Having last week posted about my delight at Oxford’s preposterous academic garb, I figured I would complete the series by writing about my recent experiences with two other fabulously pretentious Oxford institutions: summer balls and punting.
“Punting” refers to going boating on the Thames, preferable with a pitcher of Pims on board. Punting is pretty much designed to be a colossal waste of time: the punt’s “power” comes from a long metal pole, which you use to push yourself along or, in my case, repeatedly steer your boat into the riverbank. Punts are so bad at doing anything that even Christoph and I – with our combined penchant for mischief – couldn’t manage to squeeze our boat into a restricted area, sink, or ram anyone else (he did manage to lose our punting pole). In short, punting is a perfect metaphor for Oxford: punts aren’t very good at getting you anywhere, but they do provide a good opportunity to talk about Kierkegaard and provide a stable platform from which to pour alcoholic beverages.
The big event of my last week, though, was the ball. A few months ago, my housemate Nicola wrote me to tell me that I simply must buy tickets for Keble Ball, as it is one of Oxford’s finest summer events and – at a mere £70 a head – a bargain. Having attended Princeton’s houseparties only semi-voluntarily, I was a bit tentative, but eventually splurged when I found out Jackie was going to be around (*okay, I’ll admit it – I wanted to go*).
The ball itself could best be described as Princeton houseparties on crack. There were people wearing capes and white gloves and top-hats; tents serving everything from Moroccan food to donuts; hookah and cocktail bars; bands, comedians, musicians; and even a silent disco. I had a great time, albeit mostly because I got to spend six hours dancing with Jackie—something we probably could have done in my kitchen. Still, the whole thing was worth it, if only for the look on Jackie’s face when she saw me in a proper tuxedo—handkerchief and cummerbund included. There were some parts of the ball that really disgusted me (probably the topic of a separate post), but when I put aside my principles, it was a grand time.
I’ll wrap this up with a loosely connected digression. It occurred to me at the start of this term that I am already 1/3rd of the way done with my Oxford experience. I suppose – given how frustrated and stressed I am with the teaching and academics here – this ought to have been a relief, but it wasn’t: it just made me melancholy. Somewhere in the last year I really bought into the idea of Oxford, even if the details of this place drive me crazy.
Jackie’s visit—and the chance it gave me to show her my life here—made me realize how wrapped up in Oxford’s culture and tradition I have become. I’ve been avidly searching out those places and experiences that fit my romantic notions about Oxford, to the extent that I sometimes I put blinders and avoid thinking about the real nature of this privileged, conservative institution. I suppose as an outsider, I don’t feel as comfortable pushing against the things about Oxford that I find problematic, even if these are – in many ways – the same things I confronted at Princeton. At the same time, though, occasionally I have to pinch myself and remember that I got to come here precisely because I didn’t totally buy into the last ivy tower where I studied.
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Jukebox: Subhumans – British Disease