29 November 2010

Alanis, This one's for you

So, if you are faithful readers of this blog (or have just familiarized yourself with the archives) you will know that I spent some time writing about 'irony' as inspired (and completely obliterated as a term of any meaning, whatsoever) by Alanis Morsette. I will not re-type all of those thoughts here. I will just summarize it briefly as:

What is irony? No, Alanis, that isn't ironic. It's just really bad luck. Is anything in my life ironic?

And uncertainty has hung over each of those questions. But today, by the end of this post, I think that I might be able to say....'maybe'. A more certain degree of uncertainty than I have allowed myself previously.

I am just going to power through this post with a series of thoughts/anecdotes. Some might appear ironic, and not be. Some might be ironic, but not appear to be. And some are not ironic--I just think they are funny.

  1. Today, I saw an adult dressed as Paddington Bear. Bright blue trench coat, red hat. He/she was also wearing a yellow reflective vest, so he/she could have been Paddington Bear goes to work. (And it is even more fitting that he/she is unisex--I don't know if Paddington Bear is a boy or a girl. Also, this fits into that third category.)
  2. The British take great pride in their 'gentlemen sports'. When I played cricket last year they always told us not to talk trash because it was a gentleman (or lady in my case) sport (insert profuse apologies for forgetting to include me, here). Then they would ask when the tea would be served. I don't think this is ironic, but it was certainly a paradox to be sitting in the Liverpool section when Liverpool got beat by Tottenham on Sunday. I know that creativity is part of what it means to be a gentleman (or at least a Renaissance man). And I guess singing in choirs is something that gentlemen do. So I guess there is something gentlemanly about how 'creatively' some of the words that I heard were being used, in one of the largest 'choirs' I have been around. Who knew that four letters could communicate so much? (I think this is just a paradox.)
  3. Today, I got my textbook in the mail for the Spanish class that I will be taking next week. (That's right. I am going to learn the whole language in a week.) I can't find any English in the thing. I am not sure if that is because the whole thing is in Spanish (there is definitely a lot more Spanish than any book I have ever seen before) or because it is a German Spanish book. (Yeah, I'll let you think on that one for a while. And I think this might be ironic. But Alanis has muddled my brain so much that I can't be sure.)

23 November 2010

What are you doing with your life?

I know that some of you are wondering. In my time back in the states this summer, I had several people infer that it was unclear what I actually did with all of my time in Oxford. And...I had a hard time explaining it. That is partly because:

1. I am not always sure.
2. The answer to that question changes from day to day, week to week, term to term.

But, I can give you a pretty clear picture of what I have been doing for the last two months that might help to illuminate that question.

  • I have been managing spreadsheets. Yes, I know this isn't the glamorous life that you were picturing, but it is true. Sometimes I think I am getting a second degree in Excel and GoogleDocs. I spend at least some time every day managing attendance lists for various events that I am helping to coordinate in Oxford, but a spreadsheet has become the central component of my academic work this year as well (more on that in my second bullet-point). I think the best way to summarize this--and good news--is that I am learning how to behave like an organized person without actually being more organized. I have a fundamental personal paradox which is a tension between organization and clutter. On one hand, I recognize that I need to function in a largely organized and systematic way, but I lack the discipline to be as coherent in applying that organization to my life. I am cluttered, my room is perpetually disordered (note that I did not say messy) and I used to lose a lot of things until I developed coping mechanisms (called bags, purses, and big pockets with zippers). Spreadsheets are like a coping mechanism for my brain.
  • I have been developing the fine art of being a pest. I know that for those of you who know me well or who have been around me when I am pursuing something that I am really committed to, this doesn't seem like a new skill. But, I suppose the difference is the degree of systematic pestering. I am talking about a professional level.
Here's what I mean:

My main job this term is essentially to interview 24-30 people in the United States. Due to the restrictions on my research (aka, the 'I can't tell you or I would have to kill you code' that I signed), I am not going to say anything more than that. But these folks are in two different time zones in the United States and none of them really want to talk to me. Sure, some will, but no one is excited when they hear from me. So, I have discovered the science/art of how to get people to do something that they don't really want to do.

This is one of those lose/lose situations, unfortunately. You see, if I am bad at my job, then I don't get the interviews that I need, I can't finish my thesis, and I fail (ok, that's dramatic). If I am good at my job (and I am afraid I have to say, that sometimes I am good at this job), then that means that I am successfully bothering people into submission. I don't know if this is a life-skill or a resume builder that I really want to have.

But this process has taught me, that few people respond to your first e-mail. But lots of people respond to your second one if you send it five days later. And even more people respond if you e-mail them a third time and put some parts in bold font.

So that is what I do everyday. I look at my excel spreadsheet and color-code contacts based on how many e-mails they have received from me, how long it has been since I last heard from them, etc. And then I systematically 'persist' (that is the nicer term for bugging/nagging/relentlessly contacting).

So, yeah, there are times when I do normal and respectable things like read books and write papers. But lately, amidst the dreaming spires....my work hasn't been all that glamorous.

What's up in England...

Not much. Same old, same old. (Which on one hand, is a good excuse for not blogging--nothing to report, and on the other, a terrible excuse--what have I been doing with my life?! More on that later.)

But as I sit in Starbucks having just finished a venti (that's right--the big guy) Peppermint Mocha, I have some news. Christmas music is playing here. And a Christmas tree was erected a few weeks ago on Broad Street (one of the two main thoroughfares--if you can call a street that isn't open for through traffic a thoroughfare). And these two facts (among others--like the fact that 4500 miles from Delhi--not to be confused with 45,000 miles from Dehli, as I would call it--started its Christmas menu on November 15th) has led me to a conclusion.

That my mother would love it here? (Yes, that's true. No, it's not the conclusion that I have come to.)

The conclusion that I have come to--the epiphany that I have had, if you will (After all, epiphanies are a dime a dozen when you drink a venti-anything at Starbucks. But again, more on that later.)--is that without Thanksgiving, England doesn't know when to start celebrating Christmas. (It's ok to gasp with astonishment at the implications of that realization. I understand.)

It's true though. Take it from me. I come from a household where I think there is the equivalent of a New Year's countdown leading up to the dawn of Thanksgiving day (at least in the head of my mother). No, she doesn't love turkey that much. (After all, what is there to love about turkey? In preparation for a Thanksgiving feast for 100 that I am helping to plan today, we concluded that the turkey doesn't even have to be well cooked. In fact, stuffing, gravy, and cranberry sauce are all concessions that the turkey will be dry. And even if it's not--no one can tell, because it is covered in so much stuffing, gravy, and cranberry sauce.) So, if it isn't the turkey, what is it? Well, my friend. Thanksgiving is the day when it becomes 'acceptable' to listen to Christmas music.

On that third Thursday of the month of November, my mom's step is lighter, her smile is brighter (as if that's possible), and life is just grand because Manheim Steamroller can return. Sandi Patty can grace us with gracious festive music (Ok, that's a joke. My mom doesn't listen to Sandi Patty. Anymore.) Josh Groban is officially the man. (Like there's a time when he's NOT the man?!).

Our family has semi-sporadic Thanksgiving traditions. Sometimes we are home, sometimes we are at one or the other grandmother's/grandparent's houses. But whether we are cooking cornish hens, or riding in the Camry (shout-out dad for being committed to joining the 200,000 mile club), there is one constant--the music of sleigh-bells and chestnuts roasting on an open fire.

And the other constant is probably my bad attitude about it. I really don't dislike Christmas music that much (in fact, I would listen to Mariah Carey sing Christmas music all year round...and do.), but it has almost become part of the Thanksgiving tradition for me to get as far away from the 'away in a manger' music as possible.

So, Christmas is already in full-swing in Oxford. And if I am going to faithfully play my roll, I have to eye-roll and tell you it is a travesty. England needs to throw some tea in the English Channel, declare independence from itself, and come up with a holiday of thanks and over-eating so that they can have a starting point for the Christmas festivities.

There, I have done my duty. I have played my part.

But, if I am to be honest with you, Christmas is here in Oxford and I am loving it. My mother's enthusiasm for the season is pursuing me across the ocean. I will thank of my family (both formal and informal) throughout the season and be thankful. I am thankful to have 24 years of happy Thanksgiving and Christmas memories (with four Thanksgivings with basketball family and one with my Rhodes family).

Thanksgiving will come and go this year and I will probably hardly even recognize it (because I will spend it at a black tie awards dinner). So, do me a favor. If you are reading this on the other side of the Atlantic, next time you see my parents, give them an extra hug for me--and roll your eyes in front of my mom when you hear Christmas music fire up on Thursday. Even if you love it, pretend like you don't.

03 November 2010

Day Trip 1: Bristol

They say a picture's worth a thousand words, right?

Then, let's just call this my longest blog ever.

01 November 2010

A Few Moments When I Wish I Were in Buckle-Country (Part II)

**Spoiler alert--you should read (Part I) first
**Caveat--yes, I did just create these posts back to back; but I thought the story was too long to be one post.
**Disclaimer--ok, maybe it's not really that good of a story.

So, I go into Tesco Metro (because apparently all of the grocery stores cloned themselves six times over the summer and there is some serious food-provider competition going on around Oxford. I fear that the grocery store to person ratio is going to rival the library to person ratio soon), the largest of the two local stores that are located directly next to each other. If you care the advantages of the Tesco Metro is that it sells everything. The disadvantage is that everyone is there....and standing in line. I hate the lines and for this reason, don't love Tesco Metro, but I thought it was my best chance to score some coffee filters.

So, I go downstairs and head to the coffee section. I don't know about you, but if I were playing the 'If I were a coffee filter where would I be?' game, I would answer 'With the coffee!' every-single time. Because of my confidence in where the coffee filters should be, when they weren't there, I immediately decided to get some help. So, I asked one of the stockers where I could find the coffee filters (thinking I had overlooked them in the coffee aisle, etc). His response was, "If we had them, they would be over in aisle 13 with the home appliances." This certainly isn't where I would put them, but it seemed reasonable enough. So, I went to aisle 13. I couldn't find them. But lucky for me, there was another worker in aisle 13. After looking on my own for about 3.5 seconds (because persistence is one of my greatest virtues) I asked him where I could find the coffee filters. He responded "If we have them, they would be over in aisle 7--with the coffee." I was about to tell him they weren't there, but he took the service one step further and walked over to the aisle and confirmed that they were not.

I have to admit that I found the "If we had them" claim to be baffling and incredibly unhelpful. It completely eliminates my ability to be certain whether I have looked in the right place, or whether I should be looking at all. But I thought that maybe the store just hadn't been open very long so some of the employees were still familiarizing themselves with the inventory. And, this is a smaller grocery store, so maybe I shouldn't expect them to carry coffee filters.

So, I walked out a couple of miles to the biggest grocery store. If they didn't have coffee filters than I had discovered the scam of the coffee machine (this was before I discovered the permanent filter, mind you). After looking in the coffee aisle--to no avail--I just found a stocker and asked him where I would find the coffee filters. When he started his sentence off with "If we had them..." I should have just walked out of the store.

For those of you who are wondering what the answer to the question "Where would I find coffee filters?" is, the answer is "In the specialty store in the covered market." But that isn't really a very good punchline to the story. But at least you know what to expect if you ever need help finding something at the grocery store--it's like the song that never ends.

A Few Moments When I Wish I Were in Buckle-Country (Part I)

In case you haven't heard of it, "The Buckle Game" is this game that kids (ahem, for me that should say 'college students') play where your sole aim is to walk into The Buckle, walk to the back wall, touch it, and walk out, without anyone greeting you. In all honesty, if you do it without five people greeting you, it's kind of like a moral victory.

The whole thing pokes fun of the aggressiveness of salesmanship at the retailer (they sell on commission after all). Kids (college students) love it. The Buckle hates it (and I think deep down inside, loves it). Urban legend holds that when new Buckle-ers are getting trained, they are told about The Buckle Game and instructed to do their part to carry on Buckle's great name as a place of eager service. (I am not sure if anyone has told them that the people playing the Buckle Game are not complimenting them, but that is another blog post....AND, urban legends are not meant to be made to 'face the facts' so to speak. That would be an unthinkable double standard.)

Contrast that experience with the fresh waves of customer (dis)service that have been washing over me since my arrival to the prim-and-proper land.

I bought a drip coffee-maker this year because it was just too much work to use my french press every time I wanted a cup of brew last year. I mean, the thing only made a little over a cup, and it was pretty obnoxious to try to rinse out the grounds--especially since there are no garbage disposals here, so it was this very complicated straining and trashing process that almost felt like making coffee by hand (if there were such a thing. Don't question the analogy--go with it.) So, anyway, I decided to buy a drip coffee-maker. I had some beans from the United States (that I had basically had to stick in the holster of my belt loop because I was so over-packed) and I was ready to go. I bought a coffee maker for 7 GBP (which works out to about $10 and translates into DIRT CHEAP). This is the first time that the old 'you get what you pay for' adage hasn't come around to bite me in the bee-hind (Don't ask me about the 5 GBP duvet cover. Yes, it sounded too good to be true. Yes, it was. Yes, it was more like 5 gigantic kleenexes sewn together. No, it has not been keeping me warm. No, I did not learn my lesson. I thought I said not to ask about the duvet cover?!). Buying a 7 GBP coffee-maker is to my stinginess what my one good golf drive is to my golf-game. I may be completely delusional, but that one success causes me to forget about what happens 95% of the time and believe that the best is yet to come.

But the challenge for me came in finding coffee-filters to put in the coffee machine. Sure, I later discovered that the coffee machine came with a built-in personal filter. But before I knew that, I wondered why it was so hard to find coffee filters (if you could easily buy a coffee maker)? After I knew that, I still didn't care, because it was this very system of having to clean something out every time I made coffee that had inspired me to buy the coffee maker in the first place (and the permanent filter left little coffee granules in the bottom of the pot).

This is the story of trying to find coffee filters at the grocery store. If you didn't know better, you would think this wasn't going to be a very good story. But you know better....

To be continued.