England’s Eccentricities

Well, I’ve been here for just over six months – two full terms – so I thought it might be time for a firmly tongue-in-cheek list of some of the local eccentricities: though Canada and the UK are, by and large, very similar indeed (and far more similar than, say, the US and the UK), there are lots of little differences.

I am aware that this list should, perhaps, be entitled “Oxford’s Eccentricities” – since I have arguably not seen enough of the rest of the UK to be able to generalize – but then I’d lose the assonance from the title, so … without further ado:

  1. It is impossible to buy a box of Kraft Dinner (or at least, I have not found a store that sells it yet).
  2. “Rocket” is a green leafy vegetable, not a spacecraft
  3. “Prawns” are related to shrimp, but you can get them in sandwiches
  4. We stopped, not once but twice, during the strike of Assassins, for tea and cookies (er, pardon me, biscuits)
  5. It’s not called a strike, but a get-out
  6. Food is not ordered “to go”, but “for take away”
  7. Walking into a coffee shop does not mean that you can purchase a coffee: the options tend to be espresso, espresso diluted with water (“Americano”), lattes, tea, and hot chocolate
  8. “So you’re American?” is the default response upon hearing my accent
  9. “Iced tea” and “cider” are both alcoholic here: so much for my go-to non-alcoholic choices whenever I am somehow dragged to a pub
  10. Speaking of pubs, every single academic / social event seems to involve going to one: yes, “Beer and Beowulf” is an academic reading group, led by several highly respected professors. I suspect I have been to a pub more times in the last two terms than in the entirety of my undergraduate degree.
  11. “The pigeon post” = Oxford’s internal mail system. So official communications from college do indeed arrive via pigeon post.
  12. Dorset Flapjacks have nothing to do with flapjacks, but make for a fabulous camping snack
  13. A flashlight is a “torch”, and I’m not yet sure what the word for a torch is …
  14. Sweet popcorn is apparently a thing?? A fairly large number of stores only stock “sweet” or “sweet and salty” – and not ordinary (salted) popcorn.
  15. 5 degrees Celsius is “so cold”
  16. There is not nearly as much rain as I was expecting
  17. “The hols” is a legitimate phrase that my fellow students use, not just a quaint archaism in novels about upper class boarding schools
  18. Apparently pharmacies are only allowed to sell you two (small) packs of ibuprofen tablets at a time
  19. November to March feels like September. April feels like July.
  20. Apparently there are no thunderstorms in spring
  21. Finding an ordinary pair of plain, black, women’s running shoes (not called “running shoes” here) required two weeks of searching and a trip to London, despite every store in downtown Oxford stocking no shortage of black heels, pumps, ballet flats, and other shoes totally inappropriate for actually walking. (Of course they also stock plain black men’s running shoes … )
  22. Signing off text message conversations with “x” or “xx” is not restricted to overexcited teenage girls
  23. The stage manager doesn’t get to call the show
  24. The DSM, who calls the show, doesn’t apparently get to do much else
  25. I am apparently eligible – and now registered – to vote, despite a) not being a UK citizen, and b) knowing only ever so slightly more than nothing about both UK and EU politics. Serious research required. (Speaking of politics: apparently “immigration” is a major and controversial political issue, and “immigrants” are a serious problem to be dealt with. Whatever happened to multiculturalism?)
  26. I am also allowed to drive. And eligible to transfer my Canadian license to a full UK one. Given that driving on the right side of the road is obviously not a thing, this is mildly terrifying.
  27. By dint of much effort, I have thus far managed not to say “pants” in reference to “trousers”, though I am sure I will mess it up eventually
  28. I can use a “spanner”, “snips”, and a “driver”, but would never have referred to them by those words
  29. In a country that still teaches Greek and Latin in a substantial number of schools, how did the “tallescope” ever get that name?
  30. The theatre industry in Canada operates in imperial, despite the rest of the country officially using metric. The theatre industry in the UK appears to operate half in imperial and half in metric, despite the rest of the country officially using metric. This is both more work and potentially more confusing.
  31. Biking in pencil skirts and heels (or ballet flats, or flip flops) has become no less impractical than it was in November, despite the increasing number of people doing it
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Still Alive and Organized

Things that happened this past term:

– Designed set for a show

– Designed costumes for a show

– Assistant lighting designer for a show

– Fight directed two shows

– Stage managed two shows (overlap with shows already mentioned)

– Participated in the bidding process for four shows (all successful)

– Launched website for the Oxford Research in English graduate journal

– Attended more (free) workshops on website design & coding, courtesy of IT services and the Humanities Division

– Researched & wrote 10,000-word paper for Transfer of Status

– Researched & wrote 1,000-word thesis proposal / outline / chapter breakdown for Transfer of Status

– Revised 5,000-word MA paper

– Presented aforementioned paper at conference in Denmark

– “Vacation”: an extra day and a half to tour museums and attractions in Aarhus after the conference

– Submitted (successfully) two applications for conference funding

– Wrote & submitted two more abstracts

– Part-time job #1 (notetaker)

– Part-time job #2 (research assistant)

For anyone who is worried about my sanity, or my academics, I submit that both my final year of high school and my middle year of undergrad were significantly busier than this, and I did survive both of the above. And however unlikely this may sound, I did also sleep, eat, and socialize in the last ten weeks!

(I did not, alas, have time to write blog posts … sorry. Something did have to go.)

As is perhaps clear, “busy” seems to be my natural state: I really don’t like being bored, and my response to having time on my hands is to promptly find a way to fill it doing as many interesting (read: challenging) things as possible.

I am also, apparently, completely unable to pick just one field on which to focus my time, energy, and attention. The “about me” section of my Facebook page for the past several years has read “Medieval Literature. Theoretical physics. Theatre.” – five words that fairly succinctly sum up the problem I faced in high school, and through undergrad, and through my MA, and of course now while working on the DPhil: finding a single career that combines all of my main interests seems to be utterly impossible.

I had no particularly good career- or degree- related reason, for instance, for showing up at seminars in Toronto on semi-simple Lie algebras. Or for attending the physics department’s research colloquium pretty much every week. (Yes, said talks did provide the material for several articles later published by the student newspaper, for which I was a writer & copyeditor, but that was not preplanned! And to be fair, the math seminars did also feed into the writing of my term paper for the literary theory class for my MA in English. Literary theory is not usually my cup of tea, but in this case I had the slightly wild idea of analyzing Saussure’s and Derrida’s use of mathematical terms and metaphors in relation to the actual math. I have to say that dragging topology and complex analysis into an English essay resulted in a much more entertaining writing process!)

Nor can I particularly justify the purchase of the particle physics textbook that I picked up from Blackwell’s as a Christmas present, nor the amount of time that I spend reading the Journal of Mathematical Physics, nor the time spent (figuratively) banging my head against the computer while trying to make sense of p-adic Hodge theory.

The amount of time I’ve spent working on theatre this term, meanwhile, can only be justified if you consider that while the post-DPhil Plan A might currently be to get a tenure-track job in academia, Plan B does involve a combination of theatre and part-time teaching, and thus taking advantage of the opportunities in Oxford to get more experience in all things tech-theatre-related is indeed relevant. But five shows in eight weeks? Surely this is a little bit excessive …

Well, yes. And no.

The problem, ultimately, is that I have spent years reenacting variations on the following pattern: a) I decide to do X, Y, and/or Z. b) My friends, parents, teachers, mentors, etc. think I’m crazy and/or that it’s impossible. c) I ignore them and do X, Y, and Z successfully anyways.

It took, in fact, my graduation from undergrad with the highest average in any year in my department, for my mother to finally concede that maybe I was in fact capable of balancing academics and theatre successfully. (The previous three years had been a fairly steady stream of “you’re taking on too much; it’ll affect your marks; you’re sacrificing future academic opportunities”, despite all evidence to the contrary.)

So, while it could undoubtedly be criticized as at least somewhat arrogant, my default, and usually accurate, assumption is that what I can get done – or learn – in a given amount of time is almost always far more than anyone else is willing to believe that I can.

This is largely due to a sometimes obsessive tendency towards organization and micro-managing my schedule weeks or months in advance. Combine this with a serious anti-procrastination streak, and this explains why my Grade 12 Biology summative assignment was done by the end of March Break when it was due in June, or why my calendar for the last months of my MA literally had a specific number of hours assigned to each essay, with how many words should be written by what time, or why three shows and three exams in forty-eight hours resulted in the highest semester average of my entire degree – because I’d planned and studied so thoroughly in advance.

It’s also due to the problem noted at the beginning of this post: I’m at my best when challenged, and that leads to pushing my own limits as far as they will reasonably go – which, when the level of hyper-organization and pre-planning I’ll bring to bear just increases and increases with an increased workload – can be quite far.

But from previous experience hitting those limits, I’d like to think that I’ve got a decent sense of just how far I can push before the increased organization can’t compensate anymore. And while this term came pretty close – and getting sick for three weeks in the middle of it certainly didn’t help – I will be doing it again. Because, well, would I get more done if I just focused on one thing? Maybe. Probably. Would I be any happier? Definitely not – in fact, I suspect I’d be pretty miserable. (Besides, I’m already signed up to design lighting for a show this coming term. Possibly the most exciting challenge in quite a while!)

Bottom line: when I say that the semester was “busy” – that’s a good thing. And I’m still not insane, still not swamped, still not altering space-time or otherwise subverting the laws of physics … just doing lots of things that I love, all at the same time.