My love affair with caffeine

Full disclosure: I’m drinking a Pepsi right now. I have maybe half a case of it out in the garage. Once that’s gone, I’m laying off for a while. I’ll tell my mother not to get it for me, and I’ll make sure she keeps it from me even when I go half-mad with withdrawal. It’ll be like Odysseus’ crew tying him to his ship’s mast, only my Siren is a sugary carbonated beverage.

I’ve always loved soda (or pop, whatever) a little too much. Right before finals during the second semester of junior year at KU (May ’08), I did something radical. I gave up soda. I drank tea, milk, juice and Vitamin Water (which, to be fair, is almost as sugary as cola). And coffee. Oh, coffee.

I had the massive headache you’d expect from quitting caffeine cold turkey, but it eventually passed. My break from cola coincided with a move toward healthier foods during the summer I spent on my own in Indianapolis. I gave up beef and pork, completely, for the summer. I ate mostly chicken, turkey and fish. I had whole-grain waffles and bread, eggs, organic potato products, Kashi cookies and granola bars, low-fat yogurt, fruit, spinach and PBJ sandwiches. Looking back, my usual “lunch” at work was vegetarian: water, fruit, yogurt, cheese and either a spinach salad or a PBJ. I lost a lot of weight. Sure, I gained it back as soon as I got back to KU, but that’s beside the point.

Note that I cut out soda. I did not, not at all, cut out caffeine. My caffeine came courtesy of daily (on work days) venti skim-milk mochas from Starbucks, over ice and with no whipped cream. If you knew how much fat was in that whipped cream, you wouldn’t get it either. You know you’re hooked when you take that first sip of cold coffee on a hot day and feel an actual physiological reaction.

So how long did my break from cola last? It lasted until the 2008 Beijing Olympics. One night, working on the sports desk and stressing out from a larger workload and impending deadline, I cracked and drank a Pepsi. And another. Needless to say, my life in the newsroom that school year necessitated caffeine, and while I limited soda last summer in Columbus, I never tried to cut it out totally.

Lately, I’ve started to think more about what I eat. I don’t think I could ever go vegetarian — I’m allergic to mushrooms and picky about a lot of other vegetables. I also like eating meat too much. But I’m trying to make an effort to cut out junk food and soda, and possibly cut down on red meat. I traded store-bought cookies for rice cakes, and I’ve made my own pastries and breads. I’ve researched more healthy recipes and organic food.

I’ve actually been watching History Channel’s Modern Marvels specials about snack food and sweets production. While it’s interesting to see how things are made, it almost makes me feel ill thinking about how overly processed and chemically altered most “food” is these days.

My shift will be a slow one. I’m starting small by phasing out the Pepsi. Then, we’ll see. Stay tuned.


For Real This Time

Today was a nasty, cold, rainy, icky day. I didn’t even leave the house. Luckily, a ray of sunshine came through and brightened my day.

A nice flat envelope with the Airmail stamp on it arrived. Inside were my papers from the University of Kent — my deferred acceptance letter, a packet of housing information and a letter I need to sign confirming my place. It was an amazing relief, like coming home to find your chair has been kept warm.

As soon as I send a copy of my passport photo page, my transcripts and degree confirmations from the University of Kansas and my signed letter of intent, I can start working on all those other little details. Getting a FAFSA filed early next year, getting loan paperwork done, applying for housing.

My home next year will be Woolf College, a grad students-only complex. I’ll snag a large bedroom with my own bathrom and share a macked-out communal kitchen. After communal (and I mean communal) bathrooms in Reading, it’ll be nice to have my own loo. I’ll be just up the road from the town centre, which my research and Google-map surveillance shows has necessary amenities such as Boots, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and an Odeon cinema. I’ll figure out the bus routes and become friendly with Canterbury West rail station. I have new bed linens picked out and an eye on a student rail pass.

I have my classes more or less picked out. I’ll have six over the year: European Union policy, human rights policy, international security, political economy, research methods and an international relations survey course. I’ve even scouted all of my books on Amazon — I can get EVERY book for EVERY class for the cost of what the books for ONE class would cost at a first-run bookstore. Yeah, I’m good.

So, after a couple of months of feeling a little blue over my decision to defer, I now feel excited, refreshed and optimistic.

I set up a countdown Widget in Dashboard today. 320 days until Sept. 14, 2010, the day my parents, grandmother and I leave for London on a family holiday and to get me settled. I’ll get settled in Canterbury (about an hour and a half southeast of London by train) on Sept. 19, and Freshers Week and orientation starts Sept. 20. Sept. 27 is my first day of classes, and graduation is in July at Canterbury Cathedral.

Let’s roll.

Kelsey the Cook

One of my missions during my year off from school is to become a better cook. That’s not to say that I was ever a BAD cook, just an inexperienced one.

I’ve already done well with baking. I made a loaf of pumpkin bread and a loaf of banana bread, chocolate cookies and raspberry crumble bars, which my parents promptly consumed. I’m making another loaf of banana bread tomorrow, and I’m giving holiday bread to my family for Christmas.

My other cooking adventure this weekend is making an Irish meal Saturday. I’m baking brown soda bread early in the day, and preparing a beef and barley stew for dinner. Not only does this sound really tasty, but it also gives me the chance to kind of embrace my heritage. My dad’s family is English and Scots-Irish, and my mother’s family is mostly German.

I also love curry (a love I picked up overseas in the capital of tikka masala, England), and have made chicken curry dishes before, but always with a pre-made sauce. One of my next challenges is to make a curry from scratch. I’m leaning toward a shrimp dish with coconut milk, ginger root and cardamom.

I called my grandmother yesterday to tell her I’d have food for her Sunday (which is her birthday). She said, “You’ll make someone a good wife someday!”


Hiking Up to Dracula’s Castle(s)

I like to plan a lot of trips at once. I’ve got three good ones going now, one of which is an eastern European jaunt to Prague, Warsaw, Budapest, Bucharest and three castles associated with Dracula. By Dracula, I mean both the historical figure Vlad the Impaler, and Bram Stoker’s literary character. Further research has shown that I might not meet a vampire on my trip, but I will probably end up climbing a hell of a lot of steps.

I’ve always been interested in vampires and vampire folklore (no, I don’t consider “Twilight” to be legitimate vampire anything, sorry), and I love traveling, so it seemed like a good idea to work a castle tour into the eastern European trip.

Bran Castle gets most of the press relating to Dracula. It’s the castle that inspired Bram Stoker, and it’s quite lovely. Thing is, Vlad himself never set foot in it. So while I plan to visit Bran and take in all the vampire tourist traps, it’s a literary destination only.

Poenari Castle is the real McCoy. Vlad moved in when the castle was already old and dilapidated, and fixed it up. It’s supposedly one of the most haunted places in Europe. We’ll see. The place is crumbling and isolated, but apparently it is possible to get up there, if you’re willing to climb 1,500 steps. 1,500. I think the most steps I’ve ever climbed in one go at KU was like 100, shuttling back and forth between the two journalism buildings.

Perhaps the coolest/creepiest thing that Poenari is known for is the dramatic suicide of Vlad’s wife. Learning that the Turks were knocking on the door, she threw herself from the castle into the river below rather than be taken prisoner. It’s called the Princess’s River to this day.

Poenari reminds me a lot of Hohensalzburg fortress, a monstrosity that I climbed in Salzburg. According to the museum at the (very) top, Hohensalzburg (‘hohen’ in German means ‘on high’ or ‘above’) is such a good specimen of medieval castles because it was never successfully sieged. I can imagine an invading army standing below staring up (and up, and up) at it and thinking, “Screw this, let’s find some beer.”

Hohensalzburg Fortress

About 1,124 steps up Hohensalzburg fortress. Poenari is like this, only with more vampires, ghosts, Romanians and crumbles.

I seriously remember hiking up to Hohensalzburg, and being afraid that I would literally fall down the mountain. In the final stretch up to the ticket booth, the path had railings and wooden grooves to keep you from taking a header backwards. Now of course there was a little sky car thingie that took you up without having to climb stairs. But climbing up on our own was such a wonderful experience and … OK, it was mostly because we were really cheap.

So, if I can handle the Austrian monster, I’m sure I can hike up to Poenari.

Our third and final castle, Hunyad, is where Vlad was held prisoner for a few years in between his reigns. Back then, Hunyad was in Hungary; today it’s Romania. While it doesn’t have the literary heft of Bran or the sheer creep factor of Poenari, it’s still pretty sweet.

I’m not entirely sure when this trip will happen. It was a good year or two between when we first planned Europalooza (a monster four-week trip across western Europe) and when we finally got to go, so I’m not holding my breath for this eastern European trip.

Something tells me, though, that the castles will still be there in a few years.

Books or Comics or Both?

While I’ve always been into comic book characters and movies, I’ve never actually been into comics themselves. I’ve seen every X-Men, Spider-Man and Batman movie, but I’ve never read their comics.

I admit that, as someone who considers herself well-read and extremely literate, I’ve never had too high an opinion of comics. Unfortunately and, yes, unfairly, my perception of comic fans has long resembled Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons. You know — extremely knowledgable of the material, but socially awkward and so fanatical about keeping the comics in “mint condition” that he doesn’t even read them anymore.

Despite my reluctance to start collecting, I’ve found a happy medium between reading books and skimming comics. I’ve finally discovered the graphic novel.

My introduction graphic novels, I think, couldn’t have been a stronger choice. Of course I started with Alan Moore’s “Watchmen.” I knew Moore as the writer of “V For Vendetta” and as an Englishman who looks like Jesus mixed with Charles Manson. I read “Watchmen” last fall, about five months before the film came out. It, more than anything, took the edge off my comic snobbery. It’s the only graphic novel to make “Time” magazine’s top 100 modern novels, and features characters and moral dilemmas fit for any “serious” novel.

It was almost a year before I picked up another graphic novel. Today, while at Border’s (a dangerous place because I tend to leave with an armful), I picked up Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s “Batman: The Long Halloween” and Art Spiegelman’s “Maus.”

“The Long Halloween” came in at #5 on IGN’s list of the best Batman graphic novels and is actually a very clever serial-killer mystery, with a serious twist at the end and an ambiguous resolution. It also features nearly every major Batman villain in some capacity, giving serious face time to the Joker and Catwoman and explaining the origin of Two-Face. Elements of it are clearly evident in “The Dark Knight.” Rather than being a mindless comic book, it addresses themes of guilt, trust, friendship, insanity, marriage and what justice really means. I was so engrossed with it that I finished it in one sitting. I’m thinking of picking up “The Killing Joke” (one of Moore’s) and “Year One”  (written by Frank “Sin City” Miller) at some point. “The Killing Joke” is also seen somewhat in “The Dark Knight.”

“Maus,” like “Watchmen,” appears to turn a graphic novel into high art. Spiegelman won the Pulitzer in 1992. More a memoir than a novel, it tells the story of Spiegelman’s parents during the Holocaust. The Jews are mice, and the Nazis are cats. I haven’t cracked it open yet, but I envision another great reading experience.

So if you’re hesitant to pick up a graphic novel for whatever reason, give it a try. I’m slowly building up a nice collection.

What I will never get into, I promise, is manga.

When Kelsey met Charlie (and Charlotte)

First, let it be said that I love cats. I think they’re cute and generally sweet. But they seem not to like me, at least when it comes to allergies.

This weekend I’ve been cat-sitting for my neighbor. Her two cats, Charlie and Charlotte, are pretty easy when it comes to food and water. They’re both litter-trained. Where it gets dicey is when I have to put them outside and let them in. They’re out on the prowl at night, and inside during the day.

Charlie’s a piece of cake. Once I’ve popped a Claritin tab, I’m good to let him sit in my lap and nuzzle me and purr and all that cat stuff. I try not to touch him, though, because I don’t want the dander to make my hands itch (the Claritin helps with eyes but not really skin). He has enough love for both of us, though. He’s ready to go out at night, and always there when I arrive in the morning to let him in.

Charlotte’s a little harder. She’s much more aloof, not really into cuddling or touching. I don’t mind this, really. She just epitomizes the main difference between dogs and cats: Dogs come when you call them. Charlotte stares at me like I’m offending her with my presence.

Leaving her inside all night isn’t really an option, as she can get irritated and cause havoc. So I’m stuck waiting for her to do me the honor of letting me hold the door open for her. I have to lure her off of a bed or upstairs from the cats’ litter and food in the basement. I’m getting the hang of it, though. Tonight, for instance, I managed to sort of corner her in the living room, so there was nowhere to go but out. Using the dog’s collar as a sort of cat toy was a no-go, resulting in a “Are you stupid?” stare rather than Charlotte batting it around, entranced.

I’m hopeful that tomorrow morning when I go to let them in, Charlotte will (eventually) show up, probably long after Charlie. She might even spare me a glance as she rushes past me to get downstairs to her food and litter.

You’re welcome, cat.

The “Race Beat”

Two weeks ago, I visited Little Rock, Ark., with my parents. The day after visiting Bill Clinton’s presidential library, we drove to a more suburban part of the city to see Little Rock Central High School and the accompanying little museum.

Little Rock Central High School.

Little Rock Central High School.

After Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, integration began in the nation’s schools. In 1957, nine African-American students attempted to attend Central High. Protests, threats and harassment were rampant, and Gov. Orval Faubus attempted to keep the students from the school. In the end, President Eisenhower had to call in the 101st Airborne to protect the students, while federalizing the state’s National Guard.

The museum had the displays you’d expect. A history of discrimination, photos and audio of protests and sit-ins. Video of news broadcasts and press conferences. It was a display in the middle of the museum, however, that caught my attention. This display was simply called “The Press.” It displayed headlines and front pages from the Little Rock crisis, and explained how in many cases, throngs of reporters and photographers took the brunt of protesters’ anger, acting as a buffer for the nine students.

I just started reading a book, “The Race Beat,” by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff. I found it in the site’s museum. It’s a fascinating story about journalists’ role in the civil rights movement. In many cases, it’s not that these journalists “took sides.” It’s that they bothered to cover the movement and the inequality at all. It’s that they allowed civil rights leaders the opportunity to present their cases. The cause also showed up in staff editorials, when progressive editors, both black and white, called for change. It’s a powerful reminder of a free press’s necessary role in a democracy. One can’t exist without the other.

Reading about this time period reminds me of lessons I learned while in school. Journalists don’t exist in a vacuum. We’re not mindless automans, reading the weather and sports agate like robots. I also learned that while we should always strive for fair coverage, we should never think that fair automatically means equal. Or that equal automatically means fair.

Righteous Indignation on the BBC

No later than June 2010, the UK will have a general election. In Britain, there are three major parties. Labour, led by current Prime Minister Gordon Brown; David Cameron’s Conservatives; and the third-wheel Liberal Democrats, headed by Nick Clegg.

While these three parties dominate Parliament, some fringe parties have taken hold, mostly because of voter apathy and general discontent with Labour and Conservative policies in particular. One of these is the British National Party, or the BNP. The BNP doesn’t hold any seats in Parliament, but has a seat in the London Assembly, seats in smaller councils and two seats in the European Union Parliament. One of these seats went to BNP leader Nick Griffin.

To say the BNP is controversial is putting it mildly. For one thing, its membership is limited to “indigenous Caucasians.” Party members, including Griffin, have a history of Holocaust denial. Its early anti-Semitic views have been replaced with anti-Muslim sentiment. The party is strongly anti-immigration. Its economic policies are protectionist, and reject free-market capitalism. It is, however, gaining ground with white Britons who are gravitating toward the BNP out of either desperation or protest against mainstream parties.

Given the recent electoral success of the BNP, the BBC invited Griffin to be a panelist on Question Time on Thursday. For my American audience, it’s a mix of Meet the Press and a Q&A-style town hall meeting. Some highlights are in the video below.

While I find the BNP’s platform repugnant, equally repugnant — nay, more repugnant — was the protest that stuffed up West London. People carried signs calling Griffin a “fascist” and said the BBC shouldn’t have had him on. I find it ironic that people try to fight “fascism” by engaging in the very fascist-like practice of trying to silence speech they don’t like. If the guy’s ideas are that godawful, that’s bound to come out during the program (er, programme). No one needs them to protect society from big, bad Nick Griffin. The British electorate can watch him and decide for themselves what to think.

If you’re opposed to Griffin and the BNP’s policies, you should want those ideas to come to light and for people to see in the harsh light of day how offensive they are. Keeping people like Griffin from stating their platforms only makes them free-speech martyrs and gives them a mystique they don’t deserve.

The Fighting Beckets

One of the first things I learned about British universities was that they don’t have mascots. The Cambridge Bulldogs don’t square off against the Oxford Crimson. One of my friends at the University of Reading asked me, “What’s that big bird thing?” when he saw a photo of me with Big Jay. This fact of life seemed to amuse my father.

Candle marking the site of St. Thomas Becket's murder.

Candle marking the site of St. Thomas Becket's murder.

My dad asked me what the University of Kent’s mascot would be. We settled on the Fighting Beckets, a nod to St. Thomas Becket, who was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. It’s kind of hard to talk about Canterbury without mentioning the massive cathedral.

I’ve seen my share of European churches — St. Patrick’s, York Minster, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s, St. Stephen’s, Notre Dame, the Berliner Dom, Florence’s Duomo — but Canterbury is special.

In July 2011, I’ll have my graduation ceremony in Canterbury Cathedral. After my raucous graduation from KU last May, it’ll be a big change in tone. The campus of my graduate school, the University of Kent, is right up the road from the cathedral. It’s daunting to have such an important even in my life tied to a building and a city that’s centuries old.

Interior of Canterbury Cathedral.

Interior of Canterbury Cathedral.

I’m excited to go back to Canterbury (I visited three years ago when I studied abroad in Reading) and explore it more. I’m lucky that I’ll get to attend the school I wanted, and be only about half an hour away from London. It’s worth sitting out a year to have that experience.

And I know that whenever I go into the centre of Canterbury, I’ll be able to look up and see the cathedral.