Monday, September 17, 2012


Part 10: Dreams of an international life as the wife of a diplomat did not turn out as planned. So Arlene returned to South Africa in July of 1994. South Africa, like Arlene, was in the process of momentous change, and faced a critical decision of where to go from here. The first democratically held elections took place April of 1994 electing Nelson Mandela, leader of the ANC, President of the new South Africa. While there was a new government full of hope and promise, there was a past that needed to be dealt with if South Africa was to move on in a peaceful manner. To address their past and the need to move on, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created by Mandela and chaired by Bishop Desmond Tutu. This commission was the first of its kind dedicated to acknowledging the past in a way that promoted forgiveness and reconciliation. Perpetrators of crimes during the apartheid era, both white and black were invited to give testimony of their actions. If they could show their actions were politically motivated, they would be granted amnesty for their crime, as long as they told the truth. In Bill Moyer's documentary "Facing the Truth", he explains that 90% of the crimes revealed at the TRC were during P.W. Botha's administration. Victims were also invited to give their testimony in the hopes that, once neglected and silenced, the world would now hear them. While generally considered a successful endeavor, what the TRC could not deal with was the consequences of keeping a large group of people economically oppressed, one of which was an increase in crime.

International Arrivals, Jan Smuts International Airport

    Having split all of our possessions between us in New York, my husband Ian and I separated the day we arrived back in South Africa. We literally got off the the plane and went in different directions in the terminal. Tensions were high as we greeted our respective families at the airport. While our families were sad about the situation, I was terrified. I didn't know what my future held for me now. I had been dating Ian since high school. Many people in our town considered us the golden couple for whom the future seemed set. Now my future seemed like a big unknown. I didn't know how any of it would play out.

    I knew in the short term I would be going to the comfort and safety of my mom's home. I also knew I wanted to get my master's degree in psychology. When I got my bachelor's degree in 1989, I was told to get some life experience before applying to the master's program. I think my time in New York as a diplomat's wife certainly qualified so I set about the task of applying to some universities and arranging interviews. Having this mission helped my transition from diplomatic wife to just Arlene again.

    The interview process turned out to be a lot of effort. The programs I applied for were quite competitive and I had to travel from Johannesburg to Cape Town, Grahamstown and Pietermartizburg for the interviews. In the end, I was accepted into two of the universities and I chose Rhodes University in Grahamstown, where I had done my undergraduate degree.

    As I mentioned previously, the school year in South Africa is from January to December, so once I learned I was accepted into Rhodes, I had a few months before I had to leave. Feeling a bit like I was in limbo land, I went back to New York for a few months, staying with friends and working part time in an art gallery.

College Girl

Grahamstown, Eastern Cape Province
    I arrived in Grahamstown in January 1995 and moved into their post graduate residences. There were six of us in the psychology master's program. In the first week of our program, we went on a wilderness retreat as a team building exercise. It was on the first day of that retreat that I received the papers finalizing my divorce. Sometimes when I look back, I wonder if Ian and I had gotten some kind of help at that time, if we went to counseling, if our marriage would have worked out, and how different my life might have been. Never the less, while my marriage and life in New York didn't work out the way I wanted it to, with the divorce papers in my hand I also felt free now to move on in my life. I changed my name back to Dickinson closing that chapter of my life and swore I would never change my name again.

    Grahamstown was quite a new environment for me. I had gone from being a diplomat's wife at the United Nations to a college girl in South Africa, from skirt suits to bellbottoms and sandals. Just like my years as an undergraduate, I spent my time doing my work. The six of us in the program would sometimes socialize on the weekends, but I mostly kept to my studies. My first year was spent in class, writing papers, researching or preparing for exams and tests.

    What was different this time was the atmosphere around the university. There were still midnight walks where people would sing "Nkosi Sikelel'i Afrika", but things didn't seem as stressful. Under the apartheid government, it would be a frequent occurrence for a class to be canceled because the lecturer had been detained by the authorities, but now that didn't happen. Instead were the ongoing broadcasts of the Truth and Reconciliation committees.

    The TRC was a traveling committee. They went to many cities to hear the testimony of perpetrators and victims alike and all of the testimony was public. It was on the tv and radio and big news in South Africa at the time. I seemed to me a bizarre thing that was going on, where people seemed to be coming out of the woodwork, going in front of judges and explaining their life away in order to get freedom. There was a big conversation going on in the country about whether or not people should be granted amnesty just for telling the truth. There were times when I would sit down and actually listen to some of the testimony. I remember hearing people cry as they faced the perpetrators.

djimbe drum
   With my divorce behind me and being back at school, I felt like I was in this free mode. Towards the end of my first year, I started getting involved with the music and theater scene in Grahamstown, what we in South Africa called the bungee world (pronounced 'bun-ghee'). I learned to place the djimbe that year. Me and some others would gather on the weekends to watch dramas and dances performed by 'the movement society'. We would play drums by the fires on the beach. It was a great time.

Fort England Hospital
   The second year of the master's program involved internships. So for the first six months I interned at the Fort England Hospital. It was a psychiatric institution in Grahamstown, housed in one of those grand and glorious old buildings. It reminded me of that movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest". My office was in the mens' unit, mostly catering to black Africans who could not speak English. I had to have an interpreter with me to help with the psychiatric evaluations. The institution handled a lot of syphilis cases because late stage syphilis caused dementia. I experienced a bit of culture clash at Fort England. For example, a lot of our patients, in addition their psychiatric problems, had AIDS. I handled a lot of AIDS education, and it was very difficult to get the patients to understand that they had an incurable disease. Many thought they could just go to their village witch doctor and get fixed. Towards the end of my time there, the administrators started to address some of the cultural differences that came up between patients and doctors. Village witch doctors were brought in to explain to us how they work as traditional healers. A lot of us just thought they needed an anti-psychotic.

    I finished my second year interning at the Rhodes University psychiatric clinic. This was a completely different environment. I was in a nice office and was able to actually conduct therapy sessions with students. This was a welcomed change from Fort Elizabeth.

    I finished my two year master's program, but still had to write my thesis, so for my third year I lectured in the department while I wrote my thesis. It was in the field of neuropsychology: Post-concussive Sequelae in Contact Sport. We got to do neuropsych evaluations on our national rugby and national cricket teams that year. It was all very exciting! Much of my literature section focused on American football, which was fascinating to me.

    Towards the end of my third year I met Richard. He came to my house with a mutual friend one day. We later found out he was in one of my classes. With the lectures being so large I didn't realize it. One thing led to another and after a while we were romantically involved. By November of my third year, I had finished my thesis and graduated from the University. Not having a particular plan in mind after I graduated, I decided to follow Richard back to Cape Town.

Cape Town

Cape Town, Western Cape Province
    Having finished an intensive three years of study, I went to Cape Town thinking that I would take some time off to relax and then maybe pursue setting up my own practice. I found some work waitressing and after a while, I started to think about traveling again, maybe to South America. A friend had just returned from Peru and it seemed like such an interesting destination. I thought I might backpack around the area for a few months. So I started to sell some of my stuff in preparation for going there. However, after four months in Cape Town, I found out I was pregnant. This changed all of our plans.

    I was surprised at the idea of being pregnant. I had sold a lot of my stuff in preparation for traveling so I really had nothing materially and very little direction for a future with a child. And Richard and I never really discussed the future. After all, I had been planning to travel to South America for six months or so. At first, Richard and I thought we would just stay in Cape Town, but then I got to a point where I looked at my surroundings and I thought to myself, I need to go home, I need to be near my parents and my sisters. Richard and I had no real career plans, not much in the way of possessions and here I was soon to have a baby. So I decided to go back home to Johannesburg to be near my family. Now Richard was a bit younger than me. I didn't know if he was ready for such an undertaking. Trying to be sensitive to what he thought his future would be like, I said to him, I'm going back to Johannesburg and if you don't want to come with me, I totally understand. But he said he'd come with me and so that's what we did. We moved to Johannesburg.


Johannesburg, Gauteng Province
    First we stayed for a bit with my sister, then we found a house of our own to rent. It was in that house we birthed our son, Yorke, in November of 1999. Things were difficult in Johannesburg. Richard found work with an event planning company while I stayed at home with our son. Richard would work all weekend setting up and taking down shows. We still didn't have much in the way of possessions. Richard would take our only car to work so I was at home with the baby. My mom and my sisters would visit, and we had a maid who came in a few days a week. Her name was Queenie and while she was employed as our maid, she was more like a mama. She really helped me out a lot. She would help me with washing Yorke's clothes and help me take care of him.

    After a while, I set up a room in the house where I could do some therapy sessions. I figured I could start taking in some freelance or contract work. I got my license and registrations to start practicing as a psychologist. Then I found out I was expecting another child.

    I marveled how things had changed. Not too long ago I was living in a penthouse apartment in New York City. Now we were struggling to make ends meet and expecting our second child. There were changes with Richard and I as well. When we first met, we partied a lot. We would go to dance parties at the beach and stay out until dawn. When Yorke was born, the parties stopped for me, but not necessarily for him. I wanted to be sensitive to that fact that he was younger than me so I didn't say anything when he would stay out all weekend. I wanted to be the understanding spouse, and the job he had was not really a family friendly one. Still, there were times when I was resentful.

    By the time our second son Alex was born, I had a small practice going. I would do psychiatric assessments for insurance companies on people who had motor vehicle accidents or brain injuries. I also worked for a company called Deloitte and Touche doing psychiatric assessments for their recruitment division.

Want to Work in Boston?

    By now, with my practice going and Richard working, we were doing a bit better financially. We had moved from Benoni to a pretty house in the suburbs of Johannesburg. Then one day, my sister told me she saw a newspaper advertisement that Rhodes University was looking for lecturers. I had wanted to get back to lecturing so I thought I'd check it out. She told me there was a whole spread on the left side of the Sunday Times. I opened up the paper, saw the Rhodes advertisement and on the opposite side of the page was a small ad that said, "Want to work in Boston?" Immediately my interest was peaked.

    I remember at dinner one night, asking Richard how would he feel about us moving to the United States and me working there? He was right on it. I countered that we might have to get married to take advantage of the opportunity and he said simply, we can do that.

    As impulsive as it sounds, it was not a quick decision. I had been increasingly concerned with safety in South Africa. Despite a historic new government that was democratically elected, there still seemed to be so much corruption and the economy was bad, but most importantly, the crime rate was so high I didn't feel safe.

electrified fence surrounding a retirement community
    Previously in Grahamstown, my house had been broken into twice with all of my stuff taken. In Johannesburg, you would hear stories of car jackings where the thief would force you out of your car and take it. Once they realized there were children in the back seat, they would dump the kids by the side of the road and hopefully someone would find them. The whole situation made me a nervous wreck. At night, Richard would be gone and I'd be home with two small children with all the windows and doors locked. Like a lot of houses, ours had an electric fence around the property. Unlike a lot of houses, our fence didn't work properly which only heightened my fears. We also had an interior security gate that locked off the bedroom areas so if someone broke into our house at night so they couldn't get to the sleeping areas. All this made me very anxious. I admit I had a fantasy of working and studying psychology in the United States, but when I told my family about moving to the US, my number one reason for moving was really safety.

    So I applied for the position. I remember going to the interview with the recruiter at a hotel. I had brought my youngest with me because he was still nursing. Halfway through the interview, Alex started crying and I interrupted the interview to nurse him. Despite this interruption, I was offered a position. A few people tried to tell me that it was too good to be true, but I was down for the adventure so I accepted the position at South Bay Mental Health in Attleboro, Massachusetts.

    It took us about a year after I was accepted to get ready for the move. We had a lot of loose ends to tie up. During this year, my sister got pregnant, and my dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Quite a few times I considered pulling the plug on the whole project. It was a hard decision to make. I have to take my hat off to my family because no matter what they thought, in the end, they were always supportive of what I wanted to do.

    Then the 9/11 attacks occurred. Just like everyone else in the world, I can remember where I was at that exact moment. The attacks were all over the news in South Africa because many South Africans were living in New York City or had travelled there. I remember following the events closely because I had lived there. I made calls to people I knew in New York and found out a friend of ours from Rhodes University was killed at the World Trade Center. What I remember most of all was the feeling that for the first time, that the world really seemed like an incredibly, unsafe place because if the United States could be hit like that, anyone was vulnerable.

    It took us from March to November to get our affairs in order and make preparations to move. In addition to the planning and packing, Richard and I got married. He would not have been able to come to the US with me and the boys if we didn't so we went ahead and made things official. He had talked about marriage a few times in the past but this job offer in the US pushed the issue to the front. So in December of 2001, we got married at Rustler's Valley, where we had spent a lot of time with our friends dancing until sunrise. Forgoing the traditional big white dress I had the first time, I was married in a reddish-purplish sari.

    Even with all that time to prepare, on the day we were supposed to fly to the US, we were still packing. We were so stressed out with all the preparations. Then we got a phone call from South African Airways saying our flight was delayed for three days. It was like a gift from heaven. We were able to finish packing, celebrate Yorke's birthday with my family and then fly out.

    With my first trip to North Carolina on my AFS exchange year, I was bubbling with excitement to go. On my second trip to New York City as a newlywed, I was bubbling with excitement at the adventures ahead. Yet somehow, this time was different. I had a lot of conflict inside. I remember Richard and I discussing that we would try this for five years, just five years and then we could come back. And the recruiter told us I could make around $40,000 per year which I thought would be enough to allow us to come back every year to visit. Even my mom said she would come visit us in the US too. So everything seemed to be fine. But unlike my other trips to the US, this time, I remember a voice in my head saying, don't go, don't go.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

The Source of Our Sorrow

I think I have discovered the source of our generational angst. It's not the current political climate or the poor economy. It's a little secret from our collective past.

It's the use of the hot dog as a legitimate ingredient in an entree recipe.

I have previously alerted you to the fact that hot dogs are not a legitimate recipe ingredient. There is no improving a hot dog. I don't mean that they are so wonderful they cannot get any better. I mean they are kid fodder, something people eat at ballparks. To think them capable of higher epicurean levels is to deny reality and here is our delimma. I think each one of us subconsciously struggles with an inner conflict between the reality of the hot dog's place in the culinary universe and recipes like this:


 Which recipe you ask? Upper right hand corner, dear.

"What's for dinner, Mom?"
"Guided Missiles."
"Oh Mom, you must really love us!"
Read the recipe! It calls for sculpting the hot dog tip!! You do not love your children unless you are willing to sculpt hot dogs for them!!!

But wait, there's more.

An entire page of hot dog recipes!! "Florentine Franks"?!? I'm pretty sure whatever they are eating in Florence, Italy, it doesn't include hot dogs. Or how about the recipe above it? Nutty Franks. Hot dogs with chunky peanut butter. No, really. And just in case you haven't spontaneously combusted at that thought, the recipe says, "Pass pickle relish if desired." You, however, won't be able to do this because your guests have already run shrieking from the table.

Here's another fun one (warning: may be inappropriate for very young children)

What? What's that you say? You want a better picture?

That which has been seen cannot be unseen

I was about to slam on this recipe but you know what? Now that I see the tomato wedges, everything is better. I mean, everything is better when you include a veggie, right? Right? NO! There is no  salvation through lame crudites!

But here's the grand-daddy of them all.

Sculpted hot dog? Check. Lame veggies? Check. Added bonus of being a Weight Watchers Budget Best Bet? Oh, yeah.

Have you called your therapist yet? The very idea that there were some people who had to eat these recipes for dinner is enough to make me weep.

Thank goodness in the past ten years we have learned to overcome the use of hot dogs in recipes. Now we're into real culinary treats like this:

Avocado, mango and scallion suspended in a mint, lime and jalapeno aspic.


Saturday, September 08, 2012

My Bucket List

1. See Cirque de Soleil Beatles show in Las Vegas

When I was in my 20's, my dear friend MaryEllen asked me to go to a Cirque du Soleil show. She said it was like a circus, but for grown-ups. I don't particularly care for the circus, but I thought I'd humor her and go. Boy howdy, was I impressed. I spent the entire evening poking Bo and saying, "Wow! Did you see that?!?" I think I also spent the next two months apologizing for doubting her taste. That is, until we went to the Star Trek convention.
All that to say that I love Cirque, and if I get a chance to see another performance, it would be really cool to see the Beatles one in Vegas.

2. Live in an old Victorian home for two years
I love old homes. I think they have a lot of character. It so depresses me to see these developments where every other house is the same design. And when you look at the back of the house, it's a blank wall with windows punched through out of obligation.
I have a story to tell...
So I really like where I live in Providence. There are some lovely old homes, big beautiful grand houses. However, as I have found out with my own body, being old can have it's disadvantages. Like poor wiring, bad heating systems...I'm talking about the house, not me. Still, I'd love to spend some time in a cavernous old Victorian, I just don't want the long term financial headache of one.

3. Travel to Europe
My father worked for an airline so my family used to be able to travel on the cheap. I once went to England for $54. Of course, I had to fly through Tokyo, but I was young and had a lot of time on my hands. I did put some serious thought into what possible career I could have with an airline just to get the travel benefits, but ended up in Architecture. Anyway, I'd love to go back to Europe and see all the sights and eat all the food.
It's veal cutlet, Dan. VEAL!

4. Go cross country in an RV
Many of my faithful minions readers already know of my deep and abiding love for road trips, especially RV road trips. There's nothing like seeing large parts of the country from the road, iced coffee in one hand, beef jerky in the other (hey, I don't harsh your dreams, lay off mine). I love seeing the scenery changes from forested mountains to miles of plains. To go from one side of this great land to the other would be awesome.
An RV for me and all my kids

5. Run a 5K marathon
It's not so much that I want to run a marathon but this represents to me a certain level of physical fitness. Also it's a concrete goal versus saying something like, "I want to be fit." I also think my family could deal with this goal of physical fitness a lot better than me dancing like Beyonce.

6. Publish a book
I'm not sure why I want to do this, but this is one goal I'm actually almost done with. I'm not talking like Scribner & Sons publishing. More like Lulu publishing. I'm sure glad I live in an age I can do that.

7. See my kids married
I think this is something all parents want. I am totally looking forward to celebrating with friends and family the day my kids marry their love and start a family of their own. And my girls will wear Vera Wang, not Pnina Tornay. And no Chicken Dance. I will dance like Beyonce if I hear Chicken Dance.
Really, Pnina? Really?

8. See my grandkids
I love sniffing the downy head of new born babies, but the neighbors get all jittery on me when I constantly show up at their homes after a new baby arrives. I bring a casserole, so I don't get what the big deal is. I also think my kids will make excellent parents. Not because of something I've done. I'm not that egotistical. I think my kids will be good parents inspite of my failings. But I want them to have lots of babies so I can sniff their baby soft heads, cuddle and kiss on them and then return them to their parents when their diapers get poopy.
you almost sniffed your screen, didn't you?

9. Drive a Mini Cooper
I currently drive a 12 passenger Ford Van. It maneuvers as well as a water buffalo, and looks about as sexy as one. So I want to drive something small, energetic and stylish.
not sexy
10. Learn to speak Japanese
This is kind of a Holy Grail in my life. I would have loved to been able to speak to my grandmother in her own language, but I never got off my arse to do the work of learning another language. Also, I have to do this if I hope to achieve Number 11 and not stay at all those gaijin hotels.

11. Go to Japan
It's a beautiful and fascinating country and it's part of my heritage. The last time I went was in 1996 when it was just Bo and I. We had a great time seeing all the castles and temples and eating all the food. I'd love to be able to go again with the kids when they're older and not so whiney about food choices.
A hot bowl of traditional Sapporo ramen and all will be right with the world

12. Vacation in Hawaii
I've heard it's like paradise so I want to see for myself. Then I could say that I've been to paradise but I've never been to me.

13. Travel in Ireland.
When I was in college, I went to Dublin with little money, little time and a traveling companion who wouldn't shut up. I remember walking through a residential neighborhood and when we got to the end of the street, we were on a lush green hill overlooking the Irish Sea. I wanted to ring the door bell of each house and ask, "Do you have any idea of how beautiful this is?!?" So I'd like to go back with more money, more time and my best friend, Bo Hunkmeister, who knows when to shut up and take in the beauty of a moment.

14. Travel to South Africa.
I'm currently in the process of writing about my friend's experience moving between the US and South Africa. The two countries have similar histories and struggle mightily with race issues, but in different ways. Over the two years I've been doing these interviews and research, my curiosity has grown. Also it's beautiful country. I want to see this:

So what's on your bucket list?