Sunday, November 09, 2014


"Hey, check it out -- a rainbow."

"Oh, yeah; nice.  How do you say 'rainbow' in Arabic?"

"I don't know.  It's never come up."

"Hey, check it out -- is that some 'sectarian violence'?  Or maybe a 'car bomb'?"

"Now you're talking."

Sunday, October 19, 2014

An Open Letter to the Random Omani Man Who Tried to Tempt Me into Illicit Relations by Showing Me Pictures of His Goats

Dear Random Omani Man:

First, I want to thank you for your interest.  It's not everyday that an aging Western spinster finds herself subject to the attention of a successful host country national such as yourself.  I was impressed not only by the quantity of your goats, but also by their obvious quality.  As you noted, the one with the white forelock was especially fine and -- I might add -- well photographed.  Clearly you know your way around an iPhone as well as a goat pen.  You must be considered quite the catch in your village, especially if -- as you indicated -- you also have a cozy seating area in which one might partake of shisha and "tea."

Perhaps it was absorption in the photos that led you to draw next to me so uncomfortably closely while showing them, which I could understand given the subject matter and our intimate open air setting.  However, try as I might, I really can't find any reason for you to have touched my knee -- twice -- to bring my attention to the various proffered pictures.  Did you think my blonde coloring meant I was some floozy who would welcome your bold advances?  Did you assume my wearing of three-quarter length sleeves indicated a certain looseness?  Well, not so, sir.  I'm afraid real life is not like in the movies where women fall all over a man at the mention of 'Long Haired Merino' and illegally procured liquor; I apologize if Hollywood led you astray.  If it is any comfort, you are not the first to have been taken in by such false narratives.

In sum, call me when you get a camel.  Until then, I ask you to keep your wandering hands off my knees.

All the best,


Saturday, October 04, 2014

لا مفر منه

It's not fair -- or true -- to say that they area in which they have us living isn't the 'real' Oman.  It's as much a part of Oman as any other place in the country; it just happens to be the part that most closely resembles Cincinnati, were Cincinnati to be populated solely with Tagalog, Urdu, and Hindi speakers.  I've been trying to use Arabic in my day-to-day interactions regardless, but I wonder if it isn't slightly insulting to the non-Omani workers here.  For sure it's confusing for those I encounter; usually I have to go through two or three Arabic phrases before they finally say, still in English, mouths slack with indulgent skepticism, "Oh, are you studying Arabic?"  How cute of me.  I miss going to مطعم الأسرة in Amman and having the men in the little paper caps and blue jackets mutter barely intelligible Arabic responses to my food orders that I always took to mean, "Oh, you again with your بندورة and your كبدة دجاج..."

I drove two hours yesterday to visit an eid market in the town of Nizwa.  I told my classmates, who were going on a hike to a wadi, that I wanted to see the goat auction, but truthfully I just wanted to get out of Ohio.  The region was, in ancient times, a renowned producer of copper, and you can see it in the crumbling sides of the mountains, which are streaked with dirty penny-like browns and greens.  Coming over a crest to a wadi, I had to focus on the curve ahead of me to keep from driving off the mountain and straight into the expanse of date palms, it was so arresting a view.

The market goats were tempting, but in the end I settled on purchasing a single pomegranate to justify the trip.  After trading Arabic eid greetings back and forth, the vendor (an Omani) asked, with sudden excitement if I was a Muslim.  "Uh, no," I explained shortly, then felt the need to apologize for my obvious religious shortcoming when my response left him clearly crestfallen.  "Oh, that's just the world," he said, brushing off my apology.  I suppose Ohio had come to him.

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.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Organization and Its Discontents

If the average Foreign Service Officer were to arrive at work one day to find a copy of Hustler and an application for leadership coaching sitting side by side on his desk, I'm 99 percent sure that he would opt to hide the application inside the magazine rather than the other way around.  Despite our mandatory leadership classes and talk about management precepts, there is a pervasive sense that to need to improve your leadership skills is a sign of weakness -- a misguided notion, I fully realize, though that does little to ease my discomfort while browsing management titles in the 'self help / business' section of the bookstore.  I mean, what if someone I knew saw me?  Think of the shame!  Okay, so maybe I DID buy "The First 90 Days in Government."  It's... for a friend.  Not a close friend, mind you.  I can quit any time.  (Honestly, I think pornography would be easier to explain.  Heck, it gets lonely overseas.)

I try to put my finger on the reason for this aversion.  Perhaps we are caught up in the same talent myth as the private sector.  Perhaps we're too proud to admit we are fallible and could sometimes use help.  Or maybe it's simple fear -- what if we use all the resources for self-improvement, but then we never do get any better?

Luckily, being already rather socially ham-handed and having little to lose along that front, I am committed to unfearfully striving for improvement despite the almost certain ridicule of others.  Or maybe just quasi-fearfully.  "What do you think could get in the way of me helping you change to achieve your goals?" the coaching application asks.  I dunno.  Social anxiety?  60 hour work weeks?  More snow days?  Though, to be fair, if it hadn't been for the recent government closure, I don't know when I would have had time to sneak into the office and print out the application form.  I brought a copy of Foreign Affairs to hide it in, just in case. 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

5 Tips for Dealing with Anxiety

For those of you struggling with workplace worry, I've put together some coping techniques:

1. Redirect your worry to an area within your control

Rather than worrying about whether the latest office re-org will leave you deskless or if your BCL might have accidentally violated the One-China policy, why not worry about something more manageable?  I suggest bear attacks.  Talking loudly, singing, or carrying a "bear bell" can alert bears to your presence and help prevent maulings.  Whereas your co-workers will be rolling their eyes at your mispronunciation of the Turkish Prime Minister's name for many years to come and there's nothing you can do about it, one can purchase a bear bell at any sporting goods store, and they attach easily to your briefcase or badge lanyard.

2. Set aside 'worry time'

Allowing yourself a prescribed time each day in which to revel in your deepest fears and stresses can help you to put off sudden moments of anxiety and emphasizes the typically ephemeral nature of our concerns.  Many doctors have identified Monday to Friday from 9 to 5 as the ideal 'worry time'.

3. Engage with your environment

Sometimes work-related worries can leave us feeling "trapped," a feeling easily countered by standing up, stretching out your arms, and touching both walls of your cubicle simultaneously.  (Note:  make sure to first remove the log-in card from your classified system so as to avoid a possible security violation.)

4. Focus on the positive

A great way to keep from getting stuck in a worry rut is to allow yourself to focus on those things that are bright and positive.  Try repeating to yourself, "Hey, at least I'm not working on Syria!" or "Isn't it great that State is the only government agency that allows alcohol in the workplace?"

5. Ask for help

When worries become so overwhelming that they are interfering with your daily activity, don't let the likelihood of a medical clearance demotion leaving you permanently trapped in DC keep you from seeking the professional attention you need.