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?

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?

1. Intro

Usually I talk here about debate, or speech, or related concerns.   I don’t promise to make this a blog about such things, but since debate is my major outlet, it seems to fit.

Debate is also a useful shield sometimes; among debaters, one can talk about debate for a very long time, and never have to touch on anything else.   It surprises outsiders, but we rarely talk about our own politics or the affairs of the world, much less more sensitive ground like religious belief or our own views of the ethics and morals we toss around casually.   Debate encourages distance and dispassion from the topics we tackle; bringing our own ideas into a debate discussion, even between rounds, may feel too much like judge intervention to us. We don’t really argue much with each other, not nearly as much as outsiders expect.

The other counter-intuitive thing about debaters is that the average debater is an introvert.   There are spectacular exceptions, of course — cough cough Cruz cough — but the typical debater is a rather quiet kid who thinks intensely and can deliver a great speech, but fundamentally keeps her own worries and own life to herself.   And this typical debater grows up to be a typical coach, the same introvert, whose talk about herself is further limited by the quelling presence of minors we’re here to educate.   Revealing personal thoughts and events inevitably exposes weaknesses, and we’re encouraged implicitly to maintain our infallible sheen of perfect authority with the debaters under our care.

I’m no great exception to any of these rules.   I joined speech and debate because I knew a lot about the world, politics, events, history.   I joined speech and debate also because various people dragged me into both.   And finally I joined speech and debate because I was absolutely terrified of speaking in public.   One of the few wise things I knew when I was an otherwise pretty stupid teenager was that the purpose of education is to address your weaknesses, not to showcase your strengths.   That of course runs contrary to the kind of education a lot of teenagers strive for — and a lot of parents want for them, too.   But we’re all permitted a few unique insights in life, and that was one of mine.

However, our veils of ignorance are imperfect at best; concealed moods and private reality bleed through.   We don’t address either particularly well in debate.   We commune in loud silence, covering our refusal to talk by talking too much: talking about the best link turn to that politics disad or the way overused debate theory in LD makes everyone want to never judge a round again.   We have rich full lives with sudden joys and deep problems, but it only shows through, confusingly without a hint as to its origin, in a particularly vehement bashing of PF.

I’m guilty of all these sins, to some extent or another.   I’ve not lived in perfect concealment; a fair number of debate denizens know something of what goes on beyond the tab room for me.   But a much wider circle has been in the dark for over a year now.   I’ve dropped a lot of soft responsibilities this year — the ones that accumulate from tradition, the logic being that if you did a job last year you will again this year.   These soft responsibilities can be very hard on those of us who don’t teach or hold official title. I know there’s a fair number of folks out there who think I’ve abandoned and left them behind — and no I’m not talking about anyone specifically, since there are many diverse groups under this heading.   However, I’ve always been careful to not be committed or promised on an ongoing basis to much.   I simply ask that people try to recall what I’ve actually promised, and try to recall what you’ve asked, when you catalog my sins.

I’ve also dropped a small number of things I actually did promise and commit to, trying my best to hand them off in a responsible and sustainable manner where I can, and where it was welcomed.   For instance, I’m not going to Princeton this year, and I’m not in charge of Columbia, though both are in good hands.

Why?   Well, more on that in the next post.