set it on fire

Along with working in a coffee shop, I have another job throughout this interim period. Without giving too many specifics (for reasons that will become apparent), I’m also working with a rowing team as a consultant. I’ve examined all of their fleet, and am giving recommendations on what to do with the shells.

As it happens, not all of their boats are in excellent condition. This is not, by any means, the fault of the rowers, team, or organisation- it’s largely the blame of poor rowing conditions. Nevertheless, I’ve now had the pleasure of examining a boat that’s essentially useless. It will never be waterworthy; it can’t conscientiously be sold, and it’s not particularly good for parts. Nobody else will want it for anything. Which means I’ve been able to write, in a formal report, the following line:

“My best recommendation for [this boat] is to take it outside and set it on fire.”

Am I trying to be funny? Yes, a bit, that’s what I do. I also think it’s a valid opportunity and a valuable use. Sometimes, you just need to set something on fire.

Why?

Well, done safely, it’s pretty entertaining. It’ll draw a crowd, so there’s fundraising and marketing opportunities. It’ll free up space in the boathouse. And, finally, why not?

The reason I’m telling you about this is because I think there are a lot of things in life we could probably ‘set on fire’. How often do we (the hoarders of the world) hang onto something, just in case it will become useful again? How often do we save that little china keepsake, even though it’s worth nothing, because we don’t think we should throw it away? How often do we refrain from getting that haircut/tattoo, just in case we’ll regret it down the line? How often do we refrain from going on that vacation, just in case we’ll need the money later?

In all of these cases, I think we make a pretty sound analysis of the pros and cons. And then, even though all the pros point to ‘fire’, we refrain. We suppose that there is some con we haven’t thought of yet. We suppose that circumstances might change in the future. We suppose that our analysis is inaccurate. We wait five years, and make the same analysis. Same pros, same cons. And we suppose again that we’re missing something.

I would suggest that we all have a little more faith in our analysis. Are we occasionally wrong, and do we sometimes overlook cons? Yes, absolutely. Maybe once out of every ten times.

If we refrain, though, that’s ten boats we’ve got taking up space. Ten lost opportunities for fun and marketing and fundraising. That’s ten vacations we haven’t taken, ten china keepsakes needing to be taken down and dusted. The pros of those ten opportunities, I believe, outweigh the eventuality of needing to replace one of them. The money that might come out of ten boat-fires (through sponsorship and increased activity) is more than enough to replace the one boat that might have been weighed incorrectly. The health benefits of ten vacations well outweigh the stress from gauging one expense incorrectly.

So go ahead, make the leap.

Set it on fire.

geocaching

I’m currently in Oxford, reconnecting with my dear old friend, the Bodleian. I’m also enjoying my reunion with my other long-time pal, Oxford market food. We make a great trio.

I actually arrived yesterday, and although I’ve had a great time visiting friends, I’ve also made an important discovery that I need to share.

Geocaching.

This is the greatest thing I didn’t know I was missing. The concept is simple: players hide ‘treasure caches’, and post the precise coordinates online. Other players then search for the weatherproof stash using GPS enabled devices, such as any smartphone. Once found, a player signs the enclosed logbook, perhaps takes or leaves a trinket (of nominal value), and returns the cache to its place. Ideally, this is done without alerting non-players to the existence or location of a given treasure. Stealth, treasure-hunting, and exploration? I don’t understand how I didn’t know about this before. It’s like Pokemon-Go except that you’re searching for real things.

Anyways, after discovering the concept, I went into this expecting a fair bit of fun. And it is fun. After a point, you can even start ‘levelling up’ by solving riddle caches, which require looking for clues and following a trail from one coordinate to the next. A friend and I found five or so normal caches yesterday; I spent an hour this morning on my first riddle cache. That’s when I noticed something remarkable, beyond simply ‘this is a fun game’. The riddle cache took me searching for clues along two roads and a alley, all of which I have traversed literally- and I do mean that- hundreds of times. I used to live overlooking one road and the alley; my supervisor’s office was along the other road. I’ve walked and cycled along them in all weathers, at all times of day; I’ve photographed them and spilled coffee on them and tripped over cobblestones on them.

Until today, I couldn’t tell you how many blue plaques (citing historic events and persons) were along this route, let alone what they said. Despite my love of detail and art, I couldn’t have told you which gate used to be the entrance to the Oxford Union. I couldn’t have told you that there was a birdhouse on that massive tree behind the Lamb and Flag. I noticed these things in other places, when I visited and conducted my standard art history Insta-storms. I love these things, which illustrate the unique story of each little village and town. But at some point, the weeks and months and toils of daily life blurred Oxford into any normal town, like every other town.

Geocaching- hunting for treasure- brought the magical back into the mundane. Every little average town has its legends and dreams and treasures, once we remember to look.

I can’t wait to see what I can search for next.

measurements

I’m now back in the UK, for a brief three weeks, and enjoying spending time with my fiancé.

I’m slightly less enjoying the hurdles of wedding planning, which I’m learning come in all  figurative and literal shapes and sizes. There are the obvious problems (such as transporting a wedding dress in a suitcase) and the less obvious (how can I do a menu tasting a month before the wedding when I won’t BE here a month before the wedding).

Then there are the really unexpected problems. Today, it was the registry.

The gift list alone hit both marks of obvious and less obvious problems. Solution to the obvious: register in England, arrange delivery to fiancé’s address, and give everyone the website link.  Also register on Amazon. Less obvious solution: go into John Lewis and scan things now, and then arrange for notification if things go out of stock before the list opens. Also, Amazon. And the really unexpected problems: neither my fiancé nor my mother could go with me to register; this was solved by preparing a list with my mother in advance, and enlisting a cousin to spend a day keeping me on track. And, Amazon.

And then there are the complete left-fielders.

Below is a list of today’s adventures in gift registration.

  1.  Bed sizes in England are different.
  2. Duvets come in multiple weights.
  3. Quilts don’t exist.
  4. Neither do top sheets.
  5. Towel sizes are different.
  6. Inches vs centimetres, full stop.
  7. Cups vs mL, while I’m at it.
  8. Not to mention grams vs lbs.
  9. Nobody sells a comprehensive conversion chart.
  10. Cast iron is nowhere to be found.
  11. It’s really hard to scan kitchen knives when they’re under lock and key protection.
  12. Why don’t mixing bowls have handles?
  13. Box sets don’t always say what sizes of items are included.
  14. Where are the non-pastel plexiglass tumblers?
  15. Somebody left a scrambled Rubik’s cube on a shelf and I’m sorry, I have to fix it.
  16. You never realised you care how heavy your cutlery is but you do.
  17. Also how thin the wineglass stem is.
  18. The china section is very, very far from the table linen section and you need to match things.
  19. Cambridge blue is distressingly popular at the moment.
  20. Wooden salad bowls and servers aren’t a thing here.
  21. Cheese boards apparently are.
  22. Every kitchen canister has tea, coffee, or sugar printed on it. Flour is absent.
  23. Except those, which say ‘te’, ‘coffi’, and ‘siwgr’. Unfortunately my fiancé doesn’t speak Welsh.
  24. Paul Hollywood is a traitor and how could I appreciate his branded rolling pins.
  25. “Nobody else is going to get the pineapple thing.”
  26. Stainless steel pans also aren’t a thing.
  27. No idea how any of this is going to fit in a London bachelor pad.

 

Fortunately for us, if Amazon doesn’t have the answer to these issues, Google probably does.

Immigration and the Charlie Factory

Since my engagement (really, since a few months before), my fiancé and I have been wending our way through the labyrinth of both the British and American immigrations systems. Visas are a complex business, and the route has been filled with a lot of frustration, a fair amount of surprise, and numerous other emotions. I’ve been documenting the whole process, both for my own records, and hopefully eventually to help others. Also, entertainment, because a lot of it is frankly nonsensical.

I haven’t published anything yet, and I won’t, until this full process is complete. The system is opaque and there are many uncertainties in the world today; I don’t want to find that something has been rejected because I got snarky on the internet. Rest assured, though, there’s a lot of good stories coming out of this.

I told you that in order to tell you this: as of a few days ago, my fianceé visa to visit England has been granted, which means I’m now frantically sorting through things as I pack for a trip two weeks away.  International shipping prices are astronomical, and I’m bringing a lot of my possessions in a second checked bag. If it isn’t worth moving to England, it’s getting thrown out (which my mom is thrilled with).

Clearing out childhood and adolescent papers and cards is fascinating. We think that our thoughts and ideas change so much over time, and perhaps they do. However, our manner of thinking appears to stay fairly consistent, and as evidence, I present to you the scribblings I found last night on the back of my AP Physics notes.

Transcribed:

“Willy Wonka invents a piece of gum with all the nutritional value and taste of a four-course meal. How long would you have to chew the gum? Generally, you chew gum until the flavour is completely gone and there’s no elasticity left. The flavours switched after just a few seconds in the story, but if you ate an entire four-course meal in twenty seconds, you’d be sick to your stomach- the brain processes fullness much more slowly than the stomach. Second, most meals include a lot of sodium (particularly meals with roast beef and potatoes). However, there’s no drunk included in the gum, so unless you gulped water during those twenty seconds, you’d be instantly dehydrated. The idea of eating a meal in that time simply isn’t plausible. Or, maybe it’s just that the flavour passes in twenty seconds, and you have to chew the gum for much longer to get the full nutritional value. But then, how would you know when the meal was finished? Could you unintentionally starve yourself by spitting out meals before they were done? Assuming that each of the courses flavour disappears after those 5 seconds, what would come after the blueberry pie? Would it be bland and flavourless, or retain a mishmash of a sight hint of each course? Could it be made to taste like coffee? If so, when would that final flavour disappear? What if there were tomatoes in the salad, and somebody was allergic to them? Would that cause an allergic reaction, or would it provide the chance for people to finally taste something they’ve never been able to have? Finally, would it be bad manners to blow bubbles?”

I’d like to make two closing points: First, that I did pass AP Physics with flying colours; second, the other day I got in a discussion with a friend about the feasibility of the plumbing at Hogwarts. Interests change, personalities remain.

 

 

 

public spaces

I wrote an essay, a short time into undergrad (although it ended up playing a role in both my bachelor’s and master’s theses) on the effect that the shape and structure of public spaces have on their use. In less convoluted words: how does the atmosphere of a communal space affect how we feel in it?

One of the first parts of the essay included a definition of ‘public space’- for this purpose, I narrowed it down to a communal area, funded or owned by the ‘public’ (via government), designed by the public (again via government/local authority) and which encouraged the interaction of relative strangers. And this was all fascinating to me- here’s a space, to which we feel entitled, although we likely have had very little or no personal input, and it has the power to affect the way we interact with others. It’s still kind of incredible.

And I’m thinking about it tonight, because I just got off work at my local, privately owned small business non-corporate coffee shop. A shop designed and dreamt entirely by the owner, to which nobody is entitled, and which does not necessarily encourage the interaction of strangers (beyond simple transactions). It, too, is a sort of public space. It is a space which anyone can enter during business hours (excepting that they have previously been banned), but which comes with none of the privileges of being public property. It is not a library, or a market, or a park. It is not even a church or temple, which, albeit not truly ‘public’ spaces, often aspire to the same ideas of public ownership and investment.

It’s a business. And a coffee shop, like all restaurants, like all stores, has a unique position in public space. The store is designed to lure and keep the customer, who feels entitled to enter- but not obligated to buy. All of us have gone into a clothing store, told the clerk “Just browsing, thanks”, and left without purchasing anything. Many of us have gone to a restaurant, read the menu, and left without purchasing. Fair enough. But the reason those displays are designed so enticingly? It’s to encourage you to buy. At the end of the meal, restaurants ask if you want dessert- to encourage you to spend more money. Coffee shops provide free wifi- because if you hang out, you might get another drink, or a snack. Like all public spaces, businesses design themselves to affect the way that you act- the choices that you make. And I’m fully on board with this. A church designs their public space to draw your mind to worship; a business draws your mind spend money.

The issue I have, that sprung up tonight and so many other nights, is that this fine line- of ‘public’, of entitlement, of designed interactions, is so often lost. Tonight, like many other nights, somebody came into the shop, took a seat, started working on their laptop, and didn’t order a drink. Or food. Or anything. Now, I have a standard response to this- it happens that often- after a reasonable time (say, they wanted to get settled before ordering), I go ask them what they’re waiting on, and apologise that it’s taking so long. At that point they usually get up and buy a drink.  Tonight, though, I got an unusual response. The student in question (and I’m not blaming millennials here, pensioners do it too), responded: “Oh, I haven’t gotten anything, I’m just here to study.”

I understand that we’ve got a great studying atmosphere. That is, to an extent, the idea- study, get comfy, buy more coffee. Bring your friends. Stay all night. But, I have never seen anybody walk into a restaurant, sit down, and conduct a business lunch- without buying any food. You’d be laughed out of the store. And then probably banned.Yet, it’s routinely done (or at least attempted) at coffee shops. I’ve seen it happen at Starbucks, I’ve seen it at other local joints. And it’s a concept of public space I’m still working around- precisely because it happens nowhere else. Did early modern tea shops have similar issues- men coming in, reading the paper, not buying anything? Bookstores spring to mind- come in , browse a book, leave without buying. However, if you liked the book- you usually buy it. Nobody enters a coffee shop, tests the wifi, and then asks to purchase so many bytes of browsing speed. They are not testing the product, they are utilising the space- this space, which on the surface is so similar to a public space, but is very much not.

There are no government funds for local coffee shops. There are no tax contributions to create a studying atmosphere. A small business depends on moving product. And, no, one person (who always buys a drink) and fails to once, isn’t going to sink a store. Still, people understand how to interact in a public space based in part on those around them. A store full of people on the internet with no drink, and the impression is given that this is a free space, entitled for the use of the public. Which it isn’t, and which it doesn’t want to be. That place you’re thinking of, designed for study and quiet meetings with friends, and getting work done in a thoughtfully-created and decorated space, is a library. Or a park.

I ended that conversation by explaining, briefly, that the shop is the owner’s livelihood, and that overhead costs (such as wifi) are paid for by people buying drinks. And that conversation worked for that student. How many times, though, does that conversation need to be had?

I was a local bookstore the other day, and observed that they had removed all of their large comfy armchairs.A clear change in the design- a clear desire to influence behaviour. Coffee shops are still at the point where wifi is more profitable than not- but will this change? Will the culture change first? Is there a way to encourage a purchase first, or to discourage unpaid loitering? Or, and I can feel myself turning into a politician-ranting-on-millennials, is this a symptom of a larger culture of privilege and entitlement? Do we feel, largely, as though we have the right to inhabit spaces to which we have no ownership? If so, how do we stop this behaviour- in ourselves, and later in others?

I don’t know, yet, but when I figure it out, I’ll probably get a job designing public spaces.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whoops.

A few days ago, someone commented on a post asking why I wasn’t writing anymore.

The answer is, not on purpose. Things just got crazy.

Define crazy?

got a job, visa paperwork went wonky, didn’t start job, moved back to the USA, got a couple jobs, got engaged, now planning two weddings in two countries while working full-time in multiple fields while trying to accurately file settlement visa paperwork and in the meantime Brexit, Trump, and all my friends/family getting married and having babies.

And, of course, all that’s an excuse. For a combination of laziness and pride that’s kept me off the blog.

Because, when I turned 25, I had just found out that I’d gotten this incredible job- curator of a small district museum, iron age Celtic through 20th century English history, and I’d get to use all my training and all my education to pursue a topic that fascinates and delights me. And a month later I was in small-town USA working as a barista.

Don’t get me wrong, I love coffee and this small business team and the owner is probably one of the best people I’ve ever known. And yet, when everything goes so quickly down a completely different path- it’s really, really hard to change both your own expectations, and to tell everyone around you to change expectations as well. In this case, the latter may even be harder for me. I can sit here, in my little coffee shop, and know that (Home Office permitting) in a year I should be married to my perfect partner, working in or searching for a job in my ideal field, living my absolute best life. And I can get through the craziness of right now, knowing that.

However, to work in food service in a small town where everyone knows your life and your parents is to open yourself up, constantly, to real or imagined criticism. Customers come in and they don’t know I have a degree from Oxford. They don’t know I’m happily engaged. They don’t know my love for rowing, and the experiences that it’s given me. They come in and they see a 25-year-old working in a dead-end job and living with her parents. That’s hard for two reasons.

The first, obvious. I’m proud. The second? Because I recognise that the reason I know what they’re thinking- or, the reason I think I know- is because I’m that judgmental myself. That’s a pretty hard realisation. I don’t want to think that I sit here judging the people I went to high school with, who still live in this small town or have moved in with their parents while they look for a job. Or that I judge people who are thirty and working in a coffee shop. Clearly, though, I have been. It’s easy to say “Oh, my best friends here are baristas but it’s different- this is a small business and so the work is really varied and complex and business management and brand marketing and development and basically it’s not like working at Starbucks or McDonalds.” What I’m really saying there is “I’m judging a group of people based on some complex and opaque ideals but don’t worry, people I know personally are different and shouldn’t be included.”

And that, that sentence right there, is also one of the biggest problems in society today. It’s applicable to racism, sexism, immigration, poverty issues, and just generally everything happening right now. We all, myself included, want to judge people whilst making exceptions.

And I can’t even be angry or upset with everyone about it, because then I’d have to judge society whilst making an exception for myself.

So, that’s why I stopped writing for a while.

I guess I’m back now!

quarter century reflections

This week (end), I’m turning 25. Which, as my grandfather would have said, is halfway to 50. And that’s halfway to 100.

I’m getting old.

So in the spirit of both getting old and having everyone around me say ‘Oh, that’s nothing! You’re so young!’, I want to think about some ideas that I’ve been avoiding thinking about for a while.

Mostly, the idea and connotations of goals.

All through school, and university, and honestly probably life, people tell you to have ‘goals’. They ask you, “What’s your goal for the next five years? ten? university? career? relationship?” And you give answers: “Oh, in the next five years, I’d like to be fully independent. I’d like to be in a managerial position. I want to go to Oxford. I want to be married with kids.” And you learn to set yourself these lofty ideal goals, with definitive achievement points, where you can say, Yes! I’ve completed that goal.

And two years ago, when I got to Oxford, and I said, Yes!- I felt a bit lost. Here was my education goal. I’d hit it. And still I was here for two years. What was I supposed to do?

Set a new goal, obviously. Do a Ph.D. Be a millionaire. Buy a big house. Marry well. Have six kids.

And once I’d achieved those, there’d be more. Publish a book. Be a billionaire. Buy a bigger house. Have a dozen kids. It just gets more and more, and more and more ridiculous.

The problem with goals, I started to learn, is that at some point, they just become meaningless markers. They’re marker points, and once they’re passed, they don’t matter. And as far as I’m concerned, if they don’t matter once they’re finished, they probably didn’t matter before.

So I think, in this next quarter century, I’m going to stop focusing on goals. Instead, I’m going to focus on experiences and achievements. I didn’t go to Oxford just to put it on my CV. I went to gain skills and experience, network and make friends, try things that I haven’t done before and put myself in a position to keep learning. So I’m going to keep learning, and make that an achievement- one that can keep being developed, and advanced, and grown, whether or not I go for a Ph.D. I’m going to aim to be a good and effective worker, who makes heritage accessible to the public, as widely as possible- regardless of my income or job title. I’m going to develop strong relationships, built on support and love and friendship and partnership, and maybe one day I’ll be a Mrs, but that’s not the important bit. I’ll learn to be a strong and caring parent, encouraging my children to be good and strong people- whether I have one kid or twelve or none at all.

A bit of it is emotional management. I never will hit all my goals- at this point, I’m never likely to do a Boat Race. But I have learned to be a persuasive and motivating coxswain, and a loyal friend and teammate. Although my goal is inaccessible, that experience and skill will always have room for development- there’s always something more I can learn and work on.

That’s the more important bit- more important than achieving goals. Re-focusing my efforts means that I will always be able to keep going. I’ll never hit a peak, a moment of being the best. I’ll never hit a block, where I feel like there’s nowhere left to go up. I’ll never have to redirect, or move sideways. So that’s my aim for the next 25 years- to learn, and grow, and experience, no matter the markers.