Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Stranger in my own Country

It is a done deal! Together with 1,995 other smiling persons of 114 different nationalities I became a US citizen last Friday here in Houston. Naturalization was a long 14-month process that ended with a very short yet memorable ceremony when we all raised our right hands and swore allegiance to the constitution, the flag and the laws of the United States. Thomas Jefferson would have loved to have been there. I bet he would have been surprised at the diversity and thrilled to see so many young, vibrant people among the new citizens. I am very grateful and honored to be able to call myself a citizen of the United States of America, the greatest country in the world.

My U.S. passport application is already being processed and I will hopefully have it within the next 10 days. It is going to be such a relief not to have to worry about expiring resident alien cards & passports, for the next 10 years! As of right now, I am still a South African citizen but as soon as I get my new passport, I will be completing the required paperwork to give up my South African citizenship. The reason is quite simple: the South African authorities require South African citizens to enter and leave the country on a South African passport. As a US citizen I am not about to travel on any passport other than one issued by the US State Department. So I really have no option but to give up my SA citizenship.

Of course, having lived in the US for the last 18 years now, my bonds with South Africa have been tenuous at best, lately. I barely follow current affairs over there and I couldn’t pick the players on the country’s national cricket team out of a police line-up if my life depended on it. Which is not to say that I want to walk away from my past. I may no longer dream in Afrikaans, but I still speak it. I will always be a ‘boykie from Brits’, proud to have grown up in a small town in what was then known as the Transvaal Province. No matter where I am in the world, I will always be close in spirit to my dear mother, brothers and sister and many friends and relatives still living in South Africa. Not a day goes by in my life that I do not think of them, wonder what they’re doing, and regret not being able to spend more time with them.

Even so, I have moved on and my life is here now. I wake up nights worrying about the value of the US Dollar, not the price of gold. I wonder whether Barack Obama will be in the White House next year, not if Jacob Zuma will soon be spending six months of every year in lovely Tuynhuys in Cape Town.

I realized that the ground had shifted under me, about 8 years ago during a visit to South Africa. All week I had felt different. It was a struggle to drive on the left, and the issues of the day were distressing. Rampant corruption. Crime seemingly out of control. Unscrupulous politicians. And then it came to a head. I was standing in the Hyperama, a gigantic grocery store in the Menlyn Shopping Center on the east side of Pretoria, when it dawned on me that I had become a stranger in my own country. I was stocking up on some items that were hard to find in the US, such as Redro fishpaste (an acquired taste!), Marmite, Flakes, Crunchies, Turkish Delight, Provita crackers, some mealie meal and Rooibos tea. As I moved from aisle to aisle, my sense of alienation became more and more palpable. I eavesdropped to snatches of conversation between other shoppers, and couldn't relate to any of it. I looked around in vain for a familiar face, something, anything to re-connect me to this place that I once called home. It got worse. I struggled to understand the cashier, and the money may as well have been Roubles for as much trouble as I had with the denominations and especially the coins. Earlier, I had no idea how to respond to a 'car minder' who gratuitously offered to watch over my car in the parking lot. Clearly, I was no longer from there.

This was baffling and disconcerting. Was I not the same person who had lived just down the road for several years? Who had had two children born in this city, who had traveled down these self-same streets a thousand times? Of course I was, but everything else had changed and I was not a part of that process of transformation. My South Africa was gone forever. It is not easy to lose one's country, which is what happened to me that September day in Pretoria. Now finally, I am able to put that behind me and take the next step towards becoming a full participant in the affairs of my new country.

Running has been going gangbusters: I finished last week with a total of 37 miles, which was a good step-back week after 5 consecutive weeks of around 40-plus miles. On Saturday morning I did about 8 miles with my marathon group, including a 1-mile time trial (6:24) which confirms my VDOT of 45, according to Jack Daniels' formulas. The VDOT reading is the same for my most recent 5K time (22:51). As you may know, once you have your VDOT # it is easy to establish realistic training intensities. According to Daniels, someone with a VDOT of 45 should run easy and long runs at about 8:58, the marathon pace is 7:57 and tempo or threshold pace is 7:25. I prefer an easy or long run pace that is slightly slower at around 9:20 pace, at least until it gets colder in the Fall.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A day at Galveston Beach

They're bright red, weigh half as much as my regular training shoes, and wearing them helped me to my first age-group placing in 30+ years of running. They are a pair of Saucony Grid Type A2 racing flats. The race was last Saturday's Lunar Rendezvous 5K at the Johnson Space Center south of Houston, where I placed third in my age group, in a time of 21:51. The shoes fit like the proverbial glove, it felt like running in slippers. Or at least what I think running in slippers would feel like as I haven't worn any in nearly 20 years. Kathleen improved her 5K time of three weeks ago by about 2 minutes - she will be contending in her age group soon enough.

On Sunday we spent much of the day at Stewart Beach in Galveston. I had almost forgotten just how much fun a day at the beach can be and how much I enjoy running along the ocean on the firm sandy edge. From Stewart Beach - quite crowded with families as early as 1100A - I ran to East Beach, where surprisingly few of the rented chairs were occupied. Along the way were clusters of people relaxing and reading under colorful umbrellas, or chasing around little kids whose smiles were bigger than their hats. There were a few people with dogs and many more with beer bellies. People who looked like they needed to run more than I do. After my run, Kathleen and I settled down to the perfect beach activity. Which of course is doing absolutely nothing. Our lives have become so crowded that the greatest luxury is being able to just sit and mindlessly watch people go by and the surf rush out and recede, to a soundtrack of seagulls squawking, kids laughing, and some Tejano music wafting in from a family group enjoying an elaborate picnic two umbrellas away. I was so focused on doing nothing in particular, that I hardly opened my book and for once I did not take out the binoculars to scan the sky for a passing Frigatebird. It was enough just to see some Brown Pelicans fishing in the background. Kathleen and I waded in and out of the warm ocean several times, got probably more sun than is good for us, ate lots of junk and all in all, just had the nicest time. We really need to do this more often!

For the week ending on 19 July, my total mileage was 39 miles. So far this week (through Wednesday 23 July) I have logged 24 miles. Tonight we will be running hills with the Houston Striders. And tomorrow I will become a US Citizen!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Running update

My ‘wake-up weight’ was down to 157 lb. this morning, which is the lowest in many years. The diet modifications seem to be working. Should be interesting to see how this affects (improves, I hope!) my running when it gets to 155 lb and below.

This past week has been a good one on the roads. The week’s total was 42 miles (which makes it the 5th consecutive 40+ mile week) and it included a very tough 10-miler on Saturday morning, in very hot and humid conditions, at an average pace of 8:40. Then we tacked on 2 more slow miles, by the end of which I was feeling slightly dizzy. I ended up losing about 5 lb. in water weight that morning despite regular fluid intake. Be careful out there in the heat!

Best news of the week is that my wife is in the process of making a running come-back, after an extended lay-off. She is excited about the prospect of running the Houston Chevron Half Marathon with me in January next year. We registered her just days before the marathon filled up, months in advance. Used to be that one could sign up for the Houston Marathon at the running expo, the day before. Many local runners waited until the last couple of days or so, to see how weather conditions were developing. Those days are over. Which is great for the marathon organizers but not so great for the runners. I know of many runners who have been hampered by congestion at the start. Unless one starts way up front, the crowd really does not thin out until about mile 7. Next year’s run will be more of the same, with the field larger than ever.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

In Search of my Lost Abs

It took the explorers Lewis and Clark more than two years, from July 1803 to December 1805, to travel from the East Coast to the source of the Missouri River, cross the Continental Divide along the border of Montana and Idaho, and to eventually find their way down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean. They spent all this time looking for a water route to carry goods and men across the North American continent. I don’t have anything quite as ambitious in mind. I am just looking for my abs. Unlike Lewis and Clark, I won’t have to worry about marauding Native American warriors, grizzly bear attacks, malaria or dysentery. Except for some outdoor exercise, I won’t even have to leave the house in search of my abs. My only foes will be a lack of will-power, some relentless junk food advertising and well-meaning relatives who leave tasty treats all over the place.

It’s tough to establish whether my abs are really lost or just misplaced. If they are truly lost, I’m in trouble. Let’s face it, anything that has been lost for more than 25 years is probably gone for good. For all I know, my abs are packed away in a dusty box with all our other irreplaceable ‘treasures’ being stored at Public Storage, costing me $75 a month. For what I don’t know. Trying as hard as I can, I vaguely recall having abs many years ago, at about the time my lovely wife and I got married in 1981. If anyone needs reminding, this was back in the disco era. When even John Travolta still had his abs. I think I still have mine, but like an explorer of old, I am going to have to tough it out for a few months, and start looking. From personal observation of other people my age, abs appear to be as elusive as the mythical golden fleece, and about as easy to find as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Very few people have them, but everybody seems to want them. Or would be thrilled to get some for Christmas. I might have to fall back on that option if all else fails.

Most people with abs are thin. This is a good clue for what should definitely be Step #1. Stock up on provisions for the long journey? No. Lose some weight. Like it or not, if I’m ever going to find my abs, I will have to drop (more than just) a few pounds in body weight. Even at a relatively trim 160+ pounds where I am now, those pesky abdominal muscles are covered by a layer of subcutaneous fat, sometimes referred to as love handles, a tummy, a muffin top or some such silly euphemism.

So, my plan for the next few months will be twofold:

First, go for the dietary low-hanging fruit, by changing the behaviors which I already know contribute to the problem. For starters I will eliminate random between-meal snacks (other than a scheduled mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack); cut down drastically on all highly processed food such as breads, white pasta, etc and try to eliminate as far as possible, any table sugar. That includes candy, desserts, cookies etc. After 4 weeks, I will review the dietary strategy and make some additional adjustments.

Secondly, add some targeted ‘ab exercises’ to my regular program. I am already doing several core exercises, but it can’t hurt to get more specific. My son advises doing a series of nine exercises from his ‘Ab Ripper’ program. He still has abs, so I think it is a good bet to take the advice. Just like the dietary plan, I will start on this program today and review progress after a month.

So here we go. Unlike previous journeys of discovery, my search isn’t going to add new species of plants or animals to the world list, and there won’t be any new place names or rivers by the end of it. However - if successful - it will prove that few things are impossible. Who knows, maybe Jimmy Hoffa really is a greeter at Wal-Mart, and Elvis is alive and working at a gas station outside Chico, California. Once I find my abs, I might just look into that. I’ll keep you posted.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Red, white, blue and food

Thought I'd post this pic of a broccoli quiche (thanks to Vegan Noodle for the link) which I made over the 4th of July weekend, before the 4th of July (2008) disappears into history. It was a hit - my youngest son who is probably our family's most discerning food critic - said he liked it better than Quiche Lorraine. The crust is store-bought (vegan whole-wheat from Whole Foods). I was a little heavy-handed with the turmeric, hence the yellow tint . Personally I liked the texture and the fact that it used up a huge big chunk of tofu which might otherwise have remained in the fridge until July 4, 2009.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

This is your brain - on chicken stock

Since adopting a low fat vegan diet in April 2007 (for health reasons), the foods coming out of our kitchen have undergone a sea change. Gone are the lamb chops, the spicy meatloaf, the curried chicken, and the pork stir-fries. We have said goodbye to barbecue, adios to fajitas in many forms and adieu to crème anglaise, that divine and deceptively simple concoction of sugar, egg yolks, milk and cornstarch. We are over the shock of parting ways with linguine with clam sauce, seared tuna with wasabi sauce, buffalo burgers, and split half chicken grilled over charcoal with a lemon-butter & marjoram baste.

What we have lost in bidding farewell to old culinary friends, we have gained in diversity and new experiences, venturing into unknown territory with ingredients and cuisines. Who knew organic corn tortillas with chili sauce, pinto or black beans, sautéed onions, some black olives, a few pumpkin seeds and topped with freshly-made chipotle sauce, would be such a hit? There was no way of predicting that a broccoli quiche on an organic whole wheat crust would be more popular with the boys than the most authentic Quiche Lorraine ever was. Can anyone really tell the difference between a non-fat ‘veggie’ hotdog and the real - greasy - thing, when both are topped with ketchup, mustard and relish?

I’m still experimenting and feeling my way, but some new favorites are already emerging. Amongst these are several types of chile, with beans and without. Garbanzos (aka chickpeas) feature heavily, whether curried, in a salad or in a superb ‘African bean soup’ with sweet potatoes, tomato and a dab of peanut butter. We have produced a few stellar veggie-style hamburgers, I think the most popular one to date had spinach as the main ingredient! Some things don’t change (much) such as whole-wheat pasta with a marinara sauce. Hold the cheese. I am also getting familiar with quinoa (terrific in a sweet potato salad!); finding out that I really like wheat berries (what brown bread is really supposed to taste like) and trying out new ways with old standbys such as an Asian-inspired brown rice salad with snow peas. And gone are the days of just watching the mint grow in the large wooden barrel on the patio. I’m putting it – and some garden fresh broad-leafed parsley – to work in a superb low-fat Tabouleh with grape tomatoes and diced cucumber.

The nett result: dramatically less fat in our diet, zero ingested cholesterol, a quantum leap in fiber intake and much less time spent in food preparation. Many vegan staples such as beans, brown rice & various veggies are ideal for the pressure-cooker. Hardly a day goes by without my large Kuhn Rikon pressure cooker being pressed into service… How could I ever have existed without one! Oh yes and our total food bill (family of 4) is down by about 40% compared with a year ago, despite the recent rash of increases. We buy all the staples (red, white, black & pinto beans, wheat berries, steel-cut oats, garbanzos, brown rice, quinoa and bulgur wheat) in bulk at greatly reduced prices, compared with pre-packaged foods.

The greatest single revelation? The day I made my first batch of vegetable stock. My kitchen has rarely been without homemade chicken stock, which I would degrease and then reduce to near ‘glace’ consistency and freeze in ice-cube size. Aluminum-wrapped and packed into a heavy plastic baggie, they’d remain quietly in a corner of the freezer, until summoned forth to enliven a soup or to become the base for a stew of one kind or another. Since switching to vegan, I made do with store-bought vegetable stock for a while, but the stuff tasted too much like carrots. Having looked at a few recipes I eventually figured out my own combination. Yes on the carrots, no on the asparagus.

Anyway, the epiphany was not so much in the making of the stock, but in the cleaning up. If you’ve never tried, believe me, making chicken stock is one of the messiest things you can do in the kitchen. Two small fresh chickens in one huge stockpot produce an almost unbelievable amount of grease. It was a tedious and unpleasant task to scoop off the thick, warm layer of pure chicken fat once the stock was ready. Then to strain the stock through a damp cheesecloth, removing yet another layer of fat and finally to refrigerate the stock overnight, to remove what remained of the fat, by now congealed into a thin layer of visible grease. Cleaning up the stock pot itself was enough of a chore to tempt me never to make another batch of chicken stock. Lots of scrubbing, rubbing, rinsing. Repeat. And then one more time.

Cleaning up after making vegetable stock? Practically none required. Strain the stock, press out the liquids and discard the vegetables. Wash out the stock pot by hand if you like. No grease-cutting dishwashing soap required. None. Not a drop.

So there is your body – and your brain – on chicken stock. Load up on chicken, beef, fatty fish, cheese or any animal product and your body becomes a sieve for however much saturated fat and cholesterol those food items contain. Eat a low-fat plant-based food and --- nothing. Lots of nutrients, no cleanup required. Which is good now and even better later. Fewer digestive issues now, and much reduced likelihood for a nasty surprise later. Such as that much dreaded sensation of an elephant squatting on your chest one Monday morning on the way to work. Or your key slipping from your fingers when atherosclerosis rears its ugly head in your brain. Every organ in your body will benefit from the ‘vegetable stock effect’. Be healthier, feel better, sleep better, and maybe even run better. Just no bacon & cheese burgers.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The dog who was scared of the flag

Big relief. My naturalization application was approved on July 1 and I will become an American citizen on 25 July. Very excited about the prospect of being able to vote and to travel on a US passport. My son reminded me that one of the other things I can look forward to is a jury summons. I can hardly wait. After nearly 18 years of living in the USA and just over 14 months since I first applied for naturalization, the actual interview was brief. It took USCIS Officer M. Tunnell less than 20 minutes to confirm my identity, establish my eligibility and to test me on English and U.S. history and government. And yes I did get the one ‘difficult’ question (of the 96 or so on the list) which was to name the original 13 states. I had worked my way out of the south (Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia) but when I got to Maryland, just before Delaware, Officer Tunnell cut me off. It’s ok, he said, we don’t have all day. Actually I did have all day but I was not about to disrupt the flow of the interview. Come to think of it, if Officer Tunnell had said the sky was green, I would have ventured emerald or olive.

Running has been going great; two more weeks of back to back 40+ miles: 46.5 miles for the week ending on June 28 and 44.5 miles for the week ending on July 5. First double digit run in many weeks on June 28 – a very enjoyable 10 miles at 8:33 pace with Steve, Mark and Anne at Cullen Park. On July 1 (after my naturalization interview) I must have been feeling particularly good, doing some brisk mile repeats (7:02, 6:54 and 7:15) at Memorial High School. Mile pace a bit erratic, but there are reasons. On the 2nd one a blonde had shown up at the track and I did not want to appear to be old and slow... By the 3rd mile I just had nothing left.

Kathleen and I ran our first 5k race in years (I can’t even remember the last time!) on July 4th. A time of 22:18 got me into the top 5 of my age group, but no cigar. I made several dumb ‘rookie’ errors, starting much too far back, and running with a shirt in my left hand and a water bottle in my right. Won’t do that again. Later that day – after some veggie hot dogs - we put up our first-ever American flag. It felt good to see Old Glory fluttering over the front patio. It did scare the living daylights out of our Boxer puppy Daisy, though. Even after a couple of days, she still gives it a wide berth. Any abrupt movement brought on by a sudden gust of wind, and Daisy dives under the patio furniture. House-trained? Yes. Crate-trained? Absolutely. Leash-trained? Getting better. Flag-trained? Are you kidding me?