6. Progress

Well, working with the Lex program so far has been a blast.  I remember, of course, that the reason I committed so much time to this activity in the first place was because it was fun. It’s easy to lose sight of that, as responsibility replaces engagement for so many coaches as time goes on.  And indeed, someone does have to take responsibility for the various mechanics of tournaments and teams.

Now I’m happy to tab the odd tournament and help out here and there, certainly.  I’d rather tab a well run tournament that judge at a horrible mess of one, as a rule.  But I have to focus more on having fun in this activity.  I don’t get paid to do it.  In fact, I refuse to get paid to do it, despite having been offered payment for it many times.  The only time I’ve taken money out of forensics was at camp, and even there I made less than the two weeks of work I skipped for it would have paid me.

But the main iron in the fire for me in debate is to have fun.  I wasn’t having fun for the last few years, and it had nothing to do with the people around me, but everything to do with what I was doing and what I wasn’t doing.  I could have probably just left altogether and been OK, but so far I’ve been happy with where I am and what I’m doing; coaching great kids who’re having some real good early success, doing interesting work in interesting new fields, and so on.  Hell, I already have three cases in my head ready to be written depending on what Jan/Feb is.

So it’s going to be a tough year; 2010 will grind on for much longer than the end of December, for me.  It will not always be easy.  I may yet have to abandon a tournament, suddenly, midstream, and horribly.  But I’m glad, at last, to have rediscovered the fun in it.

So that ends this exercise in navel gazing.  I’ll be back to sporadic posting about nothing in particular.  But I’m glad to have this out there, for the people who read it to see.  It started so negative, but ended on an up note, I hope.  Which is what I hope for the year, the decade, the life to come.  I’ll have down days and sad days and days where I can’t do much.  But at the very least, in a perversion of the Kantian logic in debate rounds, I can begin to treat each day as an end unto itself, not as a means to serve another day.

5. Finity

One of the things that bored me about speech was how uncreative it was.  It’s very difficult to get speech kids to try new things, and go in different directions.  Extemp speeches all sound basically the same; oratory too.  You can walk into any round of IEs and know immediately what event is being performed.  It should be difficult to tell the difference between oratory and extemp, just for listening; but it’s not.  You can spot a DI a mile away.  The house style rules all.

PF at local tournaments has caught the same bug; an essential conservatism behind the approach settles on the event.  It’s hard to get kids to break out of the mold and run interesting new things; you always get the same response: “I don’t know if The Judges will go for that.”  The Judges, a group of people who may be at their first tournament ever, nonetheless have preferences and convictions about debate that are so deep they cannot possibly be overturned by weight of reason and logic.

But we talked about that lost interest already.  I had already made the decision to leave speech based on it.  But it informs the second choice that I made.

Last spring, I had committed previously to tabbing at the TOC in the PF division, and traveling with Lexington to the tournament once it became clear my own debaters would not qualify.   The TOC is a gentle tournament, and a lot of fun, without the sleep deprivation and bad meals that seems par for course at the IE culminating events.   And it’s only the second time all year I get to see nearly everyone I know and like from the world of debate, after Yale.  So even with everything else I was juggling and canceling, I went to the TOC.

It was a highlight of my year.   Firstly, I remembered that I do like and get along with coaches in debate a great deal more easily than speech coaches.  Lynne has always said that I truly belonged in the dark side of debaters, and she is proven right.  It’s a different mindset among debaters; as I said before, debaters are introverts and people about the mind, like me; while speech people can’t think without talking at the same time.  Speech people can’t imagine a world without trophies to motivate; debate people (with one glaring exception in northern New York City…) for the most part don’t care nearly as much.  Speech in MFL has gone the way of everyone’s a winner — explain having 16 events with tons of mutual overlap otherwise — while debate is still fiercely selective.  The real focus then is not necessarily on hauling home trophies.  Discussions in the hallway are about what people are running, not nebulous conversation about how good a given competitor is.

The TOC felt much more comfortable to me.  Among speech coaches, I’m a little out of place; here, I was among My People.

I also got to be the asshole who introduced the K into Public Forum debate.  The NFL had been selling topics — or in their parlance, allowing outside groups to sponsor topic areas, which is a  distinction without a difference.  A rich, shadowy group that apparently doesn’t like unions much — gosh, who’d’ve thunk a group opposed to unions might have a lot of money to burn — had bought the TOC topic, along with a conveniently timed Cato Institute report on the same subject.   So, I suggested the Lexwegians attack this fact in their cases directly; tell the judges to vote for public unions and against moneyed interests as an external factor in the debate.  It’s a critical position, but the PF rules define kritiks as “off topic arguments” while banning them, and this criticism was about the topic itself.   So it didn’t meet the definition of the K which the PF rules attempt to ban.  Besides, bans on certain types of arguments in debate depend mostly on the judge enforcing that ban, which is spotty at best.  The poobahs of debate don’t appreciate that fact enough when they attempt to legislate away argument styles they don’t approve of.

To my surprise, the Lexwegians ran with it, full speed.  I’d have had to threaten kids raised in our local circuit with a taser to get them to run a K.  I was half joking when I suggested it to the Lexwegians.  But no, they ran it with relish.  And was it a lot of  fun.  We were the talk of the tournament, though neither team cleared.  Conversations stopped when the kids entered the room.  We were working on something new and different — could a K be pulled off in the constraints of PF?  I think we could have done much better had I worked with the teams earlier; we may well have cleared with a K in Public Forum debate.  As it was, we came very close.

I returned energized and refreshed.   I remembered judging and coaching real circuit debate, in LD.   I also realized that if I gave up on forensics entirely, I’d miss socializing with the coaches of the Northeast, even if I kept with Yale, Penn and the two Lexington tournaments.   Debate coaches in particular are generally non-annoying non-screwups, and net helpful, not harmful, when you need things done.  So these aren’t people I want to scope out of my life.

Debaters also tend to go to fewer tournaments, of larger scope.   There are less dead weight weekends, tournaments that are practice to the kids and don’t truly matter to the adults.   I actually like judging debates, which is more active and engaging, even as I avoid the passivity of IE rounds.  The intellectual rigor of the activity is certainly like nothing in IEs except for extemp.  I’ve never been a artistic events coach, and don’t have the talent for it.  In extemp, all your coaching work is general and anticipatory; in debate, coaches get to be directly involved, since they’re an active part of pre-round prep, not forbidden from the sanctum of the prep room.

Also, I was afraid to give up on tournaments altogether.  The blessing of tournaments is they’re all consuming.  The entire time you’re at a tournament you’re engaged by it, working on it, being part of it.  Novices quickly learn that bringing homework to a tournament is utterly futile; you’ll never crack your math book.  There are vast swathes of underused time in tournament schedules, but somehow the tournament fills them up with debate stuff.   That’s often a minus for people’s lives.  But right now I need to take a weekend every month and be fully engaged by something other than normal life.  At a tournament I get 2-3 days to not think about Things.  Given that’s all I do all the rest of my life these days, I’m good with that.

So I had dinner with Sara, and she asked me if I wanted to coach LD and PF at Lex.  And I said yes.

So how’s it been?

4 Actions

When you’re under that kind of pressure and strain, you start mercilessly prioritizing and looking at your life.  At least, I did. It’s a refreshing exercise, to be recommended when you have far lesser reasons to do it.

In the last year I looked around my life and realize I do a lot of unrewarding crap entirely out of a sense of tradition and obligation.

Speech has been my major diversion and my major activity for most of my adult life.  I’ve been involved at the highest and the lowest levels, which are remarkably similar.  I’ve run Nationals, I’ve coached champions, I’ve coached teams that bombed and failed, and I’ve cleaned up the cafeteria after the tournament is done.   I’ve built up and run several of the best tournaments in the Northeast, perhaps even the country.   I’ve changed extemp, and changed what students learn in extemp; hopefully I’ve made it much more rigorous and interesting.  I’ve done a lot, for a part-timer.

What the last year has brought into sharp focus, however, is that I’m tired of it, bored of it.  I’ve been identified as a rare commodity: someone in speech who has my organizational act together.  I have the temperance to run big events: organized enough to keep them running, but free enough to not allow obsessions over minor problems derail tournaments.   You need an apathetic brand of OCD to be a good tournament director.   But I’ve been around long enough that my responsibilities piled up; since I’m someone who can get things done, lately I’ve been doing little else.

Running the state league was Not Much Fun.  I did it for two terms in a row, which is twice as many terms as anyone else has done in a while.  It’s essentially an ocean of expectations offset by a puddle of resources.  Change is difficult there, especially changes that would have made the league easier to run.  Instead, the Board is dominated by the same tired agendas that boil down to who gets which trophies and why.  Several of the people were willing to go to any length to achieve those agendas.  It became depressingly constant, and I don’t need it.  There’s a lot of good in the state league, but the people running it don’t get to experience a lot of it.  And I’ve realized, there’s not much good I can do with it anymore.

Running invitational tournaments is better, as you get to do whatever you want to.  But attending coaches also treat you as if you owe them something, when I decidedly do not.  To some degree, the speech world doesn’t deserve well run tournaments, because t0o many of its members do their utmost to make them impossible to pull off.  In debate we talk about how the same 2% of schools cause 98% of the problems; in IEs there are far far more trouble-making programs.   The tournaments were worthwhile and the work I did do was more immediately realized.  So I’m going to cut back, not leave altogether.  I found an eminently able successor to handle Columbia in Joe A.  I’m also skipping Princeton this year, having already formed a committee to take over.  A permanent solution for Princeton still awaits, but we’ll do right by it.

Penn remains a good weekend for a great cause, and Yale is my premier tournament, so I’ll keep those for now.

And finally and hardest, speech coaching had lost a lot of its appeal.  The kids were great and fun like they’d always been, but I began to dread speech itself.  I spent a whole year not really wanting to go to practice, even though I usually had a good time once I got there.  I’d mastered extemp, the speech event I do best; but it’s been years since I’ve seen a new idea out there that wasn’t mine first.  I have an image in my head of what extemp should be, and coaching at this point is not creation, but teaching each student to approximate that Platonic ideal to the limit of their ability.  There’s not much joy in that, once you’ve done it a dozen or so times.

Once a coach has really mastered an event, often they’ll stay in it to rack up a ton of hardware and feel good about themselves through their students.  If we expanded and aggressively recruited and had 20 extempers on our squad, we’d almost certainly have at least a few students who could be nationally competitive every year.  We could have an empire.  But I’m not that kind of person.  Trophies are cheap in more ways than one; they’re not worth the effort.  To some degree in speech, most of the education is realized in making a bad freshman into a good sophomore.  After that level, the rest is just ever more precious refinement; the educational differences between a national champion and a kid who breaks their senior year aren’t that great.  At that level, it’s more of a talent difference.

I coached and did this to learn myself, create, and grow.  And I’d stopped doing that.

So I was ready to stop coaching speech.  I wrote a note over the summer, strangely so far not replied to, asking for a quiet end.  It was too quiet — some of my old students don’t seem to know the score.   I left behind a solid group of extempers and a dizzying array of senior PF debaters.  And now at last I’ve come public.  I’m an ex speech coach.

I didn’t want this to be a Big Shocking Announcement with a bunch of tearful goodbyes, because I haven’t ever viewed myself as institutional.  Every year I asked the question “do I want to do this again?” and had to make the choice to continue, rather than it being automatic.   I’ve never had great loyalty to any particular school or program, not even my own alma mater — because I feel that excessive school loyalty is corrosive to education.  If coaching and help from me could make a difference to a kid who happened to be born in another school district, it’s not in my nature to withhold them.  Ultimately being part of an institution isn’t what I want out of forensics, and being a part of an institution is the only thing that would be left for me in speech.  So I bade it goodbye.

But this is not, as it happens, a complete goodbye.

3 Reactions

One of the things about going into a sustained crisis mode is you become exceedingly selfless and selfish at the same time.  A hard deadline on time with someone pushes you to give everything you can, and many things you can’t.   The price is you take a scalpel to the rest of your life.  My house hasn’t been truly clean in months.   There are any number of friends I see about a quarter as often as I used to.  There are an even larger number of plans for life that are on hold.

So you drop commitments.  At first, people understand.  But your struggles aren’t theirs.  Others’ fuses are inevitably shorter than your own.  To you, the troubles are a reality you live with every day.  Others forget, or come to think of it as “that stuff that happened months ago.”  They adjust back to their normal reality quickly, and forget to account for yours still being unresolved.

Soon enough, emails or phone calls start to demand to know where you’ve been, or why you haven’t replied lately, or followed up on some months-old promise.  That gives you a devil’s choice: you can either go through the motions and fulfill whatever duty others are flinging at you, or you can once again play the Dying Family card, and be the one who causes guilt and stress in return.  It forces you to wear yourself out, or be extremely one-dimensional.  Soon, people stop asking you how things are going; and you appreciate that they do: running through the litany again doesn’t make you feel any better either.   Soon enough, others stop pitching in to help quite so automatically when you falter.  And you can’t blame them, because the bad times aren’t theirs, so they reserve less to pay the price of it.

I’ve always had a strong sense of loyalty and duty, to family and to others in general.  However, I’ve learned over the last year that that sense of duty can cause others to take my presence and my generosity for granted, and come to treat it as a right, not a gift.

The challenge gets worse still when you divide yourself between multiple troubles.  There aren’t any right choices.  An hour spent visiting my uncles and their families wasn’t spent with Dad; an hour with Dad is an hour taken from my grandmother.  I didn’t spend a lot of those hours with my grandfather before he died last summer.  That opportunity is lost for good.  So I’m determined to do the right thing now.  But there is no right thing.   And you need to spend some of those hours on yourself, or else the other hours will be no good.  You have to be there, but you have to be strong. The perfect balance is a myth.

Humanity isn’t meant to contemplate time as infinite; infinity hurts us to think about, and the mind runs away from it and retreats into our finite world.  But the hints of death inevitably bring infinity to the forefront.  You start wondering what matters, if anything can matter up against the long forever.   And if nothing does matter, then what’s the point of being strong?  Today these people are alive; in some near future many won’t be; but tomorrow I could be hit by the proverbial bus myself.   Everything seems short-term, immediate, and taxing.

Before you call the suicide hot line on me, be aware that this happens in bad moments and terrible times, not constantly.  For the most part, the human mind is good at defending itself from these thoughts.  But they’re there all the same.  We were better at life when it was unchanging and circular, and we didn’t have to confront the possibility of the infinite.  Our science has harmed us by breaking the circle of time and replacing it with progress, which is linear.  So that’s esoteric.  But it makes sense in my head.

So what do I do about it?

2. The Argument

So this post will go up on Thanksgiving.  I wrote them all together, ahead of time, but decided to space them out instead of inflicting a Wall of Text on the world.

Thanksgiving is a lot of people’s favorite holiday, give that the preparation is minimal compared to Christmas, and the effect longer; it’s a particularly good meal, followed by some football and napping.  Low obligation, high reward; the opposite of Christmas where you spend four weeks frantically preparing for ten minutes of unwrapping.

Perhaps this is bad timing then, but when your bad times come unrelenting, you reach for any excuse to keep silent.  You don’t want to become the life hypochondriac, the person who others dread to ask “So how are things going?” and fearing an honest answer.  But here, I suppose, on the web, people can stop reading at any time.  So onwards.

2010 is going to be a very long year, in the sense that the 1800s were a very long century; they began rightly in 1789 and ended in 1914.  The 20th was thankfully short, extending only from 1914-1989.   Just so, my 2010 began in July 2009, a night where I was in a bar during camp having late night appetizers and drinks and conversation about debate while back home my grandfather died.

This was an ordinary tragedy, though a sudden one.  He was 78 years old, a lifelong smoker, didn’t suffer a long illness, and was starting to lose mental acuity.  He’d forget sometimes whether he’d eaten lunch that day.  He was tired, and would not have wanted a long twilight of semi-helplessness.  We miss him terribly; he’s the first loss in my core family, the first one missing who was always there every holiday.  But I have a hard time begrudging it.  I knew my grandfather for 31 years; I would not insult the memory of his long and good life by suggesting it was too short.

Next the new family, the Smiths, who I’d only just started to know and see, suffered twin horrors.  My uncles Curtis and Ron were both diagnosed with aggressive lung cancer months apart from each other.  At the time, I didn’t realize how quick and short things would be.  I regret that now; Ron died in April, and Curtis followed in June.  The loss to me personally is one of potential; I didn’t know them well, and now never will.  But I tried to share the loss of their families as best I could, to lessen it what little I might.  If you’re in a family for three months or three decades, family they still are.

On January 30th, 2010, my father was then diagnosed, when he fell into seizures from a brain tumor that started from the cancer in his own lungs.  I was at a speech tournament at the time. The next two weeks were a blur of sudden drives and surgery and research and a dawning realization.   Extensive small cell lung cancer is not something that is survived; the average life expectancy on diagnosis is 6-12 months.  By two years time all but a handful are gone.

Dad has outlasted the 6 months, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t outlast the 12.  How much beyond that, we do not know, but it’s likely measured in months.  Small cell lung cancer spreads quickly, but also is more responsive to treatment, and his has been held at bay so far.  But the treatment is almost as bad as the disease; it weakens you, takes your appetite, and slowly takes your will.  It’s hard to extend a life when that life is not one you want to lead.

My aunt Carol, my father’s sister — I have several aunt Carols on various branches — is in the late stages of COPD, which is the family of disease that includes emphysema.  She likely has little time left.  My grandmother is in the early stages.  The doctors put her on oxygen a few weeks ago.  Any real danger can be years and years away, but the oxygen has rattled her a lot, and robbed her of her freedom.

Those are the facts on the ground, as it were.  I have a very large family, and a large family means a lot of weddings, and a lot of funerals.   But the funerals should come when people are 95 years old and tired of everything.  55 is not a good age for a funeral.

The next post will be about the changes.  But I will extract one bit of meaning from the above litany.  Every single one of these events was added to, or entirely caused, by smoking cigarettes.  Why are these things even legal?