Sunday, November 6, 2011

Updates: New Home, New Job

A number of events have occurred since the end of June, which I shall have to skim over relatively quickly.  The saddest of these is that the Tree Lady, whom I described to you in a September post, passed away on 29 August, apparently from cancer.  I had remarked that she didn't seem to appear in the park anymore, but thought perhaps she was sketching trees within one of the colleges, as she said she was wont to do.  The principal of Somerville College wrote a lovely piece about Zoe in her own blog, which you can read here.  It is a pitiable loss to Oxford of one of its true characters, and I suspect she will be missed by many who never even spoke to her, but enjoyed her cheerful smile or took casual interest in her work as they passed by her shady bench.

Somewhat less sad were some new beginnings for me, including a new job and moving to a new house.  After weeks of searching on Daily Info, Room Sharer, RoomBuddies, GumTree, and all sorts of other dot-coms, I finally settled into a lovely shared house not far from the train station (though far enough so that the noise of the trains doesn't bother us).  I have six housemates: a South African businessman and his Mexican husband, a German-Spanish nuclear physicist, a Polish fireman/gardener and his Spanish girlfriend, and a German chemistry DPhil who is finishing his degree in November.  They are a fantastic group of people, and I am very lucky to be living with them.  My room is decently sized, and there are two bathrooms (which is good with so many people!), so the only difficulty we encounter is sharing the kitchen, which is quite small.  We do manage, though, and we have occasional house dinners for which everyone contributes a dish, and everyone ends up really well fed.

And then there was work.  I wrote an email to a friend after my first day at the new job, and rereading it now, over three months later, I can smile and how nervous I was, but also recognise just how naïve I was, too.  I went through a lot of emotions in the first half of the day, probably because of over-tiredness after the dissertation madness.  I misread the bus time as 8:35 instead of 8:55, so I raced across town and was quite disheveled and windblown by the time I got there, and then had to wait twenty minutes.  The bus driver was really sweet and friendly, and helped me figure out where to get off in Chipping Norton, which is about a 50-minute ride away.

The office is in the ground floor of a hall which houses a media post-production company upstairs.  It is not very large, but it has an open floor plan and lots of windows.  I have a large semi-circular desk by the door, which means I get to greet people who arrive.  Throughout that first morning I was terrified that I had made a huge mistake in accepting the job, because the girl I was replacing started to show me all of the things I would be responsible for, and it was rather intimidating!  There was a list a mile long of tasks to be accomplished for each conference or luncheon, and they had to be done well in advance.  There were also numerous newsletters to update, and people to contact.  I spent most of the afternoon archiving newsletters from 2010, which gave me a chance to read through them and get familiar with the types of information they contained.  I also had to use the Microsoft Publisher program to alter the hyperlinks in each, then publish them to .html, and then compress the files and send them to a guy in the Czech Republic to host them online for us.  All of this, by the way, was to be done on a Lenovo, which was given to me along with a mobile phone.  I am told Lenovos are supposed to be nice computers, but it was so different from my MacBook!  Everything was in different places, short-cuts were different, icons looked different, and I kept accidentally clicking things and then having to undo whatever I had done.  I felt like I looked even more inept than I actually am, because I had to ask the IT guy how to perform very basic functions. Three months on I am quite used to my Lenovo, of course--though I still occasionally have to ask the Internet how to do certain things.

My predecessor reassured me a bit on that first day by saying she had known almost nothing when she started, too, and had had to ask lots of questions and pick up everything over a month or two.  I
 took lots of notes during the day, as my brain was still too foggy to hang onto much, but I tried to learn, too.  Taking a walk in the fresh air and sunshine perked me up a bit, too, and in the second half of the day I got to have lunch with the boss and a client, which was fun.

So it was a bit of an up and down day, and I was not entirely sure what to feel, but I did write down my impressions that day:  "I think the new things I will learn will be lots of fun, as long as they don't mind that I am a bit slow at first.  I think the people I will meet will be interesting, if not always so pleasant as the one client I met today, and that it will be good for me to interact with all sorts.  I think the amount of tasks and the deadlines will be stressful, and I am hoping I can find an organizational system that keeps me on top of it.  I think I am going to have very long days, with leaving on the bus at 8:05 and catching a bus home at 6:00, assuming I've gotten out of there in time, as it seems like everyone stays late!"

At this point I was still considering moving to Chipping Norton, so I also wrote myself a reminder to go into town to look at the ads for housing!  Charming Cotswolds town that it is, Chippy has no internet site for housing like Oxford does; instead, they do it old-fashioned small-town style, with index cards and hastily scrawled notices in the window of the news shop next to the post office, hehe.  Though the rent is somewhat cheaper there than in Oxford, and living there would have cut down on travel cost and time, I was concerned about the very limited social life I would have, not to mention the lack of opportunity to row or participate in college activities.  Even worse was the prospect of feeling like I was constantly at work, and having the boss depend expect me to stay late or come in on weekends because I was right there.  I am very happy that I decided to stay here in Oxford, because it has meant I could continue to row, and to make it to evening and weekend events.  More on those in the next post. 

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Final Countdown

In June the rains fell, which was very helpful, as it kept me indoors and at my computer instead of outside rationalising a picnic as a 'study break'.  I split my time between the Radcliffe Camera and the English Faculty Library, where I often saw and sat with my classmates, who all seemed to take on that haggard, careworn look that is so characteristic of English students nearing deadlines.  In the last week before my due date I took to spending my evenings in the MCR, where there were other people to keep me awake much later than I otherwise might have done.  My study buddies there included my teammate Jenny, who was studying for her exams, and classmate Emma, who was working on her own dissertation, as was Natalie, though hers was in a different subject.  We commiserated, compared word counts, debated the merits of footnoting versus endnoting versus parenthetical citation, and we generally urged each other on with words, cups of tea, and plenty of chocolate.  I did a lot of baking around this time, as it gave me something to do that had a clear procedure and immediate results, as well as being a delicious way to procrastinate, so they all benefitted from that habit as well.

This is also about the time that I applied and interviewed for my current job.  Even though I had no marketing background, and really had never considered marketing as a career path, I applied because I wanted to stay in Oxford for a while longer.  Nine months may be long enough to earn a master's degree in English (if you work really hard!), but it is not long enough to really get to know a place: to know its rhythms and movements and the way it feels to truly live there.  I wasn't ready to leave, and though I had been repeatedly told by the schools to which I had applied for teaching jobs that I would not be able to secure employment without a valid work visa, I kept looking, and when this opportunity came up, I snatched at it.  Despite all of this, it came as a surprise to me when I was offered the job, and even more so when I was told that I would need to start the day after my dissertation was handed in, so that the current postholder would have a chance to train me.  This of course threw me completely; I had by that point resigned myself to going back to the States on the 10th of July, and was even anticipating enjoying a long, lazy summer and the relaxation of living at my parents' house again.  I had intended to revel in unemployment for a month or so, and then take care of some business that had been more or less back-burnered when I was accepted to Oxford University.

On top of these considerations, I was afraid I might be ill-equipped to take on a marketing role.  I have never been much in tune with what other people find interesting or moving, and I hardly ever know what is going on in the world beyond my front doorstep.  Still, the job description asked for an English major, and I was told the role would involve writing newsletters and organising conferences and seminars, tasks I felt reasonably capable of performing.  It also promised interaction with lots of different types of people, and was a complete departure from the type of work I had been immersed in for the past year.  The salary wasn't great, and with my expenses it would be difficult to put anything away: accommodation at about £400/month, plus the £30/week bus fare to and from Chipping Norton every day, plus food, not to mention the cost of the visa to stay here, and then there would be my loan repayments.  I was completely immersed in the final week of my dissertation work, and the Oriel regatta was taking place that weekend, so I had no real time to spare for thought about it, so I did what any normal person would do: I asked everyone I could think of for their opinion.

My family, my friends, my teammates, my classmates, and sometimes even perfect strangers all weighed in on my situation.  Family tended to be hesitant, yet supportive.  Teammates and classmates were all for it, as it would mean I could stay around another year or more.  Strangely enough, it was the perspective of a person who knew me the least that helped me the most.  Xavier, while hardly a perfect stranger (as former MCR president, I had seem him at numerous events throughout the year), had never spent much time conversing with me, and we did not often interact even with the same people.  But he happened to be present in the MCR when I was complaining to the Welfare Officers, Hollie and Josh, about my decision one afternoon before dinner, and his matter-of-fact take on things made a lot of sense to me.  He said that a year in this job would be like doing another 1-year Master's degree; I would be learning new skills and working really hard and meeting new people, and instead of paying £18,000 in tuition I would be making money (really, the two years would almost cancel each other out, money-wise).  Plus, I would get to stay in and around Oxford, become an associate member of the MCR, participate in some of the fun events (including Lincoln's ball, the theme for which is Phantom of the Opera!), and maybe even continue to row a bit.  That same night at dinner, teammate Ben reminded me that the job market was pretty rough at the moment, both here and in the U.S., so having a job offer at all was a Good Thing.  And Flo and Rhea talked about how great it would be to have me around, as I am pretty well-loved by the rowing team.  All of these influences eventually coalesced into my decision to accept the job.

I can erg and dissertate at the same time!
Two days before my dissertation was due I rowed in the Oriel regatta, accepted the job offer, and decided I would no longer sleep until I had finished the paper.  I spent long hours in the MCR, where a steady supply of tea and coffee and the energy of other people kept me going, not to mention the second bag of Peanut Butter M&Ms, which my parents had brought during their visit and which I had been saving for an emergency like this.  I finally began to see the proper shape and direction of my thesis.  Then I reformatted all of my footnotes and began to address the many notes-to-self I had written in square brackets.

One day before my dissertation was due (Trinity Sunday), I acknowledged that there were bits of my paper of which I could be proud, and tried to trick my mother into reading through it for me.  I remembered that it was Father's Day, and sent my Daddy a goodie-basket of snacks to enjoy.  At 6 a.m., in a moment of frustration at Cicero for saying in De Amicitia a lot of what I was saying about Donne in my paper (and possibly spurred on by some sugar-overload-induced real-food cravings), I made a creamy tuna-mushroom-onion-green-bean casserole, during which I realised that French cut green beans from a can smell just like an elementary school lunch room.  I also began to play "The Final Countdown" whenever I felt my determination flagging: initially every few hours, then every hour, and as the night wore on, twice per hour.  My wonderful mother read the entire 12,000-word draft and assured me it wasn't a long, incoherent ramble but actually a cogent and understandable argument that she could follow despite her complete unfamiliarity with Donne.  Maternal bias aside, I found this highly comforting.  

On the day my thesis was due I gave it all a final read-through, made a few last-minute adjustments, and put it on a memory stick to print it out.  It was 10 a.m.; the thesis was due at noon.  Plenty of time, right? Yeah.  After discovering that the Bear Lane computer lab was out of ink (I expected this) as well as paper, I went up to the Lincoln House computer room and tried to print from there.  For some reason, the  printer did not recognise my computer.  So I switched to another computer.  It still wouldn't print.  Someone in the room suggested I send it to the Library printer, which is actually a photocopier in the basement of Lincoln Library.  I tried this, then ran over to the library to check, and found the copier off.  I turned it on.  Nothing happened.  I ran back to the lab, and tried one more time from a third computer, using someone else's account.  No dice.

This hero stays calm in all paper-panic storms
Feeling panicky, I ran up to the IT guys' room and presented myself, panting and sweaty and wild-eyed, to Mike White.  Mike had seen me this way before; indeed, the technology at Lincoln College has a habit of failing utterly when I am trying to print something at the last minute.  But this time I had the extra tear-inducing injustice of having planned one hundred and nineteen spare minutes in addition to that last one, and still having been thwarted by machines.  Mike, as always, was calm, pleasant, and expertly efficient.  He was able to print two copies of the paper for me (at a printer downstairs, so he left me to cool off a bit in the room whilst he ran to get it), and even helped me collate them and find a stapler big and strong enough to bind them.  The lovely ladies in the business office (to whom he had directed me for said stapler) also provided me with an envelope and some pleasant encouragement, as I finally made my way down to the Examination Schools at about twenty minutes till twelve. 

I was greeted by a crowd of peers who had just submitted their own work and were proudly brandishing their submission slips (a sort of receipt they give you so you can prove you handed it in if they lose it).  Everyone looked a bit tired and disheveled, but relieved.  The plan was to head over to University Parks a bit later that afternoon to celebrate with some Pimm's, courtesy of the English Graduate Organisation (EGO), but I needed a shower first, as all forms of self-grooming had gone out the window about the same time as sleeping and maintaining proper nutrition had done.  After a warm, partly-cloudy afternoon spent lolling in the grass, I went home for a much-needed nap just as the rain began to fall again.  When I woke, it was just to work out the travel route to my new job in Chipping Norton, which began the very next day. 

Saturday, September 17, 2011

For My Grandpa

Grandpa with his WWII medals
This post is dedicated to my paternal grandfather, Joseph Fortunato Costa, who passed away on Tuesday, 13 September 2011, in his own house in Mount Laurel.  We knew he would not be around forever: he was two months shy of 88 years old, and he had been diagnosed with lymphoma over a year ago, and had refused treatment.  Still, as people continue their lives despite the irrefutable knowledge that they must die some day, so we all went on as if he were in perfect health.  To the outside eye, at least, he was: despite being mostly blind and hard of hearing, he was still sharp-witted, still able to move about and take care of himself.  His decline from this state of apparent health was sudden and rapid, and in a matter of two days, he was gone.  The funeral is today, and because I am in England I cannot be there for it, so I wanted to make a sort of tribute in my own way.  It will not do him justice, I am sure, and there will be many things left out, as either too personal or too clouded by murky memory to be shared with the general public.  But I have to do something in honour of the man who was my grandsire, a man whom I have known for twenty-eight years, and yet who remains a mystery to me.

With Teddy and Joey in 2009
My grandfather was a quiet man, and like most quiet men, was difficult to know.  Even his wife and children, who knew him best, never seemed to understand him entirely--and indeed, I rather suspect that he never thoroughly understood himself.  But I also suspect that that did not bother him much, at least in his later years.  I have many memories of him sitting on the couch in our family room during holiday parties, watching sports on television or staring off into space, enjoying his own thoughts.  He was always happy to chat with people who came to sit next to him, but he rarely began the conversation himself.  His favourite topics were politics and finance; he was a stock market junkie, having taught himself all about it, and he loved to give advice.  I remember once, after having spoken to him about what type of investments I should make with my TIAA-CREF portfolio, he called me three times in a week to update his recommendations and urge me not to forget about it.  He was quite passionate about investing, and he encouraged my father (an old fashioned, keep-it-all-in-the-mattress kind of saver) for decades to try it.

My daddy and his daddy had a complicated relationship, one which I will never claim to comprehend fully.  Almost every time Grandpa came over, his reserved manner would fall away over the course of the evening's conversation, and he and my father would end up shouting at each other across the dinner table.  Usually they argued about politics, but occasionally about moments in their personal history, events long past, the details of which were not always clear to me.  I used to feel embarrassed, and sometimes quite sad, to hear them, but as the years went on I came to see something else in this ritual.  I say ritual; it became so regular that we expected, and even anticipated, these outbursts, as they seemed to constitute a singularly effective way for two very stubborn men to communicate with each other.  I think they even enjoyed it sometimes, as I know my father certainly loves a good argument, and warms to a worthy opponent.  Nothing ever came of these quarrels, and the night would usually end with them shaking their heads in disbelief at each other and then saying "I love you" and "good night."  It was normal.  You always love your family, no matter how wrong you think they are.

Grandpa and me, at Christmastime
My own conversations with my grandfather were much quieter.  He liked to talk, so I did most of the listening, but when I did speak he listened carefully and assessed thoughtfully.  He was a lifelong learner, and though he would give advice, he would also always acknowledge that he was no expert, did not know everything, and had found himself to be wrong more than once.  I cannot remember the exact subject matter of a conversation I had with him once in which he said, as if coming to the realisation right then and there, "I think my way of looking at things has changed.  I used to think one way, and now I see it entirely differently.  It's amazing what time will do to your perspective."  I had never felt so strongly before the sensation that I had come from his stock, from a strain of character that needs to think things over, experience things firsthand, a type that does not like to be proven wrong, but when it has come to a new understanding of its own accord can look back with only mild surprise and fond self-reprobation on the misunderstanding previously held.

Grandpa used to say my name in a singsong voice when I was very little.  I can distinctly hear him calling to me, with the emphasis on the first syllable, while the last two were a note lower and melded into one: "DAN-yell."  I remember being uncertain about what his name was for many years, as my grandmother always called him Fred (the English equivalent of his Italian middle name), and he called her Rory (short for Aurora, which was her middle name; everyone else called her Cathy), but fortunately I didn't have to worry about it, as I called him Grandpa Costa.  He was never the most affectionate of grandfathers, though he would suffer to be hugged and kissed at greetings and partings; but he showed his love in other ways.  He would give warnings and tips, as I've said, always telling us to think about the future and not just what was happening right in front of us.  He seemed instinctively (or maybe just from his own memories of youth) to know that we would quickly forget what he told us, and so he would repeat it often.  He also used to hand out money (tens and twenties when we were young, fifties when we got older) to his grandchildren whenever he saw them--this was no small favour, as there are quite a lot of us!
The grandchildren and great grandchildren of Joseph Costa
There is no way, now, to know exactly what Grandpa Costa thought of his life, his family, his accomplishments.  It was not an easy life, but it was a respectable one.  He had a quiet but successful career as an electrical and nuclear engineer.  He supported his wife in her career as a local politician and senator.  He produced three beautiful, brilliant, hardworking children, all of whom achieved law degrees, married excellent spouses, and had families of their own.  In his own modest, unassuming way, he has touched many lives, and I am very lucky to have had him in mine for as long as I did.

Rest in peace, Grandpa.  I love you very much, and I will remember you always.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Dissertating and Summer Eights

The rest of May was largely occupied by thesis writing and training for Summer Eights.  Early practices (and the subsequent breakfasts with my teammates) kept my sleep schedule regular and made the mornings pleasant and sociable.  They also enabled me to enjoy some of the abundant (for Oxford) sunshine that we got during that month, which otherwise I would have missed entirely, being locked in my room or in a library almost every day.  I was no longer confined to the cold, windowless basement of the Radcliffe Science Library, as my thesis topic did not require any manuscript consultation; instead I tended to seek the hushed airiness and slanting sunbeams of the upper Camera, where the relative privacy helped me to concentrate and the frequently-open windows relieved the tedium with soft breezes and occasional sounds from the many passers-by in the square below.  I had a lot of thoughts that were not related to my thesis when I was in this sanctum, but only occasionally did I remember to write them down.  I wonder how many brilliant or poignant ideas flitted through my mind then, only to be shoved aside as I forced my brain to focus on the task I had before me.

I suffered a back injury around the middle of May, as a result of some over-zealous erging, but as I was not about to stop training so near to Summer Eights, I began to see a physiotherapist named Chris up at Iffley Gym.  The injury was quite painful, very localised on the left side of my lower back, and it was actually difficult to twist or bend, but equally difficult to sit still for very long, which was frustrating when trying to write my thesis.  Strangely, rowing (as long as the boat was set) made it feel better rather than worse, and as long as I let someone else lift the boat for me, I could continue in my role as stroke without much difficulty.  The physiotherapist seemed to be part-chiropractor, as half of the time he pulled and twisted me in different directions and 'cracked my bones' in real Eddie-Izzard style, which I was surprised to discover actually did make my back feel better.  He also used some massage techniques, some ultrasound vibrations, and even some acupuncture, which I had never thought of trying before.  I was once again surprised by the relief it brought to the sprain in my back, and I talked to Chris at length about his training and techniques, so that by the end of my sessions with him I was, while not a complete convert, at least more favourably disposed toward such arts than I ever had been before.

Amidst hard work and rowing, I tried to be as sociable as possible.  I participated in team dinners and movie nights (yay Finding Nemo!), took part in the MCR dessert competition (I made a delicious, though experimental, Dr. Pepper cake, but was soundly beaten by the chocolate-covered bacon, which was certainly awesome--and of course was an American contribution which the Brits had never heard of before), and attended a fascinating talk on the Wikileaks scandals.  I managed to largely ignore the fact that Michelle Obama came to visit Christ Church on the 25th, except that the helicopters buzzing around all afternoon alerted me that something was up.  I also helped the W1 put together a present for our coach that involved making South Park cartoons of ourselves...

On the 27th we had a boat-naming ceremony for our new blue boat.  It was christened the Ian Halliday, after a deceased Lincoln rower whose family had donated the money.  We had a lovely champagne and cranberry juice reception, while the lower boats were participating in the Rowing On races that determine placement in Eights.  I saw a number of "beer boats" (boats that are entered for fun instead of for competition, who generally dress in ridiculous costumes and I guess may be drunk) including one boys' boat all in drag (the stroke was in a bikini!) and one full of superheroes, and another of boys in waistcoats and golfer's caps.  I cheered for the W2 as they raced and for the M2 and M3 and W3 as they launched, and I helped another crew that had gotten their boat wedged under the dock to free themselves.  Then I finally excused myself to come back and work, and was walking up past the meadow mooing back at the cows when the Tree Lady beckoned to me.

The Tree Lady has a wonderfully wrinkled old face and a big, grandmotherly smile; she wears a big, reddish-orange poncho-style coat and a green knit cap, and she sits on a bench under a leafy canopy in Christ Church park with an enormous piece of crumpled paper on her lap, on which she always seems to be sketching the same sprawling tree.  People sometimes sit and talk to her, and I think she occasionally does portraits.  I usually smile at her when I walk by (she is not always there, but frequently enough for me to expect her!), and she always waves.  On this day she called out to me, "you have such beautiful hair! Is it natural?" and I walked over and told her it was, and then she asked what I was studying, and when I said English she told me she was a poet, and invited me to sit and read some of her poetry.  She took out these little pamphlet-size booklets that contained poems about life and nature and stars and philosophy in scattered words that fell down the page like rain (E.E. Cummings style) with little versions of her tree and leaf and flower sketches decorating them.  She was very eager to show me certain poems, and one of them she recited to me as I was reading it.  Another long one, called "Te Deum" and containing the refrain, "My life is a song," she read to me in its entirety, and her heavy accent (German? Slavic? I'm not sure) and slow pacing made them even more beautiful.  The inside covers of the books were labeled "Zoe Peterson," so that must be her name.  They had dates ranging mostly from the mid-nineties, and she said it had taken her friends 26 years to convince her to print and share her poetry with others.  She said that she had done a degree here at Oxford (I couldn't quite hear which one), but that even in those days, from six to eight in the morning she had been an artist and a poet rather than a scholar.

I found this photo of Zoe on the Oxford Daily Photo blog.
She told me she had a story in the works about a robin who was a great philosopher (and an Oxford professor!), who came up with an idea to turn all the birds in the world into flowers, but eventually realised that he should not try to alter God's design.  She also showed me little cards she had made, some for weddings and some just as greeting cards, with simple pictures on the front and short sayings inside.  One that I remember was of two willows, a larger one and a smaller one, with one of the branches of the larger being blown into the smaller, as if reaching for it.  Inside was written, "A mother's hand."  She said that she is working on a book that catalogues the trees of Oxford, combining it with research about their origins and interesting stories and poetry.  She asked which college I went to, and when she heard it was Lincoln she said she keeps meaning to go there to draw the tree that grows behind the dining hall, which I guess is the one in Grove Quad.  She told me the large piece of paper on her lap contained a picture of a tree in the Somerville gardens.  I told her I had a friend at Somerville, and she said it was a lovely place, and that she had been there once and a woman had come up to her and started chatting, and they really connected, and she found out that the woman was the new president of the college!  She called the president 'adorable,' and said she had invited her to come back and sketch more trees from the college, even telling the porters and gardeners to expect her.  I told her she was very talented, so I was not surprised.  Then she told me that I could have whichever of her little cards I liked, and could contribute whatever I thought fair to the cost of their production.  I told her I didn't have any money on me (which was true; I never take money with me to the boathouse), but she said I could "make an appointment" to see her later, and she would bring me the cards.  I thanked her for the offer, but said that I had to get to work on my dissertation.  She tried one more time, and then wished me luck and let me go.  I was a bit disappointed that she had made a sales pitch after our nice conversation, but I can't say I was surprised.  I suppose artists have to make a living somehow!  

That evening we had some drinks with the Boat Club Society members who had come for the boat naming, and in the midst of the event we were informed that there had been a second break-in at our boathouse.  Apparently it is a popular hangout for local teens who need a place to drink and dance!  Fortunately they did not damage anything, and were scared away before they really got going.  We were able to get it all cleared up in time for Eights Week, which took place during the first week of June.  These are the biggest, most important races of the year, and they run more or less in the same way as Torpids, with the exception that after a bump occurs, both the bumper and the bumped are meant to pull out of the race.  This means that overbumping is even more difficult, as you have to make up the space of two intervening crews in order to catch the next one.  We in the W1 had been really well trained, and we knew we could bump or overbump every boat in front of us, so our only fear was the dreaded klaxon.  Because bumps racing is so dangerous, especially on a tiny river like the Isis, they have hyper-protective regulations in place that immediately put an end to any race if even the slightest mishap occurs.  Once a race is klaxoned, it is not re-raced, and because getting blades in bumps racing depends on bumping every day, a klaxoned race can destroy many a team's chances of winning blades.

(Part of the marvelously illustrated Marshalling Guide to When and When Not to Klaxon. The crabs represent crews that have caught their oars in the water and are unable to move quickly off of the race course.)

This is precisely what happened to us, as we were going for an overbump on Trinity on the second day.  We knew we could catch them, and we had just fallen into our stride when the air horns sounded from the banks.  Apparently Brasenose had gotten themselves bumped sideways again, and were blocking part of the course.  We were incredibly upset and disappointed, but there was nothing we could do except take out our frustration on the oars.  The next day we bumped Brasenose so hard we left a gash in their boat, and on the last day of racing we slammed St. Hugh's in such a way that their coxswain was hit in the back of the head, which caused that race, too, to be klaxoned, as the first aid boats came speeding over expecting to find her concussed (she wasn't).  This made us rather unpopular, though, as it ruined the chance of blades for the two or three crews who had bumped before the klaxon in the last one.  Our only real consolation was that our W2 and W3 boats both were able to get blades, and both made some spectacular overbumps to achieve them, which were quite exciting.  At the Boat Club Society dinner on the last night we celebrated them, and celebrated the wonderful successes of the Lincoln Boat Club throughout this year.  I had the opportunity to make a speech about our coach, and with the help of some wine and a bout of inspiration scribbled onto the back of a menu, I turned the speech into a rap to the tune of Salt & Peppa's "Push It," which was one of Bodo's theme songs.  It was by far the most admired speech of the evening; I got compliments from pretty much every member of the club, including the alumni (the class of '61 was there in almost-entirety, minus two who have passed away, and they were all smiles, possibly of bemusement as much as enjoyment, during the performance).  If you'd like to see the video of the performance, go here.  (I think it's publicly viewable...if not let me know.) 

After a very late night of drinks in Deep Hall and at the King's Arms, and dancing in Baby Love, I went to bed only briefly, as we were to race the alumni at 6 the following morning.  We also took this opportunity to kidnap the Brasenose mascot, a stuffed monkey that looks exactly like Harry from "Harry and the Hendersons," who had been left hanging outside their boathouse overnight.  (Wesley Cyril was later returned in good faith.)  After being embarrassingly beaten by the alumni, we went out to breakfast at the Mitre, and then went our separate ways.  I was exhausted, but knew I had to get some work done before the hustings for the boat club official positions began that evening.  The hustings were great fun, and it was that best kind of election wherein none of the positions are contested, so we made each candidate just turn around and cover their eyes while we all voted for them, and then we celebrated.  There were some important questions and issues raised about next year and what they planned to do, but for the most part we were just encouraging and happy to see the committee pass into good hands.  One of my boat mates, Zsofi, actually was cajoled into being Captain of Boats, which is a big job, but she is certainly up for it, and I can't think of a better person for the job.

I think I'll end there for the moment, as we are into the second week of June, and this is about when all socialising ceased and I got down to serious, hardcore dissertation work.  I will recap what little activity there was in another post, and do my best to catch up to now.  (I know, you've heard that before.  Well, I will try, anyway.)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Two Lectures

No excuses.  I pick up where I left off.

On the 10th of May, Professor of Poetry Geoffrey Hill gave another lecture in the Examination Schools, entitled "Poetry and Disproportion." He was wearing a fantastic blue-backed waistcoat with a dark purple patterned front, and he looked quite robust, though he wilted somewhat as the evening wore on.  This lecture was a bit more difficult to follow than its predecessors, and indeed I got the impression that if I had not been present for all of the earlier lectures, I might have been entirely lost in this one.  Still, it was informative and entertaining, which I have come to expect from Hill, and as always, very well presented in that voice that one of his interviewers described as sounding 'the way I imagine God would sound.'  He began with the idea that the mortal desire for proportion and stability is rooted in our arguments.  At one point he misread something he had written, and stopped himself, but then with his characteristic sprezzatura he said, "Let it stand. Dissertations will do fine.  What I wrote was dissentions..."  He spoke of tyranny as a breaking of the balance of power, leaving it wholly in one scale--this he said was taken from Swift.  He went on to show that disproportion is therefore a most debilitating tyranny.  Later, while explaining a complicated concept related to this, he laughed at himself, saying, "if you could make sense of that sentence, you're better than I am."  He brought up Bertolt Brecht, who wrote about "the ingenuity of the oppressed" and the potentiality of mankind in regard to Shakespeare's Coriolanus and Eliot's unfinished Coriolan.  He went on, "I realise that in my dealings with you on the subject of English poetry, I may give you the impression that I don't overall enjoy it. So I'm trying to iron out some kinks in my reputation with the help of Brecht."

As always, I took careful notes throughout the lecture, but to repeat them in their entirety here would tax both my patience and yours, so I have noted some highlights below:
  • The theme of a play or novel is not synopsis.
  • Shakespeare is eminent in his own period, you see--which means he has an edge over the others.
  • There is a Mad Meg element in Shakespeare (this refers to a painting by Peter Bruegel the Elder.  The painting shows the utter chaos of battle, and its name echoes the nickname of a large siege-cannon.)
Dulle Griet (Mad Meg) by Peter Breugel the Elder, c. 1562. Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp 
  • "For everything of merit to go down the pipe with everything of trash is not justice--its a type of anarchy."
  • Citing Rossiter on Ambivalence: "Shakespeare wrote in an inverted equilibrium."
  • I wish I could describe modern poetry as one critic described Mad Meg: a mad stare ahead at nothing.
  • "The role of Mad Meg seems to have devolved upon me, in my thrice-yearly appearance on this platform."  Perhaps it would be best if a comedian, or a rapper, were to take over this position.
  • "As I often say when backing out of a cul-de-sac of my own making: I will watch development in that area with interest. ...No, I won't.  Not really."
  • We could now do with an artist possessed of the virtues of Peter Breugel the Elder...Damian Hirst may believe that he is improving on Breugel for the modern age.  (See the Wikipedia entry on Hirst for some really weird modern art, and don't miss the link to Oak Tree by Michael Craig-Martin, which was the first 'work of art' I saw in the Tate Modern when I visited it in 2001.)
Beautiful revolving sphincter, oops brown painting by Damien Hirst (2003)

  • "Why do I write sentences like that?" after describing how to understand misunderstanding.
  • My lectures are tirades--Horatian tirades, which can be bogusly Christianised.
  • There is disproportion in Sidney, but it occurs for him in history, because it deals in true matters: he finds it immoral, to be 'captive to the truth of a foolish world' (Defense of Poetry)
  • "There has always been an element of unease in my appreciation of Sidney's definitions."
  • Ezra Pound once said that 'all values ultimately come from our judicial sentences.'
  • Aesthetic reading in an ethical context may have grown from the meditative prose of Boethius.
  • [At 6:10 p.m., he knocked over the microphone and giggled like Ernie from Sesame Street!]
  • Chaucer is writing something wholly commonplace, and wholly beautiful. "We could not have predicted this particular special ordinariness until Chaucer invented it for us."
  • From the earliest classical times, it was the inevitability of social and natural chaos that prompted philosophers to come up with ideas of equality and the golden mean.  What we have now is a golden mediocrity.
  • "Henry (VIII) was a political oxymoron."
  • For the real poet, raw potentiality, language in the raw, always has [Mad Meg's face]...we have within ourselves the irresistible tug of anarchy, and it may lead to creative ideas of our own.
  • Liner notes in CDs are sometimes more interesting than the music.  Poetry will always differ from music, but some of both give the impression of existing solely for their own euphony.
  • Love of proportion grows from human distress at the disproportion in life.
  • There is some ambiguity in my philosophy and critical standpoint--does my radicalism involve tearing up by the roots, or returning to and nurturing them?
  • I think it is only a Ruskinian Tory these days who can be confused with an old-fashioned Marxist. Ezra Pound, whose poetry I'd better tell you here and now was some of the greatest of the last century, he was wickedly fascist.
  • Oxford gives centrality to the marginalised--even myself.

Then on Friday, the 13th of May, Sir Tom Stoppard came to speak in the Sheldonian, and I took a break from dissertating to go and hear him.  I had adored his play, Arcadia, when an undergrad, and had finally read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead over the summer before coming to Oxford.  His talk was entitled, "A Pragmatic Art," and it concentrated on the purpose of an artist, with reflections from his own profession of writing plays.  He was introduced by the president of Trinity College, Sir Ivor Roberts, and I learned some things that I had not known about Stoppard, such as the fact that he came to Britain as a Czech refugee when he was a child, and that he had honorary degrees from Yale and Cambridge (I have always had a latent desire to be conferred an honorary degree...).  When he stood up, I took note of his longish silvery hair, his dark grey (almost black) suit and red tie over a white shirt, and his voice, when he began to speak, which was wonderfully hobbit-like, reminiscent of the voice of John Hurt.  He spoke very slowly, and enunciated each word clearly, like one long trained in elocution.  He began by reading some passages from works he had brought with him, including The Last Enemy by Richard Hillary (whose death in 1943 occasioned this annual lecture in memorial), and 'Epitaph for George Dillon' by Osborn & Creighton, as well as his own play, Travesties, and then asked, "Why do we value art?"

He went on to say that artists these days were not only honored, but validated, and that there was an increase in narcissism and egotism in writers and artists in general.  His reflections were not preachy, though he seemed to have formed opinions from long experience.  As with Hill, I took careful notes, and I have copied some highlights below.

  • "Nowadays an artist is a man who makes art mean the things he does."
  • "The artist and the priest emerged from the same shadows of the fire in the cave."
  • "If the atheists don't mean God, they mean somebody very like him."
  • An artist is not a separate category of human being.
  • "When writing a play, the thing is as self-sufficient as a sonnet...You're not interested in any other thoughts but getting these words in the right order so that they make the noise you want them to make."
  • The point about Shakespeare is the miracle of the collusion of sound and sense.
  • I betray that principle the moment a play is in the theatre being prepared; your writing is handed over to other people to become a physical event, and event with changes of light and pace and sound effects and a hundred other things that can spoil it, and it becomes all technical and pragmatic...but at least you can change your mind about it.
  • "I write plays in order to contradict myself in public."
  • "intrepid uniped" is a phrase that is difficult to translate, because the sounds are lost
  • "I really ought to desist, and I'd like to find a note to desist on...which I will do arbitrarily."
  • All art has at its foundation a kind of moral duty--that is what makes a universe of the world of art and culture.
  • "If you take away everything, you are left with a residue that you wouldn't want to die for, or live in."

The summation was given by Professor Hermione Lee, President of Wolfson College, who had a deep, nasal voice and was wearing a grey skirt, black tights, an oversized cardigan, and a scarf.  She amired Stoppard's 'opulence of intellect' and called him a 'very special human being.'

In all, the two lectures were neatly dovetailed and gave me much to ponder, though of course I was not at liberty to ponder much at the time, aside from my thesis.  I was (and still am) so glad to be living in Oxford, though, to be able to attend such fascinating lectures given by some of the most unusual and well-respected artistic minds of this era.  I hope that I will be able to stay in the lecture loop this year, and that I will be able to get back to Oxford after work in time to hear most of them...who knows, maybe I will be able to attend even more, as I won't feel that pressing panic of paper deadlines whenever I glance over the lecture list.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Excuses, and Highlights of Early May

(The real van is white, with far fewer windows)
So, my great plan for writing on the bus commute to and from work was thwarted in two significant ways.  The first was that my coworker, Daisy, and I began to drive the company van back and forth to Oxford for a week, because we had to pick up and drop off photographs that my boss was having printed and mounted for a photography exhibition (that is his hobby, a.k.a. his second career), and because Daisy had only recently passed her driving test and needed lots of practice.  It was good for me, too, because I am meant to learn how to drive a manual transmission so that I can transfer clients to and from the train station for our luncheons in the first week of August, so sitting in the front seat and paying attention to everything Daisy did was very helpful.  We also greatly enjoyed not having to pay for the bus, and we had a great time rocking out to Madonna and Michael Bublé thanks to the radio station, Heart, while bitching to each other about work things, especially a particularly obnoxious coworker.  We were both quite disappointed when someone else had to take the van to deliver equipment for the campaigns, and then when Daisy went off to run her own campaign, it was back to the lonely old bus for me.

The second reason that I have failed to blog during bus rides is that I have discovered that I get carsick when I try to read while in a moving vehicle--well, this is not really a new discovery, as I always used to get carsick when I was a child, but I had thought I might have grown out of it.  So, rather than blogging, I have been listening to audiobooks to pass the time, which I find quite delightful, as I get to take in the beautiful countryside while also reading something.  I always sit on the top of the double decker bus, and because I get on at the station in the morning and at one of the first stops in the evening, I can always claim the very front seat, so I have an enormous picture window through which to gaze as we rumble along, through Oxford, into Woodstock, past Blenheim palace, through some rolling fields, past some thatched-roofed cottages, and into Chipping Norton.  My books of choice at the moment are the Harry Potter series, mainly because my flatmate Jackie had them in her computer and passed them on to me, but also because I have not seen the final three films, and have no idea what everyone is buzzing about lately since the last installment came out.  My audiobook collection is rather small, but I am on the lookout for more.  If anyone has any interesting ones, please send them over!

To resume where I left off, May in Oxford was quite lovely, and I got to spend quite a lot of it outside despite having so much researching and writing to do, because of the intense training schedule for Summer Eights.  The W1 had water outings on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday at 6:30 a.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 1:15 and 12:45 p.m., respectively.  In addition, we had erg sessions every Tuesday and Thursday evening at 7:00.  As stroke, I felt obligated to give a lot more feedback to the coxswain and coach, and to keep everyone cheerful at erging sessions.  This was easy enough, as I tend to get a bit high on endorphins when exercising, and can be quite silly.  Our almost all-graduate boat (only Daisy, our cox, was an undergrad) was quite international: we had an Aussie, a New Zealander, two Germans, a Dutch girl, a Hungarian, two Brits, and an American.  We made for a diverse and fantastically interesting group, and as we saw each other so very frequently, it was a good thing we all really liked one another.  (I say this as if we don't anymore, but those of us who are still around this summer are still rowing together as often as possible, and we are getting together for dinner this Wednesday!)  With such good friends to keep me company, and some amazing music courtesy of Anne (including the Rocky theme, just for me!), five weeks of boot camp turned into a fun, healthy, sociable good time.  We worked very hard, but we encouraged each other, and learned to move as a unit.  We were even scouted and later headhunted for the Blues, which was a huge compliment--though when one coach called from the banks to ask us if we would trial for the lightweights, I was so surprised that I answered, "do we LOOK like lightweights??"  I guess we had all lost some weight because of the amount of training, but I would say that at least half of us would have quite a bit more to lose before we could be considered lightweights. (I'd need to drop almost twenty kilos, myself!)  And one of the best things about training that hard was that we could eat pretty much anything we wanted to eat--we went to breakfast in hall after almost every morning practice, and all had quite hearty helpings of cereal, eggs, sausage, bacon, stewed tomato, and toast, followed later in the day by anything from pizza or pasta to brownies and ice cream.  Once Bodo even took us all to G&D's to celebrate a particularly good practice, hehe.  Training would have been much less fun if we were restricting our diets, too.

In addition to rowing, I was still singing with the Oxford University Student Chorus.  We were having the concert much earlier this term, during Fifth Week (which, incidentally, was also the week of Summer Eights), so we had a much smaller repertoire and worked much more quickly to learn it.  We were also auditioning new choir directors, as Theo was stepping down after completing his year.  This was a fun process, as we got to observe many different styles and learned a bit more about what effects different leaders could have on a choir's sound.  We were performing Five Negro Spirituals, A Serenade to Music, and a song called Sleep, which was originally composed for Robert Frost's "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening," but had to be changed when the rights couldn't be secured.  The concert was much smaller in scope, held in a church instead of a theatre, and the proceeds were going to charity, so there was less pressure on this one, but it was still fun to perform, and I was complimented by the conductor yet again and encouraged to pursue singing in some capacity in the future.

Though Oxford is generally a well-insulated bubble, and I tend to move through life contentedly oblivious to the happenings in the rest of the world, I did learn in early May that Osama Bin Laden had been killed.  I had mixed feelings about it, as I was glad of the fact, but nervous about retaliation.  I was disgusted by the many comment-thread arguments ignited on Facebook, and refrained from joining any of them.  I also chose not to make any public declarations about it, as I didn't think I or the event merited comment.  I did, however, wear my American flag bandana while rowing that week.

I did a lot of baking in early May, largely as a result of having bought too much milk and needing to use it up. I made cheese muffins, peanut butter cookies, and sour milk biscuits, to name a few.  I also had some fun experimenting with a mini chocolate biscuit cake, thanks to Prince William, and with some savouries like asparagus soup and homemade parsnip-potato gnocchi.  I remembered to send my Mum a gardenia for Mother's Day, and I remembered to send my advisor a very rough outline of a thesis by our agreed deadline.  She really liked the idea, which was good, as it was the first one I had liked, too, and it was about time I had settled on something!  I had said I would be taking a look at Donne's own idea of his literary fame, and whether it was important to him or not.  This is an ongoing debate, so I didn't purport to have an answer, but I thought that by looking closely at some of his writings I could demonstrate a sort of recurring strain that suggested his own feelings.  That's about as far as I had gotten at that point, but it was a direction, and it gave a focus to my research.

In the meantime, I had also received word from the Relaxing Stories people that I had been selected as one of the finalists in their short story competition, which was being judged by Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass.  I was featured on their Facebook page, and my story was later released in their iPhone app. I was not the ultimate winner, but I was pleased to be recognised in that way.

I guess I will stop there for now, as I am considering taking my new bike (FreeCycle, I love you!) up to the Wolvercote Farmer's Market, where I hear there is a cycle workshop where I can get a cheap tune-up.  Hope everyone is having a lovely day, and hopefully you'll hear more from me soon!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Master? Mistress? Mastress?

Dissertation hand-in euphoria
I can't believe it's the end of June!  Once again, where did the time go?  Oh, right, it went down the dissertation drain with everything else, hehe.  So glad that's over!
Now that I am a Master (well, I guess it is not official until they pass me...I'll let you know in a couple of weeks), it would appear that a serious retro-blogging is in order, as I've only brought us through Easter, and that was ages ago.  I now have a job with an hour-long bus commute, so I will be using that time to write posts, and hopefully will get us all caught up within a few days.  I would say more about the dissertation and the job, but in true book-lover fashion, I rather want you to read the story in chronological order!

I suppose the next exciting thing to happen after Easter was the Royal Wedding of His Royal Highness, Prince William of Wales to Miss Catherine Middleton, which I'm certain I don't need to describe, as it was televised and talked about endlessly, hehe.  I had the opportunity to watch it on the big screen at the Phoenix Theatre in Jericho, as my classmate, Rachel, had some free tickets.  I donned a pretty dress and my blue bonnet, packed some cherry Bakewell tarts and biscuits in my purse, got a take-away tea, and joined Rachel and Liz at the theatre at 9:45 a.m.  Anne came later, and brought us some blueberries and chocolate, so we had quite a little feast! The theatre was mostly full of older ladies, and everyone was excited to coo over the dresses and hats and to comment on the music and decor. We watched 
The honeymoon suite
Top hat and tails
everything leading up to the wedding, the whole ceremony, and the journey back--of course we were waiting for the balcony kiss!--so we were there until about 1:30, after which we walked over to Anne's college, Corpus Christi, to see the tortoise wedding.  That's right.  Tortoises.  Getting married!  Apparently Oldham and Bishop Foxe, after having known each other for a very long time, had finally decided to tie the knot.  It was an elaborate affair, with bunting and top hats and important speeches, not to mention cupcakes and scones for everyone (and strawberries for the newlyweds).  We had eaten our fill of sweets at the theatre, so we decided after the ceremony to go grab some sandwiches at Taylor's and eat on Trinity College's lovely lawns.  We had some delightful chatter that only included a little bit of dissertation talk, and we parted ways in the mid-afternoon quite happily.

The next day I was rowing in the Oxford City Bumps Races, and because I was the stroke of the boat, I had to go to the coxes meeting at 8:30 a.m.  That would have been fine, except that it was held at the City of Oxford boathouse, which is a good 45-minute walk from Bear Lane.  I borrowed Sophie's bike to get there faster, but the tires were really flat, so it almost ended up being more effort than it was worth.  The day of racing was lots of fun, though.  It was my first time stroking a race, and we were in a four that we had thrown together the day before, so I rather expected a rough ride.  We raced five times, and each time it took us a bit longer to bump the crew in front of us...but we did bump them all!  Our prize for this feat?  A mini-blade that looks rather like an oversized pencil, hehe.  But it's a blade, nonetheless, and it was free, as opposed to the £200 blades we are ordering now, from our victory at Torpids.

Ignore the mannequin head on a stick...
 This particular weekend was rubbish for getting work done on my dissertation, because the next day was May Morning, which is the occasion for one of those wonderful and weird Oxford traditions that are part of the charm of this place.  Always one to participate in such affairs, I duly arose at five o'clock in the morning and made my way down High Street, which had been specially barricaded off for this event, toward Magdalen College, where crowds were already gathering to hear their famous boys' choir (from Magdalen College School, across the way) greet the sun from atop the bell tower.  They were so cute in their little robes, peeking through the parapets and waving at the people down below!  It must have been cold up there; it was certainly chilly in the street.  They sang some lovely madrigals (including "My Bonny Lass She Smileth," which made me smileth, as I had sung it last year while teaching at Doane).  The sunrise cooperated perfectly, starting with a cool blue sky and warming into a pink and gold glow.  It all would have been extremely peaceful and beautiful, were it not for the unfortunate presence of hundreds of drunken idiots, many of them Oxford students, who had stayed out all night (many clubs and even restaurants had extended their hours to accommodate the tradition), rather than go to bed and get up early. I had never seen so many people out and about at that hour, and many were in quite dressy clothing, but had that sort of bleary, bedraggled, morning-after look.  I didn't like it at all; I am an early riser in general, and the mornings are my quiet time, my alone time, and here I was squashed up in a crowd of sloshed and smelly  students. I shouldn't 
I love the font: safety is FUN!
complain too much; I did still manage to find the performance quite moving, and there was a general hush while the singing was going on.  Apparently, it is common for students to jump off of Magdalen Bridge after the singing, which the police heavily discourage, but this year there had been so little rain in the days leading up to it that there was almost no water to jump into, and thankfully common sense prevailed with all who had been intending to take the plunge.  After it was all over, I made my way back to the MCR, where there was a warm croissant and pain-au-chocolat breakfast waiting, plus orange juice and champagne, and tea and coffee.

I gratefully partook of the repast (though no champagne for me--never did care for the bubbles), as I had an erg test later that morning, and needed some energy.  3:47 for a 1K is not my best, but considering how worn out I was from the previous day, and how little sleep I had had, I was happy with it.  And later that day...I got the email announcing that I would be the stroke of the W1 for Summer Eights.  Honestly, I have no idea how I managed to produce a dissertation amidst all of my other commitments.

Coming soon...May and June.  Also known as, "That Famous, Published Critic Totally Stole My Idea." Cheers for now, everyone!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Of Picnics and Parks

And suddenly it was the end of Fourth Week.  Who knew time could move so quickly?  Everyone says that Oxford has its own time zone, and the Master Timekeeper appears to speed it up and slow it down with capricious abandon.  Depending on which set of bells you and your tutors follow, you can be simultaneously five minutes late and three minutes early for a class or lecture!  Some people respond to this by being perpetually early to everything, while others consider their tardiness forgiven, even when it is more than a matter of minutes.  I wonder how the examiners deal with it?

Of course, examinations have begun, so any time I have left the house lately I have found myself wading through crowds of students in full sub fusc, all wearing carnations whose colours signify how far into exams they are (white for the first day, pink thereafter, red for the last one).  I am quite pleased to hear from various sources that recent governmental attempts to abolish the sub fusc tradition (citing it as a sign of outdated elitism) have been repeatedly met with opposition from the students, who always vote in favour of maintaining the dress code.  They have earned their elitism, dash-it-all!   And they look so dapper and respectable, especially the boys.  The girls apparently have a bit more leeway, and I have seen some pretty poor excuses for "skirts" walking down the street--thank goodness the gowns are generally long enough to cover their bums.  Though I have heard one or two people complain about having to dress up for exams, it is one of those traditions I really love, and I (almost) wish I had exams, myself, so that I might participate in it.

But then, I have my dissertation, which is consuming enough of my time and energy as it is.  Earlier in the term I tried as often as I could to do reading and research outside, but lately I have been more or less locked in my room when not rowing.  I suppose being outside was more distracting than anything else, but the weather had been so very beautiful!  One day toward the end of April (I think it was Good Friday) I was sitting on my picnic blanket in Christ Church meadows, and this lovely family came and sat next to me.  It began as a mum and dad and their three little blonde girls (Holly, the eldest, 'Tilda, who had major middle-child syndrome, and a little chubby one who looked like a Cabbage Patch doll, whose name I could never catch), eating some fruit (they really loved melon) and telling jokes, all beginning with "Why did Little Red Riding Hood..." and having very silly punch lines.  Sometimes they would substitute "poo" for random words, which made me wince with childhood memories of cracking up at "Jingle Bells, Batman Smells."  They kept saying, "I've got one, I've got one!"  Daddy finally tired of this and told them to stop because they had worn out the they moved on to knock knock jokes!  Children are so wonderfully easy to entertain sometimes--though as a friend once warned me, that means that if you do something with them once, you have to be prepared to do it a hundred times or more.  After a trip to the loo with Mummy (during which Daddy got some peace in which to read and sunbathe a bit, though we were all mostly under the trees) they were joined by another woman with her two girls (Claudia and "Anna-bana") and baby boy (Harris).

The older two girls took a walk, and as they left I could hear Claudia complaining that there was nothing to DO here, and other parks were so much better.  Holly, who had been fine before, chimed in, "I know! There's no climbing frames or water slides or anything! Just trees. And all we do it sit."  I had to suppress many a giggle, as I knew they would eventually find something to interest them.  When they came back, all the girls began to play a game that the dad called Rocky, the mum called "Mother's-something," and which more or less reminded me of Red Light-Green Light, where one stood facing a tree and the others moved forward and when she turned around they had to freeze like statues (which they adorably took literally and froze with one arm up in the air like a statue).  After this they played "What time is it, Mr. Wolf?" which was similar, except the wolf had to call out a time and they could take that many steps...but then when they got really close the wolf would say "DINNER TIME!" and chase them all over.  This was highly amusing to me, even when the little one got knocked over and started crying, or when Mathilda decided she wasn't playing anymore and sat down on the ground in a sulk (she did that frequently, whenever things weren't going her way or she wasn't getting enough attention).  The dad suggested they play hide-and-seek for a while, but that, too, ended in someone getting pouty, so then they all kicked a ball around for a while.  That stopped when the ball hit the baby in the face--though he hardly seemed to notice or care!  What a good little fellow; he was content to belly-squirm his way around the blanket and occasionally grab at the strawberries and shove them into his mouth.  Later, they held a gymnastics competition with Daddy as the judge, which had them doing headstands and handstands and cartwheels and roly-polys (somersaults) which I thought ingeniously designed to tire them out.  And then, in another brilliant move, they played a game called Sleeping Lions, in which they all had to pretend to be asleep!  Of course, Daddy came to "check" that the lions were asleep, and tickled them into hysterics.  It was so much fun to watch them, I obviously got very little reading done.  When they left they said goodbye, and I thanked them for entertaining me.

Actually, that weekend was pretty work-free all around, as there was Easter baking to do and an Easter picnic to attend!  My classmate Rachel was having people over for an Easter brunch, so I baked a honey-vanilla pound cake, which was a huge hit.  Rachel had made two types of quiche and a homemade bread and a fruit tart, and we got to wear pretty Easter dresses and sit outside in the glorious sunshine.  I also got to wear my bonnet, which Daddy had bought for me at the open market, and which I had been just dying to find an excuse to wear!  It was a lovely morning, and afterward Rachel came back to help me bake some more.

That morning I had made, for the first time all by myself, a batch of my grandmother's taralle (variously spelled toralli), which are these sort of fish-shaped (or cancer-ribbon-shaped) biscuits.  We made three more batches together in a quite toasty kitchen, and then Rachel went home with some in a baggie as her reward.  Later that night I video-chatted with my family while they ate Easter dinner, and it was a very happy holiday indeed.

Sigh, I may have to pause here, as I allowed myself only 30 minutes' break from dissertation work for this post, and it has been 45.  I look forward to writing about the City Bumps races, the Royal Wedding fun, and May morning festivities, which are only part of what I did at the start of this term.  Fifth week is not likely to afford me much blogging time, as the concert is on Monday and then Summer Eights racing goes Wednesday through Saturday...but I will try!