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What Lies Beyond The Masquerade

By Joshua W. Shenk

At my high school, where everyone knew each other and gossiped and skipped classes slyly and with caution, my friends longed to escape...far far a college where everyone knows each other and gossips and skips classes with reckless abandon. My graduation year, as is always the case, a dozen or so Wyoming High School students enrolled in Miami University.

I have a sort of Field-of-Dreamish feel for Miami. It's a hundred miles or so outside of Cincinnati in Oxford, Ohio. Route 33 passes cobwebbed motels that do business two weekends a year and wooden crosses dedicated to student victims of drunk driving, coming to an end at campus. The grass is green there--greener than any grass I've ever seen. The buildings are clayred--not the smokey look of Grays Hall.

The town of Oxford is four blocks of bars, music stores and t-shirt shops. They have a Wendy's. The parking meters give you an hour for a dime.

An old friend of mine, Dave, is finishing up a degree in systems analysis at Miami. He passes dreary hours in the computer lab by sending along e-mail messages. We're pseudo-nerds--hooking up to Internet with the computer science hard-cores only to write about pop culture and parties.

Dave especially likes to talk about the latter.

"Big party with my fraternity this weekend," he wrote recently. "It was our Samurai party. Hey wait, I can spell check now. Cool, I don't have to be paranoid about my spelling and I can type real fast and let it catch all my mistakes. Sweet. Back to Samurai, it was quite a blast. We filled a huge hole in the back yard with imported beers and all dressed up like Japanese things. I was a karaoke machine. It was one of the best costumes. I carried a tape of myself playing the music to the Pet Song I wrote while people sang along. My date was a lot of fun. Remember Michelle White from a few letters ago? She is turning out to be pretty cool...."

I slept over at Dave's frat once last year and went with class with him in the morning. The women had complicated layers of makeup (9 a.m. is early, but one has to look good) and the men wore shorts and tank tops branded with their Greek letters (9 a.m. is cold, but one has to show full muscleage).

Miami. Where they still haven't gotten over the Bush defeat. Where they say "oriental" and "chick" and "fag" and just don't care. Detestable. Stereotypical. But simple.

Harvard, I grow increasingly convinced, is a college in search of a stereotype. In the Yard, I get close. I remember what my first guide through campus said--"this is where all the shit went down 350 years ago"--and I think Puritans and Emerson and then...then I see Canaday. Then the Science Center, which I'm just sure Cotton Mather would not have approved. It's hard to live a simple life of Samurai parties and tank tops on a campus that collects buildings like art--seeking a diversity of classical, romantic and abstract. Our history is too deep, our endowment too rich and our student body too neurotic for a single stereotype, let alone full-fledged identity.

So we create subsets. Stereotypes are easier to digest in small chunks. There's the Eliot-Porcellian-white bread crowd. There's the Hasty Pudding "we take elitists of all sorts, crunchy and regular" crowd. There's the artsy type, in Crimson, Advocate or Lampoon flavor. (If these are too Old Harvard, try Indy, Quarterly, or Squid. If print is not your style, try a cappella).

It's endless. There's the Pi Eta grunge factor, the PBH altruism thing--everyone has a club or a group of some sort. Where else would Nerds and Geeks establish their own society?

In most places, it's eccentricity, or lunacy. At Harvard it's empowerment.

The Harvard student needs more than one stereotype. Witness Adams, Kirkland and Eliot. Non-ordered choice, I imagine, won't kill the beast because the beast is's a Heart of Darkness thing. Besides, the backlash against non-ordered choice should give a pretty good indication of where our hearts lie.

We thrive on the stereotypes. Adams' T-Shirt last year was "We're all gay and we're coming to get you." Or in Kirkland, a few years earlier, "Kirkland House: where intelligence is just another big word."

Explaining his opposition to the new lottery system, one Adams resident said last year, "We are soon to be surrounded by racists, bigots and homphobics, just like we have in Winthrop and Kirkland House, and I'm not paying almost $8,000 a year for my living conditions to be shuffled in shit."

All this makes me wonder, what happens when the touchy-feely-togetherness types that run the Dunster, Eliot and Adams house committees decided to break the rule of stereotypes--how about a Samurai dance? Or better yet, a Halloween MasqueRave? "I think it's cool," explained Natalie Boutin, chair of the Dunster committee. "It brings together the whole campus."

Right, okay, put a check in the togetherness column...but what about sanity? What about some semblance of order? I mean, there I was, a lame excuse for an American flag (you know you're in a liberal bastion when wearing red, white and blue provokes the refrain, "Republican, right?") wandering through a packed Adams dining hall. Walking by the platform (a moon is dancing with Madonna's book (the dress is Mylar and she wears a $49.95 price tag. The music is pounding. There's a cage...and more costumes: a woman dressed as spider-woman, a guy dressed as Quatto from "Total Recall," and another as, in his words, "a Spee guy." This was as close to chaos as Harvard gets.

Maybe it was coincidence that the Adams-Eliot-Dunster get-together turned into a throbbing mass of transvestites and extra-terrestrials but I doubt it. And people there couldn't get enough of the stuff. The crowd was stupefying--even the police seemed overwhelmed. It seemed to me that Harvard's fundamental principle of "diversity on the outside, homogeneity on the inside" was being violated and, like when you cross the streams, "that would be bad."

I stopped at the Crimson later that night to comfort several colleagues chained to reality as they struggled to close out an election supplement. The Crimson, however, was not spared from the chaos. There was a party upstairs in our rental space and, as in Adams House, the music throbbed and the feet pounded overhead. Unlike Adams, though, the Crimson building was not constructed for all-purpose use. Each drum sequence shook the support beams. "The place," a friend said, "is going to crumble. Those people will come crashing through the roof, into the newsroom." We agreed that the computer network would be the first to go. That would be bad enough, we decided, but even worse, we'd then get scooped on the "Crimson collapses" story by the Indy.

Our apocalyptic humor, as it happened, was also prophetic. Around midnight, a slow leak into the newsroom developed into a steady stream of water. It came from the bathroom upstairs. A long line had formed outside said bathroom, and I waited for the occupant to emerge.

"Excuse me," a woman said, "there's a line."

"There's a pipe broken and the building is going to flood," I said.

She looked confused. "Yeah...but there's still a line."

Assuming she hadn't heard, I leaned in real close, and shouted "There's a pipe broken and the building is going to flood."

She turned to a meaty guy behind her. "Will someone tell this guy there's a line?"

Turns out 14 Plympton St. was in less danger than I thought. But I wondered, what is it about the Harvard party scene that brings out the primal spirit in people? Is it that we don't have frat houses with big trenches to fill with beer? Is it that, in drunkenness, the neat divisions we draw in the day time blur and confuse us? I'm not sure. It reminds me of a scene I once saw on television: A man feigned injury on a New York City street. He laid there hours and none of the thousands of passers-by stopped to even ask what was the matter.

Although I doubt that long lines for a bathroom in any crowded dance party would be congenial, the "I don't care if the building is going to collapse, I've got to go" attitude still surprised me. After three years at Harvard, and countless epiphanies about how things aren't as they seem, I learned that lesson once again.

Things are older here, more complicated, faster-paced. But none of that makes much differences on a Saturday night. The freaks come out, the stereotypes dissolve and Harvard students act like the folks from Animal House, just like any college kid would.

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