Happy, uh, New Year?

I blink and we’re two weeks into 2014 already!

The year has started out strong. The Eminent Spouse has settled in to teaching and I may have had a breakthrough with Korean. I’ve really struggled with language production even though I have very little issues with the conceptual side of the language. I think it is due to the similarities between Japanese and Korean and it’s proving extremely difficult to overcome my natural inclination to create high-level sentences.

Because the grammar is so similar, my brain wants to use Korean in the same way I use Japanese. In the long run this is going to be a big boon, I believe, but for the first few months its been excruciating. I just don’t (or didn’t) have the grammar currency in Korean to cash the checks my brain was writing. It’s getting easier as I’ve learned more of the essential grammar and now its a matter of learning sufficient vocabulary and getting the grammar tools down in rote memory so they can just pop out instead of being explicitly processed every time.  Last week I had a few class sessions where I felt that I was understanding the teacher’s side of things and producing my half of the conversation without too much delay or relying on help from the teacher. It was fun and hopefully portends well for my performance from here on out.

Other than school, the Eminent Child has been assigned as a Printer for their colonial life social science module. We had to go pick up some rubber stamps at the craft shop for her project demonstrating the work of colonial era newspaper printers.  Fun stuff.

Not much else of note, I suppose.  We did start watching Malcolm in the Middle on Netflix. Good stuff, but I had a parenting self-check when I realized that Netflix censors MitM from under-12 Kids’ accounts. I don’t know if our family enjoyment of the show makes me a good or bad parent.

Hard working kid 12.12.2013

The Eminent Child missed ballet yesterday as the Eminent Spouse was under the weather. It wasn’t such a bad thing, though, as it gave her a chance to work on her plant project that all three of us had conveniently completely forgotten about over the snow days in spite of buying all the materials at the craft shop on Sunday.  She made a magnificent poster of a flower with all the parts labeled and a neat 3D element that you can pull off of the poster and examine in your hand.  It’s really well done and as far as I know, she did most of it herself. I helped her brainstorm but was careful to let her have executive decision making. I snapped one pic tonight but the glitter glue (yeah!) was still drying so we have to wait until tomorrow morning for the final shots.

Tomorrow the Eminent Spouse hopes to learn that her background check has finished and she’s cleared to start teaching next week.

And oh yeah, we’ve been married 15 years now. Huzzah!

Put your money where your mouth is

Yesterday was a decent Korean day and I’m getting better at putting the sentences I want together. The whole struggle has been about finding a way to cognitively distinguish Korean and Japanese in production.  They are so similar it has always felt like I could do more in Korean than I really could, which tripped me up and slowed me down. I’m not having any trouble with the new grammar on a comprehension level, so it’s just a matter of learning the vocab and getting use to producing it accurately.

Last evening I went to a financial planning seminar offered by the department.  I’ve always been maxing out my TSP contributions and have done some reading on different investment strategies but I wanted to get some feedback on whether or not the approaches I’ve settled on are reasonable. I’ve kind of hedged on all of my strategies: I put half of the money in managed L funds and then manually arranged the other half across an array of funds ranging from the conservative government bond G fund to the risky small business fund. I put most of it in the C fund which is basically an S&P 500 index fund. My understanding of the preferability of no-load mutual funds and index funds was confirmed, which was reassuring.

We’ve got a “Roth IRA” option in our TSP now too that I’m not entirely clear on. It appears that we’ve just got two options for investing in our TSP (which is our acronym for 401(k)): pre-tax standard deposits that are taxed on withdrawal and these new “Roth” deposits that are deposited after taxes but then tax free on withdrawal.  The advice that I got when the program was announced was essentially to bet on future taxes. If you think future taxes will be higher, pay them now and then get your money tax free later on. But it was also pointed out that $10 invested after paying taxes is the equivalent of $13 invested before taxes which provides greater principle for the magic of compound interest to work on over the life of the investment. This means that even if you’re paying higher taxes on it later on, you’ll have so much more money that you’ll come out ahead.

Considering that no one knows what’s going to happen to our tax rates in 26 years (I hope I can last that long!), I just split the difference and maxed out my contributions with half from standard deposits and half from Roth.  I know that retrospect will permit me to say I should have done one or the other but at least I don’t have all my eggs in one basket.

The big thing we messed up on was not establishing a 529 educational fund for the Eminent Child early on. If we’d started it when we got married (15 years ago today!), we’d be sitting pretty. Instead, we’re way behind the 8-ball and there’s no way we’re going to be able to pay for her education unless we basically save our entire income from here until she graduates high school (which is a long-winded way of saying there’s no way we’re going to be able to pay for her education). Some friends of mine were talking about trying to convince their parents to give gifts as 529 contributions and how that just doesn’t have the same effect as giving actual presents and gifts.  Something to think about when if I become a grandparent.

It was overall a good session. I had to leave before the discussion on insurance but I did get the presentation powerpoint and will look through it. Right now I’m paying for the best options and think I’ll stick with that. With my family history of heart disease and the state of my health (I’m fine, but plenty of warning lights in weight, blood pressure, triglicerides, pre-diabetic, pre-metabolic syndrome, cholesterol, etc), there’s reasonable odds we’ll need good health and even life insurance. Maybe I’ll be able to pay for the EC’s education in the end after all!

Snow Days for All! (or I’m embarrassed for us all)

Today was a snow day for locals schools and the federal government, apparently out of fear of the “2-4″ of precipitation” forecast for the day. It ended up being a wet slushy day with roads that weren’t much different than a heavy rain, but for better or worse, I got another day with the family. We bundled up and trekked out for some better inclement weather gear for the Eminent Child who later shed tears when all the other kids were too cold to play with her. I guess not knowing how to drive in the snow is correlated with not knowing how to dress your progeny for playing in it either.

I was able to get a little bit of studying done but it’s just so hard with the family around. I don’t want to complain about family time as its extra precious to me but Korean study is proving so difficult for me, I almost wish I was alone here. I really underestimated how much free time I had in Abuja when contemplating language learning.

The Nutcracker

I'm currently sitting in an empty theater watching the dancers warm up for the show. We found what seemed to be a decent ballet studio for the Emminent Child when we arrived and she was excited to qualify for an advanced class. She has rehearsal thrice weekly and was able to get a spot in The Nutcracker even though she joined in September. It's been a lot of fun for us.

They have 6 shows: Thursday, Friday, two on Saturday and two on Sunday. The EC opened on Thursday and performs early today and late tomorrow. Between when I started writing and just now I was informed the house wasn't open and I had to leave, so now I'm sitting outside enjoying the 50 degree sunshine.

This morning I made pancakes, muffins, eggs, bacon and coffee but didn't have time to drink my coffee. Sure wish I had it here now but we were rushing out of the house late (predictably).

Tuesday, 10 July

I knew this would happen but am still surprised by it. Time is rushing up fast and I’ve got a lot of work still to do before I leave.

I haven’t been interviewing at work this week, trying to wrap up the bigger projects and organize my workflow to hand off to the officer following me. However, there is so much general churn going on every day, I’m barely able to even touch it. It really highlights how understaffed we are here. I really do wish I could stay on for another year as I know that the work I could get done would be so productive.

There were some distractions that impacted my ability to be productive as well. Last night the security alarm in my apartment decided to go off at random times throughout the night, starting just as I went to bed at 10:30. The oddest part was that I hadn’t armed it for the night when it first went off and I was perplexed why it was going off. It went off again around 4:00, only I didn’t realize it right away. I incorporated the sounds into a dream for a while, apologizing to the guests at my house about the noise. Suddenly it dawned on me that it was a REAL noise that had been going on for quite some time! I leapt from bed and immediately slammed face first into the door, banging my knee in the pitch black. I got it off, but it went off a few more times by the time the sun came up. I hadn’t slept very well as a result of all of that and called in late to catch a bit more sleep. The alarm continued to go off at random times, including three times in the amount of time it took me to get out of bed and out of the shower. I called the security team to come fix it and it went off 3 more times by the time they got here.

Now that it was daylight and I was coherent, I investigated and noticed that one of the cables near the door that had always been frayed had completely fallen apart. It turned out this was the panic button cable and it was shorting out, thus solving the mystery of why it was going off even when the alarm wasn’t armed. They replaced the cable and all was well.

Of course, once I got to work, there were troubles with my upcoming travel. Part of the paperwork was filled out incorrectly and suddenly someone realized that there was no money authorized to pay for my travel. That caused a bit of consternation and stress but we got that squared away. It ended up costing me a couple hundred dollars as part of a cost-contruct but that was to be expected. I’m just happy that it didn’t change my confirmed tickets because I’d already paid the little bit extra for the Economy Plus seats on the United legs of the trip.

I still have to bottle a batch of beer, drop off the Eminent Feline, and pack. Packing is a challenge because I’ve got at least 3 if not 4 destinations (Camping, home visits, training) that require completely different types of clothing. The biggest challenge will be in Washington. How many suits to bring? I sense that they’ll get pretty wasted in just a single day in the summer heat and I don’t look forward to paying hotel prices to get it cleaned overnight. Still don’t know what to do about the daily wear; hopefully I can find a coin laundry nearby or maybe convince a friend to let me use their facilities.

All in all, I’m very stoked about the upcoming trips. I’ve met my new boss who seems to be a great asset at work and someone that I think I’ll really enjoy working under. There will be a lot to learn but I can already tell that he is capable both of recognizing the learning curve I’ll be on as well as challenging me to move along it as fast as possible. Even though I said I kind of wish I could stay in the consular section, given the choice, I wouldn’t pass up this opportunity. It’s hard to walk away from work that I enjoy and I know I’m good at (and a section that needs me, if I can be so bold) but it would be even harder to turn down this opportunity.

Abuja Bound!

Wow, I really have dropped the ball on this. I spent so much time talking about Abuja with my family and friends, I completely failed to recognize that I’d forgotten to update this place. So that’s the news, folks: I’m headed to Nigeria!

I couldn’t be much happier, to be honest. During the bidding process, I first started thinking about Abuja because a good friend of mine is posted there. I looked into and realized that while it’s not the most exciting post, it’s not really bad in any particular way. It isn’t easy to live there as the infrastructure isn’t as developed as it is here in the US. It is a bit dangerous, but it isn’t a warzone and the danger is relatively easy to avoid. That leads to the biggest challenge, at least according to the comments of those who’ve lived there: boredom. Because of the potential risks, people spend a lot of time in the diplomatic community. For me, I’ve got books, music, games, you name it, to keep me occupied, so I don’t expect that to be too much of a problem.

I’d always emphasized the importance of keeping the family together, but when the time came to join the Foreign Service, we either had to choose to keep the family together and no Foreign Service or temporarily split up in order to get me in. Originally the plan was for the girls to move over this summer, but once I started thinking seriously about Nigeria, I mentioned to my wife that I would be able to handle them staying in Japan if that was best for them. We thought on this a little more and realized that it would be a great benefit to the Eminent Child to stay in Japan a little longer, just to really ground her in Japanese culture. Once she is in the international realm, she won’t be going back and her “Japaneseness” especially is likely to fade away. It would be nice if she could develop a strong cultural foundation with Japan so that she’ll always be comfortable there and thus will have more choices and opportunities in her life.

Once we’d come to terms with the new posture that had moved us into a separation (mind you, this is not a legal separation or anything: there’s nothing wrong with our marriage!) for the first post, I was able to bid with gusto on many places that I may have tried to avoid for the sake of my family. The more I looked into Abuja, the more I liked it. I liked the idea of starting out in a post with a lot of challenges. Everyone deals with that kind of post at some point in their career, might as well get it at it when I’m fresh and full of vigor. One disadvantage of some of the prestige posts is that because they are in London, Paris, Brussels, etc, everyone is so into living there that the diplomatic community isn’t as vibrant and strong, whereas at posts like Nigeria, people come together. Nigeria does have some hardship differential associated with it which will help offset the costs of family travel and may give us a little edge when bidding on the next round.

Since Flag Day, I’ve been preparing. I’ll post more on that soon, but suffice to say that my apartment is getting crowded!

Houston, we have a problem

Quick apology to the few people who’ve read and commented on this blog. The initial comments all made it past my spam filters so I never thought to check it after that, but today I noticed that several comments had been filed as spam. I’ve fixed this and approved all comments; hopefully it won’t be an issue any more.

I was going to post about why I haven’t posted much but I guess it makes sense to just explain it here. A lot has been going on, both in A-100 as well as socially, but I’ve resisted talking about it to avoid running afoul of any policies regarding what is permissible to blog about. We’ve gotten conflicting messages about social media. On the one hand, the social media landscape is clearly recognized as one that needs to be engaged but on the other, we are warned about how much trouble we can cause with it.

Adjusting to the reality that we are “on” 24/7 is perhaps the greatest initial challenge to being a diplomat. In A-100 we don’t really do anything of note; it’s all about learning and developing awareness of how the job works and what is and will be expected of us once we actually start working. Most of it is common sense, especially when it comes to meatspace and workspace issues. But cyberspace is different primarily because there is a 1) a permanent record of it and 2) the record is so easily disseminated. The ease with which comments can be taken out of context only makes it worse.

It seems that we have to give up a lot of privacy in this job. Scratch that, we don’t have to sacrifice privacy, it’s that we lose anonymity in many areas where we enjoyed it before. Innocuous comments, tweets, and status updates about one’s personal activities and opinions are throwaway on the internet until you take a job where you represent the United States in both official and unofficial capacities. Now there are people out there, both foreign and domestic, who are looking for any opportunity to take something out of context or just rake us over the coals. We are learning that we may have lost the ability to publicly be ourselves and speak freely and frankly.

It’s frustrating, really, to be forced to accept that there are people out there who simply can’t (or as is perhaps more likely, simple won’t) understand that not everything we say and do is FS. Yes, it is a lifestyle career and yes, we have to always maintain good judgement, high integrity, and represent our country honorably. But that doesn’t mean that we should be deprived of the opportunity to just have fun and be ourselves when it doesn’t violate common sense precepts of decency.

I’m really rambling now (get used to it, I guess). I think its very important that FSO engage the world via our blogs and tweets. It’s important for giving the rest of the world access to the world we live and work in and the effects of the work that we do. It’s also important to have the community and support network for ourselves. So its sad to see quality FSO blogs go dark as a result of trolling in the comments or start to second guess themselves because they get smacked down for a post or comment. We can’t be too risk averse, as individuals, as a service, as a department, lest we get left behind. I’m not arguing for imprudence either, naturally, but perhaps we can hope for a near future where we don’t have to deal with petty comments and unnecessarily strict posting policies (not saying that the current posting policies, whatever they may be, are unnecessarily strict, mind you!).

This has ended up being a long-winded way of saying that the last 6 weeks have been an incredible experience, but I haven’t written about it because much of it shouldn’t be publicly discussed (class content, etc) and some of it I don’t particularly want to blog about. Not that it isn’t notable or memorable, just the opposite. Sometimes I don’t want to write about it because I wonder if I’d draw undue attention to myself and sometimes I don’t write about things because I just want them to be mine.

Where am I going with this? Who knows. I do know that I will be posting more soon. I want to talk about my posting and preparation for it as a reference for others, at least, so expect that sooner than later, hopefully.

Bidmania ends!

I just sent in my bid list to my CDO and now its all up to karma, I guess.  I’ve felt kind of like Forrest Gump in this whole process, just being myself and things have worked out splendidly.  Even if I don’t get my most desired post, I’ve got a good strategy in place that should produce something relatively in line with expectations, regardless.  I’ll be happy no matter where I end up, and there’s no guarantee that your first selection is going to be roses and candy.

It was an interesting process, really.  I found out today that I’m off language probation, so I’m free from that issue in the near term.  Language is still going to be a big consideration for me in the future and I’ll likely learn Chinese, maybe Spanish/Portugese eventually.  But for now, I’m hoping for a non-language, early departure post.

Initially in the process I went through and eliminated all the posts that I was simply ineligible for simply due to the language requirements and the timing of the post. There’s no way I’m going to learn (Spanish/ Portugese/ German/ Dutch/ Russian/ Chinese/ InsertRandomLanguage here) by the summer. After that, I was extremely flexible, ready and willing to go anywhere.

I broached the subject of a possible hardship post with the Emminent Wife and we began to consider the implications of extending our family separation (NOTE: this is not a legal or marital separation, it’s just the term used when FSO live apart from their families) through the first post.  The more the Emminent Wife thought about it, the more she realized that while it entailed significant hardship heartache, it had some significant benefits for the Emminent Child and her continued cultural development.

Once we leave Japan entirely, she’ll be out of the Japanese cultural system probably for good. Even if we get posted back there, she’ll most likely attend an international school.  Two more years of elementary school would really go a long way for building a solid core and foundation in a cultural sense that is more likely to persevere. It would be great for her to still have that Japanese sense of self that she could tap into in the future, but if they moved out now, it’s unlikely to be but a whisper and a memory in a deep cultural sense.

Although this request represented essentially my worst case scenario and the one situation I’d sought to avoid at all costs, when the EW makes up her mind, fighting her on it only makes it worse.  I trust her enough that I don’t think she did this deliberately. As much as you try to think things through, you can’t really make a real decision until you actually have it in front of you. We felt it when I got the invitation letter and it changed the moving calculation as well.

So yeah, it’s pretty crappy that I’m going to be living alone for the next two years with occasional visit from the two Emminences, hopefully it works out as we’re envisioning it.

Now that’s a pretty huge diversion from the topic at hand though, which is bidding strategy.  As I started to say, I was super flexible, almost to a fault, and this change of perspective really helped me to focus my plan. I formulated a strategy based around in-cone positions at posts with a high hardship differential.  This gets me into the main work I’ll be doing for my career early on and forces me to take my consular tour in the second round.  But if I get posted to a place with a high differential, I’ll get to choose my second post a little bit before others, giving me a slight advantage in choosing a place ideally suited for the reunited family. As additional frosting on the cake, consular positions typically work more regular hours so I’ll be around a little bit more, perhaps, or at least with more reliability and predictability than a political position.  That’s the theory at least.

So now its just a matter of waiting about 3 more weeks.  Hopefully I’m leaving almost immediately thereafter for a hardship post in my cone, but it’s essential I keep in mind the still very real possibility I might spend the next 10 months studying Chinese in D.C.

And thus ends the first week!

This last week has been one of the best ones of my life. I think I’ve successfully met almost everyone in the class. I think I know everyone’s name and there might be a couple whom I’ve only been able to get a basic “Hey, what’s up?” to. It’s hard with a group this big, but it’s exciting. The entire group is amazing and I often catch myself wondering when the Foreign Service is going to realize what an imposter I am and yank me back into civilian life. Truly, one of the greatest rewards of this job is knowing that I’ve been judged as deserving of working with the incredible people around me.

It’s pretty popular to bash the government for waste, inefficiency, and bureaucracy and much of it is deserved. But let me tell you that the Foreign Service is is a professional and high quality as it gets. A-100 is an orientation, not a training session, and the amount of content they get into us is intense. There isn’t a wasted moment in the day and while there is a lot of info, learning about how to function as an employee, learning about the history and structure of the Department of State, getting some introductory information on the rules, roles, and responsibilities of the jobs we’ll be taking in a few short weeks, it’s accessible, efficient, and extremely enjoyable.

The Foreign Service is a pretty small department, just a few thousand officers scattered throughout the world. Considering the shared interests that we have, I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that one of the people who is running the orientation is a friend of mine from graduate school or that one of my classmates is a long-time buddy of a guy I met through political blogging. Still, one can’t help but be a little amazed at the small-world connections you discover.

The highlight of the week of course was getting our bid list. 94 different jobs on every continent (well, none in Antarctica, alas). We’ve got 2 weeks to run through them and rank them before submitting them to the magic box which will produce an assignment in 4 weeks time. Huzzah! The best advice we got was to “Hope for the best, expect something from the middle, and prepare for the worst”. I don’t know how others are planning their bid strategies, but for me, I’m really excited to go just about anywhere. I’d like to learn a new language, preferably one that is more rather than less common, but whatever. Some of the posts without language requirements begin almost immediately after class finishes while others have 3, 6, 9 months of language training here in D.C.

I really want to get my family back together but I’m coming to terms with the possible extended separation if I get sent to a post that isn’t the most supportive of the family. There are very few posts where families can’t go, but we have the luxury of choosing to stay in Japan. It sucks being apart but some posts kind of suck to live at, especially for non-US citizen spouses and young kids. We’ll just see what happens. Maybe I can convince the Eminent Wife to let the Eminent child stay with me. Doubtful though.