Monthly Archives: May 2017

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Suicide: 13 Reasons Why and S-Town

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, The Problem of Being a Person, The Wild Wild Web, Tags: , , ,

Content Warning: This post will talk extensively about suicide. It is the author’s belief and, indeed, thesis, that talking about suicide, honestly and in detail, is the best form of suicide prevention. But if you feel differently, this post may not be for you for a variety of reasons.

Spoiler Alert: This post will talk extensively about season one of the Netflix television series 13 Reasons Why and the entirety of the This American Life/Serial podcast S-Town. It is highly recommended that you only engage with this content if you have seen and heard both of these pieces in their entirety. (Separately, it is highly recommended that you see and hear both of these pieces anyway.) Short of that, it is at least recommended that you do not proceed unless you’ve ruled out engaging with any content you haven’t engaged with, unless you don’t mind said content being spoiled.


The real John B. McLemore (left) and the fictional Hannah Baker (right).

“The way people talk about suicide in this country infuriates me. Because most of it is very much a way of not talking about it. People treat suicide like it’s ultra-contagious ebola, that it is unspeakable, unthinkable, and that even discussing it without a biohazard suit on will somehow create a wave of copycat suicides and an epidemic and therefore we should just zip our lips and praise the person who just ‘died’ (not, never ever, ‘killed themselves’, even though that’s what actually happened) and ignore the gargantuan elephant busting down the walls of the room that the person in question just chose to publicly end their own lives as a statement.”
Let’s Talk About Suicide, 13 August 2014, a post which can be read as a kind of premise to this one

As someone who wrote the above, admittedly angrily, less than three years ago, it’s been heartening to witness the sudden success and virality of both 13 Reasons Why and S-Town. They were each released in late March, just three days apart, in their respective entireties, per the new expectations of the media bingeing culture. While the former is based on a novel that’s been out for a decade now, there is poetry in this nearly simultaneous release, and the resultant arc of fame and discussion has sparked, perhaps, the beginning of a sea-change in how we address suicide in American society.

Of course, with fame and success and audience come the inevitable backlash, which has poured out in spades for both shows. In the case of the TV series, outcry has focused on raw portrayals of sexual assault and suicide in material that is clearly aimed at a younger audience. In the instance of the podcast, descriptions of suicide are deemed more tolerable, while critiques focus on invading the privacy of the suicide after his death, converting his call for an investigation into a biography of him, unearthing a number of intimate details about the man. The common thread in these critiques is the idea that we are shown too much. That there are limits and boundaries to what we should see, what we should hear, what art should attempt to portray about its subjects.

Which shows, of course, that the critics of each of these works could not possibly have done more to miss the point of their material. For what both works do, profoundly and with abandon, is demonstrate that the desire for privacy, the urge to stay quiet or, worse, miscommunicate about our feelings and intentions, is literally killing us. That suicide is not some spectral ebola: unseen, unheard, misunderstood, and treatable only with pills. Rather, suicide is the product of our society, it is rooted in a profound loneliness manufactured by our ignorance of other people’s realities and our unwillingness to share the truth of our own. Suicide is not, as the clueless adults prattle throughout 13 Reasons Why, solely the responsibility of the individual who made the decision to end their life. Instead, suicide prevention is our collective responsibility, not just with hotline referrals, but by actually opening up our lives and our hearts to those who are suffering.

And not, as so wittily and honestly depicted in 13 Reasons Why, only after a suicide. The job of preventing a potential suicide, of reaching out and listening, helping, and trying to cause less harm, starts today, whether you know someone affected or not. Because you can watch the fictional Hannah Baker, you can hear the real John B. McLemore, and you don’t have to wait for someone closer to home to kill themselves. This is the purpose of art – to serve as a proxy for horrible things so that maybe we don’t have to learn every lesson firsthand. Maybe we can learn from the experience of others, the portrayal of realistic characters, and prevent similar calamities in our own futures before it’s too late.

Suicide is a growing problem in this country. The suicide rate has increased more than 25% since I graduated high school, now killing more Americans than car accidents, which is saying something. It’s at a 30-year high in the most recently available data-year (2015), a figure that has probably increased in the subsequent year by preliminary reports. 44,193 people took their own lives in the US that year, making it the second leading cause of death for the 15-34 age group. And for all you “guns-don’t-kill” people out there, fully half of all suicides were committed via a firearm.

(Further, for all you people out there worried about terrorism, 94 Americans have been killed by terrorists since 2001, compared to the 515,654 who killed themselves from 2002-2015. That’s a ratio of 5,486:1. But it’s worse, because 49 of those 94 died in Orlando in 2016, a year for which we don’t yet have suicide data, so the ratio is actually 11,459:1. Think I’m cherry-picking by avoiding 9/11? Including 2001 brings the suicide total to 546,276 and the terrorism total to 3,028, a ratio of 180:1. Suicide is killing one-hundred and eighty times the number of Americans as terrorism since 2000, including 9/11. Can you imagine what doing 180 times as much to combat it would look like?)

Neither of the suicides in these March 2017 art works are via firearm. The fictional Hannah Baker kills herself in a very visceral wrist-slitting scene that actually made me weep while watching it. The real John B. McLemore drinks potassium cyanide while on the phone with a county clerk, as described briefly but painfully by S-Town host Brian Reed. As critical journalists have been quick to shout from the rooftops, traditional guidelines discourage detailed descriptions or depictions of suicide methodology in fear of “contagion” and “copycatting”. But this guideline misses the fine line between sensationalizing or glorifying an act and depicting its true horror. Nothing about either depiction could be confused for glorification. Rather, the message of each detailed and even gory depiction is clear: suicide is painful and difficult. This messaging achieves two fundamental things that the critics tend to miss: it illustrates both that suicide is not an easy way out, thus deterring suicide and it illustrates quite viscerally just how much pain the suicidal person is in when they undertake the act. Indeed, Hannah is surprised at how much the razors hurt when they enter her arms, having not been a cutter beforehand. And John is overwhelmed by how much the cyanide burns on its way down his throat. The fact that they follow-through demonstrates the level of suffering each of these lonely, tormented souls is enduring, emphasizing how critical it is for those who can to try to help.

But each artwork takes an additional step to further cement the messaging, veering yet further from any possible glorification and fully into the realm of deterrence. They then keep the camera or microphone on the scene to show the aftermath. Not just the long-term aftermath: for Christ’s sake, the entirety of 13 Reasons Why is about aftermath, as is about half of S-Town. But also the short-term, immediate aftermath… Hannah’s parents coming into the bathroom, unable to grapple with what’s happened, clutching their daughter and begging her to wake up. The county clerk saying, matter-of-factly, “Every night it’s a replay. I’m still just — there’s not a night that I don’t think about him, that I don’t wake up and dreaming about it, or thinking about him. Not a night.”

One of the fundamental truths of suicide is that those who undertake it feel like the walls are closing in, the options are foreclosing, and that everyone either hates them or will be better off without them. Contrary to the “revenge fantasy” notion that the media so often mistakenly finds in suicidal behavior (and is misrepresented as Hannah’s intent and story), most suicides actually believe they are removing a burden from the ones they love in the moment they commit the act. Not only is this reality well depicted in both shows, but the objective untruth of the suicides’ self-perception is also exposed, in extensive detail. 13 Reasons Why is relentless in showing how utterly bereft Hannah’s parents are, how impossibly lonely Clay is, how much she is missed by the community that made her feel unloved. Here the message may sound like an after-school teen drama: you are loved, even though it’s not cool for us to show it or even admit it. But at the same time, the exact same message shines through S-Town, as applied to a closeted eccentric in the rural South who is upwards of 50 years old. You complain that your town is anti-intellectual and desperate, but you are recognized by intellectuals the world over as a foremost artisan in an ancient skill. You feel you have no one in your life, but there are people who are willing to do extraordinary things, make themselves uncomfortable, in the hope that you will find joy or peace. It is hard for me to imagine a more hopeful message for the would-be suicide to hear, to witness, than that they are loved beyond their wildest reckoning and would do deep damage to the ones they love.

There are differences between the shows, of course, and these differences, beyond the basic questions of truth and fiction, men and women, age and youth, make the two a fitting pair in ushering in a new, more bold and open era of talking about suicide. Perhaps the most obvious is that John B. McLemore talks almost incessantly about suicide before he does it, casually throwing around plans and notions and the inevitability like he’s talking about next Tuesday’s ballgame. On the other hand, Hannah Baker dares not speak the name of suicide, of ending things at all, until the day she does it, even then retracting her statement and being coy with the school counselor mere minutes before she walks out of school and toward her bathtub. These mirrored depictions themselves are helpful reminders that what we have often been taught to watch out for by well-intentioned experts on the subject is wrong: there is rarely a clear moment of warning or an easily detectable warning sign to look out for. There is rarely a clear shift before something actually happens, which is why so many people are blindsinded, as the world most recently was by Chris Cornell a week ago, by suicides.

By telling us to worry about and care for those for whom suicide is either so stigmatized that they cannot bear to discuss the possibility, or for whom wrestling with suicide has become so commonplace that no one really hears the warnings or takes them seriously, these twin offerings remind us of the messy reality of suicide. It doesn’t come with a clear yellow flag, then a clear red, with just enough time to react. Only the most advanced and open of the suicidal are able to give that, have a network of people to whom they reach out when the triggers and risk factors mount. Far more often, the onus has to be on those around them to reach out. Not in a reactive way, not in a biohazard suit, not in a scary way to jump the gun and say “oh my gosh, are you going to kill yourself?!” But in the calm, steady, loving way of expressing appreciation, telling someone how much they mean to their world, how glad they are to have them in their world. Yes, suicide is complicated, but it is not random. Nor is it inescapable. Had either Hannah or John had people regularly, sincerely reminding them how much they meant to them in their world, easing up on the criticisms and caustic jokes, replacing some of them with risky, heartfelt appreciations, it’s hard to imagine either of them getting to the brink.

But high school and the rural South are not places where heartfelt appreciations are easily given. Guess what? Neither is anywhere else in this country, maybe outside of a few counseling centers and non-profits that take emotional affirmation and work seriously (Glide comes to mind). S-Town does a laudable job of universalizing a region of the country we so often judge and lampoon, especially on outlets like NPR, disproving the tropey assumptions that most people bring to the first episode and recognizing John as a “citizen of the world”, a place he worries about very much. And 13 Reasons Why, to its credit, makes high school a very adult place. The subject may be, partially, about not knowing how cruel high schoolers can be to each other, but it’s also about the fact that high schoolers take their world as seriously as adults do, with fully adult consequences. Over and over, adults’ inability to understand the stakes of ages 14-18 costs them the opportunity to connect with and even save their children.

Which is why I find the most frequent criticism of 13 Reasons so powerfully laughable: the idea that it’s inappropriate for young viewers. The response that any of the actual students at Liberty High would make is as follows: “So we’re young enough to live it, but not to watch a depiction of someone else living it?” Given that the most crippling and yes, suicide-inducing feeling, especially for teens, is isolation and loneliness, the idea that no one understands or cares, how can we bash a work of art that bridges that divide for bullied, assaulted, harassed, or suicidal teens?! That shows them that They are Not Alone and, maybe more importantly, that Their Problems are Real. Enforcing the reality of their problems does not make someone suicidal go over the edge; it’s the feeling that one is crazy for caring about these problems that entrenches an unconquerable loneliness and self-hatred that pushes people past the brink. Remember that the first step is admitting you have a problem? If everyone else thinks the problem is poppycock or silly, then you’re just pathetic for not being able to cope with it. If there’s acknowledgment, you can start to tackle it like a problem that’s as hard as it feels.

Which is why, as a subplot, the unvarnished and horrifying depictions of sexual assault are also part of the fundamental deterrence of bad behavior and affirmation of feelings found in the show. Like suicide itself, these kinds of scenes tend to be anesthetized on screens or, worse, sort of glorified and glamorized as in Game of Thrones. Talk about reaffirming your rape culture! By stark contrast, 13 Reasons takes every pain to show both the heartlessness of rapists and, more importantly, the immense deadening suffering experienced by their victims. By doing so, by creating a scene that itself may actually be traumatizing (another oft-lobbed critique), 13 Reasons sends a powerful antidote to any guys who may brush off their actions as un-serious, no big deal, or any of the other hundreds of excuses that rape culture makes for its atrocities. By sending this message not only to 14-18 year olds, but perhaps to the tweens as well, it serves as great counterspeech to the messaging of pornography, toxic masculinity, Game of Thrones, and society as a whole. No one can watch those scenes and not loathe the rapist, not have their heart break for their victims, not reel at the permanence of the damage that was wrought. There is nothing sensational or attractive about these illustrations, but they are real and honest and do good, hard work to deter rape without victim-blaming.

The sexual scenes in S-Town are perhaps more ambiguous in their nobility. Indeed, explorations of John’s romantic history and latent penchant for consensual mutilation have been cited as voyeuristic and, while humanizing, possibly a bridge too far for a posthumous podcast. I find this critique more understandable than those levied at 13 Reasons, but still insufficient. Through his endless talks, his extensive writing, and even the initial invitation to Brian Reed to come down to Woodstock, Alabama and start recording, it was clear that John’s search was to be understood. Or, short of that, to be heard. It is hard for me to imagine John being upset with his fate as a kind of tragic anti-hero, someone brilliant and misunderstood, loved by more than he thought, possibly felled by his own ancient practices with mercury and self-inflicted isolation. Do we need to know about his disappointing encounters with men or needles to get the full picture? I think we do. It is only by understanding the depth of his loneliness, how hard he tried, and also how unbearable his ongoing mental agony, that we can start to understand why he was in the position he is, why he did what he did.

And that’s what this is all about. Why. It’s right there in the title of one of them. The other, S-Town, is short, of course, for Shittown, the moniker the borderline anhedonic John gives his environment. Shittown is his reason why, after all. As Brian evaluates in the second episode, before we’ve learned of his suicide, “The shitty misfortunes John fixates on, they’re not a bunch of disparate things. They’re all the same thing. His Shittown is part of Bibb County, which is part of Alabama, which is part of the United States, which is part of Earth, which is experiencing climate change, which no one is doing anything about. It maddens John. The whole world is giving a collective shrug of its shoulders and saying fuck it.”

Brian goes on, even more meaningfully: “What I admire about John is that in his own misanthropic way, he’s crusading against one of the most powerful, insidious forces we face — resignation, the numb acceptance that we can’t change things. He’s trying to shake people out of their stupor, trying to convince them that it is possible to make their world a better place.”

That’s what both of these shows are doing, too. They’re campaigning against resignation, numbness, acceptance. Against the resignation that suicide will always just be there, a problem plaguing us. Against numbness to the feelings that lead some people down that path, against numbness to the idea of feelings at all: that they matter, that we are here to connect, that we should take risks with each other to create meaning instead of just following the same pattern of being cool kids who make cutting, sarcastic jokes. Against acceptance of what happens to us: cruelty, isolation, loneliness, rape, suicide. These things don’t get better by putting up posters, by labeling people, by pointing the long narrow finger to go talk to some other person who can handle you and your problems. They get better by us seeing care for others as our collective responsibility, reaching out, taking risks.

Most critical pieces on 13 Reasons Why, especially in statements posted by anti-suicide organizations, have cited a notable uptick in calls and even hospitalizations stemming from the release of the show. How or why this could possibly be a critique of the show rather than a compliment baffles me. With well over 40,000 suicides completed each year, plenty of people are failing to either seek or receive the help they need to stay alive. If more people are seeking that help in the wake of a show that speaks honestly about these issues, isn’t that an improvement? When more people sign up for health insurance, health-care advocates see that as a victory. Why not the same when more people call the suicide hotline? Isn’t that the whole point of posting suicide hotline numbers everywhere? To get people to actually call and talk?

Your mileage with suicidalism and with these pieces may vary. It’s worth noting that, despite the binge-ability of these works, I just finished each of them within the last 24 hours, having taken weeks to absorb both. Part of this is because I’ve been doing a lot of writing in the last two months, as well as some debate travel, so I haven’t been in a position to just sit down and listen for seven hours or watch for thirteen. It’s quite possible that the emotional overwhelm of that experience is less manageable than manually stretching it out. That Hannah’s descent into cascading calamity feels more like madness at that pace, that John’s depression is contagious at that speed.

But I still fundamentally deny the premise that suffering like that is so contagious, or that it redoubles the pain for those already hurting. We are all trapped in our own skins, all living with ourselves constantly and hoping to make fleeting contact with other souls on this isolated rock. Hearing about and, more importantly, really understanding the pain and reasoning of a relatable human being is so often soothing. Yes, if all the inputs are for hopeless despair, that can get overwhelming. But in showing that Hannah and John were loved more than they knew, were understandable, in treating their lives and deaths with respect and compassion, we get tragedy without hopelessness. We get a model for what not to do next time, in our own lives, how not to turn away and isolate ourselves and others.

Both shows are meditations on time. John with his old clocks brought back to life, his painstaking evaluation of the value of a life. Hannah with her examination of causation, of the precise point of no return, of minutes on a tape until it clicks. All we have is the time we are given. And in seeing honest examples of those who choose to cut that short, we might better appreciate the use of it when we awaken tomorrow.

If we shun these depictions, if we shame them as showing too much too riskily, we build taboos around suicide as strong as any stigma that we’ve carried from our cultural history. As shown in these shows, suicide is hard enough to talk about sincerely and seriously without slamming the few major media pieces that can actually manage to do so. If we want people to ask for help, we have to be ready to give it. And that requires being willing to see, hear, and think about suicide in all its messy horror. Hopefully 13 Reasons Why and S-Town are just early heralds in this new open, honest, and authentic approach to an issue we are all, in some way, affected by.


This is the part of the article where I’m supposed to provide the number for a suicide hotline. A suicide hotline may help you connect with someone to talk about why you’re feeling suicidal and how things can get better. Call 1-800-273-8255 if you’re in crisis or need to talk to someone. Yes, it can be awkward and weird. But as I’ve always said about suicide, if you’re willing to entertain ending everything, shouldn’t you try everything else first, just in case?

But I’m also going to invite you to reach out to me if you want. I’m assuming pretty much everyone here reading this blog knows or has known me in some way or at some point, so hopefully you feel comfortable reaching out. If you don’t know me, the proverbial door is still open. E-mail me at storey@bluepyramid.org. Make no mistake, the call to the hotline above will be faster and put you in touch with someone more officially trained in ways of dealing with suicidal ideation. But I am a 27-year survivor of suicidalism and may have some ideas or insights or tips that are not part of mainline conventional wisdom in suicide prevention. A list of some of these tips is available toward the end of this post.

So if you think I could be helpful, reach out. It’s only by people connecting with other people that we’re going to start to beat this thing.


Joyce Hayes died yesterday morning. Not by suicide, but at the end of a long illness. She was 72. By any rights, this post tonight should have been about her, but I am still processing her death and what it means to me and the countless lives she touched and saved. I have been thinking about this post for a long time, it’s been building, and I had to get it out of my system before addressing the power of Joyce’s love and its impact on the Glide community and beyond. Hopefully that will be up in a day or two.

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Five-Hundred

Categories: A Day in the Life, Let's Go M's, Tags: ,

The Mariners shake hands in celebration of winning their 17th game of the year, 11-6, in Philadelphia. They are now 17-17, at .500 for the first time this season.

My friend Matt Frese posted, despondently, last night on Facebook, after the Washington Capitals’ 2-0 Game 7 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL quarterfinals. He asked the following simple question, in the form of a statement:

Not sure why I sports.

This is a question I’ve meditated on periodically, most recently last August, when I concluded that sports (and Mariners baseball in particular) were bad for my mental health. In that post, I repeated something from April 2015, which is my ultimate answer to this issue:

Sports are objectively stupid. They take valuable energy and resources away from fixing our problems, offering little beyond the value of pure entertainment, already an overrated pursuit in our society. I have made my peace with the fact that baseball is wasteful and unhelpful and still I love it and can’t help myself. I will always pursue it, always invest time and emotion and energy better suited for nobler things into the crack of the bat and the dive of the catch and the eruption of tens of thousands as a ball clears a wall. It’s silly. It’s nostalgic and beautiful and heart-rending and strategic, but it’s also silly.

But I also suggested this answer to Frese last night:

To flavor your life with arbitrary turns of euphoria and tragedy.

The exaggerative nature of those words is, of course, deliberate. Sports have a way of feeling completely disproportionately important, impacting moods and whole world-views at an almost unrivaled level. People cheer, they dance, they celebrate, they fly across the country for a single game. They also throw things at their TVs or computers, cry, yell, scream, and fall on the bare floor in anguish. And while much of the joy and sadness is shared with other like-minded fans, the emotional reality is individually felt and experienced. It’s about a single fan’s relationship with their team.

My team, of course, more than any other, is and remains the Seattle Mariners. And in the last two days, they both swept the Philadelphia Phillies in a short two-game series and got word that a fourth of their starting five pitchers was joining the other three on the Disabled List (DL). It was only their second sweep of the year, after a 4-game series against the Rangers that took them from an almost-DOA record of 2-8 to an almost-tolerable 6-8. But the loss of Hisashi Iwakuma to injury means that the only starting pitcher from our intended opening day rotation healthy enough to still play is Yovani Gallardo, our #5 starter. He threw yesterday. We are entering a 4-game set in Toronto which will feature none of our original starting pitchers, with the great Felix Hernandez, breakout James Paxton, and new Mariner (who has yet to throw for Seattle) Drew Smyly sidelined.

I watched all of yesterday’s game and the last couple innings of the game before. Alex and I saw a movie the night before last, so I asked her to check the M’s score when we were on our way from there to Lowe’s. She put the phone away quietly after checking and didn’t answer my question. I assumed they were down 11 runs or something for her to deny me the score with such summary judgment. “No,” she responded, “but they’re down 9-5.”

“Oh, just four runs? What inning?”

“The sixth.”

I waved it away. “That’s not even bad. Not great, but not bad.”

My cavalier response here was because the Mariners, unlike years of Mariners teams since the record-breaking 2001 season, are long on offense to go with their shortness on pitching. They have scored more runs than almost any other AL team, sport three of the top ten hitters in the league by batting average, including batting leader Jean Segura, and seem capable of putting up a big inning with ease. Unfortunately, the bullpen is terrible and most of the starters are hurt, so we’re fielding something like last year’s AA pitching staff, with predictable results. Sure enough, though, by the time we left Lowe’s, the M’s had tied the score at 9 apiece. We listened to the next inning on the way home, then switched to the computer and MLB.tv in time to see Motter’s game-winning double (scoring Segura) in the top of the 9th and watch Eddie Diaz shut it down in the bottom. Mariners 10, Phillies 9.

Yesterday, on the other hand, was a laugher. The M’s were up 11-3 after a five-run 7th and a three-run 8th. The game had been tied at 3 for several innings, so the breakout was wonderful because it enabled the game to be both close and a blowout, maximizing fan enjoyment. Of course, then the bullpen pitched in the 8th and 9th, so we only won 11-6 ultimately, giving even the Phils fans some meaningless homers to cheer for before we got out of things. Thankfully, it didn’t lead to somehow coughing up a 9-1 lead for a 10-9 loss like back in game 7, when I first gave up on the M’s this year (they’d had a 9-1 lead in a game early after a really tough start to the season; the loss clinched a sweep-loss to the Angels, who are not great this year, and put our record at 1-6).

One and six feels like a distant memory now, though, as does 2-8. For the first time all year, the M’s are .500, winning as much as they lose, having gone 15-9 since 2-8. 17-17 is not just a PIN that I’ve used in the past, it’s a record that promises that things could go up from here. Of course, the health of our pitching staff portends trouble on that horizon. But if you score a double-digit number of runs each game, you can afford to have no pitching. Like Blazers teams in the early 90s that used to beat people 140-135, you just run up the score enough to make up for your total lack of defense.

This is also like the Mariner teams in the mid-to-late 90s, when we used to make the playoffs in the bandbox known as the Kingdome. The team was laden with offensive All-Stars: Griffey, A-Rod, Edgar, Jay Buhner. The team had, really, exactly one pitcher, Randy Johnson, and a bunch of also-rans who gave up just few enough runs to hold the lead our team would build. But that was part of the magic of ’95: no lead was insurmountable because their staff was never safe from the runs our team could score. I’ve talked about how ’95 being the seminal year in my sports fandom has created unrealistic expectations for the future. Coming back from one of the largest deficits in history has made Mariners fans feel like all future deficits are bridgeable, even though most of the last few seasons have resulted in near-misses, extending baseball’s longest streak of standing outside the expanding playoff picture.

But 17-17 is a reset. It’s .500. It means we could start winning even more now, especially since we’ve erased a dismal start.

.500 means something else, too, of course. It means watching a game is a roulette wheel, a perfectly even bet. Red or black? Win or lose? They’re equally likely.

This is the contract we sign whenever we, as devoted fans, start watching a game. We are about to have our day made or ruined. And we choose to do this to ourselves, voluntarily. Do we think the benefits of the day being made outweigh the negative potential of it being ruined? Maybe. Not necessarily, though. I don’t think we think about it rationally at all. We watch because we are fans and we accept the 50/50 because we have no other choice. Sure, we can try to put on just the right hat or do just the right series of actions to maintain a winning streak. But it’s 50/50 at the end of the day. Or, yesterday, as a Mariners fan, at the end of yesterday.

They’re riding a 4-game winning streak. In their last homestand, they went 4-2 with both losses being in extra innings (11 and 13 innings, respectively). These are promising, positive signs. But it’s 50/50 every time, a crapshoot, a spin of the wheel. And I sign away my mood an my outlook, free of charge. Because maybe it will be that amazing comeback, or that close game-turned-laugher. Maybe we have the lineup to make the deep run this year. Or maybe I just wanna believe.

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You Had Me at Hashbrowns

Categories: A Day in the Life, Adventures in Uber, Marching to New Orleans, Tags: , ,

Jazz Fest Friday, 3 AM. Second weekend. One of the busiest times of the year, falling somewhere below Mardi Gras, Halloween, and arguably St. Patrick’s Day, but above most other festivals and happenings that dot the landscape of New Orleans’ social calendar. Jazz Fest is not, primarily, jazz music, instead attracting some of the largest rock acts in the world, including (this year alone) Dave Matthews, Tom Petty, Stevie Wonder, and Maroon 5. Thousands descend on New Orleans from all over, but this year they mostly seemed to come from the Bay Area. Having lived seven years in Oakland and Berkeley myself, I have a lot to chat about with folks from the Bay. It seems like they have most of the money to spend in contemporary America – on travel, housing, and everything else. Though our primary discussion topic tends to be how expensive it is to live in the Bay Area.

I’m on the West Bank, having deposited recent Jazz Festers from the Bay in their hotel on the south side of the river. It being a Jazz Fest Friday, my rides have been queuing up all night, one after the next, so I’m called to a random address near the Harvey Canal that bisects the West Bank. I pull up, under the high arc of the bridge that crosses the Canal, a pillared bridge that ascends altogether too high (95 feet) for the meager offering of water it transcends. Indeed, the entire US highway, locally known as the Westbank Expressway, stands elevated at a height well above what seems necessary to offer safe passage above the canal.

To my right is a razor-wired fence, behind which is an automotive shop, lit up from every angle but looking deserted. I am dubious that my riders are at Tek Automotive and after two minutes send them a text confirming this location. I can’t imagine where we are even near that could be the actual pickup spot, so I’m half expecting a night-owl grease-monkey to emerge from the shop when I get the reply text. They are, apparently, at Tunnel Club, a place I’ve never heard of. I plug it into my map app and learn it’s around the corner.

The Tunnel Club is a new place, so named for its proximity to the Harvey Tunnel, the original way to get around the canal before they built the oversized bridge. The bridge was completed in 1984; the tunnel in 1954. Before that, presumably, one had to caulk the wagon and float across the canal.
Two very large guys paired with two extremely small women are standing outside the club. The size differential here is both comprehensive and comical: the guys are both extremely tall and overweight; the women both short and underweight. They start to pile in, the guys giving the car the standard skeptical once-over I’m used to for the Versa Note before its TARDIS-like interior is revealed. I confirm their name as they enter and one of the guys introduces himself and then one of the women as his sister. I’m confused at first, because the couples seemed to be romantically engaged, but it becomes clear before long that the siblings are with each of their spouses. And shortly thereafter that one of these spouses is Not Okay.

It seems like standard-issue drunkenness at first. She is eerily quiet in stark contrast to the other three’s boisterous, almost celebratory fervor. They are on their way to eat at a late-night spot, the Wego Inn, in Westwego, salivating as they discuss the foods that await them. Not a peep from Quiet Girl. In a brief pause in the revelrous conversation, I hear the telltale ominous hiccups of the about-to-spew. I’m not the only one and her husband asks if she’s okay. She snaps in reply. He tries to soothe her with the upcoming food. “I’m not hungry,” she mopes back. “Why can’t we just go home?”

“We’re all hungry,” he insists. “Aren’t you hungry? You’ll be hungry when we get there!”

They discuss Jazz Fest, the bands they saw, the long night of drinking that’s followed. They explain that one couple is in town from Mississippi, that they come down every year, get the family together, see the music, hang out late. The guy in shotgun, husband of Quiet Girl, is the loudest, telling me corny jokes and asking me how long I’m driving tonight, if I like driving for Uber. I say I do, I say it’s an adventure, that you never know what you’re going to get.
“Assholes like us, you mean? I bet you pray you don’t get us!”

“No, no,” I reply quickly. “I find it entertaining. I drive the overnight in New Orleans, man. You have to be entertained by people.”

“By assholes like us.”

“You’re just having a good time.”

“Damn right we are!”

There is a sense in the car that we are blasting music even though the radio is silent. This happens sometimes: people try to recreate the atmosphere of the bar they just left in the car, especially if it’s crowded. They don’t want the party to end.

“Hey man, what do we do if we get stranded?” the guy in shotgun asks me.

“Stranded?”

“It’s Westwego at fucking three-thirty in the morning. We’re not gonna be able to get an Uber out here.”

“Oh.”

“I mean, we might if we’re lucky. But what would it take for you to wait for us. Wait maybe… twenty minutes?”
I don’t say anything for a few seconds.

“It’s gonna be more than twenty minutes,” his sister said. “By the time we order and wait and eat and everything. And with this one?” she must be indicating her semi-comatose compatriot. “There’s no way.”

“Hm. Is that true?” he addresses me. “Is there no way?”

I don’t relish spending twenty minutes of my waning Jazz Fest Friday languishing on the deep end of the West Bank, as far as possible from the surging downtown. Much less the fifty minutes it will probably actually be. “Well, if ever you can’t find an Uber, you can try Lyft? Download Lyft and they’ll always give you a ride.”

“Is that through Uber?”

“No, it’s a different app. Works the same way. But Uber only gives drivers rides within ten, maybe fifteen minutes sometimes. So you can get stranded. Lyft will give you a driver from anywhere: twenty, thirty minutes away. So you can always get a Lyft.” Look at me, being part of the problem.

“We don’t like Lyft!” the sister chimes in. “We like Uber. We don’t like that other app.”

It occurs to me they might be Trump voters. Or they had a bad experience with a Lyft driver, or didn’t like waiting twenty-five minutes for a ride. Or, longshot perhaps, they just don’t like pink.

“Well that’s an option, just for this ride,” I suggest lamely.

“Hm.”

Boister continues to reign in the car until we start to pull up in sight of the Wego Inn. And then everyone gets quiet all at once. The guy in shotgun swears, “Goddamit. It’s closed. Now what?”

“Waffle House!” exclaims his sister. “I told you we’d end up there.”

“Since when does Wego Inn close this early on a Friday?”

“They probably close at three.”

“All right, turn that shit off,” he indicates the GPS which he’s been encouraging me to ignore anyway, despite duplicating its instructions. “Just keep straight here a few miles.”

“It is not a few miles,” his sister retorts. “It’s just up there.”

Sure enough, the welcoming yellow sign, among my favorite icons in American eating. They have no idea how I feel about Waffle House, of course, but I get a sense how this night is about to unfold. Call it a premonition, or maybe it’s just the siren call of hashbrowns on a grill, long since committed to Pavlovian association with pending satisfaction.

“Say,” the guy in shotgun breathes in sharply, building up to a sales pitch aimed my way. “I don’t suppose you’re hungry? Want a little breakfast? We could buy you breakfast and then you could drive us home, maybe?”

“Leave the guy alone,” his sister scolds. “He does not want to come into Waffle House with us – he can’t wait to be rid of us!”

A pause.

“See, he’s not even listening.”

“I’m thinking,” I correct, a grin spilling onto my face in the darkness, now exposed to the harsh white light of a highway streetlamp.

“He’s thinking about it! Hoo boy! We will buy you breakfast and tip you good!”

I put my turn signal on to enter the parking lot. I’ve just been building a little drama for the inevitable. “I’ll do it!”

“Really?!”

“I’m in. Let’s go get some breakfast!”

They actually high-five me in the parking lot once we’ve arrived, three of them in turn, made all the more awkward for the fact that I don’t know these people, that we haven’t seen each other really, that they are all comically taller or shorter than I am, that it is very late and they are drunk. One more than the rest. The one who does not high-five me. She scowls as she trails the rest of us into the overlit restaurant, glaring at the waitress who welcomes her to Waffle House over the mild din of the dishes she’s washing. I sense trouble brewing, but I am too excited about hashbrowns to pay it much mind. The guys quickly decide on the counter and the guy who’d been in back, not the brother, gratuitously indicates my stool on the end of the group. “Order anything you want,” he says to me. “And thanks so much for doing this.”

“Thank you,” I smile. “I love Waffle House.”

Menus are distributed and they love the fact that I don’t need one, that I know what I want before even settling in. I’m the only one who orders water instead of a soda or iced tea, the only one who doesn’t gaze in a vague stupor at both sides of the menu. The drunker woman is the vocal one now, complaining about being here and how long this will take, complaining about the lack of options at the House. Her companions are just hungry.

As soon as orders are in, the guy next to me, big enough to block out any ability for me to see the other folks we’re dining with, makes small talk with me about where in the city I live, how long I’ve been in town, where I grew up. He’s enthusiastic and genuinely friendly. He’s also the local, part of the hosting couple in the party of four, but he re-explains all their relationships and adds that he’s best friends with the other guy, though it’s not clear if that pre-dates marrying this friend’s sister or not. I’ve really only caught his name clearly of the four, but I’m bad with names in the best of times (the product of having a very unusual and memorable name myself) and while driving for Uber, there’s a part of my brain that just is overfull from other stimulus and can’t internalize names for long. Granted, I’m not driving in this moment, and the surreality of that is kind of hitting me in waves. I take breaks at Waffle House maybe once a week, but it’s always a solo experience, with a book or my phone, my standard late-night loner approach. It’s very different not be observing the overloud drunk crew that comes in (the guy next to me actually carried his beer from the car into the place and was, surprisingly, not asked to throw it out) but to actually be, in some way, of them.

A small cockroach darts from the little cubby of condiments and napkin dispenser that’s holding up the menus, tilts its antennae searchingly in the middle of the counter, and then breaks toward the edge of the counter in the direction of the drunker woman. She sees it, finally, screams, swats at it errantly with a menu, and it drops from the counter either to the floor or on her. She howls like a wounded wolf incoherently, flees for the door, and stands at the edge of the door. “Did you see that? Did you see that? I’ve got to get out of here!”

We all saw it.

“Don’t leave, honey,” her husband says, perfunctorily. “It’s just a little bug.”

She flees wordlessly.

The other woman looks pointedly at the young waitress, who is standing there frozen and unsure what to do next. “Food’s free, right?”

“Um,” the waitress says.

The guys come to the waitress’ aid. “It’s just a bug,” her brother says. “I mean, you’re in the South.”

“I was born and raised here, thank you very much,” his sister retorts. “And I can’t stand ’em.”

“But you ain’t running out the door, are you? Jesus, do you see what I have to put up with?”

“I know. I know. But she’s just had too much.”

“It’s like this every time with her. You’ve seen it. I have to deal with this all the time.”

I think about my own fiancée, how she responds to roaches in our own apartment, wonder how I can tell her this story later without her swearing off Waffle House forever, which she has already nearly done. I wonder if mentioning something about her aversion to bugs and how she would have done the same in this situation will help or hurt. I decide on help shortly after the guy who is not the fleeing woman’s husband volunteers to go out and try to calm her down. I relate my fiancée’s perspective to the woman who remains.

“I was born and raised in the South,” she repeats. “But I hate ’em. Just those. I can deal with snakes, sharks, you name it, whatever. But I’m with her. I hate ’em.”

“But you’re still sitting here and you’re gonna eat your food, ain’t you?” her brother inquires.

“Well yeah.”

They begin a sidebar about how to deal with the absent woman’s drinking in that kind of half-hushed tone of people trying to have a private conversation in a context that utterly disallows it. I feign distraction while trying to listen. There is something about the woman’s parents agreeing with the guy that she’s a mess when she drinks, an ongoing monologue about how important it is to be able to have a good time without getting like that, the layers of denial that happen every time she sobers up. I am trying to be as neutral an observer as possible, but I’m unsure I’ve seen anything too unwarranted in her behavior other than being somber when others were jubilant and desiring to go home instead of eat. The bug did come at her, after all.

I let my mind wander, feeling a little sheepish about the eavesdropping, however inevitable it is. The other two have been gone an awkwardly long time. The food arrives. I start to eat. It occurs to me that if this were a movie, the other two would be out having sex behind the Waffle House dumpster, continuing a torrid periodic affair that they clandestinely conduct under the noses of the siblings they married. It occurs to me that this is not out of the question and I desperately hope it’s not true, for many reasons. By the time the remaining woman actually goes outside, I have considered this scenario to the point that I find myself actually bracing for her return.

But everything’s fine. They come back in, resume their seats, the woman who fled pushing her food away and literally turning her nose up. The guy next to me digs in heartily and there’s a tenuous silent peace, punctuated by another howl from the drunker woman.

“A hair! Do you see that?! There’s a hair on my plate. Oh, fuck this.”

She runs away, double the pace at which she fled the bug. The guy who’d left to talk to her before shrugs, mouth full of eggs. “I give up, man. I tried. It took me twenty minutes to talk her back into coming back in.”

“What should we do with her food?”

“Box it up. Someone’ll eat it later.”

“She sure as hell won’t,” her husband mutters.

“How’s your food?” the guy next to me asks me. “Glad you did this?”

“Oh yeah,” I say. “It hit the spot.”

It’s twelve more minutes before we’ve all finished and the guy pays the check in cash. I hope they’ve tipped well, but there’s really no way I can possibly check without it being too awkward. The woman is seated on the concrete half-curb outside, where I have to imagine it is quite likely there have been bugs recently. I unlock the car and one of the guys tries to say something vaguely rousing and encouraging. Stony silence is his answer. I have been wondering whether to turn the app on and ask them to officially request the ride, but that seems both ungrateful and inappropriate to the mood, so I just hope we’re close to their place and don’t bother. If they tip, great. If not, they did buy me breakfast and I had to get back toward the city anyway.

It proves to be a short ride, about two miles, out to a development that was as earlier described by the woman who lives there. She’d mentioned how isolated they were, how they have one of the only six homes in this not-that-new development. I have to wonder if it was built in 2008 or if it’s just still too far out into the suburbs to be successful or if there’s something else wrong with the area. Her brother tersely navigates and then I leave them at the only house in sight, which they still gratuitously describe as we approach as “there, by all those parked cars.”

They are grateful as they get out, all but the woman who ran twice, who bolts for the door like there’s a bug behind her. The guy who’d sat next to me peels a twenty from a wad of cash in his pocket and hands it to me.

“Thanks so much. And sorry about everything.”

“Thank you. Thanks for breakfast too. And no problem. Hope everything’s okay.”

“She’ll be fine in the morning,” he responds, hand on the top of the door about to close. “She always is.”


This is an excerpted chapter of the in-progress book tentatively titled Driving for U: Behind the Wheel of a New Orleans Uber by Storey Clayton. If you are in the publishing industry and would like to contact Storey about this book, please e-mail him at storey@bluepyramid.org.

by

Record 4 Million French Voters Resist Binary Runoff

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: ,

The actual results of voting in France yesterday, with the actual percentages of voters.

The headlines about France today correctly report that previously unelected businessman Emmanuel Macron crushed legacy politician Marine Le Pen in yesterday’s runoff for the French Presidency. This was expected and unsurprising, though the media wanted to treat it like a surprise after seeming surprises in the Brexit vote and the US Presidential elections in 2016. By mistakenly conflating the US, UK, and France as all the same country and part of the same set of movements, the media tried to build the case for suspense in this election and claim that Marine Le Pen would ride the wave of right-wing populist resistance into contention. Obviously, that didn’t happen.

What also didn’t happen, however, is that Macron won with 66.1% of the vote to Le Pen’s 33.9%, the figures that have been reported in every major outlet. He actually received 58.5% to Le Pen’s 30.0%. Still a crushing victory. But it also accounts for the 11.5% of people who marched to the polls merely to cast a protest vote, submitting either a blank or spoiled ballot.

The significance of these voters is hard to overstate. There was nothing else on the ballot at this referendum. There were no mayors or parliamentary representatives, no local ordinances or dog-catchers. Just the Presidency. And more than 4 million French voters went to the polls only to say non loudly and clearly to both Macron and Le Pen.

A fair amount has been reported about the turnout for the election, the lowest by percentage since 1969. And that data point is also, of course, a form of protest with its own significance. But the problem with abstaining from a vote is that your votes don’t get counted anywhere. You don’t demonstrate the power of your protest by making someone count it up. But 4 million French voters forced someone to count. And it’s important in our assessment of this election and what it means for the future of Europe, democracy, and European democracy, that we don’t pretend those people don’t exist and didn’t vote. They did and we ignore them at our peril.

What’s so significant about those folks, of course, is that they didn’t have a third option of a person to vote for. We are recited the absurd narrative here in the United States that it is only the existence of people like Jill Stein and Gary Johnson, of Ralph Nader, Ross Perot, John Anderson, and so on, that enables people to not fall in line behind one of the two major party candidates. That all of those votes and voters are the rightful property of one of the two major parties (increasingly we are told they are all, to a soul, the rightful property of the Democrats) and would instantly vote D or R were it not for the wayward allure of third parties mucking everything up. And yet, in a situation where there are literally only two people for whom one can legally vote, the third option won 11.5% of the tally. Which dwarfs the 5.7% combined offered to third parties in 2016 America.

Given that over 60% of those who voted for Macron said they were doing so primarily to vote “not Le Pen”, the headline of a resounding mandate for the unpolitical business figure starts to crumble. Certainly a huge number of US voters in 2016 trudged to the polls to cast a “not Clinton” or “not Trump” ballot, culminating in a slight edge for “not Clinton” in the electoral college. We’ve seen exactly how little of a mandate Trump has, both politically and popularly, since his election. And we should expect the same trail of resistance to Macron, even more so for the fact that he entirely lacks a parliamentary party. He will have to try to backfill it in order to govern.

Make no mistake, right-wing nationalism has been turned away in France with yesterday’s vote. But increasingly, the politics of binary choices between right-wing nationalism and uber-capitalist globalism is also getting soundly rejected. And to pretend that binary democracy-as-usual is coasting along just fine when turnout plummets and 11.5% of voters take the time out of their day to register their rejection seems to miss the boat of our current trends.

We are told all the time that enough voters to swing the election stayed home in any given election. But we are also told by the same people that there are only two real choices in any vote. How do people not understand that the latter perception causes the former? Even in a situation where there are actually only two choices, the people are saying no. Only if someone listens to this will more people feel compelled to engage in their democracy, to find that it is responsive enough to be worthy of their engagement. Until then, the gap of disconnection between the wealthy politicians and the disaffected they leave behind will only widen.

by

The Health of a Nation

Categories: A Day in the Life, It's the Stupid Economy, Marching to New Orleans, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, What Dreams May Come, Tags: , , , ,

Last night, I had a dream that I was in an airplane and it was landing and I kept looking up front at the cockpit and wanting to see outside but it was blocked, just this blue door and white walls and I had this vague sense of foreboding because I wanted to see and it was weird, wrong, really wrong that you couldn’t see out the front, couldn’t even see where you were going, but I knew we were descending and then somehow I could see below us, even though the floor was solid and there was luggage below, but I could see we were over New York City and look, there’s Columbia, and gosh these buildings seem awfully close but the pilot’s got it, we’re fine, although what airport is on Manhattan and south of Columbia, but maybe it’s just the long way to JFK somehow, the scenic route, but we’re still descending and then the left wing tilts and scrapes a building and the plane lurches down and everything goes black.

I used to die in my dreams. People told me it wasn’t possible, that you wake up before you hit the ground. But I didn’t. I hit and just stayed there, internalizing the fact that I was dead. In this dream, last night, it went black, I didn’t actually wait for the sickening clatter of the plane to the ground. But it was black and cold and silent for a while. And I was totally enthralled, had no sense of it being a dream. This is it, I thought. Moment of truth. Do I die and nothing? Or is there something? What’s next? Oh please, let there be something as I’ve always thought.

And then I blinked, fluttered, my eyes opened, and I was where I fell asleep last night, there with Alex in the guest bedroom as we’ve been camping out during a recent bizarre half-circuit power-outage. Everything was monochrome, black and white, an old-time movie of my life? Alex remained asleep as I gently left the bed, padded to the main bedroom, found my parents asleep there. Color slowly started to filter in to the picture, flecks of vibrant rain hitting the monochrome canvas of my eyes. It remained grainy, like a newsreel, my vision following the evolution of film over the course of minutes. No one woke up, no one stirred. Is this death? Wandering the hallways of your memory while the people you loved who remain alive sleep? Do you sit in the rooms of your past, slowly waiting for them to awaken by passing through themselves?

I don’t know how long I stood there, in the rooms of the apartment, breathing heavily, nervous, but also relieved to learn there was more, that the horrifying plane crash was not the final scene, before I opened the front door, was bathed in bright blinding light, and finally actually awoke. It took me thirty seconds or so to realize that the plane crash was not real, that I remained truly alive.

I haven’t been close to dying in a while. Sure, I feel like I’m going to die every time I get a migraine, at least a little (is this one so bad that it’s actually a brain tumor?), and there was that one incident a few years back. Probably the closest I’ve really been lately, though there are always driving near-misses when drunk New Orleanians run stop signs at breakneck speeds in front of me, was back in October ’09, my only really serious car accident. It turned out fine, but was a few feet from being devastating. I had health insurance back then.

I have health insurance now, ostensibly. But not really. As of January 2017, I have coverage that costs me $55 a month (with extensive subsidies – the sticker price is over $300/month) and entitles me to pay essentially sticker price for health care transactions up to $4800 before it starts helping out. I did not have health insurance of any kind from June-December 2016. I thought I would have to pay a penalty to the government for this, but I learned in January that since health care coverage would have cost more than 8% of my official annual income of $27,717.96, I was exempted from the penalty. I had spent the year in some sort of uncanny valley where I was neither entitled to subsidies on coverage nor required to abide by the individual mandate because it was so expensive. This was also true from September-December 2014, when I first moved to New Orleans and was playing poker before I got a job. I didn’t have health insurance then, nor did I have to pay a penalty. At least the government’s effort to solve hunger by forcing people to buy food did not bankrupt those people for not being able to afford food. Strangely, though, it didn’t do anything about the, y’know, hunger issue.

I went to the doctor for the first time in almost two years on Tuesday. My ear hadn’t popped for a week after I got off the plane back from APDA Nationals. I’d boarded a plane sick in Newark, had some pressure landing in Chicago, and then had my ear almost explode (it felt like – I’m sure it wasn’t actually close) while landing in New Orleans. I hadn’t been able to hear more than a muffle out of it for a week. Two days after landing, I used Alex’s Teladoc service, which I’m entitled to use through her healthcare, to call a doctor, describe my symptoms, and get some prescriptions to try to open the ear and fight off the infection. I’d nearly exhausted the antibiotics and prednisone with no relief by the time I reluctantly made an appointment to see a real physical doctor.

My “primary care provider,” such as it is (I’ve only seen one doctor multiple times in my conscious life – the phrase “my doctor” has never quite registered with me) is part of a health clinic literally around the corner from my apartment. They were in the running for the Impact 100 grant from the Greater New Orleans Foundation the year that I helped CIS win. The place is pretty, recently refurbished, with the standard over-bright waiting room and a giant LCD TV for the impatient patrons. They charged me $80 for the visit, but seemed visibly upset to do so, asking me to come back with proof of income so they could charge me less. I agreed to return for a partial refund. When I did, though, they saw my tax statement and grimaced. “We should have charged you $120,” the helpful woman at the desk said. “We’ll let it slide this time, but if you come back, your visits will be $120.”

That ear pressure wash I received at the doctor’s was definitely nice and certainly helped, though not enough to restore hearing. (It’s coming back, slowly, almost at 80% now.) But I could buy the machine for less than $120.

I did try to go to the doctor a few months ago. To urgent care, actually. Alex and I had lice. We didn’t quite realize that yet – Alex had a student with lice in her classroom, but it had been dealt with. I’m not quite sure what we thought urgent care could do about lice, but we were excited that I had health insurance again so I could do things like go to urgent care when my head was itching and we thought we’d seen suspicious bugs on my head. They quoted a price of $152 to get in the door. We politely declined and went on our way. Fortunately, within the day, we were able to spend a little less than that on two visits from a private home-visit service. A wonderful woman came out and very patiently combed literally thousands of lice out of Alex’s and my hair. It was a humbling and educational experience I thought I’d never have, at least once I made it through grade school without the specter of lice ever manifesting. It was also a reminder of what one can get accustomed to – the woman said we’d had lice for weeks, growing into a full-fledged infestation. Alex had admittedly gone to the doctor for general itchiness in that span; the doctor had missed the lice.

I recognize that the ACA has tangibly helped a lot of people. I recognize that I am not the target audience or consumer for the ACA, really, that it’s striving to help those with seriously low income or no income by getting them access to some kind of healthcare. But I also wonder about the overall degradation of what we think of as healthcare. The ACA theoretically puts in some sort of standards for what is considered health insurance to prevent scammers from dominating the market. But can we really consider a plan where it’s out of pocket until $4800 is spent “insurance”? Or, worse, “coverage”? Yes, it would be handy, though still devastatingly expensive, if I had a catastrophic accident or diagnosis. But short of that, I don’t really feel like I have healthcare coverage. I feel like I am paying $650 a year for the right to pay the uninsured rate if I actually want to see a doctor. And I’m super lucky that I live with someone with access to Teladoc. Alex and I have joked-not-joked several times about getting officially married early just so I can enjoy her healthcare benefits.

I used to look quizzically at people when they said the primary reason they had a job was for health insurance. This, of course, was in the days when pre-existing conditions were reason to terminate coverage for people (only after they’d paid months of premiums first, usually, but just as they made their first claim). Employers offering insurance could force their insurers to cover people no matter what, so people with health problems needed to work to be well. But in those days, as I recall, health insurance actually meant health insurance. Co-pays were nominal, deductibles covered pretty much everything. Maybe I was in a bubble living in California, but I didn’t think, in talking with people across the country, that my experience was that exceptional. Now, even Alex’s supposedly great health care coverage through work asks her to pay a lot out of pocket for going to the doctor, with mystery “lab fees” showing up for more than $100 without notice. When I tried to fight one of these with the insurer, the insurer literally said “you are responsible for any fees incurred by services – you can ask the doctor if there will be fees, but they probably won’t know.”

I recognize and acknowledge my privilege in this discussion. I have generally been extremely healthy. I am currently choosing to not hold a traditional day job so I can pursue a specific adventure and my writing. I live in a two-income household. I have a decent amount of savings and no debt.

However, my privilege here actually makes things worse. It’s a larger condemnation of the situation. If I am paying that much, that stymied by the system, with all my advantages, I can’t even imagine how someone with less access or less opportunity is faring. Let alone if I were someone who had some regular need to visit a medical professional. Good God.

Of course, the front line for today’s debate about healthcare in America is not about how insufficient Obamacare is, how much it’s quietly enabled a rollback of what we consider healthcare in this country, of the costs we expect the individual to bear for their own health. It is on the other side, how we can defend the paltry patchy efforts of Obamacare against a backslide into the world of terminated coverage and no guarantees. I think Obamacare is terrible, mostly for the opportunity cost of its moment in history not leading to single-payer or at least a public option, but also for the orientation around insurers as the primary player to protect and serve, part of decades of legislation being designed to serve the corporation above any actual person or other institution. But of course the idea that we would gut the few tolerable provisions of Obamacare is awful, too, even more awful, unless under some sort of accelerationism we believe that two years of that will finally usher in a world where the government treats “not dying” like it is part of the right to life.

As this first-in-years visit to the doctor reminded me, my window on youthful unfettered health is starting to close. It was my first lifetime visit where my blood pressure was above perfect, the result, probably, of gaining 60 pounds (a 51% increase!) over the last five years. Things can be done about this – I am too sedentary and still eat too much crap – but there is an unalterable gravity to the course of a human life. I will be in a position in the coming years where I should try to see doctors more, even if my questions about how to take preventative actions continue to go (as they did this visit as well) unanswered.

But the preventative question for the nation remains. The justification for keeping the ACA thourohgly ensconced in an entirely private market is that healthcare is one sixth of the economy. You can’t just go forcing such a large portion of our profit-center to compete with a service designed to actually – gasp! – meet the needs of citizens! Our shareholders would lose! And then what would the downstream impact be? After all, country clubs and luxury goods are a big part of the economy too.

The question remains: what is the role of the citizen in the country? Far from being an entity with rights, the modern perspective laden in both the ACA and the AHCA (more the latter, of course, but still), is that citizens are a resource for the economy. People exist to be mined, exploited, marketed to, money extracted for the purpose of firing up the engine of the mighty financial system. Denying the market access to that resource is unthinkable, an affront to all society, starving the lifeblood from that which we hold most dear.

Until we shift that mindset, until we get away from viewing 350 million folks as untapped oil or earthbound copper, I don’t know how we’re ever going to get around to fixing healthcare or anything else in our society. Or maybe the metaphor is more how we treat chickens. We only care about taking care of the ones still “working” for us in some capacity – who will yield productivity. The rest can die in the field for all we care. And keeping them productive is all about the quick fix – dose ’em with pills, fatten ’em up, get what you can from ’em, then move on. No one cares about the soul of a chicken, their outlook on life, how to prevent them from developing problems later in life. It’s producitivy maximization and then they’re a burden.

Sure, sure, get outraged at a potential rollback of the ACA. Call your Senator, cajole and threaten. But like lightbulb switches for climate change, recognize also that this supposed fix is both insufficient and broken. It’s a bandaid on the Titanic. It’s better to preserve it for the short term, yes, but only if we then immediately get to work on realizing the larger problems facing us, in reframing how we view our world. That we do not exist to serve the economy. And if the economy doesn’t exist to serve us, maybe it’s time to repeal and replace the economy with something that works.

by

APDA Nationals 2017: A Debate Odyssey

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

The RUDU affiliates present at the National Banquet. Left to right: Deepta Janardhan, Geneva Kropper, Jeremy Kritz, Sean Leonard, Storey Clayton, Kurt Falk, Chris Bergman, Mitchell Mullen, Hailey Conrad, Dan Bates, Max Albert, Alex Jubb, Russell Potter, Pasha Temkin, and Quinn Maingi. Photo by Shanti Hossain.

It is three-thirty in the afternoon on a Thursday, the day before the first American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA) Championships to ever be held at Rutgers University will commence. I am in a grungy but comfortable New Brunswick apartment just over the wrong side of the proverbial tracks, a block north of the children’s hospital where I once, years earlier, spent consecutive nights keeping watch in a patient’s room with a Jonathan Franzen novel and the mantra to appreciate each minute of life in sequence as my only bulwarks against total despair. The apartment, sporting five bedrooms and two full bathrooms, is shared by five young men of various affiliation with the Rutgers University Debate Union (RUDU), the team I coached for five years, all of whom arrived at the university and the team after I left it. I have spent the week mired in a familiar combination of sleeplessness and debate geekery, punctuated by a refreshing and unsettling unfamiliarity borne of relatively new characters populating the otherwise reminiscent scene.

Suddenly, a scream emerges from the corner bedroom. Max Albert, a tousled, thinly bearded intellectual, flees. “Pasha, there’s a bug in my room! Help!”

The hailed Pasha Temkin, whose frightening thinness is augmented by a narrow chin, a penchant for wearing a long beige trenchcoat, and a floppy mop of high brown hair that a former teammate has dubbed the “white boy swoop,” responds with glee. “Let me kill it, Max! I love killing bugs.”

The two retreat into the bedroom, close the door to contain the insect, and spend the next four minutes uproariously failing to exterminate it. Whoops of laughter and little yelps of fear spill out from under the door in sequence, followed eventually by a large black fly and the two young men who, led by Pasha, chase it to the kitchen window. Eventually, they manage to shove the window open, briefly let in a second fly, and then successfully brush both away and out of the apartment. Heaving with exertion and continued laughter, the two join me in the living room and plop on the couch diagonally opposite. “I hate bugs,” Max says, smiling broadly before returning to his usual contemplative visage.

It is a rare moment of unexpected levity in a week that’s been deadly serious. Max and Pasha just finished their season as the best partnership on APDA, clinching the coveted Team of the Year (TOTY) award in dramatic fashion at the Swarthmore tournament, besting the second-place team, from my alma mater (Brandeis) in the final round and the third-place team, from perennial powerhouse Yale, in the semifinals. Not only is this the first year in two full decades that neither of the top two TOTY have hailed from the Ivy League, but it’s the highest finish for either Rutgers or Brandeis ever. More impressively, Max and Pasha are APDA sophomores, each completing just their second year of competition on the league. No sophomore/sophomore team has ever won TOTY before. Admittedly, Pasha is a Rutgers junior who “redshirted” his first year by attending few enough tournaments to not count as his novice year. But they are still the youngest team ever to take the honor, in both APDA experience and years on Earth.

Max (left) and Pasha (right) on their way to a round during Nationals. Photo by Shanti Hossain.

Our story doesn’t begin here. Perhaps our story begins in St. Petersburg, Russia during the summer of 1995, where Pasha’s mother resides, pregnant with Pasha while I am an American exchange student spending two weeks in the recently liberated city. Did I wander past Mrs. Temkin on my way to my host family’s apartment one night, nodding briefly under the never-dark sky of a northern July? It is hard for me to imagine that moment now, internalizing that I was fifteen at the time and Pasha not yet born, hard to realize as I still feel so at home in an APDA entirely occupied by people so much younger than I am. Maybe our story begins two years earlier, when I was invited as an eighth grader by Sonia Roth to join the Lincoln-Douglass debate team she was coaching, after we shared each of our first classes at the Albuquerque Academy, third period history after the long opening assembly. Maybe it begins in 1998 at a meeting of CLEANS, the non-drinking students’ organization at Brandeis, where Adam Zirkin convinces me to come to a debate meeting despite my swearing I was done with debate heading into college. It is hard to remember my resistance to debating on APDA in 1998 when I have spent so much of the subsequent nineteen years so heavily invested in the league.

But our story, this week, really begins at James Madison University in Blacksburg, Virginia. That’s where I bid farewell to the Tulane team, to James Capuzzi and Michelle Daker, with whom I’d spent most of the last five days. It was Monday morning, April seventeenth, and Rutgers had just been announced as the seventh best team at the Madison Cup. The top six would advance to the long table finals, receive $1,000 each for their personal use and at least that much for their teams. Max had finished third the prior year, with Sean Leonard, and was counting on another top performance. Pasha banged his hand on the white-tableclothed surface before him. Michelle flashed me a look, knowing I was about to embark northward with the two of them.

James Capuzzi (left) and Michelle Daker (right) at the Madison Cup. Photo by Storey Clayton.

“Looks like you’re going to have a real fun car ride,” she quipped.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “Seventh is probably the worst.” We went on to speculate as to whether that or eleventh was worse, noting that eleventh place is the cut-off for getting any money for one’s debate program at the Madison Cup. Max and Pasha had at least just earned $500 for RUDU, while it was still possible that James and Michelle had placed eleventh. (We later learned they didn’t.)

The Madison Cup is a tournament in its own format, slower and more rhetorical than most formats of parliamentary debate these days and unique for its six-team, twelve-debater free-for-all. Rounds take about an hour and are judged by overtly untrained “lay” judges who are supposed to evaluate who contributed the most to the round’s discussion but often defer to who sounded prettiest. Sean had twice before made finals and was supposed to return this year with Kurt Falk, but was called away to work, where he is supervised by Matt McMillan, an APDA contemporary of mine who went to Columbia and did political work in New Mexico after graduation. Kurt has been on the road with Tulane all week, flying out to see Alex and I before joining us for the sixteen-hour drive in an overstuffed van to William and Mary from New Orleans for APDA’s closing tournament of the season. At the tournament, James and Michelle hit Max and his hybrid partner from Hopkins in round one. Max won, but was chastised by the judge for being too mean. “I didn’t think he was all that,” noted Michelle after the round. “It was a regular round, but he acted like he was destroying us.”

On the other side, hours later on Monday, in the car, Max explains to me. “You know, I hit your Tulane kids first round. And the judge said there was no need to be so mean. And I didn’t even realize I was being so mean. I just have no idea in a round if I’m winning or not. So I pull out all the stops, just in case.”

I’ve seen this movie before, and I tell Max so, driving north on I-95, hours into our return from Mad Cap, two novices from the University of Pennsylvania who opened Mad Cup against Tulane in tow. “Oh,” I note. “You’re just like Rob Colonel, the Yale dino. I used to judge him all the time and tell him to ease up on people or go for bigger, more gutsy advocacies in certain rounds. And he would look me in the eye, deadly serious, and say ‘I can’t do that, Storey. If I lose, you’ll drop me.’”

Rob Colonel was also TOTY, but not till his senior year. He lost his last chance at the National Championship in semifinals in 2013, setting up this round that I chronicled at length four years ago. The next National final, of course, featured RUDU debaters Sean and Quinn Maingi on my last official weekend coaching the team before I left to move to New Orleans. I came back the next year to watch them make semifinals at Nationals. Last year was the first APDA Nationals I missed since 2009. I’ve only missed five (2004, 2005, 2008, 2009, 2016) since I first competed as a freshman in 1999.

Rutgers’ National Championship is different in a number of ways from the four in which I competed and the nine prior in which I judged. Most prominently, the league explicitly allowed the host school to seriously compete in this one. Fellow APDA historian Joel Jacobs (Wesleyan ’89), with whom I used to judge at the Stanford tournament during my years in California after APDA, informed me that Harvard won their own Nationals in 1992. I am back largely to help Rutgers try to repeat the feat.

Rutgers isn’t my home turf anymore, this weekend, now that I’m back. Or it is and it isn’t. Pasha and Max have been coached for the bulk of the year by one Shomik Ghosh, TOTY partner of a guy who infamously threw a very public tantrum at the 2014 National Championships after his team had lost to Sean and Quinn in the semifinals.^ Shomik, having never actually attended Harvard, was far less attached to the Harvard reputation’s supremacy and apparently offered to coach Pasha and Max long-distance, all the way from Michigan Law School, after he judged them at the Harvard 2016 tournament and they ultimately won, quite a coup for a school that was usually blackballed and tanked at the largest tournament of the year. Seeing the dingy and rusting John Harvard Cup in Pasha and Max’s living room when I first ascended their stairs was among the more surreal sights of the weekend, really internalizing that not only was the Rutgers-Harvard feud over, but that they had conquered said feud before Shomik offered to coach them. I think only briefly of another team that could have won that Cup from Rutgers, before the feud, Chris Bergman and Ashley Novak, who broke as the undefeated 4-seed in 2011 before I made the second worst coaching decision of my life and advised them to run a not great case to save better cases for later out-rounds. They didn’t make those later out-rounds and lost the chance to assert themselves early in the TOTY race they were intending to contend for.

Shomik is the real coach, but he’s only coaching this top team, a tradition from a lot of elite coaches to focus on just one partnership instead of the whole squad. The team as a whole is allegedly coached by the so-called “Director of Debate” at Rutgers, a gentleman hired by the School of Communication and Information after I departed who was getting a PhD but had no concept of APDA style and whose impact, generously, has been net neutral on the team. His inability to really help the APDA squad is not really his fault – the mismatch of his skills and APDA’s needs is just one of countless examples of Rutgers’ lifelong inability to avoid getting in its own way. There aren’t really PhDs who would want to professionally coach an APDA team and SC&I posted for a position that required a PhD to back the teaching load. If it weren’t him, it would have been someone else who would ostensibly run the team and meetings but be really unable to help them improve.

Shomik has certainly helped, though. He’s guided Pasha and Max into a position of focusing on social justice cases, some of Shomik’s authorship, which must have made their run to the top of the TOTY board as two white (Jewish) men more palatable to the league, I imagine. I first heard much of their casefile from Russell Potter when he came to help run the Tulane tournament in February and I was impressed. I’m excited to work with this file and this team, believing they are standing up for good ideas and important concepts that APDA has long neglected. As always, it’s important to not just win, but win the right way for the right reasons.

A couple hours after the bug, Shomik calls on speaker-phone to check-in with Pasha and Max. We’re all huddled up in the living room and he’s just gotten out of some sort of exam or class and is nearly delirious for a variety of reasons. We talk over the casefile, the deliberate choice to limit it to social justice as a subject, my contribution of an old case, run only once in history, that fits with the theme. Shomik is skeptical of the case at first, peppers it with possible opps and accusations, feeding into Max’s innate fears about the case’s possible weakness. Max goes to work on a thumbnail already dangerously close to the quick as I try to fend off the opps and for a moment it’s just Shomik and I debating for the kids, old hands sparring over the outcome of a team we’re deeply invested in. Finally, Shomik pauses to reflect, then asks one critical question about how to closeout the case in PMR, the last speech of the round. And then I answer, giving a two-minute version of the so-called collapse, answer all possible opp rebuttals in a way that turns them aside. On the other end, I can almost hear Shomik’s excitement before he expresses it, he says the word “exactly” four times in his response, exhorting Max to do exactly that if they run this case, and the four of us are all on board, all on the same page, excitedly anticipating the next day and the next and the next and when we can run this case.

Pasha and Max are a study in opposites. I realize this early in the car ride up 95, leaving the Madison Cup, though there were hints of it when I first met them both. Maybe our story begins back there, at Fordham University, the fall of 2015, when I met Max and got to know Pasha (we’d met the year before, after TCNJ Nationals 2015, at Winberrie’s in Princeton of all places, for the RUDU team dinner), when they first won a varsity outround, then another, and had their breakout performance in their first full semester of debate, making the semifinals of a 20-point tournament, what would ultimately be their second marker of a 7th TOTY performance unheard-of for novice debaters. Pasha is one of the most verbose people I’ve ever met, saying something for a person who has now spent nine years as a debate competitor and seven more as a coach, who has spent a majority of his adult life living with a debater. He processes life through speaking, often mile-a-minute, constantly verbalizing the past, present, and future in a staccato narration of what is, was, and will be. Max is nearly silent throughout, saying almost nothing as he listens to Pasha’s stream of language, weighing in often only after a heavy sigh and being pressed once or twice by Pasha. In larger groups, it is fascinating to see how this conveys vastly more weight to Max’s few words. Due to their rarity, their sparse and long-considered nature, Max’s few words come across to a group like a declaration, an edict, the utterances of Vivek Suri perhaps, or Professor Snape, or the guru on the mountaintop. By contrast, Pasha’s constant talking becomes the soundtrack, background music, and often the most important bits of it have to be repeated for their blending into the rhythm of everyday life.

It is hard not to imagine that Max has cultivated this contrast, that he enjoys his role as the thoughtful sage in the wake of Pasha’s perpetual narration. When I ask him what he hopes to achieve in life, Max describes himself as a poet. He says, understatedly, that “money is not particularly a goal” in his future. And yet this air of dreamy mystery seems wholly sincere – over the course of the week, I realize that Max lacks the fundamental confidence necessary to manifest an image of himself for the public perception. His interface with the world is the genuine product of his experiences and perspective.

No wonder, then, as Pasha says in the car, “Everyone on APDA is in love with Max, girls and guys.” He pauses. “And Max is totally uninterested.”

“I just haven’t found anyone on APDA who would garner my interest, y’know?” There is an awkward pause, perhaps as Max recalls that both my ex-wife and current fiancee were APDA debaters. “That’s just my experience.”

Their contrast and subsequent mutual admiration is what clearly works about this partnership. Pasha is forlorn and wistful when he talks about Max’s belovedness, his eloquence, his ability to command a room with a few well-timed words. At one point when describing a compliment from a mutual friend, one that sort of offends Max in the way that people who work hard are offended by their “natural talent” being complimented, Pasha blurts “Are you kidding me? I would kill to have someone say that about me!”

But it’s a two-way street. Max is clearly impressed by Pasha’s confidence, by his ability to hold forth and talk about any subject, anywhere, instantly, without carefully considering his thoughts. After all, Pasha’s fingernails are in fine shape, he approaches the world with gusto and enthusiasm, he has not once considered quitting debate. This bravado could be mistaken for a front, but it seems to truly reflect Pasha’s relative indifference to what the world thinks of him. Which contrasts highly with a discussion we have toward the end of the car ride about what Max enjoys about debate. I am essentially interviewing him after he reluctantly agrees to talk about his struggles with debate, Pasha bouncing in the front seat and trying to avoid jumping in.

“What do you enjoy about debate?”
“The validation. Winning. Being thought of as good.”
“And what do you feel most of the time you’re debating?”
“Paranoia.”
“Paranoia?”
“Fear.”
“Of what?”
“Losing.”

I have tried to convince them that earning TOTY should give them a lifetime get-out-of-jail-free card for worrying about people thinking they may not be great at debate, for worrying about losing a particular round. I have failed. But I have also neglected to tell them that once, when I was an APDA debater, I sincerely told my friend Ben Brandzel that I should be good enough to win Nationals even after a final round where the entire audience and judging panel yelled “Shut up, shut up, shut up” throughout my speech.

There is a very good argument to be made that the obsession some people develop with success at APDA debate is unhealthy, that it leads to mistakes later in life. The Rutgers tournament theme this year, as Pasha reminds me on the car ride, was the struggle of a debater with the concept of quitting debate and its connection to feeling suicidal. I could not possibly make this up. The tagline was “The Myth of Sisyphus” with the subhead that read:
“There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is quitting debate.” -Albert Camus

Select quotations from the tournament invitation for this event:

“Each weekend, we do the same thing, over and over again. Each weekend, there is but one winner, but we pretend that all have benefited. We lose our sleep, our time, our health, but convince ourselves that the next weekend, we will succeed.”

To capture the absurd, we revel in it. Victory is meaningless and arbitrary, but we celebrate it.”

“Unless you win, you lose. Even if you win, the feeling of satisfaction is momentary, illusory. Next week, there will be another tournament to win. If you don’t, you lost. You’re welcome.”

The official tournament logo of the RUDU 2017 regular season tournament.

Max has said he’s functionally quitting debate after this tournament. By explanation, through a story that is later retold by several of Max’s roommates and teammates on multiple occasions, I am asked about an episode of Bojack Horseman, a show with which I am vaguely familiar for having never watched it. TOTY here is analogized to an Oscar for the character. The conclusion is that winning the award provides one good night, but the struggle begins anew the next day. I find I cannot relate. The whole point of an Oscar, or TOTY, or any other award seen as the peak of a proverbial mountaintop, is that no one can take it away. Thereafter, if anyone asks you about that thing you did (acting, debating, etc.), you have an unassailable description of reaching the top. I have spent 16 years feeling this way about winning the North American Debate Championship, even though many of my peers would not consider this the pinnacle that TOTY is.

We are at practice, Tuesday night. Max has said that he wouldn’t go to practice, but then he went. He said he wouldn’t stay, but then he stays to work on a new case while he watches a practice round. He gets so involved in the practice round that he doesn’t do much work on the case. He offers feedback to the team, Mitchell Mullen and Jeremy Kritz, the half-seed team, as they finish their debate with visiting debaters from CUNY. I first met Jeremy at Rutgers Day when he was a junior in high school and he wandered in to the RUDU room where we were holding public debates and challenging visitors to debate us. He debated Sean 1-on-1. We were all impressed and encouraged him to come to RUDU in two years. He did.

Max draws the line at RUDU Till Dawn, a new tradition started last year by the obsessive Mr. Leonard. We’d always had a Nats Boot Camp at Rutgers in the week before Nationals, famous for a lot of unconventional techniques of focus and re-adjusting thought including staring at candles, burning papers, and visiting graveyards. That, and a whole bunch of preparation. But never past one or two in the morning. Nevertheless, in the spirit of Sean, the CUNY boys, Mitchell, Pasha, and I debated till sunrise in their apartment. Max opened the door at 4:45 during our fourth consecutive round, squinted and glared at us, went to the bathroom, and returned to his room.

Boot Camp this year, aside from the Till Dawn shenanigans, has been limited by the fact that Rutgers is hosting Nationals and very little has been arranged or finalized till the last week. Indeed, when the invitation was first posted, later than normal, the Tournament Director was ominously listed as “TBD”, which I later learn is cover for the fact that Pasha is essentially TDing as well as competing, a feat never attempted. Naeem Hossein, an affable computer science guy who loves debate but lacks the time for it, is eventually named TD, but can only be there on Friday. It’s really Pasha’s show. Much of my week on the apartment couch is spent listening to Pasha call potential banquet venues in an effort to book something after the initial arrangement with Rutgers and the Heldrich fell through. Just before practice on Tuesday, Pasha, Max, and I had visited an Indian restaurant in Edison that had a cancellation of an event. They’re willing to work with the Rutgers-approved caterer that’s been booked for months. We take it. I end up paying the deposit, through Venmo after the league pays Pasha. It is nice to know that my years of fronting money for RUDU are not wholly over.

Practice on Thursday. Miriam Pierson and Will Meyer come over from Swat and Gov a case on Pasha and Max. It’s designed to play to the latter’s weaknesses so everyone gets a solid practice on what they can expect at Nationals. I’ve judged Will a lot over the years, but it’s my first time seeing Miriam. She’s impressive, giving a great MG that neutralizes most of Pasha’s LOC. Quinn has been coaching this team for two years, while traveling to an absurd quantity of tournaments to help tab. I have a moment to realize how large the footprint of Rutgers coaches is on the league now: Quinn coaching Swat, Sean coaching TCNJ, Russell coaching Princeton, and Bergman coaching Fordham. Ashley used to coach Brandeis as well, but not this year.

The next round, I judge novices Hailey Conrad and Dan Bates against the CUNY kids, who have returned after staying up till dawn two nights ago. I find them to be both great and thoroughly neglected. Hailey in particular runs an excellent case and gives a great PMR and I am surprised that I haven’t heard more about this very talented novice earlier in the year. Not for the last time that weekend, I wonder what can be done for a team that ostensibly has two coaches, but really has none for people below the top-line pair, a partnership itself comprised of sophomore debaters. I resolve to try to be more available to this team in future. If Shomik can coach from Michigan, I can certainly help out from Louisiana.

Tournament Friday. I have breakfast with Pasha, Max, David Vinarov (one of the roommates and teammates, a dedicated member of RUDU who inexplicably isn’t attending Nationals), Sean, and Geneva Kropper. David surreptitiously pays for everyone’s meal on his own birthday. The conversation is light and happy, there’s a lot of hours to go before any real competition starts. I’m excited, that tournament first-day enthusiasm starting to swell. Pasha is mostly concerned with logistics, what he might have forgotten. Max is clutching the book he’s exploring, volume one of Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, reminding me more and more of Dave Reiss by the day. I lament Dave’s absence from Rutgers’ first Nationals. He should be here.

Geneva and I return to the apartment to pick up luggage while the others scatter to do tournament tasks or, in Sean’s case, work on his day job. We discuss how poorly college prepares people for life, among other things. Then we walk to campus, past the hospital, past the Easton Avenue Apartments, where Sean used to live, and Farhan Ali before him, reminding me of late departures and the sleepy sheepish smile of one of our oldest debaters. Then down College Avenue, past the new bookstore and its RUTGERS clock, past the oldest buildings on campus, to one of the newest. Finally the enormous new Academic Building looms in front of me, a building I briefly saw on a visit over Winter Break, but have never entered. We tentatively step in to the West Wing, hoping this is correct. It is.

The building doesn’t look like Rutgers. It is gigantic and colorful and gorgeous – modern without being horrifically ugly. Big glass windows adorn the side of an enormous wide staircase, wide open spaces outside of small glassy classrooms and the giant plush lecture hall that is the object of our journey. This will be GA (general assembly) for the weekend, a red stadium-seated two-story learning palace, gleaming with the freshness of a newly built classroom and the promise of days of competition to come.

Nationals 2017 GA – Academic Building 2160. Photo by Storey Clayton.

And then, we wait.

As I’ve observed in prior posts and countless dialogues with fellow debate geeks, title tournaments (Nationals and NorthAms specifically) all have the same shape. Day one, Friday, two preliminary rounds, is slow like a building thunderstorm, calm at first and full of trepidation. Then day two, Saturday, four prelims, is the longest day ever, a marathon, an endurance challenge, with eons between rounds and the feeling that wins are more dodged bullets than triumphs. Then the banquet is a sweat for all but two* teams – those who competed in the 5-0 round and know they will break whether they won or lost. The banquet announcement, preceded by interminable senior speeches, is itself a lifetime of anxiety. And then if you’re in Saturday, is a blur. The bracket resolves so quickly and careers are over and it’s just 8, 4, 2, here’s the final round, boom.

*Lately, three or even four teams have entered sixth round undefeated with slightly larger Nationals fields, so this courtesy and relief has been extended. Last year, Pasha and Max, as novices, had the good fortune to be in a 5-0 round and not have to sweat the banquet. This has come up repeatedly over the course of the week, their desire to get back to the 5-0 round. I have only debated two 5-0 rounds in my life, my junior and senior years at NorthAms. Those banquets were the best and my cortisol levels compared infinitely favorably to the same years’ Nationals banquets, where I broke from winning 4-1 rounds. For what it’s worth, I lost both 5-0 rounds at NorthAms, making all four of my title breaks on a 5-1 record. (Ben Brandzel and I were 17th at NorthAms my sophomore year – mercifully, they only broke to quarters, sparing us from being the first team out.)

Friday, true to form, is slow and uneventful. Pasha and Max Gov twice, the current favored position in the Gov/Opp dichotomy, favored over the last few years for the first time in APDA’s 37-year history. They win both rounds, but Max frets over burning early Govs and having to Opp later against better teams. I assure him that this at least gives them a marginally higher chance of getting 4 Govs over the 6 rounds. The other two Rutgers teams drop their first rounds, Hailey and Dan running the case they’d run the night before in practice and we’d beefed up, but only because the Opp team made some very clever sidesteps of their advocacy and basically conceded most of it. Both teams bounce back in round 2, though, to compile 1-1 records, along with the “Thomas Edison State University” team of Kurt and Pete Falk, making one last run at glory in their final moment of eligibility. The big eventful story that most people are telling that night is that Colonel judged Max and Pasha in round two and didn’t know they were TOTY, but hilariously said they “had potential” after discovering they were sophomores. Russell dutifully ran up to Colonel after hearing this and informed him they were TOTY, to which he immediately, in pitch-perfect deadpan replied, “I couldn’t tell.” As harsh as that sounded, we later learned he gave them a 52.5/3, so they were actually just fine.

Arbi and the Falks. Photo by Shanti Hossein.

The most eventful part of Friday for me is seeing a parade of Rutgers dinos, many of whom are here only for tonight, coming back to judge and see how far their school has come in both building heft and in hosting Nationals. Rachel Moon, Nick Hansen, Maxwell Williams, and Arbi Llaveshi check in to judge rounds and catch up and it’s great to see how many people are involved in teaching and education in some capacity. Nick tells me a wonderful story about attending some gala fundraiser for Rutgers as one of the freely invited students upon the opening of the building in which we stand and that Barchi made a joke about “Notice how it’s still just called ‘Academic Building’, hint hint.” I guess Your Name Here Building was a little too obvious, even for the pandering of Rutgers. I am taken back to the moment when I asked if we could name the Debate House (11 Bartlett Street, long since given to Dance Marathon and other frat-based organizations, despite what the RU website still says) Reager Hall, after Richard Reager, the greatest all-time coach of Rutgers debate (involved with the team from 1924-1956). I was told, in no uncertain terms, that they’d be happy to do this for a 5- or 6-figure donation to the school. It remained, officially, 11 Bartlett (Debate House or Haus, unofficially, though sometimes, very unofficially, the House of Nanners).

The old Debate House at 11 Bartlett Street as it currently stands. Photo by Storey Clayton.

Friday gets out late, mostly the fault of interminable APDA Meetings, easily the least desirable and interesting part of the league, wherein debaters argue about debate rules for debate tournaments, and also when and where they should next hold these arguments. I abstractly want to go hang out with people in the hotel, but after saying I’ll stop by, I fall asleep. I blame this less on age and more on starting to get sick, as Pasha did, over the course of our week of preparation.

Saturday, though, I’m up early. I’ve talked a little about pre-debate mornings here and there and the enthusiasm they generate for me. For whatever reason, Saturday morning, usually the result of very little sleep and a too-early alarm, generate special manic energy for me as I look forward to a day of debating (or judging or coaching or just being around debate) that counteracts the minimal sleep and turns it, inexplicably, into fuel. I can only offer as evidence anyone who’s been around me consistently on debate Saturday mornings.

Before everyone assembles, before the day kicks off, I meet Myles Albert, Max’s father, the only person who ends up making me feel truly guilty that I’m not still at Rutgers (though this was not his intent). He reminds me, more than anyone else, of Wayne Zirkin, father of Adam, my junior year partner and the reason I came to APDA after all. He has the same grandiosely intellectual bearing, the same zest for communication, the same sense of being just slightly more ethereal than you in a way that makes you wonder if he is a portal more than a person. Wayne once called me out of the blue to invite me to spend the summer selling his jewelry on a cruise ship in Alaska. I was halfway through with my novel at the time, the first serious writing project I’d tried to launch, and not ready to call the whole thing off in 48 hours for an unexpected jaunt. But I appreciated the offer and acknowledged that he was on the very short list of people who try to arrange something like that on that kind of notice. I still think my parents think I should’ve gone. Max’s parents, however, like Pasha’s, who are also attending some rounds this weekend, are just learning a lesson about Rutgers that I learned hard a couple times. They don’t understand why the administration is not more overtly impressed, why Max and Pasha are not regarded with at least the recognition and esteem offered to the nearly omnidefeated football and basketball teams, the teams for whom winning one game in the year-end Big 10 Conference tournament is seen as a mammoth feat. Myles waxes grandly about scholarships and parades and even the institutional support of a coach who will go to bat for such things. I lament my absence. We used to try, I tell him, gently, but this administration, the people who oversee these clubs, will go to extraordinary lengths to waste the opportunities that debate success at Rutgers provides. In some ways, changing APDA is easier than changing Rutgers. I turn away to make sure everyone’s ready for round three.

And then the slow plod into madness. I catch up with all the old Yale dinos I used to judge who’ve returned to judge years after graduating: Colonel, Trinh, Cugini, Bakal, Li. I judge some extraordinarily close and interesting rounds, trying hard not to let my own stress about Rutgers’ performances sneak into the room while I’m adjudicating. Two Rutgers teams drop round 3, but Max and Pasha learn they’re 3-0 after an interminable period of indecision from their third round judge, who is also in tab. The other two teams are now on the brink of being out, needing to speak magnificently even to sneak in the backdoor of the break. Max and Pasha draw Opp in round 4, prep hard for the case they end up hitting about not invading Vietnam, emerge victorious with high speaks. Mitchell and Jeremy cruise to victory in their third straight Opp, squaring up at 2-2. Hailey and Dan drop, though, ending their Nationals run with two rounds to go. They resolve to have fun and learn what they can from the next two rounds and there is an almost palpable relief that the remaining rounds will be less cutthroat.

And then Brian Canares shows up to hang out, watch a round, participate in the action. Brian is among the oldest Rutgers dinos we’re actively in touch with, the Treasurer who literally made the team able to compete my first year coaching, before I was paid, before the team had any reasonable budget, when we went to each tournament begging for reg breaks and only arriving because I could donate my car to the cause. Brian squared the books and kept going to appeals meetings for more money, leveraging our fledgling success into enough cobbled money to enable us not to turn novices away from tournaments, the foundation necessary on which to grow a competitive team. It was incomparably special for me that Brian could not only make it to the tournament, but spend time catching up and then actually watch Max and Pasha debate. Doubly so for them going into that round with the their third Gov, the new case I’d given them, against a very good Yale team for the bye to the break round. Brian is one of a few seniors during my first year of coaching who I deeply wish I’d gotten to spend more years with. All have gone on to do awesome things, medical school, law school, time in Egypt, and in Brian’s case, a career in teaching, which we discussed extensively. It meant so much that he could see the journey of the team from his day to this, to TOTY and hosting Nationals in a shiny new building, that they could see the roots and origin and debate in front of someone who was there when the idea of Rutgers breaking again, much less winning a single tournament, seemed a laughable impossibility. There were few greater moments for me in that weekend.

Not only did Max and Pasha carry that round, clinching their second straight title 5-0, their second straight banquet without sweat, but Trinh talked to me about Hailey and Dan, whom he’d just judged in the pull-up round between the top 2-2 and the bottom 1-3. He talked about how awesome Hailey is, asked if she was a novice, and sheepishly admitted he’d justified for a novice for the second round this Nationals. Hailey had not only earned a 26.75 from a judge that many teams had scratched for his reputedly stingy speaks, she’d knocked out one of the pre-tournament favorites to break, 4th SOTY, from the bottom of the bracket below. I ran off to tell her and the rest of the team the good news, shortly before receiving confirmation that Max and Pasha were still undefeated. Meanwhile, Mitchell and Jeremy had won on Gov and secured a 3-2 bubble spot, depending on speaks. All was looking up as, for the first time since second round, RUDU had gone 3-0. Meanwhile, unfortunately, the Falks had been knocked out, still smarting over a fourth round decision they disagreed with, and dropping fifth round to go to 2-3.

And then, the bubble. It wasn’t actually a bubble for Max and Pasha, of course, but it was a bubble for an inordinate number of teams. The second TOTY team from Brandeis, who were pulled up to hit a 5-0 team from Princeton. Mitchell and Jeremy, we hoped. Thirteen teams who were 4-1, knowing they were a win away from clinching a spot in the coveted octofinals. And twenty-five more who were 3-2, needing both a win and good speaks and sufficiently good previous speaks to secure their spot. Two of whom I was judging, Harvard CH and Fordham A.

My round was fascinating, a narrow case offered by Harvard, well Opped by LOC and resoundingly defended by what seemed like a very good MG. But then atop the MO speech, Fordham showed me that all of the Gov assumptions rested on a defense of the status quo, that this was actually Opp’s ground, and that the incentives would be different than status quo incentives in the Gov world. It instantly turned what had seemed a ferocious, possibly round-winning MG speech into a paper tiger, and did so with something I’d seen very little of all weekend amongst the stressful razor-thin rounds of Nationals: humor. The Opp block was easily the most entertaining and effective of my weekend and the PMR’s only attempt at mitigation was rightfully called new by the Opp team. I allocated a 53/3 to Fordham and vaguely wondered whether they would be the annual free seed to make the break. Moreover, I relished knowing their fate when I would have the opportunity to withhold same information from Bergman all night, instructed as per Nationals tradition to disclose nothing of the results of round 6, maximizing suspense for the 38 teams on some form of the bubble.

It did not take long for me to be confronted by Bergman. He was standing with his team, Ellen Hinkley and Marcelle Meyer, both of whom were pointedly not asking me about the decision, as I returned to GA after handing in the ballot. He tried to be vaguely coy in the way he was asking me, but I got very near his face and smiled broadly. “You know, Bergman, I was elated to see that I was judging Fordham in the bubble. Because I knew it would mean I knew something you wanted to know all night and there would be nothing you could do about it. It’s like double Christmas!”

Much of the rest of the evening was spent with him trying to work out what that meant, Princess Bride-style, for his team’s chances.

The banquet venue turned out all right. The big change from normal Nationals, besides actually having enough seats for everyone, was the lack of alcohol. And while some of the dinos and other folks whinged about this at first, it made for the most respectful round of senior speeches I’ve possibly ever seen. Senior speeches, one of my favorite traditions of Nationals, indeed of all of APDA, are the farewell monologues from graduating seniors where they are given a free mic to discuss whatever they want, good or bad, to offer thank-yous, call-outs, shout-outs, condemnations, or observations. They are often talked over by drunkards in the back, usually themselves long since graduated dinos who are among the oldest in the room in age only. This year, however, people listened. And it was an important year to listen.

Mars He, APDA’s President-elect, a decidedly affable Harvard debater in the tradition of Allen Ewalt (indeed, the entire Harvard team has seemingly switched over to a large squad teeming with a multicultural, gender-balanced group of very friendly debaters^) MC’ed the speeches. And after a frantic search from the intended opener, Nathan Raab, the opener was instead Megan Wilson from Yale.

Her speech was somber, measured, and excoriating as she described the uphill battle she faced and her long-time debate partner faced as highly successful women on the league, much of the setbacks coming from initiatives and groups that were designed to help women and people of color succeed on APDA. She was specific in calling out the caution and gendered language used to attempt to limit her success or make it fit patterns expected to be more palatable for the still too sexist league. Megan going first set the perfect tone for the night – it enabled many people on the fence between a few thank-yous and a genuinely necessary call-out to tip the scales and go for the call-out, the message APDA needed to hear. APDA spends a tremendous amount of its time being self-laudatory for an event that, while decidedly intellectual, can often live on the border of sophistry and grand-standing. Senior speeches are one of our built-in counterweights, where we have to listen to the voices we’ve excluded or minimized and, hopefully, resolve to do better.

As the speeches went on, the contrast between those by white men, usually a bevy of calm thank-yous and plaudits for friends, and those by everyone else, punctuated by hardship and unfairness, could not be missed. Among these latter were both speeches by the members of Fordham A, Ellen and Marcelle each taking time to criticize APDA’s seemingly innate sexism but also observe how easy it had been to build a gender-balanced (or, indeed, “matriarchal”) team at Fordham by simply creating a culture of talking to everyone, regardless of their background or perceived skill at debate. There was a call-out about a team showing up with tons of novices, only two of them female, and then ignoring both female novices while they got left behind in housing. It was certainly depressing to see that APDA still struggles with these issues, even in an era where the APDA President (outgoing) is a Black woman, Jerusalem Demsas. That said, she’s only the second woman to be President of APDA in its 37-year history; the first was Ashley Woods in 2011-2012. Yeah, if you’re scoring at home, that’s 30 straight years of only male Presidents. Though, hey, still better than the US as a whole.

But it was also heartening to see that so many people made this issue a centerpiece of their speeches, felt compelled to share their experiences, felt that tonight, the most important of all nights on APDA, they would be heard. I was sitting with Alex Jubb and Deepta Janardhan and talked with them after the night about whether this trend reflected a worse overall culture than their time or my time or just meant that the culture was thawing enough so that people felt they could talk about it and push things to improve. The consensus seemed to be the latter. It’s one of those weird evolutionary quirks of APDA that things have not been linear in gender and racial balance. For example, three of the four National Championship teams in my era included a Black man. And one included a woman, who, going into this year, was the last woman to win APDA’s Championship, in 1999. And of course, in 2001-2002, we had the first female SOTY (Speaker of the Year, the top individual honor for the season), capping a top ten SOTY that had exact gender parity (5 women, 5 men) for the first and only time in APDA history. Just six years later, in 2007-2008, the top woman in SOTY finished the year ranked 19th. How did this happen?

And this is not to say, as Kate Myers pointedly reminded me later, that our era was a bed of roses or treated women well. But the results certainly speak to a gulf in opportunity to succeed and how debaters are perceived that cannot be ignored. Gender parity or a female national champion are not proof that everything is solved, but an 18-year drought in the National Championship is more than sufficient proof that there are really significant problems.

The senior speech that stole the show was from Jemie Fofanah of Temple University, a woman I remember judging at TCNJ Nationals two years ago, who I had been quite impressed by. She delivered a slam poem calling out APDA’s sexism and especially racism, observing how many people will run cases about people from her background but refuse to acknowledge her as a person, refuse to live their life in a way that accords with how they talk about her people. And worse, they are basically exploiting black and brown bodies to win a round while never really considering how patronizing they sound or how inconsistently they apply these values. It was a thunderous condemnation, punctuated by pointed requests for Mars not to cut her off (the early senior speeches had not been time-limited, but the banquet hall owners were getting restless late in the night and they’d tried to implement a 3-minute limit to that later speeches, which fortunately was basically not enforced). It was the only speech to receive a standing ovation from more than just the speaker’s team and close friends.

Jemie Fofanah of Temple delivers her senior speech. Photo by Shanti Hossain.

It is worth noting, here, that the last two senior speeches of the night, delivered by the ranking seniors on the outgoing APDA Board, the six-person elected panel of students that governs the league, were given by women of color. Yidi Wu, the outgoing VP of Finance and Jerusalem, the outgoing President, struck a more hopeful, mixed tone than many of their prior speakers. They acknowledged the league’s failings, but also its progress, saying emphatically that they didn’t want novice women to be sitting at this banquet and get the impression that they should quit, that they would graduate in three years embittered, that they couldn’t contribute to even more progress in that tenure. And while such exhortations often ring hollow, they ring truer from this testimony than they might from other sources. And in the context of APDA’s cultural shifts from ten years ago, they ring possible. This is not the corporate world telling ambitious young women there may be exactly one more slot open for them at the top by the time they get close. It is not, of course, better than it should be, and that is unfortunate. And now, it is time for the break, almost suddenly in light of the surprising brevity of these last two speakers.

Yidi Wu, of Brown, delivers her senior speech. Photo by Shanti Hossain.

Mars wraps up and the very tired tab staff, Diana, Quinn, Adele Zhang, Anirudh Dasarathy, and Dan Takash, assemble on the stage. They have been here for over an hour with the break ready, the list divided up into teams closest to them to announce. Unlike in past years, even the Nationals break seems subject to a one-clap advisory, something I find jarring and out of place in the midst of the most important and difficult break announcement of the year. Of course some teams still whoop and cheer for their own, none louder than Fordham upon announcement that they are indeed a free seed in this year’s break, that their sixth round performance was enough for them to make the elite cadre of 4-2’s in the octofinals. Rutgers (Max and Pasha) are in, but we knew that, as the sixteenth team is announced, they are the only Rutgers team to make it. We still don’t know the outcome of their sixth round, nor will we till the following morning. As the dust settles on the list in my hand of breaking teams just announced, I realize two more things of signficance:

(1) That’s still a lot of Yale (5 of 16 teams).
(2) Quinn didn’t announce his own team!

Diana Li announces breaking teams while Anirudh Dasarathy and a devious Quinn Maingi look on. Photo by Shanti Hossain.

Quinn did announce Rutgers, yes, from where he graduated in 2015. But he didn’t announce Swat MP, the team he coaches, making their first Nationals break during his two years of coaching there. I certainly enjoyed a good fake-out in my days of tabbing and announcing breaks, and would in fact routinely push the most surprising Rutgers team into the last break announcement slot of the “no particular order” to maximize their suspense. But it’s another step entirely to watch your coach announce his alma mater and then stand back without announcing you when you’re on the bubble! But they are in and jubilant and only a touch mad at Quinn.

And Fordham, indeed, is only a touch mad at me. After fist-bumping Max and Pasha, I head over to tell Fordham about sixth round (they know, of course, but a little bit more) and I see a cavalcade of tears and hugging and a too-smiley attempt at a glare from Bergman as he gets swept into the maelstrom. One of the debaters tells me that she was pretty sure they’d won sixth round, but kept having doubts, but still thought they were speaking too low to make the break. “Isn’t this better?” I ask rhetorically. “Isn’t this better than just knowing the whole time?”

Marcelle Meyer (left) and Ellen Hinkley (right) embrace after being announced as breaking to octofinals at Nationals 2017. Photo by Kara Hurley?

Laughing through weeping is my only real reply, along with a half-hearted tongue-in-cheek condemnation from Bergman.

As the crowd thins down and people pile into Ubers, rental cars, and school vans, I confirm with Max and Pasha that they don’t want to work tonight. Max expresses a brief concern with the casefile in light of Jemie’s moving speech, but Pasha brushes this away. Pasha is now deeply sick – he is about two days ahead of me on a cold and our rhythm of nightly tea has not been enough to stave off the worst of it for a man running both a National tournament and debating to the top of said tournament on a weekend where New Brunswick was hit with a surprising cold snap after near-summer weather. They both need rest and I am starting to feel my own illness and like I’m not of much use. So much of Nationals is usually about preparing cases for Gov, but the current perception of Gov’s superiority means that prep seems limited overall. Cases are all likely to win, the idea goes, and opping is a crapshoot, so you just wait nervously and hope for the best. Until tomorrow, then.

Tomorrow comes, early, but there is a significant delay from tab in assembling panels to adjudicate and we end up waiting over an hour in a tense anticipation. I have told both Fordham and Rutgers folks that I have a premonition they will hit in the octofinal round. This sense mostly comes from poetry and the idea of vaguely where each team is likely to be in the bracket, but this also counts on the notion that Rutgers might have beaten Princeton in round six. When pairings go up, we learn that they did not, that Rutgers has fallen all the way to the seventh seed, for a date with ten-seed Brown, Yidi and Caleb Foote. This pairing is complicated by the fact that Pasha debated with Caleb last weekend in a “hybrid,” winning the final regular season tournament of the year, but also exposing a lot of potential cases to this team. Max, nervous, not expecting such a strong team, suggests a case I haven’t even heard about, but it’s never lost and he jokes that “there’s like one opp”. Both Pasha and I are concerned enough about his concern that we fall in line with the case choice pretty quickly, I make a cursory review of the points and confirm that they both feel good about it. We tell Brown we’re Goving, I tell Max to breathe, we disperse to our rounds. I am judging, on a panel with Colonel for perhaps the first time in our lives, between the 8 and the 9 seed, this year the bottom two 5-1 teams. I head off to my round.

Judging Nationals out-rounds when one has a vested interest in other rounds is a unique perspective. I talked with Vivek extensively about this once, how the feeling of lack of control in coaching is greatly exaggerated because one can’t even watch, can’t be in the room, and the demands of judging (no less such important rounds) takes all of one’s energy and focus to get right. This was especially true in this round, what proved to take the longest to adjudicate, a narrow 2-1 win for William & Mary (Jerusalem and Jessica Berry, a novice) over one of George Washington’s two break teams. The round was fast, messy, and unclear, leading to a tortuous adjudication process in the new world of consensus panels, which I feel are the worst part of British Parliamentary debate now imported into APDA. Traditionally, out-rounds involve a straight and independent vote of the odd number of judges assigned to an elimination round. Each person decides their ballot as though they were the only judge in the room, writes Gov or Opp on a little scrap of paper, and then hands it to the chair, who tells everyone the winner and their margin. Then the judges discuss the round with each other for fun as they head back to tab to report the decision.

With consensus panels, on the other hand, debaters are charged with not only winning the round in which they debated, but also winning a second round in which they cannot participate, that between the judges. While consensus panels are sometimes handled reasonably and fairly, questions of the relative reputation and ability to debate about the round between judges often sneak into these “consensus-building” sessions and certainty about the round from some judges can be mistaken for a conviction that should sway a whole panel of uncertain judges on the other side. Even in the best case scenario, when a straw poll comes back unanimous, it often takes ages for a consensus panel to agree to finally call it a consensus (this would happen in the semifinal round I would judge later in the day).

Colonel, Lauren Blonde, and I had a fun, lengthy, and agonizing discussion, feeling really guilty for holding up the tournament and making everyone wait. But ultimately we voted 2-1 for William & Mary, on the same lines of our initial straw poll, making the only difference from regular voting the extra 45 minutes it took. Hilariously, the round was so close that our reporting of the outcome was contradictory and almost led to a colossal error in the announcement that would have created a lot of headaches and heartaches for tab and teams, respectively. In the end, everything was restored to equilibrium before such damage was done.

But not for Rutgers. Their tournament was over, they were out to Brown on consensus, the first loss for that case. It had gotten too wrapped up in the con law aspects and Brown had done just enough. Cugini, on the panel, told me it had been really close for all three judges, but they all saw it the same way. Pasha was devastated. Max was gone. I was bereft, but it’s National Sunday and there was only so much time we had till it was time to go judge again. This time, it was the same William & Mary team against another GW, consisting of Andrew Bowles and Nate Sumimoto, a match-up of the top two SOTY speakers (separated by a 99-98 margin at year’s end), both paired in “pro-am” partnerships with novices.

The round was a showcase, a fantastic display of rhetoric, but ultimately an incredible strategic play by W&M in Gov. The case was built as a series of red herrings with the third point as an “even if” backup to stand and win even if all the herrings had been caught and skewered. Opp spent their entire time on the herrings, dropped the key point in LOC, MG failed to call much attention to it, and PMR kicked the door down on a round that Opp had seemed to be crushing since four minutes into the Opposition’s opening. It was a masterpiece of strategic debating in a National Quarterfinal, all the more breathtaking for the fact that I’d literally believed Gov would be incapable of winning at the outset of PMR.

Jerusalem Demsas delivers the winning PMR in National Quarterfinals. Photo by Pasha Temkin.

Semifinals lacked the same rhetorical verve, featuring a dull and thick case intended to slog the Opp (W&M yet again) out of the round, which it did successfully, arguing, of all things, that pork barrel spending should return to Congress. I was uncompelled by the notion that the relative death of pork barreling has accelerated the era of gridlocked mutual hate in American representative government, but Gov did more than enough to prove it for the purposes of the round, against little resistance from a team that had undertaken an impressive run but come up just shy of the final. And then we were there, the final round of the National Championship, just like that.

I was off the judging panel, apparently the result of a scratch from a Yale team that had been running deeply interesting and philosophical cases all weekend but apparently feared my judging because I share the “old dino” reputation of being “low speaks” (I gave five 26.5’s this weekend). This Yale partnership, Miles Saffran and Jim Huang, had been in the position I’d said all tournament was the catbird seat, the top-speaking 5-1, in this instance, the three-seed. This team, whoever they are, usually loses a middle round in a close but high-speaking position, then goes on to cruise through rounds five and six by wide margins. The team has a structural advantage by being loose, a key component of success at a title tournament. Max and Pasha were many things this weekend, most of them great, but they were never loose. Max, who has returned to the tournament, seeming relatively okay with everything, may not have a loose bone in his body. Pasha seems capable of being loose, sometimes, but not when he’s running a tournament. And maybe not when there’s talking involved – his intensity may be too much. Miles and Jim, meanwhile, as they finally return to the beautiful GA, now adorned with glittery trophies for the season and the tournament, seem to embody that loose feel native to 2- and 3-seeds, to the top 5-1. Their opponents, hailing from the other semifinal, are Swarthmore MP, Miriam and Will, who’ve made it out of the 12-seed like any good NCAA upset squad. Adele asks me to time and I settle in to watch the fireworks.

The round proves to be excellent, ticking most of the boxes of what a final round should be, though periodically there are moments from Gov reminiscent of the 2010 final from Harvard, Cormac Early and the late Kyle Bean running “magic empathy”. Gov’s case, ostensibly, is that empiricism is irrational. As they run the case and flesh out the points, however, their stance starts to appear something more like “empiricism alone without help is insufficient,” which is somewhere between a slippery advocacy and a collapsing tautology. Miriam, however, in LO, is more than up to the challenge of both making the necessary observations to ward off any possible collapse and continually returning to humor about empiricism as its own proof. The round, ultimately, is extremely well engaged from all four speakers, exploring the nature of reality, knowledge, and epistemology from an entertaining and accessible vantage. But after rebuttals, it’s pretty clear that one side has convincingly carried the day.

Will Meyer (left) and Miriam Pierson (right) receive coaching from Quinn Maingi (center) before a National out-round. Photo by Shanti Hossain.

Right before floor speeches, now delivered after the round and away from the panel to prevent them from swaying the outcome of the all-important round, I head over to Quinn and Deepta, grabbing for Quinn’s surprised hand. “Congratulations on coaching a National Champion,” I say.

They spend the next forty minutes asking me if I’m that sure Swat won and will prevail. I say I would have to be pretty confident to come over and congratulate him, but at the same time, I think it should be that clear. Obviously, with consensus panels, anything can happen, and one obstinate judge could sway the whole group, especially if they claim philosophical authority on such a high-minded round. But I’m confident and say he should be too.

Adjudication takes more than an hour.

But there’s plenty to do in that hour, the cascade of season-long awards, the eventual National awards from this tournament, with the final round reserved for the very last. Among these is Quinn winning the Distinguished Service Award (DSA), thanking him for a year of running countless tournaments in the south while always offering assistance to everyone. He is surprised, or seems it, but Deepta and I both knew it was coming. He gets back to his seat and says “that’s nice, but it’s not what I care about,” referencing the looming unannounced final round. It occurs to me that if Swarthmore wins, Miriam will have broken the 18-year streak of all-male National Championship teams, dating back to my freshman year, comprising just shy of half the time the league has been in existence. Women won in 1997, 1996, and 1985, but never from 2000-2016.

Quinn shows off the DSA. Photo by Shanti Hossain.

As I remark to Deepta, considering this, “if it can’t be our boys, I hope it’s no one’s boys.”

Our boys. With the TOTY trophies. Photo by Shanti Hossain.

And then, finally, at long last, the announcement. Swat on consensus. They are National Champions. Finally, a woman holds the title again. And a guy I coached to National Finals has coached a team to the National Championship. My coach, Greg Wilson, who debated for UConn, never made the out-rounds at Nationals, losing a bubble round in his last opportunity. But he coached me to National Semifinals, along with another team (Zirkin and Jordan Factor) to National Finals. Then I made Semifinals and coached Quinn (and Sean) to Finals. And then Quinn made Finals and coaches Swat to the title. All one can ask for is for the accomplishments of those who come after us to exceed our own. For this to be achieved in both debating and coaching was a satisfying solace to Rutgers not winning their first National title. For Swarthmore, it was their fourth, putting them actually pretty high on the all-time list (only Harvard [10], Princeton [6], and Yale [5] have more). The Naval Academy (1983) remains the only public school ever to win. The Ivy League has won 26 of the 37 titles.

Miriam and Will at the Banquet. Little do they know they are a day away from winning Nationals. Photo by Shanti Hossain.

People thin out, hugs and goodbyes and celebratory photos are taken, people thin out further. It is, eventually, Pasha, Max, Deepta, Russell, Mitchell, Shanti Hossain (Pasha’s girlfriend, the official tournament photographer, to whom I am indebted for the lovely photos in this post), and me. And a very unclean GA. And the breakfast display still outside Scott Hall, where GA was going to be, then wasn’t, this morning.

We clean. We pick up items, we mine behind chairs and under desks, we clean from spills of illicit food and beverages and pick up keys and pens and IDs left by people long before the tournament. We scour this beautiful room that didn’t exist on the campus a year prior, the heads of the team, the dinos, and a generous person who has given a lot to the tournament. And there’s something about this time, this bagging up trash outside GA and then heading to Scott Hall to move tables and do it again, that feels like the seminal moment to me. Behind Scott Hall, which hosted our team meetings in 2010-2011, the breakout year, the first time RUDU was in the top ten of anything, in front of Murray Hall, the host for the next three years, the glorious runs in COTY and Nationals and all that was witnessed. Bagging curdled milk and stale coffee and the rock-hard remains of a bagel under the cover of night, just beyond the watchful gaze of William the Silent, down Voorhees Mall.

This is water. This is water. Under the bridge, past the banks of the old Raritan, and into the ground, to be dredged and drunk in future years by those yet unborn who will debate ideas we have yet to imagine.

Me, at Rutgers. Photo by Shanti Hossain.

I fling the last black plastic bag, lopsided and slightly overfull, up over my head, into the dumpster, and hear it land with a satisfying thunk against its neighbors. Smacking my hands against each other in an exaggerated tone of “mischief managed,” I notice that just a little creek of whitish coffee has landed on my sleeve, a rivulet running down the Rutgers Student Life sweater I’ve been wearing for three days straight.


^A couple of small references, including a name, have been removed from this piece at the request of an individual referenced.