Monday, December 31, 2007

Resolutely into the New Year

New Year’s Resolutions are always tricky. I am reminded by my high school friend Gina’s advice of “aim low to avoid disappointment”. Like all good advice, I wish I followed it more often. Instead, I’ve generally focused on tangible tasks (“finish my thesis”) or process-oriented resolutions (“to eat more healthy food” or “to exercise more”). Those ones are easy (well, finishing my thesis wasn’t, but that was due to powers out of my grasp at the end). Generally, you just eat more vegetables, and go for an occasional run, and you feel like you’ve accomplished your task by the end of January. I’ve always felt like I was almost cheating when I made those resolutions.

Due to this darned influenza, I’ve had an entire evening to come up with some good ones. And, needless to say, I am no closer to coming up with some grand, over-arching concept with which to frame my 2008 than I was this morning. There are the obvious ones, but since I do intend to start playing soccer again and possibly joining a swim team, that’s cheating. Same with publishing another paper or two. Turning 30 will happen no matter what I resolve, and taking it with dignity is perhaps so unlikely as to be out of the question and not worth my breath resolving. In general, I’d like to be a nicer and better person – but, again, that shouldn’t require a resolution. It requires me keeping the snark to myself. Which sounds easier than it is. Particularly early in the morning.

And my crowning thought of reducing my carbon footprint seems next to impossible, considering I’m flying to Manaus via Sao Paulo in a week or so. It requires an awful lot of compact fluorescent lights to compensate for that one.

So I give up on the resolutions. When asked, I will lapse to the answer of ‘I couldn’t come up with anything particularly brilliant or witty’. Which is true. Instead I hope to ring in the New Year asleep, allowing my immune system to finish off the last remnants of the flu virus. It gives me the chance to start 2008 well-rested and with a freshly-energized set of antibodies. Free of cheap resolutions and bad hangovers. (And with a lame social life that, really, can only get better... hmmm... there might be a resolution in that...)

Good night, happy new year and all the best,

Holiday Travels (Part II, or How not to spend Christmas… or Why the flu shot doesn’t work…)

Perhaps my title has given away the punch line. The day after I arrived in Rhode Island for my four day, fleeting Christmas visit to the parental units, I started to cough. The next day was Christmas, and I woke up with a full-out flu - the real thing: nasty muscle aches, fever, cough, congestion, headache, the whole nine yards. This all despite a flu shot. There’s also the coincidence that I seem to get sick every time I visit my mother, but I’ll choose to ignore that one...

My state didn’t really affect the Farmer Family Christmas plans – we’re quite devoid of traditions, aside from stockings, my father’s grumblings about the size of the Christmas tree, and late-morning present-opening. But I was unable to make the persimmon pudding cake I had planned on, and my mother had to cook the winter squash, which she’d never done before (she did a very fine job with both recipes. Though I would have added herbs to the squash… but my mother’s lack of fresh herbs and complete absence of garlic from the house is a different matter). More than that, my father was going to be alone in drinking red wine for dinner.

I made it to the living room for the annual stocking and prezzie opening. Highlights? My brother gave my mother a recycled-metal piece of art: a rather clever crab made of old horseshoes, giving no doubt as to the intended species. My brother received numerous books on the coming apocalypse (climate, oil, politics) with the delight and enthusiasm only a cynical lawyer could have on those subjects. My father reserved his usual grinchy comments as he sat on his spiffy new rocking chair. And I couldn’t be happier with a new selection of cookbooks (The Muffin Book was particularly amusing, and the accompanying floppy silicone muffin pan viewed great interest – with slightly rolling eyes, I was obliged to put on my chemist hat and explained that it wouldn’t melt in the oven), novels and the DVD collection of the BBC’s Planet Earth.

I’ll spare the details of five days spent in bed. I read a lot of books. The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta was quite excellent – funny, well-written and an interesting commentary on the role of born-again Christians and the American education system (a high school health teacher is forced to teach an abstinence-only curriculum while she battles with the local churches on post-soccer-game prayer).

So I managed to finally get on a plane and home yesterday. Still a little battered from the flu, and frustrated by having to miss the New Year’s festivities, but at least I have a bit of time to come up with appropriate resolutions – one of which will be not to bother with next year’s flu shot…

Holiday Travels (Part I)

(author’s note: this was mostly written on my trip to Rhode Island for Christmas, but finished from my Boulder apartment a week later…)

I read the New York Times Travel section almost daily. It has become part of my lunch-time routine, having (temporarily, I hope) surpassed looking up the latest journal articles on atmospheric chemistry. That, I now deal with in that late-afternoon slump that plagues all post-docs.

But the ability of the NYTimes to crystallize interesting social commentary, new-worthy items, beautiful photographs and good grammar is unparallelled. Due to upcoming travels, I am of course obsessively interested in any mention of Brazil or the Amazon. And due to the sheer amount of flying I seem to do, I am also intrigued by the various articles on the trials-and-tribulations of travellers. There have been a growing number of rants in opinion articles and reader commentary about poor airline service and delayed flights. I'm currently sitting in Chicago airport waiting for a flight that is delayed by over two hours, and, while I get to sit in the luxury of the United lounge, I still had to pay an outrageous sum for a plain tuna sandwich. So the poor people who's flights were not just delayed but outright cancelled have my sympathy.

But, here's where this is going: I noticed a blog-post on the Times by a flight attendant - almost a response to the irate commentary about poor airline service. The FA pointed out that his job was a difficult one, balancing customer courtesy, safety in the face of a post-9/11 world and dealing with the ever-unreasonable demands for more carry-on luggage space. He reminded readers that most other service industries have the luxury of showing an unpleasant customer out the door, but, due to some pesky legalities, that's not possible for airlines. And he reminded readers that everyone can have a bad day or need a few moments of personal time, and unfortunately that's not a luxury for flight attendants. As I read the article, I had to sympathize with the Flight Attendants. It's not their problem that airlines no longer serve meals to Economy class, or that the snacks they hand out are unhealthy and vile, or that the aircraft was delayed and that there's turbulence in the air.

But there was dissent, debate and many, many reader commentaries. It seems that generally people want the service of Singapore Airlines Business Class for Southwest prices. They're fed up with being told that they can't go to the bathroom during mid-flight turbulence, that they don't get meals on short-haul flights (but, really, I remember the airline food from ten years ago. I can't imagine craving the indistinguishable soggy white mess that was either chicken or ravioli and no one could tell which is which.)

So here's my two cents. You get what you pay for - and for an extra $30, you can have extra legroom, and for an extra $300+, you can have an excellent meal and near-horizontality. I agree, the lack of in-flight services on some airlines (like making one pay for headphones) can be obnoxious, but in general, there isn't much anyone I typically talk to (gate agents, flight attendants) can do about it. So why make their lives miserable by berating them?

Economy class travel is pretty phenomenal – it’s cheap (and, from someone with a growing conscience about her carbon footprint, perhaps a little too cheap and easy). And the service is there to keep us safe and sound, not in five-star luxury. That’s for Business Class on Singapore Airlines (or so I hear). Case in point: on my flight back to Colorado from Rhode Island yesterday, the lady four seats over from me stopped breathing. Her neighbour called the Flight Attendants, who couldn’t have been more prompt in getting competent medical attention, and informing the pilot who immediately made arrangements for landing. Within no more than 15 minutes, we had landed in Omaha, NB (a city I don’t really intend to visit again – at least from what I saw in our VERY rapid landing), and shortly thereafter paramedics were on the scene. And we were delayed by no more than 45 minutes in total. Impressive. While some travelers actually had the gall to complain, my thought was that there could have been no better handling of the situation.

In this era of entitlement, we seem to expect the glamorous standards of the 1930's air travel, complete with cocktails and lounging chairs, but for the price of a cut-rate airline. In thinking about my impending 36+ hour trip from Denver to Manaus in January, I did a little web searching. And accidentally came up with a brilliant image: a 1920's poster advertising a trip from the US to Brazil on Pan Am Airlines. The giant slogan over the picture of the twin-engine plane circling the Christ-Redeemer statue: "Only Five Days To Rio". That put things in perspective for me...

Thursday, November 22, 2007

American Thanksgiving

Today is American Thanksgiving, and in the spirit of the day, I must give thanks. It takes a few moments to figure out how to do this properly.

I have been in this country only a few times for Thanksgiving: once was a disastrous over-regimented dinner. The other time was spent thesis-writing – but punctuated with a brief visit from my friend Julie, who brought me an entire pecan pie. That was one of the most touching and generous gestures I have received, but serves as a reminder of how important this day is.

America takes this day more seriously than Canada, and that’s not a bad thing. Sitting down for a shared meal with family and friends is a rare occasion these days, with my generation's tendency to move and scatter. Unlike weddings, funerals and most other holidays, there is little religious conviction involved with Thanksgiving (though the point was fiercely debated over appetizers), and, typically, less drama than other gatherings.

I spent this morning getting the fixings for an apple-pear pie (and a damn good pie, if I do say so myself). Because of my last-minute change of plans, my housemate kindly invited me to a Thanksgiving celebration – a group of families and friends that gathered in the Canyon. This dinner was the epitome of everything good about this country and this holiday: two turkeys (plus ham and a stew), 14+ friendly people, a game of Trivial Pursuit, several alcoholic beverages and some good music. All with a spectacular view of snow covered trees, a hazy day in the Denver area, and a couple of deer outside the window munching on the lawn.

It was the welcome I received today that I give thanks for: people who didn’t know me who were smiling and excited to say hello, strangers giving me mimosas and an inherent sense of belonging for no reason. In these moments I have to pause and reflect, I realize I am most thankful for the welcome I received in this country – no concern about where I’m from, who I represent or what I think. Just a genuine invitation to share a meal and tell a few stories. And a perfect reminder of why I choose to live in this country despite certain political and social issues with the way it works.

So I thank my host, Brian. A lovely, open and honest individual who cooks a mean turkey - which reminds me why I’m not always vegetarian. And who reinstores my faith in human nature for having such a large dining table. And for liking Amy Winehouse.

I thank Cornelius – the guy who mans the coffee bar at Wild Oats on Arapahoe and Broadway. He always makes me laugh in the mornings (not always easy). And he goes out of his way to make my morning tea from the extra-hot water behind the bar.

I thank my officemate, Mike. He always seems happy to see me in the morning, and that is a wonderful thing. Who is happy to share a small space with someone else every day? Not many individuals. Particularly not individuals who give me bike-fixing and program-solving advice.

I thank my past and present advisors, Jose and Ron. They always make me think, and that can only be a good thing.

I thank my Berkeley friends. They email me – almost daily I receive a note from someone out West (or out East, as the case may be). It makes me think of great baseball games, salsa dancing and evenings out at Cesar’s. Beers and pizza over Alias or Thursday Night Action Movie. Good, solid, supportive hugs at the end of a rough day. Handing me a glass of red wine on a really bad day, no questions asked.

I thank my family for unambiguous affection. A genuine – if on occasion slightly over-enthusiastic – interest in my non-existent love-life. A concern that I have enough pretty cocktail dresses and can feed myself more than mac and cheese. And a desire to see me at Christmas, coupled with a desire to eat anything I cook, no matter how odd.

I don’t think I can ever return all these beautiful moments and favours - and I don't think that's the point of them. But suffice it to say that today has reminded me to be thankful for where I am and whomever I have met over the last 29 years. I raise a slice of well-cooked turkey and a glass of good Pinot Noir, and say… Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

sous la neige et sans passeport

So this is (now) a funny story, and I must share the tale. And perhaps as an introduction to what working in Brazil is going to be like. And, on that note, a progressive explanation of why so few people choose to work there….

You need a research visa. I’ve explained this one before. Difficult, tricky. And Al at the visa agency has been helping me out. And dealing with my daily phone call and/or email. Kudos to Al for his patience. The passport was initially due to be ready on Tuesday, so I’d get it today. So I could go to Canada tomorrow. So I could get my US work visa. Before going to Brazil next Tuesday. There’s something about the best laid plans…

First off, apparently making a visa is more difficult than it sounds. While my application was approved a week ago, the tortoise-like progress of the consulate means that the passport wasn’t ready until today… arriving on Friday (though fortunately Al called this morning to confirm my address – before sending it to my old Berkeley address…). So, fair enough. Delay my trip to Canada.

And, on a positive note, there’s no need to only go for one day. Because I cancelled my trip to Brazil. Because the Brazilian Customs Police are apparently on strike – so all our research equipment has yet to be released. Apparently, last year the same strike occurred and lasted for a month and a half. Whether that means our equipment will be released tomorrow or in mid-January has become the inspiration for a hot betting pool among a certain set of scientific researchers. Personally, I’m voting for the week before Christmas. Having talked to other scientists who worked in Brazil, I admit, I’m not surprised.

The result of this drama was a morning spent canceling plane tickets, changing flights, and generally preparing for the drama of a new work visa. I think my favourite part has been watching the reactions of the grad students, post-docs and PI’s involved in the project. For example, our fearless leader conveyed the news with a sense of progressively more hopeless frustration. One of the grad students: general bewilderment, but accepting. The British PI? An email of “Bloody Hell! And I thought the French were bad”. Slight gloating on the part of the more disorganized individuals who had not yet bought plane tickets.

But that wasn’t all the drama of the day. I’m putting together my application for a TN work visa. This requires a letter from my employer explaining that I’m especially qualified for a professional job, etc. The letter was written and sent across town on Monday. When I didn’t receive it by this afternoon, I got a little worried. Particularly since FedEx claimed that it had been signed for.

After numerous phone calls to FedEx and everyone else we could think of, the solution crystallized: Apparently there are two Farmer's who work at CIRES. Despite an obviously different first name, the CIRES Message Center decided to send the letter on to the other Farmer in the Geology Department. Since the Geology Department mailroom is already closed for the holidays, Ellie (who runs the Message Center) tracked down a graduate student to break in and “retrieve” the package in the other Farmer's mailbox.

So, lesson learned: If you're missing a package: check to see that you are the only person with a name like yours. Preferably, don't lose packages on or before holidays. In fact, just don't try to do anything involving immigration and passports before holidays.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Sunflower: an impromptu review

The last couple of days have been spent at a meeting with about a hundred scientists to discuss a new research program and potential field campaign. It was lovely to see friends from out of town for a couple of days. Rather than rant about the stubbornness of individuals to recognize the interesting problems, the ability of certain session chairs to push forward their own agenda, or the overly sweet continental breakfast, I should focus on what's really important: this evening's meal.

Jen is in town for the meeting, and we celebrated the end of the meeting by dinner on the town. We tried Sunflower, the very Boulder organic restaurant that I've been jealously eyeing for a few months:

The table settings are simple and chic, the service attentive but not effusive, and the ambience elegant, but friendly. The tables were well spaced, avoiding the echoy cavernous feel that so many eateries exude.

The food was, in an understatement, fabulous: we shared the 'breads and spreads' appetizer: I think Jen's favourite was the Israeli goat's cheese Feta, while I just couldn't get enough of the smoked baba ghannouj. But really, you can't go wrong with mushroom spreads, fresh bruschetta, or marinated olives. Though the sugar pumpkin (? it was orange and unidentified... but sweet and vegetably) spread they provide with rolls was... odd... As for the entrees, Jen tried the Buffalo Sirloin (with goat's cheese-mashed potatoes, a red wine-cherry sauce and spinach on the side), while I went for the bamboo steamer option: steamed vegetables, a piece of salmon, and a peanut-coconut sauce on the side. It sounds like such a simple idea, and yet steamed vegetables are so often poorly cooked: the asparagus left with too much crunch, zucchini too mushy. But this chef's seemed to hit the appropriate balance of crunch and mush for a nicely textured - not too mention beautifully coloured - meal, highlighting an interesting blend including kale, bok choy, asparagus and broccoli. And a pepper-crusted hunk of beautiful King salmon. Finally: a piece of salmon in this country that hasn't been covered in a sickly sweet glaze, but provided with a pungent coating that complements the flavour.

It is easy to forget what a good piece of salmon is: not oozing fat from fish farms, no falsely tinted pink dye... It is almost impossible to find a piece of fish that neither racks one's environmental conscience, nor invokes a sense of chemical enhancement. For the last few years, I've waffled on the wild versus farmed fish issue in terms of environmental concerns - flip-flopped, as you will. It seems that everyone has a strong opinion: there aren't enough fish stocks to sustain wild fisheries, yet fish farms are accompanied by a whole host of water quality problems. There are too many finer points to debate the issue in detail here - and frankly, it's become a bit tedious. If I didn't just love the taste of fish, I would abstain entirely, but I have finally come up with a compromise. Since I find the wild-caught fish tastes better, I at least eat seafood according to the eco-friendly guide handily provided by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. A compromise, but one I had to make.

But Sunflower takes all those concerns away, by having gone to extreme efforts to make sure that everything served, from the humblest potato to the most noble chunk of meat, was treated with respect and harvested sustainably. So a guilt-free meal. And, more importantly, a tasty one too.

So back to the important issues: Dessert. Melted chocolate cake. I won't waste your time with superlatives: there aren't enough to describe it. I am left searching for the excuse to go back just as soon as I finish digesting, feeling rather like a Burmese python after a large meal...

Brunch, perhaps?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A weekend in Georgia (the state, not the country, that is...)

So I'd love to have some good stories from Savannah. I went for a long weekend to see my mom - she was at a medical conference, and, as has become our tradition over the last few years, I flew out to see her.

I'm not sure if the problem was my Saturday flu shot, but it seems an eery coincidence. On Wednesday morning, as I packed my bag for Georgia, I felt slightly unwell. By the time I got off the plane in Savannah, I was hit by a full-out bug that closely resembled a flu. We'll just leave it at the fact that almost my entire vacation was spent sleeping in the hotel room. I've heard of this happening to other people, and I guess I've been traveling enough that it was my turn.

My mother saw all sorts of interesting things in Savannah: old mansions, an Ansel Adams exhibit at the art gallery, historical plazas and monuments of note. I watched far too many re-runs of CSI and several nature shows on the National Geographic channel. Who knew that native caimans are in a battle with invasive pythons in the Florida Everglades for top predator, and that tapirs use their snout as a snorkel in the Brazilian Pantanal.

I did, however, manage to make it out of the hotel for a couple of brief excursions. The first was round the plazas - beautiful live oak trees covered in Spanish moss and surrounded by beautiful brick houses with elaborate iron-works (as my mother pointed out, just like the Haunted House in Disneyland. which is true. though perhaps intended the other way around). We had lunch in the Gryphon Tea Room - a fabulous old pharmacy-turned-teahouse. The service is restrained, the sandwiches beautiful and the tent-like ceiling decorations elegant. The best part, of course, being the other people: a bridal shower in the corner represented by every generation of women, a pair of young professional women gossiping about their mutual friends, and the rather loud group of tourists who were just so excited, and slightly baffled, about the whole experience of high tea.

On the Saturday I was up for a drive down to an old plantation. The plantation - now a state park - used to be a rice plantation before the civil war, and then became a dairy farm until the 70's. It was beautiful and fascinating - not quite as wealthy or sumptuous as Gone With the Wind, but a beautiful view and lots of scope for the imagination. However, the intriguing aspect being how glossed-over the role of slavery was. Parts of the exhibits almost made it sound like it wasn't that bad or, if not acceptable, at least not worth investigating or presenting in great detail. This seems like a gross omission - not discussed or addressed in the historical context. But perhaps I wasn't quite coherent enough to notice. Nonetheless, the large oaks are spectacular, and getting a feel for the rather dry and drought-affected landscape worth the expedition.

Of course, a day after I got back to Boulder, I'm perfectly healthy... minus the bike crash on the way to the dentist yesterday morning, but that's a different story...

So all in all, I will have to go back to Georgia and actually see these beautiful mansions. And eat a few more pralines... mmm... pralines...

Sunday, November 4, 2007

a day in the park: wild turkeys and chewed up water bottles

I finally recovered from my flu shot this morning (entirely psychosomatic trauma, so I'm a little worried about how typhoid, yellow fever and tetanus are going to go down next week. the nurse didn't help with the incredulous 'you rode your bike down here? that was very brave of you, but i'm *sure* you'll feel fine'). So, in celebration of this one Fall day in Boulder in which the temperature shot up to 25C and the sun is shining, I went for a hike with a friend.

Apparently hiking is the done thing in Boulder on a Sunday afternoon, as Chautauqua Park was overwhelmingly crowded. We got the entire cross-section of the Boulder population out: everyone from newly-born in baby-carriers to, well, the not so newly born. But by about 100 feet from the parking lot, the crowd has thinned, and despite running into the occasional NOAA scientist, it wasn't too unreasonable.

The hike started ominously with my requiring a return to the car from the trailhead as I realized I didn't have my wallet on me. It's like the moment when you get into the car and aren't completely positive that you locked the house or turned off the stove: rationally, you know it will all be fine, but until you go and check there's this sense of dread nagging at the back of one's head. Embarrassing. But the ominous overtones quickly disappeared as we made our way up the steep mountainside. The first place of note is the 'Amphitheater': a semi-circle of craggy rock that makes passersby feel the odd need to sing or perform lines of Shakespeare. or slip on a climbing harness and make an ascent, as the Boulderite case may be. It's really a spectacular sight.

From there, the next highlight is a pair of bright yellow trees sticking out from a dark gully. Shining and luminous, they reminded me of the spectacular colours out East. Except they accompanied a very steep hike that reminded me that perhaps I should actually go to the gym rather than just talking about it. Or at least join a gym. That would be a good start. Tomorrow.

The top of the hike was the Saddle: a pair of rosy granite cones that offer views of Boulder and the Front Range on one end, the Rockies and the already snow-capped Long's Peak on the other. As we sat admiring the view and taking a drink of water, the wind picked up. And promptly blew my mostly full water bottle down the hill. In the spirit of not trashing a relatively high-throughput wilderness area, we went off in search the water bottle - last seen crashing down a gully between spiky rocks and spouting water out. I carefully marked in my head where it was last seen (next to the big granite rock between the two pine trees). Once we clambered down to the correct region, I realized that there were many big granite rocks. And the hillside was covered in pine trees.

But an empty water bottle was found - sliced open and without any water. And without a label. Which prompted a discussion of whether it was an Aquafina or Arrowhead water bottle. We disagreed. The only way to conclusively determine whether this was our waterbottle was to return to Wild Oats and see what was on sale. So we slowly circled the Saddle and decide that if we just headed South with a slight downhill bent, we should hit the trail soon. By slight downhill, I mean ridiculously steep lichen-covered gradient. It was kind of fun - a little adrenaline never hurt anyone, and the view was truly spectacular (steep enough to not have trees growing on parts... kind of like glissading, but without the snow). But we finally bushwacked our way to a slightly flatter part (past the caves and over the rocks which were pointed out to me as ideal rattlesnake territory). The sun started to set and amplify the rosy peaks, and the Denver smog layer created a rather lovely lilac-coloured band in the atmosphere. And as I turned to look for a trail, I noticed another water bottle below us. And a band of turkeys (gaggle? murder? actually, according to google, it's a 'rafter of turkeys') above us.

The leader of the fine turkey band noticed us, so they slowly began to pick their way across the rocks, and my companion went off to photograph them. Wild turkeys are lovely things: massive feathers, a sort of friendly demeanour, and they seem to chat with each other like a group of gossiping freshmen. After they went out of sight, we headed down to check out the water bottle. This was definitely not ours - it was a thick green Gatorade plastic, and had been extensively been chewed on by an animal. A very sharp and pointy teethed animal. Large, pointy teeth. After some discussion over what would have adequately sized teeth, we chose to pack it up and head down quickly. By that time, the trail was just around the corner - and the shadows were getting longer.

The way down was mostly uneventful - with the exception of a large rustle in the bushes which sounded very predatory animal-ish - particularly after the water bottle incident. And the fact that it was almost dark. (Note to self, the fall timechange means that it gets dark earlier than you'd think). We managed to scare ourselves into talking loudly and looking as large and people-like as possible. And quickly made our way the last few yards to the parking lot without unfriendly encounters, but with the whisper of cougars in the back of our minds. Nothing like a little suspense and drama to round out a lovely day in the park.

It turned out that we had bought an Arrowhead bottle and most likely retrieved the appropriate one. And that may be the last hike for a while: the temperature is apparently supposed to drop tonight, a sure sign that snow and turkey season is upon us.

Friday, November 2, 2007

a displaced feeling

So it's been another typical week in the office. (Note the slight hint of sarcasm. Since I started this job in June, not a single week has been the same). The last few days have been a series of highs and lows, and in an attempt to find the humour in the situation, I realized that perhaps I should explain. I will use my experience of wrangling with the Brazilian Consulate(s) as a sample case. Let's just leave it at the fact that more or less every other aspect of my personal and professional life followed the same format this week:

I am in the process of trying to get a Scientific Research Visa to go to Brazil. Now, don't get me wrong: I am absolutely excited to go out to the middle of the Amazon and look at aerosol formation and loss for a month in January/February(the AMAZE experiment: Rather than being intimidated by the photos of the single room of bunk beds where we'll ALL be staying together, I'm kind of excited about the adventure. Sure, the yellow fever and typhoid shots aren't top of my Fun Things To Do List, but seeing the 'green ocean' from the top of a 50m tower in the middle of Brazil's rainforest certainly is.

So I need to get a proper visa. Apparently, as I have now been told repeatedly by multiple officials at multiple consulates and visa agencies, the scientific research visa is 'a very complicated and difficult visa to get'. Unfortunately, it's the one I need. You might think that with the appropriate paperwork and passport, this should be okay and merely an issue of getting the appropriate pieces of paper stamped and photos glued in place. However, I hit a few snags. First, the consulates couldn't decide where I should send the paperwork: one has to go through the 'local' consulate. Unfortunately, I've been moving too much to have a long enough non-criminal record in Colorado to be able to go through the Colorado consulate (conveniently located in Houston, Texas. because that makes sense.). So instead, I realized that by the guidelines laid out by the consulate (namely the fact that I haven't been in Colorado long enough to change over my driver's license), I never really left California, so I should actually go through the San Francisco consulate. Which conveniently only accepts applications in person.

So I found a visa agency that would deal with the paperwork and physically hand it in, and was quite proud of myself for thinking of the solution. Especially since my parents called me up about two days later with a brilliant-beyond-brilliant plan of using a visa agency to deal with this problem. I called the Berkeley Police Department and got them to do my background check and send it straight in to the consulate. (In case anyone is wondering, there are no outstanding warrants for my arrest). Paperwork was in with over three weeks to do what should take five days. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Except that, immediately after that contented it's-out-of-my-hands sigh, I received a call - the first of many - from my new friend Al at the visa agency. Al was calling because one of the documents was apparently a.) too difficult to read and b.) didn't have my name on it. This was a problem: the originals of these documents are somewhere in Brazil and I have an old, scanned electronic version of them that I printed. And apparently my slightly wingeing argument of 'but other consulates accepted the same papers for other people' didn't go over so well. After consultation with the project leaders, we think there's a way around problem (b) (namely, in a lovely twist of logic, that because our Brazilian colleague's name is on the documentation, and then this same individual wrote an official letter of invitation to me, it's really just the same as though my name is on the documentation. Of course! Why didn't I think of that one?). As for problem (a), I took the easy solution. I printed out high quality versions of the documents, and then went to the photocopier and enlarged them. Massively enlarged them. And fedexed them in a gigantic FedEx envelope. Now even the smallest font size is on par with an oversized children's book. I defy anyone to have a problem reading them now.

After an entire week of this drama, I am pleased to say that Al has not called me once today. That means that either there are no new problems and the paperwork is going through, or that he and the consulate are now so sick of dealing with me and this scientific research visa that Mr.-don't-shoot-the-messenger-Al has conveniently lost my phone number. In the spirit of the week, I'm going to side with the latter.

So, I am left looking forward to the weekend - which started this evening with a most promisingly with a highly enjoyable post-seminar Happy Hour (much needed considering the seminar, but that's a whole other story). This weekend will be spent on paper revisions, the annual flu shot and organizing my next few weeks and months of travel (riveting, I know. Don't worry, I'll find some time for fun). For those of you keeping track, I leave in a few days for a weekend in Georgia (state, not the country) to see my mom, then I'm in Boulder for a week, then it's off to Canada for American Thanksgiving and the wonders of a brand new work visa, then down to Brazil for a preliminary setup visit, then off to San Francisco for a meeting for a week. And then it's Christmas, so just in time to head out to see my parents in Rhode Island with a quick stopover in Colorado for New Year's before heading back down to Brazil for a couple of months. After writing it all down, I begin to realize exactly why it is I am feeling so displaced this week!

And for any visa officials, irritable travel agents and large SUV drivers who like to cut off and almost hit bicyclists while pulling in to drop your girlfriend off at school:

Bring it on.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

observations on an american pasttime...

When I first moved to the US, I didn't understand the attraction of baseball. It seemed like a boring, tedious 'sport' in which a group of men stood around quoting statistics and spitting a lot. Sure, I'd been to couple of baseball games in Canada with friends who explained the rules. I smiled and nodded a lot and enjoyed spending a bit of time with friends, but had no concept of why the game might be in the least bit exciting. Or why it classified as an athletic activity.

Since I moved to the US, I have been to many ballgames, mostly taking BART to the Oakland A's with a group of friends. I came to really look forward to these games - they were cheap excuses to have a beer, learn something new and see people really take pride in the town. The Oakland fans are fantastic - they represent the enormous cross-section of the East Bay, covering every colour, socioeconomic class and age. Everyone is out to have a good time, and realizes that the more you cheer, the more fun you have. It made me feel part of the community. The A's didn't do particularly well when I was there - though they did beat the Red Sox once, which was fabulous for all us A's fans who were outnumbered by the Sox fans in the stadium. Much gloating ensued - we had to take advantage of the moment.

However, while I was peripherally aware of such things as the World Series and League Championships, I have never bothered to follow them. I have to admit, I can never remember whether it's the National or American League where the pitcher has to go to bat. (I just know that I think everyone should have to - that's the whole thing about the game.) Going to the games is one thing, but watching on tv or reading the abysmally-written sports section of the paper is a whole different experience. Until this year.

I should explain: I just moved to Colorado - technically a few months ago, but really a week and a half ago. And yet, in this week and a half, I have become viciously proud of the Rockies (our baseball team, not the mountains. not that the mountains aren't beautiful and something to be proud of, they're just not Colorado-specific. Contrary to what many Coloradoans - or is that Coloradoites? - say.). The Rockies were the unknown team - I've only seen one game - they did well, and it seemed a surprise to the fans. The Rockies are in an odd position, literally: with the high Denver elevation, the physics of the game changes. Balls go further and faster, so the field is bigger. Apparently the baseballs have to actually be kept in a humidor and brought out immediately before they're played so that they work in the same way as in lower elevation places.

So the completely unknown underdog Rockies made it as the 'wild card' in their playoffs - that's the we-don't-have -enough-finalist-teams -so-we'll-randomly-throw- in-another -team-and-watch -them-lose team. So the Rockies swept. Kicked ass. Shocked everyone - including their fans and themselves. You can't help but cheer for them - expected to do poorly, but pulled it out with some beautiful plays. And yes, here's where you realize that this game is actually a sport - some fast running, serious hand-eye coordination and the ability to swing a piece of wood at a ball that's approaching their face at 90 mph. There's a reason they wear helmets.

Okay. So they've lost their first three games (winner is best of seven games) to the Boston Red Sox. But the Red Sox are a big team in the baseball world - lots of money, a massive city and posh New England region behind them, and non-baseball fans have heard of them. (hard not to considering how obsessive their fans are, constantly where their caps everywhere). But I'm still cheering for the Rockies. I don't care if they're losing. They represent the underdog who pulled through. Not to mention the rural mentality versus the urban elite, who occasionally need to be taken down a notch or two. And, while the players aren't necessarily from CO, so I don't quite understand why they become the local team (but that's my general complaint about professional sports in general, and a different topic), they have instilled a pride in Colorado (with the notable exception of those people who lived in Boston, and have become part of that avid - dare I say, annoying - fanbase).

And, perhaps most importantly, cheering for the Rockies has become a good excuse to have a beer and nachos with friends...

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Boulder pickup lines and the Nobel Peace Prize

Cycling is not a past-time in Boulder - it's an obsession. A way of life, as you will. This was exemplified by a dinner party I went to: of ~25 people, I was the only person who didn't ride a bike (I walked). The conversation was centered around bike rides, bike trails, bike gossip, and, of course, the show-offy-remember-when-I-crashed-on-that-hill tales. Mountain bikes and road bikes. Both are acceptable. There were occasional deviations from bike talk - they generally went to the world of snowboarding or backcountry skiing.

The pivotal moment of bemusement for me was, upon being introduced to someone new and explaining that I had just moved to Boulder, getting immediately asked the question 'so are you here to race bikes or just to ride them?'. The concept of moving to Boulder independent of bike riding was a foreign one - so foreign that it wasn't even an option. I answered with the only response I could come up with: I moved here for a job - but i ride my bike to work every day. Apparently an unexpected and rarely-received response. The resulting conversation was surprising, yet exemplifies this town:
As soon as I explained what I do, my new aquaintance (a phd biochemist turned bicycle courier) leapt into a highly interesting and intellectual discussion of Lovelock, climate change and the Gaia hypothesis.

And on that note, and as part of my immense pleasure over this year's Nobel Peace Prize, I must digress from Boulder to America in general... I heard about the Prize in the middle of last week's conference in the Netherlands. There was considerable excitement and pleasure, and much discussion as to whether or not there would be an impact on US politics (general skepticism on the part of those of us living in the US).

However, I noticed on CNN world (the only english tv channel I got there - tv! a concept. hadn't seen one of those in months...) some interesting discussion. A Republican spokeswoman was on, talking about how this was the Nobel committee being political and trying to get attention, and how they had contrived the award to Al Gore merely to get publicity. Because that makes sense. Of course the Swedish, non-profit, committee is using their announcements purely for political gain. (Note the dripping sarcasm). This woman made no sense, but true to CNN's "unbiased reporting, so we'll give everyone equal time, no matter how little sense they make" policy, she received global attention. Of course, the response on the CNN website was immediate and fascinating. Fortunately, they announced posted comments, and a distinct trend emerged: American audience members (embarassingly from California and Colorado - ouch) wrote in to agree with this Republican spokesperson, while numerous people from around the world (Ethiopa to the Netherlands) wrote in to condemn this politicezed opinion, and to support the IPCC and Al Gore. I think it was probably more a commentary on who was watching CNN, rather than the global distribution of opinions on global change, but interesting nonetheless.

Of course, Stephen Colbert feels that his own Nobel Prize was unfairly robbed, but did point out that there was a Republican (senator? congressperson?) out there who, in a single interview, pointed out that a.) terrorists have received the Peace Prize in the past, so there is no honour in receiving it, and yet b.) if he had received the Prize, he would have given it to the US military who deserve the Peace Prize. !?! Ah, the logic of politicians never ceases to amaze me...

Saturday, October 20, 2007

a weekend in amsterdam...

On Saturday morning a colleague from the meeting and I went out to see Amsterdam. We started at the Anne Frank House. There is something so moving about her story. Perhaps it's that I read her diary when I was the same age as her. Or perhaps it's because she is the face of the Holocaust, and everything that is horrific about that time is embodied in her story. In the end, for me at least, the shocking thing is that she was so normal. She lived in the top of an otherwise normal house on an otherwise normal street in Amsterdam. She glued pictures of movie stars to the wall of her room (didn't we all). She had friends and crushes, fights with her mother and got stir-crazy and bored. And you can see that in the hidden apartment in the house - remnants of her personality are left on her walls and over the wash-basin, and on the so-heavily-trodden-there-are-almost-holes-in-them stairs to the attic.

Seeing her actual, real diary made her story so real to me. She scratched around the sides of it, glued photos in, and it's there in front of your eyes - not just a grade 9 reading assignment, but an actual diary of a girl who lived the experiences we read.

However, the most moving part to me was watching the statement by her best friend who met her in the concentration camps. She talks about finding Anna, and having trouble getting a care package to her across the fence and then of never hearing from her again. She said that Anna said she was alone because everyone else - her mother and sister - had died.

From the Anne Frank Huis, we walked to the Museumplein for the art galleries. I can't being to explain how impressive it is to see literally hundreds of van Gough's in one art gallery put together. The curators have arranged his works in sequential order, so that you can see how he developed his style. At first, his sense of perspective was poor - half-turned chairs show too much of the side and the back, and windows are awkwardly placed on angled buildings. However, as you walk through the gallery, you can see his technical abilities progress. Several years in, he became influenced by the Japanese style, which led to some of his most famous paintings of flowering peach trees. The museum is a very different experience from the Anne Frank Huis, and it is an emotionally-charged one. Every painting has a sense of movement and feeling, that by the time you hit van Gough's last few pieces, you feel like you have seen the progression of his life and sense of frustration. But a very beautiful sense of frustration, it is...

As I'm running short on superlatives, suffice it to say that the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is closed for renovation - but no worries: they have a "little exhibition" of just their best stuff. Rooms of Vermeer, Rembrandt, historical artificats from the Dutch East Indies and Dutch West Indies Companies. I think I was most impressed by how pivotal a role the Dutch have played in history. As strong a force in developing global economic ties as the other European powers, and holding their own in internal European history. Perhaps it's my British-biased education, but, considering the size of their country, the Dutch fought numerous naval battles, and actually managed to capture British ships. As an economic powerhouse, Amsterdam was home to 'tulipmania', the original version of the dot-com bust. You'd think it would only take one time for people to learn that speculating on future profits of items of no value (monetary, of course tulips hold great botanical value).

My second day was spent in a few other museums and walking around the Red Light District (very different during the day from how it is at night - actually, quite beautiful, if a little eery with ancient churches across the street from prostitutes in the windows). And, of course, the requisite renting of a bicycle and riding down a canal and out of town, along with at least half the city's population. A few interesting notes on bicycling in Amsterdam: no one wears helmets, perhaps because there are actually bicycle lanes that work. On the other hand, where cars aren't as likely a crash-hazard, but pedestrians are. So every bicycle is equipped with a little dinging bell. How fun! A click of the fingers, and everyone from elderly men to confused tourists are leaping out of one's way. However, I think the highlight of the Sunday afternoon ride was watching the rowers training on the canals - with their coaches riding on bicycles next to the canal while yelling instructions into megaphones at them.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Hills in Holland, and other such amazing discoveries

The Netherlands really is filled with canals and windmills. I think stereotypes exist for almost everywhere in the world, but the Netherlands is definitely subject to quite a few cute ones: canals, cheese, windmills, bicycles, clogs and tulips. And they're really all true.

I had the good fortune to attend a workshop in Wageningen - a small town near Utrecht. The first thing that struck me on the train from Schipol Airport to Ede-Wageningen was how densely populated the Netherlands was - high appartment complexes and seemingly far too many people for the space alotted to the country (and hence, or so I thought, the constant need to dike and claim more land from the sea). But it didn't take long to leave the populous surroundings of Amsterdam and find myself in a pristine, empty and very rustic part of the country.

Wageningen surprised me initially because it had a hill. Yes, the Netherlands does have a hill. Actually, they apparently have two - I got corrected by a bemused graduate student at the meeting. Our hotel was on top of the hill, and hence had a gorgeous view over a canal - farmland all around. Wageningen is notable not only for its topography, but also for its history. I was delighted to discover that it was where the Germans unconditionally surrendered to the Canadian (!) general Foulkes in 1945. Other than that, a sleepy, but charming town. With an excellent Greek restaurant and some of the most gorgeous houses around.

In fact, the stylishness of the Dutch greatly impressed me. Every house in Wageningen was extremely well kept - immaculate lawns, painted houses, and through the open curtains you could see magazine-photo-shoot-worthy interiors. Modern art and matching furniture in every living room - classy and matching chandeliers. Rooms either kept to a traditional style, or to the simply-lined ultra-modern Euro style.

However, this should all be taken in contrast to the Dutch love of kitsch. There are plastic bags and bicycle panieres made of bright floral patterns, people wearing the 1970's style checked shirts, and plastic figurines and over-the-top posters in the windows of far too many shops. It is an amusing fixation because it seems to be taken in such a light-hearted way by the Dutch. Fitting in with their tolerant and light-hearted approach to everything. Soft drugs? sure, no problem - as long as you don't bother other people or take them out of the country. Gay marriage? goes without saying. Prostitution? if it's going to happen anyways, might as well control it... Global warming? wish it wasn't happening, but guess we'll try to cut our carbon footprint and at least consider putting sand under every house to raise them up a bit... What a great country. Too bad there aren't more like it...

How I spent my summer vacation: BEARPEX 2007

I spent August and September and the beginning of October at summer camp. Unfortunately, there was no archery or canoeing (though I did make it swimming to the lake twice. and to the waterfalls once. after the temperature nosedived from 30C to 15C, so no swimming. but at least i got there). There were, however, woodstoves (useful in the houses). Hard manual labour. Hard intellectual labour. No (well, poor, so more or less the same thing) internet connections or cell phone service, so no letters home. And we even had prisoners walking around the place (no really. the department of corrections lets them work at the Research Station. slightly disconcerting to wake up at 7am to ten prisoners outside your cabin in orange jumpsuits wielding chainsaws. but don't worry. there's an unarmed guard with them.)

Suffice it say that I spent nine weeks at Blodgett Forest and barely had time to breathe - let alone cook, check email or write a blog. It's taken me about a week of cultural readjustment to blend back in with normal people, and I don't think I'll ever be quite the same. But I do have internet access again, and far too many stories to tell.

And I am left with one post to summarize the highlights of an unbelievably intense time period. The science was interesting, the equipment was temperamental, the logistics were a nightmare, the sleep was minimal and the people were fabulous. For example, Glenn became the self-appointed Social Coordinator and sent out emails with subject headings like "I need a date and after 4 weeks in the woods, you're starting to look cute". Jessica provided tablecloths and christmas lights for our impromptu barbeques. Not that there wasn't friction - put 20 scientists in the woods with not enough power and no connection with the outside world, and you get an interesting sociological experiment...

Movie night was one of the more entertaining aspects: the first evening, we dropped sheets off the balcony of the main house, sat in the parking lot (several boys sat in lawn chairs in the back of the pickup truck), and watched The Beatle's Yellow Submarine. What a trippy movie! Very entertaining. Due to the decrease in temperatures, subsequent movie nights were moved inside: they included drinking with the dude: The Big Lebowski, that is. Dave was hung over for days after that one. And Jessica and Ellie made liquid nitrogen ice cream (yes, science really is fun). My favourites: Casino Royale and Blades of Glory. Both brilliant, in their own way. Daniel Craig, a rather dark and tortured James Bond, but with the expected quirky sense of humour. Will Ferrel - a completely ridiculous, over the top figure skater that one can't help but love. Or at least laugh at. Sort of ashamed that one is laughing, but you just can't help it, nonetheless.

We renamed all the cabins after Hogwarts houses: the girls ended up with Slytherin. Because we're cunning and ambitious and evil like that.

And all in all, despite the nightmare of the first few weeks (I did not appoint myself the 'competent person', but somehow got defaulted to Site Manager. Never again. In fact, I am blocking out that time period out of my head.), the struggles learning how a very complicated instrument works in the field, and the exhaustion of far too many 12 and 15 hour days, I left with the strange feeling that summer camp was over. When you're stuck out in an isolated spot (with no phone and poor internet acccess - stupid trees getting in the way of the satellites), you have to adapt. As a group, we (or at least a vocal sub-set of us) became a little more relaxed. We lost those filters that stop one from saying rather uncouth or blunt statements - as one postdoc put it, what everyone else is thinking, but has the self-restraint to not actually say. We made jokes about everything, and innuendos about absolutely anything we could think of. On my last night, a small group of us went bowling at the local (read, 45min drive) town. It wasn't about how well (or, more accurately, how unbelievably poorly) we did. It was about being mocked for my poor granny-style of bowling, for everyone cheering when I got a strike, and for finding something to laugh about. And that warm, fuzzy feeling I got when people actually got out of their cabins the next morning and came over in the snow (yes, the snow. in October.) to say goodbye. Thanks, guys. I'll miss you. Though I won't miss spending every night working on computer code. Or the Friday nights spent calibrating the instrument.

But the exhaustion is beginning to subside and it's time to look at the terabytes of data and try to find my way around 'home' - where I've been gone so long I don't even remember my zip code, and the temperature has dropped in the crisp fall air reminding me that summer is over and it's time to go back to school...

Sunday, August 12, 2007

walk in the woods

This morning, I have a strong sense of deja-vu. Probably because I'm sitting at a table in the Staff House at Blodgett Forest, drinking tea and watching the squirrels play. And getting ready for Day 2 of setup for the field campaign. This is where I spent most of graduate school. It's eerily similar: an unknown and relatively unfinished, very expensive instrument that I feel completely unqualified to run, on the top of a tower in the middle of ponderosa pine forest. But this time I feel a lot less confused, and whether or not I'm qualified to make the decisions, I'm more willing to make them. And I'm surrounded by an absolutely fabulous group of other people - grad students, post-docs and PIs from all over the country. Everyone is willing to help everyone else out (the way of atmospheric chemistry, I think), and I'm pretty excited about the next six weeks!

It is a beautiful moment of silence though - the first person up in my house (possibly the station, though I doubt that - foresters are early risers), and as the sun rises, the quality of the light in the trees has steadily shifted to more and more spots on the forest floor.So I am enjoying this brief respite before the insanity of a field campaigns starts up again. It seems perfect for me to maintain the patience required to deal with the station's internet. (slower than most places in the Ukraine. And that's saying a lot.)

We arrived in on Friday - greeted at the rental car place by the irony of two chemists out to study air pollution being asked if we wanted to upgrade our compact to an SUV. No we did not. Did we want the SUV for no extra charge, then? No. Well, actually, it's the only car you can get, so here are the keys to the SUV. Oh, the shame... When we arrived, we discovered that our SUV was actually one of the smaller ones that people were forced to get from the rental car agencies. At least now we're all car pooling and hauling equipment with them,so it's *slightly* more justified.

But on the drive up (as we sat in Friday afternoon Sacramento traffic), we briefly heard on the radio one of the most ridiculous songs I've ever heard - the Black Eyed Peas singing over and over "I got it from my momma - I got it from my momma". That kept us amused for most of the drive out to Blodgett. I was pretty excited when I heard it again yesterday afternoon in one of the field site to field station transits. Especially when I found out that the next line was something along the lines "so hot it's like a sauna". Absolutely ridiculous.

Yesterday, we took our safety training (learned how to use the radios to communicate with the logging company that owns the land our field site is on, heard about the dangers of hanta virus and lyme disease and all that good stuff - though I don't know if I buy the 'best way to remove a tick is to pull it straight out - I wouldn't want to leave any in - but hopefully I won't have to deal with that one!). We started moving our equipment out to the site, which was a challenge. Then we tried to set up our inlet. I learned that trying to arrange ~70 feet of copper tubing is perhaps more challenging that initially thought.

Yesterday's drama was centered around the top of the tower - and the fact that the floor slats slip and slide. (don't worry mom, we'll be careful. we even took a safety video about scaffolding and learned all sorts of useful tidbits like 'don't work on metal scaffolding during electrical storms' and 'if in doubt, ask a Competent Person'). And literally have the texture of a cheese grater. Needless to say, I didn't think about this when I was sitting down arranging our equipment, and slid over to grab a wrench. And tore a massive hole in the back of my (only pair) of shorts. Bring on the duct tape.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

field preparations

The last few weeks have been empty of blog updates, I know - and this is really due to the intensity of preparations for an upcoming field campaign - BEARPEX. Which begs a few questions: What is a field campaign? What kind of preparations am I doing that stop me from falling to the fabulous procrastination that is blogging? And who on earth came up with the name BEARPEX, with its associated images of muscular grizzly bears?

So a field campaign is when a bunch of scientists get together somewhere (the so-called 'field', though frequently a forest/city/mountain-top, etc... and yes, I've heard the joke about farmers working in the field...) to measure everything they can think of to answer a series of (at least to them) interesting questions. So the field campaign I'm headed to in a couple of weeks is BEARPEX, which stands for Biosphere Effects on Aerosols and Photochemistry EXperiment. The point of the project is to figure out how molecules that come out of forests affect local air quality and atmospheric chemistry. In particular, we're looking at a ponderosa pine plantation in the middle of the Sierra Nevada in Northern California (where I spent far too many years of my PhD thesis), trying to understand all the compounds that come in and out of the woods.

(brief sciencey interlude) The essence of the project can be thought of as: when you walk through a pine forest, you smell, well, pines - and that heavenly scent has to come from somewhere - namely, various organic compounds that pour out of pine needles. Since these compounds interact with various components of air pollution (which come up from Sacramento) to change air quality, the question is how many organic compounds come out of the forest, how do they interact with ozone, NOx and other pollutants, and do these compounds make aerosols (little particles that are key components of haze, cause breathing problems and are what make places like the Blue Mountains blue. The last question (aerosol fluxes in and out of the forest) is my key interest in this project.

But, back to the really pressing question: the field campaign name! Every atmospheric chemistry campaign has a name - there was the MIRAGE (Megacity Impacts on the Regional And Global Environment) campaign in Mexico City last year (eerily appropriate name due to the non-existence of our equipment for weeks and resulting mirage that there was a field campaign going on...), INTEX (Intercontinental Transport EXperiment looking at air pollution moving from Asia to N.America to Europe), etc... So when the call went out for an acronym for our experiment, I had this fabulous image of bears in the woods and (slightly sarcastically) suggested BEARPEX. Little did I know that the name would become our campaign name. Perhaps no one else suggested names. Either way, I'm hoping for some t-shirts with good images of bears baring their pecs. And needless to say, the jokes are already flying among the post-docs/graduate students: we've already suggested changing the acronym to BEARPEX: Bitter Experimentalists Always Repairing Pieces of Equipment eXperiment due to the dearth of working instruments three weeks before the campaign begins...

And it is that broken instrumentation, along with packing lists, logistics arrangements and insurance forms and legalities that has kept me working hard these last few weeks. But the end is in sight: (I hope) we have the final replacement part for our instrument so it can get fixed tomorrow, orders are in to companies for parts, and we finally have the CU legal affairs looking at all the relevant paperwork. So it'll be a stressful week, as we're planning on shipping on Friday and leaving for the site a week later!

But don't think that there is no fun to be had while preparing for a field campaign. Last night I played a competitive game of Trivial Pursuit with a group of friends. The catch (among all us late 20's/early 30's) was that our version of the game was published in 1997. So in order to answer many of the questions, one had to calibrate back to the pre-iPod/Bush&Chenney/9-11 era - before Tiger Woods became the answer to every golf-related question, Michael Jackson had a large number of unpleasant questions surrounding him and the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur were built... It really makes one realize how much the world has changed in a decade - it's like looking back at the world atlas I had in grade school and seeing East and West Germany. But, aside from the socio/political realization of a decade of change that alternately amused and intrigued us, we learnt a great many trivial pieces of information: Sahara means 'wilderness' in Arabic, a tablespoon of sugar is the most common cure for chronic hiccuping, and on average 0 of 10 people keep gloves in their car's glove compartment. I objected to the last one because I know my mother keeps gloves in her car. But apparently that's not enough to sway national statistics. My partner, Chris, and I had a great start with several pie pieces (we decided to obnoxiously high five while proclaiming 'Pie-Five' whenever we got a pie question right, much to the annoyance of the other players). However, while we were the first team to the middle, I have to admit that we got the two Canadian hockey-related questions completely wrong, and the game went to the winning duo of Becca and Kelley who combined their PhD's in chemistry and political science with an astounding knowledge of golf and oldies/80's music history to pull through at the end.

But, I must stop procrastinating and get back to my work: bring on the inlet designs and packing lists...

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

hail and rain and memories of a tin roof

The hail just started pouring down, and I can hear it hitting the leaves the of the tree outside my bedroom and bouncing off the ground. Large white chunks of ice the size of corn kernels have pelted our balcony, and I am once again amazed by mountain weather. Somehow the presence of slabs of concrete jutting out of the plains causes thunderstorms, which occasionally bring hail with them. I won't even pretend to understand it, though I'm sure there's an elegant piece of physics explaining it. In particular, I'm sure my father explained it to me in extreme detail when I was a child. Sadly I don't recall. But it is particularly odd that it is hot enough outside to wear shorts and a t-shirt, yet there are chunks of ice falling out of the sky.

But the hail has given way to rain, which still collides with the ground to create a loud noise, but seems gentler in comparison. And less painful to the passers-by on the street outside my apartment.

The sound of rain reminds me of the rainstorms we had during the wet season in Costa Rica. Every afternoon you had to prepare yourself for being completely drenched. It was too early in the afternoon to plan on getting back inside, so we learned to appreciate how alive and green the rain made the forest. Of course, I was never there when the La Selva river flooded the field station, so can't really complain. But I do recall one afternoon when I tried to give a lecture during a rainstorm. The classroom was an open buliding (ie no walls) with a tin roof. At first the drizzle was kind of charming. As I tried to use the blackboard to make my point (no overhead projector so my prepared slides were useless), the rain started to get stronger (became kind of amusing) and stronger (I started to shout my lecture) and stronger (I completely gave up). By the time I called an end to the lecture - and couldn't shout loud enough to let everyone in the building know I'd given up - it sounded like the entire percussion section of an orchestra had decided to bang on our ceiling. When you sit under a tin roof in a rainstorm, you really realize how much energy there is in a storm - almost more dramatic than wind damage.

But, in true mountain weather form, the storm has stopped - not quite enough to cool the air down, just enough rain to produce that heady humid smell of a passing storm...

Sunday, July 1, 2007

summer heat

So I managed to escape the 30+ (C) heat of East Coast U.S. and make it out just in time to catch the 30+C Colorado heat wave. The good news is that the humidity is only 23% (much drier), so it doesn't feel quite as oppressive.

I noticed that the Boulder approach to dealing with heat is quite... unique... There are two approaches: you can either tube down the Boulder Creek (or, for the less adventurous, just lie fully clothed in the creek and watch the world walk by on the B.Creek Path). This seems very sensible and refreshing to me. The second approach is slightly crazier. Apparently if you cycle on your bike fast enough, you get a nice refreshing breeze. So if you go for a bike ride for several hours in the heat of the day, you should cool off... Sensible, right?

I made the mistake of attempting cooling method #2 yesterday - mainly out of a need to run errands on opposite sides of town. Finally, late yesterday afternoon, once I had 'cooled down' with a 15 minute bike ride through North Boulder, I got to my soccer game. Now, it's apparently to 'hot' in Colorado to play outdoor soccer (that, and the thunderstorms), so soccer is an indoor sport. This would make sense if there were air conditioning in the indoor arena. Being indoor (6v6) soccer, the ball goes fast, and since it can ricochet off walls, there's no pause in the game for throw-ins. Subbing is done on the fly - just to add a little extra drama. But despite the heat, I had a great time. Our team is excellent and fun, and the whole game was very pleasant (in the sportsman-ship, clean game sort of way, not in the opressively hot way...). Intense, but pleasant. (For the record, we won. As in 10-3, had to play a man down for most of the game. Go team!). And then, I got back on my bike to go home. And realized that perhaps this bike-til-you-feel-the-breeze approach to Boulder heat isn't sooo crazy.

Sunday, June 24, 2007


I was just woken up by a strobe light flashing an eery green glow over my bed. But no nightclub music - just the rustic silence of a hot summer night in New England. As I gradually woke up, I realized that the culprit was a firefly - a curious beast I hadn't seen in, quite literally, decades.

I first came across fireflies when I was very young, at my Dida and Baba's summer cottage outside of Montreal. My most vivid memory of the time is wanting to catch them in jars. I don't know what I planned on doing with the fireflies once I had them in captivity, but there was something particularly fascinating about creatures that deal with the darkness of night by creating their own light. Far more ingenious than our flashlights with their batteries that tend to run out at awkward times. I'd like to pretend that I understood a great life lesson at the time, or gained insight into evolutionary adaptation, but I can only recall thinking that these bugs flashing their light over the shrubbery and through the woods were really very pretty...

The strongest image in my head from that trip to my grand-parents' summer place was how proudly Ukrainian all there neighbours were - the rocks lining a garden painted in alternating sky blue and yellow, the patriotic insistence on naming everything in their language. But now that I'm back in a very cultural-melting-pot oriented country, I'm beginning to realize how important preserving a sense of cultural identity is and why my grand-parents and their friends need to hold so strongly onto their language and food and traditions - not to the point of being disappointed that their grand-children don't speak the language, have Ukrainian names (funny story there about one of mine... apparently my parents thought my middle name was Ukrainian, but it's actually Polish, which really couldn't have been worse), and that their own children didn't marry Ukrainians.

I've spent the last few days with a very international group of people, which has been very entertaining (an Italian struggling with the American concept of meatball subs) but also enlightening (how baffled the Germans are by the terrible New England driving and the 'need' for gas-guzzling SUVs). The Europeans are appalled by how much meat and how much food Americans eat at lunch. The Americans are surprised that the Europeans don't want to work on weekends and would like to go home at 5. Not that it was limited to international mis-communication: I got shocked expressions from the East Coast boys when I pulled out my very West Coast carrots, pita bread and baba gannouj for lunch (a completely serious 'where's the meat? it's not a meal without meat!'). The Dutch student doesn't understand the Australian accent, and the Boston accents are even occasionally difficult for my West Coast ear... Everyone has a slightly different sense of humour (one German is very sarcastic and 'yells' at the graduate students whenever anything is broken (ie, most of the time), who still occasionally take him seriously - until he slides into a big grin and laughs at them. At least it makes long days in the lab very entertaining for me...

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

flatirons, wildflowers & my own antique roadshow

Boulder is an interesting crossroads - for me, it's the end of graduate school (except for all those papers I need to write...) and the beginning of a post-doc. It's a modern town near a major city (Denver), but is also where the Wild West used to be - exemplified by people wearing crocs (those very popular but absolutely hideous plastic shoes) with their cowboy hats. Symbolically, Boulder lies literally at the end of the flat Mid-West prairies and at the base of the Rocky Mountains, with the foothills jutting out of 1st St. in spectacular slabs of rock called the Flatirons (as they look like upside down irons. sort of.).

But the most striking aspect of Boulder is the active lifestyle inherent in living here. The city is well-designed - bike paths throughout the entire town, a bus system the Bay Area should be jealous of (oh wait.. any bus system would fit that criteria...), and a walking mall down the center of town. More than that, athletes and outdoors enthusiasts are everywhere. I see cyclists on their snazzy road bikes every time I step out of my apartment, runners along the trails and, without exaggeration, every time I sit in a cafe or restaraunt, I hear conversations about the latest rides (road biking - and they frequently include phrases like 'only 50 miles'), most recent back-country ski adventures (yes, it's June and they're still skiing) and 'bagging 14ers' (that's hiking to the peaks of mountains of 14,000', a popular Boulderite pasttime). As I slowly get the lingo down, I have to admit to feeling rather out of shape... But I have made a solid effort to fit in, and am beginning to feel much more comfortable in my new home. While Boulderites may be slightly outdoors-obsessed, that's not a bad thing. Especially when I get to take advantage of others experience...

On my first weekend in Boulder, my friend Chris took me on a very steep climb up South Boulder Peak (gorgeous, fabulous and very, very 'up'), and while this past weekend one of my new labmates took me backpacking in Pike Peak National Wilderness (fancy name for part of the Rocky's just south of Boulder). I am struck by how close the wilderness is - 10 minutes in the case of the day hike, or an hour and a half for backpacking, and you are out in the middle of nowhere, hearing no cars and encountering very few people. The hike to the top of the flatirons (or S.Boulder Peak), gave a stunning view of the flat prairies and the city of Denver jutting out to the east, and the snow-capped peaks of the Rocky's to the West. And having travelled just a little further, the short backpacking trip gave us forested mountains with occasional meadows full of red and purple and blue wildflowers. With the occasional deer skeleton draping over a rock reminding one to be careful of the cougars. But that's another story...

But hiking aside, last week I finally accomplished the first step in becoming a true Boulderite - I got a commuter bike off of craigslist. For those of you who don't know, is an online free listing service for various cities, and so far has been my magical Boulder source of apartment, bike and soccer team. After posting for a bike to ride around town, I got several responses. The bike I randomly chose to buy turned out to have definite character. It is a 1970's blue Peugeot with large handle bars that make me sit up straight while biking and with the old-style gear shifters down on the frame. I liked the funky old look to the bike when I bought it, but didn't realize quite the deal I got until the next day, when I went to register the bike at the university bike station (yes, there's a whole permanent bike station on campus, with staff that will give your bike a free tune-up - very enlightened and eco-friendly - very Boulder...). The bike guy staffing the station took one look at the bike and pretty much offered me twice what I had paid, pointing out that it still had all its original Peugeot stickers and was in incredible shape. He was kind of shocked that the gears actually work (though I haven't quite figured them out yet). Sadly, the very sweet, rather young kid shot his chances of acquiring the bike when he pointed out that the bike was positively 'ancient' because it was last registered in 1981 - before he was even born...

But although my bike is slightly too tall for me (prompting me to almost fall over whenever I get off of it, much to the amusement of passers by), it has too much character for me to give up. So yesterday I biked home from work, stopping at the very Boulderish Wild Oats market for some local organic fruit and veggies, and then biking up the idyllic Boulder Creek Path - where I had the pleasure of seeing a cross section of Boulder enjoying the very warm evening. It was twilight, and I could still see the outline of the Flatirons everytime I looked up. There were kids floating down the stream on inner tubes, several men fishing off a bridge, families out for walks, and even a set of river kayakers going down the rapids.

I think I'm going to fit in here just fine...

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

culture lag

So after 4 airports and about 36 hours, I finally made it back to the US, and to my new home on Monday evening. Highlights from the trip back included figuring out how to unplug the children's fire engine ride in Helsinki airport (it was next to the bench I was sleeping on, and disturbing me with occasional sirens. there is probably some very traumatized Finnish child out there), sitting next to a very entertaining history buff on the long flight from Frankfurt to Denver with whom I had multiple debates about long-term effects of various wars and the source of ethnic tensions in E.Europe, and finally getting picked up at the bus stop in Boulder by a friend and being taken immediately to the last half of a kick-ball game to be a token girl.

Immigration was entertaining on every end, particularly in leaving the Ukraine. The passport officials wanted to know a.) why it was that I had been to Moldova - apparently tourism was not a believable response - and b.) why my middle name was Kasimira ('because my mother liked it' didn't go over well!?!). But they finally stamped my passport and let me out. Getting into the US was even more fun, but perhaps inappropriate for a public blog...

Between the time changes (9 hours between L'viv and Denver) and crazy flights, jet lag has finally set in, and I find myself bright-eyed at my computer at 5:30 in the morning. And it has finally hit me that what's really keeping my stress levels up is not the jet lag, but rather the culture lag. There are no 13th century buildings in Boulder and gold church domes do not dominate the sky-line. The headlines on the news describe how you could contract lethal bacterial diseases by walking into the hospital and how a bartender dealt with a violent drunk woman in Denver, not the ramifications of the latest bombing in Iraq or the political consequences of Yuschenko's pact with the Ukrainian prime minister. The concrete is used on the roads, not in architecture. The sidewalks are... even... !?! And driving in a car does not feel like sitting in a video arcade racing game. Not that that's a bad thing. But I think it will take me a few days to readjust to the Latin alphabet and the lack of chickens running around.

But as my adrenaline rush from the last month of travel slowly starts to fade, and I start to digest everything that happened in the Ukraine, I'll keep you posted on adventures in Boulder - and with my attempts to recreate the poppy-seed cakes and homemade varenyky I have become completely addicted to...

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

photos from the Ukraine

There are too many interesting stories to tell, but know that I have finally made it back to my new home in Colorado, and have put all my photos on one computer in one place, there are several photos that have stories that beg to be told...

There are windmills in operation throughout the Ukraine. They are made of wood - often propped up by trimmed tree trunks. In some ways I am so impressed by the pastoral and romantic nature of preserving the old way of life - the plowing by hand, the cutting of wheat by scythe, the common use of horse and cart (though the cart wheels are now mainly tires - a distinct improvement, I believe). However, the life is hard, and tractors have their place. There is a lot of talk about how the collectives made the work easier than each family taking care of their farms. The sight of old-woman bent over working in the fields is at once beautiful and tragic. But my cousins keep a bright view on it all, and over several shots of vodka debated whether the hard labour kept them living longer...

Here are two photos from our visit to my Baba's village. My cousin Michael is showing my mother where the house was, and above it lies this monument that was erected in 1848 to commemorate the end of serfdom. Such a great and important step.

The house where my Baba grew up was located on this grassy area in the picture below. All that is left of the house is the well (blue-painted box in the back), that is still used by new tenants on the land. I think the house was taken over by another family who were re-located to the village from their original homes. A ridiculous tactic of the Soviets - probably intended to destroy nationalist feelings, but only ending up creating bitter tensions. However, what happened to the house is a lovely story - apparently when the family moved to another town, they took the entire house, piece by piece, because it was such a well-built house (kudos to my great-grandfather, i believe). Somehow that feels better than having the house fall down due to neglect.

We don't know where the moved house is.

However, my Baba's neighbour (on the right), was so excited to see the family of her old friend.

There are chickens all over the villages - running around with the geese and the ducks, and the horses and the cows...

The Armenian cathedral in L'viv was one of the most stunning in the Ukraine - tiled mosaics inside that caught the light.... In stark contrast, the house was where my grand-father grew up. It was (and still is) considered a large and wealthy house, as it had two windows facing the street (yes, that was singular - pretty much one long street in the village) - most houses only had one window. And finally some photos of my new-found family...

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Varenyky swimming in butter: Meeting my Baba's family

It is shocking how one moment of decision can change the course of not just your life, but the lives of generations down. For the risky decision of a great-grand-parent who had the foresight to leave everything he knew and had for an uncertain future, I have never gone hungry, had to tend a garden out of genuine need for the food, or had to ask my parents to sacrifice so that I could go to school. The last few days have been a little like peaking into an alternate universe of what might have been had a different decision been made. It has been fun, beautiful, exciting, and yet difficult and sad and life-altering at the same time. I guess that while I had heard the stories, I never genuinely realized how fortunate my fate has been. So please forgive a very long and slightly somber entry today, but I don't know how to explain this trip in fewer words.

My original motivation for visiting the Ukraine is to learn about my grand-parents and to meet my cousins. A few days ago, we left Kiev back for L'viv, where our family lives. L'viv is by far my favourite city in the Ukraine - it's a UNESCO world heritage site, and it's easy to see why with rows of brightly painted buildings built under the Austro-Hungarian empire, churches of every country and denomination, and public statues and parks absolutely everywhere in the city center. The St.George's cathedral near our hotel is at the edge of the Ivan Franko Park, which was once very beautiful with maple and beach trees, a statue of the namesake, and a small gazebo - unfortunately the park is run down with too many weeds and half the lanterns missing light bulbs (stolen? or just never kept up). This cathedral was my great-grand-mother's favourite chruch in L'viv, and was where my Baba was sent to high school (and in her last few years had to keep secret that she was married to my Dida, as she would have been kicked out of school if they had known - she only got to see him when she went home on the weekends).

Outside the city, however, are many large blocks of Soviet concrete - one of the more rickety blocks is where some of my cousin's on my Baba's side live. You climb several flights of stairs to a small 4-room apartment that are eerily grim - floors are uneven, the balcony is on a steep slope (down), and the kitchen is out of a 1950's catalog. However, the home is made bright with photos and icons, and the feast prepared by my cousin Michael (my Baba's first cousin, so my first cousin, twice-removed, i think) and his wife was most impressive - soup with noodles and meatballs, sliced white bread, cheese, sausages and, most importantly, varenyky (perogies - typically filled with potato) with butter and smetana (sour cream). The generosity of people far less fortunate than we are was overwhelming. My cousin Michael remembers being a little boy, and my great-grandfather telling his father to leave while they could, as the Nazis were retreating to the Red Army. His father said that the Red Army would liberate them, but my great-grand-father replied 'liberate you - they'll liberate you alright, liberate you all the way to Siberia'. Which is exactly what happened.

My mother's second cousin (so her generation) eerily similar to her brother, my uncle - same facial structure, same way of gesturing with his hands, and same excitement over taking pictures. He has a little girl (so my third cousin - very confusing, I know), who was dressed all in pink and was very bouncy and excitable.

Of course, this was the second lunch of the day - a fact which seems to exemplify tradition when visiting family in this part of the world.

Earlier that morning, we visited the L'viv cemetery, which is beautiful - very green with many trees, ancient statues and interesting stories. A cousin of mine (who would be a few years younger than me now, killed in a car accident) is there - no statues, just the most basic nailed-together wooden cross, with no engravings or etchings, but with photos lovingly attached. It was the simplest grave I saw there, but perhaps the most striking. My cousins take great care over the flowers on the grave.

From L'viv, we drove to the town where my Baba grew up, Xolosko. It is a tiny town: a run-down church (there aren't the funds to repair it properly, so mass is held in the priest's house next door), a line of cows walking down the street to be milked, and the stream that my Baba talked about so fondly, still filled with ducks and geese that are roaming about happily. The chickens run around the village and look after themselves - as chickens are meant to do! Every house has a well-maintained garden and a well-maintained well. There are electricity and telephone lines (a more recent improvement), but no running water - everyone has their own well and their own privy.

As we walked through the town, we met several older people who, as soon as they found out who we were, started to weep and couldn't contain their joy. They were my Baba's friends, and remembered her and my Dida with such fondness. They live a hard life, but do not complain or ask for more - they take huge joy and huge pride in their gardens, their farms, their icons and their houses. Everything is done by hand, from watering to cutting the grass (with scythes).

We were invited for what can only be described as a veritable impromptu feast (the first lunch of the day) by this wonderful old lady who remembered the great kindness of my great-grandmother. We were treated to her finest: coffee (instant, where we felt the difficulty of accepting generosity - trying to take enough to appreciate the kindness, but not wanting to take the last of the coffee granules), potato pancakes (to die for - with fresh herbs, and done in butter), boiled eggs (taken from the nests minutes before - the freshest possible, and yes, you can actually taste the difference) and bread thickly spread with butter (a luxury). A simple and delicious meal, but perhaps proportionally the richest meal I have had.

The house where my Baba grew up had been inhabited by a family relocated by the Soviet's from some other town. The house had been one of the best in the village, with an extensive garden near the village's monument to the end of serfdom at the end of the 19th century. Unfortunately, all that is left of the house is the well. The house was of such good quality that the new owners moved it to another village when they left. However, the view of the stream and the church that my Baba describes is still there, if a little overgrown. And the memories persist - we were told by friends that my Baba's family did so well with their bees and their garden and my great-grandfather's cabinet-making that they were quite well off. So well off that some jealous sister-in-law once made the statement that my great-grandmother's vareneky were 'always swimming in butter'.

Storks bring good luck in Ukrainian folk lore - perhaps because they keep the thatched roofs clean - and we have seen many in the countryside. I was most pleased to see a stork walking along the road as we drove away, back toward's my Baba's town. I hope it makes a home there.

We also visited my Dida's family and village - both more prosperous than my Baba's, but in no way less generous in the number of both feasts and cousins. I had the great pleasure of rolling up my jeans and running through the fields to a stream with a flock of cousins about my age. But more on that later when I have more time - I must grab a last plate of verenyky before hopping on a plane out of the Ukraine - leaving me with the distinctly odd impression that I'm leaving home.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Notes from the Kiev Underground

The Kiev metro system is a fabulous mix of Soviet glory and Ukrainian patriotism.

The system consists of about four lines, which are distinguished by start/end names, much like BART in the Bay Area. Of course, all the station names are in Ukrainian cyrillic writing, so a little difficult to distinguish station names and directions. Better than that, certain metro stations are connected underground, with each metro line belonging to a different station, but connected by tunnels. Distinguishing which way tunnel/escalator is out, and which ones takes you to the adjoining station/lines is difficult. And even with a fluent Ukrainian translator (ie, my mother), one can spend a good ten minutes walking from tunnel to escalator to tunnel, and finding one has just gone in a giant circle through multiple stations. The winning moment during our Kruschatyk station escapade was getting to the top of an escalator and finding oneself faced with three identical white-tiled tunnels leading in different directions with no signs whatsoever, and masses of people going in and out of each of them.

But once one figures out the system, it's quite fun. For 50 kopeks, you can go all over the city, getting views over the Dnipro river and samplings of all the different stations. One station has fancy chandeliers all down it, while another is a hommage to Lenin, with dark brown marble columns and bronze statuary down the middle of the two underground platforms, enscribed with famous quotes. In contrast, the metro cars are painted sky blue and yellow (Ukrainian colours - for the sky and the wheat).

The best part of the metro is the people. Last night was a May day celebration of Kiev, consisting of a giant street party. When it rained, one notable group of older middle-aged people retreated to the metro to continue their party. They were all dressed up in their embroidered blouses, and a man was playing the accordion. They stood in a circle and danced in the traditional folk style. I'm sure much vodka was being drunk...

Earlier in the day, the two rival football teams apparently played each other - unlike the calm and peaceful protestors the day before, the sports fans were rowdier than the noisiest Bay Area fans - chants, jeers and drum-banging from rival fans echoed through all the metro stations throughout the day!

Tomorrow is our last day in Kiev before returning to L'viv in the evening. All the best,

(Sorry for no photos - I keep getting an error message in cyrillic/Ukrainian, so I can't figure out how to fix it!)