Princeton Reunions

The 2012 P-Rade; I think this banner is heralding the march of the glorious class of 1925. (Do the math: that’s a really, really old alumnus.)


Thursday night. I’m roaming the fluorescent-lit madhouse of the 5th Reunion tents. A long day of travel, starting at 5AM, culminates in this: skulking around the well-known stone courtyards, occasionally running into familiar faces among the throng of thousands. There is a highly efficient two-pronged beer tent, drawing the revellers like a magnet to its sticky white awnings, which are cast a sickly orange under the streetlights. We’re funnelled in the front of the tent, where a no-nonsense security guard stands to herd us through, and then split to the left or the right, one-way traffic, like a cattle run. I grab my beer (would you like Bud, or Bud Light?) and let the flow of drunken traffic push me out into the fray once more.

The security guard is thoroughly ignored. She is a non-Princeton entity and therefore a non-person, and she wields a limp, unrecognized non-authority: this is our campus, and we will do as we please, security guards be damned. We’ll ignore authority when it pleases us, but trust it to save us when we fall.

I had been with friends but they have wandered off and now I roam by myself, reflecting on how it is no longer possible, in any way, for me to drink this terrible watered-down beer and enjoy it. Not even for the sake of nostalgia. All around me, however, the familiar characters are guzzling it down: the preppy boys in their polo shirts and loafers, the jocks shirtless and wearing orange gym shorts. Girls in short skirts and flip flops, or fluttering summer dresses, everything with an understated designer sexiness. Nothing too overt. Everyone is wearing their beer jackets: floppy canvas jackets we’re given when we graduate, emblazoned with our class logo and various orange-and-black embellishments, concealing six inner pockets designed to hold cans of beer.

I run into a friend. I remember him as gregarious, high-rolling, cognisant and appreciative of his privilege, and a surprisingly great freestyle rapper. He’s genuinely happy to see me, but it’s only 9PM and he’s already so drunk. His wide, appealing smile is tilted and his lips are wet. His eyes don’t quite hold their focus on my face, and he sloshes his beer as he throws out an arm to welcome me. The force of the gesture makes him stumble sideways. We have a conversation but I know he won’t remember it, and he doesn’t resist as I make my excuses and slip away.

It’s not just him: everyone is drunk, talking too loudly, stepping too heavily. The roar of thousands of heedless conversations is maddening. My white shorts have half a beer spilled on them already.

The immortal DJ Bob is on the turntables.

I have arrived at Princeton reunions.

No, let me go back. It began on the flight from Seattle to Newark. I was woozy from lack of sleep, ready to pass out in glorious seat 21F, clutching a burrito and trudging through the controlled atmosphere of the airplane. As I walked through first class,* I saw a once-barrel-chested old man sitting in first class with a Princeton polo shirt on. His baseball cap, orange-and-black, identified him as a member of the class of 1965. When I sat down, I realized that two rows behind me were two female alumni who were seated next to each other by chance. Their conversation:
“Oh, we go almost every year – well, not to reunions, but we make it back there for some reason or other every year it seems. How many reunions have you been to?”

“This is my first one!”

“Oh my! And what year did you graduate?”


“Oh my! Your 10th! Congratulations! But how do you manage to stay away??”

Laughter and chitchat.

I sunk a bit lower in my seat and checked to make sure the tinfoil was tightly secured around my burrito. But 20,000 alumni come back every year, and there are only so many flights to Newark: of course there were alumni on my flight.

Back in the tents of the 5th, I get a text from my friend I., who has arrived at last from San Francisco. I go to meet him at the entrance of the tents and he grabs me in a huge bear hug, tickling my ribs unmercifully as I shriek with laughter. All at once the whole nutty endeavour snaps into focus: right. This is why I’m here. So that I can wander the well-known stone courtyards with this curly brown head beside me once more, so that we can retell the well-known stories, so that we can once again ground each other in the midst of this whirling chaos.

This is why I’m here: to pretend we never left.

…. er, to be continued, hopefully, but maybe not, given how terrible I am at updating this blog….

* Boarding through first class: always such a walk of shame! The furtive, longing gazes of the second-class citizens as we are marched through the promise land of first class, and our invisibility to the supercilious first-classers as they sip their complimentary mimosas and diddle with their iPads… It makes me uncomfortable every single time. Such a heavy-handed reminder that there are haves, and there are have-nots. Which is absurd; we’re riding a flying silver chariot across an entire continent, we’re all in the “have” column.



Tomorrow I go to Princeton Reunions.

I’ve discovered over the past few weeks, as I’ve told my friends that I’ll be out of town for a few days, that “Reunions” is a confusing term. Most people think of college reunions in the singular, as in “it’s my 25th reunion.” Reunions bears no resemblance to these paltry one-offs. It is not the celebration of a particular, terminated epoch: it is eternal, like the whirling masquerade ball under the faerie mound, in which men lose decades of their lives dancing with ghosts. You may come and go, but Reunions carries on forever. An endless mardi-gras, the purpose of which is emphatically not to get together and chat about what you’ve been doing in the Years After Princeton: its purpose is to make you believe that you never left.

What happens at Princeton Reunions?

It lasts three days, starting Thursday at noon and continuing to Sunday at noon. Some local hotels book up years in advance. Many alumni attend every single year. Dozens (maybe hundreds?) fly from places as far-flung as Lesotho, Amsterdam, or Argentina to attend, arriving desperately jet-lagged but exuberant nonetheless. Many alumni bring their entire families: attendees range from newborn babies to 17-year-old undergrads to shaky 100-year-old fossils. It is, apparently, the largest single purchase of Budweiser on earth.

On Saturday we will all march down Alexander Road in chronological order as the “P-Rade,” led by the centenarians in their festive golf carts. They will be trailing three or four generations of their families behind them, Budweisers clutched in their claw-like hands as they peer out at the throngs of orange and black. Any delicacy of complexion has long since been obscured by a thick dappling of age spots, but all are white men. It takes at least 30 years for the first black students to start showing up; 30 more for women. When they start to appear in the parade I feel guiltily surprised, shocked by how easy it is for my eyes to accept that white men are the only people on earth. Later years are increasingly racially diverse and split evenly between men and women, but I’d wager that a larger proportion of white alumni come back to Reunions than do alumni of colour. So much of loyalty is built upon a sense of belonging.

Later, regardless of age or sex or race, we’ll all be sprawled on the familiar lawns, decked out in our fancy clothes and hideous beer jackets, drinking booze from plastic cups. I’ve been told in one of the innumerable reunions emails that the class of 2007 will be embarking on a sustainability campaign: all of our beer cups will be recyclable, and we should make an effort to reuse them. The canteens we’ll be given as part of our costumes (our class costume theme is “Hargadon’s Heroes,” after the legendary dean of admissions who let us all in with his trademark “YES!”) should be used to drink – gasp – tap water. This will help us believe that we’re good people. Better than the non-sustainable people. The best of all possible people. Smarter, prettier, richer, and better at partying than all of the other people.

I sound cynical. I am cynical about Princeton, but I’m also idealistic. And I’m looking forward to Reunions enormously. True, it will be full of greedy businesspeople trying to make deals, and dangerously inebriated 50-year-old frat boys reliving their glory days. It will be full of desperate singles (or not-so-singles) trying to snag the one that got away. It will be full of good-ol’-boys and outrageous wealth and privilege and I’ll feel out of place with my dreadlocks and my left-coast hippiedom. But it will also be full of my friends. It will be full of the people that I consider to be among – yes – the BEST people I’ve ever known. It will remind me what we’re all capable of, because so many of us have followed our dreams.

I want to stay up all night talking, drinking, and walking through the town. More than the campus, I remember the whispering streets of the town at night. Princeton with its thick greenery and quaint streetlights. The quiet cemetery and the emptiness of the roads in the wee hours as I’d fly down them on my bike, the summer nights warm in a way I’d never experienced before. I’d feel the stickiness melt off my skin in the perfect midnight climate, the breeze cool against my bare limbs. There are so many sense-memories: lying in the cemetery with a girl I’d spent the night with, the grass prickly, our arms touching, the wind in the trees overhead. The creaky, dark old wood of the worn-out stairs in an eating club. The crazy voluptuousness of the magnolias around the fountain of the Woodrow Wilson school, and the way I’d stand among them, abandoning my senses to that little world: the wild changeable light, the caress of the velvet-fleshed petals, the susurrus of the giant flowers and tiny new leaves as they moved around me, mixing with the splash of the fountain. The aching acidic weariness of a night without sleep. The particular smell of Richardson Auditorium during orchestra rehearsals, blended with the smell of rosin.

What is it that makes these memories so abruptly, incredibly real? In some ways they’re more vivid than any of my other recollections. Was it my age? The sense of possibility and of self-importance? The place itself? Princeton changed me so much that I had to try and change back into myself when I left, and now I’m a third person, entirely different yet agonizingly the same. I can’t help going back. What sort of a place was it, that returning seems as though it will mean infinitely more than a drunken long weekend with old friends?

We always go back, all of us. Once we’ve spent our four years, it never leaves us. We’re like children held on curly elastic leashes, stretching our restraints to the limit before snapping back to the bosom of The Best Old Place of All.


p.s. I kind of don’t mean that last bit – like hey, c’mon, actually, it’s just that dozens of my marvellous fascinating friends will all be in one place, AND THERE’S FREE BEER! And yet… 

new year’s resolutions, or un-resolutions

Okay, it’s not really the new year. But it’s a new year for me: my birthday was last week. Another chance to reminisce and strengthen my resolve for the coming year – my twenty-seventh – but to what end?

Fingers crossed that my advisor will never read this, but here goes: I really don’t want to be in graduate school.

I’ve waited seven months to say this, hoping that I’d make it through the requisite adjustment period and start to feel better about it. No dice. I won’t put the final stamp upon that statement till after my summer of research (no more classes! Sunny weather! Undergraduate servant!) but I think it’s fairly unlikely that I’ll change my mind.

So… What does this mean? What do I want to do instead? What’s my plan? Who am I, anyways? Difficult questions to answer – my entire life has thus far been framed by school. An enormous portion of my sense of self-worth is tied up in “being good at school.” Suddenly I’m no longer good at it, and I don’t want to be doing it. I suppose I had always assumed that school would keep inexorably propelling me forward, to thing after thing after thing. I’d never thought very much about other paths.

Now, I suppose, I must. The very qualities that made me an excellent undergraduate student have made me entirely unsuited for graduate school: my breadth of interest, my general curiosity, my eclecticism, my “well-roundedness” have translated into lack of focus, frustration with the infinite narrowing-down of the higher levels of academia, serious ADD regarding my thesis work, and an overall sense of my own unworthiness. It’s looking ever more likely that my delight in the work I did as a fourth-year undergraduate was built on “loves running around in the bush in Kenya!” rather than “loves scientific research!”


On the upside, for perhaps the first time in my life, I’m doing some serious thinking about what I actually want. Beyond expectations, money, “good choices,” and all of that – what do I actually want? It seems strange that I had to live for twenty-six years to start thinking about this. Each year I discover new ways in which I truly, deeply, profoundly, do NOT understand how to live life.

But I’m getting better!

Resolutions (not to get too ambitious, but hey – go big or go home.)

  2. Figure out what you really want to do with your life.
  3. Be grateful of your friends and family, and be more mindful and loving towards them.
  4. Be outside more.
  5. Be more supportive of yourself.



the disadvantages of an elite education

This is from 2008 but it popped up in Longform today and it resonated with me, deeply. No time to write about it now, but I’ll just say that there are many ways in which I feel I’m still recovering from my education at Princeton, much as I will always be grateful for the opportunities it afforded me.

2 articles

On my path to being a Real Adult, I acquired a subscription to the New Yorker. Was reading this article last night: The Caging of America, by Adam Gopnik

And then this popped up in my google reader: a brief take on it by Caterina Fake (one of my favourite Internet People). So instead of writing something myself, I’ll just direct you to her short thoughts.

Also in the vein of America, I thought this article was fascinating, and balanced (don’t read it if you want to read something (a) short, or (b) super opinionated):

Obama, Explained, by James Fallows (The Atlantic)


first-year experiments

I am currently TA’ing the first-year lab class. The kids make up their own experiments (with guidance) and carry them out. Points for originality. One group, working with Lumbriculus variegatus (blackworms; a tiny aquatic segmented worm) has decided to measure their response to disturbance in the water caused by the movement of predators. They’ll be disturbing a dish with the worms in it and then measuring how frequently they flick their heads back and forth in response to different levels of vibration.

How will they be producing this vibration?

By applying a “personal massager” to the bottom of the dish!

Okay, I swear I’m an adult, and a teacher, and all of that. But. Hilarious. I wasn’t the only one snickering during our TA meeting.


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