Archive for July, 2017

On the way home

Our Lyft ride (not using Uber as much anymore until they get their act together) was provided by Hemad whose family hailed from Kabul (Karte Seh – district 4, where we lived). He was pleasantly surprised when we tested our rusty Dari on him.

He took us to the Tic Tock diner, a fabulous round-the-clock (tic-tock) eating establishment on the west side near Penn Station. We had a wonderful breakfast and then parted – Axel to the MMA and me to the second day of the event.

It was not as much to my liking as the first day – there was simply too much talking to us. Over the years I have learned a thing or two about large group events, and this was one; what to do and what not to do. I would have made it more engaging. There were simply too many interesting people around me that I didn’t get to meet because we had too many and too long plenary sessions, people talking too much. I found myself consulting my watch, a sure sign I was bored.

By 4PM we were done and I met up with Axel downstairs. We took another Lyft ride downtown to the West Village and were looking for the old Speakeasy Chumley’s which was bought and redone in a way that it is no longer an inviting place and, apparently now only for the wealthy (a $$$ sign on Yelp). It had the old forbidding speakeasy door (I presume) which aimed to hide rather than publicize itself. We walked on.

We ended up at an Italian restaurant with a line of inviting chairs and small tables along the length of the restaurant. We sat down, started with just a drink and nearly 200 dollars later had had the most amazing nueva cucina (small) plates put in front of us.  Everything in NYC is overpriced for the hapless tourist. We got used to the steep prices and with every meal ventured a little further over the line of what we considered expensive only 3 days ago.

On Sunday and Monday it rained, feeling more like a late fall day. As we approached Newport the weather become more and more blustery, not a day for sauntering around this summer tourist town. We toured the old library (the oldest in the US I believe), visited the boatbuilding school and then made a tour along the summer ‘cottages’ that have made Newport famous.

The next day we had breakfast at the yacht club, surrounded by yachts and things bigger than. I imagined that the purchase price could feed and clothe the residents of whole provinces in Afghanistan for a month. And then there is the upkeep, the hauling and painting and the staff needed to do it all – probably good for another few months of clothing and feeding.

Most of the yachts were from Georgetown (Bahamas I suppose) – sleek and no doubt fast. they were preparing for a race around Narragansett Bay. One of the yachts had Amsterdam painted on its stern and flew a huge Dutch flag. We accosted a young man who was leaving the boat – disappointingly not a Dutchman. He is part of a group of people who live and work on yachts and belong nowhere and go everywhere, He didn’t seem happy. We, on the other hand, were happy to go home.


The graduation event is over and another event is taking place today. I signed up for both, not knowing exactly what to expect, a kind of a trust fall.

Some 225 of us clustered around the closed doors of the conference facility next to Madison Square Gardens and above Penn station. The level of noise generated by at least 100 conversations was deafening. The mood was upbeat, people were excited. I counted few men among the women, maybe a ratio of one man for every 10 women, and then a predominance of white women in the 30 to 50 year range. I asked one man what that felt like. “We are in the minority now!” He did not tell me what that felt like.

People had come from Korea, Turkey, Argentina, Australia and other far afield places. As usual, I saw no Africans. In the opening session we were asked to think about our aspirations for the day and people were invited to share (of course). I thought it would be good to get the microphone and say I hope to connect with people who were involved in development so that kindred spirits could find me. I wore my Burkina dress to help them. I also wanted to connect with a member of my French peer group, the only one there and folks from Boston.  It worked. But this is also why I know there were no Africans in the group.

Everyone there had completed the 7 months of webinar training and, presumably, the accompanying homework, though we have till August to complete it. I am among the non-completes. Some of us will continue our training to be certified (‘cert’) for short.

We participated in a fabulous simulation that I would like to run sometime. At each table we were considered a whole brain, with pairs of us representing various parts of the brain. And so I was, with a woman named JoAnn, the primitive brain, sitting next to the limbic brain pair, across the heart brain pair, with the neo-cortex and prefrontal cortex pairs at the other end of the table.  We then had to agree on a trigger event (being thrown under the bus) and each act out our reaction to the trigger. It was a rich exercise that helped me understand better how reactions to triggers happen. It was also a lot of fun.

As homework we were given a paperclip and given as assignment ‘to trade up’ with random New Yorkers, using our conversational skills in the process. My first reaction was one of anxiety and part of me saying ‘no, I am not going to do this.’ The assignment triggered the same intra-brain conversation that we had just acted out.

I was able to trade up my paperclip for a pen and then my pen for a bike light. I did both in one full sweep in the subway. After that I had learned that my requests only worked with people who carried bags full of stuff. I tried one more time with a gaggle of young women – they were game and searched through their tiny handbags (lens fluid?) but they had no backpacks with stuff and apologized they couldn’t help me.

The first trade was with a young couple who were interested in the program; the second uptrade was with a man sitting on my other side with earbuds in his ears. I interrupted him but he participated with a grin and searched in his bag for what to give me. That was the bike light.uptrade

The experience of such cold-calling was quite similar to trying to get stores to donate stuff for a school auction years ago and last fall when we went door to door in southern New Hampshire to convince people to vote the democratic ticket. At first I dreaded it and then I really got into it. same this time.

Car hotels and moules-frites

We are in New York now.  I unpacked my small carry-on yesterday and repacked for New York where are am joining a few hundred (?) others who have completed the Coaching training that I started in January. We are cohort two of a brand new program that has enlarged my view on things exponentially.

I have started to insert what I am learning in my practice, with the first successful (I believe) attempt this week in Cote d’Ivoire.  It is all very exciting.

It took us nearly 7 hours to drive from Manchester to New York. There was a lot of what I used to call ‘first gear’ stretches, but now we just call it stop-and-go. Luckily we had good books, good company (the two of us) and good music so the ride wasn’t that bad.

After we parked our car at its hotel for a fee that would get you a bed and a shower in other places, we walked to our hotel. It is right next to the Sex Museum. It looks more like an Apple store (lots of glass and white, attractively displayed merchandise. I think it is a shop rather than a museum. Between the shop and our hotel is a movie theater for adults only; now playing: animal sex. But the museum/store is cooler and hipper than the seedy establishments one would expect to be focused on sex. Our hotel does not rent rooms by the hour. It is clean and quite elegant.

We ate across the street in a Belgian restaurant that looked just like the Belgian restaurant in Dubai which looked just like the real thing with heavy red velour curtains hanging on large brass rings to keep the cold weather (respectively  90 and 110 degrees) out. There were wise sayings painted on the walls in French (and maybe Flemish), the kind of hanging lamps that are common in high ceilinged establishments in Belgium and Holland, balloons in the colors of the Belgian flag and specials because today is Belgium’s national holiday (or so they said).

I had steak tartare, Axel had moules-frites. He had a hard time choosing from the extensive beer menu. The menu had pairings suggested by the sommelier but we learned that a beer connoisseur is not a sommelier but a cicerone from our friend Larry’s son in law who practices this profession on the other coast.


The security agent at the Delta gate for the flight to Boston turned out to be American.  Not knowing this I replied to his questions in French. I think this may have annoyed him.

He asked where I was living (Boston) and where I came from (Abidjan). What had I done in Abidjan (I switch to English, understanding he is not a native French speaker. I work in public health). What does that mean? (me: I train doctors and nurses in management and leadership). What does that mean? I explain. He interrupts me, Madam you don’t have to answer my question but you wouldn’t be allowed on the plane (me: excuse me sir but I think I am answering your questions). So what does that mean, training in management? (I cite the 6 pillars of health systems work of the WHO). So then what happens? (me: we hope that the services improve). What services? (me, increasingly flummoxed, of health care). But they are doctors! Me: yes and many can’t manage themselves out of a paper bag, they never learned this in med school. He: and so then what happens?  I am even more flummoxed, feeling like I am speaking to a five year old. Me: Like when people who are sick need medicines, they are more likely to get the services and medicines they need.

He repeats, more agitated now, Madam, you don’t have to answer my questions and I will have to go over there (points to a bunch of uniformed people). I wonder, is his supervisor among them? That would be just fine as I am about to lodge a complaint. And then suddenly he closes my passport and waves me along.

I am immediately rewarded for my patience with the security man when the nice Delta employee who scans my boarding pass exchanges it for one with the seat number 1D. The universe is watching. Once comfortably seated in my seat 1D the pilot, through the PA system, apologizes to everyone on the plane for the security procedure. I was obviously not the only one. Whatever else happened to other people with other security personnel delayed our boarding. I ask for champagne and toast to the security man, wishing him to get better at securing our safety.


I spent three days with malaria experts from Africa and one team from Nepal, our own MSH advisors who brought along their government counterparts.  It was truly a united nations. United about the goal of eradicating malaria and about 20 different nations represented. In addition there were a few representatives from our competitors who, in this case, are also our collaborators. They will be taking the baton when our project that has provided the funding so far, ends in September. This is to make sure the transition doesn’t hurt the women and children who need to be treated or protected from malaria. It is an act of synergy and collaboration that is not all that frequent (outside partnering on a bid) in an otherwise very competitive field.

For three days we did not talk about malaria, or very little, but rather focused on the human harmony or disharmony that helps or hinders the work that needs to be done. This is of course entirely in line with the original founding philosophy of MSH, which was all about the unnecessary suffering and death as a result of poor management and leadership (and governance which was added later).

Our doctor experts, and their counterparts, are both causing and suffering the consequences of not understanding human dynamics. They know the theory and focus all of their attention on what others are doing wrong. It is a familiar refrain: the politicians, the senior leaders, the donors, the villagers, the healthcare providers…one or the other or all are doing things entirely wrong and so they need to be put on the right track. There is a lot of preaching and wagging fingers and doing it harder and louder when the hoped for result stay out.

For three days, in this coaching and communication workshop, I exposed them to everything I have learned over the past 7 months about the neuroscience of getting people to work better together, share, expand, appreciate, create a climate of trust, develop, celebrate and include. The term is to ‘up regulate’ those and down regulate the criticizing, the excluding, the judging, the withholding, limiting and dictating.

Although most of the people are doctors, they know little about the brain (little of the little we know about the brain), and so for a change I was the expert. Since the workshop was in English and French, with simultaneous translation, I switched between French and English in order to give one group and then other a break from the very uncomfortable headsets. On the third day I noticed some confused expressions on the faces of the French speakers. We had talked a lot about the limbic system and the amygdala. As I discovered, the word amygdala comes from the Greek word for almond, as the amygdala are almond shaped. But there is another part of the body that is also almond shaped, the tonsils which, in Dutch, German and French uses the same Greek derivative: amandelen, Mandeln and yes, indeed, amygdales.  And so, all the time I had been talking about the amygdala, they were wondering about tonsils. In my coaching course I have learned that ‘words means worlds.’ So very true. I was glad we had cleared that confusion up before everyone went home.

Psych roots

I believe I have closed a circle. I am reading (being read to) David Sapolsky’s   book ‘Behave’ which tracks behavior from the neurochemical processes that precede behaviors by milliseconds to what happens before that in minutes, months, years all the way back to childhood and what happens  in the womb. The chapter on early childhood development dragged out of my hippocampus (as I know now) all the theories and names that I learned 45 years ago. Some of the theories have been debunked but most have stood the test of time. The names of the researchers and their universities didn’t mean much to me at the time. Now they do.

I am dazzled by the complexities, multitude of agents, responsiveness to variation (environmental and endocrine), the improvisation, and learning and looping of brain processes. I am more surprised than ever that most of us, most of the people I know and work with, and those I meet around the world, behave more or less within the norms of the societies we were born into.

And although I know a lot more than a year ago about the brain, it is still one tiny bit of what there is to know. There are entire sections of the book that leave me perplexed and wondering, what did he just talk about? I go back 30 seconds or more and listen ago, still none the wiser. I am glad I took the Coursera course on the brain so I am a few steps ahead of Axel who is also reading the book and is even more perplexed. But in between the perplexities we are learning more about why we/others behave the way we/they do. And this is bringing me back to my initial professional discipline of psychology.


It will be 10 years since we fell out of the sky. I remember times when I thought things would never get to normal again. In some ways this has become true and in others it has not. We have become grandparents (normal), I continue to work and travel around the world (in economy class, normal), I ride my bike, the real Dutch one and the stationary one in my office at home (normal), I swim in the cove (normal in the summer only), we go out, watch Poirot or other cozy mysteries on our small TV screen on weekend evenings; we enjoy cooking and dining together, have friends over, and enjoy each other’s company (normal).

The things that didn’t go back to normal are mostly related to the shoulder and ankle injuries I sustained. I can no longer walk on uneven terrain and wake up with joint pain, especially in my damaged ankle. I have more or less intense prickles in my left foot (the aviator foot) and taking Gaba medicine to reduce the excitation of the nerves in that foot. Axel’s head injuries still show their effect albeit in subtle ways that only insiders can see.

When putting everything on scales of normal and not normal, the scales tip to the normal side. I believe we came out good if not better. Especially in that first year, 2007, we learned what ‘community ‘means in ways that most people take for granted. We learned the true meaning of gratefulness and altruism. And this is something we are now more tuned into, observing once again with Tessa’s illness that friends promote healing.

Summer has started at Lobster Cove. I swam across and around the cove twice this week. With my goggles on I am inspecting what’s below. At Tessa’s birthday party,  earlier this month when we were in Washington, many of the large oysters got picked and eaten, to my regret. I swam over the areas where we found a lot last year, including small ones that we left alone. I am looking for other areas like that. After the party, in addition to the large (empty) oyster shells we found at the beach, there were also large mussel shells, leaving us wondering whether the mussels are back or those came from a store. They were very large.  Maybe, like anything natural (bodies after a crash or entire ecosystems) restoration is possible and the cove will fill again with its normal inhabitants.

July 2017
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