Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Getting to Know Mother Russia, Then and Now


I majored in Russian Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania back when Perestroika had paved the way for an economic rebirth and an overall feeling of friendship. After Mr. Gorbachev had “torn down” tangibly oppressive walls, he also opened the floodgates for idealistic young people to master Russian and embrace Russian culture. I am not sure how I intended to actually APPLY my degree. At one point, I fantasized about the romantic life of a career diplomat. Working for a profitable American company that needed Russian-speaking employees to forge further economic ties also seemed possible. As it turns out, my degree was good for two things.
Our childhood conception of Russians.


First, I fell in love with Russian literature. Russian poetry is a bit too hand-wringingly dramatic (too much beating of the breast) for my tastes, but Dostoevsky and Tolstoy so perfectly capture the nuances of not just the Russian spirit but the universality of the human condition as well. I read and re-read the major works of each. The second benefit of my major was that my pronunciation was almost “biz aktsenta” (without an accent). Cute Russian guys would tease me that I was a spy; I flirted back; and so on. I may be a very good mimic, but I never advanced beyond conversational Russian.

Our Russian textbooks in college had not been updated since Leonid Brezhnev died. It was as if they were forever frozen in 1980. Casual conversations often centered on the quality of one’s combine harvesters. Vladimir Lenin came up a lot, but Trotsky--Trotsky who?. The Little Octobrists wore star-shaped pins, and if they were good they could advance to join the Young Pioneers! Of course, some aspects of Russian life had not changed between the pre- and post-Soviet eras; blintzes, farmer cheese, little pickles, and open-faced sandwiches were all exchanged between good-natured passengers as the Trans-Siberian railway quietly and proudly (тихо и гордо) chugged across Mother Russia.
Feel the warmth! The Cold War melts.


Today, I can watch FX’s The Americans during the Russian-only scenes and understand nearly half of what the characters are saying without looking at the subtitles! However, a Russian friend informed me recently that the Russian the actors are speaking is kind of dumbed down. I’m trying to convince my husband that there is no better time than the present to venture to Moscow and St. Petersburg, now that President Trump and Putin are on-again, off-again buddies.

In preparation for my desired but not definite trip, I downloaded the Duolingo app on my iPhone. I tested out of the most basic skills, like knowing the Cyrillic alphabet. After that, I tried my hand at common verbs, phrases, and vocabulary. You are asked to translate from Russian to English and vice versa and to transcribe a spoken phrase using the handy Cyrillic keyboard. I’m intrigued by the wide emotional range conveyed to the user within a single lesson.

“I already have a table” is a somewhat annoyed response to a kind offer. The odd question, “Do you have a horse?” is one unlikely to pass the lips of a Muscovite in 2017. But if you are a peasant living in Novosibirsk in 1917, this inquiry may be an acceptably righteous boast (“I am prosperous enough to own a horse; are you, tavarish?”).

Then the mood grows ominously defensive. “We have everything!” and “Everything is perfect” sound like a Soviet official circa 1980 vigorously denying the existence of bread lines and shortages. On the other hand, “Our egg” is historically accurate given the scarcity of such essentials; I guess that a single egg had to be parceled out to two or more diners. The declaration “This is not milk” is strange indeed. If it looks like milk but does not taste like milk, might it be poisoned? Oh, la mystère! Finally, Duolingo ventures into the realm of the conspiratorial (“Here is our plan”), right before it veers toward bizarro land: "Our cats eat eggs."
"Here's our plan...But first, where are my apples?"

I’ve heard Spain is lovely in August.


Sunday, April 9, 2017

Virtue Signaling Through Food



The tired adage “calories in, calories out” appears on countless online message boards and is almost universally echoed by nutritionists. But is it true? Not quite. I followed this advice two years ago, and I didn't lose an ounce. Turns out, when it comes to both jeans and lifestyle modification, one size does not fit all. Merely restricting caloric intake may actually result in your body hanging on to your extra fat because it has entered “starvation mode.” Also, what kinds of calories are you eating? If you continue to eat processed foods, refined sugars, and refined carbohydrates, you are probably not going to lose weight.

This never gets old.
In 1993, researchers conducted the Women’s Health Initiative Dietary Modification Trial for eight years to confirm the widely held belief that a low-fat diet would help the nearly 50,000 female participants aged 50 to 79 lose weight and reduce their risk for heart disease. The ladies were divided into two groups: one followed a low-fat diet, and the other followed their usual diets and received relevant educational materials. JAMA published the results of the study, which proved that…low-fat diets do not work. The scientists assessed many health measurements, such as the manifestations of heart disease (e.g., heart attack, stroke); the incidences of breast and colon cancer; and lipid (i.e., triglycerides, cholesterol) levels. The weight loss in the low-fat group was statistically insignificant. That is, it was approximately the same as the other group, which ate its usual diet.

Today, the consensus is growing that low-fat diets do not work and may even do harm. Why? First, low-fat foods tend to be heavily processed. Their emergence in the 1990s prompted the food industry to make all sorts of false promises to consumers that eating these products would result in weight loss. They contain more sugar and artificial sweeteners as well as fillers and chemicals to render them texturally appealing. Yuck! They also do not make you feel full, so you are more likely to eat that two-month old bag of cheese popcorn buried in the back of your office drawer and the gross-tasting celebrity-endorsed protein bar in the side pocket of your purse. Finally, many of these culinary impostors contain harmful oils such as palm, cottonseed, soybean, sunflower, safflower, and canola. It's not the source of these oils that's the problem; the act of processing them into oils is what makes them unhealthy.

Why are these bad for you? Trans fats! ‘Member when the government banned trans fats? I ‘member. It ruined Cheeze-Its for me forever. However, lots of products still contain these oils, so I’m not sure if the ban has remained in effect, or if the food industry has found a way to circumvent said prohibition.

 Please do not despair and resign yourself to gnawing on fibrous cardboard boxes like my Jack Russell terrier Oscar. There are delicious alternatives that will not only help you to lose weight, but also increase your mental and physical energy. I have tested a few of these options and have also been exploring the available evidence for reducing (or eliminating) grain and sugar consumption.

Seapoint Farms Dry Roasted Edamame (plain and spicy wasabi). These nutty tasting dried soybeans (Sounds appetizing, no?) are a filling snack. One-third of a cup is 130 calories and contains only 10 g of carbohydrates. Make sure you have plenty of water on hand, because they are super dry. My tongue cleaved to my palate the first time I tried them, but as a bonus I had to drink 12 oz of water to clear my esophagus. Where to buy: Whole Foods, Walgreens, online.

Beef and chicken bone broth. Okay, if you are vegetarian or vegan, this will skeeve you out a little. But if you crave gelatin, a bit of healthy fat, collagen, glucosamine, and other good stuff, 8 oz is approximately 40 calories, contains virtually no carbohydrates, and is sodium free. People who intermittently fast often drink a few cups in between meals, and they report it is both filling and tasty.

You can make it yourself in a slow cooker, but this requires hanging around the house for most of the day as you press on the bones and stir it up. You also need to skim the fat after it’s done. This is too high maintenance for me, so I order my supply from Green Grocer Dallas. Do NOT substitute bouillon cubes for bone broth; they are loaded with salt and lack bone broth’s nutrients. My dog Oscar loved the bone broth I mixed in with his water.

Air-dried kale chips (Brad’s Kale Crunch). If I assured you that these taste better than Doritos, would you believe me? The Nacho variety is available at many health convenience stores and major outlets like Target. It is slightly spicy and made with vegan cheese, but do not hold this fact against these yummy green desiccated chips.

One half of a 2-oz bag is only 132 calories. Be warned that when you get close to the bottom of the bag you’re essentially dealing with pulverized chips; there is no elegant way to eat these except to pour the remaining contents into your mouth whilst your coworkers aren’t looking.

Homemade energy bites. My husband came home hungry one night from a business trip and was rooting around in the fridge when he came upon my date and walnut energy bites in a Tupperware container. “Can I eat these meatballs?” he asked. I should have just let this unfold naturally, but I laughed and set him straight. To his credit, these balls do look like meatballs. They also could be mistaken for the droppings of a mid-size marsupial.

I tried one last week before my 5:30 AM workout, thinking I needed to raise my blood sugar (126) to prevent a low from happening during exercise. After exercise, my BS was 226! In the comments section of the online recipe for the balls, one woman exclaimed: “I love how there’s no added sugar!” Wut? Dates ARE sugar. Your body tends to metabolize all sugars in the same way. That is, unless you are running a 5K, one date ball equals a lot of extra sugar. Some of it will be used for energy, but the rest will make your blood sugar rise. I suppose eating a date nut ball is healthier than glugging a sugary soda, but the net effect is the same. It also took me forever to blend the dates, walnuts, shredded coconut, and almond butter and then fashion them into little balls, not to mention the oily stickiness that got all over the kitchen. Verdict: Diabetics, don’t eat unless you’re training hard; may be okay for people with a functioning pancreas.

Bulletproof Coffee. I do not drink coffee, so I cannot attest to bulletproof's health benefits. Many swear that it is a good substitute for breakfast. Blend one cup of black coffee; 1 tbsp of MCT oil; 1 tsp heavy cream; 1 tsp grassland butter; and 1 tsp cocoa powder.

Snap Kitchen. When you don't have the time or energy to prepare healthy meals, Snap Kitchen does all the work for you--at a steep price. I paid $8.00 for a small portion of bland chicken tikka masala that contained three bites of chicken. In under one hour, you can cook a more flavorful version of this dish at home. Snap gives away terrific free tote bags, however.
Please keep one important caveat in mind. If you do alter your eating patterns and diet for the better, don't make a big production of it. Nobody actually cares, you see. A couple of years ago a funny meme was making the rounds on the Internet, and I posted it on my FB feed. It was just a photo of a scrap of paper that said: "Number of times today my co-worker has told me she's vegan: 5. Number of times I cared: 0." Simply proceed quietly and proudly. I'm not advocating veganism, either, but you get what I mean.

Next week: Eating fat does not make you fat, intermittent fasting, and how a low carb diet can make you super aware driver who is annoyed by everything!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Ski Pants Are Not WOKE

WOKE (definition of, courtesy of the Urban Dictionary): "being aware, and 'knowing what's going on in the community.' It's also specifically associated with being anti-racism and anti-social injustice.

Time to indulge in a little "me-search." Unlike "research," this requires little to no intellectual rigor, because who has time to look up facts and evidence? It's much easier to write about yourself--who knows you better than YOU?

I've been MIA on Facebook for months. Except for Instagram, social media these days seems to be just a vehicle for angry people to whip other people up into a frenzy and to pick fights with each other online. In other words, it's a total time waster and also makes it seem like everyone is a big jerk (which they are not). It is OKAY if we do not all agree with one another all of the time, mmmkay?

Back to the me-search! Last night we returned from our first skiing trip in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. To my surprise, the four of us took to skiing very well, and by the end of the four days all of us had reached "green" status (intermediate) and not relying on the "wedge" to slow down as often as we were the first day. On the down side, skiing is a super expensive sport, as my foray into the world of ski pants was a painful reminder.

My lower body is not straight. I have a smaller waist but a bigger bum. It's not huge, it's all proportional, but I'm definitely curvy. And by that, I'm not speaking euphemistically like in those Dove ads featuring overweight gals; I have an hourglass figure, but I'm not fat. I'm not even big boned--sorry, Cartman.

Shopping for ski pants, then, made me feel like Goldilocks. Too long! Waist too tight! Cannot even pull them past my derriere to find out if the waist fits! The first pair was from Amazon--amateur's mistake! Try them on before you buy--barely snapped shut, and breathing was a problem. When I leaned forward ever so slightly, my gallbladder shifted perceptibly. After we got to Denver, we swung by the REI flagship store (totally awesome, by the way) to try on some more pants.

Wanna look like THIS


Ski pants were designed by a white supremacist! How do non-white women squeeze into these straight and unyielding, unflattering contraptions? I'm almost 100% Caucasian but I'm half Black Irish and half Turkish. Someone in my past had an ample behind, a pox be on her and her ilk.

Scandinavians and WASPs wiggle effortlessly into their ski pants. They get a perfect fit on the first try. We ethnic women are not as blessed. The pair that finally fit me, of course, had no price tag, already a red flag. They were not on sale, and in fact cost over $300. I felt quite slighted by this macroaggression. It was as if the entire skiing apparel industry was saying, hey, you're "differently shaped" and that's cool, but we are going to charge you extra for that additional pound of flesh. Feeling very much the victim of an alt-right conspiracy, I joined the REI savings club to get my 20% off and a free strip of fruit leather.

But actually look more like HIM (2nd from the right)


My pants are not sexy. They appear to be suited for wading in a clogged reservoir, or some other mannish pursuit that isn't coming to mind at the moment. They may not be WOKE, but they were warm and comfortable and faithfully got me through three days of AWESOME skiing. All's well that ends well!