Consider the alternative!

Whenever I’m tempted to complain, I always remember what I heard frequently growing up: “Consider the alternative.” The line was intended to point out that things could be a whole lot worse. Don’t like what’s for dinner? Consider the alternative: some people have nothing to eat at all. Your back hurts from too much work? Consider the alternative: some people are paralyzed. Didn’t get that raise you were looking for at work? Consider the alternative: some people have been unemployed for years.

In this sense, the phrase is instructive: it reminds us to count our blessings and recall that while some things in life may be difficult, they are frequently not nearly as difficult as they could be.

However, in the true spirit of the phrase, I’d like to consider the alternative when it comes to its very meaning: what if “consider the alternative” meant  not “things could be a lot worse,” but “things could be a lot better?”

In this sense, the phrase would still come into play whenever things don’t go our way, but the outlook it inspires would be much more positive. This is something with which I’ve had to struggle over the past year or so, and I can tell you from personal experience that it’s a lesson very slowly learned.

For instance, the phrase could definitely apply to my summer job search, which began in November and only ended last week. Throughout the majority of the process, I had had a very close-minded view of what the outcome would be. I had my heart set on working as a summer associate at a large law firm in Chicago or perhaps Milwaukee, finally reaping the benefits of many years of difficult study and summers spent building up my résumé. However, it was not to be.

I can tell you, I did everything according to the book. I networked. I shook hands. I remembered people’s names. I ate enough little hors d’oeuvres to fully stock a Caribbean cruise ship and have enough left over for the rats whose race I was running. I e-mailed, called, sent letters, took train trips, and all to no avail. After five long months of insisting on what was, in my view, the only alternative, I was one of the few remaining students in my class without a summer job.

I should have considered the alternative—in this case, any alternative.

Given current trends in the legal market, it should have been clear to me that unless I wanted to move to Chattanooga or Boulder Junction, I would probably have a difficult time finding a job at a big firm in a big-city market already saturated by two (or more) years of overconfident over-hiring in an under-performing career sphere. But I had plans for my summer, and this was the only type of work that fit in with those plans—until I was forced to admit that it wouldn’t work at all.

It took me until late April to realize that I must consider some alternative to what had rapidly turned into a pipe dream. So, reluctantly, I turned to the public interest sphere. Here, I soon noted with surprise, the fish were really biting. When you come to a public interest organization in need of legal help and tell them that you’re willing to work for them for free (thanks to a generous grant from your law school), responses are very quick and very favorable. Within weeks, I was lined up to work at a legal aid clinic in Milwaukee, and judging by the e-mails I’ve been getting from them so far, it looks like it will be a very enjoyable summer.

Does this mean that public interest work was my second choice for the summer? Well, yes. But I think it would not have remained that way for long if I had allowed myself to consider the alternative much sooner than I did. If I had been less rigid and more open to alternatives, I probably would have lined up this job (or similar employment) much sooner, and certainly in time to receive the funding that I will now have to go without until July. In fact, it would be more than fair to say that I’m kicking myself over my refusal to explore other options at a much earlier point.

But then, that’s the way all of us operate quite a bit, isn’t it? We latch on to a plan of action, we convince ourselves that it is the only viable option, and then we charge full steam ahead without conducting a full assessment of the alternatives—many of which may be as good or better than what we have hastily determined is the best.

This same truth applies even where we are not making the choice, but it is made for us instead. Often we do little more than form an aspiration or a dream, setting our heart on something that we have identified as the ideal. But then, before we even have a chance to take action, the dream is dashed before our eyes. Plans are changed without our consent—or are made for us without our input. A loved one is lost, the price is too high, the market shifts, our health fails.

The glass slipper, as it were, doesn’t fit.

And then—then is the time to consider the alternative. Then is the time to realize that perhaps what we had stored up for ourselves is simply not as good as what is in store for us. It may well be that all of our plans would have come to naught, and that what is planned for us will bring us so much more. We need to be open to this possibility. We need to avoid being wedded to outcomes that we had designated as best for ourselves.

The universe is so full of wonderful things that it would be perilous to cling to one, to the exclusion of all the rest. Consider what may be in store for you when you look not only beyond, but around what you have identified as the ideal. Because that ideal may be more of a stumbling block than the wide-open avenue that you thought it to be…

… and the alternative might be miles wider still.


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Lockerland: Reprise

Today I did something I have not attempted since I was in high school: I spent a day in high school.

To a much greater extent than I had anticipated, it turned out to be an eye-opening experience. I went with the intention of observing a series of Spanish classes at a Christian high school in the area, but I ended up observing much more about social psychology and even a bit about myself.

Although perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to see that this was the case, there is something changeless about the high school environment. I remember graduating and thinking that I was finally leaving behind the cliques and the crowds, the immature and the impatient, the over-caffeinated and the under-disciplined, and I was right…

But they’re all still there.

Yes, it seems that little changes in the high school world. The chatter in the hallways is still there, with like-minded (and like-attired) students moving in small packs. The teen in the jersey leans up against the locker, the girl looks down at the ground, and another romantic success or failure hits the high school airwaves within seconds. It will be old news by the end of the day.

In the classroom, there is still the same anxious silence as a test is handed out, and the same sigh of combined relief and frustration when time is called.

Along the walls, posters still encourage students to maintain a positive attitude (even in multiple languages), but many of the kids seem to ignore the posters as much as they did when I was there. Maybe it’s just because I visited in the last week of the academic year, but most of the students seem to have their sights set on being anywhere but where they are.

But then again, that’s the general high school attitude, isn’t it? Wanting to be anywhere but where you are?

In fact, sitting in the classroom today, it quickly came back to me that so much of high school is spent looking out the window, glancing at the clock, waiting to be free and just wanting to grow up.

Some of the high schoolers are already more grown up than others. You can see the maturity in their faces. Even in a room full of students of the same age, five minutes of observation will show you who is tuned in and who is checked out, who respects authority and who prefers to challenge it, who has begun to see as adults see and who still sees adults as alien creatures to be endured, evaded, or altogether ignored.

And you see the Types. Ah, the Types… the several fixed categories into which high schoolers inevitably  fall.

There are the girls who are popular because they’re cute (many of whom pretend not to be as smart as they are), the girls who are popular because they’re quirky, and the girls who are quiet and don’t talk to the boys at all. Perhaps not coincidentally, those are also the girls who seem to be most interested in the subject matter, and who look at the teacher with the most respect and love.

Similarly, there are the boys who are popular because they’re cute, or because they’re athletic, or because they’re funny (or think they are). It still amazes me (though perhaps it shouldn’t) that someone who appears to all the world to be an idiot can nevertheless attract the stares and smiles of high school girls simply because of his own high opinion of himself. And then there are the very, very few boys who manage to make it through high school without coming to the conclusion that they are God’s gift to humanity (and the female subset of humanity in particular)… but I don’t think I saw any of them today.

There are the jocks (or blocks), the nerds, the cheerleaders (identifiable even when not in uniform), the drama students (perhaps more dramatic than students), the skater boys, and the punks. Thanks to the dress code, I didn’t see any Goths, but I suspect they were there somewhere, lurking under the surface.

On the plus side, at least I’m taller than most of them now.

It’s funny how going to high school can make you feel, even (or especially) if you haven’t been there in a long time. I actually really enjoyed high school myself, but preparing to go back today caused rather a strange reaction on my part.

I think I actually changed shirts three times before finally settling on what I had chosen at the outset. That’s something I didn’t even do when I was in high school.

Indeed, it seems that high school is a place tailor-made for self-consciousness, and when you go there as the special guest of a teacher, then all eyes are really on you.

They’re only high school kids, after all, so there’s no reason to be afraid of them. (Right?) But when I stepped into the room near the end of one of the morning classes and the entire group fell completely silent, I definitely felt a bit like an animal on display. I answered a few questions from the class before the bell rang and all the students herded out.

It was only then that I noticed that I had been sweating.

It’s not that high school students are intimidating in and of themselves. They have their own pile of problems and preoccupations, and they don’t pose much of a threat to adults.

It is their intense ability for scrutiny that makes them worth writing about. Even setting aside their misguided notions of what is worthy of praise and what is worthy of scorn, it seems as though their eyes can see right through you.

At the same time, though, they would probably be much more intimidated if they knew what adults can see in them. Where these teens judge “coolness” and appearance, they are themselves illustrations of insecurity, unexpressed emotions, and the constant process of becoming. You can practically read it in their faces.

As I saw today, the thronging occupants of your local high school hallway look quite a bit different when you exceed eye level and view them from above.

Which, I guess, is true of a lot more than high school… but then, as any John Hughes fan will tell you, high school has always held claim to its status as a microcosm of the world.

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The Italian language boasts a singularly excellent word that can be used in a variety of contexts and says it all in just five little letters: Basta!

To be fair to those of you more enchanted by Spanish than by Italian, you can find it there, too. In either language, basta means “enough!” That exclamation point is there for a reason. Basta is not your average, puny, English, “Oh, yes, thank you, I really couldn’t eat another bite, dear.” Basta is a firm, forceful, big-hand-gesture sort of word. It has weight. It has finality. It is not to be used lightly.

And I think it’s a word that we could use a bit more of in English.

I’ll give you one example, although I can think of several others. My final day on campus this semester was a few weeks ago (yes, I’ve been detoxing since then), and I was very excited to be on my way home. Before leaving town, though, one of the last things on my to-do list was picking up the competition packet for the Harvard Law Review. I planned to shove it in my shoulder bag shortly before hopping on the plane, leaving it to be dealt with sometime after I arrived at home.

Of course, the Harvard Law Review is kind of a big deal. The man who currently has the privilege of occupying space in the Oval Office (at least for another 971 days) was the law review’s president while in law school, and perhaps it’s for this reason that they take themselves so seriously. Their method of distributing the competition was certainly very orderly, with alphabetized lines and stickers corresponding to secret alphanumeric codes. I think there may even have been barcodes involved.

Several of my friends spent the past school year preparing for this competition by “subciting” for other campus journals. “Subciting” simply means checking the substance and citations of articles written by others—a glorified form of menial editing. However, I think if I had really wanted to prepare for the competition, I should have done more weightlifting. Standing at over 3.5 inches tall, the stack of paper weighed in at 7 pounds, 4 ounces—just shy of the average weight of a newborn child.

Unfortunately, it turned out that this was one child I was just not ready to have.

I’ll spare you the finer details of the competition, but it essentially combines an intense editing component with a more open writing component. Students are given a week to complete the competition, and if they’re already off campus, then it must be returned by post.

I had taken the weekend off and planned to start on Monday, but by the time Wednesday rolled around, I could already see that the delay had been fatal. Part of the problem was that I couldn’t bring myself to really focus on the competition, since I had just come out of the most grueling academic year of the eighteen I’ve had so far. Part of the problem was that I wasn’t really interested in joining the law review, but was simply going through the motions of completing the competition because that’s just what first-year law students do in May. And part of the problem was that I didn’t really want to spend the $40 it would have taken to send the whole paper mess back to Harvard by express mail.

Nevertheless, I did work endlessly on the competition for a couple of days. My family joked that they always knew where to find me because I hardly left the table where I had all the relevant papers spread before me. And at the end of those couple of days, I had nearly twenty pages covered with beautiful editing—a really fine job, if I do say so myself, and one that should have made any HLR editor proud.

But this amounted to only half of the editing competition, and the writing component of the competition still remained. At some point, I realized that I just didn’t have it in me. I really just didn’t care enough to pull through.

So on Wednesday night, after consulting with loved ones, my psychologist, and the family physician, I threw up my hands and said Basta! Enough. I had had enough law and enough school—indeed, enough law school—to last me until August, and I was simply… done. The Harvard Law Review would just have to struggle on without me.

In fact, reaching this decision was quite a struggle for me. I almost never give up on things in life; it’s something that really goes against my nature. I don’t typically give up on work, and I don’t give up on relationships. I was the kid who used to get books from the library and finish them even if I didn’t like them because, after all, I had brought them home. I was the student who would go back to the syllabus after taking a final exam and catch up on any course reading that I had skipped during the semester.

(Yeah, I know. Get a life, right?)

Probably no one likes to think of himself as a quitter, but the law review competition and other recent circumstances have shown me that there are times when it is perfectly acceptable to pound your fist on the table and say Basta! No more.

Sometimes, something is just too much. When you’ve reached your limit, it’s alright to say so. In such cases, saying “Enough!” is not weak; it’s strong. It’s saying that there is a line that you will not cross. It’s affirming that some things—your sanity, your love, your time with your family—are sacred, and cannot be interfered with. It’s acknowledging that it is not always possible to complete everything, handle everything, or accept everything that comes your way.

And in cases where the issue is not a task that cannot be completed, but rather treatment that can no longer be borne, then Basta means, “You have come this far, and will go no farther. You have exceeded my breaking point. If you thought this would be acceptable to me, you have seriously misjudged me—and I would caution you not to make the same mistake again.”

Because sometimes, enough is enough—and everyone should have the ability and the confidence to say so.

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If at first you don’t succeed…

… then maybe success just isn’t your thing.

Just joking, of course! I saw that on a T-shirt once and have treasured it ever since. There’s nothing like challenging the conventional wisdom from time to time, especially when people are least expecting it.

In truth, though, I’ve recently learned that when something isn’t working out, there can be a lot of value in simply hanging up and trying again—literally!

Due to a few snafus that have arisen in various areas of my life over the past few weeks, I’ve had to spend a significant amount of time on the phone with an unnamed phone company, an unnamed airline, and an unnamed government agency.

Obviously, I don’t want to get into any trouble for defamation here, so names are omitted to protect the not-so-very-innocent.

However, I will say that the name of the phone company sounds an awful lot like “Horizon,” the name of the airline is the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet, and the government agency is the IRS.

(Yeah, I just kind of let that last one slip.)

Things have been brewing at the IRS for a while now, thanks to various filing status errors on my part, and I may see Social Security benefits before I see my 2009 tax refund—and you know what that means. Back in the heat of things, when I realized that I had made a mistake but didn’t quite know what to do, I decided to give my friendly federal tax collectors a call and see if I could sort things out.

Bad idea… at least the first time around.

After waiting on hold long enough for my clothes to go out of style (no snarky comebacks, please), the first “gentle”man to whom I spoke basically told me that I was in a world of trouble and should probably just turn myself in now to spare the federal government the trouble of finding me later. I did my best to explain the situation to him, but to no avail. The more I talked, the less he listened, and it soon became clear that I was getting nowhere fast. I thanked him for his time and hung up, feeling devastated at what he had told me.

Then, a daring idea crept into my mind. Why not call again?

It wasn’t daring to think of it, exactly, but it was definitely daring to do it. I could practically have qualified for retirement after the amount of time I had already spent on hold the first time, and I didn’t necessarily stand to gain anything by doing it again. Still, I held out a glimmer of hope that perhaps not every federal agent was as nasty as my first encounter, and screwed up my courage to try again.

Before you get any ideas of an overly happy ending, I’ll burst that bubble right now. My tax situation is still in a muddle (it may not be worked out for several weeks), and no amount of repeat phone calls could change that.

However, the woman with whom I spoke the second time made me feel a whole lot better about it, and I’m extremely grateful to her for doing so. She worked for a long time to try to resolve my issue over the phone (which would have obviated the need for me to refile), and when this proved unsuccessful, she did everything else she could to help—including placing a hold on my balance “due” (not really) so that I wouldn’t be registered as a delinquent taxpayer while the situation continued to be resolved. With a little simple assistance, she took a great deal of worry off my mind.

More recently, in dealing with my wireless phone provider (“Horizon,” you may recall), I had a simple problem that called for a simple solution. I administer the “Family Plan” that includes my siblings and me, and one of my sisters had mistakenly downloaded an application that she neither wanted nor used. She had been billed for it for two months. I simply wanted the application blocked on the phone, and the charges reversed on the bill.

To make a long story short, this proved to be an extremely difficult task for the first “associate” with whom I spoke, but not at all for the second. When the first representative spent the bulk of her time accusing me of lying (seriously!), I decided once again that my time would be better spent trying a second time with someone else. The second time around, the representative apologized to me for the company’s mistake, credited me with two months’ worth of the wrongful charge, and even threw in an extra month’s credit just to compensate for the inconvenience (or in case the charge recurred for the current month).

What a difference a second try makes!

On to the “Greek” airline: I recently bought a ticket with some of my accrued frequent flyer miles, and there was to be a small service charge of $2.50. (Not bad for a plane ticket, eh?) However, because the airline’s credit processing server was down that day, they called my bank directly to withdraw the charge.

And of course they made a mistake: instead of charging my $2.50, they charged me $22.50.

Now, twenty dollars is not the end of the world, but things do get a bit tight at the end of the academic year, and I wanted the situation to be resolved quickly. I called the airline and was told (probably from somewhere in Uttar Pradesh) that the extra $20 had been charged in error and had been re-deposited in my bank account.

Needless to say, I agreed as to the first half of the statement, but not so much as to the second. I attempted to explain to Ms. Balasubramaniam that, in fact, I would not be calling if the money had been returned to my account, but this notion didn’t seem to hold much water with her. I said that I would call back in a week if the money had not appeared—and I’m confident, based on prior results, that a second try will serve me well here, too.

Certainly, giving things a second try applies in many more contexts than difficult over-the-phone corporate interactions. You can find second chances in academic enterprises, career choices, and (of course) love. The general takeaway is this: the old motto telling you to “try, try again” is not nearly as hokey as it sounds. But don’t take my word for it; give it a try! Now, it may not work the first time…

But if that’s the case, you know what to do.

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In news that may be far less exciting to you than it is to me, today completes my 100th blog post this year!

Despite the fact that this doesn’t even represent one third of the year, it feels like a big accomplishment, and it’s fun to have made it this far.

And in celebrating it, I’m going to choose to ignore the fact that I would have gotten there a week ago if I hadn’t been a bit delinquent at various points over the last month or so. After all, sometimes life has other plans!

In thinking about this mini-accomplishment today, I realized that the number 100 actually has a strange sort of significance in common parlance. Perhaps you know what I mean.

I think that it probably starts out when we’re young children, just learning to count. At that age, being able to count to 100 is a huge accomplishment! In fact, it can be somewhat comical to watch the look on a child’s face when you tell her that there are numbers beyond 100. Usually, it’s some combination of amazement (How can something be so big?) and dismay (You mean I have to learn more?)

From there, the number 100 becomes incorporated into our childhood games—particularly hide-and-go-seek. You absolutely can’t start looking for your friends until you count to 100, and you have to do it out loud so that everyone knows you’re playing fair. Why choose 100? I’m not exactly sure. Probably because it’s recognized as big enough number to give everyone time to hide, but not so big as to be unreasonable. After all, requiring anyone to count beyond 100 would just be insane.

Then, there’s the question of money. I think that to a young child, $100 is a lot of money. I’m trying to recall how old I was before I ever saw that much money in one place. I remember mowing lawns and shoveling driveways and watching the balance in my little savings account creep up until it reached that magic number, then wanting to take it all out just so I could look at it and see that it was real.

Maybe it’s partly because that’s the largest bill we tend to use in ordinary circulation. I’m aware that the Treasury Department has printed bills in the increments of $500 (featuring William McKinley), $1,000 (Grover Cleveland), $5,000 (James Madison), $10,000 (Salmon P. Chase), and even $100,000 (Woodrow Wilson), but these notes have not been circulated by banks for forty years—ever since Tricky Dick signed a presidential order in 1969.

100 points for you, by the way, if you can tell me who Salmon P. Chase was without looking it up (be honest…)

By sheer coincidence, it was only today that the Treasury Department gave our $100 bill a dramatic new facelift for security purposes. Check it out here. Our money gets more colorful every day!

It’s funny that now, $100 seems like very little money to me. I’m not sure when it happened. I mean, I’d still be devastated if I lost that much money, but somewhere along the line, you buy a pair of shoes or pay for a dinner that costs more than that, and the magic spell is broken.

Then, aside from the money, there are the lists.

It seems that we make lists in multiples of ten. Oh, there are plenty of ‘Top Ten’ lists, but if you get beyond 10, the list almost always jumps straight to 100. When was the last time you saw a list of the ‘Top 60 This’ or the ‘Top 82 That’? Somehow, we remain fascinated with 100.

Simply start by typing ‘100 best’ into Google and see what auto-appears. I got: 100 best movies, 100 best companies to work for, 100 best books/novels, 100 best songs, 100 best rap songs (evidently a separate category—I couldn’t agree more), and 100 best colleges—all without even scrolling down.

You’d think that the list of ‘worsts’ would roughly correspond, but you’d be wrong. When I typed ‘100 worst,’ some of the categories (like movies, companies, and songs) remained the same, but here are some of the other categories Google came up with for me: 100 worst ways to die (certainly too morbid for my taste), 100 worst guitar solos (not counting my upstairs neighbor, evidently), 100 most dangerous cities in America (Boston, you’re at 85; Milwaukee, 57), 100 worst album covers (Prince’s Lovesexy tops that list), and 100 worst pick-up lines.

I know you’ll hold it against me if I don’t tell you the worst pick-up line on that list, so let’s just get it out of our system:

“I’m the biggest lady-killer in Buffalo since O.J. Simpson.”

Of course, O.J. Simpson never killed anyone in Buffalo, so this admittedly horrible pick-up line is made still more wretched by its false statement of fact and the fact that the poor fellow must live in Buffalo, which (beyond his obvious lack of social skills) is reason enough for feeling pity for him!

In any case, the number 100 has gotten me significantly off topic today, but I’m still looking for a reason why it seems to be so fixed in our minds. I mean, think of it! Our monetary system, our method of counting years (decades, centuries, and millennia), even our pop cultures lists and childhood games all seem to focus on that one little (big) number.

Perhaps it’s because of percents.

After all, strictly speaking, you can’t have more than 100% of anything. You can have growth beyond 100%, I suppose, but in general 100% represents fullness, completeness, wholeness. Coaches who ask you to give 110% are calling for more than everything you’ve got. The whole reason that 101 Dalmatians was an intriguing title was because that’s just one more dalmatian than anyone could possibly comprehend.  And in fairy tales, nothing (even Sleeping Beauty’s slumber) seems to last beyond 100 years.

In fact, conventional wisdom states that the human mind is unable to grasp the real meaning of numbers beyond one hundred, which are simply too abstract for most of us to truly comprehend. (Some of you may recall Richard Adams’ oblique reference to this truism in Watership Down, in which he states that “Rabbits can count up to four. Any number above four is Hrair—’a lot’ or ‘a thousand.’)

In the end, perhaps that’s the real reason for all of this attention to 100.

But whether or not I can realistically comprehend numbers beyond 100, I can grasp the fact that tomorrow is Day 101.

And it’s going to be a fantastic day!

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Put your hands together…

If you’ve ever watched one of those nature shows on cable television, you know that the commentator often devotes a portion of his monologue to the strange habits of the creatures being featured on the show. Nobody quite knows why lemmings jump off cliffs or why wolves howl at the moon, but jump and howl they do.

Don’t ask me why, but lately I’ve been thinking about a few things that human beings do that are really, really strange. You wouldn’t think so at first, maybe, but if you stop and take the time to analyze these behaviors, maybe you’ll see what I mean.

Kissing is one. I won’t dwell on that one for too long, but seriously: who ever decided that that was a good idea? I mean, I’m all for it personally, but it’s a pretty funny behavior if you think about it. Why is touching your lips to someone else’s the way that we show affection? It’s especially odd when you consider the fact that you would never, ever want to do it unless you’re really interested in someone. Most of the time, if you look at the average person walking down the street, you’d still think of it like you did as a young kid: gross!

Another one, which we seem to have developed more recently, is tanning. You know, it wasn’t always the case that you had to bake yourself under the sun (or in a box or booth) in order to be considered attractive; in fact, well into the twentieth century, society looked upon tanned skin as evidence of low-class roots. Being tanned by the sun probably meant you labored in the sun and couldn’t afford the leisure to remain inside (or under a parasol), far from its harmful rays. Now, we’ve decided that the opposite is true, so pale is out—and cancer is in!

The one I’m really thinking about, though, is applauding. After attending a number of concerts this past weekend, it struck me as odd (as it has before) that this is something we all do. Perhaps this is something you’ve always taken for granted, so bear with me for a moment.

Why is it, exactly, that beating our hands against each other and making slapping noises is the way that we’ve chosen, as a civilization, to show approval?

Of course, there are other ways. Some hoot and holler. Some stamp their feet. Some shout “bravo!” (or “brava!”, as the case may be).

But, for the most part, we clap.

I wanted to do a little research on the subject, and turned to my old fallback, Wikipedia. However, it wasn’t very helpful: “The custom of applauding may be as old and as widespread as humanity.”

Gee, thanks…

Actually, though, the article goes on to note a number of interesting things about this apparently very old habit, including the following:

  • The ancient Romans had a whole set of conventions surrounding applause, which diversified into many forms to show varying levels of approval: snapping the fingers, clapping with palms (as we do), and even waving the flaps of the toga.
  • French theaters hired groups of professional applauders to sit in the audience and artificially increase the sound of the clapping. This is how the English word claque comes to us.
  • Early Christian ministers encouraged applause following their sermons, perhaps a crossover from practices in the theater. (Tell that to your average Lutheran congregation today!)
  • The world record for the most claps in sixty seconds is 793, and is held by Tim Ahlstrom of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. I just had to list that one because I’m from Wisconsin.

On many television shows, neon signs are now used to tell audience members exactly when (and when not) to applaud, and perhaps it’s all for the best.

After all, society today has become confused about applause, as it has about many other things. When I go to the symphony in Boston, for example, there’s always at least one person who doesn’t know not to clap between movements. And at a recital series that I run on the university campus, we recently had to institute a policy calling for no applause until the end of the program, since the same uncertainty in a smaller group can lead to unfortunate (though often comical) results.

In today’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along world, applause actually comes in many shapes and sizes.

For instance, we have now developed the “golf clap,” applause so polite that it can scarcely be heard—which is the entire point. A botched putt due to loud applause from another green could ruin the Sunday afternoon of untold millions of couchside viewers, so it’s probably better to be safe than sorry.

Then there’s the “slow clap,” a novel way of showing that something is not really worthy of applause at all. If a form of applause could be described as ironic (or, at the very least, satirical), that would definitely be it.

Finally, there’s the “crescendo clap,” in which a group of spectators begins to clap slowly and in unison, then picks up the pace and the volume until the beat devolves into a smattering of enthusiastic but unsynchronized applause. This is, among other things, a very fascinating (though subtle) indicator of mob mentality at work, somewhat like “the wave” or the fact that everyone chants “airrrr-ballll” at roughly the same pitch. Somehow, we all know exactly what to do—and when.

Yes, clapping and tanning and even kissing are all strange social customs, yet I think it’s only rarely that we think about when we ever started doing these things and why. In some cases—particularly with the applause, I think—we often end up acting something like lemmings ourselves.

There is probably fascinating research on the subject, which I’ve probably nearly entirely butchered here. Still, I hope you’ve enjoyed considering with me the strangeness of some of our habits as humans.

And the next time you find yourself at a concert, speech, recital, or sporting event, take a moment and look around you when everyone else begins to applaud. Isn’t it strange that everyone does it in almost the same way? Yet who decides when it starts? When it stops?

You may do it almost without thinking, but ask yourself: How do I know what to do?

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The grass is always greener

They’re at it again, folks!

As soon as the last gasps of winter begin to turn to signs of spring, when buds begin to appear and birds begin to sing again, strange and previously hidden human beings emerge from their winter hiding places and begin to go to work. Like elves, they appear almost as if by magic, entirely absent one day and present in full force the next. No sooner have the days begun to lengthen and the temperature begun to rise than they mysteriously materialize.

They are the Harvard landscapers.

Perhaps you’ve seen them yourself, if you’ve been lucky to be on campus during those special days in the spring. If you have, you’ll agree with me that their work is certainly a sight to behold.

Now, Harvard’s campus covers slightly less than four hundred acres in the heart of Cambridge. As you might suspect, that’s a lot of grass. And the task of the Harvard landscapers, for a few days in April and again in June, is to make the grass… greener.

Even before Harvard decided, in an apparent fit of conscience, to preach environmentalism (“Green is the new Crimson”) from the heights of the ivory tower, it was obsessed with the greenness of its grass. Mother Harvard’s academic rigor may be ever so fierce, her athletic prowess ever so dismal, but she is determined that her grass will (and must) always be green.

In truth, I’m reminded of older women who continue to dye their hair beyond the point of all believability—like the grandmother who sits in front of you in church: her hair, a brilliant red; her age, a ripe 72. It seems almost comically futile, and especially in Harvard’s case: the grande dame of Cambridge turns 374 years old this year.

Of course, the landscapers of this fine university don’t actually dye all the grass on the campus. That would be silly.

Instead, they invest countless hours (and, with time, money) in a multi-step process that is intended to make our acres their greenest and our grass its most lush just in time for Commencement, when it will be pummeled into mud by the feet of tens of thousands of family members, friends, tourists, and random Korean spectators.

See, doesn’t that make much more sense?

As far as I can tell, it all starts with the acorn harvesting. This preliminary step actually begins in September or October of the previous year, when acorns from the oak trees in Harvard Yard begin to rain down upon the lawn. You may think I’m fibbing, but Harvard actually has machines specially designed to drive over the lawn and suck up all the acorns, returning the grass to its formerly pristine state before the snow flies. (An acorn harvester actually looks a great deal like a Zamboni, if that helps you form a picture in your mind.)

I’ve always wondered what happens to all those offensive acorns after they’re swept away. Are they simply composted? Are they used in soups served to the undergraduate students? (I wouldn’t put it past the university dining services…) Or are they, perhaps, sent to Spain and used to fatten the pigs destined to become jamón ibérico? We may never know.

In any case, after the de-acorning is complete and the winter snows have come and gone, the landscapers commence—with a vengeance—their first task of the spring: raking and aerating (or, as I like to call it, perforating). At the first possible chance, the Harvard landscapers get out their heavy metal rakes and begin to scratch furiously at the lawn, yanking away any offending material including (gasp!) overlooked acorns from the autumn. Then, they move across the grass with rolling perforating machines pushed by hand. These machines leave small, evenly spaced holes in the terrain all across the Yard; the holes not only serve to aerate the soil (such as it were) but also await the deposit of grass seed, which comes next.

When the raking and aerating is complete, things really begin in earnest. In a matter of two days, all of Harvard’s 400 acres are impregnated with grass seed, sprayed completely with a foam-like fertilizer whose color can only be described as teal, and left to moisturize and (presumably) grow. The edges of every patch of grass are treated with special attention, being turned over by hand before the seeds are sown and fertilizer applied. When all is complete, stakes are driven into the ground around the perimeter of every bit of green space, and twine is strung through the posts to stop student vagans from treading upon the fragile soil.

All is now ready for Yardfest.

Yardfest, which takes place on the college campus every spring, may be described in many ways. Pragmatically speaking, however, it is the Sunday afternoon in April when the administrators of the university, in their wisdom, invite a second- or third-rate performing artist to appease the students before their spring exams. Past artists have included Wyclef Jean (I know, I’ve never heard of him either) and Third Eye Blind (welcome back to the ’90s, folks). By April, the Harvard students have all attended several online lectures instructing them in pop culture and how to “rock out,” and they’re ready to go.

No matter the identity of the invitee, though, Yardfest largely consists of hordes of students milling about, pretending to enjoy themselves, and (naturally) trampling the grass.

And therein lies the rub: hours into Yardfest, all of that hard (some might even say obsessive) landscaping work is for naught.

However, the Harvard landscapers are indefatigable. They pick right up and do it all again—just in time for Commencement, at which (as I alluded to above) tens of thousands of chairs are set up all over the newly recovered lawn and filled with anxious ceremony observers. The big day leaves a sea of mud in its wake, which means that the landscapers have only a few weeks to repeat the process yet again before students arrive for summer school.

Reflecting on this absurdity, two images from Lewis Carroll’s fiction come to mind: 1) the Red Queen’s race and 2) painting the roses red.

After watching it persist for five years now, Harvard’s obsession with its lawn has become increasingly fascinating to me. What is the point? Are we really going to have some sort of identity crisis if the grass isn’t impeccable at every waking moment of the year?

Oh, but forget waking moments—did I mention that Harvard also uses a built-in sprinkler system to water all of its grass between 2:00 and 4:00 AM every day, even if it rained the day before?

I wonder how much we spend on landscapers. For that matter, I wonder how much we spend on watering the grass. When budget cuts were affecting the livelihoods of both employees and departments last year, I wonder if anyone ever said, “Hey! I have an idea! Let’s maybe pay a little bit less attention to our grass complex and a little bit more attention to the well-being of our students and their teachers!”

I wonder if they would have had to stop providing breakfast for all the undergraduates if they had just stopped watering the lawn.

And on top of all of that, does it strike anyone as odd that Harvard can hoist banners and proclaim the virtues of environmentalism on the one hand, and waste untold gallons of water, tanks of fuel, and hours of labor on the other—all to prepare perfect grass for the arrival of many trampling feet?

Maybe instead of “Green is the new Crimson,” they should just say, “Grass is the new indicator of all that we hold dear:

… Appearance.”

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