Saturday, July 28, 2012

A-100 Journal 2- Language Fraud!

So, me and my classmates more or less spend every break and most of our off-time doing one thing: discussing the bid list. Do they want to go where you do? Even better, do they want to go where you do not? That might, emphasize might, mean that you won't have to go there. Does you dream post have room for your dog? Will you end up some place that has a hard language that is only spoken in that country? There are many of us and many posts all across the world, and so there are enough variables that every time you want to talk about the bid list, there is a new topic to discuss.

We also learned about culture shock, and to our surprise discovered that we are suffering from a minor case of re-integration culture shock. After nine years in Laredo, we are in a place where:

1. Personal space is respected;
2. Traffic laws are strictly obeyed AND enforced;
3. On time now means 5 minutes before the stated time, not 20-30 minutes after!

The only downer for the week was language testing. I came to Laredo with no Spanish and took private lessons for about a month. That plus Rosetta Stone plus a need for insurance sales had me up to the point where I could transact business in Spanish and hold understandable conversations with my friends. I didn't know where that would put me on the State Department scale, and this week I had a little informal assessment. I understood everything the examiner said to me and thought I was speaking pretty well. Late this week I got the results:

My vocabulary and pronunciation are quite credible. However, my grammar is truly hideous. It was obvious to him that I learned my Spanish on the border, because the sentence structure was, let us say, a mix of Spanish and English. The verdict? 6 months of training if I am going to a Spanish-speaking post. I was stunned. Apparently all my friends and clients who complemented me on my pronunciation were doing so because my grammar was just deadly.

What this means for us is that we are NOT obligated to go to a Spanish-speaking post. We still could be, but if they want to send me to Indonesian, Tagalog, French or Portuguese training instead they can. Bid lists are about to be turned in. The stress factors are rising. And I am still eating this job with a spoon and can't believe I am getting to do it. It's even worth wearing a tie every day!


Sunday, July 22, 2012

A-100 Journal 1-What a First Week!

As I sit here at the end of the first week in my new job, I am stunned and amazed at what the week has been like. Here a few quick impressions:
1. Like the military, State has a tried and true process for bringing new hires from normal people into diplomats. If you engage fully and follow directions, they will bring you along;
2. The quality of the people you work with will be stunning, absolutely stunning. I don't know what your life was like before State, but I had a tendency to be the annoying detail guy who knew far too much about international affairs and history for a normal person's conversation. Here I am an ankle-biter as many of my classmates don't just know about, say, the Balkan wars and their aftermath, but can tell you about the time they were in Sarajevo when some famous event happened. In Serbo-Croat if you like. Same with China, Africa, South America, you name it.
3. Because we don't know going forward who we will have to work with, under, or supervise in the future, there is a culture of courtesy and good will amongst everyone here that I have never encountered at work before. We will be sent to strange places with a few colleagues and need to work well together immediately to achieve the mission. Our program and instructors have been drilling networking skills into us in ways both overt and subtle.
4. I used to watch a lot of TV after work. When I get home now my brain is so full that all I want to do is catch up with wife, kids and pets. The TV I watch now is less, later, and mindless. Like the foreign affairs magazines I used to read a lot and now sit untouched on the night stand, I am no longer plugged into BBC World News, etc.
5. I sold insurance for nine years prior to State. It is a field with laws, company rules, and policy provisions that were many and diverse. I knew most of them like the back of my hand. This week, all of that mental space has been re-formatted to store the definitions of all the TLA (three letter acronym) data. We get lots of these, all day, every day. I couldn't tell you a thing about insurance now, and it's only been a week! For those familiar with the Myers Briggs personality types, I am an NT. There aren't very many of us in the real world. Apparently that's because we all came to work at State. From the acronyms to the way the buildings are organized to the pace and content of the coursework, I can tell we are all living in an NT's world. Fascinating and frightening.
6. When they say you need to be Worldwide Available, they mean it! One of the most exciting events of the week was the delivery of the bid list, places where we will all be headed after A-100. Every continent was represented on the list. Many of the between class conversations since delivery of the list have centered around "what's high and low on your list?" Given the diversity of backgrounds and interests of the class, it has surprised me how few of my classmates have the same high slots as I do. Flag Day is going to be a lot of fun. The uncertainty of the days between now and then are going to be pretty stressful for us, and even more so for our families.
7. Every day I come to work, at least once a day I step back, look around, and thank God that I, little old me, somehow made it through the extremely rigorous selection process and get to do this job. In Corinthians Paul tells the church there, "What do you have, that you have not received? Why then do you act as if you had not received it?" He gave me the blessings of life experiences that led me to this place and time, even though I could not and did not recognize many of them as blessings at the time. He gave me the brains to do the job, the heart to step out and seize it, and so many friends and family that helped along the way. For Him, for all of them, for the fantastic people of the 168th A-100, and for the incredible idea that tomorrow I get to keep doing this job, I can only say thank you, thank you, and thank you.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

A First Bitter Taste, The Sacrifice Of Serving

Just moments after we started driving down Interstate 64, St. Louis behind us, I received the sad news that my Aunt Georgia had passed away earlier that morning. Our family had just visited her bedside two days before while we were in Tulsa. 

It was expected but still very sad news, indeed. I immediately thought of my cousins and how much they must be hurting over losing their mom. I thought of my mom and the pain she felt of very losing her big sister. It was also sad to know her funeral would be a few days later and I would not be there to pay my due respects. The reality of relatives passing and us not being in the country to honor them hit me pretty hard. Guilt weighed in on me. Here we are driving kids, pets and our entire life toward a future of being gone. I pray my family will forgive me. The whole thing gives me such a heavy heart. I have sat by enough post-surgical bedsides to recognize the burden it causes when a helping hand is needed and family members are not available for whatever reason. Sean and I agreed that we will do what we can to set aside money for a fast flight home in the case of an emergency- that’s the best we can think of for now. Even that seems like a thin solution to my concerns. 

Driving on towards our new life just as a loved one ends her journey on Earth causes me to sift many crazy scenarios as we drove down the road. People will pass. People will get married. Many raw moments to show how much I care and how deeply I love people will come up and I’ll be someplace else representing the United States as an EFM, or an eligible family member. Sean’s not officially on the payroll yet and we are already missing important “wet cement” moments in the family in order to meet the expectations of the State. We HAVE to get to the DC area by Saturday in order to sign in for our apartment. Sean must be fresh and ready for FSI first thing Monday morning. Therefore, we drove on because I hope and believe that this opportunity is more than a selfish desire. 

In loving memory of my Aunt Georgia Mae Crabtree.


Thursday, July 12, 2012

Wagons East!

If it's Thursday, it must be Louisville. We have found ourselves settling in with the following daily schedule:

1. Up at 6:30 to take the dog to the motel parking lot for her morning constitutional;

2. Get the kids up for the hotel breakfast;

3. Start packing up for the next leg of the trip;

4. Force the cat back into the crate. He has become VERY cranky at this prospect, because he knows what comes next- into the truck for hours;

5. Checkout, coffee, and on the road by 10 or so;

6. Lunch somewhere out there, and start looking for the dog-friendly hotel room at our next stop;

7. Check into the next hotel, install the animals in the room, and find someplace to have dinner that night.

What stinks: The resistance factor from everyone including yours truly on getting back in the car for another day of this, the cat meowing loudly every time he wakes up and realizes that he is STILL in the crate, the price of gasoline the further east we go, and roadside "attractions" like the Redmons "Candy Factory (false) and World's Largest Gift Store (true) that lengthen the trip, and four bodies using one bathroom every day.

What is great: Being on an amazing roadtrip with my family that goes to parts of the country I haven't seen before, the great attitude about the trip and what comes next that my kids are showing, and stupid roadside attractions like Redmons that I cannot stand but they take delight in.

One more stop Friday night in southwestern VA and then we get to Falls Church on Saturday. I have driven around the country a lot in my life, but never had a chance to drive down Interstate 64 before. It is easily the most scenic highway I have driven, and I have been up the 101 on the California coast. After the nightly hotel stays, I am becoming worried that our home during A-100 and beyond will be the same size as our hotel rooms.

Now that we have left Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois and Indiana behind, the whole new life that is opening up in front of us is becoming more real. What will that be like, I wonder? What will the per diem cover?  I bet we will look at the amenities and space available on this trip as the "spacious, peaceful time."

I have learned that with your dog, cat, and special blanket, you can be home anywhere. Starbucks and a smartphone also help.


Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Winnowing

We are at T-two days from leaving our home in Laredo, TX for what may be forever. It has been a week momentous and terrible, as the relocators from the government came to pack our house away. They called last Monday to ask if they could come a day early. Sure, why not? Big mistake.

We have never had anyone move us before. In the first 9 years of our marriage, we moved 13 times. We were good at this, really good. But we had always moved ourselves, and packed ourselves. This thing where the moving company tells you not to pack a single box was new to us. Seemed like luxury.

Instead, you scramble to toss aside your UAB (air freight) and stay one room ahead of the locusts that are cramming your stuff into boxes that you will not see again for many months or more. You also learn that with a family of five, you get 800 lbs. of the UAB that will be sent to your new home hopefully near your time of arrival. We never knew what 800 lbs. meant. For a family of five, it meant clothes we would all need in the first six weeks at State and some toys, and that's it. This was almost too much to bear, and several times my wife and I literally hid in our closet to decompress and yell some.

The movers had seen this once or twice before, of course, and sent the signal early on that decision on "store or UAB" would be made on the spot and with no reversals. This felt rushed and somewhat arbitrary to me, and I LOVE having things settled and decided. My wife does not share that personality trait with me, and felt the move like an assault.

See, we have a balance in our house after 20 years of marriage. Basically she stops me from throwing away the christening dress and the wedding album and I stop us from drowning in our own stuff. This move was like I had brought two guys just like me but on steroids in off the street and three of us were manhandling her whole life into boxes without her input. Needless to say, this disrupted the usual balance in our home and created a Serious Disturbance in the Force. 

I could see exactly where she was coming from and why, but these guys packed up and moved out a 2300 sq ft. house in two 12-hour days at 110 degrees each. They were not there to mess around. We were there to facilitate their efforts, and get out of the way. She couldn't help but despise what they were doing even though it was necessary, and they did not care. The truck pulled away at 9:45pm last Wednesday and we were more or less homeless.

Since then, she and two of my kids have gone away to a week-long conference called Challenge in New Orleans and I have had a last week of work here in town. On Friday we leave, and our earlier blog posts tell you that we know how much we are leaving, and how many friends that are really family. I am ready for this part to be over. After a week of "last times" that just get more painful I want to rejoin my family very badly and start our cross-country drive. I hope this is all worth it. 

Our NEXT move (and with State that could happen pretty fast, and will be constant throughout our career) will be very different, I guarantee.