Somewhere there exists a photo of my friend Shan and me standing shirtless on Howe Street. Our eyes and skin glisten with a peaty mixture of exuberance and perspiration, and the blurred nature of the image suggests that we could barely bring ourselves to pause long enough for the shutter to clatter. Shortly after the image was taken, Shan and I sprinted off into the dark New Haven evening, with some mercurial and inexpressible aim.
The photo was taken after spilling into and out of AEPi in short succession, our blood so infused with youth and alcohol that we could not be silenced or slowed. The rush of the air around my head as our feet pounded down the sidewalk, darkness sleekly enveloping my wet hair, is etched into my memory. This rambunctious and jubilant slice of night is an archetypal example of the practice of “going out.” While Yale has no shortage of neologisms and unique terminology, few phrases are simultaneously so prevalent and so defiant of easy description as this one.
From the mouth of a first year, when friendship is mutable, entrance to parties uncertain, and alcohol scarce, having “gone out” often signifies an anxious bedlam of vodka swigged straight from bottles and dirty sneakers running across sticky dance floors. For an older set, the term may refer to the orderly, sensible, and legal purchase and consumption of an alcoholic beverage at one of New Haven’s vaunted watering holes, accompanied by polite conversation with friends or acquaintances. While the notion of “going out” seems to squirm under the pressure of encompassing a broad variety of meanings, it remains a pervasive term.
Despite the prevalence of these rituals, they are often ruled by discontent. Complaints about bad music, boring conversation, gross drinks, smelly rooms, vomiting, hangovers, sleeplessness, abound with good reason. As an aged senior with diminishing capacity to function on little sleep and avoid hangovers, I still find myself subject to the magical magnetic pull of the “out” on Friday or Saturday evenings. And, even when I do not enjoy myself in the dark bar or sweaty basement where I pass the wee hours of the morning, I am often left with a creeping satisfaction at having tempted normalcy; having mounted an assault on the everyday rhythms of life.
“We are going out!” “Have you gone out?” “Are you out?” “Did you go out?” The continuing appeal of these formulations seems largely rooted in the indefinable quality of “outness” and the premise that we may somehow embark on a journey to that mythical world, beyond the confines of our neatly ordered, rule-based, high-stakes, pedestrian life. When one is “going out,” they are permitted to traverse the bounds of normalcy and participate in creation and discovery.
In a recent article for The Atlantic, “What Adults Forget About Friendship,” Rhaina Cohen argues that the formation of early childhood friendships are largely rooted in unstructured, imaginative play. Such play allows for the formation of rituals, culture, and a consequently intense bond of friendship. However, as children become adults and time becomes more scarce, free-ranging and experimental playtime is often replaced with highly structured forms of socialization, which “doesn’t inherently invite the type of uninhibited openness that play can.” When Yale students “go out,” it is often in an attempt to escape the constraints and expectations of meals, clubs, and classrooms, returning towards a more youthful and liberating form of play that can foster lasting friendship.
Temporal unboundedness is one of the most significant factors for the free play that young kids engage in. If unconstrained by deadlines and meetings, creativity and experimentation are more natural. When one is marching from dorm to dining hall to seminar table, their time subdivided into colorful “G-cal” blocks, their movements punctuated by alarms and timers, the ability to relax and consider novel possibilities or ideas erodes dramatically. Such a rigid organization of one’s time seems to engender a scarcity mindset that constricts the brain and spirit: with sixty minutes to complete a reading or four to get to class, the shortest path is an oft-taken one. It is hard for one to meander and smell daisies or let ideas marinate when they are constantly hassled by their numerous commitments.
It is thus striking that the convention of “going out” is uniquely temporally flexible; although parties may start at a specific time, this is scarcely more than a suggestion. With a loose beginning and no end (G-Heav is open 24 hours), “nights out” present the largest stretches of free time in the life of many Yale students. These broad swaths of relatively unstructured experience are appealing for obvious reasons when one lives an otherwise rigorously planned existence. Revelers are allowed to pursue whimsy and play an active role in the construction of their experience; this produces fertile ground for the production of rituals, and, by extension, culture.
Oftentimes, nights “out” will have carefully planned schedules and activities, yet unlike classes or clubs, they do not have structurally prescribed goals and value systems. This allows students heading “out” themselves to determine questions of attire, activity, and intention. And determine these they do! From themed parties to custom cocktails to repeated rendezvous at specific locations, “going out” often takes on specific customs and appearances for different people. Groups of friends frequently coalesce around locations or activities that, when repeated, become habits. Such habits can be the lifeblood of relationships, as individuals feel they have created something novel and personal that can be shared with their peers.
In her article, Cohen cites the work of University of Alabama psychology professor Jeffrey Parker, who analyzed over a decade of recorded child conversation to discover the mechanism of ritual formation: “If one kid introduces an unexpected idea, the other must riff to make it work.” This mutualistic introduction and recognition of novelty and creativity can certainly be found in seminar rooms or art studios, but in those venues, it is often connected to a shared project or idea rather than an activity which can be embodied and participated in. The temporal unboundedness and non prescriptive nature of weekend evenings at Yale allow for a unique production of novel ideas connected to the short-term life decisions and experiences of students. This dynamic can be a vital spark in drawing individuals together. When one meets a new (or old) friend at a party or on the street and decides to embark with them on a project, the feeling of collaboration and camaraderie can be profound. Something as pedestrian as making the late-night trek to Brick Oven to share a pizza can become a significant shared experience which draws individual wills and desires together.
So far, this essay may appear to be a full-throated defense of reckless weekend carousing, but that is far from my intention. Engaging in free play and strengthening connections does not require the assistance of alcohol or the permission of a frat house’s open doors. The frequent discontent with “going out” reveals that expectation and outcome are often misaligned. Recognizing that a desire for play and the formation of newfound or newly strengthened bonds is a main motivating factor for many who are donning costumes and knocking back drinks at pre-games can allow for the translation of these means to other, perhaps more successful means of culture formation and escape from repetition.
I encourage you, dear reader, to interrogate your intentions. When you wait in line on High Street or bob your head to the beats emanating from a basement, did you truly desire that specific experience? Or did you simply want to erase the drudgery of your regularly-scheduled week with the heady elation that can be found when embarking on a journey with friends. When one “goes out,” they will often discover that they are confronted with a relatively uniform experience time and again. If novelty and ritual formation are what you desire (and they likely are), then aim for that, instead of the imposing peaked roofs of your local frat house. One does not have to be drunk, dressed up, and rushing to a party to experience such a sense of freedom and friendship. Go on trips, explore a neighborhood, cook dinner, take a bike ride, throw rocks into the river, lounge on a beach.
The encroaching dullness and repetition of adult existence ought to frighten us all; experimentation with sustainable means of recapturing the exhilaration of our childhoods is as powerful a weapon against post-modern angst as any. You do not need to let your life be dominated by vacillation between rigid structure and euphoric, yet destructive, late-night release. Dedicate a little more time to playing and bring your friends along with you—I’m certain you’ll at least enjoy it, and you might just discover something new.