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.