November 20, 2002: On the Campus

Music hath charms
Learning there’s more to life than chlorine and beer

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 I’ve 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, we’d 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 Kafka’s 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 I’m not alone in this; most of my friends, both on and off the swim team, stay within their established groups.

Which is why I’m grateful that Alex and Alex have introduced me to a completely new set of people, one I’m 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 don’t 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 Kafka’s 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., “I’m not sure I want to go out tonight, but because it’s 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 won’t 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, I’ve come to realize that a little astonishment now and then is a good thing. It’s good to remember what it feels like to be that alienated cockroach. It’s a whole new view from there.

John Lurz ’03 is an English major from Baltimore. He can be reached at

ON THE CAMPUS ONLINE: Kristin Roper ’03 looks at the current campus dialogue about a possible war with Iraq.



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