Living in Darkness, and Loving It

It occurs to me that I’ve written my last, well, who knows how many posts on various political topics. Anyone who knows me probably isn’t too surprised about this. To some extent, writing (and complaining) is my way of dealing with a world that, quite frankly, scares me. It’s hard to stay positive when I wake up to news of bombings in Pakistan and then spend the day reading about the intractability of poverty.

Moping, though, doesn’t solve anything, and it would be both disingenuous to myself and ungrateful to the people who sent me here not to admit that I am really, truly, loving life.

It’s hard to articulate why I’m having such a good time, because my life is so incredibly boring, which I suppose is part of what I love about it. In some effort to become a real live adult, I’ve started breaking myself of my late-to-bed-late-to-rise college hours, and begun waking up at a normal hour. Despite the fact that the clocks just went back (celebrated on campus by Merton College’s infamous “Time Ceremony”, which involves walking backwards and drinking port in sub-fusc for an hour from 2 a.m. to … 2 a.m., I guess), this means waking up in darkness. For the eight full hours of daylight, I’m either sitting in a seminar room discussing dependency theory or sitting in my room reading. By the time I’m ready to take a break from working—or get out of class—it’s dark again.

Exhibit 1: This is the high point the sun reached today.  Sid Vicious, my cactus, is not pleased.
Exhibit A: This is the highest point the sun reached today. Sid Vicious, my cactus, is not happy.
Exhibit B: Oxford at 5:30 p.m.
Exhibit B: Oxford at 5:20 p.m.

This all might be kind of depressing, except that there are some very fun things that happen in the dark here.* I’ve joined the rowing team, which requires getting up at 6 a.m. for practices. This isn’t as bad as it sounds, though (or maybe I’m just crazy). For one thing, I haven’t watched many sunrises in a long while, and seeing the sun peeking through the morning fog over Christ Church meadow from the Isis and Thames rivers is pretty cool. More than that, though, I love that Oxford has given me a chance to get back into doing team sports; walking down to the boat house in the morning—and seeing literally hundreds of other students doing it—highlights what a quintessentially Oxonian tradition it is. I’m also running cross country, which practices at 5:15 p.m. (i.e. in complete darkness). Running amid gothic spires and ancient churches at night, though, isn’t so bad, and neither is starting to feel properly in shape for the first time in four years.

Last night, I went on my first proper “crew date,” which is the somewhat less illustrious underside of the Oxford rowing tradition. Crew dates usually occur when one gender of crew from one college goes to dinner with the opposite gender from another, but this one was just the Worcester group. All crew dates take place at Jamal’s, a low-grade curry place that received 0 stars from the Oxfordshire Board of Health, because it is more-or-less the only restaurant left in Oxford that will host them. It took me about five seconds to figure out why. The theme was “tight and bright,” which meant that everyone (bar me) was wearing pink tights, orange tank tops, and head bands. Dinner consisted of a rapid series of drinking games, which involved throwing pennies in other peoples drinks and “fining” people for certain things (“Everyone who has noshed another rower has to drink”). By the end of the night, about half the crew was on the floor, and our hosts at Jamal’s encouraged us to leave even before we had fully paid the tab. I explain this story not just to horrify my mother but to, rather obliquely, highlight another reason why I love life in grad school. I realize that I’m only four years out from being an undergraduate, but I nonetheless feel a sense of detachment that lets me sit back and laugh and feel no pressure to join in.

I’m trying to think of other reasons why life is so glorious, but I’m drawing a blank on anything remotely legitimate. There’s the farmer’s market near my house on Wednesdays—populated with doddering old English ladies buying beets and cabbage—and whipping up disastrous vegan confections in my kitchen. There’s also discovering 17th century pubs and sitting down for a pint with old friends from the P.U.B. and new friends from my department. And I can’t forget about all the chances to learn about another culture, whether it’s in being told how proper English-speakers say “wrench” (it’s “spanner”) or learning that health care everywhere—not just America—is a bit of a disaster. I could go on, about graces said in Latin and people wearing kilts or the thick country accents of the porters, but I think you already get the picture.

I’m sure tomorrow morning the front page of the New York Times will get me hopping mad again. But I will still be in Oxford, and while maybe I don’t deserve this, I still might as well enjoy it.

* Not necessary what you’re thinking.

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