June 2011


My Mom is 92, rail thin, mostly blind and growing increasingly deaf. Eighteen months ago she fell and broke her hip, and three months ago she fell again, this time landing on her wrist. But if you think that is enough to slow her down, you don’t know my Mom. When we visited her we found her to be sharp and surprising agile. She needs a walker now, but gets around surprisingly well. The residence home where she has lived for the past six years recently installed a new walkway around the garden, which allows her to get outside for a walk around to the lounge, or just sit on the patio and listen to the birds, and Mom takes advantage of this every nice day she gets.

She keeps track of all her visitors and the various caregivers that come to administer medication or treatment, and still manages her little flat herself, making her own breakfast and keeping things tidy. For lunch and dinner she will go down to the lounge and take her meals there, but she doesn’t like to spend too much time in the lounge as she finds most of the other residents a little “depressing” with not many others she can carry on a conversation with.

She readily admits that she finds her present life a little lonely, but she is doggedly chipper about her circumstances and still very much in control of what happens to her. She is really quite remarkable, with an amazingly positive attitude for all she has to face just to get through a day. She talks about her friend who just turned 105, and although she hopes she doesn’t have to live that long, Mom has the stamina and fortitude to endure it if she does.

I credit my Mom with some of the most precious lessons I have ever learned. She is the one who taught me the value of good literature, especially drama, and gave me a lifelong love of the written word. She is the one who opened my ears to the joy and inspiration of music, especially classical symphonic pieces and showtunes. I still cannot listen to her two favourite composers, Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov without thinking of her. Yet even at 92 my Mom is still teaching me important lessons about how to face the limitations of your age and ravages of physical decline with courage and dignity. She has always been a hard person to love: imperious, demanding, and manipulative to an almost Machiavellian degree. But she is an easy person to admire, and there is much about her character that is admirable.

We ended our little visit with a walk to the high street and a little look around. I left my Mom wishing that circumstances were different and I could afford to visit more often; I’m sure that there is much that I could do to help her face her final days. But I live several thousand miles away, and these visits are all too rare. I am grateful for the little time I had with one of the most remarkable women in my life.

It doesn’t matter how long you have been married, ten weeks is a long time to be apart. Pam and I have a strong and loving marriage, and we recognize that there have been fine and valid reasons for this recent phase in our lives: I had two months left of a term to finish off; Pam had a new grandchild to attend to, and as it turned out, a temporarily disabled son to look after. The Lord has His own timing on things like this, and we have learned long ago just to follow His direction on such issues and not to sweat the outcome too much. As with so much of what happens to the children of God, our heavenly Father does indeed know best.

All the same it was very sweet to finally meet again after all this time. We have another separation coming up, not quite so long, until our daughter gets married and I finally get to fly home to Canada. Looking ahead to this time, we recognized that it would be a longer separation than either of us could easily bear, and so we planned on meeting in England part way through to reconnect with each other, and to have a chance to visit the parts of my family that still live in England.

We planned to set aside a couple of days to ourselves, and decided that Cambridge would be a nice place to do so. It is not far from Stansted, where I arrived, and partly on the way to Lincoln, where we are headed next. After a fifteen hour flight from Kuala Lumpur that included refueling at New Delhi, I arrived tired and happy to meet with Pam who had flown into Gatwick that morning and caught the train across London to meet me there. We rented ourselves a little Ford Fiesta, and drove the forty-five minutes to Cambridge, threw our gear into the little B&B room we had rented and headed into town for a lovely meal at a pub overlooking King’s College.

Today after a full British breakfast that included peameal bacon, sausages, fried egg, hash browns and beans (so much for THAT diet!) we headed into town for a good look around. You can see a little bit of the charm of this university town with its medieval roots in these pictures. What you can’t see is the atmosphere of genteel respect for nature and learning that inhabits this place. Parks and walkways extend everywhere, people cycle and walk in easy ambience along the ancient cobblestone streets past doorways, arches and cloisters that are dressed in ivy and painted with age. Stately oaks and beeches gracefully line the gravel paths; boats are punted up and down the canal past colleges that were old before Shakespeare was born. It was lovely place for a reunion.

Some tips for those of you who are intrigued by what I have written over the last couple of days and want to try an eating regime yourself:
 Don’t eat anything processed. Learn how to make your own soups; it is not as difficult as Campbell’s would have you believe. Homemade soups are dense in nutrients and stingy in calories.
 Find the lowest calorie salad dressing in your favourite supermarket and stick to it. Some dressings are eight to ten times more calorie rich than others. You will lose all the benefit of a nutritious low calorie salad on the wrong dressing choice. Read the labels.
 Get yourself a decent kitchen scale that allows you to measure quantities less than 500 grams with some accuracy.
 Start compiling a list of foods you normally eat and their caloric value. There are plenty of websites on the internet that do this for free, so you won’t have to ‘sign up’ to get the information. Some sites are more reliable than others so do a comparison of values and use your own common sense. Then post these on the fridge.
 It is best to use a standard method of comparison. Weight lifters use calories per gram, and they spend a lot of time calculating these things, so it is a pretty good way to go. There are 5 grams in a teaspoon, 14 grams in an ounce and 227 grams in a cup of water.
 A cup of water is not the same weight in grams as a cup of sugar or a cup of watermelon because the density of these things is different. Again, use calories per gram as your standard and you won’t be misled.
 Find some low calorie treats to comfort yourself along the way. I found some sugar free mints I liked for the day, and now much prefer hot lemon tea with sweetener to my usual hot milky tea with sugar. Since I do about five of these in a day, I also save about 125 calories (or one supper portion of roast beef!)
 Discount the bunk. There is a lot of nonsense out there about food and caloric intake. This route is “dangerous,” that path is “inadvisable.” Trust your instincts and listen to your gut. You body will tell you what feels right.
 Make peace with your spice rack. Ginger aids digestion and speeds metabolism. Turmeric has been shown to be more effective at reducing Alzheimer’s than cholinesterase. Garlic strengthens your immune system. All of these things add taste and interest to your food; and if your food isn’t tasty, you aren’t going to continue eating it for long.
 Make friends with Chinese vegetables. You don’t see many overweight Chinese, do you? The secret is their incredible vegetables. Bok choy is an example. At 0.1 cal/gram (the same as lettuce) you can nuke it, steam it, stir fry it (not a wise choice) and chop it raw in a salad. A cup of this stuff has 10 calories, yet contains 50 % of your daily requirement of vitamin C and 40 % of your vitamin A, as well as being rich in other nutrients. And it is tasty!
 Avoid sauces like the plague. You DO see a lot of overweight Indians, and they eat a lot of veggies too. The difference is their sauces. The Chinese cook in soya sauce, about 0.7 cal/gram, depending on the brand (read the label). Indians cook in oil, about 8.2 cal/gram. Malays like peanut sauce, about 6.2 cal/gram. Choose your poison, for you will have to wear it on your waist for years.
 Give up snacks for the duration of your regime. There are very few healthy snacks. If you are feeling peaked have a fluid instead. Caffeine is not the enemy it is made out to be and I think all the nonsense about aspartame is overblown as well. Pepsi Max is my friend, but a large slice of watermelon has only 50 calories.
 Give up alcohol for the duration as well. Wine has 70 calories in a glass, beer 150 calories in a can. A shot of Bailey’s is 100 calories. That is a lot of roast beef. If you can’t give up alcohol for a month, then you have more problems than can be dealt with in a post about nutrition.
 Get 30 grams of carbs in a day. There really aren’t a lot of dangers with a low cal diet, but low carbs is one. Fortunately carbs are easy to come by as they are in bread, pasta, grains and leafy green vegetables. I start my day with 35 grams of oatmeal, so I don’t have to worry about them. Carbs are more dense in calories than raw sugar (3.8 compared to 3.2) so for the duration you will want to keep these to a minimum.
 Do not cook in oil. Fat has 9 calories per gram; oil has 8.2, so it is just about all fat. Nuke, steam, bake or poach your food, or eat it raw. Use spices for flavour and you will never miss the oil. Nuke your veggies lightly and use a teaspoon of soya sauce.
 Take a fish oil supplement for the duration of your regime to make sure that you are getting enough essential oil in your diet. I also recommend a vitamin supplement if you don’t like veggies and take acidophilus to aid digestion. You body has gotten used to the crap you normally dump in it. The added bacterial supplement will help your body adjust.
 Learn to eat with chopsticks. This will slow down your rate of consumption so your body can naturally trigger when you are full and will also teach you to savour each morsel of food for its own distinctive texture and flavour.
 Limit the duration of your regime in advance. Tell yourself that you are going to give it one month or two (at the most!) and then stick to that. Of course when you return to your ‘regular’ diet you will be much better informed and less likely to dump all that crap into your body that you used to.
 Reward yourself with a nice meal when are finished your regime, and then get back to the basics. You don’t have to be so hard on yourself once you have made your target, but you don’t want to forget what you have sacrificed to learn either.
 Read positive books. A lot of our bad diet comes from a poor image of ourselves, and it gets to be a vicious circle. When you decide to break that circle in the physical realm, you need to reinforce that in the mental and emotional realms as well. I am a spiritual man, so I read spiritual books that help me deal with the negative self-image that poor body image reflects. I need to not just reorient my body; I need to reorient my mind as well.
 Pray or meditate. You are making a major life change; you are going to need some help. For me this is where is all begins and ends. If I am doing this to please myself, I won’t bother. But if I have some higher purpose, I can do just about anything. If God led me to this place, then I figure that He will lead me through it as well. Sure I listen to my body; but I listen for His still small voice as well. That is why I know it is time to bring this regime to an end, and resume a regular routine, informed by what I have learned. It has been an interesting two months.

Oh yes, the results. Well, for what it is worth I now have a waist of under 32 inches, a waist to hip ratio of 0.9, and a waist to height ratio of under 0.5. All of these fall within the ‘fit’ range for a man of my vintage. In other words, I hit all of my targets. Good luck with yours, and let me know if I can help in any way.

I suppose it must be the nature of this profession to feel that the graduating class that just left was the best you have ever taught. I suppose if you didn’t think that then you wouldn’t have much impact on the group you were teaching. But there are many reasons to think that this might be more than experiential this time.

It the first place it was the largest group we have ever graduated: over 300 students, enough that we needed to have two graduation ceremonies, separated by a very nice buffet lunch. In the second place we had some of the highest marks we have ever awarded. My top student, Yeo Yih Tang, secured a 96% average in English, and fully earned every point of that with essays that easily could have served to secure him entrance to a master’s program. And that was his lowest mark! His science and computer science marks were 100%!

Thirdly we had some of the most engaging and entertaining personalities we have ever had. Our school president, Nizhan, was a constant source of good natured fun in class, and his questions and contributions to class were as pertinent and insightful as they were enjoyable. We had talented musicians and amazing dance troupes, dedicated social workers who tirelessly assisted in the refugee schools that we help sponsor, and supportive and hardworking academics who constantly challenged us to do our very best as teachers.

They might also be the end of a very good run as a school. The government is making noises about cutting back on the scholarship program next year. If they follow through on that proposal our school body will be drastically different in the years to come. It is the scholars who make this program distinctive. Their drive for excellence has given this program an enviable reputation as one of the best in the country. Their numbers ensure a good supply of Canadian teaching talent that although it is constantly changing, seems to constantly improve. This is without question the best staff I have worked with in nearly forty years of teaching.

But then, as I say, it is the nature of my profession to think that whatever just finished can’t be surpassed. After a short – two week! – break I will be back in Malaysia looking to do even better next term. But before I go, a sincere thanks to all my students who have challenged and confronted, encouraged and supported me in my efforts to draw out of them their very best. May your university experience, wherever you end up, be all the more rewarding for the efforts you have made to improve your capacity this year.

In many ways, it was a difficult Father’s Day. Steve and I are both missing our own Dads, our family is spread out across the globe and to add insult to injury, Steve had to work. Nontheless, we have much to be thankful for. Not the least of which is that we both had decent fathers to begin with. Steve’s Dad was a prince of a man; kind and caring, stalwart and faithful, patient and enduring. Though suffering for years with both lung and bone cancer, he never complained of the pain or his treatment and remained until his dying breath focused on the welfare of his wife and children. After his death, his mother showed Steve a shoe box jammed full of letters from grateful clients and friends that his Dad received at his retirement, and each one gave testimony to a man who had lived his life in the service of others, and had displayed an attitude that had earned their gratitude and admiration.

Pam’s Dad was also a man who was greatly admired for his kindness and his fortitude; a man who was given to spending long hours at the bedside of his ailing wife, not just for months, but for years, earning the respect and appreciation of dozens of health care workers for his friendliness, helpfulness and perseverence through his wife’s long illness. For years he had worked two jobs to support his family, and yet on his rare days off would always use his time in the service of others, giving of his substance, both financial and physical to help those who were worse off than he, raising with his good wife six sons and one daughter. It is the legacy of these men that have have inspired both of us to serve our family and to serve the Lord our God with all our strength and resources. Their lives still speak to us of faithfulness and devotion; of lives well lived in the service of others.

Now a gracious Lord has blessed us in seeing our oldest establish his own family with his devoted wife Nicole; a family that also has put its priorities in the right place by devoting their children to God, just as we devoted ours to the Lord many years ago. We rejoice with Jon and Nicole in the birth of their third child, Elisa Grace, a name that speaks volumes of their commitment to God and their determination to let the Lord have the final say in how their children will be raised. In the Bible we read that “children are a blessing of the Lord.” We have seen that to be true in our lives, and this also is the witness of our son and his wife as they commit their childraising to God’s good guidance. It is therefore most appropriate that our latest granddaughter should be dedicated to God on Father’s Day; a fitting tribute to the father our son wishes to be, and to our Heavenly Father, who we are sure looked on with delight.

One of the things that we, the Carter family have enjoyed for a number of years is getting together for a Saturday morning breakfast at the Four Seasons restaurant. It is nothing special as a restaurant but is fairly centrally located, nobody has to prepare anything and the food is not bad. It is usually enough just to put out the word and whoever is around will show up.

The last time that I was able to join in Dad was still there with us and he always loved being together with family and a good breakfast a bonus for him. It was a year ago this weekend that we made the difficult decision to stop treatment and move Dad to palliative care. Dad was definitely an outdoor person and it still seems impossible at times to think that he is not around to enjoy the seasons. He loved the leaves of the fall, new growth of spring and the flowers and birds of summer. He even enjoyed being out there shoveling the snow.

I love the memories of seeing him standing, leaning on a rake or hoe or shovel, usually creating a picture in his mind always with the thought of painting it at some later point. It was good to be together as a family this Father’s Day weekend and to share our memories and sorrow at his loss.

Using my friend’s information that a reduction of 750 calories a day would result in a one pound and a half loss of body weight in a week, and a rough calculation of my daily caloric need at 1400 calories, I set a daily target of 650 calories, not knowing if that was possible, or even advisable. What about nutrition? I could not afford to degrade my health. I didn’t want to eat dry toast and grapefruit, either, thank you very much. Besides as I mentioned, I didn’t have any clear idea of the caloric value of anything I ate. Would my allergy restricted diet be able to cope with a further restriction? So many questions, so many doubts; I needed some facts.

I started looking for caloric values on the internet. I started with Malaysian foods, since that is what I eat these days. I was blown away. Masala dosai, my regular supper, was 500 calories according to one source! One of those was nearly my entire my daily target. Add a syrupy sweet ice lemon tea at 180 calories and that would be my caloric load for the day. Next on my favourite list was nuts. At 6 to 7 calories per gram, my regular snack of a bag of peanuts in front of the telly racked up another 600 calories. Throw in a Sprite at 150 calories and there was no mystery to why I was losing the battle for my belly. Ouch! These were hard realities. Clearly something would have to change.

I started compiling a list of foods I could eat and their caloric values. Roast beef looked good at only 1.2 calories per gram. Boiled potatoes at 0.8 were going to be okay, as were baked spuds at 1.1. Butter at 7.4 was clearly out, and even margarine at 6.8 would have to go, but gravy was surprisingly ‘cheap’ in calories and soya sauce was clearly the best bet. Veggies came in around 0.3 cal/gram on average, so salads were going to be my mainstay. Most salad dressings are extraordinarily ‘expensive’ in calories, most around 2 calories per gram. I found one at less than ½ calorie per gram. I like it, and it is allergy friendly, which is a huge bonus. A real bummer was finding out that even a tablespoon of peanut butter was 180 calories. A slice of rye bread was 120. Therefore toast and peanut butter, long a favourite, wasn’t going to make the cut either.

My determination to lose some weight was helped by some changes I had already made. I have eaten oatmeal for breakfast for years, and it turns out to be a pretty good choice. Three tablespoons of oatmeal (35 grams), with a teaspoon of brown sugar is only 150 calories and pretty filling. Throw in a black coffee with sweetener, not sugar, and I was on my way to work on only 150 calories and feeling fine. Lunch was a ½ can of tuna (65 cal) on a salad (30 cal) with Italian dressing (15 cal). A few cups of black coffee and a can of soda water with lime I was headed home on less than 300 calories. This looked like it was possible.

I made myself another soda water with lime, very refreshing and practically zero calories while I made supper. I had 100 grams of roast beef, plenty for me, one boiled potato (50g) , about 100 grams of veggies nuked in plenty of ginger, turmeric and garlic salt with a teaspoon of soya sauce. This made supper around 200 calories. I had a couple of cups of sweet milky tea in the evening as a treat and I finished the day at less than 600 calories. I couldn’t believe it! I had eaten better than I had in weeks, felt full all day, and hit under my low target estimate on the first day out! This was not only doable, it was going to be enjoyable!

Since then I have had roast chicken, salmon, roast beef, meatballs and baked potatoes, you name it; I have been eating well. I made all my targets for the month, and did so well that I continued the same regime for a second month. I have not been sick a single day in the last two months and I have averaged around 600 to 650 calories a day. Better nutrition has meant that I am sleeping better and I am mentally sharper when I am awake. I have more energy and am better able to cope with stress at work. And I haven’t had to waste my time in the gym to get fit.

I have learned some things about the process too that I would like to share, and I would be happy to hear what you have learned about this important issue as well. I will add one further post on this topic in a couple of days with tips about such things as bok choy and fish oil that you might find interesting. Anyway, that has been my little adventure in food. I have learned lots and have enjoyed eating the fruits of my labour, so to speak. The next time you see me I will be so svelte you won’t recognize me. Now if there were only such an easy fix for my personality!

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