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Have you read this week's epistle from Jules?

Episode 161

How Things Work

     In a forgotten corner of either New York or Pennsylvania, or perhaps New Jersey, it is the dawn of the day of the Venerable Bede tournament.

     In most venues, the data of the tournament would now be secure in one of the computer programs that have been developed to control the pairings. These programs are far from infallible, and many ferrets have died for the sins of their creators, but they are dependable most of the time, for instance, if the moon is in Pisces and if the lares and pentes of the sponsoring school have been reasonably appeased. At the Venerable Bede, however, things are different.

     The hub of the tournament is a small building clinging to the middle of the hill on which the college is built. (All the buildings on the campus are like nests built by some very large bird in the walls of a cliff; one expects to look down and see the National Geographic photography crew setting up and taking notes on everyone's mating habits.) The hub building, which is usually given over to the Student Union, has a cafeteria, gaming rooms and a variety of halls and salons for whatever special activities might take place during student unioning. Tabbing is done in a formal dining hall normally used by the Jesuit mafia that runs the school for those special occasions that occasionally arise like the annual Simony Consortium and Discount Indulgence Sale. In that dining hall the young woman who is the captain of the team--the junior majoring in Political Science--is controlling the setting up of the tabulation system as the early morning sun begins creeping in through the windows.

     "Entry clerks here," she says, pointing to a position near the north door. Two hefty Bedians place a table in the spot indicated.

     There is a north door and a south door. The south door is for the distribution of ballots, and the north door is for the collection of ballots. Any judge mistakenly going to the wrong door over the next few days will receive the Mark of Cain. As the ballots are collected they will be checked off on a master list and passed to the entry clerks, who write down the information on index cards, color coded by event. As a rule, the entry clerks have an accuracy rate of 92.8%.

     "Sorters here," the captain says, and the hefty Bedians lay two tables end to end. They get two more tables, and then another two, and similarly lay these tables against each other, thus creating three sets. It is on these tables that the index cards will be laid out in one order or another so that the rounds can be paired. The multiple tables are so that more than one division can be paired at a time, or, with the larger divisions, so that there will be enough space to lay out multiple brackets within a division. As a rule, the sorters have an accuracy rate of 81.36%.

     "Schedulers here," the captain says, and another table is placed further toward the rear of the room. It is here that the paired cards will entered onto a schedule sheet for distribution to the debaters. Since there is no particular downside of inaccuracy in the scheduling -- the worst case scenario is that there will be a fractional displacement in who's debating whom within a bracket, leading to virtually no statistical difference in the outcome of the tournament -- as a rule, the schedulers have an accuracy rate of 100%.

     "And the recorders here," the captain says at the back of the room, the furthest away from the doors. The hefty Bedians lay down another three tables end to end here. This is where all the results are entered onto sheets so that the final tabulation of who wins and who loses will occur. As a rule, the recorders have an accuracy rate of 96.3%.

     The entry clerks, sorters, schedulers and recorders are all junior members of the Bede Parli team. Because of the ineffably boring nature of the work, no one ever does it more than one year; as students grow in stature on campus, they outgrow scut work. New scutters are found among the freshman scum year in and year out. The accuracy rate percentages never vary because they are predicated on inexperience.

     If you've been doing the math, you realize that the tabulation of the Venerable Bede tournament will have an accuracy rate of 72.71%.

     Welcome to the Bahamas.




     Jasmine Maru is sitting on her seat on the school bus, gnawing on the corner of the fingernail of her right index finger.

     "I'm going to get into trouble for this," she says.

     Camelia, sitting next to her, sighs. "For the hundredth time, this has nothing to do with you."

     "And for the hundredth time, when you get caught, I'll get punished too."

     "Well then, the good news is, I'm not going to get caught."

     Camelia left home this morning looking every bit as if she were going to a debate tournament. Her two outfits were neatly zipped into her suitbag, her backpack was filled to the brim with books to cover a full weekend of homework, and she also had her small duffel bag, all of which are now either on her lap, Jasmine's lap, or in the case of the suitbag, on both their laps. Jasmine left home looking merely like Jasmine going to school.

     "Our parents only know what we tell them about debate," Camelia goes on. "I told them this was a novice-only tournament, and that was the end of it. Why wouldn't they believe me?"

     Jasmine looks at her sister. "The ease with which a lie is accepted is not the measure of the morality of telling lies."

     "Oh, God." Camelia shakes her head.

     For the rest of the trip the two ride in silence. When they arrive at the school and the bus pulls up to the front doorway is the first tricky part. With the morning rush it is unlikely that anyone will notice Camelia in the crowd of arriving students, but the point is that she is not arriving. Instead of going inside, she will walk down the driveway with her things away from the school and head for the deli around the corner. But if she is seen and noticed by any of the teachers or administrators, then what happens next will not work, and her trip to the Venerable Bede is as good as over.

     She pulls out her cell phone and quickly gets a speed dial number. "Now," she says, instantly ending the conversation.




     On the other end of the phone, Tom Abelard is ready. He has practiced this with Camelia a dozen times, until she has told him that even she couldn't tell the difference.

     He enters the telephone number.

     It rings twice.

     There is a click, and the answering machine comes on.

     "This is the attendance office of Nighten Day High School." The voice sounds ravaged by the boredom of too many years of administering adolescents. "Please leave your name, your child's name, the reason they will not be in today, and a telephone number where we can reach you if necessary."

     According to Camelia, they never actually call, because if you're not there, they don't bother to worry about you.

     Abelard takes a deep breath.

     The machine beeps.

     "Hello. This is Charles Maru." His voice is deep, his intonations clipped. He is trying to think like a forty-year-old second-generation Japanese-American. "My daughter Camelia is not feeling well and will not be in today. My number is four three two, five one five three."

     He hangs up.

     The phone number he has given is his cell phone number. Things should work out fine. He simply has to remember that he's a forty-year-old second generation Japanese-American for the rest of the day.

     He calls Camelia's cell phone.

     "I left the message," he says.

     "I'm on my way," she replies.




     Camelia enters the number of Mom's Taxi on her cell phone, and asks for a pickup at the deli. She is standing away from the front door, half behind a dumpster, ready to duck if anyone from the school drives up. The teachers should all be safely tucked into their home rooms by now, but she isn't sure if everyone indeed starts at the first bell, and she doesn't want any slipups at this point.

     By now Jasmine is sitting at her desk, probably still biting her nails. Camelia shakes her head. If anything goes wrong, it will probably go wrong with Jasmine. Camelia has no choice but to trust Jasmine with her secret, but she can easily imagine Jasmine blurting out something by mistake at dinner over the weekend, and then confusedly explaining away her mistake with some silly lie that their parents would instantly see through, and then Jasmine would be forced to confess everything. What would happen then would be anyone's guess.

     Why is Camelia doing this? Why is she skipping school to sneak into a debate tournament?

     If she were to answer quickly, it would merely to be to say that she wants to do it, but if she were to think about it deeply, something she has refused to do, she would have no answer at all. It is completely contrary to her nature. Or at least, she would have thought is was contrary to her nature. Maybe it isn't. Maybe a lot of things aren't contrary to her nature.

     She is beginning to learn about herself, and just what her nature is.

     The taxi pulls up in front of the deli, and Camelia comes from around the dumpster and quickly gets in. Mom herself is driving today.

     "Where to?" the very large middle-aged woman asks through a cloud of cigarette smoke.

     "Quilty Prep," Camelia replies, closing the door behind her.

     "Quilty? That's half an hour from here."

     "I know."

     Mom calculates for a minute. "It'll cost you thirty bucks," the woman says.

     Camelia nods. "That's fine with me."

     "It's fine with me too," Mom says.

     And then they are on their way.

Another One Rides the Bus, Part 1


      For the newly formed debate team at North Southville, this is a momentous occasion. They are heading onto the bus for their very first away tournament.

      There are seven students on the North Southville team. None of them has debated more than three times, and only at the novice level at small local one-day tournaments in upstate New York. North Southville, about halfway between Albany and Syracuse, serves one of the largest geographical school system areas in the country, although the high school itself is not large. It is a rural countryside of dairy farms and apple orchards.

      "Let's get a move on there," Jedarri D'Acques says, standing by the door waving her arms. She is a small African-American woman dressed in a black pants suit, a substitute teacher with enough time on her hands to have successfully managed to begin coaching her Seven Deadly Sins, as she likes to call them. "Where's Lust?" she asked a large football-player type who is manhandling his oversized duffel back into the bus ahead of him.

      "She left her cases in her locker," Avarice replies. "She said she'd be back in a minute."

      "We've got a long trip," Miss D'Acques says. "We've got to get going."

      "She'll be here in a minute."

      In the driver's seat of the big yellow bus, the driver, Bits Brennan, is nonchalantly drinking coffee from a paper cup. Bits, a round man whose belly rubs up against the steering wheel, is in his mid-forties, and is wearing the North Southville driver's unofficial uniform of baseball cap, baseball jacket and dark blue Sears work pants. In his years as a driver Bits Brennan has seen it all and done it all. When he's not driving, he is assistant chief of the local volunteer firemen, a group with which he spends most of his spare time. His wife sees him regularly on Sunday nights, and takes the rest of him in odd pieces when she can get them the rest of the time. The arrangement suits both of them perfectly.

      "You've got the directions?" Miss D'Acques asks, looking up at him from the outside the open door.

      Bits Brennan nods. "Right here," he says, patting the pocket of his jacket.

      "I'd hate to get lost," she says.

      "Not a chance of it," Bits replies.

      At that moment, a tall dark-haired girl comes walking slowly out the front of the building.

      "Girl," Miss D'Acques calls to her, "if you walk any slower, you'll disprove Einstein."

      "I'm coming," Lust says, not speeding up in the least. It takes her a minute to reach the bus, and she finds it impossible to enter without at least marginally flirting with Bits Brennan as she passes him. Lust finds it impossible not to marginally flirt with every male she passes.

      Jedarri D'Acques shakes her head as she follows Lust onto the bus, and takes her own seat at the front of the vehicle.

      "We're all here," she announces, doing one last headcount.

      "Then let's rock and roll," Bits Brennan replies.

      North Southville is on its way to the biggest tournament of its career.

Will the Venerable Bede ever hit 100% accuracy?

Will Camelia get to Quilty Prep without getting caught?

Will North Southville rule at the biggest tournament of its career?

Will Antonin Scalia ever achieve sainthood?

Will Barak accept absentee ballots from Tallahassee?

You'll realize the only good chad is a pregnant chad in our next episode: "Smile, and the world smiles with you; frown, and you may wake up married to Kathie Lee Gifford."

Go to the next episode due Dec 20, 2000.