

Fast-forward to a couple weeks back, when I was feeling energized and excited after a great week looking forward to the debate season, all friends in any sort of range busy, but wanting to go talk, be, and see. I posted on Facebook that I was considering going to AC for the weekend, but probably knew better. To my near-shock, at least five friends almost immediately posted with exhortations for me to go gamble. Maybe they knew me better than I know myself, saw the glint of caring and distraction entailed in cards that makes the mopey self-recrimination cycle of much of the last year more difficult. At least if one doesn’t lose too much, that is. And one of them informed me there’s a card room a half hour east of Philly, twice as close as AC, which made the difference between needing a hotel and not. I was sold.

Seven trips later, I’m making $27 an hour playing poker. That only counts table time, so tacking on the drive time puts it closer to $20, and then there’s a little gas as well. But twenty bucks an hour is surprisingly job-like compensation for something that’s incredibly fun and social. I also feel like I’m getting better, and even though there was one losing session overall against the six winners, I’m up over $1100 in two weeks of play.

Granted, seven trips in two weeks is utterly unsustainable during the debate season proper and winter will also likely dampen my enthusiasm for that much Route One driving. Though I do thank the roadtrip for reminding me that I actually enjoy driving a fair bit and otherwise tend to lack time to belt out singing to favored songs or absorb some NPR. Or even, as I’ve discovered I actually like lately, put on a dance radio station and bob along in the sheer momentum of an underlit night. It even occurred to me, in light of a surprisingly lackluster feeling about not only the online dating site I joined a month or so back but the idea of online dating writ large, that maybe poker can be my girlfriend for a while. I can well see the withering look I’d give myself had I heard myself say such a thing, but I’m starting to think my heart may just be closed for business for a good long while. And it might even prompt me to take another look at monasteries if I weren’t suddenly fascinated with the idea of making something like an income playing cards for chips.

The nicest thing about this whole process and experience is that the flash-temptation I have to quit my job and play poker full-time is resoundingly defeated by how much I love my job. For perhaps the first time in my life, I know I wouldn’t give notice if I won the lottery (which I would never play, but you get the metaphor) tomorrow. Even hitting the big-time with a bestseller and having the opportunity to write full-time would probably not prompt an overnight shift to a new career. I don’t know quite what to do with this information other than to be grateful for that aspect of my existence. I really love the debate team, the people thereon, and the endless opportunities emerging from the school’s support of both. And maybe it’s that confidence in how I’m making a day job that makes the night job both relaxing and viable.

Or maybe I’m just lucky.

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Bridge to the Fall

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

Quick update here to observe the passing of the theme here at StoreyTelling as this incarnation of the blog steams toward its fourth anniversary to be achieved in October. I’m going to more or less let this theme speak for itself, though the color scheme is full of the kind of bold dark warm colors that I really most enjoy. It’s almost nifty enough that I might ride out the October change this year, especially since there was no pumpkin-carving party last year from which to draw thematic imagery.

Facebook’s been obsessed with telling me that it’s two years to the day since Emily and I arrived in Jersey after our summer roadtrip in 2009. My update recounting the stats there (39 days, 6,200 miles, 16 states) has eerily reminded me how similar said sojourn was to the roadtrip I just wrapped (34 days, 5,800 miles, 25 states). And putting everything in context that no matter how much progress I’m making a building a new life, there are shadows and echoes in my even being here that will be challenging to transcend in daily existence.

My apartment is almost where I want it to be, though, and I’m hoping to have some pictures up on Facebook (and maybe here as well) soon that document the place as one remade in my own efforts as much as possible. The new couch and armchair have already been put to good reading use and while I’m probably going to cancel Netflix, I don’t know if I’m quite going to take the step of taking the TV down altogether. A few things yet to determine, as there always will be – a place one lives in tends to be a living place. And before I know it, I’ll have the whole debate building to decorate as well, or at least my office therein. We’re still on pace for a 1 September opening, but I’m expecting it’ll actually be closer to the 8th or the 15th given how these things tend to run. Still exciting stuff all around.

About to be hurtling headlong into one of the busiest phases of my life. Teaching a class will be an exciting new challenge and the current projections for the size and scope of the debate team are going to test the limits of my capacity and the entire team’s. If last year was our breakout, this year will be the growth spurt, and hopefully we’ll blossom into one of those precociously mature adolescents who everyone’s dazzled by instead of the gangly awkward kid who has more limbs than they know what to do with. Stay tuned.

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Ramblin’ Tangents

Categories: A Day in the Life, Blue Pyramid Stories, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, From the Road, TH'HEAT 2011, Tags: , , , ,

Someone should let me know if this is too quiet to hear. There was some ambient noise and I think the computer was at a bad angle for picking up sound. I think it’s still audible, but it might not be. May use a mic on non-driving renditions of these in the future.

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