Thursday, May 31, 2012

Day 3: Sugar Detox

Now, don't mistake my intentions here: I'm generally an anti-dieter and anti-anything that smacks of "fad".  But when a friend told me she was doing a sugar detox, I playfully commented that I should do it with her.  She then called my bluff by sending me the guidelines and asking me to keep her company.

I thought I could do it as I went to Philly, but given the unpredictablilities of travel and food options, I thought I'd try to ease back so I didn't go through the horrible sugar withdrawals. Like many travels, though, I ended up eating pretty terribly, so by the time I got home Monday, I was ready to hit the no sugar bandwagon.  It involves cutting out all refined grains and sugars along with other sugars (though I'm not following the no-fruit thing that closely).

Day 1: not too bad.  I cooked, I ate veggies, and I didn't feel too bad.  I had a slight headache for most of the afternoon, but it was okay.

Day 2: I went to run (and forgot to eat!) but since I ate so late, I didn't have any crazy reactions. I ate some Paleo Pancakes (using sweet potato instead of banana and coconut butter instead of almond butter), and felt pretty good.  Then I cleaned and went to work...and got really cranky.  I was super tired and low on energy.  I had to go get a cup of coffee and eat a snack before I rallied, and I continued to feel really lethargic.

Funny thing though: I went to bed and slept really hard and really well.

Day 3: This is the day I decided to torture myself, apparently.  I made three batches of cookies: no-bake (for my brother who is town), raspberry pinwheels, and chocolate cookies.  I offered to also bake cupcakes for my niece's first birthday party this weekend, so that should be amusing.  Also, a friend brought me chocolate as a thank-you for helping her.  Today was the day that all was conspiring against me--you know how hard it is to not to eat cookie batter? Especially no-bake cookies?  But I refrained.  Success! (And because I got to take a little nap and work out a bit, I felt pretty good).

All-in-all, I think in a few days, I'll start feeling more energetic as I clear all the nastiness out of my system. My goal is to use this time to hopefully work toward where I can eat a bit of sweet stuff without eating too much and feeling terrible.

And now, off to take a walk!

Monday, May 28, 2012

The airport

Later, some pics and comments on my conference experience. For now, some comments about the airport.

I gave myself plenty of time to get to the airport, and even though I was worried, there was no one in line, so I breezed on through. That is, until I was found with a partially filled water bottle. Oh noes! Water! So I was escorted back out, where I drank the water, rolled my eyes and breezed back through. Again. And then proceeded to sit and play on the internet for the nearly two hours I had to wait until the plane leaves.

At least there's free wifi. :)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Confession

I'm about to get all confessional up in here.

I hesitated about blogging about some of my more "darker" issues regarding food, but at the urging of some friends who were interested (and in the interest of continuing to deal with these things more openly), I think that it might be a good idea.

It all starts a long time ago: When I was a kid, my mom used to allow us to get an ICEE occasionally.  Cold and sweet and delicious to our young taste buds, we were always excited.  I have a memory of riding around in the backseat of our Buick on a sunny California day, sipping and sipping on my ICEE.  Mom either commented (or I realized) that I didn't need to drink it all at once; it was better to savor it and sip it slowly.  I remember watching her as she would casually take a drink here and there, not drinking it all down at once.  I remember trying really hard to take just one little drink, then ignore it for a while, but my brain kept nudging me to drink again immediately, to keep drinking and drinking and drinking.  After that, it was a battle between a desire to gulp it all down (followed by sadness because it was all gone) and the sensible move to try to savor it slowly.

My friends, what I'm trying to get at is that sometimes I overeat.  That compulsive behavior is troubling and ugly to me, so I have hid it and hoped no one noticed--until now.

Monday, I came home from work.  It was dinner time, and I was ravenous, so I heated up some leftovers and some peas and toasted tortillas.  It normally would have been a satisfying meal, but I could feel the overwhelming desire to just shove food into my face, rapidly and without discernment.  So I made a quesadilla, and tried to force myself to drink water and think about the fact that I was physically full and didn't need to eat anymore.  For the rest of the night, I fought the compulsion to eat and was partially successful, though I still ate more than I needed.  I felt okay because it was a good step in the right direction, but I felt like a failure because I as trying to eat more lightly to balance out the events over the weekend where I ate a lot.

This is not a new feeling for me.  I feel out of control, pulled by my body's desire for MORE, wanting to stop, unable to control myself.  This is why I rarely have ice cream in the house, or large amounts of chocolate or sweets--I can't just eat one serving.  Sometimes I can, if I eat a bit and then go somewhere or do something, but if it's just me and a pint of ice cream in the house, all bets are off.

I'll dish out a little bit, put the container away, and savor my portion slowly.  But then my brain will nudge me--hey, there's ice cream!  I'll fight it.  Hey! Resist.  Then...fiiine, one bite.  Which turns into a few more, until finally there's only a little bit left on the bottom.  Now that L is around, he notices and will sometimes question (especially when he wants a little bit), but I'll try to play it cool or fib or act like it's no big deal.  Usually, he's not around or in the same room.  And he's really good about not making me feel like I was doing something wrong, but I always feel ashamed of my lack of control.

One a much more minor level, I also tend to overeat often to a point of discomfort when I'm at events with lots of food out, especially if there are sweets.  This also seems like a coping mechanism to deal with social anxiety.

I'm not always certain what triggers these compulsive eating sessions.  It might be related to restricting calories or it might have to do with feeling out of control.  Sometimes, I'm just sad or unhappy or upset and want to eat a lot of ice cream.  Whatever's at the root, though, is something I need to dig up and look at so I can figure out how to proceed.

I'm starting to realize that although this is not a daily event, I need to find better ways to cope.  One is to put myself in situations where food is abundant and everyone is eating, but that hardly seems plausible since I enjoy socializing with my friends and food is a natural part of that.  I think I'm taking a good first step here by sharing this in a public forum.  I realize now, perhaps when I get to that place, I should call a friend or go for a walk or let L help me.  I know, especially now, that I'm not alone in these struggles.

Food and cooking and eating well are things that I love and things I refuse to banish from my life.  I just hate that something that's the source of so much pleasure, something that can bring a lot of enjoyment and can be a healthy part of social interactions is also something that I struggle with.

Thanks for listening, y'all.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sharing the Table

I love hosting people at our house.  Love it.  I think it's wonderful to make things, to open our house up to other people, to invite them in and treat them like family.  L and I both really enjoy it, and this weekend has been all about having people over.  I think this will be a theme we continue all summer, especially as we look for low-cost ways to entertain and socialize.

Friday night, we had B and I over for tofu "meatballs" with pasta and sauce, alongside chard and salad.  Afterwards, we made banana "ice cream," with a little added cocoa powder and a snickerdoodle.  We had gin (with lime, mint, mixed with sparkling water for a low-cal beverage) and wine, and after dinner, we played Rummikub, one of our favorite games.  It was a delightful evening.

We scurried to clean up and went to bed.  The next morning, I got up to run 12 miles with my running group, after which I invited any who wanted to stay in for breakfast, which L was sweet enough to orchestrate.  We got home and saw this:

L had created quite a spread: fruits, coffee, honey, and my favorite oatmeal pancakes ever.  Two of my running buddies stuck around, and L and I enjoyed breakfast with them.  It was wonderful, and the perfect meal after a long, hard run.

Tonight, we hosted potluck as well.  Potluck had been on a bit of a hiatus with the busyness of the semester, so it was nice to kick it off for the summer.  We grilled out and I made this pie:

This pie is lovely and special and decadent.  It's the kind of pie where a tiny slice is plenty to leave you satisfied. (I just read somewhere that M&Ms are designed specifically to NOT leave you satisfied, so I'm happy to find a dessert that I don't immediately want to eat all of it.)

I may have ate a bit more than I wanted to this weekend, but it was nice to host people and spend more time socializing, and I tried to balance out eating more lightly, which seemed to work decently. The next few days will be a flurry of work and writing before I go on my trip next week, so this was the breather before the work of the summer kicks off.

But this pie may make a reappearance in my life...

Chocolate Espresso Silk Pie
(Adapted slightly from Chocolate Covered Katie)

  • One 12.3 oz pkg. firm silken tofu (Mori-Nu works great--don't use not silken!)
  • 2 tbsp cocoa powder
  • 2 tbsp milk (I used unsweetened vanilla almond milk)
  • 2 tbsp maple syrup
  • 1 tbsp instant espresso powder
  • One 10 oz package chocolate chips (I used Ghirardelli 60% Chocolate Chips--you could use less for a less intense chocolate)
  • pie shell or ramekins
Prepare your pie/tart shell (if using--you could technically plop the filling into ramekins and call it good)--blind bake until done.

Melt chocolate chips in the microwave (stirring frequently and watching--you can burn chocolate in the microwave, I promise!) or in a double-boiler/bowl set over simmering water.

In a food processor, puree other ingredients until smooth.  Pour in melted chocolate and blend until smooth and combined.  Pour into shell or ramekins and chill (or eat immediately--it's pretty good).

I cut the tart into 16 pieces and that's plenty for me, though the more voracious of a chocolate eater you are, you might want a bit more.  Enjoy the pie--it's super easy, reasonably healthy, satisfying for the chocolate-lover and sweet tooth, and infinitely adaptable.  A delight!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Book Review or, Why I'm Glad I Live Now

There's this really horrible infection called puerperal fever (also called childbed fever) that once plagued maternity wards all over Europe.  Women would give birth, then suddenly sicken and die and often so would their newborns.  When dissected, they had pockets of infection in their body, usually in the uterus but often in other places as well.

It turns out that these women would be infected by doctors and their students as a result of contact with another infected patient. Even worse, these doctors would go dissect cadavers in the morning and come to deliver babies in the afternoon, never taking the time to disinfect their hands.  We recoil at this now, but remember that before Louis Pasteur and microscopes, there was sense of microbes or bacteria as causing disease.  If your hands looked clean, why bother washing them?

Meanwhile, women giving birth in hospitals all over Europe were dying in mass numbers, and seemingly nothing could be done to stop it.

The discovery of how to prevent the transmission of childbed fever is explored in Sherwin B. Nuland's The Doctors' Plague (2003).  A fascinating read, I picked it up after hearing some writing instructors discussing it as a text for use in a science writing class. (Also, I have a not-so-secret love of science and nonfiction--my next read may be The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson).  Nuland interweaves the story of medical advances and the sad tale of Ignac Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician who, while working in Vienna, discovered how to stop epidemics of puerperal fever: have all nurses, doctors, and students wash their hands in a chloride solution (scrubbing under the nails to get rid of cadaver bits) before entering the ward.  (Clean sheets and tools were also essential).

Poor Semmelweis befriended no one with his tactics, unfortunately, and although his theory of the fever's transmission has some optimistic support among the younger physicians who were his friends and colleagues, it wasn't until Pasteur discovered microbes and Joseph Lister figured out what led to gangrene that his theory received widespread acceptance.

Nuland's book digs into how the older vanguard can hold back scientific (and medical) progress, how new discoveries are made, and the need for scientists to publish their ideas in an accessible and clear way.  Semmelweis published his theory at the very end of his life, but it was so convoluted, long, repetitive, and full of diatribes against the doctors who opposed him that it was virtually unreadable.  Had Semmelweis written earlier with the help of better speakers and had he been able to befriend those in the profession instead of alienate them, his theory might have been better received, and (eventually) accepted.

Nuland's exploration on the communication aspect is particularly fascinating to me, as a science writing teacher and someone interested in the rhetoric of science.  The book was a fast, easy read, and although it might scare off some of the more squeamish readers, it was interesting and informative.  (And it made me grateful that I wasn't a woman giving birth in the 1800s in a hospital where anyone in the teaching ward could just come and poke me with their dirty fingers.)  I recommend it if you're looking for an interesting read and you love science-based nonfiction.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Summer and Balance

During the school year, it's easy for me to forget that I should have balance.  I end up reading a lot, putting off tasks until the last minute then rushing through them, sleeping not enough, running too much or not enough, eating and drinking too much, doing too much, never stopping.

It is, quite frankly, exhausting.  And every year, at the end of the semester, I crash.

I would much rather have some sort of balance, where I don't feel so exhausted all the time that I just stumble home and plop in front of the TV, stuff whatever is within arm's reach into my face, eating until I'm so full I can hardly move, then either feeling miserable or running to make up for it. Or feeling so overworked that I go out to blow off some steam and end up drinking too much and feeling miserable the whole next day.

This lack of balance seems to be what I need to work on.  And the summer, when living is slower and I have fewer burdens, seems just right for that.

I went to yoga tonight for the first time in a long time, and it was wonderful.  It was familiar and hard and relaxing and challenging.  I haven't been to yoga so long, partly because I've been busy, partly because I claim I'm tired, though those are somewhat just excuses.  I think I sometimes avoid going to yoga because I'm afraid...afraid of feeling not like a yogi, of being not good enough, of failing, yet again, to do the poses with any sort of acumen or grace.  K, my awesome teacher and friend, always reminds me to let that stuff go, and I usually can in the class.  I leave, feeling calm and balanced, happy that I went.

But then I forget and don't go the next week, never quite solving the self-doubting cycle.

In yoga tonight, I was given a visualization of an expansive sky, which took me back to my favorite sky out west, in Montana.  That sky there is so blue and perfect, and it never seems to end.  Then I was asked to pull that expansiveness into myself...and when I did, I sat there, feeling a little stunned and emotional.  To envision the inside of myself as big as that wonderful sky...and as beautiful and amazing...was something that surprised me because I so often feel little. Less. To think of myself as something more was a shift in my perspective.

And so, I think in my quest for balance in my life, I'll keep on going to yoga.

I know I've been doing a lot of belly-button gazing lately, but this blog has become sorta therapeutic and has allowed me to engage in face-to-face conversations with friends who deal (or have dealt) with a lot of similar or related issues, allowing us to talk about things that we're often told to keep quiet about.  I'm starting to see how I have a supportive community around me to share myself with--not just my fun side, but all of me.  And that feels like an all-around Good Thing.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Breakfast Baskets!

The end of the semester usually signals a return to all things domestic, at least for a week or two: lots of cooking, lots of cleaning, not to mention all the organizing and other chores that go on.

This weekend, we went to L's parents' house, which meant I could not give in to my domestic urges.  Add in that I've been reading cooking memoirs (and thinking about them) for my RSA paper means that I wanted to cook and cook a lot.  I stumbled across this recipe for Spinach and Sweet Potato Egg Nests on a blog that my running buddy (and amazing lady!) has been sharing on her site, so I decided they would be breakfast.

I did not, however, want to make TWELVE of them (what if I didn't like them?? Plus, that's all my eggs!!), so I set about making two with some modifications.

They turned out fabulously, served with some fruits, coffee, and a corn tortilla from the tiny tortilleria in L's hometown.  I've decided that one part of balancing meals is actually one the French know well (and L's mother reminded me of): more than one dish, lots of color and variety, make it look pretty so that it's a feast for both the eyes and the stomach.  And only eat little bits of each dish, eating until satisfied but not overly full.

I think I succeeded on all counts.

Sweet Potato and Spinach Egg Baskets
adapted slightly from paleOMG

  • 1/3 of a sweet potato, peeled and grated
  • 1/2 jalapeno, seeded and diced
  • 1/4 onion, diced
  • oil or bacon fat (I had a bit lying around, and although I cannot eat bacon, I seem to be able to stomach a small amount of bacon fat)
  • handfuls of baby spinach (or frozen, thawed and squozen)
  • 2 eggs
  • Salt/pepper/etc
  • 2 Pyrex ramekins/tiny bowls
If you want, spray the ramekins with some non-stick spray--I didn't, and mine didn't really stick, so it's probably okay.

Preheat oven (toaster oven in our case!) to 375 degrees.  Grate sweet potato and divide evenly between ramekins, smooshing up the sides and making a well in the center.  Sprinkle with salt/pepper, if desired.  Put into oven to bake for 15 minutes or so to cook the sweet potato.

Meanwhile, heat oil in a pan and saute onion and jalapeno until soft. Toss in a couple of big handfuls of spinach (or some previously frozen) and cook until the spinach is wilted.  Salt lightly.

Once the sweet potato looks like it's getting softened, divide the spinach/onion/pepper mixture in half and plop into each cup, making a bit of a well again.  Crack an egg on top and place back into the oven until cooked to your eggy delight.  (My yolk was a bit runny, just the way I like it.)

Serve with a bit of sriracha or salsa, and enjoy!

Monday, May 14, 2012

A Quiet Life

Around noon on Saturday (after I'd sufficiently slept to feel a bit better), we departed for L's hometown to visit his parents.  L's hometown is a quiet, sleepy kinda place, and life there is slower.  And when I need a break from all the hectic, frenetic pace of school-job-social life-running, fueled by beer and caffeine, this is just the right place.

I didn't realize how much I just needed to take a break from the world, from the constant connectedness of being able to log in and check email and Facebook and all the other forms of communication I own.  Today I've returned to regularly checking everything, but Saturday and yesterday, I kept a reasonably low profile (at least compared to normal).

I woke up yesterday morning, wide awake and alert at 6:45.  I'd had enough sleep and I felt eager to be up and cooking and running.  I finished up my grading at a leisurely place, the stress of finishing evaporated as if I'd set it out in the late spring sunshine on the broad porch at L's parents' log house.  I ran 6 miles, then ran a few more later.  I read books in long draughts, savoring and enjoying.

Even better, I feel my body coming into balance.  While I don't eat scantily here, away from excessive amounts of beer or wine or gin, away from eating out, I eat enough.  We ate fish and grilled vegetables, muffins and fruit, venison and salad and L's recipe-less homemade bread, a light sandwich and popcorn.  I don't until I'm stuffed but merely satisfied, and I eat more slowly, at the table, taking my pace from L's mother who is a champion at slow eating.

We walk and we talk. We nap and we read.

Waiting around this afternoon and not wanting to read anymore, I slipped into my running shoes and out the door, no pressure to run but wanting to feel the pavement under my feet.  I fall into a good pace, a rhythm that doesn't anger my quad or ankle, and I run, watching the little rabbits and the goats and other animals observing me.  I encounter few cars that carefully drive around me.  I run without music, just the sound of my feet on the little country road, the sun high in the sky, and the world green all around me.  I run with joy and contentment, and when my watch beeps 2, I pause to stretch, then turn back.  I arrive hot and dripping, but happy.

I plan to pack a bit of this peacefulness, this slower pace, and bring it back home with me where I can keep practicing running for the love of it, eating for sustenance and enjoyment, and not forgetting the hidden pleasures of a quieter life.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

'Cause I Got (Runner's) High

I just finished up with a 6 mile run in the early summer heat, and I was happy.  Not because my leg is acting better, my ankle is allowing me to do slightly longer runs, and because the semester is done...or the fact that  I got to spend the morning with myself, sipping coffee and reading MFK Fisher at my in-laws' peaceful house--no, it was the running itself.

L can kind of understand why I love running so much, though he detests it.  While I can get him to run about twice a year or so, he will only go short distances and gets really crabby at the very end.  I, on the other hand, will go long distances and be very, very happy at the end.  When I don't run, I sink into a bit of a mild funk, like cheese that's not quite right anymore.  My mood is subdued, my energy low, my patience easily tested. A few days of running, and I'm back to my old self.

It turns out that it's because I'm getting high on running.  NPR's Christopher Joyce reported on a new study out that argues we humans might be "wired to run"--the chemicals that make me all happy with life when I run regularly helped humans evolve into distance runners.  One runner (and doctor) Joyce interviewed commented about the runner's high:
But when I ask her about "runner's high," she lights up. "Oh, it's really like an empowerment. And zen at the same time. You feel strong and light, and you feel relaxed."
Morganti injured herself running two years ago and had to stop running. "And everything else fell apart," she admits. "My ability to cope with the stresses of life, my organizational skills juggling your job and motherhood, everything like that, wasn't as acute as it was when I was able to run and be fit.
"I'm actually a little bit tired," she says. "I have a hamstring injury; I'm starting to feel that a little bit now. But I'm feeling like, 'What a beautiful day. How nice to be out here,' and I don't care about that."
That's actually a problem — her not caring. Morganti treats runners for injuries, and she says they're the worst patients. "The treatment is to stop running," she says. "They won't. They don't want to. A lot of the behavior is not unlike the patients we have who are seeking drugs. It's really similar. It's an addiction."
It's really pretty amazing.  I don't always notice it right after running, but I do notice a huge difference between when I'm running regularly and when I'm not.  L does too, and occasionally will gently nudge me to go for a run, though with all my running buddies, I don't seem to need it too often anymore.

Why doesn't someone like L enjoy running, then? My theory is that he associates running with negative things from a younger age, where running for me was PURE JOY when I was a child and young adult.  I loved feeling like I was flying as I dashed around excitedly, and even the horrible PE tests where they made you run (I wasn't really in good shape back them) a mile didn't stick with me.  I was thrilled one year when I managed to do a sub-10 minute mile.  I should have known then that running was my thing, though it took me another 5 years to really own it.

Of course, I don't think everyone should run or anything--do what you like, if it's active.  Swimming, sports, walking, biking, yoga: all great activities to do.  But if you find yourself getting curious about why we runners do nutty things like get up at 4:45 on a random Wednesday morning to run 5 miles (or 6am on a Saturday to run 12 miles), remember that it's the brain chemicals and my desire to have mental stability at all times.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Facing the Fear

As I was finishing up my final paper for my ethnography of communication class (I studied my running group!) I wanted to track down an article Peter Sagal wrote for his Road Scholar column in Runner's World.  I stumbled across an older column instead, called "A Thin Line," which really struck home for me. Basically Sagal accounts how he bounced up and down, always obsessed with weight, which he remarks is "far, far more common than you might suppose among amateur athletes."  I could totally relate to his experience (though I usually bounce up and down 5-10 lbs, not 30 or more).

It was when I read the following, though, that I really stopped and thought:
It's not about being fat. I know people of all shapes whose sense of self is blessedly untethered from their weight. It's about the terror of what we might become if we allow ourselves to let go, to get weak, to slow down. I run now for a lot of reasons, for fitness and for times and for friendship and for the sheer pleasure of motion. But deep inside I know I'm also running because with every step, I'm leaving Plumpkin further behind. And I'm afraid if I ever stopped, he'd catch me, and consume me in his unending appetite, and I'd have to look back into the mirror from behind his frightened eyes.
The terror Sagal describes, I've also felt--what might I become if I stop running? Stop watching my weight? Stop going on a diet every so often, determined to "finally" get to my goal weight and size?  I go back and forth between not caring and deciding that drinking with my friends and eating delicious food is better than some imaginary goal number (as long as I'm a healthy weight, right?) to really, really wanting to be more fit and toned and feel good in my body.  I might have fun eating and drinking without thought of the consequences...but then I wake up the next morning and my body rejects my excesses and I feel terrible, my body unhappy with how I've treated it.

And I still fear the reemergence of that heavy girl, the one so shy and so insecure in herself that she constantly held herself back from living life, from talking to interesting people, from doing things in the world.  Seeing the "frightened eyes" in the mirror that Sagal describes.

I too run for more than just weight management.  I ran 4 miles today with relatively little pain, and I felt amazing.  I followed it up with a lovely, healthy meal, and I felt fantastic.  I'm working through all these little issues with the hopes that maybe one day, I can be "blessedly untethered" from my weight.  To give my body what it needs and to enjoy food without worrying about what others think, that I'm eating too much, that I'm going to put all the weight back on and have to, once again, swear that I'm going to eat better and run more.

I'm starting to realize that becoming healthier is not just about eating right and exercising--I can do that.  It's dealing with all this emotional baggage, my fears and worries, that is the hard part, the part I've refused to deal with more publicly until recently.  I know some of my readers might get tired of hearing about this stuff, but I hope you'll bear with me (and I plan to post lots of other interesting things) as I use this writing space to come to terms with it all...

And, on a happier note, it's almost summertime! :)

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Vampires and Phonology

I hear Southerners complaining all the time about Southern accents on television; while I don’t have much of a Southern accent, I have been around it for long enough to have a good feel for what makes a good one and what makes a really, really bad one.  Southerners are constantly amused by television’s attempts to represent their dialect.  They either exaggerate or lump all the features together, or they characterize the person as a backwoods hick.

Then there are TV shows that are supposedly set in the South, but there’s nary a [pɪn] for [pɛn] to be found.

Welcome to Mystic Falls, Virginia, the fictional town setting of The Vampire Diaries.  For those of you who don’t watch trashy TV, the basic premise is your typical, century-old vampire from the Civil War Era falls in love with teenage mortal, who happens to look exactly like the vampire that he was in love with when he was human.  Thrilling stuff, I assure you, but I’ll keep the summaries to a minimum from here on out.

When I began watching the show, I noticed how the actors manipulate their language and accents to underscore shifts in time periods (as with all good shows, there are lots of flashbacks) and to convey the “oldness” of particular vampires.  Initially, it seemed simple, but after re-watching the episodes armed with my newfound understanding of phonology, I began to pick up on some interesting trends.

First of all, there is a distinct lack of Southern accents.  This seems unusual if you think about it: all of the characters are descended from old families who founded the town pre-Civil War; one main character (a vampire) fought for the Confederacy; it would appear on the surface that they should all identify themselves as Southerners who would have strong social motivations to have some markers of a Southern dialect.   Antebellum culture is a source of pride for many of the characters, with various town celebrations occurring in Civil War-era costume and celebrating events from that time period.  According to Rick Aschman’s dialect map, Virginia residents should have the pin/pen merger. Yet the actors and actresses use unmarked, “General American” English.

When the show begins providing back stories for some of the characters, including flashbacks to 1490, things start to get interesting, especially from a phonological perspective.  The earliest place we find Katarina (later Katherine) is in Bulgaria in 1490, so she speaks…Bulgarian.  This choice seems logical if you know that Nina Dobrev, the actress who plays both Katherine (the vampire) and Elena (Katherine’s teenaged human doppelganger and show’s heroine—see isn’t this show intriguing?) is Bulgarian and speaks French, English, and Bulgarian fluently.  Katherine’s family name is Petrova, and instead of using the Anglicized [pɛtɹo͡ʊvə], she says [pətɾɔvʌ]; all of the vowels are a little bit more back than in the Anglicized pronunciation, and the /ɹ/ is a flap (which sounds almost like a trill).  Whenever Elena (played by the same actress) says “Petrova,” she uses the Anglicized version.  This distinction would seem to indicate that the show consciously manipulates phonetics for certain effects, at least on fairly minor levels.

In the story line, Katarina leaves Bulgaria for England and “becomes English,” which (somewhat hilariously) means adopting a horrifically fake British accent.  And if there’s a British accent in a show for an American audience, it’s most likely to be an RP British accent, which is what all of the actors from these scenes use.  Historical linguistics may be amused and/or annoyed when this pops up because it is not the dialect in use in the late 15th century, but it is the dialect perceived by American teenagers as “old” and “British.”  All of the actors employing RP pronunciation drop /ɹ/ between a vowel and a consonant and in word-final positions.  Nina Dobrev’s accent is so bad because this feature and the pronunciation of vowels is exaggerated a bit too much; it’s recognizable as British, but if you’re paying attention and listen to the other native-RP speakers in the same scene, you hear how affected it is.

Interestingly, there is a character, Elijah, who exists in the 1492 timeline and the present, and his language patterns shift depending on which time period he is in.  1492 Elijah speaks with a “stronger” RP accent (dropped /ɹ/, vowels); however, in the present, he speaks with a “weaker” British accent—/ɹ/ is used, and his pronunciation is closer to “General American,” though with some distinctions that give his speech a vaguely British feel.  (As it turns out, he’s from Canada, but lived in New Zealand for much of his young life.) For instance, he says, “I believe the term you’re searching for is OMG,” and he pronounces the /u/ a bit lower than an American might, and his /ɹ/ in “term” sounds a bit more deliberate.

The show also flashes back to the 1864, Civil-War era Mystic Falls, and the language patterns shift to match.  Initially, I struggled to pick out distinctive phonological features of this time period, but then I realized that there were none; the actors simply used archaic phrasings that we hear as “more proper.”  For example, the actors used the following phrases that stood out to me as archaic or formal: “I wish” or “For a short while,” “Until tomorrow,” “You must hurry,” “I shall go too,” and “It will get the best of you,” avoiding the contraction “I’ll.”  Otherwise, fairly standard “General American.”

Only one character had any phonological markers of a genteel Southerner; George Lockwood, member of one of the founding families, tended to drop /ɹ/ medially and in word final positions, such as [cɑnvɛsa͡iʃn] for “conversation” and [ji͡ə] for “year.”  His character existed in the 1864 timeline, however, and was subtle enough to not be overwhelming. (He’s also a werewolf[i], just so you know).

Finally, I was able to identify one character in the episodes I watched that had a few phonological features of the Southern dialect.  Two witches (yes, there are witches, and unfortunately, for some reason on this show all the witches are black) moved to Mystic Falls, supposedly from Louisiana: Luka and his father.  Luka displays a few subtle variations that are characteristic of a Southern dialect; for example, he says “here” not as [hiɹ] but as [hi͡ə], dropping the final /ɹ/.  He also has the characteristic pin/pen merger (saying [bɪnɛt] instead of [bɛnɛt]), though it doesn’t seem consistent.  His father, however, showed none of those features in his speech, so it seems likely that the actor who plays Luka has some of these features in his native dialect.

So while it seems that, in an attempt to appeal to a mainstream audience, the show’s producers avoid using Southern dialects for their supposedly Southern characters, they do seem to manipulate accents and language use.  These uses convey shifting timelines, reinforce the “oldness” of some of the vampire characters, and add an intriguing dimension to what might be dismissed as trashy TV.  Although some of the features I picked up on are unlikely to be consciously written into the show, the fact that the same actors/characters use different ways of speaking demonstrates that much of it is deliberate.  And perhaps we should be grateful they refrain from using the Southern dialect since so many shows fail miserably when they try.

[i] One character pronounced “werewolf” as [wɛɹwʊf], which piqued my interest, but he had nothing else too interesting going on.