Monday, May 31, 2010

Oxford's Professor of Poetry

Every five years I have the opportunity to participate in a unique democratic exercise--the election of the Oxford Professor of Poetry. My suffrage was first granted six years ago when I became a member of the Oxford Convocation, which consists of all matriculated students and alumni of the University, and was cemented for the rest of my living days when I received my M.St. one year later. If any institution exists in the next life, however, it's probably (for better or for worse) Oxford, so there's a good chance I'll be voting in this election in perpetuity.

Convocation Members, not discussing the Oxford Professor of Poetry
Paul Muldoon held the Chair during my M.St. year, and in addition to receiving a salary of roughly £5,000, he delivered three public lectures at the Sheldonian; I attended the last one, in Trinity Term, which was less a lecture than a conversation with Seamus Heaney, who was conveniently visiting Oxfordshire that week. Both poets read, and while I can't remember if Muldoon read Heaney's work or vice versa, I do remember that the experience of hearing their rich brogues dancing through the poetic cadences, and under the eyes of the Sheldonian cherubs, no less, was positively heady. I left the Theatre in an ebullient daze, and was basically babbling when I returned to the Somerville MCR. Even now, when I read Heaney's "The Real Names", I get goosebumps.
As election watchers know, my second chance to vote should not have been this year, but instead 2014; after Muldoon finished his term, Christopher Ricks assumed the Chair, and his tenure should have ended in 2009. However, due to a little incident known as the Walcott-Padel Controversy of 2008, which resulted in both the withdrawal of Derek Walcott from contention and the election and resignation of Ruth Padel (who was also the first woman to win the Chair), Ricks stayed around for an additional year, and the Convocation is now voting again. Despite, or perhaps because of, this aberration, the recent issue of Oxford's English Faculty News made no mention of this scandal, with the exception of the following oblique statement: "As readers will know, the election in May 2009 for the next Professor of Poetry resulted in the elected candidate's standing down from the post without ever taking it up". Ah, British circumspection. In keeping with this reticence, I'll offer two observations--first, I love how "The Walcott-Padel Controversy of 2008" possesses the same titular ring as Acts of Congress or landmark legal cases (e.g. "The Glass-Steagall Act" or "The Dred Scott Decision"). Second, instead of explaining the nuts and bolts of this poetic scandal, and in line with how most voters educate themselves on significant issues, I encourage you just to Google it.
Being the good Convocation citizen that I am--for this is truly a scenario in which "citizen" holds the full original meaning of civis--I registered, received my voting codes from the British Electoral Reform Services, and voted. For whom, one might ask, did I cast my vote? A poet of integrity, of course. A poet who can memorialize Plantagenet kings as well as that bad a** Mercian Offa, a poet who can elegize and word-play, a poet who can rhyme "door" with "moor". I voted for Geoffrey Hill. And with that vote, I hope to help usher in a new era of poetic partisanship, poem-making, and positive poetic discourse. Dominus Illuminatio Mea!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Bear Mountain Redux

Two days after I returned from the West Coast, JSH, ZH, and I headed north to hike Bear Mountain. JSH wrote and photographed a great account of our day trip, so I'll leave the record of that day to her, except to say that I was inspired to return and find a better hiking route from Bear Mountain to Peekskill than the one we undertook. Enter my and JSH's colleague Dr. Salmon, who with his wife has covered most of the trails in the tri-state area, and who as a result provided me with an accessible, relatively safe, and gorgeous alternative: the Camp Smith Trail.

Armed with this new intelligence, LVT, JC, J2, JFV, and I hopped on a train for Manitou--or in my case, literally sprinted through Grand Central with seconds to spare--and disembarked at the tiny hamlet with its small Hudson beach and cattail-covered flats. As we hiked up to Route 9 and the Bear Mountain Bridge, which was the world's largest suspension bridge when it was built in 1924, we encountered a species that is seen more frequently in the suburban Northeast than other American regions: the suspicious property owner. While I recognize and respect the need of property owners to ensure that their homes and lands are safe and unmolested, I fail to see how five respectful and peaceful hikers walking down the short road from the train station to the trail pose such a threat to the houses on either side that they literally need to be driven off said road and verbally admonished by one of these property owners (complete with Land Rover and riding boots). And while this may seem, and was, a minor blip in the experience of that day, the incident provided much conversational fodder as we hiked for the next several hours.
Bear Mountain Bridge and Adams Nose, over which the Camp Smith Trail lies, as seen from Bear Mountain
From Manitou and Route 9 we crossed the Bridge, passed through the Trailside Zoo (a memorable moment occurred when both LVT and JFV covering their faces with their hands as they saw a river otter in a disturbingly tiny cage neurotically swim in a circle over and over again), rounded Hessian Lake, (the site of FDR's polio contraction?), and ascended Bear Mountain on the Major Welch Trail. We then descended along the Appalachian Trail--on which we witnessed part of this restoration project--and emerged into the middle of an African drum and dance concert on the broad fields next to the Bear Mountain Inn. With our cultural needs sated, I insisted we stopped at the Hiker's Stand so I could eat a hot dog and thus ingest the holy trinity of hiking fuel--fats, protein, and sodium nitrates. Yum. JFV followed suit, although he didn't consider it such a wise choice about three miles (and 1500 hot, sweaty vertical feet) later on the Camp Smith Trail.
In order to reach this virgin hiking route, we crossed back over the Hudson, partially retraced our steps on Route 9, and then ducked up through the trees and east along the AT, towards the Taconic Mountains. The trail was relentlessly steep and rocky for a good mile, although it did switchback and occasionally provided actual steps. Still, the steep rockiness was much more welcome than the sticky, still heat and oddly dull and oppressive sunlight that--to me, at least--characterizes summer on the Eastern Seaboard. I could feel sweat lying on my skin in a slick sheen, and its stubborn refusal to evaporate was only made more perturbing by the tiny flies that became entrapped in the yucky sweat-sunscreen layer on my exposed epidermis.
Bear Mountain Inn, as seen from the Camp Smith Trail
The beauty of the Camp Smith Trail, however, more than made up for this annoyance; once we followed the blue blazes off of the AT and headed south, the trail opened into high meadows, long and lush groves of trees, and tall, rocky hillsides that provided sweeping vistas of Bear Mountain, Indian Point, and the Hudson. After this hike, I can say with some confidence that Camp Smith is now my favorite trail in the New York area (although I do really like Breakneck Ridge as well). That said, the next time I undertake its rambling trail, especially in combination with a Bear Mountain loop, I'll bring more water--three large bottles was barely adequate--and try not to go on a day so bright and warm. By the time we five were seated at the Peekskill Brewery, the majority of us had lost our stomachs to the appetite-killing combination of heat and physical exhaustion that is the enemy of yummy food and delicious microbrews. Also, in hindsight, mussels steamed in cream sauce might not be the best recovery meal. Now that I possess this valuable knowledge, however, I think a third trip lies in the near future!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Woman in White

I know that I recently waxed rhapsodic about a wonderful 19th century novel, and that I've previously discussed the intricate task that is choosing reading material for a trip. Acknowledging these two former posts, however, only underscores what I'm about to discuss here; namely, that I read an incredible, enrapturing, can't-think-about-anything-else book at the beginning of May, and while in Eugene no less. Ladies and Gentleman, the novel of which I speak--a novel which I exhort you to run out and purchase/borrow and sink into as soon as possible lest you wish to deny yourself an immensely gratifying reading experience--is none other than Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White.

I'm neither a Victorianist nor a Historian of the 19th century, but from the standpoint of pleasurable reading I do know that when an English novel of the 1800s is good it's really good, and The Woman in White is no exception. Since I can sense myself teetering on the edge of uninformative hyperbole, I'll backtrack a bit; the night before I flew to Eugene, with my suitcase packed and my alarm set, I stood before my bookshelves and considered the options before me. No one book stood out as an optimal choice, and so, mindful of a need for sleep before my 3:45am wake-up call, I simply picked the thickest novel that I hadn't read, threw it into my tote bag, and went to bed. I slept on the flight from New York to Salt Lake City, but once I'd boarded the prop plane for Eugene I was wide awake; thus, as we rose out of the clouds and into the sunlight over the Great Salt Lake, I opened Collins's text and began to read, "This is the story of what a Woman's patience can endure, and what a Man's resolution can achieve...".
And what a story it is! By the time the plane touched down among Oregon's verdant fields I was deeply absorbed by Cumberland, where "the distant coast of Scotland fringed the horizon with its lines of melting blue", by the love story of Walter Hartright and Laura Fairlie, and by the remarkable character of Marian Halcombe, of whose keen intellect even the cunning and malicious Count Fosco could not help but be enamored. Over the next few days, and whenever my brother, mother, and I needed a break from one another, I would dive back into Collins's novel, the result of which is that I cannot think about the text now without remembering the scent of fir trees and the taste of apple turnovers at Espresso Roma.
Of course, The Woman in White, like any great novel, is more than a sum of its parts, and even more than the smells, tastes, and experiences that attend its reading. Still, since I don't want to give too much away, I'll merely say that in addition to the narrative elements I mention above, this book possesses thrilling--nay, suspenseful and frightening--plot twists, intriguing shifts in narrative voice (the story is told from several perspectives), and character development and description that rivals the best I've ever read. At several points I found myself both terrified of and unable to resist discovering what happened next, and as I reached the last 100 pages of the book, I dreaded the thought of finishing it--I wanted The Woman in White never to end. Since it inevitably did, however, I'm left with only the following option: to preach the Collins gospel, and convince others to read it.
On that note, dear reader, I ask you to consider this Victorian door stopper on your next trip to the bookstore or library. As Marian Halcombe would pragmatically say--and did, actually, to Walter in the dining room at Limmeridge House--"I suppose we must come to it sooner or later--and why not sooner?"

Thursday, May 20, 2010

An Interview with Connor Callaghan

When I visited Eugene a few weeks ago, I decided to interview my beloved younger brother, Connor Callaghan. Connor and I possess an interesting relationship; some of our most memorable interactions include me forcing him to translate a passage on Servius Tullia (I was his Latin tutor--not a good role for a sibling), us playing a game of chess in which one player ended the game with a rook up said player's nose, and a bizarre conversation/argument about a dinner of meat versus quinoa that is now legendary in our family. Because we live thousands of miles apart from one another, I don't see Connor nearly as often as I would like, but I was still very happy to see him flourishing in his life in Oregon. Now LRC and I just need to get our brother to New York!

Where Connor thinks his deep thoughts.
CGC: Why should Levi Leipheimer or Lance Armstrong win the 2010 Tour de France?

CSC: I'm not sure that they should win.

CGC: Describe the University of Oregon in ten words or less.

CSC: Fun, challenging, athletics, Phil Knight, facilities, scenic, expensive, not racially diverse, Mary Jane, Busch Light.

CGC: If you could change one thing about running so that it would be more enjoyable for you, what would it be?

CSC: That it wouldn't take so much time. And I don't see the point of running.

CGC: Is a BMX bike or a Tahoe longboard a better means of transportation around San Francisco?

CSC: BMX bike--it's more versatile. It's also a pain in the a** to longboard up a hill.

CGC: Do you prefer the novels of Tim O'Brien to those of Tom Perrotta, or those of Tom Perrotta to the novels of Tim O'Brien?

CSC: I don't know; I can't pick between my two favorite authors. I like that O'Brien's stuff is emotionally enticing, and that Perrotta's novels are contemporary and relatable.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Flip-Turn Frenzy

My parallel life as a small, freckled cetacean reached an interesting juncture last week: I returned to flip-turning. Lest this admission cause JSH to choke on her coffee--have I really managed to swim mile after mile without a trusty flip-turn?--I'll simply say that in the recent past my flip-turning has mostly resembled the pathetic half-somersaults she describes here. Back in my middle school swim team days I could flip-turn with the best of the other seventh-graders, but ever since I left California, swimming has assumed a role that emphasizes languid fun over focused speed. I suppose that's the enjoyable price one pays for demoting a sport to cross-training.
This is not me.
Recently, however, I've found myself becoming both faster and more focused in the pool. Perhaps it's because my three main sports--running, swimming, and cycling--are all on a par at the moment; I spend a roughly equal amount of time on each, and am not currently training for events in any of them. At the same time, I've noticed that the more hours I spend in the pool, the greater my desire grows to go faster (is this inevitable for any endeavor that involves moving forward?). And so, over the last few weeks, I realized that I was regularly looking at the clock after my 500 meter segments, and that I was finishing my standard mile and a quarter significantly faster than I had been earlier this spring.

Neither is this.
All things considered, only one habit, or lack thereof, has so far prevented me from gaining real speed: engaging the almighty flip-turn. Unfortunately, the JCC pool does not lend itself well to flip-turning; with three to four swimmers in a lane at any given time, and all usually going at different speeds, there's often someone spread out at the end of pool, with his or her flippers, snorkel mask, water bottles, kickboard, and other detritus creating a beautiful yet annoying whirlpool of flotsam right where I want to tuck my body under and push off the wall in a sleek slipstream. As a result, I haven't really practiced my flip-turns, not only because it's so much easier not to, but also because I can pop up and push off faster than I can half-somersault my way through this aquatic garbage eddy.

This *is* me, not flip-turning, in France.
And yet, one late evening last week, my lane emptied as I neared the end of my swim, and so I vowed to myself, "CGC, you will flip-turn your way through the next 250 meters". Which I did, sort of. After two flip-turns I found my nose full of burning chlorine, and my heart racing due to my ill-timed strokes, breaths, and flips. Obviously, my flip-turns demand more work, and so from now on whenever I find myself in an empty lane, I'm going to practice. Speedy swimming, here I come!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Quotes of the Week

April showers not only bring May flowers, but also unique quotables from friends and colleagues. Enjoy!
While watching a band warm up at Parlour on the Upper West Side.
KP: "What kind of music do you guys play?"
Trombone Player: "You know, '80s and '90s music."
LRC: "You can play '80s music on a trombone?"
Trombone Player: "You can play anything on a trombone."
While discussing what happens to booster rockets once they fall off a main rocket that has just taken off.
CGC: "What if you're rowing a boat in the middle of the ocean and a booster rocket falls on you and kills you?"
LP: "The odds are very small...but if that happens to you, then you deserve to die."
On Moby Dick.
LP: "According to a Soprano, it's about homosexual aggression."
CGC: "A Soprano?"
LP: "Soprano is where I get my peek of American life".
Regarding an overly detailed letter he had to write to his boss.
LP: "It's like explaining to E.T. what is sex. 'What is sex?' 'Love.' 'No, harder'. 'Looooove'".
CB enters the office with a big grin on his face.
JL: "Well, you look like you have your hand in the marmalade jar".
CB, puzzled, looks at palms of hands.
And finally, I offer a few observations from the nine year-old girls I coach on Sunday mornings. They recently ran around the Central Park reservoir twice--two miles!--and this occasion resulted in the following commentary:
E: "This is really hard, because yesterday I had the busiest day of my life".
D: "I want to kill myself".
E: "I wish I had enough money to buy 10,000 Gatorades".

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Postcards from Eugene

I just returned from a week in Eugene, OR, and (briefly) San Francisco. Some sense of wanderlust must have been afoot in New York City, because all of my immediate colleagues decided to jet off as well, and so for a few days Oregon, Orange County, Chicago, Louisville, and Providence hosted the occupants of our empty offices. I'm back now, as are they, and it's not an understatement to say that we're all a little wistful about our recent adventures.
Tall trees everywhere
I haven't been to Oregon since I was a kid, and I've never been to Eugene, which is where my brother currently lives and goes to school. My visit to him had two small objectives--the large one being to read and walk as much as I wanted--first, to spend some quality time with my male sibling, and second, to run the Eugene Half-Marathon, the finish line of which lies on legendary Hayward Field. My running, as devoted Freckle readers know, hasn't been going so well since I moved to New York, and aside from running the 2008 Nike Women's Half-Marathon with UMP, I've neither trained for nor completed any other events. That said, for whatever reason my running from Christmas to about mid-March had been wonderful; my training proceeded without a hitch, and I was running faster times than I had since college. Unfortunately, however, I fell a couple of times while descending on Mt. Washington, and my left leg, in particular, had felt funky (for lack of a better word) ever since. I suspended all training and all running, and stuck to swimming and cycling for the six weeks leading up to my trip. As a result, just getting to the starting line was going to be a big accomplishment for me, and my nervousness grew as my departure date drew near.
Both the trip to and the first days in Eugene took my mind mostly off of the run, however; from the moment the puddle-jumper touched down in Oregon, I reveled in an environment that made New York City feel a million miles away. Tree-covered buttes and mountains ringed the horizon, cyclists and runners dotted the roads, trails, and sidewalks, and on every block Douglas firs and redwoods stood guard over the Victorian houses, coffee-shops, and bookstores beneath them. My brother, mother, and I spent the days walking, reading, yelling at one another, and drinking ridiculously good lattes while an Oregon spring blossomed around us. Heavenly. And yet, running could never be that far from my mind. Aside from the 8,000 marathon runners milling around Eugene, the Oregon Relays commenced at Hayward Field two days before my event, and so The Emerald City seemed full of unusually swift and lean individuals. The starting line early Sunday morning only verified this impression--I've never done an athletic event with such fit looking runners! I suppose Track Town USA doesn't earn its title lightly.

As I had no idea what to expect on the course, either in terms of its quirks or my performance, I told my mother and brother to come to the finish line much later than I normally would have suggested. About two miles into the run, however, I realized I'd made a major miscalculation--I was flying. I was not only running much, much faster than I ever would have anticipated, but I also felt phenomenal, and I knew that I'd be able to maintain a quick pace for the next eleven miles. My ability to know my body well is continuously a happy surprise to me; there was no evidence, based on the previous month and a half, to suggest that I'd be able to run the time that seemed within my reach, and yet I just knew that I would. I turned my brain off and let my legs lead the way up through Amazon Park, down the Willamette River, and through the gates into Hayward Field. When I rounded the historic track and heard the finish line announcer call my name, my throat tightened--I was so grateful to be running well and running strong. As I told JSH in a bleary post-run email, it was one of the happiest running days of my life.
Hayward Field Finish Line
Fortunately, my mother never listens to me, and so she had not only arrived at Hayward Field much earlier than I had told her, but she also saw and photographed me as I finished. Even better, she patiently waited while I devoured a plate of pancakes--Krusteaz was a sponsor--and tried to form coherent sentences. A hot shower, a giant mug of tea, and one Sunday New York Times later and I was a very sleepy and content camper.

Leaving Eugene was tough--I don't get to see my brother as often as I would like given where we each currently live, and Eugene itself possesses a certain sensibility that New York City is unable to provide. In some ways, Eugene reminds me of Ithaca, plus a dash of Northern California. The resemblance between the two towns was brought to the fore one evening while I ate dinner at Market of Choice; as I imbibed a delicious and sales-tax-free soup and salad, I read The Eugene Weekly, which is uncannily similar to The Ithaca Times. I skipped immediately, of course, to the classifieds, in which I found the following gems, none of which I would find in an Upper West Side publication:

"Lost and Found: Clay sculpture from my porch. Medium sized, roots twisting around man's head, spiral base. Please return no questions asked. It's a part of my soul".
"Help Wanted: work-exchange Buddhist community. Includes room, vegetarian meals, living allowance. Seeking hardy experienced people, also for book bindery. Must have spiritual interest".
"Counseling: Urban shamanism. Awaken your personal power and magic. Find your path to health, happiness, and who you're meant to be".
"M for W: I love the outdoors, camping in the nude, nude beaches, motocross, swimming, and nude hiking".

Ah, Eugene--you shed light on a part of my soul that's too often kept dark. And with that, I hugged my brother goodbye, packed the car, and drove to California. Until next time, Beaver State.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Pelican, I Salute You.

Because I never tire of watching your sleek form dive-bomb into the Pacific. Because you float on the thermals and updrafts like a crafty hawk, and yet you possess the silhouette of a dodo. Because your name graces an English press, an expensive Muir Beach Inn, and a Pensacola baseball team, and because Western Civilization has invested you with metaphorical significance for two thousand years. Because you are the first sentient being I look for when I return to the ocean bluffs and trails of San Francisco, and because you (almost) never fail to greet me. Pelican, I salute you!