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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?”
“Of what?”

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.


School Protection in Out-Rounds at NPDA Nationals 2017: an analysis

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

While my overall interaction with 2017 NPDA Nationals was overwhelmingly wonderful, some of the joy was marred at times by confusion over a very strange tab policy that was included in this tournament. The tab policy was to protect schools against hitting their own teams in elimination rounds, breaking the bracket to do so.

Here’s the official wording of the policy:

In the event that two teams from the same school meet in elimination rounds, brackets will be broken according to the following criteria: (1) protecting the highest seed; (2) changing the fewest number of brackets; (3) preserving original bracket order.

Now in most debate tournaments, it’s normal to try to prevent teams from the same school from competing against each other (“hitting” each other) in preliminary rounds. APDA makes an exception if a team is the majority of a given bracket, but APDA also has a much larger appetite for school/school “civil wars” than NPDA. In NPDA, these rounds are never actually held, but one team (almost always the higher seed at the tournament) is simply chosen by the coach to “walk over” the other team. And while I can sort of understand a distaste for a coach’s decision walk-over ending someone’s career or Nationals run, school/school protection to upend the bracket seems to be a really extreme reaction to that distaste. And the effect is very imbalancing, strongly favoring schools who bring and break a lot of teams.

But when one subjects this year’s NPDA Nationals tournament’s application of their own policy to rigorous analysis, it doesn’t necessarily even hold up as consistently applied, which is even more problematic. This post will examine the bracket-breaking switches made by the NPDA Nationals 2017 tab staff and their subsequent impact on the tournament and competitive fairness for all teams participating. And while the goal is to be objective and submit this with few comments, I must say that the data leads to the conclusion that this policy is sub-optimal for future such National Championships.

Let’s first examine the base bracket:
Partial Triple-Octofinals

It’s probably worth noting at the top how many schools broke teams to the elimination rounds as context for this policy and its impact:
Washburn: 6
Concordia: 4
Utah: 4
Lewis & Clark: 3
Point Loma: 3
Rice: 3
Texas Tech: 3
Berkeley: 2
Idaho: 2
Kansas City Kansas: 2
Mercer: 2
Pacific: 2
UT Tyler: 2
Western Washington: 2
12 other schools: 1 each

So fully forty of the fifty-two teams involved had teammates in the break! This demonstrates that the scale of magnitude for this question is not small. And with six teams in the break, including the 1 and the 4 seeds, it is unsurprising that Washburn will be a major player as the drama of bracket-breaking unfolds.

Now as we look at our partial-triple-octos bracket, we find that the two Mercer teams have been paired to hit each other, which would be pretty bad luck were they allowed to actually hit. But under this policy, the following swap is made:

This seems pretty reasonable on face – the teams are in neighboring brackets and the 40 is switched with the 41. Interestingly, however, it violates the stated first priority in the protection policy, namely to protect the higher seed. In this switch, the higher seed (#24 Mercer AL) now gets a moderately higher draw, #40 Rice PT, instead of the #41 seed. Granted, this is a very minor difference in opposition quality, but it still punished the higher seed. Worth noting, at this point, that to not punish the higher seed, you would have had to swap the #42 seed with the #41, but then that punishes the new higher seed involved (#23 Lewis & Clark MM), so this problem cannot actually be solved without kicking the can down the road all the way to the top of the bracket. Which basically shows that the “protect the higher seed” priority, despite being first, makes no sense.

So, partial-trips happen and, as luck would have it, both Mercer teams drop. Turns out they’d have been better off with the walk-over after all, but good news for Grand Canyon RS and Rice PT, one of whom really should be out of the tournament. On to double-octos:


Again, we have one problem to resolve in the school/school protection question, where Pacific’s two teams are set to hit in round 22. And there would be a danger of a Rice/Rice round just below in round 23, but this has been conveniently resolved by the previous swap of a Rice team in to upset Mercer. So, here’s the switch still necessary:

This looks dramatic, because it switches the teams all the way across the brackets, but the 15/18 match is the natural cousin of the 16/17 match. Here, the higher seed is actually protected, because they now get the 18 seed instead of the 17, but that’s only because the actual team entitled to the higher seed is #50 Lewis & Clark BM, the lowest seed left in the tournament. They inherit the #15 seed slot, so they should probably get protected, but no matter.

Of course, you know what’s going to happen, right? We can’t just have things resolve cleanly. Both Pacific teams pick up their rounds (tough luck to the #50 seed and to Puget Sound’s lone team who should’ve hit them). And, for extra fun, both Rice teams that couldn’t hit also pick up their rounds, slotting them to hit one round later than they would’ve anyway (bad news for UT Tyler and Grand Canyon, one of who should be through instead). At this point, Challonge won’t even let us express the bracket as it’s been altered because of too many swaps, so we have to start over in doubles with manual seeds listed.

Thus, here’s how things stand going into octos:

The problems are multiplying. The Rice teams that should have hit last round again are hitting this round. And now we have a double Washburn match to take care of as well. Teams are going to be sent flying to other bracket halves again. And it’s worth nothing that #17 Pacific PV, the second overall team in the season-long rankings, is now stationed in place of the 15 seed, staying on the other half of the bracket from where they should have traversed the tournament. This will have major consequences for #2 Nevada AM, as we’ll see in a bit.

So here are your swaps for this round:

First, the Washburn/Washburn round:

This is where we became aware of the switching. We even called tab to ask because we thought we were supposed to hit Idaho and they said “there’s no bracket that we’ve released, so you shouldn’t expect to hit anyone”. They could have just explained that there were school-switching swaps here, as stated in the packet, but they chose to be cagey. It’s worth noting here that, while this is the technically least invasive switch, both Tulane and Idaho can have a legitimate concern with this swap. They are both supposed to hit teams lower in the seeding order. In fact, Idaho has gone from hitting a 37 seed to a 4 seed just to protect Washburn. By comparison, our swap from a 21 seed to a 13 seed looks relatively fair. But this still concretely hurt both team’s competitive chances, favoring Washburn significantly by both sparing them the harder match-ups and preventing them from eliminating each other.

Meanwhile, here’s the Rice/Rice resolution:

Again, some upset teams from get penalized for their wins here. Not systemically, mind you, but by happenstance that nonetheless risks impacting their tournaments significantly. Rather than the 23 and 26 seeds enjoying their 7/10 octofinal as a reward for upsetting those teams, the 23 is shipped off to face the #8 seed, while the #40 gets the #26 instead of the #8. This is ostensibly a reward for both the #40 and the #26 to get each other, but also ships the #40 to a whole new half of the bracket where, like #17 Pacific PV above, they never would have been but for all these switches.

Here, the Cinderella teams maintained their runs, as #37 Tulane upset the #13 seed, and both the #40 and #23 triumphed over their higher seeded opponents. But this also offers us a rare situation where exactly one of the protected school teams in each instance won their rounds, meaning that restoration of the bracket should be possible in the quarterfinals. For the Tulane/Washburn quarter, this is irrelevant, but for the Rice and Lewis & Clark teams, this mattered very much indeed.

So, let’s see where things stand going into quarterfinals:

Here is where the most obviously problematic decision was made in the whole tournament. The tab staff chose to leave this bracket alone. But the problem is that #23 Lewis & Clark MM belongs in quarterfinal match 11 as listed in the above link, being in the bottom half of the bracket. And #40 Rice PT belongs in up in match 9 on the top half. They both just swapped with each other to avoid a Rice/Rice round. So why were they not restored to their original brackets? Surely that is preserving original bracket order as stated in the policy. And it doesn’t create a school/school conflict, because Washburn can safely hit Rice while Pacific hits Lewis & Clark.

Of course, it’s worth noting that Pacific PV also belongs in the top quarterfinal there: because of all the bracket-breaking, three teams from the same quarter of the bracket are now in quarterfinals. Here, let’s flash back to the opening of the tournament when all the seeds were in order:

So really, all three of those teams should be squeezed into that one match-up. But that’s not clean and that’s not really doable at this point, so leave Pacific PV where they are. Restoring the bracket is clearly the least disruptive action here as it regards Rice and Lewis & Clark, since their bracket switch just happened the previous round and puts each of them in their rightful position without creating additional conflicts.

Nevertheless, they left the altered bracket as-is and ran these quarterfinals. The lower seeds were both bounced, though Lewis & Clark nearly upended the top seed, so we can surmise they might have had a better chance against Pacific. And the top seed should have been “protected” by getting the easier and rightful draw of #40 Rice.

So here’s where we were going into Semifinals:

And here, as you can imagine, what proved to be the last two rounds of the tournament were, again, switched to protect Washburn. #6 Berkeley traveled up to hit #1 Washburn BK instead of the #17 seed and #4 Washburn BS came down to hit the #17 instead of the #1. Both Washburn teams triumphed, yielding the first closeout in NPDA Nationals history and cancelling the final round.

Once again, the competitive disadvantage for Berkeley and Pacific is clear. Each should have had an easier path to the finals. Meanwhile, both Washburn pairs were rewarded for having their teammates still in the tournament, receiving a much easier draw.

I want to be clear about what I’m not saying. I am not saying that anyone involved with NPDA Nationals deliberately took any actions to favor Washburn, or any particular school. However, it is clear that this policy directly contributed to Washburn being able to closeout, as well as favoring Washburn teams generally. Washburn can attribute much of their top two teams’ ultimate outcome to getting 6 teams into the break in the first place, maximizing bracket-breaking that ultimately worked in their favor.

The main counter-arguments that could be levied to my concerns are, as I see them, twofold:
(1) Schools should be rewarded for breaking more teams.
(2) Teams still failed to win the rounds they were in to advance and should not blame the bracket.

As for (1), I think it’s a little silly. For one thing, the standard bracket does reward them, slightly, by guaranteeing in the instances where a school would hit the same school that one of those teams definitely advances. It’s an advantage – ask Mercer if you don’t believe me. But there’s still a difference between a reward and being able to negatively impact the fates of several other teams in the wake of getting you to avoid hitting your own school. I know it’s sad to leave your last tournament on a walk-over, but it’s also sad to hit a much better team than you deserved to. When both of these are sad outcomes, it seems like honoring the original bracket is best, especially when not doing so leads to subjective judgment calls like failing to restore the bracket for quarterfinals.

I find (2) to be a little more compelling, but ultimately a red herring. Obviously we care very much about honoring seeding and the bracket in general at tournaments. We don’t break brackets at other tournaments, for one thing. But we also spend eight (8) full preliminary rounds determining how the seeding should be allocated. Teams have worked hard to earn their seeding and their position. And teams that have won big upsets deserve to get rewarded for those upsets. If they didn’t, we would re-seed the bracket every time and #40 Rice PT would have had a date with #1 Washburn BK back in octos (presuming they’d gotten by #2 Nevada AM in doubles). We don’t force Cinderellas to do this, any more than the NCAA basketball tournament forces you to hit a one seed after beating a one seed. So the instances above where upset teams were supposed to hit each other and were instead switched to hit higher rated teams – it seems these squads have a legitimate complaint.

The past is the past. We’re not going to re-run NPDA Nationals. Some of the teams were little impacted, but many arguably would have gone further or less far based on this bracket decision. Ultimately, all the rounds were won and lost and judged fairly as they were announced. But in future years, it seems obvious that the NPDA should at the very least clarify what these alleged tab priorities mean when breaking brackets (addressing, for example, bracket restoration and what exactly “protecting the highest seed” really means). And most likely, they should just scrap this school/school protection scheme altogether and let the seeds fall where they may.


Tulane Debate Reaches NPDA Nationals Quarterfinals in Historic Upset

Categories: A Day in the Life, Marching to New Orleans, Primary Sources, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , , ,

The Tulane University Debate Team on Sunday at NPDA Nationals. Left to right: Alexander Parini ’18, Ben Ozur ’18, James Capuzzi ’17, Sina Mansouri ’17, Khristyan Trejo ’19, Michelle Daker ’17, and Claire Kueffner ’18. (Not pictured: Elise Matton ’14)

The Tulane University Debate Team reached the quarterfinals of the National Parliamentary Debate Association (NPDA) National Championships last Sunday at the Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The partnership of Claire Kueffner ’18 and Khristyan Trejo ’19 finished in the top eight of the title tournament, besting more than 125 rival teams from more than forty schools across the country.

After 8 preliminary rounds of competition, Tulane KT broke to partial-double-octofinals (52 teams) with a 5-3 record. Their preliminary run included an opening round win over the 15th ranked partnership in the nation, a team who had just made the quarterfinals of the National Parliamentary Tournament of Excellence (NPTE) the prior weekend. Tulane KT entered the single-elimination playoff as the 37th seed. They proceed to knock off #28 Utah HH (#7 in the season rankings), #5 Berkeley GY, and #13 Washburn PH in three consecutive elimination rounds on Saturday night and Sunday morning. They were finally eliminated by #4 Washburn BS (#6 in the season rankings), a team that went on to win semifinals and share the National Championship with other teammates from Washburn.

This was the first time Tulane won an elimination round at NPDA Nationals at only the second NPDA Nationals the team has attended. Trejo and Alexander Parini ’18 made the double-octofinals last year, losing that round to Nevada. Trejo was the top novice speaker at that event.

This year, Parini attended the tournament with Ben Ozur ’18. Seniors James Capuzzi ’17 and Michelle Daker ’17, the team’s President and Vice President, also competed. The combined results for the three pairings gave Tulane overall a twentieth ranking in the tournament’s sweepstakes.

Not only is the quarterfinal finish an amazing result for a team competing in its second NPDA Nationals, the top eight finish placed Tulane among several elite teams at this culminating event. The seven other teams in quarterfinals were all ranked in the top twenty in the season-long rankings; Tulane KT was ranked 456th. The other teams were ranked #1, #2, #3, #6, #10, #14, and #19.

Full tournament results can be viewed here.

Tulane has been competing in both NPDA and the American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA) this year, two national leagues of parliamentary debate with some stylistic differences. The school as a whole finished the NPDA season ranked 47th on the NPDA circuit out of 179 schools. The school is ranked 26th on APDA. Tulane will finish the debate season this year with trips to the William & Mary APDA tournament and the APDA National Championship at Rutgers University.

Tulane University has only had a debate team for six years, at least in its modern incarnation. The team has a website, but in one of those administrative confusions that seems universal to college campuses, we’ve been locked out of the ability to update it. And while there’s a lot on Facebook and in various places about how this past weekend happened and felt, I felt compelled to put a little write-up here for posterity as well, since this has been such a big part of my life so far in 2017.

Alex and I have been coaching the Tulane team for almost two years, invited to help late in the year prior by their then-coach, Andrew Bergman, a Pitt (APDA) dino who graduated from Tulane Law last spring. Last year, we volunteered and this year we are receiving a nominal stipend for our time, which largely consists of coming to two out of three weekly practices and the occasional tournament, plus generally trying to support the tournaments we don’t attend as much as possible. We’ve also been offering logistical help to their hosting of tournaments and navigating various debate leagues. The team started out competing in IPDA, then went to NPDA, and now sits at a crossroads between NPDA and APDA where it’s finding success in both formats.

I did not travel to Colorado with the team for this tournament, a decision I quickly came to regret as the successes piled up and our pre-round calls became increasingly excited and frantic. But in some ways, it was still a perfect tournament, even to be appreciated from afar. Below, I’m including my public thank you to the team who went (and Alex), as I posted on Facebook yesterday…

Y’all, please allow me to give some individual thanks in a public venue to a team that did something really incredible this weekend…

Sina Mansouri, it has been a real pleasure to work with you this year and observe your intense dedication to fostering this team and ensuring Tulane’s debate legacy continues to grow. I’m so glad you got to be on the ground this weekend to coach and be a part of this incredible accomplishment for the team you helped start.

Alexander Parini & Ben Ozur, I know this weekend didn’t go as well as you’d hoped for y’all individually, but I know you met your challenges with resilience and high spirits. I can’t wait to work with you on APDA next month and everything next year as we build toward what I think will be Tulane debate’s finest hour yet.

Michelle Daker & James Capuzzi, I am so glad you won your last NPDA round ever and that this weekend proved to be a holistically good experience for y’all. This accomplishment is a testament to your leadership this year and I appreciate all the time and hard work you’ve put into the team. I am so excited to see how y’all do in our upcoming April marathon swing through the mid-Atlantic!

Alex Jubb, I still maintain that you had the single best suggestion for every single round from the bubble through quarters. You have been an amazing coach for this team, even when they’re competing in a style that we’re both still learning. As sad as I was to not be in Colorado this weekend, it was a joy to share the vicarious excitement with you here in New Orleans.

Elise Matton, I don’t think this could have happened this weekend without your presence. When Alex first told me she’d met someone who went to my high school, was in her TFA cohort, and had founded the Tulane debate team, I couldn’t believe it, but I knew you would immediately be a person I shared a real connection with. I am so glad that you were able to lend your expertise and wisdom to the team this weekend, that you were the team’s leader throughout, and that you got to see firsthand the results of your creation.

Finally, of course, Khristyan Trejo & Claire Kueffner, I am simply in awe of y’all. I am still coming to terms with the magnitude of what you accomplished, for a partnership ranked 456th in the season standings to finish in the top 8 at Nationals among teams all ranked in the top 20, for a total outsider student-run team to crash a party reserved for teams that fly every weekend on the school’s dime with mammoth professional coaching staffs and scholarships. And that you did it your way, talking about what you feel is most important, *convincing* people that it *is* most important, makes it all the more special. You are the change we want to see in the world. Thank you.


Our Need for an Enemy: America’s Adversarial Obsession

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

“Down the corner by the hotdog stand
I seen a man
I said ‘Howdy friend, I guess it’s just us two’
He screamed a bit and away he flew
Thought I was a Communist”
-Bob Dylan, “Talking World War III Blues”

I love debate. Debate is arguably (ha!) my favorite activity and the one I have probably devoted the most time and energy to in my entire life. Only three other efforts even come remotely close, those being, roughly: writing, friendship, and the pursuit of forging a successful romantic relationship. (Editor’s note: Storey got engaged on Christmas Eve! Yay!) Debate is great.

But I have often acknowledged that debate has one giant, glaring weakness that frequently manifests as a character flaw in those who love it best and do it most, or I should say, manifests in me. The best that a debater can do is to acknowledge this flaw, to approach it self-awarely, and to try to mitigate it wherever possible or wherever it does harm. I have not risen sufficiently to this challenge, as many friends and family are quick to observe over the last 24 years since I first became involved in debate. But I know what it is and I try to address it: seeing the world as binary. Right vs. wrong, black vs. white, and that middle grounds and compromises are the equivalent of losing.

Debate, for all its greatness, does not reward compromise. It can reward some mitigation and nuance, some acknowledgment of when one is wrong in the small picture, but only to advantage the larger picture of being eminently right. It does not reward acknowledging when the other side has a really good point that should be taken seriously. Most damningly, it does not reward the recognition that there are more than two approaches to any problem. Everything is reduced to A or B and, come hell or high water, your position has to be better than the other, with all other considerations ruled out.

The only advantage this gives debate over American political and international theory over the last century, near as I can tell, is that you don’t always have the same enemy for years at a time in debate. Indeed, debate mitigates its cardinal sin greatly by forcing people to debate on both sides of an issue, frequently putting someone in the position of passionately defending that which they loathe in the rest of their life. The spiritual, emotional, and intellectual growth that comes from this exercise is the primary reason I’m willing to forgive debate’s binary adversarial structure and keep spreading its message far and wide. Nothing else in our society really gives us a strong incentive to take the “other side” seriously and engage it as though we agreed with it. No matter how ardently you’ve made your new year’s resolution about leaving your bubble, I only have hope that it will stick if you have a history with debate.

Of course, Democrats and Republicans or some form of left and right is, as I see it, the far less insidious manifestation of binary adversarial culture in America. As much as I hate the two-party system and all it has created, its damage meter pales in comparison to our sequential choosing of a nebulous international enemy and then throwing a Two Decades’ Hate at that foe, punctuated by bloody wars and unending bombing campaigns. From 1945-1991, of course, it was Communism, the specter that haunted our dreams and mostly looked like the USSR, but was nimble enough as an ideology to allow for the Vietnam War and a bunch of shady CIA-led repressions, coups, and borderline-genocides. What makes Communism a more satisfying enemy than the USSR is how widely it can be applied with how little evidence. You don’t need to point your guns, bombs, and henchmen at a flag or uniform only, but you can draw nefarious imagined connections between any speech or its up-and-coming sincere orator and the red menace that is coming to eat (or worse, brainwash!) good, strapping democratic babies.

For about eight years, from the end of the first Iraq War till 9/11, we got a brief glimpse of what it would look like to not have a global enemy to rally around, something to justify all the killing in the world. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most Americans remember 1992-2000 as pretty great years. Democrats want to claim this as Clinton’s legacy as a President, that he was an economic genius who replaced years of awful Republican policies. The truth, of course, is far more ambiguous: Presidents have very little impact on the economy and most of Clinton’s policies were right-wing reversions, like the crime bill or repealing welfare. If anything, Clinton’s enemy was the poor and there’s a case to be made (read your Shock Doctrine, folks!) that non-free trade and non-corporatism was the de facto enemy of this interregnum. But it was much subtler, much less broadcast, and frankly less violent. Oh sure, we were still bombing Iraq to smithereens on the regular and kept sending bombers to Somalia and Kosovo and such, but compared to the overt wars that came before and after, it was relatively peaceful.

Then 9/11 manufactured the Terrorist Threat and ushered in 15 years and counting of endless war, escalating incursions on traditionally held American rights and values, and a general renewal of the beloved American war machine, generating fear at home and bodies abroad in equal bloody measure. The only disagreement among the parties has been whether it’s more useful to call it Terrorism at large and be able to apply the force and vitriol literally everywhere (Democrats) or whether to specify it as Radical Islamic Terrorism and target it “only” at the perhaps two-thirds of the world’s nations where Islam is prevalent (Republicans). In every instance, the primary strategy has been to bomb standing nation-states into a total power vacuum so the Terrorist Threat can take hold as the only form of leadership or government available, then fight a long, protracted, awkward war with the manifestation of that threat. The hardest part about keeping this shenanigan going is that the threats which win the initial vacuum are often so weak and ridiculous that it takes a significant amount of smoke and mirrors (and often American arms) to prop them up to sufficiently make them look like a legitimate thing to be afraid of. Fortunately, there are just enough masks and black flags in the world and the American imagination is so easily terrorized that this has not posed a long-term danger to the strategy.

But a funny thing happened in 2016. It seemed there was real, legitimate dissent about who the great American Enemy should be. While Donald Trump went around continuing to talk about Radical Islamic Terrorism, rattling cages with this ominous bogeyman, Hillary Clinton pivoted rather forcefully to the ultimate champion of our old ideological foe, Communism, now rebranded as simply Putin (or very occasionally, Russian Hackers). It seemed an odd move for one of the most significant fighters of the War on Terror strategy, someone perhaps second only to George W. Bush himself in the desire to bomb Islamic nations into chaos and then talk gravely about the need to intervene in the resulting chaos. (It remains the strangest footnote of 2016 American politics that Clinton was criticized by the right for being weak on Libya through the Benghazi incident when she was the strongest advocate of creating its power vacuum for long-term exploitation in the first place.) And yet as DJT stands poised to take the international stage and renew the War on Terror in its insidious glory for the next 4-8 years, leadership in both parties yearns for the middle decades of last century and wants to switch to Russia instead. Whatever else you may think is going on in our nation’s capital, I suspect this is the ideological battle that will have the most impact on the shape of the world in the foreseeable future.

I feel I shouldn’t need to explain exactly what’s so problematic about having an appointed enemy who is the visage of ultimate wrong in American politics, that becomes the target of all our weaponry and hateful rhetoric. But I can also hear sincere believers in the American Way clamoring that both ISIS and Russia do shady stuff and act with bad intent toward our people and should be “held to account” for this. (Sidenote: “held to account” is a phrase we use to indicate going through the justice system, such as it is, for Americans or people we feel have rights. For non-Americans, it usually means “having your neighborhood indiscriminately bombed until you capitulate”. Worth thinking about.) Yes, ISIS does do bad things. So does Putin. So does the United States. If you can’t honestly look at the Native American genocide, slavery, Jim Crow, Vietnam, the CIA, and the War on Terror and imagine what the US would say, think, and do about a country with that track-record that wasn’t the US, then there’s no point in having a rational discussion about this. Imagine you’re debating the position that the US has done more harm than good. Look at how many arguments are available to you! Look how easy this position is to defend! Now, do you think the US is best because it’s truly best? Or are you predisposed to think that because we all tell ourselves a story about who we are, where we were born, and what we deserve?

The problem with having a sworn enemy, whoever it is and whatever they’ve done, is that it blinds you to both your own flaws and to the other side’s good traits. It turns the world into good and evil, baddies and goodies, things that we think might be all right for five-year-olds to absorb as an introduction to the world but that lose their efficacy for explaining the world by middle school at the latest. This touches on a few themes I’ve hit before, but perhaps the most important is the idea that people who disagree with you are innately irrational. This is incited in the wake of every mass-killing, every suicide, every terrorist attack, and I have discussed this more than almost anything else on this blog. It’s always labeled as “senseless” and “irrational” and “unthinkable”. When we kill, we have reasons. When anyone else kills, they have no reasons. It’s the persistent mantra of our self-enforced superiority as Americans. And it’s bunk.

But it applies beyond just the international realm. It applies, most prominently, to Donald Trump and his supporters. The traditional media, the left such as it is, and more prominently the center-right masquerading as the left, all agree that Donald Trump and everyone who voted for him are unthinkably irrationally crazy. Just as Russia and Putin are our sworn new foreign enemy to be thwarted at every turn, so too are Donald Trump and his voters our sworn domestic foe. And everything he does, they do, must be immediately called out as the worst thing ever regardless of its actual content or value.

Look, I’m no fan of Donald Trump. And most every move he’s made since early November has made him seem even more problematic. But not every move. And not every thing. And certainly not everyone who voted for him shares culpability for his most problematic stances, any more than every Clinton voter should have been tried for murder in the wake of whatever wars she started. It’s a fine and subtle distinction I’m advocating, between being hyper-critical of that which is bad and literally believing that everything a certain enemy does is condemnatory evil. We shouldn’t have enemies, at least not ones that persistent and that incredible. Even in debate rounds, our enemies change, we befriend our enemies after some time, and we sometimes even debate our teammates, with them being the enemy for just one round. It is this interplay between friend and foe, this understanding that most people do things that are wrong and other things that are right, that is vital to remember. It also makes it much harder for us to feel good about killing anyone.

Which is good. Because we shouldn’t be killing anyone.

You can take that line at the top, from new Nobel laureate Bob Dylan, and replace “Communist” with “Terrorist”. It’s searingly relevant for the last 15 years. Or you can replace it with just “Russian” and it will serve as a fitting parable about the last year of American perception. Or how about “Trump Voter” and that will tell you all you need to know about a lot of America in the last sixty days.

Howdy, friend. I guess it’s just us two. Let’s take that obligation seriously, shall we?


A Life Lived Out Loud: Remembering Jonathan Bernbaum (1982-2016)

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: , ,

On Saturday morning, I woke up late, as I usually do these days. I’d been out driving till about 3:00 AM, wrapping up Friday night much earlier than normal. I was feeling a little sick. That night, I had nightmares, as is still pretty usual. As is the tendency these days, one of the first things I did after waking up was check my phone.

I saw the following update from Facebook: Elizabeth Turnbull marked herself safe during The Fire in Oakland. Elizabeth Turnbull is the married name of a Smith debater who was in the college class of 2004, who only recently moved to Oakland.

My first thought was of how many people I know in Oakland, how many I know in the Bay Area, and how catastrophic a fire would have to be to warrant that level of a safety check. I immediately went to Google News for more. I saw that it was an electronic music show and I immediately thought of Jon. Jon, or just Bernbaum, as I knew him, has been going by his fuller name of Jonathan Bernbaum for years as he became a world traveling highly acclaimed VJ, performing at dance parties, raves, and events of all kind all over the world. This seemed like exactly the kind of event he would be playing, or attending. But almost immediately thereafter, I banished the thought. He was almost certainly somewhere else in the world, anywhere but Oakland, playing in Dubai or Estonia or Shanghai. I went to see his recent Facebook posts.

He’d just returned from a multi-country tour of Asia, playing huge events, a few days before. His latest post, which I suddenly remembered seeing, was about divesting from Wells Fargo to a credit union. Above that, a few comments of concern from friends that he hadn’t yet marked himself as safe. And then I found the event page for the show where the fire had started and saw he was marked to attend. My blood froze. It wasn’t clear whether he’d been performing or just attending, but it looked like he’d been there. I posted on his Facebook page, then that of the Brandeis debate team, hoping someone else knew more, knew better than I did.

Jon and I weren’t close lately. We weren’t totally far, either, but we hadn’t seen each other in person in something close to a decade. This is the nature of the world of social media and Facebook, much like the slow-motion horror that unfolded above and in the 36 hours that followed before it was confirmed that he was among the victims of the fire. You don’t ever lose touch with people, unless you really want to, those connections to people you shared brief important times with can remain, unbroken and open, as you keep up with each other’s lives. We had recently touched base a few years ago when he was headed to Finland for the first time and asked for recommendations and I caught up on his incredible career as a VJ. Even more recently, he’d commented on my post just last month about the election wrap-up. A fellow far-lefty, a borderline (?) pacifist, an anti-establishment comrade, we saw the world in much the same way, both in those college years we shared and so many years down the line.

We met at Brandeis, the fall of his first year there, when he joined the debate team I’d been on for two years prior. He immediately established himself as an uppity novice, a big voice with big opinions who had a way of getting under people’s skin but was deeply committed to improving as a debater. He had bluster, bravado, stubbornness, intelligence, and will. He was, to most, an acquired taste who really grew on you. While he sometimes led with abrasiveness, he was passionately interested in ideas and how they worked, pushing people to their limit to see how they ticked. That spring, after Zirkin and I took a break from our failed TOTY run to try to qual teammates, Bernbaum and I debated together at the tiny Wellesley tournament.

It was a disaster. We went 2-3, one of my only losing records at an APDA tournament. But despite the poor performance, I found I loved debating with Jon. He was bold and brave in his argumentation. He was passionate and excited. He was as enthused for our 2-2 round, when we had no chance of breaking, as he’d been for our opening round, when we had high hopes. He brought his trademark intensity to every speech, every round, every recap of the round. Sometimes that intensity was a little manic, but he was determined to harness it to improve. And he’d earned 4th novice speaker in the process. I vowed that we’d return to another tournament the next year and avenge our record.

It was Amherst the next January where we attempted to fulfill this promise. The mid-sized field of 47 teams sported a veritable murderer’s row of debaters, including three debaters who would go on to win Nationals in the following two years. After a solid first round win, we hit the tournament favorite, that year’s second TOTY (Team of the Year, the annual overall rankings for partnerships on APDA, our debate league), Beth O’Connor and Adam Jed from Yale. Danny Schwarcz, a recent Amherst graduate and star of their team, was our judge. We were Opp and Bernbaum started freaking out a little that our luck from Wellesley was back. I started wracking my brains for what case they’d run against us, since I had hit this team about every other weekend all season. And then I remembered they had a case that many teams ran about eliminating victim impact statements, one they’d never run against either of us. We started discussing counter-arguments to this case.

When Danny got to the room, he asked what we were talking about so frantically and prepping so much since we were Opp. I told him we had a hunch about the case and Bernbaum flashed his trademark evil grin. Danny, to my chagrin, said he thought that case would be really interesting and he hoped they’d run it. We went back to prepping. When Yale returned to the room with their case ready, Danny observed that we’d predicted the case and our opponents immediately said that they doubted this was possible. He said “we’ll let you know when you read case statement” and Beth got up for her PMC. Before she was finished saying “We have an interesting case for you about the sentencing phase of jury trials,” Jon and I had both burst out laughing and Danny was trying to hold a poker face through giving her a thumbs-up. Only mildly flustered, she went on to deliver the case. Emboldened by our preparation, we went on to win.

We dropped round three to the team that would go 5-0 in in-rounds, consisting of Tim Willenken, who’d had only moderate success with his regular partner that year and his novice partner for the weekend, Josh Bendor. I forget who we beat round 4. In fifth round, we proved to be the middle 3-1 team and got pulled-up to hit the top team at the tournament, a 4-0 squad from MIT, who’d dubbed themselves the Ivy League Assassins for the weekend. They were drawing little stick figures of every Ivy League debater they bested that weekend beside their names each round. But, of course, Brandeis is not an Ivy League school.

The team, good friends Patrick Nichols and Phil Larochelle, who would go on to win the 2003 North American Championships as well as this tournament, ran an opp-choice case of whether a rebel movement in a developing nation should use violent or non-violent means to resist an oppressive government. They ran this as a trap, knowing I’d pick non-violent, presuming it to be the much weaker side. Christopher Russo, the ranking dino in experience and age on the circuit at the time, judged. The round was hard-fought and razor-close, but ultimately Jon and I were able to fend off Phil’s onslaught of examples with the notion that just because non-violence had been tried less didn’t mean it wasn’t more effective. I’m not sure I’d ever been in a round where both my teammate and I felt so passionately about a side we were arguing and the importance of its implications. Not only did we win the round, it was the only blemish on the Ivy League Assassins’ perfection that tournament. They won every other round with perfect ranks and finished as tournament champions and the top two speakers.

Despite the two utterly epic victories, Bernbaum and I broke to quarterfinals as just the eighth seed in the tournament, lining up for a rematch with Willenken and Bendor. I remember the round being pretty packed and we were both nervous as we waited, not being able to predict what this Yale team would run against as we had in round two. They ran opp-choice, should we value the letter or spirit of the law when they conflict, a classic LD resolution from prior years. I’m not sure we even deliberated before immediately choosing spirit. Jon was brilliant in the round, citing several instances of old racist and sexist laws whose letter is exclusionary but can be reinterpreted to be more inclusive in our more enlightened contemporary understanding of society. While we lost the round, I’d never seen him debate better and I was so proud to be his partner that weekend.

Later that year, we’d debate together officially just once more, defending the proposed Brandeis boycott of Kraft, the idea that good friend Ben Brandzel had championed as President of the Student Senate. This was in a public debate on campus, one of the first we ever did, and placed us, for the third time in a row, in the position of passionately defending a political position we staunchly believed in. It was practically like The Great Debaters, now that I think of it.

Our names on the board for the public debate on the Kraft referendum.

Our names on the board for the public debate on the Kraft referendum.

At the end of that year, at our senior banquet, Bernbaum won the Most Improved Debater award, a testament to his dedication, perseverance, and intensity. No one had any doubt that he was by far the most deserving recipient.

Jon stayed on the debate team his junior and senior year, but from what I heard his commitment to the club was variable. He was not always his happiest and most at home in college. While he loved Brandeis and his intellectual pursuits there, he struggled at times with his outlook on life, his weight, with finding a place and direction in his life. When we reconnected in 2005, when he’d graduated and moved back to his childhood home in Berkeley while I lived in Oakland, he seemed restless for his life to begin already. He became a regular at the Big Blue House poker nights, joining our teammate and good friend Zimmy, plus a variety of Seneca and PIRG friends and our landlord. We told old debate stories and laughed and joked and he perfected his wily and cunning poker faces, which were kind of the opposite of poker faces in trying to deceive you not with impassivity but with gregariousness. Such was always his wild, goofy way. That February, he, Zimmy, and Chris Russo took me out for Mexican food for my birthday and talked about everything and I remember it being one of those magical perfect nights of conversation, blending mundane personal insights with grand political hopes and all of us thinking deeply about our role in the universe.

Soon, of course, Jon found his role. His journey to USC to study film, then to Pixar, then to his incredible niche as an artist VJing shows, was a deliberate and chosen path that led him to a cornucopia of friends, accolades, and fulfillments. Like all of his paths, it was not entirely constructed or fully planned, but included whimsy, whim, and just a dash of madness. Simultaneously, he turned the path inward on himself, reshaping how he interacted with the world in drastic and important ways. He excised junk from his diet, losing an enormous amount of weight. He committed himself to pursue only the activities which he felt were valuable and important. Turning down a full-time offer at Pixar to pursue his creative vision to create wild visual displays for enormous parties is something no one saw coming, nor could anyone deny its obvious rightness once we saw his success in that scene. He had found his place, and tens of thousands of people were richer, more enthralled, and more thoughtful for his influence.

If there is a silver lining to this immense tragedy, a minor mitigation to the abyss of our loss in the wake of Jonathan Bernbaum’s death, it is the solace we can take in knowing that he had found his calling and had time to hone and develop it. That he was recognized for his creativity, intensity, and brilliance by so many in his short time here. In that enormous accomplishment, we can all take inspiration.

Jonathan Bernbaum giving a floor speech, Middlebury College finals, March 2002.

Jonathan Bernbaum giving a floor speech, Middlebury College finals, March 2002.

I have been overwhelmed all weekend by little flashes and snippets of Jon, mostly from the time we shared on the debate circuit. Jon giving a floor speech, cracking good jokes and bad ones, in his characteristic blustery high volume. Jon donning just one black glove, grinning creepily in a staring contest before he burst out laughing just before his opponent blinked. The sheer joy Jon expressed in the car the first time he heard the Barenaked Ladies song “I Know”, an irreverent romp through our cultural inconsistencies that I’ve never since heard without thinking of him.

Here, have a listen:

Beth Mandel and I making the impromptu decision to call the race of extraterrestrial aliens in our crazy new case “The Bernbaums” when running the case at Middlebury in front of Jon’s best non-Brandeis APDA friend, Sam Rodriguez. The hilarity that ensued, not least from Jon himself, who loved it. Some drunk MIT debaters at the epic Fairfield 2001 party asking if they could “haze Bernbaum” while I defended him against their onslaught. At one point, Jon actually said it was okay if they hazed him but I fended the MITers off anyway. Later, one MIT debater, having to be content with hazing his teammates, would stuff beans down the ear of another to the point where the latter would need surgery to remove them. Jon’s love/hate friendship with Zimmy, how the two grew close after college when they were both in the Bay Area, after years of being good but bickery friends. Jon’s penchant for accents, impressions, corny jokes, and arch facial expressions.

Bernbaum and I being goofy, Toronto Worlds 2002.  Photo by Beth Mandel.

Bernbaum and I being goofy, Toronto Worlds 2002. Photo by Beth Mandel.

More than anything, I am struck by how many people I would be worried about writing this remembrance for, in this way. It’s not always the most flattering picture of Bernbaum, but it was the Jon that I knew. And I know, unequivocally, that he would be more than okay with that. Because he was never untrue to himself or the reality of the situation. He was unflinchingly, bravely honest. He never ever cared what anyone thought of him. He was himself, only himself, and only ever wanted to be himself. The best possible, ever-improving version of himself, but not at the expense of total authenticity. More than anything, this is what I most deeply respect and love about Jon Bernbaum. He was unapologetically himself – goofy and intense, thoughtful and loud, a powerfully emotional intelligent human being.

He’s a human being I wish I’d known better. I wish you’d all had a chance to know him. I hope we can all be a little more like him from now on. I’ll miss you, Bernbaum. You made so many people so happy here. I hope you knew that.


The Putin Playbook

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


“I always felt fine about Putin. I think that he’s a strong leader. He’s a powerful leader. … He’s actually got a popularity within his country. They respect him as a leader. … I would talk to him, I would get along with him. … He has absolutely no respect for President Obama.”
-Donald Trump, from two separate interviews, on Vladimir Putin

Donald J. Trump, Republican nominee for President, is not the second coming of Hitler. Sorry to disappoint, kids. I know Godwin’s Law says the first comparison we have to make is to Hitler, just as the Republicans themselves started drawing brushy mustaches on their Obama posters. And it’s not because it can’t happen here, because anything can happen here. We’re not special in America just because we were born into a rich country in love with its own image and alleged impact on the world. As the world’s leading exporter of imperialism and militarism, it’s certainly a stone’s throw to Hitler on a good day, so we should sure be vigilant.

But Trump’s model is a different strongman. One who is blonde, like him, like Hitler so desperately wanted to be. Vladimir Putin. Trump, like the Russian people, is obsessed with Vlad Putin.

Vladimir Putin may be the most authentically beloved leader among his or her domestic populous on the planet right now. While he has a strong and vocal group of dissenters, the Russians love the authority and respect he has restored to Rodina (the motherland, in Russian). They don’t care so much that he’s alienated a lot of foreign nations, for he’s done so by empowering Russia to be strong and independent, the idealized image of the nation fostered throughout the Communist years and well before. They love that he took back Crimea, love even more that no one was able to stop him. They like that he poses shirtless, does martial arts, purportedly wrestles bears to the ground between drinking sessions at his dacha. He exudes virility, strength, and power. What Trump wouldn’t obsess over such a figure?

But the biggest thing that Putin does best is push the envelope. For what greater test of power can there be than getting away with something more outrageous than anyone would have predicted you could? It’s all well and good to claim power in an atmosphere where you gladly offer concessions and make nice with other leaders at home and abroad. Quite another to demonstrate that power by doing something widely reviled and demonstrating that no one can stop you.

Well before he invaded Crimea, well before he praised Donald Trump as “brilliant,” Rutgers debaters Dave Reiss and Kyle Bomeisl wrote a case they wound up running in Maryland finals in 2010. The case was written in the midst of some minor spats between Putin and his puppet co-leader Dmitri Medvedev (speaking of wrestling bears – medved is Russian for bear) and proposed a hypothetical where Medvedev went so far as to publicly criticize Putin, which he did not do. The case we ran in Maryland finals was, in this hypothetical instance: “You are Vladimir Putin. Invite Medvedev to appear with you on national television. Then strangle him, on camera, with your bare hands.”

What the Maryland judging panel didn’t realize is that this was a serious suggestion and exactly in the wheelhouse of what Putin would do. For the lesson of the case was the same as the lesson of Putin’s entire presidency/prime ministership/presidency: get away with as much as you can. It will demonstrate that your enemies are powerless and make them look weak and terrified for trying to oppose you in the first place. It would be a whole new level for Putin to demonstrate that he could literally get away with murder.

This theory about Trump/Putin explains so many of the things that come out of the mouth of Trump and his cronies, so many things that otherwise baffle political pundits and observers. He’s not just a gaffe machine attempting to eclipse Joe Biden for foot-in-mouth moments. Because he doesn’t apologize for these gaffes or walk them back, almost ever. He’s just pushing the envelope as far across the table as he can reach, loudly testing the waters of how far he’s come and what he can get away with. Melania Trump lifting lines from Michelle Obama? Just a test. Claims about wall-building and Muslim-banning? Just tests. What can he get away with and still be popular, still be leading in the primary polls, still have a commanding presence on the world’s highest and most theatrical stage?

This is why people can seriously consider whether the whole thing is some master ruse: either a punt to old friend Hillary Clinton or a set-up for a shocking abdication between November and January (that theory must have died with the appointment of Mike Pence) or some kind of epic joke to demonstrate his superiority over the American people. Because this is not how we’re used to our serious politicians operating. We’re used to the pandering of the Clintons, the conciliation of Obama, the rallying cries of the Bushes, and the communicating of Reagan. We think politicians want them to like us and we forgot that the most popular people in high school were the ones who didn’t give a flying bleep what you thought of them. We have forgotten the first rule of affection: the less you show a desire to be liked, the more people crave your attention.

That said, Trump doesn’t always pull it off. He reacts defensively sometimes, a mistake Putin would never make. Putin’s response to accusations about small hands would not have been to awkwardly say there’s no problem there. He might have just leaked testimony from a former lover in some media outlet, or perhaps a nude picture of himself, doctored if necessary. He might have just ignored it and laughed off any future questions about it. Putin does not go out of his way to be loved. He shows his strength by pulling outrageous and unprecedented stunts, by speaking loudly and carrying a big stick.

Now, yes, this does not paint a very flattering picture of a Trump presidency. Keep in mind that all my efforts to both demonstrate the underestimated power of Trump to win votes and to compare him roughly equally to Clinton are not endorsements. They are not in any way, shape, or form, a desire to see Trump take the highest national office. But I do think it’s important that we realistically evaluate who Trump is, what he’s capable of, and what his intentions are for the nation.

Like Putin, Trump is an entertainer, a strongman, and an egotist. But he’s also a realist, one capable of measuring where the line ultimately is and ensuring that he doesn’t do something actually crazy and miscalculated. This is why Trump with his finger on the button doesn’t terrify me, any more than the existence of said button and egomaniacal American politicians always terrifies me. Putin has not nuked the US, or Ukraine, has not rebuilt the Iron Curtain, has not recreated the purges. He’s done some condemnable things, to be sure, but they’re within the range of normal US presidencies: invading some other countries, bombing still more, cracking down on some rights, possibly illicitly assassinating some citizens. All pretty par for what we expect from top-line world leaders these days.

Ultimately, though, the best check on Trump is one that truly does exist for Putin and pretty much anyone else who wants to win the beauty contests of contemporary elections in major world powers. Deep down, despite all the veneer of indifference to opinion and reaction, he cares very deeply about what people think. Donald J. Trump wants you to like him. Desperately. He has crafted an entire life around building an image, building up propaganda, and he really really wants you to think he’s cool. In that way, he’s almost indistinguishable from Hillary Clinton. He just knows that showing it less makes people like you more. Which is why he’s going to win in November.

Again, I don’t want this to happen. I also don’t want Hillary Clinton to win in November. Almost everyone I talk to agrees with this mutually assured disappointment. Except, of course, that it’s not assured. Just like in 1992, if everyone voted their conscience, for the candidate they truly truly truly wanted to win the White House, we would not be sending a Republican or a Democrat to the presidency this year. I think almost any moderately popular moderate could jump in the race right now, or in August (I know they literally couldn’t, because they wouldn’t get on the ballot in time), on a not-ClinTrump platform, and grab 300 electoral votes. Short of that, I think Gary Johnson or Jill Stein could each pull 20% and put the election in chaos. If one dropped out and endorsed the other, real third-party victory would be possible, if everyone actually voted and voted their heart.

Sadly, we’re too busy throwing around accusations of people being like Hitler (or of Benghazi), generating fear to insist that we vote for literally the second worst person we could imagine running for President. In that sense, this whole election cycle feels like it’s being run by Vladimir Putin on behalf of the two major parties. They are pushing the envelope as far as they can, offering up the two most hated people in American politics to demonstrate their stranglehold on power. We just keep taking it, eating up the lesser evil, believing in this false dichotomy and being surprised when things get worse. Wherever the line may be, I guess they haven’t found it yet. I sure wish we’d resist, though, so we’d start having candidates we didn’t have to compare to war-mongering power-addicts.


I Find Your Lack of Amy Sherman-Palladino Disturbing

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


You get bullet points today. Because I’m overdue to post, but nothing stays in my head longer than a paragraph in the morning these days. Just pretend Introspection is back.

-I think I may be the person in the world most mutually excited about the return of Star Wars and Gilmore Girls. And not just because I live in an apartment where old seasons of the Gilmore Girls are on a loop in the background most waking hours and this offers the opportunity for new content. I’m also that guy who didn’t think the prequels were much of a departure from the originals – yes, there was stilted cheezy dialogue and poorly sequenced action. Watch the originals. Same thing. Doesn’t make me love Star Wars any less, nor should it for you. The intro music still gets me going. And the fact that Amy Sherman-Palladino will be back for Gilmore Girls salvages the whole project, since the last season of GG to date was pretty close to unwatchable. Now if only we can convince her to write one of the Star Wars movies, we’ll really be in business!

-Living in Louisiana is different. This is a trivial statement: all of the places I’ve lived are different. But in the New Orleans bubble of craziness and left-wing politics, it’s easier to forget that we’re in the Deep South, or at least an hour’s drive from it. Lately, Facebook ads have been trying to remind me. It’s very weird to see a barrage of ads criticizing right-wing Republicans for being too moderate or not Republican enough. My political views on Facebook are “Pacifist Socialist”. I have liked about 14 pages associated with Bernie Sanders. I am trying to make this easy for you. Granted, you don’t have “Pacifist Socialist” indexed in your political spectrum, but I promise I am not the droid you are looking for.

-All debate teams are the same. Again, this is kind of trivially untrue, because the tone set by leadership and the goals of the team can make the experience of the members of the team wildly different. But deep down, at a fundamental core level, the dynamics and interactions and aspirations are all the same. After debating on high school and college teams and coaching professionally, I find this deeply comforting as I start to get more involved with yet another college debate team, despite their being on a different league entirely. And for what it’s worth, slow NPDA is really not as different from APDA as you’d expect. There’s slightly more technical jargon and less overall creativity that comes from the pre-set resolutions (which are predictably topical, generally speaking), but the basics of speeches and what makes for success are easily recognizable. The problem with the league as I can discern it is that it’s so regionally fragmented that the event is completely different in different regions, much like LD when I was in high school. So the exact same performance could win a tournament in one area and go omnidefeated in another. Unfortunately, like every debate format in the world except for APDA and BP, speed has taken over the top of the national circuit, which is a thing Tulane will have to figure out if we’re going to go beyond regional success. Or we could just sit on the even fence of southern NPDA and southern APDA, I suppose.

-I really hope Joe Biden gets into the race. Not because anyone should vote for Joe Biden, but because 95% of his support will come from current Hillary voters. There’s no way that Biden can beat Bernie Sanders, but he can peel enough knee-jerk Clinton support to vault Sanders into a clear lead in the primaries. And all you people moaning about winning should be looking not only at Trump and Carson, but also at Obama and Trudeau and Greece and Corbyn… there is a wave of positive, left-wing populism abroad in the land that can also win here. And if the Republicans nominate a populist and the Democrats trot out the politician’s ultimate politician, it’s going to be a bloodbath. If winning is your primary (pun!) Democratic concern, then you need to take a long hard look at a general election scenario between Trump and Hillary. Turnout, energy, and excitement drive election results in this country. “Obvious” Democratic establishment choices drive the failed candidacies of Al Gore, John Kerry, and HHH. The last time an establishment Democrat won the White House (outside of a re-election campaign) was FDR in 1932.


Several Counter-Intuitive Things I’m Thinking Today

Categories: A Day in the Life, Marching to New Orleans, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Quick Updates, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , , , ,

If you don't post a picture on social media, people won't know what your post is about!

If you don’t post a picture on social media, people won’t know what your post is about!

It’s gonna be roundup-style today, kids. The loose thread tying it together is that I’m thinking things I think most people I know might disagree with. The snarky among you are saying “Why should today be unlike any other day?”

1. I don’t think Kim Davis should have been imprisoned.
I know. I know. She’s misdirected and misguided, biased and problematic, hypocritical and the whole nine. I’m not defending her actions or her as a person. But I don’t think arrest and imprisonment actually fit her actions at all. She probably should have been fired, probably on about the second day of her shenanigans. Let the long slow dreadful wheels of employment law sort her out. But I think even state officials failing to execute their job properly or carrying out their job in a biased way does not warrant arrest and imprisonment. Unless, you know, they’re killing people or physically harming them or something. But failure to do your job properly doesn’t warrant arrest. If it did, even more of the country’s population would be incarcerated, which is truly hard to imagine. On a political level, also, there’s the whole martyrdom issue. It made me pretty queasy to see so many “liberal” people condemning civil disobedience as a ridiculous concept on face just because their convictions don’t align with the person invoking said disobedience right now. Letting the person disobeying have jail as a place from which to make a more legitimate-seeming claim of mistreatment was just a bad tactical move, if nothing else.

2. NPDA might not be that bad.
The jury is out on this one, but my first earnest night of working with the Tulane Debate Team led me to believe that the differences have long been exaggerated. Certainly the “coaching” that RUDU has received in the last year or so makes me question this a little, but that might not be NPDA’s fault; it might just be the NPDA-experienced person in the position. Almost every time I asked if something was different, I learned that it’s not. There seem to be spready regions of NPDA, but it looks like Tulane avoids those. It might just be linked APDA, which seems to be what a swath of recent APDA leadership has been clamoring to turn APDA into anyway. I need to go to a tournament or two to be sure, though, which looks like it may be in the works! Don’t worry; we’re going to try to get Tulane up to some APDA contests too.

3. Only a Convention Coup can stop Donald Trump from winning the Republican nomination.
No matter how much the media fights and scrabbles and the establishment refuses to take Trump seriously, I think his momentum is almost unstoppable at this point. People forget that the Republican primaries are disproportionately winner-take-all, which is very different from the Democratic proportional system. Trump doesn’t need 51% support to start edging people out of the race and collecting a lot of delegates. People also grossly misunderstand how well he sits at the crossroads of so many things voters find appealing right now – the combination of irreverence for the economic establishment while being (or posing as) a successful businessman is almost irresistible for a group of people who are not doing well financially but assume they will some day. The Republican Party has always had slots for Trump-like candidates, though they’re usually from California (Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger). We’re facing a year when it’s quite possible that both nominees by delegate count will entering the conventions with no major establishment support or endorsements (R-Trump, D-Sanders). I don’t trust either party not to pull a coup, but especially not the Republicans. The problem is that the Republicans know that Trump will run 3rd party if they betray him, especially after he took the loyalty oath. But how else would you stop him? He’s a walking scandal, making him totally scandal-proof. He’s an American Putin. How would you honestly make people who love him now hate him when everyone in the party is trying so hard to emulate him?

4. The more you do, the more energy you have.
This is kind of an oldie but a goodie. And maybe those “you”s up there should be “I”s since this may not be true for everyone, though I might posit that it just doesn’t seem true for everyone. But awakeness and energy levels have always seemed to depend most on one’s interest in what’s going on when one is awake. If there are lots of things you’re looking forward to, lots of activities (even if many of them are objectively exhausting), then the tipping point of waking up when one is otherwise sleepy or getting out the door when one is otherwise feeling overwhelmed just gets a lot nearer. Part of this is a positive reinforcement loop – expending energy is an investment that may not always pay off. Sometimes activities are less fun or enjoyable or “worth it” than they seem. But I think most people (or maybe just most introverts) discount the value that will be gained from such activities, especially when one has a busy/exhausting job. The reality is almost always surprising that those activities are fun, enjoyable, and ultimately energizing. I think the same principle I used to try to convince people to play another game of Risk on Scheffres 2nd and then start their homework even later is still in play: fill your time and your time will fill you. And sleep is only necessary when there’s really nothing else to do.


The Muddy Lens

Categories: A Day in the Life, Metablogging, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Read it and Weep, Telling Stories, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Problem of Being a Person, Tags: , , , , , ,

The problem with writing is that it’s all done by writers.

But seriously, it’s an innate flaw to the medium. Though not a unique one, this flaw carries its own particular proclivities and issues stemming from the viewpoints of writers. They have a tendency to care about words. They have a tendency to care very deeply about being a writer and all that perception entails. They are inordinately interested in writers and writing. And other writers and their writing. And various detailed minutiae of the writing process, including how to use it to extract the very best writing.

Not everyone who reads is a writer. Arguably, most people aren’t. And thus we have this conundrum wherein what is most interesting to the writer is not necessarily what interests the reader. But, by definition, writing must be done by writers. Unless, of course, it is done by Snookie. There are, I guess, non-writers who write. But even if they do it very badly, they will eventually become writers. By the sheer process and fact of having done enough writing, one is, like it or not, a writer. And thus the problems entailed above ensue.

This isn’t a unique problem because it is inherent to almost any field of produced media, let alone field of study and perhaps creative or thoughtful pursuit writ large. It is most visible (my opinion) in the realm of movies, where the vast majority (99.5%+) of moviegoers are not filmmakers, but they are subjected, via tautological monopoly, to the whims of filmmakers if they wish to witness films. It seems, probably, least problematic in the art of photography, perhaps ironically vis a vis what happens once that lens starts moving. But there is something quiet and observant enough about the process of photography that we seem to be subjected to relatively few illustrations of cameras, lenses, photographers, and whatever it is that particular interests those behind the (still) camera.

I am speaking somewhat glibly and perhaps not entirely sincerely with all these “subjected to”s. After all, I consider myself a writer. And I sure as hell am subjecting you to what interests me as a writer, which is, if anything today, meta-writing. Or possibly, God help us, meta-meta-writing, since I seem to be writing about the nature of writing about writing, at least at this moment.

But I think there’s something fundamental here, that transcends even the creative arts. Nearly any field or group or category inevitably becomes self-referential and, in America at least, self-aggrandizing. It is in the interests of an insular group, be they a team of researchers or a team of debaters or a team of basketball players, to congratulate themselves disproportionately, to overemphasize the value of their accomplishments and struggles. In some of these arenas, say basketball, there is a small country worth of reporters, fans, and businesspeople all too willing to reinforce this kind of insular self-emphasis. Less so in college debate, perhaps, but the reduced number is counter-weighted by the verbosity and eloquence, in that order. But all of the debating is still done by debaters, and therein lies the rub.

This has application to things that matter very much indeed, as you might have already predicted would be the ultimate direction of this post. I think it’s something we’ve put our finger on, collectively as a society (I nearly said “as a collective society” to be more direct about phrasing before realizing that’s a very misleading representation of the United States at present – we are no such thing), but haven’t quite grasped, let alone articulated. Specifically with regard to politicians. The problem with politics is that it’s all done by politicians. Which sounds almost trite in its 1990s mock-discovery, ignoring the quarter-century since of cascading candidates who want to paint themselves as outsiders. But really. There are things that matter to the kind of people who would seek office that don’t matter to everyone else. There are assumptions that they make and priorities they presume that are not held by the 99.5%+ of us who are, roughly, “the governed”. There’s a little bit of “power corrupts” in here, but it’s more than that. It’s that every profession becomes an echo-chamber. And pretty soon all you can hear are the voices, quite loud, of politicians.

This applies to science, too. I was going to do a separate post about this Ted Talk video that I ran across, somehow recommended for me on YouTube as though the Internet really is learning things about people other than to try selling them the product they searched for yesterday. I’ll link it below, even though it interrupts the train of thought, because it’s someone who knows a lot more about science than I do saying what I’ve always said about science, which is that in the twenty-first century, it’s adopted a hierarchical and unyielding religious orthodoxy that would make most faiths blush. We have fallen so in love with our technological innovations and (albeit doom-creating) mastery of the planet that we cannot question any of the fundamental assumptions underlying the founding beliefs and doctrines of those who put us on this path. Anyway, I think this is enlightening, if not entirely in keeping with the theme. And no doubt many of you will find it laughable and/or offensive. But at least stick it out till the stuff with the constants:

As those of you defending the scientists will no doubt say, possibly for the first time in a list of prior professions/pursuits that you may consider to be empty, airy, and/or blustery, but the scientists are the only ones qualified to do science. You can’t just bring in a writer to do chemistry! And more importantly, as observed before, if that writer did enough chemistry to properly be seen as doing chemistry they would, inevitably, become a chemist. Because part of the learning process requires enough contact with and tutelage by the elders of the field that it is basically impossible to learn enough about the field to not become a part of its echo-chambery flaws.

There’s a place this all gets way more insidious than politics, though. A thing I’ve thought for a long time and have almost been afraid to bring up for its implications about my own slight successes in whatever field they’ve been in (okay, mostly debate). And this thing may be at the core of what is really wrong in this country and maybe all the countries. And I mean really, truly, deeply powerfully wrong, like the root. Like the hard core taproot of what is wrong.

Are you ready?

The problem with success is it’s all had by the successful.

Yes, this applies to wealth, and that’s a big chunk of it, but the myopia of the rich for problems of the poor are pretty well documented and discussed. What I’m saying actually goes way beyond that, though it’s worth observing how wealth and poverty interplay with these things the whole way down. Because finances are not the only way one can achieve success. One can receive acclaim, fame, the respect of one’s peers, awards, even self-fulfillment. And once one is recognized for this success, in whatever form those achievements take, one joins the ranks of the successful and all that implies. One transforms into someone who is repeatedly getting praised for their success, given credit for that success, and asked how they did it as a model to others. And this creates several knee-jerk reactions, all of which I posit may be total myths.

1. The belief that you are the reason for your success. No matter what role luck, timing, or the help of others may have played, the successful (at least in this country) are inundated with the narrative that “you did it!”

2. The belief that this success is actually what success is supposed to look like. This one is tricky and complicated, because it can sound very quickly like we’re not talking about anything. Easiest example I can think of is Presidents who do nothing with their term or make the country much worse, but still get re-elected. They have achieved “success” as defined by their surroundings and context (political party, supporters, voters), but this is a lousy definition of the notion.

3. The belief that anyone could reach this success. This one seems like it should be in high tension with #1, but empirically these myths persist in unison all the time. We revere the winners for being extraordinary, for doing the impossible, and yet simultaneously take copious notes for how we can precisely emulate them. It is the great drumbeat of hope, aspiration, and even the worship we lavish upon those at the top. They just worked harder. They wanted it more. They put in the extra time it took to be better.

Our society is so full of these responses to success that it’s hard to even picture a world without them. I mean, what would it even look like to not revere success? Or to not then apply it to others as a model with the belief that they can get there if they learn the lessons of that success? Questioning this is pure blasphemy, and not just for capitalists. For teachers. For coaches. For anyone. I mean, how else are you supposed to even tell someone to try if it’s not through the lens of how Michael Jordan worked to recover from getting cut from his high school basketball team? (He grew a lot.)

Even Outliers, the Malcolm Gladwell book that is supposed to break down the grand myths of the genius and talent of the most successful people, goes back to a sheer formula of time and opportunity to maximize time. Ten-thousand hours, kid. That’s it. This number has been so often repeated as a mantra that it’s just taken as a proven fact at this point. Play as much as the Beatles, code as much as Bill Gates, and you will become the Beatles or Bill Gates.

I fear we’re at another quandary, though, that getting around this is about as easy as having people who write really good stuff who aren’t writers, or people who can do science well who aren’t scientists. It seems definitional to the pursuit that someone has to pursue it long enough and seriously enough for it to become a part of their identity, or at least for them to sufficiently identify with being that thing that they can adopt its core principles. Even if those core principles include things that undermine the nature of the best development of the thing itself.

The best we can do, probably, is step outside ourselves and try to shed our perspective a little. My mantra in young adulthood was that “truth is vision without perspective” and it still holds true (!) today. And by “without perspective”, I mean “all perspective”. For by having 100% of the possible perspectives, one loses what we mean by “perspective” as an aspect of where one is standing in relation to the object being perceived.

Imagine a tennis ball. The truth about the tennis ball can only be grasped when one simultaneously sees it from all possible vantages. Up, down, left, right, but also inside at every molecular distance. It is, of course, impossible (for humans) and very difficult to picture, for it is a jumbled and confusing collection of seemingly contradictory information. Especially since our image of a tennis ball is a round fuzzy green ball, but much of the truth about it is the hollow inside that we basically never see. There is the old saw about the three blind men and the elephant, but the reality is that everything is the elephant and we are all blind. We are prisoners to our perspective. But we have the power of abstract thought to allow us to step outside it, or at least to try.

That’s all we can do. To write as though we are not writers, to make movies as though we are not filmmakers, to debate as though we are not debaters. Traditionally, when people can actually do these things, they are often called groundbreaking, revolutionaries, even visionaries. And then the real challenge is to wear that success as though we are not successful so that we may, possibly, make a way forward for a world where most people are not deemed to be successful at all in what was never really a fair contest to begin with.



Nationals Eve

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

Harrison "HWhitty" Whitman and I on the first day of APDA Nationals 2002 at UMBC.  We'd just won Rutgers the weekend before, qualling him for Nationals.  I had braids in my hair for my last Nationals ever, something I'd always wanted to do.

Harrison “HWhitty” Whitman and I on the first day of APDA Nationals 2002 at UMBC. We’d just won Rutgers the weekend before, qualling him for Nationals. I had braids in my hair for my last Nationals ever, something I’d always wanted to do.

It’s like Christmas Eve for me tonight. Or, more fittingly, since Christmas Eve is really my holiday, it’s like Christmas Eve Eve. The night of the 23rd, when the roof lumis are done and all the rest are waiting in their neat little rows in the garage anticipating the soreness and joy of light that will follow the next night. Except tomorrow is not the night for luminarias, but the first day of the American Parliamentary Debate Association‘s National Championships. Almost as fun, almost as exhausting, always as memorable.

I’m quite proud to have the distinction of having attended more APDA Nationals than any other person. I guess I don’t technically officially know this to be the case, but I know enough APDA history to realize that no one else could be close. Tomorrow will mark my arrival at my 13th Nationals, at the 35th convening of the prestigious title tournament. The first Nationals was held when I was a year old and I didn’t attend till I was 19, in 1999, but dinos (ex-debaters) barely came back for more than a year or two then. Indeed, my own coach went to at least 9 Nationals, maybe ten, with 5 as a coach, and possibly was the record-holder until I probably broke it a couple years back. Institutional memory is traditionally thin on the circuit, as with almost all college pursuits that are not sports with their bevy of outside observers and journalists and scouts.

I competed at Nationals for the four years I was eligible as a debater, 1999-2002, though I didn’t qualify as a fully seeded competitor my freshman year, falling a ballot short of the necessary final round in the last weekend of the year. I didn’t break till my junior year, after an abysmal run with my 5th TOTY partner Steve Rabin in my sophomore season, capping a semester we’d won three straight tournaments during with bitter disappointment. Zirkin and I made it to semifinals, finishing third, felled by our rivals Fletcher and Luftglass from Yale who I’d beaten on Gov in huge semifinals twice earlier that year, burning our two top cases in the process. We were simply a case short of where we needed to be, pulled out an old first-rounder, and got trounced. I would use this as an admonishment to Rutgers kids for five years of coaching that you always need one more case. Fourteen years later, I still feel regret.

Which is silly, because being third at Nationals after winning the North American Championship that year is awesome. And I really can’t look back on my career as a debater and feel anything but grateful. But sometimes I still do.

The less said about my senior Nationals the better, in some ways, though there were things that were amazing about it as well. I have the most pictures of it, too, nostalgia seeming so present already in the moment, it feeling like one of those times when time slows down, stops, almost reverses. My recollections of that tournament in particular are sharp and vivid like a predictable movie on a screen in front of me. The joys and the pains, some of the greatest of both I’ve, to this day, ever felt. And I was profoundly aware of how important that weekend would be to my memory, a rare and valuable thing to go into an event with. Time was so slow those three days. I still remember every round. My mind goes there often, reinforced by a life with debaters offering the opportunity to tell more stories of Nats of yore.

Myself and Andy "Drew" Tirrell, arriving on campus for my last (sort of) round ever, Nationals Quarterfinals.

Myself and Andy “Drew” Tirrell, arriving on campus for my last (sort of) round ever, Nationals Quarterfinals.

Then there were years of judging and tabbing. I was in the tab room for the Nats my alma mater hosted the year after I graduated, at Brandeis in 2003. Then I missed two years in a row, my longest hiatus from the event. I came back to judge in 2006 and saw a bubble round that I’ve long called the best round I ever judged (and certainly received the highest scores) with Stanford’s Baer and Chan defeating Yale’s Schneller and Bone. I tab directed the 2007 Nationals at Vassar, the first ever dino-run tab room with multiple schools represented, an experiment that quickly became the league standard after that trial. Then I missed two more again before returning for five years as a coach, including tab directing again at West Point in 2011. Indeed, tomorrow will break a streak of being in the tab room for Nats every four years that dates back to 2003.

Of course, possibly nothing will trump last year. The 2014 Nationals Finals run by Sean and Quinn for Rutgers was just the kind of thing that you can’t make up, though people do in movies all the time. Of course, we would have won it all in a movie. But it doesn’t matter, it didn’t matter. The redemption after a year that was so trying in so many ways, the disastrously depressing banquet when we all were almost sure we’d missed the break, the elation of getting in, and then the utter triumph of winning octos and then quarters and then dethroning back-to-back defending champions Harvard on a 4-1 decision. Of getting the Gov in a National Final. Of getting to go out, to step away from coaching, on top. I honestly may have been more tempted to stay, to give it one more year, had we just been knocked out in quarters. But you can’t fight the narratives your life is giving you sometimes.

A very giddy and relieved Rutgers team at the Nationals 2014 banquet at UPenn after Sean and Quinn had broken as the 13-seed.

A very giddy and relieved Rutgers team at the Nationals 2014 banquet at UPenn after Sean and Quinn had broken as the 13-seed.

All the same, I hope we get it this year. The whole she-bang. You have to. There isn’t a single person going who isn’t thinking, somewhere in the back of their mind, about hoisting the trophy and being National Champions. That’s the nature of Championships. You dream big. You see yourself up there. You imagine the steps to get it. And everyone but one team, two people and their supporters, are crushed by the end.

This will be one of those weird years where, technically, I don’t have a role, other than judging and bringing the history. Rutgers has a new coach now, officially, though I certainly plan to do some coaching as well. I’m not in the tab room. I’m long past the days of competing in tournaments that count. I’m there to savor the experience.

There are so many nuances to a Nationals tournament that have long made it my favorite single experience, that keep me sure that I’ll come back for more when this year’s trophy is hoisted and stowed away in a van for a journey home to wherever it’s going. I adore Senior Speeches. Despite the bitter memories of my own, I find Senior Speeches, the little farewell gifts of seniors to the circuit, to be moving and touching and funny and they always, without fail, renew my faith in the event of debate and in APDA as a whole. I feel honored that I’ve heard so many of them and eagerly anticipate this year’s batch.

There’s the expectations and the surprises. Every year, a hallowed team with a realistic chance of winning it all fails to break. Whether it’s the pressure, the preparation, the bounces of it being just one tournament for all the marbles, events always conspire against at least one team that everyone had near the top of their bracket. And almost as often, most every year and especially so lately, an unexpected team or two come out of nowhere to contend for the Championship. My very first Nationals in 1999 were won by a team that no one had on their radar, that no one would have put in their break, defeating TOTY in the Final round. The last two years have featured plucky underdogs taking a low seed and an under-rated season to a 2nd place finish. Semifinals traditionally has at least one team that barely made it in. My junior year, our semifinal was the #2 vs. the #3 seed. The other side of the bracket was the #9 vs. the #13, in the first year that Nationals had broken past 8 teams in at least 3 years.

There’s the reputation bump to those unexpected teams, though, the ones that aren’t seniors. The next year, that same #9 and #13 seed met in Finals at Nationals. They were the only two teams to beat Tirrell and I, the Champions in round 5 and the runners-up in quarters.

There’s the predictable rhythm of the tournament, one that has held true for all 12 Nats I’ve yet attended. The first night, two rounds, is sluggish and ominous, like a distant thunderstorm edging up to the horizon. Teams often come out of the gate heavy. It’s slow for a two-round night when we’re used to three. First round match-ups are surprisingly easy for the top teams, usually, lulling you into a sense of security. (Usually. Our 5th TOTY sophomore year, we hit the best free seed at the tourney first round, a team that had been to four or five semifinals and would have qualled twice over under the modern-day system.) Then the second round matchups are often brutal, reminding you that this is the title tournament after all, and you’d better start bringing it.

Day two is the second-longest day of debate that exists, trumped only by day two of North Americans in the tight-link era (an extra hour per round for the adjudication staff to fight over the motion for the next round). It is always interminable. Always. People look up after round 5 and feel that another day must have passed already. The day drags in a mess of anticipation and waiting and idle wiredness. If you’re lucky, truly lucky, you hit a Zen state where you can just take the day as it comes and drink in the opportunity to speak and do what you love. I think I hit that state my senior year, somehow, feeling so at peace with our decision to run a wide-open case in the bubble against an MIT team that remains the only team I know of to be mis-tabbed out of the Nationals break. Usually, though, you escape rounds rather than winning them. Even the rounds you crush, you just breathe a huge relieved sigh for having gotten them. Every moment feels like an elimination round, even sitting around in GA, feeling like you could fall asleep and miss something or be ninjaed in the back by a competitor. It’s grueling. And then the banquet is impossible, hours and hours of being unable to taste your food or keep it down as you wait for results. Softened only by senior speeches.

Day three, whether you’re in it or not, is lightning quick. It’s such a stark contrast from day two that it’s breathtaking. If you’re in it, you don’t have time to think or process or take stock of the day, it’s just hear the announcement and run to prep for the next round and hope that you’ve done enough prep work in the week(s) leading up that you don’t really need to think right now. You just react. This principle governed how smooth the Rutgers ’14 run was as well as the hard demise of the Brandeis ’01 run. The bracket just resolves and every time you look up, it’s only 8, 4, 2 teams left with a chance at the whole enchilada. Seniors and geniuses are suddenly sitting on the sidelines, and maybe you’re one of them, too stunned to realize that the dream is over, maybe for this year, maybe forever.

I can’t believe this shit isn’t on ESPN by now. I just feel incredibly lucky to be a part of it again, to feel at home in this hallowed league, to have the sense of perspective to appreciate it and not apologize for how much I love it. It’s a truly great tournament and I’ll see you there tomorrow.




The Promise of Spring
(or: Today, It’s Next Year)

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


It’s fitting that baseball begins in spring.

I’m not much of a spring person myself, having a penchant for difficult times in April and May. I was always with TS Eliot on the whole April question and I probably offer the quote about cruelty each time we get this far around the sun in one form or another. But all that rebirth and Easter spirit, all those flowers and ripening trees, it all culminates in the burst of energetic joy that is the reopening of baseball season. And no matter how trying an April you’re having, you have to love that.

One of my favorite past posts is about the promise of a new debate tournament, a new weekend, the new possibilities unfolding from a weekly reset of contests in which any given one could be won outright. I wrote it in September 2010, at a time when I was hurting deeply and found little faith in any new beginning that did not emanate directly from the chance of my team winning a debate tournament. For the second time in my life, I dug myself out by digging deeply into debate and the hope of having one concrete thing that I unassailably still enjoyed. September is the spring of the debate season, but April is the spring of reality as well as baseball.

Last year ended catastrophically for my beloved Mariners, with the whole year coming down to game 162, the first time in over a decade that the last contest of the season mattered. The M’s won, but so did the A’s, and that wound up being all that mattered. To make matters more heartbreaking, the Wild Card game winners, the Kansas City Royals, charged on to the World Series, a feat still not reached by nearly 40 years of prior M’s squads. Say what you will about the travails of yearning since 1908, Cubs fans, but at least you have a championship to remember. (Okay, “remember” is probably not the right word unless you’re the world’s oldest person, but maybe “read about”.) Four decades is less time to suffer, but in some ways more poignant. There was no apex for Seattle, no fulfillment for the Mariners.


But every year dawns anew. For Cubs fans, for Mariners fans, for followers of every team, no matter how hapless. There’s a sense of expectation, to be sure – the M’s are expected to do well this year with new signings and a pitching core poised at a communal peak. There are teams that virtually know they’ll be slated for 100 losses, for whom it is hard to get the gumption of hope and excitement. But even then, is there not a surprise team every year? Is there not some collection of young men for whom doom was predicted who are still contending in July, August, September? The whispers of April always abound, this could be our year. It could be. The record is clean, 0-0. We are tied for first place. There’s no saying we can’t do it.

The M’s were just such a team last year. Predicted to return to the bottom of the heap in the AL West by most (okay, maybe just above Houston), they played 162 games that mattered for their season. Or 161 2/3rds, riding out the last three innings having finally been eliminated. By proving the point, they renewed the promise that even those of you out there with a hopeless band of misfits, with bad contracts and steroids suspensions and management lowering expectations, even you can revel in early April and its universal hope. Even if you like ill-fated three-letter teams like Cubs and Mets, you can lift your spirits this month and dare to dream.

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 it does offer us a model for renewal. A model for a place to find joy and rebound even in the darkest times. Sports offer us a metaphor not only for what could literally replace warfare if we came to our senses, but also for the resets that our own lives need from time to time. People can ruin you, they can squash your dignity and stomp on the things you value the most. They can trample your sense of self and punish you for your vulnerability. But they can never impede your love of a team, nor deny the gorgeous reality of that 0-0 record, all the games yet to be played, the possibility unrolling before you like a bright blue tarp on freshly mown grass.

My team is 1-0 now, the hopes redoubled by the unblemished start. Like a new car driving off the lot, that first loss goes so far in dashing these fresh spring hopes. Hold on, now. Hold a bit longer, like the balance of a yoga posture, like the tentative bloom of a flower against the frosty near-freezing chill. A loss is just a loss. 161-1 is a marvelous record, though we’re all going to lose at least 40. We always do. Grip tighter into the ball, into the hope, hold your breath if you have to. Every year is a new chance at everything you’ve ever wanted, no matter how much you’ve lost before.


My Life with Yoga

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

“When I talk to people about sadness and depression, as I often do, one of my suggested strategies is really internalizing and absorbing good days and ‘banking’ them as antidotes against future storms of sadness. Not because they will make you less sad when the storms come, but because those good days came after other days that felt like rock-bottom before, and the resilient memory of the good days will give you hope that such good feelings can come again.

Today was one of those days. A banking day. I was incredibly productive at work and had good energy there all day, a day after having a migraine and almost going home early. I went to yoga (3rd time in 4 days), took a class that was about 80% of what I was doing at my peak and it just about destroyed me. I almost gave up halfway through, but I pushed through it and completed it and talked to the great instructor afterwards about how to do better. I felt amazing afterwards, though, healthier than I have in over 5 years. And then I went to Bring Your Own Story and “earned” (via rock-paper-scissors) the Wildcard slot to tell an old classic while hearing a lot of other great tales.

Banking this one. Remind me the next time the chips are down.”

-Facebook post, 10:47 pm, April 2, 2014

Like so many good things in my life (Brandeis, Counting Crows, David Foster Wallace), yoga was introduced to me by a girl. She was barely “a girl” in the sense that I mean it – we went on a few dates of little consequence before she made it clear she wasn’t interested romantically, but still thought I was an interesting person. It’s hard to say how much of it was that I was a few months into my marital separation and how much was that she just wasn’t into me that way, but I’m sure both played a role. We kept hanging out for most of that year, though – periodically hiking and meeting up at weekly yoga and getting the occasional meal. She was a deeply dissatisfied grad student at Rutgers who echoed my frustrations with the state of New Jersey, insisting that Buffalo, New York was more like the West and the South than it was like the East Coast. After a year, she took a leave of absence, went on a Birthright trip, made aliyah, and joined the IDF. Seeing Facebook pictures of her in the IDF uniform, toting weaponry, just months after making fun of Israeli policy, was so unsettling to me that I stopped responding to her e-mails, mostly because it reminded me too much of someone else with what I would call a “cult-follower’s personality”. I still feel bad that I didn’t respond to the e-mail she sent in the midst of this transition, questioning the speed of her changes, asking me for spiritual guidance. I just couldn’t. The ruts were too deep and painful, I didn’t have the strength. I went to yoga class, thought about it, and let it go.

I had long been into meditation, my interest first sparked by an Eastern Thought class in high school, taught by one Ken Hause, who taught me (among other crazy things) that it was safe to eat chalk, something I would later employ in a critical debate round my senior year at MIT. He was a truly crazy man, someone deeply unexpected to be found at Albuquerque Academy, and he took part of his class to teach people basic meditation practices, including pranayama breathing. I had a vivid dream of him dying in 1997, but he was alive and well as of this 2012 Journal article, which makes me happy. He seemed like one of those people that one could discover was actually partially responsible for the Earth’s rotation.

After that, I meditated for a long time, just on my own, and always felt that yoga was a little unnecessary as a guided meditation. It felt like creative writing classes always seemed – like the very nature of involving a teacher and a guidance interrupted the nature of a solitary creative exercise in the first place. How can you concentrate when someone is in there talking, telling you to concentrate? It didn’t make much sense.

But I had no real understanding of yoga until I started it, getting brought along by that girl to a grad student yoga class at Rutgers that her friend was starting up. I had no idea it was so athletic in nature, that the stretching was a kind of physical activity and advancement in itself. That the guidance was vital to learning the practice. That my body was capable of postures and balances that I never would have found on my own. It was amazing.

The class was once a week, on Tuesday nights, two blocks from debate practice and ending half an hour before it, and I quickly found that I came with a different, better energy to Tuesday night practice once I’d gotten into the yoga habit. I was calmer, less focused on my pain, more able to have that “away energy” that is so lacking in the clash and conflict of debate rounds. And I began to notice changes in myself. I developed stomach muscles for the first time in my life. I felt stronger, more flexible, more energized. It probably didn’t hurt that I was trying to bounce up from the terrifying weight of 115 pounds, the direct result of the traumas of the summer before and an early fall when I was deciding whether to stay on the planet or not. I already had a pretty typical yogi body; I just needed to add the strength.

I became reliant on this weekly endeavor, this moment to recenter my place in the universe, to feel good about existing and to stop fighting everything. I bought my own mat. I got good at crow pose, a crazy gateway to inversions where one has one’s entire body piled on one’s hands, arms fully extended, knees into elbows. I sang the praises of this concentration and focus and physicality to anyone who seemed open to it.

And then, slowly, I stopped going. I forget whether the class actually stopped or I felt sheepish about going without my ambassador friend. I had technically attended, entering the grad student lounge to which I was otherwise uninvited as her “guest” even on weeks where she didn’t make it. No one really cared and the yoga teacher welcomed me every time, but that was just the sort of thing for me to overly worry about. We don’t ever lose our grade school instincts sometimes. So I decided I could do my own home practice, that I knew enough of the moves and the order and the flow. And that was great for a while. I kept it up, sometimes 45 minutes a day, practicing even more often. And then it became 30, then 15, then 5. And then it became easy to skip.

The weird thing about yoga is that I don’t think I ever looked forward to it, but I always felt great about it afterwards. It was hard and demanding and sometimes bordering on painful. It interrupted the rest of life, wherein thoughts and arguments and internal dialogues are constantly bubbling around. I like my critical brain, I like evaluating and judging everything, trying to distill potential narratives and improvements. Yoga got in the way of all that, a big giant timeout, but one that always made me so grateful for the opportunity afterwards. I would never exactly look forward to it, but I would never skip when I was attending the group practice either. And I would often feel exuberant the rest of the night, even extending into the next day.

So I lapsed and stopped and life happened again. And that was that, until recently.

Turning 35 triggered something in me. It’s funny how people talk about age like it’s nothing, like your birthday doesn’t change anything. I think that’s true, innately, but there’s something about marking the passage of time that impacts our self-image. And 35 hit me like a ton of bricks, it felt like a real turning point. I guess it’s the birthdays ending in 0 that are supposed to make us freak out like this, but I was in a perfect place in my life when I turned 30, wouldn’t have changed anything, and couldn’t have been happier. Thirty didn’t freak me out because I felt like I’d come to the balance I’d always been hoping to find. And then, of course, everything changed overnight, and I stumbled along in ruins just trying to get through another day. In some ways, with all the twists and turns of those years in Jersey, it felt like I didn’t even come up for air until this February.

The first manifestation of this freak-out about being 35 came 7 days after the birthday, when I posted that I wanted to revisit my Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim Grand Canyon trip at 40 to mark 20 years since I first did it. I remembered a promise I’d made to myself at my last GC visit that I wanted to be a person who could always hike there, who was in sufficient shape that the beauty of the Canyon wasn’t lost to me. The day I turned 35, I was as far from that as I’ve ever been, over 160 pounds with a big gut and having spent most of the last two years sitting, either at poker tables of judging debate, not even walking to work anymore. I know that I wasn’t actually really overweight the way that I felt, but these things happen when we’re not paying attention to them and suddenly one wakes up in middle age. I’d gone through enough of a metabolism shift and readjustment at 27 to know that I don’t want that to be me. I like my naturally thin build. I like being physically active all the time. It’s easier to be happy, or okay with life, when one is playing basketball or doing yoga or even just walking regularly. And having a goal of getting back to the R2R2R trip by 2020 is focusing for that.

So it took a week where Alex was out of town (home for Spring Break) to separate me sufficiently from inertia to get down to Wild Lotus Yoga six blocks from my house and start practicing again. This was literally four and a half days ago and I’ve been three times already and I already feel like I’ve been back on the horse for months. The centeredness, the awareness, the peace, the burgeoning strength. I can’t recommend it enough. And I look like such a walking stereotype with my bright teal mat and my ponytail and my skinny arms, but sometimes tropes exist for good reason. Of course a regular yoga practice is my natural home. Its spiritual roots, its basis in India, its focus on peace and awareness and living in the moment. Yeah. It’s kind of where I always should have been.

Maybe it’s not yoga for you, though you really should try it if any of this sounds intriguing. But so much of our lives gets hijacked by obligations and time-wasters. Pretty much all of the big inventions of the last half-century – TV shows, the Internet, cell phones – bring this enormous dump of time that is the nourishing equivalent of greasy potato chips. (Yes, I’m conveying this critique to you through the Internet.) But getting onto the yoga mat or out on the trail reminds us of our purposeful animal roots. We are creatures in this lifetime, we are meant to go and do and be. Huddling in front of screens serves its purpose and has a value, if only to connect with other people. But sometimes we also must connect with the Earth itself. If only to remind ourselves that it, like us, is precious, and not merely an obstacle to getting to where we want to be.



The Invisible Power of Shame

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Problem of Being a Person, Tags: , , , ,

Everyday miracle:  everyone in a theater is voluntarily quiet!

Everyday miracle: everyone in a theater is voluntarily quiet!

When people ask me what I want to replace violence as the main motivating force to behave in our society, I instantly reply “shame”. I think a lot of people believe that I’m kidding when I say this. I am not kidding. Shame is an incredibly powerful tool that, when wielded properly, brings out our better selves at almost every turn. I would argue this is because it operates on the basis of our deeper conscience, which is fundamentally tied to a very deep sense of right and wrong. If you’re willing to go there, I think this conscience itself is often, if not innately, tied to the divine.

The friend I call Drew Tirrell was here about a month and a half ago and we spent half a day arguing about “structural violence” vs. what I would call “actual violence”. It’s important here to recognize that I think a whole mess of things are wrong with the world (scroll down through a few posts if you don’t believe me). There’s inequality and vestiges of imperialism everywhere you look, people eat animals and abuse them along the way, people are turned into materialist hoarders rather than harmonious cooperators. The list goes on for several pages that I won’t indulge in now. But physical violence, for me, is the king of all ills, the one that this planet seems most designed to teach us is wrong. And I would argue, and did argue with Tirrell, that this is simply a priori. But if pushed to make utilitarian-style arguments for a fundamentally means-based issue, I think that violence is basically the only thing we’re incapable of reacting to rationally. Not only does it do immense direct physical and emotional harm upfront, but it is innately cyclical, stripping free will, triggering our fight-or-flight response, and coercing us into our worst possible selves. Given that our greatest gifts are our free will and rationality, it’s easy to see why I think this is so wrong.

I think a lot of people have erred over the years by saying that to overcome violence, we must all expunge anger from our hearts. That the only way to achieve non-violence is to be free of all ill will, all negative emotions. You could argue (and many have) that the only reason I disagree is because I have a lot of anger, that I carry the hurts and wrongs of the past and have been wrestling with a deep-seated propensity to defensiveness and anger since I was at most nine years old. But I just don’t think it’s realistic, on this planet at this time, for human beings to eradicate all their anger, all their ill wishes. Emotions have never seemed like an arena where people can exhibit much control, whereas actions are a realm in which complete control is possible. Difficult, often, but possible. This is a big part of why I refrain from mind-altering substances, to maintain maximum control over actions, whatever inferno may be raging in my heart or mind.

Basically, I see it as a matter of priorities. Having anger in one’s heart is probably objectively worse than only feeling love all the time. But on the scale of problems we face as a species right now, this is roughly 372nd, while physical violence is pretty clearly #1. So we should probably table #372 for a couple centuries while we get the top five sorted. Which is not to say that it isn’t great if you can make progress on things lower down the list. But it seems silly to worry about them in a world of drone strikes, occupations, organized militaries, and all the other hallmarks of violence so familiar to our condition.

Which brings us to shame. People think violent coercion is the only thing keeping us from all going out and fulfilling our basest hedonistic desires through wanton violence and oppression. No doubt that the threat of violence can be an effective deterrent, and often is. More often, it’s a really ineffective deterrent, which is why the history of human societies is so littered with revolutions, rebellions, and uprisings, and about 99% of them are violent in nature. When you coerce someone through violence, direct or implied, you are subjugating them, making them bend to your will. You are overpowering them. The reason they refrain from doing what you are preventing is that they feel weaker, less capable, and dominated. Perhaps only in 1984 have we ever seen an example where this results in a person actually feeling good about this coercion. And that required so much torture, physical and psychological, that the person who emerged was probably not really the same as the person who went in to the Ministry of Love in the first place. (Uh, spoiler alert, I guess?)

Shame, on the other hand, appeals to someone’s better self. Yes, it is not completely pure. It does make people feel bad about themselves and their actions sometimes. That said, I think pretty much all corrective advice does this. For someone conscientious or who cares about their behavior, it’s pretty hard to tell them to do something better without making them feel bad that they didn’t in the first place. Maybe some folks are more at home with themselves and being corrected than I am, but I think it’s fairly universal that there’s some upwelling of regret or shame in all correction. It’s that little spur of negative feeling or memory that reminds you to do better next time. The little pulse of regret to make you reconsider your inclinations that would lead to the same outcome when you see that situation again.

Shame is the primary tool at work in all non-violent revolutions. Gandhi and King shamed the occupying British and the dominating racists, holding the lens of public scrutiny up to their brutality and getting them to voluntarily withdraw and stand down. That’s the thing about shame – it doesn’t force you to change. It gives you a strong strong encouragement, but the mechanism of that encouragement is rooted in your own conscience. Or, at worst, the judgment of others, and humanity’s collective conscience. There are many who argue that our consciences are developed as learned behaviors, that they have no innate sense of justice, that if we are raised in a society where people molest their children and eat their grandmothers alive, their conscience will tell them these things are right. The examples of Gandhi and King debunk this myth, however, for the British and Southerners were raised in a particular order, with a set of beliefs that made them superior to these upstarts who wanted to show them another way of doing things. If one’s conscience were merely learned, they would never have been able to back down or admit the error of their ways – they would have gone to their graves believing it was right to beat people with sticks and ravage them with bullets and dogs and feeling no shame or remorse. And sure, not everyone backed down voluntarily or the first, second, tenth time. But in the end, the intuitive power of shame elicited better selves and most of those people died deeply sorry for their role in oppression.

But shame is not just in play in revolutions. Shame is in fact much more powerfully and subtly in play in most of the actions which keep everyday society ordered. Plays, for example. Presentations. Yoga classes, like the one I attended last night, my first in over three years (and long overdue). Regular classes. Planes, trains, automobiles. At every turn, these events could be spoiled by people making a scene, screaming obscenities or making wildly inappropriate gestures. But this almost never happens. It’s not because it’s not tempting to do these things – I would argue there’s a very strong primal pull to spoil sacred moments of our society with disruption, if only to see what would happen, if only to feel the power that anyone has to do so. The desire to scream in the middle of a moment of silence, to be the one exception to the rule, is sometimes breathtaking. But almost no one ever does, because of shame.

And shame is probably too negative a word to strictly describe that phenomenon. There’s something deeper and more positive, a kind of collective spirit. The reason I don’t scream in the middle of such silences has less to do with the fear of shameful repercussion than it does with appreciation of that moment of pure effortless harmony in which we are all collectively engaged. People like to think of humans as obstinate and unable to be corralled, innately selfish, greedy, and naturalistic. But that’s garbage. Every time we all attend a play and no one makes a sound, every time we all stand in a line without mobbing the front of it, every time we listen to a debate round without interrupting, we are cooperating on a very high level. We don’t think about these things often because they are so common, but these represent levels of collective effort that demonstrate a more communal society is more than possible.

And maybe this takes more work for me than it does for most people. I’ve never been quite sure how common the instincts I wrestle with are. When I acted frequently in plays, peaking at the local theater as Oliver two straight seasons in a hybrid play of “Oliver” and “A Christmas Carol”, I was almost constantly fighting with a voice in my head that described the power I held over the audience and how much fun it would be to smash it. There was an almost audible naysayer in the back of my mind telling me to shatter the fourth wall, to swear or to say “you are all just watching a play” in the middle of my lines. I never once did it, never even stumbled over a line with this temptation, but that voice has never left me. Hundreds of competitive debate rounds in high school, hundreds more in college, practice rounds, presentations and speeches – that voice is never far from my consciousness. Any time I have people in total thrall, most on pindrop, in full command of my words and the audience, that’s when the voice is at its loudest, telling me to just try chaos.

I’ve tried talking to people about this with mixed results. Many people relate at some level or another, people describe it (and I did in one of my books) as the instinct to drive a car off the road in the middle of an otherwise unfettered journey. When I told my college debate coach, Greg, how much this haunted me in my debate career, he expressed complete shock and said there was no one he worried about this with less. If anything, I think it’s because that struggle is so practiced for me that he worries so little – my obsession with controlling my actions leads to an exaggerated confidence in the defenses holding at all times. People don’t realize, often, that I selfishly desire violence and react in anger like anyone – the only difference is my commitment to controlling these desires.

And maybe it was just a giving in to that voice that made Andreas Lubitz take his plane down a notch. Maybe he was constantly telling himself that he’d pull up at the last minute, that he just wanted to see how much power he really had at that moment and he would call the whole thing off. Who knows, maybe he intended to do that and just miscalculated. My goal here not being to exonerate or excuse Lubitz’ deplorable actions in any way, but just to speculate on human complexity and how much our safety and good will depends on the willful denial of self-control, all the time.

I know there are myriad counter-arguments to the shame thing. The most prevalent being that shame has often been utilized to teach us things that are wrong, to prevent us from taking good corrective actions. Shame has been levied against women, subjugated races, gays and lesbians, and all manner of the oppressed. Shame is a tool that has been misused and mistreated to bring people down, to prevent people from speaking out, to subvert consciences rather than extoll them. People have been made to feel bad about their innate characteristics, their beliefs, their true identities, their feelings. People have faced years of therapy, sometimes fruitless, in an effort to expunge the shame they feel for bad reasons.

I have two key responses:

1. It’s a comparative debate, folks. Shame, like any tool, has been misused. But compared to physical violence and the threat thereof? No comparison. Would you rather be ridiculed for your beliefs or shot for them? Yes, ideally we will get to a world where no one even needs the threat of feeling bad to keep from murdering or stealing or oppressing. But we’re a long way from there, and I think shame is a good intermediate step between violence and us all just being that good all the time.

2. The problem with past instances of shame has not been with the means, but with the value structure surrounding them. I don’t think there’s anything innately bad about feeling bad about doing something wrong. The problem is when one feels that way and hasn’t actually done something wrong. We can regret the long history of LGBT oppression in our society, but we still want homophobes to feel ashamed of being biased. Don’t we? If not, what’s your mechanism for getting racists and homophobes to reconsider? Isn’t most of the country trying to publicly shame Indiana right now? Aren’t most of you applauding that? If we don’t have shame, getting people to reconsider their selfishness and look at others as humans and feel bad about wrong actions, what do we have left to get people to confront injustice?

It’s better if the shame comes with the possibility of forgiveness, to be sure. The shame of shunning and total exclusion, on a societal level, should probably be reserved for murder and rape and the most heinous behaviors. And even then, hey, maybe the Scandinavian model that you can eventually be welcomed back into the fold is best. But if we’re going to build a world around absolute violence or absolute shame, I’ll take the latter any time. It’s not even that big a switch. Most of your day, you behave better more from the threat of shame than the threat of violence. Now we just have to extend that privilege to Syria, Congo, and the poorer neighborhoods of the rest of the world too.


Ted Cruz and the Elaborate Troll Hypothesis

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

Presidential material, being forged in the hot fires of APDA!

Presidential material, being forged in the hot fires of APDA!

People simply cannot get enough Ted Cruz these days.

The Senator, one of two representing the state of Texas, perennial hotbed of Presidential candidates successful and otherwise, recently became the first official candidate to take the office of the Presidency in 2017. He’s also one of two Senators representing the American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA), the hyper-competitive debate league on which I competed for four years and coached for five. Chris Coons (D-CT) is the other, a former teammate of David Foster Wallace, who he described in the latter’s recent biography as having “literally the worst delivery I have ever heard.”

A huge portion of my circle of friends has been following the rise of Cruz as a model for what APDA debaters can become, though few share his particular ideology. But the increasing question, raised by some of even his teammates and former friends, is whether he shares his particular ideology. As a passionate spokesman for rabid conservatism to the point of alienating many Republicans, Cruz has always been a polarizing figure. But he’s also, at root, a debater, making him capable of employing passionate and rabble-rousing rhetoric without necessarily believing it personally. Could this all be an elaborate troll?

The question of whether a serious candidate for the President of the United States is just trolling us with his beliefs may sound far-fetched, but you have to understand the world of APDA debate. There are many things that I love about the debate circuit as a culture and debate as a format for learning and skills development, but there are also a ton of things that disappoint. Two quick reference points for an introduction might be the Judging Bias Report, just released today by the Women’s Initiative, and the beloved Slate piece on Ted Cruz’s time on the circuit and in college. After the latter article made the rounds in August 2013, a former colleague of Cruz’s on the circuit posted on a Facebook thread that he didn’t think Ted Cruz believed a word of what he said – he just wanted to have the power, influence, and prestige that come with political position.

When I joined the Brandeis debate team, the team President at the time (whose name I won’t disclose since I’m not trying to use this space to impugn his character for Google) was an abrasive, egotistical leader with a true gift for public speaking. He was intimidating, off-putting, and sometimes corrupt, but also served as a mentor for me and personally vested time and energy into my improvement. He had a very successful debate career indeed, taking Brandeis to the National finals and winning top speaker at that tournament, and went on to Yale Law School as expected. Then, quite suddenly, he was born again and became a devout evangelical Christian. He disavowed his prior habits, like getting high with friends and mockingly reading passages of the Bible aloud for amusement, becoming suddenly quite interested in the fate of everyone’s soul. He kept his Wiccan wife, though I wasn’t close enough to them at the time to know whether she converted also, and soon entered seminary. Most all of his friends were baffled and even more questioned the sincerity of this conversion.

My assumption is that he was doing it for political gain. He had desired high political office since birth near as I could tell, but he had openly expressed fear that his Jewish heritage would put a cap on the trajectory of his ascent in America. A sincere-seeming conversion, vouched for by his friends, is certainly far less compromising and transformative than much of what people go through to get ahead in the arena of US politics. By this point, he’d unfriended me from Facebook and we hadn’t spoken in years, so I was never able to do personal investigation. It’s possible that he really means it and that I’m to be criticized for questioning his sincerity. But the consensus of those who spent the most time with him in those years on APDA is that this was just another in a series of shrewd political calculations with the goal of rising to the top.

And herein lies one of the critical problems with APDA, though it’s hardly exclusive to said circuit. It makes rising to the top and end in itself. Ideally, our politicians would seek office in the old-fashioned ideal of the notion – to serve the people, or at least to work for an ideal or a set of principles. To have a goal, an achievement or a belief structure in mind, and then set about acquiring the power necessary to enact such ideals. In the brief fanciful moments wherein I entertain the idea of an America where I’d be electable (despite a long history of criticizing the country, its history, and its current policies), it is this kind of candidacy that I envision: stumping for pacifism, equality, and the maintenance society. I won’t say that there’s no thrill in the idea of being a personage, of having fame and influence, but it’s pretty much all desirous as a means to an ends of making the world a more moral place that takes better care of its people.

No one really thinks this is what Ted Cruz is after. Not among those who knew him best back in the day, and certainly not even in those who follow him now. Like so many people, he wants to be President to be President. And unfortunately, there’s probably something about APDA that trains people to think this way. The place is an elite and competitive crucible of some of the brightest young minds in the country, replete with anger, egos, entitlement, and various pressures to win at any cost. Tons of otherwise civilized and reasonable people become transformed into cutthroat competitors in the refraction of this forge, running unfair cases against close friends and even lovers, employing vitriol and ridicule to shame their opponents, even resorting to bald appeals to their superior reputation as being deserving of victory. It’s not that everyone does this, or that anyone does this all the time, but APDA is such a purely intellectual playground that is so insular and self-promotional that the stakes of any given round or tournament can sometimes feel like life and death. Or, perhaps, like the Presidency itself.

The background of APDA’s top competition, be it the wealthy establishment or mere intellectual brilliance or rhetorical firepower, bolsters the notion that what’s happening week to week at any tournament truly matters. This is a circuit that annually asks a series of “Family Feud” style questions about itself and the topic of “Most likely to be President” is taken seriously as an actual prediction of future success. The Ivy League is well represented and has often dominated APDA competition, but upstart schools like Brandeis or Rutgers or Boston University have enjoyed great success as so many of APDA’s alumni have gone on to fame, fortune, or preparation to make influential decisions for the country. Whether there’s something about a competitive debate league that makes one more likely to lead in the future is uncertain but likely. Whether there’s something about this debate league in particular that leads people to pursue success for its own sake using the tools acquired on the circuit is pretty definite.

Any debate format where one doesn’t get to choose what one is defending or advocating all the time is going to force people to be more open-minded and, sometimes, insincere in using fiery rhetoric to express beliefs one disagrees with. I was disheartened after a public demonstration round my senior year when a novice told me that I’d convinced him of the morality of the draft, something I disagree with so vehemently that I’d refused to register for the Selective Service and nearly lost my financial aid and ability to go to college over it. But the opposing team had thought it would be cute to make me defend my nemesis system in front of a couple hundred new debaters and I convinced at least one to join the side I was defending, at the peril of what I think is right. Admittedly, I think this practice is still incredibly valuable as an intellectual exercise and learning tool, but it was hard on that day to not feel like I was undermining something fundamental about what I believe.

The hubris that accompanies APDA is also worth noting here, fueling the habit of people who ruthlessly pursue power for the sake of lording it over others. Note that said demonstration round described above was held on September 14, 2001 in New York City, at the opening tournament of the year, a tournament designated for first-year debaters who had just had their college experience defined by 9/11. Despite the assumption that there would be more attacks in the US and soon, APDA decided to hold this tournament a few miles from Ground Zero, three days after the event, because not doing so would be “letting the terrorists win.” With a background like this, it’s not hard to see where Ted Cruz comes from.

So does he mean it? Does he really want to enact the policies he claims? Or is he just another debater in pursuit of a slightly different kind of National Championship, one who revels in the thrill of the competition and the bravado of intellectual battle?

You’d have to ask the people closest to him at the time. I feel confident I could speak to a good deal of the motives and backgrounds of debaters on the circuit from 1998-2015, but Cruz graduated in 1992 and I never saw him speak. Never even met the guy, though he came back and judged during at least one tournament during my tenure. And hey, people change. Maybe he became convinced that Bible-thumping conservative doctrine is what the country truly needs. But my guess is you can take the kid out of APDA, but you can’t really take APDA out of the kid. The White House is an awfully shiny trophy and it’s hard to argue with that kind of hardware.


Tournament Time

Categories: A Day in the Life, From the Road, Know When to Fold 'Em, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , , ,

My poker face at rest, early in my most recent tournament at the Belle of Baton Rouge last Friday. Photo courtesy of the Mid-States Poker Tour.

My poker face at rest, early in my most recent tournament at the Belle of Baton Rouge last Friday. Photo courtesy of the Mid-States Poker Tour.

I love tournaments.

I already talked a couple months back about how I love competition for its own sake, the thrills of the rise and fall of one’s prospect and the possibility of winning something. And I’ve even meditated extensively on the early morning joy heading into a debate tournament as I did most every Friday for five years recently and four years when in college as a competitor, let alone five years in 8th-12th grade prior to that. But having just completed a grueling 19-hour tournament over the course of two days in Baton Rouge this past weekend, I’ve come to a new appreciation about how all tournaments are in some ways the same, and specifically how debate and poker tournaments correlate as environments that has made my transition from debate coach to poker player rather smooth.

I was always impressed at the universality I found in ardently pursued extracurricular activities in college between myself and friends of mine who did ostensibly different things. My friend Ariel was in an elite a cappella group at Brandeis, Alisha in band management at Harvard, Fish in the Student PIRG at UC-San Diego. In all instances and more, it was clear that high school days of doing twenty extracurriculars to pursue all possible interests (and build a college-bound resume) was infeasible. People had, generally, one thing that they did. After an early dabbling in Model UN, the Socialist club, the literary magazine, and the non-drinking club, I quickly consolidated my energies into debate … and the rest is history. But as I would discuss the intricacies of these activities with the friends pursuing them, commonalities with debate quickly became apparent, even where there was not an overtly competitive aspect.

Each group had its own vocabulary and nomenclature. Each had its individual intrigues and romantic entanglements. Each had power struggles and leadership dynamics. Every group had a “that guy,” with the possible exception of the a cappella group which selected in part on popularity, almost like a frat. And each, in its way, brought people together to accomplish great and unlikely feats as only collections of highly motivated and talented groups can consistently do.

Nowhere were these parallels more apparent than in an extensive discussion I had mid-college with Ariel about an a cappella competition her group had attended. While there was no direct clash and engagement as in debate, the similarities of group and individual dynamic in the midst of the intensity of a struggle to win a subjectively judged event were uncannily striking to both of us. There were similar personalities in each of our stories, similar interactions between individual and larger team, similar qualms with the nature of judging and reputation, and remarkably familiar highs and lows and eventual triumphs.

Poker is not a subjectively judged event, but it effectively simulates one in the chance that the better hand will lose on the flop, turn, or river. While the strict outcomes are more like a sport, and indeed a sport without umpires or referees to add some human error, the fact that a person can win a hand they were 8% to win when the chips went in the middle is notably akin to a subjective or even seemingly corrupt declaration by a fallible human judge. And it incites equally pleased and sportsmanlike reactions from the losers. The most frequent expression of frustrated disbelief is to pound on the table once, eliciting an incongruous knocking sound from what appears only to be green felt (there is a harder surface beneath that is rarely reached except in the most angered moments), but berating rants are also not uncommon. As in the debate world, losing competitors are only too happy to tell someone who has just knocked them out of the tournament how vastly inferior a competitor they are, how stupid they have demonstrated themselves to be.

There are brazen jerks in both events. Maybe there are everywhere in the world, but intensely competitive environments have been known to elicit the absolute worst behavior in many an otherwise intelligent or even possibly kind individual. I have had countless run-ins with such people in debate, often getting in preachy arguments with them about how it is possible to both compete well and respect the dignity of one’s opponents without resorting to shady tactics or condescension. And heard the defenses of and from such people that they can be nice humans but ruthless debaters and that we should view this Jekyll/Hyde hybrid as perfectly acceptable. There is an arc of this argument that includes the notion that being intimidating, ruthless, and attempting to extricate tears from one’s opposition actually makes one a better debater in some way, that mercy or even respect are weaknesses that are to be stamped out by those who wish to be the best. No matter how vehemently I disagree with this perspective, there are certainly kindreds in the poker world who craft the image of an asshole in order to induce folds or angry calls at their desired discretion. The fundamental idea being that both debate and poker rely on calm, rational judgment, and this becomes abridged when someone feels personally threatened or a righteous desire to suddenly beat their purported villain/rival all at once.

What makes poker viscerally distinct from debate, however, in these kinds of interactions, is the enforced ongoing physical proximity to those one may deeply dislike. I never had to sit next to a debate rival for eight straight hours as I recently did next to a relatively well-known pro and world-class egotist last Friday. I’ll refrain from including his name, but several articles I recently found about his participation in this tournament alone described him as a “polarizing figure,” which may be the ultimate euphemism. Among other things, the individual displayed extensive racism and sexism in brash tones, as well as bad-naturedly making fun of me repeatedly both in person and on Facebook (he commented on a video the tournament took of one of my hands). He tried to engage everyone at the table in a discussion of how Michael Brown deserved to die in Ferguson (I know I moved to the South, but … Jesus) and went on to describe a sales clerk at a store he’d encountered who he deemed “too stupid to live.” This nestled amongst stories of his extramarital affairs and other disrespectful interactions with women. Nowhere had I been so proximate to certain self-loving and unsavory people capable of such disrespect to their fellow human than in the debate world. But at least there they’d just be across GA, not literally rubbing elbows with you. Finishing off his knockout (someone else got most of his chips two hands prior) was among the most satisfying aspects of that tournament.

All these events have reputational considerations that deeply impact the results, or at least the journey toward the results. Almost any regularly meeting competitive event has the cool kids and the people who are respected as the best and then the vastly greater number of people trying to knock on the door and establish themselves. This is the nature of most every gathering of people in modern Western culture – a ladder is either built-in or implied in most every workplace, school environment, club, or pastime. It has been a satisfying journey to come in as an unknown and consistently cash in over half the big tournaments I’ve played, especially when I don’t rebuy my entry into tournaments as many pros consistently do. If I get knocked out, I’m out, partially a product of my smaller semi-pro bankroll, but also increasingly a deliberate choice to maintain a serious do-or-die mentality throughout the tournament. I’m sure this has a negative impact on my stomach’s stability and heart-rate, but also I think makes it possible to play a 5.5-hour satellite, then a 10-hour day one, then come back two days later and ride out the 3.5 additional hours to a $2k cash placement as 15th of 115 runners in a “main event” tournament, all without busting out once at any point.

It is that elimination nature of a tournament, combined with the fact that you literally have a chance of winning until the moment of being knocked out, that makes both tournament formats so excitingly engaging, so palpitation-inducing and thrilling. No one managed to get debate on TV, despite C-SPAN’s offers around the time of my graduation, but poker’s a fairly well-established, if culty and heavily edited, spectator sport. My favorite part of each event is the advanced strategics. The careful calculation of the psychological state of the opposition and what move will elicit the worst response from them, while playing to one’s own advantages. Obviously making it over the money line (called the “bubble” in poker tourneys, just as the line for breaking is known in debate) was my favorite single moment of the tournament, swinging the event from a potential $270 loss (I never would have paid the full $1,100 entry fee at this stage in my budding career, but thank goodness for satellites) to at least a $1400 profit. But close behind and by far my favorite play was a 7,000-chip river-bet against a steely calm player who reminded me greatly of my friend Russ in the third hour of the main event. It was designed to look like a frustrated bluff on a missed flush-draw, a calculated over-bet of the pot that would have left either myself or my opponent, if he called and lost, with almost no reasonable chips to play with but was still not an all-in. I actually had a set of 4’s which I was 90% sure was good, but also thought the bet could be strong enough to get him off a slightly better set since the turn had been a queen and the river an ace. I had checked the rainbow flop (including my set), then bet hard on the turn that brought a second heart and the queen. The guy “tanked” (thinking hard for a long period of time) for over five whole minutes, a veritable eternity in poker (that’s a whole PMR!) before calling with an inferior hand and the probable assumption I was bluffing. I turned over the fours and asked if he had a set (the 10% chance at that point had diminished, but he could reasonably have a set of 6’s and basically take my tournament chances with it) and he angrily mucked. I watched him bleed out his remaining stack as I secured my near-double-up, talking to himself frustratedly and busting out an hour later. Not only was that hand the turning point in setting me up to run toward the money (I’d really just tread water up to that point), but after his departure, a couple neighbors confided that he was one of the best pro cash players in Baton Rouge. I felt that little jolt of pride that comes with overcoming someone with a better reputation, so familiar from my early coaching days at Rutgers.

I’m still not sure I have what it takes to do this professionally. But it’s become increasingly clear that the shape, structure, and payouts of tournaments are vastly more to my style and liking than the hourly grind of the cash game. There’s vastly more strategy in the former environment, where the playing field is somewhat leveled (entirely so if one isolates the ability to rebuy entry) and survival is the primary object. The latter brings looser and crazier play, which can both be an advantage for the patient strategist, but leads to wilder variance in a world governed by probability rather than fixed outcomes. Of course, New Orleans has almost infinitely more opportunity to play cash than tournaments, so being a full-time tournament player would require precisely the kind of journeyman travel that Alex got me to give up by leaving the debate world in the first place. The long-term nature of the “circuit” as both traveling weekendly tours are called, with its repeat players and uneasy camaraderie punctuated by vicious eliminations, is perhaps the greatest parallel between these two similar universes.

But I have found enough consistent success, at least a few months in, to feel that my self-evaluation of my ability to hack it in this world is not overblown. That I have the general skillset to hang with even the long-term professionals. I still probably want to supplement this lifestyle with a health-insurance-offering employment of some sort, preferably one that works against the capitalist structure or at least helps people somehow. But approaching a half-year of this experiment, I feel grateful (on Thanksgiving!) to have found another competitive environment where I can find periodic success and consistent outlet for the competitive strategic parts of my brain that constantly pressure me for release. And perhaps I owe no small amount of this ability to being forged in the nerve-wracking fires of fourteen years of competitive debate in one role or another.


Return of the Emu

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

The Mep Report is back.

An emu, the official mascot of The Mep Report.  The podcast relaunched this week after over 3 years without an episode.

An emu, the official mascot of The Mep Report. The podcast relaunched this week after over 3 years without an episode.

We’re on Facebook. We’re on Twitter. And we have about 127 hours (5.3 days) of recorded show that you can listen to in the archives.

I wasn’t always on The Mep Report. I quit in August 2007 after 86 episodes, which was memorialized with this incredible graphic. I returned occasionally in 2009 and 2010, and then pretty regularly for the last few episodes before we hung it up in June 2011.

The Mep Report is one of the hardest things to explain that I’ve ever done. It’s mostly an hour-long podcast where we talk about anything and everything, stemming from our lives at the outset and usually commenting on politics, sports, and debate. It’s ostensibly sort of a comedy, but also a discussion/debate show, and also just three guys (and sometimes Clea) hanging out.

My partners in crime are Russ Gooberman and Greg Wilson, both of whom were on the Brandeis debate team with me, one a teammate a year ahead of me and the other our Coach. We all lived together, including Clea Wilson (Greg’s now wife), in a place called the Mep House during my senior year in college (2001-2002), known mostly for endless late-night phone-calls on the land-line and the discover of Dark Age of Camelot, which ruined several of Russ’ years and several parts of a few of mine.

Russ and I weren’t always friends. We didn’t know each other very well for the first couple years we shared on ‘Deis debate, mostly because he was partners and good friends with Brad, someone who I had a fierce rivalry with and wholly disrespected as a person (less so as a debater). Russ and I shared an interest in Philosophy and especially Professor Eli Hirsch, one of the greatest professors ever to teach at Brandeis. But we never talked that much until the National Championships in 2000, when we were both so thoroughly disappointed with our respective teams’ performances that we found ourselves in the exact same mood and sitting next to each other in the van during the infamous Van Round after Nationals, when everyone basically just ad hominemed each other to blow off the stress of the season. This lightened the mood a little, but the ice was really broken by me observing that the truck trailing along next to us in the late-night return from Bryn Mawr College was for the Fink Baking Co. and said that “Fink means good bread.”

I made the following observation: “Fink doesn’t mean good bread. Fink means scoundrel!”

And thus launched, totally unplanned, about an hour of Russ and I coming up with sentences where bread and related words for bread were replaced by the word “fink”. Each of them followed by increasing paroxysms of hysterical laughter. We only escalated in such humor while the other people in the van thought we were crazier and crazier.

By the time the van reached Waltham, we were pretty much friends for life.

Fink Baking Company later went out of business, by the way. Apparently they couldn’t convince much of the world of their new lexicon.

A year later, Russ and I moved in together when he was planning on an ill-fated matriculation into Boston University Law School. But before he graduated Brandeis, we fulfilled a semester-long commitment to each other to attend a tournament together. We went to Providence College in January 2001, a small but top-heavy tournament that was only breaking to semifinals. My regular partner, Adam Zirkin, who would win the North American Championships with me the next weekend, was hybriding with a friend of his from Yale.

Russ and I were, if I say so myself, on fire that tournament. We won the first two rounds handily and then ran “legalize all drugs” in third round and totally torched the team with what was, at the time, a controversial case. Fourth round we were 3-0 and hit the team that proved to be third TOTY (Team of the Year) by the end of the season, the famous Yale OJ, and Russ started pre-making fun of the case we were likely to hit when we were chatting with the judge before the round. We both predicted something boring and difficult was on the way despite the fact that it was early-morning Saturday’s 4th round, a classic time for more fun cases. They walked in an presented a case about technical details of insurance law and Russ and I turned and rolled our eyes at the judge and we went on to destroy the case and win the round handily. Fifth round, we hit my regular partner and his hybrid partner and expected a pretty fun round since it was a 4-0 match and we would both likely break. But Zirkin and Russ were not the best of friends and our friend from Yale was not wanting to go easy and they wound up running something that made for an annoying round. We suspected the round would be a coin-toss, but we’d still have high enough speaks to break. We headed to the banquet in great spirits.

We didn’t break. Russ punched a wall as soon as the fourth semifinalist who was not us was announced. Years later, the hole in the back of the lecture hall at PC from said punch was still there.

We had to sit through a semifinal round between our 4th and 5th round opponents (we had obviously lost 5th round and by a wider margin than we expected to miss the break), then watch Yale OJ drop to Stanford before we got the ballots to find out what had happened. And the ballots told us that while Russ had been debating that weekend, I had apparently been speaking in tongues and running screaming from the room. Russ was 4th speaker at the tournament, speaking a 132/7. But we had missed the break by a single speaker point, finishing 4-1, 260/20. Meaning I had spoken a 128/13. This put me 2 points and 4 ranks behind the 10th place speaker at the tournament and would have made me, in a year where I finished 5th SOTY (Speaker of the Year) overall as a junior, the 3rd novice speaker were I still a novice.

You can see the full results of that tournament here.

We looked incredulously at the ballots. Russ and I were pretty evenly matched and felt we’d been especially so this weekend and had complemented each other well. I looked at him beseechingly and asked if I had been terrible that weekend. He said not at all. And then I started berating myself. We gathered in a circle before leaving the tournament and I broke in to Greg’s questions about team dinner to publicly apologize to Russ for ruining his weekend.

“I’m sorry, Russ. When that emu asked you to debate with him, you clearly should have gone with him instead of me this weekend.”

He looked at me quizically.

I continued, warming to the subject. I said “At least he could have gone ‘Mep… mep…. mep.'” And then I got down into a crouch, tucked my hands under my arms in mock wings, and then stuck my tongue out periodically while making the mep sound.

Russ indignantly blamed the PC judges and not me, but I insisted on taking the blame and breaking into meps periodically at team dinner and the ride home.

The emu thing stuck. The rest of that year and the next, when Russ traveled with us frequently as a de facto Assistant Coach, Russ and I would periodically both get down in the emu crouch, quickly developing a pseudo-dance around each other in a circle that was dubbed “the emu-mating dance”. After the first spontaneous outbreak of this, we would look for a random time each tournament to break this out in GA. It never photographed especially well, but its legend still existed on the team a full APDA-generation (four years) after I graduated.

Then came Mep House (hilariously mis-heard as “meth house” by the mother of a visiting friend) and the rest was basically history. When Russ moved to LA, Greg to New York, and I to Berkeley, we periodically would regroup online to chat about life and then turned it into a podcast. We peaked in 2006 when we won the second Podcast Pickle Cast War, an event that got written up in the Brandeis University Alumni Magazine.

I have no idea what TMR 2.0 will look like in 2014, but it was fun doing a show again and I’m sure it will be fun in the future. We will definitely make fun of the world and each other. Our voices will sound even better, since we’re now using Skype instead of semi-pirated Teamspeak gaming chat rooms to talk to each other. Audio quality has really come a long way in the 3.5 years we’ve taken off.

Let the emu soar.


The Trouble with Memory

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

Yesterday, I told a story here about the 2001 ALCS and the shadow it’s cast over the next 13 years of my Mariner fandom.

There’s just one problem with the story. It wasn’t entirely true.

It was true as I remembered it at the time. “True to the teller,” I believe the phrase goes. But it was a dangerous combination of real memories and the ironclad realism of the Internet’s record-keeping that actually fabricated a memory in the conflation of 2001 and 2000.

You see, 2001 was not 2000.

The story I told was actually about the year 2000, before 9/11 and all it entailed, and about an entirely different ballgame (literally). I can probably be somewhat forgiven for the confusion from some of the details: both the 2000 and 2001 American League Championship Series (ALCS) pitted the Mariners against the Yankees. Both were won by the Yankees. And both, improbably (or probably, depending on perspective) involved pivotal moments in which Arthur Rhodes came on with a late-inning lead and coughed up a pivotal home run that led to a Yankee victory.

But the story I was trying to tell and picture in my mind’s eye was about Game 6 of the 2000 ALCS, not Game 4 of the 2001 ALCS.

The key detail that got me thinking about this was in mulling my post after writing it and realizing that my most vivid visuals of the night in question were definitely situated in Russ’ senior mod. Russ was a senior in 2001, not 2002 like me. The following year, we lived together, in the same house, the fabled Mep House, which had a TV downstairs in the main room on which we played countless hours of FIFA. Yet I distinctly recalled that we were holed up in Russ’ small room of his mod, upstairs, where the infamous Brandeis debate party of that year’s tournament had been held. And as much as I tried to tell myself a story wherein friends of Russ’ were living in that mod and we went over there to watch the game, it made zero sense. We would have gone downstairs to the Mep House where there was more room.

The other thing that didn’t sit well about my constructed recollection was the image of Lou Piniella tapping his left arm. This is the signal to the bullpen to get the lefty out to the mound, but it is not conventionally done on pitching changes between innings. The manager only goes out to the mound to make this symbolic gesture when making a switch in the middle of an inning. Otherwise, he just has the pitching coach call the bullpen and the pitcher runs in while the grounds crew is raking the infield. So as I was reading the play-by-play of Game 4 of the 2001 ALCS and trying to remember the fateful moment, it seemed bizarre to me that Rhodes had been hauled in between innings. I definitely remember screaming at the television while watching Lou tap his left arm. I believe I was screaming “Don’t you dare touch your left arm, don’t you dare bring Rhodes in right now!” during his mound visit.

If only I had some sort of record of my daily feelings and emotions and actions from that period of time in my life to confirm.

Oh wait, I do.

“Sigh. I’m applying for the job of Seattle Mariners’ manager within the week. When Lou ran us out of the inning with a Dan Wilson-based hit-&-run, I shouted at him not to. Much more importantly, when he brought in Arthur Rhodes, I screamed “noooo” at the top of my lungs. Clearly, I’m far more qualified to guide the team with the greatest potential in baseball to their first World Series. & I’ve been telling everyone all week that Rivera was due. & he was. But the damage had been done by incompetent managing (Lou) & pitching (Arthur). Crudbuckets. March is a long way away.”
-18 October 2000

I definitely watched the other game, though I don’t quite remember if it was with Russ or at Mep House. It was just after the Vassar weekend of “Justice!” with Eric Sirota where we ran the tipping case in his first out-round ever. I was a little more succinct in how I felt at that time:

“Damn Yankees.”
-21 October 2001

In the prior game, Game 6 of the 2000 ALCS, the closest the M’s had ever come to the World Series, Arthur Rhodes entered the game with 2 on and 1 out in the bottom of the 7th. The Mariners led 4-3. He promptly gave up a three-run homer, two more hits and an intentional walk, and left down 8-4 without getting a single batter out.

And that was the decisive game. That was the haunting memory, the one that has stuck with me the longest, almost as deep as Edgar’s double in the bottom of the 11th in 1995 or the 9-1 one-game-playoff against the Angels earlier that year with Randy Johnson’s dominance and Luis Sojo’s improbable run around the bases.

I think it was my haste to make the recent post about the poetry of 13 years of waiting and the promise of fulfillment of all that lost time that led to this mistake between 2000 and 2001, aside from all the other similarities. And if I hadn’t been able to find a game wherein Arthur Rhodes coughed up a key homer late at Yankee Stadium in 2001, I definitely would have caught the mistake before it “went to press,” so to speak.

I periodically go through bouts of thinking that the M’s made the playoffs in 2003 because they had such a good year then, but they finished 3 games back of Oakland that season despite winning 93 games. Their record that year was better than 3 playoff teams, including both Central champions and the NL Wild Card (the 91-71 Florida Marlins, who went on to win the World Series that year). We were 2 back of Boston for the AL Wild Card, having survived almost the entire season to be eliminated on September 23rd with a walk-off loss to the Angels. We had had an 8-game lead in the West in June, but it all went away, like the glorious strike season of 1994 (but this time we got to play it out).

I really fear that we’re facing another 2003 season. For all my optimism in yesterday’s post, Kansas City won last night and a fateful pitching change yielded disaster in our game against the Angels, with Lloyd McClendon (who I generally love) pulling Paxton after a fluke single and error put him behind 1-0 in the 7th after a tightly-matched pitching duel. Lloyd elected to signal for the righty, Danny Farquhar, who promptly coughed up a game-ending (functionally) 3-run homer. We lost, 5-0.

It’s September 18th and we’re 2 behind both wild card spots, Oakland and Kansas City tied therein. We have 4 games left against the Angels, 4 against Toronto, and 3 in Houston this weekend.

I’m hoping to be there to see at least some of the Houston series live. Hopefully that will leave more rock-solid memories 13 years hence.

Arthur Rhoes stares down into the murky sands of memory.

Arthur Rhoes stares down into the murky sands of memory.



Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Read it and Weep, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , , , ,

“Had four brothers once upon a time
He said they toured the country far away from the Rio Grande
But the road just wore them down
So they bought a house beside a lake
Outside of New Orleans
And stared in the direction of the escalating sound.”
-Counting Crows, “Cover Up the Sun”

David Foster Wallace tried to write a book about boredom and it killed him. There was some other stuff there in between, including electro-shock, sorry, -convulsive “therapy” and a lifelong understanding that the world has some things that need fixing and may just never get fixed but it’s still important to spend all your energy trying anyway. I’m trying to write a post about memory loss/confusion/destruction and I don’t know where it’s going to go. But I’m probably going to spend a little less time on it that DFW did on The Pale King.

This will either be up today or one of those posts that sits in my pending limbo box for years and greets me every time I log in and reminds me, like everything, of my failings. Actually there’s really only one of those and it’s called “Seven Billion Ghosts” and it’s been sitting in that prime position since Halloween 2011 and it was all based on a false premise, which is why it never got posted. The false premise was that there were more living humans than there had ever been cumulative living humans before and what that meant about the planet and its currently dominant species. But as I was researching the last little bit of it, I discovered that this idea is a common misconception that has been thoroughly debunked and that we probably have something like a hundred billion ancestors haunting our past, depending on exactly what you count as a human.

No wonder people feel pressure to procreate before they die.

There’s this scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, right at the opening, where Hermione, having realized how unsafe her parents are in the wake of a world that contains a resurgent Voldemort, has come to the disturbing decision to wipe out their memories so they can’t give her up or be tortured to death while refusing to do so. She doesn’t have the opportunity cost in time and energy to keep them safe otherwise and the best thing for everyone is for them to just forget they ever had a daughter. The movie rendition of this scene is pitch-perfect, Granger shakily aiming her wand as the four syllables in the spell “Obliviate” echo through a room otherwise illuminated by only the mundanity of a Muggle television. And she vanishes from pictures on the mantle, her image receding into oblivion, and then she turns to go.


There are days, days like yesterday, where I think this would be the best spell for me to cast on the world.

I just finished reading Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage and it’s one of the best books I’ve read in half a decade, maybe ever. I don’t know quite how to grapple with the fact that it’s a book that exists in this world, it hit me like a ton of bricks, almost like a Counting Crows album, which I incidentally bought on Tuesday, when it came out, like always. There’s nothing terribly unique or profound in the book, but like the movie “Boyhood,” it just feels so much more real than a novel. I’ve been reading Wittgenstein’s Mistress too, and that book is trying so damn hard to make you feel like a butterfly dreaming of being a man, but Colorless just does it without trying. At a certain point between all these influences, I can almost squint and believe that I’m not really who I have been all these years, that I don’t really exist the way it’s felt, that this is all kind of a thought experiment or an exercise or just a dress rehearsal. Feeling like one’s on borrowed time always carries that connotation a little bit, but it’s somehow so much stronger when in the midst of artists who seem to be feeling and saying exactly what you’re feeling all the time.

Of course what this really speaks to is the universality of experience because we really do all exist and there is meaning and no matter how hard to see that it becomes, we can’t let go of that reality. There are people, we’ll call them “Chris Baia”s for short, who believe that the world is just shit and it’s stab or be stabbed and you might as well pride yourself on your ability to stab first. And if there’s a reason to keep going, near as I can tell, it’s to prove these people wrong. I don’t believe in evil, but if these people win, I don’t think a nuclear holocaust could wipe us out faster. There is something here. I don’t know if it’s real, I don’t know how much it matters, but it has meaning and purpose and it’s important to value that, somehow, against all odds. “Don’t let the Chris Baias get you down,” a future generation may someday say to each other as they go out to face impossible pain.

This is the first weekend that I’ve not been with the Rutgers University Debate Union for a competitive start to a season in six years and I don’t even know how to process it. The team has been asking me to help with things from afar and I have been pretty remiss about doing it because I feel so guilty and bad for leaving them in the lurch of an administration that seems hell-bent on dismantling everything we built. There seems to be so much of life that makes everything into sandcastles and the inevitability that the next tide will render all your energies and efforts moot. And the only answer I can find for this in a world of mortal fallible idiots is the mandala, some of the most beautiful art in the world, created by Buddhist monks and then deliberately wiped out, wrecked, destroyed, left only to exist in the fleeting hollows of memory.

People fail to do so many things out of the fear of facing themselves and their shortcomings and, mostly, guilt. We all feel so bad for so much we’ve done to other people and it makes us just not want to try or face other people and the longer time goes on, the more things seem to meld together into just one big ball of wrongdoing. And so we don’t contact the old friend, we don’t open up to the next one, we just hunch our shoulders and try to get through a day without feeling pain. And it doesn’t work and it never happens. And it’s easy to say we should just open ourselves up and be vulnerable but that hurts and it’s too hard sometimes, like when we’re sick or busy or hungry or lonely or breathing.

No wonder people get electro-shock-convulsive treatment-therapy willingly sometimes.

I wish them so well, my cherished debate team. I know they will do well against the mounting odds and I will try to help them as best I can in my mired mind about everything. I never was good at drawing boundaries or putting limits on my time.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this post I made before any of that. Before the divorce and the team and I hired Chris Baia and any other countless numbers of mistakes piled up to make me feel like every coinflip I made in those days was disastrous. And yet, and yet, there was last year’s National Final, there was even this tournament in Mississippi just weeks ago, there’s so much that makes me feel like pre-birth I chose to have the most extremes, the highest highs and the lowest lows, just so I could see it all before I go.

Eventually, if you live long enough, and listen, and read, everything just becomes a reference to everything else. And I guess if you live an emotionally charged life whose past you dwell on all the time, you’ll start seeing it in everything and then even the pain of a character or memory of someone else’s becomes your own and eventually it can snowball until you don’t even need to supply your own new experiences at all. I saw a movie last night about a misanthrope’s misanthrope, a classic Woody Allen proxy in a classic Woody Allen movie and halfway through I thought “is that me?” and it reminded me of seeing “Wonder Boys” with Stina in Boston in 1998 and she reassured me that I shouldn’t see myself in the hopeless bumbling of the main character but I still do and I can relate so hard to all our mistakes, hard enough that it almost makes me want to forgive these people who have shaken my mandala so hard. It’s so hard to dance in colored sand and not care about the edges one took so long perfecting.

But it’s what we’re here to do, right? I mean, no one gets out of this world alive.

“I said goodnight, goodbye
Seems like a good thing
So you know it’s a good lie
You can run out of choices
And still here a voice in your head
When you’re lying in bed
And it says that the best part of a bad day
Is knowing it’s okay
The color of everything changes
The sky rearranges its shade
Your smile doesn’t fade
Into a phone call
And one bad decision we made.”
-Counting Crows, “Possibility Days”


For the Love of the Game

Categories: A Day in the Life, Know When to Fold 'Em, Let's Go M's, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Problem of Being a Person, Video Games Killed the Free Time, Tags: , , , , ,

Me, a little after midnight on the Sunday/Monday border, after winning Event #3 of the Gulf Coast Poker Championship at the Beau Rivage in Biloxi, Mississippi.

Me, a little after midnight on the Sunday/Monday border, after winning Event #3 of the Gulf Coast Poker Championship at the Beau Rivage in Biloxi, Mississippi.

I like competing. I like games. I like situations that produce winners and losers with high regularity. I like this stuff a lot.

But why?

After I posted about my first-ever tournament win of a large poker tournament on Facebook Monday (I won Event #3 of the Gulf Coast Poker Championship, though the prize money ended in a 5-way chop for just under $5k apiece), old friend and Rutgers debater David Reiss queried about how I could reconcile a love of gambling with my political views about equality and the unimportance of wealth. It’s a good question and one that I wrestle with a lot as I try to embark on a run at playing poker more or less full-time.

My first run at a response was this:

“It’s complicated, and probably not entirely resolved like any of the myriad compromises innate to living in this society. A thumbnail sketch is probably that money is pretty much always zero-sum and thus any pay is coming out of someone’s pocket and at least poker is upfront about that fact as opposed to cloaking it. 90-95% of the people who play poker regularly, especially tournaments, can afford to lose what they’re playing with. There are definitely exceptions and I definitely feel bad about that. But I’ve made money off of student loan debt most recently, as well as donations that people intended to go directly to the poor/homeless, so I don’t think you can make money in this world as structured without it carrying some burden of guilt.

And I don’t think it’s a mystery how I feel about competitive strategics being the main basis of how well one does as far as a professional use of time.”

I could certainly write a treatise on the first and primary paragraph of that comment and probably will at some point – the challenges of being a human being in a society structured like modern America and aspiring to do good and not feel guilty all the time are things I explore with regularity internally and, when people will listen, externally. But this post is mostly going to tackle how for-granted I take the latter statement, the love of strategy and competition for their own sake and how competition seems to be its own reward.

There are plenty of semi-rabid type-A people for whom competition as its own reward seems like the obvious order of things. And while I certainly spent much of my youth being a Very Serious Person and extreme grade-skipping had a huge impact of my world-view of myself relative to others, I think I managed pretty well to avoid being a type-A bulldog. I was known during my collegiate debate career as one of the least competitive-driven and forceful people of the top tier of debaters on the circuit, the one far less likely to make novices cry in a round and even less likely to gloat over said outcome, which was seen as a near-virtuous norm for most of my rivals. I still wanted to win, I just didn’t want to make other people feel bad about me winning and I also valued things like discourse and people enjoying the round.

But for a believer in equality, I still get an awful lot of utility out of winning things. To the point that I can look at my middle twenties, between graduating college in mid-2002 and starting coaching college debate in mid-2009, as this kind of desert where I was constantly craving competitive outlets. I took my adult-league kickball team far too seriously in the Bay Area for a couple years, played online video games for vastly more time than I should have, and made a reputation for myself at poker night with friends or game night with the Garin family as the sorest winner and the trashiest talker. Just as Emily was craving the approval of grades, I was constantly seeking ways of winning things or at least riding the roller-coaster of winning and losing that competition breeds. Coaching RUDU felt like this sweet relief, partially for the intellectuality of APDA, but certainly partly just to be on the weekly run of W’s and L’s.

One outlet for this competitive angst that was a constant during that part of my life and dates back to the late 80’s is, of course, my love of baseball. And specifically the Seattle Mariners, another kind of irrational output of energy and emotion and competitive spirit for me. I have wrestled with this part of my personality a lot. Being a sports fan is kind of an objective waste of time in about twenty different ways. These teams are chosen more or less arbitrarily, have no innate value, and the presence of sports in our society puts jocks on a pedestal above those who probably objectively deserve more respect and takes massive amounts of resources away from nobler pursuits. But I absolutely adore baseball and the Mariners and I don’t know how to stop. There is real beauty in the game, there is real love in my heart for the symbols and pageantry and presence of the Mariners and all they represent, their history and their struggles and their logo, and I can’t really justify it any more than I could explain to you why I like cucumbers but not pickles. And I feel bad for it, sometimes, especially when I think about what baseballs are made out of, but I can’t help it. I truly deeply love the Mariners and baseball and will probably never stop watching, no matter how socially dubious the impact of sports is on our society.

I mean, sure. Sports are a place where diversity is celebrated, especially baseball as probably the truly most diverse sport, and ideally and eventually sports should replace wars, and there is a social outlet and recreational outlet for people and I guess sports-consciousness fights obesity in theory, though probably not in practice. I guess it’s not like holding on to some sort of love of weaponry or slaughterhouses, quite. But all of those are probably pretty flimsy justifications in the face of cities who fund huge stadiums for millionaires to cavort in but won’t build more housing for their homeless.

Now obviously being a Mariners fan since 2001 has been heartbreaking (as though 2001 itself weren’t heartbreaking enough, when the M’s set an American League record for wins and then couldn’t even make the World Series) and this leads to another aspect of competition that bears questioning. Why voluntarily put so much emotional energy into the hands of something out of one’s control? And why invest so much time into observing something that will result in upsetting you at least 40% of the time and often, with the M’s, closer to 60% of the time? Isn’t that definitively crazy? I know “fan” is short for “fanatic”, which sort of implies some instability, but why put so much of your mood in the hands of something so iffy? Is it just because everyone else is doing it?

I thought about this a bit in that mid-twenties period and really even experimented with letting go of baseball fandom and the Mariners a bit more, even while still wearing M’s jackets and hats more days than not. It didn’t take. I still wanted to watch most of their games, even in the down seasons, still followed their players like they were friends of mine. And it’s not like I was raised on this from an early age. My Dad gets a little competitive when playing Risk, but both of my parents kind of blinked at me when I told them I wanted to play Little League. They carried this “Sports?? Really?” look around for about a year or so, while still being supportive of my interest, until they’d gone to enough games to kind of fall in love with baseball along with me. I went out and found and chose this all on my own and now it’s just deeply embedded.

I don’t think this post ends with a neat little bow, some tie-in conclusion that explains it all or offers up just the right balance of reflection and thought-provocation. Truth is, I got nothing. I feel like competitive outlets are somewhere between water and food in my daily priority list, but I have no idea why. And I know that a lot of what I most loved about debate, both as a competitor and a coach, is found in poker as well, which is the strategic aspect. The constant intellectual stimulation, the dynamism of all these different personalities and perspectives vying for the same goals and taking different routes to it, and trying to outsmart everyone and get as much control of the situation as possible. This is found in good board games as well, in most of the competitive outlets I have. It’s entirely absent in baseball, of course, except vicariously. Real players and managers get to enjoy the game on that level, but the rest of us can only watch. Then again, despite my clear preference for intellectual pursuits to athletic ones, I still mostly wanted to be a major leaguer from early Little League to late high school. The competitive drive is deeply ingrained and fierce.

Obviously, if I can keep winning tournaments at poker, this monstrous competitive drive within will be sufficiently quenched that I don’t need to keep finding more things to feed it with. That said, one of my first thoughts upon winning and internalizing how much money had been at stake was that I could now seriously consider flying to Seattle if the Mariners make the playoffs this season for the first time in 13 years.

Maybe it’s all just a form of love. If I’ve learned anything in three and a half decades on Earth, it’s that love is the most irrational thing of all.


Marching to New Orleans

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Marching to New Orleans, Metablogging, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Upcoming Projects, Tags: , , , , ,

From my first visit to New Orleans...

From my first visit to New Orleans...

You may have noticed a burst of color around here. If you haven’t noticed said burst of color, hit the “refresh” button on your browser.

Ah, there we go.

I’m moving to New Orleans in a little over a month. My girlfriend, Alex, and I are heading there so that she can Teach for America. We both acknowledge that there are some things TFA could do better for the way our society is headed overall, but she wants to be a teacher and this seems like an easy way to test that desire and do so in an awesome new place.

I will be leaving my job coaching debate at Rutgers, one that I have unofficially done for 5 full years and officially done for three and a half. I could not possibly be more conflicted about this decision. In fact, I was so conflicted that despite announcing to the team that I would be leaving at the Senior Banquet on May 7th, I did not officially submit my resignation letter until about an hour ago. And I still am kind of in a shocked awe of that decision. I actually decided to leave. I have loved almost everything about coaching the Rutgers team and watching their incredible hard work, dedication, and perseverance pay off in untold unpredicted ways, culminating in this year’s trip to the National Championship Finals. And yet there have been challenges, as there are with any pursuit, and I’m starting to feel restless, as I always do after 5 years anywhere. Anywhere, much less New Jersey.

My relationship with this state is weird and circuitous. I can honestly stay that no state has brought me more overall pain during my time here, but almost none have brought me more joy. I never would have predicted that I would spend so long living here, but I wrote two books, coached for five years, lost a marriage, and started another quite serious relationship. But I’m not here to just tick off milestones and put New Jersey in perspective. It will be a long time before I can fully do that.

Perhaps the better thing, as suggested by the glaring colors and header of this blog as of today, is to look forward to Louisiana. I’m not sure what I’ll do there, but I have lots of ideas. I will probably start out focusing a little bit on poker, since that’s been going really well lately and I hear it can be done as a job. But I’m considering very seriously doing more with writing, with this webpage, and possibly getting back into non-profits. I might take a job in a coffee shop or library to get involved in the community and support some creative pursuits. I might work at Tulane, doing something vaguely administrative. I think I’m done with debate for a while and I’d like my nights and weekends back, but that can always change… someone in Alex’s TFA cohort apparently went to my high school and started the Tulane debate team, which apparently will be seeking to join APDA next year. You can’t make real life up.

It is too strange, early, and overwhelming to contextualize all this transition, except that it feels right. RUDU is poised to be a self-sustaining force for the foreseeable future of APDA at this stage, with two National Finalists returning and a ton of talent convincing the administration to maintain its commitment to the team. My work there could continue, but is largely done. The five-year bells for a location in the back of my head are jangling hard. I have always been fascinated by New Orleans and even have a novel plot set there where I could do some of this alleged “research” I sometimes hear things about. Maybe I’ll finally manage to go on a ghost tour, or even start running them. I think my visions of New Orleans were long defined by its Square in Disneyland, easily the most random but enthralling part of the plastic kingdom. I mean, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, and veggie gumbo? I think New Orleans Square might be the only place I’d be more excited to move than the actual city itself.

I will be doing a small tour of the eastern seaboard before I head out to make sure I see those I’m going to miss most before I go. I’ve contacted most folks about this, but please feel free to e-mail so we can hang out before I go. I’m also going to be heading down to the Maryland summer tournament on June 14th as sort of a last goodbye to APDA. Even though it won’t be a last anything, of course, because are we ever really done with APDA? I have every intention of showing up to a tournament or two next year to judge and see RUDU again and get back in the world that has been a bigger part of my life than any other single community.

There is still a tiny chance we end up in Finland next year, actually. And a still tinier chance that we end up in a third, indeterminate, place. But with Alex in training to teach in New Orleans as we speak and time passing just as quickly as ever, this seems like as good a time as any to call it. So there you go. Or, rather, here I go. Again.

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