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diary of a solo parent

Hi blog readers,

My wife is away for 2 weeks and I started writing about it on Facebook. Below are the first few entries and you can find more here:

June 21
Day 0.
After 2 exciting weeks in Ukraine I came home - and today Amy left for 2 weeks in the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. Someday we'll travel together again... but for now I'm on dad duty until July 3. 

My question is: what should I do to surprise my wife when she returns? What would you want?

June 22
Day 1 of solo parenting: the kids begged for a swim and a picnic and I complied, even though it made for late bedtimes.


June 23
Day 2 of solo parenting: Natalie likes to make declarative sentences and then feels a need to prove herself right. As in: I don't need to hold hands to cross the street! Or: I don't like this toothpaste [which she has used every night for months], I like yours! Or: I need to wear a diaper! Why does Jacob get one, I need one too!


June 24
Day 3 of solo parenting. How do single parents do this? Today I was so busy working that I barely had time to go to Work. 

6 pm is not the best time to grocery shop with 2 young kids, but it was the only time it fit. Had I not kept policing Natalie, our cart would have ended up with matzoh ball soup mix, froot loops, honey nut cheerios, 16 hot dog buns, organic multigrain penne, and single-serving cups of cinnamon applesauce in it. As she proudly announced at checkout: "I helped my daddy the WHOLE TIME!"

June 25
Day 4 of solo parenting.
Me: Natalie, no more snuggles, you need to go to sleep. It's late, it's 10:30 at night.
I leave, followed by minutes of Natalie screaming and banging on her door.
Natalie: Daddy come back now, I'm really ready, I need a hug, I hitted my head.
Me: I won't come back unless you lay your head on your pillow and stop talking.
Natalie: I don't want daddy's rules, I want mommy's rules.

Confession: I am so cold hearted when Natalie has her meltdowns, which are frequent. But what am I teaching her by refusing her more coddling?

I read an article yesterday about the psychobiology of love, and the "micromoments of connection" that build love up. How important physical contact and eye contact are to feeling loved and teaching lovingkindess.

So at school drop off this morning, I tried asking Natalie to look into my eyes when she was upset and she refused to do it. Too much intimacy for her? She wanted to hug but averted her eyes and then pushed away.

When did you last stare lovingly into your kids' eyes? I am now convinced I do it too rarely.


Meet Vitaly, reluctant campaigner

 Campaigning in Kyiv

Watch Vitaly Valentinovich for a minute or two and it is clear that he’s quite shy. He bites his lip and rocks forward before launching himself into the crowd again. Shoppers and commuters rush past him at the Svyatoshin Metro station in Kyiv.
            Three days before Ukraine’s Presidential election, Vitaly is trying to pass out flyers for the Demokratiya Party. Despite his hesitations, he gets some takers. A few people grab papers out of his hands, unlike the advertisers down the aisle whom everyone ignores. I ask him why he does this work, since he is clearly uncomfortable doing it.
“I work because of the money. They pay me 18 hryvnia per hour” (about US$1.50), he tells me. “The money is the goal — politics is not what I care about. We have the war here and people were killed and that’s the main problem — it’s not about political views, it’s just about stability in the country. I still haven’t decided who I’ll vote for — there’s a lot of choice.”


TEDx talk: Boxing Outside the Think

I had a blast last week giving a TEDx Fulbright talk about creativity and photography in D.C.

My talk is temporarily online. Check it out while supplies last! (Eventually it will be edited and up on the TED site but I'm not sure when.)

For now, view it here on the livestream page. My talk starts at 53:20.

More about the event here: Thanks to the organizers who worked so hard to make it happen!


NPPA awards announced

Wow! I am honored to be among an amazing group of photographers recognized today by National Press Photographers Association's Best Of Photojournalism 2014.

I can't quite believe I won 3 awards considering how much great work is out there. Really, 1 award would have been plenty!

• Multimedia Tablet/Mobile Category: First Place: Michael Forster Rothbart for ZUMA Press for "Would You Stay?”

Best Use of Multimedia Category: Third Place: Michael Forster Rothbart and ZUMA Press for "Would You Stay? Life After Chernobyl and Fukushima."
      Chang W. Lee, Barry Bearak, and The New York Times won first, and the indomitable Kainaz Amaria from National Public Radio won second.

Contemporary Issues Category: Honorable Mention: Michael Forster Rothbart of ZUMA Press shooting for TED Books

Congrats also to Smiley Pool, Scott Strazzante, Claire O'Neill, Brian Storm, Josh Haner, James Estrin, Sara Lewkowicz, Corey Perrine, Mark Ovaska and many others for some amazing work which you can check out here:


Big Data test photos

These are test shots for tomorrow's shoot on Big Data. It will be even more fun with 8 live subjects instead of these mannequins.
In case you're wondering: 3 digital projectors as main light sources plus 2 off-camera flashes for sidelight/rim light.

Update: final photos posted here.


Washington Post

Gosh, they'll publish anything in the Washington Post these days!

I've been meaning to thank the Post for publishing a gallery of photos from my Chernobyl-Fukushima book. Thanks Post!

See them here:


Fast and company

I was psyched to hear that the story about my photo book is trending at Fast & Co.

I have no idea what that truly means in terms of actual eyeballs looking at my book. And is anyone really reading the book or are they just talking about it? I decided not to ask TED Books how many people have actually bought the book. Better not to worry about that.


live on CNN

So, I was on CNN yesterday to talk about my TED book.

I'll be honest, I got nervous, but I think I still managed to sound coherent. (I hope so - you tell me.) I just wish they had told me which camera to look at!


how do you talk about photos on the radio?

True, radio and photography are not two forms of communication that seem most compatible.

Still, I had an interesting interview with A Martinez, host of the NPR show Take Two in southern California. Martinez kept describing my photos and then asking me to tell the story behind it. It worked well, actually.

Here is the radio interview:

And here is the Take Two image gallery they posted so you can see what we're talking about.


the other side of the mike
I have to admit, I am not used to being on the other side of the mike.

Filmmaker Holly Morris interviewed me about my book last week. OK, we interviewed each other. She is making a film about the old women still living in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. TED released her TED talk at the same time as my book.

Today, I'll be describing some specific photos from my book on the NPR show Take Two, on KPCC 89.7 FM in southern California. Not sure exactly when I'll be on air, the show runs 9-11 am Pacific.

Livestream the show here and I'll post a link to listen later.

UPDATE: the broadcast of my interview was delayed due to the tragic shooting at LAX. It will air on Monday.


feeling thankful

Here are two crazy unbelievable things:
  1.  My book Would You Stay? which started as a little project in Chernobyl in 2007, will be a book out there in the ether, as of tomorrow.
  2. We were, I must confess, still making last-minute improvements until 10 o'clock tonight. But now it is really and truly on its way.
Tonight I am feeling so grateful to all the people who helped in so many ways over the years to bring this dream of mine to life.

Including photographers Alana Smith and Jason Sexton, who went out with me to the Susquehanna River on a chilly fall day and took a bunch of amazing author photos for the book.

(The one above is by Alana.)


Interview today on The Takeaway

I was just interviewed about my book by the NPR show The Takeaway. It will air at 9 am today (Oct. 29). Listen live here - Later I'll post a link to listen after the fact.

OK: here is the link to listen:


Chernobyl and Fukushima book in one week


It's still hard for me to believe, but in one more week my book on Chernobyl and Fukushima will be out. It's called Would You Stay? and it's being published by TED Books, the people who do the TED talks.

It's an e-book, which makes it feel less tangible but I am so excited I keep waking up and wondering if it is really happening.

I first went to Chernobyl in 2007 and I've been working on this on and off for 6 years. I never expected initially it would become such a big project but it always felt important, and after the 3.11 earthquake in Fukushima it felt doubly important.

During the next week I'll post some photos from the opening sequence. Today just the cover...

Here's a caption: 
If you arrive by train, as the nuclear personnel do, this is your first view of the sprawling Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, across the cooling pond. The station that once generated power now consumes it. The new heating plant has the only active smokestack on the horizon. Beside it are the unfinished, abandoned cooling towers. Beyond the smokestack at right is the “Shelter Object” which covers the Fourth Block of the plant.

Even after Fukushima, Chernobyl remains the site of the world's worst nuclear accident. The population within 30 kilometers was permanently evacuated, including residents of Pripyat and many villages. Although the Chernobyl plant finally stopped generating electricity in December 2000, today 3,700 employees continue to work at the plant. They commute from their new city of Slavutych, which was built after the accident to replace Pripyat.
Thanks for all the encouragement from many of you over the years!


After Fukushima, part 12

Except for laundry, the outside of the Ide’s apartment block in the temporary housing complex is colorless: gray gravel, black asphalt, beige aluminum siding. There is just one spot of green visible between here and the treetops on a distant hill: Mamoru Suzuki is bent over his bonsai, watering and pulling off dying leaves. Dozens of pots cascade off his steps and along the wall as far as his neighbor’s door. More of his plants line the far end of the building.

Compared to his boisterous neighbors, Suzuki moves as quietly as a whisper. So shy we can barely hear him speak, he looks like he wishes he could vanish, or shrivel up like the brown leaf in his hand. After a few false starts, I ask about his plants and he proudly begins to explain. He tells us how he cares for the delicate tiny trees and shrubs, and discusses uses of the flowers and herbs.

Bit by bit his story comes out. Like his neighbors, Suzuki was a farmer in Kawauchi. He is wiry and must be over 70 but moves like a younger man. He owned seven cows, he says, but he had to kill them all after the radiation came. For a time he lived here with his family of five, but they left to move further north, to Fukushima city. They tell him their new housing is much better up there, but he refuses to move a second time. Why? Because of the plants. Already he’s had to give up all his gardens once. He can’t bear to do it again. Since he could not take these new plants with him, he chooses to live here, alone, rather than uproot.

“I have no vision for the future,” he says. “Summer here is too hot and winter too cold.”

Across the sea of asphalt stands another block of apartments. A man comes barefoot out of building H-15 and sits cross-legged on his front deck. He begins shaving there, and calls out to us as we pass by.

Yukio Kubota is also from Kawauchi town. On March 15, 2011, four days after the earthquake, he and his wife evacuated to Niigata, his wife’s hometown on the west coast. She has stayed with relatives for the past year but he returned to Fukushima Prefecture to be closer to home.

Once last summer he returned home for a few days. The weeds were more than a meter high, he says. “The first day we cut weeds. The second day we removed all soil in the garden up to 5 cm deep. The radiation inside the house was 4.3 μSv per hour, but we didn’t have a Geiger counter so we were sleeping in this place.” They left when they learned how high the radiation still was.

A note on radiation dose: 1 Sievert is 1000 milliSieverts (mSv) is one million microSieverts (μSv). To compare, the peak level measured in this part of the Exclusion Zone (330 μSv/hr on 3/15/11) (1) was 76 times higher than the dose inside Yukio’s house; however his house level was still 12 times more than typical background radiation. The EPA recommends an annual dose limit of 1 mSv per year, which Yukio would reach inside his house in less than 10 days.

Here is a useful chart that illustrates doses.

Symptoms of Acute Radiation Sickness generally start above 350 mSv — 81,400 times the hourly dose at Yukio’s. This leads some Japanese to conclude there is nothing to worry about. However, just because you’re not keeling over today doesn’t mean there is no risk of future disease (as I discussed here).

Now, a year later, government workers have finally decontaminated his house and yard. The initial new reading was 1 to 2 μSv per hour. “I am waiting to see the radiation levels before I decide to move home,” he says.


After Fukushima, part 11

The Wakamiya evacuee housing complex in Koriyama city forms a giant grid of pre-fab buildings, 11 apartments per building, 5 buildings per row, erected on a field of gravel and asphalt. In the middle is the Odagaisama Center—a community building with a recreation room and a radio station that broadcasts news and music to evacuees.
Fukushima evacuee radio station sites:
Koriyama station homepage and livestream
Iwaki station homepage and livestream
(Note: streaming doesn’t work in Safari.)

There is riotous laughter coming out of Block G-1, Unit 2, of the Wakamiya temporary evacuee housing complex in Koriyama. We hear it from the far end of the row. As we approach, a small round man and a woman come erupting out the door. As if the force of the laughter inside ejected them from the unit. They nearly barrel into a neighbor, and as they relate a story, he is soon laughing too. I smile politely and, still laughing, the couple introduce themselves.

Takaaki and Yumiko Ide are evacuees from Kawauchi village. They are farmers, and one of the first things Takaaki tells us is how he misses the trees that surround their farm in the mountains near Namie. “And the vegetables, the vegetables,” his wife Yumiko breaks in. “Here we have to buy food, for the first time in our lives!” Beans, squash, rice and eggs, all from the store!

The Ides have lived here for 14 months with their family. Initially, five of them crowded into one 10 by 20-foot unit, but as some other evacuees have left they’ve been able to spread out. Now their teenage daughter lives on one side, and their two mothers on the other.

I ask if we could see what their apartment looks like and soon we’re all pulling off shoes and crowding into the small kitchen. The mothers, two little ladies, are sitting on stools behind a table covered with steaming dishes. A round of introductions and soon the laughter fills the room even more than the people.

Each unit has a traditional tatami mat bedroom, a kitchenette and bathroom. Red Cross and government donations provided them with a refrigerator, 2-burner stove, microwave, toaster oven, washer and even a flat screen TV. It may feel small after their farm in the hills. But compared to third-world refugee camps (or a Tokyo apartment) it’s downright spacious.

The family is about to eat dinner. Takaaki Ide, suddenly finding himself host to surprise visitors, both wants and does not want us to stay. We refuse but as we trade phone numbers we promise to return another day.

Outside, the sun has set but the July heat still rises off the massive mall-sized parking lot in front of the Block G-1 apartments. Every parking space is painted neatly with a letter and number: evacuation planners intended for each family to bring exactly one car, but in fact most of the lot is empty.

This complex built after the quake has 570 units, housing evacuees from Tomioka, Kawauchi and Futuba towns. All these towns are in the original 30-km exclusion zone, but in some places the radiation levels have fallen. Kawauchi residents have been allowed back in.

Like many rural villages, Kawauchi’s population has been decreasing for a long time, down to 2,800 in 2010 from 3,800 in 1995. (1) Now about 400 of them have returned home full-time. (2) “The radiation level is down but there is no infrastructure and no jobs and no place to work,” one volunteer, Beverly Tajima, told me.

Most afternoons, after the shift ends at his new job in Koriyama, Takaaki Ide drives back home to their farm. They were not permitted to bring their dog with them to the temporary housing, and so he returns home to feed her. After one summer, the weeds were taking over, he says. He cleared plants beside the house but worried about radiation in the yard and left the rest standing.

One reason for his optimism is that he is certain they’ll be able to move home eventually, perhaps as soon as this fall. Japanese evacuees like those from Kawauchi have something the Ukrainians don’t: hope.

Perhaps this is an aspect of national character—Buddhist equanimity versus Slavic pessimism. Or is it a function of timing? After two years, the future in Fukushima remains uncertain, but give the Japanese two decades and they may be more like the Ukrainians, resigned to their fate.


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