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


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.


Some Days are Rocks

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

This letter will be part of my outgoing mail today:

“Today, I take you into my arms and into my heart and promise to hold you there forever. Through whatever we encounter, I promise you my unfailing love and my unflinching honesty. I know that my life can never be the same without you. It can never be complete without your love, your understanding, and your support. I love you in a way that I’ve never loved another person and I never will be able to again. You are my soulmate. This is why today is the happiest day of my life, as I stand here before you, and our family, and our friends, and all of God’s creation and I commit myself to you and to our lives together. I love you.”
-Emily Garin, as she became Emily Clayton, 13 July 2003


One Year Gone

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

I’m an anniversaries kind of guy. History major. Names, dates, places, and times. I have a theory about time being a geographical function because of the orbit of the world and subscribe to the more common theory that places are charged with something meaningful, that they get stamped and imprinted by the events thereon, always to carry the legacy of that occurrence into the future, which itself is just a repetition of geographical paths already tread. This explains what people sometimes mistake for ghosts or that spectral ooky spine-tingly feeling when they go somewhere that inspires that.

Coming up on a real doozy in the next 24 hours here. A year ago today was the last full day I spent with my wife, Emily, before she flew away a year ago tomorrow, before I took her to the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City with her friend Amy and she flew away and never loved me in person again. Before she left, after I left them at the airport but before the plane took off, she called me to say the following:

Emily’s 26 May 2010 Message

And was gone. It would be sixty more days before she decided that she didn’t love me anymore, sixty days of deep yearning missing loving important conversations that I wish I’d recorded as a bulwark against the creeping feeling that I have somehow become a crazy person in the midst of all this. As though my very sensory perceptions were what was betraying me instead of my wife. Granted, I’d had an experience with that before that makes me especially susceptible to this kind of thing, but still. This is not a thing one can just live with very easily without questioning whether the world is just as bad as the worst people say it is, that this whole thing is somehow a test.

Which prompts one of the most irrational (objectively) and yet compelling feelings to strike in the last few days and hours – that somehow tomorrow someone will pop out of a cake or drop down with their movie cameras or come out from behind a curtain and reveal that I’ve been punked, that it’s all farce, that I’ve somehow survived a year and don’t have to put up with this nonsense anymore, this idea that someone can just make a mistake and react so violently to their own action as to cast aside every prior incarnation of their self-perception. That of course that doesn’t happen and you somehow kept it together for 365 days after and now here’s your prize and let’s all go watch it on video while Emily sits by your side and waits for you to forgive her for this monstrously poor-taste over-extended joke so you can get back to your life.

Of course, in this theory, it would probably require waiting till the 19th of July of this year, or maybe a week after that. And pretty soon we can make bargains for 3 or 5 years. This is how people go crazy, how people just flat lose it. Cognitive dissonance, not unlike that which most likely inspired her own psychic break with the past in the wake of her simple human mistake. People can snap like that, but they can also bargain themselves to death, move the bar further and further toward oblivion until one day it’s over the edge. None of this is comforting.

And yet all the alternatives feel like pure submission, pure acquiescence to the things that were done, without resistance. It’s something of this desire not to submit that leaves unsigned insipid yellow-flagged papers on my desk to this moment, the ironically cruel brand of “Legal Solutions Plus” stamped beneath each one. I know obscenity when I see it. It’s like an atrocity, this stack of monochrome sheets that bear my name, but no resemblance to anything I can recognize. I am finding it hard to breathe, now, as I type this.

I can point to the problems, I can articulate and feel them, I can even anticipate the cascading catastrophes stemming from being so open and public about these feelings here and now. Who could ever love me when witnessing this documentation that I may spend the rest of my life waiting for my first wife to pop out from behind the curtain and yell “Surprise!”? Who could ever take the incredible risk and sacrifice that devotion to me would require when I am this damaged? The odds of viability start to decline precipitously on a course especially perilous in light of my own conviction that only love can heal me. And even “heal” seems like a naive word to cite, maybe “patch up” is better or even “stop the bleeding”, the arterial floodgates that seem to be spewing in every direction.

And why now? Is it just the anniversary that makes me dwell, to almost bask in the pain of all this memory and ache? There is an element, of course, but it has much more to do with the separation, the commitment to stay away in word and deed, to take a break so that I may actually acclimate to a life without this person. And that, of course, in cutting off communication, there is a sudden rekindling of all that was lost in the first place, a sudden second death to follow the first, for there is no longer even the illusion of connection, no matter how painful and abusive the frail fires of friendship were over the last year. And of course with that a release, also, for me to open up about what I’m feeling, to not feel censored or bridled by having to talk to her about it in a day or a week, to not be further admonished for making one more unforeseeable mistake in a chain of history rewritten with me as the villain.

And I’m thinking of spending this night, the one-annum marker from the last night of my life I truly spent with my wife, in Princeton? Listening to someone sing about heartbreak? What is wrong with me?

What isn’t wrong with me?


The Timelessness of Green Fields

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

There is a blue sign at the top of the hill by the roadside gone T-shaped and it says No Sledding and it is the kind of sign that shows the wear and age of countless police officers standing by a bloody street with a horrified post-traumatic driver and a little bit of disheveled dirty cardboard or bits of broken plastic undertire as the snow gently falls over the stains and someone keeps repeating that they just came out of nowhere and sobered men stand on their lawns three doors down and mutter about damnfool kids and what’s become of the world. The sign bears nothing of that grim scene in its early-May sun-baked splendor, basking in non sequitir as the world blooms and the vaguest hints of precipitation are warm and inviting. He tumbles down the gravelly grassy incline at just shy of a run, mind bent back to a precipitous decline through trees in La Jolla that also ended in a sudden road below, the fortune of that moment’s lack of speeding vehicle having something to do with an entire novel and the belief that maybe we are all immortal. How lucky that seemed then; how unlucky now.

Over the would-be deadly street and into the next array, a field of resplendent glory as only the windy tilt of low-seventies sunshine can drift through shimmery new leaves and the bent blades of unkempt fairway. He stands for a moment to soak in the scene and all the places it takes him back to, shiny rain-spared lawns of Oregon or the parched but artificially thriving expanses of New Mexico under its thin and sickly attempts at trees. The trees are healthy here, robust, cartoonish in their solidity, and they beckon in the way that nature pulls at the soul of each of us, the way we can look at an animal or a landmark and try to remember that this, this is where we belong and always did and how to we fall so in love with the walls and right angles and resigned fellow humans with whom we log most of our hours? A book in a pack and water to boot and it is not until he is ensconced firmly beneath the broadest-reaching branches of the most personable plant that he remembers, squinting under hatbrim in the inconsistent cloud-shaped sunlight, what is wrong with this picture.

He is alone.

It is a place that other people take people, it is a place to be a pair, and the floodgates gently lift to reveal a torrent of parks and pastimes prior and the lazy adjustments of bodies in contact, the sighs and tilts of laps and lips and heads on stomachs in the gentle innocence of mutual peace. He burns, badly, in the remembrance of the irreplaceable, not to be quite that pessimistic, but how could he possibly restore the grandeur of first love or the anticipation of things undone when ships have sailed and time unrefundable has been spent? Each moment is a nod to the end of it all, a wink at mortality, and aging is as much about the gilding of memory as the ventures into the ever-darkening hollows of the unknown. And now the mistakes, not only the clear immediate one of trying to expend the afternoon this way, already swollen with dam bursts strangely unanticipated, but the past ones ringing ever louder, the girl jilted too soon or the other clung to too long. The inability to see the simple adoration in a moment in the fields and the yearning, powerful desire to simply return for a day, a simple mundane day like Emily in “Our Town”, to drag the mate of the moment out of the office or away from duty and into an empty green expanse to read and drape and hold hands against the backdrop of a summer day’s endless march toward twilight. Just one day, please God, and then I could sleep soundly forever, or at least till I did another stupid thing like this.

The pages don’t hold up long, their subjects hinting and gesturing leeringly at the wounds newly re-exposed and the clouds obscure far too much light in an unsubtle condemnation that starts to feel like warning. He waits for an aphid to scuttle ever slowly, pausing periodically, to the edge of the page and over it so he may close it without another pang of guilt piled on, then begins the sad slow process of stretching and repacking that acknowledges the inability to rejoin our simpler roots. He thinks about summer, thinks about the future, feels paralyzed by its limitless horizon and engulfing depth, wonders if any place will ever hold his person alone again without shadowy echoes of the people who are no longer with him. There has to be a way to reframe, to adjust, to find the kind of solace in loneliness that seems so natural to so many, or at least they’re good at faking. But not today. Today it is a race against thunder and quickening wind to make it to the doorway and the false comforts of an interior undrenched.

I am the old man waiting in the rest home to die, wondering what became of my gifts and nerve endings. I am the seventh-grader discovering a voice for his long-sublimated hopes, impatient to grow up already. I am the stickball player at a wedding that feels like a perfectly foretold homecoming. I am the empty-handed return flier from Africa, neck craning in half-sleep that covers what has been lost. I am the four-year-old just awoken from my first nightmare, the nine-year-old writhing with my first migraine. I am the man, possibly, comforting his child at their own pain, the visage of such an entity blinking in and out of existence with my own uncertain ability to hope.

I can pause the world, lie back on grass beneath a tree, look up, and see my selves, ever flailing into the future but seamlessly the same. What I cannot see, today, is the point.


She Said

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

She said no one talks the way that you do, sees the way that you do, understands the things that are really going on. She said we are one-eyed people in the land of the blind, we are ignorant of time while others are enslaved by it, we are the people of hope, of compassion, of deeper truth and inner beauty. She said I never thought about those things that way before, never thought about animals, never thought about America, never thought about “I Am a Rock” in exactly those ways. And then she said forever.

It did not take long for her to say forever because it doesn’t when these things are true and right and no matter what you take away from me this lifetime, you will not remove the trueness or the rightness. You can tarnish anything you want, you can fill a thousand bags of sand with gleaming gems only to rot them at the bottom of the ocean or the core of the Earth and the glow of the shine that peeks through will still be bright enough to blot the moon, compete with the sun. There is a truth to creation and a falsehood to destruction that bleeds more profoundly than all the rust in this empty-seeming world, that keeps the heat of hope aflame neath the somber embers of salty extinction. Waiting for a little nibble of something flammable nearby so it can catch, take hold, flare up in lofty remembrance of what is inevitably lost.

I remember thinking that when it happened, when it truly happened for real, I would count things. The number of times a certain turn of phrase, a certain iteration of a feeling, a certain look or sensation passing to another passing into the eternity of commitment unending. But such is not the way of these things, the counts become unsustainable and seem superfluous, even remedial. Who could put a number on “I love you”s, a digit to discern the exchange of souls across an eyeway? The genus of the idea lodged in a prior love taken, the need for evidence mounted in the face of denial, but no matter. One loses sight of the safeguards on the way to the abyss, becomes resigned to happiness, commits fully to the immutability of inner peace as a lifelong condition. And somewhere in that drifty bliss comes the backslap of complacency, the gentle tilting of water that will eventually become a drowning whirlpool. All the while, feeling like life is too beautiful to count, too perfect to question.

Now she falls silent, at my own behest, the cacophony of criticisms too great to bear in the face of her own self-imposed blindness. It is impossible to lose so much, moreso in perhaps the most undignified way known to human relations, but it is the unkindest cut of all to have to carry the weight of continual disregard, endless apathy, a wanton will of callous indifference in the face of such once-loved suffering. The half-flat quarter-true platitudes plinking down the cross-continental airwaves, simplifications of philosophies and theories once embraced and now lampooned. The audacity to claim that I do not care about happiness just because I see something else as the most essential purpose of human being. The outrage of the line “I wish I missed you.” The insult of seeming to only care about suicidal feelings at their precipice, but not their genesis.

In the quieting of these rabid, more recent voices, perhaps there is a hope for the whispers of the past. That the person killed so violently on a night of unfaith can be resurrected if only in memory, in contrast to the radio silence I have demanded for my own sane hopes. There is danger in this method, to be sure, real threat of a spilling ever backwards into the vain twisters of a past never to be regained. But perhaps there can also be mourning, the dirges can finally be played against a backdrop of quiet instead of the din of denial, the thundering cymbals attempting to override a decade of true love.

Come softly now, hear the echoes of years gone by. A world rent asunder by the crashing of planes, now tied so poetically to the demise of the instigator. I could not have chosen these dates more carefully were I a scriptwriter, a managing editor on a turnkey timeline. And yes, the desire, burning bright, to call, to e-mail, to reach out across the unfeeling space and distance and share what was shared then, the alienation from the bloodthirsty others. The disconnect from those who could not see beyond themselves. How insidious fate to make me yearn for just those feelings on just this day from just that lost soul.

Emily, I miss you. I will always miss you. If there is a lesson of history, a lesson of 9/11, a lesson of love, it is that all this loss is so unnecessary. We are consigned in this life to be archeologists in the wreckage of our own waste. Picking at it, like disoriented ravens, in search of a faint glimmer on which to pray.


Cruel and Unusual Month

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 hard to read the posts I made in this space from last April without getting a little upset. There was a lot of looking forward then, especially a year and a day ago when I looked back on Nationals 2010 and tried to anticipate what the next year would bring, both at Rutgers and even tabbing Nats this year. And a year less a day ago, two days after, the giddy announcement that Em had finally secured a summer position in Liberia. It’s a little like the public-diary-rereading version of watching a really unsubtle horror film. No matter how much you yell “Look behind you!” at the screen, your April 2010 self won’t hear you.

I’ve been fond of telling people this week that “I’m not a person” right now, a nod to the obsessive focus I’ve brought to both preparing the Rutgers team for Nationals (you can read our latest Targum article from yesterday here) and to preparing to be Tab Director at the marquee title event for APDA. Splitting these duties is somewhat certifiable, and yet completely exhilarating as I have frequently observed that I like only coaching and tabbing nearly as much as I used to like debating. And a lot of the preparation, as the article attests, has involved me getting to debate the kids I usually just observe, if only in practice and drills.

Certainly spending three days at the US Military Academy in such a position of authority will be surreal enough. I’ve been making a lot of jokes with people in the last few months about how unpredictable recent developments in my life have been, how life itself seems pretty determined to demonstrate its flexibility and perhaps insanity to me. A year ago, my thoughts were focused on how tabbing nationals in my second year of coaching would be a likely farewell to the circuit, a last nod to perhaps my favorite institution of all-time before shuffling quietly into the shadows for a possibly somewhat permanent jaunt abroad with the wife I’d met through said organization. As it stands now, I am indefinitely involved, perhaps in an increasing manner, my third Nats tab room being just another notch in a life once again built on doubling down on debate and hoping the rest of the details sort themselves out.

I never make unmitigatedly positive statements any more, especially when looking at my own life and its meandering browbeaten path. But I can at least be thankful to debate as a whole and this league in specific as a heck of a safety net that’s been there to catch my terminal velocity this annum. That does bring me to the brink of an unknown on the verge of a summer without much clear form or shape other than letdown from the weekly adrenaline surge of competition. But it also provides reassurance at the constancy of having found a community I can always enjoy and feel a mutual benefit in relation to. In some ways, it may not seem like much; in others, it feels like the early fruits of most people’s lifelong quests.

The goal for the next 72 hours? One of the oldest in the book. Find a way to have some fun, to carve some joy from the sheer intensity. As long as they have music at the banquet, it shouldn’t be too hard.


Pandora (1998-2011)

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: , , ,

Yesterday, at 3:00 PM Pacific time, Pando’s wonderful and heartfelt caretakers for the better part of a year drove her to the vet and said goodbye for the last time. She’d been sick and on painkillers for about a month, slowly fading away. She’d formed a real bond with Em’s cousin and her daughter, living in a house of cats in a certain isolation while she waited for me to be able to handle the emotional implications of bringing back an animal who was a living reflection of the marriage that was taken from me. Sadly, she didn’t make it to that day. I didn’t make it to that day. And I couldn’t be with her on the day she shuffled off the mortal coil, wriggling out of it like the blue harness I used to walk her in on sunny days in Berkeley and Princeton.

A search of “Pandora” on this website reveals 83 resultant pages, “Pando” adds 26 more. The cat was an essential feature of my life for eight years, non-coincidentally the eight years I lived with Emily before she left me. Those eight years make Pando the longest-running pet in my life’s history, surpassing Bags and Tappy, prior beloved felines, as well as Patty Duckworth (duck), Cadbury and Nepal (rabbits), and even Rilla (another rabbit). Eight years can seem like a short time, I guess, given that it’s only a quarter of the era I’ve logged on this planet so far, but it’s feeling remarkably like eternity right now, those eight years in particular. Pandora witnessed the happiest, most fulfilled time of my life and was no small part of that sense of fulfillment.

We welcomed Pandora to our home, the tiny studio on Curtis Street in Berkeley, on 8 November 2002. She was about four years old at the time, born probably almost exactly when Emily and I met in a novice semifinal round at Brown University in November 1998. Emily and her partner ran one of those classic “there is a law cases” about something busted in Louisiana, made all the more aggravating by the fact that the case wasn’t at all clear from her partner’s opening constructive speech (and there were no points of clarification sessions in those days). Suddenly the case became clear in MG when Em got up to speak, leaving my partner to construct the real opp to the case as we now understood it. We dropped the round and I was annoyed (the next week’s Waltham Weekly included this scathing review: “We debated 5 rounds against both novices & non-novices, then proceeded to novice break rounds, losing semifinals on a 2-1 decision to a snotty Princeton (am I being redundant?) team.”), but the MG had nonetheless caught my eye as both attractive and intelligent, launching a nearly three-year interest that I wrestled with as she displayed poor judgment in her choice of relationships and yet did just enough to keep me interested.

Where was Pando during all that time? What was she up to on the mean streets of Berkeley? These things are not recorded, were unknown to us when we got her. About all we knew was this when we picked her up:

We have a cat! She’s a 4-year-old gray tabby/tortoise mix who ends up looking like a mottled mix of gray, brown, & black. We got her at the no-kill animal shelter about a mile away. It took her about 3 hours to really warm up to the house & us, but now she’s feeling pretty much at home. A name is pending.

The next day, 9 November 2002, I wrote this on Introspection: “Last night, I was falling asleep while reading a solid book, holding my future wife, & listening to our new cat purring in my lap. I think in that hour, I truly discovered inner peace.”

We named her three days later, both deciding to replace the shelter’s temporary appellation of “Charlotte” with a more interesting and apt descriptor. I’m not really sure what drew us both to “Pandora”, though we both quickly discovered the power of box jokes for the lifetime indoor feline. Somehow those failed to get old for pretty much the rest of her life, if the testimony of her last caretakers is any indication.

Pandora, of course, spent most of her life in conflict with said box, which became a major source of strife and tension for those dealing with her. She was fine and well acclimated for a couple months, but when we left her in the company of a local friend for a lengthy December trip to Albuquerque, we returned to find that she had soiled the bed utterly. She was never quite the same again, often confusing cloth and bedclothes and futons for her litterbox. She would go through periods of improved behavior and seem to be on the mend, but much of our lives were spent with plastic sheeting on cloth-covered furniture whenever we left the house.

It occurred to lots of people during these years that we were making a lot of sacrifices and bending over backwards to accommodate a cat who had a little bit of a screw loose. But she was honestly the sweetest and kindest animal I think I’ve ever encountered, though Patty Duckworth may be competitive. She actively desired human contact at almost all times, approaching with her trademark headbutts as she bid whoever her targeted human was to look away from the computer or book and pay attention to her. She enjoyed TV and movies at times, lively eyes darting to keep up with the rapid movements on the screen, but also taking advantage of the sedentary human attention that left laps open and hands free for scritching. The top of her head was her favorite place to be touched, but she also liked the chin. Her defensiveness about her hindquarters and the tufts of hair there seemed to indicate she may have had a litter in her days as a stray, but this never kept Emily from pushing the envelope at times to rub her belly. Only at these times would Pando actually bite and Em took such bites personally at times even though she admitted egging them on. She jestingly said that Pandora liked me more than she, but I don’t think she ever really meant this. At this point, though, who knows.

Pandora moved with us from Curtis Street to the Big Blue House on MacArthur, becoming a fixture in the long sunny hallways and befriending our roommate Fish with all the wrong moves (frequently mistaking his bed and his laundry pile for the box). They had a bit of a rivalry at times and she probably had more to do with his eventual decision to move out than any one single factor, but they also had plenty of good times, including and especially Fish’s discovery of her theme song, an obscure Tori Amos number:

Many was the afternoon Fish would serenade Pando with either a capella or pre-recorded renditions as she darted around the high notes and looked altogether uncertain what was being expressed to her. She did spook easily, a product of never going outside, prone to mewling plaintively whenever she was in transit to the vet or a place to board and often scrambling full-tilt across a hallway or room when she encountered unexpected movement. She would jump at insects, but rejected all possible toys she was showered with except bread twist-ties and the occasional hair-tie, and, discovered far too late, pipe cleaners. This latter was the only lasting thing she enjoyed competitively with drowsing in an attentive lap.

She never particularly photographed well.

But she followed us back to Berkeley when we moved into Grant Street, adjusting well to the reduced space and falling into a rhythm of slightly better behavior. I drove her down to LA contemporary to Jake’s wedding in 2009 as we prepared to move across the country in a long slow roadtrip and here she was first introduced to the household in Altadena where she would conclude her days. She stayed there for a good bit of the summer and Em’s mom flew her out to Tiny House in Princeton to spend a good year in cramped quarters. We’d taken to walking her in the yard in Berkeley on a blue harness and continued this tradition in Princeton, allowing her to chew on tall grasses that swarmed in the heat surrounding the decrepit building, though such encounters were often cut short by encounters with passing cars or dogs or people, sending her darting into the house and taking cover ‘neath a couch. Those lazy sunny days in the grass, few though they were, stand out like monuments to a happiness I am fairly certain I will never feel again.

The last day I spent with Pandora was one of the most frustrating, described in incredible detail in this post from June 2010. She spent the whole day before resisting insertion into her cat carrier like never before in her life, and I recall thinking that she was sending me some sort of message that in retrospect seems plain and compelling, nestled as it was roughly halfway between Emily flying to Africa and her undertaking the events that would unravel our marriage. I was flying to the wrong place as it turns out, taking too much time and attention to friends on the opposite part of the planet from that which might have kept my life together. I had no way of knowing at the time, of course, as constantly reassured and missed as I was by Em, but the lessons best learned are the ones that only become clear over time. So we spent a day in the Philadelphia Airport together, me desperately concerned about Pando’s hydration and ability to get through that much stress, waiting for a backup flight that would wing us to LA, back to Altadena, and to what would eventually remain her home.

I would never see her again.

Granted, of course, this was by my choice. Pandora, as is clear, was a symbol of Emily and I, a representation and living manifestation of our time together. We lived together for a handful of months in total without Pando, she was born when we met and died just now as we struggle with the effort to talk to each other every couple weeks without upsetting each other. I was in no position to take her back and take care of her in her final months as she struggled to hang on, as I myself struggled to hang on as I continue to do. I have spent enough time dodging ghosts and pictures and reminders and mementos to not have to hold the living, then dying manifestation of what I have lost.

And yet I feel guilt, of course. I was worried that even the mere trip back to the east coast would kill her, but I feel tremendous guilt for leaving her to die without me. Not that she was not loved or taken care of, and I am deeply indebted to those who did so, but I still feel a gnawing, chewing sadness that I was so distant from her in her closing year.

All I can come back to for solace is another post, a giddy night in October 2009 when the world seemed alive with presence and feeling and meaning, when I tried to bank the sense that the universe made even in the face of tragedy. The whole post is called (grandiosely but simply) “It All Makes Sense” and you can see the whole thing here. But if you yourself are rushing, are exhausted by the 2,000 words on display mixed with these images and overwrought emotions, I can leave you with this summary.

It opens like this:

This post is an antidote, a message in a bottle, a documentation of a sensation and a perception about the world that is here and irrevocable. It’s something that I may lose, but no one can take away from me. And this is me, planting my flag, staking my ground, putting forth my chronicle of feeling this way and knowing these things at this time.

It all makes sense. All of it. What happens, what doesn’t, when, why, how. We are all so blessed and so privileged to be able to participate, to take part in this experiment with free will and this existence that is at once driven by our own whims and yet interminably destined to make itself work. It is punctuated by tremendous pain, yes, and tremendous anxiety, but it is all so very worth it. And I can see the pain and see the past and I know that every bit of it is worth it for everything.

And closes with this simple line:

I went inside to find Pandora staring at me as though she’d been waiting this whole time.

I’ll miss you, Pando. You and everything you saw.


Squinting at a Mirror in the Early Morning Hours

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

Two mornings ago, I awoke from a dream in which I’d been debating competitively and before an interventionist judge. At 7 minutes into an 8:30 speech, he told me “That’s seven minutes,” stopped flowing, and started flowing the remaining on-case arguments across. I continued to speak but got flustered, lost my train of thought, and, feeling derailed, sat down. He then started coaching the following speaker (the MO) through his speech. At a certain point of over-fond encouragement, I stood up, ripped off my sunglasses (because who doesn’t wear sunglasses while observing MOC’s?), threw them down to break on the floor, yelled “This round is under protest!”, and stormed toward the tab room. Wherein I lodged a formal complaint with a highly ironic person who happened to be running tab at that tournament.

This morning, I awoke from a dream in which I had to save a drowning child of indeterminate age (he was about six years old when standing next to his mother, but an infant once he hit the water) from murky algae in the waters beneath the enormous bridge that spans from Astoria, Oregon to the southwestern tip of Washington. The three of us were about to cross said bridge on foot, a recurring theme I have in dreams in the last couple years for no particularly good reason I can discern. Then the kid took a dive and the mother looked at me helplessly and I immersed myself in the muck through which I cannot swim in real life to fish the younger and younger child out and induce him to cough up the briny sea-river water he’d ingested.

I submit these vivid awakenings without much comment or interpretation – it mostly eludes me anyway, except to note that debate is on the brain in a way it’s rarely been at any time save perhaps my 50-tournament streak from 2000-2002. Even the drowning baby can probably be tied to debate discussions about when its morally compulsive to save such people. I’ve been meaning to compose a post for a while that’s as much excuse as interesting, about how much of the rest of my life is on hold as I sort out what an official and increasing commitment to debate looks like and how the rest of my existence sort of shifts around that weight. It’s almost like the organ-shifting that occurs during a pregnancy – how previously important functions like waste filtration and breathing take a slight back seat to incubating a living, breathing team. Maybe the metaphor doesn’t wash, but given the late impact on my health and other uses of time, it’s apt enough. And I’m fine with it – having to balance things against life as a professional debate coach is sort of the benchmark for “good problems to have”.

It’s sort of amusing to reflect on the New Year’s Resolutions I came up with just before 2011 in an epiphanic shower that I couldn’t wait to write about and how few of those seem relevant now. Constantly re-promised vows to pay more attention to this site and write more quizzes, of which a bit of work has been done but with seemingly less relevance and vigor. It’ll happen if it happens, I now must admit. The commitment to find a new city to live in, now indefinitely on hold. Even the devotion to the fourth novel, stalled out of the gate at a handful of pages after the negotiations and then formation of my new existence. And how it all folds together into a life so unplanned and unfathomed, stapled and duct-taped together but still managing to hold water somehow, as friends all around observe how impossible it is that Storey Clayton is committed to a life in New Jersey, alone.

Today we take the seven-plus-hour tour down to William & Mary, a school I don’t think I’ve been to since I was a patriotic seven-year-old freshly moved to Washington DC and absorbing all the information about the colonial days I possibly could. My parents bought me a green-and-gold sweatshirt of the school, my first-ever college paraphernalia, a reaction to my adoration for the most beautiful campus I could’ve comprehended, and I spent the next few years telling everyone that this would be my college of choice when the time came. Only a massive devotion to urban campuses took W&M off the list. Now, I return.

Once you get to this age, your whole life is spent in some sort of reflection.



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

I don’t know whether I find it more remarkable that I haven’t been to the Brandeis campus in nearly four years already or that I haven’t posted here in over a week. Both of them strike in the way of sudden jolts punctuated by the morbid dread of rising tides. The nature of time and its passing being capable of swallowing whole swaths of time whole and rendering an empty landscape in its wake. The cold sinking fear that one could awaken at a certain molded age unaware of how the last few epochs even transpired.

It is a good problem to have, frankly, that I have been busy enough in the last few days to not notice minutes in their flight. Compared to the endless drone of ticking seconds in agonizingly steady progression of the prior few months, a session of too-full overwhelm is precisely what everyone was prescribing. And yet filling that prescription and cashing that check has prompted quick unanticipated concerns about how much time was endured in limbo and whether sufficient long-term decisions were made there. Uncertainty is not the favored state of most beings, but I am not most beings, by definition, nor do I share much with them. In the freedom/security balance, I have always been for not only closing Gitmo, but also opening all borders. I mean this in equal measures to be about my own life and everyone else’s.

It has been a good month, the first of a new age, and I mean that in a relatively unqualified stance. It has been a great month, considering, but even a good month on its own standalone merits. Any of the recently coined measures of quality of life, the leading emotional indicators of the current existence and stance thereon, are setting record highs and aiming for new barriers ahead of any prior sketched schedule. Time is not to be thanked for any of this, of course, but circumstances, though a skeptic could surely argue that one creates the other. Time in a vaccuum, though, I will always argue, does nothing without concrete tangible changes therein. And a vaccuum is where time seems to have been going, both micro and macro.

So I relish the return to alma mater, to a drive even that I perfected with love and deftness over the course of consecutive weekends. To replace the hat I gained in 2007 on last visit and lost somewhere along the way, along the journey from a literal picture of distilled happiness to a newly wandered path with destinations unknown and even less predictable. To sit in an unpredictable living room among old cohorts of this very campus and shake one’s head in wonder at the luge-like course of echoing time, of the dictates and mandates of sequential decisions that in narrow order make sense but sum to unheralded madness. How condemnatory I am of others in such downhill flight, yet how I must shrug and smile and stick my tongue out at its reflection in my own uncontrolled trajectory. How I know the difference to be a certain moral check (perhaps this is my sled, or my sled’s possession of a rudder), but this is more to mitigate the slopes and angles and not erase them entirely. Is it sufficient to enjoy the ride and the howl of the wind of relativity in one’s hurtling escape from the mountaintop? Or should the aim be to find time to reflect and direct while amidst a breakneck decline?

I am peeking through the helmet now, just briefly, before tucking and driving into the next hairpin turn. The exhilaration of having never seen this course, never practiced this run, is both what makes the effort irreplaceable and terrifying. There are no previews, no redos, no maps or graphs. There is something to be said for milisecond decisions replacing measured observation of the same blind corner, though. Ice is ice and tunnels are tunnels and there are only so many ways a course can turn or bend or tilt. In the end, the most we can do is steer our damndest and pray that the earth will stay flat, the supports stable, and that the bottom of the course is still above water.


A Study in Scarlet

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

New Brunswick is a city of sirens. There are hospitals here, by the seeming score, spiraling outward from the world-famous Robert Wood Johnson, one of the Johnson & Johnson Johnsons, an epicenter of so-called healthcare in the so-called Healthcare City. The frequency of sirens in a place is rarely the function of the number of emergencies in a locale so much as the quantity of people employed in dealing with such emergencies. As a destination for the dead, dying, those in need of repair, New Brunswick takes all manner of boxy windowless vehicles in their quest to deposit their hapless fading contents at the halls of last-ditch recovery.

No one appears to be from here. America is vaunted as a nation of immigrants, but New Brunswick is truly a town of transients, the imported students mixing with the deposited unwell mingling with those who treat them from miles around interspersed with the migrant workers who are just passing through in search of opportunity. Many must be born here with all the hospitals, but who is here to stay? The staff and service providers of the hospitals and schools, one supposes. And indeed, few people are really from any place without a utilitarian purpose for passing through, without getting hung up on the hooks of a place while they’re on their way to somewhere else. Surely between becoming Scarlet Knights or mopping scarlet wounds, many must start to feel a sense of home, an aspect of permanence, a value to their location beyond being a place to hang one’s notepad or scalpel.

The wind blows icily through this village in March, sliding down the unresistant Raritan River and bending off into the crannies between old brick buildings and their comrades made to look old and brick. They’re raising a gargantuan parking structure over the church and the train station, facing it with linoleum-rolled brick facade to soften the starkness of the grand monument to the motor vehicle at rest it will inevitably be. The cranes hold overlarge masses of tools and chains and concrete blocks, hovering in the tilty moving air before being hauled aloft in an infinite skyward arc. Ceaselessly lit police cars block the streets on either side, preventing even the ambulances from passing under the cranes just on the off chance of some mishap that would necessitate the summoning of yet more sirened automobiles. There are cones of orange and signs of red, enforced caution for those who might otherwise throw it windward.

I have all but become David Gray in my sudden success in contests. Counting Crows, long my favorite band still producing music, put out a call for cover art for a new brief solo effort by frontman Adam Duritz, long a kindred spirit and mouthpiece for my pain. While the final 25 are not to be announced till tomorrow, my own cover submission of deep dark red for the work, entitled “All My Bloody Valentines”, has garnered massive attention in the Facebook group and is likely to be selected as a finalist. Like the songs the cover would ultimately adorn, the image is dark and emotional and ultimately plain, honest, and symbolic.


All My Bloody Valentines Cover

All My Bloody Valentines

“Valentine’s Day”, “O My Sweet Carolina”, and “You Might Think” are particularly recommended.

I wish I could tell you that everything gets easier once you have a dream job fall in your lap. I wish I could tell you that a few things going your way is all that it takes to put you on the mend, on the road to recovery, on the road to something greater than yourself. I wish I could tell you that the personal and the emotional can be subsumed by expenditures of time, that feelings of public affirmation can quiet the whispers of personal condemnation. Of course my wishing won’t make anything so, no matter what seems to go well or turn on a dime. All one can do is try to express, create, reach out, fail to reject. To make contact with the people one has loved and turn cheeks and take it, whatever it may be, in the hopes that by living a life as we know we should will prompt others to follow suit. Knowing, all the while, that such reciprocity is all but undermining of the point of our own often vain effort… that doing it for its own sake is the only sincere, though glass-ridden, path.

There are easier things than backing up a twelve-passenger van designed to seat ten through a pattern of briefly spaced cones in sequential S-turns, snaking through narrowly defined parameters in reverse and knowing the consequences of flattened plastic to be much greater than they appear. There are harder things than the cascade of laughter such efforts create, than the spiraling ability of any close-knit group of young hopefuls to create inside jokes and shared experience like it’s popcorn in a microwave. Somewhere beyond both what is hard and easy is a future that seems both probable and impossible, unimaginable yet underway. Nothing is simple now, nor merely challenging, but everything is either given or out of reach. It is a good time to be learning yoga, to literally be stretching the limits of credulity and muscle flexion, to always be working to adjust to the expectations of the increasingly unfathomable.

Yesterday I smashed my knuckles in the shower door, shaking out the pain as the internal hemorrhages swelled up to meet the indented joints. I thought about crying out, but there was no one to hear. I shook it out and sucked on my fingers and looked at the purpling reddening mess of slightly mangled digits. My mind went back to an Oakland laundromat, to a Philadelphia street, to times when there was comfort and solace. It was a silly thing, the smashing, and a sillier thing to feel lonely over. I have a friend who says that no one will notice if she goes missing for days on end. To her, this fact is unsettling comfort. To me, such reality, though not even precisely true of my own circumstances, speaks like silent condemnation. Like a failure so profound that it makes all the bogeymen of the past – failing out of school or missing a deadline or not securing a job – look like joyous occasions. To feel crazy for being so lonely only underscores the angst. It is the flaming red cape with which the matador taunts the bull: a scarlet cloth to swallow all memory with shades of a life that can only be charged at, but never struck through, a reality whose phantom and transient nature ends in a mouthful of dust and a torso full of swords.


31: I’m Still Here

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, What Dreams May Come, Tags: , , , ,

Last night, I had a dream about admitting a romantic interest to one of my oldest friends who I liked for some years back in the day. In the dream, it was acknowledged with the effortless casuality of ancient history and ancient knowledge, the artful and slightly playful dismissiveness that only comes from people with supreme confidence in themselves and their every decision. Such an attitude doesn’t quite comport with the real-life version of this person, and yet speaks volumes to my perception of relative confidence and attitudinal approach as I face the hills and waves of future forays. Increasingly, my major concerns are that everyone else likes themselves better than I do (empirically untrue, of course, because everyone feels this way) and that no one else feels living is truly serious business. This last, unfortunately, may empirically be true.

On the other hand, I often feel I’ve gotten younger with every passing year. As a child who grew up nine-going-on-forty, the approaching march to 40 feels like emotional regression. I think a fitting model of adulthood would be about figuring out what one has to take seriously and what one can take risks with. I think that a huge part of my rapport with my debate team, for example, comes from the fact that I can stay loose and jokey with them, that our practices, downtime at tournaments, and day-to-day interactions are far from all-business. My critique of most adults is that they cast aside their imagination and creativity in the belief that conforming to societally desired expectations will somehow improve their standing or others’ perception of them. Empirically, again, little could be further from the truth. No one likes a conformist. No one is impressed by how well someone falls in line, etches themselves into a cog, or fails to make waves. And yet aging implies a pressure to sit down, shut up, and start plodding along an inevitable treadmill toward a dubious retired future.

My own future is starting to take shape, at least in the narrow scope of the next year or so, and possibly longer. I have accepted an offer to join the staff of Rutgers University on a full-time basis, serving in an expanded version of my volunteer role that I’ve undertaken for the past year and a half. The school’s administration’s embracing of the debate team in the last few weeks has been overwhelmingly impressive and expansive and I am incredibly grateful to them and the institution writ large for the emerging depth of opportunity they are making available to me, but especially to the students of Rutgers. I think another facet of adjusting to adulthood is increasing acclimation to the idea that one will be under-acknowledged for one’s work and efforts – I am keenly aware of how distant my life suddenly is from such acclimation and what a call to action that contrast can be.

I spent the weekend on the Princeton campus, an emotional gauntlet of tremendous proportion. The recentering of the tournament in the traditional McCosh 50 heightened memories of all stripes, dating back to the spring of 1999, to say nothing of Edwards Hall and the various portents of the best year of my life. There were countless pockets of the campus I found myself in or near or passing by, having to shake my head in wonder at the circular cyclical nature of existence and what sort of bold metaphor one’s life tends to be. Of course, having the company of a team and a new generation to coach and assist both distracted from and periodically enhanced the nature of the trial. Suffice it to say it was emotional.

While the varsity squad struggled a bit again, the novices had yet another breakout performance, including a novice semis break for a team in their first and second APDA tournaments, respectively. Were I not sticking around, this would be about the time I would be desperately reconsidering that decision in the face of how much upside there is in the youth of the team, of wondering where we could be in a year or two. Which is of course nice instant confirmation of my decision to return, to see where we can get, to take pleasure in the incremental improvements as part of a long continuum I can now afford to see out instead of wistfully remember with wonder a couple years hence.

Today itself will be quiet, I’d imagine. A couple folks are coming up from Philly to help me invest in my decision to reside here for the foreseeable future – my apartment remains relatively sparse and unadorned, many artifacts still boxed or stowed, the whole place underlit and overly whitewalled. Hopefully by day’s end, the place will be less refugee camp and more safe haven, a place I have chosen instead of one I’ve fallen into, a reflection of a life I’m leading instead of following. It’s not the most celebratory of usages of time, but it’s befitting of my current status and location. Last year was celebratory and surprising and joyous. This year will be reflective but ultimately rejuvenating.

And, to top it off, my favorite of birthday perks, it’s supposed to snow tonight. While we got a whiff of spring a couple days back, yesterday about-faced into bitter windblown cold and this evening’s forecast calls for flaky precipitation, growing heavy right around the time of my actual birth anniversary (2:56 AM Eastern, four minutes till midnight Pacific). Not sure I’ll be up that late, given my new need to report to work on a schedule, but maybe I’ll set a brief alarm to blearily examine the echoes of 1992 as they fall and scatter on a place I’m starting to call home.

Apparently, two years ago, someone decided to make this the World Day of Social Justice. Hard to imagine a more desirable designation, especially since World Peace Day was already taken. We’re not there yet, folks, and the struggle is long, laborious, and continuous. But with any luck, there are still contributions to be made, reasons to persist in the effort. I remain alive and so long as I do, it will be as an idealist, perhaps even increasingly starry-eyed as the years cascade and I insist on remaining imaginative. There are doubtlessly worse ways to grow old than in the company of heated debate, the camaraderie of youthful enthusiasts, the glint of limitless potential, the shade of support and acknowledgment. It is a blessing to spend any day appreciative, maybe even on the cusp of something like hope.


Interpersonal Interaction

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

I haven’t been posting much lately. There’s a few reasons for that. For one, there’s something stemming from my last post that’s still being resolved and I’m not commenting on that matter till it gets sorted out. So that tends to put a damper on my communication when there’s an elephant in the room that doesn’t bear description. But I’ve also been struggling a bit lately to find an equilibrium of time and expression that works for me. The complicating factors of being just shy of turning 31, dealing with multi-continental communication with a certain person, and trying to decide what I’m going to do with the coming year after this May have all weighed heavily. And, lacking conclusions, there is little to say.

So I’m not really going to talk about any of that today. What I do want to focus on is something arguably more important that has crept in through the margins, that has manifest on the sidelines of all these other things I’m trying to decide. A fitting frontispiece for this post might be John Lennon’s old standard “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.” But it might also be my old standard “Why do you think we were born on a planet with six or seven billion people on it instead of just one person?” And herein lies the crux of the issue. People. Lots of ’em.

Look, I’m an only child. People often frustrate me. I’ve been known to get into a state after weeks or months on end surrounded by others where I start to crave alone time, start to find ways to force it upon myself whether it’s really feasible or not. Staying up late has a lot to do with that – in times when I’ve been most surrounded, I’ve pushed the limits of late-awakeness mostly out of a need to carve out time that’s only mine, where I can be alone with my thoughts and stack them up, rearrange them, figure out what’s really going on. Losing that ability tends to correspond to what other people claim to experience when they lose sleep – fragmentation of thought, randomness of action. Not good things.

HOWever, the last thing I’ve really been needing of late is time alone. I’ve never had so much of it in all my born days. And this has put special focus on the rare exceptions, the time when I get to interact with others, especially outside of a merely utile context like debate. When I get to just talk and be and exchange ideas and thoughts and feelings with other folks.

People, these times are what life is all about. I have gotten to hang out, on the phone or in person, with a handful of close friends in the last couple of weeks, and I simply don’t understand how any human being could prioritize anything else in their lives above human interaction of this kind. Yes, I know we’re all technically sustained by food and it probably helps to have access to clothing and shelter, but the fundamental roots of our human dignity have to be about access to meaningful conversation steeped in mutual respect and interest. And admittedly debate is a lot like that, in several ways, or gives rise to similar interpersonal conversation once one pushes beyond “how was your round?” But conversations that are the fundamental centerpiece of most all of my friendships, the balanced buffet of bantery jokes and references, shared memories, enlightened understanding, and honest exploration, this is the atomic block of life as a rational agent. This is what keeps us, any of us (I would posit) going. And without it, life quickly becomes gray, drab, brutish, and potentially short.

This is somewhere between +1 and -1 on a 100-point revelatory scale, but the way it’s hit me this week has reframed internal debates about what is important and meaningful in my life. Namely because I’m so surprised that we don’t structure society more around the facilitation of these kinds of deep and profound interactions. There are a lot of market-based commercial reasons to minimize the role of these conversations and exchanges of ideas, of course, though I hardly think capitalism can singlehandedly shut them out. But obviously if we advertise based on the exploitation of insecurities, we hardly want to enable people to derive such satisfaction from individualized free experiences that at most require a meal or beverage over which to stage such an encounter. But that can’t be all that’s thwarting daily recognition and prioritization of these kinds of groupings. Part of it has to be about the difficulty and perhaps non-universality of finding close friends, especially those who persist across years and decades to enable meaningful reunions and catchings-up. Still, most everyone has such friends, even if only in ones and twos.

I do have to blame money, I guess. And as the upcoming quiz (half the images are done and then I have to write all the answers – it could be anywhere from three days to three months away at this point) illustrates, money is a big impediment to most meaningful things. But surely even people dedicated to work or to setting time aside for a passionately pursued pursuit must be able to take a step back and realize that only when exchanging important ideas with those they most care for are they maximizing their potential as a human being. That what they can most remember about one, three, seven, twelve, twenty years past are moments spent in mutual revelation or wonder or admiration with another soul and that everything else in the meantime, save perhaps for a few treasured accomplishments or accolades, is fine print. Seriously, seek out your lasting memories. How many of them are alone? How many of them are all about you only?

Stop reading this blog entry. Call up an old friend. Or go visit them. And you’ll see what I mean.


Death and Taxes

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

The future, apparently, is now. Or at least will start to take some shape remarkably soon.

Tomorrow morning, I meet with one of Rutgers’ Vice Presidents to determine what I’m worth to the University on a possible bid to return for a third year as coach of their Debate Union. I had had no intention of staying, but it’s becoming clear that there would be some possible benefits to doing so, most of which are likely to be outlined (or at least discussed) tomorrow. I could not possibly feel more conflicted about this issue. There are lots of reasons to leave New Jersey and probably very few to stay. But I do love this team and debate is about the only thing going consistently well in my life right now, so if they make me an offer I can’t refuse, I won’t. If I had to guess, the final offer will be somewhere that squarely makes the decision a quandary. But it will be interesting to find out.

Today, I found out that my cat, or at least former cat, Emily’s and my former cat, Pandora, is dying. Her kidneys are failing. She is very old (twelve and a half) and has lived a good, long life, most of it by far in the company of a couple that loved her very much. She spent the last two summers in California with Em’s cousin, and I couldn’t bear to take her back at the conclusion of this one amidst all the upheaval and torment in my life. I have half a mind to spontaneously up and fly out to SoCal and say goodbye, but it would be just as unsatisfying and disappointing as other last-ditch flights have proven. The Pandora I loved is probably already gone, her mood and will to live dampened by the giving out of her organs. I wish I could see her again, but it would probably just hurt. And cost. Still, the news has hit me hard.

I have been at a loss for words and thoughts and feelings of late. Maybe not feelings. Words and thoughts, certainly. I have predictable contexts where I can make sense, but most of me feels as though I’m grappling with oblong objects and insufficient tools for their manipulation. Like the whole world came wrapped in an unwieldy box and I’m just trying to figure out how to pick up any part of it without dropping it all on the floor, having it spill out in pieces of broken. It keeps seeming like a great idea to move stuff around, to pick it up and try it over there, no, how about here. But the reality is that just kicking at it in a certain direction is starting to seem untenable. And the whole thing leaves me grasping at words and concepts, flailing in my inability to plant a flag anywhere.

And, signal of my most volatile days for time immemorial, I’ve got a dental appointment tomorrow too. It was originally looking like a root canal, but we’re trying to get away with a filling, a redo of a misplaced filling from years prior, one that’s been giving me a lot of pain of late. My own kidneys seem to be behaving, their stone production compromised by the intake of sugarless pure cranberry juice, but it’s still been a year that’s been hard on my health. Just going to get dental work seems like a huge investment, a commitment of upfront time and angst on the whispered promise of a long-term that I have to find some value in. That perhaps will have quantifiable value, at least in some form, as early as by the time I get to said appointment.

How silly it all seems, the filter of money, of mortality. How much these color and change our perceptions of the world around us. We can be forgiven, I suppose, for money is freedom and the absence of mortality probably feels like freedom for the most part. But it is strange to wrestle on the cusp of inevitability when one is still mired in uncertainty. I tend to relish and savor uncertainty, and the idea that so many possibilities will foreclose quickly, even to possibly great ends, is a bit unsettling. Continually, as with this whole year, I feel utterly desanctioned from agency in my own life, its outcomes, the paths that unfold. This is where the inevitability comes in, perhaps, makes its mark, paints its red arrows. Or perhaps it’s as cyclical as the lifetime of an living beast, entering and exiting the world unable to control its own bladder, let alone its thoughts and feelings.

I will leave this in a sad, simple way, before heading off to another meeting, a lighter one, one to plan a tournament that is perhaps the only certain thing I have circled to look forward to on a calendar of days fading into each other. It’s the last known picture of Emily and Pandora together, and I don’t care who knows it – I miss my girls:


First of the Month

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, If You're Going to San Francisco, Tags: , ,

When I worked at Glide, there was continual discussion about the intramonthly rhythms of our clientele. Specifically, things were usually pretty thin at the outset of the month when people on some sort of federal or local aid received their benefit checks, then got ridiculously busy by the end of the month when people were furthest from said receipt. This was most clearly manifest in the meals line, the walking talking pulse of our organization and the homeless of San Francisco, but had ramifications in almost every other program. People were more likely to be feeling desperate and needy in the late twenties of a month than the single-digits.

I was thinking about this today as I set out to treat myself to a lunch out at a diner in downtown Highland Park – the Dish Cafe, which I’ve been meaning to try for a while. It’s the first day of February and no small part of my self-justification was the idea that my balance sheet for the month was clean and so I was etching on a blank budget page going forward. I’ve decided to stop posting actual percentage graphs of my expenditures here, largely because I think I’ve gotten a handle on the budget overall. I spend about $2,000 a month. That’s what I spent in January and what I spent in December, if one doesn’t count the extra for the laptop and luminaria supplies. I can live on $25,000 a year if I’m conscientious about sticking to a budget and am living in a pretty expensive place (as I’ve said often, Jersey puts the East Bay to shame in this category). Emily and I used to live very comfortably on $50,000 a year, but the difference between the scrimping now and the comfort then was largely about mutually shared costs, such as rent and insurance. But yeah, this works and I’m not wanting for anything. $25,000 a year. The most money I could possibly need to live out my days is $1.5 million, assuming I don’t reproduce or something. Of course assuming I make it to 91 is absurd.

This month, I will turn 31. Age has just been a number lately, increasingly one that seems spat out of a random generator. I can feel little cracks and crevices creeping into my bodily life, noticing pain or prolongation of ailment that would have bounced back more quickly in days prior. But time strikes me as ultimately being a lot like money. One can make it one’s entire focus and obsess over it and say that it is the indicator of all manner of other things. But the truth is just the opposite – it’s a trivial number that people get caught up on and has only the most tangential bearing on life. It’s true that a 91-year-old is more likely to die tomorrow than a 31-year-old, just as someone with no money is more likely to die than someone with millions. But the actual relative likelihood margins here are extremely small and the actual determining factors are entirely outside this number. Unfortunately, most of these, as with the state of one’s mood or one’s life generally, if not entirely, are outside of one’s own control, or at least largely so. But at least they are more meaningful things, like one’s role in others’ lives and others’ role in one’s, than money or time.

Thus I keep a budget, but am focusing less on every penny and dime, except to ensure that I’m not getting out of my established ranges that I’ve had for the last four months. Still, I’m tracking it enough to feel a little more motivated to give myself a break and dine amongst the public early in the month and push through on waffles and ramen late in same. Which makes me wonder, more than anything, whether restaurants (especially in this economy) have their own tangible rhythm that reverses that at Glide and other soup kitchens. Are eateries busiest at the advent of a month, or its first weekend? Do things dip to a lull at the end? Given the budgeting skills of most Americans, I’d be surprised if this actually manifests, especially since most restaurant-goers are a step higher than Glide’s clients, if only in that they are given more access to credit (debt). At the same time, this trend isn’t really manifestation of a “skill” so much as procrastination – if one were really good at budgeting, then one would be perfectly balanced in distribution of eating out, based entirely on when one most felt like it.

So we’re all a little bit the psychological adherents of time after all. But the veggie burger sure tasted good. Besides, there’s no telling how much time we’ve got left.


Portentious Weekend

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

Most of my descriptions of the past are remembered and recollected, which gives me the opportunity to discuss them in the style of my current writing, to couch them in the perspective of my present vantage point. And while that has a lot of advantages, since I’m a better writer than I used to be and have more experience, it comes with drawbacks as well. The past is tinged in a different way in light of my current standing. Things that used to work out or seem good or be for the best may be more complicated now. Truth is vision without perspective, yet we can never really transcend our own perspective in the moment of looking from it. The best we can do is to suspend or question the trappings of that viewpoint in the moment we are peering out its filtered windows.

But one of the advantages of copious record keeping, of not having a bonfire of all my worldly goods and papers (yet), and of living so publicly, is that I can offer unedited perspectives of the past to describe the past. And in collecting the evolution of these perspectives and sources, and periodically revisiting them, I can arrive at something closer to objectivity about a wider swath of time. Which is not to say that objectivity is necessarily ideal, since there is much to be gained, as in debate, from simply having a perspective. But at least some of the biases of the moment can be strained and teased out, or juxtaposed with biases of other moments.

There are two significant anniversaries this weekend, one that most are contemplating, and one that only debate people would have cause to observe. The first is the twenty-five year anniversary of the Challenger explosion, a seminal moment in my own childhood, the Kennedy assassination or 9/11 of its era. The second is the ten-year anniversary (this debate-scheduled weekend, if not this precise calendar date) of Zirkin and I winning the North American Championship for Brandeis.

I could describe these key moments in my life in poetic detail, could frame them in light of what I’ve learned or experienced since then. But given my ability to present vivid first-hand accounts, I will favor those instead. Actually, the first is already a reframing – it’s my college essay written at seventeen about being five. The second is the direct first-hand reporting of my life from Ithaca, New York, that fateful weekend just shy of a decade past.

Obviously the second anniversary is more directly significant to my current existence than the first – I am not about to board a spaceship at this moment, but I am about to head to New York for a North American Championship. It will be my first as a coach – we lacked the money to attend last year. The snowfall, just flurries tacking on to the nearly-two-foot total already achieved in Jersey and NYC, is doing its best to make the world into a little impression of Ithaca. To say I would have high hopes for this weekend would put far too much pressure on the situation. But, as ten years ago, I am at home with the presence of possibility. Like every pre-debate morning, the air is pregnant with the promise of unpredictability. If there is one take-home message from my life that I can draw today, it’s that anything – anything – can happen.

College Application Personal Essay
Storey Clayton – circa December 1997

The crisp winter air was never too cold in that part of California. Fog, the closest we ever got to snow in California’s Central Valley, hovered just a few feet off the ground, blanketing vision with a soft, gray thickness of sky. In Visalia, a fairly small town that virtually no one had ever heard of, I was growing up. Like all five-year-olds, I had hopes and dreams for the oh-so-far-away future. I was almost six, after all, and that birthday would bring me another step closer to the great adulthood that somehow loomed, though inconceivably, in my mind.

As I walked through the fog that managed to nestle itself in my backyard, I wondered what turning six would mean to me. True, it was a month away, but anticipation has never been a weakness of the young. For example, I was busy anticipating the invention of time travel that would rush me quickly back to the age of the dinosaurs. I had dinosaur coloring books, pop-up books, full-length in-depth books, plastic toy models, the works. Only one thing surpassed my deep desire to immerse my life in the examination of every aspect of dinosaurs.

For that, I looked to the sky.

I don’t remember exactly when I first realized that I wanted to be an astronaut. I don’t even remember exactly what drove my curiosity about space, about the universe high above the clouds. There was something fascinating about what couldn’t be seen, about what was just beyond the realm of vision, truly of comprehension. It was kind of like Sunday School, except that no one who tried to explain space to me ever set limits on it. Outer space, and the exploration thereof, was the only thing truly big enough to consume my imagination.

I spent hours exploring the backyard fog, mentally exploring the clouds. I never quite got the feeling of weightlessness, but I was disoriented enough, surrounded by the dense gray that stood just inches from my nose and encircled the rest of me. I kept thinking that if I could just get beyond that fog, just reach the other side of the thick mass of cloudcover, that I would see Mars or Saturn only a few feet away. That all the solar system, and perhaps others might be within reach.

I talked with my friends about this wild fascination with the vast realm of outer space. They always made fun of my belief in time travel and the expectation of seeing dinosaurs someday. “That’s not real,” they’d say. “You can’t do that for reals.” But space travel, now that was “for reals.” People had done that before. More importantly, people would be doing that even more in the future–a lot more. And to man all those spaceships going zillions of miles in the air, they’d need fanatics like me. And I would be ready.

My young life had almost never been filled with absolutely uncontainable excitement. Certain birthday parties and Christmas Eves, and probably the trip to the Natural History Museum in L.A. with all those dinosaur skeletons had excited me almost uncontainably. But it was simply not comparable to my teacher’s announcement one winter morning. “Class,” she said, “next week we’re going to see the space shuttle take off. You all know about the space shuttle, don’t you? Well, we’re going to see it next week as it happens. Right on the TV screen.”

I could barely emit the words from my bubbling almost-six-year-old mouth when my mom picked me up from kindergarten that day. Not just a satellite with no one on it. But an actual spaceship with people on it, would take off as I watched it, at the very same second. Spoiling it only a little, she told me that she had known already. Everybody knew. It seemed that the entire town, no, the entire world would be watching this spaceship as it went up in the air. Off to the Moon, or to Mars, wherever, it didn’t matter as long as they were leaving Earth and heading off into the endlessness of space.

Only overjoyed excitement could enter my consciousness as we congregated in the first-grade room. The first-graders were in their desks behind us, the second- and third-graders standing in the back, and we were sitting on the floor, looking straight ahead at the chalkboard which contained the spelling list. It was filled with words like “space,” “ship,” “shuttle,” and, as an extra-challenge word, “astronaut.” Just as I was analyzing these words, sending my imagination flying once more, the television was wheeled in front of my vision. The vastness of space was about to be mine to watch, to observe, to savor.

We were reminded one last time that everything we saw was taking place at that precise moment. Through the much-celebrated “miracles of modern technology,” we would see what took place at the exact second in which it took place. Nothing had been rehearsed. This was the real thing.

The countdown came, and we all shouted along with it, a classroom filled with a hundred screaming children, all counting in reverse order from what our teachers drummed into our heads daily. “Three, two, one…” and then silence. We remained in an overwhelmed, fascinated silence. No one breathed for seconds. Only the vague sound of cheering from the crowd in Florida, so far away, and yet at this precise second.

Then, the space shuttle exploded.

The silence remained. The teachers were not near the television’s off button because no one had expected a reason to turn it off. We all watched, all knew, could not comprehend or understand, but still fervently knew. All but one of us knew all too well, and he asked, “What happened?” to break the minute’s silence. The moaning of the announcer in Florida seemed so desperately far away as the pieces of the shuttle fell to the water below in a fiery mess, at this precise second. No one answered my classmate’s question. A teacher had finally found the off button. The disaster faded into the comforting blackness of silence.

When I went home that afternoon, I hadn’t cried much. But my dream had died with the seven astronauts aboard the Challenger. It was over for me. I picked up my plastic stegosaurus and stepped out the back door. I could see the back fence all too well. The fog had evaporated.

Introspection, My Worst Friend
Storey Clayton – 2-4 February 2001

2 February 2001
-Ben Harper was solid, but in comparison to a lot of my more recent concerts, not quite fantastic. Glad I went though. The first encore (all acoustic) made it all worthwhile. I’ll post a setlist sometime when it’s not 2 & a half hours before I have to pack & leave for Cornell for the weekend. Woohoo NorthAms.

3 February 2001
[from Ithaca, New York]
-You gotta get pumped. & worship the coffee. & jump around. There’s been no dancing at this tournament, but there’s still the pumped-ness.
-Where are all these alleged Canadians? Zirk & I were 0-for-6 on the ol’ Canada train. But still, it was some of the best debating we’ve done in our careers. If only we can keep it up going into tomorrow, we might have a shot.
-Banquets are not my scene.

4 February 2001
[from Ithaca, New York]
-So I was sitting there, the whole time, telling myself “prepare to hear ‘Yale A’ so as not to be disappointed, prepare to hear ‘Yale A’ so as not to be disappointed…”… the second I heard “Brand–“, I went nuts. & I felt good about going nuts. We have been on fire all weekend.
-North American Champions. That will take getting used to.
-I expect this to sink in by Wednesday at the earliest. The thing is, I’m still just overwhelmed by the crowd reaction, by the fact that people cried in our round from being moved, that the Weisenthal case exceeded expectations, that Zirk & I got everything we could’ve wanted outta this tournament & so much more, that this was utterly transcendant in every way that a debate round can be transcendant. & Harry & Jeffie really gave the case a just opp. & I just don’t know what else to say. I am blown away.
-4 & a half days is still plenty of time to miss someone.


Red Light Green Light

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: , , ,

Two sheets of legal paper, turned horizontal, filled up with the cascading words of four speakers in proscribed order, one, two, three, four, two, one. Discussions of God and the role of evil and the amount of suffering in this life, discussions of love and the nature of it and the sincerity of seduction, the role of chemicals and free will in our approach to the way we pair. And driving, hours of driving, driving up and down coasts and over roads traversed recently and long ago, through snow, over ice, sliding and turning, the revolution of our world being that of the rubber tire, grooved and wearing, the amalgam of melted chemical shipped in from a land far away to cover our own pseudo-land, paved asphalt.

A dinner, non-celebratory but still communally held and gathered, one reminiscent of some of the closest gatherings of a bygone team in an era that feels exactly one lifetime prior. What role will meals like this serve for its youngest participants? For its oldest? Is everything an attempt to recreate the past in some way, are we all beating against the tide of memory, is everything done just to do it again? Is it routine we crave, or something deeper and more rhythmic, or is it merely the idea that non-suffering is so fleeting in this life that the glint of its reflection is to be chased and mined out of every possible moment, mirror, window? The best we can hope for must transcend that which has already been experienced, but such reality is always a surprise. And worse, we become accustomed all too quickly. In a flash, it becomes the new normal, an adjusted baseline, at best a shiny object to be buried under the pile of daily living, to shine and glimmer and be unearthed in future recollections all over again.

Gasoline pumping, coursing beneath my shaky hand in the buzzing lighted frost of a two-degrees-below Western Massachusetts rest stop. The previous stop, so familiar and knowing, the last stop on the Mass Pike before bending down to I-84, but it had ever-so-fittingly been felled by a power outage so as to bring a full stop to the reminiscence. There is the idea that one knows not what one is doing in the midst of one’s ghosts, but also that ghosts are fluid, mobile, hard to see, present. Their transparency gives them great strength, the kind of strength God must have, to flit unseen, to exercise the greatest force in the greatest restraint. It is this offering of power that the ghosts must make, or might not. And what is the point of running? Is not the great message of the Western canon that one cannot outrun one’s destiny, cannot outpace one’s past? Better to embrace, to collide, to retrace and reimagine for the purpose of greater armoring against the swirls of an opaque time to come.

The thrall of the moment, of still being able to hold a crowd on pindrop, to twirl their emotions on bended word with a flash and a flourish, now loud, now quiet. The plaudits of articulated feedback and laughter and pounding, their steady rhythm reflecting my own heartbeat and perhaps, for a night, nourishing its course. It’s not a fair fight, but no one says it needs to be, and what in this world can be labeled as truly fair? An old trope, to be sure, but one that resonates all the more in the recent audacity of certain claims. Maybe they’re right after all. Maybe we are all just a collection of bouncing chemicals, of measured manipulation, of raging self-interests clashing in the desire to be coldly satiated or justified. The pale black fear that rises up during the prior discussion about God, the confrontation with the diversity and depth of disbelief, the echoes of an earlier friend joining me in my own self-admonishment. Even the most convicted must have doubts sometimes, and even those doubts must be knee-bucklingly ferocious in particular convergences of imagery and thought. All of this cannot be for naught, but what if it is? All of these things must still be important, but what if importance itself is somehow contrivance?

Contradiction runs high and the doubts do not persist, but there is much to be gathered from the coursing energy of an overnight drive through star-wreaked skies and sleep-soaked cities. It is the routine moments, the floors of our happiest times, that will linger the longest in pained regret. Look down. See. Take what you take for granted and hold it up skyward. Cherish, treasure. I am not the first to beg you to do this, but that alone should tell you something. For there is a future, here and maybe elsewhere, and this floor will be gone. Or pockmarked, or stained, or torn into dangerous slivers around the edges. And you will regret having walked on it. Having dropped the shavings and chaff of your daily celebration on its beautiful flatness, its unappreciated solidity.

Strive, my friends, to look down. We are all in this together.


The Demise of Ol’ Drippy

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

For the first time since I began to occupy this apartment sometime in September, I am mercifully free of the dripping dropping plipping plopping noise that has unceasingly emanated from the bathroom sink. And feeling rather sheepish for not taking care of this a lot earlier. Of course, my crude methodology for said caretaking was the product of an initial reticence to report the drip to my landlord since he’d shut off the cold water’s flow to the sink just prior to my occupation. Or the prior tenants had and he’d neglected to notice, in conjunction with the town-appointed apartment inspector.

Basically, it seemed counterproductive to report something to the landlord that evidence suggested he’d both known about and attempted to cover up, or at the absolute least heavily neglected. There were also questions of tone-setting: did I really want to be the tenant who called up with a complaint on day three in a building? He’d have every reason to assume I’d be hauling various contractors and nitpickers through the place daily. Of course, it’s also possible that he didn’t know and he wouldn’t hold an early maintenance call against me, but the drip was manageable enough that I just didn’t much care either.

Thus days passed. And soon weeks. A couple visitors came after a couple months and were sequentially freaked out by their disastrous encounters with the cold tap, no less so because every faucet turn in this place is strangely reversed from the customary rotations found in American homes. I kept forgetting to warn people before their use of the bathroom, then kept hearing a vague scream and gush from said locale when people realized that merely tapping the cold knob brought an unstaunchable flow of frigid water. In I went, repeatedly, to rescue the startled guests.

Over time, the leak slowly worsened. My little tricks for twisting and pulling at the knob so it stayed just so and only let out drops instead of a trickle started to lose effectiveness. I even resigned myself to the idea of not using cold water in the bathroom sink at all, brushing my teeth in the kitchen, but I couldn’t even restore the shut water valve from my initial arrival in Highland Park. The trickle slowly became a small steady stream. I did my best cramming of it just before I left for a month in New Mexico and hoped that the water shutoff valve just took a few hours to take hold.

Upon return, the stream was even stronger. To the point that it has greatly interfered with my getting to sleep the past two nights in a way that even the steady rhythm of periodic dripping didn’t. After forty-eight hours of just trying to put up with it, I finally took a screwdriver, pliers, and hammer to the thing. At last! The knob of extreme brokenness had met its match:

Unsurprisingly, it was remarkably easy to twist the underlying mechanism that actually controls the water flow once the loose knob was unceremoniously removed. And now, as I type, I have a drip-free bathroom sink. And an errand to run at Home Depot at some point before vacating the apartment. And a fervent hope that my landlord doesn’t read this blog.

If you’re wondering, Ol’ Drippy is also a reference to an obscure Aqua Teen Hunger Force character who prompted Fish’s first introduction of the series to me. The other day, a propos of little, he mentioned to me “I miss Ol’ Drippy.” Sadly, the phrase worked on a number of levels, none of them particularly unsad.

It’s snowing now, the foretold precipitation swirling and flying across the lamppost out my window that usually annoys me but also serves as a spotlight for every snowstorm or rainfall. I’ve considered going out to construct a fort or a snowperson or even just to play, hoping the cover of late overnight might shield me from the askance looks I could expect to garner from this very serious community and its residents. I’m not on a campus anymore no matter how much time I spend on them, not twelve or sixteen no matter how much I feel it. I’m probably expected to react to snow with the tired frustration of those who believe it’s important to live, but have already forgotten how.

I didn’t even react to snow that seriously troubled me that way, though. Coming back from the debate trip to Dartmouth, the snow was piling high and ferociously throughout New Hampshire and well into Massachusetts. It was probably the least safe driving conditions I’ve faced since the drive a week earlier, but competing with Montreal before that or another drive back from Dartmouth or the hurricane upon return from a more recent PC. Yes, all my most dangerous moments behind the wheel have been in pursuit of (or retreat from) a debate tournament. Except perhaps the one time I fell asleep on the way to the Grand Canyon and woke up in the opposite fast-lane of a 70 mph highway.

I am far from all of this tonight as I wonder how late I can stay awake to watch the flakes fall, snow that’s supposed to be gone by morning as the southern storm drives warmer weather north to melt tonight’s joy. Somewhere in all this is a series of metaphors about the way I live, the way I should, the way I get myself into trouble. Or maybe it’s a story of patience and perseverance, that putting up with a drip is a branch of unconditionality and acceptance that has served me poorly but itself patiently persists within my character. In the modern world, we have only snow to remind us to be patient, piling itself in passive opposition to the daily chore and routine, insisting that an amalgam of the softest, gentlest entities create the greatest bulwark against hasty human pursuits.


2011: A Vignette Odyssey III

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

I | II

Six: I had a long list of things to do constructed for the few interim hours between landing in Philadelphia the night prior and heading up to Middlebury for the opening tournament of what is likely to be my last semester associated with APDA. This included printing tab cards and otherwise preparing for yet another stint at Tab Director, one of my favorite roles on the debate circuit. I’ve devote a good bit of verbiage herein in prior posts explaining what I love so dearly about tabulating tournaments, but it remains the perfect intersection of my interest in debate, teaching, statistics, and competition. I am looking forward to Nationals for more than a couple reasons.

My stint running a calibration round to acquaint the rarely competing Middlebury team with the expectations of running a quality tournament was preceded by a remarkably short-seeming six-hour drive that wound us from cold to colder as we approached the remote climes of northern Vermont. Coming back to a debate setting, be it a car ride or a tab room or a round or a meeting always feels like a return home. Arguably even more than my actual return home did this winter. Indeed, it filled me with pangs of pre-regret to type the words above describing the separation I may about to be declaring from the world of collegiate debate. I remember missing it so deeply and I don’t relish missing it again. At least I know that coaching has, somehow, been able to provide me nearly as much joy as competing did, and that alone has confirmed at least one set of decisions from the last couple years as being irreproachably valid.

I found the Middlebury team to be much like all debate teams of a certain ilk, though notably larger and more participatory than I might expect for a school that has been of limited presence on the circuit the last couple years. The calibration round was a great success and we were whisked off to incredible buildings whose presence on campus postdates my last visit to the school, one of several semifinal appearances I made at the liberal arts college’s annual invitational. The remainder of the night, crawling into the following day, involved a series of false starts at sleep wherein I would awake to navigate another of our many carloads of people to the cemetery-side frat mansion that was putting us up for the weekend. Bleary but excited to sleep in, I finally succumbed to rest circa four in the morning.

Seven: The tournament went as smoothly as almost any I’ve tabbed, all the more remarkable for the fact that not one of the appointed Middleburians had served in a tab room before. We ran close to schedule after an expectedly late start in the face of an oncoming snowstorm, one that adorned the entire night with a Narnian fall of lamplit accumulating precipitation. The mid-small draw of the tournament gave it that memorably enjoyable Middlebury feel of a debate slumber party where camaraderie runs high and competition seems to carry lower stakes. Friday was punctuated by one of the most lavish banquets assembled in recent APDA memory, whose offerings could only be discovered after a long trek through the fast piling snow along newly slippery paths. I had to rush from it to get back to tab, but tab continued to punch along like clockwork and we had to wait to announce round three for everyone to return from dinner.

The remainder of the night, post-tournament, was spent in a comical run back and forth to the site of the debate party, almost entering before deciding it was unworthy of our presence. The team seemed to struggle with a certain schizophrenia about wanting to go to the party, and we talked it over at the lodgey student center with its late-night snack offerings and an epic game of pool where Farhan finally knocked me off with only the eight ball on the table. Another trudge back to the party revealed a comically depleted dance-floor and we had only the snow to play with on the long walk back, exhausting almost everyone with an every-person-for-themselves contest along uncertain paths and bizarrely footstep-rung trees. By the time we decided to bring the snowball fight inside to the few cohorts who hadn’t gone out, we realized it was probably time to turn in.

Eight: You can read about how the tournament panned out on the RUDU blog, but it doesn’t quite capture the drama of getting there. Going into round five, none of our teams were guaranteed a break appearance, nor was Farhan in any way ensured such a high speaker performance. Watching the ballots come back and being able to once again be blown away by how far the Rutgers team has come was a great joy while in tab, though not being able to share any information with them till the suspenseful post-pizza announcement was, as usual, aggravating. Nevertheless, announcements were made and break rounds were won, and by the end, Farhan had become the fifth modern Rutgers debater to qualify for Nationals, and the first to take home a top speaker prize at a tournament. Knowing that nothing was riding from a team perspective on the semifinal result – either Dave & Kyle would advance to second TOTY or Farhan would qualify, both excellent outcomes – was quite enjoyable as I tabbed up the speaker and novice rankings and noted that we’d taken both of those prizes as well.

This is all to say nothing of rounds I enjoyed judging, especially fifth round between a Canadian team and Stanford that provided the perfect blend of fun topic with serious debate. And I was quite proud of the Final, watching Farhan get within a ballot of winning his first final round appearance, made all the more incredible for it being with an unpracticed novice partner he’d met the day prior. We capped the celebration with a long fun dinner with the Maryland team at a local diner, missing the three teammates who’d departed early but reveling in the additional definitive proof that this team has Arrived.

We were ill prepared for the daunting snowbound journey that awaited us upon heading east for an interim week in New Hampshire with my friends Stina & Dav, however. Snow was falling heavily as we trudged back to the car, almost at whiteout by the time we were fishtailing on country roads the GPS insisted would get us across the width of two states and into Durham. After an eleven-mile stretch of particularly daunting road, I pulled over into a church parking lot, making jokes about sanctuary, contemplating seeking a hotel or alternate lodging if we weren’t close to getting on an interstate. The GPS revealed that our next direction would put us on I-89 in just a couple miles, though, and I’ve rarely been so relieved to see the letter I. The rest of the trip was uneventful till the next departure from an interstate, this time outside Durham, put us in the heaviest snowfall I’ve ever driven through. But the roads were full of traction and progress was quick, if blinding. We hit Stina & Dav’s student housing and were quickly all asleep, bone-weary but quite satisfied to punctuate Middlebury’s successes with living to see another day.

Nine, Ten, Eleven, Twelve: I can differentiate between these days at this point, but I probably like them better bundled since that’s how they’ve felt. Like any good vacation, especially one unscheduled and in an unfamiliar place, the days have melded into a relaxing blend of half-effort activities. Games and reading, computers and snow, practice rounds and TV have swirled together in this medium-sized apartment and series of locally run eateries. Durham, New Hampshire wouldn’t be my first pick for a place to live, but it’s a great place to stop by in the winter and all five of us (Farhan and Dave came along for the ride) have gotten along well over Clue, Trivial Pursuit, snowball fights, and meals. We’ve one more day to come of this, one foraying all the way out to Manchester to see some summer friends of Stina’s, but I think I can already call the tour a success in its ability to restore energy. It’s also taught me a few things about the sudden pervasiveness of laptops and a general computer mentality, especially in those younger than I am. At the same time, this same attitude has enabled me to write these posts about the opening fortnight of the year, as well as participate in online Diplomacy games and keep informed about both local and worldwide circles of information.

I’m not sure I like it as a model for a vacation that I initially assumed would require reading and maybe some games or snow-play as the only possible outlet. The vision of a New Hampshire retreat to a snowed-in world (and we did get about a foot and a half today) is marred somewhat by the ubiquity of technology and its corresponding proliferation of television reruns. Let alone how much broadcast TV I’ve watched this week and how foreign it feels to my newly untrained eye – one of the very few improvements to my life that the recent losses have created. Granted that much of that has been sports that I’ve enjoyed, though the loss of a potential Oregon championship in anything was deeply sad. Which reminds me also of a Middlebury tie-in I nearly forgot – the finding, through all that technology and Facebook – of a friend I last saw in person on the Middlebury campus, during a magical weekend in 2000 when Zirkin and I made semifinals at a thoroughly enjoyable little tourney. The friend is one of my oldest, a literal pen-pal of all my Albuquerque days, one whose letters I was hoping to show Brandzy as part of his visit through my archival history when he came to New Mexico. She was my best friend from seventh grade and has long been living in Seattle, but only just joined Facebook this week and looked me up right away. We haven’t even properly caught up yet again, but the loose ends in my life who feel important have started to feel all the more important in the last few months, unsurprisingly. Where are you, John Schneider? Just drop me a line someday once again.

I guess all this technology is worth it, even if its saturation could stand to be kept at bay in favor of a little more paper now and again. That friending the day after Middlebury wouldn’t have been the same in a week. And these posts probably wouldn’t keep over longhand drafts of endless paper.

Like everything in life, or at least the last few parts of it, it seems to be all about trade-offs.


2011: A Vignette Odyssey II

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, From the Road, Read it and Weep, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , ,


Two: The Frontier Restaurant in Albuquerque has long been a sort of totem of my relatively limited affection for the world. The things I like tend to be things I like a lot and the Frontier may be close to my favorite of these things. It has great food, relatively cheap (it used to be unqualifiedly cheap, but now such things have gotten a little less certain), a wide expanse of comfortable, Western-themed rooms, a wide cross-section of Albuquerque’s population, and hundreds of memories (most of them even good) haunting its tiled corridors. Introducing new people to the Frontier has become a hallmark of their visits to New Mexico and a highlight of any trip home for me, for spreading the Gospel of the Frontier is one of my most thoroughly developed skills.

Brandzy had been to the Frontier before we made it in for a crowded Sunday lunch, but he’d been there alone and in a rush and only on my far-flung recommendation while I sat in, I believe, an office at Glide. So while the experience was not entirely untested, his ability to fully embrace the Frontier ethos as one who is being guided and shown around had not been breached. Having discovered a new love of green chile the night before at Garcia’s, it was no problem convincing him to try a cheeseless breakfast burrito and begin the rapid indoctrination process often underway by the time someone sets foot over the Frontier’s well-traversed thresholds.

He arranged a hasty reunion there with a long-estranged friend, leaving us just enough time in the schedule to stop by the old place on Twelfth Street for a glimpse of what my actual upbringing in Albuquerque was like before my parents moved and were able to claim the place they’ve lived since I was ensconced in college. Gone were the chickens and ducks and geese; added were several walls and outcroppings of the structure my Dad had begun to augment before our move. But the echoes of a bygone era, already reverberating through my perspective after nearly a month in New Mexico, began to thunder loudly in my cranium as it perched just visibly over the ditch-side wall to offer a view of stuccoed straw-bales and the wispy visage of a teenager who’ll never walk that yard again.

We didn’t reunite thereafter till it was dark outside, a fire blazing within to offer a bulwark against single-digit temperatures that threatened any stranded without the walls. Brandzy’s picked up guitar lately and he picked up his, encouraging me to literally dust off an instrument I hadn’t touched in over a decade as he began to practice. I almost caught up to him in a couple-hour impromptu jam, relearning “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “This Land is Your Land” and plowing through our recently recounted memories of me at eighteen or thirteen to squint into an even more distant past, one at eleven and twelve, one accompanied by the plucking of strings and the pressing of frets as I failed to practice sufficiently to make good on a musical promise always more hoped for than manifest. “Puff the Magic Dragon” added heart-strings to those already being tugged, but we struggled with B-minor and had to regroup with the two we’d played together as we laughed and celebrated a minor victory in being able to learn, or at least remember, at thirty years old.

Three: A return to the Frontier and a series of near-goodbyes marked this sleepy day, with Brandzy departing for Arizona before tragedy was to strike there coincidental to his more planful journey. We said farewell repeatedly, culminating in a last farewell as he retrieved forgotten sheet music on his way westward once more, promising to listen and talk of future farewells as many times as might be necessary. I spent the day in increasing awareness of my hurtling toward departure from New Mexico, left once again to feel the already waning rhythms of life in a family of three as I lived it for almost two decades, but so little in the past twelve years. Late in the day, after good portions of reading and computer time, I was able to convince my parents to engage in some magical thinking and accompany me to my father’s first (modern) 3D movie, the “Voyage of the Dawn Treader”. And on the third day of the year, the three of us watched a three-dimensional film, the third in the classic Narnian series, nearly having the theater to ourselves before a couple stragglers joined us in late preview. All were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the film and the engagement of its contours, convinced once more that sharing a movie outside the bounds of the homestead is not only viable, but vital.

Four: My last full day in Albuquerque was slow and methodical, as I took periodic care to note the passage of time and the significance of a day that, like any at home or in the company of those one rarely sees, could bear unseen and increased significance in certain retrospects. I have learned over much belaborment that it is important not to overemphasize such days, to overload them or overstress them if possible. There is great pressure put on departure, especially when it carries potential portends of long absence and the gaping maw of life unknown and unplanned, of reunions whose dates are unmarked on the calendar. That very pressure that inclines one to enjoy and squeeze the stuffing out of these moments of significance can suffocate same, strangling the throats that would call on memory to the point where all that can be heard are plaintive, even frustrated cries. It is one of those Murphian curses of our existence that an awareness of important days can crush them, that our most beautiful memories are often of days almost unnoticed at the time.

I managed to finish my book, to dine with my family, to make plans to see a friend who’d just made it to town in time to play piano and a last card game with Fish and I before we departed. Eliaii and I rarely overlap for long in Albuquerque, but our conversation made the most of it this time, as early hours of the fifth day of the year were burned in serious contemplation of life and its foibles after he and Fish’s father conquered Fish and I at what Trivial Pursuit recently informed me was the most popular four-player game of all-time (bridge). If it was the last night at what I’ve lovingly called The Tank for a decade and a half, it was one for the ages. Fish and I had sat before the gas fire several times this trip, contemplating New Year’s past and further past, or imagining what future hope could be carved from the newly breached shore my life has been wrecked upon. I had not realized how much of these opportunities to regroup and reminisce had been made possible by Fish himself until that night, until hearing his parents wax wistful about Florida on Christmas and realizing that at age thirty, despite feeling like kids, we are directing more traffic in our lives than we really might imagine.

Five: Village Inn is no Frontier. It’s not even Waffle House. But it is open and relatively close to The Tank, and Eliaii and I finished the last large meal of my time in Nuevo over discussions of where things are heading in a year that if I keep saying it has to be better than last year, it almost certainly won’t be. A cop sat behind Eliaii and looked up occasionally over his strongbox-computer-sourced work, trying not to acknowledge me as I talked about places I might live and jobs I might pursue and avenues I might attempt to sidle down in the coming months and years. I often caught myself wondering what he might think of our cavalier evaluations of Albuquerque, its advantages and disadvantages. It’s easy to assume that almost any well-settled local is a lifelong native, but it’s quite possible he was an import from Texas or California or even possibly Chicago, though there’s something about police in particular that I believe makes them seem provincial. It’s probably halfway between a stereotype and the belief that they take up arms and badges in the defense of a long-held community tradition, or at least in a place where they’re familiar with what neighborhoods require what sort of patrol. In any event, he heard me compare Seattle, Denver, Flagstaff, and Vancouver favorably, though I lamented that Albuquerque’s affordability and climate were not available without the ghosts.

I considered staying up all night, but it was clear by six or so that this would be a poor plan, especially since my departure was later than my traditional bargain-basement dawn voyage. I caught about a hundred minutes of sleep in the steady restlessness of the jittery need to awaken quickly when it is, in fact, time to awaken. How many mornings spent alarmed and ready without necessity, starting alert every five minutes only to discover that the need to leave bed is still many minutes or even quarter-hours hence. And then the final moment of awakening, of sounded emergency startling, it seems anticlimactic and almost sad, wasted in its annoyance on a person already feeling as though he’s been awake and ready for days.

It was in this state that I began to cry, facing the magnitude of the departure that was upon me, feeling the welled and stored pressure of all that had built in days and weeks and a near-month of muddling through in search of resolutions, answers, hope, holiday, restoration. Once unleashed, my final of many floodgates on New Mexican soil knew no stoppage, prompting a contemplation of punting the flight altogether in favor of later times or, perhaps, making a vacation more permanent or at least indefinite. Departures like this, as often tagged in this format itself by my “Pre-Trip Posts” moniker, tend to carry that pre-remembrance feeling even more heavily than last full days in a locale. My family is heavy with premature death, with tragic losses and missed opportunities to say goodbye, adding extra weight to every long preview of extended absence. A deluge of unchecked tears as the last of the packing culminates is hardly a harbinger to ward such misgivings. We bawled and hugged and my parents begged me to reconsider my resolve to fly to Philadelphia. I almost relented. But at some point, amidst the pangs of reconsideration and reformatting of a whole vision of this year, I stood up and said “it’s time.”

Airports are lonelier than any Valentine’s Day, any New Year’s, any holiday spent solo. Many are alone, but nearly all of them are heart-filled with the last kisses of loved ones or the even more soaring anticipation of long reunion. It is too early to declare these experiences forever spoiled, but a thirty-hour jaunt to Liberia resulting in a cold shoulder went a long way toward inhibiting my taste for unaccompanied air travel. After a steadying phone call to Stina to iron out last details of the pending trip to Vermont and New Hampshire, I resolved to sleep as fast as possible, making up for the nervy hundred minutes of half-rest that had preceded my teary farewells to hearth and home. We were airborne, underway, then as Albuquerque receded ‘neath a bank of clouds, I nestled in the very back row against my parka and gave in to merciful unconsciousness.

I was awakened some hours later by a special announcement over the loudspeaker with a surreal-sounding request that all passengers aboard our flight from Albuquerque to Chicago lower our window shades and press our flight attendant call buttons. It was a minute or so before I could be sure I wasn’t dreaming, groggily blinking at the 100% participation with what appeared to be a prelude to an ill-lit ritual of cult or creed. Instead, it proved to be a marriage proposal, inarticulate and choked as it emerged from a pudgy but sincere-seeming guy as introduced by a profoundly polished contrasting stewardess. The view from the back was murky enough to briefly convince me that he was offering a wedding to the stewardess herself, but it proved to be a fellow traveler on the wind to Chicago that was receiving what would long be considered the happiest news of her life. My thoughts went quickly to a mid-inning proposal at a Philadelphia ballgame Emily and I attended shortly before she flew away, our wincing looks to each other reminding both of us that our best proposal story of our lives, the best proposal story either of us have ever heard, has been burned on a needlessly heartbroken marriage whose memory now only brings pain. It is hard to say how particularly cruel life has been lately or whether I merely notice its cruelty more unguardedly in my present state, but I would also venture that none of you have borne witness to an airborne proposal and that things are really going out of their way these days. I tried to fall back asleep as soon as possible, shortly after desperately trying to make myself clap along with the congratulatory crowd.

I didn’t leave the plane in Chicago, instead waiting for all but 9 of the seats to be filled by those who filed on in annoyed single-file, scouting seats and bin space like buzzards on a planet of immortals. Inevitably one of the loudest of the future passengers found his way across the aisle from me, where I was newly placed in good old row seventeen. He’d made a new friend in line and spent almost all of the boarding phase yelling details of his dramatic life across the way to her chosen seat, just behind my head. Turns out he’d flown back to Chicago from Philly to bail his ex-wife out of jail. She’d just burned his house in Chicago down. He was taking the kids, who were coming with their grandparents in the back of the line, back to one of the grandparents’ places in Philadelphia to recover while he contemplated whether to press charges and how to collect on the insurance. The guy looked like the kind of person who would make up a story like this just to pass the time, but by the point when two scared-looking bear-clutching grade-schoolers dutifully boarded between hand-wringing matriarchs trying to look brave, I was convinced. Maybe the only thing special about anyone’s experience is that they think it is special. Maybe suffering is all the same.

I read at length from my Mom’s long-recommended recent favorite, The Shadow of the Wind, while trying to shake the idea that I was getting a portrait of American nuptials presented by Southwest Airlines. I couldn’t sleep a wink all the way down into Philadelphia, a rarity for me on planes. I have long tried to keep myself awake on the large commercial vehicles, often just to see if I can, sometimes because I desperately want to read or converse or otherwise enjoy consciousness. But this was my first flight in ages to offer me such, almost not counting since its first half was spent almost completely asleep. As we eased down toward Philadelphia in one of the most gradual descents of all-time, I was able to peer through cloudless skies at early evening scenes of eastern America. It occurred to me, squinting and sighing, how like constellations the light patterns of winter cities in this country are, how the order/chaos of patterned streets and traffic and buildings, especially in smaller towns, resembles nebulas and swirling galaxies high above in the same dim-lit view. We rotate and revolve around a center, we follow an orbit, and dim glimmers of yellow or white or even purple hints at our existence, winking in the void as we wait to be driven homeward.

All the way back, I’d think how strange it was that I’d never before correlated far-flung star systems to the electric networks that adorn our own civilized groupings. Sitting for long stretches on overlit trains, even longer stretches in even more overlit train stations, hauling my overstuffed bags down the rickety ice-flecked stairs of the New Brunswick depot, hailing a cabbie my parents had insisted I employ to make the last tiny stretch of my journey less exhausting than all that piled on before it, I would wonder. How can we be so close to so much and not see? What am I not seeing before me now that might be my skyward salvation? And what, most of all, might I never see, never connect or correlate, until such time when its knowledge is no longer useful? Are we ever making decisions as though truly informed? Or does the chaos outweigh the order, leaving us as much starstruck or star-crossed as we are illuminated?

I’m not sure about this emergent 2011 pattern of recalling a day or a handful of them in somewhat distant retrospect, but I kind of like the affect it has on my thinking and the way I talk about things. Like these constellation/streetlights themselves, I think I might often be too close to the days I’m writing about, and even a few hours or a week of reflection time can make an enormous difference in how circumspect or thoughtful I can be about them. I can’t imagine sandbagging future thoughts and entries to create this effect, but while I’m still catching up on the early parts of the year, I’m not going to fight it. In other words, this vignette series will continue, at least for another entry or so.


2011: A Vignette Odyssey

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

We’re eleven days into the only year ending in eleven that most of us will live through. And I’ve gone eleven days without posting. This was not a deliberate move – I had no resolution to avoid or reduce my commentary on my own life in this space. It just sort of happened, the way things do before and during and after travel, when time is short and emotion is capable of being long. I’ve composed partial posts in my head but run out of steam by the time I get to the keyboard, or been distracted by others. I’ve been spending a lot of time with a lot of others – after living alone for the first time since 2001 (and that year I had my own room in a hall that housed probably two-hundred people), I’ve spent the last month or so living with other people again, first at home, then at a debate tournament, and now on the road between tournaments. One gets accustomed to a different rhythm living with others, especially in close quarters. It is harder to muster that self-reflective, introspective state that gives rise to so many of my posts, so much of my writing in general. Living with others has still traditionally given me the opportunity to stay up till three in the morning and reflect on my day – traveling and crashing with friends, less so.

Anyway, it’s hard to sum up a series of days that have all been radically different in some sort of clean or poetic post. So I guess all I can try to do is pull together vignettes, maybe many of them at length and in succession, to try to not lose hold of the moments that have introduced me to this already intriguing year known as twenty-eleven. By the end, there may be some emergent thread or common bond, or there may be just a collection of days at the outset of a long journey whose destination is uncertain. So it has/does/will gone/go.

One: Rang in an essentially arbitrary new year (we just decided to do a countdown after, in the midst of a game of Celebrity, someone noticed it was 11:59 and then 12:01 on their cell phone) in front of the fire at Miranda Gray’s place. Miranda wasn’t there, but most of her family was, including some extended family. Fish and I were also there, as was Anna, who’s practically family at this point. In any event, we’d played plenty of Oh Hell and Celebrity and I actually enjoyed the latter game for perhaps the first time in my life. So much seems to be changing about my attitude toward the world. It’s tough to see how much of it is for the better, but it’s a little unnerving to feel that fundamental attributes of my personality are being washed out with the tide of former vantages. Then again, it’s just a game.

Drove Fish home and spent an hour waiting for Brandzy to show up, little knowing that he’d decided to drive from Berkeley to Albuquerque in a single day. It’s true what they say about geography knowledge in this country – there isn’t any, even and often among the best and brightest and most well educated. He’d deliberately obfuscated mileage and timing to himself for fear of intimidating himself out of what proved to be an extremely ill-advised venture – one that Google Maps lists as taking 17 hours and 6 minutes without traffic, stoplights, gasoline refills, or sustenance. Only the GPS knew the depths of his absurd attempt and yet he made it safely and almost coherently. And then there was much sleep, the first of the year.

The Frontier was closed that day (I’m still getting used to such closures after years of them not being 24/7/365), so we had to settle for Garcia’s after an epic tour of the Academy, Brandzy’s first. This featured the first-ever retelling of the caterpillar story in the place where it originally happened, as well as recounting some other storied events of my past life in the vicinity of their inceptions. The Academy tends to have an overwhelming affect on people, but I expect it less from someone who graduated from a place called the Athenian School. I also had moments of looking up and out and around and having to remind myself what a majestic place not only the Academy could be, but also and especially Albuquerque itself and even New Mexico generally. By the time I could virtually manifest a balloon-streaked sky in my mental theater, I was ready to reconsider my admonishment on moving back to the Land of Enchantment.

More than anything, my friendship with Brandzy is demarcated by talking. Well, talking and joking. Talking, joking, and tangents. Talking, joking, tangents, and irreverence. Talking, joking, tangents, irreverence, and… you get the idea. We were slated to be roommates upon arrival at Brandeis in the fall of 1998 and while I have always carried a bit of resentment at his late decision to abandon Scheffres 212 for an internship in city government in Oakland and a year’s deferral to ‘Deis, we both have long discussed that we’d have had to drop out of school for infinite distraction and failure to attend a class had we actually been paired together. So the remainder of the first day of this year was spent in endless verbalized contemplation of our recent past and potential future, adorned as usual with vast gulfs of mutual mirth and oblong spokes of barely relevant trivia. It was a typical good evening of plunging into our mental morass, made all the more amusing for its priming over a lengthy card game with Fish.

I have many more vignettes from early in the year to relay, but it is late in the overhang of the tenth day and I am feeling underwhelmed by the idea of getting through those nine days in the next hour or so amidst thousands of words. I feel impelled to get this first breath of 2011 out into the world, take my leave, some rest, and return reinvigorated to recount all that has transpired in the new year’s infancy. So far, so good. Already the first feels a month or so ago. Hopefully by the time I have caught pace with my tale, the time will not have sailed past me in its inevitable march toward the infinite.

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