Awaiting Permission to Volunteer

17 October 2018

[Above photo:  Bathrooms I have known. Mvuu Lodge, Liwonde National Park, Malawi]

I received an email from the US Embassy in Yangon that they were hoping to find out today if the Ministry of Health approves my application to teach there for the coming academic year, starting December 1, 2018. When I read the email, it was 2:58AM in Myanmar, so I guess I won’t hear today. Perhaps tomorrow. It is a bit maddening, when I think how simple it is to look over my CV, do a security check, and make a decision.  Perhaps a psychiatrist is more threatening than an academic mathematician or clothing designer.  I should be accustomed to waiting after working for two years in Malawi and passing through so many customs checks.

I have been couch-surfing in California. That sounds more collegiate and uncomfortable than it is. I have had a comfortable bedroom in each of three sets of good friends’ lovely homes. First I stayed at Ed and Robin’s; I’ve known Ed for 36 years and Robin for most of those. Next I was at Marie’s, whom I’ve known for 26 years. Finally, I am at Ellen’s, who I have known for 53 years; she is my medical school roommate’s younger sister. All of my hosts have been very fun, interesting, welcoming, and generous. And while at their houses, I have eaten and hiked and had coffee with numerous other friends, all of whom seem glad to see me. A party of all the neighbors last night at Martha and Richard’s home was all warmth and laughter.

It is amusing to shower at different people’s homes. Most have a wide variety of shampoo, conditioner, and body wash products. They are often labelled in very new-age ways, not actually saying “Shampoo” or “Conditioner” so without my glasses I cannot determine what in hell I’m putting on my scalp. Do I need a product for Dry Hair, Brittle Hair, Split Ends, Thick Hair, Thinning Hair (I’ll never admit it to myself.), or For Bald Scalps . You already guessed I made some of those up. A bar of soap I know. I’ve decided that it really doesn’t matter if it is conditioner, shampoo, or body wash. They are all quite similar and if I wash them out, my hair looks clean, as does my body. Occasionally I’ll come across a shower with three containers of conditioner, no shampoo or body wash and no bar of soap. Possibly a broken cap from a bottle of Head and Shoulders. The whole body then gets conditioned, which doesn’t sound so bad.

A little Malawi goes a long way, our wise Malawi Peace Corp director said. It is true. My friends all care a lot about me but, naturally, they have their lives and concerns and the depth and details of my experiences hold their interest only so far. It is a universal experience for those returning from working overseas in stressful circumstances, I think. I’ll have to look for my GHSP crew to really get down about this stuff. Or our friends from Malawi, if we can convince them to visit.

At Ellen’s I am in the middle of my old Berkeley neighborhood, across Claremont Avenue from the Elmwood District. There are so many reminders of our life here. Ellen’s house is on the regular route on which I walked Oscar daily for years. I walked by the place where one night I sprinted ahead, cutting left across the street and he ran between me and a tree. Our legs tangled and I ended up head first on Claremont Avenue at 11PM with my hands jammed in my puffy jacket pockets. I got a shiner out of that collision. My first thought after hitting the asphalt with my head was was, Jeez, I could have gotten in some good fights in high school and been the last guy standing. I had been worried then that I would get injured if I fought.  Then there is the hedge at Phil Spielman’s house. He was an analyst and a supervisor of mine. He and his wife, Sheila Ballantyne (Imaginary Crimes, Norma Jean the Termite Queen, and others) have passed on and their son, Stefan lives in the house. Stefan planted a number of spindly starters a few years ago. They have filled out to a lush, 6’ high, 2 foot thick hedge.

I go to restaurants I’ve liked in the past. I’ve been to Saul’s three times for their matzoh ball soup and half a pastrami sandwich. My favorite Japanese spot, Norikonoko, closed last December. I really liked Noriko and her husband and miss them in my life.  I’d lunch there at least once per week; for many years my office was just down the street from them.  I went to Top Dog on Durant for a hot link with mustard and sauerkraut. Somehow I got to chatting with two sisters who quietly paid for my link and told me they were there because their father had so liked Top Dog. They spent the morning in court where their stepsiblings were attempting to disenfranchise them of several million in inheritance. They were kind, smart women so I can only imagine what wretches the stepsiblings are. Passing your stuff on thoughtfully is important to do well, as it represents so much to the survivors. I have started a new Will with an attorney in Maine and will sew it up before I head to Myanmar.

I’ve tried to contact my son with no success so I must hope he is doing OK and settle for that. He is a 38yo man and certainly entitled to determine his company. My rescue fantasies die hard, though. My love doesn’t die.

I struggle a bit with the fact that Linda will visit but not accompany me to Myanmar. I know it makes sense, especially since I’ll be wrapped up in work and she has important other things to do, including 3 months in Malawi at her midwifery ward project. Still, I’m not getting younger and I wonder if, in my enthusiasm for the opportunity, novelty, and challenges ahead, I am ignoring a deeper emotional truth. About potential loneliness. Yet I make friends easily, Burma will be fascinating, and I’ll have enough work, writing, and play to keep me occupied. There is, also, FaceTime.

I have mostly wrapped up what I need to do here. I’ll hike in a bit, retracing my regular route in the hills with Oscar. That dog was so smart and I was so envious of him. I imagined extracting 10-20cc of his blood and injecting into my vein in hopes of acquiring a bit of his temperament. He was funny, playful, loyal, clever, and if ever two other dogs were getting into a scrap he’d run over to them. Being larger than most (115#), he’d just stick his nose in the middle and wag his tail and totally defuse the argument. When I crashed into Claremont Avenue, however, I wanted a little sympathy from him.  He just stood there impatiently, wanting me to get up and race him some more. I always imagined he’d protect me if I was attacked; we usually walked late at night. It is so easy to anthropomorphize a dog; they are supremely successful at training us to feed and love them, the best adapted mammal according to some zoologists. Certainly better adapted than humans, who have more money and stuff but, clearly, less daily fun.

A man walks into a bar. His friend asks, “Why didn’t you duck?” Ha!

A rabbi walks into a bar with a frog on his shoulder. The bartender asks, “Where did you get that?”  The frog replies, “In Brooklyn. They’re all over the place.”

I went to a great fundraiser for a terrific organization: Putnam Clubhouse. My friend Mary invited me; she also bid at the live auction, and leveraged her bid, raising a lot of money for the Clubhouse.  There are apparently 300 or so around the world and they serve as day treatment/vocational and academic support/get back on your feet programs for young people with serious mental illness. Twenty+ adults volunteered, in support of the organization, to participate in a dance contest at the fundraiser. They had lessons from professional choreographers. They were magnificent. It would have terrified me; I confided I’d rather have multiple sclerosis, which I know isn’t funny and I really wouldn’t  want it but that was my degree of anxiety about performing in front of the large audience. It did make me want to acquiesce to Linda’s suggestion that we take dancing lessons together, it appeared to be so much fun!

NB: I have purchased the domain name <apsychiatristinmyanmar> and this will be my last entry here. My weekly posts will be on the new site. You can sign up on the site to be notified when there is a new post.   <apsychiatristinmalawi is paid up for several months but I won’t post new entries on it.

I’m really preparing for Myanmar. I bought 5 short-sleeved shirts at the Goodwill. Long sleeves in that heat simply won’t cut it.


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