Wednesday, December 31, 2008

كل عام و انتم بخير


The test came and went. Christmas came and went.


No one back home asked for an impromptu demonstration of my Arabic skills, which was kind of them. I start new training on Monday. It will be a relief to talk about think about dream about... something else.


يا ترى هل هناك خبز الزنجبيل في الاردن؟

Thursday, December 04, 2008

بادرة سيّءة

Today during break I happened upon one of the Japanese teachers in the hallway. Unwisely opening my mouth, this phrase came out:

"先生、wie geht's?"

She wasn't quite sure what to make of this. And frankly, neither was I. It was as if I'd given birth to something two-headed and unholy right there in the FSI corridor. German? Honestly?

I've got less than two weeks until my final Arabic exam, so here's hoping this works itself out.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Sometimes Memories Don't Fail Us

I can't remember the last time we had Thanksgiving just as a family. In Hawaii? In Florida? The details escape me. I have some vague childhood recollection of eating turkey and stuffing off of plastic trays in the hospital cafeteria; it was important to Dad to support the folks who had to work there over the holiday. In my memory, he would disappear for a few hours every Thanksgiving and Christmas to make hospital rounds -- but my memory is spotty. Perhaps I just want to think our Thanksgivings were built on an example of service. It's not a bad memory, if I have the indulgence of choosing one.

The train to Norfolk is completely full, every seat. One woman, hefting a frayed red bag down the aisle, surveys the crowd approvingly. "Look at all these people!" she croons. "All these people, and y'all going to see somebody who loves you!" Her bag proceeds her like a circus elephant, swinging. "They gonna feed you and hug you -- ain't nothin' better than that, nothin' better." I catch her eye and smile as she passes. Her bright voice carries back through the car as she continues bestowing 'Happy Thanksgiving's like benedictions. The family next to me is playing cards as the sun stripes the passing river scenery.

Thanksgiving morning, and Dad finds me in the kitchen rifling through the cereal cabinet; he's in uniform, bouncing a bit as he walks. "Do you want to join me?" His voice is quiet so as not to wake the others, but in the same bright tone as the woman from the train. "I'm going to have breakfast in the hospital galley and then make a few rounds." "Sure!" I return the box of cereal to the shelf and close the cabinet. "You know, I was just thinking about that very thing on the train ride down."

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

بشكل كبير

So... how do you tell someone in a dating context that you have MS? It's not as if it tends to work itself fluidly into casual conversation ("Sure is cold today... Hey, have I ever told you about my nerve disease?"), but to frame it as a pronouncement ("I have something to tell you: should this relationship progress to the point of marriage, there's a chance that shortly thereafter I will become a blind and incontinent burdensome shell of my former self. Also, I snore.") lends it an air of drama that it doesn't really warrant. A pronouncement seems to demand something from the recipient; or worse, implies that you've reached some gravid point of reckoning in the relationship, whereas maybe he just thought you were hanging out. Timing here seems crucial; sensitivity to context and social cues, a must. Which is why I suspect I'm going to screw it up spectacularly.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Eventually, Eventually...

Out with some friends, and Sara and I are talking about running. "Katie, we should do a race together. I was thinking maybe the GW Classic... Oh, wait," a tilt of the head. "You won't be here."

I very nearly dropped my drink. "Sorry? Could you say that again?"

"What? The GW Classic?"

"No, the other part. Where will I be?"

"You won't be here. You'll be in Jordan."

I'll be in Jordan. What an amazing thought.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Time Without Now

It struck me today that we will have a new president before I complete my Arabic training. Of course, I have a calendar, I listen to the news, I put in for my absentee ballot -- it's not as if I'm unaware of the outside world or that these two things were going to overlap. But it's strange that it does feel very much apart from my current day-to-day reality. Outside we're apparently experiencing political and financial mayhem, but inside my classroom I haven't even changed my seat in over 30 weeks. Time has ceased to have a 'Now'-- there's only 'Back Then' and 'After This', and no real sense of when we broke from the one or when we'll be reaching the other. We've achieved a sort of equilibratory stasis. Though I'm certain the minute that we realize we have 13 days instead of 13 weeks left, reality will come crashing back down in a most intrusive way. It dawned on us a month or so ago that we were losing track of the time, so we've begun keeping a tally of the weeks on the classroom wall.

I'm often asked for my impression of Arabic training, so here it is: it's long. Not bad, but definitely long.

The upshot of all of this 'longness' is that I am longing to be at work. In a bid to be even mildly productive, I spend all my time outside class furiously reading. Other people dream of homeleave spent lounging on a beach; I'm looking for a place to go and dig trenches. Maybe I could get a job at McDonald's for the month. I picture arriving at post and racing through projects one after the other... Well, it's a nice thought at the moment, anyway. A thought flecked with the knowledge that much sooner than I would like I might not be able to work. Sometimes I wonder if I've made the right choices. That kind of fear is not cold and steely: it is pungent and choking and little tolerant of the notion of stasis. Luckily I can usually put it off.

Meanwhile, after seven months I'm beginning to think that the relationship I have with my classmate is probably the closest thing I'll ever have to a marriage. We're scheduled to have our post-Arabic training together as well. No one's yet suggested that we begin wearing matching outfits, but I can sense it's coming.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

"She must have been popular in high school."

الغزل [al-gazl] means 'spinning yarn'. الغزل [al-gazal] means 'love making'. I'll let you guess which one I was trying to indicate was my mother's hobby.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Wills and Mathematics and the Problems of Percentages

The year I was eleven I developed the certain knowledge that my parents would die the year I turned eighteen. What led me to believe this I'm not sure, but I was utterly convinced that I had seen the hand of fate, that we would be huddled on Mom and Dad's bed after the funeral, us against the world, spurning the entreaties of various relatives to join their various households, that the bank would take the house, and that I would be forced to get a job and become the stoic provider. I was enough convinced of this that I thought it best we take the precautionary step of creating a will on my parents' behalf, carefully outlined in my childhood diary. This led to the now infamous family story of my sister Ellen's response to the question, "When Mom and Dad die, which of their things would you like?" No hesitation:

"The money."

Ellen was five at the time.

I was thinking about this today while searching for lawyers so that I could make my own will, hopefully one more binding than a handwritten list sealed with a heart-shaped lock (not that my eleven year old self's claim to Mom and Dad's Shaker china cabinet wouldn't hold up in court). The plan is to divide my household effects and savings evenly among my sisters. The problem is that I have three sisters. The bank won't recognize 33.3333333333333(to infinity) as a legitimate allotment option; someone has to get an extra one percent.

In the interest of fairness, I think I might award this to Karyn. She had only just turned four when we made that first will, and all she thought to ask for were the plant stands.

Friday, August 22, 2008

No Guarantee

Doing something on behalf of the MS always feels like a staggering achievement. After finally calling to schedule my first MRI in the States (the crowd roars!), I thought it would be wise to phone the insurance company to double-check my coverage (roar gives way to murmurs of general approval and agreement). I felt very responsible. I was, in fact, being very responsible. It only takes a single expensive insurance mistake to turn you into one of those people who's always running back in the house to see if the stove is turned off.

"Do you require prior authorization for an MRI?" (The MRI place had told me to ask this; I don't really know what it means.)

"No."

"Okay, great." So why the niggling feeling? "But MRIs are covered under my plan, is that correct?"

"We don't guarantee coverage. If it's medically necessary it should be covered."

"Uh... I think it's necessary. But you can't tell me for sure?"

"We don't guarantee coverage."

"You can't give me an idea? This is the difference for me between five hundred and five THOUSAND dollars."

"Ma'am, I don't know what you want me to tell you."

She actually laughed at me a little here, a chuckle that landed on the 'don't' and skidded a bit through the 'know'. Her laugh seemed like a pretty good summing up of multiple sclerosis as a whole. After first being diagnosed I was so rageful for so long, it's somewhat of a relief to now have that feeling contained to only a handful of sharp moments.

I try to deal with MS issues during class break so that any emotions they raise will be necessarily elided. It's not so much that I wish I didn't have MS as that I wish I didn't have to always be navigating other people's hurdles for it.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

منمول

It's never a good sign when the language of the country to which you're going has a single word for the idea 'teeming with ants'.

I brought up my concern to my Arabic teacher. "Ah, yes," he said. "We also have a word for 'teeming with bees'."

This did not have the comforting effect he perhaps intended.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Addiction

I noticed her first only as a slow-moving anomaly amid the early evening rush. Intent on forward motion, she was bent slightly in her wheelchair; both arms pumped in unison, rhythmically, though as she approached I could see that only one was managing to make contact with the rubber grip of the wheel. The sound of her right foot dragging was soft and muffled by traffic, but the left inched up and down in time with the arms, faintly tap-tap-tapping the ground. Her uneven tracks in the sidewalk dust gave way quickly to the scuffling of other, more forceful footsteps. Her plaid top was limp yet dry, in contrast to the sweat eating through my own clothing. She reminded me of an abandoned powder box, dated and dessicated.

"Would you like some help? Could I give you a push?"

"Yes, if it's no trouble." The tone of her voice made it clear I was merely a potentially useful distraction on the path to a final goal; she looked past me down the street, fingering a space near her collarbone where a string of pearls must once have been. "I'm just going to the 7-11." Repositioning myself behind her chair gave me a clearer view of the white roots of her hair, bounded by dull brown dye. As I pushed, her arm continued to churn the air, gaining vigor as we crossed the two blocks. The sight of the convenience store made it flutter anxiously.

"Yes, yes -- just here. Thank you, that's lovely."

"Should I take you inside? Is there anything I could..."

"No, no; here is fine." Only now did I notice a thin line of sweat on her brow. She grasped a railing and she and the chair pulled out of my hand, darting forward in an amazing show of agility. Exiting customers skirted curiously around her; she was panting sharply, fixated on the glass door. "When they see me, they'll bring me out what I want. They just have to see me..." The left arm she raised above her head, waving and frantic, was devoid of jewelry.

No longer needed, I turned and walked home.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Insurance of the Fittest

One of the cruelest things you can do to your children is raise them outside of the private insurance system -- not because this leaves them uninsured, but rather because when they DO want insurance, they will have absolutely no idea what they are doing. None. Medical insurance turns out to be an experiment in social Darwinism, and they will find themselves picked off the tree like a proverbial pepper moth.

It doesn't help when your child is naturally a bit lazy and predisposed to assume she understands things when she does not.

Insurance manages to engage all the things I dislike: bureaucracy... logistics... forms... I can just about gauge at what point in an insurance negotiation I'll begin to break down. It's somewhere around the $2000 mark. As in when the pharmacist pulls a deceptively small box out of the refrigerator and says "That'll be $2089.88." You stand at the counter with your wallet in your hand and think of everything $24,000 a year could buy. A car. An education. A down payment on a house. Half of your salary in twelve of those little boxes. Half of it.

Then you think of how nice it is to feel the wallet. Really think about it. Run your index finger over the ridges and the seams, over the zipper. How nice is it to walk without a cane? Is it $2000 a month nice? $3000? What would you pay? How could you decide?

"This must be a mistake. It was never this much before."

"You'll have to work it out with your insurance."

I've worked it out, thank God, but it took almost a month. And I still don't know if I would have paid.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Subtext

Today, as with every day for the past four months, the teacher went around the table inquiring as to events of the previous night. Did we have any news to share with the class in Arabic...yet again?

"President Bush went to Japan for a summit. They talked about the food crisis and the environment. I feel dead inside."

"I read an article about propaganda in Arabic language programs. They talked about Al-Kitaab. This place is a prison."

"My children and I played Wii, and then I cooked dinner. My soul is withering."

"Great," she smoothed out a textbook page. "And did you all make sentences for exercise nine?"

Rudimentary Arabic isn't good for conveying underlying meaning.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

El jardín de las delicias

Thomas Mann reports that a writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. Surely the same is true of language learning for those who love language. To feel you've crafted something clunky and unbeautiful is much more aggravating than feeling you've not quite gotten across what you wanted to say. It is common to mistake love of language for love of languages, but that is to mistake love of gardening for love of garden parties. There is something solitary and contemplative in the former that fails to resonate in the latter; the latter has an element of showmanship which the former lacks.

Francine Prose writes of the pleasure of close reading, the practice of considering the purpose and placement of each word in a text. It's a very intimate way to read and in all ways antithetical to the skimming that FSI prefers. Reading for the gist only allows for the joy of discovering information rather than the joy of discovering deeper structures; in the moment, I find I'm much less elated at recognizing the word for 'crude oil' than I am at intuiting which preposition a verb should take. I've been feeding this preference by reading an Arabic children's book during my lunch break: a heavily illustrated soft cover entitled "The Story of the Pearl Thief." Moving forward in the book requires me to look up almost every other word, so that it has taken me a week to get through not quite three pages. I'm afraid this may be cutting in to my lab time... but today when I realized that the root of 'You're welcome' and 'I'm sorry' was the verb 'to forgive', it was like feeling the sun on my face. It was all I could do not to get up and dance.

After progress test one the examiners told me, "You've got very good architecture, you just need more vocabulary. Oh, and you should really practice reading for the gist."

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Frustrated Bureaucrat Turns to Graffiti


After laughing at this recent addition to the Out of Order sign, I realized I've walked past this machine every day for the past four months and thought the same thing as the graffiti writer each time -- yet had never taken action on it. I felt somewhat disappointed by my own inertia. Granted it's pretty far down the spectrum, but I don't think it's all that different in spirit from watching a man get hit by a car and doing nothing.

The main obstacle to getting things accomplished always seems to be accountability. There's no contact number to call on the vending machine itself and no one on-site that I know of to talk to about improvements. The best I could do was send an inquiry through the "Ask FSI" intranet page to point out the problem and find out who's in charge. Seeing as those Navajo Jewelry 2 cent "Make Up Stamps" were last printed in 2005, it seems about time.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

And that, حبيبي, is the Difference Between a 2+ and a 3

Every day in class we're supposed to give a short synopsis of the things we did the evening before. After 13 weeks of this, my classmates and I have come to the realization that we are essentially very boring people.

I've heard that in other language classes (where you can presumably learn more quickly to speak at a higher level than "I ate chicken. I read a book.") the realization you come to is that you are all very odd people.

I'm not quite sure where I'm going with this.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

In the Presence of the Voucher

Having utilized my newly developed GTD skills, it was with no small sense of personal pride that I presented myself to the voucher office, forms and receipts in hand. I laid it all out at the voucher lady's feet in a supplication to her power and wisdom. Oh, great voucher lady, please reimburse me my rent and return to me copies of this form in triplicate which I must keep forever upon threat of document misplacement on your office's part and subsequent monetary woes on my own. I was glowing with the pure light of bureaucracy. Eyes cast down in reverence, I offered up to her... my first thirty day voucher.

"What's this? Where's your travel voucher?" The heavenly choir hit a sour note. I opened my eyes to realize I was kneeling rather inelegantly on her coat. I got up and sat in the chair by her desk. "Travel voucher..?" I ventured.

"Yes, this is the voucher for your first thirty days of training, but before this you need to fill out a voucher for your travel days. Do you have your ticket stub?"

"No, I don't have my ticket stub."

"A baggage claim receipt?"

Deep breaths. I reached for my hipster PDA for comfort. "No, I don't have any of that. Sorry, I didn't think I'd need it." She was highly unimpressed.

"Well then, how do we know that you used that ticket to get here?"

I considered this. I think I may have actually opened and closed my mouth a few times while searching for the best reply. Several answers presented themselves, including a Christ-like proffering of the scars in my hands. In the end, I went with what I thought best captured the spirit of the moment: "Well... I didn't swim here from Japan."

This may not have been the most politic response.

"Look," I told her. "This travel voucher is, what, $48 for M&IE? That's okay, I just won't claim that. I don't mind."

"Oh no, you can't file any other voucher until you've filed the travel one."

"Really?" At this point I was gripping the hipster PDA with such force that it was cutting in to my palm. "So, what you're saying is that if I don't find my ticket stub, I'm out $37,000? There's nothing else I can do?"

She hesitated. I could see she wanted to be helpful. I waited for her to send me off for permit A-38.

"Do you have your itinerary?"

Ah, a glimmer of hope! "Maybe... maybe I can find a copy archived in my email."

"Try that; it might work."

Friday, April 18, 2008

Drinking the Koolaid

Someone asked me, "Isn't hard to read a language where they don't write all the vowels? That's crazy!"

"Oh, it's not so bad," I replied. "I mean, you can leave the vowels out of most English words and still read a sentence, right? Just look at text messaging." It took me a second before I realized I was almost directly repeating something one of the teachers had told me.

Or rather:

t tk m scnd bfr rlzd ws lmst drctly rptng smthng n f th tchrs hd tld m.


Yeah, I've been brainwashed.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Arabic Huis Clos

Language classes set their own tone, and ours is undeniably one of extreme goofiness. This is quite a blessing when you're sitting with the same 3 people 5 hours a day for 44 weeks with no break: if you're not feeling entertained, then you're basically participating in a Jean-Paul Sartre play. Comic relief is the best defense against existential language despair.

I like our teacher. She's the only person I've ever met whose cheeks move independently of one another when she talks. I find myself getting distracted by her face even as my notebook fills up with random Arabic words I'll never review. Today I dutifully copied down the words for 'red', 'black', 'white'... Some brave soul (not me) ventured "How do you say 'blue'?" The teacher's eyes narrowed. "Oh, so now you want to know 'blue'. Next you'll want to know 'purple' and then 'yellow' and then 'orange' and then you'll want to know ALL the meanings of ALL the words." The four of us exchanged conspiritorial glances. She was on to us. The teacher held firm. "You take 'red'; you're not ready for 'blue'."

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Comparative Studies

According to an ad in The Washington Post, I could train to become a massage therapist in seven months. In nine months I could become a veterinary technician; in six months, a dental assistant. The total cost of the dental assistantship program? $898, and I can take all the classes online.

According to my FSI training schedule, in ten months I might be able to hold a very basic Arabic conversation. I'm not sure what Arabic training costs, but I imagine it's a bit more than $898.

Personally speaking, I would welcome a 'Massage Therapy' cone in the Foreign Service.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A Little Turbulence

It's genuinely pleasurable to see old friends, though people are a bit shell-shocked following their returns. Being at a confluence point makes us vulnerable, I suppose. Certainly I'm no different. Trying to chat with one friend in the cafeteria about MS brought back a feeling I hadn't experienced since first being diagnosed: a sense of being no longer fully human. It wasn't an unkind or even very in-depth conversation, but suddenly I was back sitting listless and cross-legged on the hospital bed, arms unfurled grotesquely, body swelling to fill the room like a fleshy eclipse. The profoundly isolating notion that no one would ever touch me again except in that de-humanizing, pitying way you touch a patient was immediate and devastating; to feel it again after so long and in such an innocuous situation was strange. I found I couldn't look at my friend as I talked.

Earlier in the day my hand had shook as I practiced writing 'baa' on the whiteboard, so that the letter was scrunched and malformed. "My hands are bothering me today," I'd wanted to explain -- wanted to, but didn't. This is something I hadn't anticipated missing from Osaka: the freedom to say casually, "I'm having some trouble" and take a moment to step out in the hallway and press my body against the icy stairwell wall until the tremors stopped. Here, I take the jacket on off on off, trying to get it right. I don't think it's sympathy that I miss, but more like affirmation: "Yes, this is happening; no, you're not crazy. Just keep going."

Anyways, I'm re-norming. FSI was bound to be a little weird.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Reverse Culture Shock

RCS #1: Drew Carey has replaced Bob Barker as the host of The Price is Right. Drew reports that Bob was "cool with it." I am not so sure that I am "cool with it."

RCS #2: My US cellphone. It only sends a maximum of 160 characters per text message, the camera isn't even 1 megapixel, and THERE'S NO PLACE TO ATTACH A CELLPHONE STRAP. Is this some sort of joke? And people wonder why we're losing the war on drugs.

RCS #3: Tipping. You have a nice dinner, some coffee, maybe a little conversation... and then, boom!, math. Come on America - surely there's a better way.

Monday, February 18, 2008

ただ今

At some point -- I think while cowering beneath my office desk curled into the fetal position -- my moving-induced frustration magically gave way to a mellow sense of "all-is-right-with-the-world"-ness. In a flash, I read the alignment of the planets, I felt the pulse of the State Department's heart... I ate a stale senbei I found on the floor, and emerged refreshed and centered. Things would work out. And indeed, they have worked out, because here I am in the San Francisco airport, eating an oversized sandwich, drinking bottled water, and generally reacquainting myself with My Own Kind. Ah, America... I love what you've done with your hair, very mod. And is it just me, or have you lost weight? (No? Right, sorry. But you look fabulous, fabulous.)

Oh, I could use some sleep.

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In the end, it was an anti-climactic departure. For my office goodbye party we ordered in curry, and the other officers gave me a commemorative t-shirt they had designed. I liked that it was low-key. Other than occasional heart-stopping glimpses of an overwhelming, unbroken horizon -- the abyss that is Arabic -- I'm feeling appropriately removed from things. Sort of blank. The goal for 2008: a little less drama. And maybe lose 5 pounds.

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1am and Law & Order is showing on three different cable channels. Good to know there are still constants in America.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Details

So, two weeks until I leave post, and I am reminded of how much I hate details. Specifically, logistical details. More specifically, bureaucratic logistical details. Does what you're asking involve a form? Does that form have a coded number name? Will that form need to be revised 5 or 6 times before any actual action results from it? Will the form-initiated action be any more effective than if I just paid the money / booked the flight / called the movers myself? No? Then don't show it to me. No, really, I mean it - I'd rather gouge out an eye.

I'd like to think that my reaction to bureaucracy was more tempered when I was not assigned to such a detail oriented legal job. This would mean that I might at some point return to a more normal level of response (mild disdain) than what I'm currently exhibiting (barely contained rage yoked to an apparently misplaced desire for reasonableness). I am generally a fan of checks and balances in a system, but to deal with a regulatory structure containing widely acknowledged and yet perennially unaddressed flaws is maddening. The way State handles travel orders is broken. When things are broken, you should fix them. There's no reason for every deployment to be an exercise in Zen-like perseverance.

If the section tries to throw me some sort of surprise goodbye party, that's going to put me right over the edge.