Friday, March 15, 2002


Still here in the BNL (bitchingly nice library) and still waiting. Out of sheer wayward desperation, I logged onto some career planning software and went through a 600 question interest inventory.

The program suggested that I become a writer. Who'd have thought it?

As my old debate nemesis turned Rock Springs coach observed about five minutes ago, "This is an endurance contest." And not just for we judging coaches. As I type this now it is 10:55 p.m. and three of my kids are still in rounds. Gotta love round robin tournaments.

At least I can rejoice that they're still in competition, for I would hate to be here so late and have to come in at 8 a.m. tomorrow just to judge other schools' kids on their way to nationals. Judging, for those of you who haven't done it, is harder than it sounds.

I actually missed the first two rounds, the first because the tourney directors forgot I was here and the second because said directors managed to schedule me to judge the very duet interpretation round that contained Saratoga's one competing team, whom I have trained from the initial read-through of a piece of which I was already heartily sick when they were still watching Sesame Street (that being Neil Simon's "Plaza Suite").

I've made up for it since, though, and like everyone else collapsing all around me in this bitchingly nice library, I'm more than a little punch drunk from (in my personal case) three rounds of Cross Examination (four-speaker policy) debate, one round of humor (that wasn't very funny) and one round of drama (that made me want to chew off not just a hand but perhaps an entire quadrant of my body to escape, that round consisting of one each of the standard a)mother with dying/dead child piece, b)newly orphaned teen with regrets piece, c)nurse or soldier memoir graphically complaining about the horrors of war piece, d)touching evocation of some kind of birth defect or degenerative disease piece and e)wronged, misunderstood golden girl who turns into a whore because no one loves her piece. I love it when my expectations are exactly met.

The debates were the best. One debate was actually very good, the kids articulate and attentive to the details of each other's cases, while the other two were unintentionally hilarious – a feat indeed with a topic like "RESOLVED: the United States shall establish a foreign policy limiting the use of weapons of mass destruction" with which to work. However, when the affirmative case is that we ban the whole National Missile Defense program and the negative case defends the NMD by saying it could maybe, possibly, sort of, imaginably be our only defense against an asteroid hitting the earth and this after a whole day of speeches about nuclear warheads and depleted uranium and allowing India to join the U.N.'s Security Council... well, I bet you'd giggle a bit, too.

Meanwhile there are still dozens of kids just outside this library waiting for the results from the last elimination rounds for the night (finally!), waiting to see if they're still in and have to dress up tomorrow and compete, or if they get to wear blue jeans and go to the mall... that's always the easy visual cue if a particular kid is a force to be reckoned with: if he or she is still wearing a suit at 4 p.m. on Saturday.

Me, I'll be wearing my wacky insect pants again because of an amusing error I made while packing for this trip. I have different tops to wear (all black – once a speech geek, always a speech geek), but it's the pants that command attention, and the pants for which I'll be remembered for at least a day or two after this tournament is history. Kids all over the state, as they reminisce over lunch on Monday will ask each other "did that weird red-haired lady with the bug pants judge you?"

I defy any wrestler, trackster, cager or gridster to come up with a comparable vignette.

Meanwhile, it is now 11:15 p.m. and we're still here. My kids are, I think, free, and our bus driver is here napping in one of the bitchingly nice library's bitchingly comfy chairs, but our head coach, alas, is still tabulating, tabulating, tabulating.

And we want to host one of these in Saratoga next year? Phooey!

Thank god there's in-room coffee in my motel room. I'm going to need it tomorrow morning like never, ever before.

It's 8 a.m. of a really chilly, foggy Friday morning as I begin this dispatch, my first "remote" entry ever on LIANT. I'm in Casper, in the bitchingly nice library of Natrona County High School, typing away on an iMac that except for the color is a dead ringer for the one that sits on my desk at the Chamber office.

I'm here to judge and coach the last speech meet of the season, the Wind River District tournament, at which my kids and everyone else's kids from schools east of I-25 are vying for a chance to compete at the national tournament later this year.

We almost didn't make it – at this time yesterday morning, I-80 was closed from the Nebraska state line to Rawlins. For some two hours afterwards it looked like pretty much a wash, so much so that I dumped my luggage in my office and went to my usual A.M. coffee klatsch to hear the latest on the murder case, the weather, etc.

(Not that there was much to be learned there, apart from that the manager of the restaurant where we sat had gotten a stern warning from the police for riding his snowmobile around the streets late at night [past 11 p.m.] without a big flapping flag affixed to it)

Finally we got word that we would be allowed to drive the 20 mile stretch between Walcott Junction and Rawlins so we could hop onto 287 and head up to Casper. The show would go on after all!

Turns out everyone eventually made it except for the Laramie team, still trapped there last I heard, though several judges from there have made it.

Schools statewide had trouble getting here, though, so competition was held off until 3 p.m. and went on until almost 11 – fine with me, because that virtually guaranteed that my little herd of nerds would be pretty tuckered out by the time the head coach and I got them fed, watered and in their stalls for the night. Certainly the head coach and I were.

Yesterday was all about student congress, which is pretty much just what you'd think from the name. One hundred kids or so are divided into "houses" (and one senate) and debate bills and resolutions submitted by the various schools. Humor and duet rounds aside, it's pretty much the single most entertaining event a speech tournament has to offer, as the bills can be about pretty much anything, ranging from the patently absurd (there is one bill at this meet advocating that we blow up the moon) to the borderline fascist (overturning the Supreme Court decision that led to the requirement that police officers tell their arrestees they have "the right to remain silent," etc. [aka the Miranda Warning]).

For the first time I really appeciate the Constitutional requirements that declare a member of the U.S. House of Representatives must be at least 25, a Senator must be at least 30, and the President of the U.S. must be at least 35: as a confirmed civil libertarian frequently regarded as a borderline anarchist, I find these kids terrifying! More laws! More taxes! No animal experimentation (remember that human beings are, taxonomically, animals, too...)!

That's all done now, though, and while my kids did very well indeed (including three who had never competed in student congress before), none of them quite made the cut. But never fear! There are still two days to go in this last tournament of the year!

Soon I'll turn into a human pinball, running from debate round to humor round to poetry round to debate round, judging, judging, always judging... a sycophantic question about my "philosophy of debate" (which I tend to summarize with some version of "quit stalling and get your butt up there") here, a broken pencil tip from trying to write fast enough to keep up with a first affirmative constructive speech there, a mighty effort to convince myself that I've never before heard anyone do a rendition of "The Sunshine Boys" next...

And somewhere in this building, my kids are congregating: sweating the competition, blasting questionable music, flirting with people from other schools (anytime you go to a high school prom in Wyoming and see a bunch of kids you don't know, dollars to doughnuts they are speechies from other schools), huffing and puffing from hauling their evidence boxes around (some Cross Examination debaters have actualy resorted to dollies for this task), admiring the many and subtle variations on this year's fashion theme (a long, closely fitting black skirt with slits on either side that end at about the mid thigh – the sort of thing that once we saw only on the stage in, e.g. Vegas, but now comically paired with suit jackets), making fun of my pants (hey, if you can't show off your homemade "insect" pants at a speech meet, where can you?)...

Man, I'm going to miss this!

Wednesday, March 13, 2002


It's a beautiful, seriously wintry night outside, an answer to our many prayers for more and better snow, but I don't know of anyone who is enjoying it. Everyone here is still in shock, because something that never happens here, happened here today.

We won't really know for quite sometime if a crime of passion or a suicide happened today in our valley, but that hasn't stopped anyone from speculating, accusing, thinking and wondering.

And certain of my friends' expressed opinions to the contrary, that's the way it should be.

It's just as natural an immediate response to want to complain about rumors and call for silence on a matter like this as it is to want to talk about it. The difference lies, I think, in a person's individual emotional makeup.

BUT... I submit that while it IS an expected response to be pissed off at the grapevine which passes on speculation and misinformation and warps narratives beyond recognition, that grapevine is still a good and natural thing.

Gossip has a bad rap, but gossip is, at bottom, a sign of the community's interest in a person or situation. In a twisted way, it is a sign that the community cares about one – issues of approval notwithstanding. For instance, I personally find amusement rather than irritation when I hear that people are speculating about me and a male friend of mine; it means I'm still interesting.

And in a larger sense, the kind of talk going around our valley today is also how a community deals with big events, be they tragedies or triumphs. When something extraordinary happens, what do you do first? What is your basic, physical and intellectual response when, say, a bartender does a backflip behind the bar while pouring two drinks and lighting a patron's cigarette?

Your head whips from side to side, between the scene of the deed and the person sitting next to you; the implicit question in your eyes if not on your lips being "Did you see that?" The first impulse is always to confirm that something really happened; that it wasn't just something imagined.

Think back, for a second, to September 11, when something a lot more horrifying on a much larger scale happened. Wild speculations immediately followed, had begun even before the second plane hit. Nationwide, everyone had a theory, everyone had an opinion, everyone had to say something, to look to his or her side and say "Did that really happen?"

And that's what the kind of talk, the exchange of stories, second-hand, third-hand, made up, posited, really is. A young woman we all knew and at least some of us liked is dead, and not by accident or by natural causes. Maybe she killed herself, maybe her lover shot her, we don't know at this point, and might not know for some time.

Is that any reason not to talk about it? No! Because what is happening now is the start of the grieving process.

It's grieving even if the person speaking didn't like her, even if he or she didn't know her. It's grieving if the speaker is a lifelong chum of her lover who is already worrying about the potential damage to that man's reputation or to his children's well-being.

It's grieving because something has changed here, and not in a way that any community would wish for itself. We don't want to be a place where an entertaining, active, passionate young woman would want to kill herself, and we don't want to be a place where a crazed angry man murders his girlfriend at the crack of dawn.

And while the more analytical among us might want immediately to tell everyone to shut up about it and to point out that just because this happened once doesn't mean it's going to become commonplace, the impulse, the need to mourn this change is nonetheless valid and should be accepted as such.

Myself, I liked the girl who died this morning. She was no angel and we were not what anyone would call close friends, but we had fun together, shared in each other's lives, accepted each other's strengths and weaknesses, drank a beer or two together now and then, bitched about men from time to time, and never wished one another ill. I'm sad that I'm never going to see her again, or will be once it has actually sunk in that she's dead.

It still doesn't seem real to me – so unlikely, so surprising, so soap opera-ish, so much like something that only happens on, say, the evening news in Denver or someplace. I haven't seen her for a while, but when last I did she seemed very much herself – boistrous, intense, a little abrasive, wickedly funny, and very much alive.

And now she's not?

Hell yeah, I'm going to talk about this. And write about it. And think and wonder – even long after we have the official verdict, the government's final version of the story.

And so will everyone else here.

Rest in peace, sweetie. Sorry I didn't get to say good-bye.

Tuesday, March 12, 2002


I am, as I am sure I have established on this web page and elsewhere, not much of a basketball fan. Yes, I enjoy high school and middle school games here in the valley, but that's mostly because I know the kids, their parents and grandparents, and get a lot of business done in the bleachers (excited parents whose children are sinking three-pointers or being grossly fouled or have been singled out by the referees for inhumane treatment are at their most vulnerable and are thus wonderful targets for volunteer recruiting efforts for things like selling beer out at the chariot races, for example).

I've even been known to enjoy a University of Wyoming game or two despite myself, though that's largely through vicarious partying with my parents, with whom I have not attended a single game since I turned 21 for some ill defined reason that is probably best explored in another column altogether.

But the big stuff, what the Dunk Mob tends to refer to as the NzBA and the whole college basketball thing pretty much make me yawn, even if by some miracle UW is in the big tournament.

So why am I writing a column with a title like "March Madness"?

Because March Madness isn't just about college basketball.

Here in Saratoga, we enjoy about eleven months or so of truly frenzied activity, starting in April or so with a brief but intense season of riding the whitewater up at the headwaters of the North Platte River. Come May we're taking more leisurely floats and getting all the businesses and attractions in shape for tourist season (and this year, just for extra fun, we're holding a brand new special event, a birdwatching festival). In June we are awash in tourists and summer road crews and events like the kids fly fishing clinic. July has the usual big holiday early on, followed closely by an outdoor arts festival, then later in the month an amateur open rodeo accompanied also by downtown "Crazy Days," rubber duck races, a 5k fun run and the like. August features everything from a combination microbrew festival/bullriding event/chili cook-off to street dances to antique car rallies to stuff that we haven't even got on the calendar yet. September brings hunters and late season fishermen to keep us all hopping and busy, and most of us like to go hunting and fishing as well (a big part of why we all live here). October brings more hunting and Halloween, which we celebrate in a pretty serious way. November is when we start all the holiday season stuff, which goes on at a pretty constant rate right through New Year's Eve - there are raffles, parades, business open houses, nighttime shopping hours, wine tastings, you name it. Then in January we have the ice fishing derby. In January or February we have a winter carnival that is just manic with sporting activity - snowboarding, cross country skiing, skating, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, gambling... and speaking of gambling, in February, too, are our beloved chariot races.

Which brings us around to March. By March we're all exhausted. We've survived another year of good times (we're the "Good Times Valley," you know. And while we have a good time, too, it's also a lot of work making it fun for the visitors). We've been staring at the snow on the ground for some four or five months and have gotten tired of skiing, snowmobiling, ice fishing, etc. We're tired of being cold. We're tired of being more or less stuck here in the valley because the (ahem) individuals who mapped out the route for Interstate 80 listened to landowner interests instead of their surveyors, consciences and common sense and routed the road through the windiest, snowiest hellholes the region has to offer, meaning road closures are an occurrence so common they wouldn't even make the evening news (if there was such a thing around here - remember the nearest TV stations are more than 100 miles away and have much more important things to report on, like NCAA basketball). We're watching the snow melt and want, really want, to believe that means spring is coming, but we all know better.

And we know that pretty soon we're going to have to jump back on the hamster wheel and make another year whiz by in the valley – an exhausting prospect right after we've just gotten down from the wheel to take a breather.

And speaking of breathers, we don't really know how to take those, anyway. We've just spent 11 solid months making everything go and inertia being what it is, well, most of us are so used to frantic activity that it's hardwired in our systems, so that even when we sit of a dull March morning in our coffee klatsches we don't really relax and visit. We sort of sit there, twitching and staring at each other and trying desperately to talk about something new and interesting. But there really just isn't any, is there?

So, everybody talks about basketball. At least that's my explanation for this bewildering phenomenon. And even though I don't like it very much, and really don't have anything at all to say about it, I actually wind up being pretty glad when the topic comes up as often as it does this month, because otherwise conversation goes something like this.

"Uh huh."
"More coffee?"
"What's the stock market doing?"
"Is that good?"
"Uh huh."
"More coffee?"
"Uh huh."
"Say, is it true someone was shooting at a cop down in Encampment last night?"


So while I'd warrant most people think March Madness IS all about the basketball, and refers more directly to the frenzy of the fans in the field houses and auditoriums and glitzy sports palaces of our fair nation, what it's really about is the prevention of madness. Good god, if it wasn't for this stupid basketball tournament, what would we talk about this month? Popcorn?