Saturday, December 15, 2012

Fun, State Department Style

Word came down last week from our language overlords that all sections in Indonesian language training would be attending a "Holiday Party" last Friday. We were told that the language teachers would be preparing authentic Indonesian dishes for lunch (woo-hoo!) and that we would be responsible for choosing and creatively presenting a holiday-related presentation to the class (boo!).

We have reached the point in our studies where we are vocabulary-building by the day, with less new grammar concepts. The level of pain we suffer depends on the reading level of materials assigned on a given day. Once in a while, they hit us with stuff that has us in our dictionaries for long stretches, but for the most part we are okay and learning our way to our required score by accretion, picking up a little each day. Complacency of a sort has settled in.

Well, just throw an opportunity to create a Powerpoint onto the table, and suddenly everyone is an over-competitive ninja. Transitions, shadow effects on block letters, and continuity between different contributions all suddenly became important. Each section kept their presentation secret while attempting to "accidentally" find where the others had saved theirs. We figured we would trot out our presentations, have some lunch, and hit the skids.

Instead the day before the event we were emailed a daily schedule that included many hours of "games" (we ain't talking about Monopoly, more like Jeopardy! Indonesia). In addition to our planned presentation there would be another extemporaneous one, and many more! Then the kicker: the head of Student Language Services AND the head of the East-Asia Pacific Languages Division would be joining the head of the Indonesian Section at the "party" to monitor our progress, I mean, join in the festivities.

Now, I have been to office Christmas parties before, and I can't say they were all tons of fun, but as long as you didn't drink enough to tell your boss what you REALLY felt or become the subject of an embarrassing picture or video, you didn't have to worry about work so much.

In my new job, attending "social events" and working hard at them is part of the gig. Yes, everyone will be in party clothes, and there will be yummy snacks and beverages, but brother, you are at work and don't forget it. For my classmates who were on their 2nd tour or more, this was no surprise. Being exhausted at the end of a party because I was working is a new experience for me. Here in the Foreign Service, we work in many different and dangerous environments, and do it for as long as the job requires. Today's Foreign Service is much more than the "striped-pants cookie pushers" of old. But we still ride to the sound of the champagne toasts in service to our country.


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Great Seal

Somehow in the battles and shuffles between the different departments of our government since the founding, the State Department ended up being the guardian of the Great Seal of the United States. I have seen the contraption, used to place a big sticker-like thing (the yellow circle in the picture to the left) on official documents executed in the name of the United States. You know, things like treaties or, in my case, commissions for Foreign Service Officers!

A classmate of mine that is working at Main State sent out an email that he saw people using the seal and stopped to look in, only to see a commission for one of our A-100 classmates. So we knew these were coming, but it was still very cool. When I went to pick up mine, the folks in personnel said congratulations. I worried I would drop it on the Metro tracks or have it blow out of my hands on the way home. I managed to make it home without incident.

President Obama and Secretary Clinton's autopens signed the thing, and speaking as a nerd I have to say I find it very cool. I don't think either of them know that they have placed "...special trust in my Integrity, Prudence, and Ability..." but it's pretty neat having a piece of parchment that says so.

Seeing it helps put things like months more of language training in perspective, as I can see where the tedium today is a means to be able to act as a Consular Officer and Secretary in the Diplomatic Service in Jakarta next year.


Friday, November 30, 2012

Mid-Term Evaluations Today

Well, today was the mid-term progress test in Bahasa Indonesia. Yesterday we had a listening lab exercise which went OK, but not perfect. Then today started with a speaking test that lasted about an hour. It included general conversation, then make a presentation/role play, and finished with interviewing one person in Indonesian about a topic and then relating the question and answer in English to another. High stress, and while I mispronounced a word or two and felt like I could have done better, I didn't throw up and fall off my chair. What does your first formal test in front of professional language instructors in an unfamiliar language feel like? This unfortunate video captures the feeling exactly:

By the way, his day job is bread seller, and "ding dong dang deng" sounds like Indonesian but those aren't real words. After the trainwreck, he asks for comments. They try to be nice, but it is hard. Then on his way out the host asks him to come back and counts 1, 2, 3... and we're off. Represent, 12582! Represent, my brother.

They said I was meeting expectations for speaking at this time. So, while I might get assigned to the short bus because of this, it won't be the shortest bus. Hooray! The reading went much better, or so I have convinced myself.

Selamat akhir minggu (happy weekend)!


Sunday, November 25, 2012

They Also Serve Who Conjugate Verbs...

Well, it's been since shortly after A-100 ended that I wrote a post. What's been happening since then? Bahasa Indonesia, that's what. And not just "where's the bathroom?" kind of Indonesian, but the "what did the Prime Minister of Japan just say about China's latest actions in the South China Sea?" kind.

The days go by slowly, but the months are rushing by. Here is a typical day in language class:

Ride to Work- on the bus to FSI to begin the day, small cup of coffee from the apartment;

Hour 1- into the language lab for an hour of listening practice, including BBC Indonesia, fill in the blanks from instructors, and soaps from Mivo.

Hours 2-3- Two hours of intensive speaking practice. Usually 15-20 new words introduced. 2nd cup of coffee, usually Starbucks Sumatra (yay Indonesia!).


Hours 4-5- Two hours of intensive reading practice. 15-20 more words introduced. Diet soda also introduced.

HOME for 1-1.5 hour nap.

HOMEWORK 1.5-2.5 hours.



We have learned that if we work hard we will be able to put 15-20 words in the recognition (I know it when I see it) circle, and only 5-7 of those in the production (I can come up with it on my own) circle. With 40-50 new words a day, you can see that task #1 is avoiding the soul-crushing feeling of inadequacy as words flow by and you can't even remember them the next day.

I used to always be aware of the day and date. To make sure I am following the schedule, I still keep track of the day. But the date is irrelevant for the most part, so that part of my brain has been reformatted to contain the difference between masalah- problem and kesulitan-difficulty. Now, our classrooms don't look like the picture above. There are hexagonal tables, smart boards and the ability to play videos and be very interactive. But you know what? At the end of the day there really isn't any way to avoid just memorizing a truckload of words and grammar. Pimsleur Method, Rosetta Stone, subliminal tapes, all those just get you started. Between you and graduation is 7-8 hours a day at the coalface, plugging away.

It is getting better. I think I am doing OK, though progress tests this week will tell me if I am sniffing glue on that one. But it ain't because I am great at language. It is because I am reasonably intelligent. motivated by a desire to do well, and required to spend a long time on one thing. If I practiced free throws 7-8 hours a day I still wouldn't be NBA-caliber, but I would improve a lot.

And yet... I have begun to actually think in Indonesian. This is a huge step from translation, and to be celebrated. When I can dream in the language, it will get even better. Finally I will be able to tell a joke on myself in Indonesian, and then I will be on my way.

Terima kasih for reading, and sampai nanti- until later.


Friday, November 16, 2012

Hey, Sailor...

Hey sailor, you need a date?

Language classes are intense. At FSI you can tell who the language class students are because they've ditched the suit, are toting backpacks and have a look of dread about them- probably most noticeable on their "presentation" day. It's not a fun part of the training, apparently. I wish Sean had the time or desire to write a post about it- maybe soon?

Since September I've had to revert to extreme measures in order to get Sean's attention or lure him away from his Bahasa Indonesia books but last weekend our computer decided to burn its guts out, which meant Sean had to leave his brain cave (computer corner) at some point. We had to take it into someone to fix but we sort of knew it was going to be bad news, which is really sad because that computer wasn't old at all, but most concerning to us was the amount of IMPORTANT stuff we had saved on that one. Would it all be lost? We had tons of files that are important plus pictures of our youngest son's birth family (we are very fortunate to have such a thing) and the videos. We saved several videos of him with his birth mom. The thought of losing all of that is unthinkable to us! I have those saved on my laptop as well but each copy lost is one less copy and that's not cool with me. Anyway, we dropped off the dusty CPU at the geek squad (whatever) where we learned that the CPU motor had burned out.   We were like..."Oh, that's why the computer was making that weird electric-ish burn smell last night." Then our guy directed us to buy a case for the hard drive- which worked great! This allowed us to retrieve all those precious videos and photos. But- the bad news was we needed to buy a new computer, the whole thing. Shopping had to be done, asap! Homework assignments were on hold without that computer.

 So, there was my chance for a date! My suami (pronounced Swah- meee /meaning husband in B. Indonesia) had finally gotten out of the house and was breathing real air - and that was all it took, he had broken free from book prison.

Here's where we went..
Old Town Alexandria, Va

Old Town is a beautiful old colonial neighborhood with all kinds of shops and interesting things to see.

This is the Torpedo Factory Art Center which is this beyond cool art palace. Imagine a place that was once an actual torpedo factory, filled with galleries and actual artist's studios and classrooms. It's a very friendly place- it's just amazing! Some of the artists are literally in there- like actually sitting there creating things and they say stuff like- "Welcome, hello!" as you walk into their space. It's incredible. The word incredible doesn't quite cut it... it's just so COOL- you gotta go see it and experience it for yourself.

This picture is of artist Kathy Beynette  (I really enjoy her stuff) who was there on the day we went. The Torpedo Factory is at the very end of Route 7, can't miss it if you drive all the way through Old Town Alexandria.

Behind the Torpedo Factory is a little boat dock and restaurant nook. It's just very quaint and has a great feel to it all. As you can see in the picture, we weren't the only couple taking a break. Looks like she caught her a sailor looking for a date, too!

There were beautiful boats of all types, cafes and street musicians, too. I happen to LOVE street musicians! Our favorite one here was this Asian guy, wearing a Russian fur hat as he blasted out a tune on his bagpipes. What more could you want? If you look closely through the red doors you can see him outside- sans the hat.

I would highly recommend spending a day visiting Old Town. It will take you back in time, sort of... I mean, it's hard to do that when there are so many modern things around, but it has maintained it's charm, that's for sure.

This is O'Connell's where we had a little refreshment break. Then we stepped out to stroll up and down the street a bit before we happened upon this crazy awesome ice cream place called Pop's Old Fashioned Ice Cream. Loved the ice cream place, we just loved it!

 Can I just say how incredibly different our little adventures are here in the DC area compared to life back on the Tx/Mx border? It's hard to explain just how much our world has changed in the last four months, since leaving Laredo. This is a picture of our old favorite date place- La Posada Hotel, where we would sit outside on this patio to enjoy a margarita and a plate of panchos!

If anyone is close to the Tx/Mx border and misses a chance to enjoy this little spot I sure do feel sorry for them. This place is a treat and should enjoyed regularly. This patio is just out the back doors of the Zaragoza Grill- in case you are wondering :)

And, if Old Town isn't your thing, then I would recommend a visit to Great Falls National Park. We basically went the opposite direction from Old Town, up the George Washington Pkwy and found our way from there. We got there a few weeks too late to see the trees changing, that would have been beautiful but even as it was, we enjoyed being anything other than studying.  

Add caption
Okay, for an idea of the size/scale of these falls and rocks look upward on the left, you'll see a man wearing bright colors standing on a rock. He's a kayaking instructor standing there in order to help a class of newbies make through this maze of terror. Fun to watch from Lookout #2. 

He made it! Whew, that was a lot of work!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

A Lesson On Resiliency and a Parent's Nightmare- Part 2

A Lesson On Resiliency and a Parent's Nightmare.... Part 2

As it so happens, and totally by accident I came across this little gem at a dusty thrift store a week before the seminar I mentioned in Part One.

 Mexican High by Liza Monroy - Random House

 Those who really know me would agree that I'm often moved by books. I've been known to have deep pangs of conscience that cause me to want to change the whole landscape of my life after reading an eye opening book or two. Well, Mexican High falls into that category.

It is a fiction based on the real experiences of a US diplomat's daughter who moves to Mexico City during her senior year and begins honing her skills as a writer through that experience. That's the gentle summary. My opinionated summary- It's a chilling "coming of age" story about a young lady with either whack-job or completely absent parents, too much freedom and a disturbing inability to see impending danger in her choices and relationships. I suppose the author would say her protagonist was sufficiently resilient because she made it through her senior year mostly in one piece and mostly without therapy, at times completely heartbroken and alone, other times triumphant and able to see her mistakes.

It seems like some of the kids we know here have shared in several of the same experiences as the girl in the book (not just the alcohol and drug part) and it just seems ironic to me that while I was learning about some of them round around the same time I started reading the book- and then we went to that seminar where we heard the older FS kids speak. It was like a veil was lifted and I could see it- and it was not what I had originally pictured (for better and worse).

Most readers don't know my background but I have worked with kids for years- middle and high school kids mostly- in various settings. I teach art and somehow I often come across kids who are struggling with "stuff". This painting on the left was painted by one of my students at a child advocacy center where the kids were either in the foster system or in counseling for abuse. So, when I hear about my kids' friends who are in a hard spot I naturally want to invite them over and pull out the acrylic paints and get them painting something! So, please believe me- I write this not as a critique of FS kids, but as a person who cares and has some experience working with kids who need a safe place to unload. This is what I do- I encourage. As I heard the stories and read this book, I ached for the kids because I know from personal experience that what seems harmless now can be a heartache later. This FS thing brings up a new genre of stuff I am not exactly sure how to deal with just yet- not with my own kids much less someone else's. I suppose that as I write this blog post I am waiting for answer to dawn in my head. It may not come like that, it may be a matter of experience- thus living out the seminar's resiliency theory.

So, if you are a parent and possible applicant for the Foreign Service and you're wondering if your middle/high school kid is going to survive this lifestyle- I'm sure you will want to run out and get this book. It is absolutely worth reading but you MUST keep in mind that it is fiction and therefore some of it will be quite exaggerated. I think it should be required reading for families who are going taking older kids to Mexico City, for sure. Some of her cultural anecdotes and descriptions are so spot on!

One big "Ah ha!" for me was the way the character in the book explained the myriad of crap that comes with moving your senior year. Seriously, the stuff Milagro (main character's name) has expressed has basically jolted me out of denial on some of the feelings my daughter has probably experienced due our move here- thus softening my heart for Hannah beyond just feeling guilt over it.

And, though rarely mentioned, this book also reminds us that the kids from missionary families are not immune to searching for ways to cope and blend in, either. According the book, at the Mexico City International school they are faced with doing as the Romans do or they are marginalized and often stay in a huddle. That makes me think that the peer pressure level is pretty outrageous for those extroverted kids who want to feel included.

Look, I don't want to make crazy assumptions here. But, when I compare the stories I do know and those from the book, they are close enough that they make me think it just might be pretty accurate.  So far, I think this book has a level of "believable" that I found both helpful and terrifying.

 Also- a helpful tool if you are in the early bidding process: a link to the various drinking ages worldwide as of 2010.

When stuff like Benghazi and this book and all the junk that it seems to confirm, we (Sean and I) are forced to see cost of following our heart. I get afraid and want to run back to my comfort zone but how silly of me not to think that serious concerns aren't also waiting there, right? Somehow, by the grace of God I keep on course and remember the game plan. I am reminded that when I keep my eyes on God, everything else falls into proper perspective.

Philippians 1:6        

Saturday, November 3, 2012

A Lesson On Resiliency and A Parent's Nightmare- Part One

"Let's draw what we feel exemplifies a resilient person" said the instructor of the FSI seminar #XYZ. Another instructor handed out a big poster board and a handful of markers to each table. The room was filled with approx. 50 parents all hoping to raise resilient children in this very cool but very complex Foreign Service (FS) lifestyle. We had all signed up hoping to hear we were giving our kids the best of all possibilities -a first person world view coupled with the high achieving international school/dual language lifestyle. Most of the parents had younger children and had already experienced a few foreign tours. The instructors explained that each table/group had a about 20 minutes to talk about it and draw something that represented our table's idea of a "resilient person." Most groups drew something that showed a figure being unusually flexible and happy. One group's poster was of a stick figure that was jumping over "life hurdles." The stick person had a glass of fresh water in its hand like a runner's baton. I think it had something to do with our kids having an understanding and take on global issues. Also, the drawing had an orange sun beaming from the upper right corner, representing an "optimistic attitude." All were well thought out and you could tell everyone was sort of on the same wavelength. And then there was this one...

Yep! This was the one from my group's table (actually, it's a very close recreation)-

Hannah (our poster artist) was shy at first about joining the discussion about resiliency but when she realized that the instructor was basically describing the cool FS kids she has gotten to know, she was suddenly our portal to FS realities. Once she drew the "wine in the backpack" (see above) one of the ladies in our group actually validated that and said she hoped her daughter would know how to enjoy wine one day. Hannah drew what she felt was the true resilient FS kid- according to her experience. So, blame me, the party-pooper extraordinaire who forced my 18 yr old, Sr. in high school daughter to join me (MUCH to her chagrin) for this particular seminar. But, because she is a strong young lady she not only contributed most of the "resilient kid" info, she also volunteered to stand up and present the poster for our group (and afterwards received a supportive round of applause)! One lady at our table seemed very uncomfortable with the wine and smoking thing. She has younger kids and honestly, I completely understood and share her feelings of concern. I didn't want to make FS kids synonymous with addictive vices, either! But, Hannah's dose of reality for the parents in the room meant that all of us dorks who had hoped to be told that "resilient kid" meant patriotic, centered kids who went out- saw the world and came home wise, inspired and fully bilingual- were in for a little "awakening".

The truth is Hannah knows several of the older FS kids due to living at Oakwood and going to a Falls Church high school known for it's prestigious IB program. She is new to the school and we are all new to the Foreign Service but Hannah has been able to pick up on some of the "between the lines" stuff I would have never noticed just looking at the group of kids who all huddle in the darkness waiting for the bus each morning. So, the truth? A lot, or most, of these kids party, apparently. For weeks she had been telling me how different and how "grown up" the experienced FS kids seem, seniors especially. "Grown-up" meaning (represented in the drawing above) drinking maturely, NOT kids getting drunk and acting stupid on kool-aid and vodka, we're talking about savvy, cool kids who are years beyond that- they know the difference between a Shiraz and a Cab. Honestly, I sort of figured she was over stating it, that is until the second half of the seminar, which was a Q & A session that included a live panel of 3 young adults- just out of college- FS kids. Their part of the presentation was meant to give us all a chance to ask questions and get a deeper understanding of their FS experiences. They were asked a lot of good questions by the parents in the room. There was a lot of food for thought after that seminar. It's stuff like this live panel that is probably the number one reason I love these seminars. I can't remember the question that prompted this but, one of the panelists in particular mentioned and  validated the "wine in the backpack" thing, explaining that most kids had a driver and that drinking was "okay and the norm" because you didn't have to worry about driving yourself home after a night out and since there was no real legal drinking age in most these countries it was sort of what everyone did (NOT what I wanted to hear being from an AA family, myself). So, I can safely assume that drinking and FS kids are sort of a "thing?" Okay... I'm more than a little concerned about this as it pertains to my three kids.

So... how exactly did partying and whatever else become part of the "resiliency" seminar for me? I'm still not sure, but according to the information they gave us, resiliency can be learned by experiencing things (FS kids experience 80% more loss, moving, etc. than the average American kid) and we FS parents can encourage healthy ways of working through and coping with those experiences by teaching our kids how best to deal with them. But how? I would LOVE to have some foreign post experienced parents who have older kids who have dealt with this to chime in and leave a comment- Please! (or email me offline if you are more comfortable with that)

When a crisis happens, another move, another best friend moves away, a scary report from the RSO (do the kids deal with that actually?) and last but not least- returning to the US, which the panelists all agreed was much more difficult for them than living at foreign posts, how do parents promote resiliency? In my experience/opinion it usually boils down to "our kids will do as we do" meaning we are teaching them by modeling behavior and habits whether we realize it or not. We all need healthy habits of dealing with stress before the crisis hits, but we don't really grow those kinds of muscles until the crisis hits, right?

Sean and I try but we miss the mark and usually take the long way around. We pray and then forget that we just asked God to help us, then resume our futile attempts at controlling the situation.
It's difficult!  So, yeah, I'm not at all surprised that the kids my daughter has deemed resilient are martini and wine drinkers at 17 or 18- because chances are that enjoying a nip at dinner is what their parents do to chill out after a long day. I'm not judging. Trust me, I am totally in the same boat. So, no- I don't think it is just an effect of having a driver and loose laws on alcohol- but that CERTAINLY adds to the probability of them drinking at a young age. So, Hannah's cool FS kid/resilient person poster at the seminar was not too far from reality at all. Again, I would love to talk to parents who are dealing with these things out in the field! There has to be some good examples out there!!!!! I've heard over and over that exercise helps de-stress and of course, talking and spending time with your kids. What works for you all?

I have been through a lot of training on Resiliency being an adoptive parent of an older child. Our training on this was required by our agency, thank goodness. In that setting we first learned that resiliency is something we are often born with, a natural thing, a DNA identified gene that about 75% of us are born with, so most of us have some organic dose (usually one of the two halves of the gene). This type of resiliency is evidenced by how well we bonded with our parents as infants, how we bounce back after failure, how we respond to upset/loss, or how we process a traumatic experience, maintain relationships etc.. This gene is also believed to help determine the vulnerability toward substance dependence or abuse- interestingly enough. Though the presence of resiliency is not up to us, maintaining flexibility and security is something that can be shaped and encouraged through skillful parenting/modeling. No pressure or anything :) It's an interesting thing to study, for sure, and there are lots of articles written on the subject!

I believe the State Dept/Foreign Service has done a good job screening applicants to make sure that they are resilient people before they are ever hired but that represents the applicant, not necessarily their spouse/partner or children. This where these seminars come in handy, I suppose. Frankly, I think our family's stress coping habits might need a little tweaking, which will require more than a seminar and a handout.

To be continued....

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

3 Months Into The FS: Life in Northern VA/DC

Who could use a fun a post? Me!!!!

Here are a few rambling thoughts on life in the DC/Northern Virginia area:

Note- we are three months in to our new digs. We are growing in our understanding of life as a FS family. We are learning oh so much about politics and how well respected professions can get thrown under the bus (oops! did I say that???) when the blame game starts and how incredibly difficult it is to not blast our opinions all over the usual social media sites. But, today- I am choosing to focus on the lighter side and going to do my usual public relations bit. I love having the chance to welcome the next round of A-100 families to the area and give friends and family all over the place a little insight how interesting life is in Northern Virginia.

These are a few of the things we do here-

Spend money

Ex. Just today at Westover Farmer's Market- Paid $21 at the Number ONE Sons stand for the BEST mustard sauerkraut, cumin carrots and pretty darn good (but not exactly Mexican) salsa verde! It's pricey but who can resist sauerkraut or Farmer's Markets?

 Since moving here our grocery bill has at least doubled. We are not eating more. We are not eating out that much. We are not eating fancier food (unless by fancy you would include home grown stuff from farmer's markets). Nope... same stuff, lesser quality (veggies and fruits especially) and at least doubled in price. Except for Trader Joe's which is my absolute favorite place to shop at when HEB isn't close by.

Miss exits

You get ONE shot. Seriously. Only one notice. One! And the sign seems to appear about a 1/4 mile before the exit comes up so you best stay calm and in the center lane as much as possible. There is no feeder road for chickens like me. I don't know if that is just a Texas thing but I used feeder roads when I didn't know for sure where I was going. So, pretend you've missed your exit, if you are me you are thinking... "I'll just take the next exit and loop back".  Right? Well, Good luck! The truth is you can do that but if you do you can add 30 mins to your driving time. Best thing is to map out everything you can before you leave the house and compare the computer map with your drive thing on your phone/gps. BTW- the traffic here isn't that bad, or not by my experience. It's like any big city that is in a hurry.

Discover funky urban corners

We've found a few. Adam's Morgan and 18th was a welcome departure from the federal formality and marbled floors that are so common here. We were invited to go to this really good Ethiopian food restaurant on 18th but just hanging out in the neighborhood was worth the time it took for us to find parking. If you are coming to DC you must go to Adam's Morgan- if you enjoy life a little more on the casual side. The bright colors and fun stuff appeared a few turns after an extremely upscale area. It was like entering a whole new world. Adam's Morgan has an Austin/6th street vibe- minus the cool music. Think - hemp rope hooka joints, ethnic home cooking/spices, roof top bars, New York pizza stands and roasted coffee shops all piled up in an urban potpourri of sweaty humanity. Don't expect customer service or anything, and I'd bring cash, but you should make this spot a bucket list DC thing. You'll get an evening's worth of entertainment from just strolling up and down the streets.

Wait for the Orange Line

I love the freedom of taking my Metro Pass card and slapping it down on that screen thing as I get my turn in the pass through. I proudly blend in when I'm tromping down the broken escalator steps (on the left side- because I'm moving quick like a local nowadays) to the variously colored veins and arteries of life here in the DC area. Lately though, the Orange Line has seen some construction delays and it can take a while to see my "Vienna" pop up on the screen. It's worth the wait. One day soon, they will have completed the stop at Tyson's Corner and life will be forever be retail paradise.

The subways here seem to miss out on the arts and oddities that I loved so much while visiting San Francisco and attempts to make up for that by blasting political messages that provoke me to ponder/think about what the writer of such a message really wants from me. Some just make me wonder what the world is coming to... and that begets a whole other genre of thought, which causes me to put my ipod to good use, thus once again causing me to compare Metro to the BART (name of subway in SF). I so miss that dude with the dreds and a saxophone!

Eat amazing food

Well known among close friends is that our family is entirely too "food focused". We love the whole thing, especially the international stuff. We especially get a big kick out being the people who introduce friends and family to the newest or yummiest thing in foodie heaven. This place (Northern Virginia/DC), however, is doing the introducing this time, except for when it comes to Mexican food of course. Our family's favorite new find... Afghan cuisine! Who knew? The savory kabobs, the best falafel I've ever eaten-EVER, the simple but yummy rice and salads. It's fresh and the spices are just about perfect. I have big plans to learn how to cook as many of these recipes as possible before we head out to Jakarta -which naturally brings me to a point I have tried my best to avoid, both mentally and conversationally, but here it goes... I'm a bit worried about the food choices we'll have in Jakarta. Can I admit that without sounding like a white meat only-, processed foods-loving American? I'm willing to try just about anything but am cautious when it comes to meat (pretty much always the case for me-even stateside) and it seems that Indonesians like to use a little bit of meat or fish in just about every dish. This could make for a tricky food romance! In the past, when traveling outside the US, I usually go totally vegetarian. It's the safest bet for me and I almost always order the best food when I do! Who knows... maybe I will actually lose weight. That would be a welcome change!

Go hiking

I'll admit that we are not avid hikers, but Sean and I have a particular love affair with packing a backpack and heading outdoors. Only one of our kids seems to appreciate our affection for walking up hill in earthy tree filled places. Truly, one of the best things about being in this part of the country is being in close proximity to such beautiful countryside. Close by there is the popular Great Falls Park along the Potomac. But, a really big thrill for Sean and I was a recent trip to Cooper's Rock State Forest in wild wonderful West Virginia! The pictures posted here barely do it justice. Such a beautiful state and a nature lover's paradise, and only 3 and half hours away!

As young newlyweds we climbed this same hill and found some lady to take our picture. That was 21 years ago! Unfortunately, that picture but it's in storage otherwise I would share it here. This photo -being taken at this place- at this particular time in our lives is fairly symbolic for both Sean and I, not even the raindrops and fear of falling to our deaths could keep us away!

Attempt to sound out all the personalized license plates

I have no idea what the fascination is but there are plenty of DC and Virginia drivers paying extra (I assume) for personalized license plates. Honestly, I think it's great that folks care enough to entertain their traffic jam compadres with tricky riddles. You can tell these people put a lot of thought into their choices.

Here are a few "PA YO TXS", "OFR HOPE", "MMOF4", "CRE8JOBS", B8SPLYR",
my favorite... "B& aid".

I suppose personalizing your license plate offers folks a chance to express creativity and uniqueness in what is probably a very uptight, and heavily regulated work environment. Anyway, it's fun and worth noting.

Walk the dog
I'll spare our readers the grizzly details of dog duty but this routine is getting OLD for all of us- including the dog. She loved her giant yard in Laredo- it was all HERS. This mostly white, fluffy little girl kept our back yard free of all evil intruders. Mostly, her job was to chase all those darn black birds away from the tomato plants. But lately, she has to ask to go out and then has to walk down many flights of steps or wait for the elevator, and then she has to "go" where all the other dogs "go". No privacy. No running free. No birds to terrify. She's older so that helps but she's pretty cold here so the trade off is she gets to sit around in pretty doggy sweaters.


Is this idea specifically American- this far fetched expectation that our kids have to be some picture perfect "ideal" of a human? If so- pack us up and send us on to Jakarta as fast as possible! I'm not joking in the least. I'm truly disgusted. While I think the schools here are AWESOME, because they seem to be, this area of the country must have some seriously stressed out kids!
 Apparently, teenagers are supposed to have perfect grades, and play an instrument, and be outstanding at sports. They should follow social protocol (pretend to like you), self aware, politically in tune (you'd hope) and on top of current events. Their clothes are nice. They all believe that they MUST be accepted to a "top" university. They go to the gym, dermatologists, orthodontists, and church. They choose healthy foods. This is a true story, a girl at a youth group told Hannah that their family was completely fat free- to which Hannah replied "Wow, really? That sucks!" The young lady didn't laugh or smile. She just looked at Hannah, completely void of a sense of humor. Sadly, there are more stories to add to that one.
So, what's the big pay off for being able to swim upstream in this hyper competitive environment? These kids will supposedly be better at handling stress and are therefore more prepared for college life, which will lead to a good job, which will earn them lots of money or influence.. which (brace yourself...)  IS NOT ALWAYS TRUE!
Maybe I'm writing this at a really raw moment. Today I had a medical professional reaffirm what a school professional and a therapist told us earlier in the year, that most of the kids in the high schools around here have tutors, life/organizational coaches, and most will seek counseling at some point in their high school years for help dealing with the stress. A lady behind the counter at a local pharmacy told me that an inordinate amount of the people, especially high school and college students, in this neck of the woods are on some sort of anti-anxiety meds. Well... good LORD on a bicycle, I'm no M.D. but that says to me that SOMETHING is wrong! If it takes a team of helpers and a cocktail of pharmaceuticals to keep your kid in the game- get a new game!

What is going to happen to all these kids when they realize it wasn't true? That they didn't have to be perfect! When do they tell them that Santa isn't real or that they knew all along that they weren't actually good at everything? That you have limits to your abilities and that these limits are NOT bad things! This whole lie fosters a concept that they are only lovable, important, worthwhile if they are meeting these crazy pie-in-the-sky goals, if they look good on paper. And- that really, really worries me for these kids who are getting emotionally sick trying to do "their best" which is actually someone else's fantasy. What if they are flawed? Do they feel lovable, or good enough? What is going to happen to these kids if they grow up and give birth to an imperfect child? What is going to happen to them when their character and/or creativity is called upon at their job or life in general? They are being so incredibly over directed and lied to, and THAT concerns me.
This whole place makes me want to have a license plate that says, "stressuks"!

Okay, I realize I failed to produce a fun post, so here is something that might make you laugh...

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Cairo and Benghazi

Here is a statement delivered by Secretary Clinton on the events of yesterday. I urge you to watch the whole thing:

Her expressions of anger, loss, and resolve reflected my own feelings very well.

It was a subdued day today at work, as you might imagine. Lots of people during breaks gathered around the televisions, watching cable news for the latest information on yesterday's events. Being all of eight weeks into my new career, I obviously didn't know the diplomats killed in Libya. But after hearing their biographies and listening to some veteran officers today, I know the type. Peace Corps or military service volunteer, posted to an area on a first assignment and continuing to invest a life to become an expert in a part of the world. From language, to history, to culture and politics, the time and training combine with care and motivation to turn an officer into a "hand," someone who can be called on to accurately give context and advice, and take action when things go sideways on the other side of the world. 

Ambassador Stevens was just such a person. From his Peace Corps work in Morocco through his career, he became our go-to diplomat in Libya. What a friend the Libyan people lost yesterday. I think about him, and FSO Sean Smith. Assigned to The Hague, and on a TDY (temporary duty assignment) to Libya, leaving behind a wife and two kids. They will never get their husband and father back. Two others were also lost, but their names and stories are not yet released.

And then I think about the members of my A-100 class. People who came into the Foreign Service with Peace Corps and language skills, that are being posted soon around the world. Some of us will move from region to region and bureau to bureau. Some of us will find "home" bureaus, and end up becoming Asia hands, or Africa hands. Some of us are going places that we already know are trouble, and are HAPPY to go. Others of us will be in places that right now seem safe, but could explode tomorrow. Ask anyone who was mildly disappointed with a two-year tour in "boring" Egypt in 2010. You just never know, and if you are totally risk-averse, you should choose a different career. I said earlier I know the type. I know it because I saw them in my A-100 class. Happy to go to dangerous, unaccompanied posts. People I know will be targets for our enemies now and in the years to come because they will be so damn good at their jobs. I can only hope I will be one of the good ones, too.

It's been a hard day. If you are in my line of work and didn't think about Ambassador Stevens, FSO Smith and the other two officers, then you are in denial. A black flag associated with al-Qaeda was raised over our embassy in Cairo, and a consulate was sacked and an ambassador and three others killed in Benghazi. When I was in the Navy Reserves in the early 90's I knew I could be called to danger but I also knew I would have weapons and training with which to defend myself. Our diplomats get called to dangerous places without those defenses, and still they go. 

Our little family spread across the world has lost four of its members. They will be missed. We will carry on.


Sunday, September 9, 2012

Small School, Big Changes

We survived! Our marathon summer of 2012 is officially over and we are now in first week of school stupor.

I'd call it a successful first week-only three or four emotional breakdowns so far, one forgotten lunch (well..sort of), one missed bus, three frantic calls by mom to the school admin and two schedule change requests, tons of homework, and only one serious request to be sent back "home" to Laredo - And that was just the oldest two.

I have got to give them credit- they are trying their best to deal with a mountain of change. Moving during the high school years is very hard to do, but add any exponent to it when it's your Senior year (our oldest). The poor things...we lived in the same town for nine years which translates to "most of their lives". One interesting difference is going from a mega high school (her class size was about 1000 students) to a senior class of 120 kids! Their new high school has around 800 students total (8th- 12th grades).
Add to the big drama of moving the fact they are DEEP in the throes of culture shock. I don't think we realized just how Mexican Laredo really is until we moved away. Wait... I mean I knew it was Mexican in just about every aspect, true! And yes, it is actually Texas, but it is not culturally "American" (USA). It is very Mexican there- and honestly, I wouldn't have it any other way. But it is very different from Northern Virginia. Please, I invite you to click on the link below to hear a live feed of the local Laredo radio station that my kids listened to every morning as the bus drivers blasted it through the speakers. Tejano music sounds like a party even if the guy is singing about his empty corazon (heart)! 
They miss the music, the food, the people, the whole thing... it's really hard right now for the oldest one especially to feel happy about being here. She points out how different "white people" are and how she can't relate and how incredibly odd that makes her- because she is a white person after all...but well- not really. It's tough right now. More posts to come on culture shock in the future.

Okay, this is not really their old bus, but the folks on this bus are listening to similar music that my kids heard each day on the school bus.

                     And now the bus is like this (but more diverse) get the idea.

There is a term within the State Dept/Foreign Service that helps explain what happens when parents raise their kids outside of the US. I actually learned more about this weekend. The FS kids often become what is called "third culture" kids.
And while such labels do remove some of the fear/frustration that we are alone in the world, it somehow actually adds to my current load of guilt, even though statistically these kids usually do quite well in every aspect of life, I never had to maneuver such an odd dynamic when I was growing up- that is where the guilt floods in. I don't know how it feels to be their age and be American but have so little in common with my American peers that nothing seems the same. All three of our kids are third culture kids. The oldest two were raised in the Mexican culture and our youngest was raised in rural Ethiopia for the first six years of  his life.
So, why is their culture shock a surprise to me? For one, I believe I have minimized the impact their surroundings had on the older two. I completely expect to see these types of things happening with our youngest, he is SOOO Ethiopian and he probably grew up right in the midst of his ancestral roots. But the oldest two? Really??  I did expect them all to have feelings like "it stinks being new", but I did not anticipate how this could/would translate into "I have no idea how to relate to these kids" feelings. It was really THAT different? Seriously?  Well, recently it struck me, even though we all agree that this place is great, it so very different from Laredo, TX. and we miss a lot of things and people we loved there. We were there long enough to feel like we belonged there.

The whole third culture tidbit was a revelation to me. It also explains WHY -even though the schools here are smaller, kind to new kids, better ranked, calm and orderly- my kids feel as if they have been dropped off on another planet instead of a nice, small American high school! I need to learn more and explore all of this when I have time to read and grasp the whole TCK dynamic. From what I gather the whole "Who Am I?" thing can be really hard to answer for kids who were raised in foreign places/cultures.

Our youngest, affectionately called Number 3 at times, thoroughly enjoyed his first week of  "big" school! We knew he would- but it took courage for him to step up on that bus this last week. This was an especially proud moment for us because it was literally his FIRST time to go to school outside our home or the orphanage he had been in. Since he became a McKeating kid back in 2010 he has learned TONS of new stuff. He came to us hardly speaking any English- but nowadays he is pretty close to fluent, he reads, writes, adds/subtracts and pretty much everything you might expect a kid in grade school to do- all thanks to the luxury of being homeschooled for the last two years. We are fans of homeschool but do not believe that it is the best option for every child, every family, or every year of their schooling. He had no desire to go to school, he was very happy learning from mom at home and I loved having the undivided time to give him but I decided that it was time for him to step out and see what big school was like- and well, so far so good! He had a great week and is ready for Monday- bless his little heart!

And last but not least- there is another new student in our family... my sweet Sean, who also started a new school this week. He started language training which has not been as much of a thrill as he had anticipated. It's not bad, but it is a big change. He went from the challenging but with fun all along the way A100 (looking sharp in his suit) class to a week of random but required classes which he said were interesting, but I noticed that he did not come home each evening with the same excitement in his step. And then this week... hello Bahasa Indonesia class (sadly, no more suits required). Since the classes began he has been walking around in a bit of funk. I told him it was as if a cloud or fog had settled just above his shoulders. He explained he was literally grieving the loss of Spanish. He feels like his brain is trying to hold on to it and that in itself was causing a battle for the mental real estate that Spanish so proudly occupied all those year. He talked to a person who had learned several languages in succession and they encouraged him explaining that his Spanish won't be gone forever, it just gets filed away for now. But the battle is not even conscious at this point. He sees a word and automatically starts to pronounce it using the Spanish alphabetic sounds- which isn't too far off but it isn't actually correct, either. Wow... poor guy. It's hard to imagine letting a language go that served as a security blanket and a key to success for so many years, plus we love Spanish- the way it sounds, the poetry/romance, he doesn't really want it to go away- me either.  But, he must, and he must make the mental space to fall in love with Bahasa Indonesia. Easy to say but hard to do. It wasn't that long ago when Spanish was an important part of our getting through our day to day lives. It will take a while before Bahasa Indonesia evokes emotions and wonderful memories the way Spanish does.
I totally get it and feel for him too. Augh! All these people hitting the big emotional walls around me.  I need a break!

"Mr. Bus Driver, please take me someplace where they make mangonadas and play happy songs with an accordion and a polka beat, please!!!!"

         *Oh, wow! I just remembered something that I learned this weekend in my Communication Across Cultures FSI class- that fantasizing about getting out of town is common for someone in the "flight" phase of culture shock. Guess we are just going to have to ride all this out after all, and Lord help us... we are not even in Indonesia yet!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

A-100 Journal 6- Swearing In

After a week of interagency training, post research and field trips, our swearing in was last Friday. For me, I was worried that the event would seem very anticlimactic after Flag Day. After all, we knew where we were going. I am happy to report that I was wrong.

I had family coming in from the West Coast, and getting them set up to come into the building for the ceremony took some doing. We don't get to see each other often enough, so every time is special. That they came out to see me was very cool. Then on Friday I met them outside main State, got them in and seated, and passed the time with them and my classmates. The ceremony began promptly on time.

After some remarks that were well-received on what we were getting ready to do and why, our names were called one-by-one in alphabetical order along with our first posts. After we were all standing, a high muckety-muck in the Department administered the oath.

This makes the 3rd time I have taken this oath of service, having joined the Navy and been admitted to a Federal District Court previously. As was mentioned by the keynote speaker, in our country our public servants take an oath not to a ruler, or a land, but to a Constitution. We are basically swearing to protect and defend an idea. I cannot say those words and make that pledge without it affecting me.

I have offered myself to my country in service, and that offer has been accepted. I have bound my fate and my family's to what those in authority decide for me. Because my country sends me to places all around the world (starting in Indonesia!), things can happen that affect our fellow citizens, our host country, and ourselves. There are no guarantees of safety offered for this. It is a risk you take in order to serve. 

As the days have passed since the ceremony, I have found myself stopping what I am doing, replaying the ceremony in my mind, and once again wondering how I have been brought to this place. I am humbled and grateful. I am now a diplomat representing the United States, and I mean to do my job to the best of my ability no matter what.

One day you may find yourself in a strange land and a victim of crime, natural disaster, or political unrest. You will need someone to help that knows the place, the people, and the process and has the authority to render aid. Me or someone like me will be there, because that is what we are charged by the State Department to do. We took an oath on it.


Monday, August 20, 2012

Apartment Living With Three Kids, Falls Church- Oakwood

We would really like it if our blog was chock full of funny posts about all of our travels but maybe one  I have wanted to write about the mental gymnastics it takes to go from a big family home  with lots of stuff to living in an apartment since the first week we moved in. I'm glad I have waited until the shock wore off- I think time has sharpened my perspective some.  My five weeks here do not qualify me as an expert but I think others who are searching out details about living at Oakwood/Falls Church might find these types of details helpful.

First, let me make it clear that this is not a rant of any shape or kind. I think the Oakwood staff and crew, Falls Church specifically, does a great job of what they do. Everything is clean, well maintained and the list of summer activities is well planned and impressive. Our youngest son has loved all of the pool games and activities. Just the shuttle service alone is worth its weight in gold... and then add to that the nifty coffee machine that whips up Cafe Mocha anytime I want one (a decaf cafe mocha to be exact), oh ... and the housekeeping crew who shows up sets my life on the straight and narrow once a week! Yes, safe to say I'm happy, really happy about living at Oakwood Falls Church. It goes above and beyond what I expected apartment life to be. 

For those who are moving here and who delight in these types of details -this post is for you!

                                                   This is the view from our balcony

The buildings and facility has:
Beautifully designed rooms for activities and shared meals inside the office area.
B.B.Q pit/bank of gas grills and a couple of tables with nice umbrellas for relaxing while you cook
Work out room
Office center
Beautifully kept pool and hot tub area (with life guards)
Volleyball pit
Convenience store on site (with reasonable prices and lots of choices)
Pro-shop for tennis players
Tennis court
Dry cleaners
Play ground for kids
"Dog" potty areas, including little baggies for your pup's personal needs
 and trash can just for them.
An activity room where kids can meet, play games and a small but sweet library

Kitchen Things Already Stocked For Your Arrival:

knife set, including kitchen shears
Coffee pot
Utensils (the usual stuff)
Hot pads
2 Kitchen towels
Chopping board
Measuring spoons
Wine opener
Can opener
Nice dishes, plenty of place settings
Wine glasses
Glasses and coffee mugs
Aluminum cookie sheet
Small rectangle glass pan (perfect for brownies)
Measuring cup (one liquid measure/Pyrex type)
Glass bowl set
Salt/pepper shakers (clean and empty)
Butter server
Ash tray (for the balcony only, no smoking indoors)
Plastic pitcher
Ice trays
Rubber spatula                                                                                    
Place mats and cloth napkins
A brightly colored vase
Paper towel holder

  This picture shows the color of the wall in the kitchen in contrast to a brightly colored painting that I added after I got to town. The same brown color is used all throughout the apartment. Imagine dark khaki pants... yep, just the sort of hue to drain the life blood right out of me. I suppose others might find it inspiring- if so- God bless them.

Oakwood house keepers clean the kitchen, bathrooms, floors, make beds, bring you clean towels weekly and they changes the bed linens weekly.
We also have a small washer/dryer combo in my closet (not all units have these)
The office people will hold and sign for your packages if they are too big for your mailbox.
Your apartment will have a few boxes of Kleenex, TP, paper towels, soaps and a sponge waiting for you. :) Coffee for the first day, too. You replace them when they run out, of course.
Recycling in the first floor trash rooms
Parents' night out babysitting (must register early)
Activities for kids (art/crafts, reading clubs, Beach Week, sports)
Movie nights
Free breakfast on Sunday morning
Probably lots more I am forgetting....


Other items I didn't expect:
A lockable safe
Vacuum cleaner
Laundry baskets
A land line telephone, complete with number
A TV in just about every room
A balcony- blank but nicely sized
Iron/ironing board

Kitchen Things I Either Had To Buy Or Should Have Brought With Us:

1. Food processor
2. Hand mixer
3. Muffin tins and/or loaf pans.
4. Plastic reusable containers (they have a few here, waiting for you)
5. A few extra kitchen towels

Here is the one thing that I have chosen to spend a little bit of money to keep me sane- 

1. Bedding, actually just pillowcases and throw blankets, and a whole duvet set our bed, all brightly colored! I am an artist and I personally need color in my world. Otherwise everything is either white or beige. Photos below show the before and after.
2. Sun blocking curtains (found them at Goodwill for like $3) and a cheap-o spring curtain rod so that they set inside the window, thus allowing the vertical blinds cover them and hide their ugliness. Our windows are facing East which is wonderful but the sun seems to come up earlier here (East coast... surprise!)
3. Big sturdy bags for grocery shopping. Though we have lovely elevators it is still a pain to use grocery store plastic bags to bring stuff into the apartment. I like having the cloth reusable ones that I can fit lots of groceries into, plus it is as enviro-friendly as it is efficient.
4. Hangers for the big closets
5. Febreeze or some other bathroom spray. We call it the "spray of kindness" at our house. Reason this is so important- bathrooms are void of exhaust fans.

Our bedroom the first day we moved here.

                                                                                                                                                                     Our bedroom now, with color (!!!) and lamps on.

Home away from home? 
It took me several weeks to not feel like we were living in a hotel. There are perks, so many perks, here that we would have to work hard to miss owning a home.  We even had private sector/home owning friends come from out of town and they loved our new place! They got the value of what a place like this is worth living about 5.5 miles from DC proper. These are not small apartments- lots of closet/storage space.

Speaking of friends, the adults and to some degree the kids too, seem to be pretty stiff at first. It can take a while before you feel like your not invisible. There is an odd "I don't see you... you don't see me" no eye contact thing. At first, it struck me as really odd  but after a few weeks the weirdness of that seemed to fade for me, especially when I stuck around long enough to realize that people are moving into and out of these apartments all the time, like daily. Nearly everyone here is the misery of transition/shock! Honestly,  I believe that I was just used to "Texas kind of friendly" and it's just not that way here. A friend who used to live pretty close by explained it like this- "DC and the surrounding area is like a big airport, everyone is going somewhere fast and no one plans sticking around too long so they don't take the time to get to know you". It's so true! So, readjusting my expectations helped but then, I discovered where all the friendly people are... the Oakwood barbecue area- (like duh!)  Now, grilling down in there is a once a week "must do" for our family.  We've learned so much about life in the Foreign Service because of all the helpful folks chillin' out next to the fire/meat area!

  This is our boys' room. It doesn't seem very nice in the photo but the room has a lovely, tall dresser and flat screen television to boot! That closet (open door) has ample room for toys, shoes, clothes and more clothes, shelves, a washer/dryer combo unit, vacuum, and more. I'm showing this photo so that folks can see how they fit two kids into a single room.

   This is our daughter's bedroom/studio apartment. She loves it! What more could a senior in high school want? Unfortunately, this apartment has a shared door between her little casita and her little brothers' room- so lots of grace is required but it is still a cool thing for a kid almost ready to fly the coop.  She has her own entrance, key and bathroom - everything!

This is my daughter's kitchen, it is identical to my kitchen, but minus the dining room table and pantry.


I also want to note how lovely it is to live among such a racially diverse group of folks. It absolutely adds to the fun when you meet people from all over the world, literally. If you enjoy that kind of thing you'll love it here.