The Importance Of Human Connections

On Tuesday, I was attending the Night Ministry Lighting Up The Night event. That was the first time I was invited; it is a big fundraiser, with a fancy dinner and both silent and live auctions, in which I did not participate. It was interesting to see people I got to know through different volunteering events at a very different kind of event, in fancy clothes :).

Geoffrey Baer from WTTW was an emcee for this event, and in the very beginning, he talked about human connections. That’s what the Night Ministry is about: not just providing food and medical care, but also providing companionship and an opportunity to connect with others.

At the start of the event, we were asked to take a piece of paper which was put on the right side of each plate and to write down a name of a person, with whom we talk most often, with whom we can discuss things, which are essential for us. And then to fold this piece of paper and put it away. Later through the course of the event, there were more stories of people who managed to get their lives back on track, and all of them were talking not just about The Night Ministry, but about particular people, who helped them along the way.

Other speakers were citing the numbers from different surveys and researches, which indicate that being lonely might be very dangerous to your health, cause heart diseases, high blood pressure, and other conditions.

And a little bit later Geoffrey Baer retook the podium and said: “And now look at this name you’ve written on a piece of paper earlier, and think how would you feel without this person in your life. And think about the fact that many homeless people would have no name to write on this piece of paper.”

I was thinking about this. And I was also thinking, that this is precisely the thing I am doing with my blogging, and also that with most of my volunteering activities I am doing just this – giving people support at the time they need it most. Talking to the youth in the shelter. Escorting patients to an abortion clinic. Blogging about difficult parenting situations. Even with my political activism, I value canvassing the most, because I know that nothing can influence people more than a real-live conversation. Eye-to-eye. Heart-to-heart.

When they asked all volunteers to stand up, I was so proud to be standing there are receiving the audience ovation. And when they were mentioning “volunteers, who come and cook with the youth,” my neighbor was pushing my elbow: this is about you! And I’ve smiled back: yes!

I was in Madison WI this weekend, celebrating my granddaughter’s second birthday, and when we were slowly walking around the Capitol Square, my granddaughter almost ran into a group of homeless people seating on the edge of a flowerbed. They have admired little Nadia and asked whether Anna is her mother, and then all of us got engaged in a conversation. A little bit later, when we were on our way back after dropping off my mother in the hotel, we ran into one of these guys again.

Anna said: look, Nadia, it’s the same person we talked to before. And he said: yes, my name is Robert! And Anna chatted with him for a little bit more, while he was following us, and amidst all “nice talking to you,” he started crying and changed his trajectory. For him, this human connection, the fact that we were talking to him like to an equal person meant a world more than a box of leftover mac & cheese Anna has handed him at the beginning of the conversation.

And I have nothing else to add.

Flying to America for the First Time

Before I start, let me tell you a couple of words about how my children have reacted to the news that we are going to go to America. First of all, they were very excited to tell everybody around, and the funny thing is that nobody believed them! They would be at the playground, and would tell other parents: we are going to America for two years!!! And other parents would be yea, sure… And then I come and say that it’s true!

When Anna and I were talking recently about these weeks before our departure, she told me that she remembers there was one thing she was sad about, but she can’t remember what exactly it was. But I remembered! The Fall play in their daycare was in rehearsal at that time; it was a modern version of the Russian folk tale “Репка” (“The Turnip”). Both of them were playing leading parts: Anna was playing a role of Granddaughter, and Vlad was playing a Dog. And they had to miss their artistic triumph!

We were flying the KLM airlines. It was a strange flight; I do not think they even offer this kind of flight anymore: we would arrive at Copenhagen in the afternoon, spend a night in a hotel, and leave to Chicago in the morning. The hotel room and airport transfer were both paid by KLM. We did have some time to walk around the city, and I even remember that we went to see the Mermaid, but my mind was not there, and I could not fully enjoy the sights.

We had to eat somewhere, and I’ve asked at the hotel reception, where is the nearest place we can eat, and how much would it cost. I had to exchange some dollars to Denmark kronas, and I knew I wouldn’t need them after that evening. Money was scarce, I only had three hundred dollars, so I could not afford to waste any.

They directed us to the nearest McDonalds, which was a safe choice for kids, but also it was a luxury for us these days, and I could not stop thinking that I didn’t plan to spend that much money before we even come to America.

Fortunately, the hotel stay included breakfast, and we went down pretty early in the morning to be sure we eat before our bus comes. And we could hardly find any food my kids were familiar with. Neither they nor I were used to being served ice-cold milk, and they refused to drink it this way. I remember pleading them to eat some corn flakes with this cold milk, and I forgot what we ended up with, but I believe all of us had finally eaten something.

One thing which warmed my heart was that when we stepped on board of the airplane flying to Chicago, a flight attendant had given Anna and Vlad small Lego sets to build lego airplanes, and coloring books and some crayons. And that was so unusual for us! Real legos were extremely expensive in Russia, I would buy some Polish substitutes, which were also expensive, so they would only get medium-size sets for New Year or their birthdays. Having children be treated as special guests was a completely new concept to me, and I felt right away, that this new world is going to be a place of kindness.

During the long flight, the kids behaved well, didn’t make much noise, asked a flight attendant for some orange juice in English, and tried to connect with other children on the plane. So all was good. I stepped out of the airplane, holding my passport with my working vise (the kids didn’t have their separate passports then), and a note with the name of the company secretary, and their phone and address.

A border control officer took my papers and asked: do you know where you are going to go? I said: no, but somebody is picking me up. The officer said: what if nobody will meet you, what you are going to do? He’d sent me to the room with the wooden barriers, where other people were sitting and waiting, and he told me to sit and wait with them.

Imagine being after nine hours-long flight, with two five-year-olds, not even being able to tell them how much longer we need to wait, and why, and what we are waiting for in the first place. We ended up sitting there for about an hour: I and my five-year-old twins, with no food, no water, no toys, no books. They were doing great, being quite patient. And then an officer appeared at the doors and called on me. He handed me my passport and said: you can go! What? Can I go? No questions, no interrogation, no nothing? Yes, you can go.

We exited back to the baggage claim area. It was empty. No people, no luggage. And then we saw our boxes mounted on one cart, and a tall thin man standing by it – it was Val, and that was the first time we met him. I remember the kids walked towards him and clenched to his hands, and he was so surprised with that, that he just started walking, leaving me behind with the luggage:).

Those were our first steps on American soil.

Talking About Parenting

Last Monday, I was a meeting with a person from my professional network. Although our relationships are strictly professional, we know each other long enough to know about each other’s families/spouses/children/grandchildren (in my case :)).

We went out for lunch and talked about more or less everything since we didn’t get a chance to catch up for over a year. And somehow along the lines, he mentioned how his wife is exhausted because she has to cook every day for their three children, and how one of them didn’t like her mother’s cooking, and how he’d told her that “she should cook for herself than”.

I’ve asked: remind me, what’s your kids’ age? He said: 16, 13, and 11. Then why they do not cook for themselves? My kids did cook since they were eleven. – What did they cook? What kind of food? And as it often happens, I’ve started to tell him about our system back then, how we had a schedule on a large wall calendar. How I would cook two main dishes every week, one on Saturday and one on Sunday, and through the week the kids would make sides and warm up the leftovers, or bake breaded fish, or fried sausages, or something else which would be easy to make. And how we would go out only once a week – on Fridays. And then he mentions, that now they actually have not three, but five kids in the house because they’ve taken in their two nephews, while their parents are away for a week, and they are 18 and 11. And I could not stop myself from mentioning that my kids stayed by themselves at home when they were 17, and I left for six weeks on a business trip to Europe…

Each time a parenting conversation turns into this direction, I feel as if I’ve said something wrong, or at least insensitive, something like “Look how my kids were so well-prepared for life, and you just can’t teach your kids basic life skills, you overprotective helicopter parent.” Maybe nobody thinks precisely that way, but that’s how I feel I am coming across.

Next time I will try my best to keep quiet about “what my kids did” if a conversation will be turning that way. May be :). At least, I will try. But I am wondering why it has become such a rear thing, that kids cook. Without parental supervision. Why a kid 10+ can’t cook a meal for themselves. If it’s about “safety”, safety concerns can be valid literally at any age. I, at the age of 56, still get occasional burns in the kitchen – stuff happens. What I am saying, I do not see anything dangerous for 11-year old cooking by themselves, except “anything can theoretically happen to anybody”. And this is not even about “teaching a life skill”, it’s merely about giving parents a break. To be honest, sometimes I think that the usual disconnect I am getting with my stance “you can have it all” happens because, in reality, I did not do it “all” when my kids were kids. We shared the housework, we were a family, we were a team. And it didn’t make my kids “deprived” or “neglected”. Actually, I think it helped our bonding.

What do you think?…

Opening The Season With Bike Palatine Club

This biking season had started late and is unfolding slowly due to the extreme weather conditions (maybe we should consider it to be “normal” now, but I still hold hope it’s an “extreme”). I love going on casual rides with Bike Palatine Club because I am “geographically challenged” and otherwise won’t dream of going on a ride to explore new places by myself. Riding with a group makes me feel secure, and also it always feels so good to hear people greeting you by name, isn’t it?

Last Thursday it was the first time since the casual rides started this season when 1) the weather was good 2)I didn’t have anything else doing on on Thursday evening 3) I could leave work s little bit earlier. All these activities: getting on the right train, getting home, getting changed, munching on something, and getting to Mike’s bike shop by 6-30 are carefully timed, not a minute to spare.

With the ride itself, plus getting there and getting back home it’s 1 hour and 40 minutes of joy, and I was so glad I was able to make it!

Getting Ready to Go to America

So, I’ve got a job offer and started to get ready. At that time, getting a work visa was not at all that crazy as nowadays. My phone interviews had happened in mid-June 1996, and at mid-August, I’ve got a package in the mail. The two months in between felt weird since I was not telling anybody; only Boris and my Mom knew, and neither was happy about this development.

The package arrived, and I checked the hours of operation of the US Consulate in Saint Petersburg and went there. As far as I remember, I didn’t even need to make an appointment at that time, I could just show up, get in the line, and get in. And as far as I recall, I didn’t get any visa forms before I came to the Consulate. Now it seems unbelievable, but I actually filled in all the forms by hand and proceeded to the window to talk to the officer. She looked through my papers, asked me something about databases and then said, that the package is incomplete, that they need “articles of incorporation” and “recent tax returns”. Needless to say, these words meant nothing to me, so I had to memorize them to make sure I will be able to cite them in my email.

Another month passed, and a new package had arrived. And I went to the Consulate again, and this time, my work visa was granted.

In the next month and a half, lots of things were happening, and I can’t recall the whole sequence of events. Finding a flight. Airlines other than Aeroflot just started to make their presence in Russia. It was a total shock to me, that the ticket prices where different for different airlines, and that they could depend on the date the flight is scheduled for. It was news that we were allowed to buy a one-way ticket (it was forbidden with Aeroflot). Then there was all this business of “paying by corporate card” – in the Saint Petersburg office of KLM they recorded the credit card number in the notebook, and told me that they will pass into their New York office, and “will let me know when it comes through”. And remember, I knew nothing about the credit cards at that time!

The date was finally settled, and it was October 22. I was still running around, meeting with people, “seeing each other last time”. I remember my friend asking me: do you even believe it yourself, you are going to America, or you are watching a movie about yourself? I was definitely watching a movie. I was telling everybody that I will return in two years, that I will just save enough money to buy my own apartment. Some of the people were skeptical saying: “Everybody says they will come back, but nobody comes!”I would dismiss these comments – what did they know about me?! Still, one part of me was thinking: I will never come back, I am going away, so that I will never see my Mom anymore, and I will never have to deal with Boris anymore. I will find some nice man over there and will have a family as other people have.

I had no money. Almost none. I was always keeping a poker face about that, but by this time, I was without a rouble in my wallet by the end of the month regularly. I was barely making ends meet, but would rather die, than tell anybody. I’ve sold my desktop computer, because I had to have at least some money with me, and after repaying some minor debts I was left with 300 dollars to start my new life. I was asking John how much money I will need to get along for the first month. With all the idealism of Columbia alumnae, coming from a family with old money, he would reply: Why do you need to take any money with you? You are going to work in America! You are going to make money, not to spend money! – So, will 300 do for the start? – Sure!

Igor was not coming with me. I did not know how to figure out from a distance, whether he will be able to go to school in America, where should I start, whom should I ask. And it never occurred to me that I could ask my new employer! I would never think to do such a thing in Russia, and I had no idea it could be different in the rest of the world. So I left Igor behind, “until I figure things out”.

It was decided that the company will rent an apartment for me in the same building where G. lived with his family. The office manager (and HR, and everything else) from my new company was writing me about the train schedule, about G’s wife, who was supposed to take care of my kids, and I could not figure out what the problem was. The CEO had sent me a very long and detailed email to the effect that I have no idea, how much daycare costs in America, and indeed, I had no idea to such an extent, that I was not getting a message. Both she and John were saying: it’s very expensive! The best thing you can do is to take your mother with you so that she could take care of the kids. But that was the whole point of the idea – to get away from everybody!

The date of departure was approaching. I didn’t have any luggage, so I’ve packed our stuff into five cardboard boxes. I didn’t even take any winter boots for the kids – they are growing, and we will buy better ones in America! I didn’t have money for a cab, and one of Boris’s postgrads agreed to drive us to the airport (very few people owned cars in Russia at that time). I remember all my last good-byes, and remember the same feeling that I am not sure whether I will see everybody again, whether I will ever come back…

Going 100% Reusable

I’ve started to switch to reusable “everything” last fall, slowly trying one new thing after another and making sure they are easy to use, and I really need them. And looks like the past week was my first week of 100% reusable – bags, wrapping, etc.

Reusable grocery bags

Granted, I’ve used only reusable shopping bags way before that, but in September I’ve tried reusable produce bags – and loved them.

Then came reusable wax wrapping paper, then – silicon lids,

Silicon lids

and then – all sorts of bags. I’ve tried several different kinds of silicon and non-silicon bags, which could be used instead of ziplock bags, big and small. The most challenging task was to find the bags which I could use to take my lunch to work – they had to be leak-proof, and durable enough to survive my commute to the city. After several tries, I am finally happy with my solution:

Of cause I still use plastic from time to time, for example, when I pack something for people to take with them, or when I would occasionally forget my bags at home. But this is a negligible number of bags. Interestingly, I never thought I will be so happy with the notion of me going green, and so proud of being able to do so!

How I Decided to Go to America

The year was 1995, and everybody was going to America, almost like the Jews at the beginning of the 20th century. Just try to imagine, that for many years one was not allowed to go to any foreign country, even as a tourist, even to the “socialist” country without the approval of the Communist Party special commission. An opportunity to go abroad – literally anywhere abroad – was the most exciting thing one could imagine. Before Perestroika I was abroad only once – with a delegation from our University, but that will be a topic for some other blog post.

After the trips abroad have become possible, I’ve traveled once – with all my three children to Poland, during the summer of 1995. Now imagine what people felt when all of a sudden, you were allowed to travel. And also, all of a sudden there was email. And several years later – world wide web. Imagine how it felt when, after years of almost complete isolation, you could receive emails from your former classmates living in other countries. You could receive an email list with job postings. Actual job postings from the USA. And you could email, and inquiry and somebody would reply! It was a mind-blowing experience.

So as I’ve said, everybody was going to America. As if it was 1905, and the Jews were fleeing Russian trying to escape pogroms. But this time around there were not just Jews. Everybody wanted to go. And business in the US has also realized that there is a huge workforce market, with skilled workers, totally unexplored. That’s how it all started. The demand was so great that when I look back, I think one should have made a special effort not to go to America.

And there was me, a single mother of three, living in one room of 2-room (not 2-bedroom, just 2-room) apartment, being able to provide daily necessities and more, but absolutely being unable to get out of this one room.

To give some historical perspective, after 1991 all previously state-owned apartments were “privatized” meaning, that each person has received “for free” in their own possession the place they were living in. So if it happened to be a one person in a 2-room apartment, they would automatically own it. If there would be five people leaving in a similar apartment, as in my case, each of us would own “1/5 of the apartment”. The apartment renting was virtually non-existent, and when available would cost more than I could afford. Plus, you could go to the doctor only at your place of registration, and renting would not provide registration for you. Also, there was no mortgage in existence. The only way to get something bigger than one room in this 2-room apartment was to buy a place, paying in cash.

Knowing the salaries in the US, and knowing the cost of apartments in Saint-Petersburg at that time, I figured out that it will take me two years to come up with the money I needed, and joined the crowd looking for jobs in the US. I absolutely didn’t want to emigrate, at least that’s what I was telling myself. To be honest, how when I recall these times, I think that I was thinking two separate thoughts. One of them was that I can’t imagine living anywhere except Saint Petersburg, and I just need to make this trip before it is time for Anna and Vlad to go to school (because schools in America are obviously horrible, everybody knows that). The other thought (or the other me) was “I want to leave and never come back”. My relationships with my mother were a constant crisis, my relationships with Boris were a constant crisis, So for some reason, I thought that I can run away from all of these crises at once.

So I’ve stopped to resist and started to look. First, two job offers came from New York. One was arranged by John Roseman, a significant person in my life (another “save for later” note), a new-yorker living in Saint Petersburg trying to build new and just capitalism in the New Russia. This did not go through. His friends in New York told him that it is too much of responsibility to bring a single mother of three to America. “What if one of your children will get sick? You can’t stay at home, you have to go to work, what will you do?” Also, recalling other emails he’d shown to me at that time, I suspect, that the way their attorneys were going to arrange my working visa was not 100% legal (there was something along the lines “she needs first to come to the US and start working, and then…”)

The second one also came from a friend, who was already working in the US at that time. That one was some questionable Russian-owned company in New York, and the conversation went along the same lines: it’s all great, but how you feel first coming to the US and work for a little bit on some project, and then we’ll see…

That was not an option either.

My friend Irina left to work in another “strange” place. If I recall it correctly, it was presented as studying abroad, and the pay was below all possible standards, but it was not called “salary”, and thereby people could be invited to work and be paid a little bit over minimum wages. Irina talked with her boss about me. Single mother, three children. Will I go to Miami, FL, to work for 26,000? No, even being as naive as I was at that time, I knew enough to understand it was not an option.

And then there was G., with whom I worked at Urbansoft, with John being a director (another “save for later” note – he deserves a separate story). By that time G. has been working in Illinois as a consultant for some time, and one of the clients he was assigned to asked him, whether he knows somebody in Russia who would come to work for them.

Then there was a call. My goodness, an international call! And G. was asking whether I am interested… And then there was a phone interview with Patrick, the manager of IT for the company I didn’t even know the name of at that time. And – it didn’t work. I didn’t make it.

As I’ve learned later, they hired Val, who was “one person does it all” at the moment. But 6 months later they decided they need a separate DB person. And they called me again.

Patrick was not with the company anymore, so I’ve interviewed with another manager. Again – phone interview! With people from America! How exciting and how scary!

That was when my “primary key story” had happened, and I could not believe I’ve got a job offer for just knowing what is a primary key, and what is a foreign key (the very basics of the database theory for those who are not in the field). To be precise, it took not one but two phone interviews, since at the first one I sounded “a little bit nervous”, as I was told. Ha! “A little bit”! A lot!

This second interview ended with unbelievable “We would like to have you as a part of our team”. Actually, I do not recall being especially overjoyed. It was something else. I remembered Irina sitting in the empty apartment the day before her family was about to board the plane… She was really excited… as for me…

… I called Boris right away and told him we need to talk. When we met, I told him: I’ve got a job offer from America. Heading out to meet him, I was thinking to myself: if he only says, “I do not want you to go”, I will stay. He told me later that he understood quite well, that this would be the case, so he replied: Good! You should go!

Again, later he told me that he wanted me to take this opportunity, for mine and my children’s sake, and he was feeling that his life is about to end, but he said: You should go! And I was like: Well, if you really want me to go, I will go and will never look back!!!

And that’s how my journey has begun.

Disappearing History

I am currently reading (actually listening to) The Lost Roses by Martha Kelly, a book I was initially so excited about, since is is a pre-sequel to the The Lilac Girls, which I really loved However, almost immediately after I started to listen to this book, I could notice some small and not so small discrepancies. It may worth a separate post to talk about all these small “wrongs”, but the reason I am mentioning them now is, that my observation made me start to think one more time about how fast the actual “feel” of history is disappearing. I thought – maybe I loved The Lilac Girls so much, because I do not have enough knowledge to notice all these little things which are wrong?

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and these thoughts are an essential part of why I’ve started this (yet another) blog. I’ve noticed that people, who were born and raised in Russia, and partially in the Soviet Union, same as me, but who are just ten years younger than me, appear to be completely unaware of the recent history. They just didn’t live through the 60s-70s, and although there is an abundance of information available both on paper and on the internet – they somehow read it wrong.

It’s not like they are doing it on purpose – somehow it feels like they are reading the right stuff, but the words are being translated into a picture, which looks very different from reality. And when I am making attempts to explain, that things were not exactly as they think they used to be, they plainly do not believe me. Which is really upsetting taking into account the recency of events.

I won’t speak for the US, but in Russia, we already have huge chunks of history completely disappeared without any hope of the rescue. Take WWII. Those veterans, who’ve returned home alive, definitely were not “well” in the precise sense of the word. Nobody knew anything about post-traumatic syndrome those days and they were trying to cope with the trauma the way they could – trying to forget the most horrible things. It’s not like they were “not allowed” to tell the truth. Actually, to some degree, they were not, but only to some degree. Yes, they were afraid, but that’s not the whole story. They also desperately wanted to forget – and often succeeded. It would take a genius and an extraordinary personality of Daniil Granin, a famous Russian writer, to talk to the Siege of Leningrad survivors in a way that they would be willing to share their true stories. Because of his work we have some of that history. But most of it is lost forever.

The situation is even worse with the history of GULAG. I am really sorry for those who think you can study this part of modern history by Solzhenitsyn works.

Many yours ago my school friend had allowed me to read the notes her grandfather put together immediately after he was released from the concentration camp. Several “school size” notebooks, pain and horror. Haven’t read anything even remotely close to these notes ever. That’s a piece of true history. How can I make sure things like this are preserved in memory of the future generations?

Even when we talk about very recent events, historically speaking, I often observe lots of misconceptions and misunderstanding, like heroization of dissidents, elevating the role of refuzniks in Soviet society, etc.

I am not going to argue with those people who believe they know better. But while I still remember things, I am going to try to put all of those stories in writing. For the benefit of generations to come.