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.)