24 March 2010

Exhilarations and Frustrations

Exhiliration: Working at my desk with my window open. Even more exhilirating because my open window is not feeled with the noise and bustle of Oxford in term-time. It is amazing how much escaping the stuffy, recycled, McDonald's scented air from my radiator has transformed my little room. It reminds me of a commercial for fabric softener everytime I am there; it is the feeling of the air that the bottle attempts to turn into a fragrance and bottle.

Frustration: Looking for housing next year. I think it is a bad sign when the guy who is showing you the house says "Everything that is bad will be replaced. It will be cleaned and if it is really bad, it will be replaced." The house is a tour of scent; curry, cigarettes, moldy cheese, moisture that has left a stale aroma, and an occassional whiff of armpit. It is tempting to believe that the cabinets that are duct taped together will be replaced with palacial fixtures, old carpet and walls will be gutted, and the house will be renewed. But if this is the current condition of the house, I would guess my definition of "really bad" might be different than his.

Exhiliration: Crossing things off of a list of things to do that sometimes seems endless. Do I actually see the end of it?

Frustration: No, the end is never in sight. An itemized list (13!!) of issues with forms that have already been submitted twice. Included in the list of greivances are requests for forms that don't exist--not even in my head. I spent the morning google-searching what half of the terms even mean.

Exhiliration: Old things are made new. Dead things are made alive. The weak become strong. Exhaustion is replaced by renewal. The unpackaged, un-bottleable "fabric-softner-ish-ness" (whoa) is BIG and frustrations are small.

20 March 2010

March Madness

It's official; I have fallen off the face of the earth.

I have not watched a single men's college basketball game all season. I haven't even seen one play. When I found out that K-State was a 2-seed in the tournament, I was sure that couldn't be right. I mean, Michael Beasley went to the NBA and took any chances at competitiveness with him, didn't he?! I heard Mizzou had made the big dance and was even more surprised. (Sure, I am a fan, but I am kind of a Mizzou fan like I am a Royals and Chiefs fan; you hope for the best and expect the worst. It helps you to avoid heartache and disappointment.) I did know that North Carolina finished last in the ACC and is playing the role of "wallflower at junior high dance" this year--no chance of getting in the action. But I only know this because a good friend at Oxford bleeds powder blue and has lamented that the world is just not as it should be. I have tried to keep people equally informed about the Drake sports world, but strangely no one was excited (other than me) when the Drake men's soccer team made it deep into the NCAA tournament. (Maybe because their respective home universities didn't have men's soccer--due to Title IX, which is a whole different post--but I think it may be because they still couldn't locate Drake University on a map of the US. No, Miss Teen South Carolina, this inability isn't caused by an absence of maps...And if you don't know what I am talking about, go to YouTube and search for Miss South Carolina.)

Today, I am going to a BBQ (sigh of anticipation) which will feature Gates BBQ sauce--straight out of Kansas City; right in the middle if you can't place that on a map.

(Ok, as an aside, I have become increasingly jealous of people from Michigan. I mean, you ask them where they are from and right on cue, their hand-map pops up and they point right to where they are from. Here people ask me where I am from and I just go with, "Right in the middle." to which the common response is either, "So, not the east or west coast (brow furrowed look of puzzlement)?" OR "Wait, so in the north or the south?" To which I explain that I mean the literal MIDDLE. I even resorted to the man in the middle picture (with someone from the US)--where MN is the hat, IA is the face, and MO is the body. Yeah, about that...)

Back to the BBQ, there will also be basketball games there. Pretty exciting stuff. But I am actually nervous about it--nervous that I am going to like all of this too much, that the madness will suck me in. But I am pretty interested to see if they do "three cheers for (the opponent)! HIP-HIP-HOORAY, HIP-HIP-HOORAY, HIP-HIP-HOORAY." I am guessing that this trend has not caught on just yet.

18 March 2010

You must be joking...

When I arrived in Oxford, I heard about these inefficiencies and ridiculous bureaucratic practices that I would find here. I talked to second and third year scholars who told stories about their high stress levels brought on by the maze that is the Oxford system. And, as I did with most things, I thought that their stories and advice seemed a bit exaggerated. Surely, things couldn't be that bad. Well, this blog post is going to be incredibly easy to write, because I am going to just copy text from my college website. While I occassionally use hyperbole to make my point, these are taken verbatim from the site. Enjoy.

On "What is my candidate number?" (A number that I must use to submit one of my assessed projects....tomorrow). [my comments in brackets]

"Amazingly, we don't actually have your candidate numbers [amazingly, indeed.], but you can find them on Student SelfService on the Academic and Assessment Information page. Alternatively the number should [should being the operative word] be at the top of the individual exam timetable that you (will eventually) receive.

If all else fails [Are you suggesting that all else might fail? How reassuring...], contact the exam schools" [And they will get back to you in the next 6 months...]

You know when "if all else fails" appears in the institutionalized advice that you are in trouble.

On finding out when your exams will take place...(So that you can know when to show up in your sub fusc (see photo above), when you can schedule flights home, and other trivial details)[my comments in brackets]

"The official low-down on the dates of your exams can be found here: (website listed)

But this isn't very useful since the exam schools sometimes don't see fit to publish timetables until about 30 minutes before you start. [What?!]

Fortunately each subject tends to have its exams at a certain time which only varies slightly [Fortunately?! How do we define "slightly"?] from year to year. So for the purpose of planning it's quite helpful [only compared to not knowing anything at all] to know when your subject's exams were last year (but there is obviously [obviously!] no guarantee [translation: we are not liable for anything we are telling you] that this year's exams will be on the same dates as last year's [so, best of luck to you!]). This can be worked out (laboriously) [their word, not mine] from OXAM/by asking your tutors, but I also have exam dates for last year in a big folder here in the Tutorial Office marked 'EXAMS TAKING PLACE' (2009) [But, just remember that we have clarified that this information may or may not be accurate. Use at your own risk...hehe.] So if you have any questions about when your subject's exams were last year feel free to get in touch or swing by the Tutorial Office. [And we will tell you that we don't really know anything, but you can certainly look at our folder of information. Cheers!]

Wow. I feel my stress-level rising.

12 March 2010

Where are the Grown-ups?

I think that I have been realizing this for a while now, but there have been a few picture-perfect reminders that most, or at least many, adults are just small children in big bodies. I think as a young and eager college student, I had some idea that when I started working that people would be much more mature and "grown-up", and somehow when I came to Oxford, I thought that there would also be this air of maturity and wisdom. Well, I am starting to realize that the search for grown-ups is futile. We are all just children wrapped in wizened packaging. Don't believe me? Here are a few examples of how adults behave exactly like (or worse) than children.

1. Adults still don't know how to ask a question.

A few years ago in Des Moines, I went to a local elementary school to read to young kids--I think first or second-graders. At the end of the books, there was a time for the kids to ask questions. I don't think we heard a single one. There was lots of the typical hand-flailing eagerness (that sadly is not present in many adults), lots of "ooh, ooh, ME"s, and LOTS of statements. I think one kid started it off with, "One time, I had a snowball fight." Strangely, EVERYONE in the class had recently had REALLY epic stories about snowball fights. Also, coincidentally, none of these statements were questions (for those who are keeping track at home). I immediately thought that the rest of the curriculum should be scrapped until kids mastered questioning--now that is a life skill.

However, the experience is illustrative. First, question-asking was just perceived as an opportunity to talk--an opportunity that was embraced whole-heartedly. Secondly, there was a significant amount of self-promotion and competition hidden behind these failed attempts at questions.

I was at a lecture last night and after the hour talk, the floor was opened up for questions. The first guy had apparently had to be silent for too long and took advantage of the chance to get his talk on. He proceeded to wax for three or four minutes on various issues (he had three points). There wasn't even a "What do you think about (ALL OF) that?" at the end. This behaviour is not atypical (and was repeated by several participants), because "question-time" is somehow interpretted as "time for me to "subtely" demonstrate what I know". Seriously, everyone. How old are we?

2. Uncivilized cuing (lining-up).

I flew with EasyJet last weekend, a discount European Airline, and I was baffled by some of the behavior. To get on the flight back to London from Munich, you had to line up at the gate to go down the tunnel, then you had to pile onto a tram at the end to deliver you to the plane, then you had to line up (either in the front or rear of the plane) in order to board. Let me tell you, when the doors to that tram opened, you would have thought that not everyone was going to get a seat (and that everyone had some life or death reason to need to be on the plane--which in fairness, I am sure in each of their minds, they did--like getting back to their computer to check their e-mail or something). I have a few thoughts for these adults:

a. We are all going to get to board the plane.
b. It is not going to leave until the last person gets on the plane, so you RUNNING is not going to get it to leave any sooner, regardless of how much you are in a hurry.
c. I know that the window/aisle seat in the front/middle/back of the plane is really important to you, but you WILL survive.
d. If it is really important to you, buy the membership card that allows you to pre-board so that you do not have to make a fool of yourself.

Frankly, it reminded me of when you open the door to the lunchroom and all of the kids sprint to be the first one in line.

09 March 2010

On Literature

Before I came to Oxford, I said I wasn't going to get a bicycle--at least not for a while. I had a few reasons, and in my humble opinion, they were all good ones. First, for personal safety reasons (and the safety of those around me), I thought it would be best to at least figure out where I was going before hopping on a bike. Poor/rusty bike skills plus trying to navigate in a new place sounded like a recipe for disaster. (These are similar reasons to why I was only allowed to drive on certain routes when I first got my driver's license. I don't know if this indicates that I affirm the inherent wisdom of my parents' plan--I am still too stubborn for that--or that i have just been highly influenced by it.) Seconldy, I thought it would be difficult to take in my surroundings if I was blurring by on a bike. I knew there would be a lot to see here an figured that the best way to appreciate it would be to move at a slower speed between destinations. I was probably right. But the logic of these reasons was soon overpowered by my need for efficiency and time-management (Or, you could say, "my need for speed.") I polished my bike-skills by necessity (or more accurately "trial by fire") and was soon whizzing past ancient buildings, crumbling walls, and spire-filled towers. The breath-taking became familiar, and who can appreciate anything in frequent drizzles and rain storms, anyways?

Last week, I attended a presentation by the guy who lives across the hall from me. 40% of the presentation was in Welsh, which while lovely/strange-sounding, was, well "Welsh to me". I think the 40% that flew over my head (ok, here were lots of parts in English that flew over my head too) just sharpened my attention during the 60%--ok 20%--that I actually understood. At one point he started talking about literature and its value and purpose in society. My ears perked up because, ironically, despite a degree in English and a relatively strong background in the humanities, I find myself frequently asking, "What's the point?" Sure, I think art is a great form for personal expression and is aesthetically pleasing, but to me it is a hobby, not an academic pursuit or life's calling. Yes, I think literature is valuable, creates interesting discussion, and provides an opportunity for reflection, critical analysis, and connections to the world around us, but, if I were to be honest, I struggle to read fiction. Despite my enjoyment of it, I struggle because there is so much non-fiction tob e read. Despite my enjoyment of it--or maybe because of it, I feel guilty getting absorbed into the other-worldliness of fiction when i could be sharpening my knowledge or skills to impact this world.

But he talked about how "as perception becomes habitual, it becomes automatic", and that as we see things over and over again we stop seeing them at all. Thus, he argued, the role of literature and of art more broadly is "to make objects "unfamiliar," to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception"--essentially it is to make us see things anew.

I think he is right. I think he is right about literature, but maybe more importantly, I think he is right about an approach to life where we are able to continously "see things anew". A few times now, I have gone for a run, ended up at the gym, and then walked back to my house after a workout with nothing "to do" except listen to music and see. It has been amazing what I have seen anew when I have not been on a bike, motivated to get to point B as quickly as possible while constructing a mental list. (It is amazing what you can see when you don't have to have your head down to shield yourself from the rain or aren't blinking your eyes rapidly to keep out the hail, but that is another blog post). Today, on the slow walk back, I noticed crumbling cobblestone walls complemented by chimneys set sharply against a blue sky. I saw ivy growing out of aged colleges, ancient and modern buildings harmoniously juxtaposed, and an egg-shell sky cracing open to reveal a yoke of bright dusk-sunlight mirrored off of side-street coffee shops.

I need to get off my bike and "literature" my life more often. Maybe I'll even read a piece of fiction.

03 March 2010


There are times when it does not pay to be cheap. Yesterday, when I bought my first voice recorder, was one of those times. I had to do an interview for class which I would later have to transcribe and code--boring, qualitative analysis stuff. But, I knew that I would eventually be doing this "for real", so I figured it would be worth it to buy my own recorder rather than borrowing one from the department. Furthermore, I was going to do my transcription in Munich on Friday and so the freedom of movement was worth the extra GBPs. There were a variety of choices at Argos, the Wal-Mart-meets-Sears with no visible inventory where you order your item from a catalogue and then it rolls out on a conveyor belt from the back. I passed over the cheapest option because it was not computer compatible which I though was important. I even upgraded from the second option to the third in favor of more memory--because I was going to use this A LOT. After settling on the middle of the line model (a real splurge for me) of an unrecognized brand name, i noticed that there were several familiar brand names at the bottom. they were markedly more expensive, and I scoffed at the need to shell out the extra cash.

I made my purchase, collected it off the conveyor belt and went on my way. I had my interview later that day and tested the machine to make sure I knew how to work it so the interview wouldn't be for naught. I met my interviewee in a little coffee shop down the street from where I lived. It is a popular and busy place and every time there was a door slam or a conversation that was too animated for my liking, I cringed, afraid that the background noise would complicate my ability to transcribe this word for word. But, when I got back to my room, I discovered that the sound quality was good--it has been a success. I pulled out the instruction booklet and the small software disc, ready to figure out how to get this loaded onto my computer. That was the first time that I realized that something might be less than ideal. The last time that I saw an instruction book as worthless as the one that came with my ALBA voice recorder was when I tried to read the instructions for the cheap MP3 player that we got as an MVC conference gift my junior year. That little piece of equipment had been made in Japan and while the letters and words used in the instruction booklet were English letters (and words), the sentences were not English.

I knew I was in trouble when reading the instruction booklet was as intuitive as starting a fire with wax and plastic. For starters, it was about 12 pages long. The section on loading the software and uploading and converting the file was two or three "sentences". (If, "Jane purse jumped computer software your mom", is a sentence). Oh well, I thought, I am sure I can figure it out.

Without going into the technical details, let's just suffice to say that I did not figure it out (at least until it was too late). 20 minutes later, I had converted my interview into a BUP file which is essentially all of the organizational material--chapters, etc--for a DVD. Fortunately, I recongized that panicking would only waste more time and probably result in me permanently deleting the BUP file as well, and I recognized that emotional eating would only make me fat. So, I tried to set the problem aside until I could get to the IT department the next day.

When I arrived at the IT department, there was one worker and three of us waiting to be helped. The other two had much more traumatic technology problems, like "my computer is dying" or "all of the work of my life is gone", so I immediately felt better, but slightly annoyed that I was clearly not going to talk to anyone before class. As I sat and waited, I was struck by all of the people with an incredible amount of technological knowledge who were too busy fixing phones or walking back and forth to help me fix my file.

When I finally returned after class, a nice guy helped me. Well, kind of helped me. He started by giving me some sage advice along the lines of, "Next time it would probably be worth it to upgrade to a brand that you have heard of." He then followed up with, "This is a lost cause. Save yourself some time and trouble and just redo your interview." Now that is what I call customer service. Maybe you do get what you pay for. Lesson learned.