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.