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Have you read this week's epistle from Jules?
Sister Levi al-Chaim wearily makes her way through the hallways of the Blessed Moly building, each step a painful reminder of the ultimate vulnerability of the temporal body. One lives a few short years growing in strength until reaching the point of the youths who flow past her like a river parted by a stone. Then the decrepitude begins setting in, roughly around graduation from college.
Sister Levi allows herself a small frisson of pleasure in contemplating that the teenagers passing her by are at the last gasp of life's upward curve. Soon enough the descent will begin.
"Good morning, Sister," this one says, then that one. She nods absently to each in return. Some of them she recognizes, some of them are completely new faces. Catholic children will respectfully greet anyone in a habit, regardless of any personal acquaintance they might have. The habit represents not merely authority, but moral authority. That's why she has never abandoned it. It isn't conservatism, it's the moral authority, the big one that goes past the present into the infinite. Even adult Catholics will still make the obeisance, if only in the catching back of the beginning of a greeting. And Sister Levi is sure that she can detect a lapsed Catholic at a hundred paces by the guilty look as the eyes are averted.
Moral authority. Oh, yes. Moral authority. Past the present and into the infinite...
Although the only place Sister Levi is going this morning is into the Extemp prep room. The infinite will have to wait a little while.
The Extemp prep room. Sister Levi has been running Extemp prep rooms since her earliest days on the forensics circuit. She has run so many EPRs that it is a given that she will run all of them. If she is anywhere within the vicinity of a tournament, she is expected to be behind that magic door. Some Extempers spend four years traveling the circuit, doing tournaments up and down the East Coast, and in every single instance it is Sister Levi al-Chaim who is running the EPR. Some Extempers probably wouldn't believe Extemp was happening if the face of Sister Levi wasn't glaring back at them with its tiny group of white whiskers at the edge of her bewimpled chin. At national tournaments, when it is not only not Sister Levi, but not even a nun, some Extempers crumple up, unable to distinguish Kosovo from Bosnia or a Hutu from a Tutsi or Alan Greenspan from Mr. Greenjeans.
She is that much a part of the EPR.
She walks through the door now, into a small lecture hall where a dozen or so students have already gathered. The pool today will be twenty-one altogether, a fairly large group for a local event like the Moly, broken down into three divisions at a time. Sister Levi nods in reply to their greetings as she carefully walks up to the desk and places her portfolio down in front of her. The room quiets down as she first looks at the schematic, then reaches within the top of her gown and extracts a pocket watch, which is chained to some part of the inner workings of her habit.
"I think we are ready to begin, boys and girls," she says, unclipping the watch and placing it on the desk next to the portfolio. She reaches into her habit and pulls out a plastic Baggie, which is filled with thin strips of paper on which are typed the topics for the day. She next reaches in and extracts a kitchen timer; she is like a magician with a wondrous cloak, and it is not hard to imagine that the next extraction will be a rabbit, a bouquet or a showgirl.
Well, maybe not a showgirl.
"Number one oh eight, number four oh one, number six one one," Sister Levi calls out from behind the desk.
Three students immediately step forward, one girl and two boys.
"Ladies first," Sister says. She nods at the girl. "Draw."
The girl reaches into the Baggie and pulls out three slips of paper. She reads them quickly, chooses one, and puts the other two back in the bag. Next the two boys do likewise. Immediately the three students rush back to their desks, where they begin furiously to research the topics they have picked by sorting through the evidence in their little Extemp tubs.
From this point on, Sister Levi becomes a railroad dispatcher. Every seven minutes she will call the next group of three to the desk to choose topics. Meanwhile, when thirty minutes have elapsed for the first group, she will send them off to their separate rounds, and she will continue to do likewise for each subsequent group after they've prepared. She will have to know where everyone is and where they are going, and she will have to get them there correctly, doing all of it in a room where, within a few minutes, some students are researching and making notes on their little index card, the only prep tool they are allowed to bring into the round, while others are roaming around mumbling to themselves while others are wall-talking and one or two are staring panic-stricken in Sister's direction but seeing nothing but sixes and sevens because they can't find their Hillary Clinton evidence.
The business of the EPR has begun.
When the first rounds have started, Tarnish Jutmoll has nothing to do. At a debate tournament he might work in the tab room, but at a CFL Speech tournament, he is as likely to run tab as a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.
The judges' lounge is across from the office where Alida Devans took the registrations. It is Alida who is running everything today, aided by a pair of tab sacristans, and the three of them are sitting in the lounge when Jutmoll enters to get a cup of coffee. The sacristans, male moles in dark suits, are unknown to Jutmoll, and he guesses they could be priests, brothers, lay gym teachers, IRS accountants, anything under the sun but most likely clerics and most likely brothers.
The mystery is quickly settled when Alida introduces them as Brother John and Brother Mike, "from somewhere out on Long Island." Alida does not seem to care that she cannot precisely pin down their devoirs, as if the information is of less than minimal importance to her. They are brothers, they are from Long Island, that is enough for her.
As Jutmoll pours his coffee, Alida Devans returns to the conversation that was taking place when he entered. Alida is regaling the two brothers with the story of her trip last summer to Brussels, Bruges and Bretagne, "all Bs because I want to do the world alphabetically although it probably would be better to start with Z and do Zaire and Zimbabwe first because if you start at the beginning you probably never get past Helsinki."
Jutmoll is reminded of the college orientation tours that his guidance counselor colleague Lav Bunbury suggests for his students. They are similarly organized in this rather autistic fashion, and most students from Nighten Day never go to any school, aside from Ivies, alphabetically more advanced than Emory. Every year the administration gets the same letter from Wesleyan wondering why they didn't even send even one application again.
"Of course Belgium is nothing but lace shops and chocolate shops and china shops one right after the other. Except of course there is that museum of medical torture devices..."
Jutmoll sits in a corner, away from the trio, and sips his coffee. Although while he can avert his eyes, he cannot avert his ears. There is no way he can avoid listening to Alida's monologue.
"But there was this one restaurant that was absolutely superb, and they never minded in the least that I was traveling alone. In fact, the chef sat with me for half an hour explaining how he had made the foie gras..."
As if the chef would ever get a word in edgewise. In French, no less.
"Of course the most fascinating thing was to stand at a busy cash register and watch them ring up the purchases. Every sale automatically alternates from French to Flemish. First one, then the other. But that's the problem with two official languages, you have to acknowledge both of them equally, even when in a place like Brussels where if you have two Flemish speakers out of a dozen, it's a miracle..."
Jutmoll has never seen Alida Devans in such rare form as she is today. She has always been a talker, but never like this.
She looks at her watch. "The first ballots should be coming in soon," she says. "We should go to our posts." She looks over at Jutmoll. "Have a nice day, Tarnish. I'll see you later."
Jutmoll almost spits out his coffee in response. Alida Devans voicing mindless pleasantries? It is almost more than he can bear.
As the three leave him alone in the room, he meditates on what could possibly have turned the most formidable woman in forensics into such a pussycat?
Something definitely must be up. He can't imagine what it is.
By the second round, Amnea Nutmilk is losing the hang of Speech judging.
The activities themselves are not the problem. Her first round, the Prose side of Prose/Poetry, aka Oral Interpretation, was rather entertaining, and it was a pretty clear situation at the top of the rankings and a pretty clear situation at the bottom of the rankings. The best Interper was the best by far, and she wanted to hand the worst one the hemlock and take away his piece before he did literature any permanent damage. The problem there was sorting out the middle.
Tarnish Jutmoll explained the process to her. You mark down the first person. Then after the second piece you rank whether that one is better or worse, and then you write down the two numbers. Let's say #105 goes first. You write
Then #321 comes along, and is better than #105. You make a picture of this to the right of what you wrote originally, like this:
Then the next gumbah, #666 comes to bat, and is worse than the first two, so then you do this:
Next #409 comes along, and is better than 105 but not as good as 321, then you have this:
#89 is better than all of them, so after the fifth contestant we have this:
And finally #805 is better than #105 but not as good as #409, so we get this:
Theoretically, it's a piece of cake, except for a couple of things. Easily an hour passes between the first and the last speaker. Second, they are all not that cut-and-dried. One or two of them are really good, and maybe one or two are really terrible, which leaves a lot of room in between for the ties that are not allowed to happen.
Now her Duo round is progressing, and the first team was good.
The second team does their piece, and they are not as good. That's easy.
Now the third team, #343, gets up. They are better than the previous team, #203. But are they better than #111? #111 was now half an hour ago. What were those judging criteria again?
Fortunately, the fourth team, #412, is absolutely splendid. Thank God.
But then the fifth team, #611, is not the worst, and not the best. Where the hell do you put them? Amnea has no idea, so she doesn't rank them right away, and then the sixth team starts, and they're somewhere in the middle too, so realistically, by the end of the sixth round, Amnea has something like this:
Oh, yes. Judging Speech is soooooo simple. Right. At least in LD you have only two contestants, with one winner and one loser. You can only be wrong once. In a Speech round you can potentially be wrong six times, although realistically you'll probably have no difficulty picking your first and last, which means that you'll only screw four contestants on average, provided of course that your criteria for the best and the worst weren't so misguided that you've screwed them too.
Next week, Amnea is going back to Debate. She hasn't mastered it, but at least she's made a beginning, and her head doesn't spin half as much as it has for the last hour.
And she still has another round to judge? Of Declamation, no less?
Will Sister Levi quit forensics to get a job at Amtrak?
Will the Belgian customs officials let Alida Devans back in?
Did this Speech ranking business make any sense?
Should Amnea get back into LD while she still can?
Will there be another eight Austin Powers movies?
Drink a toast to the answers in our next episode: "Teeter-Totter, Where Taters Fear to Tread."
Go to the next episode due July 7, 1999.