I didn’t expect to enjoy the bonfire. This is mainly because I don’t really like bonfires in general. Smoke blows into my eyes and they tear up. Smoke blows into my asthmatic lungs and I cough. It’s too hot if I’m too close to the flames and too cold if I’m too far. And I may or may not be a little afraid of fire, but we don’t really need to talk about that.
In the context of this specific event, I was not looking forward to crowding around the bonfire with literally thousands of drunks, packed too tightly to move. I expected to be uncomfortable. But I decided to go anyway to convince myself I’m not a crotchety old man (yet). How much harm could a simple celebration of Princeton pride be?
A lot, is the answer. To be fair, my specific fears were unfounded. My temperature was well-regulated, I neither cried nor coughed, I had ample personal space, and, much to my relief, the school did not burn down and I was not burned alive.
The same cannot be said for the life-sized doll dressed in Harvard clothes and plush Yale bulldog we gleefully burned in effigy. I really don’t know who thought this was a good idea. The vast majority of people I’ve talked to did not approve, but maybe that’s just because I only talk to people with souls. It was tasteless at best, depraved at worst. What kind of twisted mind could delight in watching flames lick a stuffed dog? Come on guys, the whole Michael Vick thing was only like four years ago.
Effigies aside, a giant fire is a weird choice for a celebration. Even I admit that to watch the blaze grow in those first few moments is fascinating and a little beautiful, but then what? You watch the fire maintain itself while destroying the wood underneath, and when the kindling starts dwindling you watch the fire slowly die (or in this case, you watch it start to die and then the fire department extinguishes it; or in my case, you leave early and go watch the Triangle show). Fire is impressive in its simplicity and its capacity for destruction, but it doesn’t feel very revelrous past the first several seconds.
At least one part of the event—the speeches—did feel revelrous, but alas, I found them to be uniformly uninspiring. Instead of promoting a general pride in Princeton, I was asked to celebrate the Princeton football team. I am aware that the bonfire was theoretically intended to honor the football team’s victories over Harvard and Yale, but what about the men’s cross country, who finished 11th in the country this season, and our women’s field hockey team, who would (successfully) play for a national championship the next day? Surely Shirley and co. would at least mention them? Unfortunately, I was wrong – all they talked about was the football team.
There are so many legitimately wonderful things about our university that to devote so much fanfare and hoopla to a relatively narrow aspect of campus life felt cheap, somehow. In all seriousness, why can’t we throw a bonfire to praise women’s field hockey? Or for that matter, our Nobel Prize winners or Rhodes scholars?
This has nothing to do with the fact that I personally don’t care much for football. I admire the talent and dedication of our athletes, and commend them for a vast improvement over last year. And if we had a nationally relevant football team, I would gladly accept throwing them a bonfire. But we finished with a mediocre 5-5 record. Everyone here is talented and dedicated, and treating football as our school’s most important sport is outdated.
The whole night, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the scale, cost, and logistics of the event were not worth the payoff. A few minutes into the lighting of the fire, I went up to an EMT and thanked him for being there. Thinking that there had to be better things the large number of emergency personnel present could be doing with their night, I asked him, “Do you think this is worth it?”
Without a moment’s hesitation he looked me in the eye and said, “Absolutely.” I suppose I’m glad he felt that way, but I’m still waiting for somebody to tell me why.