Decorating Doors

With the weather turning cold and snowy, I found a silly project that ended up being a lot of fun to put together.  There’s a longstanding December tradition at Embassy Ottawa for the various agencies and sections to decorate their main entrance doors for the holidays. The various efforts, elaborate and simple, face a committee of judges after which the winners receive awards and, more importantly, bragging rights at the mission’s holiday party.

The Public Affairs department has consistently excelled in the competition and entered this year as the defending champions.  My beloved Consular group, while competitive, has not won the contest for years.  After tossing around a few ideas for theme, we came up with an idea that merged our strategic mission with the season.  What would happen if Kris Kringle applied for a visa?  The result: Santagate.  I put together a mock-up of the local newspaper, The Ottawa Citzen, and wrote a couple thousand words about how Kris Kringle came in for visa and faced some unexpected skepticism from our consular officers given his 60+ aliases, the lack of a proper passport, and some unexpected attitude.

Although, there are a lot of inside jokes that aren’t nearly as funny to those who don’t know our people, it provided the construct for the real star of the presentation — the photographs.  We stages a series of shots involving Santa working his way through the visa section, being fingerprinted, pleading his case to an officer, being refused, and finally, being physically removed by our intrepid security guards.  From a photographic standpoint, it was a fun lighting challenge shooting through the glass with remote lights hidden on the client side (lighting it directly would have resulted in massive reflection and glare).

Part of the story involved a massive protest and ensuing political pressure for Canada to offer Santa asylum and immediate citizenship.  As a Canadian citizen, Santa wouldn’t need a visa to travel over the border.  We thought maybe some pictures of crying kids might work, but over the week-end I found a couple of pics online that, with the help of Photoshop, fit the bill.

With Santa’s online visa application, letters from protesting children, and some ribbon trim, the door told a good story.

We had lots of visitors loitering outside the door and, at this afternoon’s embassy party, Ambassador Jacobson called out Consular for both Most Original and Overall Winner.

On to the next obsessive project…


From the Other Side of the Glass

I am the first to admit that I’ve had a privileged existence.  As a teen-ager in the late 70s and early 80s, my first jobs always involved a keyboard in a cubicle or an office.  I learned to type in a junior high school classroom filled with manual typewriters, a skill that ultimately spared me from the fast-food and other typical service-oriented, part-time jobs available to teens of my era.  I’ve never had a name tag, a paper hat, or a uniform.

I became fascinated with the emerging personal computer industry, learned programming as a precocious 13-year-old, and found a series of relatively well-paying temporary jobs.  When programming jobs were unavailable, there were always clerical opportunities for people who could type  100 words per minute and use Lotus 1-2-3 and Word Pro on a PC, or a dedicated Wang word processor.  These days, first graders can text faster than I type but, back in the day, it was unique skill.

Thus, now in my mid-40s, I find myself for the first time at a window serving the public one at a time.  A few weeks ago, as I waited for my number to be called at the Ottawa City Hall to register my car and to obtain my Ontario driver’s license, I found myself watching the clerks behind the window.  Although I’ve certainly been in similar situations many times before, it was the first time since I started working the other side of the glass.

The crew processing motor vehicle issues appeared to be under-staffed, with a large waiting room of anxious clients.  Whether typical or not, I waited for the better part of an hour for my number to appear on the overhead monitors.  It was a great opportunity to watch and learn.

All three clerks spoke French and English interchangeably.  They dealt efficiently with a wide spectrum of clients:  nervous young adults sitting for their driver’s tests with even more nervous onlooking parents, angry people who waited a long time in the wrong office, and confused elderly patrons who did not understand the particular process they were in line to complete.  Through all the chaos, the clerks remained composed, patient, and helpful.  Most importantly, they each kept their sense of humor and smiled.

I’ve tried to embody these traits in my daily work from the other side of the window.  My clients have been in the Embassy — submitting forms, paying fees, and giving fingerprints — for an hour or more before I see them.  They are typically nervous about being judged during the interview.  Sometimes my brand of humor, sprinkled heavily with sarcasm, doesn’t always translate, particularly for the very nervous applicant.  For those clients, I have to work a little harder to reach beyond the memorized speech describing their work history and why they want to visit the United States.

My goal, which I think I achieve in most cases, is to ensure that the client feels they received a fair hearing.  The vast majority of my applicants will laugh, or at least give me a polite smile.  For those that receive a refusal, I try to spend a little time explaining the basis for the decision.  In many cases, I try to describe what they could do to improve their chances the next time.  I can be blunt, but that’s reserved for the relatively rare case in which the applicant has several prior refusals, when they are clearly lying in an obvious manner, or when they appear completely unprepared despite numerous instructions to bring key documents.

After the interview, I have little patience for those who continue to argue after I’ve rendered a decision and returned the passport.  This is as much for my own sanity as for the other applicants that deserve to reach the window.  I’ve quickly developed a good sense for discerning those that believe they can succeed by not taking no for an answer from those that have legitimate questions.  For some cultures, a civil servant’s no is simply the first volley in a protracted negotiation.  Without yelling, I definitely raise the volume a bit, cut them off quickly, and make my decision’s finality abundantly clear.  The applicant then typically makes an extremely slow effort to gather  papers, apparently hoping that the longer they remain in front of me, the more likely I will change my mind.

After a sip of tea from my thermos to wipe the slate clean, I greet the next applicant with a smile.  “Welcome the United States Embassy.”

Schizophrenia, Prison Visits, and the Morgue

I was thinking after last week’s Non-Immigrant Visa exam that the tough part of ConGen was behind us and that we’d have a relatively easy final two weeks focusing on American Citizen Services.  I obviously didn’t look too closely at the syllabus.  American Citizen Services, or ACS, covers all of the areas in which the consular section helps U.S. citizens abroad.  Unlike visa adjudication, the answers to each question are not necessarily laid out in the Immigration and Naturalization Act or the Foreign Affairs Manual.

Consular officers tend to either love or avoid ACS work.  It is by far the most emotionally charged and it requires the most improvisation.  Physical and Mental Illnesses, Victims of Crime, International Child Abductions, Arrests, Destitution, and Deaths are just a few of the problems we will have to address.

This week we’ve been doing a lot of ACS exercises.  Although the vast majority of my legal career focused on intellectual property and antitrust litigation, while doing pro bono work in Boston, I visited a few clients in prison.  The exercise, however, was something new.  While others watched (and later evaluated), I spent a 1/2-hour session in a prison cell interviewing a schizophrenic who alternated between incoherent shouts at phantom voices with pleas for the return of his guitar apparently lost on a train after he was arrested for riding without a ticket and resisting arrest.  Apparently, a number of U.S. citizens in prisons abroad have some struggle with mental illness so the scenario is not very far-fetched.  It was just an exercise, but I was exhausted afterwards.

Today, we spent the morning working on telephone exercises in which we had to notify husbands, wives, and parents that their spouses or children had been killed during a vacation abroad.  I’m very glad to have had the experience of doing it in a controlled environment (and watching others) dealing with grief, denial, and anger.  I don’t think anyone is prepared to do that the first time, but practice definitely helps.

In the afternoon, we had our last field trip, traveling to the DC Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.  We met with grief counselors and learned about the autopsy process so we can explain to our clients (not nearly as glamorous or sterile as CSI).  Like the exercises, they also wanted us to see a dead body up close here, before we have to deal with it in the field.  Nothing like a trip to the morgue to lighten things up before the week-end.

Telling When Someone is Telling a Lie

I’ve spent a lot of hours trying to figure out when people are lying to me. As a litigator, one of the real challenges is leading a witness into a lie and then exposing it in front of a jury with other evidence or, preferably, the witness’s own prior conflicting testimony on video. Under the pressure of testifying in open court, some witnesses exaggerate to support their case. Most outright lie. In poker, one of my favorite pastimes, success depends on one’s ability to lie convincingly and to detect when others are lying.

We’ve been focusing this week on interviewing techniques and fraud detection.

While playing poker, I try to avoid playing any meaningful hands for the first hour, particularly when I don’t know how the others at the table play. I spend that time watching and establishing a baseline of behavior for each opponent. People have different body language when they have a big hand, when they are bluffing, and when they are not sure where they stand. I don’t just focus on the face. Good poker players are very good at not giving anything away from their facial expressions and it is too easy to get false tells. Instead, I get more useful information by watching other details: how they move their chips when they bet, body position, hand shakes, gum chewing patterns, foot tapping, etc.

I’ve heard about micro-expressions, mostly from watching the TV show ‘Like to Me‘ a few times. I have never given it much thought, but it turns out to be a very useful tool. Not dispositive in the way it appears on the show, but definitely worth developing as a skill. Aside from my fundamental skepticism about lie detection, I initially assumed that the myriad of cultural differences I will encounter in the foreign service makes the practice useless. Paul Ekman, one of the principal researchers in the field (and the scientific advisor for the TV show) did an amazing study of the isolated Fore tribesman in Papua New Guinea. What emerged was a common set of universal facial expressions: Anger, Disgust, Fear, Happiness, Sadness, and Surprise.

You don’t need to be a Fore tribesman to interpret what emotions that person is feeling. We all unconsciously make these faces, sometimes blatantly, but most of the time in a flash of a second. With practice, however, you can start to see those flashes. Everywhere. Now there’s no facial expression for “I’m lying,” but those that are skilled in reading micro-expressions can quickly spot when they don’t match the words being spoken.

After the public admission last month, the New York Times ran a piece in which Dr. Ekman analyzed a 2007 Alex Rodriguez interview during which he denied using steroids, what we now know to be a blatant lie. We used the video in class, first listening to it without watching the video (ARod’s voice was strong and he sounded genuine, albeit coached). We then watched the video and had a very different reaction.

I’m not sure it’ll make me a better poker player or a better foreign service officer, but I’m going to put in some practice time.

Adapting to the Extraodinary

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.

Immigrant Visas, check

This afternoon, we finished the second segment of ConGen, focused on the law and procedure for accepting, approving, and adjudicating immigrant visas.  As one would expect, it is granular stuff.  We now have a grasp of over 30 classifications of potential immigrants.  We know how to handle international adoptions, how to operate an alphabet-soup of computer applications, and how identify a myriad of fraud schemes.  How firm a grasp we have on these and scores of other things we digested is questionable.

During the last two weeks we’ve completed lectures, computer practicums, case studies, mock interviews, and, today, our examination.  Now it’s on to non-immigrant visas, a subject that will make up a great deal of my two years in Ottawa.


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.