June 2011

I started putting on weight when I hit fifty. A slower metabolism and a less labour-intensive house on Trevithick Terrace that didn’t require 50 hours a week of renovating were enough to do me in. When I hit 165 pounds I decided to do something about it. I started an exercise routine, largely aimed at my weakening lower back, but also the growing gut that further exacerbated the problem. It took about three years to get weight down to 150, but I still wasn’t happy with the result. Another three years got it to 140 where I have remained ever since. But the last couple of years I have noticed another problem creep in.

While my weight has remained constant, my belly hasn’t. For a while I just put it down to lack of muscle tone, bought a bicycle like any sensible fellow would and let it go at that. But while the pounds stayed off, the belly continued to grow. What gives? My BMI of course hadn’t changed, since my weight and height were the same, but clearly I was losing the battle of the bulge; the now overly tight pants that I had bought when I arrived in Malaysia weren’t lying, so the BMI must be.

I started doing some research and chatting with a weight-lifting buddy of mine who just scoffed. “BMI tells you nothing,” he said when I asked him about it; “waist to height is a much more accurate indicator, especially for those who are short and muscular.” Muscular, I’m not, but short I won’t argue (I am average height for the year I was born, but we don’t need get into that!). Sure enough the research bore him out. BMI is no longer the reputable standard (You can read up on it yourself here: http://www.livestrong.com/article/335980-the-standard-waist-hip-measurements-based-on-height-weight/). Doing the calculations for waist to height, and waist to hip gave me a much different picture than I was getting with BMI; a picture that was far more in keeping with the reality at my beltline.

The reason is simple: as you age you lose muscle mass. It doesn’t exactly sink to your belly; it just atrophies. The belly fat is a result of the decreased metabolism while maintaining previously acquired eating habits. I was getting fatter, just as I suspected, but the loss of muscle mass was hiding the increase, at least as far as the bathroom scales and the BMI could detect. But my pants knew better, and I had to reluctantly admit what I had known – and tried to avoid knowing – for at least two years, I was no longer my old slim self.

The next step was to come up with some information about weight reduction that wasn’t hysterical or designed to pad the pockets of some charlatan. Shaun – my weightlifting buddy – informed me that a pound of body weight was equal to 3,500 calories, and that in order to lose a pound a week you either had to burn that much or consume that much less. Some more quick trips to the internet were enough to convince me that exercise was not the answer. Burning 500 calories a day was going to cost me around 4 hours of walking per day. Clearly that was not an option (I am much too old to be pursuing more vigorous alternatives to walking!). That left reducing my caloric intake. Despite all the obsession in the public media about this issue, I had never really thought too much about how many calories a day I consumed, or even needed.

I had heard that guys needed around 2,500 calories a day and a woman about 2,000, but that was about as far as I had thought about it. I couldn’t even tell you how many calories were in an apple. I was stunned to find out that what I actually needed was around 1400 calories a day (There are plenty of good calculators on the internet, such as: http://home.fuse.net/clymer/bmi/ but a good ball park estimate is ten times your body weight in pounds. This will obviously decrease as you lose weight, so you will want to recalculate about once a week). Armed with this knowledge, and the certainty that there are few things in life that understanding and determination can’t deal with, I set out to reduce my caloric intake enough to take off a pound and a half a week, and to keep that up for a month.

I figured at most I was five pounds overweight, and therefore a month at 650 calories a day (basal metabolic rate minus pound and a half in calories per day) would be enough to bring that saggy belly in line. I can’t believe now how naive I was, but I guess that is how we deal with these things; we want to believe the best case scenario. My expectations were wildly unrealistic, but I didn’t know that two months ago.

Many years ago I made a deal with my Maker. I offered Him all I had in return for all He had. To this day it remains the best deal I ever made. He gave me an amazingly fulfilling life and an eternity in Heaven. I gave Him a bucket load full of vice, a heap of broken dreams, a spirit filled with uncertainty bordering on despair, a compromised integrity, and a predilection for self-abuse. It seemed no great hardship to make Him Lord of my life, and I have never had occasion to regret it.

So ‘Lord of my life’, what does that entail? Well quite simply it means that He gets final say on the things that I do, the people I hang around with, the wife I marry, the kids I raise, the money that I spend, and how I spend it, the thoughts that I think, my habits, interests and vocation(s), and pretty much everything else as well. This includes my body: what I put in it, how I treat or mistreat it, whether or not I have the right to endanger it, or join it to a prostitute. The answer to the last two is ‘no’, in case you were wondering.

Other questions are more nuanced; especially what I put in it. Some things are pretty clear. Drugs are a definite ‘no’, but wine is a ‘yes’ in moderation. After all, the Lord, during His brief sojourn on Earth, blessed the marriage feast at Cana, and although there is no record that He Himself drank, His miracle attests to His benevolence regarding human celebration. Tobacco would be a ‘no’, a revelation that allowed me to quit effortlessly in a moment after a dozen unsuccessful years of trying. But the principle issue for most of us is none of these things; it is food.

An unconscionable number of people, mostly children, die each day from hunger. An equally large number cross the line from overweight to obese each day. Obesity and its attendant diseases is set to become the world’s number one health problem. These facts trouble me and this for two reasons. The first, as I have intimated, is spiritual. I cannot bring myself to believe that a God who wept for the dead and dying, who came to Earth among the despised and rejected, looks with favour on those who indulge their appetites to excess while people starve to death. That doesn’t sound like any God I would want to worship. In the second place I have no desire to be another statistic in the developing and developed world’s slide into diseases of the overabundant flesh.

My body is not my own; it was bought at a price; a tremendous price at that. I must listen to the One who bought it, and do what He commands with it. Not to do so is to make a mockery of my faith and become like the hypocrites the world accuses us of being. What He says about it is pretty straightforward. In Proverbs we read, “Hold a knife at your throat if you are given to gluttony” (Prov.23:2), and “Do not join with those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat” (Prov. 23:20). Paul writes to the church at Corinth, “Everything is permissible for me; but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible, but I will not be mastered by anything” (1Cor. 6:12). Later in the same book Paul holds himself up as an example, saying, “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest having been a witness to others I myself become disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:27). This is not predicated upon a narrow legalism, but on a joyful truth, “Do you not know that your bodies are part of Christ Himself? Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you and whom you have received from God? You are not your own” (1 Cor. 6:15, 19).

Nor is my body the exclusive domain of God but it belongs to others as well, among them my wife, “The wife’s body does not belong to her alone, but also to her husband. In the same way the husband’s body does not belong to him alone, but also to his wife” (1Cor. 7:4), my children, “Children should not have to provide for their parents, but parents should provide for their children” (2 Cor. 12:14), and my neighbours, “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a servant to everyone, to win as many as possible” (1 Cor. 9:19). For this I need to exercise control, not only of my resources, both intellectual and financial, but my physical resources as well. How can I serve others if I am too physically depleted, out of shape or given to gluttony, sloth or excess?

Though I have known these truths and sought to practice them all my Christian life, I have admittedly slipped a little on the physical end as I have aged. I have become a little too comfortable and a little too complacent, and with Pam headed home in April, and being forced to be a bachelor for ten weeks I decided to act on some information I had been gathering for several months and put a plan in place to deal with my behavior in regards to food. Stay tuned; I have learned lots and have a lot to share.

“God determines who walks into your life…..it’s up to you to decide who you let walk away, who you let stay, and who you refuse to let go.’
I am not sure of the original source of that quote, but I am sure that these are eight women that I would refuse to let go.

On Friday afternoon, along with 69 other women from WLA, I headed up to Paisley for the annual Women’s Retreat. It was a full and rich weekend of worship, study, prayer, fellowship, good fun, good food, getting caught up with old friends and making some new ones. I am just so grateful that this happens to line up with my time in Ontario each year. The facility is no five star hotel but the beauty of God’s creation is evident all around in the rolling hills, the greenery and the sounds of nature.

I am so grateful for Deb, Jan and Shelley who put probably hundreds of hours into the planning that is necessary to put together a weekend of this magnitude. The theme this year was Simmer and we all came away with much to think about as a result of Shelley’s studies from Isaiah on God who is: Indescribable: Worthy of All My Worship; Incomparable: Worthy of All My Trust and Incomprehensible: Worthy of All of Me.

The weather was cool and overcast but didn’t interfere with our usual Saturday morning which we spent in a quiet place alone working through a study guide that Jan prepared. With Barb, Catherine, Kate and Anita leading the music and worship and Ang and TL as technical back up it was a wonderful opportunity to reflect on God’s greatness and His love for us.

It really is a blessing to share a weekend with a group of like minded women ranging in age from 18 to 89 and to rejoice in who God is, to share our joys and struggles, the lessons God is teaching us , and to just kick back and have fun around a campfire. Given my recent shoulder injury, I carefully avoided the “Extreme Sports”.

These last two days – the weekend – have been recruitment days at our college. Parents come in to inquire about schooling for what is still called A-levels in Malaysia. We are an A-level school, although we do not use that term; we call it pre-university, which is more generic.

Generally I enjoy the conversations I get with parents and students. Having been here for four years I know pretty much everything you can ask me about the various programs here, and I like promoting our particular Canadian brand of education, which according to the PISA test carried out by UN’s OECD is among the best in the world. (http://www.cmec.ca/Press/2010/Pages/2010-12-07.aspx)

I do pretty good at it too, judging by the numbers I recruit and the positive feedback I get from my peers and superiors. In fact I’ve garnered a bit of a reputation for my effective presentations. But this blog is actually more about my weaknesses than my strengths. What do you notice about the picture above? Well there are two things I could point out. One is that there is nobody here: not parents, not counselors, not even cleaning staff. This is because it was 8 o’clock in the morning when I took this picture, and the session doesn’t start until 9.

That’s my weakness. You see after all these years I have come to understand that I am a little bit OCD (my family and colleagues could have told you that years ago). This is why I wake up at 4 am so I can leave the house by 7, and why I am at work at 7.30 when my first class is at 10:30. I have tried staying home, but I just can’t: it eats at me. When the kids were little and we had to drive somewhere I would load them into the car in their jammies at 5 am so I could get going. My poor family!

You think this is normal? Have another look at the picture. Do you see that all the chairs around each table are one colour? If you looked closely you would see the chair legs each straddle the table legs. I did that. Took about twenty minutes (yes, I was here at 7:30) to sort out the colours, which as any sane person would have left the way they were, with the colours all mixed up. Do you see what I mean now? I have a problem.

When I worked at Locke’s I would start coming in about mid-August. I would turn every table upside down, clean out all the gum and stuffed paper notes, right the tables and clean them, and then put them all in order. Next was the drawers and cupboards. Every door got realigned, every door handle tightened. Then I would sort out the bookshelves and finally the science equipment. By the time classes started I could tell you where every book and test tube was in the entire facility.

Some of this is useful. Knowing where all the equipment was would save me hours of looking for whatever another staff member wanted. It also saved the school considerable expense. Nothing was ever stolen, either in science or shop equipment for all the years I worked in the Board. That is because I would do a tool or equipment check at the end of every period. If anything was missing, I could see the space.

How bad is my OCD? Not bad. All the chairs are mixed up again, and I have no inclination to straighten them out. Pam is constantly messing up the cupboards, and I don’t ever say anything to her (although I do straighten them up when she goes away). I don’t think it is getting any worse, as I age, in other words. But I will probably be a weird old man. Someday. (Oh yeah, the title of the post? What do the initials say? LOL! I’m sick!)

Another year, another term over. It went so fast I hardly had time to take it all in. I’m pretty sure I enjoyed it, I generally do. This term had some really nice kids. It also had its share of trouble. For some reason you get to like the ones that cause you the most grief the most. I was also very happy to get some students from the previous term back for a second round. Some of them even asked to be transfered into my class, if you can believe it! Gluttons for punishment, I suppose. Some on leaving did me the great honour of thanking me for affecting their lives for the better. For this I labour.

Yesterday was the final exam. Three hours of sheer terror for the kids, writing until their wrists were sore. I don’t know why we feel we have to subject our kids to this torture in order to assess them. I already have a pretty good idea of where they all stand. But rules are rules, and even after all these years, education hasn’t changed much in this one fundamental area. At least in our program the exam is only worth 30%. In the Cambridge A-Level program it is worth 100%. Now that is REAL terror!

Yesterday I got five hours of marking in before my brain started to wander. This morning I intend to start as soon as I have this post up and try to get in ten hours. That will not finish the stack, but it will be a good way through it, I hope. I wish all my students well on the coming week’s worth of exams. Study hard, write loads, and stay off that silly Facebook!

Former student Edmund Mok is back in Malaysia after his first year in Engineering at the University of Toronto. He and I went for lunch today so I could pick his brain about what the year was like for him. Here are his insights into that year, which I post here for my students who will shortly be headed to Canada for their first year.

Canada is a great country (I could have told him that!) and Toronto is a great city for university. There is a lot of variety in a very short distance. Spadina Road is fantastic; you can get almost any kind of food in the world there. The libraries are amazing; they are everywhere and there is a huge number of books available. Even the architecture is worth looking at. He loved the parks and intends to get a bicycle on his return for second year so he can see more of the city.

The climate is really not a problem. You quickly get used to it. The first snowfall was an incredible experience. The whole landscape is transformed.

Residence is definitely the way to go. There are a lot of problems with setting up on your own: phone, internet, TV, electricity bills, cooking and transportation. All of that is taken care of in residence. He was at New College and had twenty Malaysian friends, mostly from CPU on his floor and the adjacent floor. They would travel together and just hang out.

Having study buddies in your course of study is really important to success at university. The work load is huge and it is almost all assignment based, like it was at CPU. He felt that the Canadian program really helped him to prepare for what he has done this year.

The allowance that his sponsor provided was enough for him to set aside money for his return fare to Malaysia this summer. A lot of students spent it all on things, and couldn’t get home for the summer. It is really worth it to save up for the airfare.

Living in a foreign country has taught him a lot about himself; his strengths and weakness. He has matured a lot over the year and is looking forward to the second year now that he has a better handle of what is takes to live in Canada. It has been a great experience.

The highlight of the year was renting a bus so he and twenty friends could travel to Niagara in the spring and see the Falls. The only regret was that the Maid of the Mist, a boat that goes right up under the Falls, wasn’t running that day. He intends to go back next year.

It was great seeing Edmund again. I enjoyed his company and am encouraged to think that our program has helped students like him to seize the future and make their way in the world. Yes, I do need a salary to pay the rent and support my wife’s ministry, but my student’s success means so much more to me than the money I receive for doing this job. It is one of my great joys in life.

At the end of the term our students have to demonstrate what they have learned in a final project that is worth about a third of their overall mark. Understandably there is some anxiety about this project. In English they have to read two novels and three supplementary texts, cite nine secondary sources and use proper MLA format in writing a two thousand word essay. Then they have to present the result of all this work to their class, and defend it from questions from their peers and teacher. None of them have had to do any of this before they got to our program, and it is a huge mountain of new material to climb in just one year.

It is a credit to how effective this program is, and the drive of our students to master the curriculum that they do as well as I have seen over the last two weeks. The novels have ranged from Chinua Achebe to V.S. Naipaul, from Dickens to Dostoevsky and have a wide range of topics from archetypical heroes to the problems of racism in modern societies. Presentations must be accompanied by slide shows illustrating the topic and then the student must demonstrate competence by answering questions from the class, some of which can get quite pointed.

For two weeks I get to sit back and listen to my students teach, and assess their work. For the most part I have been very impressed. I don’t have a single student who was unable to present, and given the weight of this project, that means that I will probably see every student pass my course; a great relief to me as I hate to see students fail. Given that English is the second and in some cases the third language these kids have had to learn, that in itself is a huge accomplishment. I am extraordinarily proud of their efforts, and trust that the whole experience, from essay outline to presentation, will prove to have been useful in their future academic careers.

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