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Smart animals

The first snow has just started to fall, on the wintry December 10 day. I was just in time planting 20 tiny Winter Aconaite (Eranthis) bulbs. They look like nothing, little shriveled up dark things that blend in with the debris from frantic squirrel activity over the last few months. As I was digging small holes in different parts of the yard I always found nuts from this or that tree that had already claimed the space. It is rather amazing how the squirrels remember where they put stuff. We would call that smarts, but I am not sure what it means for animals.

I am listening to a book about cephalopods, among them octopus, giant squid and tiny squid. It is a philosophical treatise about consciousness and what the amazing behavior of cephalopods teaches us about consciousness. As with most books I am reading or listening to these days, it is about the brain. But the brain and nervous system of the octopus is, I learn, not in the head but all over the body. In my coaching course the word ‘embodiment’ is often used and I am trying to figure out what that means for us humans – but for the octopus it is clear. The body and brain are one. And maybe we are like that too, as there are neurons (some 500 million) in our gut and (less) in our heart. And neural activity takes of course also place in our small toe.


Body and mind

At work things are quiet – which is always true just before the holidays – but I also have little project work to do and charge much time to overhead. This I don’t like, and I am sure my superiors don’t either, since I am relatively costly. I am using the time for self-care related to my arthritic ankle: cupping, a massage technique that separates the fibers in my traumatized ankle with all its scar tissue, massages and physical therapy. On Fridays this can take up half a day.

I also use my down time to read up on professional literature that I have put aside. As always I am amazed about the knowledge and experience that is constantly being accumulated – but I am also heartened that by the fact that the so-called soft stuff of development is now being acknowledged as important (above and beyond what is usually referred to as ‘technical skills’). I even saw the word ‘co-create’ surface here and there. Now I am in my element – it’s time for me to write about how one can do this. I have some ideas.

Another year

On Sunday I passed from 65 to 66. I told Axel we should have taken a ride on Route 66 but it is a bit far from here. Instead he took me on a surprise birthday trip to Portland (Maine) where he had created a feast that went from fabulous lunch to fabulous dinner to fabulous hotel to fabulous breakfast to fabulous lunch before we headed home via Tessa and Steve.

They whipped up a fresh pasta meal for us with leftover sauces from their annual friends dinner where some 18 people come together to enjoy each other and great food. It’s a wonderful ritual that reminds me a bit of our periodic taco nights when we lived in Georgetown (MA) and the guys vied with each other for who could eat the hottest taco – sweat drops running down their foreheads as they pushed beyond limits. Was it fun? For us not engaged in this contest it was great fun to watch the men in their self-imposed suffering.



Back in July I started an experiment related to an auto-immune disease called Hashimoto’s that I inherited from my mother. The disease is common among light skinned and blond haired women of European descent. Mothers pass it on. It was diagnosed rather late in life and rather surprised – I had never heard of the disease and had none of the associated symptoms. I didn’t notice any difference before and after the diagnosis was made and after taking the pills to up the performance of my thyroid.

Tessa turned me on to some books written by a pharmacist who also had the disease and made the relief of her and others’ severe symptoms her life’s work. I learned that there are some foods that exacerbated her symptoms. My goal was not to alleviate symptoms, since I had none, but rather to get off the medication. I started a four-month experiment, first by removing gluten from my diet – gluten is a known inflammatory agent.  When tests were done after three months there was no difference from a year earlier – some values had gone up a bit and some down. So much for the gluten, though it has been nice to support Tessa for whom gluten is turning out to be really a bad thing.

Then I started another experiment, with the doctor’s consent, to stop taking the thyroid medicine altogether. Again, I noticed no difference. But when my bloodwork results came in today both my primary physician and endocrinologist told me to immediately get back on those pills; the values were wildly out of range, in the wrong direction.  That ended the four month experiment and I am back where I started.

Now I am starting a new experiment, also to get off medication, this time off the statin I am taking for high cholesterol. With about 17 pounds lost and on a daily exercise regime I am wondering whether I still need the medication. With the doctor’s consent I pushed the pill bottle to the back of the shelf, until early February when bloodwork will tell me whether I can continue without or need to get back.

The last experiment is to get off the Neurontin for my ankle zings and prickles. I have started a treatment of cupping – the creation of space in the mass of scar tissue in my left ankle – a dense mass that my overexcited foot nerves can’t seem to penetrate. The first treatment was encouraging – increased mobility and range of motion, less pain.

New routines

I arrived home on a near perfect Indian summer day, but the swimming days were over. This left as the only option the joining of a fitness club to keep up the swimming that had so become a part of my daily routine. I joined the Manchester Athletic Club. Axel is already a member but doesn’t use it much, preferring yoga at the gentler local Yoga studio – no bulky sweating men or women there.

As part of the membership orientation one gets a fully evaluation by a fitness professional. It was fun and very interesting. I had earlier embarked on a significant lifestyle change which I was able to maintain during my travels in West Africa: more exercise, more walking (no elevator use wherever there are elevators) and eating only what I need rather than what I want – at least when in hotels where breakfast buffets were probably responsible for my average weight gain of 5 pounds per trip.

I experienced what people who are exercising regularly have always told me: at first it is a bit of a chore – shall I ride my stationary bike at home or do some I find more enjoyable. Now that has changed – I look forward to the routines and miss it when I cannot.

In less than two weeks I will fly out again. The suitcase remained open and ready – I will be going back to West Africa for my last work trip this year.

System D

Système D stands for débrouillard. There is a long tradition in Africa of people making do with what they have. People have forever been making utilitarian goods out of things we usually discard such as tin cans, rubber tires, CDs and more.

Yet at the same time there is a persistent sense of hopelessness, victim hood and low confidence in the ability of the continent to pull itself out of the morass of poverty, illness and strife.

I see light points everywhere but they don’t seem to add up. There are people I know or have heard of who have been able to harness the innate talent at ingenuity.

My ICRC colleague A. in Bamako changed the outlook and attitude of the rehab center’s welder. He used to sit under a tree waiting for someone to bring him something to weld. When A. Told him “you can make a wheelchair” the welder rolled his eyes. But when A. showed up with a plan and materials he learned how to make a wheelchair. Since then he has made lots of frames. The director of the Centre was so proud of him that he took me over and they posed for a picture. The primitive storage room behind him was full of shiny frames. The director promised he would give him a proper workshop. Now it is a slab of concrete with a corrugated iron roof. No walls, looking more like an oil change station than a manufacturing workshop.

The possibilities are endless but it seems there always needs to be someone else from outside the system who is not paralyzed by the constraints. So too was the man who asked the artisanal shoe and slipper maker, sitting outside the museum on the sidewalk whether he would be interested in learning how to make orthopedic shoes. The shoemaker himself had a disability and could not walk. He said yes and rest is history. He is the only orthopedic shoemaker in the country and now training a young man to take over when he retired in a few years.

New connections

It’s been two weeks since we have been back from Maine. I dove back into work after Labor Day, finalizing documents that need to be finished when the main project that has kept me busy closes on September 23.

I facilitated a two weeks virtual seminar on governance, Governing for Good, on LeaderNet,  MSH’s platform for learning and connecting, that closed on Friday. Getting people to post on such seminars is tricky – we don’t quite know why.  With some prodding we ended up hearing from some twenty people (10% of those registered) including two young men from Bhutan which I was thrilled about. They are studying in Thailand. I know their professor who encouraged them. This is really one of the best parts of my job, to establish relationships, even if they are only over the internet, with young people who have little access that all the resources that abound.

My connection with the Naresuan University in Thailand is fascinating. It started with a simple query we received. I followed up and before I knew it I was an associate or adjunct professor with my own email address at this faraway university. Since then I have befriended the director of a new international health systems management program (Masters and PhD) and his mentor, advisor to the Dean and ex Deputy Minister of Health of Thailand.  Since teaching is really my vocation and passion, I am thrilled at these new connections.

I am preparing for a trip under a new contract with ICRC, that allows me to keep working with ICRC colleagues and their rehab center counterparts in Mali and Niger. The trip is supposed to start a week from Monday, if the paperwork gets taken care of. It has been a bit stressful since getting visas for these two countries takes a bit of time. I may not get my passport back until the day I leave.

I have also entered, after hours, into the last three months of getting certified as a Conversational Intelligence™ certified coach. This too is connecting me with people all over the world who have, if not similar professions, at least a passion for helping people find their strengths.  Although the program is a bit pricy I decided to go for it, as I am seeing potentially the end of my long run at MSH, if no other source of funding comes through.  I will move into coaching as a profession rather than as a hobby.

January 2018
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