Archive for October, 2012

Not So Descendent of Homo Erectus

Once again there I was: on the ground. Not particularly hurt, just very embarrassed.

I’m not sure what it is about me, but somehow my DNA does not seem to have evolved from the accepted human ancestor “homo erectus”, but rather a subspecies as yet unidentified “homo tumblus”.

I feel sorry for my poor distant ancestor. He couldn’t have been high on the natural selection list. After all what self-respecting cave woman would pick a mate who probably would end up the prey instead of the hunter.

I guess I’m lucky. I’ve never heard of anyone dying of embarrassment. They just wish they could.

I can watch this video over and over.   This dog could be my partner anytime.   Enjoy!

When I was in the Foreign Service I was in countries that either had (Kinshasa) or would have (Nairobi) serious security issues.   And what’s happening following the tragedy in Benghazi makes my blood pressure go through the roof.

Complete Security Is a Myth

I’m not belittling the importance of security, but if you are overseas in an Embassy or Consulate there is risk.  Security situations can change overnight.

A Middle East expert colleague opted for a quiet “backwater” posting because he and his wife were starting a family.  But when the time came, his wife was still recovering from medical complications.  They agreed he would go on ahead with their baby and the nanny they had brought from his last post.

He was in Kuwait barely a week before Saddam invaded.

Embassy officers were immediately taken to Baghdad, his child was handed off to an American dependent to be evacuated, and the nanny scrambled to make her own way out.   His wife was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  So much for careful planning.

Security Isn’t Always Welcome 

If security had their way, foreign service officers would be locked behind tall walls and never venture out.  Keeping us safe is their job.

In Kinshasa, the security officer decided that making us ‘safer’ entailed soldering the glass doors to our balconies shut.   This in a tropical country where electrical outages were a common occurence.  He also cemented in the storefront windows of our library, leaving those of us who worked there in complete darkness during such outages.

But most foreign service officers have to get out and mingle.  That’s THEIR job.

People open up if they get to know and relate to you.  And to relate to you they need to know you beyond the official ‘facade’.  This means casual chats, cups of tea or coffee, impromptu visits.  Finally you reach a point where you begin learning who really has the ear of the higher-ups, the ‘skinny’ on the key players and the complex motivations affecting decisions.   You get the bigger picture.   And that is the value of being ‘in country’.

Security Upgrades Take Time and Money

Budget requests, hiring new personnel and capital improvements take time.

One advantage of dictatorships, while they’re in power, is that security tends to be good.  After the “Arab Spring”, it wasn’t just the Consulate in Benghazi that faced a new security reality.  Requests would have started pouring in from most of our installations  (including USAID and most other civilian government agencies covered by State Department security) across the region.  All the while Washington has been on a budget cutting spree.

So Enough of Using Benghazi as a Political Football

Could the State Department have done better in Benghazi.   Sure.

But instead of honoring Ambassador Steven and his fellow Embassy staff and focussing on solutions, his death and the serious issues it has exposed have become political talking points aimed at winning elections.

In the meantime, the officers and staff in Benghazi and elsewhere just keep doing their jobs, taking the risks and trying to drown out the political static that threatens to derail all they’re efforts.

What better way to flaunt your international cool?





Confessions of a Failed Skier

I don’t ski. 

I’ve earned the right.  I gave skiing a chance.  I tried.  I failed.  A lot.

For a series of convoluted reasons, for one miserable winter in Switzerland from mid-October to mid April, I went skiing four times a week.  FOUR times a week.  I made it up the ski lift twice.  That’s right, twice.

Because I was so tall, the skis were custom-made and arrived two weeks after the rest of the class had started actually skiing.   The lodge and train station were about half way up the ski slope.

My skis were so long I could barely see the ends (granted I am short-sighted).   The ever solicitous ski instructor helped me put on my skis and demonstrated how to stop and how to turn.  He then wished me luck and hit the slopes.

I quickly realized that what he did so effortlessly, wasn’t effortless at all.

I couldn’t stop and I couldn’t turn.

Ice moguls covered with powder snow

I proceeded to develop a technique of skiing sideways, and ever so slightly down slope.  This would inevitably bring me to an area of the slope that was not part of the normal run and was filled with round ice moguls.  One ski would get stuck in a mogul.  This would cause me to fall.  I had stopped.  While on the ground, I would throw my skis over my head and turn them in the opposite direction.  Up I’d get.  I repeated the process down to the ski lift entrance.

I can still see that t-bar lift: two people side-by-side as a bar pushed their butts up a slope.  Sounds easy.  It generally took me 10-20 tries to make it past the first 10 feet.  

But my troubles were far from over.  As the bar pushed me up, I became increasingly unstable.  Inevitably I ended up in a drift on the side of the track, an area piled high with powder, virgin snow.

My ski poles sank down until only the last six inches or so were showing.  With no leverage, I struggled to get upright, all the while dodging my ever helpful fellow skiers  who took great joy in trying to stab me with their poles.

Twice that winter I didn’t make it up far enough to get over to where the train station was.  So, I faked it.  I pretended I had an injury.  Then the homeward train was forced to stop at the bottom of the slope to pick up the ‘injured’ skier.  Definitely not my finest hour.

The two times I miraculously made it to the top, I was in such shock I didn’t know what to do next.  The surface was pure ice.  Slick and rough.   Other skiers were arriving right behind, so I quickly shuffled to the side.   Then ever so slowly I used my patented non-skiing ski technique to inch my way down to the lodge.

Most of the time once I made it half way up I would just ski across the ski slope, dodging flying skiers to the safety and comfort of the lodge.

Years later in New Hampshire,  I tried again.  This time with shorter skis on a slope with a disk ski lift (similar principle to the t-bar, but it pushed only YOUR butt with the bar going up between your legs.}   My friends assured my I couldn’t fall.  I fell.   Got dragged up the slope because my ski pole strap got wrapped around the disk.          

So I hate skiing.   But I don’t hate skiers.

So if you want to ski, I’ll be waiting with a warm drink in front of a fire.

When I arrived in Aleppo in May 2010, I was in a lot of pain.

While roaming through the fort of Saladin (the great Muslim opponent of the Crusaders), I had fallen hard.  Despite a sling and ice packs my wrist was now more than twice its size.

The x-ray office didn’t open until 11 am, so I decided to go ahead with the private tour a friend had arranged for me at the National Museum.   Dr. J. , one of the curators, did his best, but quickly recognized my exteme distress and hustled me into his office.

After preparing some tea to sooth body and soul, he produced the name of an excellent orthopedic surgeon who had set his broken leg a few years earlier.  Assuring me that the man not only spoke English but had trained and practiced in London, he called the office asking that they see me immediately.

Dr. M looked at the x-rays.  I had fractured my wrist.

Before I knew it, he had scheduled to set my wrist that afternoon at a local surgical clinic.   I scrambled to find an ATM to get the $250 I needed.  (The clinic couldn’t accept foreign insurance).   By 5:30  I was in a small ‘private’ room.

This was one of the few rooms with running water so periodically nurses would scurry in to fill pitchers, taking quick sideway glances at the “American” lying in the bed.  It was also used as a break room.  Two young nurses wandered in with their tea.   They spoke only Arabic and I didn’t.   So we smiled and laughed at our lack of communication.

Dr M arrived by 6:30.  Before I knew it I was in a simple, clean surgical suite.  He set the wrist as we chatted about his time in London and what I could expect in terms of recovery.    By 8 pm I had a new, much better, sling  (foam rubber, both comfortable and practical), a handful of pain meds and a deep appreciation for the kindess, professionalism and efficiency of the Syrian medical system.

Where is Dr. M today?

I hope he and the medical staff are uninjured.   I imagine the once orderly surgical center is now overflowing.

And what of kind Dr. JA?  Even if he is physically safe and sound,  I can’t imagine there’s enough tea to ease the pain of watching Aleppo burn.

I’m so angry and frustrated at what is happening.  Aleppans are suffering; their city is in flames.  But this isn’t the first time they’ve been subjected to war, invasion and disaster.

They won’t be broken.

No Further Comment Needed

When hope eclipses reality: a “successful” gold prospector in Nome, Alaska

Recently several documentaries have discussed the possible factors that led certain wolves to follow humans rather than remain with the pack.  I personally believe it was those wolves who had the ‘manipulation gene.’  That innate ability that all dogs have to wrap human beings around their little paws.

What ME a bully?

Let’s face it.    Jewish mothers could take lessons from dogs in how to inspire guilt.  Defense attorneys should weep at a dog’s ability to be convincing about their innocence or at least sincere remorse.  What manager wouldn’t love to get people to do what they want while they think they’re the ones in control.

You want me to get off the couch?

Take my dogs.   They allow me to believe that I have the upper hand.  But who are they kidding.  In return for sitting, walking calmly and refraining from doing bodily functions in the home (which is probably what they would prefer anyway), they get food, protection,  a warm place to sleep and endless affection on demand.   And should their behavior elicit anger or outrage on my part, the consequences are quick to pass and generally followed by even more affection and attention.  That’s one sweet deal.

Position is everything in life.

I bet early man thought he was the one with the upper hand.   But it’s amazing how quickly and thoroughly dogs (and their more independent co-conspirators, cats) became essential to early man and in the process earned a permanent meal ticket.  And thus they started leading a ‘dog’s life.’

Please Vote

I find it ironic that we bully, cajole and even invade other countries to promote democracy, yet almost half of those eligible in the U.S. don’t bother to participate in our own democracy.  We extol our democratic system and institutions to others, but them at home.

Last year I went with the Jimmy Carter Center to Southern Sudan as an international observer for the vote on Southern Sudan independence.  Southern Sudanese had every reason to distrust this vote.   All previous elections had been deemed frought with corruption and fraud.  And even if the vote itself was deemed ‘valid’ would it even matter?War with Northern Sudan had been waged for the past 50 or so years.  What were the chances a simple vote would accomplish what all those years of fighting had failed to do?

But Southern Sudanese voted.  They walked miles over dusty paths and roads to vote.  They came in trucks, motorbikes, overloaded cars and vans.    Women came with children in tow.   Young men came and proudly displayed their inked finger (a proof of having voted) as they left the polls.  Old men came in with tearful excitement that they were living to see the day.  In some areas, some feared retaliation from going to the polls.    In all areas, they had to trust the system would truly be ‘secret’.   But the Southern Sudanese took the leap of faithe and voted.  Almost 99% voted.

Did the Southern Sudanese vote make a difference?  It didn’t create a fully functional, economically stable country.  It didn’t preclude outbreaks of ethnic violence and inter-communal fighting.  It probably hasn’t signficantly raised the standard of living.  And there is still fighting on the border with Sudan.  But it made a difference.   For all it didn’t do, it laid the foundation of a new country.  It gave people a voice who had never believed they could have a voice.  And it offered hope and a vision of an alternative way of being governed.

I bring this up because I find that we Americans often see things as ‘success or failure’.  We are cynical about politics, politicians, government because they fail to be 100% what we expect them to be.  But if we don’t vote, then we can’t expect politicians to listen.   Polls are useful, but let’s face it, what we say to a pollster often depends on our mood or the most recent pundit statement on TV.  Voting hopefully requires actually committing to a particular policy course or political vision.  Voting is scarier.  It requires more information.  But it is the only way to actually affect government.  So, no matter who you want in government or what you want from government, go out there and vote.  It may not make the difference you hope for, but not voting is almost guaranteed to mean your voice won’t be heard.   And the Southern Sudanese will tell you, having no voice at all definitely sucks.

“You sound like such a snob when you say you were born in Brazil.”  I wanted to just crawl into a hole and hide.  At best, I found college mixers an exercise in humiliation, but this was too much.  I was probably responding to,  “So, where are you from?”   Such a tricky question, for me at least.  My parents were 100% American.  But I was born in Brazil and grew up in four different countries.  I wasn’t  ‘from’ anywhere.   ‘Home’ was wherever I currently lived.

A third culture kid has been defined as “ a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. ”  TCKs have more in common with each other than with anyone in either their ‘passport’ country or any country they currently live in.  I know because most of my friends are TCKs.  Some, like me, had parents who moved around.  Others are children of immigrants, but who maintain close ties with their ‘native’ countries.  Gail grew up of mixed parents in England and Egypt.  She married a Frenchman and spent most of her adult years in Africa.  She worked for the U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa (in former Zaire).  We were very comfortable together, because while we could share the fact that we had no shared experiences.  Mary is married and living an idyllic suburban life in Connecticut, but she still revels in reliving her Brazilian years and talking about her life in Belgium with those of us who ‘understand’.

There were songs I loved as a teenager that I never realized were not originally French or Portuguese.   Movies stars I mooned over that my American friends never even knew existed.  If I had really been ‘foreign’, these lapses might have been exotic or charming.  But I was American, my lack of American-ness at best made me eccentric, at worst weird or even a bit threatening.  After all, things that I took for granted in my life — sights I had seen, people I had met, things I had done — sometimes made my American friends feel provincial.

And this is the TCK experience.  My Japanese TCK friend laughed as she told me how she would be accosted in the train stations in Tokyo and reprimanded for standing “inappropriately”.  A Colombian woman confided that much as she loved visiting friends and family back home, it was always awkward because her life was so different.   We all understood that if we talked about our lives, people’s eyes would ‘glaze over’.  We quickly learned that we were safest saving our ‘life’ stories for other TCKs.  And when we get together, man, do we love it.