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We spent the week before last at a friend’s farmhouse, on the beautiful Kintyre peninsula. My digital camera has been missing since we moved back in December, but Mark took this photo when he was there a few years ago:


We were there, in large part, to give me some downtime before my viva–that’s the UK equivalent of a doctoral defence, though there are some key differences. For example, in the US, as far as I understand it, the defence isn’t scheduled until all the committee members are more or less happy with the dissertation. Here, the examiners aren’t even appointed till the thesis is submitted, and you are explicitly not allowed to talk to them before the exam. Also, it’s conducted in private, so you walk into the room with no idea what to expect because you’ll not have seen anyone else do it before. All in all, a little bit nerve-wracking.

Anyways. My viva was scheduled for the 21st. And we were down in Kintyre until the 20th, to give me some much-needed quiet time before coming back for The Most Important Two Hours Of My Life Thus Far. Which would have worked great, except for the volcano.

See, every PhD has two examiners: an internal-someone who is on staff at the same university as the PhD was written-and an external, who’s an expert in what the PhD is on. The external can come from anywhere in the world; as it happens, mine is from the USA–and they were scheduled to attend via video link anyways. My internal examiner, however, went to Greece for the term break, and couldn’t get back. So my viva had to be rescheduled, and I’ve had to shelve all the preparation anxiety. The second attempt is set for this Friday, and as far as I know my internal is back in the country, so as long as the internet doesn’t break, everything should be fine, right? (Just say yes.)

All of this got me to thinking, again, about kashrut, and how it works in my life.

While the Kintyre peninsula is one of the most beautiful spots in Scotland,1 there’s not a lot to do there without a car–everything’s spread out, and the bus company announced yet another cut in service while we were there. Another couple from our grad program went down to the same farmhouse a couple weeks before us, and chose to rent a vehicle so they could get around and see things; we chose to pack a deck of cards, a few novels, and some low-key knitting, and just enjoy a few days with nowhere to go and nothing to do. We had some lovely walks, a nice lazy afternoon reading in the garden, and one day we caught the bus into town to re-stock the pantry (a four-hour round trip, due to the timing of the bus schedule).

This wasn’t a one-off choice; in the nearly four years I’ve been here, I can still count the number of times I’ve been inside a car on my fingers. I still drive when overseas, visiting my parents–they live in a place with no sidewalks and no public transit. Having seen literally years of my life wasted away sitting in traffic, I’m afraid I tend to see cars more as prisons on wheels than wonderful tools for freedom. Sure, there’s something to be said for driving wherever you want and stopping whenever you want, without regard for schedules and fares, but then you have to worry about staying awake and alert behind the wheel, watching the road instead of the scenery, paying for petrol and parking…

I get the vague impression that the other overseas students in our department think we’re a little odd (though, perhaps, the attitude towards transportation is only a small part of that!), deliberately limiting where we can go and when and for how long. But I find that limitation actually enhances my enjoyment of travel. It forces me to plan ahead–especially if I’m going up to the Highlands, where bus and train service can be infrequent; I know the cost of my mobility up front. It helps me learn the difference between could, should, and going to: anyone could hop in a car and be in Aberdeen for a few hours; that doesn’t mean that I should, nor does it mean that I am going to.

Not driving is a self-imposed limitation. At any time, I could decide to study for a UK license; I could rent or buy a car and go wherever I want, whenever I want. But I choose not to.

To me, that’s an extension of kashrut, the system of Jewish dietary laws that distinguishes between the vast range of delicious foods (and let’s be clear, I really like food) that I could put in my mouth, and the relatively smaller range of foods that I think I should put in my mouth, or that I am going to put in my mouth. Kashrut is being a bit peckish at a University function where there are only prawns on offer and deciding that I’m not likely to actually keel over from hunger within the next half hour. It’s going out to a nice restaraunt and having either the lamb chops or pudding, but not both, because all the good puddings involve dairy, which can’t be eaten either with or right after meat. But, above all, kashrut is choice. It’s not a set of rules that someone else imposed on me (and, in fact, due to a combination of geography and politics most of what I buy doesn’t carry a hechsher). It’s not superstition, or magical thinking–I know perfectly well that nothing bad will happen to me if I eat bacon. It’s not even a single choice that I made years ago and have lived with ever since. Kashrut is a long series of choices that I’ve made, and continue to make, every single time I sit down to eat, every time I go to the market, every time I’m at a buffet, every time I have to arrange event catering.

Choice is a habit. I started out reading ingredient lables in the supermarket, trying to discern whether my food had ingredients I shouldn’t be eating. Then I started noticing where my food comes from–the broccoli from South Africa is slightly cheaper than the stuff from Amsterdam, but not cheap enough to justify the extra food miles. The habit of noticing, of thinking about the choices you have to make instead of just grabbing the first thing off the shelf, can touch and transform every aspect of life.

The volcano disrupted a lot of people’s unexamined certainties about the possibilties available to them–it took away, for awhile, one of the biggest taken for granted coulds of modern life. I’m wondering if it’s maybe time for me, at least, to start re-thinking the should and going to of air travel, as well.


1 Though take that with a grain of salt, as I tend to think that wherever I happen to be standing is one of the most beautiful spots in Scotland–you’re hard pressed to find a view that’s merely pleasant, instead of draw-droppingly gorgeous.