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.