Friday, June 21, 2013

It's Almost That Time...

With apologies to General Eisenhower's message to the troops on D-Day, things are starting to feel like that around here: Diplomats of the United States- the great undertaking for which you have been training these many months is at hand!

Our stuff at the apartment is now in the magic three piles of UAB (air freight, quickest delivery), HHE Ship (slower, literally by ship) and HHE Store (at that place in Maryland where it looks like they are storing the Lost Ark).

For the last few months I have been going through Consular training, Political/Economic Officer training, and a brief stint in Consular Affairs at Main State as a sort of OJT. The quality and rigor of the training is excellent, not just because of the great substance to the classes, but because they do their best to teach you how to think like a diplomat. We Foreign Service Officers have knowledge that is a mile wide and an inch deep. You never know if today is the day you must address an unruly group in your host country, respond to an urgent request from Washington, escort a visiting dignitary or respond in an emergency situation on behalf of American citizens. In other words, they can't prepare you for everything you are going to face. If I heard it once I heard it a thousand times, we must be flexible in order to adapt to sudden changes.

I have also had the pleasure (and I really DO mean pleasure) of maintenance classes in Indonesian. My skills were the sharpest the day of my language test. Since then it has been masses of detail in two different areas of professional training. Let's just say that the old hard drive isn't as big as it used to be, so sectors of the brain devoted to when to use passive-voice type 1 or passive-voice type 2 have been overwritten with the 15 things required for a student visa and what the significance of investment as a share of real GDP is.

My language instructors, always friendly, have become friends now that the stress of an impending test is gone. They have told me that they could tell I was a student who really wanted to know the cultural background and not just the grammar rules, and that I was really motivated not just to regurgitate vocab but to understand. If you are starting language at FSI, you need to know that your instructors can tell who is checking a box and who is enthusiastic about learning their language and culture. For your future career success and quality of life at post, you want to be one of the latter.

And so, as my friends who came into the Foreign Service with previous languages send around emails about where they are going on their SECOND tours, a few haggard veterans of the 168th A-100 class are finally about to get to post. I can't believe how fast all this training has gone, and I can't believe how long it has taken at the same time.


Friday, June 7, 2013

Rules For Packing Out (Without Freaking Out)

Reliving last summer's pack out nightmare is NOT my idea of a good time but it was such an extraordinary lesson in getting our crap together that I feel like one way to redeem our misery is to write about it so that someone can learn from our mistakes.

We have been here almost a year now (stateside still) and I am still fighting off the bitter root of last summer's wheeling/dealing hustler movers and their demanding, nightmarish take over of my home and my emotions. We still are dealing with the effects of having no control over our moving process. We probably will be for a while mostly because our stuff is in boxes with weird labels. The manifest has almost nothing helpful written on it. I have at least 3 shoes in my closet that are missing their mates. Which box are their mates in? Who the heck knows! They were in pairs in my UAB pile before I was whisked off to work in the garage with Guy #2. It is a mystery.

I need to establish what will be made clear to everyone who reads this (and who does not already know me)... I am totally aware that I am a sucker. Oh.. the stories I could tell! Being a people pleaser is a DISEASE! Lol! Call me a late bloomer. I suppose this post is written for other late bloomers or people who lack experience with this sort of move.

#1 Rule of Pack Out: You are in charge. It is your move. It is your stuff. Get it together before they arrive. Organize, sort, group...whatever you want to call it. Have it in a specific spot and say, "This is all HHE" or "This is all UAB" (alphabet soup FS terms, sorry).

** Please, don't go picking through a box as they are trying to pack it up- for goodness sakes.

#2 Rule of Pack Out: It would be wise of you to write down the list of items as they go into each box. They have to let you do that before they tape it up and send it to the truck. It is their job to pack items carefully and get it to the storage place. They are not going to write down everything that goes in each box.

Your manifest thing will read something like this...

Notice it doesn't say which or who's foot board, not even a bed size is mentioned. You are
supposed to check a box on a long list (pages and pages) and guess which footboard you would like when
 you move to post. (In case you are wondering, the word under that says "side rail" not "silk nail") 
So, when they pack a box they write the number of the box down on a big sheet of paper and next to it they write something like "glass". But, the truth is, the box is actually filled with:

  •   a trio of old coffee mugs
  •   a toaster oven
  •   a ceramic Easter Bunny decoration thing
  •   a cheese grater
  •   a pair of orange flip flops that I took off in the kitchen while the movers were there
  •   an old bag of my favorite Christmas Tree Nougats candy
  •   a box of toothpicks,
  •   an almost empty bottle of Advil,
  •   an old medicine bottle of my oldest child's first baby tooth from 14 yrs ago (I know- don't judge)
  •   a nearly full 2 liter of Diet Coke from the party we had the night before the movers came
  •   10 red plastic party cups with kids names written on them
  •   and... a box of dog biscuits for the neighbor's labrador (throw him a handfull of biscuits and you have approx 2 seconds to jump the fence and grab your frisbee- see)

 I suppose "glass" is better than " kitchen junk" but I am guessing that each box will contain a few items that will either embarrass me or make me gasp due to the fact I used part of my 7200 lbs to ship them to Jakarta. I'm totally expecting to find that bottle of flat Diet Coke in one of the boxes labeled "Glass".

#3 Rule of Pack Out:  If the movers get pushy, pick up the phone and call State. Seriously! You gotta blow the bully whistle on movers who are taking a power trip at your expense, not listening or pushing you around.

Everyone who hears my "wheeling/dealing movers" story shrieks and asks why in the world I put up with that. Answer- I did not know I could call the travel people at State and tell them what was going on. It never crossed my mind, honestly. I had never had packers come and wrap up my stuff before- ever.


Movers do not manipulate you into going to get them lunch or dinner - on your dime. You can offer to buy them lunch- it is up to you. It is nice to have waters in a cooler with ice for them, maybe sodas or sports drinks. We went all out for our wheeler/dealer packers lunches, you know, to be courteous. But after that they were happy to tell me what they wanted to eat, and when they wanted it. Yeah... between helping Guy #2 I was running snack patrol. Puke!
I did go get what they wanted because they only drove their moving truck and the taco place, or whatever, was literally around the corner. But, in retrospect, they did have a phone, they could have ordered pizza for themselves.

THEY SHOULD NOT RUSH YOU. Our wheeler/dealer movers were completely done packing a four bedroom/family of five's house in less than 36 hours. That is just about unheard of. There were just two men and they were moving so fast that we could not keep up with anything that was happening. Plus... Our movers came a day or two earlier than they were scheduled and would not take no for an answer when we explained that we were not ready. THIS WAS WRONG.

THEY ARE WORKING FOR YOU! THEY ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO FLUSTER OR INTIMIDATE YOU.  The morning they arrived they showed up 3 hours early. Then, Guy #2 told me my job was to stay in the garage with him, that it was best to stay out of the boss's way because he had a bad temper. Yep. He was right.  Guy #1 would say, "What are doing in my kitchen?" when I would walk through MY KITCHEN for a drink of water or to wash my hands. He was the main master mind between these two hustler/wheeler/dealers. I'm not kidding, these guys were pros at running the show.

#4 Rules for Pack Out: Demand to be heard

 While working like an idiot in the garage with Guy #2 I noticed that he was mislabeling boxes. He labeled my son's stuff from his room as "Garage Corner" and I said "No, this is Jackson's room books" he yelled at me "Look lady, these boxes are in the garage corner, I can NOT label it Jackson's Books."

All of my son's treasured books were in the garage because we had loads of potential home buyers walking through our house all summer and most of his personal items (90% being books) were being stored there. Wheeler/dealer hustler Guy #2 finally understood when he started working in my son's room later that night and said, "Where is all your kid's stuff?" and I said, "In a box labeled Garage Corner". His face dropped. He finally realized what I had been trying to tell him. I realized at that moment that he had taken big advantage of my lack of FS pack out experience. Now, somewhere in a warehouse my oldest son's stuff is labeled "garage corner" which is not something that I would normally want sent to wherever we get posted. I was sooooooo angry. I am still angry because I have to request as many boxes as I can now because so many things have been mislabeled.

Try to find ways to reduce the insane amount of wrapping they do. It adds a lot of weight. 

To FS families: This is what your crates of stuff look like. Inside those
wooden boxes are more and more boxes and stuff wrapped in brown paper.
We had to pay $280 to go there to retrieve ONE FREAKING piece of paper. 

So, this time around I have had the benefit of my experienced FS friends here to ask them HOW not to make the same mistakes I made last summer.

1. Sort stuff into similar groups- like all shoes into one box so that when they write "Shoes" on the manifest it will actually be shoes and not actually one pair of shoes and a winter coat and preschool art projects from 1997.

2. Throw/give stuff away. Our new rule of thumb is "if you have not touched it or used it in a year it is gone" and "if you have not touched it or used it in 6 months- you must have a compelling reason to keep it." The Foreign Service life is not the lifestyle for hoarders.

***If you are wondering how long it will be between A-100 and your ship out date, I would say expect a year. Possibly less but most people I have met are staying at Oakwood for six months to a year. It is more or less a year for most Generalists who are learning a language. * Even if you have a second language expect to test with an extremely scrutinizing team of instructors... in other words you will be going to language school. Just accept that fact now. Diplomatic language skills must meet very high standards. People who majored/minored in Spanish (one lady I know was even a native Spanish speaker) were still sent to the full 24 weeks of language training. However, it does seem like Specialists are here for a shorter amount of time because many Specialist jobs do not require a full language course.

3. Group stuff together and put them in plastic bags or little containers before the movers show up. Reason being- this keeps the packing weight down. A friend told me today that if you take all your forks/spoons/knives and place them in a plastic container they will just pack the plastic container. Otherwise, if you leave them in the kitchen drawer the mover will wrap each piece with paper which adds a lot of unneeded weight to your load.  I love her advice (thank you, Christy!).
Right now, I've just got it all piled up in "sort of" similar groups.
This is the cleaning stuff HHE pile. 

Here is a link to my favorite gold mine of practical info, advice and real time experiences all piled into the awesome Hardship Homemaking blog .

Monday, June 3, 2013

Ode to Oklahoma (With a Lesson in Cloud Watching)

Growing up in small town Oklahoma gave me a wonderful start in life. I love my home state because the people are friendly, gritty and they follow the Golden Rule- most of the time.

But along with the many wonderful things that go along with living in Oklahoma- tornados are the crappy part of the package. Fearing tornados was part of my life while growing up in Oklahoma. The weather could be just fine one minute and then all hell would be breaking loose a second later- that's just the way it is in the plains states. I knew that all too well. When I was five years old a tornado made a surprise visit to our neighborhood. It left an indelible impression that tornados were wild and very destructive. We were home when the tornado hit and even though my mom stayed calm I knew it was a very serious, very scary situation. I remember the event quite well and it happened in 1975. These things don't just fade away like an average day.

I think my grandma was a good example of how to react to a bad storm. In 1999 there was a really big storm that took out Moore (yep, same Moore) and kept whooping everything in its path. It had started in central Oklahoma and was now on it's way towards my hometown.

I called my grandmother's house and said, "Grandma! A big tornado is coming! You gotta go get in a closet or the bathtub or something!"

She calmly replied with her killer southern accent,  "Well... you think so?   Oh-I think Bill and I are just going to set right here and watch the news until we think we ought to move."

I wailed, "But, Grandma, this one is bad. It's been taking out everything it touches. It's coming right for you guys!" I could hear the tornado siren in her background. I was really scared for her.

 Again, she scolded me, "Oh now... no tornada can keep-a-going for that long."

This had been one of those freakishly big and very deadly tornados that didn't seem to be following the rules at all. So naturally (for me) I got all bossy and all but demanded that she and Grampa Bill go get in the hall closet, a bathtub, something.

She laughed at me this time and said, "Well.. if I go and do that I won't be able to hear the man on the TV. If it passes and I've gone and gotten myself all stuffed up in that closet, how am I gonna' get back out? "

I couldn't argue with that. I hadn't taken into consideration the fact that these two 90 year olds would be stuck in a closet. If they did get in the closet it had better be a sure thing, otherwise I would feel terrible if they went and got themselves all "stuffed up" in there and couldn't hear the news well enough to know when the danger had passed.

Grandma was right, that massive tornado fizzled out before it got much farther. They would have been "all stuffed up" in a closet for nothing if they had listened to me. My point is, Grandma and Grandpa Bill weren't new to this. They had lived in Oklahoma all their lives. They probably have seen enough tornados throughout their lives to know when to get serious. I think they also knew that if it was going to be really bad that a closet wouldn't really do them much good. Frankly, if I were to live in Oklahoma ever again I would hope that I would have a house with a storm cellar (called "fraidy holes" in Okla).

 I think we had Doppler radar back in those days but I'm not sure. We also had the emergency weather broadcast "bleeeeps". Then, finally, in the mid/late 80's our little town got Tornado Sirens installed. That was one thing that actually did give me some peace of mind.

 After you've been through or experienced the after math of a tornado I think it just takes a while to realize that tornados aren't dropping out of the sky with no warning. They are fairly predictable, especially with the technology we have now.  We know the factors that create these storms and there are tools being used all day/every day to pick up on atmospheric changes. Getting educated on the details reduces the fear a lot.

I decided to learn more about super cells right after that May, 1999 storm happened. We lived in Oklahoma at the time and I was the mom of two kids. Our oldest was four or five and was aware of tornadoes because we had to jump into a neighbors storm cellar one night. It was pretty creepy and she wanted out of there. We had to keep telling her that we had to wait until the storm stopped. I totally lied and told her not to worry that are we are safe "in here". I decided if I was going to live there then I had to beat back the fears as much as I could, especially since I was driving along some of the more notorious Tornado Alley roadways when I went to visit family. From that moment in the neighbor's storm cellar I decided I had to start learning asap. I enrolled in a night class at a local college, I took Physical Science and learned quite a bit about the weather. Nowadays, I'm a bit of a weather junkie. I take notice when there is a serious cloud forming. I can sometimes even see where updraft is occurring. Not all updrafts are visible though. Not all clouds or big storms are waiting to demolish your house, either. Getting educated helped a lot.

Here is my way of coping with inclement weather:

I look for visible updraft when I see a cloud growing taller. Thought, updraft
 is not necessarily scary or anything to be overly concerned about. Frankly, I think updraft
is pretty cool to witness. An updraft is basically fuel for a storm that could be brewing. 

That downward shoot is a wall cloud. Wall clouds usually drop down from the
 base of an anvil top cloud. I would be concerned about this if I saw this tube or
 wall forming, especially if I could see rotation. Most tornados are connected to the
wall cloud. At the very least you're look at a severe thunderstorm here, it looks serious.

Yeah, I don't like this one at all. The light gray fluff there is a descending wall cloud.
Behind the wall cloud could be a funnel cloud, you really can't tell because a wall cloud this low
can act like a curtain. I would be quite concerned if I were near this storm. If this were a video the
fluffy light gray part would be moving and swishing around. This had to be a serious storm.

Ok... this photo explains a lot. This funnel cloud is a classic example of a tornado that forms like a tail behind a wall cloud. You can clearly see the wall cloud in the background. This storm would most likely be heading away from the photographer.
 There is probably rain/hail coming down just in front of the wall cloud.  I would say this is a typical tornado. 

Moore Oklahoma, May 2013, F5 tornado. This funnel cloud is HUGE and was
reported to be as big as a 1.5 miles wide at some points. Winds were between
 200 to 300 mph. This is not a typical storm. Thank goodness F5's are rare.

Oklahoma, my heart is with you. I think about all the kids and adults who have lost so much. Some are still searching for the bodies of loved ones presumed to be dead. Their homes, their lives, their peace of mind have been shattered. Losing a family member or a friend, plus your home/livelihood all at once would be beyond devastating.

The kids and families who have had their lives demolished by these recent tornados are surely struggling to maintain their sanity right now. They have to be in survival mode. Yet, the hearty people of Oklahoma rally on, making progress, making jokes and are making life happen in spite of the obvious need for help.

"Gone with the wind" - Well, that's one way to look at it I suppose! :)
Please pray for the people of Oklahoma, for God's mercy and peace for them all.