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July, 2016:

Cookies!

There’s an Asian grocery store near where we live. They carry great produce, but the snack aisle was a little scary.

Mmmm. butter cookies.

Mmmm. butter cookies.

Eeeeeeeww, bitter cookies.

Eeeeeeeww, bitter cookies.

You aren't fooling anyone with that "chocolate" label.

You aren’t fooling anyone with that “chocolate” label.

Words fail me.

Words fail me.

No no no no no.

No no no no no.

I think I’ll rely on my wife’s awesome baking skills as my cookie supplier.

If public speaking is a kind of performance,…

…then I guess it makes sense to get some training from professional performers.

I’m back in Washington D.C. for long-term training. Language training starts in September, but there is a lot to learn before that. I will do a yearlong rotation as an “information officer” for post. This will be a new job for me, so I have to receive all the standard training for “public diplomacy” officers.

The highlight of the first class, that just finished yesterday, was two days of off-site training at a theater. A team of professional actors and directors taught us about using our voices effectively, and how our physical posture affects our vocal delivery. This is important for people who will represent our country to understand. We got to practice giving a speech, and received feedback. The feedback was theater-style feedback, not federal government-style feedback. In training sessions that I’m used to attending, feedback is pretty straightforward. It’s almost an afterthought, and it typically isn’t particularly helpful. You get some written or spoken comments on your performance, and then we all move on to the next person.

The culture of theater is different. The purpose of feedback from the director is to change the actor’s performance, immediately. After delivering the feedback, the director wants to see change, now. So at the theater, when it was my turn, I gave my speech. I got my feedback from the director, then I nodded, and got ready to sit down. Wrong. The director wasn’t done with me. Instead of moving on to the next person, the director sat down, and loudly proclaimed: “let’ go again!,” meaning I was to start the speech again. I tried again, doing it the director’s way this time. When I messed up (again), he interrupted me and made me start over (again). It was an experience familiar to anyone who has acted on stage before, but it was very different from how we do things in the State Department. That training style was a departure from business as usual, but that’s not bad. It was a positive learning experience.

My training experiences in this job so far have been positive.  The State Department differs from academia in one striking way: the Department is willing to bring in outside experts to provide training. It’s expensive, which may be a reason why I didn’t experience it as much during my academic career. But we get to learn from experts, and it’s very beneficial. I’ve heard that the training culture in the Department improved when Colin Powell was Secretary of State. I’ve benefited from the effort to improve and increased training that is required of Foreign Service Officers.

Home Leave went by too quickly

I’m lucky. I used to joke with my sister that I live a charmed life. It doesn’t happen all the time, of course. Objectively speaking, when an event can go one way or the other, I’m probably just as likely to grab a handful of thorns as I am to pluck a rose. But I have been on the winning side of fate’s coin toss at least a fair number of times.

My home leave was a lucky roll of the dice. Foreign Service officers are eligible for 30 days of home leave after a tour of duty. Home leave is a time when we can re-acclimate to America. If the timing works out, we can take the full 30 days. But not everyone gets all the home leave that they are eligible for. Timing can force people to cut their home leave short. Although home leave is a requirement, it isn’t guaranteed that we can take it all.  According to The Rules, we must take at least 20 days of home leave.  But many officers can barely take even that. Training schedules and dates that we have to report to our next post don’t always allow the full 30 days. Sometimes people even have to get “permission” not to take even the required 20 days. In fact, according to some of my more experienced co-workers,  officers rarely get to enjoy the full 30 days of home leave.

Here’s where the charmed life thing comes in. Home leave timing worked out perfectly for me. I was able to depart from my previous post (more or less) on time, arrange all of the required training for my next job, and still fit in the full 30 days of home leave. The only sacrifice on my part was staying at my previous post a few weeks longer than I needed to do. But because I liked the work at my last post, staying a few extra weeks wasn’t a personal burden.

Even though I was home for 30 days, the time flew by. Some unexpected problems with my house ate into the time, but I was able to visit with most of the people that I wanted to see, take a backpacking trip to Isle Royale, spend some good quality time with my family, and eat food that I craved when I was in China (I’m talking about you, Chipotle!).

Home leave is over now. I am now on my way back to DC for training. After six weeks of job skills training, language training starts in September. The last time I went to DC for training, I was alone. This time, though, my wife will be with me the whole time. We will have the shared experience of being language learners, and enjoy being empty nesters in a tiny nest in DC. I’m looking forward to this next step in our adventure.

But, dang, that 30 days went by fast.

Were we reading the same book?!

The book “Atlas Shrugged” is a long read. It’s over one thousand pages long. One soliloquy in the book drones on for over 60 pages. I once read somewhere that Ayn Rand was able to get away with writing such a long book (far longer than it needed to be) because her earlier work “The Fountainhead” was such a success. Her past commercial success gave her power over her publisher. Her editor may have thought that Rand knew what she was doing, and so didn’t suggest/demand that Rand shorten “Atlas.”

I read “Atlas” some years ago, and although I’m not a literary critic, or any kind of expert on literature, I certainly felt that the book could have been shorter. I suspect that Rand’s editor could have, should have, required that the book be shortened by about 50% before it would be send to the printers. I don’t blame Rand for the length of the book. Writers are supposed to get their ideas down on paper. The editor’s job is to make the book presentable.

I’ve been reading a lot while on home leave. Most of the books have been fun fiction. I like mysteries and thrillers. For years, one of my favorite series has been the “Jack Reacher” novels by Lee Child. However, I think that the one that I just finished will be the last of the series that I will read.

The first one in the series, “The Killing Floor,” was a great read. A serious mystery, a compelling story, a very interesting protagonist. It wasn’t high literature, but it was a lot of fun. I continue to recommend the book to anyone who likes thrillers.

Child publishes a new Reacher novel every year. I typically read all of them as soon as they land in the bookstore. As the series has gone on, though, the stories got more farfetched, and I have been growing less enthusiastic about the latest stories. The newest entry in the series, “Make Me,” is a mess.

Raters on Amazon gives it 4 stars, based on over 6,000 raters. The book that I read is not 4-star quality. It barely deserves one. I can’t believe that we read the same book.

There is a lot wrong with the book, and I think both the writer and the publisher share blame for this waste of my time.

First, the author. Mr. Child’s job as the writer is to concoct a mystery for Reacher to solve. But apparently Child thinks that ordinary mysteries are not good enough. Reacher has to look at a deserted farm town and conclude that there is a nefarious conspiracy swirling around the wheat fields. The problem is that there are no clues in what Reacher sees in the town that would lead him to the crime that the town hides. I like reading about protagonists who are smarter than I am, but giving people super-powers is a violation of the genre. The hero is supposed to solve the mystery using his brains, help from his sidekicks, and some dumb luck. Unlike his earlier novels, Child includes none of these elements in this book.

The editor should have seen the problems with the book. I can’t believe that an editor who knows what she’s doing would let this book get to print. I have a sad suspicion that if this were an author’s first book, the editor would have been more responsible and fixed the serious problems. But because Child is a brand name, simply putting his name on the book is enough to sell the book.

Well, you can only get away with that trick once. Now that I know that Child is editor-proof, I will be much more skeptical. I won’t buy the book simply because Lee Child wrote it. I will not misjudge a book by its cover. Lee Child’s editor is afraid of him, and as a result, Child is publishing bad books.

It’s too bad that I won’t enjoy any more Jack Reacher adventures. I really enjoyed the earlier books in the series. Maybe Child will write better stories in the future, but I doubt it. As for me, it’s time to look for another good thriller writer. If you have any suggestions, I’m all ears.

Great novel about North Korea

Note to the reader: I’ve put links in this article to books that are available for purchase on Amazon. If you click through and wind up buying a book, I will get a microscopic commission.

They say that the truth is stranger than fiction, and few countries embody that saying better than the Peoples Democratic Republic of Korea. One of my many obsessions is North Korea. It’s one of the reasons that I wanted to serve in Shenyang. During my tour in China, I visited the border between China and North Korea at four different locations. While working in China, I had the opportunity to talk with Chinese tourists who visited North Korea, I talked with a few North Korean people, and in one very strange evening, I may or may not have sung a karaoke song in a restaurant with a young lady from North Korea.

I’ve read several books about that baffling country. A classic is Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea which describes life in the country during the famine of the late 1990s (“The Arduous March”). Many people consider that book as a definitive description of North Korea. However, another book, The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia, written several years later, depicts a North Korea that is largely recovered from the famine. The author of that book, Andrei Lankov, describes people living normal lives, using cell phones and the Internet. As a foreigner, Lankov’s movements were restricted to Pyongyang, which is largely protected from the worst deprivations in the country. The fact that he was probably prevented from seeing life in the country, where conditions can be terrible, in all likelihood colored his view of the country. However, Lankov was born in the USSR, and so he has personal experience with discerning truth from propaganda. His analysis of the country’s prospects for the future was food for thought.

The The Orphan Master’s Son is a work of fiction, the best novel I’ve ever read that takes place in North Korea. The author Adam Johnson is a professor of English at Stanford University. He isn’t a journalist, and although he has been to North Korea, he doesn’t appear to have dedicated his professional life to studying the country. This isn’t intended to be a slight or an insult to Johnson. Rather, I mention this in order to point out how remarkable it is that he is able so accurately to capture the experience of living surviving in that bizarre country. His descriptions of daily life match up seamlessly with narratives from refugees. While so many fiction writers who place their stories in Asia don’t seem to “get” Asia, Johnson’s prose (unlike mine) is both readable and believable.

Johnson’s story is multi-layered. It’s possible to simply read through the book and follow the story. But there is more to the work than that. It was a delight to read to the end, then return to the first page and re-read the propaganda announcement that opens the novel. The subtext was clear to me upon the second reading, after knowing the back story. The effect reminded me of the phenomenon that Steven Johnson (no relation?) described in Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. Our tastes as consumers of culture are becoming more and more sophisticated. The challenge to modern authors is to construct stories that are easily accessible, but that are more complex than they appear on the surface. This is true of video games, television shows, and novels. We want to be entertained, but it isn’t enough simply to be titillated. We want to engage with the entertainment. In “The Orphan Master’s Son,” Johnson offers the reader a fractal. We have the option to appreciate the story on its surface, or to explore deeper into the book. This is good writing.

 

Isle Royale Trip

Isle Royale is just as pretty as it was when I last visited in 2013. We visited June 25-30 this year.

On the way up to Copper Harbor, we drove through the city of Houghton, which has a street named after the park:

street sign-w800-h600

The ferry ride across was eventful. The lake was calm for most of the trip, but about 30 minutes from the island, we entered a thunderstorm. We pulled into Rock Harbor in the rain.

While many of the other passengers huddled under the canopy at the ranger’s station, we claimed a shelter in the Rock Harbor campsite, and enjoyed a hot beverage while we were waiting for the rain to stop. At 2:00, we headed out onto the trail.

Trails were clearly marked and easy to follow (most of the time), but muddy. Rain always makes the trail muddy, and it was especially bad for us on this trip.

mud 1-w800-h600

Although it was late June, the wild strawberries weren’t ripe yet. We had heard that spring was about two weeks late this year, and it certainly seemed so.

Not quite ripe.

Not quite ripe.

 

We didn’t encounter any black flies, which was a relief.  I was worried that we might get hit by the annual black fly plague. We got lucky again.

We made it from Rock Harbor to Daisy Farm, about 7 miles away, in 4.5 hours. That’s a slower pace than we have made in the past. I blame the state of the trail. The strain of navigating huge mud patches and slippery rocks slowed us down.

The weather cleared up on our second day. Morning at Daisy Farm was gorgeous. Visibility was perfect.

islets-w800-h600

The view from the Daisy Farm dock.

The trails are pretty well maintained. Some boardwalks have rotting boards. We saw several drops of construction materials for trail maintenance. Helicopters delivered replacement boards. The park crew is doing a good job with what they have.

Boardwalk

Boardwalk

There’s still a lot of mud, though.

mud 3-w800-h600

We didn’t encounter many other people in the park. Probably due to the earliness of the season. Someone told me that the best time to visit is the week before July 4. We’ve visited in June, July and August. While the weather is the best in August, and the thimbleberries are ripe then, the park is much more crowded. In June, we have always been able to get a shelter in a campsite. Can’t say the same for August.

At McCargo Cove, we saw a moose and a fox. We took a rest day there. It was cold: highs in the 50s, lows in the 40s. The second day was clear and beautiful, and much warmer. Sunshine makes all the difference on Isle Royale.

mist at mccargo-w800-h600

feet at mccargo-w800-h600

My favorite place on the island continues to be Moskey Basin. At Daisy Farm on our second day, we met a young couple from Maine. We ran into them again at McCargo Cove. I told them that Moskey was a beautiful site, and mentioned that our favorite shelter is #2, right on the water. I advised them to try to get that shelter if they could.

When we arrived at Moskey, we saw the couple again. I had told them that we were planning to be there that day. They must have remembered, because to our delight, they saved the #2 shelter for us! Thanks, A and L! You guys are the best!

My "cottage on the lake."

My “cottage on the lake.”

The stupid squirrels at the campsites continue to be a problem. Stop feeding the squirrels, people!

 

We averaged 7-10 miles per day. On our fifth day, we stumbled into Rock Harbor (11 miles in 6 hours), and my wife announced that we we were staying in the cottages that night. I had no objections to a flush toilet and a hot shower.

This was my 4th trip to the park, and I hope it won’t be my last. However, I’m getting too old to be carrying a 40-pound pack. I strained my back, and my wife had problems with her feet. Next time we go, we’ll take the water taxi to campsites and take day hikes instead.

Moskey Basin in the morning.

Moskey Basin in the morning.

 

Morning at Moskey Basin.

Morning at Moskey Basin.

 

Morning skies

Morning skies

 

Clear skies in the morning.

Clear skies in the morning.

 

Moskey Basin in the morning.

Moskey Basin in the morning.

 

 Clear water at Moskey Basin.

Clear water at Moskey Basin.

How I SPENT my home leave.

A lot of people in the Foreign Service both love and fear home leave. They love it because they get to go home to America, see family and friends, eat food that they missed while at post, and relax. They fear it because many people do not own a house in the U.S. Although home leave is a paid vacation, they still have all the regular daily expenses, plus the problem of housing. “Hemorrhaging money” is a phrase that a lot of people use to describe home leave.

I own a house in Michigan. I love my house. I’ve lived here for 16 years, my kids grew up in the house. When we first bought it, we put a lot of work into remodeling it. It’s my home. Several of my colleagues at post were probably sick of me saying: “I miss my fireplace.” I did miss my fireplace.

Because I didn’t have to worry about renting a place to live while on home leave, I was a bit smug about the prospect of relaxing in my house for a few weeks. I had it all planned out. We would kick back, I’d watch some TV, mow the lawn every week or so, walk to the local dairy store that makes the BEST doughnuts, visit the library, catch up on some reading.

There is a great Chinese word: 房奴, “house slave.” It describes the situation in which homeowners are bound to their house, and if something goes wrong with the house, the house demands that the homeowner fix it NOW. This term became relevant to us when we discovered The Sewer Problem.

Our house is older, built in 1961. It was a simpler time. Choices for building materials were narrower. The pipe that carried waste water from the house to the sewer main is made of clay. I guess that when they built it, clay was the best material that was available. Iron rusts, and durable plastic wasn’t an option. The pipe worked fine for decades, but clay has a serious defect: it breaks. Mine broke. A combination of rocks in the soil and tree roots broke my sewer pipe.

Sewer pipes are buried deep in the ground, because who wants to think about your sewer? Not me. Bury that sucker. Bury it deep.

A broken sewer pipe is A Big Deal. It is one of those home improvement projects that can not be put off for another day. It’s right up there with a broken furnace in the middle of winter. It has to be done now.

So we took a deep breath and called the plumbing guys. The first phase was painful enough: they dug a huge trench in my lawn to get at the old pipe and install a new pipe. When they were done, it looked like a grave for a boa constrictor’s coffin.

 

My beautiful green lawn, before the digging started.

 

sewer3

Ouch!

 

sewer6

Phase 1 is over. See that green spray paint on the road? That’s phase 2.

 

The second phase was digging up the road to replace the pipe to the main. According to city policy, even though the pipe ran under the city street, the homeowner is responsible for all expenses related to fixing the sewer line. I even had to pay to replace the patch of road.

sewer7

I’m paying for this.

 

sewer9

PVC pipe will last “forever.” Good.

 

sewer11

I’m paying for this.

 

sewer12

I paid for that.

Now that the project’s done, we have a lot less money than we started out with. But, there are bright sides to this. We have fixed a problem that would have been necessary to solve sooner or later. I’m glad that we caught the problem when we were at home. Trying to coordinate this project from another hemisphere would have been a nightmare. And when we sell the house, this will add a lot of value to the property. This plumbing job is a home improvement project that every house on my block will eventually have to undertake. They all have the same clay pipe. Since we will have already solved it, the new owners will have peace of mind.

And you can bet that we will add the cost of this project to the price of the house!!