I’ve been back in DC for almost two months and now 1/4 of the way through French training. It is a slog. It has surprised me how tired I am after 8 hours of language classes, labs, conversation tables, pronunciation tables, and homework. This is the first language I’ve tried to tackle seriously since college Russian a couple decades ago and it’s tough.
That said, I am making progress. Verb by verb. If only I could keep all those damn articles and prepositions straight. Now that I’m a less-sensitive place, I’ll try to keep up on the diplojournaling. Peut-être un peu en français.
One of the many frustrating things about living in a heightened security situation with limited travel is that my camera is gathering dust in the closet. I’ve been in Lahore for over a month and have not had the opportunity to make any photos. Tonight, I was prepping the gear for my first such opportunity coming up later this week. It just so happened that we were having a big lightning storm. I wandered out on the balcony and started shooting. Getting a decent image of lightning takes some serious patience, and a little good luck.
I used an approach similar to the fireworks in Ottawa, except lightning is much less predictable and I didn’t bring a tripod to Pakistan. Got a couple of keepers anyway….
If you want to see more, click here: Lahore Lightning Storm.
After an uneventful stopover in Scranton, PA, for the night, I’m now settled in to my temporary digs back in Arlington, Virginia. Hitting the beltway was a rude awakening. I realized that it’s been over a year since I’ve driven in bumper-to-bumper traffic. This will no doubt be the first of many under-appreciated facets of life in Ottawa I will miss.
It was a pleasure, however, to have my iPhone become magically fully functional after crossing the border. I got along just fine without 3G, email, and outbound text messaging 24/7 in Canada (I used it for phone service and incoming texts while out and about, and for everything else only when accessible to wifi), but I sure like having it work as intended now. I’ll be in Arlington/DC for some follow-on training, and then off to Lahore on April 21st.
I still can’t believe how fast that first year plus passed. I had an embarrassment of riches in terms of going away parties and dinners, culminating in an Embassy-wide event hosted by my former consular section with a really big turnout (although, to be fair, most afternoon events at the Embassy with copious amounts of wine and food tend to get a good turnout). I felt honored to serve with both the US and local staff in Ottawa. As I told them all, my introduction to life in the foreign service could not have been better.
Monday morning, I’ll be back to school at the Foreign Service Institute. Time to start reading my homework.
Although I’m still over a month away from arriving in Pakistan, the time has come for bidding the follow-on post. Because this next assignment will technically be my second tour (the year in Pakistan is taking the place of what was supposed to be the second year in Ottawa), I am going through what’s called directed bidding. For the last time in my career, we have the opportunity to peruse through a long list of open assignments, compile a list in order of preference, and leave it up to the gods, aka the Career Development Officers, to sort out.
Of the 150 or so assignments, including jobs in every category located in six continents, I put together a sub-list of 30 that fit our timing. This was actually a little more complicated than it sounds. I started with the expected departure date from Pakistan. I scratched any job targeted to start before Spring 2012. I then scratched every job that did not require foreign language fluency. Some of those were brutal to line out, but I have to satisfy the language proficiency for tenure.
I then added the month or so of mandatory home leave — time Congress mandates that I spend decompressing from my prior two years abroad. I then needed to figure out what training is required for each job I wanted to bid. Public affairs job in Bishkek, Kyrgystan? Factor in 8 months for Russian language fluency and a month and a half for public diplomacy tradecraft. Scratch a bunch more jobs that start too early or too late for the requisite training.
Amazingly, when the smoke cleared, we had a list of 30 that more or less fit. E and I then spent several days passing it back in forth to get the preference order right, finalizing the order together in the tea room at the Mandarin-Oriental looking out over the Vegas strip. We knew we’d have a good shot at one of our top 10 picks because State provides so-called equity points points for serving in hardship posts, additional equity for serving in high-danger posts, and yet more equity for serving in hard-to-fill jobs. Volunteering to spend a year in Lahore comes close to maxing out all three.
In the end, we had a pretty clear first choice pick, but the timing didn’t work out precisely. We are allowed to include on the list a maximum of eight jobs that don’t fit exactly, but are within a 90-day window. We are told up front, however, that while we can include these so-called “imperfect bids,” it is highly unlikely that we’ll get one. Unfortunately, we had a pretty big gap — ok, a chasm, really — between our imperfect top choice and everything else. We filed our final list over a week ago and since that time have focused on being happy with what we expected to get: either a political job in Algiers, Algeria, or a political job in Kiev, Ukraine. Both would be interesting jobs and require us to learn a language that was at the top of our priority list.
We thought for sure the decision would come by end of day last Friday. The week-end arrived with no word. Monday came and went with nothing.
After lunch today, my email preview popped with just the subject line: “Your Onward Assignment” and the first line of the contents that just read “Congratulations”. I got the same “Congratulations” intro when I received my assignment to Pakistan, so I knew that had no bearing on where we were going. After a suitably dramatic pause, I opened the email to find we had been assigned our first pick: Paris.
After I’m back from Lahore in the Spring 2012, we’ll have our month of home leave, and then jump into a very intensive five to six months of full-time, French language training. Four years of college French will get one to about a 2/2 on the spoken/written Foreign Service scale. The job requires that I arrive in the Fall of 2012 with a 3/3, so I’ve got my work cut out for me. Thankfully, E will likely be able to go through the class with me and she’s a language whiz. As for the job, I won’t be working in the Embassy. Instead, I’ll be joining the U.S. delegation to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The OECD has an incredibly broad mandate so I have no idea what my portfolio will include, but they get involved in a lot of very interesting issues. We couldn’t be happier.
The adventure continues.
Thanks to a long week-end and a couple of vacation days thrown in, E and I took advantage of some frequent flyer miles and and cheaper than usual hotel rates in Las Vegas a few weeks ago for a spur-of-the-moment respite from the snow in Ottawa. I can highly recommend the new Mandarin Oriental in the City Center complex. Beautiful rooms and very quiet. With no casino in the lobby, it was great to go out to Vegas, but feel like we weren’t living in Vegas. We caught a couple of shows — the Cirque du Soleil’s O at Bellagio and four white guys from Australia singing Motown hits — that were great fun. Ate some good food. Played some blackjack and craps together. Saw some movies. Walked around a lot. Always a good place for people watching.
I didn’t plan on playing poker as the whole idea was to spend time together for five days. On the second morning, however, E asked if there was a poker tournament during the day that I’d like to play. It’s Vegas — there’s always a poker tournament. It’s been awhile since I’ve played a live tournament but, with more of her encouragement, I entered the 1:00 at the new Aria hotel and casino next door to the Mandarin. It had that new poker room smell and everything.
I had a great time, and met a great mix of tourists and locals. They run one of the best tournament structures I’ve played, short of the World Series, with 30 minute levels and a large beginning stack. Both factors go a long way in watering down the luck factor. I never had aces, king, or queens the whole day, but I was able to pick my spots because my stack never got low. The downside to the structure is that the whole thing takes much longer than the typical Vegas 3-hour tourney. There were 65 people to start, each receiving $8,000 in chips for a $120 buy-in. Our early dinner plans fell through as I was still playing at 6:00pm. I finally finished around 8:15pm, celebrating another tournament victory that ended up paying for the whole trip.
Here’s a link to the somewhat blurry pic of my tourney-ending stack from the poker room’s Facebook page (the orange and white chips are each valued at $10k):
Although we got a later start then expected, we had a great dinner.
One of the things I love most about my apartment here in Ottawa is the view at night. Most evenings, it’s an expansive view of the market. Every once in awhile, however, I hear minor explosions off in the distance. Given that it’s Ottawa and not someplace more dangerous, that sound means fireworks. In the summertime, just about every festival included a fireworks display so I’ve had a lot of practice doing spur of the moment photography.
As Fall gave way to Winter, the sky has been quiet. Until last night. It took me a minute or two to associate the sound with something that required me to get up from the couch. Not only were there fireworks lighting the sky, but the launching spot from my vantage looked to be right between the US Embassy and the art museum. A perfect spot to catch those buildings lit up with the fireworks.
I’m in pre-packout sort mode so my photography gear is in several piles — stack for storage, stack to ship to Pakistan, and small bag o’ stuff to take on the plane. Putting together what I needed to shoot, particularly not knowing how long the fireworks would last, would have been quite comical if anyone had been here to watch the mad scramble and rapid assemble. Tripod in the closet. Camera in the bedroom. Damn, wrong camera — need the one in the other closet that has the tripod plate. Battery from the charger. CF cards still on the desk from the last shoot. Set it all up on a chilly balcony completely covered in snow from the storm a couple days ago. No time for a jacket. Can’t find the remote cord.
Anyway, got it all set up, adjusted the settings and started firing away. It was a nice display, but I wasn’t sure if I captured anything particularly unique until I spent some time editing. This shot jumped out from group (click on the small image below to blow it up). I wish I could say it was all planned and that I have amazing timing, but sometimes the best shots are just pure luck. I’m presuming the fireworks guys intended it to look like a ski masked face grimacing over the Byward Market, with maybe a little face next to it. Whether intentional or not, it looks particularly ominous to me sitting right on top of the US Embassy as if Lord Voldemort were on his way.
For fireworks fans, here are eight more shots from the evening’s display.
Today was the first Saturday of the year for the Rideau Canal to be opened end-to-end for skaters. The Canal runs over 5 miles long, making it the world’s biggest skating rink.
While I didn’t put on blades, I did throw on the heavy coat and shuffled a couple miles down and back (note to self: ice is slippery, even in snow boots). Despite temperatures between -5 and -10, with ridiculous wind chills, there were plenty of skaters. Every age group, from babies in sleds, to the elderly slowly gliding.
I particularly loved watching the little speed demons weaving in and out. While there was the occasional slip and fall, the cold kept the huge crowds away so there were no collisions.
By the time I got home, my hands were numb, but I was ready to go find a pair of skates.
Last year, I was covering the San Francisco Giants for a photo wire service. I’d never covered a minor league game before, but there were two highly touted prospects playing for the Giants’ A-ball team in San Jose. After checking the pitching match-ups for an early season homestand that coincided with the big club playing on the road, I asked my editor to get me a credential for the game.
The minor league club, filled with 18- and 19-year-old kids playing in their first year of pro ball, clearly didn’t get much coverage as the team’s head of media relations met me at the gate and gave me a tour of the park. It was a beautiful day and the rookies dominated the game. I sold one of my photos of the catcher to Sports Illustrated, but nobody was interested in the pitcher or the shot of the two of them on the mound.
It was an effortless win and the two obviously had great chemistry. After the game, I told everyone with any interest that I just saw the future of the Giants and it looked awfully promising. I never would have believed, however, that it’d be so soon and on such a big stage.
Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey just led the Giants to the brink of the team’s first World Series championship in 56 years. Bumgarner shut out the most potent offense in the American League, scattering three hits over eight innings. Posey homered, threw out the only attempted stolen base, and called a perfect game behind the plate.
A long way from San Jose.
Baseball has been a part of my life for 35 years. More particularly, San Francisco Giants baseball.
My first memory of walking into San Francisco’s Candlestick Park is intertwined with my first memory of independence. In contrast to this age of over-protective helicopter parents, my best friend and I took in our first Giants game when we were 10 years old. Nobody to drive us there or pick us up. No pre-purchased tickets. Just two fifth graders taking the Greyhound bus from the suburbs an hour north to the big city, buying a couple cheap bleacher seats, and cheering on a forgettable, woefully mediocre team.
I remained a die hard fan despite not seeing a finish higher than third in the division for my first dozen seasons. As a kid, I’d end every spring and summer day by faithfully recording the day’s game score on a wall calendar. Days broke down into three categories, in descending order: wins, losses, and days when the team traveled and didn’t play. Willie “Stretch” McCovey, Jack “the Ripper” Clark, Jeff “Hack Man” Leonard, Will “the Thrill” Clark, John “the Count” Montefusco, and even Johnny “Disaster” Lemaster were my heroes growing up.
My family never went. My mom would get free tickets once a year through work, but otherwise, it was just my thing. An obsession fed by the radio and the greyhound bus.
As a young adult, I was lucky enough to find a “gamer” for a spouse. We’ve celebrated countless birthdays, mother’s days, and father’s days at the ballpark. Four years ago, the scoreboard read during the seventh inning “Happy 20th Anniversary, E. I’m the luckiest man in the world. She’s beautiful and a GIANTS fan. I love you. D.”
It’s no surprise that my kids came to know and love baseball and the Giants. I coached little league teams for years and throughout their formative years, we went to games as a family and in pairs. With the new PacBell (now AT&T) ballpark opening in 2000, we bought into our first season tickets. Two seats for 15-20 games a year. The kids and E alternated who went with me, each with their own set of game day traditions.
What we’d eat, whether we’d go two hours early for batting practice, and what we’d wear all depended on my seat mate. No matter which of our three kids came with, or if it was me and E, some things never changed: we tried to be in our seats for the first pitch, we sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” with gusto during the seventh inning stretch, we NEVER left early, and we always booed the Dodgers, former Dodgers, and Dodger fans.
Over the years, the Giants have given us a lifetime of memories. Not always good, but lasting memories. More game-winning homers than I can count. More soul-crushing losses than I care to contemplate. Making the post-season, unfortunately, has been rare.
There was the run in 1987 when we lost in the National League Championship Series to St. Louis after being up three games to two. We made it to the World Series for the first time in my lifetime in 1989, only to lose a four-game sweep to the Oakland A’s after the Loma Prieta earthquake. In 2002, the Giants were six outs away from their first World Series Championship since 1954. 5-0 heading into the 8th inning, up three games to two over the Angels, only to watch it fall apart spectacularly.
My son, Z, and I attended game 5 of that Series. It was a miraculous night during which the Giants prevailed 16-4 over the Angels and first baseman JT Snow saved the Manager’s son from certain injury. Three-year-old Darren Baker, trying to fulfill his bat boy duties a little early, wandered to home plate just has JT and David Bell were heading home to score on a triple. Snow managed to both score the run and scoop up little Darren by the scruff of his XXXXXXS jersey right before Bell scored. That was the last time the Giants won a post-season game.
My two seasons as a photographer covering the Giants was a dream come true. Walking into the park through the players’ entrance. Hanging out on field and in the dugout before the games. Chatting with legends McCovey and Mays in the press room elevator. Having my Giants photos tell stories in Sports Illustrated, ESPN the Magazine, and The Sporting News. Amazing experience, but no post-season birth for the team.
It’s been eight years since that World Series game against the Angels and the Giants haven’t made a playoff run since. Until now.
Although I’ve been posted to Ottawa this whole season, we’ve maintained our season tickets. The kids and E were all home for various parts of the summer and they all took in a few games, each calling or texting me during or after the game. I continued to watch and listen to games through the internet.
After blowing two prior chances, the team clinched the division title on the last game of the regular season. The Giants, fueled by the best pitching staff in baseball, have no star hitter. Instead, we have a team of underdog cast offs and journeymen. Two of our starters, Pat Burrell and Cody Ross, came to the team only after their old teams cut them. Just like the teams I followed as a kid.
We don’t score many runs, winning more games by a one-run margin than any other team in baseball. The team motto for 2010 has been “Giants baseball: Torture”. They lived up to the motto during the playoffs’ first round, winning three games out of four against Atlanta, all by one run.
With Z going to school in Philadelphia, and the Phillies looking unbeatable after sweeping Cincinnati, I couldn’t resist making the trip out for Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. Within minutes of the final out in Atlanta, I had our tickets for Game 1 secured.
It didn’t matter that I’d have to drive 8 hours each way in a week-end. It didn’t matter that the Giants were huge underdogs to win a game against the two-time defending National League champs. It didn’t matter that we were looking at having to face Roy Halladay, the game’s most dominant pitcher coming off only the second post-season no hitter in baseball history. I was going to watch my Giants in a post-season game with my son.
From the start, the baseball gods rewarded my loyalty. The absurd last-minute $1500 airfare from Ottawa to Philly dropped to $350 a day before I was going to drive. Although most hotels were sold out, Priceline came through the day before departure with an amazing deal on two nights at a brand new four star place downtown. The Nor’easter storm that delayed my flight cleared just in time for a sunny Saturday and clear game night.
Meeting up with Z Friday night for dinner, it was such a pleasure to share a meal as adults, splitting a bottle of wine, and talking the night away about school, work, the future, and, of course, Giants baseball. The next day, both decked out in Giants jackets and caps, we shared the day as kids.
Now, I’ve been to baseball games in a lot of places. New York, Boston, San Diego, Minneapolis, Toronto, Arizona. Nothing comes close to what we experienced in Philadelphia. We were booed. All day. Sometimes with a smile. Most of the time with a sneer. Old women, young children, LOTS of overweight guys, and even a homeless guy after we gave him some spare change.
The guy at the burger joint initially wouldn’t let us in to be served. The doorman and valet to my hotel wouldn’t open the door and, instead, jeered. The entire lobby bar of the hotel, watching college football, booed as we headed out. As we walked down the street, one guy ran out of a store for the sole purpose of screaming at us before returning to finish his afternoon shopping.
The nice fans wished us luck. At least a half dozen in the exact same way. “Oh, don’t misunderstand. NOT for your team. I mean good luck for your safety.” We had many tell us we had chutzpah/balls/guts to even be walking around with a Giants cap on game day.
We ran into a handful of compatriot Giants fans along the journey. The closest experience I had to this was traveling for an extended period in Eastern Europe in ’84 during which I ran into one American. It didn’t matter that we had little in common otherwise — we shared the same identity. The same was true for those few wearing orange and black in a sea of red and white.
We took the subway to the ballpark, packed to the gills with rabid locals sneering at us for eight stops. We experienced the typical trash-talking from fans as we filed in to the front gate. We politely declined the white and red rally towel offered to every entrant. I asked if they had any in orange and black. I received a blank stare. No smile or ‘good luck’, just a menacing blank stare.
Out of 46,000 people packed into that stadium, I’d estimate there at most a few hundred Giants fans. Most of us hung out by the visitors’ dugout watching batting practice. There’s safety in numbers.
As game time approached, we found our seats on the aisle, about 30 rows from the field. Some good-natured trash talking with our neighbors, but nothing too menacing. Yet.
Just before the first pitch, three guys staggered down the aisle and took the three seats right behind us. The guy behind me, whether intentionally or not, elbowed me in the head as he found his seat. It turned out that he was, by far, the most drunk of the lot.
He started by waving his white towel in my face. I probably didn’t help by suggesting it was too early for them to be surrendering. They then started in on the chanting and clapping. No problem — happy to have everyone screaming and cheering on their team.
It then got a little too personal and a little too close. When the clapping and chanting didn’t get a rise out us, my new friend started slapping the back of my chair. When that got no response, he started reaching over to clap next to my right ear.
That got my attention. I wheeled on him and got my finger in his face quickly. Cheer, clap, whatever, but back off, I not-so-subtlety plead. I realized I may have been a tad aggressive when Z reminded me that he didn’t have enough money to bail me out if I got arrested.
Things seemed to calm down a bit as the game unfolded. Halladay continued his no-hit streak. One of our neighbors was counting the number of hitters in the streak starting with the 27 straight outs recorded in Halladay’s last start. 28, 29, 30. 31, 32, 33, 34. Cody Ross put a stop to this poor man’s Sesame Street lesson by depositing the next pitch into the left field bleachers. 1-0 Giants and the crowd got much quieter.
Unfortunately, it only lasted a 1/2 inning. A solo homer by the Phillies and it was a tie game. Welcome to Giants baseball: torture. With the tension rising, so too did the drunk voices behind us. We never did see who reported them or why, but security showed up to warn them to tone it down.
By the fourth inning, they were gone. As the security guard argued with them, and called in the police to help physically remove the drunks, two other guys started pointing at me and demanding that I be removed. I was honestly mystified what they were accusing me of having done. Perhaps they saw me react to drunk #3. Perhaps they saw me point at a small group of Giants fans behind us after Ross’s homer and misconstrued.
A conference amongst the security guys ensued. One was saying he knew one of my accusers and believed that I had “instigated” things. The other, more senior guard, overruled him and talked to me one-on-one. He said he knew what was happening — that the provocation was the fact that we had the temerity to root for our team.
Although I would never wish anyone to be kicked out of a game, it did make the rest of the night a bit more relaxed. We still had the two guys who wanted me booted, but they were not close to us and avoiding eye contact with them resolved that conflict (at least as far as I was concerned).
In the meantime, the Giants pushed ahead 4-1. We can’t seem to win unless it is a one-run game, however, so the score promptly shifted to 4-3. Halladay left the game after seven innings, on the hook for the loss. Our ace, Tim Lincecum, held the lead through seven despite several tense moments.
The home crowd were heckling Timmy with catcalls. The guy next to me explained their collective thought process. You see, because Timmy has long hair, he “looks like a girl so we’ll treat him like a girl.” Apparently, everyone in the ballpark waving a white towel works at a construction site. In the 1950s. Others apparently live in the mid- 1960s and think anyone with long hair is “hippy trash”.
As the ninth inning approached, the security guard came down again. He said there were two of them on our aisle, but that there may be a LOT of unhappy fans around us. He asked if we had a plan. A plan? Really?
Our plan was to watch the final three outs from the top of aisle and then take off for the subway. When we got to the top of the stairs, however, we couldn’t see the field. Have to see the final three outs, so back to our seats we went. Each hitter was a tight-rope, but with two outs, and two strikes on Shane Victorino, our closer finished the Phillies off with a 95 MPH fastball. As the umpire called strike three, we took off.
We hit the top of the aisle before the shock of the game’s end hit the crowd. As 46,000 groped with their disappointment, we ran.
Not quite like the Warriors in this scene (and nobody speaking Italian), but it felt a bit like that when we were sprinting four blocks to the subway. We heard more then once, “hey, Giants fans, get ‘em”. Once we made it to the subway, we were fine, although we did take off our jackets and caps — no reason to tempt fate.
We texted each other when we got behind our respective doors, satisfied with witnessing a monumental win unscathed. More memories. If we win the National League pennant and meet the Yankees in the World Series, I might have to make the pilgrimage to New York, once again proudly wearing my orange and black.
35 years is a long time to wait… I never stop believing.