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Monday, May 13, 2013


"...the male beard communicates an heroic image of the independent, sturdy, and resourceful pioneer, ready, willing and able to do manly things."
Psychologist Robert J. Pellegrini reported in Psychology, 1973

OK….I’ll concede that we have this idea that beards somehow mysteriously impart some sort of manliness and virility on the wearers. It’s an image. It’s perpetuated by advertising, reality TV, and now social media. We can almost smell the testosterone when we see a man with a full beard.  Many of us also may even believe that bearded men have bulging biceps and hairy chests and tattoos…all theirs by default. As a man, it may be easy for me to fall into this illogical ideology. I do, after all, like most males, have about 7-8 times more testosterone coursing through my system than most females, and that alone can be the basis (or blame) for much of my cognitive behavior.

Like everyone, it seems, men also need validation from time to time. We need to know that others know we’re men, that we have manly characteristics; that we can bring home the bacon, tote the barge, lift the bale.  The female of the species has a similar need…but with different criteria, expression, etc. While I may feel an overwhelming need to grow facial hair, my wife’s intense focus may be on having a body perm in her hair. She may feel ‘prettier’ wearing lacy underthings from Victoria’s Secret, while I may feel more masculine wearing no underthings at all. (TMI?)

For many years, my ‘default’ look has been a shaved head and a goatee and moustache. It’s easy, neat, and I’ve just come to like the way it looks back at me from the mirror. A couple times a year, however, I ‘get a wild hair’ as my dad would have said, and decide to grow out my full beard. Now, you can blame testosterone, or vanity, or whatever, and honestly, I’d be hard-pressed to argue either point. But in my own mind, I think I do it to see what color it is! I’ve always had a rather mousy non-descript hair color: somewhere between blonde and brown. As if that isn’t bad enough, nature started many years ago throwing a fairly unattractive gray into the mix as well. That combination of hues may work in a tweed jacket, or a painting of a mountainside, but on my face, well, not so much. I keep hoping, though, that one day, when I grow out my beard, it will have begun magically transform into a more uniform, clean white!

Recently I started seeing lots of beards around me, giving me that ‘itch’ to try once again to grow mine out. Well, after a couple of weeks, my beard was indeed long, and sadly, still a very unattractive mix of browns and grays. Oddly, though, I was getting lots of compliments! Cool, I thought…somebody thinks my beard looks good! Maybe I will leave it long for a while, I thought.  Those thoughts didn’t last long. I have just managed to lose about 40 lbs, yet when I look in the mirror, my face looked a bit ‘fatter’ because of the beard. Now I had a dilemma. Go with the compliments, the validation and admiration of others, or shave it off in the name of my own vanity. OK, sure…either way it can be considered vanity, can’t it? So the decision really came down to: Do I go with that THEY like? Or do I return to my moustache and goatee, which is what I like? Easy decision. Took me about 30 seconds. I used the clippers and clipped off most of the whiskers close to my skin, leaving the longer goatee and moustache, then put on the blade guard…a #4, and trimmed back the remainder. I then jumped in the shower and lathered up and shaved the close-cropped areas, again, leaving my goatee and moustache. After my shower, once the steam cleared from the mirror, staring back at me once again was the face that I have come to accept most easily. Cool. I looked thinner again, and maybe even younger! BONUS!

You know what? No one really noticed. Oddly, for the next few days, not a single person even mentioned it. I did get some of those, “are you wearing different glasses?” and “are you losing weight?” questions, but not a single person mentioned my having shaved off most of my facial hair. And it didn’t matter. I don’t really care whether any noticed or not, because, you see, validation from someone else, at least in this case, was not what I was seeking when I changed. What I wanted was to feel good about myself. What I wanted was to look in the mirror and feel comfortable with the guy looking back at me. So, is that vanity? I don’t think so.  I kind of think it’s simply making myself content; gratified; happy with myself. It’s one of the few times I allow myself to think about myself FIRST. If I am happy with me, with my appearance, I can then go through my day with more confidence.  Self-confidence, but with a large helping of humility. That’s exactly what I’m looking for!

Thursday, May 2, 2013


I’m sitting here listening to my stomach ‘growl’, despite the fact that I ate my lunch only about two hours ago. I dare not eat anything else, however, because I am desperately trying to continue my routine and thus lose some weight.  Unfortunately, for the past 4 or 5 days, I’ve been kind of sliding back and forth between 197 and 199, and I have to tell you….it’s getting OLD! realistically, I’m still doing well, and I’ve managed to stay below 200 lbs thus far. I have new goals in mind, though, and while I am perfectly willing and ready to move toward them, I seem to have stopped to lounge about on one of those ‘plateaus’ that weight-loss experts speak so casually of! Sounds so good, doesn’t it? I’ve ‘reached a plateau,’ as if I had a long hard climb, and this is a level place for me to rest and recharge. Well, guess what! I’m already CHARGED and ready to keep climbing!! So, what’s holding me back? Metabolism. I don’t even LIKE that word already, and now it’s become my enemy! Metabolism is one of the things that I had hoped I had already overcome, and here it is, standing in my path, and thumbing its nose at me!

Research has shown that after some initial weight loss, our metabolism, or the process that burns calories for energy, slows down as we begin to lose muscle. We begin to burn fewer calories than when we were heavier, even at the same level of activity. Basically, the calories we eat, we expend. What that then means is that we must increase our activity levels OR decrease the calories we take in. So, staying the course, as it were, simply won’t work any longer.  Also, quite honestly, while I don’t go hungry right now, really, I don’t know that I can eat much LESS per day! So, logically, it stands to reason I’m going to have to increase my activity levels. I can do that! Sitting in an office chair all day can certainly be improved upon! I have already started bounding up the steps when I am not loaded down with my extra 45 or 50 pounds of equipment and lunch bag I bring with me every morning. So far, that’s about 4 times a week or so. And when I say ‘steps,’ I mean the 58 steps from the first floor to the third floor of the library, where my office is currently. And when I say ‘bound,’ I mean that I pretty much attack the steps, often skipping every other one as I go. I am going to have to increase the number of times I do that. I am also going to have to get back to a much more regular routine of lunchtime walking. The weather is getting much nicer, so the sunshine is certainly an added incentive.

This morning, I was down to 197 even. I’ll take it! 195 would be better, but I’ll get there. 185 would be awesome right now, but I am a realist, and I know I will get there. That idiom, “slow and steady wins the race” comes to mind. So, I’m a tortoise! I’ll take it!

Friday, April 26, 2013


Voltaire said, “Moderation is the pleasure of the wise.” Well, without realizing Voltaire’s connection to that philosophy, I think I have always tried to live by that…sometimes more successfully than others! As you may know, I recently publicly patted myself on the back for a 40-lb. weight loss here on my blog. Immediately after that, I traveled out of town to attend the wedding of the son of a dear family friend…or I should probably say FAMILY. We spent the weekend at our friend’s house, trying in whatever way we could to help with the wedding preparations, the rehearsal dinner, and of course the wedding. As you know, we Americans have turned weddings in this country into major events, and few major events of course are unaccompanied by inordinate amounts of food!! I knew this was going to be a test!

My first line of defense was my own food from home. I knew my friends would not feel hurt if I pulled out my own bagel thins and fruit for breakfast or lunch, so I packed some basics: bagel thins, apples, bananas, low-fat peanut butter, raw almonds, some pretzels for quick crunchy on-the-go snack, and my large water bottle. This served me very well in helping me ignore the pancakes and syrup, or the Sara Lee Butter Coffee Cake they warmed for breakfasts. Ruth and I also popped over to Trader Joe’s one afternoon to get a few things to take home, and while there, picked up some organic yogurt and some pretzel chips, which we had for lunch one of the days. The rehearsal dinner and wedding feasts were another story, however!

For the rehearsal dinner, which was served at our friends’ home, she had bought huge trays of thinly-sliced cold cuts and cheese, along with trays of some raw veggies, and then had several wonderful artisanal breads on which to make sandwiches. Dips, spreads, chips, condiments….the works! As my wife and I went about setting out most of the food, it took every ounce of willpower I could muster not to just stop and eat up some of EVERYTHING! But, I managed to only munch a few things….obstacle #1 over! As the guests arrived, and as people began eating, I realized I was getting pretty hungry, so I decided to eat a little something. Two slices of the bread with the most visible whole grains, a single slice of ham, one of provolone cheese, and I sped away from the table, directly to the counter where the veggies were hanging out. A handful of cauliflower and celery, a small amount of spinach dip, and a bit of onion dip, a few pretzels, a cup of filtered water, and I found a seat and began to eat.

“OH, GEORGE!” I tried to ignore it. “OH, GEOOORRGE!” it persisted. Stay strong, I told myself. I recognized that siren’s voice as that of the cake that sat on the dining room table! Back, you vixen, I thought to myself! BACK I SAY! And yet, the next thing I knew I was standing over her, this tall, creamy stack of deliciousness, and I didn’t even remember walking back into that room! OK…so, she and I were going to have to compromise! I agreed to eat just a little, if she would release this hold she had over me and let me continue my evening relatively guilt-free. She relented, and I conceded, and I ate a very small piece of cake, which, by the way, was close to heavenly! Obstacle #2: done. I went to bed that night, knowing that I had strayed from my routine a bit, but content that moderation in the forms of quality of food and portion control would be my saviors.

Suffice it to say that over the two very full days we were there, through a wedding rehearsal and a wedding, I continually opted for either my own fruit, whole grain breads, peanut butter, etc. or I very carefully chose from the fare that was served, eating only small portions of anything I took, trying to stick to the things I know to be low in calories and/or fat. I did give in to a couple of indulgences, including the delicious wedding cake! At the wedding, I also imbibed a little, with a small glass of white wine and three beers before the evening was over! I feel like I dodged nearly every obstacle and cleared every hurdle keenly and with grace!  

On the return trip home, we stopped to visit with our youngest son and take him to dinner. His choice was a major Italian chain restaurant. I figured I could get a salad or something simple like that. Unfortunately, I’ve never been crazy about vinegar and oil dressings, which is what all their salads contain. I couldn’t eat very much, and it wasn’t very satisfying to me. I decided to order something else from the menu that I could at least enjoy, using some of the portion control rules. I selected the personal pizza. I got only a small amount of topping…Italian sausage…and a cup of coffee. When the pizza came, I had already made up my mind to only eat a portion of it, and to ask for a box so as to take the rest home for another day. Later, on the way home, I lamented at a big chain convenience store/gas station that one of the things I was going to miss most when traveling was their donut holes!

So, oddly, as careful as I thought I was being, I got up the next morning, emptied my bladder and stepped on the scales, as I have done every day now for months, and I had put on about a pound and a half. Not really unusual, but I can’t say I was very happy about it! Back to my routine! My diet his week was going to have to be a bit more regulated! Back to my bagel thin or cereal and almond milk for breakfast. Back to my fruit and Greek yogurts for lunch. Oh, and just before we had left for the weekend, my new HealthMaster blender had arrived, and I hadn’t even had time to try it out yet… the new stream in my journey was going to be filled with all kinds of combinations of fruits, vegetables and grains! I figure those recipes are going to be good blog food for a while!

Thursday, April 18, 2013


One of the definitions in the dictionary for the word milestone is “a significant or important event, e.g. in the history of a country or in somebody's life.”

I had one of those this morning. Interestingly, I’ve experienced this same milestone before, but this time it may have been a little sweeter. Sweeter because I am quite a bit older, a lot busier, and because I’ve overcome quite a few obstacles that I didn’t really go through the first time.  Sweeter because this time I did it on my own, for the most part, using my own common sense, but admittedly with the support and encouragement of several wonderful people. Sweeter because this time I think I did it RIGHT! I took my time, I made a plan, I set realistic goals, and I kept my eyes on the prize, as it were. In the spirit of the “a picture is worth a thousand words” philosophy, here is the best representation of my accomplishment:

I am FINALLY below 200!! I know…some of you are thinking this is silly, or maybe big deal…he lost some weight!  Well, trust me when I tell you it IS a big deal, especially at this point in my life. I’m nearly 57 years old, and although otherwise healthy, I am diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a disease or syndrome that can render some people nearly incapacitated, causes great pain, and can completely defeat one mentally, if one isn’t careful. Research is still very much alive and dynamic in the field, but little is really know about FM. One of my symptoms, sadly, or perhaps charitably, is that I am chemically sensitive to lots of things, including every kind of medication my rheumatologist tried to give me for the disease. That left me on my own to educate myself, and to learn how to deal with my life as a man with FM.

Think about having diffuse pain throughout your body, including ‘hot spots’ or ‘pressure points’ that, when touched or bumped can almost drop you to your knees. Think about being so profoundly chronically fatigued at times that you can’t walk up the front steps at your home, or face walking from your car into work. Now, many people, including many doctors, will tell you that maintaining an appropriate weight for your size and exercising will greatly improve your symptoms. Let me see a show of hands….(I will know if you raised your hand!)….who among you thinks you would be able to motivate yourselves if you were dealing with the above symptoms? If you raised your hand, or even THOUGHT sure…I could do that….you’re kidding yourself. Until you’ve experience what some FM victims go through on a daily basis, you have no idea how you would react or what you would do.  So, it’s easy for people like me to fall into a bad spiral. I don’t feel well, so I don’t exercise. I don’t exercise, therefore I put on weight. I put on weight and have low self-esteem, so I eat more.  You can see what a vicious cycle this can be. Many people may easily become completely disabled, have to quit jobs, can no longer participate in family activities, keep house for themselves, cook a meal….the list goes on.

I didn’t want to be like that. I have a few good years left, hopefully, and I want them to be spent enjoying family outings; photographing beautiful places; swimming in the ocean every chance I get; hiking in the many beautiful forests around us and across the country; continuing the many arts and crafts I enjoy…this list could go ON and ON, believe me! So, if I was going to get out of my downward spiral, I was going to have to create a plan. I would have to take things step-by-step, even if they were small steps, and start climbing back out of this hole….and I was not very good at steps, remember! I began to diet…trying very hard to follow the Weight Watchers principles and methods I’d learned earlier. I started at 240 lbs., more than I’d ever weighed in my life. I lost 10 pounds over many weeks, then just fell off the proverbial wagon, and began creeping slowly back up again. I hadn’t changed my symptoms any either. CRAP! OK….this was going to require a NEW plan.

This time, I began by ‘allowing’ myself an indulgence of sorts….a massage every two weeks. I tried this a few years ago, and while the massage helped, or I thought it did, at least, I couldn’t, at that time, justify spending that money on myself. (I know…pretty stupid, huh?!) But I quit going, and convinced myself it was the ‘nobler’ thing to do. Now, however, that inner voice has changed his tune! I am worth it, damn it! I know the massage has improved my symptoms by decreasing my pain levels by what I would estimate is at least 75% most of the time. Do I still have pain? YES…I sure do. I still have what I call cycles, even though they have no pattern or rhythm, of pain and chronic fatigue. But you know what? Not nearly as BAD, and not nearly as OFTEN! So, is it the massage? I can only tell you that my experience says YES, it is. Since I started, and I’ve been going for over a year now regularly, almost religiously every two weeks, I have experienced this marked improvement. If for some reason I have to skip a session and go three weeks instead of two, I can feel my pain level going up just about the time I’m coming down to the end of week 3. I’m convinced to the extent that I don’t want to stop going!

I’m blessed to have found this particular massage therapist too! Vince Lombardi (yes, that’s his real name) has, from the beginning, been a healing gift to me. He’s very easy-going, has a great personality, is very understanding, and we have a lot of the same viewpoints and philosophies, so  I can now call him a good friend as well. In fact, he was the impetus and inspiration for my earnestly restarting this weight loss regimen.  I was whining and moaning about my unsuccessful weight loss attempts one day, and noted that the only time I’d been successful at losing weight was when I had some element of accountability….i.e. the lady who, at Physicians Weight Loss checked my urine each day (yes she did!) for ketones, or the lady at the Weight Watchers meeting each week who weighed me in and either congratulated me or peered disappointed over her half-glasses at me. Without missing a beat, Vince suggested that he would be my accountability measure. I was visiting him every two weeks, so why not let him check my weight? Hmmm, I thought. Well, that could work. He also suggested I use all the other tools that worked for me in the past, such as writing down what I eat each day, weighing myself every morning at the same time, recording everything, etc. And the best thing he’s done, aside from an outstanding massage every two weeks, is continually inspire me to keep going. He’s also constantly sharing great tips on changing my dietary habits! BINGO! Vince lives an almost-vegetarian existence, but eats organic fresh foods whenever possible. I needed to start somewhere….this seemed like a good place!

So, the next step for me was to try eating healthier foods…organic when possible, fresh when possible, and more vegetables and fruits. I also cut nearly all processed foods out of my diet…even those prepackaged meals that are supposed to have been created for weight-loss programs: gone. Diet foods: gone. All sodas: gone. Artificial sweeteners or refined sugars: gone. Highly-refined grains and grain products: gone.  

Fast-forward to this morning. (I really hadn’t intended to get this detailed when I thought about writing this blog post, but it all seems pertinent when I see it on the screen in front of me!)  Actually yesterday when I stepped on the scales, I knew I would be close this 200 mark, and I was. 200.2 to be exact. And, let’s be honest, if I’d had a good bowel movement, (hey, don’t flinch…we all have them!) I would have reached the goal then! But, realistically, I knew I’d have to wait until today to officially be able to proclaim that I had reached this one peak on my journey…I’d dropped below 200.

So 40 pounds of my former self have been deposited in various places, or evaporated, or melted, or whatever they do, and my day is much brighter, despite the gray cloudy day! I am more easily walking, hiking, playing, and generally living than I have in years. I have a pact with myself to take the steps (58 to be exact) at least 4 times a week now to get to my office. I often walk during lunch up and down the hills of the university campus where I work, or over in the adjacent city park. I have leather-punched two extra holes in most of the belts I wear regularly. I am forced to pull clothes from the back of the closet that (thank God!) I saved from thinner days. I have even bought a couple new ‘skinnier’ things to wear…just because! I have grown my beard out a little, since a beard no longer makes my face look fat. My dear wife, Ruth, who is always supportive, even tells me from time to time that I’m looking good! I had a real ‘AHA!’ moment a week or so ago when a friend took a picture of me with my family, singing at an open mic night, and showed it to me. Oh my gosh, I thought….I really AM losing weight! WOW, I looked almost normal! That was not what I was used to seeing when someone showed me a picture of myself! It’s those little triumphs……

 Thank you for allowing me to share this experience. Take note, however, this was only ONE milestone. I’m not finished. I have a final goal in mind as far as numbers, so you will hear from me again, I’m sure.  Meanwhile, I’ve decided to continue blogging here on my “Walk a Mile in my Merrells” site from time to time. I find that writing affords me the opportunity to not only share, but to more carefully observe, to purge in a cathartic sort of way, and to analyze and organize my thoughts into something more meaningful for me. Obviously, I’ve taken a more holistic approach to MYSELF, and as Martha Stewart often says, “That’s a GOOD thing!”

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Last Day in Ethiopia: Saturday in Addis and the Long Trip Home

This was our last day in Ethiopia. While I was very anxious to get back to my family and my friends in the US, it was also a sad day. There were people here I hated to leave...we were just getting to know each other. I had more places I wanted to see. I wanted to learn more about the country, its people, its history. I wanted to see more artists’ work. I wanted to learn about the music. I wanted to see more animals, identify more birds, look for native stones. I was also already missing the team, just knowing that we would not be spending much time together after our return home.

I noticed the quiet in the rest of the group too....the pensive looks, the deep genuine smiles. We had some time today to see a bit more of the city before we left. Our flight out didn’t board until about 10 pm, so we had already planned to store all our already-packed luggage in a room at our hotel, check out, and spend a leisurely day together. Before we left, I went out front and snapped a few shots of our hotel. I realized that every shot I’d taken thus far had been of the alleyway and the rear entrance. While out there, I posed two of the girls with one of our doormen, and took a few shots of them. There he stood, gleaming white smile, between two beautiful young women! He was really enjoying this!

Since we had been enjoying great Ethiopian buna (coffee) all week, we all wanted to purchase some coffee to take home with us. First stop on our outing today was the coffee market...a small storefront, absolutely packed full of people all waiting in line to do the same multiple bags of coffee. It was a good thing Mesfin was with us too, because, despite there being quite an international clientele in the place this morning, it was obvious that the three or four salespeople didn’t speak much English. So, it was simply a matter of holding up fingers to indicate how many bags you wanted, and saying either ‘thirty-four’ or ‘sixty-eight’ to indicate whether you wanted a small or a large bag. Just outside on the street, a vendor was also selling the traditional coffee pots that are used in the coffee ceremony. A few of our group specifically wanted to take back one of these, so Mesfin did the bartering on their behalf and got them some pretty good deals! Once we all had coffee and pots, we made our way to the van past a few people begging, some people trying to sell simple things like tooth straws and CDs, books and gum. We had, by this time, learned to make as little eye contact as possible to keep from giving someone ANY idea that we wanted to buy something!

Our next visit was back at a restaurant called Fin-Fin. It was a part of a large old hotel and spa built around some hot springs. We didn’t see the springs, but we did have a great last traditional Ethiopian fare buffet. SInce the Ethiopians live by another calendar, and they were already into Lent, all of the buffet was ‘fasting-friendly,’ meaning no meat or dairy. It was still very good, spicy, and robust!

Next, we visited the Sheraton Hotel one last time. We took part in a coffee ceremony, where a beautiful lady ritually made the coffee on an open fire while burning incense. The coffee, as always, was amazing. We spent the afternoon browsing the small shops there for some last-minute gifts, and also to use up our bir. We took photos. We had a beer or two in the bar. We actually met a gentleman who used to be one of the students at the International School when Des worked there, and this guy was an engineer, and a graduate of Virginia Tech!! Des even bragged when introducing him that he was an MVP on Tech’s winning soccer team when he was in school there. We had a nice conversation with this gentleman, and one of our team, also a Tech graduate, struck up a great new friendship with the guy! I am pretty sure I have used the phrase “it’s a small world” WAY too much in the past few days! At an appointed time, we all congregated and went out back onto a stretch of lawn and sat down to again reflect on our week. Presentations were made by the group of gifts to Des and Mesfin in gratitude for all they had done to make our week so fulfilling. Anne and Jean, two of our faculty and staff leaders, took this opportunity to do some fun presentations of special little gifts to some of our group in appreciation of each one sharing his or her own gifts through the week. Our sharing of feelings and experiences was beautiful, and even emotional, especially for me. It was actually hard for me to talk when it came my turn, but I managed to choke through my thanks to everyone for such passion, compassion, charity, sharing, and friendship. They truly are a special group. 

We then took a few final group shots with Mesfin and Des showing off their new gifts. After our time at the Sheraton, we returned to the hotel to gather our belongings, all our bags, our souvenirs, etc. and we set out for a restaurant that Mesfin suggested for dinner. It was way up in the hills, and it was an open pavilion overlooking some really beautiful views of the sunset over the city. There was a group of germans in the same pavilion with us having a wine-tasting kind of event. We all shared the space along the open windows, however, when the sun began to go down, cameras poised and snapping. It was  a warm and beautiful evening. Dinner was quiet, pensive.

From the restaurant, we went to the airport to begin our passage through customs, baggage, check, etc. Mesfin once again somehow expedited that process, and we managed to get through all the checkpoints in what I supposed to be record time! We said our somber goodbyes to Mesfin once we were through security, and sadly he was gone. We picked up some bottles of water, passed through a final security to get to our gate area, and settled to seats and the floor to wait. Several of us weren’t really feeling very well, including me. I was having an allergy attack, primarily because every place we went, people were smoking, and the smoke finally took its toll on me. Some of us tried finally to get online using the airport’s wireless connection, and, although it was very slow, it was accessible. I managed to open Facebook, and send one message through, saying that I was at the airport waiting for our plane. After that, everything froze up again. That was ok, though, because they also called us to board the plane. As anxious as I then was to get  home to my family, the thought of spending even MORE time in flight on the way home than we did on the way out there was fairly daunting. It was supposed to be about  a 17-hour flight with one re-fueling stop in Rome. UGH!

I had some reflection and cogitation during this long flight back...about the vastness, the majesty, the mystery of this land; about the people I had seen and met, their bravery and resilience, their bright smiles and their acceptance of us. I thought about the children....those at the school who seemingly have their whole lives ahead of them, and those at the orphanage, whose lives may not be so easy, may not be as long. I thought a great deal about how I was going to share all I’d seen, smelled, heard, touched, and experienced when I got back home. Words, video, even pictures cannot possibly convey the feeling of the Ethiopia we’d just been a part of. I worried that I won’t be able to make people understand about how we came to look beyond the abject poverty, beyond the stench, beyond the squalor, to feel the warmth and the wonder that is Ethiopia. I hope this blog somehow begins to tell that story. I hope that my art, my music, and my presentations in my community can somehow continue the story.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Day 7: Friday in Addis Ababa

So, it was decided that we were heading out Friday morning after breakfast to a nearby orphanage. We hadn’t had time to do any research, so none of us knew what to expect. The van picked us up early, and we headed out. Interestingly, the night before, everyone gathered many of their clothes together, along with pens and pencils, and a few other odds and ends, and pooled them to be taken to the orphanage in the morning. This was the idea of our young people, who, even before meeting the wonderful people at the orphanage, were already in ‘HELP’ mode!

The ride to the orphanage was short but full of nervous anticipation. It was palpable in the van. I think it was all completely quelled when we pulled into the Kidane Meheret Children’s Home. Near the entrance was a beautiful new church, and beyond the fence, several buildings, all in pretty good shape, with a central playground area, complete with jungle gym, basketball goals, an open area for playing field sports. Below us was a fenced-in area with some outbuildings where a few goats lived very comfortably. There were some nice ladies busy hanging ou laundry on some clotheslines just above the ‘barnyard’, and beyond this area few buildings that we assumed were where the children were. We were met by a very nice nun. She was a slightly stout little lady, short in stature, and constantly smiling. I kept listening to her accent, trying to pick up a country of origin, but I finally had to ask where she was from. She was from Malta, as was the one other nun who worked there at the orphanage. They are Franciscan sisters. Their care and compassion for the children were continually evident throughout our visit as I watched them interact with the children, and watched the children’s displays of affection for them, and for all the workers there.

We were led into a small classroom full of preschool-aged children. They had a wonderful teacher, and young woman from Austria, and she was allowing us to come in and completely disrupt her class. Before chaos ensued, however, she had the children sing us two greeting songs in English! After that, it was complete  chaos as most of us moved into the classroom and began conversations with the children, taking pictures, handing over our cameras to the children to take pictures, etc. Everywhere you looked, children were climbing around on one or more of our folks, and it was wonderful! One little boy with Downs syndrome, whose name was Jonas (pronounced Yo-nus) sat on my lap for some time, playing with my beard. He had a fascination with my goatee, and he just kept talking to me while kind of flipping it with his hands. As we talked and played with the children, I remember looking around the room and welling up with tears, watching these students immerse themselves into entertaining these children any way they could. Some of these children, we were told, are HIV positive, some are permanent residents, and some come for the day, so that their mothers can go to work to try to make a living. This scene went on for some time, and I hated to see it end, but eventually, we seemed to all spill out onto the courtyard and into the playground. The children played and giggled, and had one or the other of us lifting them onto the jungle gym’s various swings and ropes. Some of the children played soccer with some of our folks. They played with a rag ball at times, made from something stuffed inside an old sock.

Some older children began to also appear in the yard. We were introduced to two young men, about 12 or 13, whose stories struck a place deep in my heart. Both had been rescued from the streets only about two months earlier, where they had been smoking hash, sniffing glue, begging, prostituting themselves. And here they were, two of the nicest young men once could hope to meet! In their eyes, however, one can clearly see the pain of their pasts. Beyond their thoughtful and friendly smiles were hidden the sad, desperate faces they once wore. The good sister told me that she was still a little worried that they may leave again and return to that life, and that she prayed often every day that they would stay in her care and continue in school. My prayers have been added to hers.

We also met a set of three sisters, the oldest being about 12, and the youngest about 3. It was so touching to see how the older sisters passed back and forth the responsibility for watching over the little one. One or the other was constantly holding her or walking her around the yard. There was also another young girl of about 10 or 11 who had a baby sister. We were told both of them were born HIV positive. For now, at least, they were both very healthy.

The remainder of our time at the orphanage, we were all split up and exploring on our own, or with the help of one or the other orphanage personnel. There was a physical therapy room in one of the buildings where a therapist visits several times a week to treat both the residents and cared-for children, and some community children who are allowed to come there just for therapy. Our physical therapy doctorate students were obviously very excited by this, and the thought of perhaps coming back sometime to help out in such a place!

I happened into one of the rooms to find one of our students, a nursing student, and herself a mother of two, being read to by one of the young girls, while another little girl looked on and stroked her hair. It was a quiet, thoughtful, beautiful moment.

Looking back, it seemed that we were at the orphanage all day! We crammed so much into a few morning hours, but it was all so meaningful and rewarding that it felt like an eternity. At the same time, when it was time to leave, we were all very sad. I am a pretty emotional person, as any of my friends can tell you, and it took a lot for me not to just sob as we walked back to the van. Looking over my shoulder at these beautiful children, thinking about their individual stories, where they came from, where they may end was almost too painful. Yet, as I looked skyward to keep tears from rolling down my face, I was reminded that there is this wonderful God in control, the same God who brought the good Franciscan sisters to this place to see that these children are cared for; the same God who led someone to rescue those two boys from the savage streets; the same God who helped children overcome terrible disease to live healthily among all the others. I quietly prayed a prayer of thanks, and then I busied myself thinking how I could help them, even after returning to the states.

We all piled rather quietly into the van, everyone seemingly deep in thought. We were taken to have a quick lunch, which, for the life of me, I can’t even remember. That period is all a blur.

After lunch, however, we were taken to the Myungsung Christian Medical Center, a Korean Presbyterian hospital. It is a private hospital, but they do a great deal of public medicine there. We were greeted by Dr. Scheul, a Norwegian trauma surgeon, who escorted us to a comfortable board room where he shared with us a presentation of what his practice at the center had become; He treats lots of trauma cases resulting from (big surprise!) traffic accidents....mostly pedestrians who have been hit by vehicles, as well as building accidents resulting from (again...big surprise!) people falling from the spindly scaffolding they use to scale the sides of construction sites. He is also a trained vascular and thoracic surgeon so he covers a great deal of those types of surgery as well. He also introduced us to Dr. Ericksen, a plastic surgeon, who specializes in burns, primarily from natives cooking over open flames, and also cleft lip and palate reconstructive surgeries. Dr. Ericksen also presented some slides of some of his most interesting cases. Both these Norwegians have been practicing in Addis now for about 18 years. They are dedicated and compassionate men.
We were then given a brief tour of the hospital, including their CT scanner, the emergency department, the large waiting area and admissions, among others. They also showed us their new ambulance, something of a novelty still in Addis. They are working on getting an EMS team educated currently  to man the ambulance and provide for emergency transport to the hospital.
Before leaving, we gathered outside with the doctors and presented them with a few Shenandoah  University-related gifts, and had a group shot taken with them. I was very impressed by the fact, briefly considered ways I could don my old surgical technologists hat and go back and help in some way.

Well, our busy Friday ended with us going out to dinner at an incredible (to me) place. It was the Makush Restaurant and Gallery of Art, featuring local Ethiopian artists’ work, all for sale! Not only was the food fantastic, but the art work was exquisite! I wanted to buy quite a few, but was constantly reminded how I would never be able to safely carry anything like that back on the plane!  My only recourse was to take photos of some of my favorites to share with folks back home.

Back at the hotel, it was time to pack up to be ready for Saturday, and our trip home. Oh, Lord......please help me get all this stuff in my luggage and still not be over the weight limit!