Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Things I've Liked on the Internet Lately

Money: The Infographic. Because I still have a hard time wrapping my head around trillions of dollars.
Get bored while microwaving your ramen? There's an app for that.
Classic artwork, modernized.
Some great examples of forced perspective. A couple of these are photoshopped, which is cheating, but this technique always makes me grin.
Incredible sculptures made of books.
How Shakespeare messes with your brain
Need to express your displeasure but tired of the same old slurs? Try the Shakespearean insult generator, thou churlish tallow-faced canker-blossom!
Custom arcade game = free waffles for life
One of my regular comic book feeds is a daily Calvin & Hobbes strip from the Goode Olde Dayes. They're always great but I was particularly taken with this one, a rare case in which Susie doesn't get mad; she gets even:

Monday, November 28, 2011

Art Appreciation 101

The embassy is hosting an art fair in the atrium to give local artists an opportunity to exhibit and of course, profit from their work. There was a cocktail reception this evening as a launch event, which got things off to a pretty good start I think. Most of the embassy and a good chunk of the dipcorps were there, and by the end of the evening several purchases had been made. I had done some previewing on the sly while the artists were setting up and there was one painting I was taken with from the get-go. I was hesitant to buy it - it was one of the pricier pieces and wasn't a perfect match for my decor - but I kept coming back to it over and over. It looks like this:

Relatively early in the evening Gunny came over to make small talk, like you do, and asked me if I had seen anything I liked. I told him I really liked the big blue one, and he looked at me like I was a three-headed alien. See, Gunny had seen that one earlier too but completely didn't get it, so he dragged me over and had me explain what I saw in the painting: the unity of African women, each distinct but with the long dresses melding together into one. This pretty much blew his mind. As it turns out, when Gunny had looked at this painting the first time he had seen a giant furry unibrow. I told him that the great thing about art was that all interpretations are valid, but that wasn't enough for Gunny. For the rest of the evening he kept calling people over and asking them what they saw in the painting, like it was some kind of Rorschach test. We established that Gunny has a fairly unique perspective.

So after all that I bit the bullet and bought the painting. How could I not? It's lovely, and now it has a story too, which all art ought to have if it can help it.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

O Christmas Tree

After Thanksgiving comes Christmas, so as soon as I got home from work today I set up and trimmed my Christmas tree: a 7-foot genuine plastic pine with a wonky base that requires a fairly substantial weight on one side to keep the whole thing from toppling over, otherwise known as the Seasonal Giant Sparkly Cat Toy. I briefly considered not decorating this year since I'll be back in Texas for the big day, but I figured in the meantime my Christmas spirit could use all the help it can get. It took me longer than usual without a second pair of hands and the lack of Pandora meant I had to sing the requisite Christmas carols a cappella, but it got done in the end. The Christmas centerpiece is arrayed on the dining room table and the stockings are hung on the freezer with care. It's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas, or at any rate as much like Christmas as it's going to feel in a 90-degree mostly-Muslim country far away from home.

Or it was, for an hour or two anyway. Then out in the living room there arose such a clatter I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter. Well, Jabbers must have been playing a little more roughly with his Seasonal Giant Sparkly Cat Toy than he did last year, because the base split nearly in two and the whole damn thing came crashing down. I lost several ornaments, including some of the best ones we made at the Great Recession Christmas Party three years ago. My tree is now lying pitifully on the floor, still decked in what remains of its holiday finery, while I decide whether to try to rig up a new base, see if I can get a last-minute real tree and start over, or just shove Christmas back in the box and forget about it. Bah humbug.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Things For Which I Am Thankful

Generators. Flashlights. Sisterskype. The world's cuddliest pest control. Lint removers. Frequent flyer miles. Household help. DPO. Contraband bacon. Sunscreen. Mefloquine. My 401(k). French/English dictionaries. Comp time. Dinner invitations. Job satisfaction. Having a job in a time when jobs are hard to come by. Pineapples. Neighbors. Perspective. Flexibility. Friendships that endure distance and time. Family who love me and miss me when I'm gone. Disposable income. Backyard avocados. Pool floats. Realizing every day how much I have to be thankful for.

Etc., etc., etc.

Monday, November 21, 2011

International Commerce

Given the dearth of quality shopping options in Conakry, and thanks to the miracles of the internet and DPO, most of us at the embassy have turned to Amazon and other sites to fill the consumer needs previously filled by grocery stores, pharmacies, convenience stores, and shopping malls, in addition to the ones already previously filled by Amazon. For example, I have recently purchased and mailed myself such disparate items as molasses, chip clips, cat litter, acrylic wine glasses, a staple gun, and an ottoman. This heavy reliance on imported items makes mail day really, really exciting. Whenever I hear that mail has arrived a little thrill goes down my spine, and I feel like this:

Also, when did they remake The Music Man? And WHY? Not that the new one looks particularly bad, but why mess with perfection?

Friday, November 18, 2011

EconOff, Can You Spare a Dime?

Most definitely not me
My job, as the embassy's Economic Officer, is to watch the money in Guinea. See where it comes from, where it goes, how it moves from person to person and place to place, what goods and services are exchanged for it, and what obstacles may be impeding its flow. Having acquired this precious wisdom, I write it up and send it back to Washington, where occasionally, every so often, someone reads what I write and even more occasionally someone actually cares. My job does not generally include passing out stacks of cash to all comers from my Scrooge McDuck-style vault, though this is a VERY common misconception.

Someone asks me for money in my official capacity at least once a week. For English lessons. For office equipment. For workshops or seminars. For training programs. For development projects. For dubious business schemes thinly disguised as development projects. (I especially love those.) One day I got hit up for $750,000 over the course of several different meetings. Sometimes I get pitches that make me want to burst out laughing or slap the guy in the face. But I'm a diplomat, so I don't. Sometimes I get pitches that make me wish I really did have a swimming pool full of cash I could give away.

But I'm a diplomat, so I don't. My office has some very modest funds to cover staff travel and training, and a representational event or two. That's pretty much it. The real money (if the State Department has anything that could legitimately be called "real money") is in Washington, in assorted funds run by assorted offices for assorted purposes with assorted strings attached. Sometimes I can get some of it, though it requires the bureaucratic equivalent of identifying the quarry, tracking it through the trackless forest in the dark of night, hitting it over the head with a rock and dragging it home, all the while fighting off a pack of rival hunters who want to make my prey their own. It's long, slow, time-consuming, frustrating, exhausting work, and successful funding hunters are (rightly) famed in story and song, with tales of their daring exploits told and retold around campfires and office kitchen coffee pots the world over.

I am currently conducting two such hunts simultaneously - one for an AGOA conference, one for a wildlife conservation project - with a third money-hungry project on the back burner. But I'm new to this so my grasp of the terrain is shaky, my weapons crudely fashioned and inexpertly aimed. And this is why I sigh a little every time someone asks me for money, especially if I really want to give it to them, because I know there's another laborious funding hunt in my future.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


Another three-day weekend for Veterans' Day, another one of those "holidays" I never realized was a real holiday until I started working for the government. I don't have the visas to go anywhere and have the duty phone this weekend anyway, so I spent the entire three days doing nothing. Intensive nothing. I read three books (okay, all of one and half of two), watched four movies, spent five hours at the pool and cooked, a lot.

I baked brownies to eat with last weekend's caramelized banana ice cream, made a giant bowl of guacamole with avocados from my backyard which I ate with tortilla chips from thousands of miles away (yay globalization), and assembled a truly outstanding sandwich from bacon, provolone, red pepper mayonnaise, garlicky sauteed spinach, a fried egg, and buttermilk bread from my bread machine.

However, my lethargic bliss was occasionally interrupted by a twinge of guilt, which I blame entirely on AFN. See, amidst the admonitions to wear seatbelts and advice on post-9/11 bill benefits they air during the commercials is a series of spots exhorting servicemembers to leave base every once in a while and experience their host country. The one that gets under my skin the most shows a TV-watching couple being haunted by a ghost who seems to have been hired by the local tourism board until they agree to go ride bikes down to the castle.

In case you aren't clear on this, there ain't no castle in Conakry. There isn't even a slave fort, which is a shame because I would be all about seeing it. I'm not saying that Guinea is a culture and entertainment wasteland because that's absolutely not true, but with no Time Out Conakry, no Conakryist, minimal maps, no tourism industry to speak of the amount of effort required to seek out the best Guinea has to offer frequently exceeds the energy I have available. So I stay home, and the Ghost of Guinean Tourism hovers uncomfortably in the back of my head

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Feline Interlude

My cat is a ridiculous creature.

He can spend days doing nothing but adorable things - curling up in sunbeams, chasing crinkle balls, sitting in my lap and purring - enough to make me think that he isn't actually a living being but a very highly advanced furry robot carefully designed for optimal cuteness.

And then the cat finds a cockroach, which he gleefully dismembers one leg at a time and tortures into a long, slow death before devouring his limbless victim like a vengeful avatar of Kali.

And then he throws it up on the rug.

Friday, November 4, 2011


I had a bit of a lull at work this week. Not too many meetings, no visitors, no big projects, no short-fuse taskers, no fires to put out. It felt very strange. For the first time in weeks I did not have so much work to do that I couldn't think about anything else. And I felt *guilty*. Like I wasn't doing enough, like I should go dig up more work to do. That was when I realized that I had gotten so used to being overwhelmed with work that I had come to believe that was the normal state of affairs. And that this was bad.

So, I did not go dig up more work. I embraced the lull. I cleared a bunch of smaller things out of my mental inboxes, both work and personal, that bigger, more important things had pushed to the end of the queue. I left the office at closing time EVERY DAY. (We close early on Fridays for prayers, but I had to ask when exactly Friday closing time was because I had never, ever left that early.) I went to the gym three times after not having set foot in there for two weeks. I floated in the pool. I read books. I petted the cat. I went to bed early, and fell right asleep because I wasn't keyed up thinking about work. It was amazing.

This must be that work-life balance thing people talk about. It's nice, I can see why people would want to have it, but it's not an easy thing to get. I'm going to have to try harder to make a little more space for sanity in my everyday life, but when your job is driven by external events it's really tough to schedule that me time. One of the "lower priority" tasks I checked off my list this week was doing the paperwork on my Christmas R&R, which I had been putting off for weeks because I just couldn't find the time to get it taken care of. But at the very least I can give myself permission to make the most of the slow times. God knows they don't come around that often.