GROWING PAINS: Sobering Circumstances Put Life Into Perspective

Sometimes you get the feeling that life is an uphill battle.

I was just putting the final flourishes to my column for the week when the computer crashed, flushing it all into oblivion, and I mean oblivion because I can't remember a single word of it. Add that to the fact that I have a deadline for a magazine feature looming and I have to cope with two children off school sick and a third threatening me with dismemberment if I don't get tickets to the upcoming "5ive" concert, and you get the gist of my state of mind.

So when a friend called offering me the services of a masseur to soothe my aching back, I leapt at the chance. Anatoly Sergeyevich turned out to be a small, quiet-spoken man from Fedosiya in the Crimea, and, while lying there being pummeled (watched by my fascinated 5-year-old son), I discovered Anatoly was in fact a highly qualified abdominal surgeon who had spent nine years studying medicine. He had presumed in the good old Soviet days that this was a decent profession that would secure him a good, sound income with which to comfortably support his wife and three children. But with the dawn of democracy, it soon became clear that on a surgeon's pay he could not even feed and clothe them.

He struggled on for a few years in a hospital in Kazakhstan but found that he could no longer bear to see his family living in poverty, and so he threw in the scalpel and spent a month training as a masseur. Then he came to Moscow, where he makes house visits, charging 100 rubles per hourly session. Even at these very reasonable rates, he earns in one day what he would normally make in a month as a surgeon.

"Now we're comfortably off," he said "but even so, in winter my children have to draw water from a well and heat it up for their bath. And they do their homework by candlelight. All because the Crimean government can't afford to provide us with electricity and heating. And this is the year 2000! But we're lucky. I can afford luxuries like bringing my older daughter clothes from Moscow and buying sweets for the younger one. They have schoolmates who literally faint from hunger at their desks."

Anatoly's brother is also a doctor, but he gets paid in sacks of coal or bags of pasta. "Times are hard for him. It's hard for me too, living away from my family, but there's nothing else I can do. Life is tough. And short. A colleague of mine went to a banya, where he unthinkingly scrubbed a melanoma off his back, and he was dead within the fortnight. But there you go," he said, cheerfully chopping away at my neck. "We all die. I've seen a lot of deaths, and it teaches you to make the best of what time we have."

And you know, computer crashes and 5ive concerts seemed a lot less important after that massage.