Friday, September 05, 2014

عُمان‎ بحر

I love that the ocean -- despite its weight and vastness -- moves.  Watching the tide pull away from the Muscat shoreline and slip back into the Sea of Oman, I considered the immense power behind the water's retreat.  The sea tolerates lesser beings, as it knows it will outlast them.  Seagulls had embroidered meandering tracks in the wet sand, but only two terns had stayed to attest to the work; my own tracks were less delicate and attested more to improper footwear than to industry of motion.  Idly collecting shells from the exposed sand produced an unexpected Fibonacci sequence:  one brown, one yellow, two white, three red...  As I mathematically arranged the shells on my palm, the sun ate my exposed skin without comment.  The terns were equally unmoved and looked drowsy in the heat.

E.B. White says the sound of the sea is the most time-effacing sound there is; I don't know how long I stood there on the shore, clutching my shells and trying to leave an impression on the gulls and the tide.  Everything is full of promise in the beginning.  The challenge is learning how to engage it.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Katie's DC Assignment Survival Guide

Fear not!  The keys to your Washington success lie below.

1. Mind Your Lanyard:  there aren't many ways to assert your identity in a faceless, black-suited bureaucracy.  Your choice of lanyard provides a rare means of self expression.  Whether you intend to impress ("Embassy Kabul First Responders") or distract (your name handwoven in beaded lettering by indigenous Guatemalans), this strap is your opening gambit and should be carefully chosen to set the stage for your professional interactions.  Good to keep a length of beaded chain on hand as well, however, for when you want to look fresh out of A-100 and thus completely abdicate responsibility for the events around you.

2. Learn to Read Subtext:  in bureaucracy as in diplomacy, it's important to develop an ear for what's really being said.

"I'm the acting lead for antarctic issues for WHA/RSA."
[Check to make sure your packets include a page 5 -- they've only just started letting me collate copies.]

"I'm the deputy director for LAX/IAD."
[My boss thought this meeting was beneath her.]

"I'll have to see what the Counselor thinks."
[I expect you'll be working for me someday.]

"I'm Bob."
[I assume word of my importance has preceded me and no further introduction is necessary.  Oh, is the glint from my cufflinks hurting your eyes?  You'll get used to it.]

"I handle Pol-Mil for the Egypt Desk."
[The extent of my working knowledge is 50 different synonyms for 'coup'.  Missile, anyone?]

3. Know the Building:  nothing impresses more than intimate knowledge of the halls and institutions of Main State -- and nothing will serve you better than being able to correctly identify which of those halls to duck down when you see that cloying guy from your TDY to Latvia heading your way in the cafeteria.  Bad day in the office?  Try a trip to the basement area off the parking garage.  No one will EVER find you there.  "I have a meeting in SA-9" is also a good foil.  (If pressed, this is "by the alternate Pentagon shuttle stop.")

4. Seek Confirmation from Reliable Sources:  who better to ask whether your DC performance is up to snuff than the person who knows best -- you.  Don't allow capricious promotion panels or distracted office colleagues to dictate your sense of value.  Tell yourself, "I'm capable, people like me, and darnit, my Information Memos are changing the world."  It helps to look into a mirror when saying this, preferably one mounted over a liquor cabinet.

5. Relax:  finding yourself irritated (again) that they ran out of kale early at the salad bar?  Has the latest forced office happy hour left you jittery and drawn?  You ignore these signs of stress at your peril.  There is a persistent myth that only overseas tours come with R&R.  Not so!  Even DC denizens occasionally need to get away.  The R&R options for your Washington tour are as endless as the 'Now' bidlist.  Sana'a?  Lovely in the spring.  Baghdad?  People are literally fighting to get there.  Tripoli?  Stellar company come summer 2015!

If I can survive two years in DC, so can you.  Go get 'em, Tiger.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Revisting the Rubicon

Did I realize five years ago that opting for a year of Arabic would be a rubiconical juncture?  I don't think so.  Some of the best advice I've ever gotten was not to think about 'what to do' -- much too big to consider! -- but rather to think about 'what to do next'.  It's a good general approach, and I like that it allows for the 'deeply significant' appellation to only be assigned to decisions in hindsight.  If I had any interest in uchronia, I suppose now would be the time to exercise it (luckily, I do not).

So 'next' is another year of Arabic, and then Libya.

Embarking on more long-term language study at the unkind age of 35 is a level of masochism I had thought beyond even myself, and I'm curious to see how this goes.  Who knows -- maybe in five years I'll look back on the time and think 'Ah, good thing I went through that pain, or I could never have experienced [insert amazing outcome here]'.  I imagine so.  I'm happy with my path thus far, even though (in the cosmic sense) I couldn't really tell you where I'm going.

Plus, Oman has sea turtles; I've heard that on good authority.  I'm not sure they'll be totally worth the pain of what's coming, but I'm banking on them compensating for quite a lot.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Honor, Yogurt, and Commitment

"Is CVS still open?"  He's looking for yogurt.  I don't talk about how weird it is that he was just at a meeting with the President, and now he's having to figure out late night convenience store dairy options like the rest of us chumps.  Shouldn't he have returned radiating light and carrying two stone tablets?

"I think it's closed, sir -- Walgreens is 24 hours, though."  A nod of acknowledgment as he takes a phone call, at which point my duties shift from convenience store expert to seeing eye dog, signaling when to pause at street corners so that he can focus on his phone conversation without having to worry about oncoming cars.  (Later he will gleefully tell me that CVS was open -- and that its yogurt selection is far superior to Walgreens.  A massive control officer fail from which I never fully recover.)

I personally consider myself to be a poor staffer -- too much introversion, too much fear of disturbing hierarchy, too little attention to detail...  Too much love of closure that makes each schedule change feel like a near moral crisis.  It's unlikely you'll be told what's needed, so you search around for ways to be helpful.  Keeping food and water on hand.  Having notebooks and pens ready.  Sending in clearances.  Tracking down room numbers.  Screening calls.  There's a lot of that last one.  He wants to talk to you (truly), but he doesn't have time.  You're stuck talking to me.  I'm dreadfully sorry.

Plus, at a certain point, staffing takes on an air of ridiculousness.  Is printing schedules and lamely offering the latest media roundups really helping in any way?  Compared to the mounting crisis, it seems small and obsequious.  I formatted a paper for him.  That was probably the pinnacle of my usefulness.  He seemed grateful.

Maybe the value you add is just being around and willing to serve.  Maybe that's all this line of work boils down to in any case.

And I'm developing a list of all the 24 hour convenience stores near State, in case anyone wants to know. 

Friday, May 09, 2014


I've heard it said that home is the place where, when you show up, they have to take you in.  It's been seven years since I've seen them, but when I call Taishou to ask if I can come stay for the weekend, there is no hesitation; there's hardly even surprise:  いいよ、 もちろん。 Yes, of course.  Stammering through my rusty Japanese over the phone, I try to make every syllable echo how I feel -- I care about you, you are important to me, I'm sorry it's been so long...  When you have so little to give back to the people you love, it's hard to know how to do right by them.

And that's Japan for me:  someone I love and long for, all the while knowing we will never be together.  Sometimes I feel guilty about it -- that I should give in, commit.  Take a posting in Nagoya and settle down for five years.  Get my language back up to speed.  "Think you'll ever come back to Japan?" Taishou asks.  I try to imagine it.  Being in Japan is like being back in the womb:  soothing, anodyne.  Tempting.  I struggle to reply to him, to explain.  Why shouldn't I want to be here, to be with them?  To be somewhere easy and liveable?

"It's just that..."  I want to be uncomfortable?  I want to feel off balance?  I want to be challenged?  "I want new experiences," I settle on, hesitantly.  It's not a rejection, it's just -- a compulsion.  A restlessness.  Taishou and Okaasan understand.  I'm not always sure I do.

Sunday, April 13, 2014


Inability to write is most often just an inability to think -- and so it bothers me that I'm encountering writer's block these days.  One of the joys of the job (from a purely analytic perspective) is being handed a position and asked to write public points to explain it.  The sensation of stripping down a stance to the fundamental arguments, pressing on it until it unfolds neatly, like a puzzle box, is very satisfying.  Lately, however, I find myself circling and circling positions, looking for an entrée that would allow me to explain them.

I left home for university when I was seventeen.  The day before, my youngest sister and I sat together at the kitchen table where she was cutting up newspaper to make a collage.  She was ten.

"You're leaving," she said, not looking up from the scissors working steadily up and down in her grip.  "Yes."  It was a rare moment of quiet in the house.  The pages of newspaper rustled gently under the fan.  "Are you coming back?"  I considered this for a bit.  "No," I finally told her -- "only to visit."  She nodded thoughtfully.

"Well, just don't lose this."  And she handed me a scrap of newspaper from the pile.  She had cut precisely around a single word:  'integrity'.

I still have the slip of newspaper.  Sitting at my desk, considering what to draft, I still think about that day in the kitchen and the promise I made her.  "Don't worry," I assured her, fingering the scrap for a moment before sliding it into my pocket.  "I won't."

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Philosophari sibi necesse esse, sed paucis.

Dad told me once that you can tell a consensus-based decision -- a democratic decision -- is the right one when none of the people involved is completely happy with the outcome.  If any one party is completely happy, then there hasn't been compromise.  I think about this a lot when watching the changes in Egypt.  I think about it a lot observing our own bureaucracy.

In the utilitarian model of ethics, there's an interesting tension between 'fairness' and maximizing happiness -- i.e., the goal of society is not just increasing the total amount of happiness, but also increasing it among the greatest number of people.  Otherwise, we'd all just devote ourselves to making one person so deliriously happy, her pleasure would outweigh everyone else's misery.

There's also a tension in this model between the immediate outcome of an action and the 'second order' effect of multiple such actions over time -- i.e., it might make you very happy to run a red light and get to your destination more quickly than if you had stopped, but the aggregate effect of people continually running red lights would eventually decrease overall happiness due to accidents, so forth.

I'm not sure where I'm going with all this.  But I do wonder if Utilitarianism is available in Arabic.