Bright Fights, Big Cities

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Rivalries are fun, but even more fun when you win. I know, because this weekend Harvard beat yale in The Game for the 8th year in a row (the Harvard Band remains undefeated).

I have experienced both sides of the rivalry see-saw. For one, I cheer for team Democrat, which is so bad at competition they couldn’t win a game of solitaire. I also live in Los Angeles, which tries hard to convince the world (and itself) that it is just as good as New York. It’s an awesome city, to be sure, but people come to the U.S. to see New York, then maybe L.A. later (after a quick trip up to Boston to photograph the John Harvard statue).

There is some serious rivalry between cities, as evidenced by the glut of “Umpteen Reasons My City is Better than Your City” lists clogging the internet, and the fact that anyone from Chicago will spend hours arguing it is the best place in the universe – never mind that they moved somewhere else.

(Smaller cities and towns are just as competitive; I’m from north-of-nowhere Berlin, New Hampshire, and you can bet we knew having the paper mill made us better than those lame-o’s in nearby Milan.)

Like rivals like, and within groups of relative equals those rivalries are free to get nasty and silly – like how I never capitalize the word “yale”.

Since I am a citizen of both the Ivy League and a top U.S. city, and am riding high off of my school’s continued Ivy dominance this weekend, and had yet another run in with a super-proud non-resident Chicagoan recently, I decided to mash up the rivalries. Because superficially judging your peers is fun! And mash-ups are totally in right now.

New York: NYC is the Harvard of cities. Harvard’s motto is “Veritas”, which means “Truth”, but I think of it more like, “Preach”. The truth is, there is only One. No matter how many other schools achieve equal quality, it will still be the only one whose graduates get to say, “I went to Harvard”. And then have everyone hate them. “I’m a New Yorker” carries similar magic.

Los Angeles: That makes L.A. yale. Totally legit in its own right, but it will just never catch up to the First. yale tries so hard, their motto is even a one-up on Harvard’s: “Lux et Veritas” (Light and Truth). It doesn’t matter how many national tours come to Los Angeles, New York still has the only Broadway. Quality has nothing to do with it – you can’t catch up with history.

Chicago: It seems like Chi-town should be Princeton, but Dartmouth fits best. Both schools are academically equal to the Big Two, but location carries weight. Chicago is a mecca of culture in the middle of our middle, featuring difficult travel to and from and godforsaken winters. Princeton, NJ is no metropolis, but it isn’t the Vermont/New Hampshire border, either. Dartmouth’s actual motto is, “A voice crying in the wilderness.” ‘Nuff said.

Boston: Princeton gets paired with Boston. It can hang with the big dogs but is palpably smaller, and Boston’s two main themes are History and Academics. The fact that Princeton not only hosted Albert Einstein but also still hosts his brain satisfies both categories.

San Francisco: I love SF, but its residents either have a giant chip on their shoulder or a massive inferiority complex (or both). Plus a mild haze of depression (for which I blame the fog). Sounds like Brown to me! Denizens of both passionately love their home – and resent their peers even more. Brown is also the quirkiest of the Ivies, which San Francisco certainly matches, and to top it off Brown’s motto is, “In God we hope.” That kind of has to be your motto when you live in earthquake central.

Atlanta: As the major city nobody seems to think about or even remember most of the time (except when watching The Walking Dead), Atlanta is the Columbia of cities. The parody lyrics to Columbia’s fight song are “Columbia! (‘What?’) Columbia! (‘Oh..,’)” for this reason. Both grab a little attention now and then with stunts like the Olympics or James Franco, but then quickly fade back out of mind.

Washington D.C.: U Penn’s parallel could be New Orleans, but Washington wins. Penn is the third-oldest Ivy, but is usually thought of late when listing the schools, in much the same way that D.C. is a major city very few people respect. I personally remember Penn as always good for a party (which is why NOLA was in the running), but motto is the key: “Laws without morals are useless.” (*cough* Congress *cough*)

Austin: Finally, Austin gets the honorary Cornell award for, “Aw, aren’t they cute trying to hang with the big kids.” Both came a little late to the party (Cornell is 100 years younger than the next-youngest Ivy), both embrace their weird with gusto (Cornell’s motto – “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study” – is practically a mission statement), and both are so isolated by wilderness (upstate New York; the insanity of Texas) that depression is a major issue for their residents.

If only Austinites had the support of similar safety nets.

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Contra-Band (Once More Unto My Niche)

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As I lay hog-tied on the mystery-stained carpet of the Harvard University Band headquarters in the winter of my freshman year, suffering tickle torture at the hands of my too-good-to-be-true senior boyfriend (who, it would soon turn out, was also too-gay-to-be-true), one thought dominated the forefront of my mind: “I really hope I don’t pee my pants.” A close second, though, was the thought of how unexpectedly happy I was in that moment.

A few months earlier I had come to college specifically determined NOT to join the school band. I had been a band geek since the fifth grade, had held the rank of First Lieutenant in my high school marching band, and had no desire to carry the geek stigma into adulthood. I’d join the Wind Ensemble so I could keep playing my French horn, but college was my chance to become something more. College was my chance to be an alluring actress, or a badass jock, or a popular politico; college was my chance to be COOL; it was my chance to be anything but the person I actually was. My marching days were behind me.

Within a week I had joined the Harvard Band. As I went around those first few days, signing up for drama club and the crew team and Model Congress, the Band was everywhere. And they were not like any marching band I had ever seen. There were no Naugahyde hats or crazy chicken-feather plumes, just tasteful crimson blazers and ties. Sure, they marched, but in a style more akin to an amoeba than an army; their shape morphed and stretched and contracted freely, yet some invisible force bound them together as a single organism.

They were loud, boisterous, actually quite musical (!), and completely shameless. What I noticed most was that no matter anyone’s feelings about the relative corniness of bands, geeks, fight songs, or school spirit, when the band was around, people simply could not help but smile. I had to go to the Band Room to audition for the Wind Ensemble, and from the moment I set foot in that Wonka-style clubhouse, I was done. As with the Borg, my resistance was futile.

Yet while the Harvard Band does assimilate anyone who is lucky enough to wander into its orbit, unlike the Borg, it takes those people and makes them stronger. I learned so much in my four years sporting my Crimson blazer. For one, I learned what hog-tying really is, and several other things about bondage that my parents would probably rather not know about. I learned to chicken fight, to Time Warp, and to always “whisper” in a library.

I learned the joy of finding sexual innuendo in almost everything, and the confidence to resist sexual out-uendo until I was ready. I learned that shorter is funnier, that anything can (and should) become a drinking game, and that it really is all fun and games until someone loses an “I”.

I learned that tradition is important, both to make new members feel instantly welcome (that’s what she said!) and to give Crusties the joy of complaining when things inevitably evolve. I learned that fights don’t mean the end of friendships, and sometimes mean the beginning. I learned the joy of welcoming everyone to the party, no matter who they chose to be – gay, straight, man, woman, or even asshole.

Most importantly, my time with the Band taught me to accept and like myself for who I am. I still did Model Congress, and lots of theatre (crew went out the window with 5am practices), and many other things that conflicted with band activities. There was often friction, and some resentment from my peers that I wasn’t as dedicated a Bandie as they were, but the Band itself always made it work. No one ever asked me to deny my other interests the way I had tried to deny my own geekery at first. Instead, I was valued for what I could contribute, and encouraged to stay as involved as possible.

By the end of my four years, I was leading the band as Manager, another position I had openly resisted (wanting a flashier role where I could be funny and cool), but then turned out to be the exact right job for me. That was the last gift the Band gave me – the faith that I don’t have to get what I want to have everything work out for the best.

This weekend, the Harvard Band reunited one more time, as we do every five years. In my worn woolen blazer, marching through Harvard Square, surrounded by new and old faces (both old-familiar and old-decrepit), gazing into the iPhones of countless tourists, I played the notes I could remember and raised my voice to the skies. Once more, a single thought dominated my mind: “This is the way to live.”

Guide right, but walk in your own style. Play your part, but don’t worry about perfection. You may not always know where you are going, but trust those around you to get you where you need to be. And do good work, but never, ever miss an opportunity to have fun along the way. Oh yeah, and whatever you do, do NOT let the bastards grind you down.

Illegitimum non carborundum my few, my happy few, my band of “others”. Happy 95th Anniversary.