Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Reflections on Passover

Monday night was the last Passover Seder. Passover - Jewish holiday recounting the Hebrews' deliverance from bondage of slavery, and it holds a special place in my heart. Passover is my favorite holiday, despite the havoc it wreaks on my digestive system. I am part of a rather large exodus of members of the tribe from the Former Soviet Union. While some tribe members headed for the State of Israel, after a brief and intense altercation with representatives of the Jewish Agency for Israel my mother made up her mind that America was the place for our family.

My earliest childhood memories consist of celebrating Passover by watching our family's matzo emerge from an anonymous paper bag and several pillowcases. Matzoh secretly procured by my grandmother from the only functioning synagogue in Kyiv, the city of my birth, was not technically illegal, but getting caught with the bread of affliction bore dire consequences for its owner. In the privacy of our own apartment, my family gathered, ate way too much, drank the obligatory four glasses of wine, sang, and played while recounting the story of Exodus. I do not recall ever opening the door for the prophet Elijah, which would have most likely cost my parents and grandparents their jobs. So, not so different from how we celebrate Passover in America, well except for that part where discovery of my family’s celebration would have wreaked havoc on our existence in the USSR. 

Every year, I think of how my mother and I left the Soviet Union. Our exit visas were creative in their wording. My mom was ceremoniously stripped of her citizenship; I was not old enough to hold citizenship. My mom and I packed our lives into two suitcases, a maximum of suitcases allowed by the Soviet government for the two of us. Blankets, pillows and sheets took up one of these suitcases. The government allowed us to take only $150 USD. Going through customs border patrol officers searched both our suitcases and persons. My mom lost an extra can of coffee during the search. I am not sure how the officer that confiscated the can of coffee survived to live another day, as my mom describes herself as a coffee addict. I am pretty sure, the officer in question made a lifelong enemy. We’ve lived in America for 21 years, but for my mom the coffee can episode feels like it happened yesterday. So there we were, stateless, pretty much penniless, I mean let’s face it $150 was not much in 1989 either; the very definition of refugees. 

While I am leaving out a lot of details of the history of how I became a proud American, I will leave you with the following thoughts. I am proud to be an American, as the country singer croons. America accepted my tiny family and gave us freedom, protection, and opportunity. Instead of making me feel small my teachers encouraged and supported my budding talents and skills. I went to a first rate public high school where I thrived. I received scholarships and government backed student loans to study at NYU. I studied, worked, volunteered and thrived. I paid off my undergraduate debt, saved and was accepted into one of the best graduate programs in the country. Yay for SAIS Hopkins! I plunked my entire savings into my graduate education. In addition to recieving a first rate graduate education, I met the love of my life. I love my life. 

It is funny, that I think about this pretty much on Passover as we read the Haggadah; which documents the story of the Hebrews’ Exodus from Egypt. With each succeeding year I recount more and more wonderful things that would not be possible had my mom and I not lived through our very own Exodus. I am so grateful for my chance. In Hebrew school we learn from the book of Exodus to: “welcome the stranger,” “protect the stranger,” “have one law for the stranger and the citizen among you” because “you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” As our departure swiftly approaches and we pack up our lives, I think about my first Exodus. I think about becoming a stranger in a strange land, well not in the same way that Robert Heinlein put it, well you know what I mean. It is a funny feeling packing up your life. I can’t help but think about how my mom did this all by herself.

On a lighter note... or on second thought not so much, I submit this Passover themed strategic post “God as a General: Passover’s Lessons for Warfare.”

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Holy Moly I am no Longer in Denial

I interrupt my weekly sometimes cerebral posts for pack-out prep. So for the past few weeks, whenever I met someone I got the same range of questions from almost everyone.  “So you guys are leaving pretty soon?” “Yes, we are leaving___” (insert approximate weekly countdown).  “So how is the packing going?” My response “Ummm, err, yeah, A. started consumption excel spreadsheets and has been updating our consumption patterns. Currently, I am in denial.” Yes about that - I am no longer in denial. 

So why are you keeping track of your consumption habits, both human and feline, for that matter, you ask? For certain “hardship” posts the FSO in question gets an extra consumables shipping allowance besides stuff that he/she owns, the allowance grows as the family grows, as let’s face it kiddos also come with a lot of stuff. The consumables allowance, includes things that are either not readily available at post or are prohibitively expensive. Where we are going, for example, a block of Philadelphia cream cheese costs $15 USD, while your favorite box of cereal costs around $10 USD. Now look, foregoing your morning cheerios or philly cream cheese in a land free of NY bagels may not seem like a big deal, I can definitely live without cereal as I am anticipating plenty of rocking culinary adventures in India, but things like soymilk for someone that is lactose intolerant will kind of hurt. We are both lactards.

So right, we get consumables. With that said, not everyone in the Foreign Service does, if you go to a post where most things are available at a fairly reasonable premium, then you will not get a consumables allowance. So right, this past weekend, my husband and I decided to go to Spring Fair, an annual celebration of spring at the Jonhs Hopkins  Baltimore campus, where A gets giddy reliving the awkward glory days of undergrad complete with Bud in a plastic cup, college bands supported only by friends and visiting family, and giant turkey legs.  We decided against going to Baltimore since packing out is looming and we need one day of relaxation. 

We spent most of Saturday sending off three more friends to far flung places in style. One party had a ton of alcohol and the departing hosts passionately appealed to guests to take intoxicating beverages home with them, as good booze is a terrible thing to waste and there are teenagers in dessert lands which go without drink every day. However, the discussion did not end there. We looked at our calendar and realized that between A’s work commitments, going away parties, and family events, we have two free weekends – including the one that just passed. We did not have an “Aha!” moment, instead it was more like a “holy c&*#” moment.  Yes, there is a better substitution, but then I am trying to be all classy, at least in writing.

Although we don’t have to pack in the traditional sense, the movers hired by the State Department will pack us up, you have to sift, and sift and separate in piles. While you sift you also make decisions on whether or not it is worth it to keep some of your stuff at all. One pile will be stuff to go into storage – which floor length coat that my mom got me in Kyiv to keep me warn and almost all winter clothes, all sticks of furniture (as our future apt comes with furniture) and other miscellaneous items, go to storage. The second pile will be is the consumables shipment, stuff that we potentially won’t be able to comfortably get in India.

The third pile, non food stuff that goes to India – like our ridiculous number of books: economics textbooks, for sentimental and reference value,  history, policy, and misc will go on a ship to get to India a few months after our arrival. I keep talking about sifting my books to see how many I can actually put in storage, sorry Russian Law textbooks; I don’t think you are coming on this leg of our adventure.  The fourth pile is made up of stuff that will fly in cargo and will be available to us shortly after arrival, people tend to put personal stuff that makes your apt feel like home, you know pictures of your friends and family, chotchkes (knick knacks), extra clothes for work as A will report for work the day after our arrival. The last but not least, pile or if you prefer suitcases filled with stuff that you will need in the next few weeks like clean knickers, clothes, shoes, and consumer electronics such as cameras and laptops. The last pile you get to schlep yourself.

Umph, are we having fun yet? So I am wondering, and this is where I get less classy, but yet censored, where the *&(^ are we going to find space for all those piles of stuff in our 600sf apt? My answer, not the foggiest idea – truthfully we don’t have the space. 

So yes back to consumption spreadsheets. The funny thing is that we are not really shopping for stuff for ourselves, but the cat. Our entrance is now filled with two years of pet supplies. I have no idea where we will be putting people supplies or how the movers will be maneuver the furniture out of our tiny one bedroom. There will not be that many people supplies, since we are pretty pumped about Indian food for the next two years, but whatever minimum – like jars of nutella, an absolute must, an upgrade on bed sheets and towels, cereal, trusted laundry detergent (buying local detergent no matter where you are, including western Europe is like playing Russian roulette) and whatever I am forgetting - well not sure where we’ll find the place. 

Calling all SAISers with extra space in their apartment – “buddy can you spare a” corner of your apt for some kitty litter?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Relationship between voter turnout and incentives or the siren call of fried chicken…

Ok, admit to yourself, you are really reading this because you want to find out the relationship between voter turnout and friend chicken. But think about it what incentivizes people to vote? I’ve read about the effects of early and consistent civic education and strength of civil society positively contributes to voter turnout. For example, children that grow up exposed to lessons of why it matters to vote and learn to participate in democracy early – such as voting for class president or hall monitor – grow into adults which vote in greater numbers. Feeling of ownership of your neighborhood, city, state and country, in other words a well developed civil society also predicts higher voter turnout. 

Last week Damon M. Cann of Utah State University presented results of his curious study at a political science conference in Chicago. You can read more about the conference in The Atlantic article found here. Mr. Cann conducted an experiment on voter incentives. Basically he divided the residents of River Heights, Utah into two groups and then knocked on doors with his two different messages. One group of people that Mr. Cann talked to received a well reasoned argument why it matters to vote in the upcoming election, in other words an argument in favor of participatory democracy. The other group of people Mr. Cann reached out to got the promise of discount coupons for fried chicken, French fries, a Mexican meal and rock climbing, in return for voting in that same election. If a resident that was promised discounts showed up as voted in the polls, he or she received coupons. If that person elected the chicken discount, they got two buckets of chicken at the local KFC. 

Which pitch proved more persuasive a well reasoned argument in favor of participatory democracy or incentives presented by the dismal science, aka economics? While a well reasoned argument for participatory democracy created an increase of 4% bump in voter turnout, economic incentives (promise of coupons) bumped voter turnout by a further 9%. Economic incentives are stronger than arguments for civic duty should not come as a surprise. I mean, think of Tammeny Hall and Boss Tweed in early 20th century NYC. If you are not a political science junkie from New York, this link might help shed light on my arcane reference. I mean had we been magically transported back to NYC in 1917 supporting a particular candidate would have gotten you two buckets of chicken – also this type of incentivizing is illegal. Therefore ideas of how to properly incentivize the electorate, shall we say, definitely not new.  

While talking about boosting voter turnout numbers with free buckets of chicken is kind of fun, maybe this soon to be published study may shed some light on why we take time out of our day to vote.  Why our voter turnout trails so many other industrialized nations? My previous statement includes voter turnout during elections that are perceived as being close contests, where people turn out to vote in greater numbers, in other words you feel that your vote counts more as you possibly cast the deciding vote. Well, I look forward to reading more details of the study, when I can get my hands on it, as it stands: participatory democracy 0, dismal science 1.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Writing in the shadow of a government shutdown

Please note this post has very few original ideas, but I posted a few fun things at this not so fun time.

As Congress haggles over the last six months of this year’s budget and a government shutdown looms – oh and I love DC – the District is crawling with government shutdown pick up lines. You can find shutdown pick up lines tweeted here.

The Huffington Post also has a list of the best government shutdown pickup lines which you can find here

Personal Assistant needed: Federal employees only (Washington DC)

Are you a Federal employee shocked at being furloughed? Does Ron Paul's advice that your landlord will understand not apply to you?

Starting Monday, April 11th, I will be in need of the following from a down-and-out Fed:

Duties to include:
~Gentle waking up (preference for a returned Peace Corps Volunteer who can play an "ethnic sounding" musical instrument)
~Breakfast preparations (omelets, assorted fruit from local organic grocer)
~Drawing of bath water/temperature measurement
~Carry my bag to work for me
~Possibly carry me to work
~Preparing press clippings from the "eye openers" and "Lookout" section of the Express
~IT duties to include help with Angry Birds or Words with Friends (must be proficient with Android OS)
~Lunch truck analysis and delivery of goods
~Scheduling of off-site meetings (to include daily 10:00am, 12:00pm, & 3:00pm coffee and cigarette breaks with the friendly HR staff)
~Preparing of evening television schedule, to include highlights of non-scary news stories and at least two (2) back-to-back episodes of Criminal Minds
~Rocking to sleep and promises that this will never happen to us non-federal employees
~Providing daily updates, no later than 7:00pm, if you will be coming back the next day to do it all over again

The ideal candidate will possess the following abilities:
~Strong communication skills (i.e. calm, soothing voice reassuring me I'm right and my boss really was just promoted to get him/her out of the way)
~Attention to detail (does this tie go with the money I’m still earning?)
~Proficient in Microsoft Office, Facebook, and on-line coupon search engines
~Sharp elbows for creating sufficient space on metro platforms and trains
~Must be able to lift at least 20 pounds (for moving of furniture and vacuuming duties)
~Ability to laugh at the fact that while you aren’t getting paid, Congress sure is, all the while knowing they aren't beholden to you DC-ites anyway!

Salary & Benefits Details:
Commiserate with years of government service and level of clearance, or along the GS-5/Pay Band H/FP-9 scale, whichever is lower
401k matching of up to 0.01% (after six-month probationary period, and two years of employment in order to be "vested")
Generous sharing of stories from my day at the office

To Apply:
Please email resume and saddest picture of your clothing that you cannot afford to dry clean anymore.

Last but not least, in preparation for Passover here is a quirky card from Aish Center:

Google Exodus - please follow this link. I tank my friend E. for bringing this to my attention.

Enjoy and have a nice weekend!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Tamil 101: Week 6

Last week I arrived at the halfway point in my crazy endeavor to learn a little bit of Tamil. For the first few weeks of class I shared a classroom with 4 other students all Foreign Service officers posted to Chennai, India in the near future. While their mandatory language training consists of approximately six months of intensive language classes, I have 12 weeks to learn as many Tamil words and grammatical concepts as humanly possible. Since a significant divergence between the times allotted for me and my classmates to learn Tamil exists, my awesome instructors separated me from the rest of the class to give me a more intense and quicker introduction to the language. As a result, in addition to one hour of language lab every day I am locked in three hours of intense awkward Tamil conversation with three different instructors.
I am pretty sure the conversation is more awkward on my end, since I am the one that does not speak Tamil. Thus far studying Tamil has been quite a challenge. I never thought I would hear myself say this, but I miss studying Arabic! Fortunately my instructors bring different sets of skills into the classroom teaching me the language in different ways. I am enjoying language class. Well, minus the Tamil sized meltdown I had a few weeks ago, where my brain literally froze and I could not respond to anything. I admit that was a pretty crappy day and I do not think I’ve made it a great teaching experience for my instructors. 

I want to give great big thanks to all of my Tamil instructors as they are incredibly committed to seeing each and every student succeed. I am so grateful for them making space in their schedules for me. Although I have no idea of my progress, since now I can’t manically plot my language learning progress as it compares to my former classmates; I did in the past and I don’t think that was too productive - I think I am making a bit of headway. Last Friday using language skills of a three year old, I had my first economics conversation. I compared taste quality of American fruits and vegetables to those grown in India. We talked about how weather and infrastructure has either a positive or negative effect on supplying food to local markets. Do I know the words for supply, demand, market (had to ask that one), and infrastructure? Not yet, but then a three year old would not know how to use those words anyway.

What I was able to say and am pretty smug about it, was that fruit and veggies in the USA are picked before they are ripe and are delivered to the stores before they are ready to be eaten - that is why fruit and vegetables in the US are not very flavorful. I asked my instructor about the taste of fruits and vegetables in India. I am afraid I do not know the word for produce, excuse my repetition of “fruits and vegetables.” My instructor responded that fruits and vegetables in India are very flavorful. We debated the merits of constant sunlight and picking produce when it is ripe. However, I said India has a different problem, 75% of its produce spoils before it gets to markets, because of lack of refrigeration during transportation and bad roads. 

In other news, I am not sure if it was the effect of Sudafed or my tired brain on instant replay, but last night I dreamed that I was doing my Tamil homework over and over again. I would wake up every once in a while realizing that it’s the middle of the night and I am in bed, but fell asleep only to dream about doing Tamil homework.