Snazzy (albeit smaller) Nostrum Graphic
Past episodes     Reader's Guide to the Nostrum Universe     Nostrum Correspondence Corner
Subscribe to Nostrum      Home

(New to Nostrum? We recommend starting at the beginning.
Totally lost? Find out who's who in the Reader's Guide or track the "Ref #" links to the previous scene with those characters.)

Have you read this week's epistle from Jules?

Episode 104

Work This

It doesn't just happen. You've got to work for it.

Work: the ultimate four-letter word.

To begin with, everybody is smart. Well, okay, maybe not everybody, but more people than you think, and they're smarter than you think they are. So being smart alone is not enough. Smart is just raw material, the way tall is raw material for basketball or pleasingly plump is raw material for sumo wrestling. Simply being over six-foot-three does not equate with the idea of nothing but net; plenty of tall people are no more athletic than your average undercooked knockwurst. Simply being over three hundred pounds does not keep you in that tiny circle when the other fat guy comes at you like a determined glacier; plenty of dietetically challenged Japanese people are as likely to take up sumo wrestling as they are to take up professional phonics. Raw material alone means nothing. Working that raw material into the final product is what makes the difference.

And there's that four-letter word again. Work.

Work. The final frontier. The thing is, regardless of whether or not you are working hard, you can rely on the fact that plenty of other people -- your competitors -- are working hard. Plenty of them aren't, no question about that, but plenty of them are. And it's the ones who are that you have to worry about.

In the high school universe, there are various arenas for work, or lack thereof. There is pure academics, of course, and putting oneself on the path to an Ivy college. There is work for hire, when the issue is not getting into which college but being able to afford whatever college; at the prices of higher education these days, it is never too soon to start peddling french fries. Of course, some students work to achieve less lofty goals, like the acquisition of a Toyota Rav4 or something similarly materialistic and instantly gratifying (unless you have to sit in the back seat). Working during the summer is a virtual given, but working during the school year is another issue altogether. Time is drained away from studies, and for that matter, from everything else. Maintaining a part time job during the school year is almost a guarantee that you will not have all the time you need to work on your grades. So you give up the Ivy that you couldn't afford anyhow for the state university that you now can afford. If you're on the work path to buying that SUV, on the other hand, then more likely you're not all that worried about higher education anyhow, and there's always that community college in the next town and you can transfer as a sophomore to a real school but in the meantime, well, at least you'll be commuting in style.

The high school work arena that concerns us most is the extracurricular one. Some people put incredible effort into their afterschool activities, while some people don't even have afterschool activities. What is the motivation? It depends on the activity. Sports are simple; absent the potential full-scholarship winner, your everyday athlete is in it because he or she likes it. It is fun. And if the team is good, it is also rewarding -- basking in the glow of victory, receiving the accolades of your adoring peers. You become popular, which is another way of saying that you are in demand with members of the opposite sex, which is almost always desirable. Upping the demand for your person on the relationship market is a not unworthy goal; far from it, especially as over the long term, such activities come as close as you can get to insuring the survival of your genes, which is all the mortality you are going to get, so you might as well go for it.

On the other hand, if the team is bad, much of the same relationship to the opposite sex material is still a propos, because, well, our football team might not be much, but it's the only team we have. Go, Lungfish!

First in ten, do it again.

Yaaaaaaah, team!

(Love those cheerleaders!)

But overall, it is the fun aspect of the sports that is the motivation. You get to play tennis, or golf, or volleyball. Since you already like tennis, or golf, or volleyball, what's wrong with that?

Some afterschool activities are more privately rewarding. You join the chess club to find someone to play chess with, you join the tropical fish club to find someone to trade tetras with, you join the rifle club to find other junior members of the NRA, you join the Holy Rollers because you're really into the Deity. Take your pick. You may be limiting your potential gene pool contributions, but at least you're having a good time.

Forensics, to some extent, falls into the latter category of private reward. You take up the activity because you like theater and therefore are intrigued by getting to do a piece every week or two rather than waiting once a year for the school to perform "Penzance" for the 3000th time (one more year with an eye-patch and you'll start believing you really are a pirate). You take up debate because you like the idea of arguing and actually winning, as compared to the simulacrum of argument that occurs between you and your parents, which is usually nothing more than the unpleasant pastime of putting off the inevitable of doing what they wanted in the first place before you bothered speaking up about it ("Why does everything have to be a debate with you?"). You take up Congress and Extemp because you read every word of every newspaper you can get your hands on, and you can never find anyone else who is as interested in you are in the upcoming elections in Kush Behar or the oleomargarine shortages in Upper Slobovia.

Forensics, in other words, fills an intellectual gap, and as such, is already attractive.

But there is a second level of forensics' attraction, and this is the belief that speech or debate will somehow get you into a better college. This is true, but only marginally (unless, of course, you commit to debate in college, in which case your career as a high school debater becomes fairly germane, but that is a unique track not usually considered by the high school freshman deciding whether to sign up for LD; said freshman is hardly thinking about what his or her college extracurricular life will be like, when the high school extracurricular life hasn't even begun yet). In the better-college sweepstakes, any commitment to extracurricular activities is better than no commitment. Are colleges looking for debaters rather than, say, piccolo players? Depends on the college, and even more, it depends on whether there's an opening for a piccolo player and you spent four years arguing counterplans while the other person up for the school spent every waking moment in the marching band. It is very hard to predict which activities are going to be in demand at the moment of applicant acceptance, so it is probably better not to try. Any commitment is the key; leave it at that.

Finally, there is the third level of forensics attraction, and this is the competition. It is not the same as football, where everyone (presumably) is watching you and cheering. It is more akin to the private pleasure of track and field, where you polish your abilities in something special, then you compete against others who have also polished that ability. The reward is almost entirely in personal achievement. You learn discipline, you learn the skills of that activity (and no matter how arcane those skills are, there is probably a counterpart in real life -- javelin throwers, for instance, will be in great demand after Armageddon leaves us with no weapons others than spears), and when you win, you know the joy of victory.

The joy of victory. No small joy, no matter what the victory is. But to achieve that joy, to attain that victory, you usually have to work for it.

Work. The ultimate four-letter word.

Which brings us back to where we started from.


Working on a Duo is not easy. Work: the ultimate four-letter word.

First, there is the cutting itself. Is it representative of the piece as a whole? Does it have a dramatic arc? Will the viewer understand it?

David Brillig already did the cutting of Sullivan and Gilbert, although here and there William has been picking at it, substituting this line for that line to better achieve the desired effect.

"It can never be too funny," William says.

"But it can be too long," David replies. He and William are seated next to each other on the couch in the Brillig family room. Both of them hold a copy of the original text in one hand and a triple-spaced copy of their cutting in the other. They have just added a two-line exchange that takes twelve seconds. SInce their timing is presently ten minutes and twenty seconds, a mere ten seconds short of the thirty-second grace period over ten minutes, they are looking for more cuts rather than more adds. They want it to come in exactly at ten minutes to allow for some elbow room, rather than cutting it this close to the danger zone. But those new lines were so good.

"We'll get it out, sooner or later," William says. "We've got all week."

After the cutting is done, there is the practicing. There are a lot of lines, and so many different ways to perform them. Often a simple inflection, an accent on this word rather than that word, can mean the difference between a laugh and a blank stare, or a tear and that same blank stare; there is no difference between bad comedy and bad tragedy as far as blank stares are concerned.

And only through the practice can the interpretation begin to build. Sullivan is interpreted by David as something of a naif, an old blustery innocent at play in the back stages of the Savoy. Gilbert is the wise one, in William's hands the experienced man-of-the-world. But it is Sullivan who has been knighted, and Gilbert who has been passed over. At the beginning of their run-throughs, they are only speaking the lines, but as they do it again and again and again and again, they start becoming their characters: David becomes the blustery naif, William becomes the wily old roue.

And they do it again. And again. And again.

Sometimes they feel a line works, and they leave it. Other times they feel a line is not happening, and they try a different approach. Broader. Faster. Slower. For a laugh. Not for a laugh.

Hours pass.

"What do you think?" David asks, after they have gone through the piece so often he feels as if his brain is going to fall out of his head and land on the floor and break like a soft-boiled egg.

William's eyes are closed. "I think," he says finally, "that it's good." He opens his eyes and smiles impishly.

David responds in kind. "I think it's good too," he agrees.

"Want to try it one more time?"


"I take that as a yes."

"I meant it as a no."

"Fine. From the top..."

They perform the piece one last time. They have long ago memorized it, but they still occasionally consult the scripts in their hands, because when they perform, they will have to have scripts in their hands, and will have to pretend to consult them. It's a rule.

Speech events have lots of rules. Don't ask why; no one knows. They're just rules.

William and David time the piece as they work, allowing a few extra seconds in the places where they're sure they'll generate a laugh.

Ten minutes, five seconds. Very, very workable.

"We haven't been this good in a long time," David says, dropping down on the couch when they finish their final run-through.

"Not since Parrots," William agrees.

"Good old Parrots."

"Good old Parrots."

They sit next to each other, staring forward. Minutes pass. Meaningful, contemplative minutes.

"Do you hate me?" William asks.

David does not respond immediately.

"I don't want you to hate me," William goes on. "That's not right. I don't deserve that. We used to be best friends."

"We used to do Parrots," David says.

"Exactly. Among other things."

They still do not make eye contact.

"I just don't understand," David says finally.

"About me being gay?" William asks.

"About you."

"Being gay. You can say it, you know. I am gay, whether you say it or not."

"About you being gay," David says. "About you being gay."

"That didn't hurt, did it."

David says nothing.

"If it helps at all, I don't understand it either," William says. "But it's not something I feel that I even have to understand. It's just something that is."

"But how did it happen?"

"I don't know if it 'happens' at all. It's more as if one day you don't think about it and the next day you do. It's more an awareness than a happening."

"But how did you become aware?"

William shrugs. "I don't think it's any different than your knowledge of not being gay. How did you become aware of that?"

"I don't know."

"But you know you aren't."

"I am definitely not!" David says quickly.

"I'm not accusing you. Is that what you're worried about? That if I'm gay, people will think that you're gay too, because we used to be friends?"

David is silent. Then, "Maybe," he says softly.

"Oh, man, that really sucks. That is so... bogus. Prejudiced. I mean, that's just not like you. I know you, David. You're a great guy. You can't believe that hanging around with a gay guy means that people will think you're gay too."

"But they will."


"What do you mean, so?"

"I mean, so? So what? So friggin' what, if you want an expletive thrown in for good measure."

"That wasn't an expletive, that was a euphemism."

"Friggin' is not a euphemism. Doing the horizontal boogie-woogie is a euphemism. Friggin' is simply a mild vulgarity."

"As compared to a non-mild vulgarity."


"Whatever. But I admit it, William. I don't want people to think I'm gay."

"Why not?"

"Because what if I am, and I just don't know it?"

"That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. If you don't know it, you aren't gay. Trust me on that. It's not brain surgery."

"I don't understand any of this, William." The words do not come out easily.

"Are you all right?"

"You were my best friend. For years." He is starting to choke on the words through sobs. "My very best friend in the world." He sniffs. "And then I lost you. And I don't know why."

"You lost me because you wanted to, David."

David is openly crying now, unable to stifle his emotions.

"I didn't want to, William. I didn't understand." Another sniff. "I don't understand."

"Again, my friend, so friggin' what?"


"So friggin' what? So you don't understand. So what? Where did they write it down that David Brillig was supposed to understand everything? Nobody understands everything. I know I don't understand everything. I don't understand why I'm gay and you're not. And you want to know something? I really don't give it a lot of thought. I mean, I don't care what's happened between us over the last few weeks, but I still think of you as my best friend, or at least I want to think of you as my best friend. But when it comes to sex, well, David, I hate to say it, but I don't think of you at all."

A smile breaks at the edges of David's mouth. "Not at all?"

"To use a mild expletive, not one friggin' bit."

David hesitates. "Can we be friends again, William?"

William pops to his feet.


David looks up at him, then rises to his feet as well. "Parrots?"


"There aren't any parrots here."

"I beg to differ. There are parrots everywhere."

"No there aren't."

"Yes there are."

"I don't believe you."

"Believe what you want to believe. The truth remains unaffected by your beliefs, no matter how fervent they may be."

"This is a temperate zone, my good man, not a jungle."

"As temperate as a teetotalling mynah bird, no question about it. But that doesn't make the least bit of difference. Duck!"


"I said, 'Duck!' As in, here comes one now. Watch out! Duck!"

"A duck?"

"Not a duck. A parrot."

"Why a parrot? Why not a duck?"

"We're not going to do why-a-duck, are we? Watch out! Here comes another one!"

"A duck?"

"A parrot. A killer parrot."

"So now you're telling me that there's parrots on the attack? Killer parrots?"

"I am telling you exactly that."

"And why would these killer parrots be attacking me?"

"Well, for one thing, you don't believe in them. And killer parrots are very fussy about nonbelievers. That's what makes them killers."

"For killers, they're extremely philosophical."

"Which makes them all the more deadly."



They stop and look each other in the eye.

And David opens his arms, and envelops William within them.

And he knows that he is not gay.

And that he has his best friend back.

Are William and David finally a team again?

Does being a football hero really insure that your genetic material will last until the apocalypse, or Y2K, whichever comes first?

Speaking of which, is there any difference between the apocalypse and Y2K?

Will the Blonde Bombshell tell the Yankee Clipper she's holding a place in heaven for Arthur Miller?

Is there any explanation for Barbara Walters?

You'll eat croutons or else in our next episode: "Beelzebub: Lord of Hades, or Ally's Name Before Her Grandfather Landed at Ellis Island?"

Go to the next episode due Paddy O'Furniture Day, 1999.