Web Exclusives: Inky Dinky Do
a PAW web exclusive column by Hugh O'Bleary

March 27, 2002:
Too close for comfort?
A view from the other side of the Princeton Paradise

By Hugh O'Bleary

In the winter it’s not so bad. They’re all in their big bulky jackets, knit caps pulled down over their ears, hurrying past to get out of the cold. The campus feels nearly empty as you hustle home from the train, or drive past on a late-night video store run. It’s so easy to forget, to begin to think of the university as nothing more than a collection of handsome buildings and gray slate walkways, a picturesque backdrop to your daily doings. And then spring comes and suddenly there they are again, everywhere you look. The students.

My friend Stephen calls it "P-ness envy." (You know, like the P-rade) It’s that wistful, gnawing, thrilling yet slightly galling feeling you get when you look around you at, well, at the Princeton-ness of it all. And at all the young, attractive, energetic, young, clearly intelligent — did I mention young? — young people who actually get to live in that atmosphere. Twenty-four hours a day. It’s theirs, not ours. Remember the scene in the movie Breaking Away in which Dennis Quaid, playing a former hot-shot high school quarterback from Bloomington, Indiana., watches the university team practice? "Every year there’s going to be a new bunch of them," he says to his townie friends. "And every year I’m not going to be one of them."

Stephen, who like many Princeton inhabitants works in New York and crosses the campus every morning and every evening on his way to and from the train, is given to railing against that fundamental and eternal gap — what he calls "the untouchable P-arallel universe." (He’s big on the P- construction.) Last week he said, quite seriously, "They should put a big screen up around the whole place, O’Bleary. Just so we wouldn’t have to see it. It’s cruel, especially this time of year."

Indeed. Spring comes, and the campus blooms: shorts, sandals, T-shirts, and bare feet; frisbees and bicycles and sunbathers; crew practice and track practice, baseball, softball and lax; books and papers and lap tops under the trees. I mean, who lives like that? Princeton students, that’s who. I only hope they know how good they’ve got it. Kingman Brewster, who was president of another Ivy League university a while ago, used to tell his incoming freshmen, "You will never be this free again."

And, my god, was he right!

It is brought home to me every day — by the laughing, nuzzling, water-bottle-sipping, walkman-sharing couple on the train on their way into the city for a day of museum hopping; by the guy eating a hoagie and reading Kierkegaard on the steps of Nassau Hall; by the young woman sprinter practicing starts in Weaver Stadium; by the kids emerging, blinking in the sunlight, from Firestone, bulging knapsacks over their shoulders. Oh, I’m not ready to pull a Stephen and blot them all from my sight. But I admit that sometimes I get just the tiniest bit fed up. I mean, give a guy a break. I wonder if that wasn’t why Russell Crowe flipped the bird at that student while he was in Princeton last year filming A Beautiful Mind. Sure, Crowe’s a big-shot movie star, with an Oscar tucked in his tote bag and a love life that runs the paparazzi ragged, but even he, looking around at the absurd utopia that is Princeton on a spring afternoon, must have felt a little bit out of it.

The trick, I suppose, is to turn that envy into inspiration. Strive to bring a sense of that freedom and possibility to your own life. Take advantage of all the wonderful opportunities the university offers to members of the community. Chat with the students, learn from them. Let them rejuvinate you. Either that, or just hang on until winter.

You can reach Hugh O'Bleary at "Hugh O'Bleary" paw@princeton.edu