American grandmothers with Nepalese children

American grandmothers with Nepalese children
In "our" village in Nepal

Thursday, May 21, 2015


My love affair with Nepal began back in 1987 on my first trek there at age 53, and continued well beyond my seventh and most recent visit in 2003. I went from being a tourist drawn by its magnificent mountain scenery and the adventure of hiking in such an exotic locale, to becoming a friend of the people in Badel, a remote hill village northeast of Kathmandu, due south of Mount Everest, where, with a friend I helped to found a library, arrange and pay for cleft lip surgery for two children, and finance the installation of modern simple latrines to help protect the health of village children. And then I wrote a book about the people we had met -- "A Balcony in Nepal: Glimpses of a Himalayan Village," with art by Margaret Roche.

In 1993 my friend Margaret Roche and I spent time in Badel, where our bright young guide, Buddi Rai, had grown up and then returned as a trekking company owner after becoming the first university graduate in his village. We came to know his parents, his brothers and sister, and his wife and children, and to welcome them to my home on Long Island when they eventually were able to come to the United States.

The engine that drove my return trips to Nepal was the admiration I had for her people. After my initial trekking adventures I felt I needed to go back to learn more about them. I wanted to understand how they were able to show such remarkable sweetness and cheerfulness in view of the arrant poverty most of them struggle with and of their hard lives. I needed to find out what these people, who wrested beauty from a harsh and primitive land, could teach me, a woman who lived in one of the wealthiest and most technologically advanced countries in the world. I knew I had to return. I did return, and I did learn so much from my Nepali friends. Those visits changed me forever.

And so when I heard the tragic news of the devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit this beautiful little country on April 25, my heart ached. I was desperate to find out how “my” village was doing. Happily, I received good news from my first trek leader, Peter Owens, an American who now lives in Kathmandu. Even after the second earthquake two weeks later, of a 7.3 magnitude, which dealt more blows to Nepal, and especially to the area between Kathmandu and Mount Everest, Badel’s people and houses had been spared. No one was injured and although some of the houses developed cracks, none were seriously damaged. And our little library still stands.
But my heart keeps breaking for Nepal. Last week The New York Times reported on the devastating destruction in the village of Barpak, the epicenter of the 7.8 magnitude hurricane that has taken more than 8,000 lives and flattened untold villages. I remember the much different view of Barpak, a village much like Badel, that I had on my first trek in Nepal in the spring of 1987, as captured in these passages from my journal.

"We set out, first uphill, and then contouring around the terraced slopes until we reach the village of Barpak, populated by members of the Gurung ethnic group, one of about one hundred groups in Nepal, each with its own language. Barpak is sizeable by Himalayan standards, spread out over a mile, with some 1,000 sturdy slate-roofed houses built from wood and from slabs of heavy stone scraped from the mountains that surround the village. With a population of about 10,000, Barpak gives off an air of prosperity, with its well-dressed children, many in western clothes; its school with classes 1 through 7; and its medical clinic under construction."

On May 6, 2015 The New York Times reported that about 1200 of the village’s 1450 buildings are gone or so badly damaged that they might as well be. The few houses built from concrete in the 28 years since our little group camped in the village largely stood up to the earthquake that destroyed so many of these remote mountain villages. I cannot bear to imagine what happened to Barpak’s medical clinic and to the staff and patients who were in it on that fateful Saturday.

"School closed early today to let the volleyball team practice for a big game coming up, but word of our arrival spreads, and six teachers come over to our campsite in the yard of the village panchayat (the governing council). A goodly contingent of villagers turns out too, and watches raptly as we present the English teacher, Khem Ghale, with items we’ve brought just for this purpose – ballpoint pens, felt-tipped markers, crayons, picture postcards of our home towns in the U.S. He’s a good-looking young man – slender, 5’8”, with thick black hair and chiseled features. Khem earned his S.L.C. (school leaving certificate, akin to high school graduation), and plans to study science at university in Kathmandu. He accepts our gifts and tells us about the school, the village, and himself."

I wonder where Khem Ghale is now. Did he go to Kathmandu , graduate from university, and get a better job? Did he return to teach in this close-knit community? Was he crushed by the earthquake, here or in Kathmandu? Or did he survive into his fifties to help his neighbors with the gargantuan task of rebuilding his shattered village?

"Khem takes us to see his home, with its walls covered with photos of family and friends. There’s a picture of his father, a retired Ghurka soldier, and a professional group shot of his parents, his four siblings, and himself. We meet his mother, sitting on her porch, weaving a bag she will use to do her marketing. We pass another house where a woman sits in front, on the ground, at a huge loom where she weaves an earth-brown hooded woolen cape, worn by all the boys and men in Barpak. They’re warm and waterproof and futuristic-looking with their peaked hoods. Just the thing for a cold rainy day on Long Island, I think, ready to pay $15 for one until I try it on and am weighed down by it. I can’t imagine how heavy it is when it gets wet.

"As we walk through the village, I ask Khem what his school needs. He tells us, “Blackboards and chairs.” A blackboard costs about $10. We caucus, take up a collection, and present the money. A few of our group go to see rakshi (the local liquor) being made in the home of the woman who sells it. I choose to stay back and repair my torn duffel bag. I’m a little sorry later that I didn’t go. But not broken-hearted. Is it the eastern influence that I seem to be more accepting of what is, what has been, what will be? Fewer regrets, fewer railings at chance."

But how can the survivors among these brave and cheerful people now accept the tragedy that has overcome them, buried their families, their friends, their homes, ruined their fertile beautifully sculpted undulating terraces that have enabled crops to grow up and down the steep hillsides? How accepting can they be? How can they go on, starting all over again? Will their strength come from their gods of the mountains, the rivers, the trees?

"Dinner back at camp, prepared by our ingenious kitchen staff, is chicken noodle soup, peppers, spinach noodles, a stew of meat, eggplant and peppers, boiled cauliflower, and blueberry cheese cake. The fifty or so children in their hooded capes watch our every move, looking like solemn little pupae in brown cocoons. They don’t watch us eat because they’re hungry, just because they are fascinated by our strange ways."

Where are these children now? They would be in their thirties today. Did the boys, like so many young men, leave the village to earn more money by working in construction in the Arab states, leaving Barpak populated by elderly farmers, women, and children? Did the girls look for work in Kathmandu or remain to raise their children alone? How many of them were felled by the earthquake?

"After dinner our porters and kitchen staff, after working hard all day, play music, and from our tents we watch them dancing under the stars until sleep takes over. I’m struck by their energy when I’m so tired – but even more by their seeming ability to be so happy with so little. Next morning we wake up at five, still seeing the stars. When the sun rises, its rays glint golden on the snowy 25,000-feet peak of Himalchuli before us. After breakfast we break camp and leave Barpak."

How have these villagers, whom I described then as living in dire poverty, in harsh conditions, while remaining cheerful and busy and purposeful and involved with life, coped with this new betrayal by nature? During my seven visits to Nepal between 1987 and 2003, I found her people not bitter, not beaten down, not even resigned. How are they today?

I can’t fight back tears at this tragedy, almost as if this were my family who was so brutally savaged. I’m overcome by a sense of powerlessness to help. I briefly consider flying to Nepal once again – and then am struck by the reality. There’s certainly no need for an 81-year-old woman with no training in medical care, construction, or other vital skills. And so I send checks to charities there on the scene and hope that the remarkable strength and resilience of the Nepali people, in the face of poverty, political unrest, and now the sudden loss of loved ones, of homes, of their very means of existence, will continue to wrest beauty from this harsh and primitive – and yes, beautiful – land.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015


So many people commented that they were helped by my article about avoiding falls, which appeared in, the free online magazine for women "on the right side of 50" (as its editor puts it) that I'm reprinting it here. I hope it keeps more of us grannies upright and out of the emergency room!

Improve Your Balance and Avoid Needless Falls

Some remedies only require common sense; others require classes in balance and tai chi.

by Sally Wendkos Olds

In my circle of friends, practically everyone—including me—has fallen recently. One friend hit the floor when the chair she was standing on to reach a high cabinet tipped over. One tripped over a small rug in her apartment. One tumbled downstairs when, wearing her progressive lenses, she could not see the bottom of the staircase. I ended up spread-eagled on a sidewalk when, looking up at the marquee of the theater I was headed to, I caught my toe in a crack in the cement. The ways we fall are varied and the ways to prevent falls are also varied. As we get older our vision changes and our muscles become weaker; these may cause changes in our balance, our bones and our ability to judge distances. Fortunately, we can do a lot to prevent mishaps.

“Reaching your sixties should be a wake-up call,” says Celeste Carlucci, a former dancer and the founder of the fall prevention and strengthening program FallStop…Move Strong™ at the Westside Jewish Community Center. Of course, younger people fall too, but the risks can be greater for people 60 and older. Many of us need to make changes. As much as we may want to look fashionable, we should wear sneakers (See Sneaker Savvy for City Living) or low-heeled shoes with rubber soles when we plan to walk four blocks or more. Also eliminate rugs that slip and slide in your apartment, learn better ways of picking up items from the floor and placing items on high shelves. Make sure your lighting is good.

Some of these remedies only require common sense, but improving our balance and way of moving sometimes requires physical therapy or classes in balance or tai chi. The stronger our muscles become and the more our sense of balance improves, the more adept we will become at catching ourselves if we trip or if someone bumps into us. Listed below is a compendium of recommendations from several experts.

Pay attention to your body: To decide if you need a class to improve your balance and strength, try the exercises in the sidebar and grade yourself honestly. If you sometimes feel dizzy or unsteady, have your doctor check you and analyze all your medications (including over-the-counter) to see whether any one of these or any combination is causing the problem.

Check your vision and ears: If you experience any dizziness when you walk, go to your eye doctor or ear doctor to make sure your glasses are appropriate and you don’t have an ear infection.

Wear shoes that give you good support: As you age the skin on the bottom of your feet becomes thinner and walking distances may become painful. You can buy inserts for sneakers and low-heeled shoes at many drug stores or see a podiatrist who can order custom-made orthotics and fit you with the right shoes.

Since most falls happen when we shift our weight and lose our balance, focus on keeping your body weight over your feet, especially when changing direction.

To pick up an item from the floor, bend your front leg, keep your rear leg about a foot behind the other, and bend down. You’re less likely to fall than if you bend over with both legs together.

To reach something on a high shelf, take the same stance: one foot forward, one back.

When walking down steps, if you’re feeling off balance, place your feet sideways and hold the railing.

When you wake up in the morning or after sitting for a long time as at the theater, open your lap, organize your body, and, as Celeste says, “pump the gas” for a couple of minutes before getting up by alternately flexing and pointing your feet.

Walking Outside

Consider every walk a mindful meditation, so you’re constantly thinking, “Where are my feet?” “Where is my body?” “What is the road surface like?” When I went trekking a few years ago on the narrow, rocky roads in Nepal, I had to focus on every step. If I wanted to look at the spectacular scenery, I knew I had to stop—I could not walk and look at the same time. We need to do this in New York City as well. As East Sider Myra Braverman told me, “When I walk and talk, I trip. When I just focus on how I’m walking and don’t engage in conversation, I don’t trip.”

Walk heel-toe. Make good contact with the ground by hitting it first with your heel, then your toe, with your legs a little bit apart so you’re not shuffling.

Use your whole leg and body to develop a good stride, but don’t make your steps so large that you lose your balance keeping up with them.

Practice using your STOP muscles: lunge forward, then pull your body back to catch yourself. Make this a habit so that if you trip or suddenly see a bike coming at you, you can pull yourself back.

Standing a foot away from a wall, keep your body straight as you lean forward, with your hands away from the wall. As you come closer to the wall, practice putting your hands on it so the movement will be automatic and if you do trip, you’ll fall on your hands.

Swing your arms when you walk. This can be a challenge on crowded sidewalks, but it’s important to keep your body loose and have an easy gait.

On snowy and icy streets wear boots with rubber soles, engage your abdominal muscles, plant one foot and then the other firmly on the ground, angle your body slightly, and lean forward a little bit so you won’t fall backward.

When walking your dog, keep the leash short and the dog close to you. When you bend down to scoop the poop, place one foot in front of the other so you won’t lose your balance. And keep one foot on the leash so Fido can’t bolt and drag you with him.

Be alert to what’s around you: puddles and potholes, uneven pavement, cyclists coming the wrong way, cars turning into the crosswalk, oblivious smartphone users about to bump into you.

Taking Taxis and Buses

Let the new taxis with high steps pass and wait for one that’s easier to get in and out of. To get in, sit sideways, hold the door frame and swing both legs in at the same time. To get out, do the reverse.

Don’t run for a bus. Instead leave early so you’ll have enough time and won’t be tempted to run. Always exit from the front of the bus, no matter what the recorded voice says, since the front step is lower than the rear. To get in or out, step sideways and hold the railing.

Create a Safe Environment at Home

Check your home against the safety checklist from the Centers for Disease Control.

Light is important. Keep a lamp by your bed with an easy-to-reach switch, and keep a flashlight handy, at home and when traveling, so you never have to walk in the dark.

Inside the house always wear shoes or slippers with a back AND, when possible, rubber soles to give your feet structure and prevent slipping.

Never walk in stocking feet, which are slippery.

Use a sturdy stepladder with a hand rail to reach high places; be sure it’s level before getting on and hold on.

Always keep your cell phone with you so if you do fall you can summon help.

Keep your floors free of clutter you might stumble over.

Enrolling in a class to improve your balance and strength can also bring tremendous benefits. As West Sider Lynn Minton says, “My ankles are stronger, my calves are stronger, my thighs are stronger—my whole body is stronger and more flexible. We all trip—just look at New York City sidewalks—but now I can right myself if I start to trip and I don’t fall down. I’m always recommending Celeste’s classes to friends.”

[Celeste is Celeste Carlucci, who teaches balance and muscle strength classes in NYC and who offers DVDs to follow at home on her website,]

Sunday, August 24, 2014


Two years ago as I was on my way home to my Upper West Side Manhattan apartment, I heard music coming from the outdoor plaza of Lincoln Center. When I walked across the street to check it out, I saw thousands of people in a sea of white – all-white clothing, white tables and chairs, white china place settings. I finally buttonholed a couple on their way out and found out that this was the second appearance in New York of Le Diner en Blanc (The Dinner in White), a French-inspired flash-mob-type event, described more elegantly as a "smart mob," and available by invitation only.

I didn’t know anyone who could invite me, but I went online and found a place where I could sign up to receive notices of the next year’s event. And then I promptly forgot about it. Although I never heard from the website the following year, I did get an email a couple of weeks ago telling me I was now eligible to vie for a spot online. Actually two spots: no one can come to the event alone; you have to bring a friend. I called a friend who immediately accepted. I was accepted to this august company of about 4,000 people who will gather tomorrow evening at various meeting places throughout New York City, and only then will we learn where the event will be held.

I pulled together the “elegant” white outfit I was instructed to wear, as did my friend, buying a few items that we didn’t have. I paid my $5 membership fee and the $30 each attendance fee. I ordered wine from the approved store, since we are not allowed to bring any alcoholic beverages; to prevent bringing in such contraband our picnic baskets will be checked upon entrance. Oh yes, we have to bring our own picnic supper (an “elegant” one, to be sure), along with white china place settings (no plastic!), white napery, cutlery (again no plastic!).

I have looked at the photos of others who will be attending, and I'm sure that my friend and I will be the oldest people there. And that's part of the fun and excitement of this adventure. More to come after tomorrow night.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


The other evening a friend told me that she feels vulnerable now that she is in her seventies and is reluctant to get on her bicycle. I feel more vulnerable about getting on my bike than I used to – but that’s not because of my age – it’s because of a few other reasons. One is the heavy truck traffic in New York streets, where you have to look out for double-parked trucks, turning trucks, big trucks that can’t see cyclists in their rear view mirror. After reading about a fatal accident occurring near me to a 68-year-old woman when the driver of a postal truck didn’t see her, I have confined my cycling mostly to the wonderful bike path five minutes from my home along the Hudson River.

Here there are no trucks, no cars, no motorcycles. But there are dog-walkers whose dog is at one end of a long leash and whose walker is at the other end, so the two of them straddle the path. There are runners who dash out onto the bike lane without looking to see who’s coming, and who caused one young boy I witnessed falling off his bike as he swerved to avoid the heedless runner. There are cyclists who pedal in the walkers’ lane and walkers who wander into the cyclists’ lane. There are downed tree branches and puddles hiding dips in the road on the morning after a storm. And then there’s the yuck factor – like yesterday morning, when I was careful to avoid the two dead rats on the path and the steaming pile of dog poop.

But lest I sound like I’m complaining, I have to hurry to say that I love the bike path. I love getting out there early in the morning, seeing the swiftly flowing currents of the river, the buildings on the New Jersey side across from me, the majestic George Washington Bridge ahead of me, the clouds forming patterns above me. I’m lucky to have access to it so close to my home, and I make the most of it all spring, summer, and fall until I bring my bike indoors for another season.

Monday, May 19, 2014


Catching up with unread copies of The New York Times Book Review, I recently read a review of three children’s books about the Holocaust (April 6, 2014). One, a graphic novel (aka a comic book) called “Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust,” is recommended for readers age 10 and up. Translated from the French, it’s a fictional story told by a grandmother about her 6-year-old self whose parents were taken away and who then lives on a farm for the duration of the war. The second book, “Hidden like Anne Frank: Fourteen True Stories of Survival,” is recommended for middle-grade students, ages 12 and up. These true tales are more disturbing for being true, and also as they relate tales of children who survived the war – but whose parents often did not.

But the one that I was shocked to see recommended for younger children is a picture book based on a true story titled “The Whispering Town.” Although the book’s publisher recommends it for children ages 7 to 11, the Times reviewer feels that it’s “appropriate for reading to very young children [5 to 8] as an introduction to the subject of the Holocaust.” I think that even 7 is much too young.

I firmly believe that young people of all religious backgrounds should learn about the Holocaust, and I’m heartened that many high schools across the country have courses talking about this black period in world history. I hope that some of these courses even talk about the anti-semitism rife in the U.S. at the time, which prevented our country from allowing immigration of Jewish children and adults at a crucial time even after the world had learned what was likely to happen to them.

But I can’t understand why anyone would think that this tale of Nazi soldiers accompanied by bales of barbed wire would be suitable for a kindergartner. Young children often have nightmares after hearing classic fairy tales – “made-up” stories from another time and place. How much worse it seems for them to hear about horrors that could happen to them or their parents, the people who are supposed to keep them safe.

What’s to be gained from exposing these very young children to some of the worst history our world has ever known? Why would this and other reviewers (let alone the author) think that this book is a good idea? What’s to be lost by not protecting childhood for a little while longer?

Postscript: My letter about this to the editor of The New York Times Book Review was published June 1, 2014.

Thursday, May 8, 2014


In the 1950s when I was majoring in English literature at the University of Pennsylvania, I often heard the word “lie” – and not only when a fisherman was challenged on the size of his catch or a politician caught with his hands in the cookie jar – or on an inappropriate sexual partner. No, I heard it when people talked about being somewhere in a prone or supine position. They would lie in bed late on a weekend morning, or lie on a sandy beach trying to get a now-dermatologically-disapproved tan.

I would hear the word “lay” only in the past tense of the above horizontal positions, or in expressions like “the lay of the land,” or, more colloquially, in regard to sexual intercourse. Even in this latter it was used in a grammatically correct way, i.e., as a transitive verb that takes an object.

But these days, the word “lie” meaning to recline in a horizontal position seems to have almost disappeared from the English language, in either its spoken or written forms. Instead, talk show participants, Oscar award winners, radio personalities (even on my revered National Public Radio), TV comics, physicians, and even many well published writers consistently say “lay” when they’re talking about someone in a reclining position.

What happened over the past sixty years? How did “lie” virtually disappear in the usage of even many (fortunately not all) educated people? My American Heritage Dictionary (4th edition) says that the two forms have been confused since the 1300s and the usage guru Bergen Evans wrote in 1957, “At present the verbs lie and lay are hopelessly confused in many people’s minds. The confusion is so great and these technically incorrect forms are heard so often, that some grammarians believe they should be recognized as standard English.”

Jack Edelson, my English teacher at The Philadelphia High School for Girls, used to caution us not to base our speech patterns on “what sounds right.” “With so many radio announcers making grammatical mistakes on the air,” he would say, “the wrong starts to sound right.” I know that Mr. Edelson would heartily agree with New York Times usage expert Theodore Bernstein’s assertion: “These confusions are not infrequent, but the errors can only be classed as illiterate.”

Saturday, September 21, 2013


I was just finishing my morning coffee today when I heard a child crying in the corridor. So far as I knew, there were no children on my floor, and I was just about to look out to see what was happening when I heard a light tap on the door. I opened it to find a young woman, a big dog, and a little boy about 3 or 4 years old. The only one I recognized was the dog. The young woman, Alyssa, was walking him for her relative who lives down the hall. The little boy had been wandering the halls and seemed to want to come into my apartment. He was barefoot, wearing only a shirt and underpants, and apparently lost. I live in an apartment building with three towers comprising some 800 apartments, and I had never seen him before.

Alyssa and I both asked his name, but he wasn’t answering, and when he did speak, we couldn’t understand him. Since many of my neighbors come from other countries, I thought maybe he wasn’t speaking English. What to do? How to reunite him with his family? I phoned the front desk down in the lobby, and when Tony, our concierge on duty this morning, heard that he was in my apartment, he said he would find his mother, who had been going up and down all 24 floors of our tower, looking for him. A couple of the building’s porters were also going up and down the stairs. Tony said he would call the mother and tell her to come pick him up.

Meanwhile, he was an unhappy little guy who didn’t express any interest in the cookie I gave him in the time-honored grandmother therapy for unhappy children. And it was taking what seemed like a long time for his mother to come. She had run out of her apartment without her cell phone when she heard the elevator going, didn’t know where her son had gone in it, and had frantically gone searching.

He was one overjoyed child when she came in and took him in her arms. She told us that he was autistic, which explained his inability to communicate with us. Fortunately, though, he did relate to his mother and folded himself into her loving arms, feeling rescued.

So that was this morning.

Yesterday morning I went to my computer about 7 o’clock and found a message from my youngest daughter, asking me to call her when I woke up. Since it was my birthday, I thought she wanted to sing to me. But no, it turned out quite differently -- she had slipped and fallen and hit her head against the metal drawer pulls of her dresser when she went to get out of bed in the middle of the night, now had a huge bump on her head with an accompanying headache, and thought she might have a concussion.

Several phone calls later, after she went to a neighborhood urgent care center (which I had recommended since I had had a good experience with one after my granddaughter had been in a taxi accident and cut her chin), she emailed to tell me she had been checked out, all her vital signs were normal, the doctor had told her she could go back to sleep and just to be watchful for any troubling symptoms.

So that was yesterday.

I wonder what tomorrow will bring.