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.)

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