Archive for April 2010

Duck and Cover #1244

14 April 2010, 12:45 PM | Category: Duck and Cover

Duck and Cover #1243

13 April 2010, 9:35 AM | Category: Duck and Cover

Things I Learned in Court Today

12 April 2010, 11:51 AM | Category: A Day in the Life

I got to court about a minute late today, the penalty for which was having to listen to every single other case in the room be heard before mine. While this initially struck me as quite a chore, I’m ultimately appreciative of the experience, because I learned some scintillating things. This was, by the way, because after 13 years of uncited driving in 3 licensed states, I was pulled over for a U-turn two weeks ago.

Anyway, the most important thing I learned is that you should always go to court to fight your ticket. Always. I think the system relies on people just paying up and assuming they don’t have options – just for showing up, you’re almost guaranteed to get a reduced penalty because you’ve shown you’re the type of person who is interested in your rights and fighting for them. It’s part of the larger core value in our society that exerting even the bare minimum of effort is rewarded and lauded. Just as the Selective Service (SS) is all bark and no bite on their hate-mail, so is traffic court’s effort to get you to just give up pretty toothless. Take the time and go in.

I learned this as I watched person after person get all manner of mayhem dismissed without points in exchange for them pleading to relatively minuscule charges. Even people who’d been cited three, four, or five times in the prior year were able to convince the prosecutor to bargain and knock down their violations to pointlessness. It actually made me angry to watch these serially bad drivers (the same ones who suicidally parade up and down Route 1) get off with minor fines when I had come so close to just paying the fine and eating 3 points on my license. Don’t do this. It doesn’t fulfill any concept of justice.

Additionally, I learned just how ingrained plea bargaining is as the core tenet of American jurisprudence. Anyone who actually understood American law would never run the case to get rid of plea bargains, because the alternative would be having every single case take way more time and energy – which is impressive, since they already take a good deal of both. At the same time, on a purely moral level, it’s a little strange that our state seems so driven to get everyone to admit they’re guilty and then is much less interested in the penalties. This really does remind me of the SS, whose goal was always to get compliance by threatening penalties, but to never actually impose those penalties (except for the Unconstitutional refusal to process the FAFSA, but that’s another long story). It reminds me of the Catholic Church. The penalties are minor and irrelevant; what counts is getting you to admit how bad you are/were.

I also learned that one should never hire a lawyer unless one is some seriously big-time trouble. The lawyer I’d actually called and considered hiring was in court with some of the early cases today and struck me as a thoroughly unimpressive and unpersuasive specimen. He spoke too quickly and somehow simultaneously mumbled and gave the overall impression of the weaker member of the novice team that you hit in first round at your average large APDA tournament. If I were going all the way to trial with this, which I considered, I would be horrified to have him got to bat for me. Besides, trial is probably not where it’ll end up, and the prosecutor’s just as happy to make a deal with you as with the lawyer.

Finally, I learned that pretty much everyone in New Jersey is a worse driver than I am. I could have guessed this, but it’s nice to get confirmation. I had the cleanest record of anyone in the courtroom, by a longshot, and probably the least serious charge in the room, with the possible exception of failure to show proof of insurance upon getting pulled over. The judge spent thirty seconds complimenting someone who’d been cited for speeding, gotten one ticket for speeding the year before, and had a clean record for five years before that. That this was my first citation in 13 years of driving seemed to blow both the prosecutor’s mind and the judge’s.

I didn’t get off scot-free, of course. I considered pushing for a trial, but the fact that it would have been in May instead of today deterred me. As convinced as I am that I could beat the ticket and the prosecutor (I had a three-pronged defense written up already under the assumption that the actual trial would be this morning), I am also convinced that it would be a pyrrhic victory given how much additional time, energy, and angst it would take. Given that the fee was nominal ($89) and that it doesn’t put points on my license or insurance, it seems the compromise was worth it. And that’s another way they get you – by making the wheels of justice turn exceedingly slowly, they ensure that most people will want to just jump off the train before they get to the station.

If only I could take the train everywhere from now on.

Kid in a Candy Store

9 April 2010, 10:23 AM | Category: A Day in the Life, Telling Stories

Today is a little like Christmas, or my birthday before I got old, or going to Disneyland, or going to see a Mariners game.

Today I get to tab a tournament.

For those outside the debate world, “tabbing” is the magic system by which debate tournament staff determine which teams shall face each other in any given round. There are very particular rules and processes to determine this, as guided by custom and refined over time, with fairness and competitive advancement of the tournament as ultimate goals.

The means used are either new computer programs that never seem to work properly or good old index cards, markers, and pencils. As the prior sentence indicates, I heavily favor the latter.

Even those of you familiar with debate tournaments and their culture may be confused at why getting to tab a tournament feels more like visiting a theme park than just doing some work or having a regular day. Sure, having a certain amount of control and ultimate knowledge about the tournament is entertaining. But that’s not really what makes tabbing special. Rather, it’s some combination of my affection for some relatively basic concepts: applied statistics, sorting, order, and competition.

It doesn’t hurt that I’m pretty good at it and pride myself on making tournaments run on-time. Tab is the single biggest factor in whether a tournament runs close to time (rare) or lags well behind schedule (common).

The tournament in question is, of course, our own tournament – the Rutgers tournament, the last tournament of the year before Nationals. For all but one of our teams, this will close the debate season, put a cap on probably the most successful year Rutgers has had in its modern incarnation on the parliamentary circuit. It’s important for it to be a good experience. We have lots of entertainment and food and a decent number of competitors, though late flakiness is reducing our size just a little.

Size matters not, though. It’s going to be a good time. I have my index cards and markers ready to go. And, perhaps more importantly, I get to teach a whole new generation to love tab. One member of each class returning next year will be in tab with me, learning the trade.

I can’t wait.

Duck and Cover #1242

9 April 2010, 10:13 AM | Category: Duck and Cover

Duck and Cover #1241

8 April 2010, 11:40 AM | Category: Duck and Cover

Duck and Cover #1240

7 April 2010, 9:32 AM | Category: Duck and Cover

Duck and Cover #1239

6 April 2010, 12:54 PM | Category: Duck and Cover

Ten Years Gone

It’s recently come to my attention that dreams about losing teeth are extremely common and this reminded me that the very first Introspection post ever was about a dream about teeth.

Predictably, of course, the dream was actually about gaining teeth instead of losing them. But I read a few days’ worth of the old blog just for kicks anyway.

And promptly ran head-on into this:

14 March 2000
-Ten years from now, existence permitting, I hope I’ll remember the poems I wrote more than the number of classes I took. Otherwise, I could be in some serious trouble.

Of course, that was just over ten years ago and I had one of those very strange telepathic moments of long-distance mirror-gazing. Here I am, looking at myself. Ten years. Good gophers, that’s a long time. A decade. And more.

Truth be told, I remember pretty well most of the poems and most of the classes. But both pale in the face of what ultimately became my collegiate salvation, namely debate. And here I am, back in the mix, ten years on.

Existence permitted.

April Come She Will

New image up top. Refresh the page if you can’t see it. If you still can’t see it, well, here it is below:

One of the subtler overall changes on the page, going with a relative simplicity that reflects my effort to refind some focus. I’m not that far off, not all over the place, but still not quite as centered as I’d like to be. Ever since I got back from Virginia (all of 48 hours ago), I’ve felt a bit foggy, rather dissociative. As though this is all a big dream I’m about to snap awake from. Not all of it, as in the last 30 years, but all of it, maybe most of the last 48 hours. It’s odd.

Of course, in part, it’s April. Every April, I get to thinking and hoping that maybe it won’t be so bad, so strange, so despondent. Most Aprils, I have to remember that there’s a reason I have this whole time-is-a-place theory going. This time round, at least, I have two insanely busy debate weeks back-to-back to keep me distracted. And then it’ll be time to enter the home stretch of a book that feels like it’s not quite off the ground yet. This month may yet prove to me that two books a year is a more reasonable expectation than three.

But I’m still hoping otherwise.

This past weekend was pretty debate-heavy as well, if only because it takes about 13 hours to drive round-trip to and from Charlottesville, home of one of the better campuses in its absolute peak time. Arriving in Virginia under an 88-degree sky was pretty much just what I needed at the time and I thoroughly enjoyed the tournament there, in no small part because of Rutgers’ great successes. Not only did Dave break for the second straight weekend and the third in the last six, but our newest novices were second novice team and both made the top ten novice speakers. And Dave & Chris managed to establish that they own 7th place, having finished exactly 7th all three tournaments they attended together. One could do a lot worse, especially for a junior-freshman duo. The tournament also just managed to be a bunch of fun, I got to judge many good rounds, and everyone was generally in high spirits. Although the less said about Friday night the better – suffice it to say that it’s easy to block out the worse parts of college over time and thus even harder to when they’re re-presented to you.

The only good thing about April, consistently, other than debate Nats I guess, is the start of baseball season. And what a great start it was today, with the M’s almost coughing up a win only to demonstrate they might have enough offense this year after all. Watching Chone Figgins and Casey Kotchman come through so consistently was great. I am going to have a lot of fun watching this team run this year. It was all almost enough to make up for the heartbreaking NCAA Finals, though that itself was such a great game. And both of these were big uppers compared to the amazing but horrifying video that Russ has up on TMR.

That video was on its way to sending me into quite the tailspin. If you don’t want to make the jump or want to know what you’re getting into first, it’s basically 40 minutes of American military chatter about 11 unarmed civilians that were slaughtered in a 2007 incident the US denied knowledge of until very recently. This is followed toward the end by a triple-missile attack on a building that also seems filled with civilians. It’s perhaps the most chilling piece of video I’ve ever seen in my life. As bad as it is to watch 11 people killed (and trust me, one sees them shot and killed), it’s probably worse to hear the live reaction from the people committing the murders. In some ways it feels like a vindication of all the things I say about people in that situation, but I’d really rather just be wrong. Perhaps most compelling of all is the vision of the blurry lines between video games and reality for a whole generation of American soldiers. The whole situation, from the dialogue to the monochrome target-screen, has the look and feel of a sophisticated first-person shooter (I mean, think about that phrase as a genre of video game on face there for a second) and one gets the sense that the people killing can’t quite get over the psychic break between the surrealistic setting and the fact that what they’re doing is all too real. But maybe that’s just wishful thinking; maybe they know full well and are just that awful and/or manipulated.

In any event, I’m still struggling with it. It’ll be with me for a long time. It’s encouraging to know that there are people who would post it, who would make it available, who would spread it around, though part of me almost feels like it’s an Orwellian exemplification of how much can be gotten away with. Still mulling.

The cat’s sick and we took her to the vet, who knew no more about why she was sneezing and wheezing than they do about my migraines. But they gave her some medication, just like me, and wished her the best. There was a lot else on my list to do today, but I only did about three other things. My brain refuses to be still and yet won’t move quickly either. It’s pickling in a jar, just for a time, letting itself soak up the brine between the folds like some grimy spa catharsis. As though to gird itself for April and all it entails. As though to make the push into the depth of where I need to go to really fulfill The Best of All Possible Worlds.

I don’t like pickles.

Duck and Cover #1238

5 April 2010, 1:24 PM | Category: Duck and Cover

Duck and Cover #1237

2 April 2010, 7:34 AM | Category: Duck and Cover

Duck and Cover #1236

1 April 2010, 11:31 AM | Category: Duck and Cover

When Bad News is Good News

1 April 2010, 1:35 AM | Category: A Day in the Life, Primary Sources, Telling Stories

Please note that, despite the timing and the strange headline, this post is not in fact related to April Fool’s Day.

Also, please note that I discuss reviews of the first 5,000 words of American Dream On below. I try to avoid spoilers, but tread a little lightly if you want to read it and haven’t yet.

Just got done reading my feedback from ABNA and I couldn’t be much happier. No, they didn’t make some mistake and fail to put through my submission despite its glowing reviews. But the feedback was so positive on what I need it to be positive on and the negativity was either (A) innate to the contest or (B) innate to the fact that American Dream On is hard-hitting and bleak.

So I thought the excerpt would be judged largely on hook and, when it didn’t advance, I was concerned about this. Needn’t have been:

The flow of the story is easy to follow and to connect with. The words fly off the pages impacting the reader. American Dream On tugs at the reader’s heart and conscience. The characters’ pain and determination to get their message or action across is experienced by the person reading. The things that once mattered now seem almost as though it was a wasted thought.

How about character development?

The strongest aspect of “American Dream On” is the author’s ability to create a character. This excerpt has great character development.

Whew. So why didn’t it go through?

The tone of the story needs to be worked on. The negative aspect of American Dream On is overbearing. When writing a sequence of bad, unfortunate, or even dismal beginnings, there has to be some sort of light to take away the effects of the darkness.

While some people (my own mother, for example) agree with this assessment, I think this is largely a problem with the contest. Number one, I don’t think Amazon Vine Reviewers are largely comprised of people who read dystopian works or critiques of their society. But more to the point, they probably assumed that they were reading the first 10% of the novel, not the first 3.7%. My work was one of the longer ones submitted, and very few seemed to be over 100k words, with ADO weighing in at 135k words. Indeed, one of the two reviewers went on to say:

I would like to note that I strongly suspect that the excerpt is from a short story collection rather than a novel. If that is the case, then “American Dream On” violates the submission rules for the ABNA contest. However, to be on the safe side, I am reviewing this excerpt as though it is a novel consisting of three independent stories interwoven together.

This makes one of the most damning aspects of the contest the failure to provide the pitches with the excerpts. I simply cannot comprehend the failure to do this, but for three years, they’ve done it the same way and it seems to be a deliberate choice. They wouldn’t print a book without a back jacket flap, so it befuddles me why they insist on making readers judge excerpts without any context. Of course, there are 5 threads in this novel and only 3 are introduced in the excerpt, so it’s no wonder people came away from the experience confused. If only they could’ve grasped the breadth of this work.

They didn’t fail to grasp its bleakness, though:

“American Dream On” is the type of novel you wouldn’t want to read if you are already suffering from depression. It may drive you to attempt suicide. Written in a morbid style that varies in degree from one character to another, this novel may turn your American dreams into American nightmares.

Wow. Talk about impact. This is actually the kind of comment that makes me elated, not because I’m sick or morbid or want people to be suicidal, but because I can see that I’m really affecting people. Two total strangers read this work and both came away distressed. The paragraph above the one just posted above called it “provocative”. Bingo. This is what it’s all about.

I wonder how many times Orwell got comments like this:

The writing style creates a depressing mood that never relinquishes. The reader can’t help but wonder if the entire novel is an emotional downer. Isn’t there enough sadness already in the world to create more?

Clearly, this contest was not a match for this novel. But I’m really energized by the nature of the critique of the excerpt. No one thought the writing was bad or failed to be engaging. People reacted to the characters, drawn in by their pain and even driven in one case to “hatred”. The work is emotionally vibrant and jumps off the page, grabbing people. A lot of them don’t like the experience, don’t want to go there. That’s fair enough. But there’s serious writing and then there’re feel-good stories. One of these prompts people to change their life and one of them makes them go to bed assuming everything’s just hunky-dory.

Now if only I can find a publisher who isn’t looking for the feel-good story of the year…

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