24 December 2009

Happy Christmas!

So, if you didn't know, the Whorton family Christmas has gone European; it is basically like Chevy Chase's Christmas Vacation meets European Vacation. Needless to say, we have been busy for the last week, and thus I have taken a vacation/break/holiday (whichever one means actually doing no work) from blogging. I have also had to let some of this time fall into the blogging black hole, because I have blogging principles--namely that blogging laughs never come at other peoples' expense, and if they do, those people must be unnamed and unlikely (with 99% confidence) to be identified. Well, let's just suffice to say that there have been some bloggable moments that would violate these principles. However, here is what I can tell you:

  1. We have photographed probably 30-40 doors in Oxford. I was going to say that we had takn a picture of EVERY door in Oxford, but clearly that would have been an exaggeration. After all, the bathroom doors aren't that interesting.
  2. Luke and I had a bet about how long it would be before papa Whorton started mimicking the British accent. I had confidence that Dad would hold off on accent imitation. Luke won the bet by a landslide.
  3. A guy passing me near the bus station in Warwick (pronounced War-ICK; the second "w" is silent. We had to have several family discussions about this before we all internalized the change. Other pronunciation challenges have included: Worcester--pronounced WUSS-ter, not like worcstester sauce (like that one is easier or more logical) like one family member liked to maintain.), said "Hail Hitler" in German as he walked past. What do I do to attrack this stuff?! (see "Say What?!" below.) I am not wearing any American flags, talking about George Bush, or doing anything else to attract excessive attention to myself, so I am a bit baffled.
  4. Overall, we are taking the continent by storm. We are figuring out the culture, pronunciation, and sights everywhere we go. After a few days in London, not sure if it is our (collective) favorite place, but we are returning for two more days; including a stop at Harrods (which is a department store that is basically a mall in and of itself) on the 26th. (Think the traffic at the local mall on th 26th, and then make that local mall the Mall of America, and then place the Mall of America in New York City. Now think about how much FUN that is going to be.) Ready or not, here we come.

Happy Christmas everyone. May you enjoy time with your family wherever you are, and not allow the bustle of the city, the quiet of the country, or the preparations everywhere in between to drown, dim, or crowd out the Powerful Peace whose arrival was announced through the infant cries that pierced the stillness of earth two-thousand years ago.

16 December 2009

Pumping Ze Iron

So, I may have mentioned before that the workout facilities leave something--ok, everything--to be desired. Words cannot do the gym justice. And the place is so pitiful that I would be ashamed to be seen taking a picture of the place. If you are really interested, apparently there is this documentary called "Oxford Blue" (not to be confused with the movie Oxford Blue) which is about the Blues boxing team. I really want to see this movie, because I can't imagine what a movie about sports at Oxford could possibly entail.

But to try to paint a small picture of what Iffley Road Facilities (which serve over 20,000 students by the way) are like, I will leave you with a few verbal snapshots. When you walk into the gym area, you are standing on what could be one-fourth of a mezzanine. It doesn't really function as an efficient mezzanine (like the ones with a track that you can actually exercise on). It is just a walkway clutered with exercise equipment. On the right, you can take stairs down to the court, and on the left, there are doorways to the "Power Lifting Room" (aka the prison weight room cut in half) and the "Pulse" room (don't ask me to explain that one--there are cardio machines, weight-lifting machines and lighter dumbells than you can find in the "power" room--which costs an extra 50 GBP so you know I didn't pay it. That's right, the "pulse" room is the girls weight room.) But, if you want to use a glute-ham machine (I am sure they don't call it that here), or do abs, or just do whatever random exercise you can think of, you can go onto the narrow mezzanine area and workout there (oh, goody). Or, you can even practice your rock climbing on an 8 foot wall. Think about all of the choices you have!

Well, just to capture things for you, as you are walking along the mezzanine to get to the "Pulse" room, there is a sing that says something along the lines of "Please close this curtain during archery practice." That's right. Every single sport (even ballroom dance and trampolining) get time on the basketball court. Do the majority of these activites need "court" space. Simply put--no. But they all get it--even the people with arrows.

Needless to say, when I work out here, it's like a box of chocolates--you never know what you're gonna get. So, yesterday I went to Iffly to work up a quick sweat, and I decided to jump on a treadmill. My treadmill of choice was the newest looking one (I am picky like that), but as soon as it started it didn't sound good. I cranked the speed of to my usual location somewhere between 7.0-8.0 and realized that this thing MUST be broken. Despite the laboring sound-effects, the conveyor belt was barely moving. Par for the course. So, I jumped over to the next treadmill. Strangely, I had a similar experience. Wow, I thought, maybe I am just in such good shape (It's a MIRACLE!) that this just feels like slow motion.

Or, maybe it's because these treadmills are in kilometers per hour instead of miles per hour.

That's what I'm talking about. Brains AND brawn.

15 December 2009

One Term In the Books...(That's a pun and I didn't even realize it!)

It almost seems impossible to believe, but my first term is already over. In fact, it ended over a week ago. It seems unbelievable because when I left the states, universities had been in session for over a month, and those same schools are currently in finals week. But don't be too envious of me or think that I have things too easy. For starters, the eight week term is basically a condensed version of the 15 (or maybe 12) week term; we aren't getting away with anything over here. Then there is the fact that my professors went to great lengths to ensure that we knew that we were expected to be "working" over "break". One of my professors had a long soliloquy about the difference between a "vacation" and a "holiday". I zoned out a few minutes into this presentation, so I can't remember all of the details, but I'll give you the high points. One of the two terms means that you don't do work, one of the terms means that you do; our break is whichever one signifies that you do work. The real brilliant part of this admonishment is that while it is clear that we are meant (British for supposed) to be working, there is absolutely no direction as to what we should be working on. (Sure, they gave us a group presentation in the last week that is due on Monday of the first week, but what work can you really do on that considering my fellow group members were going to be dispersed amongst four different continents throughout the break?) I think this ambiguity is intended to create great anxiety that will drive us on towards more work, but that is just me.

Here are a few other general reflections on my first term in Oxford:

  • It took me awhile to buy into the value of doing research (as an extensive and prolonged activity). Just when I had started to buy in, I had a conversation with a professor about how he saw his work effecting policy (or the world generally). Here was his response (Picture the speaker in a tweed jacket, a sweater vest, and a knit tie. He is also Norwegian and I have always wanted to ask him if his wife knits his ties.): "For those of us who write, once it has been written, much has been achieved. If it is read, that is certainly an advanatage." It was at that moment that I knew that I couldn't aspire to wear tweed jackets, sweater vests, and knit ties, and write books that people may/may not read (for multiple reasons).
  • While there are things that I have not bought into, there are huge parts of me that have adjusted to the Oxford way. I find myself not getting worked up about things that would have previously been huge catastrophes in my life. I think this results from an awareness that in this country, there is little information to be gathered (aka no one knows the answer to your question); when you do find out information that is actionable, there is very little that you can actually do without someone's help (which won't be provided). So, time spent trying to preempt disaster is largely wasted because there are some things that are just unavoidable. In a city driven by knowledge, ignorance may be bliss.
  • I may still be resisting saying British words like "keen", "epic", "brilliant", "cheers", "meant", "trousers", and "hiya", but I am starting to think them, which means that it is only a matter of time. After all, an idea becomes a thought, a thought becomes a word, or something like that.

11 December 2009

Say WHAT?!

So, Ashley and I were riding the lift up for our last run of the day (and the trip). We were talking Aeroski, this gondola-ish lift that is basically an enclosed glass box that can hold up to ten people. In our lift, there were two or three British guys and then three people from a undisclosed country (speaking a language I couldn't place).

Well, the first unusual event was when the younger guy (about forty) pulled out a flask and passed it around. Ok. That isn't exactly what I would do, but I don't know that I would have written home about it (or blogged about it). But then things got a bit more strange.

Before the pungent alcohol aroma had fully passed, I suddenly heard a few words I recognized. So, follow with me here. In the midst of some unidentified language, I suddenly heard, "Osama Bin Laden!" and then two more rounds of, "Heeeey! Osama Bin Laden!" Let's just say that isn't what I was expecting.

So, ever since that little encounter, I have been trying to figure out what the context of that declaration could have possibly been. Here is what I have come up with so far:

  1. Look, at that collection of rocks; maybe that's where Osama Bin Laden is! Heeey! I see Osama Bin Laden! What? Where's Osama Bin Laden?
  2. What are these Americans doing skiing out here? Why didn't they just go to Canada (a question we received the previous day from a Frenchman)?....Oh, I know. I bet they are looking for Osama Bin Laden!!!
  3. These American girls looked at me funny when I pulled out the flask. What could we do to try to get a reaction out of them? I know! On the count of three, let's say "OSAMA BIN LADEN".

I am open to suggestions. This is just what I have come up with so far. Let's be realistic though. There is no construction that would really make shouting Osama Bin Laden in a ski lift (in France of all places) a logical turn of events.

10 December 2009

The View from the Top

So, my time in France has almost come to a close (a half day of skiing tomorrow followed by a 21 hour bus trip), and here are some of the highlights.
Let's talk about French food that you can buy packaged here, like chocolate mousse and quiche. We are talking above (American) restaurant quality in a package. This is good news because food otherwise is completely UNaffordable. For example, Daffy's Tex Mex Cafe (yes, that's right, they have Tex Mex here) is something along the lines of 13 Euros for a burrito (which translates into over $20.00). I am bummed because I wanted to know what French Tex Mex was all about. Instead I have been eating nutella and bread sandwiches and cereal (which is awesome; one kind has dark chocolate pieces in it).

I have also gotten stunningly good (so I think) at hiding the fact that I don't know French. I basically go mute everywhere and do a lot of nodding with a "merci" mumbled (to hide my horrendous accent) to finish. This worked until one of the lift operators was yelling at me in French. Apparently, the nodding was not the appropriate response. I probably nodded agreement to something quite offensive because he continued to follow me and talk to me in French. This language conundrum has been a good experience for me. I can be quite a language snob; like when a hotel (in Rome) sent me a message asking me to "specificate" my request. I thought that was quite funny and have added it to my lexicon of language. But I can't really criticize because I would have nodded via e-mail. (Perhaps that feature should be added to facebook in addition to the "poke" feature--which should be removed, in other news.)

Apparently, the French are also quite into energy efficiency (go Coppenhagan)--or quite cheap (don't you love these sweeping generalizations?!). Every hallway and stairwell is dark by default. You have to hit a switch to turn the lights on for about a minute. It took me a while to figure out this system. Prior to my realization, I would walk into a lit stairwell and then have to find my way in the dark after the lights switched off again. This was not really a big deal other than when someone would walk into the stairwell and find you walking in the dark. You look like the weirdo who didn't bother to turn the lights on. Any money saved by being so militant with electricity is lost in the wasted water that is required to keep the toilet in our room running 23 hours a day. It's like one of those annoying sound machines that help 5% of the population sleep and make the other 95% want to run over the machine with a car.

One more day of skiing and I have made it safely through the trip! When I have more time (and more distance from the traumatic event) I will update you on my journey down an off-piste double black. It is a tale of peer pressure at its finest.

07 December 2009

I feel old...

So, I recognize that 23 isn't exactly ripe old age, but I have to admit that I think I have had my first brush with getting old-er. I haven't skied since I was...(Please pause with me for some mental math: The last time I skied, I was an 8th-grader, which means I was...) 13, which means it has been an entire decade since I hit the slopes! I really enjoyed skiing the last time I did it; I had worked my way up to blacks and I really liked the tree trails and any small jumps on the slopes. As a result, skiing has always held a very warm spot in my heart. I have been talking about how much I "love it", even as the rust was quietly accumulating on my skills. I think my first day experience (In Tignes, France) made me realize that I might have developed some fancifiul memories of skiing. I don't remember it being difficult, I never remember being sore (or tired for that matter), and I only have a vague awareness of being cold. In summary, my skiing experience resembled a video game more than real life. At least that is what I finally realized.

My boots are bruising my shins. Literally. Someone told me that the boots have gotten tighter over the course of the past decade; apparently, this is motived by either performance or safety. The idea that it could be both is questionalbe to me. For me, I am convinced that increased "performance" (speed, maneuvering, etc) is inversely related to safety of any form. I think that my mom would be glad to know that I have gotten more cautious in my ripe old age. While I use to laugh at the idea of making her uncomfortable with my excessive risk taking, the idea isn't as appealing. Or maybe I haven't changed at all, and it is just comparisons to my mountaineering ski partner (literally, she climbs mountains) that make me seem like a "safety-first" skier. Or maybe, it is the realization that if I go to the hospital, no one will be hear to arrange all of the details, including how I will get back to the UK (or how in the world you coordinate insurance payments between the NHS, my traveller's insurance and whatever they have here in the EU...). Or maybe it is all three.

Once I got over the bruising and on to the skiing, it only took about five minutes for th pain to move from my shins to my hip flexors and quads. I was talking to one of the "novices" on the bus (you know, the ones who haven't EVER skied, compared to those of us who wkied for three consecutive winters in the 90s), who was concerned that he would need to go easy on the first few days or else he would get really sore. I assured him that he would be fine; after all, the last time I skied (when I was a pre-teen) I never got sore. Perhaps, I should have done some basic math before I started offering sage advice.

In other news, I am always on the lookout for native experiences, so I have been trying t find things that are uniquely French. Here is what I have come up with so far. For starters, I am looking forward to the incredible customer service of the UK after spending a bit of time in this country. At one convenience store, they set a bag on top of my purchases and let me bag my own items. And I think the clerk was put out to have to provide the bag.

Also, showers here embody my idea of the stereotypical European experience. There is a shower head, but no shower curtain and the shower head is hand held. So you basically just stand in the bathtub and try not to spray water all over the bathroom. In other news, if you ever stay in a Chalet in the Alps, bring a towel. They are not provided. Fortunately, I am MacGyver, so I have not been deterred by the fact that I didn't bring a towel. I just dry off with the long-sleeved shirt that I wore that day. It is really quite the system.

02 December 2009

Happy Belated Turkey Day

Happy Thanksgiving! We were told that we looked like we could be in a JCREW catalogue. i think it was the blue on blue.

No lie. These are the family of deer that I saw when they initially made their way into the covered market. This means they have been hanging there for almost a week. Luke asked me if you buy the whole deer. I don't even want to think about it.

These are both taken at Christ Church (Harry Potter Hall). Yes, I have heels on. Otherwise, I would be a centimeter shorter than Luke.

Advent Service and the Magdalen Boys Choir

Now that you have (maybe) suffered through my rant about the value of denominations, I can talk about my experience at a high-Anglican church (what I pictured “Anglican” to be) without being misleading or misrepresentative. I am sorry if being fair was not worth reading the monotonous statistics description featured below; I will do my best to avoid such discussions in the future.

I went to the First Advent service at Magdalen (not as in Mary, this is pronounced MA—as in ma and pa—DLIN) and it was certainly a new experience. The first thing you need to know is that I didn’t even make it into the chapel. I had a ticket to secure a seat in the ante-chapel (aka the foyer). I could peek through the door into the chapel and see the hundreds of statues of saints and the back of the readers. This is the consequence of building large pews that face each other (lining the sides of the chapel) rather around a large aisle rather than a more efficient narrow aisle. There were more people sitting in the ante-chapel than in the chapel. This didn’t make me feel more included.

The second thing you need to know is that Magdalen College is closely affiliated (but not to be confused) with Magdalen College School, a boys school a Brett Favre’s football throw (in his prime) away from the College. The Magdalen College School choir sings at formal halls (where I had seen them previously) as well as services like the Advent service and from the top of Magdalen College (not school) tower at 5 am on May 15th. (No, I don’t know why this happens, but I hear it is pretty cool.) As I mentioned, I had seen a small cohort from the choir sing grace before formal hall, but I had never heard the entire choir. They lived up to the hype, but there were some surprising elements. For starters, the choir members ranged in age from (based on my own age assessment) age eight through eighteen. As a side note, I think that British kids are incredibly cute, both because of their cute British accents as well as the fact that usually when I see British kids around Oxford, I am seeing little boys in suits and ties, often with mortar caps and cloaks (that look like the one that I wore when I dressed up as winter Kirsten from the American Girl’s dolls series). But I did think it was a little weird that you would have elementary school students in the same choir as high school students. Well, when they sang, it suddenly made sense.

You see, they sang ALL parts (bass to soprano). The reason why this is significant is that this was an all boys choir. These little boys gave new meaning to the term “singing like angels”. To me, it was impressive and noteworthy on two levels:

1. The fact that it was physically possible for boys of any age to sing so high. Granted, I understand that the little guys don’t have any facial hair and probably don’t yet (yes, junior-high boys, I said yet) need to wear deodorant, but, to put it into technical music terms, they were singing the high-high-soprano part (That’s right, “high-high-soprano”. Google that.) I’ll confess, they were singing much higher than I am physically capable of singing.

2. The fact that it was culturally acceptable for boys of any age to sing that high. Let me reiterate that we are talking really high. Enough said. (As a disclaimer, I am not suggesting that I do not think boys should sing high; my brother sings angelically as well. However, this takes things to a whole new level, and choir participation is celebrated to a degree unparalleled in the states. The choir kids are the cool kids at Magdalen College School.)

I guess none of this really has anything to do with a high-Anglican service—but here is something that is.

I have to admit that I have never been in a service where there were such specific directions about your role as a participant. And I can tell you that "Amen-be-seated" (the common protestant transitional term) was never necessary. There is also significantly less (in my estimation) time where you, as an "audience" member are participating. This allows a one hour service to seem quite long because you can squeeze so much thinking and contemplation into it. There are certainly some advantages to this model, but it requires your mind to be trained in very different ways.

01 December 2009

Anglican: What's in a name?

So, let’s talk about “Anglican” churches. I have found it to be very difficult to understand what it means to be “Anglican”. I am also unclear as to what the relationship is between the Anglican church and the Church of England—perhaps they are synonyms, perhaps they are entirely different; I have no idea. In other news: In many ways this is similar to my understanding of the relationship between the terms The United Kingdom, Great Britain, and England. I knew this—or better put, someone explained it to me—at one time, but I have a hard time keeping it straight. If you want a real challenge, try explaining these concepts SAT style:

England is to Great Britain as ________ is to the United States.
United States is to the UN as ________(GB, UK, England) is to the UN. (This one is doable)
Great Britain is to the United Kingdom as __________ is to the United States.
(UK/GB/England) is to (UK/GB/England) as Missouri is to the United States.

I am sure I have stumped you. This may not even be possible—I can’t remember.

Understanding the Anglican church is complicated by the fact that I can’t identify a “representative” Anglican church. My impression of the Anglican church was that it would be much more “conservative” (whatever that means—probably “traditional”) than protestant churches in the US. I assumed that it would be much closer to a Catholic service. Well, let’s just cut to the chase and say that this assumption has not held up. For example, there is an “Anglican” church in Oxford that would be described as non-traditional (aka charismatic) churches, even amongst protestant denominations in the states. At this church, there is speaking in tongues, the opportunity for healing after every service (and in the streets on Thursdays), as well of lots of everyone praying out loud together. Apparently, this is called low-Anglican. Even amongst this distinction, there is great variety; there are other “low-Anglican” churches with none of the charismatic elements described. It seems the greatest difference between low- and high-Anglican churches is the level of liturgy. Low-Anglican churches still use several of the corporate prayers and formal structures but do not stick to the traditional Biblical readings. I think.

This reminds me of a great statistical concept, and a chance to include a bit of the “school” portion of my experience, and thus correct the 80:20 shift (or maybe 70:30)—that is, I spend 80% of my time focused on academics, but less than 20% of my time talking about those experiences. Perhaps this is for the best; I doubt anyone would read this blog if I inverted the ratio, but this is actually useful.

What does this have to do with statistics, you ask? Well, I have been learning that when making comparisons, it is only useful to use classifications (denominations) when the variance between groups is greater than the variance within groups. So, essentially, it is useless to talk about “Anglican” churches if the difference between low-Anglican and high-Anglican churches is greater than the difference between the “standard” Anglican church and the standard Catholic church (or Baptist, Lutheran, etc). This is demonstrated by the graph below.

So, each circle represents a different “standard” representation of a denomination. This circle would represent the average answer to the questions “What does X denomination believe/practice?” However, the lines through the circles represent the range of beliefs/practices within that church. (For some protestant denominations, there are not significant ranges because churches just split when the beliefs/practices diverge significantly, but that is another blog post.) Now, these circles just represent hypothetical denominations/ranges, but they illustrate the point. While there is a significant difference between “Denomination 1” and “Denomination 4”, the range of practices/beliefs in each are much greater than the differences between the two. So, it doesn’t really make that much sense to talk about the difference between the two. Also, I would suggest that the Anglican church would best be represented by “Denomination 4”.

(In order for this to really be a useful exercise, the y-axis—which in this case is “degree of conservative-ness” would need to be more specific. It could cover any topic from the style of worship to beliefs on various issues).

End academic talk. This is the disclaimer for what is to come.

24 November 2009

And here is a little visual spice...I have been slacking on photos lately. This is coming up dinner: Rhodes House, the dinner itself, and me and a few friends!

Lost in Translation

So, my brother is going to be here on Thursday--just in time for Thanksgiving. I am really excited. And not because it is important for me to have family here for the holidays. Not that I don't want family here for the holidays...but I would enjoy having him here just as much if it were a regular day of the week. Because, while we are on the topic of holidays, I guess I am not really a traditional holiday person. I don't really like the food--well, there are other kinds of food I like more. After all, I have come to realize that I like just about (more on that later) everything, which is really going to become a problem at some point if it hasn't already. And, I should probably be more thankful all the time, so while I appreciate the reminder, I feel like it is a bit cheap to conjure up extra thankfulness on this one day.

Anyway, I am really excited that he will be coming becuase I am beginning to realize that I am really bad at truly translating this experience. I will start to try to tell stories or explain things, but there are some elements that can only be experienced--no description does them justice. Now, I am going to be completely hypocritical by trying to explain what I mean:

1. Stonemason vans. There is one outside my house/apartment once a week. I don't even think that stonemasonry is an occupation in the US. Let's talk about an incredibly lucrative business; there is A LOT of stone here.

2. The dining hall is always freezing. When I asked someone if it was always that way (stupid question number 143), they paused for a second before describing that the building was built over 500 years ago. So, yes. It is always cold. But, you eat dinner by candlelight in an otherwise dark, wood-pannelled room, and there are dragons carved into the wall that you didn't even notice because you were too busy looking at the crests and the paintings of the Queen.

3. In the covered market the other day, a friend said, "Is that a deer?". When I turned around, I could definitively answer, "Yes, Abdul, that was a deer." After all, I had been staring down the barrel of its beheaded neck as it passed a few feet from me. And then its husband/wife and child made the same journey to the butcher's shop. Mmmm, lunchtime.

4. At dinner last night, conversation turned to writing a book (as a group). And everyone was entirely serious. I'll keep you posted.

5. I have been engaged in a multiple day conversation that has unfolded both in person and via e-mail about the best way to "fight the world's fight". Can you go into business? What about finance? What are the responsibilities that come with incredible opportunities? Are entire industries off-limits? Is one endeavor the "best"? Suffice to say that I am doing alot of "sufficing" with those questions. The discussion is an entire novel.

I can't even think of other things to include in this list because there are millions of things each day that are bizarre and somewhat impossible to explain. And there is part of me that knows that I can't do them justice, but another part that knows that I need to tell someone. I begin to wonder how long you can have different experiences, be immersed in a different culture, and be constantly engaged with new and challenging questions before it begins to change how you think about things, before it settles in to who you are. And while I think I would like to resist any of that change--I want to come home in two years and be the same person, and in terms of what I believe and who I am, I will be. But there is another part of me that realizes as I am challenged intellectually, socially, emotionally, and spiritually (note that I can't honestly include physically...uh oh.) every day, that I am being refined and molded within and across each dimension. This is not a unique experience to me, to Oxford, or to England. It is a part of our growth regardless of our physical location. But it will be good to share and to show the soil that I am planted in, to provide a context for these challenges and the way I am being shaped by them.

I hope Luke is up for all of that. But we will also eat a Thanksgiving meal and play touch football. And that will be good too, because I know that the Chiefs won on Sunday (as did the Drake women over a ranked ISU--good thing, since I paid $13 dollars to watch the game online), but otherwise, I have completely lost touch! It will be good to connect the continents for a few days.

22 November 2009

New Moon: The only thing scarier than vampires is the cue of girls to see the newest movie

So, let's say I have this friend. (No, I didn't say, let's say I have a friend; I am talking about a particular friend.) And this friend went to go see New Moon on Thursday at midnight in England--Oxford, to be more specific. Now, I should tell you that this "friend" of mine is not one of the crazy Twilight fans. She hasn't read any of the books and watched the first movie a few months ago at 1 AM only for lack of better things to do. But, this friend decided to go see the latest Twilight movie for a few reasons:

1. She is all about new experiences, and seeing a movie with a cult following at midnight (in a foreign country) certainly seems to qualify.
2. She is seeking "normalcy"--defined as things that are entirely non-academic, and largely American, like sports, movies, and meaningless television--and a Twilight movie certainly qualifies as mindless, though normal may be questionable.
3. She knew that it would make a great blog post for me. (Ok, it was actually just the first two.)

So, let's talk about what it is like to attend a movie with a cult-following at the premiere in the UK. (Based on what I have been told.) For starters, my friend was (or at least felt like) one of the oldest people at the theater--at least in the top 1%. It was unclear whether these other crazy girls were high school students or undergrads--the difference between 16 and 18 is quite negligible, especially when people have on "Team Jacob" and "Team Edward" shirts. And to make matters worse, my friend is quite tall, so she was the oldest and largest person there. How did my friend have time to sort this all out, you ask? Well, despite the fact that the 600 seat theater was sold out for the midnight showing, the theater did not open the doors until 11:30 (23:30), so everyone was cuing into the street until that time. There was lots of jockeying for position, giggling, and picture-taking. I hear it was awful. To my friend (and I agree), this seems like poor planning on the part of the theater, but it is the UK and this kind of inefficiency has come to be expected.

When my friend and her friends finally got into the theater and found seats, the reality of the situation began to sit in. Sure, they had drank some coffee about an hour before in preparation of the big night, but the reality is that they were too old for this. The 30 minutes waiting for the movie to begin was ample time for drowsiness (and crankiness) to set in. The only thing that kept the wait time interesting was the lonely male (who was older than everyone) who was talking and cursing under his breath behind them and the girls who were taking pictures in front of them. They took pictures of each other with their movie stubs, pictures of them eating popcorn, and at one point, my friend thought they took a picture of my friend and her friends. That is when it became clear that they truly were in the top 1% of the age distribution.

Well, as annoying as it may have been to cue up outside, it was understandable. What was simply incomprehensible (especially in the early hours of the morning with crankiness setting in) was when the movie still had not started at 12:20. I mean, in the US the movie would have started at 12:01, coordinated with the official clock in New York. My friend thought about going to complain (she is an American after all), but then she realized something (this was a real sign of European wisdom). You know what, if starting the movie at the advertised time is not enough of a motivation, it is unlikely that inquiring about the start time is going to further motivate the theater staff. In fact, an inquiry may just further whatever inefficiency is causing the delay. Wise girl.

So, when the movie finally started at 12:25, everyone squealed, and the price of admission, inefficiency of the system, and staying up late for no good reason was entirely worth it; it was truly a new experience. I mean, seeing a movie with terrible acting and a limited plot could be perceived as a waste of time and money, but not when you get to experience the incredible reactions every time Jacob or Edward appear on screen or when the movie closes with Edward...wait, I don't want to spoil the ending for you.

18 November 2009

It's all a gamble: craps, slot machines, and your poker face

So, I ran into this problem a while back, and it has been becoming increasingly incovenient and problematic. Initially, I thought it was just an isolated incident, but I am beginning to realize that it is far more pervasive than I previously realized. Summary: when you use the toilet here, you are never sure if it is going to flush.

I haven't determined the cause of this phenomenon, but at random, you will discover that the toilet is just refusing to flush. This may be a result of fluctuating water pressure (hot and cold water has two different faucets because of differing water pressure, so I am guessing pressure may be an issue), or initially, I just thought the Ship Street 6 second floor toilet was temperamental, or disliked me personally. (This is all very Harry Potter, right? Don't worry, I have not been talking to the toilet in between her tears, and thankfully, there are no human-eating snakes....) But, after a recent experience in the psychology building (surely, the case for temperamental toilets is stronger here...) prompted a discussion with a friend who has run into this issue elsewhere, I realized that the issue was not a personal or geographic one.

Now, how big of a problem is this? Well, that depends on the situation. Let's be realistic; there are times when it is more problematic than others to have used a broken toilet. Borrowing from one of my "green" friends (who led very environmentally friendly projects at his university), one water saving tip--go forth and be green with it: "If it is yellow, let it mellow; if it is brown, flush it down." I feel comfortable sharing this with you because it was published in an article about my mate featured in the New York Times, so clearly, it is a classy sentiment. So, let's just suffice to say that there are times when the toilet doesn't flush and you can feel a sense of environmental responsibility and there are others when a sense of panic sets in.

I have searched for solutions to this problem: For starters, in the states I was handy; I could have just taken the back off of the toilet, jimmied with the chains and other apparatus and figured out the problem. Here, the back of the toilet is in the wall, so Handy Manny solutions are eliminated. Another possible solution is to do a trial flush in situations where a lack of flush might be more, eh, risky. The only problem with this is that it is unclear what causes the lack of flush, and you could very well be undermining your cause by using the last successful flush on a test run.

So, the outcome is that using the restroom seems much more adventurous here. Each time, you are rolling the dice, and with different stakes and risks. I find myself holding my breath each time I depress the flusher--no whammy, no whammy, no whammy (which is on the right...you will fumble around for a while in the dark looking for it on the left). When you win, it is exhilirating; when you lose, a poker face is your only solution.

14 November 2009

There's no such thing as a free lunch. But free dinners may still be alive...

So, I never thought of myself as a cheapskae or a moocher before, but I have to admit; guilty on both accounts. You can get me to attend any event if it means that I get a free meal out of the deal; and I have started to realize that this tendency may turn into an achilles of sorts. I am starting to get myself into things for which the free meal is not adequate compensation. But then there are some pleasant surprises.

This week I got an e-mail regarding a free formal hall; needless to say, I signed up without even thinking twice. What I had signed up for was an alumni dinner in my college. The more time passed, the more I had second thoughts about this commitment.

I have to admit, things didn't start well. "Mixing and mingling" in a room that is only large enough to contain about three more people than the current capacity is never a good experience. And then, when a few people shared opening comments, I noticed that the guy behind me breathed very loudly. (And remember that there was not a lot of free space in the room; so being in such close proximity to such a heavy breather for an extended period of time made me feel a little more than slightly uncomfortable.) Then, when the opening comments closed with a reference to "he will introduce the seven speakers tonight" (?!?!), I felt the walls closing in around me.

But then, I sat down to dinner with the most charming couple from Wales; he had attended my college in the 50s, and when he told the story of how he had met the prime minister and his wife through Jesus College (he was the best man in her sister's wedding--because he knew her husband through the college), he laughed the most jolly laugh and had tears in his eyes. Honestly, he reminded me of a grey-haired Mr. Bean who was exponentially more talkative. And while I didn't understand many of the things he said--both because of the noise and his accent--I think I saw every single tooth he had when he tipped his head back to chuckle, or told stories about his time in Berlin in the 70s. Between he and his wife, I couldn't get a word in edge-wise about the healthcare debate in the states. They asked me what I thought of it, and then every time I opened my mouth and took a breath to start talking, I might have just as well stuck a bite in there, because it was not my turn yet. Summary: NHS is the greatest system; maybe the US should just invite the NHS to come to the states. (Also, how can you have a decent military without good health care. As the Comparative social policy-ist, let me tell you that this argument reflects a generational perspective that does not carry much validity anymore, but dually noted.)

And, the seven speakers all told stories about their time in college, and while I didn't understand the majority of what they were talking about--because it involved jumping over the walls of the college, having parties on the roof, and other shinnanigans which I haven't experienced, it was strange and incredible to realize that I was a part of such a community.

I even got talked into going down to the college pub for a bit and continued conversations with people who were 50-60 years older than me while Justin Timberlake and the Fray played in the background.

You know that you made a great choice to attend a free event when at the end of the night, if asked to, you would pay for it.

13 November 2009

Mad Bike Skills

So, my biking ability has been getting so impressive, it's a bit scary. Seriously. You might read this and be scared too. The good news is that I did buy a bike helmet, which I wear most of the time, and lights that flash for my safety at night.

Here was the first moment when I knew that I was going to be a special kind of bike rider. In my second week, when I could hardly navigate traffic (and before I was wearing a helmet), I decided I needed to pick up a cup of coffee--this was before I could really drink a cup of coffee either. Now, I couldn't stand to lose the time to either wait for my coffee to cool and drink it or to walk with my bike and coffee back to college. So, what was the solution? That's right. Ride my bike with coffee in hand. I felt like such a rebel; and I only spilled a few drops. Now, when I say that I rode with coffee in hand, you should know that my coffee hand is also my "turn signal hand". As I was riding along, I started thinking about how I could trick out my bike (American style) with multiple cup holders and a cd player. Then I could ride my back like I drove my car--doing at least three things at once (remember that texting is a constant).

My second big advance, was when I started talking on my phone while riding. Yes, I almost got hit by a bus, and yes, I am very slow (a nuisance to all other riders), but I am still responsible. I got off my bike before I got to the round-about where my life is in danger at all times--even with my full attention.

After making these significant accomplishments, I started to wonder how improved I really was. So, I have been giving myself subtle tests. I passed the one-handed bike-riding with flying colors. I can ride with no hands for about 10 ft on level ground where I am pedaling, but my control is limited. I would describe my no-hands biking like my parallel parking when I first started driving; terrible, but can only improve.

So now, I have my eye on the true trademark of skilled bike riding. I see these people who pull the most graceful move as they dismount their bicycle. As they slow to a stop, they leave one foot on the pedal while swinging their other leg over the seat until both feet are on the same side of the bike. Then, they coast up to the curb and make a smooth dismount. It is sheer poetry in motion. I am trying to practice this in subtle ways, on deserted streets, partial dismounts, and the like. I have to say that I think I will be there by the end of next term.

Here's how you really know that I am an old Oxford bike pro. I understand the art of the plastic grocery bag. Initially, I didn't understand why these bikes had orange baggies over the seats. But 10-12 wet bike bums later, I learned. There is nothing more uncomfortable than being soaked to your pants (British pants). The key is to be prepared.

09 November 2009

Dress Code Quiz

So, this isn't a knock against British culture, because this is one area that almost exactly mirrors the idiosyncracies of the US system, but dress code may be the most unclear, confusing, and subjective system. I mean, can anyone tell me what business casual really means? (I am talking for women here. Guys, you have got it easy. Polo shirt and jeans is casual, polo shirt and khakis is business casual, throw a blazer on top and you can be high-end business casual or even business in some settings, sub out a dress shirt for the polo and a tie and you have business, and then a full suit is business professional.) No, you can't. And if you say you can, you are lying, either to me or to yourself. Take it from me. I "taught" business casual to high schoolers last year, and now I must confess that I have no idea.

And when you are trying to navigate the dress code in another country (where some things are lost in translation as you are only able to interpret their terms through your hazy understanding of your own system of dress code), things can get a bit crazy. At least twice a week, I find myself asking, "Now what do they mean by THAT?" And I have to confess that I probably get it wrong over 50% of the time. The good news is that I am gettting much more comfortable with being wrong. The bad news is that I will soon start disregarding dress code because "trying" to dress appropriately doesn't seem to bring me any closer to the expectation than a lack of effort would.

To complicate matters, in addition to the reality that no one really knows what any of these codes mean, you complicate things by the fact that many people disregard the dress code anyway! Let me demonstrate with a brief quiz...

You arrive in Washington D.C. where you will be meeting your 31 newest friends for the next two years. You are told that the dress code is casual, which has been defined as shorts and a tshirt, you...

a. Are excited that you don't have to get dressed up and throw on your favorite shirt and capri pants.

b. Notice that several of your peers are definitely stepping up the dress code. You decide to aim for the middle with a nice casual look.

c. Wear a suit or dress. Why follow the dress code when you could take advantage of this opportunity to be extra impressive?

The next day, you have another "casual" event. The host reiterated to you that it is indeed intended to be casual, but you recognize a "dress code escalation" going on around you so you...

a. Decide to follow the host's advice and go casual.

b. Decide to follow the host's advice and go casual. Except then you get to the event (on the first floor of the hotel) and realize that you are the only obedient participant; everyone else is ranging from dress pants, to dresses, to suits. You are glad that you arrived early, glad that you didn't actually wear your Chiefs shirt, but realize that you are going to feel like a heel in your long-sleeve top and corduroy capris. You give into the escalation pressure, go back up to your room, and change into dress pants, a button-up shirt, and a cardigan. (Was that too long to seem hypothetical...)

c. Wear a suit or dress. Why follow the dress code when you could take advantage of this opportunity (provided by the heels in option b) to look extra impressive?

The dress code for the following day says "business casual". While this is a loosely defined term, you realize that these definitions are all relative and that business casual must be understood in relationship to casual, so you...

a. Wear a similar outfit to what you wore for the "casual" event. After all, you were dressed business casual.

b. You wear a suit in an attempt to keep up with the dress code escalation.

c. You attempt to talk to some of your peers in an effor to convince them to stop the madness.

Now the dress code is business. You...

a. Refuse to go because you have nothing nicer than a suit; you have maxed out your dress code escalation.

b. You go get an updo and wear a formal gown.

c. You have completely lost faith in the definition of any of these terms. They might as well make each day a "spirit day" with costume guidelines; they would have a similar effect.

I hope you can see my point. Add confusion to social pressure and you have a recipe for dress code disaster. Now, imagine trying to decipher what smart dress, smart dress neat, smart dress casual, and several other deviations of "smart" dressing are supposed to be, as well as trying to determine what they actually are. After all, it doesn't do you any good to be right about wearing slacks and a sweater. If everyone else is in suits and dresses, you will feel stupid and being right will be no consolation.

As a general rule of thumb, my typical strategy is to shoot for middle-high dress. You don't want to be excessively over dressed, but you want to be dressed nicely enough to blend in with most people. You want to be in about the 30th percentile...give or take a percentile.

You may be wondering why I am writing this post now. Well, as soon as you think you know something, the dress code humility hammer falls on you. I thought I had finally gotten this dress code thing figured out: shoot for the 30th percentile, know that everyone is going to get more dressed up than they are required to be because of sheer competitive drive resulting in dress code escalation, and develop an attitude that says, "I am confident enough to look good in whatever I am wearing." And maintain that confidence even when a Polish girl gives you the once over, giggles, and suggests that you look ridiculous when you are seen wearing sweats at 8:30 in the morning. (Yes, that actually happened).

Back to the hammer. So, I thought I had all of this figured out, and then I went to London for a recruiting trip. Because I wanted to dress to impress, I decided to shoot for the 20th percentile or even a bit higher. I wore a nice brown skirt suit with a white collared shirt. Classy, neat, but not a complete power-suit (Although, let's be realistic. Any suit looks more powerful on a 6-footer, just like all shoes look more manly in an 11 than they do in a cute 6). Well, the only problem is that the business that I was going to prides itself on NOT wearing suits. I met the CFO, who was in jeans and probably mentioned three to four times that at BLANK company, they don't wear suits. Just when I thought I had it all figured out...The good news is that all of my experiences of being confident and under-dressed still carried over...and I could take off my suit jacket.

04 November 2009

It was a rainy day in Oxford...

So, I had heard that the weather could be a real downer here, and I was starting to believe that people had exaggerated or perhaps were just weenies. I mean, I had heard everything from "you will be wet to your bones and cold all the time" to "the lack of sunlight will send you into a severe depression". In response, I had thought, "It surely can't be that bad." Well, if yesterday was any indication, it could be that bad. And, you should know that yesterday wasn't even that bad. It rained twice and was otherwise sunny. However, it is important to note that it was raining during both of my long bike rides, so those sunny patches almost served to be more irritating than if it had just rained all day. It was like a big joke at my expense.

Well, the weather just sets the stage for my "Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day" (just like Alexander). Ok, it wasn't that bad, but the title is for dramatic effect.

So, after getting rained on and being wet and a bit cranky, I headed to my pidge to check to see if my package had arrived. I forgot my graphing calculator, and after spending about an hour trying to do statistics on a cheap calculator with no squared function and no order of operations, I decided it would be worth waiting for my used graphing calculator to arrive (and it would be cheaper than buying one here. Furthermore, I don't even know where I would buy one here. I haven't seen any Best Buy's.) So, I gave my mom (who was very helpful in finding, cleaning, and shipping my calculator--along with some hosiery because all tights are essentially disposable for me, I manage to violently rip a hole in each pair on my first use) detailed instructions about marking the package as a gift and that wrapping things is often a useful trick for really "selling it". Based on tales and rumors (which is all I really have in terms of information here), I had heard that customs likes to make a habit of charging you for your own stuff and I wanted to avoid that outcome.

Well, when I arrive at my pidge, I don't have a package. Instead, I have a letter from the British Parcel Regulators or something like that which explains that they are holding my package hostage until I pay them over 33 GBP. Around 20 GBP is the VAT (Value-added tax) and then there is a fee, which as best as I can tell is basically a service charge for this whole process. Essentially, I am paying them a fee thanking them for this service. Let's just say that "thank you" is the furthest thing from my mind. Furthermore, if I refuse to pay the fee, they will send it back where it came from in 20 days (at their own expense), and I am sure that the bureacracy of tracking my package for 20 days will be much more expensive than me paying the fee. So, I think they should be paying me for saving the hassle of sending it back. This is about to turn into a rant, so I will wrap up this detail with this: when I tried to find out who was charging me and why, all I heard the porter say was that "Her majesty's" something-or-other was causing me to pay this. I have never been more angry with the queen or irritated with the system of monarchy. Love him or hate him, I can't see Barack charging anybody for a graphing calculator. (Especially if it meant that everybody got to go to college.)

After this event, I was headed to my statistics lecture. On the way, the cyclist in front of me decided to just slow down. As my frustration mounted, my jeans got caught in my bike chain, which was bound to happen at some point, but ironically had to happen when I was near my breaking point. I kept it cool, and at the stop light decided that I should roll up my right pant leg (very British). As I was doing this, apparently the light turned yellow (which happens before it turns green--think Mario Kart and Vrroom, vroom). I say apparently, because I didn't see it, I just felt the cyclist behind me bump my tire with his. That's right, he tapped my bike.

At this point, I threw down my bike, turned around, and said, "You want a piece of me?"...KIDDING. Instead I thought frustrated and culturally-judgemental thoughts the rest of the way to the Psychology building (the ironic location of my statistics lecture). Yes, I tut-tutted to myself which is SO British.

In other news: When I turn on my heater, my room smells like McDonald's. Ba-da-BA-ba-BAAA. I'm not really lovin it.

02 November 2009

Statistics: Who said that math is no fun...

My statistics courses have provided many case-studies of the uniqueness of British education. This uniqueness can be followed through two specific veins:

1. My statistic lecturer (who has sweet facial hair--chops to be specific), frequently describes statistics in terms of "a system that you would come up with if you found yourself on a desert island". Alright, I understand that he is trying to imply that the system is intuitive, rational, and attempts to replicate our experiences in reality, but this assertion is uniquely Oxford. Why, do you ask? Because it is believed (and may be true for a large cohort of students here) that if you were stranded on a desert island, you would actually spend your time devising a mathematical system like statistics. Whereas we Americans have entire TV shows dedicated to what would happen if you were stranded on a desert island (namely, try to get off of it), it is reasonable here to assume that many students would spend their time developing statistics, or doing experiments. Let's be realistic. If I were stranded on a desert island, I would not be thinking about statistics, or comparative social policy. But I entertain the analogy for the sake of discussion.

2. Part of what makes the analogy more bearable is that if I could take my statistics professors with me, I might actually consider learning statistics on the desert island, only because they are so funny. In many ways, I think this is more indicative of my enjoyment of dry British humor than anything about statistics, but regardless, I love it. Let me illustrate my point with a problem from my statistics text book. (And when I say problem, I mean the ones that you would be assigned by your teacher to complete for homework...you know, the ones with answers to the odds in the back of the book. I say that you would be assigned these by your teacher, because here, no one is assigning you anything. YOU are the teacher--a scary thought for me. In many ways, I suppose I am kind of learning statistics on a desert island...)

Problem 2-8 Overheard in a Scottish pub: "When a Scotsman moves from Scotland to England, he improves the average IQ in both places."

a. How could this be possible (or is it impossible)?
b. What would you hear in an English pub?

That's right. Pub jokes make the statistics book. Those of you who aren't that statistics savvy should ask a friend to explain this one to you...

And it isn't just the book that's funny. When referring to an error he made in one of our handouts, the professor (in his typical British cadence) referred to the egg on his face, and then countered with "well, the egg on the exposed portions of my face" (yeah, he was referring to his epic facial hair). And at other times he has suggested to our class, which is quiet and a bit hesitant to interrupt his lectures, that he welcomes our questions...not as much as he welcomes ice cream on a warm day, but he welcomes them all the same. Read this and know that it is much funnier in real life.

28 October 2009

Conversation 101

Ok, so I feel like 50% or more of what I do here is talk to people. We are mostly talking about small talk here, and let's be realistic--there are lots of ways that small talk can go wrong. I feel like I am getting a crash course in conversation-making (though I plan to step it up by going to the Conversation Club--yeah that's right, there's a club for that. In the club you sit down over a meal and have conversations over a subscribed topic. Why would you want to be in such a club, you ask? Well, because you get to skip small-talk, and I am all about avoiding talking about my college, what I am studying, where I am from, etc.), and there have been many lessons learned (which I will share below). But there is one thing that certainly clamps down on the learning process.

You see, when you are having conversations with lots of new people, there is a ratio of good conversations to bad ones. Some might suggest that good conversationalists have higher ratios of good to bad convos versus poor conversationalists. But how do you really know? I mean, we all have those conversations where at the end we thing, "Wow. That was awkward." If we follow gender norms, girls probably think, "I am so uninteresting. Why couldn't I come up with anything better to say?" and boys might think, "Geez, he/she was boring." (This is just what I have heard.) So, I have decided the best way to really make the most of the many conversational learning opportunities would be to film and scout your conversations (Drake Women's Basketball style). If you could have a recording of each conversation, an unbiased third party could weigh in on who deserves to bear the responsibility of the awkwardness. Perhaps it is a two party lack of conversation, or maybe there is one person who really shouldered the brunt of the responsibility. Maybe awkwardness was created by what wasn't said, or maybe something you said caused the tension.

I know for me, there comes a point where I think to myself, "Self, I have asked him what he studies, where he is from, what he did before Oxford, and what college he is in. Let's be realistic, we have NOTHING else in common. And, that guy may just be boring/awkward." But I could use an unbiased, third-party opinion. In the absence of such a scheme, I will share with you some helpful tips that I have learned in my weeks here so far. I am sure that there will be many more revelations.

1. When a person introduces him/herself, listen for his/her name. Don't be so busy thinking about what you are going to say next. (This is what I do, and let's be realistic--I am going to ask what college you are in and what you are studying, so I should just put that on autopilot.)

2. When you fail at the first piece of advice, and you don't know anyone's name, ASK them the next time you see the person. Yes, it will seem worthwhile to wait it out, but you will probably never find out the person's name and the next time you see him/her it will only be more awkward and shameful to ask. Bite the bullet.

3. If you (like me) choose to play off the fact that you don't know someone's name, you will soon be several weeks in with lots of faces to recognize and no names. Hope that no one speaks to you by your first name so that you don't feel pressure to reciprocate. Better yet, greet everyone aggressively with a "Heeeeeyyyy" or "Hey you!" or British "Hiya".

4. If you have to talk to someone who is not facing you and you don't know the person's name, just walk closer and closer to the person until they notice that you are speaking to them...then you can pretend like you said their name at the beginning but they just didn't hear you.

5. At any sort of mix and mingle event, HAVE AN EXIT strategy. The hardest thing about this is definitely the mingle part. You don't want to be in one group too long because other people may be burdened by your company. The key is moving before everyone else is bored--keep them wanting more. However, there are a few important strategies (listed below).

6. Lines for moving on politely (in mix and mingle situations):
a. I am going to go find the toilet.
b. Oh, I need to go fill up my drink (this is why it is important to always have a glass of water. If you want to return, offer to fill theirs up.)
c. And others

7. Also, be aware of the size of your cluster. Once you get down to three or smaller, it is difficult to have a clean break. You cannot leave someone standing by him/herself, so you are best to stick to larger groups. If your group dwindles (a sign that you should be moving on), look for people to introduce to your group...and then bail.

8. Once you get down to three people, MAKE YOUR MOVE. If someone else leaves before you do, you have no more options.

9. If you are ever in a small group (3 or fewer) and one of the other members "makes a move" let them do it gracefully. Do not come in with a "Oh, I see how it is. I must just be really boring." line. First, maybe it is true--you may be really boring, in which case the line isn't funny. Two, whether you are joking or not, it will be immediately awkward--particularly if it is true. (This may seem strangely detailed, but that might be because it might have happened to me.)

I think this is more than any one person can absorb at one time, so that should probably be all for now. Expect an addendum.

27 October 2009

Honeymoon's Over: Cyclying

So I have heard that there is this point that you reach when living overseas where things that were cute, amusing, or charming for a finite period of time start to become a part of your day to day reality. I think you basically realize that these things are not performances that eventually fade into normalcy, but they are entrenched part of life in this new place and are going to be a part of everyday reality. Let's be realistic: riding your bicycle in the rain is fun for a few times because you are having charmingly new experiences, but this stops being fun or even amusing very quickly. (It's like snow. In Iowa, it has completely lost it's charm. Having temperatures cold enough to freeze the gas in your car will do that to you.) I have reached that point--the honeymoon is over.

Bicycling--I finally bought a helmet, and had to buy new lights because my front light broke and then some theif added insult to injury by stealing my back light. (Here, petty theft is outrageous, while violent crime is not the same kind of problem as in the states...I am not sure which system I prefer) I spent 65 bucks on all of this (USD) which was just obnoxious. Also, I am slowly but surely tearing the bottom of every pair of pants I own. I am already riding with toes and knees pointed out to keep my pant legs as far from the pedals as possible (and I am wearing a helmet and lights, so I am a sight to behold). The next step is buying straps that velcro my pants to my ankles. Or I could buy skinny jeans. Both are against everything I believe and would only require more money that I don't want to spend. I have a budget, and I didn't realize I needed to make special "bike allowances".

Also, now that my honeymoon phase is officially over, I feel fully justified in commenting on tourists/pedestrians. I think we need to have walking classes here. No, you shouldn't just step off the sidewalk because you would prefer to walk in the street. That is what we call a bike lane, and you didn't signal with your hand to let me know you were coming over. Furthermore, you don't know me, and you don't know how good of a cyclist I am. I'll fill you in--you are endangering both of our lives.

To pedestrians who see me coming: I do not appreciate your game of chicken. Either speed up to get out of the way, or slow down to get out of the way. Why would you speed up and then slow down so that the timing creates an impossible choice for me (either hit a car, hit a pedestrian or stop. I know you are thinking that stop is the best choice, but it really isn't. In addition to challenging my skill set, I think there is an unspoken code about not stopping.) It is a good thing that I do not have a bell, or else I would "ding" it at you. Instead, I have a rusty bike with squealy brakes. There are times when I do not like this, but there are other times when I am thankful that my bike groans in protest when people cause me to brake unneccessarily. It has actually become a point of strategy for me...I will slam on my brakes in advance to let pedestrians know that the train is coming through. Ah, bicycle road rage--something that makes me feel profoundly American.

25 October 2009

On Privilege

I have always had this aversion to being called “privileged”. I am not entirely sure why it bothers me so much. I think I associate the word with inherited wealth, or more specifically with getting some benefit that you don’t deserve. And even more than that, because the privileged know that they are going to get the benefit (think Paris Hilton), their privilege encourages irresponsibility and poor stewardship of their time, opportunities, and any other talents that the privileged may possess. It’s almost like the promised benefit guarantees that the true potential of the benefactor will be unrealized—privilege becomes the stamp of unmotivated, unproductive lives.

Fair, true, or neither, I want nothing to do with the term. I don’t like the idea of unmerited benefit, because somehow I associate that with being lazy or at least receiving something that I didn’t work for—potentially at the expense of someone who was more deserving but less “privileged”. Call me hard-working, resilient, and persistent, but I don’t want to be known as too talented, because that would mean that things came easy and that I am the product of my advantages rather than being “self-made”. I have always hated winning a game that someone let me win more than I have despised losing (which is a significant statement), and it is equally unpleasant to think that life success is just a product of a significant head-start or rules that have given me an upper-hand.

But here’s been my most recent newsflash: You are in Oxford, England. No matter how you shake it, that is a significant blessing—one that will carry privilege with it for the rest of my life. But the reality is that I was privileged long before I came to Oxford. You see, I have preferred to think of privilege as strictly financial, something that only the disgustingly rich experience—you know, the spoiled ones. But even under this definition, I can’t deny that I have had my privileges. I was raised by two loving parents (which certainly is becoming more and more rare), I had a comfortable existence where I didn’t have to worry about my temporal needs, and even if I hadn’t had these first two things, I was born white in America. The reality is that my relative position in the world is one of privilege.

But beyond that, the reality is that privilege is often accumulated. I think Jacqueline Novogratz may have described it best in The Blue Sweater, when she said that “individuals gain privilege by their upbringing, beauty, athletic ability, or education, not simply from where they come or to whom they are born.” Similarly, Malcolm Gladwell promotes the concept (in Outliers) that the most talented and accomplished members of our society may have gained their status through a small advantage that was exponentially motivated over time (e.g. an athlete who is slightly more talented receives better coaching and is able to increase the initially small advantage). And I have certainly benefited from this kind of accumulation. Athletic talents (while something that I definitely had to work at) provided the opportunity for me to attend an excellent University, and eventually to open doors that would lead to a Rhodes Scholarship. It is overwhelmingly clear that I have been blessed—I have been the benefactor of privilege. And that concept makes me very uncomfortable.

I think my uneasiness is rooted in the feeling that somehow I have received something that I shouldn’t have, or have benefitted from unfairness or inequality. But the reality is that refusing to acknowledge my privileged status doesn’t change a thing. In fact, the better question is, what do we do with privilege? If you are reading this blog on a computer, you are privileged in many ways. Knowing this, our time would be better spent asking what the appropriate response to privilege is rather than trying to explain it away. It is possible that the real reason why privilege is so uncomfortable to me is because I know that it comes with a level of responsibility. The most important thing that I can do as a privileged person is, first, to refuse to allow my privilege to turn into a sense of entitlement. I must refuse to internalize the advantaged position that I hold in society. Instead, I must carry my privilege as a great responsibility. We each have a responsibility to be good stewards of our circumstances. So I have realized that I can no longer refuse to recognize the advantages that I have been given, because doing so makes it much easier to waste them. Instead, I will be willing to acknowledge the benefits that I have received in order to accept the responsibility that must accompany them.

23 October 2009

So, I am actually a student here...

I don't want anyone getting the impression that there isn't any "serious" work going on here, and while I was able to maintain the very non-academic illusion for a few weeks, I think it is time to talk a bit about school. Many people hold the perspective that going to school in England is not really that different, or at least not as different as going to a country with a different language, and there is certainly a great deal of comfort in a common language (Note: that I did not say "same" language, and the degree to which it is common is open to interpretation.), it would be misguided to assume that the English system is any less foreign. Here are a few observations:

1: For starters, on a strictly practical level, you have to buy all new school supplies. I had grand plans of packing three-ring binders, loose leaf paper and legal pads in my gigantic bags. Surprisingly, I ran out of room. If you need a mental picture of how big my bags were, assume the fetal position and then imagine a bag that could fit three of you in that position inside of it. In fact, when I bought my bags, there was a comment about fitting a dead body in it. I used my noggin and got as far away from that person as possible. I have to admit that at the airport I was slightly embarrassed to be that girl--you know the one who brought all of her (fill-in-the-blank, probably shoe) collection--and I got kind of sweaty trying to manuever my luggage, but now that I am here, there are all kinds of things I wish I would have brought, so I just feel sorry for all of the people who succumbed to social pressure and brought normal-sized bags.

But it's a good thing I didn't bring school supplies because they would pretty much be no good here. For starters, loose-leaf paper does not exhist--I know this for a fact. I have kind of gotten over trying to fit in, so I just confront strangeness wherever I find it, so a classmate informed me that loose-leaf paper does not exhist (Instead you have to buy notebooks, tear it out, and then put it in your binder. Or you can just put your notebook in your binder, which kind of defeats the purpose). But let's say I had brought some loose-leaf paper. I wouldn't be able to use it, because it would have 3 holes. Here, paper has 2 holes. You and I are both asking in unison, "Why?" Maybe for the same reasons why they drive on the left side of the road here, or maybe for similar reasons as to why we don't use the metric system, or maybe because the number of holed paper is related to the issue of what direction your toilet flushes (which I think is only different in the Southern hemisphere, but you get the idea). I think these arbitrary distinctions serve to create cultural pride and "solidarity" (Two points for using a vocab word from my reading! And just substitute unity in there...again, why?). I mean, I'm proud to be an American where at least I have more holes punched in my paper than you do.

2: Multiple times this week, there have been entire sections in my assigned readings that have been in other languages. At first, I thought the article featured a split translation, with English on one side and French/Norwegian/etc on the other. Imagine how puzzled I was to discover that the section in a foreign language was unique and untranslated. I was left with no choice but to shrug and assume that it is unimportant. As far as I can tell, the only reason to include such a section is to secretly bad-mouth exclusively English-speakers. For those of you who are unaware, pretty much the best place to find exclusively English-speakers is the good old USA. Let's be realistic, I read and hear plenty of American criticisms, I am sure these sections I skipped are unimportant.

3: Here, the authors of my texts have names like "Gunnar".

4: Perhaps the greatest difference, and the one that I will have the most difficult time articulating is the sneaky and secretive academic culture. It is almost a point of pride to not tell you, the student, what you are supposed to be doing or what is actually going on. For example, on my "syllabus" (I am sure there is some other name for it, which is probably in latin.), there is a list of twelve essays questions, from which I have to write two essays for my tutor over the course of the eight weeks. Strange, I think. Certainly there will be more direction than this, or the tutor will provide some guidance as to which questions I should answer. When I asked my tutor if he would make any suggestions regarding which prompts I should work on, he tut-tutted me and said, "Lindsay, (it is always very patronizing to me when someone who doesn't really know my name, but just looked it up for the meeting, starts a sentence with my name) you are a graduate student (another patronizing comment. Let's be realistic, I know what kind of student I am.), no one is going to tell you what you should be doing." Now we are getting down to business. The best part is that the lack of information, guidance, or clarity is the point of immense pride. Welcome to Oxford.

22 October 2009

Formal Hall(s)

Thought things had gotten a bit visually boring, so here is a tour of a few formal halls.

The two pictures with lots of portraits and few people are of Christ Church. Harry Potter fans rejoice, this is where the movie was filmed. It is pretty incredible, and has rules (that are enforced by a fine) for anyone who takes pictures of/while (?) people are eating.

The other two pictures (balcony shot and group picture--in gowns) are of Magdalen (pronounced Maudlin). The guys in the balcony are singing "grace" in latin. We (a group of us who were visiting) were very touristy--and probably broke some rules--by taking photos during the prayer. I would feel guilty about it, but I don't understand what they are saying anyway, so I can't really "Amen" with them in any honesty.

How to...Open a Bank Account

Just in case you ever find yourself in the UK, this "hypothetical" situation should prepare you for the finacial process...

Step 1: You go to Rhodes House on your first day in England in order to sign up with the Royal Bank of Scottland (Ok, maybe this isn't realistic hypothetically, but it's my hypothetical situation...). When you meet with the bank representative, they will ask you if you want a check book. When you ask if you need a check book, they will say no, so you will decline the offer. Then, the bank will tell you that it will take five days for your account to open, a few days for your check to clear, and then you will have access to your account. Translation: They will lie to you. (Switching back to English teacher mode: This is what we call foreshadowing. Now would be the time to "make predictions" about how this story, I mean hypothetical situation, will unfold.)

Step 2: A week will pass and you will not hear anything. When you inquire, a few days will pass before you are informed that you can pick up your bank account information. However, you have no checks, no debit card...and oh yeah, there is no money in it. You are told that in a few days, your debit card and pin number will be mailed to you--separately. For security reasons, of course.

Step 3: After checking your pidge (mail slot) every day, you will be excited when you have an envelope from RBS. However, when you handle it, you realize that it is much thicker than a debit card or a pin number. When you open it, it is a checkbook. Wait a minute...you didn't ask for a check book. Don't ask questions. And don't write any checks because there is still no money in your account.

Step 4: You have a bill due, so you visit the RBS to find out the status of your account. Good news: there is money in the account. When you inquire about online banking, you are told that you will need your debit card. When you ask about your debit card, you are informed that the debit card will come separately from the pin. The banker is unsure as to which order the information is mailed out (Apparently there is no pattern). This must be a security measure to keep the theives on their toes.

Step 5: You have an envelope from RBS. It's your deposit slips. This is almost as exciting (and confusing) as the day you got the check book that you didn't request.

Step 6: Your pin number arrives. You set it aside until you receive your debit card...Two days later.

Step 7: When you go to register your debit card, you realize how many security measures were taken to protect your information--in addition to all of the other smoke and mirrors (read "No one knowing what was going on, or at least no one being able/willing to explain to you what is going on.") that they clearly just did for your protection.

The pin number is not only sent separately. You have to scratch off a metal cover to reveal it (which would definitely confuse alot of theives, especially if they don't have any coins on them or have never used a scratchers ticket...which they may not have in the UK, so maybe that's legit.). But, it is even more secure than that. Because before you can reveal the pin, you have to open a flap on the back of the paper, then scratch off the metal cover (from behind), then you have to lay the hologram over a white piece of paper to read it--kind of like a secret code. If you are wondering it the process was confusing or if my description was just unclear, it was definitely the former--the system is not at all intuitive, unless you're a Mason. The reality is that no one could really figure this system out (theives or customors alike)--but there are directions. So, if a given theif can't read, your information would be safe. Otherwise, you might just be confused.

Step 8: After following a maze of online instructions, including providing codes and passwords that you have not yet been given, you will have a bank account. Congratulations. It only took about 3 weeks...

Step 7:

19 October 2009

Heavy Lifting

So, before you start to wonder if you are on the wrong blog, let me say up front that this is going to be a bit of a change of pace. While you wouldn't know it from most of these posts, I am actually a student here, and at some point, that secret was bound to get out. Without getting into the politics of the issue (if that is even possible), I was reading a book about why the United States has never developed a strong socialist party. (I know there are probably some who are jumping around their living rooms because they believe this statement is no longer true given the current political climate, but remember that this book is at least five years old AND that we are not getting into the politics of the subject. The book does not make a value judgement about socialism, it simply suggests that it is unique that the US has virtually no socialist political influence--something I didn't even realize on that scale.)

I came across this quote in the book (It Didn't Happen Here by Seymour Martin Lipset, if you are interested):

"He pointed to the "over-valuation of success" inherent in America's pure bourgeois achievement-oriented culture, which made "who won" the only question of interest in sports and economic and political life. As he emphasized: "The American prays before the god of Success, he strives to lead a life acceptable to his god...[Since] all individuals are bent on success, each must aim to come ahead of the rest."

This really resonated with me because there have been a few moments here when I have been aware of just how different American culture is, and ironically, those moments have often been centered around sports or competition. (I think back to basketball, handball, and rugby practices) I realize that this explains the eternal struggle that I have been experiencing. In many ways, that is what can be the most disorienting thing about this experience; I am in a country where they speak the same language, have the same fast food restaurants, listen to the same music (even 50 cent, "Just a lil bit"...talk about shattering your image of the city), and...ok, I can't lie to you--they don't dress the same. But amongst all of those similarities, there are these moments when I have realized that I AM FOREIGN.

And, I have to admit that as I read this book (by far the easiest thing I have read so far, because it actually runs parallel to my assumptions and values instead of assaulting them at every turn and reminding me that I have no context with which to understand what I am reading) that I have been reminded and extremely proud of the things that make America unique. I don't feel the need to apologize for the individualism, egalitarianism, populism, and suspicion of big government that make our country unique and at odds with the rest of the world on so many levels.

Yes. The American success story (what we would call the American dream) is a huge part of our national identity, pursuit, and values. And it is a great thing! It is probably what causes us to value timeliness, efficiency, service and a multitude of other virtues and ideals that are often neglected here. AND, I have realized that the American pursuit of success is certainly ingrained in me as I strain against and feel stiffled by the celebration of athletic mediocrity.

But at the same time, I think it is important to confront the complexity of what makes us different.
I certainly can't disagree with any part of the assessment that we are driven by success. And compromising in this area would certainly compromise many of the great things about American society. But I think it is important to be aware of the ways in which our success-consumption has loomed large and distorted our view of life as it crowds out other important values. The image of bowing to the Success-god was a bit too eery for me as I started to think of all the subtle ways we do that culturally. I suppose what I am suggesting is that we must be vigilant personally and collectively that our greatest strength does not become our greatest weakness.

Revelations and Puzzlers

1) Confession: I was wrong about skinny jeans/tights...kind of. While I am not sure that the fashion trend is motivated by practicality (we will have a better indication of this in the winter), there is certainly a practical application. Cycling with traditional trousers is tricky. I already snagged my black dress pants on my chain (when cycling in stilettos) and it is only a matter of time before I rip my jeans. AND, I was even riding "modified" when I ripped them--which means that I was attempting to bow my legs out to the side to get my ankles as far away from the peddles as possible. Believe it or not, it is actually easier (while perhaps less "lady-like") to bike in a dress or skirt. (However, the dismount is certainly trickier--especially on my boys bike which requires a higher leg-swing no matter how you slice it.)

2) I guess this one is kind of a revelation and a puzzler. I think that British people (and people in Oxford in general) don't like to be "thanked" for things. Well you are thanking someone for a good or a service (but especially a service) it doesn't seem to be well received. I have had reactions ranging from eye-rolls, to complete denial (as in, I pretended to not hear you just say that), to cowering fear. When I told one girl thank you for her help, it was like I had backed her into a corner and turned a spotlight on her; she quickly told me that "It was ok!", blushed, and got back to work. The reason why this bothers me is that I have taken on the role of self-appointed American ambassador to all other nations and cultures. I have heard that people think that American's are loud and rude, so I do all that I can to speak quietly and carry a small stick (metaphorically speaking of course). How do I represent a gracious, considerate American without lots of thank-you's? And why would anyone not like being thanked?! Well, that is where the true revelation comes in to play. You see, "service" like "efficiency" is not an ideal that is culturally esteemed. So, when you thank them for their help, service, or advice...

a) They don't believe that you are being sincere because they know that their service/help/advice is pretty terrible. They know that because it is intentionally so.

b) Your praise "outs" them as being non-complicit with the unspoken code to be unhelpful. Like the boy who doesn't want to be kissed by his mother, I think the English would prefer to not be thanked by Americans...at least not in public.

3) I have realized why the British don't exercise. And believe me, they don't exercise. It is because they entice people to take their food to go by charging more for eating in the restaurant. Now, stay with me here. If you can only eat what you can carry, it is automatic portion control. AND, if we (people who are too cheap to pay the extra pound to sit down) have to eat standing or walking, we are burning a higher proportion of that smaller portion, so we don't NEED to exercise (at least that is what I am telling myself). Brilliant. Take note America.

4) Now the better puzzler might be how these businesses can justify charging you to eat in the restaurant. I suppose there is a compelling argument, based on my previous comments, that it is some sort of incentive devised via collusion between the restaurants and the NHS, but I think that is unlikely. The second argument may be that they do it because they can. And I suppose that is true (thought I am living proof that they can't...I always take my meal for take-away), and it is also true that there is really no where to sit anyway, so you really don't have that much choice. But from a cost perspective, it seems to me that it might be more expensive to prepare food to go. Especially if we assume that there is more packaging used with take-away food. THUS, it could also be argued that it would be environmentally friendly to encourage people to eat in the restaurant, and that that should be the cheaper option! I hope the environmentally motivated vegetarians think about that next time they get their hummus and falafel baguette to go--since they are being complete hypocrites. I, on the other hand, will continue to enjoy my H&F baguette as my choices are entirely selfish--financial, flavor, and fitness.