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Chasing the Impossible

During the summer, success takes on a whole new meaning

By William C. Marra

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—I love the Fung Wah Bus.

You’d find that hard to believe if you knew my history with the discount New York-to-Boston bus line. I’ve spent an entire trip sitting in front of a drug dealer who talked on his phone about going to Boston to “make some collections” and, if necessary, “do the John Gotti thing.” I’ve napped on the bus, only to wake up and find a woman performing oral sex on a man in the seat directly opposite my own. And because I usually ride the first bus out in the morning, even the most uneventful of trips requires me to wake up at an ungodly 5:30 a.m.

But operant conditioning has failed to work its charm, and I keep coming back for more. I’ve taken the Fung Wah to and from Boston three times this summer and will take a fourth trip this evening. Each ride, anticipation saturates the air, and I feel that when I reach my destination, anything can, and will, happen.

The bus rides make me optimistic and hopeful simply because I am going somewhere else. Even if my destination is only a concert or a friend’s barbeque party, the trip is pregnant with hope that the event, or some incident along the way, will make the trek worth my while and will deliver me from the halcyon days of summer, validating this three-month break from classes that is fast coming to a close.

Not that I haven’t had a fantastic summer in Cambridge and The Crimson’s usually-air-conditioned offices. In fact, the bus rides to Beantown have been just as promising as those to the Big Apple. Mine has been a desire to escape, to squeeze all the possibility out of my dozen weeks liberated from the structure and rigor of the academic year.

The dilemma is how we realize our summer goals—and, more basically, how we define them in the first place. During the academic year, these questions are easier to answer than a Magic of Numbers problem set. The “optimal” use of our time is, for the most part, defined for us: attend class, join an extracurricular, party on the weekend.

But the traditional barometers of achievement—paramountly, a flawless ‘A’ on your transcript—are absent over the summer, and we are left to define success for ourselves. Consequently, we search for something unique and fantastic, an experience that will enable us to apply the knowledge we’ve presumably learned here, but also to acquire the practical and intangible that no 70-hour academic-cum-extracurricular-cum-social schedule that is our Ivory Tower Harvard life can provide. Our academic experiences in Thayer and Emerson seem necessary but also painfully insufficient during these sunny months that encourage creativity and challenge us to use the time as best we can.

We are chasing some novel and edifying experience that is mercurial in both its grandeur and its elusiveness. Never at rest, and never complacent, we pursue the coattails of an experience or event whose allure lies precisely in our inability to define it, and thus to realize it. Just as getting an ‘A’ is less satisfying once you actually have it on your transcript, so are my summer journeys perpetually satisfying: because my goals remain elaborate yet undefined, utopian and thus unattainable, I never have to declare victory and face the frightening specter of complacency.

Hence my love for the Fung Wah Bus. And, I think, hence my countless classmates who have four- or five-line descriptions of their summer location on their profiles, listing in excruciating detail the exact dates they will be in Bermuda, New York, Cairo, Madrid, and Venice. Their whirlwind tours and my own (New York-Cambridge-London-Paris-Grenoble) reflect more than just the tremendous opportunities available to Harvard students (the first two legs of my European trip have been generously funded by College research grants). They reflect a realization that the summer months are liberating because they allow us to escape the ordinary and try something fresh and exciting. Paving our own roads in Cartagena, Cairo, and Calcutta, we chase experience and success that we cannot define, will never completely realize, and yet are still more real than any transcript the Registrar can give us.

Tonight I will ride the Fung Wah to New York, and by Sunday I will be in an airport lobby awaiting a flight to London. Three weeks later I’ll be back on campus, joined by classmates similarly disappointed that summer is over yet still eager to continue their hunt for experience and meaning. Like a compulsive gambler out of cash, we’ll wish we had one more chip to play, convinced our next move will be the one that hits the jackpot. Never complacent, we cannot concede victory, and so we look, indefatigably, for the next bus or plane out of town, chasing some existential moment we probably won’t realize and secretly hope never comes.

William C. Marra ’07, president of The Crimson, is a government concentrator in Currier House. Despite its best efforts, the Crimson editorial board could only keep him off its page for so long.

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