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Good news: a success story

Friends, I want to tell you a story about an amazing woman I met, many years ago, when I was still in college. This young woman was super smart and funny. And more importantly, she was one of the kindest and most compassionate people I knew. And beautiful. We got set up on a blind date and I quickly fell in love.

We dated for five weeks, but she was leaving soon for Moscow and neither of us thought it could last. Hard to believe, but back then, when somebody left the country there was no easy way to stay in touch. We wrote airmail letters. And I became one of the few people on my campus who used email. She found a public computer she could wait in line to use, and we managed to correspond once a month.

After she returned to the US, I convinced her to come work with me at a summer camp in Vermont and we had one day a week together. I loved her gentle thoughtfulness, her magnanimity, able to listen to anyone with empathy and draw them out and make them feel like the most important person in the room.

We returned to college. She was at Bryn Mawr and I was in school ten miles away. We still only saw each other once a week but we talked almost every day on the phone. My dorm had only one phone for the entire floor, but it had a 30-foot cord so I could pull it down to our quad and hog the hall phone for an hour. She was not only caring but ambitious — a double major in Russian and political science, and a leader of the college environmental group and an editor of the campus paper. We’d often talk late at night as she sat editing in the newspaper office.

After we graduated, we spent the summer living in my parent’s rustic cabin on a lake in Michigan. We cooked and swam and played games and worked in a Birkenstock store. We had no running water, no deadlines, and no idea what we wanted to do with our lives.

I got a job back in Vermont and she landed an internship for an environmental group in DC called ISAR. It was hard to go our separate ways but she was always intrepid and went fearlessly off on her own. She took everything in stride — new job, new city, new housemates — even getting mugged her first week in Washington didn’t faze her for long.

She started working her way up through ISAR — from intern to assistant to office manager to editor of their magazine. She was always a hard worker, although somehow she always found time to help everyone around her as well.

When I returned to the US after a year in India and China, I only knew one thing for sure: I wanted to live with this wonderful woman. We got our first apartment together on Capitol Hill and I watched her grow from a young student into a confident, articulate leader.

When we next moved abroad there was no question: we were going together. We spent two years in Kazakhstan. We wrote a book together. But as she traveled in Central Asia, still working for the same non-profit, she got frustrated that international NGOs and US policymakers had insufficient understanding of regional politics and were therefore ineffective. She decided to go to grad school.

By then, I knew I would follow this woman anywhere. On a cold October afternoon in the Almaty Botanical Garden, shortly after she’d gotten her legs wet jumping a creek, I pulled a ring from my pocket and asked her to marry me.

Amy said yes. We moved to Wisconsin, she started a Master’s in Public Policy and a year and a half later, we were married at the same camp in Vermont. We bought a house. Always altruistic, she was one of the few grad students who actively engaged in the community, volunteering and serving on our neighborhood association board. She discovered her master’s program was not challenging enough for her. So she decided she wanted to get a PhD and wanted to teach. She’s been this way as long as I’ve known her: intellectual but dedicated to using her intelligence to help others.

Four years later, she passed her prelims while pregnant. That summer her dad was dying, and we went to Maine. I tried to support her, but she really she was fine and was in fact busy supporting her mom and sister while simultaneously nursing Jacob and planning her dissertation. When Jacob was eight months old we moved to Ukraine for her research. Again, I was amazed by her ability to interview government officials and simultaneously negotiate a new country and be a new mother.

Becoming a mom did change her, however. She is still munificent, generous with her time and attention, but her devotion has become more focused on our kids. And it brings me joy to see her kindness reflected in Jacob and Natalie as they learn from her.

It was no surprise that Hartwick College wanted to hire her before she even finished her dissertation. We moved to New York and she dedicated herself to teaching and serving the college. She’s a great and innovative teacher — she has an ability to make any topic interesting and gets students to engage and participate fully. She works so hard. She starts at 5 am and after we get the kids to school she puts in a full day, comes home and serves as a caring parent until the kids bedtime. If she doesn’t fall asleep in Natalie’s bed she goes downstairs to keep working. And somehow she finds time to still be engaged in the community. I tell you, I thought I was a hard worker until I met her.

For the past 3 months, Amy has been nervous. She’s been under review for tenure. Although the rest of us knew she had nothing to worry about, she still fretted. But of course, ATP (the tenure committee) admired her so much that they didn’t know what to ask her, and the provost also told she was doing a great job.

The news, therefore, should surprise no one: Amy has been granted tenure! 
(Ok, technically the college president has recommended Amy for tenure. Tenure is not official until the trustees vote on it in February, but the trustees always follow the president’s recommendation.)

Congratulations Amy! We all love you and we’re very proud and we know you will continue to do great things in the world, in the community and in the classroom. I’m grateful for 22 years of watching you work and love and live and I look forward to many more.


Wisconsin Bookfest

I am looking forward to going back to Madison for my Chernobyl book reading at the Wisconsin Bookfest! Oct 19, 11 AM.


diary of a solo parent, week 2

Posts about parenting while Amy was away, continued.
Archived from

Week 1 is here:

June 28:

Day 8 of solo parenting. Here are 2 things I think all new parents should be told about eating with kids:
1. Don't expect to sit down for a full a meal in the next decade.
2. Serve small portions and save some in reserve. 
When my kids like a dish they will eat serving after serving. Natalie reliably eats 4 or 5 bowls of breakfast cereal (the equivalent of about 2 full-size adult portions) but as soon as I give her a bigger portion she decides she is done or no longer likes whatever it is.
During lunch on our porch today, I felt lazy and gave Natalie a full cup of milk. No sooner did we finish grace than the full cup of milk came flying into my lap. Natalie's first response: to cry "I want more milk!" My first response: to pull off my dripping shorts. Jacob's first response: to run for a towel. 
Natalie, I said, the least you could do when you spill is to apologize or help clean up. I'm sorry daddy, she said very sweetly, then began fighting Jacob for the towel to help. Got a second rag towel but would not let either of them dry off my food.
Dad, Jacob said, looking at the neighbors, I think you should put some pants on.

June 30:
Day 10 of solo parenting. The three of us fixed the clogged bathroom sink. Underneath it was dark and hot and crowded. Seemed like there were more wrenches and elbows than possible for three people. Someone was always in my way and it took an hour and a half. At some point I wondered why I was doing this – alone I could get the whole job done in 20 minutes. As we started to get grouchy Jacob started wondering the same thing. 
Natalie keeps sitting on me and she's not really helping, he said. Could you get her to leave?
To be honest, there's not enough room here and this would be easier to do myself, without your help, I told him. He looked hurt. But I want you here because I want you to learn how to do things like this. My mom taught me to fix plumbing and rewire lamps and build bookshelves when I was his age. 
Nevertheless I was grateful this afternoon to have friends who took Jacob and left me alone for five full hours. I celebrated at lunch by eating the entire chocolate Easter bunny I've been saving in one sitting.

July 1:
Day 11 of solo parenting. I couldn't do this alone. So glad I've got a village.
When Jacob had a girl friend over today, they went to his room and shut the door. What were they doing behind that closed door? They are only 8. What's up with that?
Later they went to the kitchen and raided the fridge. Another first.

July 2:
Day 12 and a half of solo parenting. I fell asleep with Natalie last night and just woke at 4:40 am.
I was ready to put both kids out to pasture yesterday, but our yard is not big enough for two separate corrals.

July 3:
Day 14 of solo parenting. We're eagerly awaiting Amy's arrival. She landed in the US 17 hours ago, but she was too tired to drive home... At least that gave me a last night to vacuum the filthy rugs.

July 4:
The prodigal mother has returned.

July 5:
Day 1 of joint parenting. It is such a pleasure to be able to tag out when I need to. Of course there's plenty to do because we leave tomorrow for 2 weeks in the woods, but now I can leave home while the kids sleep!
Thanks to all of you who offered encouragement during my 2 weeks alone. It was nice to reconnect. Not the first time I've flown solo like this but it's the first time I shared it on FB. Let's do this again sometime.


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.

June 26:
Day 5 of solo parenting. I was tired all day after Natalie stayed up late and woke up early. Tonight I just decided to fall asleep in her room. I'll stagger off to my own bed now after filing this report.

Week 2 is here:


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.

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