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Have you read this week's epistle from Jules?

Episode 169

But It Does Move

     In a forgotten corner of either New York or Pennsylvania, or perhaps New Jersey, the Venerable Bede tournament is suddenly awash in opinions.

     There are those among the faculty advisers who believe that the death of a pillar of the forensics community is a suitable enough reason to call off the entire event, allowing the participants to spend the rest of their time at the Venerable pondering the infinite. There are others among those same advisers who believe that the infinite will take care of itself, and that Sister Levi al-Chaim's future in heaven is secure enough that those of us on earth can continue to go about our business with no more than a passing nod to our existence in the hereafter. Both these groups, entirely comprised of Jesuits, are doing their faculty advising with great ardor in the Venerable judge's lounge, all aimed at the junior Political Science major who is the titular head of the tournament and the captain of the Venerable debate team, who has already sent out word that the tournament will continue unabated, and who is now facing the ultimate in Jesuitical abatement. Ringed around them are the various judges who have sought sanctuary in the lounge away from the teeming masses of their Speech and Debate teams. The scene is reminiscent of the trial of Galileo.

     "I am not stopping the tournament," the captain declaims.

     "The students will understand completely," a Jesuit extemporizes. "This is a time for careful thought and contemplation, not of fun and games and competition."

     "The dance is about to start," the captain continues dramatically. "We promise everyone a couple of hours of entertainment and letting off steam before we announce the results. You want us to stop that too?"

     "We could make it a prayer meeting," the Jesuit suggests, having run out of reasonable adverbs of a forensics nature.

     "We could make it a revival and put up a tent on the football field," another Jesuit, Father Fogarty Finnegan interjects. "But it wouldn't make a lot of sense, and it wouldn't be necessary. Let's just go on as we said we would. That is what Sister Levi would have wanted."

     "You never met Sister Levi in your life. You have no idea what she would have wanted."

     "She was a teacher, and a forensician. She would have wanted forensics to go on in her wake."

     "But would she have wanted forensics to go on during her wake?"

     "She was a satanic presence that will be far from lamented," Alida Devans mutters under her breath in a corner of the room. In the ongoing battle between the two women, Devans feels that she has, to some extent, won, but she feels cheated nonetheless of a posting on the leader board. She has outlived the wimpled old battleaxe, no question about that, but what's the point of your sworn enemy dying when you were not a cause of their death?

     "Right at this very moment my staff is tabulating the results of the tournament to announce the break rounds," the captain says. "That is what the people have come here for this week. The staff are upset enough as it is, and it's very difficult to tab correctly without the possibility of its being completely futile hanging over their heads." The tournament's 72.71% accuracy rate hangs heavy on the captain's mind. It is a statistic she would like to beat, but she feels lucky if they can even match it this year, given the miasma of death hovering over her people.

     "Are you sure you're not just pushing for the Combat of Conquerors limb?" one of the close-it-down Jesuits asks her.

     The captain looks at him through narrowed eyes. The COC limb is a sore point among Bedians. They once had a limb, but they lost it, which means that their tournament is no longer seen as a major player in the debate arena. Major players earn COC limbs, and COC limbs can seriously boost attendance or at least maintain it year after year. When Bede lost its limb, for reasons which were never made clear but which were usually associated with anti-Catholic bias in the minds of those who speculate about such things, attendance dropped precipitously, especially among schools for whom a trip to a forgotten corner of either New York or Pennsylvania, or perhaps New Jersey, was not an easy business. The team would like to get that bid -- and those people -- back. Canceling a tournament in midstream would not be the way to do it.

     "I am not saying this just because of the COC limb," the captain says angrily. "But I am not going to ignore the COC bid either. It is not a determining issue, but it is an issue nonetheless."

     "You doth protest an awful lot, methinks."

     "When you lose the income from this tournament and have to take money out of the collection box if you want to have a team at Venerable Bede, you'll protest an awful lot too," Father Fogarty Finnegan counters, taking the heretical words from the captain's mouth just in time to save her eternal soul. "Anyhow, she's right, and that isn't the point. The point is, people die all the time, and the world goes on. I suggest that we celebrate a special mass in Sister's honor tomorrow, and go on with the tournament, and that's the end of it."

     The group of Jesuits on the shut-it-down side briefly put their heads together.

     "All right," one of them says eventually. "Provided we have the mass. And we name the Extemp trophy in her honor."

     The opposite groups puts its head together.

     "Deal," they quickly agree.

     And the Venerable Bede officially continues.


If You Sell It, They Will Buy

     There are things in life that would appear on the surface to have an existential simplicity, but which on examination take on depths of meaning that require armies of academics to analyze. Among these deceptive realities, the act of shopping may be among the most complicated.

      Despite appearances to the contrary, shopping is not the trading of goods through the exchange of money. Or at least not all shopping. If you need to pick up the morning newspaper, and you hand the gloomy looking person in the kiosk behind all the photos of Julia Roberts a couple of quarters and take your paper and walk away with it, your eye half taking in the headline that reminds you that Bush is still President, the experience may intrinsically be defined as shopping, in that money and goods are exchanged, but it hardly qualifies as the same activity as three twelve-year-old girls in bellbottom hip-huggers with Sony Discman headphones around their necks and enough mandible metal to mold a Cruise missile who are trawling through the Veblen Mall searching for the perfect navel ring, and who if you were to ask them what they were doing would inevitably say shopping, even though the likelihood of a cash transaction is far from a certainty. Shopping for groceries is not the same as shopping for a mate. Shopping for an automobile may be more akin to broken-field running across enemy lines to capture a machine gun bunker than it is to shopping on-line for the Eminem Christmas album (don we now our gay apparel?). Shopping with an unlimited credit card is hard to compare to shopping with three dollars and twenty-seven cents in your pocket. Shopping is every bit a factor of who you are, what you are shopping for, and where you are shopping for it, not to mention your wherewithal in paying for it. Men do not shop for clothes like women shop for clothes (or at least they won't admit to it). Shopping in the warehouse-from-hell atmosphere of a Wal-Mart is not the same as strolling through Tiffany's. Shopping for necessities only marginally relates to shopping for luxuries. The dazed and confused husband with half a dozen packages surrounding him on the hard chair in a corner of the Victoria's Secret store reading about hockey in Sports Illustrated bears only a slight resemblance to the Don Juan heading straight for the Slightly Sinful department with a look in his eye that is palpably biblical in its hedonistic intentions.

     And shopping in a college bookstore for a present for a girl who does not even know that you exist is another kind of shopping altogether.

     To begin with, college bookstores are, for the most part, a misnomer. Or at least official college bookstores, like the one at the Venerable Bede. Somewhere on this hilly campus there must certainly be a place where students load up on physics and mathematics and literature and sociology and all the other bound and printed wheels and cogs of academic learning, but it is not at the college bookstore across from the cafeteria. This flagship store for the school is an emporium not of books but of branding, a place loaded with a myriad of tsotchkes, all emblazoned, etched or imprinted with the logo for Venerable Bede College, the simulacrum chapel that dominates the campus, or with some combination of the words Venerable and Bede and College (including various bastardizations such as sunglasses for Bedey eyes and faux pearl Rosary Bedes). There are tee shirts and sweatshirts, hats and gloves, pants and panties. There are pens and pencils, notepads and nutcrackers, clocks and watches. There are posters, paintings and press-ons. It is as if, after one arrives at a college, one must feel compelled to justify the matriculation by proclaiming the college brand as a fait accompli of brandishment, a proof, in essence, that the choice of higher learning institute was correct, otherwise none of this proclamatory ephemera would have ever come into existence. As the Mickey Mouse watch follows the Mickey Mouse cartoon, so too doesn't the Venerable Bede coffee mug follow the Venerable Bede academic hegemony? And this is not to indict only the smaller and lesser known institutes of learning, because there are more theme merchandise vendors surrounding the ivy league schools than there are surrounding Yankee Stadium. Perhaps in the case of Harvard as compared to Bede, more people want the tee shirt as a souvenir because it is as close as they will ever come to getting into the university, but pride and justification and identity are as mushy in the minds of Harvardians as they are in the minds of Beders and will ever be thus, and acquiring the tee shirt, as well as the education, will continue to be of equal importance.

     In such a place as the Venerable bookstore, it is not easy to find the right present for Camelia Maru, whom John Melvish barely knows except to look at. Longingly. Does she like liquor, meaning that he should buy her the VB shot glass? Are her ears pierced or pristine, a lack of knowledge of which eliminates the little gold cathedrals that he can envision dangling from her delicate lobes. Does she keep a journal, and if she does, would she wish to do so a la Bede? As he limps through the aisles, shuffling around college students buying pens or trying on sweaters or generally killing time for no apparent good reason, Melvish is torn between ignorance and fear. He is ignorant of the girl he has so obviously taken to, and fearful that his idea of opening a relationship with her by presenting her with some sort of gift may be a bad one. And even if it's a good idea, what if it's a bad gift?

     Oh, to be like Tom Abelard, and walk through life suffused with diffident charm, indifferent to the girls he attracts with neither effort nor, usually, interest. He is not ugly, but he is no Adonis, so what do they see in him that they don't see in Melvish, especially when Abelard's insincerity is as obvious as his lack of a good hair comb? Why him and not me, Melvish asks the unanswering gods.

     Melvish's attempt to overcome the difference between himself and Abelard, at least in the eyes of Camelia Maru, is centered around the need for a little extra octane, some ingredient in addition to his own somewhat lacking personal charms, to bridge the attraction gap. As he turns another corner in the store, he is suddenly facing a small jewelry counter devoted primarily to school rings, school key chains and, oddly enough in the present day, school cigarette lighters. Laid out with this panorama of VB merchandise is a lone golden bracelet, a thin simple band entirely bereft of branding. No name, no initials, no chapel. Just a plain circle, lying in a small velvet box, a tiny price tag proclaiming that this simple memento can be purchased for the probably insane price of fifty-nine dollars and ninety-five cents.

     And Melvish is speechless. He has reached the apotheosis of this shopping trip, satori, the great leap, fulfillment. He has fitted the round peg into the round hole, he has grabbed the brass ring, he has met his kismet, felt his fate, dated his destiny.

     "I'll take that," he says to the clerk, an apparent student with a nose stud who regards Melvish with a stupefyingly bored expression as she collects his money and tosses the bracelet in its velvet box into the Venerable Bede Bookstore bag.

     The first part of Melvish's mission is now over. He has the present. He has done the shopping. But now the hard part must begin. Now he has to find Camelia, and actually give her the bracelet.

     He pauses at the doorway of the store before exiting. The unimaginable difficulty of what he is intending has just struck him with renewed and deeper force than at any point so far. Committing to buying the bracelet is tantamount to committing to give it to her. For a moment he considers getting a refund, but he quickly decides that he is not ready to give up yet.

     Definitely not yet.

     Not yet…


God, I'm a Dancer

     It doesn't take an expert to understand that certain people will not do well in certain things. Pro football defensive linemen will not do very well at swimsuit modeling, for instance. Nor will swimsuit models make very good pro football stars. Golfing is not particularly suited for ladies and gentlemen of the one-armed persuasion, and a school for the deaf will probably not have the best glee club. Like Dr. Johnson's female preacher and/or dog walking on its hind legs, it's not so much that these groups do it well but that they do it at all.

     The same thing holds true for forensicians attempting to dance.

     The Venerable Bede maintains a venerable tradition of a competitors' dance during the couple of hours at the end of the Saturday while the tab room is compiling the results of the preliminary rounds. The two cafeterias become respectively a terrifically loud venue for the students to boogie, and a less terrifically loud venue for the coaches to avoid the boogieing students. Teams wishing to pursue some peace and quiet, or perhaps some dinner, can get the results later in the evening when they're posted at the tournament hotel, but most teams do not take advantage of the opportunity to get a little fresh air away from the forensic ozone. Instead they stay put, and the students attempt to dance while the coaches attempt to avoid them. Given the proximity, the latter group barely has a chance. Given the natural ability of debaters to move their bodies rhythmically, the former group has even less of a chance.

     The music this year is a cold mix of techno and pop that manages to please no one, but at least it does thump tha tha baba thump tha tha baba thump tha tha baba thump tha tha baba continuously, providing a regular underbeat for these prospective children of Terpsichore.

     Except, of course: forensicians can't dance.

     Lest we be accused of stereotyping, of portraying all forensicians as a group of hopeless nerds unable to shuffle their feet in a steady pattern, we hasten to point out that among forensicians there is potentially all manner of dancing fool, including such stereotypically dancing adepts as gays, African-Americans, and teenage girls trying to make all the boys around them break out into terminal heebie-jeebies. Unfortunately, the natural inclinations or abilities of even these groups are somehow mitigated by their membership in the forensics community, and any knowledge they had of anything resembling dance, from the balletic first position to the frug to the Peabody to the foxtrot to the chicken to the YMCA to the Macarena, are somehow genetically removed from their makeups the minute they are issued their NFL membership cards.

     The music plays on, loud, pulsing, viscerally alluring. And the first ones up on their feet are the Speechies, who make up for their ineptness with their enthusiasm. You would never believe that they are in a forgotten corner of either New York or Pennsylvania, or perhaps New Jersey. For all their attitude they've been club-hopping for hours, and just got nodded past the velvet ropes of this floating fun palace while hundreds of less fortunate mortals still stand outside waiting in the cold and damp, pleading with the doorman to let them by, that they aren't as ugly or as middle class or as klutzy as they look.

     Which makes Speechies no better than other forensicians as dancers, only less likely to know that they're no better.

     Congress people are quick to follow the Speechies to the polished wood, doing Western line dances in their three-piece suits and highly polished oxfords, looking for all the world like a primitive young lawyer tribe performing an ancient (and futile) mating ritual. LDers soon follow, adding similar grace to the powwow, although they are more likely to have loosened their ties and pulled out their shirttails, and the odds of any of the girls still wearing shoes are virtually nil. When the Policians finally join in, any semblance of the activity being a dance is only in the minds of those who have read the invitation. The elephantine magic of the Policians' foot chops confirm once and for all that the main activity of this group is research, not practicing at the barre.

     And every single person on the floor believes that he or she is the portrait of grace. Which is why, take away all the human characteristics and leave one, the best one to leave is probably self-delusion, as it will cover up for all the rest without exception.

     Tom Abelard, for an LDer, is not terrible on the dance floor, or at least doesn't look as terrible as some others. Since he begins his sartorial day a few notches down from the average competitor, with his perennially uncombed hair and his too-short tweed jacket and ragged chinos and haven't-seen-a-boat-yet boating shoes, at least he looks more comfortable than most. In the sea of rotating bodies he is at least giving the appearance of enjoying himself as he puts Camelia Maru through her paces. Camelia, still dressed for rounds except for shoelessness, looks about as comfortable as a brill at blue whale convention. She has never actually been to a dance before, and the tutelage of her sister in the arts of being a teenager have somehow overlooked the particular skills of looking graceful on a dance floor. Maybe if Camelia and Jasmine had hung around more in what they would refer to as typical girlie circles things might be different, but now, even with Tom Abelard doing his best to make her enjoy herself, grabbing her hand occasionally and jokingly twirling her around, or giving her a quick hug when they are bounced together by a surge in the crush, she can't wait for this to be over. And truth to tell, another reason she can't wait for this to be over, aside from the sheer torture of it, is the desire to be put out of her competitive misery. She knows that she can't possibly have broken into the elimination rounds-- freshmen just don't do that sort of thing -- but hope springs eternal in everyone at a tournament, no matter how unlikely, and the lack of certainty that she has failed to break is doing more to upset her stomach than any jumping and jolting Tom Abelard can arrange for her.

     If only they would get to it…

     It is after ten o'clock when the tab room finally spills out onto the dance floor, the music is turned down, the lights are turned up, and the waiting is over. The captain of the Venerable Bede team steps forward with the list of breakers in her hand, and for a few last moments, prolongs the agony even further.

     "It is a sad moment when a pillar of the debate community passes away from us," she begins. "Today Sister Levi al-Chaim, one of the great coaches of all time, has moved on from our earthly existence to join her Savior in the glory of heaven. Please join Father Finnegan in a short prayer for the repose of her soul."

     Father Fogarty Finnegan steps forward from somewhere in the cafeteria and does a crowd-pleasingly short extolling of the virtues of Sister Levi and the likelihood that her soul is already cheerfully smiling down on them, after which he turns the festivities back over to the captain.

     "And now," she says, "the moment you've all been waiting for. We're going to go activity by activity, and we're going to use the codes you were given -- we don't have the names -- so please be as quiet as possible, because there's a lot of them and we want everyone to hear their code as quickly as possible."

     No matter what activity you might be doing at a tournament, when it comes time to make announcements or give awards, your activity always comes in last. To Camelia it seems like hours have passed and every activity from scuba diving to after-dinner mint stealing has been covered before LD finally comes up, although in reality LD is covered fourth on the long agenda.

     The captain of the Bede team need not have been so full of warning, as no matter how many codes she reads, the noise level in the room seldom changes from midnight tombstone, aside from an occasional ripple of congratulatory cheering when a group recognizes the code of one of its members. Everyone wants to know as badly as she wants to tell them. And when she gets to the LD, where she must enumerate thirty-two codes, the silence is palpable.

     Some codes mean nothing to Camelia, just numbers in the open ether. Then she hears Tom Abelard's code, and she takes his hand and squeezes it, and then she hears her code, and it doesn't register because it can't possibly be her code, but it is her code, and Tom Abelard is suddenly hugging her with all his might and her feet are off the floor--

     And she is staring straight into the eyes of Tarnish Jutmoll.

     And she is disappearing from the room like Cinderella at the chiming of midnight.

     "Tarnish," Amnea Nutmilk says, "you look like you've seen a ghost."

     Tarnish Jutmoll turns to the Bisonette coach. "Worse than a ghost," he reports to her. "I think I just saw a student."

     "There's a lot of students here to see, Tarnish."

     "I mean, one of my students. A Nighten Day student."

     The Bede captain is continuing to call out the codes of the breakers. Jutmoll shakes his head in a attempt to erase the vision of Camelia from his mind. He knows that he really saw her, and he knows that she saw him and immediately ran away, so the reality of it is not in question. The likelihood, on the other hand, should be phenomenally small.

     "First they're pushing cars off cliffs, now they're sprouting up at tournaments like forensics mushrooms," he mutters softly. "I'll probably be seeing Sister Levi next. I never should have disbanded the team."

     "Sssshhh, Tarnish. I want to hear if any of my kids breaks."

     He nods. The captain continues calling out codes.

     And Tarnish Jutmoll sneaks a quick peak around the corners of the room, wondering where the rest of the team is hiding.

Is Sister Levi smiling down on them from heaven?

Will Melvish give Camelia the bracelet?

Will Tarnish find any other Nighten Dayers hanging around the Bede?

Will Bush offer to trade Alan Greenspan for the 24 Hainan detaineees?

Will Bush throw in John McCain to sweeten the pot?

Welcome back to the real world in our next episode: "Haggis, Tatties and Neaps or Pasta Bolognese -- You be the Judge."

Go to the next episode due April 25, 2001.