A Fog-Picture



It’s early September. The weather is unpredictable, oscillating between oppressively hot and unexpectedly bitter. On Thursday I huff and puff into class with sweat-stains on my backpack, and on Friday I go back to my little dorm room at night, close all my windows, turn off my two turbo-fans, and pull the comforter down from where I tucked it in the back of my closet. Since the weather is so melodramatically inconsistent, it’s a favorite topic in the dining halls, public restrooms, and the corridors between classrooms. Yes, the temperature is cold today—you’re right, it was hot yesterday. I never get very much from any weather-related exchange.

There’s another characteristically early-September dialog that I’m beginning to find equally exhausting. After my conversation partner and I come to the quick and mutual agreement that it was, in fact, quite rainy last night, and we both just can’t wait till it’s reliably sweater weather, one of us will follow up with “So, anyway, what classes are you taking?” Worse yet, but equally frequently, the question will be “What are you planning on Concentrating in?”

Ostensibly, these are very friendly and entirely harmless questions. But they’re mostly just fillers, designed to cloud up the silent airspace that naturally comes before or after people say things that are of actual value. I sometimes wonder if the sound waves themselves ever get a tired of wiggling in the boring, repetitive, unimaginative pattern that produces those boring, repetitive, unimaginative questions.

I have a theory. It’s not a serious theory, to be sure. But it has to do with both the weather and all these boring, repetitive, unimaginative wiggles of sound waves, and how to interpret them in a way that makes them less—well, boring, repetitive, and unimaginative.

Sometimes, when someone makes a comment to me about the weather, I get lost wondering about the entire concept of talking about the weather. It’s a strange notion, to be sure, and no one ever acknowledges it. Technically, “the weather” refers to the state of the atmosphere with respect to a specific locality and time—that’s a paraphrased version of how Merriam-Webster explains the whole business—but really, none of us are thinking about the particulars of our atmosphere when we make an offhand comment about Tuesday’s windiness. Instead, we’re generally relating to one another over this…thing that we’re all inside of, this snow globe of reality everyone in the same place at the same time is experiencing in the same way.  

And sure, we’re talking so much about the weather on a college campus in early September for all the obvious reasons, like the fact that the temperature is changing so much with each passing day, and the unspoken truth that we’re all just a bit awkward and desperate to avoid those silent airspaces. But the way I see it, the conversations I’ve had about the weather lately aren’t too different from those dreaded questions about academics.

See, my not-serious-but-hear-me-out theory is this: we talk about things like the weather and our classes and Concentrations not only because they’re topics that relate us to one another based on purely on shared experience, but also because they help us orient ourselves within the Thing we’re all inside of. That “Thing” is the little pie-slice of physical reality—of surprise weekday rainstorms that catch you off guard and make you soggy and miserable for your entire two-hour seminar class—that everyone within the same small microcosm of existence experiences together. That’s “the weather,” and we’re inside “it,” simply because we all chose to be here in Cambridge, MA with each other on September 13th, 2018. Comparing how beautiful we all thought Sunday afternoon was, with its gentle northwest breeze and patches of intermittent slightly-cloudy sunshine, helps us to rationalize the way we’re all experiencing the Thing we’re caught inside. We’re also inside this other “Thing,” which is Harvard College—another very specific little pie-slice of reality.

When someone asks me what classes I’m taking this semester or what I’m planning on Concentrating in, my first internal reaction is a tiny bumblebee-buzz of irritation, at the seeming boring repetitive unimaginativeness of the discussion. But once I swat away the frustration and clear the buzzing, I think I understand why the perfectly good airspace is being clogged up with wiggles of the exact same general (boring, repetitive, unimaginative?) sound waves1. It’s for the same reason we remark on the weather—the great glass Thing we’re all inside, pressing our noses and palms up against its surfaces, leaving our breathing-fogs on the pane.

If you’ve ever owned a pet goldfish, and you’re anything like me (which I assume you are, because I don’t think anyone is particular different from anyone else after you pull off all the different brand-labels and scrub away the stubborn coating of privacy we all wear as foundation), you’ve probably wondered what it’s like for your fish to see the world through the strange, warped lens of a bowl. You must have guessed by now where I’m going with this rambling. We’re the fish, this Thing that is “the weather” and Harvard College and lots of other shared realities is the bowl, and we’re all constantly swimming against the sides of our fixed container and wondering if we can, should, or even want to get out.

I’ll tell you about my classes this semester. I’ll tell you what I’m considering Concentrating in (but that’s a moving target, so it might be a different answer if we’re chatting next week and there’s a break of silent airspace and you ask me again). I know what it’s like to get dizzy from staring out of my fishbowl at the distorted view of what’s outside. I know what it’s like to draw patterns with my fingertips in the breathing-fog I left on the glass when I was trying to look out. I know you’re just commenting on the weather or asking me these thinly-veiled questions about how I’m using the value of my Harvard education, because you need to understand how you fit inside the parameters of these Things too. Because everything that is finite in size can only hold a finite amount, and we’re both wondering if our place within the Thing we’re stuck within is room worth taking up. And then—once the bowl gets too full, and we spill over the top, how will we breathe on the outside?

I have an answer to your question about my course schedule. I have an answer, even if it’s a shifting answer, to what my Concentration will be. You’re wondering if I packed an umbrella today, and I have an answer to that, too. But I don’t have an answer about how to breathe on the outside of the bowl. All I know is that once we’re all outside of it—once we all leave Cambridge and move away to places with new weather, and once we graduate Harvard College—we’ll have to figure it out. Because the world outside a fish bowl doesn’t look the way it looks to a fish, warped by the contours of a bowl. And if you’ve ever drawn pictures on the foggy window of a car while stuck on a long road trip, you know that you can’t change those pictures once you get out of the car. The windowpane may be clear, but it has two sides—and your fog-pictures are on the other one.

But right now, we’re still inside the bowl, or the car, or the glass dome, or whatever other messy metaphor you want to construct to explain the Thing. So, the conversation might be boring, repetitive, and unimaginative, but I understand why we’re having it.

I think we’re all going to be okay, once we get out of the Thing. But we’re in it now, together. And I know you want to talk about the fact that we’re in it. Because I’m pretty sure you’re just like me: simultaneously claustrophobic and agoraphobic. We’re both afraid of being stuck on the inside, and afraid of the huge open space that exists on the outside. So, let’s compare answers: let’s tell each other what classes we’re taking, or what we’re Concentrating in, or how we felt about the heatwave last week. But let’s be candid and go a little deeper with our answers, so we can chat without being boring, repetitive, or unimaginative.

Let’s talk about the wacky, beautiful, and surreal things we see in the curvature of the bowl. Let’s compare our fog-pictures.

Olivia Farrar ’21 (oliviafarrar@college.harvard.edu) is a Sophomore in Cabot who loves rowing and does not always love talking about weather and classes.