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My Shoes Smell Terrible March 12, 2012

Posted by KG in Etc., Running.
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My training for the 2008 Cherry Blossom 10-Miler was impeccable.  My new wife was thousands of miles away and I had no social life to speak of.  Why not throw everything I had into my first ever race?  Everything and then some, actually: ten miles is a big challenge for anyone, let alone a beginner.  The by-products of the training included some seriously sore feet, a stack of workout clothes, an unexpectedly good race time, and an unexpected love of racing.  I signed up for a 10K a couple months later.

And then I promptly moved to India, moved back to America, started working punishing hours, hurt my back, recovered from back surgery, and continued working my butt off.  Even without the injury, consistent training has been a challenge.  I decided some months ago racing wasn’t in my book while on the Desk.  Ever the perfectionist, I wasn’t going to race if I couldn’t maintain the tightest possible training regimen.

That attitude, which extends beyond running to most other hobbies I have, has given my down time a heaviness.  Or more directly: fun started to feel like work.  Never a good thing!  So in December, I went out on a limb (and a whim), signed up for the Jingle All The Way 8k the morning of, and ran the race in 37’36”.  And most importantly: I had fun.

Work is still brutal.  Lunch runs are a gamble.  Evening runs near impossible.  Weekend mornings are easier, but fatigue is a challenge.  No matter.  This weekend, sporadic training be damned, I ran not one but two races — the St. Patrick’s Day 8K and the Four Courts Four Miler.

My feet hurt, my calves are singing, and I’m exhausted.  Daylight savings didn’t help.  But I’m also proud to have pulled it off.  And proud of my times, roughly 38′ for the 8K and 29′ for the 4M.  And I had a ball.  The wife dragged herself up to watch me both times, and now I’m researching next races to run.  I’d wanted to run 3 races in 2012 total.  Now I think maybe I’ll do one a month.

Any recommendations for April?


My Second Time in the Ben Franklin Room May 19, 2011

Posted 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.

Submitted without Comment May 11, 2011

Posted by KG in Etc..
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A real post coming soon, promise.  In the interim:


Springing to Action March 11, 2011

Posted 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, 2011

Posted 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.

Taking and Making Stock January 17, 2011

Posted by KG in fitness, Food, Running.
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Right now, there’s a cold and potentially freezing rain falling softly outside.  The humidity today drove the cold straight into my bones, and in that tiny space where part of a disc used to be, a pocket of pain began to fester and grow.  I’ve been mitigating it all day through judicious dosages of rest and Mario Kart, but it’s still there, throbbing and nagging, begging for attention.  Maybe this is just the new normal.  The PT and my surgeon warned me.  “It’s never going to be the same,” they said.  “You’ll get used to it, eventually, but your back is just going to feel different.”

That’s the downside, significant and miserable.  There’s an upside too, a sliver of one.  Saturday I went for a run — outside.  My first outdoors run since surgery, and I managed 2.5 uninterrupted miles in about 20 minutes.  Not the fastest ever, but not the slowest.  And no consequent back pain!  An hour of pilates on Sunday (yes, I was the only man in the room, and yes you may shut up) was likewise not-terrible to my beleaguered spine, though there’s the whole lost flexibility thing to deal with.  And the spare tire.

But the cold! Killing me.  As did my post-pilates task for the long weekend: making chicken soup from scratch for my wife, who’s down with clogged sinuses.  This was the third round this winter of making stock, and one of the most successful.  The soup — chicken matzo ball — was good enough for the wife to take thirds, despite late-emerging matzo ball consistency challenges.  Unfortunately, the time spent hunched over the kitchen counter making a brunoise for the soup, skimming the fat from the stock, and cleaning the resulting mess was difficult.  Not terrible, really, but by the end of the four-hour (!!) process, I could definitely feel it.

In time, I probably will get used to this. But for now, I’m on my way to being able to enjoy one of my true joys in life again.  Unfortunately, making fuel for longer runs is going to be a bit more challenging.




Here’s to 2011… January 5, 2011

Posted by KG in Etc., Family, Running, Travels.
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…  though to be frank, I have few reasons to mourn the passing of 2010.  In the final ledger ’10 comes out in the black: trekking in the Himalayas, roadtripping in the Pacific NW, hiking in Zion National Park.  Returning to DC, a new job that was terrifying on paper that has proven to be rewarding in ways I didn’t expect, a chance to work in NYC.  A nice house in a nice neighborhood, all our belongings out of storage, and holidays with family.  The whole back injury, emergency surgery, ten pounds gained because the doc says no exercise thing put a damper on the end of the year, but overall things turned out just fine.

2011 could be even better.  Yesterday I managed two miles on the treadmill in 16 minutes — a slow pace, but the official benchmark my PT gave me for going ahead and running outdoors.  New work challenges pop up daily, but somehow they seem more predictable than they did months ago, or at least more understandable.  The wife and I are starting to talk travel destinations for the new year, and the whole of North America seems ripe for exploration. 

I’ve come to dislike both New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Resolutions because they are setups for disappointment.  Goals were more my thing, but unfortunately I failed spectacularly at all of the goals I set for 2010, with the possible exception of “eat more fish.”   When 2/3 of your goals are physical, a back injury will do that.  So this year I’ll pull back from “resolution” even more — a list of ideas for making 2011 a good year: 

Read more books. 

Approach problems calmly.  

Appease loved ones and anonymous admirers by blogging more.  

And most importantly, avoid debilitating medical conditions.

Wikileaks and Character December 3, 2010

Posted by KG in State.
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In A-100 (AKA FSO Indoctrination) we got a small taste of what it’s like to be in front of a difficult audience through a workshop called “Composure Under Fire.”   It’s a difficult training exercise to describe.  You learn how to deal with thinly veiled ad-hominem attacks, questions built on false premises, and the dreaded question you really don’t want to answer. 

The workshop, of course, is no real preparation for the real thing.  I’ve only had a couple of experiences being in front of a difficult audience myself, so I can claim no subject mastery.  But I have had the pleasure of watching some masters of the trade, and there appear to be some character traits that distinguish individuals with a genuine openness to discussion from those who refuse to acknowledge other opinions.  For one, no matter how seemingly illogical, small-minded, or off the mark the question is, you should treat your interlocutor(s) with basic respect and make a fair attempt at engaging the question.   Likewise, no question should be dismissed with a wave off, or sarcasm.   Disagree with the basic premise of the question?  Search for common ground.  Be Socratic.  When you say things that boil down to “that’s a stupid question,” you come across as arrogant.  

Which brings me to this excerpt from today’s webchat on the Guardian’s website with Julian Assange: 

I am a former British diplomat. In the course of my former duties I helped to coordinate multilateral action against a brutal regime in the Balkans, impose sanctions on a renegade state threatening ethnic cleansing, and negotiate a debt relief programme for an impoverished nation. None of this would have been possible without the security and secrecy of diplomatic correspondence, and the protection of that correspondence from publication under the laws of the UK and many other liberal and democratic states. An embassy which cannot securely offer advice or pass messages back to London is an embassy which cannot operate. Diplomacy cannot operate without discretion and the
protection of sources. This applies to the UK and the UN as much as the US.
In publishing this massive volume of correspondence, Wikileaks is not highlighting specific cases of wrongdoing but undermining the entire process of diplomacy. If you can publish US cables then you can publish UK telegrams and UN emails.
My question to you is: why should we not hold you personally responsible when next an international crisis goes unresolved because diplomats cannot function.

Julian Assange:
If you trim the vast editorial letter to the singular question actually asked, I would be happy to give it my attention.

Translation:  “The basic tenets of how your trade functions undermine the premise of my actions, and make them seem very irresponsible.  I choose to ignore the multiple credible individuals who have pointed my willful ignorance out to me, such as you, and will instead bask in the praise of armchair sycophants.  Correspondingly, I have no response.”  

This man is no hero.

Thursday Holidays in November: Dangerous* November 16, 2010

Posted 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.

The Operation October 21, 2010

Posted by KG in Etc., Family, fitness, Technology.

I took a taxi Wednesday morning to GW Hospital, driven by a nice 80 year-old Punjabi gentleman.  I’d developed the habit of stretching out/lying down on the back seat of cabs to alleviate some of the pain, and drivers had been more than willing to accommodate.  It’s amazing the sympathy and questions you get when you’re a taxi passenger going back and forth to a hospital, with an envelope full of MRI scans in your hand.  This particular taxi driver told me all about his wife, who had a much more extreme procedure on her back and didn’t recover well.  “Not the doctor’s fault though!” the driver said.  “She’s lazy and refused to walk after surgery for weeks.  She got blood clots!”

At GW, I walked to the surgical check-in desk, which was up a flight of stairs.  The walk from the doors to the desk was short but torturous, and I couldn’t breathe by the time I got there.  Of course there were no seats or benches at the check in, and I still had a batch of forms to fill out. I begged the woman behind the desk to bring me the forms at “that sofa– the empty one, right over there!,” gesticulating wildly towards an empty sofa where I planned on lying down. “But you still need to fill these forms out,” she said.  I explained, near hyperventilating from pain, that both sitting and standing were extremely painful and could she take pity because I’m getting surgery on my spine.  Nada.  It was one of the worst moments of this ordeal — a completely clueless hospital staff member so stuck on procedure that she couldn’t think of context.  Having done my own time on bureaucratic procedure (visas in India for two years!), I knew the psychology behind what was going on, and how easy a fix could be, which frustrated me all the more.  Luckily, a nurse saw me sweating and cursing sotto voce, and took me out of the situation before I actually fell down.  I got the forms done on the sofa, and was swiftly taken in back to a gurney to get prepped for surgery.

And there my waiting began.  I was told my surgery would be at 1:30, but that I was an add-on, which I guess is the surgical equivalent of stand-by.  It made sense; my need had come up suddenly, and they just had to squeeze me in.  Waiting was irritating, but I had diversions.  I finished reading “No God but God,” eavesdroppped on fellow patients, and took up playing an awful lot of Angry Birds. (so addictive!!)  A good 4-5 hours later than planned, the doctors started coming by to brief and prep me.  Sounds like a long delay, but given that I was on surgical stand by, I was lucky to even get in.  The surgeon was clear that it was either yesterday or ten days from now, and things could only get worse inbetween.

The doctors told me all about the procedure — a microdiscectomy/laminotomy on my L5 S1 disc, which had actually extruded around my nerve column.  “That thing is huge!” my surgeon said (giggle.)  The extrusion was so large that the doctor was speechless when I saw him Tuesday.  He explained why before operating: “I’ve only seen extrusions like this twice before, and we went in to surgery immediately because the patients couldn’t walk.  You’re lucky you’ve been moving.”  Lucky or stubborn, I guess.

They wheeled me back to surgery around 5:30 or 6, right after I took off my wedding ring and glasses and turned them in to be locked up. They had music playing in the OR, though I don’t remember exactly what it was.  The surgical intern was on her second-to-last day, and the anesthesiologist mentioned that the tunes of choice for my surgery were likely to be Lady Gaga, but that I wouldn’t exactly be singing along.  He hooked something up to an IV, put a mask on my nose and…

… the next thing I remember was coughing like crazy and begging for something to spit in.  I was also incredibly cold, shaking like a leaf.  I was in an unfamiliar place in the hospital.  The nurses got me swaddled in hospital-best quality sheets, and I spit profuse amounts of phlegm from my still-irritated throat.  It was two hours after my surgery.  I had no recollection of anything.  (Up until yesterday, I had never gone under general anesthesia, so this was totally new.)  For the next hour or so, I slowly rose out of a fog. I put my wedding ring back on and thought of the wife, so far away.  I put my glasses back on and decided to talk to the nurse, a really nice Filipina lady who told me (hah!) about the endless wait she was going through trying to get green cards for her adult kids.  I drank a ton of water and was pumped full of pain killers.  At one point, I was allowed to get up and go to the bathroom (I refused a bedpan), and found much to my surprise that the standing pain was gone.

I got in to a private room around 9 PM. They fed me a gross, dry turkey sandwich and told me to get comfortable for the night.  Through a percocet haze, I watched the Giants pull a sweet victory against the Phillies, and I watched a dancing Golden Retriever on Letterman.  More Angry Birds was played.  Every few hours, I had my vitals taken, and got a few more pain pills, antiinflammatories, and antibiotics.  I couldn’t sleep, so I sent emails all around.  The room was warm, but that’s probably because my legs were swaddled in super-attractive LeBron style compression socks, as well as machines to prevent blood clotting.

This morning I got full readouts from the doctors and anesthesiologists (I had received partial reports the night before.)  Everything had gone as planned.  There was a ton of disc bumping on my nerve, which was rubbed raw but not damaged.  The incision was exactly the size they expected, an inch long and an inch deep.  The procedure took an hour.  I forgot to ask if they really listened to Lady Gaga.  After those doctors, I saw a set of other people — physical therapists, who told me about the recovery timeline; various nurses and techs to tend to my wounds; the attending orthopedist on the floor who was younger than me and impressed by my injury.  The experience the morning after surgery was long and boring; though all my paperwork was done and I was ready to discharge at 10:30, I didn’t manage to leave the hospital until after noon.  I filled the dead time with phone calls and highly detailed emails to loved ones, friends, bosses, and random well wishers.  I tweeted like crazy.

Speaking of random well-wishers: thank you.  Seriously.  The supportive thought meant a great deal, and I’ve learned to not hesitate when I have the opportunity to pay the kindness I’ve been shown forward.  Also, a major thanks is owed to the HTC corporation, who made my smartphone (seriously).  My phone has been my lifeline through this whole ordeal, helping me fill the time, pass and receive messages, and move/share vital information.  I think I would have gone mad without it, and am making it a mission to get my wife one when she gets back (on Tuesday!).

I was wheeled out of the hospital and hailed a taxi home.  I sat up straight in the back seat, with no pain, and am doing the same now as I type this blog entry from a love seat in my living room. Earlier, I walked to the grocery store and bought a sandwich.  I took some trash (the light stuff!) out.  Recovery is going to be a long road and is going to require patience, but I’ve been through some terrible experiences dealing with this injury already and am prepared.  I am many things, but I am not a lazy man. Bring. It. On.