Category Archives: Life

We are dumb [an observation]

Millions of people smoke cigarettes. Hundreds of millions of people are overweight. We stay in relationships in which we are miserable. We go to jobs every day that we hate. We text while we drive. We say the one thing we know we shouldn’t say when we are arguing with our significant others. We touch the plate when the waiter tells us it’s too hot.

Freud calls it the death drive. To paraphrase: human nature has a subconscious bias towards death and self-destruction. This sounds ridiculous on the surface, but I’ve come to believe that it’s spot-on. Freud’s theory goes in directions that are far beyond mine, but the central idea of our bent towards self-destruction is evident all around us. I can give a few examples from my own life:

I never feel better physically than I do right after I go to the gym or walk 18 holes instead of ride. But I always find reasons to not do either.

I feel most alive when I put myself out there and in vulnerable situations. But I go months–sometimes years–before I’ll do it again.

I know the biggest relief in my job is when I finish grading a stack of papers. But I’ll literally walk away from the last two and wait until the next night to finish.

I am aware of the fact that if I simply ate a little bit less and a little bit healthier for a month, I’d probably lose 15 pounds. But I simply keep eating like I have for the past 15 years.

I look forward to that feeling right after I clean my house, or get my laundry folded, or clean my dishes. But I avoid doing all of them.

Each of these examples follows the same formula: Knowing that certain actions will lead to positive results, but still choosing to not do them. This is different from taking risks or going out on a ledge. Quitting a job is scary, because we don’t know for sure that we will like the next one. Breaking up with someone means we might end up with no one. Ordering something new on the menu means that it might end up tasting bad. These are hard things to do because we aren’t sure of the outcome. But the examples I mentioned above don’t involve risk. I know exactly what the outcome will be, and yet I still avoid acting.

Why am I like this? Is it just me?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to the gym, eaten a healthy meal, put myself to bed with a book and then woken up the next morning and thought, “Geez, I feel great, I’m going to start doing that every night!” And then, of course, I don’t do it again until the next week, or even longer. This doesn’t make any sense. I know what to do to feel better, to be happier, and to have more purpose in my life. Why do I choose to do otherwise?

The answer is simple: I am dumb. I know how to feel healthier. I know how to make better relationships with my family and with my friends. I know things I could say to other people that would make them feel better about themselves. I know people that need my help, and I know that I would feel great after helping them. I know that when I get my clothes folded, and my floor swept, and my dishes clean, I’m going to feel pleased with myself. I know that telling someone how I really feel is the moment when I feel most alive.

There’s no risk, and only good can come from all of these. But my brain and my body convince me not to. I don’t think I’m alone here. According to Freud, I’m definitely not. Why is this how we are?

If a certain food give you heartburn, don’t eat that food. If one of your coworkers always brightens your day, talk to them everyday. If you feel worthless after watching Netflix for 6 hours, then don’t watch Netflix for 6 hours. If you love that feeling after you’ve mowed your grass, then go outside and mow your grass. If watching the Cowboys lose ruins your Sunday, then only watch when they play the Giants this year.

We can’t control everything in our lives. We don’t know what’s coming our way, and we can never guarantee a good day. But we do know ourselves, and we do know what does and doesn’t work for us. Avoiding this knowledge is something that we all do, all the time. It’s self-sabotage. It defies logic. It’s somehow making a conscious decision to not do what we know is best for ourselves.

Fold more, swallow less.

Honest more, withhold less.

Act more, sit less.

Face more, avoid less.

Smart more, dumb less.

I’m going to stop touching that hot plate when the waiter warns me not to.

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Why I quit social media.

Last semester, I had one of my classes read Dave Eggers’s 2013 novel, The Circle. It’s about social media, and was recently made into a typically-horrible Hollywood adaptation with Emma Watson and Tom Hanks. During one of our class discussions, one of my students asked me if I used social media. I answered with a simple, “No.” Her response:

“What do you do?” (with jaw dropped).

This question was immediately followed by another:

“Do you have friends?”

This was a knee-jerk response based on my students’ unfiltered and unpolished reaction to the fact that I don’t have any social media. For them, the knowledge of me not having Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or SnapChat was shocking. For them, these media platforms are prerequisites for daily life. For them, the following equations are basic truths:

Having social media = Having something to do

Having social media = Having friends

Not having social media = Having nothing to do

Not having social media = Having no friends

This was eye-opening for me because a) I didn’t realize that these technologies had actually reached the point to where they are seen equivocally with actual activities and friends, and b) I didn’t realize my students could so quickly see me as someone that has no friends. It was a sad moment. But this is NOT going to be a post about how much younger generations are glued to their phones, or how millenials care too much about social media. It’s NOT going to be that post because I think that both of those statements are disingenuous. Younger people are no more glued to their phones than any other group of people, nor do they care more about social media that the rest of us. Go to any restaurant or mechanic shop or hospital waiting room and you’ll see that the infatuation with social media isn’t unique to millenials–it’s everyone. So this is NOT going to be that post.

Instead, it’s going to be a post about my own personal experiences and how they lead to my current status of having nothing to do and having no friends, i.e. having no social media. It’s not going to be a long story about some crazy eye-opening moment where I realized some grandiose truth and found the light. Instead, it’s pretty simple. I woke up one morning, scrolled through Instagram, prepared myself to post my own picture, started picking filters and thinking of captions, and then simply realized that all of that time was a total waste. I had simply spent 90 minutes laying in bed, doing absolutely nothing but mindlessly scrolling through pictures that other people had posted, in preparation to post my own, all of which I really didn’t care about at all. I asked myself: Why? Why look at these pictures? Why post my own pictures? Why care so much about which picture I chose? Why spend so much time trying to think of the perfect caption that would emanate the perfect amount of “I’m irreverent but interesting” mixed with “I’m very witty” with a side of “I’m self-aware but also plugged into my social circle”?

Why?

Now that I haven’t been on it for a long time, I feel like I have a good answer: I spent all of that time because that was time that I didn’t have to think about my self, my life, or anything really going on inside of my head. For me, social media was just one big distraction. Even better: It was a distraction that came along with free forms of affirmation and self-delusion. 37 people liked my photo? I got 4 comments on that picture from last week? I have 5 new follow requests? Hell yes, I must be doing just fine. For me, it worked like this:

If I ever felt lonely, or if sad thoughts came to mind, or even if I just felt a bit bored, I had a solution: social media. Why sit around and be sad when I can lose myself in my friend’s cappuccino pictures on Instagram? Why think about being alone when I can join my friends in whatever they’re doing by viewing their Snap stories and then sending a response? Why feel bored when I can literally access the NEVER-ENDING scroll of Facebook? With social media, I always had friends at my fingertips, and I always had something to do. How could this have possibly not been a good thing?

Turns out, it was a horrible thing. What started out as a fun way to connect with friends became an hourly obsession, and what started out as a tool of communication became a mechanism of repression. Every time I checked my Instagram feed, I was purposefully ignoring real emotions and feelings. Worse than ignoring: I was repressing them. These virtual, non-material images on a tiny screen were literally functioning as a sort of trash compactor for my subconscious. And if you’ve ever read any of Freud, you know that repression is not a good thing. Because whenever we shove these feelings and emotions aside, they don’t go away–they are still there, waiting for us. But where the trash compactor metaphor breaks down is that where the compactor is essentially a tool to make it easier when the time comes to throw away your trash, repression turns the trash–the subconscious emotions and feelings and fears and desires that we all have every day–into a much smellier, much dirtier, and much-harder-to-deal-with lump of unprocessed emotion. And at some point, you have to take out the trash. It’s not going anywhere; it’s there, waiting for us.

This might sound like a pessimistic view of the human experience. I don’t think it is; I think it’s a realistic view. Life is hard. Human existence is full of struggle and failure and unfulfilled desires. We all deal with things, every single day. But there’s also all sorts of pleasures, and joys, and happinesses. This mix of both is what life really is, and you can’t have one without the other. The good is only defined by the not-good, and thus we need the not-good–it serves a purpose. For me, social media was a mechanism through which I found myself somehow trying to deny the reality of the not-good in my own life. I knew it was there, and I knew it was there for everyone else, but spending my 1-2 hours spread throughout the day on these apps allowed me to somehow live in some sort of dreamland where everything was great and we were all just floating in a sublime cloud of likes and comments and friend requests. A magical world full of nostalgic filters and 10-second videos of pure bliss. My social media life was an unblemished collage of a world without the not-good, and if I simply kept scrolling, eventually I would fall asleep without having to spend a single second thinking about my actual life and my actual thoughts and my actual emotions. That stuff belongs in my dreams anyways, right Freud?

I’m not saying anything new here, and I don’t claim to have anything figured out. I’m not out to convince other people to delete their Instagram or Facebook accounts. I’m not even out to claim that my life is so much better now than it was when I had social media. I guess, really, I’m just trying to articulate my long-stewing response to those two students that were so stunned by my non-involvement in the digital community. If I could go back to that day, I would tell those students the following:

The person that you are, the things that define you, and the essential qualities that are most closely tied to your being–none of these have anything to do with your social media accounts. Yes, you can use social media to communicate your self to others, and these apps can be used in ways that help you understand yourself and be better in touch with the world around you. No doubt. Plenty of people use these things in productive ways every single day. But literally thousands of years of human experience took place without social media, and those lives were just as fun, exciting, frustrating, boring, sad, happy, and mysterious as yours are today. Don’t for a second think that the attention you get on social media in anyway dictates your value as a human being, and don’t let the time you spend on social media distract you from your self. I’m saying “your self” instead of “yourself” for a purpose. Life is a daily lesson in the self, and no app will ever remove us from the limitations of our own subjectivity. So don’t buy into the illusion that you can escape the same things that people have always gone through: the same questions, the same longings, and the same challenges. Don’t put the job of understanding your self as secondary to hours and hours of focusing on the lives of other people, because this will only make it more difficult to be okay with who you are. A friend request doesn’t make up for a lost friend; a like doesn’t correct a failure; and SnapChat views will never mean that someone actually likes you. But losing friends and failing and being disliked serve evolutionary purposes in our lives. We are resilient creatures, and we have built-in systems to help us overcome these things. Give these systems a chance to function, and don’t deny the natural process of how living works. Let yourself be sad sometimes; allow yourself a moment to be bored. Don’t distract yourself with the bright illumination and the world of filler that comes when you press that little round button on your small rectangular piece of metal and glass and plastic. Just be.

I quit social media because it became one big way for me to forget about my self; I can’t imagine anything worse to forget.

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That month when I lived in Europe.

Tonight is my last night in Europe. It’s been a long day–a long week, actually–full of buses, trains, and long distances on foot. Considering this, the idea of being back home in Texas is actually rather appealing. I look forward to driving a car again; to playing golf; to going 2-3 hours without spending money on something. I look forward to Mexican food and AM Donuts. I look forward to seeing family and friends. And, finally, I look forward to slowing down, getting rest, and resuming normal life.

Of course, I have no doubt that once I’m back, I will almost immediately wish I was still here. There are many things about being abroad that are fantastic, and I will most certainly miss them. I will miss the ubiquitous, daily encounters with so much history and culture. I will miss never-ending options for beautiful places to sit and read. I will miss the peace that comes from, if even for a short and fleeting time, escaping certain worries and anxieties that come with “home.” And, strangely, I will miss walking everywhere. For real.

My students flew home last week, and I’ve spent my time since then on two quick trips in opposite directions. I first went or Cardiff, Wales for the weekend, and then I spent the last couple of nights back in Paris. Some of the highlights:

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^ The keep at Cardiff Castle, which is right in the middle of the city center.

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^ A view of Cardiff city center from the top of the keep. I got very lucky with the weather, as you can see.

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^ The lake at Roath Park in Cardiff. I unknowingly booked an AirBnB right across the street from Roath Park, which is a large, gorgeous, and very pleasant park in the northeast part of the city. This picture is of the lake, which is only a portion of the park. Beautiful landscaping and ample places to sit and relax run throughout the property. This turned out to be one of my favorite places in all of my European travels.

Once I got to Paris on Monday, it was starting to hit me how tired I was from the past month. Summer classes are quite busy, and once my students left I sort of had a moment of realizing that I had spent lots of time everyday doing stuff for the class (as well as the on-line course I was teaching). With that moment came an unexpected onset of fatigue, which really hit me once I got off of my EuroStar in Paris around 9:30pm on Monday night. I still made the most of my two days there, but I definitely didn’t do as much as I had planned.

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^ I got an up-close look at the Arc at night, which was so much bigger than I thought it was. I have no doubt that I’m far from the first person to sheepishly say that.

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^ The fatigue didn’t prevent me from returning to L’As du Fallafel. This time I went with the traditional falafel pita sandwich; it didn’t disappoint. This will be a place I always visit if I’m lucky enough to make more Paris trips in the future.

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^ An illegally-taken picture of me reading my favorite book in my favorite room of my favorite bookstore in my favorite city. This is the copy of The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy in the Sylvia Beach reading room at Shakespeare and Company. I sat down and read the first chapter, and then I realized that I couldn’t wait until I got back home to re-read the entire thing, so I went downstairs and bought another (I think this will be my 3rd?) copy.

I didn’t end up going to any more museums during this trip, but I did meet a few people with whom I shared a few drinks, which was great. Things start and end much later in Europe than in the States, and I found myself walking home last night at an hour that I haven’t seen in a very long time. This might have been the first and only time that I felt a bit unsafe while in Europe, but this is mostly because of how late it was and my lack of any phone service. I made it to my hostel in one piece, unscathed. But I had a few hours yesterday and today of simply walking through the streets of Paris, listening to music and soaking up the city. On paper, how I spent my last few days here don’t look very glamorous, but I’ve found that I’m simply not a glamorous traveler. And I’m totally okay with that.

The highlight of my last week in Europe, though, happened right here in Oxford a few nights ago. I got the chance to have a night of conversation and laughs with the owner of the pub down the street, the Rose and Crown. It’s claim to fame is being Thom Yorke’s favorite pub, which is something I talked to Andrew (the owner) about at length. He had a few stories about Thom and the Greenwood brothers, and he also gave me an eye-opening lecture on why Tottenham is undoubtedly the best team in the English Premier League. I have officially become a Hotspur supporter. At some point during the conversation, he asked me to get him a pint. I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, and then he pointed me behind the bar and told me to pull a couple. I, of course, had him take a picture of it.

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^ My proudest Oxford moment: pulling a pint for the owner at the Rose and Crown. He wasn’t particularly impressed with my pint-pulling abilities.

Now that all of the trips, classes, and meals are over, I find myself a bit overwhelmed by the incredible opportunities I’ve had for the past five weeks and of all the places I’ve been and things I’ve done. I’ve made trips to Bath, London, Liverpool, Paris (twice), and Cardiff. I’ve been to countless museums and seen some of the most iconic artifacts and pieces of art in the world. I’ve been to the Open Championship, to the top of the Eiffel Tower, and to the ancient Roman baths. I’ve gotten to talk about Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Baldwin with an amazing group of students. I’ve been to two Oxford productions of Shakespeare plays. And I’ve gotten to sleep, eat, walk, learn, and live in a place steeped in culture and history. It’s been amazing, and I think that it will only become more amazing once time goes by and I truly get to appreciate how great the opportunity has been.

My biggest regret from my college experience is that I never studied abroad. I’ve never heard anyone say anything other than how great it was. Now that I’ve done it myself, I know firsthand how true this is. And part of me is glad that I never went as a student, because I think it made this experience even better. Although I was teaching the course, I was learning just as much about Europe as my students. I was right alongside them trying to figure out the metro system in Paris, or which coins to use to pay for our ice cream, or where in the world to go to find a public bathroom. I loved sharing these new experiences with my students, and I think they loved seeing their professor be as doltish and tourist-y as they felt.

Being abroad changes you. You learn so much about the world, how it works, and how it doesn’t work. You learn about other places, but you also learn even more about the places you know best. In order to really understand and appreciate home, you have to leave it. I am so glad I had the chance to do so. I just hope the lessons don’t fade away too quickly, and that I’m able to come back as soon as possible.

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Life after Paris

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“There were no problems except where to be happiest” – Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

I spent three nights and four days in Paris last week with my students. All of my travels, trips, and excursions in the States and abroad will hereafter reside in two categories: Before I first visited Paris, and After. After around 72 hours there, it is far-and-away my favorite city in the world. I’ll do a rapid fire of pictures, and then I’ll write a bit about why I loved it so much.

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^ The main entry-way of the Louvre. To say that the museum is big is an understatement. It’s scope and breadth is simply unbelievable. I was tired before I even got through security.

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^ A picture of everyone else taking pictures of a famous picture.

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^ One of the many looooong Louvre hallways.

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^ One of the famous panels of Monet’s Water Lilies at the Musee de l’Orangerie, which was my personal favorite of the museums I went to in Paris.

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^ Not sure why, but this one (Konto by Kazuo Shiraga) really grabbed my attention. I stared at this for a couple of minutes, completely perplexed yet totally captivated.

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^ The amazing stained-glass windows at Sainte-Chapelle.

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^ The best food I’ve had yet in Europe. The schawarma pita sandwich at L’As du Fallafel. Simply perfect.

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^ My students at our awesome, memorable evening picnic on the lawn right next to the Eiffel Tower. A couple of students and I simply walked down the street, found a butcher shop next to a bakery, and told them we wanted to have a picnic. They loaded us up with a variety of meats, cheeses, and breads, and we were not disappointed.

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^ The view from the mid-way point up the Eiffel Tower. From here, we made our way to the very top, just in time for the first twinkle at 10pm. It was a very long process from getting tickets to actually getting to the top (about 2.5 hours), but my students were thrilled and it ended up being worth it.

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^ And, of course, Shakespeare and Company, which might be the most famous bookshop in the world. I was in there three times during my trip, and each time I could have stayed longer. It oozes literary history, and the collection of books (although over-priced) is superb.

Many authors have written about the allure of Paris. I’ve read so many of these, and I’ve never been able to quite understand what it was about this particular place that was so special. Now that I’ve been there, I still don’t quite understand it completely, but I know exactly what they mean. There’s simply something about the city that is perfect for someone like me: someone that appreciates food, art, literature, and more food. Paris is a huge city, and I know that residents do not spend every day walking along the Seine, reading great novels, and eating expensive meals. They have jobs, they have problems, and they have the same daily aggravations that we all have to deal with. But, as a tourist, the city is absolutely perfect. The options for places to eat, drink, and/or read are endless. I spent time outside of cafes right next to the Louvre eating cake and reading; I spent time in the Tuileries Gardens sitting by a fountain enjoying lunch; I spent hours walking down the river, listening to music and browsing through the bouquinistes stocks of old books and random posters. All of this time was peaceful, and somehow I was able to feel comfortable, unhurried, and even uncramped. I don’t know how this is possible, because there were people, cars, and movement all around me. But something about the river, the old buildings, and the cafes creates some sort of subconscious peace for someone like me. To put it simply, it was exactly what I’ve always hoped for in a foreign place.

Most of my students are equally enamored with the city. We didn’t see a fraction of what Paris offers, and most of what we did fits squarely into the “classic tourist-y things in Paris” category. That didn’t matter. We all loved it. We did a Fat Tire bike tour; a boat ride up and down the Seine; and we went to the top of the Eiffel. We ate lots of great food, walked around 35 miles total, and overpaid tremendously for canned sodas. We were able to sit in the same spots and walk through the same door frames as the people we’ve been reading in class, like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Baldwin. All of these experiences together created something that I will never forget. I hope they don’t, either.

– – – – – – –

This is our last week in Oxford. The plan:

  • Tonight: Dinner and then Much Ado about Nothing at Wadham College.
  • Tomorrow: Walking tour of New College.
  • Wednesday: A visit to Wheatley to find a specific sandwich shop, and then an attempt to find C.S. Lewis’s house and/or grave.
  • Thursday: Farewell dinner at the Trout.

Once my students head to Heathrow on Friday morning, I am catching a train to Cardiff, Wales for the weekend. I have absolutely nothing planned, but I’ve been told that it’s a great city. Back to Oxford on Sunday afternoon, and then one final trip before I return to Texas: I’m heading back to Paris for two more nights. I simply didn’t get enough last week, and I couldn’t resist the chance to go back. More reading. More walking. More food. And, this time, ample libations.

Cheers.

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Like everyone else, I love it here.

A lot has happened in the past week. One thing, in particular: I officially decided that I love it here. I’m not original in that thought, and basically anyone that makes a Europe trip says the same thing. But there’s a reason why everyone says it; it’s an amazing place. I’ve been asked what my favorite thing has been so far, and, to be honest, it’s been the simple, day-to-day life. Walking to and from the city center; buying cheap takeaway meals; spending hours in places like Blackwell’s. The famous sites and places are great, but they take second place to the simple, seemingly mundane aspects. That being said, here’s a look at what I’ve done in the past week or so:

Last week, my students and I did a day trip to London. We started by going to the British Museum, which is towards the top of the list of attractions for almost anyone that visits London. It’s an absolutely huge museum with all sorts of pieces, from ancient Egyptian artifacts to contemporary African art. The biggest “No way!” moment was seeing the Rosetta Stone. I was a bit speechless at the sheer historical and cultural magnitude of seeing it. But, beyond that, here’s two of my favorite pieces from the British:

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^This is a Netherlands boxwood microsculpture from the 1500s. It might be hard to tell, but it contains various mini depictions of Biblical stories, all highly detailed and exact, and from one piece of wood about the size of a football. Absolutely impossible to imagine how someone did this.

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^This might be my favorite thing I saw all day. It’s Crowd Looking at a Tied-Up Object by Henry Moore (1942). What exactly is the object under the sheet? Why are the people transfixed? I was mesmerized.

After the British, we had a quick lunch right on the Thames river at a place called PizzaExpress, which was right next to Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. Aside from its cliche name, the food was fantastic and the view was even better. We ate quickly so that we had plenty of time at the museum next door: the Tate Modern. I always love modern art museums. I got to go to the great one in D.C. earlier this summer, and I’ve been to MOMA in New York. The Tate did not disappoint. As soon as I got in the door, I knew I was going to love it. I gave my students two hours to browse on their own, and that time seemed to go by way too quickly. A few of my students would disagree with that, though…

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^ George Braque, Mandora (1909-10). I felt very fortunate to see this famous modernist piece. Ironically, I had this piece on a PowerPoint I showed my students earlier in the class without realizing we’d get to see it in person.

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^ There was also an entire room of Rothko pieces. Perhaps no modernist painter inspires the “What the hell?” and “I could do that” sentiments than Rothko, and an entire dimly-lit room of his huge canvases was quite the experience.

The tip to London was a success. The city is huge, and we had a few moments of not being sure exactly which street to take or towards which underground station to head. But we enjoyed ourselves, and we all made it back safely. That’s really all I cared about.

As soon as class ended on Thursday, half of my students caught a bus to Heathrow for a weekend trip to Rome. A couple of others spent the weekend in Scotland, while a few stayed here in Oxford. I woke up on Friday morning and caught my train to Liverpool for the one Europe trip I’ve had planned for many months: The Open Championship. I arrived in Liverpool early afternoon and went directly to my AirBnB, which happened to be literally next door to a significant site:

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^Goodison Park, home of the Everton Football Club. I’m not kidding: it was right next door. I could have hit a pitching wedge from my front porch to the middle of the pitch.

I then had the entire afternoon to spend in Liverpool. I caught a bus and headed to the city center, which turned out to be so much more than I expected. To be honest, I knew nothing about Liverpool other than it being the home of the Beatles. Turns out that its city center is a lively, hopping place full of open-air shopping for what I would guess is a good square mile. I really enjoyed my time walking around, eating, and of course sitting down and reading for a few minutes in an awesome bookstore. I then killed a few hours seeing Dunkirk at the Odeon in the middle of the shopping center, which was a great place to see a movie. The movie was good, although there were parts of the narrative that fell flat for me and/or begged for so much more explanation (something I’ve found to be the case in all of Nolan’s movies). After the movie I headed back to my rental, grabbed a quick pint at the local pub (pictured below), and tried to get some sleep.

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^Liverpool’s city center. On the right you can see a sliver of the largest and cleanest McDonald’s I’ve ever seen.

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^The friendly (and very inexpensive) pub right down the road from my AirBnB.

I didn’t sleep very well, because I was too excited about my trip to Royal Birkdale the next day for the 146th playing of the Open Championship. I woke up early, walked about a mile to the nearest train station, and figured I’d be ahead of the pack. I was very, very wrong. When I got on the train, it was standing room only. This was at 8am, and the first tee time wasn’t even until 9:30. Regardless, I was able to get on the train and get to the course, through security, and in the gates by 9am. Birkdale didn’t disappoint. I can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed the experience. I was very fortunate to get to go to the Ryder Cup last fall in Minnesota, which was also an awesome experience, but the Open exceeded it. The course was amazing, and the fans were so much better than American fans. There’s a level of knowledge of and respect for the game of golf over here that simply isn’t there in America. I’ve always rolled my eyes when Open commentators have made comments about this in the past, but now that I’ve been in the middle of it, I am convinced it’s true. The weather was perfect, the course was everything you want for an Open, and the golf was top-notch. I feel so lucky to have gotten to go, and another trip to the Open is now officially on my bucket list. Next time, though, I’d like to be with a group of friends.

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^A panorama I took from greenside on #12 (the par 3). I got to this spot early and had a perfect spot for the first 7-8 groups that came through. This picture is looking back towards the clubhouse and the rest of the course.

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^A look at #18 green from the spectator crosswalk. This is the spot where I just watched Spieth receive the Claret Jug on tv. His performance on the last five holes was unreal, although I have never been as frustrated as a golf fan than I was during the 20-minute delay waiting for him to figure out his drop on #13.

I ended up leaving Birkdale around 4pm, which was right about the time the leaders teed off. That might sound ridiculous, but I had been there for 8 hours and was envisioning an absolute nightmare trying to get back on the train heading to Liverpool alongside 80,000 other people. I don’t regret the decision to leave early at all, other than the fact that the minute I got off the train and started my mile-long walk back to my AirBnB, it started raining. And then, right about the time all of the trees, awnings, and phone booths disappeared, it started really raining. I went from being annoyed that my shorts were damp to accepting the fact that I was going to be absolutely, 100% soaked. If you’ve ever been caught in the rain with no option for escape, you know the feeling. I ended up taking refuge at a gas station, but the damage was already done. Luckily I was able to put my shoes, shorts, socks, shirt, and underwear in the dryer as soon as I got back.

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^ My classy escape from the torrential rain in Liverpool. I was standing by the door to the station, looking exactly like a vagrant. I ended up buying a soda from inside because I felt bad for loitering.

A few more pints that night at the same pub, a good night’s sleep, and then my long, 4.5 hour trip back to Oxford, which involved three different train changes and a bus from Banbury to Oxford. I was able to get lots of grading and reading done during the trip, though, which was a blessing. And I also had the chance to step outside of the train station in Stafford during my hour-long layover. Right across the street was the amazing Victoria Park. A small, seemingly taken-for-granted park here, it was better than almost any park I’ve seen in the States.

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^My view from the walking bridge in Victoria Park in Stafford.

My trip to Liverpool was a resounding success. Combined with my trip to Bath the previous weekend, I’m realizing that a longer trip to another European country isn’t even necessary; the UK has so much to offer. In fact, I’m now thinking that rather than going to Amsterdam or Spain once class ends, I might simply catch a train to somewhere like Whales or Edinburgh for a few days. I’ll probably change my mind multiple times between now and then, though.

Coming up:

My students and I head to Paris this coming Wednesday. We are doing a bike tour of the city that night, will spend the day on Thursday seeing famous expatriate spots around the city, and will be spending the entire weekend in a hostel right on the canal. I plan on staying in Paris for an extra night and then heading back to Oxford to prepare for the last week of class. I’ve actually been rather busy with schoolwork since I’ve been here. Anytime on trains, in bookstores, or between meals is spent either reading or grading for class, which reminds me: This is actually a work trip.

Rough job, right?

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Settled

Early observations from my first few days in Oxford:

  1. I’m honestly not sure if it’s cheap or expensive to be here. I have this feeling that so far it’s been surprisingly inexpensive, but I also think that I might be totally wrong. I’m thinking that if I were to actually check my bank account, I would have clarity about this, but I’d rather continue to live in this limbo state. I’ve been to the grocery store twice, and both times my total bill was under 10pounds. I’ve had a few meals in cafes and small restaurants that cost under 5pounds. And every pint I’ve had so far was at most 4pounds. These are all examples of life so far being inexpensive. But, I’m afraid that this is all actually evidence of it being expensive, and that I’m simply deluding myself. I guess I’ll really know in a month.
  2. We are spoiled in America in regards to personal space. The bathrooms here are tiny, and the process of getting in and out of the shower–or on and off the toilet–takes a certain amount of strategizing. This is undoubtedly something I’m not used to, as room and space seem to be common luxuries in the States.
  3. The British are spoiled in regards to scenery and architecture. Everywhere you go in Oxford, you are surrounded by beauty. The buildings, the parks, the sky–it is all quite wonderful. I can’t stress this enough. The best part is that being surrounded by this on a daily basis inherently carries over into your attitude and demeanor. Don’t get me wrong: I have no doubt that people get just as miserable and unhappy here as we do in the States. But for someone that is simply here for a month, the surroundings push towards a more peaceful and optimistic approach to the day. Even when it’s raining–which it does often–it’s beautiful. I walked all the way to the city center in the rain and never once found myself frustrated or annoyed by it. If it rains for 15 seconds in Abilene, you can guarantee that the sidewalks are empty and no one is outside.
  4. I am spoiled to be here. I have my own apartment within the house, with a private bathroom, kitchen, office, and bedroom. My workspace where I am currently writing this–although it’s not huge–is as pleasant a spot as I’ve ever had the chance to plug in my computer. The fact that I am getting paid for this is, to be frank, ridiculous. I have eight students, all of whom so far have been energetic and interested in the course material, and I get to teach them in a room with large windows looking out on this beautiful city. Once class is over, we all grab lunch and then plan our afternoon adventures. Today we will be heading to see Christ Church and then to George and Danver’s for ice cream. It’s a rough gig, to be sure.

I’m not one to take pictures, but I’ve been told adamantly to make sure I do so on this trip. Below are a few I’ve taken so far:

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^A view of the backside of our house on Canterbury Lane in Oxford. I took this from a picnic table where I was reading last evening around 8:30pm.

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^A view of Oxford’s city center. It has a sort of Diagon Alley feel too it. Apparently during the summer, many students (high school and college) travel to Oxford for language school and other programs. Every time I’ve gone to town so far, the streets have been packed with people, most of whom do not seem to be Oxford residents.

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^The Norrington Room at Blackwell’s, a large bookstore in the middle of town. I will spend many, many hours here over the next month.

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^Awesome British versions of some of my favorite books. Apparently, British versions of books have different covers, which is a problem considering I now find myself wanting to buy the British version of all of my favorites.

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^The Oxford Museum of Natural History, and an example of the type of building I see the entire length of my walks throughout the city. Buildings like this are the norm here.

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^This was my first-night pint at the pub that is less than 5 minutes from our house, The Rose and Crown. Apparently this is Thom Yorke’s favorite pub in town. I hope to see him and have a conversation about In Rainbows.

I’ll post more pictures as I take them. Coming up in the near future:

  1. This weekend: Open travel around Britain. Not exactly sure yet where I’ll go.
  2. A day trip to London next week with my class to see the Tate Modern and Tate Britain.
  3. Next weekend is my trip to Liverpool for the Open Championship. I have tickets for Saturday’s round.
  4. Paris the following week.

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Across the Pond

In nine days, I board a plane to London. Once I wake up, get off the plane, go to the bathroom, and make it through customs, I catch a train to Oxford. After getting off at the last stop (Gloucester Green), I take a quick 5-minute taxi ride and end up at the ACU Study Abroad houses, my home for the following 31 nights. While there, I will walk everywhere, eat amazing breads, make a fool of myself, and get rained on a lot. I haven’t actually experienced any of these things; this is just what people have been telling me to expect.

Saying I’m excited isn’t really accurate. Excitement is undoubtedly a large part of what I’m feeling. I’m excited about the group of students with whom I’m going. I’m excited about the books we are reading for the class. About the 3-day trip to Paris to visit the cafes and museums. About the breadth of opportunity I will have at my fingertips. And about the similar opportunities my students are going to have.

But I’m not only excited. I’m also anxious. A bit unsure of myself. Maybe even a tad bit scared. What if we get to Paris and I lead my class down a wrong street? What if one of my students loses his or her passport? What if Diet Coke tastes different in Europe? I repeat: WHAT IF DIET COKE TASTES DIFFERENT IN EUROPE? I get it: these types of “problems” are what study abroad is all about. Being put in new situations in different contexts is at the heart of fruitful experiences, and I’m totally onboard with that. I look forward to the inevitable hiccups and roadblocks during the month I’m there. Sign me up. But to say I’m not a tad bit anxious would be a lie. I assume that anyone approaching a long trip abroad has that same mix of emotions, and I guess that this is part of what’s so great about it.

I mentioned the Paris trip. I also have a ticket to Saturday’s round of the Open while I’m there, which is at Royal Birkdale in Liverpool. If you watch the coverage, look for the large American rooting on Phil. Once the class ends, I’ve got six days of open travel. Not sure exactly where I will go, but I know that I will be alone, I will be open-minded, and I will definitely spend more money than I have budgeted. Top of my list right now is a week in Amsterdam and Brussels, but Spain also beckons.

Beyond the excitement and the butterflies, though, is an overwhelming feeling of luck and blessing. I honestly cannot believe that I have the opportunity to travel to Europe for a month to teach an American literature class. I get to hang out every morning with a talented, diverse, and challenging group of students, talk about Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Baldwin, continue the conversations over lunch, and then say, “Okay–go explore! Seeya again tomorrow morning.” How is this real? How do I get paid for this? I guess this is just another moment where those eleven years of higher education feels so much more than worth it.

I’m happy to get any suggestions any of you might have about Oxford, about England, or about European travel in general. My main goals are to eat well, teach better, visit pubs (for their historical value, of course), and help my students have the time of their lives.

I plan on being a duke or earl by August 1. That’s what happens when you marry British royalty, correct?

– – – – – – –

Things to Read, Watch, and Listen:

Read: All the Pretty HorsesĀ by Cormac McCarthy. A classic, but a goody. If that’s not your thing, then read a short story by Jhumpa Lahiri or Lorrie Moore.

Watch: The Keepers (Netflix); Paradise Lost trilogy (HBO); Amanda Knox (Netflix); I recently went on a bigtime true crime documentary bender. I love that stuff.

Listen: Sylvan Esso’s most recent album, What Now, and any Pearl Jam album from the 90s. I recently revisited all of them; I don’t want to say I had forgotten, but I was seriously reminded how good those albums are.

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