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.

Friday, August 17, 2012

A-100 Journal 5- Flag Day

We were told to gather in the auditorium by 3:15. The place was full by 3. Since before we took the written test, some of us years ago, there was always the one question: "Where will you go?" Suddenly we were only twenty minutes away from finding out. On the one hand, we would suddenly know what the next year or two held for us. On the other, we would NOT be going to all those other cool places that were on the list.

Going in to the event, my family full of Class 2 EFMs had left us with only 6 or 7 available overseas posts, plus a slew of Washington, DC jobs. A DC job would have meant having to move out of our apartment in a few weeks' time while hoping to stay in the same school district. It would also have meant a significant decrease in financial stability. I had firmly convinced myself that DC was where we were headed. It would just be too easy to slot us in there.

We had been told to have someone supportive nearby for Flag Day, because after all the rule for FSO's is "go where they tell you to go, do what they tell you to do, and say what they tell you to say." We had no right or expectation for anything, but hoped REALLY hard to be sent overseas.

I had the bid list in front of me when they started reading off names and posts, and was writing the names in for the first few. At that point the stress and anticipation made it impossible to write, so I put the papers down and started with the breathing exercises. A few names were called for places we couldn't qualify for medically, and my classmates screamed in joy and went up the center aisle to claim their flag. 

Then the DC flag came up for the first time, and I thought "here we go." Someone else got that post, and they were happy. So was I since it wasn't mine.

About 10 posts in, a flag that many people mistake for the Polish flag came up. However, it was one I knew very well: 

This is the Indonesian flag, and our embassy is in Jakarta. I had ranked this high, and it was my personal number 2. Hard language training, consular coned, and the timing was so right for our family. They said my first name (one which I shared with others in my class) and my middle initial (one which I did not). I was half way out of my chair before the echo died on my last name and was running. I realized where I was far too late to walk up the center aisle and just kept running all the way around the class and back to the podium. Our class sponsor probably feared she was going to be hip-checked into the wall, but no. A flag, a training schedule, and a future were laying there in my hands as my breathing slowly returned to normal.

My wife was trying to record the event. We can see the Indonesian flag, and then suddenly a chair and peoples' feet as she begins to freak out and forgets the camera. Classic. Our whole family is very excited.

And there it was. Stability, financial security, a new and very challenging language and an amazing first post. Bali, Sumatra and Australia an easy flight away. Will it be perfect? Well, the traffic, heat, and cockroaches you can ride say no. Am I thrilled beyond my wildest dreams? Oh, yes.

The only sad thing is that I only have a week left with this amazing group of people I have come to know and respect. Some of them were certainly not thrilled with their first posts, though you would never know from how everyone reacted. A surprising number of classmates I talked to got posts they rated high. They could tell I was happy and they were happy for me. 

So, here we are. I sold insurance in Laredo, Texas for 9 years in what I have been told by the State Department is "la idioma de la frontera" (the language of the border), something that is not really Spanish at all. Their solution: a Southeast Asian archipelago. Of course.

All I can say to all this is what I have been saying all along. Thank you, thank you, and thank you. I have been blessed beyond imagining, and I know it very well.


Thursday, August 16, 2012

Someone PLEASE Make It Be 3pm, Already!

Since we discovered that this whole adventure was underway (back in May) the one thing we have not been able to answer is what country we will be sent to. Oh... if I had a dollar for each time I was asked or thought about it!

All week I've replied to the many loving texts and emails asking me about news or info. If only I knew! So many things are hinged on which country we get. Everything we do has been affected by the hideous wait and the want of this information. Little things, normal things take on a new dimension. It goes something like this-

               Kid: "Mom, check it out. The jacket I want is on sale!"   

                Me: "Well, if we end up living in Jakarta it will be hot all the time. You won't need a jacket. Let's wait and see what we learn on flag day. We don't really know what we need to buy just yet- plus it will add to the weight of all our stuff here. Seriously, please try to hold off on that until Flag Day."

See what I mean? Normal things that have little to do with flag day somehow become all about it and dig the hole deeper. You can take that same conversation/template and swap out the word "jacket" and replace it with "eggs" or  "karate lessons", or "cool socks from Urban Outfitters"... and there you have it! Our life over the last few months.

I've had to seriously re-employ the "wait and see" muscles we developed during our adoption a few years ago. Adoptive parents understand what I'm talking about...the wait. The unbelievable truck loads of hope. The red tape and constant changes to the game plan. The brain battle of trying your best not to get shaken up over the worst possible outcome scenarios. These are important skills to have when you are no longer in control. Flag day and adoption- it is so much the same feeling!

Speaking of feelings... I keep going over my mental "where-o-meter" and trying to catch any vibe in my gut about which country we will be going to -but I keep coming up flat! Therefore, I am nearly completely convinced that we will be posted in DC for a year. My dream machine must be completely out of juice right now because I just can't seem to imagine us anywhere else for the time being.

No matter what tomorrow's big reveal holds, I will know that we are where we are supposed to be- which pretty much sums up the most important thing in Sean's and my life- our belief that God is very present in the details and that He is enjoying the fact we are ready and waiting for our biggest ride yet on the crazy bus.

It is now Friday, August 17th- just after midnight and 3pm seems like forever away. I am awake- which is nothing new- especially this week. My original plan was to try my very best to sleep in on Friday, thus reducing my awake time and making 3 pm come faster. However, it seems me and the kid (previously mentioned) are getting up early to go shopping. I hear there is a big sale on jackets.



Sunday, August 12, 2012

A-100 Journal 4- It's Just the Rest of Our Lives

It's T-5 days and counting until Flag Day. On the plus side, the fine folks at MED have been expanding our list of possibles. This means our chances of being posted to Washington, DC are going down. But it also means OUR CHANCES OF BEING POSTED OVERSEAS ARE GOING UP.

So now we are putting circles around more cities on the worldwide availability map. We are also looking at what housing we could possibly afford here in Northern Virginia that would keep our kids in the same school that we are registering them for this week just in case. Will I need to learn some crazy language, or instead learn how to budget more tightly than we ever have?

We were told by some not to worry about our first post. After all, it's only two years and then you take another bite of the apple, right? Then we heard a talk from someone more senior in the service who told us that the course of our lives will be changed forever on Friday. Both are true in their own way. I am just about ready to go ahead and get the news.

I DO hope we don't move back to the Texas border. All my friends back in Laredo would laugh so hard at that. "Pos, you joined the foreign service and after six months of the best training money can buy, you moved a total of nine miles away from your old home? That's what you get, Mr. Smarty Pants."

In the end, we have seen God's hand at work in this whole thing. Passing the test. Passing the QEP. Passing the Oral Assessment. Getting our security and medical clearances in record time, and getting hired before I even knew that I was on the registry. Our home sold at a price we could live with fast enough not to hamstring us financially. None of this was expected, and none of it was done in my own strength. Someone has His hand on this endeavor, so we can't believe that any of this has been a coincidence or mistake. No matter where we are sent or what that means for us, we are confident that we are being sent there, not just ending up there.

If only that stopped the anticipation and worry. At least it's only five days.


Sunday, August 5, 2012

A-100 Journal 3- The Offsite

 We turned in our bid lists early last week. This took a lot of the tension out of the building, but like a bad action-movie villain it hasn't gone away. Things will slowly build up until by the end of next week for Flag Day it will be as tight as a violin's highest string amongst the class.

Some will be able to put the upcoming Flag Day out of their minds until then, taking a fatalistic approach. If you are destined to be the public diplomacy officer on lovely Diego Garcia (not an actual post), then there is nothing you can do about it. The mathematically inclined among us may start a poll of high rankings and make a spreadsheet of it. The truly wigged out may find any number of reasons to send a friendly email to the Career Development Officers (I for one welcome my new CDO overlords), not to lobby, you understand, only to inform. Any and all of us will probably resort to fried foods, fatty deserts, or alcohol in some combination just to help the time pass.

This week ended with the offsite. If you have ever been to a "Team Building Event (c)" for your company, you know how agonizing this can be. Some people take these things as serious as an atom bomb, some flake out, and nobody wants to really do a trust fall or tell a group which kind of tree they would be. Well, this isn't like that. Everyone takes it serious, the work part and the fun part. I won't share any details because some people reading this may find themselves going to an offsite one day, and by God nobody told me the score!

I will say that after this event, I have learned a lot about myself, the quality of the people I work with, and just how hard you have to work to get over yourself whether you are leading or following. Rest assured, dear reader, that as fun as the event was, the 168th A-100 Class was at work, and it was a very productive time.

T-2 weeks to Flag Day, and then the shape of our immediate futures are revealed. At some point before then I will probably have french fries, cookies and an Irish coffee as I prepare for meditation.