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Have you read this week's epistle from Jules?

Episode 168

Doing the Extemp Two-Step

     Every activity in forensics has its own ambience. Sometimes this is because of the nature of the people who choose that activity, and sometimes it is because of the nature of the activity itself. Extemporaneous speaking -- Extemp -- is one of the clearest instances of both these ambient aspects.

     As for those who select the activity, in a word, you are not an Extemper if you do not enjoy current events. If the idea of a newspaper arriving at your door inspires you to refill the bottom of the parrot cage, and if you aren't profoundly disturbed by the layoffs at CNN, much less can't conceive of carrying a photo of Jim Lehrer in your wallet, then Extemp is probably not the activity for you. Extempers know what's going on in the world. They know who fought who in the Balkans, who's fighting whom in Africa, and which former Socialist Republics ended up with the nuclear weapons. They know their senators and their congressmen, and they know your senators and your congressmen. They know what Alan Greenspan is doing, and why he is doing it. They've read all the briefs on the Microsoft case. They know where Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, gets its water supply. They know if Hillary will run for President in '04.

     More than that, they almost inevitably have opinions on each of these subjects. Knowledge of political issues and the possession of a political point of view go hand-in-hand. Some Extempers are more Liberal than Ted Kennedy. Some are more Conservative than Jesse Helms. None are bashful about expanding on their viewpoints at great vocal length, and bashing the opposition's viewpoints while they are at it. In fact, they are always ready to do both of these things, often at times when their audience is profoundly uninterested. They do really well in Social Studies and English; their aggregate scores in Math and Science are a little dicier. Their personal hygiene habits are somewhere between OOers and LDers. They do not excel in team sports. If they were ten years older, they would all own American-made mid-sized sedans.

     Not that we're trying to create stereotypes, understand. We are just reporting reality.

     These soapbox orators (for they are nothing if not direct descendents of the colorful speechifiers in London's Hyde Park) are the only forensicians who go to a tournament without a single definite idea what they will be talking about. Debaters have topics, IEers have pieces, Congresspersons have bills, but all the Extemper has is a tub, and a rather paltry tub at that, compared to the sheep coffins of the Policians. An Extemper's tub is about the size of a toaster, and contains mostly articles from old ,Time and Newsweek magazines, organized by general subject matter through whatever framework the Extemper thinks is relevant. Extemp can be US, Foreign or both, so the tub may contain only one or the other. In any case, it is not until the Extempers arrive at the Extemp prep room that they are given their topics, and they draw different ones for each separate round.

     So now we know that Extempers are primarily news junkies, and that they are called Extempers because they have to perform extemporaneously (well, we didn't actually say that specifically, but if you know the meaning of the word extemporaneous, you probably were able to figure that part out all by yourself). The ambience of the activity is the result of the confluence of these two facts. And the ambience reaches its apotheosis in the Extemp Prep Room.

     The Extemp Prep Room…

     Anyone who has never been in an EPR and is not an Extemp professional may have no idea what this particular confusion signifies. Like all Individual Events, Extemp round pairings are drawn at random, throwing five or six or seven Extempers together to perform before one judge. But unlike other IEs, the Extempers do not gather in their judging room as a group, performing one after the other in random order. They go before their Solomons one at a time, mano a mano. While IEers are given all year to learn their pieces, an Extemper has one half an hour from the moment of learning the name of the topic to the moment of bloviating about it, give or take whatever time is thrown into the jumble of tournament clocking. A level playing ground of one half hour per Extemper is the goal, at any rate, and the EPR is where the achievement of that goal is attempted.

     So here's how it works. (You might want to use your calculator to follow along with this.) The Extemp Prep Room is set aside at every tournament in a large space where all the Extempers can gather at the same time. One half hour before a round is to begin, the first wave of Extempers choose their topics. That is, let's say there's twenty Extempers at the tournament. They would probably be divvied up into four groups of five. The first of each of these four groups gets to draw a topic. They then have half an hour to research, write and memorize their seven-to-ten-minute speeches. Ten minutes after the first group draws, the second group draws. Ten minutes after the second group draws, the third group draws. Ten minutes after the third group draws, at which point the first group is starting their rounds, the fourth group draws. The fifth group draws as the second group is starting their rounds.

     There's more numbers than that, though. The order of each of the groups has to be determined, either by the tab room or in the EPR. Then each Extemper, when his or her number is called, gets to choose one of three topics. They draw little slips of paper from a hypothetical hat, read each one, and decide which one they actually know something about, have research on, and/or feel comfortable lying about. The two they pass on are thrown back into the hypothetical hat for the next poor devil, but that is not to say that some topics are easy and some topics are hard. It all depends on what you know and like to talk about, and, theoretically, have an opinion about, since Extemp topics do expect you to come down on one side or the other. Maybe you like explaining why Alan Greenspan should or shouldn't raise the prime interest rate rather than analyzing why lip-synching should not be allowed at Superbowl halftimes. It's entirely up to you (and your luck at drawing topics).

     Given the comings and goings, the drawings and randomizings, the timing of fits and starts and the fitting of starts and stops, it takes someone with one hell of a sense of order -- and an excellent stopwatch -- to run an Extemp Prep Room. EPRs are, in their way, mini-tab rooms, with one person running the whole shebang, responsible for upwards of dozens of forensicians having an equal amount of time to choose and prepare their topics and arrive at their performance destinations in a timely fashion. It is a job that combines the skills of a railroad dispatcher with the control freakiness of a drill sergeant -- a forensics Nazi, if you will -- and what person could be more suited for the job than Sister Levi al-Chaim of Hebrides High School?

     In a forgotten corner of either New York or Pennsylvania, or perhaps New Jersey, at the Venerable Bede tournament, Sister Levi is ensconced behind the solid wooden desk in a large lecture hall, where the student seats face the front in a wide semicircle. Behind her she has written the order of the drawings of each of the four groups of Extempers. Each Extemper goes by a number rather than a name, which always leads to a windfall of ignorance at the onset of the first round where half the participants either don't know their numbers, or know their numbers incorrectly. But now, halfway through the tournament, everyone knows who they are, and things are going about as smoothly as they can get.

     Standing behind the desk, Sister Levi is an imposing figure. She is not a particularly large person, but the grimness of her expression, accented by the bristly little white whiskers sprouting out from her round chin and the crevasses that mark her face, etched there by years of prayer and teaching and acting as EPR Commandant, guarantee that students are disinclined to do anything that might meet with her disapproval. The room is as silent as a locked cathedral at midnight, and the students know enough to keep it that way. Sister Levi does not like random talking, aside from the low-keyed muttering of wall-talkers in the last throes of practice.

     Which brings us to exactly what Extempers do. First, as we've said, after their order is established, they draw their topics. They have three to choose from, and they choose the one they like the best. Then they scurry back to their pathetic little toaster tubs to find some research. They now have half an hour to do everything that needs to be done, and the first step is research. Somewhere in those clippings from Time and Newsweek are articles about their topic. These articles need to be found, and read. Citations, if any, need to be noted.

     About which, a word. The average Extemper goes into a round quoting at least once, and occasionally three or four times, from a source. It might be a magazine, or a newspaper, or even a quote from a book. The name of the writer is given, as is the title of the piece and the date of publication. Independent research done by Accenture (formerly Andersen Consulting -- don't you love advertisements where they tell you their new name and you've never heard of their old name?) proves that 73% of all citations given in Extemp rounds are inaccurate to some extent, including 27% that are made up in their entirety.

     You thought you were getting away with something?

     After the initial research is done, the Extemper must work the material into a speech. As a general rule, Extempers have some all-purpose anecdotes at their disposal that they use to start off their speeches. Some Extempers start off all their speeches with the same all-purpose anecdote four years running, which proves that any anecdote will do in a storm, although the best of the breed actually select their opener for the way it connects with their actual topic. Either way, first comes the anecdote, then the initial topic statement, followed by two or three lines of analysis. Whatever notes the Extemper wants to bring into the round, whatever backup material, whatever aides memoires, must be committed to exactly one index card with no more than 75 words written on it. If you write 76 words, or your index card is the wrong size, you will certainly be challenged, and perhaps executed (hell hath no fury like a Speech Coach scorned).

     In the last minutes before giving the speech, the Extemper practices it as much as possible, usually through the traditional IE device of wall-talking, where the IEer stands in front of the wall and practices aloud, albeit softly, to get the thing down one more time. Since Extempers have not only to prepare but to get to their rounds, they will be found muttering to themselves every step of the way from the EPR to their rooms, day or night, hot or cold, indoors or out. Since the Extemp rounds at the Venerable Bede are half a mile away from the EPR, there is a steady string of Extemp Mutterers drawn out along the campus, causing the natives to scratch their heads in amusement while the other forensicians know enough to get out of their way, for none is so blind as the Extemp Mutterer linking his topic to his anecdote while running to his round at top speed in the dark and not really knowing where he is going.

     The confusion of the EPR is like a fire in a hearth, roaring at first as the blaze is lit, then burning with a steady heat, then finally dwindling down to embers as the last log -- or in this case the last Extemper -- is used up. Sister Levi al-Chaim sits down behind the front desk after the last two students leave the room, and exhales a long breath. Another Extemp Prep Room session is over. How many of these has she done over the years? Dozens? Hundreds? They all blur together in her mind as she looks out at the empty seats around her. The students have left behind their tubs, and some of them their coats. They're out there freezing to death, she thinks, marveling anew at the ability of youth to ignore the weather. Do they not feel the cold, or are they just too thick-skulled to act upon the feeling? She smiles to herself. She has been asking herself that question for upwards of fifty years now.

     Her mouth is dry. She could use a drink of water. The hunger in her stomach is constant, but she has willed herself not to think about that. She is fasting for a purpose, and allowing herself to mope about the results of the fasting is a distraction of the flesh that she will not allow herself.

     Her mouth is very dry. She can barely swallow.

     "I have to get a drink of water," she whispers softly to the empty room.

     It is the last words she will ever speak.

     The pain is dull, a constriction across her chest. One second it is not there, the next second she can't breathe. Her left hand grabs the desk in front of her while her right hand comes up to her left shoulder. Her eyes open wide and her jaw drops.

     She falls forward from the chair, and lands in a heap of habit and wimple on floor of the classroom.

     Somewhere in a forgotten corner of either New York or Pennsylvania, or perhaps New Jersey, at the Venerable Bede tournament, a nun has died. She is now in the process of finding out if her lifelong beliefs about the afterlife were true. For Sister Levi al-Chaim, we'll leave the disposition of her soul to its Creator. For ourselves, we expect at the end to find St. Peter greeting us at the Pearly Gates with a nod, a wink, and at the very least a hearty "Welcome to the Bahamas!"

     We can dream, can't we?


One Hundred Forty and Counting

     It is not easy being a cigarette smoker in the twenty-first century. There are few public places left that allow you to indulge in your vice without restriction, if they allow you to indulge at all. As a result, smokers are regularly exiled to the outdoors, where they huddle like lepers, averting their eyes from the passing clean as they burn on in either the pathos of addiction or the bathos of defiance.

     "At least with us old farts, we've been doing this for so long and trying to quit so many times that we have our history to fall back on," Amnea Nutmilk says. "But young people like you… Why do you start in the first place, when you see that you're just turning yourself into a pariah?"

     Binko is standing next to his coach at the front door of the Venerable cafeteria, amid a small group of similarly minded tobacconista. He is using her Marlboro to light his own in the windy cold night.

     "It just happened," he says. "I don't know how."

     "Why don't you quit while you still can?"

     "I don't smoke that much. Just a few butts a day."

     "A few now, a lot more later. Nobody smokes just a few cigarettes."

     "It's a social thing," he tells her.

     "Look around, Jon. If this is social, we both have to get another life."

     "You don't find it social to hang out with me, Mrs. N?"

     "You're the man of my dreams, Jonathan." She drops her cigarette and rubs it into the ground with her right shoe. "I'm going back in. It's freezing out here."

     "I'll be in in a minute," Binko says.

     "Enjoy your cigarette." She cocks an eyebrow. "And try to make it your last." She turns and walks back into the building.

     Binko smokes in privacy for a minute or two, watching the world of forensicians go by. The last activities of the day are winding down, and the excitement of the death of Sister Levi has reached a manageable plateau. Not that there was all that much hullabaloo, truth to tell. Her body was discovered by Father Fogarty Finnegan, who had dropped by to escort her to the vigil mass he was preparing to celebrate that evening. He had quickly established that she was as dead as Jacob Marley's doornail, and had managed to implement her removal with a minimum of fuss and muss through campus security. When the Extempers started returning to their room to retrieve their tubs and other belongings, they had met with a short barricading of the door followed by a quick parade of officials out of the building, with the supine corpse strapped to a gurney and covered discretely head to toe so as not to disturb the young citizenry of the campus. Sister had then been whisked into an ambulance, which had disappeared into the night, sirenless as it pursued its morbid duty.

     Still, the news had traveled quickly through the tournament. Most forensic events are unmarked by the removal of dead bodies, and Sister Levi al-Chaim was a figure of some distinction in the Speech and Debate universe, so her demise would be remarkable on either of those criteria. On the other hand, however, most students, who consider twenty-seven to be the age of the normal onset of senility, had already believed that Sister must be at least a hundred and forty years old, and although their math may not have been correct, their judgment about the woman's mortality, and that she was a hell of a lot closer to death than to birth, has left them relatively unmoved by her passing. Some, the Catholics, presumably will believe that henceforth she will be looking down at them from that great PR in the sky, basking in the glow of her savior. The Nons and Lapsed will presumably believe little more than that it is time to get a new monitor for the EPRs here on earth.

     Either way, Binko thinks, taking a last puff on his cigarette, the woman is dead.

     "Hi there."

     He looks down to see Camelia Maru softly smiling up at him. "Hi there yourself," he replies, flicking the cigarette off into the bushes.

     "Won't that burn down the building?" she asks him.

     "Only the Speechies," he replies. "You just getting back from your round?"

     She nods. "Last one of the day. Now we wait."

     "Now we wait." The announcement of the people who will be breaking will be later on in the evening; the forensicians have at least an hour or two before there is any news. "Want to take a walk?"

     She hesitates. "I should check in with the Quilty people."

     "They'll never miss you. Come with me. We can get some fresh air."


     They walk off toward the center of the campus, away from the cafeteria and the hub of the Venerable.

     "How do you think your rounds went?" Binko asks her.

     "I don't know. I could be four oh, or maybe three one. Or maybe two two. No worse than one three."

     Binko laughs. "That about covers it," he says.

     "How about you?"

     "Definitely three one." He pauses. "Or maybe two two."

     "You know as much as I do," she says, laughing.

     "We'll find out soon enough. Do you know anything about this party they're throwing?"

     "Only what the Quilty people told me. They have like a dance in the cafeteria, and at some point, they announce who broke. It starts in about an hour."

     "We'll be back by then."

     "Where are we going?"

     "I don't know. Wherever. Just to walk. Here." He holds out his hand.


     "Hold my hand. That way you won't get lost."

     "I wasn't thinking I was going to get lost," she tells him.

     "This is just insurance," he explains. "You can never be too safe."

     She looks at the hand extended toward her, then takes it into her own. In a second, their fingers have intertwined, and they are walking again, a little more slowly.

     "What did you think of the dead nun?" he asks her.

     "I heard she died in the middle of a round, and they're trying to cover it up."

     "I heard she died of a heart attack, so what exactly would they be covering up?"

     "They don't want people to think that the Venerable is a dangerous tournament, and people shouldn't come again next year."

     "It's hardly dangerous because hundred-year-old nuns are dropping dead of old age," Binko says.

     "It's dangerous if you happen to be a hundred-year-old nun," Camelia replies.

     "You've got me there," Binko agrees.

     They turn a corner, and in the blink of an eye, John Melvish is practically running into them. The three of them stop abruptly. Binko and Camelia are still holding hands.

     "Hi," Camelia finally says.

     "Hi," Melvish responds."

     Camelia performs a brief introduction. "This is Binko, from Bisonette. This is Melvish."

     The two boys look at each other, each muttering a low "Hi" under his breath.

     "Yeah," Melvish then says, continuing past them, limping slightly.

     "Who was that?" Binko asks after Melvish has turned the corner.

     "He's a Quilty novice."

     "Oh. Your other team."

     "Yep." She untangles her hand from Binko's. "Let's not talk about them," she says.

     "Let's not," he agrees. "Want an ice cream?"

     "It's freezing out!"

     "We'll eat it in. There's an ice cream parlor on the main street on the other end of the campus. We've got plenty of time to go there and back."

     She nods. "Okay."

     They start walking again. And in less than a minute, their fingers are entwined again.

     And it feels a lot warmer for both of them.


Will Sister Levi al-Chaim get into heaven?

Will Nostrum get into heaven?

Will Binko ever quit smoking?

Will Melvish report back to Quilty that Camelia and Binko are an item?

If the Mir falls into the ocean and no one hears it, is Bishop Berkley an astronaut?

All this and more (more or less) in our next episode: "Bjork, or, Swanee, How I Love Ya, How I Love Ya."

Go to the next episode due April 11, 2001.