Trade in Wardrobe July 31, 2012Posted 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!
Liminal June 27, 2012Posted 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 Second Time in the Ben Franklin Room May 19, 2011Posted by KG in FS Life, State.
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In October 2005, the 126th A-100 held its post-swearing in reception in the Department’s Benjamin Franklin Room. That was my first and until today only time there. The room felt huge. The occasion was huge. Today was my second time there. The room felt a little smaller. The occasion far larger.
At around 9 this morning, I saw an odd message in my incredibly-overcrowded inbox from an unfamiliar but very credible sender. The message warranted a corresponding question, and a quick back-and-forth ensued. By the end, I reached a few conclusions. One, I needed to eat a handful of almonds as soon as possible. Two, my coffee had gone cold. And three, that I was glad I wore a good suit, because in an hour I needed to be in line. To see the President.
The politics are immaterial to the experience. The wait took forever. The luminaries were, er, luminous. The energy wavered between frustration and excitement. But when the time came, the Secretary praised the Foreign and Civil Service and the President delivered a speech defining our foreign policy. Mere feet away from me.
The intervening years between my first and second times in the Ben Franklin Room have been an experience, at least for a politics nerd. I’ve met Senators and Congressmen, a few Ambassadors, a bevy of high-ranking government officials both foreign and domestic. Taking notes for Secretary Clinton? Done that. But in those six years, I had never seen the President, though I had been close a time or two. And now, after ticking that box, I can say that few, very few, very very few things compare.
Springing to Action March 11, 2011Posted by KG in FS Life, State.
There’s devastation in Japan right now, and you better believe the State Department has been working the crisis non-stop — answering calls to assist not only the tremendous American population resident in Japan, but also our close friends the Japanese. Consular officers on the ground, Watch officers in DC, contract call center employees, local wardens. Responding to calls for help.
For the last few weeks, or probably more like months at this point, the Department has been working other crises. Getting Americans out of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Assisting other nations who asked for our help, regardless of lingering resentments or bilateral political issues. I’m one of the lucky ones who didn’t have to work the crises day in and day out, but I was still drafted to assist at times. Graveyard task force shifts. Late nights working for the bosses to get them the latest information, in the most perfect form. Or just ensuring that my regular portfolio is fully covered, just in case something terrible happens. Through the ongoing Egypt situation, I’ve stayed in good touch with one of my close friends in Cairo. His wife and baby daughter were evacuated. He stayed on as the Ambassador’s assistant. During the worst times, he was sleeping on couches at the chancery. He watched the Superbowl from the chancery while dining on MREs.
I’ve been there too. Thanksgiving 2008, I was at our Consulate in Mumbai. Our planned dinner sat in our fridge while my wife and I worked twelve hour days. Talking to anguished parents, identifying bodies recently murdered by terrorists, arranging documentation for those who fled hotels without their belongings, getting Gatorade and granola to newly released Americans who had been trapped in their hotel rooms.
This is what we do. And we’ll continue to do, even in the face of Congressional disdain, in the face of pay cuts and possible work stoppages. Frankly, I shudder to think what would have happened if there were a massive tsunami during a stoppage of the government, but I’m willing to bet Department hands would have thrown the rules to the wind to assist. Yes, sometimes we have cushy lives in nice parts of the world. And sometimes we have superficially fancy lives that are anything but under the surface. At every turn of our fluid lives, we’re always — in DC or overseas — working an adventure that’s predicated on waiting for what’s next. The next post, the next visit. And the next crisis. When we’ll be called to do things beyond the call of duty as part of our regular duties.
It hurts my professional pride to think that the Foreign Service, as a group, is so misunderstood. When a crisis happens, large or small, innumerable legislators call us with requests for briefings on both what we’ve done and why we haven’t done more. Yet when the calls come to tighten the budget belt, our request, a mere fraction of other agencies, is seen as an easy target. Somehow, there’s a one-way transaction expected. Maintain the highest levels of service, even though we won’t replenish your ranks, fund the training you need, or give you compensation comparable to others.
Here’s the worst part: individually, I believe that we’ll comply. We’ll keep working hard in the face of cuts to our budgets, and maintain the highest levels of public service. Institutionally, however… I’m not so sure.
Times New Roman, 14 Pt. February 3, 2011Posted by KG in Etc., FS Life, State.
In one of those great second season West Wing episodes, Sam asks the immortal Ainsley Hayes to edit a 23-page position paper down to three pages. Twenty-three pages! Fellow bureaucrats, can you imagine? My experience the last few months in the Department tells me that paper only gets shorter the higher it goes up the food chain. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if over at the non-fictional West Wing they communicate via punctuation.
I’ve been working within the Department central machinery for long enough that writing at significant length has become a challenge. This is fantastic for both Twitter and text messaging, but a terrible affirmation of my own technology-aided short attention span. These days paper longer than a few pages drives me mad. Bullet lists are so much easier. Also of note is that it’s paper, vice “articles” or “stories.”
The most frustrating part of this is that my brain thinks this is zero-sum. With all my writing and work reading coming out as declarative, simple sentences, reading in my personal life is just that much harder. Comic books? Ooh, colors and pictures! Easy. Newspapers also seem fine. But a history of the Middle East in the early 20th century? I’ve been trying to finish that thing for months. Back when I was younger, I could have knocked that book out in a week. Somehow work has caused me to lose the monastic discipline I had to read complex, rich texts. Of course, work may just be a scapegoat, and I might just be getting dumber.
If it is actually work, there may be a bright side. I could be Army, and be knee-deep in slide decks.
Thursday Holidays in November: Dangerous* November 16, 2010Posted by KG in FS Life, State.
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A few months ago, my wife and I had toyed with taking November 12th off. With Veteran’s Day on a Thursday, the 12th was well placed for an impromptu four-day weekend. We’d gone as far as discussing potential destinations, but not much further. Life got in the way — hectic work schedules, the Wife’s trip to Africa, and (most significantly) my back. By the time we got everything sorted out and back to normal, the prospect of traveling just seemed too much too soon. We tabled the idea for another year.
Which turned out to be a pretty good thing. One of the “pleasures” of working on current events is that you never know when something is going to happen. From Wednesday the 10th to Friday the 12th, I spent over 30 hours in the office. It was quite an experience to be a part of — fast moving memos, frantic blackberry updates, office televisions broadcasting news reports that contradicted those updates, calls to Ops, calls to post, calls to the Seventh Floor. I should take the quotes off from around the word pleasures, because despite my whining about working a holiday, it actually was a pleasure. The lame public servant in me derives joy from being a small part of the vast Foreign Policy Machine, processing and interpreting big world events. (Or at least big in my view; I harbor no illusions that everyone cares about my small corner of the world.) Curious how to process and transmit an ALDAC when the government is closed? It’s possible!
This week is shaping up to be more normal, which feels healthy. The sprint isn’t sustainable; workplace “optempo,” as my DoD colleagues like to say, can’t always be breakneck.
My back, by the way, is doing much better. The rain is increasing the ache, but it’s not that hard to overcome. And in a fit of foolhardy ambition, I’m entering the lottery to run in the Cherry Blossom 10-miler. I’ll have 3 months to train from essentially zero. Considering my back got busted the weekend before I was supposed to run the Army 10-miler, I think I owe it to myself.
*Two years ago, we were called in on a holiday for a very different reason.
Bad Timing in Extremis October 20, 2010Posted by KG in Family, FS Life.
Last Monday, the 11th, my wife left for her “orientation trip,” visiting the numerous posts that she covers for her job. She’s got a fascinating portfolio covering some unique and isolated places, and I was (and am) killer jealous of her trip.
The Sunday before her travel, I worked out at the gym. Respecting my body and the pain in my leg, I stuck to upper body work, and managed to hit some good numbers. From the gym, I followed my normal routine — a walk through the farmer’s market for the week’s vegetables, a shower at home, and then a walk to the wife’s dance studio to meet up with her and have brunch.
Four to five yards into that last walk, something… happened. I don’t know what, and I don’t know how, but all of a sudden the pain in my leg went from nagging to excruciating. I hobbled for the rest of the day, screaming every few steps. Once back home I went straight on my back to try and rest out the pain. Sitting down — that most modern of modern man’s postures — was agonizing.
Monday afternoon, when the wife was leaving, I was still on my back. I got an emergency appointment with an orthopedist and continued to rest. Despite being extremely cautious with the rest, I still could barely walk up and down stairs. Leaving the house wasn’t an option. Full of ibuprofen, I had a fitful night’s sleep.
I’d been really excited about work last week. While the wife was away, I was going to temporarily man the night shift as a staffer in my Bureau’s front office, a great opportunity to take a break from my everyday routine and get a new perspective on how the building works. Unfortunately, my body made it clear Tuesday morning that it had other ideas. Rather than go to work, I went to the emergency room, where I was diagnosed with a severe hip strain, advised to keep my scheduled ortho appointment, and sent home on crutches (which helped not at all). Remaining hopeful that the pain would subside, I sent a message to my superiors with the diagnosis and a plan to work a light schedule Wednesday. That was decidedly optimistic.
Fast forward to Friday. I’m still in constant pain, not at work, and getting intimately acquainted with the best of daytime television (“Cash Cab” is a fantastic TV show). My walking range has increased by about ten paces. I can’t stand for long periods, making things like showering and shaving an ordeal, and cooking only a distant memory. I see the orthopedist, who laughs at the ER’s diagnosis, orders an immediate MRI, and sends me home with scrips to treat a bulging disc. Being alone, I’m doing all my movements by taxi, and finding a way to get the prescriptions filled takes some creativity. But I get it done. I manage through the weekend, somehow going for an MRI, getting a copy of the Sunday paper, getting groceries delivered, keeping myself fed, all while effectively immobile and by myself. Unfortunately, the meds prescribed are only minimally helpful.
Tuesday the orthopedist looks at my MRI. He’s unequivocal in his evaluation, and sends me to get a second opinion the same day. That doctor agrees.
I’m getting back surgery today.
It’s going to be an overnight at the hospital, but otherwise the prospects for full recovery are pretty good. I’ve got friends here to help me out, one of whom coincidentally has had the exact same procedure. Still, I am for all intents and purposes doing this by myself. My sister is in New York, and my normally Baltimore-resident parents are traveling in Puerto Rico. My wife gets back in six days.
Distance from loved ones is one of those truisms of Foreign Service life. At some point in time, you will be thousands of miles away from someone you care about when something happens, and you will be devastated that you can’t be there for them. This goes both ways — it may be the parent of an FSO, wanting to see their kid in Luanda who has malaria, or the FSO who needs to get back to Denver yesterday to be with a sibling. Being a tandem couple, and on a DC tour, our odds for avoiding that kind of situation are relatively high; 99% of the time, we’re very near at least one other family member.
Yet here we are. And I’ve never had surgery. This whole thing is terrifying.
If you’ve got a spare thought today for this gimpy blogger, I’d appreciate it.
Minutes with Powerful People September 24, 2010Posted by KG in FS Life, State, Travels.
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I’ve spent the last four days in New York, working at the UN General Assembly. It has been an illuminating and humbling experience, to say the least.
Most of my days were spent in a small room in the Waldorf-Astoria, working on logistics for events involving my principal (Department-speak for the person doing the talking). I have the fortune of working on the issues in a prominent region, and with a dynamic and dedicated principal; days in the control room were long and hard as we juggled meetings, movements, and papers on some of the toughest issues out there. A few notable and fascinating times I escaped the room, mostly to work as a notetaker. Once – easily some of the most fascinating 30 minutes of my career – for a Ministerial bilat.
So remember all that regret about missing out on the unjadedness of the new kids? I take it back. Four days of diplomatic geek out and I feel pretty cool about this gig.
Didn’t Get to Bully the New Kids September 13, 2010Posted by KG in Blog, FS Life, State.
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This morning I had the pleasure of deviating from the usual routine and heading to FSI to give a briefing. Though I wasn’t afforded a chance to sleep in, I was able to go a little slower and miss the multitude of morning meetings that occupy me from, oh, OOB* to 11 AM. I was also excited to see the “new” FSI. The Schultz Center has had an entire new wing added since 2008, the last time I was out there, presumably to accommodate Diplomacy 3.0. (Unfortunately, though the dining area has grown, the food service area is about mid-90s hiring freeze size.)
More exciting than seeing the new FSI was the chance to run into the latest batch of FSOs, the 156th A-100. I’m still a sucker for the infectious energy of the new and un-jaded, and look back on A-100 in the same way I look back on the first months of my freshman year of college, when everything was shiny and new and full of potential. It’s a positive outlook that I lost somewhere along the way. Seeing it in others occasionally brings it the feeling back, albeit only for fleeting moments.
Sadly: my hopes were dashed. I’m as bitter and jaded as I ever was, and didn’t receive any contact enthusiasm. Turns out newly-minted JOs now start their indoctrination at Main State, and don’t crowd the FSI shuttle until day two. I think I learned this somewhere along the way, but promptly forgot.
So to the 156th, welcome, and sorry I didn’t get to meet you. Especially all you new FSO bloggers! There are so many of us here that we should try to do a DC-based FS blogger meetup.
*Opening of business. New folks: welcome to acronym town.
Holding the Pen September 1, 2010Posted by KG in FS Life, State.
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There’s a lot of material out there about the specialized vocabulary of the State Department (see, as one example, EFM’d). Though I contend its no different than the internal language of military folks, engineers, musicians, or kindergartners, it is pretty entertaining to utter a sentence amongst a group of colleagues and then realize that what you said contained English pronouns, English conjunctions, and a bunch of acronyms and jargon. No surprise then that people like to write about StateDepartmentese, especially when you’re plunged in headfirst during A-100.
Our processes — the slow, challenging, and sometimes frustrating bureaucratic movements that color most of our daily actions — are also aired on occasion, usually through the lens of paperwork management, the joys of ConGen, or trying to pack out or get travel orders. As a daily part of life that’s also not a surprise.
On September 6, I hit the five-year mark with the Service, as do my wife and about 90 of our A-100 colleagues. And after five years I’m hitting a cognitive milestone as well — understanding the “whys” behind the jargon and the processes. Part of me feels like its Stockholm Syndrome, having been in so long the outside world doesn’t make sense. That’s a negative portrayal; a more kind one would be that the tough lessons from working (and failing!) in the system are finally getting internalized.
Explaining the jargon is the easy part. We’re a culture as much as anything else, and our language is designed to keep things concise, without repeating the same old long constructions over and over again. Telcon, septel, EER, SCIF, the acronyms of our bureaus, the acronyms of our neighbors. All shortened to facilitate rapid communication, once you’re fully indoctrinated.
The processes are a little harded to explain, but here’s one example. For months I’ve been wondering why I was putting my extension next to my name when drafting a paper. It seemed like an odd requirement. Surely the clearers could look me up in our global address system, right? Wrong.
Working on an active desk in an extremely busy bureau has given me a real appreciation for exactly how busy management can be. Many of my high-level superiors have no time to log on to their computers, let alone look up an address. They do their clearing on paper, and if they have a question, a phone is way faster than email. Hence the phone number. Its helpful to be called directly by a superior or lateral colleague who can walk me through edits he/she wants, or add in issues I didn’t think of because my experience is so limited.
That begs the question: why clear in the first place? You worked hard on that paper, you stayed late, you agonized over paragraphs. And you have an advanced degree! And now your painstakingly crafted words have been struck through in multiple colors, gone as fast as you can click “accept all changes in document.” Boy does that burn.
Another hard lesson learned. When I’m working on taskers, I’m not the author. In our peculiar lexicon, I’m not even the writer — I’m the drafter. The best euphemism I’ve heard to describe it is that when you’re the drafter, you “hold the pen.” The semantic/symbolic breakdown of that phrase is illuminating. You’re holding the tool for constructing the Department’s documents. The writer of the paper is the Department, not you — you are making the writing happen. The thoughts in those documents aren’t supposed to be yours, they’re precisely supposed to be collective. The clearance process has it’s drawbacks, but it also plays an important purpose in getting things done right.
I don’t deny that there are processes in our building that scream for innovation, or irk to the point of distraction, or are outdated reminders of the days before computers and internet. But as days go on it’s heartening to realize that sometimes there are reasons behind everything, ones not readily apparent but there to keep the wheels of the business turning. Institutions, especially ones as old as our nation, are built as much on processes and habit as they are on product.
This post dedicated to my two fans on the seventh floor who have jobs that are as process as can be. You know who you are.