Housekeeping and part 1: 24 September

The recent silence on the blog is naturally a byproduct of an awkward international move, some complex and tedious university administration, considerable amounts of walking to and fro and a general reluctance to take time away from my partner to write a blog entry.

Z is now on her way back to Canada and I now have (relatively) free time to catch up on the backlog. These next few entries will have very little to offer readers interested in the historical aspects of this blog. I will mostly recount, in as readable a manner as possible, the events of the last two weeks for those who have a passign interest in the plight of a DPhil student at Oxford or the oddities of this most odd of learning environments.

My personal history will bulk large here so there are parts that will sound unnecessarily obscure or cryptic. I will try and keep those to a minimum. I would omit them entirely if it were not for a growing sense of responsibility to represent for others some of the experiences of an adult with a learning disorder in higher education. Recent events here have reinforced that sense of obligation (towards whoever they may be) and this will become rather obvious later.

But, for the impatient, the summary is as follows:

Everything is fine. Oxford is no stranger than expected. I’m not happy with everything here (or, the lack of something, namely Z). I did get to write The Test but I will need to wait another week or so for any results. And, most encouragingly, I may get a book allowance for my troubles. All these undergraduates make me feel very old and sedate.

Also my supervisor is fantastic and I am confident of becoming an overachiever amongst overachievers here.

And now the details.

International travel is, at the best of times, a baffling ordeal that is such a commonplace of frustration and despair that it does not deserve any discussion here. All one needs to know is that it was accomplished without loss of life, limb, or property. The bus service to Oxford is better, and once we got tickets, we were deposited on High Street, across the road from Queen’s College, around 10:30am, Monday the 25th.

My memory of the first days in Cambridge, circa 2005, are dim but I do recall how unlikely our ‘stop’ seemed at the time, how confusing it was and how little space available on the sidewalk for people, bags, buses, and anything else. A cab was involved and there was some added confusion about keys but it all worked out eventually. Oxford was much less confusing and although I can’t recommend a walk from Queen’s to my residence under the weight of two 35-40 pound bags, it was much less stressful than the Cambridge experience.

I think, at this stage, it’s pointless to continue the habit of concealing my College affiliation. The rest of the blog entries will be an even more confusing mess if I protect that detail. I have come to Oxford through Merton College, which means I get to nest in the Holywell ‘quadrangle’ on Holywell Road opposite New College. This is significant because I affords me the luxury of an en-suite bathroom and I can’t tell you how much it matters to me and my mental health, my future prospects in research, and other more abstract ways, that I have this. I don’t need to share all my intimate spaces with others. Yes, the kitchen is crap and the wireless is worse, and there are only tubs, no showers. But who cares, I get my own bathroom and I don’t need to share.

The buildings that I am in are also fairly new, built sometime in the early 1990s, so it isn’t your typical kludge of English building codes, dodgy wiring, clumsy plumbing and creaky steam heat. I could use some sheer curtains on the windows and I am desperate for a desk lamp but there is tons of shelving for books and a decent wardrobe. No storage in the bathroom, alas.

Z and I were able to crash for a while and get a little bit of sleep before venturing back out. We were told (when I asked before we arrived) that guests were not tolerated at the single student accommodation. They cared not that we were married, that we were real adults, and that we were very well behaved. While this turned out to be a largely subjective thing and in certain cases, a wholly empty threat, we arranged alternative accommodation for the first few days so we could stay together. That arrangement involved a very care-worn guest house on Iffley road. We stayed there for the first three nights and while there is more to be said about that, the important point is that we had to get up again and check in there around 2:15 in the afternoon.

There was an orientation for new arrivals to Holywell scheduled for 3:45 each day and following the check-in with the guest house Z and I dutifully arrived at the appointed time. I met some of the College MCR officials (the middle common room is the ‘corporate’ name for the college graduate students. Undergraduates have a JCR and fellows have their own SCR, for various administrative and ‘pastoral’ purposes and this is a consistent feature of Oxbridge Colleges).

Merton is a small college in that it has a small population of students (about 300 undergrads and 200 grads). It is a large college as far as property and finances are concerned. Most Oxford colleges are substantial land owners thanks to their long histories and generous alumni. Merton owns enough property in Oxford that one could, if it were possible, walk from the Holywell site to the main College without leaving College property but it would require a great deal of violated privacy. It is, at least, a short walk.

Once at the College I got my student card, a few other documents detailing the schedule of College events, and a 1153 page brick of a book titled University of Oxford Examination Regulations 2012: For the Academic Year 2012-2013. Apparently, one can purchase this tome for the princely sum of 45gbp but I can’t image circumstances when that would actually happen.

There were some explanations about mail and the automated meal booking system and the equally automated laundry card system and I was able to pick up a letter from SSHRC who kindly sent me a cheque for a foolishly large amount of money that somehow still doesn’t cover what I owe come October 12.

I also picked up my pre-ordered ‘sub-fusc’ outfit which will get rather more use than one would expect. The gown was the vital thing as it is needed for The Test.

The evening ended early for us with a late lunch / early dinner at The Turf, a pub that was once obscure both physically and notionally but is now only obscure physically. It is, incidentally, on land owned by Merton (or so I am told).

There is more, lots more, but of the detail variety and although that is all worth retaining, it is not worth recounting to you, the long suffering reader of PBS That problem of detail is itself the greatest source of strain in all of this. I have an eye for, well, things you see. My eyes have a straight line from the outside into the great holding tank of memory and while the bits of information I read take a slightly different route into storage, all new visual information seems to get the same ‘priority! sort and file immediately!’ stamp and that makes for some very distorted processing and a strangely unbalanced long-term memory. It isn’t eidetic memory or photographic in the way people would actually want, it’s my own odd version of it. This is why I can still vividly remember the interior of my first elementary school and only one of my teachers’ names.

Oxford is packed with tiny, barbed, pieces of visual information that stick in the fabric of my memory and tug with a weight out of proportion to their importance. It’s sometimes a gift to think and see this way but for this first day, it’s a real burden.

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