“Shoeing the Tabs”, whatever that means

I hadn’t looked at my passport photo for a long time prior to embarking on my now moderately infamous quest to get a U.K. visa.  It’s actually pretty amusing.  I have no piercings—not in my ears, not in my eyebrow—and my hair is closely cropped and normal colored.  The thing that really humors me, though, is that I’m wearing a varsity letter jacket.

My passport photo is a window into a very specific period of my life, a huge divergence from what came before and what has come after.  The photo was taken my senior year of high school, when I was applying for a passport in preparation for a school trip to Mexico.  It documents a few month period where I lived and breathed running.  By the final months of high school, I pretty much only showed up to school for practice afterward.  Even then, I had a note from my parents giving me permission to leave class to go running.  Fourth period physics was a personal favorite to disappear from.  I shudder to admit it, but at that point in my life I was, at least, insofar as I could be at a tiny and unconventional school like Northland Preparatory Academic, a jock.

Ghosts of jock-dom past.

All this is amusing, to me at least, because it’s a part of my identity that has so thoroughly disappeared in subsequent years.  A few months after the picture was taken, I tore my Achilles tendon on a training run, and my athletic career was over.  When it happened, I was thoroughly crushed, but I got over it.  I joined the band, went vegan, embraced punk culture, and tried to forget that I had once been the kind of square who would wear a letter jacket.

The person in my passport picture has been feeling a bit more familiar since I moved to Oxford.  Following the standard American-in-Oxford path, I signed up for crew and, by merit of being slightly tall, having some familiarity with a gym, and my willingness to practice for more than two hours a week, I found myself in Worcester College’s “A” boat.  For the last eight weeks, I’ve had weekly six a.m. outings in complete darkness and circuits in the rain—and absolutely loved every minute of it.

This week was Christ Church Regatta, the first proper race of the season, in which it seemed practically half the student body was competing.  Boathouse Island was a non-stop party, with each of Oxford’s thirty-nine colleges putting its regalia out in full.  The night before our first race, our crew, consisting of two undergraduate coaches (from the U.K.), six undergrads (all from the U.K.), and myself and one other graduate student (from Australia), got together to carbohydrate load, trash talk Worcester’s B crew, and, as seems to wind up happening, teach me English slang terms.  (Those other crews are so naff).  Afterward, we watched a horrendously clichéd rowing movie which borrowed heavily from Mighty Ducks and stole its soundtrack from Rocky.  It was fantastic.

I hadn’t realized how serious I was about rowing until race day, when I couldn’t concentrate all morning and wound up skipping class to warm up, stretch, and you-tube Olympic rowing matches.  At the boathouse, the eighteen-year-olds on my team were putting on pink facepaint (Worcester’s color), but I could practically hear Mr. Elder, my high school coach, reminding me “the only way I want you to call attention to yourself is by winning.”  By the time we had rowed up to the starting line, I was half roaring with adrenaline, half sick with nervousness.  Two minutes and five hundred meters later, we had beaten St. Hugh’s College, and I was thrilled to no end.


Getting pumped.

The regatta is a knock-out tournament, so we were slated to race again the next day.  In a turn of events that must have been surprising to absolutely no one except the race organizers, it rained for the rest of Wednesday.  The river rose, and Thursday’s race was cancelled.  After another day of rain, Friday was out too, and Saturday thereafter.  We “finished” the regatta unsatisfied, but undefeated.

The silver lining of the cancellation was that I had a chance to run against Cambridge on Saturday.  I’ve only run one race previously this semester, an intercollegiate match, but I had to row for two hours prior and rush two miles to the starting line, so it wasn’t exactly a stellar performance.  As a result of not running any other qualifying matches, I was thrown into the “mob match” rather than the varsity race, but, having trained for rowing not running, I was okay with the diminished competition.  For whatever reason, though, yesterday everything clicked.  The course was a slimy, muddy mess, with tight turns and steep hills; in other words, proper cross country.  I started out conservatively—assuming that I was out of shape—but around mile two, really started cruising.  Even when the misery of running hard for thirty minutes started to hit me, I didn’t let up, and wound up sprinting four-hundred miles to the finish, before collapsing.

Gentlemanly competition, but which I mean, I hate you Cambridge.

While I wasn’t running proper varsity, I’m still pretty proud of the fact that I took second (and the guy in first was varsity last year) and managed a massive personal best for the 10k.  It was such a pointless, meaningless race, and yet it felt so good to do well.  I had forgotten how much I missed running, how much it had killed me to let go if it freshman year.  I was honestly tearing up by the time I got in the van to return to campus, and couldn’t wait to call up my old coach and thank him-once again-for bringing running into my life.

So, I suppose, things have come full circle, and the jock in the passport photo seems more and more familiar to me.  I was chatting about rowing with a woman in my program who is also doing crew, and she made a comment to the effect that “I didn’t think vegans were ever into sports…”  It made me realize how incongruous my rediscovered passion is with the rest of my life.  Sometimes, I struggle with whether or not this is really a worthwhile use of my time.  I can’t help but think the people paying for me to be here didn’t do so expecting me to be a B-grade runner and a C-grade oarsman (and wouldn’t be particularly satisfied if I was “A-grade” in either).  I’m not going to solve world poverty on a training run, or figure out a life purpose at a 6 a.m. crew outing.

Coach Elder told me once that “running is life.”  He didn’t entirely mean it in the you-should-make-your-entire-life-running sense.  He also meant that running is, in a weird way, a metaphor for all of life.  My existence is, indeed, one long competition: my studies are supposed to be part of the fight against indifference and apathy, but frequently feel like a battle over the inertia of academia.  As an activist, I’m in conflict with the university over arms investment and in my personal life, I’m challenging the oppression of animals and the depletion of natural resources.

The toughest fights, of course, are with yourself, and on Saturday—competing against my own limits—I for once felt like I won.  And that, to me, is worth it.


Long-missed signs of hard work.
These are actually kind of graphic. Sorry about that.

Rule Britannia

England, it seems to me, is a land of rules.

Before I arrived here, one of the first things I told people about my impending trip to Oxford was that students aren’t allowed to walk on the grass. Coming from Princeton, where as soon as the temperature gets above sixty-two it seems like the entire student body busts out bikinis and Frisbees and collectively flops on the lawn, this struck me as pretty amusing. I wasn’t entirely sure how serious Oxford was about this rule, though, until last week, when I was showing my parents around the Worcester Quad. I reminded my parents, as we walked by, that we weren’t allowed to step on the grass. My mom, joker that she is, responded by putting half of her foot on the lawn. The lawn must have sensors in it, because with a matter of seconds, one of the porters was approaching us, tut-tutting, and proceeded to sternly remind us that only fellows of the college may walk across the quad.

Not actually kidding.
Look closely, and you can see a porter walking across the grass to yell at us.

It’s not so much that they have a lot of rules here, but that they actually enforce them, that strikes me. Our student handbook says you’re not allowed to text inside the dining hall: I figured that they must have been just requesting it as a courtesy, until the other night when a staff member placed a firm hand on my shoulder and reminded me of this regulation, once again only a few moments after I had pulled out my phone. They are similarly deathly serious about the necessity of wearing gowns and white bow-ties for examinations, not using headphones in the library, and attaching the proper cover sheets to submitted essays.  A professor even refused to read my first essay until I resubmitted the entire thing with the question in the title.

Some of these, you actually need to know.

Maybe this obsession with rules is a purely Oxonian phenomenon, the product of nine-hundred year of opportunities to accrue meaningless regulations. Anecdotal evidence, though, suggest otherwise. While I can sort of understand why they might not want us to walk on the grass, given the amount of effort that goes into maintaining it, I was a little flabbergasted at Blenheim Palace, when we were told we weren’t allowed to walk on the… gravel?

Sign reads: "Please Keep Off"

Above all else, though, I think no institution better captures the English spirit of rule-abiding than the near-sacred queue. My flatmate Christoph—who grew up in communist East Germany—is even flabbergasted at the English propensity for forming lines. A few nights ago, a few friends and I found ourselves waiting in line to get into a dance at St. Anthony’s college. For whatever reason, the line wasn’t moving. Gradually, all the international students started breaking ranks and mobbing the front door. The locals, however, kept their spots, throwing looks of scorn that could practically kill. To offer another example,  I was in a coffee shop earlier this week, searching in vain for a vegan pastry in the display case. Another woman walked up beside me and started looking as well. When I glanced over at her, though, she seemed to think I thought she was jumping the queue—a cardinal sin. She sheepishly moved back behind me, creating a perfect line of just two people.

I suppose if I thought about it hard enough, I could find comparably silly rules and regulations at Princeton. To some extent, I’m cognizant of the rules here because some of them are unfamiliar, whereas to a local things like not walking on grass or actually obeying pedestrian traffic signals are internalized and thus seem perfectly natural. More than that, though, I think I’m aware of the rules here because I’ve actually been making an effort to follow them. As an undergrad, I got a kick out of pushing the boundaries of social conventions—witness my walking through Fitz-Randolph Gate freshman year, or instituting night-before-exams band gigs in Firestone Library. Perhaps because I’m in a foreign country, I don’t quite feel the same ownership over this place as I did Princeton, and as such, I’m less inclined to disrespect things that I, personally, find to be silly.

The long and short of it is that being here has made me realize that I am not much of a rebel anymore—at least, not in the superficial sense that I used to be. E-mails from friends at home almost always ask if I have any “crazy stories” yet, and often close me by asking what my hair color is these days. While I’ve been to some crazy things here—ranging from crew dates to effigy burnings—I’ve been more of a passive spectator than an instigator. As for my hair, well, it’s brown, and that’s about all there is to say. Sometimes, I fear that I’ve settled down too much, but perhaps my iconoclastic side has just matured. In a sense, some of the things I’m doing here—both what I’m studying and the activism with which I’ve become involved—are a lot more threatening to a society of rules than having a silly hair style.

Aimless rambling, followed by pictures of Stonehenge

My Great Grandmother Anna is a something of a legendary figure within my family.  And quite rightly so: she emigrated—alone—to the United States at age 15, raised a family of seven by herself, and lived to 105, drinking whiskey until the day she died and only moving to a nursing home when her children were too aged to care for her.  We’ve always maintained a certain body of family lore about her journey to the U.S.  The stories describe her long walk to the train station, her arduous journey to the U.S., her wait at Ellis Island, and, of course, her struggle to adapt to life in a place that was totally foreign to her.

A few years ago, my parents decided to retrace her journey, all the way back to Ruthenia, the area of Ukraine from which she originally came.  When they arrived, they made a somewhat amusing discovery: she uprooted herself from Ukraine, traveled thousands of miles, and settled in a village in Pennsylvania… that looked exactly like her village in Ukraine.  Not only were the landscapes identical, but each was populated by a bunch of Eastern Europeans who didn’t speak English.

That’s a rambling introduction to something that is, obviously, not really comparable at all: my move to Oxford.  I only thought of it because it’s occurred to me lately that I’ve left Princeton and moved to… Princeton (or perhaps, to be fair, I left Oxford-rip-off and moved to Oxford).  I could go on ad infinitum about the similarities between the institutions, but the similarities hit me particularly hard this week as I was travelling through the English countryside.  I personally think the pictures below are beautiful—but they might as well have been taken in New Hampshire.  I wonder how the Puritans felt when they landed in New England only to discover that it was, in at least a few superficial ways, familiar.

Pretty ... but kind of like New Hampshire.
Pretty ... but kind of like Princeton.

My wonderful parents were visiting this week, which gave me an excellent opportunity to do lots of touristy things.  We walked on the crumpled ramparts of a 2,000-year-old castle, took pictures with royal guards in funny hats, visited an obscenely opulent palace, gazed at a giant celtic horse drawn in chalk on the sidewalk, and, of course, visited Stonehenge.  This place is pretty different after all.

Found only in "old" England.
We cropped out the druids.
Possibly a 1,500 year old representation of the dragon that St. George killed on the hill nearby.
They don't make phone boothes like this in the U.S.!

Cultural Exchange

While the anthropologist in me knows I shouldn’t say this, there are some things in foreign countries that just suck.  In Uganda, it was cardboard boxes: they were just objectively horrible, fallilng apart as soon as you put something in them (begging the question: what is the purpose of a cardboard box in which you can’t put things?).

In England, it’s washing machines.  I started a load of wash an hour and a half ago, and the thing is still going.  I’ve tinkered with the settings, pulled all the knobs, and punched all the buttons, and I have still yet to figure out a way to make doing a load of wash take less than three times as long as it does in the U.S.  Of course, it wouldn’t help if I could get the washing machine to function at an American rate of speed, since the dryer is even slower.

Just so we don’t think I’m being completely disdainful of England, they do have at least one leg up on us in terms of appliances: electric kettles.  At first, I thought that the kettle only functioned to make water for tea (which is, of course, a pretty big function).  But then I learned, through watching my English flatmates, that you can actually use an electric kettles to make hot water for, well, anything you need hot water for.  I realize that this is terribly obvious, but when you eat a lot of pasta, this is a rather life changing discovery: I can make a boiling pot of water in two minutes, while on the stove I would usually wait twenty.

While I’m on the subject of appliances, I might as well mention my new blender.  Even a cheap American blender probably has a good nine settings on it, allowing you to make a careful choice between “puree” and “liquefy.”  My blender here—and every blender here, according to my comparison shopping—has only one button: “On.”  Admittedly, that’s really all I need: when I am using a blender, I really just want it blended, and it doesn’t much matter the power level.  But I think as an American I have an intrinsic need for a multiplicity of useless choices and functions, and so my single speed blender is a bit distressing.

If you are expecting some redeeming, overarching message to this really inane post about kitchenware, you are on the fast track for disappointment.  It is interesting to me, though, that in this world of global capitalism, where you can find cell-phone wielding entrepreneurs in rural Africa, English people still have pre-modern blenders and Americans haven’t discovered the secret to boiling water.  Culture is a sticky, stubborn thing, a fact I discovered when I suggested to Nicola that English washing machines were a tad slow.

A Moral Quandary – Audience Participation (?)

Before I arrived in Uganda, I expected that people in Africa would ask me for money or sponsorship all the time. I had heard my father’s stories from the Peace Corps in Peru, where people would simultaneously tell him “America kills babies!” and ask him to bring them back to the U.S. While I expected a similar experience, I didn’t get it. Aside from the occasional person who would walk up to me on the street and say “Mzungu! Give me money” (in a totally non-threatening manner), I was panhandled or asked for assistance practically never.

Why they thought all white people are rich was beyond me.
Why they thought all white people are rich is beyond me.

All this taken into consideration, I still wasn’t particularly surprised or taken aback this week when an acquaintance from Uganda – with whom I shared a house for a few weeks – wrote from out of the blue asking me for a few hundred dollars to help him pay university fees. I was, however, a bit thrown for a loop. You would think that, studying development, I would have some logical plan of action for confronting a real-world situation of third world poverty. The irony is that, while I might have had a ready answer a year ago, my experiences since then have made this sort of thing seem much more complex.

I like to think of myself as someone who is aware of his privilege and the obligations to others that privilege creates. The utilitarian in me knows that in the grand scheme of the universe, I am unlikely to gain more benefit from a few hundred bucks than this guy will, and the determinist in me knows that I have money and he does not by pure chance. It doesn’t particularly bother me that he is asking me, who he knew for only a few weeks, rather than any of the numerous other similarly positioned white graduate students who also live in the house (he didn’t ask either of the other research assistants, who were there at the same time I was). To some extent, it’s frustrating that he—like so many in Uganda—assumed that because I am from the U.S., my funds are limitless, but from his perspective, they might as well be. I do have the resources to help, if I really want to, and the things I would sacrifice to do so would be significant but not overwhelmingly so.

Peter Singer talks about the example of a drowning child; just because others could pull out the child, and do not, does not lessen your own obligation to help. Neither should it matter if the child is far away, nor if helping him or her requires you to be late for work or ruin a nice suit. It’s an argument that I find persuasive, and I remind myself of it anytime I am reluctant to open up my purse strings. I suppose that, a year ago, my bleeding heart and liberal guilt-complex would have led me to stretch my funds and wire him some money.

What I have realized in the last year, though, is that our moral obligation to give is not necessarily the same as someone else’s moral entitlement to get. In Uganda, I tried arduously to shut my eyes to the signs of dependence around me, but they were there. It was impossible to ignore the way people turned to white intervention as a panacea for their problems. In a sense, people in Africa may very well deserve assistance from Europeans; we have and continue to extract billions of dollars in natural resource wealth from the continent. At the same time, though, a knee-jerk assumption that white people will come on high and solve problems does create a sort of complacency and powerlessness that ensures that no assistance will actually work.

When I’ve mentioned my quandary to some of my friends, many of them commented, “You also have no idea if he’s actually going to spend the money to go to college.” I suppose I’m naïve enough that this concern never occurred to me, and it still doesn’t particularly bug me. I do, however, wonder about whether giving him money for an education will actually help him avoid having to come back to me again. A sad truth of Uganda is that there are far more degrees than jobs; this summer, I paid people with MBAs and masters degrees $10 a day to read surveys all day. This is not a matter of “teaching someone to fish,” as per the parable; it’s giving a fish.

I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea of writing about this publicly; perhaps a private request for aid should be kept private (though I am keeping this anonymous). But I am genuinely curious if anyone has any insights as to how to deal with this sort of a situation.

Remember, Remember

Remember remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot

And remember they do. Guy Fawkes’ attempt to blow up the King and Parliament in 1605 is, for the English, recent history; I got the impression Nicola, my English flat-mate, is still a bit pissed off about it. I’m not precisely sure what the British are celebrating on Guy Fawkes Night—apparently, the holiday originated when King James decided to let the population know that they should feel free to celebrate his narrow escape by lighting fires in his honor (but only if they really wanted to)—but it sure is a good party. While I think my sympathies might lie with Fawkes—seriously, King James’ line was so bad no kings take his name anymore—Saturday night was not the right occasion to mourn freedom fighters. It was a night to set shit on fire.

It's manly dancing, because they have fire.
It's manly dancing, because they have fire.
Hooray for despots and potentates!
Hooray for despots and dictators!

Guy Fawkes in effigy.
The real Guy Fawkes was drawn and quartered; I think the effigy gets off easy.
And, when the covering is burned off, it is revealed that Guy Fawkes is, in fact, Satan.

By comparison, today—Remembrance Day—was a bit more sober. For the last few weeks, there’s been a blossoming (semi-literally) of red poppies, worn on the lapels, in honor of those that died in war from 1914 to 1918. I’m not entirely sure what inspired my decision, but I decided to attend Remembrance Day services in Worcester’s Anglican chapel.

It was the first time in my entire life that I’ve ever voluntarily gone to church and—though it damages my rebel credibility—I’ll admit that I was really glad I went. Worcester has a proper boys choir, and their choice of music and the acoustics of the chapel created an appropriate tenor for the services, in which the bishop gave a thoughtful sermon on the meaning of sacrifice. Like so many things here, Anglican religiosity feels very muted and subtle, which allowed me some time to take a deep breath and reflect in silence.

I almost cried when the bugler started playing the British version of “Taps,” and the Provost read the lengthy list of individuals from the college who died in the war. Knowing that they lived in the same dorms, ate in the same hall, and sat in the same pews just overwhelmed me. There was no jingoistic “We saved freedom!” sort of rhetoric like we are force-fed in the United States. Everything said in the service seemed to reflect a realization that World War I—and all those deaths—was just a waste. While my mind would inevitably have connected what we heard to the War in Afghanistan, I didn’t need to, because the vicar mentioned it several times.

Before we left, we read together:

Let peace fill our hearts,
Our world,
Our universe.

I know I could rail about the hypocrisyof the church or the futility of appealing to some higher power for peace rather than creating it ourselves, but I like they sentiment they express enough to let the words sit.

Our cultures create such a cornucopia of ways, ranging from the absurd to the gut-wrenchingly emotional, to remember the past. And yet it seems like our politics and policies are all about forgetting.

Ties That Bind

Young Ones.
Back in my day, the only press we received was hate mail.

The initial glow of Oxford has started to wear off.  While I’m still enjoying it here, I am coming to a point where I have to confront the reality of being a semi-grown up.  The existential and absurd questions that occupied me when I arrived—ranging from “How am I going to save the world?” to “Is that building featured in Harry Potter?”—are being overtaken by a bit more practical considerations.  I need to figure out a thesis topic.  I need to have some sort of career path.  And, at some point, I need to make some new friends and round out the non-academic side of my life.

It is, after all, a bit isolating being a graduate student in a new country.  It’s crazy to say this, given how desperate I was to get out of Princeton just four weeks ago, but to that effect I really miss the band.  When my screensaver pops up, displaying four years of band photos, I almost reflexively wind up on facebook, trying to figure out where in the library the band got to on its last march around or what exactly our field formation was supposed to be.  Football season is in full swing, and well Princeton football really sucks, that doesn’t stop me from remembering the last four years of watching Princeton lose as some of the best times of my life.  While I’m sure I will discover something equally great in my time at Oxford, at this point, the comparison is between a known wonderful thing that is happening right now and some unknown something I hope to discover in the future.  It’s a recipe for nostalgia.

This is all a very long lead in for something that ought to need no introduction.  Last night, I brought Kevin Smith (’07 OCx2A), Ben Elias (’05 PExDMxLLxFLL), and Dave Casazza (’10), all friendly faces and current and former members of the band, to Worcester for formal hall.  It was a wonderful evening: I really loved the idea of being able to bring friends to “my” college, “my” formal hall, and “my” college bar.  It was equally nice to be able to bring us together in a place that is very far from Powers Field.

Of course, despite our best efforts to show that, when not wearing orange plaid, we are in fact normal people, our conversation drifted to the band.  Dave started talking about the freshman—the class of ’13, that is—and that evoked some stories from Ben about some members of the class of ’01, who graduated his freshman year.  While that is a pretty wide age range—Mark Pescatore ’01 graduated when the ‘13ers were entering the second half of elementary school—the connections between them didn’t seem strange.  I’ve never quite understood the supposed spiritual connection that is the Princeton alumni network, but in the band, the bond still feels incredibly strong, even with people I barely know.

As I evolve from band leader in the thick of things to crusty alum on the sidelines, it’s nice to know that I share experiences with everyone who has graduated from the band before me and everyone who will join it in the future, and that these experiences provide, at the very least, a bit of camaraderie and friendship.  I miss the band—but so do a lot of people, and when we get together, we can collectively commiserate about how back in our day, we played in every library, wrote funnier shows, were the scourge of athletics, and knew how to lobster correctly.  And then we can talk about how, despite it all, we still love the band, whatever and wherever it is.  Beat Penn.

If I book now, a flight to reunions is only three hundred quid.