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

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Let’s Talk About Class, Baby

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

Yesterday, I tried to tell a story about what I saw on the last APDA weekend of the year, a story about debaters and debate and ideas and personal struggles and hopes and dreams and triumphs and disappointments. It was laden in my perspective and not attempting to be particularly objective – as I believe was clear throughout the 11,000+ words, it was couched in how I saw certain people and things and events and should not be taken as an objective record, any more than any piece that any individual writes, whether it’s labeled fiction or non-, should be taken as fully objective.

I actually thought when I finished it that it was too long and rambly for anyone to fully read and that it was ultimately probably going to fail at its initial objective, which was to weave a story about class background and competitive incentives into a human tale of competitive drama on the largest APDA stage of the year. For whatever reason, this self-assessment seems to be a bit short-sighted. Lots of people read the piece, in whole or in part, and (unsurprisingly) many people had objections. Fortunately, many people addressed those objections directly to me, enabling me to both fix certain things that were not intended (shortening or omitting names so that Googling someone wouldn’t lead to that post if they didn’t want it to) and to engage with people in 1:1 conversations about what bothered them, which I think was mutually informative.

But the biggest thing that kept coming up with people who wrote me seems to be essential to address on a larger scale. And because people felt the last post was at times too personal and too direct (some even called it ad hominem, which I disagree with but understand why they said that), I want to keep this post as abstract as possible so we can explore an idea rather than people specifically. Yesterday’s post was a story about people and events. Today’s post should be about an idea. The idea of class in contemporary America and how it affects people, their perspectives, and their decisions. And perhaps that’s even jumping ahead of the cart. The preliminary question, the one that many asked me, is whether class is even something we can or should talk about at all, especially on a personal level.

I felt it was important to tell the story of Nats Finals through the lens of class because that seemed to be clearly underlying a lot of the argumentation and perspectives that people were making. I feel it’s disingenuous and kind of crazy to tell the story of NDT Nats Finals without ever mentioning race, given the nature of the arguments that Emporia State made, the demographics of the participants, the larger question that the debaters themselves were asking. And I saw the same thing happening in APDA Nats Finals, especially in the context of semifinals (which is why I told the whole narrative that way); it was essential to what was happening in Hoff Theater last Sunday that there were people of privilege and people of less and it impacted their arguments and the way they made them. I want to be clear that I don’t think it necessitated the way the round played out – someone accused me of arguing that Syracuse couldn’t engage with arguments about high finance because they were from a lower socioeconomic background, which was not my intended argument. My argument was more that class struggles and conflicts and perspectives were visibly alive in the room and those things matter to how people approach daily life in this society, much less competitive debate.

So let’s back up a few steps. Is it reasonable or fair to say that class background innately impacts one’s perspective, or can? Is it impolite to even weigh income, privilege, access, and financial resources when looking at a person and how they interact with their environment? Several of you said it was. Unsurprisingly, I disagree.

I guess the first question is whether class is an immutable characteristic, something like race or gender. I don’t think that would mean that we couldn’t cite it or discuss it, but it would mean that making arguments or generalizations based on expectations of class would be more like stereotyping or saying something unfair than it would be like discussing something valid or valuable. I think it’s clear and obvious that one cannot often choose their class – one is born where one is born and one can’t choose what one is or one’s family or surroundings any more than one can choose to be male or female. So in that sense, maybe it’s a little like race or gender. But I think it’s also clear that class is, at least theoretically, flexible. One cannot have a childhood where one is Black for a while, then White, then finishes up Korean. But it is quite possible to have that kind of flexibility in terms of class and to experience a wide gradient of class standing. Many people have had this experience growing up, myself included. And certainly in childhood, that’s less about one’s own choice than the choices of others, but that flexibility separates it from being something innate about one’s identity. The older one becomes, the more clear it is that this is a changeable part of one’s identity. It’s complicated, because someone who is born into a fabulously and effortlessly wealthy family can probably never fully shed that – they probably don’t have the means or ability to spend themselves into being poor and it’s probably unreasonable to expect someone in that perspective to walk away from their family to shed their possessions and see how the other half live, a la Into the Wild. So, it’s mutable, but not always a choice. I think this puts class squarely in a gray area of sorts between race/gender and the decisions people make in their daily life. So, understandable that people feel uncomfortable, but probably not the same kind of third-rail that discussing race/gender and making assumptions based on that would be.

Next, there’s the politeness argument. I was raised, as most everyone was (I suspect), that it’s not polite to ask someone how much money their family makes. Many people just seem to have a visceral distaste for talking about people directly as though some have more money than others, however true it may be. There are two key arguments for this, I think: one, that it’s uncomfortable for the rich to have to admit that they have more access and more things and two, that it’s embarrassing for the poor to have to admit that they don’t. This argument and perspective is deeply embedded in American culture and is probably hard for people to question. But I think this argument precisely is where we get at the heart of why it’s so important to talk about class.

First of all, I would posit that this standard is impossible. There may have been versions of America with greater wealth equality or subtler ways of spending by the rich that made this standard viable or at least aspirational, but I simply do not believe that it’s possible to hide the amount of access and freedom that money buys the rich or denies the poor in modern American society, especially not in college. There are people who always stay in hotels when they travel, who always can fly wherever they want (and do frequently), who vacation in foreign countries and resorts rather than around the corner, and these people talk about doing these things in their life. And asking those people to never discuss such things is crazy and wouldn’t work. It’s their life; they should be able to talk about their expenditures of time and money. Meanwhile, others struggle to buy a dinner that’s not provided by a tournament, get uncomfortable when there are things that require money, quietly decline to participate in Secret Santa activities or other things with money as a checkpoint because they simply can’t afford it. It’s obvious to all observers why they can’t partake in these things that would otherwise excite them – some people are subtle about why this is happening and pretend they just don’t like anything, while others are open and honest about what the score is. But all make it clear to anyone paying attention why the barriers to access are where they are.

Some of these examples are about college and the debate world, but they date to times well before that. Despite being raised on a standard of not talking about these things, I couldn’t help but come back from a friend’s house in grade school and ask why someone had three game systems I’d never heard of and we were saving up money for a black and white television. My parents were always incredibly honest with me about what our standing was, especially since we went through phases of being relatively well off and then, when my parents’ business failed, not so much. But talking about it relative to others was still a bit uncomfortable and taboo. I’m old enough now to recognize this is mostly about parental self-consciousness and feeling bad about not being able to provide the same lifestyle that other children are living. But it’s not like anyone actually succeeds at preventing children from understanding, whether they discuss it or not, precisely what’s going on.

So at the point where people are going to figure out what’s happening, and something really is happening, then I would say that muzzling discussion on class in context is a form of oppression. In our society, money is freedom. Money has been used as the blanket under which everything is covered, access to everything is dependent on and proportional to money, with a few thin exceptions like voting and our crappy public education system (arguably, since there’s access to private schools, even this is just a rigid financial access question). Money affects the quality of what you get at every level, thus impacting your future abilities and access in a vicious upward or downward spiral. So the only question is whether we can confront this issue head-on in an effort to do something about it, to mollify, mitigate, or combat it in some way, or whether it proceeds unchecked and undiscussed as a silent force.

This may be a slightly extreme dichotomy I’m painting. I’m trying to proceed with this post in a robust and intellectually honest way as though someone were arguing against me. So you might say that we don’t have to discuss it interpersonally to think about it politically. That we can discuss the abstract motivations and impacts on a societal level without bringing the individuals around us and their particular place on the ladder into play. And that crossing that line is the gulf between appropriate and inappropriate discussion.

Several reasons why I think this is not a reasonable place to draw the line and why I think that’s an extension of oppression. First of all, I would analogize it to the privilege people experience from being white or male or straight or otherwise advantaged in our society. Advocates of greater equity and self-awareness everywhere regularly ask us to “check [y]our privilege.” To be aware of the subtle and omnipresent advantages one enjoys by being in a majority category or one that has traditionally enjoyed power or position. While this is not a reason to be biased against straight white males, per se, it is quite clearly to me for straight white males (or any one of those three) to consider that what they take for granted is not the experience of others and to make extra efforts to be understanding and inclusive of others who were born into a different category. And only the most defensive straight white males would be angry for being called out as belonging to those groups and being asked to consider how different it is to be otherwise.

You could argue that you can see white maleness innately, but you can’t see wealth or class. One, I think that’s laughable on face – wealth and class come out in the way one dresses, the things one does, the decisions one makes, the stuff one has, and often the way one talks about everything in society. Also, even if it’s totally cloaked, sexual orientation is also almost completely cloaked outside of witnessing relationships directly, which many people are quite successfully private about. And the thing about the “check your privilege” standard is that it’s not just something we rely on people to do for themselves. To keep people honest, it’s often important for people to say that phrase directly to each other, to remind people who take something for granted and overlook it that they’re in a different category and point out how that impacts what they’re saying or doing in the context of others. “Check your privilege,” in other words, is kind of meaningless if it’s on the honor system. It at times requires direct confrontation in order to be effective.

And maybe this is more the place of family and friends than someone further removed in order to be effective and not make someone defensive. That an outsider or someone distant asking someone to check privilege is less effective or appropriate than someone one knows will love them at the end of the day doing same. I’m mildly persuaded by that claim, but I think major public events cross the line into something owned and shared by a wider community and that discussing this privilege and the desire to check it is a wider point of access. For example, if someone straight made a claim in a Nats Final that was clearly heteronormative, I don’t think only their close LGBT friends could question them on that. I think it would be reasonable for anyone in the audience, gay or straight, to raise the issue in a public discussion.

But I also think that not talking about it is oppressive because it’s a way of pretending that it doesn’t exist. Quite simply, when it’s deemed impolite to discuss something, it’s a way of everyone pretending that things are not the way they are. And there may be places where this is in fact appropriate behavior, if the thing we’re discussing doesn’t really impact anything or would only be the source of some sort of cruel repercussion. For example, if someone had a disability or a handicap, it doesn’t seem meaningfully important to always self-awarely point this out at every turn, because the ideal is that it should not affect that person’s ability to compete or have access. However, if someone is wheelchair-bound and the round is in a place with only stairs, then it does seem reasonable to discuss. So the standard is probably where the question of background does or might affect one’s ability to compete or one’s ability to access certain things. And I would argue that class and wealth impacts literally every aspect of access. That it is so directly proportionally tied to questions of access that it is like a question of how many ramps you have for your wheelchair.

How is this the case? Well, for one, having money and a particular societal status just makes things easier. It makes it easier to have stuff, to have flexibility, to have the freedom to be unconstrained by having to work, having to sacrifice time and energy to do certain things to enable the life one wants to live. But the perspective of having money and having been acclimated to a certain class also tends to make one’s perspective on life much easier and more filled with possibility than someone at the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. Someone whose family lacks resources sees the world as less filled with opportunity and often has less access to opportunities than someone who is accustomed to getting what they want. And in a world where money and connections can actually often buy access, this only gets worse over time.

More perversely, in my opinion, and I understand that this is not a belief that is necessarily held by everyone who has wealth and/or privilege, the prevailing American ethos is that the people who are in higher socioeconomic positions deserve to be there. I recognize that a lot of people are trying to fight this perception at some level and that the financial meltdown of recent years did some good in combating this misperception about capitalism. But still the vast majority of Americans believe that wealth is correlated with effort and that people are rich because they worked harder than those who are not. And this is something that categorically separates issues of class, especially in America, from things like race or gender. No one would argue that someone is White and not Black because they deserve to be treated better in some way – the very typing of that text makes me cringe with how horrific and offensive it is. And yet those are precisely the types of assumptions that underpin class distinctions in society, especially for those born into their standing.

I’m not going to take the time to prove the many things about the diminished social mobility that are true of contemporary America and especially true of any society with large wealth disparities. But it’s pretty clear that mobility is highly limited in a society where the gap between rich and poor is widening daily, that this reflects the old adage of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Which innately precludes many of the poor getting richer or the rich getting poorer. And everything in such a stratified society is structured to ensure that people continue to pursue the widening of that gap. Even in a world with a couple exceptional billionaires like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, nearly all the rich will seek to enrich themselves further at the expense of the poor, while all the poor will be powerless to combat this trend, lacking the resources to do so. And even Gates and Buffett have only changed their tune in recent years after spending years in the capitalist melee trampling the little guy, be it rival businesses or consumers, so they could get ahead and enrich themselves. These are just sort of the rules of profit-driven capitalism, but they have a deep and real affect on everyone existing in the society governed by this framework.

What all this adds up to is that very few people who start out in lower or middle classes will ever reach the upper echelons of wealth. But those that do are going to likely have to play the capitalist game to do so. Which is where another aspect of class, the one I find least controversial, comes in. Which is what one chooses to do with one’s life, one’s aspirational class, if you will. Which is where the teachers get separated from the hedge fund managers.

Now I’m not trying to paint everyone working in a hedge fund with the same broad brush entirely and maybe I did a bit too much of that in my last post. You don’t have to lie, cheat, and steal to work in a profit-obsessed firm that puts no stock in human feelings or the impacts on the bottom rungs of society. However, it’s an environment where most people are fine with pushing the limits of whatever one can get away with, where most people are making decisions that create things like Enron or 2008 or bubbles or runaway compensation for people who do nothing that actually produces, creates, or enhances anything tangible in the world whatsoever. And, quite simply, it’s hard to be a good man in a bad state. It’s hard enough to care about anything in America writ large, between our distracted media and our obsession with money and our warmongering trashing of the rest of the planet. But it gets a lot harder when one self-selects into an environment where everyone else believes in the ruthless valuation of enrichment over people, values, or principles. And again, maybe not every hedge fund office or law school is like this. But most are.

And it happens insidiously, in the way that most oppression in America does. The phenomenon is all too common. Someone wants to go to law school to be one of the good guys, to stand up for the little guy. So they take out six figures of debt to cover the future education that will help them be an advocate for the good. But then they have all this debt they have to pay off, so they work in a firm for five years. And at that firm, they represent corporations using their leverage and weight and ability to afford a talented lawyer to either beat up small corporations or actual individuals, get away with violating their rights because the legal system is a place where money can often replace truth. And while they do that, they may feel conflicted or stomach-churny, but they feel the ends justify the means and they’ll make up for it standing up for the little guy someday. All the while, their entire peer group and surroundings are people with a different set of values, people who are unapologetic about their decisions, people for whom selfishness is the primary ethos. They get accustomed to this perspective, maybe tire of arguing for alternatives that feel especially hypocritical when one is representing Big Business in some capacity daily anyway. So slowly their conviction gets eroded. Meanwhile, they start getting used to a certain lifestyle, a certain amount of comfort and expectation of flexibility, mobility, access, stuff. And they start taking that for granted, having a hard time imagining going back to a harder life of sacrifice and discomfort when they and everyone they know now enjoys this comfort. So five years become ten years, twenty. Eventually they decide that it’s just easier to ride out life for the big firm and maybe donate all their riches at the end of their life to some worthy cause. Meanwhile, they continue to perpetrate the harms on the little guy they only went to law school in order to protect.

I can only imagine this story is played out even more often in hedge funds or other financial pursuits than it is law schools. And it’s pervasive in law schools and a huge part of why things don’t change in this society. The instrument of debt ensures that those few people capable of leveraging talent and ambition into social mobility are thus hamstrung by their financial disadvantages into becoming part of the machine they might otherwise change.

So, a bunch of counter-arguments probably stem from this. One is that the increased flexibility and options make it more likely that those in the higher classes actually resist the pull of debt (no need for it) and other things and are more able to think and behave independently and stick to their liberal convictions, if applicable. Maybe. I certainly think that’s possible for those who are choosing to avoid lucrative professions altogether. Certainly there are people who are well-off who intend to become public high school teachers or join the Peace Corps or TFA or work for lower wages in a non-profit. And those people are commendable for these choices. But the fact that those who are not pursuing these things are not seems to me like valid grounds for discussing or criticizing people who instead choose to be all about the Benjamins.

Another argument is simply to question everything I’m saying about the system of American capitalism and say there’s nothing wrong with it, that rising tides float all boats and that growth and positive change stem from everyone ruthlessly pursuing their own self-interest. It’s hard for me to engage with this argument because I find it so laughable and frustrating, but this may be at the core of the class issues I’m trying to illustrate. It’s easy to argue about engines of American capitalism and quality of life standards from the top. It’s a lot harder to do this from the streets of the Tenderloin in San Francisco or other drug-addled gang-ridden neighborhoods for whom opportunity is a four-letter word. Economics is ultimately a zero-sum game and the pursuit of profit and greed creates vast inequities for those at the bottom that requires either starvation and deprivation or a massive government safety-net to try to keep those people alive. The quality of life and standard of living for most Americans has actually declined in the last five decades, since these things are mostly on a relative scale. You can watch things like this super-popular and insightful viral video to get a better sense of what I’m talking about. People rarely have any real conception of how great the wealth divides are in this country and how meaningfully that detracts from the life of the vast majority of people. And the culprit is not just capitalism, but unchecked faith in capitalism.

The final argument against what I’ve been saying actually takes me back to another debate round, another one involving Harvard that was the final round of a title tournament, one that was everything the Nats Final was not. This one featured C. and Josh, mentioned in the earlier post and here vaguely anonymized per their request, against a team from Hart House, the University of Toronto’s debating society. The resolution was not chosen by the competitors as it was a “tight-link” tournament where the competition provides the topics, but I was told later that the four competitors were all debating for the sides they personally passionately believed. This was the 2013 North American Championship, and the resolution was that a humanitarian should choose a field where they will make the most money possible and donate money to charity rather than working directly for a less lucrative pursuit in a non-profit.

This round was excellent, and a clear win for Harvard on Gov. And while I have a lot of respect for the Hart House team, I think a lot of why they dropped was that they missed some of the best counter-arguments to the perspective endorsed in the resolution. They did question whether one will still donate as much money after a time or whether they will become disaffected and uncaring, to which Harvard responded by saying this was against the terms of the resolution. And I think that’s half of the best argument. But I think the larger problem is whether one will still care about charity at all after a certain amount of time lived in a world where most other people are ruthless selfish capitalists. Both sides in that round agreed that this would be the ethos of most of those surrounding someone in such a lucrative profession. And at that point, I think it’s even less about getting accustomed to a certain standard of living or expectation of comfort. It’s about being peppered constantly by a peer group that tells you, no matter how liberal and generous you are, that you deserve all your money, that you are better than other people, and that you should just be in it for you. That’s one of the biggest problems with these class environments and how they self-select for ensuring that people are, first and foremost, guardians of inequality and the societal structures that perpetuate it.

Undoubtedly, not every class environment perpetuates this. Of course there are exceptions. In talking about phenomena, one must sometimes generalize in order to be talking about anything; otherwise the conclusion of every statement or post or article would be “Well, sometimes this but sometimes also that; things are complicated! Let’s go get a sandwich.” I would rather err on the side of something sweeping and thought-provoking that offers a direction than contemplative sandwich-eating while marveling at the world’s complexity. This is, after all, my blog.

But I think most class environments do perpetuate the things outlined above because it’s just much harder for people from privilege to be aware of it constantly, to consider how their advantages affect others, and to constantly question or rail against everyone in their environment telling them that they deserve these advantages. And these privileges probably transcend the socioeconomic, though I think they’re most pernicious there. Surely an outsider to debate might question the entire enterprise as us pressing our intellectual advantage and elitism at the expense of those unlucky enough to be born with such talents.

But that’s precisely where I disagree and why I think it’s so important for debate to be pro-intellectual but class-mitigatory (and -aware). Because debate and public speaking and rational thought are things that can be taught. Anyone from any level and any background can learn these things and be good at them. Many have disbelieved me about the truth of this statement and I would like to think that I’ve helped to prove them wrong to the extent that I’ve had any success at all on the circuit as a debater or a coach. And, unlike the pursuit of wealth or privilege, the pursuit of knowledge and rhetorical skill are more or less unmitigated goods. We would prefer a world where everyone tried to press their talents and intellect to the highest reaches. We would not prefer a world (or I wouldn’t at least, and I don’t think you should either) where everyone based all their decisions off of profit maximization and tried to edge each other out on those grounds.

And I know many representatives of Harvard in the prior post would then say that their case was trying to be intellectually challenging and stimulating. I believe that many of them sincerely felt this was the case. A lot of what I was trying to do in yesterday’s post was illustrate sufficient context to show why many many people did not feel that way. Which has to do with history and tactics as well as class. Without 2005 and 2012 as backdrops, there’s no way that 2013 would have been perceived the way it was.

So all of that prompts a question about where the lines of what intellectual rigor is and isn’t, how much access people should have and knowledge and ability to keep up with speedier discussion and all that. I’m not looking to entirely rehash yesterday so much as explicate some of the more controversial stuff and why I went there. So we’ll leave that for another time and it’s probably better placed in quieter 1:1 discussions.

My point is merely to say that we all know class is there. We can all see its vast manifestations, how it comes across in the sense of entitlement and privilege of many people, the access they have, the expectations they have about their future and how they contrast with others with different upbringing. And this diversity of background, in the right attitude, is an asset to be celebrated and explored and examined carefully. One of the great things about APDA is that it does bring people, like the best college experiences, from widely differing monetary (and other) backgrounds together and shoves them forward into a marketplace of ideas. But we are doing ourselves a disservice if we ignore this diversity or deem it impolite to discuss, even in its personal manifestations. It is the failure to question profit as an end-all and be-all motive that has enabled the vast escalation of wealth disparity in our society. If we fail to point out how class colors our perspectives and access now, we are only magnifying the harms of past mistakes and dooming ourselves to a future where we can’t consider or correct the increasing divides between us.

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The Battle of Hoff Theater: My Thoughts on APDA Nationals Finals 2013

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: , ,

Whenever I talk about APDA to prospective debaters, I almost always lead with how free-form and open our form of American Parliamentary debate is. I contrast it with debate styles like policy and even the big three of contemporary high school debate (Cross-Examination, Lincoln-Douglass, and Public Forum), citing how comparatively little research is necessary, how little repetition there is from round to round. The would-be debaters, future speakers and leaders of an age of public speaking, get wide-eyed looks on their faces.

“You mean… I can talk about… anything?”

Anything.” My emphatic response.

It takes about thirty seconds, maybe a minute for the most intrepid, for the fear to set in. They do the math in their head and stop considering what a privilege this is to stand up before judges, audiences, people of all kinds waiting to be persuaded, and talk about what one wants to talk about. They turn the tables, remember the harsh high school lessons of learning what bastards other people can be, and wonder aloud, “But what if I don’t know anything about the topic that someone else wants to talk about?”

And then, perhaps disingenuously, I explain to them that the standard is anything an average well-informed college student would know about. I offer them the checks our league has instated, things like Points of Clarification (absent during my debating career, but a mainstay of my coaching time) wherein the Opposition team can query the Government almost endlessly about the topic to ensure they have fair ground for debate, and norms that people not run anything too weighted to one side. I usually quietly omit the additional check of tight calls, the technical debate term for how the opposition asks the judge to adjudicate on the issue of fairness rather than the points in the round. I quietly omit that many teams deliberately play with the line of “spec knowledge,” the norm we have against basing arguments on technical or obscure facts and citations to give themselves an advantage. I focus on the fun rounds, the opportunity to discuss individual choices in everyday settings, the chance to explain to a stranger why you feel so passionately about an issue, large or small, that affects the way we live.

The hope is that this person is so intrigued and excited about debate that they will not mind so much when the inevitable round comes along that puts them to sleep, that makes them, if briefly, regret their decision to come to debate. The round about minute details of insurance law, the round about tiny variations in interest rates, the round about something truly interesting where the speaker spoke so fast it was impossible for anyone to keep up except, somehow, the Prime Minister’s partner and judge. These rounds take people inspired by arrival and training in a new debate format and make them want to leave the activity. They take something that is generally supposed to be a conversation and turn it into a lecture, a monologue, a one-way fight where the team presenting the case, theoretically to be interesting, persuasive, and engaging, cares merely about out-pacing their opponents than why they joined debate in the first place. Hopefully, by the time they are complaining to me about that round, these new recruits to debate are so hooked on the good stuff, the discourse, the really engaging and exciting rounds, the inspirational speakers who eloquently run circles around them on the basis of years of experience, that they stick around.

I am a coach on APDA. I have been coaching the Rutgers team, voluntarily and then professionally, for a full four seasons, three of them at an obsessive, daily level. I have failed to attend only three tournaments in the last three years on a “season” that offers a slate of 26-28 scheduled weekend tournaments a year. Each tournament is a grueling 36-hour affair from midday Friday to the end of Saturday with between two and ten hours of travel tacked on in each direction. Competitors and often coaches sleep on hard dorm floors in sleeping bags between the first three and last two preliminary rounds, dreaming of hopes of the “break,” advancing to quarterfinals (or, at the large tournaments, octofinals), the single-elimination playoff rounds that are all the more pivotal for being judged by a panel of adjudicators rather than a single decider. The Rutgers team has grown from a small huddled handful of 8-12 students to a team that regularly offers 60-65 students a year the chance to compete at official tournaments, while educating or training a couple dozen more who are considering competition when their schedule smooths out. The team has gone from unranked to 24th to 5th to 9th to 3rd under my tenure. Make no mistake, I want to win.

But, as I did in my four years competing for Brandeis, I want to win the right way. And, unlike a seemingly increasingly loud chorus on the league and perhaps US society in general, I believe there is a right way. There is no question that part of the strategy of the chess game that is debate is scouting opponents, learning and understanding the cases and subjects they tend to run, and anticipating their strengths while playing to their weaknesses. Playing the right way does not require one to disadvantage oneself inordinately, to run only economics against future financiers and only political theory against would-be presidents. However, there are limits to the advantage one should push, and these are not merely checked by the ability of the other side to ask Points of Clarification (PoCs) or to call a case “tight” (unfair) in a technical way during the round. And indeed, one of the greatest checks of all is often that people are not always expert at discussing their most well-known subjects. My most frequent college partner, on my team when we won the North American Championships, Adam Zirkin, famously melted down in a round the year prior about pharmaceuticals that the other team bravely ran against him. This despite Zirkin’s primary field of study and expertise being same. His explanations were far too detailed and technical to be accessible to the common judge and they lost the audience and the round. When we found ourselves in NorthAms quarters against a fearsome dino team, they chose the same strategy. But Zirk had learned the lessons from that prior contest and I was able to provide a sufficient general framework to fend off the Gov team and take the round.

This is not, or shouldn’t be, a post about me. It is about me, a bit, or a lot, because it’s about my perspective on what may prove to be the most pivotal round for the entire APDA league in my time coaching, however long that will be. It was a round that made clear, almost immediately, seconds into the second speech (LOC, or Leader of Opposition Constructive) that it would carry that kind of weight. It was a round that people couldn’t stop talking about for days after, until one of the league’s leaders asked people to stop talking about it, and then they only stopped talking about it on the league’s internet forum. It’s a round that has haunted me since it ended, that I wake up each morning thinking about, mulling, considering, repackaging in my head. Scenes from the final round have been with me in restless sleep and idle afternoons, now four days since the round’s conclusion. It was dramatic and riveting and polarizing, as debate should be in its best form. And yet almost everyone agrees that the end product was far from debate in its best form, each team and especially its supporters blaming the other side for the mangled, sad representation of the league that was ultimately displayed in its most-watched platform of the year.

This is about me, though, a bit. This is my personal blog. These are my thoughts. This was the eleventh APDA National Final I have attended, almost certainly a record for the league. I have, in person, judged, watched, or debated against every National Finalist since 1998, save one. That is Anish Mitra of Stanford, who I tabbed 2011 Nationals with. I have a pretty good grasp on the institutional evolution of APDA as a league and how it has changed and not changed over time. I am firmly of the belief, contrary to most shorter-term “dinos” (the semi-affectionate term for former debaters used league-wide since well before my time) that the overall quality of debaters is almost precisely fixed and stagnant. Many debaters suffer under the illusion that debaters were far better when they were novices and are far worse after they have graduated, simply because of their own relative evolutionary process and relative skill to the greats of the circuit.

This is an easily explicable, if flawed, phenomenon. One remembers being devastated by seniors when one was a novice and thus misremembers them as being perfect at debate, rather than one’s own shortcomings that made them see that way. One then remembers how bad the novices seemed when one was a senior, putting them two notches below the greats of their own novice year. Then one judges those novices as seniors, easily besting the current day’s novices, who can’t even give those seniors a challenge. And thus one concludes that each year’s novice class is substantially worse than the class before, simply because of one’s own biased perspective as an improving debater. I was never especially prone to this fallacy, but I certainly have excised it after fifteen years in some contact with the circuit and eleven National Championships attended.

This is all merely a way of trying to vouch for my credentials, which itself is another reason people like to say debate was better in their day, whether it was or not. Dinos are often remembered as greats and go to great lengths to preserve that reputation. In our own weird little culture of college debate, it’s cool and credible to regale present stars with stories of greatness, feats of heroism, funny anecdotes of triumph in the face of adversity. I do the same. We all do it. Everyone who debates has a part of them, large or small, that just loves talking and loves the act of being listened to. Some take this to an extreme of attention-seeking, while most are able to balance this slightly narcissistic tendency with concern for others and an equal amount of listening. We’ve all met tons of people who fall on each side of the line and keeping that line straight is one of the many challenges of being active in this activity for years on end.

This piece is getting long and I haven’t even really gotten to the tournament. I’ll admit that I’m taking some inspiration, both in tone and in approach, from Scott Harris’ incredible ballot for the 2013 NDT Final Round. Many of you debate types have probably already read that, in whole or in part, and you should go do so and return to my piece here in about a week, since that will take you on a journey down a debate rabbit hole far deeper than this probably will. NDT is one of two National Championships for the college policy circuit and this year, for the first time in history, both of them (CEDA being the other) were won by the same partnership, a team from Emporia State University in Kansas. I got an e-mail about this a few days after it happened, because one of the debaters from Emporia State is actually a Rutgers-Newark student on some sort of exchange to Emporia, one who came to New Brunswick for a public debate between Rutgers-Newark’s budding policy team and my own parliamentary Debate Union at the flagship campus. His name is Elijah Smith and he’s an immediately engaging, charming, brilliant capable individual who is very open about his views, as most debaters are. Rutgers-Newark was treating the victory like a win for Rutgers-Newark, which it is, in a way, since Smith was raised in Newark and reared on the training of Kurt Shelton, both in high school and especially college, before he left the Newark team before this season for reasons that are still not entirely clear to me, but probably, unfortunately, have something to do with institutional support. As someone who has enjoyed immense institutional support at his sister school, this fills me with a sad sort of empathy and wistfulness.

The policy circuit long ago decided how they feel about spreading, a late ’60’s invention in debate, that transformed that league and several others into a race of auctioneering-level speed-talking instead of eloquent persuasion. Which is not to say that people in policy debate are never eloquent or capable of persuasion, but what passes for argumentation on that league would sound like a literal low hum to the untrained ears of those outside of it. Policy or cross-ex style debate exists on both the high school and college levels. Phillips 66, who sponsors the National Forensic League (NFL, a joke that everyone has made already), famously sent corporate representatives to watch the final round of policy debate in the late 1970’s and were appalled that they could literally not comprehend a single argument in the round because they were all being delivered too quickly. They threatened to withdraw funding unless a new form of debate were created to cater to eloquence, persuasion, public speaking poise, and the things that most people unaware of policy associate with the word “debate.”

Thus was Lincoln-Douglass born. This was a format I devoted much of five years to, being able to debate in 8th grade as a novice amongst New Mexico high schoolers and going on to compete four full varsity years thereafter. During my time on the circuit, LD was starting to experience a schism wherein some people felt it was appropriate to start spreading, or speaking more quickly, to gain an advantage, while most maintained the original goals for which the event was literally created. Since debate is judged primarily on the “flow,” or the tracking of arguments and which are rebutted and which aren’t, most debate formats engage in a struggle of whether speaking faster to get more arguments in is a legitimate strategy or an abuse of the point of debating. This battle has been lost on the LD circuit since a bit after my graduation from high school, as all but a handful of regional pockets now utilize and expect the spread (the etymology of this is “speed-reading,” but now refers to any sort of auctioneer-level fast-talking, whether reading or speaking on the fly) and former LDers collide with parliamentary circuits like APDA expecting to race in more arguments rather than implement traditional techniques of oratorical persuasion.

Policy debate, interestingly however, has also implemented another check on this and other tactics, which is enabling a literally endless amount of meta-debate. Meta-debate, as you might guess, is debating about debate, wherein the idea of what is being debated and how are, themselves, debatable issues in the round. The amount of meta-debate which is appropriate for APDA has been the subject of much discussion (meta-meta-debate) throughout my time on APDA as a competitor and a coach, with a burgeoning group of former policy debaters encouraging more of it to enforce unwritten rules that some teams increasingly are trying to bend. For example, in my day it was an absolute taboo to re-run the same case at the same tournament. When the practice of people violating this taboo regularly came to my attention, I started what proved to be a bit of a firestorm in calling this out. The range of suggestions to check this practice was from nothing at all (the practice is acceptable) to absolute rules to shaming-based norms to just asking and hoping that people would be good about it. But one suggestion was that this itself should become an issue in the round to be debated, whether it was fair or not that someone was reusing a case to gain a tactical advantage when most people would not do so.

As a result of its embracing of meta-debate, policy debate in both high school and college has experienced a revolutionary backlash to the spread and the tubs and tubs of research (probably now being replaced by computer files in eras of faster computing and baggage fees on airlines) formerly required to compete. A number of debaters, many of them minorities, have begun meta-debates that critique the expected investment of time and energy and lip-loosening that traditional research-heavy spread policy requires. They have offered that even discussing the topic prescribed is unimportant in the face of inequalities and injustices that flow from the expectations of their league and its format. And, amazingly, they are winning. The Emporia State debaters, the first ever pair to unite the NDT and CEDA titles under one banner, use precisely this tactic. They do spread a bit, especially in opening speeches, but they often use plain language that is comprehensible, and even stand to deliver it (spread speeches are often given seated, something incomprehensible as a debate tactic in my eyes). The spread was justified initially by an “anything-goes” approach to debate, that truly any tactic or approach to debate was fair game. And now it has come full circle, home to roost, where the people are seeing what “anything-goes” really means.

You can watch the NDT final round and judge for yourself here.

You can’t watch the APDA Nationals final round, though. You can watch the Nationals Finals from every year since I graduated online, except and until 2013. You can watch the 2003 Final in which I cast the last and deciding vote of the judging panel at the tournament hosted by Brandeis. You can watch every year since, cases Goved by Cornell and Harvard and Princeton and even Boston University. (Although, interestingly, I just checked and many finals that used to be up seem to have disappeared. I’m assuming this is a technical glitch and not a deliberate decision by some debaters to revoke consent to those previously available rounds.) But you won’t be able to see 2013 because nearly everyone found it to be a disgrace to the circuit and the league and, for some, even the very idea of debate. And no one wants those prospective recruits I opened with deciding how they feel about debating on the basis of that as its example.

Example. Used often in debate to illustrate a point or to magnify the impact of an argument. Nationals Finals is supposed to be an example. It’s supposed to be the emblem of the culmination of what debate means to all its participants. It’s supposed to illuminate and inspire, to take the back-bench novices who barely clawed to Nationals and show them what they could be in a few years. It’s supposed to be immediately visible to outsiders as a showcase of eloquence, persuasion, intellect, and education. It should teach someone something about themselves, about others, about what it means to be alive on this planet. It should elevate debate beyond a contest of wills and an effort to win an argument, transcending what we do weekly and reminding us why we all spend so much damn time and energy on it.

There is a thread in the internet forum for our league that argues there are no such restrictions or expectations of Nationals Finals. That it is merely another round where people are trying to win and that, in short, “anything goes.” If you want to bore people, to spread, to insult and jeer, to make a round as pedestrian as possible, then that is your right by virtue of arriving on that stage. Those who advocate for anything not nailed down being in play are ardently calling for anyone criticizing a National Final case choice to be eternally muzzled. Don’t criticize unless you’ve been there, and even then, try not to. It’s all about the W, nothing more.

It should probably not be surprising that the rise in this belief pattern comes at the same time that finance and economics have become the dominant future field for most top debaters, replacing law. A cursory glance at the history of high finance, hedge funds, big banks, and economics in general reveals that the last decade in the United States has brought an unparalleled belief in the magic of markets and the power of greed to override any other concerns. 2008 would have been the clarion call to action, regulation, temperance, and sanity in almost any other society, but in the US it was a mere speedbump en route to ever increasing salaries for the rich and ruthless. Only a handful of left-wingers gathering overnight in parks were mounted as counterspeech to this burgeoning national ethos when all prior era political scientists would’ve predicted full-blown revolution. But the US and its citizens are too comfortable for revolutions, too self-satisfied and assured to question things at a fundamental level. It is both why I find debate to be one of the only intellectually satisfying pursuits in such a society and why part of me feels deeply ashamed to spend so much time and energy on it (3,500 words and counting here to top it off!) in the face of much more basic and fundamental human suffering elsewhere. It is the grand conflict that envelops my soul and keeps me honest and self-critical on a daily basis.

Is there a parallel between the bottom line of a hedge fund and the obsession with just getting the W in a debate round? To me, it’s beyond obvious. Do whatever it takes. Lie, cheat, steal, press your advantage, do what you have to do to secure the win. And while we haven’t actually gotten to the point where people are openly stealing casebooks or stabbing the MG (Member of Government, second speaker for that team) in the midst of the round, those who justify re-running cases or spreading or boring someone out of the competition are not making justifications that I find distinct from those that would justify the more extreme advantage-seeking in kind, merely in degree. And nowhere is this becoming more clear than in the last two Nationals Finals.

In 2005, Opp was riding an absurdly long winning streak in Nationals Finals. Gov usually used the platform of reaching the final round to do what everyone did with Final rounds in those days, to discuss something important, meaningful, and moving, OR to discuss something they truly believed in with implications for everyone. The arguments were passionate and profound and the last round of the year nearly always left people feeling whole and good about what they had the opportunity to behold. There was rarely an expectation of winning, though there was often a hope. My teammates, Jordan Factor and Adam Zirkin, made Nationals Finals my sophomore year and I heard their discussion right before they went to prep their case after they’d chose to Gov. “Everyone remembers who was in Finals,” Jordan told Zirk. “I want to give this PMR. I believe it. I don’t care if we win. People will remember.” They proceeded to run that race-based affirmative-action is the best kind of affirmative action, a case considered all but falsistic in that era when socioeconomic affirmative-action was a cutting-edge case that was widely believed. The round was won by the MO (Member of Opposition, second speaker for that side), Jeremiah Gordon, an African American, giving perhaps the best speech of his life on why race should not be the deciding factor in admission. Jordan, who was also top speaker at the tournament, was all smiles after the announcement they’d lost. He got to give the PMR (closing speech) he wanted.

In 2001, a liberal Princeton team advocated that the Welfare State was the best form of government, while in 2002, a libertarian NYU team advocated that the Libertarian State was best. In 2003, in the wake of sweeping societal cases, UVa went small with a case about a dollar’s worth of loose change and whether to give it to a homeless man, widely regarded as the best final round case ever for its simple ability to cut to much larger questions of life and living. In 2004, Cornell questioned a basic principle of our justice system and whether we should ever give up on people entirely. And then we got to 2005.

In 2005, there was a three-way tie for TOTY (Team of the Year), the annual ranking of partnerships in APDA. None of those teams, all known for their innovative cases, reached the final round, but a team from Harvard, both named Alex, did. Known for pushing the boundaries of tight cases, they selected a case about Harvard, one that they felt was tight, in the wake of the scandal dismissing their own school’s president. They advocated against the departure of their own school’s president in a National Final. While I wasn’t there, several sources have said the only preparation they did before the round was speculating on whether the case would be called tight and concluding that no one would have the guts to “ruin” the Nationals Finals by making a tight-call.

The shockwaves were large. Not only did the tactic pay off, ducking a possible tight call and winning the round for Gov, but no former members of the league, none of the cadre of dinos I discussed this with, could believe that Harvard had taken the platform of the Nats Finals stage and run a case about… Harvard. This wasn’t something whose simple elegance somehow applied to everyone. It was a team running a case about their school, mostly with spec knowledge about their president on an issue only cursorily followed outside of Cambridge. It was shocking, not only in its myopia, but in its obvious statement that winning was pre-eminent, at all costs.

Lest anyone think that I’m being hypocritical as a successful debater calling out others for winning, I will remind people that I had the opportunity to choose a Finals case at a title tournament once. Not only in my daydreams, where I entered sophomore, junior, and senior Nationals with open opp-choice cases about wide societal issues discussed in an accessible way. But also in real life, when Zirk and I chose to Gov in the North American Championships Finals in the last year that one could wholesale choose their case in that tournament. We elected to run a three-way opp-choice case, allowing Opp to choose just one of the three options and setting our burden as defending why both of the other two were preferable. We placed the speaker (judge) in the position of Simon Wiesenthal during his time in a concentration camp. An SS officer was on his deathbed of natural causes and had asked Simon to his bedside through the instructions to his adjutant of “bring me a random Jew.” The officer dismissed the adjutant and asked Simon whether “he could ever forgive him for what he had done to his [Simon’s] people?” The choices we offered were to say “yes,” say “no,” or say nothing.

The round is the most cherished of my career, not only because of the case and not only because we won the round, but also because of how fairly and nobly the Opp, Columbia’s Harry Layman and the late Jeff Williams, engaged with the case. They chose forgiveness and argued passionately for it in the midst of a time when Jeff and I were bitter rivals and neither of us were choosing to be terribly forgiving. The round is a testament to his legacy and the fact that it was not recorded in audio or visual saddens me daily.

I raise this story not to get preachy or pat myself on the back, though I am proud of that moment, but to prove that I’m not just slinging mud at certain case choices without ever having been there. I’ve been there. I know the stakes and the pressure that takes over. I know the selfishness and the voice of the future you might be denying yourself by being 2nd in a title instead of first. But I also know that there are, ultimately, greater concerns than the W, greater concerns than giving yourself every chance to win.

The main reason this is true is because there is an audience. Because football is still more popular than debate, we do not have our preliminary rounds (outside of Nationals, which is quite well-attended) in front of throngs of people. Most rounds are five people in a room, with the only spectator also serving as adjudicator. As the break is announced and we proceed to elimination rounds, small crowds are visible, culminating in the final round, where a couple dozen people might attend. In my day, those numbers were much larger despite the somewhat smaller size of the circuit overall then, largely because there was an expectation that people stay for the entire tournament. As an added incentive, there was also a floor vote where each member of the audience chose to exit the room through the Gov door or Opp door at the round’s conclusion, both clearing the room for the judges to decide in peace and offering a public counter-weight to the opinions of the elite row of usually dino judges. People sometimes voted for their friends or teammates, but more often took their role as a judge seriously, flowing the round and deliberating heavily before choosing a door. Their votes were not weighted equally with the judging panel, of course – usually the entire floor vote constituted about a third of the final vote, with the panel getting two-thirds. But a close round could certainly be tipped by the proportional vote of the floor, which itself could be tipped by a handful of thoughtful individuals. It gave everyone an investment in the round and, in turn, required Govs to try to do well to impress people.

Of course, not every final was a showcase. Periodically, the teams on both sides were exhausted and short of energy and caring about what the round looked like, since all participants in the round had just qualified for Nationals by winning semifinals (this used to be the APDA standard before our current system of points accumulation for qualling). So there were some rounds that today would be called “trolling,” where people didn’t much care about the outcome as the 1st and 2nd place trophies were considered almost equally good. People would run cases about Santa Claus or the Cat in the Hat or even hold rounds where more cases were introduced each speech and the goal was to be funnier than the floor speeches that offer a break between constructives and rebuttals in a final round on APDA. Here many floor voters would express their displeasure by refusing to vote for either side, a last way the audience could exert their wishes over the tenor and quality of a final round.

These days, people don’t stay that often for final rounds at regular season tournaments. A whole team will stay to pound for their side, and sometimes people who are geographically proximate to the tournament in question. There are a wide range of reasons for this. The floor vote was removed sometime in the late 2000’s from the last few tournaments still using it, deemed as unfair for contests between large and small teams. The expectation of more teams being in the break has increased, somewhat commensurate with the size of tournaments and the league, but not entirely. My freshman year (1998-99), only one tournament broke to octos (including the title tournaments) and that was Swarthmore, which ran the gimmick of having four rounds on Friday and then breaking to octos after four rounds instead of quarters after five. They also ran this tournament during March Madness, printed the bracket, and allowed people to bet on it. It was fun, if not entirely without corruption. Nowadays, partial octos or octos are expected of almost every tournament over 60 teams. This is probably better for competitive fairness overall, with most all 4-1’s able to break, but it also fuels delays and exhaustion, and ultimately empty houses for final rounds.

But not at Nationals. At Nationals, everyone stays. Everyone. The -OTY awards (annual season-long achievement for Colleges, Teams, Speakers, and Novices) are given after Finals, the National tournament awards are given, the Distinguished Service Awards (always a surprise to their recipients) are announced, and usually someone (lately, me, though not this year) gives a speech about our fallen heroes, Chris Porcaro and Jeff Williams, before which the awards given in their honor are distributed. And, before all that, the Final is held. The National Final Round, the crowning glory of our league, the culmination of all our effort to distill the best in speaking, debating, strategizing, and thinking.

In 2006, one of the great teams of all-time, Johns Hopkins’ Jon Bateman and Michael Mayernick, wanted to contrast themselves with the previous final round, showing “what APDA can be” as Mayernick noted in his opening remarks in PMC (the opening speech). The founders of the league were in attendance, having been given some of the first DSAs. I was on the final round panel. They asked whether a redemptive or condemnatory ending was better for the Faust myth. It reminded me instantly of my NorthAms Final, the question of forgiveness, the question of what it means to do wrong in this world and how that should be dealt with. It was a weighty question with a touch of artistry, it was a beautiful case. The round itself, however, was not that pretty, as Opp chose to complain about the case, critiquing it for not being sufficiently clear in practical, everyday impacts. To my utter disbelief, Opp was rewarded for their complaining by a 2-1 margin on the very large panel, with me vehemently squirreling (to vote in the minority of the panel).

2007 saw a Princeton team with no expectation of even breaking at Nationals Gov in the Final, and they stated that every college student should be a vegetarian. A weighty moral issue that applies to everyone. In 2008, Princeton repeated their appearance and asked a question about the limits of debate itself, inquiring whether a scientist should deign to debate an advocate of intelligent design theory. In 2009, Johns Hopkins asked whether a Sunni Iraqi should join the insurgency, bringing the ethics of the ongoing war in Iraq home to roost in a profound and personal way that questioned our assumptions of what “terrorism” really means. Then, in 2010, Harvard got to Gov in Nats Finals again.

The Harvard team that Goved that Nats Finals is categorically different than most other Harvard teams that achieve at that level. R. Kyle Bean and Cormac Early had significantly more quirk and personality than the reputation of the typical Harvard debaters of their era (or most any era), with Bean especially being known for all manner of antics and flair. While I wasn’t in their huddle (I was at the round), I don’t doubt that the specter of 2005 loomed large over their decisions about what case to confront Johns Hopkins with. They didn’t want to be the Harvard team running a case about Harvard. They didn’t want to run something tight. They did, perhaps, want to demonstrate their lively demeanor in contrast to the extremely staid (but effective) team on the other bench, Vivek Suri and Sean Withall. So they ran a case about whether a religious family, given the opportunity, should give their child 18 years of the silent treatment if they would receive “magic empathy” for all other people at the conclusion of their childhood.

In retrospect, the case choice and the round were a bit of a bust. Aside from an amusing remark during PoCs where Bean told Suri “Surely even you must have felt empathy at some point, Vivek,” the round was a muddled mess and Opp won more by default than by skill. It was clear to me and to many watching that Harvard was valiantly trying to make a showcase round about weighty questions that are accessible and matter to people, but that this particular manifestation had gotten a little too weird and narrow and obscure in the translation to the spoken round. Perhaps that experience would color Vivek’s future choices as a coach of the Harvard team in the years to come.

But the next year, Vivek was coaching the Boston University team of Alex Taubes and Greg Meyer that won TOTY and were expected to triumph at Nationals. Meyer had his best career tournament, winning second speaker over the more highly regarded Taubes, and the team rolled to Finals, where they ran the case that all drugs should be legalized against an unbelievably unexpected pair of Yale sophomores. They won handily while still offering a case about something that mattered to everyone in the room, relied on accessible arguments, was spoken in a clear and comprehensible tone.

Then came 2012. In that year, last year, Harvard ran a case to challenge the limits of 2005’s capacity for obscurity, boredom, and this time, introducing a bit of spreading for good measure. This team was already developing a bit of a reputation for using the tactics of boredom and fast-talking to their advantage and had begun attempting tab-scratches and receiving at least scratches (the way debaters can avoid being judged by certain people) on me for comments I’d made about the creeping infiltration of spreading into APDA. Seeing myself as a guardian of the style, I have advocated against spreading creeping into APDA after seeing how LD was gutted by it, how Public Forum had to be created for eloquence and slower speaking just as LD was made before it. I envision an era when high school debate carries 37 debate styles, 36 of which are spread debate in various formats and the 37th of which has recently been invented to combat spreading.

Every time I’ve critiqued spreading on APDA, most people have either chided me that debate on APDA isn’t nearly fast enough to be spreading (yet) or insisted that there is something innate to the APDA format that will prevent spreading from succeeding, because too many orators can just make fun of the tactic and talk about big picture issues. Most judges still don’t adjudicate entirely on dropped points, despite the efforts of spread debaters to get them to do so, but rather on a holistic impression of the round. But the last two Final Rounds, especially 2013, have challenged the veracity of this statement in my eyes. But first, some context. As though the 6,500 words currently in this post were not context enough!

In 2012, C. and (another) Alex ran that the exclusionary rule should be replaced by a tort system. Depending on the reports, it was either the second or third case about small aspects of the exclusionary rule they’d run that tournament. The case was presented in a way that most found to be confusing, and all found to be incredibly boring. And while theoretically any of us might at some point be facing a situation wherein we’re accused of a crime and the police cheat to get us put away, I don’t think most people on APDA imagine themselves there. Most people do not find procedural justice at this minute a detail to be that vital. And almost no one found the way Harvard argued it in this round to be worthy of the interest, spark, and inspiration that we expect from a Nationals Final Round.

The round was ugly and few were at their best. The crowd was dissatisfied in the extreme and expressed it. The case made no sense to me until Vivek’s now-becoming-annual coach floor speech in which he explained a key facet of the case that had eluded sufficient background until that moment – one could practically see the lightbulbs illuminating over the heads of each in the audience. The Opp floor speech roundly excoriated Harvard for their case choice. The decision, by the slimmest margin, went to the Government. My de facto Assistant Coach that year, Dave Reiss, and I discussed the round shortly before the decision was announced and agreed, through pained and gritted teeth, that Gov had probably done just enough to win despite the desire we both would have had as judges to penalize them for ruining Nats Finals.

So, now, finally, we get to 2013. Last weekend. The day that won’t leave me alone, albeit only 100 hours or so after it was over. Again, the context is critical.

Rutgers had brought a school-record five teams to Nationals and they slowly thinned out over the course of the longest day that exists on the APDA circuit, the second day of Nats, the day when rounds 3, 4, 5, and 6 drag on almost endlessly amidst the sturdiest competition and most stressful stakes of the year. To make the cut of the top 16, the octofinals, one needs a 4-2 record with very good speaker scores – it’s usually the top half of the 4-2 field, but speaks have escalated at Nationals lately (not like they have in policy, but a fair amount), to the point where the breaking 4-2’s must average scores that would make them top ten speakers at most tournaments during the regular year. Going into round six, we had three teams still in the hunt, one on 4-1 and two on 3-2. One of the 3-2 teams (correctly) assumed they were already out of the race on speaker points, however, while the other figured (again, correctly) that they were very much in the race. All three were Gov in round six and went in with high hopes of securing a winning record and giving themselves at least a slim hope of hearing their name announced at the Banquet that night.

After Senior Speeches, in which Syracuse senior David Kopel called on the entire league to be more entertaining, gutsy, and intriguing in rounds, especially final rounds, and two of our own seniors, Chris Bergman and Bhargavi Sriram, also bid farewell to the circuit, the break was announced. While two of our three teams had won, the high-speaking 3-2 had been tanked out of the break. But the 4-1 was the other winner and they had clinched a 5-1 record and what we would later find out was the 6th seed in the octofinal draw. Euphoric, we gathered for pictures, offered condolences to non-breaking teams, and prepared for the fastest, most exciting day of debate on APDA, the Nats out-rounds.

We drew Syracuse, who was assigned to Gov by virtue of having had fewer Govs throughout preliminary rounds. Bergman, Ashley Novak, and I huddled around discussing the myriad of fun, philosophical, religious, and open-ended cases that Syracuse (Kopel and Samm Costello) were known to employ. We were excited having drawn this team, knowing that Kopel would never run something dull in light of his moralizing speech the night before, knowing how he’d come to Rutgers just this semester and won top speaker by running fascinating philosophical explorations as cases. We knew that not only would this play to our strengths, but it would make for a great showcase round, a great way to go out if indeed we did.

But something happened on the way to that Gov for Syracuse. Initially, my suspicions were that it was a strategic move, that they knew Rutgers was strong on philosophy and fun and they thought they’d zag to boring. In retrospect, I believe they were instead concerned about the panel, chaired by one V. Suri, who’d opped magical empathy with derision, who’d helped write exclusionary torts and choose it for Nats Finals just the year before. Flanked by judges who were not known for their sense of fun, the panel probably intimidated ‘Cuse out of their normal file and led them to choose obscure aspects of medical malpractice insurance. We lost on a 2-1, with both judges voting against us saying it was a narrow decision that we were winning until late in PMR.

We were of course stunned and devastated, then immediately felt conflicted. In many ways, we would normally root for Syracuse, an underdog school who runs fun cases, to at least go on and carry our banner if we could not do so ourselves. At the same time, what Syracuse team was this that had just given us something about medical malpractice when we were expecting ancient kingdoms or a clash of big ideas? Confused and bewildered, the team scattered to various quarterfinals, most choosing a Yale civil war between four highly touted seniors in what would be half of their last rounds. I was lucky enough to be judging that round, a true showcase about how individuals should donate their money.

In semifinals, I was judging the Syracuse team, who’d employed a fun philosophical opp-choice case to handily carry their quarterfinal against Brown. They were Opp against this year’s TOTY, Yale’s Robert Colonel and Ben Kornfeld, known for their penchant for cases about economics as future hedge fund employees. In a move that surprised no one, Colonel opened his speech with a discussion of economics, leading to the case that there should be a consumption tax instead of an income tax.

The round was not great. The case, despite the trappings of somewhat obscure econ, was actually slowly delivered and quite clear, relying less on jargon than on the common sense logic that is supposed to be the mainstay of argumentation in our format of debate. However, Kopel had no interest in the case, delivering an LOC that went less than seven minutes of an allotted eight-and-a-half, something unheard of for good novices, let alone varsity seniors in the National Semifinal. He looked bored, defeated, and frustrated, making relatively weak arguments against something that seemed not to interest him. Left little to fight against, Kornfeld then retorted with a highly repetitive MG, making the same somewhat jargony claims again and again to fill time and reaffirm Colonel’s statements.

Then Costello got up to deliver the MOC. And things changed in a hurry.

She made it personal, nearly yelling at the panel and the assembled audience of over a hundred. She screamed “This is my coming-out party, APDA, because I am [bleeping] poor.” She excoriated the Gov for making assumptions about the rationality of economic incentives when her family didn’t know how to spend money and just did whatever they could to try to get by. It was a moving speech and it took people out of the round and made them think about larger questions than what was being discussed right there. While I was very certain by the end of the round, after LOR was again underwhelming and PMR was rather persuasive, that Gov had won, I briefly considered casting a protest-vote for the Opp on the grounds of their bravery and the importance of calling the attention of an all too ivory-towered academic league to the issues that truly affect real people. While I’d found Gov persuasive, they had also seemed incredibly out of touch with the plight of the people they were allegedly trying to help in their case and this seemed worthy of observing. When I cast my ballot ultimately for Gov, I had no doubt that all six other panelists would do the same.

I was wrong. The decision was a 4-3 for Syracuse.

Vivek was one of the other two in our camp of three squirrels. He intoned in his trademark withering Snape voice that “I found the MO’s personal appeals uncompelling,” as the judges began their return to General Assembly to deliver the verdict. The other judges assured him they had voted less on personal appeals than the argument that Opp had most compellingly made, that rich Americans would escape a consumption tax by spending money earned in the States overseas, thus depleting already washed out American tax rolls further. I had found that to be the one argument on the flow Opp had won, but that it was ultimately marginal and insufficient to override Gov’s other benefits.

Vivek then went to huddle with his Harvard team, junior Josh and sophomore Ben, who were soon announced to have won their semifinal on a 5-2 split. I was excited to learn that the Brandeis team who’d Goved that round, Keith Barry and Russell Leibowitz, had run a case I’d originally written, a case I wanted to desperately run in a final round and eventually got to in my last final round of my regular career, at Rutgers Pro-Ams (the first RUDU APDA tournament) in 2002. The case asks how a devout religious believer ought live if their soul were reversed such that good acts would send them to hell and bad acts would send them to heaven. I’d given the case to a Brandeisian many years after my graduation, who then tweaked it and passed it on to Keith and Russell, who tweaked it further still. The case remains one of my absolute favorites for cleaving the question of motivation and reward from doing good for good’s sake. It made me proud of my Brandeis roots all over again to know that this was how one of their best teams in recent memory chose to go out.

And thus the stage was set for Nats Finals. The teams could not be much more different in background and shape. Despite their decision in octofinals against Rutgers, Syracuse carried a reputation of debating for the right reasons, of showcase cases, of bending minds and perceptions both of topics discussed and what it meant to be a small, under-funded and relatively new school on APDA. Meanwhile, Harvard represented a tradition of great success, though also of dry subjects and the fastest speaking on the circuit. Syracuse was represented by two seniors who would be in their last rounds. Harvard was represented by a junior who’d put up one of the best individual seasons on APDA ever and a totally unsung sophomore in just his sixth career APDA tournament, a fast-talking high school hero who most people still had never seen. There was no question what side people wanted the teams to have. Everyone wanted Syracuse to be Gov.

Everyone. Except perhaps Harvard.

Indeed, other than some mop-up discussions from semifinals and earlier rounds, all anyone could seem to talk about while we stood waiting around Hoff Theater for the auditorium to be prepared for Nats Finals, was who was Goving and how the round was about to be either wonderful or terrible. People whispered about Syracuse cases they’d seen, only boggling at how Platonic the case they might run in such a venue as Nats Finals would be. Meanwhile, they feared what Harvard would do with the forum, having been rewarded for boring the crowd in the previous year, having debaters with less career accomplishment in the round, which might only lead them to make a cautious move of running something extremely imbalanced to their side.

When we entered the gigantic theater, majestically laid out with glittering trophies, two tables, and a podium, people were impressed by the classiness of a Nationals that had not exactly spared every expense to impress us. But then it became clear which table each team was going to. And the lamentations began.

Harvard was Gov. The collective held their breath and wondered if the case would be a repeat of 2005 and 2012, something inaccessible, quickly delivered, unfair to the Opp, roundly unfair to the crowd.

On face, when Ben opened his remarks, after a dry thank-you to the rogue taxi driver who’d scuttled them out of Boston when it was ostensibly on lock-down, the case he offered was probably better than those in both 2005 and 2012. It was about a question that mattered more, certainly. But he also, out of nerves or that just being his style (I’ve never seen him debate before), shotgunned out details of the case in a rapid-fire way that made the case feel inaccessible to most of the audience. And certainly to Syracuse, who a bit impatiently asked him to repeat all of his remarks.

His advocacy was that the US should break up the twelve largest banks in the country, those that have been deemed “too big to fail.” In PoCs, he offered clarifications of asset quantities that were hilariously played out as hard for Syracuse to understand and contextualize. It is likely that both Harvard debaters are en route to careers in hedge funds or other similar economic pursuits, while the Syracuse pair are interested in Russian translation and medicine, respectively. The Harvard debaters look like a prep school catalog, while the Syracuse debaters often show up to tournaments in ratty T-shirts and speak their minds loudly. I won’t speculate on the total asset holdings of each of the four, but I want to contrast myself with those who have said this final round was not about class or earnings. Everything in America at this point in history is about class and earnings. The wealth disparity is beyond the limits of anything ever deemed acceptable by a free society and it is directly jeopardizing our ability to call it a free society. And if you’re not paying attention to that, or how it plays out to almost every interaction you have, I’m sorry, but you’re not paying attention.

Then Kopel asked what would happen to banks that didn’t comply. And Ben assured him this was not an option, that they would. The case had fiat power and there was no way around compliance if they wanted to do business in the United States.

Clearly uncomfortable, Costello eventually said, “Okay, I think we’re ready” and Ben proceeded to rattle off a metric ton of arguments about breaking up the banks. The delivery was so uninteresting and uncompelling that it sounded like a parody of policy debate. I whispered to my team that was in earshot “Do you want to ask Siri a question?” and many cracked up. Nationals Finals was opening with a speech that could only even begin to be interesting to the judging panel and those accustomed to the faster ranges of debate, one that could only leave the vast majority of the audience as cold as the delivery itself.

Several things occurred to me while listening to this speech. The first was what a brilliant ploy it was, in light of the semifinal round between Yale and Syracuse, to force ‘Cuse to defend the big bad banks while Harvard had reasons to break them up. It was a total reversal of perspective for this David (literally) and Goliath match-up, to foist defense of the hedge funds and those who play with other people’s money onto the small guys who were less well off and didn’t run in that crowd. I have no idea how many teams they would have run that case against from the octofinal draw, but whether deliberate or accidental, this was a clever strategic play.

The main thing I was thinking, of course, was whether this was even an event I recognized anymore. In light of the prior year’s Final, Harvard had jumped headlong into doubling down on their strategy of boring everyone out of the round, of making obscure, quick, esoteric arguments that challenged the Opp not to engage or counter but to merely understand. And after Kopel had shut down against a far slower, more accessible series of arguments for the semifinal case, I wondered what he would possibly do against this one.

I tried to place myself in his shaky shaky shoes at that moment, to try to imagine how I would try to take back this round for those who sought the entertainment he’d discussed in his own Senior Speech. To try to turn the tables so that Harvard felt as uncomfortable as he now did, trying to defend big banking’s ability to destroy lives with impunity and rule society without fear of check or repercussion. At some point, I whispered to someone that he had to counter-case, that he had to maximize clash by refusing to defend the banks and run a sweeping counter-case that bordered on socialism, a counter-proposal along the lines of nationalizing all banks or criminalizing Wall Street. I don’t doubt that the whole crowd was with me in the breathless anticipation of how Kopel, spokesperson for intellectual rigor on APDA this year, would respond.

He said this:

“I want to begin, surprisingly, with a little bit of meta-analysis. So, I think that you’re decision in this round functionally ought to be based on the fact that Nats Finals is a different kind of round from the average sort of APDA round. So we would ultimately argue that if you are lulled to sleep by Harvard, then you ought not vote for them, because we all spend a great deal of time coming out to these debate tournaments and giving up our weekends, giving up our time. And if we’re not actually really learning anything new and we’re just talking about banks the entire time, I actually think we should hold this league to a higher standard.”

He then discussed how this would affect future decisions by future debaters and how that mattered to people. And how the case was an embarrassment, something he has since retracted in all the fallout from the discussion of this round. And then he called the case tight, something never done in 32 prior APDA National Championships.

All of this was done amidst raucous cheering and “hear-hear”s, not just from fans and friends of Syracuse, but from an audience angered by a PMC with no vocal intonation or attempt at rhetorical persuasion whatsoever, tired of a reign of expectation that people put up with and laud that sort of debate, and excited to see someone risk everything they had worked for four years to earn on the bet that this was APDA’s “mad-as-hell-and-not-going-to-take-it-anymore” moment.

The round got ugly. Really ugly. Harvard called Syracuse and their decisions “anti-intellectual” and “a disgrace” and defended their decision to run the case on the basis of pointing out that this was an important topic with impacts on the world. People cheered for their side and heckled against the other. People felt uncomfortable and were drained. The round developed into the metaphorical train-wreck from which no head could turn. Harvard’s arguments defending the tight-call were poor and the responses were poor. Both sides simultaneously escalated and tried to slip out of the meta-call about the quality of the case as it became clear that the quality of the round overall was disastrous.

Mercifully, the round ended, but the arguments had only just begin. People across the crowd were listless and failed to move. They looked like they’d just watched a documentary on Somalia rather than a Nats Final. I told people I felt this was a turning point for the league and how it felt about certain cases and an approach to debate. Most replied they just felt this was a stain on the league that would hopefully be forgotten. I held some hope that people would vote Opp, but most everyone expected a 7-0 for Gov.

It was not a 7-0 for Gov. It was a 5-2 for Gov. The two dissenters were Robert Glunt of Cornell and Kate Falkenstien of Yale. These were the LOs, respectively, in the 2005 and 2012 Nats Finals against Harvard.

Among the five were Omar Qureshi and Reid Bagwell, people who relied on eloquence against careers that spanned many high speaker awards, as well as Jon Bateman, the MG in the Hopkins case in 2006 Nats Finals when he ran the case about Faust. Omar told me after the round that most of the panel was open to the case entirely being a meta-call about the nature of final rounds and Nats Finals especially, but that calling the case tight alienated much of the panel, which also included Adam Goldstein and Mike Childers, and isolated their decision to the tight call only. All seven said they adjudicated solely on the tight-call.

In retrospect, I don’t think the decision matters all that much. I could spend the rest of my space here (though you’ve noticed it’s unlimited, I’m sure) arguing why I think the seven judges all should have considered the meta-call about the nature of the case, that such is the only check the league or its members have against pressing the advantage of getting to Gov. But the problem is also that whether they considered it or not, Syracuse didn’t do it perfectly. They fell into several traps about the case, criticizing the case topic itself more than how the case was constructed and delivered. This enabled Harvard to argue, quite correctly, that the financial crisis and bank regulation actually are important topics of the day. And when this discussion exploded out into the wider forum, involving many APDA alums who were not at the Nats Finals, they overwhelmingly echoed that the case was interesting and accessible without having seen the PMC, PoCs, or the nature of the way Harvard has debated much of the last two years.

We ought give both teams some slack. Obviously, some of the harshest mudslinging on both sides has been retracted and can be chalked up to the heat of the moment. The crowd is being criticized for heckling, though I noticed very little of this so much as some of the most ardent and active clapping and cheering I’ve ever seen in a Nats Final. I maintain what I said early on, that Kopel’s LOC was the bravest speech I’ve ever seen on APDA, that crossing the threshold to a meta-call on the nature of Nationals Finals and tight-calling a case he believed was tight in that venue were incontrovertibly brave and difficult things to do for which he should be forever proud. And I can’t help but think, while I respect them both as imminently fair judges, that the memory of their own LOCs helped prompt Glunt and Kate to decide as they did.

But the larger question has been called and a team has sacrificed most everything, including, if the forum is to be believed (it shouldn’t – internet forums and APDA’s especially are notorious for unwarranted vitriol of which I myself have sometimes partaken) their reputations as people on the circuit, to call it. What sort of debate league is APDA? What do we want to see here? How do we want to discuss issues and what sort of issues, in what way, are appropriate for Nationals Finals, or any final, or even any round?

I think it is absolutely vital, as a simple conclusion to over 10,000 words of rambling historical recounting and diatribe, that we expect more of teams. Harvard doesn’t want this video to go up because they don’t want prospective debaters thinking that round is representative of APDA. But it is representative of APDA, both in their case choice and approach and in the backlash it received. This is a conflict that is breaking out all over the league. And it doesn’t have to be fought as harshly or inartfully as it was in Hoff Theater, but it does have to be discussed. Is it reasonable to escalate the speed and unpersuasiveness of argumentation to get more arguments in that one hopes to pull through in PMR for a narrow victory? Is that APDA? Is that what we want it to be?

People have always assured me that APDA rounds are judged holistically and that no one could simply spread and spec their way to a win in this league. I think that reassurance has been called into serious doubt by this final. And while I don’t think Syracuse losing is the deathknell of my perspective about this circuit, I have no doubt that Harvard and other teams who favor spreading and obscurity will proceed undeterred with this strategy as they have been rewarded. I fervently hope that I’m wrong, that enough backlash was built from the groundswell of vocal support for Syracuse, that they do draw back from the ledge and challenge themselves to be more interesting, to care about the audience, and to slow down.

I have the deepest respect for Josh and Ben. How could you not respect someone winning Nats in his sixth APDA tournament? Many people said his quarterfinal MO against top-seed Princeton deserved a 27.5, the highest score our league now offers. And Josh has impressed me with his true dedication to the league and interest in issues of equity, despite his lofty background. (I’m sorry, but where people come from does color their perspective and this is part of any cogent discussion on these issues.) I am duly impressed by Vivek Suri’s ability to be a part of four consecutive National Championship squads. I only wish he and his cohorts had challenged themselves in the last two years to not use every advantage available to them in this relentless pursuit.

Eventually, people are either going to have to voluntarily step back from the brink of escalation on spreading and speccing, or they are going to have to be dropped for failure to do so. There have been instances of such dropping. Perhaps the most famous speech of the year was Kornfeld’s 30-second LOC tight-call against Josh and C., critiquing not only the case itself but the very way that Harvard was choosing to debate at the time, and exposing its flaws. This Nats Finals felt like a moment like that, but had a different outcome. The jury, I daresay, is still out.

But I would posit that it is reasonable to consider such drops. It is reasonable for judges to consider fairness in all its aspects, and indeed the spirit of debate, when making a call about who won and who lost. I think it’s appropriate for Opp teams to raise these issues, and increasingly may be very important that they do so. This does not mean making assumptions or dropping people on face. It’s quite possible that Josh and Ben will return to the circuit next year with open, fun, rhetorically elocuted opp-choice cases and they should be rewarded and lauded if they do. Don’t assume that the school or the people will do what they have done before.

But if there’s a time when you’re gritting your teeth about a decision, when every part of you wants to drop a team for being unfair to the other, for squeezing every last second of advantage out of situation, maybe you should just drop that team. Or at least consider it. And maybe it’s up to Opp to raise that question first so you’re not intervening too much in the round, but maybe it isn’t.

Just as companies ruthlessly pursuing profit will only respond to financial penalties, my deep concern is that teams who only care about winning will not start caring about anything else until they stop winning. It is perhaps even less surprising from people who see themselves at the helm of those companies in future. But winning is a reward and it should be doled out for greatness, not merely finding some way, any way, to best the other team. Debaters of the future, let greatness be your standard, not doing just enough to win when anything goes.


Ed. note: A few of the debaters mentioned in this post asked for their last names to be removed so they could not be Googled in association with this post. While I personally prefer this to be a documentation of important events, I understand their concerns and have agreed to their request. If you are mentioned in this post and would also like your last name removed, I will do so. Just send me an e-mail at storey@bluepyramid.org. Given that the results of the tournament are publicly available, it probably doesn’t actually detract from the information of the post’s content.

Additionally, it seems like many of the other National Final Round videos were removed by request of the participants, so 2013 is not as much of an outlier as originally discussed.

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Alma Mater

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: , ,

Andy Tirrell and I at what I thought would be my last tournament ever, UMBC Nationals 2002.

Andy Tirrell and I at what I thought would be my last tournament ever, UMBC Nationals 2002.

It’s hard to believe that I’m about to wrap up my fourth year of coaching debate, matching the length and breadth of my APDA career when I actually debated the rounds myself. I have spent as many years teaching, supporting, cajoling, and cheering on Rutgers as I did speaking for Brandeis. It’s hard to put in perspective.

Of course, because of the ever-present reality of the sensation that time is speeding up, a universal for temporal beings that I once explained in depth on this blog, it’s felt like less time. And that first year was shorter, as was my first year of debating for Brandeis, the product of the rule that novices could only go to certain tournaments due to limited funding at the latter at the time. But the first year at Brandeis may have been the longest as I was establishing myself in a new field, a new arena despite my debate experience from earlier schooling, while the last four years have been ensconced in a community with which I could not be much more familiar.

I went to 73 tournaments as a debater. Plus two trips to Worlds to make 75. Plus, if you want to get technical, four Brandeis-hosted tourneys at which I judged, making 79 total. And I guess the one comeback tournament at BU makes a nice round 80. This weekend, I will return to Brandeis for the third time in my coaching career, to attend my 87th tournament as a coach. Plus four Rutgers-hosted tournaments, to make 91 in total. While I competed in 444 rounds as a debater, I have probably judged somewhere in the neighborhood of 550 rounds as a coach. And I’m not done yet. While you only get four years on APDA to make your mark in competition, there’s no upper limit on how much you can coach or judge.

Of course, the season is longer than it used to be. I had a 50-tournament streak that took me from late sophomore year through graduation; now the schedule routinely schedules 28 weekends a year of competition, or 54% of the available weekends in an annual calendar. The league is larger, there are more tournaments on average in a weekend, and the overall weight of APDA is heavier. The competition has probably never been deeper and the breadth of impact of the league overall is at or near its peak, despite whatever other experienced debaters would tell you about how the quality of competition has always been declining since they personally got good at the activity.

But as I’m about to head up to what I used to affectionately call The Beans and its “mining town” suburb to again traverse the hills and brick halls of alma mater, it’s impossible not to get philosophical about an event that has brought me one-thousand rounds of competitive two-on-two debate, and probably close to half that many practice rounds. It may not strictly meet the ten-thousand hour rule of mastery in terms of actual time in an official match, but with weekends being 36-hour minimum commitments counting travel time, we’re in the neighborhood of 6,000 hours of tournaments and another 2,000 of practice.

One of my debaters asked me yesterday if I could do this job for twenty years. I told him it was hard for me to picture doing anything for twenty years without getting bored, without feeling like life was somehow falling away into repetition and drudgery when other opportunities were waiting to be explored and teach me things. In contemplation of what eight years of college debate on one end or the other of the round has looked like, twenty years seems even less possible to fathom. How anyone can return to a job for decades on end totally defies my sense of imagination. I can picture people crossing the Sahara with no water and only the will to live, but a fifth of a century at the same workplace utterly boggles me.

But preparing to drive up the well-worn path from central Jersey to eastern Massachusetts, I still feel inspired, excited, alive with the possibility of a new day of debate. 171 APDA tournaments in, I’m not done yet.

The first time I prepped a Rutgers team for out-rounds, with Dave Reiss and Chris Bergman at American University's Pro-Am tournament in November 2009.

The first time I prepped a Rutgers team for out-rounds, with Dave Reiss and Chris Bergman at American University's Pro-Am tournament in November 2009.

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Requiem for an Apartment

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: , , ,

I lived there for 30 months. It was my 17th residence, if you don’t count hotels. It saw me turn my debate gig into a full-time job, the shavings of the worst year of my life into something livable, the wreckage of a marriage into another relationship with promise. That relationship started in that apartment, and always will have.

At least eight boxes entered and exited the building sealed, remaining so for the duration of the two and a half years spent there. I signed my divorce papers there, ended my last conversation with my wife there, eventually stopped hiding the knives there. It played host to a meaningful start to at least one other relationship between people not me, one whose ebbs and flows were tumultuously linked to my own perceptions on the league in which I coach. A few friends visited, some overnight, but not many and not often, usually opening the windows when they did. It was where I learned that Pandora had died, but my cat never set paw therein, despite all her stuff being there when she was put to sleep.

It was where I almost got a rabbit, thrice. As it was, I never actually had an animal in the place once, unless you count the couple of mice that were there the first few weeks I was.

The cold water faucet in the sink worked for less than 10% of my residence time. The heat was roasting in the early morning hours, but nearly off in mid to late evening. October and April tended to be freezing. The first day in fall that the heat would finally come on would be cause for dancing. The kitchen was the size of a small coffin, footprint wise. It felt like same to inhabit.

Things discarded upon departure: A bookcase with separated shelves, the plywood board for keeping art straight across the country in summer 2011, the toaster oven I’d had since 2002, Fish’s old blender whose top never worked, several coat hangers, the sparkling grape juice, Trader Joe’s cornbread mix, and microwave meals which had all been purchased at prior residences.

It had a mantle with no fireplace and I actually rotated seasonal cards there atop my turtle collection and a handful of candles. I burned cases of candles in the place, many in the bathroom in place of the appalling overhead light. There were Christmas lights of one kind or another in every room save that one, most of them with fun light covers, some of which date from 1987.

I filmed most of the abortive attempts at the Blue Pyramid Stories video series there, shortly before the giant laminated world map started falling off the wall and depriving me of my backdrop. I never was able to make the thing stick properly again and I’ve had trouble not reading that, like so much else, as a metaphor.

I rode out two hurricanes there. I watched a great deal of snowfall, departed for my first trip to the Jersey shore therefrom, and bought and installed my first air-conditioner there, which is still in my possession.

I came home late a lot. After infinitely late late-rounds of debate at practice, after all-night sessions of poker at Parx and elsewhere, after late late movies with a couple different people or just by myself. After diners and debates and bowling.

Some things will not be changing.

A lot of things will, though. There will be TV again, and better Internet hopefully, and nothing stolen from the front porch. There will be more cooking, more space, a yard in back for the nice days and the snow days. There will be laundry that doesn’t require a trip outside and wrestling with the rusty heavy storm doors and their concussive clearance. There will be less parking, admittedly. There will be less walking, though there’d been basically no walking for all of the past year, after that torrid crazy year of walking everywhere at 3 AM in drenching storms because of how little I cared.

There will be caring, hopefully.

Farewell, 119 South 1st Avenue, Apartment B. May your endlessly amended address serve someone else just as well.

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One Year Later

Categories: A Day in the Life, Keepin' it Cryptic, Metablogging, Read it and Weep, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , , ,

This blog still exists, by the way. This isn’t a conscious decision to never blog again, but the combined product of possibly the busiest year of my life and some factors therein that haven’t seemed to lend themselves to public scrutiny. It’s a weird feeling, not wanting absolutely everything out in public, and one unfamiliar to me, but nonetheless there. It’s a bit of a crossroads, but there is no doubt that May and the ensuing summer will bring more use of this venue to communicate and more interest in projects on this site, or at the very least more time. I love the team I coach, but they are draining in all the ways a group of people can be draining.

Anyway, it seemed fitting to mark a year. No, not since I last posted in my blog. Something a bit more personal and more difficult. It’s been a year since I’ve spoken to Emily, a year since Chris and Ashley pulled me away from despondency in a debate meeting and convinced me what so many others had tried to before, that a person who callously hurts you without regard or self-awareness is not a friend no matter what kind of premium you or that person puts on that word. It was an important lesson, and one I needed to learn from people younger than I am who knew me better at the time.

What a difference a year makes. But does a year make any difference? She’s allegedly coming back to Jersey, so I hear through the backchannels. Coming to finish a small part of what was started that fateful year when she moved us out to this state I can’t seem to extricate myself from. I have a variety of choices, as everyone does, always, in life. I could reopen the channel, stem the flow of absence after a year, try to rehumanize and poke around for any signs of life or remorse. Or I could continue to persist in a cocoon of relative comfort, the illusion of her death replacing the reality of her betrayal, the lines blurred. There’s the old metaphor I used to use in the rehab case, of course, about not being fully well until you can walk past your drug dealer and say “no thanks” – bubbles don’t really count. But if you need to be in a bubble in order to survive, surely it’s preferable to expiring in the open air?

May Day is a pregnant spot on the 366-slot pantheon of the year, loaded with associations and allusions and metaphors galore. It’s a distress signal and a call to action. Occupy is apparently calling for a general strike of the 99%, something I’d consider honoring had today not already been designated for RUDU’s Senior Banquet, a four-hour festival consisting of the conclusion of our annual Ironman tournament, senior speeches, a team picture, and dinner. To see RUDU’s next step in its blossoming as an institution is something I couldn’t dream of missing, no matter how much the calls of labor leaders and communist organizers hearken to the importance of May 1st. It was also May 1st, of course, when I went in for my Glide interview in 2006, with an HR Director wearing a T-shirt in solidarity with the marchers outside but deciding that Glide was worth working for all the same. Labor leaders. The longer one lives, the more patterns and associations become fraught. No wonder my mother can’t listen to music from the sixties.

And what else of getting older? Certainly one is more surprised by life with each passing day, or at least I am. The feeling that this is now twice over borrowed time, both liberating and demanding as the time is both precious yet unexpected. The question of whether those patterns make life more navigable, or less dramatic, or merely serve as distractions while the universe carries out its destiny on your behalf. And while forgiveness continues to elude me conceptually, the idea of letting someone’s transgressions stand as warranted and valid, the process of turning cheeks and baring souls never seems very far. I seem to always find a way to reopen the path, even if that path is marked with wounded, strewn with dead, mined and booby-trapped all the way up to its foggy conclusion, itself inevitably another murky fork.

If there is a lesson to be found in all of this, I don’t think I’ve learned it yet. Which probably means more pain to come, the best professor in the business. Trying to be mindful of one’s own actions sufficiently to make them valid, to make interactions meaningful, to demonstrate the kind of compassion one hasn’t been afforded. Inevitably, though, the bubbles we live in puncture those of others, the defense mechanisms we construct deal damage as an exchange for not taking it, and the alternative seems to be being so vulnerable that the mere air pressure of a May day is enough to crush one’s skeletal structure into white powder. Where is this balance to be struck? Every day, you can walk outside and see people doing it wrong. Passive-aggression, aggressive aggression, timidity, fear, paranoia, meanness. No one intends any of this. They’re merely trying to protect themselves from the dangers they’ve felt, or worse, the dangers they’ve only imagined and seen reflected in others’ pain.

The Hunger Games series seems a fitting backdrop for all this contemplation of mine of late. There is probably no more important reading for a member of the first world in this age on this planet. The mere reading of an allegedly young adult series has pitched me back into an uproar of whether living in America at all is too great a burden and harm on the planet itself, whether the exploitation of others innate to our local quality of life makes us all complicit if we don’t tear down the structure or flee. We are in Omelas, but the dungeons are lined up a hundredfold, the screams reverberating off each other in harmonious cacophony. To say nothing of what we do to each other, ourselves.

The only prescription I can give myself is thought. More time to think. About contact, about withdrawal, about the nature of a society so determined to use others that we all end up using ourselves. I am keyed up with the lightning reflexes of the debate world, argument turns and split-second timing and case choices on the run. Life doesn’t have to be like that. Not in May, with a view of summer, reminding us that no matter how abysmal April manages to be each year, it will eventually be replaced by something warmer, more relaxed, less stringent.

In the meantime, someone stole my laundry detergent from the basement and even such mundanities of life cannot be overlooked on May Day. It’s a neighborhood where I’ve accidentally left my car unlocked and GPS in view for days at a time, but one’s own neighbors will take detergent. And, as always, there could be confusion, miscommunication, an explanation that makes it a mere trifling misunderstanding. The question becomes one not of intent, for everyone intends always to be a good person and believes they are. I know you think you are. The question, rather, becomes one of how much thought and care goes into any given action. How much do you think about the implications of what you do?

In today’s world, we are all merely fragile butterflies, but our wings are bringing up tidal waves everywhere. Mayday.

by

Feasting and Dancing in Jerusalem Next Year

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

One of the few things I forgot to post about the Weakerthans concert set in New York last month was how good the warmup music was. I don’t mean the opening bands, which were hit-and-miss, though Said the Whale the first night was pretty darn awesome. I mean the music they play over the tinny loudspeaker between said act and the main event. Not only did it occasionally include personal smashes like Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”, but all four nights included the Mountain Goats’ personal anthem to, depending on how you look at it, mid-2010 to mid-2011, or probably more pertinently, just 2011 by itself, “This Year”.

Here, have a look and listen:

I know they didn’t write the song for me, really, any more than they wrote “No Children” for me. But the best music is about you, with all its rolling details and turns of phrase, and these are no exception. Although there is the ubiquitous soaking of alcohol in the Goats’ lyrics that doesn’t quite apply to me, no matter how close I came in New York that afternoon I landed from Liberia. The point, largely, is that this song seems a little more past tense than present, which is something. It’s not to say that I’ve made it, particularly, through anything other than a year. But reviewing 2011 seems a pointless exercise, while bidding 2011 farewell seems a bit more productive. The only thing that makes 2011 look like a tolerable year is that it wasn’t 2010.

What a great decade we’re off to.

I know last year at this time, when I sat down in this same room (my Mom’s lodge office) on this same computer (my then new laptop), I was emphasizing both looking forward to the West in the near future and not heaping pressure on myself to do much. Here, you can read along at home. Resolutions 2, 3, and 4 were basically entirely punted, a little bit because of 5, but almost entirely because 6 got altered in February when Farhan’s letter-writing campaign to the Rutgers administration turned into a full-time job and an indefinite lease on New Jersey for the foreseeable. How did I put those a year ago? “Significant reasons to stay.” The opportunity to actually make a living as a debate coach qualified, though I’m not sure I could have imagined it just a short 365 days ago.

What I think is most impressive about reading that last set of looking forward to this year is how much I overestimated the energy I’d have. Somehow writing a novel, trying to publish two prior ones, sinking myself into debate, and looking into Western cities seemed like a really minimal path. Maybe that says something about me, and I’ll grant that I went from spending 40-50 hours a week on debate to 70+ when the job came along, but I feel really overly ambitious in looking at that list. And I distinctly remember how constructing that list felt like cutting a lot of things and being really minimalist. The best conclusion I can draw is that you simply can’t understand how debilitating it is to go through a year and a half like the last one I’ve completed unless you’ve had a similar experience. Getting out of bed most mornings felt like a medal-worthy achievement. I’ve had several conversations with family and friends in the last month where I review a point in 2010 or 2011 and truly don’t understand how I lived through it. It’s like some deus ex machina that I don’t believe in some poorly written novel. There’s a gap in the action where the character randomly decides to ditch all his prior motivations and obvious conclusions and just keeps plugging along as though there’s some reason to. I don’t relate directly to the amount of despair I felt in most of the past year, but I also don’t quite fathom how I survived it.

Which makes looking ahead to next year a bit of a fool’s errand, except that there’s reason to believe maybe this year will be better than the last, to coin a phrase. I did once describe the entire project of blogging as giving myself the opportunity to look back a year later and see how stupid I was just a short year before. I wish I could find the exact reference or quote from sometime in the Introspection era, but I can’t. I may actually go to Jerusalem next year at some point, and/or Egypt, and/or India, and/or other possible places. Maybe I’ll hunker down and write a 4th book. Maybe I’ll never write again. The only constant of certainty is a certain amount of debate, and for that I am grateful. All of the highlights of 2011 revolve around a team that was not only the source of my strength in terms of self-confidence and enjoyment, but also friendship, camaraderie, and focus. RUDU spent the entire year in the top ten in the country, be it the top five of the last semester of 2010-2011 or the slightly lower rebuilding efforts of the past few months. We’re poised to not drop out of that perch for any of the foreseeable and some recent adjustments make me believe that we can have maybe our best semester yet open 2012.

What I don’t feel like doing for 2012 just yet is getting into specifics. Compared to 2011, there’s a lot that’s nailed down. I will be in Jersey the whole time. I’m not moving. I’m not changing jobs. I’m not doing much else besides maintaining the debate life I’ve built for myself. And I’m not complaining. I’ve been very fortunate that debate has gone as well as the rest of my life has gone poorly in the last 18 months. Every time the chips have been low in my life since 1990, I’ve doubled down on debate and gotten paid off. I don’t see an exception coming up. There may be only one thing in my life that I’m good at, but when you have the opportunity to focus on that and you really love it, that’s maybe all that you can ask for and expect out of life. Especially this year, in a global context, having confidence in a job and a community may put me ahead of most anyone. Perhaps most fully the person who I decided to excise from my life for a while in May. I have less curiosity about her life and her existence than I ever have since we met. It’s actually occurred to me for the first time in the last few weeks that I may live a long time and never want to reopen that line of communication. I don’t like giving up on people, but there are just some things in life that may be too awful to recover from. I’m not trying to turn this into a diatribe or an excoriation – it’s not becoming of a year-end wrap-up or a hopeful preview of the annum to come – but 2011 has helped me realize that maybe being the perpetual victim is not something I have to exacerbate. Emily may be right that “there’s just something about people that makes people betray [me]”, but that doesn’t mean I have to aid and abet the cause.

Maybe the better part of my personality is that which frenetically likes to dance, to throw myself into the cauldron and just doesn’t care what other people think. Emily said she spent a lot of time feeling very embarrassed by my behavior and attitudes in public. Maybe I should just live each day as though I were trying to embarrass Emily. She said I had a lot of growing up to do. If anything, I think I had to get even younger. Maybe the lesson of having someone excoriate and attempt to ruin your life is that embracing that very same life is the only ticket to hope. My reaction to Gwen’s constant lying was to start this entire effort to tell the truth, in painful detail, about everything. Maybe my reaction to Emily’s stressed-out concern for the opinions of others should be to ritually burn public opinion on a joyous pyre of the pursuit of life.

What better way to ring in the new year? What better way to embrace the fact of still traversing this crazy unpredictable forlorn but ever-hopeful planet?

This year didn’t kill me. People celebrate birthdays, holidays, and all other annual events most traditionally as a rallying cry for the fact that they remained alive, often against the odds. That plagues and storms, famines and droughts, wars and failures failed to dampen their spirits or take their last breath. So on the first day of 2012, I give you the full-throttled embracing of existence, maybe just for its own sake. It’s not what’s most important in life, but it does seem to be some sort of pre-requisite. As long as you keep walking the path, you might find your way. And you’re probably more likely to find your way if you’re dancing while you wait.

by

Indeterminate

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, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , ,

It’s been a week. I realize, increasingly, that this space is a good inverse litmus test of some combination of how overtly busy I am combined with how ruminative I’m feeling about my life in general. While ideas and thoughts of what things mean or feel like are percolating, I tend not to write much here. When things are feeling calmer and more distilled, the outpourings tend to inundate this page. And the past week has brought much reflection.

I wanted to hold back on writing this post, or something like it, until I’d ruminated sufficiently to draw some conclusions. But as is often the result of meaningful mental inquiry, the questions have only yielded a fractal chain of infinitely more questions, with very little hope of satisfying answers on the horizon. And so I’m inclined to reflect on bathing in the questions rather than hoping to sew things up in a neat little bow. Fair warning, though, by the end of this (whose final sentences I can’t begin to envision yet), I may find some trite little cap to put on it, but I doubt it will be as holistic or satiating as normal.

A lot went wrong last week. My car, Emily’s car, the gift car, the daily needly little reminder of my past life (just in case you need a reframing of what my emotional state constantly confronts), got hit by a hit-and-run overnight driver exactly a week ago, on the eve of our departure for the GW tournament in DC. My discovery of this, which happened at some point early Friday morning between, say, 1 AM and 7 AM, between my return from the debate meeting and my departure for more debate, was made by looking for a mirror that was bent all the way back the wrong way. Further investigation revealed significant paint leavings and denting on the front-left part of the vehicle, along with broken headlight pieces from the offending party, which I petulantly picked up and put in my trunk as though life were some sort of CSI show where forensic evidence could be traced (and as though a hit-and-run-fender-bender were sufficiently significant to merit utilization of such tracing). I care less about material possessions than most and far less about the prettiness of my car than anyone (average car-washes per year: 0.33), but it’s still the type of event that just makes you hate your species. I had no time to file a police report when having to keep a schedule to make the tournament, and have functionally kind of lost the will to consider same since. It’s already blended into my reality. Something about losing everything makes you a lot more comfortable with losing a little more without seeking recourse. One’s sense of justice kind of loses its bearings when one has confronted enough unfairness.

Then one of our top debaters landed in the hospital in DC not once, but twice, facing a 103 fever and complications from dehydration and possibly bronchitis. I joined the waiting party for one of the two 5-hour late-night stints in the ER, envisaging flashbacks of my last big late-night ER waiting session and even the night I drove myself to the hospital with what proved to be kidney stones. Amidst the bleary off-lit reality of every hospital, the surreal pallor of medical danger and overtired health care professionals, I had time to reflect on how we enter and leave this society and the lives of those for whom this brink of death and destruction is as commonplace as debate has become again for me. The delirious walk back at 4 AM with the rejuvenated debater and our two cohorts felt like seeing between the lines of reality, peeking behind the webbing of the virtual reality and playing with the planes. And then of course I had a belly-punching kidney stone come in the next day, distracting me back almost out of any semblance of reality as I dealt with emotional upheaval of the vibrant community in which I am ensconced on all sides.

The weekend was not without joy, mind. There were connections and cross-connections aplenty, the opportunity for Fish to meet a good chunk of my team in DC, put them up, regale them with stories of my youth over poker and jokes and green chile mac-n-cheese. We spent a blustery afternoon walking monuments and strapping into the time machine that DC will always be for me, the hearkening of the longest single year of my existence, the 1987-88 stretch that broadened my horizons and, in retrospect, seems scarier for my parents every time I reconsider it despite my own blithe youthful excitement and optimism in that time. We took countless pictures (you can take a look), scouring DC for the photo opportunities more than our own experience, as though the chronicling of the moments was a vastly more important process than the moment itself. And in light of memory, in the full view of time, in the era of digital photography and instant re-editing, re-taking, re-imagining, it is hard for me to argue with this model. What do we have, ultimately, beyond our memories, our documentation and remnants of the past? Should we not be just as careful about their remembrance as we are about the moments themselves? Is that not, in many ways, the very purpose of this blog? Look at how many scenarios I’ve referenced by their artifactual telling in this same format rather than recount in renewed detail from the contemporary vantage!

And yet, despite my enhanced emotional bonding with so many on the team, despite the increasing feeling that I have found the wheelhouse of what to do with my time in this fugue state of pushing my own emotional ruins around into something that looks more like stacked rubble than strewn rubble, I feel a certain isolation. I could call this isolation generational, but I don’t really even see a gap between myself and my charges, let alone do I put much stock in that kind of temporal passage. More than anything, the isolation is philosophical, and its depth appears to be increasing. And while there are possible mundane causes, such as being on the East Coast, dealing with college students newly emboldened with their sense of questioning prior assumptions, even the self-selection of debaters perhaps, the overall trend seems somewhat distressing to an idealistic believer like me. It feels, more and more, like people are devolving toward some sort of faith in an uncaring, deterministic universe where meaning and purpose are replaced with cold hard economics, physics, and so-called facts. And it’s not exactly helping me fall in love with my species.

I’m smarting a bit, I’ll grant, from some selection bias over a few experiences I’ve had of late. Extensive Facebook debates and dialogues with hardened, if thoroughly illogical, devotees of science as their only religion. Near screaming debates with debaters about the unprovability of anything, relative probabilities, and the pursuit of understanding. Resigned sighs with the increasingly faithless over what their lot in life may be, how much control they may have, how much choice they even give themselves over who they spend their time with, how, why. And far too much contact with people who find the siren call of wealth, materialism, and the simplest of base pleasures to be sufficient justification for all manner of overt moral compromise. If the pillaging of my marriage tested my faith in any one person, in even the notion of the individual as someone who can have value and can be trusted, then the last week has seemed to test my faith in the whole lot of them, in the very idea of community.

And I’m exaggerating a bit. There are exceptions, as there always are. And overall, I’ve actually felt heartened and strengthened by my community, which has probably made this tidal wave of determinist resignation feel even more unsettling for its contrast. But the near-universality of declarative statements like everything coming down to economics and basic motivations or everything being a chemical reaction and physically explicable make me wonder what I’m even railing for anymore. It becomes wearying to be told how crazy one is ad nauseum. At a certain point, the crazy man has to resign himself to his fate, no matter how sane he believes himself to objectively be. For the reality is that objectivity itself fails to have much resonance when everyone is living in a different functional paradigm. Which is not an excuse for adjusting to and embracing the subjective wrongs of society as they exist, but it might be a justification for spending less energy beating back ceaselessly against the tide.

I feel like I’m being a bit vague. Summarative. Skipping steps, either because I presume that you know the course of my argument between free will and determinism, souls and science, God and nihilism, or because I’m losing my faith in my ability to persuade anyone young enough to be able to read this that there’s any question about these matters to be discussed. I also must acknowledge the extent to which time remains a factor in my life, in which no matter how much I try to avoid them, little biological necessities like eating before a long and demanding day, must be paid their begrudging due.

I think the point, ultimately, comes down to the point. Where to find purpose and meaning in a world that’s shutting such notions down like so many decrepit nuclear reactors, a world collapsing these concepts into careless mathematical formulae faster than we can even fully observe. My ability to find such direction in a direct personal bond with someone has been tested beyond its limit, snapping back in a possibly irreparable way. And thus I’ve turned to various pursuits of persuasion and influence, of digging myself out with work and effort all designed at further honing my skills as someone who has something to say about this lonely rock and its frantic inhabitants.

Some of my charges, the most observant or kindest of them perhaps, try to remind me that I’m having an influence, the old trite “making a difference”. And perhaps it’s true. Okay, probably. But it still feels, holistically, like I’m spitting in the ocean, or perhaps more pertinently trying to find a particular gob of spit in the ocean. And the process is starting to seem about that appetizing. What’s the point in being the exception to everything if you don’t get any company along the way? Am I simply doing it wrong? At what point will fatigue in hoping to be ahead of one’s time devolve into a numb alignment with the contemporary failings? And yet how could one then live with undertaking a course of action one already determined to be so problematic?

And yet, when examined closely, all of these questions seem to disintegrate in the face of the largest one of all, the one about the hope of companionship, which underlines and circles all these larger issues of isolation and distance and unrelatability. And maybe that’s where all the exhaustion and resignation comes from, in the end. It’s one thing to worry esoterically about the search for meaning coming up dry and empty after a long lifetime’s slog. It’s quite another if one undertook that slogging journey without so much as a soul for accompaniment.

I really wish I could peek at the future, just a glimpse or a hint or a sign. But to do so would violate my belief about the nature of the universe itself. Would I trade the indeterminate nature of the universe for a deterministic one merely to offer the opportunity to look ahead? Or would I immediately regret the missed opportunity to fleetingly agonize with my gobstoppered emotions?

My answer, like the rest of it, is indeterminate.

by

On Superstition

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

One of my debaters asked me last weekend whether I was superstitious. It was a good question. I reflexively answered that I wasn’t, but then he started talking about debate superstitions about writing on the board and how and who does it and I started quickly clarifying that when it came to that, I was extremely superstitious!

He asked me why I thought people were superstitious and it seemed pretty obvious to me that people are because they seek to exert control on their environment or circumstances in a way that they know they can’t otherwise in life. While we all like to think of ourselves as being in control of our own destinies, the reality is that none of us has particular control when we hold just one-seven-billionth of the power in our planet. I’ve discussed the cacophony of wills extensively before, but it’s crippling to really internalize how much that abrogates our free will into a collective free will as disjointed and chaotic as our world itself. No wonder people try to claw each other’s eyes out getting into the 1% where that one-seven-billionth can seem like one-one-millionth for a while.

If we believe that we secretly control events larger than ourselves – sports outcomes that we watch on TV or in person, the life or death of someone far away, the heart of another person, the thought processes of a debate round judge – by simple actions of routine or pattern, then we can believe there’s some connection between our own personal effort and the outcomes that affect us so deeply. And once there’s confirmation of some sort of link, however tenuous or absurd, between writing in a certain style on the chalkboard or saying a particular set of words or wearing a hat in a particular way and the desired outcome, then repeating that becomes almost holy.

We all hunger for free will, all crave the ability to dominate merely our own lives. And while we all probably have more actual will than we acknowledge when we’re not being overtly superstitious, the fact is that humanity’s not actually well organized yet to maximize reasonable choices for people. Most people do most of what they do with the verve and volunteerism of one with a gun aimed squarely at their temple.

Is it any wonder that I sit here waiting for my life to come back to me? Maybe today, maybe if I mismatch my socks and think only the best thoughts, maybe if I don’t sleep enough to let the nightmares in, maybe if I can ward off the migraines and do everything she would have wanted, look at the clock at the right times and focus my mind in just the right way, maybe I can find a little hope that this message will travel across the universe, the Atlantic, the bridge between half-souls, and remind her of what she threw away.

I am patient. I can do this.

The cruel reality is different, of course. Like any superstition of debate or sports or life, I’m winking at myself. I see the image of her, hopeless and claiming to be tempest-tossed, citing the need to commit an affair and cast aside compassion like they were mandates from Heaven of which she mildly disapproved but was robotically forced to comply. I can imagine her eye-rolling at reading this, the clucking sigh she used to make about how naive, idealistic, stupid I was. Like she had a monopoly on understanding the universe and how it was out to get her.

The universe isn’t out to get anyone. We use our limited will as an excuse for abusing each other. As soon as we wake up and realize that no matter how little will we have, maximizing its utility for good, compassion, and the further maximization of will is our best hope, then we might start making the best use of our individual slices of light. We can all hold a candle and watch it dance in the harshness of wind and rain, or we can join together to merge our lights into a fire that could burn all the architecture of the past that holds us back.

Hoping our light will magically be transported to create that conflagration is surely not enough. But I can’t do this alone.

by

Occupation

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

As most of you know, I used to counsel “emotionally disturbed” kids in a group home. That was my occupation. We used this system generally known as “behavior modification” whereby we rewarded good behavior and punished (to a degree) bad behavior, usually by changing the meter on what kinds of activities someone could do. There were behavioral levels someone would start out on in the morning based on their behavior the previous day. They were color-coded, running red, yellow, green, and then purple and finally gold, which could only be earned after sequential days on purple. For example, you couldn’t watch TV on red. You couldn’t watch TV after dinner on yellow. On gold, you didn’t have to stand at each doorway announcing yourself and waiting to be permitted to cross a threshold, as long as you told the staff where you were going and responded if they asked you to stop.

There were also behaviors which would warrant an immediate “level drop”. Contrary to my ex-brother-in-law’s assessment, this did not indicate that we would dump a kid off the stairs, but merely that they’d go from yellow to red or gold to purple if they swore or made a threat or tried to make a peer act out. And then violence meant “R&R”, a term I guess we were trying to reclaim for the bad, which would be resolution and restitution in this instance and prompt spending the rest of the day on red, usually after long periods of sitting time to calm down.

A lot of our job, other than navigating and assessing people through the process of earning their levels (surprisingly like APDA judging – the level sheets even looked like debate ballots), was about keeping people motivated to meet their goals and make their level. After all, most of the kids had grown up in households where, de facto if not overtly, bad behavior was rewarded and good behavior was punished. If you were quiet and humble and polite and got your homework done, you’d get neglected. If you set the house on fire and kicked the family dog and yelled and screamed at the table, then you’d get some attention. And in the world of six-year-olds whose parents are addicts, any attention is good attention, because it means you get fed or talked to or even physically contacted, even if it’s to be hit.

The hardest part of this engagement and motivation was finding ways to get people on red to believe that tomorrow would be a new day and they’d have some way of climbing out of their bad level. Often they’d be on red after spending significant portions of the day in R&R, which meant no points were being earned toward the next day’s level while they were in the quiet room (an Orwellian term if there ever was one) or restraint or sitting staring at a corner thinking about what they’d done. Usually this meant they’d spent the day not only being unstable and unhappy, but they knew that the next day was doomed to be another day on red – that it’d be 36 hours before they could watch TV or even think about going on the computer. And 36 hours is long enough for a well-adjusted adult human – for an anti-social adolescent, it’s an eternity.

One of the things my boss – an ex-drill-sergeant (literally) and college football player the size of a small house with the voice of an irate seal – was very good at was advising us what to do with these kids in these situations. He told us that the key to their motivation and improved behavior was engagement. Keeping them interested, distracted, putting their minds to something. In a word, keeping them occupied. The man was often a blunt instrument, but he had incredible insight into the mindsets of these kids, having worked in mental health facilities like ours and/or juvenile hall for the better part of two decades. And he implored us to, when times were stable, engage and stimulate the kids who were on red with the few activities always allotted to them – playing outside, playing board games, reading, talking with peers or staff. And there, over time, I learned a fundamental truth: that people act out when they’re bored. It’s something to do.

The human mind despises boredom. Probably more than pain, certainly more than sadness. The brain is too complex, too creative, too active, to tolerate monotony and absence of objects. It will create things to think about where none exist, it will foment processes and possibilities in a vaccuum. The only antidote to this is another element of our strategy in engaging red-level kids: exhaustion. Playing outside was not only good because it kept someone occupied, focused, and not-bored, but it also meant they came in too tired to create a ruckus. Adolescents have restless unspent energy in the best of times – abuse/neglect victims triply so. A kid who comes in tired from his day will be disinclined to take offense at a peer’s comment or a staff direction to a time-out. One who has nothing but seething surging energy beneath the surface will be ready to rumble.

This difference of exhaustion is why so many people can put up with assembly-line jobs or grocery-checking or long commutes, but buckle under the universally feared torture of solitary confinement. The capitalist structure of our country went through a really glorious period of getting humans to willingly accept and even embrace monotonous boredom because the tedium of their jobs created the byproduct of wearing them down. So even if they were getting repetitive stress injuries from twisting the same widget the same way and almost falling asleep from the 3,275th time making the same commute, they would arrive at home too beat to complain about it, having only just enough energy to awaken the next day and do it again. Meanwhile, those confined to small dark boxes alone with little or no exercise were slowly driven insane in their prisons.

Something’s been happening in this country the last three years. People have lost their occupations. No matter how small and crappy and minimally engaging their jobs were, they were still jobs that carried the heavily taxing byproduct of exhaustion. They were still something that took enough mental and physical energy to negate the urge to rebel, to foment discontent, to hold out for something better. But one by one and in droves, they were turned out of the opportunity to spend their energy flailing in the capitalist mill and instead consider the walls and corners and televisions and want-ads of a solitary existence.

Yes, some have turned to creativity. Some have expanded their minds to accept the lack of occupation as a gift and driven themselves to occupy themselves instead. But most, realistically, have not. Most people turned out of work by downsizing or offshoring or consolidation or automation have turned forlornly and blankly into an abyss of disinterested blandness. They wake each day not even sure what to do without someone telling them. They wander aimlessly through a directionless day, storebought distractions no longer working for them in light of the fact that they are only sufficiently entertaining or engaging for an exhausted person, but not someone with all their faculties at disposal. No longer exhausted, they become restless, agitated, rumbling with a soul-deep longing for something to do, be, create.

This, my friends, is the fundamental root of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It is the quest for occupation. And despite my framing the question in the context of a job where I tried to modify violent kids’ behavior toward the more productive, I am very much in agreement with the principles and methodology of this budding revolution. The powers that seek to maintain order, stability, and the status quo in America have overlooked some fundamental tenets of how to stave off rebellion by controlling the masses. They have forgotten that bread must join circuses in sufficiently distracting the people, insisting instead on a system which puts bread at a premium as a mechanical rabbit to hold in front of the racers. They have allowed the attitude of those at the top to become perniciously elitist, rubbing superiority and greed in the face of all society. But most fundamentally, they have forgotten that people must have something to do or they will find something to do themselves. That people accept the terms of their social contract when they are too occupied or too tired to read the fine print. When people have nothing else to do but read the fine print because they are so bored, they will realize what they are forfeiting and rail against it.

What is most exciting and inspiring about the Occupy Wall Street movement (and its hundreds of offspring across cities across America) is that it does not overtly seek political solutions. Naysayers and corporate threshers want the occupiers to write their Congresspeople and go to the polls, knowing that anyone accessed in such a way has been bought and paid for to the point of complete imperviousness. Even those not explicitly on the payroll of corporate America are believers in the fundamental tenets of a system that rewards greed and punishes altruism, a way of aligning society to maximize the consolidation and stratification of wealth and power. It is blindingly obvious why this is so, as any student of history (from age eight on) could tell you: those in power like being there and will rig the game so they can stay there. And capitalism is one very effectively rigged game.

I myself have struggled mightily with the advent of the Occupy Wall Street movement, feeling pulled almost inexorably to the front lines of its tent encampments and yet not even setting foot as yet in the wake of my overwhelmed exhaustion at my full-time job. For me, unlike most, it is not the gun-to-my-head need for the pay of a job or even the expected pressure of finding fulfillment in one’s occupation, but rather the true motivation of actually loving my work and wanting to devote sufficient time to it that it brings me to the brink of capitulation and illness. I hung out with Ariel and discovered yesterday that I may be her only friend whose problems wouldn’t be largely or entirely solved by money. Which itself is no small factor in the Occupy movement, that reality. For me, I work because I want to and I love to, but it has thus far kept me off the sidewalks and streets of a rising tide that could sweep the whole world.

It is hard to feel twin obligations that are mutually exclusive and equally compelling. Even at Glide, I think I might have begged out of work to go join the protests, though there I may have felt the pull of alleviating the suffering that was driving so many to this brink. But I also must self-examine and recognize that each marginal person could be part of a tipping point in creating more change in this country than anyone born prior to this year could have imagined was possible. When I first saw the most recent Zeitgeist movie, I chuckled at the slightly naive vision of hordes of people gathering around Wall Street to give their money back in rejection of the system that printed it. Now it’s underway. And it feels wrong to not only not be a part of it, but to not be a spearhead.

And yet it feels like a hedge is in order too. It is unclear the direction or power the movement will have, whether it can be co-opted by money and politics and all the American powers that have resisted internal change before. And throwing away the best job I’ll ever have, one I created from scratch, and all my obligations to people I feel a deep personal bond with, for what could be a week and a jail term depending on how things bounce, seems crazy.

But it only seems crazy because I am occupied. Were I not, it would be the most obvious thing in the world.

I will continue to wrestle and struggle with the question, continue to dance on the razor’s edge of conundrum. I can’t really see myself abandoning everything to go live in the encampments, at least not yet, so the Rutgers debaters reading this should let out their breath. But there’s a big part of me that feels I should anyway. And I know it’s not zero-sum – I know I can go try to participate without sacrificing it all. And I will. More than anything, though, we need to develop a way that people who are occupied can still Occupy. We need a day where everyone who still wants or has to go to work can show their solidarity and support. Sometimes revolutions can’t all involve defection from the military, because they need people in the military to be quietly sympathetic so they can make sure that institution changes with the rest of society. This revolution needs occupied people too in order to make all the changes necessary.

If those on top of this precipitous pyramid know what’s good for them, they will create new incentives and occupations. They will come up with some way to motivate the masses and make use of their time and brains. But it can’t be through capitalism, at least the way it’s been manifest in society so far. The market is editing out jobs, ensuring they never return. We need a new system to occupy our minds. Until then, we must occupy the streets.

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The Profundity of Being Alone

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

Something is right with me today. It’s a weird feeling and its pervasive presence is underscoring how far from feeling this way I’ve been in a long time and prompting further contemplation of the differences. There are a lot of minor possible and even plausible explanations, but it is only in the incredible convergence that they even begin to seem to explain the way I’m feeling.

I blew out my voice at Harvard (not entirely, but close enough), probably more from telling stories while projecting from the front of a minivan than in actually doing my job coaching. I made a serious case advice blunder at Harvard that cost a team that had been cruising through the tournament a trip further in the outrounds and our team a shot at ascending in the rankings. But today I woke up more at peace with the latter and especially more okay with the former. I’m realizing that I’ve been sick in some general sense (allergies, feeling run down, actually sore-throated, etc.) for probably more than two full weeks and today was the first day it didn’t seem debilitating. My voice is still a bit froggy and I still have some congestion, but today made me feel like I’m actually going to beat my association of maladies and I realized how much of my general downtroddenness the last couple weeks has stemmed from just not being physically 100%.

It also is a day where, for the first time in ages, I’m feeling like I’m not behind on anything. This may be an illusory feeling, but I think it’s combining with a particular piece of mail I dropped in the box on Friday that I didn’t even realize was freighting me down the way that it apparently was. Mental energy is a hard thing to gauge, especially when one’s distracted and running behind, and yet the last 24 hours have provided this overarching lift from finally dispatching something I have put off in order to not let it weigh me down. Feels like, once again, I misread that situation completely and its true impact on my daily functioning soul. So suddenly there’s a chirping bird where there was not long ago an ominous crow.

The weather is gorgeous. That doesn’t hurt anything. It’s an October 10th that eats like an August 17th and while that itself can raise disconcerting feelings and perceptions, it doesn’t surprise me that a stock exchange located in New York City decided to jump 3% today for no rational reason. I think it’s almost impossible not to feel optimistic in weather like this, an optimism that just doesn’t burn in the face of reason or logic or the reality of a winter oncoming. Eat, drink, and lay in the grass for tomorrow we freeze. Perhaps, perhaps. Or maybe there is a hope in the innate simplicity of embracing what surrounds us and not resisting.

Even Jersey has felt friendly and warm and open today. I played cards yesterday and felt like I was making friends with everyone, going out way up after a roller-coaster ride that should have fazed me way more than it did. Of course I was doing so in the wake of something more emotionally involving, but ultimately that’s even infused me with a sense of peace. And I retrieved all my stuff from Enterprise today – I somehow left everything in our rented van when we dropped it off after Harvard, including my credit card in the cupholder and my backpack, which is basically my lifeline to existence. The retrieval was one of the friendlier corporate or Jersey interactions I’ve ever had, especially for it being something so boneheaded on my part and so annoying for them to deal with.

There is something, essentially, about being alone and more quiet and rested and healthy and introspective in the wake of several consecutive tumultuous days, that has prompted an internal Zen flame of simple humanity. I could describe it better if I understood it better, but I’m tempted to let it be and try to savor this hurricane-eye kind of calm. I think it has something to do with keeping my own company after so long surrounded, but I even enjoyed grocery shopping a little today. The best I can explain it is that it feels like there’s some sort of lack of pressure, an absence of a pressing weight that’s been there for weeks. Whether that’s more sinus pressure or paperwork pressure or success pressure or simply an amorphous spiritual angst is anyone’s guess. And how long it will remain away is even less tangible.

But as Adam Duritz would say, that’s all right for me today.

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Blue Pyramid Flooded!

Categories: A Day in the Life, Blue Pyramid News, Quick Updates, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , , ,

Welcome everyone!

Apparently today is the biggest day for traffic at the BP since May 2008. And it’s only midday. Not sure exactly what’s going on, but I’m not going to complain. Hope everyone gets comfortable with the site, its updated sections and archives, enjoys the quizzes, and finds something to keep them coming back.

In other news, I think I may be allergic to the Debate House. As in, seriously. There’s a lot of dust in here. We did sort of rush the building/maintenance people out of here so we could start running practice rounds and using the space, but the consequences may be contributing to the general plague filtering around the team. Hopefully it’s just allergies and not contagious.

I keep meaning to take pictures of the DH too, but there’s rounds to judge and ballots to review and spreadsheets to make and grants to write. And I’m trying to give myself a solid weekend every week too, spanning Sunday/Monday. There are times this starts to feel like just another job and then I remember that I get to be a debate coach for a living and it all seems okay again. Just need to keep my focus on the stuff that makes this fun and not just slogging through requirements.

A good lesson for life generally, come to think of it, not just work.

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Stability, Instability, Glass, and the Ether

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: , , ,

I spent the weekend in Lerner Hall at Columbia University. Lerner Hall is this gargantuan glass building that you wouldn’t forget if you’d ever been there – there are basically no strict right angles in the place, and the initial impression one gets of it is akin to being at sea or perhaps down the rabbit hole. Long ramps ring the entire main five-story lobby, occasionally cut-away by Escherian staircases while diagonal rooms of glass and stainless steel offer a disorienting place to work, study, and play. Imagine Hogwarts’ path to the Gryffindor common room with all the moving pictures replaced with glass and all the the wood replaced with shiny metal.

Lerner Hall is one of the all-time Significant places in my life. It was the site of the 9/11 vigil at Columbia Novice on September 14, 2001, the one that more or less created the last ten years of my life. On September 15th, after the all-night talk in Tom’s Restaurant, it’s where Emily and I wandered and chatted and eventually admitted that we were each afraid the other would get sick of us after 10, 12, 16 straight hours of talking, where it first occurred to me that I would tell our unborn daughter that falling in love is just having a conversation that you never want to end. I would be sugarcoating things if I said that I never once looked over the high fifth-floor balcony and contemplated what Em and I finally said to each other on September 24, 2001 and thought about poetry and the full view of history. But I’m still here. And the nice thing about poetic opportunities like that when they are bypassed is that it puts a certain caliber of pressure and significance on the act that is hard to run across in future. But it also makes one think altogether too much about possible worlds.

I was in Lerner to help run a debate tournament, of course, my relationship with the Columbia team roughly diametric to that with the team that helped make Columbia 2003 the all-time Dirt Standard of poorly-run contests. It’s nice to be on the beautiful urban fortress campus and feel an affinity for its denizens that contrasts so highly with the prior impressions I had in an epoch that feels mostly like it happened to someone else, at least when I’m not passing certain crosswise benches in Lerner Hall. The weekend was ultimately long and disjointed, despite being highly productive I was in a turbo-overworked mood that mixed poorly with the filter of memories made so indelible by the glass casing of a building that hasn’t changed in a decade. I felt disconnected from my own team and came to the point of contemplating how much I’m going to help run other tournaments, how much more I ought focus at these competitions on merely maximizing our own morale. Still, I had fun at times and things went well, so like everything these days, there were highs and lows.

There has been a huge kerfuffle of late of the changes made to Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg’s constant drive to open the doors of what is possible in connection on the Internet. And it’s taken me a week of meditation on it to realize that what’s wrong with the web is exactly parallel to what’s wrong with Lerner Hall for me.

The Internet is an ever-changing, ever-evolving universe. There are no constants, no rules, no expectations of consistency. There is a thin under-layer of HTML and protocol that serves as the barest of physical laws to govern an otherwise completely dynamic environment. And since it’s constantly in flux, since it alters itself every nanosecond of every 24 hours of every eternal day, there’s the constant drive to keep changing or get left behind. It is this that drove the rise of Facebook, but also the plunge of Facebook into its current sudden state of overshared disarray. It is this that drove the rise of Google, but also Google’s own descent into irrelevant distrust of the words that a person has actually typed and the barrage of over-sponsored information atop the page. And I’ve realized that the Internet’s lack of buildings is exactly what will make it a landscape where what is right and what works is never constant.

I have long lamented that the Golden Age of Blogging was fleeting and is now merely a wispy memory that current generations barely believed. When I was in college, it seemed inevitable that everyone would blog, improving their creative expression and ability to connect and engage with their peers in a format that one could digest, internalize, and interact with at ongoing leisure. It was a world that, needless to say, I embraced wholeheartedly, a world I still try to pretend exists through avenues like what you’re reading at this moment despite my awareness that blogging is now almost entirely a political vehicle or an extension of capitalism. The personal blog is not dead, but it is badly wounded, careening around the wake of its injury like a moaning quadruped mammal. Most people find blog content too long to read, too un-instantaneous to care about. It has been replaced by Facebook.

But Facebook itself already seems obviously on the decline in the wake of its bifurcation of tickers and adaptation to the “innovative” pressure placed on it by Google+. Rather than trusting in the security of a system that had worked to build the largest single network of human beings in the history of the species, Zucky and friends decided to chase the dragon of a competitor’s suggested alterations and are on the verge of destroying their own genius in the name of constant change. Not to mention they are doing so in pursuit of a competitor that already ruined their own best offering with tools like auto-complete, constant spelling correction that makes searching for a name like “Storey” almost impossible, and individualization of the algorithm that sacrificed knowledge and connection for the sake of something like solipsism and the insulation of everyone’s personal bubble.

How can this happen? Precisely because there is no glass online. There are no beams of stainless steel, no walls of brick or blocks of stone or columns of poured concrete. There is only the ether, the crackle of invisible waves that circulate globally to express an unceasingly instatic reality.

When one builds a building, one plans it. One designs it. One knows that even in the worst of scenarios, this building must stand for years. Most buildings are designed to last decades and centuries, some for a theoretical perpetuity. There is a mentality innate to that undertaking and a reality to engage for those maintaining those structures thereafter. You can’t simply change the underlying support structure of a house, a dorm building, a hall on an ancient campus. You have to deal with the physical realities, the unmovable objects, the blocking and layout and blueprints of bygone architects.

This has a lot of drawbacks. 85% of people are mailing it in at all times and some of them are inevitably engineers. But when it works, when it cobbles together to create something viable, the results are bordering on the eternal. We all can picture the Eiffel Tower (ironically designed to be impermanent, of course), the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids, the Empire State Building. These places, buildings and bridges, the output of human capacity for design and creativity, stand the test of time because they have to. But there is nothing on the Internet that carries this weight, this constancy, this static nature. And while critics of my conceptualization here might raise screenshots of the 1994 web and ask if we’d always want to be stuck there, this is like pointing to the first huts and cave dwellings and asking us to stay there forever too. Just because some early buildings are ugly or fail does not mean that all buildings innately ought be impermanent and subject to alteration. We would never accept someone adding a few floors to the Empire State Building, redressing the Statue of Liberty, knocking the glass out of the Notre Dame. And similarly, we should demand a certain consistency from what works best on the Internet if we are not doomed to writhe in the nostalgic quicksand of only fleeting success.

There is, it occurs to me, a model for this inconstant wrestling, this deliberately impermanent environment. You guessed it folks, it’s capitalism. There are almost no companies that survive even a hundred years, and those that make it that long have reinvented or reimagined themselves so thoroughly that they carry only the barest nominal trappings of their prior incarnations. You can call this innovation and evolution if you want, but it’s more that the nature of the corporate thresher is fickle, demanding, cutthroat, and prone to exterminating things. The core reason for this is the completely irrational demand for constant growth, the bizarre expectation that stability and constancy are the enemy in the face of carcinogenic consumption. Capitalism goes one step beyond sharks’ need to always move and demands that this movement carries eternal expansion as well. In a fixed universe, or at least a fixed planet, this means that beings are constantly unsound and unstable and doomed to fail at an effort whose very premise is flawed from the outset. The nature of the corporate landscape is far more Internet than college campus, institutions mere fleeting tools for the purpose of constant random change.

Which brings us back to Lerner Hall and the contemplation of the failure of all that was supposed to be constant in my own life. Is it coincidence that the rise of the capitalist worldview has corresponded so closely to the rise in divorce rates? Is it random that the Internet’s advent has, in bringing us closer together, also raised the demand for an unending change in partners, living arrangements, extolling the self over permanent connections? I submit to you that these are almost directly correlated. That in espousing a perspective where nothing can reliably be unchanging, our very view of the bonds and pacts people make with each other has also slipped into fungibility. I have said at times that change is the only constant, that there is incredible flux in our universe beyond our very comprehension and thus that traditional ideas of stability are illusory. But at the same time, the middle-ground permanence of a building, of fixed angles and supports and walls, this seems like it might not be too much to hope for. But if our model is to be corporations who constantly eat each other to survive, a landscape of a brutal ocean or savannah of unending danger and consumption, what hope do any of us have of carving out a life for ourselves that can be trusted and thus provide a platform for fulfillment?

Come back to me. Come back to Lerner Hall. The bench is still here.

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Obligatory 9/11 Reflection

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 Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , ,

Yesterday I went to Philadelphia to play cards and see Ariel and be social on a day when I expected to be overwhelmed and over-tired after reconnecting with the debate circuit (see here for how that went) for another season. It was a pretty decent day overall, even if I mostly learned from the poker experience that I still haven’t gotten the formula for when to leave the table down yet. Turns out that playing with overtly bad players (spot the sucker at the table, etc.) is actually usually more costly than it is profitable. Still left up, but could have left up a lot more.

In any event, I was really sick of 9/11 yesterday. All I wanted was some NPR or talk radio that wasn’t about ten years ago, and that just wasn’t happening. I get it, I guess, but I was simply completely overwrought with the references and remembrances, especially given their personal context which I’ll outline a bit herein. Basically, 9/11 has become rebranded with a trauma for me that it never had to begin with, which is kind of weird and melodramatic, but nonetheless true for my emotions. I’m not exactly sure why I feel compelled to chronicle all this when I was so OD’ed on it yesterday, but my perspective is a fickle beast these days, to say the least.

As far as my actual perspective on the 9/11 event itself and most of its remembrance, I think Ariel summed up my feelings beautifully in her post yesterday. I include the link not only to highlight her spare but poignant description of said feelings, but also to highlight that she’s back to blogging, something that few people are doing with any regularity these days (self somewhat included), so you should check it out. And it was this same shared perception, the idea that 9/11 itself was, while tragic, vastly overblown in significance by a country and city steeped in complacency, that was so much of the baseline of Emily’s and my connection that led so quickly to our near-decade union in life.

Emily and I shared spots on APDA’s governing body, the APDA Board, with roughly similar levels of ambivalence at the outset of the 2001-2002 debate season. And three days prior to the opening tournament, the Columbia Novice contest in New York City, the events whose description need no reviewing unfolded on a Tuesday morning. The APDA Board, like so many other leadership councils, scrambled that night to determine the fate of the weekend and APDA’s President (from the host school of Columbia Novice) insisted that not only would the show go on, but so would the celebratory party on Friday night. The Board somehow concluded that it would be appropriate to cancel elimination rounds, but not the late-night festivities.

It is easy to forget in the light of a decade without terrorism in the United States how much paranoia was abroad in the land in the days and weeks following September 11th, 2001. I had friends, several of them, who unequivocally told me I was committing likely suicide by driving to New York City on September 14th and a possible atrocity by bringing college freshmen with me. I felt serious responsibilities to APDA and especially those new recruits on the team who wanted to attend that I had to lead them in whatever decision they preferred and enable a real choice on the matter. And I felt driven, as did Emily, to make sure there was a viable alternative to going to a bar on Friday night for those attending the tournament. And thus she and I planned the vigil that would ultimately yield our all-night diner talk that would single-handedly put us on a course for marriage.

It was a permanent fixture in our relationship and marriage that 9/11 directly caused our union, a serendipitous quirk that gave the historical event a greater legacy for our lives than either of us had personally found it to have for the world. And in my first e-mail to friends in the wake of her attempted over-the-phone-from-Liberia divorce salvo, I cited how this silver lining had gone gray overnight, how what once felt like a sign that all could bounce back in the universe now felt like a monument to the meaningless trudge of life’s ongoing hardship. A more draconian interpretation might instill a lesson that tragedy is tragedy and one ought never take solace in it, no matter how redemptive it seems. But most of my mind went back not to the event itself, but my tenterhooks feelings on that unfolding evening itself.

I had developed a crush on Emily for years prior to 9/11, but sometime just before 2001 had resolved to actively try to eradicate it from my mind. Her judgment and perception of people seemed fatally flawed in the context of certain overtly disastrous public incidents with her then-boyfriend and I concluded that no matter how intelligent, attractive, and vibrant she seemed, she simply lacked the judgment required for a trustworthy foundation. It was this internal argument that I mulled for hours in Tom’s Restaurant as night became day and I was forced to conclude in her flirtation and the ambiguous silence on the topic that she must finally have shed the relationship and demonstrated that I had judged her judgment a bit too hastily.

This was incorrect, though. She was still with that boyfriend at the time. And it was a much eerier and less comfortable joke sidelining our marriage that my not knowing that on that night was as responsible as 9/11 itself for our forging a life together. It was only the increasing though ultimately disproven conviction that she’d made a good decision that convinced me to quiet my own pre-committed voices against pursuing her any further.

By the time I found out her true status at the time (not that she lied about it or that we did anything that violated the relationship), I was already mentally invested in us having a future. And the rest, as they say, is history. Creepily foreshadowing history, as it turned out.

Emily asked me late in our Stateside disassembly of our mutuality whether my story on our time together would be all about the betrayal. I blinked at her and asked how it could be anything else. And she returned to platitudes about the time that we spent together for its own sake, the love that we shared, and especially her cloying refrain that I would be the better for our parting. And despite its seriously grandiose overtones, I can’t help but find a parallel to the question in the event of 9/11 itself. After all, the power and prestige of Osama bin Laden was purchased by the United States of America. His military interest, knowhow, and capability was all facilitated by the country he ultimately attacked. It is hard to imagine US officials close to bin Laden feeling like the partnership paid off overall, like it was somehow worth it in view of its fiery catastrophic conclusion.

Of course, there is an underlying asterisk to that whole angle on the story, namely that the US itself, or more broadly certain interest groups and factions within same, did probably end up better off for the experience of 9/11, despite its horrible upfront costs. It is this reality that prompts such widespread belief in the Inside Job theories that I myself share a sufficient sympathy with to make almost everyone I talk to about this wildly incredulous and uncomfortable. Almost as incredulous and uncomfortable as I feel every year that the dire predictions of in-country terrorism subsequent to 9/11 go unsubstantiated. The evidence of negligence in the face of threats is irrefutable, and the evidence of Pearl Harbor-style ignorance in the face of an impending reality is nearly so. The next step to active crafting is more ambiguous and will always remain so until someone can at least build a lifesize replica of the twin towers and send a remote-controlled jetliner into it to see if the theories invented to cover apparent empirics have any validity. You have to remember that the reason so many police and firefighters (and, frankly, regular people) died that day is because literally no physicist or architect believed it was possible for the buildings to fall. Had structural collapse even been the remotest inkling of a possibility in the minds of anyone witnessing the events as they unfolded, the death count for the day would stand around 400. And that has to give you pause, regardless of how crazy you think questioning the official story is.

Suspending that thorny, divisive, and potentially alienating question, though, part of the 9/11 story (as with any tragedy) is trying to find redemptive outcomes and hopeful plotlines that mitigate the sheer horror of the unprecedented and unpredicted death of innocent humans. Indeed, my marriage itself was key among these. Which brings us to an unsettling conundrum that has underlied a great deal of my life in the last year. Anything good that happens in my life – from the success of the Rutgers debaters to any future relationship I might have to simply having a day where I don’t cry and contemplate giving up – can be used as a justification for Emily’s destruction of my previous life. If I wind up happy in a year or five or twenty, Emily gets to come back and say “I told you so,” to justify her callous and cavalier betrayal as a necessary step in both of our lives. I would no more hope to thus be unhappy than I would myself fly a plane into a building with people in it, but the insidious extent of her poisoning of my life puts a tarnish on any future joy or success I have. Anything I hope to find or build or do is asterisked as an argument that I had to lose what I most cared about, that I had to be betrayed.

I was going to say that the difference between that seemingly irrefutable reality and people making the same claim about 9/11 is the obvious irrecoverable destruction of 3,000 lives and a certain sense of American security (and ultimately, rights). In other words, no one would ever claim that this could be somehow “worth it,” no matter what benefits were reaped, while I’ve had to endure countless close friends already lobbing the “you’re better off without her” tripe because that’s permissible in the wake of divorce in our society, but not death. But I don’t think divorce/death is actually the key distinction here. I think it’s that even Osama bin Laden didn’t have the temerity to claim that his attacks (if they were his attacks, which he [uncharacteristically of all terrorists] denied for years) would ultimately be for the good of America and its people. Yet that’s exactly the kind of claim Emily’s tried relentlessly to make.

I know how this looks. The point of this post isn’t to say I was married to the moral or functional equivalent of Osama bin Laden, or even a more audacious version thereof. Indeed, the character flaws that led to her unraveling actions had nothing in common with terrorism so much as the weakness and distractability and poor self-awareness already identified before we even kissed. In other words, I knew exactly what I was signing up for, or should’ve. The fault, as I’ve shouted over countless eye-rolling friends, is mine. Not that this itself justifies her not checking her own immature proclivities, but neither does it render them entirely responsible for surprising me. So forgive me this melodramatic comparison. It is, as discussed with Ariel yesterday, merely my inclination to intertwine themes that have an echoey resonance, to contextualize the significance of an event that, in spite of itself, carries enormous world-changing weight even in my life.

But this counterpoint helps serve another function, namely to illustrate and reemphasize the depth of pain that actually brought me to, for the first time in three decades, cut off communication with another human being. It is only by being this visceral and thorough that I can truly show how hurtful the claim that her betrayal was for my sake is. How hurtful and endlessly compounding, a domino chain of exponential increase, cascading with doubt and haunting as I am left in the wake of wondering if all my suffering is for my own good. It is also to articulate across the void, I suppose, to a person who may or may not be reading this, that that one thought, baseline of her own self-righteous defense of her actions, was the tipping point in my being able to keep her in my life or not.

It may be fundamental to Emily’s future happiness and even functionality that she believe this malicious notion. But it is anathema to my own. And as long as we both maintain this, unsoftening, we will stand as hard and opposed as the World Trade Center towers themselves. Twinned, unyielding, so similar and yet never touching. And ultimately doomed to fall.

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The Randomness of Money

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, TH'HEAT 2011, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , , ,

A couple weeks back, before the storm blew in and failed to knock out the power and the storm of novices came in to reignite the debate season, I came home and found a note under my door saying that the rent was going up about 3%. Given that I’d already splurged for more rent than I really wanted to pay when I moved here, spending more for a place on my own than I ever had as a couple, I was none too pleased about it. Yes, heat is included, which is a clutch expense in this climate, and yes, I have a functionally extra bedroom that serves as my office in a relatively palatial space in a great neighborhood. But sometimes, rent is too damn high.

But just like the day that I got waitlisted at Swarthmore (what had, in spite of myself, become my first-choice college for undergrad applications back in ’98) and the Brandeis scholarship package was the other envelope available to open in the same delivery, so too was there another envelope waiting for me this day. And instead of coming from Trudi Manfredo and friends, it was from my new academic department at Rutgers, informing me of a little stipend I’d be getting on top of my regular salary for serving as adjunct professor of the one-credit debate class. And suffice it to say that the stipend easily more than covered the uptick in rent. And so I had this weird moment of wanting to be grumpy about the increase, but being wholly unable to because I had basically found unknown money under the proverbial couch cushions of the mail.

To be fair, though, I shouldn’t have been surprised. This has basically been my entire life experience with the green paper figments we call currency in this country. Despite an upbringing where my parents and especially grandparents taught me to take money very seriously and be quite sparing in its expenditure, the actual flow of finances in my life has been something like the pacing of a poorly-shot action film. And it’s all served to remind me of what I’ve now long known – that money is totally and utterly random and that any correlation between its availability and anything resembling work or effort or especially dessert is entirely coincidental.

It is this increasing conviction, borne of scrimping money early in our life in California only to have a hit-and-run driver force $1,500 of repairs on a car we ended up ditching shortly thereafter or me follow advice to an Emergency Room bill of similar heft that was entirely unnecessary for our uninsured selves, that has probably solidified my conceptual comfort with gambling. Many people are surprised to learn that I not only gamble, but enjoy it, perhaps assuming it fails to dovetail with a life devoted to avoiding all drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and meat (probably quadruply redundant, that list, or at least triply so) as well as one spent railing against capitalism. And there are times that my anti-capitalist convictions make me squeamish about the financial fracas that is wagering, though I also have this Pi-like (the movie) fascination with numeric patterns and beating the system, something only reinforced by having a series of close friends who also invest a lot of mental energy in same. Nevertheless, I’m squarely in the camp that gambling helps unearth a fundamental truth about money and capitalism writ large, or a series of them – namely that your income always comes at the expense of someone else’s cost, and that money is oh so random.

Which is not to say, mind you, that gambling ought be random. I am a lifetime vocal opponent of the lottery for precisely that reason – there’s nothing remotely involving skill one could attribute to this institution, unless you want to sort of count this innovative couple who bought enough tickets to beat the house. Besides the fact that the lottery positions itself to violate the other fundamental rule of gambling, namely that one should only risk what one can afford to lose. A rule that I probably violated when managing some retirement funds before the dissolution of my marriage, in a sense, though once one has access to a certain amount of cash, it gets harder to see the real value of any given dollar or even thousand. And this gets even more difficult when the person betraying one steals far more than that in the effort to extort a friendship one will soon lose interest in maintaining. Good God, this stuff is so random.

But back to gambling, quickly. The point is that gambling is an arena whose entrance should be blocked by a certain playfulness with the money, and whose contents should require skill instead of luck. Which has of course driven a lifelong fascination with poker, which can combine with an addictive personality (there’s a reason I don’t get involved with mind-altering substances, or about twenty-six of them – reasons, not substances) to really ramp up the stakes. I’ve probably been a break-even player for most of my life, in aggregate, treading water at the limit game at Oaks Card Club in Emeryville, California for a few years, occasionally dropping money in Vegas or somewhere else and paying for it with pretty decent money taken off my friends $10-$100 at a time in weekly home games or in the Castle Commons back in college.

I can’t really explain why gambling is fun, but I think it’s only fun if it’s affordable and requires some sort of skill. I had twice as much fun bowling when we bet on it as when we didn’t, and the same was probably just about true for chess. Maybe it’s the risk-reward structure or the adrenaline of competition or the personality of a generation raised to be incentivized to the hilt with a thousand tiny carrots ranging from literal grade-school warm-fuzzies to free candy bars for high grades to book-club books for lots of reading. I don’t think it’s an oversimplification to say that the children of the 1980’s were a straight-up bribed generation, without even getting into the countless kids of broken homes whose parents would outright bid for their affection with toys, trips, and allowances. No wonder we’re drowning in debt and associate every activity with some sort of dollar cost or potential reward. And even I, ever the skeptic of the whole exchange of goods and services thing, get pulled under if there’s enough strategy or drama.

Something changed on this roadtrip, though, the mosaic of the nature of poker altered and shifted like a desert djinn and started to reveal itself in a new more visible light. I actually lost overall in three trips to casinos in three different states, but felt I was absorbing almost alien-inspired knowledge about the way the game should be played. Something that’s always intrigued me about poker also accelerated, namely the social aspect of the game. Even in the frigid east coast, with its brusque disregard for human communication, poker tables knit strangers together in a friendly camaraderie rarely rivaled outside of ideal workplaces and debate or sports teams. It was largely loneliness that drove me to Oaks on many of those Oakland and Berkeley nights, the challenge of living on four hours a night of sleep with a wife who preferred ten. And though I walked out of the St. Louis cardroom agreeing not to make poker a continuing thing in my Jersey life, at least until the summer, I still had this nagging feeling that I’d made a breakthrough even in light losses.

Fast-forward to a couple weeks back, when I was feeling energized and excited after a great week looking forward to the debate season, all friends in any sort of range busy, but wanting to go talk, be, and see. I posted on Facebook that I was considering going to AC for the weekend, but probably knew better. To my near-shock, at least five friends almost immediately posted with exhortations for me to go gamble. Maybe they knew me better than I know myself, saw the glint of caring and distraction entailed in cards that makes the mopey self-recrimination cycle of much of the last year more difficult. At least if one doesn’t lose too much, that is. And one of them informed me there’s a card room a half hour east of Philly, twice as close as AC, which made the difference between needing a hotel and not. I was sold.

Seven trips later, I’m making $27 an hour playing poker. That only counts table time, so tacking on the drive time puts it closer to $20, and then there’s a little gas as well. But twenty bucks an hour is surprisingly job-like compensation for something that’s incredibly fun and social. I also feel like I’m getting better, and even though there was one losing session overall against the six winners, I’m up over $1100 in two weeks of play.

Granted, seven trips in two weeks is utterly unsustainable during the debate season proper and winter will also likely dampen my enthusiasm for that much Route One driving. Though I do thank the roadtrip for reminding me that I actually enjoy driving a fair bit and otherwise tend to lack time to belt out singing to favored songs or absorb some NPR. Or even, as I’ve discovered I actually like lately, put on a dance radio station and bob along in the sheer momentum of an underlit night. It even occurred to me, in light of a surprisingly lackluster feeling about not only the online dating site I joined a month or so back but the idea of online dating writ large, that maybe poker can be my girlfriend for a while. I can well see the withering look I’d give myself had I heard myself say such a thing, but I’m starting to think my heart may just be closed for business for a good long while. And it might even prompt me to take another look at monasteries if I weren’t suddenly fascinated with the idea of making something like an income playing cards for chips.

The nicest thing about this whole process and experience is that the flash-temptation I have to quit my job and play poker full-time is resoundingly defeated by how much I love my job. For perhaps the first time in my life, I know I wouldn’t give notice if I won the lottery (which I would never play, but you get the metaphor) tomorrow. Even hitting the big-time with a bestseller and having the opportunity to write full-time would probably not prompt an overnight shift to a new career. I don’t know quite what to do with this information other than to be grateful for that aspect of my existence. I really love the debate team, the people thereon, and the endless opportunities emerging from the school’s support of both. And maybe it’s that confidence in how I’m making a day job that makes the night job both relaxing and viable.

Or maybe I’m just lucky.

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Bridge to the Fall

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

Quick update here to observe the passing of the theme here at StoreyTelling as this incarnation of the blog steams toward its fourth anniversary to be achieved in October. I’m going to more or less let this theme speak for itself, though the color scheme is full of the kind of bold dark warm colors that I really most enjoy. It’s almost nifty enough that I might ride out the October change this year, especially since there was no pumpkin-carving party last year from which to draw thematic imagery.

Facebook’s been obsessed with telling me that it’s two years to the day since Emily and I arrived in Jersey after our summer roadtrip in 2009. My update recounting the stats there (39 days, 6,200 miles, 16 states) has eerily reminded me how similar said sojourn was to the roadtrip I just wrapped (34 days, 5,800 miles, 25 states). And putting everything in context that no matter how much progress I’m making a building a new life, there are shadows and echoes in my even being here that will be challenging to transcend in daily existence.

My apartment is almost where I want it to be, though, and I’m hoping to have some pictures up on Facebook (and maybe here as well) soon that document the place as one remade in my own efforts as much as possible. The new couch and armchair have already been put to good reading use and while I’m probably going to cancel Netflix, I don’t know if I’m quite going to take the step of taking the TV down altogether. A few things yet to determine, as there always will be – a place one lives in tends to be a living place. And before I know it, I’ll have the whole debate building to decorate as well, or at least my office therein. We’re still on pace for a 1 September opening, but I’m expecting it’ll actually be closer to the 8th or the 15th given how these things tend to run. Still exciting stuff all around.

About to be hurtling headlong into one of the busiest phases of my life. Teaching a class will be an exciting new challenge and the current projections for the size and scope of the debate team are going to test the limits of my capacity and the entire team’s. If last year was our breakout, this year will be the growth spurt, and hopefully we’ll blossom into one of those precociously mature adolescents who everyone’s dazzled by instead of the gangly awkward kid who has more limbs than they know what to do with. Stay tuned.

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Perhaps the Worst Round Ever on Video

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

I’ve been displaying all the APDA Summer 2011 tournament rounds as they get uploaded, so I might as well include our semifinal loss, a monstrosity which included 6 minutes of points of clarification, pervasive ad hominem attacks (mostly directed at me), and the scattershottiest opp I may have ever witnessed. Nevertheless, you can judge it for yourself below:

APDA Summer 2011: Semifinals from Storey Clayton on Vimeo.

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Storey Advocates Nuclear Annihilation

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

If you liked it when I argued we should profit off of hapless students instead of offering them non-profit education, you’ll love this.

This was the case Dave & Kyle were going to run in Nats Finals had they gotten there. Instead, Dave & I had fun with the sisters Sanders in this round that is not precisely an exemplar of full decorum. Enjoy:

APDA Summer 2011: Round 1 from Storey Clayton on Vimeo.

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The Case for Religion

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

I have another TH’HEAT video in the wings, but the uploading seems to be going slowly because it’s really long and something about the lighting of it makes it extra-colorful and thus takes a lot of byte space and bandwidth. At least, I think that’s contributing to the issues. In any event, David Yin uploaded our fourth round from last Saturday’s fun tournament at Columbia and I wanted to share it since it was by far the highest quality round of the five we debated. We also got to defend something I believe in, more or less, even though I was accused of being an atheist during the round. It was after giving this LOR that I really felt I was on my game again and had shaken off all the rust from my time not debating.

Debate: “Would You Get Rid of Religion?” from David on Vimeo.

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Storey Defends Profit

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

One of the most fun aspects of debate, as well as its most educational and most challenging, is that it mandates one frequently argue persuasively for things diametric to what one actually believes. Here’s a key example, where Dave and I, debating as “Red Dawn” as a nod to our personally socio-communist leanings, argue things like the market solving, the ethos of American opportunity, and even the accrual of debt:

APDA Summer 2011: Round 2 from Storey Clayton on Vimeo.

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Sentient Spiders!

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

The first of a few rounds from Saturday’s tournament that Dave and I filmed. This is probably the second-best – our fourth round was awfully awesome and hopefully the other team, who recorded that, will get it online soon. This is among the crazier cases I’ve ever run, but it made for a pretty great round:

APDA Summer 2011: Round 3 from Storey Clayton on Vimeo.

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