29 March 2011

The End

God Dag! Hola! (I told you that I was going to incorporate Norwegian and Spanish into my posts)

Several things:
1. The guy that I am sort of seeing here in London bought me several aubergines (eggplants), spaghetti squash, and a bag of brussel sprouts after I had briefly mentioned (so briefly it hardly could be considered an actual comment) my frustration at not being able to find them in grocery stores/Borough market. I am in veg heaven and believe this ranks as the 'most romantic gesture of 2011'. Admittedly, this was not a hard title to earn considering that there have otherwise been no romantic gestures towards me in 2011. Unless you count the 'hey baby' catcalls of the construction workers off the Borough High Street.
2. Confession: I used to hate brussel sprouts up until this past November when I got the vegetarian version of the Sunday roast at Garfunkel's near Trafalgar Square. It was love at first bite.
3.  I am currently suffering from a major case of writer's block/confusion. Hardt & Negri's Empire (which is very convoluted and frequently attacked by critics as being full of holes with little practical implications for real-world application) has me seeing life though a postmodern haze. This is the last essay that I have to write until the end of April (and that one is for OSINT so will pose no difficulty) and yet it is absolutely killing me. I went for a 9-mile run this morning and have subsequently left my room only to get groceries at lunch time. At the risk of making a dramatic overstatement - I feel as if my very soul is dying.
4. I hate theory. And postmodernism.
5. More pressing question: Do I have enough Scottish music to last the 1hr:35 minutes that I am planning it will take me to finish my half marathon on the 10th? And should I run the race in a kilt? (Already know where I can get one on the cheap.)

Anyway, this week marks the last week of the foreseeable future (I can't bring myself to say life) in which I will have class. For this week, on Friday, I will attend my last graduate school class. It is strange to think that this identity as 'student' will be coming to an end (albeit of questionable permanence). It started when I was 4-year old pre-schooler in Savage and has continued for 18 long years. It is quite a sobering thought. And although I still have exams in May and a dissertation due in August, it is the end of the formal instruction of that seems to be the most poignant moment. Still, I can't say that I am too upset by this development. I am burnt out and exhausted. I am sick of writing essays for set questions that have been used for years in the past and for which I cannot possibly hope to come up with a new, original answer.(See HArdt & Negri's Empire and my current essay topic: 'Is the contemporary global political order describable in terms of 'Empire'?' My answer is 'no, it really is not' but, unfortunately, I doubt that the War Studies Department will feel that my 5-word response meets the 3000-word maximum.)

That said, there are some things that I will miss about being a student::
1. Being able to 'go to work' while still in my pajamas. Or in clothing that others might consider pajamas. (Changed from my own pjs into a pair of clean running spandex, t-shirt, knee high socks and a sweatshirt. Have absolutely no plans on changing into more suitable attire.)
2. Setting my own hours.
3. Being able to complain about things that don't really matter in the long run. I am fully aware that, in future, all concerns and problems will actually have major real-world implications and be potentially life-changing.

Scenes from a London life:
TGI Friday's bartenders attempting to set the Guinness World Record for Synchronized Flairing

105 bartenders engaged in synchronized flairing for 3 minutes, beating the previous world record by a minute

Perhaps when I turn 25, I will attempt to break a Guinness World Record

It just goes to show that you never know what you are going to stumble across in Covent Garden

The Olympic Clock in Trafalgar Square

250,000 people descended upon London a few days ago to protest budget cuts. Unfortunately, vandalism occurred.

St. James' Park

Imperial War Museum

By the Numbers:
49 Days until I return to the US
2 Essays left to write
12 Days until the Edinburgh Half Marathon
14 Days until Oslo
27 Days until Seville
40 Days until the Shakespeare Marathon

27 March 2011

Confession: As much as I love traveling, I am often scared sh**less by the thought of doing it by myself. Traveling alone within the UK and US is one thing. Going it alone whilst abroad is another entirely. Which is the main reason why I have wavered in buying my tickets to go places for April and May. (Lucky that I didn't though since May is going to be packed anyway: Stratford-upon-Avon and the marathon from the 6th-8th; exams on the 12th and 16th, and home to DC on the 17th!)

However, I was inspired today to overcome my fears and 'just do it'. So I gave up reading about Hardt & Negri's 'Empire' (which my next essay - due Friday - is on and is terribly convoluted) and popped open my browser to EasyJet and RyanAir. A few hours later, and I currently possess plane (and bus) tickets to Oslo, Norway and Seville, Spain!!!



Which means that my next few weeks will look like this:
Tuesday, April 5th: Trip to Portsmouth, England for the Royal Naval Museum (Ok...yes, I am 'considering' (in which I mean, my mind is basically made up pending other job offers) joining the Navy (through the Officer Program). The 'not-so-secret-since-my-entire-extended-family-seems-to-know' is out.)
Thursday, April 7th-Sunday, 10th: Edinburgh, Scotland for the Edinburgh Half Marathon!!!
Tuesday, April 12th-Saturday, 16th: Oslo, Norway
Sunday, April 17th: Volunteering at London Marathon
Monday, April 18th: 2nd (and last) 20-miler for marathon prep
Monday, April 25th-Saturday, 30th: Seville, Spain
Friday, May 6th-Sunday, 8th: Stratford-upon-Avon and Shakespeare Marathon!
Thursday, May 12th: Theories of International Relations Final Exam
Monday, May 16th: Concepts & Methods of International Relations Final Exam
Tuesday, May 17th: Stateside

In the next few days I will post some of the sites I plan to visit in each location, some history about Norway and Spain, and some 'key phrases' in Spanish and Viking (sorry...Norwegian). I am occasionally very politically incorrect, if you've not noticed. :)

26 March 2011

Just Do It

As the title of this post suggests, the theme of today is 'Just Do It'. Much like the Nike ads. After spending the past few days moaning about my knees (in pain), fatigue, exhaustion (all symptoms of over-training syndrome) and generally dreading the 20-miler that I had to do...I finally got off my ass and did it. Was this the wisest thing to do? Probably not since there is a good chance that it will make my knees worse and exacerbate my pre-existing symptoms. But then again, when have I ever pretended to be wise? I can't help it if other people assume that I must possess some semblance of intelligence and common sense. It must be because I wear glasses. :)

Anyway, my first 20-miler is done. Conquered? Not so much. The last mile and a half was an absolute pain in the butt (to put it mildly). It felt as if it took forever to cover that distance and every time that I glanced at my Garmin readout, the numbers had barely moved. Excruciating, but it's done. Next week is 15 miles, the week after is the Edinburgh Half Marathon, and then I'll probably do one more 20-miler in April. Not the 17th though - that's the London Marathon and the city center is going to be absolutely crazy! I'm volunteering with WaterAid for the event.

The downside of these long runs is that they leave me with absolutely no desire to move for the rest of the day. My legs feel like jello and, at 6:30, I began looking longingly at my bed. Trying to make it until 9:30 so that I won't feel so much like I'm 100.

In other news: Oxford won the 157th Oxford v. Cambridge Boat Race today (Didn't get to see it unfortunately due to the fact that I didn't much care to navigate through the 250,000 people who descended upon Westminster to protest the budget cuts) - the rightful order of the universe has been restored. And tomorrow I will once again return to being 5 hours ahead of Washington DC time as British Summer Time begins.

24 March 2011

When in Doubt - Take a Vacation

Sorry for the lack of posts recently. I know that this may come as something of a surprise, but I still am in graduate school, which means that every so often I do have to attend a class or write a paper or something. (Shocker? I know.) This was one of those weeks, although I probably made the situation a bit worse by taking a vacation on Monday. (Oops...not.) But more on that later.

It is officially the last two weeks of term (last week and a half, to be precise) and I have 2 papers, 2 OSINT classes, 1 Concepts lecture, 1 Concepts presentation, and 2 exams (May 12th and May 16th) separating me from...the real world. Technically real life doesn't actually start until May 17th when I fly back to the US. I wish that I could say that this stay at home will be longer than a few months, but I've recently made a decision that may see me heading off to different parts of the US and the world. I'm not going to say what this decision is here as there is a very good chance that my asthma may disqualify me. And besides, it seems like the news has already made its way round the family, as I've heard reports of various reactions along the theme of: "What?!? Becky?" and "Does she get seasick?" I'll let you figure it out.

Of course, the end of term means that the topic of discussion on everyone's minds is 'what comes next?' Everywhere I go, I am asked what I plan to do after exams. Am I staying in the UK? Am I continuing on to the PhD? (HA!) Where am I going to work? Failure to provide a satisfactory answer to any of these invariably elicits a look somewhere between disgust and pity. And because I have only told a few people about my career plans and do not wish to jinx anything, my answer to my classmates always seems to fall short.

Anyway, Dad came to visit last week. He last visited London in November, but scheduled this recent trip after 'the breakup' in January as he knew that I would be in need of a visitor. It was very good to see him! After spending a good half hour trying to find his hotel in the rain, we finally were reunited after 2 months apart. We ate lunch at a small Italian restaurant down the street before heading to the Euston area to visit the Wellcome Collection (a medical museum!) and the British Library. Since I love me some medical history, I found the Wellcome collection fantastic, but wish that they had placed more objects on display. The British Library had on an interesting exhibit about lingual variations within the English language, but it was very crowded and I did not get a chance to see most of it.

Monday was spent at Hampton Court Palace, one-time home of Henry VIII, just outside of London. I last visited in March 2009 when I was living in Oxford for research purposes. The exhibits within the palace are extremely well done, and it was wonderful to have a chance to see them at my own pace (as opposed to rushing around with the tour group as I did last time). When we came back to London, we visited the Tate Britain Museum.

As I currently lack the time to go through the rest of Dad's visit, this brief summary will have to suffice.

Tuesday: Greenwich: National Maritime Museum, National Observatory, Royal Observatory (i.e. Greenwich Mean Time!)
Wednesday: Cambridge (aka 'the other place')
Thursday: Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, HMS Belfast (:( )
Friday: St. Thomas' Hospital Operating Theatre Museum (located in the attic of the church on the site of the former St. Thomas' Hospital, it was boarded up in the 19th century when the hospital moved to Lambeth and was not re-discovered until 1956!)

As for running: I am injured and fatigued - I've probably burnt myself out, I'm afraid. I did not do my 20-miler last weekend so I am going to have to do it this weekend. My knee may act up...but I'm going to have to shut up and put up with it, because I've got to get the miles in. The marathon is rapidly approaching. (As is the half marathon which is a scant 2 weeks away!) I'm absolutely dreading the long run, especially as I am going to have to find a new route to run since there is another 'anti-fees' demonstration planned in Westminster.

On Monday I traveled to Oxford to visit with my friend Veronica who was up from Wales. I had a lovely time, but it did mean that I have spent the rest of this week rushing about to get my essay on political Islam done. (I finished at 10:30AM today.) And now I'm off to work on my presentation for tomorrow's Concepts and MEthods of International Relations class. At least it is the last one!

In Christ Church Meadows...sometime in the 1800s apparently

Radcliffe Camera at the Bodleian Library. I spent many an hour here in 2008/2009

Aboard the HMS Belfast

HMS Belfast

Sometimes the walk home 'south of the river' is lovely

St. Thomas' Hospital Women's Operating Theatre

St. Thomas' Hospital Museum - located in the attic of St. Thomas' Church


The Women's Operating Theatre

I'm Coming Home

Mark your calendars, friends and family: I am coming home on May 17th!

Lengthier post coming shortly.

16 March 2011

'I don't want to let you go'

Several things:

1. Sorry for the lack of posts this week, but I have family currently visiting me in London. We've been visiting the few remaining tourist attractions that I've not visited during the past year/past visits. A selection of photos follows towards the end of this post and a longer description of this week's activities will appear next week.

2. I take back whatever I said two posts ago about not going back on a decision. I may have trouble admitting when I need help, but I am not too proud that I can't admit when I've made a mistake. I hope that life will be turning a new page now that I've done so.

3. I seem to have lost motivation to run. The past few days I've run on the treadmill at the gym in order to fit in my workout schedule around my Dad's visit. But it seems like such a chore. This is really worrying because I have a 20-miler planned this weekend and I really don't want to do it. I'm actually quite scared at the thought of it.

4. Pictures:

Stand at the Prime Meridian of the World in Greenwich: Life goal accomplished
National Maritime Museum

Royal Observatory, Greenwich
Me at Hampton Court Palace

Dad at Hampton Court Palace

Portion of Hampton Court PAlace

Hampton Court Palace

Just a portion of the 60 acres of gardens at Hampton Court Palace

King's College, Cambridge


Punter on the River Cam

Mathematical Bridge, Cambridge
 5. I have 2 3000-word essays (each worth 50% of my core module and Middle East  class grades) due within the next 2 weeks.

This is how I feel about this:
Stone carving in the Round Church or portrait of Rebecca? You decide.

14 March 2011

An Ode

The other night whilst out with friends our thread of conversation turned to the topic of role models, heroes, and people who generally inspired us. I listened as those around me described famous activists, martyrs, sports personalities and, in one notable instance, Lady Gaga as individuals who had made some sort of impact upon their personal life philosophy and development. It was interesting to hear how names that generally had no significant meaning to me, took on a new importance in the minds of others. As I listened, I wondered whom would I name as my hero. Who inspired me? I had never been one to identify overmuch with people I did not know personally and, although I had the pleasure of engaging with many quality individuals over the years, I was at a loss to name one who stood out over the others as a source of inspiration. But when the time came for me to name my hero, my internal struggle ceased and the answer came so suddenly that I wondered at my stupidity at not having seen it earlier. “My hero,” I announced, “is my mother.” 

My relationship with my mother goes far beyond the normal bonds of mother and daughter. While I am indebted to her for carrying me for eight-odd months (I was a preemie), and for suffering through the pain of a childbirth lasting 18 hours, these factors alone are not what makes her a source of inspiration to me. I am not ashamed to say that she is my best friend. Yes, we have our fair share of disagreements, most notably when it is time for me to leave the country. We hurt each other with our callous words and careless actions. But none of this has served to lessen my love or respect for her.
The attacks began as infrequent periods of numbness of the face. Around the time that I turned 14, my mother started to complain of tightness in her jaw or cheek, occasionally a sensation of burning. As time went on, this progressed to attacks of pain that she described as akin to ‘being stabbed with dozens of knives’ and the mere brush of a finger upon her face was enough to trigger an episode. Apart from me, no one believed her, not even the doctors we paid to examine her. They told her that it was all in her head, that she was probably clenching her jaw at night, or that it was a dental ailment. I watched her mounting frustration as she was referred from one doctor to the next, submitted to countless tests and examinations, and ultimately received no definitive diagnosis. I emphasized with her as her own extended family refused to believe that the pain was severe as she described and accused her of over-exaggerating. 

By the end, the pain had gotten so bad that it was unsafe for her to drive, for an attack rendered all concentration impossible. She was forced to stop working as changes in temperature triggered attacks. Chewing became all but impossible and her diet dwindled to cans of SlimFast and boxed mashed potatoes. Her (and my own) hatred of boxed mashed potatoes dates from this period and we still have ten boxes in the basement. Throughout this entire time, however, she kept her spirits up, joking to my brother and me about how she could be a spokesman for SlimFast every time she popped open a can of the disgusting concoction. But behind the jokes, I could see her distress and frustration. Almost 2 years had passed since the attacks first began and still no one had pinpointed a cause. 

After a time, I accompanied her to all neurologist visits, acting as her voice when the attacks forced her jaw to lock up and tears to her eyes. When doctors doubted the severity of the attacks, I would spring to her defense. Of course, being 15, my words were more often than not ignored, but I knew that one day, someone would finally listen. When a diagnosis finally did come, it was devastating: trigeminal neuralgia, a neuropathic condition that affects the trigeminal nerves of the face and results in repeated attacks of intense pain. It more than earns its nickname of the ‘Suicide Disease’ and is considered to be one of the most painful conditions known to humankind. It occurs in 1 in 15,000 people in varying degrees of severity, but is generally misdiagnosed by medical professionals because sufferers show no physical symptoms during attacks. 

At that time, there were only two treatment options available: anticonvulsants and other pain medications, or surgery. Naturally, our family decided to try the pharmaceutical route first. Mum went home from the neurologists with a massive bag of pills, medical skin patches, and, most ominously, morphine sticks to ease the pain. We could have run a pharmaceutical black market operation from our house. We had high hopes that these would help for, in most cases, it does. Unfortunately, it was not to be. The medication, instead of dulling the pain, merely made my mother dull and drowsy, causing unpleasant side-effects such as nausea and depression. It became evident that microvascular decompression surgery was the only option. In this procedure, a hole is drilled in the skull and the surgeon examines the nerve for blood vessels decompressing its surface. 

Shortly before my 16th birthday, my mother underwent surgery. My Dad went to the hospital with her and I remained at home with my brother, who was in seventh grade. None of us knew if that would be the last time we saw our mother alive, and I will never forget the anxiety that permeated our household during that day. My brother and I barely spoke a word to each other the entire day, and each ring of the phone was greeted with a mix of anticipation and dread. Late that evening, we received word from my father that the surgery was over and that Mum had made it through. However, the situation had been worse than the neurologist had anticipated. Instead of the blood vessel that they suspected was compressing the trigeminal nerve, they found an entire vein. It was so deeply pressed into the nerve that it had almost severed it, and surgeons had been forced to carry out their operation into the very brain itself. But she had made it through the operation. 

When my mother awoke, she was nauseous, had ‘one hell of a headache’ (to put it mildly), and was extremely sore from the operation itself…but had no face pain. Her operation had been a success and she has not suffered an attack since, although she does retain sensitivity to temperature and pressure in her face. The worst was over. Or so we thought. 

I remember the day it happened, although none of us knew how bad it really was at the time. Mum casually mentioned at the breakfast table that the strangest thing had occurred during the night: she had apparently suffered from such a nightmare and subsequent clenching of the jaw that she had severely bitten her tongue. It was an odd statement, but none of us, Mum included, gave it much thought. Just a nightmare, nothing to worry about. As the months progressed, she began to notice new symptoms arising. Her memory began to become fuzzy, words and information harder to process and remember. It was in 2007 that we learned that the seemingly innocent nightmare had actually been a ischemic stroke. (This fact was revealed by an X-ray technician during an examination for an unrelated symptom who casually remarked ‘oh, when did you have your stroke? You can see the damage on the x-ray’.) This was the first of several that she has suffered since then. The changes are noticeable to those who know my mother. She suffers from severe depression, tremors of the hands, mild changes in personality, loss of memory, difficulty in remembering words. Changes in the weather or air pressure debilitate her with severe headaches. 

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, my mother is my hero. From the time I was small, I have watched as she has met every challenged that she has been presented with. She has shown me that it is possible to overcome all obstacles, even if this means a re-evaluation of one’s capabilities and expectations. She has maintained her sense of humor about her ordeal. (Although, I believe that the ‘I’ve had brain surgery. What do you want from me?’ excuse is now out-dated!) Whereas others would have withdrawn from the world in their self-misery, she makes a conscious effort to continue about her daily business. Admittedly, this is not always easy, and some days are much harder than others. But her success rate is not so important to me as the effort that she puts forth. I doubt that, given the same circumstances, I could be as strong as her. She continues to offer support for others, caring for her own mother (my Granny Becky) for weeks on end after hospitalizations, whilst still caring for my father, brother, and me. My mother puts up with my moodiness, stupid comments, inane ideas, Charles Sheen jokes, conspiracy theories, general paranoia, and absence from the family for months at a time. She is stronger in spirit than I can ever hope to be. 

And so this is a tribute to my hero: my mother. I suppose it would have been more appropriate to save this post for Mothering Sunday (April 2nd) or Mother’s Day (May 8th), but I felt that with life being as uncertain as it is, there really is no time like the present to share one’s appreciation. Earlier this year I was struck by a motor vehicle whilst walking down the street. I made light of the event to friends and on my blog, mostly to ease fears, but it demonstrated to me, once again, that I am not invincible. Everything can change in a matter of seconds, and we have no control over it. While I do not foresee myself going at any point in the near future (at least I hope not), I do appreciate the need to seize opportunities when they arise. And so it is in this spirit that I wanted to express the above sentiments, for fear that if I delay, I will never have the opportunity to say them. 

I love you Mum!

12 March 2011

Proving a Point

**Note: All pictures were taken by the lovely Natasha from the KCL XC team**

King's and University of London Teddy Hall teams
This past week has been tumultuous to say the least. Following the events of Pancake Day, I was more than ready to leave the frenzy of London for one of my favorite cities: Oxford. Indeed, Wednesday was the Teddy Hall Relays at the Iffley Road track where Sir Roger Bannister ran the first sub-4 minute mile. Held by the Oxford University Cross Country Club, the race starts in the Iffley Track before heading out onto Iffley Road, up the High, down the backside of the Christ Church meadows, down St. Aldgate's and along the canal before crossing the bridge and returning via back streets to Iffley Road and into the track again. Total length: 3.6 miles.

Racing at the Teddy Halls was a bit of a bittersweet moment for me. Not only was it my last race as part of the King's College Cross Country and the University of London teams, it was a highlight in my running career. For it was in Oxford, almost 2 years previously, that I had been issued a personal insult that thereafter motivated my increased training.

I remember the moment as clearly as if it were yesterday: It was the end of March 2009 and I went for a run in Christ Church meadows with my on-again, off-again boyfriend Tristan. Since I was much slower than him, he took off to run at his own pace, but rejoined me for his cool-down lap, during which time he poked fun at my slow pace and somewhat awkward running style. (I run strangely, but it's ok. I've accepted it.) As we were walking back to where I lived near St. Thomas' Street, I inquired about the recent running of the Teddy Hall relays, which I had heard about from a friend who had run it in past years. It sounded like a great race and I said something along the lines of 'One day I will come back to run in that.' He laughed at this and asked why I would ever embarrass myself like that. 'Such a race', he told me, 'requires actually having some sort of skill and, lets face it, you are a crap runner.' What a keeper, eh?  I wish that I could say this was an isolated incident, but it pretty much sums up our entire relationship, which lasted up until he proposed. (Obviously, I rejected him because I was not finished university, had absolutely no desire to tie the knot with anyone, and most definitely not with him).

While I may suffer from a general lack of self-confidence, I do not respond well to anyone who outright dismisses my ability to achieve realistic goals. When I was involved in karate, I was told that I was too lazy, unmotivated, fat, and untalented to ever earn my black belt. Not only did I earn my 1st degree black belt in March 2001, I went on to earn my 2nd degree in March 2003. Point: proved. And so being told that I was a crap runner by Tristan put me on the attack. I ran my first race in May 2009 and began to ramp up my training. Which subsequently resulted in my returning to Oxford this past Wednesday to prove my point that no, I was not a crap runner. Slow, awkward, plodding? Perhaps. But crap? Definitely not.

As previously mentioned, the Teddy Halls is a relay. Teams consist of 4 men, 3 women, or 2 men/2 women. Each runner completes a 3.6 mile leg with the total times calculated to determine final standings. I ran the first leg for the University of London's Women's team. Being there at the starting gun was a wonderful moment. I got caught up in the excitement of the race and set off at a pace much faster than I could sustain, so by the midway point I was feeling the burn. But I managed to finish the leg in 23:39, good enough for 46th place (out of 202 women). The second leg (where I was running 3rd for King's Women's First team) was a different story. I knew from the handslap at the changeover that there was no way I was going to be as quick as in the first leg, and I this feeling was confirmed by the time I reached St. Aldgate's. I managed to pass quite a few runners along the canal, but lost about a minute of time when my shoe came off around the 2 mile mark. In somewhat of a vain hope, I picked up the shoe with the intention of simply carrying on in my sock, much to the confusion of the runner behind me who kept yelling 'Lady, lady, your shoe's come off!' As if I didn't notice? The problem was solved when I reached the bridge crossing the river and was told by the marshal that I had to put it back on. Despite this setback, I finished leg 2 in 24:42, earning 59th place. I was pleased either way and happy to rejoin my team in order to hear how the others' races went.

After leg 2, having run 7.2 miles, all I wanted to do was eat some cupcakes and sit down
Afterward, I hopped into the public showers at the track (always an experience) and changed into some presentable clothing. Then it was up the road to St. Edmund's Hall for the post-race tea (how thoroughly English!) and awards ceremony. The Oxford Cross Country Club had put out a rather unusual spread of mysterious sandwiches (what was thought to honey on white bread turned out to be marmalade), cookies, gummy snakes, and candy. It was a good thing that King's had come prepared. I grabbed a cup of tea and returned to our table, which was laden down with black-bottom cupcakes, fruit & nut bars, chocolate chip & walnut cookies, and chocolate drop cookies. I sampled a bit of everything and, since lunch had consisted of a peanut butter and banana sandwich on rice cakes, managed to put myself into a veritable sugar coma. After waiting around for an hour and a half, we learned that the results would be released via email due to an unforeseen delay. I will admit that I wasn't too heartbroken to leave Teddy Hall and head to the pub! All in all, I had an excellent time in Oxford. Good race, good people, good cider - what's not to like? (Oh, and no one died from consuming my cupcakes, so this is definitely an added bonus!)

Results (Provisional):
Teddy Hall Relays
University of London Women: 9th
University of London Men: 27th
King's Women's A: 15th
King's Women's B:42nd
King's Men: 35th

In Other News: 
Remember a few weeks ago when I was an anxious mess over running my first 15-mile training run? Up until then, the furthest I had ever run was 14-miles in Chincoteague ("According to this string and the map legend, from here to here is only about 5 miles. It should be fine!"). Since then I've survived several more 15-milers as well as a terrible 17-miler. Well, today I ran 18 miles (in 2:16:30). And it was bearable. Sure, my feet felt like they were going to fall off after mile 13, but I suspect that this is due to running almost entirely on concrete, which is the worst surface to run on. The Shakespeare Marathon is run on asphalt, which will be much kinder to the body (although not by much).

On Monday, I was forced to make a decision of which the full implications are only just beginning to set in. Was it the right one? Probably not. In fact, I am almost sure of it. But it was the only alternative to a situation that was miserable and, unfortunately, making the wrong decision is the risk you run when you decide to take a chance.

By the Numbers:
1: presentation left
4: 3500-word papers due before April 20th
3: Open Source Intelligence classes left
3: Concepts & Methods of International Relations classes/seminars left
2: Politics of the Middle East seminars remaining
4: weeks until the Edinburgh Half Marathon 
9: weeks until the Shakespeare Marathon
countless: vegetables to be consumed between now and then
15: weeks until I tentatively return to the United States

08 March 2011

Laissez les bons crepes rouler

 Today is Shrove Tuesday. In the medieval period this would have fallen within Shrovetide, the week preceding Lent in which one was expected to confess one's sins in preparation for the Lenten season of penitence. As the day before Lent, Shrove Tuesday would have been a day of feasting prior to next month of fasting. More commonly known as Fat Tuesday in English-speaking countries, it is now less about confession and more about overindulgence in those items which one is giving up for Lent. (For those who don't celebrate Lent/don't give up anything, it means just overindulging).

In the US, we have Mardi Gras, which means this: (Note: I know some of you are still recovering from the crazy runner photo, so I opted to keep this one PG):
Yes, such outfits are obligatory. (Unfortunately, I left mine at home. How sad!) What does Mardi Gras entail? Extreme consumption of alcoholic beverages (especially in the form of Hurricanes and Hand Grenades), above-waist female nudity, the (mostly unfortunate) emergence of 'hot pants' on individuals who have no business wearing them, and the seemingly disappearance of all modesty and/or common sense.

Today I discovered whilst on assignment that England has its own thoroughly English version of Mardi Gras. It is called 'Pancake Day' and involves the consumption of copious amounts of pancakes, the wearing of bowler hats and over-usage of the word 'chap', and a strange phenomenon known as the pancake race. The consumption of pancakes in the UK is traditional since in the medieval period they would have been made to use up any remaining stores of milk, eggs, sugar, and other non-fasting appropriate items. It is important to note that when I refer to pancakes in the UK that they are not the ones we think of in America.

In the US, pancakes are light and fluffy due to containing a rising agent such as baking power or buttermilk. Although toppings vary according to personal preference, American pancakes are most often consumed with a slab of butter and maple syrup. They are considered an appropriate breakfast meal item although can make an appearance at dinner time in the form of the wonderful phenomenon of 'breakfast for dinner'. (At St. Mary's College of Maryland, they also make an appearance from 9pm-12am during the exam period's midnight breakfast event.)

British (and, more generally, European) pancakes are more similar to crepes. They do not contain a rising agent and so are very thin and flat. They are generally considered a dessert item and, although toppings once again vary according to personal preference, the traditional dressing includes lemon juice and sugar, or golden syrup (which is NOT maple syrup).

American pancakes:

European pancakes:
 The arrival of Pancake Day in the UK sees the holding of pancake races across the country. Apparently the tradition derives from the story of a woman from Olney (England) who was making pancakes when she heard the bells of the church ringing calling parishioners to service. She ran to church still holding the skillet with pancake intact. So in true English spirit, races are held every year on this day. The most famous in London is the Parliamentary Pancake Race where MPs (Members of Parliament), Lords, and members of the press compete against each other. Since this event was held at 10:30am and I had to report to work, I chose to attend the Inter-Livery Pancake Race held at the City of London Guildhall. The first thing I noted upon arrival was the presence of an ambulance.
London takes pancake racing seriously
Clearly this pancake race was no joke. I was still about half an hour early for the noon event, but already competitors and throngs of spectators were gathering. A vendor was selling pancakes which people were sprinkling them with lemon juice and powdered sugar before rolling to consume. This custom puzzled me until I read the Wikipedia article necessary to write the above pancake comparison. :) (For the most part the US and UK are very similar, but it is always the small differences in mannerisms (such as pancake consumption customs) that intrigue me.)

I assumed my position along the race course, camera at the ready, and watched as the various livery companies began to mentally and physically prepare for the upcoming race. Dressed in the required attire of gown, tall paper hat, gloves, knee-length skirt (for the women), and apron, some competitors conducted group stretching exercises to warm up and walked the course to practice technique/decide upon race strategy.
Others opted for a more leisurely approach, no doubt to psyche out their competitors by a seeming lack of preparation.

At noon, the proceedings began with a brief history of the event (it was started in 2004 by the Worshipful Company of Poulters) and a reading of the rules. In addition to the required attire (which competitors both had to start and finish with), runners had to run to a designated flipping zone, making sure that their feet were entirely inside the box, flip the pancake once, and then run to a cone at the end of the course. After rounding the cone, they had to once again enter the flipping zone, flip the pancake, and run to the finish line. 3-second penalties were awarded to runners who broke any of the rules. After this note, the Reverend read the 'Prayer of the Pancake' and a cannon was shot off to mark the beginning of the first heat.
'Oh Mighty God, thank you for these pancakes!'
The first segment of races were amongst the Masters of the various companies.

Then it was the Liverymen's turn. These men were generally younger and it was during these races that we saw more penalties awarded and the first accidents (runners falling, pancakes being hurtled at spectators as runners rounded the cones).

This was followed by the Women's, Novelty, and Unaffiliated (for those companies who had been unsuccessful in drawing a place in the main race) competitions. 

The Novelty Fancy Dress competition
  A final heat was held between the winners of each individual race, with the Novelty competitor winning. The event closed with acknowledgement of the work performed by various company, City, and Guildhall employees, and a performance of the 'Pancake Day Anthem' by the Worshipful Company of Musicians.
Performance of the Pancake Day Anthem. I told you this was not a joke.

Alex, John, Karen, Elysa, Brad, Kara, Ingrahammer: I challenge you to a pancake race when I come back. No excuses. It is on!

I was so inspired by the events of pancake day that I returned home to bake...cupcakes? Actually, I had planned on baking cupcakes several weeks ago in preparation of tomorrow's relay (and final KCL XC team) race. I was unaware that my baking session would fall on Pancake Day, hence the somewhat inappropriate choice. I had thought about making mini king cakes to celebrate Mardi Gras, but, having only tasted king cake once in the distant past, decided that it was too risky of a choice. And so I chose black bottom cupcakes, which I made this past summer for my fellow Consulate staff in celebration of my 22nd birthday.

Now, those of you who know me will be aware that I am not a cook. I am horribly inpatient and so my average dinner consists of stir-fries and other things that take less than 20 minutes to prepare. Making elaborate meals seems somewhat worthless when I am cooking for just myself. But I do like to cook for others and so this past year I have used the excuse of races to bake for my cross country team.
Batter preparation. Note: indulging in Diet Coke is my way of celebrating Fat Tuesday prior to the Lenten fast
I used a chocolate cupcake recipe from Georgetown Cupcake, omitting the recipe for the ganache. For the cream cheese topping, I combined 10 oz cream cheese, 8 oz chocolate chips, 1/2 c. sugar, 1 egg and 1 egg. Let me tell you: it was hard work stirring everything together. Cream cheese and butter are not naturally in consistencies that could be described as 'light, whipped, and fluffy'. And without the aid of an electric mixer, it takes a surprisingly long time for them to get to such a state. I will never take my Mum's KitchenAid stand mixer for granted ever again! By the end of the baking process, I was quite frazzled.
This is me, frazzled.
But the wonderful smell of cooking cupcakes was enough to make the hard work worth it.
After 25 minutes, I pulled them out to find....

Success! (Note: I made more cupcakes than just these.) They don't look like much, but these are absolutely delicious. I tried one to make sure that they were edible and, as of 8:23PM, have not died, so I am pretty sure that they are safe to serve to my teammates tomorrow. Thank goodness!

On a much sadder note, today is my last day with Diet Coke. I briefly (as in for a period of two seconds) considered going cold turkey, but decided that I am already cruel enough to my body without subjecting it to such a traumatic experience. And so I have been weaning myself off of 'da juice'.  Tomorrow will be interesting and I may collapse during the race from sheer Diet Coke withdrawal. Ah well. At least I can celebrate with copious amounts of Katy Cider!!!! (Katy Cider = motivation).

Happy Pancake Day readers!