This afternoon, Harvard students will congregate in Tercentenary Theater for an orgy of hot dogs and background music. The administration and its student handmaidens will dole out a concentrated blast of merriment to distract us from merriment missing elsewhere. White plastic barriers will border out a little rectangle of joy and shouting. And at the center of this spectacle, splashed across all of Yardfest’s promotional literature and giving form to its carefree spirit, will be the tire swing.
It is a funny thing to have hanging under the branches of stately old Harvard trees. The tire swing has become the pagan totem of our spring rite, and we—its fanatics—flock to it out of simple glee or hipster irony. Like a hypnotic pendulum lulling away the vulgarities of everyday stress, the tire swing beckons us to Yardfest in a more complex way than the food monopoly and in a more subtle way than the rap stars. One can imagine Yardfest without the dining services’ cornucopia, without the spectacle of saccharine country and ironic rap and perhaps without even the Yard itself. But Yardfest without a tire swing? Impossible—what would go on the posters?
There is certainly a sense of wan amusement in watching America’s sharpest young minds lining up scores-deep in order to secure a minute of monitored levitation. Now and then a muddling passerby will accidentally wander into the swing’s ambit and, after a tussle of shouts, duck for safety. Sometimes the swing will make rubber-to-skull contact, and an uncomfortable and embarrassed student will bowl over onto the grass. In the true fashion of a totem, though, the gentle swinging will stir deep memories in all of us—memories of childhoods real or imagined, individual and collective apparitions of an idyllic pastoral existence.
There may be a comical aspect in gazing too deeply at the tire’s inky rubber darkness. But the choice of the swing at the center of the iconography of Harvard’s crown jewel social event reveals something about what Harvard students are, what they imagine themselves to be, and how they animate their bizarre concepts of fun. From one direction, the tire swing is just paraphernalia for an afternoon of enjoyment. From another, though, it is a semiotic icon for the unique Harvard imagination of leisure.
Part of the tire swing’s appeal comes from a desire to retread against Harvard exceptionalism. Somewhere in the dusty corners of our brains is an unadulterated belief that college is about guitars and colorful blankets on sunny days, about idle conversations under the spreading chestnut tree, about endless hours sacrificed to the furnace of Frisbee. This is what television told us, it is what our older siblings at state schools told us, and it is—to a large extent—what the Harvard viewbooks told us. When we arrived here to find it mostly a fiction, we wrote it off to the fact that Harvard must just not be like other places. Somewhere, against all evidence, there must be students living this sort of life.
We’ve never stopped believing. Yardfest, then, is a stage where we pretend to be normal kids according to what we suppose normal kids must be like. The jocund typography of Yardfet’s posters, the genuine excitement over Wu-Tang Clan, and the prospects of a sunny day all dredge up the components of a yearning for that life which we thought we might be leading but never got around to. And, as in all imaginary play-acting, the parts most sorely missed become the motions most prominently exaggerated. Consequently, we deify idleness by caricaturing a playground.
There is no better symbol to represent these hopes and illusions than the tire swing. The romance of the tire swing implies lusting after a place where we can indulge in replaying our childlike urges. Motorless, silent, and cheap, it is the embodiment of the make-do, enterprising, and venturesome childhoods which we might possibly have lived ourselves but more likely read about secondhand.
This isn’t necessarily a fluke of Harvard culture. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that ‘free time’ is the most commonly reported priority in life—above family, wealth, and religion. No doubt some of the desirability of leisure time is a product of its rarity. In a nation famously obsessed with family, wealth, and religion, it is somewhat surprising to find such a broad longing for free time. But, just as at Harvard, America finds itself increasingly limited to little outbursts of enjoyment scattered throughout interminably mediocre lives.
The irony is that there are plenty of trees with overhanging branches, plenty of sunny days, and plenty of resourceful students who could surely scour up some tires and rope. Idleness beckons all around us, warded off only by the Calvinist remonstrances of our upbringings. And so the tire swing finds itself rarified, parceled out inside a certain number of hours and inside a certain perimeter of fence.
Garrett G. D. Nelson ’09 is a social studies and visual and environmental studies concentrator in Cabot House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.
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