Category: Uncategorized

The Rewards of Teamwork

The king of the jungle didn’t earn his title just based on his good looks.


The formidable reputation of lions rests on their superior hunting ability.  Lions have been known to take down wildebeests, hippos, even adult elephants.  They do this because they hunt as a team.  The pride makes the kill; the pride shares the kill.

But even the mighty lion is not the most efficient hunter in the jungle.   That honor goes to the painted dog (African wild dog).

The painted dog is not the largest, nor the fastest and clearly not the strongest animal out there.    But when the painted dog hunts it is more successful than all its competitors.  (Their success rate per hunt is 80% while the mighty lion succeeds only 30% of the time.)

Why?  Teamwork.

Painted dogs hunt in packs.  These packs can be large or small; they are persistent; and because of their numbers they have stamina.  The remains are shared among the hunters and those unable to hunt.

Amazing how often ‘survival of the fittest’ boils down to teamwork.

Yesterday my computer died.


It managed to turn on the fan, then just sat there.  It had been failing for several months, but I hadn’t wanted to let go.  Now I have.

The good news:  I have backups.  The bad news:  my only current alternative is a small netbook running Windows XP (and all my current programs were run on Windows 7).

Didn’t want to rush headlong into buying a new desktop, so the netbook came off the bench.

I upgraded the XP to Windows 8 (was actually 1/3 the price of upgrading to Windows 7), figured out how to use my monitor with it’s greater resolution as my screen, connected my mouse/keyboard and plugged my speakers into the headphone jack.

And thus the “Frankenetbook” was born.  Slow, awkward and not overly bright, but a real game changer.

On Voting

It took two hours.

As we voters waited, we all agreed the ballot was too long.  The amendments ridiculously difficult to understand.  But no one was upset or angry.

Children ran around the courtyard.  If asked, they would gleefully reveal whom “they” were voting for.    A couple of tables of men were sitting under the portico playing dominos.

We represented cultures from Europe, South America, South Asia and Africa.  Some of us were clearly from the shiny new condos to the east.  Others from the small modest homes surrounding the polling station.  But we felt as one.   We were all doing what we as Americans do.  We were voting.

Voting turned into a welcome two-hour respite from the tensions and stress of everyday life.

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