Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Winter Doldrums

Sigh... it's that time of the year again. The skies are grey, the rain is tossing down, and it feels like good spring weather is more than an eternity away. Work and rowing are both picking up, but it all feels like busy work at the moment, the calm before the storm: hours dutifully grinding away in the library getting the boring foundation for work I'll do later on; or hours spent dutifully on the erg, looking out the window at our still swollen and impassable river and wishing it SOD OFF AND BLOODY STOP RAINING (to use the most British phrasing I can think of).

(The view from the library at 1pm today. So dark. Weeping.)

It's starting to get a little panic-inducing that Torpids, the big winter race for the Oxford boat clubs (that  I am eagerly looking forward to competing in!), is in 35 days and the river is showing no signs of opening. I've only gotten onto the water 6 times since last December, and as one of the most novice members of the boat at the moment, would really love to have more!! I know there are tons of other people in my position right now, but it's not helping my nerves.

(the chart of the river height in Oxford since Christmas - it has to be at 6" above normal or lower to allow boats - we are... not close to that at the moment. at all. In fact, we are getting further away by the day!!)

Add in the fact that I didn't get to race last term, so Torpids will be my first boat race in literally 10 years, and... It's not the best feeling. But hey, what are you going to do? Besides grumbling about global climate change, maybe investing in a better pair of wellies, and manning up and make friends with the erg, there's not much you can do.

I've been trying my hardest with the 'making friends with the erg' part and gosh it's been hard. But I've been definitely seeing some improvement, especially on our weekly harder work out, which is usually three 2k pieces done back to back:

(last week's first effort of three: 8:02 total time for 2k and a 1:51 finish. The first time we did this I was struggling to make 8:10, and my PR is now 7:56, so I'm starting to feel a bit quicker!)

It's all coming together, slowly, but now that the weather has gone foul I have to make sure I don't get sick--again!! All this cold damp illness management makes me nostalgic for California in ways I can't even describe...

Blog readers, how are you fighting off the winter doldrums? I've stocked up on milky tea and cozy sweaters, but am still feeling the weight of the season. Any tips would be much appreciated!

 (Pembroke winter flowers trying to brighten the dreary landscape)

Friday, January 24, 2014

One Year Ago

This week last year started one of the longest horse-related ordeals I've ever gone through, when Dually contracted a rare intestinal infection whose cause we never specifically determined. The 10 days he spent at Tufts were so trying; I cried continuously the whole way every hour-long drive out to see him, and every hour-long drive home, until I literally couldn't cry any more. His prognosis was so bad (they later told us that he had the worst blood work of any horse they'd ever admitted with a similar condition who ended up surviving), and it was so hard not to give up hope. Every day I wondered, as I left, if it was going to be the last time.

Here are some pictures from visiting him at Tufts that I was too afraid and sad to post last year, in case they ended up being the last pictures I ever took of him. I've always said that Dually has the biggest heart of any horse I've ever met (I mean seriously, this is a horse that had a jumping style that would suggest he would top out at 2'6" who went Intermediate and only had one cross country penalty in his whole 11-year career), and watching him struggle to overcome the infection that was threatening to kill him only strengthened that conviction. What a horse, man. What a horse.

 (still bright eyed and on the look out for candies, even in quarantine)


 (The sweetest face - Dually was a big favorite among the vet techs (obviously) who were all amazed by his past accomplishments, especially since he came in to Tufts in full winter retiree woolly mammoth mode!)

(Saying goodbye - I was definitely balling when I took this picture, but the Dude, ever the zen master, was at peace with the world)

Of course for us humans, the ordeal didn't end after those 10 days. After getting back to the farm in early February, Dually then had to go on 6 weeks of antibiotic treatment that had to be administered every six hours, around the clock. Additionally, the drugs were so nasty to humans that they had to be administered in full gloves and smock every. single. time. It was like what I imagine having a newborn baby is like -- I hadn't slept more than a few hours continuously for weeks by the end of the regimen and was nearing the end of my sanity. But it was so, so worth to get to do this again:

(Triumphantly leading Big D back to his turnout, 100% recovered)

I'm so, incredibly thankful that the universe decided to give me more time with this amazing horse. So one year later, thank you again.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Ringo and HIs New Girl

Ringo's new owner sent me this beautiful picture of the two of them out enjoying the snow at our farm together:

They are so perfect together, I get teary just thinking about it. I can't wait to watch their progress and see all the fun they have together. She's a lucky girl, and he's a very very lucky horse :)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Degree: 10% Complete!

Woah, that's a terrifying thought. But it was made official yesterday, when I submitted my first piece of graded work into the (very intimidating) Oxford Examination Schools. I even got this fancy receipt proving I'd done it in time for my noon deadline:

My program here at Oxford, unlike at most American universities, doesn't have classes with graded homework, quizzes, or exams. I do have classes, but they run in a participation-based pass/fail format, where it's expected that you'll come to every class prepared to discuss or even give a presentation on the (very hefty) weekly readings, but none of the week-to-week work you do actually counts towards your degree unless you don't do it and put yourself in danger of failing. 

Then, at the end of each term, my program requires an extended essay based in some way on the material covered over the course of the term. For the first term they went easy on us and actually set the deadline for the first day of winter term, but from now on they'll be due by the end of the quarter. Quite intimidatingly, the essays aren't read by the professors from your course (who know you and, presumably, know where you're coming from), but rather are looked at by an anonymous board of examiners--thus the fancy submission process. It all feels a little cloak and dagger compared to the Stanford way of submitting exams, which was... email. 

Some degrees do have exams, for which you're required to dress up in your full subfusc/Harry Potter gown. Part of me is pretty sad that I'm missing out on that Oxford experience... But just part, haha.

Of course the due date for this essay, which from a grade perspective will encapsulate my entire first term at Oxford, had to link up with me being heavily medicated and out of it. I had been pretty happy with the first draft I'd written but knew it needed some work, and have now been in a semi-panic since I turned it in that the 'edits' I did the night before it was due under the influence of large doses of Nyquil might not have been the most helpful changes I could have made. Oh well.... What's done is done. If I get my essay back with an abysmal mark and big 'what were you thinking??!!' question marks all over the front, I'll know where I went wrong...

In better news I'm starting to feel better again, after a pretty horrid day yesterday. I'm currently aiming for a Thursday return to society at large; fingers crossed!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Sometimes You Eat the Bar...

And, well, sometimes the bar eats you.

This has been a tough week. I've been heartbroken by the news circulating the US eventing scene of the loss of two wonderful horses in such devastating freak circumstances, in addition to the other horses I've known, high profile and not, that have already passed or been injured this year. It's been a brutal reminder that riding is a tough sport that gets at you in unexpected, gutting ways. We vest so much into these beautiful creatures: love, hope, the piece of ourselves that aspires to be the very best we can be. And yet they are so fragile, and they can vanish from in front of our eyes in a moment. I wish I could be close to my horses right now to give them a hug after this week. It's taken a toll on me.

In comparison to that, my own problems seem rather small, but problems I've been having nonetheless. Starting last Wednesday, I started to feel really congested and short of breath during my erg workout for crew (it also didn't help that we were doing 3x2k, aka death workout). I took the next few days pretty easy and thought I was feeling better, though I noticed that my body was taking a really long time to recover from Wednesday's workout and that I was still feeling achey on Saturday afternoon. Not normal. 

On Sunday we went out to Dorney again for another water outing, and it was just a mess for me from the start. I just couldn't get my timing together, and I felt progressively more and more out of sequence as the workout went on. I slowly realized that I was feeling progressively more and more lightheaded, and that as I had to shift my weight forward to move up the slide and put my blade in the water I would get so dizzy that I felt like I was going to pass out. Not normal.

I got off the water almost in tears. The session hadn't gone that well and a lot of people were frustrated, and I felt like I'd let sabotaged everyone with whatever was going on with me. Everyone on my team was so nice about it and wasn't mad at me, but I had a hard time not feeling like I'd single-handedly dragged everyone down to my sickbed level of shoddiness. 

Afterwards I felt sufficiently crappy to not protest to going straight to the doctor (which means you KNOW I was feeling crappy), where I was diagnosed with a virus AND a sinus infection. Lovely. I'm now heavily medicated but steel feeling even worse 24 hours later, so I'm hoping I'm at the nadir now and that it's all uphill from here. I hate feeling like I'm not at my best, especially since I've been enjoying rowing so, so much and would be devastated if something like this ended up throwing a wrench into my somewhat delicate hopes and dreams for this upcoming season. 

Oh well. There's not much I can do about it now except try to get better!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Weekend Throwback: Merton Ball

Last term finished up in such a mad rush that I didn't get a chance to write about everything that I was hoping to get to. A lot of those topics seem like a bit of a moot point now, but a few stick out as simply too ridiculous not to mention, even two months after the fact.

Case in point: the Merton Winter Ball. Aka the white tie dress code formal ball that I went to in November. There were people in tail coats. and top hats. and canes. CANES. I'd been to a black tie ball when I studied abroad here in 2011, but there was something about white tie that just jumped it up to the next level of insanity.

 (just some ball goers casually strolling down magpie lane. What.)

 (Inside the Merton hall, where they had delicious chips and cupcakes)

 (The grounds looking very festive, albeit freezing!)

The way these balls work is that you pay a (rather absurd) entry fee, get a wristband, and once you're in everything is free. EVERYTHING. And it lasts for eight hours, from 8pm to 4am. So it's basically an entire working day of open buffet, open bar, and an open dance floor. It's epic.

 (Some pictures of the Pembroke ladies (and one brave man) lookin real fine)

Compared to the last ball I went to, the Merton ball was a little light on fun entertainment, but massively superior in terms of quality of food and drink provided, not to mention the live music which was, in my opinion, insanely good. I hit the dance floor around 10pm and never looked back until they literally kicked us off at 4am. I had an absolute topper of an evening.

(Crystal Fighters, one of the live acts that I'm now kinda sorta obsessed with)

 (Gettin' down with my friend's bow tie as an impromptu headband, looking VERY SWEATY but oh well)

 (Like, aggressively down)

(The three Pembrokians who made it all the way to 4am - survivors!)

 (And of course, we topped the night off with a quick stop in to our local kebab van for some hummus and fries. A classy end to a classy night.)

Oh Oxford. What a ridiculous place. I love you so.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Down the Rabbit Hole

... to a land with no clocks, a stultified world that time forgot.

No, no, not the world of Alice in Wonderland. I'm talking, of course, about the bureaucratic limbo that is the US Citizen Services area of the US Embassy in London.

I had to make my first (and hopefully, only!) trip into the US embassy a few days ago in order to get extra pages added to my passport book, as I'd recently gotten down to my last four open squares. Now this probably makes me sounds like a lot more of a badass world traveler than I actually am, but what I don't like to tell people is that a whole two pages of my passport are currently filled with novelty stamps from Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin that I got when I was 18 years old and never in a million years imagined that I'd ever need my passport to get between my home and my school. Now those novelty stamps not only get a disapproving eye roll from every border control agent I have to sheepishly present my passport to, but they're also seriously cramping my style.

The entire process was like some sort of bureaucratic satire: before even gaining entrance to the embassy itself, I had to wait in three separate lines outside: a line to 'check in' (confirm that I'd made an appointment and that my name was on the list), then a line to have my passport identity confirmed (why this couldn't have been done at check in, I have no idea), and then a line to be admitted into the security screening area. All I can say is that, mercifully, it wasn't raining.

After finally getting onto the fortress-like premises (seriously, no other embassy in the area in enclosed in a fenced in compound guarded by patrolling soldiers with machine guns like the bad guy's lair in some post-apocalyptic road warrior society), I only had to wait in one more line before being dumped into a DMV-style waiting area with no clocks and no entertainment of any kind except for the screen showing the current tickets that were being served and BBC weather on mute. Oh, and copies of a magazine called 'The American.' Wat.

Since we'd had to give up our bags and electronic devices before entering the embassy, the waiting process was even duller than usual. Eventually my name was called to one window, where I handed over my papers and told to go wait in line at another window to pay. After waiting in line at that window and paying, I was told to go back into the waiting area to wait until my number was called again to pick my papers up.

Finally, an indeterminate time (later determined to be just under two hours) and seven queues later, I emerged $82 poorer but with my shiny new passport pages in hand. Hooray! Hopefully, NEVER AGAIN.

(My current passport was issued in 2006, making it one of the 'old style' ones (before they started adding the microchip into the cover and changed the style of the interior pages), but obviously the new pages are of the 'new style,' meaning that my passport now has a decidedly disjointed vibe to it.)

(It's also significantly chubbier now. Large and in charge, THE AMERICAN WAY.)

Then it was off for some of the best mental therapy London could offer:

Tea and (not pictured) poached eggs on toast. It's a wonderful life.

I also then spent the rest of the day in London with a friend from home who is getting a masters at London School of Economics. It was great to catch up and do some London sightseeing, which I've been seriously remiss on so far. I have to remind myself that the bus to and from London was super cheap and super convenient, so I have no excuses for not coming up more often!!

 (Checking out some conservation projects at the V&A)


 (Napoleon's horse at the National Army Museum. Umm... either this horse had the most tragic conformation of all time, or else, Skeletal Reconstruction: you're doing it wrong. So, so wrong.)

 (Chilling in the V&A's glorious cafe)

 (Trying on pith helmets!!)

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Off to Camp Again

My first week back at Oxford, I got to take a little trip back to childhood, because... I got to go to camp!

Well, rowing camp, that is, which was definitely a lot more sweating and a lot less campfire songs than I remember about camp growing up. Oh well; I still had a blast.

I had been pretty proud of myself for sticking pretty faithfully to the holiday workout plan our coaches sent us for break (though I must admit that I was exceedingly spoiled, as I had free access to my high school's gym, 5 minutes away from my house, which had a beautiful ergo all ready and waiting for me, so I really had no excuses!). Though my midsection definitely entered 2014 a bit expanded due to a surplus of holiday sweets and delicious home-cooked meals, I definitely felt physically fitter than I usually do at the start of the season. Wahoo!

Unfortunately, most of our ambitious plans for camp quickly got thwarted by the flooding in Oxfordshire, which was reaching epic and historic proportions by the time I got back. The river was a whopping 45 INCHES higher than normal, meaning that there was absolutely no way we were getting out on the water anywhere near Oxford. Worse still, even our boathouse was completely cut off due to the flooding around us, meaning that we couldn't even do land training like weights and erging (oh no... I say with a distinct simultaneous sigh of relief... :| ).

(My building is usually on the river, but not.... IN the river! We got flooded all the way up our steps and the towpath that connects us to the rest of Oxford was under a solid 12-14" of water. Gross.)

Of course Pembroke, being the super snappy rowing college that it is, managed to find a way to get two of our boats safely out of our boathouse before it got completely swamped, and shipped them up to a lake about an hour north of Oxford so we could still train. And not just any lake, either, but Eton Dorney - aka the private rowing facility of Eton College, the poshest preppiest prep school of them all that makes even a ridiculous place like Oxford seem like a raffish populist establishment, and also the site of the rowing events at the 2012 Olympic games. Not too shabby!!

 (Dorney all gigged up for the 2012 Olympics - fancaayyyy!)

Needless to say that, after a month off the water, I didn't feel much like an olympian my first day at Dorney. In fact, I spent most of our first session lamenting my pretty awful natural timing, and trying desperately to get back in sync with the rest of the crew. It was a lot like this, only just a little less psychedelic (but just as frantic):

After years of individual sports (riding, squash, even cross country running back in high school), I find the amount of synergy and cohesion between everyone in the boat that is required for good rowing almost mind boggling. I'm getting better, but it's not something that comes super naturally to me, especially when I've been out of the boat for a while.


Thankfully, by the end of camp I was feeling much more back in the groove. On the last day we were treated with absolutely gawjus weather and the pieces started coming into place. For the first time, I was finally able to trust in my timing and start to expand my senses a little bit to really feeling boat moving through the water. 

 (Me and my friend looking PRETTY PUMPED to row!)

It was like when you're trying to master something new in riding, and at first it's just all an awkward jumble of trying to keep your body parts in generally the right area and it feels tense and unsustainable. But then eventually you wrap your head around how all the moving parts are supposed to correspond and you settle into yourself, and you can start to feel the way your body fits into your horse's back, and you can start to feel the articulation of his joints and the flow of his body in relation to yours. That was always my favorite sensation in dressage, and it was really exciting to start to glimpse at the same sort of unity in the boat. It only came in snatches and moments, but it made me really hungry to keep working so we can get there more often.

So all in all, nyah nyah rain, nice try! But you can't keep a Pembroke rower down. 

The river is still 28" above normal, meaning that we probably won't be out on the water closer to home for another week if all goes smoothly, and since term has started the three to four hour jaunts up to Dorney aren't a realistic midweek possibility. But we've got access to our boathouse again, and are off to the lake again on the weekend. I'm getting excited for the season ahead, where I'll (hopefully) finally get to do a little racing!

(Dorney looking a little blustery but very pretty, and very inspiring)

Monday, January 13, 2014

First Cycle of 2014!

Well I've gotten to the part of the year that I've been really dreading: that miserable turn from 'the holiday season' into 'regular dreary old winter.' Early January was also the time when I arrived in Oxford when I studied abroad here as an undergrad, and my memories of the climate are... not fond. As in, I remember getting to March, coming back to Aiken to visit Ringo and Kiki, and realizing that it felt like it had been a full three months since I'd last seen the sun.

Touch wood, but so far this winter hasn't seemed nearly so bad. I think I have to credit having a nice, bitterly cold winter in New England last year for toughening me up significantly. When I got here in 2011 it was straight from California 'winter,' which would obviously make pretty much anything else seem hellish in comparison. Thinking back to this time last year, though, when Pa and I were doing morning feed with headlamps on and I could barely muck out in the mornings because the stalls were a block of frozen poo balls, and dang! England don't seem too shabby at all.

We did have a ton of rain right as I was coming back, meaning that everything has been sodden and flooded for the past week, but the sun has been out pretty much every day. Hooray! Keep up the good work, weather!

To celebrate this auspicious turn of events, I popped Marcel out for a quick ride a few days ago right as the sun was setting. It was a very quick ride, as I'd been out rowing that morning and because a lot of roads around Oxford are still flooded meaning that I wasn't super confident on my route, but gosh it was nice to get out on the road again. I'm really loving rowing, but there's something about that nice fleeing of flowing along the road on the bike (and actually feeling like you're going fast!) that rowing just doesn't have for me yet.

Cruising on the bike is as close as I can get to that most beloved feeling of all of just getting in two-point, bridging my reins, and going for a good gallop. And the end result is pretty much the same: even though I'd been back in Oxford, going on that ride was the first time I really felt like I took a deep breath, relaxed, and took a moment to remind myself of what a wonderful place I'm in. Remind me of this feeling in a few weeks when I'll be buried in work and exuding stress from every pore!!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Year of the Horse(less)

Happy 2014, everyone! Sorry I dropped off the edge of the map last month; I hope you all had lovely holidays and good new years :) If you got an email from me that you were one of the giveaway winners and haven't received your prize yet, fear not! They are all completed and in the mail as of two days ago. Sorry for the late send-off, but the whirlwind of the holidays got the better of me.

(Ahh I had a marvelous fall in England, but it was great to be home on the farm again!)

I've sat down to blog quite a few times in the last few days, and have found myself continually at a loss for words. In many ways, I'm feeling in a bit of a funk now that 2013 is over. I had such a huge year last year, achieving almost all of the goals I set for myself and even completing some that I hadn't had the guts to write down last January. I've never ridden better, showed better, or gotten anywhere near the results I got last season. It was a huge, blockbuster year.

(We even had this ridiculous photo shoot to celebrate my showing career - these ribbons were from way more than just the last season, but it was really fun to get them all out and take a minute to remember all the good memories I've had in the horse world)

And yet over Christmas, I got the wonderful news that Ringo has sold, and has found a fabulous and loving new home, which meant that I enter 2014, the Year of the Horse... horseless. Huh. What a weird and empty feeling.

(So long, friend! Fortunately I actually already know his new owners very well, know what amazing care they will give him, and--best of all--I'll still get to see him as they're going to board him at my house! Hooray! I can't wait to see them excel together!)

Of course, the reason I'm horseless is because I'm pursuing an amazing academic opportunity that I couldn't be happier to be undertaking, so it's hardly the worst news. But being home for the holidays and reminiscing over the successes of the year made looking forward to 2014 feel a little scary and hollow.

This is the first year in over a decade where I won't have riding goals. I've been struggling to come up with other goals without the context of horses to place them in. In past years, even my non-horsey dreams have been couched in the knowledge that my life was going to be revolving largely around riding. Now... I don't now. It's a freeing feeling, but also an uncomfortable one. For whatever reason it feels a lot more real now than it did back in October when I made my first trip to the UK, still awash with the glow of how well the end of Ringo's and my season had gone.

But, in the spirit of moving forward, here are some goals anyway, lame as they might be. In 2014, I aim to...

-Have a great first year of grad school, and set myself up for a meaningful dissertation with a summer of focused academic research-

-Keep making pictures with my film camera, even when it feels hard, even when it feels pointless-

-Read the Bible-

-Eat like an athlete and take the time to actually cook and prepare meals that will help me feel energized and strong-

-Resist the temptation to eat the ENTIRE contents of the Pembroke MCR biscuit tin every time I go-

-Apply to PhD programs-

-Apply for a Fulbright Grant-

-Keep rowing-

So happy 2014, all! 

 (Also, got to ride the Dude over Christmas. It was a good, good day!)
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