Pythons and Rats

Daily Encounters

The signs of senior year are everywhere. Campus is a sea of young faces I don’t recognize, the first-years look exceptionally tiny and unpacking is now an art form (smaller, lighter boxes, all rolled in on dollies in cool weather). Everything is the picture of Harvard normality.

Except for one unusual question. As the summer moved from pleasantly sunny to I-want-to-die sweltering, the same nine words continually popped out of the mouths of my friends, my mother’s friends, random people in my neighborhood, local school children: “So Ari, what are you going to do next year?”

I hate this question, because it’s never just the question—there are always at least three more questions following:

“So you’re going to grad school, right?” No.

“Then you’re getting a job?” Not a real one.


“Um, then, what are you doing?” I’m going to travel for a bit. Then I’m going to write stuff.

“So you’re taking a year off?” Not one, 60. Sixty years off.


The “oh” always sounds like a disappointed thud, like my life plans are a let down to the stranger with whom I’m speaking, far beneath the standards of the average Harvard graduate.

"Hey!" I want to say. “I might write something good—it could happen!” Nothing. My answers are ridiculously unsatisfactory. Optimism, apparently, is not appropriate when talking about future careers. Only the Red Sox.

Four-word answers are always safer than three here in Cambridge. “I’m an investment banker!” or “I’m a Ph.D. student!” will never garner the dead-sounding “Oh,” of “I make furniture!” as a post-graduate friend of mine does, or worse yet, “I’m a writer!” Recognized institutions are required in all answers. For some, an investment banking gig might be the best way to exercise a love of numbers, and a Ph.D. the best route to running a lab before menopause. But the majority of Harvard students are not striving for their own labs or number crunching ecstasy. Instead, after 16 years of hardcore academic achievement, most Harvard students are still racing ahead in their institutions of choice, staying on the path to respected professionally, helping the alumni office stay proud and green.

But four-worders beware: there will be thousands upon thousands of people just like you out there, doing the same daily grind, ending up in the same sleep-deprived stupor at 26, the same mahogany office at 50, the same Florida beach at age 70.

A very smart person once pointed out that if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat. Probably a very rich, well-connected rat, which is much more than my current path of sitting with a pencil will bring. But being the python that plucks the guilt strings of the rat is always fun. As is being the python that eats the rat in a surprise, late-life attack.

This point was driven home by a summer trip to the Smithsonian, where I saw the Julia Child exhibit. The display includes her famous kitchen, all day airing of her television show and, most importantly, a timeline of her life.

Julia Child was born in 1912. In 1961, she published her first cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She has since published nine more and is now arguably the most famous cook in America.