Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Celery Room

My friend Rick recently posted on a week from our high school days when we spent time in Chicago between debate tournaments at the Glenbrook high schools. I read his post and remembered some things similarly and other things differently. It made me think about memory and affect and how we each tell stories from our lives. Here are some of my reflections on that week:

My cousin Bimal was generous in allowing us to stay in his dorm basement and gave us the box on which we played Led Zeppelin. But the room was windowless and had the distinct odor of celery, probably from the industrial carpet on which we slept.

Our four sleeping bags filled the entire little room. Rick was (and is) funny as hell but often made jokes at the expense of his slower, less clever friends (we were all his straight men, basically). As a result, Rich, Bob, and I would periodically attack him on the sleeping bags, getting back at him for all of the clever funniness that we had borne for the prior three and a half years of long trips in the school van. Rick would say something clever and annoying and one of us would yell, GET HIM, and we’d pounce. It was great fun.

Rick and I felt we were on the cusp of being one of the better high school debate teams in the country, but I think we both understood that we had not broken through when we needed to perform. There was that debacle at the end of my junior year that Rick mentions in his post, as well as other times when we dropped an elimination round too easily. We went 6-0 at Bronx Science our senior year and lost to an excellent team from Texas in double-octafinals. We dropped in the first elimination round at the Tournament of Champions in Kentucky (a lot of the structure of our competition was based on college sports, which I didn't understand then). We went quietly our junior and senior years at the Harvard tournament, as far as I can remember. We beat our intra-district rival, Hen Hud, with some regularity, but did not overcome the best team in the state, Stuyvesant, until Catholic Nationals our senior year. That was one tournament at which we finally fulfilled our potential in the semifinal round, though even then we lost to a talented but not overwhelming team from Chicago helmed by a now-famous law professor and Supreme Court lawyer in the finals. At the first Glenbrook tournament, we came close to beating a great team from Westminster in the quarterfinals with a “disadvantage” that we had created but were stymied by a missing piece of evidence in the “link” section of the argument. We spent some time in the main Northwestern library that week searching for it, but could not substantiate the argument. That missing evidence stands out to me as emblematic of our standing in the debate world and our inability to make the necessary breakthroughs.

We didn’t drop a ballot at the Lexington tournament after we were ignored by the Harvard Roundrobin selectors, but unlike Rick I don’t remember beating two roundrobin teams there. No great teams were competing at Lex and we won the final round against the junior team from another intra-district rival, Edgemont. We had great expectations for the National Tournament held in Cincinnati, Ohio in June of our senior year (and passed up the prom for it, though that was a fine decision in light of what I now know about proms) but once again went quietly and did not make it far into the tournament. Rick had a lot of fun there with friends from other schools in the “Holidome” Holiday Inn where we were staying and I went to King’s Island and rode roller coasters with my debate coach.

The future law professor from Chicago, his friend from Manchester, Massachusetts who won the National tournament, and our intra-state rivals at Stuyvesant had an intangible drive to win and maybe were just brighter than we were. It makes me wonder about where we came from, our family backgrounds, and our schools. There were teams just before and just after us at Lakeland who made it on the roundrobin circuit, so the social inequality explanation probably does not fly. Rick and I happened to be the best team in our class at Lakeland but I'm not sure that we shared the drive that other teams had on the circuit.

I have debate dreams with some regularity. I am competing again, given the chance to go back in time and make up for lost opportunities. It’s telling that I also have law school dreams, when I think of making up for those lost opportunities. In these time machine dreams my stomach clenches as I recall the anxiety of competition. In my waking life, I wonder how I could have spent so many weekends in my high school years with that stomach-clenching feeling before every debate round and at every elimination tournament. The way I remember those years may be a product of how Rick and I approach our lives. I tend to tell stories about myself with a decidedly negative, self-critical slant, as evidenced on this blog. Rick tells stories differently, though he has confronted sadness and uncertainty in his own life. I think he is probably a happier, more generative person than I am and I'm thankful for his continued friendship, especially because in my early adulthood I have been drawn more to friends like myself who tell stories and remember life episodes in a minor key.

One last memory from the celery room. Before I left, I had asked out a girl who was also on the debate team. She had said yes and we were going to go out when we got back from Chicago. She was my first girlfriend. I wore her scarf in Chicago and it smelled of the girlish perfume that she used. I also copied the lyric sheet from the record sleeve of the Peter Gabriel album So for the song In Your Eyes. I did that before Say Anything was a glimmer in the eye of Cameron Crowe. I was a happy guy that week. I don't dream about that part of my adolescence, meeting a girl who loved Ronald Reagan and wearing her scarf. But that thread of the reality of those years may fill out my memory: friendship, pre-college quirk, regular escape from soul-killing suburbia, and, yes, even some competitive success.


Ganesh said...

great piece! and dude, having seen your collection of debate trophies, i'm sure that there were many successes in the mix as well. debate was such a significant part of your life hen; it's good to hear stories from it.

i wonder if we were ever at the same tournaments (princeton? rutgers? maybe bronx sci?), probably your senior year, since it was in my sophomore year that i began the team. with the limited resources, it was great when i switched my senior year to LD over policy, though i definitely learned a lot from the latin american resolution.

are the debate dreams of one match in particular? and did you feel especially competitive with the future law prof because he's desi?

a great post, buddy! i like the balance that the story about the first gf creates at the end.

lostandfound said...

hey, great you're writing again. i liked reading about the tournaments. it reminded me about spellbound, and hoop dreams and other narratives about school kids facing off in these high pressure situations. you and rick were quite impressive beating vaunted stuyvesant your senior year. i went to one debate meeting, and was like, this is too intense.

i felt bad about not writing or checking in on the blog but felt not so bad after seeing you hadn't been posting that much either. i think i'll start writing too.

lbc said...

G --

I was definitely at Rutgers and Bronx Sci my senior year (we best Princeton in the finals at Rutgers). We probably saw each other (Indians being not entirely common on the debate circuit yet) and did not say anything, not even a brother head nod (because we were so suburban). Policy had a macho allure but L/D seemed more truly engaging and truth-seeking.

My debate dreams tend to revolve around my reappearance at a small tournament with Rick, where we are ready to compete again for Lakeland. They are poignant to me and I always feel some sadness when I wake, because I know that there is an unconscious desire to complete some mission that I believe is undone. I did not feel especially competitive with the law prof and we were friendly with each other, probably a grasping and shallow precursor to all of my desi friendships since, which really only took over my social life post-law school.

Thanks for the comment and the praise.

lnf --

The nice thing about this place is that it is always here for us. Hopefully it is not guilt-inducing but an outlet without expectations.