Foolishness, Fear and Failure

Double Amputee Chosen for Olympic Hopscotch Team in Upcoming Summer Games

Fact for Today: Personal drug of choice is Alka Seltzer, which is overtaking Ibuprofen

Based on the time you have for reading, this has some length to it and you may want to print it for later reading in the bathroom or while waiting for jury duty or a major traffic jam.

2/21/14, was just a generally wonderful day! I finished work before dark, came home to an empty veranda and a meal that was just deliciously right – no salt and no rice for 12. Tomorrow Peter is arriving and he will be dragging his sweet ass along after the marathon trip through SF, Taipei and on to Phnom Penh with a bus to Kampong Cham. He does have an overnight in Phnom Penh which will allow him to put his feet up before heading off in the bus. It will be so good to have him here and his adventure will be equally amazing, if not quite so “office” oriented as mine is. Nonetheless, we are each on an adventure with time to share as we go along.

And the concert in the night market just half a block away is just getting fired up…high base beat, loud…but all ends in Kampong Cham around 11pm at the latest, so it is not as sanity-threatening as a night in Mexico that starts like this.

2-22-14 And it is a new day all over again. Kinks and twists continue to happen, but I am impressed that I am not quite feeling the same blind-sided smack that comes with each one. Lou continues to rest on my shoulder and whispers eternally, “Oh what could go wrong?” I wonder why either of us asks!

This morning, however, I have found my way to Destiny Cafe where they serve the only REAL coffee in Kampong Cham. My latte is topped with a beautiful design that lends me to deep and meditative gratitude. Ohhhhhh, heaven.

Peter has discovered en route into his adventure, that he forgot to account for the gaining of a day and realized this morning in Taipei that he has missed an entire day and will have to pay for the night at the hotel where he did not show up because he was in the air. He will stay in PP tonight to just get a bit of rest before taking the 3 hour bus trip here so he can try to regroup a bit physically and tomorrow will take the bus to KC. We will have the afternoon together and he can walk around this very wonderful little city and get some grounding. We have the evenings together during the coming week and will make the most of it. He will eventually get a plan for traveling to the bigger places for his photography, coming back to the house for the weekends when he can. He is having some of those “poor baby” days that put the parentheses around adventure. Destiny Cafe also sells cookies and little cakes so I will buy 2 of them to have for his welcome. Two eggs over easy with toast coming out next. Sounds so civil, no???

And now to the core of this week’s reflections and the headline news lead. I apologize for any sense of political incorrectness in my headline and I do not mean to hurt the feeling of amputees in general or in particular here, but it is what it is.

It is the highest probability that I truly was the only candidate they had anywhere on the international MSF radar when they were looking to fill this position. So much for the schmooze!  They glanced at my CV and said “Perfect” and either they did not see the lack of synchronicity or they ignored it. I am here and trying to catch on to the “game” and to see what I can and cannot adapt to.  The “hopping” thing is the biggest challenge.  I played hopscotch for the better part of my young life.  I had a cool lager and could air-turn in the last section without any need for a double landing.  Perhaps they had heard about me.  I did not list in on my CV! But did they know they were asking a virtual ‘double amputee’ in this very specific instance??? That factoid was not included in the screening interview either.  But people have met this type of challenge before me and come through with flying colors. Perhaps I will even become a medalist.  As you will understand later in the narrative, a medal is a shiny object.

For a bit of clarification for everyone (and myself) who wonders how I get to a point like this, there is process that I will try to share with you.


I am now, and have been for all of my life that I can remember, someone who is attracted to bright, shiny, brilliantly colored, sparkly things! My whole being responds to objects like this. I could well have been someone who might have sold my country for a handful of beads and thought I had gotten a really good deal. I am also a lot like the dog who chases the squirrels…barks wildly and then is immediately distracted by another and goes there too. Everything is pretty much Exotic, Wow-fully-Challenging and Crazy-Amazing! It all seems like the “good idea” at the moment. No thought or planning is included. No outcomes are considered and consequences be damned. Examples of this behavior/choice include:

Travel to Europe with my friends after high school.
Europe? Wow? I will go to Europe? (Bark, Bark) Where is Europe? And so we get on a ship and we sail to Europe.

Then there was Maryknoll. I want to work “internationally.”  Maryknoll? (Jesuits have spent a year teaching me about Catholicism.) It sounds so great, so abstractly mesmerizing and it resonates with something inside me that seems magnificent. Women during the 60’s not being so generously included in getting into such roles, I kept running from tree to tree and found Maryknoll. Bark, bark! They think like the Jesuits, go abroad and work and I have just recently been reinstated in the Catholic Church. Oh the barking that went on!!!! And I got in, got on a train and departed.

Then there were several travel events and they all got my attention in the same way. Wow, that place! I heard of that place! I should go there! (Bark, bark) And then I went. BVI, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, Mexico. In these cases I had Peter as my barking partner. Whether or not he will agree, he has shiny object/barking-dog- squirrel chasing syndrome too. He just looks more like he is actually “pondering it” while in reality he is out there barking right next to me. How do you think we picked Sumatra? We had a lot of miles on our card, figured out how far they would take us, spun the globe and it landed on Sumatra. Bark, bark, bark.

So perhaps you can see how I made a choice for Cambodia. Bark, bark, bark! MSF is the squirrel and I love working with TB so I bark a bit more, they call me and say, “I think you might be interested in going to Cambodia for our TB project for 3 months. Bark, bark! Can you leave in 5 days. Bark, bark, bark!

Lou nestles happily on my shoulder, repeating over and over with exuberant delight, “What could go wrong???”

Then, as I fly or begin to move forward with the realization of the fact that I actually do have some shiny beads in my grip or a squirrel squirming in my gentle grip (after all I do not want to kill the squirrel – what would I have to chase if I killed it. And if I killed it maybe there would never be another one.) I let my little human heart tell his little squirrel heart that I will do no harm to it, but we can play together for a while. I am sure he “hears” this as his eyes become softer and he breathes more easily. Oh this will be such fun!)

So Squirrel is in place (or shiny objects are in my sweaty little palm) and we look at what comes next. The barking has stopped.  What next? Hmmm, never thought about that!


At this point, I check into another space in my being. It has no love of shiny objects or squirrels and there is no Wow-factor in this place. It is just afraid of everything!!!! For this being there is only the “Oh, fuck!!!! factor. Catastrophic consequences loom at every turn. I will get lost and never find my way home. I will lose everything I own and no one (including me) will recognize me and I will live as a woman without a country forever. In Europe I had a recurring nightmare that I lost my immunization records somewhere and as we returned to the US and entered NY harbor, they saw that I had lost this record and they pushed me off the boat and I had to tread water and try to plea my case. I was always tired when I woke up.

On my way to Cambodia things in this department remain the same. Lou has no place in this part of my being. A trembling little shriveled mouse-like creature  (Weenie) whines constantly at the top of its little lungs and encourages me to see the next moment of peril. I cannot tell anyone what my own phone number is and it changed while I was not looking so that is even worse. My legs could just give way under me (if I had them, which on this trip I am pretty sure that I do not) and I would be lying in a heap in a place where I cannot even find a translator app to give me a clue how to say “call 911”  The stove in the house uses a propane canister. I could blow everything up. I might burn myself in the process because, not having ever smoked in my life, I never learned the art of using a child-proof lighter…or any other lighter for that matter. This last fear would become moot immediately however because the ensuing explosion I would cause, would kill all the pain of the burnt fingertips and everyone else in my house and neighborhood. They assign me a bike for transport back and forth to work. Traffic is a mystery. It is based on some theory of slow, bob-and-weave and while I am assured that everyone will just weave around my unknowing ass, I could be crushed or killed or I could hit someone myself. If I work in the data base I could inadvertently delete everything in the computer and destroy all the cumulative knowledge about TB in Cambodia in a single stroke. I have diarrhea – oh, god I must have dengue fever.

So the reality of the captured squirrel is becoming grounded and defined – the voices of Lou and Weenie are in hot competition. No one is sure who will triumph but they both fight fiercely. Noise, poverty, the absence of Dairy queen, discovery that there is no “nursing” in my job – just an amazing amount of activity monitoring, staff management and data entry. All manner of reality. We will see who emerges next, but in seeing these first two perspectives, you must note very clearly that altruism and courage are not the keynote elements of how I choose things that I do in my life. Just so you know!


So I do recognize and acknowledge the phrase, “Failure is not an option.”  Well, I am here to assure everyone that it is in fact an option. Occasionally in each of our lives, this occurs and we learn from it. It becomes a tool. But it always appears on the list of possibilities and options.

I do not think we fear or shy away from it being included in the “list” because inherently we do recognize that we get up and keep going if it does happen. If the world, in reality, shifts imperceptibly as the result of our catastrophe, for the most part we accept our role in it and go on. I have realized that is actually, for me anyway, the public witness to such a reality. I have always imagined myself doing things perfectly or at least being able to reconstruct reality so that the “failure” is actually manifested as the perfect solution to my alteration of the information. It is the “I-meant-to-do-that” syndrome. A sort of “magic trick” – smoke and mirrors. I have 3 very short months here. This body of data cannot be altered or reconstructed by me or anyone else. The time frame is too short. I will learn part of it, maybe come close to most of it. I will work every day to make that happen, but in the presence of all I do, there is no guarantee that the outcome will parallel the expectations and the need. Does this make it a failure? Hmmmm?

For a while – most of the time since I have been catapulted into this role I am in – the possibility promised me nothing but public humiliation. After all, I am posting all of this stuff on the blog! On a daily basis, I pile papers up and move them from one stack into another. There are names for these stacks, but I still have to learn those. I enter data into the computer – a little loved or practiced skill EVER in my world.  The language barrier – even when we seem to be speaking the same one – is hampered with multiple, mind-boggling, confusing accents. Through the day, what is somewhat clear in the freshness of the morning becomes a gibberish that, in the late afternoon, presents me with one or two comprehensible words and the need to either have it repeated for the 5th time or try to surmise what might link the assorted understood words together into the idea we are working on. That can be dangerous. Paige and Lia this is as it was when we were trying to figure out, before we went to bed at night, what we had talked about on any given day during the trip to France.

In conclusion, after this long rant, I have had a wonderful “reality-perception shift.” It does not exclude the possibility of failure and it does not include any sense of the impending doom or public humiliation. I am persistent. I keep coming back. I get a little something new each day. Eventually I will recognize whether or not it has been a worthwhile piece of the puzzle. The actual shift has been in both my heart and my head.  In the end, I will have done all that I can do. It is not nursing in the sense I would love to be doing it – it is not nursing at all. It is however a true effort to have some impact on the disease of TB which prevails in many countries and threatens to spread continuously if means are not found for detecting and treating it. I am part of this effort. MSF has taken on the challenge and is doing its best with all the resources it continues to use in the process. I am one of the resources and part of the process and I am grateful to be here for it. Whether or not I am the best choice, I am the choice. Our conclusions which I will help provide after the screening process finishes at the end of March, will contribute to a greater body of information. I am not likely to be one of the medalists, but I am on the team. That is what it is about. And that is what I signed up for. It is not shiny or leaping along tree branches. The voices are softened. Lou and Weenie are resting. I seem to be driving the bus again. I love you all


Home Away From Home

My ‘digs’

I begin writing this on my first Sunday in Kampong Cham and it is about 90 degrees. I have desperately tried to get out of going to the wedding of a national staff person who barely knows me – and whom I know even less, although she did give me some money for my work site! It apparently would be shirking the social side of our life here and I was assured that it will be a good way for the participants in the project – staff of MSF and Kampong Cham (KC) – to get to know me better. I was told I could bring my camera so right there it became a better possibility. I was also assured by Myriam, project coordinator, that if I needed it, someone would bring me home early. I am skeptical of promises made in the company I keep at this point and I don’t think it is a unfair perspective. For all I know they could be taking me to yet another airport and telling me they got the wrong person and I will be further installed in the land of Cha Pipp which is a country that has many unrecognized diseases, is in its own time zone and has a language yet un-recognized, even by the inhabitants.photo_1[1]photo_2[1] photo_3[1]

My dear friend Aldo has a constant companion who keeps vigil of his life and whispers frequently in his ear – “So what could go wrong!” His name is Lou. He seems to have found a place next to my right ear as well. He and I will be talking more about exactly what really can go wrong. For the moment I have been suckered in and am about to go to shower and put on my one skirt, fluff up my very curly hair and check for ungainly facial hairs before I climb into the car.

So for this installation, I will give you a little insight into my new “home.” It is in Kampong Cham, which is a very large province in Cambodia and the city of Kampong Cham (KC) is comfortably large but not as large as Phnom Penh. I am geographically and numerically challenged to begin with. “How big?” and “How many?” are questions that have a limit in my mind that really has not changed in my lifetime, despite memorizing facts for a single purpose, generally a test in school. There is, for me, very big; big; medium; and small. There are really a lot; a lot; a good bit and a few. Go to Google for facts and maps. Distances will be gauged by minutes and hours relative to the vehicle I am traveling in.

KC is 2 hours by car from Phnom Penh. There is an incredible amount of road construction, so time is almost always altered by that. The general top rate of speed, by driver choice, is 30 -35 miles per hour. The horn is used just to let people know you are coming and you will slow down if they do not. It is, in contrast to the US, more of a genial salutation rather than a “I will get out of the car and beat the shit out of you if you don’t pick up the speed or get out of my way.” Cars are really minimal in this city. Motos (motorbikes) are the preferred choice for travel/family vehicle. If you were to be run over by one of then it would be non-life threatening and more like a deep tissue massage than an injury event, depending on how many are on the moto or what cargo it is transporting. For the most part, top number for the moto is 4 but can go to 5 if really small children are warmly sandwiched between the adults/elder child. Occasionally helmets are worn, but rarely in family groups. I think some of the young guys use them for the “cool” factor – not referring to temperature here. MSF requires them for our national staff. MSF ex-pat staff are FORBIDDEN to ride on or drive a moto. Sort of sad. We do have some dandy single speed bikes and as soon as they figured out that I could gracefully and safely ride given my age, I got a bike. I probably would have done more walking, but I think they feel they get more bang for the buck when they get you to work just that much more quickly. Who knows what can get done in that extra 5 minutes? Home is at most a 10 minute ride from the office. I ride with more or less stuff on my back and/or in my basket. No one in this country would EVER run over a curly haired white lady. I am told not to be fearful as they will weave around me if I am not in the right place. I am however not inclined to release my fear all that readily and frequently just pull over to the curb. I cross 2 busy streets and make one left turn onto one of them. Gratefully, I go to work when there is little to no traffic. Coming home is more dicey.photo_4[1]photo_5[1]

You will see in all the photos of our home here that I am not in one of the disaster areas MSF is so well-known for. There is poverty here but this country is not presently in the throes of a war that is ravaging the area. That already happened several times and we were the responsible party during the Viet Nam war. We call it “collateral damage.” It is also not currently an area struck with epidemic disease. I will not really ever be part of one of those assignments anywhere. It takes a very special person to do that work and my skill set does not fit there at all. Here it is about TB detection and treatment.

Back to my home, we have person who is the housekeeper and cook and she is amazing. While we are at work she prepares extensive meals and washes our clothes. It is really something else to feel how welcome a gift that is as you come in from the work and try to squeeze a last little bit out of yourself before you go to bed. Not having to think about these other tasks is just that – a gift! We take care of ourselves on the weekend. The kitchen is ample, the stores have things we need, regardless of where we come from and there are restaurants where the only way you could pay $10 for a meal would be if you got an entire bottle of wine instead of a glass. The top $ meal on the menu last night at the restaurant I went to was $5.50. Portions are huge! Of course a vegetarian thrives here, but I saw a big slab of beef on a plate served to a neighboring table. I don’t think they would have hold of a rare/medium/well done notion, but it is unquestionably “meat.”

Salt is a food group! Patricia and Lucy would find it “perfect.” I have finally given the cook instructions to use none at all and I will add it. We will see how that goes this coming week. I have also put a “hold” on the rice as she cooks enough for several meals and as it is, I use one dinner for my night meal and my next days lunch and still have left over food. I end up putting a pretty good size sample of my leftovers out for the staff to include in their lunch which they seem to enjoy. The only thing I do not share is my fruit. I have fresh pineapple and mango every night. One night I got 3 mangosteens! Very yummy. I have enough fruit in that one meal she leaves for me for my dinner, the next days lunch and a breakfast smoothie.

I share in the house with 4 other MSF staff and an additional guest who lives here. We have our own rooms. My bed is comfortable and the fan is necessary. Soon AC will be required and that is available but not yet necessary. Daytime temps go up to about 90 and will continue to climb as this is the dry season. The rains will start in May and I will be gone.view from my room to hallway

interesting shower conceptThe bathroom is interesting. The floor for the entire room slopes to a single drain in the corner of the room. The toilet is a standard western one. There is a “bidet” hose connection next to it. The shower is on the other side but no “shower floor” separates a designated shower area. So the whole bathroom floor gets wet as you shower. It swirls to the drain as you continue to shower. The water pressure doesn’t really allow for flooding. The slick, wet tile floor can however be amazingly slippery. My solution has been to towel off and then throw the towel down to sop up the area that leads to the door. I walk carefully across the towel, mop up the remaining water and take my towel to the laundry bin. Has been a safe process so far. This is also the point where the “thought for the day” becomes most important.


This last photo is the descent from our 2d floor to the first.  It is directly across from the door to my room.  It was made for people with 4ft long legs and size 3 shoes.  I am neither.  I still go up and down like a 2 year old and consider it a workout.   Forgetting something on either level causes me to assess the value of that thing very seriously.

perilous staircase

So the adventure goes on and you have a hint at where I am these days, when I am “home.” And this is a full week later, Sunday morning and I am looking forward to the day and whatever comes with it. Hope you are doing something wonderful and fun wherever you are.


ps Peter will be here next weekend and so some of the photos might have caused the blog to come up slowly.  I will figure out how to reduce the size of all the pics for next time with my expert teacher at my side!  Cheers!!!

Git ‘er there

Flying into Phnom Penh at 1am (local time)

Flying into Phnom Penh at 1am (local time)


Make shift sleeping quarters in Phnom Penh

Make shift sleeping quarters in Phnom Penh

Current reading: Monuments Men (WW II corps who saved the art treasures that Hitler was threatening and how they found the ones he had hidden.  It is a movie with John Goodman and a bunch of other great actors

Thought for the day:  It is not wise to try and remove a broken light bulb from a lamp that is still plugged into the current.  Gives the  heart a bit of a restart even if you weren’t in need on

I will eventually figure out how to get pictures in without duplicating them.  For now, these are the only two that document anything about my indescribable travels that I have in fact tried to describe here.

With my very best interests at heart, MSF (Medecins Sans Frontiers/Doctors Without Borders) hurtled me from Texas to Kampong Cham, Cambodia and on to my particular work site in Tboung Khmum (pronounced roughly like Taboom Kaboom with a really slack jaw.) “Hurtling” someone is very different than “sending” and you will understand this better as you read.

I left TX mid-morning Jan 30 and landed in NY late at night. Delivered by shuttle for a night in Chelsea Comfort Inn. Shuttle filled with interesting group…mostly die-hard Superbowl fans. Found a grocery store open a block away and bought late-night supper..prosciutto, brie, pear a baguette and a fine bottle of Carminiere. Meetings started right away in the early morning and finished late afternoon. Sent by subway to Doctor for additional shot I needed to carry to the assignment so I could get it in a month. Took the wrong subway and got off at a more wrong stop and had to walk very far to get to the office late. Refrigeration needed for shot. New bag with ice pack to add to “luggage.” Back to hotel to finish off last nights meal. Feet tired, body exhausted, mind on Grade 1 Overload. (I have learned that there are many grades of overload and G1 is relatively harmless.In this one, I need to seriously limit social interactions or acknowledge that the blank stare I offer as someone speaks is not intended for “offense” – just nothing inside my head that is on any of the burners!) Very brisk walking past many restaurants on my return, but no heart for stopping. Needed a bed more then sitting in another small space even if good food was being brought to me for a high price. No per diem covers what I would want to eat in downtown Manhattan. Crazy football fans cluttering up the streets anyway with all their enthusiasm spilling out to unsuspecting passers by.

Next morning, up for 9am taxi to airport and the serious stuff starts. Flight from NY to Seoul, Korea is only 15 hours rather than the 19 hours I thought I was signed up for. BUT the flight from Seoul to Phnom Penh was almost 6 hours instead of 3. The airport time in between was just enough to push the lesser woman over the edge.Flying into Phnom Penh at 1am (local time) I arrive in Phnom Penh 2 hours late but cab driver has decided to wait. Yay cab driver. Customs has long lines but at 2am everyone is pretty subdued. Cab ride is uneventful. Streets are pretty empty at 2 am. The new night watchman at MSF is there for his first night on the job. He has no key for the huge padlock on the guest room door and no money on his phone so he can call any of the numbers I have for MSF to get someone to come over. I suspect he does not want to do this anyway since it will make him look poorly on the new job. I am so far beyond caring!!! I tell him I will work it out and find that a small kitchen on the 2d floor has a sliding door I can close. I take the cushions off the outdoor porch furniture, line them up on the shiny tile floor and thank god for ambien. I find a carton of milk in the refrigerator and drink it. While they fed us huge meals on the plane (relatively speaking), I am strangely hungry. Also I have been directed to the bathroom that is on the ground floor in the far back reaches of the office. It has a mandi! This is a porcelain squat toilet (level with the floor – treads for your feet on either side of about a foot deep hole.) Nest to it is a basin of water with a dipper for butt wash and flush force. Manually tossed onto butt, pish and a second one for the flush. Don’t work too hard on the image. It is not pretty. Oh, I am feeling special.Make shift sleeping quarters in Phnom PenhThe staff arrives at 8am but I have already been up since 4am pondering many things. I get to have about 5 minutes (extensive orientation is obviously moot) each with 3 of the leadership people in Phnom Penh and I am off again with assurance that I will be brought back in a month so they can tell me what I really am doing. I have since been told that going back for this grand orientation is a promise of mythic proportions and is so unlikely to happen, that I should let it go already. Just one ore thing I can take off the To Do list.

Two hours drive in a Toyota truck/land-roverish vehicle. Much very dusty road construction but the air condition is on. And Voila! I am home and lunch is on the table. I get to eat and I am off to the office to begin my orientation with my first sets of meetings in my new role. My body is physically present, my feet are swollen and my brain cells are wilted and desperately wondering where all the synaptic connections have gone. Personally I believe, all the connectors are somewhere in NY still scrambling to find me and catch up. I just wish they would hurry the hell up. Finally I have to leave the 3d meeting when I realize it is going to continue for at least another hour or 2 and I have heard nothing in the first hour I have been there. I also may fall off my chair and my mantra has been ”Please god, do not let me fall down, fall asleep or fall apart in any inappropriate places!” I feel that all three pleas are about to go south in a bad way. I walk out the gate and start for home and realize I do not know where home is. I go back and the young man at the gate points and describes something that involves a “straight” and a “left” and vaguely where that is supposed to happen. I only make one wrong-ish turn but a small shop owners daughter speaks some English, knows where the MSF guest house is and directs me the final 2 blocks.

I forget to sign up for meals and just don’t care. A Thai visitor offers me some of his veggie omlette that has been tenderly prepared. He applies a lovely cilantro garni and I wolf it down as politely as possible. No one else is home and I am long asleep when they do arrive.

There are no photos to share this exhilarating flow of time. And my words, however drawn out in your estimation, are in fact, only the tip of the iceberg! I can say however that as I write, I am re-entering the land of the living and in spite of my direst nightmares, I may actually make it! And I will let you know if and how the rest unfolds.