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Sunday, January 29, 2012


In mid career I lived in the big city of Toronto where my husband had a prominent position and I was teaching science in a Collegiate Institute. We were fairly often invited to attend functions and, to make my hair look stylish in a hurry, I had a hairpiece made of my own hair I used to wear. It was held in place on the top of my head by a special comb and gave me a bouffant look.

After a few years in the city, we had a good opportunity to go back to our relatively quiet home province and we did so happily. My hairpiece remained in a box among my hats that were not worn for years as I became a graduate student in our local university and totally immersed myself studying and doing research in chemistry. It was a church funeral that required I wear a hat to attend that sent me back to scrummage in my hatbox. When I pulled out the hairpiece I was astonished to find that it was almost white! With the quiet life I had been living, many of my grey hairs had disappeared and when I stuck the hairpiece on the top of my head again, it looked distinctly out of place. For the first time I realized that living and working in the city must have put me under quite a bit of stress without my really being aware of it.

Hans Selye, a scientist working in Montreal was the first to demonstrate scientifically the effects of making lab animals tense and anxious and he is attributed with first using the term stress in that context. That was in 1935 and actually his work was not accepted by scientists until as late as the 1970’s. Now we hear about the effects of stress almost daily.

One example I read about some time ago now, had to do with medical students and how the stress of worrying about the final exams caused 80% of them to come down with a cold or other illness before or during the process of writing them.

Actually worrying as you study or write exams is counter productive because it just takes away from your ability to learn and recall. As well, Hans Selye has said ‘Every stress leaves an indelible scar, and the organism pays for its survival after a stressful situation by becoming a little older’.

As with my experience in the big city, you can’t do anything about some stress but you do know rationally that worrying does not do anything to improve a situation. So my advice is to do your best to push your stressful concerns out of your mind and - as the song says - ‘In every life we have some trouble, When you worry you make it double, Don't worry. Be happy!!’ ...and you’ll live longer. Rie

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Vinho Verde

Spending a winter on Sabbatical in London, England in 1980, we needed a break from the interminable raw wet weather, and were delighted to be able to get cheap airline tickets south to Portugal. Sure enough as we climbed above the thick cloud cover, there was the sun and over the Channel, the clouds beneath disappeared. It seemed to us as if England must have had its own stationary black cloud we had escaped from under. We rejoiced.

Tourism had just started to be big business in those days and Portugal had coped with its lack of hotel accommodation by setting up a government run network of inns that they called Pousadas . We found this out shortly after we arrived when we visited the National Tourist Bureau in Lisbon and, with some help, worked out an itinerary where we would stop one or two days in an area, exploring, and then move on. The Pousada accommodations were in palaces, monasteries, historic buildings and the like – invariably of interest in themselves.

One leg of our journey led us to the north-east border with Spain where we stayed in a villa in the mountains and ate kid or cabrito for the first time. It was tender and a bit gamey.

The following day we traveled across northern Portugal through wooded areas to Porto on the coast. As we drove, we were intrigued to see grape vines around homesteads that were purposely trained to climb up every available tree or pole, leaving room, we supposed, for planting other crops beneath. When we stopped at a café in a small town we were lucky to have a proprietor who not only offered us a glass of wine but also explained it was made from their local grapes. It was called Vinho Verde and it was delicious - served cool, it had a bit of a sparkle and its low alcoholic content contributed to making the whole bottle we were served, disappear. When we reached the coast, we found a place on the beach where the locals were grilling sardines. We bought a loaf of bread, a couple of bottles of Vinho Verde and, with the sardines, had ourselves a very fine picnic. Writing about the day brings back unforgettable memories.

We have since been able to find Vinho Verde on occasion in our local wine outlet and always its special refreshing taste evokes lovely remembrances of our very pleasant day in northern Portugal . Rie

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Zone

As you get older, you are usually more conscious of your ‘good’ days and ‘bad’ days. The problem is that you don’t quite know ‘why’ you can feel so ‘with it’ one day and be dragging around the next. But Barry Sears figured out one of the main reasons and he wrote a book on the subject called ‘The Zone’, back in 1995.

Dr. Sears was a biochemist who started out as a research scientist mostly in the field of fatty acids that make up many natural oils. This work led him to the study of other food groups and finally to the writing of the book spelling out a diet that, if followed, led to a state of optimal health. Athletes who first followed the diet, proved that it worked by excelling because their bodies and minds worked at peak efficiency, not just on occasion but all the time!

I read Sears book, ‘The Zone’ some years ago now, found it explained why the diet worked so well and I was very interested in following his diet but frankly, I found it daunting. No only did it call for a strict adherence to eating 3 meals a day and two snacks, all at given time intervals, but those meals and snacks had to contain 40% calories from carbohydrates, 30% from protein, and 30% from fat. There were recipes on line that helped and those who followed it give glowing testimonials but to do it properly, I could see it consuming any free time I had. At that time as well, I was traveling a number of months of every year, so I did not ever give it a full chance.

In the late 1950’s I had read several of Adelle Davis’s books. By then she was a well-known nutritionist explaining aspects of daily nutrition that were new to me. For instance, in her advice:

‘At breakfast, eat like a king; at lunch, like a prince and at supper, like a pauper,’ she made it clear that it all had to do blood sugar levels and how to keep them in a range where the body felt energetic throughout the day. For instance, if some protein like meat, eggs, or beans, are eaten at breakfast, since the protein takes longer to digest, it is still supplying some blood sugar until the lunch you ate at noon begins to add to it. The chart on the right shows an ordinary day when the advice given is not followed. Note the dip in blood sugar [red line] before lunch and the high levels in the evening when the energy available is generally not used and is stored as fat.

The Zone diet is clearly designed to keep blood sugar at a stable constant level so you feel good and your body is always ready to work or play at top efficiency. However, if you are like me and have a general sense of how important sugar levels in your blood are to your energies and well-being, you can do a pretty good job of eating sensibly to maintain a steadily available supply yourself without adhering to the strict 'Zone' diet. Rie

Sunday, January 8, 2012

England & France

In 1947 I to sailed England on a passenger liner that took 6 days to get there - airplanes were just starting to make a few commercial flights across the Atlantic in those days. I had by then a degree in chemistry and experience working in a lab so I had no difficulty finding a job in a town just outside London. I was 22 and the big drawing card for me to take the trip to Europe by myself was that my future husband was studying in France. The first chance I had, I travelled to Paris to visit him and what an eye-opener that trip was!

I had first to get to the south coast port then board a ship to cross the Channel and finally to take the train to Paris. British passenger trains were divided into compartments and I had my porter find me one with an empty seat. I was by then used to the reserve of the English, so was not surprised that not a word was said in the whole trip to the coast.

When we arrived, I hailed a porter who took my bag and politely saw me through customs and then a seat on the ship. When I tipped him, he slipped the money into his pocket without looking at it, tipped his hat and was off.

I don’t remember sailing across the Channel so the trip must have been uneventful but I will never forget our arrival in France and the noisy chaotic scene on the dock as porters vied with one another to pick up a job. My porter flung my bag onto his shoulder and beckoned me to follow him as he fought his way through the crowd to the train. I barely kept up but did recognize my bag as he handed it in a window and waved to me to come. He held out has hand for his ‘tip’, one that I thought ample, but he looked at it in distain and proclaimed loudly ‘pas assez’ [not enough] and even after I added another bill he hurried off without a nod.

The railway car was full and crowded and I was fascinated with the animated banter back and forth, the food every group seemed to produce, the casual way they were dressed [one woman even had curlers in her hair] and how indulgently they treated their children. I spoke some French and was engaged in conversations several times.

I was met by my fiancĂ©, who eventually found us a taxi. It turned out, however, that the driver was not willing to take us to the outskirts of town near the student residences where a small hotel room had been booked for me. A furious argument ensued with menacing gestures and threats of calling police. Finally the cabbie acquiesced and off we went with him actually whistling happily – no hard feelings. Next came a late lunch in a tiny restaurant on a side street where I had the best mushroom omelet I have ever tasted – before or since – bar none.

Paris has continued to earn its reputation as an exciting city to visit and the England back then lived up to its name as a ‘Tight Little Island’. Rie

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Gaia Principle

"The Earth System behaves as a single, self-regulating system with physical, chemical, biological, and human components." Amsterdam Declaration signed by 1000 scientists in 2001.

Back in 1986 James Lovelock came up with the original idea that the Earth acted like a living being and thus had the ability to absorb and control the health and stability of the our environment. He referred to the Earth as Gaia, the prehistoric Earth goddess, and his theory had widespread appeal because it was a new way of rationalizing how it was that the Earth’s systems were so interconnected and complex that the conditions for living creatures has been optimized over billions of years .

One problem with the Gaia principle is that we are tempted to ignore man’s lack of respect for the pollutants we increasingly spew into the biosphere, trusting that ‘nature’ will take care of them. As rising temperatures affect our oceans and weather systems with resulting violent storms and floods, it is becoming increasingly clear that we are testing the Earth’s capacity to deal with our emissions and I am very concerned with the possibility that before we know it, runaway and irreversible global warming will occur. That ultimate disaster has the potential to wipe out life on Earth as we know it.

To prevent this catastrophe, it is imperative that those concerned with the economy be persuaded to work with, not against, environmentalists to convert the engines that power industry from fossil fuels to green forms of energy. It’s a daunting task and I can’t see it happening if we wait for global agreements and regulations from political leaders who have their own vested interests. It must come from the bottom up with a ground swell of public opinion so powerful it cannot be ignored.

My New Year’s resolution is to be part of promoting that ‘ground swell’ by passing on the link to Avaaz, an already well established world wide action group with over 10 million members [and growing]. I implore you to consider adding your voice to petitions for improvements in global matters of immediate concern. The link is Please be part of the 'ground swell' by adding your voice to ours – it is the only realistic way I know that can make that positive impact needed before it is too late.

My best wishes for personal and improved planetary health in the New Year. Rie