Wednesday, February 22, 2017

President's Day

I took a day off to be home with our 3 kids this President's Day. I thought about taking them to a museum, a special event in the city, or a movie. I thought about the best ways to keep them busy, but not too busy (overtired = trouble). In the end, I asked the kids what they wanted to do. They wanted to go to a nearby park and to bake carrot muffins. And to have ants-on-the-log for lunch. And to do a science experiment. So that's what we did - except that science experiment. We never got to it. It was a wonderful day - a bit chaotic, but mostly peaceful and pleasantly low-key. It reminded me of the times when kids were younger (3 years ago) and I was staying home with them, and we did everything together. I feel I should take advantage of these school-free days more often, just enjoying being with kids, being a family.

There is a large park just a 5 minute drive from our house. It is mostly open meadows and hills, with lots of space to run around. There is also an open theater stage there (free summer concerts!) that was our destination on Monday.

My son brought a couple of Frisbee and small balls - while the girls were snacking (my older daughter insisted on packing snacks), my son and I threw Frisbee to each other and showed off our ball-catching skills. He is getting so good at this, I thought. I love just watching him do these sports-y things: throwing, kicking, catching, running. It always catches me off guard - how is this possible, when did he learn all this? We played for a while, until I was out of breath - he was unstoppable.

The kids then went on running up and down the nearby hill: first would come my son, running like the wind, then my older daughter, waving her arms around, and finally, the youngest, a grin on her face, screaming "Watch, mommy! Watch!" And I did watch. And they did it over and over again, not wanting to stop - ever. I even had a chance to sit down and read my book while they climbed the hill (big sister helping the little sister) and organized themselves for the next run-down-the-hill.

And then they decided to put on a dancing show. This involved a lot of whispering and giggling behind the stage (I read my book). Then my older daughter came out in a ballet mode, doing graceful pirouettes. Then the youngest would toddle out ("No, not yet! Wait! you are ruining it!") and repeat everything her sister was doing (with a solemn grace of a 3-year old). Then my son would jump from behind the stage "Ghost! Ghost!" making a scary face and the girls would scream and run off.

It was very warm, even though it was February, so the kids kept taking layers of clothing off, until they were down to t-shirts. An older couple came came to join us with their 3 granddaughters and I felt a mix of  guilt and amusement. The girls were dressed in winter jackets, hats, and mittens (although the older one threw off a couple of layers). The girls were nice and my kids liked them right away, so the kids went on to chase each other and play together. I thought "my parents would over-dress their grandkids, too, if they were watching them for the day". And then I thought "my parents would be horrified to see kids dressed in t-shirts in the middle of February... and they would be horrified at their dirty faces with drippy noses". Why is it that I never remember to bring tissues with me? Oh, but I do hate chasing them with tissues and begging them to let me wipe their noses. I really resented my mom doing that when I was a kid! And then I thought "Who cares!!!  We are having a good time!!!"

Many people come to that park to walk their dogs - sometimes without a leash. Usually, this is not a problem. I love dogs. My kids love dogs. The older kids are cautious enough around strange dogs and look to me for clues about how to react. If a friendly-looking dog drops by to say "hi", I have no problem with petting, hugging, and licking that ensues. My youngest daughter, however, will chase everything in sight to pet it, give it a hug (and a squeeze around the neck), and pull on its tail. No fear, no remorse. So our last 5 minutes in the park were marked by me running after her, screaming "gentle hands" and "no, not the tail!!!" as she went after a dog that was clearly not looking for affection. The dog was off the leash and was running around looking for food and marking territory. The owner was also nearby, with a stroller, and assured me that the dog was friendly and used to toddlers (obviously). Still, I was apprehensive. Finally, the owner put the dog on a leash and I  managed to grab my child. Clearly, I should have just grabbed her in the beginning instead of letting her chase that stupid dog. Clearly, I also need to work on getting the youngest kid to listen and respond (to commands).... preferably, immediately.

The rest of the day was mellow. My older daughter made ants-on-the-log for herself and her little sister. My son and I had sandwiches. We made carrot muffins with the older kids while the 3-year old took her nap. I took a nap while the big kids played and the youngest napped (she must have been tired after all that running in the park). Everyone played peacefully while I was making supper. Then the squabbles started, but I was ready (and rested after the nap) - so I played with the 3-year old while the 6-year old was practicing piano and the 8-year old was reading. We read, we colored, we played with blocks.

We were hoping to get some soil ready in pots and plant some seeds indoors (beans, lettuce, sunflower), but never got around to it. Next weekend!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

A Refugee in America. Part IV. Culture Shock.

Here is a list of things that culture-shocked us after we settled down in a small city in the Pacific Northwest. 

1. Cars stopping and waiting for you to cross. Even though you are not crossing at an intersection.

2. Highways (specifically, the interchanges) - it is easy to take for granted how well these are designed and maintained.

3. No pedestrians in the streets.

4. Everyone drives (usually, one person per car).

5. Buses are never crowded.

6. Where are the sky scrapers? In fact that is the first thing my grandmother asked: where are all the sky scrapers? We were surrounded by one- and two-story buildings.

7. Car phones (this was back in the 90's).

8. Hot dogs. Really? People eat dogs here?

9. Wonder Bread. Inedible, as we soon discovered.

10. Tomatoes that have no flavor.

11. Strangers smiling at you and saying hello. Creepy!!!

12. In school, test results are not announced by the teacher in front of the whole class. In fact, tests are placed face down on your desk, so that no one can see the grade.

13. Most teachers do not call on students during class. No one gets spontaneously called up to stand in front of the class, unless it's some sort of presentation that students had time to prepare for.

14. Pregnant girls in school. Girls bringing their kids to school picnic. (I thought they were younger siblings).

15. If you do't like your purchase, you can return it.

16. Vegetables and fruits are available at the supermarket all  year round. They don't always taste the way the are supposed to.

17. When you want to buy salt, or sugar, or flour - you are faced with choices of multiple brands. Too  many choices!!!

18. Salted cucumbers are called pickles.

19. Toasters. Why toast the heart and soul out of good, fresh bread?

20. Refrigerating and/or freezing bread. Now those toasters make a little more sense.

21. While we are on the subject of bread: most of inexpensive pre-cut, pre-packaged bread tastes like cardboard. Finding good-quality, tasty, fresh bread is still a challenge (and I've been here for more than 20 years).

22. Shopping in bulk.

23. Schools closed when an inch of snow fell.

24. Temperature and measurements - Fahrenheit! Feet! Miles! I knew that US had its own measurement units, but it still took years to get used to it.

26. Everyone wearing sneakers. All the time. Even with skirts. (I know it's not true - but it just looked that way).

27. Many women do not wear make-up.

28. Most women do not wear heels.

29. People wear weird stuff when they go grocery shopping (like pajamas...  or lounge pants).

30. Doughnuts, sodas, marshmallows = yuck.* Even though everyone claims these things are amazing.

30. But the biggest culture shock of all was moving to Chicago after 6 years in the Pacific Northwest. 



*That might be just a personal quirk - most of my extended family enjoys both doughnuts and soda drinks. Not sure about marshmallows.



Monday, February 13, 2017

Ups+Downs=Life

We had a wonderful weekend in NY state, visiting friends we haven't seen for many months. Their oldest daughter turned 5 and they had a big party for her that involved lots of bouncers, pizza, cakes, and probably the best party favors I've ever seen (stuffed animals, model airplane kits, blow-up toys, and a neat little baggy to hold everything). The kids had a blast. We went to the friends' house after the party (I was amazed at their stamina - they hosted our family of 5 and another family of 4.... that made 8 kids ranging from 17 months to 8 years). I loved seeing all the kids playing together - they got a little wild at times, but were  having tons of fun. We also got together for lunch the following day at a Greek place - that got a little stressful (too many kids who wanted to play instead of eating), but, overall, was awesome. We don't go out to eat much as a family (last time was about 6 months ago), so it was also a good experience for kids and a reminder for us that it could be done! Nothing got spilled, nothing was broken, and no one threw a tantrum.

We stayed at a hotel and it worked out beautifully. Kids were so tired from all the partying, they settled down pretty quickly. There was initial whining and complaining about who was going to sleep where (there were two full size beds), but they figured it out. My husband collapsed on a bed with one of the kids, the oldest and the youngest were snuggled up together, and I settled down on a sofa intending to read. Next thing I knew - I woke up and it was morning. I was on the sofa by myself - no children lying on top of my, kicking me, or grabbing my hair. It was such a gift... I started to realize a few weeks ago that the constant physical contact from at least one of the kids all night long was wearing me out. I don't know how well I can recharge my batteries without having a certain number of hours of personal space.

The hotel had a very nice breakfast with lots of healthy choices and then we all went for a swim in the pool. We were only gone for a day and a half, but it felt longer. This getaway - it did something to me. Shook me awake, in some way. Like a cup of coffee. Energizing.

And now the bad stuff.

As I was relaxing on Sunday night in front of the TV, replaying the weekend in my head, I realized I said some things I should not have said. I showed a terrible lack of sensitivity. A friend's father had just passed away a few weeks ago, and I went on a semi-random rant about the finality of death and how I didn't understand the concept of afterlife. I've been so preoccupied with my own feelings and my own drama, I failed to be kind. I am trying to figure out what is better - to call my friend and apologize to her, or just to move on like nothing has happened and hope I am blowing things out of proportion and no one cared about what I said.

Then my son threw up. All over his bed. Then he threw up again... all over the wall, the floor, and his sister's bed. My husband was furious. He freaks out when people as much as cough in his direction, and here there was throw up... all over the place.

In the morning, my daughter started throwing up (on our bed).  Right now (evening), my husband is throwing up.... I guess my youngest and I will be next.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

A Refugee in America, Part III

In May of 1994, when we were about to fly out of Moscow to JFK, I saw my father for the first time in about 9 months. Because of  new visa requirements in Latvia, it was deemed too difficult and too expensive for him to come visit us. He did come once during that last year in Latvia - I can't exactly remember why. It was some emergency-type situation, something to do with paperwork and emigration, and he had to come right away. His brother-in-law, my uncle Boris, who lived in Riga most of his adult life and was a legal resident (but not a citizen) took an overnight train to Grodno, Belarus. My dad took his passport and took the next train to Latvia. Uncle Boris and my dad look nothing alike, aside from stereotypical Semitic noses. Eye color, height, hair - all different. It was a huge risk - but it all worked out. Dad smuggled himself into Latvia, took care of whatever it was that needed to be taken care of, and went back to Grodno to give uncle Boris his passport back. 

You need to understand - border patrol - that was no joke. Those men - they were always men - had power over the simple mortals like us. When USSR fell apart, my family ended up separated in different, independent countries. My mother and I were in Latvia. My father and his parents were in Belarus. My mother's sister and parents were Kharkov, Ukraine. My mother's brother was in Russia. Visiting each other became a nightmare. Each country had its own currency, its own laws, and its own border patrol. There were sanctions against people smuggling stuff from one country and into another. You were not allowed to bring more food than what you could eat on the train. You were not allowed to bring anything that could be identified as potential merchandise, to be sold for profit, by the border patrol. 

We never ran into problems - perhaps because my mother always put some crisp dollar bills into her passport. One poor lady failed to do so, on the way from Belarus to Latvia. She was bringing a large chunk of cheese with her. "It is for my son! he loves this cheese and it is impossible to buy in Riga!" - she screeched. The patrol forced her off the train. She reappeared 30 minutes later, minus the cheese, ruffled up and furious. It is a somewhat amusing story - but this is what I mean. Power corrupts. Those men - they knew they could do anything they wanted and there would be no consequences. They were in control.

Those guys were puppies compared to the border patrol in Sheremet'evo, when we were leaving Russia. Each refugee was allowed  to have 2 bags with very specific weight limits and dimensions. We were very careful about the weight part. These were canvas bags, made from the army-grade tent fabric. Very sturdy, very light. The problem with canvas bags - they were a bit shapeless. They had budges, bumps, and sometimes got a bit distorted - depending what was inside. 

Think for a minute - if you had to move to another country, a place so unknown and so alien that it may as well be Mars - what would you bring? We kept asking our relatives who already were in the US - what should we bring? They said - don't worry about anything, we'll provide everything you need. You can buy anything here, this is America. Bring things that are meaningful, nothing else. No plates? No tea sets? No pots and pans? Really? We brought our treasured cassette player. It was rather big and bulged out. Grandma brought her favorite pillow. Another gigantic bulge. It was less than an inch, but two of the bags did not fit the standard dimensions. The border patrol said - go over there, take stuff out, until the bags are of proper size.  Grandparents were sitting on chairs safe distance from Tamozhnya, they were not aware what was happening. Parents asked how  much. It was $300 dollars and we got our bags through. The guy in the line next to ours was only charging $200. "Don't say anything to grandpa" - my parents hissed at me.

Inside the airplane, the flight attendants,  smiles plastered on their faces, gestured for us to move, move, move, keep going, going, going. There were no assigned seats and everyone assumed those at the head of the line would get the best seats. Nope. We were one of the first families to get on board - and we ended up in the very tail, right next to the bathrooms. My mom made a long-suffering face, no doubt thinking about the smells we'll be experiencing for the next 8 hours. My grandparents, who went into a sort of hibernation, did not have far to walk  to the bathroom - and that was a very, very good thing.

I ended up being one of the only people on the flight who spoke any English. I felt so grown up and proud to be translating various requests.

In a few hours, we would be landing in JFK. It was terrifying. It was exciting. I kept thinking about my best friend that I would probably never see again. I thought about a bitter poem by Lermontov that we had to memorize in school. He wrote it as a good-bye note to Russia when he was exiled for his political views. I tried to not think about the future - it was so close I could almost touch it and yet, I had no idea what to expect. Ahead was all darkness, the absolute unknown. It was a little like dying, I thought. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Refugee in America. Part II.

Back to 1992. After the breakup of the USSR, things got rough. Everyone lost their savings in the early 90's. Economy was non-existent. I remember, how in the course of a year, the price of bread went up from  20 kopeck (cents) to 5 rubles (dollars). My family went from being fairly well-off, by Soviet standards, to nothing. 

You may have heard about stores with empty shelves during the 80's-early 90's, how hard it was to buy basic necessities (all true...). Early 90's in Latvia were a little different - there was a lot of stuff being imported, including food and clothing. We could afford almost nothing. 

When we lived in the Far East in the 80's, because of the deficits of - everything - my father received part of his salary as canned and dry goods. We had boxes and boxes of canned fish and meat, flour, sugar, and dry milk that pulled us through the three years, 1991 to 1994 in Latvia. We only had my mom's part-time job's salary (music teacher) to live on. Dad's military pension was in Belarus (in Belorussian currency known as "bunnies"). He calculated once that his monthly pension was enough to buy 20 loaves of bread. My parents decided to set that money aside as savings (whatever was left after dad supplemented his parents' pensions to pay for apartment and food). 

Don't get me wrong - I am not complaining. I never went hungry. I was sometimes cold, but that was because of fuel shortages ("extras" like running hot water got cut off first). Some people installed little stoves in their apartments that burned kerosin. We used a little space heater when things got rough in the winter (electricity was expensive). There were some inconveniences, but no more than that. We did not have a telephone. My parents never bought anything for themselves. I wore lots of hand-me-downs. Through it all, my parents payed for my private English lessons. We had it much easier than our family and friends in Ukraine (every time we came to visit, I felt like a rich little brat).

In  the fall of 1993, we got an invitation for an interview at the US Embassy in Moscow that would determine whether or not we would be granted the refugee status.

Fall 1993 in Moscow was the Russian Constitutional Crisis, the standoff between Yeltsin and the parliament. Tanks in the streets, tanks were firing shells at the government building, an attempt to take over the Ostankino broadcasting tower .. it was madness. Dad was unable to get a legal residency in Latvia and was staying in Belarus (there were also some weird guest visa issues, I don't remember details). Communication between my parents was spotty (remember - we had no phone; letters got lost half the time). My mother was going through the roof with worry. It was an absolute miracle and unbelievable luck that the crisis got resolved just  days before we arrived in Moscow for the interview. 

At the interview, we never got past the first question. Where do you live? Latvia and Belarus. Two countries? Are you divorced? No. Why don't you live in one country?  ....Because we can't. My father, as ex-military, couldn't get residency (equivalent of a green card) in Latvia . He could not work there. In 1993-1994, he needed  a visa if he wanted to come visit us. My mother and I were legal residents in Latvia, which meant that I could go to school and mom could work. However, we didn't receive citizenship because we were not ethnically Latvian and did not have immediate family who lived in Latvia prior to 1945. I could become a citizen if I married a Latvian citizen. My parents weren't enthusiastic about me marrying anyone at that point in time.

In Latvia, we had a place to live - an apartment on a former military base. We didn't own it, we payed rent - but somehow, my parents managed to put a claim on it, their names were assigned to that apartment. In Belarus, where my father lived, my mother couldn't get a citizenship. Because she wasn't born there. Remember, all these countries became independent, sort of, and established their own laws, their own currencies...  It was madness. Mom was married to my father, who was born in Belarus, but based on our understanding of Belorussian laws of that time, it would take something like 20 years before she could apply for citizenship. The biggest problem was - we had nowhere to live in Belarus. My father lived with his parents, in a small 1-bedroom apartment. Everyone was less than thrilled at the idea of all of us moving in together with grandma and grandpa's.

The embassy official who interviewed us looked confused. In the end, she granted us the refugee status. Mom and I went back to Latvia, and dad went back to Belarus. We would be allowed to bring 2 bags per person on the flight to the US. We were forced to become minimalists, to purge, to discard almost everything we owned. Some things we sold (piano, some books, furniture), some things we gave away (most books, music records, clothing), and some things got thrown out (I don't want to think about that). I stood on a street corner and sold stuff... fancy pencils and markers that I never used, books, random souvenirs, tea cups and fancy spoons... That was an interesting experience and more fun than I expected. It was kind of like a game, trying to figure out who was going to stop and look at what, who would pay without bargaining, and who would argue about the price (I was under orders from my parents to agree to whatever price people named). Best part - I got to keep the money. After currency exchange, I had about $5 - it was a start!

To be continued...

Sunday, February 5, 2017

A Refugee in America. Part I.

Recent political developments made me think about my family's past. We are refugees. We are lucky: we never had to live in a refugee camp. My parents and I never experienced war (I pray that neither I, nor my children, nor my children's children ever will).

There was a sequence of events that lead to a point of no return: the realization that my family had nothing left to loose except each other. That, in turn, led to the gargantuan decision - the decision to emigrate.

In the summer of 1991, we found ourselves in Latvia, a former republic of the USSR that declared its independence in 1990. Russia was just beginning to withdraw its military forces from the Baltic States. My parents were frantic with worry and were trying to figure out what to do next.

America first appeared on the horizon sometime in 1992, just a few months after the break up of the USSR.  My father had just retired from the army (he was a military doctor) and at that time he could still stay in Latvia without much difficulty. We lived in a comfortable 1-bedroom apartment on the territory of a soviet army base, outside a small town. All current and former soviet army personnel was labeled "occupants", although the local Latvian population never showed any animosity and were always helpful when my mom and I were learning Latvian language. My parents really wanted to stay there, but with new residency and citizenship laws it didn't look like we would be welcomed to remain in Latvia permanently.

There were no prospects for my parents in Russia. Or Ukraine. Or Belarus. We didn't have Russian citizenship (because we were in Latvia at the time the Soviet Union ceased to exist). My dad managed to get a Belorussian citizenship because he was born there and his parents still lived there. Based on our understanding of the laws at the time, it would have taken my mom something like 20 years before she could have applied for citizenship in Belarus. The whole thing was a circus...  Our family was split apart by newly-formed countries (each with their own currency, official language, and border patrol). I had a set of grandparents in Belarus, a set of grandparents in Ukraine, cousins in Latvia, Lithuania, and Russia. Visiting each other was becoming more and more difficult.

There was no easy way out. No matter where my parents would go - they would have to start from zero. Add the economic turmoil and loss of all savings... my parents had to start from zero without any sort of safety cushion. The future looked bleak. The future looked like there was nothing left to loose (financially speaking).

I don't remember if my parents ever asked my opinion about immigrating to the US. 
Do you want to go to the US? 
Do you want to go to Mars? 
Isn't it impossible? Or, at least, very very difficult? 
Is there even life on Mars?

US made no sense. US was made up of Fenimore Cooper, Jack London, O'Henry, Ray Bradbury and Arthur Clark. American school was described in "Up the Down Staircase" by Bella Kaufman. Together with episodes of "Saved by the Bell" - none of it made sense and I wondered if any of it was real. Perhaps the whole "America" was a figment of someone's imagination.

If my parents asked, I would have probably mentioned Israel. In 1991, my cousin who used to live in Riga (capital of Latvia) made aliyah to Israel, at the tender age of 18. She was  going to college, dating, hiking, learning Hebrew...  She had a life. She even sent us the summons necessary to start  our own aliyah (it also made my life quite miserable for  the next 2 years, but that's a different story). 

If my parents asked me, I would have said "Lets go to Israel. There is definitely life in Israel."

*****

I knew we had distant relatives in the US. My family, like most families, had its share of drama. In the early 1900s, my great-grandmother married against her parents' will. Her husband had a criminal record in Tsarist Russia: he was a communist and spent time in jail. The family disowned her and went to America. She stayed in Belarus and went on to have 7 children. 

Periodically, the American relatives tried to contact my family in the USSR. My grandfather ran into a bit of troubles in the 50's, when he received a parcel from the US and was nearly kicked out of the Communist Party for "fraternizing with the enemy". My grandfather did a smart thing that probably saved him from being arrested  - he delivered the package to the head of the local branch of the Communist Party, told him this package had nothing to do with him and this whole thing was a provocation from the "decaying West". 

What I never heard discussed was that one of my grandfather's sisters immigrated to the US sometime in the 70's or 80's. In 1992, she sent the summons to her little brother, enabling us to start the paperwork process. She passed away a few months before we came to the US, so, unfortunately, I never had the chance to meet her.

To be continued....

Friday, February 3, 2017

Five Reasons to Leave the Lab

Why do women (and men) leave academic science (pre-tenure)?

1. Science is not for everyone. It requires grit, stubbornness, ability to think strategically, thick skin, and passion.

2. Financial side: salaries for post-docs are decent (enough to live comfortably as long as you don't live in a super-expensive area and don't have expensive hobbies/multiple kids; if you do have kids, it helps to find affordable childcare or rely on family/spouse for childcare). However, lets face it: you could make MORE money elsewhere.

3. Funding: it is very tight and it is not getting better in the  near future*. It is really, really hard to get grants for your research (not impossible... just HARD). There has been a fundamental paradigm shift, with universities getting research money from pharmaceutical companies. On one hand, this is a wonderful opportunity for a number of labs (since the government money is drying up). On the other hand, there are plenty of caveats here. 

I can't help but wonder about the projects that end up being dropped... Pharma is going to fund projects that they hope will make them money. Novel therapeutics, novel drug targets for big-name diseases, novel medical devices. NIH grants also tend to favor disease-based applied science. What about all other science? Not the targeted science (lets find cure for XYZ), but the fuzzy, open-ended science. The "science for the sake of science" that is meant to help us understand how things work, be it on the protein, cellular, or whole-animal level? I am afraid that in our race to find novel ways to treat disease, we may miss some fundamental facts. In the long-term, that is going to be crippling to the scientific progress (and prevention/treatment of disease).

4. Health. Working with carcinogens, radioactive materials, foul chemicals - long term can add up to health issues. We all tend to get sloppy...

5. Work environment: egotistical, screaming colleagues who like to take all the credit (if you are really unlucky, that's your boss). 

To be fair, I've been extremely fortunate to have good mentors and to work with amazing scientists who had integrity, sense of humor, and willingness to share their knowledge and expertise. With one exception, I am so glad I got to know them!


*****************

There are countless reasons why different people would leave academic science and start a new career... It may have been an agonizing decision or the only way forward. One way or another, for many of us, it was time to move out (of the lab) and move on.

*Some of my colleagues ended up leaving the country instead of changing career paths. One, a brilliant crystallographer, got a professor positions at Nankai University (China). Another, a neurobiologist, got a  position at the University of Seoul (Korea).