Eights 2010

And now, for your reading my writing pleasure, my in-depth coverage of Summer Eights Rowing Regatta, a.k.a. the second best thing to Princeton reunions.  Check back for regular updates of interest to literally no one!  And just because I think it’s sort of how real blogs do it when they cover things of actual import, I will pretend like this is being updated “live” – so read from the bottom up!

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Sunday – 6:53 p.m.

Okay – I swear, this is the last thing I am going to write about rowing – at least until training for Torpids 2011 starts (270 days!).  It’s also the most important, since it’s the only stab I’m going to make at explaining why this matters to me.

Rumor has it that there were about 15,000 people down at the river yesterday.  Not quite what you’d see at a Pac-10 (American) Football game, but a pretty astonishing number, when you think of it, and not just because it was raining.  What makes it so impressive, I think, is how large the number is given the low-quality of the sport.  My crew is right in the middle of the pack – and two weeks ago, we were being beaten by 15-year-olds.  A third of the crews in Summer Eights aren’t even serious; they’ve trained inconsistently, or pulled together in the eleventh hour in order to give a few finalists an opportunity to drink heavily and don ridiculous costumes.  As many races are decided by poor steering and disastrous technique as by strength and talent.  And yet, 15,000 people still came to watch.

We as a society like winners.  The extension of this is that we like specialists; people who dedicate themselves to being very, very good at one thing.  At Oxford, though, rowing is truly amateur.  Sure, there are some seriously dedicated crews, but even among them, there is little of the professional coaching, brutal cuts and tryouts, or perfectly-honed lifestyles that characterize semi-professional college sport in the U.S.  While I’ve never been much of a believer in the “everyone’s a winner” mentality, I like the idea that, even at one of the world’s most competitive universities, there’s something in which everyone can, at least, participate.

As for me, rowing is a complete dead end.  Every minute I spend rowing is a minute I’m not spending working on my thesis, positioning myself for a top-tier PhD program and tenure-track faculty position.  It is, by all accounts, dead time, thrown away on something that won’t help me save the world and will never win me any recognition or respect.  And I think that’s exactly why I love it so much.

Sunday – 10:39 a.m.

Almost, but not quite.  Our crew prepared for our final race with a single-minded intensity that I had never seen from my teammates before.  We knew that we were skirting a fine line between a mediocore Summer Eights and one we could really be proud of, and there was no question that we had a tough task in front of us.  Off the gun, we were immediately closing, and by “the gut” (midway through the course) we had cut their lead down to a matter of inches.  Our cox called for one final push and then… nothing happened. They started pulling away and we started fading, just as another crew came up behind us.  Only some excellent steering prevented us from getting bumped ourselves.

There’s something to be said for giving it your all and just barely coming up short.  The problem, though, is that you can never really give it everything. Had we known we were just inches away, I’m sure we could have found just a bit more strength in ourselves.  But life is all about “ifs”, I suppose.  While I feel like I should have had it in me, though, a teammate brought up a good point: “We’re not racing against the computer.”  Trinity II also gave it their all; they also trained hard; they also wanted it badly.  And kudos to them for that.

Saturday – 9:20 a.m.

Sufficiently exhausted from yesterday that I fell asleep at ten – and slept for eleven hours, something I can’t remember happening for a long, long time.  I fell asleep early enough, in fact, to not even hear results from the upper divisions, which – thanks to the ridiculously long English summer days – don’t race until the evening.  Overall, it was a tough day for Worcester – W3, W2, and M3 all got bumped – but our top two crews both connected (apparently, we haven’t had crews ranked this high since 1992!).

And, as usual, the daily photo of our crew ripped off of some website somewhere:

So close.

Friday – 10:37 p.m.

Let’s spice things up a bit and talk about something I don’t like about rowing.

We didn’t get the bump today.  We knocked off half a length at the start, and by the bridge (early in the course) our coach was already blowing the whistle that indicated we were closing.  We never managed to finish the job, though – we stayed even on their tail for the entire length of the course.  At the end, we were totally shot – more so than had we been straight-up beaten.

After “rowing on” (the term for a race where you don’t bump and aren’t bumped) and pulling in, we went to the back of the boat house for a chat.  All manner of excuses surfaced: the cox didn’t steer us in a good enough line.  We weren’t quick enough off the start.  We needed a better racing plan.  The boat behind us didn’t chase us hard enough to motivate us.  We were technically sloppy.

Back in High School, when I ran Cross Country, we also had our fair share of post-defeat chats.  But while we would talk about what we were going to do next time, there was never much sense in talking about why we lost, because the answer was inevitably simple: whomever beat us wanted to win more than we did.  They worked harder before the race and put themselves through more misery during it.

Rowing, I think, leaves a bit too much space for excuses.

Friday – 11:26 a.m.

You would think that after eight years of racing – and now, almost a year of racing in boats – I would be able to be a bit more blase about such silly things.  But here I am, up for the last four hours, and completely incapable of getting anything done.  My entire body is coiled up like a spring, and my brain is on infinite repeat of the first ten strokes of the race.

Time to concede defeat, give up on productivity, and walk down to the boathouse.

Friday – 7:18 a.m.

Boat club captain’s summary of yesterday is far cleverer than anything I could come up with:

A day of drama unfolded on Thursday as Worcester took a roller coaster ride through three bumps up and two down.  The numbers fail to do justice to a thrilling day of racing that saw the bank take a beating, the re-emergence of the crab as a craze, and an enthralling if ultimately unfulfilling duel in men’s Division One.  The day’s successes came from W2, M2 and the W1 Machine.  W2 took down Keble in a performance that can only be described as brief.  Your correspondent was reliably informed that the bump took all of 22 strokes: 4-seat was apparently keeping count as they go toe-to-toe with W1 for the ‘fastest bump’ award.  W1 themselves were somewhat off the pace today, allowing Queen’s to reach the bridge before pouncing upon them in typically domineering fashion.  Three bumps and five places gained in two days makes them Eights’ leading crew after two days.

For the sheer excitement of the spectacle, M2’s bump will be the one that lives longest in the memory.  Sent out under instruction to ‘humiliate’ Keble M2, their intent was clear as they overlapped well before the bridge.  Nothing is simple with M2, however.  Especially when there is a rudder involved.  Sufficient time has not passed since the Torpids Ruddergate scandal for its name to be taken in vain, but there was an impending sense of doom as M2 swung for Keble, and the bank.  Video evidence has since shown that this move was in fact successful as Front Runner’s bow struck the Keble stern, but the race continued nonetheless.  With Worcester’s cox by now helpless, the rudder descending into the Isis’s murky depths, the pink-and-black blades desperately sought the Keble hull.  In the next two seconds, a lot of things happened and the order of events remains unclear in the mind of your correspondent, despite his playing a leading role.  There was a loud crunch, a far-from-brief scraping sound, and two-man took a handle to the face.  On the water, Keble rowed on.  On the bank, the umpire stopped.  Also on the bank, and in close proximity, the bank-rider did not.  Another crash ensued.  Despite this assault, the umpire was kind enough to confirm that he had seen some contact.  An American, roused from a fit of anger, screamed loudly, splashed a little, and screamed some more.  Those rowers that had been, somewhat despairingly, attempting to continue the race, decided that it might be best to celebrate.  All part of the plan.

In slightly less eventful races – the occasional crab notwithstanding – W4 and M3 succumbed to Keble W3 and Hilda’s M1 respectively, whilst W3 rowed over.  By the early evening, attention was focussed upon M1 as they sought a place in Division One.  Part I was well executed as they resisted an early onslaught from Keble to row over at the head of Division Two (note: also in Div Two, Wadham suffered a bump; this makes Buzz displeased, which makes us pleased).  An hour later, Exeter were hunted down to a canvas by the gut, but from there the race went away from Worcester, as Exeter put up a fairly large dose of stiff resistance, crossing the line only three or four feet clear.  Close finishes, your correspondent can confirm, are not all they’re cracked up to be.  Tomorrow, we are promised, things will be different.”

Thursday – 9:17 p.m.

It was messy, but we pulled it off.  We went after Keble hard today, grumpy at them for denying us a bump yesterday.  Within twenty strokes, we could already hear the whistle blowing indicating that we had closed to within half a length.  Then, things got interesting.  In some sort of kamikaze move, our Coxswain decided to steer us directly into Keble, rather than simply lightly tapping their blades.  The result was that we went careening into the wall, munching our blades and taking off our rudder in the process.

At this point, I pretty much went ape shit (see video below – yes, the profane one is me).  The shift from despondency to elation was quick, though, as the umpire declared that we had made contact prior to our “innovative” finishing move, and as such we got the bump.  Much rejoicing (and maybe more profanity) then ensued. I’m not sure if Keble got the memo, though, as I’m pretty sure they rowed the rest of the race oblivious to the fact that they had, in fact, been vanquished by a crew that couldn’t even row in a straight line.

Thursday – 9:08 p.m.

In case you didn’t catch them the first time:

At least they are safe from aliens.

Thursday – 4:45 p.m.

Bump.  Ridiculous bump.  Details to follow.

Thursday – 11:55 a.m.

My program only has one marked assignment this term: our thesis ‘Research Design’ essay – and I just turned it in a day early.  Wise?  Probably not.  But I need to set some priorities, and clearly, rowing should come first.  I was already at the word limit anyway, I guess.

Thursday – 6:06 a.m.

Up early, which is good because I need to eat about 10,000 calories of carbs before 3:00 p.m.  Because I’m totally going to burn that in a four minute race.

Wednesday – 10:24 p.m.

Excellent.  The hot-pink flames on Worcester M1’s uniforms have been awarded “Worst Stash [Uniform] of the Week” by Oxford University Rowing Club.  As our captain puts it,”a remarkable achievement when one crew rowed with cardboard boxes covered in tin-foil on their heads.”

No, really, someone did:

Row sexy, guys, row sexy.

Also, it appears that the French made an appearance earlier today:

Do it for Le France!

Wednesday – 10:06 p.m.

Keble College Men’s II boat – I am going to make you cry.  You are, in the words of our Stroke, “A bunch of muppets.”

Wednesday – 9:26 p.m.

Okay, short explanation of today: best possible outcome that is not actually good.

Long explanation: Summer Eights is “bumps racing,” which means that the regatta consists of several divisions of twelve boats that start in a line and try to run into each other.  If you “bump” a boat, you and the boat you hit drop out of the race, and the next day, you start one forward in the start order.  The goal is, over the course of twenty years or so (really) to work your way up to first position in first division – “Head of the River.”  So you not only want to bump and avoid getting bumped – you also need to bump before the boat in front of you does.

Unfortunately, today, the boat two in front of us – Keble – missed the memo that you are supposed to row fast, so Trinity (one in front of us) got an easy bump just as we were about to catch them.  Thus, our chance to get a bump was snatched from us, but we rowed to a strong finish and easily outdistanced St. Katz, behind us.

Reading this, I am quite confident this is not coherent to anyone but myself.

Wednesday – 5:25 p.m.

Sweet, pictures from today already online and available to steal:

I don't even recognize myself.

Wednesday -10: 52 a.m.

Rowing really cannot be understood outside of the context of extremely over-dramatic pump-up YouTube videos.  This one is an old standby:

Though I also feel strongly about this one:

Or, if you want just a general introduction to how Worcester College Boat Club feels about its own importance and/or the degree to which what we do merits really dramatic music:

Now if that doesn’t get that testosterone coursing through your veins, I don’t know what will.  (I should note, after that manly comment, that Worcester’s women’s crews invariably do infinitely better than the men.)

We’re all dumb

Kristof has an interesting column in the New York Times today, subtly entitled “Moonshine or the Kids.”  In it, he describes a “politically incorrect, heartbreaking, frustrating, and ubiquitous” truth: poor people do stupid things with their money.  He cites two MIT economists—Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo (who is totally hot right now)—that calculated that even households living below the $1-a-day threshold of extreme poverty tend to spend a non-trivial proportion of their income (~10%) on things like alcohol, cigarettes, and prostitutes.

I’m not going to argue with Kristof that many impoverished sometimes people make frustratingly and inexplicable choices with their limited resources.  It’s a fact readily apparent on the Native American reservations near where I grew up, where you can see any number of people living in decrepit houses—that have satellite dishes.  In poor developing countries, the harmful impacts of these decisions are even starker: Kristof documents one Congolese father who can’t pay $2 for school fees or $6 for a mosquito net, but manages to drop $12 a month on alcohol.  There were definitely situations in Uganda where I just wanted to shake people and say, “Don’t you realize that you are too poor to be spending your money on that?!?”

So, all in all, Kristof makes a fair point: there is definitely some suffering out there that could be alleviated if only poor people, at times, prioritized better.  What bothers me, though, is how easily arguments like this descend into the claim that poor people are poor because they make bad choices, and, by extension, if they didn’t make bad choices, they wouldn’t be poor.  Although six months of development studies training hardly make me an expert, I have no qualms about saying that both assertions are nonsense.

This recent popularity of things like microfinance is rooted in the idea that the poor have the resources they need to develop themselves—they just need a bit of assistance in using them better.  As we are increasingly finding, though, there’s only so much that clever mechanisms like micro-lending and micro-saving can accomplish in contexts of extreme deprivation.  More small businesses aren’t going to help sub-Saharan African countries that have no internal markets.  Similarly, Foreign Direct Investment is not going to suddenly flood into Congo because parents stop wasting money at the bar and instead ensure that their kids get a primary education and don’t die of malaria.  Education and health are intrinsically good things, but as instruments for development, their power is limited in countries that are completely marginal to the world economy and have a GDP of $350 per head.

The other implication of choice-based narratives about poverty—that people are poor because they make bad choices—is something I find annoying on a personal, as well as academic, level.  It seems that we can test the idea that personal choices are the main cause of poverty by considering whether rich people make better choices with their money.  Obviously, my vantage point is skewed by having spent my last five years in the perpetual potlatch of elite universities, but I think the answer is no.  After all, if we’re talking about trade offs, why do we not have to take responsibility for spending multiple mosquito-nets-worth on a single cocktail?  I could offer endless examples, but I will let the reader judge my hypothesis, which is that poor people don’t make any dumber choices than the rest of us—they just have a smaller margin for error.

If I’m right, then maybe “wasting” money is a human universal.  Perhaps non-essentials—ranging from booze and hookers to more reputable forms of entertainment—are indeed “essential” to what people view as a minimal quality of life.  In that case, it strikes me that any development strategy that relies on people prioritizing what we consider the bare essentials of survival—food, health, shelter—is destined for failure.

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Jukebox: The Dead Kennedys – Kill the Poor

Boxed In

It’s gorgeous out.  Not the “the-sky-is-only-85%-covered-in-clouds-today-and-it-hasn’t-rained-in-an-hour” weather that usually passes for gorgeous in England, but legitimately, fantastically, gorgeous .  Which is why I am extremely bitter to have spent all weekend inside a library*, and am writing this incredibly boring post about… libraries!

I never got the sense that Princeton had much of a library culture.  Seniors occasionally descended into their carrels for a few weeks at a time, and I generally spent a few painful days prior to Dean’s Date camped out in Wu Library, but beyond that, the library was a place to visit to—you know—get books, and not much else.  I distinctly remember on my campus tour being told, “Unlike Harvard, we don’t leave our libraries open all night”—and thinking that was a good thing.

This is not the case at Oxford.  We are, I venture to say, a bit obsessed with libraries.  Partly, it’s because the university lacks the “sophisticated” technology necessary to post readings online, so we are stuck competing for a handful of copies of assigned books that are on hold (“They didn’t need e-reserves in the 12th century, and we don’t need them now!”).  It’s also, however, cultural: most people here do their work in libraries, which makes me feel like if I’m serious about my studies, I ought to be working in a library.  The university doesn’t make it easy for us, though: there are 100 libraries at Oxford, each with its own unpredictable set of opening and closing hours and nonsensical rules (Is the library closed stack?  Can you use a laptop?  Headphones?)

The real inspiration for this post came today when I emerged from the Graduate “Quiet Study” room onto rows and rows of desperate-looking undergraduates studying for exams.  It hit me that we don’t really go to the library to be productive—we just come here to punish ourselves.  There’s no shortage of procrastination, it just takes a much less amusing form, since options are pretty much limited to facebook, writing pointless blog posts and—for the truly hopeless—endless games of free cell.  They manage to spice things up in the Worcester College library by having a “topless half-hour” declared at a random time each day, but I’d say, overall, libraries here are pretty desolate places.

I feel kind of sad writing this, because I think libraries are, generally, one of civilization’s greatest achievements.  It really is totally rad that there are huge repositories of potentially subversive ideas out there that the government actually allows to exist.  But, I have to say, I think I’m going to do my remaining reading for this term outside.

* Unless you count eight hours of rowing practice over the last two days.

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Jukebox: Sum 41 – Summer

Oxford, at the margins

There are times when Oxford and Princeton seem eerily similar.* Case in point: the Oxford bubble.  As I am prone to do, I occasionally gripe to anyone within earshot about the apathy and inactivity of the student body here.  The other day, when I was whinging to my housemate, she sighed and said “Oh, I guess you haven’t heard about the Oxford bubble, have you?”

Technically, no, I hadn’t heard about the Oxford bubble before.  But I have definitely heard about the orange bubble—that invisible barrier that somehow prevents Princeton students from taking an interest in the world around me–and I must say, the Oxford bubble sounds remarkably similar.  I found the concept annoying as an undergraduate, and I find it equally problematic now.  I don’t mind that universities are, to some extent, isolated from the world around them: that’s part of what makes them unique.  What bothers me, though, is the implication that we are somehow trapped inside by forces outside our control, that deep down, we’d really like to get out into the world, but for now we’re stuck in the bubble and just can’t get out. It’s as if the only way to escape is to drop out and become a full-time volunteer at an orphanage in South Asia.  The reality, as I’ve been reminding myself, is that the bubble is easy to puncture, and I only have to go a few hundred meters to do it.

Abstract, moralizing now out of the way, I should say that, for me, I’ve been perforating my own Oxford bubble for a few hours a week, volunteering for a local charity called Food Justice.  It’s nothing world-altering, and I certainly can’t take credit for playing any part in organizing it: I just sit in a van and pick up food that has passed its shelf-life from grocery stores and help redistribute it to local charities around Oxford.  Although averting food waste obviously appeals to my freegan side, I have no pretensions that Food Justice is doing anything radical.  If anything, it’s a bit depressing to juxtapose the few half-full crates of food the stores donate with the veritable mountains of food headed for the trash compactor (no dumpster diving here).  In the grand scheme of what Britain’s new Prime Minister is describing as “savage” cuts to social services, moving around a few loaves of bread is a drop in the proverbial bucket—and while I know I should do more, I don’t (“sorry, I’ve got exams”).

What I do like about Food Justice, more than anything else, is that it shows me a chunk of my community that I wouldn’t see otherwise.  We students tend to think of Oxford as the center of the universe, and the town surrounding the university as a place that exists solely for the purpose of providing cheap ethnic restaurants.  Food Justice takes me to homeless hostels, soup kitchens, mental health clinics, and drug rehab centers—all totally invisible to the student community, but also incredibly close to where we students live and study.  It’s a harsh reality, but one that I think is worth seeing, if for no other reason than that it is an integral part of the community where we live.  Not outside the bubble, but in it.

* Albeit, never when I am dealing with university bureaucracy… moments in which I inevitably miss Princeton terribly.

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Jumping back to the topic of Oxford-Princeton parallels, I recently encountered another one.  I got back my grade for my second assessed essay today (which counts for something like 10% of my mark for my final degree).  It wasn’t abominable, but it certainly wasn’t up to the standard I expect from myself.  When I complained to a friend about it, he told me, “You know what they say: Oxford University, where your best hasn’t been good enough since 1248.”  Of course, they say that at Princeton, too; just with a different date.  The unfortunate thing is that, at least at Oxford, the statement feels like it’s true.  We don’t receive any comments on our essays—just grades—and the markers are anonymous, so there’s no clarity as to why I didn’t perform up-to-snuff.  The result is I catastrophize, thinking that it’s not just an essay that has been judged, but me as a intellectual being—and I have been found wanting.  As I constantly vacillate between wanting to go into academia and thinking I’m not cut out for it, it’s a little dispiriting to think that I can’t even get a 5,000 word essay right.

Anyway, thanks to my poor mark, I was feeling a bit of ennui and melancholy as we embarked on our Food Justice run today.  One of our stops was a crisis center for at-risk teens.  One kid standing outside struck up a conversation with me about how boring being stuck in a home was, how much it sucked to be on methadone, and—briefly—our mutual appreciation of punk rock, which he seemed to bring up in response to the fact that—wearing all black with plugs and an eyebrow stud—I did not quite look like the typical Oxford student.  As I walked away, he commented on the hoodie I was wearing, which has the logo for the band “The Unseen” on it.

“Hey man, you are not unseen.  You are totally seen.”

Somehow, that was exactly what I needed to hear.

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Jukebox: Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon

On my way to save the world

It’s finally decided: I’m spending the summer in Ecuador.

This is not exactly news.  I settled on doing my research on environmental justice movements in Latin America in the fall, narrowed it to the Andes by Christmas, and zeroed in on Yasuní National Park in Ecuador by the beginning of this term.  Still, though, it only really set in today, when I finally had put together the ominous trifecta of a guidebook, a thesis proposal, and—most importantly—a plane ticket.  I’m officially as committed as a non-refundable flight: I really am, in fact, going.

Heck yes.

I have, I dare say, the kind of research site that social scientists dream about.  Yasuní is—supposedly—blessed with the highest biodiversity in the world (purportedly, they found an acre of land that had more species of trees than all of North America).  The park is also home to the Tagaeri people, who have no peaceful contact with the outside world (and, of course, thousands of others whose stories I might actually have a chance to tell).  More recently, Yasuní has become a battleground between global mobilizations against climate change and the oil companies that run the Amazon’s extractive economy.  In short, the Ecuadorian Amazon has all the actors for the perfect development narrative: well-meaning but mis-informed international non-profits, evil multinational corporations, threatened indigenous cultures, and Macaws to boot.

Right now, my imagination is running wild.  I have colonialist visions of me in a Panama hat, trekking off into the rainforest only to “go native” and never return.  Or perhaps I will be an ethnographic dragon-slayer, unearthing the evidence that will save Yasuní for generations to come.  Of course, in reality, these romantic narratives will quickly come crashing down.  My Spanish skills are, at best, questionable, and my knowledge of Ecuador comes exclusively from Oxford’s Social Science Library.  I know the Amazon is a tough place, full of conflict and storing centuries of accumulated injustice.

While I’ve been feeling trepidation about these things for months, at least for today, I’m feeling a bit of giddiness and excitement.  I’ve had no shortage of frustration this year with my course and my advising over the course of this year.  At moments like this, though, it’s nice to step back and realize that I’m spending my summer in an exotic place studying a topic that fascinates me… because it’s my job. Not bad.

Of course, I’m being a bit hazy about what I’m actually doing in my real-life Pandora.  For that, you’ll have to watch this space!

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Jukebox: Operation Ivy – Missionary

The evolution of “awkward prom”

First it was just me being dumb:

Houseparties 2007

… and then it evolved.

Houseparties 2008

Houseparties 2009

Since there was no way I would share pictures of me in a cummerbund unless I looked real stupid:

Keble Ball 2010

I like that we’ve managed to have the exact same facial expression for four years running.

He’s an Oggsford Man

Having last week posted about my delight at Oxford’s preposterous academic garb, I figured I would complete the series by writing about my recent experiences with two other fabulously pretentious Oxford institutions: summer balls and punting.

Not an effective means of transport, as evidenced by Christoph getting clotheslined by the tree.

“Punting” refers to going boating on the Thames, preferable with a pitcher of Pims on board.  Punting is pretty much designed to be a colossal waste of time: the punt’s “power” comes from a long metal pole, which you use to push yourself along or, in my case, repeatedly steer your boat into the riverbank.  Punts are so bad at doing anything that even Christoph and I – with our combined penchant for mischief – couldn’t manage to squeeze our boat into a restricted area, sink, or ram anyone else (he did manage to lose our punting pole).  In short, punting is a perfect metaphor for Oxford: punts aren’t very good at getting you anywhere, but they do provide a good opportunity to talk about Kierkegaard and provide a stable platform from which to pour alcoholic beverages.

The big event of my last week, though, was the ball.  A few months ago, my housemate Nicola wrote me to tell me that I simply must buy tickets for Keble Ball, as it is one of Oxford’s finest summer events and – at a mere £70 a head – a bargain.  Having attended Princeton’s houseparties only semi-voluntarily, I was a bit tentative, but eventually splurged when I found out Jackie was going to be around (*okay, I’ll admit it – I wanted to go*).

Why yes, that IS a top hat and cape.

The ball itself could best be described as Princeton houseparties on crack.  There were people wearing capes and white gloves and top-hats; tents serving everything from Moroccan food to donuts; hookah and cocktail bars; bands, comedians, musicians; and even a silent disco.  I had a great time, albeit mostly because I got to spend six hours dancing with Jackie—something we probably could have done in my kitchen.  Still, the whole thing was worth it, if only for the look on Jackie’s face when she saw me in a proper tuxedo—handkerchief and cummerbund included.  There were some parts of the ball that really disgusted me (probably the topic of a separate post), but when I put aside my principles, it was a grand time.

I’ll wrap this up with a loosely connected digression.  It occurred to me at the start of this term that I am already 1/3rd of the way done with my Oxford experience.  I suppose – given how frustrated and stressed I am with the teaching and academics here – this ought to have been a relief, but it wasn’t: it just made me melancholy.  Somewhere in the last year I really bought into the idea of Oxford, even if the details of this place drive me crazy.

Jackie’s visit—and the chance it gave me to show her my life here—made me realize how wrapped up in Oxford’s culture and tradition I have become.   I’ve been avidly searching out those places and experiences that fit my romantic notions about Oxford, to the extent that I sometimes I put blinders and avoid thinking about the real nature of this privileged, conservative institution.   I suppose as an outsider, I don’t feel as comfortable pushing against the things about Oxford that I find problematic, even if these are – in many ways – the same things I confronted at Princeton.  At the same time, though, occasionally I have to pinch myself and remember that I got to come here precisely because I didn’t totally buy into the last ivy tower where I studied.

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Jukebox: Subhumans – British Disease

The Revolution Will Involve Mostly Retired People

Listening to archaic hymns sung from the tower of one of Oxford’s most conservative colleges didn’t quite feel like the proper way to celebrate May Day.  So, to reclaim some activist cred (and, in my own small way, to try to do right by the world), I spent my afternoon in Aylesbury – a town near Oxford – with United Against Fascism, counter-demonstrating against the English Defense League (a “counter-jihadist” group dedicated to driving Muslims out of England).

It feels completely demented to be writing this, but I think there is something appealing about mobilizing against fascism.  Unlike nearly every other issue serious I care about, this is one where most of society seems to be on my side.  In my extremely limited experience (and reading of history), counter-demonstrators tend to outnumber neo-Nazis and their ilk by usually about ten-to-one, and as a result these events are – in a weird way – fabulous moments of unity and people-power.  After a week in which I was asked about fifty times, “You’re from Arizona, right?  Why do you hate immigrants?” it felt good to be challenging xenophobia and racism (albeit of the English Defense League’s uniquely disgusting brand).

The protest, though, was a disaster.  The city council decided to grant the EDL a permit to march but put UAF in an isolated city park, surrounded on all sides by police officers.  While I’d like to tell some noble or romantic story about a group of outnumbered activists being swamped by vile skin-heads – or, perhaps, blame our failure on the absurd restrictions placed by right-wing local politicians– the reality was there were so few of us that the EDL could just march by.  We listened to a few speeches that talked – dishonestly, I’m afraid to say – about how our little demonstration would be heard around the country and how this was a turning point in the fight against fascism, got back on our coach, and left.  Everyone knew that, any way you might measure it, we lost – even newspaper coverage of the event relegated us to a footnote.

I’ve now been to a good number of demonstrations during my time in England: against the War in Afghanistan, pro-apartheid Israeli politicians, and animal testing, and in favor of university divestment from arms companies and action on climate change.  At least compared to Americans, the British do seem to like protesting.  But what has consistently struck me, though, is how old the attendees usually are.  Today, our small group was composed mostly of a hodge-podge of socialists who talked about Trotsky like they knew him and aging trade unionists who seemed trapped in the era before globalization when unions actually mattered.  Within Oxford, it’s largely the same group of pensioners that can be counted on to show up to wave placards.  18,000 students, and no more than a half-dozen can ever be bothered.

The running line in the U.S. is that if you’re not liberal and under thirty-five, you lack a heart, and if you’re over thirty-five and not conservative, you lack a brain.  Increasingly, though, it seems to me like at least among the left, the reality is the exact opposite.  The idealists are from an older cohort, while the twenty-somethings are more hard-hearted, committed to gradual change and political reform.  My generation is extremely cynical about the efficacy of things like mass protest.  I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been told by fellow Princetonians that they support a cause, but they won’t show up to a rally, because “that never changes anything.”

They are, of course, half-right.  The 1960s brought us more riots, demonstrations, and marches than any decade before—but they didn’t bring us utopia.  Waving placards and clogging streets probably isn’t the way to bring about a social revolution.  I wonder, though, if while protesting hasn’t changed anything, maybe it prevents things from being much worse.  Perhaps those scraps of citizenship and fragments of entitlements we enjoy exist only because there is a cadre of people who yell and kick and scream whenever the people in power try to take them away?  Would Aylesbury be a worse place now were it not for a handful of people registering their dissent?  And maybe, just maybe, it mattered that there were 75 demonstrators, not 74, and that extra sign-waver was an young American from Arizona.

Who knows if I’m right?  Maybe protesting really is a waste of time.  I suppose, at the rate the activists around me seem to be aging, we’ll find out in a few decades.

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Jukebox: Rise Against – Halfway There

Spring Has Sprung!

In celebration of finishing exams, a few development studies students set out to find the least productive way to spend an afternoon.

We found this paragon of procrastination.

It is called cricket.

Don't tire yourself out.

I freely admit that I do not know enough about cricket to appreciate its nuances, which I’m sure are fascinating.  I also know that plenty of people here think that American baseball and football are mind-numbingly boring. That said, I’m skeptical of any sport that can be played while wearing a white khaki suit and panama hat.  I mean, the sport was invented by colonialists who had nothing to do: it is, in short, intended to be a spectacular waste of time.

What really got me, though, was the guy who was smoking and reading the newspaper while ostensibly also playing in the outfield.  At various points, players would stop paying attention to the game and do a few push-ups; I think if you didn’t, and you played cricket all the time, you’d get out of shape.  (I think I’m also bitter because my classmates who were playing in the match didn’t seem very appreciative of me shouting “Hit a homer!” at the top of my lungs when they were batting.  I guess it really is a “Gentleman’s Game.”)

Magdalen Tower

In all seriousness, though, spring in Oxford is fantastic.  Our workload hasn’t really changed, but our approach to it definitely has.  The terms here are so short, and good weather is so rare, that the opportunity cost of a moment spent inside at this point feels almost too high to bear.  I’ve been gardening, rowing, running, wandering – pretty much anything but working on my thesis.  This morning, to celebrate May Day, we woke up at 5:15 a.m. and trundled down to Magdalen Bridge, where the college choir sung madrigal hymns from the tower.

I was about to write that things couldn’t get much better, but it occurs to me that they most definitely can – and will – when Jackie’s flight arrives this evening!

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Jukebox: The Lawrence Arms – Quincentuple Your Money