November 20, 2002: On the Campus
By John Lurz 03
Illustration by Ron Barrett
Waking up one morning to find that your family had changed completely that the conversation at the breakfast table was revolving around new topics and that the language being spoken was familiar but unintelligible would be unsettling. It would be culture shock in your own home. And this is precisely how Ive felt these first few weeks here on the campus that I call my home.
Having been around Princeton for three years, I know how things work: Classes start on Thursday. The pastel colors and floral print dresses of Lawnparties bloom the following Sunday. I know the next week my friends and I would discuss these two events. Do you remember when the band at Colonial played that song and we went to dance but slipped in the wet grass? My English lecture on Chaucer is great. Professor Fleming is so funny.
These conversations would peter out once classes began in earnest, developing into lamentations of too much work, complaints of a lack of time, and the inevitable scheming of weekend plans. This always had been my Princeton routine: We would talk about any big event, but once it was over, wed go back to talking about how much work we had and how fun the Street was the previous weekend.
But one day this fall I woke up, not unlike Gregor Samsa in Kafkas The Metamorphosis, to discover myself in a new and different world.
Last spring, I met Alexandra Snyder 03 and Alexandra Leader 03, both cellists in the Princeton University Orchestra (PUO). (Alex and Alex were roommates of a good friend of mine, and all of us spent many a late night together working on papers due the next day.) And this fall, Alex and Alex have introduced me to some of their friends from the orchestra, taking me on a trip into previously uncharted Princeton territory.
Instead of hearing the usual stories about campus social life or the mournful wailing of the overworked undergraduate, I now hear a different melody. Concerns about rehearsal times, competitions for seats, and broken cello strings have taken center stage. I stumbled into the subculture of the PUO, and I try now to maneuver my way through the arcane habits of this group.
On the swim team my first two years, I spent hours each week at DeNunzio Pool swimming back and forth, and weekend evenings at the Street playing games and drinking beer. Comfortable with the lingo and routine of the swim team and perhaps a little scared of not fitting in elsewhere, I never ventured out of that world, although I knew that other campus subcultures existed. And Im not alone in this; most of my friends, both on and off the swim team, stay within their established groups.
Which is why Im grateful that Alex and Alex have introduced me to a completely new set of people, one Im not sure I would have sought out on my own. They use up an immeasurable amount of energy practicing their instruments in the Woolworth Music Center, and they dont spend nearly as much time at the Street. Their Saturday nights many times involve playing in concerts or going into New York City for some fun.
But you should hear the language Alex and Alex use around their musician friends I call it orchestra-speak. Words like heterophony or dodecaphonic pepper their sentences, leaving me feeling like the cockroach in Kafkas story. And I thought polonaise was something you ate and tonic was something you drank, until they told me with laughing scorn that the first was a dance and the second had to do with the musical scale.
When I say something to Alex and Alex about my Princeton, e.g., Im not sure I want to go out tonight, but because its Thursday, everyone will be at the Street, they and their friends look at me with pity, as if to say, We know plenty of people who wont be at the Street tonight.
And I realize that my outlook on Princeton clouded by chlorine and beer has been myopic. Though the culture shock this year has been startling, Ive come to realize that a little astonishment now and then is a good thing. Its good to remember what it feels like to be that alienated cockroach. Its a whole new view from there.
John Lurz 03 is an English major from Baltimore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ON THE CAMPUS ONLINE: Kristin Roper 03 looks at the current campus dialogue about a possible war with Iraq.