Crisis in Neverland

From the college:

“Last night damage was done to the front quad, and as Garden Master I am writing to you to explain what happened and why it is so important. The College’s Garden Committee will have to take up the matter of the disciplinary consequences of this with the Dean, but this note is an explanation of the problem.

There was a heavy frost last night and in the morning there were footprints all over the lawn in the front quad; there was also evidence of people having climbed up the banks once again. Many of the footprints were heavy, with the grass under the heel of the shoes being crushed. The grass in the quad is NOT like the grass on the sports fields, which is designed to withstand heavy use. Instead it is grown for its fine appearance and it is therefore very fragile. The effect of last night’s intrusion is that the grass under the footprints will become blackened and look unsightly this will also cause the grass stress which in turn would make it susceptible to fungal disease. There is nothing that the gardeners can do now to prevent this; all they can do is deal with the adverse effects later. The places on which there are very heavy foot treads will also require attention so that they can be levelled out.

The garden is one of the most important historical gardens in the region; it has also won many prizes in recent years for the way it is maintained. Generations of students and Old Members have enjoyed it and have been proud of it. What has happened is the equivalent of rubbing oily fingers over a fine painting. Fragile items have to be protected; that is why “Please keep off the grass” notices are NOT petty-minded authoritarian utterances from old fogeys, but are designed to help something from which we all take pleasure being harmed. I would hope that this year’s outbreak of damage will stop fairly soon.”

With all due respect to the gardeners – and I DO love the gardeners – I am grateful for the fact that I live in a community where this is the most grievous transgression that has taken place in a while.

In my country, we'd shoot you for this.

On a lighter note…

It occurred to me that my last three posts have been about, respectively, animal slaughter and alcoholism, ethnocide, and beggars.  I will now attempt to share some less depressing anecdotes.

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting Manuela Ima, the President of the Huaorani Women’s Association.  We met up in my hotel, which happens to have a few dopey-looking statues of Huaoranis in the garden.  Manuela did not seem to be offended; in fact, she thought they were hilarious, and insisted that I take her picture with some of her “brothers.”  We then went back to her store and had a photo shoot with some spears, so that I could show my friends how fierce the Huaorani are.

Manuela: Warrior Princess.

As usual, the mammals stole the show at the Pompeya meat market.  But what about these giant maggots that were on sale?  They’re biodiversity too!  As I found out this weekend, they wind up on skewers and sold in the Sunday Kichwa market in Coca.  At least this summer, they aren’t living inside me.


Oh, and here’s a picture of a monkey about to eat a cigarette.

Band grossest member candidate 2011?

Monkey TV

It’s been raining non-stop since I returned to Coca from Quito twelve hours ago.  While it’s fair to say this is not particularly out of the ordinary in the rainforest, for me it’s fairly debilitating.  The pounding of heavy droplets on corrugated metal means that I can neither understand anyone nor do any transcription.  The storm has, for the moment, knocked out the TV and my internet connection.  Worst of all, the rain means I can’t engage in my favourite form of procrastination: watching monkeys.


My mother jokes that, now that our family dogs have grown more geriatric, all they do all day is sit at the window and watch “Squirrel TV.”  The stray dogs of Coca seem to be similarly engaged in monkey-watching.  Unlike squirrels, though, the monkeys that live down by the edge of the Rio Napo fight back, climbing one tree, sneaking down another, and attacking the dogs from behind.  It’s a pretty entertaining interchange.

Hours of entertainment.

Lest I give the impression that I think homo sapiens are somehow a higher order of mammal, I should note that the residents of Coca—including yours truly—are no harder to amuse.  I must have spent a solid hour down at the waterfront this weekend observing people as they gave the monkeys various hilarious—if totally not-okay—treats, ranging from bubble gum to cigarettes.  When I came back to the hotel, I sat outside trying to read… until a monkey came and started harassing me and trying to steal things from my backpack.  I don’t quite know what it is—their almost-human faces or penchant for mischief—but I could watch monkeys all day long.

I feel kind of bad... but a monkey eating bubble gum is pretty damn cute.

If you were expecting this post to have some redeeming pedagogical value, consider yourself officially disappointed.

It’s been raining non-stop since I returned from Quito twelve hours ago.  While it’s fair to say this is not particularly out of the ordinary in the rainforest, for me it’s fairly debilitating.  The pounding of heavy droplets on corrugated metal means that I can neither understand anyone nor do any transcription.  The storm has, for the moment, knocked out the TV and internet connection.  And, worst of all, the rain means I can’t engage in my favourite form of procrastination: watching monkeys.

My Daily Collective Action Problem

I am somewhat infatuated with Quito’s bus system.  Perhaps it is a product of growing up in the mass-transit-is-for-wimps-and-commies American west, but I think I am peculiarly appreciative of the fact that, for $.25, I can traverse the entire length of Quito relatively swiftly while leaving it to someone else to deal with this country’s insane, horn-happy drivers.

Of course, observing 112 people crammed into an area the size of my dining room is also bound to spawn some interesting questions.  For example, how loudly can the teenagers play reggaeton through their cell-phones before the abuelitas start giving them dirty looks?  In how few syllables can the driver provide all the information he or she is required to give (current stop – watch your step – doors closing – next stop)?  And, while it’s totally clear than men always give up their seats for women and able-bodied women always give up their seats for disabled-women, who has to stand when it comes to a pregnant woman versus a woman with an infant versus an old woman with a cane? (It’s a bit like trying to figure out the rules to ‘rock-paper-scissors’ when playing with my brother, who generally chooses ‘gun’).

Lest I wax whimsically, once again, about ‘informal regulation’ and other sociological nonsense, I should add that Quito’s buses are also unbridled chaos.  The problem stems from the fact that the bus stops at a given station for—at maximum—15 seconds.  Given how crammed the buses are at rush hour (seriously, the green line in Manhattan has nothing on EcoVilla), this means that your only hope to get off the bus at the proper stop is to constantly fight your way towards the door, irrespective of where your stop actually is and how many people are trying to get on.  The result is somewhat comical, at least when you’re not getting crushed.  Around the door, it’s impossible to breathe, but in the aisles five feet away, there’s ample space (I literally saw a woman standing up and knitting).

It’s really a pretty classic prisoner’s dilemma.  If everyone just stepped away from the door, we could all ride in (relative) comfort.  But the best situation is if you stand by the door and everyone else stands back.  Knowing this, of course, everyone crowds the exit.

I am really quite certain that if I could convince everyone to stand in the aisle until their stop, I could save the world.

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.)

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