I haven’t had a lot to say the last couple days, but it’s not for lack of activity. Friends have been in New York and I went to see them, other friends came to New York and I went to see them. So much of me wants to just scrabble up the current life plan and return to a previous one, but I also know that fails to recognize the incredible blessings incumbent in the current one. People still get this wide-eyed look when I talk about the opportunities I’ve got with the debate team right now and I have visions of all the things that I think we can accomplish and I’ve already become really reliant on this community of people. I just so so so wish it were somewhere in the West, or at least not in New Jersey. I have people nearby, everywhere around, but not here, and efforts to get people here seem to be stymied by the fact that it’s New Jersey and everyone else recognizes that too. Next life, I think I want a planet that’s 500 miles around or maybe to be born into one of those feudal villages where a trip to the city walls is a big adventure.
In any case, on this particular planet, I’m staring down an epic roadtrip in less than a fortnight that’s got some event changes possible at the front-end that I’ll update as soon as I know what those are. In the meantime, I wanted to share a tour video from another roadtripper, the herein over-discussed Allison Weiss, who just released a recording of one of the new songs as she played it at the Princeton show I attended! This song, like so many of hers, captures exactly how I’m feeling, but this day in particular. And it’s a rerun of something I already saw. The world is like that all the time, kids. Just open your eyes and your mind.
So a funny thing happened last night. Some of my debate friends posted on Facebook. And then they kept posting. Facebook has posts and comments on posts as the main framework for its operation, each attributed specifically to an identity. And the genius of Facebook, as I’ve long said and doesn’t seem to get talked about as much as it should, is that everyone uses their real identity on their because the incentives in place reward/require that and there are few rewards for being anonymous (at least undiscernibly so) or having multiple identities. Anyway, before too long (3-4 hours), there were over 1,600 comments on this one post.
We naively thought for a while that we would hit some sort of cap or be in for some sort of record, but a tiny bit of quick research proved both of those notions were absurd – there’s apparently a Facebook post with over 305,000 comments and counting out there. Never question the ability of humanity to push an envelope. It was in that spirit, and the spiraling reflection of what a strange, somewhat magical, and overall confounding phenomenon this post was, that I wrote this stream-of-consciousness evaluation, in what ultimately proved to be two comments with a Postscript, this morning. I present it here unedited, typos and all, as it was written:
One thousand, six-hundred, and seventy-two comments. Why is it standard procedure to put hyphens before “hundred” and the last two numbers of a large number, but not thousand or more? That seems odd. I am also breaking the longest silence in this thread’s history, of about 3 hours. It looks like the longest gap prior to this was about 15 minutes or so, but it may have been less. It’s strange that Facebook conceals precise times for things until over a day after they’ve happened. It seems strangely revisionist, even though it’s clear that their reason for approximating things in proximity to the current time is to make things seem somehow more “live” and exciting. Not that this phenomenon could possibly have anything to do with spawning threads of over 1600 comments in 7 hours. Of course, we also have to recognize that while Facebook may not have anticipated this usage of comment-threads, they certainly seem to deem it a form of “working as intended,” since they’ve done nothing to stop or alter it. And some of the publicity around the 305,000+ thread must indeed make them pretty pleased with themselves. As though an entity like Facebook could have a monolithic opinion like that. Perhaps they have endless boardroom debates about whether or not they should cap the number of comments. Which raises another interesting question I’ve always wondered about, which is why there is no limit on comment length when there’s a rather draconian limit on status lengths, one that I routinely (about 1/5 times I try to post a status) trip over. And then they prompt you to write a note, which basically, formatted the way they are in Facebook, has a big sign on it that says “Irrelevant!”. In any event, it seems bizarre that they would cap that and pretty much nothing else. Do they fear some massive escalation prompted by 850-word status updates that prolongs everything else. But why wouldn’t they want that? Of course, I don’t know for a fact there’s no cap on comment characters, though I’m likely to find out at this rate. It could be that what I’m writing right now is not actually being published and has to be broken into a (heaven forbid!) second comment. It’s like a Schrodinger’s cat problem (oh God, I mentioned cats in this thread), whether the cat’s in the box or not. Is this sentence in the original comment as intended or not? I won’t know until I press enter. But I guess you could say “I’m doing it wrong” with this comment, if the point is to extend the number of comments to our ultimate, if dubious, glory. Of course it’s tremendously silly to start doing things like Adam did last night, posting one letter at a time, but mostly because that limits or eliminates discourse altogether. Which prompts the ultimate question, the one that most of you must be asking yourself right now (as though you’ve actually read this mono-paragraph all the way through, though I suppose you might have, and I maybe suggest you copy/paste into Word and insert line-breaks at sentences for added clarity, because this is a lousy way to read), which is, of course, what was it about this post and this series of early comments last night that was able to produce the maelstrom when most of these threads die out after a (relatively!) merciful 30-50 comments? There was a thread about Waffle House a few weeks ago that crossed triple-digits and I recall thinking a comment-thread about WikiLeaks on Reid’s wall hitting 65 comments or so was a sign of great discourse, but of course that actually had predominantly meaningful commentary and debate. It occurs to me at this point that I will be surprised if it actually accepts a comment this long. Insert sexual joke here. Ditto. But seriously. Also, naming Adam and Reid and getting the brief suggestion of tagging them from Facebook reminds me that there is a limit on number of tags in a comment or post. Which makes me wonder how they arrived at the number 6. Five seems so obvious, but 6 actually more convenient (and not just for the trivial reason that it’s +1). It makes me wonder how many things are done in pairs besides debate teams, because that’s what I find it most useful to call out, for example when Rutgers broke 3 teams at UVa. Not that I’m just gratuitously bringing that up. Or am I? In any event, I’m now torn between maxing out my six tags or leaving this as an untagged monument to “doing it wrong” in this thread. Although of course part of the magic of this thread is its lack of gratuity (hear me out) because, unlike just posting single letters repeatedly or even starting to read out of a random Dickens book like some bloated filibuster, the mysterious alchemy that can spawn a 1600+-post thread derives from its ability to entertain a large number of people for a long period of time. Which I would probably levy as a response to any people coming to harshly critique the alleged gratuity of this endeavor. After all, can you really say this thread is less valuable than time spent watching a TV show or, indeed (to reference my own activity last night), a baseball game? Certainly it’s interactive and lively. There was a palpable excitement in most, if not all, participants. A small injection of a sense of wonder. A spawning of micro-communities as people discussed entirely different things but, while they faced periodic criticism, no one was excluded from one main thread. Making it very different than forums or chatrooms designated for specific purposes to the exclusion of others. It almost gave me renewed hope for some sort of small utopian socialist community someday. At the same time, I realize that in analyzing it this deeply, one starts to kill part of the magic, as in overexplaining why a joke is funny. If people fully understood why this thread was so enthralling, it would detract from the magical nature of finding it so and thus take the sheen off the entire experience, to the extent that there is one. I recognize that some people are merely truly pained or annoyed by this, and at least a few people liked particular comments but wisely (?) restrained themselves from actually posting, lest they be besieged by notifications. It also occurs to me to wonder what the relative word-count of this comment is (gee, I sure hope they let it be just one comment and that it loads properly and stuff) to the entire thread before it. Even I, on a morning where I eventually have to go to work, don’t aspire to write a piece longer than the original work which I am appending, though it would be an incredibly commentary to do so. I will have to settle for merely having at least one word for every comment made prior, although I have no idea where I am relative to such a goal. This comment now takes up over six full lines when pasted into Notepad, which forces line-breaks after only a very long time. I know this because I have dealt with computers frequently and pasting into Notepad and periodically saving is a necessary adaptation (take note, kids!) to a world where certain web applications can crash at any moment and working this long on something to find it go up in smoke is one of the most heartbreaking experiences one can have short of, y’know, real heartbreak. Although there is something similar in each, of course, in the idea of working so hard on something or spending so much time with something/someone, only to have it come to nothing in the end, only to have loss. In both cases, there is memory, but the memory of how great something was only serves to enhance the pain of the loss. Wow, this is really similar. And I’m painting myself into a sad, sad corner. And at the beginning of the day too. I went a really long time without doing that in this comment. Although, frankly, and you can probably tell, this actually hasn’t taken that much time to write, which ought be a lesson to all of you paper-writers out there, that something of length doesn’t necessarily take much time to write as long as you feel really comfortable with your material. Although most debaters know that, I would suspect, since debating makes you a faster writer by making you think on your feet in complete and persuasive sentences. Microsoft Word has me at 1,439 words prior to the beginning of this sentence here, which actually surprises me as being a little shorter than I would’ve expected, but so it goes. Guys, I had dreams about this comment thread last night and awoke to think they were more surreal than most of the dreams I have about things which are not actually things. At this point, my computer is really laboring through the process of processing this comment and I’ve probably said most of what I want to say, but I’ve pretty much set an explicit bar for myself of exceeding the number of comments prior with words herein, so it’s pretty much you and me and my recognition that I have to get there at this point, if you are still reading, which I would have doubted prior to the comment thread which inspired this post here, but of course the rules seem somehow changed by this whole thing and in the context of this whole thing. Which says something, at the least, about human adaptability. I almost feel as though I could challenge someone to do anything or virtually anything in this comment thread and people would pool resources and unite in order to rise to the occasion. Possibly ironic use of the word “rise” there, though it calls to mind pole-vaulting or similar, wherein even if what you’re doing is sort of needless and silly, it still has meteoric value as a testament to human endeavor and triumph. I mean, what skill could pole vaulting possibly demonstrate other than sheer human ability to do mind-boggling stuff? And do you ever think about what we recognize as tremendous and what we don’t have a way of recognizing and how trivial the differences are between those things? I know this is going to bother those of you still clinging to capitalism and arguments that the market solve, but there really is no correlation (or little, I would definitely posit) between work and reward, between impressiveness of a feat and structures to recognize that feat. How someone out there is the most talented person at a sport not yet invented (let’s say Calvinball for the sake of argument/illustration), but they will never get to rise above janitor or truck-driver (no offense, Ashley) because no structures are in place to acknowledge their skill, and so they will struggle their whole life with drugs and depression and loneliness because society has arbitrarily deemed them to be unsuccessful. Whereas, on the other hand, a great success in football or basketball in baseball can thrive in a sport invented and earn almost unfathomable amounts of money, power, prestige, and notoriety, living as a veritable modern king in our society. Yes, a certain athletic prowess is certainly translatable from one sport to another, but let me at least tell you a story about this to illustrate my argument. I used to live in Oregon and they are quite big on their recycling there and were a forerunner of recycling/deposit incentives and one day I went with my Dad to a recycling center in a grocery store and we had bags and bags of cans and bottles and jumbled recyclables and we handed them over for our deposit and the kid there (he was maybe 17 or 19 or something) took the bag and sorted it like some dervishing Hindu god, just all arms flying and spinning and never placing a can or bottle or green bottle or plastic bottle wrong, boom, boom, boom, boom, the whole thing was over in a matter of seconds and I was floored by the sheer talent this kid had for seamlessly, efficiently, instantly sorting recyclable items. And then something occurred to me almost immediately, it being obvious in front of me, and I said to my Dad that this was an impressive skill which our society was not in any way designed to appropriately recognize or compensate. For, almost paradoxically, if it were, this kid could not be here in a lowly rural part of Oregon sorting 5-cent recyclables. So walk not from this comment thinking that we are at the terminal point of our understanding of anything, be it radiation and cell-phones or how to structure a society. Or, indeed, how to prolong a Facebook thread. There is much to be learned in the future and I am excited to see what happens next with all of you alongside.
Postscript: Apparently the cap is 8,000 characters for a comment. Where they came up with that, I have no idea, but I doubt they expected someone to test it that often. It does also renew my wonder at the fact that they haven’t capped threads themselves, but that discussion remains for another time (or perhaps for all-time).
It’s been really hard to breathe lately. Maybe I need to do more yoga. Maybe I just need to swallow my pride already. Maybe there are no right answers, like Rabbit surmises in the comic below, only a vague attempt to avoid the skyward pianos that loom and always threaten to fall.
I’m going to DC this weekend. Hanging out at Brandzy’s place, though I won’t see him much. Talking to high school debaters at Nationals about our upcoming Camp, our debate program for any potential Rutgers prospects. Getting a bit more familiar with Public Forum debate.
I went to the Allison Weiss show in Princeton on Wednesday. It was quite awesome, a much better sampling of her in her element than the prior show in New York. She asked for requests and I called one out (July 25, 2007) and she played it when she said it wasn’t on the setlist and used this to encourage more requests. I bought a dinosaur T-shirt from her after the show. She played all the songs I wanted to hear, plus a new one, penultimately, that broke my heart. It’s called “I’ll Be OK”. I’m not so sure.
There’s something about short, direct, declarative sentences that feels like control. It’s probably very different than how I usually feel, the rambly arcs of poetic lyrical interpretability. How much of all this is about control? Pride or control? How much of self-preservation requires those elements? How much do I care?
Yesterday I got a brief vision of a possible summer plan with the laptop-based webcam capturing me telling stream-of-consciousness stories while I drove across the country. Little video postcards of life on the road, free, carefree, hopeful. It doesn’t feel real. It feels like a clown suit I’m trying to want to put on. I don’t know how to pretend to want things that are different than everything I always tried to want.
Everything is harder since I tried to take control.
Allison Weiss at Small World Coffee
25 May 2011
I Don’t Want to Be Here
I Was an Island
July 25, 2007
Try to Understand
You + Me + Alcohol
Wait for Me
Let Me Go
I’ll Be OK
It’s easy to forget what this year was supposed to be about. I don’t even mean all that long ago, before my life caved in and I was left staring at the daily wreckage of my own dreams. I mean after that, but still before now, when I was going to be finishing a book, my fourth novel, in five days.
I last worked on it on 7 February 2011, an overcold day that I spent writing fiction outside of my place of residence for the first time in many years, then talked on the phone to Ariel, then came home and wrote this post and then wound up tabling the project until, apparently, now or even later than now. That was three months ago. The project’s sum total, aside from a pretty thorough and still salvageable outline, stands at 2,433 words. Less than ten pages, generously. The size of a half term paper I used to crank out in a handful of hours before the deadline to convince my professor I was from wherever I was writing about.
I mean, there were other things that happened on the way to today, many of them halfway good. There was that whole job thing that came along just about after, whisking me away from a future in Seattle or Denver or Flagstaff and pulling me in, not unlike a friendly but still somewhat menacing giant anemone, ensconcing me in New Jersey with the promise of a career that was neither writing nor in conflict with my principles and artistic desires. Slowly gnawing on my nutrients while I got numb and placid and malleable and basked in the warmth of something like community before awaking on the rocky shores this May, behind on creativity and with the tidewaters of that community pulling away and out to sea without me. This is water, as good old DFW would say. And you only know it when you’re out of it, for good or for ill.
The Pale King is searingly brilliant, by the way, a 500+-page suicide note that I’m already in love with a fifth of the way through. It’s brilliant like a made-for-TV knife, like a whole novel of nothing but Tim O’Brien water buffalo in unending agonizing parade to their slow demise. It’s improved my quality of life twenty points in two days, single-handedly, if only be reawakening the slumbering knowledge deep within me of the importance of Project X. Its similarities to same are also somewhat troubling, at least in spirit, and it occurs to me that X could be a suicide note if it had to be, probably best reads that way as fiction even if that’s not its purpose in the corporeal world per se.
I draft ten notes a day, mostly addressed to the person I have decided to no longer address, of course, though it’s probably inevitable that she reads this blog (unless she’s really that disconnected, but then again she gets bored very easily and quickly became addicted to things like Facebook and the Internet for their absorbing, time-wasting capabilities, so) and thus even the people I “cut off communication from” (one, to date), are never really out of touch. With me. If. Yeah. I’m going to stop now. And reset.
The point is, simply, that I think a lot about death, in sort of the way normal people (as far as I can tell) think about food. Savoring different textures and anticipating certain flavors. Imagining different layouts and menus. It is not unwelcome, though it is probably less welcome than the average perception of food, it carries some of the same craving without the visceral desire. It is important, sometimes, for me to flag for people that I will not be terribly sad if it happens, even very soon. Which is not to say that I’m willing it and it is important that I not will it for the sake of all you dearly beloved readers and friends who I am truly well aware want the best for me. It is also important that you not respond to the sentence prior to the last one with some snide quirky neo-atheistic response about me not being able to be sad because I’d be dead and the whole point would be to feel nothing. It’s not exactly how it works and even if it were, it would still matter differently. Either you follow or you don’t. The point is, and this is the bottom line, it is no great loss if I go in this condition. There is something to be said for going out on a low note, when one is not missing much.
I bring this up not because I’m on the precipice of something drastic – indeed, I probably spend less time worrying about it than I have in a while – but because I am starting to formulate plans around spending a lot of time on the road this summer. And the road is a dangerous place – far more dangerous than the head of the truly suicidal, let alone something nice and safe like a plane or a ghetto. And in spending a lot of time considering mortality, one can stave it off with the import of writing a note first, then a lengthy note, then perhaps a whole manifesto about life that is long and exhaustive and exhausting and before too long, it’s time for sleep instead of death and the whole discussion can be tabled for another night.
Except here’s the problem: we often never get around to writing that thing, whatever it is, and then we wind up in a three-car chaos outside of Tulsa some night or succumbing to a clot or an aneurysm that no one thought to look for and suddenly the thing that reassured us about staying alive is still left unfinished and makes the whole operation of dying, after all, sad and wasteful. Which is not to turn this into the typical trite “make haste to live” or the deadly “live each day as if it were your last” (not that there is not value to such positions, in part), but rather to observe that those things bear writing when one has the time and, indeed, even the circumspection to perhaps not be all so mopey about the end of living on this planet.
It’s like this: My debate team went to Columbia a week or two ago to renew the old King’s/Queen’s Debate tradition from centuries ago and they hit this case about letting prisoners go if the law they were imprisoned under was repealed. Makes sense, intuitive, fun for discourse, the whole nine. But the team mounted a mighty opp based on the idea that parole boards ought decide when people are ready to reintegrate into society – that blanket amnesty is bad, but the parsing and sorting of parole boards can maximize the chance that those returning to society are healthy and happy and ready to participate. But of course Columbia ultimately won that argument by observing quite simply that this is not our modern standard – parole boards are not invoked at the end of every term in prison, but only periodically and selectively for early release.
Which is to say that a great writing project, a suicide note if you will (regardless of self-infliction, mind), is like a parole board for life. We ought not be let out without taking the time to reflect. Not only does this dovetail quite obviously with my own theological presumptions about a time of review and reflection between worlds (some day that will be set down, but I have confidence enough of you know what I’m talking about that I don’t have to explicate further at risk of this being part of the whole missing piece I’m trying to avoid), but it’s just a good standard. So if you catch yourself feeling okay with death, maybe it’s time to start contributing the last great statement (and yours may not involve words – perhaps you prefer sculpture or interpretive dance) just in case. And if you like life more, well all the more reason to hedge just in case, to indent the sting of potential calamitous tragedy with pre-emptive safekeeping.
And so, with that, it may be time to set a new deadline for good old Project X. Realistically it can’t be before the summer travel, starting to take shape between the 24ths of June and July, but it can be soon enough that each year since I got serious about this aspect of my life again will contribute one book to the stack of those waiting to find traction in the greater mind at large. And writing books for the aspiring author is probably a lot like having children for the aspiring Major League dad. Sooner or later, one of them’s gotta be able to play ball.
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.
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.
Mariners’ record this year: 2-2
Mariners’ record this year with me watching: 0-2
Mariners’ record this year without me watching: 2-0
I might want to keep track of this over the course of a season, but it might be too depressing. There’s something very 2010-feeling about the above statistics, making the whole thing seem retrograde and unfortunate. I’m still getting mail from the Law Office of Trudi G. Manfredo, slowly training me to not let my heart leap when I see a large envelope or package waiting for me by the mailbox. No wonder so many adults used to hate getting mail. No wonder people have so robustly embraced e-mail and the postal service is having to run pyramid schemes to stay afloat.
Dissolution. There’s an apt word for you. The solution is getting dissed. Amen.
Got my copy of The Pale King today, the first new book I’ve let myself purchase since I started getting mail from Trudi. I am palpably excited about it, despite the fact that I know it won’t finish, perhaps especially because, since David Foster Wallace’s books never really finish and often almost die mid-sentence. They are about the journey and the exploration and in this case, about the descent into madness that accompanies a final chapter, a final submission, the narrative into suicide. Which is not to say, of course, that this book killed him, but it probably didn’t help. Electro-convulsive therapy is what killed him, of course, which I’ve discussed before. I’m now faced with a dilemma about abandoning or suspending my progress through Underworld to pick up the new tome, which feels somewhat compelling because my interest in DeLillo only came from running out of Wallace to read. However, there’s something to be said for savoring and delaying things, especially when they are the last of things. Once I get through The Pale King, there will be no more Wallace fiction in this lifetime.
What of apprehension, then, of surprise, of anticipation, of expectation? I have been on a new mantra lately, a big kick, something that stems from my interactions with Trudi and friends, yes, but also a longer scope of life writ large. It’s that what we can see coming is never that scary. Dental visits, deadlines, interviews, departures. We build them up in our minds to be cataclysmic moments of potential doom, but rarely does the actual moment even push the meter of our stress levels. They may not always be pleasant, may not always turn out, but not a one of them ranks as the top fifty worst days of any of our lives. It’s the surprises that count against us, the things we don’t see coming, the car accidents and sudden deaths and blindsidings and phone calls in the dead of night. There’s some relaxation and sobriety to be gained from all this, and I’m not even certain the sum of the information is reassuring. On the one hand, we’d be well served by just calming down about everything we dread. On the other, we must constantly look skyward in a more overarching dread for the calamities which may fall therefrom.
Of course the nature of surprise is that it can’t be anticipated, so the idea of this creating an overall aura of creeping dread seems silly in some ways. One could ruin every day one has remaining caught up in negative anticipation of death and I know many who do it (or would, or start whenever they come close). Some people even mistake my own hyper-awareness of mortality for this, though it’s actually the opposite – it’s a comfort with the concept designed to fuel energy into the living days, not a draining dread instead. (Incidentally, I know I keep overusing the word “dread” instead of synonyms, but it’s to hammer it home… and isn’t there an onomatopoetic beauty to the word? Does anything sound like “dread” so much as that solemn dead syllable itself?) No wonder we love surprise parties and surprise gifts and surprise whirlwind trips to the Bahamas. It corrects our vision of where the badness comes from, reminds us that positives can come from traditionally negative sources. That the clear blue sky is not just waiting to kill us, but perhaps also to elate us, that the random cacophony of wills involved in shaping our world can be on our side as well. No wonder I chose to delay telling the Rutgers team some particularly excellent news I have for them tonight so they could savor the nature of positive anticipation as well, so they could suspend their lack of faith in the notion of surprise.
Of course this last is a dual-sided sword, for in having time to anticipate so-called surprises, there is the inevitable churn of disappointment that correlates quite cleanly to the relief of surviving dreaded events. How many Christmases, birthdays, long-planned dates lived up to the expectation, the savory sweetness of mental pre-hyperbole? If someone tells you to go into a room and imagine the best thing you can, what are the odds of that getting exceeded? We are an imaginative species and capitalism trains us to be disappointed with whatever we actually have available to us in the face of what we could have. This is why we are so unhappy as a society. This is why we have drug and alcohol problems. This is why, yes, marriages so often dissolve into mailed paperwork as a replacement for one-time dreams. Reality is almost always short of our expectations, our best hopes. And it is all too easy to trade in reality for a lottery ticket, literal or figurative, suspending the idea that one’s chronic disappointment is a product of the very nature of expectation itself rather than merely unlucky circumstances that could hypothetically be changed. All too often, the unhappiest people learn far too late that it is their mindset, not their means, that have led them to disappointment.
My creative pursuits have found massive suspension against the backdrop of unexpected employment and intensified responsibility. The May 15th deadline for the fourth novel is entirely laughable at this juncture, long ago mentally erased if not literally so on my year-long plastic wall calendar. The summer arises as a possible boon to the creative and imaginative pursuits, a resurrection of quizzes and novels and the things I spend my life promising myself to do while usually getting caught up in more directly personable and interactive pursuits. Is it against my nature to sequester and write, to scribble and shun in order to communicate in a wider, broader, more explicable way? Should I be more comfortable with the 1-on-1, the 1-on-10, the small-scale but somehow attainable pursuits of change? Is this my true calling, in spite of what my ten-year-old self concluded? My ten-year-old self was sick of people, felt rejected and isolated. Every year since, with only romantic exceptions, I’ve felt more welcomed and included and inspired by the people in my life. Perhaps it is there, in iteration and not stagnant text, that I have the most to offer. Or perhaps it is a balance, as feedback rolls in from the prior two tomes of my own, perhaps there is something quality in scaling these pursuits against each other, in alternation, in the much vaunted middle ground.
I can’t even update Duck and Cover on a regular basis these days, it seems… today all but destined to be another gap in the already reduced weekday schedule. Part of this is a logistical paper problem – I’ve worn out the month of Oscar themes, but need some supplies to rejoin the regular tread of the other eleven months. Of course I feel an additional disconnect when facing the political world, however, namely an inability to relate to the events of the world around me. The US has become a hyper-militaristic state, never flinching from a conflict where anonymous bombing can destroy buildings, lives, and morality. And all the people I warned about Obama starting a war, I wrangled with about his Afghanistan comments and said he would find countries to invade in his tenure, that it’s become almost required action from each Presidential term, they can’t wait to sign up as being “in” on the Obama campaign on Facebook, can’t wait to commit to four more years of death by sky. There are no Democratic or Republican ideals, there is only a commitment to big business, big war, big money, big death. This is America’s role and influence on the world and the only hope is that someone eventually gets sick of it. But it won’t come from within, that’s increasingly clear. The next generation has been co-opted, far too susceptible to the idea that whoever America replaces bad leaders with will be better even in the face of plethoric counter-evidence everywhere in the world. The simple notion that killing can lead to progress has done more harm than any other single concept, and yet it remains close to its most pervasive at this very moment in history. Six-thousand years, no real progress. Just flashy machines and technological advancements to bring us our books from far away, our mail from law offices, our bodies to one continent or another, while our minds and emotions fail to keep up.
It’s no coincidence that the most satisfying aspects of our lives are the most ancient. Yoga, oral discussion, the warm feeling of connection to another human soul. It is at our most rooted that we are the most secure, happy, able to trust and hope. Put away the phone, unless it is really helping you communicate directly and robustly. Put away the screens, the bells, the whistles. Sit. Think. Read, maybe, or maybe just talk, even to yourself. The core of our experiences are no different than they were 6,000 years ago, or maybe longer. The best hope for progress may, in fact, be regress.
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.
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.
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.
Truly random musings, because it’s that kind of day and I’m in that kind of mood:
1. Life is a lot better when one isn’t in chronic tooth pain.
2. I’m really wildly excited about our tournament, now just nine days away. You should check out how much fun we’re having with our theme.
3. Yoga can be quite painful, especially for one’s head/neck. I am not trying to play with headstands any more.
4. In related news, I think there’s something wrong with my system when it’s held upside-down. I’ve always hated upside-down roller-coasters and last night my head felt much like it does after going on one. This may be related to migraines or just having a thin skull or something.
5. Baseball season is likely to increase quality of life soon. At least, until the M’s are 20 below .500, which will probably be about late May or mid-June.
6. I have/get to spend the weekend on the Princeton campus. This should be… interesting.
7. Computers seem to corrode my discipline. Showers enhance it. Food is a crapshoot.
8. I need to find a place to feed ducks regularly when spring comes. This is one of those random little aspects of life, like having an armchair or burning candles regularly or talking to people more, that is really easy to do and really ups my attitude about everything. I think at the end of life, it’s easy to ask why we didn’t fill our days with more tiny little enjoyable activities.
9. Most things seem worse in advance than they actually are. This should be the basis for fearlessness, especially in accumulation. Look back on all the things you dreaded and got through. Is life really worth dreading?
10. I think whenever I next get a pet, which could be years from now, it will be a rabbit. Preferably an English Spot:
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:
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.
There are a lot of metaphors out there about the pyrrhic challenges of wrestling the proverbial bear. But I think I prefer a metaphor involving wrestling a shark. For one, the shark is virtually limbless, so I like the visage of trying to pin something which lacks any particularly vulnerable appendages to target. And yet no one can deny the inimitable strength of sharks, their cunning, their strategic power. I picture this match taking place in some sort of shallows, an inlet or even on the beach with the tide coming in, where the shark cannot merely dominate with its superior speed and swimming and yet is vaguely undefeatable in its sheer size, strength, and will.
Artist’s rendering of a hypothetical battle between Storey and shark.
I’ve never been one of those writers who feels he’s really suffering for his art. Suffering when unable to produce it, sure, but that’s only come from the demands of day jobs and other mundane clutter, or from a lack of personal discipline and will. While both of these have plagued me greatly over the past decade, I’ve also produced three novels in the last ten years, all written in a combined span of less than one year of actual calendar time. What that tells us is several things: one, that these issues of avoiding clutter and undisciplined time are key, but also two, the actual writing process must not be that taxing when it’s flowing and going. Each of these books, save maybe the last, has felt like a referendum on my ability to keep writing. The last felt like I had already gotten over such concerns and was now just grinding things out.
Grinding may be the wrong word. Churning? Producing. Not like it had quite become industrial or formulaic, but like the process itself was no longer getting in the way of the writing. People long taught to dread the writing process by their educational system, to equate writing with drudgery and chore and other people’s expectations, these folks take an incredibly long time to unlearn the mundane trappings of writing and just let go and enjoy it. Most people, frankly, never get beyond seeing writing as an obstacle to be overcome. Blogging helps, I think, as does any kind of freely chosen writing, any amalgamation of words of one’s own volition. It probably took me till The Best of All Possible Worlds before I really felt that I was finally free of all the overwrought inertia of dreading writing on some fundamental core level, was free to just write and love the cascade of words and the process of stringing them together. It was a long time coming. But it also signified that a process already more fun than most saw it as had finally melded into the unbridled art that it was supposed to be.
So while it’s trendy to talk about writhing in the torments of the art that must somehow wriggle its way from one’s mind like a child escaping an unyielding womb, I’ve never related to that. Until, that is, now.
There’s a combination of factors in play here. One, of course, is the nature of Project X itself, which I’ll not be discussing in detail (or, indeed, at all) here for some time, if ever. Does that tantalize you more that my project is under wraps? It shouldn’t. My projects are always very secretive, but this one in particular just doesn’t lend itself to any sort of exposition before the fact. In any event, writing it prompts the surfacing of all those tropes about tortured artists and their incredible throes of agony as they attempt to bleed verbiage onto the blank page. This time, it’s real.
But even that doesn’t quite seem fitting. That would be more like getting eaten by a shark. Which, it must be noted, is a possible (though improbable) outcome of wrestling said beast. But this – I dunno. It’s like there’s this dead weight of killing-oriented flesh flailing around on the still saturated beachhead and I have to get it to surrender. And sharks don’t surrender. They don’t comprehend the concept, couldn’t imagine what it would be like to concede, were they even capable of language, let alone bending their flippers and fins into some semblance of acquiescence. Sharks are heavy and immobile and stubborn as hell and if you make any mistakes with them, you lose at least a few fingers, if not your whole head. So this project, especially in light of else in my life, the timing and the perspective, this is shark-wrestling at its gritty finest.
Which reminds me, with a nod of the cap to the Brandeis debate team, that if I were into possessions or ownership and were not actually contemplating creating a bonfire out of all my worldly goods if and when I move this summer, I would totally be coveting this:
Yeah, it’s a shark sleeping bag. Not only would I guarantee exactly which kinds of nightmares I’d get the night I snuggled up into it, but I could practice literal shark-wrestling to my heart’s content. And, uh, freak out the roommates of debate hosts who stumble in drunk well after we fall asleep, only to discover that their room has borne witness to the first-ever third-floor shark attack.
But at this point, it would just have to go in the bonfire with everything else. Don’t ask me how serious I am about such a purge, because I’m not quite sure yet. But it’s up for consideration. The thought of moving west feels like freedom – the thought of bringing stuff along feels like imprisonment. You can do the math. Maybe there’s no better way to pretend to have been reborn than a trial by fire. Hopefully one of the few survivors of such a charring, if applicable, will be a newly completed fourth novel.
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 creation of some sort of winter theme has become almost as much of a staple on my blogs as the annual takeover by the ghosts and squash of Halloween. I like its colors, I like its feel and texture, I like having something that matches the exterior display of snow and now sleety slush that has been collected on my front yard just outside the office window.
I particularly like this year’s entry: that the titles are foggy and almost hard to discern against the backdrop of leafless trees and oversnowed shrubbery. The centerpiece here is Old Queen’s, the revered elder statesbuilding on campus that we’ve scored as the epicenter of our tournament in somewhat of coup that, once again, reflects Rutgers acknowledging debate as perhaps its foremost intercollegiate team. The tournament’s just over a month away already, a more valued spot on the schedule reflecting APDA’s recognition of our improved place in the world.
I toyed with the idea of trying to jumble together all the possible imagery of this time on a muddled canvas that might wholly embody the tangle of my mental frame at this juncture. A tunnel, a stack of books (both mine and others), a rising blue pyramid in the distance. But I like the simplicity of this more, the cold starkness of the reality. It is not a time, for better or worse, for collecting various possibilities and pulling them in. It is a time for breathing icy gusts of harsh air in, swallowing, and finding the strength to gulp again.
The air is pregnant with impending snow today, the entire high sky taking on a gray-white hue as though snow were the literal product of such a sky being chipped and chiseled into flaky falling flecks. The radar maps say it’s far away still, but the feel of a person as they walk through our three-dimensional metaphor ought outweigh any technological override. Any moment now, the clear paths and piled yards of my frigid neighborhood will find new comrades, paratrooping in to reinforce their ranks.
I’m back in Highland Park, in Jersey for the foreseeable as I try to make my resolve to improve this year a reality, struggling against the siren call of visits to grocery stores and other overlit places I only ventured to in pairs, or not at all. Each week is to be punctuated with the refuge of a debate tournament, the travel and camaraderie and distraction found therein, the opportunity (as especially this last weekend at Dartmouth) for truly elevated discourse and exploration of ideas. The community of college debaters is such a distillation of intellectual vigor and passion that I am frankly surprised more people do not find themselves gravitationally tied to it as I do. No doubt its periodic overcompetitive acrimony is a deterrent, as might be the distractions of normal life and its beckoning stress and responsibility. But given its unmatched ability to perpetuate thought in an exciting way, there’s no place I’d rather spend time and energy, at least for now.
I’m at a crossroads these next few days, determining how to approach what are likely to be my last few months in New Jersey. There’s a need to reintegrate a three-month novel project into my daily routine without it swallowing everything else whole. There’s a need to determine exactly how much unpacking I want to do for a temporary stint in this apartment, what the ratio of energy is between making things more livable here and making the move unbearable at its conclusion. There’s a need to place other orbital parts of my life in their respective aspects, to figure out where things are going and what good uses of time really are. Priorities, trade-offs, balance, perspective. Really, life is never any different than this – these are always the things one must weigh when looking at existence. It’s merely that most people are too busy to look at existence too often, while I have nothing but time.
I guess I look forward to a time when I feel too constrained by other priorities to examine my own priorities. Although I can see the drawbacks of that too, and I must be careful what I hope to see.
In the spirit of trying to get my engines revved, of trying to buck up and plow through the life-maintenance shlock that must be cleared away to get to the good (creative) stuff, in the theme of embracing a life that is controlled almost entirely by other people but can still be viewed from my own perspective, I will close with a video. It’s one I was sent about a week ago by my friend Michael, one that he said reminded him of me and I say reminds me of who I used to be, long before I ever met him. Who I must be again, or could be, or could take a couple pointers from. While we collect more information about life as it progresses, if we’re paying attention, we don’t always improve. Sometimes we go backwards, we lose vision, we lose touch with what is essential. Here’s hoping this can help you restore, as it does me, at least on the margins:
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.
Is there anything so great in this world as a shower? I doubt it. There is something ineffable about the way it focuses one’s mind and thinking, at least sometimes, that makes it the single most consistent source of inspiration, resolution, and clarity that I have access to. You want to go do a cool groundbreaking psychological study? Attach electrodes to the brain and see what channels and conduits open and close as said head is doused by hot water, shampoo, and soap. But for all the collateral electrocution, you’d come up with some pretty amazing results.
In any event, I came to Albuquerque for nigh on a month largely to get a reset on my life. To try to figure out what the swath of damage was from 2010 and to determine what, if any, resolution I could make for 2011. Not resolutions, mind you, necessarily, because although I appreciate the tradition, the whole thing is a little contrived and probably more directional than I could count on myself to be on this trip. But some kind of decision, or decisions, some kind of purpose or at least a path to try to find it.
It’s frequently been a tough trip, as I’ve found Albuquerque to be haunted by memories old and older. Much time was logged before friends arrived and their arrival has not heralded the automatic good times that such encounters used to. Which is not to say that I’ve been miserable or even largely unhappy, nor that others have made me feel that way. Much of my time here has been wonderful and I’ve found my friends and family to mostly be powerful aids in my effort to establish an interest in the future. Or at least to share a meal or a game with, even if it isn’t quite up to pre-2010 standards in my own beleaguered soul. But up until the shower this early afternoon, nothing had really resolved itself. Nothing was funneling or folding toward some purposeful outcome, let alone a set of them. I’ve read a lot, thought a lot, talked a lot, cried a lot, seen more than a few movies. All minor little influences to be sure, but it took falling water to put it all together.
How long any of this will last remains to be seen. It seems literarily contrived in the extreme that the path for the next few months snapped together like the proverbial mosaic gone groutless in the waning hours of the year, with less than twelve to go before a deliriously celebrated transition to the next. The next that, please God, has to be better than this one, though admittedly 2010 was not without accomplishments. Certainly in spite of the disastrous middle times between the accomplishments, finishing my third novel and leading Rutgers debate to a fourth ranking in the nation are not to be trifled with. Indeed, had my marriage persisted, this year could be counted perhaps among my five best, especially since that means it also would have involved our scheduled trip to Egypt. In any case, contrived-seeming or not, temporary wishful thinking or otherwise, a list of directions for the coming annum has sprung up in my head amidst the steamy confines of tile and glass block.
I present them here for the same reason that people have listed such things for time immemorial. Indeed, this blog itself could be considered one gigantic New Year’s Resolution machine, applied evenly to every day or thought or perspective to usher in the accountability and consistency required of making public declarations to any sort of audience. I can resolve to do all kinds of things every minute and the last six months have been aswirl with just that: emotional and mental lines in the sand that were constantly erased and redrawn, moved and altered, bent and broken, till all that was left was a pile of overwrought pre-glass. Now it’s time to apply some heat and pressure, to try to cobble the tiny grains of windblown wreckage into something useful, solid, even stable. Fragile and vulnerable, of course, as all glass is, but at least tangible and visible to the naked eye as something other than infinitesimal fragments.
1. I will not be seeking a part-time job upon my return to New Jersey in January.
2. Instead, I will spend that time ramping up creative pursuits of many stripes as though this time were deliberately spent away from day jobs like 2009-2010. Among these will be escalating the visibility and promotional potential of The Blue Pyramid, with new quizzes and especially the long discussed but still unfulfilled Facebook integration.
3. I will also aggressively ramp up the pursuit of representation/publication for American Dream On and The Best of All Possible Worlds.
4. Finally on this creative front, I will commence work on my fourth novel. Soon after returning to Jersey, I will set a deadline for it as with the past three novels and I will finish the book by the deadline, taking this process just as seriously as the prior ones. The novel has a working title already, but it will be known publicly as Project X for the time being.
5. I will obviously fulfill the remainder of my commitment to the Rutgers debate team, attending every tournament this year as previously planned.
6. Unless significant reasons to stay emerge, I will plan on moving West in the summer of 2011. I will spend time scouting out cities and possibilities, with few to no places in the western thirteen states ruled out. I will plan to return to conventional full-time employment for the year starting in fall 2011, possibly even multiple jobs.
7. Aside from the above, I will not put pressure on myself to do or be or pursue anything else. Which is not to say that I might not also find other uses of my time or energy, but I will keep myself from beating up on myself about any shortcomings outside of fulfillment of the above six pursuits. While I will try to stick to a budget, I will not worry about money, because this plan is financially sustainable. While I will try to volunteer some, I will not berate myself for prioritizing creative pursuits over volunteer time. While I will try to read a great deal, I will not get on my own case if I spend more time playing video games. As long as nothing else interferes with the above goals, it’s fair game.
It doesn’t look like much, now that I have it up there, and a good bit of it was probably already the gameplan in one form or another. But it feels like an incredible relief to have it up and out there, especially #7. I’ve spent enough time in the last half-year contemplating the brink of my own self-destruction that there’s simply no point in not making sweeping decisions to improve the quality and purpose of my own life. I believe that the only really fulfilling aspect of the human mind is the pursuit of creativity. The soul may be fed by love, however painful that seems to be, and even efforts to help others, which all good creative pursuits also are. But the mind requires creativity and the only thing I really value or trust about myself at this point is my mind. If I don’t focus on that, in finding my way back to feeling okay through maximizing those efforts and those pursuits at the detriment of financial concerns or emotional self-flagellation, then not only will I not make it, but there will be no point to making it. I’m in a long, ongoing argument with myself about the value of getting through this. I must arm myself with all the best reasons to go forward.
2010, no one will miss you. Please see yourself out.