Categotry Archives: The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate

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Rain on My Parade

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

When I was very young, Christmas was an exciting time. Of course it was – I was a child growing up in America and for many of the Christmases, we were not poor. For some we were, but even then there was sufficient money for new toys or games and books. I loved the colors of Christmas lights, something that flourished in college and persists about me today. I loved the delicacy and beauty of each glinting ornament, even (or especially) the ceramic dinosaur I broke in Washington DC and still feel guilt about to this moment. And I liked the religious implications too, at least for a while.

My first real encounter with the religious aspects of Christmas was the pageant at the Episcopalian church we casually attended that was associated with the school I attended well, religiously, for kindergarten and first grade. St. Paul’s Elementary in Visalia is still there today, but presumably without Father Cole and Mrs. Vickers and certainly without the wheeled TV for the Challenger explosion that changed the course of my career aspirations and provided the basis for essays that vaulted me into college. All the boys of my age (4? Maybe 5) were to be shepherds and all the girls angels. I petitioned ardently to be an angel on the basis that they were “closer to God” and “I have always associated Christmas with angels.” (Admittedly we had no shepherd ornaments I can recall, but plenty of small wooden angels.) Father Cole (never was quite clear why he went by that without being Catholic) was sufficiently impressed not only to grant my gender-bending request, but to retell the story frequently in subsequent years.

I enjoyed the role, enjoying even more my role that would become my defining experience with Christmas performances when we moved to Oregon. In late 1988, my mother wanted me to try out for a play, a musical no less, having high aspirations for her son that were left unfulfilled by his lack of instrumental talent and not even being enrolled in a choir as in DC and California before that. After a long argument, I finally acquiesced and we raced down to the Coaster Theatre to barely squeak in the door in time for the audition. In fact, it was too late and the casting directors were sitting around mulling their departed choices, but the piano player was still available to bang out the original tunes for the experimental hybrid of A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist to be staged that December. I think my mother had her eye on Tiny Tim for me, given my stature as the shortest third grader, male or female, at Gearhart Elementary, and my textbook Dickensian bowl-cut. But it was Oliver Twist, perhaps the prize role for anyone younger than Scrooge or maybe Bob Cratchit, that I landed in The Dickens Play. The directors were sufficiently impressed by my plaintive soprano that they told me I was Oliver before we even left the otherwise empty stage.

Despite my initial misgivings about the role, I never enjoyed acting so much before or since as during what proved to be two Christmas season runs as Oliver in the seaside British mash-up. I had never before held an audience in such thrall, especially given that most of my prior experiences were in minor roles in plays designed to showcase much older children. It was there that my love of performance, something that carried with me to the present day in debate, was really born, there that I first realized I could control the experience and suspension of disbelief of so many with the mere use of my voice and a few gestures. There also my love of Christmas likely crystallized at its apex, at a time when I was still devotedly Christian and found a new angle on the joy of giving when we would, per Coaster Theatre tradition, circulate still costumed and make-upped to distribute holiday cider and Christmas cookies to the just performed-to patrons. It was also an exercise in receipt as well, given that we got back in praise thrice what we handed out in festive sustenance.

I rarely think of this phase in my life – it seems so distant from what my life became. We moved from Oregon and I’ve only returned to the Coaster once, for the summer 2007 trip that marked the end of Introspection and its eventual replacement with this blog. But Christmas dredges it up occasionally, as especially does spending the Christmas season reading a book about an actor and his youthful development, which Until I Find You (in part) is. At the time, I talked about a possible future as an actor or even a singer. I made fabulous friends those two Decembers, from the girl who played Tiny Tim to all the starring adults whose lives consisted of drifting between community theater opportunities (with the exception of Scrooge, already a local celebrity who owned several area businesses and donated his grandiose humbuggery each year). The second year, 1989, there was an older schoolmate with whom I carpooled from Gearhart down to Cannon Beach – I think she played someone in the workhouse or Fagan’s gang or maybe even Scrooge’s childhood flashback squeeze – and another peer in similar roles with whom I played seemingly endless games of War backstage while we mouthed the lines to the entire rest of the play, which everyone knew by heart by the season’s end.

There I learned how to play Twenty Questions and how to fight through a sore throat or other larynx maladies to still project clearly and cogently while under the weather. I learned how disciplined people can be when magic is on the line. I learned to take things less seriously sometimes, mostly through the Wednesday-night gag-rehearsals once the play was already running, wherein people would improvise slight alterations of their lines designed to make rival actors break character in laughter. It was a community I didn’t even appreciate sufficiently till I was out of it, as is true of most every community worth being in. At least when one’s age can still be expressed with a single digit.

It was January 1990, scant days after the close of my second Dickens Play, that I first enrolled in Broadway Middle School. There were even those amongst my tormentors there who’d backdropped me in Fagan’s gang on stage, no doubt eager to relive their portrayed jealousy in a real setting. They didn’t hold the Dickens Play eleven months later, but I probably wouldn’t have had the heart for it again anyway. I’d been a little too tempest-tossed in real life to reprise the innocent wonder of Oliver as he gets bounced around his own olders and wisers. Not long after, my voice began to change and I have never once been able to sing properly since. Somehow puberty took with it my ability to carry a tune, transforming my once angelic soprano into an uncomfortable between-range effort that fails to find true notes and always sounds like I’m making fun of myself.

I didn’t give up on acting completely, though it was also in 1990 when I settled on being a writer, the first career aspiration I acquired that didn’t shake after a few years. Indeed, I drifted through minor community theater efforts for the rest of my time in Oregon, culminating with my last known role, that of the father in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Most of the humor in the play, or at least my scenes, revolved around my laid-back attitude foiling my intensely high-strung partner, the mother whose overbearing attitude leads to unending hijinks in the play. It was at the Catholic school where I spent seventh grade, Star of the Sea, and it was a fitting send-off being both a meta-play (most of it is, itself, about a play) and of course, about Christmas.

Somehow when I moved to Albuquerque, the acting bug had unbitten me. I took some theater classes, but most of my interest was from the creation end of the script, not its fulfillment. This of course culminated in writing the one-act Before They’re Allowed to Be Free, performed under co-direction with Fish twice to ultimately depressed audiences. This somehow was the last time I set foot in a theater to do something other than merely watch. It occurs to me that acting, like writing, is something one need not start young or succeed at young in order to do for the long-term. It has probably never occurred to me until the last couple days that I could just start this back up again. Sure, as a hobby at first, or maybe forever, but it’s something I loved and dearly miss. I think debate replaced it somehow, the performative and persuasive aspects finding coincidence in both events, but the intellectual leverage and lack of repetition (let alone face-painting) winning the day for the overtly competitive speaking. The competition probably didn’t hurt, either. One doesn’t exactly win in the theater, only run the risk of losing.

What this post was going to be about initially, somewhere a thousand words ago or so, was the other Christmas tradition I picked up, the only one that stuck from New Mexico and still sticks, in New Mexico, to this day. I parted ways with Christianity at the Catholic school, finding myself intimidated and even frightened by the historical behemoths of said faith in my new state when we moved here shortly thereafter. I couldn’t get over the cross as a figure of execution, the deification of Jesus as a misinterpretation of his very egalitarian and humanizing underlying message. Because of other religious experiences at Star of the Sea, I remained (as I do even now) inextricably faithful to God as a concept, but Christmas lost most of its force when the much-altered story of the birth of a good man no longer carried the significance of God’s one sacrifice to try to save us all. I don’t mean to get lost in parsing what I do and don’t believe from now until Christmas actually dawns this year, but it should be easy to see why the fall of Decembrist mythology carried with it a reduction in excitement about its 25th day.

Luminarias, however, recaptured my imagination. Like so many New Mexico traditions, including the Frontier and probably even green chile, I didn’t discover lumis at all until I’d been here a few years. I resisted assimilation into the local culture for a while, or maybe I was just really isolated. But once I started making luminarias, in mid-to-late high-school, I never wanted to stop. And each subsequent year, I’ve discussed breaking the personal record, expanding locations for the candlelit bags to glow, and part of this has always relied on the idea of actually laying out some lumis on the 23rd.

Though I’ve discussed this frequently, luminarias, in short, are a tradition on Christmas Eve designed to commemorate Mary & Joseph’s legendary search for a labor-friendly place of lodging. While there was famously no room at the inn, these humble sandwich bags of sand and a single lit candle each are meant to light the way of said couple along the walkways and up to the doorways of every participating home, as though to rewrite history and offer every house as the birthplace of a wayward child. It’s a beautiful custom, not just in the actual manifest visuals of breathtaking simplicity and charm, but in the retelling of the old story, in the offering up of hope and light and hearth to those who’ve lost their way or run into a patch of bad times. It still defies imagination that there are Christians of any stripe who believe in capitalism.

This year was that year, finally, when I had enough time in Albuquerque beforehand and enough planning to actually get everything ready to start laying out bags on the 23rd. Today. There was a bit of morning rain and we attended the funeral of a neighbor of my parents whose windblown display of lumis I helped salvage the winter of 2007. Like so many important ceremonies of our culture, it was hollow and empty, strangers to the deceased trying to proxy themselves into understanding her wishes and hopes with overused verses and platitudes. Despite the disappointment of the occasion, I was heartened later when the sun emerged and appeared triumphant, salvaging the day for layout.

It was after I got about 200 or so of the slated 610 for display settled in place, candlewicks erect and centered within each bag, that the raindrops returned. And they’ve persisted since, mangling bags and soiling sand and probably combining with wind to topple some of the display altogether. I won’t be able to survey the full extent of the damage until tomorrow morning, when I alight as per usual with dawn not only to lay out the arrangement but, this year, to repair the head-start I thought I’d gotten on the 24th.

We can’t outsmart the weather or the calendar. We can’t predict anything – this year appears perpetually determined to illustrate that for me. No matter what the script says, how many times we read through it and make alterations or amendments, what we’re doing on this planet is almost entirely improv. And everyone else, be they people or God or forces of nature, they’re improvising too. Maybe debate is a more fitting activity for these lessons of life than stage plays, since they better prepare one for the unpredictable twists and turns of existence, to say nothing of their often adversarial nature. At the same time, perhaps there’s more beauty in the theater, for, like any tradition, the order and predictability of the layout provides its own form of comfort. We love our old stories, be they of Jesus or Oliver or Tiny Tim, in no small part because they are so familiar and worn and we can find small differences in the nuances of one retelling or another.

In some form or another, I guess I have more stories yet to tell, be they old or invented. But for now, I have to get 200 new bags and start folding all over again, hoping all the while for dry skies and wet eyes on the morrow.

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The UMBC Redemption

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

The 2002 American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA) National Championship at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) was one of the great highs and lows of my life. It marked the culmination of my competitive debate career and a turning point in my relationship with the woman who would become my (first) wife. It would long be remembered as my favorite weekend of debate despite becoming a crippling and embittering disappointment in terms of my actual debate performance. And in light of events of this year, the whole event would retroactively transform into a debacle, with the one grand saving moment of both the weekend and my life (perhaps the best story about me that exists) becoming yet another tired tragedy in a litany of a lifetime of mistakes.

The tournament got off to a great start, long before the tournament itself. Brandeis was in the habit of renting a team van to attend the National Championship, a tradition I believe started by our coach Greg once we got in the habit of qualifying teams for Nationals. While we were heavily laden with the teams who’d qualled and our additional free seed, a number of judges were also along for the ride, mostly younger debaters who’d just missed as part of a year I spent seemingly dropping semifinals by one ballot almost every weekend. These included close friend Nikki, who was the only person in the world fully informed about my personal intentions for the weekend after a late-night post-practice conversation about where I saw my life going. And then someone went and suggested that they braid my hair.

I’d had my hair braided a couple times before, most notably at the Senior Retreat in high school, a weekend I’ve long remembered as the lowest point in my life after the age of ten and perhaps the saddest I’ve ever grappled with being until 2010. It’s always been an amateur effort by a group of bored girls, though I usually really enjoy the look and feel of the results, at least until my head starts itching a few days in. For this tournament, there was something particularly important about taking up the spontaneous offer of hair-braiding – I’d always wanted to attend a tournament with my hair in braids and there was something about the freeing nature of doing something so unconventional and even bizarre in the most important, serious, and ultimate tournament I’d ever faced that felt like a necessary rite. I remember the bewildered looks of many rival debaters as I entered the halls, debaters who expected me to be one of the contenders for the Championship, wondering why I’d decided to go off the deep end at such a pivotal time.

Thanks to the power of photography and preservation, you don’t have to take my words for it:

My recall for the round-by-round progress of that tournament is uncanny to this day. I would mentally replay the competitions and speeches on lonely train rides and in late-hour contemplation, in downtime at numerous jobs and drives. First round against Yale novices, Korn and Bendor (the former of whom went on to become an APDA President and help me run the 2007 Vassar Nationals five years later), and they ran a case against civil disobedience. Phil Folkemer of Maryland judging. The goofy grins that Tirrell and I exchanged when they read the case statement, the flawless opportunity it gave me to wax eloquent on my personally favorite topics. Round two, judged by an UMBC dino who seemed twice my age, removed his shoes, but still looked askance at my wild and unkempt ‘do. Hitting Joe Ross and his partner, the same Joe I’d met at the debate camp I hadn’t wanted to attend in the summer of ’97, the same place I’d met Kate who was directing that selfsame tournament, the camp that seemed to all but save my life at the time from the bottomless rabbit hole I was dropping down. Joe who was dating my girlfriend’s best friend and debate partner, the concentric circles of a nine-year debate career looping and spilling, combining and recombining into an effortless beautiful confused mosaic. We ran the Professor case, our classic first-rounder, cruised easily into a 2-0 record despite the judge’s possible misgivings about my reckless youth.

Just two rounds on Friday for a title tournament, then gearing up for the next day. The irony of talking briefly about the Lottery case, the one we’d prepped for Emily and Lauren just in case, given that they were perhaps the only opp team we fully respected at the contest. Emily asking me how to opp the case idly on our way into the tournament together. My joke, my mysterious smile: “Well I’m not going to tell you that now.” A dead giveaway of what we’d run when, horror of horrors, they posted round three and we were in fact Gov against Princeton CG.

The round that became unfortunately ugly, Lauren and Drew getting fiercely competitive as Em was upset about our case choice and I was just trying to enjoy my last round running my favorite case. Speeches going well over time, getting docked for scores apparently already suffering, and then the realization going into round four that we’d just put my girlfriend on the brink of elimination from Nationals, which was (as was the general tradition, the prior year excepted) breaking only to quarterfinals. And both our teams, speaks tanked, hitting our two respective least favorite teams. Me squaring off against the President of APDA, a fierce rival of both Emily’s and mine. Emily against Yale’s top team of juniors, the same group who’d gotten her to unknowingly prep against me at Worlds and then bragged to the whole American contingent about throwing a wedge in our relationship.

And then the judging debacles ensued, a mad scramble of scratched and ineligible judges leading to a sophomore panel for Emily’s round and our round being judged by an ex of mine, another Florida high school debater, more circles spinning and spinning around this epic series of events. To top it off, the Columbia rivals chose to run a case I’d already hit, no less when debating with Kate for our first time ever her freshman year, one I’d long remembered for its topic being organ donation and my LOR crystallizing into themed tags about different organs, including “The Appendix: extra extraneous stuff in their case that doesn’t help”. I gave basically the same opp, basically the same LOR, and we won this time around. The MG from that team would be dead within a half-decade, but no one knew that then. He’d beaten Emily for the APDA Presidency the year before and nothing he’d done since had endeared him to either of us. Emily would spend as much of her senior speech calling him out as thanking anyone else.

On to the 4-0 round, a matchup with defending National Finalists, current Team of the Year, and future (spoiler alert!) National Champions, the other top-rated Princeton team. We had a fabulous round with them about where to try Milosevic, a case they ran and did well, though we ended up disagreeing with Steve Maloney’s call that we hadn’t carried the contest. I remember an ornery and bored-seeming younger brother of Yoni watching the round, seeming utterly disinterested in debate as he was treated to a real showcase round. The same kid would go on to debate quite ably for Yale, including a great performance in the best round I would ever judge, a match between he and his partner and a Stanford team in a bubble round at Nationals 2006.

4-1 still left us a shot at the break, though the quality of our competition was indicating to us that our speaker points must be pretty poor. Emily had already learned they’d dropped 4th round to Yale and would need a miracle to try to become the one 2-down team to break. With our points, it was utterly clear we needed to win. We were Gov against good friends and excellent opponents Raj & Phil from MIT. We had burned Lottery. It was the most important round I’d faced since National semifinals the year before. It threatened to be my last. Drew and I looked through the casefile. I almost whispered “Reparations”. He looked askance at me. We’d never run it together in competition. It was perhaps the most open case in our file. But one, like Lottery, that I really believed in. He asked if I was sure. I nodded definitively. “If this is my last round ever, this is exactly what I want to be running.”

It wasn’t our last round ever, nor as it would turn out even the last time that I’d run that case, given Emily’s and my return to APDA four years later for a one-tournament sequel. We put it all on the line for that debate, asking the US government to give $1,000,000 to every man, woman, and child born on a reservation or whose parents were. It’s the only time we ran that case without it being recorded and it was by far the best that case ever did. At one point, panicking, MIT actually suggested that we weren’t giving enough to Native Americans, that perhaps the only real apology would be actually bankrupting the United States. We won and were in, though it would take many long hours of agonizing waiting for us to learn that.

During those hours, I spoke to Emily about their chances, about how much my former teammate, the President of ‘Deis debate when I’d joined, had liked their 6th round and given them a shot to break with high points. I took the braids out of my hair in preparation for the formal banquet. I nervously contemplated my plans for said banquet, ideas I’d discussed as possible with Em at some point so as not to put her unfairly on the spot, but to still make a magic moment. My hair was curled and crinkled as we dressed in our hotel room for the pending announcement, both of us on pins and needles about all to follow that fateful night.

Off we went. The vegetarian offering was disappointing, the hotel’s standard introduction of servers a cringeworthy combination of Disney and racism. We could barely eat. The nerves and tension mounted. Lots were drawn for the order of senior speeches and Emily secured the last one of the night. I asked to trade with her. She smiled at me sideways and said okay.

The speeches rolled on, shorter than normal at the behest of UMBC who, like the Disneyesque introduction, was losing the banquet hall at midnight. I was finally called, almost over time already. Nevertheless, I proceeded with my longest speech on APDA, calling out that same President briefly before launching into an ode to the people I’d loved so dearly and competed with so fiercely for four years. I closed with two people. The first was the host of that tournament, an old and important friend from that debate camp and everything that followed. The second was Emily. I only spoke briefly of her before losing myself in emotion and noting that I had a question to ask her if she could come up to the front.

It was the second-happiest moment of my life (the happiest to that point), but somehow cannot remain so. Or maybe it will until something somehow surpasses it, something that God-willing will not fall victim to the eternal tarnish of time. It is a moment that prompts tears and breaks my heart to even begin to contemplate, one that did plenty of both at the moment. That hushed ripple of rising shock when I said that sentence still makes every nerve ending tingle. I can recall every second of that slow walk all the way from the back of the room. Everything slows to almost a standstill, then I get up, hug her, and everything goes into warp speed. A hundred congratulations, a thousand smiles. I almost didn’t notice when they announced that Brandeis CT had advanced to quarterfinals.

We were facing NYU A, including a person who, as I noted at the open of my LOC, had judged my very first APDA round ever, a contest at Columbia Novice, which Kraig and I went on to win, where I also had to LOC, this time following a 150-second PMC from Riley McCormick. She went on to get much better and I somehow scrambled about 6 and a half minutes of responses out of her barely outlined case. I remain uncertain to this day how he was qualified to judge that round and yet also had a year of eligibility left for that tournament concurrent with my own senior year, but I don’t mean to cast aspersions. I’m sure it was all above board. What happened that round, though, never seemed quite so much to me.

The auditorium was packed, a steep rising lecture hall that had clearly decided this was the quarterfinal to watch. There were some surprises in the break and a couple noticeable absences, including Emily and the same MIT team we’d edged in 6th round. It wasn’t until awards that we learned the latter was supposed to break but hadn’t due to a mathematical tabulation error. But us against NYU was a battle more predicted for semis or even later, and we had the edge on Opp. Only three judges were in the round to decide the contest.

Had there been a floor vote, we would have won by an almost 95-5 margin. But only three opinions mattered. One was clearly with us. One was against us for reasons that sounded strange, but I ultimately felt were sincere. And the tiebreaking vote was from someone who, as I flashed through my memories of his time at that tournament after the heartbreaking announcement of our 2-1 loss, I could not separate from images of our opponents. Indeed, I still have run across pictures from that tournament where he is in every car, every room, every table, every situation hanging out with our two opponents. They were the closest of friends.

Which would be somewhat acceptable had he been able to give me a coherent reason for his decision. But it rapidly became apparent he’d made no effort whatsoever to adjudicate the round at all. His flow was almost blank and he stumbled over forming the beginnings of a sentence about why he’d voted Gov. After five minutes of stammering, the judge who’d voted for us intently listening as well with increasing concern, he finally said “Look, it’s not about you guys personally.” To which I looked him straight in the eye and said “I know. It’s about them personally and that’s why this is an illegitimate decision.”

There was no recourse for the apparent travesty and I long blamed my close friend Kate for these events, at least in part, though my calling out of her tournament’s tab policies hurt her perhaps even more than I felt hurt by unfairly losing my last round ever. The ensuing conflicts led to a long-time dissolution of our friendship that we have only recently patched up, exacerbated by a series of slights and indignities that seem to mar many friendships that become infused with the heat of personal competition and ego. I handled it poorly. She made some mistakes too. These things happen between people. I am learning to try to figure out how to forgive. But there are many people in my life who I can give a second chance to, even if I don’t forgive them fully. Even if they can’t try to take that second chance.

Suddenly the tournament was a crushing failure. Yes, I was now engaged, and yes, we’d had a great run. But my debate career was suddenly over, just when I’d been preparing for semifinals as so many around me had told me how certain it was we’d dominated quarters. I couldn’t bear to watch semis, making sure to recommend that the Chicago team hitting NYU protest that judge’s empaneling before I took off for a long walk around campus. I returned for finals, featuring that same NYU team, forlornly telling some Harvard kids about the case Drew and I had prepped for National Finals while we watched a round about libertarianism instead. They promptly stole the case and ran it at Triangulars next weekend. But Emily and I would get to run it at BU Finals four years later and you can listen to the round.

Fast-forward eight years and seven months. I am back at UMBC for the first time since that fateful weekend. My marriage has ended in betrayal. My life has wended back to debate in a big way. And while it’s not Nationals and we didn’t have a big rented van and it’s a really bad idea to braid someone’s hair while they’re driving, something like that same team spirit has gelled and coalesced at the Rutgers University Debate Union (RUDU).

Our best team went north to MIT by themselves and, as of this writing, it looks like their being awarded 9th team and just being kept out of the break was the result of a mathematical tabulation error – they should have been the 6th or 7th breaking team. Left to their own devices, the five teams we took to UMBC all consisted of first- or second-year debaters, all kids I’d tutored from the beginning of their time with parliamentary debate. Chris and Ashley were fresh off their first varsity break together at the massive Fordham tournament just before Thanksgiving. Krishna and Bhargavi were fresh off losing a bubble round at the last tourney they’d attended together just before Krishna’s finger was smashed in a car-door and kept her out of competition for a while. Our novice teams had put together some good performances lately. But without our top team, how would we fare?

The tournament was no cake-walk. We thought Chris and Ashley were undefeated after Friday, but it turns out we were all 2-1 or 1-2 at that point. Our novice teams had both gotten out of the gate 0-2. We weren’t even sure they were breaking to quarterfinals, meaning that all of our teams might have almost been out at that point. And then it became Saturday.

We got our pairings and it was evident no one was 3-0. People prepared cases, went off to rounds. Krishna & Bhargavi came back bubbling about a spectacular 4th round and got the information they’d won 3rd round after being worried about it. Chris & Ashley returned confident. The stage was set for important bubble rounds. And then Chris & Ashley drew the highest-ranked team in attendance, the nation’s 6th team from Hopkins. They were nervous, but finally were able to be pep-talked into not being intimidated. They felt good about the round afterwards, but weren’t at all sure of the outcome, of what the judge would focus on. And then, after pizza and waiting and long last, the announcements came.

First, our novice hybrid team was into novice finals. Then, Chris & Ashley broke. Then, Krishna & Bhargavi did too. Suddenly there was a World-Series-like mob of breaking debaters on the side of our row in the General Assembly lecture hall. Two teams in quarterfinals, including the first break ever for Krishna & Bhargavi. Maybe this UMBC tour was going to be different.

While Krishna & Bhargavi were out of cases and had to borrow one for a tough round in quarters, Chris & Ashley were well prepped and took down a Fordham team 2-1 with one of their classics. Then I was given the semifinal round off from judging, a nod from a tab staff well stocked with judges and knowing that I’d probably like a chance to see my team. We went down a cinder-block tunnel and I almost froze. I realized what couldn’t quite be true – this lecture hall where Chris & Ashley were about to debate for a trip to their first final round was the same one that had hosted my last qualified competitive round ever. Quarters at Nats 2002. At first I thought I’d been wrong because the desk up front was different – I told myself it was just very similarly situated and sloped. But as I examined the desk, I realized it had to be a new computerized addition not present in 2002. And after comparing it to this old picture from that round:

…it was all too clear. And for extra fun, one of the panelists on this semifinal panel was the legitimate of the two who’d dropped me so many years ago in that ultimate round. I had a sinking feeling. Would history repeat itself? I dug into the seat for the round between Maryland and Rutgers and watched.

At first, I was a bit nervous. Chris was on his game in LOC, but his time management wasn’t amazing. And then Ashley started to really turn things around in MOC, setting up what turned out to be one of the best opp-blocks I’ve ever seen. Chris’ LOR was nearly flawless. A kid I’d seen often be rough and flailing was polished, rhetorical, inspiring. I was taken aback. The PMR was strong, but there was no way we were dropping this one. It was half an hour until we heard a 5-0 decision favored Rutgers. Chris & Ashley were going to finals and a win away from both qualifying for Nationals.

The Final was a treat. Chris & Ashley had fun with a case from the back-burner of Fordham’s file and made the right choice of those offered them in an entertaining opp-choice. They won a 6-3, us tensely waiting for the announcement that was started, stopped, and restarted three times after we’d learned of many other great awards detailed in this post on the RUDU blog. The exuberance was overwhelming with the announcement, the sheer joy and shock pouring out that as I well recall only the very first tournament win can bring. Indeed, after collecting their trophy, Ashley and especially Chris actually tackled me to the ground in celebration:

Getting up slowly from the floor, almost teary and completely mindblown, I came to terms with the incredible pinnacles and troughs of human emotion and experience. I’ve been talking periodically about my writing The Best of All Possible Worlds tearing open a portal of surreality in my life that may never again close. That the fork in the road taken by the completion of that piece has irreparably heightened the extremity of everything that follows. It’s a weird, vaguely extreme thing to believe, and yet you may understand if and when you read it. The quarterfinal round I judged was about the interpretation of art and made for a fascinating debate. And yet I must conclude that titles should always be bigger than authors’ names on book covers, because any good work is far greater than the author could have intended. And what if in crafting that work, I crafted undeniable surreality for myself and the rest of my days? What is to anchor us to the present, to the understanding that our lives are indeed as random and mundane as probability would lead us to believe?

I don’t have answers today, a lazy Sunday spent basking and recovering from the enormity of all these memories compiled and reconfigured, for both the worse and the better. I’m not sure I’ve ever had quite so much fun as a debate tournament as this Saturday at UMBC. It’s quite a replacement for a prior Saturday at UMBC. I will be processing this and more for a long time to come. But for 24 hours, I’ve been happy. And I’ve lived through enough to know just how to appreciate that. I pulled Chris & Ashley aside to remind them before the Final round of just one thing: to have fun. To appreciate what they were about to experience. I have to pull myself aside and remember that too sometimes. Now, mostly. Right now.

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Under Water

Categories: A Day in the Life, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: ,

The rain has taken a turn for the decidedly more aggressive today, pounding on the roof and walls, making the sounds of dripping and splashing even more ubiquitous than they already were in my little corner of Highland Park. There are little pennant-shaped flags in the lawn across the street, meant to signify a particular spraying or lawn-care product or company, and they’ve all spent the day mostly bent over in feeble concession to the wind. Pools of water are everywhere, bespeckled by hundreds of tiny disturbances reflecting additional rain coming down.

All this is threatening to wash out RUDU’s latest public event tonight, since my limited experience with the Rutgers student body is that they react to rain like cats or rabbits might. The event is not outdoors, but this storm seems to send most undergrads fleeing for pajamas and higher ground. Hopefully at least our own team will feel compelled to show up and support the wrong side of the issue.

Other pools of water are a topic of wild speculation today, as it’s becoming clear that Mono Lake may hold alien lifeforms in its basin. It’s not quite as exciting as the average Spielberg movie, but it’s a pretty clear signal that our complacency about our understanding of life and the universe is suffering another well-deserved setback. If there’s one thing I’ve loved about the evolution of the scientific community over the course of my lifetime, it’s the growth in acknowledgment of extra-terrestrial life. When I first started attending science classes, the teachers soberly told me there was basically no chance we weren’t alone in the universe. Now that viewpoint has been patently proven to be absurd. It was facially absurd at the time they said it – any quick count of the stars should be enough to bat down the theory – but at least now their learned brethren are catching up to reality.

My own reality is catching up to my budget a bit of late. I spent almost exactly $2,000 this month just ended (November), and the thinning out of medical bills and upfront costs for living provided some welcome relief. I’m not exactly on the pace I want to be on yet, but this month’s pace would at least be livable and not deplete a scarier percentage of my reserves than October’s pace. I also like the distribution a lot better:

There! Recreation is up, food as a percentage of the total is stable while overall spending is down almost 20%, and most of the other categories are at least under control. This month ahead should provide a lot of home-based savings as well with my return to Nuevo. If only I could not pay rent since I won’t be in Jersey most of the month. Then we’d really be talking.

Been really stepping up the walking lately as well, though today’s circumstances are likely to put a damper (pun intended) on that for the time being. I wonder if I can start walking at this pace in Albuquerque too, a city notoriously designed for the automobile. It’s only 2.7 miles from my parents’ place to the Frontier, which is competitive with distances I’ve become accustomed to here. Granted that it will be colder in Burque, but also less precipitated.

Six days and counting.

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Handwriting Analysis (or: the Role of Coincidence?)

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Just Add Photo, Strangers on a Train, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , , , ,

It’s been a rough couple days in the northeast. People say things like that which they have no business saying. Most people in the northeast have probably been doing just fine. There’s preparations for what appears to be the northeast’s favorite holiday in the offing. After all, Thanksgiving was born around here, built on the backs of people who have since been chased out or eradicated, leaving only the overstuffed turkeys and their caretakers to gloat over the bounty of having more ruthless ancestors than others.

Highland Park today is dressed up in its Thanksgiving finest: overcast and all the leaves have faded to that brown dead crinkle that rattles above or crunches below and makes everything look like red-brown Thanksgiving print napkins. People walk quickly and wear jackets universally and seem even more hurried and annoyed than usual. Maybe it’s from this observation that I acquire the hubris to say things like it’s been a rough couple days in this part of the world. Maybe it’s from spending the better part of a subway ride and an extended period in Penn Station crying without a soul bothering to so much as ask if I was okay.

Yesterday I got home and caught up with the things online I’d missed over the weekend. One of these, among my favorites, is checking out PostSecret, reading the scattered private thoughts of countless strangers as illustrated by their innermost ravings. It’s an idea we all wish we’d thought of and one very much in line with my ideals as a person writing this blog – the exposure of normally suppressed feelings so they might live, breathe, communicate, and ultimately hearten. And then my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a stark postcard:

And the hovering over the card on the page led to the flipping of the ‘card to the back:

Now, this one would’ve caught my eye anyway for a couple reasons. A, I read all the cards anyway and usually pause to contemplate all the implications. B, this is pretty much exactly what Emily would tell you about our situation, though I can’t necessarily speak to the relationship status of the other person involved, so who knows. But the most important issue is that the handwriting on this card is identical to that of said individual. Trust me, I had almost a decade to learn that handwriting, to watch it over her shoulder on debate flows or see it on hastily scrawled notes left behind or to read it on a notebook or textbook I was carefully lifting off her sleeping torso where it had fallen on her exhausted frame.

Now there’s some realistic counterpoints to consider. For one thing, the odds of Emily sending anything to a website like PostSecret are basically nill. The second thing, the most powerful, is that the postmark faintly visible on the back says SC 290, indicating pretty clearly that it was mailed from somewhere in South Carolina, where many zip codes start with those three digits. Is it possible she concocted some obscure way to send a card to Carolina for its submission to Germantown, MD? Sure, but any sense of feasibility or reality is pretty much knocking this down to zero. I often wonder about those postmarks and whether there’s some PostSecret sharing syndicate to make sure that especially high-voltage cards aren’t traceable even to a particular state, but I think this is considered an acceptable risk by most people.

No, the far more likely explanation is that someone else with Emily’s precise handwriting found herself in an almost identical situation to hers, or more appropriately one they would describe the same way. At which point, all kinds of larger cosmic questions arise. There have long been serious subscribers to the theory that handwriting is an indication of personality. In fact, many prison programs attempt to rehab criminals by changing their handwriting first under the theory that the link between letter shape and mental frame is so significant that it can be reverse-engineered. So what does this handwriting indicate about loyalty, faithfulness, approach to marriage? And out there, somewhere, someone who is not Emily or the author of this postcard is reading this and thinking that this handwriting looks an awful lot like theirs and wondering about the role of micro-destiny in their own path.

All this would seem to carry a little less weight had I not nearly bowled into Gwen on the street again the other day, in the midst of ill-informed debaters getting us lost on the streets of New York City on the way to Fordham. (Which, by the way, went pretty well.) She’ll forgive me for reprinting from her subsequent e-mail to me: “I’m starting to feel as though we’re being a bit cosmically messed with. Like we’re tinseled cut-outs in some toy theater production that just happens to be our lives.” And she, like most everyone, hasn’t even read The Best of All Possible Worlds yet. I’m starting to feel like that book is the cork in the center of the island on “Lost” – once I released it, deep important secrets were on the loose that wound up turning my whole life upside-down. This is a ridiculous thing to think, objectively, but most empirical studies would reaffirm it anyway, especially in light of how reality-bending the work itself is. All this would feel less significant had Russ not spent ten minutes trying to explain how LA feels small compared to NYC because you can always bump into people in the former and he never once bumps into someone he knows in NYC because it’s too vast, even though he knows tons of the City’s denizens. And then I told him my experience was a little different.

My experience is always a little different, it seems. Most people don’t have the capacity for such high volumes of things, be it crying or talking or writing or marveling at the construction of the world’s interactions. It’s not very realistic or practical to spend such time on such things. It’s better to do the dishes or laundry or buy furniture or hang pictures and somehow keep it all together. But it’s not all together and rote mundane tasks rarely help keep things that way. All I can do is contemplate, try to keep everything in perspective, throw up the poisons that seem to enter my system, and try to keep the phone charged for when I myself am running out of juice. It’s a good thing I have several scheduled days with other people coming up. Russ’ll be here in 90 minutes and all my dishes are in the sink.

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Multi Media

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, Read it and Weep, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , , ,

“I’m not a mystery
everything I think is written down”
-Allison Weiss, “Why Bother”

The sun is bright in Highland Park today, casting long stark shadows on the newly bare sidewalks and leafy lawns as people make their way through the crisp air. The sky is still, a pacific relief from two days of unchecked bluster, allowing the full light of early winter to crystallize and hang suspended among dying leaves still clinging to their lifeblood. Few will fall today.

Yesterday marked the second time the Rutgers debate team has graced the pages of the Daily Targum, perhaps the most-read paper in the city of New Brunswick. The article was quite flattering, relying heavily on Farhan’s and my testimony about the changes that have transpired in fifteen months of unprecedentedly hard work. The surreality of our current standing really has yet to fade, so I might as well try to grab hold of it and just breathe. After all, I still vividly recall years of desperately missing debate, of waking from dreams where I had a chance to be back in tournaments, back on the circuit, only to deflate amongst the reality of day jobs and intellectual incuriosity. Those days will be back, perhaps with less pathos given my second chance fulfilled, but I might as well store up for future winters now.

At the recommendation of Russ, I’ve been reading Outliers, officially my first Highland Park library book and perhaps the tenth non-fiction book I’ve read since the days of high school textbooks. In it, Malcolm Gladwell, the hippest pop-culture-meets-academics writer this side of Freakonomics, argues that success depends on luck and good fortune and ethnic traditions far more than Horatio Alger-style bootstraps stories. And while his case is compelling and obvious, he lapses too often into the same trap of Alger and friends, namely equating a mundane capitalist definition of success with true achievement in the course of a lifetime. Which, given his audience and the subtitle “The Story of Success”, is probably to be expected. He borders on really exciting delvings into the nature of real satisfaction with his discussion of what he calls “meaningful” work, but never stops to question the nature of capitalism in imposing the necessity of work itself on the population. Nor does he examine presumed pinnacle professions, like doctoring and lawyering, in the context of how meaningful or satisfying they are. He assumes these jobs and the acquisition of graduate degrees are innate goods in our society by which we can measure the success of potential geniuses on an objective scale.

It would be easy to say my political critiques of Gladwell are wholly tangential to the question his book is trying to explore, and that’s probably mostly right. But Russ felt this was an Important Book for me largely because of my own lifelong struggles with my early academic trajectory and its ultimate failure. Gladwell would blame these on unlucky circumstances (certainly Broadway and CCC failing to be supportive were not ideal situations), my family’s socioeconomic background (would money have made them more tenacious? maybe), and perhaps my culture of coming from European mutts based in the West (um, dubious). But what he goes on to describe me being locked out of just doesn’t feel like anything I’m missing. I could have been a successful lawyer had I wanted to be. Yippee. There’s plenty of good reasons I’m not, and they’re all based in my exercising of my own free will over my priorities. Would I have liked to graduate college at 16 as it once looked like was going to happen? Sure. But probably not so I could go on and collect a full complement of supplementary initials to my name. Probably, instead, so I could get on with it, as Monty Python would say. And the it maybe doesn’t look much better than status quo, save maybe for more public recognition that makes it easier to get published or something.

Tooling around the internet today, I discovered my new favorite musician of the hour. A quotation from one of her stellar just-discovered (by me) songs is above. She’s Allison Weiss and she’s apparently independent and sings mostly about heartbreak. Her song “July 25, 2007” cut right through me and I’ve already ordered her CD. There’s something about the simplicity and rawness of her storytelling that is pretty much what I’ve always loved about the music that I love. Given that Brad Wolfe and the Moon seem to be long done, I needed a new outlet for the band no one’s ever heard of slot in my life. Hooray.

The next few days are going to be mighty busy, especially in comparison to the quiet stasis of the last few. I almost have all my books sorted and dealt with and the Empire of Boxes has had its unprovoked aggression repelled to a couple small corners. Word is that the couch will be here before December is. Might even be able to get an armchair to go with it, with a little help from my friends.

Out my window, the blue patches through the overwhite collections of condensation almost precisely match the blue of the Prius below. My home is on the road and in the clouds.

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Winning and Losing

Categories: A Day in the Life, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: ,

Been meaning to let folks know for a while that I didn’t get the job in NYC, so I’m defaulting back to the plan of spending a long time in Nuevo this December and maybe tackling the NYC non-profiteering gigs in earnest in January. Of course, there’s a major question whether I want to put down the kind of roots that taking such a job in January would require. The same trade-offs that existed with this job, I guess, or that exist with most anything. At the very least, I got incredibly encouraging feedback from the place where I interviewed, apparently missing the opportunity only because they had an internal applicant. Like everything lately, I have to believe it’s for the ultimate best.

Something that requires no such mincing or parsing is the recent performance of the Rutgers debate team. As always, you can check the blog, but I will tell you that we won our second tournament of the year, making the third final round of the year, and are now ranked 3rd in both TOTY and COTY, behind only Yale and Harvard in both rankings. Suffice it to say that this well exceeds not only my expectations for the team’s performance this year, but my wildest hopes. Had you told me that Dave & Kyle would win back-to-back tournaments, or win 11 straight rounds, or go to three straight final rounds, I would have been speechless. Having watched them execute these things, I’m not much less so. Not because it’s surprising they’re so good – they’ve worked their tails off and become phenomenal debaters – but because it’s remarkable for any debater to experience that kind of consistent success. I’ve had to remind them to savor this and not get caught up in the trajectory or always waiting for the next tourney. Some truly special things are happening right now and I’m elated to be a part of it.

The thing about winning and losing, be it debate rounds or job opportunities or most anything else that can be assigned a W or L (or a Y or N), is that they depend on other people. Recognizing their merit is part and parcel with ceding control over one’s life, in small measure at least, to outside individuals. Now much of this is a reflection of the innate realities of the control that others wield and the time-honored idea of the cacophony of wills, the explanation for how chaotic the world feels despite being a collection of truly ordered rational agents. None of us really have that much control over our lives. If a college doesn’t let us in, we can’t go there anyway, and every possible outcome of life stemming from that possible road is foreclosed. Same goes for an employment application process, or a qualifying victory, or having someone in one’s life. Indeed, very little can depend on oneself alone. One’s attitude, perhaps, to an extent. One’s choices about what one tries to pursue, whether or not the outcomes come to fruition. One’s use of time when spent alone, or with those who’ve already chosen to be accepting.

And yet perhaps it’s blurring the lines between winning and losing that is the secret to feeling satisfied with one’s path, no matter how hemmed in said trail may be by the acts of others. Surely no one can be quite as happy about losing as winning, but the realization that losing can be a form of winning something else, the refunding of potential opportunity cost to be applied to other endeavors, the blanking of a check so it may be reallocated, this can be quite the consolation. And it’s with this perspective that I try to see losses now, at least at this moment. And as long as I can get myself to a place where I’m pleased with my expenditures of time and energy and hope, then it doesn’t matter what other roads put up a Do Not Enter sign.

For now, I’m in that place, a place where I can galvanize my efforts toward something larger than myself. It’s the Rutgers debate team. Last year, I probably could have used this philosophy about losing a lot more. Right now, I don’t seem to need it much for them. But as long as it’s bookmarked in the back of my mind, it’s going to be hard to get too broken down about the future.

Especially when I’ll have weeks to prepare luminarias without folding a single bag outside of New Mexico.

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Albino Water Buffalo

Categories: A Day in the Life, Just Add Photo, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , ,

This is an albino water buffalo:

I post it in lieu of a picture I took of Fish & the Madster while they were here for almost a day which they asked me to refrain from posting. The unposted flick is cuter, but not by much.

Debate-wise, this weekend was not ideal, but it at least seems to have featured an assault on the NOTY (Novice of the Year) board by our youngest generation, though we didn’t stick through three outrounds just to find out. We collected a whole bunch of 3-2 records and a new judge for the top of our scratch list! Good times.

Outside of debate rounds and performance, this weekend was a darn good time. The team had a great time hanging out and our ride back involved epic games of Ghost that both came down to the final letter. I got a chance to see Brandzy, breaking our longest-ever streak apart, hanging out literally all night at IHOP and wondering whether or not we actually existed. Then Fish/Madster came over and we all celebrated the end of Daylight Saving(s) Time. Would that Jaque were here to really put some pep into it, but I guess he always liked Spring Forward day more because of its implications for early evening activity than the mere opportunity for a “free” hour of sleep.

I have discovered a new favoritish place in town, namely the Palace Diner in New Brunswick that’s just a hole-in-the-wall breakfast/lunch joint operated by an (at least today) ornery but efficient old gentleman. I’m not eating out a whole ton these days, but I might a bit more if I start incorporating the Palace into the mix. I was long overdue to find an affordable breakfast spot in this state, having repeatedly come up empty in Princeton.

I have spent most of the weekend being way too cold or a little too warm. My throat is scratchy, but still stable. My thoughts are scattered and they’re cloudy. I found the end of Point Counter Point particularly poignant on this of all days. The light is failing early and I am overdue to take my leave.

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Sun Cracks Horizon Dawn

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, Keepin' it Cryptic, Let's Go M's, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , , ,

Forgive the use of the Star Warsy sounding subtitle in the new logo up top, but it’s really the most accurate thing I can convey. There’s a reason that film was a smash hit, and if you go back and look at it, it wasn’t because of the acting, dialogue, or even the special effects. I’m going with title.

Explanations, you ask? No one ever called me an enemy of the sine-curve. And since there was nowhere to go but up a few days back, the universe promptly complied. Or I dug myself out. Whatever narrative you prefer, based on your accordance of free-will, control, fate, or what have you. As soon as I can resolve the paradoxes of absolute free will and the benevolent safety-net of the universe, I’ll let you know.

Suffice it to say that I’ve had the best 50 hours of my last 2,500. It’s been over a hundred days since the crisis began, and it feels like I’ve been truly happy in a sustainable (read: more than a few hours) way for the first time in that whole duration.

Some causes:

1. UPenn vastly surpassed Maryland (which was only two weeks ago, and the last competition we attended) as the best tournament in RUDU club history (caveating again the legends of early-1990’s teams that were comparable and technically organized as a different club). Dave & Kyle won the tournament, the first tourney win in the 10-year history of RUDU. Farhan & Chris broke for the first time as a team, including Farhan’s first-ever break, won quarters on a 3-0, and then barely dropped semis on a 3-2, finishing 3rd overall. First and third. Needless to say, the team was euphoric all weekend and everyone was just beaming at the team dinner as we basked in the glow of having come a ballot short of closing out finals. And Krishna & Bhargavi were in a bubble round to boot. As the post that will go up on the debate side will attest (once we get an image unloaded off someone’s camera to display atop the site), Rutgers is now 5th-ranked in the country, breaking our all-time high from two weeks ago, and Dave & Kyle are the 4th-ranked partnership in the country. Yeah. It was a pretty good weekend.

2. Today I got a call about a job interview for one that I’d applied to long enough ago that I’d given up on it. Turns out that they were sifting through 400 resumes and I’m one of three (3) finalists getting interviewed in the next couple days. It’s in NYC, four days a week, wrapping pretty neatly around debate. It looks like I can get monthly train passes that keep the transportation costs from being prohibitive, and carry the added bonus of giving me a marginal-cost-free ticket into New York whenever I want. There’s no guarantee, but I’m feeling pretty good about it. And even if I don’t get it, it bodes well for future such applications. My interview’s tomorrow.

3. The San Francisco Giants, long my second-favorite team in baseball and my favorite NL team, are one win away from the World Series title, their first in the city I used to work in. While my obsession with their playoff run has been limited to listening on the computer due to not having a TV and generally being lower energy for much of October, I’m still elated to see them on the verge of this milestone, especially coming at the expense of Texas. I can’t imagine how Gris must be feeling right about now.

4. There has been another development which I will refrain from overtly discussing, probably for a long time depending on how things go. But it’s good and has helped turn things around in conjunction with the above.

Happy? Yeah, I’ve been happy lately. For real. Today especially, with that job interview coming in on top. I can look at these four things and think they might not look like much. You might even say they were all obviously inevitable. But in the throes of the last hundred days, not a one of them, let alone all four, felt even likely. That’s the nature of a tunnel.

It’s far too early to declare any sort of emergence from the tunnel and it’s clear that all four of these things are tenuous (well, probably not debate, since that’s pretty well established and no one can undo the accomplishments of the past nor deny the momentum it implies for the future). But it’s a big fat start. And there’s enough factors that even if one or two collapse completely, there’s a lot to build on. It’s rally time, kids. Get your caps on.


Postscript:

Cleaning up my place today and doing the surprisingly enjoyable laundry (having it in the basement instead of down the road or at the laundromat is remarkably fun – this is the closest I’ve lived to a washer/dryer since living at home in high school), I was listening to Pandora. And paying close attention when a song I’d never heard came on.

It was Tom Petty’s new “Something Good Coming”, and I submit it to you as the best encapsulation expressible of my current mood:
Listen to/watch “Something Good Coming” here.

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Another Saturday Night

Categories: A Day in the Life, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Upcoming Projects, Tags: , , ,

I was alone all yesterday, a Saturday. I’m not making that mistake again.

Barring a major change, I’m going to be booked the next 26* Saturdays:
30 October: UPenn tournament (Philadelphia, PA)
6 November: American tournament (Washington, DC)
13 November: GW tournament (Washington, DC)
20 November: Fordham tournament –> Greg’s band’s show (New York City, NY)
27 November: Thanksgiving with Friends in Philadelphia, PA*
4 December: UMBC tournament (Baltimore, MD)
11 December: Albuquerque, NM
18 December: Albuquerque, NM
25 December: Albuquerque, NM
1 January: Albuquerque, NM
8 January: Middlebury tournament (Middlebury, VT)
15 January: Dartmouth tournament (Hanover, NH)
22 January: Bates tournament (Lewiston, ME)
29 January: NorthAms tournament (New York City, NY)
5 February: NYU tournament (New York City, NY)
12 February: GW tournament (Washington, DC)
19 February: Princeton tournament (Princeton, NJ)
26 February: Rutgers tournament!
5 March: West Point tournament (West Point, NY)
12 March: Brandeis tournament! (Waltham, MA)
19 March: William & Mary tournament (Williamsburg, VA)
26 March: BU tournament (Boston, MA)
2 April: UVa tournament (Charlottesville, VA)
9 April: Swat tournament (Swarthmore, PA)
16 April: Bryn Mawr tournament (Bryn Mawr, PA)
23 April: Nationals tournament (West Point, NY)

Twenty-six Saturdays*. That’s half a year.

This also indicates that, as you may have noticed, I’ll be spending a month in Albuquerque. 7 December – 5 January. Very excited about that – a long-term homecoming is long overdue. This also means that, unless something surprising comes up in the next couple weeks, I will likely be suspending any sort of job search until 2011. I’m just not convinced I’m up to it and I’m more convinced that I need a month at home than I need income right now. It’s only six weeks till I go home anyway. Once I come back, hopefully I will be restored to the point where I can consider employment.

Anyone got ideas for 30 April 2011? Who says I don’t plan ahead?

*Edited 26 October 2010 to add Thanksgiving weekend in Philadelphia. It’s actually 26 Saturdays booked, not 25 as originally reported.

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Friday Without a Cause

Categories: A Day in the Life, Keepin' it Cryptic, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Upcoming Projects, What Dreams May Come, Tags: , , , , ,

There’s no debate this weekend. Not because there’s no scheduled tournament, but because that tournament doesn’t serve the purposes of the Rutgers team. It’s in British Parliamentary style, designed to prepare American teams for competition on the Worlds stage, with all its crazy four-on-four structure and rhetoric trumping analysis and lack of flowing. Rutgers would love to compete at Worlds (this year in Botswana!), just as much as we’d love to go to Stanford this year, but it’s not in the budget. We barely have a budget to get to basic regular tournaments when they give us deep discounts, let alone scurrying about like a team funded like the 7th-ranked team in the nation. Which, uh, we are.

The last few days have been about as eventful as any days are for me these days. Days, days, days. They cascade not like a waterfall or something glorious to be beheld so much as the drip in my bathroom sink. Day, pause, day, pause, day. The passage of time has become an annoyance, something to be swatted away like a lingering mosquito. There are moments each day that are almost okay… a good debate round or a fun practice, a moment of volunteering or walking that sparks imagination or hope, the second the heat started coming on in the apartment yesterday unbidden. But they’re rare and their ceiling is low. For the most part it’s a long trudge to school, uphill both ways in the snow. Sludgy, dirty snow, not the good kind.

Things are happening this Friday too, things I’m loath to preview here lest they raise concern from the worriers among you. It’s a long overdue meeting with my past, I can say that, and it comes at a time when the risks are low because I have nothing (almost nothing?) to lose. It’s something much better discussed upon reflection than anticipation. So I guess I’ll flag this post with a “Keepin’ It Cryptic” and move on. All will be revealed at some point.

Similarly, I have an upcoming project about which I’ll also be vague until you can see what it looks like. It’s adding a new dimension to the collection of things here at the BP, and it’s a major experiment. With any luck, it’ll be something that at minimum creates an archive of moments in time in a new and exciting way that can at least serve some posterity. At maximum, it could, like anything done serially on the Internet, become a phenomenon. So I’ll let that whet your appetite and, again, soon there will be much more to actually evaluate.

I have this last bit merely because of the Zen state of mind that came from tearing leafy greens from their stems for literally 150 consecutive minutes. This was my assigned task at the Cafe yesterday – I actually showed up an hour early because I’d misread the e-mail confirming my time, and thus was drawn up to the sink with a gargantuan box of greens whose name I never ultimately caught. Spinach? Arugula? An obscure lettuce? It was something like that. The repetition and the small satisfactions of working one’s hands against the bounty of the earth plunged me through the worst aspects of the mental void and into a deeper place where I could contemplate connections and possibilities rather than the mere horrors of the past. And it was in that state, not unlike a shower or even some of the better walks, that I was able to stumble over the obvious project I’m on the verge of launching. This was more of what I hoped for when I pictured volunteering as a key component of this year.

Of course I never really pictured this year and my subconscious is really having trouble catching up. This morning I awoke from a terrifying and disheartening dream that, while I was working at Glide and Emily was at the Labor Fed, she’d decided overnight to go to LA for six weeks straight. She was endlessly unconcerned about the toll this might take on our marriage, couldn’t seem to care less about my loneliness or missing her or anything of that ilk. I could detect, vaguely, in the dream that there might be someone in LA she was trying to see or some deeper thing to fear from this sudden trip arrangement which she was announcing to me the morning before she left. I panicked more and more as the dream hurtled toward her departure, clinging to her presence that I would soon lose for so long.

I awoke to a reality that made the dream look more ideal than nightmare.

Miles walked Wednesday: 1.2
Miles walked yesterday: 2.8

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Silence is Rotten

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

So, I’m not sure my whole volunteering plan is going to work out that well.

Debate works as a distraction from my vast emotional pain for two reasons. For one, it is a reaffirmation that I have some modicum of self-worth. My ability to have things to offer in the context of debate is one of the very few things that I have confidence hasn’t been completely destroyed by the events of this summer. But for the other thing, debate is loud. It’s noisy, boisterous, active. Often three or four or seven people are talking over each other, striving to be heard. There is little to no time for contemplation, for reverie, for the creeping dragon of self-doubt to tiptoe into the back of one’s mind and start breathing fire all over the neighborhood.

Volunteering, on the other hand, at least the early-morning kind that starts in a quiet kitchen at 8:30 and involves shifting chairs and wrapping silverware, is almost silent. The work is rote, but it’s mindless enough to set one’s mind to all kinds of frenetic racing. I was almost elated when a seemingly schizophrenic client and apparent some-time volunteer came up to the table to assist with rolling cutlery up into napkins. He bantered on about coyotes and baseball cards and the lyrics to songs and my only regret was that he wasn’t more plainly audible so I could engage him more thoroughly in conversation.

It’s just one day, my first at the mainline traditional soup kitchen at Elijah’s Promise, as opposed to Highland Park’s experiment of A Better World Cafe. I’m sure that if I become a regular, even one day a week, I’ll get brought in more to the kitchen, strike up conversations with the retirees and the full-time staff and the congregation members who have all known each other for a long time running. But the number of times I nearly broke down weeping today was far too many for this to work. I suppose weeping with a broom in my hand or while I’m cleaning dishes is better than weeping alone in my room, but I’m not sure the kind folks at the kitchen would agree.

The problem, more than anything, is how profoundly I’ve been rejected. Ever since I had to leave Broadway Middle School after skipping four grades to get there, there’s been a taunting narrative of failure and incompetence running in the back of my head. When PLB dumped me via paternal e-mail, the narrative got a brutal and powerful ally in the field of romantic viability. The extremity of both of these circumstances, especially the latter, has indented me with a deep-seated feeling of certainty that I am worthless and that the only antidote to my worthlessness is either unassailable intellectual accomplishment (e.g. North American Debate Championship) or unassailable romantic fulfillment (e.g. marriage to the love of my life). Unfortunately, one of these is revocable. And there simply isn’t any way to build it back up. There isn’t. I’m not saying I’ll never love again, though I might not, but the tarnish that a lightning-fast and permanent betrayal of a 7-year marriage imprints does not wash out. I am marked with this for life.

As I told Fish and my parents last night, time doesn’t do a damn thing. Memory might fade, or distractions might arise. Those are what people are really talking about when they say time changes something. It’s not the nature of time or its passage – it’s the nature of human frailty and malleability. People get older and decay and their minds get less sharp and that’s why things hurt less over time. If they’re thinking clearly and living meaningfully, nothing gets better. They just tell themselves a story where it seems less relevant because it was longer ago.

We all have needling voices of self-doubt and perhaps even self-loathing in the back of our heads. Most of us can wash or paper them over with the realities of their true achievements or strengths or inner beauty. But my counter-arguments have been silenced. Nothing is so inculcating of self-hatred and despair as being rejected in this way, cast aside so cavalierly in the name of selfishness. The love of one’s life is supposed to be selfish by staying with one, not by leaving. I have been told I failed at the only thing I ever really cared about, and I will never get a second chance. There is no antidote to that rejection. The best-case scenario I can paste up is dirty transparent wallpaper for the lurking reality of an endless wall of shame.

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Epic Wins

Categories: A Day in the Life, Just Add Photo, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , ,

It’s been a long time since something went right for me. This weekend, a whole heck of a lot went right in a hurry. I am trying to get used to the feeling of being really super-happy. I was silly-smiley all weekend as things unfolded, especially today.

I am too wired to write effectively, but I want to capture my thoughts in their giddy haze. The setting was the University of Maryland at College Park, and the action was a debate tournament. Obviously.

In roughly chronological order:

  • We got to Maryland on-time Friday despite traffic and checked-in to a GA I last attended at a tournament I won (Hybrids ’01 with Kate Myers).
  • I got to debate in a double-LO attack in a demo round with Mike Buckwald.
  • We found (good) food after almost starving to death after rounds and going to housing.
  • We found free parking on campus thereafter.
  • I was able to retrieve my sleeping bag from GA hours after the building was locked by reliving my high school break-in-to-tight-spaces self by slipping through the narrowly open window.
  • Two words: Party Bus.
  • Knowing Dave & Kyle are in a 4-0 round.
  • Getting to watch Dave & Kyle in a 4-0 round.
  • Dave & Kyle winning a 4-0 round.
  • Ashley calling the shot that they’d be a non-breaking 4-1.
  • This meaning that Ashely & Gordon upset the 4-0 in their pull-up round.
  • Both Dave & Kyle and Ashley & Gordon breaking in their respective divisions.
  • Both breaking teams picking up in varsity quarters & novice semis.
  • Dave & Kyle picking up semis while good rumors come from novice finals.
  • Not judging finals.
  • Dave & Kyle have qualled and gotten RUDU into their first final ever.
  • Epic finals case.
  • Floor speech mayhem.
  • Holy speaker awards, Batman!
  • Finding out ABom & Nisha just missed the novice break.
  • Waffle House!
  • Ghost.
  • Being too wired to sleep.

I could get used to this. Watch out, APDA, RUDU has thrown down the gauntlet. And we had fun doing it.

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Rain-Dance

Categories: A Day in the Life, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , ,

Debate seems to have this transcendent power to lift me up in the darkest times. Suffice it to say times have been pretty dark, so thank goodness I chose to spend a year focusing on debate.

I don’t know what it is about this week in particular. I was trying to explain the rolling waves of awakening to Ariel and having a lot of trouble. This week has felt, in some ways, like the whole crisis has started over again, anew, afresh, and it’s more real and vivid and visceral than ever. It’s hued in this new kind of vibrance where the aches are sharper and the pains more acute, the acupuncture of supposed healing conducted with knives or swords instead of more forgiving needles. Part of it is time, I suppose, which (in a shocking move) does not heal all things, nor even dull or improve them. Sometimes things move sideways. Sometimes they get worse. Those that have told me time will make this all better probably would have put all their money in the stock market ten years ago too. Or a house five years ago.

But today provided its own little counterpoint too, a bulwark against the raging storms that graced the area for most of the evening. For one, I went down for my first scheduled shift volunteering at Elijah’s Promise, starting at their “A Better World Cafe” location that is a few blocks from my new place. It was awkward as heck at first, mostly because I don’t think they get a lot of walk-ins without introduction… it seems the bulk of their volunteers come through a local church or organization that makes an overture on a broad-based level. Or maybe it was just that today I was the new kid, and the thing about being the new kid is that on the day you’re the new kid, you’re the only new kid and everyone else already knows each other. Which I’m well familiar with, so it quickly melted into a viable situation, especially after I proved continually eager and energetic. People got friendly and by the end of it, I’d talked to all the regulars and staff about wanting to become widely involved, at least until I found a job and probably even thereafter. People seemed excited and I walked out of there feeling like I was on the verge of a new little community. Or the slimmest start thereof. Baby steps, right?

I came home and did my dishes and watched a movie and talked to Ariel and felt myself boiling. I wasn’t even angry at Emily by the end of it so much as the whole situation, the waste, the time invested and lost, the years of developing a sense of personhood and time expenditure and perspective on life that is not only lost, but ripped out in such a way as to render me incapable of developing a new one, or caring to. I don’t know how people survive this. I don’t. I don’t see it. Granted, some of the things may affect me disproportionately, like how much I uniquely invested in Emily and how mentally committed to the idea of marriage I have been my whole life. But still. I think I’m still finding new ways to realize what’s really been taken from me and I don’t quite have the capacity to deal. It’s flabbergasting. I think about it and get so I can’t even breathe.

I was in about this state when I looked out the window at the pouring rain and decided I didn’t care whether I got sick, I was walking to debate practice instead of driving. The disproportion of effort is absurd – a five-minute drive versus a half-hour trudge through windy, rainy conditions. But I am committed to trying to walk and that doesn’t just mean in the good times. I also find I care so little about what happens to me in light of what has transpired that it becomes very liberating. I walk without fear. What’s someone going to do to me? Rob me? Rape me? Kill me? I’ve been through the worst. I fear nothing to come in future years. The rest of life has the dull sheen of days rendered unimportant by their larger context.

Debate, though, did its job. It picked me up. It provides a context where I have to be a point-person, I have to check my business at the door and get down to the business of working with a team and making it better. I’m in this weird situation where a lot of these debaters read this blog and know exactly what’s going on with my life, but it’s an elephant we all collectively put aside in the interests of forging something better and brighter for all of us. And it’s hard to talk about 7-year marriages with college-aged kids. It’s hard for me, it’s hard for them. It’s hard to talk about it with almost anyone who hasn’t had one, or lost one, or been through exactly this. The whole fucking thing is just hard.

But not during practice, not at debate. At debate we enter a world where logic makes sense, where the rational arguments hold the day, where opponents are clearly labeled and the goals are straightforward and certain. Debate offers a rubric and model that, however capricious it sometimes seems, puts life writ large to shame. And we all love it. We can revel in being nerdy, in priding ourselves on speaking and knowing and arguing, in trying to improve and make each chosen word more persuasive than the last.

The walk home was energetic – a senior on the team has taken to parking in Highland Park and thus a contingent of people he’s driving home walk with me most nights back. I was almost sad it wasn’t raining still, suited up as I was in gloves and parka and hat. I am ready to defy the rain as I have defied gravity so far. I should be face-down in a ditch somewhere, but I’m still standing somehow. Why, I’m not really sure. The why can come later, if at all. For tonight, I’m still here.

Miles walked today: 3

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In the Money

Categories: A Day in the Life, Let's Go M's, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Video Games Killed the Free Time, Tags: , , , ,

This past weekend was a good one. As always, you can check out the Rutgers Debate blog for details on how things went for the team. They neither disappointed nor went over the top this weekend, though they were frustrated with their octofinal decision. The disappointment was somewhat mitigated by watching Brandeis run to victory… I gave their floor speech before their 9-4 Opp win.

On Sunday, the much-ballyhooed “APDA Mini-Cup” was held at Harvard, featuring a Harvard-heavy pool of eight teams comprised of fifteen former elite debaters and one current one. This evolved from an earlier idea to hold a year-long “APDA Cup” that would be one giant tournament taking place over the entire season and culminating in one final weekend of out-rounds. Despite widespread interest, that never got off the ground last year, so this idea was implemented instead, perhaps as a lead-in to a future year-long Cup. To sweeten the pot, there was a $1,000 cash prize allotted to the winner, garnered from local teams who wanted the event to be a success (and apparently got first crack at the tapes of all the rounds in return as well – it’s like a basic incentive argument in an APDA round).

Anyway, I was paired with BU’s Jake Campbell, one of the nicest guys ever to grace the circuit and a mutual believer in the power of crazy philosophical opp-choice cases. We wound up in a Harvard-light pod, consisting of a GW team, a Brandeis team (Zimmy & Joel), and a hybrid of two 2010 National semifinalists (one finalist – and TOTY to boot) from Harvard and Amherst. The format was round-robin with the top team advancing straight to Finals.

I really enjoyed our rounds – hopefully they will post the videos sooner than later and I can feature each of them on the blog a la my posting of the Stanford rounds over the summer we moved out to Jersey. I wrote two cases for the festivities, but we only ran one, being handed Opp by GW and flipping Opp against the full ‘Deis team. We ran the table, though each round was by exactly one ballot, so we apparently just squeaked in to a 3-0 record. I had felt pretty confident about all of our rounds, which was apparently warranted and unwarranted. They’ll also be posting the RFD’s (reasons for decision) online, so I’m really curious to see those.

Finals was somewhat disappointing for me, though I guess not for the others, all of whom proved to be BU debaters. We were matched against the only current debater and his partner from two years ago and were given Gov, though we would have grabbed it if we could have, since Jake had wanted nothing more out of this tourney than to run the case we did. It was supposed to be a round about whether ethical systems ought derive from human nature or not, but wound up being a round about how differently people interpret human nature and, ultimately, that most people think everything in human history has derived directly from human nature, which certainly isn’t my understanding of that concept. So it goes. We dropped, 8-3, setting up this weird Lincoln/Kennedy type thing where four years ago I lost to a Harvard team in BU Finals and then just lost to a BU team in Harvard (Mini-Cup) Finals, both running crazy opp-choice cases on Gov. Unlike the BU tourney, though, I don’t have the solace of knowing I put on a real showcase Final Round. I also don’t have my half of a thousand bucks.

It was still a great weekend and it was awesome to spend so much time with Stina and Dav and Zimmy throughout, as well as to see Drew on Friday night. When I finally got home, bleary and punch-drunk from a hilarious car-ride home with Dave and CBergz, I slept for half a day. But then I got up and it was soon time to listen to the Giants-Braves game on the computer and, as I often do when I want to focus on an audio-only experience, I decided to play a little online poker. I’ve mostly avoided things that can loosely be termed as video games since Emily returned from Liberia, preferring to focus on dealing with our stuff and then trying to focus on moving and dealing with my new life in Highland Park. But since the time was already budgeted for the game and I couldn’t watch the game, I found myself a tournament.

Within minutes of entering, I was facing a tough dilemma with KQ and a high-card Q on the board. I decided to push in all my chips, save one, a fun intimidation move that’s shy of going all-in and is the kind of thing that would never happen in a live game. The other guy called and flipped up AQ. So I had my chip and was going to be out of the tournament, with the 100-chip big blind coming around the next hand. I sighed and berated myself for overvaluing my hand, trying to determine whether to sign up for another tournament immediately since it was only the second inning and my same entertainment interests applied.

Then a funny thing happened. I tripled up on my 1-chip auto-all-in. Okay, great. I was still forced all in with my 3 chips on the small blind. But then I quadrupled up. Twelve chips. And two hands later, I went all in and quadded up again. Forty-eight chips. Soon I was forced in by another big blind, but this time I tripled up once more and could finally see over the top of the big blind. There was something almost like hope, after this many consecutive wins.

Five hours later, I finally got knocked out of the tournament, 22nd out of 2,666 entrants, having at one point amassed 223,000 chips. The ballgame was long over, long since won by the Giants. I’d listened to the whole post-game show and its litany of champagne-sodden interviews with understated players. I’d listened to hours of music on Pandora, rising and falling with the moods of the music I used to like. And I’d made about sixty bucks. A far cry from the multi-thousand-dollar top prize, but a miracle after facing such an early elimination on the decision to hold back one chip instead of go all-in.

It occurred to me somewhere in hour four or five of the 381-minute run through the tournament that I might make more playing poker that night than I stood to gain in the APDA Mini-Cup. Which I found kind of hilarious, because while poker is a hobby I’ve periodically been successful at, debate is a profound passion where I’m extremely confident in being in a top echelon. Of course, 99.9% of the debates out there don’t pay at all, while every poker tournament save for a very few low-level ones pay something to the winner. So the Mini-Cup changed the incentives in some strange way. Or at least my perspectives on them. It never would have occurred to me to compare a poker payoff to a debate round without the random financial carrot tacked on to the showcase event.

Perhaps the larger issue is the one that Russ pointed out when I shared the results of the tournament with him, just before sleeping hard this morning as well. He observed my one-chip miracle as a metaphor for my larger emotional state of being. Which, remarkably, for all my emotionality of late and patternistic vision in general, hadn’t hit me at all. Of course as soon as I read it, I had to begrudgingly admit that he had a real point. I was at death’s door and found a way to survive again and again when the odds were clearly against me. I was already mentally resigned and found a way to carry on. I wound up doing quite well.

It’s the doing quite well that I just can’t be sure about. Except, of course, in the context of debate. It’s funny to look at the Mini-Cup performance as almost the reverse of the poker run… I had soaring confidence about rounds I was just barely winning. And then grand anticipation for a case that sort of ran aground. Which I really shouldn’t put too fine a point on, because I had a great time debating. And it was nice to be judged by so many current and former (but still far younger than me) debaters. There’s a feeling of invincibility that dinos often bring to the circuit, of having paid their dues and being above reproach. Events like the Mini-Cup are good if only for their ability to remind former debaters that they are still capable of being judged. And when the seasoned aged dinos judging me are people like Jon Bateman, who I judged in National Finals five years after my own last Nationals, it really puts the whole thing into perspective.

Then again, maybe I just like the concept of judgment in all its forms. Or less than people perceive, as my current Rutgers debaters found out from spending a weekend hearing crazy stories from ‘Deis of old. Who knows? More and more, I think that Judgment may end up being the key watchword for my life. Part of a larger theory about everyone having a watchword – a singular concept that sums up the dilemmas, tests, and challenges that seem to recur in their life. As though we all were put here for one reason, one purpose, and our respective uniqueness makes bridging our gaps harder than might otherwise seem necessary. I’ve perused this concept before, though perhaps never in public. My Dad’s word is Survival. My mother’s is Motivation. Emily’s, I think, is Expectation. Mine… mine is almost certainly Judgment.

Don’t spell it with an extra e.

Miles walked today: 3.5

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Back to the Beans

Categories: A Day in the Life, Pre-Trip Posts, Quick Updates, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , , ,

Boston, it’s been a while.

Today is slated to mark my first return to the city I lovingly call The Beans since a 2006 trip to compete with Emily in the Boston University tournament four years after our graduation. Wouldn’t you know that this weekend will be my first return to APDA-style competition as well? I guess I’m not allowed in Boston unless I’m going to debate.

The Harvard tournament never traditionally smiled on me much in my four-year tenure, though Zirkin’s and my trip to semifinals in 2000 would have been fine had we not run into perhaps the least enjoyable case I ever hit in my life in said round. Other visits included missing Saturday by oversleeping in ’98, getting tanked by a capricious judge all the way to being the bottom 4-1 in ’99, and visiting the 1-2 bracket in ’01. Remarkably, it’s not expected to rain the whole weekend, which may be a first not only in my experience of the Big H’s tourney, but in its entire history.

Here’s hoping that Harvard goes better all around for my young charges from another big red letter, the R. And it wouldn’t hurt for Jake Campbell (BU ’10) and I to have a little luck on Sunday too. For details on the competition, you can read this.

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Good News, Sad News

Categories: A Day in the Life, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , ,

Many thanks to Madeleine Sumption for carving the pumpkin that Matthew “Fish” McFeeley photographed to create this year’s October theme-change here at StoreyTelling. For four years now, the annual October theme picture has been of pumpkins carved at the prior year’s carving party. This year, I can’t imagine there will be a carving party.

For one thing, it would have to stop raining.

I awoke this morning to learn that the Daily Targum, Rutgers’ school newspaper, had finally made good on its promise to feature the debate team in its pages. I went to campus today to pick up some print copies for posterity, as well as to hand off a lost cell phone of one of our debaters. Ended up walking three miles, all told, as part of a burgeoning effort to walk at least two miles a day. It’s not like I need to lose weight, having regained only about two or three of the fifteen-plus pounds I lost in the late crisis. But I like my mindset and my approach to life more when I walk. There’s something about putting one’s feet on the ground, of observing the world from the ground level, that creates a more moment-to-moment reality. This is how people saw the world when they appreciated it more. This is how I intend to try living again.

For all the details on the past weekend, you can head on over to the debate blog. Suffice it to say that we keep doing quite well, especially among the novices. Debate gets even more interesting this weekend when NOTY tracking starts and a small tournament primarily for “dinos” is held in Boston on Sunday. I’ll be debating with a recent BU grad, Jake Campbell, who has a similar taste for crazy opp-choice cases. Should be a lot of fun to get back into something vaguely competitive, as though I weren’t competitive enough for my team already.

People keep asking me to take pictures of my new place and post them here, but the place isn’t ready. It’s still a mess, a big pile of boxes occupying the living room like a displaced ethnic group in search of sustenance. I got my bed and computer set up on move-in day, along with a little food and the coffee-maker, toaster, and microwave. I’ve sadly realized that I could probably live like this for months without too much trouble, ducking around the cardboard metropolis as I traverse between the bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and office. The place is palatial, much larger than I realized when seeing how the prior couple had filled it during my only pre-commitment trip to the apartment. The neighborhood is lovely, full of stately homes with healthy lawns, sprawling trees, and coyly inviting lampposts and lanterns in the evening. But my residence still feels transient, uninvited, a wealth of memories and stuff crammed high, peeking out of the shadows to remind me that I am not here on my own terms.

If something has gone well lately, outside of the debate framework, it’s my miraculous ability to fight off a cold. I was getting pretty sick over this past weekend, unaided by the effort to fit fourteen debaters and judges into two small hotel rooms during the first significant decline in temperatures this season. But an obsessive effort with vitamin C and Sudafed have combined with sleeping most of yesterday to return me to good health, even after walking three miles with wet hair in drizzly conditions today. If only I could apply this energy to tackling the corrugated refugee camp in the next room.

Baby steps, I guess. I’ve long thought of each day as borrowed time or bonus material, but never has it been more true than right now. My days are long and languid and even the most basic tasks seem to draw on deep reserves of energy. And yet the e-mails, calls, and even cards continue to pour in, most imploring me to take the time I need to let myself try to heal. I don’t know what healing looks like. I can imagine hurting less than I do now. I can even imagine trying to be with someone else, I guess, though signing up for online dating has hardly seemed like an encouraging process. I want to apply for jobs, but I’m not sure I’m up to them yet. I want to volunteer, but my own house is out of order. I want to write, but I have nothing left to say.

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When I Fall

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , ,

“Hang on to your wallet
hang on to your rings
I can’t look below me
something will throw me
I curse at the windstorms
that October brings

I wish I could fly
from this building
from this wall
and if I should try
would you catch me
if I fall
when I fall”

-Barenaked Ladies, “When I Fall”

A storm is blowing into Highland Park, New Jersey this evening. It’s a storm that’s ravaged much of the seaboard already, bringing warnings of flooding and overwhelm to parts north and east. All day, the barometer has been sliding down as the winds have picked up and the skies have conspiratorially bonded in varying realms of shadowy gray. There is a sense of proximity, of closeness, of the world drawing near. Closer, closer, now almost here.

The world truly has converged today across the Raritan River, in New Brunswick. A young man who’d just joined the campus where I coach famously plunged to his death from the George Washington Bridge, his wet broken body just identified this afternoon. His roommate’s filming of his romantic encounters with another man, streamed live on the internet, and his subsequent private jump, are probably the top story in America today. The media is here to discover everything they can and stream that live on the internet too.

Unsurprisingly, many of the Rutgers debaters and I have held an online debate in the wake of this last event about the nature of the media’s frenzy. While their sharklike gathering is certainly unsavory, this story at least exposes the peer conflicts and homophobia that are often rampant on college campuses and get under-reported. I can’t espouse the demands for the head of the roommate on a platter, but neither can I say this is a particularly bad use of media time, especially when compared to the disappearance of yet another rich blonde girl from such and such location. It remains to be seen how the spotlight ultimately treats Rutgers, how the university fares under its white-hot illumination. Our team was already scheduled to debate civility on campus in a public showcase next Thursday before this happened.

Tonight I walked into downtown Highland Park, such as it is, to do a little light shopping and look around the town. It’s cute and quaint and fall serves it well. While my ultimate destination was Stop and Shop for imminent practicalities like envelopes and soap and microwave burritos, I couldn’t help but tarry at the Nighthawk Bookstore, offering used books and music till midnight, five days a week. There seems to be a bit of community to this community, traversed by walkers of all kinds even in the billowing winds of an onrushing thunder. The distances are short and the buildings old, but there is life and vibrance and a kind of candle in the darkness. By the time I returned home, fleeing the first sprinkles and clutching the chafing plastic handle of the bag (my half of the canvas collection is still stuffed somewhere against cardboard), I was feeling almost okay about where I’ve landed. A ping-pong ball bouncing high in the air, fortunate to land, all but by chance, in a small town instead of the Hudson.

A hard rain’s a-gonna fall, make no mistake. I am debating between heading over to practice rounds in my car or toughing out my simulation of carlessness and walking against the slings and arrows of outrageous downpour, come what may. I think I’d like to feel the rain pelting against my jacket, soaking my hat, gathering in my eyes and hair as I trudge into an almost invisible future. There is a solace in storms, the promise of washing away all that has gathered and built in the corners and cracks and alleys of sunbaked neglect. Of renewal, reopening the ground to accept the life-sustaining promise of water, the emboldening prospect of wind. There is also power and fear, of course. The sudden randomness of a bolt of lightning, the crack of the bough as it snaps away from the tree in a particular gust. But even this breakage creates renewal. New buds, new life, new access to the sun that the formerly blocked were denied.

It is time for all of us to fall someday. And it is October tomorrow. The only question is how far we fall when the wind knocks us down.

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Pre-Debate Morning

Categories: A Day in the Life, Pre-Trip Posts, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , ,

There is a special kind of anticipation that comes with waking up knowing that something exciting or fun or worthwhile is going to happen that day. The feeling that things are not for naught, that one does not regret feeling conscious after not doing so for a time. But further, that there is a hurry, an urgency, a desire for wakefulness that overrides the last vestiges of sleep and makes one savor the sheer process of looking forward to something.

There are extremes of this feeling. The day one gets married, say, or the morning of the first baseball game one can play in or, perhaps better, see on a major-league diamond. Trips to Disneyland. A first date with that certain person. Christmas. It’s no surprise that most of these feelings are associated with either childhood or love, the states of being that unseat our more rational, plodding, conventional approach to life and replace it with the unbridled joy and small recklessnesses of a perspective of innocence. It is hard to be this excited about work day #526 at a mundane bill-paying job or a perfunctory holiday visit to one place or another. It is the excitement, to borrow, only a free person can feel.

Debate mornings have long made me feel this way. I don’t know when exactly debate tournaments started feeling like Christmas, but it was probably sometime after I begrudgingly signed up for parliamentary debate in college and suddenly turned around and won my very first tournament, the epically oversized Columbia Novice Tournament. A Tournament so large and unwieldy that not even every undefeated team broke. Maybe it was the very next tournament after that, after this charmed and magical experience, that I started feeling like the chance to merely attend and compete and talk was like manna, like a cool breeze or a drought-thwarting rain. In the middle of the worst spells of a bumpy collegiate career, it was what sustained me. I stayed at Brandeis more because it gave me a chance to debate than anything on its campus-based merits.

It’s not that every tournament went well or was in any way comparable to the Columbia Novice Tournament. I only won 7 of the next 73 tourneys I attended. Every one that I didn’t brought disappointments or regrets, although I guess the ones where I lost in Finals (6 more) weren’t so bad, usually because I got to run a fun case that I really enjoyed and debated in as many rounds as were held. But part of the vital appeal of each new tournament and each new Friday morning launch was the possibility. Every time one steps into a round, one has a chance at winning. Every time one steps into a tournament, one imagines oneself at the head of that room, arguing one’s way through Finals.

I can’t participate in Final Rounds any longer, of course. Not for some time – almost a decade already. The best I can hope for of my own accord are demonstration rounds, which have become remarkably common of late and carry a ubiquitous invitation for the sage 30-year-old with the long hair and giddy demeanor. Seriously. Giddy. I am just a different person in the debate world and it’s a huge part of what attracts me to it, year after year and weekend after weekend. So I’m getting my fix in, but honestly what excites me are the possibilities for my wards. Coaching debate has given me a new lease on an activity I’d long been missing, and earnestly given me a new lease on excitement in a year that has had every shot at killing me. Getting to drive fresh-faced youth discovering their own love of debate and its potential on the way to the same time-worn campus lecture halls I once traversed brings me a satisfaction like little else. It is the comfort of not only doing something fun and exciting, but of being in the right place at the right time. Being centered in the universe.

When the universe has seemingly turned its back on me, when I am leaving a home with my debate-reared and -discovered wife for the last Friday ever, it is this feeling of place and belonging that I crave most. And to add to it that I will be in a tab room, the epicenter of the collision between my love of rational argument and my penchant for statistics – it almost makes life feel worth living. That just for a morning or so, I can remember what it was like to be joyful, to have butterflies in the stomach for good reasons, to feel like all the future one needs is a weekend, a car, the company of like-minded friends.

Somebody throw me the keys.

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One-Way Train

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

When I got on the train bound for New York City yesterday, I didn’t think I was boarding a time machine. I thought I was embarking on a conventional landbound vehicle for a city long hated, long tolerated, long rearing moments of significance in the annals of my life. But I was wrong and HG Wells was right. This train carried no gamblers, only ghosts.

I stepped off the Princeton Junction platform and the seats of brown leather affronted my eyes and I was whisked backward more than a decade, suddenly remembering the first time I’d been on a New Jersey Transit train of any variety. The year was 1999 and I was accompanied by my recent debate partner, Dalia, and a few top debaters from New York schools who were heading back to said city. Dalia was showing me the ropes of the train system between New York and Princeton after I’d spent two weekends trying to show her the ropes of debate. She was the sophomore, but I was the one with an upside on my career, to the pointed reality of a fifth round judgment that would forever poison me to the idea of our further partnership.

After breaking at Swarthmore with a 3-1 record, she and I had gone to Princeton and were sitting on a 3-1 record again, facing a Williams team while we were on Opp. We were hopeful going in and euphoric going out, for we’d clearly crushed their case. The other team had name recognition and debaters with lofty successes, but we’d pluckily been upsetting teams with more age and experience the whole time we’d partnered. Indeed, had she not insisted we flip Gov in octos at Swarthmore, a top-level senior team from UVa might have been added to our list of the upset. But we were confident Williams would be joining our list of notches and our 4-1 record would put us on the verge of the break.

Come break announcements, of course, Williams was in and we were out. Appalled, I sought out our judge, one D. Silverman. He spent many minutes outside the building which had hosted our round, on a quad I now know well from traversing it to get to the Chancellor Green library. I never can walk that path without thinking of that conversation with this cocky and later evidently contemptible man. We went around and around about the finer points of the round for a good long time before he finally leveled with me, recognizing my tenacity was not easily sated and I was not buying his flimsy excuses. He told me frankly that my partner was a liability, that there was no way a school like Princeton could risk having a person like her in or near the break. He raised his eyebrows and asked if I understood. It was crystal to me. I had learned what kind of people could populate this debate circuit, what kind of hubris the Ivies could produce, and what I had to do to ensure future success. I never debated with Dalia again.

What I didn’t know then was that Dalia had dated our judge that round for a while. I heard graphic details about their entanglement the next year. What I did find out later that tournament, however, was who said judge had moved on to. One E. Garin. The same Garin I’d developed a scorching crush on after hitting her in novice semifinals at the Brown tournament earlier that semester. Sitting in McCosh 50, the grand lecture hall hung high with ornate beams and raftered lighting, watching the time pass between quarterfinals, semifinals, and finals in which we were not invited to partake, I sat hunched over the curved wood seat in front of me and wondered how this could be. My teammates cracked brief jokes about their height differential and her being from California, but all I could wonder was how someone so Machiavellian could land someone so seemingly bright and charming.

I would be wondering that for a number of years.

We all know the history, the rest of the story, the way it relates to New York. And sadly, we all know this story doesn’t have a happy ending any more. It’s not a story of redemption and triumph and vindication. If anything, it’s a story of unheeded warnings, of making one’s bed and lying in it, of judging people on their judgment and sticking to it. Years later, before 9/11 but also in New York (Fordham, precisely), I would resolve myself to give up on this years’ worth of pining for this girl because her judgment must be simply too flawed if she could stay with someone who disrespected her so much. And yet. And yet. I’d joked that if I’d known at that diner conversation that she was still with him, we never would have ultimately gotten together. That joke was never funny, I now realize. It’s tragic and scary.

But I have gotten ahead of myself, jumped off the tracks. The ghosts were not in a diner or at Fordham or haunting the vaunted streets of the Big Apple. They were on brown leather seats, backpacks and luggage and sleeping bags strewn, debaters dog-tired but generally satisfied. Despite herself, Dalia was happy with our performance and unperturbed by our fifth round miscarriage of justice. Another debater, Jess from Columbia, was glowing with the success of her final-round appearance not more than an hour prior. They were chatty and punchy as the train rolled down the tracks. Confronted with twin affronts from a particular person, I was inconsolable. Trying to look forward to the rest of the week at NYU with Gris, but utterly despondent about the man who could end my hopes for success in debate and love at almost the same time.

My companions, to their credit, made every effort to engage me and cheer me up. Dalia, perhaps knowing that she had dated our fifth round judge, was more circumspect about putting our loss in perspective. She kept trying to buoy me with discussions about our future partnership, comments that only drove me further inward as I writhed with the knowledge that she was a declared liability who I would have to find a way to ditch. Jess told me to put my freshman year (now almost finished) in perspective, noting that I’d collected more success than almost all my classmates and that she was one of the few prior winners of the Columbia Novice Tournament who’d stuck around. She cited her success that weekend, showing it was worth it. She described the alleged curse of CNT winners quitting the event, encouraged me to stick with it.

The next weekend, she and her partner would unseat me in semifinals at the CCNY Pro-Am tournament, also in New York. Our fifth and quarterfinal rounds would both be wins, though. Against the Princeton team of Silverman/Garin.

In the meantime, Gris and I had a good time in New York during Brandeis’ second spring break. We joked and laughed and took my mind off my debate reputation and the latest girl I’d liked and lost. As I reported about that week in the Waltham Weekly on the verge of a third consecutive trip to the New York area, this time for Nationals at Fordham:

We also failed to do most of the touristy things in the appley metropolis, to which Greg (one of my hallmates & friends here), who grew up on Manhattan, said “good”. The World Trade Center looked like a really good idea till we saw a longer line than the towers are tall, with a $12.50 fee waiting at the end of it. But mostly we went to delis & coffee shops in SoHo & that area, & I rode the subway a lot, esp. to get to my debate tourney the second weekend, which was in the middle of Harlem & revealed a completely different side of the island than where I’d been staying. In the end, I’ve concurred with the analysis of millions who’ve gone before me…. NY is a great place to visit, but I really couldn’t imagine living there. But I’m sure glad Gris does so I can visit so easily!

This time around, fully ensconced in my memories of April 1999, my stay was only a few hours. I had time to print resumes at a print shop and get an egg sandwich at one of the trucks near the employment agency conducting my “interview”. I had time afterward to stroll the streets and dump quarters into payphones that all seem to conspire against the idea of enabling long-distance calls. I had time to contemplate what it would mean to spend the year of my attempted recovery from the decade since 9/11 and everything that followed riding brown leather seats into New York City two, three, four days a week.

You can’t make this stuff up. I write fiction so I have something believable in my life.

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Ten-Day Hindcast

Categories: A Day in the Life, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , ,

Some days, you wake up and realize that ten days have gone by without you really sharing what’s going on in your life with people. Maybe you don’t, I should observe. I do. Maybe you wake up and realize that you’ve never really shared what’s going on in your life with people. Or that you’ve shared every day. I used to do that. That last one.

Things have been eventful and emotional. Trying to sum up the whole week and a half is both impossible and largely irrelevant, since so much of it has been about trials and tribulations that have largely corrected or improved or at least gotten to the point where I can’t worry or care so much as I did about that one specific thing. It’s complicated and trying and ultimately probably doesn’t make very good reading. I’m going to be working a lot over the next year on making things that are very good reading. And maybe even throw in a few more photos. There’s going to be a lot to see here, methinks, so don’t get used to these ten-day droughts. Just a few more to come, then content city. Maybe.

One of the things I want to post content on will be my new apartment in Highland Park, New Jersey, a suburb of New Brunswick, home of the Rutgers team that cleaned up this past weekend. But my landlord is dragging his feet a bit and the move-in date keeps getting pushed. I’m still holding out for this weekend – if it’s not then, I’m going to feel very silly for ditching the William & Mary tournament to move, let alone having my Dad fly out here in part to help me move. Still holding out hope for not feeling silly, but we won’t know till tomorrow for sure.

The tournament was fantastic and helped convince me that I’ve made a good call in sticking around Rutgers, APDA, and even New Jersey this year. There was every reason to believe that it would still be a struggle, tinged with unhappiness and strife and newly sad memories. Instead, the tournament was roughly the exact opposite, punctuated with great camaraderie among both new and old on the team, great reconnecting with APDA comrades, a marvelously fun demo round with Joel, and moments of real happiness for the first time in possibly two months. ‘Twas amazing. The fact that I could muster all that in the first tournament of the year under present circumstances was a huge ratification and endorsement of recent decisions. I may never believe in any of my long-term decisions again, let alone trust myself, but I’m going to run with what I learned last weekend.

Then we had the “Bachelorette Party” for Ariel, whose wedding is almost upon us, and then my Dad came into town. We’ve been working through the apartment, the burgeoning reality of my situation, and years’ worth of accumulation. I’ve been trying to eat and sleep when possible. Yesterday was really tough. Today was much better. Tomorrow, I’m hoping, will be at least as good as today.

I like this space better when I can be poetic, when I can illustrate the whole world in a poignant vignette or reflection. But I’ll take this too, especially when I haven’t been heard from in a while. I’m here, I’m hanging in, some days are even not terrible. I’m not willing to say that time is running its course or anything that overly positive, but at least things are looking the least bit up. Sideways? Maybe microscopically up.

It’s enough for today. Maybe I lost the person who made me a grateful person, but I can still try to find grace in a little corner of each rotation of the Earth.

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