I had a couple requests to add a subscribe via email option, so after a little bit of research, I signed up for Google’s feedburner service. Here’s the link:
Although I initially thought I could arrange for a place to live in the DC area for A-100 training from California, I quickly realized this would not be the best approach. We lived in DC and Bethesda for three years during law school, but that was twenty years ago. I also had never stepped foot in the Northern Virginia suburbs where the Foreign Service Training Center is located. Thus, after doing some web research and responding to a host of craigslist ads, Yahoo! group ads, and some commercial agents, I arranged a quick trip out to DC last week with high hopes of getting a lay of the land and coming to terms on a lease.
Arlington, Virginia, breaks down into a few distinct neighborhoods each of which surrounds an orange line metro stop: Ballston, Virginia Square, Clarendon, and Rosslyn. I spent three days doing a lot of walking between and around each of them, and walking to the Foreign Service Training Center. Ballston is more vertical, with blocks of high-rise condos and apartments interspersed with bars, restaurants, and the Ballston Common mall. Virginia Square has the same feel (only a few blocks away) while Clarendon has more high-end shopping and restaurants, lower buildings, and an outdoor shopping area anchored by a Crate & Barrel, Whole Foods, etc. Rosslyn feels more like a financial district downtown area with lots of office space and the shopping / food that caters to the work week lunch crowd. The amenities around Clarendon probably fit my needs a little better, but there is also a lot of very loud construction that looks to be a year or more away from completion. This was precisely the kind of thing I was looking to discover that web research from 3,000 miles away makes difficult. My top choice condo coming in to town turned out to be directly across the street from the steel frame of a new office building site, complete with jackhammers, and 15-story crane.
Over the course of a couple of days, I viewed a dozen condos and ultimately settled on a third floor place in a two-year-old building mid-way between the Ballston and Viriginia Square metro stations. It is centrally located, but down a quiet street so the noise seems minimal. The gym, office center, and grounds all still have that new-building smell. The condo itself is not huge, but does have a second bedroom for when one of the kids comes to visit, and the furniture is all new. It’ll be very comfortable. Best of all, the owner is a foreign service officer himself so he completely understood the sliding scale per diem system State uses, diplomatic release clauses, and the vagaries of this life that is only partially within our control. We quickly worked out the details and signed a lease, including all utilities and a parking spot.
After signing and sending the lease back last night, I realized a surprising sense of relief. There is so much of this process out of my control and, with less than a month before I leave, it feels good to have a concrete destination.
My wife and I are no strangers to stress. We’ve moved close to a dozen times, including cross-country twice. With law school graduation looming at the start of the worst legal recession to date (until now), we faced a six-figure debt, two kids under the age of 5, and no job offer. More than once, leaving one job for the unknown of another. Jury trials. Losing close family. Evacuating kids and treasures through waist-deep water. Answering a few middle-of-the-night calls from police and hospitals asking if we’re the parents. Although not always gracefully, through a quarter-century, we’ve handled it all. Together.
The foreign service was by no means a unilateral decision. E has for years talked about wanting to live abroad. She never hesitated when I suggested that it was time to leave the law and think about something else. We both devoured books about the foreign service as I was winding my way through the application process: Realities of Foreign Service Life Vol. 1 and 2, Career Diplomacy, Inside a U.S. Embassy, etc. After each step in the process, as I received positive feedback from State, E was as excited as I was to move on to the next hurdle. She knew my oral assessment score within minutes of the result being announced.
After over a year of daydreaming about living and working in Moscow, Mumbai, Maputo, and dozen other places (not all starting with M), it has suddenly moved from hypothetical to real. An indefinite process that could last for another year or more, has suddenly moved into overdrive. We thought through all the contingencies, planned in detail how it would work, and when the call came we were ready to go. At the same time, we are totally unprepared.
In the week since getting the good news, in between the excitement and congratulations, the stress level has risen day-by-day. E and I have certainly been apart before: a half dozen six-week jury trials, over a hundred out-of-town depositions, and countless management trips abroad. In 1995, I easily ate more dinners with my team than with my family. The prospect of two years apart, however, has fallen on both of us like a ton of bricks.
We are not having second thoughts or regrets. That’s not what this is about. Rather, we are both processing and planning for very different, parallel near-term lives. For me, I’ll be immersed in a new career, new colleagues, new city, new language, and new apartment. Alone. For E, she’ll continue to work, volunteer, parent, walk the dog, take on everything I did, and provide me with moral support long distance. Alone. Yes, we will have the opportunity for periodic visits in DC, California, and wherever I end up for the first post. Yes, we will each have our kids close by (G finishing high school in California, M finishing college in DC, and Z starting college in Philly).
With such immense change coming for each of us in six short weeks, we have both naturally looked first and foremost at our upcoming life from our own vantage. I’m in planning mode and too often get caught up in the details at wholly inappropriate times (e.g., researching apartments via email while walking on the beach in Carmel with E and the dog). As often happens, neither of us wants to fight. We get a little sad, followed closely by my frustration at not being able to fix it. Then we go for a walk together, and talk. And then talk some more.
It will all be fine. Not always happy. Not always miserable. Just a period to get through. Together.
It’s hard to believe that I’m less than six weeks away from leaving for DC. Given all there is to do, I’m trying to scale back the number of photo assignments. The sporting gods, however, are conspiring against me. The Giants are playing meaningful baseball games in September for the first time since cutting ties with Barry Bonds. The college football season just started. And Tiger Woods is coming to San Francisco to lead the best U.S. golfers against the best of the rest in the President’s Cup. Right now, the ramp-down schedule looks like this:
9/11: Giants v. Dodgers baseball
9/12: Utah (#17) v. San Jose St. football
9/14: Giants v. Rockies baseball
9/19: San Jose St. v. Stanford football
9/26: Washington v. Stanford football
10/6-10/11: President’s Cup golf during the day and, fingers crossed, Giants in the National League Divisional Series
I’ve enjoyed shooting an incredible variety of sporting events and have been lucky enough not only to see my work appear online and in print, but also to get paid for it. There is something about baseball, perhaps because it was the first sport I truly loved as a kid. Every once in awhile, routine becomes ballet and a combination of an educated guess, timing, and blind luck results in an image that’s fun for me to look at more than once. Here are a couple of pics from Monday’s game:
As much as I’m looking forward to the foreign service and the challenges it will bring, I’m going to miss the dugouts and sidelines.
It’s finally hit me how much there is to do before departing for Washington and A-100 training. I’m a big believer in lists — what’s more satisfying than checking things off? Unfortunately, for every item I check off, three new things occur to me to get done in the next six weeks. Cleaning things around the house, deciding what things I’ll need/want in DC and the first tour, finding a place to live, determining whether to sell my car or drive cross-country, wrapping up the photography business, etc. The latest addition to the list: clothes.
Over two years ago, I traded my briefcase and suits in for a camera and jeans. Days spent sitting in offices, conference rooms, and courtrooms turned into days standing in dugouts, laying down in end zones, and kneeling court-side. I was dreading the prospect of trying on those old suits and shirts, figuring far too many ballpark hot dogs and media tent pasta lunches would require the services of a very talented tailor.
Surprisingly, the suits (and even my tux) actually fit pretty well. My favorite was just plain wore out and had to be retired, but the others will work. After a recon trip to Brooks Brothers, however, I discovered my closet was looking a bit dated. Ties and lapels have narrowed and pants are no longer pleated. Apparently, I’ll be wearing suits everyday at A-100 training and then, depending on the post, most days on the job. After a lengthy trip to Nordstrom’s Rack, the wardrobe is a little more balanced and updated with the addition of my first cold-weather suit since I started practicing law in Boston in ’92.
Another item checked off the list. Only 38, oops, 41, to go….
Now that the waiting and guessing is over, I let a lot of friends and family know about the career change. Having received the same (very good) questions from a bunch of people, I thought I might start putting together a list of frequently asked questions and answers. Here’s the first installment.
What exactly is the foreign service? The United States Foreign Service is a portion of the State Department that provides diplomats for over 265 embassies, consulates, and diplomatic missions in over 160 countries around the world. At the beginning of the application process, would-be foreign service officers must choose one of five career tracks:
• Consular: aid American citizens abroad and evaluate foreign citizen applications to visit or immigrate to the United States
• Economic: support American financial interests abroad
• Management: help manage the logistics of the local embassy, consulate, or diplomatic mission
• Public Diplomacy: support the embassy’s informational and cultural programs
• Political: develop and communicate information to form U.S. foreign policy, and implement policy originating from Washington.
I will be a Political Officer, but will likely do a Consular post for either my first or second tour.
How does one become a foreign service officer? You can see some of the details in the earlier posts as I navigated through the process, but here’s the quick-and-dirty summary of how State whittles down 20,000+ applicants to the hundreds that get through each year. Each of the following steps results a large percentage falling out of the process:
1. Application: An extensive online registration statement in which the candidate provides extensive information about experience, education, and work history. At this first stage, the candidate must declare one of the five career tracks.
2. Foreign Service Officers Test (FSOT): A proctored written exam with multiple choice, short answer, and essay sections covering job knowledge, English expression and usage, and biographic information.
3. Personal Narratives: A series of essays describing the candidate’s experience and background to be completed within three weeks of passing the FSOT. (Those that took the FSOT in or before November 2008 had to include these narratives in an application required before taking the FSOT). A Qualifications Evaluation Panel (QEP) reviews the narratives and, combined with other factors in the candidate’s file, to determine whether the candidate should move on to the oral assessment
4. Oral Assessment (FSOA): An all-day series of exercises and interviews held in Washington, DC, and selected other major U.S. cities. The FSOA tests the 13 dimensions State considers critical to the foreign service jobs. Unlike the prior steps, candidates receive immediate grading on the FSOA at the end of the day.
5. Medical Clearance: The candidate and the candidate’s family (spouse and dependent children) receive extensive medical testing to ensure that all can serve worldwide with significant health concerns.
6. Top Secret Security Clearance: An extensive background investigation going back ten years, and sometime longer, to identify any security concerns. Investigators will follow-up on all employers, friends, neighbors, foreign contacts, and a host of other leads. This process can take months and, sometimes, years, to complete.
7. Final Review Panel: One last review of the candidate’s entire file during which the panel may conclude the candidacy should be terminated.
8. Register: Once the candidate’s file passes the Final Review Panel, the candidate’s name will be posted on a register for the applicable career track, in order of the score received at the oral assessment (plus any bonus points for language fluency and/or military experience). As State builds a new class (a typical class has 60-100 new officers), the Registrar draw names in order from each register. A candidate’s name will remain on the register for 18 months. If the candidate does not receive an offer during that period, s/he must begin the process again from the beginning.
What happens next? The first order of business is training. Eight hours a day, five days a week, at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia. The initial A-100 course (named after the basement room where diplomats were originally trained) lasts seven weeks. There will then be additional training based on my first post assignment, both job specific and language. Language training can be anywhere from 3-9 months so my stay in DC could be close to one year.
Where are you going? It depends. This is the answer to just about all questions related to the foreign service. Flexibility is key. We sign on to be “worldwide available” which means literally anywhere (OK, not Somalia as we have no embassy, consulate or diplomatic mission there currently). During the first week of A-100 training, I will receive a bid list with about 100 open positions. I’ll have a week or two to research the posts and mark each with a high, medium, or low preference priority. Then it is up to the bureaucracy. At the end of week 5, all the new officers convene for “Flag Day.” In a formal ceremony each name is called one at a time and the officer is presented with a flag representing the country where s/he will be posted. Thus, stay tuned to the blog in early December.