Past episodes Reader's Guide to the Nostrum Universe Nostrum Correspondence Corner
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Have you read this week's epistle from Jules?
As these things go, it is a bit of a miracle. Mordred Prentice has shown up at a meeting without Cartier Diamond. For the first time in Tarnish Jutmoll's memory, the tail has arrived and the dog that wags it is nowhere to be seen.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Prentice," the coach greets him.
The chubby, red-faced boy responds with a pout.
"I see you have agreed to work on Extemp, as we discussed," Jutmoll continues.
"Whatever," Mordred mumbles, flopping down behind a desk.
A moment later Mark and Noah arrive, each of them carrying a plastic RubberMaid tub the size of an accordion. These are not the sort of boxes that Policians use to store evidence; even a novice Polician not knowing topicality from Tropicana would sneer at these tiny carrying cases. But for an Extemper, one of these is more than enough; two is the whole nine yards and a marmot thrown in for good measure.
"Good afternoon, gentleman," Jutmoll greets them.
They return his welcome with a lot more spirit than Mordred, whom both of them are surprised to see.
"Look who showed up," Mark says.
"Nighten Day's latest Extemper," Noah says. "Go, Mordred!"
The boy snarls at them.
"All right. Don't go, Mordred."
"Or do go, as the case may be."
They place their individual evidence tubs on the desks that they sit at, and they turn expectantly to Jutmoll. They are a serious-looking pair. Mark, the older of the two, is six feet tall, with spiked blond hair and piercing blue eyes and a square jaw that declares no-nonsense and straight-shooting and he's probably been reading the New York Times from cover to cover since he was four months old, and that includes the letters to the editor, the obituaries, and guy/gal Friday want ads. Noah is a smaller version of the same concept, brown-eyed instead of blue, and maybe a little stouter, and instead of spikes he wears a faux-Caesar haircut that only wants a toga and a laurel wreath to transport him to the Roman forum.
"Have you ever observed an Extemp round?" Jutmoll asks Mordred.
The boy shakes his head.
"Have you at least watched us practice it?"
Again the shake of the head.
"You've got a lot to learn then, and not a lot of time to do it." Jutmoll sighs. "Let's get on with it. The first thing, there's no breakdown of U.S. and Foreign at the Moly. It's all just Extemp."
There is a long pause. "What's the difference?" Mordred finally asks, giving in to the fact that he has no choice but to participate in this session.
"U.S. is U.S. topics, and Foreign is Foreign topics," Mark says.
"Although you'd never figure that out from the names," Noah adds.
"Gentlemen, please," Jutmoll admonishes them. "But the good news is, they do have JV and Varsity, so at least you can go in at the JV level."
"Why does Extemp have two different divisions, but none of the other speech activities do?" Mordred asks. "I mean, I don't think it's fair in the other events that freshmen always have to compete against seniors."
"You're already a sophomore, and you've never competed against anybody!" Mark says.
"Maybe he's waiting until he's a senior so he can debate only freshmen."
"Gentlemen," Jutmoll repeats, this time with a harsher voice. "I am not going to put up with this."
The two of them bow their heads sheepishly.
"There are a number of reasons," Jutmoll explains, "but I would say that the two chief ones are, first, there shouldn't be that much of a qualitative difference in most of the activities, and second, there usually aren't enough people in any one division as it is to allow us to break into two divisions. That's one of the reasons they're not breaking into Foreign and Domestic at the Moly."
"Then why single out Extemp for JV and Varsity? What's so special about Extemp?"
"Well, in my experience there is a qualitative difference in Extemp, because it requires a certain amount of information on the part of the Extemper, and the junior or senior who's been through that many more years of social studies classes has a distinct advantage over somebody who hasn't."
Mordred shrugs. "That's not much of an argument in favor of it."
"So I'm not much of an arguer," Jutmoll says. "Why should I be? I'm only the debate coach." He turns to Mark and Noah. "We should show him how to do the two-step," he says.
"I'll show him," Mark says, jumping to his feet. He walks up to the front of the room. "Let me explain the activity to you," he begins, addressing himself to Mordred. "What happens is that you go into the Extemp prep room a half hour before the round is supposed to begin, and you draw topics. Whoever's running the prep room calls your number and you go up and you get to choose three slips of paper. You read them and choose the one you like the best. Then you have thirty minutes to prepare a seven to ten minute speech. You can use whatever evidence you have in your tub, and you can write down notes on an index card, but you can't write more than a hundred words."
"In some tournaments they tell you that you can't write more than seventy-five words," Noah interjects.
"Do you actually count them?" Mordred asks.
"If you don't, somebody else might, especially if they think you've written down more than the allotted number," Mark says. "You're allowed to bring the card into the room when you talk, but I don't like to do that. I'm too afraid that I'll have written down too much and I'll get forfeited. One thing you definitely don't want to do is get forfeited."
"You will want to take some notes, at least starting out," Jutmoll tells him. "Flying blind like Mark is not recommended."
"I know one kid who forgot index cards one day," Mark says, "so he wrote down his notes on a piece of legal pad. They disqualified him. Just for not using an index card."
"Unbelievable," Mordred says.
"It's like show horses," Noah explains. "You have to have exactly the right sort of ham sandwich in your saddlebags, even though nobody can see it. If the judges ask to see your ham sandwich, and you don't have one, or it's corned beef or a fluffernutter instead of ham, then you're screwed." He smiles.
"What if you're kosher?" Mordred asks.
"There are no kosher show horses," Noah says.
"Horses are kosher," Mark counters.
"No they're not. Have you ever seen horse at a seder?"
"Don't listen to him," Mark says. He returns to the business at hand. "Okay, you have that half an hour, so you spend part of your time doing research, and the rest of your time figuring out your speech. I go for ten minutes research, ten minutes speech writing, and ten minutes practicing it."
"If you have to sacrifice any time," Noah adds, "sacrifice the practice time. Almost inevitably you end up waiting outside the room where you have to speak, because everything's always running late, so you can practice then."
"The topic is going to be a question or statement of some sort, and you have to deliver a speech agreeing with or disagreeing with the statement," Jutmoll tells him. "You can't just blather on about it. You've got to express an opinion."
"What if the judge disagrees with your opinion?" Mordred asks.
"It doesn't matter. You'll be judged on content and delivery, not the rightness or wrongness of your opinion."
"Unless you get a mommy-daddy judge," Mark adds. "They sometimes vote on what they agree with."
"How do you know if they're a mommy-daddy?" Mordred asks.
"Okay," Jutmoll continues, "you have to have a speech that delivers your opinion on the topic. What you want to do is break down the speech into two, or at most three, lines of analysis."
"And you always start off with a little story," Mark says. "You've got to have a little true story, a little anecdote to reel in the judges with. I have about five different anecdotes, and I just pick the one that seems to apply the best, and I use that one."
"We can give you some anecdotes," Noah says. "They're like personal stories, things that happened to you yourself."
"How can you give me stories about things that happened to me myself?" Mordred asks.
"Jeez, Mordred, they're not true true stories. They just sound like they're true. Anyhow, you tell your anecdote, and you use that to lead into your topic." He closes his eyes for a moment, gathering himself in. When he opens them, he smiles at Mordred. And he begins.
"Good afternoon." Short pause. "About two months ago I went fishing with my father. He and I had never been fishing before, and I think we both felt that this would be a great outing, a way for the two of us to bond together, to find some time alone to learn a little more about each other..."
Mark goes on to tell about buying fishing equipment at Sam's Club and renting a boat and spending a couple of hours on a mosquito-infested lake catching nothing but an old discarded umbrella and losing one of the oars and reeling in a lot of wonderful, irreplaceable memories.
"Which brings me to my topic this afternoon, should the Americans further reduce trade barriers with the Chinese? My answer to this is a definite yes."
"Watch this," Jutmoll whispers to Mordred.
"My first line of analysis revolves around the financial benefits of increased trade with China," Mark says, taking two steps to the right.
"Did you see that?" Jutmoll asks.
"Did you see him do the Two-step?"
"You mean, like, where he shuffled his feet?"
"I was not shuffling my feet!" Mark says.
"It looked like you were shuffling your feet."
Jutmoll shakes his head. "That's the Extemp Two-step, Mordred. You have to do it. When you start your first line of analysis, you take two steps to the right. When you start your second line, you take two steps to the left. For however many lines of analysis you have, and when you wrap up, you always do the Extemp Two-step."
"Well, it's very stylized now, but the point originally was so that you wouldn't stand there like a statue. You've got to show a little life when you speak. That's part of being a good orator."
"Nobody wants to look at you if you're just standing there," Mark says. "You've got to keep their attention."
"You either do the Extemp Two-step, or you go in with your fly unzipped," Noah adds. "That usually keeps their attention too."
"We should talk about content," Jutmoll says. "The big topics, of course, will be Kosovo and China spies and the stock market and next year's elections." He turns to Mordred. "Mark and Noah keep the tubs filled with evidence, mostly articles that they clip from Time and Newsweek and the newspapers."
"There's not much point in doing any more clipping, though, since Saturday is our last day ever," Mark says, sitting down again.
"Are you a newspaper reader?" Jutmoll asks Mordred. "Do you read the Times every day?"
The boy shakes his head.
"Do you watch CNN or any of the other cable news channels?"
He shakes his head again.
"So tell me, why are you doing Extemp?"
"You told me at the meeting that I had to."
This time it's Jutmoll who shakes his head. "That's right," he remembers. "We were hoping to find you some entertainment topics."
"I know a lot about entertainment," Mordred says. "I like being entertained."
"I'm sure you do," Jutmoll agrees. He turns to Mark and Noah. "Well, gentlemen, shall we begin prepping out on topics?"
"Ready to go," Mark says.
"Ditto," Noah dittoes.
"That's good enough for me," Jutmoll says. "Let's do it."
At Veil of Ignorance, where the priests in charge universally assume that the tastes of teenagers surfing the Internet will quickly turn to the ribald if such surfing is not rigorously policed, all the computers with links to the outside world are housed in an open area in the library. Not only is the area completely in the public view, but students must log on and off with known IDs, and a sweep program is run weekly to evaluate who has ventured where they had not oughta. The priests, who never find anything untoward, are thus able to relax, safe in the knowledge that their angels are remaining cherubic (or their cherubs are remaining angelic, or their cherubim and seraphim are still keeping kosher -- pick your favorite metaphor). On the opposite side of the coin, the students, all of whom know what the priests don't know -- which is how to manipulate the cache files on their computers so that they leave no incriminating evidence of their trespasses, and also how to do this when the priests are not watching -- are also able to relax, safe in the knowledge that what Father doesn't know won't hurt him.
The only people who suffer from these restrictions on computer access are the teachers,who are forced to abide by the rules like anyone else. There are no internet-accessing computers anywhere in the building except in the library, which means that every instructor from the triply tenured to the truly tentative must surf with the hoi and the polloi of the student body. Since it is reasonable to assume that teachers are as much inclined to roam in the briar patches of cybernetic morality as any student, no evidence ever having been put forth to the contrary that sleaze is somehow age-specific, this means that the teachers are also inhibited from going where they wish to go. Which is why Lisa Torte is now logging on to her e-mail account in the full public view of the Veil of Ignorance school library. Not because she is in hot pursuit of hot pursuits, however, but because she is revising her entry to the Algren-on-the-Beach tournament.
There is a message waiting for her from Nip Sazo.
Glad to accept extra entry, especially since it means getting Seth into the judging pool. See you next week -- Nip
Great. Now she has no excuse. Or at least no honest excuse. She'll have to bring Tara and Haircut -- and Seth B. Obomash -- whether she wants to or not.
Of course, she can always say that there are others on the team who have priority. But no one would have priority over a senior team, and certainly not over a senior team with Tara Petskin. And since Sazo is offering both varsity and intermediate divisions, there are plenty of people on the team going already, so no one is staying home who wants to go. Which means that she has no alternative.
She types out a quite confirming reply to Sazo, and sends it off. The library is empty except for a handful of kids sitting at computers doing research or working on papers. The large room is quiet except for the occasional bubble of just-above-a-whisper conversation. Lisa could go home now, since her day is done, but she decides to stay a while. There may be nothing for her to do here, but there is nothing for her at home, either, except emptiness. Here, there is life. Not a lot of life, and not exciting life, but life, such as it is.
She types in the URL for ebay.com. Maybe somebody is auctioning off a life.
God knows she could use one.
Will Mordred become a top Extemper?
Do girls do Extemp backwards and in heels?
So which one is US and which one is Foreign?
Has everybody bought their Ally McBeal pajamas yet?
Whose idea was it not to bet on Charismatic in the Preakness?
Drop nothing when our next episode arrives entitled: "Flibbertigibbet, miserere nobis."
Go to the next episode due May 26, 1999.