“I Don’t Actually Hate Bankers” and Other Thoughts on the Open Letter (Part 1)

With all the time I spend reading Marx with other graduate students and talking revolution with other activists, I occasionally forget that my world is largely populated by people who don’t share my particular line of leftist politics.  I’ve been reminded of the political diversity of my friends during conversations about the open letter which a group of alumni wrote in support of Occupy Princeton.  Caveats within the letter’s message that were clear in my activist brain are, understandably, not obvious to others.

I’ve written this post to respond to some criticisms—both voiced and unvoiced—that could be and have been made about the form of the open letter, in the hopes that it will allow us to talk more about its substance: the question of the appropriate role of finance on campus and Princeton’s response to growing economic inequlity.*

“Investment bankers are not bad people; why are you attacking them?”  Princeton graduates working in finance—like Princeton graduates who go on to do more school, become fellows at Teach for America, or work in other industries—are not good or bad people; they’re just people.  I know that Princetonians go into finance for all sorts of reasons: some like the challenge, others the money, and still others because they see the industry as playing a valuable role in our society.  I have friends who work in finance, and I certainly don’t think I’m “better” than them: after all, reading social theory in graduate school isn’t exactly saving the world either.  But institutions matter, and there is now ample evidence that the milieu of Wall Street has created cultures of excessive risk-taking and hyper-competitiveness which have proven themselves to be harmful both to society and the people taking part in them.  

“What Occupy Princeton did was really rude!” As Michael Lewis pointed out in his recent column on Occupy Princeton, an easy way to ignore the substance of a message is to criticize the way it is delivered.  I have some misgivings about the way Occupy groups are using “Mic Checks” to shut down events, but let’s keep some perspective: we live in a society where millions of dollars from anonymous donors can be poured into nasty attack ads and protesters are being beaten, gassed, and shot while peaceably assembling.  The fact that Occupy Princeton’s three minute interruption in a recruiting event might have made some people uncomfortable is not a good reason to ignore it.  Princeton students ought to be made of sterner stuff.

“Wouldn’t it have been better to hold a debate about finance?”  No, it wouldn’t have.  In my time at Princeton, I helped organize a number of debates and lectures on vegetarianism, nearly all of which were poorly attended.  Why?  Because people generally don’t seek out situations where they’re going to be told they’re doing something wrong.  Certainly, I doubt that stressed Princeton seniors would be interested in hearing about how they should not take jobs in one of the few industries still hiring.  But sometimes people do need to be shown the implications of their decisions, and at times the only way to do so is through confrontation.

“Why kick J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs off campus? Shouldn’t we be trying to engage with them more constructively?”  Bankers are well aware that most Americans loathe their industry (although banks are still slightly more popular than Congress and Fidel Castro).  Rather than make a public case for the value of finance, though, institutions like J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs have used backdoor influence to thwart overwhelmingly popular efforts at financial regulation.  When Occupy Wall Street started, these same institutions engaged in ad hominem attacks on protesters—deriding them as unwashed, lazy hippies—rather than countering the substance of the protesters’ message.  Given the unwillingness of these institutions to even entertain the idea that they need to reform, the best course of action is to challenge their bottom line—by pinching their top source of employees—and force them to get serious about their obligations to society.

“But Princeton students have a right to work where they want!”  We throw around “rights” too much.  In my time at Princeton, I was told that people have a “right” to eat meat every day of the week, a “right” to have a tray (not just a plate!) in the dining hall, and a “right” to make six figures straight after graduation.  But what if I say I have a “right” to go to a school that does not offend my values by reinforcing income inequality?  Throwing around the “r” word not only cheapens real rights—think, free speech or due process—but also shuts down the possibility of debate or compromise.  All of us have rights, but we also have responsibilities: our conversation should be about what duties we have as Princeton graduates entering a world in which we are incredibly privileged and, as a result, poised to do much more than just make money.

“It’s not Princeton’s job to tell students what they should do after graduation.”  Princeton offers its students a world-class education, which—even for students paying full tuition—is largely funded by others.  In exchange, it imposes certain obligations on members of the community to behave in certain ways and to fulfill certain requirements.  There would therefore be nothing drastic or new about telling grossly misbehaving financial companies to take recruiting off campus; it’d simply be an extension of existing standards that Princeton has about who gets access and support from Princeton.  This isn’t about where graduates are “allowed” to work, but which organizations and institutions get to receive Princeton’s institutional blessing.

“You’re not going to change anything, so why are you wasting your time?”  As I’ve written over and over again on this blog, cynicism is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Our conviction that things are unchangeable is a big part of what prevents change from happening, since it provides easy cover for those of us who don’t want to act even when we know we should.  Princeton obviously does change, albeit slowly.  I was recently contacted by an alumnus who mentioned how, in the 1980s, people demanding that the university divest from apartheid were derided as wasting their time on a fool’s errand.  History proved them wrong.  Princeton can either join a national movement to rethink the place of finance in society—or it can, once again, be a laggard, and make Harvard look positively dynamic by comparison.

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* I speak only for myself here, not for the 70+ other individuals who have signed the letter.  Have you yet?  Send me an e-mail!

Even Princeton

It so happens that the very night Occupy Princeton mic checked J.P. Morgan, I myself was talking about Princeton—or, more specifically, avoiding talking about Princeton.  A cohort-mate introduced me to one of her friends, and she asked me where I went to school before Berkeley.  As per usual, I mumbled something about Central New Jersey.and attempted to change the subject.  My friend wasn’t having it, though: “He went to Princeton”, she said.

My secret out, I offered my stock derision of my alma mater.  Did you know that there are eating clubs where you have to do ten interviews for admission, in a process that’s actually called “bicker”?  Have you heard about how Princeton got sued because so many of the students from its school for public policy went to work for hedge funds?  Or that upper-classmen put on double-popped collars, play croquet, and smoke cigars outside the site where newly admit pre-frosh congregate, just so incoming students start off with the right impression?  The implicit message, as always, was that if she thinks Princeton students are a bunch of over-privileged douchebags, she’s probably right.

The funny thing, though, is that I myself don’t even believe the stereotypes I’m conveying.  When I think of Princeton, I don’t think about eating clubs or polo shirts.  In my mind, “Princeton” is the professor who came into my first class freshman year and announced she had been kicked out of the prison system for teaching Marxism, the misfits who welcomed me into the marching band, and the young activists who strong-armed me into going vegan my sophomore year.  When I sing “In Praise of Old Nassau”, I mean it: it’s just that I’m thinking about the group of upperclassmen who took me to punk shows in Asbury Park when I was a lonely freshman, the old alumni who decided to give a scholarship to a kid who spent his hour long interview talking about anarchism, and the sociology professor who told me to follow my passions into a dumpster.

There are, of course, people at Princeton who are assholes from the second they set foot on campus.  But I truly believe, as Occupy Princeton said in their mic check, that most Princeton students don’t come to campus wanting to work for Goldman Sachs.  A significant minority, like me, arrive completely unaware of Princeton’s reputation as “the country club of the Ivy League.”  By the time we get to Princeton, though, most of us are hardwired to constantly look for the most exclusive eating club, the most selective major, and the most prestigious job.  The sad fact is, if you’re a Princeton freshman looking for role models, the most successful people you see are the ones going into finance.

And so Princeton’s reputation for elitism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The people who have no qualms about turning a half-million dollar education into a six-figure salary are also the people who are oblivious enough to wear Princeton on their sleeve.  The rest of us are afraid to associate ourselves with a name that others have made synonymous with greed and exclusivity, filled with guilt about the benefits we have accrued from a place we claim to hate.  The progressive alumni keep away from reunions, and by extension, each other: after all, it would be a bit incongruous if we expended much effort on a community that we are constantly bitching about.  The result is that a minority—and yes, it really is a minority—of Princeton students get to define what Princeton is to most of the world, and, in so doing, control the meaning of one of the most momentous four-year-periods of our lives.

Don’t get me wrong: Princeton has an awful history.  There is an important conversation to be had about whether Princeton should exist at all—if there really is a place in our society for such a lavish educational experience while public education is being cut to the bone.  But so long as Princeton does exist, those of us who have benefited from it ought to be able to have an open debate about how we can best use that privilege.  But before that can even happen, we need to challenge the basic narrative—that many of us alumni are ourselves perpetuating—that Princeton is an unredeemable, reactionary hell hole.

I’m glad that Occupy Princeton directed their message at the banks: their action had incredible power because, as so many media outlets seemed to say, even Princeton seems to be waking up.  But for me personally, the message they conveyed was one I’ve yet to find the courage to say:

Mic Check! /

We at Princeton /

Are not all assholes /

Some of us /

Are just twenty-somethings /

Who got lucky /

And are trying to figure out /

How to do some good

An Open Letter to the Princeton Community

After the tigers of Occupy Princeton mic-checked recruiting events for Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan, a few concerned alumni collaboratively drafted an Open Letter to Princeton Community to send to the Princeton Alumni Weekly and the university administration.  If you are an alum and want to sign it, shoot me an e-mail (also, let me know if you want to be on our e-mail list, discussing further actions that could be taken along this vein).

Bringing concerns about income inequality and economic injustice into the heart of American privilege is itself a good thing; as a Princeton alum, I also think it’s important to seize on this moment to try to change a deeply problematic culture of entitlement on campus (exhibit A-Z).  No letter drafted by a group of people is ever going to express any individual’s views perfectly.  I hope, though, that people who agree with the spirit of Occupy Princeton’s action will consider adding their names in support.

For those who can’t open links, the text is below.

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To the Princeton Community:

When we were at Princeton, we were often reminded that Princeton’s motto is ‘In the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.’ Despite this ideal, we have discovered that to many outside the Orange Bubble, Princeton symbolizes something much less noble: greed, privilege, and elitism. We believe that part of this perception stems from Princeton’s strong institutional support for careers in the financial services sector, an industry that includes firms like Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan, which have taken billions of dollars in public money and used it to pay excessive bonuses and manipulate our political system to their own advantage.

We applaud the students of Occupy Princeton for challenging Princeton’s dominant culture of political disengagement. It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to your peers and speak uncomfortable truths. Princeton graduates are entitled to work in the industry of their choosing, but if they do choose to work in finance, they should know they are entering an industry with a condemning historical record of breaching public trust and engaging in practices that run directly counter to Princeton’s motto. We believe that the Occupy Princeton protests send an important message to these financial institutions about the University’s values and serve to educate students considering a career in finance.

The burden of showing that Princeton University is more than an elite playground should not fall on the shoulders of students alone. The administration should support—not discipline—those students who are attempting to bring Princeton into a much-needed national conversation about income inequality and economic justice.  Moreover, we urge the administration to stop providing institutional support for recruiting on campus by the worst offenders of the financial industry, such as J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs, until they show that they meet basic standards of accountability and economic fair play.

Lastly, we call on fellow alumni to join us in making it clear to current undergraduates that there are better ways to use the immense privilege of a Princeton education. We say this not just to encourage students to look outside of finance, but also to suggest that they use the skills and connections they have developed at Princeton to achieve positive good from within financial careers.

It’s time to decide whether ‘the nation’s service’ refers to the entire nation, or just 1% of it.

Signed:

New Family

This week saw a new addition to the Sachs Scholarship family.  We are a small tribe—the scholarship has existed for 40 years, and only one person has been chosen in all years except one—and it is really exciting to have a new member among us.  (Seriously, check out Veronica—what a brain wave!)

 

The announcement of the new scholar is also a marker, a fixed point in time that allows me to measure how my time at Oxford has changed me.  Two years ago, of course, I was floating on cloud nine when—after being rejected by the Rhodes and the Marshall—I was finally ‘chosen’.  One year later, though, the announcement of the new scholar came at a nadir.  The early sanguinity of being in this place was just starting to wear off, and the reality of being a small fish in a big, unfamiliar academic pond was just setting in.  Reading about Josh—the new scholars—incredible accomplishments as an activist and community member at Princeton just made me feel like a fraud.

 

This year, things couldn’t be more different.  It certainly helps that Josh is here, and while he’s actually more inspiring than I thought, I’m no longer worrying about whether I was ever ‘worthy’.  As I look over Veronica’s mind-blowing resume, I have the sense of self to realize that someone else being impressive doesn’t make me not so; it just means I’m different.  And I guess that has been the key to finding happiness at Oxford; I am, at long last, at peace with my limitations and willing to acknowledge my strengths.

 

It’s hard to explain what has made this term so great.  Most of my time has been spent buried in a GRE study book or filling out tedious PhD applications.  When I finally had a chance to stop thinking about the future—about two weeks ago, when my last application to the University of Michigan went in—I realized that life is absolutely fabulous.  This term, I’ve had my first ever academic publication skirt through peer review; I cracked the code for writing an Oxford essay (rule #1: cite Foucault early and often); I even realized that class in my department could be engaging and exciting.  As always, some of the best parts have had nothing to do with learning: I stroked my first rowing race, and, with the boat club, cut a swathe of destruction through downtown Cambridge on a Saturday night.

 

So, more than anything else, what I feel for my new family member is jealousy.  I’m excited for the future, but I could go for a bit more time here.  I feel like I have just recently cracked the code to Oxford, and yet I’m already forced to think about moving on.

Going Back; Moving On

Every time I go back to Princeton, the entire thing feels like a non-stop personal examination.  While I should just enjoy my precious few days on campus, I find myself spending the balance of time agonizing over how it is, exactly, I am supposed to relate to my alma mater.  I am I supposed to feel sad or elated to be back?  Should I go for the humorous-if-sketchy persona, or try to show that I’ve grown up a bit?  And what am I supposed to say about the real world*: that it’s a non-stop barrel of laughs, or that I cry myself to sleep at night longing for the undergraduate glory days?

The first time I go back this year, I feel nothing.  It’s the day after I returned from Ecuador, and I run along the tow path from Jackie’s house in Lawrenceville onto Princeton’s campus.  Aside from a handful of inexplicable changes—did they put a new archway into Brown Hall just to give alums something to whine about?—everything looks the exact same.  And yet I am not overcome with the wave of nostalgia I was expecting.  The undergrads aren’t yet back from their summer vacation, and the emptiness of campus reminds me that my best and worst memories of Princeton have nothing to do with gothic buildings.

Two Saturdays ago, I went back again—except this time, not to Princeton, but to the band.  At first I am elated, because after about five minutes it doesn’t seem to even matter that I am graduated.  More than anything, though, Saturday made me feel relieved.  In part, I am relieved to see that the band has not fallen apart, and, in fact, is thriving.  But I’m also relieved that, even if it were falling apart, I’m not sure it would be the end of the world.  I am not worried about what the officers are doing, or whether the new members are having a good time, or how it will all look in the eyes of athletics.  I am, for an afternoon, a freshman again: I can dance and sing like an idiot and not care what anyone else thinks.

I feel like a freshman again Saturday night, at the Triangle Show, but this time not in a good way.  By my senior year, I found at least mildly amusing the skits and songs celebrating how fabulously isolated and rich and preppy Princeton is.  With a bit more detachment, though, I am taken aback—and remember why, when I first arrived, I didn’t feel like I fit in.  On Sunday, I go to lawnparties—an event I rarely made it to as a student—and can’t help but feel grateful for the fact that I no longer have to look at the J-Crew-clad army again and think, “These are my peers.”  I actually wind up leaving lawnparties early and going to Marquand library to work.  Peering over a dense book of sociological theory to watch people stagger back from the street on a Sunday—now that makes me feel like an undergraduate again.

Striking the right balance when going back is hard enough that I am realizing that, perhaps, it is easier not to go back at all.  And, of course, Princeton is doing its part to nudge me out the door.  Graduation doesn’t actually mark a clean break.  For a few years, you can still make it back and steal a few moments where it feels as if you’ve never left.  But then they change the ID card, so you can’t getinto the library anymore.  They block off the places you used to sneak into, and they reorder things enough that it doesn’t quite feel like home anymore.  Eventually, all your friends graduate, and the new students don’t particularly want to listen to your stories about six, seven, eight years ago anymore.  Your antics stop being funny in a nostalgic sort of way: they’re just pathetic.

And it’s realizing that—that this really might be my last visit to Princeton outside of reunions—that makes me incredibly sad.  It really is over, and, regardless of what the song says, you can’t actually go back.  I’ve spent so much time trying to forget about Princeton and get over it that I almost forgot how much I love this place.

* By “real world”, I obviously mean, “the other fake world: Oxford.”

Adventures Under the Midnight(ish) Sun

For all intents and purposes, I finished my term on Thursday—the day before my final exam—when I gave up on studying, unable to convince myself anymore that learning to do ANOVA statistical tests by hand or to ramble about epistemological approaches to ethnography had anything to do with, well, anything. Paul Willis, a Professor at Keele University, had invited me to lunch in Stoke-on-Trent, so I braved the English rail system for the first time.  It was a pleasant afternoon: Professor Willis is moving to the Princeton sociology department, and wanted to grill me on such mystical things as the Woodrow Wilson School, JPs, and departmental gossip.  These moments in which I feel like a part of the academic club—more colleague than student—are part of what keep me optimistic about the future.

A high point came when I tried to explain the eating club system.  I expected Willis’ first reaction to the street to be that of any good sociologist: indignation at its role in perpetuating racial / class / gender stratification.  His reaction, though, was quintisentially British: “So, do professors drink at these places too?”  Before I got on the train to go home, I asked him whether I should drink with the boat club or study for my exam that evening.  Under the advice of someone whose book has been cited 8,000 times, I passed the rest of the hours until sunset on the Thames, bidding fond farewell to my undergraduate friends before they disappeared into the summer.

Friday was examination time, which meant sub-fusc and red carnation.  I can’t say much about the actual examination, because as tends to be the case, I basically blacked out for three hours and came to having written 24 pages of keyword-laden theoretical non-sense (the graders will probably love it).  Before my first year of graduate school could be officially laid to rest, however, there was one last Oxford tradition: trashing.  While finalists have been known to be doused in baked-beans and hit by rotten fish upon emerging for exams, I got away with a bit of glitter thrown by my wonderful housemate, Nicola.  She, I, and another friend, Evan, retired to a pub, as a good chunk of stress rapidly fell off my shoulders.

Early Saturday morning, I was off to go narrow boating with a fellow PUBandie, Josephine, and her family.  Narrow-boating strikes me as perhaps the quintessentially quaint English activity, in that nothing really happens.  We puttered along at two miles-per-hour and stopped every couple hundred meters to go through a lock.  Apparently, this was sufficiently exciting, though, to bring lots of locals out to watch us, and despite the fact that my house in Arizona was further from the airport than Oxford is from Manchester, the regional variation in accents is ridiculous. I basically couldn’t understand anything the passer-byes said, until Josephine pointed out that they were probably always talking about football and I started focusing on catching a few critical words (in this sense, it was good practice for being in Ecuador).  The relaxed pace gave me lots of opportunities to take in a new city, eat some amazing vegan food, and catch up—it was, all-in-all, a pretty fantastic weekend.

Back in Oxford, I’ve been trying to adapt to the idea of being here and not being stressed out of my mind.  Sticking with the boating theme of my week, I watched the drawn-out solstice nea-midnight sunset from a ferry in the Thames.  Today, I completed the circle, watching the sun rise at three-thirty a.m., having spent all night around a bonfire in Port Meadows, roasting pita bread and drinking cheap wine among good company.

I try not to treat experiences like these as belt notches.  The fact that I have done X and seen Y reflects little on the richness of my life or my appreciation for it.  Even as I sit at my desk—reading about political ecology, writing questionnaires, and stuying Spanish, como siempre—though, I can feel a different sort of optimism and appreciation for life that’s been missing for too long.  Despite the redundancy, I don’t think I can ever remind myself too much of what a ridiculously privileged life I lead.

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Jukebox: Against Me! – Wagon Wheel

Blast from the Past

Back for one weekend only, by popular demand:

If this was immature when I was 19, what is it now?

Feeling a tad aged on my birthday, and consumed with fear of becoming a bit too predictable (or maybe it was just how temptingly long I had let my hair grow out?), I decided to re-shave a mohawk last weekend.  It was a lovely 48 hours of hair-spray fueled ‘rebellion’: I awed a lot of MBA students with my ‘alternativeness’ at our house party, made Graduate group-photo history (forever to be immortalized on the walls of the Middle Common Room), and, as the picture above reflects, scared my housemate to no end.  And I was quickly reminded of how nice it can be to be the center of attention, and how confident I feel when I know everyone has already written me off as a lunatic.

But, alas, as I knew last year when I put Princeton’s ‘mohawk guy’ to rest, it’s a phase of my life whose time has come and gone.  I’ve committed myself that any accolades and recognition I earn from this point forward will belong to me alone, and not be shared with my hair.  Monday, mohawk guy version 2.0 met a grisly end at the hands of a set of 5.99 Boots’ clippers.

It did seem somewhat fitting, though, to finally bring my dear mohawk full circle, from self-conscious rejection of the status quo to, well, self-referential joke.

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Jukebox: A.F.I. – I Wanna Get A Mohawk, But My Mom Won’t Let Me

Boxed In

It’s gorgeous out.  Not the “the-sky-is-only-85%-covered-in-clouds-today-and-it-hasn’t-rained-in-an-hour” weather that usually passes for gorgeous in England, but legitimately, fantastically, gorgeous .  Which is why I am extremely bitter to have spent all weekend inside a library*, and am writing this incredibly boring post about… libraries!

I never got the sense that Princeton had much of a library culture.  Seniors occasionally descended into their carrels for a few weeks at a time, and I generally spent a few painful days prior to Dean’s Date camped out in Wu Library, but beyond that, the library was a place to visit to—you know—get books, and not much else.  I distinctly remember on my campus tour being told, “Unlike Harvard, we don’t leave our libraries open all night”—and thinking that was a good thing.

This is not the case at Oxford.  We are, I venture to say, a bit obsessed with libraries.  Partly, it’s because the university lacks the “sophisticated” technology necessary to post readings online, so we are stuck competing for a handful of copies of assigned books that are on hold (“They didn’t need e-reserves in the 12th century, and we don’t need them now!”).  It’s also, however, cultural: most people here do their work in libraries, which makes me feel like if I’m serious about my studies, I ought to be working in a library.  The university doesn’t make it easy for us, though: there are 100 libraries at Oxford, each with its own unpredictable set of opening and closing hours and nonsensical rules (Is the library closed stack?  Can you use a laptop?  Headphones?)

The real inspiration for this post came today when I emerged from the Graduate “Quiet Study” room onto rows and rows of desperate-looking undergraduates studying for exams.  It hit me that we don’t really go to the library to be productive—we just come here to punish ourselves.  There’s no shortage of procrastination, it just takes a much less amusing form, since options are pretty much limited to facebook, writing pointless blog posts and—for the truly hopeless—endless games of free cell.  They manage to spice things up in the Worcester College library by having a “topless half-hour” declared at a random time each day, but I’d say, overall, libraries here are pretty desolate places.

I feel kind of sad writing this, because I think libraries are, generally, one of civilization’s greatest achievements.  It really is totally rad that there are huge repositories of potentially subversive ideas out there that the government actually allows to exist.  But, I have to say, I think I’m going to do my remaining reading for this term outside.

* Unless you count eight hours of rowing practice over the last two days.

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Jukebox: Sum 41 – Summer

Some aimless reminiscing

Reunions with fellow marching-bandies are inevitably the catalyst for endless reminiscing, and Bagdis’ recent provided opportunities aplenty.  We were skyping with a friend back at Princeton—who, dare say, I predate—and, as usual, I started subjecting her to tales from my orange-plaid glory days (I think being forced to listen to stories from alumni is something of a Princeton Band right-of-passage).  Talking about it inspired me to write some of these moments down—before I completely forget them—and, of course, to take stock of the way I view my own life-history nearly one year after graduation.

To be fair, as band road trips go, our visit to Dartmouth in 2007 was pretty legendary.  The Dartmouth Band at the time was at a membership low, and so the four Drillmasters—Lucas, Concepcion, Justin, and I—went home with some tangential friends-of-friends of the band president.  They took us into what was unequivocally the most disgusting dorm room I’ve ever seen, pushed a mountain of pizza boxes and loose papers off their tiny futon onto the last remaining clear spot of the floor, and fled out the door to a frat party.  As soon as the door closed, we all looked at each other and burst out laughing at the absurdity of our accommodations.  After snapping a few pictures for posterity, we grabbed our bags and walked out the door.

Somehow, we wound up wandering Dartmouth’s frat row, until we realized that at the end of a row of Animal House-lookalikes was the University President’s house.  We spent a few minutes cavorting on the lawn before ringing the doorbell and running off.  I don’t quite remember how it happened, but we definitely wound up sleeping on a fraternity tap-room floor.  While we slept, Dan Jaffe managed to get himself arrested for drinking from a hip flask in an on-campus party.

It’s been too long for me to remember what happened on Saturday, except for a few snippets.  I was almost decapitated by a flying pumpkin after ding-dong-ditching a frat house during the 8:00 a.m. march around.  I passed an hour between field rehearsal and kick-off by trying to build a bonfire in a highway median, until President Greg got mad at me.  During half-time, I opted not to participate in the formations and instead systematically dismember the plastic pumpkin—on which I broke my foot at the beginning of the season—with one of my crutches.  At some point, RW slide-tackled the Dartmouth drum major.  I obviously have no clue who won the game (on the one hand, Princeton lost most of the games I watched… on the other hand, Dartmouth is terrible…), but I do know that before we got back onto the bus, I tried to take the “set the conductor on fire” tradition to a new level and chased Matt Rich around with a hairspray flamethrower.

A few days ago, I tried to cheer up a housemate-in-distress by showing her some pictures of my “youth” in Flagstaff: of river trips with barely contained bonfires (are you sensing a theme?), joke cult rituals after cross country meets, anarchy pancakes and punk rock shows, homemade potato guns and rocket powered sleds.  The pictures did the trick—watching me almost blow myself up 100 times over definitely provided momentary distraction for my housemate—but also sent me into a paroxysm of nostalgia.

I look at these pictures and see a past of creativity and chaos that is beyond recreating: all I’m left with stories that I rehash over and over again to try to convince the people around me, “I used to be interesting, I swear.”  Part of it, I suppose, is simply context: I know that, in large part, all my best stories come from being around friends more reckless and impulsive than I, and now they have graduated and acquired jobs and significant others and, quite frankly, have better things to do than play with fire.  Another chunk of it is just imagination – a tendency to look backwards and only see the exciting moments.  But at the same time, I also feel like in the post-mohawk, post-Princeton band, post-Cult of Elk period of my life, I’ve simply gotten boring.

I suppose if I looked back at my time in Oxford so far, I could find plenty of indications that I haven’t entirely sold old and fallen in line.  I have, after all, gotten in a fight with a neo-Nazi, done an erg in a tuxedo, popped champagne in our department reception area, eaten falafel from a sidewalk, and—as of last weekend—joined in teaching a few Germans to play robo with sawed-off water bottles (not to mention showed them the joy of those hair-spray torches).  In reality, though, this is probably not anything to be proud of.  In terms of things I should be worried about falling into decline—such as my academic performance, or my political activism—my identity as a raving lunatic ought to be low on the list.  And, in the depths of this self-over-analysis, it occurs to me that maybe what I should really be worried about is not about growing up, but not growing up fast enough.

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Jukebox: Pennywise – Homesick



Frauds and Peaks

I don’t want to believe that my life is ever going to “peak,” and I especially don’t want to believe that it “peaked” one year ago today.

I should state upfront, as a disclaimer, that this is a very self-involved post.  Talking about an award I received a year ago is a bit pathetic, but since Princeton’s campus newspaper still seems to be talking about it, I’m going to consider it fair game.

Last year, when my parents decided to notify our friends, family, and my high school about my receipt of Princeton’s Pyne Prize, I received an e-mail from an extremely wise former history teacher.  He told me not to obsess over whether I could ever ‘out-do’ myself again, and that I shouldn’t worry that some award in college was going to be the pinnacle of my existence.  At the time, I wasn’t too worried.  I was extremely happy with where I was: after a few years of drifting, I had found a community in which I felt like I could be myself, carved out an activist niche in which I felt like I was making real progress, and even come upon an academic project about which I was truly passionate.  What’s more, I had Oxford to get excited about.  It seemed like my trajectory could be only upwards.

Of course, there were always detractors.  I unfortunately lack the mental fortitude not to read online comments, so I knew that some segment of the campus population though I was a complete fraud, and that I received the award only because I had a Mohawk and the university wanted an ‘alternative-looking’ face to put on the homepage.  When I looked at the achievements of my co-recipient, Andy Chen, I couldn’t help but think there was some validity to these claims.  Still, though, I felt confident that – even if there was some truth to what they were saying – I had laid the groundwork to prove them wrong.   At some point in the future, I would show the world that I was deserving because I can have an impact.

One year on, it’s tough not to think that the ‘haters’ were right.  This year’s winner—Conner Diemand-Yaumen, the infinitely likeable Student Government president—has done an astonishing amount to improve Princeton.  By contrast, the few projects I worked on—the Animal Welfare Society and freegan.info come to mind—have more-or-less fallen apart.  It’s not looking backwards that bothers me, though, but looking forwards.  Last week, I got back my first actual grade from Oxford, and it was joltingly mediocre.  It was almost a metaphor for how I feel here: average, faceless, and small, an insignificant part of a giant academic machine.

I suppose I could try to replicate what I did at Princeton: shave a Mohawk and try to earn a reputation as a campus crazy-man.  Aside from the fact that this would almost certainly not work at a huge university like Oxford, though, I just don’t want to follow that path anymore.  I want to earn my stripes, to show that I really can have an impact in tangible ways.  I’m getting involved with all sorts of causes here—the Vegetarian Society, Food Justice, Anti-War Action, to name a few—but I’m realizing how few organizational or inter-personal skills I actually have as an activist.  It’s a lot easier to project an identity as a ‘change-maker’ than to actually be one.

To end on a higher note, I will just say that last year, this weekend was a ‘peak’ – it was a high point of the phase of my life where people would give me an easy pat on the back and endless positive reinforcement just for being who I am.  While I’m not sure when and where they will come, though, I think my real accomplishments are still in front of me.

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