A Lesson from HUDS

Harvard University Dining Services’ vegetarian offerings hold few lessons for any of us. I’d like to say I learned something from them. I’d like to say that I saw a telling despair in the way the vegetarian meatballs felt compelled to masquerade as real meatballs, subsuming their own identity in order to conform to the greater will of the masses. I’d love to say that the way in which these camouflaged balls of sorghum ruined dinner for red-blooded Americans like myself time and time again was somehow educational.

These, however, were not educational experiences. Not in the least. And that’s okay.

At times like these, people get predictably touchy-feely. Whether evocative of bliss or misery, the word “Harvard” will probably carry a great deal of emotional baggage for you from this point on. Getting emotional is understandable. But people tend to get overly contemplative when they do so, and therein lies a danger. Anyone who has ever read a novel or watched a film—or at least those of us with even a shred of imagination—will spend at least a few moments casting himself as the protagonist at the end of a journey and instinctively wonder what the whole thing meant. From the time we’re young, we’re taught that stories have morals. Storytime’s over, kids. What have we learned?

Well, I’ve got news for you. The answer, in most cases, probably isn’t very profound. The moments of genuine educational value were few and far between. Sure, you learned a few things—perhaps, in your case, they were intermediate Sanskrit, the wisdom of not leaving your laptop unguarded in Lamont and the knowledge that it is possible, albeit painful, to shotgun a beer with your toes. But these jewels of enrichment were connected by miles and miles of paper clip-chain crap. “Joe Millionaire” taught you nothing of value. The vegetarian meatball tragedies taught you nothing of value. Social Analysis 10: “Principles of Economics” taught you nothing of value.

Given these pedagogically bankrupt bits of filler that constituted the bulk of our time here, it actually seems fitting—even predictable—that most of us are at a loss for overarching take-home messages. Perhaps, in this way, Harvard is a fitting introduction to the real world, which (I’m told) plays like anything but a conventional screenplay. In last year’s Spike Jonze film, Adaptation, Nicolas Cage plays a writer who is all too aware of this. In trying to adapt Susan Orlean’s book The Orchard Thief into a screenplay, Cage desperately wishes to remain true to the original text rather than stuff the work into a typical Hollywood cliché-fest. When he meets a producer with other ideas, Cage complains that he doesn’t want to “cram in sex or guns or car chases or characters learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like each other or overcom[ing] obstacles to succeed in the end. The book isn’t like that and life isn’t like that. It just isn’t.”

Processing Harvard accurately, processing it in a manner that is true to life, just might require fighting the producer within. As cinematic as the last few days have been for us all, we would set ourselves up for grave disappointment if we all expected a fitting denouement to unfold in the next few days, for a vital, soothing clarity to find its way into our minds in the form of Ernesto Zedillo’s political musings or Will Ferrell’s…well, God only knows what Will Ferrell will do and how clothed he’ll be when he does it. But once it’s over, if you suspect that you’ve spent too much time searching for the moral of the story, you’re probably right.

Of course, some of you have realized that this parting shot itself presents a lesson of sorts: that there are few lessons to be taken from Harvard in any broad sense. Some of the more intellectually-playful types among you will undoubtedly see a contradiction in this, and announce the fatal flaw in this article with a typical “I’m-the-smart-guy-in-section” flourish.

To these folks, I offer the most profound lesson I’ve learned here: Cool out. We all noticed it too. No one likes people who make mountains out of meatballs.

Martin S. Bell ’03, a government concentrator in Winthrop House, was an associate sports chair of The Crimson in 2002.