Thursday, June 29, 2006

Today, my head feels like:

No, really. This whole "write your Master's thesis in a year" thing? It's great. Just great. So fantastic, in fact, that I can't imagine why US universities don't adopt a similar policy. Just think of all the graduates you could churn out -- and advisors would have a lot less stress, since half of their charges would self-combust before they ever made it to a second meeting!

But I'm not bitter.

I have a meeting with my advisor tomorrow, and I thought it might help me if I reviewed what I'd written to see how it fit together thus far:

It seems I am have been operating under the delusion that what I write actually makes sense. I had to stop editing partway through because my pen ran out of ink. Okay, okay, I really had to stop editing because I started getting into Stressed Overachieving Student Mode, in which I convince myself that I am going to produce the worst thesis in the 800-year history of this university, then promptly spend a lifetime consigned to admin assistant drudgery because I'll never escape my English major past.

So instead of coming up with brilliant questions to ask my advisor, I decided to shave my legs.

Look, they really needed it.

I'm serious. Personal hygiene sort of takes a backseat to EndNote these days.

Tomorrow is another day, and the day after that may be the day I finally manage to type without wincing because the stupid blisters on my palms from my first rowing effort will disappear. (By "rowing," I mean flailing around and almost sinking the boat as the cox looks on in disbelief. Oh, and smacking my potential teammate with the paddle. I mean, oar. I mean, blade. See, it's the terminology that screws me. Well, that and my inability to remember the order in which one physically executes a stroke, thereby providing much entertainment to the semi-professional rowers and fully-intoxicated pub crawlers observing from the riverbanks. At least I can put "incompetent rower" on my CV next to "bewildered graduate student" so people can appreciate the full fruits of my labors.)

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Augh! Auuuugh!

I'm at that point in the thesis where I'm working on a very tricky part of the literature review -- tricky because I've realized that most scholars are smart enough to spend a very long time reading up on this particular topic before attempting to summarize it themselves...and here I am, having read about 30 papers on it, suddenly trying to come up with 2500 words or so that *don't* sound like academic nonsense. For an example of how poorly I'm doing, here's my latest sentence: "Broadly, “governance” involves a transition away from traditional, state-centered forms of agenda-setting and policy implementation, to more diverse processes where a range of non-state actors also participate in an intentional effort to influence human activity around a given issue."

Yes, that's as terrible as it looks. I hate the whole thing, but it's better than the three other versions I wrote previously. Oh, how I despise this stuff. I have 14 pages of outlines from the papers I've read that I need to skim through so I can draw out the key themes and turn this into a real discussion. Then, somehow, I have to bring in a bunch of papers on water management along the border to explain why the hell I'm talking about governance instead of wastewater management or something that might actually be relevant to my research.

I have a meeting with my new advisor on Friday, and I think it's going to go something like this:

Advisor: So, what progress have you made?
Me: *blink.*
Advisor: Okay, let's take a step back. How did analyzing your fieldwork go? Have you pulled out a few themes?
Me: *blink. blink.*
Advisor: Do you have any questions?
Me: (hoarsely) When...will over?

Yeah, it's going to be a painful couple of months. Oh wait, even less than a couple of months!

I have to go be ill now.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Fever pitch

The last time I watched the World Cup, I was 12 or 13 years old. I spent half my summer parked in front of the television, rabidly lapping up every game Italy played. Roberto Baggio was my hero, scraggly rat-tail hair and all. I spent my allowance on official Cup gear (I still have that somewhere), and I still remember being down on my knees about two feet from the screen, begging Baggio to hit that last penalty shot, sitting stunned when he failed and the Cup went to whoever the hell they were playing. I was still an aspiring defender myself, and I've always harbored a love for football that most people in the States don't understand.

It's happening all over again, except this time I'm addicted to all of it. Every game, every analysis, every single dribble, pass and shot. I realized this quickly on Saturday, when husband and I seriously contemplated ditching our anniversary plans to stay crammed into our smoky, spot at the Isaac Newton so we could finish up the Mexico-Argentina match. (Mexico lost, hijo de puta!) Fortunately, our stomachs won out because we've sadly learned that man cannot subsist on ale and stout alone -- but as we settled into our intimate, romantic meal at one of the town's nicest restaurants, I said it seemed perfect...and husband leaned over and said, "Now, if only we had the match on."

Yes, we are absolutely addicted. The bloody, bare knuckles Portugal-Holland game? Saw it. The somewhat boring English games? Check. The absolutely edge-of-your-chair Latin American matches? Oh yes. We caught all of America's brief three games, except the Czech Republic match which I think I'm glad to have missed. We spent our US-Italy match in the company of a good friend from back home, who in turn spent most of the match on his feet alternatively spewing invectives and screaming encouragement, slapping the table and egging on other viewers...all of whom looked completely bewildered to see some crazy tall American guy having fits over a football match. I think the Italians would have knifed him on the way out if he hadn't been so congenial after every insult. What do we talk about now over dinner preparations? Bad referees, the comparative styles of Latin American and European football, the hopelessness of the USA team...even my Scots friend says we're a bit off our rockers, but she's just annoyed that her British occupiers are still in it.

It also says something that I'm choosing to fill you in on my football fanaticism instead of talking about the much-anticipated May Ball or the ensuing week o'chaos. Naturally, I'll watch the England-Portugal match (and Germany-Argentina, and Italy-Ukraine and hopefully Ghana-Spain but probably Brazil-Spain) this weekend and scream my lungs out for gutsy, gritty Portugal, despite the fact that doing so in an English pub legalizes my immediate death. If I don't come back, the hooligans probably stuffed me into a pint glass and threw me at nearest goal post.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Regular posting will resume

Sunday or Monday. Too much debauchary this week to even think about posting. Since Saturday, number of events/parties: 4 (soon to be 5). Number of visitors to entertain here or Oxford: 3. Number of alcohol units: enough to say I've done my Irish heritage proud (20+). Number of calories consumed: enough to fatten a beluga whale. Number of hours sleep missed: at least a full night (thanks, May Ball).

Number of times I've glanced at that mess and thought, damn, I really should do something about this before returning to wine and beer? Enough to make me regret this all next week.

I'll be back by the start of the week, promise. Thanks for putting up with my bad posting this month.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Why I will NEVER make it into the world's elite circles

Yesterday at an end-of-the-year scholarship function, one of the trustees introduced himself to me. I quickly realized that his family is one of my undergraduate school's biggest benefactors, made all the stranger because he was standing about 10 yards away from the university's Greatest Benefactor of All. This slightly smaller benefactor (only a couple buildings with his name on them -- clearly, he's just not up to snuff) was a wonderfully nice person, but I was still a bit awed by the fact that he was That Rich Guy.

Unfortunately, as a result, when he said something about going to the UW himself and then mentioned his name as if I hadn't seen it on his nametag, I blanched. What could I say? He waited expectantly for some sort of great remark about me, or world politics, or my plans to revitalize the entire downtown core...

"Wow," I said, listening to the words coming out of my mouth and unable to stop them. "I had a class in your building! I mean, not just a class but a couple...I mean, not your building, but you know, the one with your name..."

And as he looked slightly bemused, I saw my chance at piercing through the city's upper echelon evaporate before my eyes. Valiantly, I tried to recover, but the combination of complete humiliation and too much champagne had taken its toll. (Who the hell provides copious amounts of champagne but only a single tray of ice-cube sized hors d'oeuvres for vegetarians??) Behind me, two of my good friends here -- not the typical scholarship kids themselves -- tried to give me sympathetic smiles. Unfortunately, they were snickering too hard to do anything besides turn away slightly so That Rich Guy wouldn't hear them.

"I just hadn't realized--" I stopped, realizing I had almost made the fatal error of saying something along the lines of I thought everyone our buildings are named after was dead. Instead, I managed a partial save by saying that I hadn't realized how great my old school was until I left; consequently, I planned to return to the school to finish my graduate work someday. Alas, I was talking too fast and my face had turned strawberry red, so I'm sure I came off sounding like a slightly intoxicated, starstruck schoolgirl. There's a career move for you.

Naturally, just as I might have redeemed myself by actually talking about something remotely intelligent, the photographer insistently herded us away for our group photo. I withdrew politely and immediately downed my giant goblet o'champagne in one gulp.

Rich Guy probably flew home thinking it was nice of my graduate school to admit such a tongue-tied, inarticulate weirdo.

Monday, June 12, 2006


If there's one thing I adore about England, it has to be their robins. They are the most vivacious, adorable, lively birds I've ever seen, and I've spent many an afternoon gazing out the window between note-taking as the resident pair scours my garden for the seed I scatter.

These robins are much smaller than ours and much more endearing. When the male in my garden found a mate, he engaged in typical courtship behavior: selecting the most appealing seed, raisin or mealworm and hopping back to his mate to place the food in her waiting beak. He sang to her on top of the garden wall, and she sat down and swayed back and forth slowly, as though completely entranced in his song. It was possibly the sweetest thing I've ever seen.

I'm not the only one to be smitten by these puffball-sized birds. Frances Hodgson Burnett was as well, and she tells her story here.

The heat is on

Whew! In a single week, England morphed from frozen, windswept tundra into humid, muggy oven. I actually have tan lines now -- real tan lines! -- and we've finally remembered what it's like to walk without carrying an umbrella or wearing a raincoat. My poorly insulated flat has adapted to the trend: I can't see my breath in the evenings anymore, but now I can lie on top of my sheets at night, sweating and wondering why no one in Cambridge considered proper ventilation when constructing student homes.

Unfortunately, England is scheduled to revert back into land of tepid downpours this week, and I've been warned by several Cambridge residents that this may be the only time I see the sun this summer.

Excuse me while I crawl back into my room and die now.

At least the presence of World Cup fanatics will keep the area warmer for awhile, surrounded as we are by hordes of shirtless, sweaty, ale-guzzling fans who invade the pubs with their faces painted and their England flags hoisted high.

On Saturday, we visited Stratford-upon-Avon, home to the one dead white male worth worshipping.

Yes, that is the Bard's Officially Rumored Birthplace, and that's me touching the railing in the desperate hope that talent radiates from the building and will transfer to passersby.

Naturally, the afternoon matinee of Romeo and Juliet didn't finish until
Shakespeare's Birthplace closed for the night, so we had to stand outside and oogle the dust-filled windows. It may not have mattered anyway. Since the entrance to the birthplace was three buildings down in a shiny new edifice blaring "Enter Shakespeare's Birthplace HERE!", I'm thinking perhaps the Bard's abode still has a lingering touch of the plague.

Alas, I'm afraid I've married someone who does not appreciate the Bard's wit, so it's probably just as well that I'm not an English PhD because I'd have to disown him. Over our pints after the show, he looked at me nervously and stutteringly said, "So, so you like this stuff. Can I ask: why?" Math people. Dropped at birth, I tell you. I suppose I can still find some redeeming qualities.

Granted, this performance didn't rank among Stratford's finest. A modernized rendition, it featured ambiguous period costumes that could have been 1920s Verona, although Juliet spent most of her time running around in a slip for no apparent reason. The low point had to be the avant-garde decision of the director to feature...Dance Fighting. That's right, Mercutio and Thibault perform some sort of Flamenco-Tap-Capoeira choreography and melodramatically swing giant bamboo poles at each other, occasionally pausing to hammer them on the ground, ape-like, and then are impaled/bludgeoned/embarrassed to death.

It was pretty awful. Ruined some otherwise fine acting, too. Alas, thanks to the dancing fools, the only way I'll ever get the husband back to Shakespeare involves a lot of lies and drugs.

Fortunately for us, we were able to experience more dancing fools at the Dirty Duck, a famous literary and theatric hangout. I'd hoped to see a famous Shakespearean actor or two while we nursed our pints, but this was the afternoon of England's first World Cup match, so instead we were treated to the sights and sounds of approximately 15 pale, shirtless men howling children's songs from picnic tabletops in the beer garden. England, it seemed, had won.

Clearly, the appearance of mandatory plastic cups was not a coincidence.

After being treated to about 11 cycles of "Sunshine Mountain," we were severely disappointed when a barkeep came out and asked them to leave. Frankly, I couldn't imagine a more interesting evening than one that involved trying to discuss postmodern literary theory to a chorus of "Going up Sunshine Mountain...Meee and youuuuuu!"

Naturally, I had to have a photo with one of the quotes on the bar walls. It had to be either Hamlet or King Lear, but the Lear quote wasn't spectacular and this somehow seemed appropriate for a grad student:

Note: I am neither bright red nor that sweaty in real life. I blame the questionable camera quality.

Stratford itself is charming: lots of shaded paths along the riverside, quiet side streets, quaint shops bearing every name ever found in a Shakespeare play...but alas, the trip ended too soon and today I am feeling completely overwhelmed by the ever-growing workload.

The thing in the middle is the conceptual map I'm trying to make for the "discussion" part of my thesis. My new problem is that my literature review and my fieldwork discussion aren't exactly matching up. I think I would like to quit now.

Two more months. I should be elated, but the very thought of time slipping away has me panicked...and next week is May Week, or the most Drunken of Debauched Summer Days, and there's no way I'm getting anything done then because I am either attending some sort of snooty soiree or recovering from the soiree. Oh yeah, and did I mention I had a lovely ant infestation this morning to top everything else off? Gotta love living with slobs for flatmates...I think I'm going to go drown my sorrows in a bowl of ice cream. Might as well get fat if I have to spend all summer inside...heh heh. Sigh.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

An Open Letter to the United States

Dear America,

Why must you try my patience so? Here I am, overseas, enjoying the dearth of religious rhetoric in daily political life, and yet I still resolve to come home to you. And then you had to go and let Ann Coulter publish another book, in which she shrewdly notes that "liberals just want to kill humans." (Side note: Damn it! Who let our secret slip? Now I have to hide all the bodies.)

I can accept your questionable literary tastes, America. Hey, at least you're still reading, or at least everyone but those 40 million functionally illiterate people. But reading is an admirable pursuit, particularly now that you've officially made it impossible for us to ever see anything interesting on network television again. Look. In Britain, after 11:00, they start running documentaries about the world's largest penis, or breastfeeding five year-olds in public, or kicking a heroin addiction on live television. None of the Brits seem particularly traumatized by such fare; in fact, they've developed a revolutionary technique to defuse the situation called Turning Off the Frigging Television. Then again, in our Puritanical culture, I suppose the lingering aftershocks of Janet Jackson's boob merit more legislative attention than other piddling matters like impoverished American kids or global warming -- after all, how can we even think about bigger issues when our minds are forever being assaulted with the image of that super-sized offense?

But America? It was a BOOB. Half of you have them. It seems a bit odd to be so utterly offended by one's presence, particularly when one could argue that little kids perhaps should not be watching the Superbowl anyway, what with its scantily clad cheerleaders and ubiquitous beer commercials. But now? Now you're offended by gay MANNEQUINS?? Those creepy plastic dolls actually sparked enough outrage for a national campaign? Why doesn't anyone complain when the female mannequins are topless, huh? Or freaking naked? Why do only male mannequins dressed to be "gay" raise eyebrows? (And why the hell do any of you care enough to launch a campaign about it?)

America, your obsession with all things homosexual is beginning to disturb me. I'm beginning to think that perhaps those of you who express such revulsion are, in fact, closeted, and simply cannot accept your own feelings towards people of your gender. In the meantime, while you deal with those repressed urges, could you please, please fixate your attention on something that's actually remotely important enough to be considered national news??? No, I don't mean campaigning to prevent kids from getting a vaccine that might save their lives someday.

Look, America. Let's make something clear. I want to come home. Your efforts to turn this entire country into some sort of weird religious safe haven for straight, white illiterate virgins are not making me happy. Don't you hear the entire rest of the world laughing at you? Don't you know how many people are, like some of my friends in Mexico admit, waiting for us to take ourselves down so they can finally get out from under our thumbs? Hasn't it ever occured to you that now is the time to start acting like a little less of an ass?

When I come back, there'd better be a gay mannequin on my front lawn holding a television that's broadcasting something involving naked people. That is all.

Disturbedly Yours,

A Concerned Citizen, courtesy of her sources at The Stranger

Wednesday, June 07, 2006


I've decided to document the thesis writing process with occasional pictures, all of which promise to be low quality and gratuitously melodramatic. Here is Image One, in which she realizes she will in fact be living at her desk the whole summer. Note how England has suddenly decided to be sunny. Sometimes I hate this country.

That cereal bowl there is not posed. I actually did eat two of three meals in front of the computer today, transcribing my bloody interviews until I wished I'd just flipped the recorder off halfway through them and made up the rest. Unethical? You try listening to nine or ten hours worth of recordings over and over and over again and then tell me if you still think interviewees should be able to speak for themselves. They don't have a Human Subjects Review or a research ethics protocol here, remember? Or was that one of those things I was supposed to refrain from talking about until after I graduated?...

So I'm going to spend my summer writing until my keyboard falls apart. Now, of course, the undergraduates are also finishing their exams, so a week of sheer drunken rioting is about to begin. It has begun, actually: the undergrads across the street (the only people I've ever actually filed noise complaints about) are apparently done, as they seem to have all gotten smashed and then passed out with the same bad, Nintendo-sounding techno song blaring over and over and over again until I feel like I'm trapped on a video game level I can't escape.

I don't really blame them: for the first time since September, the weather is beautiful, and people here react much like they do in Seattle (strip, burn off a layer of skin, repeat). The punting guides are out in force, hurtling in front of bikes and buses if they see potential prey across the street. If anyone asks you whether you fancy a punt, just scream at them and run. Punters, by the way, are the people who navigate you up and down the river in punts, sort of like gondolas but bigger and flatter and lacking the pointy bits on the ends. It's a fun thing to do, but I suspect the guides are paid on commission, as they will ask anyone within a 10-foot radius if they'd fancy a punt down the river today. This includes those of us who are lugging vast armfuls of groceries. I've always wanted to say, "Aw yeah, let me just throw the fruit and veg in the back and make a wee snack while we're at it." If you talk to them, though, it's over, so running is generally a better idea. Besides, it's much more fun to try steering the punt yourself. Based on my casual observations, about a quarter of the people who do fall in, but the water's deep and not that brackish. Mmmmmm.

It's finally warm enough to shed the raincoats and sweaters (okay, at least the sweaters). Alas, if midriff shirts are supposed to be out of fashion now, someone forgot to tell the lasses here, many of whom are flouncing around in floofy pirate-type skirts and tops fit for someone about half their age (and half their weight). It's always amusing. You can sort of tell who the foreigners are. The European students tend to be dressier; the Americans and Canadians look like most of us rolled out of an REI catalog (oh wait...); the British students either run around in baby pink shirts (boys) or half an outfit (girls).

To clarify, there are some nicely dressed people here, and I'm sure not every half-outfit belongs to a British student, but this uni's sense fashion is unique. No one I know from another country wants to buy clothes here. We all go home with half-empty suitcases and then lug them back filled with the next season's wardrobe. I have a friend here who wants to publish a true-to-student-life fashion book that will feature only short denium miniskirts paired with black tights and muffin-top shirts. In the dead of winter. When it's below freezing.

Now that I've offended most of the student population, I'm going to go print out my transcribed interviews so I can start analyzing them for the paper! Then, I'm going to curl up with a cup of tea and obsess about ever finding (let alone qualifying) for a job here. I haven't been diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive yet, but that isn't because I'm not trying.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Sorry for the silence

My fricking internet is down in Cambridge, so I can't really post pictures or do anything I want to do right's been down for a week, apparently, so lord knows when it will return to normal. As soon as I can, I'll update. Thanks!