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Columns

Pythons and Rats

Daily Encounters

By Arianne R. Cohen

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.

“Oh.”

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.

I’ll put the main point in italics for you: Julia Child did not write a cookbook until she was 50 years old. She lived for a while, waited until she had something she was really passionate about and then wrote about it. As she puts it, “I didn’t really start life until I was 34.”

Another luminary in his field, Frank McCourt, won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize at the age of 67 with his first book, Angela’s Ashes. In an interview with David Letterman (who is a horrible interviewer, I might add), he joked, “I thought I’d try something new.” McCourt, much like Child, lived for a while, waited until he had something passionate to say and then wrote about it. Pythons unite.

Lives are long things, with ample time for later graduate school, longer hours, career changes, new hobbies and—as I assure my mother—a late-blooming love of medicine. Thirty years of idleness is probably bad, but with an average of 50 homework-free years ahead, the next 10 are not required to contain extreme institutionalized striving.

Success is good, but python-style success is better. Or at least worth writing about.

Arianne R. Cohen ’03 is an women’s studies concentrator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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