A Walk Through Snowpocalypse

With all that’s happening in our nation’s capital — health reform, financial re-regulation, and the new centerfold Senator from Massachusetts — you’d think 36 straight hours of local news would have something better to cover.  Instead, the only story receiving round-the-clock coverage is weather.  Dubbed Snowpocalypse and Snowmageddon, the DC metro area has received unprecedented amounts of snow.  Dulles airport has recorded over 30″ since Friday and we’re within an inch of the all-time annual record snowfall.

Grocery stores have empty shelves and everything is shut down.  No buses or above ground metro.  No Smithsonian.  Even the local mall and movie theater shut down.  Thus, it was either stay cooped up or get an early start on the Ottawa outdoor activity.  I donned my snow boots and Canada Goose jacket, wrapped a camera in a weatherproof housing, and headed for downtown.

The snow continued to fall in the afternoon which scared away 95% of the usual traffic and just about all the tourists.  Some sporadic snowball fighting, snowman building, and cross-country skiing, but that’s about it.  The DC mall like I’ve never seen it.  Snowpocalypse indeed.

Street sign without a street

Large branches and entire trees snapped from the weight of the snow
Frozen Reflecting Pool and Washington Monument

Alexander Hamilton in the cold

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.

Here’s to the 149th

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

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.

Composure Under Fire

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.

Veterans Day

For most of the country, Veterans Day is a pre-Thanksgiving shopping holiday.  No matter what your politics, however, spending the day at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial will make you forget all about the Wall-mart, Target, and Sears bargains.

For many of the hundreds gathered on a gray, rainy morning, Veterans Day is an excuse to make an annual pilgrimage to meet with their brothers in arms and salute the fallen.  There is little celebration.  It is a somber remembrance of an ordeal they survived together:  an ordeal those of us lucky enough to be of an age that required no such sacrifice cannot begin to understand. It was striking to see this group — made immortally 18-24 by Hollywood — has aged into their 60s.  Those looking for a name amongst the 58,261 inscribed on the wall included not just spouses and children, but adult grandchildren.

The poor weather seemed the perfect accompaniment to the mood.  After some speeches, the honor guard played taps, and the crowd dispersed.  Some sought to find comrades on the wall, while others filed slowly up the path.  As I worked my way through the crowd, stopping every once in awhile to make a photo, I heard countless murmurs of “see you next year.”

Road Trip, Day 5: South Bend, IN to Arlington, VA

Home StretchSomewhere over the Sierras, driving through snow, I started thinking that I should front load the trip so that I could relax the last two days with maybe only 5 hours of day of driving rather than 8-10.  Even with the bad weather, the plan would have worked out just fine.  I slept ’till 10:30 am on Friday, waking to more rain and a bunch of Boston College fans in the lobby preparing for their football game against Notre Dame.  I did not have a difficult schedule or a specific goal in front of me other than stop somewhere in Pennsylvania.

Despite the bad weather and absurd toll roads, I made pretty good time.  I have no problem paying for the right to use a highway, but $0.80 stretches broken up by toll booths with human beings making change and giving receipts seems ridiculously inefficient.

I came close a few times to getting  a ticket, but the weather saved me (the silver lining of that black cloud following me cross-country).  The first near-miss came in Nebraska as I zipped past an obvious speed trap.  The traffic was sparce and I was probably 15 mph over the posted 70 speed limit.  Once I saw the highway patrol car angled on the median, I eased on the brake.  With the rain just pounding down, however, the patrolman didn’t budge.  It was coming down so hard, he might not have gotten a good radar reading.  Whether technology malfunction or lack of motivation, I lucked out.

The next one came in Ohio.  Again, no doubt the weather gods helped out as I was plugging along around 90 mph when I caught sight of a highway patrol car coming up from behind.  I slowed and moved over to the right lane, but he clearly got a good read on my speed.  Instead of hitting the lights and siren, he pulled alongside as our wipers moved in synchronized high gear, and simply motioned to me to slow down.  I gave him a knowing thumbs up and mouthed an exaggerated Thank You as he moved forward in his mission to keep traffic within the bounds of the legal limit while maintaining a spotlessly dry uniform.

Once in Ohio, the rest centers started showing Washington, DC and my ultimate destination on the map.  Reprogramming the GPS to my condo address, the computer told me I’d be pulling into my parking spot around 9:00ish.  That sounded much better than another rest stop motel so I pushed on.

Once on I-70, I figured I was in the home stretch.  No more snow and even the rain had lightened up.  I wouldn’t hit any commuter traffic on a Friday night after 8:00 pm.  Cake.

Well, not exactly.  As I crested a hill, I noticed my windshield was starting to fog up.  I was surprised because after much experimentation over the past week, I found the optimum air conditioner settings to keep the windows clear and the cabin warm enough, even in the 25 degree weather of Western Wyoming.  After blasting the defogger, I realized it was not an interior problem.  Instead, I was heading into extremely thick fog that reminded me of the California Central Valley’s Tule fog.  Traffic wasn’t packed, but in some ways that made it scarier.  The fog came up very fast and I could only see one or two car lengths ahead of me.

I quickly hit the fog lights and the emergency flashers, slowing to about 25 mph.  I felt like a complete wimp as a Honda Accord passed me quickly on the left.  An immediate screech vindicated my caution as the Honda slammed on his brakes and swerved onto the shoulder to avoid hitting the car in front him.  I was really rethinking the whole “let’s get home tonight” strategy, but there was nowhere to stop so I just kept driving and eventually came out of the fog unscathed.

I found my underground parking spot around 10:30 pm, and spent then next three hours unloading the car and putting things away in my new home away from home.  I slept very well.

Final Stats for the road trip:

  • 2900 miles (give or take)
  • 580.1 miles per day
  • 114.15 gallons of gas costing $348.04 (24.86 miles per gallon — not exactly a hybrid)
  • Just under 2 gallons of black coffee (mostly the bad, see-through, kind)
  • 7 sighted highway patrol cars, 0 tickets
  • 2-1/2 books-on-ipod completed
  • 5 blog entries

I promise no more weather descriptions at least until I get to my first foreign post.