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June 16, 2013 — The Red Book, Part 13

Last in a series.

A person I truly respect as an artist and visionary asked a simple question a month ago on social media: “What did you learn from Harvard?”

To end my my overlong virtual Red Book entry from the last three months, here’s what I think I learned from my college years, and why:

1. Being an iconoclast and a maverick and not caring what others think about you is a good way to go through life. It’s one reason why I hung around the alternative crowd and chose the culture of Adams House (when you had the ability to actually choose your house). My classmates and peers opened my mind when it comes to questioning normative thinking, one’s taste in music, and how “the system” can be fundamentally corrupted by money, power, and influence. This was reinforced early in my journalistic career by a woman who moved on to an editorial position in Pennsylvania. Her words to me at her going-away party: “Remain a maverick.”

2. Question everything. One of the coaches I have come to admire the most since starting this site is Northwestern women’s lacrosse coach Kelly Amonte-Hiller. She has questioned everything — from the rules of the game to how her team is outfitted. I’ve pretty done much the same; since seventh grade when I got my first checking account at the former Princeton Savings & Loan, I’ve questioned why I shouldn’t have something other than a blank blue or green personal check. I’ve questioned why I can’t wear guayaberas (sometimes called Mexican wedding shirts) to work during the summertime. I’ve questioned why a suit shouldn’t have bold stripes like neckties sometimes do, seeing as just about every men’s suit these days comes in flat black, flat navy, flat gray, flat brown, or flat tan. And I’ve questioned why automobiles have to be solid colors — hence, my affinity for a subset of artists who drive what are known as “art cars.”

3. Learning another language can bring you into another world you didn’t know was there. I’m still on two languages (French and English) going on four (Spanish, American Sign). It’s enough to get me around a “supermercado,” or supermarket, but I also find my curiosity in places like New York City’s Chinatown or the Eden Center in northern Virginia, which has a lot of Vietnamese culture and texture stuffed into a two-acre strip mall. I learn a little more every time I stop into a bodega representing an unfamiliar culture, or turn on foreign news channels.

4. The same goes with food. Food brings more different people together than music or visual art. In the mid-1990s, the United States Olympic baseball team played an exhibition game in Trenton, N.J. against South Korea in preparation for the 1996 Olympics. In the middle of the third inning, the local AA baseball team’s mascot brought a fresh pizza for a lucky fan who happened to be in the middle of the Korean support section. The aged gentleman appeared to speak very little English, but he knew what he had to do with the Italian staple, and shared it with his row. I think one learns a great deal about other cultures through culinary experiences — not just the well-known cuisines, but street food like soft tacos, kimchi, baguettes, roast corn, and banh mi.

5. Buy Volvos. They’re boxy, but they’re good. I put some 400,000 miles on two used Volvo 240s between 1997 and 2011. Yes, the electrical and emission systems on both of these were somewhat frustrating, but I felt very safe in them. I equipped them with good radios and I traveled throughout the eastern half of the U.S. with a degree of reliability.

6. Believe it or not, there are some things they teach you at Harvard that you do use in the real world. I have used a logic engine, modern political theory, and database theory in my various jobs. The latter was particularly relevant to what I do now in terms of combining data sources into a coherent whole. My old boss used to put everything in one table and scarf off what was needed, but when we had all of the data as entered by the sources (i.e., program applicants and/or acceptees), the error rates decreased.

7. Cliff Clavin was right. The secret to life is comfortable shoes. I don’t wear fancy dance shoes when I go out partner dancing. That’s because one of my dance friends, who studied film of dancers before there was such a thing as YouTube, started wearing his street shoes to dances. His reasoning was that many of the old-time Lindy Hoppers couldn’t afford a second pair of shoes just for the dance floor, or brushes for the felt bottoms, or a shoe bag. It’s why I go to dances in plain loafers.

8. The value of money is not in its possession, but in its use. I’m glad it’s our graduating class — the one in our era that valued public service ahead of Wall Street — that has set the record for class giving at a 25th Reunion. I think we have a lot of altruists among us who have realized that one’s status in life is not how big a house or car one has, but what kind of impact you have on the lives of others. We’ve done a pretty good job thus far.

9. Go see the glass flowers. During our 25th Reunion, I went to the Harvard Museum of Natural History, a place I had never visited as an undergraduate. I felt very fortunate to have knocked out a couple of hours on the Friday schedule to observe them. My companion for the morning was taken by their craftsmanship, as was I. How the artists were able to replicate small cilia or leaf veins, we’ll never know, since the secrets died with the artist.

10. Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow. I put a line on my yearbook page from that Fleetwood Mac song back in 1984, and was very heartened to hear the song less than a decade later when Bill Clinton accepted the Democratic nomination for President. Many of the lyrics of that song ring very true today, when it comes to our seeming optimism for life, now that many of you are raising families. I’ve remained, I think, enthusiastic and happy-go-lucky despite the occasional hardship or sad episode. But with trusted friends around in the physical and virtual world, I think I’ve done all right.

I hope to keep contact with most of you between Reunions.

Be well, don’t stop believing, and remember Lot’s wife.

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2 Comments»

  John Doughty wrote @

Great essay, Al. Better than the Sunday Globe.

  Steve wrote @

I certainly was never a Harvard student, so thanks for sharing the important lessons that fine institution imparted to you, they make a lot of sense.


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