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 137

Any Place I Hang My Hat is Housing

     In some circles, the creation of housing signs is considered a plum assignment. Algren-on-the-Beach is one of those circles.

     The lore of forensics tournaments turns, to some degree, on the capriciousness of judging. A referee in any sport is bedeviled to some extent by subjectivity, even if that subjectivity is measured by, say, something as objective as the referee's visual acuity ("You're blind, ump," as the song says). As a rule, it is not so much what is seen as how it is seen. A lineman is off-sides in football because, objectively, he has crossed the line of scrimmage, but a foul is called or not called based on whether or not the infraction is perceived by the referee. The key word here is perceived. Seeing is one thing, but just because you see something doesn't mean you perceive it; that is the underlying concept behind optical illusions. Maybe the angle is wrong. Maybe the concentration is elsewhere. It doesn't matter. Just because the infraction happens, doesn't mean that it is caught. And vice versa. What the ref sees is what happened, even if it didn't objectively occur. For the sake of sport, it is absolutely essential that reality is what the ref perceived, and not what happened, otherwise the refs could be replaced by video cameras and computers, and the fans would have no one to gripe about.

     Forensics is even less objective than baseball or football or 43-man squamish. While there are certain criteria by which judges are theoretically supposed to evaluate forensics contestants, different judges use those criteria differently. This is why any round with multiple judges is as likely to have a dispute as not. These discrepancies occur as often in Dramatic Interpretation as they do in Policy as they do in LD. The more national in scope a tournament is, the more likely those discrepancies will cut that much deeper, due to regional styles of competition. And none of this takes into consideration the regular use of lay judges, unschooled in -- or at least inexperienced in -- the activity they are evaluating. These judges might not even know that there are criteria, much less that the criteria are in dispute.

      In other words, the adjudication of forensics rounds is about as arbitrary as adjudication can get. But still, there is some measure of orthodoxy at most tournaments that allows week in and week out for the best competitors to do better than the worst competitors. Which brings us back to the lore of forensics tournaments and the capriciousness of judging. The perceived wisdom is that the best way to overcome the combination of different judging paradigms and inexperienced judging is to have as many rounds as possible and, to some extent, to knock off the extremes of any one competitor's results. In a tournament with seven rounds, for instance, all debaters with a five-two record will break. This allows for a competitor to hit a really good opponent and still stay in the competition, and also to hit a really bad judge, and also still stay in the competition. If you hit enough really good opponents or really bad judges, then you're in trouble, but the tabulation of rounds is such that it is unlikely that the former will happen, and the grace of the debate gods makes it unlikely too often that the latter will happen. Not that both don't happen, but not all the time, and not together. (Although, of course, having a really good opponent and a really bad judge should, theoretically, work in the favor of the lesser debater, but that's another issue entirely.) Additionally, debaters (and on occasion, Speechies) are given points for their performance in a round. Here is where the paradigm comes in. Almost every participant will have points bunched around some number, with the odd spike in either direction. The spikes -- the highest and lowest points -- are, presumably, from inexperienced or paradigmatically-challenged judges, and they are dropped from consideration.

     If the lore of forensics tournaments is to have as many rounds as possible, the reality of forensics tournaments is that, usually, the damned things have to be completed in a day or two. Few venues have the means, or that stamina, to go beyond that. Algren, like most high school tournaments in the northeast, holds five preliminary rounds and four or five elimination rounds over the space of two days. Which means that the students come on Friday and leave on Saturday. Which means that the students have to sleep somewhere on Friday night other than in their own beds.

     At a college tournament like the Messerschmitt, or urban tournaments like Lodestone, students are lodged at motels, and those motel bills are paid by the competitors, which means that the costs can get fairly high fairly fast. At high school tournaments like Algren, it is the families within the communities who open their doors and take in a few head each of the visiting forensic cattle, a concept that is reciprocated from high school to high school. In the language of the forensician, this is referred to as being housed.

     Which brings us back to the fact that in some circles, the creation of housing signs is considered a plum assignment. Algren-on-the-Beach is one of those circles. The reason for this is that in some circles there is an artist in the group who intends to encapsulate the ethos of the teams he is making signs for within that eleven by fourteen rectangle. At Algren, the artist is a varsity LDer named Pollack Peale, a dark-haired paint-stained junior who has spent all week completing his assignment, using nothing but construction paper, magic markers and a vivid if derivative imagination.

     The signs for Toulouse-Lautrec High School vaguely resemble posters for Le Moulin Rouge, with a line of kicking dancers and a bottle of absinthe.

     The signs for Nighten Day show the beat-beat-beat of a tom-tom and the tick-tick-tock of a stately clock.

     The signs for Manhattan Lodestone show an enormous magnet pulling the worms out of a big apple.

     The signs for Bisonette Technical show a caricature of W.C. Fields with a kumquat and a railroad man who gets up very early in the morning.

     The signs for Farnsworth show a pair of chinos with a price tag of $12.99.

     The signs for Veil of Ignorance show the most creativity, or lack thereof. Veil is misspelled Vale, and the picture is of a hill and valley, with a horde of perplexed looking stick figures milling about in the valley. One can only presume that the pun is intentional, but the way most high school students spell, one never knows, does one?

     Other signs for all the other participating schools are comparably reactive to the school's name or image. The signs are posted around the Algren gymnasium at regular intervals, and at the base of each sign is a pile of luggage, placed there by the students when they arrived this afternoon.

     It is now night. Housing is about to happen.

     The first students to amble into the gym are LDers who have been sprung from their first flights. After the traditional complaining about their opponents, they find their sign and luggage, and settle down, laying themselves out on the polished floor with their heads resting against their sleeping bags, gossiping about the debate world, Dawson's Creek, their parents and the board of directors of the NFL.

     As time passes, more and more LDers join them. More complaining, settling down and gossiping ensue.

     At about nine-thirty, the unfortunate parent saddled with the job of running housing appears in the gymnasium doorway. It is always a parent in charge of housing; finding accommodations for a couple of hundred kids is much more aggravating then running a debate tournament for a couple of thousand kids, and every coach from Algren-on-the-Beach in Massachusetts to Pebbles-on-the-Beach in California knows that if nothing else, they must find a parent volunteer for the housing assignments. Nip Sazo is no exception, and for the second time running, Mrs. Hyphen-Emdash is in charge of the hostelry arrangements.

     Having done it once before, she knows what she is in for. And she is far from a happy camper. Her only salvation is knowing that Tilde is graduating this year, and that in her own youth she was wise enough to tell her husband "No" when the subject of creating a Hyphen-Emdash sibling was broached. For the record, by the way, she is really Ms. Hyphen, in true baby-boomer fashion, but all the Algrenian students refer to her as Mrs. Hyphen-Emdash, as they refer to her husband as Mr. Hyphen-Emdash, rather than the correct Mr. Emdash. Both of them have come to accept that this is simply the way it is.

     "Can somebody get me a table?" she says loudly.

     An Algrenian runner appears out of nowhere. "What?"

     "A table. One of those things with a top and four legs. I need some place to work from."

     "Yeah. Sure. A table. We've got those." The runner, a novice, scuttles off in search of someone who can tell him where the tables are.

     Mrs. Hyphen-Emdash's eyes scan the gymnasium. At least the signs look correct. Last year, three schools had no signs, and two schools had two signs. Of course, last year was before Pollack Peale got involved in the process. That boy is going places, at least according to Mrs. Hyphen-Emdash.

     "Mrs. Hyphen-Emdash?"

     She turns around. Two novices are lugging a table in her direction.

     "Is this what you wanted?" one of them asks.

     She resists the temptation to be sarcastic, and points toward the middle of the gym. "Put it there," she says. "You wouldn't have a chair to go with it?" she asks.

     The two novices exchange glances. "A chair?" one of them asks.

     She can't stop herself. "One of those things you sit on. I think the French invented them as a way to make hanging out at bistros that much more enjoyable."

     The novices exchange another glance that to Mrs. Hyphen-Emdash's eyes looks as if they got the message, and disappear. One of them returns shortly with a folding chair.

     Message received.

     Mrs. Hyphen-Emdash sits behind the table and lays a tote bag in front of her. From the bag she extracts a pack of index cards and a long hand-written list. The list says who's going where. The index cards list the housing family at the top and the names of the students who will be staying with them, along with those students' home school. The process is simple. Give the card to the families as they show up, and check the family off the list when they take the card. Should work like clockwork.

     And the Liberty Bell should ring every hour, on the hour.

     The first parents appear at about five to ten. By now the auditorium is half-filled. It is easy for Mrs. Hyphen-Emdash to check them off her list, hand them their index card, and point them in the direction of their students.

     At ten-fifteen, there are twenty parents clambering for her attention, students are everywhere in the gym bouncing around to three different boom boxes, each playing a different hip-hop song (any one hip-hop song would have been enough for Mrs. H-E). A girl in a suit that makes her look like the Iron Giant is complaining that she's allergic to cats and therefore can't stay with the Whipsnades because they own three Persians, a Manx and an Abyssinian. A boy with two earrings in his left ear and a tightly trimmed goatee is complaining that there are no kids from Andrew Johnson High School and that "some dude" is telling him that they went off with the Ruggieros because their daughter is now in med school with Axolotl, their older brother. Three kids from Hogwarts are complaining that their coach has disappeared with their captain, and they're afraid they may have eloped. Snack Sneidlemyer, a sophomore from a school no one seems to believe exists, has gone off with his girlfriend from Algren, but no one can remember her name because she's a Speechie and this is a debate tournament. A housing father named Karenin is claiming that there is no way he can take four kids because his wife has left him for a soldier and his family is unhappy in its own way. Another housing father whose name Mrs. H-E thinks might have been Rick is asking why of all the gin joints in all the cities in the world, she had to pick this one. Mrs. Hyphen-Emdash is seriously wondering whether the couple named Ramsey should actually be given charge of any students at all, while she is sure that the man who identifies himself only as Uncle Frank is on her copy of the Megan's Law list recently distributed in her neighborhood by the local police.

     By eleven o'clock, the gymnasium is empty, and Mrs. Hyphen-Emdash is sitting at the table staring off into space, knowing that Tilde is graduating this year, and that in her own youth she was wise enough to tell her husband "No" when the subject of creating a Hyphen-Emdash sibling was broached.

     She utters a little prayer of thanks, folds up her list and plunks it into her tote bag, stands, and makes for the exit.

     Her family will not be doing any housing tonight.

     She has done enough housing for a lifetime.

Did anyone make sense of those first paragraphs?

Will everyone find a place to sleep tonight?

Is Mr. Emdash as happy as Ms. Hyphen about the lack of a sibling?

Does Hogwarts really have a debate team?

You call those two a Superbowl?

Find out more about the Jets coach in our next episode: "Saved by the Bellhop, the Director's Cut."

Go to the next episode due Feb 5, 2000.