Absurdist Anticlimaxes

At a 375th birthday party that was months in the planning, nothing goes as planned.

Instead of commemorative T-shirts, an official 375th umbrella might have been a more appropriate souvenir for the evening.
Just before the main ceremony was scheduled to begin, University Marshal Jackie O'Neill announced that a lightning storm was moving through the area, and instructed to partygoers to move indoors for safety's sake.
When the safety announcement was made, partygoers wondered whether it was more hazardous to stay outside in a lightning storm or to navigate the flooded Yard to make their way inside.
Mud in Tercentenary Theatre came to resemble quicksand, ruining many a pair of shoes over the course of the evening.
The ceremony had been planned as a series of highly scripted and closely guarded surprises. Although the weather foiled some of these plans, it brought a fun, spontaneous spirit to the evening.

The more rain-soaked and mud-splattered, less charitable, part of me wants to get the anticlimax over with. Tonight was Harvard’s 375th birthday party. It rained—a lot. I was supposed to parade into the Yard with my House; instead, our Quincy contingent stalled with the other House contingents on a narrow path in front of Wigglesworth for about an hour. I was also supposed to dance in the flash mob, but the flash mob was delayed by more than an hour, and when it finally started, I missed it.

So, 0 for 2. All in all, not quite what I was hoping for.

Let’s talk about the parade! It rained on the House parade, or more accurately, there was a torrential downpour. Miniature rivers ran down Plympton Street as we slogged our way from Quincy to the Yard. A couple of girls in rainboots jumped in puddles (and got everyone else wet). “This is so sad!” someone yelled near me. “QUINCY!” shouted someone else, in desperation.

Once we entered the Yard, all progress suddenly stopped. No one knew why we were waiting. Stranded between Wigglesworth and Widener, the bored House contingents started heckling each other: Quincy raised a couple of rousing choruses of “Adams sucks” before the cheer drifted to “Open bar!”—the main attraction of the evening. (Those of legal age received wristbands permitting them to imbibe.)

The rain was stop and go—kind of like our progress in the parade, except the parade was mostly stopping, and the rain was mostly going. Colorful umbrellas periodically blossomed into and then disappeared from the air above my head. Even more colorful were the House contingents—Leverett showed up with flashing green bunny ears, and Adams brought their own orange lanterns. Quincy-ites had “multi-colored flashing 1.75-ounce beverage containers” to light the night.

An hour after leaving Quincy, we were still waiting to enter Tercentenary Theatre. Our penguin-suited mascot started singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” When we finally entered the party in an uncertain fashion, a huge crowd was already there, and no one noticed us. Anticlimax 1 of the evening. So much for that.

Did I mention it was raining? While engaged in our stationary parade, I thought idly about other uses for our vast endowment. Ponchos, for one. A giant tarp over all of Tercentenary Theatre; Harvard could go for the big-tent feel. In retrospect, a 375th anniversary umbrella sounded more appealing than the white 375th T-shirt I was wearing. “Can’t you seed rain clouds?” someone wondered aloud. More importantly, can you unseed them? There’s a possible direction for Harvard, looking toward the future.

The rain also added a whole new dimension to navigation. In addition to squeezing through the thick crowd, trying desperately not to lose sight of my friends, I had to maneuver my umbrella as well, in a vertical dimension. Adaptations abounded. A saxophonist played under a poncho, with a separate poncho in miniature for his instrument. A few people gave up and took off shirts and shoes. A guy walked around on stilts; I couldn’t decide if being above the mud was worth the extra risk of falling.

Most of the time I had no idea what was going on. The big screens started flashing information about indoor locations, and twice someone on stage in front of Memorial Church urged everyone to head inside because of lightning—just for 10 minutes, she promised. The whole thing took on an absurdist air, like some dripping-wet carnival of horrors. I was pretty confused about why there were living-statue apple trees in one tent, and I spilled my cup of hot apple cider in my haste to reopen my umbrella when a sudden downpour descended once again. With my plan for avoiding hypothermia now dripping off my hand, I spent the next five minutes trawling through the crowd looking for a trash can. In the usual Harvard tradition, there weren’t any, only compost and recycling bins.

This whole time, I was suffering from flash mob anxiety. I craned my neck towards the Widener steps every 30 seconds or so. Are we there yet? Nope. How ‘bout now?

Given my diligent surveillance, how did I miss it, you might ask? I blame the cake. There were a few reverent minutes of silence and many raised cameras and iPhones for the orchestra’s rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth, and then for Yo-Yo Ma as he played the Prelude to Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1. Then Ma and President Drew Faust led everyone in singing “Happy Birthday” to Harvard.

And then everyone charged full-speed toward the cake. I could barely see what was happening, until I saw an enormous red-velvet-stained knife lifted into the air (the imagery was unfortunate). Flash mob? Still no. In business-like fashion the cake was dismantled, one sheet at a time, and handed down to waiting servers, and then to the eager crowds.

At this point I heard the beginning of an extremely familiar James Brown tune, to my horror. I was separated from my assigned dance pod by the length of the Yard, which was rapidly increasing its resemblance to a swamp, and mine to a swamp creature. But not all was lost yet, right? I started doing the moves on my own—and stopped, once I was ankle-deep in mud and on the receiving end of some suspicious looks from the people around me, whose every action clearly broadcasted the thought “CAKE.”

So much for the diligently studied choreography and many, many rehearsals for this oh-so-spontaneous flash mob. Foiled again!

By the time the live band struck up “I Gotta Feeling,” I was about ready to give up on the “Thou shalt CELEBRATE” feeling of the evening. I munched morosely on cake and wandered around the paved paths, which were becoming less and less distinguishable from the muddy morass of the lawn.

And I ended up on the dance floor, where I made sure that learning the flash mob choreography hadn’t gone entirely to waste. It wasn’t the “dancing under the stars” that the celebration had promised, more like the oft-romanticized “dancing in the rain,” or more precisely, “dancing in a light drizzle when already damp and muddy.”

But, all grander plans having dissolved (did I mention it was wet?), it was back to the basics—music, crowds, a birthday, and an open bar. And that was probably all we needed, all along.

Image removed.Katherine Xue ’13 is one of the magazine's Berta Greenwald Ledecky Undergraduate Fellows.

Read more articles by: Katherine Xue

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