We tend to moralize casually on the walk to dinner, and we’re all the more biting for it. “There’s something tragic in it, really…” a friend offered, trailing off. She spoke softly to me, but also to them, the “bright and tight,” as they stumbled back to campus on our narrow shared way. My knowledge of Sunday Funday (henceforth SF) at the University Cottage Club comes mostly through these brief glimpses, so I’m not the best person to comment firsthand on the ritualistic event-as-phenomenon. But my purpose in writing is altogether different. I only hope to approach the event’s discursive aftermath, to circumscribe the terms of engagement as SF enters conversation and thought, especially my own. In short, SF is “having a moment,” and I’m ready to indulge it. To do so feels like surrender, as it becomes common in April to wake up hungover and wonder, over the sound of a neighbor’s subwoofer, what Sunday before Funday was ever like.
Some framework. As I understand it, SF takes place outside more-or-less weekly from early April through the end of the term, when the sudden onslaught of spring Lawnparties and Reunions signals the end of all socializing on campus as we know it. There are themes involved that seem uniquely characteristic of the club. Most are either tenuous, uncomfortable allusions to intensely privileged sociocultural markers (“The Masters”) or are unabashedly patriotic (neither of which is inherently bad, or at least, neither of which is the subject of my interest here). No matter the theme, it can be interpreted loosely to mean, “wear as little as you can, but enough for an American flag,” or, barring even this, at least a pair of cowboy boots. For the international pledges to throw on some Americana—a beer koozie, 5” inseam shorts, and Croakies on Persol sunglasses—seems a perennial ironic delight.
Offering an opinion on SF can easily fracture groups into ideologically opposed camps, brought about by the simplest declaration or interrogation of intent: “Are you going?” “Why aren’t you going?” “You aren’t going!?”. Among my closest friends the very question is sometimes met with repugnance. Responses vary. Least dramatically, it’s a silent eye-roll or a quiet scoff; most, it’s camping on the back lawn of Ivy and reading a newspaper, watching them judgmentally. That’s to say—not doing work, but never indulging in the kind of unwholesome, “showy” play on a Sunday afternoon that’s going on over there. There’s a time and a place for everything, so this particular argument goes. What with Saturday night, Thursday night, and the occasional members’ night, anything else is decadent and indescribably audacious. And it’s not that we mind drinking in daytime per se (you’ll find me sunburnt and beyond reasonably drunk at Lawnparties), but this… this just seems different. We’ve, rather, they’ve crossed a certain line. The neighbors may be going to hell, but I’ll be damned if I’m not going to sit out here and at least watch, or rather, listen to the Blink-182 cover band. Still, I suspect that beyond this viscerally negative reaction to SF, there lies something more deserving of our examination.
Discourse, shaping experience itself, delights in the modern dialectic of work and play. Consider how we ask, exhausted at even the thought of someone’s busy lifestyle, “How do you do it all?” Part of the appeal of SF is obviously reliant on this. My friends who are there have all finished their theses*, or, worse (better?), they’re athletes who have not only finished their theses but did so without drama, and made it to practice that same day. For some—for me—this is unimaginable, and in itself invites jealousy and contempt. Most days I celebrate getting out of my bed by sitting for an hour in a chair that I keep next to it. I really don’t do anything on campus, this piece notwithstanding. The caveat here is that I run the risk of giving a purely individual account of my own inability to do much of anything, let alone anything on time.
The tragedy of SF seems not to rest so obviously on the surface, but rather subversively lurks underneath. How to counter the purportedly innocent, sad distaste of its non-participants with the seemingly genuine ecstasy of those who go? Another explanation here might be just that some are allowed in, some are not. But this line, “exclusivity breeds discontent,” is so frequently invoked on campus that it just seems, I don’t know, obvious.** For me, it’s something else entirely that touches on a point of contention inseparable from all social life at Princeton, but here, its form (and all its flaws) is magnified and put on display outdoors. In quintessentially Princeton fashion, it’s thrown behind a neo-Georgian façade. It’s a celebration surrounded by brick and stucco, a stately colonnade, and a manicured lawn. It’s a day party bracketed topographically by a guarded door and a gazebo; temporally by a pregame, and the difficult, long walk back to the slums with your cowboy, cowgirl, neither, or both. That brings us, of course, to the people. Us, but somehow so unlike us: tanner, fitter, drunker, on the whole, happier.
Even this experience cannot alone quite capture it. There is, after all, its aftermath. The rest of the evening could be (put less optimistically, will be) spent combing through Facebook albums where, tagged or not, we’re made complicit in a most beautiful savagery. For most of us, I suppose, we will never look better than we do now. In this sense, we’re right to celebrate it and to share in it with others. But there’s something sad there, too and it’s that which touches closer on the sadness of it all. Of course, if it’s an event that “contains the seed of its own destruction” (in ideologically-charged terms), its participants don’t give a shit. It’s only those who weren’t there for whom the profane vanity, so shockingly and overtly on display, actually matters later on.
If the photos from SF make us sad, I suggest, it’s not from fear-of-missing-out (FOMO) alone. The connection between sadness and photography is nothing new. Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida (1980) is perhaps the best-known example in recent memory. Here, Barthes’ contrast of the rote, logos-based interpretation of some photographs (“studium”) and the more emotionally arresting hold of others (“punctum”) is more an elegant putting-into-words than an actual experiential revelation. As he writes, “A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” It’s also nothing new to comment on the paradox of adding a filter on Instagram in order to artificially age a photograph just taken. Here, catalyzing an aesthetic by faking the same passage of time creates a lapse between this changed image and how we were meant to experience its change over the years. We’re taking old photographs without allowing for any of the nostalgia, any of the sweet sadness that comes with finding a box of prints in the closet. And I guess that experience has now irrevocably changed too. “Lefting” someone, adding comments to force photos tagged from 2008 to resurface, while often embarrassing the subject, likewise embarrass their perpetrators, who desperately prove they can never really be alone, even if they’re only with previous iterations of themselves and their friends.
To take a step back, others in this publication (Dan Abromowitz ’13, “Physical Princeton”) have pushed further on the fleeting nature of experience on a campus that envisioned our leaving it before we even arrived, as we are forced to think about our “legacy” to those classes of students we’ve never even met. Recent news on this campus (and others like it) brings to light the sometimes-opaque conditions in which students are asked to leave because of circumstances and illnesses that are beyond their control. I hope there will be more to come on the “collegiality” of college, on our sense of shared responsibility as community members in such a rigidly institutionalized place as Princeton. This whole piece can admittedly be read as a protest of my own disillusionment with that sense of community and my sneaking suspicion that, even if I had pushed harder to grasp it, it would have been artificial or fraudulent.
What’s more, I acknowledge that while I’m a bit of an outsider to SF, in the end, I still want in. It’s what makes the character of Tom Townsend in Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan (1990) so obnoxious and tiresome. A little controversy fits just fine at most parties, but invective leveled against the very people you’re with seems in most cases inadvisable. With his unlined December trench and his Upper West Side address, Tom is ever out-of-place with the film’s more established set. His red hair makes his “difference” all the more glaring, if not laughable. In a ninety-minute enfilade, scenes unfold over a series of “parlors” and their games (Bridge and those more salacious), rummages through parents’ liquor cabinets and bookshelves, and discussions of their own assured success mixed uncomfortably with complaints against the presumption of “feeling sorry for ‘the less fortunate.’” In this world and these rooms, conversations lapse ever into comfortable, Jamesian solipsism. The threat of “downward social mobility” seems less an actual threat than a rhetorical dérive; complacence and the status quo are as uncontested as a J.Press sweater; the “unlived life” is just fine, as long as you went to Collegiate and Yale, or Dalton and Princeton. I guess the shock of the whole movie, what really drives the narrative, is that the group, short of a “male escort” for the lovable Audrey, is still forced to call on tiresome Tommy to accompany them to the unending barrage of holiday debutante balls and dinners that their social standing has prescribed for them.
It’s not that I’d compare my own experience to Tom’s. It is intimated that he’s a Princeton student when the others comment on his inadequate coat and the false presumption that New Jersey is, by point of fact, rather inexplicably mild in winter. Another similarity is somewhat consequential: we both sound like asses, who, if invited to a party the first time, shouldn’t expect to come again anytime soon. It also isn’t meant to suggest that our school is host to a set of broken, elitist rituals and unceasing vacillations between tension and “relaxation” that inevitably lead to burnout and unfair exclusion. Would that be too far out of line? Probably not, but that’s not what this piece concerns. What’s at stake and concern with SF is, on the whole, structural: how do we structure our free time to remind us courageously that we should instead be working?
The bravery of SF is in its performativity—fun meant deliberately to counter the kind of disingenuous work we do in Frist or sitting outside on a Sunday, when we can’t be out drinking with our friends, but we must at least give the impression of productivity. In this sense, it’s altogether genuine in a way so much of my own experience at Princeton is not. Something that shocks us as real can only exist in an environment in which the rest seems artificial; it throws both in contrast.
The other contrast is sadder still: the more fun we have (or rather, the more conscious one is of having fun), the harder it will hit when we realize it will end—and soon. But to call SF “careless” is ineffective; the whole day revels in being consciously carefree. SF is thus less an ontological than a discursive failure, an unfair conflation of subjects in which what we’re talking about is not really what we’re talking about. To complain about people having more fun than us deflects a more useful look at our own insecurities and the fear that we are “doing it wrong.” Through it all, I think, we learn that “talk is cheap,” but that it’s also painful, expensive, and utterly worthwhile.
After all, the time will come when that question—“How do you do it all?”—is no longer directed at us: energetic, ambitious, unsatisfied students and young professionals. Someday we’ll have to turn the question around, and ask it of those both younger and more successful than us. The problem with SF is that it leads me inevitably to envision the day when I will no longer wake up hungover to my neighbor’s expectable taste in music. It’ll be much bleaker than all that. There’s a wonderful quote the source of which I can’t remember, so I can only paraphrase it:
One day you’re going to wake up at 3 a.m. and be eighty years old and you’ll wonder for a moment what it was like to be twenty, what it was ever like to have the thoughts and concerns of a twenty-year-old.
Being told to cherish it almost doesn’t seem enough. Maybe the simplest explanation is also the right one, that SF, and Princeton more generally, leads me often to contemplate death, because I’ve never been asked to feel quite so alive.