Friday, May 26, 2017

Of Stress, Mess, and Not Much Else

This week has been absolutely mad. I was working on a job-related paper every single night. The girls have not been sleeping well. I've been doing the absolute minimum with the family. Forget quality time and relaxed conversations. It's been a rush of getting ready, fixing suppers, packing lunches, cleaning dishes, hurrying out the door, working until midnight, reading until midnight.

I have a tendency to procrastinate that escalates horribly when I have a project that is uninteresting. This paper I was writing - 100% uninteresting. It got done, eventually - but the price is sleep deprivation, neglected kids, 3 fun books that I read instead of working (because anything, anything is more fun than that), messy house, and grumpy husband. Because when I get stressed out (due to procrastination and that awful paper over my head), I tend to withdraw from life, people, and have a strong aversion to any conversations or cuddles. Especially cuddles - I'd much rather have a fight. Now it's turned in and I am working on a project that's even worse. A nightmare project. If I didn't just get a raise (and a nice salary increase! so exciting to be making more money!) I would be tempted to think about quitting.

The school  year is wrapping up... kids are counting days until  the summer break. My mother is coming to stay with us for 2 weeks, and then it will be summer camp for the rest of summer.

My parents are still looking for a house... last week's offer didn't work out. Someone outbid them. They made an offer on a different house this week, but that's not working out, either. The seller is not willing to come down in price and my parents aren't willing to pay more than what they think is house worth (I agree with my parents, that house is overpriced).

Our strawberries are coming in. The wilds ones would be delicious if the kids were patient and would actually let them ripen. Instead, they taste almost bitter... but the kids have a blast picking them. Ah well, they'll figure it out. The Mulberry tree is forgotten for now - and I hope that those berries will have a chance to turn black and sweet before our kids descend on them (actually, I should say, raise their heads, take notice, and pick the tree clean). Peas have flowers. Blackberries have flowers. Backyard is awesome. House - not so much... needs to be organized (go-through-stuff-and-throw-everything-out).

Out for now.

Friday, May 19, 2017

House-Hunting for my Parents

My parents are looking to move to our area. Currently, they live across the country, in the Pacific NW.  They came a couple of months ago and stayed for a couple of weeks with us, hoping to find a house they liked for a price the were willing to pay. It didn't work out. My parents have some savings and they have paid off their current home, but they are  not the Rothschilds. They are reluctant to spend all their savings on a new house. They also want an all-on-one-level living situation, privacy, garage, quiet street, newer construction and open-floor plan, not too much yard, enough space for mom's full-size grand-piano, but not a huge house (because too expensive to heat and cool).

I went with their agent to look at a place that's less than 15 minute drive from our house. It's nice, cozy, all-on-one level (including a washer/dryer)... but no garage and the price is about 100,000 more than their ideal price. I told them my husband and I would be more than happy to chip in. Really - thank G-d, we can afford it. They need to decide quickly, because this house will be snatched up in no time. The hardest part is - they have to make a decision without even seeing the house!

After months, and months, and months... i just want them to find something that hits if not all the marks, then most of them. This house definitely does! The house-hunting has been driving them crazy. I just want them to start driving each other crazy about something else - packing up and moving their stuff, for example. Deciding on paint colors for the rooms. How to position furniture in their new place. Who gets which bedroom.

This house - it's small-ish, but not tiny. There is a separate room, with a separate entrance, that could work for the grand piano and mom's students. The yard is not huge but has enough space for grand kids to run around, and there is a patio with a roof where one could put a table and chairs. It's in a very nice neighborhood. They could walk to a small park. They could walk to a bus stop and take the bus to a train station if they wanted to go into the city. The could take the bus to the mall. There are grocery stores and Lowes within a close drive. It is only 15 minutes from our house!!!

I hope it works out. I hope they make an offer. I hope they don't totally hate it when they see it for the first time!

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Relaxing with children

One thing I have been an absolute failure at -

Being relaxed and calm, enjoying life at its fullest.

Being relaxed and calm can be extraordinarily hard when little ones are running around, always demanding things.

They are hungry, thirsty, have a belly-ache, all 3 want to tell me things right now at the same time, they need to go potty, they need a tissue, oops they spilled milk, they want to go outside, they want to go inside, and please mommy can they have candy, and no, they don't want to practice piano/violin, do homework, chores, get dressed or brush their teeth.

I am glad I did not know how hard the parenting thing was going to be before I had any kids. I wouldn't have understood, anyway. Now, to be honest - my kids are pretty easy-going, without major behavioral problems. So this is more of my own problem - I find parenting so hard because I kind of suck as a parent. I loose patience. I yell. I get mad.

One thing I've started noticing - the kids, when they talk to each other, they get mad and start yelling because they are mimicking my husband and me. My husband yells, too.

No, I don't yell all the time - I am a sweet and quiet person, about 70% of the time. If I don't get enough food or sleep, I am a sweet and quiet person about 20% of the time. Most of the yelling is the "Son! Come down for dinner!!! Can you hear me????" "We are late!!! Get your shoes on!!!" type of yelling. Yelling to get the attention, because the kids are in a middle of a game, or far away, or not responding after 5 times of normal-voice calling. Occasionally, it is the super-angry "How could you do this? What were you thinking? I am so mad and disappointed!!!" And then there is the ugly full-fury screaming, which happens rarely, but freaks everyone out (including myself).

So what are need are coping methods to substitute the yelling. Coping methods to deal with kids who often are not listening, coping methods to deal with anger that stems  from being exhausted and hungry, coping methods that help me reduce yelling (clean up your toys! put away your laundry!) and still get the kids to do the chores.

And oh, their messy rooms, dirty socks lying all over the house, and food squirreled away in a closet - that's a definite trigger for yelling.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Of "Little House" and Survival Mode

The kids and I are reading "On the Banks of Plum Creek" by Laura Ingalls Wilder - one of the books in her "Little House" series. I love sharing this book with them - laughing, and crying, and feeling like a part of Laura's family. My older kids definitely identify with Laura and Mary, and their younger sister is just about the same age as Laura and Mary's younger sister. There are uncanny parallels in personalities: the quiet and cautious oldest child, the observant, caring, and a bit wild middle child, and the cute toddler who is growing up fast and is able to do more every day. I love that chores and schoolwork are mentioned in almost every chapter. I love the description of their leisure time: telling stories, listening to Pa's fiddle, and playing games.

This book has reminded me to be more patient with the kids, to see the world through their eyes, to allow myself the sense of wonder in all the little things around me: the wind, the snow, the sun, the birds, the flowers.

I told the kids today - Laura and her family did not have TV, tablets, or computers. Imagine, how did they spend their time? Then I thought - they didn't have many books, either. Then I thought some more...  Laura's family had a minimal amount of possessions. Keeping things clean, neat, and organized must have been straight-forward. Yes, they had to do laundry by hand, but they only had -what - 2 dresses each? Same goes for doing dishes and dusting ...  They worked very hard (farming, taking care of farm animals, sewing and mending their own clothing). We work hard, too, just in a different way. However, many of our "hardships" are self-inflicted. My husband and I always moan about doing kid laundry - but it was our choice to have so much clothing for our 3 kids. We could ask kids to wear the same outfit a few times... but we don't, and we complain about yet another giant load that needs to go into the wash (if we had to do laundry by  hand, I guarantee we would not have as much stuff).

Laura's parents were in a survival mode. Sometimes, survival mode can be the best medicine against fatigue, procrastination, and the like - things must be done because our survival depends on it, so things get done. Whatever is not essential to survival can be dropped.

As I walk through our gigantic (warm) house, with our dishwasher, washer and dryer, indoor plumbing, and a thousand-and-one kitchen and dining things (how many bowls/spoons/pots did Laura and her family have?) - and let's not mention the toys and books - I complain about feeling overwhelmed, disconnected, trapped, in-need of a vacation from everyone and everything. Perhaps what I need is a little bit of a survival mode. Oy vey, first-world problems...

What puts you in a survival mode?
For me, it's the first 7-8 months after a birth of a child (especially 2nd and 3rd child....).

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Long Weekend Report

All 3 kids had a long weekend. My husband took a day off on Friday and took them all to the zoo. From what I hear, they had a blast (even though there was some unauthorized running off). When they got back, my husband felt exhausted and fell asleep during our youngest daughter's nap. I came home to find everyone in a sensory overload grumpy mode. Too  much fun at the zoo :)

On Saturday, we had a make-up party for our youngest daughter's 3rd birthday (she was sick the first time around). Family came to visit and we had a wonderful time. The weather was unseasonably warm and we had pizza outside, kids got to play with their cousins, the birthday girl had another chance to blow out the candles (couldn't do it 2 weeks ago, but this time she performed with gusto! The older siblings were slightly saddened by this because they were looking forward to "helping" her blow out the candles).

The cake turned out decently (if I may say so myself) and the birthday girl seemed to like it (she refused to eat cupcakes with purple icing during our family mini-party 2 weeks ago... I suspect the flavour of the icing wasn't quite to her liking - I sort of threw a bunch of things together hoping for the best). When we were making the cake, C picked out purple and orange as the colors for the two layers, and these turned out just right! I made the tried-and-true Babushka's sour-cream cream for the icing and our older daughter decorated the cake with candles and little purple flowers I bought in the baking section of a grocery store. She did a beautiful job (and she is only 6)!!! Wish I took pictures... But as it often happens, I was too busy enjoying the moment to take any pictures :) The birthday girl soaked up everyone's attention. Then all the little girls got their nails painted. I am not a huge fun of painted nails on kids (just a personal quirk), but the kids were serious about it and so into the process - before I knew it, I was doing everyone's nails and having a good time :)

Speaking of nails... our youngest is a thumb-sucker. After painting her nails, I've been telling her: "C, got to stop sucking that thumbkin, or the nail polish will come off!" At first, she would get the thumb out of her mouth with a startled and worried expression, examining her nails. Next day she came up to me and said she did not want to paint her nails any more, because she wanted to keep sucking her thumb.

The kids were supposed to have Hebrew school on Sunday, but when we got there, the parking lot was empty. Turned out, the front door got damaged by the wind a few days ago, so the crew was there to fix it and everything was cancelled. Somehow, I missed the memo. So we went to a playground, instead. It was sunny and warm - the kids had a blast and I was able to talk to my parents on the phone while the kids were going up and down slides.

We spent the rest of Sunday doing some yard work, playing, reading books, and, generally, taking it easy. My husband and I walked around our yard trying to figure out where we want to put fruit trees. We've been talking about planting apple and pear (and possibly plum and peach) trees since we moved to this house 3 years ago. Maybe this year will be the year we finally do it!


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). 

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Best of Academia

What I loved ( and still miss) about academia

1. The people. The amazing, knowledgeable, sometimes quirky people from all over the world. I've worked with scientists from Brazil, China, France, Germany, Great Britain, Indonesia, India, Israel, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Russia, Taiwan,Turkey, Ukraine, US, Venezuela. The opportunity to get to know them has been a privilege and I am thankful for it. A few became close friends. One became my husband. 

2. Free access to most of the academic journals under the sun.

3. The Library. Big-name universities usually have amazing collections. Better than any public library  I've seen in the US so far (although I am very much in love with our local public library).

4. The "other-worldliness" of the ivory tower. I felt like my childhood wasn't really over as long as I stayed at a University. 
I still can't believe I am a grown up and will turn 40 this year, but somehow, being in the "real world" with a "real job" makes me feel like I should be a grown-up.

5. The snob-factor: I loved saying "I am a scientist in the department of xyz at such-and-such univeristy!" 


What is your favorite thing about your academic job?

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Positive Thinking vs Reality vs Pessimism... What's Worse?

I come from a family where admitting that you are happy or hopeful about something meant you were inviting a disaster. The way to prevent this possible disaster from striking you down was to immediately downplay the good and point out the not-so-good.

If I said: "Mom, I am really good at math!"
The response was: "Tfu, tfu, tfu over the left shoulder! Knock on wood! Now if only you could be more organized!"

If I said "Mom, I think I am going to win this competition"
The response was: "Well, okay... just don't be upset if you don't. If only you would keep your room clean..."

If I say "Mom, my daughter is doing great in school!"
The response is "Good for her! Now if only she would start eating meals like a normal person..."

My mom is a wonderful person and a very good mother. She has, however, developed a talent for seeing the worst in everything (what's the opposite of silver lining?). This eternal forced pessimism drives me mad. No matter how wonderful, how beautiful, how amazing things are - she'll find something negative. The scary thing is - I think she is actually an optimist by nature... but she trained herself to be a pessimist, she practically cocoons herself in it. She is getting worse, too. I certainly don't remember her being such a negativity-seeker when she was in her 30's and 40's.

I understand it - this magical thinking. We have so little control over the most important things in life (health, getting pregnant, life/death, to name a few) that engaging in magical thinking make one feel just a tiny bit more in control. As long as you think about bad things and point them out to everyone else, they will not happen. E is sneezing... Oh no!!!! He will surely end up with yet another ear infection! Bragging and/or feeling proud of good things means they will never happen again. Unless you somehow downplay/twist them. H is playing very nicely with C, but surely it will not last more than a couple of minutes.

I assumed that I would be so different than my mother, so much better. 

Ha.  Ha-ha.

I am just like her. I always think about the worst-case scenario (well... sometimes, it makes me feel better when I know what's the worst I can expect). I look at my husband and see faults and problems. I look at our kids and I worry about drug addiction, anorexia, and trouble of every kind (this, in turn, drives my husband nuts). 

*******

I used to be a part-time optimist (hope for the best, prepare for the worst). Now I am not sure anymore...  All I see ahead of me is aging, piling up health problems, loss of loved ones, and death (not necessary in that order). I think this is the mid-life crisis...  

******

There is this truism: everything that can go wrong will go wrong. Will pessimism prepare me for failure? Because sometimes, failure is inevitable. Does pessimism make it easier to bear failure? If you expect to fail, then is your failure actually a success because you have fulfilled the expectation? You can give yourself a pat on the back and say "Yup, I knew this was going to happen! Oh well, time to move on." Sometimes, failure precedes being good at something - so unless you (pessimistically) are prepared to fail and expect to fail, you can never succeed. Twisted logic, isn't it - doesn't it make sense, though?

********

 I want to be too involved in my life to worry about the general outlook. I want to enjoy what I am doing and the people I am spending time with. I don't want to be pessimistic, optimistic, or realistic. I just want to be alive.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Perfect Mom I'll Never Be

Here comes the Perfect Mom...


  • She is always patient. Always. She speaks in a quiet voice and never, ever yells. She patiently explains to and reasons with her child(ren). She is calm and does not loose her temper. She never gets MAD at her kids. 

  • She does not order her kids around, but asks/explains/reasons to get them to do the right thing. She is always loving and has unlimited stores or cuddles/hug/kisses to give out. 

  • She plays with her child(ren) frequently. She reads and discusses books with them. 

  • Her kids always have their clothing perfectly pressed (and stain-free, of course). 

  • She allows her children to grow up and gives them space, as needed. She is always happy to support them but lets them make their own choices (and mistakes). 

  • She always stands up for her children and defends them, when needed (and she can easily determine when the situation requires her intervention and when children should be left alone to figure things out by themselves).

  • Children are very, very important to this perfect mom, but she also has a life/hobbies of her own, so that she doesn't need to live through her kids. She is an interesting person and children (of any age) spend time with her because they want to, not because they have to.



If I can just get through that first bullet point, just for ONE day.... 

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Kids and Career: the Good Stuff



  • Having kids made me braver and more willing to take on something new (after all - I have to set a good example). 
  • Having kids provides a much-needed relieve from stress at work (I can't worry about work-related stuff and play 4-in-a-row at the same time), as well as perspective (things that used to be all-consuming are just a fraction of my life). 
  • Kids also made me realize the importance of a good salary and of getting fairly compensated for the amount of work put in. 

I am a scientist by training, and back in the undergrad days, my hopes included having my own lab - preferably in a big-name research institution. I didn't really think about getting married, kids, or any such nonsense.The tenure-track jobs lost their appeal 3/4 into graduate school. But that was okay - I loved working in a lab, I loved science, I was perfectly happy and content doing research in academia as a postdoc and then as a research associate. I cut down my hours from whatever crazy schedule I kept in graduate school to relatively set work days with only occasional work on the weekend. I wanted to spend time with friends, read science-unrelated books, and enjoy science-free evenings and weekends.


Then kids happened... The one thing that became progressively more important with the birth of each child was money. I was not making all that much money. Pre-kids, I could care less - I didn't have expensive tastes/hobbies. I was living happily within my means and demanding a raise felt petty and ridiculous (I did what I loved! Money was boring!).

With 3 kids - well, it is a little different. When I go to work, I feel that my time is precious - I need to use it well and then I want to be well-paid for the hard work! Especially because I want to be able to afford good-quality childcare while I am at work (higher price tag doesn't always come with best quality, but usually there is some correlation between what you pay and what you get). Then there are all these things that are not necessary, but still nice to be able to afford - travel, theater, museums, a house cleaning service, going to the shore, a house with a big yard in a quiet neighborhood with good schools.... 


I ended up doing what we call in Russia "fint ushami" (the closest English analog I can think of: an unexpected turnaround in midair). After more than 15 years of hard-core academic research, I got out of my comfort zone and got a job as a medical writer.

So here I am... I do miss lab research and academia, but... The pay is significantly better and there is the flexibility of working from home if I need to. The job is challenging, there is constantly new stuff to learn, and I like the people I work with.


If you are in a line of work that you like well enough but that is not the best fit at present - what would be the last straw? What would make you do "fint ushami?" 

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Here is a list of our favorite (baby) things

Our kids are 8, 6, and almost 3. Here are some things* that we grew to love and that made our lives more pleasant:

1. Babybjorn plastic bib. Three kids, same bib (and still in use daily). It is amazing. It catches all the crumbs and it is very easy to clean. I love it....  I just rinse it after each meal and that's it!!!

2. Baby monitor (Sony). We just had a simple audio one - it worked great. It gave me a little bit of freedom while the baby was napping. I could be out in the backyard and still within an earshot of any noise my baby made. The older kids even used it as a one-way walkie-talkie. Now that i think about it, maybe instead of donating it, I should find some clever use for it (eavesdropping on the kids?).

3. Kangaroo Korner sling. Used daily with all 3 kids when they were infants (until about 5-6 months).

4. Kritter toddler bed ( IKEA). We got an inexpensive toddler bed for IKEA after my second child was born. It held up really well. Because my kids are pretty close in age, they all got to transition from the crib into the toddler bed one after another... it's been in near-continuous use for the last 5.5 years. My third child is now sleeping in it and will probably use it for another year or so. 

5. BOB Revolution stroller. We've used it non-stop since our first child was 5 months old. Currently, it is in use by child 3 (and, occasionally, child 2+3 together). It has held up very well. The kids love riding in it and my husband and I love pushing it (easy to push, easy to control with one hand). The two drawbacks - the storage area under the stroller is very small and the stroller itself takes up a lot of space even when folded up.

6. Ergo Carrier - only had it for the 3rd child. Wish I had it for the first two. It distributed weight evenly over my shoulder and was super comfortable both for me and the baby (she napped happily). I used it daily after my third child was about 5 months (great for hikes, exploring historic towns, exploring caves, etc)! I stopped using it when # 3 got too heavy for me to carry comfortably (about 19 months).

7. Comfortable rocking chair in the nursery. I did not have one at first, so i know how bad it can feel when you are stuck nursing/rocking your child in a tiny wooden rocking chair. It hurt my tailbone every time i tried to lean back. There were no armrests. Just thinking about it makes me grumpy! Having a comfortable place to sit and hold your baby in the same room as the crib/bassinet makes a big difference. Trust me.

8. Breast pump (Medela). That was money well spent. Pumped 3-4 times/day for my oldest son after going back to work. I also used it with the younger kids, but not as much (I stayed home with them when they were babies). I am so glad I had it.

9. Fisher Price Booster sit. Easy to clean, folds for easy transport, can be used at a table or with its own tray. Cheap.

Things that did not make this list but were still used with all 3 kids:

1. Crib from Babies R Us. It was ok. It worked fine and we used it extensively with all 3 kids. I don't love it but I don't hate it, either. The rails got chewed , but otherwise it held up well. It has a drop side that we only used on occasion with our first child. When we were looking for a crib, a drop side seemed like a "must-have." Nah, it wasn't all that convenient and I think they are illegal now. 

2. Graco foldable high chair. We got a (relatively) cheap version at Babies R Us. It was horrible. We used it with all 3 kids, but we hated it. There were lots of crevices where food got stuck. It was really difficult to clean. The height adjustment mechanism was easy to confuse with the buttons for folding it (and we hardly ever folded it... even though we didn't have a whole lot of space in our first house when the first 1 kids were little). 

3. Swings... we used them, a bit. The kids liked them, but they took up a ton of space and the kids always tended to have their heads at some awkward angle if they fell asleep.   

Things that I would do/buy differently:

1. Get a high chair that is easy to clean!!!

2. For any infant furniture (ie, swings) - make sure it reclines far enough and has the head positioning thingy. Even if they can hold their heads. All our kids loved to swing, but the head was always at some awful angle to the rest of the body!

3. Use Boudreaux's butt paste for diaper rashes. Other brands worked ok (used aquaphore with #3, mostly), but I just love the butt paste.

4. Get a beautiful baby mobile. Our son had an amazing one, with cardboard spinning on thin wires... unfortunately, it got accidentally destroyed when he was a toddler. We never got a replacement.

5. Skip the "my breast friend" pillow. We got one when our second child was born. I used it, at most, for a couple of weeks. 

*I am not paid to write any of this.