Sunday, December 16, 2012

"Words must mean something."

I think a lot about this quote from President Obama when I'm drafting and clearing in the office.  You can't imagine how much time we spend parsing and sweating over and scrutinizing and second guessing our words in this line of work.  It's almost the same amount of time we spend checking with one another -- what's our position on this topic?  What are we saying?  Contrary to popular belief, those two things really do coincide.  It makes it important to get the words right.

The meaning and power of words have taken on an even greater significance for me in the past few weeks as things have gotten more fluid in Egypt.  One of the biggest challenges of being on this desk is the lack of "off the shelf" language.  A lot of places, our positions haven't changed in years -- you can recycle the same words over and over.  When an issue -- a country! -- is in transition, that luxury is lost.  A paragraph you wrote just yesterday can be rendered outdated in an instant -- then again the next day, and then again the next.  So you rewrite and rewrite and rewrite.  Sometimes, every so often, typing away under the florescent lights of the office, next to my scraggly Pothos plant and my government-issue stapler, I'll have the eery realization that I'm actually creating the seeds of an official State position.  It's a terrifying, almost paralyzing thought.  It makes me glad of the clearance process, despite all its unwieldy exasperating bureaucratic machinations.  Policy is not the offspring of any one person.

Words in these instances can also become a stalling tactic.  Ask for a decision on something thorny, and immediately you'll be told "write up a summary of the issue."  If we just have more detail, if things are just clearer, maybe, maybe....  maybe then what to do would be clear, too.  And sometimes it is.  I have a sincere sympathy for what drives these requests,  but for me they are the most time-consuming tasks I receive since my portfolio topics cross so many offices and agencies.  Information invariably conflicts, stories have gaps, dates or costs or timelines aren't certain.  I find myself reverting back to visa interview rules:  will the answer to whatever question I want to ask bring me [or in this case, my higher ups] closer to making a decision?  If not, you have to move on and hope it doesn't come up during the briefing.  "I'm not sure, but I'll find out" are the seven words with the heaviest meaning I know.  I use them over and over now, scrawling out notecard lists of all the words we need before we can take action.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Collective Wisdom

If you're clearing a document at Post, the process is a (fairly) straight-forward one. I've captured the gist of it in this flowcart:
Time allotted: roughly two days.

If you're clearing a document at Main State, the process is a little more complicated:
Time allotted: roughly two hours.

Accepting your place in this clearance chain will bring you, Zen-like, to a nirvana-esque plane of being.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Paper, Red in Tooth and Claw

It is a great truism of good bureaucratic procedure that no one person should ever be indispensable; it is also a great truism of good bureaucratic jockeying that if anyone is indispensable, it had better be you.  Nothing perks up the soulless office worker like a late night phone call or request to come in during a hurricane.  Yes, faceless cog-in-the-wheel:  your contributions are special and valued.  Verily, this paper could not be pushed without your direct intervention.  You alone are singled out... for greatness.

I would love to tell you that I'm above this particular office pettiness, but that would be a gross lie.  An annotated meeting agenda due the day after the administrative closure has us turning on each other like sharks in utero, and it is only just after I hurry to point out how close I live to State (less than 20 minutes by foot!  really, I could be there at any time!) that I realize how pathetic these 'me me me' email offers of assistance are.  If any of us were actually needed, they'd be calling directly.  Take your extraordinary insights and your sacrifices back to your cubicles, boys and girls; they are cluttering up the altar.

Besides, the rain is still coming down vertically -- let's wait till we get some real gale force winds so we can truly prove our loyalty to the cause.  If only it were snowing!

Friday, October 19, 2012

"Family, religion, friendship... These are the three demons you must slay if you wish to succeed in business."

A few weeks ago, I got a call from a colleague in a different office.

"So, a late night for both of us, eh?"  (It was, in fact, about 11:30pm.) "I'll be here till 1:30, then back at 4:30.  You?"  Ah, a challenge from one masochist to another.

"Well."  Whatever, punk -- I'm game.  "I would, but I'm limited by the metro times."  This was true, but also a lie.  For all I knew, the metro started running at 2am, and I'd been selfishly sleeping through 4 hours of potential work time.  He scoffed his sympathy.

Today as I was leaving the building (at 9:30 -- work life balance, you know), I saw him out walking with his family.  When I caught his eye, he looked a little guilty.


Monday, October 08, 2012

The Blessed and the Damned

If you're single and in your 30s, it's for a reason.  Not a bad reason necessarily, but there's always something.  It makes dating at this age an almost apologetic affair -- a lot happens between your early 20s and the point 10 years later where you're awkwardly, hopefully sitting with someone over coffee as the result of some computer arranged online pairing.  You've probably picked up a few bad habits and had time to gloss over more than one hard reality.  It seems rude to bring it up; in lieu of geological exploration, better to skim lightly over the surface and then tussle good-naturedly over who pays the check (he does).

If you make it to date three or four, however, the pickaxes come out and true excavation begins.  Just ended a long-term relationship because you were a bit of an ass, you say?  Well, that's to be expected.  Yeah, I move every two years and have a degenerative neurological disease, but I was kind of hoping you'd overlook that.  By this time, you've accordingly progressed from coffee to hard liquor and started to recall all the reasons you were single in the first place.  It's less "Are we destined for one another?" and more "Could I put up with your crap?"

Yet, no matter how often you see that hard-hatted, coal-mining third date in the distance, you still sit politely through date one, list of pet peeves and deal breakers folded neatly in your back pocket, limpid smile, careful phrasing of pre-planned questions based on his profile-declared love of his dog and skeet-shooting...  "Why, whatever are we still doing single at 30?  It's a mystery, to be sure."

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


Sitting in a meeting that seemed almost comic in its poor timing, listening to phone calls that I was not intended to hear, watching decisions get made then unmade then fretted over then remade all in seconds...  Where to cast your gaze in these moments is a challenge -- to look over or under attentive would be rude.  I shrink into the couch cushions, an exercise in polite unobtrusiveness.  Discussions of legal obligations toward the deceased bring on some tongue biting -- this is not my loss, and no one needs my "former ACS officer" viewpoint.  Maybe I have learned something in 7 years.

People run in and out with updates, breathless, a stream of urgent interruptions.  We really shouldn't have tried to carry on this meeting as scheduled, but we almost can't help ourselves.  We're diplomats, dammit.  Grab your pen and notepad and soldier on.  Maybe we can talking point our way out of this crisis.

I keep my eyes focused on the large, never-been-opened coffee table book in front of me:  "Libya -- Land of Treasures."

And I think about how our bureaucracy isn't designed to process grief.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Some of my best friends are civil servants...

"Are you an FSO?" turns out be a question laden with all sorts of pregnant meaning when you ask it of someone who is not, in fact, an FSO.  I guess that's not a big surprise in an office where people are introduced by what grad school they attended.*  You have to skirt around the issue carefully, using a lot of tact and patience... so, you know, that's going well for me.

Other questions to avoid:

"How long will you be here?"

"Are you my rater?"

and also:

"What's your name?"
 The only truly safe question I've found is:

"Can I have some of your Scotch?"

The great irony is that I'm pretty sure FSOs remain in the minority in my workplace.  Pretty sure.  I could ask to find out, but the social risk is too great.  And anyway, I'm sure we're all very pleasant, very competent people regardless.  Pretty sure.

*I like to imagine how my introduction would go:  "Katie went to state school -- because it was free and her boyfriend was there.  She later worked as a custom picture framer, at one point making as much as EIGHT DOLLARS AN HOUR!"

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Two Fingers of Liquor for Your NASCAR Driver

Two weeks in and I'm still not quite sure what to think about this new job.  Talking to friends, I've described it variously as a NASCAR race, a cocktail waitressing stint, and the email equivalent of a slow motion barroom brawl.  It's fascinating in a 'Shark Week meets WWWF meets PBS telethon' kind of way.  (No, really -- sit on the couch with the remote and flip back and forth between those three things, and you'll pretty much have captured my day.  Only you're probably wearing more comfortable shoes.) 

I should have known what I was getting into when my introduction to the office was a mostly drunk bottle of Scotch left sitting on my desk.  "Really?" I said aloud to no one in particular, nudging it with the clicker end of my pen and wondering what I would find in the spin dial safe.  Other warning signs:  being asked -- more than once -- "Is this your first tour?" and realizing that your floor is the one with the infamous female urinals in the restrooms.  But you know, I'll get the hang of all this eventually.  Or I'll develop cirrhosis, either one.

I'll tell you the story sometime about my first weepy / panicky moment on the Egypt Desk.  Surprisingly, it had absolutely nothing to do with the urinals.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Words for Loss

It was much more emotionally tremulous than I had anticipated to leave Lahore -- a post that was stressful and even (on occasion) frightening.  I didn't expect to feel so invested in the place; I didn't expect to care so much for -- and worry so much about -- the staff.  I still feel like I had more to learn and do there, a lot more.  But I couldn't have stayed, not at that pace of work.  Or maybe I just couldn't have stayed, period, and the pace of work is my justification.

Talking to family, friends, I want them to ask me about the experience... though precisely what the question ought to be, I couldn't tell you.  Without context they don't know where to start, and I don't know how to properly articulate things to them.  Coming into Dallas, the customs official flipped through my passport and eyed the Pakistani visa.  "So, Pakistan," he closed the travel document and handed it back to me.  "What was that like?"  I struggled for an adequate response.  "Good and bad," I finally told him.  I'm not sure that really captured it, though.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

خُدا حافِظ

"Katie, it's your last day, so we got you a gift!"

"Oh, you shouldn't have."

"No, we really wanted to!  You have such nice hair."

"No guys really -- you shouldn't have.  I mean, I've already packed out, and my suitcase is overweight.  Still, it's sweet of you; I'm sure I'll manage.  What is it?"

"A traditional Pakistani goodbye gift:  a step ladder."

"Sorry, did you just say 'step ladder'?"

"Yes, traditional for Punjab.  We give them to all the officers.  We made sure to get you the biggest one possible; you've been so kind."

"I, uh... wow.  I mean, I had no idea that something so bulky, er, I mean beautiful, was your traditional parting gift.  That's very thoughtful of you.  Maybe I can check it."

"Oh no, you have to hand carry it to your destination!  That's part of the tradition.  Otherwise, India wins."

"What's the other package?"

"Ah, we wanted to pair it with a traditional western departure gift, too.  Go ahead, open it!"

"Sure, but you know, I think the ladder is more than...  wait, is this a bowling ball?"

"Yes, don't you like it?  We looked everywhere for one!  The other officers said it was just what you'd want on your last day."

"Wow, guys; I don't know what to say."

"Shhh -- no words.  The look on your face says it all."

Saturday, June 09, 2012

The Saddest Story You've Ever Heard

From: Katie
Sent: Friday, June 08, 2012 10:35 AM
To: Mom
Subject: Home

Hi Mom!  Thanks for the photos -- I'm excited to see the new house, and it will be good to see you and Dad, of course.  I'm pretty ready to come home.

I love you!


From: Mom
Sent: Friday, June 08, 2012 10:42 AM
To: Katie
Subject: Re: Home

Hi girly!  We're looking forward to having you here.  I got all the pictures hung in record time!  When are you coming back again?  We'll be in JAX the last 3 days of June.

Love, Mom 

From: Katie
Sent: Friday, June 08, 2012 10:50 AM
To: Mom
Subject: Re: Home

Hmm.  I'm arriving on June 28.  No big deal, though -- if you'll leave the key with the neighbors, I can let myself in.


From: Mom
Sent: Friday, June 08, 2012 10:55 AM
To: Katie
Subject: Re: Home

Oh no, I feel terrible!  Did we know your return date?  I'm sure we can find someone to pick you up at the airport. You can feed the cats for us.  We'll make sure there's plenty of food in the fridge, too. 

From: Katie
Sent: Friday, June 08, 2012 11:01 AM
To: Mom
Subject: Re: Home

Sure, Mom, that's no problem.  I don't need much -- mostly I just want to walk around freely.  If you'll leave me the car keys and the Garmin, I can get out to a coffee shop or the bookstore and read. 

From: Mom
Sent: Friday, June 08, 2012 11:04 AM
To: Katie
Subject: Re: Home

I don't know of many coffee shops around here!  And better to order from Amazon.  Your father just pre-paid for a year's worth of shipping.

From: Katie
Sent: Friday, June 08, 2012 11:11 AM
To: Mom
Subject: Re: Home

Should I just go straight to DC?  Or I could visit Karyn in Colorado.  I don't mind.

From: Mom
Sent: Friday, June 08, 2012 11:15 AM
To: Katie
Subject: Re: Home

No, no, we're really looking forward to having you!

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Things I've Learned from PD Work

1.  Embrace jazz.  It is your destiny.

2.  Beware hip hop.

3.  'Presence' is more effective than 'presents' (but dang if 'presents' isn't a whole lot easier).

4.  If it seems that no matter what you do, it will be wrong, then do the wrong thing that is the least amount of work.

5.  The logic of rule #4 does not apply to procurement requests or grant forms.  No known logic applies to procurement requests or grant forms.

6.  Are you the Secretary of State?  The Ambassador?  No?  Then quit worrying about not looking totally polished on camera.  No one in your host country is paying attention to you.

7.  Oh, wait, was the camera footage uploaded to youtube and viewed by colleagues back in DC?  Yeah, your career is over.

8.  ([# of programs ÷ # of FSNs ÷ # of hours in the day] + Mission support) x USG interest, raised to the power of level of funding = you are screwed (give or take a brass band)

9.  When in doubt, road trip.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Comments Disabled

"You don't have to do this."  Even as I say it, I know it's disingenuous.  The man standing there, trying to hide behind a column, hennaed hair parted precisely down the middle revealing his undyed roots, has the grace to look a bit nervous.  Equally disingenuous as my statement, his nervous look.  The boy studiously writing down names on the pad of hotel-issued paper that the man has handed him appears very intent.  I want him to stop.  I want it to be true, what I'm saying, that he doesn't have to write down the names for this small man with the bad dye job.  "We did not give him a list," I go on, reaching toward the piece of paper.  I put a hand on it, at the top.  The boy keeps writing.  "They do not have a list," I repeat.

"Oh?"  The boy's companion, a fellow student, acknowledges me.  He glances at the man.  He glances at his friend.  "Maybe that's enough names, then," he tells his friend, who is still writing, a girl's name now.  A classmate's name.

I am so angry.  Not precisely at the man, who continues to look a bit nervous, maybe nervous that I will carry through with what I want to do, which is to take the paper away from the boy, away from the man, and fold it neatly in half, horizontally down the middle, and carry it with me back into the room where we are having the training session.  I'm angry more at the situation, at the idea that the boy writing names thinks that it is normal, maybe thinks that it is patriotic, to give this man information.  This small man who has resorted to stealing pen and paper from the hotel and hiding behind columns and harassing boys.  And I am seething with anger at the disingenuous nature of my first statement.  Because if I do take the paper and fold it neatly in half, horizontally down the middle, and put it in my bag to shred later at the Consulate, as I want to do, as my hand laying on top of the paper is itching to do, I don't know what this small man will then do to these boys.  Probably nothing -- but only probably.

And I hate the power of that 'probably'.  I hate the lack of recourse and the blatant perversion of 'security' and the stupid waste of time and energy and money, these boys' money, money that could have gone to their schools or their power plants or their roads but instead has gone to this small man with the hennaed hair who accepts back the paper from the boy silently, all of us silent, after I lift my hand and just before we leave him to walk into the conference room.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Good Afternoon, Class 2.0

"We're so excited to take our history course outside of Lahore!  What really makes or breaks these courses is active student engagement and thoughtful questions.  So, let's open up the floor now:  after hearing today's history lectures, is there anything you'd like to ask us?"

"Yes, loads."

"Great!  Go ahead."

"You were evil to go into Afghanistan and Iraq."

"Uh... that's not a question.  Do you have a question about U.S. history?"

"Oh, sorry -- I meant, 'Doesn't U.S. history point to the fact that you were evil to go into Afghanistan and Iraq?"

"Well, no -- it doesn't point to that.  What are your other questions?"

"They're pretty much all variations on that theme.  Hey, could I have a picture with your hair?  It looks just like Barbie's."

"Okay, thanks so much for your interest in our course!  Don't forget to pick up your free booklets on the way out."

Sunday, May 06, 2012


Folks will tell you that the world is getting smaller, that people everywhere are all basically the same.

Don't you believe it.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Do you think SCA knows about eleven monthses?

As a misanthropic introvert who gets bored* traveling alone, I find I'm in kind of a bind when it comes to R&R.  Especially second R&R, which sounds like something Merry and Pippin would take after being assigned to a post in Mordor, but is actually a real thing given to all us troopers in AIP.  The idea is that AIP is SO stressful and there's SO much work to do that you should spend not three but a full SIX weeks out of your tour making your colleagues do all of your duties in addition to their own so that you can have a chance to relax (and therefore will return to post refreshed enough to take on all of their duties while they go on R&R.  Genius.).  Much like The Trilogy, this vicious cycle never does seem to come to an end.

I also find that, somewhere between 'looking forward to one's vacation' and 'longing to flee one's circumstances', there is a point where you start having horrible, tension-filled dreams of being caught in the midst of clandestine departure and then chastised by your pregnant colleague for "trying to leave her alone." That's the point I happen to have reached. The colleague in question, meanwhile, is all but pushing me out the door. Honestly, it's not like I ever do anything for her in the office but eat the snacks she leaves out in her candy dish. I'll bring her back something nice from Laos.

*My sister says that boredom is a combination of a misplaced sense of entitlement and lack of imagination, but I can't figure out what she's talking about and plus she owes me a dollar.

Why not then? Moose.

I still remember one of my friends telling me before leaving Post, "I don't know if I like it here, or if I just tell myself I like it here." I'm not convinced that those two things are ever any different, if we're honest with ourselves.

Earlier this week, one of the evaluators for my annual performance report told me that my self-assessment of accomplishments sounded 'joyless'. Not considering myself a particularly mirth-y person in the best of circumstances, I wasn't really sure how to respond. This is work, right? Shouldn't we be striving more for 'responsibly productive' than 'blithely chipper'? Sometimes you're just gritting your teeth and enjoying the poetry -- but that's not a moral failing. That's just life. At any rate...

That same day, the staff told me that they've already started planning my good-bye party. "Uh, you guys know I'm not leaving for two months, right?" "Oh, sure, but officers always get busy in the last month. We'd thought we'd do it early." I am taking this plan totally at face value. Here's hoping for a trip to Food Street or the local bowling alley. Either one of of those would make me pretty happy.

I'd be up for a return trip to Shalimar Gardens, too.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

More more more

"Would it be OKAY if I started DANCING?" I'm screaming not two inches from his ear so that my staff member can hear me over the noise. The band had nearly fallen to their knees in joy when they saw the set up: all the amps and speakers in Punjab* had been piled on the stage and rock music was now flowing freely from them. Kind of an American version of the azan.

"WHAT??" The poor guy had the dubious task of watching what I resolutely refuse to call my purse while I ran around doing various band-related things to justify my largely unnecessary presence. He was perched up at the top of the stairs, surveying the audience which was seated in carefully padded, fabric-draped chairs, the kind you might see at a high school prom. They'd been arranged on top of the concrete theater tiers in lieu of stadium seating. The non-purse was lumped at his feet, folders and cameras and water bottles poking out at odd angles.

"DANCING! If I went down front and started DANCING, would that be OKAY? WOULD ANYONE BE OFFENDED?" There wasn't a lot of crowd movement, and I could tell it was getting to the band. I thought I might be able to draw some people to the front of the stage if I led by example.

He looked at me blankly and shook his head to show lack of comprehension. Frustrated, I rushed down the stairs, figuring whatever cultural taboos I might break would only add to the American rock 'n roll counter culture mystique. It wasn't till I was standing at the stage edge that I realized he'd followed me, dragging the bag in one hand. "SORRY, I DIDN'T UNDERSTAND." The music was deafening, but he managed to shout just over it. "HOW DO YOU DANCE TO THIS?"

How do you dance to rock music? It was my turn for a blank stare. Isn't that something that people just do instinctively, like eating ice cream or producing offspring or not getting in elevators with Gary Busey? But looking up at the crowd, it suddenly made sense why so few were out of their chairs: the look of incomprehension was universal. They were as clueless as he was.

"FIRST YOUR HANDS." I raised mine over my head and clapped in time with the beat. He copied me, watching carefully, bag forgotten. "NOW YOUR FEET." I stepped from side to side, letting my hips jerk, and he joined in unison. A few more from the audience came down to watch. "AND THE REST OF YOUR BODY!" I figured for a crash course, I didn't need to be much more specific. Besides, 'Rebel Yell' was almost over and we had a proper crowd around us now. Most were doing some combination of bangla and Michael Jackson circa 'Dangerous'. But at least they were out of their seats.

His jacket strained at his shoulders as he clapped his hands and grinned triumphantly. "I THINK I'VE GOT IT!"

Another heart and mind won. I'm sure that's just what Billy Idol intended.

*all six of them.

Sunday, April 01, 2012


What to say to the study tour returnee who reported, "Before I went there, I had thought that in America there would be open nudity and sex on the streets"?

"Did you find that to be the case?" I asked him.


I couldn't determine if his reaction was one of merely amazement, or if perhaps he hadn't been a tad disappointed.

Friday, March 23, 2012

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

The birth of the Prophet (pbuh) and the birth of Pakistan (pbui) are announced with the same call in Lahore: a series of cannon blasts at zero dark thirty. Given the official religion of the country, I suppose you could justify some sort of celebratory equation between the two events. My own skepticism on this point, however, caused me to stir impatiently beneath the bed sheets while waiting for the cannon's boom to subside. It took awhile before the echoes died down and the bulbul resumed their warbling through the window bars.

The separation of Church and State is so basic to the American framework, it's hard for me to sit still when I see it breached -- including in my own country, and including in those off moments when I agree with the religious sentiment being expressed. Mixing religious faith and state endorsement allows the state not to safeguard religion, but to safeguard itself from people's ability to evaluate and decide their own identities and allegiances -- decisions that might lead to replacing the state. It indicates a lack of the state's faith in the strength of its own mandate rather than a commitment to religious tenets. For that reason, state religion is designed to force all sorts of uncomfortable public displays on citizens: prove your religious belief is strong enough and "right" enough for you to be a real patriot. Prove your identity as a citizen by "out-faithing" your colleagues, or risk state censure. How convenient that this public proof of religious commitment also affirms the state's legitimacy. Fine-grained discussion on questions of identity and allegiance are duly subjugated in favor of one-size-fits all public symbols, the meaning of which the state decides. You're either with the state-cum-religion, or you're not.

Now that I represent the American state, these uncomfortable public displays are more and more on my mind. The azan sounds, so I cover my head to be respectful to Islam. But it's not really me being respectful to Islam, right? Because (as I myself am no longer merely a person, but a symbol of the U.S.) the act can no longer be a matter of personal conviction, but of trying to convince others that the U.S. respects the official religion. And when I look around and see that some women have covered and some have not, I worry that my covering is saying more than 'The U.S. respects your officially mandated religion' but maybe instead is saying 'I agree with your approach to religion' or 'Women ought to cover' or 'It's okay to force this public display of belief on people'. But it's really not okay with me, is the thing. If my 8th grade self who refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance due to its unconstitutional mixing of God and state saw me dutifully covering for Quran readings in public universities, I don't think she'd have anything good to say. How can I explain to her -- to anyone -- that I only mean the first thing when I cover my head and not all the other possible meanings that follow?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Asides of March

When I was younger I had this awesome kite designed to resemble a giant bat. The day it got tangled up in a streetlight in our church parking lot, broke loose, and sailed away to some higher calling was awful in the truest sense of the word: watching the string wrap around the lamp post in a death grip was somehow numinous. Mom helped me build a new kite out of two dowel rods and some plastic sheeting, but it never quite filled me with the same sensation of otherworldly transgression as the bat kite did, not even when I took to scaling the two-story tall church building and flying it off the roof. I'm sharing all this so you'll understand why I was so excited to see Basant in Lahore. Everything I read about it poked directly at the youthful, vampire bat-loving part of me that -- half way up the church wall with my kite dangling from one arm -- reveled in the certainty that if the fall didn't kill me, Mom and Dad surely would.

Anyone who follows Pakistan will recognize immediately that my Lonely Planet was woefully outdated and that the Punjab government -- in a show of parental concern -- no longer allows kites or public [read: Hindu-influenced] springtime festivals. This was further underscored for me when I attempted to buy kite string at the local all-purpose store. After explaining in an over-loud voice "We don't sell that kind of illegal material here," the salesman leaned in closer and continued in a conspiratorial whisper, "but if you go down to the Old City, I know some people who could help you." I did not take him up on his offer, although the idea of getting PNG'd for buying a spool of string was strangely appealing. Illegal kite string sales are probably directly funding the Pakistani Taliban (likely also America's fault).

To make up for the lack of kites, Lahoris compensate by redoubling their bird feeding sadaqah efforts. I'm pretty sure that 'gaining goodwill through tossing meat to hawks' is to Islam as 'gaining goodwill by tossing pennies into wells' is to Christianity, but I'm afraid to say this too loudly lest they ban sadaqah, too. I would toss a penny into my own fountain to wish a happy spring for Pakistan had we not filled it in a few months ago to try and slow the spread of dengue.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Out, vile jelly!

Imagine your spinal cord as an old fashioned telescope: a set of interlocking barrels pulled taut in extension. Place the eyepiece at the base of your skull, with the lens pointed down toward your coccyx. With red paint, make a mark on each barrel, corresponding with an area of spinal cord damage.

Now imagine you were to collapse the telescope, allowing the red-dotted barrels to nestle one inside of the other in a series of concentric circles. Hold the collapsed telescope over your face, so that the eyepiece covers your mouth and the circles radiate out from it. Using the red paint marks you made earlier as a guide, you should be able to map the areas of your face impacted by the spinal cord damage. Damage by the eyepiece will impact an area by your lips. Damage further toward the lens will be evident somewhere on your cheek or ear.

There's an elegance to how our bodies are put together. I think about it when it feels like one corner of my mouth is dribbling masticated mint. You have to appreciate the symmetry of the taut telescope and its collapsed concentric circles. Something here can impact something there, so predictably. It's beautiful, in a way.

But eyes, I don't know... Eyes are harder. Overly complicated, perhaps. Bits of specialized brain sticking out from your face, such an area of weakness. You'd think the body would have known better.

Hand over one eye, the world is blurry. Hand over the other eye, the world is in focus. I can find less to appreciate in this than in the telescope. The symmetry -- the balance -- is unclear to me. "The could be the MS," the ophthalmologist tells me, "but maybe it's not." Yes, yes -- I've heard this before. At least in the developing world, I'm paying less for this ambiguous diagnosis.

Maybe it's nothing or maybe it's everything or maybe it's just a thing, one more thing to deal with. And you can appreciate the symmetry of the neurologist, five years ago, holding up a red-capped pen and the ophthalmologist today holding up a red-capped bottle, and both saying the same phrase in the same tone: "Try closing your left eye; now your right eye. Do you see a difference?"

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

I don't own the rights to this music

One of the things driving me out of the PD cone is the Newton-esque rule that for every PAS action there is an extraordinary and disproportionate pile of forms to fill out, to which I have a reaction not unlike hives.

Just this morning, one of the staff came to me bearing a grant form. "Katie, we didn't check these three boxes on the small grant we just signed. At my grants briefing in Islamabad, they said the boxes should be checked." I eyed the photocopy in his hands. The form had at least 25 distinct check-boxes, none of which particularly excited me. "What do those three boxes indicate?" He read them aloud. "... and the last one is 'FOG': Fixed Obligation Grant." "Do you know what that is?" He had to admit that he did not. Neither did I. Some quick googling brought up a lot of websites dealing with USAID. I began to feel queasy.

"You know," I explained to him in my best philosopher king tone, popping some TUMS, "when a system is opaque and difficult to navigate, is it any wonder that people find ways to circumvent it or even ignore it? I'm not advocating breaking rules, and I'm not even saying systems need to be simple, but they should be intuitive. Graceful even. As a rule of law issue, I think streamlining of systems is very important. You shouldn't have to work to figure out what federal law you're committing yourself and your future progeny to when you sign a contractual document that could come back to destroy your career. Plus," and here I thought I had the real deal clencher, "the fact that we've never checked any of those three boxes before and yet never experienced a delay in disbursement of funds indicates to me that they might not be so important as Islamabad would have you think."

He listened placidly while I framed a case against ✓✓✓, nodding periodically. His counter argument, however, was damning: "Yes, well, Islamabad said we should check them." I folded mindless origami out of a loose coffee filter to keep my fingers from twitching.

"I'll check the last two, but not the first one. It says we're attaching something to the grant form that we don't actually attach. Check the box above it instead."

"Are you sure? Islamabad said..."

"Yes, I know what they said. It's okay; they don't have to sign it -- I do."

Sunday, February 05, 2012


Already over 7 months in, and I'm only just figuring out things I should have known from the beginning. Now at least (at last?) I have an idea of what to be asking -- though still no real clue who to ask it of. Ah, the joys of working at a consulate. I think we had an exercise about this during our A-100 training offsite. I remember being blindfolded and turned loose in the woods, at any rate.

Trying to figure out what makes this job so grinding is difficult. The sheer volume of work is crushing (crushing) but I'm not one to shirk or shy away from tasks. We have security restrictions, yes, but they're not insurmountable. Certainly we're not lacking for grant and programming funds (Oh, OIG, come talk to me!). I do think, at the heart of it, it's this constant feeling of fumbling and groping about in the dark. Are we talking to the right audience? Am I using the right words? Will this have the effect I want? Is this money well spent? Are we doing a good job? How can we know? We can't know. I was given a two-week course in knot tying, then sent to steer a battleship. God knows where we'll end up, though I'm doing the best I can. I just hope the staff has read "The Caine Mutiny" all the way through to the end.

The sad thing is, the underwater mines I'm most terrified of striking are the ones laid by State. (Care to hand me another grant form to sign, anyone? How about a hugely expensive yet questionable tech rider for me to push through procurement at the last minute? $100,000 project for me to 'monitor'? Great! I'll put it with the others. Say, does this receipt hand-written in Urdu look fraudulent to you?) Luckily, we have so many ships in the AIP waters, I'd most likely be gone before anyone noticed mine was sinking.

I don't know; maybe I'll take another crack at "The Caine Mutiny" myself.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Stress and Other Hypotheticals

There was a brown bag lunch presentation today on stress management... which I did not attend. I don't think I've ever attended a FS presentation on stress management, now that I reflect on it, though they're offered fairly regularly. It's not so much that I don't feel stressed -- just not THAT stressed. Not so specially stressed that it deserves extra attention. I sense there's some danger at hardship posts of finding the stress somehow self-justifying, like the more stressed and frightened you are, the more self-important you're allowed to feel. Naturally, under that set up, everyone is going to feel SUPER stressed. I mean, we have to earn that extra R&R, right?

Besides, realistically, what are they going to tell me? Take a walk outside? Confide in my spouse? Some things you just have to deal with. I've heard drinking is a good way to go. Overworking is a less popular option. Me, I play a lot of computer solitaire.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Return to Thermopylae*

My gut and my head seldom work in concert. During the trip back, one was in violent protest about my decision to board the return flight; the other was more circumspect. Whichever way they eventually sync up, here I am. 'Here' is not a bad place -- the country just has some issues. That's how I explained it to the folks at home.

Some of the others seem to be holding their feelings toward the posting more tenderly now, little kernels of attitude and emotion either brittle or fragile, depending. I wonder if my own little kernel of feeling is so visible. I'm glad to be half way through with the tour, but it's complicated. There's so much more I want to do here. Six months isn't enough time.

*Just to be clear, I'm a Greek in this scenario, not a Persian.