Saturday, 5 March 2011

VIII. Of Chaos Theory, Wedding Registries, (New York) Parties of Epic Proportions, Magical Weekend Escapes, Pink-Fingernailed Vampires, and Purity

Sunlight is streaming through my window as I write this. It's almost surreal, given the tempestuous weather we've had lately—lots and lots of rain, coming in sporadic but continuous bursts. The soft, feathery kind, the kind I like. The kind you can feel more than you can see, at times. Periwinkle rain, if I may. It's what you'd expect of England, of course, but strangely enough last term there hadn't been too much of it. It was definitely sunny (or at least clear) more than half the time, even when the forecast predicted otherwise. Then again, you can never trust forecasts, whether they be of the weather or anything else. A fundamental principle of the universe as I see it is that anything can happen. Chaos theory is true, to a certain extent.

Chaos theory—I most recently encountered this in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. It is a play that engages in almost every weighty theme that has ever plagued mankind: the nature of time and change, death and the end of the universe, order and disorder (symbolised by Classicism and Romanticism), insanity, determinism and free will. It bridges the fields of mathematics, science, philosophy, religion, and literature; recurring motifs and symbols include everything from hermits, rice pudding, dahlias, Lord Byron, and landscape gardening to apples, turtles, poetry, steam pumps, and heat.

As overwhelming as this seems, however, the play actually works. Yes, it does do too much when examined purely on the thematic level, but at the same time it does exactly enough, for there is a logic to be found that stitches all of these disparate elements together. And this logic (or, perhaps, illogic) is that of love, in both its purest and impurest sense. It's a bit difficult to explain, and I don't want to. Once you read the play, you will understand. The last scene is everything—perhaps the most beautiful I've read in any theatrical piece. And the names are beautiful: Septimus (but not at all like the one in Mrs. Dalloway), Thomasina, Jellaby, Valentine, Augustus. Real, but at the same time fundamentally unreal. Just the way I like it.

I have more to say on the subject of love, much more, but I will save it for a future chapter. Although coincidentally, it does relate to the next subject I am going to bring up: Starlight Registry. A wedding registry company founded by an alumna of Pembroke College who still lives in Oxford but works in London (she essentially has the life I want to have). Once I saw the job posting I knew I had to apply. She wanted someone with self-initiative and persistence, and I possess both of those qualities to a sometimes unhealthy extreme.

We met yesterday evening for the interview, at a lovely café in town. I went in knowing not only next to nothing about the company, but also nothing about wedding registries in general. I had had a crazier week than usual (if that can even be possible), but I know it is no excuse; sometimes my lack of tact is frightening. Regardless, the fact that she hired me despite all this means that I am, ironically, the perfect person for the job (Vice President of Business Relations)—if I invest all of my potential. And I will. I'm not really sure what I'm getting myself into, but I know it is a risk that I have to take. I have always been fascinated by weddings. I've only been to one myself, but I plan on attending many more, including a very special one in India. Moreover, something about Sarah (the founder of the company) really struck a chord with me, if you'll pardon the cliché. She is another one of my doubles. I knew it from the moment we first started talking, and I think she did too.

Speaking of events of Epic Proportions, I hosted one of my own this Wednesday, with the invaluable help of Nick Lambert and David Kirke. I met Nick through David (who is introduced in Chapter VI); he teaches Art History at Birkbeck in London, and in his spare time creates digital art masterpieces in which he explores "the relation of time and symbolism by creating virtual spaces and animations." I'll let his blog speak for itself (although 'speak' is not quite the right word).

It was called the Inside New York Party, but was really meant to be a celebration of New York in general. I just needed an excuse to host it, and I had a pretty damn good one. I had had Plans of Epic Proportions, a gamut of spectacular show-stopping performances lined up including but not limited to: a glorious photo slideshow, an open bar serving NYC-style drinks, jazz trumpet, jazz piano, violin and guitar performances, a live DJ (with songs à la Barbra Streisand and beyond), In the Pink (Oxford's most famous female a cappella group), Broadway and opera numbers, poetry readings specifically for the occasion courtesy of David and his friend Franklin Smith (who has a beautiful Jamaican-British accent and no less than seven academic degrees), and a digital art show courtesy of Nick. There were to be extravagant decorations, including a balloon arch and streamers. I wanted it to be a party to remember.

And it was. Only the Proportions weren't Epic, in the technical sense of the word. In the metaphorical sense, however, they were. Because when you have the right combination of people in a room, nothing can go wrong. In fact, something magical happens. And it is always a surprise. Things can be planned, of course, but the agenda must not be set in stone: you must always let the Circumstances decide. And decide they did. [They also decided the location of the event—I had originally intended for it to be in Pembroke College, but due to an unforeseen situation that had to change, so it ended up taking place in Lady Margaret Hall, in a room with the perfect facilities. The setting was unexpected, but definitely apropos.]

Some of it happened, of course. I did give a brief introduction and present my slideshow of almost 200 photographs, half of which were of food and drinks; it brought back many wonderful memories. Nick did show us his digital art projects, both of which were utterly ineffable (I had to ask for a ten-second silence after he finished for everyone to properly digest what they had just experienced). And David did write a poem and read it, or at least a third of it... but he literally could not finish because the poem was 30 handwritten pages, which he unfurled across the floor like a scroll. It was beautiful, to say the least—one of the most beautiful things anyone has ever done for me, and for New York. There was also much general conversation and a discussion on atomic and laser physics, courtesy of my dear friend Tessa.

The Poem

The next morning, Tom Kemp, a digital artist and a friend of Nick's who had attended, sent me one of the loveliest e-mails I have ever received: "Thanks for last night. It was a strangely beautiful, disconnected, empty and filling affair. I got more out of it than I expected."

Several e-mail exchanges later, Tom said something else quite profound: "I was struck by your pointed note yesterday that some people don't do what they promise and that we were sat in that sober room because of it. You were almost bitter."

Almost bitter. I hadn't realised I had come across that way and I hadn't intended it at all. But I suppose I was (and still am) bitter. Embittered. Disillusioned. It's happened so many times to me, so many times that I've strangely grown acclimated to it, but at the same time... at the same time, I don't want to. I want to keep believing, to continue taking risks, to keep investing myself in people despite the fact that I know it could go horribly wrong, that it could devastate me. And it already has. But that is how I live. I've lost so much trust over the past few years, and the past few months alone, but I have to keep trusting. Otherwise how could I go on? How could I persevere in being persistently persistent? It may sound extreme but it's true—I am a person of extremes. And most importantly of all, I am a pure person. I cannot help but trust, despite how many times I have been betrayed. That is David Kirke's definition of purity, and I could not have articulated it in a better way.

I already said this in Chapter IV, but I will say it again, for I cannot help but repeat myself: people are always changing, for better or for worse. Things are always changing. And sometimes, most of the time, it cannot be explained. One just has to accept it, even though acceptance is one of the most difficult things in the world. One must keep calm and carry on, as the Brits say. No matter what. With a head held high, a bright smile, and long strides forward—all that fluffy jazz.

Something is violated when a promise is broken. Something beyond trust: something on the level of language itself. Why have words when you cannot believe them? Why communicate with others if nothing can ever be taken for granted? If one can have no expectations at all whatsoever? Why bother to know a person, to become friends with him or her, if one cannot invest in him or her? Sure, things might sound pretty in the moment (and only in the moment), but that is not enough. There is always some degree of expectation, some degree of investment, in any verbal exchange you have with someone you want to see again, to talk with again. An investment that is embedded in the words themselves, and the act of conversing itself—if you genuinely do not care, there really is no reason to bother in the first place.

There is a difference between being mysterious and not fulfilling predetermined appointments, especially if these appointments were your idea in the first place. A fundamental difference. Yes, everyone needs privacy; despite my outward openness I myself am a deeply private person. Everyone needs to be alone. Even the people you love become insufferable if you see them too much. But a balance must always be struck. If you have to withdraw from an appointment, you should let it be known that you have to. No reason needs to be provided; it just has to be known that you cannot be there. This is common courtesy. Convention, yes, but there is something to be said for convention—otherwise why would we have it?

I am going to change him. Him being Septimus, but the more appropriate sobriquet would be Godot. If only slightly. And I have, if only slightly. There were moments in which he revealed his potential. There were conversations, one of which was the most beautiful online exchange I have ever had with anyone. In that conversation he told me that I have already changed him, for the better. At the time I had no idea what he meant, but I do now. I do now.

We have plans that cannot be broken, because they profoundly affect the next two months of my life. He has also promised that he will be at my party on May 14, that he will help host it, because he must (suicide would literally be the alternative, since that is what happened in Woolf's novel). I want to believe this, but I cannot. At least, not yet. There are always so many uncertainties. I know it is a risk—one of the biggest I've ever had to take. I don't think I have invested much, but perhaps I have without realising it. Such things happen. I always go overboard; it is just my nature.

And I am deeply vulnerable. Deeply. I try to maintain a confident façade, but it cracks at times. Too easily, and at the precise moments when I need it the most. In the past two weeks alone I have had four emotional breakdowns, two of which were public. They were necessary, but completely unexpected. Catharsis, if you will. Such things happen.

Sometimes I don't want my insanity. My intensity. My overflow of feeling. Other times I fully embrace it. But I always want what I don't (and can't) have. Always.

I played a game with someone last week. A psychotic vampire with pink fingernails and women's boots that are just as pink, for all intents and purposes (viz., the craziest Brit I've met thus far). But games are dangerous, especially if the person you're playing them with can match you: word for word, thought for thought, action for action. I had known this from the beginning, but I also hadn't thought I was investing anything at all, or anything much. But I did, without realising it. And I hurt myself, without realising it. There are limits to how far you can stretch yourself, to how long you can masquerade as someone else. As I learned from Playboy of the Western World, the boundary between fact and fiction is much more tenuous than one might think.

He reminded me of myself, and even of my father. That was why I had been attracted to and repelled by him at the exact same time (but not at all in the physical sense), and why I had profoundly enjoyed talking to him. Why I still profoundly enjoy talking with him. We do not speak the exact same language, but he speaks a dialect of mine, and he too was at the wedding of Irony and Circumstance (bass soloist). It is strange how you can see yourself in other people after knowing them for a very short time. It is strange how you can just know these things.

But enough of abstractions, and onto more tangible events. I had several weekend escapes this term that completely threw my academic and personal life off balance (with quasi-disastrous results), but they were definitely worth the trip. The most recent was this past weekend, to Cambridge. Oxford's counterpart, in the fullest sense of the word. And as reluctant as I am to admit it, I have to: it was pretty. Prettier than I had imagined, than I had liked to imagine. Prettier than Oxford, an unbiased observer might even say. There was so much greenery, so much space (it feels much more like a quaint town—dare I say hamlet?—than a city), and the architecture of the buildings was quite different. More country manor than crenellated castle. You can guess with a relatively high degree of certainty whether a college is from Oxford or Cambridge based on the picture of its grounds alone. Interestingly enough, many of the colleges at both share the same name, and Pembroke is one of the crossovers. Of course I had to drop by (especially because it is conveniently located a block away from the Fitzwilliam), if only to prove that my Pembroke is better. I was very pleasantly surprised, without wanting to be. From a completely objective standpoint, I am sure it would be considered more beautiful: it is about double the size, with sprawling lush grounds and well-groomed trees, along with a pond. The library resembles a church of sorts, constructed from solid dark red brick with a two-faced clock tower and stained glass windows. I even poked my head into the chapel, but I will say that this is where Oxford's Pembroke is aesthetically superior. It was predominantly white, which made it austere and almost stale; I don't quite know how to explain. Regardless, I would not betray my college for even King's, which is Cambridge's equivalent of Christ Church. Humbleness is a lovely quality to have, and an undervalued one at that.

Clare College

Newnham College

Where Watson and Crick "Discovered the Secret of Life"

Pembroke Street

Pembroke Library

I was there mainly for a colloquium on Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic, which lasted pretty much all of Saturday. It was my very first academic conference, so I really had no idea what to expect, but it was definitely a lot more casual than I thought it would be. The classroom where it was held was relatively small and there was no great separation between speakers and the audience (all of the speakers were sitting in the audience before it was their turn to present). What's more, even though over half of what was discussed was completely outside my realm of expertise, I never once lapsed out of attention—there were three breaks for tea and lunch, in which there was much intermingling of attendees, and each topic presented was incredibly interesting (my favourite was an examination of four different Anglo-Saxon riddles that all connected the concept of writing with birds, or flight). Coincidentally, my tutor for Middle English last term was one of the speakers (he is writing his dissertation on "the social mythology of medieval Icelandic literature"), and so was Malcolm Reginald Godden, a renowned Anglo-Saxon scholar and a Pembroke fellow who I met last term after attending his Old English seminars.

Me and Professor Malcolm Reginald Godden

My second motivation for the Cambridge excursion was to see several friends from Columbia who are visiting for the year, one at Clare College and the other at Newnham. I was also highly encouraged (viz., forced) to meet a fellow by the name of Maximilian Smithwick—David Kirke's godson and a third-year history student. David gave me a book to deliver, and deliver it I did. I do enjoy meeting strangers, but the situation here was a little bizarre, as I 'knew' Max before I met him through a series of text messages. Anyhow, he turned out to be one of those charming British gentlemen, as I had anticipated. A pleasant conversationalist. We went to a lovely castle-themed pub for dinner with my fellow Columbians and it was not awkward in the least.

Backtracking two more weeks, I went to two UK capitals in mid-February: London and Edinburgh. I had been to both before but not for nearly as long as I would have liked, and unfortunately this time I was only passing through the former, as my bus departed from there instead of Oxford. And both were absolutely perfect, but for completely different reasons. Everything in London went according to plan, from my time of arrival to every item on our agenda, whereas everything in Edinburgh did not go according to plan, yet still worked out in the end. I suppose I should explain.

I didn't have too much time in London, as I arrived late on Thursday evening and had to catch a 3pm bus on Friday, but the friend I was visiting (also a Columbian) is studying at UCL for the semester and lives directly across the street from the British Library (and not too far from Bloomsbury, which is where I dream of living or working someday). After a lovely brunch, we went to the Library to see their current featured exhibition, Evolving English: a comprehensive survey of the history of the English language, from Anglo-Saxon manuscripts to text messages and everything in between. I found out about it last term and had been desperately planning on going ever since. The presentation was perfect; there were only two rooms but everything was numbered and divided into navigable sections, which allowed me to peruse almost every single information panel in chronological order. One of the only surviving copies of Beowulf was there, too, which sent my heart into wild palpitations (I had taken a graduate seminar on just Beowulf last spring, and it was one of the most challenging and rewarding classes I have ever had). I also, of course, went all aflutter at the dictionary display. Samuel Johnson and the OED—my little twin stars.

As indicated above, Edinburgh was not as well-coordinated, and it was all because of circumstance. The ten-hour bus ride was bad enough, but I arrived two hours late due to a lunatic who got on at one of the rest stops because he had missed his plane and there was no other form of transportation that he could take. He had to go to Middlesborough to meet his girlfriend, however, and it was completely off the path that the bus was taking. I did not know this, nor was I informed of this. I had texted my friend that there would probably be a slight delay, but little did I know how long the delay would actually be. The problem was that it was past midnight and he had to wait outside the station, and it just so happened to be raining pretty heavily. I felt terrible, even though it wasn't really my fault. The most excruciating thing was that I literally had no idea where we were, or when we would be arriving—it might have been two of the longest hours of my life. But we finally did arrive, at almost 3 in the morning. I did not alight at the main entrance of the station, however. It was a side entrance, and it was still raining, and I did not see my friend. After twenty even more excruciating minutes (and the frightening chance that one of our phones would run out of battery), he did manage to find me, so everything worked out in the end. Needless to say, I will never again be taking a bus to Scotland from southern England.

On Saturday we had been planning on seeing the Aberdeen game at Perth, which would take up most of the day because of the two-hour commute, and then going out in the evening. The game was cancelled at the very last minute due to rain (but that is a pathetic excuse if it can even be called one, as Scotland has more than its fair share of precipitation). And I had actually been quite excited to see my first live football match. The alternative plan was more than adequate compensation, though. We ended up scaling the Salisbury Crags, just to the west of the highest point in Edinburgh, Arthur's Seat. It was utterly breathtaking, and photos will not suffice to capture how magical the view was, so I recorded a video. [Suffice it to say that I absolutely detest the sound of my own voice, especially on tape—it's akin to the vociferation of a traumatized chipmunk or hummingbird. But the situation and the scenery are what's important.] In the late afternoon we went to watch a rugby game in a very popular sports pub, and it was another experience I have never quite had before (my closest was this summer when I watched several of the final World Cup matches in various New York eateries). I must admit that I've always been repugnant to the idea of rugby, the very concept behind the game, but there is definitely a certain method behind the madness (or should I say the brainlessness). And being in a sports pub also made a huge difference; there were at least eight different screens, several of which were broadcasting a football match. The excitement was both contagious and tangible.

After dinner we went pub-hopping and failed to attend a birthday party; our clubbing attempts were thwarted by the situation as well (the situation being that we were not nearly drunk enough due to the fact that we did not know exactly where we were going and when). But we did do lots and lots of walking, so I saw most of the city by night, and I met several of Neale's close friends—who were quite interesting, to say the least. One of them went to Oxford but dropped out right before he got his degree, and he has the most outrageous patter ("I'm more attracted to metal than magnets" was the highlight of the evening). Another is a mathematician and has known Neale since he was three. He, too, used to work for a cheese factory, and he is writing his thesis on the paradox of zero factorial. [This is more validation of why I never need to invent characters for my novel: they already exist by virtue of being alive.]

On Sunday the original plan had been to have a relaxed and work-productive morning, hopefully on the crags again with a picnic and Becoming Jane, one of my favourite films of all time. But we woke up late and it was chilly and raining, so this did not end up happening. Instead, we watched Trainspotting indoors (a very intense film about the Edinburgh drug scene that did slightly taint my opinion of the city), went to a pub for lunch where I had haggis for the first time (surprisingly tasty, albeit so spice-infused that I could not tell exactly what it was, which is precisely the point), and then attempted to watch Becoming Jane, but failed because my laptop chose at that precise moment to freeze. I am terribly worried about its state of health, as I have had it now for almost four years, but I am very much attached to it and cannot bear to let it go. But let it go I must, eventually.

We then went to Tesco to purchase supplies for dinner, which I very heartily volunteered to cook—and it was my specialty fried pasta, as per usual (but the recipe changes every time so it is always different). This also did not go according to plan, however. I was unable to locate a satisfactory tin of bread crumbs (an essential ingredient for purposes of texture and flavour), so I ended up substituting raw stuffing in the recipe. Of course it did not remain raw; I added it to the pan as I was frying the vegetables and pasta, but apparently this was not the appropriate way to cook it. Everything tasted fine in the end, but I could tell that my friend was psychologically disturbed—to the point where he went to look up the repercussions of ingesting raw stuffing for one's health. But we survived, and as far as I know I'm still as healthy today as I was before I ate the pasta.

I left late that evening on an overnight bus, which I very luckily made it onto as it filled up really quickly, despite the fact that tickets had to be reserved (I think there was another bus later on but I did not want to wait an extra hour in the station). Sleep didn't really happen—or at least not the way it should, but the ride did seem much quicker than the ride up. And it was the perfect time for me to reflect on things, before I got inevitably sucked back into the academic whirlwind of Oxford. I was sad that the weekend was over, as it had been one of the most magical two and a half days of my life. Despite the fact that nothing went according to plan, I had had a wonderful time and I did see no less than ten men wearing kilts in the street and in various pubs (yes, I counted). My only disappointment was not seeing a) a ginger-haired guy wearing a kilt and riding a sheep and b) Ian Rankin, but there will be future opportunities, I am sure.

And I realised something that I've acknowledged before, and even referenced earlier in this chapter (under the 'party principle'): it's not so much what you do as who you do it with. If you're with a good friend, no matter what goes wrong, everything is ultimately all right. Nothing can go wrong, really. And even though we hadn't really known each other for that long (it was the second time I actually saw him), I knew that I could trust him. First impressions are incredibly important. As are names, as superficial as this may sound—his has a very genuine feel to it, and a grounded feel as well. That's what I need more of in my life. Groundedness. A connection with reality, with day to day happenings. Anti-novelising, so to speak. How ironic, then, that I had to seek this groundedness in such a magical environment.

So in a strange sense, I needed my weekend escapes. I never thought I would be saying this, especially since I only arrived at Oxford a few months ago, but I needed a breath of fresh air, and that breath was what Cambridge and London and Edinburgh provided. [Then again, I also never thought I would ever want to leave Columbia, especially not for as long as a year, but after two years and two full summers in the city I was more than ready to depart.] Oxford is chill enough, a bubble within a bubble, but Cambridge and Edinburgh were even more chill, if that is possible—each was a bubble within a bubble within a bubble. An extra layer of safety, of protection from the insanity of my existence.

And now I have returned, but there is only one week of term left. I can hardly believe this, and I still don't quite believe it. Which is fine. I will make the most of it, though, no matter what.

I'd like to conclude this chapter with another magical moment, one that happened the night before I left for Cambridge. It was a long-promised New Year's celebration with fire lanterns by the river. There had been swans, and wine beforehand at the Modern Art museum on top of formal hall—I got a little too tipsy but such is usually the case (and it wasn't an inappropriate kind of tipsy). Pictures would not do it justice, so I had to make another video. Half of it is utter blackness, unfortunately, and I again sound like a hyperactive rodent or bird, but the incandescence of the situation prevails. As always. And in this case it is literal.

Oh, and one last thing. According to the psychotic vampire with the pink fingernails, "You need 22 decimal places of pi to calculate the circumference of the universe to one electron's width." An overgrand statement, perhaps—but whether it is true or not, how utterly fascinating.