Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Support Network

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Good Fences

There are different theories about the roots of office conflict. One I've often heard is that coworkers simply need to become better friends: that we should go out together after hours, that we should strive to make the office 'fun', that we should be enjoying each others company... There is some notion that if people are not friends they will be unable to work together; and indeed, should not be expected to work together. For the sake of this and all future FS tours of duty, I hope that this is not the case. There's just no way that everyone can be friends with everyone else all the time; in fact, one of the key stresses of being in an office (or, as I'm discovering, at a consulate) is the pressure to be instantly tight-knit and soul-baring with one another. It's not a realistic expectation of any group of people.

This unworkable expectation seems to be key in one of the great faults of FS culture: conflict avoidance. I don't think that the FS possesses this trait to a greater or lesser extent than any other organization, but the nature of constant, anticipated personnel turnover makes it far too easy to say 'oh, just wait; they'll be gone soon' rather than dealing with problems. We tend to think that because we are all nominally diplomats, we should naturally and easily get along; when we don't, the underlying presumption seems to be that we're not truly cut out for the role. Within my own office, I've seen misguided attempts at avoiding personality clashes lead to secrecy and a certain level of collusion among staff, justified as necessary in protecting office 'harmony'. Recognizing my own tendency for this has been a disappointing part of serving here. The hallmark of diplomacy is not never having conflict, but rather the willingness to take-on and gracefully address conflict. One of my goals for the remainder of this tour is to better foster that sort of willingness within myself.

The challenge this presents is not insurmountable, but certainly not small. Realizing that the need to be helpful, supportive, courteous, and patient, does not necessarily translate into the need to be fast friends is probably the first step.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Oh, the Excitement!

Finally, the most anticipated event of the year! Yes, that's right: Arcade Fire has released a new single. It's been such a long time since their last album; I'm sure you're all as thrilled as I am to be getting a preview of their new one... Isn't it nice? Personally speaking, I'm a real sucker for the pipe organ. It adds such a lush undertone.

Oh, and also, the winter bidlist has just come out.

Truthfully, I wasn't really ready for it. 393 positions is a rather overwhelming thing to face, and even given those high numbers, it is rare to see the job you want coincide with the place you want and the time you want to go. It was a relief when I figured out that -- factoring in homeleave, length of training, and position start date -- fully three quarters of the list could be immediately discounted due to timing problems. I'm nigh unto light-headed from all the marker fumes I've inhaled while striking merrily through untenable postings. Now I just have to apply my 'career goals' (being posted to an embassy, going on a hardship tour, avoiding learning another boutique language, and maybe, possibly, doing something other than visas) to see what suits me out of the remaining open slots. Theoretically, this could be accomplished through application of some sort of nifty equation, from which a list of my top twenty choices would then fall out naturally. Theoretically. I'm working on it.

The main complication is of course the one I can't really plan for, and that's the level 2 medical clearance. A hardship tour at an embassy, particularly if I want to not be doing consular work the entire time, usually means being in a place where there's no access to healthcare. For example, there are some jobs at the embassy in Sana'a that are consular rotations (half of the time visa, half of the time political), would allow me to receive a full course of Arabic, and would let me serve in a hardship post. This sounds like a reasonable bid coming out of the zero danger, zero hardship, 60% COLA, stop-at-Starbucks-on-your-way -to-CostCo, is-there-a-term-that-means-'beyond-first-world' country that is Japan. But there are no medical facilities there, period. I can already tell that Med is going to absolutely deny it to me. They're uber-cautious. I'm supposed to cobble together a top 20 list for them to vet ASAP, even before the official submission deadline. My only hope is that when they give me another two year consular posting in a highly developed, visa waiver program participant, specialty language country, the women there are incredibly ugly. (Note to my CDO: Please, please, please do not send me to Sweden!)

There's this one other complication though -- it turns out that since the MS drugs have to be refrigerated, they can't be shipped to post through APO or pouch. So any drugs I want to take, I'm either going to have to buy from a local pharmacy in my country of posting, or hand carry from the US. Furthermore, if I'm reading the FS Benefit Plan's pharmaceutical coverage explanation correctly (hard to say, as it sounds like something the Office of Right-Sizing would draft), if the meds are the sort that can't be shipped, then I'm on my own paying for them after the first 60 days -- even if do I buy them in the States.

I suppose I could just not take the drugs, a solution which is looking more and more attractive the more I consider it. Though you try explaining to your family that you decided to forgo potentially beneficial healthcare because you thought it might be kind of neat to live in Yemen.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Giving in to Grousing...

NOTE: I wrote this earlier in the week, when I was frustrated and probably a little angry. I don't mean for this blog to turn into a 'Me and my Chronic Illness' site, but as it is a part of my life -- and lately, a big part of my Foreign Service life -- I decided to go ahead and post this rather than deleting it. Anyways, thanks for understanding.
Katie, 12 January

This weekend (a long weekend for those of us here in Japan), I downloaded the entirity of NPR's Memorable Moments of 2006 to listen to while I crocheted. A lot of the stories are intensely moving. The ones about illness dealt primarily with cancer.

This got me thinking about the socially acceptable response to disease. One should be, of course, devastated upon receiving a diagnosis of a chronic illness. This is acceptable. You are allowed a period of 'why me?'-ness. Some 'angry at god' time. But then? Well, this devastation should morph into a desire to 'fight'. To overcome your illness. In the words of the NPR commentator who has been sharing the story of his cancer treatment over the course of the year:
I'm not spending my time thinking why me, though. I don't have the time. I think about the old saying, "We aren't given the burdens we deserve, we're given the burdens we can bear." I have work to do, because I'm going to fight like hell.

I just want to point out that this is absolute poppycock.

You don't fight a disease. It's not something you can challenge in some sort of physical sense. You can't ask your illness to play a game of chess with you, or run a race against you, or try for basketball shots from the freethrow line. "Hey cancer, best out of three..." It doesn't work like that. And furthermore, who says we're only given the burdens we can bear? The sample population on which those types of inane sayings are based is rather skewed: people who couldn't bear it just aren't around anymore to disprove the notion. According to a recent book I read, 20 of the 93 people whom Dr. Kevorkian helped die had MS. Some burdens aren't bearable, despite the platitudes.

I think what people really mean when they say they're going to fight a disease or bear a disease or do anything besides just HAVE a disease, is that they're going to remain upbeat. "I won't let my cancer get me down!" "I won't let MS stop me!" That's the sort of thing we like to hear from people with chronic or life-threatening illness. That's our standard for whether or not the person is admirable and praiseworthy in her or his handling of the situation. And you know what? That is a really crummy thing to ask of someone. So now, in order to retain society's respect, I am required to be perpetually perky? I have to smile and give a big thumbs up and say, "Oh, not to worry, just a little incurable disease! Think of all the fun ways I could decorate a wheelchair!"? Gee, thanks a lot. I think somewhere in there I'm also supposed to find Jesus.

To NPR's credit, they did publish one of the few realistic stories I've heard about dealing with illness. The following exchange I thought was particularly true to life:
Rebecca remembers that follow-up visit with the neurologist.

"He said, 'You know, I've seen a lot of families go through this and there's a lot of different ways people handle it. But there are some families can pull together and achieve this kind of transcendence,'" Rebecca remembered.

"And transcendence was the word he used -- where they go through their grief and their anger and everything else, but they really have something precious that they hold onto in the end. And I think one of the things that I feel worst about is the fact that I never felt anything like transcendence. I never achieved anything like that with my family. Instead of things sort of coming together and us having a wonderful, glowing "transcendental" experience, it was really quite the opposite; things just kind of dissolved and got down to a very, very basic survival level."

What a burden to put on a person, telling her she has to achieve some sort of spiritual growth through dealing with her husband's malignant brain tumor. Making her think she's a failure because the experience wasn't wonderful and glowing.

Sometime this month I'm supposed to go back to Tokyo and arrange for MS medication. The medication is a daily injection that I have to give myself. I'm told that it hurts like a bee sting. It has to be refrigerated. It costs $1600 a month -- a third of my salary -- and it's not clear to me how much of that my insurance will cover. The medication is not going to take away my MS, or reverse any damage. I don't get to think, "Hey, just 6 months of this and I'll be cured!" It might slow down the MS. There's a 2 in 3 chance that it won't do anything at all. A lot of time and energy and money and pain for a 29% chance of merely reduced increase in symptoms. What an awful choice. Like I have a choice.

My New Year's resolution was to not grouse about my MS. And also to finally beat it at checkers.