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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.


Everything aeronautical went like clockwork from the moment I left the hotel in Lome until Axel picked me up 25 hours later at Reagan National Airport. I got to travel the last hour in style with the upgrade I had coveted all along, just for the JFK-DCA leg. It got me a drink while the people in the back did not because we were given a very low altitude to travel due to inclement weather in the region. The upside of this, according to the captain, was that we didn’t have to wait for hours on the JFK tarmac and that we got a good view at the scenery below; the downside that it was very bumpy and (for those traveling in economy) that the flight attendants were asked to stay put.

I was in time to join our friend Larry for a celebration of his 70th birthday party. I have never traveled that far to a party. I was able to enjoy the festivities till the very end when I pulled on Axel’s sleeve and told him I couldn’t keep my eyes open.

I had tried to nap in our DC hotel room where Axel was already well ensconced. But there were too many impressions, as there always are, from the 25 hour trip rummaging around in my brain; a combinations of movies (Avatar, CSI), reading (Sapiens), and (electronic) puzzle pieces. I just couldn’t silence my brain’s attempts to make sense of all these data bits that were pulsing through my head to allow me to fall asleep; but I did rest.

Rest (and digest) is one of the many things Jon Kabat-Zinn writes about in his delightful little book ‘Wherever you go, there you are.’ The reading is a logical extension of our reading of Brene Brown’s ‘Daring Greatly,’ which has led to many wonderful conversations during the many hours we spent together (first in Holland and then in the car while Tessa was in the hospital). I suppose Axel’s reaching 70 and me 65 has sharpened our focus on what we want to be rather than do.

Reading Kabat Zinn, Brown, Tessa’s illness and my coaching course with its intense exposure to what happens in our brains led me to start a daily meditation practice again. Some years ago I used to meditate 20 minutes before going to work but when it became another thing on my to do list and required me to get up  even earlier I dropped the habit as the the ‘have to’s’ canceled out the benefits of my meditation practice.

During this trip, and encouraged by Kabat-Zinn I realized I was ready to practice again, especially with my hyper travel schedule and the stressful last few months. I set myself a goal of 8 minutes. Combined with my ankle and hip exercises I am good for at least 10 per day minutes of living in the present. I have set my sights on increasing this here and now time, starting today.

While we are celebrating Tessa’s 32nd birthday from afar (her annual birthday bash at Lobster Cove has probably just ended on this Sunday morning), we are packing up to leave for Chadd’s Fort in Pennsylvania.  Axel has organized a trip to the Brandywine River Museum where, according to the NYT, there is a once in a lifetime exhibit of the works of one (or more?) of the Wyeths. This is how we are making our way slowly back home, and enjoying this mini vacation before my next trip to West Africa in two weeks.

Shifting gears

The Togo trip is nearly over. I am halfway home (in Paris now). I had wanted to buy an upgrade for the night flight from Lome but didn’t think it was worth the 500 euro Air France wanted. Instead I took a sleeping pill and I might as well have been in B-class. You can buy a lot of sleeping pills for 500 euro.

During this past week in Togo we, or rather ICRC, had brought together teams from rehab centers in Senegal, Mali, Niger, Togo and Madagascar. I knew some of them. Over the past three years we had organized these events but now we have passed the baton to ICRC which, in turn, is passing the baton to the management teams of those centers. In the process ICRC is also passing the baton of accompanying the process to its local (as opposed to expat) staff. This is how things should go. From being in charge I am now a hired hand.

We have worked together on this initiative with several Geneva- and field-based staff for the last several years. Now, after two last trainings (last week in Bangkok and this week in Togo), the teams will be coached rather than trained. They have their marching orders and have to show some pretty compelling results, starting in the next few months in terms of baseline data, and then over the next three years to show these data show improvements. No more easy money. Accountability it is!

We divided the coaching of the country teams over the next three years among our MSH colleagues. One will  coach the Cambodia and Myanmar teams, another the Pakistan teams, another the Togo and Madagascar teams and I get to travel to Mali and Niger in the fall (when the Harmattan blows in the Sahel). MSH is contracting with ICRC for my three trips to these countries and have monthly calls.  It won’t be enough to keep me gainfully employed but it will be interesting. I just have to find some other work in the side.

It was nice to have newcomers and old-timers to our management and leadership development program in the room together. The old-timers re-assured the newcomers that change was possible, that they should stop saying that they needed more money to do their work, and that they should start to change themselves rather than focusing on others to change. It was so very satisfying to have other people pass the message. This is experiential learning: experience first, then decide whether you like it or not. Having the old-timers in the room was very helpful.

I hardly left the hotel. One night I joined a small group to eat in a Chinese restaurant half a mile from the hotel.  A drunken motorbike taxi driver tried to recruit us to take a ride on his bike. He was ranting about how wonderful ‘les blancs’ were. We tried to ignore him but he ignored our silent treatment. At the Chinese we were the only guests, something that worried me but the food was good and freshly prepared. One of our ICRC colleagues has lived in China and dug up some Chinese words from his memory.

In front of the hotel is the beach which stretches all along the Bay of Benin for I don’t know how many miles. It is a beautiful wide beach with fine sands, the kind that would be any hotel’s dream in the US. But here it is, at least after dark, the territory of bad guys (‘brigands’). The hotel wouldn’t let us, two white women, walk the quarter mile or so to the water’s edge on our own even before it got dark.  And so a young hotel employee accompanied us and told us much about himself; when we arrived back at the hotel he wanted email addresses. This is all part of the dream of one day being sponsored to everyone’s dream – America. I let my younger colleague deal with this request. I get enough emails as it is from people desperate to leave the place they were born.


It has been two weeks since I last wrote.  It has been a bit of a rollercoaster ride. We finally landed and stepped out of the roller coaster when Tessa, Steve and Axel met with the neurologist. This was the top doc from Dartmouth who she had last seen two weeks earlier in the emergency room. As it turned out we had been given rather confusing, and at times scary, information. The last visit finally brought some clarity, which Tessa has described very well on the Mealtrain website so I will not repeat. Tessa may become a case for students to test their diagnostic skills one day.  She is recovering now, which may take a while. We are grateful that all the scary diseases have been ruled out.

After rushing back from Holland and then staying in a hotel in Manchester (NH) near the hospital, and several trips back and forth to the other Manchester, I finally returned home and to work.  I had just a little over a week before getting on a plane again. First to DC where I stood in for a colleague to moderate/facilitate a panel of disability activists, all formidable women, at a conference organized by Interaction, an umbrella organization representing both international development and humanitarian organizations. The session was about strategies for inclusion (who are we not reaching?), a complex topic. Some 30 people came to the session and engaged in spirited conversations that produced some very actionable ideas.

And then it was off to Africa again. I flew from DC, rather than returning first to Boston; besides it was convenient to return to DC on July 1st to celebrate our friend Larry’s 70th. Axel will drive down with a stop in NYC, and we will drive back up together on Tessa’s birthday (July 2).

I am glad I don’t usually fly out of DC (Dulles). The summer travel chaos reminded me what a great airport we have in Boston. The plane was so full that I couldn’t even bring my carry on. When I picked my seat the evening before I had one free seat beside me. But that was now taken by a 4 year old and his 6 year old brother. Dad wisely traded places with another family that wanted to sit together, and picked a window seat several rows away from his kids. Mom with daughter sat in the row in back of us.

All this meant that I had to take on dad’s job (I didn’t want to trade for a window seat), such as how the screens worked, and help with dinner. It also meant I had to worry constantly about sticky drinks being tipped over onto me.  Luckily this didn’t happen. However, the two boys, and their sister discovered a cart in the galley with unlimited coca cola. All through the 7 hours flight, while I was trying to sleep, they crawled over and under me, plastic cups with coca cola in their hands, and exclamations during movies that were not modulated by hearing their own voice. Sometimes all three kids sat next to me, and sometimes only one, squeezing back and forth between my knees and the chair in front of me. I should have bought the 145 Euro upgrade to the next class up which I had refused because I would have been in a middle seat.

And now I am in Paris, waiting to board the flight to Togo where I am joining colleagues from ICRC to get more rehab center staff ready to transform their centers.

The good and the bad

On Saturday June 3 we came to a lovely little castle (Kasteel Amerongen) which once housed the Kaiser who sat out his final years in Holland – a controversial move from the Dutch government but what can you do when the royal family ties are so deeply intertwined with Germany.

Despite the expectation of rain during our 9 day vacation in Holland, it was a glorious day and we celebrated my sister and brother-in-law’s 50th anniversary. Some 140 people joined us for this festive event, representing various phases of the couple’s life:  family, high school friends, study friends, fellow bureaucrats from Den Haag and Brussels and friends from their brief stay in Washington DC.

We continued to stay at their summer house in the center of Holland and do mostly nothing other than sleep in, eat all the goodies that springtime Holland has to offer and sit outside in the sun and talk.

And then we got the call from Sita that Tessa was in the ICU of Elliott Hospital in Manchester (NH) with what turned out to be Acute Transverse Myelitis.

We shortened our stay in Holland by one day and rushed home to be with her. She is leaving the hospital today for an acute rehab center closer to her home. I am posting updates on her condition at this website and will not repeat them here.

Off the beaten path

We visited the Mondriaan home in Amersfoort and two other art musea with ancillary exhibits about color and contemporaries. The forecast of mostly rain for our Holland vacation turned out to be wrong. One sunny day followed another and another. We walked around the old town which consist of narrow streets and canals, bikes coming from all sides and lovely terraces everywhere. We tried the beer of the local city brewer and has some other food stops. It is a town that is usually not on the US tourists itinerary. We would recommend it over amsterdam wich, in the summer, is a place to avoid.

At the end of the day we drove over narrow roads through farmland and woods to my sister’s summer place just south of Amersfoort, where we woould be staying the next few days with the golden wedding anniversary couple and various friends who had flow in from the US for the occasion.

We relaxed, ate constantly all the goodies that Holland has to offer, like cheese and the best bread in th world, and raw herring and such. Slowly more people started to trickle in, nieces and nephews taking care of the last preparations for the 50th wedding party.

August 2017
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