“People would never fall in love if they had not heard love talked about.”
François de La Rochefoucauld’s 17th century words continue to echo on the 21st century campus of Harvard. Here, love remains a timeless, elusive, and much talked-about ideal for young men and women hoping to make a bright future for themselves.
“I believe that romantic love is a social construction of the past few centuries,” says Social Studies Lecturer Bonnie M. Talbert, who taught a freshman seminar this fall about developing notions of romantic love in Western thought. “Romance the way we perceive it today in American culture has certainly not existed in all places in all times, and it also presupposes other concepts about the definition of the individual, marriage, and other ideas that we take for granted.”
And then from the trenches: “On my very first date at Harvard, I was asked out to a dinner and a movie by a guy that I really liked, but I thought it would be a friendly thing at first, not really a ‘date’ date,” says Philip de Sa e Silva ’13. “When the check came and he was offering to pay it, I was like ‘Oh my God—if he pays for it, it means I’m going to take my clothes off later and everything. Retrospectively, I realized that dating doesn’t have to be what you think you’re supposed to do; it’s really what you make of it.”
Indeed, all the talking about love can grow a bit cacophonous. We’ve tried here to cull some voices from the masses, lending some order to the madness.
On a campus where humanities devotees work to decode Montaigne’s writings on love, where science students learn the chemical underpinnings of our romantic tendencies, is there still a place at Harvard for romance—the unmistakably love-struck laptop-lit smile of an industrious Lamonster, that banality of butterflies in the stomach?
MACKENZIE J. LOWRY ’11 AND CULLEN D. MCALPINE ’11
A 160-minute drama biopic about the tragic life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart may not be every Harvard student’s film of choice for a first date. Not only is this 1984 movie, also known as “Amadeus,” so long that it comes in a two-disc DVD set, but throughout the film, the melodious strains of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” and “The Magic Flute” are punctured by the lead character’s eardrum-shattering, flinch-inducing, high-pitched laugh. We can only hope Mozart didn’t really sound like that.
“That laughter definitely dispelled the awkwardness,” Cullen D. McAlpine ’11 remembers as he sits in the Dunster dining hall with his girlfriend, Mackenzie J. Lowry ’11, reminiscing about their first “date” three years ago in Greenough Hall. Through the large window looking out onto the wintry courtyard, one can see students slipping or eating the ground entirely as they try to navigate along icy pathways in Hunter rain boots. “Awkwardness” can be found all over campus—whether in a Greenough dorm room at 10:00 p.m. on a Friday night or on the way to the dining hall at 1:15 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon.
Yet the “awkwardness” does not begin or end with the fact that the two freshmen watched “Amadeus” for two hours and 40 minutes on their first date. Both Lowry, who hails from Iowa, and McAlpine, originally from Alaska, agree that their first date three years ago was also not the smoothest for other reasons. When the two freshmen began the movie, they mistakenly played the second of the two “Amadeus” discs first, remaining in a state of utter confusion for some time. They would have to return to “Disc A” later to fully understand the plot.
Despite the uncomfortable nature of that Mozart-filled night, the two remained close for years and became an official couple in the beginning of their senior year. From the spark in their eyes, it seems their prolonged courtship has made them all the more devoted to one another now.
“Even though we haven’t been in a relationship until this year, Cullen has always been someone very special to me at Harvard,” says Lowry.
Coincidentally, both live in Dunster House. When asked if being in the same house gave rise to their full-blown relationship, McAlpine answers: “It helped things along. It still took three years, though,” he says, pretending to be angry but smiling all the while.
Lowry lets out a laugh as she gazes down at the table and toys with the black plastic thermos in front of her.
Dunster House appears to be swarming with romantics. Their blockmates have also gradually begun to leave Harvard’s carefree (or tiresome) “hook-up culture” behind them. “In my blocking group of 10 guys, at least seven of the 10 are in serious relationships,” McAlpine recalls after counting on his fingers, eyebrows furrowed. “And in mine, four out of seven are in serious relationships,” says Lowry.
In fact, McAlpine, Lowry, and several of their fellow love-struck friends are going on a cruise around Mexico for spring break. “It’s slowly becoming a ‘Couples Cruise.’ We’re trying to just make it a ‘Harvard Cruise,’ though,” McAlpine jokes.
“But I think we’re the deviation from the norm,” says McAlpine, suddenly becoming more serious, his once U-shaped mouth straightening into a horizontal line.
While few Harvard students may be as steadily involved as these two seniors, both are optimistic about relationships at school.
“Yes, absolutely,” McAlpine says when asked if romance can exist at Harvard.
“I think romance is just a gesture of caring. You have to mean it. A rose can be really significant if it’s thoughtful and timely,” adds Lowry.
Students at Harvard are busy, to say the least, and smothering significant others with “I Love You” Hallmark cards, Godiva chocolates, and a dozen red roses from Petali Flowers on a daily basis is often not an option. But whether it’s by sharing a meal on a Tuesday evening at Russell House Tavern—Lowry and McAlpine’s favorite restaurant in the Square—or watching “Amadeus” backwards on a quiet Friday night, it appears easy to show someone at Harvard you care.
ALI BINAZIR M.D. M.PHIL AND JILLIAN K. KUSHNER ’12
Dr. Ali Binazir ’93, an M.D. with a master’s in Philosophy, is a romance guru, and his assistant and co-writer, Harvard’s very own Jillian K. Kushner ’12, is proving to be one as well. The two are not at all a couple: instead, Kushner is giving Binazir insight into the ups and downs of the single life at Harvard. Since the beginning of January, the pair has been working on a book catered specifically to college-aged women. It will provide readers with real-life experiences of female college students and give them advice on how to approach dating on their campuses. Binazir and Kushner hope to finish the book (currently without a title) by the end of the school year.
“You’re making me nervous,” Binazir says jokingly when told that he is on speaker phone. But as soon as he begins to meditate on the state of romance at Harvard from his office in Santa Monica, Calif., it is clear that he is anything but anxious. The richness in his voice, his fluency, evokes his expertise on the topic.
Binazir, who has written other books on romance—including “The Tao of Dating: The Smart Woman’s Guide to Being Absolutely Irresistible”—and Kushner are both of the notion that many women at Harvard and other schools are in a crisis when it comes to attaining meaningful relationships. “We want Harvard’s women to get better at dating and fulfilling their love lives,” says Binazir.
According to the doctor and his partner in crime, one of the main obstacles for frustrated Harvard women is their inability to accept that methods for approaching work and romance are not the same—there is no textbook for love. The co-writers suggest that students in America’s so-called “most prestigious,” most academically-oriented schools unburden themselves of their rigid, goal-driven mentalities to find romance: “You have Harvard men and women who are exceptionally good at achieving. Why should romance be any different? Because we don’t have the manual for it.”
He adds: “The reason this book is so important, is that you girls have a particular talent. For your entire lives you’ve been smart—and that has been good enough. But now everybody else is just as smart. Now you’re a woman.” Having a successful relationship, he says, is about evolving from an academic machine, into a softer, more compassionate human being.
“And this book is particularly important for places like Harvard, like Yale, because there is a massive misplacement of priorities. You’re just so caught up in the game of achievement that people forget that what really makes you happy in life is connection,” says Binazir. “If you went to Oxford or Cambridge, you would have spent three years socializing and this wouldn’t be a problem.”
“They have to realize that the primary love relationship is the most important thing,” says the guru in a matter-of-fact tone. Kushner expresses her agreement tacitly, nodding as she looks at the phone.
The junior in Adams House became an intern for Binazir over J-Term, a little over a month after Binazir flew into Cambridge during Harvard-Yale weekend to hold interviews for prospective interns. According to Binazir, Kushner is giving him new urgency to the project, flooding him with information about unsatisfied female students at Harvard.
“I’m helping by giving him case studies. I’ve had the chance to experience the challenges that women at Harvard face in terms of dating,” says Kushner.
The young intern is overflowing with dating stories of every nature, but many in Harvard’s female population undergo similar experiences. “There’s always the ‘I’ve been demoted to head-nod-status after hanging out with a guy or making out with someone’ story,” she reports. Suddenly Binazir interjects, saying, “Jillian! Jillian! Tell her about the girl who had to lose 10 pounds every time she was about to see her boyfriend!”
In addition to collecting and analyzing the anecdotes coming directly from Kushner, Binazir has spoken with hundreds of women seeking help via e-mail. The concern of females throughout American college campuses is real, he says. However, his focus remains on Harvard women for the upcoming book. “If you start with a representative sample from the smartest women then that should be applicable to all the rest,” he says.
In writing this book, the co-authors hope to make romance a little easier to find in college.
“I think romance can exist anywhere. I think there are no absolutes and it depends on individual situations. But Ali’s point of the book is to help women figure out what they want,” Kushner concludes.
LANGE P. LUNTAO ’12 AND KYLE JACKSON
Barack Obama brought Lange P. Luntao ’12 and his boyfriend of two years together. No, the president didn’t personally introduce them, but Lange (pronounced ‘Lang’) and his partner, who preferred not to be identified by name (we’ll call him Kyle Jackson), met while campaigning for him in New Hampshire in the fall of 2008.
“I guess we had a sort of unromantic way of meeting. We met through the Dems,” says Luntao, grinning in his red and blue plaid shirt, sunglasses lying by his hand. “It was one of those situations where I was a freshman on campus, and I had a crush on this sophomore, and I totally thought he wasn’t into me. But after the election, he texted me and asked me if I wanted to go to dinner. Obviously I interpreted it as a ‘friend dinner,’ because, you know, I was oblivious.”
Since their first date at Cambridge, 1, Luntao and Jackson have been, for lack of a better word, political. The two Harvard men are shrewdly tactful in their approach to managing their relationship. While they are undeniably in love, they are also able to exist separately from one another—the telltale sign of a healthy, functional couple.
Trying not to make broad generalizations about the Harvard student body, Luntao reflects on his time as someone in a long-term, monogamous relationship. “Especially in the gay community, there’s little in-between—there’s this idea that either you’re hooking up or you’re in a Harvard marriage. I’ve always really rejected that. I think there’s always space for a happy medium,” Luntao says, clapping his palms together and dragging them downwards to draw an invisible line in the air between the one night stand and vows to love “until death do us part.” “I think that’s what I found with the guy I’m dating. Harvard students like to gravitate towards somebody who’s really committed or not committed at all. But it’s been really meaningful for me to know that I have a boyfriend I can count on but also know that we have very independent lives.”
Oddly enough, the junior never dreamt he would be in such a measured, mature partnership with someone else when he first stepped on Harvard turf. Luntao is at once serious and light-hearted when he comments on his pre-freshman year assumptions about Harvard’s LGBT community. For starters, he was unsure as to how easy it would be to find someone he was interested in.
“I expected Harvard to be much less gay, so that was a nice surprise. Now I think it’s a really great place to be a gay man. Gay men definitely know where to find each other,” Luntao says.
But furthermore, he wasn’t positive that a serious relationship was something he wanted in the first place.
“I didn’t imagine that a love life would be a significant part of my experience here, and I’m so glad that it has. It’s been a great supplement to my happiness here,” Luntao says, careful not to become overly sentimental.
At Harvard, there exists a common misconception that one’s social life and one’s love life, must fit around academic plans. But the two different “worlds” of scholarship and romance aren’t always in conflict with one another. From Luntao’s account of his two years with Jackson, it is clear that the flippant motto, “Work hard, play hard,” really can apply to the experiences of Harvard’s men and women.
“In reality, Harvard students are eager to meet each other and form relationships, and it doesn’t have to come to odds with your other goals. It’s an important part of life,” says Luntao. But once they have formed a meaningful bond with another person, Luntao explains, it can often be difficult for some of the more self-possessed members of the Harvard community to acknowledge their weaknesses and flaws to their respective boyfriends or girlfriends.
“I know it’s difficult for myself to accept that I don’t know what’s best. It’s difficult for me to accept that I need to ask for help—and I think that that can be applied to a lot of Harvard students,” Luntao admits as he moves his eyes down to the floor of the sun-filled Lamont Cafe. “My relationship with my boyfriend has been a process of me really opening up to myself and to him in terms of issues I’ve had. I’ve had to open myself up to the idea of dating and what it means to be a committed boyfriend.”
Self-discovery has unquestionably been a part of Luntao’s relationship with Jackson. His attitude towards dating at Harvard has changed significantly since their first encounter while campaigning for Obama. In advocating for broader political change, the junior began an inner transformation of his own.
Some things will never change, though. Central Kitchen in Central Square will always be his favorite date spot.
“It’s just so bougie.”
PETER A.D. CURTIS ’13
Wearing a number 43 Pittsburgh Steelers jersey and casual blue jeans, Peter A.D. Curtis ’13 doesn’t sport the classic look of the collegiate romantic. With a broad, easy-going smile and a voice whose tenor vaguely recalls the wave-swept beaches of southern California (Curtis is from Pittsburgh, Pa., curiously enough), Curtis doesn’t give off the slightly under-the-weather demeanor of someone who recently ended a long-term relationship.
His story is familiar: he and his ex-girlfriend Scarlett E. Austin went to the same high school growing up in Pittsburgh, with Curtis a year older than Austin. They began dating officially in January 2009 during Curtis’ gap year, after a five-month trip to Cairo, Egypt to study intensive Arabic and teach English to university students (“There were kids older than me calling me Professor, and I was like: ‘No dude, I’m Peter,’” he recalls lightheartedly). They were able to visit each other several times during the fall and spring semester, while Austin was attending Haverford College—an eight hour trip by bus. But each became involved with different activities at their respective schools and found themselves with less time for phone conversations and online video chats. By fall semester of this year, it became difficult for them to make even a few minutes of time per day to stay in touch, and although winter break found the two reunited, a mutual decision was made to separate—at least for this semester, for the sake of academics and the happiness of both involved.
Speaking with the past behind him, Curtis reflected upon the two years during which he was actively in a long distance relationship.
“The whole long-distance thing actually made it easier to focus at school—at least in the beginning, when you’re not worried about having to play ‘The Game’ at parties or wherever.”
For the two, the ground rules for the relationship were set without ever needing explicit discussion.
“We sort of decided not to dance with anybody else at parties, which was really a tacit agreement,” says Curtis.
Besides the obvious challenge of becoming adjusted to the physical absence of the other partner, Curtis also noted the challenges of being single in a college environment where young men and women are encouraged more and more to explore and understand their own desires and romantic (or not-so-romantic) wishes.
“Some people really thought I was crazy. I had some friends who’d say, ‘Dude, you gotta get out into the field.’ I had one guy who said, ‘You need to break up with your girlfriend,’ and that was taking it too far, so I let him know what I thought,” says Curtis, now mostly looking at the table with his smile fading, as he began to speak about the most sensitive aspects of his long-distance experience.
“Most of last semester was spent working out how to communicate more, so unfortunately a lot of the time we did communicate it was fighting about how to communicate more.”
By the time winter break rolled around, even Curtis’ parents noticed that things didn’t seem to be going as well as they had before.
“My mom just sat me down one day and said: see what else is out there. And my mom is generally, most of the time, right about advice she gives me, even though most of the time I resist listening to her at first.”
While it didn’t work out in the end, Curtis doesn’t regret staying together with Austin for two years. Talking about some of his favorite moments, like sharing a bread bowl filled with steaming hot clam chowder while traversing the pouring rain of Quincy Market, the corners of his lips began to curl: a sort of subconscious bittersweet response to a relationship now only ongoing in memories and Facebook photo albums.
We asked Curtis one more question before ending the conversation: did he believe that finding true romance at Harvard was possible?
“Absolutely. With 6,500 people, there’s at least one person you can really get along with. I’ve seen people dating who seem really happy—some of them,” Curtis noted, with a smile and unconsciously half-crossed fingers.
Curtis didn’t come off as the romantic type at first, but he’s a bona fide example of one of many students at Harvard who haven’t become sufficiently cynical to believe that love can’t be found in Annenberg, or the Science Center, or the laundry rooms of Currier House. He mentioned that he and Austin may try again in the future, but for now, he’s a free agent.
“Oh, and it’s spelled ‘Scarlett,’ with two t’s,” points out Curtis with a smile, dutifully correcting me before putting on his coat and stepping back outside, into the vast, sometimes unforgiving world of college dates, hook-ups, and star-crossed relationships.
BALTAZAR ZAVALA ’11 AND MELANIE JOHNS
Students on campus may recognize Baltazar ‘Zar’ A. Zavala ’11 for a number of reasons: he plays varsity football, he’s a Rhodes Scholar, and he’s also an indisputably, genuinely nice guy.
He’s also very, very committed to a lucky lady. In fact, he’s engaged to his girlfriend of seven years, Melanie Johns, whom he will wed on their anniversary this June.
Having met during their freshman year of high school, they were best friends from the start and began dating a year later. After deciding that they would stay together in college, the couple tackled the same challenges of adjusting to college life as Curtis and Austin.
While Johns stayed in El Paso, Texas to teach dance at a private school, Zavala left his home-town for the hectic life of an intellectually-gifted student-athlete. A joint concentrator in neurobiology and engineering with stellar grades, Zavala faced pressures from all sides. Not only having to negotiate his schoolwork, Zavala also had to simultaneously overcome the hollow ache of missing someone half a continent away, as well as the solid, present fatigue of high-intensity football practices and workouts.
“It was really hard to find time each day to stay in touch with Melanie. During football season, the most we’d get to talk at a stretch would be 15 minutes,” says Zavala.
These few precious minutes on the phone did not come without a price, however.
“Those 15 minutes were the time I spent walking from Matthews [and later Kirkland House] to the Stadium across the river for six o’clock lift. Melanie would wake up at four a.m. El Paso time and we’d finally get to talk for a while until I had to go to practice—then she could go right back to sleep for a few more hours before work. When it got cold late in the fall, sometimes I’d have to wrap my hand and the phone in my scarf to keep from freezing during the walk across the Charles.”
Zavala recalls one of the lowest points of his now retrospectively-accomplished college career. During sophomore year, he took a particularly difficult course load and was also unable to play football because of an injury. Melanie had come to visit that weekend, but the day she arrived, Zavala stumbled uncharacteristically—he failed his CS50 midterm. By this point, Zavala recalls he was in the darkest hour of his “sophomore slump.” He remembers taking Johns on a trip to the aquarium.
“I ended up moping around at the aquarium, thinking, ‘Oh, penguins. This sucks.’ Melanie saw how down I was, so she took me outside by the 7-Eleven and sat me down on the bench, and then she told me straight, ‘This one test isn’t going to destroy your grade in the class, and that grade won’t destroy your GPA, and your GPA isn’t going to be the be-all-end-all for what you do after college. You’re going to be fine.’ And I knew I had to toughen up and get through my own negative feelings for us to be okay.”
Zavala didn’t forget that crucial moment, nor did he forget that particular 7-Eleven.
People today talk about love all the time, in its many forms—delayed, like for McAlpine and Lowry; fulfilled, for Luntao and Jackson; up in the air, in Curtis’ experience. But it seems it’s true, the tired banality, that love speaks for itself. And in the end talk is cheap, something that Zavala knew.
“The next year when she came to visit for Harvard-Yale, I took her out to dinner in the North End and then asked her if she’d like to go on a walk. We went by the 7-Eleven and this time, I sat her down on the bench and got on one knee and asked her if she’d marry me. She was there when things were going terribly, and she was here again when I got the Rhodes in front of my whole family, so she’s really been with me through thick and thin.”