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.