Number one

According to some useless rankings just released, Harvard is once again the top university in the US. It’s apparently been twelve years since they could make this dubious claim and, prior to that, they could make it only sporadically. I’m not sure what the administration thinks of such accolades, but having been enrolled as a student during one such year, I know the students don’t particularly care.

This particular year was early into the Clinton era, when grunge was trying to stomp out the memory of Big Hair and the last remnants of Nancy Regan-style anti-drug messages were getting more desperate. (Example: all of the phone books that year featured an ad on the back with a sign saying in thick, black, hand-painted letters “Mom and Dad, I do drugs”, with a kicker line below it saying something like “Real signs of drug use are not so easy to spot”.) Few students in that environment could have cared less what the U.S. News and World Report had to say about them.

Well, except the Harvard Lampoon, who staged a “we’re #1”-style rally on the grand steps of Harvard’s main library. A good number of the Harvard Band had been involved, so it was pretty festive, especially after the champagne started flowing. Like most Lampoon humor, it went way over the top, with speeches, massive posters and guys in mascot like costumes (one of them, for some reason, the “Mac Tonight” guy). The only reason I remember any of this, though, is that almost lost among a sea of huge banners with big “#1″s on them and messages like “Harvard: the Harvard of the U.S.”, was a small sign in thick, black, hand-painted letters saying “Mom and Dad, I do drugs”.

Harvard experience

I’ve made oblique references to my education before, but today calls for a slightly more specific recollection of one event that seemed to sum up what being at my college was like.

Graduation covers several days, with various events all over the place. Most are outside. In June. In Boston. So, everyone sweats a lot but pretends not to notice. The events are only tangentially related to the graduates, existing more to serve misplaced nostalgia and university status. (As an example, the main ceremony for undergraduates features a humorous Latin oration, for which the students are given are translation, but the spectators are not, allowing the university to look great as the students laugh at all the right moments.) Yet, completely as a side-effect, these events turn out to be pretty fun, even for someone who normally hates that kind of thing, because they connect people in a weird way. Generations reunite and connect with others. You reconnect with people you sort of lost track of along the way. One of them, maybe, goes on to become your wife. All these sort of funky people of all stripes gather and, importantly, drink. In the heat.

The event that prompts this post, though, came the day before the actual graduation, something called Class Day. This day is marked by gatherings that are decidedly less formal than others, with humorous speeches and so on. Weather was particularly good that day, sunny, but not too humid, so the largest of these events was well attended, though there were a scattering of empty seats in most rows. People tended to be in clumps within rows, couples, groups of friends, parents with their children, with stray seats between them. I sat next to my friend LG and we made whispered commentary on the events of the day (about which I remember nearly nothing). In front of us was this cute old guy, sitting alone, quietly watching the ceremonies. I didn’t pay him much mind.

As we were leaving, LG whispered to me, pointing to the old guy “Look.” I looked. I saw the same smiling old guy. She continued “that’s Solzhenitsyn.”

Something weird happens to you (or, at least, to me) in a situation like this. It’s a mental shift that feels in your brain a lot like a dolly zoom, that shot in a movie where the camera zooms out while approaching the actor, leaving the actor the same size in the frame, but bending the perspective on the the scenery. Looking again, I saw the same smiling old guy but, knowing he has seen and done more in his life than I ever will or would care to (soldier, labor camp, literary giant, Nobel Prize), he seemed different, disconnected from the rest of the crowd somehow. He might as well have had a halo.

It wasn’t quite a satori moment (I’ve only ever had one of those, a couple years earlier), but it crystallized a number of things for me. One was that you never really know who is around you; that crazy guy on the train may be the greatest mind the world has ever seen. Another was that enthusiastically realizing the innocuous person next to you had done, was doing or would do great things that you wouldn’t was a constant experience at school, and may be the entire point of the Ivy League. (As a very minor example, I point to LG’s near-supernatural ability to even recognize Solzhenitsyn. Could you do that?) And lastly, the realization that even if I gain worldwide fame, even if I change the world, no matter how many might know my name, eventually I’ll just be an old guy in a park.

I hope that I’m smiling as much as you were, Mr. Solzhenitsyn.

Not your average old boys network

Of the benefits provided by an Ivy League education, exposure to the “old boys network” supposedly tops the list. You join the ranks of powerful, fat, white men who smoke cigars in dark Victorian rooms and do each other favors. Naturally, if it ever really worked like that, it doesn’t anymore. This is not to say that no networking exists, just that the networks built these days are less likely to include CEO’s, senators and the gnomes of Z├╝rich. More often, you’ll find a diverse bunch, scattered world-wide and doing some interesting stuff.

A casual mention of a band I’d never heard of during an internet meander brought this home to me. Being in “random surf” mode, I took a look at the band, named Pink Martini. Their style is a bit difficult to describe, but I’d call it “world lounge”. If “Song of the Black Lizard” and some of their instrumental stuff sounds familiar, you probably heard it on the Sopranos. “Let’s Never Stop Falling in Love” is also now used in a self-promo piece on one of the Starz! channels.

A reading of their bio page revealed the group to be the brainchild of Thomas M. Lauderdale, a name I hadn’t heard in over a decade. I didn’t know him that well. We exchanged maybe a couple of sentences. I knew of him, of course. The Crimson called him the “eternal cheerleader” of the place in which we both lived. That article doesn’t really do him justice, though. In the first place, it lacks the picture that ran with the original article, the close-up of him making out with the statue of John Harvard, compositionally one of the best shots the paper ever published. In the second place, it makes him sound like one of the annoying throng of fabulous men who do outrageous things in a desperate attempt to seem interesting. Thomas wasn’t like that; he really is interesting.

My primary memory of Thomas is during a party he put together for freshman (like me) who would be moving to the house the following term. His events deserved their good reputation. I met him twice that night briefly, once while he wore a tux, then later when he traded it in for a gown. Not your average old boy for sure. I don’t know him well enough to truly consider him part of my “network”, but if I asked him for a favor, I have a feeling he’d probably do it. He seemed like that kind of guy.

Meanwhile, I’m happy to pimp for his band. Check out Pink Martini. “Amado Mio” and “Hang On Little Tomato” are the only things that have been able to break my cycle of listening to a handful of DJ Earworm tracks over and over. Also, if you’re in Boston, check them out when they play with the Pops on May 18-21.