Friday, December 31, 2010

Of Easy Wind and Downy Flake

Snow has become emblematic for winter in the northern hemisphere, and most people (even those who are no longer schoolchildren) can appreciate a pretty white dusting now and then. This year, however, snow made itself unwelcome to a large number of would-be travelers when it fell in great piles throughout England--and most inconveniently, over Heathrow airport--on the Saturday before Christmas. For the students who had planned to go home for the holidays, this meant that they were stuck in their dorms or flats, or even at the airport, for many days, and some never made it home at all. I had not originally planned to go home for Christmas, but a pouty IM conversation between me and my mother led to some last-minute fare-checking and a flight home (booked before the snowstorm) for Wednesday, 22 December. By that time, all the runways had been cleared, and I felt rather guilty walking past people who had obviously spent at least one night at the airport as I checked in for my flight...especially because I had spent the whole snow day on Saturday building a giant snowman and a snow imp (Lincoln's mascot) and walking around taking photos of Oxford with my flatmate (who was meant to fly out on Sunday, but was stranded till Tuesday).

Once on the plane, I found myself seated next to a US Airways captain, and I asked him why he wasn't up in the cockpit. He replied that he was deadheading, and that all flights to and from England during the snow had required a backup crew to fly along with them, just in case the intended crew for the next flight was unable to get to the airport (this, it seems, was the real reason for the mess that was British Airways in the aftermath of the snow: even though they were able to clear the runways and prepare planes for flight, they had crews stranded in towns that had no bus or train service to get them to the airport). Shortly after settling in, a flight attendant came back and told the captain he was welcome to move up to envoy class; he offered me his aisle seat, so I then had both the comfort of the aisle and an open seat beside me where I could keep my coat and underneath which I put my backpack so I had more leg room. I felt bad to think that someone probably would have liked to fly standby in that seat to get home, but once we took off I decided there was nothing I could do but enjoy it.

And then I was home, where everything is familiar and delicious and overwhelming and noisy and lively and loving and everything home ought to be. Christmas deserves its own post, so I will skip it for now and go on to the next adventure in snow, which happened the day I was meant to fly back...

December 26 is a cheap day to fly, because no one really wants to fly out immediately after Christmas if they can help it. I knew that I had a lot of work to get done during the break if I wanted to stay on top of everything during term, so I was happy to be headed back after four days at home (just long enough to see the family and friends and get a taste of home, but not so long that I fell out of work-mode or lost my British vocabulary). Of course, Mother Nature heard all the wishes for a white Christmas and delivered, albeit just a day late. About eight inches fell on the east coast over the course of the day, and though my flight was one of about five that did not get cancelled, my father decided that it was not worth it to try to drive through the snow to the airport. Fortunately, because the snowstorm was anticipated, US Airways put out a travel advisory offering a free flight change for my trip, as long as it was within 7 days of the original date and to the same destination. That night we spent four and a half hours on hold (that is not an exaggeration; I mean literally 4.5 hours) before giving up and going to bed. The next day I spent three more hours (and six minutes, to be precise) on hold before finally getting through to a woman in Arizona (US Air headquarters is in Phoenix) who changed my trip to the next available flight, which was Wednesday. So I ended up spending a week at home, despite my best efforts, but at least I did it for the price of an after-Christmas-sale flight. The snow in New Jersey wasn't wet enough to make a good snowman, unfortunately, but it was just as pretty to see everything sugar-coated at home as it had been in Oxford.

On the flight back I had a window seat, and though I tried to sleep as much as I could, there were long spans of time during which I gazed out the window to see what I could see. As we left Philadelphia, I watched the city lights, twinkling like those of a Christmas tree, and in some places moving in great winding masses, like a glow worm wriggling its way across the pavement. There were large black areas that could have been lakes or fields or bits of the river. I knew there was still a lot of snow, but it just looked grey in the nighttime, and I was disappointed not to be able to see the white-out from above. We followed the coast for a long while, so there were lots of light clusters to mark the distance, and I wondered if I would be able to see the ocean once we got out over it, though I immediately thought that we would probably be too high and it would certainly be too dark for me to make out anything clearly. After they turned out the cabin lights I slept for a while, and woke at some point in the night when the man next to me was watching a noisy film that I could hear through his headphones. I lifted the window shade, which I had closed after dinner, and was quite moved by what I saw. I don't often get the urge to write poetry, but I took out a piece of paper (my printed boarding pass, actually) and scribbled down the words that came to mind as I watched an astonishingly beautiful night give way to a gilded morning, which then became a murky fog once we had landed. It is not great art, but it was the closest I could come to the way it struck me in that moment.

Frost-flies suspended between double panes
Greet my sleepy eyes as they unclose.
Beyond, the moon, a lustrous sickle lies
Between two dippers and a planet-star
As close to me as to each other, they
Are my companions in the silent sky,
And I marvel that they look me in the eye.
A glowing, vast cloud-tundra fills the air
With its relentless, cold infinity,
Floating marble, soft as snow,
Serene in nonchalant obscurity,
Till an auroral lake blooms from within,
Inviting colour and a melting warmth
That spreads like shame on a child's cheek.
The creeping morning swells to life and kills
The peaceful majesty of the black night.

The pressure shifts.
I yawn
To find my ears again.

The now-pale crescent fades into the wan blue,
And already the stars have been dissolved--
Absorbed into the golden rays
Of sunrise over England.

Down there the sleepy city rolls over
To snooze beneath its cosy cloud covers
For a while longer.
We circle, swoop, and slowly sink
From blue and gold to white, and then to grey
Swallowed by the cotton swabs and spat (or shat)
Back out below the frothy wisps of morning.

As we descend the smoky billows blot
The glorious dawn from my double panes,
And I am falling, forgotten and fearful,
Into foggy blindness and uncertainty,
Clutching at the memory of what there was
Above, and Before, and what still is, Beyond.
The earth is a surprise, after knowing the skies.
I hope to see clearly again, in time,
And meanwhile continue to insist,
That heaven does exist--
Even on the darkest days.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Rest of November

Hello, all! I apologise for my C-course-essay-inspired hiatus from posting. It was a long and arduous journey, but all 7,000 (give or take a few) words were submitted to the Examination Schools yesterday morning, and are now in the hands of the gods, a.k.a Emma Smith and one other tutor who will assess me. Now I can return to being a normal human being--well, as normal as I ever was.

As promised, I am going to fill you in on the interesting bits of last month, and then hopefully over the next few days I will catch up to today. The last thing I talked about was the moving of the equipment for the concert, so I will pick up there. The Bach Christmas Oratorio at St. Peter's College Chapel was a huge success, and three of my classmates (Ben, Liz, and Amie) came out to see it. We went to Bar Copa afterward for some hot cocoa and mince pies, which Ben had brought with him. Everyone had had a great time, and we were all especially impressed with the male alto who had sung a number of solos. He is a music student, and he hadn't come to the big rehearsals, so the concert was my first time hearing him. His range is higher than mine! When he first began to sing, I looked around for a girl, and I saw this tall, young-faced boy in a tuxedo standing at the front. He did quite well with some very challenging pieces, as did the other two soloists, a stern-looking bass and a wheelchair-bound soprano (female). I hear tell that someone recorded the concert, so I will try to see if it gets posted online, and add the link here.

Of course, there were two other events before the concert I hadn't had a chance to post about! On Friday 26 November, when I probably should have been working on my Paleography transcription, I volunteered at Christmas Lights Night. This is a beautiful tree-lighting (well, city-lighting, really!) ceremony they do in Oxford that involves lots of singing, mulled wine, and mince pies. There is also a beautiful parade put together by the local schoolchildren, who make paper lanterns in some surprisingly elaborate shapes (there were buses, motorcycles, horse-heads, and balloons!) and then carry them around the streets of Oxford in a big procession that finishes in front of the big tree on Broad Street, which is then lit by a minor celebrity--this year it was the actors from the popular detective show Lewis, which is often filmed in and around Oxford. (I've seen them film at Lincoln a few times now!) In helping to organize this, I was asked to take care of the children of St. Gregory's, meaning I walked along with them and made sure none of them wandered off or got lost or trampled in the crowd. They were 8th years, which means they were probably about the same age as our 8th graders, and mostly girls, with one very brave (and quite young-looking, poor thing) boy named Colm. He carried half of their big lantern, which was shaped like a school bus full of children, for the entire night, while the girls tended to swap off with the other end and with their smaller, geometric-shaped lanterns, which they carried on sticks. I had fun chatting with them, asking what school is like in England, and with one of their teachers, who was walking with us. (She told me that they are always looking for teaching assistants, so I might check it out later this year, once I have decided whether I am staying here or not.) The parade wound from Bonn Square up through the central shopping district, down Turl street and up Brasenose Lane, around the Radcliffe Camera and into Broad Street. We were meant to get there exactly at 6:30, when the lights would come on, and we were pretty close, but as my group was near the back of a very long parade, we got to the tree after it had already been lit. The kids didn't really care, as the whole town had turned out to watch the parade, and they were busy waving at their friends and families and marveling at the carousel and vendor booths that had been set up in front of the Sheldonian and Blackwells. It was really beautiful, and I was so pleased to have been a part of it, though sad that I couldn't stay to sample any of the treats or check out the vendors' wares, as I had to get to work on my exam. Sigh. Maybe next year!

The following day was Thanksgiving II. Having Skyped (or technically, iChat Video-ed) into my own family's Thanksgiving dinner that Thursday, I was glad to be going to one where I could actually taste the food! Everyone was meant to bring something, and I had offered to make candied yams. I had never done this before, but I imagined I would just buy a can or two of yams and cover them in brown sugar. Of course, I soon learned that they don't really do canned yams in the UK (nor do they refer to them as yams), so I had to purchase raw sweet potatoes and do it from scratch. Not knowing how many sweet potatoes were in a typical can, I purchased seven of the enormous and funny-shaped roots and prayed that it would suffice. I got them home and immediately hit the internet to find out what to do with them. A few sites said you had to boil them, skins and all, first, so I pulled out all the pots we had (these things were monsters, and the largest pot in the house could only hold three of them!) and set to boiling. I also had no idea how long it would take to boil them, as the photos on the webpage I looked at showed much smaller sweet potatoes than mine, so I just kept poking them with a fork every 10-20 mins to see if they were soft yet. One very humid kitchen later, I had pots full of orange water, and was afraid I had made a mistake. But I "cracked on," as Will Poole would say, and set to work removing the skins, which was actually really easy; they rubbed right off of the (very hot!) potatoes, and then I sliced them into rings and laid them out in my brand new Pyrex baking dish, purchased just for this purpose at Boswells. I then put some butter in a saucepan and simmered it, added brown sugar, and made a sauce to pour over the yams. Thinking that couldn't be enough, I looked up another recipe that said to dot butter on the potatoes and sift sugar and flour over I dotted butter, made a mixture of a lot of brown sugar and a little flour, and shook this as evenly as possible over the dish. My now-really-sweet potatoes then went into the oven for I knew not how long, so I just kept checking them until the butter had all melted and everything looked nice and dark and smelled amazing. In the meantime I had cut up some colourful old pieces of junk mail and taped them together to form a turkey, which I used as decoration when I got to the party.

I was late leaving for Jason's house (the boiling process took longer than I had anticipated!), and I had to get all the way across Oxford to Jericho with this burning hot dish (I borrowed Jackie's vegetable box to protect my fingers), so you can imagine what a spectacle I was, running awkwardly and trying not to slosh hot sugar sauce all over the place. Amusingly, when I got there and pressed the bell, nothing happened, so I ended up having to shout up at the window like Romeo just to get in. Jason has a beautiful two-floor flat, with an enormous kitchen/living space that has fun hardwood floors (I say fun because I spent some time sliding and pirouetting about in my socks...). They had started eating before I got there, but they were excited to add my yams to the mix. Everyone was amazed at how good they looked and smelled, and then when they started to dig in there were exclamations of joy from all over the room, so I guess the experiment was a success! Aside from my yams, there was the turkey and a rice stuffing done by Rachel, a cranberry salad made by Liz, a green bean casserole (which was surprisingly awesome!) made by Robby, mustard greens by Jason, some lovely rolls a la Susie, Will brought cider, and I can't remember who brought apples. Then for dessert there was Rachel's pumpkin pie, Amie's rice pudding pie, and some brownies brought by Jason's friend whose name is escaping me right now. We all said what we were thankful for, and we toasted to the holiday. There was so much amazing food, and such great company, it was a fantastic night! [Funny side note; as I am typing this I have my "soundtracks" playlist going on iTunes, and the theme song to Tail Spin just came on. This is making me giggle, because at a late point in the night of Thanksgiving II, we were discussing childhood cartoons, and I burst into a rendition of this, among others like Gummi Bears, Darkwing Duck, and Eureka's Castle...]

The next day I raced in the IWL-Bs, on a freezing cold day (there was ice on the docks and on the oars). We had not been in our proper lineup at all that week because of people being ill or having conflicts, so we were a little nervous. We also had a reputation to maintain as the fastest boat on the Isis! We went out there with a focus on rhythm; we had to hold a rate of 32 strokes per minute, and we'd had trouble holding that during the week. Miraculously (or as a result of adrenaline), we found that rate within the first five strokes, and we held it the entire race. We had Wolfson college behind us, who supposedly had a strong crew, so we really wanted to hold them off. Despite getting our rate early, the row felt sort of slow and heavy, and Nicole and I were pretty certain Wolfson had gained some water by the end of it. We were cold and tired and a little down when we climbed out onto the icy dock, but we went home semi-hopeful. When results were released the next day, we were in the #2 spot, but not after Wolfson, whom we had beaten after all. The Oxford Academicals, with whom I rowed in 2009, were apparently now the fastest boat! This made us a little pouty, but I went on Facebook and congratulated some friends from that team. Susan sent me a reply that said there was no way the time was right, as their boat had been mostly novices, and that they were contacting the race organizers. Sure enough, a few hours later there was a new results list sent out...with Lincoln W1 in first place yet again! ::dances:: This of course means we are going to have to work hard during the break to maintain our fitness so we can hold that place next term, and we are already looking forward to a spring training trip in Banyoles, Spain. Exciting!

That Monday night I went to a drinks reception for the telethon callers. This wasn't an overly exciting event--very informal, held in the development office, just an hour long--but we were greeted by some influential alumni, including one woman named Lynn Shepherd who has just published a novel called "Murder at Mansfield Park." I talked to her for a little bit about novel writing, but we were unfortunately interrupted before I could ask her about the procedure for approaching publishers. The next evening was a much more exciting event: the inaugural lecture of the new Professor of Poetry. His name is Geoffrey Hill, and he is a poet and professor who looks like Santa Claus and Dumbledore put together, and he is a marvelous speaker with a stentorian voice (despite his chest cold and sore throat that night). He speaks slowly and carefully, but with gravity. He recites German poetry with a powerful edge to his voice, with spat syllables and angry vowels. French he speaks almost mockingly, drawing out the endings with a frown/sneer. When quoting other authors, he does their voices (or his idea of their voices), like a parent reading a story to a child. He points and taps and bangs the table for emphasis. Really an incredibly dynamic speaker, and very conscious--he stumbled over words once and shouted "dammit" into the microphone, and later he stumbled again and said "oh, ffffffffor Christ's sake!" His lecture was entitled "How ill white hairs becomes a fool and jester," which is a line from Shakespeare's King Henry IV, Part ii. I don't know exactly what he meant by it, actually, unless it was to make fun of his own white hairs, because he was certainly a bit of a jester! Although I took extensive notes, there is no way I can give a complete sense of his lecture here, but I have recorded some quotations below. (As he said of Shakespeare's Sonnet 66, "The total effect cannot be paraphrased; it can only be delivered by the words and the rhythms themselves.")

Memorable Moments from Geoffrey Hill's Lecture
Is poetry perjury?
"I do apologise for this stupid, stupid infection. (pause) In that particular case I mean my chest, not poetics!"
"I am a traumatized old man, and my opinions, particularly on contemporary poetry, are decidedly peculiar."
"Contemporary poetry already receives far more encouragement than it deserves."
"There is very little original in what I have to say, except that as a poet of the secular millennium I have a problem with original sin itself, which must put me among a select group of weirdoes."
"Blackmore, along with Trilling, represents the finest of American literary criticism in the 20th century. Even in his misjudgments there is a form of love."
He laments the "loss of the ontological reader over the last century. Its a tragedy."
Blackmore wrote that the art of poetry, versus the manufacture of verse, is distinguished by the animating presence of a fresh idiom that adds to the stock of available reality. "Isn't that great? I wish I'd written that."
"If I were to offer anything to the young poet, aside from the conventional revolver and glass of brandy, I'd say don't try to be sincere. Don't try to express your innermost feelings. But do try to be creative."
"Austen is probably right; a poem is not *real,* the way a...railway notice is real."
Regarding the disgust in Shakespeare's Sonnet 66: "You hear it if you're an ontological reader."
Poetry is its own tautology, where the thing becomes the meaning. "...that which was horizontal leaps as you pronounce it into vertical, or as if non-dimensional thought became three-dimensional."
"Accessibility has no place in poetry or poetics."
"When did it begin, this fantasy, that the literary scene of the day is a national treasure, when what it resembles most is a landfill?"
Re: his predecessor as Professor of Poetry, Christopher Ricks (whom I have met, and adore), he calls him "an inspired and inspiring choice." "I think he is the only younger critic whom Empson genuinely admired. Speaking as a traumatized old man, I do regret his decision to publish the book on Bob Dylan [this is the book C.R. sent me in 2009! It's sitting on my night stand back home]. As a verse writer, he is simply not good enough to deserve even the protracted suspended animation of [Ricks's] mind."
"When Ricks is at his best, and he is so more than the rest of us, he can move the axis of the earth with his little finger. But Dylan is not an axis. He is, at best, and effective skimmer."
Closing lines: "Intrinsic value may be just a figure of speech, but it is a meaningful figure of speech. And when you say there has been a reduction in intrinsic value, people generally know what you mean."

He then walked out (hunched over his cane, looking frail in his flowing Oxford gown) to a standing ovation that shook the room, and did not stop for a very long time. I was thrilled to have been there, and I look forward to the next lecture (the professorship comes with an obligation to do a 15-lecture series). I went to the reception room afterward to meet him, though he really wasn't feeling well and couldn't stay long. They were selling copies of his books there, and I flipped through the Selected Poems to get a sense of his writing. His early work is quite beautiful, though the more recent collection was rather harsh and dealt with contemporary problems. Nevertheless, I liked him enough to purchase the book, and I got him to sign it for me, so I now have autographed books from the 43rd and 44th Oxford Professors of Poetry. I wonder if I can make this a running tradition...

Well! I have been typing for so long that my fingers ache, so I think I will end on this delightful note. ( ::sings:: Laaaaa! Wasn't that delightful?) I have only brought us to 1 December, so look to hear more from me very soon about how December has gone so far. I hope everyone is enjoying this snowy winter--I hear back home in Jersey a quarter-inch of snow caused hour-long traffic jams. We are meant to have snow all day tomorrow, and I hope to get some pretty pictures of this old city with all the modern stuff whited out.

Take care for now, and keep smiling!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

December! (or, "God knows you")

Technically, I don't have time to post today. But if I went on technicalities, I'd never post again! I am meant to be helping the OUSC move staging and equipment over to St. Peter's College Chapel for the concert in about an hour, after which I have a few hours in which to prepare my presentation for tomorrow's class (the last A-course class of term!) before I have to be back at St. Peter's (in black tie) for rehearsal at 4, and the concert is at 7:30. However, as it is a glorious morning--there were blue skies and pink wispy clouds till the grey ones took over about ten minutes ago...but I have high hopes for later--and as it is the first of December, I thought I ought to update everyone on the doings of the past week.

On Wednesday last, at the suggestion of my Shakespeare professor, Emma Smith, I attended a Drama In Performance Seminar that included three scenes from "Mother Bombie," a play by John Lyly, performed by the King Edward's Boys, a troupe of 11 and 12-year olds from the Stratford school of King Edward VI. It was introduced by Leah Scragg, who has just finished an edition of Lyly's plays. While her talk was interesting enough, I was fascinated by the boys, who played some very demanding parts (male and female, young and old, choristers and witches, languishing lovers and doddering imbeciles) with confidence and understanding of their roles. I was even more impressed during the Q&A afterward, when they answered questions and reflected on the acting process with such maturity and wisdom, I could hardly believe they were so young. Apparently they were on their way to London to perform the play at the Globe, lucky little ducklings!

The next day (Thursday) at the end of Paleography we received our exam, two photocopied texts, one in mainly secretarial hand, the other in a transitional hand that was far easier to read because there were more italic letters. Will Poole had originally said we'd have 48 hours to complete the exam, so we all expected it to be due on Saturday, but as he handed it out he announced that it was due to him, either electronically or hand-delivered to the porter of New College, by midnight on Friday. This was vastly inconvenient, as I had a dinner that night, and I had signed up to volunteer at the Christmas Lights Night ceremony on Friday evening, thinking I would have Saturday morning to go over my transcription once more before turning it in. Friday morning I had crew at 6:30, followed by a quick shower before my Hand Press Printing class from 10-12, after which I had about 4 hours to work on the transcription before heading to my volunteer briefing. Fortunately, I was able to talk it over a bit with some of my classmates during the hand press class (we were permitted to do this), and I felt a little better about it after that.

When I really got down to it, actually, I was amazed at how much of the early modern writing was clear to me--a fact made even more clear when one of the Victorianists in the printing class asked to see the exam and was just astonished at how it looked like another language! (Their paleography classes involve learning to decipher messy or erratic hands, but always the letter forms are modern.) When I got home, I had a lot of fun googling names in the one text to try to identify the author--it ended up being Edmund Campion's History of Ireland, in which he lists the counties and some of the cities. He also uses a great word, which I transcribed "defalked" and then doubted myself because I wasn't sure what it would mean. Classmates thought it might be "disabled," but I was certain there was a "k" in there. Thanks to the OED, I was vindicated--and I learned that defalk means "to diminish by cutting off a part; to reduce by," which worked perfectly in context. I guess it is hard to communicate just how exciting it was to make that discovery, when that particular word had had me stumped for about an hour! There were also two other hands that had annotated the manuscript, so I had to figure out what they were for as well (one was a printer's annotation, the other was the pagination of the compilation manuscript in which we find it today). The other manuscript was a formal (probably presentation) copy of Middleton's "A Game at Chess," most likely in the hand of Ralph Crane. It was, as I have said, much easier to read, in beautiful italics (mostly) with far fewer margin notes and ink-bleeds from the next page than the Campion. Indeed, the hardest part of this MS was the Latin at the top, and the i/j and u/v swaps that were common in the period. Tomorrow we will (hopefully) find out how we did when Will goes over the texts with us.

[Extended interjection: At this point in my writing I left to go move the drums from the Music Faculty with a few other choristers and Theo, our director, which we accomplished with the help of a big, rattly trolley that made a fantastic noise over the cobblestones. Then we went (with the same trolley) to Christ Church to borrow their risers. Such a great place, Christ Church, with their porters sporting bowler hats and their Hermes fountain still going even though half of it was frozen over, and their enormous Christmas tree in the snowy front quad, as well as another just outside the cathedral. We got to hang out in the cathedral for a long time while the curator got the key to the shed, so I spent some time marveling at the windows and carvings and all the pretty stuff. I realised I had actually been in there before, but had almost forgotten it all; it really is beautiful, with boldly coloured stained glass and elaborately carved wood and stone and wrought iron, and there are bits of it dating from Anglo-Saxon and medieval times. We got to go through a door behind a red velvet curtain marked "PRIVATE" (the door, not the curtain) and into a little courtyard from which you could see the famous (and now dangerously leaning) horse chestnut tree that the Cheshire Cat used to sit in, all twisted and gnarled and black against the winter sky. Then we made many trips to move all the metal stands and boards that comprise the risers out to the trolley--with only one or two slips on the ice which was everywhere! We pushed and pulled the trolley back across town (which was half uphill, and no easy feat! I got a workout this morning) and then we were all headed to our respective homes for lunch (it was noon by this point), but I had walked by the Ecco shoe store so many times and wanted to go in, I thought this might be my chance, so I went in and had a lovely conversation with the shop girl, who brought me some very nice shoes in my size (42, which tends to be unusual, but they had some--for £85 of course) which I tried on and walked around in, but was too gun-shy from the Clarks disaster to purchase (I may go back later).

Then I left and was going to head straight home when I saw that card shop by Bonn Square...I think it's called Scribbler? I thought I might see what kind of Christmas cards they had, but it was really crowded, so I only stayed for a minute and then left. I was crossing the street and just considering walking into Marks and Spencers (where I have still never been) when I was accosted by three girls. They said, "Excuse me, this is going to sound really weird, but we're from a Bible School and we wondered if we might pray for you?" They explained that they had been working on a little assignment where they were supposed to feel inspiration, and they had *seen* me in little visions, wearing my colorful hat and coming out of a green building (Scribbler is green-fronted). They showed me a paper with questions they had answered and a little stick figure drawing. They asked me my name, and then said they had all been guessing names with -el at the end--one said her guess had been "Muriel". The one girl who had spoken first said, "we just want you to know that God knows you, and he wanted us to find you and pray for you." I was so touched by their sincerity, so inexplicably moved, it brought tears to my eyes! I said they could pray for me, if they wanted to. They asked if I had anything in particular I wanted them to pray for, and I said just my family, to which they replied that they had thought that family was very important, and wondered if I were concerned for them over the holiday. I said only because I wasn't going home to see them. So we stood in a little circle and the one girl prayed aloud for me and my family, and she thanked God for showing me to them and for helping them to share the power of prayer. Then they wished me a good day, and I wished them the same. As I walked away from them, feeling somehow joyful, I smiled at a rather gruff-looking man walking by (not a flirty smile, more just a pay-it-forward kind of smile) and he smiled back. He dropped a glove as he did so, but he didn't notice and walked on, so I picked it up and ran after him. When I gave it back he stared at me with a sort of raptured face, as if he had seen an angel, and he thanked me repeatedly. What a very strange afternoon interlude!]

I think I shall have to end there for today, as it is already 2:00 and I have not showered nor dressed for tonight, nor have I worked on that presentation. I will try to find time to fill in the rest of November soon--I was looking forward to writing about the Christmas Lights night, the Student Occupation of the Radcliffe Camera, the Thanksgiving Dinner put together by the Americans in my strand, the IWL-B races on a freezing Sunday afternoon, drinks with the Telethon organisers, and the amazing lecture by new Professor of Poetry Geoffrey Hill! All this and more, coming soon to a blog near you.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

_______________________Exit Burbage.

Today's post title is one of many epitaphs and elegies written upon the death of Richard Burbage, a lead actor of the Lord Chamberlain's Men and later the King's Men, both of which were Shakespeare's companies. He would have played the title roles of the great tragedies, from Hamlet to Othello to King Lear, and aside from Edward Alleyn (star of many of Marlowes' plays, from Faustus to Tamburlaine to The Jew of Malta) was probably the most popular and famous actor of the period. I love the brevity and poignancy of this epitaph, which may or may not actually have been engraved on his tombstone. It is the great actor's final exit, his leave-taking of the stage which was his world, and of the characters to whom he first gave life.

I stumbled across the line while reading Simon Palfrey and Tiffany Stern's book, "Shakespeare in Parts," for my essay on Robert Armin, one of Shakespeare's clowns. The book spends a significant portion of its bulk discussing cues, which are tiny bits of dialogue that tell an actor when he is to speak. See, the actors in the 16th and 17th centuries (and probably before and definitely after) were not given full copies of the play they were to act, but instead received only their own parts (usually rolled up in a scroll, which is where we get the word "role" for an actor's part), which included their own speeches and the one-to-three words preceding their own speeches. These words would have a tail, or line trailing into them, which helped visually to divide the actor's speeches. For example, the part for Hamlet might have begun:

__________________________ my Sonne?
A little more than kin, and less than kinde.
__________________________ hang on you?
Not soe, my lorde, I am to much i'the sunne.
___________________________to eternity.
Ay, madam, 'tis common.

And so on. It's fascinating to think about what this might have meant for the actor, because he would have had no idea how long he had to wait before his next line, or if more than one character would speak in the interim, or indeed which character he was meant to address with his own lines. He had to memorize everything on his scroll, and do his best to interpret the character from the bits he was given, and then do his best to project that on stage. Because companies performed a different play every day during the legal terms, actors were often given only a day or two to learn a new part (or parts, as roles were often doubled!), and it is possible that on occasion the first performance was the first time they discovered what the play was actually about. The first performance, by the way, could also be the last, if the audience did not like the play or the way it was acted, so there was a lot of pressure both on the actors to make it worth their while to have memorized these roles, and on the playwright, to make the play both interesting and memorable so the actors would play it well and the audience would want to see it again.

Fascinating stuff, isn't it? Really, I have spent far too much time reading the first eight chapters of "Shakespeare in Parts" when the really pertinent bits for my paper are in Chapter 9, "From Crowds to Clowns." But I have learned some new and helpful information along the way. Sometimes what has been most helpful are the footnotes, which make reference to other texts that seem like they would be useful; this of course leads to me looking up books and articles online and reading late into the night, which I'm sure is weakening my eyes, so I should probably stop that. I had been on my semi-normal schedule of being in bed by 10 and up by 6, but for some reason these past few days have completely thrown me off.

It started on Friday with Lauren's birthday celebration, I guess, and though I didn't leave the house on Saturday, I had a busy day. I ended up making a stew out of that mushroom sauce, with boiled potatoes and chicken and broccoli. It was delicious! (Although, three days later my fingers still smell of garlic...) Then I turned on the internet stream of WRDV--a great radio station, for those of you back home! It plays big band classics and music from the 30s-50s for most of the day, which is just my kind of music--and I folded laundry, cleaned up a bit, and did some reading well into the night. My room was nice and toasty, as I had laid some clothes over the radiator and turned it up so they would dry more quickly. The only downside to that, I have discovered, is that I wake up in the night rather sweaty, and in the morning very dry-skinned and completely parched! I guess I will turn the heater off at night, as my duvet keeps me quite comfortably warm.

On Sunday I spent the morning working, because in the afternoon I had crew practice--the first semi-successful one of the week, as fog had canceled Tuesday's and no one came to ergs Wednesday! Even this one didn't go very well, as we had to wait for the W2 to get back before we could go out, and they were late, and it was getting dark, so we got about 45 mins of practice, none of which was all that good because we were out of our usual order and the boat was leaning down to bow side (we call that starboard back home) the whole time. I came back and got right into the shower, because I had promised Jackie that I would finally make it to Evensong to hear her sing. Our college chapel has an Evensong at 6 every Sunday, but I never seem to be able to get there. This week Lord Harries, former Bishop of Oxford, was to come preach for us, and I was interested to hear him. Of course, because of my shower I was late--well, I got there JUST at 6, so I walked in behind the former Bishop, and then I stood in the wrong place, where the choir was supposed to be, so a kind boy beckoned me over to the other side. Of course I was really noticeable in my red coat! The music was pretty, though, and I liked what Lord Harries had to say. I guess he remembered me, because he came up to me at drinks afterward and we conversed for a bit. He is a really pleasant man, who reminded me of an actor, but I couldn't remember who. Sort of like Sir Ian McKellan but with no facial hair and a slightly more rounded face.

After Evensong I went to dinner in hall, where I had a great conversation with a law undergrad named Joe, who was sitting all by himself at the table nearest the High Table, so I joined him. We talked about school and literature and food and Christmas, and all sorts of things; rarely have I been so pleasantly surprised in my dining companion. I don't often do dinner in hall, but that's okay, because the richness of it is dangerous for me! Of course, everything was delicious, with a samosa sarter followed by a saucy pork dish with croquets (think mozzarella sticks, but with mashed potato instead of cheese inside) and lima(?) beans, and then apple crumble with that fabulous hot custard the British like to pour over everything. How have we not imported that to America, as much as we love our fattening foods?? It's magnificent. Of course, I rolled out of there thinking I might never be able to fit into my jeans again... Fortunately, I had a nice 15-min walk across town to help me digest, as I was meant to meet the other early modernists for our weekly drinks and chat session at the Royal Oak. I kept my gown on for the walk--we have to wear our gowns to formal hall, and though it might have looked out of place in a pub, any extra layer was welcome in that cold wind! There was quite a large group gathering, so we moved from a little corner table to a big round one. I had walked in behind classmates Hugh and Seirian (sigh-ree-an), who were holding hands--apparently they are an item since Wednesday, which is cute, if (for me) completely unexpected. We had lots of really good conversations there, too, though I can hardly remember all of them now. I know we discussed our Thanksgiving meal, which is happening this Saturday, and which I really should start thinking about. What shall I make? I had originally planned to do candied yams, but Jason said he is making yam fritters, and I don't want to step on his toes, as he is hosting the party. I know the girl who is doing the turkey is making some sort of rice stuffing, so I thought I might make a tray of real stuffing to go along with it (though the sausage meat here is not very good, so it may not come out right...). If anyone back home has any fun recipes I could try, I'd love to hear from you! There are at least 15 of us going, so it has to be something I can make for a lot of people with relatively limited kitchen equipment (and budget!).

Hmm, I've wandered a long way from Burbage's epitaph. Really the thought with which I began this post was, when important or popular people die, how do those who are left behind (mainly the writers) commemorate them? What sorts of interesting elegies might be written about today's famous people (or not-so-famous people), and would they be as moving? I think nowadays we tend to use their own words in a new context, like a singer's lyrics or a poet's verses. I am reminded of Douglas Adams' "So long, and thanks for all the fish," or the story about Oscar Wilde's last words being "Either I or this wallpaper must go." Or that great discussion Thoreau had on his deathbed...I can't remember with whom, but when asked if he had made his peace with God he said, "I never quarrelled with my God," to which the other said, "But aren't you concerned about the next world?" and Thoreau replied, "One world at a time." I hope I manage to say or do something clever enough in my lifetime for people to associate it with me always!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Catching Up to Today

Hurrah! We are in the home stretch for catching up to the present, and from here on out I can post in real time.

This week began with the Isis Winter League races (IWLs), in which I rowed with the W1 boat. These races are 1200 meters long, from Donnington Bridge to just upriver of boathouse island, and they are done processional style, meaning one boat after another instead of side-by-side racing, as would be done on a wider river. This means that you are really racing against the clock, though your goal is of course to catch and pass the boat that was sent down before yours. We had a really good piece, rowing-wise, but our coxswain had us a bit all over the river. This was partly because the boat in front of us would not move over to let us overtake them, so our cox actually called us off the pressure for three or four strokes so that we would not crash into them! Still, after all the swerving, when the results were posted the next day we were there in bold at the very top of the list: the fastest women's eight on the river that day! We were really excited, and our coach and captain were so proud. Now we have to keep it up so we maintain that title through the rest of the IWLs, which continue throughout Michaelmas and Hilary terms (we have the second one this weekend).

On Tuesday night of this week there was the first Conversazione, which is a night during which the MCR and the SCR get together and listen to a presentation by a member of either on what he or she is researching at the moment. This time it was given by an MCR member, Xavier Droux, who spoke on "Excavating Egypt's Earliest Kings: the Hierakonpolis Menagerie. It was a really well put-together PowerPoint presentation, with some great photos and maps and effects. He said that the site he has been excavating for the past seven years is older by about a thousand years than the famous kings and queens like Tutankhamen and Cleopatra. They have found a number of animal remains, including elephants and hippos, that suggest that these kings were keeping a menagerie of powerful animals. The hippo seems to have been a favourite, as a number of carved figures from tusks or stone have been found representing them. It was a really interesting talk, and I am glad I went--I had considered not going, as I had not slept well the night before and I wanted to rest. I really should take the lesson that I tend to have quite a good time when I drag myself out of my cave of solitude, but sometimes it is so difficult to want to go out when I have a warm bed awaiting me! (This will be an ongoing battle this winter, I fear.)

My essay title was due yesterday by noon. The very interesting process here is that you register a title about four weeks before the essay is actually due, and you are bound to that title (though very minor changes might be made) regardless of the direction in which your research takes you. I had continued to struggle with selecting a topic throughout the week, but I was leaning toward something to do with King Lear, as the play had moved me when we read it for class the previous week. My reading of criticism on it drew my attention to Robert Armin, the actor generally believed to have played the Fool. His life was fascinating, and most of what I read said that his coming to the acting company changed the way Shakespeare wrote clowns and fools. I wondered, though, if that were completely accurate, because the date of his coming was a bit foggy, as was the date of the leaving of Will Kemp, his predecessor. I began to think, what if Shakespeare was already thinking of changing his fools (his developing writing style is well documented by critics), and he had tried to push Kemp in that direction, but was unable? Then it could be that Armin was more an actor capable of being moulded than a serious influence on his work. The ultimate title of my paper, which came to me in a flash of inspiration early Friday morning, is "'Invest me in my motley': Shakespeare's role in Armin's Fool." I mean to argue that it was Shakespeare who shaped Armin, rather than the other way around. (The quotation is from As You Like It, spoken by Jacques--not, as one might guess, by Touchstone, the character Armin probably played.)

After turning in the title, I was so happy and light-hearted that I practically danced through the rest of the day--which happened to be sunny and beautiful. I finished setting my poem in the printing class (and gave myself the aforementioned wrist tattoo, though it has since faded to a faint "One Perfect R..." with the "ose" more or less vanished. Then I came back here to write to my family for a few hours before circuits at 5:30--which I ended up not going to, because I remembered the Welfare Tea at 5:00--which I also ended up not going to, because I couldn't justify eating biscuits and drinking tea when I hadn't worked out at all this week, the morning practice on Tuesday having been a bust because of heavy fog, and erging on Wednesday having been a bust because no one remembered to pick up the key! I stood in indecision for a while, and then decided not to do either, but to start this blog instead. You lucky ducks.

At 8:30 I went to the Mitre to meet Lauren and about 14 other people for Lauren's birthday celebration. The food was unimpressive, rather what one might expect from a Friday's in the States, but it wasn't bad, and afterward some of us went back to Lauren's apartment for some cake, wine (or for me, juice), and great conversation. We were there till after midnight--I think I didn't feel the pressing need to leave early that I usually feel because we were a literal stone's throw from my own flat. We discussed things like accents (Lauren's boyfriend complimented my Cockney, hehe) and politics (well, part policy, part which-president's-wife-is-hotter) and even love (whether it is all chemical or if we can override the natural affinities). It was an interesting mix, as well, with two Americans, two Brits, two French girls, one German, one Austrian, and one Finlander! There had been an Italian, Giovanni, at the start, but he didn't feel well and went to bed. I thoroughly enjoyed myself the entire night, and as Lauren is one of my favourite classmates, I was very happy to have had the opportunity to celebrate her and hang out with some of her friends.

And that was last night! So now we have reached today, during which I have done nothing but some laundry (all my clothing is draped about my room, because our dryers don't work, but I did discover a free spin-cycle option on the washer today, so at least they were not sopping wet) and a little bit of cooking. I thought I might do something with the two large mushrooms that were going bad in the fridge, so I threw them in a Le Creuset pot with half a chopped onion and a chopped clove of garlic and some balsamic vinegar, and I sautéed them for a bit, then added some dried herbs and salt and pepper and a few cups of water and simmered for an hour, then added some flour to thicken into a sauce. I think I will make a chicken breast tonight to put it on. I am enjoying experimenting in the kitchen, but I am still not too sure of myself, so *everything* is still an "experiment," and I would not like to inflict it on anyone else. That said, my eggplant lasagna from the other day turned out surprisingly well, even if it did set off the fire alarm...

So! I had best do some reading now as submitting a title does not equal writing a paper. Till next time, folks, take care, and keep smiling! XXX

Fifth Week Blues

Monday November 8 marked the beginning (to me, anyway, as Sunday was a holiday) of Fifth Week, and with it, the Fifth Week Blues. Everyone had warned me about them, but I thought it was ridiculous, so I didn't worry about it. Why would one particular week of term be miserable for everyone? Not every subject works the same way, so not everyone has an essay or project due that particular week. The weather wasn't particularly dreary--at least, not more than any other week of ups and downs in the forecast. It didn't make sense. But regardless of my belief in the phenomenon, it happened, and it happened to me.

Granted, I had a few reasons for being down. I was still struggling with missing-and-not-missing Laura. I was going crazy trying to select an essay topic for the C course (Shakespeare: Playhouse and Printing House, which I took because I thought I probably ought to, and not because I have a great passion to study the textual variants between quartos and folios). I was missing my family and largely unable to contact them because they were understandably involved with things at home. The week was very busy, and there were lots of very pleasant events during which I smiled and conversed and seemed quite normal. But no matter what I did that week, I couldn't shake a sort of general blah feeling, and I found myself, if only briefly, weeping about once a day.

On Monday I had a meeting with Emma Smith about the C course essay. She had sort of vetoed my earlier idea about working with Hamlet, because it has been done many times. But that was just my problem; how does one write something original about Shakespeare? He's only the most studied poet and dramatist EVER. I could have enjoyed writing on the themes of the plays, but my essay had to deal with the printed form or the performance, and I was just lost. I was embarrassed, too, because it is completely unlike me not to have *any* ideas; indeed, more common is for me to have too *many* ideas and to struggle to narrow them down to one. I respect Emma, and I hated to appear so clueless in front of her, especially when, in my babbling attempt at an explanation for why this was so difficult for me, I may have given her to believe that I didn't really like what we were doing in her class--which is not the case at all! In fact, I find it fascinating; it is just not what I want to spend my own career doing. I am glad that there are textual bibliographers out there willing to make concordances and to study typefaces and to write books about compositor preferences to determine how many compositors set the type of the first Folio. But if you asked me to do any of that, I would be miserable. So the meeting did not go well; I had to choke back some surprising tears more than once during it, and I left feeling even more wretched than before.

Later the same day I had an interview with the Telethon coordinators, as I had received an email earlier in the week advertising the position and thought that it might be a nice way to learn more about Lincoln College, as well as to earn some money over the Christmas break, when I have to be here anyway while most others have gone home. The interview began on the phone, and then continued in another room. It went well, and I have recently received my contract and offer of a place, so that is something positive. That night I had been invited to drinks with the Rector (as had all the other English, Languages, and Classics students), which was nice, because we got to visit the quite beautiful Rector's Lodgings which are generally off-limits. There is a great naked statue of a man in an alcove to the left as you walk in the door, as well as a lot of other interesting art here and there throughout. The furnishings and decor are quite old, I was told, though the building itself was a 20th century addition to the campus. (In the early days of the college, the rector lived in the tower above the main entrance to Lincoln!) We had some canapes and some wine (I drank mostly apple juice, but had one glass of white wine pressed upon me by the hostess), and some good conversation--though not with the Rector, whom I only got to greet and never saw again, hehe. It was nice, though.

The rest of the week went pretty normally, except for those random bouts of tears that kept coming upon me at the most inconvenient times (like in the middle of class). One or two of my classmates noticed, and on Wednesday afternoon Ben and I had a light dinner together before I had to be at the boathouse at 7, and he asked me all about what was bothering me (and did a great job of psychoanalysing and comforting, bless him). The next night Liz and I met for a drink, and we talked about how rough the week had been in general. We were at the Turl Bar, which is right across from Lincoln, because I had to be there for an MCR dinner afterward. There was an old man at the bar when I went to get my cider, and he tried to guess where we were from by our accents. He placed me in the Mid-West! I told him that I didn't sound like a New Jersey girl, but I was born and bred there. His own accent was great; I can't remember his name (dashitall), but he was a friendly Liverpudlian who seemed a bit lonely, so we asked him some questions and told him about ourselves. He had a beautiful ring made out of an old half-crown, which I admired. I felt guilty when we had to leave, because he had just offered to buy us a drink and he seemed like he wanted company.

Liz and I said goodbye and I went up to the MCR for the pre-dinner sherry (side note: I really don't like drinking sherry, but it seems to be the aperitif of choice here in Oxford!) and some conversation with the people I don't see every day. The MCR dinners are special events which you sign up for in advance. They are held in a part of the SCR, which is where the fellows generally eat lunch, so it is like having a private banquet. They are a little more expensive than regular hall, but they are worth it, as the food is much better, and the wine flows freely. This night we had a sea bass starter, followed by a lamb main with a risotto-stuffed tomato and veggies and potatoes au gratin on the side, and then a fantastic crème brûlée. There was red and white wine served throughout, and at the end we were given decanters of port to share amongst two or three people! It was decadent and delicious, and I realised when I stood up that I was dizzy with wine. I had been sitting next to Moritz, a German law student who had talked to me for a while about the pros and cons of academia. He was kind enough to walk back with me, as he lives in the same complex. I was in bed not long after, hoping I didn't wake with another headache!

Fortunately I was fine, and the week ended with some rowing and some racing, which I'll cover in the next post. Fifth week part one: survived. At least for Hilary and Trinity terms I will be prepared for it!

November 2-7

The strangest thing about the day after Laura died was that nothing changed. I still had to get up and row at 6:30, come back and shower, go to class, do some research, attend a lecture, and go to the home leg of the GTC exchange dinner. The lecture was the first in a series of Oxford Wells Lectures (sponsored by Stanley Wells, a famous Shakespeare scholar and Chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, who was present) given by Katherine Maus called "Being and Having in Shakespeare." She began with Prodigal Princes in Henry IV and Richard II. I had not read either play at the time (I have since read Richard II), but I found some of what she said interesting. In a later lecture she discussed Heirs and Affines in The Merchant of Venice, which was easier for me to follow, as I know the play well. Overall, I think I liked her style--very American, a bit casual, but at least she didn't just read at us like some lecturers do! As ever, she was grilled by her peers after each one, with moderate success in handling the questions, though sometimes she just got out of it by saying, "oh, I'll address that in my next lecture or my book." At least I learned some things. For example, she used a word in the first lecture that I didn't recognise, which I wrote down and later looked up: "deracinate" apparently means to tear something up by the roots (rather like "extirpate"). I do love expanding my vocabulary! That lecture ran a little late, so I had to hustle to get back for the dinner, which as I said was not as fancy as the GTC one, but was still quite yummy, and we got sherry before and port with chocolate after, so I can't really complain.

The next day I attended a seminar on staying in the UK to work after my studies. I am eligible to apply for a two-year work visa, which I can do either from here or from home. If in that time I can find an employer who will sponsor me for a more permanent visa, I might be able to stay. I have not yet given up on the D.Phil idea, but this was definitely something to consider, as I would like to remain in the UK at least for a while.

That Friday, November 5 (Guy Fawkes Day!) the MCR held a wine and cheese for us. I sampled all of the cheeses, and found most of them delightful, though there was one that everyone agreed was quite disgusting. I also sampled a good number of the wines, so I had a bit of a headache the next day, which was a shame, as I was coaching the W2 boat in the morning and rowing the W1 in the afternoon! But somehow I managed. I borrowed a bike from Jess and rode along the tow path next to the Isis, smiling at people I passed and trying both to watch where I was going and to watch the rowing technique of the girls in the boat. I had been nervous when Flo asked me to coach, because I didn't think they would take kindly to the idea of a newcomer whom they barely knew telling them what to do in the boat, but they were really pleasant and eager to learn. Of course, as I knew would happen, we had an amusing vocabulary issue! Nicole (their normal coach) had left me a list of things to work on with them, and one of them was to "practice roll-ups." Now, in America, the roll-up is the rotation of the wrist as you move the blade from feathered position back to square, right before the catch. So I had them practicing this for about 15 mins, trying to get it all happening at the same time, when one of them said, "so, just to clarify, when you say 'roll-up' you mean the movement of the blade, right?" And I said, " that not what it means to you??" And I was informed that, to them, the "roll-up" is the movement of the seat up the slide, I guess because it has wheels that roll slowly forward. Oh dear! I was embarrassed, but they all had a good giggle over it, and we moved on to *that* part of technical practice next.

That evening was Bonfire Night in South Parks, to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day. This was advertised mainly as a fireworks display, but it was more like a carnival with rides and food booths and a stage with live music, including a singing contest! It was very cold, so we clustered together--we being the majority of the Lincoln MCR, who had walked over together--in the middle of the field in front of the effigy. That's right, there was an enormous effigy made of wood and straw towering over the crowd, ready to be set afire. It didn't look like Guy Fawkes--in fact, it really resembled a sort of warrior, with frizzled hair and a pointy chin and a spear-like thing in its hand. Ooh, in fact, I've just looked it up, and you can read about it and see a photo of it here:
After the amazing fireworks, they lit him on fire, and the blaze was so large that we were warmed even in our spot at the back of the crowd. The metal frame underneath was revealed as the straw burned away, and the face actually did look like a Guy Fawkes mask once it had been reduced by the blaze. The whole thing was really cool, despite its somewhat barbaric origins. At least there were no hangings!

The following day was Sunday, and it was also the day after my friend W's birthday, so I had promised him a day of fun. We left Oxford in the morning and traveled to Burford, one of the cute Cotswolds towns nearby that has lots of sloping streets and stone buildings, adorable shops and old-fashioned pubs. We wandered the town for a long while, admiring quaint signs and old churches, and spending a long time in a charity shop, a brewery, and a candy store, to name a few places. I finally picked up a nice warm pair of gloves for my frozen fingers, and W. got a hat for his morning runs. We had a late lunch in a pub called the Highway Inn, where we sat in a cosy window seat and whiled away two hours in conversation and people-watching. After that it was just about time to head home, as we both had work to do, so we trekked back to the car, pausing to snap a photo of the sign outside Mrs. Bumbles of Burford's Delicatessen (!!), because I couldn't resist.

The Final Email

Here is the last email I sent home (just this morning, actually!), which updated my family on the end of October and very beginning of November. I still need to post about the rest of November up to today, which I will hopefully do some time this weekend, but at least now we are mostly caught up. Hopefully the posts will stop being so large and unwieldy, as I know *some* of my readers have short attention spans... ::grin::

Hello, everyone!

I realise this email is REALLY long overdue--I can't believe a month has slid past so quickly! And what a month, full of ups and downs, hard work and fun events, dinners and holidays, races and projects, and a million little moments that I probably won't be able to recall without suggestion. I will do my best to bring you up to speed on the life of a graduate at may want to make yourself a cup of tea and settle in, because this is going to be a long one.

The night after I last wrote to you (October 20!) I went to see Stewart Lee at the Regal Theatre on Cowley Road. Stewart Lee is a comedian best known for his T.V. show, "Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle," which mixes a stand-up routine with pre-recorded clips and makes intelligent commentary on topical issues from politics to education. His understated style can take getting used to, but I find him hilarious--feel free to check him out on YouTube! In Oxford he was testing out some new material that he meant to use in a new show, called Vegetable Stew, coming out next year. He was really funny, though I was glad I had Phil with me to explain some of the political references, because I had no idea who some of the people he mentioned were!

Then that Friday I had my Hand-Press Printing class. I think I mentioned before, this is an extra class that I volunteered to take because it gave me the opportunity to see first hand what printing practices were like in the 16th and 17th centuries (though really they didn't change all that much till the 20th!). It's held in the basement of the New Bodleian, where they have about seven different presses, some European and some American, which are cared for by Paul Nashe, a delightful little man with a beard and a cheerful smile and a sweet, old-fashioned voice rather like that of a hobbit or an elf. The first three classes were about the history of paper, type, and presses, but last week and this week we have actually been setting type and learning how to ink and press it! The typesetting can be tedious, and the tiny little bits of type can be difficult to handle, but I am just loving it. It is difficult to understand if you have never seen or done it yourself (as I learned, having read all about it and then having a number of epiphanies when I actually tried it), but I will try to explain. What you do is to stand in front of a pair of type cases which have compartments for each individual letter and piece of punctuation, the capital letters on top and non-capitals on bottom (which is where we get the terms "upper-case" and "lower-case"). In your left hand you hold a "stick," which is a metal-and-wood contraption made to brace the type while you are setting it; with your right hand you pick up tiny pieces of type, which are mirror images, of course, like rubber stamps, and place them one by one next to each other in your stick. You keep your eyes either on your copy (the text from which you are setting the type) or on the case guide, which tells you where each letter is--if you do this long enough, you start to remember where frequently-used letters are, and you don't even have to look up to reach and grab the right letter, much like touch-typing on a modern keyboard. Each piece of type has a little ridge in it which should face away from the bottom of the stick, so you know that it is the right side up. When you come to the end of a line (most of us were setting poetry, as it is far easier to set than prose, which must be justified), you have to fill in with spaces until you reach the end of the stick, and it has to be wedged tight, so the little pieces of type don't slip out and ruin all your hard work. Finding just the right size spaces to do this perfectly is a real challenge; it can get intensely frustrating, and probably takes the longest of any part of the process! When you have set five or six lines into your stick, you have to transfer the type to a galley (because the stick doesn't hold much more, and because your left wrist is about to collapse because those iron pieces get really heavy!), which means you have to carefully slide out your type and move it onto a wood-edged metal frame, which is what will eventually go on the press. This is where that tightly-wedged spacing really matters, because if you have loose type, it will not hold together when you try to move it in bulk! Once you have finished the whole piece (mine is John Donne's "The Good Morrow," though only the first two stanzas, because the size of the book we are making wouldn't accommodate all three), you place your galley on the press, roll over it with ink, close the tympan (which holds the paper) down over it, and roll it under the platen. You pull a lever to work the press, and hopefully, if you have done everything right, you end up with your text beautifully printed! I didn't get to ink mine yet, though I will next week, but I had fun playing with someone else's which had just been proofed. I pressed my wrist down over the inked type, so my arm now reads "ONE PERFECT ROSE," but in beautiful irony, the word "ROSE" only got half-inked, so it is rather imperfect.

The following Monday I had an opportunity to go to a Master class on some of the sermons of John Donne. These classes include rare opportunities to see and handle manuscripts of the period, so I was eager to go. One of the presenters was Peter McCullough, who is Lincoln's resident Donne expert, though he is on leave this year to work on his edition of the sermons, so I cannot ask him to be my dissertation supervisor, which is a shame. He told us a bit about his edition, which aims to recreate from manuscripts what Donne was actually like in the pulpit, as opposed to idea we get from the printed sermons which were cleaned up post-delivery. The rest of the lecture, given by students Sebastian and Emma, was about the different compilations of his sermons and why they were collected with other works (as was most common in the period, you purchased printed or manuscript books unbound, and then could have them sewn together with any number of other texts that you found interesting. I rather wish we still did books this way!) The manuscripts were not actually in Donne's hand (there is only one known manuscript of his works in his own hand, though we have some of his letters, too), but in those of scribes. I was still interested, because I have been learning to read secretarial hand for my Paleography class, so it was fascinating to see what I could make out. Also, I was giddy just to be allowed to touch things that are usually kept locked up. One of them in particular, the Ashmole MS, was written on acidic paper in a highly acidic ink, and the writing was terribly blurred by the corrosion. Chris Fletcher, who is Head of Western Manuscripts at the Bodleian and who had brought these to the lecture room at the Pitt-Rivers Museum that day (in steel cases!) told me that it is literally self-destructing, and that we can do very little to slow the process. I though about how sad that was, and yet how inevitable, that these texts cannot last forever.

The next night I went to the second Early Modern Graduate Seminar. I had gone to one the night I last wrote, as well. These are informal lectures held over at Merton College (which is fortunately about four minutes from my door), in which visiting scholars speak about what they are researching right now. The first one I went to was by an American researcher named Edward Jones who had spent years poring over Milton archives. He had a lot to say about what useful and rewarding work it can be--though with realistic admissions that it can be arduous and can end up yielding nothing after a lot of work! The second was by Michelle O'Callaghan regarding Verse Miscellanies, or seemingly random collections of poems bound together. One of the most important things I learned from these seminars is the way other professors and academics behave toward each other. The ones introducing the speakers were obviously gracious and kind, and asked interesting questions in the follow-up. But in both seminars, there was at least one who either directly challenged what the speaker had said, or asked a casually snide question like, "Don't you think we might be in danger of over-emphasising the importance of [whatever you are working on]?" Which is stupid to ask, really, because if the speaker thought so he/she would not be working on it, but it also reveals some of the cattiness that underlies academia. I knew it was there, but it is astonishing to see it first-hand; I really wanted the people at Oxford to be grown-ups. I guess I am always going to be disappointed that way.

The following morning I had at meeting with Diane Purkiss, who is my advisor. She wanted me to start working on my dissertation at least a day a week--I can tell you, I have not even come close to that!--and she wanted me to select a dissertation advisor ASAP. She recommended Sharon Achinstein, whom she has since asked on my behalf, and who has, I think, accepted. I have to email her this weekend, actually, which I am nervous to do, as my idea for the dissertation is as yet very vague, and I was hoping to have some more time to work it through before trying to pitch it to someone! Diane said that the dissertation is the MOST important factor in whether or not I earn a distinction at the end of the year, and emphasized that as we only get really four hours of supervision, I had to be on top of the work, myself. She also recommended about four or five books I should look at, and gave me some possible ideas to work with, which was helpful of her. Later that same day I had a meeting with David Womersley, one of the convenors of my A Course, who was to give me feedback on the presentation I had done in the first week. He thought I did well, and was overall quite positive about my paper and my ability to lead the class. I was rather pleased, because he is not notoriously nice or given to praise, so it was good to have impressed him, if only a little.

That Friday evening I went to an Exchange Dinner with Green-Templeton College. A group of us signed up in advance to pay extra to bring a guest to a formal dinner at Lincoln, in exchange for which we got to go as a guest to their college. Green-Templeton is a graduate-only college, and they only have dinners twice a week, so I am afraid the dinner we had there was much finer than the one they got here, where we do formal hall every night. Still, it was a wonderful opportunity to go see how things are done elsewhere. GTC is known for its Radcliffe Observatory, a beautiful cylindrical building that was constructed in the 1700s. The ground floor is now the dining hall, and the second floor is the Common Room, but the top floor remains an observatory--and no, before you ask, I did not get to go up there, because it is accessible by guided appointment only! But the dinner itself was sublime--I took photos of every course, which I keep meaning to post on Facebook... I got to sit at the head of the table, which was beautifully laid with cloth and china and silver, and everyone looked great, the girls in their formal gowns and the men in their tuxedoes. The candles glowed and the wine flowed freely, and there were some excellent conversations. Because it was October 29, there was a Halloween bop the same night, so we got to stay for that without having to wait in line or pay the admission charge like everyone else. All in all, it was a delightful evening.

The next day I went to a careers fair in the Examination Schools that reminded me an awful lot of the Fresher's Fair in its overwhelming amount of flyers, freebees, and faces! More than one stand had candy luring people over, including a Nestlé table and a Mars table, plus a computer sciences booth that had a whole confectionary stand, with those plastic boxes with the metal scoops and little baggies for you to take away! I was very excited, though I somewhat dishonestly signed up with a false name just to get the candy... I sat in on presentations about jobs in Media, Education, and Communications, all of which were interesting, though I still think Education appeals to me the most. The speakers were both women, and I went up afterward to speak to them about how one can have a family and a life and still work in academia. One of them had been a high-powered academic first, and then slowed down a bit when she had her family. She said it does take a lot of balance, and a very good partner, to make it work. She also said that there were ways to stay in the exciting and stimulating Oxford environment without being an actual academic, such as in administration. I have actually been considering something like that, but I think I'd like to spend some time at the Careers Centre before I make the decision. Unfortunately, I don't have much time, as I will need to submit the D.Phil application by January if I am doing that, and I should be asking for letters of recommendation from professors now. I wish I knew how to decide!

That brings us to the end of October, and with the beginning of November came some sad days. Aunt Laura, who, we knew, was dying of breast cancer that had spread to her liver, finally succumbed to her disease on November 1. I hated not being there. Even though, rationally, I know it would have been crazy to try to fly home in the middle of term, and even though we had said our goodbyes to each other before I left for England, I still feel like I should have been there with the rest of the family, been there at her funeral, been there in the succeeding weeks to help support my cousins and my uncle. Death never makes sense, but it is even more unfathomable when experienced from a distance. Because I wasn't going to see her during this year abroad anyway, it feels like she is not gone, because there is no hole in my life here where she would have been. In the first days after I was told of her death, I felt guilty for not feeling it more, for not being able to wrap my mind around it. It is still difficult, actually... So for the moment I am going to stop writing about it.

Hmm, I guess this won't be as long an email as I'd intended--I know, you're so very disappointed, hehe. I'll have to finish November later, as there is a stack of books on my desk waiting to be read and a pile of laundry in my hamper (which looks like a chickadee and always makes me smile!) waiting to be washed. I miss you all, and I wish you a happy weekend!

Love always,


Friday, November 19, 2010

A Moment to Breathe

This is the penultimate email I sent before opening this blog. I had thought I would write with much greater frequency, but the kind of time necessary for long and detailed letters is hard to come by, and I hate sending hastily dashed-off notes when I know there is more to say.

Hello everyone!

I realise it has been rather a long time since I was able to send a real email, but I'm sure you understand that the pace of the work here is extremely high! I feel like I have time only to study, eat, and sleep. Even now, I should probably be reading an online article in preparation for tomorrow's presentation on collaboration amongst early modern playwrights (specifically, the collaboration done on "The Book of Sir Thomas More," which exists only in one patchy and heavily revised manuscript with no fewer than seven different hands distinguishable, one of which might have been Shakespeare's). However, having just returned from a yummy MCR lunch of fish and broccoli and potatoes, followed by profiteroles for dessert, I am feeling relaxed and a little sleepy, and definitely not likely to concentrate on reading.

Looking back on my calendar from the past week, I can hardly believe how much I did. I'll try to go into some detail about the important things. On Tuesday 12 October I attended a coaching seminar with Bodo, the German coach of the women's crew here at Lincoln, and then went through two practices with him. Unlike crew on the Delaware, here on the Isis there is no room for motorboats to move in and out of the many sculling and sweeping boats out on the water (not to mention punts, kayaks, and house boats!), so the coaches ride along the bank on a bicycle. Bodo had us working on maintaining the proper body angles throughout the stroke, and he complimented me on my form, saying it was "almost perfect." My only problem is that I am not flexible enough to get full compression on the slide (I can't pull myself all the way to the front of the slide, because my ankles don't bend far enough), so I have to work on that. By the way, one of those practices was at 6:30 a.m., and I had to run through Christ Church park in the dark to get to the river, which was a little scary but also kind of peaceful and beautiful, in its way. I do love morning practice; you get to watch the sun come up, and you sort of wake up with it. I'll be rowing in the morning again this Friday, and probably at least once or twice a week.

Thursday 14 October was a really busy day. I gave my presentation on Philip Sidney and John Dryden at 10 a.m., running the class with my partner, Minoo, who did have a few interesting things to say, though he was a bit disorganised. I got positive feedback from my peers, but not much from the professors. David Womersley told me I could email him for feedback on my paper and presentation, but when I did (a day or two later) I got an Out-of-Town notice saying he's in Rome till the 24th, hehe. I guess I will have to wait. After the presentation I went up to the Graduate Common Room of the English Faculty Library to attend the EGO (English Graduate Organisation) lunch, where we voted in our new committee members for the year. It was crowded (naturally, any time you tell poor grad students there is free food, it will be crowded), and I was at the back of the line for the food, so I ended up with a cheese sandwich, a small apple, and a packaged cake of sorts that tasted of preservatives. Lesson learned: arrive early! It was after 2 by the time the voting was over, but I left a little early to pop into a lecture by David Norbrook on Marvell which I had seen on the lecture list. The system here is that anyone can go to almost any class, lecture, or seminar they find interesting (though of course some of them are mandatory for certain students). This means that there is something I might attend at almost every moment of every day, and it is strongly encouraged that we do go to these things. Unfortunately, I wasn't overly thrilled by the Marvell lecture, because it dealt mainly with politics, though the handouts that accompanied it were thorough and interesting, so I am glad I went. As soon as it was over, I had a 3:00 Palaeography class to get to. Now, Palaeography is one of the sexier parts of my field, because it means the study of hands--that is, handwriting of the period. There were two main categories in the 1550-1700 period: secretarial hand (which is nearly impossible to read unless you are trained in it) and italic hand, which is much more legible to the modern eye because it is in most cases just a very fancy cursive script. Unfortunately, even in this hand there are vastly different spellings, the "u"s are all written as "v"s and the "i"s as "j"s, and punctuation is extremely varied. Add to that personal codes and abbreviations and flourishes for each individual writer, plus varying qualities of pens, inks, and papers, and different styles when writing for other people or writing for oneself, and you have a whole discipline that is both challenging and fascinating. Our instructor, Will Poole, is sort of a star of the faculty for his adeptness with the hands (he can even forge them, and he encourages us to do the same, because the best way to know a hand is to write it!). He is also the most animated and jovial of my tutors, and his classes are sure to be lots of fun. He supplements them with actual samples, which he happens to own--one of which he bought for £30 on eBay because the owner couldn't read it and didn't know what he had! Of course, we all handled these things gingerly, and then we were shocked when he roughly shook one of the larger legal documents and then said, in response to our gasps, "Ah, the great thing about vellum...[holds out manuscript at arm's length and *punches* it with other hand]'s practically indestructible!"

After Will's class I ran back here to change for crew, because I had offered to sub for someone last-minute and had to be there by 5. I was a little late, but I had warned them that I had a class, so they didn't mind. I was to row again the next morning, Friday 15 October, from which I ran back here to shower and change, and then ran to an e-resources session with the English Faculty librarian at 9:30, and from there I ran back to Lincoln for a meeting with my advisor, Chris Stamatakis. (I did a lot of running that day.) On the way, though, I stopped by the accounts office, because I received a notice from Barclay's that my application for an account had been denied because my certified documents (which had been copied by one of *their* employees at the branch in town) was incorrectly copied. I am quite annoyed by that, because it means my loan moneys can't be released to me yet, and I am out of cash and didn't want to have to take out more from my checking account because of the fees. I think I will try another bank, but that means another 2-3 week wait... sigh. At least my advisor was sympathetic. Chris--who is actually younger than I am, being a new member of the faculty just this year--kindly took me to Cafe Nero for a hot chocolate as he asked me about my courses, whether I understood the system, and if I knew whom to contact if I needed help. He gave me some advice, too, on what lectures to attend and when to get started on my papers (obviously ASAP). It was very pleasant, and good to know that I have someone to talk to who has only just completed all of this, himself! (I will be picking his brain about the D.Phil and opportunities for employment later.)

After the meeting I went over to Blackwell's Book Store, where I was to meet up with Derek and Tiffany, my two friends who were honeymooning in Bath but had decided to come to Oxford for a day to see me. After some searching (their train had been late, so I waited for them a while), we found each other, and immediately went over to the History of Science Museum so I could show them the Secret Life of the Museum exhibit which I wrote about before. Derek adored the slip of paper with "R.P., You son of a whore" written on it, and he repeated the phrase throughout the day. There was also a guard in the downstairs area who saw our interest in everything and took us aside to recommend going to the Ashmolean museum (which, sadly, we did not get to that day) to see a musical instrument (I think it was a zither or a sitar?) that was a replica, but differed from the original because it had Adam and Eve carved into it, which he found so appropriate because, "If music be the food of love...". Even though we never got to see it, it was wonderful to have the conversation with the pleasant guard! From there we went into the Bodleian exhibit (the only part of the library they were permitted to enter without a Bod card or a pre-booked tour), which right now features the writings of John Aubrey (1626-1697) and the development of Experimental Science. There were lots of works, both print and manuscript, for us to see, as well as a fun interactive computer display where you could see sketches Aubrey had done of Stone Henge and other interesting yet mysterious structures. We went next to the History of Natural Science, which actually is just the gateway to my favourite Oxford Museum, the Pitt-Rivers. Most of you have heard me rave about this fabulous Victorian collection of curiosities from around the world, but if you haven't, I highly recommend you visit the website and take the virtual tour, because there is so much there (from totem poles to battle axes, from china dolls to shrunken heads!) that it is impossible to describe. <>

It was after 3 when we left the museum, and we were hungry, so I took them across the Banbury and Woodstock roads to the Eagle and Child (aka the Bird and Baby), which is famous for being the hangout of the Inklings, and informal literary discussion group that included J.R.R. Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, and Nevill Coghill. We had some Shepherd's Pies (Derek and I) and Fish & Chips (Tiff) there, and then we headed back toward my apartment to check the train schedules. Of course, we had to pass by Lincoln to get there, so I took them in for a tour of the campus. Finally we came back here and sorted out train schedules, I introduced them to Jackie, and we chatted about this and that for an hour or so. Later, after a stop at Sainsbury's for chocolate (for Tiff's friends) and a sandwich (for Derek, who was somehow hungry again) and some granola bars (for my early crew mornings), we walked down to the train station and said good bye.

The next day was Matriculation day, pictures of which I have posted on Facebook. The actual process involved getting dressed in our sub fusc, which for girls is dark shoes, dark tights, dark skirt or trousers, white blouse, ribbon tie, and gown. We then met at Lincoln for roll call at 1, and then filed into stands in the quad for the group photo. At 2:40 or so we were led by the Senior Dean out the doors, down Brasenose Lane, around the Radcliff Camera, up to High Street, and into the Examination Schools. (I joked that we went in two straight lines like the little girls in Madeleine books, but it wasn't quite so orderly!) When we got there, they lined us up yet again, though to little effect, because they then funneled us into the large room with the high wedgewood blue ceilings and enormous paintings where we had had our orientation, and we stood in rows facing a center aisle, where the Senior Deans of the three or four colleges who were scheduled for then all stood. Finally, the VC (vice-chancellor, I think) came in, accompanied by a Bedel lady who held a huge silver scepter (!), and he stood upon a dais and waited for one of the Senior Deans to speak to him. Our got up and spoke to him in Latin, and he replied in Latin, and as far as I understand it, that was our matriculation (I think it was a lot like what Dr. Paradis does at Doane graduation, where he says that the candidates have been tested and found worthy, etc.). The VC then made a 10 min speech congratulating us and explaining the traditions (apparently the matriculation ceremony used to be accompanied by an examination conducted in Latin! good thing they don't do that any more, or I'd never have made it...), and then it was all over. I walked back to Lincoln in a bit of a drizzle, stood for an individual photo, and then went home to change for the crew swim test I had at 6. After all of that I was tired, but there was the Emily Carr Party still to come, so I had to shower and dress again.

The Emily Carr house is actually a section of the Bear Lane Complex, where I live, donated by Ms. Emily Carr lots of years ago (I have no idea how many). Now it houses the MCR social committee, who once a term throw an all-out rave in it, complete with DJ and loads of free alcohol. I had to go, as it was literally ten feet from my front door, but I didn't stay long. There is one photo of me to prove I was there, which Will Bowles posted on Facebook (I am tagged in it, so I think you should be able to see it without being his friend...and it is worth the look, because somehow my hair managed to look rather awesome). I danced a little, drank one drink, and went home to bed. I really am not much of a drinker, and people were getting so sloshed that the floor was sticky with spills, and boys were leaning so close to talk to me that they were spitting on my face. That is just not my idea of a good time. But I did it.

After all the fun, I spent ALL of Sunday reading for this collaboration presentation. I met with my group at 4 on Monday (after a D.Phil planning meeting, which was helpful), and then Monday night I had choir rehearsal. I don't remember if I told you, but I joined the OUSU (Oxford University Student Choir), which is a non-audition choir, and we are singing Bach's Christmas Oratorio on Wednesday of 8th week (Dec. 1, I think...). I had gone to a rehearsal the previous Monday and really liked it, because although the group is really big, it is also lots of fun, and the sound is beautiful.

Phew! Well, that brings us to today, during which I woke at 6:15, went for a run (I was headed to the boathouse to erg, but the rowers had locked it, silly things, so I just ran), came back and showered, went to class (Textual Bibliography--we talked about the physical parts of a printing press today, and got to hold some movable type. We also talked about the development of information transmission from clay tablets and papyrus to e-books and the new Espresso Book Machines that produce books on demand), then went to the MCR lunch, and now have written to you! And now, in the hour I have before the Early Modern Graduate Seminar at 5, I really must read something, so for now I must bid you adieu.

I hope most of this was interesting. It would be much better for me to try to spread it out over more frequent, smaller emails, I know. I will work on that, if I can.

I miss you all! Let me know how things are going back home!



PS: I adore getting real mail, and I am excited because I received a beautiful letter today from Mr. Bennett. It was simple and kind, and just so characteristic of him. He is such a sweetheart! Someone give him a big hug from me, please?