Sunday, February 1, 2009

Happy New Years from Ben, Laada, Laska, and Larissa

Dear Friends,

Happy 2009! One of our New Year’s pledges was to actually get out a greeting to our many friends for the first time in years. It is indeed a year for renewal with the U.S. inauguration and hope (and need) for improvement everywhere. Ben and Laada are both on sabbatical this year. We have just begun a 6 month adventure in Ukraine, uprooting the family from our comfortable life in Seattle so that Laada can conduct research and so that our girls can benefit from linguistic and cultural immersion while their brains are still supple. Laada will be conducting research on the intersection of Ukrainian popular culture (primarily music and television) and politics, supported by a Fulbright-Hays grant. Laska took the departure particularly hard, as she was just starting to settle into her new middle school in Seattle, making progress with new friendships, but with the power of the internet (we just set up an email account for her) she is coping pretty well. We have now found a Ukrainian school for her, which she has been anxious about – but also warming to. Larissa was much more easygoing about the trip but had the hardest time adjusting to the time difference and is still cool on her daycare.

Ukraine is gripped in winter, vasillating between snow-covered and brisk. We expected to arrive to a cold apartment, given the stand-off between Ukraine and Russia over the transport of Russian gas to Europe, but we experienced no tangible local consequence from that conflict. Our apartment is warm. There are lots of new ‘Western’ buildings sprouting up everywhere – though construction appears to be suspended in mid projects, either waiting the Spring thaw, or just as likely, a thaw in the economic crash that is hitting people here as hard (or harder) than in the US. We spent the first two weeks in a top/14th floor apartment about minutes by subway from downtown (and a commute of 45 minutes to the kids' schools/daycares). There we had a commanding view of several Kyivan monuments and the recently expanded urban skyline towards downtown. The Pecherska Lavra (Monastery of the caves) is a fantastic church complex with a tall tower sticking about ten stories into the sky, which is lit up at night and looks absolutely majestic from our kitchen window. We could see the back of Kyiv’s famous “Steel Baba” (a huge Soviet era statue of a Slavic ‘Rosie the Riveter’ type with a WWII museum in its foundation) who stands a good 20 stories above the ‘right bank’ of the Dnipro River. Last week we moved to a new apartment in the city center less than a block from Laska's school and Larissa's daycare, which makes life much easier. We are looking forward to an educational and inspirational several months here.

The past year had its share of ups and downs. Laska completed 5th grade at her beloved elementary school, Thornton Creek, and we enrolled her in a smallish middle school called “Salmon Bay”. She wasn’t thrilled with this move, because most of her friends decided to go to the huge school not far from our house. On the other hand, we all agreed that the academic programs at Salmon Bay seemed better for Laska, and worth the inconvenience. All Fall, Laska rode the bus an hour each way to get to school, but adjusted well. The increased homework load was challenging, but Laska learned some time management skills and after a month or so was able to get it all done and still participate in club soccer and gymnastics, which helped to sustain her physically and emotionally! The big surprise of the year – Laska’s soccer team, which had a tough record in the fall season (lots of hard-fought ties, a few losses and a couple of wins) ended up winning the tournament in their division. It was a nail-biting and thoroughly inspiring 9 game run. They lost the first game in a shoot out (it was a double elimination tournament) and proceeded to win every subsequent game – most in overtime shoot-outs. The crazy Seattle snowstorms led to a quarter-final game on a field with three inches of snow, and the last two games were postponed until January. After the holidays, they returned to the field and miraculously dispatched the competition in the semi-final and final games (also both in overtime shootouts). The team they played in the final championship game was undefeated in both the regular season and tournament. Needless to say, it was an unbelievable fairy tale ending for the girls, and a fitting send-off for Laska two days before leaving for Ukraine.

Larissa enjoyed her year at the JCC daycare with wonderful teachers and friends. She has become an adorable – and predictably self-absorbed – 4 year old, in love with princesses, fairies, and all things sweet! She loves to sing and paint (the messier the better – usually ending up painting her hands, arms and face before she finishes), play with her sister, and watch animated movies.

Our big adventure of 2008 (foreshadowing our current Ukraine trip) was a two month summer expedition to the Kuril Islands, on Ben’s research project (see pictures below). We traveled as a family through South Korea to Sakhalin Island, Russia and moved onto a ship for a 6 week cruise through the Kurils. In the end we spent 20 days on the ship (battling sea sickness, playing games and harassing the crew) and 20 days camping on the islands of Ekarma and Rasshua, while Ben and crew excavated a couple of archaeological sites. In classic family tradition, Laska with her sister found the definitive artifact – a blue glass trade bead – in the backdirt of the Rasshua excavation, raising distant memories of an older generation of brothers (then about the same age as Laska) pulling projectile points out of the backdirt piles at ‘Grandpa Bill’s’ excavation at Kaliktallik in northern Labrador. The Kuril trip was sometimes hard, but everyone has fond memories of the adventure and friends we made on the ship and in the Russian town of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk! This was the last of three summers of the Kuril Biocomplexity Project, and now the team faces the exciting challenge of making sense of all of the survey and testing over the past few years. Next summer Ben will join two of his students who are running a project on NW Alaska’s Cape Krusenstern beach ridges - so no time to let the moss grow under his toes. His main goals during the sabbatical in Ukraine (once the kids are placed in school and daycare) will be writing up the Kodiak work of the past decade while advancing the Kuril analyses and reporting.

The adventures of this year were tempered by anxiety over the deteriorating health of Laada’s father, Oleksa, who was diagnosed with brain cancer last Spring and has been fighting hard with both chemo and radiation therapy. There have been ups and downs and no miracles yet. We keep our fingers crossed for him!

If 2008 taught us one thing, it is that life is full of surprises and adventures, news both bad and good, challenges and victories. We carry the lessons and hopefulness into the New Year and wish you and yours the very best in all that you do and all that happens around you!

With best wishes,

Ben, Laada, Laska and Larissa
Here are some pictures from 2008 to go with our 'end of the year' (plus some weeks) letter to our friends and family:

Laska and Larissa; Iskatel-4: home in Kurils; Larissa and Laada

Ben working; Laska and Larissa in the family tradition

Sightseeing in Seoul; Larissa's favorite art (body); Laska as Red Queen in 5th grade play

Laska's first piercing (ears); Larissa's first ski-trip during our weather delay before Christmas 2008