22 June 2010

Tue-Wednesday: The Longest Day of My Life

Yes, Tue-Wednesday is two days put together. But more than that, it is two days plus 6 hours (Do the math (get warmed up for the rest of this post): that is 54 hours. Boom.) But more than that, it is two days (plus 6 hours) filled with little sleep, at least a few major gaffes (so far at least), and lots of flying (aka, sitting in a stuffy, cramped space, with sweat drying on your forehead as the a little stream of circulated air blows on you). I am not even sure if I am halfway through Tue-Wednesday (this is where the math part breaks down for me), but let me tell you that it has been an eventful day. Let me fill you in on what has happened so far:

  • 7:15 wake-up, don the sub-fusc, and meet the great Aisha for pre-exam prep (good luck today, by the way, Miss Red-Carnation)
  • 9:28 Eat a piece of paper (see below).
  • 9:30 Flip over the exam paper and panic. These questions don't look familiar.
  • 9:33 Tricky Martin, these are the questions I was looking for but just slyly worded. And Robert, I don't even know what you are asking on your questions...
  • 12:30 Done. Boom.
  • 12:33 Friends waiting with silly string and a gift. How nice. It's three fish heads. I am so thankful. Mostly because the fish heads were in the box and not on my head (a common alternative)
  • (The rest of the day is full of running errands, packing, seeing friends, and saying many goodbyes--but mostly see-you-laters, the best kind).
  • 1:35 (am)--start walking to the bus station.
This is where I will pick things back up. So, as I am walking to the bus station, I realize that my bags are really heavy. As in, I know I haven't been lifting as much as I might have been, say two years ago, but I am not that weak and these feel much heavier than the bags that I brought over to England (which were also over weight). Insert ominous sign here. Fortunately, 10 minutes of walking backwards with two huge bags in the middle of the night later, a taxi picked me up about 200 yards from the bus stop. There was a day when I would have refused to pay for this service. But I can't be sure I would have made it to the bus without his help, and 2 in the morning is not the time to be a hero. Both the taxi driver and the bus driver comment that my bags are extraordinarily heavy. I comment that they should be careful to not throw out their backs. This is the point at which I start to worry.

Well, despite the fact that the bus trip is advertised as a 90 minute journey, I arrive at 3 am for my 7:55 flight (Beth Whorton is so proud.). At first I kick myself for not taking the 4 am bus--which would have seemed much more reasonable and would have still gotten me to the airport a full 3 hours before departure. So, what is a girl to do in a deserted airport with no chairs at 3 in the morning? I'll tell you. She is going to weigh her bags that seem worryingly heavy. After reading the sign that describes the 23 kg limit (at which point you pay $50) and a 32 kg upper limit (at which point your bag does not go back to the United States of America with you no matter how much you need all 20 Shakespearian dramas that you had to bring home). The lighter of the two bags goes on the scale and weighs in at 26.6 kg (for those of you who aren't that good with metric, that is 58.82 pounds--I think that is about the weight of a fifth grader). At this point, I know the black bag is heavier. I quickly calculate that I have a margin of less than 6 kg between the first bag and the 32 kg no-fly limit. So that means that my second bag can be about 11.5 kg heavier and with a little weight distribution (just 12.5 pounds or so...no big deal) both bags can be fly-able.

When I picked up the black bag and nearly had a slip-disk, I should have realized that hoping for this favorable outcome was just wishful thinking. When I put it on the scale and saw that it was over 52 kg I knew I was in BIG trouble. (Yes, that means that I was over 20 lbs over the weight-limit on the second bag). So now, it is about 3:45 and I am sweating and have my belongings strewn all around the airport. Let's talk about how glad I am that I decided to get to the airport ridiculously early.

Recognizing that there was no way that I could squeeze 20 lbs worth of stuff into the 10 lb cushion that I have in my other bag (unless it has some sort of black-hole feature of which I am unaware), I pay to get online and find out what the options are for "freight-luggage" or "buying a second seat for your bag that is so fat that it would better be described as a small person than a piece of luggage" (honestly, that option might be cheaper). After finding out that the 32 kg limit really is a hard and fast rule, I realized that my best option is to fork out $250 and to check a third bag (which I don't have). So I ask a janitor for a card board box, which is the point where the blessings just start to roll. After providing a cardboard box, he gives me a suitcase that was abandoned at the airport. After throwing away several items including some old t-shirts and the shoes I was wearing (the other alternative was to put on all the clothes I could get my hands on, but I was far to sweaty for all of that). By 4:30, I had two 32 kg bags, a 13 kg hand-bag, and a backpack and personal item full of books. To finish up the happy ending, the woman at the desk showed great compassion on me and just charged me for the third bag (which means she didn't charge me for the second bag, or the overweight fees for either of the first two, which means I got a 50% discount on being an unbelievable over-packer and having a real consumption problem when it comes to buying books).

What a day. And to think that it is only half-way over! What a perfect way to end an adventurous year. If anything crazy happens, you may hear from me in Chicago as well. Oh, and the fact that sleep was not mentioned in the days recap is not a coincident. It just hasn't happened.

Exams: Day Two

So, if my high-fiving behaviour was strange yesterday, I certainly have it topped with my antics today.

In order to avoid the last-minute stress of trying to track down my candidate number, I wrote it on a little post-it note (the kind that are shaped like little arrows and that you stick in your books). After all, I could have memorized it, but that would have taken up brain space that would have been useful to remember how to spell Heidenheimer or Hocschild. Clearly, that was space I needed. (And clearly, I am going to be able to remember how to spell those names for life.) So, I marched into my exam confident and prepared with pens, Bod card (id) and candidate number. I stuck my candidate number on my name card and started filling out my test forms with the necessary information.

Then the invigilator (the man who was charged with watching us like a hawk) started reading the instructions, including the part about how you are not allowed to bring anything other than your Bod card and writing utensils. And that's when I started to get nervous. I didn't want the jovial and jolly-looking invigilator to think that I was cheating. And while my post-it did just have my candidate number on it, I didn't want to arouse any suspicion. So, my first idea was to stick my post-it on the back of my Bod card. But then I decided that that looked sneaky. So then, I thought that I would wad it up and stick it in my skirt. And I did. But then I thought, what if I get up to leave the exam and that little piece of paper falls out? Now, that will look suspicious. So, I did the only thing that made sense.

I ate it.

(Ok, so maybe I could have raised my hand and turned it in, but I wasn't sure how that was going to go.) After all, it was only a really small piece of paper (and it only had a little bit of black ink on it). And while it may be a little crazy that I chose to resolve my dilemma in that way, it seemed better than having all kinds of anxiety that I was going to get accosted mid-way through the exam for the fluorescent scrap of paper on my desk. And after all, halfway through the exam I was wondering if I really needed to keep writing out "Esping-Andersen" in its entirety or if I could shorten it to Andersen or Esping, or better yet, "EA" as he came to be known in all of my notes. I decided to air on the side of safety (aka, my "eat it" decision) and write it out.

21 June 2010

Exams: Day One

While studying for exams has not been the most enjoyable or relaxing part of my life these last few months, I have to say that after experiencing my first day of exams, I am GLAD to be in a program that requires me to take exams. Yes, part of why I am glad is because revising for exams has provided an incredible opportunity to learn and to consolidate what I know. But, more importantly (in terms of this blog), exams is just a pretty unbelievably absurd experience.

For starters, you have to wear your sub fusc (white shirt, black skirt/pants, black tights, black shoes, ribbon tie, and gown); your carnation is optional, though highly recommended: day one is white, two (if you have three exams) is pink, and the last day is red (it serves as a sign to the world that you are finished and you don't care who knows it). If you are anything like me, you try to not arrive to early because you know that you are going to be held like cattle (ironic given the black and white motif) in a tent outside the exam schools until your room is announced. Also, if you are anything like me, you will realize ten steps from the door that you didn't bring the required piece of paper that has your candidate number. You will have a few flustered moments where you wonder if you are going to be allowed to take your exam (after all, students have been sent home for not having black tights on with their pants) so after asking "What should I do?!" (breathlessly), you will run to the window in the front and exclaim, "I don't know my candidate number?!" The woman behind the desk with gently (because she is not sure if you are one of "the ones" who is on the brink of a panic attack) tell you that it will be ok and that you will just have to fill out a slip of paper in room.

You are so relieved that after you find the hall with hundreds of desks filled with test-takers, you will high-five all of the people from your course (who are all sitting alphabetically in your row--and in case you are wondering, this is NOT standard behavior). Once everyone gets settled into their desks, the instructor explains the rules; mostly that you aren't allowed to move without permission. If you need more paper, raise your hand; if you need a drink, make a cupping motion; and if you need to use the toilet, gesture wildly at the door. (But make sure you decide to go BEFORE the last 30 minutes, at which point you will be locked in...I don't know why.)

Then you are told to begin. Three hours, three questions, and one 37-minute warning later, time is up. You are shushed out of the building, and after a euphoric few hours, you realize you get to do it all again tomorrow. And tomorrow's test will likely be harder. But the good news is that you will get to see your supervisor in a gown and plush-velvet hood. The bad news is that you still can't take a camera in with you to capture the moment.

18 June 2010

I can't believe I (almost) made it a whole year without...

This post is inspired by a few things that happened to me in the last 48 hours that it seems miraculous that they didn't happen multiple times and/or sooner.

First, I finally made my way into the Bodleian Library, the central library at Oxford. Specifically, I have finally been inside the Radcliffe Camera--maybe the most iconic building in Oxford. It has been a good boost to my system to endure the pain of exam revisions in such a beautiful and stunning environment. But, on the other hand, how did I not end up in the Bod before yesterday?! (After all, Harry Potter was filmed there....) Simple. I had all of my books requested to the Social Science Library. I just couldn't mentally become ok with the idea of trekking around Oxford trying to track down my books. It was already a huge adjustment to think that I would actually have to go to the library and that I wouldn't own all of the books I needed for class. I didn't want to put too much on my plate.

And then today, my "worst nightmare" (taken with a huge grain of salt), finally happened. Someone locked my bike to their bike. It's like the worst kind of getting parked in....except you could fix this situation with a chain-saw in a way that you wouldn't be able to address being parked in. It was bound to happen. I am just glad that I made it this long.

In the spirit of these two events, here are a few things that didn't happen this year.

I can't believe I made it through a whole year in Oxford without...

1. Picking up a British accent. Actually, I can believe it. And...PTL for that.
2. Having bangers and mash. (Or being forced to eat really terrible food generally. I was prepared for the worst...)
3. Calling a Lord, Duke, or Earl by the wrong title. (I was probably protected by my limited social circle on that one...)
4. Meeting my soul-mate. There were many people who had high-expectations for me in this department. So if you are reading this and were wondering, now you know.
5. Losing my passport. (I guess there are still five days...)
6. Playing "real tennis", or tennis on the grass courts in the parks. I guess there's always next year.
7. Crying in a meeting with my supervisor. Now that is an accomplishment. It was close, but I pulled through.

15 June 2010

Port Meadow

Greetings from Pret, my favorite British coffee shop, where I am enjoying my usual--Skinny Caramel Cappucino.

This morning I finally convinced myself to get up and go for a run. This has been a REAL challenge for me, well, forever. But when I played at Drake and had the fear of God in me about not making my mile time or coming in out of shape, I was compelled to do things that I would never have done otherwise--including getting up VERY early in the morning, including running, including getting up early to run. Strangely, now that no one checks in on me, my motivation level (slash, my ability to compel myself to do either of those things) has plummeted drastically. So the way things usually go is that I EITHER can't get myself out of bed in time to run in the morning OR if I do get up that early, it is so painful that I can't imagine adding another layer of agony. So I don't.

But today, will power met the limited resource formerly known as time, and I went for a run. I ended up down in Port Meadow, and was tickled to death to find all kinds of animals grazing. I had heard horror stories about being chased, bullied, and generally intimidated by mean cows in Port Meadow, but I decided to keep my eyes to the ground (looking for that cow-effect that is even worse than bullying) and run right through the herd. I should have been counting, but let's just say that I saw lots of cows, some pretty cool white horses (with foals--including a "dalmation" foal), some "cow horses" (white with big black spots...duh), and I think I even saw a donkey. Clearly, my midwestern-ness could use some work. I was running through a different field with a friend the other day and he asked if it was corn growing. I didn't know. Iowa would be so ashamed of me.

Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful.

I'll finish with this random factoid: I have seen that a few teachers from my past are or have been grading AP exams in various semi-exotic (or not) locations. The professor of my Comparative Education course told us how much they get paid, when marking our exams (one week from yesterday!), per "script" (three, one-hour essays): 1.50 GBP. No wonder we don't get any comments on our paper.

12 June 2010

World Cup Soccer

What was it like to be in England when we "upset" them by securing a tie (cough, moral victory)? Let me tell you in a few words:

1. Hot. Packed room of people standing to watch the game.

2. Probably hard to see if you were standing behind me. Yeah, I wore wedge heels. No, people aren't particular gigantic here.

3. Obnoxious. That described the Americans' behavior. I heard yells of, "Give us FREEDOM" multiple times. I am surprised we didn't just have a "tea party" right there on the spot.

4. Self-Denial. I think this just describes the British psyche in general. They are still struggling with their "recent" loss of emperial power. I just don't know how they are going to handle the latest blow. Apparently, they weren't playing well because "the US is such a bad team". Yeah. That's a terrible excuse if I've ever heard one. Tell that to Slovenia. England may just struggle in the World Cup BECAUSE they are so much better than everyone. Huh.

5. I can't wait to see the paper tomorrow. The British media is like sharks in the water. I wouldn't want to be their goalie....ouch.


I am wondering if it is a problem that I have packed most of what I own and my room has not gotten any cleaner. Probably. I think it is really just an indication that I tend to keep all of the stuff that I actually use "out". You know, you just never know when you are going to need 10 five-cent coins, or a button that fell off your coat in November, or your digital camera with a broken screen, or a luggage tag, or an ecclectic collection of notes that you have written to yourself over the last 3 months....And THAT is just what is sitting on my desk. Yikes!

Perhaps more interesting than revelations that I am messy (no real story there) or that I am a pack-rat (strangely, despite my idea to bring one bag of stuff home and leave it this summer, I am finding myself convinced that I can't part with ANYTHING that I have here. "You never know when you are going to need (insert item that I haven't used all year here)...", have been the reflections of my last "big pack" nine months ago. I don't know if my mind has been completely transformed by Hollywood, but packing has been a movie-like experience, I'll pick up an object that I packed in September of last year and be transported back to the expectations (and usually fears) that accompanied that object. I remember how careful I was to try to pack things in a way that they wouldn't get wrinkled and how much anxiety went into every outfit selection in DC as I was certain that this weekend would determine whether or not I had ANY friends for the year.

I remember channeling my nervous energy into diagramming and strategically packing my bags in such a way that all of the things that I needed those first few days would be on top. And then realizing up on arriving that I had failed miserably on that task and that I was sharing a hotel room that was definitely based on principles of "efficiency" (the last encounter with efficiency I would have for a while) with a roommate and our four huge (ok, mine were huge, hers were large) bags.

I was sure I hadn't brought the right things--based mostly on the assumption that a world of curveballs awaited me. The "unknown" of all of it had my stomach in knots, my mind reeling, and my whole body on the look out for the pending disaster.

And as I repack all the items that were assembled in preparation for an unknown world (of England, but also of academia), the mysterious has been demystified, the unknown is revealed, and the anxiety of that preparation almost seems comical. Almost.

After all, the fears, while exaggerated, were real. And the challenges, while manageable, have been real too.

Academically, there were a few points when I certainly felt like a fish out of water, but I have finally learned to be at least amphibious moving between what I would call the real world and the "real world" of graduate studies.

I was afraid that I would be culturally lost. And I remember the strange looks that I got when I arrived in the academic office of my college on that first day stupor of a few hours of sleep and I was almost whispering to the women who worked there. I didn't want to be "the loud American". So instead, I was probably just the weird American. And look at me now. I march into that same office in sweatpants and embrace my cultural differences.

But I wasn't afraid that I might not make friends. I was fairly convinced that I wouldn't. And that has been the most pleasant surprise. Certainly, the early days were challenging in that regard as I struggle to move from numerous enjoyable acquaintances to meaningful friendships, but the journey has been remarkably rewarding. And just as I am getting ready to (finally! get to) come "home", my conception of home has been disrupted yet again. Because "home" is ultimately about the "who", and while I certainly look forward to being home, there is a part of me that has finally become at home here that will be "away from home" at the same time. And that is a beautiful thing.

Man, am I looking forward to it (ridiculous weather aside). Now, I just need to pass my exams so they let me come back next year (and don't make me come back this summer to retake them)!

10 June 2010

T-minus two weeks

As my mom pointed out yesterday, I will be setting foot on American soil two-weeks from yesterday. This is an overwhelming realization. Because...

a. I am going to simply melt from the shock of going from 60 degree whether to whatever unbearable temperature it is going to be in the Breadbasket when I return (I refuse to assign a number to this unthinkable reality, or to use the h-word. That's right, humidity.)

b. The two-week warning is good and bad news, because I graciously did not leave myself ANY wiggle room for my departure. I will board a bus just over 12 hours after I finish my last exam, which means that while going home may be something to look forward to, the countdown to departure also lines up with my hour of reckoning. (gulp)

c. I can't believe it has already been a year. When I was holed up in my room during the dark days of Hilary term, I thought this day would never come, but now that it has, I can't believe that the time has gone so quickly.

d. Did I mention that there is so much to do, and so little time to do it? This extends beyond work; so many relationships to build (and refresh while I am home), so little time to do so. Time is certainly my most limited and precious resource.

With that in mind, I should probably get back to work. But, I wouldn't want to turn you away without a window into my most ridiculous experiences of the last 24 hours.

How about the time I got up LIT-RA-UL-LY (yeah, that is "literally" in British...I think it has at least one extra syllable), 6 or 7 times to attempt to use the one restroom in the coffee shop where I was studying? Hey, I know that your walls are not perpendicular to the floor (and this is one of the things I love about you PRET), but you do GREAT business, and it probably wouldn't kill you to have more than a single toilet. Just throwing that out there. The best part was that I was watching for the toilet to be vacated. Everytime someone would leave, I would casually get up to go, and then the two women who looked like they were looking for a table would have this epiphany that they should really just use the restroom right now. Blessings. After 20 minutes of this game, I finally just went home so I could relieve myself.

Or, how about yesterday, when I decided to do some crunches in between runs in the park. "Ah" I thought to myself, "I will join these geese on this grassy knoll. How quaint will that be." But, "aha", I thought, I will make sure to scout out a spot with no poop. (so clever). Well, after walking around for several minutes with my nose to the ground, I quickly realized that it was a pretty "contaminated" area, but I was committed. So I found a small patch where I thought I could fit my back without any negative effects. After one successful, poop-free set, I adjusted about an inch and felt the moisture. The place was a geese-dung mine-field. It just wasn't a good decision.

Live and learn.

09 June 2010

His Royal Highness

I guess it was kind of cool to have my first "interaction" with royalty today, even if it was was from the top balcony of the Sheldonian (pictured below). I don't know what I would have needed to do to get a white ticket that would have secured me a seat in the middle level (complete with backrest and cushion), but after thinking, "This won't be so bad." and "Man, I am glad I lucked out and got to sit on the front row where I can rest my head on the railing" for thirty minutes (the thirty minutes BEFORE Charles even arrived), I soon realized that wood can only feel so good for so long. But the good news is....

That at least no one took a picture of me during the talk. (The caption for this photo was something along the lines of, "Not everyone at the Sheldonian found the talk as interesting as Prince Charles.") But you should know, that I could have been any one of these individuals. Particularly the guy with his head in his arms in the front row. But, that would have been a result of discomfort more than boredom, because, let's be realistic, my experience was anything but boring...

A girl one seat to my left passed out about 15 minutes into the talk. A friend's well-intentioned tries to rouse her only served to crack her head into the ledge she had been awkwardly resting on. Unfortunately, not even the head trauma aroused her, which led to some degree of panic amongst the tightly packed grid-locked spectators. As a nearby listener was taking her pulse, she finally responded to the water that had been splashed on her face and regained consciousness. Then we jostled around to make room for her to nap periodically for the rest of the talk. After all, there was no way to get her out without making a huge scene (as if the incessant ringing of cell phones including one of a spectator sitting DIRECTLY NEXT TO the prince hadn't been spectacle enough). About 20 minutes later, I wondered if onlookers had figured out a way to lock their knees (you know, the famous pre-concert instruction "Don't lock your knees" which I am convinced led to more curious passer-outers than it ever prevented.) when I heard the crack of another skull a few spaces to my left. But rest assured, this guy had just fallen asleep.

To cap it all off, after the Vice-Chancellor informed the Prince of "how glad we were to have him return to Oxford after 17 years", a woman's phone over my right shoulder "QUACK"ed. I mean, what is this, 1989? Do we need to have an instructional session on cell phone etiquette?

Hey, but at least it was eventful. I am sure the talk was interesting too, if I hadn't been so distracted. Maybe I'll get online and read the text of it later.....

04 June 2010

A few of my favorite e-mails from the last week....

Let's start with this one...

SUBJECT: A Warning from the Dean (I got immediately nervous when I saw this...fortunately, it was addressed to all graduate students and not just me individually).

TO: Junior Members, Jesus College, Oxford
CC: Senior Membes and Staff, Jesus College Oxford

Please be reminded that you are not permitted to climb onto roofs, out of windows, or onto walls. (What?! I am not allowed to do these things?? Clearly, the people who are climbing onto roofs, out of windows, or onto walls, just forgot that this wasn't allowed.)

The College may fine, rusticate (?! What does rusticate mean? Is that latin?), or expel those who do. These are of course very minor outcomes when compared with lifelong paralysis (I don't know...being "rusticated" might be worse. It at least sounds awful...) or death. (Indeed. Who knew that authorities could be so passive-aggressive? I am glad that the college is just really looking out for my personal safety and well-being. And who said that Oxford wasn't concerned with student welfare?)



And then there was this one...(department fun)

SUBJECT: Methods Workbook
TO: Graduates

Dear All,

Just to remind you that the methods workbook (original assignments) is to be submitted to me by 12 noon this Friday. I will let you know when I have the statistics assignments as soon as I get them.


(Course Administrator)

I know that you may be thinking that this isn't funny. But, that is because you need to know the background. Specifically, this is a reminder to turn in a series of assignments that we have already submitted (a convoluted process of turning back in marked assignments). BUT, the best part is that WE are being reminded to turn in assignments that we don't even have back yet at this point! Furthermore, these assignments didn't materialize until about an hour before they were due. But, hey, thanks for the reminder.

And one more....this is from a few weeks ago.

FROM: The Proctors
TO: All Students
SUBJECT: Post-Examination Celebrations


In our "normal" lives, the Proctors are Tutors (What is the difference again? I don't know what either of these terms really means...). In this capacity, we should like to wish you very good luck with your exams this summer. (But....)

However (I knew there was a but...), we're e-mailing about end of exam celebrations. (I knew people wouldn't e-mail to just say "good luck".)...In particular, there is a tradtition of the abuse of food in "trashing"...In previous years some members of the public have been injured by slipping on flour wet from champagne and eggs...You should also be aware that there have been cases in which potential employers have noted evidence of "trashing" displayed on websites (Like my college website? Because I saw pictures of this on the official site before I ever came to Oxford...)

...No flour, no eggs, no beans, kethup, let alone rotting foor or worse (What exactly would be "worse"? I feel like that just invites creativity...)...Closed champagne bottles (do you ever get to open it, or is it just an ornament?), flowers and balloons and biodegradable confetti are all fine! (Enthusiastic exclamation point!) But please (and after that brief interruption, now back to listing things that are NOT allowed)--NO FOOD ITEMS or GLITTER (what?!) or SILLY STRING (no silly string?!). Rotting food, vomit, broken glass and other items causing litter (that seems kind of extreme to lump ALL ITEMS CAUSING LITTER--like glitter--in with vomit and broken glass) are simply not what any of us wants to see (I am with you on the vomit and broken glass...not so much on the glitter). They are a disgrace and potentially dangerous. (again, see my previous comment. Death/danger by glitter?)

**In all fairness, the points made are (mostly) valid....most of the humor comes from the fact that at an institution full of mostly bright people, these things need to be said at all.