They Call Me Dalma

The Bobe, or Babushka, was the old crone in the faded sepia photograph in the dusty family album or, at best, in a tiny frame tucked behind a vase on the credenza. I was not going to be that person. Long before I discovered dozens of websites full of cool names for grandmothers, I knew names like paw-paw and mam-maw from my southern friends in Miami, and I had an aunt whose grandchildren called her Mimi. My own maternal grandmother was Bebe or Grandma B. (Her name was Bertha.) When one of my daughters was a toddler, she would laugh aloud when people called grandma Bebe, confusing “bebe” with “baby,” not understanding why this old lady was called a baby. My mother, Grandma Gert, was renamed GiGi by her wealthier friends in the assisted living residence. (It took her family several years to accept, because we thought that it was much too chi-chi).

I recently asked a lifelong friend how she also got the nickname Mimi. “It didn’t start out that way,” she told me. “I was Grammy and Bob was Pa. However, baby Baily would hold out his little arms and call out me, me when he wanted me to pick him up. My daughter gave in. ‘Mom,’ she said, ‘he’s named you Mimi, so just go with it.’”

I wasn’t a grandmother yet when I chose my grandmother name. I had g-d grandchildren, and I had even adopted a little one, but they were all in Cambodia and called me Momma. While I was working in Phnom Penh, I met a hip young Danish woman who was also there doing some international work. Her name was Dalma. I was struck by her “with-it” panache, and so the name stuck with me. For many years, I thought that Dalma translated to English as “lady,” and therefore was suitably close enough to be a grandmother pseudonym. I became Dalma to my grandchildren, to their friends, and to friends’ children with whom I was close.

Dalma, pronounced d-lmaa and derived from Hausa origins in Africa, means metal or tin. It is rarely used as a name for girls in Denmark. Not being listed in the top 1,000 baby names makes it unique enough for me.

Ode to Packing

I suppose there are veteran travelers, or maybe backpackers, who can just stuff a few things into their bag and go. I was not one of those people. When I had to pack for a year in Cambodia, I found myself more equipped for a Boy Scout outing than for an international electoral mission. Although I had acquired a spectacular Swiss army knife, a half dozen plastic bottles of Avon Skin So Soft—guaranteed, my military buddies insisted, to protect me from insect bites—and a rather impressive mosquito net, the world-time watch and water filtration system suddenly seemed a bit ridiculous.

Even a long weekend trip required packing several pairs of shoes, too many matching shirts, pants, and earrings. Only rarely was I smart enough to take a pair of stretch black jeans and a couple of black t-shirts and call it good. More often than not, I felt like a pack mule rather than a tourist. I even had fold-up bags to carry more “stuff” that I bought along the way.

My mother, who loved to travel—indeed lived to travel—had a motto: never take more than you can carry. It took me decades to appreciate her wisdom.

Necessity, not desire, changed my old packing habits. I had become a septuagenarian with arthritis who had to pack for three months across several continents, time zones, and multiple elevations.

My suitcase had to be light enough to pull off an airport’s baggage carousel without throwing out my back, haul it up stairs if necessary, and take it on trains and buses. To save suitcase space, I would wear my heaviest shoes on the plane as well as my heaviest jacket because I was going to travel between tropical climes and high latitude destinations. I had long since stopped worrying about wearing jewelry, not wanting to have a good ring cut from my finger. Only one superfluous item had to go with me, and I would wear it around my neck—an ancient wooden Buddha that I’ve worn almost daily for the past 30 years. I have been assured by many Cambodians that my travel totem has great power; it is why they believe I am so strong.

Because Metamucil is not sold in China, a bottle of it went into my suitcase. So did a myriad of medications, so many that I had to take out a purse, a third pair of shorts, and a long sweater. I was down to bare bones. The suitcase closed. I could lift it with one hand. Success.

Not success. I cannot travel without trinkets to pass out as gifts for unexpected kindnesses or for children whom I meet along the way. Since I no longer had a purse, I found a light-weight backpack to double as a wallet, a folder for travel documents, and a catch-all for everything that did not fit into my suitcase. I threw in an all-purpose scarf, in case I wanted to visit a mosque or make a fashion statement, a dozen emergency protein bars, lip balm, an extra toothbrush, and eyeliner—my one makeup requirement. I also decided to take an iPad, which is an acceptable substitute for a phone, camera, and laptop. There was only one thing left to carry—three dozen miniature squishies to pass out to children. They squish, so into the pack they went.

Zip, snap, zip.   I was ready!

All Good Deeds Get Punished

“Loving your fellow as yourself,” said the great Jewish sage, Rabbi Akiva, “is a most basic principle in the Torah.” Altruism takes good deeds further by stipulating that loving your fellow has to include a disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others. However, recent neuroscience studies have shown that, when people behave altruistically, their brains activate in regions that signal pleasure and reward, similar to when they eat chocolate (or have sex). Does this benefit not negate the act’s pure altruism?

Literally thousands of women and men from countries all around the world volunteer for humanitarian or development work. Most volunteers, whether for the UN or agencies such as CARE and Oxfam, do not earn much money. Some work their way up through administration to career positions, but those positions are scarce. Some volunteer because of a personal need to help, be admired, get away from or resolve a personal problem, or live out a messianic fantasy.  Nevertheless, most are sincerely committed to a variety of faith-based and secular global values; the work itself provides the primary reward for their efforts.

One such woman was my friend, Martha Teas. In the early 1990s, Martha and I were both working for the United Nations in Cambodia. I was a volunteer, escaping the end of a marriage and supervising local elections, whereas Martha was a career UN worker with the World Food Organization. When she and I had a chance to visit, our conversations always turned to the topic of whether we were altruistic. Martha maintained that our work met the definition of altruism and, because the so-called rewards were an unexpected benefit, they thus did not count against us. I disputed that claim, since any psychological or financial benefit voided the stipulation of selflessness. I argued that real altruism could only be obtained if, in addition to not benefiting, you had to pay a price; in essence, you had to be punished. I was way too happy in Cambodia for my work to count as altruism.

Martha, who reminded me of a bookish librarian, was a pacifist who abhorred the military. Nevertheless, as a UN careerist, she continued to work in areas of sustained low-level combat and instability, on missions caught in open warfare and hostilities. As the UN became increasingly involved in nation-building, the traditional military/humanitarian distinction blurred, turning civilian humanitarian workers into targets for resistance fighters.

Martha and I lost touch after I returned to my academic position in the U.S., but I never forgot her or our endless debates about the meaning of altruism. Maybe all good deeds don’t get punished. Maybe I was wrong.

On August 19, 2003, a suicide bomber drove a truck full of explosives to the United Nations headquarters in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, and blew it up, killing 22 people—among them Martha Teas, age 47, UNOHCI Manager in Iraq.

The Death of Julius Caesar and America’s Political Woes

I generally take a book—now my Kindle—on my travels. Watching television in a foreign language without subtitles is not my idea of a holiday. I like to get up early and, since I do not go out after dinner (bars and discos are not my cup of tea), I go to bed early. Whether hard or soft mattresses, cold or hot temperatures, noisy or quiet surroundings, after a bit of reading I’m out like a light.

On one trip, I took along Cleopatra: A Life by Stacey Schiff. While reading it, I came across a quote from the Roman historian, Dio, which upon reflection seems pertinent to the political malaise we find ourselves in today. It was his observation, after the death of Julius Caesar, that “Democracy sounded very well and good, but its results are seen not to agree at all with its title. Monarchy, on the contrary, has an unpleasant sound, but is a most practical form of government to live under. For it is easier to find a single excellent man than many of them.” It appears to be the rationale for autocrats, whom our president aspires to emulate, as well as the explanation for the mess in the U.S. Congress.  De Tocqueville would not agree, but even he said that it was better to have good rules than a good leader. Now we have to worry about the Attorney General dismantling our good rules. As for finding a good leader, now, that’s the challenge!

Not Exactly a Secret

The U.S. federal government plans to execute four men on Death Row in the next few weeks, some 20 years after they committed their violent acts. Bill Barr initiated the process in 2019 before COVID-19, named for that year, changed life as we knew it. All four men have exhausted their appeals process. During their incarcerations, none of them threatened society or committed any further crimes.

Why do we punish? The standard justifications are: Deterrence, Revenge, Incapacitation, and Rehabilitation. However, we know from research that the death penalty does not deter murder. The convicts are not getting out of prison, so the goals of rehabilitation and incapacitation are mute. Revenge? At least one victim’s family is against the death penalty, so who is seeking revenge (a cold dessert, in any case)?

Most of the world’s societies believe that the death penalty has no place in the 21st century. Nevertheless, the U.S. government has fought not only to avoid limits on its right to kill adults but also to lower the age at which it can kill  juveniles to as young as 11.

Now we are in the midst of a pandemic, and prisons are virus hot spots. The government, in its decision to subvert justice with hate and revenge, is putting lawyers, victim’s families, the families of the convicts, and prison staffs at risk of infection—just one more example of flawed social policy for the sake of scoring political points.

Closed on Mondays

As a doctoral student in Ohio State’s School of Public Administration, I became an adherent of Herbert Simon’s theory of satisficing, the process of combining satisfying with sufficing. Google provides an example: you want to pay the least amount for gas, but you wouldn’t drive for miles to find the gas station selling the cheapest gas. As an offshoot of this economic theory, I developed a modus operandi. I satisficed by making many decisions based on imperfect or incomplete information, such as first impressions and gut reactions. My decision to go with what I had rather than investigate further, often as not, did not serve me well.  This is an example of a situation where asking a couple of questions may have made all the difference:

A sign sat in front of the wide stone stairs leading up to the entrance. “Oh no,” my mother sighed. “It says the art museum is ‘CLOSED ON MONDAY.’”

“But there are people walking in,” I objected. “I can see a light on in the gift shop window.”

Mother smiled and started trotting up the thirty broad steps “Come along,” she called.  “Sometimes the gift shop is the best thing about a museum.”

We visited the gift shop and left the premises. On the street, I looked again at the sign: CLOSED ON MONDAYS. “Sad,” I mumbled.

Mother turned to me and I noticed a slight shadow flit across her face. “It’s Tuesday,” she said.

Sometimes it’s just better to take the time to optimize.

So Why Not Eat Black Water Beetles?

Since I am promoting my new travelogue, The Wanderer, which will be published this October, I thought I should tell would-be travelers that they are not obligated to enjoy the local cuisine. I like Russian food. Heck, I like English food. Both cuisines are often trashed by travelers, whereas Sichuan food is coveted everywhere as a phenomenal taste sensation. Personally, I cannot tolerate its spices.

It takes a while to develop a taste for some cuisines and, even if you don’t come to relish them as food, trying them is always an adventure. I recall a visit to Cambodia. My first stop was Mondulkiri, a province along the Northeast border of Cambodia and Vietnam. I was having breakfast in a local hotel. Two small demitasse cups of bitter coffee were stacked in front of me. I fumbled with the wrapper on my gluten-free, kosher halal bar—no trans-fat, sesame and cashew nut protein bar—deliberately taking my time to avoid being overwhelmed by the smells assaulting me from the bowls of sour fish soup, rice and pork, and savory noodles that filled the air of the tiny restaurant. It was too early in my trip, and in the day, to partake in mystery food, although my food exploration improved as the trip continued.

Then in Phnom Penh, my host’s son, Sengte, challenged me to a dinner of A-ping—grilled giant jungle spiders. The spiders are actually native to the forests surrounding the village where I lived and worked while organizing elections for the United Nations in 1993. (I ate ants back then. Ants managed to get into all our food, but I had demurred from the tarantulas.) The legs tasted like fried string. I avoided the belly. A few days later, I was treated by Sengte’s uncle to a bowl of bird’s nest soup.

Twenty dollars a spoonful! It sells for four hundred dollars an ounce, so I ate about four hundred dollars’ worth. The raw material—a bird’s nest found only in caves—comes complete with bits of feathers (and who knows what else), which are then cleaned and scanned to make sure that they are bacteria-free. The soup is reported to make pregnant women strong and their new babies healthy; it’s also supposed to reverse aging. Because of its rarity, it cannot be exported. Forget snorting a fortune in cocaine! You can drink your fortune away with cold bird’s nest soup. I was on a roll with the local cuisine—first spiders, then a bird’s nest. It was a unique experience, but I still looked and felt sixty-seven. I’m pretty sure that one bowl of soup won’t make you young.

Before the trip ended, I had one more culinary adventure. After chewing on the legs of giant jungle spiders and downing a bowl of bird’s nest soup, it seemed almost okay to swallow a boiled black water beetle (better than sipping  out the brains of a live monkey through a straw—another Khmer delicacy that I’ve avoided to this day). I was out on a small lake, Tonlee Battaey, for a picnic with Meng, Sengte’s father. We bought a pot of steamed beetles from a seller in the floating market. After Meng peeled off the hard outer shell and the prickly pincers, it was the time of reckoning. I popped the beetle (the size of a walnut) into my mouth, got one good chew, and swallowed it down. Actually, it was tastier than the spider and reminded me of Louisiana crawfish.

Bon appétit. Try it, you might like it. Then again, who knows?

Queen of the Hill

It was barely dawn. I was on a weekend tour in Mondulkiri with Cambodian friends, Kimsore and Sopheap, along with their NGO colleagues. It was a staff retreat, and I was included since I was staying in Phnom Penh as my friends’ houseguest. I was soon reminded why I hated tours and preferred to travel alone. The knocking started at 6:15 a.m. “Madam, are you ready?” asked an unknown voice. “Ou-tee!” I shouted “no” in Khmer from under the covers. I punched an indentation in the pillow, turned over, and closed my eyes. More knocking. “Madam, may I take your suitcase?” “No, not ready.” The knocking switched to banging on the door. “Madam, can you come on bus #2? You can change your bus when we are at the restaurant.” Throwing off the covers and resigning myself to getting up, I responded, “Yes, yes, I can. Aut panyaha, no problem.”

No coffee in the quiet of my bed, alone in semi-darkness. No caffeine to work its magical opening of my vascular system and starting my body to function properly. By the time I got outside, bus #1, not #2, was waiting for me. If anyone was angry about having to wait for their breakfast, there was not a clue on their smiling faces. After all, I was the guest, the founder of the NGO, the g-d mother of their bosses! The children smiled up at me shyly—not sure whether I was completely human, given my pale skin and light hair. Their gazes reminded me of how I look at chimpanzees in the zoo—recognizing something human in their faces and behaviors.

However, once breakfast was finished, I left the tour. Sopheap and Kimsore had arranged for the three of us to visit an ethnic indigenous people’s village to ride elephants through the lush mountain jungles on a full-day trip. For the first half of our trek, I rode in the small cradle on the elephant’s back, but on our return to the village, I sat atop the goliath’s head. I could feel his shoulders move rhythmically under my butt as he plodded slowly along the jungle path! I was Queen of the Hill—Angelina Jolie on an adventure to find ancient treasures. I was at least eight feet off the ground, the chill mountain air kissing my face and cooling my body. It felt good to be out of the small riding basket that cramped my legs, put my feet to sleep, and hurt my already painful knees that were tired and sore from having used Asian squat toilets for days.  

Suddenly I pitched forward. The slope of the terrain changed, and the big, one-hundred-year-old beast started down a small slope. I leaned forward with no saddle, no stirrups, and not even a halter to hold on to. I screamed for Kimsore to hold my shirt. He hollered back that it wouldn’t help. I stopped breathing as I imagined myself toppling over and getting crushed under the large feet of the plodding beast.

“Carole, come back to the basket,” Kimsore called out. “What? Stand up while we are going downhill?—Are you crazy?” No, but I must be crazy, at seventy years old, to ride on an elephant in the jungle! What was I thinking?  I was stuck, too terrified to turn around to climb back into the safety of the basket. The mahout, the elephant driver, motioned for me to move further down onto the head of the elephant, where there was a natural indentation between the shoulders and the skull. I inched forward, repeating a single mantra: breathe, just breathe. Kimsore let go of my shirt, so I tried to hold on to the tough leathery skin but couldn’t gain any purchase. Eventually, I sucked in the cold air, straightened my back, and rode! Although it felt like forever, it was more likely just a few minutes until the ground evened out, flat and easy. I was okay, perched solidly upon the big beast’s head.  I rode into the village more alive than I could remember. 

The tour got me to Mondulkiri, my friends got me to the village, and the elephant took me on an adventure of a lifetime.

The Golden Mean in the Age of Covid-19

Aristotle established the concept of the Golden Mean 2,500 years ago. Simply put, the middle path—or moderation—is the correct choice for right behavior and making good decisions. During this pandemic, we Americans are choosing between extreme options and moderate ones. On one side of the continuum is an extreme option: shutting down the economy, curtailing most social interaction, and maintaining maximum isolation. These steps are necessary in some places, but not in others. The other extreme is doing nothing, and carrying on as if the coronavirus were not real.

The moderate option is social distancing, frequent, systematic testing and monitoring, and wearing masks or face shields. All of these measures could be enhanced or relaxed as required. Businesses could modify how they service their clientele, or find ways for employees to tele-work. With the moderate choice, schools could turn to remote learning while they develop pedagogy for virtual education and create flexible, blended models that could adapt to the virus threat. 

The problem is that, if you choose one option and I choose the other, neither of us wins. If you dismiss even modest precautions, eventually you will get sick and/or infect someone else. Soon there will be no middle ground. Then the only choice will be to adopt the extreme position: total shutdown. Too many Americans have squandered their options, acting crazy brave instead of heroically, so we all may have to pay the price for their disregard of Aristotle’s Golden Mean.

Letter to the Editor: Unity and Diversity is What Will Make America Great

Congress has enacted a number of civil rights statutes prohibiting discrimination in educational programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance. These statutes are as follows: Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion and national origin); Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (prohibiting sex discrimination); Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (prohibiting disability discrimination); Title II of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (prohibiting disability discrimination by public entities); and the Age Discrimination Act of 1975 (prohibiting age discrimination).

The courts have been slower than Congress but have made landmark decisions that have helped America become great—a work in progress. Unfortunately, the Robert’s court is poised to turn back the clock.

Making America truly great would not be a retreat to the past but a forward movement to an inclusive, diverse citizenship predicated on the ideal that all people are equal, that we should have an equal opportunity to reach our individual potential, and that this country is great only when it recognizes those principles.Continue reading “Letter to the Editor: Unity and Diversity is What Will Make America Great”