The Frozen North

This weekend, I traveled to Maine, specifically Maranacook Community School, a little west of Augusta.  At Cat Nats last year, John B from Maine told me they’d talked about computerizing their tournaments this year for the first time on tabroom.com, and being the sucker nice guy that I am, I volunteered to come up and step them through an early tournament.   What we found in the MFL as we started using the program is that there’s more to computer tab than simply using a computer; you have to re-examine a lot of assumptions to find the best approach.  It took us a couple years in the MFL to nail it down; the Maine folk could therefore draw on our experience and learn things the easy way.

Now let me start by saying that I just love Maine.  I associate it with entirely good things.  We went there just about every summer when I was a kid, after Martha’s Vineyard grew too expensive for the likes of us.  We often stayed to just the southern tip — Old Orchard, York, etc — but I also greatly like the Real Maine, the part north of Portland.  It has several small cities very like the one I grew up in, without the overwhelming shadow of a Boston to domainate them.  It has a marvelous share of nature, and dark skies full of stars, and enough ocean to go around ten times over.  I’m truly a country boy at heart, and Maine satisifies all.  If a few million dollars were to fall from the heavens and land in my checking account, there’s little doubt I’d try to spend as much time in Maine as possible.  To whatever extent my family’s genetic memory survives in me, places like Maine resonate with “home”, the original homes of Nova Scotia, Quebec, New Brunswick, that go back several hundred years to a dimly remembered past in Normandy, Anjou and Lorraine.  I also have a odd like of being a guest at tournaments.  I’ve always had a good time as the guest of the NYSFL at their state tournament, and my trips to the Sunvitational and Ridge were quite nice, too.  Being an outsider makes the tournament experience somehow less stressful and more pure.  I merely have to advise, not decide; help, not be responsible.  I can also do what I do well without worrying about interpersonal rivalries and politics, which I generally find distasteful and which reduce my desire to be involved in forensics as a whole a great deal.  As a stranger, I am touched by no politics.  It’s a role I relish.

In Maine, they appear to have very few politics to go around.  It’s possible that after I leave, the long knives will come out, but they were to my eyes a truly warm and friendly group of people.  They made me feel right at home, from the kind hospitality of the tournament director to the absolute fun time we had in the tab room.  And the tournament director’s husband very subtly quizzed me as to my favorite scotches, pretending an interest, in order to go out and get me a fine bottle in thanks.  They sure know how to treat a guy.

As forensics go, they clearly get it.  They’d been doing their tournaments for a long time in their way, just as we’d done ours in our way for a long time when we computerized.  But they took suggestions left and right, saw the value immediately, implemented most of them on the spot, and by the end of the afternoon I had the feeling that their tournaments will be zooming right along in a matter of weeks.  Brave new world indeed.

There were some differences.  They had a judge’s lounge with a mighty food spread; it was possibly the best meal I’ve ever had at a tournament outside of a restaurant, despite it being merely ordinary by their own standards.  But as with most forensics, the language, the feel of the day, everything was pretty much the same world, just a different place.

Maine has fewer kids at their tournaments than Massachusetts does, though not fewer schools really, it’s just those schools are smaller. A huge percentage of the kids were double entered.  As a result their capacity for overhead is less — but they do run finals, just with only one judge.

By the time finals rolled around, things were well in hand in tab, so I offered to judge the extemp final, which was only four kids.  Now there are a number of stereotypes that would suggest themselves at this moment; only four backwoods hicks from some part of the country that no one has heard of forensically.   Well, far from it.  The kids didn’t speak a clear structure, that’s for sure, so much of what came through was a little muddled and confused.  But they also were clearly four bright kids, and pretty good speakers too.  There were no Painful Novice Moments, that’s for sure.  I think any of them would have a chance to be nationally competitive if they focused their analysis and cleaned up their style.  I could probably coach them into it in months.  They’d get slaughtered in a Massachusetts tournament as they are now, but only with a little fixing, they could certainly hold their own.

So what are you saying, Palmer, that the Maine coaches are the dumb and clueless hicks?  No, anything but; it was a great, intelligent, and dedicated group of coaches sitting in that tab room.  But the round did demonstrate to me the value of regional travel.  Maine schools don’t get the chance to travel out of region very often, through challenges of distance and budgets, though I suspect I may be able to coax them southwards a little more if I try and help a little.  But for now, it’s pretty much locals and Nationals — at the end, when kids can’t apply lessons learned — and that’s it.  That means they’re limited to the approaches and ideas that they come up with.  In Massachusetts, it’s different. Half of us go to Yale, and see the ideas that 20 different states have come up with, early in the season when we can make use of them.  We bring them back to the other half of us, and the standard in general is raised.  We have good coaches too, but we’re far richer for the access to the national community we enjoy.  In extemp, that makes us able to get our kids into finals on a regular basis; a knowledge dissemination trick, not a talent gap.

That smacks of injustice to me, that they have basically no chance at nationals and wherever because of where they were born, not because of anything they’re doing wrong.  I should never had access to a great number of things because of where I was born, after all, and only through chance and coincidence, combined with others’ generosity, did I find my way into them.  So I feel sometimes that I owe something.  I can risk hubris in saying that I’m pretty good at coaching extemp, using a lot of my own ideas, but a lot of others’ too.   I feel it would take very little teaching and explanation to bring these kids, and probably their coaches, up to speed.

I feel the doom of a new project coming on.  Maybe I’ll resist.  But I’d actually like an excuse to go up there again.