WuToWu #82: The Tourist

Hi Jessica,

In response to your previous post, I present a reply in three parts:

  1. I’m so glad I didn’t have to think about weighted GPAs, and I hope you won’t have to either
  2. I am very proud – and a bit jealous – that you played such a large (backstage) role for the first Paly Theatre production in the new Performing Arts Center!
  3. Get ready for four years of orange-faced social media, unless President-elect Trump decides to change his morning routine.

I’m still trying to work out a more serious response to the election, but hopefully this small anecdote will help:

I’ve written in passing about tourists at Harvard a couple of times (here and here), but haven’t given them much thought beyond that. They mainly serve as obstacles to getting to class and as people who ask directions to Memorial Hall, the Science Center, the Law School, and even the Medical School (I’m afraid they’ll have to take a bus to get to that one). They strike poses in front of John Harvard, in front of buildings, and crowd into the shops that line Massachusetts Avenue.

One day, as I was walking to the library to work on a project, I passed two tourists looking at a stop sign. It’s an ordinary stop sign; in fact, it’s the stop sign at the intersection of Quincy and Harvard Street, on the side of Lamont Library, if you would like to look at it on Google Earth. I don’t know why they were looking at it; I walk past at least one every time I leave my dorm. I don’t even register their appearance anymore, because their function and symbolic value have become so firmly rooted in my mind after 20 years of living with stop signs. The neural signal doesn’t even reach my prefrontal cortex, it just goes straight from the optic nerve to my occipital lobe, and my foot goes to the brake pedal.

Have you ever examined a stop sign? It’s a regular octagon, with a white border that contains a red background and the letters “S” “T” “O” “P” in a sans-serif font. It is cut from a flat metal plate that’s between 1/8 and 1/16 of an inch thick (forgive me for using imperial units). Upon closer inspection, there are holographic triangles on the sign, and they shift depending on where a person stands and the angle of the light. It is set up on a pole, perhaps seven or eight feet in the air, so that it is easily visible from the road. For something that spends so much of its time outside, it is remarkably shiny and clean.

What causes us to re-examine the world we are used to living in? I suspect for many people living in Cambridge, MA and Palo Alto, CA, the presidential election was more than enough. Sometimes, though, all it requires is a tourist – some one who’s visiting the world I take for granted – to spend a few seconds too long looking at an unremarkable stop sign.



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