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Year in Review: Death and Life December 26, 2013

Posted by KG in Uncategorized.
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Though many, many things happened to us in 2013, only two themes to the year really stick out for me: death and life.  Everything else seems so utterly secondary as to be laughable.  And that includes a trans-continental move.

First, the tough part, death.  This year I lost three people I count as friends, and who left this life tragically young.  One friend to cancer.  One to terrorism.  And one to an accident.  These were all friends of varying degrees.  I worked with Melissa for over a year, took a class with Anne for two months, and had known Avishek since he was born.  But the varying levels of friendship had no effect on how their deaths felt to me, both at the moment I heard about them and now, months later.  Utterly dumb.  Empty.  Pointless.  And in the end, just deeply sad.  I’ve lost friends before, but this was the first year I lost so many, all younger than me.  I take no lessons from these deaths, feel no need to cast a “cherish every moment” platitude.  These were my friends, and they are no longer here.  I will never see them again.  My life is poorer for that.

But in the midst of all this death there was one, amazing, joyous, ongoing moment of life.  My son was born.  The son we never expected, and who we love with feelings I never knew I had.  Our boy is now almost nine months old, and in every laugh, temper tantrum, snuggle, and fall he embodies to me life itself, pure and undistilled, utterly innocent.  He’s growing too fast and yet not fast enough: I want him to stay this way forever, and yet I want him to grow so we can share so much more.  This continues to confuse me, but (luckily?) his waking moments offer few moments for reflection, as we’re too busy trying to save him from any number of banal hazards our home holds (This morning?  A small piece of plastic he found on the floor and just *had* to eat.  Sorry kid.)

So that’s it.  2013.  So much happened this year and yet in the end, four events really defined it for me.  And somehow, despite the sadness, I leave this year with one grand, overall feeling.  Here’s the platitude: we are blessed with life.


Catsup November 25, 2013

Posted by KG in Albanian, Family, Kosovo.
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In the nearly 13 months since I have written a blog entry, I have, in ascending order of pride in accomplishment:

  • Become, according to work, professionally proficient in Albanian
  • Successfully moved to Kosovo
  • Run numerous races, including my second half-marathon
  • And become a father

I suspect anyone still reading this blog already knows these things, but consider this a half-hearted attempt at lazily trying to restart blogging.  With a now nearly-8-month old, time is at a premium, but it wouldn’t be bad to squeeze in some time for reflection.

Shumë gjera të thënë — apo jo? November 5, 2012

Posted by KG in Albanian, Language, Running.
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Obligatory lazy blog entry.  There are a ton of things I need to write about.  Like diving deeper into the now-distant memory of running that half marathon.  And my first two months of studying Albanian.  And… well there’s the hard part.  There’s not much more, really.  Running, Albanian, running, Albanian.  Life has settled into a steady and frankly pleasant rhythm, with occasional superstorm-caused disruptions.

The race.  It was quite an experience, the largest race I’ve run ever, even larger than the 2008 Cherry Blossom 10-miler.  We (the wife, my mother-in-law, and I) made amazing time Friday evening driving from DC to Baltimore, making the packet pickup and dinner at my folks’ stress free.  We turned in early and woke up to a freezing morning, the first frost of the season.  Miserable when planning a long run, but with a 9:30 gun time I opted, wisely, to roll the dice and dress for warmer temperatures.  The large crowds on the light rail down to Baltimore were great for keeping me warm.  Unfortunately the crowd also meant those standing on the train, including me, nearly broke our necks when the conductor made a sharp turn.  Though my neck ended up fine, my sunglasses failed to survive.  Those of you who know how attached I am to my running sunglasses can predict how upset I was with that particular development.

Fortunately, that was the worst thing to happen to me until after the race.  I made it to the start with plenty of time for a pit stop, and hit the hills of the course at a faster-than-expected pace.  At Mile 7, the course flattened and I spotted the family once, and then again at Mile 8.  The back five were fast and furious (and downhill!), and I finished with a sweet negative split.  Sadly, the good feelings ended there and a series of snafus ensued: the finish had a single, tiny Gatorade stand we were hustled out of.  The finishers corral was incredibly chaotic, the food spread terrible (who wants crab chips after running 13.1 or 26.2 miles?) And to top it off, Baltimore light rail decided to run sporadically, and my family had some drama causing them to miss making it to the finish.  They were many miles away and stranded while I was waiting in downtown Baltimore, with no ID, money, phone, or Clif bars.  Thank goodness for the good hearts of my fellow runners, and for a few strokes of resourcefulness; it took a bit of time, but we were eventually reunited. All the mess didn’t diminish the race buzz completely, but it did knock it down a few notches.  Lessons learned: plan megaraces more carefully, and avoid Baltimore light rail at all costs.

Running a half felt great, just hard enough to not kill me.  Albanian?  Also not killing me, but definitely making me sore in the head.  While the lifestyle is relatively gentle, the intellectual effort is less half marathon and more Badwater Ultra.  Looming deadlines have been replaced by vocabulary words at the edges of my brain, grammar constructions I know one day only to forget the next, and an endless search for some better studying tool.  The chaos of Albanian definitely hurts.  I’ve spent most of the evening studying colors and have seen far too many words presented as the definitive one for “pink” and “blue.”  Next up: loading some vocab onto the iPod to listen to while running.  Will this be the thing to finally drive those pesky interjections into my conscious memory?


Two Years Later October 14, 2012

Posted by KG in Uncategorized.
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Baltimore half medal by TheDiplodocus
Baltimore half medal, a photo by TheDiplodocus on Flickr.

I blew out my back almost two years ago, to the day. What followed was a tough two weeks of doctor’s visits (all while effectively unable to use my right leg), back surgery, and months of physical therapy. By the time I had regained full mobility, I was decidedly not in good shape.

Two years later, I ran my first half-marathon, in just under two hours (1:51.59, if you’re curious). And I felt great the whole way through.

Though I’m still not in the best shape of my life, I am feeling pretty good about myself right now.

Western Park Days August 29, 2012

Posted by KG in Uncategorized.
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Best of Glacier and Yellowstone 2012, a set on Flickr.

The wife and I just returned from two weeks in two of our country’s greatest treasures — Yellowstone and Glacier National Park. We have been planning a trip to Glacier for almost three years, and as our plans came to fruition an opportunity to add on Yellowstone, an amazing place in its own right, presented itself. I’m very glad it did — though with just a week at each, I’d welcome the opportunity to get back to either.

During the last leg of our vacation, fellow travelers asked us to compare the two parks, with the unspoken expectation to describe one as better than the other. But the two are so different that such comparisons ring false. Both are majestic expanses of America, and yet both scratch decidedly different itches.

During our time in Yellowstone, we saw massive herds of bison; a steep walled canyon that looks like a sharper, meaner version of its cousin in Arizona; and innumerable otherwordly landscapes carved by psychedelic hot springs and beautiful, violent geysers. Early one morning, I yelled at the wife to rush out of the shower to witness what was happening just outside our cabin’s rear door — a lone elk buck, eight prongs in velvet, enjoying his morning meal.

Glacier was up where Yellowstone was out, all purple mountains majesty. The craggy peaks changed with each turn of the road, each passing cloud, each degree the sun and moon traveled in the sky. The slopes were blanketed with a rainbow carpet of wildflowers, intersected by twisting mountain streams, manicured by grazing mountain goats. And if Yellowstone was about ever-present bison, Glacier was about elusive bears — and we were blessed to see two, a grizzly and a black.

On the last day of our time in Glacier, I talked the wife into hiking up with me to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook, a trail off of the longer Garden Wall hike that is so steep and precarious it took us an hour to hike six tenths of a mile. After an emotional trudge to the top, we sat upon a ridge literally straddling the continental divide, looking east and west at the world far below us. ”Look at what we did,” I said to her, as I had numerous times earlier in the trip. The feeling summed up my thoughts not just on that hike, but on our entire trip.

“Look at where we are.”

Trade in Wardrobe July 31, 2012

Posted by KG in FS Life.

So as I mentioned a month or so ago, for the past nine plus weeks I’ve been in at FSI.  Language training — which I am petrified of — begins after Labor Day.  For the summer, I’ve been in what we call “tradecraft,” our term d’art for job training.  In a year’s time I’ll be working in my first Public Diplomacy position, the functional specialty — aka “cone” — I chose before joining the service in 2005.  Many in my Foreign Service generation have been in the difficult place of having to wait a few tours before working in-cone.  In my case, I will have been in the service almost eight years when I finally get to do the work I wanted to do when I joined.  That’s decidedly non-optimal.

After years of consular and desk work, I’m not embarrassed to say I was beginning to have my doubts about my chosen cone.  I’ve now almost completed the full slate of PD training — dealing with the press, working social media, the basics of grants, cultural programs, exchanges, public speaking.  And though the functional insights have had their own value, that’s not the biggest thing I’ll be taking away.  The best part of training:  the past weeks have, with great success, made me excited again to be a PD officer.

Though really, that’s only the milestone I’m excited about in the long-term.  The short-term milestone that has me most excited right now is being able to shelve part of my wardrobe.  The dress code at FSI is decidedly relaxed, but about once a week during tradecraft I’ve had to put on a suit, for meetings with higher-ups or other important contacts.  Today was the last of those meetings, and the number of days I will need to wear a suit will decidedly dwindle when I’m in language training.  So other than very special occasions: no suits for at least nine months!

Air like Soup July 5, 2012

Posted by KG in Running.
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The oppressive humidity and extreme heat have my wife cursing the Eastern Seaboard relentlessly, and me fomenting plans to lobby the powers that be to relax the FSI dress code.  It’s starting to go beyond Mumbai-in-May levels, which given DC’s latitude is just ridiculous.  Perhaps this will pass, but given that it is only July, probably not for a few months.  The constant temptation is to spend non-working hours motionless, soaking in air conditioning.  But of course that would be admitting defeat by the elements, something I’m unwilling to do.  So instead I’m keeping up my running routine, with some time modifications in an effort to avoid the nastiest parts of the day.

And it really sucks.

Sunday I ran what I suspect is my absolute worst 10K ever.  What many call breathing felt to me, about half way in, like drinking the air through my nose.  It got so bad that I may have gone down into a Metro station late in the run to cool down for a couple minutes.  (If pressed regarding this publicly, I will of course deny that I took such measures.)  Today I think I did slightly better on a shorter 5K, powered more by fortuitous song selections on my iPod than anything else.

My question is this: is it even possible to acclimatize to this nasty humidity?  I vaguely recall having done so many years and many pounds ago, but that may be excessively rosy thinking.  If it is possible, any tips on hastening progress?

Liminal June 27, 2012

Posted by KG in FS Life, State.
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A month ago, I finished my tour on the Desk and moved on towards my next assignment.  Towards, not to, because I have a year at the Foreign Service Institute — FSI — in between.  The move from an extremely busy desk to FSI gave me cognitive whiplash, from which I am still recovering.

Reflecting back on the last two years seems odd, both because it feels so premature and because the “issue of the day” culture at the Department makes such reflection unnatural.  Inclined towards grand pronouncements as I am, I’ve taken to touting the benefits of a Desk job to many of my fellow FSI students.  The recommendations are heartfelt:  the foreign policy machine is utterly inscrutable from a distance, and the small glimmers of insight into the sausage-making from the Desk level are invaluable.  Not that those insights don’t come with costs.  You’ll work your butt off, and lose many battles.  The bureaucracy can be soul-sucking.  And the adventure aspect of the Foreign Service will be notably absent.  Bottom line: I loved it, and I cannot wait to go back overseas.

For now, however: FSI.  I feel the “in betweenness” of the place, as if the campus is a giant airport departure lounge.  Though training is an essential part of our careers, FSI is awash with a constant feeling of waiting to leave, or relishing in having down time and nothing to do.  Your life is your own (give or take).  Imagine shifting suddenly to that sort of life after a year of living from short deadline to short deadline.  Periodically I am still nagged by the feeling of a phantom Blackberry, blinking red light reminding me of tasks undone and emails unanswered.  After a month, the feeling is fading, but occasionally still nags.

In the spirit of adjustment, I am searching for new ways to fill the days.  The wife has been particularly pleased with the fact I’ve chosen to start taking care of more household chores, but those can’t fit all of the new hours in the day suddenly open to me.  I’ll probably up my running mileage to the extent the heat allows — and start a renewed search for more hobbies.

My Sort-of Running Partner April 22, 2012

Posted by KG in Uncategorized.
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This morning I rolled out of bed at 0515, to a preplanned alarm song (“Juicy,” Notorious B.I.G.) designed to get me up and moving.  I puttered around for a bit before, in a pique of panic, I realized I was running late for the Parkway Classic, a race I had been planning to run for months.  It’s a point-to-point course from Mt. Vernon to Old Town Alexandria that shuts down the GW Parkway.  Logistics are… complex.  My wife, angel that she is, had agreed to assist by providing a ride to the start and then waiting for me to finish.  What she didn’t realize: that I’d wake her in a fit at 0600, dragging her in to my pre-race nervousness.

This isn’t the first time I’ve dragged her out of bed to got to a race with me.  In fact, it’s becoming a regular thing.  Weekend mornings are normally for her time to sleep in, but lately, about once a month, she’s sacrificed that to come with me, via Metro or car, and watch me run.  During the races I understand she finds the nearest coffee shop and communes with the other “race widow[er]s.”  Oddly, she tells me these are mostly women.  I think they should start a club.

I could do this by myself, and have offered.  But she’s soldiered forth, not taking me up.  And thus has given me some serious support on the race course.  “My wife woke up for this,” I think, often halfway through when my mental energies are flagging. “Can’t slow down now.”  She finds me at the finish, where I offer her a hug she declines. 

“You smell!” she says.

So she’s not all angel.  Which is just how I like it.  The bit of a laugh at the end of the run is a nice way to start the rest of our post-race mornings: a banana, a bottle of water, a much needed shower, brunch.  And a nap.

(And I got to the start with plenty of time.  The Parkway Classic was a great experience.  The GW Parkway is a really hard surface, and it was a big crowd, but once it thinned and I could really run, I settled in to a serious groove.  I didn’t train as hard as I did way back when for the 2008 Cherry Blossom 10 miler, but managed to run the race I wanted to run.  Slow to start, steady pace, and then all out to the finish.  Four years, about 15 pounds, and one back surgery later, I beat my 2008 Cherry Blossom time by seven seconds.)


Determination, Dedication, Motivation April 18, 2012

Posted by KG in Uncategorized.
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Breaking in new running shoes is always painful, but I wasn’t expecting my last try to be bloody.  I recently decided to give the New Balance 00 Minimus Trails a whirl.  I switched not because of unhappiness with Vibram the shoe, but with Vibram the supplier. Pacers, my running store of choice, hasn’t received a shipment of new Vibrams in months.  I tried the road version of the Minimus but found them a bit heavy, and really liked the breathibility and general design of the Trails.  The mesh upper seemed ideal for wearing sockless — and since switching to Vibrams two years ago I’ve become a very big fan of their “no socks needed” approach.  My test run in the Trails (500 meters?) felt great, so I bought them.  I took off yesterday in my new shoes for a quick four miles.

It was terrible. 

The first mile, to be fair, was fine.  During the second mile the knuckles of my big toes felt a little uncomfortable, as if I needed to adjust the shoe’s tongue.  The third mile burned.  By the fourth mile I knew there was something wrong beyond the usual new-shoes aches, but some demon in my skull said “make this your fastest mile.”  So I did.  After a sprint finish, I took the shoes off and discovered a raw spot from a huge burst blister near my left big toe, with a smaller partner on the right. I felt around the shoes inner and identified the culprit, a large seam that I didn’t feel during my test run. Effectively, this means I can’t wear the Minimus 00 Trails without socks, disproving the New Balance claim that the shoe’s upper is comfortable “… without socks.”  The new shoes are money likely wasted.  Back to Vibrams, probably my old reliable Bikila LS.  If I can get them online, that is.

Beyond the frustration of wasted money on shoes (rrrrrgh), I’m trying to figure out exactly why I felt the need to go past the pain and push that last mile.  It’s not as if I was racing, or being chased by wolves.  Similar confusion surrounds my current approach to work.  Despite being in the lame-duck phase of my tour (EER near done, onward assignment nailed down, mere weeks remaining), I can’t seem to disengage at all.  There are of course joke about FS “senioritis” floating around, but I’m still checking my Blackberry constantly, taking on challenging tasks, putting in long hours when needed, keeping up with the breaking news minute to minute, and overall approaching work far too intensely.  I’m remaining present — despite overwhelming temptation to coast.  The urge to coast is conscious, but that subconscious skull voice is having none of it.  

Sprinting on the last kick of a training run and sprinting to the finish line of a tour.  The need to prove myself, even if only to me?  Refusal to let my colleagues and superiors — some of the best I’ve ever worked with — down?  The sense that pushing at the end will make the end come faster, rather than creep up?