There is a lot going on (hence the new blackberry on belt), but I’ll hold off writing until the smoke clears. In the meantime, I actually managed to read a whole novel. I have no explanation for why my adult-onset ADD allows me to read non-fiction but won’t let me get all the way through a novel. I plowed through Updike’s Rabbit series last year and have since started several other recent and not-so-recent works. They are all sitting in strategic places around my apartment with prominent bookmarks calling out for resumption. I still have great aspirations to finish Infinite Jest, but at almost 1100 pages it doubles as a work-out just lugging it around. Some day.
In the meantime, I found Bapsi Sidhwa’s The Pakistani Bride a quick read. I know so little about Pakistani history and the various cultures at play there, that I don’t feel the least bit qualified to opine on the substance of the book. That said, it gives one (not so flattering) view of the tribal Pakistanis in the 1950s from the vantage of Lahore Punjabis and an American woman. I’m back to non-fiction for awhile, but I’m hoping my soon-to-arrive iPad will make it easier to carry a few books around so I can make more progress on Infinite Jest.
I used to claim that I spent so much time reading at work (which I did), that reading for pleasure at the end of the day was difficult. I do a lot less reading at work now so I guess it was all just an excuse to justify my TV addiction. Oh well.
I do spend a chunk of time every day reviewing cables, some of which are relevant to what I’m doing now. Others are relevant to what I’ll be doing in a year. Still others are just interesting. As I was doing my regular reading the other day, up popped this one (don’t worry, it’s unclassified and public knowledge):
SUBJECT: SENATE CONFIRMATION AND PRESIDENTIAL
ATTESTATION OF FOREIGN SERVICE GENERALIST LIST 2009 #11
1. Following are the names of 99 individuals included on
Foreign Service Generalist List 2009 #11. This list was
nominated by the President on December 11, 2009,
confirmed by the Senate on March 10, 2010 and attested
by the President on March 15, 2010. Posts are requested
to share this information with their officers.
4. For appointment as Consular Officers and Secretaries
in the Diplomatic Service of the United States of
Daniel Ross Harris, of California
I guess in between passing landmark health care reform, completing a nuclear arms treaty with Russia, and overhauling the federal student loan program, the powers that be found time to confirm my class of foreign service officers. Kind of a kick to see it in print.
It’s funny how even a relatively short amount of time can make an extraordinary change feel like routine. From time to time, I find myself stopping mid-stride, looking around, and wondering as David Byrne wrote 30 years ago: “Well, how did I get here?”
I had a lot those moments living my two-year sports photographer fantasy. Walking through the on-deck circle at AT&T park as I passed the dugout. Laying on my stomach shooting the 49ers while they celebrated a touchdown. Tossing a mis-hit ball back to Venus Williams while kneeling next to the net. These were all surreal moments for me after years of office and courtroom work. I had another moment today.
Nothing dramatic. Just another day of training, more lectures on adjudicating non-immigrant visas, a computer applications class, some role play exercises, and a case study review. Once again, however, I found myself reflecting on how quickly a daily routine has developed from something I never thought I’d have the opportunity to pursue.
I start each morning walking from my apartment near the Virginia Square metro to the George P. Shultz National Foreign Affairs Training Center, the campus that houses the Foreign Service Institute (affectionately known as FSI). It’s a great 25-minute morning walk, despite the cold (20-30 degrees seems very cold for a Californian), that takes me down major thoroughfares, side streets, alleys, an office building parking lot, and an underpass walkway before coming back above ground at the FSI front gate.
The security guards check identification for everyone passing through, whether traveling by car or by foot. Like just about all of my fellow officers, I wear my credentials around my neck. The veterans typically have a post-issued lanyard proclaiming exotic embassies or consulates while us newbies have a plain metal chain. The campus itself feels like a small boarding school or college, except it is completely surrounded by a 20-foot fence of vertical metal bars. I enter the grounds through a one-way turnstile after inserting my identification into a slot, inputting a digital code, and receiving a satisfying mechanical clang.
Once through the turnstile, immediately to my right, there’s an impressive light-yellow colonial building with 40-foot columns of the sort modern suburban McMansions fail to conjure. The building used to house Arlington Hall, a 1927 girl’s school, but now carries the less-distinguished moniker of E Building. Walking past E Building, I soon come to a small quad with a bronze statue of a sitting Benjamin Franklin, our nation’s first diplomat. In addition to providing a bit of history, Ben keeps the smokers company in between classes.
The ConGen mock embassy and classrooms reside on the third floor of F building, in the left wing of the building that wraps around the quad. I drop off my lunch in a small fridge and head into a long room filled with computer workstations. It’s an incredibly collegial place. Despite all of our lives being upside down, it’s been a real comfort to share the experience with a steady group of like-minded people. Maybe it’s the fact that we are all about scatter to the four corners of the globe, but I haven’t heard a single argument since I’ve been here.
After checking email, it’s off to the first class. Every day is a different schedule so it never gets to be too routine. Lunch varies depending on the schedule. If we have a lot time, a group will often go grab a bite off campus. The cafeteria, downstairs and through a maze of hallways, has row-after-row of long tables with chairs like an elementary school’s cafeteria. It is here, amongst the flat screen monitors showing CNN, BBC, and the day’s class schedule, where the various classes mix and mingle. You can overhear conversations in over a dozen languages, discussions about the issues of the day (or the latest episode of Jersey Shore), and colleagues running into each other years after they left for their first posts.
I tend to come down to the cafeteria to eat my sandwich and catch up with my former-A-100 colleagues that are now in language study before heading back up to do some work on the computer and prepare for afternoon classes. Today, I stopped for a minute to ponder. I’m not sure how I got here, but I’m glad I did.
As foreign service officers, we are all generalists. Under the terms of my commission, I am deemed to be world-wide available and suitable for any job. Thus, although the State Department hired me as a political officer, I can be assigned any job anywhere in the world. Just about all officers, regardless of background or cone, will serve at least one post as a consular officer. My first assignment falls under this category. I will be a consular officer in Ottawa, Canada, serving for a two-year tour.
Notorious for having the best stories to tell, Consular Officers are responsible for providing all of the client services at every U.S. Embassy and Consulate. They adjudicate non-immigrant and immigrant visas, and they deal with a huge variety of emergencies that befall American citizens abroad. Since completing the A-100 course, about two dozen of us from the 149th, along with a few officers from earlier classes, have been immersed in the law and procedure that forms the foundation for work in the consular section.
The Consular Training course, dubbed ConGen, lasts 6-7 weeks and feels a bit like a law school class interspersed with computer applications classes and some live fire simulations. ConGen takes place in relatively small classrooms, a state-of-the-art mock embassy, and a jail cell (where we meet with our American citizen clients). Not only do we learn the finer points of the Immigration and Naturalization Act (which comes conveniently in a 2-1/2″ thick book) and the Foreign Affairs Manual (affectionately known as the FAM), but also the legal and social structure of the Republic of Z, the fictitious country we use for all exercises.
We cover one large topic a week, concluding with a three-hour exam. The exams are not as bad as they sound, but we need to pass each one with a score above 80%. There are several different sections at ConGen working on different parts of the curriculum. On Christmas Eve, for example, while I was doing some light studying on the immigrant visa ineligibility standards, I could hear another section in the embassy dealing with a mock-Christmas Eve airplane crash. The phones were ringing off the hook. The televisions had updated news reports. Officers checked off priorities, dealt with relatives of those on the plane, and efficiently coordinated with the task force in DC. Not exactly a relaxing half-day, but crises will occur. Even on holidays.
After weeks of orientation in A-100, it feels good to be learning actual on-the-job skills that I’ll be using in a month and a half.
After yesterday’s formal swearing-in, we can all sleep through today’s snow storm knowing that A-100 training is now behind us and that we are all officially commissioned diplomats. It is a bit of a cliche, but like many cliches, a truism that the State Department provides a unique opportunity to reinvent oneself every two or three years. I took the opportunity to give it a shot for the first six weeks.
Those that know me well, those who have worked with me, and those that have worked for me know I am far from shy in speaking my mind. I’m usually one of the first ones to volunteer a comment, opinion, or piece of advice and, typically, the last one to shut up. During college and law school, I was invariably sitting in the front row, ready to pounce on the first invitation for input or argument. With less than a dozen true introverts in our class of 98, I knew there would be no shortage of Type-A personalities jumping in.
So I took a back seat. I typically sat in the middle-back, on the aisle, and constantly suppressed the urge to question, volunteer, or lead. The first two weeks were difficult, but I found myself listening much more closely to what the presenters and my classmates had to say. I never really considered that one aspect of always being the one to engage diverted a lot of my attention to what I was going to do or say next. In a trial setting, this often involving thinking through my statement, the expected counter, and my rebuttal to that expected counter. All that thinking, planning, and preparing meant I was not always listening to nuance or detail.
I won’t over-romanticize the training or my experiment in quiet observation. Some presentations were taxing, and some were just downright boring. One benefit to preparing to speak often is that one tends to stay conscious. I confess I did not always succeed in that minimal level of participation. There were also times when my “approach” was simply an excuse to be lazy.
That said, I think there were moments over the last six weeks when I was genuinely impressed by each person in the class. The Foreign Service application path is absurdly long and I often questioned its substance and process. The resulting group — at least the 97 other members of the 149th — are extraordinarily bright, accomplished, and surprisingly humble. After 28 days in an overcrowded classroom, several field trips, two days bonding in the drizzle of West Virginia, and innumerable lunches, happy hours, and dinners, I thought I’d heard everyone’s best stories. Sitting in a Dupont Circle bar yesterday with an assorted collection of fellow newly minted officers, killing time before heading to the official happy hour on U Street, I was amazed to hear some new, amazing, stories. She ran a marathon on the Great Wall of China. He survived a car jacking by imitation police in Caracas. Oh, and he’s slightly embarrassed that another classmate discovered his newly published novel at Border’s and asked for an inscription. Slackers one and all.
The 149th now splits up into many smaller groups. Some will join me for a month and a half of consular training before scattering to posts around the world. Many will jump into intensive training to develop fluency in Spanish, French, German, Mandarin, Arabic, Urdu, Indonesian, Amharic, Hindi, Swahili, and a host of other languages. Some of us will be leaving soon and others will have close to a year of further training.
I am so proud to be associated with the Foreign Service and our class. I look forward to crossing paths for years to come with members of the 149th. Cheers.
Flag day did not disappoint. We’ve been told over and over to expect the unexpected and to avoid focusing on a few posts. I had quite a few posts labeled as high but was really focused on Africa. I heard the post announced, and then heard my name, but it took a second or two to put the two together and stand up to collect my flag and training schedule. It was not in my top 10 of expected postings as it was a late addition to the bid list.
It’s not as exotic as Accra, Ghana, or Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, but it will work great for a first post. Easy to get to from California. Easy to tour colleges on the East Coast with my daughter. Great food and internet access for video chats with the family. All in all, it could have been a lot worse.
After heading to the bar tonight to join my classmates (most of whom seem very happy with their posts), it’s time to start planning. It looks like I’m scheduled to start in February. I’m getting a little chilly just thinking about it.
Early start this morning as we get underway, trying to keep our focus for the morning sessions while battling the temptation for minds to wander to this afternoon’s flag day ceremony. The assignments will be randomized so there is no way to know when a flag will be presented with my name attached. All we know is that we go into the room this afternoon and will come out an hour or two later knowing our first posts and our post-December 7 training schedules. We will know a lot more than we do this morning with, no doubt, many more specific questions.
There are some with palpable apprehension about flag day. For me, there are certainly some posts I’d rather receive than others, but overall I’m just excited to know where I’ll spend the next 1-2 years. I’ve done some research on the dozen or so posts I rated high on my list, but have intentionally not obsessed about it knowing there will be plenty of time to uncover details after I receive the assignment.
I started a pool for the least desirable post. The pool stands at $250, a small reward for taking one for the team. In a close race, the 50 participants voted Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, over Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea (this South Pacific post sounds fantastic until you get a sense of the high crime rate and the restrictions on movement of Embassy personnel). The cash will be a small consolation for those that that have the toughest known challenge ahead. With world events constantly in a state of flux, I suppose there is also some comfort in knowing that the biggest challenge will come in some unforeseen place whether by coup, natural disaster, or other event.
Best of luck to everyone in the 149th — I hope we all receive a high bid post. For those that draw Juarez, I’ll see you at the bar tonight.
I’ll update tonight with my post assignment.
Nope. No AK-47s or simulated explosions. We’re in the middle of skill rotation week. Rather than finding ourselves in a large classroom, we have been broken up into small groups to learn, internalize, and practice in front of a crowd a set of diploskills. My first session bright and early this morning focused on answering questions in a variety of settings: press briefings, social events, presentations, cocktail parties, etc. Essentially everywhere we go, we are expected to handle questions on a variety of topics, always keeping in mind that we are speaking on behalf of the United States.
We are a pretty social group. Discussion, debate, and argument for sport come naturally for most of us. Thus, this session was a lot of fun, albeit not easy. Learning how and when to say “I can’t answer that” or “I don’t know” is tougher than it looks. As I was answering questions on Colombia human rights violations and U.S. humanitarian aid to Sudan, I thought about all of those West Wing episodes during which CJ made it look so easy. At times, I felt more like Josh trying to walk back the President’s secret plan for inflation:
We all survived, composure more or less intact, but it was a challenge.
With tomorrow off for a mid-week Veteran’s Day break, the 149th has officially completed 1/2 of the A-100 orientation course. Never have I felt more taxed by an 8:30 to 4:30ish schedule. I confess to not quite understanding why it’s has been so tiring, but I’m confident I’m not alone. Perhaps I am just out-of-practice. I haven’t been in a regular classroom setting since the first half of 1992 (and let’s face it, the last semester of law school did not involve that much classroom time).
Each day has had a completely different schedule so the time definitely doesn’t crawl. After announcements and a quick overview of the day’s agenda at 8:30 sharp, we typically cover 2 or 3 topics before lunch, and then another 2 or 3 topics in the afternoon. Often we will have 15 minutes to grab something to eat before a “brown bag” lunch discussion with a visiting dignitary.
The class segments cover a wide range of issues, from procedural (e.g., how to submit travel and per diem vouchers) to substantive (e.g., 18th and 19th century diplomatic history). With very few exceptions, the segments have been interesting and well-presented by an energetic staff. In addition to the orientation staff, we hear from an ever-changing cast of guest speakers including Ambassadors, Assistant Secretaries, specialists, and historians.
It’s been great stuff, but a lot of sitting and listening in an exceedingly crowded room. With the diplomatic hiring surge, the limitation for our class size does not come from the State Department budget or a dearth of qualified candidates. Rather, it’s the room’s fire code restriction that limits the number of new officers.
I find myself taking notes for no reason other than to force myself to stay 100% engaged. Although there are no tests or quizzes, note-taking precludes my mind from wandering to my bid list, what my kids are doing, or what I should do for dinner. By the end of the day, I’m done. That is, until it’s time to meet everyone at a bar for happy hour, or some other event. I’ve hit about half of the social committee’s events so far, typically those on a Friday night and/or close by my apartment.
The 149th is an impressive group and I’m looking forward to hearing about everyone’s exploits for years to come. In the meantime, we are counting the days until Flag Day on Nov. 23rd.
It’s been great to have some time this week-end to take a breath. The apartment is now in good shape after an expensive trip to Bed, Bath & Beyond, The Container Store, and the grocery store. My 250-pound air shipment arrived on Wednesday so I have all my clothes and even pictures of the family and art up on the walls to make it feel a little more like home-away-from-home. After a packed schedule of classes and first-post research during week one of A-100, it was great to have drinks with some of the class at a Friday night happy hour. I’m looking forward to getting to know people through more of those informal get-togethers.
The weather has not been great this week-end, so I’ve been holed up, knocking down some of the key items on my task list:
– Reading for next week’s class
– Researching various posts on our bid list
– Preparing my first reimbursement voucher
– Set up the home office with a new printer/scanner
– Laundry / Clean the apartment
I also actually got my lazy butt to the gym which is all the way downstairs. No excuses left to avoid a regular gym routine.
Things have been crazy busy with the first week of A-100. I have now taken the oath of office and proudly walk the halls of the Foreign Service Institute with brand spanking new State Dept ID badge. I’m afraid my entries, however, are going to get much less interesting for the foreign service crowd. Details about A-100, classes, bid lists, the bidding process, etc. are all pretty sensitive. I’m going to take the conservative approach and not talk about any of it publicly. I can say that the big dates are set:
November 23rd: Flag Day at which we will each receive our first post assignments
December 4th: Formal swearing in at Main State
I’ll post my onward assignment on the 23rd. Until then, some sporadic posts on other topics.