Lewis and The Flues

By the Yard

“Oh, God, no, don’t get a real log—that would just make it more pathetic,” my blockmate said.

I sat back on my heels.

“Maybe it needs some more Mylar?”

“Maybe you should just give up.”

I surveyed my efforts. In the fireplace, a fan whirred, fluttering the sheets of gold Mylar and red and blue cellophane that I had scotch-taped to its screen. Although I had cut the cellophane and Mylar to approximate flames, the construction looked like nothing so much as a fan with sheets of Mylar and cellophane taped to it. I leaned forward and turned the fan to high; the cellophane fluttered more vigorously.

“You really don’t think a log would help? If I put it in front it would cover up the fan. The flames would look a lot more convincing if you couldn’t see the fan. Listen—the cellophane’s crackling. It even sounds like a fire!”

“It sounds like a fan,” my blockmate said flatly.

“You lack imagination,” I said, tacking down a loose edge of the gold Mylar with some more scotch tape. He rolled his eyes.

Appearances to the contrary, this was not my first attempt at lighting a fire. Over the course of last year’s Siberian winter, my roommate and I burned enough wood to constitute a small tree—as well as our Science A midterms, several Duraflame logs, and half of a box of kitchen matches. Last winter was the first time either my roommate or I had ever been able to apply skills learned as Girl Scouts, and we reveled in the opportunity. We layered kindling and balled-up sheets of newspaper on the grate in elaborate crosshatch patterns; with fire tongs, we held burning sheets of newspaper in the flue to warm it and make the chimney draw better. But our fireplace did not represent merely an opportunity to practice fire husbandry; it was also the spiritual center of our room. In November we hung stockings from the mantle; in late February, as snowflakes eddied past our window and blanketed the frozen Charles, we roasted heavily-discounted heart-shaped marshmallows from CVS. I shall never again feel as collegiate as I did during last winter’s reading period, when I studied sprawled on the hearthrug, rising occasionally to stoke the fire.

This year, of course, our scouting skills are again atrophying; we’ve instead been forced to draw on the more modest store of skills acquired in grade school art class. In June, as you’ve probably heard, outgoing Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68, declaring that it was “simply imprudent to continue as we have been and to hope for the best,” forbade us to use any of the nearly 2000 fireplaces in undergraduate houses.. Never mind that significantly more drug-addled generations than our own had used their fireplaces without incident; never mind that everybody’s mental image of Harvard consists of young men named things like “Chauncey” and “Trip” quaffing hot toddies in front of blazing fires. When we returned to school this fall, we found our fireplaces empty, and our mantels defaced by ill-designed stickers. Upon returning to campus last year, I bought a Duraflame; this year, I bought a fan and sheets of cellophane.

Certainly ex-Dean Lewis’ concerns about safety have some validity; I am not quite hedonist enough to want sacrifice safety in favor of atmosphere. I do think, though, that the ban on fires is an overreaction, and I know that the emptied fireplaces suggest an unfortunate metaphor. Last spring, when a flood of fresh-faced pre-frosh inundated campus, earnest eighteen-year-olds kept asking me why I’d come to Harvard. “Because I got in,” I told them, only half joking. I—and, I suspect, most of us—came to Harvard at least in part because of its prestige. We came because of the famous faculty members—many of whom we see only at the front of giant lecture halls, if then. We came because tour guides told us that sections made even the largest classes seem intimate—neglecting to tell us that section discussions were rarely useful, and often painful. We came because those same tour guides gestured towards Adams and Lowell Houses, and told us that at Harvard, dorm rooms had fireplaces. They did not tell us—they could not know—that the fires we built in them would one day consist of sheets of cellophane, crackling in unconvincing imitation of the real thing.

Phoebe Kosman ’05 is a hsitory and literature concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.