Adapting To Life

[Photo: Warthog, Majete National Park, Malawi]

30 January 2017

I’m on the bus to Lilongwe. I paid for the AXA Executive Coach, which is non-stop and has snacks and a bathroom. It is always totally full, crammed with people into tiny, distinctively not executive seats. I missed it, thinking it left at 7:30AM. It left at 7 so I’m on the local, which gets in an hour later but is only half full. I have the entire rear seat to myself; if I were tired, I could stretch out and snooze. I’m not, so I can spread out my stuff and write, knowing I am probably in the safest seat in the unlikely possibility of a crash. (That sounds a bit like the Carlsberg beer slogan, “Probably the best beer in the world.”  Not totally convincing.)  Unless the engine explodes underneath me, in which case I shall take the little red hammer from its hanger and exit a window promptly.  The very back of the bus exaggerates the bumps in the road, however, and I often type gibberish or grab my laptop before it sails off onto the floor.

Yesterday we rented a car and drove to Mulanje. Linda’s very long-time friends, Pat and Stacy, are here from Santa Fe for 3 weeks.  Pat’s a gastroenterologist and will teach at Queens; Stacy’s a retired attorney who will help with fundraising at Samaritans, the orphanage where I consult. We drove to the massif and partway around it on a dirt road, heading toward a forest lodge for lunch. On the way we passed through a small village and were approached by all manner of young men trying to sell us hiking sticks carved from Mulanje cedar, wanting to guard our car, and asking us to hire one of them as a guide to hike to the well-known nearby waterfall. I heard, “George” and looked up to see Lucius, who was a guard at a home on our street last Fall. Needless to say, we bought the hiking sticks and hired both Lucius as guide and his friend, Alex, as guard. The hike to the waterfall was gradual, took about an hour, and the destination was very lovely, with a deep pool for swimming. We waded, not having bathing suits. On the path I spoke with Lucius about his life. He grew up in this tiny village at the foot of Mulanje. When he was in 10th grade, three years ago, both parents were travelling to Blantyre in a minibus that collided head-on with a truck. 15 dead, including his mother and father. He had to drop out of school to support the family. His two sisters are in school and he plans to return when they finish. There is a rueful sadness in his face as he tells me his story. It is like so many here, totally unfair and tragic. Only an extreme and heroic effort on his part, tempered with plenty of luck, will allow him to move beyond scratching for his subsistence for the remainder of his days, and he’s not yet 20yo.

I saw a 10 yo girl, Tokozina, as my last child patient for the day on Thursday. It was our second visit and promised to be lively. She’s had cerebral malaria and is the most hyperactive child I’ve ever seen. She is only moderately learning disabled, I think.  On the first visit she bounced all over the room, running like a flash, grabbing and tossing things, singing loudly while her mother ineffectually tried to contain her by reaching out as she flew by, etc. This mother is built like a tank and could give Mike Tyson a run for his money. On Thursday I told her they could only come into the room if she held her daughter on her lap. Well, that lasted about 15 seconds as the girl squirmed away and bounced all over doing her mischief. Seeing how ineffectual the mother was, I decided to model a safe, painless restraint. Needless to say, I ended up lying on the floor restraining her while she spit in my face and then urinated on me. I held fast and she calmed. Then I gave her to her mother who did the same and, after some tears, the girl accepted the inevitable and fell asleep in her mother’s arms. After wiping off the spit with my handkerchief and letting the pee dry on my soaking pants, I congratulated the mother on her success and impressed upon her the importance of training her daughter by performing a similar restraint whenever she was beyond the control of words. We’ll meet again in 2 weeks and assess the results. It felt like a very successful intervention. I, of course, will need to explore with the mother why she has held herself back so much.

A 12 yo boy was brought in by his mother. He’d undergone a “personality change” since being attacked by a neighbor in their village. Andrew ate a peach from the man’s tree so he threw Andrew to the ground and stomped on him, fracturing his left tibia. Andrew, always a gentle boy, has become aggressive, beating up his friends. He was expelled from school for fighting, despite being very smart and an excellent student. Another boy, like Japheti, with a persistent and loving mother who is determined to help repair the damage to her son. He was seen in Peds Emergency and, since he had a personality change in this land of cerebral malaria, HIV encephalopathy, and various forms of meningitis, instead of taking a careful history he has had performed all variety of laboratory investigations, including a lumbar puncture. Some training is needed there, no doubt. His response to the beating includes “identification with the aggressor”, his adaptation to feeling helpless in the face of a threat. It is the particular form his PTSD has taken.  He and I had a good talk, he was very engaged, and he agreed to return to school and attempt to not fight when he was upset. We’ll see. He is very bright, speaks English well, and is an incredible artist.

I’m going to Lilongwe to use the notary services at the American Embassy to finalize papers for the sale of 2840 Webster Street in Berkeley, our home for 25+ years. That should be the last formal exchange between my ex and myself, which will be a relief to us both, I suspect. I’ve felt I was in the grip of a python during the divorce—each time I exhaled (made an offer leaning in her favor), the coils tightened. Rather than becoming more flexible and fair, she’d demand more. So, as sad as it is to me to have not been able to grow in our love for each other as time passed, there is a time to hold ‘em and a time to fold ‘em. I only can hope that my children, each of whom I love dearly, can accept their disappointment at the end of the family as they knew it and wanted it to be and can view each of us as individuals with flaws and foibles but basically having given our best for them. I miss them both very much.

These are the hungry months in Malawi, when the maize is growing tall but not ready for harvest and last year’s supply of corn meal is exhausted. Many of the 85% of the population that are small-hold farmers and their families are lucky to have a single, modest meal a day. It kills me to see the greed and waste in America and the “America Firsters”. It is a sad fact that we, of all the animal species, appear to have an insatiable desire to buy and possess. It is powerfully fed by the advertising/marketing industry and the mythology of our lives —–that it is better, somehow, to have more and bigger and newer and more extravagant. Rather than to have enough for reasonable comfort and to take pleasure in the greater good that everyone has the basics. It is so easy to see someone on Welfare as a “loafer” and “getting a free ride”—-I think they are sad, have low self-esteem, and have lacked the good fortune, perhaps the gumption, and the skills to do work that will bring them satisfaction.  Let’s re-establish the WPA and employ the unemployed while they learn skills and repair our infrastructure. But then, I have never wanted to not work, really.

I’ve had thoughts of spending the summers on the island in Maine and the rest of the year travelling, writing, and schmoozing with friends. I understand that most people haven’t had the good luck to have trained for, sought, found, and performed work that they truly love and which remunerates them reasonably. This is often for lack of opportunity but may have multiple and converging reasons, including their drive, intelligence, capacity to persist, lack of skill, market forces, and so forth. So people cannot wait “to retire”, understandably. For me, I find learning and being inspired by people’s struggles irresistible, so it doesn’t feel like the time to fold up my tent.

I find Mr. Trump’s lies and hatred—just look at the expression on his current wife’s face after he reads her out in the 8 second video on YouTube—frightening, since he sits now where he does. We’re not just in for a fire sale of America to the superrich. That has been going on for the past several decades. We are now rapidly heading toward a fascist state, seeking total control of media with an essentially slave underclass that will include most of us. It seems there may be a violent revolution, given how polarizing, aggressive, and dissimulating Mr.T. is. One can hope for a coronary event or a cerebrovascular event or perhaps a metastatic event (in response to his near-constant exposure to Agent Orange!). I’m not savvy enough about economics to fully understand how we’ve arrived here. Our industrial output is up but well-paying, secure jobs are down, partly due to outsourcing but hugely due to automation. Paradoxically, I suspect that many of the same people who have been left behind in our economy shop at Walmart, buying those inexpensive outsourced products made by people in China and Bangladesh who have taken their jobs, keeping those sweatshops going.  The latter have certainly been eased into slavery, out of personal desperation. Just read about their wages, their working and living conditions, their polluted air and water, and the fragmentation of their families and their society, if you doubt me.

This post has gone on too long. I am passing through emerald hills, dotted with thatched mud-brick huts, all covered by the fluffiest, most towering cumulus clouds imaginable. Even all the plastic trash has vanished from the roadside, hidden by the tall grass. It is stunning.

Early in the morning, as I biked past the local open market on my way to Queens one day last week, I saw  the stall keepers arriving with their vegetables or used clothing as they do each day, often 7 days/week. I realized, at a new level, this is their life.   They may instead sit at a card table and sell lollipops or AirTel or TNM phone top-ups, but they have no hope of a better living or life than they have right now. No kids in college, no promotion in the works, no end-of-year bonus, no cashing in on the sale of a start-up, no job or food security, no minimum hourly wage, let alone no luxury items, no increased reimbursement from a health insurance company, and so forth. And this is largely because of the cards they were dealt. Most are smart but have little schooling. Yet they are cheerful, laugh, and are pleased when I say a phrase or two in Chichewa to them as I buy some bananas or a pineapple. Humans are amazingly adaptable.

I hope our country doesn’t adapt to what our president offers to us, or tries to force upon us.

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