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January, 2014:

The Metro pulling into station

The nearest station to where I live is East Falls Church. This is what the train looks like:

27 degrees is cold

Before coming to Washington DC, I had the impression that because it’s really part of Virginia, and Virginia is geographically part of the South, that it wouldn’t get cold here. Silly me. As I stand on the Metro Platform waiting for the train st 9:00 am, it’s 27 degrees. As a Michigander, I have the right to say that it’s cold.

I am a terrible person

This morning our class was held at an offsite location. Since none of us have been there before, several of us decided to take the subway together. Safety in numbers, right? It works for the antelopes on the African savanna, right?

Not exactly.

There were about 12 of us, and we all made it onto the train without any trouble. The train car was crowded, though, and we somehow became split up into two groups. One group at the front of the car, the other toward the back. One of the people in my group said that we had to get out at the Foggy Bottom stop. When we got to that stop, our group hopped off the train. But from the platform, I could see through the train car’s windows that the other group didn’t get off. I tapped on the window, and gestured to them that we had to get off here.

They gestured back that we had to get off at the NEXT stop, not Foggy Bottom. Just then, the train’s chime sounded, signaling that the doors were about to close. I turned to the rest of my group to tell them to jump back onto the train, but they were out of earshot by then, and couldn’t hear me.

I had a split second to decide what to do. I summoned my ninja skills and leapt back onto the train just as the doors closed.

Immediately, I realized that I made a mistake. I abandoned my group. I am a terrible person.

The other group said that the place we were going to is actually between the stops, so we could have gotten off at either one.

But I didn’t know that when I abandoned my group. I am still a terrible person.

This wasn’t leadership. A good team player would stick with his group, and work together to get through the problem as a team. I should have stayed with my group, and figured out a way to get to the destination together. A team player wouldn’t behave as if it were every man for himself. I was not a team player. I was a terrible person.

I felt guilty all the way to the offsite location. A few minutes after we arrived, the other group arrived. I apologized to them for abandoning them, offering to buy them all a coffee as a peace offering.

They seemed a little surprised by my apology. Why would I feel bad for getting back on the train? they seemed to wonder.

Then I realized that they didn’t see me as their leader. They saw me as a person that was with them for a while, then happened to go a different way from them.

I am not only a terrible person. I’m an egotistical and self-centered terrible person.

So I obviously didn’t offend anyone in the group. They didn’t feel betrayed. Still, my reaction means something. Even though this wasn’t a real situation, I think that I should reflect on how I reacted, and how I made that split-second decision. Why did I leave the group? Do I not see this class as my team, and see myself as part of the team? It would be even worse if I did see them as my team, yet I still chose to abandon them.

I disappointed myself today. I have to work on this.

The State Department has historians

Much of today’s class time was spent with the historians who work in the State Department. Not surprisingly, they focus on diplomatic history, which is intertwined with U.S. history, of course. We heard presentations from three historians, all of whom have Ph.D.s in history, and who engage in research as well as archiving the ongoing history of American diplomacy as it occurs.

Some people find history to be boring or uninteresting. If you are one of these people,  believe me, if you heard a presentation from one of these guys, you would change your mind. All three presenters were engaging, funny, informative and entertaining. Their sessions were interactive. We engaged in discussions, group work, and reflective exercises.

The purpose of the session was to educate us, and teach some US diplomatic history from the position of the US government. But it really wasn’t indoctrination. As diplomats, we are expected to present a united front with regard to US foreign policy when interacting with other countries. But we are also expected to have an objective understanding of US foreign relations.

One historian suggested a great way to prepare for a foreign posting. New Foreign Service officers often want to know about relations between the US and the country that they will be posted to. The historian suggested getting a book on relations with the US that was written by a citizen of that country, not by an American. If we are posted to France, for example, we should get a book on French-US relations that was written by a French historian. The historian said that the book will probably be “wrong,” but it will give us an idea of how the other side sees us.

Today was day four of training. We are almost finished with the first of six weeks of basic training. I am tired at the end of every day. The training program is excellent, but there is just so much information to absorb. Several people have compared this to drinking from a fire hose. At the end of the day, I just want to go back to my apartment and sleep. Unfortunately, we have had several hours of homework every night so far this week, so sleep will have to wait for a while.

Luckily, Monday is a federal holiday, so we will have a long weekend. I plan to take advantage of this opportunity to explore the city, do some laundry, buy groceries, and not think about US foreign policy for a few days.

 

The bid list is out

We were given copies of the “bid list” today in class. This is the list of embassies and consulates that have openings for which we are qualified. Not surprisingly, the postings that entry-level officers are qualified do not include London, Berlin, or Tokyo.

The list is confidential, so I can’t write the exact places on the list, but a simple though experiment will give you an idea. Imagine a list of all the countries in the world. Now cross off every country that you have ever dreamed of visiting, especially for a honeymoon or dream vacation. Next cross off the countries that you think are interesting because of significant historical events or have been on the news because significant political or economic events happened there recently. Now cross off the countries that you think would be nice places to live. Now circle the names of countries that you have not heard of, or that you aren’t quite sure where they are. These are the choices that are usually left over for the lowest-ranking people, after the more senior people had their pick. The countries that you circled in your imagination are probably on the bid list.

The kinds of job that are available are very limited, too. We were told ahead of time that our first tour would be in consular services. That includes things like helping Americans who get in trouble while overseas, but most of the time it means processing visa applications.

This is not meant as disrespect for consular services. In fact, we are told, there are several advantages to doing consular work. For one, you get to meet the “real” people of the country. Ambassadors and other high-ranking officers interact with the leaders of the country, which of course is very glamorous and exciting, but if they never have a chance to interact with the man on the street, they may miss out on some of the finer nuances of the local culture.

Another advantage is that we will get to practice our language skills to a greater degree. By interviewing people who are applying for a visa, we will get exposed to how the local language is commonly used. For those of us for whom language learning was a big draw to the Foreign Service, this is a great opportunity.

Most of the postings on the bid list have a language requirement, which means that many of us will be in language training for several months after our initial training is complete. This is another perk for many. One of my classmates speaks a language which was not required for any of the open posts, which means that she will have to bid on a post that does not require a foreign language, or learn another language.

I am not complaining, I’m not surprised, and I’m not disappointed by the bid list. It is pretty much what I expected, and in some cases, it’s better than I thought. I would rank about half of the postings “high” on my wish list. There’s also a lot of variety. I think every world region is represented.

Not surprisingly, there are several postings that require my foreign language, so even though I would love the chance to learn another language (the idea of getting paid to learn a language is amazing), I will probably get sent abroad without language training. It shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that the government will only pay for language training as it is required for a posting. If you already have the language skills for your posting, even if you want to learn more, and even though having higher proficiency will benefit the service and the US government, it makes sense, under today’s budget situation, to put the existing skills to use as quickly as possible.

What this means is, I don’t know for sure, of course, but it would be safe to plan to leave for my first post at the end of April.

Stay tuned.

“I should have done this ten years ago.”

Today was my first day as a Foreign Service Officer. The day was spent in the State Department’s main building in Washington, D.C.

Now, I wish that my day was as impressive and exciting as those two sentences imply. Actually, most of the day was spent waiting in line, filling out forms, having my picture taken, learning about my health insurance options, and being lectured about safeguarding sensitive and classified information (wise advice, such as “don’t write your password on a piece of paper and tape it to the bottom of your keyboard”).

The people in my cohort (80+ people) are pleasant, and probably as curious/excited/nervous/starstruck as I was. One guy put into words a feeling that I have had ever since I got the call. He said he kept expecting someone to contact him and say: “Oh, sorry, we made a mistake. You shouldn’t have been on the list after all.”

But when I checked in, they had a packet of information with my name on it, and they didn’t kick me out when I went through security, so I guess they really did let me into the Foreign Service.

At lunch, I introduced myself to an older man who was eating alone in the cafeteria, and asked if I could join him. I struck up a conversation with him and asked about his career. He told me that he entered the Foreign Service as a “Specialist” about five years ago. He was an architect, and decided to join the State Department as a construction manager. He builds embassies around the world.

As this is my second career too, I was very interested in his impression of working for the government. He said that it has been a great adventure, and even though there is some frustration with bureaucracy and inefficiency, he has had opportunities to travel and work with people who he never would have met if he hadn’t joined.

He will reach the mandatory retirement age (65) in a few years. He sounded wistful when he said that. Our conversation was interrupted by a phone call from a friend of his, another specialist who entered the Foreign Service as a medical doctor at the same time that he did. He said that they have kept in touch after their training class, and still get together when they are both in the same city.

He had to excuse himself to go meet his friend. As we shook hands, he congratulated me on the start of my new career, wished me luck, and said that he wishes that he had made this move ten years earlier. I hope that when I face retirement, I will have the same feeling.

Arrived in Washington for Training

My flight from Lansing to Washington went smoothly. Sun Country airlines has a direct flight to DC. We landed a little after 9:00 pm, ahead of schedule, in Reagan National Airport. The taxi to Oakwood apartments, where I will stay during training, took about 15 minutes. A good thing about arriving late at night is there was no traffic at all. The last time I drove in DC, last June, it took me an hour to go just a few miles.

The apartment is pretty nice. It reminds me of the Cherry Lane apartments on MSU campus, where we lived for five years. This apartment is actually a little bigger than the little apartment that we lived in. I will post pictures later, when I have time. If you go to the company’s website (oakwood.com) you can see pictures of the Falls Church property. Those pictures are accurate.

I have to leave in a few minutes to catch a shuttle to the main State Department building in DC. We will be inducted, then spend the day filling out paperwork. It will probably not be an exciting day. I will write a recap with pictures in my next post.

Transitions

Not surprisingly, I have been thinking a lot lately about the future.

I gave about six weeks’ notice to my boss that I was leaving the credit union to join the Foreign Service. My boss had asked that I keep him informed of my status, because he wanted to try to find someone to replace me as soon as possible. So for over a month, I was in this in-between status of being a part of the team, and yet having an expiration date at the same time.

In team meetings, we would make plans for the future. Several times, we would talk about dates after my departure date. I would say to myself: “Wait, we can’t do that. I won’t be here!” Even though intellectually I knew that the enterprise still had to function after I left, it was strange to help make plans for a future that did not include me.

As soon as I gave notice, my focus for the future changed. It was like I was walking with people along a road, and we came to a fork in the road. I went in one direction, and everyone else took another fork. Although we were all moving forward, and we could still see and talk with each other, our paths were diverging, and eventually we would be so far apart that we couldn’t see or talk to each other.

This experience has reinforced my belief that no one is irreplaceable. No matter how important you may be to an organization, when you leave, the organization has to continue without you. Within a short time, the hole that you leave behind will get filled in. It has to. That’s the way life works.

Another transition in my family life has left a hole. Our family dog had to be put to sleep this morning. He was 13 years old, blind, arthritic, and incontinent. The vet told us that being alive isn’t the same thing as living. He wasn’t enjoying life, we could see that he was in constant discomfort, and the vet observed that putting him to sleep was more compassionate than keeping him alive.

This was my first pet, and this was the first time that I had to make this kind of decision. I know intellectually that it was the right thing to do, and that he probably welcomed the relief. It was still hard to watch him go to sleep forever, though.

Change is the only constant. That’s a cliche, but sometimes cliches have the weight of profound philosophical statements.

Change pulls us into the future. Sometimes we are happy participants, sometimes we fight against it. It doesn’t matter whether or not we want change, though, it’s going to happen to us.

Here are some pictures of my dog. His name was Licorice. We will miss his fuzzy face and good nature.

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The packout went smoothly after all

So I didn’t have to worry after all. The transport company got back to me (after I gave them a reminder phone call), and arranged for the moving company to come and pack up my stuff.

The moving guys arrived on time this morning, and got all my UAB (unaccompanied air baggage) packed up. I had an “allowance” of 250 pounds. Most people pack clothes and household necessities. I had a pile of clothes, books, and my desktop computer.

We are given strict instructions not to pack up our stuff, to let the movers do it. I guess that’s for security reasons.

I didn’t have a lot of stuff to pack, so they finished in about an hour. The total weight: 123 pounds. They fit it all into a big box and loaded it onto their truck.

The package will be shipped by air to my hotel in DC. We are told that it could take anywhere from 3 days to a month for the package to arrive. One person didn’t get his UAB until his initial training was almost over (six weeks). I didn’t ship any of my work wardrobe, and kept back some casual clothes, just in case the package doesn’t arrive until later. I would hate to have to wear suits on the weekends.

My desk looks empty without my computer on it, and there is a shelf and another half empty.

I took some old clothes to the Goodwill this afternoon.

I’m trying not to feel morbid about this process. I keep thinking about what this feels like. I keep reminding myself what Thoreau wrote about simplifying your life, and tell myself that I’m getting rid of stuff that I don’t need.

“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.”

Less stuff = a simpler life.

I’m also reminded of this classic George Carlin bit about a place for your stuff:

http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=JLoge6QzcGY&app=m


Getting anxious about packing out

The State Department contracts with packing companies to help new hires pack up their belongings and ship them to wherever it sends its Foreign Service officers. We are keeping the house, so I don’t have a lot of things to pack. My couch, refrigerator, bed, are all saying in East Lansing. Still, there are some things that I don’t need right now, but will want eventually, such as books and summer clothes. I was given very explicit instructions not to pack my own household things, the packing company has to do it. This rule probably has to do with the need to use appropriate packing materials, the need to balance the weight of packages, and the like.

The company that was assigned to do my things is located in Indianapolis. They were hit with the same snopocalypse, so they were out of the office yesterday (Monday). I left a voicemail and email, and asked them to call me today (Tuesday) ASAP, because my pack-out day is scheduled for tomorrow.

Yikes.

A pattern is emerging for how the government makes arrangements. The pattern seems to be: wait, wait, wait, wait, do it now!

Getting used to this pattern will be hard for a Type-A personality who likes to be independent and in control.