Tuesday, January 6, 2015

a place like tiffany's

January 20th, 2014 | Berkeley, CA 
Sometimes I get so sad when I get a chance to talk about debate again, because even though I was never that good at it, those were the best years of my life without a doubt, spent with the most inspirational and intelligent and wonderful people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing—
—and that’s got to mean something because I’m supposed to be attending the most prestigious public university in the world right now, right? (at least I’ll admit that I’m a major snob.) Even though I’ve met great people here too, I haven’t found the people I belong to like I did when I once belonged to high school debate and I miss that feeling the most.
I miss that first van ride where we told ghost stories in the dark with the heater turned way up; I miss getting lost in random public high school hallways and that uncomfortable small talk before a round dancing lightly around the question of disclosure; I miss skipping IR rounds to go buy turkey sandwiches at Safeway and I miss those dreadful hours spent listening to the same IRs over and over again when I didn’t have the nerve to skip; I miss those moments we spent laughing over those dumb policy pick up lines and learning how to swear, because f*ck it, why the hell not? We were sweethearts and heartbreakers both, and even though we would crush them on framework and solvency turns, we’ve been crushed by the activity too. God, I even miss crying on your shoulder under the fluorescent lights of Tahoma and letting you wipe my tears away and tell me that things were going to be okay and that I couldn't quit then, not when I had so much more ahead of me; it's been over three years now and I still have never cried in front of anybody since then because I shut too many people out to show that kind of vulnerability. I miss all those practice policy rounds we half-assed in class and all those dual practices we didn’t; f*cking hell, I miss dual so much, because even though I am and always will be a policy debater at heart, dual interpers were always more fun to talk to before/after rounds with their humor and blocking and infectious enthusiasm; I miss having that enthusiasm too when I was fifteen and learning how to take a shot from a seventeen year old when we spent hours after school that entire week in Tobin’s room and the third floor girl’s bathroom figuring out Naomi and Alice but also figuring out ourselves. I miss that time when we had an existential crisis at camp and sat outside of Jepson looking at the moon during sunset the day before the camp tournament. I miss that other camp tournament when you told me that I shouldn’t feel insecure about my 2ARs because “they're really good, you did great,” and even though I knew it wasn’t the first time I’d heard those words, it felt like it was; I’m sorry for all the times I tried to tell you that life and debate were going to shit even though you were hundreds of miles away, and I miss that you let me ramble on anyways; I miss how you came and found us during your bye round and how f*cking nervous I was when I gave that 1NR because I didn’t want to let you down: what a coincidence it was that we both ended up at Indianapolis of all places that year, right? I miss how much potential love and hope I still had for the activity even after those sunless summer days I spent in the basement of the business building getting yelled at for my incoherent arguments and sloppy permutations; if I think about debate too much I’ll even tell you that I miss hating it with the same fervor I had when I still loved it, deep down. I never stopped. Don’t fool yourself for a second that I didn’t love every minute of it all, from the first time I walked into room 345 to the last time I walked out. I regret a lot of things, but quitting when I did will never be one of them.
All I ask for anymore is to deserve the kind of love I found in debate again someday soon.

Part way through my senior year, I did the one thing I never thought I would when I first started high school—I quit my debate team. I've mentioned in passing a number of times here (and everywhere) now that I used to do policy debate, and even though it's been almost two years since I left, I find myself talking about debate from time to time because it was such a formative and all-consuming part of my high school experience and undoubtedly has shaped the person I am today. I feel like I say "I did debate in high school" in a way that wants to mean everything I wrote in the entry copied above almost a year ago now, but those words ultimately fall short. How can I explain that this was love? All the symptoms were there: the bleary eyes, the young naïveté, learning what commitment was, and giving up everything expecting something—anything—in return.

I learned so much in my three and a half years spent in that glorious community, and not just about poverty, the military, space, and transportation infrastructure; I learned about the power of rhetoric and persuasion; I began to understand how to question everything, not because I'm a skeptic, but because I want to challenge people to be able to defend their representations; I discovered what it meant to learn the rules of a game, only to make up the rules as you go along; I found a voice and made it my goal to say things that matter. Debate afforded me an education I wouldn’t trade for the world, but perhaps the most important experience it gave me was that feeling of belonging to something.

For my very last interpretative reading round at my final tournament, I read the passage from Truman Capote's "Breakfast at Tiffany's" where Holly Golightly explains to the unnamed narrator what it is she loves about the iconic American jewelry store: "If I could find a place that made me feel like Tiffany's, I'd buy some furniture and give the cat a name!" The thing about Holly was that in spite of her lavish Manhattan callgirl lifestyle, her greatest ambition was neither fame nor wealth: it was always about finding the place where she and things belong together. 

I wrote this entry last January the day after I returned to Berkeley after winter break last year because a part of me was disappointed by my first semester of college. As much as I loved my new school, I couldn't help but to feel like the memories I made in those first four months fell short in comparison to the rush of adrenaline that came with giving speeches at 220 words per minute and excitement of staying up until two whispering secrets to my best friends in seedy motel rooms that smelled of stale cigarettes and burnt popcorn. I still recall FaceTiming one of my best friends from home: "I honestly thought the people here would be more brilliant and passionate than the people I'd met in debate, but they're all so normal."

"The fights you fight today are the fights you fight until you die," Ben Wekselbaum, an ex-policy debater like myself, says to the protagonist in Rocket Science (2007). That line gets to me even more now than it did the first time I watched it the summer before my senior year, and I think one of the reasons I like that film so much is because it doesn't betray us by telling us life gets easier the way so many Hollywood bildungsroman movies like to do. The belief that things will one day settle into a happily ever after tastes too much like false hope; what are we supposed to do with ourselves in the interim?

I have yet to find a satisfying answer to that question of what happens in between now and happily ever after; to me, it's more satisfying to believe that there simply isn't going to be a moment or place or person that makes everything fall into place to begin with. My jaw dropped when my Greek mythology professor asked us one day in a lecture on Hesiod's Works and Days: "what if the reason ἐλπίς (expectation/hope) is in Pandora’s jar in the first place is because it’s an evil too?"

Scholars have been disputing the translation of ἐλπίς for centuries now: today, many agree that a more appropriate English equivalent is 'expectation' because 'hope' has too much of a positive connotation. Regardless, expectation can be just as dangerous; we set ourselves up for disappointment when we expect too much.

After writing that final sentence of that entry from January 20th, I silently made a resolution for myself for the rest of 2014: I was going to figure out how I could belong to Berkeley and deserve the love I once found in debate so I didn't have to miss that part of my life anymore. Even though I typically don't make new year's resolutions, I'm pleased with how hard I worked to see it through as best I could, and I think the girl who wrote that love letter (because every written word is a love letter, and a suicide note too) last year would be so proud of what I went on to achieve and the person I became in 2014. 

Here's to you, 2015. 

xoxo, vivian


  1. Can I just say that your writing style always blows me away? I was never in debate and this made me wistful.

    I'm sure 2015 will be a great year for you. Good luck.

  2. I had to grab my quote book because the quotes "the fights you fight today are the fight you fight until you die" and ""what if the reason ἐλπίς (expectation/hope) is in Pandora’s jar in the first place is because it’s an evil too?" (even though I don't know much about greek mythology)... struck me.
    Expectation is evil. We expect so much, only to be let down when things don't go our way.

  3. we love how open you are with your writing!

    M + K