Monday, February 12, 2018

The Shape of Toilet Overflow

    I have not seen the movie, THE SHAPE OF WATER.  It wasn’t on the airplane playlist.  But It’s a very catchy title, so I have adapted it for my purposes. 
I’m not talking about the icky mess that requires a plunger.  The floaty ball in the tank failed to shut off the inflow.  Anyway, the shape of the water that greeted us after a long day in the operating room, was a flat, giant amoeba.  We propped the door open so that we could sweep out the water.  Some flies got in, but we don’t really care about that.  They are annoying, but don’t carry malaria.  Only the night mosquitoes do that. The skinny cat with the big ears, who always seems to turn up when we are around, came to the door, desperate for some tuna or at least a hot dog, but he was reluctant to cross the thin waterfall over the threshold. 
It’s ironic.  At breakfast, this morning, I said, “Well, at least we still have water.”  That was just before the woman called to us through the kitchen window, announcing that she was the electrician sent to repair our water heater.  I had to inform her that it would futile at that moment, since the power had been off since sometime after 10 pm last night.  And no, it wasn’t that we hadn’t prepaid the power company.   We had 110 credits when I checked the meter before going to bed.
We had encountered a Goldilocks moment when we arrived back in Tanzania.  We were the bears.  Someone had been sleeping in our house, and he left his stuff.  A receipt indicated he was off climbing Kilimanjaro.  When a young man from Oregon returned on Saturday, intending to stay another week, we told him we were surprised to find someone in our house.  Hands on hips, he declared, “Well, they didn’t tell me you would be here.” He wasn’t aware that had been assigned to the wrong house.
We hired a man from town to repair the fridge on Saturday.  The electrician says the hot water heater is fried and maybe tomorrow he will have the right part.  This afternoon, the power was restored, so we plan to heat up water in the electric kettle for a lukewarm bath.  Tom just announced that he is wading back to the bedroom for a nap.
A little voice says that maybe someone is trying to tell us we shouldn’t be here.  But a great big voice says, “Don’t be ridiculous.  This is exactly where you are supposed to be.  Have you ever felt happier, more alive?” 
There’s the way Kilimanjaro glitters in the sunrise, the rope of ants across the kitchen steps, the grapefruit size tumor removed from a young man’s face (and the three similar sized tumors scheduled for next week), the emergency trach in a baby who choked on gravel, the six-hour throat reconstruction in a woman who has been unable to speak ever since she slashed her own throat 7 months ago, in the throes of post-partum depression.  Monkeys are jumping on our car, coming to beg for bananas. 
We’ll have plenty of hot water when we get home.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Road Trip: The Adventure Begins

The open road beckons:  a six-week odyssey, wending our way from Florida to the east coast of Newfoundland.  We travel in a Tahoe towing a trailer, in the company of two dogs and a cat, visiting friends and family along the way. 
I admit to mixed feelings about this trip.   On the one hand, I am apprehensive and at times my anxiety rises to the level of a sense of doom.  But another part of me says, “Hey, get a grip.  How bad could it be?  Let’s just get it over with.”
The roots of my apprehension are my memories of a family vacation in a recreational vehicle during the summer of ’63.  I was twelve years old and paid close attention during the orientation.  One point that particularly interested me was that you could hear the pump kick in every time you turned on the water.  If the pump ran unceasingly, it meant you were out of water.
 We spent our first night in a campground in Bastrop State Park, in central Texas.  There were no RV hookups.  In those days, such things could only be found in a trailer park.  It was hot that night and my mother wanted to run the air conditioner, which required running the generator.  This was not very popular among the people around us who were sleeping in tents.
In the morning, my father announced that he was going to take a “Navy” shower.  “First you get your body wet, turn of the water,” he explained.  “After you get soaped up, you rinse off.”
He stepped into the tiny bathroom, with the shower head projecting from the wall over the toilet, and we all listed as the water pump kicked in for the first phase of his shower and then stopped.  A few minutes later, the pump kicked in again.  But it didn’t stop.  It droned on as he emerged from the bathroom dotted with soap bubbles.  He didn’t seem that grateful to me when I reminded him of what the man had told us about the water pump.
We did not have a hose to refill the tank.  None of the people around us would lend us a hose.  Generator noise had made our family a pariah.  We drove to a gas station where my father, still coated in bubbles, refilled our tank with water.  When he got back into the driver’s seat, his hand was wrapped in a bloody towel.  My mother asked “What happened?”, but she could not understand his muttered response.  The third time she asked, he shouted, “I cut it on the license plate!!”
I wish I could say that the rest of the trip went smoothly, but the best I can say is that nothing worse happened.  Despite that negative experience, I am taking the plunge once more.  My husband and I bought a third-hand trailer for this trip, and recently took it on a trial run go a campground a few miles from our home.  Facilities for trailers and RV’s have come a long way since 1963.  The sites have water, sewage, and even wi-fi!.  The water hookup was on the wrong side and so we had to run the hose over the picnic table and under the RV, but otherwise things went smoothly.  We only had to return home twice for things we left at home, and then went out for dinner.  There was only one tense moment:  My husband tripped over the water hose, and guess what—cut his finger!!  After a trip to the drug store for band-aids, we decided that one night in the camp was a sufficient trial. 
My parent’s marriage survived that trip more than 50 years ago.  With luck, Tom and I will stay married, too.

Friday, April 21, 2017


“Want to go to Jordan with me?”

This was September, 2013, and so my answer was swift.

“Are you crazy?  We just invaded Iraq.”

Her answer was equally swift.  “So?”

Linda is a New York Speech Pathologist.  She had been invited to lecture at a conference in Amman.  The doctors there asked her to recruit an ENT surgeon to come along to teach them a procedure that restores voice to patients after removal of a cancerous voice box.

It was a worthy project and I wasn’t too busy to go.  I had just relocated to Springfield, Illinois, and my practice hadn’t ramped up yet.  No State Department advisories about travel to Jordan.  So, after a few days of equivocation, I agreed. 

Getting there was easy:  A direct flight from Chicago O’Hare to Amman.  On landing at Queen Aliah airport , I spied three Iraqi passenger jets, grounded since the onset of Desert Storm. 

A couple of other activities had been added to my agenda.  I was immediately whisked from the airport to a conference at the Jordan University of Science and Technology, about an hour north of Amman, near the Syrian border.  In the midst of a sea hijabs, my long blonde hair was exposed for all the world to see.  At first, I was embarrassed, intimidated, thought that I must look like a harlot to them.  But I was received warmly.  I was told that the hajib is a choice, not a commandment.

I lectured in the morning.  In view of my jet lag, I was humanely excused from the afternoon session.  After lunch, when everyone else returned to the conference, I was instructed to wait outside for a driver. 

I stood on the sidewalk, near the curb, gazing at the new and modern buildings that gleamed in the bright sun.  I wasn’t wearing my watch, so I don’t know how long I stood there.  It was long enough for me to be concerned. 

The car that screeched to a stop in front of me was a far cry from the sleek Mercedes that had collected me at the Airport.  This car had seen better days—had a dented fender and needed a paint job.  The driver leapt from the vehicle, grabbed my rollerbag, and motioned for me to get in.

As we sped off, I thanked him for picking me up.  No response.  He leaned forward, gripping the steering wheel tightly.  I couldn’t see the speedometer, but we were moving very fast, and the wind was doing a number on my hair.  I struggled in vain to close the window, but the hand crank was broken. 

I started to wonder, maybe I shouldn’t have gotten into this car.  Who was this driver who would not speak?  What if I’m a hostage?  Visions of beheading videos played out in my mind.  Would I ever see my family again?

My chest felt tight and it hurt to breathe.  I had felt this way once before, when our two year-old son disappeared, briefly, from our home in La Jolla.  We called 911 and searched desperately for what seemed to be forever.  I couldn’t stop thinking, “My son is going to be a picture on a milk carton.”  Within 10 minutes, he reappeared, pedaling up the sidewalk on his tricycle.  He had just toodled off, right under our noses, as my husband and I stood in our driveway, consulting with an architect about a wall to secure our front yard. 

I wouldn’t be on a milk carton.  Worst case scenario, maybe on the news.  And as the car continued southward, I convinced myself that my fears were unfounded.  I resolved to dismiss the dark thoughts and put my trust in the kind people who had arranged the transport. 

Until the car began to decelerate.  As far as I could tell, we were in the middle of nowhere.  To add fuel to my paranoia, a large sedan was parked on the roadside ahead and it was clear that we were pulling in behind it.

The driver of that car got out and turned to face us as we approached.  Two figures stepped out of the rear doors, one on each side, each clad from head to toe in light gray gowns and hijabs.

“My handlers?” I wondered.  My heart pounded in my throat.  I only hesitated a moment after my driver yanked my door open.  What options did I have?  Out in the middle of nowhere? 

As I climbed into the back of the sedan, a bright, voice called to me from the front passenger seat, “Hello there!” 

All was explained.  The passenger in front was a Professor of Midwifery from Australia who had also been lecturing at the same conference.  The sedan was already en route to take her back to Amman when the decision was made to send me back to my hotel, so a second car was dispatched to catch up .  It was a perfectly logical plan.  The only flaw was that my driver didn’t speak English.  Or that I didn’t speak Arabic.

The remainder of the drive delightful.  The two women who flanked me in the back seat were also midwives.  They were charming, intelligent, ardent feminists.  Not as in free loving bra burners.  They were strong and vocal advocates for women’s rights:  education, health care, autonomy…  We arrived at my hotel too soon.

My husband and I have made multiple visits to Jordan to help care for patients and have forged strong friendships with our colleagues there.  It is not a wealthy country—no massive mineral resources—but is the most compassionate and hospitable place I have ever been.  Consider the ratio of refugees to the general population.  At my last visit, the Iraqi jets were still on the runway.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017


Dusk and dawn are two sides of the same coin—sunlight refracted by the atmosphere, the same colors and intensity of light, but in reverse order of appearance.

I have long been a fan of sunsets.  We hear a lot about rainbows—the Bible says they are a sign of God’s promise not to destroy the world by flood again.  He seems to be leaving that task up to us, now, as we saturate the air with CO2, melt the ice caps.  I think sunsets are a much more hopeful sign.

You never know what the sky will look like as we rotate in andout of sunlight.  Sometimes it is gold and rosy, sometimes clouds completely blot out the spectacle, and sometimes the sky is so perfectly clear that the sun just plops under the horizon.  But a beautiful sunset, when you get a chance to see it, can fill you with peace.  If you’re not starving, and you have a comfortable bed somewhere, a sunset gives hope that tomorrow will be better—if not immediate tomorrow, the very next day, then the future, however distant.

Dawn was not often my cup of tea in the first half of my life.  I preferred to sleep in.  And when I did arise early, it was because I had something to do.  I was full of purpose, on a mission, no time to meditate on the horizon.  As a child, I clung so stubbornly to my bed that I never had time for breakfast and was often late for school.  As a solution, my father took to waking me before sunrise, to engage me in some task, feeding the chickens, tending to the horses, milking the cows.  That was fun, and I was ready for school on time.  One summer, I joined the swim team, and the sun was usually a bright red ball on the horizon as my mother drove us to practice.

I have become more of a dawn person in my later years, in retirement.  A major activity f each day is a long morning walk with my husband and our dogs, before the heat of the day sets in.  But I still prefer sunsets, looking across the Indian River Lagoon with a glass of wine, as we look forward to a good night’s sleep, with pleasant dreams.

Dusk and dawn look very different, depending on where you are.  If you are on the west coast of Zanzibar, sunset is breath-taking.  But on the east coast, it is the dawn that inspires awe.  Long before the sun rises from the sea, its light can play through tall thunder clouds and patchy rain showers.  The orange orb turns yellow, then becomes too bright for our eyes, as it burns away the mist, bakes the sand on the beach.

Dawn is a fire breathing dragon, that cremates last night’s dreams and nightmares.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Artificial Insolence

Why do we impute intent to machines?  We curse the lawnmower when it won’t start, plead with a sluggish car that won’t turn over… Case in point:  my new robot vacuum cleaner.  Let’s put aside, for the moment, the propriety of a husband giving his wife a household appliance as a Christmas gift.  I know this is a serious issue that cuts across many cultures.  But I don’t want to talk about it now, OK?

George (my husband, Tom, chose that name for the robot) really does have a mind of his own.  He does not follow instructions.  The first thing I wanted him to do was to suck up the needles that fell from our artificial Christmas tree during its deconstruction.  I thought it would be simple.  I placed him in front of the offending fake foliage and expected him to clean it up.  He made one pass through the middle of the mess, bumped into the wall, and then headed for the kitchen.  So I picked him up and put him back where I wanted him.  This time he scooted under the dining table. 

I reminded myself that this is just what he is programmed to do: roll around in seemingly random paths until eventually the whole area is clean—much like the proverbial infinite number of monkeys at infinite typewriters reproducing all the great works of literature.  All that was required of me was patience.  So I resigned myself to granting George some space and time.  I went to the other end of the house to do some other chores.

Before long, there was an incident.  The sliding door leading out to the deck was open and George couldn’t resist a chance for fresh air.  He knows better than to go down stairs, but unfortunately, he couldn’t manage this small drop off.  I heard some distress noises, and there he was, on his back, rollers and brush flailing, like a flipped turtle.  I put him back on the living room floor and closed the glass doors.

It was less than ten minutes later that I heard an eerie voice calling to me.  I was too far away to catch the words, but I knew it had to be something to do with George.  It couldn’t be him speaking, because it was a woman’s voice, not a man.  I don’t know why Tom had selected a masculine name, but that was the identity imprinted in my brain.  And the voice was creepy.  Like that disembodied female voice that you hear in spy movies announcing that you only have 55 seconds to vacate the premises before the whole thing blows.

It was an error message.  But I knew immediately, when I saw the carnage, that this had been no mistake.  George had known exactly what he was doing.  It was a crime of passion: a premeditated attack on a poor defenseless cordless hand held vacuum.  That mindless appliance had been innocently resting on a chair, plugged in to be recharged.  George knew, even before the idea occurred to me, that I would inevitably become frustrated with him and turn to the mini-Shark for consolation.  He was insanely jealous--couldn’t take the competition, the fear that he could be replaced.  He viciously ran over the hand-vac’s charging cord, unplugging it from both the wall socket and the minivac.  The cord became tangled up in George's own rollers, bringing him to a screeching halt.   

Fortunately, I was able to unravel everything.  There is no permanent damage, aside from my own psychological scars.  Too traumatized to risk another incident so soon, I resorted to a broom and dustpan to clean up the mess.  Both vacs are currently functional and, plugged into their respective chargers.  I hope George learned his lesson, but I am not optimistic.

I know this story sounds far-fetched, but I swear it is true.  There is some literary precedent.   Think:  The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat.

Friday, December 16, 2016

My best Christmas

My favorite Christmas wasn’t the one when I got the Tiny Tears or the Chatty Cathy, or even the Barbie Dream Kitchen.  It wasn’t the time we visited cousins in Iowa and I saw snow for the first time.  It was my father’s last Christmas.

We didn’t know at the time, or at least would not admit to ourselves, that it was his last, even though he had been noticeably fading.  We intended to celebrate a White Christmas in Illinois with our nuclear family.  Dad’s philosophy was “The successful family is a self-destructive unit,” and he would not hear of us spending Christmas in Texas, or flying him up to Springfield.  Three of our four children were coming home for the holidays. We were all going to sing with our church choir at the midnight Christmas Eve service.   I ordered a huge prime rib roast through the internet and we were looking forward to quite a feast on Christmas Day.  My husband and would visit my father in January, on Martin Luther King weekend.  But when Dad was hospitalized, our plans suddenly changed. 

Sarah and Greg arrived, and the last “chick” to be gathered was, Nick, who flew into Bloomington from Atlanta late on December 23, in a snow storm.  We set out for Texas the next morning and drove straight through, in a two-car caravan, frozen roast, dogs and all, stopping only for gasoline and the awful road trip food that one finds at truck stops.  We arrived in Wharton and midnight on Christmas Eve and drove straight to the hospital.  I knew his room number, so I ran inside to check on him while the others waited in the car.

He was not in the room.  There was no sign of him.  The bed was neatly made and the room recently cleaned with a fresh set of amenities on the bedside table.  We were too late.  I was desolate.  I sat on the chair in the room and sobbed.  Until a nurse came into the room and told me that he had been transferred back to Hearthstone, his assisted living facility.  It was a reprieve.

Dad (Papa, Grandpa, Dr. Woodson, or Woody to anyone else who loved him) had been a GP in Wharton, Texas for his whole career, and after retirement wrote a "Health Tips" column for the local paper.  His columns also told tales of caring for patients in a rural practice and recollections of his childhood in East Texas.  The columns were ultimately published as a book to benefit local charity.

On that Christmas Day, my brother and sister and I and our families and friends gathered at the homestead.  Dad was not well, but on the mend, up to staggered visits from all his children and grandchildren throughout Christmas Day.  We put two of those new-fangled digital picture frames by his bedside and loaded them up with favorite family photos.  He stayed at Hearthstone on Christmas Night, while we, his family and friends, had a wondrous feast in his honor—the prime rib we had brought with us, a luscious beef tenderloin prepared by my brother, and multiple side dishes and desserts.  When we were all stuffed with food, my wonderful friend, Janet, had a great idea.  Janet (who would show up on the doorstep a month later, bearing a bag of kolaches and a jug of orange juice, the morning after Dad passed away) said, “We should all go and visit Woody.”

We invaded the assisted living facility, occupying the lobby because there were too many of us to fit into his room.  He held court, beaming, while we all sang Christmas Carols.  There was no other scheduled event at Hearthstone that evening and many other residents came out to join us. We have a custom, almost a ritual, of “hat” pictures at the Woodson home: everyone at the party selects a hat from an eclectic collection of toppers and we all pose for a group picture.  The hats were transported to Hearthstone that night, and the tradition was honored. 

It was one of those magical evenings when we all felt connected to something wonderful and eternal. 

Dad has compared the end of life to the bonfires of his childhood that would flicker and flare up and intermittently before fading away.  That Christmas night, we were treated to a major sparkle of his soul before he sailed away from us.  He wouldn't say Goodbye.  He just said, "See ya.'

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Rejuvenation, African Style

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  I grew up with this aphorism, and it makes a lot of sense.  The African version of this philosophy is a bit more extreme.  I will articulate it as, “If you can tape it, don’t toss it.”  If the Formica is chipped or warped, it can still serve as a writing surface.  If the chipped and cracked teacup does not leak (or only just a little) it is still useful.  And so on.  You get the picture.

Thus, I was surprised when Mohammed insisted that we get the car painted.  But, on further thought, he was absolutely right.  If repainted, the 16 year-old RAV 4 would last another 10 years or so.  If left to its own devices, the roof would most assuredly rust through before too long.  It was solid thinking, just a little more visionary than one generally encounters in Tanzania.

The paint shop—actually, much more than a paint shop, it is a vehicle restoration establishment—came with sterling credentials.  They paint police cars.  I wondered if perhaps they could make our vehicle look official, so that we would not be waved over so often by the ice cream suit cops.  This was, of course, an idle fantasy.

We were instructed to head toward the sugar plantation and look for the first green gate after the railroad tracks, the railroad tracks being the most solid reference point.  We had never been to the sugar plantation, and we had to head down three different streets off the roundabout before finding a street that actually crossed the tracks. One could also argue whether or not the gate is actually green.  I would label it as chartreuse, bordering on yellow.

There was only a narrow “bridge” over the deep stonelined drainage sluice.  Inside the gate was a scene that could have been the set for Mad Max.  I state this with no authority, since I have only ever seen the previews.  But there were trucks and large I-don’t-know-what large vehicles that had all seen much better days, but were still functional.  We were regarded with some consternation when we first entered.  Workers sort of wondering why we were there.  The chips and dents on the sides and bumpers hardly warranted their attention.  But when we pointed out the sad state of the sun-burned roof, there were earnest nods of comprehension.

One of the men pulled out chairs for us to wait in while an estimate was prepared.  The chairs had nearly matching deficits in the wooden backs.  The pseudo leather covering each seat had an identical large side to side split that revealed an equivalent deep chasm in the underlying foam.  They were comfortable. 

Newman, in a shirt that formerly belonged to a MacDonald’s worker, opened up the hood and looked at the engine.  I’m not sure why.  Then he strolled around the car, and retreated to some office.

A large squarish rusted machine had some fearsome projections and foot pedals that looked like they came from a piano.  My husband told me that it was a machine that takes tires off of wheels, and this one looked like it could have removed a million in its time.  I told him that the tire guys at the Orix station never resort to such technology.  They do everything by hand.  I have great admiration for the Orix guys.  They keep me entertained whenever we stop to refuel our RAV 4.

Numerous old spare parts of questionable utility were interspersed around the workspace.  I hesitate to use the term, “scattered” since they could well have been placed strategically.  I used such a system on my desk, back when I had an office.  It looked jumbled, but I knew where everything was, just in case I might need it.  The thickness of the red dust layer was highly variable, but it covered everything except our chairs.

I marveled at the idea that a place so apparently cluttered and dusty could produce such pristine painting results.

After half an hour, no estimate was forthcoming.  We were told we should go on, as someone would contact us.  That has not happened yet, and no one answers the phone when we call.

Mohammed says we should give them a couple of days.  I can certainly do that. And even if we never succeed in getting our car repainted, even if the roof ultimately rusts through, I will always treasure my afternoon in the garden of ancient automotive artifacts.