Wednesday, 24 August 2011

XI. Cheerio England, Hello America (Viz., New Jersey Suburbia)

I'm finally back at home, after an extended six-week stay in Oxford that has made this the best summer of my life thus far, followed by a three-day Pearson Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C. Back at home, where nothing has changed since I left last October. And I mean that literally—my room is in the exact same condition; every book on my shelf, every item in my closet, every box against the wall, every stuffed animal on top of my dresser is still where it was. Even the bedspread and sheets are the same. It's a wonderful feeling: as much as I embrace change, home for me has to be familiar, has to be comforting. A stable harbour to which you can always return, no matter how long you've been away (and in this case it was over ten continuous months).

More importantly, my parents, sister, and grandparents have not changed either. They welcomed me back with very open arms, and I felt as if I had left only yesterday. No culture shock at all; the jetlag was the only physiological indication that I had been away for such a long time. The heat, however, was insufferable. All 33 degrees (I'm still on the Celsius scale) smacked my face like a solid brick wall when I stepped out of the airport. I think the highest temperature that I experienced in Oxford this summer was 28 degrees, and the humidity was not nearly as high. The weather in England may have bipolar disorder, but that is precisely the reason why I love it; I'm fascinated by the clashing of sunshine and rainclouds, the unpredictable switch between extremes that are never too extreme. The only downside is that you never quite know what to wear—what you put on in the morning is bound to be inappropriate at some later point in the day.

With the overabundance of sunshine, our vegetable garden has been as overproductive as ever. We have tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and string beans of three different varieties every night for dinner, but there's no way we'll be able to finish it all. It's such a welcome relief after eating mostly dining hall and restaurant food, which was always a bit too heavy. And it adds tremendously to the comfort of home; nowhere else can I pop by the kitchen and pluck a freshly picked tomato or cucumber from the table at any time.

There are some new things in my life, though. Some important new things: a laptop and a phone, both of which I really need. I currently have a beautiful silver-white HP Pavilion dv6500 Special Edition notebook, but it's four years old now and still on the Vista operating system. It's also not very portable, as it weighs over seven pounds with the extended battery. As reluctant as I am to let go, I know the time has come, because I have finally found an adequate replacement: the Sony Vaio CA Series laptop in lightning white.

I admit that I bought it mostly because it looks gorgeous, with rounded edges and a special glow from the encasing material. I wanted a white laptop that did not have a black keypad, and this was literally the only one I could find after months of research. I was very tempted by both the Samsung Series 9 and the HP Envy but neither looked or felt completely right, and I didn't have the heart to make the investment. I also knew that I definitely did not want to convert to Mac (purely as a matter of principle—I don't want to own too many Apple products). My new Vaio hasn't arrived yet, so I can't judge its performance, but with an i7 processor and 8 GB of RAM I'm pretty confident that it will be more than up to par.

My new phone is the 4G Blackberry Torch 9810, also in white. That was a much easier decision for me, as getting an iPhone was out of the question; once I saw it in the store I knew I had to buy it (I find it interesting how I'm either absolutely certain that I want something and will make a blind purchase based upon raw instinct alone, or spend loads of time vacillating between the options, carefully weighing all the positives and negatives). I've always resisted the idea of getting a smartphone, as I'm already overly addicted to my e-mail, but the phone I had been using before going abroad was an LG with the most basic of functionalities, and felt completely out of date. I still haven't quite familiarized myself with the layout and features of the Blackberry but I'm sure that in a week or so I'll be twiddling away at hyper speed...

Material possessions aside, I've been relaxing, truly relaxing, for the first time all summer. Perhaps a little too much, as I need to work more on fellowship applications and think about my senior thesis and continue making preparations for the Lexicography Society I plan on launching in the fall. The start of the semester is in just two weeks, and we are going on a family vacation to Myrtle Beach in South Carolina for all of next week. There isn't much flexible time left, and too many things are looming on the horizon; they have become all the more tangible now that I am one degree closer to reality. I'm very excited to be a senior at Columbia, but I am definitely not ready to graduate. I want to be back at Oxford next fall, as none of the graduate programs in the States interest me at the moment, yet that is not at all a guarantee. My backup plan is to get a job and see what happens. The uncertainties are quite daunting. I do trust circumstance and serendipity, however—I always have, for better or worse.

Having said that, I'm going to stop dwelling on the future and look back once again. There's a huge amount of material to reflect upon, and now that I'm physically removed from it all, it'll be much easier to do so. I meant to write this chapter right at the end of Trinity term, but things were more hectic than I had anticipated and the transition to summer was quite abrupt; my job began several days after I moved out of Pembroke. It wasn't nearly as overwhelming as last summer had been, even though I didn't have weekends off and the hours were sometimes quite long. The important difference was that I didn't feel any pressure: having six extra weeks in Oxford without any academic obligations was a miracle.

What was more miraculous was the fact that my office was in Pembroke, so I already knew all of the buildings and administrators. I was living about a mile away in a part of town called Jericho, which has a quaint village-like feel. Walking through Oxford's side streets and main thoroughfares every day was always a delight, and one weekend when my friend Morgan visited I had the opportunity to explore many of the colleges that I hadn't ever been to. I think we overused "lovely" to describe everything—the horticulture is absolutely astounding in its diversity—but you can't use that word enough in England, particularly when enormous specimens of wisteria are involved.

My Street in Jericho

Flowers in Merton College

View from Christ Church Meadow

Worcester College

Magdalen College

Keble College

I was working as the personal assistant to James Basker, the founder and director of Oxbridge Academic Programs. He also happens to be an English professor at Barnard College, so there's a good chance I will see him around campus. Three of the nine Oxbridge programs are based in Oxford, and Pembroke has hosted the original program for high school juniors and seniors (the Oxford Tradition) since its inception in 1985. The students are from all around the world, as are the faculty and staff; it gets more and more international every year. As I detailed in Chapter IX, meeting people from diverse backgrounds is something I thrive upon, and this job allowed me to do just that.

My main responsibility was to manage Professor Basker's very busy schedule, which involved confirming and coordinating numerous appointments. There was also quite a lot of printing, photocopying, and scanning, but it was the complete opposite of the traditional 9-to-5 office job. I never knew what was going to happen each day. I almost always had various errands to run outside the office, such as delivering letters and packages (the post office became my best friend, its lengthy queue my worst enemy) and shopping for all sorts of items and gifts (including a shoe brush and an unlocatable upright desktop file holder). The task I most enjoyed was organising the invitations and catering for two garden parties, one in Oxford and one in Cambridge. Both were well-attended and graced with gorgeous weather and snazzy headwear in the most exquisite of settings.

What I've learned from working these past two summers is this: as organized and borderline obsessive-compulsive as I am, I love randomness. I wouldn't be able to tolerate a monotonous, predictable job. I need something that's crazy enough to always keep me from twiddling my thumbs, but not something so crazy that it'll exhaust all of my mental and physical energy (I don't think my reserves are as boundless as they may seem). My job this summer struck just that balance. It was quite intense at times but I always enjoyed what I did, especially because I found it very easy to get along with Professor Basker, right from the beginning. He is an incredibly accomplished individual, as the success of the Oxbridge programs will attest, and a brilliant academic as well. I sat in on his lecture on Samuel Johnson and could feel his passion from the way he gestured and articulated his thoughts.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of the job was the effect it had on my health, as I both ate and slept very well. I had breakfast and dinner with the program, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that the hall food in Pembroke was better than it had been during the year, due to a greater selection of main courses and a permanent salad bar. Because breakfast was quite early, I had to wake up at half past seven every morning, which eventually pushed back my bedtime to just before midnight. Given the extremely unhealthy sleep habits that I had developed since high school and perpetuated to some degree at both Columbia and Oxford, this was a miracle. Never again do I want to stay up until three, sometimes even four o'clock in the morning to work on an assignment.

As hectic as the job was, I was able to make a weekend trip to Sheffield to visit family friends, which had not worked out in December due to inclement weather (there was a severe blizzard up north). This time, apart from a delayed bus departure from Oxford, everything was perfect. My hosts were very gracious; even though I had not seen them in fourteen years I felt completely comfortable at their house. It was a veritable stroll down memory lane because I did revisit Broomhill Infant School and actually remembered it—nothing has changed, apart from a Children's Wildlife Garden that has been added on the side. I also saw parts of Sheffield University, including the chemistry lab that my dad used to work in, and a downtown area. The city isn't nearly as industrial-looking as I thought it would be; it's replete with Victorian architecture and there are big trees on every residential street. Walking around is quite a workout, though, due to all the hills.

In the afternoon we drove around the breathtaking Peak District to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which currently has an exhibition by Jaume Plensa featuring human bodies built out of letters, as well as a 50-metre curtain of poetry that visitors are encouraged to jingle as they walk down the main corridor. I'd like to install such a curtain in my own house someday...

Broomhill Infant School

Sheffield University

Downtown Sheffield

Jaume Plensa Exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park

My second major goal for the summer was to visit Oxford University Press, and I was able to accomplish it just four days before I left. General visitors aren't allowed to enter—the imposing façade, dominated by four giant columns, isn't very inviting—but fortunately Jesse Sheidlower had connected me with Michael Proffitt, the OED Managing Editor. (Jesse is the Editor at Large and directs the New York office; I had e-mailed him about my plans for a lexicography society.) Michael gave me a tour of the Dictionary offices, which are very open and spacious, but so quiet that I was afraid to breathe as I tiptoed past.

We talked for an hour about everything from the OED and lexicography in general to my specific plans, and he has confirmed the unfortunate fact that dictionary-making is viewed by most people as too esoteric a field for general study. Precisely the opposite is true—lexicographers need to engage directly with the general public, and not exclusively with specialized industries or academia, in order to track the shifting meanings of words and the creation of new ones. My goal for the Society is to spread this awareness through monthly meetings (most of which will feature guest speakers) and smaller workshops; I want to eliminate common misconceptions and demonstrate how important lexicography is as a field, and how it can in fact be studied. I have an incredible network of support and resources for this project, but implementing it may be difficult if there isn't enough student interest. I'm going to do everything I possibly can to get it going, though. One of my friends at Columbia has promised that he will inaugurate a Cheese Appreciation Society if I follow through with this, and if that isn't motivation enough, I don't know what is.

Apart from a brief shopping excursion in London (which was primarily spent in Harrods and Selfridges and resulted in the purchase of a long-sought-for wide-brimmed straw hat), and a day trip to Broughton Castle with the Oxford Tradition, I haven't been to nearly as many places in England as I would have liked. Prior to beginning work this summer, however, I was able to visit the countryside for Tony Allan's birthday party. He's one of David Kirke's good friends, and lives in a village near Oxford surrounded by picturesque open fields. I met many interesting people there, including Tony's lovely daughters and a professional astrologist who read my horoscope.

I'm not incredibly superstitious, but I have always been interested in astrology as a science, because I do think there is something to be said for the location and time of your birth. She first told me some general things that were very appropriate but could also apply to anyone, within reason: I have intense emotions, I am an all-or-nothing person, I can be quite intimidating because when I want to get something done, nothing can stop me. But she also told me something quite specific: that I am a creative writer. Not a journalist or an academic, but a creative writer. The writing was important, she said. I had to keep doing it, because I would go far.

I do believe her. But I also know that there are no guarantees in life. Writing is one of the easiest things to avoid if you can help it, because it is so damn difficult, and it doesn't get much easier with more experience. There will always be some days in which you seriously question yourself. I haven't had too many of them lately, but I also haven't been updating this blog (which I've come to call a "blovel," as it is structured like a novel) as regularly as I had wanted to. "Real life" gets in the way, even if it's the precise thing that you are writing about. The words don't always come by themselves, even when they should, even when there is time and space for them; in fact, they often come by themselves when you don't have the time and space to record them. Or sometimes they come but aren't arranged in the right way. There is always a certain amount of effort that needs to be exerted to get them out properly. It is immensely frustrating but you have to do it, because the rewards are incalculable.

Underneath all of the momentary doubt, I know that I will always keep writing. I may stop temporarily—the hiatus might last for months, even years—but I will always return. I don't know what my profession will be, but I will always have at least one novel-in-progress, including this one. I will always be travelling the scenic route, seeing and doing and exploring and trying new things and meeting new people. That is absolutely essential in order for the writing to continue. And that is how I want to live.

I'm wary that this chapter will be an unwieldy length, but I need to backtrack even further to Trinity term. The ending of my long but brief academic year at Oxford. It had a crazy start due to May Day shenanigans, as I've already recounted, but nothing too ridiculous happened after that. My friend Zach and his friend Zach came to visit for several days, and the timing was perfect. Shortly afterwards, I attended my first ball, at Pembroke, which was infinitely better than prom had been (and it wasn't just because of the exorbitant amount of alcohol). Several weeks prior I went to Stratford-upon-Avon with my friend Xandra to see Cardenio, the "lost" Shakespeare play. Although it wasn't authentic, the storyline was riveting and not at all predictable; we couldn't even tell whether it would be a tragedy or a comedy at the intermission. We also went to see a local production of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, which featured a real turtle.

Pembroke Ball

Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre

Near the end of term I worked several shifts for At Your Service, a catering company for high-profile events in the Oxfordshire area. My first was at a wedding at the Conservatory in Luton Hoo Estate's walled garden. I was one of the three people assigned kitchen duty, so I helped the chefs prepare and arrange the food on the plates; it was quite fun (especially the tiny hors d'oeuvres, the parts of which had to be positioned just right). My second event was much more eccentric: a very special birthday party in the countryside. The theme was "Lovefest," and it was displayed quite prominently—there were red heart-shaped signs on the one-way path winding up to the house, "LOVE" in man-sized pink block letters mounted on the hill in the backyard (they looked spectacular when illuminated against the dark sky), roses placed over the plates of all the female guests, banner-length pink and white flags, and a red and white dress code that almost everyone followed. Despite the ostentation, it turned out to be quite a well-coordinated affair. There was live music from an alternative rock band, a roaring bonfire, twenty teepees for the overnight guests, a giant tent for the dinner service, and even a hot air balloon. The planning must have been insane.

Throughout all this, I was taking the two papers that I had been anticipating since Professor Lynda Mugglestone e-mailed me with the list of options last April. I hadn't been sure about Michaelmas or Hilary, but my decision for Trinity was definite: History of the English Language (with a personalised focus on lexicography) and Virginia Woolf. The former was with Professor Mugglestone herself, and the latter was with Alice Stainer, my tutor for the Tennyson paper in Hilary. Once again I was one-on-one for both, and I was able to choose the topics I wanted to write about every week. It was exactly how I had imagined it would be, despite my high expectations. Professor Mugglestone is an absolutely brilliant teacher, overflowing with information about anything and everything related to the English language; I always walked out of tutorial practically vibrating from the energy that had mounted in the room, and feeling both more frustrated with and awed by the complexities of definition. I examined not only the Oxford English Dictionary but also Samuel Johnson's Dictionary and the earliest monolingual English lexicographers, and my final essay was on Urban Dictionary. Because I was scrutinizing definition in practice and as a concept, I had to be more careful than ever before with every single word I chose to use in an essay; the metalinguistic levels were overwhelming.

But it was just the beginning. I've had a general overview of topics that I could easily spend one entire term studying in much greater detail. Coincidentally, Oxford is launching a new MSt in the English Language next October, which is exactly after I graduate from Columbia. It's also paired with internships with the OED, something I hadn't thought was possible. Dare I say too perfect to be true?

My Woolf tutorial was just as intense and incandescent. I revisited two novels that I had read before, Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, and gained a newfound level of understanding of each. I read five that I hadn't yet encountered: The Voyage Out, Orlando, A Room of One's Own, The Waves, and Between the Acts. Now I am convinced that Virginia Woolf is my writer. I understand her in a way that I have not understood any other novelist; I share her feelings about life and nature and interpersonal relationships. She has captured things that I had thought were ineffable, like the distance that is always present between two people, no matter how intimate they may be. The failure of communication through words. The tension between the realm of consciousness and the material world. The importance of the moment, which is temporally transient but psychologically permanent.

Like Virginia Woolf, I believe in the importance of the moment. I said this in my last chapter and I will say it again. I think of my whole life as composed of them. They are what I remember, what I write about. What I render immortal through the act of writing itself. Moments of feeling, moments of discovery, moments of understanding.

Munich did indeed happen, and it was full of such moments. But I will explain in more detail in Chapter XII, because I want to end this chapter with my tribute to Virginia Woolf—my Mrs. Dalloway party. An event that was an indelible part of my Oxonian experience, because of what it represented: the bringing together of people I knew (but who didn't necessarily know each other) for no ulterior purpose. The underlying principle was what mattered. I had met so many different characters, from literally all walks of life, during my year abroad, and I wanted to gather them all in one room, just to see what would happen. I knew nothing could possibly go wrong, because I had no expectations or even a possible agenda. Once again, I put my entire faith in Circumstance. And she treated me well.

The original date of May 14 didn't work out because there were some issues with the location. But the actual date was more appropriate, as it was the middle of June, exactly when Clarissa hosts her party in the novel. It ended up taking place in the JCR, which was a better environment than I had anticipated. The exact location almost did not matter; it was the particular combination of people that made the evening so magical. Like my New York party, it could not have happened in any other way. It was much more similar to the book than I had imagined possible.

I bought the flowers myself, bright purple osteos that had arrested my eye at the market that morning. I wore my special green dress. I prepared some classy drinks and nibbles, and Sam Baker supplemented this with a remarkable array of his own (including two jugs of homemade elderflower gin that disappeared within minutes). I brought the book and read aloud select passages; there were more spontaneous readings throughout the course of the party from other guests. It was a little flat in the beginning, but quickly came together when more people began to arrive. I swear I can pinpoint the exact moment when everything clicked, and the conversation suddenly became much more free-flowing and dynamic.

Sally came. There was a brief crocus in the flame moment that was completely unexpected, just as it had been for Clarissa. Dr. Bradshaw was there too. He caused quite a stir with his incessant laughter. The Prime Minister also made an appearance, but was much more discreet.

And Peter came, impeccably dressed and with a surprise of his own. He was the last guest to leave.

Septimus did not come. If he had, it would have disrupted the integrity of the party, I think. He was not supposed to come, despite his intention and his promise. Ironically enough, he did commit suicide in a spiritual sense; he seemed very different the next time I saw him. But he was the original inspiration for the party, because he recognised that I was like Clarissa Dalloway. For that I will always have him to thank.

A Party to Remember

One of the trinkets of advice that David Kirke has always given me, and followed scrupulously himself, is "Just connect." That is what started everything in the first place: one simple meeting, one simple connection. That is how it always begins. As long as both parties are willing to take the risk, something will be created. Something will happen. It may be of infinitesimal duration, or it may be as endless as the universe. Who could possibly know?

Oxford, and Europe in general, have allowed me to fulfill Kirke's advice to my greatest possible extent thus far. I am back in America now, but I know I will return someday. I have to. There is so much more that has to be done, so many more connections that have to be made. This also applies to my last year at Columbia, in the most cosmopolitan city in the world. I'm very happy to be back. As magical as England is, it's about time I returned to reality, at least for a little while.

1 comment:

  1. Well done; fly high. We'll have to get the kestrel up in the air sometime. Cheers, The Dangerous Sports Club