28 December 2009

The Life raft, or, why I'll always be attached to debate

Over the course of the past few weeks, I've had to give the idea of a career change as a possibility (not by force, but as Wu-Tang Clan always says, "Protect Ya Neck!"), which meant (kind of) studying for professional school examinations and going online to find out if i've already missed deadlines for schools I would consider attending. But it also forces me to think of what a life outside of the activity would be like, and it's been so long since I've not been involved in debate that I was actually incapable of recalling a time, and had to flash back to my days at UC Santa Barbara to think of a time of non-involvement (and I wanted to be involved, even tried to start a team, but between the fraternity, the insane partying, wonderful weather and beautiful women, somehow managed to keep my calendar full). It sometimes forces me to think:

"why DO i do this?"

I mean, there are thousands of jobs in the world that would offer comparable compensation, with nowhere near the disadvantages. For example, every real job I've ever had has made at least what I make now, and I had one in the late 80's and a variety in the 90's. this is the end of 2009, if you adjust for inflation, you get an idea of the kind of money i gave up to teach and coach debate. Not to mention that, when you don't do this job, you get this crazy thing that most of us take for granted: free time. I can count the free weekends, i mean truly free weekends, not just when you don't have to travel, a weekend where you could sit around all weekend and eat cereal all weekend and watch cartoons like you were Tiger Woods trying to avoid the media, keep your endorsement empire and make sure that shark of a lawyer doesn't let that cold hearted vixen take more than the proscribed $20 million from the prenuptial agreement. Those kind of weekends never really exist for me, as when i do have a weekend of non-travel, it's almost always greeted with 250-500 papers/tests/quizzes/speeches to grade, so even my moments of uncommitted time are accompanied by a small boot in the junk called work. I find myself more and more frustrated until I remember:

Debate actually saved my life. Not theoretically, as I wouldn't be where I am without it, which is also obviously true, but that's not what I'm saying. I mean, I was killing myself, slowly or quickly, depending on your frame of reference, and the call to debate and the drive to debate stopped me dead in my tracks.

Most of the time, the things in your life that end up being groundbreaking and substantial are things you don't see as that big of a deal. For example, when I was 22, I got a call from a guy i knew (in retrospect, not really much of a friend, kind of a douche-bag of a friend that used me whenever he could). But he was taking a road trip to Reno for the weekend, and he gave me a call to see if I wanted to go (I always had a ton of comps from when we went Reno, and Caesars gave them to me when my dad died, so even in his generosity, he had an angle). I had just gotten out of a shitty relationship, in which i began to re-evaluate how I saw friends and friendship- he just happened to be a casuality of that war against impostor friends. He called, asked me if I wanted to go, I said no, he really tried to persuade me (obviously, I was part of the equation, but not part of the planning or processing of ideas), and once again, I say no. I actually wanted to go, but something said I should stay, so I did. Turns out that he and the other people he went with ended up getting killed (not all died, two lived, both paralyzed from the waist down) in an automobile accident where their car, a Honda Civic , overturned going into a sharp turn. I was supposed to be in that car, and wasn't. There's no way that, if i was in that car, my life wouldn't be 180 degrees different than it is now. Didn't seem like that big a deal at the time...

...this had no such problem of visibility of degrees of perception. I was in going to school in Oklahoma, on a debate scholarship, and, after being there for a couple of weeks, decided to not debate and just try to move on with my life- I had been run to my wits end by the activity, and all I wanted to do was graduate and move the fuck on with my life. The school I was attending was not expensive, so I could just afford to go there out of my pocket when the scholarship (that I tried to repay, but the program would not let me) was expired, and i had found a nice set of people, kind of debate people, but all of them no longer debating, to kind of align myself with. Life was beginning to move in the direction that real people move into, until one day i get a call.

Your mother has passed away.

This was the unraveler of my spirit and, for the most part, my sanity. I went off the deep end instantly. When my father died a few years earlier, I decided to use the wonders of speed to help me through the rough times (something i would not recommend), and so it was the first thing I went looking for. None of my friends did any of that shit, but they did have access to cocaine, and that became my drug of choice/self destruction. For the next few weeks, I did as much coke as I could get my hands on, which was pretty difficult for a variety of reasons (mostly because it was hard to get, it wasn't particularly expensive or very good, but beggars can't be choosy), all while trying to not let anyone know I was doing a ton of coke (more out of being stingy than anything else). At one point, I find myself in my dorm room, around 2:30pm, during one of my sessions (I had gotten quite a routine set up, snort blow, go to class, snort blow, go out drinking, snort blow, drink more, snort blow, go to class) was tearing through what was to be my second 8-ball of the week, when it hit me like a ton of bricks: I was doing it. Again. I was trying to kill myself by just destroying myself from within. I had to stop, but at this point, I wasn't even sure if I could (as Rick James says, cocaine is a powerful drug). I snorted a line, looked to the sky and said these words. "God, if you're there, I need your help, send me something right now to help me, I don't think I can do this myself." Five. Four. Three. Two. One.

Ring. Ring. Ring.

Hey, this is Jackie Massey at ENMU. You want to come here and debate with Glueboy?
In the spring.
Sure. When do you need me there?
Jan 3. Don't fuck me. Whatever you're doing now, stop. Bye.

And, all of a sudden, it seemed I had a purpose again. I had something to do that would get me out of my doldrums, and help me get some focus back in my life again. Something that could infuse me with a driving passion again. I just wouldn't have imagined it being debate. I'm not even sure that, if Jackie Massey had walked up to me in the street, and made me the same proposition, even 30 minutes earlier, I would have probably said no. I couldn't have picked Glueboy out of a lineup (by the way, who the hell is this Glueboy character, I've met these dudes, and nobody ever introduced themselves that way). And Eastern New Mexico? Where in the hell is that (other than the obvious)? Is there anything out there? At all? This team has been historically miserable. What am i fucking getting myself into?!? Then it dawned on me, it's not what I was getting myself into, it's what I was getting myself out of- a self destructive pattern that would have invariably killed me.

Do I think it was debate that uniquely was capable of saving my life? Not at all. Based on where I was, if Juan Valdez had called me to go to Columbia to pick coffee beans with him, or if some redneck with a lab hadn't called and asked me to make drugs for him in a lab, or if Phil Ivey had approached me and told me that he just needed to have a black man standing around him to make him feel better, like a good luck charm, I'd have done any of them at the time. I don't pretend that it was the uniqueness of the activity that saved me. But I do recognize that the chance to debate gave me the life raft i needed to get through one of the rougher times of my life.

And it's the reason that, even if I were to go back to school, why it would be impossible to just walk away from the activity.

I feel I owe it too much. I owe it my life.

25 December 2009

necessary reflections on mortality...

December 25, 2009

It's hard to think about the holidays and not be a little depressed about my parents being deceased. this is not a slight against my girlfriend's parents, who have embraced me as a member of their family, but it's just not the same. it's even a little scary, as their family and my family ate the same breakfast (ham and eggs, with pineapple). that being said, it's still a little difficult to pretend like everything is fine, and the day isn't getting to me. but this isn't the first time I've had the Christmas at The Family, and all things considered, it's a pretty enjoyable time, as I actually like my girlfriends parents (different than my parents obviously, but I enjoy their company, even if I'm not the best at showing that). but today, it's a little different. the death of a member of my debate family has had a larger effect on me than i would have imagined.

The passing of Scott Deatherage, former Director of Forensics at Northwestern University and the Director of the National Association of Urban Debate League has hit me harder than I would have imagined. It's not like I've had a ton of interactions with the man, he never coached me, never led a lab of mine, and as a coach, have never had kids in his lab. In other words, we had no real base of interaction, and combining that with neither of us being particularly social to people we don't know, we never had many chances to interact. this being said, it's still rattling me to my core more than it should. I think it's because death, in general, effects me more than it should. One of the downsides of having numerous people close to you die is that allows, more forces, a mode of empathy in me than I would like to have, as that empathy forces me to address the passing of people important in my life. It means that, when people are experiencing loss, I tend to find myself gravitating to them, to offer help to them in any way i can, and always offer my ear to them, as I know how it feels to want to talk and to not want to over-burden the people you've been relying on. I also know it's complicated to talk to someone who has lost someone important. Most people, with nothing but good intentions in their hearts, have a tendency to say exactly the wrong shit to you, trying to be helpful. There's nothing worse than not being allowed to react when something bad has happened, because you're trying to not hurt the feelings of someone trying to help you, it just makes the whole situation worse. Sometimes it's nice to be able to talk to someone that understands that sometimes, all you really want is a sounding board, someone to talk to, but someone that will just shut the fuck up and let them talk, which you'd only really, really understand are people that have been there before, needed that silence and wasn't able to get it. Just knowing the kind of pain they are going through makes me feel for the people left, and it means that death, collectively and individually permeates my core more than it should or is probably helpful, but i can say that it's the core of the person i have become, and sometimes i think it's the base of the limited forms of compassion and caring I am capable of showing.

So it seems that, as in all things, the process of death is always crucial in the creation of life.

24 December 2009

a different post

I remember a time in my life when I wasn't the ball of joy you all know and love.

There was a block of time, i'm not really sure of the duration, but let's just say the doldrums were longer lived than presidency of either Jimmy Carter or George HW Bush. I had just been through the emotional ringer, having dated a woman who, upon her calling me up to break up with me and telling me, the first word out of my mouth was "sweet," I had been living in Ogden, UT for over a year, and with each day my spirit was being run through a Cuisinart, not to mention the doldrums of dealing with the death of my dad, which, even after over two years, still had me in the midst of a tailspin. In a world of self-loathing, it's really hard to get yourself on the right track. It seems that everything you're doing and/or trying to do leads to either less than optimal results. i was in an overwhelming rut, and needed to do something to get out of it. I decided, relatively impulsively, to transfer schools, from Weber State University to the University of Oregon. But when I say impulsive, I think you may misunderstand or under-represent what I really ended up doing.

On March 2, I was in Eugene, OR, before a debate tournament, debated the weekend, went back to Ogden, UT (which, if i didn't have around $2000 cash in the room, and didn't trust any of the MF's that would have looted my room while i sent people I could trust to get my stuff back to me, i would have just left everything, and I mean everything, to just wipe that part of my life away, and start new), and on March 17th, I was moved to Eugene, and enrolled in classes at the University of Oregon...

...while the move did wonders for my health (moving from a place with some of the nation's worst air quality to Eugene, which I am still convinced has some of the cleanest air you'll find in a population center in the country, will do that to you), the move didn't really do as much for my quality of life in other aspects of my existence. Although I was no longer in Utah, and no longer felt I was at a technical disadvantage (not being Mormon, being black, being bitter and alienated in general), my overall attitude towards life still pretty much made me a douchebag. After a couple of days, I found a bunch of guys from the dorms to hang out, chill, occasionally drink and always hit the tree with. So, all of a sudden, i have a social circle, i'm at a school that is academically superior, and thus more enjoyable, to Weber, the area is beautiful, with trees everywhere, a river that runs right by campus, and beautiful women, but yet I couldn't seem to get myself out of the doldrums (if this word is unfamiliar to you, I highly suggest The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster, an excellent book with a clear description of what i mean when I say it). It was going to take something remarkable to get me out of this, a virtual hurricane to come in and wash all of the shit and allow for a fresh start.


I would have never assumed it was possible for a person to have as much of an influence in the person i am and the person i have become that was not a member of my immediate family, and in the overall time-line of life, our paths crossed for only the blink of an eye. We were friends living in Oregon at one time, and then all of a sudden, i'm living in Missouri and she's moved to Hawaii. Never really mattered, we weren't those people to each other, but we were true confidantes, providing each other sounding boards to help juggle the madness of life.

She offered me one thing that, at the time, didn't seem like that big of a deal, friendship. But Kendra, as a person, was one of the purest people I'd ever met, someone that was genuinely nice. I had not really been around anyone like that before, as most of my friends are a lot like me, they hate. They may not even hate specifically, but will harbor general hate for the average person. Kendra always seemed to have a smile on her face for everyone, all the time. It's the kind of thing I would have assumed wasn't genuine, had I not spent the time with her that I had, thus having a necessary frame of reference to use as a measuring stick. her being really genuine kind of forced me to be more of myself around her, something i had gotten in the habit of not doing, as to not give anyone a snapshot into the soul. I had always been frank, and usually was able to convince the terms were able to be conflated. but the more time i spent around her, the more i figured out it was possible to be frank, but to simultaneously be ingenuine, and once you know it can happen, it's easier to avoid it...

...she also seemed to be willing to call me out about being a douche-bag as a person, and having to answer to someone about it, as opposed to most of my people, who would just let that shit slide, as my general hatred and vitriol almost always provides some modicum of humor. The more we hung out, the more I realized i was being a dick, for really no real reason...

...I think the reason we ended up being friends was because of her patience. At the beginning, I was a real dick, but apparently, she knew there was a (somewhat) decent person inside, who just needed a chance to show themselves. So she just let me be bitter, and just reminded me, constantly, how bitter i sounded, and that i needed to try to make more positive out of the things in life that were happening. In the world of retrospect, i can now realize that having lost someone as important as my dad was to me meant that I was unwilling to let anyone get to know me, at all. I was unwilling to give anyone a chance to get to know me, which means, in my world, they never have the chance to hurt me, either. But that's a miserable existence, with walls erected around you and nobody you can really relate to. The thing Kendra taught me, that I still to this day use, is to be willing to ask for and seek help from friends. One of my biggest weaknesses is a belief that all problems can be resolved, and i can do it with enough brainpower and effort. And a lot of time, this is true. But sometimes, you do need other people, to help you figure out things, to be a sounding board for ideas, or sometimes even a shoulder to cry on, and you need friends to help you through these rough times. Kendra reminded me that we need friends, and more importantly, she reminded me that I had the capacity to be the kind of friend that people deserved, and the kind of friend i could begin to expect, actually demand.

I've been dating my current girlfriend for a long time now, over 4.5 years. I know if my current girlfriend met the jackass i was in what i like to call the former life, there's no way possible she'd still be around. I'm at a really happy place in life right now, and like to sometimes reflect on the things that helped make it happen. I know that Kendra didn't see any of the things she was doing as unique or above and beyond, it was just Kendra being Kendra. And for that, I thank her.